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|The Reckoning(Darkest Powers #3) by Kelley Armstrong|
He exhaled. “I might know a way to get him down. But don’t hold your breath.”
After Simon left, I knew what had to be done. There were only a few hours until daylight and we were sitting around like headlight-stunned deer, waiting for the car to hit us. We needed to know if there was really someone guarding the property, and there was only one way to do that properly.
I STEPPED OUT THE back door and edged along the house, where Derek couldn’t see me from the roof. The wind blew at my back, meaning my scent wouldn’t carry to him. Good. I slipped into the woods.
The best way to find out if there was anyone watching the house was to send out a decoy. Of the four of us, I was the best choice. I didn’t have Derek’s strength or Tori’s and Simon’s spells. I was the smallest and the least able to defend myself; and as much as I might hate that, right now it was an advantage because I posed the least threat.
There was only one problem. The property was huge. That meant there was a lot of perimeter to cover. So how were they doing it? When Derek had asked that, Andrew said they were using spells. Simon wasn’t convinced that was possible, but admitted he didn’t know for sure.
And what about last night? It made sense that they hadn’t been guarding the property when I was out with Derek-they had Liam and Ramon to do that. But what about earlier, when Simon and I had gone for ice cream? Andrew said they’d been tracking us and hadn’t been concerned, knowing Simon wouldn’t leave Derek behind. Still…
Did I really think we were under guard? No. Andrew was setting up imaginary bogeymen to keep us in the house until his friends showed up in the morning and rescued him. So all I had to do was prove I could make it to the service station.
To reach it, I needed to cut through the woods. As I walked, the lights from the house faded, and it got dark-“can’t see my hand in front of my face” dark. I’d brought a flashlight, but once I was in the woods, I’d realized that wasn’t my cleverest idea ever. I might as well stick a neon arrow over my head.
Without the flashlight, I’d be just as likely to alert someone by stumbling and crashing around in the dark. So I used it-with my hand over the light, letting only a faint glow seep through.
The forest was dark, but it was far from silent. Twigs and leaves crackled. A mouse shrieked, its cry cut short by a sickening crunch. The wind whispered and wailed overhead. Even my feet made noise with every step. I tried to concentrate on that, but the more I did, the more it sounded like a heartbeat, thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. I swallowed and clutched the flashlight, plastic slipping under my sweaty fingers.
Just keep walking. Stay on the path. One foot in front of the other.
An owl hooted. I jumped. A snort, like a stifled laugh, and I spun, fingers slipping from the lens, the beam spinning in an arc, revealing nothing.
Who did you think was there? One of Andrew’s group? Laughing at you?
I released my death grip on the flashlight and switched it to my other hand, wiping my damp palm on my jeans, then covered the beam again. I took a deep breath, breathing in air that smelled of rain. Rain and damp earth and the faint stink of decay. Dead things. Rotting things.
Another deep breath, then I started walking again, trudging along, shoulders hunched, burrowing as far into the ski jacket as I could, the bitter wind freezing my nose and ears.
I peered up, hoping for moonlight, seeing only patches of gray sky through the thick trees, branches entwined over my head like long, crooked-
I looked down, but the view wasn’t any better. Endless trees stretched out on all sides, dozens of thick trunks, any of which could be a ghost, standing there, watching me, waiting…
The ground was softer here, and each step made a creepy, sucking sound. Undergrowth rustled to my left and I caught a whiff of decomposing flesh. An image flashed-the zombie dog and zombie rabbit and whatever else I’d raised last night. Had I really released them all? Or were they still out here, waiting for me?
I walked faster.
A wordless whisper sounded behind me. I wheeled, fingers tightening on the flashlight. The voice kept whispering, the sound rippling around me. I followed it with the wavering light beam, but saw nothing.
Something hit my bandaged arm. I yelped and jumped. The flashlight flew from my hand, hit the ground, and went out.
I dropped and fumbled around until I found it. I flicked the switch. Nothing.
I knocked the flashlight against my knee, but it stayed off. I blinked hard, and gradually I could make out the squatting lumps of bushes and the gnarled trunks of trees.
“Afraid of the dark?” a voice whispered.
I knocked the flashlight again. Harder. Still nothing.
“That’s a pretty red coat you’re wearing. Little Red Riding Hood, all alone in the woods at night. Where’s your big, bad wolf?”
A chill crept through me.
“Smart girl. Too bad you aren’t smart enough to know what happens to little girls all alone in the woods at night.”
I remembered the residual of the girl I’d seen at the truck stop, bloodied and beaten, crawling through the undergrowth, trying desperately to escape her attacker, only to have her throat slashed, to bleed out in the forest, be buried there.
Royce laughed, a deep laugh, rich with pleasure. He enjoyed my fear. Fed off it. I sucked it in, shoved the flashlight in my pocket, and started walking again.
“Do you know whose coat you’re wearing? That’s Austin ’s. His ski jacket. The color of blood. Fitting, isn’t it? He died in a coat of red. Blood and brain and little bits of bone.”
I walked faster.
“When I saw you coming, for a second, I thought it was Austin. But you don’t look like him. Not at all. You’re a pretty little girl, you know that?”
I tried to block his voice, concentrate on the thump of my footsteps instead, but they were softer now, too soft, and there was nothing else, just this dark, silent forest and Royce’s voice. He’d materialized now, walking beside me. My skin crawled, and I resisted the urge to rub my arms.
“I like pretty girls,” he said. “And they like me. Just gotta know how to treat them.” His grin flashed in the darkness. “Would you like to meet one of my girls? She’s not far from here. Sound asleep under a bed of leaves and dirt. You can wake her up, have a nice girl-to-girl talk, ask her what I did.” He leaned over, whispering in my ear. “Or do you want me to tell you?”
I stumbled a little, and he laughed. I looked around, getting my bearings, but all I could see was the endless black forest. Something scampered across my path. Royce laughed again.
“Jumpy, aren’t you? That’s not good for a necromancer. Your nerves will be shot long before the madness gets you.”
I kept walking.
“Did they warn you about the madness?”
“Yes, your uncle told me how we’ll all go crazy like you.” Hearing my voice calmed my racing heart.
“Me? I’m not crazy. I just like hurting things. Always have. Uncle Todd just wouldn’t see it. Told himself Austin ’s puppy had an accident, the neighbors’ cats were killed by coyotes…You know how grown-ups are.”
I walked faster. He kept pace beside me.
“When I said madness, I meant the curse of necromancy. They did tell you about that, didn’t they? Or maybe they’re afraid to. You’re such a delicate little thing.”
I said nothing.
“See, after a lifetime of seeing ghosts, necromancers-”
“I’m not interested.”
“Don’t interrupt me.” His voice chilled.
“I know all about the madness,” I lied, “so you don’t need to tell me.”
“Okay, we’ll talk about the girl, then. Do you want to hear what happened to her?”
I veered left.
“Are you walking away from me?”
That cold edge slid into his voice again. I made it three steps, then something hit the side of my head. I staggered. An egg-sized rock bounced on the ground and rolled into my path.
“Don’t ignore me,” Royce said. “Don’t interrupt me. Don’t walk away from me.”
I stopped and turned. He smiled.
“That’s better. Now, what do you want me to talk about? What I did to that girl? Or the curse of necromancy? Your choice.”
I gave him a mental shove. He flickered, then shot back, face screwed up with fury.
“Are you trying to piss me off? Because that’s really a bad idea.”
He disappeared. I spun, trying to find him. A rock hit me in the back of the head, so hard I blacked out for a second, coming to on my knees, blood trickling down my neck.
I leaped up and ran. The next stone hit my shoulder. I kept going, trying to envision him flying into the next dimension, but I couldn’t focus, didn’t dare shut my eyes even for a second, the undergrowth grabbing at my feet, branches whipping my face, path long gone.
A rock hit the back of my knee and I stumbled. I managed to keep my balance, staggering forward, then breaking into a run again. A branch poked my eye. Then my foot snagged in a vine and down I went, sprawling face-first on the ground.
I pushed myself to my hands and knees. Something whacked me between the shoulder blades, and I was knocked flat again, face in the dirt. A half-buried stick jabbed my cheek hard enough to draw blood.
I didn’t try to get up this time. I lay on my stomach, head down, eyes closed, trying to send Royce back to the other side.
“I told you to stop…” His voice trailed off as the blow struck-a light, glancing blow. The stick fell beside me, as if he’d weakened too much to hold it.
I pushed harder. The stick rose. I counted to three, then rolled out of the way. He materialized then, face a mask of rage. I leaped to my feet. He swung again, wildly now, and I easily ducked it. He flew at me, wielding the stick. I mentally hit him with everything I had. He flew clear off his feet, landing flat on his back, stick falling.
He grabbed for the stick, but it rolled away. He tried to snatch it. It jumped off the ground, spinning into the air. He glowered at me, like I was doing it. I wasn’t.
The stick dangled above his head. He jumped for it. It swung sideways, out of his reach. He jumped again. It dropped to the ground.
Royce glared at me, and when he did, a figure appeared beside him-a teenage girl with long blond hair, dressed in a Minnie Mouse nightshirt and orange giraffe socks.
“What?” Royce followed my gaze, but she’d disappeared.
I backed away. Royce grabbed for the stick. It rolled away from his fingers. He snatched it up-and it snapped in two.
When he glared my way, Liz appeared, wildly gesturing for me to banish him.
I closed my eyes. It was a struggle to keep them shut and not brace against a blow, but I trusted that Liz had it under control. I pushed him as hard as I could, envisioning all kinds of helpful scenarios-Royce falling off a cliff, Royce falling off a skyscraper, Royce falling out an airlock. It wasn’t hard to come up with ideas.
Royce raged. He cursed. He threatened. But if he threw anything, it never reached me. His words surged and faded, growing weaker each time, until finally there was silence and Liz said, “He’s gone.”
LIZ STOOD THERE, GRINNING. “We did it.”
I laughed, a shaky two-seconds-from-crying laugh, my knees weak with relief.
She walked over. “So, I’m going to guess that loser is a telekinetic half-demon like me. From the experiment?”
“That doesn’t mean I’m related to him, does it?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Whew, ’cause I’ve got enough nuts in my family tree already. And speaking of nuts, you have some kind of radar for them, don’t you?”
“It worked on me, though my crazy quotient must not be high enough yet, because it took me forever to find you. I could hear you calling, but answering was another matter.”
My voice wobbled. Liz hurried over, arm going around my shoulders. I couldn’t feel her hug, but I could imagine it.
“Your poltergeist bodyguard is back on duty. Between the two of us, we can handle all the big, scary ghosts. I trounce ’em and you bounce ’em.” She grinned. “Hey, that’s pretty good.”
I smiled. “It is.”
“And speaking of big and scary, I’m going to guess you’re out here with Derek, helping him Change into a wolf. You’d better grab him, because there’s more in these woods than losers throwing sticks and stones. There are losers with spells and guns.” She studied me. “And why do I get the feeling that’s not a surprise?”
I explained, as quickly and quietly as I could.
“That Andrew guy is telling the truth,” she said. “There are four people out here, dressed in black, carrying radios and rifles. That’s not a lot, but they’ve got some high-tech gadgetry on their side-normal and supernormal. They’ve set up trip wires and those infrared laser things, and I heard them talking about something called perimeter spells.”
“We need to get back, then, and-”
“Shhh. Someone’s coming.”
Liz whispered in my ear. “I don’t think it’s our poltergeist pal, but wait here. I’ll go check.”
She took off. I huddled as close to the ground as I could get. When a huge figure reared up in front of me, I let out a yelp. It sprang forward.
“It’s me,” whispered a familiar voice.
Thwack. He stumbled, Liz behind him, a sturdy branch raised.