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|Priestess Dreaming(Sisters of the Moon #16) by Yasmine Galenorn|
Tanne stepped forward, not close enough to be a target, but close enough to start singing what I now recognized as the Spell of Unraveling.
The wasps raged. For the most part, they seemed to be trapped within the construct of the magical body. But, as Tanne’s spell began to work, the framework holding the wasps together dissipated. The cluster began to separate, chaotic masses of the insects swarming off. Several of the clumps fell to the ground, the smoke killing them. Still others scattered, the wasps drunkenly careening toward the forest.
We backed away. If we could get out of here without being stung, so much the better. Skirting the scene slowly but steadily, after a few minutes we were far enough away to chance stopping for a look back.
The fire was still burning brightly but we couldn’t see any sign of the massive hive. Whatever magic had went into keeping the wasps together was gone, destroyed by the smoke and the spell.
“Good luck, you little freaks.” Even though I hated wasps—they were mean suckers—they deserved to be free, answering to their queen, not whoever had enslaved them.
Another ten minutes and there was no sign of any wasps. Hopefully, they had a happier future ahead, and we’d gotten off easy. If I hadn’t brought those firebombs, this could have gone drastically wrong. That many stings—if they’d attacked us—could easily kill us. And hitting a wasp with a sword or a dagger? Not so effective.
“We lucked out on that one.” I stared back along the path. “We may not be so fortunate in the future.”
“Was that one of the Elder Fae?” Delilah asked.
I shook my head. “No, it was a golem, made of wasps. So much could have gone wrong.”
“Which leads us to the question: Who created it? And are they near here?” Morio glanced around, as if expecting to see the creator of the insect-creature standing near a tree or ahead on the road. But the grassland around us looked empty.
“I have no idea, but I hope not.” I shaded my eyes, staring into the distance. The clouds were coming in thicker now.
“I wish there were a way to reach our destination without traveling on the open path. We just set ourselves up as a target that way.” Morio turned to Morgaine. “Is there a back route?”
She shook her head. “It won’t matter for long. Another few miles and we turn off the path, toward the foothills. We’ll reach them by early afternoon, and then we start to climb. From there, we’ll be out of sight or mind of anybody walking down the main drag. I hope you brought sturdy shoes. You’re going to need them.”
I’d worn my boots from when I lived in Otherworld—small heels, knee-high leather that resisted bites, scrapes, or scratches. While I wore a skirt and a leather bustier over a spidersilk shirt, everything was strong and warm. I was about as geared up as I was going to get.
A glance at the sky showed we were halfway till noon, with heavy clouds coming in from the east. We were headed north, and the wind was hitting us at an angle.
“How steep are the Veiled Mountains?” I hated heights but had managed to subjugate my fear into some form of submission. At least I was able to handle looking down without my stomach lurching.
“The cave we’re headed to is about halfway up the hill, hidden within a narrow passage. The rocks on either side are dangerous. The potential for landslides along the way is pretty high, so be ready to jump out of the way—if you can. They form a narrow channel with little in the way of protection on either side.”
For someone who had been searching for the Merlin for years, Morgaine seemed to have an intimate knowledge on how to find him.
She must have read into my expression, because she let out a bark of laughter. “Don’t be so surprised. I have known where to look for centuries. It was a portal to the realm of the Elder Fae that has eluded me. Derisa and Aeval have provided the gateway in.”
And with that, we moved out. It took us about an hour more on the path before we reached an area where a creek cut across the trail. A small footbridge crossed the stream, but as soon as we were on the other side of it, Morgaine held up her hand.
“Here we go off trail, to the east.” She glanced at the sky. “The storm is moving down from the mountains and we will be headed directly into it.”
Overhead, the clouds were gathering, dark and filled with moisture. The temperature had already dropped at least ten degrees and the wind was rising, whipping the grass as it billowed over the plains, setting up a rippling ocean of green.
I closed my eyes. The crackling off the clouds was so vibrant I could almost reach out and touch it. If I summoned the Moon Mother’s power here, now, the lightning would be at my beck and call. The Moon Mother controlled the lightning and storms, as much as any god of thunder, even as she controlled the vivid halo that bled off the silver moon and the dark rings of the black moon.
“We should press on as soon as possible. The storm is dangerous—I can feel it coming in, with snow and sleet in its wake.” Morgaine shaded her eyes, staring to the east.
“We’re walking right into it. There’s no way to go around?”
Morgaine glanced to the left, then right. Finally, she shook her head. “No. We cannot find the Merlin without journeying through the ravines into the mountains. As I said, the path is buttressed on both sides by jagged rockfall. We have to travel straight into the face of the storm. I’m sorry.” And for once, she truly did sound sorry. She turned to face Delilah and me. “I know what you went through over in Otherworld, with the sentient storm. I am not heartless, but we have no choice.”
I gripped my staff. “Then let’s move out before it gets worse.”
Waiting would only make it worse. And frankly, I didn’t need any more tension and stress right now—I’d reached my quota some time back. I tied my hair back into a ponytail to keep the wind from whipping it around my face. Morio did the same, and Bran also. Mordred followed suit. Morgaine pushed her locks back, covering her head with her hood and fastening it firmly beneath her chin.
“Are we ready?” She gave us each a long look and we nodded in turn. “Then off we go.” She stepped off the path, onto the grass, with Morio and I by her side. The long sweeping blades were knee high and with the wind whistling through them, they were as hard to navigate as water, and they could be as sharp. Almost immediately, a blade whipped against my hand, slicing me like a paper cut.
Sucking the side of my thumb where the blade had left a long, red weal, I tried to focus on keeping my footing. The grass hid a multitude of bumps and stones and burrows, so that within minutes, we were all silent, focused on making it through the plain without any major accidents. The wind picked up again, and now it was a steady resistance, forcing us to work even harder.
On we moved toward the foothills, which jutted out of the ground. Atop their peaks, towering crags and spires of stone thrust into the sky. A trickle of moisture began to fall—first a light mist, and then sleet. I pulled my hood up and shrugged my cloak more tightly around my shoulders.
Morio leaned close to me. “How are you doing?”
“Fine. Just chilled and hoping we make it there without any problems.”
Delilah sped her pace till she was right beside us. “Is it all grassland like this until we reach the mountains?”
Morgaine’s eye twitched. “Unfortunately, we will shortly be coming to a boggy area. In fact, you should start taking more care now, because quicksand can appear without warning, hidden in the depths of the grass, and it’s not that easy to spot the marshy areas given the darkness of the sky.”
“Quicksand.” Delilah grimaced. “I remember being caught in quicksand and it was in this realm that it happened.” She tapped me on the shoulder. “Remember when we attracted Yannie Fin Diver’s notice and I got caught in the bog?”
“All too well.”
“Just be careful, since you’re in the front row.”
“I will.” I began to use my staff to probe every few steps as we went along. We were about an hour or so from the mountains when the tip of my staff hit a soggy patch, sinking a good three feet before it rested on the bottom. I immediately stopped.
Beside me, Morgaine and Morio halted quickly. I glanced over at Morgaine, and she used her own staff to prod the ground in front. Bog. Morio used his blade. More bog.
“Okay, so where do we go from here?” I started to ask, but a noise put an end to that, as a group of creatures began to rise from the swamp ahead of us. They were covered in detritus and streaming with mud that—once it hit the air—developed a nasty odor, and they didn’t look friendly.
“Mud men,” Mordred whispered behind us. “They are dangerous—think kelpies of a vastly uglier nature, except they aren’t independent. Like the hive-monster, all of the mud men are simply arms of the parent. They do their best to drag you into their bog with them, where the parent creature will absorb you.”
That didn’t sound like fun at all. A quick count told me there were about a dozen of them on the way. “What are their attacks?”
Mordred didn’t bother with pettiness, thank gods. He answered quickly and decisively. “They’re strong. They can drown you with their kiss—they’ll fill your lungs with mud that they vomit into your mouth.”
“Oh, no they won’t!” Delilah held up her dagger. “Are they Fae, or enchanted like the wasps?”
Mordred glanced at her. “Fae. The parent creature is sentient. The mud men aren’t enslaved beings. Think of them like tentacles. You can cut them off but they’ll regenerate. And bog creatures are smart, and they’re always hungry.”
I wondered how Mordred knew so much about this thing, but decided it wasn’t the best time to ask. “How do you kill them? It?”
“The creature should be around seven feet deep and three feet wide,” Tanne spoke up. At my look, he winked. “I’ve fought one or two of these in my lifetime. Anyway, if you are pulled into the creature—the bog—there’s a heart the size of a bowling ball inside. You have to stab the heart to destroy it. There’s not much else that will do any damage.”
I stared at the mud men. “What about them? How do we fight them off?”
“If you cut them up enough, they will return to the bog creature and reform. But at least you’ll be free of them while they’re out of the way. The only ways the creature itself can harm you is either through the mud men, or if you get dragged in or fall into the bog.” Tanne frowned. “So it’s really a matter of staving off the branches, so to speak, while you destroy the root. Somebody has to rope up and go in there.”
The mud men were advancing. I grimaced. No way in hell was I about to volunteer for the job. Swimming in mud? Not my strong suit. I’d end up putting everybody else in danger and I knew it.
Delilah let out a sigh. “I’ve been in quicksand before. I can deal with mud. Especially if there’s a bottom to the pit.”
Tanne said, “I’ve never heard of one being more than eight feet deep. They can’t move, so they lie in wait for their victims. But we’d better get to work on these mud men before they get too close. Remember: they can drown you with their kiss—don’t let them grapple you.”
Delilah pulled me aside. “While the others keep the mud men busy, you and Morgaine tie a rope around me. You’re both strong enough to pull me back up.” She shrugged off her backpack and her coat, then started to strip while I grabbed a length of rope out of my pack. We’d learned never to leave home on a mission without some sort of rope. If we didn’t have any, that would guarantee our need for it.
She was standing there, shivering in her underwear. “No way in hell am I letting that thing get my clothes filthy.”
“Makes sense.” I quickly tied it in a secure bowline around her waist. If we’d had more time, I would have fashioned a harness, but this would have to do.
We skirted around the side of the mud men, who were intent on the men. Tapping our way along a narrow patch of grass, we wound through the marsh, until we located the actual bog monster. Unlike normal areas of marsh—patchy water spots along the thick grass—the bog monster actually looked like a bog monster. Or, rather, a big patch o’ mud smack in the middle of the wet grassy wasteland, looking gray and oozy and . . . oh f**k.
Two more mud men emerged from the pit o’ doom, and they were focused on us. The bog monster must have sensed us approach. Of course, that made sense—it could probably feel our footsteps vibrating through the ground. Grumbling, I decided to see if magic could disrupt the walking mud-pies.
I sucked in a deep breath and raised my arms. As the energy of the storm began to channel into my body, the mud men suddenly stopped, turned, and hightailed it as fast as they could move back to the bog.
“What the hell . . .” I stared after them, all amped up with nobody to blast.
Morgaine shook her head. “Can you feel it? The storm is rising.”
“Feel what?” But I stopped and listened to the currents of energy. She was right. Entangled among the prickles and tingles of the energy I was channeling, something huge was sweeping across the bog.
“Everything’s gone silent.” Delilah glanced around. “Not a bird chirping, nothing—just the sound of the wind.”
I closed my eyes. She was right. The thriving marshland, the birds and insects, were now still as death. The only noise we could hear was the whipping wind.
“Look.” Tanne pointed to the bog creature. It was huddling, tendrils of mud pulling grass in around its edges to try and hide. That alone scared me more than anything else. If the bog monster was afraid of whatever was coming . . . I left the thought unfinished as my stomach flipped.