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|Priestess Dreaming(Sisters of the Moon #16) by Yasmine Galenorn|
Morio began to pluck pieces off of my face. “There are only a few here—but you are bleeding. Heads and hands always bleed heavier.” While he occupied himself with keeping the glass out of my mouth and eyes, Morgaine went around behind me and began combing through my hair.
“Bran, you and Mordred watch the entrance. We don’t want to be taken by surprise while we fix up Camille.” Morio went back to wiping the blood off my face with a handkerchief.
I didn’t ask if it was clean—at this point, I didn’t care. I just wanted to stop feeling like a store window in a bad part of town during a riot. I flinched as Tanne began to pluck glass from my hands and my fingers. Grimacing, I forced myself not to whine. I could snivel later when all the little scars were scabbing over and beginning to itch.
Finally I was denuded of crystal guts, and able to put my cloak back on, but all I could think of was how much I wanted a shower to wash away anything still clinging to me. Nothing had come through from the passage, and I was both relieved and a little worried over this fact. But then again, how many creatures could have withstood the onslaught of the quartz guardians? If there were further traps waiting for us, they weren’t likely to be right inside the doorway, so to speak.
Taking a deep breath, I turned to the others. “I hate to say this, but I really need food. I know we’re low on supplies, but I’m a little shaky. Not to mention bloody.” Though I had managed to avoid being pulverized by the shattering glass, I was streaked with the quickly drying blood. There wasn’t water enough to wash with, unless I wanted to use snow, and the thought of chilling myself after the magical exertion the horn had put me through didn’t seem like a good idea.
Morio dug into his pack and handed me half a sandwich. “Here, eat this. I also have a candy bar.”
Between the roast beef and the Snickers, the shakes started to subside. I was tired, though, and dreaded the thought of having to face anything stronger along the way. “Okay, we’ve cleared the path,” I said after a moment. “Now what?”
Morgaine gave me a mirthless smile. “We head into the dark.”
I wiped my fingers, took a swig of water, and stood. “Okay then, we don’t really have a lot of time to waste. Let’s get moving.”
And with that, we fell into our battle order and headed into the narrow passage in the newly revealed rock wall.
* * *
Unlike the outer passage, this one led down into the depths of the mountain. It was narrow and low, which didn’t lend well to my dislike of small enclosed spaces. Maybe we’d fought one too many battles in the dark, or maybe I just didn’t like feeling hemmed in—either way, the descent into the tunnel was anything but fun. At least the walls were lit with the same sort of jutting crystals that had lined the walls of the cavern.
“I wish this was more like Underground Seattle,” Delilah said.
“I was thinking just about the same thing. At least there the passages are wide enough to feel like you’re actually walking in what used to be a city street. This . . . all I can say is watch for viro-mortis slimes along the wall. This would be the perfect place for them to hang out.”
It was Delilah’s turn to let out a muttered “ick.” She hated the oozing jellies that mimicked the Blob, right down to trying to absorb the hosts they latched on to. They might be prettier than Steve McQueen’s black amorphous menace, but they were no less deadly, if a little slower on the uptake.
“Yeah, and we don’t have Smoky or Iris here to freeze them, either.” Delilah’s words echoed against the rock and she flinched and lowered her voice again. “Sorry.”
“It’s loud, isn’t it? Do you hear that dripping noise?” I could hear a faint plink plink plink, as if a faucet were dripping somewhere in the distance.
Morgaine, still leading the way, answered. “I hear it, yes. I’m not sure of what it is but do you notice how damp the air is getting?”
I sniffed. Sure enough, the air was laden with moisture. It was cold and damp, and I realized that I was getting a chill. There was nothing I could do about it unless I wanted to pull out my blanket and drape it over my shoulders, and I didn’t want it getting shredded if we ended up in another fight.
“Do you think we’re nearing an underground stream or something?”
“I don’t know, but . . . hold on.” She held up a hand and I stopped, motioning for the others behind me to follow suit. A moment later, she turned. “I sense . . . I can feel an energy that I haven’t encountered for a very long time.” She turned back to the tunnel and began to hurry forward.
Hoping she wasn’t possessed or under a spell—she was almost running down the descending corridor—I followed at a good pace. Not twenty more yards and the floor began to level out as up ahead the tunnel ended, leading to an entrance into . . . well . . . I didn’t know what. But it definitely opened into something else. Selfishly, I hoped it wasn’t just another passageway. I was getting tired of being underground.
As I reached Morgaine, who was anxiously waiting by the archway, she turned to me, an excited look on her face. I’d never seen her expression so animated. “We’re here. I think we’re here.”
“Where? Do you mean we’ve found the Merlin?”
She was practically vibrating. “I think . . . we have. And I think we’ve also found a door into one of the byways that leads to Avalon.” With that, she turned to plunge through the arch, and vanished from sight in a flash of light.
“Oh f**k! What the hell? Where did she go?” My first impulse was to rush forward, but I stopped myself, tentatively sticking the end of my staff through the arch. It crackled, and the energy raced up the staff to tingle through my fingers. But it didn’t feel dangerous. Instead, it felt inviting and warm.
I turned to look at Morio. “What should we do? I have no clue where she went other than through that doorway.”
Tanne pushed his way to the front. “Let me go find out. Tie a rope around me so you can pull me back if need be.”
But at that moment, Morgaine’s head popped back through, seeming almost disembodied. “It’s a hidden entrance. Veiled, but not dangerous. Come on.” She vanished again.
Still not trusting what I saw, I looked at Tanne. “You willing to go through?”
He nodded. “I’ll tell you what, hold on to me and I’ll poke my head through. If . . . well . . . if something happens, contact my family.”
Morio took hold of his arm and Tanne edged his head through the archway, then a few seconds later, withdrew. “She’s right. She’s also lucky. That could have been anything, but it appears to be a veil that covers the entrance. It may well lead into a different realm, but it didn’t try to prevent my return. I think we can go through. There’s no way to explain what the hell I’m seeing on the other side. You have to see it for yourselves.”
Hesitantly, I agreed. One by one, we crossed through the portal, into the unknown.
* * *
As I stepped through, following Tanne, the scent of lilacs and wisteria descended to fill my nose. I inhaled a deep breath and cool, clear air filled my lungs, imbued with the fragrance of the flowers. The chill and the gloom vanished and I found myself facing a blazing cavern filled with brightly illuminated walls. Whether it was crystals or eye catchers or faerie fire, I wasn’t sure, but everything sparkled and glowed here.
The chamber was so vast I couldn’t see the end of it, and while there were no trees or vines in sight to account for the scent of the flowers, what I did see was a placid lake filling the center of the vast chamber.
In the center of the lake, we could see a small island. It was large enough to house a building that reminded me of a large temple.
The floor in front of us was still stone, but as we approached the lake, the stone changed to solid dirt, and then to pebbles. Albino grasses waved in a light breeze, growing by the edge of the water, along with reeds as tall as I was. A boat rocked lightly on the waves, tethered to a mooring stump anchored firmly in the rock next to the lakeshore.
The temperature had warmed by at least thirty degrees. It was still chilly, but compared to what we’d been through, it felt positively balmy. My body began to relax, the tension flowing out of my shoulders.
Slightly alarmed by my reaction, I turned to the others. “Can you sense anything? Any spells or charms in the area?”
Tanne shook his head. “I’ve already been searching, but no, I can feel no sense of danger here. That in itself may be the result of a spell. But as far as I can tell, I’m not picking up on anything untoward.”
“I almost wish you did.” Dangers that were out in the open were far easier to deal with than hidden treachery. And I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that the crystal guardians had been the only obstacles in our path.
“I suppose we just keep alert.” Delilah stared at the water. “I don’t want to go on that boat.”
Ever the cat, my sister had an innate distrust of water, which had pretty much developed into a phobia. She hardly ever relented to taking a full bath—preferring short, frequent showers. She had never voluntarily been swimming a day in her life, and she refused to even own a bathing suit.
“We have to go on it. We have to get across the water to that building.” Morgaine frowned. “That’s where the Merlin is.”
Delilah’s eyes flashed but she kept her mouth shut, for which I was grateful. We didn’t have time for personal fears to interfere. My own fears had been ever present with me during this journey but I’d managed to push them aside. After a moment, my sister just nodded, tight-lipped but acceding.
“Will we all fit? There are eight of us.” I stared at the long boat, mentally calculating the space and number of seats. Yeah, we’d fit, but it would be snug. “Can it carry all of us, weight-wise?”
“If there are eight seats, the boat will carry eight people. Unless we’re hiding a giant somewhere.” Tanne winked at me, and I laughed. “No? Didn’t think so. Who else knows how to row? There are four oars here. I can man one of them.”
Mordred spoke up. “I know how to man a boat.” Arturo volunteer to take a third and—to my surprise—Morgaine the fourth.
“Before we shove off, can we find out if the water’s safe to touch? And if it is, I want to wash my hands and face.” I was tired of feeling grungy and the dried blood had only added to that feeling.
Morgaine dipped her finger into the pond, held it to her nose, and waited. A moment later, nothing had happened. “I think you should be okay, but if there are any hidden dangers—any bacteria—do you really want to wash open wounds with it?”
Grumbling, I shook my head. “Never mind. Good point. At least we know it’s not battery acid, though.”
Morio and Tanne had been examining the boat and they deemed it water-worthy, so we climbed in. Delilah clutched the edge of her seat tightly, whispering a prayer to Bast that we didn’t capsize. I, myself, was praying we didn’t run into any sirens along the way. The last thing we needed was a gaggle of gorgeous women luring us out of the boat to a watery death. The boat glided smoothly over the water, though, and we landed on the shore of the island without incident.
Relieved, I scrambled out, but I couldn’t beat Delilah in her desire to get her land legs under her again. Mordred tied the boat securely against the mooring pole so it couldn’t drift away. The island was small, pretty much big enough to hold the building and not much else but the small swath of land around it. It truly did look like a temple, single story—at least aboveground—and was about the size of a large gymnasium. The walls were white marble veined with gray, and the structure was covered with a ghostly web of albino ivy. Columns buttressed the sides, evenly spaced and carved with intricate Celtic knotwork. A wide door in front was the only visible entrance.
The island itself was covered with a plush layer of moss, pale and luminous. A narrow walkway led through the moss from the mooring to the door of the building. Morgaine paused at the edge of the path, her caution getting the better of her excitement. She stared at the building, then turned back to me.
“Whatever wards there are, they’ll be at the door or beyond. Do you see?”
“See what?” I squinted, trying to get a better vantage point.
“By the door—on the ground. Look closer, child.” She pointed to the left of the door.
I tried to focus—the light wasn’t very bright here and I wasn’t sure at first what I was looking at but then I saw. Skeletons. Several of them, piled by the foot of the door. They were bleached, weathered, indicating they’d been here some time. Whether age or animals had picked them dry, it was hard to tell.
It could have been anything—gas or poison, magic . . . there were no signs anywhere of guards hiding, but then again, they might come out from the inside of the building and we weren’t close enough yet to get a better look. I tried to gauge how the skeletons were arranged, which might give us an idea of how they’d died, but we were too far away for me to make out much.
“The trap is by the door, then.”
“Not so fast.” Tanne squinted, then shook his head. “Something seems off. Look how neat the path is—the moss hasn’t overgrown it at all, and moss takes over. You know how invasive it is.”
He was right. Whether above- or belowground, moss spreads and spreads quickly. It could take over a lawn within a few months, if let go, and that included sidewalks and decks and anything else just hanging around. In fact, a good share of the lawns in and around Seattle were quite happily covered with moss. It cut down on mowing, for one thing.