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|Priestess Dreaming(Sisters of the Moon #16) by Yasmine Galenorn|
“The path looks like dirt—not stone. But even if it were stone, the moss should have covered it by now.” I studied the winding trail. It was untouched. “Notice something else? The path is also clear of any other type of foliage. It looks meticulously groomed.”
Bran went up to the edge of the trail, without setting foot on it. He leaned down, and cocked his head to the side as he examined it. Then, he got down on his hands and knees and leaned forward, sniffing the dirt. A moment later he reared back, a startled look on his face.
“There’s something on that dirt. I don’t know what it is, but it’s dangerous. If I was mortal, I might be unconscious now.” He leaned out and touched his finger to the dirt, yanking it back. He held out his hand to show us the blistering that spread across his fingertip.
“That tells us one thing—the path is poisoned.” He pulled a leather pouch out of his backpack and, fitting it over his hand, touched it to the soil. Another moment and he removed it.
“I didn’t feel anything on my palm, but look.” He turned the pouch inside out. An oily stain spread across it. We waited for another moment and it soaked through the top layer. “You can walk along the path if you have shoes on and not feel it. But by the time you reach the door, it will have saturated the soles of your shoes. My guess is that by then, it will not only be eating into your feet, but infecting the blood. And if you can die, you will.”
I knelt beside him, eyeing the leather. “All of the skeletons are by the door. That means it must be quick acting but not instantaneous. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes to reach the temple. Okay, so we stay off the path. What about the moss? Surely somebody else figured this out before us? Or, are those the only four who have ever made it down here?”
“We’ll never know, but it really doesn’t matter.” Morio frowned. “Bran, I hate to presume on you, but you’re the one that can’t be affected by the poison. Can you check out the moss?”
Bran moved over to the pale mulch that covered the rest of the island. He took his other hand and placed it on the moss, then after a moment lifted it. “Nothing. I’ll try the leather.” Again, he repeated the experiment with the bag. And again, nothing.
“Then we should be able to walk across the moss without a problem.” Morio was frowning, though. “It still feels too simple, but maybe I’m over-thinking matters. We don’t know how the skeletons in the cave died, but I can’t understand how this group could have gotten past the crystal scorpions—the spell hadn’t been triggered.”
“Unless somebody reset it. Another mystery we’ll never figure out.” I sighed, looking around. “Well, we can’t stand here forever.” I was getting antsy.
“I’ll go. I can cross the moss, and if there’s nothing on my shoes by the time I get over there, just follow in my footsteps. I’ll scrape through it with my sword so you can follow the path.” Bran stood up and dusted his hands on his pants. “I’m going to move fast though—there’s no sense in giving whoever built this hellhole any more of a chance to destroy us than they already have.”
He calculated the distance to the door, then moved away from the path a little more. After one more check of the moss, he took off, running through the moss, dragging his sword behind him to leave a trail that we could follow. A moment later, he stood by the door, examining the soles of his boots. Another minute and he waved for us to join him. I sucked in a deep breath and moved up to the trail he’d left.
“I’m going next. Hurry. We don’t want to be separated in case anything comes creeping out of those doors.” And, hiking my cloak and skirts so they weren’t trailing on the ground, I turned to Delilah. “Can you carry my staff for me? I’m not the best athlete and running with this is bound to get a little iffy for me.”
She laughed and nodded, taking it from me. “Be careful. Don’t fall down.”
And with that advice ringing in my ears, I took off, racing along the trail made by Bran’s sword. The distance seemed immense, even though it really was only a matter of fifty yards or so. It passed by in a blur of pale luminosity from the faint glow of the moss.
Shaking, I managed to reach the other side. Bran made me sit down and he looked at the soles of my boots. Nothing but regular dirt and a few embedded pebbles. He motioned to the others. One by one, they joined us and, one by one, we looked at their shoes. No sign of the poison.
I took my staff back from Delilah and wandered over to the skeletons, not really wanting to examine them but feeling we should. As I knelt, making sure they weren’t bone-walkers—we didn’t need any bones-on-the-hoof attacking us—I saw that the bottoms of their feet were pitted, the bone looking terribly porous, like pahoehoe lava.
“The poison. They did come across the dirt—and whatever is in it ate through their boots and into their feet. So I guess—regardless of where they came from—they never made it inside.” I slowly reached out to run my hand over the door. A deep knell reverberated through my fingers and hit my stomach like a gong, almost keeling me over.
Morgaine whirled around. “What was that?”
“I don’t know! I just touched the door.” But something had happened—I could feel it all through my body. I’d woken something up with my touch and now . . . now we would have to face whatever it was. I just prayed I hadn’t inadvertently set Yvarr loose from his prison.
As I stood there, frozen by the energy that clamored through me, the door softly opened, crushing the bones as it swept them aside. A low murmur echoed from deep within the chamber and I thought I could hear my name on the wind that rushed out. I knew then—knew in my gut, in the depths of my soul. The Merlin was in there, sleeping. And it was time to wake him up.
Morgaine stepped up to my side. She glanced over at me. “We have to go. You know that. You can feel it.” It was a statement, not a question.
I nodded. “Yes, I feel him waiting for us.” Without pausing to decide whether it was a good idea or a stupid one, my cousin and I stepped over the threshold and into the chamber. Mordred followed us, and then the others. The moment we all entered the building, the door slammed shut behind us. We were trapped, alone in a tomb as old as the hills. And by the sound of a low rustling skirting the perimeters of whatever room we were in, we weren’t alone.
“What the hell is that?” When the door slammed shut on us, the room was plunged into pitch black. I could hear the rustle of something swirling around the room, like wings brushing against fabric. But there was no sound of breath or voice or anything to give us a clue of what was locked in the room with us.
I had to do something. My fear seemed to translate into my staff and it jolted my hand enough for me to realize that I was still carrying it. With a sudden hunch, I struck the end of it against the floor, hitting it hard as I shouted, “Light!”
The energy I had basically downloaded into it from the lightning flared, and the crystal orb on the end blazed to life, shining like I’d just turned on the light switch. It glowed, sparkling with a clear lilac-colored light, illuminating the room enough for us to see where we were.
I immediately looked for whatever it was that had been making the rustling noise and there, to one side, I saw it—whatever it was. Tucked back against a corner, shying from the light, was a ghostly shape of a long, narrow serpent. But as we watched, it peered out, its head bobbing and weaving as it gazed at us. The form was translucent, but unmistakably sea green. Pale blue undertones blended through it, a lot like tie-dye. It was then that I noticed the vestigial wings.
“Is that . . . a dragon?” It couldn’t be—it looked like no dragon I’d ever seen. Not even Yvarr.
Morgaine let out a soft gasp. “Yes—but it’s a baby.”
As she spoke, she held out her hand and the creature slowly moved forward. Once it was out in the light, I could see she was correct. The baby dragon was pretty, almost cute, even though I knew it was probably older than everybody in this room. With wide eyes the color of toffee, it let out a soft sound that hovered somewhere between a mew and a growl, and it hiccupped, breathing out a puff of smoke from each nostril. By now, I recognized a lot of the Dragonkin, but this one . . . I had no real clue what class it belonged to and Smoky wasn’t here to tell me. At first I thought it might be a blue dragon, but the energy felt more grounded than the water beasts.
“What kind? I don’t recognize it—”
But Morgaine knew. “She, and I believe it is a girl, is a cross between blue and green. Water and earth. The elements of the Merlin.” She motioned toward the center of the room. “Look.”
In the center of the room rested a long crystal coffin, carved from flawless green glass. In the coffin, stretched out in repose, lay the body of a man. He might be dead, or he might be sleeping, but he was holding a staff and antlers rose from the headdress he wore. I stepped in for a closer look and the room began to hum. The dragon swirled around excitedly, accidentally knocking against me when she sped by. I stumbled, but caught myself before I went sprawling.
Morgaine stepped forward, but the dragon whirled with a flourish and nose-dived into her, driving her back. The creature growled then, baring her teeth. Even though she was a baby, she was bigger than we were. Morgaine tried to step around her, but the dragon had had enough, and this time, she bowled into Morgaine and knocked her off her feet.
Mordred moved to help his aunt, but the dragon growled again and he backed away. Morgaine scrambled back, fear on her face. Once again, the dragon turned to me again, ignoring her.
“Stay back,” I told the others. “Don’t interfere.”
Morio held Delilah back. We were linked enough for him to know I meant what I said. Tanne was keeping an eye on Bran and Arturo. Morgaine seemed to grasp that she wasn’t welcome. She and Mordred moved back with the others.
I waited, wondering what was going to happen next. It didn’t take long to find out. The dragon rustled through the air, like a fish through water, and stopped close enough for me to feel her breath on my neck. She leaned in, her brilliant yellow eyes swirling, and then gently reached forward and nose-bumped me. I stumbled toward the coffin. When I was leaning against the glass, the baby let out a muffled sound. Not sure what she wanted me to do, I turned around to gaze through the glass at the man inside.
He was the Merlin. I knew it in my heart. I knew it in my soul. His energy emanated from the casket even though he was still sleeping. He was beautiful—in a way—and terrifying. Great spiraling horns rose from his headdress, and from this position, I could see they were attached to the skull plate of an ancient elk.
Myrddin’s face was long and angular, not gaunt by any means but definitely British, with thick, full lips that beckoned me in a way I’d never quite felt before. His eyes were open—limpid and warm as liquid caramel.
As I stared at him, mesmerized, it was as though I could see the ages passing by in his silent gaze. He showed no sign that he saw me, but somehow, I felt he knew I was here. His chin was strong but not boxy, and a thin stubble of hair covered it—red sprinkled with a little gray. His hair curled down his bare chest, the locks the same deep burgundy as his beard. His chest was muscled and strong. He wore a cloak, open and fallen to the side, of green and brown, and trousers that looked like a brown suede.
As I gazed at him, the dragon began to circle the coffin, and me. Faster she moved, as if doing laps, her body streaming by in a smooth flowing cadence. She moved widdershins—counterclockwise—and my stomach began to knot as the floor swayed beneath my feet. And yet, I could not look away. There he lay, the most beautiful sorcerer of all time: the High Priest of the Hunter himself, locked within a crystal casket.
I clutched my staff. The echo of a drum reverberated in the background and, startled, I glanced to the side. A shadowy figure sat on the floor next to the foot of the coffin. He was playing a silver dumbak, with a stretched hide head. Around the base, embossed knotwork circled the drum. Cloaked in the shadows, the drummer focused on his task, and I closed my eyes as the voice of the drum began to sing to me.
The spirit of the music swirled, beckoning me to join her dance as she raced through my body. I shivered, for a moment unsure of whether she was actually in my body, or whether I was in hers. Swaying to the beat, I allowed her to guide me on the journey.
Another spirit filtered out of the drum, and this one entered my staff—the ethereal shape slithering like a snake into the base of the yew and up to the crystal orb on top. I began to tap the staff’s butt on the floor and the orb sparkled with the colors of faerie fire, the colors of the magic deep within the ancient woodland.
Images began to flash through my mind as I journeyed back through the mists. They unfolded in my mind like a movie.
A line of drummers, keeping perfect synch with their rhythm as people circled around a huge bonfire. Men dressed in hides and antlers told stories with their dance, as others beat together bones, keeping up a rhythm with the drummers. Women joined in the ritual—some in long woven tunics, some bare-breasted with skirts—all the clothing adorned with intricate vining designs.
There was a hush, as I hovered, suspended over the scene, and then as I watched the dancers gave way, moving back.
A woman, pale as the night in skin, with hair as dark as the sky, entered the circle. She wore a black cloak over a gossamer dress that was pale violet with silver embroidery. She began to dance in front of one of the drums. As she danced, another figure bathed in shadows came into the scene.
Gasping, I pulled back, trying to shake myself out of the vision. Something was coming, something huge and wild and feral, and fear built in the pit of my stomach. But the dragon pushed me forward again, nudging against me, and I recovered the scene.