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TASTE OF DARKNESS Chapter One
Cold air caressed my back. I rolled over, muttering at Kerrick for hogging the blanket, but stopped. Something felt...odd, wrong, missing. Opening my eyes, I confirmed the emptiness next to me. Kerrick was gone.
For a moment, I stared at the dent in the pillow. Had yesterday been a dream? Had I imagined Wynn's betrayal, Tohon trapped in a magical stasis, Kerrick's miraculous arrival, and the rest of the insanity?
No. The events replayed in my head with vivid details. The blood, the overpowering reek of dead ufas, and Wynn's poisoned knife striking Kerrick's arm. Poisoned with Death Lily toxin. I'd thought I'd sucked all the deadly poison from Kerrick's wound...but what if I hadn't?
Icy fingers of fear wrapped around my heart. I shot to my feet and dressed in record time. Kerrick's shirt, boots, and sword lay in a heap by the dying fire. Not good.
Out in the large main cavern, the rest of the infirmary staff stirred. I scanned the patients' cots on the off chance Kerrick had collapsed into one. He hadn't.
Loren added wood to the cooking hearth, poking it into a bright blaze.
I rushed over to him. "Have you seen Kerrick?"
"Nope, and we figured we wouldn't see either of you until..." His smirk faded. "Maybe he went outside for some fresh air." This in a hopeful tone.
"Without his shirt?"
"Well, when nature calls..."
"Or his sword?"
Loren jumped up. "Let's not panic, Avry."
"Have you searched the other caverns?" he asked.
"Okay, then you look for him inside, and I'll go outside. If he's not nearby, I'll ask the guards if they saw him last night. All right?"
I nodded, but dread clawed up my throat. Kerrick wouldn't be in another cavern unless he'd been too sick to find his way back to me. Gulping down the tight knot, I grabbed a lantern and checked all the other sleeping areas.
A few people grumbled after I swept the light over them, but I didn't care.
Odd squinted in the brightness, but sat up as if he'd been awake. "What's wrong?"
He cursed. "Not only did Wynn stab us in the back, she's twisted the blade, too."
"While I'd love to plot revenge with you--"
"Yeah, go. I'll be right out."
The other caverns yielded the same results. Even the one reserved for the privy. A detached part of my mind noted the buckets needed to be dumped. However my heart kept its frantic rhythm. That was the last place inside. Perhaps...
Running back to the main cavern, I spotted Loren and Odd talking to a soldier.
"...sometime after midnight," the man said. "Don't recall if he came back or not."
Loren rounded on him. "Don't recall! You're supposed to be guarding us. What if the enemy grabbed him? If someone goes into the woods and doesn't come back, that's a big red flag, you idiot!"
Odd touched Loren's shoulder and titled his head toward me. "Not helping right now."
"He was outside?" I asked.
The guard had seen him leave. I dashed out into the cold morning air. The fresh scent of moist earth reminded me of Kerrick. Without hesitating, I embraced the closest bit of foliage, seeking the vibrations of Kerrick's forest magic.
Nothing. I drew a shaky breath. Don't jump to conclusions. He could be unconscious. Odd and Loren had followed me out. Six inches shorter than Odd, Loren ran a hand over his buzzed black hair. More silver sprinkled his hair despite only being thirty-five. Odd on the other hand, had let his hair grow since Tohon's surprise attack. Although saying it had grown was being generous. His dark brown locks remained close to his scalp in a fine fuzz.
"We need to search the area. Wake the others," I ordered.
They hastened inside and soon Flea, Quain, and most of the soldiers had assembled by the cave's entrance. Using one of Ryne's military maps, Loren divided the surrounding area into quadrants. The infirmary cave was located in Pomyt Realm, northeast of Zabin and east of the ruins of the Healer's Guild.
Quain growled at everyone, but he appeared healthy despite being frozen in Sepp's magical stasis only yesterday. But Flea's face remained pale and he seemed unsteady on his feet. The discovery of his ability to break Sepp's stasis had taken a toll on him.
I moved closer to him. "Flea, stay here, you're in no condition--"
"No. I'm going." Despite being sixteen, he sounded much older. And his firm gaze meant I'd have an easier time convincing fire not to burn.
Before assigning quadrants to the teams, Loren pulled me aside. "Hate to bring this up, but if he's...if we find..."
"A dead body?" Not like I hadn't thought of it a million times since I'd woken up.
"Tell them to find me as fast as possible. I have the Lily map--we'll head to the closest Peace Lily and hope for the best." I glanced at Flea. A Peace Lily had saved his life and mine, it might save Kerrick's.
The strain on Loren's face eased just a bit. "Right." He shouted orders and the teams of four headed into the woods, fanning out to their assigned areas.
No surprise that Loren, Quain, and Flea joined me. I trailed my fingers along the greenery, hoping to detect Kerrick's magic. At this point, I'd pray to Estrid's creator if I thought it would help.
As a group, we moved in silent mode. Despite Tohon's current condition--frozen in stasis because if he weren't, he'd die from the deep stab wound in his chest, a little gift from me--his army still advanced from the south. Cellina had taken over command. Just as ruthless as he was, at least she couldn't create more dead soldiers. And we'd discovered how to stop the ones in existence. So it was only a matter of time until we neutralized them all.
What if we didn't find Kerrick in time? The Peace Lilys were picky. From the little I'd learned, the person in question either needed to be a magician or have the potential to be one, and the body had to be fresh. Flea'd been dead a few hours and I had died inside the Lily.
Well, actually, the Lily didn't bring us back to life. It'd preserved our bodies until another person touched us. I'd awoken Flea and Kerrick had saved me.
Kerrick, why didn't you wake me? Why didn't you tell me you felt sick?
What if the Peace Lily rejected him? Like it refused Ursan and Noelle? Although Ursan had been a magic sniffer, he'd been dead too long, and my sister, Noelle, hadn't been gifted with magic. I was the only one in my family who'd developed powers. Healing powers, not that it helped with either of them. Or Kerrick. I couldn't cure those poisoned by Death Lily toxin or infected with the plague.
The plague had killed two thirds of the population of the Fifteen Realms. At least there hasn't been a new case in almost three years. But during its prime, over six million people had died.
Gee, not like I wasn't depressed enough. I focused my energies on the search. How far could one sick man go anyway?
The day dragged on. We made sweeping arcs through our area, but only managed to scare a few rabbits, which Loren shot with his bow. Sunlight streamed through the gaps in the trees, heating the air to a comfortable level--summer's last gasp. Fall started in eleven days.
Memories of last fall came unbidden. Around midseason Kerrick and the guys had rescued me from the guillotine. Because of his forest magic, his eyes had matched the color of the forest with warm browns, gold, and amber flecks. I huffed. His personality hadn't coordinated at all. He'd been cold, mean, and only cared about healing Prince Ryne, which had been why he'd freed me from jail.
Loren raised his hand in a stopping motion. We froze, listening. Hope surged, but died just as quick. The noise of the other searchers' passage had carried. They weren't as skilled in moving through the forest. Instead of their movements blending in with the forest's song, it stood out like an out-of-tune violin in a string quartet.
My emotions had been on an endless seesaw over the past month. First Tohon's vast army had surrounded Estrid's and he'd demanded unconditional surrender. Cellina had acted as his liaison and Kerrick's sword hung from her belt. She'd claimed Kerrick had been torn apart by her pack of dead ufas. He hadn't. But then Ryne had sent Kerrick north to fight the invading tribes and a messenger had reported he'd died in the attempt. He hadn't.
So this was just another false alarm. Right? Kerrick was like a cat with nine lives. Three down, five left. I clung to that thin thread of hope because...well, if I didn't, I'd shatter.
We searched all day.
When the sun hovered over the horizon, Loren called it off. "We can resume in the morning."
"You can go back," I said, "but I'm staying."
"We need to regroup and see if anyone has seen anything."
"I agree, but you don't need me for that."
Loren exchanged a glance with Quain. Close to my age of twenty-one, Quain had teamed up with Loren before joining Kerrick. Their antics had earned them the nickname the monkeys. I'd once quipped Quain was the bald monkey since no hair grew on his head.
"Avry, you haven't eaten all day," Quain said.
"Really, Quain? Is that all you got? Do you think I have an appetite right now?" I regretted my harsh sarcasm immediately. It wasn't Quain's fault.
He stepped closer to me. His voice dipped low. "You're not the only one hurting here."
"I know, I'm sorry."
Quain paused at that, blinking at me as if no one had ever apologized to him before. "Do you think you'll be able to help Kerrick, if you're passed out from exhaustion?"
"I know my limits, Quain."
"And how effective can one person be stumbling around in the dark?"
I drew breath to blast him again, but Flea said, "I'll stay with Avry."
Flea's face had paled to bone white. The only color was the dark smudges underneath his eyes. He swayed on his feet. Talk about passing out... If I stayed, Flea would insist on staying, as well.
Sighing, I said, "You're right. I'd be useless."
Quain showed an amazing amount of restraint in not gloating over my comment. Loren raised his eyebrows, but kept quiet.
As we headed back, I walked next to Flea and took his hand. He squeezed my fingers in silent support. However, I had another purpose for linking hands. I sent him a subtle flow of magical energy. Since I'd awoken him, we had a bond. He sensed when I was in trouble, and we could share strength.
Once we found Kerrick, we'd have to figure out the extent of Flea's new magic. Was he now a death magician or a hybrid magician who didn't fit in one of the eleven categories of magic? The fact that he could break Sepp's stasis made for another weapon in our growing arsenal against Cellina's army. Funny to think of the thousands of soldiers as Cellina's now.
I slowed as Flea grew stronger.
"Hey! Stop that." He let go, shaking me off.
"Stop what?" I acted confused.
"Don't pull that on me. I didn't ask for help."
"Yes, you did. You just didn't know it." And before Flea could protest, I added, "Healer. Remember? It's what I do."
"But what if we find Kerrick?"
What if? Those two words had haunted me all day. And just like with Flea, Kerrick and I shared a bond. I reached for the bushes, touching the leaves. Still no ripple of magic. Yet a tightness deep down inside me wouldn't let me despair. It clung to the notion I'd been wrong about his death before. In fact, it reasoned that until I had proof to the contrary, I should assume he was alive.
"When we find Kerrick, I'll have plenty of energy," I said.
Back at the cave entrance, the other teams milled about, talking in low voices. From their universal serious expressions, I guessed they'd been unsuccessful.
"I'm sorry, Avry, but there's been no sign of him," Odd said, joining us. "A few of the teams covered their entire areas. Are you sure he's sick? I hate to be gross...but we didn't find any vomit. And it's hard to imagine him traveling farther if he wasn't feeling good."
"Kerrick can be stubborn," I said, hoping that annoying trait had saved him.
"He had to be sick. Why else would he be out without his shirt or sword?" Loren asked.
"All right. So he goes outside thinking he's going to throw up...then what?" Odd asked.
We'd all assumed he collapsed, but...What if he realized he was dying? I imagined his thoughts and feelings at that moment, putting myself in his place. He'd promised me he wouldn't die. But it was inevitable. Yet Kerrick didn't give up easily.
I gasped. "He headed to a Peace Lily!"
From TASTE OF DARKNESS MIRA Books, December 31, 2013
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