Dark Arts and a Daiquiri (Page 13)

What? Quit when I had the elusive rogue right in front of me? What about Nadine?

“Why are you here?” the Ghost asked again, his deep voice quieter, the words more ominous. Threat whispered in the unmoving air, the promise of punishment. I had deceived him. I was his enemy.

Abort, Tori!

If I tried to leave, the Ghost would kill me. I could feel it.

“I—I—” Gulping, I changed tactics. “You’re right. I’m not a diviner. I’m … not a mythic at all.”

The slightest twitch of his hood. He hadn’t expected that. “Then why are you here?”

Help, I thought as loud as I could. I can’t leave or he’ll attack.

Okay, stay calm. The team is moving in. Be ready to run.

But the Ghost was waiting for my answer, and he wouldn’t wait much longer. However close the team was, they weren’t close enough.

I closed my eyes, terror singing in my veins. I’d fooled Gregory Stern, but I couldn’t deceive this mythic. He could see right through me; I could feel his hidden eyes on my soul. What lie could I speak that would convince him I was like Nadine? How did I convince him I was a desperate, hopeless, lost girl who needed to erase her past and start again?

My eyes snapped open. I wasn’t lost and hopeless—but I had been. I’d lived that way for years. And at the youth shelter, I’d relived it. I’d been melting down when Gregory first spoke to me. Was that how I’d convinced him I was a legit runaway?

How easy it was. Like flipping a switch in my head, the rage swept through me—fury forged from years of enduring my father’s drunken neglect, from every adult in my life ignoring my pleas for help, from the maddening helplessness. My hands clenched. My lips pulled back from my teeth. The broken teenager within me reared her head.

“I’m here because anything is better than what I have now,” I spat. “I don’t know who you are, but I don’t care.”

Silence rang in the still night. Bryce was speaking in my mind but I blocked him out, concentrating on the Ghost.

“Take me away.” I glared into his hood. “That’s why you’re here, right? Take me somewhere else. I don’t care where.”

The Ghost studied me, his cold consideration a tangible weight on my skin. He was deciding what to do with me—and my time was up.

Tori! Bryce’s mental voice cut into my focus. The team can’t reach you!

That got my attention. What?

It’s a trap! You’re inside a barrier and we can’t get to you!

The Ghost finally moved, stepping toward me. One gloved hand rose, turning upward, fingers spread in invitation. “You have a choice. Walk away. Or come with me.”

He was giving me the option to walk away? Or would he kill me if I tried?

Tori. Bryce’s voice jabbed me. The sorcerers can’t break his barrier spell. You need to get yourself out.

“If you come with me,” the Ghost warned, “there is no going back. You will never return.”

I stared at his gloved hand, outstretched and waiting. Nadine had probably stood in this exact spot two months ago, facing that same hand. Facing the same cloaked figure offering her an escape from the only life she knew. You will never return.

Nadine had taken his offer. Whatever she had been fleeing, she’d been so desperate to escape it that the promise of no return hadn’t stopped her.

My thoughts were too loud and obvious, and Bryce’s panic spiraled through mine. No! he yelled. That’s suicide, Tori!

If I walked away, we would never find Nadine. She would be lost to the Ghost, forgotten and abandoned. She’d wanted a fresh start, and this dark monster had preyed on her desperation. He’d taken her freedom. He’d taken her life.

I couldn’t abandon her. I wasn’t a mythic, but I wasn’t a scared teenager either. I knew how to handle myself, and I could be damn resourceful when the situation called for it. Wherever the Ghost took me, I would get her out—or get my mages in to rescue us.

“Choose,” he commanded.

No one else would save her. It had to be me.

I raised my hand, my fingers hovering above his black leather glove.

No! Bryce shouted in my head. Don’t!

Swallowing my pounding heart, I lowered my hand onto the cool leather. The Ghost’s fingers curled around mine.

You don’t understand! Bryce bellowed frantically. We figured it out! He isn’t a sorcerer. He’s—

The Ghost’s grip tightened and cold, alien power raced up my arm, leaving numbness in its wake.

—a druid.

My vision went dark and I pitched forward into the Ghost’s waiting embrace.

Chapter Eight

“Hello?”

I scrunched my eyes as the word reverberated in my ears.

“Hellooooo?” the dry, sarcastic voice repeated. A finger poked my forehead. “Wakey-wakey, ginger.”

With effort, I forced my eyes open. Dazzling sunlight blinded me, then a head appeared above mine, blocking the glare. Thin eyebrows arched above blue-gray eyes in a young face, and messy brunette bangs were tangled over her forehead in a boyish style.

“Nadine?” I blurted. Or, I tried to. My throat was so dry that all I managed was a strangled gasp.

“Hey, don’t freak.” Nadine straightened, her hands on her narrow hips. “Victoria, right?”

I blinked repeatedly, my brain struggling to catch up. I was horizontal, a pillow under my head. Above me was … the top half of a bunk bed? And beside the bed was the missing girl I’d been desperate to find.

Nadine was standing right here, waiting for me to speak.

Well, s**t. I’d been abducted. It was the only explanation.

Nadine snapped her fingers in my face and I started. Wide-eyed, I gawked at her. She looked … fine. No bruises, burns, or cuts. Clean, hair washed, a healthy pink tint to her cheeks.

“Your name is Victoria?” Nadine asked again.

I swallowed to get some moisture back in my mouth. “Call me Tori.”

“I’m Nadine.” She gave me a slow appraisal that wasn’t particularly friendly. Caution lurked in her eyes. “Ready to begin?”

“Begin … what?”

“If you’re here, you’re here to work. No slackers allowed.” Gesturing for me to get up, she backed away from the bunk. “You didn’t think you were getting a free ride, did you?”

I slid out of the bed, my thrift-store clothes rumpled, and surreptitiously slipped my hand into my back pocket. My fingers brushed the Queen of Spades’ edge.

“Where is here?” I asked.

She eyed me like I was a dangerous animal. “You chose this.”

It wasn’t a question, but I nodded anyway. “Yeah.”

“Then don’t complain. No one likes complainers.” She tugged her blue t-shirt down even though it was three sizes too big and hung past her hips. “Another piece of advice. Everyone here has a story, and it’s none of your business.”

I opened my mouth, then closed it. Before I said anything—before I revealed I was here to help her—I needed information. Starting with where I was, who “everyone” was, and if the Ghost was nearby.

“Come on.” She waved at me. “You already missed breakfast.”

Stumbling after her on wobbly legs, I scanned the room—small, with two tidy bunk beds, the patched blankets spread smooth. A simple dresser with four drawers stood in the corner. That was it, but hey, at least it wasn’t a dungeon.

Nadine pointed at the dresser on her way by. “Third drawer is yours. You can pick out clothes from the bin.”

I followed her into a hallway with wooden walls. The air smelled like a spice cabinet—herbs and seasonings and dried green things.

We walked into a huge kitchen. Butcher-block counters, an old gas range, a significantly newer industrial-sized fridge, and a giant island that stretched the length of the room. Sturdy shelves lined the far wall, and stacked on them were bottles, vials, and glass jars filled with all manner of substances.

At the island, two people stood over baskets filled with freshly cut plants. The guy had a dusky complexion, short black hair, and a cropped beard, young but way closer to thirty than twenty. The girl was my age, her hair done in braids and a smattering of freckles over her cheeks, almost invisible against her deep bronze skin.

Nadine tipped her head toward them. “That’s Omar and Nekhii.”

The pair glanced up from their work, their unsmiling faces giving me pause. Omar’s eyebrows furrowed, while Nekhii stared vacantly. I offered a half-hearted wave as I followed Nadine out the door into the sunshine.

I squinted my eyes into focus—then stopped dead.

“Problem?” Nadine sounded almost smug.

Gulping, I muttered, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

Mountains are beautiful. I love mountains. Never in my life had the sight of mountains sent arctic fear trembling through me.

I was standing in a valley surrounded by magnificent peaks. Forests climbed the slopes, while lush grassland dotted with trees filled the valley basin, bisected by a winding river. As I turned in a slow, horrified circle, I saw nothing but meadow and mountain. The wooden cabin I’d walked out of was the only domicile.

There was a barn, a shed, and a few other outbuildings. A massive garden. A fenced-in pasture. No garage. No vehicles. There wasn’t even a road. Why the hell was there no road?