Masquerade (Creepy Hollow, #4)Rachel Morgan
Copyright © 2012 Rachel Morgan
Cover Design by Rachel Morgan
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or, if real, used fictitiously.
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Kindle ebook ISBN: 978-0-9870290-6-5
Smashwords ebook ISBN: 978-0-9870290-7-2
TABLE OF CONTENTS
About the Author
There isn’t much in life that can surprise me. I’ve been trained to remain alert, to be constantly aware of my surroundings. Aside from being knocked out in the middle of Creepy Hollow forest and struck on the head while hiding in Scarlett’s Underground room, I can’t think of any other occasion where I’ve been caught off guard.
But there is nothing that can prepare me for the shock of finding Zell here, in this dark and silent cave buried within a mountain, where Nate and I should be perfectly alone. On our first date. Far, far away from the crimson-haired faerie who abducted and almost killed us.
“Excellent job, Nathaniel,” says Zell. “Thank you for getting her here so quickly.”
Getting her here so quickly.
I feel like someone is squeezing my head. I blink. I can see a shaft of dim light pouring from the hole in the rock ceiling high above us. Nate is an outline on the other side. I can’t see his face.
“Do you like what he’s done with the weather?” Zell continues. “He can’t quite control it yet, but his storms are certainly impressive, don’t you think?”
His storms. The weather.
“I must say, I was pleasantly surprised at how little it took to convince him to join—”
My brain jolts awake, and I do the first sensible thing I can think of.
I kick Zell.
At least, I try to kick him. But he must have a shield up, because I find myself thrown backward onto the ground. “Now, now,” he says. “There’s no need to get violent.” I expect him to come after me, but he doesn’t. He remains in front of the opening to the cave. Blocking my way out.
Without getting up, I hurl a ball of fire at him. Then two of my guardian daggers, a shower of stones, shards of ice, anything I can think of.
His shield repels them all. And he won’t move, and there’s no other way out, and I’m going to die here inside this dark mountain with that hateful smirk on his face and my traitor ex-boyfriend watching from the—
Stop freaking panicking!
There is another way out.
I push myself to my feet, ignoring the painful sting as my dress scrapes across my grazed back. I don’t know if I have enough power for this, but I certainly don’t have time to gather any more. I crouch down, tense, and jump. Gravity should pull me down, but magic is stronger than gravity. I propel myself upward, toward the opening in the rock ceiling.
“No!” Zell shouts. I hear him running. Bright light streaks past me, burning my arm. Something hard hits my side. I’m falling, tumbling. I slow myself down, but the impact when I hit the ground still knocks the air from my lungs. I see the cave entrance, unblocked. I scramble up and run.
Zell is shouting. I’m gasping for air. Blasts of magic shoot down the tunnel, lighting up the way for me. I zigzag as much as the tunnel will allow, doing my best to dodge the magic. Sparks sear across my shoulder. It burns, but I don’t stop running.
Memories flash across my open eyes: The storm that appeared when Zell hung Nate over the cliff; the snow in Angelica’s chamber; the rain beating against Nate’s window.
My head whacks into the low part of the front cave’s ceiling, and I land on my back on the ground. My vision blurs horribly. Pain threatens to knock me out. Somehow, though, I remain conscious. I roll onto my hands and knees and push myself up, leaning against the wall so I don’t fall over.
Throb. Throb. Throb.
The mouth of the front cave tilts strangely across my line of vision. I can hear the gurgle of the stream that bubbles up into this cave before it disappears into the mountain below me. Flashes of lightning illuminate the gash in the mountainside that leads to my freedom. I stumble forward. So close.
With a shimmer, a doorway appears in the air several feet ahead of me. Zell steps out of it. Without hesitation, he pushes his fist forward into the air, sending a bolt of power straight at me. It hits me right in the center of my stomach.
I cry out and double over. My arms feel wet. And I’m falling again. But I stagger to the side, toward the water, and when my body hits something, it isn’t the ground. It’s the stream. With an agonizing gasp of air, I disappear into the mountain.
There’s water in my mouth, and bubbles all around me, and flailing limbs and smooth stone and a slide that twists and turns. I cough and choke and try to keep my head above water as I yank my stylus out of my boot and cling desperately to it. But there’s no way I can open a doorway while falling through this water. My body is flung from side to side, and I can’t focus on anything other than simply trying to breathe. The slide straightens out and, with no warning at all—though what warning I might have been hoping for, I have no idea—I shoot out into the stormy sky above the waterfall.
Falling, falling, falling. Open a doorway. Come on. You are going to die if you don’t open a freaking doorway now! I drop into the black void, thinking of home and the Guild and Tora, all within split seconds of each other, and when I tumble onto the earth and knock my head against something hard, I have no idea where I am. Trees spin above me, and rain patters down onto my face. A fork of lightning cuts across the sky. Is it possible this is the same storm I just fled from?
The trees continue to spin. Pain starts to fade into a strange numbness. I raise a shaking hand to my face and feel a whole lot of stickiness running down my cheek. If I could touch the back of my head, I’d probably find blood there as well. I’m too terrified to put my hands anywhere near my stomach; I know the damage is bad. Is it bad enough that my body won’t be able to heal itself before it . . . shuts down?
I remember now that Tora is away; she’s visiting some foreign Guild. I’ll have to try to get to Flint instead. My stylus must have fallen somewhere nearby, but the thought of turning my head to look for it makes me want to be sick.
Perhaps someone will see me. Perhaps I should just lie here and wait for a little while.
I think of nothing, especially not him. The one who took me there, who handed me over. I watch the glow-bugs become visible as night falls. Sprites shake water from their delicate wings. The rain gets heavier, and I start to shiver. I manage to twist my head to the side so rainwater doesn’t keep choking me.
Darkness draws closer. Perhaps I’m falling asleep.
Above the sound of rain and thunder, I imagine I hear the crunching sound of footsteps nearby. Is it possible? Are footsteps loud enough to be heard over heavy rain?
Please see me, I think. Please see me and help me.
When a pair of boots appears in my hazy line of vision, I can’t figur
e out if they’re real or imagined. But then I realize that I recognize the boots—thorns etched into metal buckles—and I want to scream.
Why? I demand silently. Why him? I would have begged for anyone to come and help me. Anyone—except Ryn. He’s the only person I know who may actually choose to let me die instead of trying to help me.
The world tilts. Rain falls in every direction, and I can’t tell up from down. What is he doing? Will he hang me upside down and watch me die? Watch the blood drain from my body? What a sickening thought. It’s the last one I have before the world gives a final lurch and pushes me into oblivion.
My dreams fade into one another. Dreams of drowning and screaming. Dreams of bubbles and lights. Dreams of a boy with sun-darkened skin and laughing eyes.
The pillow beneath my head is soft. I crack my eyes open enough to see familiar blue and green swirls on the fabric beside my cheek. How did I get home?
I don’t know how long it is before I finally feel the pull of the waking world. I rub my eyes and blink several times, trying to orient myself in this room that seems familiar and yet not familiar. Why is there a fireplace?
I think about sitting up, but the memory of what happened inside the mountain comes slamming back, enough to pin me down to the bed. I imagine Nate standing in the shadows of the cave, and it feels like something is pressing down on my chest. I can’t breathe properly.
Don’t think about him. Don’t think, don’t think, don’t—
Ryn’s face appears in front of mine. I jerk away. “What—what are you doing here?” My voice is croaky.
He raises an eyebrow. “I live here.”
My mouth forms a confused O, but then I realize that’s why everything looks so familiar-but-not-familiar. This isn’t my home; it’s Ryn’s. And the bed I thought I was sleeping on isn’t actually a bed; it’s the couch I spent many nights on, years ago, in what feels like another lifetime. It’s been made up like a bed though, with the same sheets and cover I remember from my childhood.
I should sit up now—I feel quite vulnerable just lying here—but my body is stiff and achy. I blink a few more times and look around. From what I can see of the sitting room, it looks pretty much the same as the last time I was here. Ryn kneels on the floor, leans his elbows on the edge of the couch, and laces his fingers together. He rests his chin on top of his fingers and, with his face entirely too close for comfort, fixes me with his bright blue stare. “Would now be a good time to say ‘I told you so’?” he asks.
I roll onto my back so I don’t have to look at him. “Depends. Did you ever tell me that my halfling boyfriend would betray me to an evil faerie?”
One of Ryn’s elbows slips off the couch. “That guy’s a halfling? Wait, you have a boyfriend?”
I sigh. “Like that’s really the most important piece of news right now.”
“I’d say it certainly merits some attention.” Ryn resumes his position at the edge of the couch. “Who would have thought you’d be able to find someone interested in keeping your company?”
Thanks. If it was anyone else, I’d be offended. It’s Ryn though, and I’ve had years to get used to his insults. I meet his gaze. “Why didn’t you just leave me there to die, Ryn? We’d both be having a far more pleasant time right now if you had.”
“If you were dead, Pixie Sticks, there’d be no one for me to torment.”
“Do you mean to tell me that I’m the only one you bestow your delightful insults upon?” I place a hand on my chest. “I’m touched.” And now it’s definitely time to go. I push myself into a sitting position and run a hand through my hair. It’s clean. The bed cover falls away from me and it appears I’m also wearing clean clothes. They must be Zinnia’s.
“Love the dress you had on,” Ryn says without moving away. “It showed off your pixie-stick legs to full advantage.” If I had enough energy I’d slap him. “I see you’ve also taken to wearing a certain fashion item in your ears.” There’s an edge to his voice as his fingertips brush my earlobe.
I swat his hand away. “I don’t wear them to annoy you, you know.” I picture the tiny arrow-shaped earrings and push away the memory of Nate finding them in the bottom of my boot. “It’s an added bonus, of course, but the real reason I wear them is because they remind me of Reed.”
Ryn’s eyes bore into mine. “And when you wear them, do you think of me too? Or have you forgotten that they were a gift from both of us?”
My eyes slip away from his. I had forgotten that.
“Violet, you’re awake.” I look up to see Ryn’s mother at the foot of the stairs. She’s dressed all in black, with an array of small knives secured in a belt around her hips. She must be on her way to an assignment.
I swing my legs around and stand up. “Zin—Mrs Larkenwood,” I say, feeling a little light-headed. “Thank you for taking care of me, and for the clothes.”
“Vi, are you sure you should be standing up?” She hurries across the room. “You were very badly hurt. You may need more rest.”
“Oh, I think I’m fine.” I wave away her concern, despite the dizziness that swirls in my head. “I should be getting home now. I just want you to know how grateful I am. You must have used a lot of healing magic.”
Her eyes flick to Ryn for a second before returning to me. “I should have done so much more,” she says softly. I’m not quite sure what she means. I get the feeling she wants to say something else, but instead she steps forward and hugs me. Her dark, curly hair tickles my cheek. It has blue in it, just like Ryn’s. “Take care of yourself, Vi.” She steps back and turns to Ryn. “Can I speak to you?”
Ryn sighs. “If you must.” He follows her out of the room.
Don’t think about Nate. Don’t think about Nate.
I look around for my belongings. I can’t see Raven’s dress—it’s probably been thrown away—but I find my boots standing against the wall beside the fireplace, and my stylus on the mantelpiece. I sit down on the low table in front of the couch and pull the boots on. I wave my hand across them and watch the laces tie themselves all the way up to my knees.
“So,” says Ryn, wandering back into the room. “Mom’s team is off to Italy for a few days.” He throws himself into an armchair. “The glamorous life of a guardian.”
“Italy?” I turn my back on him and begin removing the bedding from the couch. “Don’t they have their own Guild?”
“Apparently the Italians need my mother’s expertise.”
I fold up the bedding and leave it lying on the couch. Hopefully Ryn will deal with it before his mother returns. “Well, thanks for saving my life.” I turn to leave.
Ryn jumps up and follows me to the part of the wall where I used to let myself out. “Do you remember when we didn’t hate each other?” His voice is as light as though he’s enquiring about the weather.
I cross my arms. “My memory doesn’t extend that far back.”
“Really? Your memory’s that bad?” He shoves his hands into his pockets and leans against the wall. “Doesn’t seem like you; you’re so good at holding a grudge.”
“Multiple grudges, if we’re going to get technical.”
“Have I really done that many awful things to you, Pixie Sticks?”
“You stuck a sign on my back that said ‘Call me Shorty’ on our very first day of training.”
“You have to admit, that one was rather amusing.”
“In third year you told everyone I had some kind of contagious disease.”
“Well, you did have a suspicious mark on your—”
“And in fourth year I was apparently having an affair with a five-hundred-year-old mentor.”
“Should I have picked a younger one for you to—”
“You threw away my mother’s tokehari!” I shout at him.
A beat of silence. Then, “Oh? My memory’s a little fuzzy on that one. You’ll have to remind me of the details.”
“Gold chain. Gold key. You chucked it down
the singing well that leads Underground.”
“A key? Oh dear, have you been locked out of somewhere ever since?”
“No, Ryn, but that’s not the point, dammit!” Tears burn behind my eyes. “It was never meant to open anything, it was meant to be a reminder of my mother.”
“Well, a key that doesn’t open anything sounds like a useless key, and even if you still had it, I doubt you’d be able to remember your mother. You were only three years old when she—”
“STOP!” My whole body is shaking. “I don’t care how much of a jerk you decided to become, you have never had the right to do or say any of these things.”
He pushes away from the wall. “I didn’t decide to become a jerk, okay. Things happened, and—”
“Things happened? Things?” Is it possible that eight years have passed and this is the first time we’re talking about Reed? “He was my friend too, Ryn. But I didn’t see his death as a reason to alienate every person who ever cared for me.”
“Well, everyone has different methods of coping.” His hands are out of his pockets now, clenched into fists at his sides. The look in his eyes warns me to back off. I ignore it.
“This is a coping method? Well, clearly it’s not working for you.”
“He was my brother!” Ryn yells, all pretense of composure shattered. “How the hell did you expect me to cope with that?”
I step closer to him. So close our faces are almost touching. “You want a coping method? Here’s one you obviously haven’t tried yet: GET. OVER. IT.” Clenching my stylus so tightly I’m in danger of snapping it in half, I scrawl a doorway onto the wall. Without another look at him, I step into the darkness.
I run. My limbs feel weak, and my heart pounds unnaturally fast, but still I run. I have to. I need to. How could he do this to me? I push harder, the dark forest streaming past me, air burning in my throat. I don’t want to think of him. Not ever again. But every footstep that slams into the ground shoots his name across my mind. Nate, Nate, Nate, Nate, Nate—Ugh! How could he do this? I skid to a halt, stumble, and trip over a pixie that wasn’t there a second ago. It scurries away as I fall onto my hands and knees. I clench a fistful of leaves and twigs and let out a wordless scream.