Read Darklands Online

Authors: Nancy Holzner

Tags: #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction

Darklands (7 page)

BOOK: Darklands
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Gently, I put a hand on her hair. She flinched but didn’t pull away. I stroked her hair, then put a finger under her chin and tilted her head upward. “Tell me what’s going on. Why do you think I’m teasing you?”

“Look at my face!” Her voice caught on a sob. “Will it stay like this?”

“Well, it’s a little blotchy from crying. Otherwise, you’re as gorgeous as always.”

“Really? I don’t look different to you? But—” She frowned and touched her cheek.

I was pretty sure now I knew what was going on. “When you woke up this morning, I bet you felt strange, not like yourself.” She nodded. “Tell me what you saw when you looked in the mirror.”

“This!”

“Tell me.”

“A cat’s face. But not like a real cat. It was me, with my hair and eyes. But I had pointy ears and my nose and mouth were like a cat’s. And gray fur. And whiskers.” She ran over to the full-length mirror that hung on the wall. “It’s still there! Why did you tell me it was gone?”

I leaned against the doorframe and watched her. “It’s an illusion.”

She peered into the mirror, her hands moving over her face. Then she shook her head. “It’s not! It’s real. I can feel it.”

“I’ll show you. Do you have a camera?”

She picked up her phone from the nightstand and handed it to me. I used its camera to snap a picture, then handed her the result. She stared at the image, mouth open. Along her cheeks, her fingers traced whiskers that weren’t there.

“See?” I said. “The same Maria we all know and love.”

“But I can
feel
the whiskers,” she said. She looked in the mirror, frowned, and looked at the photo again.

“Like I said, it’s an illusion, one you can see and feel. But only you can. It’s called a false face. It’ll pass, and you’ll feel normal again. And the next time it happens, you’ll know what’s going on.”

Maria held up the phone and took another picture of herself.
She studied it, then looked up. “Why didn’t anyone tell me I’d get a false face?”

Good question. I’d promised Gwen that I’d help Maria make the transition to shapeshifting, but walking the line between helping and taking over was tricky. I didn’t want to muscle in on Gwen’s parenting, but at the same time Maria had a right to know what was going to happen to her.

“We should have told you. I guess neither your mom nor I expected you to start experiencing false faces yet. They usually show up six, maybe eight months after the first shapeshifting dreams, and those only started a month ago, right?”

“Yeah.”

“So you’re ahead of schedule. We would have told you if we’d known it would happen so fast—honest.”

“I was scared.” Tears welled but didn’t spill over. “I thought I was going to stay like that, like some kind of freak. You know, because mom’s Ker…Kerth…like you are.”

“Cerddorion.”

“Right, Ker-THOR-ee-on.” She pronounced the word slowly, drawing out each syllable, like she was tasting it as she spoke. “Cerddorion,” she said again. “And Dad’s human. What if I get stuck in between?”

“First of all, that won’t happen. The Cerddorion have married humans before. Some of their kids have been human, and some have been shapeshifters. But nobody’s ever been a hybrid of the two. So you don’t need to worry about that, all right?”

“Okay.” Her voice brimmed with doubt. “I guess.”

“You’re Cerddorion, Maria. There’s no question about that any more. So you will be going through some changes. The good news is that your mom and I have both been through those same changes, so we can tell you what to expect. There won’t be any surprises.”

“Today was a surprise,” she accused. “A bad one.”

“You’re right. We should have prepared you for it.”

“What else do I have to be prepared for?”

“You’ll get some weird feelings in your body, mostly in your arms and legs. Like growing pains. They’ll pass. And here’s something cool—you’ll get stronger and faster than other kids. Better coordination, too. You’ll be the best soccer player on your team.”

“Really?” She brightened at the thought. “What about dancing?”

That’s right. Gwen had mentioned Maria’s favorite activity was dance class. “Strength, stamina, coordination—those things are all important for dancers, right? If you keep practicing, they’ll definitely help.”

Maria struck a couple of ballet poses in front of the mirror. Then the frown returned. “What if I shapeshift in front of everyone? Mom did.”

So Gwen had told her daughter the story of how stage fright had caused her to shift into a mouse during the class play. No wonder the poor kid was worried she’d look like a freak.

“We’ll make sure that sort of thing doesn’t happen. I’ll teach you how to stay in charge. Remember I showed you how to control your dreamscape?”

Maria nodded, a smile playing at her lips. “I like doing that.”

“Shapeshifters can control their form, as well.”

“Then how come Mom turned into a mouse?”

Gwen really shouldn’t have told her that, not before Maria had experienced shapeshifting a few times. “It’s true that a very, very strong emotion can cause us to change shape. But there are tricks you can learn to keep that from happening. I’ll teach them to you.”

Maria’s forehead wrinkled. “But even you…Remember? I saw you turn into…into that
thing
. Up in New Hampshire.”

Oh, that.
Yeah, it was true. When a crazy scientist had kidnapped Maria to use her in shapeshifter experiments, sheer rage had turned me into a Harpy—snakes-for-hair, ear-splitting screeching, garbage-truck stench, and all. Witnessing that shift had to be a million times scarier than any story Gwen could tell.

“Seeing me change like that must have freaked you out, huh?”

“A little.” She wouldn’t meet my eye, which showed me how much “a little” meant “a lot.” I’d rescued her as soon as I could—even in Harpy form, I’d managed to bring her home—but we’d only talked about the experience a couple of times. I’d have to sit her down, soon, for a heart-to-heart, make sure she was doing okay. With so much happening so fast in Maria’s life, there was a lot we needed to discuss. But for now, I’d stick to the matter at hand. “A shift like that is really unusual. A Harpy is one of the
fiercest creatures there is. I turned into one so I could get you out of that creepy place and bring you home.” I sat down on the bed and patted the mattress. Maria sat beside me, and I put an arm around her. “I won’t lie to you. The next months are going to bring lots of changes. But they’ll follow a predictable pattern. Even if things happen faster than we expect, we know what’s coming next, and you can get ready for it. Okay?”

“Okay.” She sighed. “I don’t know why I’m saying that. It’s not like I have a choice.”

“That’s true. Not right now, anyway. But you will have control, once you learn how to use it. You might love shapeshifting. But if you hate it, you don’t have to do it—you can stay in human form all the time. It will be up to you.”

Maria leaned against me, and we sat like that for a couple of minutes, neither of us saying anything. Then she straightened suddenly, touching her face. She jumped up and ran to the mirror. “It’s gone—the cat face. I don’t feel weird anymore.” She turned to me, relief brightening her expression. “So what do I do the next time that happens?”

“False faces are like those shapeshifting dreams you’ve been having. Both are ways for your body and mind to adjust to the idea of changing. Sort of like practice before you start doing it for real. You practice dancing before you go on stage, right?”

She nodded.

“Same thing. It’s just practice. So the thing to do is remember it’s not real. No more than a dream is real.”

“But…”

I picked up the phone she’d left on the bed and tossed it to her. “You can trust this. If you start feeling funny or think you look strange, take a picture. The camera will show you the truth. Before long, you’ll realize that false faces are just that—false. And you’ll know that you’re still yourself.”

Maria clutched the phone to her chest, nodding. “You promise I won’t change into a mouse or something at school?”

“Nothing like that will happen today, or any time soon. It could be a year or more before you start shapeshifting. And before you reach that point, we’ll make sure you’re ready. I promise.” I held out my hand, the little finger straight up. “Want me to pinky swear?”

Maria rolled her eyes. “Please, Aunt Vicky. That’s for little
kids. I’ll…” She searched for a suitably grown-up phrase. “I’ll take your word for it.”

DOWNSTAIRS, GWEN HAD FREED JUSTIN FROM THE HIGH chair. He ran over to me and raised his hands. I picked him up and got a banana-smeared kiss.

“Justin, come here, honey,” Gwen said, lifting him out of my arms. “Let Mommy wash your face.” Balancing Justin on her hip, she tore off a paper towel, wet it under the faucet, and handed it to me so I could wipe banana off my face. She wet another and passed it over his face, then his hands. Newly clean, Justin squirmed to get down. He toddled over to a basket in the corner, pulled out a plastic firetruck, and began pushing it across the floor.

Gwen watched him, silent.

“Maria’s taking a shower,” I said. “I think she’ll be okay to catch the rest of the school day.” Gwen nodded once but didn’t look at me. “It was just a false face episode. She looked in the mirror and saw a cat-human mix. I did the camera trick, and that calmed her down.” I leaned against the counter. “Thank goodness for digital cameras. Remember the first time it happened to me? I hid under the covers, thinking I’d suddenly grown a dog’s head, while you ran to the one-hour photo center at the corner drug store with a roll of film.”

I smiled at the memory, but my sister remained stone-faced, her eyes averted.

“What is it, Gwen?”

She looked at me then, her face taut with emotion. “I could have done the camera trick. But Maria wouldn’t talk to me, wouldn’t open the door. It had to be Aunt Vicky.”

“She said she didn’t want you to call me.”

“Of course she didn’t, because I suggested it and whatever Mom says
must
be wrong. But she knew I’d call you. What other option did I have?”

Justin’s head snapped up at her tone. He picked up his firetruck and held it out to Gwen like an offering. “Play?” he asked.

The anger melted from Gwen’s face. “Thank you,” she said, taking the truck. She sank into a chair. Justin patted her leg, then went back to his basket of toys.

Gwen set the truck on the table. “I’m sorry, Vicky. I ask you to help with Maria, and you do a great job, and then I act like a resentful bit—” She glanced at Justin. “A resentful witch. I don’t mean to. Things are hard right now.”

I sat down across from her. “Puberty is a rough time, even when there’s no shapeshifting involved.”

“I suppose that’s true. Lucky me—I get twice the fun.” She rolled Justin’s truck back and forth. “I suppose it’s my own fault. I was so worried that Maria would develop shapeshifting abilities, I know my anxiety has rubbed off on her. I just want my baby to have a normal life.”

I wanted to ask Gwen what she thought “normal” meant. For a Cerddorion girl, Maria was doing fine. In fact, she was way above average. If only Gwen could accept her own heritage, she’d be bursting with pride.

But I didn’t have to ask Gwen that question, because Maria appeared in the doorway and asked it for both of us. “‘Normal’? What’s ‘normal,’ Mom? Because if you want me to be like Kelsey or Megan, it’s already too late for that.” Kelsey and Megan were Maria’s best friends—and one hundred percent human.

“Maria—”

My niece held up a hand to show she didn’t want to hear whatever her mother had to say. Gwen bristled, then sagged.

“Aunt Vicky,” Maria said, “can you give me a ride to school?”

“Um, sure. If it’s all right with your mom.”

Maria didn’t wait for Gwen’s answer. She swept past her and through the door to the garage. Gwen jumped at the slam.

“Go ahead, take her to school. Wait, though.” She opened a drawer under the tabletop, took out a pad of paper, and scribbled something on it. “She’ll need to give this note to the office. And here’s some lunch money.” She almost knocked over her chair as she got up and went to the counter. She reached into a canister and then handed me some crumpled dollar bills. “If you hurry, she’ll be in time for third period.”

I took the note and the money, not knowing what to say. Gwen was a great mom. She and Maria would work things out. But it wouldn’t help for me to say so right now. I gave my sister a hug and headed for the door.

“Vicky?” I stopped with my hand on the knob. Gwen’s voice sounded thick. When I looked back, her eyes were shiny with
held-back tears. “Can you come over some day next week? School’s out for April vacation, and I think it would help if you and Maria spent some time together.”

“Of course. I’ll give you a call tomorrow to work out a time.”

“Thanks. I’ll talk to you then.” She turned away, loading breakfast dishes into the dishwasher.

5

YOU KNOW HOW AFTER A NICE, LONG, RESTFUL SLEEP, YOU wake up to find that things don’t seem so bad after all?

Me neither.

While I slept, I’d tried to contact Mab using the dream phone, a special Cerddorion method of communication that operates through the psychic passageways that open in sleep. Mab doesn’t own a real phone, the kind that goes
ring ring
and you pick it up and say “hello.” At three hundred years old, she’s not impressed by modern technology, even something as basic as a telephone. And she’s skilled enough to answer a dream-phone call at any time of day. But today she hadn’t answered.

There could be a million reasons why Mab didn’t answer. It was afternoon in Wales when I’d tried to call. My aunt has a life; she doesn’t sit around waiting to hear from me. And the call wasn’t really urgent; I’d survived the Harpy attack, and the book hadn’t told me anything new. Still, her silence concerned me. Mab had been badly weakened in our battle with Myrddin, and although she’d recovered, I worried about her sometimes. So I’d gotten up, gone into the kitchen, and called the pub in the village near Mab’s home. Mr. Cadogan, the publican, told me Mab was fine as far as he knew; he’d spoken with her at the post office
that morning. He took my message that I was trying to get in touch with her and promised he’d send someone out to deliver it right away. When I crawled back into bed, I fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.

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