Mistweavers 01 - Enchanted No More (24 page)

BOOK: Mistweavers 01 - Enchanted No More
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The new mark on my shoulder is itching,
the dwarf said matter-of-factly, using whispery mind-speak, too.

Mine feels like a breeze is brushing it,
the elf said.

Both Jenni’s and my tatts have turned black,
Aric said.

The dwarf and elf released identical grunts. There was a sense of slight movement as if they readied themselves to fight. Jenni drew her coat close, buttoned and belted it, wrapped her arms around herself. She should turn her back to the entrance, prominently display her tatt protection, but she couldn’t stop herself from watching.

Shadleeches zoomed through the trees low and black and nearly unseen.

The first few hit the spiderwebs. Instead of bulleting through, the web blanketed them and they fell to the ground with an awful shrieking that died as they did. Those behind the first wave flew straight for them.

The elf stepped into their path. They dived for him, but couldn’t quite connect. As soon as they were close, they slid away.

With his sword raised, the dwarf joined the elf. The shadleeches swarmed him, too, hit him, then fell to the ground, twitched and died…at least those the dwarf didn’t stab first.

Much as she really, really didn’t want to, she walked into a flurry of shadleeches. They stunk of caves and dead things. They grazed her. One or two tried to bite, then were deflected, whimpered and flapped away from her unevenly as if hurt…to turn around and try again.

Aric stood stoically as they rushed him, circled, couldn’t even get as close to him as the elf, and they squeaked distress, abandoned him for the others.

“Now!” ordered the dwarf.

Blades gleamed in the moonlight, flashed, struck. One shadleech escaped and shot toward the path to the open, got caught in another spiderweb and died.

“All done,” the elf said cheerfully. His sword was clean and back in its sheath. He rubbed his hands. “And well done. These spiderweb marks
do
protect.” He rubbed his side. “Though I don’t think they shield the Lightfolk as well as Treefolk.”

“An’ I don’t think any of the Eight will put themselves through the process and be marked and shielded. They’ll rely on their magic,” said the dwarf.

More fools, they,
Aric muttered mentally and privately to Jenni.

The guardians looked at them sharply and Jenni deduced they could hear any mental communication.

“But maybe the rest of the major and minor Lightfolk will be smart,” the dwarf said. “The minor Folk, especially—brownies, naiads and naiaders, air sprites—”

“Not air sprites, they aren’t plagued by the shadleeches,” the elf said. “Air sprites can outfly them or just translocate, and fire sprites can burn the shadleeches up.” His teeth gleamed in the moonlight. “Shadleeches don’t like fire sprites.”

Rubbing his short beard, the dwarf said, “Not sure how long the shadleeches will be around.”

“Maybe they won’t last.” The elf touched his side. “But I’ve got a feeling my spiderweb mark is permanent.”

“The shadleeches have done too much damage already,” Aric said. “Any more was unacceptable.”

“So you sent the bubble creative force to change that,” the elf said softly, and nodded. Then he shifted his blue gaze to the forest floor, toed a streak of black that was shadleech remnant. “Appears like it worked.”

“Thank God,” Jenni said. “The forest and dryads needed it.” She looked at the elf, a master of communication. “How widespread are the spiders and webs?”

“Here, mostly, but I’ll wager they will be global soon. Traveling west to east.” His gaze landed on each of them for a considering moment. “Four natures. Four different results. But all protected.”

“I’m gonna have bruises,” the dwarf said.

“I don’t think so,” the elf said. He nodded to Jenni and Aric. “We’ve learned what we came for.”

“Had a little fight,” the dwarf added, putting his weapons back. “Too short, though. Not much challenge, either.”

“Fine by me,” Jenni said. She’d had nothing to defend herself with except her power.

“You need a knife,” the elf and the dwarf said at the same time, and two blades appeared in two hands. Neither of the knives looked like they were the ones the guardians carried, but surely the weapons were from their private arsenals. Jenni was touched.

“Take ’em both,” the dwarf said. He was smiling and it looked odd.

“Thank you.” She did.

The dwarf ducked his head. “’Til later.” He vanished. The elf smiled and disappeared, too.

“Well.” Jenni was left with Aric standing silently beside her and well-balanced knife hilts filling her hands. One was lumpy with what she thought were jewels, but still provided a good grip, the other felt as if it was wire wrapped around leather. “Well,” she said again.

Aric swung her up in his arms, nuzzled her neck. “Yes. Very well. A good night’s work. Now let’s go to bed.”

CHAPTER 24

THEY HAD BREAKFAST WITH LEAFSWIRL, WHO
glowed with satisfaction and sported no spiderweb tatt that Jenni could see. She didn’t doubt that the dryad had a beautiful one. After the meal Leafswirl kissed her son and Jenni, sang a little blessing and disappeared.

Aric readied his pack, then they stepped out of the tree to a wet and rainy morning. They walked through the cold and dripping redwood forest. Now and then they’d take a shortcut a few miles by moving through one tree to another farther up the coast. Jenni had a hard time keeping track of their location, but she had complete faith Aric knew where they were going.

Midmorning they came to the end of their journey and exited a pine sitting in a deep crevice between rugged hills on the coastline. There was some scruffy vegetation, and a thin strip of beach.

“Like I said, the lost coast of California, no close roads,” Aric said. “Diamantina’s home is up there.” He gestured to blocks of red-brown stone atop the rock cliff.

It took Jenni a moment of blinking to see the shape of the house, it blended in so well. She frowned. “A merfem living in a stone house?”

“I think her main dwelling is under the sea. There are several passageways from the house to the ocean.”

Jenni’s frown deepened. “She lives under the ocean so close to tectonic plate activity?” She stared up at the house again, shook her head.

“Denver, too, has had earthquakes.”

“Yeah, yeah. But not since I’ve been there.” She flipped a hand. “No accounting for taste. Stone.”

“She is a merfem of the sea, they don’t tend to trust wood,” Aric said drily. “They think of the waterlogged timbers of old wrecks in the oceans.”

“Huh.” Jenni couldn’t help it, she slipped her arm in his. “Brick houses are nice, but wood…” She sighed. “Wood is the best.”

He smiled.

“Diamantina doesn’t sound like a mer name,” Jenni said.

Aric shrugged. “She probably changed it a long time ago, I think she might be distantly related to the King and Queen of Water, the Greendepths.”

“Oh.”

“Diamantina is an oceanic trench off of India.”

Jenni frowned. “I don’t think I knew that.” But Diamantina sounded hard and Jenni pictured a thin and whiplike merfem.

Aric swept his arm toward the ocean. “Etesian, the elf scholar, thinks the bubble will rise from under the sea floor.”

They both looked at the gray waves with white crests. Jenni moved her shoulders. “I want to check for it, but I’m…wary. I did that at Yellowstone and it was rising.”

“If it was already rising from the mantle, then you didn’t speed it up. It would have happened at that time whether we were there or not,” Aric said.

The words sounded as if he’d repeated them often. She leaned a little into him. “Thank you.”

“I wasn’t the only one to point that out.” His hand came up to slip under her hair and trace a pattern on her neck that she didn’t think matched the spiderweb. When he spoke again, his voice was rough. “I wish we could have spent more time at my home, but the Eight are nervous and want us here, though everyone’s sure the last bubble event will be on the spring equinox in three weeks.”

Her own throat was thick. “I don’t blame them for wanting us here.” Echoes of the time when she wasn’t where she should have been flashed through her. That would never happen again. She cleared her throat. “Did they give us any instructions in case the bubble rises before—”

Aric shrugged. “Yes. I have a sheet of a spell they’d like us to memorize, just in case.”

“Oh.”

He turned to face her, pulled her so they were body-to-body. You’d think they would have had enough of each other in the past couple of days, but Jenni could feel her passion rising. He didn’t kiss her. “I had hoped for a few days with you with no distractions.”

“On a mission for the Lightfolk?”

Huffing a breath, he rubbed his face against her hair. “All right, a delusion.” His arms tightened so that she could barely breathe. “But you aren’t anymore, Jenni. A delusion, illusion. What we have isn’t.”

“No.” The nearby surf wasn’t louder than her heartbeat.

“Ahem.”

They both jerked. Jenni looked toward the sound, saw a merfem walking out of thrashing waves. Unlike the Water Queen, she was plump, not voluptuous, using fat for extra insulation in the water. She was “dressed” in a few strategically arranged fronds of seaweed. Her face was heart-shaped and pretty rather than stunning, though Jenni was careful not to meet the woman’s beautiful turquoise eyes. Her skin tone was that of an Indian Sea merfem of high status, green-gold.

She beamed and her fluting, musical voice cut through the sound of the crashing ocean. “Welcome! I am Diamantina. You must be those sent by the Eight. I received a message that two would arrive.” Her gaze lingered on Aric, then she winked at Jenni and smiled, gestured to the house on the steep hillside. “We can have coffee and speak of what you need from me. Would you like a pastry or two? I have chocolate croissants.”

Jenni’s mouth watered and she heard Aric gulp. He bowed. Unlike Jenni, he could look the fem in her eyes and did. He showed exactly the amount of appreciation that was proper. Since Jenni was brought up in the Lightfolk world and her mother had been much the same shape, she understood that the woman was very attractive to other mers…and Lightfolk in general. She felt too skinny. “Thank you, that sounds wonderful.”

“I’ll meet you at my house.” The woman ran fluidly to the ocean and dove in, vanished under the waves.

“Do you know Diamantina?”

“I haven’t met every noble in the States.” He began to lope up the trace of a path to the top of the ridge. Jenni drew a little air energy to her to make her weight a little lighter and her mass easier to move.

The house was unexpectedly charming, reminding Jenni of juxtaposed children’s building blocks. It couldn’t have been constructed too long ago, thirty years at the most. The front door had copper panels faded to green. On each side of the door were long rectangles of stained glass of blues and greens showing stylized waves or undersea plant life.

Aric swore as he touched the doorknob and an arc of electricity jumped from the brass to his hand. “Damn mer security.” He scowled, then glanced at Jenni. “That could have hurt you.”

“Electricity, fire? Maybe. Depends on the jolt. Certainly could have hurt a human who tried the door.” She shook her head. “Not wise.”

“Don’t touch…” Diamantina called out, then the door whisked open to show a contrite face. “I am
so
sorry.” She grimaced. “We are so isolated and more often in the underwater home…” She sniffed, seemed to scent the slight whiff of seared wood that had risen from Aric’s skin. “
So
sorry,” she repeated. The merfem stepped back and flung the door wide, showing the entryway floored in large, colorful tiles with a definite Indian influence. The walls were sponge painted in shades of turquoise, mimicking water patterns. Skylights over the entryway made the atrium cheerful, though Jenni found the temperature cooler than a human home.

They walked past a large fountain that took up half a wall as a divider between the entryway and the great room. The living room had a wall of glass facing west, looking out onto the ocean. Again the theme was shades of turquoise and pale green with accent pillows and one fat tapestry chair of deep gold. Jenni headed straight for that chair. Aric settled in a pale green one of watery damask next to it. The merfem gracefully sank into a love seat close to them. She folded her hands on her lap and leaned forward with concern on her face. “Tell me how I can help.”

At that moment a clipping sound of footsteps came, along with a jingle. A smaller, thinner minor Waterfolk naiad appeared with a tray holding a celadon china coffee set and a platter of croissants. Her skin was a deeper green with a tint of gray, her eyes more protuberant.

The rich scent of prime roast coffee wafted through the room, making Jenni’s mouth water. Her throat clenched as she yearned for the taste after all the endless tea of the dryads. The naiad placed the tray on the coffee table between them. “My companion,” Diamantina said and picked up the platter. The naiad, in her jingling sandals, walked away. “Please, stay,” the merfem said.

“Rather not,” the naiad said as she turned a dimmer corner into the house.

Diamantina sighed, then chuckled. “Courtesy is not as valued by the younger generations as it was.” She took a croissant and bit into it, passed the plate to Aric, who poured some coffee for Jenni and handed her a cup and saucer, then a chocolate croissant. That left four croissants for him. He ate two in a few bites. Diamantina smiled at Jenni and winked again. She patted her mouth delicately with a napkin and leaned forward. “How can I help you?”

Aric swallowed and cleared his throat. “I don’t know if you have heard of ‘bubble events.’”

For a moment the fem appeared confused, then her brows dipped and she said, “I think I did…” She dimpled. “Centuries ago.”

Jenni had bitten into her croissant. The powdered sugar on top mixed with the flaky pastry and the chocolate—which must have come straight from Mexico—exploded in her mouth, delighting her. Incredible. “Wonderful croissants.” She sipped some coffee. The drink had definitely been brewed from prime roast beans. “Fabulous coffee. Thank you.”

After the next croissant disappeared into Aric, he added his thanks. “A bubble event is upon us,” he said.

Jenni decided to cut to the chase. “The Eight believe that the last bubble of this series will rise and burst near here.”

Diamantina sighed. “Plate tectonics. It’s been a fascination of mine, and interesting to watch, but there’s no denying that it can be dangerous living in the area.” She sounded as if she’d moved in a year ago, not going on two centuries. Her eyes sharpened. “The
last?
Don’t they come in series?”

“Yes,” Aric said.

“I haven’t heard anything of previous ones in the series.”

“Ah.” Aric had his impassive face on that showed he was uncomfortable under it. How often had he confronted Folk on behalf of the Eight? “Such magical events are a release of creative force into the world. The result of the first, two years ago, was the shadleeches.”

Diamantina paled. “Filthy things.”

“Yes. They originated in the area of the Darkfolk. The second bubble burst not too long ago in Yellowstone, Wyoming. The results of that occurrence are still being studied.”

Jenni said a swift and silent prayer for Rothly’s health, putting her croissant down and taking a sip of coffee. Then she stared at Diamantina and shook her head. “I would have thought the Eight would have briefed you by now. Told you all this.”

Rolling her eyes, the merfem snapped a piece of croissant off with sharp, greenish teeth and chewed. “I would have thought so, too, but they didn’t.”

Jenni took up the tale. “The bottom line is that the Eight want to do a ritual, here on your land, to shape the elemental energies that will be released by the bubble into providing a better life for the Lightfolk.” Such a stream of creativity should also influence human affairs for the better.

“Here?” Diamantina gasped and her hand fluttered to her bosom. “
Here?
On my land?”

“That’s right,” Aric said.

The merfem’s eyes rounded and went moist, a sign of excitement. “Oh, my.”

He continued, “The ritual dancing circle will be large, of course, since the anticipated magic to direct will be great. The Eight would like permission to stay here, and do the ritual at a place to be determined. They will be asking some of the stronger nobles to attend such a ritual. You, of course, will be included.”

Diamantina’s panting had a slight sucking sound as if she needed more humidity in the atmosphere or wanted to breathe water. “Oh, my!” She clapped her hands sharply three times and the next minute two naiads and a naiader stood dripping on the marble floor before her. “The Eight are coming, and other guests. We must prepare all the rooms, including the caves below. Mers can take the wet and damp ones, but make sure the dry, sandy ones are well readied for dwarves. All must be perfect.”

The tallest naiad, who had served the croissants and tea and now had her thick green hair braided with pearls, said, “When?”

Diamantina opened her mouth, shut it, looked at Aric.

Jenni answered. “The anticipated ritual date is the spring equinox.”

“Of course, of course,” Diamantina said.

“Ritual date,” said the naiader.

Diamantina flicked that topic away with a gesture. “We must prepare. I will move from my suite in the underwater home and give it to the Water King and Queen.” She glanced at Jenni and Aric. “My rooms have tunnels to this ridge.”

“The vernal equinox is in three weeks,” the first naiad said. “Plenty of time.”

Diamantina pouted. “Everything must be perfect. Call in your relatives if you need help.”

Jenni said, “I am here to balance the elements. That will give you more magic to draw from. If you’re going to be using a lot of water energy, let me know and I will summon more of the elements to match.”

All three of the minor Waterfolk stared at her with fishy eyes.

“Will you be staying?” asked the naiad in charge, studying Aric.

“We have been requested by the Eight to do so,” he said.

The naiad with pearls stiffened. “They watch
us!

“I think they are less sure of us than of you, and want us on site for the ritual,” Jenni said. The chocolate had turned bitter in her mouth.

“Of course,” said the naiad. “Ritual?”

Aric glanced out the window. “I’ll let the lady Diamantina explain that to you. There will be rain soon. Do you have a ritual space large enough for…ah…a hundred?”

The naiader goggled at him. “A hundred?” He turned to his mistress. “We can’t house a hundred, not even using the water home.”

“They’ll bring tents, too,” Aric said. He frowned. “I was sure they would have already contacted you by crystal ball.”

“They should have,” the pearl naiad said tartly. “Not leaving it for you to tell us. Our lady is a relative of the Greendepths, the royal water family.”

BOOK: Mistweavers 01 - Enchanted No More
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