Authors: Gwenda Bond
Tags: #Fantasy, #Young Adult, #Adventure, #Romance
“So this theoretical time you really never come home, should I take Mom with me or just leave her over in oracle central? Wait. Never mind. We leave her there now, so I guess I have the answer.”
“You know she wouldn’t go with you. I’m sorry about having to bring this up. I hope none of this is ever necessary. But I need you to promise me.”
“I won’t.” I shrug one shoulder. “If you’re gone, I’ll be on my own. I’ll do whatever I want.”
When he responds, it’s with something less exasperation, more admiration. “You always do.”
I can’t trust my interpretation of that tone. “Like father, like daughter.” I head to the stairs, but his last words stop me.
“I wish you would promise, Kyra. But remember this. Remember what I asked of you. That’ll have to be enough. I love you, you know that.”
I close my eyes, unable to look at him.
I love you, you know that
“I’m going to be late.” Then I open them and pound up the stairs, leaving wet footprints in my wake.
going to be late. When I come back downstairs dressed in blissfully dry jeans and a strategically ripped T-shirt over a tank carrying my new (still wet) jacket and my backpack, Dad is gone. Presumably to work. I eat some bread with butter, then pause at the door.
Bending, I pick up my sneakers. They’ve been neglected lately. I choose a dry spot and sit, swap my thick-soled boots for them. I strap on my backpack, and keep my jacket with me in case I want it later.
Getting to school more quickly isn’t why I decide to run. Dad’s out-of-nowhere request unsettled me. If I ever had to leave this whacked-out city, where would I go? There’s nowhere, no one. He knows that. He knows it’s just the two of us, and Mom across town surrounded by her delusions, peering into a future only she sees.
My feet slap the sidewalk as I run faster, not caring how sweaty I get. In the morning light, the streets and sidewalks that front our neighborhood’s tall Victorians are streaked with the dull red of overripe cherries. The trees used to be ornamental, cherry
trees. My too-bright childhood was frosted with the pretty pink petals of their blossoms, and never a single fat cherry. Not until the gods set up house.
Now the bottoms of my shoes get gummy with the residue. The damp fruit smell clogs my nose. I pass an empty house with graffiti slashing across the front that proclaims
The End Is Here
. Must have been wishful thinking.
A herd of revelers appears up the street, and, finally, I slow. The tourists descended on town a few days ago, here for the weekend’s solstice celebration. They meander all over in the meantime, indulging in obnoxiously loud drumming in extremely tacky costumes inspired by their favorite deities. They sport wooden necklaces of skulls, belts made of plastic snakes. They are, without a doubt, the worst visitors we get.
I turn into an alley to avoid them, and realize I feel almost calm beneath the thin layer of sweat. Stopping, I cursorily smooth my hair and put on the leather jacket. I walk the rest of the way, so that by the time I reach school I’m positive no one – not even Bree – will be able to tell I was upset. No one will know that I raced here like hungry ghosts chased me. There are always ghosts at my heels, anyway. Not real ones, the ones that everyone has.
The lurking past, reminding us of everything we lost and will never ever get back.
Oz Spencer has no clue why he’s been summoned, but he waits patiently in the office of the Society’s director – and his guardian – William Bronson, deep within the Library of Congress. A few feet away, Bronson is engaged in an intense conversation with two senior operatives clad in navy field uniforms with gold piping.
Oz can never quite get over how odd it is that the “Bill Bronson” he grew up knowing as an old family friend has become one of the most famous faces in the world. Even with the Society out in the open, it’s hard to believe how little outsiders acknowledge the live ammo – in the form of relics and politics and secret history – that the man is juggling at any given time. His poker-face is composed of half polished businessman and half silver-haired grandfather, comfortingly familiar. He wears suits instead of the uniform, saying when people see him on the news looking like any leader from any time and any place, it helps put them at ease.
Their ease is more important than ever.
Oz doesn’t mind waiting. This is one of his boring days, devoted to thumbing through dusty records and texts in the archives to learn the history of various relics, rather than using them for something fun like combat training. It’s his best friend Justin’s favorite thing, which he’ll never understand.
He catches the name “Henry Locke” from one of the men. Locke has been his instructor now and again, and is at the top of the food chain, along with Rose Greene, the next in seniority to Bronson. The two men nod their agreement with whatever Bronson has said and leave. Oz clears his throat, “You called for me, sir?”
An operative Oz doesn’t know bursts in before Bronson can answer.
“Since when does my office not require a knock?” Bronson asks, frowning.
The chagrined operative squares his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Director, but the Pythias wanted to send word again that they are waiting. They said they need to see you immediately.”
Oz hides his surprise. The Pythias get sent
. The most powerful of sibyls and oracles, they rarely insert themselves into any situation willingly – at least that’s what he’s always been told. And no one chastises Bronson. But all his guardian says is: “Come with me, Osborne. They asked for you too.”
Bronson’s already heading for the door, and Oz follows, certain he misheard.
“What’s this all about?” Oz asks, as they make their way down a dark hallway in the lower levels that house most of the main Society offices. Carved insets cradle statues of famous figures from the organization’s history. Heroes the world had known nothing about before. “Did something happen to Mr Locke?”
“You could say Mr Locke happened to something else,” Bronson says.
He doesn’t elaborate, intent on their destination. Oz has heard many stories about the legendary oracles they are about to visit – about traitors uncovered and the locations of powerful relics disclosed – but as an operative who’s barely earned his stripes he has never seen them. Nor would he expect them to know he exists. He keeps quiet in case Bronson realizes that he’s probably been included in error and sends him away.
Down and down they go, until they reach a tall door covered in small pieces of glass. They reflect the soft blue glow of the sconce light, so that the door appears to be moving, flowing. Bronson presses it open.
The long room is lit by glowing candles in pale bowls. On the wall, a mural depicts a green mountain surrounded by wispy white clouds. Three high-backed black chairs sit at the chamber’s center, a pool of water in front of them. Both the Pythias have long white hair, despite the difference in their ages. One is elderly and the other not that much older than Oz’s eighteen. The old woman occupies the far left chair, the younger woman the far right. The middle chair is empty.
The oracle meant to be in the vacant chair left after the Awakening. She went mad, even according to the values of oracles and sanity. She was the director’s daughter
Henry Locke’s wife. Oz came here after that, after he lost his own parents, so he never met her. But he knows the orders. She was allowed to leave and now lives across town as a street oracle. Henry’s and her daughter – Kyra – is and always has been off limits. Society operatives are never to approach her. Her mother’s wish that she never be involved in its business was granted because, seemingly, it was in her father’s power to do it.
Oz has seen Kyra Locke three times. Once, not long after he moved here, when she was out running with her father. The second time was upstairs in the Great Hall, two and a half years ago, being told she wasn’t allowed in, not even if her father worked for them. He could tell she’d been crying. The third was a few months ago, when he and Justin were sent to collect a report from an informant at a Skeptics meeting. She was not only attending, but sitting on the lap of the son of the group’s founders. He left both of these facts out of his report, for what reason he still isn’t sure.
She’d gotten taller, long honey hair a messy tangle around her heart-shaped face. There was an almost feral intensity about her. As if, in the past few years, she’d gone wild.
The director stops opposite the Pythias, staying on this side of the pool and sinking to one knee. Behind him, Oz follows his lead.
“Rise,” the old woman says.
Oz waits until Bronson stands before he does. He spots a small black cup at the edge of the pool. In other times, these women would have been Apollo’s to command, the oracles at Delphi, decoders of mysterious visions. The Pythias still drink from Apollo’s cup, but in service to the Society.
“You have news for me,” Bronson says.
“We have a request,” the elderly woman counters.
The younger woman adds, “Our sister’s daughter is in danger. You know this, and have done nothing to protect her.”
They don’t mean sister in the familial sense, but the oracle one. Which means the person they’re concerned about is Kyra Locke. Oz’s interest, already high, spikes.
Bronson raises a hand to his cheek and scrubs at it. “I hadn’t even thought about her.”
“We know,” the old woman says. “You will send a force immediately to protect her.”
“Of course,” he agrees, bowing his head. “And your… sister. Hannah. She is safe?”
The old woman’s head tilts to one side. Oz wants to look away when her pale eyes land on him. They are white as milk from thick cataracts. “Bring me the cup,” she says. The younger woman rises, but the old woman says, “No, the boy. We will want a look at him.”
Bronson nods once. Oz has no choice but to obey. Though he’s curious about the oracles, being across the room was more than close enough. It seems they really
summon him too. His boots clomp against the stone floor as he strides to the other side of the pool and lifts the cup.
“Fill it,” the old woman says.
He dips the cup into the pool. The water chills his hand to the bone, but he gives no sign of it. When he rises, the woman beckons him and he goes to her, wishing for a monstrous god to fight instead. Those milky eyes never look away from him.
He has heard she’s blind, but he can’t believe it. She studies his every move. He extends the cup to her, gently touching her hand with it.
Her fingers clasp the cup, and he drops his. “Brave boy,” she says.
“High praise,” the younger woman chimes in.
“Thank you,” Oz says, hiding his discomfort as best he can.
The old woman sips from the cup, then presses it back into his hand. Her papery eyelids drift closed, quivering with the motion of her eyes behind them. He waits beside her, not sure if he’s dismissed or if he should take the cup to the younger woman. When he looks to her, her eyes are a near-solid black, her pupils enormous. She winks at him.
But he stands, unflinching, like the good operative he’s trained to be.
The old woman says, “She will be down the street, at the statue of Einstein. You will find her there. Go quickly, or it will be too late to offer her protection.”
“It will be done.” Bronson hesitates, then asks, “Henry Locke, do you know where he is?”
A smile curves the old woman’s thin lips. “Yes. But I don’t think we will tell you. Not quite yet. Our sister would not want us to.”
Bronson opens his mouth, and Oz expects him to order her to tell him what he wants to know. Is Henry Locke missing? And, if so, why would his wife not want him found? Oz braces, wishing he was back on the other side of the room. But all Bronson says is, “Thank you, ladies who look upon darkness and light.”
“The boy,” the old Pythia says, her supposedly unseeing eyes on him heavy as a touch. “Send the boy for her.”
“It will be done.” Bronson backs toward the door with a bow.
Oz sets the cup down and joins him. “You’ll need relics,” says Bronson, beginning to outline the deployment. “If someone’s going after her, it’s likely to be the Egyptians. Set won’t be happy with what Henry’s done.”
“Of course, sir.” Oz will take Justin too. He’ll know which relics to bring.
When they reach the hallway, Bronson puts his hand on Oz’s shoulder. “This is my granddaughter, Oz. Bring her in safely. It’s past time she found out who she is.”
Oz nods, sure of only two things. One, that there will be no more dusty papers to worry about today, and two, that he’s about to see Kyra Locke for the fourth time.
The school day
ends. As Bree and I cut across the lobby, we have to navigate around parents picking up little kids. “We should hurry,” I say, because I have a feeling. My ex-boyfriend Tam has been trying to catch my eye all day.
Bree doesn’t respond, but she stays with me when I speed up.
The entire building exists in a state of disheveled grandeur. The murals on the vaulted ceiling feature angels so dusty and faded they look sickly instead of sacred. This used to be the kind of school that only heirs to agribusiness or underwear fortunes, president’s daughters and senator’s sons, could afford to attend. Now that so many people have left the city, it’s the only school here, period, with a couple hundred students and a handful of teachers. What we’re taught is periodically interesting, but mostly irrelevant.
Take physics. Given that the gods’ magic has introduced chaos into everything, there are way more variables than math can account for. More mythology instead would be useful, but they maintain it’s important that humanity “hold onto our wisdom.” As if
what gives us protection, and not the fact the Society killed a god and the others don’t want to die so they agree to (mostly) play nice.
Outside, the day hovers just shy of too hot. We make it down the stairs and to the sidewalk and I’m sure we’re home free… until a hand lands on my shoulder, and another one on Bree’s.