The Elemental: Rootbound Part 6

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I swayed where I was. "Is he . . . alive?"

Mother G.o.ddess have mercy, all these years and I'd never once doubted Bramley's death. How easy would it have been for Ca.s.sava to manipulate my mind, to make me see Bramley dead? But that didn't make sense. He'd been her target all along as the heir to the throne. She even admitted it.

Yet her words, the last time we'd battled, came back to me. She'd implied he wasn't dead and I'd chalked it up to her wanting to hurt me. To taunt me with a reality that wasn't possible.

Now I wasn't so sure.

I drew Spirit back to me, damping it down without thought. It went easier than before. Perhaps my grief kept it from being wild.

"I don't know," Basileus whispered. "I don't know. I just know he isn't here. Will you find him, Lark?"

Shaking, I stood and held my hand out to him, pus.h.i.+ng all the questions to the back of my mind. "Come, back to the Spiral with you."

Red fluttered down from the edge of the graveyard vines. "I'll take him. He'll go now that he's said his piece."

My father touched my face, and his eyes cleared. "I don't know where he is, Lark. But if he's alive, he needs you."

He dropped his hand, turned, and shuffled away again. I watched him go, my heart hammering, emotions tangling in my throat and belly like a writhing cauldron.

"Peta, how can this be? I held Bramley. I felt his body as still as a doll's." I pressed the heels of my hands to my eyes. "My mind is clear of all the tricks Ca.s.sava pulled, all the manipulation. But that scene remains. It happened. I know it did."

"You are sure he is dead?" Peta asked softly, as gently as she'd ever been with me.

Tipping my head back, I stared into the canopy above us, the branches that swayed in the breeze somehow clearing my mind of doubt. "Yes. As much as I wish it were otherwise, I will not be fooled by this trick. But where the h.e.l.l is he, then? Why would they put his body away from our mother's?"

Shazer trotted in and head-b.u.t.ted my back. "Because it is a distraction. You cannot chase two quests at once. You know Ash is alive. You know Bramley is dead. Who will you choose to find? The one you can save? Or the one you will never save?"

I tightened my jaw, even though a part of me howled to go after Bramley, still seeing him as that little boy from my past. "Ash."

"Then let's go. I have things to tell you that are pertinent." He snorted and shoved me toward the archway.

Peta leapt for his back and he s.h.i.+ed to one side. "Claws, cat, you have claws!"

She hit the ground, s.h.i.+fted and sprung again, this time tangling her much tinier paws into his mane. "Sissy."

He grunted. "I'm a delicate flower."

I burst out laughing at their exchange, knowing that was the exact reason they did it. "You two are fools."

Shazer glanced back at me. "You finally have a minute to listen to me?"

I waved at him. "Why not? Can't make things worse, can it?" The look in his dark eyes sent a s.h.i.+ver through me. "Please tell me that things can't get worse."

He slowed and I caught up to his shoulder. "I don't know. Maybe."

I waited for him to speak, feeling time slip past. If the mother G.o.ddess was right, I had to get moving and remove the stones from the other rulers; I had no doubt Blackbird would be plotting a way to remove them. Then again, that wasn't really why I was in a hurry. Without Viv's help, finding Ash was going to be d.a.m.n near impossible and I knew it.

So did she.

Shazer bobbed his head. "You realize I'm not really a familiar to you? That there is a bond between us, but it is not like the bond you and Peta have?"

I nodded. "I noticed the feeling between you and me is different, yes."

"It is because I was created. Peta was born. And I was never truly tied to you. I stay because . . ." His body rippled in a big shake that almost unseated Peta. She grunted and dug her claws in. He snapped his teeth at her before continuing. "I stay because I feel more loyalty to you than I do my creator. Even when you didn't know me, you put your life on the line to heal me; to save me from the coven. That loyalty has grown, even while you were gone. The need to stay with you and protect you as best I could for your sake, and, I think, for my own as well."

"All right," I said, confused as to why this was so important.

He tipped his head. "There is more to it than that. The person who created me also created something else. The stones you are going in search of were made by my creator."

Obviously he'd been listening in on my conversation with Peta. Not that I minded.

"All right."

"He was always hidden in a cloak when around me, not unlike the way that donkey's a.s.s Blackbird covers up. He was cursed, Lark. For the things he created, the things he was powerful enough to do. The Spirit Elementals saw what he was up to, and knew he had to be stopped. They contacted a powerful witch, and they created a curse."

"Why wouldn't they just kill him?" Peta asked the question, beating me to it. I nodded at her in approval.

He shook his head. "He was too strong. There was no one that could stand against him, and even then the elementals were at each other's throats. There was no peace and he took advantage of that rather looming fact." Shazer's eyes went thoughtful as if seeing the past in front of him. "He created the stones first, and they were meant to control others. Out there in the world, they are able to control those who wear them."

I frowned and plucked at a long strand of gra.s.s as we approached the Rim. "But that would mean your creator is still alive. And from what I understand, you are rather-"

"Old," Peta spit out.

Shazer snorted and laughed. "Yes, I'm old. Thousands of years, the same as the stones. And my creator is still out there, I am sure of it. Maybe he sleeps, maybe not. But he is alive."

My mind went to the man in the graveyard; he'd plied me with Spirit while he hid his intentions. The timing was far too coincidental for my liking. "Tell me about the curse."

"He's not able to directly attack another elemental. That is why he created the stones. He could use the wearer of them to attack those he thought needed to be punished. I will say this, Lark. If he wakes, he will not be easily dealt with. He is beyond dangerous; he is the deadliest of any elemental ever born."

I swallowed hard. "Why might he wake?"

"If the stones are all brought to him, together, the curse will be broken. And that would be a very, very bad thing. Because then he could attack any elemental directly with no more need to work in the shadows."

We stepped into the Rim as he finished speaking.

Shazer's words were heavy on my mind, adding to the weight on my shoulders. "One more reason then to find the stones and take them to the mother G.o.ddess for safe keeping," I said.

He nodded. "Agreed."

Peta bobbed her head too. "Agreed."

So many swirling pieces, it was hard to make heads or tails of what was truly going on.

"As long as we get the five stones first, none of that will matter." Peta swayed on Shazer's back and he glanced at her.

"She's right. Deal with the stones so we can find Ash. Deal with everything else later," Shazer said.

"Nice, we are all in agreement," I mumbled.

I approached the steps of the Spiral and headed up. Peta leapt from Shazer's back. "How are you going to get . . . it . . . from your sister?"

I kept my face smooth. "Simple. I'm going to ask."

"You think it will be that easy?" Peta kept pace at my side.

"Hoping."

Really, how attached could Bella be to the emerald? While the ring had been in her possession for twenty-plus years, she'd only worn it since she'd taken the throne, as the mother G.o.ddess had reminded me. Surely a few weeks wasn't long enough for madness to begin.

I chose not to consider her behavior earlier, chalking it up to stress. The soft gong of the dinner bell brought my head around; the day had flown by, my time in the grave taking longer than I'd realized.

"The dining hall then." Even better. Bella was not one to make a scene, so taking the ring would be even easier if I asked for it in a public place. I fished around in my leather pouch as we walked, finding the emerald by feel. I paused and then let it go. There was no need for swapping it out; taking the ring would be as simple as a request.

We approached the open dining hall. Guards stood at the door, but they were relaxed and nodded to me in recognition.

The one on the left gave me a tentative smile. "Will you start the Ender program again, Larkspur?"

Startled by the question, I stopped and faced the guard who'd spoken. "Perhaps. I have tasks ahead of me, but when I am done, it would seem prudent to flesh the ranks out again."

He slipped his helmet off and held out his hand. "Name is Arb. I'd like to take part when you open the training again."

I took his hand and shook it once. "I will let you know."

Stepping through the doorway, I headed straight for Bella, my heart rate climbing with each footstep, tension mounting across my shoulders.

"Peta, be ready."

"I thought you said this was going to be easy?" she whispered.

"Well, this is my family. Who the h.e.l.l really knows?"

She laughed and I smiled down at her.

"Lark," Bella called to me, laughter in her voice. I looked up and she waved to us. "Come, sit with us, eat with us. Tell us what you've been up to today."

I smiled at her, noting her daughter to her right. River was as stunning as her mother, with her perfect soft curves, high cheekbones, and delicate features. Her coloring, though, set her apart among the other Terralings. As a half-breed, her father's Undine bloodlines showed clearly in her Caribbean blue eyes which were offset by her nearly black hair. Her coloring was not far from Raven's. I had to fight to keep my smile on my face. River waved at me. "Auntie."

The words slowed my feet. d.a.m.n, she was my only niece and she'd never called me auntie before. Not that she'd had much choice, it wasn't like I'd been around a lot since she'd been born. I slowed as I approached the table. "Bella, a quick question before I eat."

"Of course." She raised a spoonful of soup to her mouth, the emerald ring glinting on her third finger.

"May I inspect your ring? I am concerned with a flaw in it." The lie was smooth and easy. River didn't look up from her meal; no one took notice. This was going to work.

Bella lowered her spoon and frowned at me. "A flaw? There is no flaw in this emerald. It is perfect."

She dropped her hands to her lap and covered the ring with her other hand. I continued to smile even while the tension grew. "But a flaw in the setting that would allow the stone to fall out would be an easy thing to have fixed."

"Mother, she's right. Let her see it. You'd be frantic if the stone were to go missing," River added absently.

Bella's eyes hardened as she stared at me. "You would take it from me?"

"Of course not," I said, feeling the air between us s.h.i.+ft. I held up both hands, palms facing her. "Bella, I would never take it from you."

The moment stretched and I saw her weigh my words.

"Lies," she snapped, suddenly and with such force she actually spit. "You would take it for your own. You want it for yourself." She stood and the lines of power curled around her arms in a slow deadly march. I made myself stand there, made myself allow her to sink me into the ground to my waist. I had to continue the charade that I didn't want the stone.

River stood.

"Mother, what are you doing?"

"She's here to take the throne from me. She has been waiting for this moment." Spit trickled from her lips and my heart clenched. Mother G.o.ddess let me not be too late. Let her not face the same fate as our father.

"Bella, do not do this." I s.h.i.+fted, pulling on the earth and pus.h.i.+ng myself out of the ground.

She circled me, the emerald flas.h.i.+ng. "I will make sure there are no threats to this family, however I must. Even if it means your death, Destroyer."

And there it was. Inside my heart, I cried at the loss of my sister. Outside, I gripped my spear and swung it in a low, lazy circle.

"Then come for me, if you dare."

CHAPTER 7.

ella lifted her hands, intent clear as the lines of power raced up her arms. I buried my spear into the ground at my feet.

"Lark, you don't know if you have enough control, you can't use your connection to the earth to fight and be sure you won't topple the Rim." Peta spoke low, but Bella heard.

"You would not fight me? Then you are the fool, aren't you?"

Jaw tight, I reached for the connection to the earth, demanding it bend to me, weaving Spirit around it and boosting the power. The last time I'd faced someone who wore the emerald stone, I'd destroyed the Eyrie. I wouldn't do that here. This was my family's home and I didn't want to kill Bella; I didn't want to hurt her at all.

But I could not leave the emerald with her, that much was obvious. To save her, I was going to have to hurt her. I hardened myself against the grief that would stop me from doing what I must.

I pushed my power into the Spiral, solidifying the cracks Bella tried to exploit. We stood, facing one another as sweat dripped down our faces. She sought to pull the Spiral apart and I patched it together. Back and forth the Spiral groaned, the earth shuddering now and again. To any watching, they would see us in a standoff, but not understand.

I was the only one who could see the lines of power on another's arms.

Peta paced in front of me. "Lark-"

"No, leave her to me," I said through gritted teeth. It wasn't that she was that much stronger than me, but Bella had control and practice with her abilities that I'd never had. I'd never been trained with either Earth or Spirit. I'd always just used sheer strength to overwhelm my enemies.

The Elemental: Rootbound Part 6

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The Elemental: Rootbound Part 6 summary

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