The Dryad of Callaire by Saruuh Kelsey by Saruuh Kelsey - Read Online

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The Dryad of Callaire - Saruuh Kelsey

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FRAY

THE IMPOSSIBLY TALL MAN

29 DAYS EARLIER

The monsters come for me three minutes and twelve seconds after Yasmin leaves. I know the exact time because I’m watching the second hand jump from spoke to spoke of the yellowed clock face, waiting for her to return.

My heart leaps into my throat when the front door slams open, the noise crashing down the hallway. The only person who uses that door is my uncle but he’d never kick it open. A whimper catches the back of my throat.

Seconds tick by and I’m glued to the spot, frozen by panic.

In the next room a cabinet collides with the floor, the one with my mother’s rare vases on it. The moment I hear the vases shatter, my lungs feel fatally starved of air. I want to scream for Yasmin but she left minutes ago. She won’t hear.

I’m on my own.

Feet stomp though the living room and into my hallway. I hear a voice as rough as sandpaper spit a word in a foreign language and that finally bursts the fright holding me still. I fall into movement. Niall is upstairs, passed out in the guest room, but I can’t go to him—the intruder is out in the hallway. If I went out there, we’d both end up hurt. Or dead. If I get away I can find Yasmin and the Red. They’ll know what to do. They’ll protect Niall better than I can.

Acting on pure impulse, I slip my feet into shoes lined up by the door, pull the glass patio doors apart, and sprint across the garden into Almery Wood. An instant chill slips through my flimsy cardigan as it trails through the air behind me. Leaving my friend behind puts tears in my eyes but I blink them away. I’ll come back, I promise him, I’ll come back Niall, I swear.

Ice has made the wood treacherous. My pumps slipping on the trail, I grab onto a desperate idea. I don’t know how Yasmin heard my voice before I knew her, when I never meant to speak, but if it worked by accident it has to work intentionally. I’ve spoken to her, mind to mind, so many times—even if I never made the first move.

Yasmin! I scream in my head.

Her name rattles around my head, loud and aching, but I can’t tell the difference between talking to my girlfriend and shouting at myself. I fight to stay on my feet for an endless minute, the wood whipping past me, frozen branches cracking underfoot. My breath is visible as bursts of silver cloud with every pant that rushes from me. And no reply comes.

I howl Yasmin’s name repeatedly, but still there’s no connection, no response. The silence in my head makes the noise around me starker. Every little sound is threatening. Every dip of the branches is a Numen’s claw reaching for me.

My feet skid across a patch of solid water and I drop into a sharp tangle of shrubs face-first, skinning my hands and knees. Pain sinks its teeth into my right wrist, stealing a muffled cry from between clenched teeth. Throwing a frenzied look behind me, I scrape myself off the floor. Harsh knives of cold lance through my arms and legs. It takes three attempts to get my legs beneath me and all my will power to keep the tears pooled in my eyes and not down my cheeks.

Somewhere behind me a twig snaps. I spin, barely keeping my footing. What I see wrings a sob from my lips. Standing in the frame of two trees is a man, taller than any human should be. He’s at least seven and a half feet tall. And watching me.

Smiling.

I throw myself back onto the trail and run with everything I have.

The skeletal branches above me become denser the nearer I get to the heart of Almery and I allow myself a shred of relief despite the sounds of pursuit getting closer. I’m nearing the pool, where the trail forks in three directions. Right will take me near Yasmin’s flat, left to Callaire East, and straight forward to Den Vale—to my aunt and uncle’s village. Two trails will take me to safety.

The dark canopy releases me and I swerve right, sloshing through the shallow stream to Yasmin. I’ll escape Almery, run to her flat, and when I find her we can go to the Academy. We’ll be safe there and they’ll come back with me to get Niall.

Made braver by the barest plan, I look over my shoulder to see how close the man is. But I’m alone on the path. Maybe he couldn’t cross the water? Not daring to question my luck for a second, I barrel down the slope towards safety. I must be coming to the other side of Almery but the trees should have grown sparser half a minute back. What if I’m lost?

I skid to a stop, flattening myself against a thick tree trunk, and I scream for Yasmin in my mind. My head pulses with the effort, which should mean it’s working. Magic and miracles take pain, don’t they? But still I hear no reply. Wouldn’t she respond if she could hear me?

I cover my mouth with shaking fingers, trapping the cries inside. This is hopeless. At some point I’ve come off the trail and now I have no sure direction. And there’s no way to cry for help without drawing the man stalking me. Yasmin’s name echoes around my head. I push it out, into a void I must be imagining, praying some kind of Psychic satellite will pick me up. The situation might be hopeless but I’m too stubborn to give up.

I think of Yasmin, urging myself to be strong. Yasmin would be brave. She’d find her way to safety without the trail.

I brush tears from my cheeks, furious they’re even there. I wish Yasmin was here. I’d feel so much safer with her beside me. I’d feel invincible. I picture the way she looks at me, like I’m a miracle. She makes me feel like a miracle, something I never thought possible, not with the funeral shroud of abandonment and resentment that wrapped around me when my mother left, choosing my perfect older sister over me. But lately I’ve felt different, like I could be important after all. Like I could be worth something.

If I really am the girl Yasmin sees, I could be invincible. I could do this. I massage the stiffness from my wrist, though it does nothing for the pain, and straighten my shoulders. I’m not Legendary but I can find my way again. I’ve read more than a few articles on wilderness survival. All I have to do is trace my footprints back to the pool, and from there I can take the right trail and stay on it this time. Simple.

I step outside the cover of the sprawling tree—

A cold hand closes around my arm. I’m whirled around to face the tall man who chased me. My vision wavers. He has two heads. How can he have two heads? I blink until the image resolves into two people. The impossibly tall man and a woman I’ve never seen—silver haired, wrinkled, wearing an emerald robe and a wicked smile. At first glance she’s a kind grandmother. At second, she’s menacing and blood-stained. I jerk away on instinct but the man’s fingers circle my elbow, bruising.

The pain cuts through my dizziness, gifts me clarity, and anger rears its head. I was ready. I was going to rescue myself.

I still am.

I struggle madly against the hold on me, making weapons of my elbows, venom of my spit.

Sedate her, the woman hisses. Her voice is nothing like a grandmother’s.

The man bares his teeth, each white and pointed. What do you think I’m doing? He dips his head and now all I see is the hazy wood around me, trees as tall as houses, and the old woman with her cruel smile and—bloody hands.

Yasmin! I yell with heightened distress. They’re going to kill me! Yasmin!

A sting spreads through my neck, just below my jaw, like a paper cut. It builds into searing, molten suffering. My thoughts are empty and redundant, so I open my mouth and howl. "Yasmin! Yasmin!"

The tall man steps away from me, wiping blood from his mouth. My blood.

His savage face is the last thing I see before Almery tilts and blackens.

ONE

THE STRANGER IN THE KITCHEN

The branches that scrape my coat are embracing but I don’t want to be in Almery Wood. Too many reminders linger in the hush, the creak of ancient trees, the scent of Earth and home. I remember walking beside Fray, her warm hand in my cold one, calm and safer than I’ve felt in the weeks since I lost her. I think of the Phoenix appearing to us, when Fray pressed her fingers into the back of my coat, reassuring my fears and restraining my beast in a single touch. In my mind I see her stepping around the shield of my body, facing the Numen head on, and it’s a struggle to keep myself together. I can’t afford to break down now.

I slog through a shallow stream near Almery’s pool and down the central path, my mind on Fray’s disappearance and the battle with Discordia. It only lasted twenty minutes and felt more like a frantic scramble for survival than a fight, but that’s what we’ve been calling it—the battle. We didn’t have a plan, or real weapons, or commands from someone who knew what they were doing. All we had was fistfuls of Majick, untested Akasha swords, and reckless determination.

I don’t want to think about it but there’s no way to avoid what happened. It’s brutally clear to every one of the Red that we’re at the beginning of something and the end is nowhere near. We all know the battle was bigger than us, and we’re helpless to fight it. We’re only alive because Mavers used his Creation of Life to make Majickal creatures to defend us. Even Amity must have known how doomed we were because she betrayed us for Discordia. None of us dreamed she’d let a murderous Numen past the Ward of the Academy to kill us.

But she did.

That was four weeks ago. It’s been four whole weeks since I lost Fray, since Priscilla Hannam was taken and nobody saw her disappear, since Discordia decimated the Red, twisted our minds, and sucked our Majick from us like a parasite. Since Discordia drained me of all my Earth Majick and made me weak.

And I don’t know how to be strong again.

I don’t know if I want to be strong again. Fray’s missing, it’s my fault, and I don’t know how to find her again. Minnie tried reading tarot cards for even a bare glimpse of where my girlfriend is but she couldn’t see anything. She said it was like someone expected her to look for Fray and had locked her outside Fray’s pathways. Maybe they did. When Min read for information about Discordia, her head was filled with static, like I filled Discordia’s mind with noise during the battle. That’s no coincidence; I gave Discordia the idea. Even if I didn’t, the Numina know to expect Minnie’s readings, so we can’t find answers that way. Or any other way.

In the beginning, just after the battle, Mavers sent a message to the Shadow Ministry—our highest power, a council of Numina and Legendaries alike who are absolutely impartial, all-seeing, and all-powerful—asking for help both in protecting ourselves and finding Fray. They replied that it was impossible for them to intervene because of an ancient law. At that point I was passed out in the infirmary recovering from the loss of my Earth Majick, so I wasn’t involved in any decisions the Red made. But Minnie told me all of what transpired after the fight, and none of it was good.

Mavers asked literally everyone he knew for help and they answered with a unanimous no. Niall was sent back to America, traumatised and with no guarantee of safety. Guy spent all his Majick on mending the scrapes and slashes on our bodies with his healing wind of Akasha. Rowan was shot in the battle by a possessed hunter, and Mavers exhausted himself by feeding all his Creation of Life Majick into Rowan’s body to restore his life—Minnie says Mavers’s Majick is only now returning, and in nothing more than a few trickles of power per day. Fearne trashed and remade the dining room over and over with her Akasha, venting her grief and fear on shattered crockery and splintered mahogany. And we were all left with a ragged void in the shape of Amity Ex Lavere.

That loss lingers in every room of the Academy, haunting us. It has followed me here as well, through the twisting trails of Almery. Shaking off the ghosts of memories, I put one foot in front of the other, over and over until I reach the border of the wood where the animals go quiet and the trees hold their breath. Fray’s house sits squat and square and gold in the middle of its overgrown field. Waiting for her to come home.

I press my hand to the throb in my chest as I approach the cold Ward around Fray’s house. I half expect it to reject me now the house is vacant but I step over the gravel pathway with nothing but a shiver zapping my body.

The back door is torn from the hinges, propped on its side against the frame. I remember slamming into it in my desperate attempt to find Fray, when all I knew was my tether to her had broken and an alien hollowness had replaced it. I never knew my connection to her was so strong, so vital, until it was torn from me. Now all I know is an aching, empty lack. Loneliness echoes my every footstep, the only emotion that doesn’t urge me to self-destruct—because being lonesome is as familiar to me as the Change and I know how to bear it.

Distracting myself from the swell of other, darker emotions—the ones that want to crush me—I drag Fray’s bubble-gum-pink door over the threshold and rest it against the outside wall. I feel bad about the damage but I blame it on my beast goading me into destruction. Thinking about the Manticore, I automatically seek the moon in the sky despite the daylight; I can’t see it but I can feel it like a string tied around my waist.

Tonight’s moon is as neutral as it gets, barely pushing me, barely pulling, but my beast is confident despite that. Mavers would say I was out of control if he spoke more than a few dead words at mealtimes. My humanity is balanced on a knife’s edge and the slightest nudge could ruin me, but who can I turn to for help? I would run to Fray and her calming embrace but she’s gone. And I don’t want Guy seeing how deep my darkest depths really are. He can’t know that a growing part of me is dying to surrender to the Change, to curse anyone I might kill just for a few hours solace.

I could go to Minnie or Vic or Willa but I daren’t tell them how close I am to crossing that line, how my voice of reason becomes quieter with every day I fail to find Fray. They’d see me for the monster I am.

So I’m here, at her home. I’m not ready to relive my fight with Discordia but I need to see if they left anything behind, something to give me even the slightest hint at where they’ve taken Fray. The house beckons me and I step inside, inhaling the dust and flowers scent I remember. Underneath that I taste dirt from the plant pot I smashed over the Numen’s head and the faint tang of blood. I shouldn’t be able to taste that but my senses are heightened. Another bad sign.

Arms wrapped around my waist, I wander the rooms of Fray’s house, slivers of my heart blackening with each one I find vacant. Fray’s house is wrecked, furniture overturned and trampled, picture frames hanging cockeyed in the hallway, turquoise vases in pieces on her living room carpet. It’s a mess, a heartless reminder of Fray’s absence.

Some part of me believed this was all a mistake and Fray was still here. It didn’t matter that I’d have heard from her by now, that our minds would still be connected and my phone would be full of texts and missed calls, not to mention she’d have turned up at the Academy gates, demanding to know why she hadn’t seen me in a month. In the back of my mind I thought I’d find Fray sat cross-legged in the middle of this mess, wired on coffee, her hair twisted into a bun and secured with a pink biro, bent over a pile of research on some random subject.

A scuffle echoes down the hallway, cutting through my illusion. I face the noise, a rumble of warning in the back of my throat as my ears strain to identify the occupied room. The kitchen. I return to the hall, expecting Guy to emerge—he probably followed me to make sure I was safe—but it’s not my brother. What I see instead is an unfamiliar face. In the kitchen there’s a man watching me with abyss-black eyes. I know instinctively that they’re a Numen. They’re uncommonly tall with gaunt, stretched features and a pressed suit the blue of night. Their smile is a threat and a promise, teeth too sharp for any Pure.

They look like a God but they can’t be—there’s no flow and crackle of Majick in their veins. They have to be a Creature posing as a human, the way the Phoenix did. Or they have the same Majick as Discordia—theirs was nothing I’ve felt before, visible only as a green whisper of air, and I didn’t sense it before they turned it on my brother.

The possibility makes my blood run cold. This stranger could be the same species as Discordia, could have the same power and relentless thirst for Legendary Majick. They could siphon my Psychic. In a heartbeat I could lose my last chance of finding Fray—my painful wish for her to call out to me the way she did in the beginning.

I know our link has unravelled, and I can’t sense her the way I can sense everyone I’ve spoken to if I concentrate; I can’t hear a single whisper of her thoughts, but she could still call for me. Fray has unthinkable power. She could speak to me, I know, if she put all her power into it. But will she think to try? Fray is human. If I weren’t a Legend-Blood raised with Majick would I ever think to speak telepathically? I don’t think it would occur to me.

A brush of seeking Majick raises hairs on the back of my neck, and my consciousness returns to the wreckage of a house and the menace of a man. I have no Earth to shield myself with, no way to use my Psychic Majick to defend myself. I’m easy prey to this Numen. But why are they just standing there assessing me with their Majick? For a second I don’t understand—but then I see the reason in their eyes. They’re amused, curious, waiting to see how I’ll react.

What did Fray do when Discordia came for her? Did she cower? Run? Fight?

Fray.

The realisation slams into me and I don’t know how I missed it. Discordia was waiting for me here a month ago, and Fray was already gone. I always assumed the Numen stole her and came back to find the Red—but maybe I was wrong. Maybe Discordia didn’t take Fray. Maybe they were here for me. Maybe this stranger in the kitchen, this Numen with a playful smirk and razorblade eyes, took Fray.

Fray was mine to protect and I failed her. She was vulnerable to my danger, Legendary danger—the danger standing two metres from me. The beast in my blood leaps to the surface and I let it take hold, embracing the vicious edge of myself. For Fray.

Wrath clears my mind. My vision narrows to the pulse jumping in the Numen’s throat. I take a deep breath, relish the pain of my gums tearing to allow sharper fangs, and I launch my body across the hall. I sail through the air past family portraits and a whiteboard marked All coursework due Monday!!! in bright red.

The Numen moves at the last moment, enough that my teeth miss their neck and sink into their shoulder. I don’t bite like a human—because I’m not human. I bite like the animal I am, and my claws shred the Numen’s expensive suit. I spit a mouthful of muscle and blood and fabric onto Fray’s kitchen tiles, and the Numen roars, pain trapped inside pure rage. I must have taken them by surprise because for a second they don’t fight me. But then their hands are bruising my shoulders, pulling out my hair, ordering me to let go. But nothing could make me stop. I’m too inhuman to consider the possibility that killing this Creature, this person, may be too far.

I stab my claws into their jugular and rip an uneven line across their neck.

The Numen drops to the carpet with a gurgle.

TWO

THE SHOCK OF SORRY

Yasmin?

I drag my attention from the Numen and the spell of violence collapses. The beast loses its grip on me and Yasmin comes flooding back. I remember who I am, what I’m willing to do and what I’m not. My eyes flicker between Rowan’s shell-shocked expression and the body at my feet, and I know I’ve crossed that precious line that separates me from true monstrosity. And I chose to cross it—I gave the beast permission.

Blood runs from the corners of my mouth, each drop painfully loud to my Crea-enhanced ears as it hits the floor. My heart begins to race, and I can’t wrap my head around the dead thing at my feet, the blood staining my mouth and hands. My gums ache as my teeth return to normal. A sob breaks free of my throat and I cover my mouth to keep the rest trapped—but all that does is make the scent of blood stronger. The stranger’s blood. The stranger I killed.

Did that Numen even take Fray?

I close my eyes tight and sink to the floor, chest shaking, head loud and full of denial. How could this happen? How could I do this?

Yasmin? Rowan repeats tentatively. I hear him step closer, over the body, and crouch in front of me. Are you hurt? Who—holy shit, he hisses. Is that a Numen?

I can’t answer.

Yasmin? Rowan’s hand falls on my shoulder. Are you freaking out? Can you look at me?

He’s brought the scent of Almery Wood inside with him, and that hint of familiarity helps me peel open my eyes. But my focus drifts past Rowan and I see the dead Numen again. My panic escalates.

Okay, Rowan exhales. Shit. Okay. Just try to calm down, and I’ll deal with that. He jerks his chin at the body. That okay with you?

I force my head to move up and down, a jerky agreement. Now that the adrenaline is wearing off, I’m becoming aware of my leg throbbing under the gauze wrapped around it. I must have aggravated the injury I got during the last Change. My shoulder and back don’t feel great, either.

Massaging my aches and pains, I listen as Rowan drags the Numen into the living room. He bangs into a piece of wrecked furniture and drops the dead thing, swearing the whole time. The next thing I know, he’s pressing a wet towel into my hands. I look up to find him frowning at me. The carpet has been scrubbed in an attempt to clean it, though the blood has only spread further and a dark streak now leads away from the hall where he dragged the body.

Come on. He puts an arm around my shoulders to help me up. I’ll take you to the Academy and you can tell us what happened.

I use the dripping towel to clean my face and hands, feeling sick as the cream flannel turns pink with blood. Not yet.

Rowan’s expression tightens but he doesn’t argue. He takes the sodden towel from me, tilts my face up with a gentle hand, and wipes the remaining blood from my chin. Did that thing hurt you?

No. I’m … I’m okay.

That’s bullshit and we both know it. He kicks aside a fallen key rack and throws the towel into the kitchen sink. But who am I to question your denial?

My face grows warm as I stave off tears, following Rowan into the kitchen. Are you going to tell them? I whisper. The Red? About … what I did?

Do you want me to?

Don’t. Please. Feeling like my head is resting on the executioner’s block, I watch Rowan debate with himself. His brows are bunched together, his eyes black and anxious. Fine, he agrees eventually. "If you don’t want them knowing, that’s your choice. For the record, I don’t think you did anything wrong. I’d have killed that guy too, if I could, if he’d taken my girlfriend. He purses his lips, glancing around the bright kitchen. About Fearne … I’ll have to tell her about this. I can’t keep secrets from her. I don’t want to."

As he speaks the walls close around me, the shiny cabinets tilting towards me. I burst out of the room, through the doorway, and onto the field between Fray’s house and Almery. I drag in breath after breath of cold air until my head has stopped spinning and the fist gripping my chest has unclenched.

Look, Rowan says, if it’s that big a deal, I can keep this from Fearne. He trudges across the grass to stand in front of me, hands shoved in his jean pockets. "I’ll hate keeping a secret from her