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       Reign, p.8

           Chanda Hahn
 

  “Unless I kill him,” Mina said the words softly. They hurt like gravel coming out of her mouth, but she had to say them.

  “Yes, I’m afraid so.” Ever stopped walking and leaned against a building for support. “And I’m scared, because I’ll think you’ll do it.” Her shoulders started to shake silently.

  “You love him,” Nan said, a bit dumbfounded.

  “Duh! And this gimp here ruined it for me.”

  “But I don’t understand,” Nan said softly.

  Ever launched herself away from the wall. Her fingers flew to erase the tears from her eyes. “Because back then, I wasn’t what he wanted. I thought he loved me like I loved him. When he was split, I followed Jared, thinking I’d have a chance here. And sure, we dated for a while. But he wasn’t happy with me. He was always looking for something or someone. He doesn’t love me on this plane either.”

  “You don’t know that.” Nan tried to soothe Ever.

  Ever sniffed loudly. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t matter. I see that now.”

  “What an awful thing to say about yourself,” Mina said.

  “Naw, it’s the truth. I can’t compete with you. Never have been able to, never will,” Ever mumbled.

  Mina’s mouth dropped open at the melancholy compliment.

  “Unless you die in a horrible accident. Then I may have a chance,” Ever quipped.

  “Ever, what a horrible thing to say!” Nan turned to face the girl, her hands in balled fists on her hips. “Y-you…you are not a nice pixie,” she stuttered out.

  “Who said pixies are nice? You have a lot to learn about our kind. Pixies are never nice.”

  Mina, used to Ever’s barbs, intervened. “Nan, it’s okay. She doesn’t really mean it.”

  “Oh, stick up for yourself, Mina. How can you let her talk to you that way?” Nan shook with anger.

  Mina had to pull her aside and whisper to her. “Because deep down, beneath all of that angst is actually a sweet girl who saved our lives…if you remember. She came here following love, and I destroyed that. She has a right to be angry.” Ever watched them with distrustful eyes. It was easy to see how much she wanted to hear what was being said.

  “Fine,” Nan agreed grudgingly, but she confronted Ever, pointing her finger at the pixie’s chest. “You’ve been dealt a low blow with losing Jared. But remember, you’re not the only one to lose someone they were close to. Mina is my best friend. So you better hold your tongue around me, or I’ll knock your pretty striped socks off. Got it?”

  Ever looked taken aback and, for a moment, both Nan and Mina thought they were in for a pixie tantrum. Instead, she smiled and her eyes scrunched up in laughter. “Deal.” Ever thrust out her hand to shake.

  Nan’s raised an eyebrow and rubbed her fingers over her chin as if she were debating. “Pinky promise?”

  Ever rolled her eyes. “That’s so dumb.” Nan looked a little hurt at her words, but Ever saw and changed her tune. “How about Pixie promise?” The wind kicked up as her invisible wings started to beat in excitement.

  ***

  They finally ended up at Lacey’s, a small boutique with prom and wedding dresses. The consultant assigned to Mina kept giving her disgusted looks.

  “What’s her problem?” Mina asked when the lady hurried away quickly.

  Nan grimaced and made an apologetic face, but didn’t say anything.

  Mina looked to Ever, and the girl shrugged her shoulders before answering. “You kinda stink.”

  Horrified, she looked down at her filthy shoes and then checked her reflection in the full-length mirror. There was a smear of who-knows-what across her t-shirt. Her hair was a complete mess, her face had a scratch on it, and her neck was rubbed raw and discolored.

  “I’m so sorry. I should have listened and let you go home,” Nan said sadly.

  Mina stared at her reflection and started laughing. She laughed so long and hard that eventually Ever and Nan joined in. She truly looked like a rag tag dirty mouse.

  “It doesn’t matter. I hate dress shopping anyway. Let’s get out of here.” Mina turned to leave and her friends joined her, leaving the stack of dresses untouched in the dressing room. As they passed the consultant, Mina swore the woman held her hand over her nose.

  ***

  The summons from the Godmother’s Guild came by raven later that afternoon at Nan’s apartment. Nan suggested that Mina just borrow one of her dresses for the ball, but of course Mina insisted on a shower first before trying any on.

  Mina stood under the hot water letting the heat steam up the mirrors, not caring if she turned Nan’s bedroom into a sauna. Nan and her mom lived in the penthouse apartment with all of the fixings and trimmings that could land them in one of those high style magazines. And unlike Mina’s own mom, Mrs. Taylor didn’t care how long a hot shower she took.

  Water cascaded down her face as she stood under the pounding water and hoped it would soothe her nerves and muscles. Safe and far away from the scene of the confrontation, the reality that she could’ve died in the sewer that afternoon was hitting hard. Nan seemed to be still running on pure adrenaline after the accident. Mina, on the other hand, was falling apart now that she had a minute to herself. She couldn’t even turn the shower off her, hands were trembling so badly. She wrapped herself in the terrycloth guest bathrobe and stood in front of the large bathroom mirror. The mirrors were so thoroughly steamed up, there was hardly a reflection.

  Mina brushed her hand across the mirror to clear a spot to see herself. She picked up a borrowed comb and began to run it through her long brown hair, taking extra care with the snarls. Until she saw something that made her drop the comb in the sink. The clatter echoed in the steamy room.

  Mina grasped the collar of her robe and took a few deep breaths. Maybe it had just been her imagination. But she could swear her reflection had started to fade out.

  “Get a grip,” she told herself.

  A rapping at the door pulled her attention away—at least for the moment. Nan popped her head into the bathroom. “So, um, you have a visitor.”

  “Here?”

  Nan was beaming and having a hard time keeping her excitement in. “This is the coolest thing ever to happen to me. I mean you. I mean—oh, just get out here.”

  Mina walked out of the bathroom, pulling the robe tighter around herself. After what she thought she saw in the mirror, she really didn’t want any more surprises. Nan had run back to her sliding glass door and opened it up to reveal a very large black raven sitting on the patio railing. In its mouth was a gold envelope.

  “That has your name on it,” Nan said, entirely too eager and excited about all this.

  Seeing the bird and the note sent shivers of trepidation down her spine. Mina had no desire to go anywhere near the bird. But neither Ever nor Nan seemed to be scared of the fowl, so she approached with caution. Sure enough, her name was scrawled across the front in cursive script. Mina had no idea how to actually retrieve the letter. But just when she was about to reach for it, the raven opened up its mouth and dropped the letter on the ground. Then it started to flap its wings and lift into the air.

  Mina stepped back in fright, instinctively holding her hands over her head to protect herself as the bird flew towards her. One minute it was flying, the next it had transformed midair into an impossibly small Yorkie and landed on her shoulder. It gently began to butt its head against her cheek, demanding attention.

  She laughed in relief as the shape shifter began to lick her face profusely. This was the Baldander that lived at the Godmother’s Guild! He hopped a few times and then jumped into the air again, transforming into a dragon.

  Nan gasped behind her.

  “Hello, Anders,” Mina laughed.

  “What is it?” Nan asked, coming outside to pet the dragon.

  “It’s a shape shifter,” Ever explained. “Normally, they don’t show themselves to people. This one must be defective.”

  “Or he’s got good taste in friends,” Mi
na answered with a mischievous grin.

  Nan scooped up the temporarily forgotten letter and handed it to Mina. “Who do you think it’s from? Is it from your Godmother? I still think that is the coolest thing to have a fairy Godmother. You deserve it so much. I’m actually a little jealous.”

  Mina knew it would be from Constance since Anders was the one to deliver the message. She was, after all, the only teenager in history without a phone. The summons made sense…sorta. As long as the Baldander could keep a news crew or passerby from noticing his shape shifting from a raven to a dragon, blowing puffs of fire and lying around near the top of the building.

  She opened the envelope and read the simple message.

  Come quick to GMRC. We have answers.

  The Baldander will lead you through the waterways.

  ~ Constance

  It wasn’t the news she wanted, but it couldn’t be ignored. Mina headed back inside to get dressed. Ander voiced his opinion at being abandoned outside with a tiny roar.

  “What does it say?” Ever asked, crossing her arms with evident worry.

  She tossed the letter on Nan’s pink bedspread. It wasn’t like it was a secret. Ever read the note and looked up at her. “Do you want backup?”

  Nan was just now reading over the same note. She turned and placed her hands on her hips. “Of course she wants backup. We’re not giving her a choice.” She linked her arm through Ever’s and gave Mina her try-and-talk-me-out-of-it stare.

  “Fine,” Mina muttered. She grabbed a pair of Nan’s pants and a blue top that was set out, throwing Anders a stern look. “I sure hope you know your way in.”

  Anders flew in happy circles as they headed downstairs to get a cab. It took some time and a lot of bribing but they finally convinced him to turn invisible and get into the vehicle. But once in, he scampered around the back of the cab. The girls kept squealing when he ran across their laps or legs and—of course—they received odd looks from the driver.

  Mina hadn’t had time to dry her hair, but by the time the taxi dropped them off at the old Green Mill Recycling Center, it was dry. The taxi driver wouldn’t let them go off by themselves without some significant warnings about being out alone when it was getting dark.

  “I’m the reason you don’t go out at night,” Ever snapped.

  The elderly taxi driver took one look at her heavy eye makeup and black clothes and promptly closed his mouth, took the money, and drove off.

  The last time Mina had been here, Jared had led her around the back of the building to a cellar door and broken in. She felt the memory in the pit of her stomach. But Anders led them away from the building and toward the water’s edge where a large caution sign stood. Something about unstable terrain. The girls held onto each other as they made their way down the rocky embankment.

  Anders, visible again, shifted into an otter, dove under the water, and disappeared.

  “I really hope he doesn’t expect us to follow him,” Nan asked. “Do you know how to get in?”

  Ever shook her head. “Do I look like Godmother material? Ha, no. I brought Nix here, but I prefer to stay away from them.”

  “What about the front door? What would happen if we knocked?” Nan asked.

  “I’m not sure. There was another way in that Jared knew about, but they closed it off once he became—you know—evil. I’d say follow the Baldander,” Mina answered.

  Ever looked around. “Something’s not right. There are more wards in place than last time. She pointed up at the branches of the nearest copse of trees. Mina noticed how still this grouping was compared to the others.

  “That means there’s a ward, like a warning system in place. Like motion detectors. If they get disturbed, the Godmothers will know,” Ever explained.

  The ground suddenly rumbled underneath their feet, and the water began to recede, away from the embankment.

  Five feet—ten—fifteen—twenty—thirty. The water continued to move and part, as if two invisible hands were pushing it back to reveal a hatch in the middle of the lake floor. Anders popped out of the wall of water on the left and danced excitedly by the door.

  “I guess that’s our cue,” Mina said, taking off toward the entrance. Nan and Ever followed closely behind. The closer they came to the metal hatch, the higher the wall of water looked. It was eerily similar to a biblical story, and Mina slowed down to study the river carefully. If it was released back, it could literally crush them beneath the water and they’d most certainly drown. But she couldn’t focus on that. She needed to reach the door and make it down the hatch before whatever magic was working stopped.

  Nan slipped on the riverbed and fell on her rear. Anders’s movements became more frantic, but she promptly got up and ran for the door.

  Mina made it first and turned the hatch wheel, but it wouldn’t budge. “Ever help!”

  Both girls tried to turn it together. Nothing happened.

  Water started to spill slowly back into the lakebed, soaking their shoes.

  Nan, muddy and covered in sand, reached the wheel and tried as well. Anders looked confused and upset. “It’s stuck!” Nan yelled out. Fear was all over her face as she gauged the distance back to shore. The water wall clearly wouldn’t hold much longer. “We need to run for it!”

  Ever shook her head, her face red from exertion with all the straining. “We won’t make it.”

  “What are you talking about? You can fly!” Nan choked out.

  “I’m not leaving either of you!” Ever screamed. “Back up now!”

  Mina and Nan let go of the door. Anders crawled up into Mina’s arms and they watched as Ever closed her eyes and concentrated on turning the hatch handle. She got it to move, but even once turned, it wouldn’t open. Her forehead glistened from sweat. They could hear the giant door groaning, as it glowed brightly from Ever’s magic.

  “Ever, hurry!” Nan screamed and wrapped her hands around Mina.

  The door flew open, splashing water everywhere and revealing a downward staircase that was quickly filling with water.

  “Go now!” Mina yelled, carrying Anders down the stairs into the darkness. Nan and Ever were on her heels. “Ever, can you get the door?”

  Ever turned and used magic to pull the door closed just as the wall of water broke. The hatch fell back down, but didn’t latch because of the rushing water pouring into the stairwell.

  Mina dropped Anders and ran for the hatch wheel. The force of the river almost swept her away. She held her breath and dropped her head under the water. Bracing her feet against the frame of the door, she pulled with all of her might. It felt like eternity, and her hands kept slipping, but if she didn’t close the door and stop the water, they would surely drown. Another pair of hands closed over hers and together they were able to turn it until they heard a click. They’d sealed off the onslaught of water.

  The flood level began to recede, drains pulling gallons into the walls of the culvert every second. As Mina’s head broke the surface of the water, she looked over and saw Nan holding onto the large handle, her eyes squeezed shut.

  “Thank you.” Mina coughed.

  The rushing water pulled at them, but Nan smiled and nodded.

  Mina reached up to wipe the water from her eyes.

  “Don’t let go!” Nan reached out with one hand to stop her from releasing the wheel but realized her own mistake. She slapped her hand back on the cold metal and gripped even tighter with both hands.

  “I think it’s fine. The river will keep the door sealed now that it’s closed,” Mina tried to reassure her.

  “How do you know?”

  “I don’t, but Anders seems sure.” She pointed to the Baldander who was now waiting a ways down the tunnel looking at them eagerly.

  Ever walked up to the door and inspected the lock. “I wonder why it wouldn’t open. It’s kind of odd for them to send you this way if it’s going to almost kill you.”

  “It’s been welded shut.” Nan pointed from her perch on the stairs. She fin
ally released one hand to point at the bead trail that ran around the whole door.

  “It’s a good thing it was shoddy work, otherwise I might not have been able to get it open,” Ever admitted.

  “No, it’s a good thing you were with us. Otherwise we wouldn’t have made it.” Mina looked up at Ever gratefully.

  Ever shrugged her shoulders. “Don’t mention it…really.”

  “Now what?” Nan asked finally gathering enough courage to let go of the door handle.

  “We follow the wet rat.” Ever pointed at Anders in his otter shape, who was shaking the water from his wet fur and giving her a pointed glare. He moved forward and then turned back to the tunnel, trying to get them to follow him.

  “She’s right. We follow him.” Mina instructed.

  Anders went farther up the tunnel, trying to stay on higher ground—anything that hadn’t been submerged in the floodwater. He peeled off down a left passageway, and they came to a second set of air lock doors. Anders jumped up onto the round wheel and—this time when Mina turned it—it unlocked and opened easily. He scampered right through the door.

  The girls were a bit more hesitant.

  Mina went first into the second air lock. It was dark. There was a slight smell of kerosene in the air as if a lantern or heater had been lit recently. She put her hands out in front of her and tried to make it to a wall, but she stumbled over something on the floor. Mina let out a cry as she fell forward onto the large form. She got up and tried to feel around on the ground but almost lost it when she realized what she was feeling.

  Her hands were roaming over a dead body.

  Chapter 12

  Mina’s hands stilled on the dead body as bile rose to her throat.

  But then she realized it was still warm. Even though every part of her wanted to run away, she stayed.

  She heard a slight moan, and instinct kicked in.

  “Light! I need light!”

  Ever and Nan searched the room until one of them found a kerosene lamp and matches. The room was quickly illuminated as Ever held the lamp close to Mina.

 
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