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Guardian creepy hollow 1, p.2
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       Guardian (Creepy Hollow, #1), p.2

           Rachel Morgan
 
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  “Several hundred—wow. So you’re actually old even though you look my age?”

  I give him a withering look. “I’m seventeen.”

  “Right. Cool.”

  The forest thins as we get closer to the Guild. We move faster, but every time we pass something vaguely out of the ordinary—a group of pixies climbing onto each others’ shoulders to reach a high branch; a lone faun looking a little tipsy—I sense Nate’s reluctance at having to keep moving. I know he wants to stop and stare, but I won’t keep Tora waiting any longer than necessary.

  I watch for the entrance. It’s never in exactly the same place, and it would be easy to miss if I didn’t know exactly what to look for.

  “There,” I say, breaking the silence and pointing to a tuft of goldenrod flowers growing at the base of a tree. They glitter faintly in the darkness. I head straight for the tree and rest one hand against the smooth bark. With the other, I reach for my stylus.

  “You guys live in trees?” asks Nate.

  I don’t bother replying. I set my stylus against the tree trunk and etch a few words—in a language I know Nate can’t understand, despite the fact that he’s trying to read over my shoulder—into the bark. A brilliant gold light fills the letters and then disappears, taking the words with it.

  The tree’s shape begins to change. Leaves are sucked into branches. Branches curl downward and merge into the trunk, which widens and changes color and texture. A set of double glass doors shimmer into view. Stairs push their way out from the roots. In a matter of seconds we’re standing in front of the entrance to the Guild of Guardians.

  “Um . . .” says Nate. “Perhaps you could punch me now, because I’m pretty sure I’m dreaming.”

  I roll my eyes, clutch the sleeve of his T-shirt, and pull him up the stairs. “Don’t tempt me,” I say. “And aren’t you meant to pinch people who think they’re dreaming?”

  The glass doors slide open to reveal the night guard, Tank, blocking the way forward. “Evening, Vi,” he says. “Bit late, isn’t it?”

  I gesture to Nate. “I’m in trouble.”

  Tank’s eyes bore into the human boy beside me. “Yes. I can see that.” He holds up his stylus. My fingers go to my neck and tug the chain out from beneath my shirt. I hold up my trainee pendant, and Tank scans it with his stylus. He steps aside and nods toward the stairs at the other end of the foyer.

  “Thanks, Tank.” I pull Nate across the open space. He tilts his head back to stare at the domed ceiling high above us. Clouds of purple, grey and midnight blue swirl within the dome. “Protective enchantments,” I tell him.

  We climb the stairs to the second floor, Nate trailing his hand over the leafy vines that twist around the banisters. At this time of night there aren’t many people here—most trainees with evening assignments report to their mentors the following morning—and the only person we pass is Amon, the Guild’s head librarian.

  “Are those . . . dwarves?” Nate twists to look over his shoulder as we pass two short figures arguing in a corner. I can’t think about answering him, because in about five steps we’ll reach Tora’s office door. Anxiety chews at my insides.

  We stop. I tug a strand of hair over my shoulder and wind it around and around my finger. “Don’t say anything,” I tell him, and then I knock.

  After a second of silence that lasts about half an eternity, I hear Tora’s voice: “That had better be you, Vi.”

  I bite my lip and push the door open. Tora sits behind her desk, scrolls of reed paper piled neatly around her. She crosses her arms and leans back in her chair, watching me. Light shifts across her youthful face as the giant glow-bug on the ceiling squirms and settles down.

  “It’s called rule number one for a reason, Vi,” she says, nodding her head toward the two chairs in front of her desk. I move to the one on the right. After a moment’s hesitation, Nate sits down beside me. Tora doesn’t acknowledge him, holding her hand out instead for my tracker band.

  I unclip the strip of leather from my wrist and push it across the table. Tora smoothes it flat beneath her forefingers and whispers something under her breath. Tiny black markings appear on the leather. Markings that tell her whatever she needs to know about the assignment I just completed.

  “Well,” she says, leaning back, “you got rid of the reptiscilla in excellent time, but that means nothing considering you not only revealed yourself to a human, but also brought him back into our realm. And—” her eyes slip from my face down to my arm “—just to top it all off, you got yourself bitten.”

  “What? A single bite costs hardly any points.” I glare at the two crescent shapes of healing skin. They’re at the pale pink stage, about an hour away from being perfectly healed.

  “Nevertheless. You still broke the Guild’s two most important rules. This is serious, Violet.” She never calls me that. “You know why we have to enforce these laws.”

  “Yes,” I say, taking a deep breath and gearing up to start reciting. “Some humans are greedy, and what they want above all else is power. If humans know that magic exists they could convince some power-hungry faerie to turn against his or her own kind, just like Lord Grundheim-something-or-other did all those centuries ago. Faeries will die; humans will die; life as we know it will cease to exist.”

  “Exactly,” says Tora, ignoring my sarcastic and overly dramatic retelling of the story we’ve all known since we were old enough to use our own magic. “So I don’t understand why you would—”

  “I didn’t!”

  “Please, Vi, let’s not—”

  “I did not bring him back with me. He grabbed onto my arm as I entered the paths. And I did not let my glamour slip.” I glance at Nate. “He just seems to be able to see through it.”

  Tora looks at him for the first time. After about a minute of silence she purses her lips. “Ryn didn’t mention that.”

  “Well, of course he didn’t, he wasn’t there when it happened.”

  Tora frowns at me. “You said you returned via the paths?”

  “Yes, that’s the other thing. Shouldn’t he be dead now?” A small sound escapes the boy’s lips at the word ‘dead’.

  Tora runs a hand through her sleek blonde and green hair, leaning so far back in her chair that the front legs leave the floor. “Interesting. I’ve heard there are some humans who can see through faerie glamours. Perhaps this ability is what allowed him to pass safely through the paths.” The front legs of her chair meet the floor with a thud, and she pulls a scroll from her top drawer. “Right. Well, you obviously need to take him back home, Vi,” she says as she weighs down the corners of the Assignment Report with several stones and begins filling in the blank spaces. “And I don’t think you should use the paths; he may not be protected a second time.”

  “But it will take us days to return to his home on foot. I’ll miss at least one assignment.”

  “True,” says Tora, continuing to scribble across the page. “And you’ll most likely fall behind in the rankings. But you’re a guardian, Vi.” She signs the bottom of the page with a flourish, rolls it up, and places it in a box on her left. “This life is about helping people, not scoring points on assignments.”

  I slump down in my chair, knowing she’s right.

  She turns to Nate. “I’d like you to wait outside for a minute, Mr . . .”

  “Oh, my name’s Nate,” he says.

  “Nate. Please wait outside.”

  Nate pushes his chair back and stands. “So—so that’s it? I discover that this magical world exists, and I just have to go home and forget about it?”

  Tora’s emerald eyes narrow. “I believe I asked you to wait outside.”

  The muscles along Nate’s jaw tense, but he manages to leave the room without opening his mouth again. Tora’s face softens, and she reaches across her desk for my hand. Her fingers are warm. “In nearly five years of training you’ve never done anything like this, Vi, which is why I believe you when you say what happened tonight was an accident. T
he Council, however . . .” She presses her lips into a thin line. “Well, there’ll be a hearing when you return—that’s protocol—and there may be some serious consequences.”

  “Like expulsion?” I ask, voicing my fear.

  “I doubt the Guild would go that far. They’d be stupid to kick you out.”

  I look down at my lap. “But whatever the consequences, I’ll lose my place at the top.”

  “You’d probably lose that anyway, just by failing this assignment and missing the next one.” I try to pull my hand out of hers, but she won’t let me. “Vi,” she says, and waits for me to look up. “You need to stop placing so much importance on the rankings. Everyone knows you’re the best trainee here, even if your name doesn’t end up on that plaque in the Hall of Honor.” I force a smile onto my lips, knowing it’s what Tora wants to see. “Anyway,” she continues, “I’ll talk to the other mentors and the Council members, and I’ll try to explain that you didn’t break the rules on purpose.”

  I nod and squeeze her hand, despite the fact that I don’t think she’ll have much success. Being the least experienced mentor in the Guild and still ending up with a top-of-the-class student hasn’t helped Tora win the favor of many of the older mentors.

  Tora releases my hand, swivels in her seat, and opens the cabinet behind her desk. She removes a tiny glass vial and places it on the desk in front of me. “Once you’ve returned the boy to his home you’ll need to give him this. It’s a potion that will erase any memory he has of magic and our world.”

  “Seriously? It’s that easy?” I can’t believe what I’m hearing. “Then why the heck does the Guild make such a big deal about us revealing ourselves to humans?”

  “Because the potion doesn’t always work,” says Tora, folding her hands in her lap. “And the ingredients are rare.”

  I pick up the vial and squint at the miniature label. It says Forget. Wow. Original. I push the vial carefully into my pocket, slide my tracker band back across the desk, and stand.

  “And Vi?” says Tora as I reach the door. “Be intelligent about it. Something tells me he won’t easily take that potion.”

  CHAPTER THREE

  I close Tora’s door to find Nate sitting on the floor with a tree sprite in his hand. At the sound of my footsteps, the sprite pokes his cheek with her tiny finger and flutters away, laughing. Nate, looking somewhat disoriented, gets to his feet.

  “Did she do something to me?” he asks, blinking his eyes several times.

  “She probably gave you a sleeping shot,” I say. “It’ll wear off in about ten seconds, considering you’re at least a hundred times bigger than her normal prey.” Nate yawns and stretches his arms above his head, revealing a strip of tanned skin just above his jeans. I’m surprised by the jolt in my stomach.

  Get a grip, Vi. I see bare skin all the time in training, and it’s never had any effect on me. I look away, just in time to see Ryn come out of his mentor’s office a few doors down the corridor. He saunters over, his eyes gleaming like shards of blue glass. I fold my arms across my chest, my anger returning in full force. “I would have told her, you know.”

  “But that would have been no fun for me, Pixie Sticks,” he says.

  If I look at him any longer I might do something irrational, like smash his perfect teeth in. I look at Nate instead. He raises an eyebrow. “Pixie Sticks?” he asks.

  I imagine a thick wall forming between Ryn and me. He’s not here, he’s not here, he’s not here. “It’s Ryn’s highly mature way of insulting me,” I tell Nate. “Pixies are these small, annoying creatures—”

  “Very much like Vi here.” Crash, there’s goes the imaginary wall. “And her legs—” Ryn glances down “—they look just like little sticks, don’t they?”

  Nate looks down too. “Actually, I think they’re quite attractive.”

  So. Not. Happening.

  I grab Nate’s arm and pull him down the corridor, away from Ryn, before either of them manages to embarrass me further. “Goodnight, Oryn,” I shout without looking back.

  “Have fun with the human, Violet.” He makes a series of kissing noises. I walk faster.

  It’s not long before I feel Nate’s eyes on me. “You guys dated, didn’t you?”

  I stumble over the stray vine that always manages to find its way down this corridor, no matter how many times someone sends it back to the main stairway. “Are you insane? Not even if the continuation of our kind depended on it would I be tempted to do something so awful.”

  We reach the main foyer, and Tank opens the entrance for us. I jump down the stairs into the dark forest night. Nate follows. “Okay,” I say as I begin to walk. “We can spend the rest of the night at my house and leave as soon as it gets light. It’s usually safer to travel here during the day.” And I need to feed Filigree and let him know I won’t be around for a few days.

  “Sure. Where exactly is ‘here’ anyway?”

  “Um . . .” What harm can it do to tell him? “We’re in a forest humans can’t get to from the outside. It’s called Creepy Hollow.”

  “Creepy Hollow?” He snorts. “Like Sleepy Hollow?”

  “No, like Creepy Hollow. It has nothing to do with sleeping.”

  “Yeah, I get that.” I could be mistaken, but I think he just rolled his eyes at me. “What I mean is, it sounds like the legend.”

  “And what I mean is, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” How dare he roll his eyes at me?

  “Never mind,” he says with a sigh. “Okay, so why would you want to live in a place filled with creepy things?”

  “I’m training to be a guardian. If there were no creepy beings around I’d have no job.”

  “Right.” It looks like Nate’s trying to work out whether that makes sense. “So what constitutes creepy aside from half-naked, scaly-skinned women?”

  “Oh, just about any kind of fae. Boggarts, goblins, spriggans, kelpies, halflings—”

  “No way! Hobbits are real?” Nate’s eyes light up.

  “Hobbits?”

  “Yeah, hobbits. Halflings. Small . . . hairy feet . . . live in the Shire . . .”

  Where does he get this stuff from? “Nope. Sorry.” I flick a glow-bug off my shoulder. “A halfling is a half-breed. Like a half-goblin, half-pixie. Or a half-faerie, half-human.”

  “Oh. That’s not very exciting.”

  “It is when they try to destroy the world.” Nate arches a disbelieving eyebrow. “Yup,” I say with a nod. “Halflings are unpredictable that way.”

  “Unpredictable . . . Oh. My parents. They’ll worry when they find out I’m gone.”

  “Tora will send someone to take care of that,” I say. “Your parents will think you’re staying with friends or something. And mind the web.” I tug him sideways before he can walk straight into a nearly invisible web strung between two trees.

  “Thanks.” He gives the poisonous strands a wide berth. “So, um, will your parents mind me staying over?” he asks.

  “I don’t have parents.”

  He frowns. “Wait a minute. So this really is like Peter Pan then? A baby laughs and a faerie is born?”

  I roll my eyes. Is he going to take everything I say literally? “I had parents, they’re just not around anymore. They were guardians, and they were both killed on assignment. My mother died when I was three, and my father when I was fourteen.”

  “Oh.” Nate runs a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry.”

  I shrug. “All guardian children grow up knowing death is a very real possibility.” That doesn’t stop it from hurting like hell when it happens, though.

  “So why would you want to do it?” asks Nate.

  “Do what? Be a guardian?” He nods. Hmm. This is my chance to say something noble, like how I want to save people’s lives. And that is part of it, but if I’m going to be completely honest . . . “I love the life. I love the thrill, the risk, the energy. I love how alive I feel when I’m fighting, or even just training. It doesn’t matter what it is
—weapons practice, close combat, sprinting, swinging around bars, practicing flips and somersaults—I love it all.”

  Nate stops walking and stares at me.

  “What?” I ask.

  “You can do all that?”

  “Well, it’s not like I just made that all up. And, like I told you before, I want to be the best.”

  Apparently Nate can’t think of anything to say to that, so after a few more seconds of staring, we keep walking. We should be moving faster—it isn’t good to linger outside at night—but I find that I’m not in as much of a hurry as I thought I was. In fact, I think I’m almost enjoying talking to Nate.

  We come to a stream that snakes between the trees. We could jump to the other side if we had to, but the forest has created a way across: Roots like gnarled fingers reach from both sides of the stream, twisting and tangling with one another, interweaving to form an uneven bridge. Wary of what may be lurking in the dark water, I grasp Nate’s hand and pull him quickly across, dropping his hand the moment we reach the other side. We continue our journey between the trees, and I wait for Nate to fill the silence between us.

  It doesn’t take long. “I’m also graduating school soon,” he says, “and hoping to do well. So I sort of understand the pressure you can be under toward the end.”

  “Yeah, falling asleep over an algebra textbook must be really tough on you,” I say, regretting the words as soon as they leave my mouth.

  Nate stops and turns to face me. “Look, I know it’s my fault you’re in trouble, so perhaps you could just let me apologize and we can—” He looks over my shoulder, his eyebrows pulling together. “What’s—”

  *

  Head throbbing . . . Eyelids heavy . . . Can’t wake up . . .

  *

  There’s a hard surface beneath my cheek. The forest smell is gone. I try to open my eyes but it’s as though someone placed weights on them. My thoughts drag like leaden feet through mud, but slowly, ever so slowly, the wheels in my brain begin to turn. I recognize this feeling. It’s the same way I felt after Ryn hit me in the back with a stunner spell during training last year. I was unconscious for several hours, which was more than a little embarrassing. Worth it, though, when Ryn got suspended for a few days.

 
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