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Guardian creepy hollow 1, p.3
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       Guardian (Creepy Hollow, #1), p.3

           Rachel Morgan
 
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  I force my eyelids apart and bite down on my lip, hoping the pain will wake me. It doesn’t work as well as I’d hoped. I see Nate on the floor beside me. As if in slow motion, I watch his leg fly out and kick someone standing between us. There’s a grunt, people struggling, and that’s all it takes to jolt me awake. I jump to my feet. My bow and arrow appear in my hands, pointing directly at our attacker’s forehead. He pulls Nate in front of him and presses his talon-like nails against Nate’s throat.

  We all freeze.

  The young man is a faerie—probably the one responsible for the stunner spell. Even if I couldn’t feel the magic emanating from him, there’s the crimson that streaks through his hair and stains his eyes like fresh blood. Definitely not a human characteristic. Without lowering my weapon, I take note of my surroundings. We’re in . . . a cabin? A shed? Floorboards creak beneath our feet. A glass orb filled with bright white vapors swings from the ceiling, causing shadows to sway across the walls. A dusty window above the faerie’s head reveals darkness outside.

  I wait for the faerie to make a move, but he simply stands there watching me, like we’re locked in a weird staring contest. Eventually I get tired of waiting. “Can we hurry up and get to the part where you try to kill us? I’d like to get home soon.”

  He cocks his head to the side. “Why would I want to kill the boy? We only just found him. You on the other hand . . .”

  “There’ll be no killing just yet, Zell,” says a man behind me. Before I can move, he snaps a piece of metal against my arm. The metal wraps itself around my wrist, above my tracker band. My bow and arrow vanish with a sizzle. I clutch my stinging wrist to my chest.

  “That’s right,” says the man, moving into view. He has no power—definitely human—but his size is enough to fill the room. “Try using magic with that thing on.” He pulls Nate out of Zell’s grip and pushes him into a chair.

  “You don’t want me to get rid of this one, Drake?” I feel Zell’s arm encircle my neck.

  “No, she’s a guardian, isn’t she?”

  “A guardian trainee,” says Zell. He’s obviously noticed the absence of guardian markings on my wrists.

  “Whatever. Maybe she knows about the other one.”

  “Right. The guardian with the special talents.” Zell grabs my wrists, pushes me onto the floor, and ties my arms to a pipe that runs along the wall above me. Special talents? Who are they talking about? I think of my own special ability and grow cold inside. I hope they don’t know what I can do.

  “Now,” Drake says, standing in front of Nate, legs astride and hands on hips. “We need to have a little chat with your mother, but she keeps refusing to see us.”

  Nate looks him up and down. “I can’t imagine why.”

  This comment earns him a slap across the face. “Think you’re smart?” Drake growls.

  Nate recovers with a shake of his head. “Not really. I’m barely passing chemistry.”

  I’m impressed. Turns out this boy’s got more guts than I gave him credit for. Drake grabs Nate around the neck and speaks right into his face. “Where. Is. Your. Mother?”

  Nate turns his head to the side. “Look, my mom and dad are really happy together, so I think you need to back off and find yourself another—”

  “Not your step-mother, idiot,” roars Drake. “Your real mother.” He shoves Nate away and crosses to the other side of the room.

  “If you’re talking about the woman who gave birth to me, she disappeared when I was five months old. I only have one real mother, and she’s probably at home in bed right now.”

  “That’s very sweet,” Drake says, his voice dangerously low, “but not the answer I’m looking for.” He nods at Zell. “We’re going ahead with the original plan.” He storms out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

  “What’s the original plan?” Nate asks Zell.

  “You get to be bait,” Zell says, depositing Nate on the floor and tying his wrists and ankles. “We threaten to kill you, and mommy comes running.” He stares at Nate, then gets down on one knee. “So ordinary,” he says, running a finger down Nate’s cheek. “Such a pity.” He gets up and goes to the door. “Don’t think about squirming anywhere, Nathaniel. I’ll be right outside.”

  I breathe a little easier once we’re alone in the room. The first thing I do is attempt to release some magic. Nothing. Not even a spark. I try not to panic. “This is all very strange,” I whisper to Nate.

  “Tell me about it,” he says. “I’m starting to get that feeling again that this is a dream.”

  I make an irritated noise in the back of my throat. “No, Nate, this is not a dream. And it’s strange because of you.”

  “Me? What did I do now?”

  “I’ve been on a lot of assignments,” I say, “and when fae end up attacking humans it’s not usually because they plan to. Sure, you get the odd prankster fae who are intentionally trying to cause mischief, like goblins or pixies, but it’s usually some creature that ended up in the wrong place at dinner time, or accidentally wound up in a human home, got a fright, and felt the need to protect itself.”

  “Got a fright?”

  “Yes. Creepy creatures get scared too. Anyway, the really evil fae don’t generally go after humans—their issues are typically with other fae, and that’s a job for fully qualified guardians. But that reptiscilla definitely arrived in your room tonight with the intent to kill you, mumbling some rubbish about something ‘happening already’. And now, only a few hours later, someone else is after you.”

  Nate lifts his shoulders. “What can I say? Everyone wants a piece of me.”

  “This isn’t a joke, Nate. You really will be in pieces if we don’t take this seriously.”

  “Oh come on. These guys don’t want to kill me. They just want to use me as bait to lure my child-abandoner mother out of hiding.”

  I sigh. Clearly the only way we’re getting out of here is if I do something about it.

  “What do you think these creeps want with her anyway?” asks Nate.

  “How should I know? It could be anything.”

  “I guess. Well, whatever it is, I’m not interested. My mother chose to leave us, and I don’t really care what she’s got herself involved in.”

  Yeah, right. I’m not about to buy that after his incessant questioning earlier. But I have more important things to worry about right now. I lift my leg up to see if I can get my boot close enough to my hands. No good. My hands are too high up. I’m just not that flexible.

  “This is kind of entertaining,” says Nate, watching me from the floor.

  “Shut up,” I hiss at him, then feel guilty. “I’m sorry.” I lower my voice even more. “I need your help.”

  “The Great Guardian Violet needs my—”

  “Nate.”

  “Sorry. What do you need me to do?”

  I speak as quietly as I can. “There’s a compartment in the sole of my right boot. Inside it is a knife.”

  Nate starts to wriggle across the floor toward me.

  “Quietly,” I remind him. “Don’t let them hear you.”

  He stops when he’s close enough to reach my foot with his hands. “Okay, how do I get it—oh, never mind, got it open.” The knife tumbles out onto the floor.

  “Quiet!”

  “Sorry,” Nate whispers. He sits up and looks at the items in his hand. “Uh, why do you have a pair of earrings in your boot?”

  There’s the tiniest tug at my heart as I look at the arrow-shaped earrings in Nate’s palm. “Oh, they were a gift from a friend.”

  “And you keep them in your boot in case of a fashion emergency while out on assignment?”

  “I keep them in my boot because they were the last gift he gave me before he died.”

  “Oh.” There’s enough light in the cabin for me to make out the color that fills Nate’s cheeks. “Uh, I’m sorry.”

  I sigh. “We were both still little—Reed was eleven and I was nine—but we had these great dreams about
being guardians one day, fighting evil together and making the world a safer place.” I can see Reed teaching me how to use a bow and arrow for the first time. I can almost smell the freshness of the earth on that spring morning. “He never even got to start training,” I say quietly. “I know it’s silly, but I keep the earrings with me because then it sort of feels like Reed’s nearby.”

  “Okay.” Nate nods as though he understands. “So why don’t you just wear them then? I’m sure they’d look prettier in your ears than in the sole of your shoe.”

  Now that I don’t feel like explaining. “Can you put them back, please?”

  Nate lies down and reaches to return the earrings. I feel him close the compartment. “Forgive me for saying this,” he says, “but as a member of a near-immortal race, it seems you know a lot of people who’ve died young.”

  “Nowhere near immortal,” I remind him, “and it’s kind of an occupational hazard in our line of work. Reed’s death never should have happened though; that was just a horrible accident.”

  Nate grasps the knife between his palms. “So what do you want me to do with this?”

  Do I really have to spell it out for him? “I don’t care where you start, Nate—your wrists, your ankles, my ankles—but the aim is to get us out of here.”

  “Okay, okay, I get it.” He sits up, holds the knife in one hand, and begins to move it awkwardly back and forth across the rope that binds his wrists. And then he drops it.

  The knife clatters onto the wooden floor. A second later the door swings open. Zell glares at us and bends to pick up the knife. He shakes his head as he leaves the room, muttering, “Pathetic.”

  I consider screaming something like why did you have to drop the damn knife? But I decide it’s not worth it. I slump against the wall. I’m tired and in pain and beginning to lose feeling in my fingertips. And I’m worried about how Filigree will fend for himself if I don’t make it home; his supply of roasted nixles won’t last more than a few days.

  “I’m sorry,” Nate whispers eventually.

  “For what exactly?” I ask. It seems to me he has a lot of things to be sorry for tonight.

  “For landing you in trouble with your Guild. For getting you kidnapped. For messing up your escape plan.”

  “It wasn’t much of a plan,” I admit.

  He lies down. I wish I could do the same. “And just so you know,” he adds, “I am actually taking this all seriously. It’s just . . . I usually deal with stress by making light of it. So it’s not that I think this is all one big joke, I’m just . . .”

  “Dealing with it,” I fill in for him.

  “Yeah.” He lapses into silence, then asks, “How long before someone discovers you’re missing?”

  I shift my legs beneath me, trying to find a more comfortable position. “Depends how much time goes by before Tora tries to contact me.”

  “And do you have, like, faerie police or something who will come looking for you?”

  “Yes. They’re called guardians.”

  “Okay. So guardians are like the police.” I imagine tiny cogs turning in Nate’s brain. “Then is the Guild like the government?”

  “Well, not exactly. There’s the Seelie Court, which has a queen. So the Seelie Queen and the Guild Council work together to determine the Law.”

  “Seelie Court,” murmurs Nate. “Sounds familiar. Was it in a computer game?”

  “Do I look like someone who plays computer games?”

  A grin stretches across Nate’s face. “You look like someone who could be in a computer game.”

  Having never paid much attention to computers, I’m not sure whether to be offended or not. I decide to ignore the comment. “The Seelie Court are the good guys,” I explain. “The Unseelie Court are the bad guys.”

  Nate nods. “Right. Got it.” I wonder what will happen in his brain when I give him the potion. Will this knowledge be magically covered up? Or will it be erased completely, like wiping a message off my amber?

  “Vi,” he says after a few moments of silence. “Will you still graduate? I mean, if we get out of here alive.”

  “Yes, I think so. I just won’t be top of my class.”

  “So? Is it really that important to be the best?”

  I shrug—a movement that’s somewhat awkward with my arms tied above my head. “This is all I have. It’s my whole life.” Which is the truth, despite the fact that it’s not the whole truth. There isn’t a single person—not even Tora—who knows why I want that top position so badly, and I’d like to keep it that way.

  Nate squirms around a bit on the floor, trying to get comfortable, and then jumps when Zell pounds on the door and shouts at him to stop moving. With a pop, the light above us disappears. Zell’s work, no doubt.

  I start to doze off. Probably the after effects of the stunner spell.

  “Thank you, by the way,” says Nate, his voice breaking through my sleepy haze, “for saving me from that thing in my room.”

  A weird feeling comes over me, and I realize I’ve never been thanked before. Of course I haven’t. Before Nate, no one ever knew I was helping them.

  “How did you know about that creepy reptile lady anyway?” he asks.

  “The Seers,” I tell him. “They work with us at the Guild. They tell us what they See of the future—which is only a fraction of all the things that may come to pass—and guardians go out and stop the bad things before they happen.”

  He yawns. “I guess they missed the bit where we got kidnapped.”

  “Yeah. It’s not a perfect system.”

  CHAPTER FOUR

  I wake up to find dim light trying to force its way through the dusty window. My stomach aches. My arms are numb. Nate stretches his tied-up legs and groans. He sits up, pushing his floppy hair out of his eyes.

  “Why am I so hungry?” I ask. “It’s barely morning.”

  From a shadowed corner, Zell laughs. “Morning’s come and gone, sweetheart.”

  “What?”

  He comes toward me. “Sorry, had to hit you with another stunner.” He starts untying my rubbery arms. “The plan took a little longer than expected to put into place.” Heat prickles down my arms as blood rushes toward my fingertips. I clench and unclench my hands, and the prickling intensifies.

  Zell hauls me to my feet. “Time to start the show.” He holds my hands together and reties my wrists in front of me. “I’m not sure why I’m even bothering with this; I know you’re useless without your magic and weapons.”

  Not true. “Are we taking the paths?” I ask, thinking that perhaps Nate and I can break away from Zell and end up somewhere else.

  “Don’t be an idiot. Drake’s human.”

  “And so am I,” adds Nate.

  Zell just laughs and shakes his head. How does he know Nate survived a journey through the faerie paths? “Besides, we don’t have to travel anywhere,” says Zell. “We’re right where we need to be.”

  He cuts the rope around Nate’s ankles and pulls him off the floor just as Drake enters the room. Drake rubs his oversized hands together and exposes his teeth in an ugly grin. “Let’s get this party started.”

  He yanks Nate away from Zell and pushes him out the door, then reaches for my arm and forces me out after him. I trip on a step, regain my balance, and look around. My heart thumps out a faster rhythm. I recognize our location, though I’ve only been here once before. We’re at the edge of the Creepy Hollow forest. The trees come to an end a few paces away, and beyond that is a flat, grassy patch. And beyond that—a sheer drop that ends so far below it’s impossible to even make out the bottom.

  I wish I didn’t know that right now.

  Zell and Drake steer us out of the trees. On the other side of the ravine I can see the sun disappearing in a blaze of orange and pink. But something on this side catches my attention. A contraption of some sort, built right on the edge. A wooden beam runs parallel to the ground and juts out over the ravine. It almost looks like one of those hangman diagrams I
ve seen children drawing in their notebooks when I’ve been on the occasional school assignment.

  Oh no. No no no no no.

  “You can’t do this,” I shout, digging my heels into the ground.

  “You don’t even know what we have planned,” Zell says, forcing me to keep moving.

  “You’re going to hang Nate from that thing and dangle him over the gorge!”

  “W—what?” Nate stammers.

  “You forgot about the part where we let the rope drop a little further every few minutes, just to hear him scream,” says Zell.

  We reach the contraption and Zell pushes me down onto the grass. Drake pulls a lever and the wooden beam swings around so that it’s above us. Rings of metal along the top of the beam guide a rope that ends in a hook.

  “So, um, you’re not actually going to let me die, are you?” says Nate, his voice wavering slightly. “I mean, you believe that my mother cares about me and you’re just trying to scare her into showing up. Right?”

  “Well, if she doesn’t show, then we don’t have any further use for you,” says Drake. “So I guess we’ll let you drop all the way then.”

  I kick Zell’s legs as hard as I can. He falls with a cry, and I scramble to my feet. I run at Drake, leap onto his back, and loop my arms over his head. I yank my rope as tightly as I can against his throat.

  “Run!” I scream at Nate. “Run, you id—argh!” A searing pain burns across my left shoulder, and I tumble off Drake. Zell’s face is suddenly right above mine. He grabs the front of my shirt, his hands still sparking with the magic he just threw at me, and pulls my face even closer.

  “I should stun you, stupid girl, but as punishment for that little act of rebellion, I think you should be awake to hear your friend scream.”

  “Toss her off the cliff,” gasps Drake, his hand at his bruised neck. “What the hell do we need her for?”

 
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