Black moon, p.29
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       Black Moon, p.29

           Romina Russell
 
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  Hearing Hysan’s brilliant deductions always makes me wish I could rifle through the files of his mind. It seems like such a fascinating place to visit. “What about Sagittarius?” I ask.

  “The Marad’s first act of war took place on a Sagittarian moon. The army’s first galactic address threatened the Guardian of Sagittarius. Whatever they have planned for the Ninth House, maybe we haven’t seen it yet.”

  The thought of Nishi enduring more pain makes me nauseous. “And Cancer?” I whisper. “Why us?”

  “You’re the sacrifice,” he says, and I think back to the words I exchanged with Fernanda. “Of all the Houses, Pisces’s Sight isn’t what poses the greatest threat—it’s Cancer’s heart. Cardinal Houses are unmovable. Cancrians are nurturers who won’t abandon anyone. For you, the loss of one life is equal to the loss of thousands. So you’re the one world the master could never hope to convert.”

  He cups my cheek in his hand. “But even if I’m right about the pattern, I still don’t know why he’s doing this, Rho. I know which votes he’s targeting, but I still don’t know the question.”

  I turn my face and kiss the inside of his palm. Then he finishes getting dressed, since we have to get going to the Cathedral. While he straps on his belt with the ceremonial dagger, I ask, “What do you think of Untara?”

  “She’s strange, a little hard to get a read on. I have Miss Trii looking into her. Who’s the source that put you on to her, by the way?”

  “Traxon Harwing.”

  Hysan stares at me in surprise. “I didn’t realize you knew him.”

  “We met briefly on Vitulus, during the celebration. And the past few days he was hiding out in the Pegazi stables outside the palace because Blaze wouldn’t let him into the ball.”

  Hysan laughs. “Sounds like Trax.”

  I frown. “What does he have against you?”

  “Why? What did he say?”

  “He just . . .” I clear my throat. “He saw us the morning after the ball, when we were sneaking back into the palace.” Hysan’s face slackens with surprise, and he sits down at the edge of the bed. “And he decided to remind me that you’ve never liked being tied down,” I say, adopting the same phrase Hysan once used to describe himself.

  “Rho . . . I can’t change my past.”

  “I know. I just wondered why he said that to me.”

  “You’d have to ask him,” he says vaguely, his ears turning pink. His shy reaction confirms my theory; Hysan’s probably picked up on Trax’s feelings for him, but he’s too much of a gentleman to say anything, so I drop the subject.

  “There’s just one final thing I need your help with,” I say, slipping off the black glove to reveal the Scarab around my wrist.

  “Chieftain Skiff gave me this, and I don’t know how to get it off—”

  Hysan grabs my hand and brings the bangle up to eyelevel. Light emits from the golden star in his right iris as he scans the Scarab. “Why did he give this to you?” he asks tersely.

  “I’m not sure. I think he maybe meant it as a token of trust.”

  “Did he show you how to operate it? Or explain how to remove it?”

  “No.”

  “Then how is this a good thing?” he demands, a sharpness in his voice that’s unlike him.

  “Do you know him well?” I ask as he tests the bangle for pressure points.

  “No. He’s the Guardian I know least. He makes it incredibly difficult to get an audience, and I prefer to keep Neith a good distance from him anyway, just in case, since he’s the best inventor in the Zodiac.” Hysan doesn’t find any hidden keys, and sweat forms along his hairline, his forehead scrunched up with worry.

  “This isn’t a normal Scarab,” he says tonelessly. “There are no visible controls. That could mean someone else controls it.”

  He runs out of the room so fast that it takes me a moment to realize he’s gone, and I go after him. Hysan rips out the wires connected to Neith, unhooking him from every device, then he activates the android.

  Neith sits bolt upright and blinks a few times. “Charge incomplete,” he announces in his booming voice.

  “Forget that,” says Hysan. “I need your help removing that Scarab from Rho’s wrist.”

  Neith follows Hysan’s gaze, and he rises to his feet, holding his hand out for mine. I rest my wrist on his palm, and he inspects the bangle. After a few moments, he says, “Removing this Scarab will require a key we don’t possess.”

  “Then we’ll saw it off—”

  “Any attempts to forcefully remove a Scarab can result in the device turning on its wearer. It could sting Lady Rho with its poison.”

  My body goes cold.

  “Then tell me how we get it off!” Hysan yells.

  I’ve never seen Hysan lose his temper like this, and my stomach is so knotted I can barely keep upright. “It’s okay,” I say as calmly as I can. “Hysan, this can wait—”

  “We can’t let someone have control of Rho’s life,” he says to Neith, ignoring me. “Skiff could activate the poison any moment if he wants!”

  “We are being called to the Cathedral,” says the android regally, unmoved by Hysan’s tantrum. “We will find a way to extricate Lady Rho from this situation after the Quorum.”

  “No,” says Hysan decisively. “We’re not going anywhere until this is off her wrist.”

  “Hysan.” Neith adopts a deeply authoritarian tone I haven’t heard him use before. “You must put aside your emotions; they cloud your judgment. Nothing has happened to Rho yet, so there is no reason to believe she is in danger. We can return to this problem after the Quorum.”

  “I can’t take that chance. She’s more important.”

  “No, I’m not,” I say. “The Quorum matters much more—so let’s go.”

  Hysan finally looks at me. “Rho, you don’t understand. Skiff could be the master. If someone was going to pull off the kind of technological feats the Marad has accomplished, I can’t think of anyone more qualified in the Zodiac.”

  “You heard him at the meeting,” I say. “He trusts me—”

  “And since when has Scorpio ever defended you? His support could just be a way of deflecting suspicion.”

  Behind him, Neith begins to shake, his teeth chattering like his body is experiencing an earthquake.

  Hysan wheels around just as the android’s eyes go blank, and in a terrifying voice completely unlike his usual one, he says, “I SEE YOU.”

  33

  NEITH’S FIST SWINGS AT HYSAN, who reflexively ducks his head. The punch blows a hole through the ceramic wall instead.

  Hysan beams a light from his Scan and tries to sync it with Neith’s eyes, but the android swings at him with his other arm, and Hysan is forced to duck once more.

  Neith’s fist connects with air, and the force of his strength spins him around enough to notice me. His blank stare fixes on my face, and my heart bruises my chest with its beating.

  I scramble backwards toward the hall, but he lunges at me with his superhuman speed, and I scream. His fingers graze my shoulders as he crashes facedown on the floor.

  I stare at his long body in bewilderment, and the only thing I can hear is my heavy breathing. A gold stem sticks out the back of Neith’s white head.

  “Are you okay?” asks Hysan, holstering a small golden weapon into a suit pocket. He holds my face in his hands and surveys my eyes, like everything he needs to know is in their depths.

  “What happened?” I ask, aghast.

  Hysan’s voice hardens, but his expression grows sad. “The master has discovered my secret.”

  • • •

  I have to run to keep up with Hysan. He leads us to the door-less lifts and hits the button for the top floor. From his focused brow, I can tell he’s communicating with someone, most likely Miss Trii. She’s the only one who can help
him with Neith now.

  Floors flicker past, and the furrow of Hysan’s brow steepens the higher up we go. Losing Neith will be like losing a real parent for him.

  I take his hand in mine, and he squeezes my fingers. When we reach the top story, it’s completely dark, but a muted light fades up as soon as we step off the lift. A collection of shoes is lined up against a wall, and Hysan begins to pull off his boots. As I do the same, I remember what I learned about the Cathedral in my studies: It’s the place with the highest concentration of Psynergy in the Zodiac.

  Hysan takes my hand again, and we enter a semi-dark, domed room that spans the length of the Holy Temple. One must be barefoot to walk inside because the floor is made entirely of human bones.

  Every Disciple donates her corpse to this Cathedral. Since the Twelfth House believes the body matters less than the soul, they crush their bones beneath their feet and place their focus on the stars. That’s why above us is the Zodiac Solar System.

  All twelve constellations blink down at us, and Helios glows in the Cathedral’s center, providing the only light in the space. Pisces has a satellite with a telescope that projects back this magnified 360-degree view of the Zodiac into this room. It feels like we’re stranded on a cadaverous island on the clearest night in history.

  Stan, Mom, Mathias, Pandora, Rubi, Brynda, and Marinda are already here, in a circle beneath our galactic sun.

  “Where’s Lord Neith?” asks Rubi.

  “He’s asked me to come in his stead,” says Hysan. “He has House Libra business to attend to.”

  “But the Quorum—”

  “I think we’ll be fine,” says Brynda, watching Hysan knowingly. He looks back at her, and in that instant it’s clear she knows his secret.

  “Yes, Lord Neith has recalled Miss Trii to his side, so it seems serious,” says Marinda kindly, her voice frail. “Let us leave him be.”

  The door to the Cathedral flies open, and someone new rushes into the room. “I’m sorry I’m late,” says Fernanda, running over in an olive green suit, her boots still on.

  “She’s one of the Tomorrow Party’s supporters!” Stan calls out accusingly.

  “Yes, I was,” she says breathlessly. “But only to get close to them.” She looks at me. “Something about their recruitment methods made me think there might be a connection to the Marad, and I thought by getting involved I could find out who was behind it.”

  “Untara,” I supply.

  “That’s what I thought.” Her hawk eyes narrow on my face suspiciously as she adds, “Except she’s dead.”

  34

  “DEAD?” ECHOES BRYNDA. “HOW?”

  Fernanda shakes her head. “I don’t know. That’s why I was late. The Elders just found her body. She’s been dead for weeks, and someone else has been masquerading as her hologram.”

  I think of when Dr. Eusta’s hologram approached me at the Hippodrome and ordered me home. It wasn’t Ochus who forged my Advisor’s appearance. It was the master. Just like he did with Untara. So who is it?

  Fernanda’s fierce gaze finds me again, and for a moment I think she’s going to accuse me. But before she can speak, a soft voice asks, “What’s that up there?”

  I look at Pandora and follow her line of sight into Space. In the area past Pisces, where House Ophiuchus used to be, lights are starting to flicker. Like stars peeking out from behind a heavy cloud covering.

  It’s the thirteenth constellation.

  Tendrils of electricity streak across the solar system like lightning. At first I think we’re still seeing what’s happening in Space, but then bolts of light begin striking the bones of the Cathedral floor.

  “What’s happening?” shouts Stan over the buzzing sounds of the electricity. He shields Mom; Mathias grabs Pandora; Rubi, Brynda, and Fernanda gather around Marinda; and Hysan grips my hand tighter.

  Suddenly the screeching sound of Psynergy that used to herald Ochus’s arrival overtakes me. I cover my ears, and Brynda, Rubi, Marinda, Fernanda, and Hysan do the same, the six of us falling to the bone floor.

  My soul feels like it’s being ripped from my chest, and I press my hands to my ribcage as the Psynergy attacks me.

  Only my Ring isn’t buzzing—it’s cold. I flash to how I felt in the Piscene lobby, and by the black tent on Nightwing, and suddenly I understand what the master is doing to House Pisces.

  He’s Psyphoning their Psynergy.

  Just like he’s channeling ours now.

  I squint up to see what’s happening, and the lightning above us begins to form a shape, like a constellation being outlined in the stars. As the brightness dims, I make out the man and the snake.

  It’s Ophiuchus.

  When the pull on my Psynergy finally subsides, I feel weak and sickly, and my brain buzzes. Hysan and I slowly get to our feet, and so do the other Guardians. And suddenly a man’s gut-wrenching screams fill the air.

  Ochus’s icy face is in agony as his frame shrinks and begins descending through the lights, like a constellation of shooting stars. Something is happening to him as he falls: Black hair sprouts from his head, and his icy body grows a layer of thick skin unlike any I’ve seen before.

  Then he falls to a heap on the bone floor, naked and facedown.

  And human.

  “Rho.” Hysan’s grip on my hand cuts my circulation, and I look to him in horror as he says, “The thirteenth Talisman is here.”

  And so is the master.

  35

  THIRTEEN MARAD SOLDIERS IN WHITE porcelain masks storm into the Cathedral and surround us. They train their black cylindrical weapons on our chests—the same ones that stopped Deke’s and Twain’s hearts.

  Two more people walk in behind them, a Stargazer and a Dreamcaster. I recognize the Geminin—Yana—from earlier; she was tending to the little girl who was crying out for her mom. They both stand at either end of the Marad soldiers, and there’s little doubt they’re the ones who let them into the Holy Temple.

  “Samira?” asks Brynda in shock, staring at the Sagittarian. “Why?”

  The Stargazer says nothing. Rubi looks just as betrayed by Yana, but she seems too speechless to speak.

  Suddenly one of the Marad soldiers steps forward and removes his mask. He’s a teenaged guy with a face unlike any I’ve seen before: His skin is gray and grainy, like levlan, and his irises are yellow and oval shaped. He’s Ophiuchan.

  “The Thirteenth House thanks you for your donation,” he says with a wide smile. His voice has a raspy edge.

  He tilts his head back and looks up at the blinking lights just past Pisces—the first few Ophiuchan stars that have returned. “Our home is calling us back. Looks like there’s a place for us in the Zodiac after all.”

  “Where is your master?” demands Hysan, his strong and brave voice cutting a gash through the atmosphere of fear.

  “How do you know I’m not he?” asks the teen. “Youth can be deceiving, right, Rubidum?” He winks at the Geminin Guardian, who is still standing with Brynda and Fernanda, protecting Marinda.

  “But why am I saying this to you?” he asks Hysan. “You know better than most just how deceiving youth can be.”

  “So are you or aren’t you the master?” I snap, my heart jumping into action before the Ophiuchan can reveal Hysan’s secret.

  “What do you think, Rho? Am I master material?” He spins around for us like he’s modeling his white Marad uniform. “And please, don’t spare my feelings just because I’ve got a dozen Murmurs pointed at you and everyone you love.”

  That must be the name of the cylindrical weapon.

  “If you have your House back, what do you want from us?” demands Stanton. Mom instinctively pulls him closer as the Ophiuchan stares at my brother.

  The soldier steps toward my family, and I move closer to them, too. He brings the hand not holding the weapon up to his nec
k, like he’s looking for something, and then drops it suddenly.

  The incomplete movement feels familiar, and goose bumps race through me.

  “Aryll.”

  He turns to me with his widest smile yet. “Rho wins this round! I’ll get to you in a moment, dear. First I want to say hi to Stan. Hey, buddy.”

  My brother is pale, his eyes lost. “Aryll . . . don’t do this.” Stan’s emotions are so imbalanced that his heart has swung to the opposite extreme, and now pity has gotten the best of his anger. He still wants to think there’s good in his former friend.

  “Wait, wait, wait, don’t tell me!” cries Aryll, clasping his hands together as he studies Mom. “Is this the Grace Matriarch?”

  His yellow eyes grow darkly delighted. “Bang up job you did with these two! You could write a book on parenting! I’ve got your title right here: How to raise kids with such crippling abandonment issues, they can’t even give up on a guy when he’s about to murder them.”

  “What have you done to the Piscene people?” asks Hysan, still speaking with the authority of one who’s in control.

  Aryll whirls around to face him, intense dislike lining his features. “What have you done to your people? My master has been around enough millennia to have studied everything. Machines are no match for him.”

  “So where is he then?” I ask, again trying to deflect the attention off Hysan.

  “Pretty protective of your man, aren’t you, Rho? How does Mathias feel about that?” He looks to where Mathias is standing, his arm on Pandora’s shoulder.

  “Well, he bounced back fast.”

  From the floor, Ophiuchus lets out a long, torturous wail and curls into himself.

  “What’s happening to him?” I ask.

 
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