Death isn’t supposed to be like this, crying in the wilderness with no path to follow.
I fought a flash of panic. Were the Shadows coming?
But what were Shadows, anyway? Why did I fear them? If I could grasp my name, any detail of my previous life, I might gain some understanding. I’ve tried and tried, but only one thought makes sense:
Before I died, I might have been a witch.
I remember that witches spoke about Summerland, the other world people travel to after their Earth-life. Some witches even knew about Talamadden, the special Sanctuary within Summerland, for those who might have a second chance at life.
Was I supposed to have a second chance?
In my nothing space in the nothing place, I wished for an end to my nothing existence. I couldn’t even see myself, not my legs or arms or clothes. For all I knew, I was only air and thought.
Goddess, please. If you ever knew me, help me now because I can’t take much more.
If I had been a witch, maybe the Great Mother would listen. I felt sure I once believed in her, but did she still believe in me?
A faint rustling noise made me look up. It was the first sound I could remember in so, so long.
“Show yourself! Are you Shadows?” My voice sounded small and cracked and desperate. I wished I had a sword, then wondered why.
“Speak,” I demanded, though I knew I had no power to compel.
The low command rang from my right side, and I jerked around to see a bird drifting gracefully out of the darkness. He was not made of the dreaded Shadows, no. A real creature with a jaunty step and bright, well-cleaned feathers.
Jasmina. He called me Jasmina.
That was right! My name. Names had power. I could feel a stirring in my belly, sense a warming in my cheeks.
From some echo deep within my essence came a boy’s whisper, and it said, Jazz.
A heaviness overcame me, like I had changed from a collection of air and thought to something much more solid. My thoughts became more solid, too.
Squinting and blinking to clear my senses, I tried to believe what my mind perceived. The last thing I expected to find in the land of the dead was a talking peacock who knew my name. Animals were supposed to be innocents, never having to worry about spiritual struggles.
That’s witch-knowing, Jasmina. I had to have been a witch. Jasmina, the witch.
Then again came that boy’s whisper. Jazz…
I couldn’t imagine why a peacock would be an exception to the innocent animal idea, so the very sight of his sparkling blue body and long feather train made me nervous, not to mention the way he looked at me, like he had known me.
His black-pearl eyes glittered like candles lit by dark magic. Only, there was no magic in Talamadden. At least not magic I could use, if indeed I had been a witch.
Staring at the bird, I stiffened my back against the leafless tree on the grassless patch of ground. Not far from the tree stood a hut I had never entered. I hadn’t encountered another being since I died. Only the hut, the dusty ground, a stream, and that tree. I had come to consider it my tree, though it had no life, no leaves, no tree-heart beating beneath its spongy bark. Its scrawny branches reached toward the starless, moonless sky like dozens of hag fingers, clawing out the night’s eyes.
The stream, if such black, inky depths could be called a stream, was odd. It moved in a way it shouldn’t, backward, against nature. I didn’t know if the water was warm or cool because I never really felt thirsty or hungry. I never lost weight or gained weight. Nothing was ever dirty, and nothing was ever clean. I felt peaceful, yet disturbed. Alone, yet surrounded by strange energies somewhere in the darkness, far beyond my limited square of existence.
Now, I was nearly nose-to-nose with a haughty-looking peacock who shouldn’t be in the land of the dead at all.
“You must leave this place,” the bird said flatly. “Darkness is coming, and it’s hungry for you.”
I swallowed hard, trying to wet my lips and tongue enough to speak again. “What are you?”
The peacock paused a few seconds to preen, flicking bits of dirt in my direction. Then he seemed to recover himself and once more fixed me with that glittering ebony gaze.
“Jasmina Corey, Queen of the Witches, please stop wasting time and get up.”
Hearing that name and title jarred my senses. I shook my head, suddenly aware of the weight of my hair. It was—or had been in life—the same shade of black as the bird’s unrelenting eyes. In human form, I did have black hair. In full magical form, I was a brilliant gold, like most witches born to the craft.
Slowly, slowly, I did know. And I became what I knew. That girl who had been. That girl who still existed. Legs, arms, hair, eyes—I was me, and I did believe the bird was right. Once, I had been Queen of the Witches. Before death, before battling an evil so great it killed me before my time, before being forced to face my destiny at sixteen years of age.
Was I still sixteen? Had I been here a day? A week? Who could say how time moved in death’s haven?
“Summerland,” the bird said, reading my thoughts without effort. “At least the main part. This section where you hide, it is Talamadden, yes, death’s haven—but it soon will be no haven for you. On your feet.”
A chill overtook me, and I shivered. That surprised me. I had felt neither hot nor cold since my death. “What are you?” I demanded again.
At this, the peacock gave a great sigh. “The last thing you will ever see if you do not stand and follow me.”
I complied, moving first to my knees, then towering above the unusual blue-feathered creature. Goddess, but standing was an effort.
“Don’t you understand?” the bird asked calmly, as if he were speaking to a stubborn toddler. “It’s true. Death shouldn’t be like this. More importantly, the land of the dead shouldn’t be like this, dark and lifeless and soul-draining. Summerland—especially Talamadden—is a place of renewal and contemplation, a place of heightened existence and choices.”
“That’s not what I’ve found.” I wrapped my arms around myself and rocked, toe to heel, toe to heel.
“Because you haven’t looked.” Truth flowed through the notes of the bird’s forceful bass. I found myself breathing in short, sharp gasps. “My name is Egidus,” he added. “And you need to follow me out of this blighted nowhere.”
“Egidus,” I muttered as I tried to take a step. The name troubled me, as if I should recognize it. I didn’t have time to focus on triviality, however. My legs felt like leaden machinery. A wracking, painful sensation crawled up my spine. My chest ached.
“This is why I stopped looking.” I rubbed my ribs and neck at the same time. “If I move again, I’ll have a vision. I’ll be able to see, smell, taste, hear—but never touch. Never be a part of what I’m seeing. If I move too much, or make too much noise, the Shadows might come to steal me. Everything feels like punishment.”
“Not everything in the universe is about you, Jasmina.” The bird sounded so confident I wanted to kick him, and that emotion gave me new and deeper surprise. “Visions always come for a reason. Before you forgot yourself, you knew this fact.”
Irked by his insult, I managed another step away from the tree and toward the peacock. In response, he edged toward the unnatural stream, on the far side of the leafless tree. I glanced toward the water, then at the impenetrable darkness masking its flow a few yards away.
If Shadows weren’t a figment of my imagination, surely they lived beyond these boundaries. I would be consumed by them. Swallowed alive.
My body tensed.
At that moment, a window opened in the blackness, from ground to the height of the lowest tree branches, playing life like a movie I didn’t want to watch.
I remembered him then, my Bren, my champion. The companion of my heart. I could see him! Ah, gods, how my heart ached, just recognizing his familiar stride. Beside him, the giant-like Rol, who had once been my Training Master and the father I so needed when my own was murdered.
“Jasmina’s passing to death’s haven, it was no fault of yours.” Rol placed his hand on Bren’s shoulder and squeezed, drawing Bren’s gaze back to his. “You must release this guilt and some of your anger, or you will be unable to meet the queen again.”
Bren shivered like a ghost had just passed across his flesh. “What are you talking about?”
Rol stared at his battered boots and looked back to Bren. “I thought you knew. I was impressed, even, that you had made no impulsive attempt to find what cannot be found.”
Bren jerked, his fists clenching and unclenching. “Quit talking in riddles, Rol. You’re making it sound like Jazz didn’t die.”
“She died,” he said flatly. “Too young, from evil intent and dark magic. It was an unnatural passing.”
Rol! I went stiff again, fighting what I was seeing. How could he remind Bren of the way I died? How could he give Bren information that might lead him to believe he could come for me?
I squeezed my eyes shut, but I could still see them standing there in my mind’s eye. Rol, my loyal Training Master. Bren, almost as tall as Rol, with his own set of muscles. And that hair, now longer than I remembered. A day’s dark stubble as always, and those warm brown eyes. He looked the champion more than ever. The Shadowalker. The new King of the Witches.
A wave of sadness made me choke. Could I miss him any more?
But Rol had no business putting ideas in Bren’s head. What if the fool tried to find me? He’d be killed, or possessed, or worse.
For a moment, the visions eased. Egidus kept quiet as the sight of Bren bruised my thoughts.
“I was Jasmina Corey, Queen of the Witches,” I muttered. “I perished because of a Shadow wound I received while helping Bren defeat Nire, the most evil being ever known. Too bad Nire was Bren’s mother.”
“You kidnapped the boy, the one you call Bren,” Egidus intoned. “You forced him to help you in your quest to save the witches. You trapped him on the Path and gave him almost no choice about becoming the Shadowalker.”
“Don’t remind me.” I clenched my fists. My hands and arms seemed to weigh hundreds of pounds.
“But I must,” the bird said coldly. “You owe him a debt that cannot be repaid so long as you submit to the dark forces conspiring to eliminate you even here, in Talamadden.”
“No one knows how to leave the land of the dead,” I countered, growing more animated with fear for Bren. “And if the living enter, they aren’t the living for long. Worse yet, because they died by their own folly, they would move on, like my father did. No Talamadden. No second chance.”
“Then we’re agreed.” Rol sounded more confident than he looked. “You won’t attempt some foolhardy search for Talamadden?”
The vision’s return ambushed me. I dug my fingers into my palms and watched, helpless.
Red crept across Bren’s cheeks. “Of course not. I’m King of the Witches now. I have responsibility—and Dad and Todd and everything.”
The look Bren got from Rol communicated no belief in the lie Bren had no doubt just spoken. For his part, Rol seemed to be deciding about something, then turned rock-like and mute.
I had the sense that Bren wanted to turn Rol into a real boulder just for kicks.
“Are you awake?” Egidus asked in a taunting voice, startling me into looking at his unsettling eyes.
I glared, but I nodded.
“Pay attention,” he instructed.
I blinked, but saw no more darkness. Again, the wavy, fuzzy visions of the living world filled my senses. The scene was bathed in the golden glow of sunset, and I recognized the glen behind the general store in Live Oak Springs Township. L.O.S.T., my favorite spot in the town I made. The town I never got to enjoy.
At this, I started to cry. The tears felt cold and useless on my cheeks. Something in Bren’s determined expression unsettled me, but I kept staring, unable to turn away. Even in autumn, the glen looked beautiful, as it always did. Trees, the small pond—ah, the wind, forcing ripples across the blue surface and leaves falling in lazy spirals to land in the dry grass around Bren. We had no wind in Talamadden. It was lovely to watch and imagine.
Bren sat in the grass beside the pond. He looked deep in thought, alternately angry and helpless, then bright and full of energy. He frowned and gazed into the water, seeming to study his own reflection. His fingers absently traced the lines of his scar.
I jolted back to my own reality, heart pounding. The ends of my fingers tingled. I had touched that scar long ago. I remembered the warm, wounded feel of it, right before I told Bren I loved him. Right before I died. For one long, eerie moment, I felt like I was back in the world of the living.
I could imagine settling into the grass beside the pool and touching Bren’s soft brown hair. I could almost hear him dressing me down for changing him into a donkey when I got angry. Just then, in the vision, he turned his attention to the pond and acted like I was sitting beside him. I felt like I was sitting beside him, barrier or no. This no longer felt like an image, but a real, live happening. I stood shaking, leaning hard against the barrier between us.
“Mom being Nire. I still can’t get past that.” Bren sounded so clear and real. “I’ve written down everything I know about her and given copies to the oldeFolke, so if she ever shows up again, maybe they can keep her contained.” He sighed. “Dad divorced her not long after I—uh—cut her loose. What else could he do?”
My heart felt like two fists were squeezing it. How I wanted to reach through time and space and death and life to hold him. He was so lonely!
“I miss her, though.” He picked up a flat rock and skipped it across the pond. “Not Nire. I miss the mom I loved when I was growing up, like Todd does. It’s like she died, too, you know?”
My poor Bren. What did I do to you? I let out a deep sigh, and the wind in my vision blew, and the waves on the pond picked up. A few of them splashed against the grassy shore.
Bren found another stone and flung it toward the pond. “Todd and I still haven’t found Alderon. It’s too bad he got away before we had a chance to capture him. But we will.”
He scooped up yet another rock, this time flinging it to the other side of the pond and into the grove of live oaks. “Finding all of our half-brothers will be a huge job. It’s been a challenge figuring out if those we come across are loyal to Nire or actually good people, but it has to be done.”
I left you with such a mess. Another sigh escaped me, and more wind blew across the pond in my vision. More waves splashed against the ground.
“Your mom’s a real pain in the ass.” Bren started to pull at the drawstring on his shirt, and then dropped his hand. “She’s helping me a lot with this King of the Witches business, though. She and Dad argue all the time, but I’m afraid that deep down, he really likes her. Kind of like us. Opposites attracting, and all that garbage.”
Without thinking, I laughed. That was beyond imagining. Bren’s normal-as-normal father, and my perfectionistic, unforgiving witch of a mother, getting along.
Bren shook his head. “My dad—I never would have believed he’d take all this in stride. But he said if Todd and I belonged here, he belonged with us. And then he made that computer program to help us keep track of witches we rescue, and where we take them.
“The new Path’s doing well. I’ve been able to attach two Sanctuaries.” He smiled. “Dad’s computer program helps with that, too, since he’s loaded in so much history information and gives me a hand picking the best places.”
He rubbed his palm over his face. “Come on, Jazz. I can’t do this. Rol told me about Summerland. About Talamadden—death’s haven, and the fact your soul might still be hanging around somewhere.”
At these words, I wanted to find a way to kill Rol. I should have beheaded him the minute he told Bren about the probability I was in Talamadden. How could he do this to me? To Bren?
“I can’t believe all this time, I could have been looking for you,” Bren continued. “That maybe you could have been talking to me or sending me dreams or something.”
“That is not why you’re hearing this,” Egidus warned from somewhere, seemingly a million miles away. I had forgotten about him, and wished he would disappear. “Just listen.”
Bren looked beyond hurt. I could tell he was swallowing curse after curse, and I wanted to throw my arms around him. He would have felt nothing, even if I could have managed such a feat.
“Are you out there?” he shouted. “Don’t leave me hanging like this, you arrogant witch! I—”
His words got all choked up, but he coughed just like my mother always did and made himself finish. “I love you! I won’t ever love anyone else, and I’m coming to find you no matter what, so you might as well just talk, if you can.”
Caution left me in a rush. I pounded against the barrier between us. It shimmered, like the surface of the pond, but didn’t give.
“Bren!” I screamed. “I would if I could!”
On the other side of the barrier, the clearing remained as quiet as a tomb. Then, a puff of breeze grew stronger and lifted Bren’s hair from his shoulders. He looked around, sniffing.
I staggered back, then forward again, pressing my hands against the barrier.
Did I have some presence he could sense?
“Bren, please. Forgive yourself and let me go,” I sobbed. “Forgive yourself!”
Bren seemed to listen for a moment. Then he mumbled. “What Rol said… I know I need to get over it. But if only I had been stronger! If only I had thrown that horrible golem far, far away, you would have lived.”
He closed his eyes.
“Forgive yourself,” I sobbed again, falling forward, pressing my whole body against the barrier.
Eyes still closed, Bren lifted his head and faced exactly in my direction. “I love you, Jazz,” he said, this time gently, with all the feeling I had wanted to hear.
Face pressed against the barrier, arms outstretched, I answered with the force of my own feeling. “I love you, too, Bren.”
My heart pounded as Bren seemed to catch my desperate whisper. He turned his head to and fro, taking in a scent that pleased him.
Cinnamon and peaches. He always said I smelled like cinnamon and peaches. Bren opened his eyes. He held up his hand, as if willing me to reach out of death and touch his fingers.
“Jazz?” he asked simply, with every emotion in the world in that single word.
“On another Path, another day, we’ll be together again, Bren.” I hoped he could hear me. “Don’t come looking for me in Talamadden, please. You’ll only get yourself killed.”
“I miss you so much.” He swallowed and seemed to choke back a rush of emotion. “I want to be with you now.”
“Another Path. Another day.” I felt weak. My voice was failing. The barrier itself seemed to repel me, force me backward. “Don’t do anything foolish. Just know I love you.”
“Don’t leave me.” Bren jumped to his feet, but he knew I was already gone. “Come back!”
But of course, I couldn’t. All I could do was sit, then fall back on the cold dark earth and watch. Bren’s heart, his incredible spirit and force of will—of course he would come after me. Of course he would try to storm Talamadden, wherever it was, whatever it was. No way would he rest until he found me and brought me home—or died in the process.
“That went poorly,” Egidus commented. “I expected you to have more awareness. I thought you would dissuade him from coming because he will be much needed in L.O.S.T. His absence will have consequences.” The bird sighed. “Moreover, now he faces even more danger. More than you, perhaps. If that is possible.”
I opened my mouth to shout at him to shut up, but tears kept my voice a choked croak. Oddly, the window to the world of the living hadn’t closed. And yet, it was different. It was…changing.
“Something else happened earlier today,” Egidus said evenly. “Before your little tryst at the pond.”
The vision-figure emerging was one I recognized only too well. Broad shoulders, stringy blond hair, glowing blue eyes like bruises in his hateful, sneering face—it was Bren’s half-brother Alderon. Oh, yes. The cur himself. Nire’s wicked spawn, my false champion. I had thrown him from the Path the day I met Bren, but the jerk had tried to help his beast of a mother kill us in Old Salem.
Only, this Alderon seemed much, much more powerful. He radiated a hateful, dark energy I had long associated only with Nire—but how? Nire had been defeated, hadn’t she?
To look at Alderon, it was easy to doubt. He had been polished and cleaned up, as if by one of my tidying spells. He wore his greasy hair in a ponytail, and he was dressed in jeans and a black tunic, like some modern-day guru. To complete the image, he was sitting on the edge of what looked like a teacher’s desk, talking to what looked like a devoted pupil.
“Emotion is a luxury, a drug for the weak and simpering” Alderon’s oily voice was placating and resolutely false. “Power is the only truth. Courage the only virtue.”
He sighed, and his despicable eyes cast a blue glow in the dim classroom, empty but for the two of them, the dark-eyed girl and him. “Aren’t you tired of being tortured by your so-called friends, Sherise?”
The dark-eyed Sherise nodded, her gaze darting toward the row of windows on the right. Outside, clearly visible through the dirty rectangular panes, a dozen or more teens milled outside. A waiting pack of jackals, and she was their prey.
“I don’t want to go out there, Alderon,” Sherise murmured in a soft Georgia drawl, fear in her tone.
“This time, things will end differently,” he said. “You have my word as High Priest of your Coven.”
The girl smeared sweating palms across her black jeans and black sweater. Her badly-applied concealment makeup barely contained her burgeoning golden glow. Sherise was obviously just coming into her own witching abilities, powerful and full of potential.
And yet, she had a shyness, a thickness of thought.
I could almost read Alderon’s mind, how he believed she was the perfect choice to fool his half-siblings, the lauded royal witch brothers, Bren and Todd. Alderon must have worked for months, drawing Sherise under his charms and spells. He was her undisputed leader. Her protector. He was all things to her, and she would do as he bade her to do.
“Are you sure about this Path, Alderon? About a haven for real witches and the boys who plan to destroy it?”
“Absolutely.” And then a little truth from the master of lies. “I’ve been there before. I grew up on the Path. Like we’ve discussed before, I’m not from your time. You believe me, don’t you?”
Sherise gave the mob outside the classroom one last nervous glance, then looked at Alderon and nodded.
“Take my talisman.” He handed her the small carving, careful to keep its leering face turned away. All she could see was the smiling, peaceful side. “Put it in your pocket and never, ever show it to anyone. It will keep you safe. Oh, you might suffer a few bumps and bruises—but nothing permanent. My talisman will help me find you any time, any place.”
Sherise shoved the carving into her pocket without studying it. She took a slow breath, then looked her leader straight in the face. “Will I ever see you again?”
He gave his best grin and shrugged. “Of course. I’d never let my strongest witch go for long.”
Sherise brightened. She straightened herself, set a stoic expression on her face, and walked out of the classroom without looking back.
In minutes, the beating began.
I heard Sherise screaming, and watched as Alderon frowned from the window. Of course, the jerk made no effort to intervene. He was watching the sky. My nails dug harder into my palms, and my eyes burned.
It was a long wait, but not too long. Sherise probably thought differently, lying on the ground whimpering as she was, even though her attackers had moved on. She was still in a ball, cringing, when Bren and Todd landed two large slithers soundlessly nearby.
“Big specimens,” I muttered, surprised by the wingspans, the size of the teeth, and the length of the fire plumes. “And out in daylight, no less. Someone’s been running a successful breeding program.”
Bren kept a spelled cloak around the healthy-looking beasts as his younger brother swaggered up to Sherise.
My keen hearing caught the entire exchange.
“Hi,” Todd said, sinking down on his haunches beside her.
Sherise looked up, and I heard her gasp as she recognized the silvery witch-light shining from Todd.
He grinned. “So, what do you say, beautiful? Want to get L.O.S.T.?”
At that, Bren groaned. I did the same. Sherise played her role to perfection, taking Todd’s hand and allowing him to lead her to one of the giant two-hearted slithers.
She managed a yelp of surprise, but Todd patted her on the shoulder. “Don’t sweat it. It’s just our ride. Brooms aren’t my style.”
And just like that, the vision ended. But not before I grasped the truth. Even as I had been trying to reach Bren in the clearing, the spy was getting a tour of her new home. Alderon had an informant on the Path now, the Path Bren had so carefully rebuilt. Alderon had placed a golem in the protected Sanctuaries of the witches. Now, he could begin forging alliances with disgruntled oldeFolke, those incredibly powerful witches of ancient days who were never human to begin with. He could even determine where his mother, Nire, the most powerful being ever known, was trapped.
He could free her, and then kill Bren and Todd and everyone I knew.
The loss of the people I loved—that would destroy my hope and forever seal me in death’s sanctuary. No one could stand against Nire then.
This time, she would triumph.
“And now,” said Egidus in his disaffected tone, “I trust you see the problem.”
I staggered forward, almost stepping on the peacock, almost plunging into the repellent darkness.
“Who are you?” I demanded. “What are you?”
The bird ruffled his indigo feathers, fluffed in indignation, then let his plumage settle into its normal, placid state.
“I can be friend or foe.” He made no attempt to temper his cryptic comment with a friendly expression. “That depends on your perspective. Now, follow me into this stream, or die forever.”