We set a cluster of lanterns at each of the four points of a compass. Thom was tasked with the drumming that would lend rhythm to the ritual—one I still wasn’t sure I understood. It seemed there was a lot of energy-dumping and singing involved with Phelan to lead it. I wondered again, and not for the first time, what we’d have done without him.
Been vulnerable, I guess.
“We’re going to want to shut off those battery ones,” Phelan said as he and J.T. finished lighting the tiki torches. “Going to be a lot of energy up, don’t want to short anything out.”
“Or make it explode,” Thom murmured as he settled on an overturned bucket, settling the old drum against one knee. I glanced at him sharply and he just shook his head.
“Don’t ask, Mar,” he murmured, taking my hand and kissing my palm. “Just go turn off the lanterns like he said.”
I stared at him for a moment longer and shook my head. “Why do I think there’s something that you’re not telling me?”
He shrugged. “Probably because you’re right.”
“Marin? Come on, let’s get started.”
I gave Thom one last look and headed to answer Phelan’s call. Jacqueline and Kellin worked their way around the burial, turning off the battery-operated lanterns.
“It’s just like setting the wards,” Phelan said to me quietly, except for dumping energy into a ward, you’re all going to be channeling it toward the staff. I’ll take it from there.” In the strange light of dying day and the flickering flame of the torches and lanterns, he looked strange, almost worried.
“Phelan…you’ve done this before, right?”
“Never without some kind of sacrifice,” he muttered, cheeks flaming almost as bright as his hair.
“What?” My heart started to pound. What the hell, Phelan? Why are we out here if this isn’t going to work?
“Calm down,” he said, waving a hand. “Don’t panic, it’ll work.”
“Are you sure?”
He nodded, giving me that devil-may-care grin of his. “I’m sure.”
Screw me sideways. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.
“All right,” I said quietly. “I trust you.” I just hope that this works.
“It’ll work.” He squeezed my elbow. “Now quit worrying and let’s get to work.”
• • •
After the ritual was done, we all sat in the cold-dew-damp grass and watched as Greg and Jacqueline scattered seeds across the churned earth of the graves. The torches guttered and flickered, the bright, cold light of the autumn stars shining down on us.
“You know, I never realized how many more you can see when there’s no cities to stop you from seeing them,” I said softly, one arm wrapped around Thom’s shoulders.
He smiled up at me. “What, the stars?”
I nodded slightly. “They’re beautiful.”
“There’s more of them these days than there were back then,” Phelan said from where he was stretched out a few feet away, flat on his back with his arms folded behind his head. “Strange, isn’t it?”
“A little,” Thom said.
“Did you guys see that?” Carolyn asked quietly, sitting between J.T.’s legs on the other side of us from Phelan. She was leaning back against his broad chest, staring at the sky like Phelan, Thom, and I.
“See what?” I asked.
“That shadow. Look, up by the tail of the dipper.”
I scanned the sky, a chill going through me as I caught a glimmer of the shadow she was talking about, which winked out of sight abruptly a moment after I saw it. I sat up straight, rubbing my eyes.
It must just be a trick of the light. My eyes are tired. That’s all. That’s got to be it.
“I didn’t see anything,” Thom said.
“I did,” I said quietly.
For the first time since the ritual began, Kellin spoke softly, turning away from the grave and toward the rest of us in the grass. “Something doesn’t feel right.”
The Something landed in the eight feet of space between her and us and pounced on Phelan almost as soon as its feet touched the ground. Phelan let out a shout of surprise. Carolyn screamed. Thom and I scrambled back.
I felt cold, as if someone had just dumped a load of snow on me.
In a voice as sensual as it was disconcerting, the figure on Phelan whispered, “Where are they, Wandering One?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Phelan said in a choked voice.
“Don’t lie to me. You know bad things happen when you lie to someone like me.”
A chill shot down my spine. Thom forced his way up onto one knee, staring across the figure’s back at J.T. I saw J.T. gesture and my pounding heart began to sink.
No, Thom. No, you can’t.
Rory whipped past Thom and I, head tucked and shoulder down. He plowed into the figure like a linebacker. She—I was fairly certain it was a she—cried out as Rory flipped her onto her back and with a little help from J.T. and Drew got her pinned.
Thom nudged me. “Help Phelan.”
Even as I scrambled toward Phelan, I heard the strange figure laughing.
“Who are these, Wandering One? Your new little tribe? More followers? Are you going to get them killed, too, like the group two hundred years ago?”
My hands found Phelan’s shoulders and I started to help him sit up again. He was pale and shaky as I helped him to his feet, voice a rasp as he stared at her prone form. “This time is different. Leave, Vammatar. You’ve got no power here.”
Prone on her back, her lips peeled back in a cruel smile. “That’s where you’re wrong, Wandering One. But why tell, when I can simply show?”