Authors: Ednah Walters
If only she knew about my verbal exchange with that annoying guy. “I felt great.”
“Then you started to shake and your skin grew colder and colder. I’ve never seen anything like that. Even Mom was worried.” She touched my arm. “I’m really happy you’re okay.”
“Me too, and I’m starving.” I started for the bathroom. “Did Dad bring home pizza?”
“Nope. He got home and refused to leave your bedside. Zack ordered Chinese. Tiny spicy chicken, beef with broccoli, and your favorite…”
“Kung Pao shrimp, yes! I’ll be out in a few.”
Memories of my meeting with the prisoner played in my head as I showered. He was funny. Most people in his situation would have been miserable or indulged in self-pity. Not him. He was smart-mouthed and infuriatingly arrogant. It took balls to talk to someone with power over you the way he’d spoken to his mother.
What kind of mother would keep her son a prisoner and deny him food? Stupid question. I was the poster child for children with shitty mothers. In fact, listening to his had reminded me too much of mine. I just didn’t think I would have talked to Mom the way he’d talked to his.
I finished in the bathroom and pulled on a pair of joggers and a large T-shirt, and headed toward the living room. I called Zack. He was on his way over. I headed to the kitchen.
Our house was in a subdivision by Lake Pontchartrain. The single-story was located at a corner lot, so we were close enough to the lake for Dad to fish at the farthest end of the property, but far enough that I didn’t have to see the water when I drove in and out of our compound. Dad didn’t know the extent of my fear of water, or he would have moved us far inland and away from the bayou. Then I wouldn’t be going to Laveau High. I loved the house. Grams had, too. The mature trees gave us the necessary seclusion in case a spell went wrong.
My backpack was on the table by the door. I had one English paper to write and the math packet from Mr. Dupree, yet I couldn’t imagine focusing on homework. I unzipped the backpack and pulled out my laptop. There shouldn’t be many old family castles with dungeons owned by a maniacal bitch. Most were falling apart or had become preserved historical sites. No, he’d mentioned his father throwing him a welcome party before disappearing. What kind of father would do that and leave his son at the mercy of his wife?
If you listen closely, you can hear screams of tortured souls.
His words rushed at me. More followed. Corpse Strand. That was the name of the island where she supposedly tortured people. A mixture of relief and elation coursed through me. I knew I’d forgotten things. The castle was near an island called Corpse Strand.
I followed the voices to the kitchen where Hayden and her mother were warming up the Chinese food. My father was missing.
“He went back to the office,” Tammy said. “He should be back any minute. How are you feeling?” she asked, studying me.
“Good.” I dropped on a stool and put my laptop on the counter without opening it. “I just remembered something. The guy said his mother was torturing people on an island. He called them poor souls.” I laughed, recalling his first reaction when I’d appeared. “He called everyone souls, including me. His mother’s guards were looking for a missing person bound for an island called Corpse Strand.”
Hayden and Tammy went pale. Tammy forgot about the food and grabbed a stool, her green eyes wide. Hayden flanked me from the other side.
“Crazy, right?” I said. “It made my skin crawl, too. But I think it’s a good place to start.” I opened my laptop. “We can search for a kingdom stuck in the pre-industrial era with serious human rights violations and ruled by an evil queen.”
Hayden closed my laptop. Her eyes were luminous with excitement. How had I missed that?
“What?” I asked.
“You don’t need the computer. Mom has something to tell you first.”
My eyes volleyed between them. “What is it?”
They exchanged glances and grins. Then Tammy took my hand. “What I’m about to tell you may seem weird and out there, but I want you to keep an open mind,” she said, speaking slowly. “It is something only whispered in the magical world. Some of our people think it’s only a myth because no one has proof, while others believe it’s real. We”—she glanced at Hayden, who nodded—“are part of those who
it’s real. In every coven across the world, the most powerful Witches are given this knowledge, which they pass down to their successors.”
Okay, she was being downright scary. Hayden, on the other hand, sat on the edge of her stool. I didn’t think I’d ever seen her this excited.
“There’s a hidden world within this world,” Tammy continued. “A world of beings so powerful they don’t get sick or catch diseases. They are strong, can move fast, and become invisible. We call them heroes or miracles. That is, if we remember them at all. Most people don’t. We do because they were once Witches, too. Spiritual leaders. Shamans. Now they are soldiers who walk through mines unscathed or escape an attack and rescue their platoons. People who walk in and out of fire without burns and disappear before the ambulance reaches the hospital. Fall from tall buildings and break every bone in their body and walk away from ICU ten minutes later never to be seen again. People can’t describe them or even remember seeing them because they have the power to make you forget things. They are Immortals. Immortals have direct contact with the gods, and their job is to watch over us.”
Seriously? They had me until the gods. And I wasn’t buying the former-Witches-turned-Immortal-protectors story either. My mother had claimed I couldn’t be hurt because someone was protecting me, but that had been a lie. No one protected me at age ten when I’d broken my leg. Or at thirteen when I’d contracted a strain of influenza that landed me in the hospital for days and scared the crap out of Dad.
“Where do these Immortals live?” I asked, trying to keep an open mind. I respected Tammy. Grams had respected her, too. She was a knowledgeable and powerful Witch, but even powerful Witches had a few loose screws.
“All over the world,” she said, smiling. “Most often they are very rich because of the wealth they’ve accumulated over the centuries.”
New Orleans was thirty minutes away and I’d met Witches at the French Quarter from all walks of life. None lived like kings. They were average Joes trying to carve out a living just like everyone else.
“And the gods?” I asked.
Tammy grinned. “Norse gods are in Asgard.”
Oh, brother. No wonder Hayden yaps on about various Norse gods. Her mother filled her head with nonsense.
“Why Norse? Why not Greek, Roman, or Egyptian?” I asked, naming the big ones.
Her eyes lit up. “Because the powers of the gods depend on people interacting with them, going to them for help. These Immortals interact with the gods daily. Some of them anyway.”
This was all Marvel’s fault. They just had to make movies and turn two Asgardians into every woman’s dream man. I’d seen it online. If they weren’t drooling over Thor and imagining him coming for them and taking them to Asgard via the Bifrost, they had Loki, a badass Witch with more magic tricks than Houdini. Even I was guilty of drooling over him.
“So the gods come down here from the sky through the Bifrost?”
“No, that’s movie crap,” Hayden said and laughed. “They definitely don’t come here and strut around in warrior-like clothes, saving the Earth with a bunch of superheroes.”
“Immortals go to Asgard,” Tammy said. “No one knows how because only the chosen few do that. The majority of them live here and never leave. Most are hundreds and thousands of years old and never age. They work with the gods, who tell them what to do to protect mankind and the world.”
Protect mankind from what? I hated being skeptical, but I had a serious problem with the idea of gods and Immortals in fancy places watching humanity suffer in the hands of evil men and doing nothing. Where were they when our kind was being burnt across Europe or persecuted in Salem? They could use their wealth to stop world hunger. Heck, if we were allowed to openly practice magic, the world would be a much better place.
I kept my nasty thoughts to myself, went the diplomatic route, and listened without interrupting. I wasn’t my father’s daughter for nothing.
Tammy painted Immortals and the gods as benevolent, protecting humanity without interfering with each civilization. I fought rolling my eyes, until she said, “The reason you didn’t see an aura today is because you went to their realm.”
I blinked. “Say what?”
“You went to the realm of the gods. That’s why your powers were off and you couldn’t project out of it. The magic there is strong and controlled by the gods.” Tammy leaned closer. “A lot of us would love to visit their realm.” She glanced at Hayden, who nodded enthusiastically. “But not like this. Not through projections. You are a young Witch and your powers haven’t peaked yet. If you got trapped there, you’d be lost forever.”
She was getting to me now. I was still skeptical about the whole gods and Immortals thing, but I was listening. Anything that could take me away from my father had all my warning bells going off. I was going to a nearby college just so I could either commute from home or come home every weekend.
“Okay,” I said slowly. “So, no auras means realm of the gods.”
“That’s right. And in your case”—she glanced toward the living room as headlights hit the windows and a car pulled into our driveway—“you might have gone to Hel’s Hall.”
She sighed. “Your father is home, and this discussion is not for him or non-magical people. Hayden will explain.” She spoke faster and I struggled to keep up. “You said the prisoner mentioned Corpse Strand and screaming souls. Hel is where souls of those who die of old age and illnesses are sent. Corpse Strand is an island in Hel, where they send and torture souls of criminals, murderers, and psychopaths. And Hel is also the name of the goddess who rules it. She is powerful and tough. Her realm is freezing cold, and has giants and monsters—”
The doorbell rang and we looked in that direction, but no one moved. What I’d heard sent a chill up my spine. Giants and monsters? Like the growling one in that cave? The conversation I’d overheard between the prisoner and his mother was zapping through my head faster than a torpedo.
The doorbell sounded again. That was obviously not Dad. Hayden went to answer it while I sat there like a zombie, not sure whether to buy Tammy’s incredulous revelations or chalk it up to their obsession with Norse mythology. Zack’s deeper voice mixed with Hayden’s higher-pitched falsetto hit my ears as they drew closer.
I leaned closer to Tammy and asked, “Is there a book out there about all this?”
“The only books are written by non-magical people who still think the gods aren’t real. We’ll talk again tomorrow. Hello, Zack,” she added, looking over my shoulder. The smile and warmth in her voice surprised me. Usually, she was cool toward him. I’d assumed she didn’t like Zack because he liked Hayden.
“Hi, Mrs. Ferrand.”
Blowing out air, I turned to face my cousin. As usual, his shaggy brown hair was perfectly tousled. On a different day, I’d say he’d styled the hell out of it. Today, he’d been concerned for me and had probably run his fingers through it.
In one arm, he held a large bag of caramel popcorn and in the other he had a two-liter bottle of pop. I loved caramel popcorn. Hayden was busy flipping through several DVDs. He must have brought those, too. It was a Monday and they were planning on hanging around?
“Hey,” he said, his gaze searching my face.
“Hey” sounded so lame after what I’d put them through. I got up and hugged him. “Sorry I embarrassed you in front of your friends.”
He leaned back. “What friends?”
“Your teammates. Trancing and falling flat on my face can’t be good for your rep.”
“He has a rep?” Hayden asked.
He threw her a glance over his shoulder. “A good one. And don’t forget she made chicken noises and flapped her arms. I’m never going to live that—”
I elbowed him hard.
“That’s for making fun of me, you knucklehead,” I said. “And you better not have brought some lame-ass movies for us to watch.” I took the box of Kung Pao shrimp, dumped the contents into a bowl, and shoved it into the microwave. I totally forgot to cover it with a paper towel. I hated cleaning splattered foods. When I turned around and reached for a roll, the three of them were watching me with varied expressions. Despite his teasing, Zack was worried about me. Tammy was probably worried I might confide in Zack. “And yes, I’m fine. It was a simple vision and Dad’s on top of it.” Tammy visibly relaxed.
“So it hasn’t happened yet?” he asked, frowning.
“Nope, but if anyone can stop a crime, it’s Dad.”
“Walk me to the car, Celestia,” Tammy said before anyone could respond. She hugged Hayden, gave Zack a brief smile, and followed me to the door. She waited until we were outside before saying, “Thank you for not sharing what I just told you with Zack. I don’t think he’s ready yet.”
“I don’t think he’ll ever be ready,” I said, grinning.
“Most men don’t like to embrace their spiritual side. The few that do end up being very powerful.” She frowned. “My Luka…” She sighed, then rubbed my arms. “I don’t know if Hayden talked to you about spending the night. I have back-to-back appointments that might take longer than usual.”