"Where are you taking me?"
The cool wind blowing through his voice was suspicious, hard, like a block of ice so solidly frozen a chisel couldn't chip its glassy surface. The sound sent shivers sliding over Tierney's spine. It was hard to miss his distrust and even harder to keep the resulting bitterness from overwhelming her.
She glanced at him, careful to keep her voice detached. "To the beach."
He stared coldly at her. She wondered where his charm had gone, that seductive spell that made her want to believe his earlier words about caring. His presence lay quiet at the back of her mind, curled into itself as if his protective shields dropped hazily in front of him. If she wanted, she could reach out and touch him, but he must have felt that thought. The curtain thickened hazily.
"Maybe I should be more specific," he said.
Gripping the steering wheel more firmly, she stared into the road's encompassing blackness. Anything to avoid his gaze. "There's an outcropping of rocks near where the coast curves. I usually go there to do my spells."
"Is there any reason we couldn't have done it at your house?" He sounded annoyed. No one else would have noticed, but the lion resting at the back of her mind unsheathed its claws.
She forced her fingers to relax. "I found a hollow in the middle. It's protected -- kind of circular -- and when the salt from the sea water dries on the rocks, it acts as a natural ward."
"Nothing gets in, nothing gets out."
"Something like that." She consciously kept herself from turning on the radio, tongue darting nervously over her lower lip. Something about Dare was different tonight, from the feel of him in her mind to the way he was acting. He was almost...
No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't come up with a suitable adjective. And rather than figuring out a way to describe his present state, she pulled into a parking space. The huge boulders made a natural barrier between the sand-covered beach and the roughly paved parking lot. After parking the car, she remained in her seat, chewing on her lower lip and swallowing the anxiety she was drowning in.
Dare fidgeted in the seat beside her, finally asking, "Are we going to sit here or are you going to do the spell like you promised?"
He didn't seem the type to fidget, and the realization was so distracting that he had to repeat himself twice more before his question finally registered in Tierney's brain. "I'm going to do the spell," she said. She sounded uncertain even to herself.
It wasn't that she didn't want to do the spell; it was more like some odd premonition washing over her, telling her *not* to do it. But when she thought about it, she had no viable reason to listen to that voice. It should be simple enough, shouldn't it?
Just a simply complicated spell that screamed danger from every hastily scrawled word.
Silence pressed down on them. Tierney still wasn't moving. Looking exasperated, he prompted, "Tierney?"
Shaking those thoughts away, she slipped her hand over the door handle and tugged, spilling muggy and salty air into the car. She kicked off her sandals, then swung her legs out the door and eased out of the car. He did the same on the other side. Turning back to grab the dark blue backpack, almost black in this light, she saw he already had it in his hands.
"I'm ready when you are." His eyes empty, he clutched the bag like he expected her to throw it in the sea and tell him to go to hell.
If she were smart, she probably would have.
She thought about trying to snatch it off him, but his eyes, as unfathomable as the deepest part of the cold ocean, told her she would just be wasting her time. Oh, hell... let him carry it. If he insisted on coming along, at least he could be useful. She turned her back on him, a move that made her nerves scream in protest -- never, ever bare your back, her mind shrieked -- and slammed the door shut. She started walking briskly toward the rocks.
The presence in her mind tightened and dragged itself along. The closer they came to her place, the tighter that connection wrapped around them, as if it could smell the magic in the air. She could taste it, a slightly bitter aura on tongue that melded with an acrid sweetness. So thick she almost choked on it.
Could he feel it? She glanced back at him, but he seemed unaffected. The sharp angles of his face were calm and his footing was sure as he picked his way across the sand. She wondered if she looked that confident. Probably not.
Sighing, she slowed her pace until he walked beside her, unsure of why she did it. Nothing inside her jumped when he came only mere heartbeats away. Oh, her soul ached, but her heart and her head were serene. It was a comforting feeling.
Tranquility washing through her muscles, she stayed quiet while they walked slowly down the beach. In the darkness, the rocks loomed like a ghost ship, appearing out of the swelling dark as if they had materialized only seconds before. He jumped beside her, so startled she had to laugh.
"Those would be the rocks," she pointed out dryly.
In response, he rewarded her with a belligerent glare. "Thanks."
She hid her smile behind the thick multihued hair, and then realized he wouldn't have been able to see it in the dark anyway. The amusement faded away, giving way to the realization that they weren't meant to share moments like these, where maybe they interacted like they were normal.
Silently they walked the rest of the way to the rocks, the sleeve of his light gray hoodie brushing against her arm in the same rhythm as their steps. No matter what she told herself, having him that close made her vaguely uncomfortable. Maybe it was a reaction to everything they'd said to each other. Maybe it was knowing how things could have been.
Or maybe it was because she knew he was doing it deliberately.
He stopped at the base, his hand halting Tierney's arm as it reached for a handhold in the rock. "Where are we supposed to go now?" he asked doubtfully, apparently having missed the meaning behind her movement.
Shaking his hand off her arm like she would a fly, she frowned at him. "Up."
Instead of replying, he rolled his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest. "Ladies first."
That earned him a wry glance. What was this? Politeness? Last night might not have been such a worthless endeavor after all. Well, aside from the obvious reasons. With that thought came the inevitable memory of the problems she'd faced today. Scowling, she ignored him and reached for the niche in the rock. She hoped he fell and hurt himself as payback for all the hurt he'd caused. Not that it would teach him anything anyway...
Besides, an equal half of it was her fault. She hoisted herself up, anger giving her strength, and left him standing alone on the sand. She didn't even bother to look to see if he was following. Instead she concentrated on the rocks. They were slick with saltwater from where the tide had come and gone hours ago and it was hard to get a good grip.
As she reached for another handhold to take her higher, her bare foot slipped from its precarious perch. She felt herself start to fall -- and then Dare caught her, one hand wrapping firmly around her waist, the other somehow staying securely on the stone. When she looked down, she saw that only his hand had shifted so that sharp claws lodged in the drenched boulder.
His breath was hot against her neck and she had to take a deep breath to steady herself. The last thing she had expected was for him to save her from falling... but she guessed if she was injured, she couldn't do the spell. It really wasn't all that surprising that he had saved her.
She resumed her crawl up to the top, heaving herself over the edge. He joined her shortly. They stood looking over the roaring ocean while adrenaline pumped through her veins. She'd never almost fallen before.
He shifted beside her. "Now what?"
Not bothering to answer, she started across the uneven surface, picking her steps carefully now. Falling to her death might be something Dare saved her from, but scraped knees were another story entirely. The rocks broke in the middle, leaving her secret place sheltered from the outside world. She crouched, muscles tensed, and jumped lightly to the sand.
The air vibrated in protest when he landed beside her. She could feel its sticky warmth like a sweaty hand against her skin, moving as if was alive. He stared at the craggy rocks, weathered bronze in the moonlight, and awe played on his face. The magic was strong enough that he could feel its tangible fingers on his own flesh.
When she tugged at the backpack on his shoulder, he resisted for a moment, then let it slide to the ground. She knelt and unzipped it. It was hard to identify the objects as she felt blindly in the dark, but eventually she located the candles. The matches were tucked safely in the front pocket, so it was easy to find those. Striking one, she let the crackling flame flare into life over the candle's short wick. The flame shot so high it almost singed her eyebrows.
"What's that for?" he wanted to know.
"Light." She couldn't quite keep the sarcasm out of her voice.
He glared, but wasn't quite able to think of an appropriate reply. They both knew it had been a stupid question.
Grasping the candle more firmly, she lit the remaining eleven candles, placing each just at the edge of the stone. They were almost perfectly spaced so that they lined the perimeter of the rough circle. Then, turning to the natural pool in the center of the space, she scooped up a handful of water, which she then used to drizzle in front of the candles. Next came a stick of incense. To complete the circle, she removed an elaborate silver knife from the bag, etching a thin line into the stone.
Dare was silent while she did this, watching her carefully.
She turned to look at him when she was finished, her mouth pursed fiercely. "Don't step outside the circle," she warned.
It would have been difficult, anyway. The edge was tied to the wall itself, so he would have had to actually climb out of the crevice to break the circle. Still, she wouldn't put it past him, and the warning felt necessary.
He rolled his eyes and sighed heavily, dropping into a sprawled position against the sand. She kicked his feet out of the way and stubbed her toe in the process. Glaring, she muttered something uncomplimentary that he didn't quite catch. She could tell because he didn't get angry or retort; he just furrowed his brows and let it go.
Clearing her throat nervously, she extracted the ingredients from deep inside her bag. They sprawled around her like a recipe gone horribly wrong. She swallowed, then knelt in the rough sand, where the water shivered and jerked. A broken liquid mirror...
She closed her fingers around a rough piece of amber lying next to her. The stone was good for drawing clarity and focus. Tightening her fingers for just a second, she raised her arm and tossed it in the water. The surface calmed like a switch had been thrown, only a few bubbles clinging to the now glassy façade.
Dare watched impassively.
Swiping her hands against her wrinkled khaki shorts, she looked at the articles lying around her. She was only missing one thing. It only took a second to crawl back to the bag and remove a smooth stone mortar and pestle from the very bottom. She edged back to her place in front of the pool, carefully setting the small bowl in front of her. The pestle she laid in the sand beside her.
Next she picked up a packet of mixed herbs, which she'd prepared earlier that day. Inside the thin paper container was a mixture of flowers and roots, each specially chosen for their particular properties. Hyssop, for purification. Chicory root, for removing obstacles. Pine, for clean breaks and new beginnings. She dumped them unceremoniously into the bowl, but was careful not to spill even one segment.
A feeling of finality shot through her as she reached for the pestle. This spell was the culmination of everything that had happened between the two of them, reverting everything back to the way it had been... Odd how she couldn't feel any remorse or yearning for what might have been. Just this overwhelming gratefulness that it would soon be over.
Scolding herself silently for hesitating, she snatched up the pestle and began grinding the herbs into a fine powder. The pine didn't want to break, but eventually she had nothing but a fragrant dust. She reached blindly for the only plastic bag she'd brought.
The dragon's blood powder inside would keep the spell from misfiring. It had also cost her dearly when she'd calmly asked for it. The lady behind the counter -- a shrunken, suspicious crone -- had eyed her distrustfully before demanding what she wanted with it. Now, in the dead of night, she couldn't even remember which lie she'd fabricated.
She scooped a bit of it from the bag and sprinkled it into the herbal mixture. It smoked a little, causing a pungent scent to rise around them. Dare sniffed cautiously, but behaved himself and stayed silent. She mixed the concoction together with the stone pestle.
When she felt the ingredients were evenly mixed, she tapped the dust off the pestle and shifted it into her left hand. With her right, she picked up an unlabelled glass vial. The liquid inside was dark and sluggish, a strange olive green in the flickering candlelight. Without setting down the pestle, she untwisted the cap. The scent of trees wafted gently around them and drowned out the earlier smell of burning.
Tilting the bottle slightly, she let several drops drip over the dark powder in the mortar. They pooled together at the edge of the basin, sliding slickly over the mixture without absorbing any of the powder. She transferred the pestle back to her right hand and quickly set to mixing the contents together.
Though they didn't want to combine, she eventually succeeded in creating a thick, dark paste. Cypress oil, for letting go. She only needed one more thing before the creamy substance was complete. Unlike last time, it would be much easier to get.
She turned to Dare calmly. "Come here."
"Why?" he asked warily. "You don't want me to eat that, do you?"
Spitefully, she thought about lying to him, but it wouldn't do either of them any good. And besides, she wanted to get this over with. Exhaling sharply, she replied, "No, I need a few drops of your blood."
He didn't move from his lounging position near the wall of the circle. She saw his body tense and his eyes narrow dangerously, but not a muscle inched in her direction. "That wasn't part of the deal."
"Do you want me to do the spell or not?" Her voice was emotionless and her eyes tired. She wasn't going to fight with him about this. Either he gave her the blood, or she went home. If only it were that simple.
"I want you to do the spell."
She nodded knowingly. Exactly the answer she had expected. "Then I need a few drops of your blood. Otherwise, the spell won't work."
Sitting up slowly, distrustfully, he asked, "How were you planning on getting it this morning? You did tell me I wasn't allowed to be here."
"You don't want to know."
Recognition lit his eyes. "That dream I had before you did the spell wasn't a dream, was it? You really were there." Those golden orbs darkened subtly. "In my room."
"It was a dream," she assured him, retrieving the knife from the sand by her side. She fingered it absently, the tip of her index finger sliding down the smooth, sharp surface. "But the blood was real."
He didn't look as though he believed her, but that wasn't her problem. When he scooted closer, his skin drawn sharply over his cheekbones, he certainly didn't look ready to bare any skin. "Give me the knife," he said. "I'll do it."
"Oh, give me your hand. I promise not to cut an artery," she retorted cattily. But when he showed no signs of relenting, she handed him the knife. "I only need a few drops."
He sent her a cool, appraising stare out of those blazing golden eyes, and then placed the knife against his finger. His finger hovered over the mortar. Then, without an ounce of expression lining his misshapen features, he sliced down. For a few seconds, nothing happened, then blood welled out of the cut.
Grabbing his finger, she squeezed until a small spot of bright red swam in the rest of the mixture. She released his hand quickly and gestured back toward the edge of the hollow. "Go over there," she murmured, already reabsorbed in the spell.
Annoyed, he pressed on his finger to stop the blood from flowing out and scooted backwards toward the rocky edge. Tierney ignored him until a muffled expletive exploded from his mouth. Turning swiftly, she saw that he had gone too far, knocking over one of the candles lining the circle. The flame sputtered and died in the pitch-dark night.
Neither of them moved. Her hazel eyes were wide, enormous in her pale face. He looked surprised, but not apologetic at all. Uncertainty hung in the air, humming like a shivering cord. A crackling snap bellowed in the night. The candle closest to Dare whooshed into darkness. Then another. The circle of candles raced into darkness, one after the other, like dominos dropping them into utter blackness. The smell of smoke curled around them.
Oh, goddess, what had he done?
Panic paralyzed her and she was about to open her mouth to scream when, as quickly as they had extinguished, the flames kindled and burned. Each one flared to life in an order exactly opposite of how they had been doused. The one Dare had knocked over burned especially brightly.
"Don't move," she ordered flatly, turning back to the mortar.
No sound came from behind her as she pressed the knife against her own skin and let the blood drip into the cavity. She mixed it into the rest rapidly, her movements vicious and angry. She should never have let him come with her. Never! A sinking feel dove into the pit of her stomach, but she ignored it. Goddess, what if--
She didn't let herself complete that thought. Instead, she picked up the last ingredient in the spell. The polished stick of bamboo gleamed in the renewed candlelight. Bamboo, the ingredient that would allow her to break the hex, was the only thing left to add, and then she would be free of him. Free. The muscles in her stomach unclenched.
Licking her lips nervously, she spread the paste over the bamboo stick, careful not to miss any spots. The concoction slid slickly between her fingers. When all visible surface area was completely covered, she balanced it easily on top of the mortar. Her right hand lifted, yanking a few strands of hair out of her scalp. She didn't even flinch at the slight stinging sensation that followed. Separating the hairs until she held three, she then wrapped them around the bamboo stick and tied them in a tight knot.
"Blood sealed our binding," she whispered, taking the stick into her hands, one grasping each end firmly. "Blood made the mirror whole. Let blood separate our reflections." Her fingers clutched the bamboo reflexively. "Unbind us now and let our reflections go free."
As the last words left her lips, she pressed inward, snapping the bamboo into two equal pieces and tearing the hair knotted around it into broken strands. She held the two parts solemnly, waiting for the rush of magic to swim around them. Dare had tensed behind her, she could feel the anxiety clinging to his body.
But nothing happened.
Slowly, she set the two halves of the bamboo inside the mortar. The silence pulsed around them as she turned to face her soulmate. Suspicion fell over his features like nightfall.
"Did it work?"
Fear lodged itself in the back of her throat. His face hadn't changed from its hideous mask of deformity and anger already grew in those shadowed golden eyes. He must have read the answer in her expression. She climbed to her feet unsteadily. "Dare--"
A sharp pain cutting through the base of her spine silenced her words. It shot from the very small of her back to explode in every nerve in her brain. Bright flashes of light swam in front of her eyes and blinded her before fading into splotches of gold and violet. She fell to her knees.
In less than a heartbeat, he was across the sand and balancing at her side. Her body swayed, crashing into the warm sand with no prior warning. One minute, she was upright. The next, sprawled on her side. The pain in her head intensified, while the throbbing in her spine dulled to a spiny ache. She shuddered as it moved stealthily to her heart.
He caressed her arm almost gingerly and she shuddered under his touch, the coil of his soul blossoming and expanding around hers. Her arms clutched tighter at her flesh while her body collapsed in on itself, and she curled into a protective ball at his feet. He crouched with the grace of a lion, his body dropping until he hovered over her. The golden spikes were tousled, the golden eyes smeared with uncertainty.
Clutching at her, his heavily lashed eyes widened until she was swallowed in the swimming pupils. "Tierney?"
She couldn't find the breath to answer. Deep, gasping sobs choked her voice and yet she couldn't seem to breathe, couldn't feel the air escaping to her lungs. Her vision blurred again, the spots creeping, creeping, until only the specks of color filled her vision and she was blind...
Dimly, she knew tears streamed down her cheeks, but her mind couldn't quite grasp that she was crying. Her body spasmed and jerked under his strangely cool hands, cold against the frigid air that just seconds ago had been warm. His fingers felt like ice against her tingling skin.
Darkness came like a warm rush of heat.
He could tell the exact moment when something changed.
Her body went slack in his arms, her head lolling back like a newborn child's when it didn't have any support. The control didn't ease out of her body; it slipped out like an axe through bone. He laid her lax body against the sand, watching as her head rolled to the side and her eyes went flat.
A twisting feeling in his gut told him searching for a pulse would be futile, but he tried anyway. His fingers ran lightly down her neck, his mind too overwhelmed to let him concentrate on the reality of what was happening. He could hear the absence of her heartbeat. He could smell the first scent of death.
When he touched her, all he felt was emptiness.
The cool, detached part of his mind told him that it was over. Resuscitation wouldn't work; it rarely did with magic. The other part of his mind -- the part that was panicking under his emotionless veneer -- told him to drag her back from the depths of hell if he had to, to wake her up and make her blink away the glazed sheen of death coating her eyes. Her body was already starting to stiffen.
He might not want her, but he didn't want her dead. She was his soulmate, for goddess' sake. And maybe, just a little, that had started to mean something to him. Shock kept him from cringing the thought away. He wanted--
He didn't know what he wanted.
It didn't matter anyway, now. Hollowly, he stood, lifting her body into his arms. Death made her weight heavy. The candles around the edge of the sandy crevice glowed serenely, the flames strangely straight and oddly blue.
They sparkled purely over the water. He stared down into that perfectly mirrored surface, the amber stone she had thrown still gleaming in its depths. The reflection staring back at him hadn't changed. He met its empty golden eyes, noting the twisted features, seeing again each glaring imperfection as his reflection watched him with twisted irony.
But for once, he didn't care.