“What do you mean the Cullers are ready to do battle? With who?”
“I believe it’s whom,” Conroy corrected.
I didn’t bother to hide my irritation. “With whom are they throwing the gauntlet down for?”
“Hard to know,” the owl necklace admitted. “But there is a chance—”
“The hat!” I yelled, spotting the worse-for-wear magician’s hat ahead of me on the path. I looked around for its owner, but he wasn’t in sight. I wondered if Sol was hiding from Welmont. Not that I could blame him. Dealing with the self-important cop was something best avoided. I hurried toward the wayward head covering. “Excuse me?”
The hat did not respond.
“Erich, right? That’s your name, isn’t it?” I drew closer. “We met earlier. I’m RV.” I winced remembering how his owner hadn’t believed that to be my name.
I bent down to scoop it up. “You’re looking a little—”
“Don’t!” Conroy bellowed.
His warning came too late. The moment my hand came in contact with the brim, a burst of energy knocked me right off my feet. I was blown back three feet and landed on my butt. I sat there once again in the dirt, stunned.
It felt like my entire body had received an electric shock. A split second of pain followed by an all-over tingling sensation.
I watched as the magician’s hat, which had been spinning like a top in the air, fell to the ground.
“Owww,” Conroy complained. “Why did you do that?”
Erich didn’t respond.
“RV!” the owl yelled sharply. “Did it affect your hearing?”
“No,” I muttered. “Stop screaming.”
“Then answer me. Why did you do that?”
“Me? I didn’t do anything.” I scratched the end of my nose. The tingling was particularly intense there.
“You touched it,” Conroy said. “You touched the hod.”
I grabbed the pendant, twisted it around and brought it up level to my face so that I could get a better look at him, worried that the shock had somehow damaged the owl. “It’s a hat, not a hod,” I corrected gently.
“It’s a hod, not a hat!” he snapped back.
I dropped him back onto my chest. He might be mixing up some words, but his attitude was intact. I asked with as much patience as I could muster, “Why did the hod hat attack me?”
“A hod hat is what construction workers wear,” a voice teased from behind me.
I twisted around and found Sol standing a few feet away, his lavender shimmer sparkling in the sunlight.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Your hat attacked me.”
“You touched it!” Conrad reminded me.
“Apparently because I touched it,” I added for Sol’s benefit.
“Why would you…?” Sol began, but then thought better of it. “Let me help you up.” He started to walk around so that he’d be in front of me.
“I don’t need help,” I assured him, scrambling to my feet.
The world tilted and all of the sudden I could see six of Sol’s worried face, spinning around in a circle. My stomach lurched, not liking the kaleidoscope-on-hyperdrive effect. I shut my eyes and swayed dizzily. I would have fallen to the ground yet again, if Sol hadn’t pulled me tight against him.
“Dammit, Erich,” he muttered angrily, “how hard did you hit her?”
Even though my eyes were closed, and my face was pressed against his chest, I could still hear the hat’s response. “She touched me.”
“Just keep breathing,” Sol soothed, rubbing a circular pattern between my shoulder blades. “This will pass. You’re going to be okay.”
“We hope,” Conroy muttered.
I’m not sure how long we stood there like that, it could have been seconds, it might have been an hour. Eventually Sol, holding my upper arms tightly, took a step backward. “Open your eyes.”
I hesitated a moment, afraid I’d still see six of him.
Sol waited patiently.
Conroy did not.
“Stop being so infantile and open your eyes,” the owl berated.
I opened my eyes slowly. It took a moment for everything to come into focus, but when it did, everything looked normal.
“Better?” Sol asked with a strained half-smile.
I nodded. Suddenly self-conscious that he was still supporting me, I jumped back, breaking his grip.
“Guess that means you’re feeling better.” He focused on my chest area. “Are you her hod?”
“I am her redia,” Conroy replied proudly.
Sol nodded as though that made up word made perfect sense to him. “How does she not know what a hod is?”
“You know,” I interrupted testily, “she is standing right here as you two talk about her.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just that…” he trailed off. Looking toward the hat, he held out his hand. It flew through the air and landed in his palm.
“It’s just that what?” I prompted, tapping my foot impatiently, hating the way he used his magic so nonchalantly.
Sol glanced at my pendant as though he wanted the owl to give him guidance.
I crossed my arms over my chest, effectively cutting off his view. “I’m waiting.”
He grinned then, a real one that reached his eyes and made me want to smile back. The corners of my lips were already lifting when he said, “Has anyone ever told you that you have an exquisite shimmer?”
“No!” The word rang out, sharp and loud, the denial behind it potent. “Why would you say that?”
Sol held up his hands in surrender, signaling he’d meant no harm. “I meant no harm.”
I shook my head. “I don’t shimmer.”
Sol’s brows drew together, signaling his confusion. “Of course you do. Everyone shimmers.”
“You do. It’s a deep shade of purple.”
Every time he spoke, my anxiety increased. Heart racing, chest tight, I insisted. “I’ve looked in the mirror and I don’t have a shimmer!”
Sol tilted his head, his eyes seeming to grow even darker as he peered at me, perplexed.
“Tell him, Conroy.” My voice cracked as I danced along the edge of hysteria. If my shimmer was purple like Sol said, that meant I was a step away from magical. I hate magic. I had magical objects in my possession like Conroy and Link, but I myself had no such powers. “Tell him I don’t shimmer.”
The owl didn’t respond.
I dropped my arms from my chest so that he and Sol could see one another. “Tell him.”
“You need to stay calm,” Conroy began.
I ripped the necklace over my head and held him out in front of Sol’s face like he was some sort of irrefutable truth. “Tell him!”
Sol’s eyes grew wide with alarm.
“He’s right,” Conroy said sadly. “You have the loveliest violet shimmer I’ve ever seen.”
I dropped the pendant onto the ground as though it had burned my skin. “No!”
“Ow,” he complained.
I turned away from Sol’s prying gaze, sharp with curiosity and a tinge of pity. I forced myself to take in deep breaths. I was not a step away from magical. No. They were both wrong.
I heard Sol ask, “How does she not know? Hers is the darkest shimmer I’ve ever seen.”
“She can’t—” Conroy began.
I held my breath waiting to hear the answer, waiting for him to make sense of this life-changing revelation. I couldn’t be magical. I just couldn’t be.
Even as I tried to deny it, I remembered that I can fight at a different speed than others. I thought that was due to Valentina. Conroy had once told me that it was her job to keep me safe and I figured she worked some kind of magical mojo on me to make that happen.
Conroy provides counsel and translates, Link helps me make decisions, and Valentina keeps me safe. Those are the jobs of my magical companions…and at least one of them had been misleading me.
“I can’t see it,” I said, whirling around to face Sol. “You’re the magic man. Tell me why not?”
He considered the question for a long moment. “But you can see the shimmer of others?”
“What’s the color of mine?”
“Mulberry,” Conroy corrected from where he was crumpled on the forest floor.
“Oh, so now you’ve got answers?” I snapped at him. “All this time you’ve been keeping secrets and—”
“What color do you see coming toward us?” Sol interrupted, staring over my shoulder.
I turned to see what he was looking at. I couldn’t see the people yet as they were, but a wall of royal blue shimmer was moving toward us. “Royal blue.”
“Cullers,” Conroy warned.
Sol snatched up the fallen necklace and tossed the owl at me. “Run!”