“Run!” Sol repeated, waving for me to follow him. He spun around and began sprinting away.
I hesitated, choosing to slip the necklace over my head, buying myself a moment to consider my options.
“It’s good advice,” Conroy said. “Run!”
I eyed the royal blue shimmer growing closer. “I could talk to them.”
“There’s no reasoning with Cullers,” the owl snapped. “Don’t believe for a moment that there’s any honor among those soulless thieves.”
“I could fight them.” I wasn’t really looking for a fight, but I relished the idea of holding my ground. It felt like ever since Mildred had started haunting me, I’d been on the ropes. Maybe this was the opportunity to change my fate.
“You’ll lose,” Conroy warned. “Badly.”
“Come on!” Sol called. He’d stopped thirty yards ahead and was waving his magician’s hat in a big arc, inviting me to join him. “We have to get out of here.”
“I don’t want to go with him,” I grumbled to Conroy.
“You must,” the owl urged.
“I don’t trust him.” I wanted nothing to do with his magic.
“He might be able to protect you.”
“Protect me from what?” I wanted even less to do with my own magic.
“There’s no time to explain,” the necklace cried, becoming agitated. “Just go.”
Unconvinced, I pulled Link out of my pocket and tossed him into the air. “Do I go with him?” I asked the copper piece.
Before the coin fell back into my palm, it was caught midair by someone else. Startled, I stumbled back, realizing Sol was beside me, having snatched away my lucky penny.
“Wrong way.” The magician grabbed my wrist and tugged hard as he once again attempted to flee the Cullers, this time with me in tow.
“Let go!” I dug in my heels and fought to pull free of his grip.
He dropped my wrist like our physical contact had burnt him. His dark gaze smoldered with frustration. “I’m trying to help you.”
I shook my head. “I don’t want—”
“The Cullers are coming! The Cullers are coming!” a shrill, yowling voice interrupted from behind us.
Whirling around I saw Mildred bounding toward us. The grace of her feline form racing across the ground was a direct contrast to the old woman’s voice coming out of her.
“Is that a maddener?” Sol stared at me incredulously. “Why do you have a maddener? Who are you?”
“Run, you stupid girl!” Mildred growled. “Run!”
It was out of character for my former mother-in-law to look out for my well-being and for a moment I believed that she was genuinely concerned for my safety. Then I remembered who I was dealing with.
“No.” I stamped my foot like a stubborn toddler. “I’m not going anywhere. With anyone.”
Sol looked from the blue shimmer, which was almost upon us, to the owl pendant. “Tell her. Save her. There’s nothing I can do here.” With that he began to run away again.
“You’ll cease if you stay,” Mildred warned, swiping at my ankle. At the last moment, perhaps because she remembered she’d cause herself an equal injury, she retracted her claws.
“There!” A voice, icy and sharp called out.
I saw the source of the royal blue shimmer. Three people approached. A hunched over old man with a long beard who wore a flowing navy robe was flanked by two tall women carrying spears and wearing chain mail bikinis.
I’m pretty sure my mouth fell open. My life is strange, and I’ve seen and done some weird things, but even I was nonplussed by this latest development.
“Get her,” the old man ordered, in a tone so cold it made me shiver.
“Yes, Kash,” the female gladiators said in unison, advancing toward me.
“What the—” I began.
“Run,” a wise, warm voice prompted within me.
So I ran.
Valentina, my protector, doesn’t speak often, but when she does, I listen. I might not trust Sol or Mildred, but I did trust her.
Clutching Conroy against my chest to keep him from bouncing, my feet flew quickly and surely over the ground. “Don’t fall. Don’t fall,”I chanted under my breath. Glancing over my shoulder I saw that both the warriors and the Siamese cat were following.
Feet pounding, I picked up speed. Everything became a blur as I ran faster and faster, up the mountain.
I caught up with Sol, who had paused to lean against a tree and catch his breath. His top hat was discarded a few yards away, brim facing the sky. Halting beside him, I put my hands on my knees, gasping for air.
“Hide her!” Conroy implored him. “The Cullers must not capture her.”
“He can’t,” Mildred sneered, catch up. “Can’t you see? He’s caponem.”
“But his hod worked,” the metal owl countered the flesh-and-blood cat.
I looked at Sol. He kept his head bowed, eyes averted. “Are you following this?”
He nodded tightly, not looking at me.
“Well I’m not,” I reminded the group. “Would someone please tell me what’s going on?”
“Mr. Magic Man has no power,” Mildred crowed with malignant enjoyment.
I knew from the way Sol flinched that she’d hit a nerve and I sympathized. Mildred can be a real witch and it hurts to be subject to one of her barbs.
“The Cullers are getting closer,” Conroy warned worriedly.
We all looked at the advancing blue shimmer. The women weren’t in view yet, but they weren’t far off.
“Run, you idiots!” Mildred meowed, streaking away.
“You’re going to have to hold your breath.” Sol finally raised his gaze to meet mine and motioned to follow him. He moved toward his hat.
Matching his strides, I frowned up at him. “I can’t hold my breath and run.”
“Put your foot on top of mine,” he instructed, stopping beside his overturned head covering.
I hesitated, wondering what he was up to. I suspected it was something magical despite Mildred’s assertion.
“Hurry,” Conroy urged. “Do as he says. They’re almost here.”
Standing on one foot, I lifted my sneaker and placed it on top of Sol’s which he was holding a few inches above the ground. We wobbled precariously.
I tensed as I he placed a hand on the back of my neck.
“Trust,” Valentina rumbled from deep within me.
“Now take a deep breath,” Sol ordered.
Before I’d even finished sucking in air, he placed his foot, with mine on top of it, into his hat while simultaneously pressing his mouth against mine.
Instinctively I raised my hands to push him away. Suddenly the bottom of the world fell out.
At least that’s how it felt. We were falling, as if from a great height. Air buffeting us as we tumbled downward. Instead of pushing him away, I clutched his shirt, searching for something solid to hold onto.
It was simultaneously freezing and scalding, scratchy and soft, wet and dry, light and dark.
Panicked, I would have screamed, but his mouth against mine created a seal, preventing me from exhaling.
And then we crashed to the ground, crumpled in a tangle of limbs, with no more impact than my previous falls of the day.
Squeezing my eyes shut, heart hammering and gasping for breath, I huddled in terror, waiting for whatever came next, knowing I was unprepared.
Something tickled the tip of my nose.
I opened my eyes and found myself face-to-face with a white rabbit.