“What do you mean the Raven’s Nest office is cursed?” I let out a pained sigh as the headache I’d been trying to avert began to throb right between my eyebrows.
“According to Garret, it’s your maddener’s fault,” Sol revealed. “What’s her name?”
“There was a bit of a…a backfire when your Mildred Bloodworth cast the spell on him, turning him into a squirrel.”
“Because of Orville,” I muttered. My former mother-in-law was adept at causing chaos and misery, but I suspected that Orville was the root cause of a lot of her worst plans.
“He says it was because of Buddy,” Sol replied. “Who’s this Orville charac…” He trailed off, his big ears suddenly standing at attention. “Orville Bloodworth? Are we talking about Orville Bloodworth?” He began to hop in place, clearly agitated.
“You know him?” I asked carefully.
“Despicable, good-for-nothing, trash,” Sol spat out, whiskers quivering. “A fetid oozing boil of puss on the hairy butt of life.”
I nodded. That was a pretty accurate description of my former husband.
“It figures that he’s responsible for all this suffering,” Sol ranted on. “I mean there’s never been a more egotistical, self-aggrandizing piece of scum.”
“Actually, from what I understand he was just a kid at the time” I interjected mildly. “I think his mother is responsible.” I’m no fan of Orville, but I do value the truth, even when it rears its head at inopportune moments.
“Decades of suffering,” was Sol’s outraged reply. “All for what? What did he get out of it?”
Sometimes people don’t want to face facts when they’ve got their rant on. I tried to redirect. “What suffering?”
“True love foiled. Tess and Garret kept apart.”
“Ahh,” I murmured. It was all starting to make some sense. Mildred had separated the lovers by turning Garrett into a squirrel. And Tess had stayed here all these years, feeding the animal, loving him the only way she knew how. It was kind of heartbreakingly romantic…even if it did involve a rodent. “I may have some good news about that.”
Sol made a scoffing sound. At least I think that was what it was supposed to be, but coming out of a rabbit, it sounded suspiciously like a death rattle.
“I think Mildred wants to reunite them,” I continued.
“And why would she want to do that?” Sol asked.
“She doesn’t want to be stuck with me for eternity.”
“But—” Sol began.
“Silence!” Conroy thundered again, startling us both.
“You’ve got to stop doing that,” I muttered. “Just let the man…I mean rabbit…rabbit man? Just let him speak.”
“Don’t you hear that?” Conroy asked, ignoring me.
I cocked my head to the side to listen and realized there were faint cries coming from above.
“Help!” a voice called. “Help me!”
“That’s Richie. He’s in trouble!” I jumped up, hitting my head on the low ceiling of the cave.
“Help!” Richie called.
The fear and desperation in his voice tore at me, stealing my breath.
“This way,” Sol called, hopping away.
I followed him, crouched over, out of the cave. I was surprised to realize the sun was still shining when we emerged. I shielded my eyes against the bright light and stumbled forward, unable to see the white rabbit, but hearing Richie’s calls.
I picked up speed as my eyes adjusted and was running by the time I found the little boy.
He was sinking into the ground, arms overhead trying to pull himself out of the hole that seemed intent on sucking him in whole.
I skidded to a stop. “Is that quicksand?” I asked Conroy as Sol hopped to the edge of the depression.
“More likely treacherous grit,” the owl replied.
“Which means what?”
“It’s the equivalent of magical quicksand.”
Spotting me, the child called out, “Help me, Smoosher!”
“I’m coming, Richie,” I promised loudly. Then I whispered to Conroy, “What do I do?”
“Just give him a benevolent boost,” Sol said.
“With what?” I asked, looking around for a branch to extend to the boy as the malevolent muck rose over the kid’s chest.
“With…” Sol looked back at me, whiskers vibrating. “You don’t know how?” He hopped up and glared at Conrad. “How can you not have told her?”
Paying no attention to him, I promised, the kid, “I’ll be right back, sweetie. I just need to get something to pull you out with.”
“Hurry,” the boy begged.
Spinning around, I ran into the woods searching for a long, thick branch, but it was hard to see. I kept having to wipe away tears of panic.
“Yo!” a familiar voice yelled. “Over here.”
Turning in the direction of his voice, I saw that Garret was perched on a fallen branch that was just what I was looking for.
“Use this to pull the brat out,” the tailless squirrel urged. “Should be long enough and sturdy enough for the job.”
“Thank you.” I grabbed and carried the stick to the expanding edge of the hole. The sand had almost reached Richie’s chin.
“Grab this,” I shouted, extending the branch to him.
Eyes wide with fear, he grabbed hold of the branch.
“Hold on!” I tried to pull him toward me, but it was like the sand was a living, breathing creature intent on swallowing its supper. The harder I pulled, the more resistance I encountered.
“Use the spell,” Sol urged, hopping along the edge of the crater. “Use it now.”
“I hate magic!” I told him. “I don’t do spells.”
“You don’t hate magic,” Conroy corrected. “You’re afraid of it. If you don’t face your fears, you’ll never own your power.”
“Use the spell,” Sol beseeched. “It’s harmless. It can’t hurt you. It can only help him.”
The sand climbed up to the boy’s lower lip. I was out of time.
Dropping the stick, I shouted, “I’m coming, Richie” and began to wade into the thick, sucking sand toward the drowning child.
“Stop!” Conroy yelled, panicked. “This is a terrible idea. What are you doing?”
“Saving him.” I pushed through, the effort leaving me breathless, as small hands reached for me.
“Benevolent boost,” Sol began to chant from where he watched. “Benevolent boost. Benevolent boost.”
I grabbed the boy’s hand, feeling the strong pull trying to separate us. “I’ve got you,” I panted.
“Benevolent boost. Benevolent boost. Benevolent boost,” Sol repeated as Garret ran back and forth along the perimeter.
Now the sand was quickly rising up my body, ready to crush my chest, threatening to drown me too. I struggled against it.
“Just say the words, benevolent boost,” Conroy pleaded. “Benevo–” The encroaching sand cut off his words.
Even though I was holding his hand, Richie disappeared beneath the now-gurgling surface. I’d slip under at any moment.
“Say the damn spell, you fool!” Garret roared from the sideline. “What have you got to lose?”
“Benevolent boost. Benevolent boost. Benevolent boost.” Sol was now chanting at the top of his lungs.
“What should I do, Valentina?” I asked my protector.
But she remained silent.
Even as I slid beneath the surface into darkness and crushing pressure.