After the ambulance had left Welmont finished blustering about how his investigation wasn’t over and he’d be back if the medical professionals determined Karen had been the victim of foul play. Then everyone dispersed.
Marco wandered off into the woods muttering about brown thrashers, Ernie complained to Tess that his water hookup wasn’t working well, so they went off to his site to take a look at it, and I, holding Richie’s hand, headed back toward the office, in search of Sol and some answers.
We were about halfway there when I noticed the mist of royal blue shimmer. It was headed toward us, advancing quickly. My stomach dropped as I wondered if they were coming for me.
“Cullers,” Conroy warned as he too spotted it.
I stopped in the middle of the road, releasing Richie so that I could dig in my pocket for Link. The boy looked up at me curiously. My nervousness must shown on my face because he peered at me apprehensively.
Glancing one more time at the approaching blue shimmer, I tossed Link high in the air. “Go right?”
I held my breath as the copper coin tumbled through the air. It landed face up in my palm.
“C’mon,” I said grabbing Richie. “Let’s run.”
Turning to the right, we left the path and entered the woods. I knew I had to get back to the cursed grounds of the Raven’s Nest office and the protection they offered, but the Cullers had the most direct route blocked off.
“What’s wrong?” Richie asked as we took the path less taken, dodging around trees and over gnarled roots.
I didn’t answer him. I didn’t really understand it all, but now that I had accepted that I might be a tad magical (not royal magic like Sol had claimed, just layperson magical) I didn’t want to run into those who wanted to destroy me.
Suddenly blue shimmer appeared not far ahead of us, causing me to a skid to a halt. My abrupt stop knocked Richie off his feet.
“Sorry,” I murmured, helping him stand up.
“It’s okay. I—”His mouth dropped open.
I followed his line of vision.
Standing just a few yards away, pointing a spear at us and wearing a chain mail bikini was one of Nightway’s minions.
Instinctively I pushed Richie behind me in an effort to shield him. “Get out of the way,” I told her with more conviction than I felt. She was bigger than me and armed. I could probably win the fight, but I wasn’t sure I could do that and protect the boy.
She made a half-hearted jab at me with her spear which I easily ducked.
“You threw Ortera into the Blaze of Banishment,” she accused.
I’d expected her to sound tough, like a chain-smoking Mafia mol, but she sounded like a bewildered little girl.
“Ummm,” I replied, trying to figure out what was going on.
“That must be the woman who ran into the fire when you were trying to save the rabbit,” Conroy supplied helpfully.
Bikini babe glared at my necklace and jabbed again with the spear. “She would do no such thing.”
I raised my hands defensively. “I didn’t touch her. I swear.”
“She tripped,” the owl told her. “She tripped and fell into the flames.”
“Look, I don’t want any trouble,” I told her. “Why don’t we just pretend we never met and—”
She lunged then, putting all her energy into the attack, intent on driving the spear through my heart.
I didn’t think, I just reacted. I grabbed the spear, yanked it free of her grip, and swung it like a baseball bat. It made a thunking noise as it bounced off the side of her skull. Then she crumpled to the ground and moaned softly.
I was grateful for the moan. It meant I hadn’t killed her.
“Whoa!” Joey exclaimed in awe.
I closed my eyes for a second trying to figure out how I could explain what he had just seen in a way that if he told anyone about it wouldn’t end up with me in jail. I came up with nothing.
“Listen, buddy, I know–” I began. My words died in my throat as I saw even brighter blue shimmer advancing from behind us. Wordlessly I grabbed Richie’s hand and began to run.
It occurred to me as I was crashing through the trees, dragging Richie along, that I should have had Sol specify the exact location of the cursed land so I’d know when I’d reached safety. Instead I had to make a breathless sprint to Princess. At least I knew that location was safe.
Every time I glanced over my shoulder it seemed like the blue shimmer was getting closer.
Suddenly we burst through the edge of the woods and I could see the camper van. Usually I hated that bright pink color, but for now it glowed like a beacon of hope.
“Almost there,” I panted to Richie.
“Home base!” he answered excitedly, picking up his pace as he understood that the objective was to reach it first.
As we reached the side of the vehicle I looked back and saw that the blue shimmer had stopped advancing. We were safe.
“I’m thirsty,” Richie complained.
“Let’s get you inside and find you something to drink.”
We rounded the rear of the RV and spotted Mildred huddled near the door mewling pathetically. I grabbed Richie’s shoulder, stopping him in his tracks. The last thing I wanted was my mother-in-law lashing out at him with those killer claws.
“Wait here,” I murmured. I leaned the spear I’d taken from Nightway’s minion against the vehicle and then approached the Siamese tentatively. “Mildred?”
The cat raised her head to look at me.
“What happened?” I gasped as I saw her fur was matted with fresh blood.
“Someone tried to break in, so I defended my castle,” she declared haughtily.
I waited for her to elaborate.
“Cornelius from the Planet of the Apes. The original, not the remake. We live in a world of half-assed remakes.”
I squinted at her wondering how hard she’d gotten hit. It wasn’t normal for her to rambling on about a 1960s movie character.
“I’ll get you cleaned up, but first I’ve got to get the kid inside,” I told her. “The Cullers are lurking.”
“Cullers do not lurk. They prepare to attack,” she meowed back. “And I don’t need your help.” She skulked off, limping.
I turned back to Richie and waved him toward me.
“You talk to your cat,” he said with awe.
“Everybody talks to their pets,” I told him. I just happen to be cursed so mine talks back.
I ushered him inside, shooting a quick look in Glory’s direction. Sol must have tucked the old pot back behind the pillow before leaving because it was looking particularly lumpy.
“I want lemonade,” Richie announced, sitting down on the nearest seat. “Pink lemonade like this place.” He ran his finger along the pink tabletop, marveling at its shade.
“I don’t have any lemonade.”
He pouted. “Norma make me lemonade.”
I was surprised that the drunken, rumor-spreading Norma mixed anything besides her favorite drink, but I managed not to say that aloud. “All I’ve got is water and coffee.”
He looked at me like I was crazy. “I’m a kid. Kids aren’t allowed to drink coffee. It could kill them.”
I swallowed a smile at the level of his intensity. “Who told you that?”
“My mom. She says no coffee and never, under any circumstances should I ever eat an apple.”
I could understand why a mother wouldn’t want her already energetic kid drinking caffeine, but the reasoning behind the avoidance of apples stumped me. “Why not?”
“It could kill me!” he yelled. “My dad was really allergic and he had some once and got super sick.”
I nodded slowly. I’d never heard of an apple allergy before. Then again, I didn’t know my own name, so who was I to judge? “So I guess it’s water then.”
He stuck out his lower lip. “Yuck.”
A knock at the door saved me from arguing about my lack of beverage choices.
I gave Link a quick toss. “Do I open it?”
The coin landed in my hand face-up, but not before there was more knocking.
“I’m coming,” I shouted. I pasted a smile on my face as I reached for the door, hoping it wasn’t Welmont asking me why I had a freaking spear leaning against my home.