Hello, dear Readers! I hope you are having a good week. I come with another excerpt from the Stella and Griffin story! Picking up where we left off last time in Must Be Magic: Part II, Stella, Griffin and Bart are in the old woman Horatia’s cottage, hoping to learn something that might help them in the fight against the Soul-Eater. Stella is all ears, but Griffin is wary. Let’s find out why.
The WordPress Daily Prompt word of the day is Tremble.
The girl was a fool, no doubt about it. But saints help me, so was I. Stella raised her chin at us, her eyes flashing with defiance and a challenge, but I caught her bottom lip tremble just a bit. She was desperate to save Roy, to know it was still possible. I know because I had felt that same desperation before, not so long ago…
The old woman put one of her ancient hand over Stella’s small worn ones. “I might be able to help you with that, star-girl,” she said.
At once hope flared in Stella’s eyes and she turned away from me, missing the frown that instantly formed at the old woman’s words. I didn’t trust her. Something about her felt strange and she told a lot less than she knew, I could tell. Stella might not have noticed, but I hadn’t missed they roundabout way she had been speaking to us. I glanced at Bart, who was fidgeting in his seat, his eyes darting back and forth from Stella to Horatia.
“Might being the operative word,” I said dryly. I couldn’t help myself.
Three pairs of eyes turned towards me. Stella’s reproachful ones, Bart’s amused ones and Horatia’s sharp ones, which narrowed even as she smiled good naturedly at me. “I am just a simple old woman, it’s true,” Horatia said. “I certainly cannot face the demon myself. But my knowledge could be of use to you, hero.” She held my gaze, staring at me as if she could see straight into my soul. I repressed a shudder.
“How do we know what you say is true? How do we know we can even trust you?”
Horatia shrugged and took a sip of her tea. “You don’t,” she said simply. “But what possible reason would I have to tell you otherwise?”
“You could be a demon yourself, working for the Soul-Eater, sending us to our deaths.”
Horatia gave a short bark of laughter, making Stella jump beside me. “Oh, to be certain, I am sending you to your deaths, hero.” Stella’s cup clattered as she dropped it on the table, spilling some of the contents. Horatia continued as if she hadn’t noticed it. “Yes, all three of you will be walking straight into your deaths should you fail at your task. There is no other outcome.”
When I remained silent, Horatia smiled wickedly and said directly to me, “But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps you will escape death twice, Griffin Shadow-Destroyer.” She spat the last two words at me, flinging them like an insult.
I reeled back. She knew. Somehow she knew my past, knew about Fellforough. I dared not glance at Bart, though I felt his eyes on me. He couldn’t have missed the reference. Only Stella remained in the dark, and she was staring between us with wide eyes, questions welling up inside her. I closed my eyes just as she burst, fixing her fierce gaze on me.
“What is she talking about, Griffin? What does she mean, escape death twice? Have you…”
I cut her off by standing abruptly. My chair fell to the floor behind me and I turned and strode out of the tiny house, ducking under the herbs and weeds drying in the rafters. I didn’t even bother closing the door behind me. I just kept walking blindly forward, my mind racing.
I shouldn’t have left Bart and Stella in there on their own with that woman, but I wasn’t thinking straight. It shouldn’t, couldn’t be possible that the old woman knew, but her entire manner suggested otherwise. I paced back and forth. I should barge back in there, grab Stella and Bart and just leave. I wanted nothing more to do with the old woman. But if she was telling the truth and she really could help us, it might be our only chance at defeating the Soul-Eater and saving Roy. I growled and kicked the dirt at my feet.
From behind me I heard the soft patter of Stella’s footsteps running after me, and a second later she called out, “Griffin! What on earth is going on? Why did you storm out? What aren’t you telling us?”
I stopped pacing suddenly and spun around, nearly colliding with her. She stumbled and I reached out and instinctively caught her and set her gently back on her feet. She flushed, her face and neck turning pink, but was not silenced. “Tell me. What is it, Griffin?”
“I don’t trust that woman,” I growled.
Stella scoffed. “It’s more than that and you know it,” she said, putting both hands on her hips. The pose struck a memory I had long ago buried but I quickly pushed it away.
“I don’t have to tell you everything about myself,” I snapped.
“You do if it causes you to run out on us!” Stella shouted.
“I’m not running out on you, Lila!” I shouted back, and instantly wished I hadn’t. I turned away, cursing my treacherous mind for dredging up memories best laid to rest and my tongue for giving them a voice.
I had a few seconds silence before Stella softly asked, “Who’s Lila?”
I didn’t answer right away, but my mind silently filled in the blanks. Lila. Beautiful, lovely, funny Lila. Bossy, clever, quick Lila. “No one,” I forced out. I breathed in deep though my nose. When she looked about to protest, I snapped. “Who’s Roy?”
Her mouth shut and she pursed her lips. A cruel sort of satisfaction welled up inside me and I swallowed it down, sick with myself. Lila wouldn’t have wanted me to behave like this. Lila wouldn’t have wanted a lot of things.
“You still aren’t telling us something,” Stella finally said. She crossed her arms over her chest and gave me the impatient look I was beginning to know so well. “What is it that you and Horatia know?”
I looked at the sky, then back to the cottage. I said nothing. Stella started tapping her foot impatiently, then drumming her fingers on her arm. When she took a big breath to start another round of questioning, I spoke.
“I’ve faced the Soul-Eater before.”
Stella let out her breath and stared up at me wide-eyed, then. “You have? Then how did you defeat it? Is this the beast of Fellforough? You’ve destroyed one before! You can do it again! Why haven’t you said something before?” She was talking a mile a minute, her voice rising with each question, excitement filling her words. I looked at my feet and she trailed off. “Griffin?” she asked uncertainly.
“I didn’t defeat the Soul-Eater in Fellforough,” I said, the words falling from my mouth like heavy stones. “I didn’t kill it, and I didn’t save anyone.” I looked up and gazed straight into her blue eyes, so unlike Lila’s warm brown ones. Each word was like agony to admit. “I fought it with a group of soldiers in Fellforough Wood on a night with no moon. We were powerless against it. Our weapons did nothing. All around us the Taken walked and wailed, driving the men mad even as they themselves became Taken.”
I paused, the horrors of the night flashing through my mind as if it had been yesterday. “ There were demons everywhere. We fought them with our swords dipped in burning pitch but it wasn’t enough. And when the night was darkest, there was a tear in the air and from it spilled smoke that was darker still. It swirled around the Soul-Eater, enveloping it, drawing it closer to the tear. I tried to stop it but when my sword touched the smoke it froze and the fire burning along it was choked out.”
Stella gasped. Her hand was covering her mouth and she was looking at me with such shock and pity, I could hardly continue. “I pulled out my knife, though my hands were shaking so badly I could hardly hold it. I waited a moment and found a break in the smoke. I drove the knife into the side of the beast up to the hilt. It started to shudder and I thought maybe I had wounded it enough to stop it, but then I heard it.”
I stopped again, bile rising in my throat. I forced myself to continue. “It was laughing,” I said, choking on the words. “And then the beast lashed out with its barbed tail and struck me across the chest, sending me flying back. I could only lay there helpless as it crawled into the tear and disappeared, tear and all.”
I stopped again, closing my eyes against the memories that kept coming. I flinched as Stella’s small hand reached out and touched my arm. “Griffin, I…”
I shook my head. “That wasn’t it,” I said. My voice sounded raw, even to my ears. I cringed to think of how I must sound to Stella. “The Taken were still there. But when the beast and the tear disappeared, the wailing stopped. It was like all the sound had been stolen from the world. I…I hurried over to one of them, a young woman. Her eyes were a solid milky white and her skin was grey, right down to the freckles on her nose. Her clothes looked as though the color had been bleached out. I called to her but she didn’t respond. I shook her shoulders but she made no move that she could hear or understand me. She just stood there.” I pinched the bridge of my nose and shook my head. “All around me the bodies of my men lay slain on the ground, mixed with the bodies of demons. Above them stood the Taken, frozen like statues, like stone angels in a cemetery. Then one by one they crumbled and turned to dust. I reached out and grabbed the young woman by the hand, but she too turned to dust in my hands.” I lowered my hand from my face and stared down at it, opening and closing it for a few moments. “Nothing but dust, I murmured.
Suddenly Stella’s hands were in mine. “It wasn’t your fault,” she said firmly. “You did what you could. This time will be different. Horatia is going to tell us what she knows, and then we are going to defeat that beast once and for all.” She squeezed my hands in hers.
Very gently, I squeezed back. I wished I could share her optimism. But all I could feel was her hands turning to dust in mine.