Hello Readers! I hope you aren’t languishing too much waiting for the next installment in the Stella and Griffin story (I really need a title, don’t I? I’ll work on it.) If you are, never fear! For here at last is the next chapter in their adventure. Things are looking pretty grim for our heroes, especially with their dark pasts (see the last excerpt Dark Memories for more) but perhaps Horatia has a solution for them…read on to find out!
Time Is Short
It took all of my effort to smile and look into Griffin’s eyes. I squeezed his hand and spoke with a confidence I was far from feeling. A tremble started in my hands and I quickly pulled away from Griffin, turning away so he wouldn’t see the shadow cross my face. Inside, it felt as though an icy blade had pierced my chest. I hugged myself, trying to stop the sudden onslaught of anguish filling me. Poor Griffin! To think he had been carrying this same grief around with him, just as I have been carrying my sorrow for Roy!
I sneaked a glance at him. He was pale. For a moment I could see every wave of grief lining his face and darkening his eyes, but in an instant it was gone and the grim face he had been wearing ever since we entered this village slipped back into place. I looked away before he could catch me looking and hurried forward back to Horatia’s cottage. At the front step I paused and looked over my shoulder. Griffin was still standing in place, his fists clenched and his grim face looking like it was carved in stone. “Are you coming, Griffin?”
He revived at the sound of his name and strode forward faster than I expected. I startled when he gently put a hand to my back, pushing me forward. I stumbled as I entered the small cottage and Griffin smoothly reached out and caught me. Horatia and Bart were both watching intently as we entered and I turned my face away, feeling my cheeks burn.
I thought Bart or Horatia would say something about Griffin’s sudden behavior, but neither said a word. Bart looked a little dazed, as if his mind were somewhere else. My brow crinkled. What had he and Horatia been talking about while Griffin and I were gone?
I wasn’t given a chance to ask. Griffin was staring down at Horatia, his arms crossed and feet set shoulder length apart. “I’m ready to hear you, woman,” he said gruffly. All traces of the grief he had just been feeling was gone.
I stood between the two of them, uncertain if I should rejoin Bart at the table or remain at Griffin’s side. Horatia met Griffin’s fierce gaze with a smirk. “Very well,” she said. She stood suddenly. “You have three days to complete your quest, and if you face the Soul-Eater, one chance to live.”
I sucked in a breath. My heart skipped a beat. Three days. One chance. Roy. The words echoed in my head as I stood frozen, staring at the ancient woman. Moving with strange quickness, she went to a laden shelf and withdrew a thick, worn-looking book with what I hoped was animal skin. As she turned around with it and brought it to the table I couldn’t help but lean back. When she flipped it open, Bart nearly fell out of his chair pulling away from it. He scrambled to his feet and stood beside Griffin while Horatia flipped through the tanned, stained pages. I hoped whatever she was about to show us wouldn’t take long.
Opening the book seemed to have made the cottage air oppressive. The shadows around the room had grown darker, and my ears buzzed with murmurs I was certain I hadn’t heard before.
“Where did you get that?” Griffin asked sharply.
“That is a tale you don’t deserve to hear yet,” said Horatia, not pausing in her page turning. My eyes widened as she passed one page with a grisly looking diagram of what resembled a human body but had large curling horns sprouting from its head and large bat-like wings. There was a stain on that page what was almost certainly blood. I shuddered.
“What is it?” The words slipped from my mouth before I could stop them.
“It is a grimoire,” answered Griffin, surprising me.
“A manual for summoning demons,” growled Griffin. His hand was at his sword hilt at his belt again. Beside him, Bart was doing the same.
“It is,” said Horatia calmly, still thumbing through the pages.
I gasped. “But why would a medicine woman have such a thing?”
At that Horatia paused. She looked over her shoulder at me and grinned. “Who ever said I was a medicine woman, star-girl?” She gave me toothy grin. Beside me there came a whisper as Griffin started to drawn his sword, but Horatia held up a hand. “There’s no need for that, boy.” She stepped back and gestured to the gruesome book, now open to a hideous drawing of a large demon made of shadow. I blinked and tried to focus on the drawing. It seemed to be shifting so I couldn’t make out the edges or the full form of the thing. I shook my head. There seemed to be a barbed tail, but in another blink it was gone. I rubbed my eyes.
Horatia laughed. “That won’t do you any good, darling. It’s an ever-changing being. No one knows the true form of the Soul-Eater, and if you do, then you’re probably dead.”
“If no one knows what it looks like, then how are we supposed to find it?” said Bart, voicing the same question that had occurred to me.
“Trust me, if you go looking, you’ll find it,” said Horatia darkly.
“Just answer the question,” snapped Griffin.
“No one knows the true form of the Soul-Eater, that much is known. But it is also known that the Soul-Eater cannot survive in this world without a vessel.”
“A body to inhabit.” Horatia continued as though she’d never been interrupted. “Whatever body the Soul-Eater chooses will take on the qualities and strengths of the demon, making it particularly hard to kill, though not invulnerable.”
“What type of body do you think it will inhabit?” Griffin asked, his hand still not leaving his sword.
Horatia frowned, creating even more lines on her already heavily lined face. “A Soul-Eater that’s already feed once in this world will need something of considerable strength to contain it. I would guess it would be fairly large as well.”
“A bear? A wolf?” guessed Bart.
Griffin said nothing. Suddenly an idea occurred to me. “What about Titan?” I blurted. Three sets of eyes fixed on me. Heat rushed into my face. “Titan?” I repeated. I appealed to Horatia. “Surely you’ve heard of it. The giant willow tree that stands along Old Water River? It’s not 10 miles from here, surely.”
Horatia said nothing for a moment, but appeared to study me. My cheeks were certainly flaming now. At last she nodded. “Yes, I think I know it,” she said.
“It’s a local landmark for my village,” I said quickly, trying to explain myself. “We’ve always called the tree Titan. He’s so big.”
“Could a tree be the vessel?” Griffin questioned Horatia.
“It would explain the large numbers of demons roaming about. If the Soul-Eater is immobile, then it would need its victims to be brought to it.”
“But what would the demons gain by working for the Soul-Eater? It was my understanding that demons were solitary creatures.”
Horatia was nodding again. “They are, mostly. But the Soul-Eater is powerful. It could be pressing the other demons into service, or offering them bribes. Human flesh, perhaps. Other bodies to inhabit.”
I gasped. “No!” Bart sent me a sympathetic look.
“How could a tree be eating souls?” Griffin wasn’t wasting time.
“The tree would no longer be a tree,” reminded Horatia. “It may still resemble the tree at first glance, but if the Soul-Eater has chosen it to inhabit, then it will all demon.”
“Can we be sure this Titan tree is the demon?”
“There are ways, but none can be done quickly. Do you have a current map?”
“With the horses.” Griffin turned to Bart, but he was already striding out of the cottage. For a few minutes, silence sat heavy on the air. My eyes kept darting to the writhing mass of midnight ink on the grimoire’s open pages. I blinked. For a second, I could have sworn it looked like a bent old woman. I shook my head and it was an unrecognizable mass again.
When Bart returned, Horatia pushed the grimoire aside to make room for the map on the table. Griffin stepped forward and I hurried to his side. “There have been attacks here, here, and here,” he said, indicating three red circles on the map. Numbers had been written inside them. 17, 8, 32. “Reports of demon sighting have been recorded in this area, as well as an undetermined number of missing persons. Your village has not been recorded yet, but it looks to be the most serious attack. If what you say is true about the demon staying for one cycle of the moon, then this is consistent with the attack pattern of last time.”
There was an involuntary twinge in my heart. Last time. He was talking about Lila and her village. Horatia leaned forward over the map, bending over so far her nose nearly touched the parchment. She ran her fingers in between the attack sites, murmuring so low that we could not hear. “Is this your Titan, star-girl?” she said, startling me. I looked to where she was pointing. A large green shape sat beside a bend in the river not far from the main road.
Horatia continued her muttering for a minute more then straightened up. “I cannot be certain without tests, but it is very likely that this tree is where the Soul-Eater is residing. Its position near the road and to these four villages make it ideal for harvesting victims. And the size and age of the tree make it even more likely.”
“What if you’re wrong?”
“Then the Soul-Eater will return to the Otherworld and your lost souls will be lost forever. Your time is limited, hero.”