Black Heart Page 2

Did that mean that the Retrievers were more powerful than Lucifer? Than Puck or Alerian? And speaking of Alerian, what were his intentions now that he had risen from his long sleep?

I rubbed my forehead. There were too many problems. I could solve none of them from here. Wherever here was.

The first thing I needed to do was find some food and a safe place to sleep for a while. I’d had no rest except for a catnap in the backyard after I’d fetched Evangeline from the dead world for Lucifer.

I couldn’t remember the last time I ate. Nathaniel and I were on our way to make pancakes when the Retrievers had arrived. Pancakes. I could go for a giant stack of them right now. Too bad there wasn’t a handy pancake tree. I was going to have to forage for food.

If Beezle were with me, he would laugh his little gargoyle butt off at the idea of me foraging. When I was young I’d tried camping in the backyard once. I found an old tent in the basement and got an idea in my head that I would have an adventure.

Of course, I’d thought that backyard tenting experience would be a stepping-stone to an adulthood where I would travel the world with nothing but a backpack, sleeping on the ground in the Andes and the Pyrenees and wherever else my feet would take me.

I didn’t even last the night. The rats scurrying through the yard from the alley kept me up for hours. In the darkness, my mind magnified the rodents to dog size. Around midnight I gave up and trudged inside the house.

Beezle was snoring on the banister when I entered. He opened his eyes just long enough to say, “I told you so,” before closing them again. And that was the end of my camping adventure.

I felt a little pang, thinking of Beezle, and resolutely put it aside. Beezle had always been the constant in my life. But he had chosen to leave. Dwelling on it now wouldn’t help me survive.

So I stood up for a second time. I pulled my sword out and glanced around the sky. The sun was hidden by a canopy of leaves. There was no guarantee that the sun here moved the same way as the sun did at home, in any case. I wasn’t sure where I was, but it didn’t feel like I was in my own solar system. Or even my own galaxy, for that matter.

I started walking in the direction I faced, following the meandering path of the stream. As I walked I made a small hash mark on every third tree or so, thinking it would make it easier to tell if I got lost and started walking in circles.

Insects buzzed in the trees and grass, keeping up a continuous cicada-like noise. Some of the insects flew from tree to tree, or flower to flower. They were disconcertingly large. I saw a beetle-type bug with an iridescent green shell that was the size of my hand. Butterflies as big as Chicago pigeons flapped around my head. I didn’t see any mammals.

As I walked along, the stream broadened and I saw some fat amphibians hopping from rocks into the water. The occasional silver flash of a fish darted under the surface. I wondered if I dared drink some of the water from the stream. There was a risk that it was contaminated with alien bacteria that could kill me. I didn’t have any purifying tablets handy. Starting a fire wasn’t a problem, but I wasn’t carrying a container in which to boil the water.

I was thirsty, but I wasn’t at a point of desperation. Yet. I kept my eyes peeled for anything that looked like it might stand in for a camp pot. Melonlike fruits dangled from the high branches of a tree. I flew up to a branch and yanked one off, inspecting it. The shell didn’t seem sturdy enough to withstand the heat of a fire, but the fruit inside might be edible. And if it was, I could probably take care of my hunger and my thirst in one shot.

I flew back to the ground, placing the heavy fruit on a flat rock covered in moss. I lifted the sword high and split open the fruit. The halves separated easily, revealing glistening yellow-orange flesh. Grabbing fruit by the handful and shoving it in my mouth would be stupid. The melons could be poisonous. I cut a tiny, mouse-sized bite off and put it in my mouth.

My intention was to eat it, wait a couple of hours, and then see whether it upset my stomach. But I didn’t get that far. As soon as the fruit hit my tongue, I spit it out. It tasted like diesel fuel.

“Well, that’s not going to work,” I said, looking longingly at the stream again. I wanted to get the foul taste of the fruit out of my mouth. I would probably be safe if I just rinsed and spit the water. As long as I didn’t swallow it, I would probably be okay. Probably.

I approached the water, knelt beside the stream. It was clear in the way water is when it’s been untouched by man and pollution. I was sure I’d never seen water this perfect, this silver and crisp. I dipped my cupped hand in the stream and lifted it to my lips.

Sweetness exploded on my tongue, and it tasted so delicious that I swallowed involuntarily. The cool liquid slipped down my parched throat, and it felt so good that I couldn’t help myself. I took another drink, and another, and another, until I was lapping at the stream like a dog. I wanted to take all my clothes off and crawl inside.

My hands were at the hem of my shirt before I realized what I was doing.

Wait. Think. This is not the way you would normally act, no matter how thirsty you are.

The thought was like a bolt of lightning, and it seemed to help me shake off the drunken haze caused by the water. I stood up and backed away, wiping the liquid from my mouth with the back of my hand. I’d been so worried about germs I hadn’t even considered the possibility that the stream might be enchanted. Now, too late, I realized how foolish I’d been.

Little spots of light danced before my eyes. The trees and flowers and ferns suddenly seemed dusted with gold. All around me everything shimmered in the sunlight. Deep inside my belly, my son fluttered his wings faster and faster.

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