Horse carries us across an expansive terrain with Raven riding high on his neck. His steps measured. Sure. The sound of his hooves meeting the earth resulting in a satisfying shuffle and crunch that always makes me feel as though we’re getting somewhere. Making progress. Despite the fact that we’ve been hunting for weeks with no sign of the enemy.
That’s what I call them—the enemy. Sometimes I switch it with intruders or even interlopers. And when it’s been an especially long day of hunting that has me feeling punchy, I refer to them as fiends.
Though I never call them by their real name.
I never refer to them as Richters.
They may be undead Richters, but they’re still Richters, and Paloma warned me to never inform Dace of his dark origins. Claimed there’s no need for him to know his existence stems from magick of the blackest kind. And even though being the keeper of such a horrible truth makes me feel dishonest at best and disloyal at worst, I can’t help but think that my grandmother’s right.
If anyone should tell him, it’s Chepi, his mother. But so far she’s kept silent.
I loosen my hold on Dace’s waist and sigh as I look all around. Taking in a spread of gleaming tall grass— the blades bending and flattening under Horse’s forged path—the grove of tall trees that mark the perimeter, providing shelter to birds, monkeys, and the occasional nut-seeking squirrel. My gaze cutting through the fading afternoon light—searching, always searching. But as always, there’s no sign of corruption, no sign of their presence.
Maybe the Bone Keeper found them?
I clasp the thought tightly, liking the feel of it. Not wanting to release it no matter how improbable. While I’ve no doubt the skull-faced, serpent-skirt-wearing, star-eating queen of the Lowerworld is more than capable of capturing them, if not obliterating them, I also know it won’t be that easy.
Having made this mess, it’s mine to fix.
“It still seems odd.” I press my lips to the nape of Dace’s neck, the words muffled by his long glossy sheet of dark hair. “You know, this perpetual cycle of night and day. It seems too normal, too ordinary for such an extraordinary place.”
I study the late-afternoon shadow that appears to be stalking us. An unlikely, elongated silhouette of a raven with a spindly stem of a neck, and two ridiculously tall people sitting astride a horse with legs so stretched and skinny they hardly look able to support us—the exaggerated shape heralding a night soon to fall.
Though the truth is, what qualifies as night in the Lowerworld isn’t much more than a trifling fade, falling far short of the heavy, black, star-dusted New Mexico sky I’ve grown used to. Though, I’m glad for its arrival all the same. Glad to have this day reaching its end.
I rest my chin on Dace’s shoulder, picking up where I left off. “Not to mention there’s no sign of a sun—so how’s it even possible? How can it rise and set when it doesn’t exist?”
Dace laughs in response, the sound throaty, deep, and so alluring I inch my body closer until it’s pressed hard against his. Determined to conform to every valley and curve of his back, wanting him to be as aware of me as I am of him.
“Oh, there’s a sun.” He cricks his neck until he’s looking at me. “Leftfoot’s seen it.” His icy-blue eyes capture mine, reflecting my long dark hair, bright green eyes, and pale skin until I look away, dizzy with the sight of it.
“And you believe him?” I frown, unable to keep the skepticism from creeping into my voice. Convinced it’s yet another of the old medicine man’s fantastical tales he told Dace as a kid.
“Of course.” Dace shrugs. “And if we’re lucky, maybe someday we’ll see it too.”
I rub my lips together and slip a hand under the hem of his sweater. My fingers are chilly, his flesh is warm, and yet he doesn’t so much as flinch. Rather he welcomes my touch by urging my palm flat against him.
“The only thing I want to see now is . . .” I try to push my mind back to the job we’ve set out to do, but it’s not long before the thought fades along with my words.
The lure of Dace is too strong, and he must sense my mood because the next thing I know, he’s turning Horse around. Nudging him back over the wide, grassy slope, heading toward a favored destination of ours.
I tighten my hold on his waist, tuck my knees into the crook of his. Struggling against the barrage of guilt that always overwhelms me after a long, fruitless hunt. I promised Paloma I’d find them—evict them. Swore I’d run those Richters right out of the Lowerworld before they had a chance to do any damage that would impact the Middle- and Upperworlds too.
I thought it would be easy.
Thought that in a wondrous land of lush foliage and loving spirit animals, those undead freaks would stand out in the very worst way.
Convinced that with Dace and me working in tandem, we’d easily defeat them.
But now I’m no longer sure.
“Not to worry,” Dace says, his voice as confident as his words. “Together we’ll find them.” Then, meeting my skeptical look, he adds, “Haven’t you heard? Love conquers all.”
My breath stills, my eyes widen, while any attempt at reply stalls in a throat gone suddenly dry.
He drags on Horse’s reins, stopping just shy of the Enchanted Spring, where he helps me to my feet and folds my hands in his. Misreading my silence, he says, “Too soon?”
I clear my throat, longing to tell him that it’s not at all too soon. That I knew it the first night he appeared in my dreams—felt it the day I ran into him at the Rabbit Hole— the stream of unconditional love that flowed between us.
Wishing I could just say it—confess how it both terrifies and excites me. How being loved, truly loved, by him is the most exhilarating thing that’s ever happened to me.
Longing to explain how whenever I’m with him, it’s as though I’m filled with helium—my feet don’t quite touch the earth.
But now, after weeks of being his girlfriend, this is the very first time the L word was mentioned.
Dace cocks his head, shooting me a look so dreamy, I’m sure he’s going to say it—those three not-so-little words— and I ready myself to utter them too.
But he just turns on his heel and heads for the bubbling hot spring with the fine mist of steam dancing along the surface. Leaving me disappointed that the moment was lost—yet secure in its truth all the same.
We rid ourselves of our clothes until Dace is stripped down to his navy blue trunks, and I’m shivering in the plain black bikini I wear underneath. Merging into the water with Dace just behind me, my heart racing in anticipation as I head for the wide bank of rocks, knowing the hunt is now over—the fun will begin.
I smile shyly. Captured by the sight of his strong, square shoulders, gleaming brown skin, the promise of his hands hanging open and loose by his sides. Wondering if I’ll ever get used to this—used to him. So many kisses have passed between us, and yet whenever he’s near, whenever we’re alone, it feels like the first.
He moves in beside me, the water rising to his chest as our lips press and merge and our breath becomes one. My fingers seeking the sharp angle of his jaw, tracing the shadow of stubble that prickles my skin, as he toys with the strings of my bikini top. Taking great care to avoid the buckskin pouch that hangs from my neck, knowing it holds the source of my power, or one of them anyway—that its contents may only be viewed by Paloma and me.
“Daire . . .” My name is a whisper soon chased by the path of kisses he trails along my neck, over my shoulder, and down farther still, as I close my eyes and inhale a sharp breath. Torn between the lure of his touch, and the memory of a horrible dream that took place in this very spring—in a moment much like this one.
A dream where his brother raided our paradise—stealing Dace’s soul along with his life, while all I could do was look on.
“What is it?” Sensing a shift in my mood, he lifts his gaze to meet mine. But I just shake my head and pull him back to me, seeing no reason to share. No reason to wreck the moment by mentioning Cade.
His breath quickens as his lips meet mine once again. And when he lifts me onto his lap, I have the vague sensation of something slimy and foreign passing over my foot.
I lean into the kiss, determined to ignore it, whatever it was. It’s a hot spring—an enchanted hot spring, but still a hot spring. It’s probably just a leaf or even a fallen flower bud from the canopy of vines that swoop overhead.
I focus on the feel of his lips molding hard to my flesh as I squirm tightly against him. Entwining my legs with his when another slimy object skims past my hip before surfacing beside me with an audible plop that’s soon followed by another.
Until the chorus of objects popping to the surface forces us apart. Forces us to blink free of the fog of each other, only to gape in horror as the spring fills with swollen, lifeless, gaping-mouthed fish—their vacant eye sockets staring accusingly.
Before I can so much as scream, Dace swoops me into his arms and hauls me out of the spring. Clasping me tightly to his chest as the two of us stare, breathless and horrified, at a truth that cannot be denied.
The enemy is still out there—alive and well and corrupting the Lowerworld.
And if we don’t find them soon, they’ll corrupt the Otherworlds too.
Excerpted from Echo by Alyson Noel. Copyright © 2012 by Alyson Noel.
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