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I couldn’t help smiling, even though I knew he couldn’t see me. “It’s not a prank. I need to rest after facing those two elementals and I’m not sure where to go next.” I closed my eyes and truly let myself feel the injuries that had been inflicted. Several broken ribs, a crack somewhere in my spine, two or three additional vertebrae had been damaged, and I was covered in bruises from the soles of my feet to my temples. Not to mention the amount of power I’d pulled through the earth had completely drained me. Channeling that much energy was . . . something I’d never done, and I still didn’t have a good reason why I’d been able to call that much of the earth’s power.

“Sleep for a bit, Norm.”

Our combined body heat warmed the small space and it wasn’t long before I fell asleep. Fitful and filled with dreams, the only good thing was that it allowed me to rest a little. Until the last dream approached me from the distance, as though it were wary of even making itself known to me.

Peta was there, in the fog of my mind, and her normally bright green eyes were full of torment. “Ash, do not come for me. Do not tell Lark. It’s a trap.”

“I know.”

She shook her head slowly as if it pained her. “Then you must stay away. There is more than you or I realized at stake. Stay away. Do not come for Cassava. Leave me.”

“And then she will kill you,” I said, doing my best to reach for her. Peta shied from me, but not without effort. With each step, I saw more injuries. Her tail had been broken, she had huge wounds in her sides, her fur fell in clumps as she spoke.

“My death for your life, for Lark’s life. It is as it should be. I am a familiar,” she said. “You must not come.”

“You are more than that, Peta.” I managed to get a hand on the fur around her neck and pull her tightly to me. She relaxed for a moment and then she pulled away suddenly.

“I must go and you must promise me that you will not follow. If she has us both, then she will have a sure hold on Lark. If she only has me, then you can convince Lark not to fall to her.”

I blinked and the dream faded, but the haunting pain in Peta’s eyes did not. “I am not leaving you to her.”

Norm grunted and shifted his body, but a snort and a soft rumble from him told me he was still asleep. In the complete darkness, I sat thinking about Peta. Thinking about how she’d been able to contact me.

I was no fool.

I knew who was behind it.

Raven. He was the only one who could use Spirit, the only one who could force Peta to say what she said, as well as enable her to come to me in a dream. “Damn you, Raven.”

I shifted my weight so I could place both hands flat on the floor of our small cave.

The earth all around me warmed, as though it was happy to have me there, happy to have me in her embrace. What I felt, though, was the calm beyond the earth, that the storm had subsided.

I dug my fingers into the ground a little and wriggled them, encouraging the rock to open and allow us to leave.

Nothing happened.

I wasn’t worried, not at first. I adjusted my stance so my hands were right over the opening I’d created only hours before.

Pressing my skin to the rock, I beckoned it carefully to open.

Again, there was not even a flicker of a response. “Mother goddess, what is happening?”

I hadn’t really expected an answer.

Child, you have helped us wake as had your mate. So we wish to speak with you while your companion sleeps.

I swallowed hard past the sudden desert in my mouth. “Who are you?”

Do you not know? Can you not feel the truth in who we are?

I’d have said the mother goddess, but the word “we” stuck out. “No, I don’t want to guess. I don’t like games.”

But you are playing one, aren’t you? The world has shifted and changed. The old powers are awakening, Ash of the Rim. The old powers like the one you felt fire your blood as you faced the Sylph.

A chill swept down my spine, making my breath catch in my throat. “That doesn’t make it a game.”

Not to you, but to others it is a game. The Destroyer must be protected at all costs. The world yet has need of her strength, of the power only she can find, and you will help her find that power.

“Are you telling me not to go after Peta?”

There was silence long enough that I thought perhaps we were done. That whatever entity I spoke with, be it the mother goddess or some other creature, had fallen silent again.

We do not know what path is right for you, Ash. Only that you will choose the right path. You must, as there is no other way we will all survive.

I rubbed a hand over my face and let out a slow breath. “I will protect the Destroyer. With my own life, if I must. But you never told me who you are.”

We are all around you. We are the fire in your blood, the water in your veins, the earth of your body, the air of your breath, the spirit that powers it all.

The voice did fall silent then, not that there was much I could say to it after that. There was no way to answer an announcement that sounded like they were the mother goddess, but more.

Much more.

I put my hands on the rock again and pushed with all I had, a sudden fear of being trapped overcoming me. I fell out of the small cave, the rock crumbling around me easily, and into what felt like brilliant white sunlight to my night-darkened eyes. I rolled to the side and crouched, covering my eyes as they slowly adjusted. My heart rate slowed, telling me the fear had been more than a little real.

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