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Her eyes flicked to me and away. “No. But I cannot trust him. Both sides of my nature realize he is . . . unstable. And for what I have need of, unstable is the last thing that would help. He has gone his own way, and I feel that is best.”

“A task? I thought you wanted me to save the world?” The bitterness flowing over my words didn’t escape me as I settled onto my heels, so we both crouched at the edge of the water.

“A task that would save the world, and one that I wished would never come to light.” A heavy sigh slid out of her. “I’d hoped this day was never to be seen by any but in their darkest nightmares. I’d hoped I’d never have to see my children fall so far, but it seems this is my fate. And yours.” Her blue eyes narrowed. “Will you listen to my plea?”

The mother goddess had never been so . . . thoughtful when it came to demanding I do something. Or manipulating me into the things she’d wanted me to accomplish. I wasn’t sure I liked this new side of her any better.

I dug my toes into the sand, thinking. If she needed my help, and was willing to be gracious, listening was the least I could do.

“I’ll listen.”

She stood and held a hand out to me. I didn’t take it, but stood on my own. Her lips tightened, then smoothed. “You do not have to always be stubborn, child.”

Her words were too much like Cactus’s for my liking.

My lips tightened, mimicking hers. “I’ve had too many hands held out to me in friendship and help that have turned into venomous snakes.”

With a deep breath, she nodded. “That is true, forgive me. Walk with me, Lark.”

We started down the beach. I couldn’t help glancing back. There was no sign of the hot springs I’d left, no sign of Peta coming after me.

The mother goddess held her palm out to me, fingers spread wide. “You know of the five stones, Lark. You have handled them all at one point or another.”

I said nothing and she went on. “They were not designed to be held by elementals; they are far too powerful when added to power an elemental already has. Designed to be held by humans, the stones will drive those elementals who hold them tightly, mad.”

Bella’s strange behavior reared its head and I gritted my teeth. I knew something had been wrong, something that had nothing to do with Bella.

The mother goddess glanced at me. “I see it in your face. You have witnessed this already?”


Her chin dropped to her chest. “She will be the easiest to take the stone from, I believe. She’s not held it very long.”

“I gave it to her over twenty-five years ago.”

She shook her head. “Belladonna has kept the emerald stone locked away. It has only been since the battle with the demons that she’s worn it.”

The tension across my shoulders eased. “Why would the stone drive her mad?”

The mother goddess pursed her lips, and her eyes grew thoughtful before she spoke. “The stones were created to defend the human world against the elementals. They are imbued with a sentient power that will always seek to battle other elementals.” She looked at me as if I could fill in the pieces.

“So the more Bella wears it, the more aggressive she will become? Toward other elementals?” Another thought hit me. “And that is the real reason you won’t send Blackbird, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Bella will turn on her own people, but more, she will turn on the other families. She will become suspicious, paranoid. It is partly what hurried Cassava’s downfall. Not only the use of Spirit, which can be deadly in and of itself to those uninitiated,” she gave me a heavy look, “but the property within the stone itself wreaks havoc on the soul.”

She paused and clasped her hands in front of her. “And yes, that is another reason I will not ask Blackbird to help me. He would as soon use the stones for his own gain, which I have already seen. He would be . . . far too deadly to have his hands on them. I believe he may be hunting for them too.”

And there it was, the real reason she needed my help. “You helped make him what he is, telling him he was your chosen one. Now, he’s a menace.”

She touched my arm where the mark of the vine and thorn rested. “Which is why you must get to the stones first. You are not like him, Lark. You do not want power; you do not want to rule. I should have seen from the beginning that you were the better choice. Unlike your brother, you always try to make things right. He only wants things the way he sees fit.”

Her trust warmed me and I fought the desire to please her. While she was the mother goddess, we had not seen eye to eye for a long time. “Has he retrieved any of the stones?” My mind raced ahead to the possibilities.

“No. You have time yet. Not much, but time nonetheless.” A soft smile worked over her lips. As if I’d already said yes, which just pissed me off. I folded my arms and tipped my chin up.

“From Bella, I could take the stone, but why would I bother with the others? That won’t save the world. It may save the other families, but I rather doubt the world will miss them.”

The mother goddess stopped and put her hands on my shoulders. “Blackbird has lost his mind; the use of Spirit has broken him. He plans to rend the world in half when he gathers the five stones. Lark, he will destroy the entire world. And he would be strong enough with the stones to do it.”

I stopped breathing, stood there with no air as her words burrowed into me until I was forced to suck in a breath. “That is not possible.”

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