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She nodded. “It is, and he is nearly strong enough to do it on his own. With the stones, it would be a sure thing.”

Truth, her words had the ring of truth, and I hated it. “I saw him at the battle. He was not mad.”

Why in the seven hells was I defending him?

“I know you don’t want to believe it possible.” She reached out and took one of my hands in hers. “He does not hide his desires from me. Between his mother, the way she twisted him, and the power he’s wielded from a young age, he is not sane. Even if he seems to be.” She shook her head and a heavy sigh slipped out of her. “Lark, please—”

“Why don’t you get them yourself?” I brushed her hands off mine. “You are the mother goddess. Go to your rulers, take the stones back. You don’t need me to do it.”

Anger flashed across her face, a dark shadow that was there and gone so fast I almost missed it.

“I cannot. I must follow my own rules. I must not interfere directly with my children’s lives. It is impossible. I must work through those I have chosen to speak for me. Those I trust to accomplish tasks I am unable to do. That is why you must do this. This is a task only you can accomplish.” She spun, her long braid whipped out around her, and for a moment I could believe she was my mother in truth.

No, I pushed that thought away. That was the kind of thinking that would leave me vulnerable to her demands. I couldn’t help myself with what spilled out of me next. Cactus was right. I was too stubborn for my own good, even if I would never admit it out loud.

“And if I say no? What then?”

Her shoulders drooped. “There will be no ‘then.’ You and Blackbird are the only ones strong enough to take the stones from the other rulers, Lark. If you will not, he will, and then we will all die.” She looked over her shoulder, and her face blurred. The ocean tugged at my feet, pulling me back though I held my ground.

“I did not say I would do it!” I yelled at her.

“The child of golden hair, you know of the one I speak?” she called to me, her voice curling through my mind as the scene before me faded. “The child that would have been yours had you stayed in the Rim, and not done as I’d asked. He can still be yours, Lark. But not if you fail in this. Not if the world is destroyed.”

The child . . . the child that would have been Ash’s and mine.

The implication was as clear to me as a reflection in a mirror polished to a high sheen.

Ash was alive.

“This is the last task I would ask of you, child of mine. The final journey, and you will be free to live your life however you choose, with whomever you choose.” Her final words were the clincher. Damn her for striking to the core of me. The ocean water warmed until I was no longer shivering but fighting to get away from the heat. The bright sun cutting through dimmed to mere flickers of torchlight beckoning me to the surface.

I burst out of the water of the hot spring, gasping for air. A spotted snow leopard surfaced beside me, bedraggled and frantic, her green eyes wider than I’d ever seen before they narrowed to mere slits.

“Lark! You’re going to be the death of me!” She made as if to swat me and I backpedaled. I didn’t need any new scars.

“It was not my fault. The mother goddess pulled me under.” I took a stroke, heading back to shore. Peta swam beside me, huffing and puffing.

“How long was I under?”

“Ten minutes. The only thing that kept me from losing my mind was that I could sense you. I knew you were alive.” Her green eyes stared straight ahead. “I’m too old for this, Lark. My poor heart can’t handle the stress.”

I laughed and she glanced at me. I reached out to her, pushing her sideways in the water. “Peta, you are hardly old.”

She snorted. “I’ve been through too much and it has aged me. Most of it with you.”

“That I would agree with. I’ve no doubt most of your grays are from me.”

“Did you just make a joke?”

“Maybe.” I couldn’t help it, hope was filling me where the grief had been. A dangerous thing, hope was, but I couldn’t stop myself from believing in the mother goddess’s words.

We reached the shore and I slogged out. The clothes I’d shed were filthy, not to mention human clothes, and I left them on the ground, bending only to pick up my spear.

“Lark, what happened? You seem . . . better,” Peta said.

“Ash is alive. I’m sure of it.” I strode up the stairs, the water beading on my skin and dripping off which left me shivering, but I barely took note of it. Ash was alive, and I would find him.

“Lark, I want it to be true as much as you but—”

“The mother goddess,” I struggled with how to explain my certainty. I knew why the mother goddess had done it—she knew me as well as I knew myself. “Just, trust me. Ash is not dead. I think . . . I have to prove it, though. To be sure.”

“Why?” Peta padded along beside me. “Why do you have to prove it?”

My jaw ticked. “I won’t take Viv at her word, I can’t trust her. This could be another game, another manipulation. But how the hell do I prove he isn’t dead?”

Peta paused at the top of the stairs and I stopped with her. She tipped her head to one side. “I saw . . . an old charge of mine delve a grave once using Spirit. He said he could tell if the person was the person actually in the grave or not.”

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