Hearing Look away, look away. . .in his head, Aaron ignored the mental admonition and swept his walking stick across the path. The expression whistling Dixie took on another whole level of meaning when roaming Hillvale’s haunted hills.
Except Dixieland wasn’t the word coming to mind—Fairyland, maybe. Evil land made more sense, even in the original song, he realized sardonically. His subconscious was working overtime.
If he could only find and destroy the source of the evil. . . He’d feel free to abandon this isolated town, maybe travel again, visit his childhood home in the Shetlands.
Except his hand-carved staff had yet to locate any of the new vibrations the women had reported. They were now calling their crystal-knobbed staffs Lucy sticks after a Hollywood fantasy director had referred to them that way. Aaron preferred staff as in “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
The thick walnut killed snakes too.
Ah, there it was. The stick twitched in his hand, and the crystal eyes of the eagle handle glowed hot against his palm.
He’d done many wrong things in his checkered career. Too much knowledge jaded the mind and blurred the line between right and wrong. It could be that his attempt to right old wrongs by guarding this mountain was as perverted as the people who initially bled evil into the dirt.
But he could only act on what he knew, and he could feel the evil rising in agitation. The Force had awakened, as his renter, Harvey, had claimed, in his own inimitable way.
The late afternoon shadows were growing longer as Aaron followed the vibrations through the old pines on this shadier side of the mountain. This wasn’t old growth by any means. Centuries of native slaves, settlers, farmers, and miners had cleared the original forest—until everyone died, often unpleasantly. The dirt beneath Aaron’s feet reeked of centuries of torment—and the evil that had been interred here.
A clearing opened ahead—the consecrated ground of an old church. Spanish missionaries had attempted to establish a mission in the early 1700s, long before the miners and the farmers. Nothing grew on that ground these days but native grasses, brown after a dry summer.
Something disturbed the grasses now—or someone.
In surprise, Aaron halted at the clearing’s edge. Although the land was owned by the local resort, even tourists steered clear of this side of the mountain. The darkness was that bad. Could this be the cause of the disturbance?
He’d almost start believing in fairies if the figure sprawled on a blanket in the patch of sunlight wasn’t so obviously human. A spill of honey-blond hair fell over her shoulder and a shaggy fringe hid her forehead as she slept on her side. This was August, so she’d apparently shed her hiking gear in the heat and used it as a pillow. Pale ivory skin revealed her unfamiliarity with California’s perpetual sunshine. Her incandescent pink t-shirt outlined nice but not large breasts and a too-slender waist.
He’d never seen her before. Sooner or later, every tourist who visited Hillvale traipsed through his antiques store, drawn by the whimsical and the historical in his display windows. He’d have remembered this visitor.
Look away, look away. . .
He couldn’t. Why, by all that was holy, had the woman chosen the only safe patch of ground on the mountain to sleep? No rattlesnake or spider would bother her there. The evil in the woods wouldn’t touch her, but it sure the hell knew she was present.
“Back off, Aaron,” he told himself, even as he took a step forward. “You know she has to be a Lucy. You don’t mess with Lucys,” he reminded himself. “They cling like limpets.”
But it was his self-imposed duty to keep Hillvale safe from the evil lurking in these hills, and this sleeping princess was agitating the spirits.
Of course, he could just be crazy, but that was part of the territory.
He would just touch the backpack, then decide whether it was safe to leave her there. He’d mastered the nuances of psychometry—the ability to read the past on objects—better than he had human nature.
The army-green canvas was old and tattered. The memories on it might go deep. Summoning his concentration, he let his right hand hover over the backpack. Detecting nothing dangerous, he skimmed his fingertips over the surface—
And conjured a faint vision of someone weeping as she added an old diary and a fountain pen to the empty bag.
The fairy-woman on the ground abruptly sat up and stared at him. Her eyes were the color of the forest in autumn, a honey gold like the hair nearly falling into them, only darker. Framed by long dark lashes and round cheeks, her eyes were nearly oblong, more so as she narrowed them.
“Not you again,” she cried. “Not while I’m dying!”
As abruptly as she’d woken, she lay down and fell back to sleep.
Dying? Stunned, Aaron backed away. “Not again,” he muttered, unconsciously repeating her warning. “Not ever again.” He’d barely survived the last time.
Standing to his full height, he marched in the direction of the road. Not his problem, he told himself sternly. She was perfectly safe where she was.
Upon reaching the gravel road to civilization, he discovered Cassandra waiting for him—of course. Cass never set foot on this ground unless it was an emergency. Faex, shit—the Latin curse was as familiar to him as the English.
Silver-haired, slim, and erect as any professional model, the omniscient witch waited for him to speak first—even though she had to be here because she knew something he didn’t.
Angry at himself, angry at the sleeping woman for sucking him in like that, he stopped only to announce, “She’s one of yours. Keep her away from me.”
Not waiting to hear Cass’s warnings, Aaron whacked his stick against the hard ground and increased his stride toward town.
“Wake up, child, it’s late and the air is cooling. You’ll catch pneumonia or lure predators.”