Winterdim

Chris Howard

Continue on for sample chapters from Saltwater Witch by Chris Howard

 

1

The Ferryman



Gregor Porthmeus spun the boat’s wheel toward the Maine coast and watched in terror as the storm turned to follow him.

The Atlantic rolled and peaked in his wake, long fingers of white foam clawing up the faces of the waves. The salt stung his eyes, blinding him, and he flailed for the boat’s controls. The heel of his palm hit metal, a stab of pain as he shoved the throttle all the way forward, hoping for more speed. Then he bit down hard, grinding his teeth together so that he wouldn’t bite his tongue. He felt the shift in gravity, the deck sliding away under his boots. The hull cut through the water, lifted off a crest into the air, went vertical—bow first, and rode the steep canyon wall of water into the darkness below.

On the way down he passed a blur of silver-green off the port side, something human-shaped against the muddy gray sea, but when he blinked away the rain and looked back, it was gone.

Gregor knew it would return, because it called his name across the waves, through the storm, a thin singing voice that reached his bones and made him glance over his shoulder one more time.

Nothing there.

Lightning cut across the sky, and he could see the waves like moving mountains through the rain streaked windshield. It lit up his hands on the boat’s wheel, lines and curves of sharp white tumbling over the controls and dashboard. Gregor shook more rain from his hair, inching his hands apart on the chrome, hands bronzed from a decade under a harsh sun, stretched and polished around the knuckles. Scar tissue, like welded seams, ran up the insides of his fingers.

He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment before willing them open, holding back tears.

Bracing his feet apart, he turned away from the black clouds at the horizon to search the inside of his boat, looking for the child he had been ordered to save from the storm, a baby girl who had been left on a wave-battered rock a dozen miles out in the ocean.

Rolled tarps and fishing gear skidded across the deck, tangling with the clothes and blankets thrown from the cabin.

Like any man, he feared the Atlantic’s anger, but it only went in so far. There were deadlier things out there, things that swallowed boats whole, punishments longer and more painful than any tempest, masters who didn’t expect their slaves to fail.

“Kassandra.” He whispered the child’s name, harsh and bitter like a curse, as if saying her name aloud might unlock something hidden inside him.

He ducked and leaned sideways to look in through the doorway, into the plastic and wood interior of the boat’s cabin, stopping on a curl of blanket sticking out from the shadows. The sleeping baby girl was right where he had put her, under the bench next to his tackle boxes, wedged in place with wads of useless sea charts.

His voice was shaky, but hearing his own voice gave him some courage. “First they call me to bring her ashore, then they want her back?”

It didn’t make sense.

Gregor had picked her up, a tiny girl in a saltwater-soaked blanket, alone on a rock surrounded by towering waves, a rock that appeared on no chart he owned. His masters had commanded him to pick up the baby, and he had nearly dashed open the hull of his boat against the rock, just managing to grab the girl without losing more than a few layers of paint and some barnacles.

The first command had been pretty damn clear: Pick up the baby girlFail and die.

It was also becoming clear that someone wanted him to fail.

And die.

Hands slipping on the boat’s wheel, he shot another look over his shoulder. Even if he couldn’t see them he knew they were out there, and a shiver up his arms, an ache in his bones, told him they had help.

Something different moved in the waves, right under him, something large and made of ocean shadows sliding just below the surface off the starboard side.

“Porth-meeeeee-ussss!” One of them sang his family name, Porthmeus, in long wailing notes that stood his hair on end.

Then things really went bad.

The bow slammed into a wall of cold gray water, metal and fiberglass buckling. The wheel hit Gregor in the stomach. One of his hands shot free, and his momentum swung him against the navigation panels. The ocean shadows rolled together and folded into a monster from the abyss, massive claws of ice and saltwater spun into fibrous muscle. It had been toying with him all this time. Now it grabbed the hull, stopped the boat in the water, and shook it hard. Windows shattered or broke from their frames. Wood squealed as if running along rocks.

A rolling, clanking storm of tackle boxes, tools, silverware, and a baby wrapped in blankets and wadded up sea charts tumbled from the boat’s cabin, pushed past Gregor’s legs, spilling across the deck.

He gripped the wheel tighter with one hand, and pounded the throttle with his fist. His last chance. He leaned toward the bow, holding on. The engines roared. The deck tilted back and the cold gray Atlantic swelled over the gunnels.

2

Kassandra



The water felt good, and held her in its arms.

Comfort was the last thing she expected. No one should be comfortable right before drowning, but something stronger than her will, stronger than any of her fears, assured her she had been through worse in the last fifteen or sixteen years.

So Kassandra put her terror in a box and shelved it in the back of her mind, right next to a big locked box of rage, which came in handy sometimes.

Then she pulled in a deep breath and held it.

Red Bear Lake closed over her head, smooth green folds of water, cool and gentle against her throat, and as the surface slipped away in rings of watery sunlight, a whispering voice drifted by, repeating one word, “Breathe.”

Kassandra felt the sharp edge of panic trying to close in, but something in her head took over and mixed her own thoughts with strange new ones, distracting her. I will never know my real home, my world. I will never know my language, my city, my people. I will never sing their songs.

St. Clement’s Education Center, her crappy boarding school in the middle of Nebraska had never been her home, not really.

Some of them were definitely her thoughts, others weren’t, and something was mixing them together inside her head.

Some didn’t even make sense.

I have a city? What city?

Gold flashed above her, and a tiny loop of metal fell into the depths of Red Bear Lake with her, catching the sunlight in bright sparks.

Paddling upright, she reached over her head through the green water, hooking something cold in her fingers. She pulled it in, stared at the metal links of jewelry a moment, and then looked up at the surface twenty feet above.

She let out a short burst of air and focused on the weight and the smoothness of the metal links in the palm of her hand.

It was Deirdre’s bracelet.

Serves her right for pushing me in.

Kassandra was about to let it go, lost forever at the bottom of the lake. She held her fist closed around it, looking into the black muddy depths below, and then opened her fingers, caught the bracelet and slipped it over one hand.

Then she let out more of her air.

This seemed like the perfect time for panicking, but the silent gloomy lake was peaceful—peaceful like death. Can my heart work after I’m dead?

Nope. She heard and felt her own heartbeat thudding in her chest—so, not dead yet.

A woman’s whispering voice glided by, a soft rustle like water running over sand, the sea sifting through billions of tiny grains of rock. She turned to chase it, and heard sad piping tones, growing louder as she fell into darker and darker water.

That’s my mother’s song.

She didn’t remember anything about her mother or father, and the song she sometimes heard in the back of her mind was the only hint that she once had a life somewhere else. There were words in the song, but she didn’t understand them. Almost as if she had memorized the sounds of a different language—in the same way she had learned Frère Jacques at some point, but couldn’t say what the song was about. Dormez-vous? Sonnez les matines

That sparked another strange thought, and made her wonder for the first time if she was actually an American. And if not, what the hell was she doing here in the middle of it?

The whispering again. “Breathe.”

She ignored it. It had to be some trick of sound underwater—she was trying to convince herself that it was just her hearing playing games with her.

Until the whisperer used her name.

“Breathe, Kassandra.” It was a gentle and motherly voice, but now the word “breathe” was a command, and she felt the air in her lungs climbing into her throat in response.

“Ar—are you stupid?” Her voice came out muffled in wobbly bubbles that shot to the surface, glassy little worlds of air that caught and coiled through long tangles of her hair.

“Do not argue with me,” the voice told her.

Swinging her arms out, she paddled in a circle, looking for the speaker.

That definitely sounded like something a mother would say—do not argue with me, and she found herself scowling now and rummaging around for the keys to that box of rage.

“Breathe.” The voice was getting impatient.

The water felt heavy against her skin. She kicked weakly. Her throat burned, begging her to draw a breath.

Then the thought that she couldn’t make it back to the surface hit her—don’t know why it took so long. Her arms were thrashing around on their own. I can’t stop sinking!

“Take the water inside you, Kassandra.”

“Stop talking to me!” The shout was a waste of air. She could hear her own voice in her head, but it came out of her mouth as a gurgling rush of noise and bubbles.

The motherly voice came back, commanding, “Close your eyes. Now!”

She shut her eyes. The lake water burned in her throat, slippery and sharp and cold, like a mouthful of needles. There was a taste to the water, ancient chalk, a bitter rotting edge, something very old. Something alive.

Greedy for air, the lake swallowed her life from the inside out, swelling in her lungs, pushing under her tongue, icy against her teeth. The chill swept over her lips and cheeks, around her ears and forehead, soft like velvet against her throat, her toes and fingers, surrounding every strand of hair.

The song grew stronger, walling off the rest of the thick fluid world around her.

And then it became hers—all of it. A spasm of understanding ripped through her.

This is my world.

On the outside, the lake water pressed against her skin. Somewhere deep inside, she felt a whirling current where her own thoughts had never traveled, sparks in the gloom of her closed eyes, flashing by her at first, and then they slowed down and let her catch glimpses of light reflecting off carved rocks, a sharp ledge over moving black water, a room with strong currents, spiraling endlessly around a wide lightless pit. The water is falling into it, lost forever. She caught sight of a row of black doorways leading out of a wet stone chamber, and then it was gone.

“Do not believe what they say about your mother,” the woman’s voice told her, and there was an angry edge to her words.

Kassandra’s eyes snapped open, and she could feel her brows climbing somewhere into the middle of her forehead. And here I thought you were my mother.

“Your mother saved you.”

Kassandra fought the sudden urge to argue. “But…” A flash of angry teeth and fists, a voice shouting at her from the past, and she repeated the words because it was all she knew about her mother. “Director Matrothy told me my mother’s in prison, that she killed her best friend.”

“A lie. She saved you. She saved me. I am…my name isssszzzz—uh! It won’t let me say it.” The woman struggled to speak, sighed, and as her voice faded, said, “I must go.”

Swinging her hands out to claw at empty water, Kassandra spun in the gloom.

“Please don’t!”

She waited for an answer, breathed slowly, the water heavy in her throat and lungs. No one answered. The song had died, the voice was gone, and the silence suddenly hurt.

I’m breathing underwater. She would definitely have to tell her science teacher, Mr. Henderson about this. He’s going to flip his shit.

The lake jumped, blurred her vision. She was caught in a ring of rapidly expanding water like the shockwave of a bomb exploding in the depths.

Kassandra looked past her feet, and a woman’s sickly pale face emerged from the gloom, her skin a washed out greenish color. Long stringy black hair floated about her head, medusa-like. The skull of some small sharp-toothed animal floated in front of her on a chain around her neck. The pale woman opened her mouth, grinning with rows of sharpened teeth as she grabbed Kassandra’s ankle and jerked her to the bottom.

Screaming, Kassandra threw her head back, reaching for the surface.

The water thickened with clouds of silt, and the thing with sharp teeth dragged her like an anchor to the floor of the lake.

It spoke to her, a raspy high-pitched screech. “Give me your other foot, girl.”

Without thinking Kassandra pulled one leg up and kicked down as hard as she could, felt her heel catch the woman in the chin, cutting off a wailing tone that went right through her clothing and skin with a thousand needle stabs.

Soft ribbons of blood curled around her. Crap. Like real needles.

Kassandra pulled both her legs up, her whole body starting to shake. You witch!

Stunned, she floated there in the water, gaping down at the monster, thoughts racing through her head, but too fast to catch and act on any of them. That was all it took. A few seconds hesitation and she had lost any advantage she had just won by kicking the witch in the face.

Move your ass, Kass.

Another screechy noise came from below. The sound chased her, turning when she turned, diving deeper into the lake to follow her.

Kassandra flipped on her back, trying to get out of its way, heading into the darkness, panicking because insane questions were lining up in her head. Who knew there were witches lurking in the depths of obscure inland lakes? Ratty black hair, pale skin, wearing aquatic mammal skulls as jewelry? Had to be a witch. What else could it be?

And then a more important question shouldered its way to the front. I can swim?

She had never had swimming lessons. A bathtub gave her nightmares. Five gallons gathered in one place was enough to make her knees shake.

Swimming was suddenly like dancing. She twirled in the water, ducking her head, arching her back against another attack of sharp noise. A glance behind, and she kicked fluidly away. Kassandra’s body knew how to move, spiraling and bending, an acrobat dodging a drawer-full of thrown knives.

Then, because it felt like the right thing to do, she stopped in a beam of watery sunlight about fifty feet down, paddling upright when everything went quiet.

The lake witch shot out of the gloom, grabbed her, mouth open with a sharp-toothed grin. Fingernails like metal hooks ripped through Kassandra’s shirt, digging into the skin, clawing up her arms, working their way toward her throat.

Nothing to hold on to, nothing solid to brace herself against, Kassandra made a high sobbing noise, and the witch pushed her upside down, driving both of them into the dark.

Cloudy water rushed by her, coils of hair whipping around her face. Kassandra hooked her legs around the witch, used her for leverage, and then twisted her shoulders out of the hold, sharp nails cutting through skin.

Kicking away, she tasted her own blood streaming through the water, a weird bitter tingling that slid over her tongue.

Beneath her, the lake witch flipped over in one snapping motion—very fishlike—and came after her, teeth bared, something close to a smile on her face. Another quick look and Kassandra kicked straight up, cupped her hands, and pulled the water past, trying to get to the surface as fast as she could.

The witch screeched again.

Weaving through the water wasn’t enough. The sound chased her, and when it caught her, it went right through her shorts and shirt, through her skin to the bones, leaving hundreds of separate points of pain.

In the water, noise hurts. Kassandra waved away more of her blood. Hurts like hell.

She tucked her head down, diving back into the darkness, slicing through a thick cloud of stirred up mud that swirled around her like a billowing black cumulus.

Her muscles burned, and she urged her legs to kick faster, leveling out when she sensed the lake’s muddy floor.

There was something giving her directions; as she drew closer to the bottom of the lake, there was a tone way in the back of her head that rose in pitch as she approached. Swinging left, a bit more than half a turn to get her headed the right way, she pushed her aching muscles harder and shot back to the surface.

Off on her right, she passed the witch coming the other way. A second later the woman did a sharp kicking one-eighty and came after her.

The cat and mouse game wasn’t going to end well for someone, probably her.

As fast as Kassandra pushed her legs and scooped at the water, it wasn’t enough, glancing down in panic as the sharp-toothed witch closed the distance.

The water brightened, bursts of light catching Deirdre’s bracelet in distracting flickers on her wrist. The surface wasn’t far, but it was clear the witch would catch her before she broke through and got someone to help her escape.

Kassandra’s box of rage burst open, and gave every angry thought in her head the green light to tear the place apart. The fear and fury building inside her finally jumped to the front and slid into the muscles of her arms and legs. Kassandra spun to face her pursuer with her fists out, baring her teeth.

“Leave me the hell alone!”

A wave of dizziness washed through her head. It made her vision—and the whole world—feel slippery. Her own voice rang painfully in her ears, as if she had yelled through a megaphone. The sound of her words rolled away from her, gathering momentum and shattering the water into a milky cloud of tiny bubbles.

Kassandra floated in the lake, mouth gaping. She hadn’t expected that. She had sent something powerful out to get rid of the witch—something that apparently wasn’t free of cost, and just as suddenly it was coming back for payment. She fought the sudden shaky feeling in her head, and let her body drift in a cartwheel that brought her upside down, facing the lake’s floor, toes pointed at the bright surface. She drifted and breathed in the lake, shocked at what appeared to be water turning to vapor at the sound of her voice.

The witch sank into the gloom, eyes closed, her pale arms curled around her drawn up legs.

Silence returned to Red Bear Lake.

Dead leaves and silt floated around Kassandra and blood coiled through the long tangles of her hair.

Holy crap, I’m tired.

The slow spin almost had her facing the sunlight, and Kassandra looked up, but didn’t have the energy to lift her hands, cup them and swim to the surface. It wasn’t even that far away. Her head sagged back, lolling to one side, and she stared up through no more than thirty feet of water at the blinding sun, flickers of it coming through soft swells and crests, a shadow of something on the surface looming off on her right. She didn’t have enough strength to find out what it was.

Then she remembered her anger; it roared to life, flowed through her, pounding in her temples.

I didn’t want to get in the damn water in the first place! Didn’t want to go near it. That bitch, Deirdre and her accomplices, Autumn and Cornelia, took me to the middle and threw me in.

Then an uglier image stepped all over Deirdre and hung in the center of Kassandra’s mind: the director of the entire girl’s department of St. Clement’s Education Center.

Ms. Matrothy.

Kassandra didn’t like being pushed around, but she had never been able to stop Matrothy. The director was like a force of nature, a wall of brick coming at her, a monster with a brain so small it couldn’t be reasoned with.

With the sudden ball of anger banging around inside her thoughts, it took her a few tries to open her eyes. She looked past her feet into the gloom, no sign of the witch. Probably on the bottom, still in the fetal position I put her in. I stopped her just by shouting.

I did that with my voice.

Tilting her neck back dizzily, she started to shake her head, but it hurt too much.

What the hell is happening to me? Sure, all the girls at St Clement’s got the your-body’s-going-to-change talk when they moved into the nine-to-sixteens department, but no one said anything about breathing underwater.

No, this is different. This issomething else.

Kassandra felt as if she should feel out of place, but she didn’t.

Floating there, breathing it in, living underwater seemed right, more natural than living in the middle of Nebraska ever had.

With the thought of her boarding school, the face of Ms. Matrothy pushed its way back into her head, shoving everything else aside. Kassandra bit down hard, grinding her teeth, and focused on the surface.

Matrothy.

Like before, the rage started small, but quickly turned twisted and jagged, roaring in her ears. Kassandra felt as if she could punch a hole through this world. Fists tight, the anger exploded inside her, a burn like acid lapping around her stomach, moving through her lungs, into her throat, a hot halo that hung around her in the water as if she had ripped her insides out.

She kicked into the light.

3

The Girl who was Afraid of Water



Kassandra broke through the surface of Red Bear Lake and for a few seconds, didn’t know what to do.

She shut her eyes against another wave of dizziness, and vomited up everything in her stomach. Then her lungs erupted, pasting her tongue to the floor of her mouth. She choked, sucking in water and air that burned in her throat, and then sank into the lake up to her chin.

Reaching desperately into the air, Kassandra forced her eyes open.

In the last twenty minutes she had slipped so easily into another world under the water, and now the thin world above seemed harsh and alien, cold and dry against her skin and painfully bright. Water splashed in her face, blinding her.

Someone called out, a girl’s voice. “Kass!”

She spun toward it, clutching madly at the lake’s surface. Jill? Nicole? Wherever you found Jillian Crosse, Nicole Garcia was never far. The two of them were inseparable.

Something hard hit her in the forearm, scraped along to her elbow before she realized what it was. She clutched the oar, and managed to get her eyes open. Jill yanked her to the rowboat.

“Come on, pull yourself up, girl.” Jill’s voice had a rough panicky edge. “Keep your eyes open.”

Easy for you to say. Kassandra lunged forward, shaking heavy tangles of her hair out of her face. She saw both of them now, Jill and Nicole, the closest things she had to friends at Clement’s. Kneeling over the boat’s side, Jill grabbed her shirt along with a belt loop, and pulled her backward against the hull, while Nicole—much stronger than Jill—dug her hands under Kassandra’s arms.

Together they heaved her into their boat, with Kassandra kicking and gripping the wood rail like a madwoman.

The three of them dropped to the benches, arms draped over the sides, gasping for air, and Jill—who never shut up—said between breaths, “Shit, you… scared… us… to… death.”

Nicole recovered first and sat up, throwing the working ends of the oars back in the water, and shoving the handles into the locks. “What happened to you?”

“Oh, uh…” Kassandra managed to whisper. “I fell in.”

“Yeah. Obviously.” Nicole pushed the oars deeper into the water and got them pointed to the shore. “We thought you were…” There was a pause, and then her voice came back scared. “Gone.

“Did you come up for air?” Jill put in hopefully.

Nicole drove the oars, glancing over her shoulder at the crowd of St. Clement’s girls at the lake’s edge, her black braids swinging around her head. “So glad you’re alive.”

The warm wood against her neck, the sunlight on her face, she closed her eyes, whispering, “Me too.”

Reaching over Nicole’s outstretched legs, Jill pulled at the torn sleeve of Kassandra’s shirt. “Tell us what hap—you’re bleeding all over the place!”

Kassandra twisted sideways, lifting her eyelids for a second, long enough to investigate the damage. Then wiped away some of the blood seeping through her shirt, dribbles of it running down her arms. She closed her eyes. “Not enough to kill me.”

Jill got all motherly, shifted to the same bench seat, pressing her shirt against the cuts on her shoulder to stop the bleeding. “What happened after Deirdre tossed you in?”

Kassandra let a few seconds pass, opened one eye to see whether they expected her to answer. Then shrugged and felt the cuts in her shoulders pull tight, opening the wounds.

Jill and Nicole exchanged worried looks.

“Did you stop breathing?”

Kassandra’s eyes went wide, startled by the question, but she decided she didn’t really need to lie. Just be vague.

“I don’t think so.”

“Then you must have come up for air, and we didn’t see you.”

“Yeah,” she said slowly. “Yeah. I guess.”

Jill pointed to the road that led through the trees to the picnic area next to the lake. A small fire truck came around the last bend in the road, sirens blaring.

“Sirens,” Kassandra whispered. “I hear the sirens calling me.”

Jill gave Nicole another worried look, and Nicole jutted her chin back. “You bail. I’ll keep rowing.”

Kassandra levered her body up and turned to look into the lapping water. Her body was one loose pile of weariness, arms and legs draped over the bench and rail, but there was a roaring race of questions in her head.

What the hell just happened? Her life had changed in the last twenty minutes. The world wasn’t the same world it had been when she woke that morning. There were pale witches lurking in the muddy bottoms of lakes in Nebraska, and her mother was not a murderer.

Nicole pulled in the oars when the boat hit the first boulders, and Matrothy was right there, one hand heavy on Nicole’s shoulder, fingers of the other circling Jill’s neck as if the director was getting ready to choke her. Both of them looked up, startled.

The director kept her voice low. “And you two thought you’d just go out there in a leaky boat and rescue our little troublemaker? Is that it?”

Jill looked to Nicole for an answer.

“No,” Kassandra said firmly. “That’s not it.”

Both Nicole and Jill swung surprised looks toward her because that was exactly it.

Matrothy’s attention spun on her like a searchlight in a prison camp.

Stunned under the focus, Kassandra started stammering words. “I…uh…asked them to. Paid them.” She was digging every dollar and nickel she owned out of the front pocket of her shorts, seven rolled up bills, a ten, a five, several ones and a handful of loose change. Twenty-four dollars and seventy-seven cents. Every bit of money she had. “I told them I would pay them to look out for me.”

“How much?” Matrothy sounded mildly suspicious, but it wasn’t as if she thought she had caught Kassandra in a lie. It was as if she was intensely curious about what it would take—in dollars—to get someone to row out to the middle of the lake to save Kassandra. What was her life worth?

She uncurled her fingers and showed everyone the wet wadded up bills and coins. She shrugged. “Twenty-five dollars. Give or take.”

Matrothy scowled a moment, not sure if she was being played, and then released Nicole and Jill and grabbed the money out of Kassandra’s hand, shoving it all into one of the pockets in her vest. “I’ll hold on to that.”

There was a stunned silence for a few seconds, and then two medical technicians shouldered their way through the crowd, throwing a blanket around Kassandra, leading her away by the elbows to level ground next to their truck.

Kassandra let her thoughts run their race of questions and speculations while they checked her breathing, flashed bright lights in her eyes, and squeezed her fingernails to see how long it took for the color to return. They made sharp little remarks like, “eyes open to speech” and “withdraws from pain.”

One of them cut through her bra straps and part of the shirt, cleaned and wrapped the torn skin on her shoulders and upper arms. It looked ugly, starting to get pale and shriveled at the edges.

Looked as if some carnivore had attacked her.

And that’s sort of the way it went, right?

The EMT glanced past her, out at the lake. “How did you cut up your shoulders?”

She barely heard him, drifting in her thoughts. But she sat up straight when the other EMT rubbed antiseptic along the inside of her arm, preparing for something intravenous.

She’d had enough needles stuck in her today. She shook her head and pulled her arm away.

“It’ll just sting for a moment.”

What you all say. She threw him a then-I’ll-only-sting-you-for-a-moment look.

“Come on. It’s just—”

She tried to stand up. Took her a couple tries. “Get away from me. I’m fine.”

The cold antiseptic was seeping into her arm and she rubbed it away, throwing off the blanket.

One of the technicians held out his hands, blue-gloved fingers spread. “We’re not going to hurt you.”

She just glared back, fists going tight. “I am going to hurt you.”

The one with the needle shifted around so that she stood between them. The crowd of St. Clement’s girls hemmed them in beyond that.

“Please.” The EMT tried a calm voice. “Sit down.”

Looking for a way out. “Leave me alone.”

She backed away from the one with the needle. It was clear those words did a lot more under the water than above it. They had no effect on these people.

Then Ms. Matrothy pushed her way through the girls, came up behind her, and grabbed her wrist, twisting it into the air.

“That’s mine!” Deirdre’s indignant shout broke through the murmuring in the crowd. “She stole my bracelet.”

The director pulled her arm higher, a twist in her joints, and pain shot through her shoulder, along with a warm seep of blood into the bandages.

“You took Deirdre’s bracelet.” There wasn’t even a hint of a question in Mathrothy’s voice.

Kassandra shook her head. “It was sinking to the bottom of the lake.”

“And I suppose you kicked and paddled your way down to retrieve it?”

She swallowed hard. “Yeah.”

“You can’t even wade into water without passing out. Don’t play stupid with me, girl.”

“But—”

“I was here when they brought you in a dirty blanket.” Matrothy’s face was turning red. “I’ve been here every day since. You’ve been afraid of water since you were four years old.”

That hit her, stopped the questions running in her head. “What…” Kassandra was going to ask what happened when she was four but she had vague violent memories of what that was about. Matrothy shoving her head against the bottom of the bathtub, soap and water filling her mouth, her lungs—and then getting an ass-kicking afterward for throwing it up all over her.

But a more pressing question burst out of her: “Who brought me?”

“Ms. Matrothy, make her give it back,” Deirdre’s voice interrupted, and the director released her.

“Take the bracelet off and return it to Deirdre.”

Her face went hot. She hadn’t really noticed all the girls from the department gathering so close. They stared at her, and there were disappointed whispers as she slipped the ring of gold links over her hand. Deirdre snapped it away from her with a sniff.

“Pathetic criminal,” said Matrothy in a low growl. “Just like your mother.”

“I’ll cut out your tongue!” Kassandra screamed the words without thinking, pulling them from somewhere deep and unstable inside. She stepped away from the director, hands out defensively, her wet hair swinging and curling in the air.

The crowd of nine-to-sixteens girls backed away. Even the EMTs tensed up.

“Get on the bus.” Matrothy moved in menacingly, looming over her, flexing the fingers of one hand and making a fist, pulling at the collar of her old fishing vest with the other. Right on the edge of something violent. Then the director reeled it in. She couldn’t break any bones in front of the EMTs.

Matrothy took them aside, not really lowering her voice, and lied to them about sending her along to the doctor when they got back to school. Like that’s going to happen. They packed up their equipment, and the director returned, crunching across the loose gravel.

She pointed at Kassandra and then at the bus. “You will wait in your seat until the rest of us are done having fun. You’re dismissed.”

She held her psycho mouth tight, turned and walked across the parking lot, climbed the stairs, and took a seat in the back. Sliding across to the window, she leaned her forehead against the warm glass and stared at the lake through the trees.

So tired. So many questions. If she closed her eyes, it felt as if she wouldn’t wake for days.

“Who are you?” She whispered the question to the woman whose singing she had heard in the water. Not the greenish looking one with sharpened teeth—well, okay, even her.

There were no answers, and she closed her eyes, trying to remember the song.

My mother’s song.

Nothing came to her.

Apparently, she was asleep when the fun ended and the rest of the St. Clement’s nine-to-sixteens boarded. She was completely out through most of the ride back.

Pulling up in front of the St. Clement’s main entrance, the girls jumped down from the bus, weary after the day at the lake. When they got to the second floor—to their dorm hall, it was mostly end of the day activities, flopping exhausted onto beds, some chatting, reading, playing cards or games on phones.

Deirdre and her friends threw her contemptuous looks from the hall’s end. Jill, Nicole, and a couple others were sympathetic but didn’t dare show it clearly. Down the row from her, four beds down, a girl was crying about something, and Kassandra felt the girl’s tears in the air. The poor thing cried two or three times a week, sobbing like a baby, and Kassandra had always been considerate, even standing up against girls yelling for her to shut up or grow up.

But this was the first time Kassandra could smell and taste the girl’s tears in the air.

It made her sick to her stomach.

So she shoved her head in her pillow, closed her eyes, tried to shut out the world, and the more it intruded, the less it felt like hers—the less it felt as if it had ever been her world.

4

The Guardian



Kassandra dreamed about the taste of saltwater, of seeds buried for years, of witches pulling her into the depths of muddy, inland lakes, and of her mother. Shreds of memory sang to her, and while Kassandra recognized her mother’s voice, she had no idea what her mother looked like.

There was just that song her heart told her had once been hers.

So the day didn’t begin with tears, but with a dream of something waking inside her head, a seed opening, its shell splitting violently, and there was a cold dark underworld ready to grow inside her.

An ocean world.

The sounds of the others in the hall waking and talking broke through now and then. It was an otherwise normal Sunday morning, but she woke to find out how abnormal she had become in a single a day.

I am not me anymore. I’m something dangerous. I’m something more. I am something no one asked me to be.

The world still looked the same—same nine-to-sixteens hall, same bunch of girls sharing it with her, same school in the middle of Nebraska, but she knew she was different when she opened her eyes.

Ms. Matrothy usually let all the girls sleep late every Sunday morning. Some were early risers and had already gone down to the cafeteria for breakfast.

Kassandra rolled over, dropped her legs off the bed and bent forward, groaning at the morning light coming through the closed curtains. As usual, her hair fell in tangles around her face, and when she pulled it out of her eyes, she saw the strangest thing:

The great and terrible Director Matrothy stood in the doorway grinning, a push-broom in one hand and a tray with a bowl of cereal in the other. She looked right at Kass, and then strode forward and showed her more of her teeth when she caught her staring back.

“Happy birthday.” Matrothy made a creepy snickering noise and thrust the broom at her. “You’re on cleaning duty for the entire hall over the next week, today through next Saturday.”

Yippee-damn-do.

The department director set down the tray with the cereal, spoon, and cup of water. “Bathrooms, floors, and windows. I want the baseboards cleaned of scuff-marks. Dust underneath the beds. Windowsills wiped.” She paused with a thoughtful look. “Actually, I think your birthday was yesterday.” She threw open the curtains, letting in a blaze of sunlight. Nearly blinded Kassandra.

What is this, like punishment for getting through my birthday alive?

Yesterday had been rough. Drowning at the St. Clement’s Nine-to-sixteens Girls picnic at Red Bear Lake, Jill and Nicole rowing out to save her and get her back to shore, with Kassandra coughing up all the water in her lungs on the way. And what had started it all? On Matrothy’s orders, Deirdre and her accomplices had shoved her in their boat, taken her out to the middle and tossed her in.

And today, Matrothy decided Kassandra needed to pay for what had happened? Under what twisted view of things did that follow from drowning? How did it follow from you can save your own damn skin, Kassandra?

Kassandra just stared at the director, too tired to say anything.

Matrothy wagged a finger in her face. “You’re not to speak with anyone about anything but schoolwork.” To make it clear, she shot a glare at Jill and Nicole, both of them sitting across the aisle on Jill’s bed.

Matrothy’s monstrous face swung back to her, metal things jingling in the pockets of that hideous fishing vest she always wore. “You will not set foot outside the hall today.” She pointed to the rest of the girls in the department. “They will be playing outside, and you will not. They will be going to the cafeteria to have lunch, dinner, and dessert. You will remain here.” As if some school rule suddenly got in the way, she added, “I’ll send up Mrs. Hipkin later with some lunch.”

Must feed the inmates.

Matrothy stood over Kassandra, arms folded. The director sniffed as if offended by something, maybe daring her to say aloud what was on her mind, but when the silence stretched to minutes, she stormed off.

Both Jill and Nicole threw Kassandra hints of smiles, a strained friendliness as they left for the day. Most of the others were afraid to look at her.

And the rumors were flying. Maybe she was scary? Drowned girl back from the dead?

Deirdre made a crazy loud show of her…predicament, mimicking an enraged Ms. Matrothy, swinging her fists, then—shifting character—cowering, rubbing her eyes, and sobbing in what was apparently an imitation of Kassandra—although she had never cried tears in her life.

In fact, she couldn’t.

Deirdre and her friends finally cleared out, making sure they made plenty of shoe-streaks on the baseboards on their way.

“Give her something to do while we’re enjoying ourselves outside.”

The school year had just started again, and this had been the sunniest summer she could remember in all her years here—somewhere in the heart of Nebraska. Even she wasn’t clear where they were on the map. You’d think I would know. Been here long enough.

Matrothy was right about her birthday, which was a bit creepy. Someone had dumped her at Clement’s when she was a little over a year old.

The last of the girls left the hall, a group of eleven-year olds who gave her some serious glaring and head-shaking, like little Deirdres-in-training.

Folding her arms, Kassandra glared right back. Snotty little bitches.

Leaning on the handle of the push-broom, she sat alone in the hall, half-listening to the talking, laughing, and music drifting in from the yard. Then she got up and lifted the window to let it all in.

Someone called her name, but when she looked down, she couldn’t tell who it had been. Kassandra turned away from the window and took in the long row of twenty-six beds, nightstands and curtains, then beyond them to the lounge with the homework tables, couches, and TV, to the hall door.

She was angry and alone, a prisoner, doing things she didn’t want to do.

Nothing ever changes, she started, but cut the thought short.

Some things had definitely changed. Somewhere under the water, deep in Red Bear Lake, lived a woman with sharp teeth and a voice that felt like needles on her skin.

Things haven’t changed?

How about I’m a total water breathing freak? I should have drowned. I was under for half an hour with water heavy in my lungs. I was breathing it in like air.

I can swim.

The whole witch attacking her thing felt dreamlike now. She had been underwater, fighting for her life. It’s possible that part could have been…delirium setting in.

That was another problem that had surfaced recently. She was thinking in words that weren’t always hers, like “delirium.” Who the hell used the word “delirium” anyway?

What is this, like some kind of latent blooming of last year’s vocabulary lessons?

Latent?

Blooming?

She ground the broom into the floor, and liked the way it made her muscles burn and made her arm shake. The broom’s bristles rustled against the wood like a box of scurrying rats.

She was so angry she felt like…

Crying was something she had seen a million times. She just didn’t know how it worked. Her head sank forward. She squeezed her eyes closed, and tried to make them, you know, do their thing. She knew exactly what crying looked like. People seized up, shuddering, streams of water poured from their eyes, over their cheeks, running into their mouths, dripping off their chins. When they wept they made coughing and choking noises, sometimes moaning and shrieking hysterically.

Kassandra tried all of these, but nothing happened.

My eyes are broken.

She had never been able to cry.

When she stopped shrieking hysterically, she noticed the noise from outside had died. She got to her feet and moved to the window overlooking the yard. Some of the girls had heard her screaming and looked up with curiosity at the second floor windows.

Deirdre stood out among her friends, swishing her long hair, laughing too loudly, and pointing at Kassandra.

Holding her mouth shut so she wouldn’t be tempted to shout something, Kassandra turned away and got to work, threw off her pajamas, pulled on jeans, a tank top under a boy’s button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and finally, her old hiking boots.

The chores weren’t too bad, didn’t require a lot of thinking on her part, and she could spend those thoughts on important things like how is it possible that I didnt drown? Or what the hell was up with that witch and her needle-pain screaming?

She started by dusting under the beds and sweeping the hall. She even made a game of kicking the metal dustpan down the aisle, letting it soar between the beds before it struck one of the legs or stopped on its own, spinning and grinding noisily across the floor. Landing on someone’s bed was out of bounds. The trick was to get it to fly as straight as possible.

The dustpan was sharp and heavy and had a tendency to flip to the left, making extra-long kicks tricky. She was going for a record of kicking it past six beds when Matrothy made a surprise check, slipping into the hall and down the aisle just as Kassandra gave the pan a solid boot.

Too late to recall it.

It flew in a beautiful arc and nailed the director high on the shins.

Matrothy staggered, throwing out one arm, grabbed a bed-frame to get her balance, clutching at her knees with the other.

What are you doing?” she shouted, her voice shrill from pain. She managed to shout the question before the pain sunk in. The heavy dustpan had dug deep into one of her legs just below the knee. The handle caught her solid in the other leg.

And the pain clearly affected her ability to speak. Her lips kept moving without sound. Her face went red and puffy like a scalded plum. Shaking, she made a fist, but didn’t seem to be able to find any more words. She bent forward, huffing angrily for one long minute while she just stared at Kassandra, who was powerless to help and too frightened to move.

Matrothy hunched down, inspecting her legs, and finally glanced up, stammering something about strangling Kassandra in a high-pitched whisper. Then the director limped out of the room in a crouching waddle, stumbled at the threshold, and slammed the door.

A second later she opened it with some trouble, and then slammed it again.

Frozen in place, Kassandra waited for the director to return, but the shot to the legs had apparently taken her down.

She leaned on the broom and stared at the door. Then shrugged, nodding over a conclusion she had just drawn.

In the world of uncertainty Matrothy made for her, there was one thing—at this moment in time—she knew for sure: short of sneaking a guy into the hall, what could she possibly do to get into more trouble? What catastrophe could she cause that would lower her any more in Matrothy’s eyes?

What hell could she possibly raise now?

It was time to get back to business. The sun blazed through the windows while she cleaned every pane, wiping the dust from the mullions. She stood on a chair to get the tops of the frames. She paused over her open window for a moment, catching the late summer breeze, and wiped the sweat from her forehead and throat.

There was a sense of order she like about the hall when it was clean—which happened once a month or so when Matrothy put some rule breaker on “duty”, but the real reason she worked hard was that the sooner she finished, the sooner she could slouch on her bed and read. Books were all she had left.

She hopped off the chair and ran the length of the hall, vaulting beds, sliding the cleaning cloth along each of the windowsills, and then it was back down the other side, wiping every surface.

Lost in thought about the pale witch in the lake, and most of the way done with the baseboards, it took Kassandra a few seconds to understand the nature of a wet slapping and thudding noise that came from behind her. She looked around the room. There was a burst of laughter outside, rising in loud choppy barks.

“Kassandraaaaaah!” Someone—it sounded like Deirdre—was shrieking with delight. “Come out and plaaa-eeee-aaaay!”

A sloppy wad of dirt came through her open window, splashing across the floor, spraying her bed.

There was mud everywhere.

Kassandra jumped to her feet, raced across the room, and slammed the window down. Autumn—Deirdre’s enforcer—sneered at her and hurled a handful of mud. Cornelia followed. Wet chunks of dirt splattered the glass and oozed into a solid brown film at the bottom. Deirdre stood next to them, encouraging them, but not about to get her pretty fingers dirty.

Autumn and Cornelia pointed up at the mess they had made all over her window, and then bent down around the water pipe that stuck out of the ground not far from the building. The faucet dripped continuously, and there was always a shallow muddy pool beneath it, green and slimy. Autumn had pushed Kassandra into that several times over the years.

For a moment, Kassandra couldn’t think of anything to do other than stare down at them through the mud-streaked glass. Then she turned and looked at her bed, stunned, her heart suddenly thumping hard. There was a weird loose and scattered feeling in her head, not dizziness, maybe paralysis, and no clear way to decide if she should let her anger off its leash or…cry.

I wish.

There was one clean section of floor at the foot of her bed, and she jumped to it, wheeling to take everything in. Her hands were shaking, so she curled them into fists. Then her fists shook, and then her arms. Her head felt light. She really had to find some place to sit down.

Greenish slime oozed over her blankets, pillow and sheets. Mud clung and dripped down the curtains, the floor, running down the nightstand and leaking into the drawers. The breakfast tray was splattered brown, and there were chunks of something solid in the bowl of soggy cereal.

She groaned and dropped on the clean end of her bed, letting her face fall into her hands. A small spasm rushed up her back and snapped her head down. A wave of ice went through her, followed by an unzipping crinkle of bone and muscle up her spine. She felt the questioning scowl forming on her face, sniffled and wiped her nose, staring at the mud on the blanket next to her.

Kassandra froze. Felt it. A small cold line of water inching down her cheek, a teardrop.

Aren’t tears supposed to be warm, body temperature?

But what do I know? Never done this before.

Her fingers came up automatically, but she stopped them an inch from her face. She was about to touch it—really wanted to, but changed her mind, wanting to feel it on her face for a few more seconds.

I’ve made one tearI’m really cryingA real tear.

It tickled as it traveled down the side of her cheek, rolling over her skin. She leaned forward and it dropped to the floor. She followed it down, starting to smile.

She listened for an insignificant wet tap. The tear hit the wood, rang like a tiny bell, and spread out. The small wet circle hissed, and a watery cloud puffed out of it. It broadened and bubbled, sharp points rolling jaggedly up its sides as if something inside was trying to claw its way free.

That can’t be right. She stared at it, jerking her feet off the floor.

“What the hell is wrong with me?”

The cloud expanded, growing thicker and taller, oozing over the beds, covering the space between her and the far wall in seconds. She screamed and scrambled back across the width of her bed, somersaulted rearward, and fell sprawling in the gap between the next two beds.

“Why is this happening?”

Breathing hard, heart thudding in her chest, she pressed her fingers into the floor and lifted her head an inch at a time over the top of the bed. She had to yank her neck all the way back to see what it was.

A wall of water rippled from the floor to the ceiling. It stretched from one side of the hall to the other.

She got to her feet, unable to look away from it.

Colossal liquid bars broke away from the central mass and swung together like arms, and then the whole mass shifted along the far wall to make a semicircle around her. It reeked of salty ocean spray and seaweed, with a body made of lapping seawater with a fluid lump centered on top.

That thing has a head on it!

The water around its face folded into a big ridge above two deep indentations, its eyes. It was doing the water monster equivalent of scowling down at her. Then it spoke to her. Its voice was heavy, a deep shuddering rumble that drove through her body like thunder.

“You are not Ampharete.”

Kassandra couldn’t move, rooted to the floor, staring up at the monster’s face. Her mind stuttered over its words. Amph-air-eh-tayWho? And then everything in her head disintegrated into a shuddery fearful cold soup.

“You are a girl,” he rumbled.

And she just stared up at him stupidly.

“Why have you summoned me?”

Kassandra didn’t know what he meant, but that line shuffled things back into place in her mind—there was even a slight surprised tone in the deep growl.

It also sounded as if he wanted to know her name.

“M—My nnnname is Kass—Kassandra.”

He nodded, slow and watery. “I can see that you are the Wreath-wearer.” His voice built up like a freight train, and she stood like a stunned deer on the tracks, unable to get out of its way. “Why have you sent for me, Kassandra?”

The head of the monster rotated side to side as if studying the hall.

“Why have you called me to this place?” His voice pounded its way through her skin, bones, and then into the floor, and made her stagger back.

“I called you? Oh, I cried! It’s my first time.”

The two big branches of water swung in again, sending waves swirling up its body. It folded its arms, not very impressed.

“Do not make a habit of it.”

Sharp ridges of water danced along the edges of its shoulders and arms like pale blue flames. It was impatient. If it had feet, it would have been tapping one edgily.

“But…but I cleaned…” Kassandra gestured around the hall. With all the water in the room, her mouth was suddenly and completely dry. “Th—They threw mud.” She pointed to the window next to her bed.

The monster made a deep rumbling noise that made the floor creak and groan. Ripples of water eddied around its sides, coming together in a crest of sloshing ocean along the middle of its back, like the pointed clash of two opposing currents in a harbor.

Kassandra dropped her arms to her sides, trying to read something—anything—in its face. It had deep sockets where eyes should have been, and a wide horizontal line for a mouth with something glistening and sharp behind it. There was just no way she could tell what it was thinking. The rumbling could have been something like purring in a cat, or it could have been an I’m-starting-to-get-annoyed noise.

“Okay.” I need to do somethingTell him somethingBefore he gets mad. The words rammed up against the back of her throat and wouldn’t come out.

But she knew what she wanted.

Her arm rose slowly, straightening out. Her finger shook as she pointed to her bed, the window next to it, and the floor. It was a perfect match. They were covered in mud, and this giant… thing… it was made of water.

Her voice came back, but only in a dry whisper. “Can you help me… uh…clean this up?”

A deep spasm shook her from her toes to her scalp. Her hair shuddered across her face. Every muscle in her body tightened until it hurt.

She knew immediately it had been a mistake, but she peered up at him through her hair just to see what he would do.

She tried to smile. Please don’t kill me.

His eyes deepened, maelstrom eyes, and then widened. He swelled to twice his bulk, swallowing most of the room in a wall that covered the windows with a glowing mass of water and claws. His mouth gaped with gigantic pointed teeth of ice.

“I am a king among the offspring of Poseidonos!

It was like a landslide of boulders, his voice rolling deeply. The beds bounced around like pebbles on a trampoline.

“Two thousand five hundred years ago, I destroyed the entire fleet of King Darius in the waters off Mount Athos. I sent thirty thousand to their deaths! I devoured them by the hundreds and picked their bones out of my teeth with the oars of their ships! I can snap an oil tanker in half and pull it to the floor of the ocean. I can make a wave taller than the mountains. I can level cities. I am the son of Periklymenos and the Nereid, Eione. You may call me Ephoros!”

She was shaking like a flag in a hurricane. All she heard was a bunch of names and a bunch of people killed, and bones being picked out of teeth.

“…and you have sent for me…TO DO YOUR LAUNDRY!”

Ephoros was like a lion roaring at her, a lion twelve feet tall and thirty feet from tail to teeth.

She swallowed hard, made a few panicked “uh” noises. It could have been part of the whole begging-for-her-life-and-shaking-in-fear bundle, but she managed a slight nod and the faintest whisper, “Please?”

Ephoros blinked and then shrunk down to his former size, stretching half the width of the room. His voice still boomed at her and made her shiver.

“Help you clean up this mess. You sound like your mother.” He paused and nodded wisely, rubbing his chin with a claw, and then sighed. “Actually, I am pretty good at it. I can get bloodstains out of a cotton and raw silk blend. Mud is very simple. Consider it done.”

“My… mother?”

Just that fading memory of a song. She didn’t have parents. There wasn’t even a mention of them in her records. Just scraps of information she had collected over the years. Matrothy saying “I was here when they brought you in a dirty blanket…”

Ephoros ignored her. Two thick appendages, probably his fingers, emerged from the elephantine block of water that must have been one of his fists. They blended into one, and then broke away to make a thunderous bang that rattled the windows. For a king among the offspring of Poseidonos, it was the equivalent of snapping his fingers.

Light came in hazy from the outside, flickering colors through the moisture in the air. There was a rushing noise of water over rocks, and a blurred glassy sphere expanded to the ceiling over her bed, the floor, and furniture around it. Kassandra backed away, her hands going instinctively to her face.

The sphere vanished, and there was no sign of the mud that Deirdre’s asshole friends had hurled through the window. Even the blankets and pillow looked dry.

Then the door banged open as if someone had kicked it in. Kassandra whirled to the end of the hall, sucking in a breath at the same time.

5

Ephoros



Matrothy stood on the threshold, fuming and snorting like an ox, her shoulders pumping up and down on each side of her head. She was still a little bent from the dustpan incident, but the painkillers had obviously kicked in.

She paused a moment as if to gather up her rage, and stormed into the hall, boots thudding, fists up. “What the hell are you doing up here?”

Kassandra tried to look innocent. Eyes wide and innocent. That’s how you’ll get out of this. Mouth hanging wide open. Surprised I’m not drooling.

To cover up what was probably a stupid look on her face, Kassandra said, “Uh… Nothing. Nothing unusual is going on.”

“Then why does it sound like you’re training several herds of elephants?”

What, was she blind?

“That was hi—” She turned and pointed. Gigantic, enormous water monster Ephoros was gone. He had simply vanished. “Him.”

Matrothy caught that one word, and was going to beat the hell out of her with it. “Him? Him?

Kassandra was distracted with the one obvious question to answer: Where could something that big go in a hurry?

Not to mention vanish in a flash and leave behind total chaos.

She stared around the hall. All of the beds had been pulled away from the walls, some were angled and stacked together along the center of the room.

Blinking a couple times didn’t seem to work. Kassandra had to rub her eyes, not sure that she was seeing things right.

“How did—?” She started to ask about the beds, then shut her mouth. Play dumbDon’t make eye contactThere’s a chance the predator has already killed today.

Matrothy took another step down what remained of the aisle, wrinkled her nose, and sniffed the salt in the air. “What is that stink? It’s like…something I’ve smelled before. I know it.”

Matrothy’s searchlight gaze moved around the room, over the beds and windows. A worried frown slowly formed on her face as she took in the disaster area, but after a minute of silence the old grimace returned. She was nearly all the way to her usual bitter angry self when she noticed a pattern in the way the beds had been arranged. Then she exploded.

“What is that?

The first thirteen beds spelled out “HA HA!” with Deirdre’s bed and nightstand positioned as the exclamation point.

Matrothy hit some record depth of rage, her fists clenching into knuckle-whitening knots. She blew foamy spit from her mouth. More saliva squeezed through her grinding teeth, sucked in and out with her breath. The director lunged.

Kassandra wheeled and ducked, but Matrothy got her by the ear and brought her up straight.

“Who are you talking about, girl? Who is this ‘him?’”

Kassandra tried to pull out of Matrothy’s hold, fingers digging into her wrist. “No one! I don’t know.”

“Who is it? Where are you hiding him?”

Matrothy scanned the room. Her voice dropped to a cold whisper. “Tell me now, Kassandra.”

“I—I really don’t know!”

“Did he help you do this with the other girls’ beds?”

“No.”

“Who is he?” Matrothy pulled her ear harder, started shaking her. “Spit it out! Who is he? Who is he! Who. Is. He!”

Kassandra’s head was pounding, and there was a rushing water noise closing on them—but still far away. Matrothy yanked down, threw her to her knees, letting go of her.

Then there was a loud slurping noise.

Kassandra bent over, one hand pressed to her ear—hot and stretched by the feel of it.

Matrothy was screaming from far away.

Deranged monsterI hope you fell out a window.

When she looked up, Ephoros was back, stretching over most of the room again, spanning half the far wall and wearing a grin, his teeth a tight row of icicles the circumference of tree trunks.

And there was Matrothy, floating in the watery space about halfway between the floor and ceiling.

Oh my god! Ephoros ate the director!

“Put… Stop… Don’t!”

She danced around with her hands on her head, stuttering the first parts of several demands that apparently made no sense.

Ephoros ignored her. He bent around to glare at his stomach with Matrothy in her unfashionable vest, struggling inside the wall of water.

“I believe you are referring to me,” he rumbled. “You made use of the pronoun ‘he’ and its objective case ‘him’ several times. I am he who rearranged the beds. It was an amusing trifle to entertain the princess. I had no idea she was under the care of such a vulgar… whatever you are.”

Ephoros studied the struggling Ms. Matrothy with interest, teeth clicking and water sloshing along his shoulders.

“I do not know what it is about you, but you are not what you appear to be.”

Matrothy’s shrieking was crackly and weak, her eyes bulging from her face.

Ephoros straightened—as much as he could in the hall—and vomited his wriggling breakfast onto the floor. Matrothy flopped about pathetically like a gigantic landed fish, mouth gaping, sucking in air, her body covered in thick clear slime, whatever Ephoros used for digestive juices. She wiped it off her face and the goop stuck to her fingers, pulling away in ropy webs.

“What is your name?” Ephoros boomed down at her.

Matrothy spent a minute struggling to get to her feet, and when she didn’t answer right away, he nudged her playfully with a giant watery finger. She slipped and fell flat on the slimy floor, her legs splayed.

Ephoros’ mouth closed on one side, and his brows connected into a frowning expression. He waited for Ms. Matrothy to get to her feet again, then he dropped one massive finger right over the top of her. It went to the floor, enclosing her in a column of water.

The director’s arms snapped to her sides, and then her body went rigid. Her eyes stared ahead stupidly. Ephoros whispered something in another language, a long string of words that made the water prison undulate. He lifted his finger away.

Matrothy, dripping wet, without one look at Kassandra, walked briskly to the door, opened it, stepped out and closed it behind her.

Ephoros sighed. “She will remember nothing of what just happened.”

“Where did she go?”

“I have sent her to clean her teeth.” He shook his head distastefully, water going everywhere. “Did no one teach her to care for them?”

Even more monstrous than I thought. “Who are you?”

“I have told you. You may call me Ephoros. I have other names, many, but that is one that I have used for many hundreds of years.”

“And… the princess?”

“Am I not speaking loud enough?”

“Oh, come on. Me?”

“You are the Wreath-wearer.”

She looked up at him, curling her lip on one side. It didn’t sound like something she wanted to be. “The what?”

“The one who is wreathed. The one who wears the gift of Poseidon.”

She continued staring, her mouth dropping open. Her tongue was picking at her teeth all by itself.

God of the sea? That Poseidon?

She shook her head. “Uh… Help me out here?”

“You are the daughter of Ampharete, a princess of House Alkimides, the royal house of the Thalassogenêis.”

He looked down at her, and she gave him back her totally lost look.

“Your father was a lord of House Rexenor, but he disappeared not long after you were born. I would never tell anything but the truth to the wearer of the Wreath.”

The way he said the word it was clear that it came with a capital W.

“W—What’s the Wreath?”

“It is part of you. It is a circlet, a victory wreath fashioned of the plants of the sea. I can see what the gift giver himself used to craft its outward manifestation, woven seagrass, intricately branched pink Maerl, darker bands of Sebdinia, but most others will only see its radiance, and only you will be able to use and see the Wreath’s inner manifestation. Your mother must have given it to you before you were able to receive it…hmmm…when you were an infant.”

Her brain stalled on the first part of his answer, unable to get more out of it than the Wreath was made of different seaweeds, and then the mention of her mother brushed all the other thoughts aside.

“My mother,” she whispered, biting back a wave of sickness. “Is she alive?”

Shaking his head sadly, “No. You cannot unwear the Wreath. Once it is given, you wear it until you die.”

She tried to wave that away. “There was a voice in the lake yesterday—talking to me, almost like a dream. It was a woman—not the witch, someone else. She couldn’t tell me her name. She told me to breathe, and then I could breathe. Underwater.”

“That was probably not your mother. Ampharete died giving you the Wreath.”

“Why?”

“That is the way it is done. When you pass on the gift, you become a part of it forever. Your mother is still part of you. If your mother had spoken with you, you would know. You would hear her in your thoughts. She would talk to you as I am talking to you. She would tell you her name and your history. There are many others in there, forty or more generations of Alkimides. It can only be passed to one of the royal family of your house.”

“But what is it? I can’t see anything.” She ran her fingers through her hair and in the open space around her head. “I’m not wearing a… Wreath.”

He looked down at her a minute, then nodded his head. “You seem old enough. Perhaps you are not yet strong enough. In time, you will be able to see it and feel its weight and strength, and you might also be able to speak with Ampharete and to many of the wearers of the past. It has powers that are unknown to me. Only the wreathed know what they can really do.”

She ran her fingers through her hair again, pulling it behind her ears.

With a few hand waves, Ephoros rearranged the room, sliding the beds and nightstands back where they belonged.

“You really knew my mother?”

“For too short a time.”

“Then…what happened to her?”

She started with the first question that came to her, but like an overflowing pot on the stove, more questions boiled up, hundreds at a time, overlapping, joining to make bigger ones, some rising all the way to her lips. “How did I get here? In Nebraska, I mean. I really… I don’t belong here do I? What are you really? You said Matrothy’s not what she appears? Who is she? Why does she hate me so much? Sometimes it seems like she isn’t in control of her actions—as if someone else is making her hurt me. Is that even possible? I ran into a witch in a lake yesterday. Who was she? She attacked me by screaming at me, and I did the same back to her. Who am I? Please tell me. Tell me I’m not a psycho.”

He kept nodding his head at each question, and then when she stopped, he started at the top with her mother. “Ampharete was—”

He went quiet, gave her a look full of sorrow and impatience, and turned to the door.

“What is it?”

“I must go.”

What? You just got here!”

“There is someone coming. Six someones by the sound. Hold out your hand. Open it. Quickly! Face up.”

“When can I talk to you again?”

“When you are alone. I can only remain above the ocean surface for a short period. I must return to the water and cannot allow myself to be trapped up here.”

“But—”

“I can remove myself from the memory of one thinling. I must not be seen by many, especially above the waves. Hurry!”

“But—”

What’s a thinling?

“Do it!” He urged in the softest rumble he could produce. “Let the water drop slide back into the tear duct in one of your eyes. They are the gateways through which—”

Ephoros vanished into a little bead of water that kept its spherical shape that rolled in the center of her palm, and suddenly everything in the hall was dry. Ephoros seemed to have taken all the water with him.

Kassandra sat down on her bed just as the door flew open and a group of nine-year olds entered. They looked around the hall, impressed with her cleaning job. A couple of them smiled thinly, but didn’t look over at her. She could feel their fear.

Yup. Psycho drowned girl back from the dead. She almost smiled.

Kassandra fell back on her pillow and let the bead roll into her right eye, wondering if it would work.

Tears typically don’t return on their own once cried out, do they? She didn’t know much about crying but that didn’t sound right. She felt the hard water drop wobble into the corner of her eye, and with a jolt of pain that shot through her head, her eye sort of sucked it inside.

Okay, that feltweird.

Kassandra blinked, focusing on the hall of the nine-to-sixteens girls department of St. Clement’s Education Center.

Everything had nearly returned to the way it had always been.

She was alone.

She closed her eyes and tried to remember her mother’s song.

Nothing came to her, but she hardly noticed. Kassandra’s mind raced with everything that had changed in her life, lake witches, breathing underwater, some wreath thing, and Ephoros, a king among the offspring of Poseidon.

* * *

After dinner, Matrothy swung the door in and stamped her feet, every last tooth brushed.

Post-Ephoros, there didn’t seem to be anything different about her, but Kassandra couldn’t get a good look with so much commotion in the hall.

“Line up!”

Everyone scrambled to get in line, dropping phones, books, and game decks. They formed up, shuffling around and making room for a few caught out of line. The youngest and those with the fewest friends were usually the last to get in. They were sent off to the back like losers in musical chairs. Deirdre Milhorn was first in line, as usual. The first few got the hottest showers.

Matrothy walked down the row, making a real effort to glare—doesn’t she get tired of that?

The bucket of bathroom cleaning equipment was swinging in her fist, and it was pretty obvious who was going to be singled out for a bit of extra work.

“Psycho-girl! Back of the line. Take the cleaning supplies with you.”

Kassandra just managed to hold in something abusive, grinding her teeth. Then snatched the bucket away from the director and went to the end of the line. The water would be ice cold by the time it was her turn.

Matrothy made surprise visits over the next two hours, coming in without warning and standing by the hall door.

And Kassandra, still in line and waiting with a book from English class, moved closer to the bathrooms every twenty minutes, nudging the bucket of cleaning supplies along the floor with her feet. Fortunately, most of the girls took short showers.

When her turn finally came around, she got the bathroom to herself, and of course, the hot and cold felt the same when she spun the knobs.

Not that it mattered.

The water temperature didn’t even make it through the soup-thick daydream she had going. She couldn’t spare a thought on how cold it was, letting the water run through her hair, down her face. She let her gaze settle on the grid of tiles, while in her head she jumped back to Red Bear Lake, trying to work out how drowning and breathing underwater worked. Something inside her was building—a sense of wonder at the glimpse she had caught of a different world.

Kassandra was so closed down around her memories of the lake, she didn’t notice the eyes of three witches staring at her through the flow of water pouring from the shower.

Not at first.

6

The Three Spies



“Are you blind? That’s the girl.”

“She looks different in the water.”

Three strangely dressed women stood barefoot in the bathtub in the room they had taken at a motel just outside Mullen, Nebraska. They were standing very straight, scowling—or concentrating so furiously it looked like scowling. All three of them were crammed into the bathtub with the water from the high spout pouring in a smooth arc between them, splattering their pale bare feet and ankles.

They were naiads, river witches, and they were sisters, all with the same bleached-pale skin and dark hair tangled like marshweed. One was short and plump and the other two tall and bony. The short one, Limnoria, wore a garish gold taffeta dress that crinkled and rattled like a potato chip bag every time she moved. The second sister, Helodes, had on a long pale orange gown, and the third, Parresia, very stately, the eldest of the three, wore a ratty long black frock.

The head was off the shower, and the water poured out smoothly. The curtain had been ripped down and thrown over the toilet. Water flowed steadily from the open pipe that stuck out of the tiles above their heads.

Fastened to the end of it, just above the threads, was an ornate arrangement of three thick heart-shaped blocks of gold.

The three witches stared into the water flowing between them, into a small bubble in the stream that smoothed into a polished transparent sphere. A girl’s face appeared inside the bulb, her eyes closed against a spray of water.

“It’s Kassandra,” said the one in gold taffeta, and the other two leaned forward, their noses almost in the water, eyes fixed on the girl’s face.

“You’re right,” said the one in orange, Helodes, in a low voice. The eldest, usually quiet, said nothing at all.

They watched Kassandra run her hands over her face, pull back from the water and dunk her head under cold spray. The girl was taking a shower, miles away in the second floor bathroom of the girl’s wing of the St. Clement’s Education Center.

Limnoria frowned. “I thought she was afraid of water.”

“Aquaphobia, it’s called,” said Helodes knowingly.

“It’s hydrophobia, dipshit.”

Parresia gave her sisters a sharp look. Her lips tightened, but she remained silent and watchful.

“She’s not afraid. Just look at her.” Limnoria tugged on one ear, accompanied by a rustle of taffeta. She looked at the eldest. “It would be so easy to choke her. I can reach right through—”

“Not now,” said Parresia.

Kassandra’s face drifted in and out of the sphere. She scowled, tilting her head so that the icy water sprayed into one ear, then her face lifted and she opened her eyes. A look of shock swept over her face, and she withdrew again.

The naiads froze.

“Is she able to hear us?” Helodes’ startled whisper snapped the other two out of their paralysis. “Or see us?”

“If she’s powerful enough,” said Limnoria doubtfully.

“But that’s unlikely.” Helodes went thoughtful. “Does she even know what she is?”

“How powerful does she need to be?” Parresia asked quietly, and as usual her question brought silence and thoughtfulness to the other two.

Another minute passed before Limnoria spoke up.

“Wouldn’t she need a trilithon?” She jerked her chin at the three gold blocks clamped around the pipe.

Helodes smoothed her gown and nodded. “Maybe she made one.”

“Like she’d know how.” Limnoria shook her head at the dimness of her sister.

Parresia frowned and grabbed their shoulders, letting the water with the glassine bulb pour between them. Her gray eyes darted to the three gold triangular forms at the end of the shower pipe. A muscle tightened along her throat, and the heavy heart-shaped chunks of metal unsnapped and thudded to the bottom of the tub with a splash. The other two yelped and shuffled their feet. They looked at each other, surprised, and joined hands.

“She’s still with us,” breathed Limnoria, satisfied with their combined power.

“I feel the pathway draining my strength,” Helodes added with a nod.

“But the three of us together can keep it open,” said Limnoria proudly. “What can this girl do by herself?”

“She doesn’t know what she is.”

“Are either of you going to answer my question?” Parresia’s fingers dug into their skin.

“Either of you heard from Olivia?” Limnoria asked brightly, ignoring Parresia’s second request.

“She’s still up at the lake, I suppose. Kassandra didn’t go in.” Helodes rolled her eyes. “She didn’t go anywhere near the water. We’d have heard of it from Olivia.”

“Who hasn’t shown up yet,” said Parresia ominously, and then asked her question again: “How powerful does this girl need to be?”

“She’s a child,” said Helodes. “What can she possibly know?”

There was silence again. Limnoria and Helodes withdrew from the viewing bubble as they watched the girl move closer into the water on her end. Kassandra pushed her face into the shower’s flow, her brows knotting up in suspicion, her head slanted to one side as if listening.

“So, there are three of you,” said Kassandra, her face moving deeper into the stream, mouth tilted up as if talking into a microphone. “Who are you? Will you tell me what’s going on?”

The naiads, standing in the tub in a motel just outside Mullen, gasped together.

“How do you know who I am? Tell me what you know about me,” demanded Kassandra, speaking into the shower head.

“Sweet Hera! Turn it off!” Limnoria shrieked.

“Tell me who I am. Answer me!”

“Dah! What’s with this?”

“Oh, let me do it, you dolt.”

“I got it!”

“The big knob!” shouted Limnoria. “Other way!”

The pipes rumbled loudly and the water stopped flowing. The three of them huddled in the shower, leaning in on each other, puffing and out of breath.

“Why do they have to change these things? Why is there only one knob? What happened to two valves, one for hot, one for cold? Why change that?” Helodes asked, bewildered. She had finally managed to turn the faucet right. “What is this thing? One dial for both and then this lever underneath for the shower? What kind of fool designed this?”

“Surely not one of the naiads or Haliadai,” said Parresia, and then looked at the dripping pipe. “Or the Thalassogenêis.”

“Darn awkward.” Helodes turned to Limnoria as if she were to blame. “You could have told me before we got started.”

“Don’t get brackish with me! You saw me turn the water on. Looked right at me. Not my problem if half the things that reach your eyes don’t get into your head!”

The three huffed and snorted curses and made signs with their fingers in the air as they struggled to get out of the tub.

* * *

On Kassandra’s end, the ice cold water pushed past her face, but she ignored the temperature.

“Who are you?”

She waited, her voice echoing off the tiles in the stall.

“I know you’re there.” Pulling away from the water, a shocking thought occurred to her. “You can’t see me can you?”

Looking stupid, she was sure, she tried to wrap her arms around herself, stepping back from the showerhead, hesitated and then elbowed the water off.

A whisper of the word, “Thalassogenêis” came with the last few drips into the drain at her feet.

“Tha-lass-oh-gen-ace?” The word sounded familiar, but in a faint foggy way, like the name of someone or someplace she once knew, but so long ago that the feeling was all that remained.

That scared her. The world, everything she knew had become so… slippery and out of control.

Can thoughts and memories slide around on their own, shifting into new thoughts to gang up on me, or fall into forgetfulness—without me wanting them to? That’s what it felt like. Is this what insanity is?

Shuffling through the anarchy in her head, she tried to put a bunch of new thoughts in order. First, the witch in the lake had appeared out of nowhere and grabbed her. Did anything happen before that? She wasn’t sure.

Now, three more witches were talking about her, and she heard them through the pipes. For a second, she thought she had seen them through the water, but wasn’t certain. And they spoke with each other as if she couldn’t hear them—“What can she possibly know?”

Finally, they used words she didn’t understand, and it made her think of Ephoros speaking in a different language.

“Shit.”

She snapped the towel against the tiled wall, throwing a scowl at the showerhead. She didn’t like admitting it.

“They’re right, I think.”

Then she rolled her thoughts back to the lake witch curled in pain, falling into the depths of Red Bear Lake.

She was pretty sure she did that, just by shouting.

A wave of cold spread up her back and the hair on her neck felt as if it was standing up. She had listened to the soft singing voice, her mother’s song, for years, but in the lake it had spoken to her—in English, emerging from the melody, telling her to breathe, and taking away her fear of the water.

What the hell is going on? Witches talking through the pipes and gigantic watery kings springing out of my teardrops. Is this the start of something bigger?

She let out an angry breath, mulling that over. The motherly voice had always been in a language she couldn’t understand, but she couldn’t drop the idea that under Red Bear Lake the woman had spoken English.

“What powers do I have?” She jumped, startled at hearing her own voice echo off the tiles. Then glanced at the door, hoping none of the others had heard. Most of the department already thought she was odd—at the very least. Some would have agreed with her and jumped right to psycho.

Either way, she didn’t need to be caught holding conversations out loud with herself.

Kassandra dressed and finished by cleaning the mirrors over the four sinks. Looking at her reflection, turning to the left and then right, she didn’t see any changes. She looked exactly as she had always looked. The chaos is on the inside. Her hair fell smoothly, somewhat straight because it was still full of water. She didn’t feel any different, and yet something had changed in the last few days.

Pressing her hand to the cold glass, “Who are you?”

There was no answer, only the sharp echo off the tiles.

On the other hand, she could feel the water behind the contrasting pattern of tiles, pipes running with it.

She actually hadn’t really looked at the bathroom in years. It was just sort of there, with four old-fashioned sinks, four shower stalls and four enclosed toilets. The floor was tiled in a checkerboard pattern of pink and black, with solid light and dark pink for the walls.

Kassandra took a fresh look around the room, noticing for the first time how absurd the design was. The whole room looked as if it had been lifted intact from a drive-in diner from some past era and dropped into a boarding school in the middle of the Sand Hills of Nebraska.

Coming back to the sinks and the bucket of cleaning supplies, “Time to get busy.”

She mopped the floor, used the brush on the toilets and sprayed down the showers. The abrasive odor of ammonia attacked her, but she squinted against it, and pretended not to smell it, instead trying to hold her breath for two or three minutes at a time until she became light-headed and stopped. She wanted to see whether she actually needed to breathe. Apparently, it didn’t work that way underwater.

She kicked the bucket of cleaning tools and soaps under the sinks, opened the door into the dark hall, and switched off the lights in the bathroom.

Nothing but slow breathing and shadows draped over every bed she passed.

Kassandra was pretty sure she was the last one to sleep that night. She had trouble calming down, opening her eyes at every noise against the windows and every creak of the building.

She kicked in spasms, crying out once. The face of the lake witch with the sharp teeth appeared right in front of her, out of the gloomy water, a necklace with a small animal skull floating around her throat.

Deep in a foggy dream, something with claws grabbed her ankle, and she curled into a tight ball, pulling her knees against her chest, tucking the blanket tightly around her. She wasn’t cold, but she shivered, and decided she wouldn’t be going to sleep anytime soon.

“Calm down.”

Her eyes open, pointed at the ceiling, she concentrated on her mother’s song. It came to her easily, but it was like singing to herself instead of listening to another’s voice, and it was in that language she didn’t understand.

But the song soothed her, and without understanding how, it told her to close her eyes and dream of deep water.

7

The Math King



The school week began like most others, with alarms going off at 6:30 in the morning, and Ms. Matrothy banging the door against the wall, shouting at them for imaginary indiscretions.

The director paced at the head of the hall, glaring as each of them left for the school wing. She slapped the back of Kassandra’s head as she ran past with Jill and Nicole.

It was a standard trick. The director usually didn’t get her.

Kassandra was quick, but she had to pause to give Matrothy a good look as she went by, just to see if anything had changed.

The director wore the same sneering expression she always wore, and showed no sign of being eaten and then spit up by an enormous king among water monsters the day before.

Good.

Everything seemed normal for three or four seconds, and then Matrothy shocked the hell out of her, calling her back, pointing one stiff finger. Kassandra glanced over her shoulder at Jill and Nicole to get some support. They looked as lost as she felt.

Matrothy finger-jabbed her in the arm. “You’re going to end up just like your mother, a murderer, someone who stabs her best friend in the back. Then you’ll be sent off to waste away in some prison in the middle of the desert. No water. Not one drop.”

Kassandra’s mouth fell open.

Matrothy turned as if nothing had happened, waving and shouting at a couple girls holding open the bathroom door.

It took Kassandra a second to close her mouth.

Then she walked to class between Jill and Nicole.

Two tales of her mother in two days, one by her nasty, brutish and giant director, the other by a king among the offspring of a sea god. She knew which story she preferred to believe, and steered her thoughts to Ephoros. It straightened her walk and fed her courage. She even whispered some of the new words to herself.

“Wreath-wearer.” It was like a title.

I’m wearing a victory wreath—something around my head—I cannot see or feel.

Ephoros was the name of the king made of water—who comes out of my damn tears—sworn to defend her.

She didn’t have a difficult time trying to convince herself.

Princess.

That was the silliest part, and she had to force her thoughts on to something else because she felt the pull of muscles in her face, involuntarily grinning at the idea. Nicole stared at her oddly.

It was being the Wreath-wearer, the link to her mother that kept her imagination busy.

Kassandra walked more firmly on the earth that morning than any other she could remember. Ephoros had immense power, and he was on her side.

Someone’s on my side.

For the first time in her life, she felt as if she had something of a grip on the way things were moving. Staring down the hall of the school wing, she let her gaze wander over the classroom doors, down long rows of lockers. The walls looked different, the ceiling lower, everything weaker.

St. Clement’s had always been a prison out in the middle of Nebraska, with high walls, fences, and wide-open grassy fields, with no place to hide. Now it appeared less imposing.

Against the thought, you’re not strong enough rising in her mind like an incoming tide, she let out her anger, just a whisper of it. Kassandra looked up the hall, over the heads of the students and a couple teachers. “I can escape from this.”

“What did you say?” Jill turned to her just before they entered the classroom.

Kassandra snapped out of her daydream, blinked, and shook her head. “Just… nothing.”

Nicole, Jill, and Kassandra navigated the rows of desks and took their seats.

Looking around the classroom, it seemed alien—more than it usually did, a tall box of painted cinder blocks on three sides and a fourth wall of a hundred glass rectangles, some of which could be winched open to let in a breeze. It looked as if someone had put down dark green plastic tiles and lined up forty old-fashioned one-piece desks in a steel mill.

At the far end was the solid wooden door they had just come through, the only way in or out to the central hall running the length of the school wing.

Their teacher, Mrs. Vilnious, The Scourge of New England—that’s where she was originally from—had her back to them, her skeletal arm high over her head as she wrote lines of neat numbers down the blackboard. Her hair was in one long gray braid that reached her waist, and her crazy cats-eye glasses that she only used while grading papers, were propped on her head.

There was something different and alien about Mrs. Vilnious, too.

Kassandra focused on her teacher.

With her back to the class, her gray hair moving fuzzily across her shoulders, and her long dress of faded denim, Vilnious blended into the dusty slate background like a specter drifting along the front wall, back and forth, making little scratching noises as she moved the length of the blackboard.

There was the typical clamor of her fellow students settling into their desks, getting their books out, whispering, shouts, and the rustle of notebooks and pencils, followed by a short gap of silence that began when Mrs. Vilnious stepped away from the board. There were thirty-four long division problems in two rows of neat white chalk.

Shit.

Mrs. Vilnious examined the board again, comparing it to the problems and answers she had written on the paper in her hand. The fluorescent lights caught the lenses of the glasses she wore on her head, and flashed at them like signal lamps. Thirty-four students groaned at the same time, and their teacher made the slightest smile.

“Just review. Simple math.” She smiled when she said it. “Saw a pattern of incorrect answers while reviewing your homework. You need to stay sharp.”

They called Vilnious “The Scourge” because she was tough, not because she was evil. On the other hand, this was only her second year teaching at St. Clement’s. Perhaps that side of her would emerge in time. Kassandra exchanged a look with Nicole, who was well into trig and differential calculus. Nicole shrugged, nodding to the board. Easy stuff for her, while math and Kassandra had always gone together like oil and water.

They were just starting the third week of the school year. They already knew what was coming. They had heard every horrible detail about Vilnious over the summer from last year’s class.

She gave students shit-loads of homework, made them stand in front of the whole class to recite reading assignments, and hit them with surprise quizzes.

This year was going to suck.

“Andrew!” Vilnious’ voice cut through the grumbling and whispered complaints. “Martin. Elizabeth. Jill. Toshi. Harriett. Luke…” She pointed at the board a few times as if the class didn’t understand what she wanted from them, and continued calling the first seventeen names. The last she called for the first row was Kassandra.

“Take the last one.”

Kassandra dropped her pencil and scooted out from her desk. She hated division. Everything else was simple, adding, subtracting, and multiplying. Division was a lot more work. Well, she didn’t actually hate it. I’m just lazy. She understood it, knew how to work out the problems, even knew that it was all just a different way of looking at multiplication, but that didn’t make it easier, especially when she had to get up in front of the class to do it.

Kassandra picked up the stick of chalk under problem seventeen, the last one in the top row.

“Twenty-five thousand, three hundred and five divided by thirty-five,” she whispered sourly, bit her lip and put the tip of the chalk to the board.

Seven hundred and twenty-three, said a man’s voice.

Startled, she snapped the chalk, clamped her mouth shut and almost drew blood. She had heard the number. It was pronounced funny, sort of old fashioned, with the r’s in “hundred” and “three” rolled.

Kassandra looked around and wrote seven hundred and twenty-three across the top of the problem. It looks right. She stole a sidelong glance at the others working at the board. None of them looked back.

They hadn’t heard the voice.

She wrote seven hundred and twenty-three over thirty-five and multiplied it out, whispering as she went. “…Nine plus one, ten, carry the one, six plus six… It’s right.”

Kassandra paused to look at it. If that’s the answer, do I need to do the work?

She turned from the board while everyone else was still busy scribbling numbers and lines.

“Show your work, Kass, and you can also do problem thirty-four.” Vilnious snapped the words off, glancing at the open math book on Kassandra’s desk, thinking she had calculated the problem before coming to the front.

“Twenty thousand and fifty-two divided by twelve.” She read problem thirty-four off the board and a few seconds later, she heard the answer.

She looked around at the teacher. “One thousand six-hundred and seventy-one.”

Mrs. Vilnious tilted her head forward as if looking over her glasses, which were still propped on top of her head. Her focus pinned Kassandra to the blackboard for a moment, and then she glanced down at her paper. “Three hundred and twenty thousand, seven hundred and thirty-six divided by seventy-eight?”

“Three hundred and twenty thousand, seven hundred and thirty-six by seventy-eight is…four thousand one-hundred and twelve.”

Mildly impressed, Vilnious tilted her head sideways as if to attack from a different angle. “Twelve thousand, one hundred and sixty-eight by seventy-eight?”

“One fifty-six.”

Mrs. Vilnious didn’t seem to be able to hear the voice because nothing changed about the serious look on her face as she watched Kassandra. There was no reaction from others in the class.

A chill swept through Kassandra, her skin prickling.

It’s in my damn headI’m a total freak.

“Take your seat. I still expect the problems to be worked out in your homework.” Vilnious watched her for a few seconds, and then her gaze moved over the rest of the class. “Francis. Kassandra’s given you the answers. Come up and work out numbers seventeen and thirty-four.”

Jill was still at the board scratching away with the chalk over fifteen thousand nine hundred and thirty-three divided by seventeen. When she took her seat, Nicole turned to her and gave her a clear why haven’t you ever told us you’re a math genius? look.

Kassandra shrugged with her eyes innocently wide and mouthed, “I didn’t know.”

Then she picked up her pencil and bent over her math book. Her face felt hot. She tried not to look up, but she couldn’t help it, and glanced around a couple times.

She quickly dropped her gaze. There were others staring at her from around the room, especially guys—many who had never looked at her before.

Ah, the life of a celebrity.

Kassandra the Weird. She had always been the one that Matrothy hated. Other than that, she was the weird angry girl with the messy hair, but today… well, today she had become the weird angry girl with the messy hair who was really good at math. Matrothy would hate her, freakish math skills or not.

Everybody knew that.

The hours moved on normally from there, going from slow to nearly grinding to a halt over some subjects. In Mrs. Jarpe’s class, they studied the week’s forty spelling words, none of which were “latent” or “delirium”. They spent fifty minutes with Mr. Henderson, the science teacher for all grades who went on at length about the germination of lima beans.

His class was usually one of the most exciting, but when Kassandra arrived that morning, Matrothy was just leaving, her face red and sweaty as if she had been yelling, and Mr. Henderson sat hunched in his chair looking sullen.

Matrothy—the fun-killing loon—had tried to get Henderson fired a hundred times. It never worked. She was a department director, and had little influence over the school side of St. Clement’s.

Kassandra had always thought it was weird. It just makes Matrothy look stupid.

If there was one person the director hated most after Kassandra it was Michael Henderson, and like her, there seemed to be no clear reason for Matrothy’s hatred.

There was a quiet space of time while most of the class was reading about seeds opening. Kassandra skimmed it and went up to the teacher’s desk. Henderson didn’t appear to be in any mood to talk, but she had to ask him about breathing underwater—the questions were piling up in her head. He gave her short, complicated, scientific answers and motioned her to her desk.

Disappointed.

She hadn’t heard the voice in her head since Vilnious’ class, and it didn’t occur to her until ten o’clock that maybe it only worked with math. So, she closed her science book softly, rested her hand on it, and bent close to her desk, trying to hide what she was about to say from everyone else.

“Seven-hundred and fifteen,” she whispered, and hoped no one could hear the words. “Times four-hundred and five?”

Almost immediately, the man’s voice in her head answered. Was that seven-hundred and fifty? Or fifteen?

Underneath her hair her skin went all prickly. A jolt of electricity ripped through her. Kassandra’s arm swung away, out of control, throwing the book from her desk. It flew into the aisle and slammed on the floor.

No one noticed because at that moment there was an announcement over the PA, a well-timed distraction from what she was doing. Then the bell rang for morning break and there was so much noise and disruption she retrieved her book without a glance from anyone around her.

“What was that about?” Nicole shoved her when they gathered in a corner of the play yard.

“What?” Kassandra dragged out the word, played dim.

Nicole put one hand on her hip and said in a mock outraged voice, “Doing division in your head, stupid! Where did you learn that?”

Jill shrugged, nodded in acceptance. “I know where to get my homework help from.”

“The answers just…came to me.” She wanted to say she heard the answers in her head, but wouldn’t be able to explain how they got there, and well, that sounded insane.

“You’ve changed since the lake.” Nicole wagged a finger at her, accusing. “Something’s different about you.”

Jill put her hand to her chin, backing up to study her. “We both heard what you said right before class. About escaping from Clement’s.”

Kassandra shook her head. “I meant…”

“Nothing wrong with wanting to get out of this place,” Nicole started, glaring up at the walls and windowpanes of the school wing, ending in a whisper, “You have a better reason than most.”

An angry blast of heat ran up her insides. “What does that mean?”

Nicole just stared at Kassandra for a few moments, shrugged easily, confidently. “I plan on leaving before they kick me out at eighteen.”

Jill waved a hand, apparently at empty air. “You don’t have any money, no family, nowhere to go.”

“Matrothy picks on you more than anyone, but she only does it because she knows you can’t get away from her—or away from here.”

“What if I show her that I can?”

Nicole was shocked.

Jill looked at Nic and then back at Kass, leaning closer and dropping her voice. “What did you do to her? I mean really? Why does she hate you so much?”

Jill had been dumped at Clement’s at seven years old and probably assumed that whatever she had done to Matrothy must have happened before that.

“Nothing.”

“It’s your mother,” said Nicole with a wave that vaguely indicated the hall—where she had overheard Matrothy.

Jill nodded. “Yeah, tell us about that.”

“Matrothy said your mother’s a murderer.”

Kassandra could feel her brows curling into a knot. “That’s a lie!”

Jill looked doubtful. “How do you know?”

Nicole tilted her head to the school. “I heard what the hag said about your mother killing her best friend, stabbing her in the back.”

“We both did.”

Kassandra ground her teeth, releasing them to say, “Matrothy is a liar!”

Both of them stepped back from her, and there was a tense silence between them for a minute.

Jill shrugged. “Do what you want, Kass. I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”

Nicole looked thoughtfully at her. “And you never cry.”

Kassandra’s rage slipped off its leash. “What the hell does that have to do with it?” She shouted. Other girls nearby looked over at them.

Nicole folded her arms. “I don’t want you to leave because they’ll move someone I don’t like next to me in the hall, probably that hippie girl who’s always moaning.”

Kassandra frowned. “Who?”

Nicole turned to Jill. “What’s her name?”

“She’s just down from you.” Jill jutted her chin at her. “Charity, Cherish? It’s something like that.”

“Her name’s Charisma,” Kassandra said flatly, embarrassed to say that she had always envied the girl because she could cry easily.

The return bell rang, and they joined the crowd going back to class.

At lunch, Kassandra picked at her food tray and read the homework chapters from The Odyssey.

She sat alone, back to the wall, at the end of a deserted table in the far corner of the cafeteria. Jill and Nicole came in late, spent lunch stuffing food into their mouths, silently throwing scowls, widened eyes, and questioning stares at each other as if carrying on a conversation without words, unusual for both of them.

Kassandra was still annoyed with them for bringing up Matrothy’s lies about her mother.

My mother was Ampharete.

She ignored them, and after finishing their turkey sandwiches, Monday’s entree, Jill and Nicole ran off excitedly without telling her where they were going.

Good riddance.

She shoved her tray aside and opened up The Odyssey, stuck her face into it, flipping through the story to a random page. She started reading silently, and then to drown out the noise of the cafeteria, she read in a low whisper.

“These things sang the bard, but Odysseus drew his sea-purple mantle over his head and covered his face, for he was ashamed to let the Phaiakians see the tears running down his face. And every time—”

You read beautifullyI love this part, said the man with the unusual accent.

What?

The book flipped out of her fingers and skimmed over the tabletop. Kassandra looked around. It was the voice again, the same voice. The man with a strange thick accent had spoken, and it sounded as if he’d been standing right behind her.

She had heard nothing from the multiplying and dividing voice for hours, and she had told herself that it must only work for math. Admittedly, she had been afraid to call it for anything else. Afraid that it might answer. Now it was commenting on her selection of passages from The Odyssey.

Kassandra straightened on the cafeteria bench and pulled her book back from the other side of the table. There was no one near her, but it was as if the voice had been right in her ear.

The hair prickled on her neck. Her elbow banged on the tabletop as she spun halfway around on the bench, looking suspiciously along the back wall at the kitchen doorway, as if the speaker had tiptoed up behind her, spoken in her ear and then vanished.

“Who…Who are you?” She whispered.

Praxinos, said the voice. I am Praxinos, King of the SeabornWell… I was king and Wreath-wearer… ohit must be over two thousand years agoI have lost track.

The voice was definitely in her head.

Kassandra pulled in a long breath, held it for a few seconds, and then released it. She picked up the book, flipped it over, dropped it on the table, and bent forward, rubbing her eyes.

“Great,” she said, disappointed.

What is wrong?

“Oh, you know, Matrothy, teachers, doctors, and pretty much everyone else already think I’m a freak. Now, I hear a voice in my head of a two-thousand-year old king. That can’t be worse, can it? Where are you from? Wait. Let me guess. Atlantis?”

Don’t be sillyMy great great grandfather was a child when the Telkhines destroyed what you call Atlantis. And you do know it’s called Santorini? The edge of a big crater in the Mediterranean?

“Oh… of course. And I am not being ‘seely.’” She mimicked his pronunciation. “The day before yesterday I fought off a lake witch, some angry pale woman with sharp teeth. I learned at the same time that—not only can I not drown—I can breathe underwater, which, according to my science teacher Mr. Henderson, is impossible with—his exact words—our current mammalian breathing apparatus.” Her voice built up into a furious whisper. “I also learned that sound can hurt someone…but only underwater. I yelled back at the witch, and she felt pain. I saw it in her eyes. Yesterday, I cried a single tear and who shows up? Just who you would expect! One of the irritable children of a sea god. Today, I’m chatting with royalty… In my head. What’s going to happen next? Do I get to fly off on the back of a dragon? Are there magic flutes? Mice that talk?”

I have never spoken with mice, said Praxinos as if it were something to consider. But sea-dragons are some of the most magnificent creatures in the oceanDangerous as a dark sea vent, but beautifulThey are enormousI rode one once when I was young.

“Right. I’ll run off to Scotland to look for the Loch Ness Monster because a voice in my head told me to.”

I will bet it is pretty this time of year.

“And just what time of year do you think—!” She started angrily but stopped herself. “So, you gave me the answers to the division problems.”

I could not resistI love mathematicsAlways have.

“Kassandra?”

“What!” The shout burst from her, and then she looked up at Jill and Nicole. In a friendlier tone, she said, “I mean, what?”

They both stared at her with the same worried expression, mouths open. Nicole and Jill had just caught her talking to herself, and not just a few whispered words—who doesn’t do that?—but one side of an entire conversation.

Nicole wore a clear I need to look up ‘psychotic’ in the dictionary look. Jill gave her a frown, and then easily shrugged off her worry—which was just like Jill. She spoke excitedly, moving on to something more urgent.

“We just went to talk to Mrs. Lindsey, who’s in charge of school records. You’ve seen her. Older, not very organized, gray hair, friendly. She knows everything about everybody here. I know her really well. And guess what?”

Kassandra leaned forward, her fingers playing nervously with the pages of The Odyssey. Both of the girls sat down, and Jill lowered her voice, glancing around suspiciously.

“Matrothy took the job and came to work at the preschool dorms the day you showed up, on October 4th.”

She strangled a gasp. “October 4th is when they…delivered me? I think I was a little over a year old.”

Jill Nodded. “Matrothy started work at 8:00 in the morning and you arrived at 8:05, right into her arms.”

All three of them shuddered. Jill continued. “You and Matrothy showed up on the same day. That’s about all Mrs. Lindsey would tell me about you. Matrothy received you and you were her first…child.”

Kassandra stared at the fake wood grain on the cafeteria table, and Nicole whispered her exact thoughts: “Did Matrothy know your mother?”

Jill glanced at Nicole, and both of them nodded. That’s exactly what they were thinking. Jill leaned closer. “Everyone knows she hates you. But, it’s like revenge. It’s scary. Like Matrothy came to work here just to torture you.”



Continued in Saltwater Witch.

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