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Authors: Mary Lindsey

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Horror, #Horror & Ghost Stories, #Love & Romance, #Fantasy & Magic, #Paranormal

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BOOK: Fragile Spirits
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Clarice strode up to Ms. Mueller. “I brought their things, like you asked.”

Ms. Mueller didn’t break eye contact with me, and I held my breath for her decision. Wordlessly, she turned and lumbered back toward her classroom. I let out the breath I’d been holding and fought the urge to whoop and pump my fist in the air. She was letting us go.

I grinned at Clarice, who blushed. “Thanks for bringing our stuff.” I took our backpacks and Vivienne’s jacket from her. “See you tomorrow.” She stood there as if she wanted to say something, but smiled and nodded instead.

I tapped lightly on the door before opening it so I didn’t startle Vivienne.

“What happened to you?” she asked. “This closet smells like barf, and my arm hurts. I want to get out of this place.”

“Me too.” I slung both of our backpacks over my shoulder and scanned the hall. Ms. Mueller was nowhere in sight. I slid Vivienne’s jacket sleeve over the paper towels wrapped around her hurt arm, and she put it on the rest of the way. Then I grabbed mine from the closet floor, where I’d dropped it.

“Sorry about your jacket,” she said.

“It’ll wash. Sorry about your arm.”

“It’ll heal.” A twinge of sorrow washed from her to me, and she studied my face for a moment with those clear emerald eyes.

“We need to get you out of here and make sure you’re okay.” I took her good hand. She started to pull away, but I held fast. “We need to stay together. The hallway is crowded. If you’re attacked again, I need to be able to protect you. At least for today.”
Until a new Protector is chosen to replace me.
Again, a wave of Vivienne’s sorrow washed through me, this time tinged with anger.
Speaker before self,
I chanted internally, relying on the words from the IC manual to keep me from breaking down and doing something stupid—like begging her to reconsider.

TWELVE

W
e pushed our way throug
h the sea of students until they finally thinned out on the sidewalk to the parking lot. Vivienne pulled her hand from mine and stopped short.

I felt no fear from her, but didn’t understand why she stopped. Wordlessly, I waited in case she was hearing a Hindered or Malevolent. She simply stood there, staring at me.

“What is it?” I asked. “Do you hear something?”

“What? No. I . . .” A group of laughing girls broke apart to pass us on both sides. Some of them turned around to stare at Vivienne. I’d become accustomed to her appearance, but she was new to the students here. She took a big breath. “I have a ride home. Thanks for helping me.”

“No. You need stitches.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve got this. Sorry for the trouble.” She stepped off the sidewalk and crossed the street to the parking lot.

Sorry for the trouble!
Like a fish out of water, I stood opening and closing my mouth, fighting for breath. Once I collected my wits, I sprinted after her and caught up just in time to see her climbing into Race’s truck. Her emotions were a tangled up mess, just like mine. She didn’t look up, but as Race pulled out, he spotted me. He didn’t wave or even give me his typical smirk. He just met my eyes with a somber look, then drove away with the girl who should have been my Speaker. At least I knew her injuries would be treated, and he’d do a better job than I would, for sure.
This is for the best,
I told myself. She didn’t want me anyway. Prolonging the inevitable would only mess me up.

I rubbed my stinging neck and trudged to my car, still lugging both backpacks and my bloodstained jacket. The rain started right as I closed my car door. It came down in sheets, cocooning me in a safe, private, gray world that smelled like leather and familiarity. I tilted my seat back and closed my eyes, keys still in my lap, and decided to allow sleep to take me away from reality for just a moment.

I was awakened by banging. The rain had stopped, and it was dark outside. I was still in my car in the school parking lot, and Charles’s Bentley was parked in the next spot. Cinda knocked again, and I sat up, shaking my head to clear it. I glanced at my watch. I’d been here for hours.
Crap.
Charles had been out looking for me. I buried my face in my hands, and Cinda knocked again. I pushed on the window button, but nothing happened. I reached into my lap to put the keys in the ignition so I could lower it, but they had slid off and were nowhere to be found. I unlocked the door manually and opened it.

“You okay?” she asked, pulling the door open the whole way.

“Yeah, I . . .” I leaned over to look for the keys on the floorboard. “I fell asleep, I guess.” When I straightened, I smacked the side of my head on the steering wheel.

“Charles isn’t happy. Where’s your phone?”

Still groggy, I stepped out of my car and grabbed the keys from my seat, where they had evidently slid off of my leg. “My phone is in my backpack.” Which was sitting on the seat under Vivienne’s. My chest pinched.

She put her hands on her hips. “You didn’t answer it. Charles has been trying to reach you forever.”

I stepped over to Charles’s car, and he lowered the window, phone to his ear. “Yes, we found him. He appears to be fine. Thank you, Horace.” He set his phone on his dash and stared at me.

I placed my hand on the passenger door and spoke to him through the open window. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“You’ve said that a lot recently.”

I deserved that. “Yes, sir, I have. I fell asleep. My ringer was still off from class. I forgot to turn it on.”

“You were distracted,” he said. “That’s not like you.”

I stared at the lights on his dash, unable to come up with a suitable response.

“Distraction will get you killed in this business, Paul.” I straightened and stepped back when he raised the window partway. “So will jumping to conclusions. Protectors are supposed to apply logic to discover effective strategies and truths. It is the IC’s job to guide and support you, not provide you with the answers.” Without looking at me again, he closed the window and drove away.

I’d prided myself on order and reliability. Alden and Race had teased me for being a walking rule book. Now it seemed like I was always in trouble, and I couldn’t get my footing. My ordered, rule-oriented life had fallen into chaos. No, my life hadn’t fallen anywhere. Vivienne had entered it.

I rubbed the back of my neck again. “Dammit!” I shouted.

Cinda cleared her throat.

I had been so wrapped up in my self-pity, I’d forgotten about her. “Sorry.”

She was leaning against the trunk. “You okay to drive?”

“Sure.” I walked around and opened the passenger door for her. I took my phone out of my backpack, slid it into my pocket, then pitched my jacket and both packs into the backseat. She paused a moment before getting in. “You make no sense at all.” She slid into the seat.

“What are you talking about?” I propped my elbow on the roof of the car and waited for her answer.

“For example, you just opened the door for me.” She snapped her belt. “You’re all manners and professionalism with me and Charles, but such a jerk to Vivienne.”

“I am not a jerk to Vivienne.”

She reached over and grabbed the door handle. I jumped out of the way before she slammed it on me.

This was ridiculous. Cinda had been mad about my treatment of Vivienne yesterday too. I’d done nothing wrong. Nothing at all. I stomped around the back of the car and jerked my door open. “What did she tell you I did?”

“Nothing.”

I got in the car and put on my seat belt. “Nothing. How does that make me a jerk?”

She turned in the seat to face me. “You were rude to her. You told her to leave and made her cry.”

“She was already leaving! Ouch.” I put my palm over the back of my neck.

“What’s wrong with you?”

I flipped my visor down and opened the lighted mirror, craning my neck in an effort to see what was stinging my neck so badly. “I think I got into some poison ivy or something at that farmhouse when we were hiding in the bushes. Maybe it’s a spider bite.”

Her jaw dropped. Literally, her mouth hung open like she’d been stupefied.

“What?” I asked, snapping the mirror shut and putting the visor up.

And then she laughed. Really laughed until I became uncomfortable.

“What’s so funny?”

She grabbed her stomach. “You!”

I put the key in the ignition but didn’t start the car. “My pain is amusing?”

That set her off into another round of giggles. “Yes!”

I shook my head and started the car. Clearly she was unreasonable—or nuts—or both. Taking a deep breath, I put the car in gear.

“No, wait,” she said, touching my arm. She calmed and composed herself. “I’m sorry, but it’s kinda funny.”

“Obviously.” I shifted back into park and stared straight ahead at my new school.

“You are totally clueless, aren’t you?”

I didn’t answer. Obviously, I was, because I found nothing humorous about being bitten by a bug or stung by a poisonous plant. I turned the car off and waited for her to elaborate on my cluelessness.

“Vivienne didn’t leave that night to get away from you. Her grandmother had gotten into town, and she went to her new home to be with her. The timing was bad, but it couldn’t be helped.”

Still not looking at her, I relaxed my grip on the steering wheel. “Staying wouldn’t have mattered after . . .”

“After what?”

I dropped my hands from the wheel and looked over at her. “After what she did in Galveston.”

Her gaze was intense. “Yes. It didn’t matter where she was after that.”

“So how does that make me the bad guy? She ended it. She’s the one who quit trying, not me.
She’s
the jerk.” I started the car again before I got emotional. Driving was rule oriented. I could focus on that.

“Wait just a minute. What do you think Vivienne did in Galveston?”

“She severed our partnership. She rejected me as her Protector.”

Cinda gasped, and I took my hand off the gearshift.

She shook her head, stunned. I could feel her shock, even though she was so new and it was hard to read her emotions.

“No,” she said in almost a whisper. “That’s not what happened at all.” Then a big grin spread across her face. “Wow. No wonder Charles was pissed at you.”

I drew in air though my teeth with a hiss as my neck felt like it had erupted in flames.

“She must be upset too for it to hurt that much. It’ll stop hurting when you stop fighting it,” Cinda said.

She was making no sense at all. “What are you talking about?”

Cinda punched me on the shoulder. Hard. “Her neck burns too.” She gave a half laugh. “She didn’t reject you that day in Galveston, Paul. She accepted you. She got her soul brand. Your neck burns because your brand is coming to the surface.”

It was a good thing I wasn’t driving, or I’d have wrecked the car. The burning was my soul brand activating. I’d gotten it when I was ten and was unconscious when it happened. I had never even known where it was.

“She tied her soul to yours for lifetimes and then you told her to leave. She thought you were mad at her and unhappy to be bound to her.”

I covered my face, horrified. I was so certain she had rejected me, I saw no other possibilities. I had jumped to conclusions—the wrong conclusions. Instead of the ultimate rejection, she had given me the ultimate acceptance, which must have been terrifying for her. Then, after she had jumped in with both feet, I cut her off at the knees and told her to leave. “Oh, God. I’m such a jerk.”

THIRTEEN

21st-Century Cycle, Journal Entry 5:

Things are progressing normally.

Paul Blackwell—Protector 993

I
texted Vivienne for the sixth time. She’d ignored my voice mails too—not that I blamed her. I pitched my phone on my bed and flopped down next to it. The girl had bound her soul to mine for who knew how many lifetimes, and I’d thanked her by basically telling her to get lost.

No wonder I’d been blasted with her sorrow.

I didn’t have Cinda’s cell number and she’d taken off before I’d thought to ask her for Vivienne’s address.

“Now what?” I said out loud to no one. After staring at the ceiling for what felt like forever, it hit me. “Race!” He knew where she lived. He’d taken her there several times. Plus, I could check up on her injuries. I rolled over and grabbed my phone. I hit #2 on my favorites list and listened to it ring, and ring, and ring. Finally, it rolled to voice mail and I hung up, sending him a text instead.

After several hours of waiting, I figured out he was ignoring me too. I’d just have to wait until I saw Vivienne at school tomorrow to apologize in person.

But she wasn’t at school the next day. I searched for her all over the campus. I even prowled the lunchroom looking for her bright pink hair, but had no luck. I waited outside Mueller’s class, and when she hadn’t shown up by the time the tardy bell rang, I panicked.

I ran out the front doors of the school and got in my car. A detention for ditching school was the least of my worries. Five lifetimes from now, a detention would be irrelevant, but screwing this up with Vivienne would be significant. I had only one resource left. I took a deep breath and dialed Charles. He answered on the first ring.

“Um . . .” Uncharacteristically scattered, I pulled my thoughts together. “I need to find Vivienne,” I blurted out.

There was a long pause on the other end of the line. “Is she lost?”

“No, sir.” But
I
was. “She’s not at school, and I’m worried.”

“Ah. Yes. She stayed home today to help her grandmother unpack and to make herself more . . . school approved.”

School approved.
“May I please have her address?”

“Why on earth would you need her address?”

I fiddled with the keys on my key chain dangling from the ignition. “So I can go talk to her.”

He laughed. “I thought you had memorized the IC manual.”

I had. Well, most of it. “I don’t understand, sir.”

“Think, Paul, or rather, feel.” And he hung up.

Crap. Now what?
I opened my console and then slammed it shut when I remembered I’d given my copy of the manual to Vivienne. I closed my eyes and visualized the book. “Think, Paul, or rather, feel,” I repeated out loud. I could see the passages from the manual in my head.
A Protector can feel his Speaker’s emotions
 . . . No. That wasn’t it.
He can transmit chosen emotions to aid in calming the Speaker
 . . . No. I turned the imaginary page in my head.
At the beginning of each cycle, a Protector will feel his Speaker emerge to readiness through the soul brand. The soul brand enables the Protector to find the Speaker like a tracking device.
Yes! I’d had the answer all along. For a moment, I felt a twinge of jealousy for Alden’s and Race’s past-life memories. They already knew this stuff. I smiled. In a few lifetimes, I’d be proficient as well, with much less effort than it took right now. I had to get Vivienne back first, not that I’d ever really had her in the first place.

I closed my eyes and listened. It wasn’t like regular listening. I listened with my soul. It was sort of like receiving a radio signal in the form of emotions. I pictured Vivienne and allowed my mind to focus only on her, relaxing my entire body. If I could locate her signal, she should be easy to find. I hoped Vivienne was close, since I had no experience with this and her soul brand was new. I couldn’t believe how stupid I had been to not have thought of this.

I shifted in my car seat. “Come on, Vivienne. Where are you?” I took a deep breath and felt for her again. The back of my neck tingled slightly. It wasn’t a burn at all this time.
There.
I put my car in reverse and pulled out of the parking spot. It wasn’t like a hot/cold thing that let me know which way to go by stronger signals if I went the right way or weak ones if I took a wrong turn. Something in me just
knew
where she was. If I hadn’t been so worried about what she’d do when I showed up uninvited, I might have laughed. It was an amazing skill, and it made me feel like a superhero with special powers.

Finding her was much easier than expected. I pulled up and parked in front of a tiny, white, wood-framed house that sat right on the edge of a residential area near downtown. It wasn’t the safest place around, and certainly not convenient as far as working together would go. The house next door appeared to double as a dog grooming shop, with a hand-painted sign that said
BAD TO THE BONE
. The house on the other side had boarded-up windows and looked vacant. Farther down the street, a woman was hanging sheets on a clothesline, but other than that, the area seemed deserted.

After grabbing Vivienne’s backpack, I got out of the car and locked it behind me.

The house had a new coat of paint and bright flowers in planters on the porch. A neon sign leaned against the railing.
FORTUNES AND TAROT READINGS
was scrawled over the shape of a palm. I could feel Vivienne’s soul’s transmissions as if her emotions were my own now. She was slightly frustrated, not upset or sad at all.

After slinging the backpack over my shoulder, I raised my hand to knock on the green door, but it opened, and I nearly knocked on the tiny woman’s gray head instead.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Paul Bla—”

“I knew you were coming,” she interrupted. A strange look came over her face. “I felt it. I saaaaaaaaw it.” She dragged the last words out so that it almost sounded like an ominous song. “Please, come in, and I will commune with the spirits of your fuuuuuuture.”

“Actually, I’m just here to—”

“Cut it out, Grandma!” Vivienne’s voice called from the back of the house. “He’s not buying it. He’s here to see me, not you.”

The woman shrugged and spoke in a perfectly normal voice. “Well, in that case, come on in and make yourself at home. Would you like some sweet tea?”

“No. Thank you.” I stepped into the living area, which looked like something off a Hollywood movie lot. Persian rugs littered the floor and bright scarves were draped over lamps, casting pools of color on the walls and ceiling. All it needed was a crystal ball.

Incense burned by the door, and from the thickness of it, probably in every corner of the tiny house.

I was so overwhelmed by my surroundings, I didn’t realize for a while that Vivienne’s grandmother was staring at me. Studying me, really. The pupil of one of her eyes was cloudy, as if she were blind in it, which was unnerving. I clasped my hands in front of me to keep from fidgeting and focused on Vivienne’s emotional transmissions while her grandmother focused on me. Vivienne felt . . . excited? Irritated too.

“You have had a life of luck,” the old woman said. “Privilege.”

Yeah, yeah.
The old judge-someone-by-their-clothes-and-car routine. I said nothing. I certainly had been lucky, but I didn’t come from privilege. I stared down at a black cat rubbing against my legs.

“I’ll be out in a second,” Vivienne called.

“No rush,” I answered, meeting her grandmother’s hard stare and stepping away from the cat.

“You’re one of
them,
” she said.

I remained quiet because the way she said it sounded like whoever
they
were was not a good thing.

“You’re with the Intercessor Council.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Why are you here?”

“I . . .” Her tone was so changed, I wasn’t sure how to proceed. “I’m here to see Vivienne.”

Her face pinched up. “She knows. She knows what you did to her mother and her aunt. I’m only here because I had no other options. She can listen to the dead, but she will not belong to it like my baby did. She will not
die
for it like both of my daughters!”

I took a huge breath and said nothing for a moment. “I’m sorry for your loss. I’ll protect her with my very life. She won’t be harmed.”

If looks could kill, I’d have been dead on the spot.

“Hey,” Vivienne said. She was wearing a silk robe with Chinese dragons on it, and her hair was covered by a blue towel bound around her head.

“Hi. I, um . . .” I slid her backpack off my shoulder and held it out. “I brought this to you.”

One side of her mouth quirked up. “Thanks.” She relieved me of it and pitched it on a cushion on the floor.

“Sorry to just drop in like this. I tried to call and text, but you didn’t answer.”

Her amusement surged, and she smiled at me as if I were a little kid. “My phone was in my backpack, which was with you.”

Well, that explained it. I never even thought to search her stuff. “How’s your arm?” I asked.

She rolled up her sleeve and held it out for me to see. The whiskers of navy blue stitches stuck out from the letters carved into her that had evidently been the deepest.

I shuddered. “Looks like Race did a good job.”

She turned her arm to examine it. “He did, but if he had called me sugar one more time, he would have needed stitches too.”

I smiled, and the cat rubbed figure eights around my ankles. The silence stretched on forever.

“Is that all?” Vivienne finally asked.

I’d never felt so awkward. I needed to clear my throat, but that would have made it worse. “No. I also need to apologize.”

Her grandmother made a harrumph sound.

“I do,” I said, shifting my weight from foot to foot, causing the cat to slink away. “I had no idea you had . . . well, I had no idea you had gone to Galveston for that purpose.”

Her brow furrowed. “What did you think I’d done?”

“Pulled the plug,” I said, unable to meet her eyes. “Rejected me as your Protector.”

For the longest time, she didn’t answer. “Well, that makes a lot of stuff make sense.”

“He’s one of them. Don’t trust him,” her grandmother said. Despite the negative words, her voice had lost its hard edge from earlier.

“Come with me.” Vivienne headed back the way she had come in, and I followed.

“No boys in your room,” her grandmother called.

“Yeah, right,” Vivienne muttered under her breath. “She’s just showing off.”

Vivienne’s room was as unique as the rest of the house. Her walls were a deep purple, and her bed was more of a cushion on the floor than anything else, covered in crimson bedding. Brightly colored beads served as a curtain on the window, and dozens of paper Chinese lanterns hung from the ceiling. Boxes were strewn about, some open and some still sealed with packing tape bearing a professional moving company’s logo.

She flipped the flap of a box open and pulled out a green shirt. “The stuff arrived three days ago, along with my grandma. She’ll have this place whipped into shape in no time. She has way too much energy.”

“She doesn’t like me.”

She shrugged and shut her door. “She doesn’t like the IC.”

I crossed to the side of her room farthest from the door. “Neither do you. Why did you agree to do it—become a Speaker?”

Her eyes didn’t leave my face. “Do you really want to know? You’re not going to like it.”

I
had
to know. “Truth is rarely pleasant,” I said.

She wrung the shirt in her hands. “Turn around.”

I did. Rustling sounds came from her side of the room, and I realized she was changing clothes. I could feel the blood creeping up my neck. Her proximity was making me insane. I’d never felt like this before. It had to have been the Speaker-Protector bond that made my body hyperaware of her. I knew I was going to need to get over it, because we would be working very closely, and it was sometimes necessary to change in tight quarters and even for the Protector to stitch wounds and provide medical aid regardless of the location of the injury. Race had often amused us all with the stories from the furthest imaginable end of the spectrum. He’d seen it all.

I hadn’t. I was just beginning . . . with this girl who drove me crazy and made my heart beat too fast. A girl I knew nothing about, including why she had agreed to join the ranks of the IC even though her grandmother blamed it for the deaths of both of her children. “Why?”

I hadn’t intended to think out loud, and my voice startled me a bit.

The rustling from her side of the room stopped. It took everything in me not to turn around.

“What did that ghoul carve into my arm?”

I shoved my hands in my pockets. “A word.”

More sounds of her getting dressed. “What word?”

“Revenge,”
I whispered.

“The ghoul and I have a lot in common.”

My heart sank. One word. One simple little word that changed everything.
Revenge
had a unique meaning among the IC community. It was the common factor that motivated almost all malevolent spirits. It was a toxic motivation.
Toxic
—the same word I’d used to describe her at the restaurant.

She turned me by the shoulder. “I warned you that you wouldn’t like it.”

She was wearing the green shirt with black pants and a different pair of boots. These zipped up, rather than laced. A thick belt with triangle-shaped studs hung low on her hips. She still had her hair wrapped up in a towel.

“You bonded yourself to me for multiple lifetimes for revenge? On whom?”

She flopped down on her bed or cushion or whatever it was. “I joined the IC for revenge. It’s not why I asked to be tattooed or marked or whatever awful term they use.”

“Soul branded.”

“God. That’s worse than what I came up with. Yeah. That. I didn’t get soul branded for revenge. I could have gotten my revenge without that.” She lay back and stared at the ceiling.

I took a step closer. “The two are intrinsically related. There is no one without the other.”

She held her towel in place over her hair and sat upright. “Sure there is. I want to be a Speaker to get revenge on the bastard who killed my aunt.”

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