Keeper of the Earth
Daughter of Destiny
By Jenna Solitaire
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2006 Jenna Solitaire
All rights reserved.
"As expected, young Jenna Solitaire arrived in Rome last night, along with Father Monk. They have taken lodgings near the Vatican."
"You will be meeting her, of course?"
"Yes, along with the others. It is an opportunity I wouldn't miss, if what you have told me is true."
"To lie would serve no purpose in our arrangement. Watch all of them with care. One never knows when someone will let something important slip."
"You must wake up!"
My eyes snapped open at the same time as the voice of the Board of the Flames roared in my mind, banishing the vision created and somehow sent to me by the man called Emrys. Above me, the water-stained ceiling of my room in the Hotel Amalia came into focus.
"What?" I asked with a sigh. "What is it?"
"Shalizander speaks, and you must heed her, Keeper. The time has come." The voice of the Board of the Flames is the crackle and pop of a forest fire.
"My brother speaks the truth," the Board of the Waters added in its smoothest voice, the one I had come to associate with a babbling brook. "The ritual of the dagger must be performed," it continued. "The power of Shalizander is not to be denied."
"Yes," the Board of the Winds hissed in the voice of a high wind. "Power is your destiny."
"Shut up!" My eyes felt grainy and raw, my throat was sore from a long night of little sleep and disturbing dreams. Not even the words of power I'd learned from Dario in Pompeii seemed to help for very long. Between the Boards and Shalizander, the haunting dreams and visions, I hadn't slept well in days.
"Daughter, let me help you," Shalizander said, my ultimate ancestor, now another voice in my head, entering the fray. "Once you have completed the ritual —"
"I'll be under your control," I snapped. "No thanks!"
The Boards and Shalizander were blessedly quiet for a moment, and I took advantage of the silence to think about what I had learned from the vision of the wizard named Emrys. It seemed clear that in order to get to the fourth Board — the Board of the Earth — I would have to follow his directions. But who he was and if he could be trusted were questions I had no answers to at the moment.
Glancing at my watch, I saw that it was only a few minutes after four in the morning. Simon and I had arrived in Rome late the night before and I was still tired. It seemed like I was always tired now — tired of traveling, tired of fighting, and tired of listening to the Boards and Shalizander constantly clamoring in my mind.
All they seemed to want now was for me to complete the ritual of the dagger, giving Shalizander access to my mind and body, but gaining her magical powers in return.
I stretched, and as the Board of the Winds began to speak, I muttered, "Vixisthra!" commanding it to fall silent again. I didn't know how long it would last, and tried to fall back asleep. Since becoming the Keeper of the Boards, I'd learned that even sleep filled with dreams and visions and voices was better than no sleep at all.
But I drifted into memory, and that was sometimes as bad as any vision or dream I'd ever had.
... Early spring, and the rain falls in a light drizzle. My grandfather is dead, and I stand at his funeral. A college student, nineteen and adrift. The last of my family is gone. Father Andrew speaks Catholic words of comfort. Nearby, a man with dark hair and dark eyes watches....
... The wind howls outside the attic of my grandfather's house as I pick up a strange-looking board hidden in my grandmother's keepsake trunk. It reminds me a little of a Ouija board. I place my hands on the planchette and call out for my mother, my grandmother — anyone. The wind answers with the name "Shalizander"....
... Flashes of Simon in my hometown of Miller's Crossing, Ohio. Standing on my front step with Father Andrew. Helping me out of the river. Sharing with me the truth of my destiny. Fighting side-by-side with the Templar Knight Armand and his men as I lost control of the Board of the Winds and it called tornadoes to ravage the entire city. Simon saving me from the Board and from myself ...
My best friend, Tom Anderson, injured and paralyzed and blessedly alive. Kristen Evers's love for him, and both of them telling me goodbye. Reminding me that my quest to find all the Boards is necessary for the whole world and I can't be selfish about it ...
... Visiting Jerusalem and meeting Saduj Nomed. His amber eyes burn into mine. I feel loved and safe. Searching the desert for the Board of the Waters. Finding the Board in Petra, the City of the Dead. Learning that what I thought had happened between Saduj and myself didn't. It was all part of his illusion as an incubus. Realizing what I truly felt for Simon, and that he could never be mine ...
... Making our way to Naples. Hearing the howls of the stray dogs and having one of them befriend me as a guardian while I was there. Meeting Dario — the man who turned out to be my great-grandfather — and learning my first words in the Language of the Birds, my first attempts at truly controlling the Boards, instead of them controlling me ...
... Climbing up the side of Mount Vesuvius and watching the man I thought was Simon kill Dario, only to figure out too late that it was his twin brother, Peraud. Inside the volcano, the air sulfur-filled and scorching, wrangling with the Board of the Flames and eventually mastering it. Choosing to fight Peraud, to destroy him once and for all. Finding Shalizander's dagger and believing that Peraud was dead and Simon was safe ...
... Realizing that Shalizander, my ultimate grandmother and one of the people who had created the Boards, wasn't really dead, but somehow had used her magic and the dagger to preserve her spirit in a magical realm. That she wanted me to perform the ritual that would give her access to my body and mind, and me access to her powers ...
"Yes, my daughter, take the dagger and perform the ritual. You must if you are to defeat Malkander, and truly become the Daughter of Destiny."
... Malkander, Shalizander's lover and also one of the creators. Peraud's master. Simon's father. An evil shadow whose magic has preserved his life all these years as he's attempted to gain control over the Boards and fulfill his own prophecy ...
"The dagger, daughter! You must use the dagger!"
"Listen to Shalizander, Keeper. She speaks the truth!"
... Understanding that the ritual would cost me more than just sharing my body, but possibly my very soul. My identity ...
"It need not be that way, daughter. Malizander was always stubborn. She fought when we could have been two powerful allies in the same body. The way of the dagger is the only way! Your control over the Boards is tenuous, daughter! Don't you understand? My strength will be your strength!"
... Someone knocking at the door, always someone bothering me, demanding more than I want to give. Always the voices of the Boards, inside my mind like memories that won't fade away. And now her voice, Shalizander's voice. Demanding, begging, insisting ...
"Take it in your hand and strike! The magic will keep you safe."
... Knocking at the door ...
"Do it! Strike now, before it's too late!"
My eyes snapped open, and I saw the dagger clenched in my right fist, set to plunge into my heart. A simple ritual that would let Shalizander escape the magical world she'd created for herself and into this one ... through me.
I felt the muscles in my arm tighten, my lungs squeeze tight. The shining blade was inches away from my chest and I could feel my arms trembling with the strain of the conflicting messages.
"No," I said. "It is my choice!"
Someone knocked on the door again, and I heard Simon's voice. "Jenna? Are you all right?"
I couldn't trust myself anymore. Even in my sleep, the Boards and Shalizander could still force me to complete the ritual. And that was something I just couldn't bring myself to do. Not yet, and not unless there was no other choice.
"What makes you think there are other choices, daughter?" Shalizander's voice hissed in my mind. "You cannot —"
"No!" I shouted aloud, throwing the dagger across the room. I heard the clatter of it hitting the floor and then sliding beneath the rickety dresser where my meager set of clothing was stored. "You don't own me!"
"And you never will," I added. "Not even to save the world."
"Jenna!" Simon called again, pounding on the door even harder. "What's wrong?"
"Yes!" I knew that if I didn't answer him quickly, he'd break down the door. "What is it?"
"Are you all right?" he called. "I heard you shouting."
"I was sleeping. Dreaming."
"May I come in?" he asked.
Realizing that I was still flat on my back and my whole body was still shaking, I said, "Just a minute."
I got up and made my way across the room, taking deep breaths to steady myself before I unlocked the door. Opening it, I found Simon on the other side, wearing his freshly laundered clergyman clothes, complete with the white collar and black suitcoat. His dark hair had been neatly trimmed and styled, and his blue eyes bored into my green ones as though he could see every secret of my soul. "Everything all right?" he asked.
"Fine," I said. "I was just trying to get some rest. The dreams got the better of me. Again."
He looked past me into the room. "I know you could use the extra sleep." His voice was smooth and deep and calming. "But you haven't had much luck with that recently."
"Do I ever?" I snapped, and then sighed. "I'm sorry, Simon. I'm more tired than I thought."
"Understandable, given everything you've been through." He gave my rumpled clothing the once-over. "You — are going to change before we go to the Vatican, yes?"
"No, I thought my dirty jeans and torn sweat shirt would be just the outfit for greeting your superiors," I said, resuming my deep, calming breaths — for an entirely different reason this time. "Give me some credit, Simon. I know how important it is to you that we make a good impression."
Simon placed a gentle hand on my arm, dissipating my anger with his warm touch.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I just want this to go well. The last thing we need is the powers that be in the Vatican asking too many questions. It would only hinder us — and put needless lives in jeopardy — should they decide to send additional agents with us in search of the Boards."
"I understand," I said. "I'll change before we leave, and I promise to look like a proper young lady from the Midwest."
Simon smiled. "Well, that might be asking a bit much."
I laughed, unable to help myself. Simon rarely made a joke, but after everything we'd been through together, he had finally begun to loosen up a little. "Besides, if nothing else, I'm looking forward to seeing Father Andrew again."
"That's good to hear," he said. "Perhaps seeing him will lift your spirits. You've been very internally focused since Dario passed."
I didn't say anything, just nodded and crossed to the small dresser where I'd stored my few clothes. Losing Dario hurt more than I wanted to admit. He had been my great-grandmother's lover, and together they had begun exploring the secrets of the Board of the Winds. Though I had only known him for a few days, he had treated me kindly and kept his — and my great-grandmother's — secret, even when it wasn't necessary. Somehow he'd known that my focus had to be on retrieving the Board of the Flames, not on reuniting with a long-lost family member.
I pulled out a clean pair of black jeans and a dark purple blouse to go over my tank top, and tossed them on the bed. "As you can see, my clothing selection is somewhat limited."
"That should be fine," Simon replied. "But you'll need something else. Hold on a moment."
He stepped back to the door and reached into the hallway, then came back carrying a gift-wrapped box. "For you," he said.
I've always loved getting presents, but the idea of Simon actually going out and buying me something was really amazing. He wasn't much of a shopper.
"Thank you," I said, tearing open the paper. Inside was a black leather coat, perfect for the cool air of Rome in the springtime. "I love it!"
Simon smiled. "I thought you might," he said. "Besides, that denim jacket of yours has seen better days."
I glanced at the battered jacket I'd been dragging with me since we left Miller's Crossing and smiled. "Well, you're right about that anyway," I said, taking the new coat from the box and slipping it on. The leather was buttery soft and the lining of the jacket warm against my skin. "It's perfect."
"I'm glad you like it," he said. "Why don't you get cleaned up and dressed? I'll meet you downstairs and we can have a cup of coffee before we leave."
"All right," I said, "but you're buying."
"I'm just a poor man of the cloth," Simon objected. "I've already spent my life savings on your new coat. You're the one with the hefty bank account."
"I'm trying to teach myself to be frugal and save," I said with a straight face. "Wherever we go from here, I figure we should bicycle instead of fly."
I enjoyed teasing Simon about money, and he hadn't taken it well initially, but he'd slowly gotten into the spirit of things.
"Very funny," he said, "but I'm feeling generous today, so I'll buy."
"Look at that. We've only been in Rome one day and already a miracle!"
Simon laughed. "Do you really like the coat?" he asked. "I thought you might like having something nice and new."
"It's great," I said, meaning it. "I'll wear it today, and not even bring my old one along for comfort's sake."
Shaking his head and still smiling, Simon said, "I'll see you downstairs." Then he stepped out of the room, shutting the door quietly behind him.
Once he was gone, I sat down on the bed. I didn't want Simon to know how much I was struggling with the Boards and Shalizander — not yet, anyway. He had told me that the Vatican was a place of many intrigues, and there were very few people in it that weren't reaching for greater power or attempting to ascend closer to the Pope's inner circle. He would need all his focus, and if he thought I was having new problems, his attention could be diverted at a critical moment.
The sad truth — that I could only admit to myself — was that I was in serious trouble. I couldn't sleep without dreaming — usually dreams of other Keepers or Holders, sometimes dreams of my family, sometimes just nightmares. The Keepers were the women in my direct family line — each of them charged with the legacy of the Board of the Winds, handed down from mother to daughter since the time of Shalizander. The Holders were those who had somehow managed to find a Board and use some of its powers, but were not in the bloodline.
Dreams like that, I could usually handle. Sometimes, they were even instructive. But mostly they were tiring. I don't think anyone should have to dream vividly every night, all night long.
I couldn't concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time, and every time I relaxed the slightest bit, one of the Boards — or more frequently, Shalizander herself — would push me to complete the ritual. All of them were hungry for power, for the prophecy to be fulfilled.
The Boards spoke repeatedly of "opening the way," but had yet to tell me what exactly that meant. From everything I'd been able to piece together from the Chronicle — the journal that had been kept by every Keeper since Shalizander's time — the opening of the way would be a bad thing. Yet it appeared that Shalizander herself now wanted to do whatever that was. Or maybe she believed it was necessary, according to the prophecy — which I had yet to learn. It was all very confusing and so much information came in scattered bits and pieces that understanding it at all seemed impossible.
I quickly showered and changed, happy that for now that the Boards seemed quiet, and excited to be seeing Father Andrew again. He'd been a part of my family for years, and had presided over the funerals of my parents and both my grandparents. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Keeper of the Earth by Jenna Solitaire. Copyright © 2006 Jenna Solitaire. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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