This is the beta version of my novel. If you are a new reader – welcome. You can read from the start here.
New sections are released every Tuesday and Friday. Please let me know your opinion in the comments section. Thank you for reading.
“Utterly,” Birtta said. “Mind shattered into pieces. No pattern or logic to fused the shards together. Trapped in a terrifying and changeable reality, battering itself against the edged trying to escape, like a bird against a window.”
“Gorth didn’t tell me that. ” Artie’s voice echoed dully in her ears.
“I imagine not,” Blue said. “He told you that it would be the shortcut to power and strength. And you thought ‘cool’ and didn’t even consider the price.”
Artie stared into the face of Blue’s cold distain; loathing almost overwhelmed her, loathing for this smug faerie bastard and his wiser-than-thou attitude. What the hell did he know about her and her choices?
“I did consider it.” She fired each word like a dart at Blue. “He told me the price. That it would kill me. I accepted that price. I’d have enough time to avenge my brother, to kill March. He threatened my friends and family. My life for all of theirs? Fair trade.” Artie jutted her chin. “I’m not stupid. I know it wouldn’t come for free. I knew it would kill me.”
“If you are lucky.” For the first time, Birtta’s clinical tone softened with sympathy. “Those hosts that the parasite doesn’t kill it renders immortal and eventually immobile. The madness waxes and wanes seasonally. There are times when the hosts wake into sanity – unable to move, unable to die, and fully aware of what has befallen them.” She did not meet Artie’s eyes. “They often cry at those times.”
Artie felt cold all over. But most of all she felt the cold, hard knot in her chest. The parasite. She imagined that she could feel it moving in there, stretching out through her body. Unless it wasn’t her imagination. She placed the flat of her hand on her chest. No heartbeat. No pain either.
She parted the neck of the white men’s shirt that they had dressed her in and looked. There was no scar. Her skin was white, smooth and unblemished. Artie looked up to find Birtta watching her.
“Why doesn’t anyone put them out of their misery?”
“We offer. Sometimes they accept. Sometimes they cannot.”
“Birtta’s people are the guardians of the last few remaining heartweeds,” Blue said. “They treat the sufferers and search for a cure. And ensure that the species does not propagate.” Blue’s voice held a cutting edge that was parried by the flash of steel in the look Birtta gave him. She turned back to Artie.
“Yours is the first seed to have escaped in over four hundred years. You are quite unique. A new heartweed, and a human. Implanted, not ingested.”
Her eyes glowed and she reached out a hand, almost involuntarily, to touch Artie’s face. Artie felt something prickle and stir within her chest: a tendril uncurling, reaching.
“It likes you,” Artie said.
A flicker of untarnished horror crossed Birtta’s face, but she withdrew her hand slowly and her voice, when she spoke, was even.
“Well I suppose our species are cousins of a sort.”
A thick silence invaded the room.
Neither Birtta or Matthew met Artie’s eyes. Blue stared straight at her and Artie liked that even less. She turned her head away from him and drew her knees to her chest.
Artie stomach gave a loud growl; she felt rather than saw the others jump at the sudden noise.
“I guess you need to feed me.” Artie gave a weak smile. “Being on the receiving end of amateur heart surgery really takes it out of you.”
“Right.” Matthew shook himself into action. “OK. What’ll it be? Shall I order a pizza?” He looked around at the two faeries and Artie. Artie’s stomach growled again.
“Pizza it is then. Where’s the landline phone?”
Blue shook his head. “No phone.”
“Well I don’t have my mobile with me.” He quirked the corner of his mouth. “They don’t travel well with me shapeshifted. I learned that the hard way.”
“The girl has one,” Blue said. “Use it.”
The girl. Artie grimaced up at the Gentry fae. His high-handed ways and icicle eyes were really starting to wear on her. She opened her mouth, but realised she had no response that wasn’t just a variant of ‘screw you’.
“Is that OK?” Matthew asked her. She shrugged and nodded.
Her bloodied trousers were heaped in the corner of the room. Artie guessed that the rest were still where she’d left them in Gorth’s cellar. Matthew fished through the pockets and pulled out her phone. He held down the power button.
“It needs a pin.”
He held the phone out to Artie. She took it and swiped in the unlock code, but didn’t hand it back.
“I could call the police on you.”
“And tell them what.” Blue’s cold voice seemed edged with amusement; Artie tightened her shoulders and ignored him.
“That you’ve kidnapped me.”
“Please don’t,” Matthew said.
“She will not.”
So much for ignoring Blue. Artie spun to give him a piece of her mind and found herself watching his back as he glided from the room. She turned back to Matthew.
“Is he always such a dickhead?”
She handed the phone to him.
“I don’t know. I only met him on Tuesday.”
Tuesday – the day she had gone to meet Gorth. Artie frowned.
“What day is it today?”
“Thursday,” Matthew said. The phone in his hand erupted into beeps and buzzes, as message after message registered.
“My parents have probably already called the police.”
Matthew handed the phone back to her. “Maybe you should call them. They’ll be frantic with worry.”
“And tell them what?” Artie closed her eyes and snorted softly as she heard herself echo Blue’s words.
“That you’re OK.”
She looked back up at Matthew, his face was etched with discomfort. “I’ll go fetch some food from the shop instead. Let you decide what to do.”
“Aren’t you afraid they’ll trace the call here or something?”
“Blue did some complicated piece of magic around it,” Birtta said. “He said that this house would be protected from such things.”
Artie had almost forgotten about Birtta. The faerie woman continued:
“Matthew, please go get food for our guest and for yourself. I will keep watch over her and make sure that she is well.”
Matthew nodded. To Artie’s surprise he took her hand and gave it a squeeze. He left the room and a second later Artie heard the sound of a heavy door thudding open and shut.
“He is a father,” Birtta said. Artie looked at her in surprise. “He has a daughter not much younger than you, or so he told me when you were unconscious. I would theorise that this prior relationship makes him protective of you.” She spread her hands wide. “My people do not have those sorts of relationships, but I can imagine the bonds they incur.”
She gestured at the phone in Artie’s hands.
“Are you going to call your own mother and father?”
The phone felt heavy as she lifted it to her ear. The call connected and she heard only a single ring before it was answered.
“Artie?” Her mum’s voice was stretched.
Artie swallowed; her mouth was dry. “It’s me.”
“Are you OK? Where are you?”
“Mum, I’m sorry.”
Everything that Artie had experienced over the past few days, everything that she had tamped down inside herself, welled up in her throat. It threatened to break free and wash her away.
Artie swallowed again. “I’m fine. I’ll come back soon. Please don’t worry.”
She hung up quickly so she didn’t have to hear her mum’s reaction to those horrible words. She just wanted to go home, to curl up on her bed with her mum stroking her hair – like when she was a child. Hot tears built behind Artie’s eyes and she knew that if she let go know she would just fall to the floor in a sobbing mess and never get up again.
Into her anguish she felt an intrusion. The feeling of something else being there, something alien. The presence that had travelled through her dreams with her. It was there and it pushed against her. It stretched out its feelers like it was looking for cracks in her, cracks it could worm its way into and push wide open.
“What’s the matter?” Birtta’s concerned face was close to Artie’s.
“I can feel it.” Artie whispered. “It’s trying to get into my mind.”
“Push it away. Stop it.”
“I’m trying.” Artie brought her fists to her temples. The squirming, probing sensation intensified. It circumvented every thought she sent to push it away. “It keeps coming back.”
Birtta hurried away into the conservatory. “Burn it.” She threw over her shoulder. “They fear fire.”
Burn it? Another exploratory tendril pushed against her mind. Artie blocked it and it smoothly slid to another point of attack, another memory, another weakness.
Artie closed her eyes and imagined a bright flame: blue and intent like the flame of a bunsen burner. She blasted that thought at the invading parasite.
“Burn. Burn. Burn.” Artie chanted in her mind adding fuel to her fire with each word.
The tendrils fled, their tips blackened. Artie thought she could hear a high-pitched squealing.
Birtta returned with a brown glass bottle. She unscrewed the lid and revealed a glass pipette attached to the underside. there was a line marked on to the glass and a brown liquid filled up to the line.
“Take this.” Birtta handed the pipette over. “Swallow.”
“What is it?”
“A variation on the substance that I injected you with earlier. It will help keep the mental symptoms of the heartweed parasite at bay.”
Artie stared at the peaty liquid. She remembered how the injection had weakened her. Sensing her reluctance, the parasite stirred again in her mind.
Artie squeezed the dropper into her mouth. The initial sharp shock of bitterness mutated into a sickly sweet aftertaste that clung to her teeth. Almost immediately the sense of the parasite’s infiltrating feelers diminished in her mind. It was as if a sheet of glass had been set between her and it. The parasite could push at that smooth surface all it wanted, but find no cracks. There was no way in.
Artie handed the dropper back to Birtta.
“You said ‘the mental symptoms’. What about the physical effects? Does that stuff make me weak, like the injection did?”
“Slightly weaker than if you were fully integrated, but much stronger than any human has a right to be.”
“How about the magical bits?”
Birtta stiffened. “Stay away from using magic or being too near it, if you want to stay alive and sane. The parasite feeds on it.” She pursed her lips. “Had you been in Faerie when you became infected, we probably would not have been able to save you.”
Birtta put the brown bottle down on the windowsill.
“You should practise the mental discipline of resisting the parasite and keeping ti from your mind, but that tincture will help you. We shall start you out at three times a day and see how things go.”
“For how long?” Artie sprang to her feet. “I mean, what happens now? Do you cure me? Do I just go mad more slowly? Die more slowly?”
Birtta’s smooth face wrinkled in to a troubled expression.
“I have no answers. I have worked with and studied the heartweeds for all of my life, but for you I have no answers. You are-”
“Unique. Yeah, you said.” Artie held her hand up in front of her face. She curled and uncurled her finger, feeling the wiry vines of the parasite coiling and uncoiling within them.