“What do you mean you can’t path us out of here?” Vera dropped behind the short stone wall beside Addamas.
The clatter of hooves drew near. Teams of satyrs searched the mountain village for them. Hopefully, the satyr couple in the cabin behind them wouldn’t look out their window any time soon—what with all the commotion in the cobbled streets. If they did, or if anyone wandered over one of the suspended bridges above, she and Addamas would be screwed.
When the hunt moved farther away, Addamas answered, “I mean I can’t make us a path. We’ve got to get off this mountain the old-fashioned way.”
“What’s wrong with your special sauce? Your tank empty or something?”
“More like bottled up.” Addamas made a face. “It seems my people have acquired no-go dust.”
They held their breaths as at least a few satyrs approached their hiding place. Meanwhile, Vera’s heart stuttered at the implications of no-go showing up in the village. Suzie’s plans were in play. That was the only explanation for it. Her foster mom’s network had tried to trap Vera in Nibiru with the help of that stuff. There was no telling how they planned to keep her in Acadia. Or why.
Vera should’ve realized something was up. They’d been in the village for over a week without obtaining permission for a nymph to unlock Vera’s nymphability. What made it worse was knowing Kale would’ve been suspicious long before that moment. Only, he was still hiding in a corner of his and Ferrox’s shared mind. So yeah, Addamas had gone with her to Acadia instead. And yet again, they were up a creek. Moonlight glinted off Addamas’s silver tattoos. After Nibiru, he’d had an alchemist transform the black ink to silver. Black deception marks wouldn’t be camouflaged anymore. Not that it mattered, because Kale wasn’t around. Vera clenched her teeth to keep from growling in frustration. Freaking stubborn man.
“Check the root cellars and knock on every door if you have to. They can’t have gotten far,” said a rumbly voice. “The Aegis wants Addamas uninjured—relatively speaking—so he can have the pleasure of taking the first strips from the mutt’s hide.”
The fact the satyr king wanted Addamas delivered to him was unprecedented as far as Vera could tell. He had men to take care of everything for him—except eat, sleep, and do other things Vera didn’t want to think about. His personal interest in Addamas could not be a good thing. She swung her head around to watch the gate in the center of the wall. Any satyr who walked through there would discover them. They couldn’t run without giving away their location though.
A cry echoed from a few streets over. Someone was yelling for help. The searchers took off running in that direction. Vera released her breath.
“That was lucky timing,” Addamas whispered. “Best get going before they come back.”
Vera followed him through the yard, staying low. Addamas had tied leather scraps around his hooves to silence his steps, which meant Vera was the noisy one. He looked at her feet pointedly when she sent a tiny pebble skittering across the walkway.
“I’m pretty sure they were not exaggerating about what they plan to do to me if they catch me,” he said.
She was careful to avoid anything else kickable. When they reached the next street, Addamas dashed across and into the shadow between two buildings. He peered around the corner before waving Vera to him.
“What exactly did you do, anyway?” she asked while they paused in the alley, only a couple hundred feet from freedom. All they had to do was make it across the street that circled the perimeter of the entire village, without being spotted. After that, they could disappear into the mountains around them.
Addamas’s lips twitched. “I needed to pee. They didn’t approve of where I relieved myself.”
“Addamas,” Vera growled. “Tell me you didn’t pee in the sacred fountain.”
“Can’t do that, girly.”
Vera cringed. “They’re going to kill us. Why would you do that?”
“Because the satyrs are douchebags,” he said seriously. “And no one is going to kill us. We’re nearly home free.”
“Yeah, but I still need a nymph’s help before Mimi gives birth to your siphon love-child.”
“There have to be other nymphs somewhere else in this realm. We’ll find them. The Aegis was never going to approve our request anyway. These people will never do anything that might help me.”
“I think your father would’ve helped,” Vera argued, “if you’d kept your ding-dong put away tonight.”
“That sperm donor is not my father,” Addamas said tightly, and then slid Vera a side-eye. “Did you really just say ding-dong?”
“Don’t be a dick.”
Addamas grinned. He put a finger to his lips before towing her into the quiet street. Since he’d been dosed with no-go, Vera supposed they’d have to make their way to the world-gate on foot. Wherever it was in Acadia. Oh joy. And here I thought waking up my nymph would be easy. Get in. Get out. Ha!
She couldn’t blame Addamas for the fountain stunt though. The way satyrs treated nymphs as second-class beings was repulsive. She just wished he hadn’t gotten caught.
Several satyrs melted from the shadows to block their escape. Moonlight at their backs hid their features but did not hide how huge they were—one of the many things human records had gotten wrong. Addamas was practically a runt, which they liked to point out as often as they could.
“Oh look, you found me,” said Addamas cavalierly. He stepped in front of Vera to block her from view. “Now what are you going to do about it?”
“Take you to the Aegis,” replied the satyr at the front of the pack. “And if you don’t fight, your little freak there can leave unharmed.”
“Leave this alley or leave the village?” Addamas asked.
“She’s free to keep walking the way you two were headed and never return.”
A whistle trilled from the throat of one of the goat holes. Vera eyed his cloven hooves with some interest. Man, this village sure knows how to grow some sexy satyrs.
Addamas extended his arms out in front of himself with his wrists pressed together. “Knock it off. Let’s go see Aegis Tubby-butt.”
A couple of the satyrs scowled, but at least the whistle cut off. The offending satyr smirked when Vera was released from its spell. The damned goaters could make a person feel any range of emotions with a whistle. Like lust for instance. When she’d asked Addamas why he never whistled, he’d just said it was a bad idea.
“I’m not leaving you here,” Vera told Addamas.
“Get to the gate,” he said. “Noble Valley is a day to the North. Just stick to the northern passes—Cyclopes Nation is to the south. I’ll be home soon.” One of the satyrs snorted, but Addamas ignored him. “I’ll be fine. Get back home in one piece, so Kale doesn’t kill me later.”
“Get walking, freak.” Lead satyr tipped his head toward the trail that led out of the village.
Addamas nodded for her to go.
She pulled her shoulders back. “I hope you all choke on hairballs from licking your own—”
“Vera,” Addamas interrupted when one of the satyrs started for her. He coughed to hide a laugh. “Go, okay?”
“If you come back, we’ll find a better use for that mouth of yours,” promised Lead goater.
Vera flipped them off without looking back and strode to the tree line. Twenty minutes later, she was fairly certain no one was following to make sure she actually left. She turned around and headed back the way she’d just come. She wouldn’t leave Addamas in the hands of those bastards. The satyrs kept lookouts, in case a cyclops got lost and wandered uphill looking for supper, so Vera hugged the shadows. Getting kicked out of a village in the middle of the night had its advantages. Crouched between some mountain scrub and a boulder, she scrutinized the village built into the mountain. The Aegis’s home was an intricate mansion carved into the highest point. Its stone walls extended outward since, obviously, a mountain did not have enough space to keep a goat-man living lavishly. Vera rolled her eyes. Greedy idiot.
Most of the stone homes below, and the cave homes lining the mountain walls above, were dark. Plank bridges extended like a web overhead, swaying gently in the chilled air. At that hour they were all empty, but Vera couldn’t risk getting caught on one trying to sneak into the Aegis’s home. She’d be completely exposed with nowhere to go. Her other option was the stone steps carved into the rock facing. They didn’t extend all the way up, which meant she’d have to climb in a few places. But at least she’d have shadows to hide in, in case one of the peacekeepers made rounds.
I am so going to die.
Movement caught Vera’s attention. She spun around, stuffing her fingers into her ears. A few feet away stood a nymph. Her skin was transparent like a jellyfish, and her bones were made of something that looked like glass—and supposedly just as fragile. The nymph was exotic and beyond beautiful, like all nymphs. She motioned for Vera to duck, and just in time. Vera hadn’t heard or seen the peacekeeper rounding the corner up the street. The nymph was practically invisible with the stars behind her shining through. Vera had noticed nymphs attempting to blend in with their surroundings, but not usually succeeding. Satyrs went out of their way to notice, mock, and abuse them. The peacekeeper didn’t notice the nymph that night though.
Once the satyr was long past, the nymph beckoned Vera to follow her. Vera balked, and the nymph motioned insistently. Since the nymph had already saved her once, Vera figured she might as well trust her. Plus, the beings seemed generally timid and non-threatening. The fact that one acknowledged her was pretty remarkable. They headed deeper into the trees until their path ended. The nymph didn’t stop there. She stepped onto a narrow ledge that jutted out from a sheer rock wall and flowed forward like it was a ten-foot path.
This is crap. Vera shimmied along the strip of rock, her toes hanging off the edge. She pressed back against the stone and spread her arms out from her body to keep from tipping forward. Sweat dripped down her neck. It was crazy that a nymph would stroll along the precarious trail. One slip or a strong gust of wind and she would shatter. Of course that high up, so would Vera. Don’t think about that.
The nymph disappeared from her peripheral, but Vera didn’t dare turn her head to look. Suddenly, the wall gave way and she fell inside a cave that faced out into a wide abyss. From above, the cave hadn’t been visible. From below, it probably looked like a shadow. The nymph watched Vera crawl to her feet but did not offer to help. Nymphs were not fond of touching people or being touched by anyone outside their own kind. Addamas had explained that their skin was tissue-thin and even the gentle stroke of Vera’s finger would feel like a pummel to them.
“Welcome to our home,” greeted a second nymph. Vera hadn’t even noticed her until she shifted away from the cave wall.
Vera did a double take at the wrinkles lining the nymph’s face and her stooped shoulders. Old nymphs weren’t a thing. Every single one of them was in the prime of their life and gorgeous.
“You are sure no one followed you, Airlea?” the old nymph asked the younger one.
“I know how to cover my trail. I’m not a sapling.”
“I didn’t say—”
“I’m sorry,” Vera cut in. “I’m not sure why you brought me here, but I need to help my friend.”
“Addamas. Yes, we know,” acknowledged Airlea.
“This cave is the entrance to hundreds of secret tunnels,” revealed the elder nymph. “They reach throughout the entirety of this mountain. We can get you in and out again without anyone knowing.”
“Oh. That’s helpful.” Vera was impressed and also confused, to be honest. “Why are you helping me?”
“For Addamas,” replied Airlea. “He’s always been kind to our people.”
Well, that made sense. “So do you have a map? Or should I just take the first left and then a right?” Vera prompted.
“Addamas is not where you can get to him,” said the elder nymph to Vera’s consternation. “He’s facing the Aegis’s punishers at the moment.”
“Then I need to get to him now.”
“That’s not possible,” the old woman said calmly. “One whistle and you’d happily chain yourself up beside him. You have to wait until he’s moved to a cell.”
“What if they kill him first?” asked Vera.
“The Aegis promised Idan that he would not.”
“How do you know what the Aegis promised Addamas’s father?”
“I listened,” said the old nymph. “The mansion walls are not as thick as the Aegis believes.”
“And your tunnels are on the other side of those walls, I take it.”
The nymph offered a sly smile. “One can learn a lot by wandering my tunnels.”
Vera bit her lip then decided to go for it. “How long have you been wandering these caves, exactly?”
“Nearly a hundred years,” answered the nymph.
“I didn’t know nymphs lived that long.”
“Oh, we live longer than that.” The old nymph nodded at the younger. “Airlea is my elder sister.”
“Really?” Vera wondered how to go about asking why Airlea looked like her great-granddaughter then.
“Yes, Delia is the baby of the family,” Airlea confirmed. “And the most rebellious—she was spoiled as a child.”
“And somewhere above, in that satyr pit, is likely our mother and grandmother,” said Delia.
“Likely? You don’t know?”
“They forgot about us when we were only babies,” explained Airlea. “We never knew them.”
“They just kept living here and then abandoned you?” Who does that?
“They don’t have a choice about where they live,” said Delia. “We are all bound to the fountain and not able to leave this mountain.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Most people do not.” Delia looked older by the minute, which was quite a feat for the ancient nymph. “None of the nymphs above remember, that’s for sure.”
“It seems like that’s something they should want to remember,” Vera said.
“It is not their fault,” said Airlea defensively. “You would rather them die?”
Well, that escalated quickly. “Whoa, I wasn’t saying that at all.”
“I’m pretty sure our strange friend here doesn’t know how our kind works.” Delia laid a soothing hand on Airlea’s arm. “We are immortal in a way. Did you know that?”
Vera shook her head. She wondered if Addamas knew.
“We age, but when we are injured—”
“Which happens much too easily with that pack of man-whores living on our mountain now,” piped in Airlea.
“Yes,” Delia said solemnly. “But to be fair, they do not realize our history any more than our own people. The satyrs who took over our mountain died with the truth, after making sure no one else remembered. Most of us nymphs were there when it happened though.”
“Then why don’t they remember?” Did the satyrs do something to them?
“I’m getting there,” assured Delia, but she spoke slowly and deliberately. “We are immortal. We age, but when we are injured beyond our ability to heal, we revert into ourselves. It is a defense mechanism. We shift into our most base form until we’ve healed from everything that afflicts us, including the effects of aging. Even our minds are renewed. We emerge in our most perfect and unmarked state.”
“So your memories are wiped out?”
“Completely. Our ability to function and understand the world remains, but the rest is gone. I think it is a way for the trauma of our lives to be taken from us. This way we are healthy in both mind and body.”
“So as far as the nymphs and satyrs above are concerned, your people have always lived together on this mountain,” Vera concluded.
“But this is our mountain,” said Airlea. “Those satyrs do not belong here.”
“That may be, but our people need them,” said Delia.
“For what?” Vera couldn’t think of any good reasons.
“Satyrs protect us from gorgons. They can redirect those beings with a whistle. Otherwise, the gorgons would have destroyed us decades ago.”
“I thought you were immortal?” Vera was confused again. “Wait, what’s a gorgon?”
“A gorgon, you know…turns victims to statues,” said Airlea.
Vera’s heart thumped in her chest. “Do they have snakes for hair by chance?”
Airlea laughed. “I guess their matted locks do look like snakes, but no. The only snake is them.”
Vera wondered if the nymph meant that literally or figuratively, but Delia continued to answer the rest of Vera’s question. “We’re immortal only if we revert into our healing forms before we die. In that form, though, we are rather defenseless.”
“How do you know that you are sisters if no one remembers anything?” Vera asked.
“Airlea knows because I told her. I know because I have never reverted,” explained Delia. “I retain all the memories of my long life, including that of the sister who raised me until the day she did not come home again. She was attacked by the old Aegis, a couple of generations ago. He was a boy when his kind invaded, and he wanted to be sure he was the last to remember.”
“But they missed you,” Vera pointed out.
“They did not notice me because I was just a child. I tried to leave the mountain but could not. While I hid, I found this cave.”
“The fact that Delia has been so careful to not be seen or get injured this long is unheard of,” said Airlea, with an obvious fondness for her old-little sister. “But she will have to revert soon, or she will die of old age.”
“I was going to revert weeks ago,” said Delia. “Airlea knows the truth now and can teach it to me again. But I stuck around to see what trouble Addamas had brought to the mountain.” Delia eyed Vera. “I’m still trying to figure it out.”
Vera squirmed under the dual appraisals. “So you need the satyrs for protection. I get that. But why do you put up with all their crap?”
“No one would believe the truth if we told them. The satyrs were taught that the nymphs came to them for refuge, not the other way around. As far as they are concerned, this was their mountain first and their fountain too. We are nothing more than parasites, who owe them, and in a way, we do. For keeping the gorgons away, even if that’s not why they came here.”
“Why did they come here?”
“The mountains keep them safe. Satyrs are the favorite food source of cyclopes.”
Vera cut a face. “They eat satyrs?”
“Roasted, stewed, and satyr jerky.” Airlea grinned happily at the thought.
Vera’s stomach knotted. “That’s disgusting.”
“The satyrs are trapped on this mountain just like we are because cyclopes can smell them and track them.”
“The satyrs can’t whistle them away?”
“Cyclopes are tone deaf,” Airlea chortled. “But they are also clumsy and mostly blind, so they cannot navigate the mountains and come for dinner.”
“You plan to keep living like this, knowing that the satyrs invaded your home?” asked Vera.
“For now, it’s an arrangement that keeps us all alive,” said Delia.
“Yeah, alive and miserable. What kind of life is that?”
“When life gets too hard to bear, a nymph can revert. Only my sister and I have to stay alive so that we can keep the truth from disappearing.”
“No wonder nymphs are so happy all the time,” Vera murmured, “even though satyrs are jerkwads to them.”
“The new Aegis does not allow them to treat us the way his father and grandfather did.” Airlea shrugged. “I don’t remember the old king, but I know to be glad that he’s gone.”
Vera still thought it was abhorrent, but they seemed willing to continue the cycle. “What happens if the next king is not so benevolent?” The word was bitter on Vera’s tongue. That’s not how she’d describe the temperamental Aegis, who always had a smiling nymph on each arm.
“Perhaps when that day comes, we’ll ally with the cyclopes and hope they can keep the gorgons at bay for us.”
“The gorgons eat nymphs?”
“Oh no.” Delia shook her head. “They desire the water from our fountain. It gives them beauty, but the effects are short-lived. Once they find a fountain, they drain it. Since it is the life source of the nymphs on this mountain, we would all die if that happened.”
“The satyrs don’t know this?”
“They believe the fountain is sacred to their people but have no idea why.” Delia’s face crinkled with a grin. “We make sure it is not a place they want to visit often.”
“Are there more nymphs out there somewhere?” Vera asked.
“From what I’ve overheard, we are the last. And we will only live for as long as the satyr stink masks our existence here.”
“A stink that draws the cyclopes,” reminded Vera.
“Luckily, cyclopes don’t seem to smell nymphs. If we hold still, we’re invisible to them.”
Vera yawned. The adrenaline from the night was wearing thin.
“Why don’t you sleep,” suggested Airlea. “We will keep an eye on Addamas and let you know when it is time to get him out.”
As much as Vera felt she should do something other than sleep, she was exhausted. “Will the fountain make anyone more beautiful?” she asked for no particular reason except curiosity. The nymphs exchanged wary glances.
“It will,” said Delia slowly. “But anyone who drinks that water will find they are always fighting their thirst. Do you know what it is like to always be thirsty and never able to satisfy that thirst?”
“That sounds horrible.” Vera thought about her siphon’s thirst for magic. About the urge she’d once had to suck the power from all the witches around her. That feeling still lingered in the background of her void, but it was not insistent like it used to be. With each magic she awakened inside herself, it lessened a little more. She would not want that feeling back again, no matter how young and beautiful their fountain water would make her.
Airlea handed Vera a blanket.
“I guess it’s a good thing Addamas peed in it instead of drinking it,” Vera mused.
Both nymphs choked a bit. “He did what?”
Vera flinched. Maybe she shouldn’t have told them about that. But then they started laughing. They laughed until tears fell down their cheeks. “We’ve been peeing in that fountain for years.”
“With the old king dead, and no one around who remembers why the law says none are to drink or speak of the fountain, I wanted to make certain assurances. The whole cavern reeks of piss. No one goes near it, but they still guard it like treasure. They have no idea why except that it is supposedly special.”
Vera spread the blanket out on the cave floor and curled up with a smile. The nymphs were turning out to be nothing like she’d thought.