Chapter Eight

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Oliver had to act fast. He had an entire feast to cleanse, and then he had to lay hands on every Academy member before they could leave the compound. He hadn’t done anything like this in a long time. For decades, he and Meri kept the people of Kalakala in good health while his cousin Elias ensured their wells never went dry. It had been an easy task, given the town’s small size. But many things surpassed the simple powers of a haltija, which made his inability to do anything about Aleksi’s death unbearable.

He slid into the warehouse, then tried to act as naturally as he made his way to the buffet. Everyone present remained blissfully unaware of the deadly poison coursing through their systems, saddening him deeply. They had followed this woman, thinking she would be their salvation. Instead, she meant to offer them as meaningless sacrifices.

He took a plate from the warm stack at the start of the buffet and wandered along the selection, waving his hand over every platter as he pretended to be indecisive. For show, he set a single roast beef slider on his plate, then cupped his hand against each punch bowl. Purifying food came as second nature; he just had to look normal while doing it. Once finished with the food, he had to devise an excuse to touch everyone in the room and keep track of who he’d already blessed.

He spotted a heap of unused, mostly finished wreaths in the corner and started formulating an idea.

On the hilltop, Lumi peeked from a spot where no one would see her or Imogen, her body flattened against the slope as she kept tabs on the activity around Tapio. She wondered what strange power had caused his transformation but knew that could wait. First and foremost, she had to save him from Smith’s impromptu—and unwelcome—wedding ceremony.

The chanting stopped as the dancers fell away from Tapio, and the crowd dropped back as Smith crested the hill, clad in a flowing white empire-waisted dress and an embroidered green cloak. A wolf-like dog resembling a German Shepherd with a broad leather collar trotted at her side.

“She’s something, huh?” Lumi whispered.

“She thinks she’s getting married to a god,” Imogen said.

Smith shifted her attention to Tapio’s frozen figure like a predator. The fire cast light across her face, highlighting her arrogant smile, which bothered Lumi on a fundamental level.

“Tonight, we celebrate the union of the sea and the land,” Smith said. “As I channel Nehalennia and bond with this spirit of the forest, our divinity shall be made stronger, and the child born from this divine union will lead us to the promised Vineta.”

She then chanted in a foreign language as she approached Tapio, her voice rising and falling melodically. Lumi couldn’t listen to her carry on any longer. She found it all too embarrassing.

“Stop!” she yelled as she scrambled up from the grass

Smith turned her attention to the trespasser, looking pleased as if she had caught a mouse in her trap. “Ah, Lumi, you still harbor feelings for Tapio. Too bad. He belongs to me now.”

“I’m sorry to inform you, but Tapio is not yours to possess.” Lumi barged past Smith’s followers, who murmured in confusion.

Smith’s eyes narrowed. “Yet you’re free to lay claim to him?”

“I don’t claim him. He loves me.” Lumi pushed to the front of the crowd and locked eyes with Smith.

“Oh, does he? Has he told you as much?”

Lumi glanced at Tapio as she recalled the sweet things he had said to her over the months. “In his own way.”

“But has he ever said the words ‘I love you’?”

“You talk too much,” Lumi hissed, then puffed out her chest as she stared Smith down with fierce intent. “Return him now.”

“My rights are granted by the gods themselves. They’ve blessed me with their favor, and it is they who have chosen the forest master as my destined mate.” Smith’s voice dripped with saccharine sweetness.

“Oh, please. I’m not going to listen to your garbage. Stop this now.”

“Brave words for such a silly girl,” Smith taunted. “But that’s all they are. Words.”

“Yeah? Well, I’ll shove ’em down your throat,” Lumi snapped as she clenched her fists at her sides. Every muscle in her body had tensed during their exchange. She stood ready to launch herself tooth and nail at Smith, if that’s what it took.

Lunging first, Smith attempted to grab Lumi’s throat, but Lumi met her advance head-on. She turned her shoulder into the cult leader and lifted her body, lifting her feet off the ground. Smith grappled at Lumi’s clothes as she rose, then fell with a grunt while Lumi desperately thought of any way she might incapacitate Smith. As she scanned her surroundings, she spotted her duffel bag abandoned in the grass nearby. By some miracle of forethought or simple ineptitude, Oliver had left it there waiting for her.

As Smith tried to yank her opponent down to the ground with her, Lumi slipped out of her shirt, leaving Smith empty-handed except for some wadded-up fabric. She screeched in anger as she lurched forward on her belly after Lumi’s feet while the younger woman stumbled and grasped the duffel. Inside, she felt the shape of the bag’s sole content. Never in her life did she think she’d be so happy to have a threatening dose of capsaicin.

“Running, are we?” Smith sneered. “Giving up on the man you love so easily?”

Lumi unzipped the bag and drew the canister free with a triumphant grin. As she felt Smith’s fingers close around her ankles, and the next moment, Lumi found herself hurtling toward the ground. Her chin hit the dirt, and her vision blurred as her ears rang. Instinctively, she kicked behind her, trying to keep Smith away as she felt the woman’s hands on her calves.

“Never,” Lumi gasped.

She rolled onto her back, sat up, and stared at the woman clawing at her legs. For a brief moment, she felt pity for Smith, seeing her white dress stained with grass and dirt, her eyes full of anger. But pity only went so far. She had hurt Tapio and made a mess of their evening plans. She kicked Smith in the face, making the other woman scream with fury, and used the momentary distraction to shake herself free. She crawled several feet away before leveling the canister’s nozzle in Smith’s direction.

“He’ll never be yours! He was promised to me by divine proclamation! There’s nothing you can do about it!” Smith yelled.

“You. Talk. Too. Much!” Lumi pressed the trigger, releasing an angry chemical stream toward Smith. The spray emanated in a fog, and while her opponent didn’t take it full blast to the face like a can of mace, the potent contents immediately disabled Smith the moment the cloud enveloped her. Lumi watched the mist begin to drift as Smith coughed violently and covered her eyes, yowling in pain.

“Everyone, you better leave now!” Lumi yelled as she got to her feet and followed her own advice, putting as much distance between her and the spray as possible.

Screams erupted atop the hill as the capsaicin cloud drifted toward the merrymakers. None of them considered saving their leader for a moment as they fled down the sides of the hill like rats abandoning a sinking ship. Ignoring Smith’s cries of agony, Lumi hurried to Tapio’s side and tugged on his jacket. He stood immovable, his skin still gray.

“Okay, bud, we gotta go,” she said in a panic, her eyes watering. “Whatever this is, you gotta undo it.”

Lumi circled him and watched the cult members run in every direction below. At the foot of the hill, she spotted Imogen patiently guiding the followers back to the warehouse, and like children, they all did as instructed. For a moment, Imogen looked up at the hill and waved. She seemed more at ease than Lumi expected, which came as a relief. Whatever plan Oliver had, it must have been going well.

But she refused to leave Tapio’s side as the silver moon rose in the evening sky. Smith groaned and floundered on the ground, searching for anyone to help her. The bear spray had blinded her, and she’d stay that way until someone brought her medical care.

Lumi flung the ridiculous wreaths off Tapio’s body, then wrapped her arms around him and rested her cheek on his solid chest. The popping of the wood in the bonfire behind her helped drown out Smith’s coughing, and thanks to his warmth, she took brief respite from the night’s chaos. She could almost hear his voice.


With wide eyes, she gazed up at him and searched his face for answers. By the fire’s flickering light, she could see it had more color than before. His cheeks had transformed from the lifeless color of slate and were now tinged with pink. She ringed her arms around his neck, and even though he stood hunched, she still had to get on her tip-toes to kiss his lips. She felt him chuckle against her, which eased her mind further. She kissed his chin, then peeled back his jacket and examined the wound on his shoulder.

“Must have been a nasty fall, huh?” she asked.

“I’ll be okay.” His strained words took all his effort.

She watched as he slowly stretched his neck from side to side and flexed his fingers with the speed of winter sap. He straightened his spine at a pace so excruciating that few other living creatures could replicate it. He barely seemed human.



“I love you,” he said.

She grinned over her shoulder. “You hear that, Linda? He says he loves me!”

“Really?” he asked.

“I love you, too, Pikka.” She hugged him again.

The sound of an engine speeding in their direction made her break her embrace and peer down the hill. Below, she spotted Oliver’s Jeep heading their way, leaving the nastiest tread marks in the compound’s perfectly manicured lawn. The engine revved as it tackled the ascent, and as it pushed forward onto the hilltop, its headlights blinded Lumi, forcing her to shield her eyes. She made out Oliver’s form in the swirling particulates and smoke as he jumped out of his driver’s seat—he was spryer than she ever gave him credit.

“Everything good up here?” he asked.

“It really depends on your definition of ‘good,’ ” Lumi said.

“Seems fine. Linda, great job. Keep it up.”

The woman on the ground wailed with frustration.

“Let’s get that statue of yours in the Jeep,” he said.

“You can lean on me, Pikka.” She draped Tapio’s stiff arm across her shoulder.

“I’m a bit heavy at the moment,” Tapio said. Words were even easier than just a minute ago.

“Not really concerned about that,” she said as she pulled him against her.

Once they reached the Jeep with Oliver’s help, she dropped him into the backseat as best as possible. He landed on his side and made an unpleasant sound as over two hundred pounds of him didn’t hit quite right. She crawled in and did her best to make sure all of him fit inside the vehicle before she slammed the door shut behind them.

“Oliver, you never cease to amaze me,” Lumi panted. She had never felt more grateful for the old barfly than she did at that moment.

He offered a wry smile as he climbed back into the Jeep. The engine roared, and they rocketed down the hill toward the warehouse, where they skidded to a stop, kicking up clumps of dirt in its wake. Lumi let out a terrified scream as she held onto the rollbar for dear life. Summoned by the racket, Imogen appeared from the building, wearing a wreath with a large yellow flower in the center. She glanced behind her, then jogged over to them, her body language making it clear she didn’t have much time to spare.

“Imogen, we can take you with us,” Lumi said as she settled back into her seat and rested Tapio’s head in her lap. “You don’t have to stay behind and face Linda’s wrath alone.”

“No,” Imogen said hesitantly. “I have to stay. I have to clean up after Linda. It’s my responsibility.”

“Are you certain?” Oliver asked, his concern evident. “It won’t be easy to undo the mess she’s made.”

“Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.” Imogen lifted her chin. “Thank you for helping me find my courage. I won’t forget it.”

“Be careful. You know where to find us.” Lumi reached out to squeeze her hand. Their eyes met in a moment of understanding as their hands clasped.

Imogen stepped away from the Jeep with a final nod and watched as Oliver tore off, exiting through now-open gates. As they sped away, leaving the compound in a cloud of dust, Lumi’s thoughts raced, and adrenaline coursed through her veins from her confrontation with Smith. The cool night air whipped through her hair, the smell of smoke still clinging to her. She looked at Tapio, his chest rising and falling steadily under her hand. He stared back up at her with a faint smile.

“You’re still topless, pulu.”

He struggled with his jacket, needing her help to remove it. Once free, he offered it to her. She ran her thumb over the large bloodstain on the shoulder but had no better option. After she donned it, he reached up from her lap to flatten the collar and fix the zipper.

“Cute,” he said.

She felt confident she was anything but cute at the moment, but no one’s opinion mattered except his. She cupped his face between her hands and gently squeezed his cheeks until he laughed.

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