The trip was quiet, no radio, no conversation. The summer days were long, and plenty of sun remained as it slid down the early evening sky. Lumi stared out the window at the scenery as it rolled past. Her anxieties festered in her stomach as Oliver drove. She had nothing to do except worry about what would happen next.
“You gonna be okay, kid?” Oliver asked.
“Yeah. I think.”
She grew up in the city. The smallest town she ever lived in before Kalakala was Duluth. While life had been strange since she moved to Washington, everything fell apart in a matter of days. She hadn’t been ready for it, but Tapio remained unwaveringly calm. Without him, his kidnapping aside, she’d be a mess. She wrung her hands in her lap until her fingers went white.
When they arrived in Yoak an hour later, her stomach dropped as they neared the roadside sign declaring they were at Nehalennia’s Academy of Awakening. Oliver continued driving, his eyes scanning for gaps in the long stone wall that separated the rest of the city from the expansive compound. From the outside, the Academy looked like a fancy, gated community. It hardly seemed ominous or like the home of an obsessed kidnapper.
Undaunted by its pleasant exterior, Oliver explored the perimeter, satisfied only after seeing every possible entrance. When they approached the sign again, he pointed toward the middle of the compound. She could see it, too. Smoke curled upward, a lot of it, the kind that came from a bonfire.
“Let’s start there,” he said.
“How do we get in?” she asked.
“We walk in.”
“But . . . there’s a gate,” she said.
“The back gate had a pedestrian entrance,” he said.
“It’ll be locked.”
He tapped his nose, pulled around again, and found parking on a side street. After throwing her a duffel to hide her sole possession, he untucked his shirt and flapped his heavy flannel over his handgun on his waist. The two of them did not look like they belonged in a fancy gated community, but they may as well not openly wield their weapons.
He confidently approached the back gate as if he meant to be there. She attempted to match his strides, summoning all of her late-night walks home from the bar. Instead of wedging her apartment key between her knuckles, she had a bag full of capsaicin spray. She found her own grim determination, and her steps became more resolute.
Oliver tugged on the handle to the pedestrian entrance, the door swung open, and he gave her a wink. She closed the metal door behind them quietly, taking a moment to inspect the lock since she was surprised it had been left undone, then hurried after him as he made his way to the increasingly prominent smoke. They passed a few small maintenance buildings, and when a sole worker in an olive green jumpsuit stared at them for a long moment, Oliver raised his hand.
“On the name of the Goddess,” he said.
“On the name of the Goddess, brother,” the suspicious man replied and returned to winding some hose.
“Fake it ’til you make it, huh?” she whispered.
“It works well for an old white guy, but with enough chutzpah, anyone can pull it off,” he said as he elbowed her.
The compound had a lavish mansion, a testament to the donations of Smith’s supporters, which had several maintenance buildings they passed in the back, and a single-story warehouse surrounded by open fields. People streamed from this warehouse up a hill to an enormous bonfire. As they neared the building, she realized they didn’t look different from her or Oliver. Most were closer to his age, though she spotted younger people ranging from her age to children. Some, but not all, of her worries dissipated when she realized they wouldn’t stick out.
“Seems like a good place to get a little information,” Oliver said.
“What if they recognize me?” she asked.
“We’ll roll with it then. You’re going to make a ruckus when you run off with their new prize, anyway.” He squeezed her bicep.
“Reassuring,” she muttered.
They made a path amidst the bustling crowd as they entered through the large industrial doors. The atmosphere inside was electric. People helped themselves to a large buffet of food and drink as they laughed and ate. The whole thing struck her as a catered picnic or, worse yet, a wedding. Her heart leaped at the thought.
She found a small group of younger women holding wine glasses who turned to face her as she approached them. They all wore wreaths of ferns around their heads, each dotted with small colorful flowers. Their hands were bare, none sporting a ring on their fingers. She cleared her throat as her nerves fluttered.
“Excuse me,” she said.
“On the name of the Goddess,” one of the women replied.
“Uh, and also with you,” Lumi said. “Isn’t this just . . . wonderful?”
“That’s putting it lightly!” another woman said.
“To think Ms. Smith finally found her true companion,” the first woman said.
“She’s been after him for a while,” Lumi said carefully.
“And he had the sense to agree to their union,” the third woman said.
“Oh wow, and it’s happening tonight in front of everyone.” Lumi laughed awkwardly, feigning a smile as she pried for details with an educated guess.
“Do you think it’s true?” one of the women asked.
“Which part?” Lumi asked.
“Once she and Lesnik are wed, we’ll all find our own husbands!”
“Lesnik?” Lumi asked. “Anyway, yeah, I guess we gotta find husbands before we run off to . . . Vineta.”
“Exactly!” the women agreed in unison.
Lumi stepped away instinctively as the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. She then excused herself in a hurry and scanned the crowd for the top of Oliver’s head. When she found him, she spun him around by his shoulders and tugged him from his discussion, surprising his conversation partner. Once they were outside, away from the merriment, she lowered her head to his.
“They think Tapio is someone named Lesnik,” she said.
“Isn’t it funny?” he asked.
“I’m not laughing.”
“Lesnik is a forest god. I see the resemblance. I don’t blame them for getting it wrong. But the kid’s clearly a Finn, not a Slav.”
“I don’t give a shit what ethnic group Tapio belongs to, but you’re telling me they think he’s some kind of Slavic god?”
She dug the heels of her palms into her temples as she stared up at the evening sky and let out a strangled groan. She whipped around, then focused her gaze on the hill and the people wandering its slope. Without a second thought, she gripped his hand and joined the procession. She didn’t need to gather more information to know what she’d find at the top of that hill.
Along the way, Oliver struck up a conversation with a woman, and they chatted as if it were any other night. Lumi was too focused to listen to their discussion but found it bewildering that he could remain so casual despite everything. The moment they reached the top, she slapped her hands over her mouth, muffling her gasp. Oliver grabbed her by the elbow, but the woman he talked to just laughed.
“I didn’t believe it myself when I first saw it. Nehalennia has truly blessed us,” she said. “I’m so glad you two could make it for such a special night!”
On the other side of the roaring bonfire stood Tapio, frozen in time, his skin as gray as stone. He still wore all of his clothes, though the right shoulder and arm of his green jacket were stained dark. His posture was hunched, and he looked unenthused. She’d seen this expression. It was his bored, annoyed look. The same one he gave Elias when he took too long at bar darts.
A ring of women danced around him, all holding woven branches and ferns that they draped over his figure. Given his expression, the way they revered him was an entirely ludicrous spectacle. None of the women seemed to care, though. He may as well have been the Second Coming.
“Tapio,” she whispered, then turned to the woman at Oliver’s side. “Can I touch him?”
“You only get this one chance, right?” the woman said.
Lumi shoved her duffel in Oliver’s arms, then bolted around the fire and shouldered past the women. They protested at first, then put a wreath in her hands, mistaking her for a zealous believer. She looked at the woven foliage, then the women, who all had feverish hope in their eyes. When she returned her attention to Tapio, she grimaced and found a place to set the wreath. There weren’t many spots left to hang it.
“This is amazing.” Her words were forced as she stared into his frozen eyes. “Truly a miracle.”
She placed her hands on his and tilted her head, surprised by their warmth. While he appeared to be made of stone, he still emitted the heat she knew. Even more, she felt an invisible strand wind from somewhere within him and stretch into her. Unlike the wilting flowers on the wreaths draped across his body, the connection blossomed when it reached deep inside her, imparting his profound feelings in a heartbeat. She clutched his hand even tighter as the women resumed their dance and chanting.
“I’m here. I’ll get you out of this,” she whispered, then stepped back and edged out of the ring.
From the fringes on the hilltop, a woman in her late sixties with curly gray hair in a loose braid watched Oliver and Lumi. She fidgeted, wrapping a fern around her hands until little remained.
When she looked at the young woman, she saw her younger self—beautiful blond hair, eyes that shone, and a heart full of love. But Lumi had something she never found. She had Tapio. Many of the ladies at the academy had taken a fancy to the forester over the years thanks to Smith’s obsession, and they felt like he belonged to them, even though he obviously wanted nothing to do with the organization.
The realization that he was fond of this interloper sent them into a panic. Smith’s descent hastened until she was no longer the woman Imogen met decades ago. Back then, in the 80s, Imogen had been freshly heartbroken and sought something to tether herself to when she stumbled upon the newly opened Academy.
Linda laughed differently then.
Her ideas had always been strange, but she promised a refuge for people, especially women, and a promised land where they would no longer want. Soon, that promise became a vow that her Academy would help people find their true soulmates with Nehalennia’s aid. At the Academy, anyone could “Navigate the Sea of Love and Discover the Shoreline of Eternal Happiness.” She helped her followers dabble in harmless rites and spells for love and prosperity.
Linda was larger than life, but in those days, she truly wanted to help people.
Then people started donating money. She began giving lectures and selling books about her visions. Imogen noticed her gradual change. She went from consecrating honey jars to convincing more people to follow and give to her. Simple rites and spells became hexes and curses.
When Tapio moved to the area, she became obsessed, convinced he was a god in hiding. When Imogen looked at him, all she saw was an awkward man who preferred the company of trees to people. While she didn’t think he was a god, she understood her fellow academy members’ infatuation with him. He was tall, easy on the eyes, and the right amount of mysterious. A little young for her, but she didn’t mind his cheekbones.
She sat mortified in the passenger seat of the Academy’s van when Smith took her most dedicated enclave to his station earlier that day and ambushed him. She watched the woman she once sought solace in bear her hexes and render him helpless as her followers wrenched him from his station. They treated him roughly, only concerned with getting him into the back of the van.
If she hadn’t been such a coward, she could have rattled off a counter-spell.
She pulled the frond straight between her hands and set her jaw with steely determination. She knew what lay ahead would not be easy, but she also knew it had to be done.
She was done being a coward.
When Lumi returned to Oliver’s side, she felt a tug on the back of her shirt, and the two of them found themselves being gently dragged from the bonfire down the opposite side of the hill. Lumi protested momentarily but fell silent when she saw who led them away. It was the older woman from the bar who put Tapio in a terrible mood. Smith had said her name. What was it again?
“Imogen,” Lumi whispered.
“I want to help you,” Imogen said.
“Really? Even though I have limp hair and murky eyes?”
“What?” Imogen asked with a furrowed brow.
“Isn’t that how you described me to Smith?”
“No. I told her you were a pretty young blond.”
“Hardly the time to be petty, Lumi,” Oliver said.
“I’ll make time. But good to know. Why would you want to help us?”
Imogen glanced around the compound grounds, her hands twitching helplessly as her dilated eyes darted back and forth. She took several deep breaths as she stilled herself. Her fretting stopped.
“I was there when they ambushed the forester,” she said. “I’ve known Linda for a long time. She’s always been a bit of an oddball, but she’s grown more extreme in the last year. I never thought she’d attack someone.”
“Just how did they take Tapio down, anyway?” Lumi asked. “He’s huge.”
“Linda—Ms. Smith is fairly good at hexes. Curses and the like.”
“A witch,” Oliver said.
“Well, I suppose. But not all witches are like Linda. Some would like to help people.”
“Some people like you, Imogen?” Lumi asked.
“Ms. Smith . . . I think her goal was noble at first. But she got greedy.”
“You learn one curse, you get a few bucks, and next thing you know, you’re dancing on Bald Mountain,” Oliver said.
Lumi shot him a look. He mimed zipping his lips.
“Tapio is a good man,” Imogen said. “He didn’t resist much when a half a dozen women bearing hexes came after him. There was a bit of a scuffle. You probably saw he’s injured—he fell on his truck when he seized up—but he didn’t hurt any of the women.”
“That stone form of his,” Lumi said.
“I don’t know whether it’s his doing or one of Linda’s hexes.”
Lumi glanced at Oliver, who gave her a non-committal look and shrug. She got the feeling he knew more than he let on.
“None of that is the worst part,” Imogen said.
“Go on,” Lumi said gently.
“This is how I knew Linda lost it. After she got Tapio back to the compound, she told me that only a sacrifice would secure her union and passage to Vineta. She’s poisoned all the food in the warehouse. Anyone who’s had anything to eat or drink will be dead in six hours. Anyone who survives tonight will be ‘chosen’.”
Without waiting for further explanation, Oliver sped off toward the warehouse as fast as his short legs would carry him. “You worry about Tapio! I’ll take care of the rest!”
“I’ll do whatever I can to help,” Imogen said.
Lumi swallowed the lump in her throat and stared toward the top of the hill, the sounds of chanting and the plume of smoke that only seemed to grow bigger. The sun’s descent cast a vivid orange across the sky, reminding her they were nearing the brink of darkness.