Elly and Shade's separate pasts collide as they're faced with a new threat when their friend Rodney collapses. The mystery of his illness leads them through the temples of the Sisterhood to the dingy potion shops of Flower Pot Alley. More questions than answers arise as Elly learns more about not only Shade's time spent in the fantastical world, but about herself.
Those questions dig into the heart of Elly's lost memories from when she was a child, memories that now hint at something greater than she could ever have imagined. Memories that revolve around not only Shade's sacrifice to protect her, but her special connection to the Heaven Stones.
Unfortunately, in their investigation they find themselves facing a familiar and deadly foe, one who's intentions are slowly made clear to them. Past and present collide as they find themselves in a race against time to save not only Rodney, but their own futures.
It was a dead mouse, and it was under my foot.
I let loose an ear-piercing scream and scrambled backward only to crash into one of the elegant tapestries that adorned the walls of Rodney's house. A great clatter came from its rod and the flap of the heavy cloth, which knocked against some fine china set upon a nearby entrance table.
Shade darted out of the rear hall that led to the dining room. The tips of one gauntlet-covered hand sporting three pieces of skewered bacon, but he still had them at the ready as he swept his eyes over the room looking for disaster. "What's wrong?"
I pointed at the deceased creature that lay so disemboweled on the nearby rug. "That."
"I wondered where that went to," a voice spoke up as Blackbeak fluttered out of the parlor doors. He landed neatly on the dead mouse and picked away at it. "The meat isn't too bad cold, but the blood is much too sticky."
"Might I request you take that to the table?"
Rodney chimed in as he appeared from the same hallway as Shade, though with a grease-stained apron covering his front.
I blanched. "Our table?"
Rodney's eyes shown with mischief. "I cannot very well ask that my guest eat outside, can I?"
I cast a quick glance at the bird and its meal. "We could make an exception."
Rodney chuckled, but his mirth was cut short when he frowned and cupped the side of his head in one hand. Shade took a step toward him. "Is something wrong?"
Rodney shook himself before he lifted his eyes to us and smiled. "I merely felt faint. Perhaps too much steam from the cooking. If you will excuse me." He turned and disappeared back down the hall.
I noticed Shade's eyes followed him, and stepped up to the side of my amnesia-suffering lover. "Is he okay?"
Shade shook his head. "I don't know. I've never known Rodney to be ill-" A crash came from down the hall.
Shade shot down the passage with me close at his heels, and Blackbeak and his catch close behind. We skidded into the kitchen which also served as the dining room. The floor was of smoothed stone and a thick heavy wood table stood in the middle before the large open hearth. A fire crackled quietly in the chimney, and stretched out in the glow of the flames lay Rodney on his stomach.
Shade dashed to the old man's side and turned him over to lay him against his chest. I took a few steps toward them, but froze. My words came out in a hushed whisper. "Is he breathing?"
Shade checked his pulse before he nodded. "Yes, but it's very shallow. We should get him to bed." He hefted Rodney into his arms and hurried past me.
I hurried after the pair and we climbed the stairs to the first floor. Rodney's room proved to be at the head of the stairs and was of a spartan nature compared to the elaborate entrance hall. There was only a four-post bed, dresser, and a mirror, though the glass was covered by a thin black sheet.
Shade lay Rodney on the bed and knelt beside the old man. Now I could see the quick, shallow breaths. His face, too, was ghastly pale and his hands trembled slightly.
"He doesn't smell like he's dying," Blackbeak squawked as he hopped onto my shoulder, thankfully sans mouse.
I arched an eyebrow at my carrion friend. "You can smell that?"
He flapped his wings before he tucked them against his sides. "You don't go sniffing around for corpses as long as I have and not learn to sniff out dying creatures."
I cringed. "‘Dying?' Not dead?"
He shrugged. "Sometimes you just have to start that first bite, but this guy-" He used one wing to gesture to Rodney. "-he doesn't smell like death, but he doesn't smell good, either."
"What does he smell like?" Shade questioned him.
Blackbeak fluttered down off my shoulder and onto the bed. He waddled his way up the covers, examining the patient as he went. "He smells like he's been through a charnel house and the scent is clinging to him."
I blinked at the bird. "What does that mean?"
Blackbeak shrugged. "Hell if I know. I've never smelled someone who had that strong of a scent without actually dying."
I noticed Shade lean his chin on the back of one hand and furrow his brow. "What is it?"
Shade shook his head. "I'm not sure if there's any meaning to it, but we might pay the sisters a visit."
I winced. "The Sisterhood of the Snake? Why go there?"
His eyes fell on me. "The Matron was sick."
I gestured to Rodney. "So you think whatever he has she might have, too?"
"I didn't smell any death when we were there," Blackbeak spoke up.
I raised an eyebrow. "Could you have smelled anything through all that incense?"
The bird glared at me before he turned his face away and lifted his chin in indignation. "I'm only so good."
Shade knelt beside the bed so his face was even with that of Rodney. "What puzzles me is how he came to be infected with anything."
I blinked at him. "What do you mean? Shouldn't he get sick?"
"He never leaves the house," Shade reminded me. "By that logic, one of us should have caught what he has before him."
I shrugged. "Maybe he's weaker because he's older?"
A scoffing chuckle escaped Shade's lips. "His age belies a rather robust body."
Rodney's ‘robust body' stirred and his eyes fluttered open. He swept his gaze over us before a ghost of a smile drifted across his mouth. His voice was painfully weak, but with his usual sense of humor to soften the words. "You all have rather dour faces. Is someone dying?"
"We're not sure," Shade replied as he stood and kept his eyes on the old man. "Did something happen to you lately?"
Rodney chuckled. "I see my secret is out. You wonder if I have ventured out of the house. The answer to that question is, unfortunately, ‘yes.'"
Shade's eyebrows crashed down and he slammed his hands on the edge of the bed. The whole thing rocked to and fro, shaking Blackbeak enough to flutter back onto my shoulder, but the other occupant was unmoved. "What the hell were you thinking leaving the house?"
Rodney's eyes flickered to me. "I was thinking you were being a poor guardian for our beautiful young guest, and thought to see how you were faring."
Shade narrowed his eyes at his old friend and his voice came out in a hiss. "You ventured that far?"
"I ventured as far as I dared before you spotted me, and returned home," Rodney admitted as he tried to sit up.
I leapt forward and clapped my hands on his shoulders. "You shouldn't get up!"
He smiled up at me. "I am sure I-" He grimaced and clutched his chest over his heart.
Shade was right there and pulled Rodney's hand away to place his own palm on the old man's chest. He stilled for a moment before a frown creased his face. His eyes darted up to Rodney's face. "What happened when you were out on the streets?"
Rodney took a couple of deep breaths and shook his head. "Nothing more than is normal for a tramp in a dingy cloak."
"But something did happen, so what was it?" Shade persisted.
Rodney sighed. "I may have bumped into a-shall we say-old friend."
Shade narrowed his eye. "Ward."
"Ward," Rodney confirmed.
"And did he touch you?"
Rodney laughed. "Surely you have more faith in my senses than that. We spoke to one another, nothing more, and parted. I returned home without any further incident."
"And you smelled nor saw anything unusual?" Shade questioned him.
Rodney slumped back against his pillows and sighed. "Nothing, though for once I do not suspect Ward of treachery. He hardly expected to find me out and about."
Shade pursed his lips as he straightened. "Then our only lead is the sisters."
"If the Matron isn't already pushing up daisies," Blackbeak quipped.
"We'll just have to hope that isn't the case," Shade returned as he strode over to the door. He grasped the entrance and looked over his shoulder at Rodney. "Don't die until we get back."
Rodney chuckled. "I hope to last a little longer than that."
Shade gave a nod before he turned his attention to me. "Let's go." He disappeared into the hall before I could reply.
"He's in a hurry," Blackbeak grumbled before he, too, flew the roost.
"A virtue and vice," Rodney murmured as he wiggled atop the pillows.
I set my hands on the covers and looked him over. "You're sure you'll be alright? Can I get anything for you?"
Rodney shook his head. "I am quite fine. The fatigue has mostly worn away, but I will be a good patient and remain here until you return."
My reply was only half-hearted, and not at all truthful. "Alright. We'll be back as soon as we can." I moved over to the door.
"Miss Elly." I paused at the entrance and half-turned to the bed. Rodney lay with his back on the pillows, and his face was as white as the sheets underneath him. Still, he managed a smile. "Mind the hearth fires while I am unwell, will you? They are rather important to me, especially the one in the parlor."
I smiled and nodded. "Sure thing."
Rodney leaned his head back and closed his eyes. "I believe I will rest now."
My face fell as I studied the old man. He looked so frail and tired.
"Elly? Blackbeak?" Shade called from downstairs.
"Coming!" I called back as I hurried to join my comrades, leaving behind Rodney to rest and recover.
At least, I hoped so.