Caitlin’s romantic time alone with Asher is again spoiled by trouble in their fantastical world. A letter arrives from an expensive mountain resort pleading for their help, and out of curiosity they travel to the hot springs. When they arrive not only are the guests stampeding to get to the healing waters, but so are the wild animals.
After the dust settles Cait is introduced to the Proxy, the elf who is second only to the reclusive Manager as leader of the elves. From him they learn that trouble has plagued them for months and the situation grows more dire with each passing day. The other residents of the mountain are not helping matters, as the village of the aware-hares now believes that the elves have lost their mandate from the god of the hill, Athas, and only the hares remain as the one true children of their deity. That pits their ambitious explosive digging against the concerns of the Proxy as more than wild animals shake up the place.
Cait and company have a monumental task before them to bring peace to the mountain and resolution to the Proxy’s troubles. While trouble piles on top of trouble, Caitlin finds herself being pushed away by her dragon lover. Between the mountain rumblings and Asher’s increasing aloofness, Caitlin begins to wonder if something more isn’t going on, both among the dying trees and her lover’s dying affection. Determination and a stubborn head will lead her to the truths, but will it get her out of it alive?
Another day, another kidnapping. My kidnapping.
“Don’t you ever get tired of this?” I snapped at my kidnapper.
The witch cackled and did a loop-the-loop that sent my empty stomach tumbling. I had once more been caught unawares on my balcony, and the same witch had grabbed me, this time by the scruff of my neck.
“Hold on, Cait!” Asher shouted from the ground as he flew along the road atop the box on Ratatoskr’s vehicle. The rat-man himself was spinning the wheel like turning was about to go out of style.
“There’s not much to hold on to,” I retorted as I looked at the scenery around me. “Unless you count her petticoats.”
“This isn’t a joy ride!” the witch scolded me as she dipped the front of the broom and cracked me atop the head.
I saw red. The witch screamed as I reached up and yanked on her ragged dress. The ancient cloth tore away and revealed her pink bloomers.
“You little bitch!”
she screamed as the broom shuddered under the tremor of rage in her voice. “This was my grandmother’s dress!”
“And this is just for you!” I snapped back as I swung my legs over the back of the broom and crossed them behind her.
I grabbed the front of the broom with one hand and lifted myself up to grab the back of her bowed head. With a quick yank backward I forced the witch forward and she smashed her long, twisted nose into her own broom handle.
That sent us into a tailspin dive. I tilted my head back and watched the upside-down world spin toward a small shop with a familiar sign over the door.
“Drop!” Asher shouted at me.
I released my grip on the broom and fell the fifty feet to Asher’s waiting arms. He caught me and Ratatoskr punched on the brakes. The funny machine screeched to a halt as the screeching witch slammed into the top floor of the building, barely missing the tiny window. She slid down the wall and dropped in a heap onto the ground. Her broomstick hid the hard dirt first and she followed with a resounding crack as the wood stick broke beneath her.
The door to the small office opened and Galen stepped out. He folded his arms over his chest as he inspected the huddled mass at his doorstep, followed by a sigh. “Get her in here.”
Ratatoskr leaned over the wheel and wrinkled his long, furry nose. “I say we throw her into the bay and see if she melts.”
Galen smiled. “If you’ll do the honors.”
The rat’s face paled a little. “Not on your life, Doc!”
“Then drag her in here,” Galen repeated with a twinkle in his eyes. “Maybe I can do something about that nose of hers.”
Asher hopped out of the vehicle and set me on my feet. I winced as a shot of pain came from the lump atop my head. “Owie. . .” I murmured.
“Let me have a look,” Asher requested as he examined me.
“It’s a good thing my head is hard,” I mused.
“It’s a good thing your underwear is thick, too,” Ratatoskr spoke up as he hefted the witch off the ground by her armpits.
I stared blankly at him until I realized what he meant. When I had crossed my legs over the back of the broom my nightshirt had hung down, giving the pair a great view of my underwear. Asher shot him such a glare that the rat wilted. He scurried backward, dragging the witch head-first into the doctor’s office.
My cheeks felt as red as coals as I tugged on the bottom of my long nightshirt. “So you guys got a good view, huh?”
“I’m not complaining,” Asher replied.
Or at least that would’ve happened if Asher hadn’t caught my hand before it connected with his cheek. He gave me a cheeky smile, too, and his eyes glistened with mischief. “Nothing was revealed to us other than the color,” he assured me.
“That’s enough. . .” I muttered as I pulled my hand out of his light grip.
Asher drew off his long coat and draped it over my shoulders. His dazzling smile soothed some of my frayed nerves as he set his hands on my upper arms. “Maybe some of my coffee will make you feel better.”
I winced, but let him lead me into the doctor’s office. “I’m not so sure about that. The last time I tried your coffee I spoke so fast even I could barely understand myself.”
“Then some tea,” he suggested with an exaggerated sigh. “But I still think my coffee is much maligned.”
“And for good reason,” Doc spoke up as we joined him in this office. The witch sat in the small padded chair and he was seated on his customary stool. He inspected the witch’s now-straightened nose and gave it a rap with his finger.
The witch yelped and shot up. She rubbed her bruised schnoz and glared at him. “What’d you do that for?”
He jerked his thumb over his shoulder at me. “For giving my friend here an unwilling ride.”
She shrank down in the chair and turned her face away. “I didn’t mean anything by it. I just wanted a pretty thing to play with.”
“I recommend dolls,” Galen replied, but a wicked glint in her eyes made him correct himself. “Not voodoo dolls.”
She wrinkled her nose and winced as her snout reminded her it was injured. “You’re no fun, Doc.”
“I’m quite fun, but outside of business hours,” Galen assured her as he put some gauze on her schnoz.
I glanced at the door. “Do you ever close?”
Galen slyly smiled. “Not often.” He cast a quick look at me and frowned. “But you look as though you could use a vacation. Perhaps a bit of fresh air would be better for you.”
I rubbed my bruised head. “It might be safer.”
“There is a fine place to settle for a quiet week in the mountains to the west,” Galen continued as he grabbed a folded bit of paper and handed it to me. The words emblazoned over the front read Earrach an Athas.
“What does that mean?” I asked him.
“‘Spring of Delight,’” he translated. “It’s the name given to it by the elves.”
My eyes widened. “There are elves in this world?”
He nodded. “Yes, though they prefer to stay away from human cities. They consider our architecture to be rather uncouth.”
Asher studied the good doctor with an arched eyebrow. “This suggestion wouldn’t happen to be because there’s been trouble there recently, would it?”
Galen’s eyes twinkled and his couldn’t hide the twitch at the corners of his lips that moved upward. “I wasn’t aware of any trouble, though if you happen to find the source, there would be many grateful people.”
I looked from one man to the other. “What kind of trouble?”
The witch’s pointed ears perked up. Galen noticed and finished taping off her nose. “That is as much as I can do for you today. Come back tomorrow and we shall see if there is any permanent damage.”
The witch’s face paled. “You don’t think it’ll straighten, do you, Doc?”
“Only if you keep kidnapping damsels from their balconies,” he warned her as he led her to the door. “And if you crash into my office again I won’t be giving you any of that boil cream.”
The witch’s eyes bulged out of her head. “I swear on Gaea that I won’t hurt her again!”
“Or anyone else,” Doc added.
“Or anyone else!” she swore as she grabbed the remains of her ruined broomstick and scurried off into the cool morning.
“She’s trying to get rid of boils?” I asked Doc as he shut the door behind her.
He smiled and shook his head. “On the contrary. Boils are a sign of beauty among her coven, so I give her a bottle to enhance her natural, ahem, assets.”
Ratatoskr beat me to the question that gnawed on my thoughts. “So what’s this about trouble at Athas?”
Galen took a seat on his stool and sighed. “I received a letter two weeks ago asking for advice on a recent spat of illnesses that struck some of the guests. The concern was that the illness came from one of the hot spring pools, since they had all shared one earlier that day.”
“Did it?” I asked him.
“No,” he replied as he pulled out a nearby drawer and handed the letter to Asher. “I traced the source of the illness to food poisoning.”
Asher scanned the letter and arched an eyebrow. “This is signed by the Manager himself.”
“Shouldn’t it be?” I wondered.
“The Manager of Athas is quite a recluse. Even I’ve never seen him,” Asher admitted as he handed back the letter. “How did you trace the source?”
Galen’s eyes practically danced with glee as he put the letter back. “Through some fecal matter provided by the patients.” Ratatoskr and I stuck out our tongues. “Ratatoskr himself delivered the package to me only a few days ago.”
The rodent glared at the good doctor. “That was a dirty trick!” I couldn’t help but snort, and Doc laughed out loud. When Ratatoskr realized his words he sheepishly grinned at our smiling faces. “Oh, I see. . .”
Galen turned back to Asher. “What trouble have you heard about?”
“I received a letter myself, though not about food poisoning,” Asher admitted as he reached into the jacket I wore. “Pardon me.”
“It’s no-” I felt a strange sensation like a ripple run over the coat before he pulled out an envelope. I looked down at myself, but saw nothing.
Asher didn’t take notice of my confusion, but handed the envelope to Galen. He opened the broken seal and read the letter that was inside. It was his turn to arch an eyebrow. “Hexes among the staff?”
“And a letter I received only a few days ago mentioned a curse or two,” Asher added.
“The hot springs have changed a great deal since I last traveled there,” Galen mused as he returned the letter.
“I’d wager they’ve changed a lot since the updates they did a couple months ago,” Asher mused as he tucked the letter back into his coat. I felt that strange ripple run through the coat again.
Ratatoskr wrinkled his furry nose. “Didn’t they add on to the inn?”
“And tamed a few more pools,” Asher reminded him.
“Is that important?” I asked my knowledgeable companions.
“The mountain on which Athas sits is considered sacred to many different peoples,” Galen explained.
“Half of them want to shut it off to everyone and the other half wants to turn it into a massive prayer center,” Asher agreed as he cupped his chin in one hand. “This expansion falls between both of them, so neither side is happy about it.”
I winced. “That sounds like a mess.”
Ratatoskr folded his furry arms over his chest and shook his head. “Better off not doing anything about it.”
Asher cast a look at me. “What do you say?”
I blinked at him. “Me?”
“It’s a nice place to relax,,” he admitted.
“Even with the hexes and poisonings?” I countered.
He flashed me his adorable grin. “I’ll be right there to nurse you.”
“She would be better off with Ratatoskr nursing her,” Galen chimed in as he stood. “But if you intend to go there, you had best hurry. The next train leaves in an hour.”
All eyes were on me. I sighed, but couldn’t help but smile as I shrugged. “I guess this place is starting to get boring. I mean, it’s been a whole ten minutes since my last adventure.”