Wellspring: Chapter One
The preschool parking lot was dark and empty, all the kids, parents, and fellow teachers gone for the day. Just as I preferred it. No people around me. No questions or forced small talk. And most importantly, no emotions from colleagues or high-strung caregivers piercing my mind like ice-tipped arrows.
I much preferred the company of three- and four-year-olds to their parents. They had big emotions, of course, but those emotions were rarely complex and never underlaid by a lifetime of convoluted and often suppressed emotional triggers and turmoil.
Kids were exhausting in a different way—a way I could handle. Buzzing energy and manic personalities. Unflagging curiosity. A total lack of survival instinct and a willingness to put literally anything in their mouths. They were pure in a way adults were not, their identities still forming, their thoughts and emotions fleeting, bouncing off me instead of sinking in.
As long as I was careful to minimize contact with adults, I was happy with my job. It sure beat living in a cardboard box in a forest, far from the seething emotional mess of humanity. Right now, however, a solitary life in the wilderness didn’t sound so bad—I’d finished the last of my parent-teacher meetings today. My skin ached. My hair hurt. My mind felt like soggy toast. And it would take a few weeks to rid my brain of what Cecile’s dad was thinking about while his wife was talking.
Nodding to the security officer whose car idled outside the school, I thought longingly of a bubble bath and spending a peaceful, silent weekend recuperating. I’d earned it.
A cool, familiar tingle against my senses yanked me from my thoughts. Adrenaline tingled in my toes, flowing up my legs. My head whipped up, gaze finding and narrowing on the tall, dark figure leaning against the trunk of my car. The lot was well lit, but he’d found a spot thick with shadow.
There goes my bubble bath. And probably my life.
My heart banged around my rib cage. I glanced back at the school, but the security car was gone. Not that he would have been able to help me, anyway.
“Shit,” I whispered.
My heavy sigh took more than the air from my lungs. It robbed me of something I’d allowed myself to embrace over the last nine years. Hope. What flowed back in with oxygen was the bitter tang of resignation.
I’d always known this day would come.
I took a few slow steps toward the man. To my heightened senses, he was a calm point in the storm. In every other respect, he was unwelcome. I hadn’t seen Asher Castello in close to a decade, and there were very good reasons why.
When I was close enough to see the small changes a decade had wrought in his stoic features, I asked, “How did you find me?”
He glanced over my head. “Did you think you could come back to the city and we wouldn’t know, Evie?”
No, I hadn’t really thought that. But time had made me complacent, dulled the edges of my hyper-vigilance. And I’d been a month away from dead broke when the job offer had landed in my lap. I’d somehow convinced myself that Seattle was big enough for me to go unnoticed. That enough time had passed without contact. That the White Order, self-proclaimed enforcers of the border between humanity and the varying nasties of the Underworld, would leave me the hell alone.
“What do you want, Asher?” I asked flatly.
The pressure of his gaze roamed my face. “Whether or not you’re still one of us, the Order has a vested interest in your health.”
I barely curtailed a snort of disbelief. Any interest the Order had in me was far from my health, except in relation to keeping tabs on my potential usefulness.
“As you can see, I’m healthy. Your job is done. If you don’t mind? I have a date with Ben & Jerrys.” I made a shooing gesture away from my car. He stepped forward, crossed arms relaxing to his sides, but made no move to leave.
“Can we grab a drink? Like old friends?” From the tension in his voice, I imagined his orders included a conversation longer than thirty seconds.
He had, in fact, been my friend. Briefly, he’d been more than a friend. But that was a long time ago. A lifetime, really.
The small movement had brought him into the light of a streetlamp, allowing me the first real look at him. His shoulders were encased in a beat-up leather jacket. Dark hair curled against his ears and a sorry excuse for a beard shadowed his jaw. He needed a haircut and a shave. To my utmost relief, there was no accompanying surge of hormones when I looked at him, only a pang of nostalgia. He looked tired, worn down, like life had been shitting on him for a while.
My heart wasn’t pounding anymore, but only because dread was sliding like jelly down my insides. He didn’t look like he wanted to be here, talking to me. Which meant he hadn’t had a choice.
My voice emerged thready. “If the Council wants to talk to me, they can send an appointed emissary as per my exit contract.”
In the following silence, my gaze flickered down and caught on the collar of his jacket. A small silver pin shone against the dark material, the delicate leaf marking him as an appointed emissary of the Council.
“Dammit,” I told the low clouds.
Unfortunately for me, the leaf meant I was oath-bound to listen to him.
Asher cleared his throat. “They thought you would speak with me without me having to invoke the emissary oath.”
I lowered my gaze to his face, the shape of it familiar and not. I wondered if he was experiencing something similar—an acute sense of time’s passage. We weren’t kids anymore.
“But you persuaded them otherwise.”
A shadow of a smile came and went. “I was right, wasn’t I?”
My chest stung. I told myself it was heartburn. “Fine. Say whatever it is you’re here to say.”
He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “There’s a matter that requires your particular skills.”
My eyes narrowed. “Why do I get the feeling that ‘matter’ rhymes with ‘disaster’?”
“It does,” he said, then shook his head. “It might. We don’t know, really. Three of the Council’s Flock have gone missing.”
My breath caught.
Flock was the official, congenial title for the seven women who served the Council. I favored the term slaves. Sure, the women were undoubtedly willing to have their overabundant lifeforces siphoned off to feed the Council members’ unnatural lifespans, but it was slavery just the same. Just because they made the mistake of believing the lies spoon-fed to them since infancy didn’t mean they deserved their lot.
Once upon a time, I had narrowly avoided becoming one of them.
Asher knew I had a soft spot for the Flock, and he was shamelessly exploiting it. Old friend, indeed.
“Farrah?” I asked.
“She’s fine,” he said, a raised eyebrow his only comment on the use of my mother’s first name. “The Mother and Sisters are fine.”
My dread intensified. “It’s the Maidens? All of them?”
I clamped down on a surge of worry. “Maybe they wanted a better life for themselves.”
His eyes sparked dangerously. “Not everyone feels the need to reject generations of heritage and responsibility to organize crayons for preschoolers.”
Which was number three on the list of reasons I hadn’t seen him in nine years: Asher was an asshole.
I swallowed hard. “I’m sorry about the Maidens, but what does this have to do with me?” I already had a damn good idea, but I wanted to hear him say it.
“We need you to look at a crime scene, and you’re the only available person with excess saol.”
It had been a long time since I’d heard the word aloud. It rolled off his tongue beautifully. Sah-ul. The Order’s ancient moniker for lifeforce. I’d missed the sound of it.
“What you mean is I’m expendable,” I countered.
He wouldn’t meet my eyes. “They need you.”
Checkmate in three words.
“Bastard,” I hissed.
He nodded. Tired eyes found mine. “I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning at eight. I have your address.”
“Of course you do.”
He took another half-step toward me. “Evie—”
“I go by Evelyn now,” I snapped. “And before you come any closer, just know I haven’t siphoned in a while.”
My words had the intended effect. He backed off several steps. I gave him a wide berth as I walked to my driver’s door, each step unsteady, like I was bouncing on the high dive over an empty swimming pool. My fingers shook as I slid behind the wheel and started the car.
Asher stood back as I reversed out of the spot. Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, I looked back only once to see him watching me. A light rain had begun to fall, misting the air around him.
I blinked and he was gone.