She looked up at the ravens and imagined they were his emissaries. Their eyes were dark and maniacal, like his. She wondered if they reported her movements to her father.
But Pluto had warned her mother about Alaska. It was a land beyond the gods. He couldn’t protect them here. If he was watching Hazel, he didn’t speak to her. She often wondered if she had imagined him. Her old life seemed as distant as the radio programs she listened to, or President Roosevelt talking about the war. Occasionally the locals would discuss the Japanese and some fighting on the outer islands of Alaska, but even that seemed far away—not nearly as scary as Hazel’s problem.
One day in midsummer, she stayed out later than usual, chasing a horse.
She’d seen it first when she had heard a crunching sound behind her. She turned and saw a gorgeous tan roan stallion with a black mane—just like the one she’d ridden her last day in New Orleans, when Sammy had taken her to the stables. It could’ve been the same horse, though that was impossible. It was eating something off the path, and for a second, Hazel had the crazy impression it was munching one of the gold nuggets that always appeared in her wake.
“Hey, fella,” she called.
The horse looked at her warily.
Hazel figured it must belong to someone. It was too well groomed, its coat too sleek for a wild horse. If she could get close enough…What? She could find its owner? Return it?
No, she thought. I just want to ride again.
She got within ten feet, and the horse bolted. She spent the rest of the afternoon trying to catch it—getting maddeningly close before it ran away again.
She lost track of time, which was easy to do with the summer sun staying up so long. Finally she stopped at a creek for a drink and looked at the sky, thinking it must be around three in the afternoon. Then she heard a train whistle from down in the valley. She realized it had to be the evening run to Anchorage, which meant it was ten at night.
She glared at the horse, grazing peacefully across the creek. “Are you trying to get me in trouble?”
The horse whinnied. Then…Hazel must’ve imagined it. The horse sped away in a blur of black and tan, faster than forked lightning—almost too quick for her eyes to register. Hazel didn’t understand how, but the horse was definitely gone.
She stared at the spot where the horse had stood. A wisp of steam curled from the ground.
The train whistle echoed through the hills again, and she realized how much trouble she was in. She ran for home.
Her mother wasn’t there. For a second Hazel felt relieved. Maybe her mom had had to work late. Maybe tonight they wouldn’t have to make the journey.
Then she saw the wreckage. Hazel’s curtain was pulled down. Her storage chest was open and her few clothes strewn across the floor. Her mattress had been shredded as if a lion had attacked it. Worst of all, her drawing pad was ripped to pieces. Her colored pencils were all broken. Pluto’s birthday gift, Hazel’s only luxury, had been destroyed. Pinned to the wall was a note in red on the last piece of drawing paper, in writing that was not her mother’s: Wicked girl. I’m waiting at the island. Don’t disappoint me. Hazel sobbed in despair. She wanted to ignore the summons. She wanted to run away, but there was nowhere to go. Besides, her mother was trapped. The Voice had promised that they were almost done with their task. If Hazel kept helping, her mother would be freed. Hazel didn’t trust the Voice, but she didn’t see any other option.
She took the rowboat—a little skiff her mother had bought with a few gold nuggets from a fisherman, who had a tragic accident with his nets the next day. They had only one boat, but Hazel’s mother seemed capable on occasion of reaching the island without any transportation. Hazel had learned not to ask about that.
Even in midsummer, chunks of ice swirled in Resurrection Bay. Seals glided by her boat, looking at Hazel hopefully, sniffing for fish scraps. In the middle of the bay, the glistening back of a whale raked the surface.
As always, the rocking of the boat made her stomach queasy. She stopped once to be sick over the side. The sun was finally going down over the mountains, turning the sky blood red.
She rowed toward the bay’s mouth. After several minutes, she turned and looked ahead. Right in front of her, out of the fog, the island materialized—an acre of pine trees, boulders, and snow with a black sand beach.
If the island had a name, she didn’t know it. Once Hazel had made the mistake of asking the townsfolk, but they had stared at her like she was crazy.
“Ain’t no island there,” said one old fisherman, “or my boat would’ve run into it a thousand times.”
Hazel was about fifty yards from the shore when a raven landed on the boat’s stern. It was a greasy black bird almost as large as an eagle, with a jagged beak like an obsidian knife.
Its eyes glittered with intelligence, so Hazel wasn’t much surprised when it talked.
“Tonight,” it croaked. “The last night.”
Hazel let the oars rest. She tried to decide if the raven was warning her, or advising her, or making a promise.
“Are you from my father?” she asked.
The raven tilted its head. “The last night. Tonight.”
It pecked at the boat’s prow and flew toward the island.
The last night, Hazel told herself. She decided to take it as a promise. No matter what she tells me, I will make this the last night.
That gave her enough strength to row on. The boat slid ashore, cracking through a fine layer of ice and black silt.
Over the months, Hazel and her mother had worn a path from the beach into the woods. She hiked inland, careful to stick to the trail. The island was full of dangers, both natural and magical. Bears rustled in the undergrowth. Glowing white spirits, vaguely human, drifted through the trees. Hazel didn’t know what they were, but she knew they were watching her, hoping she’d stray into their clutches.
At the center of the island, two massive black boulders formed the entrance to a tunnel. Hazel made her way into the cavern she called the Heart of the Earth.
It was the only truly warm place Hazel had found since moving to Alaska. The air smelled of freshly turned soil. The sweet, moist heat made Hazel feel drowsy, but she fought to stay awake. She imagined that if she fell asleep here, her body would sink into the earthen floor and turn to mulch.
The cave was as large as a church sanctuary, like the St. Louis Cathedral back home on Jackson Square. The walls glowed with luminescent mosses—green, red, and purple. The whole chamber thrummed with energy, an echoing boom, boom, boom that reminded Hazel of a heartbeat. Perhaps it was just the sea’s waves battering the island, but Hazel didn’t think so. This place was alive. The earth was asleep, but it pulsated with power. Its dreams were so malicious, so fitful, that Hazel felt herself losing her grip on reality.
Gaea wanted to consume her identity, just as she’d overwhelmed Hazel’s mother. She wanted to consume every human, god, and demigod that dared to walk across her surface.
You all belong to me, Gaea murmured like a lullaby.Surrender. Return to the earth.
No, Hazel thought. I’m Hazel Levesque. You can’t have me.
Marie Levesque stood over the pit. In six months, her hair had turned as gray as lint. She’d lost weight. Her hands were gnarled from hard work. She wore snow boots and waders and a stained white shirt from the diner. She never would have been mistaken for a queen.
“It’s too late.” Her mother’s frail voice echoed through the cavern. Hazel realized with a shock that it was her voice—not Gaea’s.
Marie turned. Her eyes were open. She was awake and conscious. This should have made Hazel feel relieved, but it made her nervous. The Voice had never relinquished control while they were on the island.
“What have I done?” her mother asked helplessly. “Oh, Hazel, what did I do to you?”
She stared in horror at the thing in the pit.
For months they’d been coming here, four or five nights a week as the Voice required. Hazel had cried, she’d collapsed with exhaustion, she’d pleaded, she’d given in to despair. But the Voice that controlled her mother had urged her on relentlessly. Bring valuables from the earth. Use your powers, child. Bring my most valuable possession to me.
At first, her efforts had brought only scorn. The fissure in the earth had filled with gold and precious stones, bubbling in a thick soup of petroleum. It looked like a dragon’s treasure dumped in a tar pit. Then, slowly, a rock spire began to grow like a massive tulip bulb. It emerged so gradually, night after night, that Hazel had trouble judging its progress. Often she concentrated all night on raising it, until her mind and soul were exhausted, but she didn’t notice any difference. Yet the spire did grow. Now Hazel could see how much she’d accomplished. The thing was two stories high, a swirl of rocky tendrils jutting like a spear tip from the oily morass. Inside, something glowed with heat. Hazel couldn’t see it clearly, but she knew what was happening. A body was forming out of silver and gold, with oil for blood and raw diamonds for a heart. Hazel was resurrecting the son of Gaea. He was almost ready to wake.
Her mother fell to her knees and wept. “I’m sorry, Hazel. I’m so sorry.” She looked helpless and alone, horribly sad. Hazel should have been furious. Sorry? She’d lived in fear of her mother for years. She’d been scolded and blamed for her mother’s unfortunate life. She’d been treated like a freak, dragged away from her home in New Orleans to this cold wilderness, and worked like a slave by a merciless evil goddess. Sorry didn’t cut it. She should have despised her mother.
But she couldn’t make herself feel angry.
Hazel knelt and put her arm around her mother. There was hardly anything left of her—just skin and bones and stained work clothes. Even in the warm cave, she was trembling.
“What can we do?” Hazel said. “Tell me how to stop it.”
Her mother shook her head. “She let me go. She knows it’s too late. There’s nothing we can do.”
“She…the Voice?” Hazel was afraid to get her hopes up, but if her mother was really freed, then nothing else mattered. They could get out of here. They could run away, back to New Orleans. “Is she gone?”
Her mother glanced fearfully around the cave. “No, she’s here. There’s only one more thing she needs from me. For that, she needs my free will.”
Hazel didn’t like the sound of that.
“Let’s get out of here,” she urged. “That thing in the rock…it’s going to hatch.”
“Soon,” her mother agreed. She looked at Hazel so tenderly.…Hazel couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen that kind of affection in her mother’s eyes. She felt a sob building in her chest.
“Pluto warned me,” her mother said. “He told me my wish was too dangerous.”
“All the wealth under the earth,” she said. “He controlled it. I wanted it. I was so tired of being poor, Hazel. So tired. First I summoned him…just to see if I could. I never thought the old gris-gris spell would work on a god. But he courted me, told me I was brave and beautiful.…” She stared at her bent, calloused hands. “When you were born, he was so pleased and proud. He promised me anything. He swore on the River Styx. I asked for all the riches he had. He warned me the greediest wishes cause the greatest sorrows. But I insisted. I imagined living like a queen—the wife of a god! And you…you received the curse.”
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