The Alchemist's Coin - [The Rath Haven Chronicles - Book Three]
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by Rachel DeFriez
Category: Fantasy/Young Adult
Description: Jane Weston, resurrection of the lost Druid race, has lost her best friend's soul to the dragon of the Celtic underworld. Her brother, Jack, has inadvertently stumbled into a power that allows him to become magical as he drains the life from the girl he loves. He can't touch her, hold her hand, or kiss her without killing her slowly.
Jane, hunting for the elusive, yet pervasive alchemist, Ulrich O'Connor, finds that the only man on earth who can help them is a four-year-old boy. He leads her to Connor, a disturbingly attractive, teenage highlander, and Julien, a charming and brilliant French university student, all protégés of "Ulrich O'Connor, the Elder." In an odyssey abroad, they teach her all she would ever need to know to steal a soul from hell and manipulate the delicate balances of Light and Dark that hover on paradox. They crimp a few of her straight laces, smudge her sharp lines of black and white, wrinkle the fabric of her neatly pressed universe, awaken her vagabond soul to the power it holds and, between the four of them, twist the faces of her love into all of its complex shapes.
To steal her friend's soul from the Dragon of Annwyn, Jane will have to deceive the dark princess of the Tuathan, Maeve, and then risk her own soul with only four-year-old Ulrich to guard the coveted power of its crystal. What she doesn't know about the boys, who have risked their lives to save her, could cost Jane something more precious than her soul. But in the magic of paradox, to win, you must lose.
eBook Publisher: Double Dragon Publishing/Double Dragon Publishing, 2010 Double Dragon eBooks
eBookwise Release Date: August 2010
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [398 KB]
Reading time: 261-366 min.
CHAPTER ONE: THE SEARCH
Today's the day I'll find him, because only a tiny sliver of hope is left, wedged into my heart, and if my heart breaks one more time, the sliver will slide away with the cascading pieces.
The train doors opened and a draft rushed into the car. I covered my nose with a couple of fingers. The smell was typical Paris Metro: eau de grease, something stale, and a heavy dash of pee. The vents that were supposed to keep the fresh air flowing only stirred up the stench and hurled it at the passengers. I didn't think I'd ever get used to the smell of this underground city. Back home, Rath Haven was a little, no sidewalk, one gas station, American farming town tucked away in the Rocky Mountains. It smelled like spring water, pines, and sometimes cows.
The white tile bricks that twinkled and winked in the artificial lights couldn't quite sparkle away the depressing reality that I'd spent half of the last eighteen months of my life traipsing through Europe's underground urban highways.
An avalanche of people carried me out the doors and onto the platform where I was swallowed up in a tide of rushing bodies and carried toward the exit. It would have felt weightless to be around so many people and be so alone, if it weren't for the lead that thumped in the rafters of my chest. The black tiles, interspersed among the white, spelled out the name Solferino. I stepped into the human current and waded over to the stairs. A burst of warm air pushed me out onto a brick platform that laid a path to the glass foyer of the Musee d'Orsay.
They knew me at the counter. I was under eighteen so the ticket was free. I went there every Friday; it was something like a pilgrimage. My mother was a painter before the accident. I wasn't here to remember my mom, but she seemed to float around me while I walked these halls. I tried not to think about her too much. Thinking about her just made the ground soggy and slippery under my feet, and then my whole body melted in on itself, and oozed into the slimy hole.
I came through the entrance into the main foyer and turned to look at the gold clock that hung suspended against the front wall: eleven fifteen a.m. I was a little late. I started up the stairs to the Renoir rooms, hefting my backpack up on my shoulder. After more than a year of vagabond life, there wasn't much left in my bag--my sweatshirt, some socks, a toothbrush and brush, a handful of used metro tickets, some herbs and plants that I found came in handy if I wanted to work on my healing powers, and my wand. I guess it was my wand now.
I reached the Renoir hallway alone. Only a handful of tourists had skipped the bottom floors and headed the direction I was going. The small square room was painted black, and gentle spotlights fell on Renoir's warm, serene faces that glowed like welcome stars in a forest night sky. There were two paintings in this room that were part of my ritual.
La Liseuse. The Girl Reading. My best friend Margaret and I had always talked about going to Paris to see it. Reading was our passion; we both had prints of this painting taped to our bathroom mirrors. I let my mind meander through the memories that I usually kept locked up because, once I let them out, they always wandered to that place where I let my friend's soul slip through my fingers. But here I could let my thoughts roam through images of Margaret and me together, and keep her face alive. I bit my lip while I stared.
I breathed in the soft warmth of the colors living in the canvass girl's cheeks, and stiffened my shoulders to try and steel my chest against the aching throb of guilt that tried to overpower the memories. I couldn't let Margaret slip away. It was her face that fed the hope that I would find Ulrich O'Connor, even though the trail I was following had all but disappeared. I gazed deep into the soft, forgiving eyes of the girl.
I drifted over to the adjacent wall to look at the other painting: Jeunes Filles au Piano. Young Girls at the Piano. Staring at this painting took me right back to Margaret's living room and our first sleepover. I was the blonde and Margaret was the brunette, so really she should have been at the piano--well, Margaret played the harp--and I should have been singing; but still, the painting was close enough that I didn't feel so alone when I stood in front of it.
"Could you move?" My heart skipped. I wasn't alone. "Not that I don't appreciate the stunning view of your backside, but you're a better wall than window, and I came to admire the paintings." The voice was coming from the wall behind me. I brushed the moisture from the corner of my eye with the back of my hand; my gaze followed the sound to the floor.
The American kid sitting against the wall behind me looked a little older than I was. His black pants and black tunic sweater made him nearly invisible. I couldn't imagine how he expected to see anything in here with sunglasses on. "Sorry. I didn't see you," I apologized, sliding to one side.
"You didn't really look, did you?" He pushed the glasses up on his forehead. "Sometimes things you're looking for are in front of you; you're just not looking at them. What are you looking for in that painting? Are you finding it?"
Something deep inside of me cracked. "You know, you're a stranger. Just because I'm American, too, doesn't mean I know you, or that I want to talk to you," I sputtered. I turned back to the portrait and folded my arms. He smirked and hauled himself up from the floor and walked out. I couldn't resist turning to look as he went by.
He was at least a head taller than I was, and I was tall by French standards. His black hair was cropped close so that the silver earring that dangled from his ear sparkled in the glint of the passing lights. I rolled my eyes, snorted indignantly, and went back to looking at the painting. But I couldn't help wondering what exactly I was looking for. Did I think that just by keeping the memories alive, I could make something happen? A year and a half! I was nearly fifteen, and for the past eighteen months of my life, I'd been looking for a man I wasn't even sure existed. And if he didn't exist, then there was no hope of rescuing Margaret's soul and she'd never come back. I wasn't finding what I was looking for. My last, paper-thin leaf of hope flitted away. I chased after it, out of the museum, and into the square. Every time I managed to capture a bit of it, a breeze of guilt whipped it away, or the dying brittle chances of me ever finding Ulrich crumpled it to dust.
In the sunlight I dug one of the used metro tickets out of my pack. Inside the metro station, I tucked myself into a corner, and ran the tip of my wand over the strip on the back of the ticket. "Be new," I told it. It was just a bit of glamour. Glamour isn't dark magic, although it is a little devious. I ran the ticket through the gate. The train reached the platform at the same time I did. I hopped on Porte de la Chapelle and took it to Concorde where I caught Chateau de Vincennes to Les Halles.
I felt like I had bees in my blood every time I did this, but a girl has to eat, and food costs money. I wandered up to a likely spot in the lunch-busy labyrinth of underground shops, opened my backpack, dropped a coin in it, and started to sing. My voice was a charm. It must have been a perk of my Tuathan blood. It helped that the song I sang was the lullaby my mother taught me when I was little. For some reason my mother spoke French to me growing up, but not to Jack. It had come in handy when I found myself scouring the country for the one man on the planet that could help me. My mother was so close to me when I sang that you could hear the missing in my voice:
`A la claire fontaine,
m'en allant promener,
j'ai trouve l'eau si belle,
que je m'y suis baigne.
Il y a longtemps que je t'aime;
Jamais je ne t'oublierai.
Tourists stopped; some dropped in coins. Some passed by annoyed. Others smiled and kept on walking. It was a song about losing a loved one for doing something stupid. I thought it suited me. On a good day, I didn't cry. Today was not a good day.
I was almost finished when the boy from the museum sauntered up. The air caught in my throat and the note I was singing fainted. He reached over to my pack, but dropped a business card in instead of a coin, and then disappeared into the crowd. People clapped and then moved on. I zipped up my pack, and faded back into the pulsing mass.
I was irritated, and hugely curious, and irritated that I was curious. I made myself wait to look at the card until I had counted the twelve Euros in my pack. My heart was thumping before I even turned the card over. I knew what it was without looking at it. I dug in the side pocket of my pack and retrieved a tattered, yellowed card. It was the card that had mysteriously reached Jack the night Margaret's soul sank into Annwyn, the Tuathan underworld. It was the card with the name of the man who, the seer assured me, was the only man with enough knowledge to raise a soul from what was basically hell. It was the business card of Ulrich O'Connor, Man of Letters. The address on the new card the boy had left me was a bookshop in the Latin Quarter. I grabbed my pack and jumped off the train at St. Michel.
Tourists clogged the cobblestone pedestrian roads. The smell of butter, cream, and eggs hung over the smoke that burned my eyes. I stopped at a bakery to hook myself up with a fix for my pain au chocolat addiction. I bought two--one for me, and one for the little girl that sat outside the back entrance to St. `Etienne. It was the loveliest church I had ever seen with its spiraling stairways and scrollwork, and the magnificent golden tomb of St. Genevieve. The girl's name was Gervaise and she had a skin disease; bloody scabs marred her arms and legs. I'd spent the last weeks in the library looking up herbs and cures. Between what I'd found and a little help from my wand, the scabs were starting to clear up. It was what I did to kill the gnawing of the waiting while I looked for Ulrich.
Gervaise's face beamed, and she waved when I came up and offered her the roll with the thin stream of chocolate hidden inside. I hoped my healing powers would one day be good enough to do something to help her walk again. I just didn't know enough about the magic to try, and I didn't want to risk losing her the way I lost Margaret. Her face fell when I said I would have to leave. She nodded when I explained about helping another friend.
Maitre D's flagged me down as I passed their restaurants. "Eat here. The food is very good." I was so American. There was no hiding it. I found the shop--a tiny doorway nestled between two restaurants. A bell on the door jingled when I opened it. There didn't seem to be enough books to account for the smell of old leather. A few random shelves were lined with ancient looking leather-bound volumes, and I saw only a small table littered with shiny white Folio paperbacks.
No one appeared, even after I browsed the shelves politely. My hand was shaking when I reached out to touch the binding of what looked like a very old copy of my favorite--Les Miserables. I'd read all three volumes in French. The anticipation of finally finding Ulrich O'Connor, grown from frustration and disappointment at clues dissolving into shadows, and breadcrumbs of a trail eaten up by time, was exploding into my bloodstream. I kept telling myself not to get my hopes up, but something whispered to me that I was close. I couldn't wait any longer and wandered towards the back room behind the desk.
"Bonjour! Il y a quelqu'un?" I just wanted someone, anyone, to come out and end the excruciating waiting.