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Excerpt

Excerpt

Guardian of the Dead

Part One

Chapter One: Southern Lights

I opened my eyes.

My legs were bound and my head ached. There was one dark moment of disorientation before the bad-dream fog abruptly lifted and I woke up all the way and rolled to smack the shrilling alarm. I was exactly where I was supposed to be; in my tiny room, lumpy pillow over my head and the thick maroon duvet wrapped around my legs. I disentangled myself and kicked the duvet away. The muffled tinkling as it slithered off the foot of the bed reminded me that Kevin and I had stored the empty beer cans there.

Well, that explained the headache.

I could hear voices in the lounge room, where the other girls in our little dorm-cum-apartment were gathering. I huddled further under the pillow, willing myself ten minutes more sleep and hangover recovery time. The wisp of a thought was drifting somewhere in the bottom of my mind, refusing to rise to the level of consciousness. Something I'd forgotten.

A truly incredible snore resounded from the boy sleeping on the floor.

I rolled out of bed so fast that I lost my balance and fell right on top of him, my full weight thumping against his impressive chest. He wheezed, his dark eyes popping open.

"Shut up!" I hissed, jamming my hands over his mouth. "It's morning!"

Kevin's eyes went from huge to enormous. The lounge was horribly silent. I tensed as someone knocked on the door.

"Ellie? Are you okay?" Samia asked.

"I'm fine! I just fell!"

"Did you hurt yourself?" The doorknob rattled.

"I'm naked!" I yelped. Samia wore headscarves and long sleeves in public, but she often walked through our girls-only flat in nothing but her underwear and for a moment I entertained the horrible vision of her ignoring my fictional nudity and coming in anyway. She'd find a boy and alcohol in my room, she'd tell Mrs. Chappell, I'd get expelled from boarding school, my parents would have to leave their once-in-a-lifetime-dream-trip around the world, and then, they would kill me.

On the other hand, being discovered lying on top of Kevin Waldgrave would definitely improve my reputation at Mansfield for the short days I'd have remaining. I might even become someone vaguely acknowledged by the other students.

Tricky.

The doorknob stopped moving. "Oh!" she said. "See you in Geography."

"See you!" I cried weakly, and let out a sigh of relief as the noise from the lounge became a shuffle of departure.

"Your breath smells like an alcoholic's ass," Kevin remarked.

I got to my feet, hauled him to his, and punched him on the shoulder, not nearly so hard as I could have. "You fell asleep!"

"So did you."

"It's my bedroom. And you have to get out of it before someone sees." I gave him a quick inspection, and made him zip his tracksuit up over the beer stain on his long-sleeved shirt. The light brown carpet lint I picked from the side of his face was almost the same shade as his skin, so I was lucky to catch it. His dense black hair was also a mess, but that was normal. "Okay. If you can make it to the road, you can say you went for a jog before breakfast."

"You're a genius," he grinned, and shot me an uncharacteristically shy look. "Um. And a real mate. I think I said some stuff?"

I couldn't face that conversation feeling this sick. "You have to go," I said, hating myself a little for the way he stiffened. "We'll talk later, though?"

Dark eyes looked down into mine. At six foot four, Kevin was one of the few people I knew who was taller than me. He was gratifyingly wider, too, though in his case it was mostly muscle. "Sure," he said. "We can talk on the way to rehearsal. Meet you at six?"

"Rehearsal for what?" I asked, and then that dream-foggy memory caught up with me. "Oh, shit."

"You promised," Kevin said.

"Because you got me drunk! I can't believe you!"

"Ellie, you get permission to get away from this place for a while, and all you have to do is teach the cast how to pretend to smack each other without actually smacking each other." He spread his hands, looking very reasonable.

I wasn't fooled. "I have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, not in…  stagey fakey fighting."

"You promised," he insisted. "And we really, really need you. Iris is getting pretty desperate."

Iris Tsang was a year older than us, stunningly pretty, permanently enthusiastic, and so nice it made my teeth itch. As far as I could tell, she'd also been in love with Kevin since kindergarten, completely undaunted by his lack of reciprocation. It was no wonder that she'd dragged him in to her play when the original cast members had started deserting, even though all natural laws stated that first year university students should forget all about people still at their old high schools.

This was what happened when I drank. It all seemed great at the time, and then it resulted in bad dreams and being dragged into situations where I'd have to talk to perverted egomaniacs who liked to prance around in tights, led by a woman who made me want to crawl into a total-body paper bag after ten minutes in her perfect presence.

"Fine," I growled. "But I'm never drinking again. Get the hell out."

"You're a real mate," he said again, and hugged me before he went out the window, which was fortunately large. The cluster backed onto Sheppard's celebrated gardens, and from there it was just a quick climb over the fence. I watched him jog cautiously between the trees, and then turned to the concerns of the morning.

Samia could walk around in her underwear because she was slender and had actual boobs and smooth coppery brown skin that never got pimples. I, burdened by skin that was less "creamy" and more "skim milk", and not at all blemish-free, avoided the mirror and peeled off my pyjamas. I replaced them with my last clean long-sleeved blouse and the hideous maroon pleated skirt that stopped at mid-calf and made my legs look like tree stumps. My mustard-coloured blazer was lying crumpled over my desk chair, so I grabbed the jersey instead. The scratchy wool cut into my upper arms and stretched awkwardly over my belly, leaving an bulging strip of white cotton exposed between skirt waist and jersey hem. I'd always been big, but half a year with no exercise, living on the dining hall's stodgy vegetarian option, and I'd gone up two sizes to something that I was afraid approached outright fat, without even the consolation of finally developing a decent rack. I put on knee-high grey socks – the girls were supposed to wear pantyhose, but no one ever did, just as we never wore the maroon trousers in winter instead of the stupid skirt – and slipped my feet into scuffed black shoes without untying the laces.

There. A proud representative of Mansfield College, New Zealand's third-ranked co-educational high school, at her dubious best.

I hid the beer cans in the empty drawer under the bed and hit the communal bathroom to brush my teeth, throw freezing water on my face, and tie my hair back in a sleek ponytail. Then I hoisted my ragged backpack, pinched the bridge of my nose against the hangover headache, and stepped out into the morning mists.

     *  *  *

The Anglican settlers, in their inspired wisdom, had established the city of Christchurch, jewel of New Zealand's South Island, in the middle of a swamp. Every leaden day of this winter I had longed for my hometown in the North Island, the clean lines of Napier's Art Deco buildings and the scattered sunlight on the sea much brighter in my memory than they really were. In my head, I knew that I hadn't liked winter in Napier either, and that Christchurch had its fair share of crisp, bright days where the smog kept to a decent altitude. But on bad days, the musty-smelling fog seemed to rise out of the sodden ground and ooze along it, seeping into streets and buildings and my skin.

Every time I went past the drab stone mass of Sheppard Hall, I was glad I didn't have to live there with the younger girls. Sheppard had central heating and an impressively weighty tradition, but it also had lights-out times, hall patrols, and ground floor windows that didn't open all the way. The Year 13 clusters were brand new, meant to prepare us for independence at university next year, and conveniently free of most obstacles to rule-breaking late night visits.

When Mansfield had first gone co-ed, the board of trustees had spent some time debating where exactly the new boys' hall should go in the undeveloped land. Eventually, they'd created Behn Street beside the girls' hall, and plunked down brand-new and well-lit rugby fields on the far side of the new road. Pomare Hall, all steel and glass, and much nicer than Sheppard's drafty tower, sat smug and distant at the edge of the fields, as far from the girls' side of the boarding area as possible. The trustees hadn't been very trusting.

There were plenty of boys trudging along the path beside the fields, but no one tall enough to be Kevin. If he'd been caught, he wouldn't give me away. But if he was suspended or expelled, I'd suffer all the same.

I wasn't quite sure how this had happened. I hadn't been really popular in Napier, but I'd had friends, even if I'd drifted from most of them during what I thought of as Mum's Cancer Year. When she'd recovered, she and Dad had decided to spend the remainder of the inheritance from my Granny Spencer on their lengthy trip around the world. Still suffused with relief at the recovery, I hadn't minded being left behind. I had minded Dad's response to my suggestion that I spend the year with my older sister in Melbourne. He was worried about her "influence", which neatly translated to: "But, Ellie, what if you also catch the gay?" And none of my remaining friends' parents had the room for me to stay.

"Boarding school," Mum had decreed. Sulking at losing my Melbourne dreams, and angry on Magda's behalf, I'd arbitrarily applied to Mansfield instead of to any of the North Island Catholic high schools Dad would have preferred. To my own shock, I'd been accepted; at least, by the selection committee. The students had been less welcoming. They weren't really mean; just unwilling to open their tight social circles to a new girl. And, as I privately admitted when I wasn't too busy feeling really sorry for myself, I hadn't made much of an effort. Kevin had been a fortunate fluke – most of his friends had been in the year above. While plenty of people wanted to know him better, including most of the girls in our year, he'd settled on newcomer me.

In light of last night's confession, picking the one girl his age who wasn't eager to make kissyface with him took on a more sinister dimension. But it had worked out well for both of us.

Unless, of course, he was expelled.

I waited at the pedestrian crossing with a cluster of younger Pomare boys, all of whom were happy to ignore me in favour of talking about the latest Eyeslasher murder

"- heard that he keeps them around his waist like a belt."

"Yeah? My cousin said it's this cult, and the cops know who it is, but the Prime Minister's son is mixed up-"

"She doesn't have any kids, you munter!"

"- secret kids-"

I rolled my eyes and outpaced them when the light blinked green.

Busy mentally snorting at the appetites of fifteen-year-old boys for grisly conspiracy fantasies, I was going way too fast to stop when the girl in front of me halted abruptly at the gate. I tried to dodge sideways and ran straight into Mark Nolan, day student, loner, and focus of more than a few of my Classics-period daydreams. Everyone but me had got used to him and his enigmas; as a newbie, I still had some curiosity left.

Embarrassing, then, to crash into him outside the school gates.

"Oof," he grunted, and tried to sidestep around me while I wobbled a few steps and bounced into the rough wall. He about-faced and grabbed my elbow. It was presumably to prop me up, but he didn't have the weight to support me. Caught off-balance, I staggered into him again, threatening to send us both to the ground. Giggles bubbled out of my throat, dancing on the dangerous edge between amusement and mild hysteria.

"This is no good," he said decisively, and braced himself against the wall while I put myself back on even keel. "Okay, I'm letting you go on three. One, two, three."

"Ow!" I protested, my head jerking down.

And a tingling shock ran down my spine and through my veins. It reverberated in my head, like a thunderclap exploding behind my eyes. It wasn't static electricity; it was nothing I'd ever felt before. Startled, I met Mark's eyes, and found no comfort there. The perfect planes of his pale face had rearranged themselves into something frightening. It was the same face - same high cheekbones, same arched, feathery eyebrows, same thatch of shaggy red hair – but frozen into unnatural and shocking stillness. He stared at me, inhaled sharply, and then, as I blinked and stuttered, made himself look almost ordinary again.

Mark lifted his hand, easing the sting in my scalp, and I saw the cause – a strand of my hair had come loose and wrapped itself around something silver shining on his wrist. In defiance of the uniform code, it wasn't a watch, but a bracelet made of links of hammered silver, small charms hanging off the heavy loops. The charms weren't like my childhood jewellery – no tiny ballerinas or rearing ponies - but a jumble of more ordinary things: a small key; a bottle cap; a broken sea shell; a tuft of white wool; a grey pebble with a hole in the centre; a stick figure bent out of No. 8 wire. My hair was twisted around the bracelet itself, caught between a stylised plastic lightning bolt and a rusty screw.

I'd never seen the bracelet before, and that was odd because I'd shamelessly memorized every visible inch of Mark, right down to the greasy tips of his hair, which he didn't wash very often, and the way his maroon trousers were worn shiny at the knees. And those weird, compelling eyes; not blue-green or grey-green or brown-flecked hazel, but a uniform dark green, a colour so pure and strong that it could (and often did) stop me dead from halfway across a room.

No one knew why anyone so good-looking seemed to make such an effort to disguise it. Rumor had it that he was super religious or a scholarship student, but the religious kids tended to turn up well-scrubbed, and the scholarships included uniforms. He took part in no school clubs, never had parents come for family days, and barely talked except in class. The only thing anyone knew for sure was that he'd been awarded the English and Latin cups every year at prizegiving, and never turned up to claim them. Samia thought he might be a communist. Kevin thought he had social anxiety. I thought he was far too pretty to be entirely real.

I'd never thought he could be scary.

He picked at the hair for a second, then met my eyes, now looking rueful and adorable. "Sorry, Spencer. Either I cut this loose, or we're stuck together forever." I hoped I didn't look too awestruck. Was I a giggling idiot, to be struck my lightning at my first physical contact? But then, he'd felt something too. And he knew my name.

"Option two is tempting, but…" I yanked at the wayward strand. The hair resisted, then snapped raggedly, leaving a blondish clump knotted in the bracelet. "Yuck. Sorry."

"No worries." He rubbed thoughtfully at the knot and smiled at me, a sudden flash of white, even teeth. My breath caught in my throat and I felt the blush burn in my cheeks. "I like your laugh," he said.

Apparently, that was a goodbye. He turned and strode through the school gate, head extended and fists clenched in his pockets to make bony wings, a heron stalking along a bank.

I stooped, fiddling with my shoelace until I felt my treacherous complexion was under control. That peculiar tingling sensation was still there, but it wasn't as strong as the rising wave of glee. Mark Nolan had noticed my laugh.

     *  *  *

Mansfield's boarders' dining hall was happy to give us hot breakfasts and dinners, but schoolday lunches were packed for us in the morning, and available for pick-up at the morning interval. I sat huddled in my jersey at my usual bench in the covered area outside the Frances Alda music centre and occupied myself in picking the bacon out of my cold BLT. No matter what I put on the order form, I never got my vegetarian options. The kitchen staff were notoriously bad at "special" diets, although Samia's sustained campaigning had finally got them to have halal beef and lamb sometimes. I was glad for her, but it didn't do me or my mood much good.

Despite my best efforts at making eye contact, Mark Nolan had sat in the back row of Classics, and resolutely ignored everyone but Professor Gribaldi all period. It was his modus operandi, but I'd been hoping for more. Some shared joke, about my clumsiness, or his bracelet, or something.

"Hey," Kevin said, and dropped onto the beside me, large and resplendent in his blazer.

I sat up straight. "Hey! Are we expelled?"

He took the piece of bacon from my fingers and dropped it into his mouth. "Yep. We'll have to run away into the woods and live on nuts and berries."

"I could eat bugs," I offered courageously. "When the hunger pangs get really bad."

He grinned. "Nah, we're good. Walked in the door, told the guys I'd gone running. Even found a fresh pair of socks. Hey, did you hear there's been another Eyeslasher murder?"

I grimaced. "Samia said in Geo. A phone psychic in Tauranga. God, I hope they catch the bastard soon."

"Me too. Murder's bad enough, but taking their eyes is sick."

"I think the murder probably matters more."

"Sure, but eyes are tapu, Ellie."

I blinked at him. Kevin's parents, on the two occasions I'd met them for uncomfortable dinners, had been as stiffly Anglo-Saxon as posh New Zealanders came, but Kevin's light brown skin wasn't the result of a good tan. I knew his great-grandmother was Ng?i Tahu, and that he was one of the leading lights of Mansfield's kapa haka performance group, but I hadn't realised getting back to his roots had meant this much investment in M?ori beliefs about the sacred.

"You're right. Sorry. Wait, don't you have kapa haka on Wednesdays?" I made vague hand gestures meant to invoke the poi twirling the girls did; Kevin rightly ignored me in favour of stealing my apple and holding it above my head.

"Give that back or I won't turn up to your play," I threatened. "And then there'll be no one to be the no-woman's land between you and the admiring hordes."

I meant it as a joke, but he scowled and shoved the apple into my palms. I blinked at him, awaiting explanation.

"Iris keeps…" he said. "She keeps… looking. Like maybe I'll like her back if she can just be there enough."

"She's stalking you?"

"No!"

"You could tell her what you told me last night," I ventured.

His scowl deepened.

I tried to smile, but the humour in my voice was too forced. "Come on, it can't be that hard. You just say hi. My name is Kevin. And I'm asexual."

Kevin stared at his big hands. "So, about never drinking again."

There was a pause while Kevin picked at his cuticles and I scraped my teeth down the apple. "Now that we're sober, just to clarify," I said, and let my voice trail off when my courage gave out. I couldn't stop myself from picking at scabs, either.

"I'm not gay."

"Okay," I mumbled.

Kevin's lips twisted. "People understand gay. Even if they think it's sick. But they don't understand someone who's not interested in sex at all. With anyone."

"Really not at all?"

He flattened his hands on his thighs. "Really."

I thought about saying maybe you'll change your mind, and then remembered Dad saying exactly that to Magda, and my sister's strained, white face as she fought back equal measure fury and despair.

"Okay," I said instead, and covered one of his hands with mine. A smile appeared at the corners of his mouth and rested there a while.

"About Iris. She's my oldest friend."

I took my hand back. "I know."

"And you're my best friend," he said, matter-of-fact, as if it was something I should have already known. "I want my oldest friend and my best friend to get along, you know?"

I swallowed hard against the sudden dryness in my throat, and knew that I'd never ask if he'd befriended me in the first place only because I'd been too withdrawn to go all gooey over him. What did it matter? It was real now. "You're my best friend too."

"I'll tell her. In my time. Okay?"

"Like I should have any say in it," I said, exasperated and flattered. "Is that what you came to tell me?"

He nodded.

"Idiot. Go to kapa haka. Shout manly things."

He bumped my shoulder with his and strode away. I returned to the contemplation of my soggy sandwich. Maybe I could skip lunch too. No; that led to eating disorders and hunger headaches. I bit into the apple instead and caught a flicker of movement in my peripheral vision.

Mark Nolan was walking towards the music centre, covering the ground with his stalky heron gait. His gaze was unerringly fixed on me. "Spencer."

I chewed and swallowed, little lumps of apple burning on the way down. "I do have another name." That was tarter than anything I'd rehearsed in my head while I waited for Classics, but there was no reason for him to scowl at me like that.

His frown deepened. "Eleanor?"

"Only if you're a teacher. Ellie."

"Ellie," he said. "Can I have a word? In private?"

I glanced around. Most of the older students preferred to eat in their common rooms on cold days, but there were a bunch of younger girls at a picnic table in the nearby quad, and a mixed group of Year 12s flirting a little way beyond them.

"Sure," I said, and shouldered my backpack. We were actually the same height, I noticed; only Mark's slenderness and my slouching made him seem taller. "We can talk in the music centre." I could feel an echo of that same tingling thrill, and tried to tamp it down. No need to get excited, just because someone who never spoke to anyone was talking to me.

He nodded shortly and led the way through the glass doors, going left at the foyer, towards the smaller practice rooms in the back. In his wake, I had little time to admire the centre's blond wooden floors and atmosphere of peaceful light.

"Is something wrong?" I asked, wondering if I'd damaged the bracelet in our crash. He turned into the small corridor that led to the bathrooms. "Hey! Mark!"

He spun to face me, and I felt my breath catch at the angry tension in his face. "Did you know?" he asked, long fingers sliding over his bracelet's charms.

I stared at him, and he moved closer, bringing the blood to my cheeks. "Spencer. Do you know what you are? What you could be?"

"No," I said, dazed, knowing it was a strange question, but unable to work out why. I had no idea who I was or what I could be; wasn't that normal, for people my age? My skin felt vibrant, warm and loose, as if it might slip off and tap-dance up the walls. I giggled at the thought, twisting my fingers in the air to describe the choreography.

Mark ignored my dancing hands and muttered to himself, eyes darting around the hall. "Do you break curfew?" He was wearing that frightening face again, and his green, green eyes were intent on mine.

The euphoria vanished and I swayed back into the wall. My head was pounding. "Sometimes."

He stepped easily to the side as a skinny boy exited, tugging at his belt. Mark's long, lean body was suddenly right next to mine, his voice clear and quiet in my ear. The hairs on the back of my neck raised. "Don't go out after dark alone," he ordered, his breath soft against my throat.

Something was not right. I struggled for a moment, shaking my head and shoving my palms hard against the wall, but Mark's hand clenched tight around his braceleted wrist and my resistance faded. "No," I said. "I won't."

The tension went out of his shoulders and his hands relaxed. "Okay, Spencer. I'll see you later." He hesitated a second. "Sorry," he added. "I had no idea." Then he brushed past me and vanished around the corner, back stiff against some invisible strain.

     *  *  *

I walked into the bathroom, uncertain of why my cheeks were flushed, and unable to remember how I'd got there. I had the dimming notion of an odd conversation, but not of who I'd spoken to or what had been said. When I tried to mentally retrace my steps, my scalp suddenly stung as if I'd been yanking out fistfuls of hair. The pain swallowed whatever had jolted my memory, and I splashed water onto my face and frowned in the mirror until the colour in my cheeks faded.

"You," I said softly, "are never drinking again."

I could feel the focus of the audience shift to me, huge and cramped in the too-small seat. I tried to shrink back.

"Enter, Ellie," Iris said, looking harassed.

I stood up. The audience was audible on every side, but I saw and touched no one as I clambered down the rows. The orchestra pit was raised level with the last row of seats. I walked across it and stepped up onto the stage.

Iris smiled and tapped her palms lightly together. Her gold dress glinted in the light.

"I've gone mad," I told her. "The mists make people crazy. And I'm lost."

She shook her head, already fading into the dark. "You're finding your way."

Then she left me there, all alone with the curious watchers just out of sight.

"Hi, Ellie," Carrie said, stepping into the circle of light. "Teach me how to fight." She moved with far more competence than the real Carrie, and her first strike glanced off my cheekbone.

"Hey!" I said, and the second grazed my ribs. I hissed with the pain and circled back and away, feinting to the right.

"I am not so low that my nails cannot reach unto your eyes," she snarled, and leapt, thrusting clawed hands towards my face.

Behind her, Iris flung her arm around Carrie's throat and yanked back. "That's not your line," she said reproachfully, as Carrie sank down to slink around her on feet that resembled paws. "Why didn't you ask for help, Ellie?"

"I didn't know you were there."

"I was here all the time. You were seeing someone else."

"Don't come crying to me," Blake said, lowering himself from the fly floor. The rope he clung to ran up into the dark cavern of the stage roof, much vaster than the Ngaio's fly floor tower. The stage lights were the stars clothing Rangi, the sky father.

Blake's face was made up of patches, two brown buttons gleaming above a red satin nose. He turned lazy cartwheels around me, tapping out the syllables of his speech with hands and feet. "Se-xy El-lie Spen-cer."

"You're not real," I said. "None of this is real. I'm using my own experiences to make sense of the mists, that's all."

He spun on his heels and pointed at the back wall of the stage. "Real enough, Ellie. Look!"

The painted backdrop was the same as in the real theatre, - the arch painted in two halves, and the dense mass of ancient forest that sprawled over the rest of the canvas.

Something glinted among the trees. I peered closer. A silver-haired woman was running smoothly down a fern-lined track, moonlight gleaming on her pale skin, on her dark, polished club. A long way up the track was a small, withered tree with burn-black branches hunching over a deep hole.

Encircling her left wrist was a familiar charm bracelet.

"Long road," Blake observed.

I shouted and reached for Mark's murderer. I meant to pluck her from the picture and twist her tiny body, but when I stretched out my hands, they were already stained with blood. Blake caught my wrists.

"It's your fault, Pandora," he said. "You failed. And even if you knew what to do, she's too far ahead - you'll never catch up."

"Iris," I cried. "Help me!"

The house lights flared and Blake stumbled back into the shadows. Iris beamed from the lighting box.

I leaned back into someone tall and solid. "Don't forget you saved me, Ell," Kevin whispered in my ear. "You loved me enough to hold on." He gripped my shoulders. "And look. There's a shortcut."

The orchestra pit lowered with a sickening rumble. The movement reverberated through my skull, as if something was shifting there. I stared into the depths where no light shone.

"Give the old lady my regards," Kevin said.

I spread my bloody hands like wings, and leapt.

     *  *  *

I landed hard, tough grass tearing at the soles of my bare feet. The mask was a mask again, the green eyes pressing cool against my closed eyelids, before it began to slide off my face. I fumbled to catch it one-handed and held it uncertainly. I'd somehow left the handbag behind.

Also, apparently, my clothes.

I hugged my bare torso and surveyed my surroundings. I was high on a cape, much like the one I'd left, but covered in scrub. Far below a white, sandy beach stretched straight back to the horizon. It looked like any beach in winter, windblown and spare, but I saw also the long tail of the massive fish, and shuddered. On the cape a spring bubbled nearby, and at its very tip something wavered in my uncanny vision: sometimes it was a lighthouse; and sometimes an ancient pohutukawa tree; and sometimes a grotto with steam drifting from its craggy mouth. Flickering images suggested other entrances, but those three were clear and strong.

It was dusk, here. How much time had I lost in the mists?

There was a steady procession of people, as naked as I was, making their way up the slope, lamenting and wailing as they walked towards the spring, calm and purposeful after they had bathed in it and drunk from the water. They moved to the tree – no, lighthouse – no, grotto – wavered, and were gone. If their journeys continued from there, I couldn't see them.

"I made it," I breathed. I had come safely through the mists to Cape Reinga; Cape Underworld; the leaping-off place of the spirit.

I gripped the mask loosely, and entered the crush of bodies, heading for the stream.

"Hey, girl!" said the man beside me.

I shrieked, and leapt back into kicking distance, my free hand raising in a block.

He flashed me a white grin, taking no offence, and I took in his ochre-smeared chest and the tattoos writhing down his impressive shoulders and arms. I hadn't recognised him without his biker leathers.

"I'm sorry," I said. It was so inadequate, but it was all I could say. I didn't know his name. Even now, I couldn't tell which of the three he was.

"Me too, eh." He glanced at the eyes in the mask I carried and suddenly straightened. "What are you doing here with those? We thought that Mark was going."

I cringed. "He died. I tried to find Matiu but-" A sudden hope washed over me. "But you could go!"

He stepped away from the proffered mask as if it was some venomous creature, eyes fierce in his weathered face. "You kidding me? You want to send me down there, dead and remembering forever? I'm not coming back, girl! I'm one of hers now."

"I shouldn't be here! I don't know what to do! It's not meant to be me!"

"Well, it's not going to be me," he said definitely, and gave me a long look as we reached the stream. "Don't drink the water."

I thought of the waters of Lethe, the river in Hades that made the dead forget the living. Was it something like that? "Why not?"

"Jesus. You really don't know anything? Here." He strode into the water, then wrapped his massive arms around my waist and lifted me across.

I nodded my thanks, a little stiffly, and started walking.

"Hey!" he called, and I turned. His hands were cupped together in front of his chest, dark water tricking from the gaps in his fingers. "You're not meant to be here. But you're all they've got. Don't screw up, eh? And good luck." He dipped his head and drank before I could thank him.

The thing at the end of the cape solidified as I approached. It was a tree most often now, and I wasted a thought on whether it had chosen that form or I had. The woman before me climbed into the twisted branches and leapt gladly towards the setting sun.

But I knew that wasn't my route. Between the exposed roots, sprawled like the legs of a sleeping woman, was a dark hole that stretched away into nothingness.

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, cradling the mask in my arms. I could turn around right now; count on the people I'd left behind to defeat the patupaiarehe. This was the back-up plan. There was no point in going if all the monsters were dead. I'd fail for nothing.

I curled my bare toes in the sandy soil and waited, a little curiously, to see if courage or fear would win.

The ground buckled under my feet. I threw myself backwards, clutching at the matted grass with my free hand to keep myself from being flung into the air. In my double vision, the tail of the fish was twisting wildly. The air was filled with a high-pitched keening.

"Oh no," I panted. "Oh no, oh no. Those bastards!"

I couldn't stand on the writhing earth. Flat on my belly, clutching the mask awkwardly, I hauled myself to the entrance to the underworld, grass and sand scratching at my bared skin. I was hissing through my teeth, a low litany of curse words. They'd killed Mark, and my guests, and now they were going to kill my home.

But not unpunished.

I had neither courage nor fear left; only a violent urge to deprive them of their blood-won victory. "Hine-nui-te-p?," I whispered, hanging half into the hole. "I'm coming." Then I kicked with my powerful legs, and for the third time, fell.

Excerpted from GUARDIAN OF THE DEAD © Copyright 2011 by Karen Healey. Reprinted with permission by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

. All rights reserved.

Guardian of the Dead
by by Karen Healey

  • Genres: Urban Fantasy
  • hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 031604430X
  • ISBN-13: 9780316044301