Zodiac (Zodiac, #1)

Zodiac (Zodiac, #1) by Romina Russell




For my parents and sister,

the stars who guide my universe.



Y para mi abuelo Bebo, gracias por compartir

el mágico mundo de los libros conmigo.





CANCRIAN FOLK TALE, ORIGINS AND AUTHOR UNKNOWN





BEWARE OCHUS


Once upon a Guardian Star,

When the Zodiac was new,

A Serpent stole in from afar, And trouble began to brew.



Twelve Houses fell in disarray, Until the Snake drew their focus.

Their discord he promised to allay, He told them his true name was Ochus.



Trust in him the Houses did, But cross them he would in the end.

Their greatest magic Ochus hid, A wound even time could not mend.



Now we guard against his return, For before setting off he did warn us, To one day see our Zodiac burn, So now we must all Beware Ochus.





PROLOGUE


WHEN I THINK OF HOME, I see blue. The swirling blue of the seawater, the infinite blue of the sky, the brilliant blue of Mom’s gaze. Sometimes I question if her eyes were really that blue, or if the blue of House Cancer colors them in my memory. I guess I’ll never know, since I didn’t pack pictures of her when I moved to Elara, the largest moon in our constellation. All I brought was the necklace.

On my brother Stanton’s tenth birthday, Dad took us nar-clamming on his Strider. Unlike our schooner, which was built to cover long distances, the Strider was small and shaped like a clamshell half, with rows of buoyancy benches, clam-cubbies for the nar-clams, a holographic navigational screen, and even a diving board that stuck out from the front like a tongue. The vessel’s underside was coated in millions of microscopic cilia-like legs that scurried us along the surface of the Cancer Sea.

I always loved leaning my head over the side and staring down at the tiny whirlpools that occasionally formed, swirling in various hues of blue. As if the ocean were made of paint rather than water.

I was only seven, under the legal deep-diving age, so I stayed topside with Mom, while Dad and Stanton dove down for nar-clams. Mom looked like a siren that day, perched on the peak of the diving board as we waited for the guys to surface with their spoils. Her long, light locks spilled down her back, and the sun glinted off her ivory skin and orb-like eyes. Lying back on my springy seat, I tried to soak up the heat and unwind. But I was always aware in her presence, always ready to recite facts about the Zodiac at her command.

“Rho.” Mom leapt gracefully off the platform onto the carved clamshell floor, and I straightened my spine as she approached. “I have something for you.”

She drew a pouch from her purse. Mom wasn’t the type to buy gifts or remember special occasions; those responsibilities usually fell to Dad. “But it’s not my birthday.”

A familiar, far-off look fell over her features, and I regretted saying it. I opened the pouch and pulled out a dozen nar-clam pearls, each one a different color, all strung together on a strand of silver seahorse hair. Each pearl was spaced equally apart and bore the symbol of a different Zodiac House, inscribed in Mom’s delicate calligraphy. “Wow” was all I could say as I slipped it on.

She flashed me a rare smile and sat on the bench beside me. As always, she smelled like water lilies. “In the early days,” she whispered, her electric stare lost in the blue of the horizon, “the original Guardians ruled the Zodiac together.”

Her stories always eased my nerves, and I settled into my seat, closing my eyes so I could focus on the sound of her voice. “Yet each of the Twelve prized a different strength as the key for keeping our universe safe, which caused disagreements and rifts between them. Until one day, a stranger arrived promising to restore balance. The stranger’s name was Ochus.”

Every Cancrian child knew the tale of Ochus, but Mom’s version wasn’t the same as the poem we had to memorize in school. The way she told it, the story sounded less like myth and more like a history lesson. “Ochus appeared before each Guardian in a different disguise, claiming to possess a powerful gift—a secret weapon that would turn the tide in that House’s favor. To the philosophical Aquarian, Ochus promised an ancient text that contained answers to the Zodiac’s most profound questions. To the imaginative leaders of Gemini, he promised a magical mask that would create enchantments beyond the wearer’s beliefs. To Capricorn, the wisest House of all, he promised a treasure chest filled with truths amassed from worlds older than our own, worlds accessed through Helios.”

I opened my eyes to see a blonde curl blowing across Mom’s forehead. I felt the urge to brush it back for her, but I knew I shouldn’t. Mom wasn’t cold, exactly, just . . . distant.

“Ochus instructed each Guardian to meet him at a secret location, where he promised to deliver his gift. Upon arriving, each of the Twelve were shocked to learn the others had also been summoned. Their shock only grew as they each described the Ochus that had visited them: The Cancrian Mother had encountered a sea snake, the Piscene Prophet saw a shapeless spirit, the Sagittarian Guardian met a hooded wanderer, and so on. As no two had seen the same stranger, the Guardians distrusted each other’s accounts. While they argued, Ochus silently slipped away, taking with him the Zodiac’s greatest magic: the Houses’ trust in one another. All he left behind was a warning: Beware my return, when all shall burn.”

“He stole our trust, and we’ve never gotten it back,” I said, reciting the moral my teacher taught us. I’d just started school a week earlier, and wanting to impress Mom further, I went on. “Ochus was the Zodiac’s first orphan. He didn’t have a House to belong to and was jealous of the ones in our galaxy. That’s why on Cancer we look out for each other and make sure everyone has a home.”

Mom’s brow dipped. “You mean, All healthy hearts start with a happy home? Rho, you know better than that. In our lessons, I’ve taught you about great individuals who came from broken homes, like Galileo Sprock of Scorpio, who developed the first hologram centuries ago, or renowned pacifist Lord Vaz, House Libra’s revered Guardian.” She looked hurt. “If you’re going to let your teachers brainwash you, then maybe you’re not ready for school.”

“No—it was just something I heard,” I assured her. Mom was always worried about the Cancrian school system brainwashing me. It’s why she didn’t enroll me when I was five like the other kids in our House. She decided to tutor me herself instead.

I waited for her expression to clear and didn’t interrupt again. I knew Mom was only looking out for me, but I liked playing with kids my age too much to go back to her homeschooling.

“The point,” she went on, “is our ancient Guardians chose to fight one another instead of admitting they were afraid of the same monster.” When I met her gaze, her expression turned hard. “You will face fears in your life, and people will try to take them from you. They’ll try to convince you what you fear isn’t real, that it’s just in your head—but you can’t let them.”

Her reflective eyes drank in the blue around us, until they shone brighter than the sky itself. “Trust your fears, Rho. Believing in them will keep you safe.”

Her stare was so intense that I had to pull away. Whenever Mom got this worked up, I’d wonder if she was just having one of her strange spells—like the time she meditated on the roof of our bungalow and didn’t come down for two days—or if she had seen something in the stars.

Instead of meeting her eyes again, I surveyed the water. A trail of bubbles broke the surface, and I arched my neck to look for Dad and Stanton. But neither emerged.

“Let’s take a dip,” said Mom suddenly, her tone light again. She leapt up to the diving board, and in one fluid motion, she was in the water. Dad always said she was a secret mermaid. I threw on his navigational glasses to follow her movements underwater and watched her spin gracefully around the Strider. Seeing her swim was like watching a ballet.

Just as her head broke the surface, so did Dad’s and Stanton’s. Dad raised his net filled with nar-clams onto the diving board, and I dragged the day’s catch into the boat. Still in the sea, Dad and my brother pulled off their facemasks. In my periphery, I thought I saw bubbles frothing in the water again.

“This thing’s too tight.” Stanton fussed, undoing the top of his suit to free his arms. I ducked as he tossed his wet mask into the boat. It landed with a squelch. I was just about to lose the glasses and jump in with them, when a black mass broke through the sea’s surface.

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