Zodiac (Zodiac, #1)

Written By: Romina Russell

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.”

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