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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fairy Tales  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Dark

A Dark Faerie Tale Books 1 & 2

 

BOOKS 1 & 2

 

BY

 

ALEXIA PURDY

 

 

 

 

Continue the adventure!

Books in this series:

 

The Withering Palace

Evangeline

Ever Shade

Ever Fire

Ever Winter

The Cursed

Ever Wrath

History of Fire

Without Armor

Ever Dead

Legends of Fire

Guardians of Fire

 

A Dark Faerie Tale Series Books 1 & 2

Copyright © July 2013 & March 2016 by Alexia Purdy

All rights reserved

Published by

Lyrical Lit. Publishing

Cover Design © 2013 by Alexia Purdy

Stock Photos from Depositphoto

www.alexiapurdybooks.com

 

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, duplicated, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior written consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

 

This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this novel are fictitious and are products of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual events, or locales or persons, living or dead, are entirely coincidental.

 

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Reign of Blood Series Facebook Fan Page

 

 

Table of Contents

 

EVER SHADE

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

EVER FIRE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

EPILOGUE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(A Dark Faerie Tale #1)

 

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

 

I want to thank, first and foremost, my husband Joshua Purdy, whom without your love and strength; this could not have come to be. To my family, who are always by my side through all things. Thank you to all my co-workers who read my stories and believed in me no matter what. I want to thank Scott Prussing for all your help. My writing family Linna Drehmel, Jenna Kay, Kyani Swanigan and Madison Daniel – you guys are amazing and some of the most talented people I have ever met. You keep me in awe. With all of you, I’ve been able to make the dream a reality.

 

 

 

[_ This book is dedicated to my grandmother Edisa Salas. I love and miss you every day. ~Alexia _]

 

 

 

 

Ever Shade (A Dark Faerie Tale #1)

 

 

Prologue

 

 

 

 

One long pause and the man pondered the choice he just made. The faery exile, Verenis, watched the woman and her new husband as they laughed and chatted away inside their house. Her long, honey-brown hair shone in shimmering waves down her back and swung around as her husband twirled her about the kitchen, dancing to the music from the radio, which sat on the windowsill. Verenis didn’t acknowledge the pangs of jealousy that swirled in his stomach; he’d made his decision, and now had to let it play out. She’d be safer this way.

The child would grow without knowing him, without knowing her powerful potential. He would not be there to teach her the ways of their magic and life. It had to be this way. He could not change it, no matter how much he longed to. For the safety of the child and the love of his life, he erased the woman’s memory of him forever. He watched them as the happiness spread across their faces. He handpicked the man for her, made sure he would be a great father, love the child as his own, and love the woman more than life itself.

The faery closed his eyes, feeling the breezes of the cool winds graze his face. He never wished to leave her like this but longed to hold her and be the one to swing her around in a flowing dance. The tragedy of it all caused a fierce ache in his heart and arrested his breath in his throat. Glancing back to her one more time, he turned away and ran with the wind toward the embrace of the forest.

 

Chapter One

 

 

 

“You didn’t really mean that, did you?” Shade said as she observed her friend Brisa, whose face reddened with frustration.

“Rachel had it coming. She’s the one who started it!”

Shade looked at her friend’s ruined shirt, streaked with the remains of a red strawberry smoothie. The substance was sticking to her, and it felt cold. Her top was no longer the vibrant yellow it’d once been.

“She’s a dumb idiot anyway,” Brisa muttered. “She shouldn’t be calling you those names. I only stated that she was a ‘dumb as a wall, self-deluded bitch’ in self-defense. I said it for you. Besides, it’s only the truth.”

Brisa frowned and gave up rubbing at the stain with a washcloth and soap. She pulled the shirt over her head and let it slip to the ground. Glaring at her locker, she realized her only other shirt was her gym T-shirt. It figures there’s nothing else to wear. She sighed. “She shouldn’t have thrown her smoothie at me. The next time I see her, she’s going to pay,” Brisa hissed and looked at Shade. “You’re not a freak. Don’t ever believe anything she says. She’s wrong!”

Shade peered at her friend. Brisa rarely got along with anyone. Not a day went by that she wasn’t in the principal’s office, cleaning chalkboards, wiping down desks, or doing some other tedious job. Many times, she’d received these punishments for whatever trouble she’d gotten into, instead of hanging out with Shade.

Still, Shade had known Brisa since they were toddlers and would stand by her through anything. She was the only one who knew about Shade’s strange abilities−hearing voices in her head. Brisa was the only one Shade trusted.

“It’s all right, Brisa. I guess I would think I was a freak, too,” Shade gave her friend a shrug. “Besides, it’s my fault for blurting out what they told me about Rachel. Who would have known she was cheating on the final if I hadn’t said anything? She needs to wise up. Well, at least, you didn’t smash her nose in. You only need one more fight to get that suspension they’ve threatened you with already. Your mom would hang you!”

Brisa grinned with a slight shudder at the thought of her mother. Brisa’s face was smooth and olive-toned with bright blue eyes. Her dark brown hair flowed lazily in waves to her mid back. She wasn’t gorgeous, but she wasn’t bad looking either. She rarely had makeup on and preferred to wear her hair in a low ponytail instead of letting it flow freely around her shoulders. She was as much of a tomboy as a girl could be−completely opposite of her friend’s more girly disposition. Shade’s dark, brown hair was similar but longer than her friend’s, and her complexion was creamier. Otherwise, they looked a lot like sisters.

“Like I need help in that department,” Brisa groaned as she pulled her hair out from the collar of her gym shirt and smoothed the wrinkles down. Brisa and her mother rarely got along. She tended to spend more time at Shade’s house than at her own.

Shade pulled out her cell phone to peek at the time. It was getting late, and their afternoon class was starting in two minutes. Dropping the phone back into her bag, she scooped it up before shoving away her own long, brown locks. She tapped her friend’s shoulder, urging her to hurry. “Gotta go. Do you want to be late? Ms. Temor is going to lock us out! Chop, chop!” Shade turned and sprinted toward the entrance to the locker room and shoved the heavy metal doors out of her way.

“Wait up!” Brisa called as she stuffed her ruined shirt into her backpack. She stumbled behind Shade and cleared the doors just before they slammed shut.

 

***

 

Shade sighed. She swung her legs down from the stone ledge she’d propped herself on by the main entrance of the school. Might as well start walking, she thought. Her mom had forgotten to pick her up again, and it was a long walk home. Her backpack was heavy but not as much as some days when her homework was piled high. Luckily, today was a light homework day.

The warm air rippled along Shade’s face. The final bell had rung ages ago, yet here she was, still waiting, again. This had been happening too often lately. Brisa rode the Portland, Oregon city bus home and was long gone. Shade wished she’d hopped onto that bus with her friend. Mom has too much on her plate, Shade thought. Her full-time job, two sons and Shade’s younger sister, kept her busy. Shade, being the oldest, was on her own.

The streets were quiet as she walked home. A slight breeze swept up some litter and floated it past her. She was feeling good, especially compared to how she’d felt a couple of weeks ago when she caught pneumonia. The illness caused Shade to miss a lot of school, and her grades had taken a beating. She’d been feeling pretty out of it for the past month. Now, she wasn’t so sure she’d be able to get caught up enough to raise some of her D’s to B’s, much less A’s again. One class was still an F.

Squeezing her eyes together, she gritted her teeth and tried to not imagine having to endure getting an F for the first time in her life. She’d graduate either way, but the drop in GPA was not going to go over well with her. Shade sighed and looked ahead, hoping her luck would get better soon.

The bright sun was glaring down, and it reflected off the white concrete sidewalk like a floodlight, blinding her. Shade’s little brother, James, had smashed her last pair of sunglasses just two days before while playing one of his infinitely, highly imaginative games. She wished she’d replaced them already.

Shade passed the main streets of the city and continued walking down the sidewalk, skipping over cracks on the aged concrete. The roads turned into longer stretches of periodic houses and empty lots as the worn brick buildings of the city’s center faded behind her.

“Only a whole mile or so to go,” Shade mumbled to herself. Both her feet ached a little. She was thankful she’d worn tennis shoes today instead of her usual thin flats. Still, she wasn’t used to walking so much since it was only her third day back to school. Feeling one of her shoelaces loosen as it began to whip her calf and flop around, she stopped walking and bent down to retie it firmly.

Hesitating, she glanced up and scanned the street and the warehouses surrounding her. The cool autumn breeze whirled around her, causing the fallen leaves to float in the wind and slung dust into the air. She squeezed her eyes shut and let the dust and debris blow past her before getting back up.

Holding her breath, she could’ve sworn she’d heard something. Is it footsteps? It sounded like someone scurrying about, or running, but also trying to be quiet about it. Shade peered around her, surveying the area. Whatever it was, it seemed to have come from an abandoned warehouse to her right. She studied the dilapidated brick structure, the only tall building for miles, and it gave her the creeps. She listened hard for anything to betray itself but heard nothing. The windows were mostly boarded-up, and weeds littered the ground all around it.

Go inside, now.

Shade paled. She hadn’t heard the voices sound so desperate in quite a while, and this wasn’t good. It wasn’t her inner voice or her conscience. It was very different, like someone else whispering into her ears, but she was the only one who had ever heard them. Shade never could explain it to anyone, mostly because it would’ve just sounded so crazy.

They were an entity who spoke inside her head and asked her to do their bidding. Shade never understood the reasons why. The voices would become clearer and stronger when they wanted her to do something specific. It wasn’t ever anything absolutely insane, like killing someone. That comforted her, but nevertheless, she cringed at the sound of their voices tingling in her ears. No one knew of this ailment except Brisa.

Shade shuddered as she thought about telling someone else about them. No one would understand or even look at her like an ordinary person again if she told anyone. She’d become another institutionalized, psychotic, hormonal teenager.

They’d think I was another paranoid schizophrenic teenager if I told anyone, she thought. Can’t go to a loony house where they’d pump me up with drugs until I’m comatose. I can’t.

Hurry said the voices.

Hurry to what? Shade inquired silently. There’s nothing here!

Quick, they told her with urgency.

Shade pressed her lips together. She had to obey. The voices wouldn’t leave her alone if she defied them, and she couldn’t handle that. She’d tried to ignore what they’d wanted her to do once before, and there’d been dire consequences. Three nights of relentless chatter inside her head was enough to drive anyone to a nuthouse. She couldn’t go through that again.

Okay, already!

She bent over and slipped through a hole in the fence that was nearest to her. The building looked even scarier up close. The wind howled around her, whipping her long, brown hair up and caused it to smack her face. It was as if it was taunting her decision to inspect the building. The front door was boarded up with thick bolts and two by fours. Apparently, no one was meant to enter this place.

There’s no way in. Where do I get in?

The basement, the voices said together.

Shade gulped. It would be dark in the basement, and whatever was in there would not be welcoming her. She didn’t even have a flashlight. Nothing good would come of this at all. Even so, she walked around the building toward the rear, searching for any openings.

There it was; a small, dusty and rusted window near the ground. As she knelt down, the rocks crunched under her feet and dug into her knees. She lowered herself so that she was level with the window and frowned. The dust and moist earth stuck to her jeans and fingers.

Ewww, I hate getting filthy!

The window was tiny and probably just big enough for a small person to fit through. Shade groaned. Just like me. She cringed at the thought of crawling through it. It would be a tight fit, but she thought she could probably make it. She pushed on the windowpane, but nothing happened. It’d been years since anyone has moved this frame, and now it was stuck.

Maybe I should give a good hard push….

Shade scooted onto her bottom and got closer to the window, pressing her feet against it. She gave it a good shove and heard a loud screech as the metal frame screamed in protest, opening to the world. The dust billowed around her in a swirling cloud, causing her to go into a coughing fit.

She dusted her clothes off as she muttered to herself. There was no doubt that she’d need another shower tonight. She peeked inside, but it was a deep void of darkness. Oh boy, this is gonna suck, she thought. Shimmying through the frame, she heaved herself into the darkness below.

Shade crashed onto the floor, tumbling to a stop. Ouch! That’s definitely going to leave a bruise, she thought. Shade rubbed the sore spots and scanned the room for signs of movement. There was nothing but dust and darkness to greet her. Standing, she dusted her jeans off again.

There was a dim light coming from the now busted window, but her eyes had begun to adjust to the darkness of the room. The small room was empty, except for a worktable at one end of the basement and the parts of an old bicycle at the other end. There were also a few pieces of junk strewn across the floor. Even in poor light, she could see there was a staircase in the middle of the room. She walked to it and grabbed the thin metal banister. She started up slowly but froze, hearing a sound that made her stomach tighten.

Footsteps were fluttering above her, but they quickly faded. It seemed like they’d stopped to listen for something or someone. Maybe they heard her. She didn’t move for what felt like a millennium, her heart pumping quickly and loudly in her ears. She stood still, holding her breath and fearing discovery.

The time ticked on, but Shade didn’t hear any more noises and decided to ascend the stairs slowly to the door at the top. Her hand gripped the old brass knob, and she paused. As she gulped back her fear, she listened for anything that might be waiting for her beyond the door. Pray, just pray that no one is waiting on the other side.

Shade turned the knob as quietly as she could, but the slow creaking moan of the door echoed in the silence. The wind was still howling outside the basement window, shaking it in its frame until the vibration loosened it, and it slammed closed. Her stomach tightened at the sudden noise. Claustrophobia must feel like this, she thought.

Shade opened the door and looked around the gloomy building. Light streamed in through the boarded-up windows as she peered into the long hallway that was just beyond the door. The place was vibrating from the forces outside. Everything creaked and sighed like a ship tossed about in an angry sea. Shade wished more than anything to be home, snuggled in her room, safe. She stepped out into the hall and closed the basement door behind her as quietly as she could.

Now, what? Which way do I go? She hated having to listen to the voices for an answer. At least, she knew if she had to ask them anything, they’d answer her without fail. She just hoped it wasn’t the answer she didn’t want to hear.

Upstairs, follow the stairs to your right. Take them now, the voices commanded in unison.

Shade turned toward her right, seeing that the hallway ended by a small banister near the wall. She could see another window frame at the end of it, and light spilled through the streaked glass, illuminating the bottom of the staircase. Dust particles swam and danced all around in the rays.

Here we go, thought Shade. Please don’t let there be a crazy person up there! She swiftly walked to the stairs and looked up, hearing nothing but the wind making the walls moan. Moving slowly over the loose floorboards, whose creaking was driving her mad with fear, she reached the landing just as she heard a crash. Her eyes widened, and she fought the urge to fly right back down the stairs.

Something big is up there! It’s moving, too! I don’t want to meet that! She couldn’t move from her spot, so she listened again, but nothing else banged around upstairs. Shade craned her neck so she could hear better. It must have stopped. After taking a breath, she continued up the stairs.

“Don’t ever ask me to do this again,” she muttered under her breath as she reached the landing and peered down to her left. There was another hall, and it opened into a big room, which must have been the warehouse’s office area. There were cubicles and papers were strewn about on the desks, and old chairs laid turned over as if someone had thrown them across the room. Um, not pretty. She looked around. Whatever had been up here might still be lurking and hiding from her. It wouldn’t be too hard with all the furniture upturned and scattered throughout the room.

Shade didn’t have to wait too long before she was diving for cover. A bolt of lightning shot across the room and smashed into one of the bookshelves lining the walls. She ducked under a desk, which was still standing upright and tried to take cover from the flying debris.

What was that? She tried to pace her rapid breathing, for she felt like she had a heart attack. What if she died and no one could ever find her? Her remains would be here in this desolate place for years if ever discovered.

Shut up, she told herself, shooing the morbid thoughts away. Now, voices, come on. Why am I here, to get killed? You better tell me soon, ’cause I’m about to hightail it out of here!

Shade peeked above the desk to look around the room. A sonic boom knocked her onto her back, causing more debris to fly past her. The sound had come from a different direction than the lightning. Is there more than one person here? What the hell? She stayed down and prayed they wouldn’t notice her in the mess.

“You can’t hurt me, Jack. I know all your tricks, and they’re pointless against my magic. You can’t best me with your powers. Mine will always endure against you,” a woman cackled with a spine-tingling voice. She sounded like the Wicked Witch of the West.

“Give it up, Evie. You don’t have it in you. We’re banging our heads against the walls. I can have reinforcements arrive in a heartbeat. Give it up before I’m forced to make you.” It was a man’s voice, and it echoed with strength in the large room.

Ok, this is getting complicated, thought Shade. I hope they don’t know I’m here.

“Not so fast, Jack. And the name is Vange now.” She spoke his name as though she was speaking of poison. “You’ve trespassed on my domain. I didn’t know you liked hanging out with ordinary folk now. You might frighten one of them as you speak. You should return to the forest and mountains you claim as your great domain. The cities are mine.” Another boom and crash shook the room.

Shade held her breath. Well, now I know she knows I’m here. Now he does, too! Great!

“The mortal is of no concern to me. You should stop right now before I hurt you. The Queen wants you alive, but I’m sure if you’re wounded, she’ll understand it’s a matter of life and death. Or, you could just give me the talisman back, and we’ll call it even.” Jack sent another lightning rod, or what looked like a lightning rod, toward the left corner of the room and jumped from his spot. Shade peered over at him as he ran forward and ducked behind a large wooden beam. He glanced at her for a moment, narrowing his gaze as he watched her. Now he knew just where she was.

What now? Shade turned and looked down the hall to the flight of stairs. If only I can get to the stairs and get the hell out of Dodge. She glanced back at the scene before her. Jack hunched down behind the desks and stealthily crept toward the woman. He paused periodically to listen and search for her. The woman was hiding quite well behind an office divider if she was still there.

Don’t run, the voices said.

What am I supposed to do, die? Shade’s heart raced, and sweat beaded on her forehead and neck. She gulped and felt lightheaded as her chest burned from hyperventilation. What could she do? They would see her if she bolted. She hung her head down, wishing to be small and invisible. She heard Jack curse as another crash shattered a window on the north end of the building. Shade jerked her head up in time to see Vange flash a smile at Jack.

“I’m truly sorry, Jack, but this isn’t your day. My Queen will love this little artifact. Its powers will indeed add to our array of weapons against your precious Queen.” The woman then sprinted toward the shattered remains of the windowpane and jumped, no, flew out the window and disappeared.

“We will finish this some other time, Vange.” Jack stood at the windowsill and stared into the light of the day. The cool autumn breeze wafted in and stirred up the stale air inside. He shook his head while he groaned and cursed under his breath.

Shade stood and peered at Jack; he had yet to turn toward her. She decided to sneak away discretely when he suddenly caught her by the shoulder. She screamed and quickly spun around, forced to face him. His eyes pierced hers as his hands gripped her upper arms. “Let me go!” she yelled as she wriggled around in his grip.

“Oh, quit it. Who are you? Why are you here?” Jack questioned as he stared at her with searing eyes. He squeezed her arms just enough to make her cry out.

“I don’t know! I don’t know! Let me go!”

He sighed and released her as she pulled away, sending her crashing to the floor.

“Ow!” Shade grabbed her elbow, now streaked with blood.

“You said ‘let me go.’” Jack turned and picked up some of his weapons from the floor. He took hold of the sheath hanging on his belt, putting his knife away before he began dusting off his clothes. He wore a tight black shirt with a leather belt tightened around his waist with multiple items strung onto it, including a sword.

His face was strong and well defined, portraying a radiance of youth. He appeared to be about twenty-five but didn’t have a hint of stubble, making him not quite look like a teenager. Jack’s dark, black, wavy hair was long, grazing his neck, and his bangs covered some of his tanned face. His eyes had an ancient wisdom about them, making it obvious that he had seen too much for one lifetime.

He’s not bad looking, though. Shade stood up and brushed off her clothes as well. She peered up at him, wondering if she should try to run.

“Who are you? Who was…what was…that woman?” Shade’s voice shook as she spoke. “And how do you throw lightning like that? How can she fly?” Shade couldn’t hold back the torrent of questions.

He stared at her quietly. It seemed as if he were trying to decide whether or not to answer. His piercing gray eyes examined her, making Shade flush as she stuttered. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not going to hurt you if that’s what you’re thinking.” If he’d been a teenager, he would’ve rolled his eyes, Shade thought. “I’m Jack, by the way. I have the power to throw lightning because it’s part of what I am.” He grinned, watching her face drop in disbelief. “She can’t really fly. It’s more like floating gracefully.”

What the…?

“Okay then…” she chuckled nervously, more scared than ever. “How’d she make the room explode in a sonic boom? What do you mean, you’re made of lightning? That’s insane.” Shade shook her head and squeezed her eyes closed before blinking nervously. This strange, young man just stared at her, a wry smile upturning the corners of his mouth. He seemed amused by her rant.

“That was Evangeline. Vange is what everyone calls her now though I used to call her Evie.” He paused, looking lost in thought. “But, that was a long time ago. She’s an elemental fire witch, but not just any old witch. She’s a hybrid offspring of a witch and a faery. She’s a skilled fighter, and she has taken something from my Queen. I was sent to get it back.” Jack started to walk toward the staircase, leaving Shade stunned with her mouth hanging open in silence.

Okay, that was unexpected. She watched him begin down the stairs. Now, what? What was the purpose of her being here? Why did she have to witness all that? Hello, voices?

Why, oh why, do I listen to the stupid voices? Why can’t they leave me alone? All they have ever done for me is get me into a lot of trouble.

“Wait! Why was I brought here? Stop! Don’t walk away from me…I need answers here!” Shade scrambled after the strange man, nearly tripping down the stairs. “The voices told me to come here, and I want to know why. What am I supposed to see or do here? Stop already!” she cried out again.

Jack was already at the front door. He studied the nailed in boards and began tearing them down. How did he get in? His muscles rippled as he held one plank and pulled. It crashed to the floor as he went for another one. She grabbed his arm to get his attention, but he spun around, grabbed her wrist instead, and squeezed it tight. Shade whimpered, surprised by the pain.

“Don’t touch me, I might inadvertently electrocute you.”

Her eyes widened as she stared at his hand, which was tightening on her wrist. He let her go and sighed, his lips tightened with discontent.

“I don’t know why you’re here. You say you hear voices? Only oracles can hear voices. Strange,” he said, more to himself than to her. “Anyway, I’m made of lightning and blue fire. I guess I have to show you because if you happen to touch me when I am not properly shielded with this glamour, I can hurt you, and it could be fatal.” Jack stared at her with some concern in his eyes. He stepped back from her and seemed to shake a bit, as though dusting himself off. The air around him liquefied as his glamour melted away, and the brightness of his skin illuminated the dark hallway.

Shade gasped. He still looked like Jack, but his skin glowed with a blue aura. Blue fire flickered all over him. Electricity crackled along his entire body, yet he didn’t burn. His eyes blinked at her, smiling at the awe pasted on her face.

No way!

“You see, I’m made of electricity, like lightning, and white-hot blue fire. One touch and I can zap you to heaven.” He closed his eyes as the air, like liquid, poured over him. His glamour reappeared on him, like a drizzle of honey. Jack opened his eyes and studied the shocked expression on her face.

Shade could hardly stand. She was confused, stunned, and in sheer disbelief. “How do you do that? What the… no… can’t…how?” She leaned on the wall, her legs feeling dangerously limp.

Jack straightened up and narrowed his eyes at her. The air was still shimmering around him. He seemed to pull it in tighter around him, solidifying whatever it was that formed his glamour. The glow was all but gone. His skin lay smooth, tanned and flawless.

Turning, he pulled the rest of the boards off the door and swung it open. It screeched on its hinges, letting the fading light illuminate the doorway. He stepped out onto the steps and turned to look at Shade. “I suggest that you come with me. I don’t know why your voices led you here, but the Oracle where I live might be able to help you. You would have to follow me right now, though. What do you say? Maybe she has the answers you seek.” He watched her slowly step outside.

Shade breathed in the fresh autumn air and felt more grounded. Gazing up at him, she nodded. It seemed like the only solution to her predicament. Might as well.

Jack had begun walking and stopped before he reached the sidewalk. He waited for Shade with a look of concern. “You can’t tell anyone what you see or where we go. No one. Understand?”

She took in the seriousness of his face. “Of course,” she answered hesitantly.

He nodded, made his way onto the sidewalk, and then headed off toward the forest.

 

Chapter Two

 

 

 

They walked for so long, it seemed like an eternity before they reached the edge of the woods at the city’s end. Entering the quiet forest made Shade more aware of how alone she suddenly felt. Should she trust this stranger? Where were they going? She peeked over her shoulder as the city faded behind them, engulfed by the shrubs and trees as they progressed deeper into the woods.

She shivered as the breeze caressed her skin. The forest came alive with animal calls. Leaves rustled and branches swayed violently above them. The day was vanishing, the sunset swirling in colors of tangerine orange, pink, and a smear of blue.

Shade suddenly felt panicked, realizing she didn’t have a flashlight and that night was quickly approaching. “Um, Jack?” Her voice seemed loud in the open air, but he kept going.

“Yes, what’s up?” Jack pushed branches aside and avoided tripping on the thick, gnarled roots crawling across the forest floor.

“It’ll be dark soon. Are we close yet? I don’t have a flashlight. Do you? Maybe I should come back during the day tomorrow?” She ducked under a low branch as the forest around them thickened, swallowing them in its embrace.

“We’re quite near. Don’t worry. The dusk is nothing to fear. Just don’t go near any little faeries you might see. They like to enthrall you, suck you into their charms, and they won’t release you. They enjoy torturing mortals.”

Her eyes widened as she dug her heels into the dirt. “What? Did you say ‘faeries’? Are you kidding me? You don’t really believe in them, do you? They aren’t really real….” Shade’s voice trailed off as she examined her surroundings more carefully.

What the heck is he talking about?

He chuckled. “I’m not joking. They really do exist. What do you think I am? The fey—faeries—like me come in many sizes. We live in this world, parallel to yours, hidden in plain sight. We’re magical beings, but most are bound to stay within the boundaries of the land of Faerie,” he offered but found her face still full of confusion. “Don’t worry. I won’t trick you or charm you like the tiny demi-fey do. The farther you go into these woods, the more and more you’ll see.” Jack grunted as he pulled away some overgrown branches that stood in their way.

“It’s a whole new world out here, with things you could never imagine. This is our territory, away from the iron cities.” He continued to wrestle with an unrelenting vine, turning red and impatient with the vegetation. Was it fighting with him? Shade thought it odd that it appeared almost alive, trying to ensnare him. “Faeries can’t stand iron, you know. It’s our kryptonite.” He pulled his sword by the hilt tied to his back and began hacking at the thick vegetation that surrounded them.

Shade crept forward, more wary and spooked than before. Faeries aren’t that bad. I guess things could be worse. Could be tigers and lions and bears, oh my! She hurried to keep up with Jack, pulling her sweater tighter around herself. The sun had gone down, and the heat receded with it. “Jack?”

“Yes?” A slight impatience now tainted his voice.

“It sounded like Vange knows you… intimately. Do you know her well?” Shade fumbled over a root sticking up from the dirt.

Jack pressed his lips together as his pace hesitated for a moment. He furrowed his brow as she waited.

“I did know her… intimately, I mean. That’s all changed now. We were, well, lovers. Engaged once.” He swung his sword harder, making the branches fly easily out of their way. “I loved her very much. Then the Unseelie Court started raging war against the Seelie Courts of Faeries, especially the one I reside at. She changed then, switched sides, started using dark magic. I’m not sure what made her choose to change, but she up and left one day and never returned. She became one of the evil Queen Aveta’s top lieutenants.

“She’s been stealing magical artifacts from our clan. They’re probably trying to beef up their armory of weapons and magic against us.” Jack stopped, breathing in slowly as the memories washed over him, morphing his face into a still mask.

“So you were in love, and she just left? Just like that?”

“Yes. It was a long time ago, and I’d rather not talk about it anymore.”

Shade frowned, scanning the darkening woods. Jack seemed pleasant enough, and she didn’t want to get on his last nerve, especially not when the woods appeared to be dangerously alive.

Jack came to a sudden stop in front of an enormous oak tree. It looked ancient like it had lived longer than anything else in the world. He kneeled down, put away his sword, and pulled out a flask, taking a swig.

While Shade looked around and up into the tree, something swatted her calf, making her jump. She scrambled around to get a better look at the forest floor. Fluttering near her was what appeared to be a small fly. Its wings batted like a hummingbird’s, and a snarled smile emerged from its lips.

Lips? Flies don’t have lips.

She narrowed her eyes at the creature. It had a soft golden glow to its skin and looked like a tiny elf with cottony white hair and long pointy fingers. It also had a malicious smile painted across its face. “Um, hi, how are you? I’m….” Shade didn’t get a chance to finish her words before the wind flew out of her as her arm was jerked back.

“Stop!” Jack snapped, still holding onto her wrist. “Don’t speak to them! The demi-fey aren’t very merciful or nice. They like to play games and mind tricks, which can kill you. There’s almost no way to snap out of their enchantments. They can make you dance until your feet are bloody stumps! Weren’t you listening? And, never eat or take anything they give you! You understand? You will belong to them forever!” Jack let go of her arm and angrily turned back to the tree. Shade rubbed her arm, pushing her steamy anger away.

Endora, philis montie!” He touched one of the tree knots, causing the earth to quiver and move near the roots. They vibrated alive, snaked and moved as they parted, like tentacles. An opening with stone steps revealed itself at the base of the tree. Eventually, the rumbling ceased, and the ground remained open.

Shade had to close her mouth, which was hanging open like a flycatcher. She’d never seen anything like this in her life.

“Follow me and stay close. Humans are not usually welcomed here.” Jack stepped down into the darkness, holding onto the small roots sticking out of the crumbly walls as parts of a banister. Shade followed reluctantly, but silently wished she’d never gotten out of bed that morning. As she descended deeper into the void, the grass and trees disappeared from sight.

When they had almost reached the bottom of the staircase, a loud rumble shook the ground, sending dirt trickling down. Her arms instinctively flew up over her head, waiting for a cave-in that never did come. She looked up when the noise died away. The hole in the forest floor had closed above them.

Shade now stood in what appeared to be a hallway made of dirt with smooth stones all around them. Roots dangled from above, and the only light came from lamps hanging on the walls. One by one, each magically flared up. The lights gave off an eerie flickering glow of dim light.

Jack dusted his shoulders and shook off the dirt. He started walking down the hall. Shade had no choice but to follow while attempting to breathe in and out slowly and deeply, easing her anxiety. The floor was flagstone, nestled into the moist, soft dirt. It was cool in the dark tunnel, but it wasn’t uncomfortable; there was no trace of wind to chill her.

There were many tunnels branching off from the main one. Shade stayed close to Jack, afraid to lose him in a dizzying maze. Dangling roots gripped her hair, like fingers catching her long strands and pulling hard as if they were alive. She used one hand to cover her head to keep it from catching the snarled roots. Her other hand was stretched out to help her balance against the cold, smooth dirt walls. She hoped they would soon get to wherever it was they were going.

There was a soft glowing light up ahead, growing brighter as they inched closer to it. She could hear voices echoing in waves down the hall. The hall abruptly ended and opened into a large, round room. Shade realized the sounds were coming from the many bodies fluttering around in the room. Most looked human from what she saw, but others were unlike anything she’d ever seen. Their faces glared at her, an intruder from the world above. Somehow, she had a feeling that they didn’t see too many strangers down there.

Shade felt naked under the scrutiny of the dozens of eyes which were scanning her as though she were a freak. She stumbled behind Jack, who seemed oblivious to the commotion around them. He finally stopped when a giant troll stepped in front of them, blocking the path.

“Out of the way, Renny. I must see Ilarial immediately,” Jack yelled up to the gruesome beast. “I have some strange news about Vange for her, and I brought someone who needs to see her.” The troll narrowed his vision and casted his glowing, yellow eyes over Shade. She felt herself shrinking under his glare; he was monstrous, and one of the scariest things she’d ever seen.

“Can’t do that, Jack. No strangers allowed without prior approval. You know that. We have to be sure she isn’t a spy. The forest is crawling with them. They could only be so lucky to have you waltz one right into the center of our residence. I have to tie her up now.” The troll pushed past Jack and reached for her. His large hands were hideous and reminded her of moldy green cheese. They looked burly, and if he got a hold of her, she didn’t know how she would break free, even if she tried.

“Jack?” She stepped back as he came closer. “I’m not a spy! Don’t touch me! Jack?” She peered around at him as the troll’s fingers grabbed her arm and squeezed, digging hard into her flesh. The next second, the troll was on the floor, staring at the ceiling and blinking in disbelief. Jack had his sword at the troll’s throat and his foot pressed down onto his massive chest.

“I told you, Renny, we must see the Oracle Ilarial. I vouch for this girl. She’s no spy. Now stay out of my way, or the next time, this blade will slice your throat all the way through.”

Jack pushed off and looked at Shade. She trembled as she let out the breath that caught in her chest. He motioned for her to follow him and sheathed his sword. She nodded and stepped past the troll, who glared at her with his burning yellow eyes. Turning away, she scurried behind Jack as he continued walking down another corridor off the main room. She didn’t let her gaze deviate from the place until it was out of sight. Shivering, she hugged her arms around herself, even though the room wasn’t cold. She was afraid, more than she was willing to admit.

“I apologize for the security around here. We’ve had a lot of break-ins, and Queen Zinara is not pleased. You must understand, if I suspected you were a spy, you wouldn’t be standing here with me at all.”

Shade nodded, feeling most unwelcomed.

“Ah, here we are!” Jack stopped at the end of the hall and tapped on a wooden door. It had deep woodland carvings that curved and twisted throughout the ancient wood, smoothed over by time and use.

“Come,” a woman’s voice commanded. Shade hoped she’d be friendlier than the bunch they’d already encountered.

Jack heaved the door open and let Shade go in first, closing it softly behind them. She studied the room as it glittered in the dim candlelight shining from the center of a round wooden table near the floor. There were also several large pillows tossed about the room for seating.

From behind the table, a platinum-haired woman stared at her. She smiled and lifted her arms, motioning for them to sit. Her gown flowed around her like liquid ice, white and sheer. Her hair glistened in the light, and her eyes were like gray shining pearls. The oracle’s eyes brought out the smoothness of her face. Her dark pink lips smiled, and nothing about her seemed old. She looked like an angel without wings, ethereal. Shade tried not to stare, hoping she hadn’t been rude. She settled onto a large blue pillow.

Shade let her eyes wander over the small space, noticing several objects on the table before them. There were stones of different colors and markings scattered in the wood. Placed among the stones were some small, bleached animal bones.

“Please, take my hand.” Reaching out from her long, white robe, Ilarial brought her slender, pale hand toward Shade. Shade took the hand, finding it soft and surprisingly warm.

“Um, hello, I’m Shade. Jack brought me here because I….”

“I know who you are and why you’re here, Shade,” Ilarial interrupted. “I’ve been waiting for you a long time. I was hoping that you might run into someone like Jack a little sooner, but this will do. I’m Ilarial, Lady Oracle of the faery tribe of Guildrin.” Her smile made Shade feel warm and suddenly very calm. The woman was full of magic, and it radiated toward her like a warm fire on an icy night.

“I know you’re confused, but I’ve known of your existence for some time. You say you can hear what you call ‘voices’ in your head from time to time?” the Oracle asked kindly.

Shade nodded. She was in awe of Ilarial but couldn’t shake the strangeness of the room’s atmosphere. Was she under a spell? Being in Ilarial’s presence was like being drugged or sedated. It filled her with a sweet and fuzzy feeling.

Ilarial smiled sincerely, and crow’s feet appeared around her eyes, revealing wisdom and age. Even so, Shade found it impossible to tell just how old she was. Her long hair draped around her shoulders and down her back like a thick, rippled curtain, shining in the dim candlelight.

“The voices in your head are spirit guides. They’re your ancestors trying to help you on your way. It’s difficult to tune into them because you’re not trained, but they mean only to help you. You must not fear them, but let them fill you with their power and knowledge. After all, they’ve led you to find us. You must know now that you’re not all human. You’re one of us, part faery, and part human. This is why you can sense magic around you, and it has called you here.”

Shade concentrated on Ilarial’s words, unconvinced. What the heck? Impossible. Shade shook her head. “No. My parents aren’t faeries. My mother is not magical. She’s a modern soccer mom with four kids to feed, and a single mom at that! My father’s dead. He died two years ago, and there’s no way he was a faery!”

Shade was growing agitated. Her father a faery? No, it couldn’t be. He’d been so normal. She could still remember his calm voice reading to her at night before bed and the wrinkles that hugged his eyes when he smiled. Faeries aren’t parents. They don’t die in car accidents like her father had. None of this made any sense.

“I know this may sound impossible,” Ilarial offered softly. “I knew that it would be difficult for you to accept. You’re the oldest in your family, right?” Shade nodded. “Your mother loved a faery once. He charmed her into loving him instantly. She had no choice, really, but that’s how she became pregnant with you. Of course, this faery placed a spell on the man that you call your father almost as soon as he knew there would be a child. He wanted to make sure you’d be taken care of, provided for.” She paused, letting the information sink in.

“Your adoptive father fell in love with your mother, married her right away, and then you were born. Both were none the wiser.” Ilarial stopped, watching Shade’s reaction.

“My dad was not my real father?” Shade’s voice quivered at the thought. “How would you even know that? Who was this ‘faery’ then? Did he tell you himself? What if you’re lying?” Shade suddenly stood up and looked down at Ilarial, her heart beating hard within her chest. Her breath caught in her throat, causing it to feel tight.

Jack was suddenly standing behind her, where he took hold of her shoulders and pressed down softly. “Shade, please, sit down. You must listen to her. She knows more than you think.”

Shade took a breath, eyeing Ilarial with suspicion. Sighing, she decided she didn’t have much of a choice. She sank down into the sea of pillows once more, shaking and unsure.

Ilarial was still. She wasn’t angry as Shade expected but smiling. The same warm feeling flooded over Shade once more, calming her.

“You must know, faeries can’t lie, unless of course they’re not full faery, like you. We can enchant, stretch the truth or work a way around it, but never straight out lie. I do hope you believe me. I mean you no harm, child. I only wish to find the truth for you.” Ilarial nodded and looked down on the table before them. She picked up the stones and warmed them in her hands. She then dropped them on the table and watched them roll to their places.

“These stones are quite powerful. They’re mined from the heart of the earth, deep within crevices never seen by man. They’re called seeing stones, and the runes on them foretell futures or sing of the past. For you, I see a great journey you must undertake, a misshapen love with a broken heart, confusion….” She pointed to each stone; first a blue stone, then a pink-red one, and then blackened quartz. The last three were turquoise, purple, and yellow, and they were wedged in a group together. She paused before them, turning her head slightly as if waiting for them to speak. “Ah, yes, a most extraordinary task has fallen to you where your true self shall be revealed.”

Shade stared at Ilarial. Nothing made sense to her—absolutely nothing. The stones glistened and vibrated on the table, almost glowing. Shade felt the power radiating from them like a nauseating heat, making her slightly dizzy. “What does that all mean?”

“It means that you’ve come here in a time of war within our kind. Our Queen wants a force assembled to retrieve the Santiran Water magic. This power comes from a pool of water, where all elements and creatures are derived. It holds life and death and summons the powers of the earth. It helps keep the balance between good and evil in our land, and evil will wither against it.

“It is said that only the one who belongs to both man and faery can hold this liquid and return it to the great city of Aturine here in Guildrin, where the Queen resides. Only then will we be safe from the Unseelie attacks.” She paused, studying Shade’s face. “The stones tell me that someone must be you, Shade.”

Shade tried to close her mouth as if the words would taste bad if they reached her lips. Why was she so special? She was just a senior in high school, and she wasn’t even sure if she was going to college. Most days, she couldn’t even decide what to eat for lunch. “No way. Sorry, but you’ve got the wrong girl. This is nuts. I need to go. It’s getting late.” She chuckled nervously, shaking her head. She turned to look at Jack as she stood up. A frown played about the corners of his mouth.

“Has the Queen called assembly yet?” he asked Ilarial.

“She’s doing so as we speak. I let her know that Shade would be here today. We must go now and listen. Such a historical event is not to be missed. Shade, we must take you there now,” the Oracle beckoned.

Shade was sure she should’ve never gotten out of bed that morning.

 

Chapter Three

 

 

 

Ilarial’s movements were light and airy, almost as though she were floating. She waved at Shade to follow as Jack opened the wooden door to the hallway. Shade was in too much shock to object, so she followed them both down the tunnels, returning to the main room, where Renny had attempted to arrest her. She stood wide-eyed at the scene. The room swelled up with more people, or faeries, or whatever the heck everyone was down there.

Ilarial pushed through the crowd, or rather it seemed to part just for her until they reached a large platform. Here stood several guards and another woman in a great, long, red velvet gown. A tall crystal tiara flashing with diamonds and blood-red rubies rose from her long black hair. She watched them as they approached the raised platform, passing her eyes from Ilarial to Shade. Gleaming green irises bore into Shade, like fire burning in pale skin. This woman wasn’t to be trifled with. The air of command and power swirled around her like a cloud. Shade suddenly felt quite tiny.

“Most Seelie queens have light, fair hair,” Ilarial whispered to her. “But Zinara was born with the dark hair of an Unseelie Queen and the legendary Ancients. Nonetheless, she won the Seelie crown and paid for it dearly with flesh and blood. She deserves loyalty, more than any queen ever has.” Shade listened to Ilarial’s short history lesson as she watched the room turn to give the Queen its full attention.

Ilarial bowed to the queen deeply and kissed her hand. “Your majesty, I present to you Shade, a halfling who has joined us today. I have read the stones, and she’s the one I’ve been telling you about. She has finally returned to us and is the one I’ve foreseen for this journey. The magic of Faerie has finally brought her back to us.”

The Queen listened intently, letting her eyes drift over her. Shade felt homesick already. The pressure of all the things they told her bore down like a suffocating pressure that swallowed her up. She was sinking into the depths of a deep dark well, without any hope to escape. She studied the crowd and desperately wanted to fade into it, to run down the tunnels and out of the forest as fast as she could.

“A pleasure to finally meet you, Shade,” Queen Zinara said as she fixed her gaze on her and offered her hand.

Unsure of what to do, she copied Ilarial’s gestures and kissed the Queen’s hand. She noted Ilarial’s approval and returned her eyes to the stunning Queen as she let go. The Queen turned back to the crowd, and the room fell silent.

“I find it difficult to address you today. The evil that surrounds us has threatened our peaceful lives many times as of late. My heart breaks with the death that seeps into our precious earth. I’ve been forced to ask of you the most dangerous of requests.” The Queen’s pensive pause made a ripple of curious whispers ignite. “We must obtain the magic of the Santiran Fountains once more. Our ancestors used this when the earth was once out of balance and evil lurked around every corner. We’ve attempted to fight the Unseelie court but have failed to hold them back, with terrible losses. I fear our only chance against their vast army is this magic, and we must undertake a perilous journey to obtain it.”

She paused, sighing and seemingly upset by what she was saying. “Unfortunately, I cannot go myself because being near the fountain would prove fatal for me. The magic of the Santiran Fountains can only be bequeathed unto a halfling, one of both worlds, human, and faery. To my great joy, we have finally found her, on this night of all nights. I’m most pleased to introduce Shade.” Her hand outstretched toward Shade, and the crowd cheered thunderously.

Shade was sweating with anxiety. How much longer could she stand here? She felt lightheaded, and the room was growing dim.

“She will take this journey for it is her destiny. She needs an entourage to escort her and help get her there safely. I must ask for volunteers for this most dangerous task. Can anyone selflessly swear loyalty and guide Shade, our only hope?”

Silence engulfed the room. After a moment, soft whispers echoed throughout the great chamber as everyone shuffled and shifted about. The excitement was electric, and it reminded her of Jack’s unglamoured figure, crackling, and static.

Speaking of Jack, where did he go? Shade thought.

Shade caught sight of him as he stepped before the Queen. “I’ll go. I found her, and she’s my responsibility.” Jack bowed to the Queen and then stepped back. Zinara nodded and smiled at him, approval evident in her eyes.

Others stepped out from the crowd, one after the other. The fey each introduced themselves as they bowed before the Queen, and she quickly approved of all of the volunteers.

“Now, only magic can fight magic. I also need one brave volunteer who is proficient in sorcery to join the others. Is there anyone of such skill that would accept such a feat?” The room was once again quiet. Shade was definitely feeling lightheaded now. Her stomach lurched, and soon the room began to spin. Ilarial stepped over to her and placed her hand on Shade’s arm. Ilarial seemed to sense Shade needed some aid and steadied her with one hand while her other hand retrieved a small stone from her gown.

“Shade, suck on this stone. It’ll make you feel better.” She reached over and placed it into Shade’s mouth. Shade did as told and let the flavor coat her tongue. It tasted sweet, like honey. The spinning ceased, and her stomach calmed instantly.

Wow.

“I, Braelynn, will take this task at hand,” a young woman’s voice echoed through the crowd. She stepped forward, causing the throng of people around her to part. She wore a light brown dress, and honey-colored hair draped about her shoulders. Her bright hazel eyes glowed with fire and ice, and freckles splashed across her nose and cheeks. Her eyes burned with fire and appeared as hard as stones.

“Dear Braelynn, yes, I would be honored if you would accompany Shade on this quest. I’ve heard how quickly you’ve moved from apprentice to great sorceress. I’m pleased that you have passed your trials with exceptional grace.” Zinara nodded in approval and turned to face Ilarial and Shade. “Dearest Shade, I am indebted to you now. Please, get some rest and some food. You will need it as tomorrow the quest begins.” Without any further instructions for Shade, she bowed and turned to leave the great room, moving to the right as she walked down the corridor.

Now, what? Shade felt panic rise in her throat. How could she get out of this? What would her mother say? Mom! She must be so worried. Shade turned and searched for Ilarial and Jack, who were both softly discussing something. It all felt so surreal.

Ilarial motioned for Shade to follow as they left the platform. “I know this is very overwhelming for you. I can’t make you feel more at ease, but I do hope that I can answer any questions you have. First, of course, we must eat. It is late, and the journey will be long and tedious. We should join your entourage and get to know them. They will be vital to your safety.”

“My safety?” Shade widened her eyes but followed along.

Ilarial ushered Shade down another corridor that opened into yet another large area, where many people were already sitting at wooden tables. They were eating a variety of vegetables, fruits, bread, and meats. Shade’s stomach grumbled with desire. She’d already forgotten how sick she’d felt not a moment ago. All she could think about was food.

She followed Ilarial to one of the great banquet tables. It looked extravagant and overfilled. Ilarial pulled a plate from a stack and handed it to Shade. Her new entourage of friends was following closely behind, piling berries, meats, and vegetables high on their plates.

When Shade was done filling her plate to the brim and accepted a drink from a friendly lady, who was handing out stone cups of fruit juice. Shade followed the group to an area far to the left of the banquet hall. They all sat down and began gorging themselves as though they hadn’t eaten in ages. Shade joined in and inhaled most her food as she glanced at everyone, evaluating them with an inquisitive eye and noting how different they all were.

She had already forgotten most of their names. It’d been too stressful to concentrate during the assembly, and being hungry hadn’t helped. She listened to all of them chatting. Murmurs of conversations and laughs rang through her ears and filled the great hall.

One of the warriors caught her eye. Long, honey-brown hair laid across his eyes before he swept the strands from his face, catching her staring. He smiled genuinely and started laughing at whatever joke Jack was telling him. Lean muscles rippled under his snug shirt and form-fitting armor made of flexible leather. A sword lay strapped to his back, reflecting the torchlight of the room. He seemed younger than Jack did but older than Shade. She watched him talk while he chewed his food, which seemed to add to his charm. He stopped eating once he noticed her watching him, and she flicked her gaze away, back toward her plate. Her cheeks flushed, and she swiftly lowered her head to take another bite of food. Chancing another look, she caught him winking at her.

“Ilarial?” Shade spoke softly to the Oracle beside her, avoiding the man’s stare.

“Yes, Shade?”

“I was just wondering, does everyone here have secret powers like Jack? He showed me what he looks like under the glamour. I was wondering if everyone here wears glamour too.” Shade glanced at the group once more as she spoke. They were still engaged in their conversations.

Ilarial paused thoughtfully and glanced at the crew. She seemed to hesitate but not for long. Her small mouth slowly chewed her last bite of food, and she fixed her gleaming gray eyes upon Shade. A warm smile slowly spread across her face, and she now appeared less hesitant.

“Shade, I’m surprised that Jack has already let you know what he is. He’s usually wary of strangers. Some refuse to use any kind glamour and do not venture into the human world, such as Renny. I believe you’ve met him. He’s one of the guards of this underground city. He never leaves. He thinks humans are inferior and powerless.

“But, you’ve also seen Jack and how he mixes among mortals easily when he’s glamoured. He’s so easy to get along with too. You’ll often find him on errands in the human world since he can remain within the iron of the cities for much longer periods of time. We do try to keep any incidents to a minimum, and Jack has a stellar track record. I, on the other hand, don’t get out much, and I’m most sensitive to iron sickness if I tread through the cities for too long. Though, it’s quite common in faeries.” She then turned her eyes toward everyone else at the table. Some were partially listening, and some had yet to notice their conversation.

“You need to understand what and who everyone is Shade. These are your guardians, and you must have complete trust in them, even if that means their identities must be revealed to you. Let’s see,” Ilarial waved her hand toward Braelynn, seated on the other side of her. “You already know that Braelynn is a great sorceress. She needs no glamour because all witches and warlocks look quite human. Then, there’s Than. He glamours his pointy nose and pointy ears to blend with humans of the Orient. He’s a skilled hunter and warrior, excellent with knives and has lived here in Aturine all his life.”

As she said this, Than gave them a curt nod, melting his glamour away with a quiver. Shade held in her breath in surprise and stared at a more beautiful version of Than. He now had pointy ears, larger eyes, and a thinner nose. He looked the same, but all his features were more exaggerated.

The Oracle continued in one fluent breath. “Sary is a warrior princess.” A fiery redhead waved at them with a sweet smile. “She’s human but immortal. She’s also set to be the queen of the immortal Vyn people of the south when her mother passes the crown to her. It’s a lesser kingdom, but powerful. They’re very strong, and most are rather efficient archers though Sary prefers to work in the medical arts.” The princess nodded toward Shade and then continued to eat.

“Stephen is a full faery.” A tattooed man grinned at her, his smile reaching up to his eyes, which twinkled in the torchlight. “He glamours himself to look less startling. His marks and vibrant skin would be unnatural to humans. He’s an expert at tracking and can find almost anything and anyone, anywhere.” She smiled at Stephen, who also bowed his head while melting his glamour away.

This Stephen was stunning; he would definitely stand out in a crowd. He kept his brown hair shoulder length, but his strong, beautiful eyes glowed grayish white, and sharp, swirling Celtic tattoos framed one side of his face in brilliant blue, quivering under his skin. He had a scar, probably earned in battle, which ran down the other side of his neck. It reminded her that she hoped she wouldn’t have to engage in any type of fighting on the upcoming journey.

“And then, there’s Rylan. He’s quite extraordinary,” Ilarial continued. “He’s part Teleen, like Jack, but he has a skill for shape-shifting since he’s part changeling too, and can become anyone you can think of. There are not too many of his kind left. We don’t know what else his heritage holds. He came to us as a young child, lost in the forest, but he’s loyal and handy in a pinch.”

“Who’s Rylan, Ilarial? I don’t remember him being introduced.” Shade’s eyes landed on the handsome man sitting next to Jack, whom she’d stared at earlier, and who was now studying her right back intensely. She couldn’t recall his name. His brilliant green eyes flashed a honey-brown color as they gleamed at her. This man winked at her across the table earlier. Meeting his eyes again, Shade felt her cheeks flush once more.

“People call me Soap, M’lady,” he said. “But, my real name is Rylan. Nasty little nickname I caught when they first found me, dirty and lost.” His chuckle sent a shiver through her, like someone tickling her with a feather. She let her eyes wander back to him as he continued. “Not a flattering story.” His face grew serious. “But, I’m thankful for Ilarial and my Queen’s most gracious hospitality ever since. It would be an honor to defend you on this quest, Shade.”

He bowed his head as her name rolled off his tongue, making her heart flip. His presence was intoxicating. He didn’t seem to drop any glamour at all. She ripped her gaze away from his, certain her face was an unfavorable shade of scarlet red. Traitorous blushing cheeks! Shade kept wondering if he had any glamour on, but it didn’t seem like it.

“And, last but not least, Ewan,” Ilarial said, waving her hand at the husky quiet man who sat at the other end of the table. He happened to be sitting next to Sary. Ewan was a large man with big hands and burly hair all over. His squared jaw was busy chomping hard on each bite of food. His thick, black hair was slicked back and fell just past his shoulders. He was gigantic and didn’t seem like someone you would want to fight with in a bar. “He’s part giant, part human, and very strong. He’d be the one you would want next to you in a fight, and he’s been almost everywhere. Ewan will be your guide to the land of the Santirans. I believe he’s the only one who has even been there.”

The husky man gave a slight nod to Shade and continued shoveling food into his mouth. He polished off two plates already. He wasn’t bad looking, Shade thought, just rough around the edges and enormous.

Shade sipped her juice, realizing how exhausted she was. She wished to see her family. What would they be doing? And Brisa−what would she think when Shade didn’t show up at school in the morning? She slipped her cell phone out of her pocket and looked at the time. It was eleven pm, and there were ten missed calls from her mother and three from Brisa. She began dialing her mother’s cell when Ilarial placed her hand on the phone and shook her head.

“No calls will work from here, Shade. We’re too far underground. I know you fear for your mother, but I’ll take care of it. She will be okay, and I can weave a spell to help her believe you will not be gone long. I can make her think you have been at a friend’s house, perhaps? And the rest of your family too. They won’t notice you’re gone. There will be no pain for them, I promise. Time works differently here in the faerie lands than it does in the mundane human world. You will not be missed. I say that in a good way, though.”

Shade swallowed hard with a nod. She obviously had to trust these people and saw no other way but to do what they asked of her. “Ilarial, about the voices in my head… what do I do with them? Can I make them go away or learn to control them? I feel like banging my head against the wall sometimes when they won’t stop. They make me go where they want, and if I don’t listen to them, they become intolerable. They’re the ones who led me to Jack and then to you and this strange world. I can’t live like that.” Tears prickled at her eyes as she swallowed the growing lump in her throat. “It’s distracting. I feel like a slave to it, and I’m powerless to ignore them. What if they drive me insane?”

Ilarial nodded, thinking hard about Shade’s words. She seemed to come to a decision and smiled back at her. “Follow me. You will sleep in my quarters tonight. I will give you a potion that will help you control the voices. It will aid in blocking them out when you want to, and it will also help you listen to them when you’re ready. Having more control over the voices will help you develop your own powers. You’ll be able to decide your own fate while you’re still so young and untrained. If you practice, in time, you can learn to use them for your own benefits. This is a difficult task, but I will help you. Will you agree to this?” Shade nodded and felt a weight lift off her shoulders. Finally, someone could help her, after all these years. She just prayed that it would work.

Ilarial guided her back through the branches of tunnels that led to her own chambers. She made up a bed in the second room and then motioned for Shade enter. She handed her a bottle filled with silvery liquid.

“Take this, Shade. It will last until you return here, probably a couple weeks. It will help you remain calm, too. Don’t worry. I’m not drugging you. It’s just a pleasant side effect of the potion, and it will quiet the voices in your head,” she reassured her. “I’ll be in the other room if you need anything at all.”

She gave a warm smile, and Shade felt the familiar calm flood her insides. She nodded and poured the liquid down her throat. It was sweet but left a metallic aftertaste. Licking her lips, her eyes followed Ilarial as she exited the room. Shade pulled the thick, soft blankets over her body and squeezed her pillow under her head. Closing her eyes, she drifted off to sleep in the soothing silence.

 

 

Chapter Four

 

 

 

Shade stirred awake while it was still dark. The door was open, and there was only a sliver of light shining around the corner from the adjacent room. A queasy feeling overwhelmed her, and for a moment, it felt like she had temporary amnesia. Sitting up, she dangled her legs over the side of the bed. She was beginning to wake up a bit more and remembered why she wasn’t home. As she looked around at her surroundings, the events of the previous day rushed back to her.

Her cell phone was still working, and she grabbed it from atop her backpack on the floor beside the bed. Flipping it open, the bright screen hurt her eyes, and she squinted at the little digital clock. 5:15am. No wonder she felt tired. She was not used to waking up so early and had always been a late bird, rarely making it to school with more than a minute to spare.

Shade slipped to the edge of the bed until both her feet touched the cool stone floor. Bending down, she felt around in the dark for her socks and shoes. She wondered what she’d take for clothes on this journey. I can’t very well ask to stop by home to pick up some stuff. Well, maybe. Perhaps her mother would be gone most of the day. Shade would have to ask Ilarial if it were possible, or she’d be faced with an endless stench from not changing her clothes.

She slipped on her shoes and stood up, shaking her head and stretching her sore limbs. Nope, definitely must get some stuff from home. She walked into the main room of Ilarial’s chamber, where she’d first met the great oracle.

She was unsure of the coming events of the day, but she had her backpack, and she decided to examine her ’supplies’. I doubt there’s anything useful in here for a perilous journey. Shade sighed. She unzipped the bag and observed the contents: her schoolbooks, some snacks, her mp3 player, a dozen pens, pencils, erasers, a stapler, and a tube of lip balm. Other than her books and snacks, there was her notebook full of poems and stories she wrote when bored.

Emergency preparedness at its best.

Shade shook her head disapprovingly. She had to stop by her house, dump her textbooks and fill her bag with badly needed essentials. Running her hand through her matted hair, it caught in the frizzy knots from sleeping on it. She groaned. It was a frazzled mess. Hearing a swish behind her, she whirled around to see Ilarial standing at the doorway of the suite.

“I tried to be quiet. I did not want to scare you. Here, take these clothes. I know you need things from your house. I have already cast a spell on your mother. She will leave at seven am to run errands and shop with your siblings. She’s just fine and very happy. I will make sure of it.” She handed Shade a pile of light but luxuriously soft tunics and trousers. The material was smooth and felt like pajamas. Ilarial gave her a belt and leather strings to tie the tunics with. She also furnished some hard-soled leather shoes, which were also soft but surprisingly sturdy.

“Soap can take you to your house. He’s on his way. Do come back by ten am, as that is when they will be about ready to leave. Can I see your backpack?” She held her hand out for the pack. “I can help lighten the load with a shrinking spell. Anything you place in your bag will shrink hundreds of times its normal size and return to normal when you take it back out. Whatever you want, just summon it, and it will come straight to you. You can bring anything you wish.” Shade nodded in awe as she handed the pack to Ilarial. Ilarial whispered the spell softly and ran her hand over the bag, closing her eyes. When she was through, she returned it to Shade.

“There, see? It’s as light as a feather.”

Shade held the pack, and it felt very light, as though it was empty. She opened it, reached inside for one of her textbooks, and it appeared in her hand immediately though she couldn’t see anything inside the now darkened interior. “Wow! That’s amazing! I can put whatever I want, right? Does it have a weight limit? That’s just way cool!” Shade felt her excitement fluttering through her now, and her fatigue evaporated.

Ilarial laughed, “Yes, dear Shade, anything you can think of. A most useful spell, don’t you think? You could move your whole house in one trip.”

Ilarial smiled warmly. It was that same smile that felt like cozy hot chocolate melting the cold of winter away. She motioned for Shade to follow her into another bedroom. This one belonged to Ilarial and was centered in the middle of the house. It was layered with thick, clean but colorful blankets, and there were also a number of pillows. On the far side of the room was a rack filled with weapons. Silver knives, sharp stone arrows, and wooden-tipped ones filled the corner. There were also hatchets, axes, throwing stars, and daggers overflowing the rack.

“Please, choose some weapons. I find that if a weapon calls to you, it’s meant to be yours alone. Feel them sing to you, Shade. Touch the metal and the wood, and tell me what you feel. Please, take the ones that you like.” She motioned to the weapons as Shade gaped at them from the doorway. As Shade stepped closer and reached out to touch them, her fingers landed on an ornamental dagger. There were gems on the hilt, and they were glistening in the candlelight along with the blade of the dagger. The blue and blood-red jewels brightened as Shade’s fingers brushed the handle.

Shade stepped back with excitement in her eyes. “Wow, they feel like they’re buzzing under my skin! Is it magic?” She reached out and touched some of the throwing stars, which hummed equally as loud as the dagger. They were glowing with an eerie blue and green hue around the steel. She could feel the power radiating through the dagger as it made her heart race and her fingers tingle.

“Go ahead, Shade, take some and place them in your pack. You may need them sooner than you think. Your aim will be true. Your strength will increase a hundredfold with them. Just use them wisely and never in haste.”

Shade frowned at the ominous statement. She didn’t want to need to use any kind of weapons. Who would? Even so, she placed several stars, daggers, and a sword in her pack. All were small enough for her thin hands but big enough to do some kind of damage if only she knew how to use them. She looked at Ilarial, pausing with slight fear rising to her throat.

“What if I don’t come back? What exactly are we going to go through that I’d need such an entourage and magical weapons? It’s freaking me out a bit. I’m just a regular girl. I’m really not the outdoorsy type. I don’t see why it has to be me.” Shade felt a tightening in her throat as panic set in, and it became hard to breathe. Pressing her lips tight into a flat line, she took a moment to gather her thoughts before she frowned and continued. “You need a half-blood, I know, but why me? I can’t be the only one on earth. Please don’t be offended, but I really don’t want to go!” Tears welled in her eyes, and she did her best to keep them from spilling onto her cheeks.

“Shade, I am truly sorry that you feel this way. I know it’s very overwhelming and confusing. I have foreseen that you and only you, can do this and come back alive. I have not told you this, but there have been others brought to me before, and they were not suited for this, even though they tried.” She paused, sighing deeply and stroking Shade’s hair. “Don’t underestimate yourself. You are strong and carry powers you have barely begun to explore. The warriors will help you and teach you how to use your magic and strength. Let them in. Heed what they say and show you. You are in the best hands now. I know you will come to know that this is not a curse but a blessing.”

Someone cleared their throat, and both Shade and Ilarial turned around. Rylan bowed his head as he entered, ready to take Shade into the unknown. “Soap at your service, Shade. Hello, Ilarial. It’s time to for us to leave.” He straightened and waited quietly.

Shade swallowed her tears and sighed. There was no turning back now. She gave him a weak grin and swung her pack over her shoulder. Running her fingers through her rat’s nest of hair, she suddenly wished she’d brought her brush with her, especially with Soap’s twinkling gaze lingering. She straightened up and followed Soap out the door as Ilarial waved a farewell.

The walk down the corridor seemed endless. Neither of them spoke, but they moved briskly on the stone floors. They soon passed the great hall, now abandoned and silent. Soap was in the lead as they continued on to the roots of the tree where the entrance lay. Soap paused and called out the same words Jack had spoken to open the stairway.

Endora, philis montie!”

The roots shook, and dirt sprayed down onto them, making Shade swat to keep it off her clothes. The grand stone staircase emerged from the earth walls and came together in a massive spiral. Light streamed in through the opening, and the stone steps sparkled in the sunlight.

“Wow!” Shade stepped forward in awe. It was unlike anything she’d ever seen before, brilliant and beautiful.

Soap grinned at her comment. “It is said the steps were made out of crushed diamonds and stone more than a millennium ago. Nothing else can compare to such a fantastic entrance. Our kingdom boasts the most incredible underground palace this side of the country.”

He took the steps two at a time and moved so swiftly that he looked as if he was floating like a feather. It appeared as though he was evaporating through the ceiling as he climbed the stairs. Shade struggled to keep up but finally cleared the opening. The morning air was thick with mist; all the leaves and flowers were wet with dew, glistening like rainbows. The air was fresh and clean out in the thick forest. She watched the gravel and rock swallow the staircase until there was nothing left on the forest floor but dirt and plants. It must be hidden by magic, she thought, turning to see Soap waiting patiently.

He picked a brilliant purple flower from a bush and smiled. “Here is a real beauty, so rare to find in the mornings. These mostly bloom at night.” He reached over to hand her the flower, bowing slightly. “A beauty for a beauty.” His long brown hair swept forward and swayed in the breeze, as the gold highlights shone in the sun and made his hair a brilliant honey brown, lush and loose.

Shade smiled, blushing pink, and taking the flower, she sniffed its wild aroma. “It smells fabulous! I’ve never smelled anything like it.” She looked up at the young man, her eyes widening. She felt different like a calm ocean had swept her away, and she was now floating gently. Her vision swayed for a moment as she shook it off, thinking it was just fatigue. These feelings were new to her, and she didn’t know what to do with them.

“Night-wind Tigerlily. It has a calming, sleepy effect but only when you smell it. It goes away almost immediately, but it helps calm the nerves and is good to have on hand if you suffer from insomnia. Stuffing a few of these petals in your pillow keeps you almost sedated. That’s not an effect you want to have right now, but it will relax you.” He winked and turned, his long hair swaying in the breeze. He walked through the shrubs, moving gingerly and skillfully, as only a trained soldier could. Shade followed him almost as if she was in a trance. This world was incredible so far. She hoped that whatever was out there would be just as thrilling and not terrifying.

They walked swiftly, dodging bushes and ducking under branches. The woods was brimming with life. Birds chirped and squirrels raced by, hurrying up the trees. The deer glanced at them as they walked past, and insects buzzed by, intent on unknown errands. Shade could actually feel the life around her, and it was like warm sunshine spilling onto her like never before. Why did the world seem so different this morning? She didn’t think anything had changed all that much. Maybe this was how the land of Faerie was all the time. It was a wonder she hadn’t stumbled upon it before.

Maybe it’s because I avoid the outdoors like a plague.

She observed Soap. He was graceful, dodging things quickly and maneuvering around like a nimble dancer. His body seemed to float around obstacles and trees, like the rustling of a flowing stream of air. She wondered again if he was wearing glamour at all. “Soap?”

“Yes, m’Lady,” he said as he looked over his shoulder at her while winking one of his gleaming green eyes.

“I was just wondering why you didn’t remove any glamour before. Do you wear one like Jack? Ilarial said you were part Teleen like him. Wouldn’t you have to wear glamour to not electrocute things?” She pushed a branch and let it snap back with a crack while she fired her questions at him.

Soap slowed and came to a stop, turned toward her, and stared intently. “Shade, I’m part Teleen, like Jack is. I’m also a shape shifter. I don’t need glamour to look human. This is me as I am. I can shift and look full Teleen, like Jack, if I wish, or I could change into a bird, lion, wolf, another person or faery, anything, even….” He paused. He’d been moving closer while he spoke and now stood almost touching her. He bent down slightly so that if either one of them stepped forward, they would bump faces. “I could even change myself to look like other people, other men or women, anyone you could think of or want me to be.”

She could feel his warmth radiating across the air and over her skin. It was hot and rippling. Her breath caught in her throat with him so near. He smiled. “Do you want to see?” His eyes widened with a sense of mischief dancing around in them.

She nodded, hoping she wouldn’t regret that decision. In a flash, the lines around him blurred like a steamy window. Now, before her stood a pale young man with jet-black, spiky hair, and fair skin. Gleaming blue eyes shone back at her. His build was similar to Soap’s but slightly shorter and thinner, yet still taller than she was. Their eyes were almost level, and he stepped even closer, one hand reaching up and stroking her face. Shade felt her heart thud in her chest.

“I could look like anyone you can dream of, anyone you could ever want me to be.” His lips were mere centimeters from hers, arresting her breath with their proximity. He reached up to run his fingers down the curve of her cheek, making her step back as a surge of energy prickled along the line of his touch. It was enthralling and made her woozy. What’s going on here?

Soap lowered his hand, still not changing back. He was radiant and glowed slightly, but it wavered. “I can use enchantments on anyone, so they’ll forget who they are or even what they’re doing. You stepped away. Why is that?” He contemplated his words as he stared intently at her. “I don’t seem to have absolute power over you, Shade. That’s very strange… unusual.” He continued to look at her, frowning at his thoughts, looking slightly unnerved. A moment later, curiosity gleamed in his eyes.

“Could you change back, Soap? You’re scaring me.” She stepped back, her eyes wide open. “What did you do to me exactly?”

Soap smiled and just as quickly blurred right back into his usual self. His long brown hair and green-gemmed eyes glinted at her. “Pardon, M’lady. I meant no harm. I won’t do that again, but you can see that my magic could be quite useful. Most fey and human alike can’t resist my charm, but you, on the other hand.…” He tilted his head, confused. “It barely touched you. It’s as if you’re immune to it or something. Amazing. Oh well, can’t have everything, right?” He turned away and continued as if nothing had happened. Shade took a deep breath and followed. She felt slightly enraged by his admission that he’d tried to use magic on her. He never asked her if it was okay or not. Biting her tongue, she followed silently.

The forest seemed to stretch out for miles. Twigs and leaves crunched under their feet, snapping and crackling as they walked. The noise seemed louder in the vastness of the woods and quiet of the morning. Shade kept her eyes on the forest floor, but she glanced up every so often to watch Soap’s long brown hair swinging in the cool breeze. He tied it back with a leather string matching the color of his hair. She wondered who he was and why he was coming on this journey with her. She supposed it might be for her protection, but she was nothing to him. Why risk himself for her?

Her mind continued to race with questions. Why had he been alone as a child in this desolate forest? He could’ve been killed, eaten alive by an animal. She looked at the thick shrubbery around her and shivered at the thought.

Finally, they reached the forest’s edge and could hear traffic in the distance. For a brief moment, Shade had almost forgotten about the reality of her world. She’d been so mesmerized by Soap’s magic, charms, and of Faerie itself. The road was not far from the woods, and soon they were walking in the direction of her house. Shade wondered if her mother had already left. She secretly wished she would run into her anyway, just to say hello, and maybe she could get a warm hug and kiss goodbye. The little things she would miss overwhelmed her. What if she didn’t come back? When they reached her house, they stopped and examined the exterior.

The worn-down exterior consisted of bricks and old siding that happened to be partially dry-rotted. The house was old but comfortable, the rust-red exterior bricks rough with age. Weeds clung to the base of the house. Toys and balls were carelessly tossed across the yard. She smiled. Her little brothers and sister were loved dearly, but they were also spoiled rotten.

Their mother worked hard, especially now that she was a single mom. Somehow, there was never a lack of love to go around. Sometimes she did get a little absent-minded, with so much going on between all of them, but forgetfulness was forgivable. It made Shade’s heart twist with a hollow pain to think of her small, tight-knit family.

She was sure her mother was gone. The beat-up minivan was not parked in the driveway, and there were no crazy little kid screams filling the house, like usual. The place seemed eerily silent. Shade shook away her disappointment and started for the door, with Soap following closely behind.

Shade jingled her keys out of her pocket and turned the knob. No one came running to greet her when she swung open the door. The house was still and vacant. The usual noises echoing through the rooms flitted through her mind. She sighed and headed in, closing the door behind them. She turned toward Soap and nodded. “If it’s ok, I’ll gather my stuff. See if you can find any canned, non-perishable food we can take. And I’d like to take a quick shower,” she added.

He gave her a deep nod and smiled that iridescent smile of his. Gleaming white teeth flashed at her for a second.

Shade smiled back nervously, turned, and raced up the stairs. Her room looked pretty much the same. Because she was the oldest, she and her little sister didn’t share a room. It was nice that her mother had agreed with her that she needed her own space. Her mom always asked a lot of her during the day, and it was nice to have some privacy at night. Of course, that meant Anna, her little sister, had her own room, too−lucky by default.

Shade smiled, taking in the loveliness of the room. The quilt on her bed had pink and red patches in it. The walls of her room were a light shade of rose. There were also items in various shades of pink and purple scattered throughout the room. She loved to decorate and had tons of girlie stuff all around. She’d obtained most of her things from thrift stores, people at church, or friends who’d given them to her. Everything was a treasure to her.

She opened her drawers, began rummaging through the clothes, and stuffed some into her backpack. She riffled through her closet, found a pair of hiking shoes, and grabbed them. After Shade had finished throwing some towels, a pillow and a few blankets into the backpack, she noticed a picture frame on her nightstand. All of her family was in the photo. It was taken at the park on a sunny spring day, and their faces were gleaming with laughter and flashing.

Shade picked up the little frame, feeling her eyes burn with tears. How she missed them already, and it was just yesterday that she’d last seen them. Her father was in the picture as well, her human father. She held back a sob and stuffed the picture into the pack. Reaching over to hook up her cell phone for a quick charge while she finished packing, she began getting things ready for the day ahead. She pulled a clean outfit out of her closet and laid it on her bed. Peering into her dresser mirror, she studied her hair, which was lying in tangled waves, glistening in the morning sun that streamed in from the windows.

What a disheveled mess! She sighed and looked around once more. Now for that shower!

She finished quickly, tossing her toothbrush, toothpaste, body wash, and sponge into a Ziploc bag to stuff into her backpack. She ran her brush through the tangles of hair and groaned at the knots. She finally got them out, and the brush went into her bag, too. She loved Ilarial’s spell. There was no need to worry about packing light with that! She pulled her hair back into a ponytail since it was still sopping wet from the shower.

All set except for the water and food downstairs. She listened for a moment for Soap, but he was terribly silent for cleaning out the cupboards. She shrugged, left the bathroom, and went down the stairs.

Soap was standing by the kitchen window, which looked out at both the side yard and the front yard. He didn’t seem to notice her coming in. She paused and watched him. He seemed so serene. She wondered just how old he really was and how easily he could pass for a senior in high school; well, maybe not. She smiled at the thought of Soap in gym shorts and shirt, not really a fitting look for him.

He was staring at her when she came out of her thoughts. “What are you smiling at? Do I have breakfast stuck to my face?” He blinked at her, baffled and furrowing his eyebrows.

Shade laughed and shook her head. “No, silly, I was just thinking about how you would totally not fit in at school. You don’t really look like a human teenager. How old are you anyway?” She glanced down at the pile of cans and water bottles stacked neatly on the floor in the middle of the kitchen. She bent down and began shoving them into her pack.

“I’m about twenty in human years, no difference in fey years, actually. That’s if you go from me being six years old when I was found. Anyway, that was what they guessed me to be. Who knows? I don’t remember anything before that.” He bent down to help her with the food. His long ponytail hung over his face as he kneeled over the pile.

“Wow, so you could be older or younger, huh?” He nodded, not looking up. They finished and stood. “Can you think of anything else?”

“I found flashlights for you. I don’t need them, but you might.” He tossed some at her. She caught them just in time and frowned at him.

“What do you mean, you don’t need them? Do you see in the dark?” She pushed them into the pack.

Soap laughed. He had a contagious warm laugh that made her want to smile.

“No, we have witch light. We can all conjure it up if needed. I don’t even need witch light. Being part Teleen I just let some of my element of lightning glow out of me. I can see just fine with that.” His handsome smile flashed back at her again.

Shade stared hard at the floor, frowning. “I don’t have any powers.”

Soap chuckled, finding her confusion amusing. “All faeries have powers, even half-bloods like you. Don’t underestimate yourself ever, Shade. It could be your undoing.” He looked at her thoughtfully, his eyes flashing to light amber, like honey.

She could’ve sworn that he’d had green eyes before. They seemed to change into different colors every time she looked at him. It was intriguing. Shade gulped and nodded. What could she say to that? There wasn’t anything, so she just quietly agreed.

After they had left, Shade locked the front door, stopping as she stared at its worn paint. She had a gut feeling she might not see it, or the rest of the house, again. It felt like butterflies knotted her stomach. She thought more now than ever about how much she would miss her family. She never got to say goodbye. Her hand reluctantly fell to her side from the doorknob as she turned toward the street. Nothing like saying goodbye without a goodbye.

They walked silently in the direction of the forest, passing all the houses and buildings she knew. The day was brilliant and warm with a slight breeze. Some kids were playing in their front yards, hollering and screaming as they ran around. Shade’s ponytail tossed about her face with each small gust of wind.

She watched Soap walking ahead of her. His sword was still strapped to his back, and his long, golden-brown hair was swaying in the wind. She stopped, realizing how different they must look to everyone on the road. Most people didn’t walk down the street in tunics or have swords strapped to their backs. “Um, Soap?”

He turned, stopping to look at her, and noticed the horror on her face. He quickly darted his eyes around and looked for any signs of danger.

She jogged until she caught up beside him. “Don’t we look unusual walking around in the streets dressed like Robin Hood and not wearing modern-day clothes? And your sword, why hasn’t it freaked out everyone passing us or driving by?” She watched him grin and relax. That smile was getting to be unnerving.

“We’re glamoured, Shade. I’ve extended glamour over both of us to appear like we’re just two teenagers walking along in grunge clothing. Besides Jack, I’m the only one who ventures out into the cities and gets to mingle with humans. The iron doesn’t even faze us at all.”

Shade listened closely, slowly beginning to understand this phenomenon.

He turned back and began walking again. “I kind of like wandering around the city, sometimes. It’s soothing to me, and I like to watch people or just blend in sometimes. We must hurry, though. It’s already getting to be late morning, and the plan was to leave around ten a.m. I think we might be late.”

He began walking again at a brisk pace. Shade sighed, shook her head, and scrambled after him.

 

 

Chapter Five

 

 

 

The entourage filled the entranceway, with all their things spread out in massive mounds. It was almost time to leave the faeries’ dwelling. Everyone was stuffing bags or strapping last-minute weapons onto their bodies. Braelynn looked up from the many small bags of herbs and ground stones she and Sary prepped, slowly arranging them in a medicine bag. The low hum of voices stopped as Shade and Soap approached the group. Sary and Stephen turned toward them and stopped sharpening their knives. Jack stood erect, ready to go. He gave them both a curt nod. No one seemed to know what to say to them.

“Guess your ears were burning, Shade, Soap. We were waiting for you,” Ewan said. “Here are your sleeping tent packs, and they’re all ready to go. Ilarial will be up in a moment. I’m sure she already knows you’re here.” Ewan’s deep voice boomed like a drum, seeming to come from deep within him, like a belly laugh echoing in a large room. He walked up to them, smiling. His husky shoulders were wide, but he was not by any means fat. Shade smiled at him. He was big-boned and looked like a fluffy teddy bear.

“Thanks, Ewan,” Soap answered. He was quieter now, within the group. Soap didn’t seem to volunteer much information about anything, now that she thought about it unless she pried it out of him. There would be plenty of time to ask him more about faeries and himself during the journey.

“Hello,” Ilarial came to stand by them, looking brilliant. “I’m happy to send you off with news of great weather to come, at least in the beginning. I sense good fortune for the start of your journey. I trust everyone is ready. Ewan will be your guide to the land of the Santirans. Your journey will be perilous, fraught with danger and a challenge to your endurance. Not many have ever traveled so far from the Guildrin mound. My heart and spirit are with you, Shade.” Ilarial motioned to her to come closer.

“Shade, you’re incredibly unselfish to aid us in our fight. Your entourage will take good care of you. They’ll teach you the ways of our magic. You may seem fragile and harmless, but the potential to be great lies within you. Now, I send you off, my friends. Good journey!” Ilarial smiled and wrapped her arm around Shade’s shoulders. Shade felt instantly alert and happy. Ilarial sure had a way of comforting others. She was like walking Xanax, Shade thought.

Ewan turned toward the group. Everyone was stuffing the last of their items away into their charmed packs, and, like Shade’s, they appeared to hold many things. He cleared his throat and held his arms out above his head.

“Alright everybody, listen up, for this will not be repeated. I’ll be guiding you on the path to the Santiran lands. Our stop today will be the Teleen caverns. Please stay with the group at all times. We start north until almost dusk. The Teleen are private people, and Jack has assured us of their complete cooperation. They will host us for the night. I remind everyone to keep their hands to themselves for, like Jack, they can electrocute with one touch, so be wary.

“Second, if we are separated for any reason at all, follow the North Star to the great hills of wildflowers. From there, you will find the great gate to the caverns on the northwest end of the valley. Please let them know who you are, and you will have safe passage. They have our names from Ilarial already. Good journey, everyone.” He nodded, bent to grab his own pack, and slung it onto his back. He waved for everyone to follow.

Shade quickly shoved the sleeping roll into her backpack and zipped it up. She watched everyone filing in behind Ewan and cut into the line to join him, right ahead of Soap. She glanced at him as she turned her head slightly, absorbing his relaxed, smiling eyes. There was so much behind those eyes that Shade wondered about. She wasn’t sure his overly happy exterior matched the soul within.

The forest floor crunched under their feet as they walked at a slow and steady pace. Some of the group were shifting into pairs while others chose to remain in a single file. She looked over her shoulder to find Soap and, for a moment, couldn’t see him. He had somehow snuck up and was walking beside her. He glanced over at her. Smiling, he lifted his eyebrows with a questioning look.

“What’s wrong, dear Shade? You looked mighty concerned.” He was now shoulder to shoulder with her.

She gave him another quick look before darting her eyes back to the trail. Often, she had to check for fallen tree branches, tangled vines, and roots that impeded their pathway. No wonder we’re moving so slowly. “Um, nothing. Just nervous, I guess. Isn’t there a better way to travel than on foot? How far away are the Santiran Lands? I hope it’s not that far. I hate hiking…Hey, why are you laughing?” Shade pressed her lips together, feeling the blood rushing to her cheeks.

Soap was chuckling. “Sorry, you just crack me up. My dear Shade, I meant no disrespect. You’re a breath of fresh air. I guess it can be enlightening, chatting about our peculiar lives. To answer your questions, yes, there are better ways to get around than on foot. We have to leave the Guildrin forest, for it’s forbidden to fly or travel any other way near the kingdom. Once we leave the trees behind us, we can fly, run fast, or travel by horse if available. We won’t have horses because there are none so close to an iron city. We can’t run because you wouldn’t be able to keep up, and we can’t fly because some of us can’t fly at all. That leaves one option: walking.” He kept his eyes on the path, swinging his short sword in front of him to slice off a branch that swung back toward them.

“What about using a car? Or even an airplane? Why not go that way?” She felt utterly confused and not one bit satisfied with his answers. She was starting to wonder what was so great about being a faery if you couldn’t do regular things like drive, or ride in an airplane.

“No way would any faery ride in one those things. They reek of iron! Like I’ve told you, iron is deadly to faeries. If faeries stay around iron for long periods of time, they become seriously ill.” He snickered as he beat back another branch and walked along. He seemed amused and maybe a little frustrated that he had to explain the iron sickness again.

“But, you and Jack can tolerate it,” Shade replied. “Is it just you and him then? Plus, it doesn’t bother me at all either. Why? I’m part faery, supposedly. Is it because I’m part human?” She dodged a large leafy bush that was in her way just before it slammed into her chest.

“Yes, I suppose it’s because you’re part human though not all halflings are so lucky. Because you’re half human, you get the best of both worlds. It’s the human part of you which allows you to escape from the dangers of iron sickness, and you can hide in the iron cities without any problems.”

“What else are the faeries vulnerable to?”

He furrowed his brows and seemed to pause for a second to ponder her question. His contorted features made her smile, realizing she’d never get over how amazingly handsome he was. She wondered if he had a girlfriend in this fairytale life of his. It made her glad he didn’t need glamour, even though none of them wore it at the moment, besides Jack. They were staying in the Guildrin forest until they reached the valley of the Teleen so no human interactions would be part of the trip. It made her wonder how big the forest really was. She had so many questions, she just didn’t know where to start.

“Well, if you think about faery stories, they can be quite useful in helping you defend yourself against the fey. Cold iron is toxic, as you know. People can fend the fey off by reversing their clothes. That works mainly against the most sinister creatures of Faerie. We also have an ointment of truth that humans can use to have ‘true sight’ unless a faery allows them to see past our glamours or tricks. Fire keeps most wild fey away. I guess they don’t like the burning carbon. I’m not sure, though. Not much of it bothers me, but anything not related to nature is pretty much an anti-faery charm.

“I would always keep some sort of a memory charm on you to remember your way home. Those are impervious to spells any faery might throw at you to make you forget who you are and enslave you.”

“You don’t sound like a friendly bunch.” Shade snickered. “Honestly, I can’t see you guys being that bad.” She waved toward the other warriors and shook her head. “I just don’t get it.”

Soap laughed a deep, taunting laugh that made Shade glare at him. She hated being laughed at. Shaking her head, she continued on, ignoring his snarks. The other warriors were already a good deal ahead of them.

They remained in silence for a long time after that. No one spoke. Everyone silently hiked along, slicing down branches. Only the crunch of dead leaves and twigs filled the afternoon air. The birds twittered above, sometimes flying in groups with their wings flapping loudly. It wasn’t easy moving fast in the forest. Roots and uneven ground were plentiful, threatening every footstep with a fall, or worse, broken bones if one was not careful. This situation is just a twisted ankle waiting to happen. Shade gritted her teeth, concentrating on the loose rocks and roots that lay haphazardly across their path.

They finally came upon a clearing in the forest. The warriors paused, watching Jack and Ewan for a signal. Jack scouted the clearing’s edge and looked for any kind of movement. The rest of the group was hunched and hiding behind trees and bushes, waiting for the all clear. Shade perched herself behind a large redwood tree. The bark was rough and crumbled under her fingers. It felt warm under her touch like there was life pulsating inside the massive trunk. She wondered why she could now feel the life all around her. Did it have to do with this forest being fey territory? She wondered if there was something new happening within her, or if they were all being affected by an unknown force.

She suddenly realized it’d been quite some time since she’d heard the voices in her head. She felt relieved, but it also felt like something was missing. Maybe she’d try what Ilarial had mentioned. Since she’d taken the medicine Ilarial had given her to control the voices, it was easier to think. She thought now she’d try to speak to them with specific requests, and then listen for a particular answer. Ilarial had said this exercise would help her get to know the voices, and hopefully, she’d learn to use her spirit guides to her own advantage.

Are we safe? Shade waited, quieting her mind and listening for the response.

Yes, they said as one.

She jumped. The answer came like a voice on the breeze, or like someone whispering into her ear. She spun around, but saw no one, and glanced over to Soap, who was behind another tree to her left. He placed a finger to his lips, signaling for silence, and turned back toward the front of the group.

Wow, a one-word answer. It was enough to make her freak out. Ok, well that was a good little exercise. She watched Ewan give them an ‘all clear’ signal. Standing up, she shuffled back into line behind the warriors. Elated, she felt a renewed sense of peace inside.

The sun felt warm on her back as they worked their way across the field. They made sure to avoid the center of the clearing, choosing to avoid being too exposed. They were near the edge, and even though it would take longer to get through, it felt safer knowing cover was nearby. Shade inhaled the fresh air of the countryside. Flowers, pine trees, and deadened mulch were on the ground and mixed with dirt, but perfumed the air.

The forest was surreal compared to her usual reality of constant smog, exhaust, honking cars, and the smell of iron in the city. Out here, none of that seemed to exist, and she let herself enjoy the beautiful afternoon. Dragonflies and Ladybugs buzzed around her and disappeared into the forest. She wondered if they were close to a body of water with so many dragonflies about. She was surprised not to see any more of the tiny winged fey she’d encountered with Jack. There was no one else around.

Where is everyone? Are there more fey out here? Shade wondered.

Yes, they’re watching, wondering who you are. Wondering why so many are treading the trails with you.

She smiled. The voice was gentle and did not scare her as the voices had before. It seemed like a light caress, a lover’s promise in a whisper. She knew then that it would never be like before. Ilarial used the medicine to channel the guides, to help Shade better understand them. The voices wouldn’t be an overbearing force on her ever again. She had to remember to thank Ilarial profusely for this gift.

Do you have a name? Is there more than one of you?

Yes, the voices answered. There are three of us that remain with you. Each of us will answer you in a particular situation. We each are helpful in certain things. I am Duende. The others are Astrid and Elaby. We are your spirit guides. There were more, but Ilarial has forced them away, for they’re too much for you to handle. We’re entrusted with your wellbeing, Shade. Ask us what you will, and we will always answer.

Shade shivered, despite the heat of the sun. Their whispers were like the gentle chill of winter. The feeling prickled her skin and was full of magic. She wondered if she’d ever get used to these changes.

The group re-entered the forest on the other side of the clearing. The cool cover of the forest canopy felt colder than it had before. Shade noticed how much darker it seemed on this end. It seemed quieter too; only a breeze rustling through the leaves broke up the silence. Even the forest floor was more barren, with packed, dark dirt and occasional twigs littered about.

This was not the same territory. Shade wondered if this was the start of Teleen territory or maybe even something else.

“Keep together, everyone. We’re near the borders of the Teleen’s property. It’s guarded well by the dead, along with soldiers that were banished fey, and ghosts alike. Welcome to the Haunted Forest.” Ewan snickered, apparently thinking that everyone enjoyed his humor. No one was laughing. Shade hurried up to him as the group tightened. She was curious about the place and figured he would be the one to ask about the name of it.

“Ewan!” She slowed her breathing as she neared him. He was a lot farther ahead of the group than she’d thought. She hunched over, holding her knees as her breath returned to her.

Ewan paused and looked at Shade. Even without the sun breaking through the canopy, the irises of his eyes shone like small flashlights glinting back at her. He was big. He had to be at least six-eleven. He hovered over her like he was one of the trees himself. His broad shoulders were wide, and strong muscular arms followed. He looked like a tall, husky human male with dark stubble almost long enough for a beard shadowing his jawline. A long, black as night ponytail was tied near the base of his neckline. He had a rounded nose and full pink lips. Although his height and bulk made him scary, he wasn’t that bad looking. Ewan never bothered with any glamour.

“Well, little one, what heeds you?” Smiling brought out deep wrinkles around his eyes and laugh lines that creased at his mouth. This man had a smile that showed he enjoyed living and had experienced many wondrous things. He started walking again when she’d caught up, moving together in stride.

“I was just wondering why they call this the Haunted Forest. What do you mean it has ghosts? Will we see any? Will they hurt anyone?” She fired her questions at him all at once.

Ewan’s deep booming laugh echoed around them. The forest made no reply. “Slow down, miss. Wouldn’t want to wake the dead, would we? Nothing to fear now. Yes, there are ghosts and spirits aplenty here, hence the name, but since we will leave this forest for the Great Teleen caves before nightfall, we will mostly miss them. They can harm you, but only if you let your fear overwhelm your mind. They’ll sense that and focus on you, so just ignore them. Show no fear and stay calm. They will pretty much leave you alone.” He grinned down at her.

Shade liked him instantly. He was like a large teddy bear. At least, he was nice. He made her feel warm and safe. “Do we have a long way to go to the caves?”

“I’d say two to three hours’ journey. We will hit the hills first and then the incline to the mountains of the Teleen. They live in massive caves that run for miles underground. You’ll be most impressed.” Ewan’s face stilled. He glanced at her, and his eyes intensified. “Miss Shade, may I ask a question?” He continued the trek forward, frequently glancing to assess each step.

“Yes, of course, Ewan, feel free.”

“Are you all right with this, being the chosen one and all? Do you want to turn back yet?”

Shade’s eyes widened as she stared at him. She was scared. She didn’t want to go, but how could she say no? Her voice failed to answer.

“I thought so.” Ewan nodded, keeping in step with her and dodging the massive tree trunks in their path. It was much easier to walk on the packed earth. It was dark, rich in color and remained smooth over the small hills of the forest floor. The previous shrubs and plants they cut down had been such a bother. The trees seemed to grow larger here, too and were flat out gigantic.

“Ewan, I can’t say no. Something just tells me I should be here. I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s as if I’m being pulled involuntarily along for a ride I didn’t sign up for. I can’t unwrap myself from it. Besides, maybe I might find out who my real father is and more about myself, too. I do want to learn about my faery powers if I have any. That would be pretty cool. I have so many questions about things now and no answers yet, and I guess this is the best way to find out.” She stared at the ground. She felt weary already, and they hadn’t even gone very far.

“Understandable.” He winked and continued.

Shade stopped in her tracks. The hair on her neck stood on end, and a sense of being watched crept up her spine. Her eyes widened as they darted, glancing around them.

“What’s wrong, Shade? Feel something?” Ewan also stopped, listening carefully and signaling a full stop with his hand. Everyone crouched by the trees and looked around, studying the woods as they stilled. Not one sound, not even the birds chirping, could be heard. The silence felt deafening, heavy, and forlorn.

Shade still felt a twinge of fear. Her head shook, and the sweat began to bead on her forehead. What’s going on? It felt as if something hot was being poured over her, sticky as it clung like thick syrup. Her panic boiled up inside, tumbling out of control. What is this? What’s happening?

Ewan called out to the trees, “That’s enough of that now. The girl is harmless. She’s with us. We’re Guildrin Clan, en route to Teleen. Bring down your guard. We’re invited.”

Shade looked about, seeing nothing but tree bark and dirt. The wind gusts picked up and swooshed around her, bringing her hair to float about her like an aura. Shade’s breath failed her, and her heart jumped. The group unsheathed their swords, bows, arrows, and daggers. They were readied and pointed.

Pointed at what? Shade felt something was near but couldn’t see anyone or anything.

“Back down, or we will fight.”

“You dare defy me, the Mistress of these woods? You should have asked me, not the Teleen, to pass. You insult my authority. Queen Zinara grows careless of her lands, and she forgets me. Forgotten, I shall never be.” The wind swirled around the group, sending everyone to their knees. “Beg forgiveness of your Queen, Lady Blythe, Dryad Queen of the Haunted Forest!”

Ewan slowly bowed his head, kneeled on the ground and signaled to the others to do the same. “Forgive us, dear Lady Blythe, Queen of the Dryads of the Haunted Forest. We meant no disrespect. We ask to pass through your territory to the Teleen Caves. We had no knowledge of your return to these parts, afraid we were, as was your sister, that you had abandoned the Guildrin clan. We beg mercy of Your Majesty.” Shade looked up through her lashes to see if anything appeared. The wind made her blink continuously, and her eyes watered from the whipping air.

Suddenly, the wind stopped. The change in the air felt even denser than it had before. Everyone looked up and gazed at the Queen of the Dryads. She was perched on a large branch just above them. Her skin was pale and glossy white as if she was made of porcelain. Her dark green eyes were large, so large, in fact, that the whites of her eyes disappeared, and yet somehow they had a slit-like appearance. Her long dark blond hair draped around her carelessly in soft wisps down to her legs. It was like a cape, flying in some self-contained breeze. A crown of twisted twigs and angel’s breath lay on her head, spilling down like entrails in her hair. The sheer dress she wore was more like torn worn silk, swaying around her in the breeze and tied together with a belt of roped vines.

She looked just as a faery would, ethereal and almost unreal. Her skin glowed like moonlight reflecting on the surface of a pool of water. Shade gasped with amazement. She thought, at first, that it was glamour the dryad wore, but, she felt no such magic floating around Lady Blythe. Her magic was the woods, the trees, earth, plants, and creatures. All were flowing with energy that was tumbling toward her.

The faery snickered. She tilted her head, studying the group and narrowing her large insect-like eyes. They filled Shade with dread. Her face morphed from angelic to a morbid malice. “You are pathetic. Forget me not. I won’t soon forget you, either. Give me the Halfling girl, and the rest of you can go.”

Shade’s eyes widened as she stood up and stepped back. She froze mid-step, as she couldn’t move and could barely breathe. A sticky, thick magic clung to her again, paralyzing her into place. Lady Blythe cackled wickedly at her and shook her head. “Yes, Shade, that means you. Either you stay or they die.”

“But why? What did I do? I don’t even know you. What do you want from me? I have no magic.” Shade felt frozen. Her legs didn’t work; nothing worked. She felt as if she were in suspended animation, trapped in the stillness, as one would be in ice.

“Your Majesty, Shade can’t stay here. She was sent by Queen Zinara herself on a quest.” Ewan spoke, not raising his head to the faery queen, as though doing so might offend her.

“Silence, giant. I don’t need your blubbering statements. I know quite well what Queen Zinara means to do. I don’t agree with her strange decisions, but I know this Halfling serves more than just one purpose.” She gazed at Shade, her lips thin and tense. Shade felt light headed from the intensity of it.

Trick her. Trick her into thinking you are only a mortal without powers. Trick her at her own game, Shade. Quickly! One inner voice yelled with urgency.

Shade came back to herself, still frozen but more clear-headed. The warmth of her guides and their voices swam in her head, helping her breathe in her frozen body.

How do I trick her? She’d know if I’m lying. Don’t they all? How?

Offer her yourself entirely, they suggested. But trick her into giving you a riddle. We can answer any question. If you answer right, she must let you go.

Shade swallowed hard and peered up at the Dryad Queen, feeling her evil swirling around in the air.

“Lady Blythe, Your Majesty. Please, I’ll come to you freely, but I was thinking. Don’t you like riddles? You look like you might like them. How about a deal? If I answer it right, we all go free with safe passage through your land. If not, I’m yours with no fight. At least, we can make it fun, you know?” Shade chuckled nervously and gasped while the air felt tight and thinner as if she were drowning.

Lady Blythe glared at her, contemplating her words. She drilled her sharp eyes into Shade. Shade’s offer had evidently caught her fancy. A moment later, a creepy, growing smile spread across her face.

“Why, how quaint. How did you know about my love of riddles? How delightful! Very well then, I accept.” Lady Blythe paused for a moment, looking pensive and scratching her chin. Her eyes danced with excitement as she cleared her throat. “I have one for you.” She jumped up and down as she filled with anticipation. “What can walk the earth at dawn, dances in the noon sun and then never again at dusk.” Her wicked smile snarled at Shade.

What sort of riddle is that?

A vampire, the voices offered.

What? Shade hissed back in her mind at the voices. A vampire? Really? This is ridiculous, I…

Trust us, Shade, please.

“Okay. Uh, I know that one. It’s a…uh…vampire. The answer is a vampire.” Shade’s breath whispered from her lips as the thick magic surrounding her squeezed the last bit out. The queen would have to let up on the air prison if she were to inhale once more. Nothing but silence came from the Dryad Queen. She’d fallen into anger, and her eyes flashed a luminous green fire. She was steaming and furious.

“How dare you trick me? You defiant fool! You’re pathetic to think you’ve seen the last of me. I have to let you pass now, but make sure you stay out of my way. I cannot be tricked twice. We shall meet again. I promise you that!”

Shade was hurled to the ground, coughing and gulping down precious air. Lady Blythe was gone as quickly as she had appeared. Nothing else was around. Nothing but the dark woods.

“Is she gone?” Shade whispered. Her breath still hadn’t caught up. “What did she want with me? And what the hell is she?” She brought her knees to her chest and sat rocking back and forth, willing her heart to stop racing and slowing her breath.

Jack knelt down, his hand giving her shoulder a firm squeeze. “Lady Blythe is who she said, Queen of the Dryads of the Haunted Forest. I really don’t know what she wanted from you.” He glanced up to where the Dryad sat not a moment before. “It’s quite strange. She disappeared decades ago and has not been seen until now. Queen Zinara assumed she was dead.” He looked up at the surrounding warriors. No one seemed to have a clue as to what was going on.

“Unless the Unseelie have been working overtime and attempting to sabotage or stop us in our tracks. This feels like Unseelie treachery. How did you know, Shade?” He stood up, offering Shade his hand. She looked up at the handsome Teleen warrior, taking his hand as she pulled herself onto her shaky legs. Tears streaked down her face. The Dryad Queen scared her more than she’d realized.

“Know what?”

Jack looked at her intently, searching her face for something not known to Shade.

“That she liked riddles. You saved yourself—and us—with such a quick wit.”

“It wasn’t me,” Shade said, shaking her head. “My spirit guides are speaking to me, helping me. They gave me the idea and then told me the answer.” She coughed again and breathed in deeply.

“Well, quite a handy trick there. I hope they come in handy more often than not. Shall we continue?” Shade nodded. “Everyone, make sure wards are up. We will not be caught so unaware again. Count us lucky she didn’t have an appetite for meat today.”

Shade’s mouth dropped open at Jack. He glanced at her and smiled. “Just kidding. She’s vegan.”

Shade groaned and straightened up. Shaking her head, she fell in line with the warriors, eager to leave these woods behind her.

 

 

Chapter Six

 

 

 

The Teleen hills were like large swells of waves, flowing with the greenest of emerald grasses. The blades of grass rolled and swayed lightly, caressed by the wind. The air flew in constant rushes, whipping everyone’s long tresses about them like tangled dancing ribbons. Shade’s own wavy brown hair looked to be the shortest of the entourage’s, except for Ewan’s. All the women’s hair seemed to be almost waist length, many with ornate braids, ties, or thin ropes wrapped through like extensions. Most of the colors were unnatural; nothing a human man or woman would ever possess naturally. Waves of golden brown, reds deep as rubies, blacks as dark as midnight, and browns like tiger’s eyes flowed in the breezes. It was quite a dance of flashing colors.

Shade felt a twinge of jealousy. Nothing but human light brown hair danced on her head, nothing fey-like about it. It made her wonder what she had that resembled the fey at all. Maybe she had turned out to be more human than fey. Maybe they had the wrong girl after all. It could be she had no magic besides her spirit guides. She couldn’t perform glamour or heal anything, let alone fight or enchant like the Dryad Queen.

Shade shivered, recalling the queen’s cold stare and the ice-cold prison of air which kept her tightly within its grasp. It made her want to faint from a lack of oxygen. It was not something she cared to remember.

Her legs burned with the constant strain of hiking up and down the hills. The hills appeared smooth with grass but were rocky and uneven. Her tennis shoes weren’t made for such rigorous hiking. She paused, leaned over, and placed her hands on her knees. Her lungs ached with the effort, and breathing felt like a burning torture. A faint metallic taste clung to her mouth as she coughed up spit. She was not a fan of the physically gifted. Her idea of a good time was curling up on her bed with a thick book. There was no way she would’ve voluntarily done anything that resembled hiking before this. Her idea of camping was a campsite where you could walk to your car and a public restroom. It was as close as she got to be outdoorsy.

This sucks.

“You all right?” Soap paused just ahead of her, craning his neck to see her face.

Shade’s cheeks were pink with heat from the strain. She swallowed her blood-tainted saliva and nodded. I can do this, no problem. Just breathe, Shade, breathe. The problem was that she didn’t quite believe herself. Turning toward Braelynn, who also had come to a stop by her, she attempted a weak smile for the Sorceress when she gave Shade a gentle pat on the back.

“The trail will be hard, not just for you, but for all of us. In time, you’ll grow accustomed to the rigorous terrain. Are you having trouble catching your breath? I have a potion you can take for that. It’s kind of like asthma medicine. Most faeries don’t have that kind of trouble, but I prepare treatments for all kinds of people.” Shade grinned, feeling at ease with the kind warrior. “I knew it was a possibility with a human coming along. Let me know if you need it,” Braelynn offered. She grinned back and moved to continue to trek in the direction of the others.

Shade sighed and closed her eyes. She knew Braelynn was kind, but her words made her feel a twinge of inferiority, being human and all. She wondered how all of the fey felt about humans in general. Stereotyping was probably not just a human trait, and she wondered if the group thought she was weak. She hoped not.

She straightened up, took a deep breath in, and attempted the hill again. The afternoon sun burned down on her, and her hair felt afire. Peeking into her backpack, she remembered her baseball cap, which she’d stuffed into it earlier. It came to her fingers as quickly as she thought it. She was never going to get used to how cool that was. Shade zipped up her backpack and pulled the cap over the wavy strands that now fell away from her ponytail. She was glad she’d remembered to bring it; her head was thanking her for it.

Shade was about to ask someone if they were getting any closer to the mountain caves of the Teleen when she heard Ewan’s booming voice echoing back to her.

“The mountains are about a mile away, not too far. We’ll be eating dinner in no time.” He chuckled back toward the group and patted his belly.

Ewan wasn’t the only one thinking about food. Shade’s stomach was protesting for the last hour. She had snacked on a granola bar, but it’d gone straight through her. She’d worked up an appetite for something a bit more substantial before her body began to turn on itself for dinner.

The last mile seemed to drag on more than the last five. Shade’s back and shoulders ached from carrying the backpack. Although it wasn’t too heavy, any kind of weight seemed to get old after carrying it for a while. She was not cut out for this hiking crap. Being sweaty, thirsty and, worst of all, having a thin layer of dirt that clung to everything and her skin made her cranky and exhausted. There were streaks across her face from the mixture of sweat and dirt. Her hair frizzed out from under her cap, and some of it was stuck to her moist neck, which was itching up a storm. She suspected she had a blister or two forming on her feet, and her knees felt like they were going to fall apart.

Gritting her teeth, she rounded one of the last hills and gasped. The mouth of a cave roared above them. It was pitch black and very broad. The dirt and grass continued into the cave until the blackness swallowed it up. The wind howled over the hole, wailing eerily. To Shade, it did not seem like anyone lived there. This can’t be it.

The rest of the gang gathered around the entrance as Ewan held up his hands in the air and mumbled some words. Shade looked about, not seeing anyone else around them. The feeling of being watched returned with a vengeance. Her eyes moved up the cliffs that gave way to a jagged overhang. The rock formation was shaped like a half moon, and it wasn’t just a simple hole or opening in the wall. The rocks were expansive, and they looked as if they may crumble onto anyone who dared to walk into the cave underneath it.

A shiver of glamour swept over her and all around the cave, like ripples in a pool of water. Of course! The looming stones were a deterrent, like a spell of reluctance to whoever passed by, making them fear the large hanging rocks and stay clear of them. As Ewan spoke softly, the glamour melted away, revealing an enormous double door. The door had intricate carvings and was made of dense wood that appeared old and weathered. Shade drew in her breath, amazed at how beautiful it was.

The wood blended into the shades of rock around it and seemed to fade into the background if she did not stare right at it. Wow, what kind of people live here to make such a fascinating place? She watched as the group gathered around the great doorway while Ewan gave the enormous doors a good shove. They creaked loudly as they opened. The groan they emitted made it clear they were rarely used. He motioned for the group to follow him.

As they entered the archway, the darkness swallowed them. Soon after, flickering lights ignited from the torches that lined the walls. The doors slammed behind them with a thunderous clap. Everyone jumped, and some had even drawn their weapons while staring at the giant doors. It seemed they had closed by themselves because no one in the group had closed them. There was no one else in the room. This is unsettling. Shade turned back toward the darkness ahead. Where is everyone? She followed her group while thinking this, wondering when the people who lived there would greet them.

They walked deeper into the dismal cave to where it led into a massive room. There were tall stone columns that reached high above them, made of the same grey-streaked white rock as the rest of cave. There appeared to be no one there, but to Shade’s surprise, the torches around the room began to light up by themselves to brighten the space. Soon after, figures appeared out of the shadows, also holding torches. They materialized from the darkness in the blink of an eye. Each one of them was dressed in guard’s uniforms, and they were engulfed in white and blue flames while electricity crackled along their skin. Shade thought of Jack and his powers. Surely, they must be Teleen.

The guards came to a stop in the middle of the room, completely surrounding them. Their eyes shone luminously, and their bodies rippled with the heat of their fire. They scared Shade, and she struggled to contain her shock. They were much more frightening than Jack had been, maybe because there were so many of them. She hoped they were not going to harm them. They made her hair stand on end as their magic and power buzzed across the room. It was like a swarm of bees or static tingling on her skin.

“Um, Ewan, are we in danger here?” Sary shouted to the giant, one hand on her bow and the other with an arrow ready to fly if needed.

He waved back at her, shaking his head but not responding. His other hand flew up, palm facing the guards as he spoke. “Guard of the Teleen, we’re here under the invitation of your queen. Our Queen, Zinara, has sent word of our arrival. Please stand down. I demand to speak with the Captain of the Guard.”

The group tightened together as the guards’ proximity grew closer. Everyone backed into each other as sword after sword were drawn and arrows nocked. Knives were also unsheathed and glinting. Everyone was ready, except Shade.

She was sweating and feeling her stomach knot into a tight cramp. She pulled one of her own knives out of her pack, shaking profusely as she gripped it. Once again, she realized her lack of training for a fight. She felt naked and exposed as she shrank into the circle of bodies around her and let them shield her from the guards.

The Captain of the Guard stepped up and pointed his sword at the ground. He glowed a brilliant white-blue all over his exposed skin. The fire burned so brightly, it hurt Shade’s eyes to look at him. He seemed to realize this and immediately weaved glamour over his lighted body, assuming a more human appearance. The tan skin over his large muscles still seemed to glow slightly as the fire receded. His eyes were a blue-green fire that slowly turned to steel gray and gleamed in the torchlight. He was extremely handsome and had his long, black hair pulled taut into a low ponytail. In awe of him, Shade sucked in her breath. His charm ended as he spoke and narrowed his eyes at them, smirking.

“So, this is Queen Zinara’s last hope? Don’t really look like much, do you?” He laughed, but it sounded full of spite more than anything.

“Dylan,” Jack responded. “Good to see you again. It’s been a long time.”

The captain briefly scrutinized Jack but barely acknowledged him. “You were so easy to surround and entrap. I thought for sure that she’d have known better than to send such a weak force to do the job of soldiers. I’ll never understand her ways.” He walked around the group, eyeing them with disdain. Their weapons were drawn, but no one seemed to be holding them in readiness. Everyone was waiting. Waiting for what? Shade wished she knew.

Dylan came around to stand by Shade, having passed through the ring of warriors in the group as if they were not even there. He inspected Shade with an intensity that dug into her skin. He reached out to her to touch her cheek, but she stepped back, remembering what Jack had told her about touching a Teleen. He could electrocute her if he wanted to. She was not going take the chance to find out.

“Are you afraid of me?” Dylan sneered as his hand returned to his side. He seemed to be pondering a thought as his eyes pierced back at her. Shade made no further movements but avoided his glare. Leaning forward, he tilted his head slightly, whispering just loud enough for her to hear him, “You rightfully should be.”

He gave his head the slightest of shakes and spun back around toward his guards. Signaling them to back off, he turned back to the travelers and addressed them all.

“I have announced you to our queen. She’ll be most pleased to meet all of you, especially your precious halfling.” He chuckled, sending a tingle across Shade’s skin. He wasn’t just Teleen. She was willing to bet he was something else, too. She was almost sure of it. Even so, she wasn’t quite sure that he knew it. Jack couldn’t do magic with his voice like this one could. Shade shivered from the after effects of his rippling laughter and close proximity. She ran her hands up and down her arms, trying to rub the feeling away with the warmth of friction. Shade wondered why she could sense that he was different. Maybe a power of hers was finally waking up.

After the captain had signaled for them to leave, the guards departed, falling into step with each other. No one was quite relaxed yet, remaining on alert. The group fell in behind the soldiers and followed. The hall seemed to stretch on forever, and Shade’s stomach grumbled again, making her glad that all the noise of the footsteps absorbed the sound of it. She hoped they would find a nice banquet waiting for them. She could only hope for such a thing from what she’d seen so far.

The ground was also made of stone, smoothed down and worn from years of use. It was a darker gray, sandy in color with bits of red and yellow speckled throughout it. The entire hall was the same color. There were no decorations and nothing but the burning torches to indicate that anyone even lived there. They reached the end of the great hall as it funneled into a smaller tunnel.

The torches continued along each side of the cave. The stone did not change much, and Shade could not find any doors, much less, windows. Claustrophobia seemed to creep in as she tried to slow her breathing to remain calm. The air was cold and never seemed to change in temperature. The smell of earth, mold, and humid dirt grew stronger the deeper they went. Shade swore she could hear water echoing far away and vibrating against the walls. These tunnels probably ran so deep that you could pop out on the other side of the world. Not really a comforting thought.

The hallway finally opened up once again. To Shade’s surprise, it wasn’t to a lair or anything she expected. A huge underground crevice loomed beneath them, opening up into a dark void. They were standing on a ledge that led to a creaky old bridge. The roof of the cave loomed high above them with small streams of sunlight spiking through and piercing the rocks above.

A bridge, Shade thought nervously. No way would she cross that. It was made of rope and wood, and it didn’t look very sturdy. She sighed as she looked down over the ledge into a shadowy abyss. She could hear some water echoing and splashing down the sides of the ridge just to her right. There was probably an underground river down there, but it wasn’t visible from this far up. The air was cooler and filled with light misty water sprays that she didn’t find comforting. Shade was so engrossed in staring at the rickety bridge that she didn’t realize the captain was now standing by her. He was watching her reaction intently with a slight smile playing on his lips. He seemed to be enjoying her horror at having to cross the creaky bridge.

“So what’s so special about you? You look less than ordinary.” Dylan regarded her, his breath pressing on her ear from his closeness. She turned and almost bumped noses with the captain. He didn’t budge but seemed to lean closer, invading her space so much, Shade actually had to take a step back. He was still glamoured, and before she could complete her step, he gripped her arms to pull her back toward him. His fingers dug in with just enough pressure to hurt her skin. Shade’s breath caught in her throat, and she was half relieved he hadn’t shed his glamour to shoot her up with electricity. She knew darn well he could at any time.

“Let go of me! What do you want?” She pulled, but his grip was firm. His breath was hot and sent shivers down her neck as he pulled her to him. His arms embraced her like a lover sweeping up his mistress. Her skin prickled as he let some static electricity seep around her, making her gasp with fear. She heard clinks of swords drawn behind her. He ignored it.

“You almost slipped off the edge.” He gave her an amused grin. “Is this how you say ‘Thank you,’ human? I was just watching out for you. You don’t have me fooled. I don’t know what Queen Zinara actually has planned, but the Teleen will not fall for her jests. She can fight her own fight. You are not true fey. You barely reek of fey blood. I have more magic in my finger than you possess in your entire body. I intend to find out what trick is behind this so-called quest that will supposedly save us all.” With that, he let her go abruptly, making her lose her step as she stumbled to regain her balance. Soap caught her mid-stumble as Jack stood before the captain.

“That’s enough, Dylan,” Jack stated firmly as he put himself between the captain and Shade. “We have no quarrel. We are here under Teleen protection, and you act hostile toward your own guests. The Queen will not be pleased, knowing your hospitality was so lacking.” His chest puffed out, and his head tilted down, apparently challenging Dylan.

Relieved that someone had come to her aid, she turned toward Soap, who was holding her tightly. Her nerves were shredded, and she was afraid her knees would crumble beneath her.

Dylan snickered and turned back to the bridge. Walking forward to the edge of the landing, he turned around and gave her a smirk. He was enjoying the growing terror on her face as he continued walking backward over the ledge.

Shade screamed but stopped suddenly, not believing her eyes. The captain kept walking backward as he floated on air and started laughing loudly while shaking his head. He then turned and continued while the rest of the guard also laughed, following behind him. They obviously got a kick out of watching their visitors panic when they learned about the invisible bridge. The entire guard walked across and did not fall into the ravine.

They have an invisible bridge? Shade and the group followed, slowly sheathing their weapons. They stepped tentatively onto the bridge, which was seemingly made of air, still not convinced it was solid. Shade cautiously walked forward. It was like standing on glass, and she was surprised her legs didn’t go through. Peering down, she could see the looming darkness below, swallowing up the rocks.

Shade took a deep breath and continued following the rest of the warriors, trying not to look down and through the glass bridge. The cold air wasn’t comforting, for she didn’t know where the sides of the glass bridge were or how narrow it could very well be. She made sure she didn’t step anywhere the guards hadn’t stepped already.

On the other side, they re-entered a cave, but this one branched into three tunnels. Everyone stayed to the left and continued down the dark corridor until they reached another large room. It was so brightly illuminated as if the daylight sun was shining in, but Shade couldn’t find any windows. However, she did see other Teleen, scores of them.

The guard had split up around the room and lined the walls in a single file. High stone columns with veins of multi-colored cracks laced with gold were at the room’s edges. Large drapes of fabric spilled down the walls in colors of crimson and jade, bringing warmth to the cold, stone-lined walls. Everyone inside the room wore brightly colored clothing, the women with long flowing dresses. The men were more conservative with crisp tunics and pants made of either linen or leather.

The Teleen were all staring, as though they’d never been taught that it could be considered rude. Maybe it wasn’t. It could be commonplace among the fey to stare. Whispers floated in the air as people commented on the new arrivals. Some reached out to touch them, pulling at their clothes in soft tugs of curiosity. Some of the women even blushed and giggled as Jack walked by them.

Some of the Teleen wore glamour, covering their electrifying blue-fire skins, looking ethereal with their translucent skin and large eyes. Some were glamoured to appear human but were far too beautiful to pass for them. Their noses were thin and straight, and they had large almond shaped eyes with perfect, luscious rose-colored lips. She wondered how much time they actually spent with humans outside this morbid place. Jack and Soap did an excellent job on their own glamours. At least, they could blend in. They had studied well.

There was a throne in the center of the far wall, and large gray, sleek and worn stone steps led to the massive dais. The queen’s throne sat upon the great platform. It was also stone, but was lighter, harder and more intricately carved. It looked to be made out of marble, but Shade was no expert. Different colored veins ran through the stone, but they did not break up the smoothness of the carvings.

The Queen observed Shade with large obsidian eyes. They were very similar to Lady Blythe’s luminous insect eyes, and she didn’t glamour herself either. Her fiery blue skin glowed brightly and seemed to hum with the crackle of electricity or lightning. There were constant flames flowing over her body. Her hair also looked afire but didn’t burn. It was dark with a highlight of blue crackling through it.

So that is what a full Teleen woman looks like unshielded? Shade thought. She’d noticed some of the guard and attendees were in full Teleen glow as well.

They reached the throne when Ewan knelt down before the blue lightning queen with his head bowed. Everyone followed suit as he spoke. “Your Majesty, Queen Gretel of the Teleen, we’ve come from the Guildrin clan in the city of Aturine and greet you with open arms and love from our Queen Zinara. We were told of your great hospitality and ask of you permission to rest the night and continue our journey tomorrow.”

The Queen glanced around at them, taking in what she saw. She nodded the slightest of nods and spoke with a voice that echoed off the walls and rippled through the air like a cool mountain breeze. “Please stand. I am aware of your coming from my sister Zinara. She has spoken well of all of you, and I find you most deserving of her praise.

“Please also forgive my Royal Guards. They find tormenting any visitors to be quite amusing. We don’t get too many visitors here, as you can see. We’re an isolated clan and the last of the Teleen bloodlines. I find it a great pleasure that I’m able to aid you on your quest to the Santiran fountains. Please, make yourselves comfortable and accept our great hospitality.”

She waved her arm to the crowd as they stood and found that tables were set up in two rows, one on either side of them. One by one, tiny flying demi-fey servants came out and placed candelabras, bowls, goblets, and overflowing platters of food on the tables. They were dressed in great long robes of flowing linen that rustled around them in smooth waves. Fruits, meat, and rolls of soft bread filled the middle of the great tables. Shade felt her stomach rumble with hunger, and all of them were looking at each other with glee dancing on their faces.

They filed around a table and eagerly sat down at the end nearest the Queen. The Queen had a table set up right in front of her with anything she asked for. There were stone plates and wooden forks and knives already set up in front of each of them. The small faeries, which laid out the table and food, were now darting back and forth. They were so quick and efficient at their job; all that could be seen of them was a blur of wings and hands.

Shade watched them, fascinated by how tiny they were with their wings as thin as tissue. Still, they held the little stick-thin figures effectively in the air. The ones she was able to gaze upon longer showed her their tiny faces with perfect small lips and straight noses. Most had jet-black, body-length hair. Some tied their hair back, and some left it hovering around them like capes. Their large almond, insect-like eyes were black as night and blinked at her curiously. None of them smiled but just flitted by her, leaving a gust of cool air as they raced by.

Shade could feel the exhaustion seeping from her bones. The food was working on her already and helped fill the void in her stomach. Sleep was pulling at her eyes, and her body ached with every stretch and movement. She looked around at her friends, who also seemed tired as they quietly munched on the great feast. She had stuffed her belly full and felt a twinge of regret with the pain of her swollen stomach, making it hard to breathe.

Shade sat back in her chair and looked across the table. On the parallel stone table, straight across from her was Captain Dylan. He stared at her and smiled. His face took on a softer look as he nodded to her with his cup held up in the air. He set it down and was interrupted by a guard to his left. Shade glanced at the man who was now leering at her as he spoke softly to the captain. He had a similar facial structure but looked a bit younger than the captain.

Shade was betting they were related. She barely noticed they were both looking back at her now. The other guard’s dark stare was just that much colder than Dylan’s. She probably had stared too long and felt her cheeks flush, turning quickly away to hide behind her goblet of sweet punch. She pushed away her plate and glimpsed at her friends, praying they’d be heading to their rooms soon to sleep.

“Shade, are you done? We’re headed to our chambers soon. Ready to go?” Braelynn asked as she gave her a flashing smile. Relieved, Shade nodded and stood, following them as they began to file out.

A dark-haired and pale-skinned Teleen woman stood in front and waited for them to gather around. She smiled broadly at someone and held her arms out. Shade craned her neck to see whom she was grinning at. Jack melted into the embrace, hugging the woman tightly. As he began pulling back, the woman hung on a little longer. It was just long enough to whisper something into Jack’s ear. He then pulled back abruptly, frowned at her, shook his head, and answered her sternly but softly enough that no one else was privy to the conversation. Shade wondered who the woman was and how she knew Jack.

Jack turned back to the group, now composed, with a face of serenity. He cleared his throat and spoke loudly for all of them to hear. “Okay, guys, Sylphi here is going to join us and show us to our rooms. We’ll be spread out some, for these are natural caves and are quite large. Don’t go wandering either. These tunnels travel far, and it’s easy to get lost. If you absolutely must, please only leave your room accompanied by someone else.” He waved for them to come forward, and they all filed in by twos behind him and Sylphi. Sylphi kept trying to inch up near him, but he avoided her advances by stepping back and cramming in beside Shade and Braelynn.

“Shade, how are you finding the trek? Getting too tired?” He smiled down at her and completely ignored Sylphi’s raging glare. The woman turned back toward a large tunnel they were all following. Joining her were Captain Dylan and his near-relative looking guard from the table.

“Um, it’s ok. My muscles are killing me. I‘ve never felt so sore in my life. I think I might have some blisters on my feet that are hurting something awful. I’m really not an outdoors type, so this is really a big push for me.”

“Ah, you will need Sari’s famous foot soak. That’ll take care of anything on your feet for sure. I am sure she will have something for your muscle aches as well. This journey will take a toll on us all. I’ll have her stop by your room after she gets settled,” Jack said.

Sylphi was giggling and turned back toward them. “Shade, you might like Darren’s famous massage. He’ll definitely make you forget any pain you ever have felt. And more….” Her voice had a singsong way, but with a definite malicious tone to it. She playfully patted Darren’s back.

“Thank you, Sylphi. I’ll try to make myself useful for anyone who wishes.” Darren, Captain Dylan’s sidekick, snickered. Shade swallowed, thinking the massage somehow did not sound like something she’d need at all.

“That’s enough from both of you. I’m sure they’re much too tired from the long journey and just want to get some shuteye. Just show them their rooms already,” Captain Dylan snapped. He grumbled under his breath and gave Shade a dark look. She wondered why he didn’t like her. He doesn’t even know me. Why would he be so mean?

It’s because the unknown is a thing to fear, Shade. Never forget that the voices chimed in.

Shade sighed. She had to agree with them. She just wasn’t so sure about the company here tonight. It was Darren, in particular, who gave her the heebie-jeebies. He just seemed to radiate some kind of evil. She wasn’t sure why he was chosen to be one of their escorts; it didn’t seem very appropriate somehow. Shade glanced at Sylphi. She’s no better.

The dark-haired Sylphi was hanging off of Jack’s arm now, whispering something into his ear. Shade wondered if those two had a thing for each other, or if it was one-sided. From the look on Jack’s face, he did not seem to mind her hanging on him but frowned every now and then at some of her comments and giggling.

She reminded Shade of the mean girls back at school, always finding a victim to torture amongst the high school kids. Sylphi was the kind of girl who would make snide comments to a good girl and send her to the bathroom with tears of humiliation streaming down her face. Shade narrowed her eyes and shook her head. Those kinds of girls thrive on others’ suffering. It’d probably be best to straight out avoid her, Shade thought. At least, they were only here for a night and would not have to endure the Teleen’s ’hospitality’ too much longer.

“What are you thinking about, dear Shade? Have we offended you in some way? You’re shaking your head with such disdain. Has your stay been so unpleasant so far?” Sylphi asked, suddenly at Shade’s side. She slipped her hand around Shade’s arms and bent closer to her. Her pale skin shone like moonlight, only with a slightly bluer tinge to the glamour she wore. The smell of roses and another fragrant scent surrounded her as she invaded Shade’s personal space.

“Jack’s mine, you know. I do hope you understand. That’s if, of course, you were getting any ideas about him,” Sylphi whispered to her. “We’re to be married soon. I know that being a woman, you understand how rare it is to find such a wonderful, strong, and handsome man like Jack. Just letting you know how very much he has missed me. I feel so overjoyed to have him back. He stays away far too long. Oh, here we are now!”

She paused, smiling intensely for Shade. It was a smile that seemed to cut into Shade like a knife, full of things wickedly unsaid. “Your room, my dear. Do have a good rest. You’ll need it!”

Shade scurried into the room and turned to see Darren leaning by the open door with arms crossed, smiling at her.

“Do let me know if you change your mind about the massage. I find you most fascinating, Shade. I’ve never met a human before. It’s been quite a delight.” He snickered, bowing as he left. Darren shut the door for her, and when it clicked, Shade ran to it and turned the lock as quickly as she could.

Leaning against the smooth wood, she finally let her breath out. Somehow, she did not feel right. Something about this place was setting alarms off in her head like crazy. She pulled her pack off and rubbed her shoulders, looking around the room for the first time.

The room was gorgeous. It was a cave, and it didn’t have any windows. The air was cold with an undertone of dampness that left a bit of a chill. There was a nice large bed at the far wall, just opposite the door. It was piled with fluffy pillows and soft blankets and was neatly arranged to not seem messy, but comfy. There was a wooden table to one side of the room, long and polished smooth from use, that she placed her pack on. Above it was a silver mirror with a vine design frame that had crystals embedded all around the edges. It was breathtaking but seemed out of place in that room.

Shade stood there, staring at her reflection. She looked tired. A thin layer of dust seemed to stick to her skin and hair. That wasn’t what stopped her, though. The mirror looked like it had a tiny ripple in it. It was as though she was gazing at her reflection in a still pool of water. It looked smooth and almost see-through. She reached out her hand, letting her fingers almost caress the surface.

Suddenly, almost as if something had turned it off, the mirror was once again solid. Shade’s fingers clinked against the hard glassy surface. It was nothing more than a plain mirror. Shade stared at it for a moment longer, shaking her head again. Nothing is as it seems here. She felt like Alice, deep down in the rabbit hole.

She let out a breath and turned toward a door in the wall of the cave that was next to the table. She turned the crystal and wood knob slowly, praying that nothing awful would jump out at her. It turned easily and opened into a well-lit bathroom. She laughed, relieved by the normalcy of it. A bathroom… It was both modern and well-equipped, with a massive claw-foot tub on one side and a large shower. The shower itself had several showerheads installed, but no door, and a drain on the floor. She reached in, turned the curved silver knob on the wall, and watched with amazement as water fell like rain pouring out of the spouts. She beamed; the water was the perfect temperature. Soaps and a sponge were on a ledge near the end of the shower, wrapped in twine and topped with a bow. Shrugging off her clothes, she stepped into the pouring water. It felt fantastic. The hot water ran down her skin and rinsed the day’s soil away, swirling dirt down the drain.

Shade hadn’t checked for towels before entering the shower, but a glance around the room revealed a neat stack of them set out on the counter. Turning the shower off, she stepped out and pulled one out of the stack, wrapping it snugly around her body. She didn’t feel any cold since the steam and warmth of the water seemed to remain with her. She pulled another towel out to rub her hair, twisting it around her head to absorb the water. She’d left her bag with her clothes in the bedroom. Groaning, she hoped it wasn’t too cold when she exited the warm cocoon of the misty bathroom.

The room was as she’d left it. Glancing toward the door, she listened for any movement or voices. The stone walls seemed to insulate the rooms very well, and she didn’t hear anyone. Natural soundproofing, she pondered, rummaging through her pack. She managed to find and pull out a deep blue nightgown with a pair of underwear. After quickly dressing, she noticed the cold air from the bedroom was starting to penetrate her skin.

Shade shivered and rubbed her arms. Her hair was still wet from the shower and felt cool on her shoulders. There was something else, though, making her stop what she was doing as she felt goose bumps flare across her skin. She looked around the room and couldn’t figure out why she was suddenly so cold. She heard what sounded like a whisper, but saw nothing. Where had that voice come from? She held her breath, listening hard for anything else.

Her eyes darted around as she waited. None of her spirit guides responded to her inner pleas as if a mute button had been pushed. She didn’t like it one bit. Something was very wrong. Shade grabbed one of her daggers from her pack and listened once more. Nothing jumped out at her, and there were no more whispers. Her heart raced and pounded in her ears. She held her breath, listening and frowning. It was probably nothing. Shaking off the crazy feelings, she tossed the dagger on the vanity table and walked to the bed. She slipped under the soft sheets and pulled one of the thick quilts on top of her. Looking around once more, she stared at the mirror one more time.

Is it rippling again? She shivered and felt uneasy. I need to rest. I’m just exhausted and drained. That’s why I’m starting to see things. Tomorrow will be here before I know it. She then decided to reach for her pack and pulled out her cell phone. It still had a charge on it, but she doubted there would be an outlet here to top it off. It read 10:45 pm. Ugh, it’s getting super late!

They planned to regroup for breakfast at six am and after that, continue on their journey. She pulled out her charger and glanced down the wall near the floor. The lamp plugged into the wall, so there had to be an open outlet just next to it. She couldn’t believe her luck as she plugged her cell phone in. Faeries with modern technology, who knew? She wondered if all the rooms were like this or was she the only one with modern comforts in her room. For certain, there’d be iron in the conduits running through the stone walls.

Shade shrugged. She’d have to ask Jack about it later. The Teleen wouldn’t be bothered by it, but what about her friends? It was something to ask about. The palace at Guildrin didn’t have such amenities. The light came from torch and candle, and from some weird magical spell that illuminated the place as brightly as natural sunlight.

Shade lay back, sinking into the bed and sheets. She let the blankets envelope around her, embracing the body heat trapped in the soft sheets, which made the bed feel like heaven. Reaching over, she clicked the lamp back off, trying to avoid looking at the creepy mirror again and instead closed her eyes, letting herself slip away into sleep.

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

 

 

Shade…”

The blue fire was glowing all around her, crackling and popping on all sides. The walls seemed too near, enveloping her like a cocoon. She stood up from the ground where she’d woken. Is this real? A dream? She didn’t know. Feeling the walls with her hands, they felt hard and rough with cold stones. The sound of her own breath echoed around her, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary, besides the fact that she had no idea what was going on. The fire came from the other side of the room. It stood like a pillar the size of a man. In fact, as she stared longer into the glowing flames, the image of a man surfaced in the fire. She gasped. The man’s eyes remained closed, and his hands laid crossed over each other on the hilt of a gleaming sword. The blade also glowed with wisps of blue fire. Its hilt was made of dark red rubies, and the red flames spread from his hands onto the edge of his sword.

Shade walked toward him, asking him who he was. He didn’t respond to her inquiries, no matter how much she pleaded. She kept going, and although her feet were bare, she did not feel cold as she thought she would. Her heart pounded in her chest as she reached out to the man.

“Help me,” Shade whispered to him, her voice faint and weak. Her fingers were almost touching the blue flame engulfing his body, even though she felt afraid. She didn’t know if the flames would burn or scald her hands. Somehow, she needed to wake him and make him help her out of this place, this tomb. Taking in his face, she realized he looked a lot like Dylan, the way he’d look if he’d been resting and peaceful.

Suddenly, his eyes and mouth flew open, and a bright, white light poured out of them in piercing rays. A sound like loud ethereal music filled her ears to the point that it sent her to the floor, covering them. The music seemed to scream into her, filling her with prickling pain.

Then the words came, and they were excruciating:

Wake up and run, Shade!”

 

***

 

Shade’s eyes flew open as she gasped, thrashing in her bed. It was still very dark, and it took a moment or two for her eyes to focus and readjust.

Am I alive or dead? Where am I? She felt panicked and couldn’t breathe, her chest arrested with a searing pain.

She reached over to the lamp, but without any light, she fumbled and sent the lamp smashing to the floor. The nightmare had left her with a dull, disorientating ache in her head. Just then, the room lit up around her like a blinding floodlight, making her pupils contract painfully.

She stopped fumbling and stared at the changed silver and crystal mirror. It was on fire, with blue flames dripping out like liquid molten rock. It crackled with white electricity and poured out of the rippling surface, down the table, and into the middle of the room. The pillar it formed shifted and morphed into a man.

Darren.

Run! Run now!

She screamed as the voices returned, panicked and jumbled in her mind. However, she soon realized no one could hear her through the solid rock walls. She pulled the blankets off but never made it out of the bed before he jumped on her. He pushed her down and smacked her face. His cold laugh rang in her ears as he snarled down at her, watching her squirm and kick helplessly.

His eyes were facets of blue, white light, blinding her even more as he pinned her under his legs and squeezed her arms so hard she felt them aching and burning in protest. There were surely bruises forming on her skin. He smacked her again so hard that stars flared in a sea of darkness. She almost blacked out, fighting to stay awake and tasting the iron flavor of blood in her mouth. The left side of her face felt on fire.

When her vision cleared, she took in the horror of Darren completely engulfed in fire. His blue flames roared around them, but nothing burned, as though his fire was cool to the touch. To Shade’s surprise, she wasn’t burning under his grip, giving her a renewed urge to struggle. His grip kept her in place while the room spun. She wondered briefly if he’d given her a concussion or something. Her stomach lurched with nausea, threatening to spill her dinner.

Blinking, she tried to focus. “Darren, let me go!” She coughed up a mouthful of blood and spit at the faery.

He snarled at her. “You pathetic mortal, I forgot how much you bleed and injure so easily. No true Fey would be so fragile. My apologies, of course. I do wonder, though, why you aren’t burning up into crumbly ash. I always did like to watch mortals turn into dust while I burnt them. I’m just a little bit sick like that.” He snickered and hopped off the bed, never letting his glare slip from her. “Show me what you’ve got, Shade. I want to know why you’re so special. What’s your secret? What is it that Jack won’t tell me?” His face morphed from mocking to angry as his fire was flickered in and out. The fire flashed rapidly, making the room pulse like a bright strobe, serving to disorientate her even more.

Shade tried to stand by grabbing the nightstand and pulling herself upright. She could barely balance on her shaky legs, which didn’t want to work at the moment. “There’s nothing special about me, Darren. I’m just a halfling. I’d think you’d have heard that by now. Really, there’s nothing else. I don’t really have any magic. I’m still learning. I swear I don’t know anything else!”

She stood and stepped toward Darren, but fumbled, tripping on her sluggish limbs. He caught her as she slipped and spun her around to where they faced the fiery mirror, still aglow. She stared at their reflections as her mind scrambled to find a way out of his embrace.

Darren smiled coldly as he yanked on her hair with one of his hands. His other arm encircled her chest, holding her arms tightly to her sides. Squeezing her even more, he nuzzled her neck and whispered into her ear. “What do you see, Shade? Don’t you like my fire? You see how insignificant you are? No human should be so special. I really don’t get why they chose you. You’re so fragile, weak, and pathetic. Why not choose a great faery warrior, like myself, for instance? You’re a tarnish to our race, and I think I will be doing us a great favor by getting rid of you.” His flames began to burn higher and licked the air around them, making it so his face no longer could be seen in the mirror.

Shade stared at her reflection. Her cheek had an angry red welt from his blows, and as the flames grew around her, she felt her panic rage. Soon, she began to see his face again as it grew more serious. He appeared deep in thought, pondering her reflection.

“Maybe we can have some fun first. You’re not so ugly. What do you think about that, love? Don’t you find me appealing?” He pulled her head back, making her gasp, her scalp stinging with pain. His nose grazed her cheek and earlobe, making her cringe at his touch. “This’ll be fun, no?”

He will never touch me, never.

Shade attempted to pull her head away from his hot breath. He laughed again and let up on his hold so she could see their reflections again. “Do you like my mirror? I placed it here just for you. Just so I could watch your every move. That’s my magic. It’s a special talent not a lot of Teleen possess, the gift of traveling through mirrors. I have the matching one in my room, so wherever I place this one, I can go, even into your locked chamber. What good did the locks do you now, Shade? No lock can keep me out. No door could close on me. It’ll be our little secret.” He laughed hard, his chest shaking behind her back.

He abruptly loosened his grip on her head for a moment, and Shade took advantage of his careless release. She shoved him back with her entire body weight, making him lose his balance for a moment, throwing him to the bed. She ran to the mirror and looked around for something to smash it. The dagger she’d left on the table gleamed as brightly as Darren’s fire. She laced her fingers around the hilt, squeezing it hard until her knuckles turned white. She swung her arm and shoved her strength into it, ramming the metal into the mirror. The crash echoed through the cave as it smashed into a thousand glittering shards.

“No! How did you know…what have you done?” Darren had just reached her and grabbed her free arm, yanking at Shade. His momentum came to a sudden stop as he was instantly pulled into the glass, along with a flash of lightning. The last glint of it blinded her and plunged the room into darkness.

Her eyes focused on the dim glow of the dagger as its light grew a bit stronger in the black room. She stared at the mirror shards, scattered and shimmering all over the room. They didn’t look unusual in any way; just plain mirror pieces glittering across the floor like diamonds. She limped toward the lamp on the floor, where it’d fallen earlier, jabbing her bare feet on the glass. Blood trailed her steps in smudges and drips from cuts stinging her flesh. Her legs, weak and shaky, began to drag under her. She fell to the floor by the bed and slipped into the developing darkness. The glow of her dagger faded into the dark, and the whole world with it.

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

 

 

“Shade can you hear me? Shade? Braelynn! She’s rousing, not quite awake yet, though. It’s ok, Shade. You’re going to be ok. You’re safe now. No one will hurt you. Can you hear me, Shade?”

The voice sounded familiar, safe, and gentle. Shade wondered if her mother had come. Maybe this was the hospital. Maybe she was dreaming, or worse, dead. She couldn’t open her eyes yet, but she could hear the commotion all around her. She tried to move, but her body did not respond.

“It’s all right. You’re still hurt, so don’t try to move too much. We’ve healed most of your wounds, but you should still move slowly. Your head is still healing.”

Shade opened her eyes a sliver. The room’s light was blinding, and it stung her eyes. Blinking, she quickly reached up to cover them. A thousand prickling, sharp pains shot through her arm and down her side. She flinched and stopped moving, groaning as she sank back down onto the bed. Every movement resulted in pain screaming down her body. She felt like she’d been hit by a freight train.

“Shade, are you still feeling some pain?”

She managed a slight nod as she gasped for air.

“Take this liquid. It will make you feel better,” Braelynn’s soft voice echoed in her head. She felt the warm liquid touch her lips and slide into her mouth. It tasted sweet across her dry, parched tongue, like honey-sweetened tea. Letting it coat her mouth, she sighed with relief. A moment later, the sharp aches faded even more, making it easier to open her eyes to the dimly lit room. Somehow, it didn’t seem so bright anymore. They must have dimmed the lights when they realized she couldn’t see.

“What happened?” Her voice was a harsh whisper, for her throat felt rough and dry as sandpaper. The room came into focus, and she noticed not only Braelynn but also Sary standing near her. She slowly sat up as Braelynn slipped a few pillows behind her, propping her up. She glanced down at her arms, studying a scatter of healing, scabby slash wounds. Her left hand also had stitches across the palm and was in an excellent state of healing. Holding it up to her face, she studied it more closely. Most of the wounds were in the mid-stage of healing as if she’d been hurt days ago and not hours.

“How long was I out of it?” Shade dreaded to hear the answer.

“You were attacked in your room about five days ago, Shade. You’ve been unconscious since then. You’ll be fine. Your wounds are healing well. Braelynn was able to stop the bleeding inside your head, but it drained her so much, she was unable to heal all of your cuts completely. She was unable to wake you up, too, even though your head is fine now. It’s almost like you were under some sort of spell.”

Sary sat on the bed next to her. A sweet, concerned smile lit her face, crinkling her sparkling eyes as she patted Shade’s arm. Her hair lay draped around her neck in soft waves of crimson fire.

“It was Darren. He attacked me. He came out of the mirror in the room!” Shade swallowed back her panic, feeling the events of that night rushing back. “Where is he? He was really going to hurt me. He wants me dead!” Tears stung her eyes, and for a moment, she wished to be back home with her mother. Her room seemed like a distant sanctuary in a forgotten dream. Sary hugged Shade tightly as her sobs overcame her.

“It’s all right, Shade. I don’t know how you did it, but somehow you trapped him in the mirror when you smashed it. He was incredibly angry and rendered entirely harmless. He was released from the mirror prison by the Teleen warlock and placed into one of the cavern’s confinement cells, where he has been ever since. We’ve waited for you to awaken. The Queen is most upset and anxious to seal his fate,” Sary said with her eyes shining. They were lovely and burned like jewels on fire. She stood up, retrieved a cup from beside the bed, and handed it to Shade, encouraging her to drink it. “Drink, Shade. You must be very thirsty. We gave you fluids similar to those in an IV in the human world, but nothing refreshes like a real liquid drunk into your body.”

Shade nodded and gripped the cup. The cool water felt amazing going down her throat. She immediately felt better, not as upset and instantly more awake. She finished the drink and handed the cup back. She was really starting to like faery food and drinks.

Glancing around the room, she was relieved it wasn’t the same place she’d been attacked in. It was similar, but lighter in color and had no mirrors. She didn’t think she could handle any more mirrors quite yet. Her backpack lay on a table by the door, and the sheets and blankets were all crisp and white. This was probably their version of a hospital room.

“What are they going to do to him?” Shade’s voice seemed small, her eyes staring down at the floor while she thought about her attacker. Shivers crept across her body as the memory resurfaced. He’d stolen something with his brutality. She felt more vulnerable than ever and weak. How could anyone be cut out for this magical place? She’d have to start training right away if she were going to survive the rest of this journey. Two threats on her life in one day had been two she could have lived without. She had no idea what she’d gotten herself into and didn’t like how it made her feel. Darren had taught her a harsh and vicious lesson.

“That will be up to Queen Gretel. I hear they take offenses quite seriously among the Teleen. He’ll probably be expected to pay an equal price for your attack. Most attempted murders are punished harshly,” Braelynn explained. “Even death is considered an adequate punishment if he was planning to kill you. This, I expect, is what he was out to do from the state of things in your room and the number of injuries he caused you. He must pay for what he did to you, Shade.” She looked earnestly at Shade from the wicker chair near the end of the bed. Shade suspected that she’d sat there a great deal during Shade’s period of unconsciousness.

“He said that he could travel through a matching pair of mirrors. He placed that mirror in my room to get to me. I even locked my door, but it didn’t matter.” Shade’s voice quivered as she recalled his dark words. “He said he was going to kill me, and that I tarnished the faery races. I didn’t do anything to him, and he hates me. Why?”

“That is the question, is it not, Shade?” Jack interrupted from the doorway. He took up most of the entrance with the bulk of his muscle-bound body. “During interrogations, he refused to speak of his reasons. He won’t even say if he had any accomplices.” He walked closer to the bed, his face weary and tired. “I have come to summon all of you—that is if Shade can walk—to Darren’s trial. The Queen has gotten word that you have awoken and is anxious to proceed. We need you there for Queen Gretel to issue his sentence. How well are you, Shade? Can you come?” He exhaled, rubbing his eyes as if he hadn’t been sleeping well.

Shade looked at him, feeling almost petrified at the thought that more fey may be out to get her. Trying to shake off the feeling, she nodded. She was feeling a lot better now with the potion they’d given her. She shifted her legs out to the side of the bed and felt the cool stone under her scabbed feet. She paused, wondering if her legs would hold. She stood up slowly and found her legs sturdy and strong. Her smile stretched across her face. That medicine is good stuff. I’m going to have to stock up on some for my whole clumsy family!

She straightened, flattened the mess of her hair as best she could and accepted Sary’s support as the warrior princess jumped to offer a hand. Shade smiled at her, grateful for her encouragement. Sary returned it tentatively and nodded in understanding as she slipped her arm under Shade. Braelynn placed two soft leather slippers in front of Shade’s feet. The leather was so smooth it was almost like silk against her skin. She shuffled forward and headed for the door.

Jack took her free side, letting her hold his arm for support. They ambled down the hall to the great chamber, which glowed brightly as daylight once more. For the first time, Shade peeked up at the roof and noticed how much it looked like a bluish-white sky at mid-noon. They were deep underground, and the sky stood there as natural as it was outside. She still couldn’t make out the source.

Looking around them, she saw that everyone, including all of the Teleen clan, were there waiting for them. The room was crammed full of faery people, like on the night of their welcome feast. She wondered what had been going on the days she’d been unconscious. How much wasted time has passed all because of what happened to her due to Darren’s treachery?

Her friends ushered her up some steps, and Queen Gretel stood up from her throne as they approached. She glided toward Shade, stepping down slowly and bowing her head at her. Shade followed along, noticing how Sary and the others reciprocated the bow. Queen Gretel, who now wore human glamour that shielded her fire, reached out and held Shade’s hands. Her pale, blue-tinged skin looked odd for a human but sufficed enough to glamour her. She smiled warmly but spoke quickly and seriously. “Dear Shade, I am most pleased with your quick recovery. I apologize for my guard’s indiscretion and most unfortunate actions. Please, come with me.” She pulled Shade further up the steps to sit in a chair placed next to the massive stone throne. Shade complied, sitting down and turning toward the queen as she addressed the crowd standing before them.

“My people, Shade was attacked here in our own great cavernous dwelling. Our home has been the scene of bloodshed and pain. This is not allowed among the Teleen, and such brutality will come with a dear price. Accused of such crimes against our guest is Darren, one of our own Teleen guards. He stands now for his punishment.”

Shade sat up straighter and sucked her breath in at the mention of the perpetrator. She’d been feeling much better. That is until she spied Darren approaching. The crowd opened for a double line of guards who were escorting Darren into the room and toward the throne. His head was hanging down with his long, dark hair disheveled and riddled with tangles. He looked like he hadn’t rested in days, and his wrists were bound with strips of thick leather. A guard held each of his arms firmly. Captain Dylan stood in front of them and bowed before the queen.

“My queen, Darren has confessed to his crime. What price shall our queen make him pay for his violations?” Dylan appeared strong and commanding, in full Teleen guard attire but without his helmet. He remained bowed and awaited her answer. Darren and his escorts mimicked his movements though Darren appeared to be shoved into submission.

“Please stand, Captain Dylan, guards.” Queen Gretel motioned. “I have come to the conclusion that only one punishment will suffice for such a deliberate and violent attack.” She looked up and scanned the crowd. The silence was heavy and hung in the room like a thick smog. Shade was sweating, and her heart raced with nauseating anxiety as she waited. She just wanted to have Darren gone, away from her sight, or to run from him as fast as she could. His presence was like a bad nightmare come to life, a suffocating presence.

“Darren must now pay tribute to Shade. A blood debt created demands payment. Only blood from death will be appropriate for such a crime.” Gasps rippled through the mass, and whispers ignited like flames through the shocked crowd. There were even heads shaking while others began to holler out protests.

“My decision stands. As your Queen, my judgment is final. Silence!” The crowd hushed as quickly as it had erupted.

“My Queen,” a voice interjected. The Teleen Queen turned to look at Captain Dylan, now kneeling before her, head bowed and stiff. “May I speak, Your Majesty?”

“Rise and speak, Captain Dylan. Your Queen has acknowledged you. Darren being your only brother, I am sure you have much to say.” She held her hand out as if to summon him to rise. Dylan rose slowly and stared back at the petite woman. His face was a well of stillness, eyes empty and blank with no feelings escaping from their pits.

“I beg thee to please reconsider. I ask you, my dear Queen, to spare the life of my only brother, Darren. I carry an oath to our long-deceased mother to care for him in her absence. Please, consider an alternative price.” Dylan bowed his head again and did not look back up. He seemed to be acknowledging the Queen’s dominance over him and over all the people that called the caverns their home.

Shade blinked as she glanced at him, the Queen, and Darren. Brother? So that’s why there’s such a resemblance. Darren is Dylan’s brother! Of course, she thought, putting it all together.

Dylan seemed genuinely concerned, but his face remained hard. He did not seem like the snickering captain of the guard she’d met her first day at the Teleen caverns. He stood still and humbled before the Queen. She wondered if he was holding his breath while he waited for her answer. Why he would defend such a rotten man, even if he were his own flesh and blood, was beyond her.

“Dylan, my faithful captain, you have served me well for so many years. I’m afraid only a fair blood trade would suffice. Knowing your mother’s wishes for you and your brother, I will consider this in my decision.” She tilted her head and watched him, studying his stoic demeanor as if reading his innermost desires. “What if I amend my judgment, let’s say, for an equal payment? Would you trade your life in your brother’s place, then? I will only alter the death price if you trade your blood and services for your brother’s life.”

Captain Dylan looked up at that remark. His eyes widened in surprise and seemed utterly tortured. He studied the Queen in confusion. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty, but what sort of blood price trade do you mean?”

The Queen smiled, glancing at Shade before speaking again. “I require that you say yes before I explain. Will you trade your life for your brother’s? I promise this will not mean a death sentence on your part if you do so. Your brother will be freed, but only if you agree to the terms in full.”

Dylan stared intensely at the Queen for what seemed like an eternity. Letting his eyes drop to the floor, he let out a defeated sigh. Shade watched him gulp and think hard on the Queen’s words. He nodded to himself, blinking back up toward her. He visibly straightened, regaining composure once more. “Yes, My Queen. In place of my brother, I will assume punishment for crimes he has incurred, short of death.” He dropped his gaze again, hiding his face as it flushed with a scarlet heat. He was probably not too happy about having to learn his fate after he swore to trade places with Darren.

In eager anticipation, Shade glanced between him and the Queen.

“Well then, Dylan, I am glad to hear that an honorable man such as yourself would assume a lesser man’s punishment. He’s undeserving of such a thing, even if he is your brother. So, in consideration of your own innocence, I hereby proclaim that your blood payment will be a blood bind to Shade. You are to protect, follow and serve her until the blood price is paid in full. Release from it will only come when the land of Faerie deems it fulfilled. Any failure to do these things will revoke the trade, and the original judgment on Darren of death will stand.”

Shade shook her head, shocked at what the Queen had just done. “No, please, Your Majesty. I don’t need a servant or a guard. I have an entourage already. My friends will guard me. He didn’t do anything! I can’t do this. Please release him! It was Darren who did it.” She looked up at the Queen and knew immediately that protesting wasn’t going to do any good.

“Shade, he cannot reject this punishment. To do so is to bestow death upon his brother. You must accept this, or you condemn Darren to death. Only time will tell when Dylan will be deemed worthy to be released from the blood bond. For now, please come here and give me your hand.” The Queen’s still face gave nothing away. Defeat hung on Shade’s shoulders as she complied, giving her left hand to the petite woman. “I must bind you to make this trade complete. It is the way of the Teleen. Dylan will serve you faithfully, protect you, and keep you safe. He cannot betray you or cause you any harm, for if he does, he will break his oath, and death will consume his brother immediately. Don’t be afraid. Come.” She slipped her hand into Shade’s, giving it a reassuring squeeze.

Shade held her breath. She was trembling so hard that it shook her entire body, leaving her unsure if she could stay standing for much longer. Fainting would be a very bad thing right now.

“Dylan, come here and give me your hand, too.”

The captain stepped up to stand across from Shade, holding out his hand without further argument. The Queen held out a small, sharp knife, its hilt gleaming with blood red rubies. Shade felt its magic rush over her in a ripple of warm energy. It was an oath maker, the Queen explained, made especially for blood bonds.

She took Shade’s hand, palm up and pressed the knife softly into it, dragging the blade across her palm. Soon, deep red blood seeped from the wound and trickled down her wrist. The Queen repeated the process again on Shade’s other palm. Amazingly, the cuts didn’t hurt at all. For all she knew, the knife’s magic took the pain away. The Queen turned and did the same to Dylan. She then took both their hands and clasped them together.

Shade looked up at Dylan as their warm, thick blood mingled. She could feel his fiery aura spilling onto hers, but it did not burn. It made her feel powerful as Dylan’s aura licked the edges of her own, revealing sides of him he’d kept hidden, making Dylan’s grip tighten. She felt his strength and magic but did not feel threatened. Looking into his gray steel orbs, she noticed how they’d somehow gone dull and blank. A touch of contempt seeped from them as he bore his eyes into her. If he felt anything more, he did not show it.

His features hardened, like a statue. None of his feelings bled through as his magic slipped away from her once more as he regained his full control over it. His aura turned solid and hard as a shield once he’d accepted his fate coldly, and she could no longer feel his emotions.

“It is done then. You may let go. Captain Dylan of the Teleen, you will forfeit your position and assume your place in Shade’s entourage until the land of Faerie decides that you have fulfilled your oath.”

Their hands dropped down to their sides. Dylan turned and walked back down toward Darren, stopping about a foot away. He turned his head and glared at his younger brother, who looked a lot like him. Dylan’s cold eyes narrowed and burned with a tinge of hate. He reached out and cut the binds on his brother’s wrists with a rough, uncaring jerk.

“Darren, this is the last time I ever save you. You’re on your own now, for we’re no longer brothers.” He turned once more and disappeared into the thick murmuring crowd. Many gasps sounded out at his declaration. The ultimatum was unexpected and stunned Darren. He stood still, tilting his head down to avoid the looks from the crowd. His eyes squeezed shut as some tears formed in his lids. He whirled around suddenly and pushed his way through the crowd, shoving anyone who got in his way. Both men were gone in a matter of seconds, leaving Shade frozen beside the Queen.

Shade glanced down at her bloody palm. The cut had knitted itself closed and was now healed, leaving a light, pink-colored scar that was thin and tight. Finding her group awaiting her, Shade found Soap holding out a hand for her. Taking it, she felt relieved to see his smiling face as he helped her down from the dais. She joined her entourage and shuffled out of the grand room. She could finally breathe, even if it were just for a moment.

 

 

Chapter Nine

 

 

 

The group huddled together near the glass bridge, silent and solemn. Their backpacks laid strewn about, reminding Shade of a summer camp she’d visited in the thick forests of California. People were still skittering about, stuffing packs with rations and supplies.

Shade sat on the ground with her own backpack already stuffed, since she’d never really had a chance to unpack before the attack. It sat balanced between her crisscrossed legs, ready to go. She held onto it as a child would a precious stuffed animal or blanket for comfort. It felt like the only thing in the world that actually did belong to her. They’d risen early the day after the trial to reassemble and continue with the rest of the journey. Shade felt almost entirely healed, but her spirits remained dampened. Her head ached with everything that had happened to her. Taking comfort in her solitary spot, she watched the others frantically rushing around. At least, Sary retrieved her clothes, cell phone, and charger from her old room. Shade had refused to enter it ever again. Her phone sat fully charged and put away, for there was no signal penetrating the dark stone cavern.

Her chestnut brown hair was pulled back into two thick, tight braids, making her look even younger than her seventeen years. She’d let Braelynn fuss over her this morning, even though she’d already pulled it back into a sloppy ponytail. The tight braids Braelynn had woven her hair into were intricate but restrictive. However, she could deal with it since it made Braelynn feel so useful and motherly.

Soap came by and lingered before her. His tall figure seemed gigantic while she sat scrunched on the ground. His hair was also tied back but lay in a simple half braid, with leather and beads streaming through it and shimmering under the torchlight. He was looking at her with his bright eyes, so deep in color in the dim light that they seemed to glow with their own light. “Hiya there, kid. You feelin’ all right?” His voice twanged with a made-up southern drawl. He winked and tipped an imaginary hat to her.

She smiled up at him and nodded, not feeling quite as gloomy as before. He was definitely in a joking mood. “I’m okay, maybe just a bit tired. I’m not sleeping so well since….” She laid her chin on her pack as she pulled it tighter against herself and closed her eyes.

Soap sat beside her on the ground and sighed as he watched the rest of the group tidying up. He turned toward her with his smile gone and his eyes immensely serious. “Are you having nightmares?”

She nodded and breathed in slowly. She closed her eyes, still leaning her head on her pack and arms. Sleep was definitely lacking, severely affected by her anxiety and paranoia throughout the night. Every creak, every rustle made her eyes fling open and her heart jump from her chest. She resorted to sitting up in bed with a dagger in hand, just in case.

Shade wondered if she’d ever feel safe going to bed again.

“Well, let Braelynn and Sary know. I’m sure one of them can whip you up a dreamless sleep potion. It might help for the first few weeks. We’re leaving in five minutes. Did you eat anything this morning?”

“Yes, I ate some toast and fruit. I wasn’t too hungry, though.” Opening her eyes, she sat up as she saw Dylan enter the area. His captain’s uniform was gone, replaced with different leather and metal armor. It was probably his traveling armor. His helmet was also gone, but his sword was still strapped to his back. His brown tunic was soft under the leather and lacked any kind of ornamentation at all. Wrist sheaths were strapped securely on his upper arms, and as he moved, they flashed slightly, revealing silver knives. He also had a sheath strapped to each thigh, and his belt had pouches with more weapons laced throughout. He was well armed and carried a small pack strapped to his back. The long locks of hair he’d previously possessed were now cut to a standard length for a human male. Shade wondered why he was sporting the short style, especially when he was the only faery man she’d met so far who didn’t have long hair.

“I guess this means he’s joining us now,” Shade said with her voice lowered. “Soap, why did he chop his hair off? It was so long. Did he have to cut it for the journey?”

Soap shook his head and leaned in toward her, his voice just above a whisper.

“No, Shade. The fey do it as a sign of mourning. He’s probably in mourning for his brother, treating it as death. It may also be because it’s a sort of enslavement that he has to be with us. He might just be mourning his freedom and former life. Your guess is as good as mine.” He jumped up to stand so fast, he appeared to have just floated up. He held out a hand to Shade again, smiling. “May I have this dance, oh ye fair maiden?”

“You know what? You’re such a dork.” She took his hand but gave him a playful whack when he started to dance, swinging her around in a circle. “Stop it already!” Shade smiled again, feeling him radiate calming warmth, too. Somehow, she just knew it was for her benefit that the Fey did that. What they gave off in their magic was like happy juice to a moody teenager. It made her feel safe at least, and that’s what she wanted most of all right now.

Dylan was watching them from across the way. His empty, blank stare made Shade shiver as her happy mood faded with his icy look. She couldn’t blame him for being mad, but it really wasn’t her fault he was stuck guarding her. He was going to have to just deal with it.

He started walking toward her and Soap. Holding her breath, Shade hoped he wasn’t going to be a pain. Dylan stopped right in front of her, causing her to take a step back as he invaded her space. He seemed to know that it made her nervous to stand near any of the Teleen, even if they were shielded with glamour.

“Dylan of the Teleen clan reporting for duty, Miss Shade. What will you have of me today?” He stood still, so close to her she could feel his warm breath across her cheek. His steel eyes were smoldering. She was not sure if it was just his eyes or if she saw a twinge of hatred swimming in them.

“Nothing, Dylan, I….” She let her words trail off and shook her head. It took a moment or two for what she wanted to say to come out right. Straightening, she decided to go ahead and glare right back at him. “I’m not your master, boss or whatever. I didn’t want this, so go do what you want, okay? I really don’t care.” Shade took another step back to dodge around him but stopped herself. “If it’s any consolation, this was not my idea. Darren should’ve manned up and taken his punishment though I do think death is an easy way out. If there’s anything I can do to help you unbind us, you just go right ahead and let me know.” He remained glaring at the ground with his jaw set hard. She sighed when he gave her nothing but silence as she swung her pack onto her back and walked away.

Jack motioned her over, as well as all the others. Everyone quickly finished their packing and circled around him. “Okay, everyone, we are way behind schedule. Today we anticipate to at least make it to the river lands. We will be near a large iron city, so once we approach, we must be very careful. We should stay near the rivers and be out of sight. If we are spotted, we might have to do memory charms on any humans that may be nearby. I would like to avoid that. You know how much fun that is,” he said sarcastically.

“Oh, and we have two newcomers on our quest. Everyone welcome Dylan, former captain of the Teleen.” His arm swung out toward Dylan, who stood just outside the circle, his arms crossed and his gaze at the ground. “Also, Miss Sylphi of the Teleen has so graciously volunteered to serve as a tracker. When our supply runs low, she can help us track down food around the Santiran fountains, where there are no cities for miles. Please welcome them both with open arms.”

He held his arm out to Sylphi, who came over and gave him an aggressive hug, apparently invading his space. He stumbled back a bit as he shifted his weight, but he did avoid losing his balance. She laughed and smiled, as though it was nothing to volunteer on a treacherous mission.

Shade glared at her. She hadn’t forgotten how friendly she’d been with Darren the night of the attack. Sylphi caught her glare and smiled sweetly at her, ignoring the look on Shade’s face. I wouldn’t trust her as far as I could throw her boney, pointy body, she thought.

“Everyone should be ready by now. Let’s go!” Ewan’s voice boomed in the cavern, echoing down the ravine. The group all swung packs onto their backs and sheathed the weapons they’d been cleaning. In about a minute, they were all crossing the great glass bridge. Shade held her breath as she walked across. Unfortunately, looking down made her stomach ache, so she avoided it at all costs. She’d be happy never to cross this blasted bridge again.

They journeyed through the same tunnels and large rooms they first passed on the way in. Shade felt relief wash over her as she caught sight of the great doors. They creaked open, and a stream of early morning sun beamed in and grew wider to meet them. Shade increased her pace and laughed when she felt the rush of the cool spring morning air. The sun was warm on her face, and the tension she’d been feeling seemed to be easing. Somehow, she knew she was not going to miss the Teleen Caverns.

 

 

Chapter Ten

 

 

 

They traveled up and around the base of one of the mountains, which were at the top of the caverns they called home for a few days. The trail winded around lazily through a canyon made from a dry, dead river. The path was packed with flakey clay that crunched underfoot as they traversed through it. Rocks smoothed over by centuries of water littered the ground in different sizes. There were signs of drought as they walked along the riverbed. They spied dead bushes and wilted desert sage still holding on though barely. The occasional scent of sage bushes and wildflowers permeated the air, but so did the slight odor of old, rotted vegetation mixed with dirt.

The sand got into everything, clinging to Shade’s pants, shoes and gritting against her skin inside her sneakers and socks. She stopped to empty the dust and gravel out of her shoes quite often. Most times, she’d sit on the smooth boulders that were scattered along the path. The advantage of the canyon was that there were many shady areas blocking off the blaring sun and heat that intensified as the day wore on. The occasional desert lizard or jackrabbit darted across their paths. They shimmied their bodies into the cracks of earth beneath the stones or bushes. How could anything survive out there? It was mind-boggling. Water was scarce, and Shade was grateful she had some to enjoy.

The group stopped for a rest under a large overhang of striped red, white, and orange stone. It hovered over them like a massive giant, threatening to fall at any moment. Ewan assured her it would not fall because it was well-anchored and more under the ground than above. Shade sat at the edge of its shadow. She wanted to be ready in case she had to bolt to avoid being crushed alive.

She opened her pack and pulled out her canteen. She drank quickly, and the cool water felt refreshing as it tumbled down her throat. She’d have to thank Jack for the canteen. It refilled itself with the magical water and never ran dry.

Pulling out a bag of rations, she began munching on the nuts, dried jerky, and flat bread. She immediately felt more alert and less tired. Glancing around, she noticed how the desert seemed to be transitioning into a more grassy and bushy area. Off in the distance, greenery weaved itself into the barren desert. It grew thicker and thicker the farther her eyes scanned. Great pines and coniferous trees shone small but bright in color, speckling the mountainsides. She wondered if they would be heading into that forest before nightfall.

Dylan parked himself at the edge of the shadows, too, but not close enough to be considered sitting with her. He had his head down, also stuffing bits of food into his mouth. He never spoke with anyone in the group. If he was angry or sad, it did not show. His antisocial behavior made her wonder what he was thinking.

It was tempting to inch closer to him and try to pry some information out of him. He didn’t seem hostile, but he wasn’t exactly welcoming either.

Sary, Braelynn, and Stephen were sitting together and chatting loudly. They were in good spirits and enjoying the outdoors. It seemed as if they felt suffocated underground, too. They told Shade that they drew their powers from the Earth and the elements. Outdoors, the sun, nature, and life replenished their strength, what stone could not do alone. The other men were sitting near each other, remaining somewhat quiet as they chomped on their rations. They chatted amongst themselves occasionally, laughing and nodding with full mouths. Their manners were a bit atrocious, and it made Shade giggle to herself. She was enjoying their company, and they were beginning to feel like a surrogate family.

Speaking of family, Shade’s thoughts wandered to her mother and siblings. What were they doing right now? Had they forgotten her? She wondered how strong the memory charm was Ilarial used on her family. A sinking feeling in her stomach made tears sting her eyes. It’s going to be okay, she told herself. Remembering the times they had all gone camping when she was younger and her father was still alive made her smile and savor the memories.

Camping was a constant distraction from the everyday problems her family faced. She would share her tent with her younger sister, Anna, who was three years younger and, most of the time, quite a pest. She enjoyed following Shade around like a puppy, which annoyed Shade to no end. Anna would butt into Shade’s stuff or activities all the time, messing with her Barbie dolls, kicking her arrangements over, or even resorting to just stealing her toys or accessories. Shade hated it at the time, but now she’d give anything to have Anna bugging the crap out of her. Maybe she’d be sitting with her, sharing food and drawing in the fine sand with a twig. Anna did have a great big imagination. She’d tell Shade the longest stories about her day at school or simply made some up. It always took hours to tell it just right. She’d love to hear an Anna story right now.

Taking a bite of jerky, she tried to distract her thoughts by concentrating on chewing the tough meat. It was suddenly lonely though she knew her new friends would not let anything happen to her. She still longed to hear from her best friend Brisa, who could be counted on for a quick joke when things were bad. She pulled her cell phone out of her pack and stared at the reception bars. For one reason or another, they were nonexistent, even out here, above ground.

Tears broke through the tension on her lids and slid warmly down her cheeks as she stuffed the phone back into the pack. Pulling her knees up to her chin, she nuzzled into them, hiding her face.

This will not last forever, and soon I’ll be home. She sniffled and pulled a soft washcloth from her pack, wiping her face and clearing her drippy nose, exhaling as she stuffed the cloth back into the pack. Jumping with a start, she realized Dylan now crouched down next to her and was staring with his intense, steel-grey eyes. His face was alert and observing as if waiting for some sort of word from her.

“What?” Her voice came out sharper than she’d meant it to, but she did not like him interrupting her melancholy memories.

“You’re in distress.”

She fought the urge to be a smart ass. “Really, you think so?” Shade snapped.

He smirked, settling down next to her, not waiting for an invitation. “Don’t get angry. I only meant to help. I am bound by blood to serve you, aren’t I? Well, if you’re in distress, I can feel it now, and I have to try to fix it. I’m compelled to. It’s part of the magic.” Avoiding her glare, he studied the dirt with increased interest.

Shade gawked at him. His face froze as he retreated into his own memories while his hand sifted through the fine sand. Then he became so still, she could not see him even breathing. She waved her hand in front of his face, and he jerked out of his trance, shifting his eyes back to her. “Are you all right?” She asked.

“What do you care?” He asked coldly.

Shade pulled her gaze away first and back to the ground, smearing her tears away with the back of her hand. His words stung and put an ache in her chest. “I just thought that maybe, um, well I…oh, never mind.” She pressed her lips together, shaking her head. It was useless to talk to Dylan; the walls he built around himself were too thick. She could almost feel them pressing up against her, palpable and frigid.

“Why don’t you just go away?” Shade hissed at him, irritated. She began scooting away when he grabbed the sleeve of her hoodie. Looking up, she expected an angry glare but found an ocean of pain floating behind his eyes.

His mouth tensed with unexpected emotions, making her consider the seriousness of the situation. “I would, but I can’t. Like a cord between us, it binds me to you. Where you go, I must then follow. If you go too far, I am compelled to search for you until I find you. If I try to run, I would freeze in my own steps and be made to turn back. I’m anything but free. I’m your slave. I intend to see this to its finality and end it.” He snickered then and let her go. “’til death do us part, Shade.” He ripped off a bite of his jerky and chewed without looking back at her.

Shade didn’t try to leave again. A tight knot formed in her stomach, making her want to throw up what little she’d eaten. Nothing about this seemed right. She could feel the ties pressing down on Dylan. She didn’t even like him and didn’t believe he liked her either, for that matter. It was like having to choose the kid that no one ever picks for your team in gym class. You didn’t want to do it, but you had to and it sucked.

“Alright, everyone, let’s get going again. We have to make it to the Emerald Forest of the River Lands before nightfall. That’s where we will stop for the night.” Ewan motioned the group to follow as everyone jumped to their feet. Packs were slung back on and weapons were put away.

Shade followed suit, watching as Dylan re-strapped his sword sheath over his thin armor. He stretched his arms and legs as he stood, displaying well-defined muscles that rippled in his arms. His golden-brown tan meant he’d seen some sun, unlike the pale Teleen in the caverns. She wondered if the Teleen guards were the only ones that spent any time outside the caverns. Their Queen was so chalky-pale, Shade doubted she ever ventured out.

She had unanswered questions about the Teleen and wondered whom she could ask for answers. Glancing at Dylan, she pondered asking him but quickly decided against it. Dylan would be her last resort.

She jogged up to Sary, falling into step beside her. Stephen moved to the side when he spotted her, giving her a curt nod as she passed. He and Sary were always glued to each other’s side. Shade flushed at the thought of them as lovers. Of the entire group, these two were the most inseparable.

“Hi, Shade! Everything all right?” Sary’s sweet voice flowed from her cherry red lips. She was quite lovely, beautiful actually. It was no wonder she was royalty. Why she’d be out here in the middle of who knew where, getting all dirty, grimy, and really sweaty, Shade would never know.

“Um, I was wondering about something.”

“What are you wondering about?”

“Why I didn’t get burned when Darren touched me. I wasn’t electrocuted or burned. Jack told me I would be. Darren wasn’t in glamour at all, and Jack and Soap said that if you touch a Teleen when they’re not glamoured, you could get electrocuted or burned. Darren did seem surprised that I hadn’t. He became frustrated when he realized that, but then I think he found it fascinating and intriguing.” She heard her voice quiver as a lump began forming in her throat. She could see everything so clearly in her mind as if it was happening all over again.

Sary’s eyebrows furrowed as she thought about Shade’s question. “Oh, Shade, I know it’s hard for you to talk about that night. Honestly, I don’t know the answer. You might want to ask Jack about it. He might know of some instances or possible reasons why Darren could not harm you. Somehow, I think one of your powers is some sort of protection from the fire and lightning of the Teleen fey. I find it quite interesting.”

Shade nodded and thanked Sary for her thoughts. Jack would be the one to ask about this. She’d meant to chat with him about the effects of Teleen powers on her for some time.

“Jack! Wait up!” They were on a hill, and the rocks stood jagged on the trail. She slowed her pace to maneuver around the razor edges of stone until she was right behind him.

“Hey there, what can I do for you?” Jack’s cheerful mood was infectious.

She matched his pace but could not walk beside him with the trail narrowing and twisting around the large, rough boulders. Keeping an eye on the shifting dirt underneath, she continued, “I’ve meant to ask you some things.”

“Go for it.” He pulled himself up a steep part of the trail and turned to help Shade over the hump.

“Thanks. I was wondering, when Darren attacked me, he let his glamour fall away as he touched me, so why didn’t I burn or get electrocuted like you said I would?”

Jack stopped cold and turned toward her. Horror flashed across his face, his eyes growing dark with shock. “What? Are you sure he let his glamour slide? No, it would have killed you. There’s no way you would’ve survived.” He narrowed his eyes at her, studying her face for something unknown to her. “Are you sure you remember right? You don’t think that when you hit your head, you might’ve thought he let his shields down?”

Shade shook her head. There was no way she remembered wrong. “No, I know what I saw. He let his glamour melt away as he held onto me while he was on fire. His skin burned with bright blue flames that lit the entire room, flowing over his skin, like sparking electricity. I remember it as clearly as I see you now.”

“I know what you’re saying, Shade. I do not doubt you, but it’s just that it’s not possible. I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve never heard of anyone, especially a Halfling, surviving a full-blown Teleen touch. That’s exactly why our race is dying.” He grunted, half sliding down a boulder.

“What do you mean?”

“Well…” He wiped the sweat from his brow, taking a deep breath as he rested. “We…we can’t breed outside our own race. It would be fatal to get close enough to anyone other than a Teleen.” Jack pressed his lips into a thin, hard line as he started walking again. His face remained pensive.

“But Jack, isn’t Soap a Teleen halfling? You’re saying it’s not possible, but he’s evidence against that, isn’t he?” Shade hurried to keep up with Jack, for his step quickened.

Soap, who’d been walking ahead of them, paused and followed them with great interest.

“Soap is also part changeling. Changelings can ‘change’ into a Teleen if they want to. I think that’s one of only a few ways pairing outside our race could be possible. Changelings are all but extinct, though. We don’t even know who his parents were. To find a changeling to mate with would be like hitting the lottery for a Teleen-born. It just doesn’t happen. The chances are so slim. Only those with fire affinities could ever pair with one of us. Wait, maybe.…” He stopped again and was really staring at her now. Shade stopped too, suddenly feeling the weight of his stare like she was under a microscope. “You’re not a changeling, Shade. Are you?”

“No, well, not that I know of,” Shade stammered.

“Have any fire magic?”

“No, sorry. I can’t change into anything, or start any kind of fire. I’d think I would know if I could.” Her voice cracked, leaving her suddenly unsure about anything. She was part faery, but she didn’t know what type of faery.

Me, a changeling? That’s highly doubtful, Shade thought. It was already unnerving to think she was anything more than human.

Jack shook his head before looking at her again. His friendly smile was beginning to light up his face once more. “Nah, I don’t think you’re a changeling, Shade. I know all this sounds really strange, and I wish I could help you more, but I’ve never come across something like this before. If I ever find out anything about it, you’ll be the first to know, okay?”

Shade nodded as he patted her back and turned to walk down another narrow and rocky hill. Shade sighed. She wasn’t sure if she knew anything more than she had before.

 

 

Chapter Eleven

 

 

 

Shade sat on a large, smooth rock near her tent, proud that she erected it all by herself. The fresh breeze rippled the nylon violently, but it held. She staked it down well, just like her father had shown her. She had lots of practice staking down tents for herself and her sister. Every time they went camping, she was in charge of tent setup. Remembering how much she loathed it made her chuckle. She thanked her lucky stars that her father had pounded the basics of camping and surviving in the wild into her, just in case. She doubted he had ever considered how useful the knowledge would be on a perilous faery journey.

Dinner was cooking atop a blazing fire. There was a fox roasting over it, which Than had skinned, gutted, and staked to a spit. It turned round and round over the flames, giving off a pleasant but smoky aroma. It looked like he’d done this many times before. The fox was a good size, nice and plump, and would feed them all. She wished she could take a shower, but that wasn’t going to happen out here. Once again, she was covered in dirt, and a film of her salty sweat stuck to her skin. She was sure it would never come off.

The air was cooling rapidly as the sun sank over the mountains. Shivering, she rubbed her arms to warm them. She’d traded her hoodie for a jacket but wished she’d brought a thicker one. She felt somewhat unprepared for the cold nights, even after layering her clothes and wearing a thicker sweater. Unfortunately, the extra clothes were not working too well at guarding her against the cold.

Dylan plopped down next to her, disturbing her thoughts before draping a large, thick, fur-lined blanket over her shoulders. She jumped up, letting the blanket spill off her into a cascading heap. Dylan grabbed it just before it hit the ground.

“What are you doing?” Shade glared at him, her face flushed with anger. It wasn’t nice to intrude on her space, and she was through tolerating it.

He held his free hand up, smirking a little at the same time. “The polite thing to say is thank you. I’m not sure what humans are accustomed to, but when someone gives you a blanket to keep warm in the cold, our kind is grateful. But who am I to say so? I might be wrong to think that way,” he added sarcastically.

“You’re a prick, Dylan, you know that? I can see it’s in your blood, by the way. Just stay away from me. You and your brother can just go to hell!” Shade stood there staring at him, her breath steaming in the cool air as her words came out in a huff. The night pushed hard against the remnants of the day, making her feel suddenly overexposed. Dylan remained calm while he watched her. He lifted the blanket up to her once more. His smirk smoothed out, and the former captain’s face fell flat and unreadable. His eyes did give away some feeling; there seemed to be a spark in them that showed he was amused by her reaction.

“Shade, just take the blanket, okay? It’s cold out,” he muttered. “I’m not really affected by the cold, but, being that you’re mortal….” He looked like he was working hard to suppress a smile. “Well, I packed for two. I knew you’d need help out here.” His smile returned as he continued. “Really, it’s a warm blanket. Think of it as a peace offering.” Standing up when she did not go to him, he moved closer until he was in her face, almost touching. He swung the blanket around and draped it over her shoulders. Shade stiffened but let him place the blanket on her, and she held onto it this time, unsure of what to do. He nodded, looking satisfied before turning to walk away.

“Dylan, wait,” Shade choked out. Her voice was tight in her throat. She turned to look at him as he stopped in his tracks. He didn’t turn around but paused, waiting. “I… I’m sorry, Dylan. I feel like you don’t like me, but you don’t even know me. Maybe that reminds me of Darren a bit, and that freaks me out. You two are pretty similar, but I know you aren’t like him. I know that… I can feel it. I….” She sighed, frustrated with her stumbling tongue. “Thanks for the blanket. I do appreciate it.”

“You’re welcome, Shade,” he answered with a little more warmth than he had ever shown before.

She glanced around and noticed the others working on their own tents. Jack had one, and so did Ewan. Sary and Braelynn looked like they were sharing, and so were Stephen and Than. Shade thought that maybe some of the group were probably pairing up because they didn’t have enough tents. Soap had his own tent, and unless they were sharing, it was unclear where Dylan was going to sleep.

“Don’t you have a tent, Dylan?”

“I do, but I find it really confining. Besides, I have to stay by you, and there isn’t enough room for another tent here. The ground is my bed tonight.” He tilted his head slightly, one eye watching her intently.

“Why do you have to camp by me? Do you really have to?”

“No,” he stated simply.

“Then why are you hovering? I feel like you’re suffocating me.”

“No, I wouldn’t ever do that. I’d never hurt you!” He whirled back around, his face now serious and his eyes wide. He’d taken her words at face value.

“Whoa, I don’t mean literally! It’s like an expression.” Relieved as he relaxed, she sighed. “Look, you don’t have to be stuck to me like glue. I’m not an invalid, and you’re not my bodyguard. Get this straight: I do like my space.” She’d lost her patience with him and headed off, with the blanket still wrapped around her, toward the smoking carcass that was dinner.

 

***

 

Dinner was satisfying. The fox tasted amazing, or maybe it was just because Shade was starving. It was such a long hike that day, her muscles ached and burned intensely. She had never felt so hungry before, and now, so tired. Sitting on a fallen log by the main campfire, she watched the flames lick the twigs and branches smoldering with soot. Ashes littered the ground around the fire as it flickered and crackled. The heat felt comforting, forcing the chill of the evening away.

It felt cozy in the blanket Dylan had provided, making her feel just a tad bit guilty for snapping at him, especially since his gift had turned out to be so useful. Okay, I’ll try to be nicer to Dylan. This isn’t his fault. She hadn’t meant to snap at Dylan, but everything was really overwhelming her. She’d been attacked twice in less than a week. It was hard enough for her to keep up with everyone in the group physically. Her lack of appreciation for outdoor activities didn’t help. Taking a deep breath, she knew these were the least of her problems.

Dad… isn’t my real dad, she thought sadly. It was difficult to accept. She wasn’t glad he was dead, but she was relieved he would never have to know this. How would she deal with it? To make matters worse, she was bound to Dylan, sharing some kind of mutant blood bind connecting her to him, and to Darren in some weird sadistic way, too. Dylan’s blood is Darren’s blood…. She cringed at the thought.

Her life was not turning out quite as she planned. She was supposed to be in high school, cramming for finals, and graduating in three weeks. This was not supposed to happen, and she missed Brisa so much. Who else could tell so many jokes, especially around a warm campfire on a freezing night? She wished Brisa had been pulled into this mess so Shade wouldn’t be alone right now. Even with her new friends surrounding her and their happy chatter floating about the fire, she felt the loneliness creep in again.

Sary walked over and sat next to her on the log. She winked at Shade and then settled her gaze on the fire. The silence between them was thick; Shade could sense she was aching to ask her something. She wondered what it could possibly be. Sary was quiet, for the most part unless she was with Stephen. Shade saw how Sary stared dreamily into his eyes whenever they were talking. His face was a mirror of hers, and their devotion radiated around them like some protective, blissful bubble. Shade couldn’t help but feel a little envious of their bond.

Shaking the thoughts away, she scolded herself. She wasn’t the type to get jealous. She was actually quite happy being the responsible older sister in a single parent home with four kids. It gave her tons of freedom to do whatever she wanted to, and she felt like she was the other adult in the house. She had no time for boys. They just mucked things up, anyway.

Her thoughts wandered to her mother, Jade. She had shoulder length hair, a beautiful shade of brown with caramel highlights streaked throughout it. It was wavy and never wanted to stay where she’d like it. She was happy just running her hands through and did not fuss much with it. Her big, brown eyes were fascinating, too. They had a glint of gray and honey running through both of her irises. The hazel coloring in her eyes definitely stood out with only a touch of makeup on her olive skin. Shade was glad she took after her mother; she’d always seen her mother as a beautiful woman.

“Shade?” Sary’s voice gently broke into her thoughts.

“Yes, Sary?”

Sary paused for a moment, studying Shade’s face before speaking. “When this is over, will you return to Faerie at all? Or will you want to forget this all happened? I wonder because, you see… I can feel your reluctance even now about completing this task. I know it’s a hard thing to ask of you, being that our world is so alien.” She sighed nervously before continuing. “But we need you more than you could possibly perceive or understand. I can’t even imagine what you think of all this, especially after everything that’s happened so far.”

Shade felt anxious and slightly guilty because she’d been so caught up in herself and hadn’t thought about the rest of the group. She hoped she hadn’t seemed too antisocial tonight. Maybe it had an adverse effect on them. She let her eyes linger on the fire, thinking hard about how to answer Sary. It was so difficult to predict the future. She never thought this would be happening to her. She searched for the right thing to say.

“Sary, I hope you don’t feel like I could just say goodbye and be done with everyone so easily. You’ve helped me so much already. I have to admit that this new world is confusing to me. It scares me to death, and I don’t feel like I belong here. I don’t have the strength or the right training for this. Everyone has said I have magic in me, but I don’t know how to use it. How could I ever survive in your world? I just feel terribly vulnerable. I would love to visit you guys when this is all done, but I don’t think I could live here.

Sary was staring at Shade, an amused look dancing on her face. She started laughing so hard she almost fell off the log.

“What’s so funny?” Shade asked, annoyed at her reaction. She was definitely confused. What the hell could be so funny about what she said?

Sary stopped and shook her head as she cleared her throat. “I’m so sorry, Shade. I don’t mean to insult you. I just never thought of our world as that different. It’s nice to get an outsider’s view. You’re right, though. How inconsiderate of me. Of course, you don’t feel safe. Ilarial did tell us that it was our job to show you how to use your magic. You have more to you than you think you do. I’m still baffled on how you managed to trap Darren in the mirror shards. He was bloody mad about it, but I can’t say he didn’t deserve it though. He deserved that glass prison and more for what he did to you.” She paused, looking a bit more serious. “So how would you like your first official magic lesson?” She grinned, her eyes twinkling in the firelight.

“Oh, I don’t know, Sary. I’m kinda tired and was about to go to bed. Maybe tomorrow?”

“No, no, right now. I promise it’ll be a short one.” She watched Shade squirm uncomfortably. “How ‘bout it?” she pushed.

Shade pressed her lips tight in frustration. There’s no sense in fighting it, she admitted to herself. “Ok.”

Sary jumped up and clapped her hands, and her vibrant enthusiasm cheered Shade up. “Okay then, pick up any stone–really it can be any one that you find. Come on Shade, just pick the first one that catches your eye,” Sary repeated when Shade hesitated.

Shade groaned but bent down from the log to study the ground. Searching the particles around her, she looked at each possible stone, but none seemed to stand out. Sitting up, she shook her head slightly, about to complain that she couldn’t find one when a glint of rock flashed in the corner of her eye. She reached out toward the edge of the log and retrieved it. The gray and white stone looked slightly out of place among the other white ones embedded in the sand. Dusting it on her jeans, she put it in the middle of her palm. “Like this one?”

“Yes, perfect! Now, take your stone and place your other hand over it. You have enough power within you. I can feel it radiating off of you like a fire.” Sary waved her hand at her to make her go faster.

Shade protested but did what she was told. Her hands felt cold in the night air, and the stone was cool in the center of her warm palms. About to give up, she stopped, feeling it get warmer on her skin. She opened her hands, her eyes widening with amazement.

The rock was glowing with a dim yellow hue. The heat was radiating to her fingers from it, feeling as if it should have burned her, but it didn’t. Shocked, she dropped it and cradled her hands on her chest. The sand puffed up around it like a meteorite landing. The stone lost its glow until it sat still and dusty once more. She peered up at Sary, who appeared pleasantly surprised.

“Wow, that was faster than I thought it would be. You just made your first light stone! You can make your own light with it and keep your hands warm too. It won’t burn you if that’s what you are thinking. This comes in handy on a dark and cold winter’s night,” she said with a smile. Bending down, she plucked the rock out of the gravel, holding it out to Shade.

“It’s ok, Shade. Take it. It will only glow when you want it to. Remember, to activate it again, put it in between your hands once more. It belongs to you and only you now, so keep it near.” She gave her a quick hug as Shade took it and stuffed it into her jeans. It was small and did not bulge out too much. “Good job! I’ll let you get to your sweet dreams now.” Sary jumped up and joined Stephen, who was calling out to her. They walked away from the fire and over to their tents, chatting quietly.

Shade let out a nervous breath. She’d been taken by surprise with the light stone, but she liked the idea of it. She fished through her pocket and brought the stone out once more. Reactivating it, it burned brighter this time in her palms and warmed her chilly fingers.

Staring at it for a moment before stuffing it back in her jeans, she rose and walked back to her tent.

Maybe, just maybe… I can do this after all.

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve

 

 

 

 

The murmur of voices amplified in the growing light of the morning. Shade moaned and wished she’d thought of bringing earplugs. Rolling over, she stuffed her pillow over her head, hoping to muffle the noise. It can’t be morning already! It felt like she’d just laid her head on her pillow and closed her eyes. Hiking was definitely not on her cool list right now. Her muscles ached and burned.

“Shade, get up. We have to pack and get going. I brought you breakfast. You’re going to need it.” She felt her pillow fly off her face. Dylan stood crouched at the entrance of her tent, his lips tight with disapproval. He looked wide-awake, making her wonder how long he’d been up. Was it possible he didn’t need to sleep? He motioned to a plate of food and drink lying by her. In an instant, he was gone.

Shade blinked and rubbed her eyes. Stuffing the pillow under her neck, groaning and wanting more sleep, disappointment ran through her mind. Sleep was a pleasure of the past now, something she couldn’t quite remember having enough of. She glanced at the food he brought; bacon and fresh scrambled eggs with a bread roll were still steaming. It looked amazing and smelled even better.

This coaxed her out of her warm bed as she pulled the food and drink toward her. Inhaling the savory aromas, she was amazed at how hungry she was. Slurping down the sweet, warm tea that Dylan provided made her instantly feel more alert. She wondered what was in that drink; it was always so revitalizing. She’d have to ask someone. Besides, it was curious how they managed to have bacon and eggs so fresh out here in the wild. Munching on the rich, thick slices of bacon, she enjoyed every bit.

Well, this is my one pleasure out here in this hellhole. Shade sighed, frowning at her empty plate. The food was gone much too fast. Good things just do not last around here. She stretched and fumbled through her bag, pulling her brush, washcloth, and towel out, and hoped there was somewhere to wash up. She yanked on her shoes then wrapped the blanket around her like a cape.

Stepping out into the cold morning air was like being electrocuted. It stung her cheeks and sent a thrill down her body. Yay, winter weather. She wondered how it seemed to be a different season every place they went in the faery lands. It didn’t seem possible it was spring back home.

Walking up toward the central fire, she looked around. She wanted to find and ask Braelynn or Sary where she could wash up, but Soap popped up in front of her instead. He grinned at her, showing off his pearly white teeth. “Where do you think you’re sneaking off to, young lady?”

Shade froze in her tracks, her face flushing and feeling guilty without reason to. Tilting her head, she gazed back upon his still smiling but suspicious face.

“I’m not sneaking off anywhere. I just want to get cleaned up. You wouldn’t happen to know where I could, um, go to uh, freshen up?” Her face flushed up scarlet once more under the cold air. Soap wasn’t the one she’d wanted to ask.

“It’s down that side of the hill a bit. It’s a large red tent. Girls on the right, boys to the left.” He winked, spun and trotted back to the camp. Shade gaped at him as he walked—no…skipped—away cheerfully. She shook her head. She couldn’t get over how strange he was. They hadn’t spoken much since they arrived at the Teleen caverns, making her wonder if he was just cautious with her since it was a Teleen who attacked her. It was something she’d have to talk to him about later.

She turned back in the direction he had pointed her to, gripping her supplies. Approaching the bathroom tent made her stop in confusion. It didn’t look like anything special; the flaps were wind-worn and faded. She wondered how it was even big enough to hold two dressing rooms, let alone anything close to a washroom. She shrugged, too tired to contemplate it for long, and willed herself to get moving.

Inside, she was shocked at how warm and humid it was. The scent of flowers blooming in the springtime permeated the air, and the tent was definitely much bigger than it appeared on the outside. It even had a foyer with a table and hanging mirror. To the right of the wooden table hung a red curtain, and beside it a blue curtain. She supposed the colors were to separate the women and men.

Heading through the red drapery, assuming it was for women, she followed the hallway as it turned toward the left. In the end, it turned again to the right and opened onto a large room filled with mirrors on one side. On the other side were stalls with toilets and two showers next to them.

This reminds me of camp, only better. Shade was impressed but not curious enough to wonder for long how it was all possible. She was just grateful it was there. She laid her stuff on one of the chairs and pulled it near one of the shower stalls. She was definitely surprised to find actual flushing toilets in the stalls. Honestly, I can’t believe the faeries have all this. She just shook her head in disbelief and undressed, stepping into a shower stall. Soap, shampoo, and conditioner were provided, and she was thankful the water was hot. The steaming spray felt exhilarating on her skin and eased her aches. All too soon, she stepped out of the stall, dried her body and hair, and pulled on her fresh clothes. Running the brush through her tangled hair, she gritted her teeth then pulled it back into a tight ponytail.

Her reflection stared back at her from the mirror. For the first time since the attack, she saw her face. It made her suck in her breath. Her face was covered with small, healing pink lines, like spider webs, all across her right cheek. She looked down at her arms where she saw more of the same thin scars. They’re all over me…. Tracing them with her fingers, she found them smooth and a soft pink, nearly invisible to anyone who wasn’t actually looking.

She studied the mirror for a bit longer to make sure it didn’t ripple or look magical in any way. A shudder ran through her as she did her best not to be reminded of Darren. Turning away when she was satisfied it was just an ordinary mirror, she gathered her things and grabbed the blanket Dylan gave to her the night before. She wrapped it around herself, realizing she was in dire need of a coat. The weather here is so annoying. She didn’t want to think about the scars, at least not yet. In a way, the blanket served as armor, covering them up and hiding her skin away. For that, she was grateful. Bundling up her old clothes in the towel, she turned to leave and ran right into Sylphi. Shade gasped, stumbling back with her eyes wide, regaining her balance.

“I’m so sorry, Shade. Did I frighten you?” Sylphi sneered slightly, studying Shade with inky black eyes. Her dark hair was down and a bit tousled like she had just rolled out of bed. However, it still managed to have some shine. She also held a bundle of clothes and a towel in her arms, pressed against her chest.

Shade gave a small, nervous laugh. “Oh… hello, Sylphi. No, well, maybe just a little. How long were you standing there?” She tried to swallow her anxiety and stood a bit straighter. Nothing about Sylphi made her feel warm and fuzzy. The girl radiated iciness like an open window in the late winter.

“Not for too long, really. I was just going to freshen up.” She smiled her sickly, sweet smile, batting her eyelashes innocently. Her eyes were so dark, it was like staring into a pair of black holes. She continued to stare at Shade with her intensely black eyes and didn’t make a move to get out of the way.

A chill ran through Shade, but she pressed her lips tight, attempting to smile back at the faery. The sight of her was unnerving, to say the least. “Well, ok, I was just leaving. See you later.” She had to side step a bit to get around Sylphi, who was still not budging from her spot.

“Why don’t you just go home, Shade? No one really wants you here.”

Shade hung in mid-step as she listened to Sylphi’s icy voice. The woman was still not moving but slyly snickering. “You’re too weak for this quest. Why don’t you give up before you fail miserably? No one wants to be out here in this forsaken wilderness with you anyway. Do us a favor and quit already, half-breed,” Sylphi hissed through her teeth, a menacing twinkle lingering in her gaze.

Well, heard that one before…

Shade glared at her in disgust. Shaking her head, Shade sneered right back. “I’m not a quitter, Sylphi. I need to do this, and nothing you say will change my mind. I don’t believe you have to be here, though. You came by choice, remember? So did I… Maybe you should go home.” She dodged Sylphi and stepped hurriedly through the doorway, ignoring Sylphi’s snide laughter.

I wonder what the hell her problem is.

The cold air slapped her hard once she left the facilities tent, and her hair felt instantly frozen. She didn’t stop, though; she hurried as fast as she could to her own tent, or what should’ve been her tent. All she found was Dylan sitting on the ground, patiently waiting next to her pack.

“What the…? Where’s my stuff? What’d you do with my things?” Shade felt her anger tipping the scales and tried to grab a handle on it before hollering at him. She breathed in slowly and deeply, averting her glare away from him. It wasn’t his fault that Sylphi had such a strange effect on her. She felt discombobulated. Her breath steamed like clouds floating out her nose and mouth.

He rolled his eyes almost as impatiently as she jumped on him.

“Well, Dylan?”

“Ok, calm down. I so graciously put away your things for you, since you were taking so long in the bath. We’re leaving in just a few minutes, by the way.” He stood up and held out her pack, dangling it from his fingers.

She snatched it from him with her free hand, biting her lip as he walked off to the main camp without another word. She sighed, realizing she hadn’t even bothered to thank him. Why did it seem they clashed over everything? If they were going to be forced to spend so much time together, this would definitely have to stop. Kneeling down, she opened her pack and pulled out a sack for her dirty clothes. She stuffed them in and shoved it back into the pack.

This will just have to do until we reach the river. The clothes had a slight odor, and they needed a wash badly. Shade marched down the path to the main camp, joining the rest of the group. Ewan was already waving his arm around to capture everyone’s attention as she chose a large boulder to sit on and rubbed her sleepy eyes. It’s already been a long day, and it’s only the butt crack of dawn.

“Alright, is everybody present? Soap, Jack, Braelynn…” The brawny man glanced about, squinting his eyes at the group. “Where’s Sylphi?” Heads whirled around and searched the group.

“I just saw her in the bath tent. She’s probably still there,” Shade muttered.

“I’m right here.” Sylphi stepped out from behind a tree and smiled at the group. Her hair was dried and slicked back into an even tighter ponytail than Shade’s. She looked radiant in the morning sun, all dressed in white furs with her pack strapped to her back. She waved at Shade, a sly smirk on her face. Shade frowned back, but not as confidently. She wondered how Sylphi had bathed, dried, clothed herself, packed and made it to the group so fast. It’s probably a fey thing.

“Alright, that should be everyone. We are heading to the great rivers. We will be getting wet, by the way. Shade, see Braelynn for water repellant charms so your stuff doesn’t get soaked,” he added as a side note, and then continued on. “We will be camping in the middle of the river lands. It’s made up of seven rivers that wind, turn, and meet together at the Pacific Ocean. The rivers are pure Faerie territory, close to human towns. There is to be no wandering across the borders because the iron cities are too close to us along the coast.

He held up a large piece of parchment with a drawing of the rivers. They were vivid blue lines that twisted and curved around the vast green areas on the map. He pointed out the boundaries and again warned of the dangers of wandering too near a human city. Shade stared at the map, utterly confused. It looked so unfamiliar. If her sense of direction was right, they had to be near the coasts of California and Oregon. She didn’t recall seeing such a tangle of large rivers there before. This revelation had her waving down Ewan.

“Those rivers are not on ordinary maps. You said it is a purely faery territory? Does that mean that the river lands are hidden from humans?”

Ewan nodded, smiling at her curiosity. “Why yes, Shade. Aren’t you just sharp as a knife this morning? Yep, human maps look quite different from faery maps, but we have the real world maps. Mortals’ maps are only splices of the actual world. They don’t know it, but there are vast areas of fey lands that are protected by enchantments and wards. So in essence, the area looks a lot smaller to them than it is.” Ewan continued on, letting his finger trace along the borders on the paper. He then quickly rolled up the scroll map, ordering everyone to prepare to leave.

The desert wasteland twisted and blended into the lush forest of emerald green leaves and bushes. The land was riper and more fertile here, almost an artificially vibrant green. No matter which trail they took, Shade could hear rushing water in the distance. It surrounded them like endless background noise. The river lands were strange; there were islands between some rivers where they intersected and weaved together like a tangle of noodles. Then there would be long stretches of land that didn’t run into a river at all. Some of the islands sported bridges, while others had none, forcing the group to wade through each river carefully. Even with the waterproof charm, which Braelynn and Sary placed on everyone and their items, Shade couldn’t help but feel the cold embrace of the water stealing the warmth from her body. It flowed around her thighs, and the icy cold still seeped through her clothes.

She was left stiff from the frigid waters. With the charms, she did not feel wet but felt quite dry, even though her teeth chattered and her body shook from the chill. It was a relief to emerge from the cold, wet trek through a river. Once out of the water, the sun warmed her immediately. Her stiff, frozen clothes stuck to her, remnants of a watery grave.

After about four of these submersions, she was ready to smack Ewan. Did they really have to walk through all that cold, muddy, and swirling water so much? Her love of the outdoors, what little she did have, was washing away with each turbulent wave of river water.

Once they stopped to rest, eat and do their best to warm up, Shade pulled the warm blanket Dylan had given her from her pack and wrapped it tightly around her body. Turning her head up to the sun, she soaked up its comforting rays. It felt incredible, like hot cocoa warming her core after playing in the snow and getting frostbite on her toes and fingers. She closed her eyes, not wanting to move. She felt frozen down to her inner marrow, and her lips were chapped and surely a sickly shade of blue after spending most of the day in the water.

“Hey, drink some hot tea. It will warm your soul.” Dylan handed her a steaming cup, his own secured in his other hand.

“Thanks, Dylan.” Shade happily accepted it, wrapping her fingers around the warmth of the drink, soothing her stiff joints. She drank it down in a gulp. The hot fluid felt great against her throat, warming her from the inside out. Still huddled in the blanket, she was afraid to break her cozy cocoon if she dared to move.

“Tired of the rapids, huh? They get old really fast, don’t they?” Dylan asked, attempting to sound friendly. “I don’t miss crossing them at all. You would think some idiot would’ve put a bridge or something on every river here by now, but faeries are lazy, you know. They’d rather fly right over these banks any day. Of course, we aren’t all able to fly, let alone carry anyone else with us,” he said with a sigh. “So we have to do it the tried and true way, on foot. I think it’s because us faeries don’t like to disturb nature too much, so progress is limited.” He chuckled, shaking his head as he took another large sip of tea.

He was sitting next to her now, their sides slightly touching, and she could feel his body heat closing the gap between them. Shade turned to watch him more carefully. His unusual, steel-colored eyes glinted in the bright sunlight. The deeper they ventured into the wilderness, the more relaxed he appeared. His face had grown softer and younger in the light of the afternoon. She wondered if nature gave off some kind of natural Xanax to the fey. Everyone seemed more at ease, maybe just a touch tired, but no one was complaining. She guessed that it was better than having a group of grumpy, pissed-off faeries. Who knew what they were all capable of doing if pushed too far?

Dylan’s hair was still short, but growing faster than a human’s hair would. It was dark and shiny, with silver highlights peppered throughout. He shaved that morning, and his skin still shone smooth, with no lines to betray his age. She wondered how old he was, remembering Ilarial mentioned how they were immortal. Besides Soap, no one had volunteered to say how old he or she really was.

“Dylan? Can I ask you something?” He turned toward her, eyes wide with surprise. She should probably speak to him softly more often because it was nice to see him shocked.

“Yes, of course. Go for it.” He placed his cup on the dirt in front of him and sat Indian-style, his arms relaxed on his thighs.

“How old are you? How long do faeries live?” She pulled her knees up and wrapped her arms around her legs, clinging to the blanket and keeping it shut.

“I’m two hundred and forty-six years old. My brother Darren is only one-hundred and fifteen. We’re immortal, but only to a certain extent. The fey are somewhat delicate in a way, more so than humans. We can wither away if we choose. Your world is fragile too when it comes to this matter. It’s almost like a curse. We are tied to mortals in more ways than one.” Dylan paused. He glanced at Shade but quickly turned back to stare down at his cup as he continued.

“When we wither, we choose to leave this world. Our mother was five-hundred and three when she decided she no longer had it in her to carry on, allowing herself to wither into dust. It only took two days. Just two days and slowly, what was a strong, bold, and amazing woman turned into dust and ash,” he said with a hint of emotion leaking through his cracking voice. “Life is not easy for the fey. The exiles wither faster because of the toxicity of living in or near the iron cities. Smaller faeries go faster, too. We have stronger clans, like the Guildrin Clan, and our enemies, the Unseelie, are sometimes much stronger than our group of Teleen. Faeries our size are the closest to humans in appearance. My people, the Teleen, are more fragile, dying off as time goes on, very slowly, of course. There are not many Teleen born each year, so our numbers have dwindled as some of us die. If the world was stronger, and the magic in Faerie was not so faded, we could be true immortals and live forever.”

“Why is your clan dying? I would think you would be the strongest since humans have a lot of iron in their blood. It would be hard for any fey to live near us or among us, but you guys are fine with it.”

Dylan was staring back at her now. His eyes narrowed, amused as he thought about what she was asking and saying. He licked his lips and looked back over the river. The constant roar seemed to fill the silence between them like an unwanted third wheel. Shade waited impatiently for his answers. She stared at the river while she waited for him talk to her. At least, I beat the rivers, she thought, knowing she’d bested the icy waters today and had nothing to prove.

“Well, it has a lot to do with there not being many mated pairs in our clan. Teleen females are rarely born to our clan now, and those who are, get paired off quickly and stay together for life. If you’re not paired with one, as a male, you are out of luck. That is unless a free Teleen faery woman shows up out of nowhere,” he said quietly as if he didn’t think that was possible.

“What else is bothering you, Shade?” Dylan’s deep voice was more like a harsh whisper. He was even leaning a little toward her to muffle his voice so no one else could hear.

“I don’t know. It’s just that, compared to all of you guys, I’m so weak. Even though you say you have vulnerabilities, you are still more powerful than me. I don’t know how to do magic or any kind of fighting. Without you guys here, I would be useless… helpless.” Shade took a deep breath before continuing. “It’s all so intriguing, but it scares me so much. There are so many things I don’t know. I’m as good as dead out here against other fey.

“Ilarial told me to learn, but how do I learn? I don’t know a thing about fighting or handling a sword or knife.” She sighed, closing her eyes as she cradled her head on her knees, tears prickling behind her eyelids. She thought back to about what he’d said about not being paired with a female Teleen. She wondered if he was paired or not, and if he was, where was his mate?

Dylan watched her thoughtfully. He nodded as though agreeing with her. His eyes seemed to glaze over for a moment as he was in deep thought.

Shade wondered what it could be that he was thinking.

“I must train you, then. You’re right. You are weak without any kind of protection. If you were to be separated from us… well, I don’t want to think about it. You have a sword, right?” She nodded, thinking about the beautiful sword in her pack Ilarial had given her. “Great. Then we train today.” He stood, offering her a hand. “Grab your sword. I’ll teach you a move or two.”

Surprised, she took his hand, standing up and fumbling through her pack for the sword. Finding it, she waited, holding it slack in her hand.

“Alright, you need to stand ready. The easiest thing to do is to stand with your feet apart, knees bent. You can put one foot forward a bit. That’s right. You need to keep your body balanced so you can move any which way during an attack.” He moved to stand next to her, his body facing her side. Reaching out, he adjusted her arms to put both hands on the hilt of the sword, bringing her elbows to a bend. He tugged and pushed at her limbs, making her almost fall over as he adjusted her legs. Standing behind her, he placed his hands on her hips and back, pushing again to make her straighten up her poor posture while still bending her knees. Her thighs screamed in protest.

“You need to relax. I’m not going to bite.” He snickered. Shade frowned but tried to do as he told her. “There. See? Flexed, ready to pounce.”

Shade nodded, feeling nervous at his proximity but excited at learning something about using a sword.

“Now, I want you to do this exercise: step forward, then back, then side to side, holding the sword opposite the direction you head. It’s like a dance; counterbalancing each other, like partners.” His voice was just above a whisper near her face. It sent a thrill down her spine.

“Wh-what?”

Dylan groaned, motioning to her to give up the sword. She did and watched him as he showed her what he meant. His movements were fluid and well-practiced. She gulped, hoping she could look more like he did and less like a clumsy ogre.

“See? A dance. Practice it.” He handed the sword back and stepped back to give her some room.

“That’s it?” she stammered.

“That’s it.”

Shade felt slightly disappointed but didn’t push him any further. Learning that ’dance’ would be plenty for now. “Okay, I can do this. Oh, Dylan?”

“Yes?”

“Were you paired off at birth?” She risked a peek at his face as she attempted her first move to the left.

“No, I was never paired at birth, but our Oracle, who’s about eight-hundred years old, did tell me a prophecy about it.” He sighed and stared out across the river.

“What’d she say?”

“She said that I’d meet my mate one day, one who’d never resided among us and that my life would change forever. It’d be filled with great and challenging events, some unfortunate and some amazing.”

“Really? So, did you meet her yet?” Shade watched his face, calm and handsome. She found him intriguing in a way she could not explain. And to think, just hours ago, he was getting on her last nerve.

Dylan turned toward her and studied her face, his flashing eyes amused at her questions. Giving her a smile, he reached out, pushing a strand of hair out of her face. Shade felt her heart jump, sending her skin flaring up at his touch. “I don’t really know. Maybe.” He continued to watch her, a sad smile playing across his lips. “Once camp is set up tonight, we will work on more sword fighting. Be ready!” He grabbed his cup from the ground while dusting off his pants. He walked away then without another word, leaving her stunned.

“Wh-what? More tonight? Dylan?” She stuttered and couldn’t spit out the rest of her words. He was gone and nowhere near her now. Shaking her head, she laughed to herself.

He’s so strange and drives me insane! Maybe that’s a good thing.

 

***

 

Shade stretched her legs out before her, massaging her calves and working out some of the knots deep under her skin. They stopped for a rest again after another horrible river crossing. She wondered if the fey ever even got sore. Probably not. She kept wondering what Dylan was thinking, too. Some of the things he did and said confused her. It made her frown at the thought of how nervous he made her feel.

Standing up, she took her teacup back to Stephen, who seemed to like being the group’s cook and occasional dishwasher. He gave her a short nod, smiling as he continued to wash the soiled dishes. He wasn’t actually physically cleaning them, he was just moving his hands over them, making them rinse themselves in the river.

I need to learn that! That’d be useful back home! Shade thought, turning back toward the group where Jack was talking seriously to Ewan. Maps sat spread out before them on a table. Who brought the furniture? Shade thought as she walked toward them. She still couldn’t get over the bath tent and the constant use of magic here. When she reached the two men, they were pointing at several spots on the map, plotting their journey.

“I think going over Fable’s Fair Bridge would be a better option. It goes closer to the cliffs of Raenin. We need to go past the cliffs and end up on Solare’s Beach. There’s a cave road there we can take to the inland forests, around the Santiran lands. If we go down to Maziel’s Pass, it will take us longer to make it to the beach, and it goes too close to Unseelie territory.” Jack’s hand was darting around the map at several points on the unfamiliar land.

Shade studied it while the men stood there thinking. She could see the cities of Portland and San Diego along one side of the great fey territory. There were areas marked off that showed the highways and smaller human towns. The vast wilderness that belonged to the fey was unbelievable. She traced the river lands with her fingers and found Solare’s Beach on the map. Shaped like a crescent moon, it was not very big at all. It had a small river that emptied into the ocean along one side. Next was Craven’s Cave Road, which wound around the cliffs of the beach and disappeared into a cave. Shade shuddered at the thought of going into another cave again.

“How do we make it across the cliffs?” Shade asked Ewan and Jack. They turned toward her and smiled.

“You have to walk down the west side of the cliffs or take a long rope bridge across this great river.” Ewan pointed at a line crossing across the largest of the rivers that bisected the cliffs.

Shade cringed because crossing a bridge held together by rope was not much of a comfort either. Caves and unstable bridges… it’s my lucky day. Her throat ached from nerves, and it felt as if there were a knot in it. “Really? Ah man, do we have to go on a rope bridge?” She glanced at Jack and Ewan. “And another cave?”

“You afraid of heights, Shade?” They said at once and laughed at the disgust all over her face.

“No! Of course not! It’s just, they’re so flimsy! It rocks a lot, and it just isn’t safe!” She crossed her arms and huffed away. Jack started coughing, trying to hold back his laughter while Ewan slapped him on his back.

When they stopped snickering, Ewan cleared his throat, his face flushed and his eyes twinkling brightly. He motioned for everyone to gather their stuff and fall back into line to leave.

Shade fell in with the group, still grumbling under her breath. She followed everyone out along the bank of the rushing river. She began to wonder just how long it was going to take to get to the Santiran Fountains. It felt like they were gone forever. Her patience was wearing thin, especially with nature. Seeing the map made her feel even more sullen. The territory they were crossing was enormous and so vast that it seemed like they hadn’t really gone that far. So much happened already, and they weren’t even close yet.

“Hey, having fun yet?” Soap asked as he hung back from the others and fell in step with her. She gave him a nasty look and didn’t like the fact that someone else from the group was making fun of her.

“Ok, ok, no need to be harsh,” he said, losing his usual grin. “I was just wondering something, Shade, and I hope you would answer this for me.”

She sighed and turned back toward Soap. His contagious good mood was already flowing over her and taming her gloomy demeanor. She grinned back, nodding. “What is it?” She slipped on a damp, mossy rock in the slick grasses. Soap caught her arm and cradled her with his other one. Her face was so close to his, he could have kissed her. She laughed a bit and thanked him for catching her, straightening herself up before he answered.

“The voices, the ones you said are your spirit guides, are they still bothering you? What do they say about us?”

Shade took a deep breath and thought about it for a moment. She hadn’t really heard from her spirit guides since they’d left the caverns. As a matter of fact, she hadn’t heard the voices at all since waking up from the attack. It was actually somewhat nice to hear just her own thoughts in her head. She stretched out her mind to find them, but no one answered her inner thoughts. Panic suddenly swirled inside her as she felt a kind of emptiness without them.

Why have they been silent? Maybe they’re gone for good now.

“Honestly, I haven’t heard them talk since Darren attacked me. It’s funny, my whole life I wished they would just shut up, and now–now I miss them.”

“Well, it’s probably just the rivers. They’re quite magical, you know. They say that the rivers are the roads of dreams. Once you stand by one, the magic is too strong. It can literally turn a fey into a near mortal. We can’t use too much of our magic here. The river won’t have it. That’s the myth, anyway. It’s like dead space to our kind, the in between of worlds. I think it might be affecting you, too. I literally can’t change around the rivers. I can only use a simple glamour and charms. It’s strange….”

Shade nodded as they continued down the slippery banks without speaking again for a while. She wondered if Soap wanted to ask her anything else. He seemed more quiet than usual. This would have bothered her more, but concentrating on not slipping on another rock or wet mossy patch kept her attention for now. They reached the edge of the bank to another crossing area. She groaned as she watched the front of the group submerge themselves up to their waists in cold river water. The rush of the current wasn’t as strong at the crossings points, but she loathed the cold feel of the water. She reached the edge of the bank and watched as Soap strode right on in without so much as a whimper. Man up, already! She sighed and dipped her feet into the icy water, sucking in a breath.

She was near the other side when she heard some shouting. She straightened up to see further up the bank where Ewan, Jack, and Than were wildly shouting at someone, someone she couldn’t see from her position in the river.

“Shade, come on. I think we’re being attacked. Hurry!” Sary waved at her frantically and held her other hand out to her. She took it and pulled herself up out of the rushing waters. The chill was there again, and her teeth chattered together. She was pretty sure her lips were blue with cold. Sary kept half turning and pressing her on to follow, practically dragging her along.

Soap already left his position in front of her to join Jack and the others, who were now taking shelter behind some trees and drawing weapons. Shade found a large tree trunk to hide behind as arrows started sailing by, buzzing like bees as they flew. She felt drugged and sluggish from the cold. She had the blanket on, but in the cover of the trees and with no hot tea to drink this time, she was not recovering as well as before. Huddling against the tree and pulling the blanket around tightly for warmth, she was still shivering. She peeked around the tree as there was a break in the flying arrows. Whoever was attacking them had either run out or was restocking their weapons.

Jack was yelling at someone. Everyone stood their ground, hiding in their makeshift covers. She couldn’t see who or what they were yelling at. She strained to hear anything… and then suddenly it came—a voice. The grave laugh was in the distance, but whoever it belonged to was not too far away.

“You can’t hide forever, little half-breed. I know she’s with you. Just hand her over, and we’ll be on our way,” the voice screeched through the trees.

Who is that? I’ve heard that voice before, Shade thought as the cruel laugh made her cringe. She strained a little more to see across the trees, spotting the owner of the voice. Lady Blythe was perched on a branch not too far above Ewan and the others. The Queen of the Dryad’s skeletal, translucent wings were fluttering so fast that Shade could barely see them. If there hadn’t been a slight breeze whirling around her, the tiny wings would have gone unnoticed altogether. Shade’s heart pounded. She knew just what they wanted but not why.

“We will never give her to you, Blythe! You are far beyond your borders, and you have no rights here. This is neutral territory. Be gone already!” Jack’s voice was strong and sturdy. He did not seem afraid but was definitely on the side of caution.

“You stupid fool! You dare insult me? I am Queen here. The trees are my domain, no matter where! You give me the Halfling, and I let you leave alive. Otherwise, you can all die, and I will still take the girl. Choose wisely!” Her cackling voice echoed through the air.

Shade didn’t think it was possible, but she felt even colder than before. She worked hard to keep her teeth from chattering again, praying silently that the old hag of a faery would leave her alone. She didn’t look like a nice faery from the ‘fairy’ stories of Shade’s childhood. She looked vicious, dark, and ruthless flying up there in the branches. Shade’s heart was racing as she glanced around, trying to think of a way to get away from there.

“No, Lady Blythe. We can’t do that. It is our oath to protect her, and that we will, to the death even.” Jack was holding his sword out. It glinted in the few rays that escaped the canopy of tree leaves above.

“So be it. Die then,” she said without feeling. Lady Blythe laughed even harder as more arrows began to fly.

Shade ducked back behind the trunk and looked around for the others. Sary was pulling out daggers and weapons from behind a tree near her. Stephen was already returning arrows to whomever it was that was shooting them. Some screams of pain howled through the trees, but she wasn’t sure who was behind it. Cracking branches and thumps in the bushes made her jump. She pulled out her own short sword and held it tightly in her hands. Taking a deep breath, she stood up and pressed herself against the tree, trying to become one with it. If only she could change into a tree, she could hide pretty well then.

The battle spilled around her as Lady Blythe’s warriors pushed back against them. Jack was clanging swords against one tall but slender fighter. He had bulging muscles, pale skin much like Blythe’s, and long white hair. All but his eyes were pale, and his skin was almost translucent. A pair of wings were tightly folded and pressed against his back to avoid being sliced by a sword. He wore thin metal armor that glinted in the streams of light as he fought. They all looked similar to the queen, and they worked and moved together as a hive of drones.

Shade ran for cover at the edge of the battle and hid behind some large looming trees. The best way I can help everyone is to stay hidden and avoid getting hit, she thought. Part of her wanted to help, but she was sure there was no way she could fight.

Suddenly, the arrows stopped altogether, and everyone was on the ground fighting. Even Blythe joined the fight with her own dual slender swords. She was holding off Than, who was fighting with his daggers, their silver sheen glinting with every movement. She kicked him hard in the stomach and laughed as he flew back to the ground. Dirt was flying up everywhere. Blythe caught Shade watching her, and a sinister smile crept across her face as she started toward Shade.

“Come here, little girlie.” She started marching toward Shade but ran right into Jack and his swords, losing one of hers in the collision. She blocked him with her remaining sword and began battling his two. The metallic resonance filled the air as Shade backed away into the shadow of the forest. Her heart was pounding in her chest so hard that she could feel the beat vibrating in her throat. She felt flushed as her blood pumped rapidly throughout her body, her breaths growing short and quick.

“Shade!” Dylan was now next to her and tugging at her arm. He led her deeper into the woods, and she tried hard to not stumble or fall on the branches and dead shrubbery that scraped at her legs and sliced at her arms.

“Slow down, Dylan! I can’t go that fast!” Her hand slipped from his as she fell to the ground, grinding her knees into the dirt and rock.

Dylan didn’t pick her up. He was occupied, swinging his sword against another warrior dryad. As they fought around her, Shade managed to get to her feet. Mud streaked across her jeans and hands, making her wipe even more of the mess onto her pants. It was then that she noticed her sword had fallen onto the ground. She looked back over her shoulder at Dylan; he and his foe were still clanging their swords together. Dylan had a cut on his left forearm that was streaked with blood. Shade stepped forward and bent down to grab her sword, swearing as she did, for her right knee was on fire. I must have scraped it or bruised it when I fell. She stumbled to another tree and pressed her back to it, gripping the sword in her hands, the blade and hilt also caked in mud.

Her eyes were stinging with tears, although she didn’t notice she’d been crying. Swallowing back a sob, she shook with fear. Breathing deeply, she looked around the large tree trunk and tried to see through the woods for anyone else in the group. She heard screams, yelling, and swords clanging, but she wasn’t as close to the fighters as she’d first thought. She couldn’t hear them clearly anymore, realizing she’d stumbled too far away. Her heart jumped as morbid thoughts crept into her head. What if they’re hurt or dead? She couldn’t even see Dylan anymore but continued to hear the clank of swords.

Shade moved slowly from her spot and crept closer to the voices, using the trees and bushes for cover. She hunched behind them, pressing herself close, wishing she could blend in and disappear. The hilt of her sword was cool but reminded her of playing pirates with fake swords as a child. She tried her best to slow her breathing, feeling slightly dizzy from her frantic panting. Shade listened intently, but it seemed like the fighting died down. The silence was even more frightening than the noise. Leaves rustled above her, like a flock of birds flapping their wings, startling her. She could hear a loud roar of rushing water behind her but nothing else.

This can’t be good. What now? Where is everyone? Shade waited for an answer. Her spirit guides were silent. What happened to you guys? The silence made her feel utterly alone. The forest was daunting, dark, and forlorn. She let the tears flow but bit her lip to swallow her sobs. Sliding down the trunk, she curled herself in the oversized roots that veined the dirt. Her legs bent up under her as she hugged them, her sword still dangling loosely from her hands.

Time seemed to have stopped now. She still couldn’t hear anyone but felt afraid to move. A fresh breeze rustled the canopy of the trees, and it felt like something or someone, had brushed against her, making her jump just a bit. It prickled along her arms like cactus spines, making her realize someone was very close. She held her breath and slowly stood up, still pressed against the trunk. Listening, she knew that whoever was around was trying to blend in too.

Shade could feel eyes burning into her, as though they were waiting for her to give herself away. She wiped the last of her tears from her face and gripped her sword more tightly. Her hair flew in her face, stringy and stuck with sweat. She could taste the salt on her lips, dirt and tears, and knew she was a disheveled mess. She thought about her family and Ilarial and didn’t want to disappoint them. There was no giving up. There was more than just fear inside her, she could feel it. Straightening up, she breathed out slowly and began scanning the woods.

“I can smell your fear, little girl. Why don’t you just give up? Lady Blythe won’t hurt you, at first. I just want to talk for a bit, and then maybe the hurt can start after that,” she sneered.

Shade was so disgusted by the old woman’s cackling laugh. She could almost feel it rippling down her spine. Shade couldn’t see her, but she could feel the old faery’s magic dancing along her skin. The faery radiated power like an unchecked flame that touched Shade with its fingers. She estimated in her head that the faery was just on the other side of the tree. It was then that she squeezed her sword, feeling her fingers digging into each other and turning white from the pressure. She let out a primal scream, swinging the sword hard as she flung herself around the corner.

The blade sliced Blythe in her shoulder but failed to cut too deeply. She screeched and jumped back, bringing her sword up in defense. Crimson blood dripped down her arm and oozed off into the dark earth. The Queen did not seem very tall to Shade. Even standing up made her still look like a short, bony thing of a sprite. No wonder she spent her life up in the trees. Anyone can look intimidating from up high. Shade retreated behind the tree but readied herself for sprinting or fighting.

“You stupid girl! How dare you attack me!” There was a loud thump against the trunk of the tree.

Shade’s bravery was being used up way too fast, and she was pretty sure the old woman had just tried to blast her with something. She stepped back from the tree and readied her sword once more. Blythe suddenly jumped in front of her from the side, hollering in another language, her pointy teeth flashing and her sword held high. Then she charged. Shade dodged her but tripped on a tree root. She scrambled to stand but stumbled backward, forced to crawl on her hands and feet to get away.

Lady Blythe hit the roots with her sword, making it stick. She tugged at it with her scrawny arms but failed to budge it from the earth. The tree seemed to grip it tighter the more she fought to retrieve her weapon. Shade took the moment to get back on her feet and run. She ran as fast as she could, glancing back only to find Blythe without her sword, moving just as fast and quickly gaining ground.

Shade dodged and wove her way through the trees. The roar of the river water was closer now, but the rush of wind blowing in her ears made it impossible to calculate how far away it was. She prayed that the land would not run out for her. She had the feeling the Dryad Queen could cross the river faster than she could.

Shade forced herself to make an abrupt stop as the land narrowed to an edge. Stuffing the sword away in her pack, she prepared to cross the river, but she was shocked to learn that instead, she found a drop-off. One of the rivers emptied over a cliff and formed into a waterfall.

Oh my God….Water clouds rose from the rocks below, and she could feel herself pale as the height of the cliff became more evident. The land stretched out beyond the drop-off with more forests, hills, rivers, and jagged mountains.

There’s nowhere to go but down.

Shade turned to see Blythe slowing her run to a jog and snickering at her. Her large eyes flashed with her wicked smile. Her pale skin had a slight flush to it now, and she slowly stepped toward Shade. Shade felt her heart thudding hard in her chest and tried not to be afraid. The Dryad Queen licking her lips didn’t help, but it made Shade feel like she was about to be dinner.

Blythe took out her dagger. “You have nowhere to go. You’re so weak. I wonder why Zinara could even fathom that you could save them. The Unseelie will be greatly pleased to have you as their prisoner. The Unseelie Queen will owe me, and she will be sick with my victory. Come to me now… I promise it won’t hurt much.” She sneered, but her eyes were cold and dangerous. She stepped closer, pulling a rope from her waist belt.

Shade shook her head and turned her eyes back to the waterfall. There was nowhere to go. She strained to hear her comrades but heard only the rush of water overwhelming her ears. No one was coming to save her. She glanced back at Lady Blythe and her evil smile. No, Shade could not go with her. As Shade stepped farther back, she realized that the edge was inches from her feet. She knew with certainty that her fate was sealed.

“You don’t want to fall now, do you?” Lady Blythe asked, eyeing her with words coming out like sweet, poisonous honey.

Shade wasn’t fooled. She could feel her knees wobble but concentrated on not falling. She wasn’t sure how long she could steady herself with a horrid witch in her face. Letting out a nervous sigh, she began to reach for her backpack. This is crazy and it won’t work! After stuffing the warm blanket into her pack, she pulled it onto her shoulders. A moment later, she turned from Blythe and jumped.

The wind lashed at her body and howled in her ears. She could barely hear the queen’s furious scream as the icy water swallowed her whole.

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

 

 

The frigid waters shut down her senses, and Shade couldn’t feel a thing. Everything was dark, but she heard a faint call of sparrows high above her over the gurgling sound of water. She attempted to move her fingers and arms, but they barely responded. Her eyes felt like weights were on them, gluing them shut. She was blinded, moaning as she rolled to her side. Her bones creaked in protest at the shift and moving her fingers sent a sharp, stinging pain up her arms.

The light was searing as she opened her eyes, blinking a few times so they could adjust. Am I dead? Where the hell am I? God, my body is burning! She was sure if this was heaven, she’d feel nothing but peace. Hell, on the other hand… well, you can burn in pain there, she thought nervously.

Lying there on the bank of the river, she could feel her feet, soaked and frozen, still in the water. The earth was cold underneath the rest of her body. Her backpack felt dry, probably due to the spells Braelynn casted. Shade’s clothes were another matter; they were sopping wet and molded to her body, making her teeth chatter involuntarily. It felt like she’d never be warm again. She sat up very slowly and surveyed the muddy embankment, seeing nothing but the sand that irritated her skin.

At least, the sun still shines, she thought, trying to hold on to the slightest bright spot in this situation. It occurred to her she had to at least try and move or she’d freeze to death. If I don’t get moving, heaven will be my next stop. She groaned, feeling the sting of every scrape that marked her body, remembering the rocks on the bottom of the waterfall. She wasn’t sure if anything was broken and struggled to get to a drier area on the shore. Her left arm was sore and wouldn’t cooperate. Craning her neck to the side, she found her shoulder not quite in the right anatomical position.

I must have dislocated my shoulder.

She thought it was strange that it didn’t hurt until she’d looked at it. Whimpers escaped her mouth, but she continued to drag herself up the embankment with her good arm and two heavy legs. A rush of nausea from the pain pressed at her, threatening to make her pass out. It hung on like sticky syrup until she leaned to one side and let whatever was left of breakfast shoot out. Her dark blue lips trembled, her hands were cyanotic and oddly lovely in the glowing daylight. The color reminded her of arctic blue ice.

When the heaving stopped, she found herself sobbing. She didn’t hear anyone around her, and, fortunately, she probably lost Blythe in the froth of the falls. What was so great about getting away if she was just going to end up freezing to death, anyway, covered in filthy mud? Shade prayed that her mom would find her here, helpless and in dire need of a doctor, and whisk her away. All she wanted was to believe this was all a bad dream, and that she’d wake up and find herself in a safe and warm place. Shade lay there for what felt like an eternity before she heard the crunch of crackling leaves. Swallowing down the last sob, she blinked through the tears in her eyes. Her heart beat like a fluttering hummingbird, banging in her chest.

“Who’s there?” She heard the crack in her voice, sounding faded and rough. She wondered how long she had screamed heading down the falls.

“Hush now. You’re hurt. Don’t move or you’ll hurt yourself even more. One moment. This might, unfortunately, hurt a bit,” a gentle voice warned.

She felt a hard tug on her body and screamed as an unbearable pain flared up her left arm. Her body shifted and dragged farther up the shore, over more beach sand, and onto a dry blanket before she looked up at her rescuer. It was becoming nearly impossible to keep her eyes open. Her head rolled from side to side as the pain from her damaged shoulder burned through her body. Before the darkness came, she caught sight of a pair of gleaming green eyes, dried autumn leaves, and a flash of brown linen. Trying to open her mouth to speak was futile as she slipped away into the silence of unconsciousness.

 

 

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

 

 

 

Shade forgive us. We have tried to reach you, but you’ve cast us out. We’re here to help you heal and awaken you from your deep sleep. Now only dreams will find us. The voices were gentle but spoke with urgency, echoing in her head.

Shade stood in an open field; the mountains and rivers were nowhere in sight. The breezes caressed the tall grasses and swirled about her hair, dancing and playing with the strands like unseen ballerinas.

Where the heck am I now?

Astrid, Duende, and Elaby stood before her. She knew them. Her spirit guides were familiar and comforting. They were flesh and bone standing in front of her now. The three sisters were carbon copies of each other. Their long black hair and gowns floated around them as if suspended in water. Their pale skin shone like moonlight glistening on the surface of a lake. She could not see their feet; it was as if they hung above the grass without touching the ground. They were beautiful.

“What’s going on? Where am I? Why can’t I hear you guys anymore?” Shade felt the sting of tears as her voice wavered. She was through with crying. There was enough sorrow surrounding her, making her feel suddenly so tired. She brought her hand to her left shoulder and found it no longer dislocated, normally hanging in its place. It moved effortlessly, without any pain. She hoped she was dreaming and not dead.

Shade, we know you’re afraid, but we won’t harm you. It could not be helped that we were away,” the sisters told her all at once. “Somehow, your magic trapped Darren in the mirror, but it also pushed us out of your head, too. We are unable to communicate with you, our ties now severed. We’ve worked hard to find you again. Your magic shields you, letting us in only in your dreams.”

Shade pondered their words for a moment. Damn it… Darren! He had scarred her far worse than she’d even imagined. The loss of her spirit guides was like having a chunk of her soul ripped away. She sighed and watched them smile at her. Each sister finished the others’ sentences. It was intriguing to listen to them as they harmonized in one voice.

“So where am I? I was on some shore, freezing. My arm was probably broken and not in the right place. Am I awake? Dead? Dreaming?”

You are still asleep. Fear not, dear Shade, we have healed you with our powers. We have been away for too long,” said the women. “Now, we are unbound.”

“What do you mean? I won’t hear you in my head anymore? How could I have let this happen?” Shade felt her knees weaken but caught herself before they failed.

We are so sorry. We had no idea this would come to pass. We can only believe that any further communication with us will be only through your dreams.”

Shade nodded at the revelation. There was no point in trying to undo what was already done. Even so, the loss twisted in her chest, making it hard to breathe.

The dream shifted rapidly, and the bright, warm sunlight faded into a deep gray and cloudy day. Shade spun around, watching the swirling dark gray clouds grow above her. “What’s happening?” The wind howled around her, whipping the grass across her legs.

We must go. Your dream is breaking. It’s time to wake up, Shade. Wake up.” The clouds came down around in a dark, billowing fog that swallowed the spirits, landscape, and Shade alike.

Wake up….”

 

***

 

“Wake up! It’s just a bad dream. Wake up!” The voice sounded familiar, but Shade couldn’t place it. She squeezed her eyes together before slowly opening them to a dimly lit room. Her eyes narrowed in at the shadowy figure in front of her, focusing on its blurred edges. His face was partially covered by a dark, hooded cloak. The hood only allowed lips to show through, obscuring the rest of his face in darkness.

The figure reached toward her, making her scramble in a panic, pushing away until her back hit the wall. Her left arm throbbed with a dull ache, but she found she could use it just fine. Still confused, she wrapped her arms around her legs, gripping them while she stared at the stranger. She concentrated on keeping her eyes in focus as the room tilted in a wave of dizziness. She’d sat up way too fast.

The figure stopped advancing and eyed her. Seeing her pull away, he retreated, stood straighter, and waited. When he did finally speak, his voice was soft but thick and flowing, like rich syrup.

“I apologize. I meant no harm. Please, I only want to help you. My name is Ursad, and I live here in the forest by the ocean.” He paused, waiting for a reaction from her. When none came, he proceeded. “Is there anything I can do? Do you need anything? Water? Are you hungry? Any pain? You look like you’ve been through a wringer.” He spoke quickly, overly eager to help her.

Shade’s face flushed, and her eyebrows furrowed in further confusion.

“Sorry, I don’t mean to frighten you,” he apologized.

“Where am I?” Shade relaxed a little, as he did not try to come closer again.

“You’re here in my house. It’s not much, but it’s home. I hope you found the bed to your liking. I really don’t have a lot of room, but it’s comfortable enough for me, at least.” He studied her closely, chewing on his smooth, plump lips.

Shade stared right back at him. He looked pretty harmless, but the hood hid too much of his face for her to read him well enough. Trying to relax, she sat cross-legged on the bed, pulling the soft, threadbare blanket around her. Her body was cozy warm, and her aches weren’t as sharp as they had been. She sighed; at least, she wasn’t in Blythe’s care. This was definitely the better half of her current situation.

“I’m sorry. My name’s Shade. I just wasn’t sure if it was safe here. I was being chased….” She stopped, wondering if she should trust this stranger with anything, especially with her story. Maybe he knew too much already. “I guess I lost them. How did you find me? Was I out of it for long?”

“Shade?” The way her name spilled out of his mouth made her shiver. “Well, nice to meet you. I found you on the beach. It shares the shore with a small pool of water that feeds from a small stream that breaks off from one of the great rivers. I live near it, and I happened to be walking by when I saw you. You passed out after that. I am truly sorry that I hurt you, pulling on your shoulder like that. I didn’t know it was dislocated, but somehow it’s not anymore. You must be full of healing magic. You’ve healed quite rapidly. It’s amazing if you don’t mind me saying so. I would love to know how you do it.” He was smiling, but she definitely did not like having his face so hidden. She reached toward him to pull the hood back as he spoke since he was not too far from the bed. It was his turn to pull away and crouch by the door.

“No, please!” He shook his head and hid the rest of his face in his sleeve. He bounced nervously back and forth on his feet, as though the thought of pulling off the hood caused him great anxiety.

“Why not?” Shade demanded. “I don’t feel very comfortable talking to you when I can’t see your face. Let me see. Is there, um, is there something wrong with your face?” She sat back down and blushed with embarrassment, realizing just how forward she’d been, possibly even rude. She didn’t mean to offend him. Her nervousness had her reacting without thinking.

Maybe he’s deformed under there. She gulped, shaking the thought out of her head. How bad can it be?

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that, but really, you need to take it off. It’s okay. You’ll scare me more with it on.” Shade waited and watched him bring his arm down.

He seemed to be thinking about what she’d said because he let his gaze linger on her for a long time. Unexpectedly, he nodded. “You’re right. I am what I am, but please don’t be afraid. I tend to frighten everyone. I don’t get too many visitors here at all, not even other fey. I’ve gotten used to solitude. It has been so long since I’ve been around others.” He sighed and lifted his chin. Tentatively, he reached up and pulled the hood down, letting it fall away from his face.

Shade tried to keep in the gasp that fought to escape her lips. She knew, however, that her shock showed in her widening eyes. She immediately composed herself, hoping the slip would not anger him. His face was unusual, but she wouldn’t say it was scary, not with such sad eyes staring back at her.

“Ursad, can I ask you something? What exactly are you?” I’ve never seen anyone like him, she thought as she observed his face. Where the facial hair ended, his skin grew like tree bark, all tan and dark with lines trailing through it. His hair was made of green, thin leaves with twigs and small delicate vines springing from his head. She could definitely tell he was a faerie or human, but he’d been transformed into what appeared to be a tree man. His hands were smooth and human in appearance, but nothing above the neck resembled a typical human face.

“I didn’t always look this way. I was cursed a long time ago, and my face and hair have been affected in this way ever since.” His face turned sad, and he lowered his eyes to stare down at the floor as he continued. “I guess I should explain further.” He looked up at her and paused, waiting for her approval.

She nodded to him, eager for an explanation.

“I was a faery prince once, a long time ago. I was very handsome, and women threw themselves at my feet, catering to my every whim. I had my choice of any fey or human woman. Well, you could say I was arrogant, knowing my effect on women. I thought myself undeniable and irresistible. That is, until one night I was in a tavern, enjoying the party and drinking a bit too much liquor. I was surrounded by beauties and laughing with the lot of them. It was quite fun.

“One woman approached me then. She wasn’t the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, but definitely not the ugliest. She was quite dull in appearance, with flat brown hair, plain brown eyes, and nothing remarkable in her smile to speak of. It was as if when she was created, no animation or personality of any kind was added. I was just not interested… but she had other ideas.

“She told me, I am Elinia, daughter of Talik, the were-stone maker. I am here to offer marriage to you. I love you and would be honored to be your wife. It came out cold, lacking any kind of warmth and stiff as a board.

“Of course, I didn’t know who she was, or what she was for that matter. I laughed at her request and snubbed her in front of the whole tavern in my drunken stupor. Everyone laughed at my smart antics, and I gave her a quick shove to get her out of my immediate sight. I didn’t know what it was I was doing. I laughed and laughed until she scrambled off the floor and ran out of the tavern crying, to my satisfaction. I was glad I didn’t have to ridicule her anymore, relieved that she was gone.

“I finished out the night laughing and having a fabulous time. Not once did I give another thought to the girl. When I readied myself to leave, I walked out of the tavern and to the stables where my horse was waiting. When I was untying my horse, she approached me from behind.

I curse you, Ursad, Prince of the lands of Santire. Prince of nothing, you will be! Fair as the bark of a tree, I curse you for infinity! Return you to how you are freed, a gentle kiss from a queen-to-be! I stared at her as she finished her words and started laughing again.

You’ll regret this, Ursad. You will look back with a heart broken and filled with remorse. I promise you that. She disappeared then, as suddenly as she’d come. I was left alone in the silence of the dark stables. I didn’t feel different, but curses are not taken lightly in fey culture. I began to wonder what she meant by her words. I shrugged them off and rode away into the night, back to my kingdom.

“It was a long journey home, so I had to stop for the night. As I walked to a lodge at the side of a country road, I wiped my face because it was covered in dripping sweat. I felt sick then and wondered what was going on. I checked into the lodge and fell into a deep sleep, exhausted.

“The next morning, after I woke, I walked to the mirror hanging in the room to comb my hair. My hair and my face had changed. What I saw was what you see now. Horrified, I fled my country, for no one would recognize me looking like such a monster. I haven’t returned since, and so here I am, alone.” Ursad looked back up at Shade, and their eyes met.

“I’m drawn to the forest, the ocean, and the pools of water. They pull me like a magnet, so I chose this place to live. They give me solace in my pain and exile. The waters bless me with their favor, leaving bits of the world, and food is easily attainable here on the banks. Now they’ve brought you to me, and I can’t help but wonder why. You were hurt, so I had to help. I hope you are not afraid of me. I mean no harm, really.” He sucked in a deep breath, the memories wearing on him. “I guess you could say I have been humbled from the years of isolation.” He was watching her so intensely, speaking rapidly, making it clear that he was lonely and excited to be with another person.

Shade fought to look away. His face was smooth and serious, but his deep green eyes were wrought with sorrow. When she found him still watching her, she spoke. “I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t insult you.”

“No, you didn’t,” said Ursad with a kind smile.

It was alarming to look at him at first, but she could see his handsome features underneath all of it, and in a peculiar way, found him striking. Time had not withered this man. He was preserved in the prison he’d made for himself. I wonder if he really was a prince. This is so strange, she thought to herself. A prince of the Santiran lands, of all things, the very place she needed to go.

“Ursad, I’m thirsty and hungry. I could use something to eat if you have anything to share. Oh, do you know where my things are?”

He nodded as he turned toward the door. “I will get them for you. I left your pack near the fireplace to make sure it dried out a bit though it seems impervious to water. I couldn’t take anything out. It has a personalized lock charm on it and would not open for me. I do hope your things are not ruined.” He ducked out the door, and Shade was left staring after him.

She suddenly became aware she was not wearing her own tattered, muddy clothes from before but wearing soft cotton, drawstring pajama pants, and an oversized tunic instead. They were clean and soft, but she pulled the blankets even tighter around herself. She tried not to imagine him changing her out of her soaked, dirty clothes. Squirming at the thought, she felt her cheeks flush red.

Ursad returned with a tray of fruit, a meat sandwich, and a cup of juice. Her stomach growled at the sight of the food. He set it gently in front of her, not smiling but extremely serious. She tried to smile and soon forgot her embarrassment. She settled in and started to inhale the meal. Food in Faerie seemed to taste so much better than in her world. She wondered if it was really better or if she was just ravenous having not eaten in hours, not to mention all the exertion of the journey. She chewed and ate so fast she started hiccupping. She guzzled down the juice, hoping to stave them off.

As Shade finished, she realized Ursad stayed and watched her. She was gorging herself, and now, embarrassed. She slowed her chomping to a moderate chew. Swallowing the last bite, she observed Ursad a little closer. Brilliant green eyes shone in the dim light of the room, piercing into her soul.

She raked her eyes over his hair of vines and leaves. It was so long, it tumbled down past his waist like tendrils of flowers. Would it hurt to pluck a leaf from the thin vines that draped him like a shroud and dangled over his shoulders? He was dressed in dark brown clothes that hung frayed and well worn, reminding her of peasant’s clothing from fairytale stories.

Shade chuckled to herself. Maybe this was her ’fairytale’ in a way. Nothing is as it should be. Nothing is going the way it should be, for that matter. The world was not normal here, and Shade wasn’t sure she liked it that much. And now, I’m lost.

“Is everything all right? Was the food good, Shade?” Ursad asked, breaking her thoughts and dragging her back to the present. She nodded and pushed the food tray away, signaling that she was done. Ursad promptly stood up, collected it, and left through the door. He was now smiling widely and humming softly with a happy skip in his step.

Shade shook her head. Faery men are so strange! She sighed and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. She grabbed the footboard and stood up slowly, feeling her legs wobble beneath her. Standing for a minute and relaxing her muscles, she breathed through the dull pain that resonated throughout her bones. It was a cold reminder of the chill of the river, making her shudder.

She glanced down at her fingers and flexed them. They felt slightly stiff but functional, the slight ache was not bothering her much at all. She’d been counting her blessings. Somehow, she’d healed her horrendous injuries, or maybe her spirit guides had done what they’d promised.

Thank you for this gracious gift. Shade hoped that somehow they heard her.

Ursad entered the room, holding out her pack and the folded pile of clothes that she’d worn before. He’d washed, repaired, and neatly folded her dirty clothes. Shade gave him a small grin and let him place the pile on the bed next to her. “I took the liberty of repairing your clothes. The rocks nearly ripped them to shreds. Your pack is dry. I take it you don’t want to be staying very long, which is really too bad. I would like to get to know you and hear your story. As I said, I haven’t had any company for such a long time.” His voice drifted off, a longing clinging to his words.

When she didn’t say anything, he continued. “I mean, you shouldn’t hurry out. You’re welcome to stay as long as you like, of course.” He waited again, shifting nervously back and forth on his feet before turning to rush out of the room, closing the door behind him.

Shade laughed quietly. His nervousness seemed to calm her anxiety.

Rummaging through her pack, she pulled out a fresh set of clothes and stuffed her repaired rags into the backpack. She wondered if there was a shower or restroom in the little cabin. Slipping some house shoes on that she’d thrown into her pack, just in case, she opened the door and peeked out, calling to Ursad when she didn’t find him there. “Is there a bathroom I can use? I could really use a shower.”

“It’s to your right,” he called from an adjacent room.

Shade stepped out and looked down the darkened hallway. The walls were made of wood, twisting and curving in such a way as to create the rooms and halls. They must’ve been inside a large tree converted into a cottage. Still in awe, she retrieved her light stone from her pack and held it in front of her. The glowing light was bright in the dim surroundings and comforted her a bit. The hallway was not as long as it had looked in the dark. Entering the last door at the end of the hall, she found a modern-looking bathroom, nothing elaborate, but it was clean. She placed her clothes on the counter, along with the light stone, which continued to glow. She smiled and was glad it didn’t need to stay in contact with her to stay lit. She whispered a soft thanks to it and turned the shower on.

I wonder how this all works? There isn’t any electricity in the cabin, but it appears to have modern conveniences. It was still hard to take in the idea that magic and faeries were real, even after everything she’d been through and seen. The water ran over her skin, the heat and steam reviving her with every drop. Pure bliss.

When Shade was done, she returned down the hall to her room, slipped in, and put her things away. She put her shoes on and held her backpack in one arm as she left the room to check out the rest of the house and find Ursad. The main room was small but cozy; a blazing fire crackled on one side of the room in a simple fireplace. There was one reading chair made out of old red velvet, and it sat in front of the fire, along with a fluffy couch placed on the right side of the room. It had a warm, cotton throw blanket sprawled across it with bits of yarn loosened from its edges. On the left stood a small table and two chairs made out of wood, which appeared to be hastily nailed together. The wood was smooth and worn, showing signs of age.

Ursad sat in one of the chairs and had his hands on his face when she entered the room. He pulled his hands away and stood up suddenly when he realized she approached. He looked momentarily distressed but composed himself immediately.

“Oh, you’re done already? I guess you will want to be leaving, then.” Sinking back into his chair, he looked devastated. His green eyes glowed with the fire dancing in them, his face darkening.

“Yes, I have to. I wanted to thank you for your hospitality. I don’t know what would’ve happened to me if you hadn’t found me.” She stopped. He looked almost agitated at her words. She bit her lip nervously and approached the chair that sat opposite of him. Dropping her pack, she sat down and looked up at him. “Ursad?”

“Yes?” His voice sounded quiet and dejected.

“What’s wrong? Are you upset? Did I do something wrong?”

His green eyes drifted up to meet hers. She realized that his cheeks were wet with tears and waited uncomfortably for a response. She felt compelled to stay. A moment or two wouldn’t hurt.

“Ursad?” she said, but he didn’t respond.

“You don’t have to go. You’re safe here. Whatever was chasing you will not find you here. I have wards all around this area that prevent even other faeries from wandering in or knowing of your presence. You don’t have to go and risk your life again, Shade. Stay here. Stay here forever, please?” His hands grasped the table while his knuckles turned white with the strain.

Shade studied them, moving her eyes carefully back to his face. She shook her head, feeling suddenly drowsy like she’d been drugged. No, I’m just feeling exhausted, that’s all. “Ursad, I can’t do that. I have people counting on me… I’ve been asked to do something, and I can’t give up. I have to do this, or the land of Faerie faces a war between the two faerie courts. Queen Zinara needs me to get to the fountains of the Santiran lands and get the magic water to help them keep the Unseelie court from waging war against them. If I stay, the war will spill out of Faerie and into the mortal world. I live in that world, and my family does, too. I can’t let that happen, Ursad. I can’t.” The warm spill of tears streamed down her cheeks as she spoke of her family. She missed them more than ever at that moment.

Ursad clasped his hands together on the table, his eyes no longer flaring, but once again filled with sadness. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have ever asked you to stay here. I know you’re meant for great things. I can feel it. It’s selfish of me to ask such things from you.” He frowned but handed her a handkerchief.

She wiped her face, blowing her nose and sniffling. Standing again, she felt her exhaustion growing. When will I be able to go home and sleep in my own bed? She thought sadly, frustrated beyond belief. She looked at Ursad, and an idea came to her. “You could help me, you know.”

Ursad jerked his head up. He seemed to be wondering what was going through her mind but decided to ask instead. “What do you mean, Shade?”

“You’re a prince of the Santiran lands. You would know the way to the fountains, wouldn’t you? I don’t know the way, but you could take me there, couldn’t you? Please? My friends will probably be heading that way, and I could catch up.” Shade found herself sitting forward in the chair, surprised at how eager she was for him to agree to the idea. She took a hold of his hands, flashing her hopeful eyes at him. “I’ve been feeling lonely and lost, too. It would be nice to a have friend with me.”

He glanced down at their hands weaved together. Shade pulled back, her face flushed with heat and her stomach fluttering in an exhilarating way, making her wonder why this was happening. Maybe it was because she’d never had a man look at her like this before, with eyes full of hope and perhaps even desire. She glanced away, focusing on her hands now folded in her lap. Don’t make something out of nothing… he’s just a friend.

“Okay, I’ll help you,” he said.

Shade’s face lit up as she jumped from her chair and hugged him, letting out a sigh of relief.

“Whoa, any tighter and I might not make the journey,” Ursad chuckled, sounding winded. “I have to say, your enthusiasm is contagious.”

“Oh, sorry about that.” She loosened her grip and stepped back. “You won’t regret this, Ursad. Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you! I don’t know what I would’ve done without your help.” She beamed, enjoying his quiet smile. She fought the urge to hug him again, settling for a curt nod. She wasn’t feeling exhausted anymore but revived and ready to get started. “When should we go?”

“We can go now. Wait a moment, though.” He opened a cabinet on the wall by the sink and rummaged through it. Tin cups and miscellaneous papers trailed out and clamored onto the floor. Shade pressed her lips together, not wanting to laugh aloud and hurt his feelings. What a mess, she thought. His place was cozy but cluttered.

“Here we go!” He pulled out a piece of folded parchment that looked like it’d seen too many years. He unfolded and shook it, letting dust puff out into the air. Coughing a little, he cleared his throat and laid the parchment out on the table. It was a map, another map of the faerie lands. It was extremely detailed, down to the tree stumps, and showed some rarely used paths.

Shade’s eyes widened as she absorbed the incredible drawings and unusual names that were scattered throughout the parchment. She reached out and slid her finger over the area labeled “Santiran Fountains.” “That’s where I need to be.” She glanced up and smiled at him, receiving his answering smile.

“We’re here now.” He traced the crescent of Solare’s Beach and followed it down a blue crooked line. “This stream is the small river near where I found you.” He traced the trail that led to what looked like a small town or village, past a small mountain range. Then, to a palace of stone near a much larger mountain range, which bordered all of Faerie.

“Yes, how long do you think it would take us to get there?” Shade asked, feeling the excitement flutter under her skin. They couldn’t be that far from the fountains.

“It’s a day and a half hike to reach the fountains. We can spend the night in the town of Genoden. The road is not what I’m afraid of, though.” He paused, watching Shade’s face fall. “The trail is filled with dark creatures and is probably already being watched by the Unseelie soldiers. We will have to sneak past them to reach the base of the Santiran Mountains, where the fountains are located. Staying off the road has its own dangers, too.”

She pressed her lips together as she thought about what he was saying. Can’t any part of this be simple? She thought, irritated. She was quickly learning life wasn’t always easy or fun.

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

 

 

Dylan’s foot slipped as he climbed down the cliff of loose, muddy rock and dirt. He cursed under his breath as he grasped the jagged rocks firmly, feeling them rip into his palms. Looking down to see how much farther he was before reaching the lower banks of the falls, he eased himself carefully. He saw Shade jump and could hardly believe she’d done that. He was so enraged; stabbing Blythe had felt almost surreal. It had been only a second after she turned and faced him before he plunged his sword deep into her chest. Her deafening screech filled the air while her warm crimson blood soaked his hands. When he pulled his sword back out, he savored watching her crumble to the ground. Death engulfed her thin body, shriveling it into a pile of ashes.

Reaching the edge of the cliff, Dylan looked down into the misty cloud of river spray but saw no sign of Shade. His blood screamed in his veins as a wave of pain crawled throughout his body, making him hunch over with its intensity. It let him know Shade was hurt, and the blood tie would drag him to her as long as it was in place. The farther he got from her, the more it would hurt.

He cursed under his breath, wishing he had reached her before she plunged into the falls. Glancing back at Blythe’s withered body, or rather her pile of dust, he groaned. At least, the witch dryad queen will not get in the way again. He knelt down, leaned over, and scanned the area for a way down the falls. He didn’t like what he saw; the way was treacherous. Sheathing his sword and tightening the leather straps that held it across his chest, he strengthened his resolve. Unfortunately, this had to be done. He glanced around for the rest of the group, but the fight had pushed inland rather than toward the cliff. He could no longer hear anyone. Damn, there’s no time to be wasted.

He left them behind, afraid to wait too long to see if anyone survived or didn’t, for that matter. He had done well to protect Shade until this slip up. He mentally kicked himself for losing her. His hands burned and stung as he moved along the rocks while warm blood oozed from his cuts where the stone shredded his palms. Dylan gritted his teeth but continued. He could heal later. Right now, getting down in one piece was the top priority. When his feet were firmly planted on the slick, muddy banks, he scanned for any signs of her, but there was nothing that surfaced in the water or on the surrounding banks.

She has probably drifted away downstream, he thought. He ran as carefully as he could on the slippery rocks, splashing in small puddles and muddying up his boots to the knees. He didn’t care. He had to find her, no matter where she was.

Dylan would never give up.

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

 

 

“Wait!” Ursad whispered urgently as he pulled Shade down behind some large boulders. She crouched next to him, reaching for her sword and quickly surveying the area.

“What? What is it? What do you see?” she asked. Her heart jumped in her chest as she waited, straining to hear a sound. The birds were singing, and the rustle of leaves swayed above them like an ocean wave. She saw and heard nothing. Irritated, she turned toward Ursad, but he had a hand up to stop her from speaking.

“Look.” He pointed out in front of them. She followed his finger out into the woods and narrowed her eyes. The vegetation was thicker here, with small bushes, vines, and flowers covering the forest floor. Tall grasses shielded the dirt from the sunlight and made travel just that much more difficult. Shade scanned the area but shook her head. “I don’t see anything.”

Ursad placed a finger to his lips, pointing again slightly farther to the right. “There, do you see them? Right there, in the rays of light the sun has cast near the stream.”

Shade looked again, not really expecting to see anything when she did. Her eyes widened, and her mouth dropped. Unicorns! She watched the three creatures prance around the small stream. One was drinking the water, licking it up with its large, pink tongue. Its coat was a shiny brown, with a stark white mane and tail. The other two were all white, like the crystal snow in winter. Their coats shone almost like diamonds. Shade exhaled a breath in amazement and smiled widely.

Ursad was also smiling, admiring the creatures with awe.

“Are they actual unicorns? I thought that they didn’t exist. Wow!” Shade turned back to watch them after Ursad nodded. One of the white ones nuzzled the brown one then also began lapping at the water. They neighed happily, unaware of the watchers before them. Their long legs moved gracefully through the tall grasses, and their glistening horns reminded Shade of the swirls of a candy cane stick. She felt an almost uncontrollable urge to touch one. Her fingers itched as she clenched her hands into fists and fought the compulsion to stand and walk straight toward them. She didn’t want to frighten them but didn’t know why she felt this way.

“Come on Shade. Unicorns like their privacy. They’re a rare sight. I’ve seen these three many times, but that’s only because I live near here. I thought you might like them. It’s quite a gift that they’re allowing you to see them, but we have to get going. It will be dark all too soon.”

Shade shook her head. “But I… can I touch them, Ursad? They’re the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Let me touch them, please!” she cried, her body trembling as she moved forward, filled with childlike excitement.

Ursad instantly had a hold of her arm and tugged, shaking his head. “Shade, look at me. Their beauty is unparalleled. It’s part of their appeal, but if a human touches them, it could prove fatal. They will charm you then stab you through the heart. Only a winged unicorn would ever accept a rider, and as you can see, these are not of that breed. We must move on, Shade! You’re bespelled. Let it go. Will it away.” He tugged harder.

Shade felt herself needing to walk toward them but followed Ursad until they were out of sight, and the overpowering urge subsided. “What was that, Ursad? Why show me the unicorns in the first place, if they can kill me? Really, what was the point if you were just going to pull me away?” An overwhelming gloom stuck to her as tears glistened in her eyes. Her weakness seemed so obvious, and she hoped he wouldn’t laugh.

“The unicorns are gorgeous, yes, and they might seem harmless… but like the sirens of mythology, they lure you to your death. It’s best if you do not think of them anymore. I just thought that it would be good that you saw them, so you could see and feel the weight of their pull, and know just how dangerous they can be. If you were by yourself, who knows what would’ve happened?” Ursad cut down some of the branches around them as he spoke. The forest’s greenery thickened as they progressed. It was almost as thick as a jungle now.

“Well, thank you, Ursad. It’s weird to be drawn to an animal like that. I feel strange like I’m waking up from a drugged sleep, or like I’m hung-over, not that I really ever have gotten drunk or anything like that… You know, it’s just an expression.”

Shade yawned and pulled out her flask of water. The cool, sweet fluid met her lips and always seemed to chase the sadness away. She felt instantly better, revived. I wonder why my energy fluctuates so much. It made her think about feeling drugged at Ursad’s cottage. A moment or so later, she shrugged off her slight concern. I’m probably not healed completely. She was still shocked that she’d actually jumped into a raging, rushing waterfall.

“Yes. Not everything in Faerie is what it seems. Beauty can be evil, and kindness can be a trap. Eating food from a Faerie could trap you here forever.” He paused, glancing back at her for a moment before continuing. “Dancing to music in Faerie could make you dance until you die. Sprites and Pixies can be quite devilish and conniving. The faerie courts may be glamorous, but everyone has their own agendas at heart. Goblins can be kind or wicked, friend or foe. It all depends . Entire dwellings could be just under your feet, and you wouldn’t even know it. Just remember, Shade- trust no one and you’ll be all right.” He swung his machete-like sword again, slicing the underbrush out of their way.

“Does that apply to you, too?” Shade chuckled, teasing Ursad but throwing him a playful smile. He continued to clear the underbrush without saying anything. She watched him, wondering what he was thinking. “So is it true? Faeries can’t lie?” Shade dodged a fallen log and turned into the slim openings of the grass that Ursad made.

“Tell a lie? Well, faeries have a funny way of stretching the truth. Most, you’ll find, try to be honest. You can also frequently run into the type that gets off by messing with your mind.” Ursad paused, rubbing his arm and breathing slightly hard. He apparently wasn’t used to so much physical activity and most likely preferred to hang around his cottage as opposed to traveling. “We’re almost to the small faery town of Genoden. It’s about a half an hour away. When we get close, use the cloak that I gave you and pull your hood over your head. We don’t want any unwanted attention.” He continued through the brush as she pulled the cloak out.

It was dirt brown and very plain in design. The brooch clip at the neck was like the wing of a bird, the bronze shimmering in the sunlight. She draped it over her arm and hugged the bulk of it to her chest. At least, this would definitely not make her stand out. Walking behind Ursad, she could hear him curse the hard labor, crunching on the fallen twigs and debris. She focused on what he told her about faeries and lies, but more on the part about unwanted attention. Her mind pushed on to the thought of Genoden and what possibilities lay ahead for her there.

Fey have a funny way of stretching the truth,” Ursad had just told her. The part about them messing with the mind alarmed her the most. As they traveled closer to the town of Genoden, she didn’t think an old hooded cloak was going to protect her. Even so, Shade knew it was probable that she was going to get attention, wanted or not.

 

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

 

 

 

The town really wasn’t big at all. One could hardly call it a town. It was more like a small village, a one-street wonder. Its cobblestone streets and wooden houses reminded Shade of European cottages with thatch and ceramic tiles for roofs. There were people scurrying about all over the place. The market was the main street, and the second floors of the shops were apartments with living quarters. Shade pulled her cloak around her, hoping the anonymity of the crowd would make her almost invisible. She stayed glued right behind Ursad, holding a corner of his cloak as they weaved their way through the streets of vendors.

The faeries dressed in any and every color, from vibrant to drab, but it seemed the brighter, the better. Some were without cloaks, showing off their slender, pale, perfect, and muscular bodies. Ears and necks were adorned with glittering jewels and beads. They had long hair in braids, with adornments of gold and silver. Most had eyes like Blythe, large and insect-like, but there were many who used glamour to appear more human. Some lived in a nearby human city and were just used to staying in their glamoured forms. Shade nodded in acknowledgment of Ursad’s quick lessons on fey culture, whispered into her ear as they treaded along.

Shade scanned the faces in the crowd for her friends, without any luck. Something about what Ursad said began to bother her. No matter how hard she thought about it, nothing would come to her so she shook it off.

They passed by stands of fresh fruit and vegetables, collecting a bag full of groceries as they went. The day was fading quickly, and the late afternoon sun burned down on them as it was setting behind the houses. Ursad whispered the need to find shelter for the night and said he would take her to one of the local inns for travelers where they could freshen up. She was quiet and nodded again, too in awe of the folks around them to say anything. The air buzzed with noise and excitement.

The Inn was nestled on the town’s main street. Ursad checked in, paying the innkeeper behind a bar counter without so much as a glance from her. She was plump and had her long, red hair bound into a tight bun at the base of her neck. Long strands hung from it, loosened from its tightness from the arduous workday. The rest lay draped down her shoulders and back. Her locks were a fiery red with a touch of orange. Shade never met anyone with that color hair, at least not naturally. The woman wore a work apron over her plain-jeweled blue dress. After handing Ursad a key, she waved them toward a set of stairs behind the bar area. Ursad nodded and thanked her, motioning for Shade to follow. They ascended the stairs quickly before anyone could notice the unusual pair.

Reaching the room, Shade fell against the door as it closed. She sighed, happy to be out of the crowded bar. She felt like everyone’s eyes were staring right at her, even though they probably weren’t. She wondered if anyone knew who she was and what she was trying to do. After being ambushed and attacked twice in such a short period of time, she was starting to feel somewhat paranoid. I need to just relax. They probably weren’t looking at me and have no idea who I am or what I’m doing.

“You all right, Shade?” Ursad stood by the window, watching the crowds swirling below. He glanced up at her, his green eyes reflecting the last streams of sunlight.

“Yes, I’m fine, just tired, I guess. I was just wondering what happened to my friends. I thought they might have found me by now, but I don’t know where they are.” She stared at the single bed in the center of the room. Pressing her lips together, she felt the blood rush up to her face. She kept her eyes low and knelt down to rummage through her backpack.

Ursad watched her, a small smile playing on his lips. “You can take the bed. I’ll sleep on that couch over there.” He motioned to the dark green couch with threadbare upholstery.

Shade frowned and shook her head at it, almost letting a laugh escape. “Wow… that looks mighty comfy! Not gonna fight you for it. It’s all yours, Ursad,” she said sarcastically, failing miserably to suppress a laugh.

Ursad rolled his eyes, but his smile widened. Shaking his head, he walked over to the couch, pushed on it to test its strength, and laid out on it like a large, lazy lap dog.

Shade continued to laugh and pulled out her pajamas. She headed to the bathroom and shut the door behind her. She was tired, but the joking recharged her. Relaxing her shoulders, she turned to stare at the mirror and study her own thin and pale reflection. The journey was taking a toll. The exhaustion seemed permanently stamped on her face. She was gaunt and more fragile than before, making her avert her eyes from the mirror. She didn’t like her reflection anymore. Disturbed, she made efforts to avoid it.

It seemed like a chore just to put on her soft flannel pajamas. She suddenly felt drained again. Closing her eyes, she thought about everything and everyone. Ursad turned out to be a good friend, but she worried about her other friends.

Where are they? Are they even looking for me? Maybe they think I’m dead and have retreated to the Guildrin caverns, after all, she thought, almost feeling defeated. And what about Dylan? Her mind pressed with urgency. She wondered if their blood tie affected him when they separated. She didn’t feel anything at all but hoped he was, at least, okay. She sighed, feeling a slight ache in her chest for her friends. Even Dylan’s annoying presence was missed, making her feel his loss even more.

Shade scratched her head and squeezed her eyes shut. Darn that Blythe! What the hell does she want with me? Shade’s eyes flew open, remembering what the Dryad said about dragging her to the Unseelie’s Queen. What did she want with her? They probably wanted the magic of the Santiran fountains for themselves. Why else would they even bother with her? Maybe they just want it to have some sort of advantage over the Guildrin court. Shade moaned, rolling her head around and massaging her neck, easing out some knots.

She looked back at the mirror and felt an odd sense of déjà vu. Reaching her hand out toward the smooth surface made her heart race before she abruptly yanked it back. The mirror did nothing; its hard surface lacked the ripples of Darren’s mirror. Nothing but her careworn face stared back, but her feelings of shock and fear were evident.

I can’t believe I’m afraid of mirrors now. She was scaring herself. Darren was far, far away now. No one knew where she was, especially the one with the powers of mirror travel. He can’t hurt me now.

She clicked the door open and walked back into the large room, their sanctuary for the night, dropping her clothes into her bag before walking toward the windows. Ursad must have opened them. A soft breeze poured in, lifting the curtains up like floating ribbons. She could hear the murmur of the crowd outside with a random shout or two every now and then. Shade stood just inside the window, afraid to peek outside. The sweet gusts of air caressed her cheeks, sweeping her now loose hair up into a streaming mass, tickling her neck. Closing her eyes for a moment, she relished the peace in this busy place.

“They wouldn’t understand you. You and I have that in common. No one out there understands. We’re different, but that makes us the same,” said Ursad quietly.

She turned and studied Ursad, who was sitting on the couch watching her. They had yet to turn on the lights in the room, but his emerald eyes shone like two green beams of light. He stared intently into her face as their eyes met. Ursad then stood and walked toward her, but she didn’t move from the spot, even when he came face to face with her.

Shade examined his very human hands as they reached up to cup her face. The blood rushed to her face, but she couldn’t look away from his piercing eyes. She reached out and stroked the rough, bark-like skin on his face, running her fingers over the bridge of his nose and down over the softness of lips that remained. Glancing up, she took in the very human eyes that were staring back.

He was a man trapped in a shell that was not his. She could feel the deep resonating hunger and fear that ran through him as they touched. Something like sadness filled her inside like she could feel him drowning inside of himself. She pulled away, searching for air to quench her burning lungs. His intensity was suffocating. Immediately, she felt like she was waking up from a dream. Groggy and confused, she backed into the bed and sat, looking back up at him. Inquiring with her eyes for answers, her head filled with suspicion.

“Ursad, are you using magic on me?” Shade waited, looking at her new companion, hoping to hear something comforting come from his mouth. His head dropped down as his gaze fixed onto the worn floorboards. The grain of wood snarled and wove through every plank, the veins of a long-dead tree. Ursad backed away and slipped onto the couch, his face still and calm.

“I’m sorry, Shade. I couldn’t help it. I thought I could make you stay with me back at my place and here, too, but I can see that my magic is not strong enough to work against you. Your power, it pushes against mine so easily. I… I’m so sorry, Shade. I didn’t mean to ever harm you in any way. I hope you believe me. I just can’t be alone again.” His face hung down, and his hands came up to cradle it as he sank to the floor.

“Ursad, how could you? What do you mean, now and back at your house? What did you do? What have you done?” She glared at him, unmoving and dark. When he didn’t respond, she ran over to him but managed to hold herself back. “What did you do, Ursad? Answer me!” She pulled at his arm, making him look at her once more. Green-tinted tears spilled down his rough cheeks, glinting in the dim light.

“Shade, please don’t be mad. I thought you were just a human. I couldn’t have known that you were part faery! I would have never tried to trap you if I knew that. That’s probably the whole reason it didn’t work.” His fear leaked into his voice.

“What do you mean? What, exactly, didn’t work?” Shade started to back up, afraid to know what he would say next.

“When humans enter the land of Faerie, they can be trapped here forever, especially if they eat something, food or drink, from a faery. If the faery who gives a human food or a drink wants them to stay, and the human eats what is offered, they belong to that faery forever, or until the faery lets them go. I thought if you ate my enchanted food, you would not be able to leave, and you would stay longer… and I wouldn’t be alone anymore.” Ursad pulled himself up and knelt on the floor before her, grabbing her hand and rubbing his cheek against it. “I swear I would never harm you! You have to believe it, Shade. Please don’t go. I just wanted someone to talk to. No one ever looks at me like you do, without disgust, without judgment. I wanted it to stay like that forever.”

Shade backed away out of his grasp, pressing against the footboard of the bed as she sank to the floor. Her sobs poured out as she curled up into a tight ball, hugging her legs to herself. He crawled toward her but stopped when she held her hand up and he froze.

“Don’t touch me, Ursad.” Shade sniffled and wiped her tears on her sleeves. She glimpsed up at him. He was sitting on his knees with his head hanging down, a beaten man. He was hard to figure out, looking small and harmless in his hunched-over defeat. She huffed, wondering what she was going to do. It seemed it wasn’t going to stop, all the hell she’d gone through the past week, and it wasn’t going to get any better. The tricks, treachery, and lies were everywhere. At least, Ursad hadn’t tried to kill her, but what of his betrayal?

What if it worked and she became his slave? She shivered at the thought and held back her last sob. She felt violated and needed time to think. “Are you done then, trying to mess with me?” Shade asked after a few moments. “Like you said, your magic doesn’t work, right? You can’t keep me here. You don’t own me.” She wiped off more drops of tears, watching him and waited for his answer.

Ursad’s eyes were wide with surprise and fear. “Yes, I… I promise. I’m done. I would never try to hurt you. Please understand. It was foolish of me to try any magic on you when you have been so kind to me.” He reached into his coat and brought out a soft, baby blue handkerchief. He crept toward her and held it out, trying not to get too close.

Shade snatched it from him and watched him jump back, concern and relief both flashing across his face. “You better not try it again. I can feel it every single time. I guess I am part faery after all.” She paused and looked at him before letting out a laugh that made him jump. “It didn’t work, so it was for nothing, and I have nothing to fear from you at all.” She blew her nose and stood up, frowning as he pulled himself back up onto the couch and sat, wary of her.

“Tomorrow, we’re going to the Santiran Fountains, Ursad. From there, you’re on your own again. Just take me there, and then we’re done. The maps you showed me, they’re correct, right?”

He nodded sadly.

“Okay, then. I want to get some sleep now, so goodnight.”

He nodded again and pulled a blanket from the arm of the couch before lying down and folding his arm for a pillow.

Shade slid down into the sheets and pulled the pillow over her head. She pressed her face into it, wishing she could dig her way into the fluffy feathers of it and fade away into the softness. She reached over and turned off the lamp by the bedside. Staring out into the darkness now covering the windows, she gazed at the soft moonlight, a small beacon from the outside world. The curtains danced in the gusty, warm breeze. It was spring now in Faerie, always changing with the hours. She’d never get used to the weirdness of this place.

Drifting off to sleep, she listened to the sound of Ursad’s slow and rhythmic breathing. Cocooned in her warm blankets, she slipped away into dreams.

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

 

 

Shade.”

“Who’s there?”

Shade, it’s us, your spirit guides. You must hurry! The Unseelie court moves to stop you. You must get to the fountains tomorrow and retrieve the magic waters quickly!”

“What then? What do I do with it? Where do I go? How do I get back to the Guildrin Caves?”

They smiled at her with their ethereal faces and smooth hair infinitely suspended in midair like there was a silent, unseen wind that blew just for them.

You will know. Dylan is waiting for you. He needs you, Shade. You and only you can save him.”

“Where is he?” Shade furrowed her brow at the sisters, worry permeating her thoughts.

Just follow your path. It will take you straight to him. Remember, when all is dark, you are your own light. Don’t forget the stones Ilarial gave you. They can make a path where none can be seen.”

Shade looked at them, her face filled with confusion. Why was it they never made sense? Their faces left no hint of what exactly they meant. She shouted out to them, but her voice was gone. They shook their heads and smiled, waving a goodbye. Shade screamed to them but felt the gray and the darkness grow around her, obscuring them from her sight.

 

***

 

Shade woke with a start, her heart drumming in her chest. Her pillow was stuffed and wadded into a ball under her head as she lay on her stomach. She looked around the dark room. The moonlight was dim now, and dark gray misted across the room. It was probably near morning. She sat up on her elbows, looking toward Ursad, fast asleep on the small couch by the wall, gently breathing.

The short rays of dawn mixed with moonlight as the minutes ticked by. Stretching, she stood up and shuffled over to the open window. The streets were quiet; only the occasional person with baskets or a pushcart filled with fruit meandered about. The morning market was prepping itself for the needs of many. Shade breathed in and felt a sense of peace filling her with each inhalation. She turned and grabbed her bag before heading to the bathroom.

When she emerged, the soft sunlight filled the windows. She showered and brushed her long hair into a ponytail. With her fresh jeans on and a hoodie pulled over a t-shirt to keep the morning chill out, she pulled on socks and sneakers before tying the laces. Shoving everything back into her bag, she glanced at Ursad, still fast asleep on the couch. His soft snores told her that he was definitely out, making her grin and shake her head. She was ready to go, and he was out like a light. It was hard to be angry with him when he looked like that, innocent and peaceful. However, she wasn’t ready to forgive what he had done.

She looked at the pile of maps on the small table next to the couch, scooping them up and placing them into her pack. Donning her cloak, she headed for the door but stopped. She turned and watched Ursad sleeping, dead to the world. Leaving her bag by the door, she approached him, staring at his rough face and soft eyelids. He seemed so calm and almost handsome, deep in sleep and dreaming.

She wondered what he saw behind his lids, in a world that was his alone. She hated to leave him like this, without a goodbye, but she had to go. His intentions weren’t honest, and she couldn’t tolerate that. Deep in her thoughts, she squeezed her eyes shut. Shade liked him but felt betrayed by his magic. It hurt that he’d done such things without her knowledge. He could’ve been so much more than just a friend. Flinging her eyelids open, she knew what she had to do. Bending down, she let her lips glide softly over his still very human-like ones. One lonely kiss for the road.

She stood back and saw that he hadn’t stirred and remained oblivious. She silently wished him a goodbye as she left the room. At the door, she swung her pack onto her back and shut the door softly behind her. As it clicked, she never looked back again, but she’d forgiven him after all.

The streets filled up quickly. She pulled the hood of her long cloak over her face, hiding her hooded sweatshirt and jeans efficiently enough. She looked around and watched the people scurry by, none of them giving her a moment’s glance.

Well, I’m alone again. She breathed in deeply and walked toward the edge of town, feeling her newfound determination filling her with purpose.

Shade felt no fear and embraced the anonymity of the crowd. It was a most welcome protection. As their magic swirled around her, she drew it in for comfort. She continued to weave around the people and made it to the edge of town. Walking along the road, she followed it until the town fell out of sight. Now she truly was alone. The gravel crunched under her feet, and the leaves of the trees rustled franticly in the breeze. Pulling out the maps she’d taken from Ursad, a feeling of regret washed over her as she thought about the way she left. After what he’d done to her… no, leaving was the only way she could forgive him. If this whole experience taught her one thing, it was that forgiving wasn’t the same as forgetting.

It was time to get a move on. Obviously, this wasn’t the kind of place where you made lifelong friends. I’ve got something more important to do, anyway. She smoothed out one of the maps on a flat boulder that was close to her height. She traced her finger along the road that she followed out of the town. According to the map, she was heading north toward the mountains. She could see the great mountain peaks just beyond the forest. They seemed to be taunting her, appearing closer than they really were.

Sighing heavily, she folded the maps up neatly and placed them into her backpack. Pulling out an apple and a roll of bread at the same time, she munched on her small breakfast as she walked briskly along the road.

The day wore on, and she frequently stopped, checking the maps and refueling on the many snacks and drinks she carried with her. She made sure to put any garbage back into her bag in a trash bag or bury it. Frequent stopping to listen out to see if anyone was following her ate up the time quickly. She would go many miles on the desolate road before she came across someone, then she’d crouch behind trees or fallen logs in the tall grasses of the forest floor until they passed. She wondered if any of them were Ursad. Shade highly doubted it since they all were on carriages or small carts that wheeled on by.

She thought about him constantly and his unfortunate curse, wondering what his real face looked like. She didn’t like the fact that she’d left him alone again, especially when they agreed to travel together. She shook her head. It was unavoidable. He screwed up. She wasn’t going to have people around her who she couldn’t trust entirely. Not now, when she was in so much danger.

Glancing at the lonely road, she pulled her pack tighter to her back. It was lonelier still without him. Where was everyone? Her thoughts wandered to Sary, Braelynn, Ewan, Stephan, Than, Soap, Jack, and Dylan. Somehow, probably because of the blood bind, she knew Dylan was not returning to Teleen without her. He was out here somewhere, with or without her friends. She hoped she’d run into him soon. The forest seemed so vast and lonely without them joking beside her and chatting vibrantly, making her miss them terribly.

A sound made her pause as she listened to the woods. She heard the animals scurrying around and the birds singing high up, hidden in the canopy. Swearing she heard something, she turned, straining her ears for any little noise. The blue sky above was swallowed by the trees as the branches swayed in the soft breeze. The strong scent of pine and damp mulch swam in the air, circling around and penetrating her nostrils. Nothing showed itself, so she trekked on.

It happened slowly, but she realized she’d been changing and actually was enjoying the woods. So much happened to her, she barely noticed this subtle difference in her personality. Somehow, though, it was clear she was now different. Her life was altered and would never be the same.

She rubbed her arms in the coolness of the late morning breezes. The altitude grew with each step as she walked toward the mountain range in the distance. I’ll have to use Dylan’s blanket soon. Already it felt colder as she edged closer to the Santiran Mountains.

As the day wore on, Shade decided not to walk on the gravel road anymore as it was becoming congested with travelers. More traffic could be heard as carts and bands of people shuffled by, heading away from the mountains mostly, in the opposite direction of her. She wondered why there weren’t as many people headed toward the mountains. The tension of possibly being seen and not knowing if the others were harmless or trouble was fraying her nerves. She’d hide behind trees until the road emptied and the people passed.

At one point, the road filled with soldiers, and she’d hidden behind a large fallen tree for about half an hour before she could get moving again. The soldiers wore armor similar to Blythe’s army, and the sight of them made her heart jump and her breath tighten inside her chest.

The flashback of the fight in the river lands made her want to vomit. She had to breathe in slowly and close her eyes, praying she wasn’t going to be found by this strange militia. Who knew where their loyalties laid? She was relieved when they’d moved on without a moment’s glance in her direction. Shade was paranoid after that and dashed between the trees, often pausing to listen for any movement or snap of twigs. Every noise made her jump. It was hard to stay focused. She was starting to feel exhausted as the day wore on. She was about ready to hike farther from the road to camp for the night when she heard something that made her skin crawl.

“That little bitch killed Blythe! When I get my hands on her scrawny little neck, I’m gonna snap it like the twig she is!” a husky male voice echoed through the trees.

“Yeah, and give her a stab for my friend Mike. He died as well. Those warriors were no joke. Where did she find them? That red-haired one got me on the shoulder, and the darn stitches hurt! That’s okay, though. I knocked her out before she got too much of me. Wish I could’ve finished her off. Whoever called retreat was a chicken shit,” another harsh voice replied.

Shade’s eyes widened at the description matching Sary’s looks. She gripped her backpack straps until her knuckles were white and her fingers ached in protest, fighting the urge to scream. She wanted to pull out her sword and charge the two soldiers. She closed her eyes and slowed her breathing again, shifting on her legs, which were going numb from crouching too long. Shade cringed as she heard the snap of a twig under her sneaker. She held her breath and waited.

“Hey, did you hear that? What was that?”

“It’s probably a squirrel stupid!” the second the soldier snapped.

“Shut up, moron. Someone’s there,” the first soldier responded, clearly sounding irritated.

The scratch of metal sliding out of a sheath made Shade swallow hard, her throat tight with nerves.

Oh no!

Now they were whispering, so she couldn’t hear them any longer. Their careless footsteps crunched on bits of wood and dead mulch under their boots. As their steps grew closer, her panic intensified. She heard them come to a stop, but they didn’t speak. They seemed to be waiting for her to betray herself. The delay made her impatient, and she decided to risk peeking over the log to get their position.

She spotted them not too far from her. They were scanning an area to the right, but soon enough, they would be near enough to see her. She glanced behind her, into the endless forest for an escape route.

“There she is! Get her!” They grunted as they turned toward her and began sprinting, dodging other logs and debris. Shade’s eyes widened, and she bolted, running as fast as she could through tangled branches, twigs, and wet leaves.

“Stop! You’re in a lot of trouble! Stop and we won’t kill you,” one of the men called. He did not sound very convincing.

Yeah, that’s gonna make me come to a halt.

She jumped over boulders and logs, occasionally slipping and sliding as the terrain became uneven and full of dips and hills. Falling to her hands and scraping them on twigs and rocks, she felt no pain but was sure it was going to leave marks. She came to a rock bed where the boulders were enormous and bobbed out all across the land. She hopped on the flattened tops, nearly losing her step as her feet slid over the smooth surfaces. Her arms waved in the air, catching her balance just in time before she fell into one of the crevices.

“Get back here, you little… Damn! Reike, my foot’s caught! Get her!” One soldier was struggling to pull his foot from a crack between two boulders. He waved at his partner to follow her.

Shade glanced back but was near the end of the boulders when she missed her step and slammed against one side of a large stone. She tried to grip the rugged rock but only scraped her hands as she slipped down into the large hole between the rocks. She slid and slipped, down under the boulders, until the hole morphed into a tunnel, sending her spiraling down into darkness.

 

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

 

 

There was nothing but darkness and silence surrounding her. Shade was face down on the fine, sandy dirt floor. Sparks twinkled in her vision as she moved, causing her to slow down and breath through the wave of dizziness. She must have hit her head when she landed. Moving her arms under her body, she pushed herself into a sitting position, or what felt like it because the darkness seemed to cancel out her sense of direction. This did not help her stomach. She lurched the last bits of her afternoon snack into the black dirt around her.

Yuck! Shade spit onto the ground, trying to expel the remnants of the nasty taste in her mouth. Breathing in deeply, she sat up again, balancing herself with her hands in the dirt. Bending over to let some more blood rush to her throbbing head, she let her senses normalize. I think need a doctor or something. As the moments passed, the pounding lessened, and her stomach settled. She was able to sit straight and fished through all her pockets for the light stone. Finding it in the back pocket of her jeans, she wrapped her hand around it, willing it to life.

The soft glow grew with every breath she took. Her fear subsided just a bit when the light brightened and showed more strength. Holding it in the center of her palm and stretching her fingers straight, it lit the room like a small lantern. The light was dim, but she could see that the room was rounded and made out of stone. Dirt, rocks, and debris littered the floor of the underground cave. She studied the smooth walls all around her, not seeing any exits or cracks in the stone. The ceiling where she was sure she’d come from was sealed and just as smooth as the walls.

What the…? How the hell do I get out of here? How the hell did I get in?

Shade once again scanned the room to no avail. It was like being inside a very hard bubble. She placed the stone in front of her in the dirt, thinking Please, just keep glowing. She prayed as she watched the warm yellow light, her only solace in the dark. She smiled, proud that she’d managed to do some sort of magic. She attempted to stand up and take a better look around, but the floating stars in her vision caused her to kneel back and wait out the dizziness.

After a few moments, Shade felt well enough to stand and was glad she didn’t hit her head on the ceiling. Walking along the side of the walls, she felt along the stone, finding it rougher and grainier than the boulders aboveground. The bumps scraped against her already wounded and sore hands. After inspecting every inch of the surface, she was sure there was no way out. Spinning around with her heart pounding in her chest, she felt claustrophobic and frustrated. All kicking the stone wall and punching it with her hands gained her was more pain. Her hands were burning as her closed fists irritated her excoriated palms. Shade slumped to the floor, leaning against the cold rock. She hugged her knees to her chest and rocked back. Her sighs echoed in the cool, still air. She could smell the dampness and mold intermingled within it.

The time ticked by, and she didn’t know how long she rocked herself, but it was long enough for her quiet tears to dry up, staining her dirty cheeks. Even her hands stopped throbbing. She pulled off her pack and dug through it for some water, hoping that afterward, she might be able to think more clearly. Her ravenous chewing on a small snack filled the emptiness for a moment or two. She wished her spirit guides were still near and giving her much-needed advice. It made her wonder why the attack caused her to expel them along with Darren. Rubbing her arms, the chilling air ran down her entire body. Pulling out Dylan’s warm blanket, she wrapped it around her until just her eyes were visible from within its folds. The warmth provided by the coverage was instant, and her eyes were drooping with drowsiness, heavy with sleep.

Feeling the solitude pressing on her, Shade breathed in the faint scent of Dylan’s skin on the blanket. She sighed and watched her light stone glow softly in the dark. What now? She pulled out her sleeping bag from her tent and laid it on the soft dirt. Setting her pillow down, the exhaustion overwhelmed her body, and her bones ached from the events of the day. She hadn’t realized how tired she’d become after being chased through the forest. Wrapping the blanket around once more, she drifted to sleep, hoping to find someone, even in her dreams.

 

***

 

Shade’s eyes fluttered open, adjusting to the blue flickering light in the room as it intermittently broke up the darkness. The rock seemed to bounce the glow around and reflect the blue coloring. She blinked again and sat up, confirming that she was still in her stone dungeon. Realizing her light stone wouldn’t be as bright as the glow shining in the cave, she rubbed away the sleep from her eyes and looked around.

Did someone just call my name?

“Shade! It is you! I knew you were close, but I never thought that you would be here!” a male voice said, filled with relief and eagerness. She stared at the figure; electricity crackled and flames radiated from him like a torch. She stood up quickly, wavering for a moment, eyes wide in disbelief.

Dylan! It was Dylan, without glamour, aglow in the most amazing blue fire swimming along his skin. It licked the air around him.

“Dylan? How did you get here? How did you find me?” Her eyes scanned him, waiting for his still-familiar face to change into someone else. Her heart leaped with the utmost happiness at the sight of him. She smiled and tried to stand until a sway of dizziness changed her mind.

“I don’t know. I came to an ancient riverbed with enormous boulders throughout it. I was compelled to be there, and I’d been tracking you for a while. I can feel when you’ve been in a place, almost like I’m experiencing a feeling of déjà vu. It felt so strong there, but I didn’t even know where to look. Suddenly, the land opened up and sucked me down between the boulders, and here I am. That’s never happened to me before, definitely a first.” He paused, beaming at her. “I was meant to find you. I can’t even explain it. It’s the weirdest thing to fall and be right here with you. No, wait. Don’t get too close. You might get burned.” Shade retracted her hand, just realizing she’d been reaching out to him.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”

He smiled and nodded. “It’s ok. You know how we look without the glamour to encase our actual bodies. If you were to touch me, I could hurt you.”

Shade pressed her lips together, confusion flashing across her face. “Darren touched me when he was unglamoured like you are now, and I didn’t get burned. I asked Soap and Jack about it, and they had no answers for me. It makes me think that I might not be harmed if I do touch you.” She admired his flames and took in his handsome face.

It was a mask of shock as he shook his head. “I don’t know about that, Shade. Maybe it was a trick of his. He could do so many things with mirrors that would make you believe things were real when they were really just illusion. He was a genius at that.” Dylan’s face was grim at the thought of his brother.

“No, I know because he was shocked when I didn’t burn. He said that much, and I saw it in his eyes.” Her eyes glazed over with the memory of the malice stamped on Darren’s face. He was filled with so much pleasure when he’d seen the fear wash over her. She looked at Dylan and almost expected to see Darren standing before her. They were similar in appearance, but even as brothers, they didn’t exactly look alike. They certainly didn’t behave the same way.

“Well, if you must, Shade, I will tone the flames down. Then you can touch my skin with just a finger. That way it won’t hurt you too much. Deal?”

She nodded and watched his flames shrink back into just embers glowing across his skin. She studied it and watched how his skin looked smooth and untouched under the heat. He watched her as she walked forward, extending her arm and hand up toward him. They both held their breath as she reached her finger up to his skin and slowly ran it up his arm. Dylan was still holding his breath when her soft touch reached him, seeming to freeze time.

Nothing… is happening. He felt warm, not hot. There was no pain, flying ash, or fear. She extended the rest of her fingers out to brush his forearm. His flames spread to full glow, and she remained unscathed. She brought her hand back and studied it. Dirt and drying scrapes peppered the skin across her hand but no burns or soot. She looked at Dylan, who was as stunned as she was. He was observing her intently, making her suddenly aware of his closeness.

“Dylan, nothing happened. What am I? Why am I protected from your fire?” She stared at him, awaiting an answer.

Dylan seemed to come back into himself, shaking off whatever was holding him in his thoughts. Gazing at her, he shook his head. “I… I don’t know, Shade. I wish I knew. There are so few who can do what you just did, so very few. Most are just Teleen, but you….” He kept his head shaking back and forth in disbelief. “Amazing,” he whispered and then looked back at her, a smile now hiding the seriousness of his face.

“Do you know what that means, Shade? You could marry a Teleen. You could, without difficulty, find a mate within our court. Being a female, you have no idea how rare you are, and how well you shall be received.”

“What? I don’t want to get married. Well, at least not yet. Where did that come from? I… I’m just a kid. Why would I even think of that yet?” She huffed, flustered at his statement. “Dylan, what do you mean there are so few who can do what I did? Do you mean the not getting burned part? Who else besides a Teleen can do that?” She waited and watched his smile fade just as fast as it had come.

“Our race is dying out, Shade. We can only marry another Teleen, and very few of us are able to have children. Only another race compatible with us would help strengthen our line. Our clan dies otherwise. The only other races of faeries that would even be compatible with us, strong enough to withstand our powers, are even rarer than the Teleen.”

“Who are these people?” she asked impatiently. The look on his face was definitely disapproving that she’d even asked him.

“Changelings, for one thing, or elementals of fire, such as fire-witches. Finding someone like that is so rare. I have only known of one changeling and one elemental fire-witch ever, and they were paired already.” He paused, narrowing his eyes at her. “Do you know if you are either of those, Shade?”

“Me? No, no way. If I am, I wouldn’t know it. I mean, what’s a changeling and an elemental witch? How would I know which one I am if I am one of those?”

“Well,” he offered, “a changeling is simple. They’re capable of changing into anything they want to. Human, bear, squirrel, different types of fey, like Teleen, Enlors, which are sprites, or Gidals, which are trolls. Anything really. It’s a rare ability like I said. An elemental fire-witch is, well, a mortal human witch, in every meaning of the word, but with an affinity to fire. They can control it, wave it around, and send it roaring through a forest. Whatever you can imagine doing with it, they can do it. They can cast spells, charms, curses, and things of that nature. There are many kinds of witches, Shade, but rare is it to find elemental witches. They’re special.” His face darkened as his eyes met hers.

“Shade, if my people knew that you could be one of this kind of unique individuals, especially since Darren exposed it with his attack…I have to warn you and let you know that upon returning to Teleen, all unmated, unmarried males in my race will be courting you for your attention. You’ll probably be bombarded by them, pushed to choose one of them for a mate.”

“What? Oh no, no, no. They can’t make me do anything. I won’t choose anybody. I won’t be staying there at all. I wouldn’t return there after what happened, and besides, I’m going home.”

Dylan nodded and sighed. “Yes, Shade, of course, you will want to go back, but I must warn you. Even at home, you will not be left alone. Teleen men are relentless. Our Queen will not stop them, either, not until you choose one of them as your mate. Only then will it be ordered by our Queen to leave you alone. It is vital for the survival of our people. I’m sorry, Shade. At the very least, I had to warn you before that happens.”

Shade let her face screw up in disgust. Marriage was the least of her worries. She wished he hadn’t said a thing about it at all. She turned and slumped down onto her sleeping bag again. She still felt tired and was now irritated on top of it all. She stared up at the ceiling, lit up in Dylan’s glow. The whole cave was flickering in the light. There was still no sign of a way out. She pulled the blanket over her head and curled up into a ball.

“Dylan, how are we getting out of this place? I looked everywhere. I don’t even see where I came in! What is this place? I feel claustrophobic, and it’s cold down here.” She closed her eyes and waited.

“It’s a place to forget oneself or forget about someone. It’s either a blessing or a curse, depending how you look at it. This cave is one of the ancient prisons of Faerie. People were left here for years to forget about themselves, wither away, or to emerge fresh, with a clean slate. It’s an immortal’s dungeon, or oubliette, Shade. I am surprised you stumbled across one. Usually, they can trap only immortals.” He paused. She listened to the silence, waiting for him to continue while pondering his words. “It does make me wonder why you are down here. You must be immortal then, to end up in such a place. You could be a powerful changeling for all we know.”

“Who gets people out of these things? Who made them? Was it the Unseelie?” she muttered. She felt her eyes become heavy with sleep, rubbing them as she struggled to stay awake.

“No. As I said, this room could be used as a prison but not always. It can be a safe place, you know, like when you’re being pursued and you need to seek a sanctuary. No one gets people out of these places except for the faery who put you here. In your case, it’s you. You must will it so yourself–to escape, I mean. You must get us out of here, Shade.”

She thought of his last words as she drifted off to sleep.

What a bunch of crock.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty

 

 

 

Shade woke up in darkness yet again. She heard soft breathing across the room. Was she still in the oubliette? The cold, damp air confirmed her disappointment as she sat up, pulling the blanket down from her head. She felt around for her light stone, which lay cold and dormant in the center of the room where she’d left it. Grasping it, she reignited it. Her eyes focused in the dim light as it grew. She watched the bundle that was Dylan softly sleeping. He wasn’t aglow anymore. He must have slipped his glamour back on like a robe before bed.

She set the light stone down again, wondering if she should wake him and also how long she slept. She didn’t know what day or time it was anymore. It could have been hours or minutes, and she wouldn’t even know it down here in the dark, dank bowels of the earth. Her cell phone was long dead since she hadn’t charged it recently. She leaned against the smooth stone and thought about everything they spoke about before she’d let sleep win her over… had it been the night or day before?

Shade felt sorry for doubting Dylan, but he didn’t make much sense to her half of the time. She was glad that she wasn’t alone down here anymore but pondered the subject of escape. Just will it so? What the heck was that about? Like, tell the stone to open up and let me out kind of thing? Shade thought with frustration. She was pretty sure she hadn’t asked to be placed here, at least not on purpose.

She stood up again and shook her head. Oh, whatever, this entire situation doesn’t make any sense. Changelings, witches, faeries, and whatever the hell else pops up. She wondered how much of the world she’d grown up in was real at all. It seemed like none of it was. It was just a lie, just a façade that the Fey played on all of humankind. They probably got a good laugh out of it all the time. Oh, what dumb humans they are. They can’t figure out that more than half their land isn’t even on their maps because it’s ours. We can do whatever the heck we want, and they don’t know any better. Idiots!

She kicked the wall again, but not hard enough to hurt her foot. It did force her to grunt, though. She thumped her back against the wall, groaning.

“You all right there? The wall isn’t going to kick you back, you know. It didn’t really do anything to you, anyway.” Dylan had his hands behind his head while he remained lying, head up and staring at her, grinning.

“Oh, shut up. How do we get out? We need to get out, like yesterday, Dylan! How do we do it?” She stared at him, huffing out her anger as she marched back to her sleeping bag. She shook it out violently and stuffed it into her bag. Pulling out her canteen, she gulped down the cool drops of water. She tossed her bag to the side as she sank down to the ground, feeling the tears sting her eyes. Darn it if she was going to give Dylan any more signs of her current breakdown. She just couldn’t take the mortification.

Dylan sighed and stretched out. He stood up and held his hand out to her. “Come on. We gotta go.” He waited as she stared back up at him, tears still pooling in her eyes. She took his hand and stood up, swinging her pack on her back as she followed him over to the smooth walls of stone. “Now, to leave these prisons, one must believe in impossibility. Lay your hands on the stone and think. Think about the mountains you saw before you got here and the fountains. Wish your way out. Make a road in your head that will lead you to the place you want to go, and it will happen. Make a way for yourself, for us.”

Shade studied his face, feeling a prick of hope mixed with disbelief as he spoke. She licked her lips and did as he told her. Closing her eyes, she wished the stone would open and let her out into the sunlight, into the wilderness she so longed to see again. She prayed and wished as hard as she could, caressing the cool rock and waiting for the stone to do something under her dirty fingers.

Nothing.

Shade opened her eyes and frowned at the rock. She looked over at Dylan and shook her head. “Nothing’s happening, Dylan. What if we’re stuck here forever?” She stared at the curved wall, wanting a way out where there was none. She sucked her breath in. “Wait!” She’d just remembered something and grabbed her pack, rummaging through it frantically. She pulled out the rune stones Ilarial gave her. She held them in her gritty hand and stared at the symbols. How was she supposed to know what she had to do with them? Ilarial said they would help me find my way when there is none, but how? She stared at them and closed her eyes, silently praying for a way out of the oubliette.

“Shade! Something’s happening!” Dylan pulled her out of her thoughts. She glanced around to find the rock fading in front of them with a soft rumble. The bubble was no longer a bubble but extending into an elongated hall. It grew longer into the earth until it reached the top of the soil. Steps formed out of the smooth rock, and sunlight gradually began streaming in through dirt. Roots dangled down from the forest floor.

The walls stopped rumbling, and the ground stilled. She looked over at Dylan as they now stared down the small corridor to the stairs. She smiled and looked at him as he reached back, grabbing his cloak and her light stone from the ground. He tossed the stone to her as they walked up the stairs. “Way to go, Shade. See, you just have to believe in yourself.”

“It worked! Ilarial gave me these rune stones that would help me out when I needed it. I didn’t even do much but wish for there to be a way out. Wow, it’s amazing Dylan!” They both shouted with glee as they scurried up each step.

The sun bore down on them like a spotlight in their faces. Shade’s eyes cramped in pain as they adjusted to the bright sunlight. She blinked and shaded her eyes with her hands, looking about. They were no longer in the river of boulders but at the base of the Santiran mountain range. She pulled herself up and out of the hole in the ground, with Dylan just behind her. The ground seemed to swallow up the darkness of the prison as they watched it close. Only grass and leaves lay where the exit used to be. She bent to touch the patch of grass and dirt. It felt firm and undisturbed.

“Look, Dylan!” She pointed up the massive wall of the mountain. “It’s the Santiran Mountain! We must be so close to the fountains! We’re almost there!” She walked with a little skip in her step, almost bursting with anticipation. She’d find the magic waters of the Santiran fountains, and then she’d be that much closer to going home.

Home. At the thought of going back to her snotty-nosed brothers and bratty sister, she missed them so much, her heart ached in her chest. She’d be able to hug her mother again. She wanted to run up the mountain as fast as possible. She could barely contain herself.

Dylan grabbed her arm and tugged hard. She was about to curse him out when he pressed a finger to his lips and pulled again for her to follow him. Her eyes widened as she strained to hear what he heard. She followed him behind a boulder near a dip in the mountain’s side, almost like someone had taken a scooper and scooped out a chunk of the rocky base. She wasn’t sure she liked being inside the hollowed stone, but whatever Dylan heard tripped his alarms at full force.

“What is it, Dylan?” Shade whispered. She was about to ask him again when she heard it. Murmurs of voices seemed to dance on the rock walls and made her turn her head in all directions to discover which way they were coming from. Maybe this hiding spot was not such a good idea. The voices grew louder and echoed even more like they were hitting a concaved amplifier.

They waited quietly, barely breathing in fear of discovery. The voices continued to dance around them, as they would in a crowded arena. She knew they were coming from the side they would have to follow to get to the fountains. She gritted her teeth with impatience, willing the men to move along already.

When the murmurs faded away, Dylan peeked over his shoulder at her and nodded his head in the same direction as the voices. The strangers were going where they needed to be. Shade nodded in agreement, but the pit in her stomach flipped with anxiety. She wasn’t sure how many people might be waiting for them around the bend. How many Unseelie were guarding the mountain?

They found the path deserted and were breathing out sighs of relief as they crept out silently up the gravelly path. Climbing the rocky path, they frequently slipped from the loose dirt. They eased their way up the mountain, the altitude shifting into thinner and cooler air. The view was breathtaking, with emerald green treetops where the forest spread out for miles. The mountains stood tall, like a row of kings standing around the valley and framing the forest with their embrace. Shade took it in and smiled, finding nature beautiful even in her current situation. Again, she felt as if she’d changed somehow. The woods seemed alive all around as if breathing in the air along with her.

A cool breeze caressed them as they ascended. The forest began to grow again as thick as it was in the valley below. The mountainous path turned into a narrow crevice as they slid through one by one. Inside was a plateau cove, green and partly shaded by the mountain. Trees stood in all sizes around the path that led to the other side of the cove’s rock walls, where a carved opening stood in a shadow that never reached the sun’s rays.

Shade followed Dylan, taking refuge in the shrubs and tree trunks that kept them hidden from the sight of the two soldiers, who were both standing casually by the entrance. The men were chatting loudly and hadn’t noticed the intrusion. Shade snickered, sure the Unseelie Queen would not be happy with the help around here. Dylan glared at her, warning her to be quiet.

He studied them and then sank back down to a hidden crouch. “I only see the two guards. The Santiran fountains are inside that darkened doorway. If we can get through them, we should be all right. It seems that they weren’t expecting us to be here at all.” He paused, furrowing his brow in deep concentration. “Unless, of course, it’s a trap.” He bit his lip, furrowing his brow again in thought.

“How are we going to take on two guards?” She glanced over at them. They didn’t even have their helmets on. They were the same height with the same color and length of hair, blonde strands that hit their shoulders. They were tossing jokes back and forth and giving each other friendly pushes and punches. As she looked carefully, she could see that they were identical twins.

Great, double the trouble. How am I going to take on two husky guards? She squatted back down and out of sight, glancing at Dylan with worry spread across her face. “I’m not a fighter. I haven’t learned enough to take on one of these guys. They’re each as huge as a house! They could crush me with a finger!” She took a deep breath, attempting to calm her nerves.

“Shh, it’s all right. You can distract them, and I’ll take them out. They won’t know what hit them.” He smiled and began pulling out his weapons, unsheathing his sword and draping a rope across his chest and shoulders. She watched him prepare, her face contorted in horror.

“You mean, I’ll be the bait? Wait a minute. I don’t know. That doesn’t sound very promising. You might as well mark me for death. What do I say? How do I distract those two big buffoons? They don’t look that smart, but who needs brains with brawn like that?” Shade rambled on nervously. She wrung her hands over and over, feeling almost faint with anxiety. She grasped Dylan’s tunic as he started to leave.

“Hey, don’t worry. You have to trust me a little, Shade. I’ve done this before, many times. I was captain of the Teleen Guard, remember? One doesn’t become a captain by letting their wards get killed.” He snickered but stopped, catching her daggered look. “Calm down. Just prance out there and act like some little lost maiden who needs their help. They will fall for it, believe me. Just act dumb. It shouldn’t be too hard.” He laughed quietly but stopped again when she threw another nasty glare at him. He turned and started to move, keeping cover in the trees, until Shade could no longer see him.

Shoot, shoot, shoot! She looked again around the tree she was hiding behind and watched the twins. They were still cackling at each other’s jokes. Okay, Shade, you know you have to. Sometimes we have to do what we don’t want to. Just get it over with already!

She crept closer to the twins. Peeking at the guards made her stomach twist in a bad way. Taking a deep breath, she stood up straight, fixing her hair as best as she could. She put her most convincing clueless face on, including a broad smile. She then walked straight into their line of sight.

“Um, excuse me, boys, but do you know where the nearest town is? I’ve done gone and got myself lost. Would either one of you gentlemen care to show me which way to go?” She batted her eyes at them in the girliest way she could think of. Flipping her hair back, she didn’t think she looked irresistible, but she’d figured, what the hell. It’s worth a shot.

“Stay put there, miss. Andre, grab her and make sure she ain’t got no weapons.” Draden waved at his brother. They were immediately on full alert and converted into the soldiers they were trained to be. Shade swallowed hard and stiffened but recovered almost immediately, trying to act like it was no big deal.

“Oh, come on now, boys. Why would a little lass like me be carrying around a weapon? I wouldn’t touch those filthy things if you paid me. It would ruin my nails.” She curled her fingers into her palm, hoping they wouldn’t notice her dingy and short cuticles. She cranked up her smile and flashed her eyes at the approaching guard again, the one named Andre. He crouched by her and signaled her to hold her arms up as he did a quick sweep of her sides and yanked her pack from her back. She was about to protest but decided that silence would be the safest choice. She hoped the glamour charm Dylan waved onto her pack was good enough to hide all her stuff, especially the weapons.

“I don’t see any, Draden. She’s got nothing but makeup, a brush, and some clothes in this thing.” He tossed it back to her, and she caught it as it whacked her chest. She frowned but slipped it back on, widening another smile across her face and twirling her hair. It dangled from her ponytail and flew about like a wispy halo around her face. She waited, observing the other guard, who squinted his suspicious eyes at her and frowning.

“What’s your name, girl?” Draden approached her with his sword drawn. Shade held her breath as he came up to her, bending his head down to meet her eye to eye. With the cold stare of ice blue eyes, he appeared more menacing than his twin. His long blond hair was pulled into a loose braid and dangled partially in his face. Up close, his face was worn with years of hard fighting. Deep lines creased his eyes and mouth, and stubble grew, sprinkled across his skin. His twin looked just as hard, but maybe not as cold. She swallowed and wondered how to answer this big man with his sword pointed right at her. She took a breath, staring back into the warrior’s eyes.

“My name is Alice, Alice Coleman. I’m sorry. I must have interrupted something. I’ll just leave then and go along my merry way. I really didn’t want to impose or anything.” Draden, pressing his sword into her clavicle, cut her off. She stepped back, but he grabbed her arm to stop her. She felt her panic rush over her.

Where the hell is Dylan?

“I don’t believe you.” He pressed the blade a little more, and her skin burned with the tiny cut. She held back a cry and stared back at him, anger spilling across her face as she clenched her lips together.

“I don’t care what you think. I said, I’ll be on my way now.” She continued to stare and waited since he did not let up on his grip. He glared back and seemed to ponder her face, stamping it into his memory. She wondered if he would actually hurt her or even kill her. She didn’t want to find out, but her impatience grew with every second.

She decided to chance another step backward. Slowly, she retreated but watching him dart his eyes just a moment made her pause. He continued to press the sword into her but did not push it in any further. She stared at his eyes and willed him to drop the sword. She beckoned with her eyes, like a silent prayer. She felt her magic swirl within her, inside her heart, spinning around like a mirror ball and growing with each moment. It seemed like a breath flowing out of her, up to her wound and down the sword Draden held firmly in his hands.

The moment it touched him, she saw him waver. He looked away, down at the sword and back up to her face. His face fell, eyes widening and fear creeping up into his icy stare as his eyes darted from the sword to her and back again. Finally, he stepped away, relenting, and let his sword slide down until it grazed the soil and hung slack in his hand.

“What did you do? How did you… who are you?” He stepped away, and his firm stare met her gaze, mixed with confusion and suspicion. “Who sent you?”

Shade licked her lips and watched him as he backed away. Andre approached with his sword in hand but halted with a wave from Draden. The dominant brother was apparent to her. She hoped that whatever had just happened would save her.

“Drop your swords, or we will not stop. She will churn your insides into pulp, and she will not hesitate.” Dylan held two swords readied and crept up behind the twins, cautiously poking them in their backs simultaneously. They both froze, surprise and anger spilling across their faces. Draden glanced at Dylan and then back at Shade, seemingly contemplating the situation, probably pondering their chances against them.

Whatever magic filled him from Shade had gotten the best of him. He dropped his sword and straightened, holding his head up and puffing his chest out in some male attempt at superiority. Andre followed suit and dropped his sword, hands in the air for surrender.

“Shade, tie them up and hurry. I don’t know when their replacements could show up.” Shade ran over, kicking the dropped swords out of reach, and grabbed the spool of rope Dylan handed over to her. She took the slim ropes and walked over to Draden. “Ok, tell your brother to turn his back into that tree there, and you can back into it, too. Stand next to him with your arms behind you.”

Draden glared at her with tense lips and hard eyes. She waited patiently, not letting his stare creep into her again or letting any fear slip out. He did what she said and waited as his brother walked over and turned around behind him. Shade snickered and hastily tied the ropes around their wrists. She silently thanked her mom for those scout campouts, where tying knots was a requirement to earn those nifty badges her mom would carefully sew onto her uniform vest. She still had that vest, hanging neatly in her closet.

Once she had them tied, she directed them to a tree. There, she wrapped the remainder of the rope around them several times, as tightly as she could get it without cutting off circulation to their bodies. She knotted the ends securely. She looked at the brothers and beamed with satisfaction.

“I know what you are. You’re a changeling. Only changelings can send magic into others to make them weaker. I met one once. He’s dead now. He was powerful, though. You will never be that strong.” Draden sighed and looked down at the ground, pensive and serious. “You look like him, though, your father, I mean.”

Shade stopped. Her face froze in surprise. “What did you say? Who are you talking about?”

Draden snapped his head up and watched her face, smirking.

“What are you smiling at?” She felt anger flush over her face, but she tried to contain it, not wanting to give him the satisfaction.

“You don’t know, do you? You didn’t even know you were a changeling. How’d you do it, then? Wild magic flows through you like a cancer. He had the same powers. I could help you, you know. I knew your father. He was a powerful man. I was his second in command for centuries until he died and that crazy queen took over.” The husky man squirmed in the ropes, grimacing and obviously trying to loosen the ties. Shade was no longer smiling, but at least, there was no way in hell he could break loose.

She turned to look at Dylan. He was standing nearby, his dual swords ready in hand. He was not as sure as she was that the rope would hold. His lips were firm, straight, and almost colorless. His eyes furrowed in concentration, contemplating what the soldier said. “Don’t listen to them, Shade. He’s trying to trick you and delay us. Let’s go to the fountain before someone else shows up.” He brought the swords down, turned, and motioned for her to follow.

Draden’s eyes widened, seeing the two of them walking away. He fidgeted again and yelled after them. “I swear it’s the truth, girl. I know things you need to know. I was his second in command. Your father would have wanted you to know these things. Stop!”

Shade turned her head, still following Dylan, and glanced back at the brawny warrior. His wild eyes watched her intently, waiting for her to turn back. She shook her head and looked away. She had a strange feeling that the soldier was telling the truth. If not, he was an excellent liar. A part of her wanted to go back and ask the warrior so many questions, but she knew it wasn’t the right time.

The doorway to the fountains lay in shadows. They stepped into the darkness and waited as their eyes adjusted to the dim light. Following Dylan and activating her light stone, she grimaced at the stone walls. Another cave. Great, thought Shade.

Just as she thought that, a light shone through another doorway, making her realize the hall they were in was more of a semi-circle. It led to an open courtyard in the shape of a full moon. Here in the middle of the mountains, the sun streamed down above the sharp cliffs that reached up to the sky. Shade drew in her breath, amazed at the sight. Hidden from any prying eyes was a vast, fertile garden. It was large, and the sound of water trickled and gurgled all around them. The grass was a brilliant, glowing green with the most brilliantly colored flowers and vines weaving throughout it.

The air was moist and warm here. It felt akin to being in a large greenhouse, like one she’d visited in her childhood with her father. It contained an immense glass dome as a ceiling and held in butterflies and birds of all types. The warm mist felt much the same and made her want to curl up under a tree and take a nap. It was a piece of untouched land that seemed to be heaven on earth.

They stood in awe of the sights. Dylan motioned her forward again and broke her out of her thoughts. She followed but was stunned by the beauty of the place. Near the middle of the garden, they came upon what looked like a massive natural fountain, made of rock and crystals of every color. The crystals glinted and parted the light into beams of rainbow all around the fountain, making it hard to look at because the jewels shimmered so brightly.

Dylan stopped. He reached into his pack and pulled out a glass flask with a stopper. He held it out to Shade, signaling for her to take it. “Here, I can’t touch the waters, but you can. Take this and fill it. Then we will be done.”

Shade took the flask and smiled. Excitement hummed through her veins as she approached the fountain. She paused at the edge and stared down at the glowing crystals. The water swelled around them and trickled down the rock, spraying up a slight mist of warm water. She wondered what made it so special. It looked like water, plain water. The fountain itself was impressive, but that’s where it ended.

She licked her lips and took the stopper out of the flask, dipping it into the warm embrace of the water. She let it fill as it bubbled up around her hand. She felt the magic stir. As she immersed her arm in the water, the magic seemed to intensify. She felt it crawl up her arm and deep into her core. Her eyes widened as the euphoria overwhelmed her.

Shaking her head to clear it and think better now that the flask was full, she pulled the bottle out to examine it. Rainbows swirled in the glinting sunlight inside of the glass. She felt the cool liquid run down her arm and drip onto the moist earth below. The dirt vibrated with life as green vines and leaves sprouted at every drop and reached for the sunlight. She smiled, enjoying the euphoric feeling and peace all at once. She realized she was glowing, reflecting light off the pool of water. It felt incredible.

“Shade? Are you okay?” Dylan’s eyes were wide in concern. His face appeared paralyzed in shock and disbelief. She looked up at him and smiled, nodding as she pushed the stopper into the flask.

“That was amazing, Dylan! I feel like someone just jolted me awake with a million double shot espressos. I feel great!” Shade laughed and hopped back to where Dylan stood, drying her arm on her hoodie. He approached her and smiled, watching her illuminated face and feeling the warmth spill onto him. He reached out and touched her cheek, sliding his fingers over her skin, and the vibrating magic spilled onto his skin too. His hand glowed, and the light crept over him as it did her. They stood in a cocoon of light and peace.

He laughed and smiled at her. Her smile was contagious. Her cherry red lips seemed to beckon him, and her dreamy honey eyes seemed to pull him into the deep abyss of her soul. He moved closer, cupping her face. Bending forward, his lips brushed against hers, warm and soft, sending Shade’s heart sighing in bliss. A feeling of drunkenness filled him, as though he’d been empty and now was filling up to the brim. He gave into the embrace, letting it swim around them like honey dripping from the trees and leaves around them, imprisoning them in a bubble of swirling magic. He wanted to kiss and hold her forever.

“There they are! We have you surrounded! Drop your weapons!”

The shout jerked them back to the garden and the trickling water. Dylan spun and stared at the squad of soldiers pouring in through the door in the rock wall and fanning out to surround them.

“Drop your weapons, or we will be forced to kill you, warrior. We only want the girl with the flask of water. Give her to us, and we will let you live.” The leader stared at Dylan’s swords, now loose and unsheathed, held in a fighting stance. The captain of this band shook his head and laughed. “You can’t win. We outnumber you, young man. Drop the swords.”

“Sir, I can’t locate the twins. It’s like they’ve disappeared. I found pieces of their armor, but they’re nowhere to be found. Maybe the little witch dispatched them before we arrived. I’ve heard strange things about her, sir.” The captain waved the subordinate away, furiously shaking his head.

“Don’t be stupid! Just as well. We’ll assume they’re dead. Now, secure the girl, and let’s get back to the palace before dark. The Queen will be most pleased. Move in!” The circle of soldiers began to press in on them.

Shade turned to watch the soldiers closing in on them and backed into Dylan, her hands clasped around the bottle. Her eyes darted nervously at the soldiers. “What now, Dylan? There’s no way out! We’re trapped!” She bit her lip as the fear spilled over the fading euphoria.

“It’s all right, Shade. Listen to me, and do just what I say. Hold onto me. I’m going to drop my glamour and call my powers.” Shade looked up at him, eyes wide in terror.

“What are you gonna do?”

“I’m going to call my power of lightning. When I discharge it, the first ring of soldiers will drop with the shock. Hold onto me tightly. I have to control it so it doesn’t go too wide and fry the garden. Come on!”

Shade shook her head as she turned to him, letting his arms embrace her tightly. “I… I don’t know if this is a good idea. What if I get electrocuted, too?” She trembled in his grip. Dylan looked down at her and smiled softly.

“Believe, Shade. I believe since you are able to touch me, you are immune to my powers. It will be alright.” He whispered the last words and hugged her tightly. They closed their eyes as the blue flickers of fire crackled over his skin. The next thing she knew, she felt the bolt of energy discharge from his body, like a small earthquake vibrating through her. The bolt snapped and sent a thunderous boom around them. When it was done, just a moment later, she peeked around his chest to see that the first ring of soldiers surrounding them were down, most knocked out while others moaned in distress.

“It worked, Dylan!” She stopped as she watched the next wave of soldiers creep in, stepping over the others cautiously and staring at the pair of them in disbelief.

“Damn it! It’s a blasted Teleen. Grab the lightning rods from the armory stash now! We’ve got to control the lightning before we can overpower him!” The captain’s face was beet red, and sweat beaded on his face as he fumbled back from the fallen ones. “Hurry up!” he yelled.

The soldiers stood back as they waited for the rods to be handed out.

“Lightning rods? Dylan, what are they gonna do with the rods?” Shade turned around and watched the soldiers pass stacks of rods around the group.

Dylan breathed in and shook his head. “The rods will render me powerless. They will draw my power into the cylinders and leave me harmless. We’ve got to get out of here now.” He spun around and watched the soldiers gear up and advance again. He then turned to Shade and looked down into her shining brown eyes.

“Shade, listen to me. There’s a legend that says the holder of the water of the Santiran Fountains can use it to wish for anything they want, just once, and it will be granted by the water’s magic. Now, I’m going to hold onto you, and you try to think as hard as you can of the Guildrin forest and imagine being back there once more, got it?”

“Yes, but, there’s no freakin’ way that will work!”

Dylan re-sheathed his swords, pulled her into his embrace, and smiled. “I guess we’ll find out. Now wish us home, Shade. Do it now!”

Shade closed her eyes, feeling the soldiers’ auras vibrating around them and closing in. She breathed in, thinking of Queen Zinara, Ilarial, and her newfound friends. She visualized the steps leading down to the Guildrin living quarters, the only place she’d ever felt somewhat safe in Faerie.

Dylan’s arms felt warm and strong around her, and she only hoped he would continue to hold her this way. She wished him safe, herself and the others too. Unscrewing the cap of the flask, she whispered her thoughts into the bottle grasped tightly in her hands. She felt Dylan’s lips on her head, warm and firm as she wished them all back home safe, as hard as she could.

A peaceful feeling washed over them like a crashing wave. In just that instant, yelling and cursing blew up around them, followed by an intense silence. The sound of tree leaves rustling and birds chirping in the slight breeze made Shade open her eyes. They stood by the great tree to the Guildrin Court, as if they’d never left. She gasped, looking up at Dylan.

“You did it! Oh man, you did it, Shade! We’re home!” Dylan jumped and hopped about, hollering out his joy. Returning to her and lifting her up with his arms, he swung her around. Shade breathed in with relief. A moment later, another whoosh sounded around them. The entire gang stood there, looking startled and shocked.

“Oh, wow!” She ran and hugged the tall sorceress Braelynn, and then turned to embrace them all one by one. Hot steaming tears streamed down her cheeks. Every one of them was there. Everyone but Sylphi returned, just as she’d wished. They were all shocked and surprised but intact and safe. Shade didn’t ponder very long about where Sylphi had gone. Shade wasn’t missing her.

“What just happened? We’re home! How the…? What the…?” Soap was spinning around, looking at the landscape, absolutely petrified. Shade ran hugged him tight and pulled back an inch to see his face. He grinned back at her and nodded. “This can only mean one thing. You did it. You actually did it, and without us to aid you, at that! You made it to the fountains, didn’t you? Incredible! How did you do it? How did you get us all home? One minute we were searching for you around the base of the Santiran mountains, we’d just picked up your trail, and now here we are, home sweet home.” He sighed and hugged her again even tighter.

“Okay, let go. I can’t breathe!” she cried happily. He let go abruptly but caught her as she stumbled backward.

“Sorry!” He grinned and laughed. She laughed along with him, feeling elated.

“Do you have the water, then?” Shade nodded at Sary, who’d worked her way up to her. “You did it, Shade. You saved our people!” Sary hugged her and joined the laughter.

“Let’s go home, everyone. It’s been a long journey, and it’s time to celebrate! Queen Zinara will be absolutely delighted. We will win this war against the Unseelie after all! We have new allies joining us for victory!” Jack smiled widely as he hugged everyone in the group. Everyone agreed and nodded. The stairs to the underground opened, and they each descended, laughing and chatting with each other, all the strain of the journey lifted at once.

“Who are our new allies, Jack?” Shade inquired.

“Oh, sorry. You probably haven’t heard about it yet, but, on our way to the Santiran fountains, we ran into a group of villagers who proclaimed that Prince Lotinar has returned and sided with Queen Zinara. This will prove most useful to our cause.” Shade pondered what he’d said, not really knowing of whom they spoke, but suddenly thought of something else.

“Wait, um, was Sylphi with you guys? Where is she?” Shade asked, not that she really cared.

“Sylphi? She ran at the battle with Lady Blythe. She probably returned to the Teleen Caverns. She most likely got too scared to fight,” Ewan chuckled. Shade wasn’t the only one not missing Sylphi.

Shade approached the first step to the mound but turned to see Dylan watching her.

“The blood bond is still in place. I thought it might be fulfilled at journey’s end, but it’s not,” he whispered as his eyes stared off into the forest, glazing over. His face was serious and contemplative.

“I’m sorry, Dylan. You know I would break it if I could. What do you think has to be done to end it?” Shade placed her hand on his arm to pull him back into the present. He returned his gaze to her and smiled through the sadness.

“It’s all right, Shade. I know now that this is my destiny. I’m not meant to be captain of the Teleen guard anymore. I’m glad I met you, Shade. Changes are good.” His eyes sparkled in the dimming light of the dusk. The orange glow spread across the sky and dimmed the forest floor as the sun crept away to slumber.

“I’m glad we met, too. Come on. Let’s get some real food and rest for once. After we give the flask to the Queen, I can go home and see my family.”

Dylan’s face darkened in gloom as he stared back at her. “Home? You’re leaving? Well, I guess you would want to go back, wouldn’t you? I won’t be returning home, probably not for a long time.” He pressed his lips together and stepped forward toward the stairs. “I have to warn you, Shade. I have to stay close to where you are, or my blood burns inside me.”

“I know. You could come, you know. You could meet my family. I’m sure I could think of something to tell my mother. You could definitely pass for a teenager. I could say your family is moving out of town, and you need a place to stay so you can graduate from our high school. What do you think? We do have a guest room. My mom rarely uses it, but I’m pretty sure she’d agree to let you stay with us.” She stood before him, staring down the stairs of the faery mound.

He suddenly turned, a broad grin spreading across his face. “Yes, that would be good. I think that since our blood bond is still in place, I will have to stay near you somehow. I guess that would be best, at least until the bond’s requirements are fulfilled and it lets me go home.”

Shade beamed. She could feel his anxiety pulsating out toward her. Something about the fountains linked them even closer. She flushed red as she remembered the burn of his lips against hers. She hoped for Dylan’s sake they wouldn’t be bound for too much longer. However, as they descended into the faerie court and out of sight, she knew she wasn’t ready to let him go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(A Dark Faerie Tale #2)

 

 

 

 

For my children:

Ethan, Rayven, Maximus, and Elias.

You are all my light in the dark, and I am blessed to have you in my life.

Mommy loves you!!!

 

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

 

First and foremost, I thank God for everything he has blessed me with. Without his wisdom and guidance, I wouldn’t be here.

I want to thank my family and friends. There are so many of you who have cheered me on in times that I wanted to give up and throw the whole thing out the window. Without you, I could not have gone this far. I want to personally thank Amber Tunney, my BFF, whose encouragement and wise words helped me write better and sleep at night. Amy Conley, the best proofreader ever, and whose awesome enthusiasm makes me smile every day. Daniel & Sandy Alcaraz, all our talks, and brainstorming helped me immensely, and I am blessed to have you guys in my life. Thank you to Cyndi Stauff for all your advice and help. My cousin, Natalia Lopez: I strive to face life with as much life as you. Love you, Prima! Also, to Michael K. Rose, who’s awesome support has only made my work thrive, thank you!

I also want to thank my lovely RN coworkers and friends. The list of names is so long, probably as long as this book. Each and every one of you has helped me in one way or another, whether by editing, reading my stories, gushing about it, giving me suggestions, or just supporting this starving author. I love all of you. You are the awesome in this world!

 

 

 

Ever Fire (A Dark Faerie Tale #2)

Chapter One

 

 

 

Shade’s only thought was of running. She let the ground fly under her feet, feeling the dirt shifting with her shoes as they were imprinting themselves into the dark, soft earth. She wasn’t afraid, nor did she have to run. No, she wanted to run. The need to feel the air rush past her with its fingers ripping through her hair, and the bushes and leaves whipping on her skin was overwhelming. The fresh earthy air fed her lungs, and the beating of her racing heart was the drummer of the tempo.

Running in the forest had turned into a soothing meditation for her since returning from the Santiran Fountains. It was funny that the woods seemed to have become her sanctuary, even though her adventures in the great outdoors had been no less than scary. She often wondered; since her powers had grown, did it mean the faery in her now craved the intimacy of nature more and more? Regardless, she enjoyed her daily sprints in the forests around her house.

The solitude gave her time to think. To think about her powers, her life, her future, and her commitments. She had pledged her allegiance to the Guildrin Clan, a Seelie Court of Faeries. Shade hadn’t realized how much allying oneself with faeries would involve, but for now, she was happy it did involve a lot of magical training, weapons training, fight training, and the history of the fey lessons. It was a Fey University of sorts. Her brain was often fried and required her to use her daily runs to recharge it.

 

***

 

Shade’s reflection startled her in the dismal dark of night. The mirrored closet doors reversed the room enough to make her wonder where the heck she was. Blinking, she rubbed her face and let her eyes adjust to the dim twilight. She let her breathing slow to a more calming rate as her heart slowed its frantic flutter. It was just another nightmare to wake her from her sleep. They’d become more and more frequent since returning from the long journey across Faerie. The dangers she’d endured to retrieve a powerful Santiran Water Magic for Queen Zinara of the Guildrin Seelie Court had left its mark. She wasn’t exactly sure what had triggered the nightmares, but the delirium of sleeplessness was getting old fast.

The soft tap on her door as it slowly creaked open made her jump again.

“Shade, are you alright?” Dylan’s whisper floated across the room to her. His hair was growing out and lay in dark wisps across his left eye. His piercing steel-grey eyes seemed to glow in the dim twilight and flashed about the room as if scanning for disturbances. She lay back, relieved to see the Faerie guard. Dylan waited patiently as she reached over to click the nightstand light on.

“Yes, Dylan, I’m fine. Just another bad dream.” She yawned and rubbed her eyes. Her hair was a messy chestnut tangle which snarled around her shoulders. She watched Dylan as he gave her a slight nod and retreated, clicking the door shut behind him. She wondered how he always knew when something was going on with her. He just seemed to be there, immediately, every time. Of course, being so near and down the hall at her house did seem to have something to do with it.

Her mom had been cool when Shade had brought him home and introduced him as her new friend from school who needed a place to stay so he could graduate from their high school. They had played it off like his family was moving for his father’s work, and he didn’t want to change schools. Dylan had appeared as innocent as a teenage boy could appear. He had used his glamour and charms on her mother. Somehow, it had worked, and Shade’s mom had agreed to let him stay. Her mother wasn’t naïve; she had her hawk eyes on them constantly, but she seemed to loosen up after a few weeks had gone by without incident.

Shade smiled at the thought. Dylan did make her heart jump with a flip or two when he was nearby, but they had not really had much time together since returning from the journey. School graduation, parties, and high school friends had sucked up her time like leeches. Ultimately, it had kept their conversations to a minimum, but that hadn’t kept her from dragging him along to every function. He hadn’t found them quite to his liking, but he’d been too curious to admit he really hadn’t minded going with her that much and seeing what went on at the parties. At the very least, he liked to be near her. She was glad her mother hadn’t objected when Dylan had asked to stay longer, probably for the whole summer. Her mother had just nodded and smiled while moving about her day as usual.

Shade reached over and clicked off her lamp, robbing the room of light. Blinking, she let her eyes adjust to the night glow which slowly drizzled in from the streetlights outside. Wiggling down into her bed, she pulled her pillow under her head and sighed. The sweet warmth and softness of her bed beckoned her back into the lull of sleep. She silently prayed the nightmares would stay away, at least for tonight.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

 

“You know, you could come with me,” Brisa, Shade’s friend, inquired. “I don’t have a roommate yet. You don’t have to stay in this ho-hum town, Shade. Why the hell would you want to stay here anyway?”

Brisa pushed the bowl of chips toward Shade. She grabbed a handful and munched on the salty bits. Shade was trying to avoid Brisa’s constant badgering. She’d told Brisa everything that had happened in Faerie, but it was all so beyond her, it was no surprise she didn’t understand why Shade wanted to stay. Brisa was headed to UCLA after the summer was over, and Shade had decided to stay put in their hometown and attend the local community college. Well, maybe she hadn’t really decided on what she wanted to do with her life quite yet. Finding out you’re a part-faery changeling, along with being a fire-resistant human, does kind of change things a lot.

“Look, Shade, I know you want to go and ‘find yourself’ and all, but you have to come with me. What am I gonna do without my BFF to rule the campus alongside me?” Brisa stared back at her. Shade’s silence was more than she could bear. Brisa sighed while grabbing her sketchbook and pen. Her eyebrows furrowed as she scratched the pen on the paper. She didn’t know what to draw; she just knew she had to draw something when she was frustrated.

“Brisa, I can’t go, you know that. There is so much I don’t know about everything right now, and I can’t find out anything about myself if I’m hundreds of miles away from here. I have to do this, for my own protection at the very least.” Shade crossed her arms and let her head drop back onto the edge of the bed as she sat on the floor. She didn’t feel so vulnerable and open there. Closing her eyes, she took a breath in and tried to think of something else they could talk about. The tension between them wasn’t so bad, but it got thicker whenever Brisa tried to lure Shade out of the city. It just wasn’t going to happen right now.

“I really wish you would change your mind,” Brisa mumbled back. “I just don’t think staying is what you should do. It’s dangerous out there. Why would you want to risk yourself in the lands of Faerie? I sure as heck wouldn’t want to. You hated it out there, remember? All the dirt, bugs, and crap! What did it get you? An array of scars and some really sore muscles. Plus you almost got yourself killed, not once, but several times! Come to college with me, it’s nice and safe.” Brisa was furiously scratching at her drawing pad now, her olive complexion burned red in frustration and her dark hair fell into her eyes.

“Brisa, I wish you could understand. It’s really weird, but even though I hated it out there, in the wild, now I feel compelled to go back there. Maybe I draw my energy from the land… I told you, my powers were stronger in Faerie than they are here. I guess it’s something I need to be near.” Shade slumped as she yawned and stretched, already sick of the subject.

“Well, at least that Dylan guy is pretty cute,” Brisa said as she gave Shade a smug grin. “It might be worth it if everyone in Faerie looked that good. So, is he like your boyfriend now or what? You take him to all the parties, but you definitely don’t get all touchy-feely with him. What’s going on with you two?” Brisa chewed on a sour twist candy she’d swiped from Shade’s nightstand as she waited for an answer.

Shade sighed. Pressing her lips tight, she could feel her face run scarlet. “No. For your information, Dylan is not my boyfriend. He’s like my bodyguard. He’s bound to protect me since his brother tried to kill me. It was the only way Queen Gretel would let Darren live. Otherwise, he was screwed. I have to figure out how to dissolve this bind before anything else, too. I can’t have a Teleen Warrior ‘guarding’ my body all the time. Especially not at college… though I do really like him.”

Brisa giggled and made smooching noises with her lips. Shade just rolled her eyes. “Well, he can ‘guard’ my body anytime he wants to. If you don’t want him, I mean,” Brisa added.

“Stop that!” Shade threw an empty can of soda at Brisa, which she promptly dodged. Both girls laughed as they began to smack each other with Shade’s bed pillows.

“Are you girls okay? What’s going on in here?” Shade’s mother, Jade, pushed the door open and scanned the room, finding them both frozen in swinging positions. She shook her head as her eyebrows rose in a suspicious arch.

“Shade, how ‘bout tidying up your room while I make us all some lunch? Brisa, you can help her, and I’ll make some for you, too. Sound like a deal?” The girls nodded and quickly began to reassemble the trashed room as Jade turned away and disappeared down the hall.

“Your mom is so cool, Shade. My mom would’ve told me to get out of the house for that. Anyhow, I’m starved. You’ll figure it out, Shade, you always do. That’s why you’re queen of this castle… besides your mom, of course.” Brisa snickered as Shade rolled her twinkling brown eyes back at her, letting her pillow bounce once more off of Brisa’s head.

 

***

 

Shade slipped her plate into the sink while scanning her eyes across the lawn out the kitchen window. The dusk was absorbing the day away in colors of tangerine, red and gold. Rinsing the dishes and putting them away, she looked again out into the dimming evening. She spotted Dylan standing near the edge of their lawn. He was staring into the woods behind her house. The property was large and extended a couple acres beyond the grass and a short way into the woods. The house was surrounded by forest and was spaced far enough away into the trees that no one could see it from any other house on the road. Shade thought her mother had probably loved the privacy of the lot when she’d bought it.

The gentle breeze swayed Dylan’s hair, teasing it into a halo which swirled around his head. It hung past his ears and lay straight in jet-black masses. He looked almost like a statue out there, alone and still. Shade wondered what he was doing.

Brisa had taken off before it had gotten too dark. Shade wiped the counter clean and headed out the back door toward the Teleen warrior. He remained where he was, still and as straight as a board, even when she came to a stop beside him. She took a long look into the forest, hoping to catch what he was watching.

“Hey, Dylan, you okay? Did you eat any dinner?” When he didn’t respond, she turned to study his face. His white skin had tanned a bit since leaving the Teleen caves and now had a healthy glow. His shining black hair framed his face nicely as his steel-grey eyes glowed in the sunset and scanned the trees and tall grasses.

“Dylan?”

He turned his eyes to Shade and took in her face, acknowledging her before turning back to the remnants of the day. The seriousness that clung to his face worried her.

“I thought I would be home by now, Shade.” His solemn voice made her shiver.

His arms hung at his sides, never wavering from his statuesque stance, as though his feet were rooted to the land under him. Shade stared at him; he seemed so lost and alone. She often wondered what went through his head. At the graduation parties she’d dragged him to, he’d hung out at the edges of the rooms or in the corners, trying to fade away and become inconspicuous. He would nod and smile at the friends she would introduce to him, but he would leave that as the extent of his conversation. Getting him to mingle was like pulling teeth.

“I know, I’ve been thinking about the same thing. Look, I’m seeing Ilarial tomorrow, and I’ll talk to her about it. Maybe she has an idea of what must be done to break our bond. You are coming tomorrow, right? It’s weapons training day, and I really would like it if you were there.” She watched his face for any hint of emotion. His eyes were full, but like a deep well which one would fear to fall into, they remained elusive. All her pals from school had immediately become infatuated by him. His piercing grey eyes and smooth skin drew all of them in and caused them to become stuttering, lovesick fools. He never seemed to take notice of it or pay them any kind of attention, though. Either that or he just didn’t care.

“I will go with you. But I am of no use there. I don’t see why you would need me there at all.” He sighed while crossing his arms and lifting his face up. He turned toward her. Shade pressed her lips together. She hated that he felt useless to help her with weapons training now, ever since they had first started weapons training and he’d gotten that good knock on her in the face with a wooden sword. They had found themselves wide-eyed with matching split lips and blood dripping down their chins.

Apparently, the blood bind which kept them together had grown stronger and now caused them equal injuries if Dylan caused Shade any sort injury or vice versa. This had ended her being paired with Dylan for sparring and left him an infinitely frustrated sideliner. It didn’t help that Soap, whose given name was Rylan, was now her sparring partner and didn’t receive any injuries when she got hit. She had watched Dylan steam with jealousy when Soap had tripped her, and her right arm received the brunt of scrapes, blood dripping from her scratches. As long as she was injured by someone else, Dylan wouldn’t receive injuries like hers, but he could feel her pain thrashing though him as it coursed through her. They were all the casualties of the fight training.

“Dylan, you are a huge help with the weapons. Who else could teach me how to clean, inspect and name all of them? I can sharpen a knife better than a butcher now because of you. Besides, your insight on my fighting techniques is amazing since you know what to look for, and you show me how to correct things when I mess up. I don’t think Soap would be as good with that as you are.”

“He’s not as good as me in a lot of things, Shade.” Dylan’s lips snarled at the mention of the Teleen Changeling. Bitterness stuck to his voice like thick syrup, making Shade sigh. She felt like she was beating her head on a wall when talking to Dylan about Soap.

“Fine, Dylan, do what you want to do. Your pouting isn’t going to help us any. So get your head on straight before you become dead weight which I have to lug around. I’m doing the best I can, and it really hurts to be dragged down because of your insecurities about things. I’m going to bed. I have a long day tomorrow. I suggest you do the same, grumpy pants.” She swung around and marched back toward the house, not seeing the shock on Dylan’s face as she slammed the porch screen door shut.

Dylan stared at the door for a moment. Turning back to the forest, which called to him in a sweet voice, he closed his eyes. Life in the city had been intriguing at first, but the forest and its power called to him, singing in his head and growing stronger. Every day was more intense than the last. He squeezed his eyelids shut and let his head spin with the songs of the trees and lands. He was missing his home in the caverns. He felt a surge of resentment as thoughts of his brother Darren invaded his serenity. Darren had changed so much since they were children, and watching his brother grow more mischievous and become outright evil had been exhausting. His mother had been right to be concerned for Darren and his sadistic mannerisms. He had almost killed Shade but failed when her untapped magic had trapped him in his own magic mirror. He had caused Dylan so much grief, he’d felt almost nothing when he’d disowned him. Dylan was done covering up Darren’s screw-ups, especially when it involved attempted murder.

Dylan wondered exactly what sort of magic was brewing in Shade, which no one else seemed to know anything about. She was certainly unique. He had enjoyed sparring with her, and the occasional touching and bumping into each other had sent a thrill through him like none he’d never experienced. He found himself wanting to hold her again, to stroke her hair and kiss her deeply, as they had done at the Santiran Fountains. He didn’t even know if she felt the same toward him. She seemed so distracted and busy with her family, her magic and fight training, it didn’t seem like he could ask her much about it at all. His feelings had grown, burning inside him like the bluish-white fire which flowed along under his skin and flickered with electricity. He doubted Shade even had a clue about it.

Opening his storm-filled eyes, he chanced one more longing stare at the woods before turning back to the house.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

 

 

The crack of a wooden sword filled the air as Soap swung hard against her shield. Shade had to back up with each blow as she felt the hits vibrate through her arm. Shielding her face, she attempted to swing her sword at him, searching for his weak spots in her limited vision. She found one and swung as hard as she could, slamming the sword into his left thigh. He winced but didn’t retreat at all. She flung herself down to the ground, and with her shield, she hit him behind his knees, sending him crashing down to the ground almost right on top of her as she rolled away.

Shade hopped to her feet and pointed the sword at his throat before he could regain his position. He stopped dead in his tracks, looking up at her with a grin spreading across his face.

“Winner is Shade! Great job!” Than jumped and clapped from the sidelines, hollering out his praise. Shade smiled down at Soap, her face flushed pink with sweat beading down her face.

“Hey, you got me, how about that? That’s a first. You’re on your way to becoming the next Amazon Queen, heh?” Soap said as Shade smiled. She tossed her shield and sword to the side and held her hand out to him.

“Queen? Not quite. Warrior of some sort? Probably.” She gave him a toothy smile and laughed as he started to pull himself up, but instead he yanked her down onto him, hugging her tight.

“Hey, not fair! I’m not heavy enough to pull your heavy butt up!” They wrestled, letting the dirt fly up around them in a bellowing cloud. Their laughs rang through the air until Dylan’s angry and haughty voice rang through the air as he grabbed Soap, pulling him up and shoving him to the side with a thump.

“What the… hey, watch it, man!” Soap had rolled along the dirt and now stood slapping clouds of dust off his leather armor. He glared at Dylan, his green eyes flaring like jewels on fire.

Dylan returned the stare with his even colder steel-grey eyes. “Don’t touch her. You might inadvertently hurt her, you dumb ox.” His face was blanketed like stone, hard and still, daring Soap to return the challenge in his eyes as the Changeling pressed his lips together, wrangling in his fury.

Soap turned toward Shade, who had positioned herself between them. She was hoping they wouldn’t start a brawl with her in between them to take a hit. “Shade, I’m thinking we’re done for the day. You did want to see Ilarial, right? She would definitely be better company than some people we know.” He snickered at Dylan, but he remained planted with arms crossed and narrowed his eyes at the warrior.

“Yeah, I think that’s a good idea. Ilarial is probably waiting for me.” Shade glared at both warriors before she moved to grab her backpack lying on the ground nearby. She wiped the dirt and sweat off her face with her towel and shoved it into her pack. She sighed as she stood, turning back to Soap, who waited patiently as he gathered the wooden weapons strewn across the training yard. He smiled and nodded at Shade while hugging the swords to his chest.

“I can take you there, Shade. It looks like someone has some junk to put away,” Dylan hissed as he motioned to her, stepping between her and Soap. Glancing over his shoulder, Shade could see Soap rolling his eyes at them.

“Go ahead, Shade. You don’t need my permission anyway. Seems like someone is getting a bit jealous and needs some of your precious time.” Soap smirked at Dylan’s back, but Dylan didn’t turn to acknowledge him at all. Instead, he waited as Shade shook her head and began walking toward the Guildrin mound. She moved briskly, hoping she’d lose both of them. She didn’t feel like putting up with their bickering today.

She was sick of those two fighting and constantly putting her between their bouts of jealousy. She knew Dylan hated being left out of the training and resented Soap for it, but what could she do about it? Dylan and she were not allowed to spar anymore. Obviously, the powers of Faerie didn’t want them physically fighting with each other. She didn’t understand it any more than Dylan did. It didn’t bother her so much, but it baffled him enough to turn him into a puffed-up peacock.

She dashed to the great Oak Tree entrance of the mound. Reaching over, she chanted the words she now felt the utmost confidence in and waited as the ground shifted for her to enter the realm below. Stairs formed in the hollowing earth below the tree roots which led down into the darkness of the Seelie Court. She skittered down them and half ran down the halls until she reached Ilarial’s ancient wooden door. Dylan had kept up without a sweat, making her slight attempt to escape his annoying presence futile. She knocked on the door and waited until Ilarial’s soft voice bled through the door, telling her to enter. Inside, she turned to close the door behind her and watched Dylan step back to disappear behind the door to await her in the hall.

Shade sighed as she leaned against the closed door, relieved to not have to deal with him and his overbearing antics for a bit. She smiled as Ilarial came out of her room and held her arms out to give her a tight and warm hug. Shade felt instantly calmer, as she usually did around the gentle Oracle.

“Shade, I’m glad you made it today. I have so much to talk with you about. Please, come over and sit at my table.” She motioned Shade over to the sea of pillows which softened the cave’s rough appearance with an array of shiny, soft fabrics. Shade sank down onto the soft pillows and relaxed by the table where Ilarial performed her magic. The wooden table was empty except for a mirror which laid in the middle of it, shining like a pool of liquid silver.

Shade stared down and studied the perfect, smooth surface. She distrusted mirrors now more than any other object she encountered in everyday life. She’d find herself pausing as she walked into public restrooms to inspect every mirror from afar, waiting for a ripple or any unusual movement which would give away any magic which might be lurking within it. Darren ran free because of Dylan’s sacrifice; this alone kept her up at night and on her toes around mirrors.

Ilarial sat opposite Shade and waved her hand over the mirror. Immediately, a swirl of smoke rippled inside it as it became alive and lit up with a soft glow. Shade sucked her breath as she found herself subconsciously backing away from the fluidity of the mirror.

“It’s okay, Shade. This is a looking glass. It allows me to focus my mind and see things which have happened, are happening, or have yet to happen. No need to be afraid.” She waved another hand over the smoky surface and the mirror solidified into the plain glass Shade had first seen.

She gulped as she nodded, reassured by Ilarial’s explanation. Shade watched the Oracle repeat the steps, and the looking glass swirled into a storm. Ilarial’s face stared down into the fog as her eyes became a reflection of the mirror, becoming lost in the world she now seemed to walk in.

Shade waited, watching Ilarial for any clue about what was going on. Leaning forward, she glanced down into the rippling glass. The smoke seemed to float out of it and swirl around her face and around the room. Flashing lights like lightning sparked around her as the storm swirled and gained momentum. She darted her eyes around at the smoke and realized she was no longer in Ilarial’s room but someplace else.

A room emerged, white with silk black draperies which flowed with an invisible breeze. A dais rose in the middle made of flashing diamond and hard granite. There sat a woman, hair black with red streaks throughout, like waves of ruby. Her long flowing gown was also silk, a deep purple with sheer strips of shiny silver streaming down in flowing ribbons which clung to her thin, curved, body as she stood and paced the room. She seemed lost in her thoughts as she hugged herself, one of her hands incessantly rubbing her pointy chin.

Shade stood in the middle of the throne room and watched her. She was wide-eyed in shock. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Her hands flew to her throat as a bewildered panic flashed across her face.

The lady stopped and looked up toward one side of the room. She straightened, and her arms left her face as her expression morphed from worried to hard and cruel in an instant.

“What is it now? I told you not to bother me unless it was extremely important!” Her voice matched her now icy glare. Whoever was at her mercy cowered slightly.

“Forgive me, Your Majesty. It could not be helped, I assure you. I have news that Prince Lotinar has been negotiating with Queen Zinara and moves to become allies. Our sources say he will soon expect a visit from her or her advisors.” Shade shifted to peer around the pillar which stood between her and the guard. He knelt on the floor just inside the throne room, head bowed and submissive. The Queen shook her head, apparently seething at his news.

“What of the girl? Any sign of her? I want that girl now. I should’ve had her here already. She holds the key to our ascension. Why has it been so difficult to track her?” The Queen’s voice hissed across the room.

“Your Majesty, I am sorry. She must have help to elude us so well, both in the mundane world and in Faerie. We have found no trace of her since she left the Santiran Mountains. I have all my trackers on it as we speak. We shall find her soon, I promise.”

The woman shook her head and resumed her pacing. Her furrowed brow crinkled her forehead in such a slight way that it almost made her look more human. Shade turned back in the Queen’s direction and noticed her eyes. They shined black as oil with no whites to be seen, like two sunken black holes in her face. Shade sucked her breath in at the sight and knew immediately she wasn’t human at all. Nothing but a faery could’ve eyes like that. A Faerie Queen too.

“What of her grandmother? Has she been discovered? Has she been hidden well?”

“Yes, Your Majesty. She remains in exile, undiscovered.” The guard didn’t budge from his position.

The Queen smiled, a sinister grin spreading across her face. She dismissed the guard and turned to sit on the dais, closing her eyes against the pain which throbbed behind them. Shade couldn’t help but stare at her. She wanted to ask this dark Queen what she’d meant about her grandmother when the room suddenly swirled and jerked her back into the dark cave of Ilarial’s abode.

She breathed in, slowing her heart’s frantic race as she moved her eyes up to the Oracle, who now watched her with curious eyes.

“What just happened? Who was that woman, and why is she looking for me? She said I had a grandmother. Ilarial, what does she mean by that?”

Shade felt her stomach fill with dread. She felt confused and didn’t like it. She’d had her share of fear and confusion for a lifetime already, and she wasn’t ready for more. The vision made her skin crawl, and the shudder ran along her skin was like a wintery gust stealing her warmth. She turned and slumped onto the floor, hugging her knees to her chest as she began rocking the cold away.

“Shade, what exactly did you see? It can feel disorientating when you first scry. I didn’t know you would be so sensitive to it or even be able to do it yet, for that matter. Just breathe slowly. Here, drink this draught. It will help with the chill.” She moved about the room then returned to the table, pushing a cup into Shade’s hands and encouraging her to sip the warm liquid.

Shade followed her directions and let the fluid warm her from the inside out. She took deep, slow breaths as Ilarial had instructed, and the shivering lessened with each passing moment. She peered up at the beautiful Oracle, her long, flowing, white and silvery hair draped around her like a cape of smooth cotton. A warm and concerned smile danced on her lips.

“Feel better?”

Shade nodded.

“Alright then, can you tell me what you saw now?”

Shade bit her lip as she studied Ilarial’s illuminated face. Shade squeezed her eyes shut, concentrating on the vision and the swirling remains of it which were floating around in her head. It felt like a dream, making her wonder if she was really still awake.

“I saw a Queen of Faerie, but I don’t know her name. She had raven-black hair with blood-red color streaked throughout it. Her skin was as pale as arctic ice, and her eyes were black as a night without stars. She was in her throne room and was somewhat agitated. She asked one of her guards where I was and why had they not captured me yet. She asked if I had discovered anything about my grandmother, whom she has imprisoned in exile. I don’t really understand any of it, but it seemed to bother her very much that I’m free of her.”

“Was everything, Shade?”

“No. She also mentioned some Prince Lotinar was meeting with Queen Zinara soon and would be allying with her against this Queen. She didn’t like that at all. Prince Lotinar… I heard this name before when we returned from the Santiran Fountains. I heard Sary speak his name. Who is he?”

Shade watched the Oracle sink down into one of the large pillows near her on the floor. She seemed to ponder her words, lost in her thoughts.

“The woman you saw is Queen Aveta, the Unseelie Court’s Queen. You described her perfectly. As for Prince Lotinar, he is the crown prince of the Northern Realm of Faerie, based in Santiran City. He is to meet with Queen Zinara’s advisors very soon, actually. Aveta’s spies have done well.” Ilarial rubbed her forehead and sighed. She seemed tired, and her eyes reflected for a moment just how old she must be.

“Your grandmother, now that is interesting. It seems I am missing a piece of the puzzle here. If she is your real father’s mother, it could be very important for us to find her. She could help you with your powers and tell you exactly what kind of magic you hold within. Someone must know where Aveta is holding her. I will have to work hard on this, but I promise you I will not rest until I discover her hiding place.” Ilarial reached out and gently patted Shade’s shoulder. Shade nodded, acknowledging the reassurance Ilarial gave her, and slowly rose from the floor. She was feeling exhausted.

“One more thing,” Ilarial added. “Before you go, your powers have grown since your first exposure to Faerie. I did not know the scrying would be so intense for you already. Next time, we will have to approach the looking glass more slowly; perhaps after I have started using it first, in case I need to channel your powers.” Shade nodded again, feeling a little defeated at letting her magic get the best of her.

“I’ll remember for next time, Ilarial.”

 

***

 

Shade found herself staring at the TV screen, its soft rambling banter filling the room like white noise. She didn’t really see anything on it. Her thoughts were focused elsewhere. Thinking about Ilarial’s scrying session had most of her thoughts tangled up. Her confusion added to the headache of everything else she was worrying about. Her vision blurred as the flashing of the screen faded into a commercial.

She couldn’t help but wonder about having a grandmother. After all the years of not having anyone else beside her mother around, a grandmother could possibly help her solve everything which was so wrong with her right now. If only she could find her. She’d been exiled somewhere in Faerie. Shade wondered if her grandmother even knew she had a granddaughter. Frowning, Shade could almost bet that she didn’t. Maybe her grandmother would’ve looked for her already if she’d known about her.

The glare of the TV darkened as a figure came to stand between her and the screen. Her eyes focused on it and moved up toward Dylan’s face. “You’re not see-through, you know,” Shade told him.

“What’s wrong with you?” Dylan asked. “You seemed distracted.” He moved to slip down onto the couch next to her. She glared at him for a moment then looked away. She sighed and resumed her zoned-out stare at the TV.

“I have a lot to think about. Ilarial said my vision today was of events most likely happening right now, but she has a lot of work to do to help me out more. Especially in finding my Faerie grandmother and keeping my wild magic in check.”

“Wow, she said all that?”

“Yes, but not in so many words.” Shade yawned as she stretched and slumped onto the arm of the couch, blinking her heavy eyelids. The day had seemed to last forever, and her muscles ached from training. She’d been sleeping like a rock since she’d started the fight training. She was hoping it would get better with some time and practice, but her muscles still protested with all the physical work.

“You look exhausted, Shade. You need to rest, especially for tomorrow.” Dylan smiled at her as he shifted on the couch.

“What’s tomorrow?”

He turned toward her, lips pressed and eyes looking almost as exhausted as she felt. “We’re leaving again.”

Shades eyelids flipped open from the dreamy, half-awake state she’d been hovering in. Sitting up, she stared at him, shocked.

“What? What the hell do you mean we are leaving? I’m not going anywhere!” She watched his face assume its flat expression at her response. She was getting quite sick of his blank facial mask which he seemed to wear a little bit too often lately. She longed for some sort of feeling to seep through his façade. She wondered what was lingering in his empty stares.

“Well, I didn’t know either until this evening while you were with Ilarial, if that helps any, Shade. Queen Zinara has asked us to meet up with Prince Lotinar to discuss our alliance. He has agreed to meet halfway from the Santiran City. He requested to meet with you in particular, besides the rest of the Queen’s advisors. We leave at daybreak, so you have to get your things together right now.”

The disgust on Shade’s face didn’t faze him one bit. She stood, flung one of the sofa pillows at him, and marched away toward her room. She was seething and wide-awake now. How dare he not tell me this until now? He’d been extremely silent on the way home from Guildrin though that hadn’t seemed too unusual to her. He was always pretty much keeping to himself, especially since he had to hang out with her constantly, and yet he seemed to flare up her temper more easily than anyone else she knew.

She flopped down onto her bed, stuffing her face into her pillow. She wished things were different. Sometimes she wished she’d never met Jack and hadn’t been introduced to Faerie at all. It had done nothing for her except cause more pain and confusion. She could be heading straight to college with Brisa, with nothing but parties and studying to worry about. Not now. Now she was stuck with the concerns of her faery lineage and obligations. She didn’t want to return to the hikes and dirt which were sure to come. She hated the outdoors, maybe a little less now than before her journey to the Fountains, but she was sure-as-hell not wanting to repeat her adventure at all.

Sitting up, she glanced around her room. Nothing would make her happier than staying here, in her own house, with her brothers and sister running around. Nothing.

Shade sighed and resolved to give in. She couldn’t refuse, no matter how she felt. The fey were her people now; learning from them was the only way she would ever understand who and what she was. She grabbed her backpack off the floor and whispered the shrinking spell into it which Ilarial had taught her. She smiled as the pack’s insides blackened into the bottomless pit which would let her pack whatever she wanted without having to worry about the bulk and weight. She began stuffing clothes and essentials into it. She made sure to grab her family’s picture with her human stepfather in it. She was feeling pretty sure this wasn’t going to be just a day trip.

When she finished, she left her pack by her door and slipped into her pajamas. Under her sheets, she laid back, cradling her head. Sighing, she turned to set her alarm for a forsaken early morning hour and flicked the light off, welcoming sleep quickly.

 

 

Chapter Four

 

 

 

“Who’s joining us this time around?” Shade asked as she sat on a fallen log near the Guildrin Mound entrance. Soap was standing near her. He smiled as he also plopped down on the log and gave her a hug. He was absolutely gleaming from seeing her again, even though they had talked just a day prior. He was always happy to see her. He breathed in deeply like the air was fresh and exhilarating. Shade rolled her eyes and leaned her chin in her hand as she drew in the dirt with a stick.

Whatever, thought Shade. Her mood was still no better than the night before.

“Oh, come on, Shade, don’t be such a pickle. We get to trek through Faerie again. How exciting is that? We won’t even have to stay at the Teleen Caverns, this time, what a relief! You’ll get to see a whole new side of Faerie. Aren’t you even the least bit excited?” Soap frowned at her and shook his head as she shrugged.

“Thrilled.”

Dylan walked up to her just then, his lips in a tight line as his eyes narrowed at the sight of Soap. He cleared his throat and turned his attention to Shade.

“Shade, we’re pretty much ready. Rylan is coming with us, but so are Than, Sary, and Stephen. Camulus joins us from Prince Lotinar’s guard to lead us to the meeting point. Are you ready? We won’t be traveling too much by foot.”

Shade’s eyes widened. “Wait, what do you mean? Who’s Camulus, and where’s Jack?”

“He’s on a special mission from the Queen herself,” Dylan informed her. “As for your first question, I’m talking about Camulus. He has the ability to teleport. If we link together while holding onto him, he can teleport us to wherever we want to go. He’s one of Prince Lotinar’s lieutenants, sent to pick us up. Beats traveling by foot any day, don’t you think?” He smiled down at her surprised face.

“Wow. Something new to learn every day. I couldn’t agree more.” Shade returned the smile, her mood elevated by his disarming charm, which rarely came out. She jumped to her feet along with Soap and followed Dylan toward the familiar group of warriors.

Camulus turned out to be part Elven and part Pixie. His long hair was pulled back in a thick tail of silver-blond, a trademark of the Elves. His skin was a smooth, leafy green, like a Pixie, and his eyes were a gleaming, fiery, orange-yellow. Shade wasn’t sure which one of his heritages gave him those.

“Camulus, I’d like you to meet Shade, the newest member of our court.” Dylan gave Shade a slight shove to push her toward the green guard. Shade swallowed back her shock and managed to crack a timid smile.

“Um, hi… Camulus? Pleasure to meet you.” They shook, and she noticed the smoothness of his hand, which seemed a bit thin with abnormally long fingers. He did have a firm grip. She slowly pulled away, but his hand lingered a moment longer, testing her grip just the same. He watched her curiously but then let her go, smiling and flashing pearly white teeth.

“The pleasure is mine, Shade. I’ve heard much about you,” he said while still staring at her.

“Have you? All good I hope.” She felt herself continue to flush under his relentless gaze.

“Extremely good indeed.”

Shade glanced away from the intensity of his fire-lit eyes. They seemed to see into her, peeling away her surface to get right through her. It was almost as if he knew a little too much about her. She wondered just how much he’d heard and from whom.

“I apologize for my curiosity, m’lady. I’m most intrigued by you. A wielder of the Water Magic of the Santiran Fountains is unheard of. I would most love to see how you use it sometime.” Camulus bowed, never letting his intense stare waver. She smiled and returned the gesture. She had to admit he intrigued her as well. It was not infatuation but more of a curiosity.

“Shall we proceed, then?” Dylan motioned to the rest of the group. Camulus held his hand out as he gestured for her to take it. She slipped her fingers through his and stepped back, allowing Sary to take his other hand as the rest of the group linked together into a circle.

“Ready? Hold on tight, this might feel disorientating,” Camulus said as he closed his eyes. In the next moment, the world flashed away. Shade felt like she was hurtling uncontrollably, and held fast to the hands she gripped. The toss ended almost as quickly as it had begun. Shade opened one eye, followed by the other, to find them all still standing in a circle, but the forest was gone. Instead, a great glass castle stood before them on a lush, grassy hillside. They released their hands and examined their new surroundings.

“Wow, that was a rush! How did you do that?” Shade’s face flushed scarlet as she pressed her lips together, realizing her outburst. Shoot, I must look like an idiot!

Camulus smiled back at her. His brilliant eyes glowed even brighter with the mid-morning sun reflecting across his irises, much like cat eyes on fire.

“That’s pretty much the reaction I get from first-timers. Pretty cool, huh?” His face lit up as he winked toward her.

Shade nodded, wondering how it was that he seemed to chat along with her as if he were just another person, not an Elven guard. “Do you ever venture outside of Faerie? Like, wear glamours or anything? You seem pretty laid back for being fey. I mean, like you hang with humans sometimes.”

He nodded, raising an eyebrow as his eyes danced while pondering her questions. “Yeah, I like checking out the iron cities around Faerie. Humans are quite fascinating. I wear pretty strong glamours so as not to stand out like a sore thumb and to ward off the iron-sickness. Want to see what I tend to look like when I get the chance to wander off?” Camulus looked eager to transform. Shade nodded with her eyes wide open and waiting.

The air around him shimmered and shivered, falling about him like glitter rain. A moment later, his green skin shined with a deep, golden-brown tone, and waves of platinum-blond hair framed his head. His eyes now flashed back a muted blue that made him look like someone from the blue lagoon. His lips widened in a grin as his eyes crinkled with it, smooth, tanned skin now where the green used to be. He looked like some kind of surfer dude stranded inland.

Shade felt her mouth gape open. She pulled it shut and grinned back at him. Not bad for a green-skinned guy.

“Nice. You’re pretty good. Soap is probably just as good as you. I’m impressed.”

“Soap? No one can top Soap,” Camulus laughed. “But I do try. I’m glad you’re impressed. You should see Prince Lotinar. He is very good at glamours, mostly to entice the female gender of course, but he is one of the best at changing appearances. He can almost rival a true Changeling, even though he isn’t one. But lately, he has preferred his own face to that of any other.”

“Really? Well, he sounds pretty amazing, too. I can’t wait to meet him,” Shade said.

“Oh, he is most impatient to meet you, too, Shade.” His voice seemed to wrap around her name in a deeper tone, causing the hairs on her arms to rise. She licked her lips as she nodded and turned back toward the rest of the group. Camulus was handsome, but something about him made her feel just a tad naked.

Dylan stood a couple feet away and had almost certainly been observing them the entire time. Shade lowered her eyes away from his cold, steely glare. His face smoothed out to a blank stare when he realized she’d seen him. She was tired of his brooding moods and started walking away from both men. Not a moment later, she felt Dylan’s hand grab her arm and readied herself to swing at him but stopped as he brought himself into step beside her, his body practically blending into hers.

“I wouldn’t get too friendly with an Elven-Pixie. They are more conniving than you can imagine,” Dylan muttered under his breath.

Shade pulled away but found his iron grip a bit too firm. “Dylan, let go! You’re digging your fingers into my arm!” Shade hissed at him. She stopped, making him turn toward her.

“You think I’m joking? Why do you think he likes to wander about your human world? He plays tricks and messes with ordinary people. He doesn’t care who he hurts. You’d best keep your distance.”

Shade yanked her arm loose, glaring at him. “You know what, Dylan? I’m tired of your pathetic bouts of jealousy. Get over yourself already! He is just being nice, and I don’t see why you have to be such a cold, narcissistic jerk all the freakin’ time!” She marched ahead toward the Glass Castle, where everyone was filing in through the clear doors.

She breathed in deeply, letting her temper slide slowly away. She’d wanted to smack Dylan so badly. He pricked at her like a thorn she couldn’t get rid of. She knew how frustrated he was by the blood bind, but she really had no idea what to do about it. Ilarial didn’t have any solutions either. All Shade knew was he was becoming more of a headache with each passing day. She wondered how much longer they would be stuck with each other.

“The Glass Castle of Winter,” Soap explained as he slipped into step beside her. He’d waited for her to enter and had probably witnessed the whole fall out. He could sense her sullen mood, so he had decided to play tour guide instead of his incessant usual chatter. “The castle is made of a billion connected plates of glass, no two the same exact size. It is one of the last original castles built in Faerie, thousands of years ago. The glass stands strong and impenetrable, no matter how fragile it may seem. Wars have waged around it for centuries and yet, here it stands. Through time and chaos, nothing has undone it. What do you think, Shade? Nice digs, dontcha think?” His slang made her smile and think of the high school kids back home. His jokes were a welcomed change from Dylan’s glumness.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Shade said. “Is this where Prince Lotinar resides? It’s absolutely breathtaking.”

“No, he lives in the Great Horned Castle right smack in the middle of the Santiran City. This is his summer home, on the southernmost border of the northern realm of Faerie,” Soap responded.

Shade nodded at his brief geography lesson. She remembered the extensive Faerie maps she had studied on the way to the Santiran Fountains, as well as the ones stolen from Ursad. They looked nothing like the maps of earth that regular humans possessed. The world was much larger than anyone could imagine. A huge chunk of it belonged to the world of Faerie. She wondered how upset the rest of the world would be if they discovered this huge chunk of untaxed lands. Probably not too happy at all, Shade thought.

“Hey, Shade!” Soap’s softened voice broke through her thoughts. She turned toward the faery warrior and smiled at his twinkling emerald eyes.

“Yes, Soap? What’s up?”

He squirmed for a moment and sighed, looking around the great hall they were walking through before answering her. “What’s going on between you and Dylan? I mean, well, I was going to ask you if you wanted to, um, hang out more often….” He breathed in deeply before continuing. “It’s just that Dylan seems to be your jealous boyfriend attachment lately. I don’t want to interfere if you two are together or anything.” They had come to a stop just outside a doorway. Soap’s voice was just above a whisper so only she could hear his questions.

Shade felt her cheeks flush as she watched him stumble over his request. She knew that he liked her, but it hadn’t occurred to her that he had wanted to be an item. Her eyebrows rose in surprise as she studied his face. She spotted Dylan a ways behind them, making sure he wasn’t within earshot.

“You mean like girlfriend-boyfriend? I—I really don’t know Soap.” Shade watched his face fall in disappointment as he turned back toward the rest of the group.

“Soap, wait, I just didn’t expect that. Um, I love to hang out with you. You’re a ton of fun. I just don’t think I should have a boyfriend right now, even Mister Jealous. We’re not together like that. I’m not seeing him at all if that’s what you thought. He just feels like being an overprotective bossy pants. Plus the blood bind keeps us together. You know that.” Shade felt a twinge of denial in her words but shrugged it off.

This made Soap smile and glance back at her, pleasantly surprised. “Well, I’m glad to hear that. At least, I’m in the running, I guess. Especially with the stuff I’ve heard about going on with the Teleen Clan.”

It was Shade’s turn to be shocked again. “What did you say? What do you mean? What’s going on at the Teleen Caverns?”

Shade stared at him as he pressed his lips together. He looked like he was caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “Uh, well. I thought you knew,” Soap stuttered. “It’s just, I heard through the grapevine there would be some Teleen males coming to Guildrin to court you. You being all Teleen fire-resistant and all, you’re eligible bachelorette number one to them. That’s why I thought maybe you’d chosen Dylan already. He would be the best choice out of all of them to pair off with. I, um—I thought you wouldn’t want to be with a half-breed Teleen Changeling like me.” Soap stared glumly ahead of them, his face still as he retreated into himself.

Shade watched him, her mouth agape as the shock rippled across her face. She remembered what Dylan had mentioned in the oubliette about the scarcity of Teleen females to pair with the males. She felt her heart skip a beat.

No way! Totally forgot about that. Oh, crap.

Before she could answer him, Camulus opened the door they had gathered at and let the group through into a large sitting room. Expansive, intricately-designed rugs lay uniformly across the floors underneath plush sofas in a horseshoe shape facing a large marble fireplace. The marble stone was exquisitely carved into what looked like smooth vines and tree limbs. The vast windows let the brilliant light of day flood the room so there was no need for any kind of lighting. Shade wanted to walk around the room to study the elaborate designs, paintings, and trinkets on the various tables and shelves lining the walls, but someone caught her attention instead.

The Elven Prince stood by the massive fireplace and turned toward them. Shade stared at the tall faery. His hair was silver-grey and hung down to his waist. It was partly pulled back with a leather tie. It reminded her of liquid mercury but lighter with its shining highlights. His skin was a pale milky-white, and his thin, firm lips were the color of a dusted rose.

But his eyes were what caught Shade. They were a deep emerald green, so deep, they seemed like an endless bamboo forest. She was sure she’d seen eyes like his before. Soap had similar eyes, but these seemed to match a distant memory of hers that she couldn’t quite put a finger on. She gulped as the Prince approached them, walking with an air of power which pulsated across the air.

“May I introduce the warriors of the Guildrin Court, Your Majesty,” Camulus said as he introduced them to the Prince. “They are Stephen, Than, Sary, Dylan, Shade, and Rylan.” Camulus’s voice echoed in the room as he spoke. “This is Prince Lotinar, the Crown Prince of the Northern Realm of Faerie and Lord of the Santiran City.” He bowed before the Prince and the group followed his actions.

The Prince also bowed his head slightly, his eyes never leaving the group. They seemed to settle on Shade and bore into her like hot pokers. Shade felt the scarlet heat flush across her face again as she averted her eyes to the floor. She was never going to get used to how much the faeries seemed to stare at her as if dissecting her and examining the little pieces inside her like a science project. She gulped and let her eyes dart back up to his still face. They continued to drift back and forth from his ghostly skin and metallic mane to the soft rugs under their feet.

“I am most pleased to meet all of you, especially you, Shade. The Water-Wielder of the Sacred Santiran Fountains. Your reputation precedes you, and I am most interested to see if all I have heard is true.” He glided toward her as everyone parted, and she became lost to him as he trained his eyes on only her.

Shade felt like a mouse in a lion’s den as she was swallowed by his eyes. He was definitely powerful. His magic poured off of him in a tidal wave, crashing into her. It made her feel faint as she felt the room swirl around her. Again the feeling of déjà vu crept into her. His voice, his overall essence, felt so familiar. It was as if she’d known him before, maybe in another life, long ago.

She shook her head and felt the magic recede like low tide. Her head cleared up immediately as she felt Soap place a hand against the small of her back, helping her clear her mind. Prince Lotinar reined in his magic and shut it deep inside him as he realized how much it had affected her. Shade bore her eyes into his and tried with all her might to remember how she knew him, yet her memory failed her.

“My apologies, Shade. It seems your powers have flared my own to life. I will try to be more careful.” Prince Lotinar’s voice was a low, sturdy, jaunt. Shade couldn’t ignore the slight feeling that he was a bit angry with her. She was hoping it was all in her head, but her gut feelings always seemed to be right on.

“Pleasure to meet you, Prince Lotinar,” Shade said. Her voice caught in her throat and came out just above a whisper as he turned away and walked to the enormous glass windows. He stared out of them as the breeze swayed the lush trees outside.

“I have been waiting for all of you to arrive. I can feel much unrest in Faerie, and as it grows, Queen Aveta becomes more restless and more powerful. She has sent her winter. Frost scorches my lands and withers the forests, burning the soils with its death grip. She holds the Eastern Realm, but I think she will be mobilizing soon. I feel her taint crossing the borders into the neutral territories. Wild magic is pouring out of the Sacred Vices of Faerie with her disturbances, and I fear she is scheming to capture Shade since she holds the key to the water magic of Santire.” Lotinar turned then, looking sternly and seriously at Shade. “Tell me, Shade, have you mastered the water wielding arts yet? We will need them when Aveta decides to invade the other three territories.”

Shade clasped the small ampule dangling from her neck. Ilarial had made her split the original flask of sacred Santiran Water, one part into a necklace she now wore. The original flask was safe in Guildrin, but since no one could wield it but her, Ilarial thought it better to have Shade keep some with her at all times so she could wield it whenever she chose. Unfortunately, no one alive knew how to use the water magic. Shade had been doing exercises with Ilarial. She was able to move water around from bowls to glasses and make it float all around her in a dance of small water baubles. She definitely had not mastered its power, and she certainly was not yet able to use it as a weapon against the dark Unseelie Queen’s army. She slowly shook her head.

“Pity. I had hoped we had one thing going for us.” Prince Lotinar’s icy voice echoed in the room. Shade had caught his cold stare before he turned back toward the dance of the landscape outside.

 

***

 

“Wow, Prince Lotinar is some kind of stone-cold ruler, huh, Shade?” Sary smiled, crinkling her beautiful hazel eyes. “I have to say, I guess after what happened to him, though, he has all the excuse in the world to be so hard.” She sighed and flopped herself onto the second bed which was in the enormous room they had been given for their night’s stay at the Glass Castle. Shade sat on the edge of her bed, staring out the obscenely large window into the darkening world.

“Yeah, he’s a whole different kind of fey,” Shade murmured as she turned toward her roommate with a puzzled look on her face. “What exactly happened to him, Sary?”

The svelte, redheaded warrior princess smiled as she leaned on her elbows, her body draped over the width of her bed. “Oh, you probably haven’t heard. He just returned from years in exile. He was cursed, or something like that, by some crazy witch. He disappeared for over a hundred years and just recently returned. No one knows what happened to him in all that time, but from what I hear, he came back a different faery. Quite changed, they say. Almost like the old Prince was completely gone. Apparently, his identity had to be confirmed by his own mother. She knew immediately it was him, and no one argues with the Queen.”

Shade pondered her words. She wondered what had happened to him to make him so hard and cold. Maybe it was all a front to shake them up a bit.

Oh, whatever.

“What time is dinner? I’m starved,” Shade asked. “I can’t nap anyway, not in this see-through ice house. It’s so cold in here! No wonder they call it the ‘Glass Castle of Winter!’” Shade rubbed her arms and shivered. She reached into her backpack and pulled out a soft, blue cashmere sweater. She slipped it on and hugged her arms in its warmth.

“I know what you mean. Definitely not the kind of ‘summer’ home I’d want. I wonder just how cold it is at his main home in Santiran City. It must be full of icicles there!” Sary laughed as she swung her legs back and forth.

Shade yawned and scooted back until her back hit the pillows. “Yeah, probably. I just know he seems eerily familiar to me. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him before, but he ‘feels’ familiar. Is that weird, Sary? Or am I just insane already?”

Sary sat up in her bed and watched her. “No, you’re definitely not insane. You have no idea what kinds of magic you possess, do you, Shade? I’ve heard of the things you have done. No one I know can do such things. You are one of the most powerful fey I’ve ever met. If you could control your magic, who knows what you could do? I believe these feelings you’re getting are based on real things. Trust yourself, you might find that you’re right about it.”

Shade smiled at her friend. Sary had been a comfort since Brisa had packed and left for college. She was alone now. Her one friend had moved on to a normal life, and she had never felt more alone than the few weeks she’d been without Brisa. She called her up frequently, but it was definitely not the same. It would never be the same ever again.

She sighed as she leaned down to get her pack off the floor when a knock echoed from the door. She glanced at Sary, who shrugged. Turning back to the door, Shade got up and moved toward it. Turning the knob, she felt the door give under the weight of whoever now shoved at it.

“Shade Dyer? Your presence is requested by Prince Lotinar.” A large massive man entered. He was clad in metal and leather and followed by his identical twin. Shade’s eyes widened and her mouth opened to scream but stopped when Camulus slipped in behind the guards. Shade eyed them all in confusion.

“Camulus, they’re part of Aveta’s guards!” Shade exclaimed. She backed into the room and ran toward her backpack on the floor, hoping to yank her sword out in time.

“Stop, Shade! It’s ok. Draden and his brother Andraste are no longer part of Aveta’s troops. They have sworn allegiance to Prince Lotinar. It’s ok.” Camulus’s hands were up, trying to persuade her that they meant her no harm. Shade’s frantic eyes stared at the pair and widened even more as Draden approached her. She gripped her pack to her chest, afraid to let go and ready to run for it if she had to.

“What?” She shook her head in disbelief. Sary shimmied over to her and held her around the shoulders, whispering to her to calm her down. Shade refocused herself and looked up at Sary, who, despite the scare, appeared calm.

“It’s okay, Shade, Camulus is trustworthy. Let’s just see what Prince Lotinar wants,” Sary said.

“Only Shade is summoned, Sary.” Camulus nodded toward them and beckoned for Shade to follow them. She moved her eyes to stare at Camulus. Pulling back her fear, she nodded softly and followed him while still clutching her pack.

Shade glared at Draden, who watched her with calm, ocean-blue eyes. His hair was pulled back neatly, and his scruffy stubble was now shaved clean. He still looked like he’d seen a little too much hard soldiering, but he didn’t seem as dangerous this time around as he had at the Santiran Fountains. He stared right back at her and grinned as she approached them. She eyed him up and down and continued on past him, following the green Elven-Pixie.

In the hall, she fell into step behind Camulus. Shade glanced back to watch the twin guards bringing up the rear and the door to her room grow smaller the farther away they went. She felt so alone again without Sary by her side. Even Soap and Dylan seemed to feel far away in their chambers on the next floor. She wondered if Dylan could feel her panic. She breathed in and tried to calm her nerves before he felt compelled to run out and save her. She felt a little less apprehensive the closer they got to the Prince’s chambers. The feeling of danger subsided slowly as curiosity filled her mind.

 

 

Chapter Five

 

 

 

The prince’s chambers were just as elaborate as the sitting room. Here there were threads of deep purple and blue in the rugs which ran along the stone floors as well as the length of the curtains that ran the expanse of the windows. The prince probably liked to block out the bright daylight that constantly poured into the room during waking hours. Shade was escorted into the room and directed to sit on one of the lush settee chairs. She watched the twin guards and Camulus bow to her and the Prince as they turned and shut the heavy wooden doors behind them. She wrung her fingers together while glancing up at Prince Lotinar, whose back now faced her, as he again was lost staring out the windows.

Suddenly, he reached up and loosened one of the knots which held the massive material of curtains. The mass swayed with a whoosh across half the windows, swinging gently into position. He followed the curtains as they came to a halt, and then he turned toward her. He watched her for a moment, causing Shade to squirm in her chair quietly. She mentally forced herself to stop it and straightened, feeling the weight of his stare.

“Do you know Queen Aveta has her Unseelie spies crawling all over Faerie, watching us with their insolent eyes, taking any little bit of information, useless or not, back to her? I found that I had to fit all the windows to my castle with lengths of curtain to keep her spies at bay. It took half a year to make them.” He glided over to the second set of tied curtains and loosened them as well, throwing the room into the soft, diffuse light of the chandelier.

Shade watched intently. Without his stare bogging her down, he was easy on the eyes. He wore a long silver-white coat which fastened up to his neck. It was tailored to hug his thin waist and accent his broad shoulders. Swirls glinted down the sides of it like glimmering snakes. Glittering diamonds fastened the long sleeves around his wrists while his pants of the same color were adorned down the sides in a similar swirled fashion. His silver-grey hair draped down over the white-silver of his garments much like a spill of mercury. His shoes were custom made to match the outfit perfectly but appeared to be made of something soft and pliable, like some sort of dyed leather.

Shade found herself caught off guard as the Prince stopped moving and turned toward her, finding her gawking at his outfit. She averted her eyes down to the deep purple rugs, feeling her face flush scarlet. The last thing she wanted was to be caught staring at a Prince.

“Do you like what you see?” Prince Lotinar watched for her reaction.

She looked back up at him and studied his gleaming emerald eyes. “Do I know you?” she asked. She felt hauntingly lost for a moment and would bet her life on having met him somewhere before that day. Yet he was as alien to her as most everyone in Faerie was.

He waited to answer as he let her apprehension build. A smile played on his lips as he sized her up and down. Shade felt naked under his intensive examination and could hardly stand it much longer. She stood up, feeling anxious and wanting to run out of his chambers, out of the Glass Castle, and deep into the more familiar woods. She didn’t, though; she glued herself to the floor as her heart raced in her chest and her breath quickened.

Get a grip already! There is no way you know this person. No way in hell! Shade thought. She slowed her breathing while closing her eyes to block his face. As the panic receded, she was able to open them again and look upon him.

“Am I repulsive?” A twinge of hurt filled his icy voice. “I thought by returning to my former appearance, I would be much more pleasurable to look at for you.” Prince Lotinar paused and watched her as realization flashed across his face. “I was hoping you would remember me. I see you don’t, not in the least.” His lips pressed into a thin line as sadness swept across his jeweled eyes. He looked away, peering through a gap in the great curtains. A faraway look crept across his face.

Shade looked at him as her eyes widened. She knew who he reminded her of, but it didn’t seem possible he could be that person. She shook her head and sank back down on the settee.

“You shake your head, but you must believe, Shade,” Prince Lotinar said. He approached her so swiftly, she gasped at his sudden closeness. He placed his hands on her arms and smiled. “It’s me, Shade. Ursad. Please remember.”

Shade squinted her eyes at him. Ursad?

“What?” Shade’s voice quivered as she absorbed what he said.

“I’m Ursad. Don’t you remember me at all? I was hoping to find you again. You left before I could show you what happened when you kissed me. I didn’t even know what had happened myself until I walked past the mirror. I woke up, and you were gone, but you broke the curse on me.”

Shade let out a sigh of relief. Of course. She could see it now. His jeweled eyes gleamed the exact same way Ursad’s had, even in his disfigured, cursed form. She’d never seen anyone else with eyes like those. Soap’s weren’t even that bright.

“Ursad, it’s really you, isn’t it? I knew it. I just knew I had met you before. Why didn’t you say anything before, like when we arrived? Why didn’t you tell me?” Shade felt her shock lessen as they spoke. She studied his face more now that his guard was down. He was incredibly handsome. No wonder women had thrown themselves at his feet. No wonder some jealous witch had cursed him for his looks and attitude so long ago.

“I broke the curse? How do you even know it was me? I did nothing,” she said.

“You kissed me, Shade. I just know that’s what happened. You did kiss me, did you not? Before you left me behind?” His eyes darkened with the memory of abandonment floating behind them.

“Uh, yes, but how would that break any kind of curse?”

“Remember the story I told you? The witch said only a kiss from a queen-to-be would break it. That means you are a princess, Shade, no doubt about it.” Ursad smiled, his eyes lighting up again. Shade shook her head, but his smile was contagious. She liked how happy he looked. His icy exterior had just been a show. He was the same old Ursad she’d met on a cold, sandy beach after barely escaping Blythe, the evil Dryad Queen.

“Ursad, you know, a few months ago I would’ve told you that you were insane, but so much has happened, and I have to say that I wouldn’t be surprised if I were a princess.” Ursad laughed and launched into her for a tight embrace, holding her as if to never let go. When he finally did, he lingered to study her face as though committing it to memory.

“Um, Ursad, you know why I left, right?” She paused, waiting to see his response. His face melted into a more serious expression as he nodded. “I won’t tolerate you using any kind of magic or faery tricks on me. I just can’t let anyone do that to me ever again. You do understand, right?” Shade licked her now dry lips. Her mouth felt like a desert.

Ursad reached up, pushed a strand of her hair back behind her ear and nodded softly. “I promise to never hurt you again, Shade. I am indebted to you for everything.”

Shade stared at Ursad, studying his face again and wondering what it was that swirled around in his head. “Um, Ursad? I don’t want you to feel you owe me anything. I just want to be friends and know that I can trust you. Is that alright?”

Ursad stared back at her. His face seemed to fall in disappointment.

Great, I just pushed Soap away, and now I’m pushing another person away.

“I—I knew you would be upset to see me.” He pulled back, standing to pace the room. His agitation seemed to ripple through the air as his control on his magic wavered. It slipped out into the air around her, shooting across her like short gusts of wind. She wondered how much of his magic had been restored when the curse lifted. It had been a few months, but there probably hadn’t been too much to challenge him and cause him to lose his grip on his power. She wondered even now if he would try to imprison her again with his now-strengthened charms.

“Ursad, I’m not upset to see you. I really don’t know what you want from me. I’m happy to see you’re okay, cured even. What did you expect from me when we met again? That I would run into your arms like a long lost lover? I left because of your deception. You tried to trap me as your ‘pet’ in Faerie. So what if it didn’t work out because I’m also fey? The point is, you tried to do it, more than once, too! I forgive you now, but that’s all you can have from me.” She continued watching him pace until he came to a stop in the middle of the room. He moved to sink to the floor before her, looking up to meet her eyes.

“You’re right, Shade. I deserve nothing. I am still indebted to you, and that hasn’t changed. I am sorry for everything.” He bowed his head, breathing in deeply and contemplating his next words. As he brought his eyes back to hers, his face was calmer, his rage extinguished. He smiled and stood up, holding his hand out to her.

“Can I have a dance at least? Just one. Please, Shade?” he implored. Shade studied his face but found no malice at all. She sighed, smiled and nodded while taking his hand and letting him pull her up. He took his stance, embracing her and peered down at her. Soft music floated into the room from some unknown source. Shade listened to the haunting melody and let him sway her around the room. Closing her eyes, she let the music drift into her like a spell. For a moment, she was floating across the room, dancing around and around with Ursad swaying her gently. It was the most serene moment she’d had in a very long time.

The music came to a stop, but he continued to dance her around until they slowed and stilled. They stood in the center of the room and stared at each other. Shade’s heart fluttered just enough to make her panic. She pulled away, still looking at him.

“What just happened? Did you try the damn charms on me again?”

Ursad shook his head, his face filled with shock. “No, I didn’t do anything. I have to admit, I have a hard time controlling my magic since I returned to my former appearance. It has grown tenfold since I was last able to use it so many years ago. Anything you think might have happened, I swear, I didn’t do on purpose.” Looking defeated, he sank down into one of the sofas, leaned forward with his head in his hands and sighed.

“I didn’t want to tell you who I was at first, not in front of them. I’ve tried to appear strong, so sure in my actions and words as a Prince. Yet inside, I am in pieces, and my soul quivers with uncertainty. I’ve been able to reassume the throne of the North, but I had to fight hard for it. Once they saw I was truly the ruthless Prince I once was, there was no longer any doubt.” He looked up and watched her face for any emotions.

“I’m not the same person anymore, Shade. I find myself emptier than when I was in exile. It’s made my world stand still. It’s a constraint—and a freedom—I don’t know if I want anymore. I stay for my people. I stay to fight this evil called Aveta who tries to invade my lands with her cursed armies. I hold my borders for now, but I need this alliance with Queen Zinara probably as much as she does. I have so much to make up for. I can never repay you or anyone else I’ve hurt in my life.” He sighed but never looked away from her.

Shade gave him a nod and stood up from the sofa. Standing over him, she held her hand out.

“I forgive you. I know we both have much to learn, and the magic of Faerie grows wilder with everything that’s brewing. I promise I’ll help you if you promise to help me, too. Deal?” Her hand trembled as she held it out. She felt tired and hungry, and she wanted to see what her friends were doing. She counted Ursad as not quite a friend, but they’d have to figure that out, all in good time.

He smiled and gripped her hand, nodding in agreement.

“Come on, don’t you have a nice dinner feast readied for your old pal? I’m starved.” Shade let out a nervous laugh as she waited for his answer.

Ursad laughed and nodded. He moved to stand beside her, offering his arm to escort her out. “Let’s get some good food.”

 

 

Chapter Six

 

 

 

Dinner flitted by quickly, and Shade was thankful for it. She was exhausted. The mind struggle with Ursad had drained her so much, she wondered if his loose magic had anything to do with it. Sary had kept her company, glancing at her with concern, but not wanting to ask her about Ursad. She knew Shade would tell her if she wanted to. In the meantime, Sary’s patience was a godsend.

Dylan had not said much at all through dinner, either. In fact, Shade had a nagging suspicion he was either avoiding her or wanted to give her space. Either way, she was glad to not have to deal with his moodiness tonight. Soap was the only one who seemed to have a bright outlook. He’d attempted to lighten the mood with a constant stream of chatter and jokes. Shade had nodded and smiled when appropriate but stayed lost in her own thoughts as she ate. She felt bad not engaging with him, especially after he’d put his heart on his sleeve that afternoon, but she just had way too much on her mind to tolerate any kind of mind sparring. Retreating to her room after dinner was a relief. She had curled into the soft covers and faded away before she could even turn the lights off.

Something woke her in the dead of the night. Her head was throbbing even though she’d been sleeping hard. She sat up in bed and rubbed her forehead, wondering if she was coming down with something. She hoped not. All she had was the healing potion Braelynn had given to her before the journey. Faeries never got ill. It was being human that had its disadvantages.

The room was dark. Sary had probably turned off the lights when she had entered after Shade was asleep. She fumbled to find the lamp next to her bed in the dim light of the moon. Finally finding the switch, she flicked it on and squeezed her eyes shut as the room flooded with light. She blinked as her eyes focused and looked around. Sary was not in the next bed. It lay smooth and untouched. Shade wondered where she could be. Who had turned the lights off, then? She thought to herself.

She attempted to stand, but the throb filled her head with an intensity which caused her to sit right back down. Groaning, she held her head by the temples and breathed in until the pounding dulled somewhat. She reached for her pack on the floor and willed the potion to come to her. It appeared immediately and she unscrewed the top and knocked down a sip. She recapped it and stuffed it back into the pack, letting it flop back to the floor. Tossing herself back onto her pillow, she laid her arm across her head. She’d been having more frequent headaches lately. Stress seemed to be the culprit.

Shade.

She sat up, swearing she’d heard a voice whisper her name. She scanned the room, relieved at the same time that the throb in her head was only a small, annoying, pulsating twinge now. Shade waited in the silence but found nothing amiss. She sighed. I’m hearing things. She waited another moment before lying back down on the bed. She wished Sary was there, but she’d probably stayed with Stephen for the night.

She pulled the blanket up to her chin and closed her eyes, leaving the light on, just in case. She was finally calming enough to almost fade back out when she heard the whisper again.

Shade.

This time, she jumped out of bed and grabbed her bag. Her dagger was clasped in her hand before she even realized she’d called it. She scanned the room and again found nothing. She checked under the beds and then checked the bathroom adjacent to the room. Still nothing. She decided to check outside her door to be sure no one was around, in case someone was feeling like a prankster tonight.

She swung her door open and found no one standing in the dim hallway as she scanned both ends. The abandoned halls were strangely silent. Listening for what seemed like an eternity, she frowned, unsatisfied and unsure of what to do. She closed and locked the door behind her. She was fairly certain Sary was not returning to their room that night.

Oh well, she can knock, thought Shade.

She slid back into bed and stuffed the dagger under her pillow. She shut the light off and closed her eyes, letting the darkness engulf her.

Shade, you must find me. I can help you.

The slight whisper was gentle and reassuring this time. Shade let its soothing tone wrap around her as she answered, mumbling in her sleepy state before fading into unconsciousness.

“Okay, I will… tomorrow.”

 

***

 

Dawn cracked through the window, penetrating her eyelids with its burning light. Shade turned away, groaning and drowsy. Her sleep had been fitful, leaving her exhausted. She yawned and stretched, feeling sleep slip away and wakefulness push at her. She lay there for a moment, wondering about the events of the night and the day prior. So many things had happened, and they were gnawing at her head like dogs on bones. She sat up slowly and scratched her scalp, rubbed her eyes and lifted them to the blasted windows she was beginning to loathe.

The sky was a deep grey and orange as the sun bled over the forest canopy. Her room overlooked the treetops and on to the distant mountains like a glass watchtower. She wondered if it was just as see-through from the outside. Closing her eyes, she let the rising sun gleam its warmth over her face.

She swung her legs over the side of the bed and glanced over to Sary’s bed, half hoping to see her figure lumped under the blankets. The bed remained untouched. She sighed as she stretched her neck from side to side. She remembered the whispers in the night, and the memory sent shivers up her spine. It wasn’t her long lost spirit guides, Elaby, Astrid, and Duende. They rarely visited her in dreams anymore. No, the whisper had awakened her in the night, beckoning her with something—she knew not what. Shade strained to remember if it had come from a woman or a man. It had been so ambiguous in its urgent quietness.

Shaking her head, she decided to think about it later and moved on. She grabbed her clothes and headed for the bathroom to ready herself for the day. She was anxious to get the day moving, not certain what was else was going to surprise her. She wanted to find the twin guards Andraste and Draden and ask them the many questions that had been left unanswered the last time they met, especially the ones about her real father.

Shade finished up in the bathroom as quickly as she could. She brushed her damp hair back into a tight ponytail and pulled on her backpack before slipping out of the room and into the long ornamental hallway. She looked down both sides from her door and chewed on her lip as she realized she had no idea which way to go. She’d been escorted everywhere the night before and had not been given any kind of tour. The hall ran long ways in both directions and disappeared into turns as far as she could see. She decided to head in the same direction they had led her the night before, toward Prince Ursad’s—Lotinar’s—chambers.

As she proceeded, her lips slipped into a smile. She couldn’t believe of all the people or faery that she’d met, Ursad was the Prince here. Prince of the entire Northern Realm of Faerie, no less! She thoughtfully licked her lips. He’d turned out to be quite some eye candy for sure. Too bad she had one too many interested guys on the bandwagon already. She wasn’t really ready to choose anyone, though; there had been too much going on to really worry about boys. She had her magic lessons with Ilarial and Braelynn, fight training with Than and Soap and now this little negotiation meeting to please the Prince of the Northern Realm. Ursad was cool, but his magic tricks and lies had put him on the naughty list for her. Right now, Soap was probably the only one not getting on her last nerve.

Shade reached a turn at the end of the hall and followed it until it opened up to a set of stairs which appeared familiar. She wasn’t sure if they were the same she’d used before, but she figured it couldn’t hurt to keep going, so she descended the steps to the bottom floor.

The castle was eerily deserted. Maybe it was just she expected more people to be scurrying about in such a large place—servants, workers… someone. She turned to her right where she heard some murmurs of voices. She walked along the hall, studying the intricate woodcarvings and random paintings of landscapes, scenes of forests, mountains, streams and other places she’d never seen. They were wondrous and must have been painted by very skilled hands.

She stopped, admiring one painting of a woman standing at the edge of a forest clearing, clearly watching a raging forest fire far in the distance. Her face was forlorn and lost. Her honey brown hair flowed down her back and over her shoulders in waves. She wore a fey warrior’s leather outfit strung with daggers, a pack on her back, and a sword fastened in a hilt to her side. One of her hands gripped the trunk of the tree she stood by. Shade felt lost in her face. A feeling of dread and familiarity washed over her.

She wondered who the woman in the painting was and what was in the distant fire, deep in the forest, which was causing her so much turmoil. Most of all, Shade wondered why she looked so familiar. She could be my sister!

She was still staring at the painting when she felt eyes boring into her back. She whirled around to find Dylan standing silently behind her.

“Geez, do you have to give me a heart attack? What are you doing standing there like a ghost?” Shade hissed as she rolled her eyes and turned back to the painting, not wanting to let the woman’s face go.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to ‘give you an attack.’ Really. I thought you might be wandering the palace when I didn’t find you in your room.” He shuffled up next to her, staring at the painting along with her. “It’s called Ash and Embers.” Shade turned and stared at him. He didn’t turn to her but continued to study the woman’s painted face.

“How do you know?” she asked.

Dylan nodded. “I have seen this faery’s work many times. It was painted about three hundred years ago by the Oracle Niara. She chose to wither and faded not long after she completed this and a few other paintings. She was definitely a strong Oracle but tormented by her visions. She painted what she saw in them. This one, she said, was about a woman who watched a loved one die in a fire that appeared out of nowhere. The ash spewed into the sky like clouds of night, and the rocks cracked with veins of red, molten lava pouring out from the earth like a volcano, where before there were none.”

Shade listened intently, awed by his tale.

“And the woman in the painting, did Niara ever say who she was?” Shade asked.

Dylan tilted his head, drinking in the face of the lady and sighing before he spoke.

“Yes, it was said that Niara called her ‘The Shadow.’ Not sure what she meant by that.” Dylan looked over to her and smiled, his brighter mood flowing over her.

“Hmm. That’s actually very interesting. Thanks for telling me.” Shade smiled at him.

He nodded his head toward her. “You’re welcome, Shade.” His shoulder brushed her side and she turned to look at him. His eyes were the dark grey of a storm, and in them, she could see that they were filled with words unsaid. She felt her heart flutter like it always did when he looked at her that way.

Her mind flipped back to the garden of the Santiran Fountains where they had kissed. The feel of his lips had been like warm, sweet honey. She could still feel the heat from his breath skimming her cheeks and the pounding of his heart beating against her chest as he held her so tight when he’d zapped the Unseelie soldiers with his power. The bluish fire and lightning electrified them but had done nothing to her but leave her breathless and tingling all over. She wondered what it had meant. The way he’d held her felt like he would never let her go. She remembered how she hadn’t wanted him to let go.

Now he stood here, watching her as her thoughts floated in her mind, waiting for some sort of reaction from her. Shade suddenly felt like she’d neglected their relationship greatly. His haunted eyes drew her into the wells of pain and suffering he held deep inside. She wanted to open him up and draw it all out, make him smile and make him continue to feel happiness in the dreariness of life.

She snapped back into the present and watched Dylan flick his grey eyes away from her and back to the painting. She swallowed and wondered if everything she’d felt had meant something to him. She didn’t have to wait to long for an answer, suddenly feeling his warm, soft fingers lace through her hand, curling and holding it tight. Her hand responded to his grip as she felt his warmth radiate up her arm and fill her with his tingling magic. She’d almost forgotten what it felt like to touch Dylan; it made her body vibrate in response. She missed him, in more ways than one.

“Well, the lovebirds have arisen.” The deep baritone voice startled Shade. She turned to see who was spying on them, letting go of Dylan’s warm hand. Draden stood in a hard stance at the turn of the hallway. He held a spear in one hand and a heavy-looking sword strapped to his side. His long, blond hair was pulled uncomfortably tight at the nape of his neck and was tied with a plain leather tie which matched the full warrior gear he wore. The smooth lines of his muscles bulged from under the soft material which fit him like a glove. The hardened lines on his face seemed to have softened since she’d seen him at the Santiran Fountains. She hadn’t taken the time to study his face much when he’d taken her to Prince Ursad’s chambers, but now she had plenty of time to take in his features.

“Am I interesting to you, little Princess? Moving on to the next one already, huh?” Draden’s eyebrows arched inquisitively, glancing between her and Dylan. His eyes filled with mean laughter as he snickered.

“What? No, I just….” Shade stammered, caught off guard by the husky guard. His laughter roared around them, echoing down the halls, taunting them. Dylan’s face was blank and hard as stone, not betraying any kind of feelings under his mask. Shade could still feel him tense up beside her.

“Wait a minute, what did you say?” Shade gathered her senses. She was still confused, but now very interested in Draden’s words.

“Which part? About moving on already? I’m single if you really want to know. You aren’t really my type, though. I like ‘em a bit bustier with a spill of red hair, but there is a shortage of fey women around here, so I’m not really gonna be too damn picky.”

Shade’s face rushed in a spill of scarlet. She wanted to slap the guard but restrained herself. Her curiosity was too much to bear. “I meant the part where you called me ‘little Princess.’ Why did you say that?” She waited, her confusion playing around her eyes. She was hoping he wasn’t going to continue to joke around.

Draden’s face turned serious then. His hard stare bore into her like a stake which turned and turned her insides to a messy mush. His smile was gone, replaced by the hard, thin frown which made him look incredibly scary.

“Paying attention, I see. Yes, Shade, I said ‘little Princess,’ but you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?” He approached her, tilting his head to stare her down. Shade now had to tilt her head back and straighten her stance to stand just even with his chest.

“You remember what I said at the Fountains, right? About your father? I did know him—I was his second in command, first lieutenant. I knew him well.” He eyed her, daring her to speak.

Shade gulped as she tried not to look away, determined to not back down. She felt him testing her.

“What was his name?” Shade pressed her lips together, biting down on her lower lip. She could feel the sweat build up and her heart racing as she stared right back at him.

Draden sized her up with his hard, stormy, blue eyes. His face softened as he chuckled and backed down. Shaking his head, he reached over and placed a hand on her shoulder.

“You are a stubborn little brat, aren’t you? You’re just like him. His name was Verenis. He was the King of the Southern Realm of Faerie.” He watched her, pausing for a moment for her to take in the information.

“The Southern Realm. The Seelie Scren Court of Faeries is rightfully yours, Shade. You are his only heir. He was a Changeling, capable of changing appearance to whatever it was he wanted. Powerful magic is almost unseen in the fey, these days. Do you know if you have inherited these abilities?” He waited, watching the shock fill her eyes as she listened. She weakly shook her head and turned to look at Dylan, whose eyes were wider as he struggled to remain stoic.

“I—no, I don’t think so.” She felt her knees weaken as they threatened to collapse. Dylan took her arm and led her into one of the many rooms which lined the halls. He brought her into what looked like a small library. It was filled with dusty books, hardback, leather-bound volumes the likes of which she would expect to find in an expensive collection. Dylan guided her to a small cushioned couch. She slid down onto the soft, old velvet and let her head fall between her knees.

She hadn’t expected anything Draden had said at all. The doubt filled her mind and made it difficult to breath. Should she believe him? Was she really a Queen of her own Faerie Realm?

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

 

 

“I don’t believe it,” Shade whispered.

Believe it, girl,” Draden snickered from the entrance of the room. “There is nothing but truth here, or did you forget that we do not lie?” He leaned on the doorframe and appeared rather bored by her show of weakness.

Shade looked up toward the warrior. “You say you knew my father well? Well then, what happened to him? Where is he, and why did he leave my mother?” She wiped a spilled tear which had pooled in her eyes. She slowly straightened and sat up, giving a hard stare which bore right back at Draden, awaiting his answers.

“He was killed, Shade. Queen Aveta captured him, and he was executed in her Court. There was nothing I could have done to save him. I failed him, and I paid for it dearly. I had to join her ranks of Unseelie soldiers or die. When I found out you were alive, and, therefore, an heir, my brother and I deserted her army. We were lost before that, without hope. We returned to the Northern Realm where we heard Prince Lotinar had returned and was eager for fighters. I will not rest until Queen Aveta pays for what she has done. He was like a brother to me.” His face was stone cold serious.

Shade nodded at his explanation. “What of the Southern Realm? Who rules it now? Who’s in charge down there since I haven’t claimed it?” Shade sniffled. She hated getting a runny nose in the middle of such a serious conversation. She pulled her pack off and reached inside for a cloth to wipe her face.

“There is no ruler. A lesser Queen named Ariana has stepped up to help out until the rightful ruler comes. She is not strong enough to fight Aveta’s evil armies. They are growing by the thousands. Sluagh, scores of Orcs, Demons, and lesser fey are assembling on Aveta’s side, along with the Unseelie soldiers, as we speak. We have to claim back the crown, Shade and build our armies to defeat her. Prince Lotinar is already allying with Queen Zinara. With you at their side, they will be hard to beat. It will be three of the great realms against one.” Her indifference agitated him, causing him to want to run across the room and give her a good shake.

“I—I just don’t know. It’s all so sudden. I can’t even fathom having a father who’s a Changeling and a King! I don’t know if I have any of his powers. If I did, they haven’t shown up yet, and I have no idea how to make them surface. I’m not a Queen, Princess or anything. I can’t win a Faerie war! I have so little to give and so much to lose. Why do you guys, once again, have to pin your hopes on me? I’m not the one you need.” Shade stood up and huffed out of the room, feeling a lot less faint. Anger made her heart race as the knots in her stomach clenched. She paced the hallway outside the door as she tried to figure things out. Lately, she was getting to know these feelings a bit too well.

“Shade?” Dylan appeared in the doorway.

“What!?” She heard her voice echo in the hall, angry and desperate.

“Why don’t we get a bite to eat? I’m starved, and I can tell you need something to munch on while we figure it out. How about it?” He waited, letting her vent her confusion. As she paced, her heart slowed, and her thoughts cleared. Finally, she stopped and sighed. Rubbing her temples, she nodded at Dylan. She motioned for him to lead the way.

The murmurs of conversation seemed to fade down to nothing as they took their seats. The rest of her friends were already seated and eating. She was sure her emotions were written plainly on her face. She sat and stared at her empty plate, not sure she really had the stomach for food but knew she should eat for energy. She helped herself to some fruit and croissants but picked at them with her fork. She barely noticed Dylan pouring her some orange juice and nudging her to eat. Sighing, she stuffed a grape into her dry mouth and attempted to chew.

“Shade, is everything alright? Did something happen?” Sary leaned over, whispering to her so that only the ones at their table could hear them.

Shade nodded and looked up at the beautiful warrior. Shade cracked a pathetic attempt at a smile and blinked back to her plate. Dylan rapidly fired off the details to the others as they continued to eat. She could feel their eyes darting to her as he spoke but tried not to get any more upset. She was relieved Ursad and Camulus weren’t at their table.

Soap sat across from her and watched her sulk. She glanced up at him a couple times, feeling suddenly guilty about her feelings for Dylan. Soap looked at her with great concern splayed across his face and eyes full of love. She could sense his desire to run to her and hold her tight. She felt his restraint like an iron chain that strapped him to his chair. He would never do in front of the others, he was too proud for that. Dylan was prouder still. At least, Soap’s wall was not as hard to get through as Dylan’s. She wanted to hear Soap’s voice right now, cracking jokes and being pathetic just to make her laugh and smile.

Glancing at Dylan, she realized how different the two men were. They both were Teleen, part Teleen in Soap’s case. Nevertheless, both wielded the magical blue lightning fires which burned white-hot under their skin. That was where their similarities ended. Soap could also change into whomever or whatever he wished. He had mentioned he could look like any person she wanted him to. He was sweet, easy going and made no secret of his desire to be with her. Dylan’s concern and care for her, and not to mention the way he made her heart flip with one glance, made it hard to choose between them. Soap’s gleaming, green eyes watched her as she thought about them both, almost twinkling as they transformed to a honey-brown when filling up with slight mischief.

He knows I’m thinking about him. How does he do that?

Shade suddenly felt so invaded by his penetrating stare, she had to pry her eyes away. She looked back at her plate of food. Popping another piece of fruit into her mouth helped to distract her from her present company. Dylan and Soap were getting harder to ignore, which was what she wanted to do. She’d rather think about what Draden had said about her family and the Scren Seelie Court which was rightfully hers. She didn’t know how in the heck she was supposed to be a ruler. She almost choked on the grape as she thought about it, and took a swig of juice to wash it down.

“It’s okay, Shade, just breathe,” Dylan interrupted. “I know you didn’t expect this, and it’s all sudden, but you have got to get a grip on yourself or you’re going to choke on your breakfast!” Dylan’s urgent whisper in her ear brought a flush to her face. She turned toward him, pressing her lips into a straight line.

“I know that. Just back off, okay? I’m just a little in shock. I have to digest what Draden told me. I don’t even know who I am, and that scares the crap out of me. Tell me you wouldn’t feel the same way. You’ve never had to deal with this kind of stuff in your entire immortal life, so you can just leave me alone.” She stood up and glanced down the way toward Prince Ursad’s table where he was also watching her. She felt the weight of a thousand eyes bearing down on her, and the room was spinning, and she instantly regretted her decision to stand up so fast.

She sucked her breath as her balance wavered. The Prince whispered something into Camulus’s ear. The green Elven-Pixie glanced at Shade and nodded his head. In a flash, he was at her side, catching her and gripping her in his arms gently but firmly. Another flashing swirl swam around her and brought her back to her room. She was still at the glass castle, in the bed she’d slept in the night before. Camulus helped her slip under the soft sheets.

“Shade, it’s okay, you’re in your room. Prince Lotinar wanted me to make sure you made it here safely because you don’t look well. I will return with Sary momentarily.” He was readying himself to teleport out of the room when Shade stopped him.

“Wait!”

He returned to the bedside and bent down toward her, awaiting her words. “Yes? Is there something you need?” His orange-fire eyes blank of any emotion, he seemed like a colder version of himself within the castle walls than when they had first met out in the forest of Faerie.

“Thank you, Camulus. I feel better now. Sary doesn’t have to come right away. I just think I’m overwhelmed with all of this. Thanks anyway.” She stopped because his apathetic face seemed so foreign and unfriendly at that moment. “I’ll see you later,” she said as she lay back against the pillow and watched him swirl away like a dream in the night.

 

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

 

 

 

“Shade, can I come in?”

Soap’s voice pulled her from her thoughts. She sat up in the bed and watched him peek around the crack of the door. She was relieved to see the Teleen changeling faery and motioned for him to enter. She felt a lot better away from the atmosphere of the dining area and castle’s occupants. The silence of the room had felt like an antidote to the madness she’d felt swimming in her head, making her sick and faint. She watched Soap enter and quietly click the door shut behind him.

Soap’s flowing movements toward the bed caught her attention. He was wearing a thin, light blue, gauzy tunic and matching pants which were loose and flowed in the soft breeze of his movements. The outline of his smooth muscles stood out, and she could see his chest and stomach muscles ripple under the half-buttoned tunic. His long, golden-brown hair fluidly draped around his shoulders and spilled down his back. He was definitely fit, and his skin was so smooth she began to suspect that all fey men were just as hairless. She let her eyes flow over his silhouette, suddenly realizing how much she’d neglected to notice how extremely handsome he was, in a disarming kind of way.

He stopped at the edge of the bed and watched her curiously. Shade felt her face flush with heat as he watched her. He seemed to enjoy the way she looked him up and down. All she could do was look up at him and press her lips together. Her heart raced in her chest as his eyes stared right back at her, and morphed from a crystal green to a honey-gold tone, flashing like jewels. He walked around the bed to the edge where she sat and knelt down just in front of her. He was tall enough to be almost even with her nose while on his knees. She watched him reach up and slip his hands up her cheeks, stroking them as he pushed her hair back, which now hung loose, pouring over her shoulders.

Shade sucked her breath in at his touch. She couldn’t help but wonder if he was using his charms on her like he’d demonstrated when they had first met, walking along the forest toward her house. She recalled that he’d told her his magic was almost useless on her when he showed how he could charm people into doing what he commanded, but didn’t stop the twinge of suspicion which lingered deep inside her mind.

“Soap, don’t use magic on me, please. I….” Shade stopped as he hushed her.

“I’m not using any kind of magic, Shade.” His eyes floated with a dreaminess swirling in them. “I—I love you, Shade. I’ve waited for you to feel the same, but I don’t know if you do. I don’t think you realize how much I have fallen for you, after all, that we’ve been through together.”

His eyes searched her face as she sat frozen and locked in his gaze, shocked by his words. “I have to tell you this before you say anything else. I asked you to be exclusive with me, like the mortal human guys do, but you hesitate to give me a straight answer. It’s torture waiting to see if you will tell me that you want me, too, or if you just don’t feel the same. I have to know, Shade. If you want me to go, I’ll go. If you don’t want anything to do with me, so be it. But I want you to know that even if you want me to leave, I will still stand by your side and still love you, still fight for you no matter what the consequences are. But I will not stand by any longer, just waiting to be told to go.”

Soap paused, his eyes intense with heat and pain. Shade swallowed back the lump which had filled her throat and caught her breath. Her mouth felt dry as she drank in his words. She knew he liked her, he‘d said that much earlier, but to be in love with her? Do I love him back? Did she want him like that? Did he not make her heart race and her stomach flip with his burning eyes and his absorbing smile? Shade swallowed as her throat seemed to close up on her. He did, that’s what made her most afraid. He sure did. Having him so near was not helping her deny it either.

“Soap, I—I like you a lot, too. I don’t know if I love you, though, not the way you want me to. I really don’t know what love is. I’ve never been in love before. I miss you when you’re gone. I ache to hold you when I see you. I feel happy to see you walk through the door when I’m miserable down to my bones, but I don’t know if I can be what you need, what you want. And there’s Dylan too, I….”

Soap interrupted her. “Shh, Shade. I know you feel the same way I do. I see it in your eyes when you aren’t guarding them against the world. I feel your heart racing under my fingers. I just wanted to tell you it’s okay. Don’t be afraid of me, Shade. I would follow you into the depths of blackness so thick that I would think there be no light to befall me ever again. I wait for you even now, my heart is already yours. Do you not understand?” Soap let his fingers trace her arms, sending a shiver down her skin.

Shade nodded, taking in his face: a fine, strong jawline and sharp cheekbones. His hardened eyebrows framed his eyes ever so perfectly. She wondered what it was he really saw when he looked at her. He could probably have any woman he wanted. And yet, here he was.

Soap’s eyes drew her in. They looked like they were shining beacons in a dark night. He let his skin of glamour slip away as fire began to burn with the crackling of lightning and blue-white fire which licked along his skin and down his body. It didn’t burn his clothes or her as it flickered along. Shade drew in her breath, always amazed by how a Teleen could burn so intensely but not affect her at all. He laced his fingers through hers and pulled her up to stand with him. He looked down at her. His face lit up in blue-white light as he was tightening his warm embrace around her.

She buried her face in his chest, smelling sage and fire on his skin. She ran her hands up his back and stroked his hair which fell down his back in long straight ribbons. She rubbed her cheek along his warm chest, feeling his heart racing under his fiery skin. Shade lifted her head up toward his and watched his face turn down in response. His face was an ocean of calm while his eyes burned with desire. She watched his lips, perfect and lush, begging to be touched.

She sighed. What the hell? Giving in, she leaned toward him. She kissed him, feeling the warmth of his mouth press back against hers, softly at first, then desperately, as if they were about to inhale each other. His arms pulled her toward him and his hands cradled her head, holding her so tight that she felt breathless.

Shade suddenly pulled away and slipped onto the bed. Soap reluctantly let her, but not without a longing sigh as he continued to glow on fire. She watched him moving to kneel before her again, waiting for her next move. His flames crackled and flowed up his body like liquid flowing the wrong way. He let her collect her thoughts, still breathing hard.

“Soap, I—I can’t do this. We have to stop. I don’t know what’s going on, but I need more time. I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry.” Shade shifted farther back onto the bed.

“What’s going on here?” Dylan’s serrated voice startled Shade as she turned to see that he had slipped past the door so quietly, neither of them had even noticed his presence. His eyes were dark and his face was seething. He stared at Soap, who still glowed afire, and let his eyes move to Shade, frozen on the bed, her cheeks pink and lips red from kissing Soap. His eyes narrowed at her as his eyes darkened even more, turning into a gleaming onyx. She sucked her breathe in, shifting her glance between Dylan and Soap.

“Dylan, nothing’s going on,” Shade stammered. “You scared the crap out of me! What are you doing here?” She scrambled to stand up and stood beside Soap as he wove his glamour around him, a quivering mist which pulled together tightly until it became solid, leaving no sign of the blue-white fire on his tanned skin.

“It doesn’t look like nothing to me, Shade.” Dylan’s voice felt like poison as he spoke her name. Shade winced and started shaking her head.

“Dylan, it’s not what it looks like. I mean, he just came to see if I was okay.” The words choked in her throat as she lacked any better words to say. So busted!

“I bet you’re better than okay now, right, Shade?” Dylan’s voice was flat and almost melancholy. “So this is how it is, then? You and Rylan? Of all the fey, I’d think you would’ve chosen better than a savage wildling. You can’t trust him, Shade. You don’t know what he really is. Changelings are traitors and thieves, infiltrating fey families. Just because he could be part Teleen doesn’t change that. He will hurt you the moment he gets what he wants. Won’t you, Rylan?” He snickered at Soap.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Shade’s surprise made her voice squeak. “Soap has been nothing but loyal to the Queen and to the Seelie Court. How dare you say such things! He’s also my friend, and your jealous rants need to stop right now!” Shade felt her chest tighten as her anger spilled over her self-control along with hot tears swelling in her eyes. She felt like running over to Dylan and smacking him across his face. Something stopped her, though. The fact he wasn’t even paying her any more attention but was in a stare down with Soap, concerned her.

“Haven’t told her, have you, Rylan?” Dylan hissed. “You wouldn’t dare ruin your chances with the lost Queen of the Scren Seelie Court, would you? Lose a chance to be a King? Very unlikely for you, right? Well, maybe I should inform her of your little misdemeanors. Unless, of course, you want to enlighten her yourself?”

Shade stopped what she was about to scream out at the Teleen guard and switched her eyes toward Soap. His face was dark and still. He was also staring Dylan down but didn’t refute what he’d just said.

“Soap, what does he mean? What’s he talking about?” Shade was getting tired of the games, but Soap didn’t answer her. He remained silent. He finally gave in and averted his glare to the stone floor. Shade watched him, her eyes widening and her mouth agape.

“What are you talking about, Dylan?” Shade turned back toward the former captain of the Teleen Guard and waited impatiently as he turned his cold, grey, eyes to her. Nothing but contempt filling them, burning into her like fire. She hated to see him looking at her like that, especially after he’d held her hands so gently earlier, by the paintings. She flinched at his glare but flicked the thought away and waited for him to answer.

Dylan snarled again at Soap with ice picks in his eyes and his jaw hard with disgust. When Dylan finally turned back toward Shade, his eyes were emptied of fury and full of pain. He shook his head and looked to the floor.

“Soap has to be the one to tell you. I’m sure it will be a most interesting conversation, but I have to go now.” Dylan’s voice came out abrasive but quieter than before. He sounded defeated. Shade’s eyes widened as she watched Dylan turn and rush out of the room.

“What? Where are you going? Wait! Dylan!” Shade scrambled after him and caught the door before it slammed behind him. Slipping through, she grabbed his arm, pulling him back and making him stop in the hallway. He sighed, letting his gaze fall away from her. When he finally turned his head toward her, she took in his eyes, now full of pain and broken. At that moment, Shade wanted to grab him and hold him tight. Somehow, she knew he wasn’t lying about leaving. The door slammed behind her as she slowly stepped toward him, releasing her grip. He sighed as she approached, shaking his head again.

“Stop, Shade, please,” he whispered. She knew he ached to reach out and pull her into his embrace, but he held fast to where he was, refusing to give in.

“Dylan, where are you going? What’s going on?” Shade licked her lips, her mouth parched. She was afraid to look away from him. Her breath caught in her throat as she waited for an answer she knew she didn’t want.

“I’m leaving, Shade. I’ve been summoned before my Queen. Queen Gretel of the Teleen. I have to answer the summons or face punishment.”

“Why? She knows we’re bound, leaving will not be good for either of us.” Shade felt on the verge of tears at his words.

“I don’t know why Shade. I received the message this morning, and I’m leaving right now. I came to say goodbye.” He watched her misery paint itself across her face.

“But why? I need you to help me find out more about my father. You can’t leave now.” Hot tears filled her eyes and slowly spilled down in trails as her voice quivered with uncertainty.

Dylan stared at her, his eyes glassy and now empty. The hallway was dimmer than the brilliance of the glass-lined rooms. The flames of the oil lamps which burned along the walls flickered, making the light dance across their faces. They lit his eyes, glistening with unshed tears that made her want to hold onto him so that he could not leave. He reached over to her and pushed a wisp of her hair back, letting it slip through his fingers slowly, watching it until it slipped out all the way. He let his hand linger and caressed her cheek longingly.

“I’m sorry, Shade. It looks like this is the way it’s going to have to be. Goodbye.” With that, he turned away and disappeared down the hall. Shade found herself left staring after him, hoping he would turn back. When he didn’t, she felt her tears flood down her cheeks and drip onto the floor. She let them run and felt the sobs escape from her chest, echoing around her.

How could I be so stupid!

Shade loved Dylan, and it hurt to see such disappointment burn across his face. She felt lost, and the pit of her stomach seemed to twist itself so hard, she felt like keeling over onto the floor. She reached out to grip the wall and balance herself. She hated how everything was going. It felt like she couldn’t breathe, and it was all her fault. Shade slipped to the floor and buried her head in her hands. The cold stone wall against her back pressed uncomfortably against her spine, and the stone floor wasn’t any better. Somehow, though discomforted, she didn’t wish to move. She simply remained on the ground and let the cold seep into her.

 

 

Chapter Nine

 

 

 

The taste of the honey wine at dinner made Shade want to drown herself in the glass as it swirled around. The food seemed intolerable and sat untouched on her plate. Rubbing a finger on the edge of the glass she’d refilled a few too many times, she watched the golden fluid ripple slightly. She was no stranger to intoxication; the wild parties after graduation had been a bit too much fun. Luckily, Dylan had never partaken in any of the drinking, preferring to escort Shade home each time without a complaint. Shade had always been the responsible one before that, always taking care of her siblings and her responsibilities, never having too much to drink at other parties. Knowing Dylan would be there to take her home when she needed him to allowed her to let loose more than she probably should’ve at the end of the school year parties.

Shade chuckled to herself, remembering how she had taught Dylan how to drive the family’s minivan. He hadn’t a clue how to drive the massive metal machine but had been determined to learn since Shade had insisted he should learn to drive if he was to spend any kind of time in the “normal” human world.

Dylan had mastered driving fairly quickly. He even liked to drive her family around for errands, shopping, daycare or whatever. Her mom had liked this quite a bit. Shade had loved having a chauffeur, too. It made it easy to relax and numb her mind to blow off the anxiety she had pent up inside.

“Shade, are you alright?” Sary’s voice broke her thoughts. “Maybe we need to give the honey wine a break.” Sary replaced her glass with a cup of water and shoved a plate of food closer to Shade, who was leaning on the table to keep from the swaying. The alcohol was definitely more potent in Faerie. Shade closed her eyes, feeling the room spinning, but at least, she was feeling a lot less upset.

“Try to eat something, Shade. For crying out loud, what’s going on? I know I don’t know a lot about what is going on with you because I’ve been with Stephen most of the time, and I’m sorry about that, but you need to get a grip!” Sary’s frustrated, tense voice made Shade sit back up and stare at her friend. Shade’s eyelids hung heavy as she gripped the table even tighter to steady herself.

“I’m not hungry, Sary. I can’t really say what’s going on, because if I knew what the hell was going on, maybe I would be okay. But I’m not, so there!” Shade sighed at her own childish rant and stood up. Her balance swayed, but she caught herself before falling.

Sary’s lips were pressed in a thin line as she watched her cross the room. Shade barely reached her room before needing to stop for a breather. She held the stone wall for support as her senses attempted to equalize. Hot tears were pouring out, streaming down her cheeks as she thought about Dylan leaving. She’d told Soap to leave after she’d realized Dylan wasn’t coming back. She’d bawled her eyes out until she couldn’t anymore. Shade had barely made it to dinner, and only under Sary’s insistence did she drag herself to the dining hall.

There she had sulked in her chair for a while before drowning her sorrows in the wine. Her stomach was twisting into a knot now. She hadn’t even drunk much, but the lack of food was probably a very bad thing to mix in. Shade fumbled with her doorknob and entered her room. She thought of Ursad’s concerned eyes from his table at dinner. He looked like he was going to head over to her when she’d shaken her head toward him, warning him not to. He remained in his seat but not without looking distracted and quite upset. Soap had kept his distance, too, aware of her mood.

Shade flopped onto the bed and stared out the massive windows. The light of day was fading again into brilliant purples and reds, giving the clouds an almost ripped appearance across the sky. She buried her head in the pillows as she pulled the covers around herself. She felt like sinking into the bed and never arising.

Shade felt overwhelmed by the feelings flowing through her. She’d messed it up for her and Dylan. She liked Soap, but it wasn’t the same. How could she fix this? How could she atone for the pain she’d obviously caused Dylan? Rubbing her face, she groaned. She had no idea how to fix anything. She had so much to do, and all that’d been accomplished was to lose someone she cared for. She couldn’t even tell him now how she felt about him. She watched the sun bleed away into the dusk and prayed Dylan would come back eventually. She guessed he would probably have to, especially with the blood bind still in place.

The shock of her sudden and intense feelings for Dylan disarmed her. Hot, plump tears welled up in her eyes and spilled over her reddened cheeks. She rubbed her face on the soft pillows, hugging them tighter as the sobs overwhelmed her. Her body shuddered with the effort as she let the crying run its course. The honey wine’s sleepy effects were now working on her, but she fought it, sitting up in the bed and staring out the windows again. She wanted to go home badly. That very instant, in fact.

Shaking the thought out of her head, she decided against asking Camulus for a quick teleport ride back home. She was not sober at all and didn’t want her mother or siblings to see her intoxicated. James and Alice, the two youngest, were impressionable, and Benton, who was one year younger than her, was not so easily fooled. He had relentlessly questioned her when she’d returned from the last trip through Faerie until she made a point to avoid him completely. Dylan’s presence had only heightened his endless suspicion.

Shade wondered if her brother knew anything about Faerie and her abilities. She didn’t really like to confide in him. They were not close in any sense of the word. Sometimes she wondered if that was her fault. She had always busied herself with school and hanging out with her friend Brisa, she hardly noticed what Benton was up to, even more so now that Dylan had come into the picture.

Benton had been particularly suspicious of Dylan from the get go. Benton had eyed Dylan from head to toe without discretion when she’d introduced him to her family. Benton’s frown had made it obvious he didn’t like competition as man of the house and disapproved of the arrangement immensely. He then proceeded to avoid Dylan like the plague, and mostly retreated to his room, blasting the music as loud as he could get away with.

Now Shade wished she were back at home with Benton’s familiar gloominess to look forward to. She sighed, stretching her arms and legs as she lay back on the bed. She needed to talk to someone who wasn’t fey. Like Brisa, who would know something about guys. Maybe Benton might have some male insight on what she should do about Dylan and Soap. She wondered if Benton would like Soap any better. Squeezing her eyes shut and rubbing her face, she had to admit, she really didn’t think so. Benton was very protective of the family, and any outside male threat to them was anything but welcomed.

Shade shifted on the bed again, feeling the restlessness crawling under her skin. She nodded to herself, finally making up her mind. I’ll go home once I sober up. Only then could she sort things out and think straight. But first, she still had to find Draden and get him to talk more about her father. She suspected Draden knew far more than he let on, and now was as good a time as any to start following her intuition.

She quickly stood up but immediately sank back down onto the fluffy bed as she groaned. The room was still tilting from her over eagerness with the alcohol. She flung herself back onto the pillows. She would’ve to wait out the ill effects of the sweet faery drink before attempting to walk out of the palace. Shade curled up on the silken cloud of pillows and sheets, letting herself drift off into sleep.

 

 

 

Chapter Ten

 

 

 

 

The morning had Shade wide-awake with the sunrise. She lingered in the main entryway staircase of the palace which everyone had to eventually pass through to get to the dining hall. She was sitting on the bottom step of the grand staircase, impatiently tapping her foot over and over. She watched as guards, servants, and decorated warriors treaded past her, never giving her a second glance. None of them were Draden or his brother Andraste, and the twin’s failure to appear made Shade want to pull her hair out. How could they have been so close, and she’d failed to ask them the most important question she had. After about an hour, she felt like throwing in the towel and retreated to the dining hall to get breakfast.

Her stomach was much better this morning. The world no longer swayed, tilted, or made her stomach lurch. She was relieved to avoid a hangover, especially since she had decided to travel back home today. Spotting Sary, she slumped into the empty chair next to her. Stephen occupied the chair on the other side of Sary. He leaned forward, giving her a questioning eyebrow lift.

“What?” Shade’s dark mood had yet to go away.

Stephen grinned and shrugged. “Nothing, Shade. How are we this fine and beautiful day? Going somewhere?” He eyed her pack as she pulled it off and tucked it under the table.

“Yes, I’m going home after we eat. Has anyone seen Draden? I have to ask him something.” She loaded her plate up with fruits, pancakes, and syrup. She was famished after missing almost a whole day of nourishment due to her overwhelming, self-imposed depression.

“Home? But we aren’t scheduled to return until tomorrow,” Sary responded. “Today, Stephen and Than will finish organizing the troops to take with us to Guildrin that Prince Lotinar has so generously provided for Queen Zinara’s disposal. What’s going on?” Sary said as her eyes narrowed in on Shade, waiting for an answer. “Does this have anything to do with Dylan’s departure?”

Shade dropped her fork suddenly, its clang ringing against the floor as she pressed her lips together tightly. She glared back at Sary, not appreciating her friend’s inquisitiveness.

“No, I just need to go home. I can’t stand it here in Faerie anymore. I really don’t think this is the place for me. I’m not a Queen. I’m not anything like that. I just want to ask Draden if my father had any other family I can contact and be done with it.” She grabbed a fork from the empty setting beside hers and shoved a piece of pancake into her mouth.

Sary and Stephen glanced at each other before they resumed eating their breakfast. Shade had grown weary of anyone’s company and itched to get out of the palace as soon as possible. If she couldn’t find Draden, then she would just go home without speaking to him. She was feeling suffocated in Faerie.

Shade glanced around to find Ursad heading her way. He tapped her shoulder as he passed, motioning for her to follow. Shade scooped her pack up and scurried behind him, glad to have an excuse to leave the table. She followed quietly behind him until they had reached the other side of the great staircase. He waved her toward a room down another hall and clicked the door closed behind them after entering. Slowly, he turned and smiled at her, his eyes gleaming.

“I had to get you in private to give you this. Draden told me to give it to you and you alone.” Ursad pulled out a letter from his pocket. It was sealed with a wax imprint and rolled up like an ancient scroll. Shade plucked it from his hand and stared at it. She ran her finger under the edge of the paper, breaking the seal, and unrolled the thin, tissue-like paper.

 

Shade,

I feel our words were too brief yesterday, and I still have much more to tell you about your father. The battles are growing more intense as we speak, so I’ve had to leave to tend to such matters. I do however wish to let you know that your grandmother, your father’s mother and the old ruler of the Southern Realm, is indeed still alive. She was imprisoned and exiled by Aveta when the Queen found out just how difficult it would be to kill her. I have sent Andraste to find the exact location of exile for you. When he finds it, he has instructions to come get you at your human dwelling with Camulus and some of your friends, for protection, and to take you to there. Her name is Lana. I hope you have a good journey.

-Draden

 

Shade reread the note several times before looking up at Ursad, who patiently waited to see if she would let on what it said. She gulped and folded the note, stuffing it into her pocket. She was feeling elated. She was going to see her grandmother! Excitement burst in her chest and made her want to twirl and dance around the room. She smiled at Ursad and laughed out loud.

“Draden is helping me find my grandmother, Ursad! I can’t believe it! I’m actually going to meet a fey relative! I have so much to ask her, I don’t even know what to say to her. What should I say to her? What if she doesn’t like me? What if….”

Ursad held up his hands, interrupting her sudden outburst. “Shade, hold on. Don’t start having a panic attack. I’m sure she will be thrilled to meet you, too. I’m really happy for you.” He hugged her and smiled back.

Shade felt like she was going to jump out of her skin. She had to head back home now to wait for Andraste and Camulus to return with her grandmother’s location. She felt a sudden urge to leave immediately.

“I have to go, Ursad. I have to go home first and then wait for them. Can Camulus take me back right now? Where is he?”

Ursad’s grin wavered. He was happy for her, but his face fell and betrayed the sadness he felt at her words.

“Leave already? But you just got here, Shade. I really wanted to spend some more time with you before you had to go. Can’t you stay a bit longer? I doubt Andraste has found her yet.” He studied her face as it changed from excited to slightly annoyed.

“Ursad, I have to go. I can’t stay here and wait. I’m sorry if you wanted to hang out a bit longer, but I just can’t. I feel like the land of Faerie is pressing down on me, and I can’t breathe. You do understand that, right?” She watched him slowly nod, his face remaining glum. She sighed and grabbed the doorknob, waiting for the answer to her question.

“Of course, I do, Shade.”

“Do you know where Camulus might be?” Ursad nodded and waved her out the door. They exited and walked silently down the hall. She followed him through the palace until they reached a large conference room with the doors standing wide open. Inside, several guards and warriors stood around a large wooden table occupied by dozens of maps. Camulus, who was staring down at one map, looked up at them as they entered the room. Ursad motioned to him quickly and Camulus nodded, straightened, and walked toward them.

“Your Majesty. Hello, Shade.” He bowed before the Prince and nodded to Shade. “Ready to go home?” He looked at her pensively, narrowing his fiery orange eyes, trying to read her thoughts.

“More than ready. Thanks for the ride, Camulus.” She smiled, feeling optimistic for the first time in so long.

He nodded, smiling as he held out his hand toward her. Shade reached out, but before she could envelope her hand in his, a loud boom rang through the castle, followed by another and another.

“What was that?” Shade asked, swinging around and watching the others gather around the grand windows to peer outside.

“Your Majesty! A group of Aveta’s soldiers are attacking the East Gate! They have already shattered the wall and infiltrated the grounds!”

Ursad nodded at the guard, giving him quick directions for countering. Shade stood bewildered and wondered what she should do. She gulped as she glanced out the windows, which happen to face the East Gate, watching the smoke and dirt puff up into a cloud around it.

“Shade, stay here. Sary and Stephen said they were going to make the rounds with the guards on that side of the castle grounds. I will go and make sure they are all right.” Camulus nodded toward her, but before he could leave, Shade grabbed his arm.

“I’m coming with you. No ifs, ands or buts about it. They’re my friends, and they might need me.”

Camulus shook his head, frowning at her persistence. “Very well, Shade, but do try to stay out of the way. They aren’t here to play.” He grasped her hand from his arm as the air around them swirled and shivered. A moment later, they stood staring at the chaos in the yard behind the East Gate.

Guards had just managed to filter in and were clanging their swords and shields against Aveta’s Unseelie soldiers. They whipped around as if dancing with Ursad’s defenders. Shields flashed as they struggled, slamming into each other’s ranks with such force to send some flying onto their backs.

Shade’s eyes widened in terror, but she quickly composed herself, scanning the crowd for her friends. She spotted Sary’s fiery, red mane of hair and dashed toward her, yanking her sword from her pack as she readied herself.

“Sary!” Shade jumped at a soldier who was barreling toward her friend with a huge axe, swinging his arm back in a wide arc. Shade gripped her sword, propelling it forward in a sideswiping arc, slicing the soldier’s abdomen before he could rebound. He dropped the axe in a howl of pain and turned toward her. He grinned under the oxidized metal helmet which framed his face, his teeth flashing at her as she stepped forward again to deliver another blow.

Dodging her aim, he laughed, spitting on the floor before her and pulling out a long dagger from his belt. “That wasn’t very ladylike, girl,” he hissed at her, his eyes wild and crazed behind the nose guard of the helmet. How he can possibly see well with that hunk of junk on his head is beyond me, thought Shade. She sucked in a breath before plunging forward, faking a left swing in favor of a forward jab. Her blade met its mark, sinking into his upper abdomen, making him spew red blood from his mouth.

Gurgling, he dropped his dagger, obviously having underestimated her from the surprised look in his eyes. She stepped in front of him as he sank to his knees, giving him a push with her foot. He fell to the ground as his breath escaped him.

Shade turned toward Sary, hoping the distraction had not taken too long to help her.

“Stephen!” Sary’s voice echoed in the mass of grunts and screams, making Shade rush toward her wailing. Other soldiers blocked her path, and she took them down with less difficulty than the first, finally reaching Sary as more of Ursad’s soldiers filled the area, beating back the last few Unseelie soldiers. She heard Sary’s whimper as she came upon her, finding her bent over Stephen’s splayed body.

“Sary! Oh no, what happened?” Shade knelt down to see blood gurgling from a stab wound in the left side of Stephen’s chest. It spewed like a fountain. Crimson blood was staining his clothes along with Sary’s hands and arms as she pressed down on the wound. His mouth dripped with trails of red as he choked on the fluid.

“Crap! They got his lung, probably his heart, too! Sary, can you heal him?” Shade looked back up at the Warrior Princess, whose own face had paled from the power she‘d already shunted into Stephen. “Sary?” Shade asked as she fumbled through her pack, yanking out a towel for his wound and a healing potion Braelynn had given her for any injuries.

Sary’s silence, along with Stephen’s sudden stillness, stopped Shade. She looked up from her pack and dropped it, peering over at Stephen. His eyes stared blankly up at the sky above, glazing over into a distant stare. His gurgling had stopped, and his body was still. There was not even any movement to show his breath. Shade grabbed him, shaking his shoulders and yelling his name. Sary fell over his body, wailing in a deafening cry, which made Shade want to run far away, into the forest, and never look back.

Shade grabbed the potion, dumping some into his mouth and directing him to swallow. His still face made her want to scream at him. Her despair raged through her into anger as the flood of tears spilled down her cheeks, splashing onto his face.

“No, Stephen, no! Swallow the potion. Please, you can’t die! No!” Shade’s sobs echoed Sary’s as they both shook with grief. The battle was over, and the last Unseelie soldiers were shackled and shuffled away in iron chains. Shade tried to breathe in an effort to calm herself as she took in the scene. Bodies lay strewn across the grounds, blood staining the emerald grasses into dark, rusty-red smears. The gate was now being mended, and no more soldiers came through.

Why would she send such a small group instead of a battalion to a castle? What is Aveta doing? Shade thought. It doesn’t make sense at all.

Sary’s screams had turned into quieter sobs as she gripped Stephen’s body. His facial tattoos stood out dark and stark against his now sallow skin. Shade breathed in hard as she stood up, giving Sary some privacy. Her whole body shook as she stood, feeling lost and confused.

“Shade, let’s go inside. Ursad’s people will help Sary.” Soap had made it out for the last part of the battle. Blood streaked his shirt and hands, but none seemed to be from him. At least, not from any wound Shade could see.

“I have to help Sary,” her voice quivered out quietly as she shook her head, still in shock.

“It’s okay, Shade. They got her. They will help her with Stephen. Don’t worry. You’re in shock too, and you need to rest now. Come on.” Soap’s voice gently coaxed her along, until he just gave up and picked her up. He carried her into the safety of the castle, her sobs quieting down to a whimper.

Inside the castle, he returned her to her room, instructing her to drink some water and clean up. He waited as she entered the bathroom, stripping off her blood-soaked clothes. They came off sticky and cold, making her want to throw them away. She stepped into the warm shower and let the water rinse Stephen’s dark blood away. She must have stood there for a long time until Soap’s banging on the door pulled her back from her catatonic stare.

Finishing in the bathroom, she slipped on a fresh pair of jeans and a dark blue T-shirt. She opened the door of the bathroom to find Soap waiting patiently on one of the chairs. He was still in his blood-streaked garments but looked relieved to see her emerge. He held her pack, retrieved from the battle. He stood up and came to her, pushing her loose, wet strands of hair from her face.

“How is Sary?” Shade felt a pain shoot through her chest at the mention of her friend. Sary had lost her one and only mate. Shade could bet Sary was still with Stephen’s body, probably quite reluctant to let go.

“She’s quite in shock. Hysterical at times, but she won’t leave Stephen. Quite understandable. I think it might take days before she emerges from it.” He sighed as he rubbed his head. Soap glanced back at her and gave her a weak smile and hugged her as the tears threatened to pour out again.

“It’s okay, Shade. It was a surprise attack. There’s nothing we could’ve done. It’s alright.” He stroked her hair as she cried into his shirt, leaving wet spots scattered across the front. She pulled away after a while and nodded at him. She wanted to go home now more than ever.

“I need to get out of here, Soap. I need to go home.”

He nodded back to her, shushing her quietly. “I’ll get Camulus. Get all your stuff together. You’ll feel better at home.” He tried to mask reluctance in his voice at seeing her go, but Shade barely registered it. She nodded back to him, turning to get her pack together.

Camulus entered her room soon after Soap returned. The Elven-Pixie’s face remained as blank as it could be. He gave her a nod, holding his hand out toward her again. She cracked a weak grin at him, relieved he had come so fast.

“Soap?” Shade paused, turning back toward the Changeling Teleen warrior.

“Yes, Shade?” Soap looked up at her expectantly.

“Please tell Sary I’m sorry.” She sighed as she walked closer to Camulus.

“I will. I’m sure she knows it.” Soap smiled at her, sadness remaining in his stormy, green eyes. Shade turned back toward Camulus, taking his soft, green hands in hers, and let the jaunt take her away. She only wished it would take away the pain Sary felt right now.

 

 

 

Chapter Eleven

 

 

 

 

The days went by without any word from Andraste or Dylan. Shade hadn’t realized how excruciating the hours would feel as they ticked by, painstakingly slow. At least, when Dylan had been around, she could bug him about anything, and she was never alone. But now, with Brisa away at college, the house was so uncharacteristically silent, it bore into her like an asylum for a crazy person. She missed Sary and hoped that her friend would be okay.

Shade spent the days sitting on the back porch staring off into the woods, hoping she might catch a glimpse of Dylan’s jet-black hair or a wisp of blue fire hovering in the darkened forest. Nothing came, and no one showed up to take her to her grandmother. It seemed finding her was going to prove harder than she’d hoped. Shade was starting to doubt they would even find her at all now.

She also doubted that Dylan was ever going to return, even with the blood bind in place. She found herself filling her own head with morbid thoughts. What if Dylan had found a way to break the bond? Would I even know he did it? Then he would never return for sure. What scared her even more was what he would say if he did return. Would he still love her, or would he turn away from her, cold as ice? She found she didn’t really want to find out.

What of the Teleen suitors from the caverns? Shade knew from what Dylan had told her that sooner or later, some of the males would come after her and bid for her hand. She cringed at the thought. There wasn’t anyone but Dylan or Soap she would choose. She hoped the Teleen suitors would never come. The drama of it all would be far too much to deal with right now. Supposedly, they wouldn’t leave her alone until she chose a mate. That was something she really didn’t want to do or even think about.

One evening, Shade sat on the porch watching the sun sink over the horizon. Its brilliant orange-reds warmed her face in the cool evening. Shade had Dylan’s blanket around her shoulders. Keeping it close comforted her, making it seem like Dylan was not so far away. She supposed he was still pretty angry. She didn’t blame him at all. Soap was probably upset, too. She couldn’t make anyone happy, no matter what she did. She liked both of them and was fairly sure they both liked her back, even though at the moment, she didn’t feel worthy of either one of them. She’d have to think up a way to repair the damage she’d done.

“What are you waiting for?” Benton’s voice startled her out of her reverie. Shade turned and stared up at her brother. She rolled her eyes and resumed staring at the sunset’s streaks across the horizon.

“Nothing.”

Benton sat down next to her and handed her a can of coke. He was loudly slurping his own can and paid no attention to her as she glared back. His invasion of her space was something she didn’t tolerate.

“What do you want?” Shade grumbled as she opened her soda without thanking him and chugged down a swallow.

“Most people say thank you, you know. I’m just wondering what it is you’re waiting for out here every freakin’ day. The sunset doesn’t change that much.” He spit out a sunflower seed that he had been chewing on, dumping a few more in his mouth as he waited for her to answer.

“None of your business,” Shade sighed. She knew she should attempt to get along better with Benton, but his paranoid, nosy ways drove her insane. She continued to sit in silence, listening to him crunch on the husks.

“Alright, fine. Don’t tell me. I knew something’s been going on with you since right before graduation. I’m not stupid, you know. I know it has something to do with that Dylan guy, too. I swear there is something not normal ‘bout him, and I’m going to figure out what it is. Where is he anyways? He finally decided to go back to his family?” Benton turned and watched her. His dark eyes studied his sister. He wished she didn’t keep so many secrets from him. Since their dad died, he had assumed the role of “man of the house,” which put Shade off, but their sister Anna and brother James didn’t seem to mind it at all. Since Dylan had been living with them, Benton had felt pushed aside. Benton was seventeen and graduating this coming year. He was somewhat relieved to see that Dylan hadn’t been around much lately.

Shade sighed. She wished she could confide in her brother, but being part fey wasn’t exactly going to sound logical to a regular kid. She’d contemplated telling Benton but hadn’t found a good way of explaining anything about her powers without sounding crazy. She hoped he wouldn’t ever find out.

“No, he’s just visiting them. He’ll be back soon. Nothing is going on, all right? Just stay out of my business, okay?” She watched the sun disappear as dusk began to grow. She thought she saw a light within the line of the trees which bordered their backyard, but the longer she stared at the spot, the more she suspected it was just her eyes playing tricks on her.

Right before she was about to jump up and retreat into the house, she saw it again. A blue fire flashed in the woods. She sucked her breath in, hoping it would be Soap and Andraste showing up to take her to her grandmother. She turned to look at Benton as he suddenly stood up and also stared out toward the forest.

“What was that?” Benton exclaimed. “Did you see that? I thought I just saw some kind of blue light or fire, but… it’s gone now. Did you see that, too, Shade?” Benton looked at her and then turned back to the woods as three faeries stepped out from the trees and walked toward them.

Oh, crap! Benton isn’t supposed to see them!

“Benton, go inside and stay there. I’ll see what they want.” Shade stood up and started to head down the steps when he grabbed her arm. “Benton, let me go!” She stopped, noticing his widened eyes.

“They aren’t human, Shade. They—I don’t know what the hell they are, but….” He gulped, a slight wisp of fear crept into his eyes as he stared at the faeries.

Shade turned and looked at them, too. She saw Camulus wrapping his glamour around him like a shimmer in the grass. Soap and Andraste followed suit, apparently aware she wasn’t alone. She placed a hand on Benton’s and pried it loose from her arm.

“It’s okay, Benton, I know them. Chill out, all right? I said I’d take care of it. We can talk about this later.” Benton turned to her, nodding and letting her go, but not looking completely convinced.

“If they try anything, I’ll kill them.”

Shade sighed, “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure they don’t.” She headed off to meet them before they got any closer.

“Shade, we found her! Your grandmother’s alive!” Soap’s smile warmed her saddened heart; she was relieved to see he wasn’t upset with her, at least not right now. He came to a stop in front of her, holding out his arms for an embrace. Shade smiled. Why not? She fell into him, feeling her heart flip with joy.

A moment later, he stepped back from her, serious now as he nodded in the direction of the house. “Looks like we caught you at a bad time. Need me to erase his memory?” Soap flashed a mischievous smile.

“No! That’s my brother, Benton. I don’t think you should. I’ll explain it to him later….”

A flash of orange-red fire flew near them, singeing the grass and landing before it hit Camulus and Andraste. The two warriors immediately unsheathed swords and stood ready to pounce on any offenders. Shade turned toward the source of the fireballs and quickly ran in front of them.

“Wait, stop, that’s my brother! Benton, what the heck are you doing?” She stared at her brother, whose hands were lit up with yellow flames which licked the air around him. He held another fireball, ready to be thrown.

How is he doing that?

“Shade, get back here! I told you they aren’t human! Get away from my sister, you beasts!” Benton started walking toward them as Shade pondered what to do.

“Wait, Benton! Stop! Please, they aren’t here to hurt us, they’re helping me! Please stop already!” Shade ran up to him and stood firmly in his way. He turned his dark brown eyes toward her, confusion swimming all across them. She shook her head as he frowned, giving her a nod as he extinguished his fire.

“Thank you! Now, care to tell me what that was about? You can wield fire? How did you do that?” She waited and studied his firm expression. How could she have not known? If he was fey, why hadn’t she realized it before? Did he know about her?

“I—I don’t know. I just found out I could manipulate fire about a year ago. I’m not sure why or how, but I can. I’ve gotten really good at it, too.” Benton pressed his lips together. “I’m sorry, Shade. I just thought they didn’t seem to be very friendly.”

She continued staring at him, waiting to see if he had any further explanation. She realized this was probably as good a moment as any to come clean with him about her own powers.

“I have powers, too, Benton. If I had known about yours, I would’ve told you sooner.” She watched as his eyes widened with surprise.

Yeah, I need to have a good, long chat with him for sure.

“What? You do? What kind of powers?” His eyes glistened with curiosity but darkened slightly as he glanced nervously back at the three warriors.

“I’m part faery,” Shade said. “I’m not exactly sure of all I can do, but what I do know is that I can tolerate a Teleen faery’s blue-fiery skin without burning. I can speak to my spirit guides in dreams, and I somehow trapped one Teleen warrior who tried to kill me in his own mirror magic. I can wield water, control it, and make it do what I want. Not sure how I do it, but it’s all because I’m part faery.” She paused and wondered if they could possibly be full siblings. If they were, Ilarial’s story didn’t add up.

“Wow, Shade. I thought I was the only one who was different. All I can do is manipulate fire, though. It doesn’t burn me at all. Is that what they are? Teleen faeries?” He nodded toward the others, who waited patiently a few feet away.

Shade smiled and turned back to her friends. They had not moved from their spots but had re-sheathed their weapons.

“This is Camulus, Soap, and Andraste. They are also fey, but Camulus is Elven-Pixie, Soap is part Teleen and part Changeling, and Andraste, um, not sure what you are Andraste, what exact sort of fey are you?” She smiled nervously at the husky blonde soldier. He smirked back, looking so much like his twin Draden in both looks and mannerisms. She almost thought she was looking at the commander, who was far away at the glass castle of Prince Lotinar, organizing legions of soldiers to wage war against Queen Aveta.

“ I’m from the northern tribes of Drisen. Predominantly woodland- and ocean-dwelling fey, and partly descended from the great Vikings of the North,” Andraste said as he winked at her and rubbed his scruffy blond-red beard. Shade did think he looked quite a bit like a Viking, now that he mentioned it: big boned, strong and Thor-like. He and his brother were not the kind of guys you would want to mess with. She remembered having to trick them at the Santiran Fountains. She’d been so petrified about having to lie while Dylan cornered them. Draden had even cut her with his sword to get her to reveal herself. Only her mysterious Changeling Blood Magic had stopped him from doing any more harm, enchanting him and causing him to give up the fight.

“Oh, okay.” Shade grinned as she returned her attention to her brother. “Well, Benton, there are many different kinds of fey which I’ve met in the land of Faerie. I just didn’t know you might be one, too. I would’ve told you sooner, but I didn’t know.” Seeing his relief made her feel much better. Somehow she knew things would be different between them from now on. Even so, something was bothering her.

“One of the Faerie Oracles, Ilarial, told me my real father was a faery changeling and that mom doesn’t know I have a different father than you, Anna and James. If that’s right, how is it you have powers, too?” Shade inquired.

“He is a Fire Wielder,” Camulus stated more than suggested. “Your mother must also have some special powers of her own. Most likely a human fire witch.” Camulus watched her with his orange-red eyes, his face serious and still.

“What, Mom? I thought she didn’t have any powers,” Shade answered. “She certainly hasn’t shown any. Are you sure, Camulus?” Shade was beginning to wonder if anything about their lives had ever been true. Her face was frozen in shock, and her eyes moved slowly to look at her brother, whose disbelief danced across his own eyes back at her. For what felt like an eternity, they digested the new information.

“But why would she hide her powers from us?” Shade asked as she felt her stomach twist, wanting to know what it all meant but getting nowhere fast.

“Maybe someone placed a spell on her, a memory charm which caused her to forget. It could be in effect temporarily or forever. She might not even know anything about her powers anymore,” Soap offered as he watched Shade with his gleaming, jeweled green eyes. Even now, the pull they emitted made Shade force herself to avert her own eyes to the ground. If anyone could cast such a spell, Soap was the one to ask.

“But can it be removed? Would she remember then?” Shade’s thoughts went to her mother. Such a normal and hard-working woman. How could her mother have magic swirling in her veins and remain oblivious to it? Mom seemed almost boring and mundane compared to the likes of Evangeline, the only other fire witch she’d ever encountered. Vange had been fighting with Jack for some stolen artifact she’d lifted from the Guildrin Court. She had disappeared just as quickly as she’d appeared. Her powers were so strong, they could cause a building to shake with her sonic booms. Shade wondered just how powerful Mom might be.

Shade finally blinked back to the present. Staring at Camulus, she searched for treachery but remembered that he could not lie. Breathing in deeply, she figured they could always have a long chat with her mother later. She definitely still wanted to go see her faery grandmother.

“Okay, well, this is just insane. We have to go now. I have to see my grandmother, and she could probably answer so much for me.” Shade turned back to Benton as his face contorted in confusion.

“Going? Going where?” Benton asked. “With these guys? No way. Not without me, at least.” Benton crossed his arms and stiffened as she started back toward the house for her pack. She stopped and stared at her brother. He was annoying her to the max. How would she get rid of him now?

“You can’t come, Benton.” Her voice came out stern, hoping that he would see how serious she was.

“Well, I’m coming. I don’t care what you say. Where are you going, anyway? Wherever it is, I don’t think it’s smart to go by yourself. Especially with three burly-looking faery guys! What if they mess with your mind, or worse, kill you or whatever the hell they tend to do with people? No, I’m coming, so get used to the idea!” He waited, staring at her with his dark eyes. He was as stubborn as brothers got.

Shade glared right back at him but finally sighed, shaking her head and letting out a frustrated grunt. “Fine, but stay out of my way and don’t wander off. Don’t touch anything, either, or speak to anyone but us. Faerie is full of crazy things, and some things you wouldn’t believe. Stay in the group, okay? Otherwise, Camulus can drop off your butt right back here in a flash!” Shade snapped her fingers in his face and huffed away into the house, leaving Benton smirking back at her, satisfied that he had won. He turned back toward the warriors, sizing them up again before heading into the house.

 

 

Chapter Twelve

 

 

 

“Hold my hand, Benton.”

Shade held her palm out to her younger brother, waiting as he made a face at it but did as she said. His eyes danced with excitement and gave away his real thoughts about the trip. He was secretly wondering if this grandmother Shade was so eager to meet might be his grandmother, too. They had never met any grandparents. It had always been just them with Mom and Dad, at least until Dad had died. Now it was just their Mom left. Meeting a relative would be quite interesting.

He held his sister’s hand and Camulus’s. The strange-looking surfer dude glamour he wore made Benton cringe. The Elven-Pixie’s hand was unnaturally smooth and warm. Benton hoped he wouldn’t have to touch the faery too much longer. Benton could feel a strange magic inside this unusual being tingle across their grasp. A feeling like ants crawling up his arm. He gulped and waited as the whole group gripped each other’s arms or hands. Camulus voiced a warning right before they went swirling away in a wind-whipping, stomach-churning jaunt.

Not a moment later, they stood in a completely different scene. They were near the edge of a thick redwood forest bordering a grassy green clearing that swooped up a steep hill. Atop the hill stood a large farmhouse, standing like a queen of a throne on the edge of the hillside. Benton let his hand fall away from the faery’s disturbing grip and rubbed it. The tingle faded as his own magic flowed over it like a seal. It was definitely a feeling he didn’t like.

Shade grinned. “Is that it, the house up there? Wow, it’s such a serene-looking place. Why didn’t you just teleport us to the entrance? Now we have to hike up that steep slope.” She bit her lip to stop the usual, endless torrent of questions which seemed to flow out of her. She knew she could annoy anyone with her twenty questions and tried to stop before someone rolled their eyes at her.

“Oh, Sis, can’t shut up for second, can you? What, afraid of a little hike?” Benton smirked at her and proceeded to roll his eyes, knowing it would piss her off.

Camulus sighed, pointing up toward the hill. “I can’t get any closer. There’s a magical shield in place. It’s the same thing that keeps your grandmother confined to the area. This is her prison. We can walk in, but no magic can penetrate it, so teleporting into it is out of the question. Since it is meant for her specifically, we will be allowed to come and go as we please, but without magic to aid us across the shield.” He began to walk up the edge of the tree-lined slope, and the others followed quietly.

As they crossed the shield, Shade felt the air fill with a vibration which floated around them and swam along her skin. It felt familiar and powerful, making her feel safe as they neared the top of the slope. She wondered if it was her grandmother’s essence making her feel so serene. Since she had entered Faerie in the spring, her ability to sense magic had heightened to the point she could feel magic emanating from all her faery friends, like auras bleeding onto her own. Some felt stronger than others, but they all felt unique and amazing.

At the top of the hill, they gathered together and took in the majestic view. The house had two stories with worn down, peeling white paint on the weather-beaten exterior. The shutters were no longer the baby blue they had once been. Flowing sheer curtains with dainty, faded daisies on each of them covered every window for privacy. It could’ve been a farmhouse from the Midwest planted in the middle of a desolate, forested slope. Shade wondered how it didn’t just slip off the edge of the hill to its bitter end at the bottom of the cliff. Maybe some kind of magic was at play here. She couldn’t be more eager to find out.

The front door swung open and slammed hard against the wooden sides. A big and husky man with bulging muscles and a warrior’s getup engulfed the doorway with his bulk. He stared out with silver-glinted eyes and silver-streaked white hair. His deathly white, pale skin looked sickly compared to their human-colored appearance, which they had remained glamoured with. Shade gulped and stepped back, right into Benton and Soap, who stood frozen behind her.

“You are trespassing. You will die if you do not leave. Do not come any farther. You will be destroyed,” his robotic voice growled over to them, making them gasp. The ghostly warrior stepped forward, holding up a massive sword in his thick fist, narrowing his eyes as he scanned the five of them.

“Wait, Queen Lana, Your Majesty of the great Southern Realms. We have been looking for you, and we mean you no harm. Pardon our disturbance of your peaceful exile. “Please,” Andraste said as he waved his hand, pointing toward Shade and Benton, hoping to deter any drastic actions from the great, pale warrior. “Your son’s only daughter, Shade, is here to see you.”

“My son has no daughters. He is dead. How dare you speak of him? You are nothing but the scum of Faerie!” A disembodied women’s voice echoed along the ghost warrior’s deep baritone. Shade could feel the air thicken around her and grabbed Soap’s arm, letting him embrace her in his, offering her reassurance.

“Shade, speak to her. Kin will recognize kin. Your voice will tell her who you are,” Soap whispered down to her. Shade looked up at him. His handsome face deepened the calm and warmth he radiated over her fear. Reluctantly, she realized it was the only thing to do. She pulled away and stepped toward the ghost-like man.

“Your Majesty. I am Shade. I was told you’re my father’s mother. Please, I just found out recently he was my real father. I’ve come here for your help. I need your help to harness my magic.” She stepped forward as she spoke, moving closer to the ghastly warrior. His sword seemed to waver as she came closer to him. She hoped he wouldn’t swipe it at her.

The apparition seemed to buzz and disappeared with a quiver of smoke. In its place, a beautiful older woman with bright, silver-white hair down past her waist appeared. Intensity flowed from her eyes as she took in Shade, sizing her up and studying her like a specimen under a microscope. Shade felt the prickle of her magic poking at her as they came to stand face to face. The frown on the woman’s face seemed to take forever to melt away, but her lips gradually upturned into the brilliance of a smile Shade saw in her own reflection every day.

“Shade? I can hardly believe my eyes, it really is you. I can feel our blood calling toward each other! You are truly my son’s daughter!” The woman’s eyes lit up and danced with happiness. She reached out to touch Shade on her cheek, her power flowing across her fingers, almost zapping at Shade. Shade flinched back, wide-eyed. What was that?

“Oh, excuse me! I’ll tone it down for you! It’s just….” Lana paused as she smiled at Shade. Though she was shaking her head in disbelief, she continued to smile. She grasped Shade’s hands, her touch now lacking the zap which had hit Shade before. “I knew you would come one day. I foresaw it. I called you here. You heard me, didn’t you? I tried to find you for so long. I sent out whispers in your dreams to bring you here. You found me, Shade. Just like I knew you would.” She hugged Shade so hard that her breath escaped her chest. The Faerie Queen’s aura felt exhilarating and danced along her skin like tiny swirling sparks. Their magic agreed well, making Shade smile, and caused a feeling to stir within her almost like being home for the first time in ages.

Lana pulled back and held her out at arm’s length, studying her even more. She finally let her go and scanned the rest of them. She stopped at Benton and Soap, observing them just a bit longer than Camulus and Andraste. Shade wondered if her grandmother could answer Benton’s question of paternity. She gulped, sucking in a deep breath as she built up her courage to ask.

“Queen Lana?” asked Shade.

“Just call me Lana, please. I have not been Queen in so long, I feel unfit for the title.”

Shade grinned, her nervousness still swirling in her chest. “My brother here, Benton, would also like to know if Verenis is his father. He possesses magic, too, and we wondered….”

“No. He is not of my line though he is your brother in blood,” Lana interrupted as she walked forward and reached out to Benton, pausing first for his permission. Benton glanced back at Shade, who gave him a slight nod to proceed. He looked back at the Queen and let her approach him. She touched his face with a gentle stroke, tasting the magic that filled him.

“No. He is definitely not of the same father. Human blood flows in his veins, but no fey. Fire Magic runs wild inside him. Your mother is, perhaps, a fire witch?” She smiled at him, not really expecting an answer as she brought her hand down. “A very powerful fire witch at that.” She studied his face intently. A far off look shone in her eyes before turning back to Shade.

“Sorry about the precautions. I don’t really get visitors out here. Nothing personal.” Lana’s face stilled as she studied Shade’. A flicker of something flashed across her very brown eyes. As it passed, she smiled at her once again. Slight wrinkles framed her eyes and mouth, betraying her age. Shade could feel her power, so strong, like a thick mist surrounding them. Yet her grandmother’s eyes looked almost too human, not an extraordinary fey color she’d noted in her friends. It was the same brown color that dwelled in her own eyes. The realization her grandmother was not a full faery surprised her more than she thought it would. It hadn’t occurred to her at all. Her list of questions grew tenfold as they continued to look at each other.

“I suppose you have a million questions for me, Shade.” Lana took a deep breath as she motioned them toward the house. “Might as well come in and make yourselves at home.” She headed up the stairs and into the farmhouse with everyone following in her wake.

They shuffled into the house where the living room was cozy, to say the least. Soft floral couches lined one of the wainscoted walls. Worn and smooth wooden tables hugged the sides of the couches. Oil lamps sat unlit on them, for there was still bright daylight streaming through the sheer curtains lining the dusty windowpanes. Shade sat down on one of the overstuffed chairs, looking around the room. She studied the pictures which hung randomly across the wood walls, pictures of a young boy with long black hair flowing down his back with an intense, mischievous look on his face. He looked like Lana in a way. Shade assumed he must be her father. The other pictures showed other men and women, none of whom looked familiar to her. She wondered who they were and if she was related to them.

Her excitement fluttered in her stomach as she took all of it in. Even though it was a place of exile, the house looked quite comfy. As she scanned the room, she stopped to see her brother fidgeting on one the sofas, sitting next to Soap. His frown gave away his disappointment at not being related to Shade’s grandmother. She was sure his list of questions was just as long as hers.

Lana returned with glasses and a jug of lemonade. Watching her serve her friends made Shade think how much more like a grandmother she seemed than the Southern Realm Seelie Queen. She wondered how long she’d been exiled and why she could not escape. Lana made her way around the room, handing a glass to Shade and smiling. Sinking into a wooden chair that stood alone on the opposite side of the room, she scanned all of them and waited patiently as they drank their drinks.

“Well, I suppose we might as well get this over with. Ask away, Shade. I’ll answer anything you want to know.” She crossed her legs, placing her hands on her knee.

Shade flushed, and her mind went blank under the pressure. Gulping down the last sip of her lemonade, she breathed in deeply as one swam around in her mind.

“Lana… er, Grandmother? I’m still not sure what to call you yet.” She paused, waiting for an answer.

“You can call me Lana. I know I’m not much of a grandmother to you yet.” She grinned and waited for another question.

“Right, okay, Lana. Um, well, I want to know where my father is and if he is dead like I’ve been told. Would you also know why my mother never told me about him?” She paused, not wanting to bombard Lana with a stream of questions.

“Well, Shade, I can’t say why your mother never told you. She’s probably suffering from some form of memory loss from a spell I’m pretty sure your father put on her. Maybe to protect you both. Seeing that he is dead, I don’t blame him for doing it. He died at the hands of that wretched Queen Aveta. I have wanted to avenge him for so long, but I see it will be quite impossible for me to do it.” Her mouth formed a tight line of tension as she thought of her son. Shade didn’t let the pain which seeped into Lana’s face go unnoticed. Just as quickly as it had manifested, Lana seemed to realize the slip as she breathed in and straightened in her chair.

“Um, what am I? What kind of fey am I? My powers grow the more time I spend in Faerie, but no one can tell me what they are, what I can do with them or how I can control them, and I really need to know.” She waited almost impatiently as she watched her grandmother smile and nod.

“Yes, of course, you don’t know what you are. I’m part Changeling. I can change my appearance into anything I want to. I am also part human, like you. Your grandfather was full Sidhe, the most powerful and beautiful of all faeries. He was King of the Southern Realm before your father.” Her voice cracked for a moment, the memory flooding her eyes with pain. She gulped it down as she continued. “He is also dead, poisoned with iron by Aveta.” She sighed, rubbing her temples as she leaned forward. Shade wanted to comfort her, but the unfamiliarity of her grandmother kept her from rushing over. Lana looked back up, the pain still in her eyes but more steadied.

“Sorry, I still miss him, even after so long. He was my only love.” She gave a weak smile but motioned for Shade to continue with the questions.

“It’s okay, thanks for telling me. I was wondering if you could show me how to use my powers. I haven’t a clue how.” Shade waited, watching Lana as she nodded.

“Yes, of course. It won’t be easy, seeing you’re not a young child anymore. But if you work hard, I can show you everything you can do with your magic.” Lana stood up, passing her gaze around the room, studying the warriors.

“We’ll get started right away. No time to waste. You’re all welcome to stay here as long as you need. I have several rooms to spare. I’ll take you to them first, and then we can get started. Shall we?” She motioned to the group as everyone voiced their agreement. They shuffled quickly behind the Seelie Queen, following her up the stairs.

 

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

 

 

 

Shade’s grandmother was a thin, graceful lady. Her waist-length, silver-white hair swayed softly in the wind, and her big brown eyes glinted ever so slightly when amused. Shade thought about Lana’s wrists, so thin and bony they looked almost as frail as sugar sticks. Her skin was soft and thin with some wrinkles around the creases. Her face was smooth, though. Only faint lines of laughter crinkled when she smiled and became noticeable around her mouth and eyes.

She was like no one Shade had ever met. She seemed to be able to soothe and calm Shade with just a word or a stroke of her hand on Shade’s face. Her hugs felt like hot chocolate on a cold January day after playing too long in the snow. Her clothes fit loosely but elegantly as if flowing around her in clouds. She was the essence of a calm spring morning under a shady tree.

Lana told Shade once that she was just the same. Her magic would embrace others, a calm and warmth which would extend to all whom she loved. Lana warned her that by not being a full-blooded faery, she wouldn’t be immortal. Like Shade, she was part fey and part human. Her mortality weighed on her like a dreaded task waiting to be done. She didn’t age in human years but not too far from it. She could live maybe two lifetimes instead of one with Faerie blood inside her, yet would it be enough? Shade had just gotten to know her grandmother and felt like there had not been enough time to get to know her more. She knew Lana wouldn’t be around too much longer, but what could she say? She wished she’d met her sooner, but that wasn’t how things had gone.

Lana told her that things didn’t happen the way they should, especially in Faerie. She would’ve liked to have had more time to train Shade in the arts of Changeling magic and such. There were also so many stories she would love to tell her about her life, her past and her son Verenis. She had tales of his adventures, life in Faerie and life abroad in the human world.

Lana taught Shade a variety of tricks and added to her stock of fey magic every day with her witty lessons or assignments. She knew that even in this lifetime, there wouldn’t be enough time in the world to know everything she could’ve learned from her grandmother.

 

***

 

The day was shining, and the crisp, warm rays of the sun beamed down and fed the greenery with its light. Shade noticed that around her grandmother’s house, it always seemed warm and spring-like. Fall and winter never seemed to come around the corner in Faerie. This day was a tiny bit different. The leaves had turned color and filled the breezes with floating masses of them. They were clogging up the bases of the trees and dark corners of the house. She realized after the few weeks since arriving there, seeing the fall come to pass in this isolated area of Faerie worried her. Something was different. Something about it scared her and made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. A feeling of dread clung to the trees, leaves and the cool autumn breezes. She couldn’t say exactly what had changed, but something had. It made her glad Benton had already been safely returned home.

Shade joined her grandmother, who was sitting on the worn steps of the back porch. She had her shawl tossed across her shoulders, and she was staring out toward the distant trees and horizon, lost to whatever was passing behind her eyes. Their color was a brilliant shade of brown which completely passed for human eyes. Her wistful hair floated about her like a halo of silver and white, making Shade wonder what she thought about when her face sank so deep in concentration and seemed so lost to this world.

“Are you alright, Lana?” Shade asked. “You seem concerned about something.” Shade placed her lemonade between her feet on one of the wooden steps. White paint peeled up and flaked around them.

Lana sighed and shook her head like she was shaking off a bad dream. Her face lit up as she turned toward Shade.

“My end time is near, and I have yet to show you so much. I have one lesson left to teach you that must be done. The rest I have collected and mapped out for you in an ampule of memory, which I have made for when I am gone.” Lana dangled a glistening glass ampule filled with blood-red fluid. “I know you will be able to follow all my instructions and use it all for good. I hope you know how proud of you I am, Shade. I never thought I’d be blessed with such a wonderful granddaughter, especially having had a wayward son like mine!” She laughed and threw her head back, blinking up at the blue and white sky.

“Here,” whispered Lana.

She handed Shade the beautiful glass vial, complete with a twist-on, jeweled stopper. The red fluid shined and glinted in the sun. The liquid seemed to glitter in the light, swirling like smoke billowing from a pipe and felt heavy in her hand.

“What exactly is this, Grandma?” Shade asked.

“It is all memory, my child. My memories. For when I am gone. Only then do I want you to open it and drink it. It will give you all which remains of me and my powers. My life will be part of yours, and so will my essence. It is the only way I could think of to help you since I have so little time to give you all that I can. It has everything you will need to live as a fey. I pray it will help you in your darkest hours.”

“Why do you talk like that, Grandma? You are not dying yet! Is there something going on I should know about?” Shade asked.

Lana sighed and looked down at the peeling paint under her loafers. She closed her eyes and shook her head, turning back to Shade as a glowing fire burned behind her eyes.

“Shade, I don’t know how to explain it. I just know there is no more time. Please, just believe me. Swear you will take the memories and learn from them all that you can. Promise me that.” Lana beckoned and waited as Shade agreed. Fear glistened in her eyes as she slipped the ampule necklace around her neck to rest next to the vial of Santiran Water. “I have one more lesson for you. One that will change a lot for you.”

Shade gulped and stared at Lana’s wise, old eyes. She nodded, feeling the dread flowing all around them, seemingly unable to shake it off.

“Yes, Grandma, I promise. I will learn the best that I can.”

Her grandmother motioned her to the yard. She held her arms straight out and tilted her head to the sky. She looked back at Shade as her arms moved back down. “Child, you must know you come from a long line of powerful faery women. Our line is one where only a very select few can change their appearance. We can mimic other fey, humans and anything else you come across in this world. I don’t mean glamour. I mean transformation. A change so quick and precise, you could fool a mother to think you are her child and a child to think you are its mother. Fey of our line can shift and change into anyone you can think of, anyone you want to look like.” Lana paused, taking in a deep breath as she continued.

“It is magic, but one that’s hard to detect. No one can even see it with the naked eye. No faery would be able to tell the difference, except you. Do you understand, Shade? We are shape-shifters of the rarest kind. You can do it, but I must help you unlock this magic from within you. It is kept so deep inside, even you cannot find and use it without help.”

Lana’s statements made Shade’s jaw drop. She pulled it closed and continued to look at her grandmother while she processed what Lana had just said. Shade nodded, even though it didn’t make much sense to her.

How is that possible? How could I have such magic inside me and not know it? How?

Lana smiled at Shade and put her hand on her shoulder for reassurance. “Now, close your eyes,” Lana instructed. “Breathe in and out. Feel your heart beating. Listen to its rhythm, a deep booming drum. Try to imagine my face. Remember what I look like. Remember each wrinkle, the flow of my hair, my voice and my fingers. Now, try to create a shroud-like mist around you. Let it tighten along your skin as it morphs your body into mine. Imagine staring at yourself in a mirror and seeing me staring back at you. Feel your heart beat and let it flow with your magic. Now, open your eyes and tell me what you see.”

Shade? What is it, what do you see?

 

***

 

Shade snapped back into the moment, her memory of the lessons with her grandmother fading from her mind. The house was the same but the wind which flowed about in gusts and made her hair float around her in a halo was different. The weeks spent here had changed from sunny skies to a darker kind of weather. The air was changing rapidly. They were coming, along with the cold bite of winter. Something was very wrong.

She stood and dashed into the house. Lana! Where did she go?

“Grandma! Where are you?” Shade ran around the staircase to the hall where her grandmother stood. She was frail and looked so much thinner than when they had first met, just weeks before. She now looked like she was made of twigs and linen. Shade went to stand in front of her near the old, wooden staircase.

“You have to go now, or they will find you here. Go!” Lana motioned her to the door, fear hovering in her multifaceted brown eyes. Lana had warned them the Unseelie troops would eventually come. It had taken them some time to do so, but it was now time. Shade shook her head, looking behind her at her friends—Soap, Camulus, and Andraste—who were now up and ready to dash. Weapons were strapped on, and swords were out in defense mode. All of them were waiting for her by the door, keeping watch out the front windows.

“You have to come,” Shade said urgently. “We can save you! Please, you have to come now!” The desperation leaked out of her voice like a whimper as she held her frail grandmother’s hand and tugged, but the old woman didn’t budge. Lana turned to her as tears escaped Shade’s eyes and drained down her cheeks.

“No, Shade. I am too old to run. I cannot withstand those perils anymore. You must leave now. I remain bound to this place and am imprisoned here forever. I have withered here, but they will never have my soul. I can no longer go anywhere else. I must stay here until I die. You have no idea how happy I am to have met you before my end.” Lana’s face filled with joy as she smiled at her.

Shade shook her head, sobs shaking her body as she protested. “No, you can still change. Change into your younger self, and then you can escape with us. We can do it. We just haven’t tried hard enough. Hurry, please!” Her last words spilled out, pleading without hope. She moved her sword hilt aside and tugged at the zipper on her pack. Something in her bag of tricks had to help her with an unbinding spell. Where is that magic scroll book Ilarial gave me not so long ago?

Lana smiled. A look of calm masked the sadness within. She held her arms out and hugged Shade tightly. The embrace was still strong, and her comfort still soothed Shade like a warm cup of tea in winter. “Let me go, Shade. Let me go. It is your time now. The wind is fierce, but I will not be cold. The night grows darker, but I will not be afraid. The Summerlands are closer than ever, and their warmth bleeds into me as we speak. Do not be afraid, for I will always be with you. In your heart and in your mind, my child. Remember the memories, the ampule I gave you. Drink in the essence when you most need it, and I will not die. I will always live on in you. Remember, I love you.” Lana loosened her embrace and let her go.

Shade walked to the living room where her sobs escaped, and she sank onto the couch. She cried for all she was losing and all that had been found in her time in Faerie. Soap placed a hand on her shoulder as he moved in front of her. Staring intently into her eyes, he told her, without words, of the need to leave. She nodded at him, and, with her last tears dripping off her chin, she got to her feet. Turning toward the door, she gave another nod, telling her friends she was ready to go.

Shade joined them as they walked out without turning around, her pack and sword securely on her back. She knew her grandmother was resting in her comfy, overstuffed chair. Shade could just feel it. She could almost see the smile playing across Lana’s face in her mind’s eye as the woman who had taught her more about herself and her magic than anyone else, closed her eyes and fell into a deep sleep, one she would never again wake from.

The wind howled and the sky darkened as they made their way into the forest. The group ran down the slope and into the trees which surrounded her grandmother’s prison grounds. Shade kept pace just behind Soap as Camulus yelled for them to get to safer ground and away from the clearing. Her hot tears cooled on her cheeks as she felt the bite of the wind freeze them on her face. Andraste paused in front of them, waiting for the group to catch up as he waved frantically for them to go faster. His arms stopped mid-air as a now-horrified look froze across his face, his eyes reflecting the flickers of orange and yellow fire now burned behind them.

“Bloody hell. What’s going on now?” He yelled as the rest of the group came to a stop, catching their breaths and turning to see what was happening. Shade bent down, gasping for breath as she let her head tilt toward the house up on the slope. It now stood engulfed in a raging fire. Her eyes widened in sheer horror and disbelief.

“No! Oh please, no!” Shade stumbled forward, wanting to run back up the slope to the house. Soap grasped at her arm and pulled hard, embracing her tightly. “Let me go! She’s still up there! Let go!” Shade pulled and tugged with all her strength, but Soap was relentless.

“No, Shade. It would be suicide to return,” Soap whispered to her. “She’s gone now, to the Summerlands where she wanted to be. She’s gone.” His voice cracked in pain as she clawed at his arms. He winced but didn’t loosen his death grip on her, afraid she would run into the inferno. Shade’s sobs shook them both as she tried to control herself, blinking back the stabbing pain she felt as she watched the fire eating the house away in a tall pillar of embers and flames. The ashes spewed from the cracking wood as it collapsed. The entire forest around the house soon caught on fire as well, withered and burned. The crashes of debris sent jolts of sickening pain through her.

After a few minutes, Shade became silent and let Soap slowly loosen his grip. He was still afraid to let go completely, just in case she again decided to head toward the pyre. It lit the night sky around them, illuminating it like the city lights back home did. He pulled at her to continue. Standing at the edge of the woods, watching the mighty crackle of flames and the billowing, black smoke rose from the wreck was not safe. She dragged her feet along, letting the Changeling pull her.

Shade felt numb and weak. Her stomach twisted in a knot, and she wished to close her eyes and curl up against a tree forever. The despair clung to her, a deep and suffocating shroud, pulling her into its depths. Squeezing her eyes tightly together, she prayed for nothing but to wake from this infernal nightmare.

 

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

 

 

“Look!” Soap yelled out as he pulled Shade out of her reverie. She followed to where he was pointing. Her eyes widening as she stared at the scene opening before them. Molten lava was now spewing from cracks splitting the ground and spreading across the earth atop the slope.

“What’s going on?” Shade called out while wiping the last of her tears away. “Where’s that coming from?” It was Shade’s turn to grip onto Soap’s arm, her fear rippling through her. Her hands shook as she glanced at the other warriors, waiting for them to decide what to do or where to go.

“We’ve got to get out of here, now!” Soap tugged at her again. Shade stumbled forward but turned back to see what had him so shaken up. She gasped as she watched the liquid fire flow faster down the hill toward them. In its wake, hundreds of the vilest, ugly-looking creatures she’d ever seen emerged. Dark, green-skinned Goblins, Erlkings and Horned Orcs poured out from behind the blazing inferno of her grandmother’s house. Their red eyes glistened like orbs of blood in the light of the forest fire. Axes, swords, spears and tri-bladed short swords flashed as they raced down the clearing, their screams deafening as they echoed across the woods.

“Now, Shade! Move!” Soap’s voice snapped. “Aveta has sent her horde of Sluagh and other dark, unworldly things to hunt us. We won’t make it out of here if we don’t move now!” They began their ascent down the edge of the tree line, farther down the clearing. Shade sprinted. Branches and other shrubbery raked her arms as they reached the end of the clearing and entered the cover of the forest. Each one of them ran as fast as possible while avoiding falling on their faces. Shade glanced back and began running faster as she glimpsed the vile creatures closing in. She wasn’t sure they were going to make it.

“Soap!” She called out toward the warrior, hoping he had some sort of solution. Camulus was just ahead of him and was glancing back at them.

“Camulus, wait! We have to teleport. They’re coming too fast,” Soap said. He came up to where Camulus had paused behind a wall of trees and fallen logs. Camulus gave him a quick nod as he peered around the trees but then shook his head, pulling out his sword and dagger.

“Too late, they’re here. I suggest you get yourself ready to….” A clang of metal cut him short as an Orc rounded the corner and met his weapons. The impact almost sent him back into a tree.

“Spread out! Shade, get your sword!” Soap yelled as she fumbled to grab her sword from her pack. With the hilt in hand, she backed away from the group as the others spread out, too, fanning away from the spill of creatures which had reached them. Shade swallowed down her panic, trying to remember everything she’d learned from Lana and the fighting skills Soap and Dylan had taught her.

This is it. Now’s the time to find out if I know my stuff!

Shade swung at the first Goblin reached her. Smacking swords and finding they were equally matched, Shade pulled her magic together and sent a rush of air to knock him over as another attacker quickly replaced him. She could hear the others clanging weapons beside her but concentrated on swinging to her left and throwing a kick up to meet the short Goblin’s chin. He grunted and yelled back at her but his sword faltered as he let his guard down. Taking advantage of his oversight, Shade bunted him atop his head with the hilt of her sword. He had barely crumbled to the ground when another Orc jumped her from behind. Dropping her sword, she pulled on his arms as he squeezed around her neck, cackling in her ear. She scratched and beat on him, pulling and tearing to no avail.

Panicked as her vision flickered, she spotted a large tree next to her. She turned and backed up sharply into it. The Orc grunted but didn’t let go. She shoved back with all her might, smashing into him once more. This time, he loosened his arm just enough for her to head butt him in the face. Screeching, he shoved her away while shielding his face as black-green blood oozed from his shattered nose.

Shade pulled a dagger from her pack and retrieved her sword from the fallen leaves on the ground. It shimmered in the fiery light of the flames which now lit up the forest around them. The thicker tree trunks slowed the consuming flames enough to allow the fighters some room to battle it out. Thin streams of lava were now crawling across the forest floor toward them, steaming and igniting the dry vegetation. She wiped at the sweat that dripped into her vision, eyeing the Goblin, who now stood smirking in front of her, an axe in his hand.

“Oh no, you don’t!” Shade smirked back as she called the rain from the sky using the Santiran Water Magic she clutched to her chest. She reveled in the cool water, bringing the heat of the fire down as it steamed on the trees. The lava remained unaffected by the water, sending steam clouds up in pillars where the rain touched the molten rock. Shade gathered a ball of water and aimed it at the Goblin as he pulled the axe back to swing. She flung the water ball at the dark creature, letting it hit him with a stinging splash which caused him to sputter in the wave of drowning fluid, dropping the axe as he stumbled and fell back.

Shade spotted Soap to her left, fighting off an Erkling Warrior. The horrid, withered-looking creature had black eyes and grey, sallow skin. It reminded her of a corpse, but without the rotting flesh. It swung a huge mallet against Soap’s sword. It may have been thin, but the force of each hit was wearing Soap down. Shade ran behind the hunched-over creature as Soap slashed it across the chest, and she sunk her sword into its back. The withered creature disintegrated into a puffy blast of dust, covering both of them.

“Eww! That’s disgusting! It’s like mummy death all over me!” Shade groaned. She wiped off some of the crud before another Erkling approached, circling them. She backed into Soap, who now faced an Orc with a sword in its hand.

“This is going nowhere fast. There are way too many of them!” Soap yelled out.

“You don’t say! What do you suppose we do about it?” Shade pressed her lips together as she eyed the Orc. His smirk grew wider as he closed in.

“We have to teleport out of here, but we can’t if we don’t all hold onto each other. We have to get closer to the others.” Soap’s frustration spilled into his voice as he caught his breath.

“Where did they go?” She scanned beyond the Orc, into the forest, but saw no sign of Andraste or Camulus. “Shoot, where are they?” More Sluagh arrived and started squeezing into the circle, narrowing the distance between them. “Crap, more of them. We can’t kill them all. What should we do?” Shade felt the panic twist in her stomach. The odds were growing disproportionately against them.

When Soap didn’t answer, she threw a glance over her shoulder to see why. The creatures had also stopped advancing. “What’s wrong, Soap?” Shade inquired and followed his stare, sucking her breath in.

Two riders galloped in on animals that appeared to be horses with much longer necks, no eyes, and mouthfuls of sharp teeth. Shade moved to stand beside Soap as they stared at the horrors before them. The two riders were fey. One she recognized, and the other she didn’t. Evangeline sat on one of the horse-like creatures. Her long black hair had a streak of white along one temple and was pulled back tight against the nape of her neck. She wore a black, worn, leather rider’s outfit, appearing to blend right into the creature she rode. Her black leather boots shined on the sides of the animal.

Shade moved her eyes over to the other rider. A handsome faery man, he had long, platinum hair with deathly pale skin. A streak of black at the nape of his neck flawed the white sea of smooth hair in a most startling way. His eyes were the color of mother of pearl and seemed to change color depending on which way he was looking. His face had strong features, but his pale skin made it look more fragile. The black armor he wore also blended into the soft black tunic underneath the metal plating. Hands with black leather gloves held firmly to the reins of the dark horse, matching the gloves on Evangeline.

“What are they riding? Who are they?” Shade whispered to Soap as she watched the two leaders eyeing them back.

Soap breathed in deeply, looking at her as he answered. “Their steeds are Kelpies, Death Horses who love to drown their victims. Those two are Aveta’s top lieutenants, Evangeline, and Corb. They’re Aveta’s hands of death, both very powerful fey,” he whispered to her.

“You are most correct, Rylan,” Evangeline interrupted. “You forget we are also Witch and Warlock. Much more powerful than a spiteful Faery Changeling. Don’t you agree, Rylan?” She tilted her head and narrowed her gaze at him. She turned to Shade and smiled, a smile that reminded her of the iciness of Sylphi, Jack’s Teleen girlfriend.

“Shade, how nice to see you again. You have no idea how delighted we are to have found you.” Vange’s smile seemed more like a predator savoring a tasty treat to come rather than a normal smile. Vange was the nickname Jack had called her when Shade had first met both of them in an abandoned warehouse.

“Sorry, I can’t return the sentiments.” Shade bit her tongue, regretting her smart answer. Don’t piss her off yet!

Vange let out a laugh but didn’t seem too happy with her witty remark. Shade hoped her loose tongue wouldn’t anger her too much. At least not yet.

Evangeline turned to Corb as she tugged the reins, turning the Kelpie around. “Take her to Aveta. I have other pressing matters to attend to.” Corb nodded slightly before she galloped away, parting the legion of dark warriors. Corb never wavered. His stare was stone cold, unmoving and revealed nothing. Shade wondered if he ever smiled or frowned. His face seemed hard, frozen into the blankest expression she’d ever seen.

Shade gulped. Somehow she knew he wasn’t that much warmer deep inside his hardened exterior.

“Kill him, tie the girl up and bring her to me,” Corb commanded as he waved to his troops nonchalantly and pulled the reins of his own Kelpie and began trotting away. The circle of creatures immediately began to move again, tightening around them.

“Soap! Shade!” A voice called out to them the sky. A flash of luminous wings and black feathers flashed above them. Turning up, Shade watched as two beautiful women, one with sleek, black-feathered wings and the other a Pixie-like faery, held their arms out toward them.

Soap raised his arms up to them, and Shade quickly followed suit. Their hands clasped down on their arms and pulled them straight up into the smoky, wet air above them. The night rushed past them as they looked back down to where they had just stood. It was now flooded with Sluagh and other dark creatures. Corb had stopped in his tracks and was watching them as they flew away. His face remaining cold and blank, but his eyes twinkled with a taint of evil which shined so brightly that even with the distance growing between them and the screeches of creatures below, it sent an icy shiver down Shade’s body.

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

 

 

Bibette gripped Shade’s arms as they flew over the treetops. Shade glanced up to observe her savior. The faery’s outline against the dark of night was more shadow than anything. All Shade could see was her thin outline, the blur of her iridescent wings and long hair rippling in the wind. She glanced over toward Soap, who dangled from the black-winged woman’s arms. She looked much like a black-haired angel. Amazed, Shade smiled. She was relieved to be alive and having escaped from the massive army of dark creatures.

They had flown for a short time more before they came upon a large mountain range of high, barren cliffs. Once they reached a flattened plateau, the flying faeries set them down gently and came to stand next to them. Camulus and Andraste stepped toward them, grinning from ear to ear as they gave each other gripping hugs, all relieved to see the others alive.

Bibette stepped toward them. Her light brown hair was flowing around her shoulders in straight wisps. Her skin almost matched the color of her hair, a soft, golden brown. She reminded Shade of a Filipino woman. Bibette’s see-through wings hung behind her and glistened in the moonlight. She smiled at Shade as she reached her hand out to her.

“I’m Bibette, and that’s Queen Aluse of the Black Ravens. Those who helped Andraste and Camulus are Naja and Ren.” She waved over to two other black-winged faeries who nodded their greetings and waved. Ren was the only male among them.

“How did you know we needed help? And thank you for helping us, of course,” Soap said as Naja started rubbing ointment on his cuts. He smiled at the attention but pressed his lips together at Shade’s raised eyebrow. “Hey, they had impeccable timing!”

Shade rolled her eyes and sat down on the cool stone of the mountain, turning toward the direction of her grandmother’s house. She was grateful to be safe, but the faint glow of the fire reflecting off the clouds of the night sky could still be seen from the mountains. She felt numb and exhausted at the same time. Ren came over to help her apply balm to her own cuts and bruises. She let him fuss over her but felt empty and forlorn as she stared at the orange glow in the far off horizon.

Soap plopped down next to her, giving her a friendly nudge. He followed her eyes and watched the burning forest. It was so far now, it was just a faint glow.

“Hey, she died well. She knew she was going and chose the perfect time to do so. You know, Lana sent Queen Aluse to help us, as if she knew we would need them. Even in exile, she still had strong allies. Lana loved you so much, Shade. Don’t ever forget that.” He wrapped his arms around her shoulders and pulled her closer. Shade fell into the embrace and let the tears spill out. The weight of her pain poured out as a light rain slowly sprayed down on them. The same rain had been falling in the forest and had extinguished part of the raging fire. Shade loved the feel of it, like heaven was crying with her.

“Shade….” Soap loosened his embrace to point at the clouds. “It rains when you cry. Did you know that? Like you’re controlling the weather!” He tilted his head back, enjoying the cool splashes soaking his face and running down his sopping wet hair. “At least, we’re clean now.” He winked at her as he shook out his golden-brown hair which looked almost black while sopping wet. Shade sniffled back her sobs and smiled while watching him enjoy the downpour. Soap always had a way of looking at the brighter side of things.

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

 

 

The crackle of fire snapped and popped, echoing in the dark forest. Shade stood in the center of what looked like a ring formed from fallen logs crossed end over end. She spun around, looking about her. She had the feeling she was being watched. Gulping, she hoped she was dreaming and silently prayed for her spirit guides to come and keep her safe.

The moment she wished it, Elaby, Astrid and Duende appeared, floating within the circle in their ethereal gowns and flowing black hair. The three sisters were identical in every way—even in voice—as they peered down at her with peace and calm written across their faces.

Shade, you have summoned us.”

What can we do to ease your soul?”

The sisters’ simple dresses seemed to ripple in an unseen breeze as Shade tried to muster her courage. Their presence was calming, but she still felt watched, and the forest beyond the circle was dark and foreboding.

“I wanted to ask, why did Lana have to die? I feel like nothing I do makes anything better than it was. In fact, things are worse now than ever! That legion of things… whatever they were, there were so many of them! How could we possibly defeat such an army of dark creatures?”

She pulled in a breath as she paused, her heart still fluttering in pain as she remembered her grandmother. “If I give up now, will they eventually enter the human world? I need to protect my family, but I feel so insignificant. Why do I even have to be part of this?”

The three sisters watched her with sadness in their eyes which seemed to grow as they listened to her rant. Shade gulped back her tears. She sighed, knowing it probably wouldn’t do any good to cry here. It was only a dream.

“Can you tell me where Dylan is? Why hasn’t he returned? We are bound. How can he just leave me like that?” Her voice cracked, remembering the horror of seeing Dylan’s pain flash across his face because of Soap. Shade had never meant to hurt either of them, especially Dylan. Her heart felt like it had been ripped out with his absence. She wondered if the sisters even knew how to answer her, as their silence persisted.

Finally, one of them spoke. “Shade, some things cannot be known. The future is murky and unforeseeable. Only with your determination can Faerie hope to defeat a takeover of the dark powers of the Earth.” Elaby smiled slightly at her, even though her face filled with pain for Shade. Their hearts felt everything she felt.

Dylan is far from here. But do not fret Shade. You will see him again soon. That is all we can tell you. Some things should never be known of the future, for these are the things that will not change, no matter what you do.” Duende’s head hung down, her hands over her heart as Shade quivered with sadness, despair choking her breath.

The one thing we can say is if you do not continue your journey to save Faerie from Queen Aveta, the war will spill into the human world, and many will die.” Astrid’s tears glistened on her pale cheeks as she spoke, beckoning Shade closer to them.

“What of my family, must I leave them exposed? I should be home with them. How do I protect them if Aveta and her armies hunt us down? I get a feeling that Corb will stop at nothing to get to me, even hurt the ones I love.” Shade’s panic replaced the melancholy rippling across her chest as her desperation grew.

Yes, Shade. He will go after your family to get to you. Corb will stop at nothing to attain you for the Queen. But you mustn’t worry too much for them. Your mother is taking the correct steps to guard your sister and brothers well. Now that Benton has come into his powers, he will help her. You must not underestimate them. You must finish this, or we are doomed.”

The sister’s voices harmonized into one as they slowly drifted back, out of the circle and into the dark of the forest. Shade called out to them, but they didn’t answer back. She gulped, hugging her arms around her as a sudden chill passed through. The desolate night seemed to hover around and choke out the air. Shade’s fear grew as she stood alone, making her close her eyes. She silently prayed to wake up from what was now turning into a nightmare.

 

***

 

Blinking her eyes, Shade glanced around slowly in the grey fog of dawn. The group had remained on the rocky shelters of the Raven Queen’s domain. Sitting up, she glanced around the silent camp. The fire had long since died, but a wisp of smoke floated up from it. Shade turned back in the direction of her grandmother’s house. The thick fog covered the forest and the land beyond, with only the sharp points of treetops protruding from the clouds.

She pulled out her blanket, the same one Dylan had given her and wrapped it tightly around her body. Her breath puffed out in the cool morning air as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. She waited for the rest of the group to rouse. Her sleep had been fitful, and the memory of her spirit guides’ words had left her exhausted as if she hadn’t slept at all.

The moist air clung to her skin and hair as the mass of clouds rose around them. Everything felt wet. She wondered how the Raven Queen Aluse could like it up here. There was nothing but hard rock and wet air. At least, it was safe. There were no routes that led to these shelters. They were so high up, the air felt thin and left her out of breath. Her stomach rumbled under the blanket as she remembered she hadn’t eaten in almost a day. She pressed her lips together. She didn’t have much to eat with her and wondered if the Ravens and winged-fey had anything to munch on up there. They have to eat too, right? She smiled, feeling less glum as the sun rose over the horizon.

As if Shade’s mind were on display, Queen Aluse came striding out of the entrance to one of the cavern shelters with a plate and cup in hand. She came to sit next to Shade, smiling at her as she placed a heaping plate of fruit, berries, and strips of meat in front of Shade along with a cup full of water. Aluse motioned for Shade to dig in as she scanned the horizon. Her black hair seemed to absorb all the light into it, it was so dark. It touched the ground as she sat with her legs folded Indian style. Her wings also scraped the ground but remained folded tight to her back in a mass of feathers, soft looking and shining an oily black. Shade fought the urge to reach out and stroke them, popping a few grapes into her mouth instead and savoring the juices.

“Your grandmother Lana was quite a woman.” Aluse turned toward Shade as she spoke, smiling with eyes which glinted a deep onyx. “She was my dearest and oldest friend. When she was exiled to this valley, I moved my flock here to oversee her safety and to keep her well-fed. Aveta stuck her in that bubble and left her for dead after finding out they couldn’t kill her. She was that powerful.” Aluse sighed, turning back to the glowing horizon. The clouds seemed to dissipate with the arrival of the sun. A slight heat began to warm Shade, and she let the blanket loosen around her. The Raven Queen didn’t even seem to feel the cold at all.

“It’s cold, isn’t it? I’m sure you feel it more than we do since you’re part human. If it gets cold enough, we’ll feel it too. I’m afraid there are dark and colder days ahead of us, Shade. As Aveta grows stronger, her powers of winter and frost grow, too. She will bring death and starvation to our kind. We will have to flee south for the first time in millennia.” Her face had gone blank staring out across the valley. The Queen’s own uncertainty leaked out onto Shade, like a mood passing through her.

She pulled the blanket back around her as she polished off the plate of food and gulped down the water. That stupid Queen Aveta is ruining Faerie with every move she makes, she thought. “It must be nice to be able to fly, though,” she said, waving toward Aluse’s wings.

Aluse smiled, nodding. “Yes. If not for that, I’m sure my people would’ve succumbed to her treachery.” She stretched her arms out and let her wings extended out behind her. Standing up, she looked back down at Shade. “We are with you in your fight, Shade. Just let me know if you need anything at all, I mean it. I owe much to Lana, and now this is the only way I can repay her. I’m so privileged to have gotten to meet her granddaughter.”

Shade nodded, smiling up at the beautiful queen. “Thank you. I truly appreciate it,” she said as the Raven Queen gave her a quick nod and turned back toward the shelter caves.

Shade watched as the rest of the Ravens roused, came out of the caverns and went about busying themselves. They ruffled their feathers and flew out in pairs to go scouting. They were gorgeous, and she envied the way they could fly. She would love to be able to fly. It seemed like it would be a useful ability to have here in Faerie.

Soap finally roused and came to sit next to Shade, occupying the spot Aluse had abandoned. He smiled as he glanced her way, running his hand through his loose hair. Shade thought he could pass for a model if he wanted a career in the human world. Her thoughts wandered to their kiss back at the Glass Castle and made her wonder if he ever thought about it, too. He had stuck with her through her rejection, and yet here he was, still smiling.

“Soap, I’m gonna go home. I have to make sure my family is okay.” She paused, studying his emerald green eyes. She was pretty sure he would do what she asked but felt a bit selfish for thinking so. “I would like it if you came with me.” She picked at the blanket as she waited for his reaction.

“Yeah, no problem. I told you once, and I still mean it, Shade.” His face turned incredibly serious as his eyes flashed with a ring of yellow surrounding his black pupils, embedded in the lush green. “I’ll follow you wherever you may go. I will always be there.”

She nodded and pulled her eyes away from his handsome face. She leaned her head on his shoulder as he pulled her closer with his arms around her shoulders. He was radiating warmth, making her feel sad and safe at the same time. Somehow she knew he was telling her the truth.

She gave in to his hug, closing her eyes. Her exhaustion swam along her body, making her want to curl back onto her mat and sleep the day away. She fought it with all her strength and pulled away from Soap as she stretched and stood up. Looking down at Soap, she saw that he didn’t seem surprised at all when she’d pulled away. She studied his incredible eyes. They were full of so many unsaid things, things she was sure she couldn’t deal with right now but made her want to ask him about. Instead, she turned away and went in search of Camulus, hoping to hitch a teleport ride home.

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

 

 

Entering the cave, Shade glanced around what seemed like a long, cavernous room, searching for Camulus. One of the Ravens had pointed her in this direction. They had last seen him there. As she scanned the room, the faery named Bibette came swaying toward her. Her smooth mane of light-brown hair lay like satin on her shoulders and flowed down her back. Her skin was not pixie green but a golden brown which irradiated a healthy glow. Shade thought she could pass for a magazine model. Bibette’s yellow-brown eyes glinted with mischief as she smiled inquisitively.

“Lost already, hun?” Bibette asked, her eyes curiously watching Shade. “I thought I saw you and that hunk of a Changeling outside. Let me know if you don’t want him anymore. I’d gladly pick up the pieces of him for you.” She licked her lips and winked at Shade, making her frown as her lips pressed into a tight line at the faery’s words. She’s just being friendly. Don’t be mean, Shade thought and bit her tongue.

“Have you seen Camulus?” Shade quietly asked. “Tor said he saw him in here. I need to talk to him. Oh, and thanks for saving us last night.”

At that, Bibette’s smile deepened. “Sure thing! I did just see him down at the other end. He was stocking supplies in his pack. He’s not so bad himself. If he was a bit more Pixie than Elven, I’d definitely stake my claim there!” She chuckled and twirled away, leaving Shade almost falling over giggling. The faery was silly and giddy with the new man-meat hanging around. She wondered if they were allowed out of the shelters often or not. She shrugged and headed to the other side of the long cavern.

Camulus was sifting through a pile of weapons and rations. His own weapons had been polished to a shine and were sheathed, waiting in the pile to be re-strapped onto his belt or pack. His green-tinged skin seemed to glow in the sunlight that reflected into the cavern with strategically placed mirrors. His fiery eyes looked up to greet her, and he gave her a slight nod. He’d been very quiet the last couple months between taking her to her grandmother’s house and back home. His flashing smile and little jokes seemed to have faded away. She wondered what was eating away at him, why his humor had faded.

“Hey, Camulus, how’s it going?” Shade plopped down on a wooden chair next to the stone shelf which he had splayed his weapons across. Camulus gazed toward her and studied her intensely, giving her a slight smile as he returned to his weapons.

“Okay. How are you, Shade? You feel alright after last night?” He glanced back and forth from what he was doing to Shade, observing her for any emotions. She looked up at him and gave her head a slight shake, sighing and staring out toward the sunlit cave entrance.

“Not really. I just can’t help but see my grandmother burning up in that house. It makes me sick. All the power I have, and I couldn’t unbind her and save her.” Shade bore her eyes into the ground, feeling a sting of tears behind them.

Camulus stood still for a moment as he watched her. He shuffled around and came to kneel in front of her, taking her hands into his.

“Shade, I know you feel like it’s your fault, but it’s not. Lana was near death and a fey her age usually does not die in a fire. She chose to wither, chose to fade right before they came. Shade, I could feel her do it. You should not feel guilty. She died well before the house was set on fire. We are immortal, but we can choose to give up the immortality and die. Most of us don’t. The very old ones sometimes do. Living centuries and watching the ones we love die or get killed wears on us. It’s a blessing to be able to choose. Can you imagine having to live forever without an end? It would be more of a curse than anything else.” He sighed and rubbed her hands softly. “Take comfort, Shade. She will be watching over you for sure.”

He smiled as he pushed back the strands of hair dangling in her eyes. She looked up at his kind face. It was one which had been so blank lately but was now full of compassion. She nodded as they hugged, holding back the tears that threatened to spill, willing them away.

“Thanks, Camulus. You have no idea how much that helps me. I feel better, really.” She slowly pulled away, grinning and feeling relieved. She continued to watch him as he resumed putting his equipment away. He gave intermittent smiles toward her as he slipped some of his weapons onto his belt and put some into his pack, which he finally strapped tightly on. As he finished, he turned back to her and held his hand out.

“I get the feeling you might want to return home. When do you want to leave? I’m ready when you are.”

“Yes! I do. But wait. Soap is coming with me. I just want to check up on my family. Where is Andraste? I didn’t ask him yet if he wanted to come along,” Shade said as she took his hand and followed him out of the cavern.

“Andraste has already returned to Prince Lotinar’s castle to join Draden. I took him there last night after we settled in here. Their legions are readying as we speak for a full on attack on Queen Aveta’s domain. It is still weeks away, but it must be done.”

They pushed through a group of Raven Fey as they neared the entrance of the cavern. Shade squinted her eyes as the light from the mid-morning sun made her pupils contract in slight pain as she scanned the crowd for Soap. The winged faeries seemed to have multiplied since the morning. This was obviously the main gathering place. She didn’t remember seeing that many of them there the night before. She spotted Soap near the edge of the plateau, his long hair whipping up in the vibrant gust of air which flowed over the edge of the rock, looking as stunning as usual. He stared off into the distance as she approached his side.

“Hey, Soap, ready to go? I found Camulus to give us a ride.” Shade stopped, realizing how extremely serious Soap’s face had remained, and he hadn’t yet looked at her. She followed his gaze to the horizon toward the east. Her eyes widened with surprise, seeing skyscrapers and smog from a nearby human city. She could’ve sworn she hadn’t seen it before, but the fog might’ve concealed it in the early hours. “Is that a city? Which one are we near? I can see the buildings and even some of the cars reflecting the sun! I didn’t know we were so close to one. Can they see us?” She gulped as she waited for Soap to answer. Somehow his still face made her more than apprehensive.

Soap shook his head and looked at her. “No, they can’t see us yet, but the wards on the borders of Faerie are growing weak. I think the upset in the balance of powers in Faerie are going to cause a lot of disturbances in the wards shielding our world. If we can see the cities now instead of clouds and mountains, I bet they will be able to see us soon. That would be really bad for everyone involved. I think Aveta is working on breaking the wards and invading the human realms. If she does, your world could be in grave danger. Humans will become enslaved or killed. Aveta will stop at nothing.” He paused, watching Shade’s reaction. “We have to stop her, sooner rather than later.”

Shade’s eyes widened in terror. Her breathing quickened as she stared at the city streets and buildings. They didn’t seem that far away. In fact, they seemed almost too close. She hoped Aveta didn’t complete her treachery any time soon. Shade spoke solemnly as she thought of their situation. “Everyone tells me I’m the key to her destruction, but I haven’t a clue how that’s gonna happen. I haven’t an inkling of how to destroy her. The one vision of her gave me the creeps. She’s powerful. No way could I ever defeat her.” She took a deep breath, her heart racing against the words which had slipped from her mouth.

I have to remain positive. I can’t give up!

“It’s okay, Shade. I’m sure we’ll figure something out.” Soap embraced her, pulling her close, not wanting to let go. Shade felt her heart flutter at his touch. His warmth seeped onto her cool skin, making her want to just sink into it and let it claim her. She liked him a lot, but her thoughts jerked back to Dylan, wishing he were here to embrace her instead. She shook her head as she pulled away from him, smiling to cover her feelings. It was mean of her to think that way when Soap had done nothing but help her. She still wondered what the secret was that he was hiding from her. She hadn’t bothered to inquire about it again since leaving the Glass Castle. She’d wait until her curiosity could not bear it anymore, then she would risk asking him what Dylan had meant by saying Soap was not all that he seemed to be.

“Ready? Let’s go. I’m worried about my family.” Shade tugged at him and approached Camulus, who had been waiting patiently nearby. She gave him a nod as the three gripped each other’s hands, waiting for the jaunt. A moment later, they found themselves at the edge of the forest near her home. Shade hurried across the grass and up the back porch steps where she almost ran into Benton.

“Whoa, it’s about time you came back. Where the heck have you been? Mom’s been sick with worry!” He let the back door slam behind him, blocking her way into the house.

“At my grandmother’s. Get out of my way!” She waited, but Benton didn’t budge. Instead, he waved her closer as he whispered in her ear.

“She remembers Shade. Mom remembers everything now.” He glanced over her shoulder to Camulus and Soap. Camulus waved at them as she turned back to look at him. She watched him disappear, leaving nothing but a misty cloud where he’d once stood.

“Not one for goodbyes, huh?” Benton snickered. Soap came up the steps, now dressed in glamour to cover his fey looks. He looked like a regular grunged-out teen in a black tee and ripped jeans. Benton eyed him and rolled his eyes. “You might not need a disguise. My mom is fully aware of the Land of Faerie. She’s almost in hysterics at realizing how much she’s forgotten. She’s been waiting for you to come back. Don’t worry, you’ll like what she has to say.” He pulled open the back door, letting Shade and Soap enter the house.

Shade approached her mother, Jade, who sat quietly at the kitchen table. Anna waltzed in and smiled at seeing her sister. She ran over to Shade and gave her a bear hug as they shuffled into room.

“Shade, you’re back! Benton said you would be. Where’d you go? Why are you gone so much?” Anna pulled back to stare at her sister’s face, her own flashing full of suspicion.

“Hey, kiddo, missed you too,” Shade laughed. “Just had some stuff to take care of. I’m back for a little while, I hope. Mom?” She glanced over to her mother, who sat fingering her cup of coffee and nervously waiting for them to finish greeting each other.

Jade sighed as she began rubbing her forehead. She was looking very weary. “Anna, I need to speak with Shade, Benton, and their friend privately. Could you please go watch TV with James or go to your room? It won’t be too long. Okay, pumpkin?” She motioned for Anna to leave. Anna pressed her lips together, frowning at the order. She sighed and glanced back toward her sister.

“You better come see me afterward. I got lots to tell you about!” She smiled again and flew out of the room as quickly as she had entered. Shade turned to sit at the table across from her mother. Benton occupied the seat next to their mother, and Soap sat next to Shade.

Shade wrung her fingers nervously in her lap as she peered up, waiting for someone to start talking. Jade watched Shade intensely. Jade’s brown eyes were dark with a depth Shade had not seen before. Sighing, Jade started talking, softly but sternly.

“Shade, I have to ask you where you’ve been going that you feel the need to stay away so long. There are things out there that aren’t natural, and some strange things are going on I don’t want you involved in.” She glanced at Soap but quickly flashed her eyes back to her daughter.

“Mom, Benton says that you have something to tell me about what you remember. He says you remember everything. So I guess I can assume you know where I’ve been going all this time.” Shade gulped, hoping to not piss her mother off. Instead, Jade continued to stare at her. She seemed to ponder what to say next. The conflict swam around her eyes and made Shade want to just hug her. She knew exactly how her mother was feeling.

“I—I’m not sure what you mean, Shade. I….”

“The Land of Faerie, Mom. You know about the Land of Faerie. My real father was from there. I’m not sure if you’re from there too, but I know about your abilities, your fire affinity. Benton has them, too.” Shade sucked her breath in, hoping she hadn’t blurted out too much.

Jade gasped. The shock slammed into her like a direct hit. She stood with her mouth agape and glanced between Shade and Benton. Her hands went to her face as she sat there collecting herself. Sighing, she laid her hands on her thighs and slumped down in her chair.

“I never said anything about anything to Shade. Apparently she knows a lot more than any of us do.” Benton shrank back in his chair.

“I see that you do know more than it seems,” Jade sighed. “Yes. Your real father was fey. And yes, I’m a human-born Fire Witch. Benton is also human-born, but we are not fey. We are not restricted to living in Faerie.” Jade sucked in her breath, waiting to see if anyone would stop her. “I’m sorry I never told you this before, but for some reason, I couldn’t remember. Lately, it seems I have started to remember things that have been buried in my mind somehow, and for some reason or another, I couldn’t remember them at all for years.” Jade bit her lip as her thoughts ran through her head.

“Mom, I know about your memory. Lana—my grandmother—she told me what happened.” Shade reached for her mother, laying her hand on her shoulder, hoping to comfort her.

Her mother looked back at her. Surprise and concern seemed to struggle across her face. Shade watched as she fidgeted in her chair, looking a bit older than she had a few months before. It seemed something was bothering her more than she let on.

“Yes, Shade. Lana would know. She probably told your father to erase my memory to keep me safe.” Jade’s bitterness echoed in her voice as she spoke of Lana. Shade wondered what had happened between them which would make her speak of her that way. Lost in her thoughts, she realized her mother was now staring at her.

“What?” Shade asked. The rest of them were staring at her too. She felt the weight of their eyes boring into her and suddenly felt naked. “What is it? Do I have food in my teeth?”

Benton let out a laugh, but Soap and Jade remained silent and stoic in their places.

“I see you’ve met her. Good, maybe she explained most of what happened to you already. All I know is that one moment your father and I were madly in love, and the next, I’m a soccer mom with four kids. And now a single mom at that.” Jade shook her head, closing her eyes as the memories washed over her. “I find it hard to imagine life without your father, Varenis, but seeing he never consulted me in his decision to wipe my memory of him, I find this even more difficult to discuss. Benton, you, Anna and James are part Fire Witch Elementals. We are human, but we have powers like any witch to cast spells and use magic. Mainly our powers lie with the manipulation of fire.”

“Fire Elementals.” Soap spoke softly as he let the words roll off his tongue. He looked up at Jade, suddenly excited as he continued. “That’s why! Shade, that’s why fire has no effect on you! All this time, you’re a Changeling and a Fire Elemental Witch! Wow. What else does she not know?”

“Soap!” Shade elbowed him, signaling for him to shut up.

“Ouch! Sorry, I was just thinking how great this is, Shade!” Soap grinned as he rubbed his ribs, sore from her blow.

“Yes, that would make Shade impervious to fire or heat. I take it that you have run into some fire-wielding fey?” Jade glanced at her. “Can I ask what kind of faeries they were?”

Shade glanced at Soap and looked back at her mother. “Teleen. Soap is part Teleen and Changeling. I had a run in with a Teleen warrior named Darren at the caverns they live in. He tried to kill me, but his fire was useless on me. He was really surprised I didn’t burn up into ash. He’s insane.” Shade shuddered at the thought of Darren. She hoped he was still tucked away in the Teleen Caverns.

Jade’s eyes widened in horror, but she remained where she was as she digested the information. Her face turned serious. She sighed as worry creased her smooth skin. She furrowed her eyebrows and pressed her lips tight.

“Shade, I had no idea you were in Faerie getting attacked. I don’t want you going there. There are things you wouldn’t understand happening right now in Faerie.” She shuddered and rubbed the goose bumps rising along her arms. “I can feel the magic in the air, flowing wild, with a wisp of evil. I know Aveta has probably become more powerful than ever before. Her evil leaks out of Faerie like a balloon waiting to burst. I don’t like you treading through there.” She glanced at Soap as she spoke. “Even with such powerful escorts.”

“But, Mom, I….”

“No buts. I mean it, Shade. You have no idea what her twisted, evil creatures are like.”

“Yes I do, Mom. We’ve just come back from fighting her horrific horde of vile things. I know what to expect. I know what they can do. Corb and Evangeline, her lieutenants, scare me more than her army. They are the ones I’m afraid of running into again.” Shade licked her lips. She had to make her mother understand how far she’d come in the last few months. If it meant telling her everything, so be it.

“What did you say?” Jade’s concerned look now turned into one of absolute shock.

“Which part, about Corb and Evangeline or Aveta’s army?” Shade waited impatiently for her to answer.

“Evangeline is one of her lieutenants? No, that can’t be. Are you sure?” Jade grabbed Shade’s arm, gripping it tighter than what was comfortable. Shade gulped, feeling a surge of panic jump in her chest.

“Yes, Mom, Evangeline is one of her warriors. Why does that matter?” Shade’s hand slipped onto her mothers, hoping the warmth of her hand would ease her grip. Slowly Jade loosened her grip and pulled away, shaking her head in disbelief.

“No, no, no. It can’t be. Vange? Why would she do that?” Jade leaned on the table, her hands covering her eyes.

“Mom, you know her? How do you know her?” Shade was getting a feeling the story wouldn’t end there. She bordered on wanting to know everything and not wanting to know anything else. Ignorance is bliss. How would her mother know the Witch Faery? Why did she seem so upset about her being Aveta’s second in command? Nothing was making sense to her anymore. Her mother wasn’t being too forthcoming, either.

“Mom?” She repeated, hoping to snap Jade back into the present.

“Evangeline is….” Jade paused, breathing in and sighing deeply. “She’s my sister, Shade. She’s your aunt.” She eyed her daughter, watching her reaction with increased interest.

Shade felt like someone had just slapped the air out of her chest. Her face morphed into a scowl. How could she believe that? Everything which had happened to her and one of the leaders of the evil Unseelie Queen’s army is her own flesh and blood? Her aunt? No, this has got to be a mistake!

“What? You’re kidding, right?” Shade shook her head, wanting to stand up and shake some sense into her mother. Mom’s off her rocker. She has to be. No other way to explain all this! “How can you and she be sisters? She’s fey and you said you’re fully human, so that isn’t sounding right to me!”

“Shade, she’s my half-sister. We share the same mother. Our mother was a human Fire Elemental Witch, and my father was also. Her father was a faery. A powerful Sidhe faery. Vange is quite powerful, but we share many of the same powers. She’s immortal, but I am not.” Jade sighed, rubbing at her forehead again, willing the headache pounding in her temples to recede.

Shade sat back in her chair, chewing on her lip as she played the conversation over and over in her head. Everything was quite possibly true. Yet it all seemed so unreal, so impossible. She listened to the others quietly breathing and shifting in their seats as the silence hung thick and syrupy in the air.

“Does she know who I am, Mom? Does she know I’m your daughter?” Shade watched her mother open her pretty, tiger brown-colored eyes at her. Her grief filled them and gleamed with the edge of tears.

“I don’t know, Shade. I don’t believe so. If she did, she would’ve come here and taken you long time ago.” She studied Shade’s face. Her eyes lingered, taking in her daughter’s features as if it was the first time they had ever met. Her gaze slipped down to the necklaces dangling around Shade’s throat. Reaching out, she fingered the amulet of Santiran Water, which dangled next to her memory charm, a flower carved in jade.

“Where did you get this magic?” Jade inquired. “I can feel it vibrating under my skin like ice cold water.” Shade reached up, unsnapped the necklaces and dropped them into her mother’s hand.

“The water in the ampule is from the Santiran Fountains. I can wield water with it. The other is a memory charm. Soap told me to get one in case a faery attempts to charm my memory away. So far, I think it’s working. No memory is missing from me!” She chuckled nervously but stopped as she watched her mother study them. She seemed so engrossed she was barely listening to Shade.

“Mom?” Benton reached out and nudged Jade’s arm.

“Hmm?” Jade pulled her eyes away from the charms and handed them back to Shade. “I see. You must be quite powerful, Shade. I have never known anyone who could wield water and fire, be they fey or human.” She sighed. Her exhaustion resurfaced on her face as she reached out to sip on her coffee. “I know this is a lot to take in, sweetheart. I must ask you to do something else before you are even ready. You too, Benton.” She turned and stared at her son, almost not recognizing him for a moment.

“What is it, Mom? What do you want us to do?” Benton stood up at that moment, eager to sprint into action.

“Shade, Benton, you need to help me with a protection-barrier spell. Tonight.” Jade stood up. She straightened and now looked at the group with determination in her eyes.

“What do you mean a protection-barrier spell? I don’t know how to do one of those. Do you, Shade?” Benton’s face fell at hearing the word “spell.” He’d expected something more physical than metaphysical. Shade shook her head as she turned toward her mother.

“What do you need us to do, Mom?” She joined her brother, wiping her sweaty palms on her jeans as she looked at her mother, who was serious and ready for whatever else was coming.

Jade finally smiled at them, a twinkle of pride spilling into her eyes. “Okay, well, let’s get started then.”

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

 

 

The shielding and protection spell had been more draining than Shade had initially anticipated. She rubbed her arm where a still-sensitive pink line lay as the only evidence of what she’d contributed to the spell. The flesh wound burned where she’d used her dagger to drag its blade across her skin, letting her warm, crimson blood drip along the large perimeter circle her mother had traced with salt. Shade and Benton had walked along the trail sprinkling drops of blood along it, strengthening the spell their mother chanted as they proceeded behind her around the grounds of the house. Shade was thankful they weren’t close to any neighbors. The nearest house was a few blocks away, and they were in no danger of being seen or heard.

Lucky for us, Shade thought, or we’d look pretty darn crazy out here waltzing around the house bleeding all over the place!

She sat on a tree stump in the front yard, moving one of her little brother’s bouncing balls around with her sneaker. The sun hung low in the afternoon sky, and there was a slight chill to the autumn air. Shade rubbed her arms, wishing she’d brought a hoodie out with her to keep her warm. The tree stump was big enough for one other person to sit on, which is exactly what Soap was thinking as he plopped down next to her.

“Hey, gorgeous.” He winked at her as she turned and smiled back at him. He still made her stomach flip when he shined his glistening green eyes at her. She pulled her gaze away from him, again feeling slightly guilty about her feelings for him and Dylan. Her heart lurched at the thought of Dylan missing from her life. It threatened tears at the back of her eyes, making her blink faster in hopes of keeping the tears restrained when Soap reached over and rubbed her back. She tensed for a moment but relaxed, feeling the warmth spreading from his hands and across her back. She felt the cold slip away, and the warmth embracing her like fire.

She turned toward him, surprise filling her face. “I didn’t know you could do that. Thank you,” she said softly. His face was calm and remained still as he gazed back at her. His eyes were full of things unsaid. Desire swirled in his irises and flared them to an iridescent emerald.

She felt the heat radiating from him like the sun, almost sweltering in intensity. She liked how it felt. She had to admit that much, but her confusion hit her like a swift kick in the head.

Shoot, shoot, shoot, thought Shade.

She wanted to give in and let his magic envelope her and to hold on tight. How could that be so bad? Plus, what if Dylan didn’t come back? She’d spent more time with Soap lately than she’d ever had with Dylan. Even so, her heart was holding onto Dylan’s steel grey eyes, which remained emblazoned in her mind. The way he would look at her had told her all she needed to know about how he felt. That alone was what stopped her from running into Soap’s awaiting arms. Something about Dylan had her holding onto his memory so tightly, it made her feel unfaithful when she let Soap embrace her.

Soap’s strong arms circled her shoulders. His lips moved dangerously close to her face as he breathed her in, letting her hair tickle his nose and cheeks. Shade gulped, afraid to ruin the moment by letting her feelings overtake her.

“I’m a Changeling, remember? I burn just like a Teleen, but I can control the heat I emit much better than they can. They just torch things. I can make someone feel cold or hot and anything in between. Um, Shade?” He waited for her to answer him, but was met with silence. He sucked in a deep breath as he continued. “Shade, I—I know you’re in love with Dylan. I can see that much. But I’m here, and he’s not. I’m here, and I would never leave you like he did. I promise you that.” His soft voice sent shivers down her spine as she let her head rest against his chest. He smelled like pine and sage. The comfort he gave her made her bite down on her lip to hold the well of tears threatening to explode.

“I can make you happy. I love you so much. It feels like a dagger in my heart to see you suffering because of him. Why won’t you let me in, Shade? We get along great, and I’m sure Dylan can’t crack a joke like me. Who’s gonna make you laugh like I do?” Soap ran his fingers through her brown hair, letting the smooth waves slip through his fingers. He turned his face to her hair, inhaling the sweet honeysuckle scent of her shampoo. He wanted to remain in that moment forever. Breaking contact with Shade would be a torment he could not endure.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” Shade whispered. “You saw how I hurt Dylan by kissing you. I just don’t know what to do.” There, I said it. She really didn’t know what to do. She loved both of them. Dylan’s extended absence had taken a toll on her. She’d thrown herself into the teachings of her grandmother, weapons training, and anything to keep her mind off of him. She hadn’t let her mind wander to him as much anymore because it seared her so painfully inside, she could burst out crying any moment. But she didn’t want to be sad anymore. She didn’t want to hurt anymore. Her grandmother’s death and Dylan’s absence were the worst things that had ever happened to her.

Pushing the thoughts from her mind, Shade tried to feel more at ease. She felt peaceful resting on Soap’s chest as his embrace warmed her chilled bones. She let the moment continue, afraid to break the spell of its comfort.

She finally sat up, letting the warmth of his arm slip away. Sighing as she looked into Soap’s ever expectant eyes, she hated not knowing why a twinge of fear knotted in her chest.

“Okay, I’m not promising anything, but we can see where this goes, all right?” Shade held her breath as she waited for his answer, her eyes scanning his face while looking for clues about his feelings. She felt the flutters in her stomach once again as she saw his jeweled emerald eyes light up again as his grin grew across his face.

“Wow, that’s just awesome! You won’t regret this. You have no idea how happy you just made me!”

“Wait.” Shade licked her lips as Soap paused, his face frozen in a half grin. “You have to promise to tell me everything, especially what Dylan meant back at Ursad’s castle.”

“Yes, Shade, of course.”

“And if this doesn’t work out, I don’t want you to hate me. You are special to me, and I don’t want to proceed if I risk losing you. Will you still come around, even then?” She pressed her lips together so hard they were turning a pale white. She almost didn’t want to hear the answer to her question. She just knew that if she lost Soap, too, she would lose her mind.

“Yes, Shade, I would still want to come around. I could never hate you.” He reached over and held her chin in his hand. The sweet wave of warmth spread across her face from his rough warrior hands. Weapons training had been hard on her hands, too. His were as callused as a faery’s hands could get. Hardly anything affected the softness of their skin. She reached up, placing her hands over his and pulling him closer, letting his arms embrace her again.

“Wow, I really am in a bit of a shock, Shade. I’ll make you so happy!” Soap exclaimed while hugging her. He lifted her up and swung her around, letting his contagious laugh ring out across the yard. Benton ran out the front door, looking alarmed, but frowned as he saw them spinning.

“Do you have to be so freakin’ loud? I thought something had happened! Keep it down. I’m talking to Mom!” He scowled at them and stomped back into the house, not wanting to watch their sickening embrace any longer.

Shade’s face flushed red. She wiggled loose from Soap’s hug but didn’t let his hand go. Shaking her head, she turned toward Soap and laughed aloud again. She liked how she felt. Feeling happy for a moment in time, though not long, felt exhilarating.

 

***

 

Dinner had been more than interesting. Jade had given the fridge a shake of her head before deciding to order pizza. Since Camulus had left before their big talk earlier, only Soap remained to eat dinner with the family. Jade eyed him several times during dinner while also glancing at Shade. It was no mystery why he was staying. She just didn’t know what to say to him.

The silence became a little too much to bear for Shade. She chased a bit of pizza down with her Coke and caught her mother staring at Soap again. “Mom, can you please stop staring at us? What’s the matter? Do we have sauce all over our faces?”

Startled, Jade straightened up and frowned at Shade. “I was just trying to see what the heck is going on around here. First I start remembering things I should’ve known all along, and I desperately want to know why I couldn’t before. Then your brother becomes a pyromaniac, setting things on fire in the garage, so I have to keep fire extinguishers around….”

“Wait, you did?” Shade interrupted as she turned, giggling at Benton.

“Shut up! I was trying my powers out!” he grumbled as he stuffed another bite into his mouth.

“Don’t interrupt me, Shade! Now, I won’t have you treading in and out of Faerie like some Fairy Princess, oblivious to the dangers there and with who knows what powers you’ve inherited to keep under control. Let alone bringing one of them here! When is he leaving?”

“Mom!” Shade dropped her half-eaten slice down on her plate, glaring up at her mother. What the rampage was about, she hadn’t a clue. “Did you forget I’m one of them, too?” She stood up, letting the chair fly back onto the floor. Everyone else sat stunned, including Soap. James fidgeted in his chair but began to pick the pepperoni off his pizza and fling it at Benton.

“Stop, you little brat!” Benton gave him a light whack but pulled away as Jade’s voice boomed out.

“Both of you stop that right now!” She pushed away from the table and also stood, staring back at her daughter. “I know perfectly well what you are, Shade. That doesn’t mean I don’t love you. It’s just….” She pointed her slender hand toward Soap, his face serious now as he watched her, glancing quickly at Shade. “He is one of them, Shade. Faeries don’t care how you feel! They’re not human like us! He’ll steal your heart and won’t give it back. He’ll trick you until he gets what he wants and then leave you all alone!” The tears flowed down Jade’s face as her sobs exploded from within. She sank back into her chair with her head in her hands. Her body shook as she cried, and her lonely wailing echoed in the room as the rest of them sat stunned, not knowing what to say or do.

Shade ran around the table and embraced her mother. She knew the pain of her mother’s memory rushing back to her had taken its toll. She hadn’t expected to see Jade fall apart in front of all of them. There was nothing to do but hold onto her and let the grief pass. She realized eighteen years of living in a lie can mess with you immensely. Shade’s own tears streamed down her face and wet her mother’s shirt as she rubbed her mother’s shoulder. Shade hated seeing her cry. She didn’t often break down. She’d always been the family’s rock.

As Jade’s sobbing quieted to nothing, Shade looked up to see Benton had shuffled James and Anna out of the room to watch TV. Only Soap remained. He walked over and handed Shade two napkins. Shade nodded as he removed himself to join the others. Now alone, she pulled away from Jade to offer a napkin. Jade took it and wiped her face, sighing deeply and shaking her head.

“I’m sorry, Shade. I didn’t know when everything came rushing back to me it would get to me so badly. I shouldn’t have said those things. I do hope your friend is not too offended.” She blew her nose and sniffled. She looked at Shade with red-rimmed eyes and studied her daughter’s face. She reached out, touched Shade’s cheek and smiled weakly. “It’s not easy loving a faery. No one can ever replace them, Shade. Usually, a human will love a faery forever, but forever is but a blink of an eye in their lifetime. Don’t forget that. Never underestimate them. I lost years of my life because of it. Your real father may have loved me, but he didn’t ask me if it was okay to erase my memory and make me forget who I was—what I am—and who you are. It will never be okay.”

She sniffled again, wiping her nose and sighing as she nodded. “I’m fine now. Please tell everyone I’m going to bed. I’m pretty exhausted from the shielding spell today. Goodnight, Shade.” They stood for a moment, staring at each other when Jade broke the connection and made her way to her room.

Shade’s eyes lingered in the direction her mother had gone. The weight of the world felt like it was pushing down on her and waiting for her reaction. She cleaned the table off and wiped the crumbs away, relishing the calming effect of such a mundane task.

 

 

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

 

 

 

The faery watched from the edge of the woods. Evangeline let the crisp breeze of wind play with her black-as-night hair as she leaned against one of the mulberry trees. She watched the house where her sister lived. Shaking her head, she smiled as she thought about living in the human world. Her mortal sister had chosen that life, and she hadn’t. They had both grown up in Faerie until she was around seven, then they had moved to this house with their mother, near the edge of the human and Faerie borders. Jade had stayed, and Evangeline had left as soon as she could to live and work in Faerie. Now, staring at her human dwelling brought a rush of memories of them as young girls, laughing and dancing around the backyard. Their giggles echoed in her head as she stared at the soft glow of lights from the kitchen as they blinked off.

She knew why Jade had remained in the human world. She knew all about Verenis and how hard Jade had fallen for the handsome Faerie King of the Southern Realms. She had warned her about falling in love with fey. Watching her sister fall had not been easy. Even when Aveta had ordered Verenis be hunted down, no one could’ve gotten Evangeline to reveal Verenis’s love for Jade. She had remained silent.

The Queen was still none the wiser about Jade. Unfortunately, Verenis’s presence around Jade wouldn’t have gone unnoticed for long. Verenis had realized the danger of Jade’s discovery, especially with her pregnancy at stake. Vange had watched him erase her sister’s memory, watched her forget everything under the spell, even her own sister. She knew immediately Jade wouldn’t remember who she was or who Vange was, either. It had pained Vange to turn away and leave, never to speak with her sister again for fear that Queen Aveta would kill Jade and her unborn daughter.

It had been eighteen years since that fateful day. Now Vange was on the hunt for her niece on the Queen’s orders. She never would’ve guessed Shade was the baby she had turned from to protect so long ago. Vange smiled, looking up at the twinkle of stars which gazed down at her. Oh, the irony of it all, she thought. She knew the moment she’d seen Shade up close, she was Jade’s daughter. She looked like Queen Lana, but Jade’s features stuck out from her like a knife. Vange had hoped Shade wasn’t her long lost niece, but alas, fate was not so kind.

Pondering what she would do or even say to Jade, Vange began her walk down to the house. Her long coat kept out the chill of the night, and she cast a floating witch light in her path to illuminate the way. Vange’s fire powers from her mortal mother were strong in her, just as they were in Jade. The fey blood amplified them even more. There was nowhere she could go that she would ever be in the dark or cold with power like hers. She wondered if Jade was starting to remember anything. Memory charms fade with time, and it could very well be near the time to replenish the charm’s powers. She’d have to do it since Verenis was now long dead. She didn’t want to, but if Shade was to stay safe, she had to make sure Jade remembered nothing.

Vange stopped abruptly, watching her witch light suddenly bounce off an invisible wall. Tilting her head, she scanned the dirt until she spotted what she was looking for. Crouching down, she lit the ground around her with the witch light and frowned, noting the trail of salt and the specks of still-drying blood. Standing again, she reached out to touch the invisible shield before her.

Damn! Jade already knows.

The shield rippled under her hand and sent a vibration of pain up her arm. Pulling her hand away, she winced from the slight shock. Vange had no choice now but to call her sister out of the house and speak with her. The protection shield was strong. Even she could not penetrate it. She concentrated on the shield, feeling not one but three powerful essences embracing the spell. If Jade had found two other Witches to perform the spell with her, they were now as safe as anyone could ever be from faeries, aside from hiding in an oubliette. No one could enter the home without their permission. No one and nothing could penetrate its magic.

Vange paced back and forth for a moment, thinking hard on what she would say to her sister. Maybe she could enter if given permission. She ran her power along the barrier again and found it laced with a disabling spell. Jade had foreseen something. Maybe she had known Vange would come back here for Shade. If she were allowed to enter the grounds, she would be stripped of her powers while within the shield.

Clever, Jade. Very clever.

Vange swallowed back her frustration as she stared at the house beyond the barrier. It had become worn with the years. The exterior structure boasted old, peeling paint and fading bricks. She felt a twinge of longing as she scanned her childhood home. She hadn’t felt the homesickness in so long that it felt nauseating and made her lose her breath as it roiled in her stomach. Squeezing her eyes shut, she breathed in until the pricks of pain eased away. Her eyes fluttered open and narrowed as she called out to her long lost kin.

“Jade! Jade, I need to speak with you! Jade!” Vange paused, waiting for movement from the darkened house. The lights flickered on inside and lit up the living room window. She grinned as she saw shadows shuffle behind the curtains, waiting patiently to see her sister once more.

Jade flung the front door open. The crack of the door slamming on the wall echoed across the empty yard. Shade, Soap, and Benton popped out behind her, eyes wide in surprise and puffy with sleep. They stopped as she came into their vision. Gaping at Vange, Shade looked the most baffled by her sudden appearance. She gripped her mother’s arm, but Jade shook her off. Nothing but recognition danced furiously in Jade’s tiger-brown eyes.

“Vange, I should‘ve known you would eventually come by here.” Jade’s voice dripped with resentment. Her face crinkled into a scowl as she eyed her sister. Realizing suddenly that Vange had remained outside the protective shield, she smirked and started walking toward her sister.

“Mom, wait! Don’t go near her, she’s Aveta’s lieutenant! She’s here to kill us!” Shade gulped back her panic as her mother waved her away. Jade came to stop near the barrier’s edge and gave her sister a once-over. Jade’s lips pressed together tightly as she took a moment to gather her thoughts.

“Sister, how good to see you after all these years,” Vange said. “I never thought I would ever see your shining face again.” She gave her a sinister grin as she patiently waited for Jade to decide what to do about her.

“Why’d you come here, Vange?” A glimpse of pain flashed across Jade’s eyes as she glared at her sister.

“You know why. Verenis’s memory spell has obviously worn off. Unfortunately, I have come too late to salvage it. It could not be helped, Sister.” Vange’s face became serious as she watched Jade fume. She didn’t want to underestimate her, but she had to speak with her at all costs. She sighed. Diplomacy was going to have to win out tonight. “Look, Jade. I swear I’m not going to hurt you or your daughter. I need to speak with you.” Vange glanced around, suddenly aware of how exposed she felt standing outside the barrier wall. “Please let me in, and I can tell you.”

“What makes you think that I would let a lieutenant of Aveta’s near my home? You work for her, Vange! Why should I even trust you?” Jade frowned, ready to march back into the house and forget her.

Evangeline sighed. Her loyalties battled within. She watched her sister, her best friend until she’d left at the age of eighteen to explore the Faerie world. She felt a tug at her heart in a place which had remained cold and dormant for what seemed an eternity. Longing bubbled up into her chest and caught her in a state of panic as Jade began to turn and walk away from her.

“Jade, stop! Please, I’m still your sister,” Vange pleaded. “Nothing will ever change that. Not even Aveta. I swear to you, as my own fey blood binds me. I will do and say nothing to harm you or anyone else in your home. Ever. I promise you this.” She tried to swallow as her mouth turned dry and her heart quickened in desperation.

Jade stopped in her tracks, seemingly torn between returning to the porch where Soap, Shade and Benton waited. Staring down at the grass in the dark shadows cast by the illuminated windows, Jade wrestled with uncertainty. Turning back to her sister, she knew just what Vange had sacrificed in that one moment. Searching her sister’s eyes for absolution, she saw what she needed. Fear and sadness mixed and swirled in her sister’s dark eyes. Jade approached the barrier once more.

“Mom, no!” Shade yelped from the porch. Jade shushed her and waved her away, her eyes never leaving Vange’s. Her intense stare stabbed back at Vange, but the Faery Witch stood her ground. Finally, Jade sighed, releasing a breath that she’d been holding for a while.

“Alright. I hold you to your oath, Evangeline. You will be powerless when you enter here. I made sure of it.” Jade’s hand pierced the barrier as she held it out to her sister. Vange nodded and took it, gripping it tightly, and stepped through the threshold. A slight tingling rush swept through her as she crossed the barrier, making her dizzy for a moment as the magic swept over her, binding her powers completely. She shook her head and glanced up at Jade, a twinge of panic searing through her dark eyes.

“Don’t worry, it isn’t permanent,” Jade stated blandly. “You will be right as rain when you leave our home. Come.” Jade waved her on and turned back toward the house.

Shade released her bite on her bottom lip. The coppery taste of blood tainted her mouth as she realized she’d been clamping on it too hard. She eyed Vange as she passed her and ducked into the house, not giving her a second’s look. Glancing at Soap, her displeasure spilled across her face.

“We can’t trust her, Soap. What are we going to do?” Shade said.

Soap stepped forward, embracing her tightly as his long golden-brown hair swept over her like a cape. “There is nothing to do, Shade. I think you shouldn’t underestimate your mother. She looks like she could probably handle herself quite well if need be. Besides, she has made sure we are protected here. I won’t let anything happen, okay?” He loosened his embrace as Shade nodded. She was slightly reassured, but still alarmed. She sighed as they turned to enter the house.

 

 

Chapter Twenty

 

 

 

“I never could stand living here. The iron in the pipes and pans appalled me. You’re lucky it never fazed you.” Evangeline stood leaning on the kitchen counter with her arms crossed. She looked slightly uncomfortable but tried to appear more at ease. She wasn’t used to being in this kind of situation. Being an Unseelie leader for so long, diplomacy was not in her vocabulary. Most things she just took by force. Now, observing her sister as she moved through the room made Vange wonder where her long-lost peace had gone.

“Here, drink this,” Jade said, handing her a cup. “It will help with the iron effects since you have no power to shield you.” The cup was full of some sort of concoction she had whipped up.

“It’s not poison, is it?” Vange gave her slight, nervous chuckle, attempting to cover up her reluctance.

Jade sighed. “No, it’s not poison. If you don’t believe me, you can just leave.” She slumped down at the kitchen table where Soap, Shade, and a sleepy-looking Benton waited.

Vange glanced down at the swirling white fluid. The nausea from the iron in the house made her head swim and had brought her dangerously close to fainting. She had envied Jade’s human resistance to the iron toxicity that her own faery heritage had cursed her with. At least with a shield of glamour, Vange had endured it quite well as a child. Now it was like breathing in fumes of exhaust that penetrated down to her gut. No wonder we leave the cities to the mundane humans, thought Vange. She sighed and downed the potion with a quick swallow. The queasiness faded as the sweet liquid filled her stomach. It quieted the pain and dizziness so fast that Vange felt exhilarated to feel normal once again.

“Wow, it’s glamour without glamour! That’s amazing, Jade. You always did have the most powerful gift of the magical arts. I never thought I’d see you as a full-fledged Witch.” She grinned, tossing the empty cup into the sink. “Now, since I feel quite alright again, where do you want to start?” She felt giddy, almost drunk. “What was in that stuff? It’s good!”

Jade rolled her eyes. Shade pressed her lips tight to avoid doing the same. Only Soap let out a stifled chuckle but stopped and cleared his throat to shield it when Shade elbowed his ribs.

“I learned to make it as an apprentice to Gilarel. She was a gifted teacher of the magical arts and a powerful Witch. She taught me well. And I paid attention.” Jade tilted her head at her sister and motioned for her to sit in one of the empty chairs at the table. “Why did you come here, Vange?” Jade asked. “I’m not powerless against a memory charm like I once was, so you can forget about reinstating it. Why risk yourself to come here? You can’t have Shade if that’s what it is. She’s under my protection, and you and I both know I can still match you. Even out of practice, I can still outwit you.” She waited, watching the blood drain from Vange’s face as the memories washed over both of them.

“I didn’t come here to fight, Sister. I wanted to warn you. My legions are at war right now with Prince Lotinar’s armies. If they break through, they will come here and take Shade. With or without me. Corb is in command. He is ruthless, and his heart is as black as pitch. He does not hesitate and will not be swayed against killing her or taking her back to Aveta. He is truly the Ice King.” She sucked in a breath and turned to Shade, eyeing the ampule of Santiran Water around her neck.

“Aveta wants that Water Magic, Shade. She wants you to wield it for her. She will stop at nothing to win this war. She’ll even break the wards between our worlds. No human will be safe, no place will be hidden. I’ve come to warn you, that’s all.” Vange turned her attention back to her sister. “You may think I’ve forgotten the past, but I live with it every day and keep it deep inside where not even Aveta can see. I don’t want you or any of my kin harmed.” She rubbed her eyes. Her once strong and confident mask melted away as her fatigue became apparent. Dark circles stood out starkly under her slightly reddened eyes.

Jade’s face was cold and hard. “We are safe here,” she said, “even from her. I will make the necessary arrangements to stay here for long periods of time. Promise me this, though: you will steer them away as best you can, without notice. Then I shall believe everything you say.” Shade was impressed with her mother’s calmness. This new Mom was a fierce warrior, something the memory charm seemed to have suppressed.

“I promise I will,” Vange answered. “But I can’t hold them back forever. You do understand that, right? Corb will notice my diversion eventually. I’m afraid you might have to eventually leave and go into hiding. I’m sorry about this. I should’ve never let it get this far. The Unseelie Queen has grown far too strong, and even I can’t overtake her now. I never meant it to go this far.” Glistening tears welled up in her eyes, but they reluctantly didn’t spill down her cheeks.

Shade watched the emotion play across her aunt’s face. She suddenly wondered why Vange had joined Aveta’s ranks. She knew about Vange’s past with Jack, and the reasoning behind breaking such a happy union baffled her. Plus, if Vange was half human, too, why didn’t Aveta use her to wield the Santiran Water Magic?

“Vange?” Shade asked quietly.

The raven-haired faery faced Shade, straightening a bit as she pulled her hard exterior around herself once more. “Yes, Shade?”

“Why did you join Aveta? Why did you leave Jack to go work for her? And if you are also a halfling, why can’t you work the Water Magic for your Queen instead of me? I don’t get it.” Shade leaned forward, drilling her gaze into her aunt’s hardened face.

“Because I have hidden my human side for very specific reasons, namely all of you. And Jack? What do you mean I left Jack? How do you know about that…?” Vange’s stutter gave away her surprise as she backed into her chair, wincing at the mention of her former love’s name.

“He said you were engaged and that you suddenly up and left one day to join Aveta’s army. Why would you do that? Why leave your true love?” Shade gulped, hoping she hadn’t gotten on Vange’s dark side.

Vange stared back at her, horrified. Her lips contorted into a scowl. Realizing her slip, she let her face slide back into a blank canvas, but she could not hide the seething rage behind her dark eyes.

“I don’t think it is any of your business. I work for Aveta, and that is all,” She snapped at Shade as she stood up. Turning toward Jade, Vange calmed her voice but remained intensely serious. “Jade, I’ll be leaving you now. If I do not return soon, Corb will become suspicious.” She nodded her farewell and turned abruptly, leaving out the front door, and out of the protective dome.

Reaching the other side of the barrier, she collapsed down to her knees as the force of her powers returning to her took her breath away. Gasping, she turned back to the house, seeing her sister watching her from afar. Vange took in slow deep breaths as she regained her composure, returning the gaze before swiftly running away into the blackened forest of the night.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One

 

 

 

Shade woke at first light. The events of the night rushed through her cloudy mind as she stretched and rubbed her face. She felt sedated, wanting to roll back into the warm, soft blankets of her bed. She sighed, feeling the anxiety of everything relentlessly tugging at her thoughts. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and her feet tapped the cool wooden floors. The morning chill sent a shudder through her as she rubbed her arms. It was starting to get colder, much more quickly than it usually did. Shade groaned. She hated winter more than anything. The warmer climate of summer suited her well. She wouldn’t mind the blazing heat all year long if it were up to her.

Standing, she shuffled to the bathroom next to her room in the hall, throwing some clothes into her arms on the way. After an exhilarating hot shower, she felt more awake and focused, ready to face any problems. Exiting the bathroom, she stared down the hall toward the room where Soap was staying for now. It was Dylan’s old room, but it was their only guest room. A sting of pain seared into her chest as the thought of him tore into her. She wanted to see his gleaming grey eyes and run her fingers through his soft, thick black hair. She wondered where he was and what he was doing. The weeks had turned into months, and each day she was away from him was harder than the last.

She sighed as she pulled her wet locks back into a pony-tale. At that moment, Soap came out of his room. His hair was ruffled just a bit, but he was still as handsome as ever. Shade envied the faery’s ability to look gorgeous, even at five-thirty in the morning.

“Hey beautiful, sleep well?” He scratched his head and ran his hands through his hair. He wore it loose while he slept, and she liked how it framed his shoulders in a satiny spill. His green eyes stared back at her, filled with adoration and love. She smiled back at him, feeling her face burn with his eyes dancing along her features.

“Yep, but I couldn’t sleep anymore. There’s just too much on my mind. Did you? Sleep good, I mean?” She cleared her throat, diverting her eyes down to the mirror on the far wall.

“Yeah, pretty good. You sure you’re okay?” He reached out and brushed the back of his hand down her cheek, sending a shudder through her.

“Yes, I’m fine. Just not liking the cold mornings.” She rubbed her arms, shaking his disarming touch away. She liked it well enough, but it took over her concentration to the point of distraction.

Soap took it for a shiver and embraced her, letting the radiating, luxurious heat fill her in the cold hallway. She almost pulled away but let his arms melt into her a she enjoyed the warmth that pushed the cold away. Shade sighed. She felt content to be hugged tightly. Closing her eyes, she pressed her cheek against his chest, feeling the calm thump of his heart under his shirt. She felt him kiss her forehead gently as she inhaled his woodsy-pine scent. She wondered if all the fey smelled faintly of a forest full of pine and honeysuckle. Dylan had the same scent, with a slight smoky tinge to it. She sighed, letting Soap squeeze her one more time before pulling back out of his warm embrace. He reluctantly loosened his grip and smiled at her. Grinning back, she felt a rush of scarlet rush to her face. His gleaming eyes made her swoon every time. She shook off the giddiness and turned toward the other end of the hall, toward the living room.

She could feel Soap, his eyes on her as she left and heard his soft steps pad off toward the bathroom. Once in the living room, she plopping herself down on the couch and finally caught her breath. Her heart was racing, and her mind was euphoric from Soap’s hug. There was surely something about him that she couldn’t pinpoint that made her swoon. He either radiated some type of love magic or she was just more attracted to him since he’d been around more. She didn’t know and still wasn’t sure what to think of it.

“Coffee?” Jade stood at the doorway to the kitchen observing her daughter with beady, dark eyes. She examined Shade’s pink cheeks as a slight grin played on the edges of her lips. Shade rolled her eyes disapprovingly at her mother and then nodded in response to her question. Jade set a cup of steaming coffee on the coffee table and sat in the armchair next to the couch. She sipped her own cup, slowly blowing the heat of the drink away.

“Having a good morning?” Jade inquired. Shade frowned and busied herself by sipping the hot beverage. She muttered an “uh-huh” back to her mother. She hated being spotted looking all giddy from Soap’s effects on her, let alone telling her mother anything about her dating life.

“I know I can trust you with a boy in the house, but I remind you that I will not tolerate any funny business. You know better than that already, and I expect nothing to change around here. All the rules are to be followed as usual.” Jade spoke softly, her voice low even though she could hear the shower on as Soap bumped around the bathroom. Shade sighed while nodding in agreement but feeling even more embarrassed from the mother-daughter talk than anything else.

The coffee warmed her insides almost as much as Soap’s embrace but left her feeling less euphoric. She finished her cup and tossed it into the sink while looking out the kitchen window. Shade spotted Benton in the backyard chatting with Anna. Anna was enthralled with his new abilities and was watching him light candles that she had lined up on the picnic table that they used for afternoon lunches in the spring and summer.

Shade scowled, wondering if it was their mother who had told Benton he could show off his magic to their siblings. James was also watching but sat hypnotized on the bench as the candles flickered on and off with every wave of Benton’s hand. They giggled and laughed, enjoying his little tricks in the cool morning. Shade didn’t think it was a good idea. Anna and James were young and very impressionable. Well, maybe James more than Anna. Anna was almost sixteen. James was just six.

Shade looked away and began rummaging through the cupboards for breakfast. She grabbed some cereal and milk from the fridge. As she ate, she wondered what her mother had in mind for them to do since the war was definitely going to come their way. She knew that they would be making a trip to gather supplies like water, food, batteries and other stuff. Faery War Survival 101 was now in session.

Yay, thought Shade, hope we live through this one.

Soap waltzed in just then and plopped down in front of her. A big toothy smile met her eyes. She laughed, finding it funny that he could always find a way to make her smile.

“What’s up?” Shade said, stuffing another spoonful of cereal into her mouth. She watched his face turn serious, concern bubbling beneath the emerald sea of his eyes. She stopped chewing. A slight panic welled up in her as she continued to stare at him. “Soap? What’s wrong?”

“Do you think Evangeline really cares what happens to you? Or us, for that matter? I don’t trust her. She gave me a real bad feeling last night. Didn’t you feel it, Shade?” He shook his head as he took a deep breath. “I don’t know. I think that she might set a trap for you. You must be very vigilant from now on. She could strike in any way possible.” His hands slid across the table to envelope hers. Her cereal lay mushy in her long-forgotten bowl. She stared down at their hands and thought about his words.

“Yeah. I don’t think I can trust her just yet,” Shade said. “She seemed genuine enough, but who knows? I just want my family safe. Whatever her agenda may be, I want to be ready.” Rinsing her bowl in the sink, she leaned on the counter and watched Soap as he poured himself a cup of coffee.

“When we go to the store today, I think it’s a good idea for you to stay here. I can go with Jade to get the supplies.” His eyes avoided her as he fetched the milk and sugar to stir into his drink.

“What? But I’m supposed to go with her today. Who decided this?”

“I did.” Jade walked in and stood before her, her face serious but her eyes betraying her exhaustion. “I agree with Soap, you need to stay here where it’s safe. We’ll get everything. You can watch your brothers and sister while we’re gone.”

“But…,” Shade stammered.

“No buts. I mean it, Shade. You stay put.” Jade nodded toward Soap, who chugged down the last of his coffee and followed her out of the kitchen. He glanced back, winking at Shade before disappearing around the corner.

Shade’s fury filled her inside as she bit her lip. Darn! This is so unfair! She stomped her foot but sighed, realizing how futile it all was. She knew they were right. She just couldn’t stand being cooped up in the house anymore, not after running around in Faerie and trekking across its vast lands. Staying indoors seemed to make her more restless than ever before. She headed out the back door to see what Benton was teaching her siblings. She might as well make sure he wasn’t corrupting their young minds.

“Shade! Guess what? I have fire powers, too!” Anna ran up to her wearing a gleaming smile that squeezed her eyes into small slits. Shade returned a grin, wondering what the heck Anna was talking about.

“What do you mean?” Shade stumbled as her sister grabbed her hand and yanked her forward toward the table. Benton gave her nod and a wicked smile. Shade gulped, hoping she wasn’t about to witness something she was going to wish she didn’t know.

“Benny? Tell her I can do it just like you can.”

“Do what, Anna?” Shade sat down on the bench, watching them intently as they glanced at each other.

“Can I?” Anna asked Benton. He nodded and continued to smile. Shade pressed her lips together as she squirmed in her seat.

“Okay, Shade, you have to see what I can do! Watch!” Anna held out her hand toward the unlit candles. She gave her flick of her wrist, and the candles danced to life, igniting in a slight flare before settling into the normal height of a burning wick.

“Did you see that?” Anna jumped and squealed in excitement. Benton looked pretty smug and proud, as though watching an apprentice achieve their first lesson. Shade stood up suddenly, wide-eyed and almost speechless.

“Wh-what was that? You can do it, too? She’s a Fire Witch, too?” Shade looked at her brother, who sat quiet and still as he watched her reaction.

“Yes, Shade. Anna can do it. She’s my sister, too, you know. We do share the same genes.” His smirk made Shade want to whack him on the head. She restrained herself as she willed her anger away.

“Okay, does Mom know this? Because if she doesn’t, all hell is gonna break loose.” Shade crossed her arms, feeling more ignored with every word as Anna and Benton shrugged their shoulders and turned back to what they were doing. “I mean it, guys. She needs to know right now. She’s gonna flip if she finds out some other way.”

Anna frowned, rolled her eyes at her sister and sighed. “I know that. I’m not a child anymore, in case you haven’t noticed. And yes, Mom knows. She knows everything now. I wouldn’t worry about that!” She flicked her hand again and the candles whooshed, expiring with tendrils of smoke floating away into the sky. Shade couldn’t help but feel a tad left out. Her siblings were full humans, even with their special powers, and she wasn’t.

She shook her head, sitting back down on the bench. She watched as Anna continued to make balls of fire and light float around like enormous fireflies. She couldn’t resist wanting to reach out and touch one. Instead, she concentrated on making sure none of the balls of fire hit James, who was standing way too close to Benton and Anna.

She watched them until her eyeballs dried out. Blinking, she sat back, letting herself relax just a bit as she fumbled with her ampule of Santiran Water around her neck. She watched them drop some of the flaming balls onto the dead grass, fire flaring up instantly. Shade jumped to her feet, searching for the hose that lay snaked across the lawn to douse the flames. She turned the spout on and sent a spray as far as it would reach, hitting the flames with a blast of water. The flames hissed and died, leaving shadows on the blackened earth and dead grass.

One fireball flared up some of the drier brush near the edge of the lawn, sending Benton scrambling as it lit up, angrily eating the kindling as it hurried toward the house.

“Crap! I can’t control it, it’s too wild now!” Benton yelled out as he waved his arms frantically, calming some of the flames but unable to keep up as new spots flared up. Anna grabbed the hose as Shade handed it to her.

If Mom was here, she could douse it, thought Shade as she ran closer, racking her brain for what to do. Fingering her necklace, she gasped. The ampule of course!

Shade grasped her amulet of Santiran Water. She could feel the magic seep out into her. She held her hands up, gathering the water spraying from the hose and began to send it spraying along the bottom of the raging fire. The flames fought back, angrily bursting up into the air and grabbing onto more dried grass and brush. The heat burned and the water dissipated into columns of steam. Shade breathed in again. She closed her eyes, trying to pull water from not only the hose but the air and clouds above, too. She could feel the air shift as she willed a storm to gather and begin to dump its cooling downpour over the fire and them.

Clouds of steam continued to hiss and float away as the flames calmed and withered under the heavy rain. Shade finally opened her eyes, watching the sheets of water pour down onto the scorched earth. Breathing hard, she let the cool water ease the sudden exhaustion that flowed through her bones. This was the most water she had ever wielded, more than the light drizzles of rain she had conjured up before. She collapsed down onto her hands and knees, feeling a drip of warm, oozing blood from her nose trickle down her lips and chin.

“Shade! Are you okay? Shoot, shoot, shoot!” Benton knelt down next to her, their clothes already soaked through. His dark hair clung to his face in matted, drenched curls. Shade nodded as she looked at him, wiping her nose on her shirt. He helped her stand on her wobbly feet. Her head swam as the world seemed to spin. Her eyes rolled back as she blinked, fighting unconsciousness. Only the cool splashing of the rain kept her awake, reminding her to keep her eyes open.

“Hold on, Sis. Let’s get you to the house.” Anna took her other arm and helped Benton as they practically dragged her back into the house. Shade managed a glance toward where the fire had eaten its path. Small tendrils of smoke were all that were left its rage. The tinkering of rain on the roof filled her ears as the rain continued its pounding.

“Grab some blankets and towels, Anna! James, help her, and hurry up before I put Shade on the couch.” Shade heard more than she saw. Her vision wavered in and out. Shadows and light flickered as she tried to regain focus.

I’m gonna be sick!

“Um, bring her a bucket too!” Benton plopped her down on the soft towels Anna had laid over some blankets. Shade’s clothes stuck to her like a second skin, feeling cold and making her shiver. She rolled over as Benton fitted a bucket in her hands.

The wave of nausea subsided as she breathed in hard. She let Anna take the bucket from her and rolled back into the warm bliss of blankets that were now wrapped around her. Shade let the darkness fill her vision until nothing but quiet and black cocooned her.

 

***

 

“I don’t know what you were thinking. Playing with fire is not a game! You’re young and untrained, and you’re irresponsible to boot. You can’t be wielding fire without my supervision. Is that understood? You too, Anna.” Jade’s voice echoed from the kitchen into the living room where it roused Shade. Her eyes blinked, adjusting to the dim light of the room.

Gosh, this is a familiar scene. Shade tried to sit up on the couch but quickly sank back down as her temples throbbed in protest. Oh, ow, ow, ow! She grabbed her head as the pain surged through it. As she waited, it calmed to a dull ache. Her healing magic was working, but she still felt depleted and worn out.

“Shade, are you up? Feeling better? Here, drink this. It helps you get better faster and re-energizes you.” Her mother said as she came to sit on the couch next to her, handing her a cup of sweet liquid. Shade drank it greedily and felt better almost immediately. She closed her eyes, letting the liquid run its course through her. Shade glanced up to her mother and smiled. Jade’s concern shone in her eyes as she studied her daughter’s face.

“Yeah, I feel much better now. Thank you. How’s everyone else? How long have I been out?” Shade looked around the room but only spotted Soap, sitting quietly in the armchair next to the couch. She smiled weakly at him as he grinned at her.

“Everyone is fine. You’ve been out for about an hour. I need you to do something. I’m hoping you can get up and work some magic that only you can do. How ‘bout it? Feel up to it? If not, I can get you some more elixir to help you out.” Jade’s voice was shielding something as she helped Shade slowly sit up.

“Um, yeah. I think I can. Why, what’s going on?” Shade furrowed her brow, staring at her mother’s blank face.

“It’s nothing serious, really, but if you don’t shut off the rain, it will be.” Jade’s face cracked into a smile as they both burst out laughing.

“I guess I went overboard there! At least, nothing else caught fire.” Shade sighed, thinking back to the raging fire that had almost reached the house.

“Yes, indeed. I already told Benton and Anna to be more careful. I have to start training them, or we might not have a house left to live in!” Jade smiled, and her warm, motherly self resurfaced on her face. Shade had missed it. Everything had been so different since she’d returned. She’d been sure nothing would return to the way it was before, especially her mother. “So whenever you’re ready, we should shut off the water spout of heaven before we need an ark.” Jade winked at her.

“Okay, I’m ready.” Shade tried to stand but found her legs very shaky and weak. Soap was at her side in a flash and practically carried her to the back porch. Sitting her on a chair, he let his arms slide away from her slowly, staring into her eyes as he relished her touch. Shade flushed as she smiled, brushing her stiff, disheveled hair away from her face. She decided must have looked a wreck after sleeping with her hair sopping wet. She bit her tongue, trying not to think about it.

Shade watched the rain as it tapped its rhythm on the roof and rippled the small puddles now forming in the grass. The ground was saturated. She wondered if she could make it flood. Probably, if I really wanted to. She smiled, fingering the ampule around her neck and willing the power to swirl around her. She held her hands out, feeling the rain’s power vibrating in the atmosphere. It felt wonderful, cool and radiating power. It would do what she wanted: pour, spray, drizzle or gather into a fierce, rushing wave. It felt exhilarating and made her skin tingle with magic. She let the energy fill her as she pulled it back into her, wrangling in the storm.

She took her time. The last time she’d let the magic fly madly out of her, and it caused her to weaken and wear out too fast. She breathed in slowly as the magic funneled back to her, swirling into the ampule around her neck. The clouds dispersed and the blackened storm clouds faded until the rain was all but gone. Opening her eyes, she grinned, feeling proud and elated she was able to control the magic this time. Soap hugged her as they all praised her efforts.

“See? I knew you could do it, Shade!” Soap reluctantly let go as Jade tapped his shoulder, motioning for him to move. He stepped away as Jade now hugged Shade.

“Mom,” Shade groaned as she squirmed in the chair from all of the attention. She felt more like herself and didn’t want to be babied or treated like an invalid. She sat in the chair a while longer as she watched the sun shine down, slowly drying up the sodden grass and trees. Huge droplets of water dripped down from the porch roof and glistened in the light. She smiled, hoping their happiness would last.

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

 

 

“Where are you going?” Shade stood at the doorway of Soap’s room as he stuffed his recently cleaned and sharpened weapons. She watched him nervously as he finished depositing the last sword into his pack and stuffed a dagger in a scabbard strapped to his belt.

“Nowhere,” he said. “I’m just stowing away my weapons, making sure they’re ready to go just in case I need them.” He turned toward her as he dropped the bag onto the bed and came to stand before her. He reached out, sweeping a loose strand of her hair out of her face. Her eyes darted back and forth across his handsome face. She was feeling torn and attempted to hide her panic. “Why so nervous? I said I wouldn’t leave you, didn’t I?” He pulled her close and embraced her in a warm hug. She let his scent envelope her as she pushed the crazy thoughts of him possibly leaving out of her mind.

“Sorry, it’s just that for a second there, I thought you were going to leave, too. Just like….”

“Just like Dylan?” Soap stepped back away from her, studying her eyes and searching them for whatever it was he was looking for. His lips pressed together, firmly and with slight irritation. “I thought you wouldn’t think of me like that,” he sighed as he tied up the end of his bag on the bed. He refused to look back at her as he finished and started on his clothes, folding the freshly washed trousers and shirts. He’d taken to using khaki cargo pants and jeans while living with her instead of the linen and leather pants he usually wore in Faerie. He was a pair of jeans at the moment. They were soft and worn and clung to him like a well-worn glove. She couldn’t help but gaze at his arm muscles as they rippled while he worked. He was not a wimpy kind of guy, and it had not escaped her notice.

“I’m sorry,” Shade stumbled as she spoke to him. “I didn’t mean for you to think I was thinking of you like that. I can’t help it if I still miss Dylan. We are still bound, and I don’t know how to undo it. The way I feel probably has something to do with it.” She sat down in the chair next to the bed, moving a pair of his boots from the chair to the floor.

Soap turned to her. His eyebrows furrowed as his stare intensified. His eyes turned dark green as he continued to stare, making her gulp. She could feel something upsetting him. His eyes were like a mood ring which never lied.

“Shade, I don’t think it has anything to do with that at all,” he said as he sat down on the bed and ran his fingers through his long hair, ruffling it up and causing some strands to dangle out of place. “Do you know what I mean, Shade?”

“No. What do you mean?” She pulled her legs up onto the chair and leaned on her knees, tightly hugging her calves and dreading his answer.

“I mean that even though you have given us a chance, even though I have tried to give you everything your heart desires, I’m still on the outside looking in. I worry I won’t see your face light up again, the way it lights up when you look at him. I’m wide open, but I keep banging against your walls. I just don’t know, Shade. It’s been a month, and I am no closer to getting into your heart than I was before. Is there anything I can do? Anything at all, aside from magic of course, which can change your heart?” He watched her as she rocked silently on the chair, wringing her fingers together as her head lay sideways on her knees.

“I don’t know,” she croaked. “I don’t know anything.” Letting go of her legs, she let them slip to the floor. “What do you want me to say? I said I had no guarantees. I’m sorry if that’s not what you’re looking for.” Shade held her gaze to the wooden floorboards, afraid to meet his eyes. She wanted to fall in love with him. He was everything she should want, but it wasn’t enough. Somehow, she didn’t know why it wasn’t him she was waiting for. She did love him in her own way, but it didn’t fill the hole left gaping in her chest when Dylan had left.

“Besides, you haven’t been totally honest with me, Soap. You never have told me what Dylan meant when he said you weren’t telling me everything.” She sucked in her breath, bit down on her lip and closed her eyes.

I sound so childish! How do I get out of this? Think, think, think!

Soap knelt down before her in a flash. His eyes burned in fury, but he kept it in control as he cupped her chin gently and held her face so that they were eye to eye.

“Shade, you want to know why it is that no one trusts me? Fine. I had hoped not to have to retell it, for it was a very long time ago, and I don’t care to recall it. But for you, to make you happy, I can suffer through it one more time. But I do require that you, at least, look at me.” Soap’s voice was stern and cold.

Shade opened her eyes to stare straight into his. She waited quietly as he slumped back onto the floor, leaning his back and head against the bed. His face suddenly looked tired and defeated. She wanted to grab him and kiss him until that look faded away.

Why do I have to feel so conflicted inside?

“It was about a hundred years ago when I was about twenty years old. Young for a faery, but an adult by human years,” Soap began. “I had just begun to control my powers. I tested them out often, changing into different faeries and using the different powers as I learned to master each one. Ilarial had sent me to live with the Teleen Clan to learn my heritage from them. I never discovered who my mother was or if she or my father was of that heritage. I guess I’m not destined to know. Either way, I spent months in their caverns learning their culture and ways as any Teleen should know, even a Halfling like me.

“Dylan was already captain of the Teleen Guard back then. He kept a close eye on me and all my dealings among them. I don’t think he ever trusted me. He was suspicious of everyone, even then. Well, to get to the point, while I was there, Jack was also a frequent visitor. One time, he came with a beautiful raven-haired human faery named Evangeline. She was a Fire Witch, and she was part Sidhe Fey, much like you. Everyone was fascinated by her. She had paired off with Jack and many of the men were jealous. Darren, in particular, was very intrigued by her. You could say it bordered on obsession. He hated that she’d chosen Jack and that they would soon be married. I now know he devised his plan to break them up in his sick, twisted way. I was young and naïve and a little too trusting.

He convinced me Evangeline was no good for Jack and that she meant him more harm than good. He knew about my Changeling powers and devised a plan for Evangeline to meet me in the guise of Jack and get her to admit to whatever treachery she was up to. So when the day came, I met her in a secluded place. Darren hid from sight to watch what would happen.

“When she came to that place, she was happy to see Jack. I spoke to her. I told her I no longer wanted or needed her. I told her that her human blood would be a taint to the Teleen bloodlines and I was ashamed to have thought that it would work out. I told her I didn’t love her at all.”

Soap stopped. His eyes glazed over at the long-ago memory, the horror of the moment repeating itself on his upset face. Shade sat wide-eyed, listening and hoping he’d somehow fixed it.

“You said that to her?” Shade’s voice came out soft and choked as tears stung her eyes. Oh no. Why would you do that, Soap? Why?

“Yes. And since she couldn’t see it was all a trick, she immediately ran and gathered her things. She ran so far away from Jack, he never even knew what had happened.

“After she left the secluded place where we’d met, I heard Darren laughing. He’d watched the whole thing and thought it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen. I grew infuriated. I ran toward him and started to hit him, realizing what he had really meant to do was to break them up.

“Dylan arrived soon after. He obviously had been following his brother, and he broke apart the fight. He demanded to know what was going on and Darren cheerfully told him what we had done. I was so mad, I wanted to kill him. I don’t know how I could’ve been so stupid. By the time we made it back to the Caverns, she was long gone. There was nothing we could do except tell Jack that she had left.

“Dylan bound us to not tell anyone about what happened because Darren would’ve been in a whole lot of trouble. He was just trying to save his brother, but there was no one there to save me. I left Teleen after that. I tried, but I was never able to track Evangeline down to tell her the truth. Now too much time has passed, and I know she wouldn’t hear the truth even if I told her.”

Soap hung his head down, wiping away some tears which slipped from his eyes. His face remained solemn and still. Shade let go of the breath she held, not knowing what to say. No wonder Dylan never trusted him. And Jack, poor Jack! He was all but oblivious to it all. She wondered what else she could say. Soap was sorry, but messing things up for Jack and Evangeline like that was basically unforgiveable.

Shade slumped. She decided she wouldn’t judge him on that. It wasn’t her forgiveness he needed. She reached out toward him as she slipped to floor with him and touched his face. Trails of tears traced his cheeks as he blinked up at her. His eyes were dark as he silently wept. She sat next to him and embraced him from the side, leaning her head on his chest.

“Well, that’s something you live with every day, I bet. I know you would take it back if you could. I know you’re not evil or malicious inside, that’s not you. Don’t ever believe that. The day will come when you can make it right.” Shade turned toward him and smiled, brushing his long locks aside. He nodded, wiping the wetness from his face as he took a deep breath.

“Sorry, I don’t really like you seeing me like this, bawling like a baby.” Soap let out a haughty laugh as he sighed. Staring out into space, his eyes glazed into a far-off look. Shade stood up and held her hand out to him, breaking his trance.

“Come on, silly, I’m helping Mom find a place for all the crap you guys bought. Who knew you could fit all that into a minivan? Cans of food galore and oodles of water bottles everywhere! I can’t even see the TV from the couch. Let’s make it more livable.” She tugged on his arm and he jumped up to his feet. She gave him a wide grin before pulling him out of his room and toward the living room mess.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

 

 

 

The afternoon flew by as they stacked the supplies of food, water, and other necessities into organized piles. The living room looked cramped but cozy when they finished, and there was room for even more supplies if need be. Shade flopped onto the couch, exhausted from hauling the heavy boxes of cans and bottles around the room. She stretched her arms and legs to straighten out the kinks and cramps which rippled through them. It was definitely more fun doing weapons training than moving stuff around a room. Soap sank into the couch next to her and grabbed her legs, kneading her calf muscles until she screeched at him in pain.

“Ow! Not so hard!”

“I have to if I’m gonna get these knots out. Why so tense?” He grinned as he eased up on his grip, massaging her muscles with a lighter touch.

“I’m not, it’s just, I’m tired of rearranging all this heavy stuff. I hope we don’t have to hole-up in here very long. Who knows how long this war will last? I just don’t see how this will help at all.” Shade frowned as her eyes scanned the room.

“Well, I’m sure Jade knows that,” Soap reassured her. “You know, you should give her more credit than you do. I’m sure you’re much more like strangers now that her power is back. She has a lot to teach you. I would take the opportunity to learn more about her and her powers. It could only help you.” He let go of her legs as she swung them off the couch, scooting to sit next to him.

“I’m sure you’re right, Soap. I’ll try to ‘get to know her’ better again.” She winked, grinning as she stood up and headed toward the kitchen. A knock at the door, stopping her in her tracks. She glanced around at her mother, who sat at the kitchen table, and then back at Soap. They both gave her a shrug of their shoulders.

“I’ll get it,” Soap volunteered. Shade sucked her breath in as she stood behind the door, hoping it wasn’t anyone with bad intentions and trying to shake the dreadful feeling away. She remembered that any faery with bad intentions couldn’t enter the barrier shield they had made.

“Um, hi. Is Shade here?” a familiar voice rang through the doorway. Shade’s mouth dropped open as she let the door swing wider to stare upon her best friend, Brisa.

“Brisa? What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at college?” Shade asked suspiciously.

Brisa’s eyebrows shot up as she eyed her friend with surprise. “Uh, it’s Thanksgiving weekend, remember? I told you I would stop by the last time we spoke on the phone. Did you forget so fast? Um, did I come at a bad time?” She looked past Shade at the stacks of containers which lined the walls behind her.

Shade’s face flushed scarlet as she pulled her best friend into the house. “No, no, please come in. I’m just surprised to see you, that’s all. You know me, ever the forgetful one.” Shade smiled weakly as she closed the door behind them and gave her friend a tight hug.

“Okay, well. I brought over a pumpkin pie. I’m having dinner later at my parents but thought I would stop by here first and catch up on stuff. How have you been? Looks like you’ve been busy.” Brisa stared at Soap intensely, unable to pull her gawking eyes away from the handsome faery. “Hi. I’m Brisa.” She held a shaky hand out to him.

Soap grinned as he took her hand and kissed it, making her legs go weak. “Hello, Brisa. I’m Rylan, but everyone calls me Soap.”

Shade rolled her eyes and pulled her friend away to the couch. “So how’s college? Meet any cute boys there? Is it hard? Is there lots of homework?” Shade bit her lip to stop talking.

Brisa adjusted herself on the couch, stealing quick glances at Soap. “Oh, there are a few cute ones, but college guys are so serious. It’s hard to catch their notice ‘cause I don’t have multiple classes with most of them. Homework is okay. It keeps me busy.” She smiled at Shade, elated to see her friend.

“So, um, where’s Dylan?” Brisa whispered.

“He’s gone back to Faerie on a mission for his Queen,” Shade said bluntly, not wanting to tread any further on the subject.

“Oh.” Brisa wrung her hands together, feeling the tension in the air. “Look, I feel like I walked in at the wrong time, so I’ll probably get going. Call me when you have a minute. I’ve got a ton to tell you.” Brisa stood up but Shade grabbed her hand.

“No, please stay. I’m sorry. There’s just a lot happening. I should’ve told you sooner.” Rubbing her head, she searched for the words she needed. “Come on, let’s get a drink or something.” Shade tugged at her friend and pulled her toward the kitchen.

Jade sat at the kitchen table, watching as Shade and Brisa made their way to the counter. Glancing outside for a minute, Shade saw Anna sitting on the picnic table lighting and relighting a candle with James watching her intently.

“Are they doing what I think they’re doing?” Brisa was also staring out the window, but with a dumbfounded look on her face. She quickly composed herself and turned back to Shade. “They have powers like you, don’t they?”

Shade nodded, not sure what else to say.

“I see Anna is really into this fire wielding thing, huh Mom?” Shade shifted her weight and glanced at her mother, who was sipping her drink quietly and watching the exchange.

“Yes, she will be quite powerful, even being fully human. Our fire powers run deep and will be quite useful for her when they are in full bloom. I was afraid if I had any children, I would’ve start training them young for them to have any real use of their powers. I lost so much time, Shade. So much time,” Jade said as she rubbed her eyes, looking exhausted.

Shade was willing to bet the whole situation was taking its toll on her mother more than on her. Her mother’s hair was soft and freshly washed. It hung in thick locks over her shoulders. They looked almost black while wet, and the pieces which were drying curled into soft waves of dark tendrils. Shade smiled as she watched her mother, feeling happy she didn’t have to hide what she was from her anymore.

Turning to look outside along with Brisa, Shade took in the sinking sun over the horizon. Its honey-gold streaks shimmered through the forest canopy and over the treetops. She was glad the comfort of Faerie was near. The earth and trees called to her, and she itched to go for a run. She was feeling suffocated inside the protective dome. She stretched her neck and arms out as she continued watching the sun sink into the horizon. Brisa remained mesmerized by the fire-wielding display outside.

A flash of white caught her eye mid-stretch, and Shade bent over the sink to get a better look. She strained her eyes against the sun to make anything out. She could see Anna standing up. She was slightly away from the picnic table. James remained seated but had started yelling something to Anna, which Shade couldn’t decipher through the window. Anna turned toward the edge of the shield, facing the darkening woods. Shade squinted but couldn’t see beyond her sister. A deep, twisting knot formed in her stomach as a feeling of dread swept through her, sending the hairs on the back of her neck prickling.

“Mom?” Shade’s voice quivered as she glanced back at her mother before shooting out the back door.

“What is it, Shade? Shade?” Her mother’s voice trailed behind her as the kitchen door slammed. Shade hopped over the steps and ran across the lawn. Brisa followed quickly behind her, curious to see what was going on. Anna was as still as a statue, staring at the forest beyond the shield. James was also frozen where he sat.

“Anna! Get inside now!” Shade yelled at her, but Anna seemed to be hypnotized into a trance as if she could not look away from the forest.

What’s out there? Why aren’t they moving? thought Shade. What the—Brisa?

Brisa’s hand was now outstretched and skimming the shield. She’d run straight to it. Shade felt the dread churn in her stomach as she screamed at her friend. Brisa’s fingers lit the shield up like a flare shooting out in ripples from where she had touched it. The flash took Brisa with it. Her body was sucked through the shield as though it was absorbing her. Shade screamed and reached for her but found her friend already gone, but not before she had noticed someone’s disembodied hand reaching through the shield toward Brisa and pulling her through.

“Brisa! Oh, no, no, no!” Shade stopped right before the shield. The boundaries of it flared lightly, rippling and fading where her friend had once stood. Shade’s chest was on fire as she tried to catch her breath after sprinting from the house. She barely heard the yelling behind her as Soap raced out of the house, and Jade beckoned to James from the porch.

Shade stared at the now stilled shield. The other side was dark with only slight flashes of metal betraying whoever stood there.

“Shade, we meet again.” A deep, chilly voice flowed out to her from across the barrier. Shade scanned the dimming forest for its owner. She closed her eyes and pushed her senses across it, reaching the dark and penetrating it like caressing fingers flowing over the grasses and trees. The dark magic which cloaked the light ripped away with her magic like a blindfold which had been removed, revealing the massive, dark army.

Hordes and hordes of Sluagh, Goblins and Demons surrounded them. Their red-orange eyes stood out against the darkness of their toad-like, gray-black skin, appearing like orbs of blood. Corb stood in the front of the awaiting army with his white hair tied back and his eyes glowing like two moons in the night. One of his arms embraced the entranced Brisa as he held a sharp curved dagger which glinted over her throat. The metal shone like a mirror as he held it steadily. The handle was plain and exquisitely-carved silver, intricate and beautiful but not as fancy as Shade would’ve thought the first lieutenant of Queen Aveta would have.

“Do you like my dagger?” Corb’s voice seemed fluid and smooth as it rippled across the barrier and floated into her ears. Shade sucked in a breath, wondering what to do as he continued. “I’ve had it for over a thousand years. Made from the metals of our Ancients’ own mines. It’s infused with the powers of the core of the Earth. It’s stronger than anything ever made and free of iron. And it’s sharp. So sharp, Brisa would die a quick, painless death if I sliced into her throat ever so slightly. It would cut it like butter.” The magic in his voice flowed over Shade like a sleeping draught. It was fogging up her concentration and making her legs feel weak. She shook her head, willing the haze to go away, trying to clear her mind.

Feeling better, she continued to stare at the ancient faery as he studied her intently. He seemed to find what she had done fascinating. A spark of life teased behind his dead eyes. Shade had a feeling he wasn’t much more than an animated body, old and stale inside.

“I can feel your powers chastising mine. Quite amusing that my telepathic control does not work on you. I’m not surprised, though. I’ve heard you are quite unique.” Corb paused as he let his eyes wander away from her and scan the area behind her. “Too bad your friends are no match for it.”

Shade pulled her eyes away from him to peek behind her. Gasping, she almost stumbled. Soap, Jade, Benton, Anna and James stood frozen in place with their eyes glazed over. Still as statues, they made no attempt to come forward or even acknowledge her when she yelled out to them. She turned back toward Corb. His face remaining as still as ever like he never smiled or had any kind of feelings splay across his cold exterior. Shade gulped down her growing panic.

Shoot, shoot, shoot. What now? She was really missing her spirit guides at that moment. They would’ve helped immensely in this mess.

“Let her go, Corb.” Her voice wavered as she looked around at the army, searching for some way to get Brisa back without having to fight that many soldiers. The army was massive and ran along the perimeter of the shield. They shifted on their feet, anxious for action and agitated with the wait. Ripples of their cackling voices swam around the encampment. Shade could feel sweat dripping down her temple as her fear bubbled up inside. She could not defeat them outside of the shield. She’d have to trick Corb into coming into the dome himself to have any chance of saving her friend.

“I don’t think so, Shade.” His eyes watched her, making her wonder what was going through his mind. The ice-cold exterior was no help. His telepathy was a hindrance.

“What do you want?” Shade chewed on her lip, watching the sharp blade of the dagger pushing against Brisa’s tender skin. She didn’t move, entranced by Corb’s spell. Shade’s fear made her head spin. She didn’t even notice the tears streaming down her own face. Corb watched her as the tears poured. She didn’t wipe at them, trying to not tear her gaze away from him or the blade. He seemed almost robotic as his eyes passed over her face from one cheek to the other, watching the shiny tears roll down her face, fascinated in some strange way. Shade waited for his answer, desperately hoping it would be something other than what she thought he wanted.

“You, Shade. Just you.” He let go of Brisa, sheathing his blade on his belt. Taking her hand, he came to stand before the shield, leading her behind him and scanning it with his cold, shining eyes. “I admire the power it must have taken to create such a sanctuary,” Corb said. “Even for amateurs, it is well made.”

If it was well made, how did you get to Brisa? Shade furrowed her eyes, her anger slowly replacing her panic.

Hearing her thoughts, Corb tilted his head to her, boring his eyes into hers. “It wasn’t easy, Shade. I don’t really have to use my telepathic abilities too much in Faerie. Magic is more potent there. Humans are much easier to manipulate, telepathy being more of a human trait. Rare, but still human. No spells are required. I do have to try harder to enchant the Changeling. He might be disabled for a bit longer than the others.” He waited as if expecting her to do something. She turned to look at Soap. He was frozen but shaking slightly. Shade could see he was fighting the telepathy, but could not break through its stronghold. Blood-tinged tears streamed down his face from the effort. Shade’s body shook with fear as she turned back toward Aveta’s evil guard.

When she didn’t move closer, Corb stepped back a bit and extended his hand to her, almost caressing the barrier. “A trade. That is what I propose. Give me your hand. Come with me, and I let your beautiful human friend live. I will lead her into your sanctuary as you leave it.”

Corb paused again. His blank face and quick movements made her want to slap some personality into him. Shade stopped biting her bottom lip which was now sore and reddened from her nervous chewing. She let her shoulders drop, feeling defeated. This wasn’t a good deal either way it went, and she knew it wouldn’t go her way.

“What if you don’t let her go? What guarantee do you give me, Corb?” She narrowed her gaze back into his still eyes. She swore she saw the corners of his lips turn up ever so slightly.

“You are quite clever, young one. So wise beyond your few years. Many forget so soon how to bind fey to their word but you… you are not so careless.” He snickered, showing just a little sliver of emotion in his hardened exterior shell. “Very well, Shade. I swear to you as you cross over the shield to me, I will let your friend return to your home unharmed. I bind myself to this oath, as Faerie itself binds me. Now, if you please.” He nodded and re-extended his arm toward her, beckoning for her to cross.

Their eyes never left each other’s. He seemed patient, or maybe centuries of living made him that way. She wondered why he hadn’t withered yet. Was there a strong mind under there? Was it insane? She hoped it was the not the latter. He was the oldest faery she’d ever laid eyes on. Her curiosity was only bypassed by her fear as she took another deep breath, closing the gap between them. Her hand reached out across the tingle of energy which separated them, finally letting his hand clasp over hers as he pulled her out and simultaneously pushed Brisa back into the dome.

On the other side, Shade felt the cold autumn breeze roll around her, sending shivers up her arms and down her spine. She hugged herself, realizing she didn’t have her travel pack, coat or anything. She glanced back at her family and Soap. All were still frozen where they stood. Even Brisa, who was just inside the shield, was unmoving.

“Wait, I’m cold. I don’t have anything to cover myself. It’s getting really cold. I….” Corb stopped and placed a finger to her lips, shushing her. Shade froze, feeling suddenly even colder if that was possible.

“Enough. I almost forgot about your human taint. Can’t you warm yourself, Fire Witch?” Corb snickered at her.

“Yes, but I’ve never done it for extended periods of time. I….”

“Here, take this and be quiet.” Corb pulled a fur cloak out of a pack on the back of his dark, demon-like horse and shoved it into her arms. “Put it on now, we’re leaving.” He waited as she unraveled it and swung it over her shoulders, tying it at the neck. She was instantly warmer, but her fear made her entire body continue to shake. She glanced back to her family again and stopped.

“Wait! Aren’t you going to unfreeze them? Release them. Please, you can’t just leave them like that!” Shade stepped toward the dome but Corb grabbed her in a blur of speed.

“Stop right there. You will not be returning. They will resume their lives as soon as we leave. We are not risking them using their magic on us before then. Now get up on the horse. My patience is wearing thin.” Corb’s voice slid out in a deeper tone, almost growling at her. She turned and looked at him, but his blank face betrayed nothing. She wondered if he really had any patience to wear thin, but she didn’t want to find out.

Shade gave him a nod and reluctantly followed him back to his horse. Cringing as her hands touched the coarse black hair of the demon steed, she pulled herself up onto the saddle. The beast was unearthly, probably from a place so dark, it sucked the light and soul out of everything. Corb pulled himself up and sat behind her, bringing one arm snug around her waist and the other to the reins. His hands were encased in dark leather gloves as he pulled the reins and turned the demon steed around. The dark horse’s breath steamed in the cold night and seemed to not appreciate having her along for the ride at all.

The feeling’s mutual, thought Shade.

She felt Corb’s arm tighten more around her as they trotted into a gallop through the ranks of nightmarish soldiers, all sneering, and growling at her. Shade wondered what they thought of being led by a Sidhe Faery like Corb.

Being so close to him made her stomach churn and her skin tingle. He radiated cold. He was the very essence of winter that made her soul feel lost. She swallowed down the sickness she felt from the evil emanating from the dark troops and wondered how any Queen of Faerie could condone such vile things as she tried to breathe through her mouth. The wretched smell of the army hit her like a freight train as the ranks split open to allow a path for them to gallop through. She hoped they would get through the horde soon, but she wasn’t too sure she would like what was on the other side.

As long as her family was still safe, Shade momentarily felt okay. She silently spoke to Dylan in her head, hoping somehow he would know how much trouble she was in. If anyone could help her, it was him. She prayed that somewhere out there, he would hear her plea and save her from the clutches of Aveta.

The terrain flew past them as they entered the forest. The rhythmic trotting of the steed’s hooves mimicked the racing of her heart as the night grew colder and more ominous.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

 

 

 

Darren’s icy-cold stare stabbed into her like ice picks. Narrowing his eyes, he watched her wiggle in the chains and panic at the sight of him. He was the last person she ever expected to run into again. His eyes seemed to dance in amusement as he watched the panic and fear rip through her. He seemed to enjoy it. The sadist in him relished her pain like a rare treat. He hadn’t spoken a word to her yet, but as Shade’s terror filled the room, he breathed it in and let it fill him with the purest of pleasures.

Her wrists ached and burned as the skin rubbed away with every movement she made in the shackles. Blood oozed from her wounds and dried along her arms and hands in streams. It was sticky and itched along her skin, making her feel even more agitated than Darren’s presence alone would have. She couldn’t get away. She was completely trapped and powerless. The chains bound her by some sort of curse. Something else had binded all her magic, leaving her utterly human. She wondered if he was here to torture her and desperately hoped not. His idea of torture would probably be very close to death or humiliation. She closed her eyes, wishing for his image to fade away, knowing it wouldn’t.

“Open your eyes, Shade, and look at me. You remember me, don’t you?” Darren’s breath felt hot against her cold cheeks as his hand lifted her chin roughly, bringing her face even with his. She blinked at him, her eyes revealing nothing. She wanted to hit him, kick him and damage him in some permanent way. Her hate throbbed through her body like a venomous poison which filled her up and made her vision blur with spiteful tears. She tried not to show it to him, though. He would enjoy it way too much and stand there, bask in it, and laugh at her helplessness. No, she wouldn’t let him take her firm resolve from her.

“You do remember me!” His haughty laugh made her wince. “I’ve often wondered what became of you since you left me to rot in the mirror shards at Teleen. I’ve fantasized about asking you how exactly you were able to do that. You aren’t as helpless as you look, half-breed. I would very much love to know what else you can do. Would you like to show me?” His fingers traced her cheekbone gently, but the feel of his touch made her sick and her stomach sour. She bit her lip to keep from spitting in his face.

“We’re going to have a lot of fun, Shade, I promise you that. I’m not allowed to kill, irrevocably hurt or maim you. Queen Aveta has forbidden it. She’s no fun. She needs you for whatever it is she needs you for. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t really care. There are other ways to enjoy our time together. So many ways.” Darren’s voice was but a whisper in her ear as his lips slightly touched her neck and face. Shade cringed, pulling aside and prayed he would go away. His touch was like the heat of a hot poker jammed into her side. He breathed her in deeply, hovering so close, she felt his long black hair, so much like his brother Dylan’s, brush against her face.

“You’re still pathetic, Darren. You’ll never live up to your brother’s shadow, will you? You should’ve stayed home in Teleen, where you belong. Buried in rock.” Shade’s own voice scared her. It bled of icy narcissism and sounded empty. It was almost as cold as his voice.

Darren jerked back to stare her in the eyes once again. His blue-grey eyes burned at her in the dim light of the cell. They were also the same color as Dylan’s, but the soul behind them couldn’t be more different. His mouth pressed down into a thin line, full of contempt at the mention of his brother.

“Dylan is nothing to me. We are no longer brothers, remember? He left me to rot in Teleen.” Darren turned to pace the stone floor, deep in thought and agitated.

Ah, a sore spot.

“How dare you speak of him, anyway?” Darren inquired, glaring at her. “He has abandoned you. You know what that entails, don’t you? He’s probably dead for betraying his bond to you. Where is he, Shade? Where is my brother, the hero, who should’ve saved his little maiden in distress?” His cackle echoed across the damp stone walls and filled her soul with dread as he lifted her hanging head back up to his face.

“Not here, is he? Dylan has failed you like he failed me. Did you think after what happened between us, I could ever again live in peace in my home at Teleen?” Darren’s head shook violently back and forth as he let her head drop once more. “No, I could not. Who wants a ‘murderer’ in their presence? No, I had to leave before they killed me themselves.” He sighed, staring off toward the walls as if watching a distant memory play out just for him.

“All because of you, Shade. It’s all your fault. You took all I had and stole it away from me with a tap of your hand.” His empty eyes hovered back to her, making her withdraw from him a bit. His eyes were much more frightening than before when they had danced with just a bit of mischief. Now the emptiness inside him screamed of a terrible psychosis which was capable of anything. He was as unstable as a person—or a faery—could get. Shade didn’t want to find out exactly what he was capable of.

“Now, Shade, I get to pay back some of the pain you caused me,” Darren sneered as he pulled out a dagger. It was very sharp, thin and shined as he held it out for her to see. Its gold and jeweled hilt glinted in the dim torchlight, which lined the stone walls. He brought it up to her face, pressing its point into the middle of her cheek. Shade pulled away as far as the wall allow. She felt the sting of the sharpened edge pierce her skin as he dragged it down her cheek. She screamed as the cut burned.

Shhh, shhh, Shade. We don’t want to wake the dead, do we? Just a cut here, a cut there. Nothing you will miss.” His evil laugh shook her as his closeness let her feel it vibrate through their bodies. She prayed he really didn’t take anything she would miss and squeezed her eyes shut, hoping to block him and the pain out.

“Look at me when I talk to you! You think you’re better than me, don’t you?” Darren slashed at her ribs, making her gasp and sputter as he held her face with his other hand, stifling her scream. “Well, you’re quite wrong there. I’m not a half-breed piss-on like you!” His cackle rang through her ears as her head began to swim from the pain.

Warm fluid dripped down her sides as the wound bled and poured down her leg. Her shirt was soaked in no time, making her wonder how deeply he’d cut her. She bit down on her tongue and waited for his next move. The blood loss and pain threatened to send her into unconsciousness as the room swam in her vision. She breathed in slowly and blinked hard to keep her eyes open.

Dylan, where are you? I need you, help me!

“That is enough, Darren. Queen Aveta needs you topside. I wouldn’t keep her waiting.” Corb’s deep, velvety voice rang through the doorway as he ducked in. He stood with his hands on his hips, staring Darren down as he spoke.

“What? I just got started! Is it urgent?” Darren’s whiny voice jolted her back to the room. Her eyes strained to focus on the two men.

“Everything is urgent with Queen Aveta. I suggest you do not keep her waiting.” Corb stepped forward as he came to stand in front of her. Darren huffed as he cleaned his blade with a dirty rag he’d grabbed from the cell floor and tossed it back. He bolted out of the room, muttering curses under his breath.

Corb examined Shade up and down, assessing her injuries with a glance. He grasped her chin and lifted her head to stare into her eyes. Remembering that he was telepathic, she mustered all her strength as she sent words to him with her weakening mind.

Help me, Corb, please….

“I am truly sorry, little one, but I can’t. It does seem Darren gets a little too excited with his toys. I do apologize. I do not condone torture.” Corb ran his hand over her cheek as he held steadfastly onto her chin and held her head up. His icy fingers left a freezing trail over her cheek which turned into a fiery hot burn where he had touched her wound. Shade gasped as she pulled away, the chains clanking and rattling with her movements.

“No, please don’t hurt me!” Shade’s voice sounded small, and it cracked as she spoke.

“Hush, I’m not going to. This might burn a little, but if you are not healed, I’m afraid you will be of no use to anyone anymore.” He moved his hand to her side, reaching through the shredded fabric to run his cold hand over the warm, seeping wound on her ribs. The same ice-fire feeling flared up as she clenched her teeth together. She felt the burn knit the wound together until the pain subsided into a dull throb.

Shade looked up at Corb’s expressionless face, so full of nothing, but she knew better. His eyes gleamed like moonlight from the flickering torches.

“Why did you heal me? So I won’t die right away?” Shade let her head hang down, a slow cackle leaving her lips, feeling more alone than ever before. She wanted to cry the tears she’d held back with Darren. Her despair began choking her as she breathed.

“No. Like I said, I don’t condone torture. You are much more useful alive and well than weak or dead. I will have a word with Darren about that. But first….” Corb reached around her neck, unhinging the ampule of Santiran Water. “The Queen wants this Magic. You will wield it for her soon. I would do as she says if I was you or your family and friends will not be as fortunate next time.” He pocketed the ampule and reached up. He tapped the chains, and they immediately unclasped, sending Shade crumbling to the ground. Corb caught her before she pummeled to the floor, helping her to a cot in the corner of the room. Laying her down, he covered her with a blanket.

“I will have some food brought. Do try to eat something.” With that, he turned, locking the cell door behind him.

Shade lay where he’d left her. The dull burning throb on her side still complained. She wished she had her powers back so she could heal faster. Now left powerless, she felt the sting of tears well up in her eyes. No one was coming. No one even knew where to find her. She let the warm tears spill down and dampen the pillow under her head. Letting the fatigue overtake her, she prayed for no dreams as she fell into a deep, dark sleep.

 

***

 

The torture did not end. Darren was sent again and again to pummel her with his brute force and cut her if she didn’t answer his questions satisfactorily. The days dragged on. Corb continued to visit her, healing her wounds with his icy touch in between Darren’s abuse, and bringing food and water. Corb never left her chained to the wall like Darren did, but always laid her gently in the cot which was now her bed.

Shade wondered what Corb’s motivations were. Maybe he was even crueler than Darren for healing her so that she could take another session of pain and suffering and still survive. After a while, she didn’t really care. She was relieved her virtue remained intact, guessing that even the most evil of the faeries didn’t condone forcing another person in that way. She was sure Darren was not opposed to it but had to abide by the Queen’s rules or risk her anger.

But no one came to rescue her. No one was going to come. Shade had resigned herself to it. The Queen’s dark army surrounded the place, and anyone trying to penetrate it was either suicidal or insane.

Shade had been brought before Aveta several times. Each time, the Queen would ask her sweetly to help her with the Water Magic, to use it to gain ground over the Seelie forces. The Queen’s beauty fascinated Shade, but she continued to refuse to help her each time, and each time always ended with Darren’s wrath and Aveta’s anger growing tenfold. Shade’s fascination was quickly replaced with hate. She found Aveta was nothing but a beautiful shell around a rock-hard, evil soul. There was nothing beautiful inside her at all.

The weeks went by, and Shade lost count of just how many. She hardly ate, even with Corb pestering her. Her continued refusal to help them with the Water Magic made her think she would be discarded soon. Her thinning frame and sickly pallor probably assured them she wouldn’t last much longer. She knew her mother would’ve secured the family better this time. Corb wouldn’t let on if he was going to fulfill the threat of harming them or not. Either way, Shade’s silence was wearing everyone down.

One day, Shade woke to find Corb shaking her. She felt too weak to sit up at his request. He looked into her eyes, feeling her pulse and assessing her weakness. She watched him frown and leave the room for a moment, not bothering to lock the door behind him. She knew she was too weak to escape on her own now. Corb probably knew that, too. She lay there for what felt like an eternity, dozing on and off, before she felt Corb shaking her awake again.

“What is it?” Shade mumbled as his ice-cold fingers jolted her from her sleep.

“Drink this, Shade. You’re getting far too weak.” He helped her sit up, holding her as he shoved a cup of swirling, silver fluid toward her lips.

“What is it, Corb?”

“Just drink it!” She watched his face, expecting his features to match the urgency of his voice. When they didn’t, she did as he said and sipped down the liquid. It felt warm as it ran down her throat and into her belly. She finished it and handed the cup back.

“Can I sleep again now? I’m just really tired.” Shade rubbed her eyes, feeling all of the aches disappear from her thinning body. She looked back at Corb as she gathered her strength to sit up without his assistance.

“No, you have to come with me. Your kind needs sunlight. It will help you heal.” Corb pulled her up, letting her lean against him.

“What? Sunlight? I don’t think I need it, but that would be nice. It’s been weeks. If I had my powers, I could heal much better. Don’t get me wrong, you heal me just fine, but I feel withered without my own magic, Corb.” Shade stumbled as they walked into the hallway and up a flight of stairs. Corb held on firmly, never letting her fall or stumble.

“Corb, can I ask you something?” Shade asked, still feeling dizzy on the steep, winding stairs.

“Yes.” Corb’s voice was soft and velvety, filling her with a soothing feeling. Shade smiled.

“Wow, you can change your voice to make people feel different, huh? Dylan can do that too,” Shade said, her face growing serious as she wondered if Dylan was feeling all her pain. It had to be affecting him. The blood bind would’ve made him feel her distress. Oh, why doesn’t he come?

“Yes, I can. It is a rare but useful talent. We’re almost there. Watch your step.” He helped her up the last few steps or rather dragged her up them. Her legs were failing, and she held onto Corb for dear life. The door at the top finally came into view, and he opened it easily while holding her up with one of his arms. She wondered why he was so determined to get her outside.

“Why do you help me? Did Aveta tell you to?” Shade gripped weakly at his embrace, awaiting his answers.

He put a finger to his lips, telling her to be quiet.

Shade squeezed her eyes shut as bright sunlight poured onto her like fire. Her eyes cramped as they adjusted to the light. Corb pulled her out into what looked like a large sitting area. The stones under her bare feet felt cold, and the cool breeze sweeping across the tower sent shivers through her. Corb draped a large fur over her and pulled her to the edge of a wall where he pulled the fur around both of them, holding her close. He didn’t feel icy cold, like usual. She let the thought drift from her mind, enjoying the view around her.

She could see her breath in the morning sun, and there was ice clinging to the sides of the large stone castle which housed Aveta’s legions. Shade looked around, taking in the rock buildings which lined a massive mountain. The entire castle was built on a mountain. It was dug into the gut of the mountain itself. Ice clung to the stone crevices and trailed in cracks down the rock. It was amazing.

Shade suddenly realized how warm she felt. She wondered what it was about Corb that seemed different today. He still looked blank and remained quiet beside her, even with his arm around her waist to hold her up. Something was off about him. He’d never seemed so warm and careful when she’d been near him.

“Corb? Why do you feel so warm? You’re usually as cold as ice, but I just realized you’re as warm as a nice bonfire. I didn’t know you could do that.” Shade turned to look at him and her eyes widened. Corb’s eyes flashed steel-grey at her, making her gasp. Her eyes widened in a startling realization. This was not Corb.

“Who are you?” Her legs felt weak as the elixir which had given her enough energy to make it that far, wore off.

Shhh, it’s okay, Shade. Trust me. We’re going for a ride.” He placed a finger to his lips to quiet her and then waved it over the deep gorge below. “Ready? We have to jump. Just hold on to me.”

“Wh–what? Oh, hell no. Corb, what the….” Shade felt her panic well up inside, and her heart pound weakly in her chest. She felt lightheaded and needed to lie down again.

“Shade, it’s gonna be okay.” His voice came out velvety smooth, making her instantly feel calmer. She still couldn’t shake the familiarity of it and took another look at Corb, staring hard at his face. The longer she stared, the more his face blurred into someone else, someone she knew far too well.

“Dylan?” Shade whispered, afraid to break the spell of the moment. Corb nodded, a smile played at the edges of his lips.

“Yes, Shade, it’s me. I’m here now.” Dylan let his own voice sound through, this time, calm and familiar. Shade smiled weakly, feeling elated for the first time in weeks.

“I don’t think I can make it, Dylan. I’m pretty weak. You shouldn’t have come here.” She gulped back the lump in her throat, her eyes too dry for tears.

“I know, but don’t you worry about anything. I’ve got this.” He grinned and pulled her to the edge of the stone wall of the balcony. From there, he climbed up onto the edge, pulling her up with him as easily as if she weighed nothing. There he embraced her close and pushed their weight over the edge. The air rushed up around them as they fell, her scream stifled in the roar.

Some rescue. Now we fall to our deaths, Shade thought.

The slam of cold air paused momentarily as the Raven Queen Aluse grabbed her and Dylan let her go. He landed atop a dark, oily-black flying unicorn. He brought it up toward Aluse and pulled Shade down onto the steed in front of him. He embraced her tightly against his chest with one arm while the other held onto the unicorn as firmly as he could. Soap sat on an identical unicorn, hovering next to them. He looked exhausted, making Shade realize he’d been using his glamour magic to cloak Dylan as Corb. He pulled the glamour off Dylan, drained from the effort. Soap smiled his toothy grin at Shade before directing his flying unicorn toward the sunset. From there, they all headed northwest, away from the cold Unseelie Kingdom. Swarms of Sluagh now poured onto the balcony behind them, arriving in just enough time to see them dart away into the morning sky.

Glancing back at the magnificent stone castle, Shade caught sight of the real Corb, standing where they had stood just a moment before. Watching him, she could’ve sworn he gave her a slight, malicious smile.

 

 

Epilogue

 

 

 

Shade woke in the dim light and heard what sounded like waves crashing as they echoed off the moist rock of the small cave. She pulled herself up onto her arms and let her eyes adjust. She must be near the ocean from the smell of the salt spray and seaweed. Standing up slowly, she used the cave wall for support. Her legs felt weak and unsteady. Her bare feet shuffled, slipping slightly on the moss and moisture which seemed to stick to everything. She made her way slowly out of the cave and onto what looked like a rocky shore. She spotted Dylan standing near the water’s edge where the ocean sprayed up into a cloud of mist after crashing back into the rocks below.

Dylan turned and ran toward her as she nearly collapsed. The wall had run out and left her nothing to hang onto. Flutters of snowflakes fell all around them, melting on the wet rocks but sticking to her hair.

“Shade, you need to rest. What are you doing out here?”

He draped her arm over his shoulder and helped her up, practically dragging her back to the small cave to lay her down on the soft furs of the bed.

“I thought I could get up. Where are we, Dylan? Why did you leave for so long? I feel so weak and drained.” Shade breathed in deeply, trying to relax as her body protested in screeching pain.

She caught sight of Soap stoking the campfire on the beach near the entrance to the cave. He waved at her and gave her his familiar toothy grin. She relaxed at the sight of both of them. Her worry didn’t fade completely, though.

Why aren’t I healing? Are my powers still gone?

“Rest now. You’ve been through a lot. I’ll explain everything later, I promise,” Dylan assured her.

Shade nodded, closing her eyes as he tucked more blankets around her. She sighed in the warmth and let the bliss of sleep embrace her once more.

 

Want more?

Get the next book in this series:

Ever Winter

Continue the adventure, read all the books!

Books in this series:

The Withering Palace

Evangeline

Ever Shade

Ever Fire

Ever Winter

The Cursed

Ever Wrath

History of Fire

Without Armor

Ever Dead

Legends of Fire

Guardians of Fire

Available at all ebook retailers!

 

 

 

About the Author

 

Connect with Alexia Purdy:

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Reign of Blood Series Facebook Fan Page

 

 

Alexia is a USA Today Bestselling author who currently lives in Las Vegas and loves spending every free moment writing or hanging out with her four rambunctious kids. Writing is the ultimate getaway for her since she’s always lost in her head. She is best known for her award-winning Reign of Blood series, and A Dark Faerie Tale Series.

 

 

Also by Alexia Purdy

 

The ArcKnight Chronicles

ArcKnight

Sovereignty

 

Reign of Blood Series

Reign of Blood #1

Disarming (Reign of Blood #2)

Elijah (The Miel Chronicles):

A Reign of Blood Companion Story

Amplified (Reign of Blood #3)

Fluxion (Reign of Blood #4) coming soon

 

A Dark Faerie Tale Series

The Withering Palace (A Dark Faerie Tale #0.1)

Evangeline (A Dark Faerie Tale #0.5)

Ever Shade (A Dark Faerie Tale #1)

Ever Fire (A Dark Faerie Tale #2)

Ever Winter (A Dark Faerie Tale #3)

The Cursed (A Dark Faerie Tale #3.5)

Ever Wrath (A Dark Faerie Tale #4)

History of Fire (A Dark Faerie Tale #5)

Ever Dead (A Dark Faerie Tale #6)

Legends of Fire (A Dark Faerie Tale #7)

Guardians of Fire (A Dark Faerie Tale #8)

 

Other Stories:

The Fall of Sky

Counting Hearts Like Stars

 

Poetic Collections:

Whispers of Dreams

Five Fathoms

The Dark I Keep

 

Anthologies:

Soul Games

Faery Worlds

Faery Realms

Faery Tales

Lacing Shadows

Supernatural Six

Once Upon a Curse

Once Upon a Kiss

Fuse: A Collection of Fantastical Tales

A Plague of Dragons

 


A Dark Faerie Tale Books 1 & 2

Shade’s destiny was never meant to be typical, no matter how hard she tried to avoid it. The inadvertent discovery of the bewildering Land of Faerie throws her into a perilous journey to find magic only she can wield. Along with a band of magical misfits and warriors, she must fight past innumerable dangers, surpass unimaginable hardships, and face all who are bent on sabotaging her mission to the very end. The more Shade’s magic grows, the more the power of the Land of Faerie calls to her. Blood, memory, treachery, and most of all, love will push her past boundaries she never knew existed. All those she’s bound to must take arms against an unrelenting evil determined to rule all of Faerie and humankind, the Unseelie Queen Aveta, or all will be lost. This set includes books 1 & 2 of A DARK FAERIE TALE SERIES Also available in this series: The Withering Palace Evangeline Ever Shade Ever Fire Ever Winter The Cursed Ever Wrath History of Fire Without Armor Ever Dead Legends of Fire Guardians of Fire

  • ISBN: 9781370387984
  • Author: Lyrical Lit. Publishing
  • Published: 2017-05-06 22:50:29
  • Words: 134305
A Dark Faerie Tale Books 1 & 2 A Dark Faerie Tale Books 1 & 2