Each of these short stories is a glimpse into the past of the main characters from my Stargazer Island Series. I'll be adding new stories prior to each book's release. These stories are the intellectual property of Sionna Trenz. Any reproduction or resale of these stories without written authorization from the author is strictly prohibited.
“Just a little longer, Mommy!” Meredith begged.
She loved being outside, and really didn’t want to go to bed. Especially since she was a big girl who had her fifth birthday the week before. It was so nice out too! The sun hadn’t set yet. Not all the way, at least, since the sky was still too light for stars. Meredith wanted to watch the moon come up. She heard her brothers and sisters talking about it being a super moon. Maybe it would wear a cape? Or did it just have magic powers?
“Fifteen minutes, Meri,” her mom warned. “Then it’s inside for a bath. You’re too filthy to be going to bed like that.”
Deshawn laughed as he tossed the baseball high into the air and then caught it in his glove. “Meri must be part earthworm. She loves playing in the dirt.”
“I’m not an earthworm,” Meredith protested. “They don’t have legs and I like to run.”
“And fall,” her sister, Camryn added from where she sat with their mom and her other sister, Marseilles. “I swear, Meri, Band-Aids have become a permanent part of your wardrobe.”
Meredith didn’t really know what a wardrobe was. She glanced down at her knees to see the Band-Aids her sister mentioned, dirt obscuring the X-Men decoration on the backs. One cut happened when she practiced riding her bike without training wheels. She had gotten her oldest brother, Axel, to take them off. He told her she had to wait until either he or her dad could be with her to practice, but Meredith just couldn’t wait to try. She was too excited. The other was just a scrape from when she climbed one of the trees in the back yard. But she had to get her teddy bear. Her brother’s stupid friend threw it up there when Deshawn was inside getting drinks, and it got stuck.
Ignoring her sisters, Meredith looked up at the sky. The moon was already half up. It looked so huge! Almost close enough to touch, if Meredith were allowed to go into the neighbor’s yard. She held her breath, feeling like something just as big was about to happen.
She started feeling weird. Like everything kind of hurt. Her skin itched. Meredith felt like someone else was inside her. Then she felt a burst of love, like getting hugged by her whole family all at once. It made her gasp and took away the achiness for a second or two.
I’m with you sister-kin. Don’t be afraid. It’s time.
“Time for what?” Meredith whimpered as her arms and legs started to hurt even worse.
Deshawn glanced toward her. “What did you say, Meri?”
Time to shift, Meri. I am your wolf guardian. From now on, I’ll always be with you. The first time hurts, but it will get easier with practice and won’t hurt anymore. We can do this, together.
“First time?” Meredith tried not to cry.
Her mom didn’t like it when she did. But the pain got even worse.
“Mom! Come quick! Something’s wrong with Meri!”
Deshawn’s voice sounded frightened. But Meredith couldn’t say anything to make him feel better. It felt like her throat and mouth were all changing shape. Her teeth felt funny. Like they were getting longer. Pointy and sharp. She fell to the ground, whimpering again. Except it didn’t sound like her voice. Meredith barely heard her mother and sisters.
“Marseilles, quick! Go call your father and brother home. Meredith? Meredith, talk to me, baby. What’s wrong?”
Meredith shook her head as her skin started to burn. She looked at her hands as they dug into the ground but cried out in terror as they turned into claws. Her forearms looked really hairy, and their shape changed. Meredith heard something tear and felt her clothes fall off. But she didn’t have time to worry about being naked because she felt something push out from her lower back. It started moving back and forth, even though Meredith didn’t know how. She turned her head to see what it was, but her body didn’t seem to work the way it used to. Falling onto her side, Meredith cried out.
But it wasn’t a human sound that came out of her mouth. It sounded like a puppy’s frightened yip. Meredith cried out again. Louder this time, she felt a howl escape from her throat, just like she’d heard on TV when her brother watched a werewolf show.
What was happening to her?
Then she heard her mother scream. Her sisters too.
“Meri’s turned into a freak! Oh my god, is she going to kill us?”
“Keep her away from us or we’ll get bit!”
Something hard struck her side, making Meredith struggle to her feet. A stone hit the ground beside her hand—paw—and she looked around. Deshawn stood there with a snarl on his face and a handful of stones. He threw another at her, striking her head, right above her eye.
“Monster!” Deshawn shouted. “Stay away from us, you monster!”
Whimpering when another stone nearly hit her, Meredith scrabbled on unsteady legs, trying to find her mother. But Meredith’s mom had already moved away. Back toward the house. She sat on the top stair of their back deck with her hands over her face. Worried that something was wrong, Meredith stumbled and fell, but managed to get all four legs moving at the same time.
Another stone hit her backside, and Meredith whimpered again.
Why are they doing this? She thought to herself.
That unknown voice, the one that said she was Meredith’s guardian, answered. Because they do not understand. And so, they fear. I need to protect you, sister-kin, but I also feel your need to keep these people safe. I do not know how to help you. Except to let you shift back.
Shift back? I don’t understand.
Another stone struck Meredith’s back leg, making her stumble and fall. But someone caught her. She looked up from where she lay, seeing her oldest brother, Axel, sitting beside her. He moved so Meredith lay across his lap and ran a hand over the fur on her head and back. After all the pain, that touch felt really good.
“Get the hell away from her with those stones, Deshawn! She’s still our sister and I won’t let you hurt her.”
Meredith whimpered at the anger in Axel’s voice, but his touch stayed gentle. She was just glad he wasn’t mad at her.
“Mom? Mom! Come on, Meri needs your help.”
But Meredith’s mom didn’t move. She did speak. Though it was so quiet Meredith was surprised she heard it. Like a whisper from across the room. No one else reacted, so they must not have heard, but Meredith flinched at the harsh tone.
“I can’t believe I gave birth to mix-blood mutt. The elders are going to strip my rank for sure. Sweet Mother! There must be a way out of this mess. If I’d known what kind of creature I was carrying I would have gotten rid of it.”
Whimpering, Meredith just wanted to run and hide. Was it her that her mom called an it? A mutt? Wasn’t she Meri? The youngest daughter of the Jones family? She might be different on the outside, but she didn’t feel any different on the inside. And the voice inside her head didn’t seem to be anything bad. She was trying to make Meredith feel better.
“Dad! Do you know how to help Meri?”
Axel’s words had Meredith lifting her head. Her dad ran around the corner of the house and straight up to them, dropping to his knees in front of Meredith. Like Axel, he ran a gentle hand over Meredith’s head and muzzle.
“Hi pretty girl,” he murmured. “I’m sorry, guardian, but I don’t know much about shifters. I’m happy to get to meet you, but we need Meri to come back now. Can you help her?”
Meredith felt herself respond, licking her dad’s palm, even though she didn’t think to do that. It was like she was there, in that body, but not in control of it. So weird. Frightening.
There’s no need to frightened, sister-kin. When we’re in this form, we can share control. It helps you to be able to move like a wolf should and use our stronger senses. But now, it’s time to return to your human form. I need you to come forward. You’ve been retreating further to the back of your mind since this began. That won’t do. Come forward now. You can do it.
With her wolf’s voice coaxing her, Meredith felt herself moving, but knew she wasn’t actually walking. Her arms and legs didn’t move. But she saw the light of her wolf, the one that pulsed whenever the voice spoke, getting closer. As she brushed by it, Meredith felt that same burst of love. She paused for a second, not wanting to leave that feeling. Especially since she knew that things wouldn’t be the same once she went back to her family.
The wolf-light nudged her forward. Meredith felt like she was falling. Except she didn’t hit any kind of ground. Instead, she felt her body again. She felt the pain as her bones and joints popped and cracked. The burning along her skin as the fur disappeared. Then she felt the cool night air making her bare skin pebble.
“I’m cold, Daddy.”
Her dad pulled out a blanket and wrapped it around Meredith gently. He kissed the top of her head before brushing her wild curls back.
“You did so good, Meri. I’m so proud of you.”
Standing, her dad lifted her up and carried her into the house like she was a baby. He helped her into pajamas and tucked her into her bed, even though she hadn’t had a bath yet. Then he kissed her forehead.
“You had a hard night, Mer-bear. Get some sleep now and I’ll see you in the morning. We’ll talk and figure out how to teach you to use this new gift you got.”
“Daddy?” Meredith asked as her father reached her door.
“You don’t think I’m a monster or a mutt, do you? Do you think I’m an it now?”
Her dad came back and sat on the side of her bed. He brushed her messy hair back once again. “Mer-bear, I don’t think any of that. You are my daughter. The same rowdy, fearless, big-hearted kid you were before this. You’ve just got a little extra now. And it isn’t a bad thing. Not at all.”
Meredith bit her lip in thought. “I heard Mommy’s friends saying I’m not really your daughter though. Is that true?”
For a second, it looked like her dad got angry, but Meredith didn’t think it was with her. Instead, he gave her the sort of smile he always gave when she did something for the first time. Like he was proud of her.
“Mer-bear, you might not be mine biologically, and you’ll understand more about that when you’re older. But in every way that counts, you’re my daughter. I chose you as mine. And I love you every bit as much as all your other siblings. I’ll do whatever it takes to be here whenever you need me. Now, you get some sleep.”
“Okay. Goodnight, Daddy.”
When her dad shut the door, Meredith closed her eyes. Her wolf guardian spoke inside her head.
I like him. He’s a good one.
As sleep overtook her, Meredith smiled. Her dad was a good one. The bestest. She was glad he chose her, because if it were her decision, she would choose Marc Jones right back.
“Samuel Gregory LaSalle, where do you think you’re going in such an all-fire hurry?”
Sam froze less than a foot from the front door. He turned and flashed his maman a crooked grin.
“Thad and I were going hunting in the bayou, Maman. With Thad’s Uncle Joe.”
He hurried to add that last bit, since he knew his maman didn’t approve of thirteen-year-olds hunting without an adult.
Anola LaSalle brushed a hand over her son’s short hair and smiled mistily. “You know that’s the same smile your daddy gave me. Charming enough to talk me into anything. You have fun with Thad, but use your brains too, Sam. Stay safe.”
That was his maman’s permission to leave. Sam knew that, but he didn’t move. He could tell she was a little sad. Cocking his head, he glanced over at the calendar hanging on the wall and saw the heart drawn inside the day’s little block. It was his parents’ anniversary.
Summoning his grin once more, Sam shook his head and wrapped an arm around his maman’s waist, steering her toward the kitchen. “You know, Thad doesn’t get to hang out with his uncle that often. How about you and I bake some sweet dough turnovers? Maybe we can invite Grandmère for dinner later.”
Laughing, Anola kissed the top of Sam’s head. “You’re a good boy, Sam. You know you don’t have to take care of me, though. I’m a big girl.”
“Yeah,” Sam agreed, his smile growing bigger. “But you’re my girl, Maman. That means I’m gonna make sure you’re as happy as I can make you.”
“Hmm, does that mean you’ll take up those tap dance classes the rec center’s offering?”
That made Sam snicker. “Let’s not go too far, now, Maman. Dancing isn’t something boys do.”
“Oh?” Anola’s brow rose in a look Sam knew well. “I’ll have you know that girls love a boy who knows how to dance with them.”
“Did Dad dance with you?”
“He did indeed. His smile charmed me into dating him, but his dancing is what made me fall in love. There’s no better feeling than being in a man’s arms and looking into his eyes as the music’s playing and you’re moving so smoothly across the floor it feels like you’re floating. Trust me, Sam. You want a woman to fall for you, take her dancing.”
When Anola turned to pull out her mixing bowl and a few ingredients, Sam snuck over to the old radio tucked away on the corner shelf and turned it on. The Allman Brothers’ Ramblin’ Man filled the room. Anola turned and Sam held out his hands to her.
“I don’t really wanna take lessons from that stuffy old teacher at the rec center. But I’ll let you teach me how to dance, Maman.”
With a smile, Anola took his hands and showed him how to place them to lead. “In that case, I’m honored, Sam.”
“You should be,” he grinned before glancing down at his feet. “Uh, how am I supposed to look in a girl’s eyes and watch where I’m goin’ at the same time? Pretty sure she won’t like me much if I step on her feet.”
“It takes practice, Sam, just like anything. But the main thing is to just feel the music. Don’t think about the steps. Dancing is like a relationship. It comes from the heart. When your brain gets involved, you’re much more likely to mess up.”
They moved clumsily around the kitchen for a couple songs. Laughing, Anola waved toward the counter.
“If we’re going to have those turnovers done in time for dinner, we need to start them now.”
Working side by side, Sam helped his maman make the sweet dough, listening to her tips about baking. While he wouldn’t admit it to his friends, he actually enjoyed cooking. Even thought about becoming a professional chef. But…
“You’re thinking very hard there, Sam. Anything you want to share?”
“Maman, how do you know what kind of job you’re supposed to have when you grow up? How do you know which one’s right for you?”
“Well, there’s always a bit of guesswork if you don’t have any experience before you start working, but mostly you need to listen to your heart and your instincts. What do they tell you? What sorts of dreams stick in your head even when another option tries to persuade you to go a different way?”
Sam bit his lip as he put the dough into the fridge to chill. He didn’t turn back around right away because he worried about what his maman might see on his face.
“You’ve already got an idea of what you want to do, don’t you, Sam?” Anola asked softly. “What’s got you so worried?”
“I don’t want you to be upset, Maman. Or to worry about me.”
Sam turned back to face her. He should have known that he couldn’t hide from her. Whether it was the Voodoo priestess in her or just a mother’s instincts, Sam did not know, but he had never been able to keep anything from her.
“Worrying about her children is part of being a mother, Sam. It’s going to happen no matter what you choose to do. So, don’t let that stop you from following your heart.”
“I want to join the Navy,” Sam blurted before he could think twice about it. “I want to help people and protect them and make the world better. But I know Dad…”
“Your daddy had those same needs, Sam,” Anola told him with a smile. “He was a Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer because he needed to help people too. I’ve always known you have that same drive, honey. Your grandmère told me the day you were born that you were destined to be one of the world’s protectors. So, I’ve had a long time to come to terms with you having a more dangerous than average job. Losing your daddy during that storm when you were three made it harder to accept, but that’s on me to deal with, not you. Whatever you choose to do in your life, Sam, you have my blessing, as long as it makes you truly happy.”
Sam stepped forward and hugged her tightly. “Thanks, Maman. Don’t worry. You’ve still got a few years yet before I’m old enough to start that. And even once I do, I’ll still do everything I can to take care of you and Grandmère.”
He was too tall now for Anola to kiss the top of his head as she used to. But she kissed Sam’s cheek and stepped back.
“You’re a good boy, Sam. Keep on as you are. Stay true to yourself, and you’ll soon grow into a good man. I’m so proud of you.”
Sam grinned again and helped make filling for the turnovers as Anola opened the door to greet his grandmère. He tucked his maman’s words safely into his heart, because both these women in his life told him that the heart is where you keep words you never want to lose.
“Anna’s doing really well in her classes, Mrs. Winters. There’s only one area of concern we have.”
Anna flinched in her chair. She could not help it. For years, anytime someone criticized her, or anything to do with her, it meant a beating when her father got her alone. After nearly fourteen years, flinching whenever anyone had something negative to say had become automatic.
“What is your concern?”
Seeing the fear in her mother’s eyes nearly made Anna flinch again. Carrie Ann might be married to a better man this time around, but she still carried many of the same scars on her soul that her children bore. They were all still recovering. That JJ Winters and his daughter, Sage, were so kind and welcoming was helpful, but not a quick cure.
Her teacher, Mrs. McCarthy, smiled gently at both Anna and her mother. The understanding in her eyes made Anna blush with embarrassment, but there was not much she could do about that. Mrs. McCarthy was nice, and never made Anna feel like she was pitied. But she still did not like people knowing what a scaredy-cat she was.
“Anna never says a word in class unless she’s called on,” Mrs. McCarthy explained. “And she does not really interact with any of her classmates either.”
This time, Anna saw her mother flush.
“Anna, we… she was never really allowed to have friends before. I…”
Mrs. McCarthy reached out slowly, taking Carrie Ann’s trembling hand gently. “Carrie Ann, I understand. You don’t need to explain. Sometimes, life happens in spite of what we hope or dream. But the good news is, as long as we keep breathing, life keeps happening, and is just as likely to lead us to the good as it is to the bad.”
Anna’s mother gave Mrs. McCarthy a small smile. “You might as well be talking about JJ. He is definitely the good in my life. Just like my kids are.”
“Absolutely. I’ve known JJ all my life and had Sage in my class last year. He’s a good man. And you all make a lovely family. Maybe it’s time you all start trying new things? There’s no reason Anna shouldn’t make friends, now that she’s in a new school, a new environment.”
Thinking about the number of kids in her class, the number of new faces, new voices, Anna felt herself start to shake. And what if she said something wrong, or wore the wrong thing? Already a few girls made nasty remarks toward her, because of her figure. Those girls were always worse to Sage, which Anna hated, but still, what if they turned the other kids against her?
“Anna? Breathe, honey. It’s okay. You’re safe here.”
The sound of her mother’s voice calmed her. Something cool washed the sweat from her brow. Anna opened her eyes to see Mrs. McCarthy kneeling in front of her with a cloth and glass of water. When she passed the glass over, Anna drank deeply, trying to get rid of the lump of fear in her throat.
“Anna, whatever I said to trigger you, I’m so terribly sorry,” Mrs. McCarthy said.
“It’s okay, Mrs. McCarthy. I’m alright.”
“Could you tell me what exactly caused your fear to escalate? I don’t want to say something inadvertently to trigger you again.”
Flushing with embarrassment over her panic, Anna licked her lips before whispering. “There’s just so many kids in class. How am I supposed to…?”
When she trailed off, shaking once more, Mrs. McCarthy brushed back her hair and smiled.
“Anna, you don’t need to make friends with all the students in your class. I’m sure eventually, you’ll become friends with many, but no one is telling you to take on everyone at once. I have an idea that I would like to speak with you and your mother about. I think it might help make that first step a bit easier for you. Okay?”
Nodding, Anna watched as Mrs. McCarthy circled the desk and sat behind it once more. Then she slid a sheet of paper across so both Anna and her mom could read it.
Mrs. McCarthy hummed a little. “The art teacher has told me Anna has a lot of talent. She would like Anna to join. There are only a few other students who participate. It’s twice a week, after school, and totally free to join. At the end of the year, there is a little art exhibit, but only the families of the students involved are invited.”
Carrie Ann looked turned toward Anna, whose eyes remained glued to the flyer.
“Anna? Would you like to join?”
Finally, Anna looked up. “Would I be able to paint?”
Mrs. McCarthy smiled. “Absolutely. Anything you’re interested in.”
“Then, yes. I want to join.”
Two days later, Anna took a deep breath and pushed open the door to the art room. All day long, she felt like she was sitting on pins and needles, alternating between excited and terrified. It would be so great to get to paint, which she had always loved and never been allowed to do. But what if the other kids were all better than her? She got to meet other students interested in art! But what if they did not like her?
Anna nearly slapped herself for her constant back and forth. It was driving her insane. But now she was here. Standing in the doorway to the art room. The teacher, Ms. Carson, smiled and welcomed her. Three other sets of eyes looked up, filled with curiosity and openness.
“Everyone, meet our newest member, Anna Johnston. Anna, this is the rest of our little crew. Mike Dempsey, Jade Evans, and Grace Anderson. Go ahead and grab some supplies from the cupboards and we’ll begin. Today, we’re going to tackle some still life.”
As Ms. Carson grouped several objects onto a stool in the center of their little half circle, Anna grabbed a small canvas, a palette, brushes, water bowl, and paint. She took the only place still available, in between Mike and Jade, and got settled. Then she looked over toward Mike. He had a piece of wood in front of him and carefully unrolled a set of tools. Curiosity got the better of her.
“What are you doing?”
Mike grinned at her. “Carving. It’s a pain to learn, but I’m too stubborn to let that stop me.”
He held out a hand for her to shake. Anna did, noticing several nicks and cuts on his fingers.
“It looks like carving is a literal pain.”
He laughed and waved that hand toward the person on Anna’s other side. “Hey Jade, Anna’s got a good sense of humor. I think we should keep her.”
Feeling warmth well up, making her want to laugh along with him, Anna turned to see Jade smiling at her as well.
“Welcome to the club, Anna. We’re small, but fun. I promise.”
“Thanks, Jade.” Seeing the pad of paper and pencils sitting in front of Jade, Anna nodded toward them. “You sketch?”
“I’m learning, anyway.”
“You’re better than you were a couple years ago, Jade,” Grace told her. “And much better than me.”
“What do you do, Grace?” Anna asked, not seeing any art supplies near Grace.
“I write,” Grace laughed. “Honestly, I’m terrible at art. But I’m always looking for new ideas for my stories, so I joined the Art Club. These two let me see their work, and I write a story based on it. Would you mind if I did the same with you?”
“Um, I’m not sure if anything I do will be good enough for a story, but if you want to, sure.”
Mike nudged Anna gently with his elbow. “Gracie here wrote a story about a scribble Jade did last year. An actual scribble.”
“That story went over really well with the kindergarten class,” Jade grinned.
Anna found herself laughing along with the others, all her fears disappearing for the first time in longer than she could remember. As Ms. Carson started her art lesson for the day, Anna felt like she was finally where she belonged.
Where did you learn to play poker, Dare?
Derek wanted to scream. No nine-year-old should feel like this. No one should. The pain built and built inside his head, his body, until he felt like he would split open. His brains would splatter the walls and a nurse would need to call the orderly to clean up the mess. That image made Derek snicker, for a brief moment alleviating the agony. The orderly didn’t even like cleaning up spilled juice. He would hate mopping brains.
“Why hasn’t my baby gone into remission yet? What are you people doing? You’re supposed to be making her better!”
A new shot of fiery pain burst through his head, making Derek collapse weakly onto his pillow. The woman’s terror and the emotional pain as she screamed at the doctor from the room down the hall rolled over him in waves. He was drowning, unable to get any air as her emotions hit him again and again. Dizziness made the room spin and black dots form in front of his eyes. From a distance, he heard something beeping. Seconds later voices.
“Get Dr. Jones here, immediately!”
“Hang on, Derek. We’re going to help you.”
“Doctor, what’s wrong with him?”
“Everyone out! Close the door and try to calm that woman down.”
The scents of citrus and rosemary cut through the waves, wrapping around Derek like a life preserver. He inhaled deeply, as if given an oxygen mask and chance to survive the riptide. Straining to rise above the emotional agony drowning him, Derek felt someone urging him to sit. Flinching, it took him a moment to realize he did not get any emotions or thoughts from the person currently holding him up. It could only mean his oncologist, Dr. Jones, had arrived. Dr. Jones was the only person Derek had ever met whose emotions he could not feel.
He heard the doctor murmuring to keep his eyes closed and sip the drink placed at his lips. With no energy to do anything else, Derek followed those soft instructions. Chamomile and lavender. The tea his mom had left him. Managing a small smile, Derek sipped the soothing drink until Dr. Jones removed the cup and eased him back onto the bed. Slipping into the healing sleep he needed, this time, Derek let the darkness take him.
“Derek, how are you feeling this evening?”
Once again sitting in the hospital bed, Derek watched Dr. Jones wave someone through the door. He felt the older man’s pain lapping at his own aura and adding to the pain he was in, but everything felt oddly muted. Derek glanced back at his oncologist in question and saw the doctor smile.
“It’s partly the pain medication he’s on, plus I picked up a black tourmaline for you. That’ll help. And I added some more oil to the diffuser for you. Jerry here will keep his distance, but I thought you might want a bit of company this evening.”
“My mom and sister?”
Dr. Jones smiled sadly. It was the sort of smile Derek had come to hate in adults, because it always meant they were going to give him bad news but were trying to soften it. It never worked.
“I didn’t think it would be a good idea for them to come in tonight, Derek. After what you went through this afternoon, which I had to tell your mother about, she felt that her emotions would only harm you more. She did promise that she and Celia will be in tomorrow, though. All day.”
“Okay, Dr. Jones. Thanks for letting me know.”
Nodding, Dr. Jones waved a hand toward the older man, sitting in a wheelchair. “Now, I’d like to introduce you to Jerry Dawson. He’s got an idea that might help take your mind off things a bit, Derek. I know sitting here all day every day can cause your focus to dwell more on your physical and emotional distress. Jerry’s here to give you something else to focus on. I’ll leave you guys to get to know each other. Remember, don’t stay up too late. You both need some sleep before your treatments tomorrow.”
Jerry Martin let out a loud snort, making Derek snicker. “You just had to remind us about chemo, didn’t you, Indy?”
In response, Dr. Jones simply knocked on the wall beside the door, grinned, and left. When Jerry turned toward Derek, Derek could not resist asking the first question that popped into his brain.
“Dr. Jones. Like the adventure movie character, Indiana Jones.” At Derek’s blank stare, Jerry snorted even more loudly. “Seriously? You kids today don’t know what you’re missing. I’ve got the videos. We’ll have to watch them.”
“Is that what we’re doing tonight, Mr. Dawson?”
Jerry wheeled closer and maneuvered Derek’s table around, so it sat between them.
“Just Jerry is fine, Derek. Comrades in arms don’t need to stick to formalities.”
“Comrades in arms?”
“Sure, kid. We’re both at war with cancer, aren’t we? Makes us comrades in arms. Warriors in the same trenches.”
“Warriors,” Derek murmured, finding a smile. “I kind of like that.”
“And you should. I don’t call someone a warrior for no reason, kid.”
Jerry pulled out a deck of cards and began shuffling. Derek watched him in silence for a moment before his curiosity got the better of him.
“What are those for?”
“We’re going to play some poker, kid. You ever play before?”
“Uh, no. Isn’t that like gambling?”
“Gambling’s a part of it. We’ll play for the pretzels I grabbed in the cafeteria earlier.”
He dealt a few cards to Derek. “We’ll start old school before moving up the games to Texas Hold ‘Em. All the types of poker use the same list of hands to determine the winner. It’ll take a bit to memorize the order, but once you do, you’re good no matter what version you play. Lowest is a pair. Goes all the way up to a royal flush. The better your hand, the better your odds of having high hand.”
“And high hand wins?”
“Not always, kid. Poker’s a game of focus and strategy. Bluffing comes in. And keeping your cards close and your face blank. Learning how to read tells. Someone gets good at all that, they could end up beating a straight flush with a lousy two-pair.”
“What’s a tell?” Derek asked, glancing at his cards.
“A little movement, a face they might make, anything that gives away that someone has either a good or bad hand. Might take a couple hands to get to know an unfamiliar player, but eventually, you’ll get it. Like right now, I have a clue that you’ve got a good hand, because your eyes just widened, and you bit your lip. Big tells right there.”
Derek felt a bit of disappointment coming from Jerry. “You don’t have a good hand, do you?”
Jerry blinked. “How’d you know that? You haven’t even looked up at me once.”
Blushing, Derek stammered. “Um, well, I…”
Jerry chuckled. “Dr. Jones mentioned you can get feelings from other people. Not sure I understand it all myself, but I’m guessing you got something from me?”
“Yeah. You were a bit disappointed when you looked at your cards.”
“Disappointed is definitely the word for it. I used to be really good at stacking the deck. Now I somehow managed to deal myself a six, two, and jack, all of different suits. Disgusting.”
“Well, you dealt me three kings,” Derek shrugged. “So, you can’t be all bad.”
Jerry laughed and shook his head. “You’re alright, kid. Why don’t you try to figure out from my face alone if my hand is any good or not? Don’t tune into what I’m feeling.”
Intrigued, Derek tilted his head and thought about that. Was it even possible to block out some of the emotions? He had read the books his mom found for him. But it was tough to build a wall the way the books described. Derek just could not picture rocks or bricks or anything else really standing once the emotions started battering them. He watched as Jerry reshuffled the deck. The way the cards interlocked and bent but didn’t break apart.
Carefully, Derek started building a wall of interlocking cards in his head. How they would weave, their edges overlapping so nothing could squeeze through the cracks. He added diamonds on top of spades, then doubled the layers with the hearts and clubs until he had a respectable wall covering the front of his brain. He shifted the wall toward Jerry and grinned.
Nothing. He didn’t feel Jerry’s emotions. Didn’t even feel the pain he knew the older man was in. When Jerry started coughing, Derek felt the card wall bow backward, absorbing the sudden barrage of pain. A bit seeped through. Enough to know Jerry’s cancer was in his lungs and making it really hard to breathe. But not nearly as much as it would have been without the card wall.
When Jerry’s cough did not subside, Derek pressed the call button for the nurse before reaching over to pour the man a cup of water. The nurse entered, immediately adding to the pressure on the card wall. Too much. It collapsed, letting in all the emotions from everyone in the room fully. Derek sank back against his pillows, closing his eyes and trying to shove the pain back again.
He would need to work on his card wall, because he absolutely wanted to learn anything Jerry wanted to teach him.
20 years later
Sitting on the bed, flanked by two people he can’t seem to get out of his head or his heart, Derek remembered his time with Jerry. Remembered the laughs, watching Indiana Jones, and the lessons. Both for poker and life.
“Where did you learn to play poker, Dare?”
“I was diagnosed with leukemia when I was nine years old. Between the surgeries and chemo, I spent a lot of time in the hospital. Anyway, one of the older patients there, Jerry Dawson, was fighting lung cancer. He taught me how to play poker. It passed the time. Gave me something to focus on other than the pain.”
Tom slid down the wall until his knees were bent to his chest and covered his ears with both hands. He stared, wide-eyed with fear, across the living room to where his dad held his mom as she keened and sobbed. Tom’s heart raced; his eyes pricked with tears. Something terrible happened to her. Tom knew it the same way he knew his parents loved him, deep down in his gut. He didn’t have to be told. In fact, his dad always said that his mom was “having an episode.” And that, Tom knew, was his dad’s way of trying to keep Tom from worrying too much.
It did not work. It never did. Tom still worried. The thought that someone might hear or see and call the police terrified him. Because they would almost certainly take his mom away and put her in a hospital. Mom would not do well in a hospital. Stuck in a small room where she was confined to a bed. Whatever happened to her, it made her hate being shut in anywhere. Tom did not like being indoors either. He probably learned it from his mom, but it always made everything seem so much louder, so much more. It made him itch.
His mom’s keening began building again, turning into outright screams of pain and terror. Tom could not take it anymore. Breath coming in gasps, his heart racing, Tom shoved to his feet and fled the house. He just needed to find air, to find quiet enough to think. All he wanted was a way to help his mom through her episodes, but he could not do that until he could stay calm. He was anything but. Then again, what nine-year-old could stay calm when their mom started screaming like she was being attacked?
Tom’s bolt from the house took him down his street and around a corner. One part of his brain warned that he should not be running blindly. They had only just moved to town the week before, and Tom did not know the area. The rest of his brain just needed to get away.
He sprinted across another street and turned another corner. A dog barked and gave chase, but thankfully stopped at the edge of the property. Tom kept running. He felt a stitch in his side and his lungs felt like they were on fire, but he could not stop. Still hearing his mom’s terrified screams in his head, he bolted across another street and tripped over the raised curb.
Stumbling forward several steps, Tom landed on his hands and knees, fighting the urge to vomit. A shadow fell over him as he struggled to regain his breath. Someone crouched in front of him. Tom could see crimson robes hanging nearly to a pair of sandaled feet. He lifted his head to see a man watching him with concern.
“Are you in danger?”
Something within the man’s calm voice quieted Tom’s turmoil. He pushed to his feet, wincing as scrapes on his hands and knees began stinging. Tom glanced over the man’s shoulder to see a large building with gardens surrounding it. He was not sure where he was. It had the feel of a church but did not look like any he had ever seen before.
“No, I’m not in danger.”
“Something frightened you,” the man pointed out.
Tom swallowed. “I… It’s nothing.”
He knew adults sometimes acted without having all the facts first. The last thing he wanted was for this guy to think he was afraid of his mom and call the authorities. Tom braced himself for the man to push and insist that he be told.
Instead, the man sent him a gentle smile. “In that case, let’s sit on the bench over here so we can clean up those scrapes. Come.”
Tom could see the bench from where he stood. It was not all that far away, and in clear view of the street. Plus, he did not feel any sort of danger coming off the man. Moving around as often as his family did, he learned how to size people up with enough confidence to follow this man into the garden.
Taking a seat on the bench, Tom watched the guy whisper something to another man wearing those same red robes, or whatever they were. The man he spoke to ran off. Tom’s gaze moved over the gardens. Several more men wearing crimson walked around, worked in the flowerbeds, or sat cross-legged with their eyes closed.
When the guy joined him, sitting on the grass beside the bench, Tom turned to him. The man held up wet cloth and lifted his brow in silent question. Tom stuck out his hands, scraped and bloody palms up. To take his mind off the sting, he looked around again.
“What is this place?”
“A Buddhist Temple.”
“Are you a priest?”
The man smiled that small, peaceful smile again. “I’m a monk.”
“And all these others wearing red are monks too?”
“They are. Normally, there aren’t quite so many, but our jao aawaat is holding a retreat so we have several visitors.”
Tom tried pronouncing the foreign words, making the monk smile again.
“That would be like an abbot in a Christian monastery. He is in charge.”
The monk moved on to washing out Tom’s knees. Tom’s gaze wandered over the gardens again.
“What are those monks doing? The ones just sitting there with their eyes closed.”
“It’s a way for them to find the stillness within themselves. A way to step outside the chaos of the world around us and find our calm center. Because only then can we be at peace with ourselves and our lives.”
Tom’s eyes widened. He bit his lip, wondering if the answers he might get were worth the risk of saying more. But his need to help his mom trumped everything, so with a deep breath, he took the plunge.
“But does that mean that we just shut ourselves off from the rest of the world? Or is there a way to stay calm and still help others who need it?”
The monk set the cloth aside and studied Tom carefully. Tom forced himself not to fidget beneath that penetrating gaze. He needed answers, maybe even the hope of finding a way to help his mom, too much. The last thing he wanted was for the monk to decide he was unworthy.
Eventually, the monk nodded and stood. “It takes time, and practice. Discipline to train yourself, just as you would in learning any sport. But yes, you can reach a point where that peace remains a pool inside your soul that you can draw from in any situation.”
Tom stood too. “Will you teach me? Please? I promise I’ll work hard on it. You won’t have to get after me to practice either. My parents can vouch for that.”
“If you truly wish it, I can teach you the way,” the monk said. “But the stillness and peace are things you need to discover for yourself. No one can bring it to you. Now, speaking of your parents, perhaps we should get you home again.”
It was the only constant in Eric’s life. The only real change in it was which part of his body hurt the most. Right now, it was his ribs. He knew one was cracked. Every breath felt like a dagger’s slice in his side. That was pretty accurate, since he had been stabbed just a couple months before. The knife had just gone into muscle; no real damage. One of the gang members stitched up the cut and gave him some stolen antibiotics, so no harm done. If Eric had looked like the scrawny skin-and-bone eight-year-olds he watched walking to school each day, that knife would have ended him. But even though he was the same age as them, Eric looked older. He was bigger, heavier, and much, much stronger.
That was the reason he was stuck in this never-ending loop of violence and pain.
Running when he had the year before seemed like a good idea. Even knowing where he would end up, Eric still would have done so. The alternative… well, he had suffered the alternative before and did not want to do so again. So, living on the streets was the better option. He thought his last name would keep him safe, or at least safer. No one wanted to cross his old man.
Too bad he had not known about the bastard skipping town. Eric would have played things differently. Stayed on the down low instead of walking around openly. But like old Mrs. G. used to say before she died, “if shoulda, woulda, and coulda were currency, he could buy the world.”
So, there he was, grabbed by one of the local gangs and forced into street fighting. He was supposed to die in his first fight, because Eric’s old man boosted a shipment of drugs the gang was supposed to get in, and the gang wanted revenge. But Eric won that fight. Managed a lucky punch and knocked their lead enforcer off balance. Then kicked out his knee. The enforcer landed hard. Hit his head on the concrete and was out cold. After that, the gang made him fight every week or two. They made a ton of money off him, because everyone always bet against him when Eric’s opponent was an adult over twice his size.
But if there was one thing Eric was naturally great at, it was fighting. No one ever taught him. All Eric needed to do was watch someone else fight, and his brain analyzed the movements, figured out the strengths and weaknesses, and applied them. It was so natural Eric really did not even realize he was doing it. Not until he overheard a couple of the gang members who did have real training talking. Of course, they never offered to help him. If it got out that he was being trained, the odds against him would change and the gang would lose money.
Bouncing on his toes, cracking his neck to either side, Eric tried to get himself psyched up for the next fight. He hated them. But there was really no way out. Not that he could see. The one time he refused to fight, they grabbed a random person off the street and made him fight in Eric’s place. Then forced Eric to watch as his opponent beat the man – a skinny tech-nerd type – to death. That blood was on Eric’s hands. He knew it. Refusing to fight would get another innocent person killed.
If he ran, the gang would give chase until they found him. According to them, they owned him until he paid off his old man’s debts. Eric was certain the money they won off his fights had already done that twice over at least, but he knew better than to question this gang. Not if he wanted to keep his tongue.
The laughter and shouts of bets being made echoed off the stone buildings on either side of the alley where the fight would take place. Only a few gang members were there, watching the proceedings and to collect winnings. The rest were out on other jobs or providing alibis. But spectators, other gangs or those just drawn to violence and illegal betting filled the area. Strong booze scented the air, mixing with marijuana smoke, cigarettes, and sweat. It made Eric’s stomach roil in protest.
Leon, the gang’s beta enforcer, grabbed Eric’s wrist and slapped a knife into his hand. Eric stared down at the gleaming blade for a heartbeat before looking up at Leon. Fear bloomed in his chest, making the already difficult task of breathing even harder.
“What’s this for?”
The wicked grin, full of bloodlust, answered Eric before Leon even opened his mouth.
“Rule change, kid. From now on, all fights are to the death. The boss expects you not to disappoint us. Not if you ever want to walk away.”
As Leon headed back into the crowd, Eric realized the truth. There would be no walking away. Not ever. Not for him. The only way out would be through a morgue. Eric’s only choice was how to go out. As a murderer or a victim. Until that point, he had always been able to avoid taking a life. He supposed if it were to defend another person, that was one thing. But this? No way. Eric knew he was not a good guy. Never would be. But coldblooded murder was one line he refused to cross. Which meant…
Eric felt peace steal over him. His mind stilled. The chaos around him faded as his decision crystalized in his mind. He looked across at his opponent. The guy was an enforcer from another gang. Eric knew his reputation. He was not one to make his victims suffer. So, a quick, clean death. Eric could handle that. He even managed a small smile. Death held no fear because he was not leaving anyone who cared for him behind.
A sound high above his head drew Eric’s attention skyward. A large bird circled the sky just over the looming buildings. For some reason, that bird mesmerized him. The wings flashed brick-red with each stroke. It called out again and looked toward the ground. Eric could have sworn its bright blue eyes looked directly at him before it circled once more and flew out of sight.
Taking a shuddering breath, ignoring the stitch in his side, Eric’s peaceful calm evaporated. Something else filled the void it left inside. Envy. That bird had something Eric wanted, desperately. Freedom. Eric needed to taste it just once before he died. Glancing around, Eric eased back until he melted into the crowd of spectators, all too busy placing wagers to notice a boy. Even one far larger than any nine-year-old should be. Wending his way to the edge of the alley, Eric did his best to stay off the gang’s radar.
As he broke free of the alley and ran in the direction that bird flew, he heard Leon’s shout echo from the alley. They would give chase soon. If they caught him, Eric knew a quick death would no longer be in the cards. He pushed himself faster. Luckily, he was used to pain. Enough that he could push the worst aside and keep running even as his lungs labored against his injured rib.
Feet pounded the pavement behind him, but Eric knew these streets even better than the gang members chasing him. Each alley, every broken lock that would allow him to cut through empty and dilapidated warehouses and apartments. The storm drains just big enough for him to duck into while his pursuers ran past.
Wriggling out of one such cranny, Eric took a moment to figure out where to go next. Then he heard the bird call again. Eric spotted it across the street. It circled as if waiting for him, then took off toward a mass of trees inside one of the city parks. Eric dodged traffic, ignoring the blaring horns as he darted across and entered the park.
He could hear Leon shouting something, but the man was far enough away that Eric hoped he could reach cover before the gang members spotted him. Gasping for breath, stumbling more with each step, he entered the dense tree line.
As he wended his way through the forest, the ground grew swampy. Traffic and noise from the city gave way to the low drone of insects and lilting birdsong. Eric kept his eyes trained on the larger bird, winding though the trees just ahead of him.
His breathing far too shallow, Eric started seeing spots. He tripped, falling to his hands and knees on the muddy ground. As he fought to remain conscious, Eric saw a patch of grass nearby and pulled himself over to it. The bird landed on a log, watching Eric with those blue-blue eyes. Eric tried to say something, feeling as if he should thank the creature. But his body simply had nothing more to give. Eric slumped onto the grass as sleep overtook him. And as he slept, he dreamed.
The bird sat on the log as mist wreathed the forest floor. Eric heard bushes rustling and turned his head to see a girl emerge. She looked unlike anyone he had ever seen before, and Eric barely dared breathe, wondering if she was a fairy princess. Her skin looked like it was made from honey and cinnamon, like the rolls Mrs. G. used to make as a treat for his birthday. They were his favorite. And her long hair was wild, with straight, dark brown tresses mixed with wine-red in corkscrew curls. It moved and danced along with her like it was a living thing.
But it was the girl’s eyes that captured Eric’s attention the most. They did not exactly match, but that hardly mattered. All soft greens and sandy browns, it was like looking into nature itself.
Then he noticed something else. The closer the girl came, the less pain he felt. Eric’s consciousness hardly ever registered pain anymore. It had been such a constant in his life. But the lack of it shocked him. Felt strange. Almost like his body was so light it was floating.
Eric watched as the girl sat beside the bird and started talking. He thought she was only a year, maybe two, younger than he was, but compared to him, she seemed so innocent. Like an angel.
“You’re a red-shouldered hawk, aren’t you?” the girl stated, her voice filled with awe. “Are you my spirit guide? Dad told me spirit guides don’t usually show themselves to humans until we’re older. There must be a reason you’re with me now.”
Opening his mouth, Eric realized he could not speak. Nor did it seem as if the girl could see him. She continued talking to the bird as if they two were alone.
“Maybe because I’m supposed to decide if I want to train as a shaman soon? If you’re here, then that must mean I’m supposed to. But I’ll admit, I’m a little afraid of leaving my home, even for a short time. I know that there are some people in other places who aren’t so nice.”
Eric tried speaking again, to tell the girl that he would protect her. But she and the mist faded away.
Eric found himself waking up on the forest floor, alone.
He pushed himself to stand, balancing carefully as the world spun dizzily. While the pain had returned as he awoke, it was not nearly as bad as it had been. When he no longer felt as though he would fall over, Eric turned toward the log. The bird – the hawk, from what the girl had said – shook out its wings and launched into the air. As it circled overhead, Eric got the impression that it wanted him to follow it.
With nowhere better to go, Eric did. The hawk led him through the forest until they reached a small, rarely used side gate out of the park. When the hawk flew across the street and landed in a tree, Eric stepped out to join it.
Squealing tires and shrieking brakes filled the air. Eric froze, illuminated by headlights in the night’s gloom. Seconds later, a car door slammed. Before Eric could run, a tall woman dressed in nurse’s scrubs rounded the car to stand before him.
“Are you okay, hon? Oh, look at you! When’s the last time you ate anything?”
At the mention of food, Eric’s stomach nearly roared. The woman tsked.
“Well, that just won’t do. There’s a diner just at the end of this block. How about you and I head inside and get some food? My name’s Andrea Browning. What’s yours, child?”
Blinking, a little woozy from hunger, pain, and still caught up in the remnants of that dream, Eric forgot to be wary for a moment.
“Well, Eric,” Andrea nodded decisively. “Let’s grab something to eat and then we’ll talk.”
Serenity sat like a contented cat over Stargazer Island. The bright summer day practically purred on air perfumed with flowers, the ocean, and an undefinable something. To some, that “something” was magic. To Sage, it was simply the scent of home. A home she was now proud to share with her new stepsiblings.
Islanders called out greetings to each other. Visitors laughed as they enjoyed a day on the beach. The deep bellow of the ferry horn sounded a goodbye as it motored slowly toward the mainland. Men on the fishing boats lifted their hands in return. They navigated the glistening harbor, their small vessels laden with their morning haul. It was simply another late summer morning in the best place on Earth.
An echoing roar shattered the peace.
As Sage and her stepsiblings, Dalton and Anna, watched in shock, the harbor churned, roiling and bubbling. The violence of the waves threatened to capsize the returning boats. They listed dangerously as something rose from the ocean’s depths.
Inky tentacles broke the surface first, flailing as if searching blindly for some object just out of reach. Its body followed, rising like a newly formed mountain just off the island’s southern coast. Laughter turned to screams of terror as beach goers fled. Black scales, glistening with a coating of slick, dark green slime covered a body that looked part Giant Squid, park shark. Huge. And wholly predatory.
It roared again, so much louder without the water to muffle the horrendous sound. Sage, Anna, and Dalton covered their ears, but it did little good. Two of the creature’s tentacles slapped the surface of the water, sending a surging wave to drench the docks. Boats rocked in their moors.
The wave washed over the three young teens, knocking them off their feet and tugging them back toward the Atlantic. Sage heard her new siblings’ screams of terror, and her own with them.
Only a few feet from the churning water, Sage felt herself leave the ground. Her uncontrolled slide reversed. She saw Dalton and Anna floating backward, toward the safety of town. Felt herself flying with them. That could only mean one thing.
The McKenzie Witch had arrived.
A roar of a different sort filled the air. One much more welcome. Island residents charged toward the docks, ready for battle.
Sage’s feet touched ground as her father, JJ, stopped by her side. He gathered all three teens into his arms, hugging them tightly.
“Thank the Mother.”
“Dad,” Sage began, but her father shook his head.
“You three get back into town, where you’ll be safe. Go now.”
With that, he moved forward, joining Delia McKenzie. While the witch lifted her hands into the air, using her magic to defend the islanders on the front lines, JJ began a shamanic chant.
Two mountain lions launched themselves into the air, scoring long gouges into one of the sea monster’s tentacles before leaping back to the safety of the docks. Workers and townsfolk threw spears and knives at the creature, dodging and diving away from those whip-like tentacles. Gunshots erupted from a couple of the fishing boats as islanders besieged the creature.
A third cougar, only slightly smaller than the other two, ran toward Sage and her siblings. Dalton shoved both girls behind him.
Another boy, only a year older than Sage, joined them. Gasping for breath, he slid to a stop, shoving his overgrown mop of black curls out of his eyes.
“What is that thing, panam?”
With a growl, the mountain lion shifted form. Golden brown fur disappeared to reveal bare skin as the popping and cracking of bone changing shape filled the air.
A boy stood before them, half turning to cover his nudity while he dragged on a pair of shorts and shirt that had hung around the cougar’s neck.
“You just had to make me talk, didn’t you, Rowan?”
The curly-haired boy laughed. “Who ever heard of a shy shifter?”
“Don’t tease Liam, Rowan,” Sage reprimanded. “There’s nothing wrong with modesty.”
Liam flashed her a quick grin. “Thanks, Sage. I heard my mom on the phone tree. It’s a kraken.”
“A what?” Dalton’s eyes bugged, his voice cracking with either fear or the onset of puberty. “Krakens aren’t real.”
Anna rolled her eyes. “And mountain lions don’t turn into boys, Dalt, but you saw Liam, same as me.”
“Trying to convince myself I hallucinated that, Anna,” Dalton ground out between clenched teeth. “At least until someone tells me what the hell is going on with this place.”
Before anyone could respond, more screams of terror filled the air. The kraken roared again. Sage turned toward the scene playing out in the harbor. Two of the kraken’s tentacles grabbed hold of one of the fishing boats, lifting it high into the air. Fishermen scrambled to grab hold of anything to stop themselves from falling into the ocean as the creature shook their vessel like a toddler with a bath toy.
From a nearby fishing boat, a small, older man let out a battle cry worthy of the Ancient Spartans. He let loose arrow after arrow, hitting the creature’s tentacles each time until the kraken resembled a pin cushion. With a roar of pain as much as rage, the kraken released its hold on the boat.
It plummeted toward the Atlantic as those on board screamed for their lives. A heartbeat later, the long, deadly drop stopped. The fishing vessel hovered only a foot above the waves, with the two men who had fallen overboard suspended in midair nearby.
Sage saw the strain on Delia’s face as the witch used her hold on the air to reel both the men and ship to the safety of land. Already the strain had sweat beading her brow as color leached from her face.
Beside her, JJ continued chanting. As Sage focused on her father’s words, the rhythm seeped into her mind. A misty, green-blue trail snaked from JJ toward the kraken, wreathing the creature in shamanic magic. Sage’s mind followed that trail until she was merging with the beast itself.
Inside the kraken’s mind, chaos exploded. Fury, fear, and pain flooded Sage, making her gasp. She had not realized she took a step toward the kraken until Liam grabbed her arm.
Blinking her mismatched eyes, Sage roused from the trancelike state her father’s chanting caused. She looked up at Liam and the others, her closest friends, and shook her head.
“I have to go. He needs me.”
“Wait, who?” Rowan demanded. “Don’t tell me the kraken…”
Sage nodded, totally serious. “I can reach him. There’s a reason for his attack. I can stop it. He’s in so much pain.”
“Damn it, pena,” Rowan muttered. “Okay. Liam, better shift again, just in case. We’ve got your back, Sage. Just be careful or your dad’s gonna kill us.”
“Don’t tell me you’re all going toward that thing,” Anna shrieked. “Sage…”
Smiling at her dumbfounded siblings, Sage patted Anna’s arm. “It’ll be okay, Anna. Promise. You and Dalt stay here where it’s safe.”
Dalton snorted. “Only safe until JJ finds out I let you go head-to-head with that thing, Sage. Not gonna happen. I’m going with you. Anna…”
“Uh huh, Dalt,” Anna stopped him from speaking. “You go, I go. Simple as that. Sage? Whatever you’re gonna do, better do it soon.”
Nodding, Sage took off at a run. She heard the others running behind her. Then Liam, back in his cougar form, was at her side. That made her feel better. There was no quit in Liam. Not when it came to keeping the rest of them safe. She heard her father shouting behind her, but ignored him for the moment, allowing herself to get swept back up into the waves of his chant before they disappeared.
Those waves carried her spirit back to the kraken. Her father’s chant had worked wonders. Its movements slowed, the chaos inside its mind stilled.
At the edge of the dock, Sage reached out a hand and touched the creature’s injured tentacle. She felt the healing energy rise from her soul, stretching out toward the kraken. Her hands began to glow as the arrows fell from its body. While she healed the physical wounds, her mind sought to understand the kraken’s. Images flashed from its mind back to hers. The creature’s fears of the future, its need to protect its territory. The consequences it sought to avoid.
Taking a deep breath, Sage acknowledged it all, conveying her promise to help. To convince the islanders of what needed to be done. She held her breath while feeling the kraken’s debate on whether to believe her or not. The glow faded from her body as, the creature’s wounds fully healed, her magic receded back into her soul. She barely felt Rowan holding her up as her body sagged with exhaustion.
Large, pitch black eyes keeping Sage in its sights, the kraken’s tentacles slid away from the docks, propelling itself further out to sea. With its final acceptance of Sage’s pledge, the connection between their minds broke and the kraken disappeared beneath the waves, leaving the island in peace once more.
“Holy sh…” Rowan caught a glimpse of Delia McKenzie and JJ Winters rushing toward them and adjusted his language, “schnikies, Sage! You did it!”
“Sage!” JJ caught her up in a hug, lifting her off the ground. “What were you thinking? You kids could have been killed!”
“It didn’t want to kill anyone, Dad,” Sage denied. “Not really.”
JJ’s eyes widened in shock. “You connected with it, Sage?”
She nodded. Delia hummed.
“Perhaps you could share what you learned then, Sage?”
Nodding, Sage’s gaze swept the dock, now teeming with islanders and fishermen.
“The kraken is worried about the future. Human pollution and the fishing industry are causing a lot of damage to the ocean’s ecosystem. It isn’t only the kraken that’s feeling the effects, but all the creatures living there. Some fish species are already on the brink of extinction. It wants us to take care of the oceans, because even if we humans don’t feel the effects now, we will if things don’t change.”
The old man with the bow and arrows blew out a long breath. “I guess we can come up with a better fishing schedule and move around more so we’re not depleting the populations before they can restore themselves. And really, if the restaurants don’t mind paying a bit more for their fish, we can lower our catch numbers.”
Sage sent him a grateful smile. “Thank you, Mr. Jarlsson.”
The old man grunted at her but returned her smile.
Delia looked around at the other islanders. “We should have a Council meeting as well. See if we can come up with some ways to lower ocean pollution levels around here. Sage, dear? Do you think you can help us with that?”
“Of course, Miz Delia. I’ll start doing research right away.”
As the islanders disbursed, Dalton looked down at his much smaller stepsister.
“How are you planning on doing research, Sage? I noticed there isn’t a library on the island. And you don’t have a computer.”
“I bet my mom will let you use the school library and computer, Sage,” Liam volunteered.
“Thanks, Liam,” Sage agreed, then huffed out a laugh. “Figures. It’s summer and I get to spend my days back in school again. The island really needs a library. Or a bookstore.”
As they made their way back up Main Street, Sage pondered that.
“I wonder if there’s a way to make a bookstore environmentally friendly?”
Celia sat across the desk from the campus housing director. She had only arrived at the college a little over a week before, and already knew her current living situation would not work out. Her roommate, another freshman by the name of Darla, seemed to be making up for eighteen years of conservative living. From the day she arrived on campus, Darla did nothing but party. Hard. Celia had already spent three nights making sure the other woman did not choke on her own vomit after passing out drunk. The other nights, Darla had “guests” sleeping in her bed. Celia figured it was up to those men, and that one woman, to keep Darla alive those nights.
Not that Celia was particularly happy to have the extra people in her room every night. Darla thought nothing of privacy, not caring in the least that Celia was sitting right across the small room, trying to study. Nope. Darla and her flavor of the night – yes, she switched partners that often – just put on some music and hopped under the covers.
Once, Celia left to study in the library to avoid Darla’s antics. When she returned, it was to find a room full of people smoking weed and drinking. Celia ended up spending the night on a couch in the common room. She was still trying to get the pungent smell out of her blankets.
Which brought her to where she was now. It was either move to a different room or strangle Darla with her university scarf. While she was sure her mom would understand, under the circumstances, Celia doubted the scholarship committee would continue funding a student sitting in prison for premeditated murder.
“Well, Celia, it looks like you’re in luck,” the housing director finally told her. “We have one other female student whose roommate moved out just a few days ago. You can move in with her.”
She handed Celia the signed transfer paper and dismissed her. Sighing, Celia left the office before glancing at the information.
“Sonya McKenzie. Why did your roommate move out already? Well, hopefully you’re better than Darla.”
Celia set her suitcase down and knocked on the door to her new dorm room. No loud music blared from inside. She wondered if Sonya was out someplace.
Before she could dig out her key, the door opened a crack. A woman, younger than Celia’s eighteen years from the look of her, peeked out. Celia studied her wary emerald eyes. It looked like her new roommate was something of a timid mouse. That impression was backed up with her near whisper.
“Can I help you?”
Plastering on her brightest smile, Celia stuck out her hand for her new roommate to shake.
“I’m Celia Lawrence, but you can call me CC. It looks like I’m your new roommate.”
The other woman hesitated a moment, then opened the door wider. She eyed Celia’s hand as if she was expecting to be slapped, but eventually, reluctantly, shook it.
“Come in. Do you need help with your stuff?”
Celia’s chin-length blonde curls swished as she shook her head.
“I’ve got it. Thanks. So you’re Sonya, right?”
Rather than continue the conversation, Sonya waved Celia toward the empty bed along one side of the room. Her long, poker-straight, blue-black hair swung forward, obscuring her face as she walked over to a desk and sat down, cracking open a history book.
Celia’s smile faded with that clear dismissal. She shrugged. Quiet and standoffish was still better than a roommate who had a revolving door on her bed and a mission to destroy her liver. Dragging her bags into the room, Celia began unpacking.
After classes, Celia sat cross-legged on her bed doing her mandatory reading for English 101 before she could move on to her much more interesting homework. Science was her jam. She could rock the chemistry labs without issue. And geology was more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Celia forced her overcrowded brain to shove aside all the possible careers she could have in the sciences. It took effort to concentrate on Descartes. In her opinion, the problem with philosophers is that they spent all their time thinking, and very little of it actually doing.
A knock on the door had Celia glancing up. She looked over at Sonya, who shrugged. She was not expecting anyone. Sighing, Celia pushed up from the bed and answered it.
In the hallway stood a middle-aged man dressed in an expensive suit. Celia quirked a brow at him. He certainly did not belong in a freshman dorm. Maybe he was someone’s father. Cataloguing his features as she waited for him to speak, Celia decided there was something she did not like about the man. Maybe it was his narrow, somewhat squished, weaselly face. It could have been the weak chin and sparse whiskers above his upper lip. Or the hard glint in his pale blue eyes. Like he was anticipating something nasty occurring and knew he would delight in it. It could also have been the obvious cost of his suit and the garish flash of his fancy watch that put her off. Celia never had liked people who flaunted their wealth.
When he still had not spoken, Celia sighed and rolled her eyes. She plastered a fake smile onto her lips.
“Can I help you with something?”
Her gray eyes narrowed suspiciously and Celia’s grip on the door tightened.
The man smirked, making him look even nastier. Almost like a rat.
“Never mind. I know you are Celia Lawrence. I am attorney Kyle Dershowitcz.”
He flicked out a business card between his fingers for her to take with all the dexterity of a street magician. Or con artist. Celia glanced down at the embossed and glossy card before returning her gaze to the man’s face without taking it.
Dershowitcz cleared his throat. “I’m here on behalf of my client to offer you the sum of five thousand dollars, cash, Ms. Lawrence.”
Celia’s dark blonde brow rose skeptically at that.
“Who is your client and why is he going around offering young women money?”
That smarmy smile on Dershowitcz’s face turned Celia’s stomach. It looked like he was imagining things Celia wanted to know nothing about. She was about ready to slam the door and call campus security.
“My client, Mr. Westin, wants nothing from you, Ms. Lawrence. He only has one simple request. That you move out of this dorm room and refuse to have anything further to do with his stepdaughter, Ms. McKenzie. Should you see her on campus, ignore her. Pretend she does not exist, and this five thousand dollars will be yours.”
Celia’s jaw dropped. She glanced over her shoulder. Sonya was sitting at her desk, watching Celia. Her face was devoid of color and those emerald eyes looked dull and cloudy. Celia flashed her a quick smile before returning her gaze to the attorney once more.
“Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not interested in taking money from a strange man for any reason. Especially for a reason as stupid as that.”
“Ten thousand,” Dershowitcz upped the offer before Celia could shut the door. “Mr. Westin will be happy to part with ten thousand dollars if you agree to move, Ms. Lawrence. Surely a young college student such as yourself could use the money.”
Celia’s eyes narrowed angrily. The tone of his voice told her that Dershowitcz had investigated her. He knew exactly what her financial situation was. That she was all but broke, and only able to attend because of her scholarships. That invasion of her privacy, coupled with the superior, knowing look on the man’s ferret face, spurred Celia’s reaction. She smiled sweetly at the man.
“Sorry. Tell your client that my friendship isn’t for sale. For any price.”
She took great delight in slamming the door in weasel-man’s shocked face. Twisting the lock, she spoke loudly enough to be certain Dershowitcz overheard her next words.
“Sonya, we’d better report that guy to campus security. I really don’t feel safe with him in the building.”
Faintly, she heard the attorney curse. Then his footsteps as he retreated down the hall to the stairwell. Smiling, satisfied, Celia sat on her bed. Sonya had yet to move, staring at her wide-eyed.
“What?” Celia finally asked.
Slowly, Sonya stood and moved to sit on her bed directly across from Celia. She shoved that long curtain of hair back, no longer hiding behind it as she studied Celia carefully.
“My first roommate took him up on his offer immediately.”
Celia snorted. “And likely spent most of it already, too. So, why doesn’t your stepfather want you to have a roommate, anyway?”
“He doesn’t want me to have friends,” Sonya sighed. “I was sent to boarding school after my mother married him and he paid off all the kids there. Or, at least their parents. I wasn’t allowed to contact any of my old friends from before, and I got punished anytime I tried. According to him, I don’t deserve to have friends.”
“The guy sounds like a pompous ass,” Celia snorted. “Doesn’t he have anything better to do than monitor you? And any guy who hires weasel-face to represent him isn’t someone I’d ever listen to. I’ve met demons and dead men I’d trust more.”
For the first time, Sonya smiled. A small sound escaped. She covered her trembling lips with one hand, as her eyes danced with amusement. Eventually, her laughter spilled out from behind her hand. It did not last long, but Celia felt proud of herself for breaking through Sonya’s barriers even just that little bit.
Making a sudden decision, she jumped up from the bed and held out a hand.
Sonya quirked a brow, but allowed Celia to take her hand and haul her off the bed.
“Where are we going?”
“Campus coffee shop. I feel like having a frappaccino. You can tell me more about your idiot stepfather and I’ll tell you about my rat bastard of a father.”
“Why?” Sonya asked, looking puzzled.
Celia flashed her another smile as she towed Sonya out of their room.
“Because. That’s what besties do.”
Rowan stood with his older brother, Kem, on the deck of the ferry, watching the strange island draw near. One glance over his shoulder showed that his momma had taken a moment from the frenetic preparations to watch their approach as well. Baby Ladin was in her arms, still too young to bother getting excited about exploring a new place. But then, he was only three. None of the other adults in the kompania had spared more than a glance at their new temporary residence. Rowan was glad to still be a kid. Growing up looked like nothing more than hard work.
He turned his attention back to the island. Stargazer, his dad had called it. His great-uncle Vassile and his granddad spoke about it the night before. Rowan heard them as he lay on the small fold-out bed in his parents’ RV. They said that Stargazer Island was full of people who believed in magic. Rowan wondered if that meant they knew the truth about the world, like the Roma did, or if they simply wanted to believe, because magic was so much cooler than the regular world.
Shrugging the thought off, Rowan climbed up onto the ferry’s rail to get a better look. It did not matter anyway, because his familia was the real deal. They would give the islanders their best. Some of the larger kompania might not, but he knew his family. The Ellis clan never shirked.
“Rowan, come down from there now!”
The sound of his mother’s scolding had Rowan jumping back to the deck of the ferry. Kem smirked at him from the superior age of seven. Whatever. Kem might be two years older, but Rowan was already nearly as tall as he was. His aunts called him a beanpole. His dad said he just needed to grow into his arms and legs a bit more. Whatever that meant.
As the ferry docked, his momma joined them, trying unsuccessfully to tame his wild ebony curls. Rowan ducked, doing his best to avoid her fussing. She clicked her tongue, and he gave her an innocent grin.
“Kem, Rowan, your grandparents will be meeting with the island’s council as soon as we get off the ferry. Since they’ve asked me to join them, the two of you will stay with us. I want you both on your best behavior. We need to make a good impression, and there’s no reason for these people to think we’re raising a bunch of ruffians.”
“Yes, Momma,” Rowan intoned with his brother.
As they moved toward the gangplank, he leaned closer to Kem. “What’s a ruffian?”
Kem looked like he wanted to show how much smarter he was, but in the end, just shrugged.
The two boys caught sight of the group of adults waiting for them on the dock. He wondered if they were the sort who cooed as if all little kids were babies and pinched their cheeks while saying things like “adorable.” Or maybe they were the other kind. The ones who thought all kids were up to no good and blamed them for everything.
As Rowan took his first step onto Stargazer Island, all that wondering stopped. He swayed as the vision took him. Yes, even at five years old, his Roma blood was rich with Romani Magic. Or so his grandma told him. Visions and dreams that came true happened whenever they wanted. Rowan just wished he knew more about them. But his momma had assured him that he would learn in time.
Rowan’s gaze swept over the island, but it was not the group of young and middle-aged adults standing before him. Nor was it the infant laying in one of the woman’s arms, or the two kids – a boy and a girl, both a little younger than him – playing nearby. The bright, sunny day gave way to dark clouds and thunder. Buildings that he had seen from the deck of the ferry now looked like broken toys. Some had smoke pouring from holes in the sides. Others looked more like pieces of wood his familia threw into the fire.
Adults battled against monsters Rowan had never seen before. They terrified him. Huge, ugly, and smelly, with sharp teeth and glowing eyes. Someone, a woman with crazy, gray-streaked hair, laughed as she threw a ball of fire toward a trio of islanders.
A man stepped between them and the flame. He raised his own hand, and water poured from the clouds to put out the flame. But it did not rain. And once the fire was gone, the water stopped. The woman he faced spoke. Rowan guessed it was some kind of hex or spell. With a wave of his arm, the man sent a gust of air toward the woman, knocking the power she cast out back into her.
The vision shifted. Rowan watched as a group of kids – he recognized himself and the two he had seen playing among others, though they were all older – faced off against some sort of monster dog. It looked terrifying. As big as a horse, eyes like glowing coals. Every time it stepped, the ground beneath its massive paws burned. The boy Rowan recognized called out to the others and then quickly stripped off his clothes. That was kind of a weird reaction to danger.
But then something amazing happened, and Rowan’s eyes went wide. The boy’s body shifted. Fur sprouted all over him as his arms changed into another pair of legs. When the shift ended, Rowan stared in awe at the young mountain lion. So very cool.
“Rowan, look out!”
The little girl, with her mismatched eyes and crazy hair, looked terrified. Rowan watched the dog-thing leap toward his older self. For a second, he thought he was seeing his own death and desperately tried to find a way out of the vision.
But the boy-cougar leapt as well, slamming into the side of the monster and knocking it away. Its massive claw lashed out, scoring along the mountain lion’s side. The cat dodged another blow. The third landed, not clawing this time, but knocking the boy-cougar off its feet. Another girl, this time with jet black hair, waved her hand and the air itself seemed to punch the dog creature’s face. That kept it from sinking its teeth into the mountain lion.
All the kids screamed a challenge then, charging toward the monster. The boy-cougar leapt back into the fight, its jaws snapping around the monster dog’s throat. As the older Rowan and other kids guarded the cougar, it lowered its head, dragging the creature to the ground.
From somewhere nearby, an adult shouted. Rowan’s head turned from the sight. That sharp movement jarred him from the vision. He stood there, still on the docks, with his momma calling his name. Kem’s arm slipped around his shoulders when he swayed. Visions always made him dizzy. And gave him a headache.
A woman’s kind voice had him looking over as one of the islanders approached. She was the one who held the baby. Rowan recognized the infant as the little black-haired girl from his vision. The woman smiled as she crouched down in front of him.
“You look like you’ve seen quite a bit today, my boy. Why don’t you, your brother, and your mother come back to my house for a bit? I have a tea that will help take away your headache and you can all have some cookies.”
Rowan perked up at that. “Cookies?”
The woman nodded as she rose again. “Yes. Oatmeal butterscotch.”
“Can we, Momma?” Rowan pleaded, using his dark brown eyes to beg.
Laughing gently, she nodded. “That’s fine, Rowan. And once you’re feeling better, you can tell us all what you saw. Thank you for your hospitality, Mrs. McKenzie.”
“It’s just Delia, dear. And I’m honored to meet you all.”
As they left the others and headed down a side street, the two children who had been playing ran over to them. The boy looked to be about three. His wavy brown hair held streaks of dark gold, and his eyes might have been the bluest Rowan had ever seen before. The girl whose hand he held was a little younger, maybe two. She looked a bit like the Native Americans Rowan’s familia had met, except her eyes were mismatched green and brown, and her hair was both straight and curly, dark brown and red.
The woman with the baby, Delia, smiled at the children.
“Liam, Sage, meet Rowan Ellis. He and his familia will be staying on Stargazer for a while.”
“I want to join the navy when I’m old enough.”
That flat statement had the other three children looking toward Liam, who continued staring up at the stars. He and his best friends, Sonya, Sage, and Rowan had all met at the Ice Cream Shack just before it closed for the night. Cones in hand, they climbed out onto the large boulders that separated the public beach from the boat docks. There was one rock, right near the center, that had a completely flat top. It was also slightly lower than the surrounding boulders, so the island children could pretend they were in a private little hideaway. Normally, they had to sit up in order to make room for everyone. But Cal, Mike, Tanner, Rafe, Jack, Grace, and Jade were all busy that evening. Or they had gotten into trouble for something. That would have likely been Mike and Jack’s reason. It usually was.
“Why?” Sage asked. “The navy fights in wars. People get hurt and killed. The environment gets damaged by bombs and if one of those new-clear ones goes off, it poisons the Earth.”
Liam sighed, knowing Sage would have a problem with his decision. He did not like the idea of hurting others, or the Earth, either. But…
“Sage, I get it. But there’s always gonna be bad guys. Don’t you think it’s up to the good ones to stand up and stop them? They would hurt the world a lot more if we let them.”
“How’re you gonna manage, panam?” Rowan demanded. “Bombs and guns are loud, and you could get hurt. What happens if your cat comes out accidentally? Like during the fireworks show last year.”
That was Rowan. Always practical. Liam relied on him to keep things real. He just wished his brother by another mother had not brought up last year’s humiliation. Luckily, Liam had thought long and hard about this issue.
“I didn’t shift during this year’s fireworks. I would need to practice. A lot. And learn to control my shift, even if I’m hurt or scared. That’s why I’m talking to you all about this now. I need your help.”
“How can we help, Liam?”
Little Sonya. She was the youngest of their group, but also the one who understood Liam the most. His pixie always had faith in him, and always supported him. Liam had to admit, she made him feel like a superhero. And she also made him feel happy. Calm. Pretty much every good feeling imaginable. It was crazy, because she was just a little kid. Not quite six. But Liam had known since earlier that summer that Sonya McKenzie was the one person he needed in his life in order to be the best he could be.
“Well, that I’m not really sure. I need to get hurt somehow, I guess. So I can learn not to shift then. And be frightened too. Do you guys have any ideas?”
Rowan snorted. “Short of beating you up, you mean?”
Liam just shrugged. Sonya sat up and bit her lip.
“I think I can cast a spell that would make things loud and smoky. Like in those John Wayne movies Gramps likes to watch. The war ones always have battle scenes like that.”
“Well, I suppose I can make like some kind of water balloon bombs,” Sage offered with a sigh. “They won’t hurt the environment, as long as we pick them up after. But if Sonya magics them, they could make loud noise and like, fake them blowing up and stuff.”
“The guys and I can probably come up with ways to help you with the pain junk,” Rowan offered, clearly reluctant. “As long as we don’t hurt you really bad. Or break bones or something.”
“Thanks guys,” Liam sighed happily. “I knew I could count on you.”
Liam belly-crawled beneath rows of barbed wire as lights flashed, strobe-like, above him. It had been a week since he had begun training for the navy. Even though he had a decade to prepare before he was old enough to enlist, he knew it would take all that time before he felt ready.
The first time he had done this course, his animal guardian had come out with the first earth-shaking explosion Sonya’s spell had created. The mountain lion’s fur got caught in the barbed wire Mike and Tanner had found. The cat, and if he was honest, he, had panicked and gotten tangled even worse. Thankfully, Sage healed the deep scratches before he went home.
Now though, his guardian accepted the deafening noise, the lightning flashes of light, and barbed wire without a problem. Liam made it through there and stood, running crouched over toward the wooden wall he needed to climb. The whine of a bullet passed by his ear, and Liam zigged. Another went over his head and he flopped to the ground like a runner sliding headfirst into home plate.
Four days ago, the sound had brought his guardian roaring forward again. Sonya’s spell certainly worked. The day after being terrified by just the sound, one of Rowan’s paintballs had struck him. Somehow, Sonya’s magic made the dull sting much worse, and his mountain lion came out again. Thankfully, that had been before Liam had started bawling like a baby. But he had not been able to keep from screaming.
Despite the pain disappearing almost immediately, it took a bit before his guardian retreated. By the time it had, all his friends were surrounding him. Sonya had tears streaming down her cheeks. As soon as Liam shifted back, his pixie had thrown herself into his arms, apologizing over and over for hurting him. Still embarrassed about being naked, given his clothes had shredded when he shifted, Liam nevertheless did what he could to make her feel better.
He realized then that helping him was tougher on his friends than it was on him. But they continued because joining the navy was his dream and they cared enough to help him achieve it. That just made Liam all the more determined to succeed.
Another paintball bullet flew over his head, ruffling his bark brown hair. Liam rolled a few times, narrowly missing the paintball that struck the ground where he had been lying. He scrambled to his feet again, knowing he would be out of the line of fire as soon as he made it to the wall.
As Liam stretched, finally reaching the wooden climbing wall, the sky darkened ominously. He glanced up, half expecting the shadow of a giant dragon to be passing overhead. Mountains of dark gray clouds filled the sky instead. Thunder rumbled. A blinding flash arced across the sky, bringing with it an even louder crack of thunder. Rain poured down. Luckily, the shield Sonya had created to hide their activities from the rest of the island kept them dry, but Liam doubted it would last too much longer.
His friends quickly joined him. They turned to head toward Rowan’s grandparent’s house, the closest shelter.
Another deafening crack echoed across the island, followed by shrill, terrified screams. Liam froze, causing his friends to slam into him from behind. He stumbled but managed to stay on his feet.
“’Nia, take down the dome. Something’s wrong.”
With a quick wave of her hand, Sonya did as Liam ordered. Hard, driving rain soaked them immediately. When they heard another scream, they ignored the pouring rain and sprinted toward the edge of the cliffs.
As the ledge came into view, Liam heard Rowan use a word that would have gotten his mouth washed out with soap. Part of the cliff was missing. Approaching cautiously, Liam edged out until he could see over the brink. Two kids, teens from the look of them, were laying on a small ledge maybe ten feet below. Their picnic basket was even further down, smashed on the rocks at the bottom and quickly being washed out to sea.
“Hang on!” Liam called down. “We’ll help you.”
He turned back to the others. “Mike, Tanner, get the ropes off the wall. Gracie, run over to Rowan’s grandparents and have them call my dad. Tell him to bring rescue and an ambulance.”
“How’re we gonna get them?” Jack asked, peering over as the others ran off to follow his orders. “This cliff doesn’t look stable. If an adult tries to climb down, they’ll probably be too heavy.”
“I’m going,” Liam told him. “Sonya, be ready with your magic in case one of them falls. Maybe you can ask the air to catch them. Rowan, you’ll be in charge of making sure Mike, Tanner, Rafe, and Jack pull each of them back up to the top once the rope is around them. Sage, if one of them is hurt, you might need to help heal them.”
The boys returned with the rope, which Rowan immediately knotted around a tree far enough from the edge to provide a stable anchor. Liam fed the other end over the cliff. It reached the ledge. Taking a deep breath, he turned and grabbed hold of the rope.
“Be careful, Liam,” Sonya called out.
He shot her a quick grin and nodded. Then he dropped over the side.
Rain made the rope slick, and the cliff face muddy and unstable. Liam placed each foot carefully as he began the climb down to the ledge. A sudden gust of wind howled, shoving him sideways and partially spinning him around.
Liam kept repeating the silent mantra as he wriggled around to face the cliff again. If nothing else, focusing on those words helped him keep his growing fear at bay. Another flash of lightning blinded him momentarily. He braced himself for the thunder, knowing it would be so much louder exposed as he was.
When the echoes passed, he continued down the rope. A glance down showed him he was only a foot from the ledge, so he jumped the rest of the way. The teen boy looked at him wide-eyed.
“Holy shit, kid! Are you crazy or just stupid to have climbed down here?”
Liam shrugged. “I’ll figure it out later. Right now, we’ve gotta get you two out of here. Tie the end of the rope around your waist. Make sure the knot is really good.”
The boy wrapped the rope around the girl and tied it. He kissed her while Liam checked and tightened the knot. Kid clearly never spent any time on the ocean by the look of his knotting skills. Liam shook his head. Tourists.
“Okay, that should do it. Now, grab hold of the rope with both hands. My friends up at the top are going to pull you up. Try to stay calm, and don’t kick the cliff, if you can help it. You might dislodge more on top of us.”
The girl looked terrified but nodded. She shrieked when another bolt of lightning cracked across the sky. Liam patted her shoulder awkwardly.
“You’ll be alright. Just keep your eyes on the top.”
He signaled to Rowan, who immediately shouted commands to the others. The girl slowly lifted from the ledge.
Another double flash of lightning blinded Liam momentarily. When his vision cleared, the rope had already been lowered again. The boy wrapped it around his own waist. Liam checked his knots, then signaled up to Rowan again. Blinking furiously to clear his eyes of rain, Liam watched as the boy rose toward the top. Five feet up. Six.
Another gust of wind sent the boy slamming into the cliff face. Stones exposed when the cliff originally gave way began to fall, rushing toward Liam. He leapt to the side of the ledge. The slide passed him by, continuing its way down until it crashed into the ocean.
Liam heard Sonya scream a warning. Instinctively, he moved again, but too slowly. A large rock slammed down onto his shoulder before pinning his forearm beneath it. Sharp, agonizing pain radiated all along its length. Liam growled, trying to swallow a scream of his own.
Don’t shift. Don’t shift. Don’t shift.
Carefully, Liam tried sliding his arm out from under the rock. Another flare of pain made him see spots. He shook his head to clear it and tried shoving the rock off his arm with his other hand. The angle would not allow it. Fighting back tears, he felt the beginnings of panic leak through and knew his guardian would soon rise. But there was no way even the agile cat would be able to make it up the dangerous cliffside.
Then the rock shifted. Liam watched as it rolled slowly, deliberately, off his arm. He looked down at the injured limb and immediately wished he had not. It was definitely broken. Swollen, purple, and at a weird angle. And looking made it hurt worse.
Don’t shift. Don’t shift.
He looked up to see Rowan and Sonya both peering over the edge. The rope once again dangled right in front of him.
“Tie it around your waist! Hurry!”
“I’ve only got one arm,” he called back. “The other one’s broken.”
“I’ll help you, Liam,” Sonya assured him. “Just get it around yourself.”
Nodding, Liam struggled to his feet and managed to wrap the rope around himself. He felt a tug on the end that was in his hand and released it. Instead of falling, the rope wove itself into a knot, tightening until it was secure. Thankfully, Sonya’s father had taken her out sailing and taught her everything she needed to know. The knot would hold. Of that Liam was certain. With his good hand, he grabbed hold of the rope.
He heard Rowan’s order, then felt the rope bite into his waist. His feet left the ledge. Slowly, he inched up the side. One foot. Two. Three.
Another rumble shook the cliff. Looking down, Liam gasped once before slamming his eyes shut.
Don’t shift, don’t shift, don’t shift.
The ledge crumbled, falling into the raging waves. Nothing more stood between him and that deadly fall. Lightning crashed. Thunder roared.
Don’t shift. Don’t shift.
Wind whipped rain into his face, spinning him dizzyingly.
Don’t shift. Don’t shift.
It seemed to last an eternity. Liam lost count of how many times he repeated that same phrase. The rope would slip from the cougar’s body too easily. Shifting now would be a death sentence.
More wind slammed him into the side of the cliff, jarring his injured arm. This time, Liam could not hold in the scream of pain. But he managed to keep hold of the rope, and his control. He could feel his guardian pacing just beneath his skin, needing to help, but it did not appear.
Hands suddenly grabbed his shirt and good arm, tugging him over the rim and onto solid ground. Those same hands pulled him back further, away from the unstable edge and to safety. Liam lay on the water-logged grass, gasping for breath and thankful to be alive. Beside him, Sonya lay still. It looked like she had passed out. Blinking, he saw his father hovering over him as the paramedic put a splint on his arm.
As he and Sonya were lifted onto a stretcher, his dad squeezed his good hand.
“Sonya kept air beneath you in case the rope gave way. You wouldn’t have fallen. But it exhausted her. Her dad will meet us at the clinic.
“Rowan said you took command to save those two teens, son. I’m damn proud of the man you’re becoming.”
Those words settled deeply into Liam’s heart as he settled back beside Sonya, ready for the ambulance ride to the clinic.
“Sonya Eloise McKenzie, don’t you dare get dirty! I put a lot of time and effort into making you look like a girl instead of some tomboy, and I don’t want it to go to waste! If you come back here with tangled hair and one speck of dirt on your dress, there will be consequences, young lady!”
The little girl called out the response her mother expected, not because she intended to sit on some clean couch all day, but because her mama always got angry if Sonya did not respond. And she was still too close to the house. If her mama got angry, she might catch her and make her stay indoors all day. Sonya hated that. Mama made her dress like one of those creepy china dolls her grandmother gave her every birthday. Frilly dress, ribbons, and her normally straight black hair in goofy curls. It took forever for her mama to get her ready in the morning, and just frustrated them both, since three-year old Sonya could never sit still like her mama kept yelling for her to do.
Most days, either her Gram or her dad were there. They stepped in and cut things short. Sometimes, Sonya’s dad let her get away with wearing shorts or jeans, rather than dresses. And Gram actually had play clothes that she could get as dirty as she wanted. While she loved all her parents and grandparents, Sonya secretly admitted that she much preferred her dad’s side of the family to her mom’s. Not in the least because visiting Gram and Gramps meant visiting Stargazer Island.
Sonya skipped across the back gardens of her grandparents’ old Victorian manor house. The islanders called it “The McKenzie House.” Gram told her stories. The whole property had always belonged to the McKenzies, and even older houses had been built there before this one. There had always been a McKenzie on Stargazer. They were the island leaders. Witches of great power with an important legacy.
She was not really sure what her Gram meant by “legacy.” But her Dad told her that it was in their blood, his, hers, and Gram’s, to help people. To make sure that people who could not do the sorts of things they could were safe from evil. Just like magic was in their blood. Sonya liked that. She hated it when people were sad or hurt and did not understand why so many people liked being angry. Like her mama. She was always yelling at Sonya about something. Even when Sonya was doing exactly what she was told. That must mean her mama liked being angry, which was weird, because when Sonya got upset, it always gave her a headache and a bellyache. Why would she want to feel that all the time?
The trees wrapped the little girl in warm shadows. Sonya giggled, even though there was nothing funny happening. The woods just made her so happy that she had to let it out. Kind of like bubbles escaping when her dad opened a bottle of root beer.
Her dad brought her out to these woods all the time. He showed her every tree he had climbed as a kid, and the secret brooks that filled with water every time it rained. Then he told her she was old enough to explore by herself. At least the area between Gram’s house and the next. That was enough for her at the moment though. There was so much to see, and so many creatures to meet. Maybe the next summer, she could explore further.
Toes pinched by the shiny black shoes her mama made her wear, Sonya stopped and took them off, leaving them and the frilly white socks beside a large rock just inside the tree line. She would need to remember to get them before she went home, or her mama would yell again.
Springy moss cushioned her bare feet as sunlight danced between rustling leaves, playing hide and seek with the shadows thrown by the towering trees. Sometimes, it looked like the sunbeams were dancing. Sonya began dancing along with them. She hummed her favorite Disney song as she twirled around the moving shadows and leapt the sweeping rays of light.
She skirted carefully around the circle of white and red mushrooms. Fairy rings were sacred to Otherkind. They had to be respected. And should only be entered when there was no other choice. That was because sometimes mean fairies would punish people who entered the rings. Gram had even told her a story about a boy who was kidnapped after he walked into one. He had been taken to the fairy realm and had to dance all night. But when he finally returned to his world, he had discovered that twenty years had passed!
The idea of disappearing for that long was kind of frightening. How many things would she miss? Would her family forget about her? Her dad promised they could get a dog one day. If she disappeared into the fairy realm, she would never get to meet him. And would the people who lived on Stargazer Island get angry that they had no McKenzie Witch to keep them safe? Would they start to hate her if she disappeared?
With the dangerous fairy ring behind her, Sonya resumed her dance through the trees. A salamander lay on a rock, sunning itself. Reaching out a hand, Sonya felt its energy. Just a regular lizard. Not a magic one. She laughed again and curtsied to the creature. It was funny how the normal creature had the same name as the little fire elementals. They even looked similar, except the elementals usually ran through actual fire. Sunlight was not enough heat for them to appear.
Tiny glowing lights caught her attention. She watched them dart around trees and zip over bushes. Since it was morning, they had to be devas. They were one of the fairies Gram’s books talked about. As little as fireflies, the fairies had auras that glowed as brightly as the bugs. Lifting a hand, Sonya watched as one of the tiny fairies landed in her palm. Its translucent wings fluttered, tickling her.
Giggling once again, Sonya continued her journey until she reached her favorite place. A small moss-covered mound sat amid clusters of wildflowers beside a small brook. The water tinkled over the rocks like music, and the flowers smelled almost as good as her Gram’s cookies.
Sonya sat on the mound, spreading the skirt of her white dress around her. She let the water run over her feet and set the single flower she had carried from Gram’s house on her lap. Little fish-like water elementals called undines swam past. One flicked water at her playfully, making her giggle again.
On the opposite side of the brook, a bush rustled. Sonya watched as a gnome poked its head out, investigating the area. The little bearded man froze when he caught sight of Sonya. She bowed her head and greeted him softly. The gnome stepped fully into sight and gave her a full bow before continuing on his way.
Several fairies swooped through the air around Sonya, recognizing her from her visits with her father. She lifted the flower, a bright pink hibiscus, into the air. Two of the fairies landed gently on the petals and sat to have a taste of the rare treat.
Brown and green tree sprites leapt atop Sonya’s head, making her laugh again. With the aid of a few more fairies, they began braiding small wildflowers into her long blue-black hair. Her mama would probably be horrified, but Sonya much preferred the fairy braids to those fat sausage curls she started the day with.
The bush across from her shook once more. Sonya wondered if another gnome would make an appearance. Instead, a small animal crept cautiously into view. Tilting her head, Sonya studied it. The creature looked like a cat, except bigger. Not much bigger, but still. It was no housecat. Sonya tilted her head to one side. She wondered if it wanted to be friends.
“Hello. Do you want to come play with us?”
The cat looked startled. Pops and cracks filled the air as it began to change shape. Its honey-colored fur disappeared, replaced with lightly tanned skin and wavy bark-brown hair. The golden glow in its eyes faded to reveal a startling blue color. As silence fell over the forest once again, a boy crouched before her, staring at her wide-eyed. He blushed a fiery red and grabbed something off the ground beside him. When he scrambled behind a tree, Sonya giggled once again. The boy was kind of funny.
Eventually, he reappeared. This time dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. He approached slowly, pausing before jumping over the brook to reach her. Sonya smiled at him encouragingly. A few of the fairies and sprites looked frightened, but Sonya asked them to stay and play for a bit longer. When the boy sat cross-legged beside her, they settled.
Sonya turned to face the boy again. He swallowed.
“Hi. I’m Liam McCarthy.”
“I’m Sonya McKenzie.”
Those blue eyes widened with shock. Liam looked impressed.
“I saw your dad save some other people’s lives once. It was during a hurricane last year. The wind threw a rowboat toward them. He waved his hand and it stopped, then settled on the ground again. It was very cool.”
Nodding, Sonya took the near worship in the boy’s eyes as her father’s due.
“Yes. He’s the McKenzie Witch. Like Gram. And like I’ll be one day. It’s our job to save people. Dad and Gram are teaching me how to use magic so I can protect people when bad things happen.”
When the fairies flew off, she handed him the hibiscus flower. Liam looked at it, then back to her, meeting her serious emerald green gaze.
“If you’re going to protect people, then I’ll do the same. I’ll also protect you, Sonya.”
Sonya’s smile rivaled the sun for brilliance. “Okay, Liam. Then you can be my knight.”