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.”