Authors: Maureen Lipinski
Tags: #young adult, #teen fiction, #fiction, #teen, #teen fiction, #teenager, #drama, #romance, #magic, #fantasy, #urban fantasy
Brooke's cheeks were pink with chill and she blew on her fingers. “A little, but we're used to it. Anyway, I
to talk to you!” She quickly glanced around, her blond ponytail swinging behind her like a heavy purse.
“What's going on?” I looked back at my sisters and Ben, who were all laughing and gesturing wildly.
“Look, I know you said you don't think that Melissa girl was with my stepdad, but I saw them again. And I
it was her!” Brooke leaned forward and widened her blue eyes.
“What?” I whispered, a chill going through my body.
“I swear! She was carrying this weird-looking box into his office building.”
“Well, maybe â¦ ” I started, then shook my head. “I don't know. Seems kind of far-fetched. I mean, she doesn't even live around here.”
“I know it seems crazy, but listen. So, I hate my stepdad, right?”
“Yeah,” I said quickly and shoved my hands into my pockets.
“He cheats on my mom all the time, you know. I've got to get pictures of him with one of his girlfriends so I can show them to my mom and she can divorce him. I'm thinking that the box your friend was carrying had, like, love poems or lingerie or something in it. Just in case that girl is one of his freaky girlfriends, can you keep your eyes and ears on it?”
I sighed and nodded, giving her a soft look. “Sure.”
“Great, thanks. You're such a good friend.” She leaned forward and hugged me quickly. When she let go, she asked, “Why are you sitting with the band?”
“Uh, no room anywhere else,” I said with a shrug.
“Gotta run!” Brooke said. She flashed me her Cheerleading Captain smile.
I felt guilty again as I sat back down next to Ben. Guilty because Alex was trying so hard to make me comfortable and introduce me to new people, and I was basically acting like I didn't care.
And maybe a little guilty because I couldn't stop staring at Ben's fingers laced together on his knees, wondering what it would feel like if he touched my wrist.
And maybe a lot guilty because I was sitting at a football game instead of thinking about Fiona.
“So, Ben, you have a girlfriend, right?” I tried to say lightly.
“Nope. We broke up last week,” he replied evenly, without shifting his frame.
“Oh. That's too bad,” I murmured.
I felt the six eyes of my sisters boring holes into my skull. Thankfully the game started up again and I shot them all I Will Send the Dark Dudes To Kill You Right Now looks. It was bad enough trying to push any forbidden feelings about Ben out of my head; I didn't need my sisters to make it worse.
The second half of the game was sort of boring. We were winning 45â10, so it wasn't a huge rush when the final buzzer went off in the fourth quarter. But I stood and bounced up and down to the school's theme song as the players turned toward the crowd and lifted their helmets.
In fact, it seemed like everyone was bouncing up and down except for Ben, who was watching me with a strange expression, one of amusement mixed with sadness.
“What? Aren't you excited?” I asked him breathlessly.
“Sure,” he said, and shrugged, his face stony once again.
“Let's go. I'm starving.” Rhea started to make her way down through the stands. We followed her down the stairs, single file.
“Let's go out this way so I can see Alex before we leave,” I said, gesturing toward the east gate.
“I'm going this way.” Ben pointed toward the west gate. “It was nice meeting all of you,” he said quickly. He turned and disappeared into the crowd.
“Nice going,” Morgana said to me.
“He was so nice, Leah,” Gia added.
I rolled my eyes at my sisters. “Yeah, I know. But I want to see my boyfriend before we leave.” No matter how many times I said it, it still felt awesome.
We walked toward the gate and waited off to the side. I ignored my sisters' meaningful looks and grumblings.
“Alex!” I said as I saw him coming off the field toward the locker room. He held his helmet casually against his body and his blond hair was plastered against his forehead, wet with sweat. His hands were streaked with dirt and taped up.
“Hey,” he said, walking over to me. His shoulders looked so broad with the all the pads, I seriously almost started drooling.
“Hey!” I said back. It was all I could muster beneath my stupid grin.
He nodded at my sisters. I'd introduced them briefly already, when he'd come to pick me up at home one day.
“Good game,” Morgana said awkwardly.
“Thanks, Gia,” he said.
“That's Morgana,” I told him quickly.
“Oh, right.” Alex's eyes shifted from one sister to the next as we all stood silently in a circle.
“So, Alex, why are football guys obsessed with touching each other's butts?” Rhea said.
“Uh â¦ ” Alex looked at me.
“Don't mind her, Alex. The game really was great,” Morgana said. “I bet it's because the moon cycles are really in sync. I'll bet to Goddess that your football aura was really glowing. You know, you should put a crystal in â¦ ” Morgana trailed off. Gia remained silent and small, terrified of embarrassing me.
“So, I better get to the shower. Call you later?” Alex said to me.
I nodded and grinned at him. As soon as he was safely a few feet away, I crossed my arms. “Nice going,” I muttered to my sisters.
We drove in silence on the way home, yet I heard Rhea mutter under her breath as we turned down our street, “Those monsters must be mental if they want you back.”
he fall breeze rubbed against my bare shoulders as I shuffled down the sidewalk. Paper-thin leaves, dark veins running through them, fell in front of my feet and made a crunching sound beneath my brown suede boots. The trees were starting to turn colors, an ominous sign and enduring promise of the approaching winter.
Winter. Cold. Dark.
A cool chill ran down my spine despite the warm sunshine. I glanced quickly around, but all I saw were a few children on bikes and the mailman making his way slowly down the street as he snooped through mail.
I stopped on the sidewalk and watched the children yelling to each other. They were playing near a bed of mums. A tiny, yellow-tinged cherub was lounging on the flowers. It had the body of a fat, roly-poly baby and face of an old man, with white feathered angel wings. I watched as it swiped some moisture off a flower and flung it at another cherub nearby, who lifted its wings in outrage and shrieked something fast and quick that I couldn't translate. I did think I heard something about “I hate you,” or the like. Then one of the girls on the bikes noticed the mums. She leaned down and plucked one from the flower bed, yellow cherub and all.
I held my breath and waited. As the little girl brought the mum to her nose, the cherub leaned forward and blew in her face. She sneezed violently. The cherub tittered as the little girl wheezed.
I tried, but I couldn't stop my laughter. Both cherubs turned quickly toward me. I stood straighter and spun on my heel, walking quickly down the sidewalk.
Although I'd left the house when Rhea and my dad started getting into one of their epic fightsâthis time over her using his hairbrush every morning, when apparently it's the “only one” he's ever found that he likesâI started back toward my street. I'd left to clear my head, in hopes that a genius way to solve the CrÃ©atÃºir crisis would permeate my brain. The Westerville public library wasn't exactly up to speed on folkloric texts, I'd discovered, and even Google hadn't turned up any answers. I was thinking about visiting the local college library.
I walked toward the end of the street, preparing to turn left. Only the street didn't look the way it should. I jerked my head from left to right. Nothing looked familiar. My heart started to pound as I quickly walked east, searching for a familiar mailbox, tree, street sign, anything. Nothing.
Nighttime was near. The Dark CrÃ©atÃºir would be out, like mosquitoes swarming. Dark beings, who would be much more interested in messing with me than the cherubs were. Dark CrÃ©atÃºir, one of whom was my stalker.
I turned another corner and finally saw a familiar sight ahead: Fullersburg Woods.
How the hell did I end up on the other side of the forest preserve?
I walked quickly toward it and stopped in front of the welcome sign. I turned, to start down the edge of the preserve, when a streetlight above me came on, casting a soft glow against the rapidly darkening asphalt. I looked for a long moment at the Fullersburg Woods sign. If I cut through the preserve, I would make it home in less than five minutes.
I can do this. Just run. Just run as fast as you can and you'll be home. The CrÃ©atÃºir won't even have time to catch your attention.
I closed my eyes and blew out hard.
Just do it.
My eyes snapped open and I ran full-speed into the woods. The last few rays of daylight still shone through the trees, illuminating the path in front of me. I was careful to stare only at the path, not at the trees that swayed toward me as I ran past them.
Just a few more feet.
The eerie quiet of the woods was punctuated by the crunching leaves and sticks beneath my flip-flopped feet.
Flip flop, flip flop. Crack. Crunch.
My heart pounding down through my pumping arms, I exhaled as cold sweat came over me. I saw a tiny light to my right, and picked up my speed more than I knew I was capable of.
So close. Almost there.
In front of a pattern of lights, through the twisting oaks, a dark figure moved. It blocked the twinkling lights, creating a cutout on my path. I stopped and blinked a few times, hoping the dark figure would move and I'd discover it was a tree branch.
But the figure wasn't innocuous. It kept moving toward me. Thick forest crowded in on either side of me, undermining any bright ideas I might have had about running sideways, out of the path of the moving shadow.
Maybe it's a jogger.
I stood motionless, waiting for the figure as it kept moving toward me, its shape outlined in the moonlight. Four legs, silvery-gray fur, and two black eyes.
Immediately, relief flooded over meâit wasn't a Dark CrÃ©atÃºir, but a being of this world. Just a wolf.
This was quickly followed by stomach twisting as I realized,
Like, panther or mountain-lion size.
I froze, my arms still drawn around me in pseudo protection. If it had been a Dark CrÃ©atÃºir, I could've bargained for some time, talked about Oran, asked about the good ol' weather forecast on Inis Mor. Something. But I didn't speak Wolf. And knew it probably didn't care if I was a CrÃ©atÃºir Shaman or not. I was just human meat.
The silver wolf crouched low, its thin body poised as though to strike. I began to shake uncontrollably. Then, in a flash, it lunged forward and covered the ground between us. I saw its white fangs glisten like a gleam of light before it jumped into the air, before it attacked.
I closed my eyes and knew this was it. I screamed as I held my arms over my face, trying to cover my neck, trying to gain some protection as I crouched in a ball on the pathway. I braced myself for the pain.
But then, nothing. No bones crunching, snarling lips, or saliva dripping. No blood spilt.
“Leah,” a voice above me said.
“Get up,” the voice said again.
I slowly lifted my chin and looked upward at the tall boy in front of me. The tall boy with the dark jagged hair and piercing eyes. I checked my arms. No scratches. Not a mark on me.
“Oh my god, Slade. Did you see that wolf?” I struggled to stand on my still-weak legs. I looked around at the dark trees surrounding the path. “Where did it go?”
He stepped closer to me, and the dark shadows encircled his eyes. I could barely make out his features. He stood silently, looming over me.
“I don'tâthis is soâ” I started to say. Yet through my still-lingering fear, my brain was starting to move the puzzle pieces together. Starting to understand. I stopped speaking and looked at Slade.
He put his cold hand on my bare shoulder. His touch sent a chill over me once again, down my arm and through my rib cage.
“Leah,” he said again.
My heartbeat rushed back into my ears, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood at attention.
“Shapeshifter,” I whispered to him through the darkness. Although I could only make out his faint outline, I could feel his laser eyes piercing through me. “Dark CrÃ©atÃºir,” I gasped.
“Yes.” His voice sliced through the air. I could see the lights of my house twinkling far in the distance, and I desperately wanted to feel the comfort of my mother's arms.
“Howâwhyâ” I stammered.
Slade's mouth curled into a smile just visible in the darkness. “I used a glamour so you wouldn't know who I really am. You humans are so easy to fool. You believe whatever you want, regardless of what's in front of you.”
I swallowed hard and pulled my arms tighter around my body. “But how? You can't beâ”
It was a well-known, at least formerly well-known, fact that CrÃ©atÃºir don't like to spend too much time in the mortal realm. Something about finding the mortal plane disdainful and out-of-balance.
Slade smiled, the corners of his mouth nearly meeting his eyes. “Still so much to learn about us. So much that is not in the grimoire. King Oran sent me to watch you. To stay close to you. To make sure you exonerate my people and refute the accusations of the Light,” he said.
I nodded. “I'm working on it,” I whispered hoarsely.
“Not enough.” Slade's voice rose a bit. “You will do this. You will help us. You are the only one, Shaman.” He pronounced the
like a snake, giving away his identity as a Dark CrÃ©atÃºir.
“I know,” I said quickly. I glanced at my house.
If only I couldâ
“No need to run away, Shaman. I will not hurt you. You're the key, the missing piece. The one who can unite our kingdom and prevent war in the Other Realm. You're too important.”
“I already talked to Oran about this,” I said. I crossed my arms in front of me and started inching past him, down the dirt path toward home. Away from the dark figure. Away from the Dark Slade.
“Yes. He told me you do not believe that we aren't involved.”
I shifted my weight and squirmed in front of him. “No, I really don't think you guys had anything to do with it,” I said, as convincingly as possible.
“You don't seem to be trying too hard to absolve us,” Slade continued, his voice cold and flat. “That's why I am watching you.” He took a step close to me and my heart rushed through my ears. “You will solve this, Shaman, or else â¦ ” He trailed off.
“What?” I said before I could stop myself. I'd heard idle Dark CrÃ©atÃºir threats before.
Slade's laughter curled around the twisting oak trees and swayed in my hair like a cool breeze. I shivered again as the leaves in front of me parted and a mirror appeared. At first, it showed my reflection, but the image quickly morphed into Rhea.
Mirror Rhea screamed at me, tears running down her face. As the view widened, I saw she was trapped in a Glancaugh circleâa sort of eternal prison. It was reserved for special punishments; prisoners were forced to serve the CrÃ©atÃºir until they died from exhaustion, their hands and feet bloody from constant work.
Then the mirror went dark.
“No!” I cried. “Rhea's not involved at all, sheâ”
“She's my insurance policy. King Oran sent me as his, and she's mine. Your black onyx necklace might have protected you, but you can't protect her. And do not think of telling her of this, or else I just may choose all your sisters for Glancaugh service.”
“Why would you hurt them?” I whispered.
“Because it serves my purpose,” Slade said, his voice so cold it was nearly solid.
I took off down the path, sprinting toward my house. As I ran through the twisting forest, Slade's essence seemed to follow me.
I broke out of the forest, full-speed toward my house. My lungs felt like they were going to explode, but I didn't slow down. I reached my front door and ripped it open.
My mom was standing in the foyer, adjusting a family photo, a troubled frown on her face. “Leah!” she said as she saw me. “Morpheus warned me you were in trouble.”
I nodded and ran straight into her arms, panting heavily.
“What happened?” she asked into my hair as I collapsed and sobbed into her sage-soaked blouse.
“Rhâ” I started to say, but then remembered Slade's promise. I shook my head.
“Can you tell me?” she asked again.
“No,” I said into her chest.
“Okay, honey.” She smoothed my hair. “I know you're dealing with much more than you're able to tell us. All you girls are. You're my special girls, and you're all going to be fine. You're protected. You're gifted.”
I nodded into her chest, still not able to shake Slade's icy touch and the image of Rhea near death.
Mom put her hands on either side of my head and lifted my face toward hers, beaming down at me as she wiped the tears from my eyes with her thumbs. “Did you hear me? You will succeed. Of that I'm sure.”