A beach bonfire? Now, that's my kind of party.
Judging by the football jerseys and the excitement level of the group, I guess they'd just come from a winning game. They made their way to the shore with their coolers and a beer keg. A few of the guys dropped their stuff, found a good spot, and started digging their pit. Another guy left the group, returning a few minutes later with the baseball-sized rocks he used to encircle the hole. Girls showed up with handfuls of leaves and twigs. After one of them arranged the sticks into a pyramid, there was only one thing left they needed: fire.
They had no idea the flame ignited only because elementals existed in the mortal world. We controlled and maintained the fire element.
One of the smaller, non-jock looking mortals tried several times to spark the flame with a lighter, but the wind coming off the ocean blew it out. The poor guy looked embarrassed, peering over his shoulder at a couple of cute girls in a cluster. I decided to make him look like a hero. Hidden behind a glamour, I kneeled beside him as he made another attempt. I touched the twigs with the tip of my finger, setting them ablaze. The crowd cheered, passing around fist bumps. The scrawny kid walked away smiling, holding the hand of one of the girls.
A chuckle rang out above the crashing waves. I turned around, discovering Marcus, my best friend, in his mortal form. He walked toward me wearing a red cashmere sweater and khaki pants; made me think of some preppy mortal getting ready to board a sailboat. But that was far from the truth. He was a Gabriel Hound—a shape-shifting fire elemental. His kind was created by my mother, Prisma, centuries ago. They were the most dangerous members of our court, controlled by her alone. Marcus, however, didn't fit the mold.
He stood at my side. “Working hard I see.”
I hadn’t seen him in months. Once he learned to shift, his father ordered him back to Avalon. “What can I say? I'm a workaholic.”
“Yeah.” He snorted. “I'm surprised to see you haven't joined their celebration.” He bowed and said sarcastically, “Your Majesty.”
“You know me better than that. I'm a total professional,” I said, smirking.
He raised an eyebrow. “Ah, yes. You're completely above partying with the mortals. It's not like you'd ever break the rules.”
“Never.” We were both full of shit. I enjoy removing the glamour every once in a while. It sucked to spend all my time in their world, but never actually being part of it.
“It's for the best, you know. Those poor girls could never resist the beautiful boy with the sultry brown locks,” he mocked, reaching out as if he wanted to touch my hair. “And those radiant blue eyes—”
I put him in a headlock. “You're a dick. You know that, right?” I laughed. The mortal girls made it easy for me, but I was always honest. Regardless of how far it went, I never gave them any illusions of a future with me.
Maneuvering out of my hold, he managed to twist both my arms behind my back until I couldn't move. “Nice piercing, by the way. Has your mother seen it?” he asked, referring to the silver barbell in my right eyebrow.
“Why would she?” I kicked his foot out from under him and we both fell. “When has she ever taken an interest in me?”
He chuckled, shaking his head. “You're the sole heir to her throne. I'd say that makes you pretty important.”
I may be her only biological child, but she has no interest in passing her crown onto me. The mists surrounding Avalon prevented aging. As long as she remained within its protection, she could remain on the throne as long as she wished. There was always a chance she could be killed, but only another royal family member had enough power to take her out. “You obviously don't know her very well.”
He rose, then held out his hand to help me up. “With everything going on,” he said, tone turned serious, “how could you possibly feel this way?”
Mother had all but abandoned me in the mortal world. We had no relationship. There was no love between us. “What are you talking about? What's going on?”
“Come on, Rowan. Be serious.”
There had been no word from Avalon. No messages from her. I crossed my arms. “I have no idea what you're talking about.”
“Your Mother sent me.” His eyebrows furrowed as if he were genuinely surprised by my ignorance. “She's abdicating her throne to you.”
Total astonishment didn't begin to explain how I felt hearing those words. Part of me was too shocked to do anything but stand there. On the rare times I'd been invited to visit her in Avalon, she'd never once expressed any interest in passing her crown. “What about Valac and Selene?”
“They have no real claim to the crown.” Marcus responded.
My older, adopted siblings have always been her favorite. They'd been together for centuries. If she wanted to abdicate her throne, I expected she'd fight to give it to one of them. “None of this makes any sense.”
“Who cares why she's doing it? I say go with it.”
I wasn’t naïve. There was a purpose to her decision. She wouldn't hand the court over to me unless she got something in return. Something she couldn't get without my help…but what could it be? “You don't find any of this the least bit strange?”
He let out an exaggerated breath. “I see where you're coming from, but I'm looking at the broader picture,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder. “In a few days, you'll be king. You'll be able to run the court as you please. You can make all the changes we've always talked about.”
Mother believes our people obey because she is ruthless. For that reason, she keeps them in constant fear for their lives. There had been severe punishments for the smallest of crimes, along with plenty of violent executions that she seemed to enjoy. But it was the hounds who received the worst treatment. They'd been kept as servants in the castle, the strongest ones assigned to high-ranking elementals as guardians. If I were king, I would put an end to all of it.
“Are you sure she's serious?”
“There's only one way to find out,” he replied, shrugging.
Marcus was right. If she wanted something, I had to go back to Avalon to find out what. “So, why did she send you to deliver the news? I assumed you'd be busy training to be a guardian.”
“I completed my training,” he said, lowering his head. “I am now yours to command.”
An ache formed in the pit of my chest. Mother had assigned my best friend to be my servant. She had made it clear she didn't approve of our friendship years ago, but this was going too far. She has done this only to hurt me. “I won't accept this.”
“All the more reason for you to return home.” His eyes bore into mine with a fierceness I rarely saw in him. “Accept whatever her terms are and be our next king.”
The reality of the situation finally set in. If she was for real, I would be the next king of the fire court. Instantly, all my buried fears rose to the surface. “How do you know I won't end up just like her?”
“Because I believe in you.”
I had the fate of the entire court resting on my shoulders. My chest tightened, making it hard to breathe. I needed a break from the seriousness and pretended to wipe away a tear. “Should we hug it out?”
“Oh shut up and get moving already.” He pushed hard enough to make me lose my balance.
“I wish you could've seen your face, man.”
Marcus did his best to hide his smile. “You forget how easy it would be for me to rip your head off.”
If it were any other Gabriel Hound, I'd be concerned. They weren’t built with a sense of humor. A misunderstood joke could quickly escalate into a deadly battle. Marcus was a rare exception. He inherited more than his Mother’s caramel skin and curly brown hair. His time with her had given him a moral compass unlike his sadistic father. I rubbed my hand over my day old stubble. “And mess up this thing of beauty? What a tragedy that would be.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Marcus pointed over his shoulder. “There's a pathway about two miles from here. I think we should start making our way there.”
I nodded and followed him into the forest. The bright moonlight found its way through the thick brush, illuminating our way. The only sounds were the rustling of leaves and the twigs snapping under my leather boots. “How are things at the castle?”
“I'm sure it's exactly how you remember it,” he replied, letting out an exaggerated breath.
During most days, the castle hosted members of the council who were elder elementals acting as advisors, high-ranking knights, and various elementals fighting to gain favor with my mother. No one really trusted anyone, and everyone had their own agenda. I had zero interest in taking part in any of it. But once I was king, they couldn’t be avoided.
Fifteen minutes later, we reached the portal. Avalon was located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, concealed from the mortals. It was possible for an elemental to travel there by boat, but pathways were the quickest way. Luckily, they were hidden all over the world. The one we were about to use looked a bit like a swirling tornado, surrounded by a ring of fire. It wasn't painful to walk into, but it was pitch dark, which took some getting used to.
I motioned for Marcus to go first. “I’ll be right behind you, sweetness.”
Marcus rolled his eyes. A second later, he stepped into the abyss.
I took one last glance at the mortal world, not sure when I'd be back. Memories of my childhood raced through my mind. Handed over at birth, I was raised in secret by mortals who worshipped the nature gods. I thought back to the years I’d spent training with other elementals until I could control our element. My life, up to this point, had been fun. Now, on my sixteenth birthday, I’d aged enough to return to Avalon, and unexpectedly, to ascend to the throne.
I felt a bit of hesitation knowing my life was about to change in every possible way. I had never prepared myself for the life of a king. I never thought I’d rule. But mostly I worried about what effect the throne might have on me. Would I become cold-blooded like her? Really, there was no way to predict.
“Time to man up.” I took a deep breath, stepping inside the pathway.
The portal opened on the edge of the woodland territory, the scent of cedar filled my nostrils. It has been many years since I last stood in Avalon. The twisted tree trunks reached into the skies. I could make out the mountain ranges in the distance. The darkened skies prevented me from viewing their peaks. The air court castle was on top of the highest mountain, but even during the brightest light, it stayed hidden in the clouds.
We headed in the opposite direction. The farther we went, the more the scenery changed. The greenery lessened until the ground was only a few sparse patches of grass. I soon caught the aroma of ash. I had stepped inside our territory. The land was flat enough to see for miles. It was nothing more than desert, patches of burnt grass, and dead trees. It was hard to imagine that anyone would want to live here. But it was home.
Beneath the dry land, the castle rested inside the core of an inactive volcano. I took off my trench coat. My black-feathered wings released themselves from beneath my skin, stretching until they were at full length. They immediately caught the hot wind blowing all around us and I had the urge to fly. The power of our element was strongest here. Its energy recharged me with each passing second. Closing my eyes, I focused on the vibration humming through my veins.
“How do you feel?” Marcus asked, reminding me he was here.
“Intense.” All fire elementals drew their power from our element, but royal family members had a deeper connection. Being part of the House of Djin meant my ability to control fire and physical strength are way above most elementals. I opened my eyes. “I’d forgotten how good it feels to be so close to the eternal flame.”
“We should get going,” Marcus blurted. “The Queen will be waiting.”
He stared into the distance, his fingers tapping the side of his leg. Wild energy was radiating off him in waves. Was he nervous about returning to Avalon? “Is there anything you want to tell me before we get to the castle? Did something happen?”
Gazing into the distance, he replied, “Nothing you need to worry about.”
I understood his hesitation. With the exception of Marcus, most hounds stayed with their own kind. Very few were privy to their secrets. But he was like my brother, I could tell when something was bothering him. “I’m not moving another inch until you tell me.”
After a long pause, Marcus pulled his sweater over his head. When he turned around, I gasped. Long, bloodied slices were cut into his back. As I moved closer, I noticed faded bruises and scars beneath the fresh marks. There was only one way to get those wounds. “Why were you whipped?”
“They said I needed to toughen up before I could become a guardian,” he replied, putting his shirt back on. “It was a regular part of my training.”
Rage surged through my body. No one deserved this kind of treatment—least of all, Marcus. “Who's responsible for this?”
“Isn't it obvious?”
Of course, my mother. Fire burned at the tips of my fingers, begging for release. I never agreed with the hounds’ position in our court, and soon, I'd have the power to put an end to it. “This is bullshit.”
“That is why I didn’t want to tell you.” He waved his hands in front of him. “You need to forget about it and go in there with a clear head.”
This was another example of her brutality. Throughout the years I'd heard of countless times she'd been responsible for much worse. I had hoped it wasn't true, that somehow, there might be some degree of decency left in her. It was time for me to accept there wasn't. “I refuse to let this continue!”
“This isn't your decision.” Marcus insisted.
“The hell it isn't.” I took a few steps toward the volcano, determined to have words with my mother.
Marcus stood in front of me, blocking my path. “Remember, she doesn't have to abdicate her throne. You could lose everything if you confront her.”
He was right. She could be Queen for as long as she wanted. If my mother continued to reign, many more would suffer. I was nauseous thinking of the torment our court had endured. “How can you expect me to accept this?”
“I expect you to do what's necessary to claim your throne.” Marcus must have sensed that I hadn't let it go because he let out a frustrated breath. “You can make all the changes you want once it's your court. But for now, you need to play along.”
I smirked. “Well, then I guess it's time I go play.”
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