I wonder if I can get pizza in Avalon.
My life was about to change in every conceivable way, and I was thinking about my menu options. I rolled my eyes. It was time to get serious. Today was the big day. My last day in the mortal world for who knows how long. But most importantly, the last time I would see my mother. No matter how many times I begged, she refused to come with me. She insisted my dad needed time alone with me. Father/daughter bonding type stuff.
But they made that deal before I was born; spend my childhood with my mother, then once I turned sixteen, I'd move to Avalon to be with my father—the elemental king of the air court.
As far as my friends knew, I was moving to Paris. I bragged about how I'd be living in the most romantic city in the world, surrounded by cute European guys with sexy French accents. My throat tightened each time they told me how jealous they were. They had no idea how miserable I felt lying to them. Or, how I envied their freedom.
But, it wasn't all bad.
Moving to Avalon meant I could get to know my father. We get closer each time he visits my dreams, but it’s not the same as having him in my physical life. Plus, and this was a big plus, I'd be a princess in the air court where Dad planned to teach me to control the air element and weather magic.
A knock on my bedroom door startled me out of my thoughts.
Mom stepped inside. Most days she wore lounge t-shirts and yoga pants, but today, she had on a canary-yellow sweater and skinny jeans. Sometimes I forgot how beautiful she is. Because of our red wavy hair and fair complexion, many people mistake us for sisters. I swear, the woman never ages. I watched as her green eyes roamed the room. "Kalin, you haven't packed a thing."
Dad told me he would send additional knights to retrieve whatever I wanted, but what was the point? I doubted my collection of Pez dispensers or assorted sets of cartoon pajamas would be acceptable possessions of an elemental princess. "I wasn't sure what to bring. I mean, it's not like we've done much traveling."
I regretted the words as soon as they came out. Judging by her face, I'd say they stung a little. It wasn't her fault that we stayed in one place. Mom was always worried I might be in danger. I never understood why, especially since we’d always lived with my father's knights surrounding our house, following me everywhere. Knights who were annoying, never giving me any privacy.
"Are you nervous?" she asked.
"No." I was scared out of my mind. I didn't know what to expect. Besides my father and his knights, I had never met another elemental. I worried if they’d like me or if I would make any friends. Also, I wondered what it would be like to date an elemental. Did elementals date? These were questions I didn't feel comfortable asking my dad.
I couldn't ask Mom either. These last few weeks had been tough on her. She knew I would be leaving, but it was still hard for her to let me go. It was hard for me too. I’d never spent a day of my life without her. I wish I could understand why she wouldn't come with me. Anytime I asked about her relationship with my father she found a way to change the subject.
"What are you going to wear?"
I looked down at my black hoodie and jeans. "I guess I should wear something nice, right?"
She clasped her hands on my shoulders. "No, you should wear what you want. Your Dad will be ecstatic to see you regardless."
I had to try one last time. She might finally open up to me. I put my hands around her wrists so she couldn’t escape. "I’m sure he’d like to see you too. Why won’t you come with me?"
She leaned her forehead into mine. "It’s complicated."
I let go of her, heading toward a pile of folded clothes on my bed. As I inserted them into my backpack, I said, "That’s what you always say."
"Look, I promise you, one day we’ll sit down and talk about it. But today is about you."
I grabbed the picture of us off my nightstand and placed it inside the backpack. "If don’t come to Avalon, I may never see you again."
A second later she was next to me. I turned to face her as she said, "I didn’t say I’d never come. I said not right now. Your Dad has been waiting a long time for you. He deserves your full attention."
"And what about what I deserve? What I want? Did you even think about that when you both sat down and planned out my future?" I snapped.
Her eyebrows furrowed. "Kalin, are you saying you don’t want to go?"
I wasn’t sure. I had always known what they’d planned for me, so I never really thought about what I wanted. It wasn’t until my friends started talking about their college plans that I began to resent the idea. Yet, there was a big part of me that wanted to go. "All I’m saying is it would’ve been nice to have a choice."
Her eyes watered. "I’m sorry, Kalin. It’s just—"
"Complicated, I know." Guilt burned in my chest. The last thing I wanted was to fight with her on what could be our last day together. "Let’s forget about it for now. Like you said, you will tell me when it’s the right time."
She hugged me. "Exactly."
I held on, not wanting to let her go. "I’m going to miss you so much."
Sniffling, she replied, "I’m going to miss you too."
Okay, I needed to get out of here before we both broke into the ugly cry. I grabbed my backpack and slid it over my shoulder. "I’m going to go wait outside for the knights to return."
She wiped her tears with the sleeve of her sweater. "I’ll wait with you."
"No, if you’re there it’s only going to be that much harder to leave." I hugged her again. "Goodbye, Mom. I love you so much."
"I love you too. Be careful."
I winked. "I always am."
Once I finally made it outside, the frigid midnight breeze stung my face. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and locked the backdoor. I was instructed to wait here for my father's knights to return while they checked on the travel preparations. They should have been back by now. I decided it didn't matter; I didn't need them. The forest behind my house went back about two miles, but I knew every inch. As a child, I'd spent hours wandering the dirt walkways pretending to be on a treasure hunt with my friends. I had also kissed my first boyfriend behind one of the larger oak trees on the edge of our backyard.
The weathered wooden planks of the back porch creaked with each step. I plunked down three stairs and headed straight for the dark forest. When I reached the entrance of the woodland, I turned around and took one last look at the home I grew up in. The modest brick rancher sat alone in a tucked away cul-de-sac. It was so hidden it didn't even show up on a standard GPS. I knew that had to be a selling point for Mom.
She preferred quiet, laid-back spaces to city life.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and made my way into the dim woods. The scent of wet moss filled my nostrils. I hiked at least a mile before I stopped to get my bearings. The moonlight did little to illuminate the forest floor; it had become nearly impossible to see anything more than a few feet in front of me. The overriding silence made me shiver. Reality check; I was in the middle of the woods, in the dark, with no idea how to find Dad's knights.
I should’ve waited—
A familiar white shimmer appeared in the distance. Even though I had spent my entire childhood in the mortal world, Dad had sent me books about the history of the elementals. The brightness I saw was a pathway—the fastest way to travel to Avalon. There were hidden paths all over the mortal world, but only elementals could see them.
Someone had just arrived.
I called out, letting them know where I was, but got no response. The light thinned until I could only see a shadow heading in my direction. Once she was a few feet in front of me, her creamy porcelain skin, slightly oversized amber eyes, and feathered wings came into view. From far away I had assumed she was one of my father’s knights, but her black feathers left no question about her identity.
She was a fire elemental.
The fire court drew their power from the Earth's core, controlling everything from a volcano eruption to a simple burning match. Stories described them as both passionate and unpredictable, much like their element.
I bit the inside of my cheek to hide the excited grin trying to form. I thought about asking her to ignite a flame from her palm like the ones I'd seen in pictures, but I didn't want to come off like a moron. Minus her wings, she might have passed for a mortal in her strapless forest green tube top and dark colored jeans. The round onyx pendant embedded in silver wings around her neck was unusual, as was her twisted grin.
"Taron is a fool to leave you unattended." Her voice was calm, almost soothing, as she circled me. "It's truly a disappointment how easy this will be."
A consuming sense of unease crept from my scalp to my toes. "What's a disappointment?"
Her hand shot out, clutched my neck, and raised me off the ground. My feet dangled, and I gasped for air as I tried to make sense out of what was happening. Why would she want to attack me? Panic gagged me as I clawed feverishly at her hands, digging my fingernails into her skin.
"Are you really this helpless?" She laughed.
"Let me go," I demanded, trying to sound intimidating even though I was confused and filled with fear. I grimaced as her grip tightened.
She thrust my body into the nearest tree. Pain radiated up my spine. Had I been only mortal, she might have broken my back. Still in shock, I tried to twist away, scraping my forearm against a broken tree limb. She smirked, her hand remaining clutched around my neck. "You are in no position to order me around, girl!"
Whatever this was, it was beyond bad.
"Get away from her!" a deep voice shouted.
My attacker peered over her shoulder and her grip loosened. "Back for more, deserter?" she asked, her voice coated with venom.
While her attention was somewhere else, I thrust my knee into her stomach and fell to the ground. She scooped me up by my shirt, pressing my back into her chest with her fingers wrapped tightly around my neck. I drew blood when I clawed my fingernails into her hands, but she didn’t even wince.
A flash of silver light whizzed by my head and my captor's grip eased. This time I was able to slip away. I stumbled. Reaching out to steady myself, I only found air and crashed onto the ground. She launched at me again and ended up straddled on top of me with one hand clasped around my windpipe. My lungs burned. Legs thrashing, I tried to wiggle free. Yet, throughout my efforts, she showed no sign of strain. Her other hand pulled shards of what I assumed was iron from her neck.
Blackness filled the rim of my vision. Frantically, I searched the ground for a rock, but found nothing. I plunged my hand into the damp forest floor. Maybe a little dirt in her eyes would give me enough time—
He emerged out of the shadows, thrusting a large knife into her back. She arched upwards in pain, releasing me from her grasp. I rolled onto my side, gasping for air in between coughs. Hearing a struggle behind me, I glimpsed over my shoulder. The male elemental lodged another silver blade into her back before she could crawl away.
"Go!" he yelled.
Several yards away the moonlight illuminated a clearing. I got to my feet and ran toward it. By the time I reached a large row of bushes, I ached all over. What the hell? Since when did the fire court want me dead? I mean, she was definitely trying to kill me. In all the chaos of the last several minutes, that was obvious. But even with all the evidence in front of me, I still couldn’t accept it. Why would she be after me? Before today, I’d never met a fire elemental. None of this made any sense. This had to be a mistake.
A throbbing ache drew my attention to a cut on my forearm. It was swollen and dripping blood. I tore off a piece of the bottom of my shirt, wrapping it around the wound. Peering through the leaves, I watched my attacker thrash violently on the ground. The male elemental tore the necklace from her neck, then faster than I could blink, slit her throat. Black blood spurted from her neck and onto his shirt. He jumped out of the way when her body ignited in flames and watched until all that was left of her was a pile of ash.
My rescuer stepped into the clearing. I caught his stare and slowly rose to my feet. At my measly five foot three inches, I guessed he was close to a foot taller and maybe seventeen or eighteen-years-old. His brown shaggy hair hung in waves over his eyes, the silver barbell in his eyebrow shimmered in the moonlight. A torn blue t-shirt showed off his lean, muscular build.
His appearance suggested he’d spent a lot of time in the mortal world. For every young elemental, years away from Avalon were necessary. There was no other way to mature into adulthood. The magical veil that kept Avalon hidden from the rest of the world also prevented anyone inside from aging.
Adrenaline raced through my veins. "Who was she?" My voice shook.
He glanced down at the necklace in his hand. "She was an assassin from the fire court."
My brain had officially left my body. "There has to be some kind of mistake." In all the nights Dad visited me in my dreams, he never once mentioned any tension between the air and fire courts. I thought the elementals were at peace. "She must have been after someone else."
He put the necklace in his jeans pocket and shot me a stern look. "The dead air court elementals she killed would prove otherwise."
His words burned into me like a branding iron. They died because of me. Guilt rushed over me as I imagined the loss their families would feel. "You're sure she killed them?" I knew I’d heard him correctly, but for some reason, I needed to hear it again.
"Yes. I found them only a short distance from the pathway."
If my attacker went to the pathway first, she must have been expecting me to be there. Oh God, this was getting worse by the second. "Wait. How do I know this isn’t some kind of trick? How do I know you’re not working with her?" I took a few steps backwards to put some distance between us. "How do I know you didn’t kill them?"
"The fact that you’re alive is a pretty good indication that I’m not trying to kill you."
He pulled up the bottom of his shirt and wiped the black blood off his cheek. The curve of his hip was exposed, I forced myself to look away. I needed to focus, not drool over some guy who was obviously dangerous.
"What’s your name?" I asked.
"Were you tracking her?"
Rowan definitely wasn’t big on details. "Then, what are you doing here?"
"I was in the area." He looked away and I got the feeling he was hiding something. "Taron has knights at your house. You should be there instead of scampering around in the forest."
I crossed my arms. "I wasn’t scampering." I got impatient and stupidly decided I could find my own way to the pathway.
"Whatever you want to call it doesn’t change the fact that you’re alone and unprotected." The leaves rustled and Rowan tensed. "We have to get you out of here."
He looped his arm inside mine and towed me deeper into the dark forest. I had to jog to keep up. His urgency put my already amped up suspicions into epic overdrive. "Why? Where are you taking me?"
"You’re not safe here. The elemental who attacked you wasn't the only one they sent. There could be others."
"This is insane!" Pulling back on my arm, I forced him to stop. "I’m not taking another step until you tell me who you are and what’s going on."
"Look, this wasn't the way it was supposed to go down. I was supposed to be done, and now—" He cut himself off, emitting a low growl. "Trust me, this isn't going to make the highlight reel for me either."
His answer only confused me more. "You were done with what? You're not making any sense."
"You, I meant," he snarled. "You and your…situation."
"Wow, and up until now, I thought you were part of the welcoming party." My situation? What was this guy’s damage? He didn’t even know me. And who said I invited him to be part of my situation anyway?
He took a deep breath, exhaling as if he'd been defeated in a battle. "I killed two fire court assassins to protect you. Now, I have no choice. I have to return to Avalon and tell the council what happened."
Finally, Mister Personality said something I understood. The council was judge and jury to everything. The members included the four royal families and several other high-ranking elementals. I definitely wasn't convinced I could trust Rowan, but Dad was a member of the council. If that was where he planned to go, then it’s exactly where I needed to be. "I’m coming with you."
"Absolutely not." He shook his head. "You need to go back to your mother's house. The knights can take you somewhere safe until I can get this mess sorted out."
I let out an exaggerated breath. "Listen, I really appreciate what you did back there—I really do, but I need to find my father. If you want to keep me safe, take me to the council."
"Last time I checked, the fire court was part of the council." He pointed over his shoulder. "I think the big pile of ash back there sent a pretty clear message."
He wasn’t wrong, but I had reached my limit. "Okay, let me make this simple for you. You’ll either take me to the council, or I’ll scream my freakin’ head off until I alert every elemental within a five mile distance." I poked my finger into his chest, which was surprisingly hard. "Do you understand me now?"
With his hands balled into fists at his sides, he said, "Fine, whatever. Walk right into danger if you insist, but don't say I didn't warn you."
He pressed his palms into the air and the blackness rippled like ocean waves. We must have been standing close to the glamour protecting the pathway. Elementals used glamour magic to change the appearance of an object or hide something from view.
A howl cried out strong enough to shake the ground, we fought to stay on our feet.
"What the hell is that?" I shrieked.
"Gabriel Hounds, which means we’re officially out of time." In one swift motion, he wrapped his arms around me and hurtled us into the dark current.
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