Three eons, several husbands, and rivers of blood went into creating the tiny heiress in her arms. The Queen of the Autumn Court grinned wickedly. After all this time, the keys to redemption and avenging her father’s death at the hands of the ancient who nearly ended them all had arrived.
“You are going to help me crush our enemies. The Winter Court won’t know what hit them.” For so long the frosty bastards had encroached on her land and held her forces at bay. She’d have their heads on pikes outside of her castle soon enough. Stroking her long, red-tipped nail over the plump cheeks of the newborn, she scanned her for abnormalities.
Parting the leafy blanket, she viewed her child’s bronze form, turning her to the right and left. Slowly rotating her tiny frame, Rusalka exhaled. No one would ever know the identity of her sire. Lowering herself and mingling with the forbidden and disgusting had yielded a miracle. Rusalka had begun to lose hope. Each season the autumn lands became less fruitful. Trees had begun to rot and die off without returning. The fruit turned bitter, and animals in the forest grew scarce. Winter came earlier, slowly devouring more of her territory. She is the future.
Piercing amber eyes identical to her own glowed. Already aware and growing. Swaddling her back in a blanket of gold, bronze, and garnet leaves, Rusalka didn’t dare take her eyes off her future protégé as their golden eyes met. The tiny miracle opened her full, berry-colored lips in a yawn. The brown vines of the bedframe shifted in response to the baby’s breath, thickening and turning a lush green. Tiny white flowers sprouted, releasing a sweet honey-like fragrance. The autumn clematis heralded a sign of new life.
The faint, ever-present hum of the castle picked up. The aura of power coming off the child was potent. Relief, hope, and excitement warred in her brain. For so long, she was under such intense strain that she’d forgotten what it felt like to operate at full capacity.
“You are going to change everything,” she whispered.
Her handmaiden, Maple, walked over, pushing a giant hazelnut shell full of warm water. She loathed parting with her long enough to see her cleansed. Everything hinged on her.
“Have you decided on a name yet, my Queen?” Maple asked. Moss green eyes peered from beneath a long fringe of lashes, the intense orbs standing out against her brown bark skin.
“Wonderful name.” Maple accepted Elia gently and lowered her to the water.
Suddenly, thunder boomed overhead, shaking the castle as the sky darkened. Maple gasped.
“What?” Rusalka scrambled from the bed. Her heart dropped. “No, no, no.”
An omen had appeared on her shoulder. An upside-down triangle with a line created the element of earth. Her bright star had become a blackhole signaling the end of life as we know it. I refuse to see the end of my reign. The deaths of those loyal to me will not be in vain. Yet again, the arrogant being reached up from the center of the earth to taunt her. You took everything from me, and now I’ll do the same. You’ll never have your mate or reclaim this land. Her head filled with images of her father being reduced to ash as their kingdom ripped apart at the seams.
She’d begged him to reconsider smiting them. Her, on her knees, pleading like a commoner in front of everyone. The oldest of the Erl King’s children. He would be the first to bring about the end. He’d been swayed but left with a warning. A prophecy.
When the land breaks and begins to mourn
The mark will show, and the bond be formed
Waking from his slumbering deep
The ancient of earth his promises keep
Come swift to judge and cleanse
He brings the beginning or the end
Conjuring up a clear bracelet with mushrooms, leaves, and drops of her own blood, she infused it with her own magic. Rusalka created another that would grow with Elia, then joined them magically, binding her powers to the bracelet that would transfer it all to her. Waving her hand, she moved the bracelet to Elia’s tiny wrist and watched as it melted into her skin, becoming invisible.
“Take her to the human world and switch her with a babe. Make sure she’s never found, Maple. She can’t be allowed to be the final nail in the coffin of this universe. Do you understand that?”
“Yes, my Queen.” Maple’s voice waivered, and she saw the fear in her attendants’ eyes. This child had the power to change everything.
25 years later
Elia twisted her galaxy-colored hair into two space buns to keep the locks out of her face as she waited for Glenn to check out the rental with Celeste at his side. The black bled out to a dark blue, purple, and at the ends a bright pink that made her chestnut brown skin glow. Brightly colored hair had become a staple she was known for.
“What’s up with the new hair, E?” Roan nudged her with his elbow and flashed his pearly whites, giving her a rakish smile that often led her into interesting situations. “I liked the blue and purple.”
She shrugged. “Some people collect shoes or tattoos. I change my hair up.”
“Doesn’t help the students realize you’re actually their teacher, I’m sure.” Roan flicked her buns lightly, and she groaned. He liked to tease her about her accelerated learning path, but it wasn’t her fault. She went through high school young, Doogie Howser style.
“I’ve embraced that ironic fact,” she said sarcastically.
“I’m proud of you, amber eyes.” Roan wrapped an arm around her shoulder, and she turned to him, soaking up his affection. Running the TBAF website with the others helped her get through the year. But the time she spent with the other three was her journey to mecca.
For one weekend, she got to be among people who understood her. The time for purging, recharging, and resetting protections. For a few days, Elia felt like she belonged. It was a rare feeling, especially with the veil so thin and fear high. Samhain was dangerous for those with the fae sight. Elia shivered as she peered out the front window and watched a bright orange leaf dance in the wind. It spun in a circle, remaining in midair. Her chest tightened. Grabbing Roan’s arm, she dug her nails into the inner flesh of his arm.
“Roan,” she whispered, desperately fixing her gaze on the area beyond the leaf.
“I see it too,” he confirmed.
They turned away from the window, watching from their peripheral vision as a figure began to take shape in filmy, white smoke. The air glimmered. A pale green masculine fae with long, pointy ears and hair made of fall leaves and long grass solidified. Branches grew out from his crown as he danced around the leaf, manipulating it with his powers. His clothes were rough spun and dark green. He paused.
“Stay calm,” Roan cautioned.
“He’s so close and clear.” Elia was used to seeing them from the corner of her eyes on the fringes of her vision.
“He’s not paying us any mind.”
As if he heard them, the fae moved to press his face to the glass. Elia’s heart jumped into her throat. Was this the moment they’d be discovered and taken away? People mistakenly believed the good folks were wish-giving sprites who flitted from flower to flower. Tinker Bell had done a number on society, making everyone forget the old ways and lore. He walked through the wall and approached them.
“How’ve you been?” Roan asked.
“Good, and you?”
“I have an art exhibit in November.” She focused on his voice, going through the motions of normal conversation. Inhale. Exhale. Never let them know you can see them.
“What’s your subject?” Elia asked.
He grinned ruefully. “What else? Good and evil.”
“I’m glad to hear your college degree in English literature isn’t going to waste.”
“You and my mother.” He chuckled.
Five years ago, the four of them met in Ireland for a six-month study abroad focused on Irish literature and local lore; Glenn and Celeste always paired up, leaving her and Roan to develop a deep bond.
Turning her focus on the two inside of the rental office, she ignored the icy feel of the fae’s breath on the back of her neck.
“You’d think we were in Salem with how slammed the office is, not Ohio.” She stared at Glenn’s mid-length, golden hair. His aristocratic facial features and expensive clothing contrasted Celeste’s pink hair, septum piercings, and a full sleeve of occult-themed tattoos. They were complete opposites. Celeste’s witchy aesthetic, cat-shaped, brown eyes, and olive skin made her the darkness to his light in many ways. If he was any more Nordic, Glenn’s name would have to be changed to Thor. His chinos and crisp, white button down with rolled-up sleeves under his camel-colored mohair sweater ruined any toughness his six-foot-two muscular build might’ve given off.
“I’m just glad it’s not our turn to procure the transportation. That line is insane in there.” Roan whistled.
Elia smiled at her best friend, grateful for his presence. Bored, the fae disengaged and left the way he came. Exhaling, she allowed her shoulders to slump. Too close.
“Are you okay?” Roan whispered.
“I’m still here.” She thanked the rowan berries in her pocket for keeping her grounded. They’d lost many to the pull over the years. The good folks’ attraction to people like them led friends to step into fairy circles or disappear without explanation. Their website, Touched by the Fae, was an easy way to collect tales and connect with like-minded people with similar abilities.
“As soon as we leave the airport, Celeste will properly protect us,” Roan assured her, hooking his arm with hers.
“That was a total nightmare …” Glenn trailed off and narrowed his icy blue gaze. “What happened?”
Roan shook his head. “Not here.”
“Let’s pick up our car,” Celeste suggested with a frown. The journey up the escalator to the parking garage where the car waited was a blur. Once they reached the black SUV, they piled their carry-ons into the oversized garage.
“Coast is clear,” Glenn announced.
Taking off their coats, they flipped them inside out.
“Do you have protection?” Roan asked, sounding like a parent about to lecture their child before they went for a night out.
“You doubt me?” Celeste reached into her black bat satchel and pulled out black organza bags with stones and herbs. “When we get where we’re going, I’ll make more powerful protection. Airports tend to frown upon jars with various unidentifiable objects in them.”
“You just hocus pocus them, no sweat.” Glenn winked, and Celeste scowled, rolling her eyes.
“Shut up and drive, Glenn.” Celeste climbed into the passenger seat, and soon they were rolling out of the garage.
“We saw a good folk,” Roan admitted.
“In the airport?” Celeste turned to look at them in the backseat.
Grimacing, Elia nodded. “He was outside, making a leaf dance in the circle. Then he came in to investigate.”
“I’m starting to think they sense us,” Celeste sighed.
“The veil is thin. That’s part of Samhain,” Glenn replied.
“Not just right now.” Celeste twirled a lock of pink hair around her forefinger. “All the time. Maybe even more as we get older. Which is why we can’t keep—”
Glenn put his hand up. “You know the rules, Celeste. No talking business yet. We’ll take our vote later tonight.”
Huffing, she leaned back into the seat. “You know where I stand.”
It’s a continued conversation the foursome has kept going over the years. To run and hide or stand and dive deep into their origins. Elia had spent her entire life living a lie, doing research in the guise of research and study for an obscure English Degree. Her parents’ only living child after a series of infertility and stillbirth, she’d always felt like a disappointment. They wound up with a child who didn’t fit in with the family at all. She experienced night terrors for years, required tons of therapy, and never assimilated fully to everyday life enough to fit in. Ridiculed and odd, she escaped into books because fairytales felt like codes that held grains of truth.
It was how she’d learned about the fae sight and came up with her own rules. The good folk didn’t want humans to know they still existed. Those who could see them were often seen as dangerous. Fae folk obsessed over or abducted people with her group’s abilities. That’s what led Elia to create her number one rule, never let the fae know you can see them.
“You good?” Roan asked.
How could she explain to him what she felt? Trouble seemed to linger on the air outside of the car, waiting for its chance to enter into their lives. Samhain always left her uneasy. Spirits weren’t the only things out in droves on a night meant to make mischief.
Sinking down, she wrapped her arms around her waist and shook her head. “I’ll feel a lot better when we get into the cabin and cast our protection.” The four of them had been dancing in a holding pattern since they met. Tonight felt like a tipping point.
“I know what you mean. Everything’s been delivered. Once we get there and things are set up, it’ll be like old times again,” Roan insisted with his wide grin. The man could charm a grizzly bear.
Elia wanted him to be right, but her gut said otherwise. They didn’t do lies, so she gave a weak smile instead. They turned off the main roads and onto a small two-lane surrounded by forest. The darkness pressed in around them as the tall trees curved inward, blocking out the light of the moon. Without streetlights, the blackness was thick and unbroken. Trees became vague shapes.
Stop inviting trouble in.
She slammed a lid on top of the anxiety trying to build up inside of her. Seeing the good folk placed her on edge. It felt like a premonition of difficult things to come. The GPS interrupted the upbeat pop music coming out of the speakers, and they pulled off on a well-hidden road. The path grew bumpy, and they bounced their way up the incline.
Ten minutes later, a pine cabin with a porch light on appeared thirty yards away. It was quaint with rocking chairs and a porch swing waiting to be occupied. Elia’s stomach unclenched as they parked, killed the engine, and exited the vehicle. The air smelled different out here. Threaded with forest and earth, it refueled her soul. It felt like she’d come home. Tilting her head, she let the cool wind caress her face and blow away the negative thoughts. A large cardboard box waited for them in front of the door.
“That’ll be my supplies.” Celeste rubbed her hands together gleefully. “The quicker we get our bags, the sooner I can get to making this place safe.”
Glenn popped the trunk and began to hand them their luggage. Elia lingered by the trunk, peering out into the dark woods. Powerful vibrations ran from the wooded area through the dirt beneath her feet. Tonight, the forest was alive and aware. She took a step toward them.
Shaking her head to clear it, she turned toward Roan. “I’m coming. Just admiring the quiet.” Her fascination with nature wasn’t new. Hurrying to catch up, she joined the others.
Celeste ripped open the box and held up a bag of juniper ashes.
“You two spread the ashes around the perimeter, and I’ll get the house protection up,” Celeste commanded in a voice full of power and certainty. Her friend had become a skilled witch.
“Aye, Captain.” Roan saluted.
Elia turned on the small flashlight on her keychain. No one went anywhere alone during Samhain. A rule they instated after Celeste was nearly taken when she heard music that made her fae struck. Celeste was halfway into the forest before Glenn noticed and snapped her out of her trance.
“I’ll be happy when we get inside. The temperature is dropping.” He craned his neck. “It feels eerie out here,” Roan whispered.
“You feel it, too?” Elia asked as they created a complete barrier moving from east to north.
“Energies are always heightened for us this time of year.” Roan shrugged.
“Roan,” she spoke sharply.
He sniffed as if he could smell something she couldn’t. “The woods here are different.” He narrowed his gaze. “Alive. You know we’ve always felt earth-related things more than the other two have.”
Completing the barrier, they stepped over the line and returned to find Celeste ending her incantation with her arms raised above her head. Her strong voice echoed in the quiet
“And with the hanging of this charm, from elemental spirits, I’ll receive no harm.” Thunder rumbled in the distance. For a second, the porch light flickered, turning Celeste’s face into something foreign and skeletal.
“I have spoken,” Celeste whispered, hanging the filled red cloth bag she’d created from the light. Glenn unlocked the door, and they stepped inside, turning on the light switch located beside the front entrance.
Glenn whistled. “This place is one of our nicest yet.”
Wooden floors gleamed. Dark brown sofas arranged in a T-shape surrounded a cozy-looking fireplace already stocked with wood. The kitchen tables were also handcrafted and simplistic. The energy inside of the dwelling felt light and positive. Leaving Celeste to line the doors and windows with black salt, the three moved through the cabin to pick their rooms. Claiming the bedroom in hues of green with forest paintings, Elia sunk down on the colorful patchwork quilt-covered bed.
Leaning her head against the heavy wooden backboard, she closed her eyes tight. Even now, the woods called to her in a way they never had before. Her skin tingled, and her heart beat faster. Fisting the blanket, she fought to ground herself, imagining a tree growing inside of her chest and spreading its roots down and into the ground. She let her energy flow through her body. Sensing Roan’s approach, she opened her eyes.
Roan poked his head inside, grinning. “Time for show and tell.” A thick hank of dark hair fell over his forehead into his chocolate-brown eyes. “Whoa. What’s going on?”
“Nothing.” She smiled. “Acclimating to being so close to the forest.”
Roan frowned. “It’s getting harder to pretend we’re normal.”
“Roan.” She begged him to stop talking with her eyes.
“You know I’m right. Our time for hiding is running out—”
“Save it for later, Perez. You know the way this works,” Glenn interrupted him from the doorway.
Roan growled. “Fine. Let’s stoke the kettle and pretend things are fine when we’re all a few steps from teetering and falling over the edge into oblivion.”
Elia jumped to her feet, inserting her body between the two boys with flaring nostrils and narrowed eyes. Roan shook his head. Grabbing her best friend’s arm, Elia tugged him into the living room. She wouldn’t let her chosen family fall apart at the seams without putting up a damn good fight.
“How about you boys do something productive and get the fire going while we get some snacks together?” Celeste tossed the matches at Glenn and paper at Roan. Celeste shook her head. “Roan, you have too much fire in your sign. Glenn has too much air. It’s why you always butt heads.”
“We have very different points of view,” Glenn said.
“After everything we’ve experienced, you still think astrology is hocus pocus?” Celeste arched a pink eyebrow.
“Some things have to be normal.” Glenn’s voice sounded strained, and his bright blue eyes dulled. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”
The raw exhaustion in his voice frightened Elia.
“We’re in this together, whatever comes our way.” Roan bumped Glenn’s shoulder with his own. “No matter where we stand in our beliefs. Let’s get this fire going. It’s chilly.” A sinister force had slithered into their group and sank its fangs in deep.
The caramelly scent of bourbon and burnt sugar in the black tea and her full stomach did little to warm Elia up. Ice cold, despite the roaring fire they sat around, she shifted in her seat, horrified by their close encounters with the fae kind they’d been sharing.
“All four of us have been noticed this year,” Celest pointed out quietly.
“It can’t be a coincidence that we’re all turning or turned twenty-five,” Glenn added.
“What’s so special about that number?” Roan asked.
“I have no idea. However, I can’t help but think we need to find out,” Celeste answered.
“Here we go, the grand debate that always ends in a stalemate.” Glenn exhaled, blowing strands of his hair around his diamond-shaped face. His jaw ticked.
“We might as well open the floor up.” Celeste sighed. “Get the vote out of the way.”
“This is getting ridiculous.” Roan threw his hands up in the air and allowed them to slap down hard against his thighs. “It’s become a matter of safety. How long until we get caught unaware and give ourselves away? Are you willing to stand by as the group grows smaller and smaller until no one is left? Hiding was great when we were younger. Now, as adults, we need to act.”
“And what would you have us do?” Glenn snapped. “Nothing we’ve ever read anywhere has hinted at any true weakness. Iron and salt are more deterrents and need to be used at close range. Keeping them at bay is the best we can manage. We’ll never be equals, so how do you expect to get answers?”
“I don’t know. But we won’t figure it out without risks. We’re different,” Roan barked. He lowered his head. “And I think it’s getting worse.”
“What’s getting worse?” Elia turned to study his face.
“The things we can do. I can sense things lurking out in the forests, and I swore the other day …” He shook his head. “I understood a bird.” Roan scoffed. “Do you know how insane that sounds to say out loud? Even to all of you. The people I trust with my life?” Roan bowed his head.
“You admitted yourself you’ve felt the temperature change around you with your mood, Glenn,” Celeste said.
“I said, I thought it might’ve. It could have been my mind playing tricks on me.” Glenn crosses his arms over his chest.
“Okay. What about my ability to grow things regardless of the season or recommended climate? Then there’s my affinity with magic.” Celeste counts her reasons on her fingers.
“I don’t have the answers you’re looking for C. I just know our lives are dangerous enough as it is. Why go digging and risk exposure?” Glenn protested.
The fire roars as flames jump. Wooden logs snap and crackle.
“To figure out what these abilities mean for the rest of our lives,” Celeste whispered.
“Will they get worse?” Roan’s voice cracked. “We’re never going to be normal. Chasing that dream is a fool’s errand. But we can have more life than this.” He gestured around the room. “Look at us. Right now, we’re too afraid to even live in the same city. This once-a-year retreat is barely getting any of us through anymore. If there’s a way to become permanently invisible to them or broker a deal, wouldn’t you want to know?”
“We all know how well deals with the good folk go,” Glenn snarled.
“Not all of them,” Celeste retorted.
“It’s too risky,” Glenn shot back.
“I don’t agree. Celeste?” Roan turned to her.
“I’m sorry, Glenn. I have to side with Roan. Remaining in the dark is no longer an option.” Celeste dropped her head. “My recurring dreams are getting more detailed. I can feel someone or something looking back at me from across the veil in them.”
Glenn sat up straight in his seat. “You didn’t tell me that.”
“I’ve been doing experiments.” Celeste tilted her chin up, eyes bright with defiance.
“What?” The word came out a hiss through Glenn’s teeth.
“Small things. Trying to control my dreams and writing down what’s happened. Lucid dreaming.”
“And what did you find out?” Roan’s voice was raised in excitement.
“How could you do this—” Glenn croaked.
“She has to sleep. Give her a break,” Roan interrupted him.
“Not like that.” Glenn gestured toward her.
“I can speak for myself. It was worth it.” Celeste shrugged.
“To find out what? That you can control what happened in your dreams?” Glenn asked.
“To figure out why I am the way I am, Glenn. To understand why I relate to plants better than I do most people. Why magic comes as easily as breathing, but surviving daily life is a struggle that burns me out.” Celeste’s eyes grew glossy with tears. “I’m tired of living like this. Aren’t you?”
“No, because at least we’re living.”
Elia wiped her sweaty palms on her black tights as they turned to look at her.
“You’re the deciding vote,” Roan said. “Do we all look into this together?”
Elia swallowed to moisten her dry throat. “I know the way we live isn’t ideal. Things have never been easy for any of us. Fitting in isn’t possible when you see the things we do. You learn to fake normal and never admit the truth. Finding each other was a lifeline. You’ve kept me from drowning. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for any of you. Which is why I vote we remain as we have been and focus on concealment.”
Roan made a disgusted sound. “I can’t believe this.” He stood abruptly from his chair. It rocked back precariously. “I need some air.”
“Roan—” He’s the last person she wanted to let down.
“Let him go.” Glenn sneered at his retreating back. “He’ll only try to sway you to his way of thinking. Every year we end up having this same standoff.”
The back door slammed, making Elia flinch.
“Give him a chance to cool off,” Glenn insisted.
“No one goes anywhere alone during Samhain. You know that,” Celeste yelled.
“Roan is my best friend. He’s angry and hurt. He shouldn’t be out there alone.”
Glenn gripped her arm tight. “He needs to accept that this won’t change.”
Thunder boomed directly above the cabin, and a streak of lightning lit up the sky. The wind picked up outside of the cabin, howling like a hungry wolf. Elia’s skin tingled as the ozone in the house rose. Trees swayed in the wind violently, brushing up against the house like an invader trying to get inside.
“Would you want us to leave you out there alone, Glenn?” Elia’s breath quickened.
“I never would’ve gone out there in the first place.”
“Because he did, he deserves less?” Elia stared him down, daring him to say otherwise.
“I-I didn’t s-say that,” Glenn stammered.
“Then let me pass.” Elia’s words were clipped.
Glenn raised his hands and stepped to the side. “Don’t let him infect you with his beliefs.”
Ignoring his plea, Elia walked outside into the night. The atmosphere had changed. She could almost hear frantic whispers urging her to pick up the pace. Bounding off the back patio, her feet flew across the well-tended path lit by the moonlight. Breaching the tree line, a magnetic pull guided her steps. Fog crept up from the ground, swirling like gauzy spirits around her ankles, sending a chill skittering down her back. It felt like tiny fingers were brushing against her skin. Hurry. Her fast walk became a jog as desperation settled into her soul.
The leaves in the trees rustled, urging her onward. Dodging a thick root, she never slowed her pace. A light mist began to fall from the sky. The rich scent of damp earth rose and mingled with that of wet bark and greenery. Her black, cable knit sweater grew heavier as it absorbed the rain.
How did Roan get so deep into the forest so quickly? Flashes of light continued to illuminate the dark sky above her. Drops of water increased, coming down hard, obscuring her vision.
In the distance, a faint golden glow filled her with apprehension. Pumping her arms and legs, she cut the length. Roan came into view. Panic hit as her brain processed the scene in front of her. He walked beside an impossibly beautiful woman with skin the texture and shade of a mahogany tree. Rich forest-green-colored hair flowed down her back. Elia opened her mouth to call out, and pain exploded in her chest. Thrown back, she landed on her rear.
Dazed, Elia watched as a tall, green door formed in the center of a thick oak tree. The door swung open, and she scrambled to her feet, screaming as she met the barrier again. The storm snatched her voice as she banged on the invisible block keeping her from Roan. The strange duo walked through the opening, and the door disappeared as if it’d never existed. Tumbling forward, she landed heavily as the block gave. Her screams rang in her ears for the first time since she’d entered the clearing.
Tears mingled with the rain as she bowed her head and dug her fingers in the mud. In the moments where he needed her most, she’d failed her best friend.