The Girl Who Called The Stars (First Three Chapters)
Hey guys! I am SO excited about this dualogy! It’s romantic and snarky and crazy unexpected. I can’t wait to share it with you on 7/18/18, but in the meantime, here are the first three chapters to get you started. (Okay, two chapters and a prologue. S
This is upper YA SciFi Fantasy (Light on the SciFi, heavy on the fantasy!) and has bad language where appropriate 😉
Year: House of Leone 1129
Darkness spread out around me in the castle’s gardens as I waited in my hiding place among the skullbushes. The black smoke that filled the air was so thick that each shallow breath burned my lungs and eyes. My planet, Zorovia, had fallen. I didn’t need to see the lifeless bodies of the royal guard scattered on the grounds to know that.
Something moved nearby. I stopped breathing. Darkness brushed my skin, and I knew the noise I’d heard wasn’t my father coming for me.
A scream built in my throat, but I swallowed it. Empresses weren’t supposed to hide. Not even twelve-year-old ones. The need to fight rose up and the closest skullbush began to smolder thanks to the heat of what flowed through my veins. But, what I possessed wouldn’t be enough to win.
I rose to my feet and sprinted from my hiding place. The pointed leaves caught on my dress but I kept going. The fabric ripped and tore as I shoved through the thick hedge at my back. A branch slid sharply over my cheek, but I shut my eyes, tucked my head and kept going, gritting my teeth through the pain.
I broke free of the skullbushes and landed hard against a body on the other side. My shriek was silenced as a hand landed over my mouth.
“Shh! It’s just me. You’re safe.” The familiar voice of my best friend calmed me instantly, and I grabbed his hand, pulling it away from my mouth.
“Xander!” I sucked in a gulp of air and threw my arms around him.
He lifted me off the ground in a tight hug that ended too fast. Then he grabbed my arms and drew me away to study my face. Sharp blue eyes held mine, and I drank in the safety they offered. Xander was a permanent fixture for me and even at twelve—he was thirteen and he never let me forget it—I knew he always would be.
Xander equaled safety.
“I’ve been looking for you. Are you hurt?” He didn’t wait for an answer before his gaze swept up and down my body.
“No, I…” His thumb brushed a trail down my cheek and I winced. The branches must have left a mark. “How did you find me?” I asked.
His reply was halted as a roar rose up behind us. We exchanged a look and even with the worry in his eyes, there was a reassurance. A promise to protect me no matter what.
“We have to move,” he said.
“Where?” I asked.
“I’ll show you. Your mother is waiting.”
He grabbed my hand, and I held tight as we ran.
Around us, I could see movement through the haze, but Xander never stopped or even slowed. I stuck close, pushing my body to its limits and beyond. If we stopped, we were dead.
“This way,” Xander said.
He led us to the corner of an outbuilding—the one that housed our cruiser pods. I half-expected him to duck inside, but he only veered around it and cut a path into the trees that lined the wall.
My mother was here?
A circle of crystals had been laid out and Xander steered me toward it. Standing just beyond the circle, two figures loomed. I slowed, squinting to make them out as Xander urged me forward. “It’s okay,” he assured me. But his voice had changed. His eyes, which had sought me out every three seconds during our wild run, were distant now.
“Xander?” I asked.
“Alina?” my mother called.
Finally, we came to a stop in front of the figures—directly inside the crystal circle. My mother stepped out of the fog and grabbed me in a tight hug. Her dress was torn and her arms were bloody, but she was alive. I hugged her back—too scared to be embarrassed that Xander was watching.
Just like Xander had done, she pulled away too soon. Her eyes did a quick search of me, assessing. “You’re all right?” she asked, smoothing my ratty hair.
I nodded, holding her wrists just so I had some physical connection. “Where’s Dad? He never came back.”
Her mouth tightened into a thin line. Instead of answering me, she gestured to the person beside her. Peter, my tutor, stepped up beside my mother, his face gaunt and lined with worry. His dark eyes were glassy but focused.
“I have everything ready,” he said.
“Ready for what?” I asked, looking back and forth between them.
“What’s going on?” I demanded, dropping my mother’s wrists in order to whirl on Xander.
No one answered me.
My mother laid a hand on Xander’s arm. “You have done the most brave and noble thing, Xander Hart. They will not forget.”
His eyes flicked to me then back to her. The pain etched in his expression hurt my heart. “Are you sure this is the only way?” he asked.
My mother nodded. “It’s her best chance.”
Xander sighed. “That’s all that matters then.” He turned to me. “Alina, I…” He took a quick breath, let it out again. His eyes held so much pain.
“Xander, what’s happening?” I asked, crying even though I didn’t know why.
“I have to go. You…have to go too,” he said in a thick voice.
“Will I see you again?”
It was a silly question. I’d seen him every day for my entire life. Him and Jalene. They were my best friends in the whole seven systems. Of course I’d see him again. This was one day. A horrible day, but still…
“I don’t know. But I will never, ever forget. Do you hear me?” He looked angry—and impossibly sad.
I nodded, suddenly unsure of my voice.
He reached for me, holding me so tightly against him that I couldn’t breathe, but I didn’t want to breathe if it meant letting him go.
He stepped back so suddenly, I wobbled and nearly fell. Peter steadied me with a hand on my shoulder. Xander looked at him with blazing blue eyes. “Tell me where you’re going,” he demanded, desperation leaking into his words.
“You know I can’t,” Peter said sadly.
Xander opened his mouth, ready with another argument. Far in the distance, something roared. It was followed by a high-pitched scream that sounded like—
“Jalene,” Xander said, his jaw tightening.
“Go,” my mother said. “You’ve done more than enough here. Thank you.”
Xander turned to run and then paused, looking back at me once more. “I will find you,” he promised. His eyes burned like balls of blue fire as he held my gaze. “No matter what. I will search the stars and every planet in the seven systems forever if that’s what it takes. I swear it.”
He kissed me once. Hard. Right on the mouth and right in front of my mother.
Then he was gone.
I let out a strangled cry and tried to run after him but my mother grabbed me. “Alina, you have to escape. If you don’t, this will all be lost. For good this time. Go with Peter now.”
I stopped struggling as understanding dawned. “You’re not coming?”
Peter’s arm slid around my shoulder—comfort and a clear message that if I tried to run again, he’d only haul me back.
Instead of explaining, my mother took my face in her hands. She bent so that we were eye to eye, a soft smile on her lips. With her thumbs, she rubbed something chalky down my face. I wrinkled my nose at the strange smell. It made me stomach roll.
“Alina, there is more power in you than you can imagine, but even if you weren’t our future, I would save you in this way. You are my daughter, my heart. I love you. What I do for you now, I do for all. And when you’re ready, it will all be there. Waiting for you to claim it. To lead them.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, crying now.
“You will.” She kissed my forehead.
“Not without you, I won’t. I can’t.”
“You can and you will,” she said firmly. It only made me cry harder. “When you are ready, your heart will call to the stars. They always answer and they will bring you home.”
Through the haze of panic and fear, I struggled to understand. But then my mother launched into a string of words I’d never heard before. They were rhythmic and soft at first then more insistent. Hard. Like they were building toward something bigger than I knew how to face.
The air around me stirred.
My own mind spun.
I shut my eyes against the wave of dizziness. Behind my lids, I watched as my own memories began to play out. First, everything that had happened today. Then yesterday. Then before that. And then, one by one, they vanished.
One minute they were there and the next they were just…gone.
“What are you…?” I began but it was too late.
My mother’s voice rose louder, and the wind kicked up, blowing my hair until the ends of it pricked against the scratch on my cheek.
My skin burned.
My head throbbed.
I shut my mouth, unable to remember what I’d been about to say.
A hand slipped into mine, pulling me toward the trees that seemed to whisper things, urging me to come closer.
Warm lips brushed my cheek in a final goodbye.
At the edge of the circle, something roared and crashed closer.
My mother cried out to Peter, “Hurry!”
Peter lifted me up and began carrying me deeper into the trees. I pried my eyes open and twisted in Peter’s arms, looking back as a black silhouette rose up behind my mother. A Shadow.
She smiled at me one final time and then turned to face it.
Peter ducked behind a large tree and dragged my hand up, placing its palm against the rough bark of a tree. I struggled against him, thrashing and kicking. “Mom!” I screamed.
In the wake of my vanishing memories, the woman getting torn to shreds by the Shadow ceased to be my mother as the wind continued to churn up the world around me.
I turned away and watched the tree bend toward me. Gnarled branches wound around my limbs and yanked me off my feet into some sort of tunnel that sucked me inside.
The world tilted and whirled.
Then, it all vanished—and I forgot it all.
Year: Reign of Tharos 5
System: Milky Way
The attack was unexpected, but it wasn’t entirely surprising. Through the mirror’s reflection, I caught sight of Peter in the hall. I didn’t stop brushing my hair as he moved closer. I pretended not to notice him yet, letting him think he had the element of surprise.
At the same moment he thrust his energy outward, I whirled to dodge his blast of heat. His chest glowed brightly, a white light that illuminated my tiny bedroom. I could feel Peter’s energy building, expanding to create an impenetrable perimeter around his body, something I didn’t dare try with my own energy-force. He couldn’t boil his own insides like I could—and he couldn’t fire the heated rays at an enemy like I could either.
Peter’s wall built higher. Faster.
I split my energy between gathering my energy and distracting Peter.
“We’ve only ever trained in the cellar. Launching an attack in my bedroom is cheating,” I accused.
We’d never trained in the house before, but last Saturday changed things when a dark figure had nearly spotted us during our trip to San Diego. Peter’s ability to cloak us was the only reason we’d escaped because I’d panicked.
What had he really expected? We hadn’t seen one of them—the Shadows—in nearly a year before last week.
Every day since the sighting, we’d trained.
“We talked about this,” Peter said, shifting his weight onto the balls of his feet. He wasn’t letting his guard down. “You have to be ready at all times. Even when you think you’re safest.”
“No one is safe before I’ve had coffee,” I countered.
Peter’s brows rose. “Prove it.”
“Don’t worry, I plan to. Anyone who attacks a girl in her own bedroom before she’s had her morning caffeine is a monster,” I grumbled.
“Hit me,” Peter challenged. “Just once. Then you can have your coffee.”
“Promise?” I demanded.
“I wouldn’t lie to royalty.”
My eyes narrowed, but I didn’t bother to respond.
The heat inside me had reached its boiling point, and the blood in my veins spread it like lava to the rest of my body. Steam rose from my fingertips as I lifted them and pointed at Peter. His eyes widened, and he backed toward my bedroom door.
I fired a blast of heat, and Peter lunged into the hallway, dodging the laser-like beam that shot from my body. The wall sizzled. I huffed, flipping my hair off my now sweaty neck.
“Dammit,” I muttered.
I hated losing.
Peter’s face appeared in the doorway again, and he frowned at the burnt drywall. “Maybe training in the house isn’t such a good idea,” he agreed.
My brow rose. “You think?”
“Let’s reconvene in the cellar,” he said, ducking into the bathroom to wet a washcloth. He returned and wrung it out against the wall. The sizzling hissed and then died off. Peter tossed the wet cloth into the laundry bin.
“Ten minutes?” he asked.
I folded my arms over my chest, pretending to be against his suggestion. “Twenty,” I argued, mostly for show.
“Fifteen,” he countered. “That’s plenty of time. I left you two pieces of bacon on the stove. Coffee’s already brewed.”
At that, I let out a breath and dropped my hands to my sides. Peter was gone before I could thank him. Likely, he was already on his way to the cellar to plot out an attack strategy to ambush me with.
I’d be ready for it, though, and hopefully this time I wouldn’t miss.
Although, the idea of hitting Peter—of hurting him—always made me hesitate. I had a feeling it’s what kept me from actually winning any of our matches. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for Peter, and even if I knew it meant our future survival, I wasn’t sure I could hurt him. He might not have been my biological father, but he was all I knew. He was more than my guardian in this world; he was my family now.
Alone, I studied the blackened area of drywall. It wasn’t smoking anymore but it looked hideous in the midst of the pristine white and gray of my simple décor. I’d have to repair it and then repaint the area, maybe this weekend if Peter stopped training me long enough to give me a chance. His favorite way to punish me for losing these stupid training exercises was to assign a DIY project. It was still a weird thing to me, the idea of an empress doing her own home repairs, or maybe it was weird that it had become so normal.
A lot of things about life on Earth felt strange—even without any memory of my life before it. Like a déjà vu gone wrong. The only things I knew were the bits Peter had told me. I was an empress on the run from the Shadows—and someday, I’d return and take back our home from the monsters who’d invaded.
My memory had been wiped for my own protection—a fact I still didn’t understand fully since Peter had just told me everything, anyway.
But just as quickly as the thoughts of home had come, I chased them away. Daydreaming about the life I’d forgotten was too dangerous. Besides, it always started and ended with those blue eyes…
I couldn’t remember a time I hadn’t dreamt of them and lately it had only gotten worse. I couldn’t afford to think about them now. Not if I wanted to beat Peter without actually killing him.
Gathering my hair into my hands, I focused on the attack I knew Peter was planning. I’d have to disable him while avoiding actual injury. Tricky, but I could do it if I was careful. Probably. While I strategized, I arranged my hair. My thick tangles resisted the ponytail, but I forced them into the band, anyway. Moving quickly now, I changed out of my pajamas and headed downstairs.
In less than fifteen minutes, I’d consumed all the bacon and nearly drained my second cup of coffee. If this morning’s ambush was any indication, I was going to need the caffeine to keep up my strength.
Peter was right. The monsters hunting us weren’t going to stop looking. And if they ever found us, they wouldn’t show me mercy like Peter had this morning. I had to stop holding back so we could both see what I was truly capable of. Someday, my power was going to be the only thing standing between me and a dark ruler who had stolen my throne. If I ever wanted a life of my own—more importantly, if I ever wanted to go home—I needed to hone that power into a weapon capable of defeating the monsters that stood in my way. And that wouldn’t happen until I could take down Peter. I only hoped I didn’t kill him in the process.
Three hours later, the tips of Peter’s hair had been singed off, his shirt had gone up in flames, and he was limping with the after-effects of a third-degree burn on his ankle—and I was exhausted.
I practically crawled up the steps from the cellar and squinted into the midday sunlight. “You did well today,” Peter said with way too much pep for someone who’d nearly died.
I cut him a look that conveyed my lack of agreement.
“Here.” He handed me a bottled water.
I took it and downed nearly half before coming up for air. When I did, Peter was studying me. “What?” I asked between shallow breaths.
His forehead creased with a look of concern I knew all too well. “You’re holding back,” he said.
“Peter.” My shoulders slumped. I didn’t want to rehash this.
“Tell me why.”
I sighed. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I’ll live,” he said. He meant it. We both knew that despite our very human-like appearance, our insides were very different from theirs. Thanks to a speedy metabolism, we healed fast. Already, the burnt ends of Peter’s hair looked better. And the fact that he was merely limping from the wound on his ankle and not howling in pain or fainting from shock was more proof that his body could handle it. Still…
I scowled. “That’s not the point.”
Peter continued to study me, but judging from the glazed look in his eyes I knew his thoughts were far away now. Worrying, probably.
“Let’s take the rest of the day off. Rest. Go for a ride. Clear your head.” His eyes narrowed as he sharpened his gaze. “Let go of whatever it is that’s holding you back. I’ll take the trailer with me to work tonight. Tomorrow, we’ll train with cadavers.”
“No way,” I groaned. “Remember last time? I had nightmares for weeks.”
“Alina, you’ve been having nightmares since San Diego,” he said. And even though his words were gentle, I flinched. “I want you to see that you have what it takes to beat them.”
“What if I don’t?”
“You do.” He nodded at the water I held and said, “Drink up. Enjoy your day off. I’ll see you for dinner.”
I watched as he turned and headed for the house.
It took me all of two seconds to decide what to do with my day off. With the increase in training, Nightingale, my horse, probably wondered if I’d abandoned her.
I was halfway to the barn when my phone rang.
“Hey,” I answered, cheerful and slightly guarded. That was pretty much standard behavior for me anytime Kate called.
“Hey, stranger,” Kate sang back to me, but there was no accusation in the words. Or not much, anyway. “Tell me something good because I just left a christening for, swear to God, the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen and I’m a little ashamed he came from my gene pool. I might not have children.”
I laughed. “Your cousin’s, right?”
“Ugh. Yes. Alina, for real, he looks like E.T. with those knobby little fingers. It’s disconcerting.”
I snorted. Kate was the only person my age who would even use a word like “disconcerting” in a sentence—especially when the sentence also involved ugly babies and extra-terrestrials.
“And what’s wrong with E.T.?” My words were obviously a joke but my heart thudded hard against my rib cage. Kate had no idea what I was.
“Nothing at all if you like that gnarled branchy look. I like my aliens hot. Like Kyle XY.”
“Ewww, he doesn’t even have a belly button. That’s creepy,” I said.
Kate laughed. “See I knew you’d make me feel better.”
I felt a ridiculous satisfaction wash over me at her words.
“So,” Kate said, drawing out the word. “I haven’t heard from you in forever. What did you do last weekend?”
My guard went up instantly.
Kate usually let my flakiness slide. Her social life was busy enough she rarely noticed when I had to say no to something Peter thought was too dangerous. When she did call me on it, her easy personality usually let me off the hook. But I hadn’t failed to notice she didn’t call me to hang out quite as often lately. Having a human friend had been a lot harder than I’d hoped. A fact I had yet to admit to Peter since he’d probably just offer an “I told you so.”
Homeschooling had made it harder too—a new venture for us thanks to a sketchy run-in with the school nurse last year when my scorching skin had been mistaken for heat exhaustion. Without school to connect us, Kate had begun to notice more and more when I constantly bailed or turned down her invitations.
“Oh, I worked out a lot and then did some home improvement stuff with Peter,” I answered, carefully. It wasn’t a lie, really. My trainings were definitely a workout and as long as I kept losing, the manual labor projects kept coming.
“Ugh, Peter takes those DIY shows to a new level, doesn’t he?”
“You have no idea,” I said.
“Did you ask him about the town homecoming next Saturday?”
“Yeah, he said it’s fine as long as I’m home by eleven.” I didn’t really care about homecoming or the parade, but Kate did—right along with every other human girl my age—so I tried to sound excited.
It was all I did. All I’d ever done.
And it sucked.
“Home by eleven? You’re going to miss the end of the parade.”
“Yeah, I know, sorry,” I said, wincing.
“Well, at least he’s actually letting you go,” she said. Then her tone changed to one of uncertainty. “Hey, you know, Ethan Lawson asked about you again the other day.”
“That’s nice,” I answered, already dismissing what was obviously a matchmaking attempt on her part.
While Kate rattled on about Ethan, I kept my phone pressed to my ear and stared out over the valley that stretched to my right. It wasn’t that I didn’t like guys, I just knew I shouldn’t—or couldn’t—like the guys this planet offered. Best-case scenario, I’d have to leave them someday. Worst case, they’d find out what I really was and expose me.
A pair of eyes flashed in my mind.
Blue. They were always blue. Set in a face that was too fuzzy at the edges and blurred from the haze of my dreams for me to make out much else. The only details I could make out were a strong, masculine jawline—and the eyes. Blue as the ocean and just as deep—full of hidden truths under their surface.
I had no idea who he was or if he was even real. He lived only in my head—which probably made me crazy, but in all reality, seeing a stranger’s face in my dreams was the least of my problems.
“Besides Alina, he’s cute and he’s nice and he likes you,” Kate was saying when I tuned back in.
“Sorry, Kate, I’m not interested. Why don’t you ask him?”
Kate made a sound that suggested I’d lost my mind. “Alina, I’ve been dating Nick for almost a year now. You know that.”
“Right. Of course,” I mumbled. Yep, I was officially a shitty friend. “Even if I wanted to say yes to Ethan, you know Peter would flip.”
“Peter’s going to have to deal with it, eventually. You’re not a little kid anymore. You’ll be a senior in a couple of weeks.”
I gave a short laugh—mostly to lighten the mood. “You sound like you’re writing the speech for my teenaged rebellion.”
“Maybe I am,” she said. “Feel free to use it if needed.”
I suppressed a shudder because Kate really had no idea just what kind of rebellion I was poised to wage someday—and it had nothing to do with crushes on boys. Or parades, sadly. I really did love parades.
“Look, I know you’re not that social, Alina, but you’re going to have to learn to trust people, eventually.”
“It’s not that easy for me,” I said quietly. Anti-social was one thing. Being in the alien equivalent of witness-protection was another. But I couldn’t tell Kate that.
“You trusted me and look how well that turned out,” Kate said.
Guilt churned in my stomach as I thought of how little I actually trusted her with, and she definitely knew it. For the millionth time, I wished I could just tell her. But if I did, Peter really would flip. Not to mention the danger it would put her in if they ever found me.
My mind filled with blurry images of black-robed monsters, and I shuddered. I’d only seen a Shadow once up close, but even that was enough to give me a healthy dose of fear, a constant reminder as to why we had to live in hiding.
I blinked to clear away the dark images and realized the line had gone silent. Kate was waiting on a reply. “Yeah, I’ll think about it,” I finally put in.
“Do that,” was all she said.
We said our goodbyes, and I went to saddle Nightingale.
She’s not going to let me keep blowing her off like this, I thought.
I felt Nightingale’s burst of impatience, which meant she’d been listening and waiting for me to open our mental line of communication.
It still blew my mind we could understand each other this way. So far, no other creature I’d encountered could hear my thoughts or send their own back to me. None except for her. Peter said it was because I was special, but as far as I was concerned, Nightingale was the one with the gift.
I wish I could just tell her what I am.
Nightingale’s response, though lacking human words, held a very distinct tone of minding my responsibilities. She sounded a lot like Peter, and I scowled. Was I getting a lecture from a horse?
Yeah, yeah. I know, I responded. I can’t risk scaring her into telling someone. What if I started with the fact that you and I can hear each other’s thoughts and give her a chance to get used to that before I tell her I’m an alien from another planet?
Nightingale reached down and pointedly bumped the center of my chest with her nose. A soft glow sprang to life, emanating from my heart outward and washing the dark stall with a white light. I sighed as the accompanying energy surged through me like a rush of adrenaline. Another reminder that my truth was going to be a little much to process—even for someone understanding like Kate.
I couldn’t put that kind of burden on her, anyway. Sure, Kate was my friend now, but someday Peter and I would leave again. We always did. And then Kate would have to live the rest of her life knowing she held my safety in her hands. As much as it sucked, I had to keep my secret.
I spent the afternoon wandering the valley, letting Nightingale stop to snack on the sparse vegetation near the woods at the far end of the canyon. Our trek was aimless and when the sun fell low enough to hit the tips of the clay mountains that rose around us, we headed back.
By the time I’d returned Nightingale to her stall, fed and watered and brushed down, I was mostly finished feeling sorry for myself. Any remaining guilt I harbored over my secrets from Kate was drowned out by the rumbling of my stomach.
I let myself in the front door, kicking my boots off haphazardly as the scent of garlic and tomatoes hit me. I inhaled deeply, relieved all over again that Peter had discovered his love for cooking. I could still remember the human’s prepackaged and microwaveable meals I’d eaten when we’d first arrived.
This was much better.
Still, it was a surprising hobby for the Emperor’s top advisor who, by his own admittance, had never cooked a day in his life before fleeing to Earth.
I walked into the kitchen in time to see Peter taking a pasta dish out of the oven, a red mitt on each hand. The sun had begun to set through the window behind him, casting an orange-red glow where it reflected off the canyon. The warm colors made his already-tanned skin look even darker.
“Did you have a good ride?” Peter asked, setting the dish on the table and then going back for plates and silverware.
I took a seat and reached for the pitcher of water and the empty glass in front of me. “Nightingale only tried eating poisoned berries once, so I’d call it a success.”
He chuckled. “She’s starting to trust you more.”
“I think she does it just to mess with me now.”
His eyes twinkled as he sat down and handed me a plate. “She gets that from her owner.”
I scowled and switched gears before every living thing on this property formed an alliance against me. “Kate called earlier,” I announced.
“How is Kate?” Peter asked. His words were the epitome of well-mannered if not a bit distant, and I tried not to let it bother me. Peter was friendly and caring and warm—his aloofness with Kate was nothing personal. I knew that.
“She’s fine. She wanted to remind me about the homecoming parade next week.” I averted my eyes from his, busying myself with scooping pasta onto my plate instead.
Peter’s forehead wrinkled, his brows dipping in concern. “I’d forgotten about that. Do you still want to go?”
I didn’t miss his tone or the unspoken message if I said yes. I sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“You need to be careful,” he began, and I braced myself for the lecture coming on. These were the times Peter felt more like my dad than my guardian. Not that I remembered anything about my father, but I’d seen enough human behavior to have some idea.
I rolled my eyes and jumped in before he could get going. “I know, I know. Don’t let anyone touch my skin and don’t use my energy-force. You don’t have to keep reminding me. I lost my memory once but since then everything’s been pretty solid.”
“You’re right.” Peter attempted a smile, flashing white teeth against a tanned face that gave way to short, brown hair. He wasn’t the same coloring I was, with my midnight black hair and pale skin, which meant we’d never been able to pass as father and daughter, but here on Earth, plenty of kids lived with guardians or extended family.
The important thing was that our physicality was similar enough to humans that blending wasn’t hard. In fact, plenty of other species and creatures from neighboring galaxies resembled humans. I suspected there were others walking around Earth like we were, pretending, in order to cover up their real identities. How else had Peter managed to get us the right documents necessary to blend into this place?
“It’s just that we haven’t had to move in over a year now. That’s a new record. For the sake of the horses, I’d like to stay a bit longer,” he said.
As a mortician, Peter’s work kept him out of the public eye, so I was the only loose cannon to worry about when it came to public interaction. He didn’t let me forget it either. But I also knew he was just as lonely as me. Finding the horses had gone a long way toward easing that—for both of us.
“So would I,” I agreed, thinking of Kate. But how much longer did I really have before she demanded answers? Or before my refusal to give them would cause a rift in our friendship? Probably a lot sooner than my time on Earth would run out.
“What do you think about staying in Arizona when we do relocate again?” Peter asked.
I blinked, nodding my agreement as I swallowed a mouthful of spaghetti. “That would be great.”
“I’ve been looking up housing near Flagstaff. We can get something big enough for the horses about an hour out of town. Pretty cheap too. And when you’re done with school, we won’t have to be so close to civilization either so we can stay off the radar.”
“Sounds great.” More solitude. Yay.
“It’s also near a portal.”
I almost dropped my fork but recovered and pretended the food in my stomach hadn’t just turned to bricks. “Seriously?”
“Alina, you’ll be eighteen in a couple of weeks. At that point, your power will mature and you’ll be able to defend yourself better. The sooner you learn to fight with the full strength of your abilities, the sooner we can make plans to go home. In fact, I’d like to increase your training to help you prepare.”
“We already train every day until I’m half dead. How much more can we do?” I asked.
“Physical conditioning to increase your stamina for one thing. Two miles every morning and every night is a good start.” He also clearly hadn’t caught the fact that my question had been rhetorical.
“All of this would be a lot easier if I could just remember,” I grumbled.
“Taking your memory was for your protection,” he said quietly. “That day in Zorovia…a battle was lost, but not the war, and if you remember it, the weight of it all…” He took a deep breath before adding, “You don’t remember what it looks like to fail. You don’t have fear as your foundation. This is how you will defeat them and take your kingdom back. With your whole heart.”
I swallowed hard, nodding. There was nothing left to say. Peter always reminded me what was at stake and why taking my memories were a part of the big picture. But it didn’t ease the frustration. Or the loneliness.
“You don’t realize how far you’ve already come,” he added. “You’re so close, Alina. Soon, you will be ready and the past won’t matter. You’ll have a future. We all will.”
I looked up and my gaze caught on his expression. It was something I rarely saw in Peter, something he usually kept carefully in check. He looked earnest. Eager even. His plan struck me then—full force. No more hiding out. No more blending in. Very soon, Peter was going to take me home.
The next evening, I cleaned the kitchen and then slipped out to the barn. Peter had been true to his word about doubling up on training, effective immediately. We’d spent the day practicing turning my powers on and off, upping the heat, and zapping only the things I was actually aiming at. All the same things I’d been practicing for years. It wasn’t hard, just tedious. And it would have been a lot more effective with a real target, but it wasn’t like I had access to anything capable of withstanding my bolts—and living to tell about it. After hours of practice, I needed to get away, to remind myself there was more to life than shooting beams of light out of my chest.
Nightingale was already shoving at her stall door by the time I’d grabbed a saddle and flipped the latch.
“You want to go for a run?” I asked.
She answered by shoving past me toward the open barn doors. I laughed. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
Less than five minutes later, we were galloping. I sucked in a deep breath, enjoying the wind on my face and the feel of my hair being lifted off my back to blow out behind me. Without effort, the mental line of communication opened, and I could feel Nightingale’s sensations as she passed them to me. Her eyes stung from the wind and her skin tingled where her ruffling mane of midnight hair pricked her coat. But she loved this just as much as I did.
As we left the barn behind, the stress melted away almost instantly, and I felt my body respond to the wind and the freedom that came with increased speeds. Nightingale strained to go faster. In answer, I loosened the reins and let her set the pace.
All thoughts of war and rebellion and even the stranger in my dreams melted away. For a few delicious moments it was just me and my horse, and a sea of stars above us. It was everything. And a small, naïve corner of my heart wished it wouldn’t end.
Eventually, Nightingale slowed to a walk, and we approached the tree line at the end of the narrow valley that was our backyard. I hesitated. Leaving the canyon this late at night was a definitely “no” as far as Peter was concerned. Especially if it meant wandering the woods alone. But in the year we’d lived here I hadn’t seen a single trace of Shadows.
Besides, I was sick of the rules. No, I was sick of the fear.
Hell, I’d charred the walls of my training room earlier. If anything was out here with me, I wasn’t the one that deserved to be afraid.
With a soft bump of my heel against Nightingale’s sides, we made our way inside.
It was cooler here, thank the Goddess, and I was instantly glad I’d come this far. The trees here were mostly varying types of pines with some Boxelder thrown in as we got closer to the lake I knew lay ahead. Plenty of shade that, even after the sun went down, offered a temperature dip that felt great on my overheated skin.
Without the speed to distract me, my thoughts trickled back in and I found myself wondering what it would be like to show up to the parade with Ethan Lawson. Probably not as great as if I were actually interested in the guy. Definitely not as great as if the stranger with the eyes showed up instead.
Stupid, Alina. I didn’t even know if he was a “he.” All I knew were those eyes. But something about them promised me…
I didn’t know what.
I sighed, wondering if maybe there was something wrong with me.
Something besides the fact that you’re an alien with superpowers?
I honestly didn’t know if that had come from me or Nightingale.
She snickered, tossing her mane around as her head bobbed, and I had my answer.
My thoughts drifted to what Peter had said at dinner the night before.
Most humans thought we used spaceships to travel—if they even believed we existed at all. But ships weren’t nearly as efficient as the portals. That is, if you could find one.
The only one we knew of for sure was the portal that had brought us here; a rift in dimensions out in the desert of New Mexico. But with all the conspiracy theorists, we couldn’t risk living anywhere near it, not with the Shadows probably using the same one to hunt us down.
I knew Peter had secretly been hunting for another one for years.
He hadn’t mentioned it at all this last year, and I’d started to wonder if he’d changed his mind. But I realized now it was only me. I’d gotten too comfortable here. And soon, I’d have to leave it behind. The hard part was wondering what would be waiting for us on the other end.
Deep down, I wished our next stop might include finding the owner of the eyes from my dreams, but I also knew better than to expect a miracle like that. The fact that I was still alive was miracle enough. Expecting another was just greedy.
My distracted thoughts abruptly went silent as I heard a noise.
I whirled in the saddle, eyes scanning, but the sound had already stopped.
Probably a raccoon or some animal, I told myself.
When it came again, I knew it wasn’t a forest animal. Not with the way my heart was pounding and my skin was crawling. I’d only ever had this reaction once before, and I’d hoped to never have it again.
I straightened, mentally urging Nightingale to turn sharply so we could cut back to the canyon. My sweaty palms slipped over the reins as I debated the wisdom of making a run for it.
Out of the corner of my eye, something moved.
I turned and spotted a dark figure among the trees. Nothing more than a scrap of black, but my throat closed and any hope of a scream was silenced as my entire body went unresponsive.
The noise came again and this time I watched as the figure came closer.
I was completely frozen now and trying hard not to panic. It could have just been some small game hunter out late, I reasoned. But we were miles from anywhere a human would be, especially at night. It was the reason Peter had chosen this place to begin with.
With a shaking hand, I patted Nightingale reassuringly. Easy girl. It’s probably just a hiker. Keep going toward the canyon but walk at an angle so we don’t have our backs to it. One step at a time. Slowly.
While I talked her through it, my mental voice way too high-pitched to be anything but terrified, I watched the figure through the trees. We’d only gone a few paces before the figure began to move toward us.
The farther we went, the faster it came.
It broke through the trees obscuring my view. It took only a second for my eyes to focus on the shape and make it out. When I did, my breath caught, and I nearly choked on the fear that lodged in my throat.
I was so effing screwed.
Larger than any man, with robes swishing along the ground, a Shadow emerged, a layer of pine needles kicking up in his wake. His face was obscured by darkness, and it wasn’t just the lack of moonlight hiding his features. It was as if…there were no features to see.
His face was a void. The closer he got, the more I sensed an even larger void straining to latch itself to me.
Finally, I found my voice.
My scream startled Nightingale, and she bucked hard, tossing me off her back before she galloped away. I could read her fear almost as loudly as my own as she zig-zagged wildly through the trees and then disappeared safely into the canyon beyond.
I rolled over and sat up, brushing my hair from my face in time to see the Shadow looming over me. It was enormous, blotting out everything else as it peered down at me.
The edges of its robe curled around where its feet should have been, and I wondered if it even had legs or if those were missing just like its face was. I looked up into the blank darkness where eyes belonged and blinked as two dark orbs appeared, latching onto mine with a force that made me want to cry.
Reflexively, my light sprang to life from the center of my chest. The glow lit the air around me, and the Shadow shrank back before leaning in again, its eyes wide.
“You…are…her,” it whispered.
I shoved my light out brighter but whatever distaste it had shown before was gone now. It didn’t even flinch.
“I’m—” It didn’t matter who I was now. I knew that as certain as I knew it was going to kill me no matter what I said.
“Master will be pleased.” The Shadow extended a robe-clad arm and a gnarled finger emerged—aimed at me.
I gasped as the pain hit.
My glow faltered, blinking off then on again like one of those bug zappers when its victim got too close. I scrambled backward, trying to escape the pressure that built around my heart, but there was nowhere to go. The pain in my chest intensified until it was more than anything I’d ever experienced in any training session.
I shoved against it with my light, willing the heat to zap him like his dark energy was doing to me. But it wasn’t enough.
He had me.
Sweat coated my skin, and I gritted my teeth to keep from screaming.
Maybe I’d die out here, but I damn sure wasn’t going to give him the pleasure of watching me break before I went.
Black dots danced in front of my eyes. I could feel consciousness slipping as the pain blotted out everything else. The darkness inched closer and part of me wanted to let it have me. Anything to end the agony inside my chest.
Through the haze, something else moved among the trees.
I tried to follow it, to focus, maybe even to warn whoever it was—but I couldn’t find the energy to call out. Not with this crushing weight on my chest. All I could do was hold on, shoving my light out hard against the force of the Shadow’s power. And maybe that would be enough to allow whoever was there to get away.
But instead of running in the other direction, the figure came closer.
I bit my lip until I tasted blood, hoping like hell it wasn’t another one of these monsters. No way could I hold out against two of them.
I blinked through the tears streaming down my cheeks and caught sight of the figure inching closer.
Not a person.
Not a Shadow.
What in the actual hell?
A pair of orange eyes glowed from just outside the beam of light I’d cast from my chest. They were set just above a long snout that pulled back to reveal gleaming teeth. I could only stare in amazement as the biggest wolf I’d ever seen snuck up behind where the Shadow still loomed over me.
The wolf’s eyes met mine. It dipped its head in what felt a lot like a knowing nod. A signal to hang on and stay out of the way.
You didn’t have to tell me twice.
Then those sharp teeth flashed and four powerful legs sprang as the wolf launched itself through the air. Its enormous paws grabbed the Shadow around his shoulders in a sort of bear hug and knocked him to the ground.
I scrambled sideways just in time to avoid being trampled as the two of them went down. The Shadow grunted and when the wolf climbed away, long claws had ripped holes in the robe, revealing mangled flesh now leaking with thick, dark liquid where the wolf had torn him open.
The wolf didn’t stop there.
The Shadow screamed as the wolf’s teeth closed over his throat, ripping away fabric and flesh as it pulled violently on its prey. I felt my stomach roll at the sight of the hole left behind. A second later, the Shadow’s scream abruptly cut off as the vocal cords were ripped away too.
The wolf stepped back, its large head turning toward me. Orange eyes locked with mine, and I stared in horror at the blood still dripping from its jowls.
The wolf blinked then looked down almost sheepishly at its own mess. “Goshiadawelshep,” it said.
My jaw fell open, but no sound emerged as the air whooshed out of me and my light blinked out. The wolf had talked? I had no idea what language it had just spoken, but the fact remained that words had just come out of the mouth of a wild wolf way too big to be real. Or real in this world, anyway.
Panic took over then. Shock and nausea ripped through me, and I got to my hands and knees just in time to vomit the contents of my stomach onto the ground below.
The wolf made a noise of concern, and I felt it press closer to me.
I shot to my feet, backing away from the dead Shadow and the murdering wolf. I haphazardly swiped the back of my hand over my mouth. Apparently, even with the threat of having my throat ripped out, I still cared about whether or not my face was clean.
My priorities needed work.
Stumbling a bit, I managed to re-ignite my glow. It was dimmer than usual, but I decided any light at all was a win right now. Several yards stood between the wolf and me. Even from here, the wolf was massive. I could see the muscles in its shoulders move and ripple as it took a step toward me and growled.
“Stay back,” I warned, hoping my tone was enough to convey my meaning. But the wolf only growled harder and kept coming.
I took a step backward and bumped into something that felt a lot more like another Shadow than another wolf. Jumping away, I let out a sharp scream as I caught sight of a robed figure looming nearly within reach of me.
Had the wolf been trying to warn me?
Just like before, the Shadow raised a gnarled finger and pointed it at me and the pain began. I steeled myself against it, gritting my teeth as I shoved against the power attempting to drain me. My chest ached but this time, I held my own, sweating through the effort of keeping his disgusting darkness from creeping inside me.
Out of the corner of my eye, something moved. I assumed the wolf had circled around to come at the monster from behind and told myself to just hang on a bit longer. Then I braced myself to watch as a second throat was ripped out right before my eyes.
But the wolf didn’t strike.
Instead, a lightning bolt flashed and a power surge blanketed the woods around me, sending me stumbling backward. It was a power nearly identical to my own—except that it had actually been strong enough to affect the monster.
What the hell…
The Shadow groaned, its back arching as a beam of light pierced straight through his back and out the front of his chest. It was sharp and narrow like a sword and the Shadow lurched as if the thing had been run right through with a blade. The light withdrew, and the Shadow crumpled to the ground where it lay still.
I looked up, half-expecting Peter since he was the only one I knew who even had a chance of demonstrating that kind of power.
But it wasn’t Peter.
It was a stranger. A guy, maybe a couple of years older than me, with broad shoulders and big muscles that seemed contained only because of the fitted shirt he wore. He was breathing heavily thanks to the fact that he’d just taken out a Shadow with nothing but his magic, and his chest was glowing hot and bright with a light I’d never seen come from anyone but Peter and me.
I dragged my eyes from the delicious outline of his muscled torso and up to his face, another feature that wasn’t bad to look at. Not only was he a glow like me, he was smoking hot. But my elation sank immediately. There was nothing inviting or even friendly about his expression. Dark eyes held a deep well of some emotion I couldn’t name. The lighting was wrong for me to see what color they were, but that didn’t matter. The expression he wore made it clear he didn’t want me looking at him too closely. Or at all.
Clearly, he wasn’t a Shadow, but from the look he wore, I wasn’t convinced that made him a friend either.
Without warning, his light suddenly blinked out, leaving only mine to illuminate the space between us. His expression shifted to disbelief and in the space of a blink, a thousand emotions flitted across his face.
“It’s you,” he breathed in a deep voice that made me willing to be whoever he was hoping.
“And you are?” I managed to ask.
At that, his brows knitted in clear confusion.
Then he blinked, his features hardened, and he turned away, bending down to check the Shadow for a pulse. I shuddered at the idea of touching the disgusting flesh of the monster at my feet, but the stranger didn’t seem fazed by it in the least. Like he did this sort of thing all the time.
I caught sight of the trio of knives clipped onto his belt and realized he probably actually did find himself checking for pulses pretty frequently.
“You should turn off your light. It’ll only draw more of them,” he said to me as he rose to his feet again.
My eyes widened at that, but I did as he said—too shocked to do anything else. My light went out, plunging us all into darkness. Then I remembered the wolf behind me. I scrambled back a few more steps so I could see them both and frantically tried to figure out my best move.
I knew these two had just saved my life, which probably meant they didn’t want to kill me. Hell, this angry guy was probably even Zorovian judging by the lightning bolt sword he’d thrown from his chest. I wanted to be excited about the possibility that there were others like me who had survived the invasion.
But still, Peter had made it clear the galaxy was different now. Full of spies and those willing to do anything to earn a bounty—including the one on my head. If that’s what they were here for, my chances probably weren’t good. Giant killer wolf. Hot guy with a giant attitude and muscles to match. Little old me. I wasn’t going to assume anything.
“Look, I appreciate what you did but I think I should get home now. So, have a good night. Uh, bye.” I backed away a couple of steps, waiting to see if they’d follow or try to stop me.
“Why is she acting like this?” the angry guy asked the wolf.
The wolf didn’t answer which made me wonder if I’d imagined the whole talking thing before. But from the way he watched me, I got the feeling he wanted to see how this played out between me and Broody over there.
“She’s all over the place not to mention the way she just stood there when those assholes attacked her. And she’s acting like she doesn’t recognize us,” the guy added as I continued to shuffle backwards.
“Hey. I’m right here, you know,” I said, irritation overriding the fear as I narrowed my eyes at him.
“Only because Eamon and I saved your ass,” he shot back. “And I’m still confused why you couldn’t do it yourself.”
I stopped backing up. “Wait. Who is Eamon?” I asked, trying to make sense of what he was saying. All of it was confusing as hell. Why was he talking like he knew me? More importantly, he was talking like I should know him.
“That’s Eamon.” The guy pointed at the wolf, looking back at me like I was an idiot for not knowing the answer.
“Fine. Whatever. And who the hell are you?” I demanded.
He blinked at me, his features going slack with suspicion then disbelief. “You really don’t know?” he asked.
“Should I?” I shot back.
“It’s Xander,” he said, frowning. “I know it’s been a while, but how do you not—”
Eamon, the wolf, said something in a language I didn’t understand. My head spun just hearing it speak again. Didn’t matter I had no idea what he was saying.
“This is crazy,” I muttered to no one in particular.
Xander’s eyes flashed in impatience. “Fine,” he told Xander. He turned to me and said, “Let’s go. It’s not safe here.”
Then he took a step in the opposite direction of the canyon.
I didn’t move. “Whoa. I am not going anywhere with anyone. Tell you what. How about you guys go that way and I’ll go anyplace else?”
Broody, or Xander, raised his brows like I’d just issued some sort of death wish. “This is not how I expected tonight to go,” he muttered.
I crossed my arms. “You and me both, buddy.”
Xander opened his mouth, probably to argue some more, but Eamon cut him off. “Your highness,” he said to me in a gravelly voice that could have easily passed for a growl—except it was words. “I can’t believe it’s really you. Our apologies for not explaining, but we assumed you would recognize us.”
The voice was rough and aged—and impossible. I could hear the utter relief in his tone, but mostly, my brain was still trying to catch up to the fact that the animal had actually spoken real words. To me. On this planet.
“Y-you speak English,” I managed to say.
“I can speak hundreds of languages as gifted to my people by the goddess Eloisha at the dawn of your family’s rule.” He raised his head again and then cocked it, studying me like I was the one with issues.
Maybe I was. Maybe I’d hit my head and—
“You don’t know who we are, do you?” he asked, still watching me like I was some sort of puzzle to be solved which made zero sense since he was the miracle-creature in this equation.
I shook my head. “Should I?”
The wolf sighed—or growled; I wasn’t sure since they seemed to be the same sound. “Forgive us for frightening you. I would have killed the Shadow sooner, but I had to wait until you’d used your power so I knew it was you. The second one…” he trailed off, glancing at Xander. “The second one was a surprise,” he finished.
Xander scowled. “I handled it.”
Eamon looked back at me. “Are you all right?”
A zillion thoughts screamed at me for attention. I tried to wrap my head around the fact that the wolf was actually worrying about me. Then there was the fact that he’d called me “your highness” which was true but also dangerous to admit.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You don’t know?” Xander’s brow shot up.
I shrugged. “I’m having a hard time knowing anything right now. Everything constant in my life just changed.”
Eamon nodded as if I had just said something very wise instead of very snarky. “The only thing constant in life is change.”
I couldn’t argue with that. The question was whether or not the change was good.
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