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Author’s Note: Rayne is a lesbian/bisexual paranormal romance series I began in 2003, but ultimately left unfinished.  I’ve received a few emails over the years asking if I will ever continue it, and the answer is yes. But I want to do it right. Below you’ll find the discarded first draft from back in 2003. It’s as rough as rough drafts go.

 

Rayne (Draft #1) – 2003

Written by Ingrid Díaz

 

 

Chapter 1:  The Order of Akasha

1:

“Aeryn.” Larken read the next name on the list and sat back in her chair, awaiting the Circle’s comments. In the dim light of the office, the Elders’ faces looked older than they really were, their gentle features darkened by the yellow glow of the candles.

Ellowyn glanced around. Her blue eyes seeming almost black as she scanned the faces of her companions. When no one appeared to volunteer the first words, she cleared her throat and addressed Larken. “Aeryn has an impressive mastery of the Craft. She’s got the highest marks out of any of the apprentices – ever. Her range of powers is extraordinary. As you well know, she has surpassed some of your own records. She’s brilliant, and gifted …”

Larken frowned only slightly. “But?”

“We fear that her stubbornness may hinder her judgment,” admitted Faedyn.

“She is already very powerful,” Telwen added. “And in the wrong hands, access to the Greater Power could prove dangerous to the Order.”

Larken sat up, her long, silver-white hair falling across her face with the movement of her body. She cast green eyes upon the members of the Circle. “Has she done anything to elicit such concern?”

The Elders exchanged glances.

Finally, Faedyn spoke. “No,” she answered. “Not directly. She does, however, have a tendency to act without thinking. She follows her emotions first, and logic second, if at all.”

Ellowyn argued, “While that is true, Aeryn is kind, and always gentle. In her lifetime here, she has never harmed anything or anyone. The fact that she is as powerful as anything—“

“My point exactly,” cried Faedyn. “To make such power even grander!”

“It could be an enormous asset to the Order,” Ellowyn finished, rather sternly.

“But her father,” prompted Faedyn, her gaze not quite meeting Larken’s. It was a sensitive issue, she knew, but an important one nonetheless.

“He is not the one we are concerned with.” The High Priestess settled back against the chair. She tried to keep the anger from her voice, but failed.

“With all due respect, Larken,” Telwen spoke up, his voice gentle but firm, “we cannot protect her from the Guardians once she is out of the island. If Jael finds out his daughter has entered the Order…”

“She could be turned,” Ellowyn whispered the words hesitantly.

Faedyn locked gray eyes on the High Priestess. “There is no going back once Aeryn has access to the Greater Power. If she were to use it for the benefit of the Guardians, the entire foundation of the Order could collapse.”

“Think what it could mean if Jael found out that she is still alive.” Telwen’s voice held a bitter edge.

The High Priestess breathed back a sigh. She understood the Circle’s concern; it had been her worry since the moment Aeryn had shown an interest in the Order. But it was not why the Circle had gathered. “Whether the Guardians choose to take an interest in her or not, we cannot allow that to interfere with the matter at hand. The members of the Order cannot be selected on presumptions or fear. Only the Goddess can decide who enters. Our job is to determine who has the right qualifications.”

The truth of the words caused a brief wave of silence. Outside, the breeze filtered through the leaves in the trees, their rustling now being the only sound audible from the room. A gust of air slipped in through the open window, blowing out the candles.

In the sudden darkness, Faedyn spoke. “May the Goddess decide.”

 

2:

“Dear God,” she whispered, her forehead against the edge of her bed as she kneeled before it. She could feel the strands of black hair tickling the side of her face, mixing with the tears already there. The wind outside of her window strengthened with her words, as if something, somewhere, was suddenly paying attention.

“Forgive me,” she continued after a moment, feeling somewhat breathless. “I don’t know how to make these visions stop. I don’t know why I know the things I know, or how I know them.” She stopped to take a breath. “I just want them to stop. Please, just help me make them stop.”

Azure Varden looked up, her light brown eyes glassy, her vision blurred by the tears. She rose from the floor and sat at the edge of her bed. Her mother was right to think she was cursed. Cursed since birth to see the things that no one else saw, to feel the things no one else felt. It was wrong; no human should have such power. It went against the laws of God and nature; it went against her faith.

Her fist opened to reveal a Rosary. She placed it gently on the bedside table, and looked around the room, half-fearing, and half-expecting to see something that shouldn’t be there. But the dorm room was still.

 

3:

The water was bitterly cold, making her shiver in spite of her determination. She dove through crystal clear waters, until she felt the soft sand at the bottom of the lagoon. Her fingers formed stray, seemingly frantic patterns, stirring the sand into her eyes.

I could tell you where it is. The voice came to her as part of her thoughts, filling her mind with its soft, melodic tone for only an instant, before fading into silence.

No, thank you, was her annoyed reply. Just let me concentrate.

The voice remained silent, granting her request. Aeryn had not stopped her search during the short distraction, but her lungs were beginning to burn, and she refused to return to the surface empty-handed.

Stubborn, the voice spoke again in a tone of mock disapproval. The ceremony starts in less than thirty minutes.

I know that. Aeryn was becoming exasperated, her hands continuing to roam through the sand to no avail. She needed air. Resigned, she started swimming toward the spot of sunlight shining through the water. It seemed so far away. The more she swam, the further it seemed, and for a moment, she didn’t think she’d make it.

But she kept going, determination propelling her upward. Her head broke through the surface and she gasped through a lung-full of air. Her chest expanded and contracted desperately, painfully, making her wonder what in the world had convinced her to hold out so long.

That was close. Aeryn couldn’t see her spirit guide, but she could hear him.

“Shut up.” With one hand, she pushed away the matted-down clumps of dark brown hair. Her light green eyes surveyed the area. She could hear the animals in the trees, and the constant roar of the waterfall several yards away. This place had been her sanctuary, her escape. And after tonight …

Twenty-six minutes, fifty-three seconds … fifty-two… fifty-one—

“Fine, Kalan, you win,” Aeryn admitted, addressing the air. “Guide me.”

Oh, now you want my help?

“Please.” Her tone was calm, despite the urgency of the matter.

Very well, Oh Stubborn One. Dive in.

 

4:

“I know I put it in here somewhere.” Naia Dalton continued to search through the crumbled up pieces of paper scattered throughout her bedroom floor. Each piece was examined closely before getting tossed aside.

From his place on Naia’s bed, Bartholomew Wright—better known as Ry—let out a dramatic sigh. “This place is a nightmare, Naia. How do you expect to find anything in here?” He lifted his arms to indicate the disaster area around him. Piles of comic books, old newspapers, Internet site print-outs, incomplete story ideas, videos, and various unidentified objects obstructed any hint of the pale blue carpet below. Or maybe it was green. He couldn’t remember.

“There is a method to my madness,” Naia assured him, her search continuing undisturbed.

“Or a madness to your method.”

The sarcastic comment did not fall on deaf ears, but was ignored all the same. “Ry, get off your faggoty white butt and help me look.”

“Did you just call my butt white?” Ry appeared offended. “I spent all summer tanning this bad boy.”

Dark brown eyes met with the pale blue ones of her best friend. “Honey, you’re white. You could stick your butt in the toaster oven and set the knob to dark, and it would still come out as a lily white ass.”

“Well we weren’t all blessed with caramel-colored skin,” Ry answered, pointedly motioning to Naia’s body. “Some of us need to risk skin cancer in order to look beautiful.” He slid his body off the bed and lowered himself onto a pile of magazines. “I think I’m sitting on George Clooney.”

“Well that should make you happy.” Naia smirked at her own wittiness and resumed her search. “Do you think the paper will do well?”

As her best friend, Ry was required to provide Naia with an endless source of confidence and assurance. It was his job – and one he took seriously – to do away with all traces of self-doubt, and replace uncertainty with a biased, yet positive opinion. “Yeah, there’s bound to be a bunch of freaks in town who’ll read it.”

“Ry!”

“Just kidding. I’m sure you’ll give Weekly World News a run for its money.”

“There is a huge difference between them and us.”

“They have a much higher budget?”

Naia dislodged a paperclip that had somehow gotten entangled in her dreads. “No, my dear, stupid boy. The difference is that our stories will be true.”

It had often occurred to him that Naia was insane, but it was at times like these when Ry remembered why. “And this is because goblins and werewolves actually do inhabit the happy little college town of Merfolk.”

“The truth is out there, Barty, and it is our job to find it.”

Ry cringed. “There is a reason why I go by Ry.”

“Well, it’s dumb. Ry Wright?” Naia smiled. “Ry Wright. Ry Wright. Ry Wright.” She giggled. “If you say it fast enough it sounds like a dog barking.”

Ry extended his middle finger.

In exchange, Naia blew him a kiss. “Anyway, I give up. I can’t find where I wrote it down.”

“For the record, I plan to refer to myself as just Ry. Last names are overrated anyway. Who needs them?” He caught his reflection in the mirror behind Naia’s door, and smoothed out the sides of his dirty blonde hair. “Do you think I should ask that guy out?”

“Which of the five million?”

“The one at the health store. He seems…”

“Healthy?” Naia supplied.

“Well, that too. But I was going to say, gay.”

“Then go for it. Now, can we focus on me again?”

“Sorry.” Ry crossed his arms against his chest and leaned his back against the side of the bed behind him. “The name of the newspaper.”

“I wrote it down and forgot it. But I know it’s here.”

“Hm,” Ry murmured.

“Some help you are.” Naia uncrumpled a piece of paper and cried, “Found it! The Weekly Bizarre. That’s what I’ll call it.”

“Sounds good. When’s the first issue coming out?”

“As soon as I land some good stories.” Naia regarded her friend seriously. “My next door neighbor swore she saw a UFO in her backyard last night. And I went to investigate the area, and sure enough, there was a patch of dry grass.”

“It hasn’t rained in like three weeks,” Ry replied. “I’m shocked there’s only a patch.”

Naia wasn’t about to give up so easily. “And you know that guy across the street? His dog has been barking at the attic door for days. Herman has had to put down food and water in front of the door, otherwise the dog won’t eat.”

“Has he gone to investigate?”

“Yup. But he didn’t find anything. So, I volunteered to spend the night in the attic. If there’s something there, I’m bound to find it.”

Ry had to hand it to her, Naia was completely bonkers, but she had a lot of guts. “I hope you land your story. But don’t forget we start classes tomorrow.”

“I’m free until one,” Naia informed him. “I’m setting up a timer on my camera for when I leave for class. Maybe whatever’s there won’t show up with me around. But I’m hoping some periodic shots will land me something. I’m thinking of maybe attaching a sensor to the camera instead, that way it will only take a picture when it detects movement.”

“Just you talking about it totally creeps me out.” Ry shuddered.

Naia grinned. “I live for this stuff.”

“You’re completely insane, I hope you know that.”

“Anything for the news.”

 

5:

They gathered in the woods as the sun began to set over the horizon. Dressed in the ritual cloaks of the Order, the elite members of Akasha stood around the Sacred Circle. From all around the globe they had traveled to witness the Goddess’ final trial.

Seven years and seven days had passed since Aeryn started training for this moment. It had been her dream since the age of twelve to learn the secrets of the Craft and stand against the treachery of the Guardians. She had entered the apprenticeship at the age of thirteen, under the teachings of Priestess Ellowyn. At twenty, she now stood among the most powerful sorcerers on earth, prepared to face the Divine Deity in the final trial of the Akashan Order.

There had been twenty when the training began, now only four remained.

Aeryn glanced around the Circle, feeling a sense of relief at the knowledge that she’d made it on time. With Kalan’s help, she had located the amulet, one of the few sacred items in her possession. Materialism was not a quality possessed by many witches on the island of Lare. But sentimentality was a strong emotion.

She gripped the amulet, rubbing her thumb against the blue lace agate stone at the center. Nervousness and anticipation were threatening to replace all other emotions.

For the past month and a half, she had reviewed every spell, every potion, and every piece of information she had ever been taught. The final test was a mystery to anyone outside of the Order, and therefore none of the apprentices knew exactly how to prepare. Aeryn had spent the previous night in a state of meditation, but its calming effects were starting to wear off in the presence of such imminent possibility.

Aeryn grew aware of the fact that she was shaking. Beside her, Callifae didn’t appear to be doing any better in the nervousness department. A fidgeting, lip-biting individual had replaced the usually calm persona of Aeryn’s closest friend on the island.

The other two apprentices, Elara and Gailen, had been a couple since the second year of training. Aeryn both pitied and admired their relationship. If both were initiated, their separation would be inevitable. Each member of the Order had an individual mission at a specific locale. In the history of the Order, no two witches had ever been granted a single mission. Aeryn admired their loyalty to the Craft. But she could sense the sadness and fear surrounding them.

Could she be able to sacrifice love for the greater good? Yes. The answer came easily. She would do anything for the Order.

But the matter faded into the back of her consciousness as Aeryn’s attention turned to the center of the Circle. The Elders now stood there, their faces hidden beneath the black hoods of their cloaks.

All murmuring faded away. The air crackled with raw energy. Aeryn felt certain that if she reached out, a spark of electricity would rip through the air. She was captivated by the moment, by the sudden awareness of nature, which in its constant presence was always rendered mute by the urgency of human noise.

A figure stepped forward. It paused for an instant before lifting the hood. The rest of the Elders followed suit.

It was then that Aeryn noticed that all of the members of the Order were concealed beneath their hoods. One by one, they pushed away the material, until everyone was revealed.

Aeryn looked around, taking in the different faces of the people around her. Many she recognized from years past, others she wasn’t sure she’d ever seen before. A sense of wonder filled her at the possibility that she could be standing there some day; her apprentice cape replaced by the black cloak of the Order. For a moment, she basked in the glory of possibility, until the fantasy rippled away.

At the center of the Circle, the four Elders held up the objects in their hands. Ellowyn carried a chalice, Faedyn a pentacle, Telwen a wand, and Larken an athame. Each object represented one of the four elements.

The High Priestess addressed the group. “Blessed be all in the name of the God and Goddess,” she began. Her voice was so smooth and calm that it almost put Aeryn at ease. “Tonight we welcome a new generation of Witches into the Order. Seven years and seven days ago today, the Great Mother chose but one apprentice out of the five that faced Her. Today, he will welcome the Great Goddess into our Circle.”

A figure stepped into the Circle and stood beside Larken. His blonde hair shone under the bright light of the full moon. Aeryn caught herself staring, and looked away, suddenly aware that Larken had been speaking all along.

“Callifae has been working with herbs since the age of ten,” Larken was saying. “She joined the apprenticeship at the age of fourteen, under the instruction of Priest Telwen. During her years, she has found treatment for eight hundred and forty-five different ailments. She also holds a nearly insuperable knowledge of medicinal plants.”

Larken moved on to the next two apprentices. Elara and Gailen were both twenty-five. They had done joint studies in the area of magickal stones. Separately, Elara’s knowledge and experience rested in the subject of trees. She was one of the few Witches on Earth who could communicate with them.

For his part, Gailen had shown interest in the area of weather pattern formations. But his experience with the subject lay solely on research alone.

Aeryn froze when her turn came to be introduced. Larken met her gaze for a brief instant before turning away to face the Order. “Aeryn has been a student of the Craft since the age of four. She is now twenty years old, and an expert in the areas of transformation, astral projection, meditation and telekinesis. She is also one of only seven known Witches who can shapeshift on command.”

The members of the Order appeared vastly impressed by Larken’s short summation. And when Aeryn glanced up, she realized that Braeden was staring at her. She instantly looked away, embarrassed by the attention.

Larken turned to face the four students. “Tonight you will enter the Circle, and as you do so, the Goddess will reveal her decision. Power, strength, knowledge and ability have no place in this ceremony. Those are merely the tools you have been armed with to face a strange and difficult world. You can each do a lot of good, with or without the mark of the Order. Remember that, always.”

Faedyn, Ellowyn, Telwen and Larken each stepped toward a different point in the Circle. Soon, only Braeden remained at the center.

Aeryn’s heart began pounding as Braeden began to speak.

“Hac nocte, O Magna Dea, excimus te ut legeres lectos…”

The words permeated the air with their power, causing the wind to strengthen. The trees bled leaves, released them into the air like snowflakes, and the moonlight set them aglow.

Aeryn took in the moment with breathless anticipation. She could sense the magick in the air, the sudden rise of power. It filled her with a dizzying need to close her eyes, to surrender to a feeling far more powerful than herself. She felt protected, encircled in a warm embrace that could only be described as love.

“… tui intimae Circuli discipulis quattor his…”

The rest of the words barely registered in Aeryn’s mind. She was overwhelmed by the sensations coursing through her body. It felt as if every nerve ending were suddenly awake. She could feel the wind, brushing gently across her skin. She could hear the animals scurrying in the woods. Through closed eyes, she could sense the moon shining down on her. Flashes of memories filled her mind, flickering by in rapid succession.

Slowly, the memories began to fade. The wave of sensations quelled; all that was left was the feeling of being wrapped in the arms of something magnificent.

Green eyes darted open, her heart pounding wildly at the realization that she’d lost complete control. She half expected to be somewhere else entirely. But she wasn’t. The members of the Order stood where she’d last seen them. Braeden remained at the Center of the Circle. Beside her, Callifae, Elara and Gailen all appeared as mystified as she.

“The Goddess has completed the test,” Braeden announced.

His voice sounded strange, as if it didn’t belong in that moment. The matter-of-factness in his tone jarred Aeryn from the peaceful state she was in. It reminded her of where she was, and why.

As Braeden retreated from the center of the Circle, Larken took his place. She turned to the four apprentices. “The Goddess has touched you each individually. Her test does not determine skill, but rather purity of mind, body, and spirit. Your every thought, your every memory has been taken into consideration. As you are asked to enter the Circle, keep in mind that denial or admission is not an assessment of your worth as an individual, or as a mage. The Goddess does not have the same life plan for all of us. I trust you will each go on to do amazing things, regardless of tonight’s decision.”

There was a moment of silence as the four students took in the High Priestess’ words.

“Callifae,” Larken called. “You may be the first to enter.”

Callifae took a deep breath, visibly shaken by the pressure of the moment. She stared down at the space between her feet and the outline of the Circle. Seven years and seven days of hard work all boiled down to the distance between these two, otherwise unrelated things. Callifae hesitated only a few seconds longer before starting toward Larken.

Aeryn watched as her friend walked into the Circle, half-fearing and half-anticipating the outcome of the action. The quiet stillness that followed confused her. Certainly, something should happen, one way or the other.

The members of the Order stood in silent waiting. Aeryn watched them; waiting to see if any would show a hint of emotion. But their faces remained impassive as they watched Callifae complete the journey into the Sacred Circle.

The change began before it could be seen. It started as a sudden shift in the atmosphere, a spark in the fabric of an otherwise mundane night. Aeryn could sense it, though she couldn’t identify what ‘it’ was. The dirt beneath her feet seemed to vibrate with a nearly indiscernible hum.

Aeryn became suddenly aware that the outline of the Circle was aglow. A faint, yet visible ray of white light shone through the ridge in the ground. It grew brighter and brighter until beams of light shot up into the air, creating a wall around Larken and Callifae. Nothing was visible beyond the mystical barrier, and Aeryn was forced to shield her eyes.

It lasted mere seconds. The wall of brightness separated into bars of light that bent and swirled around the Circle, then vanished as quickly as it had come.

As her vision adjusted to the sudden darkness, Aeryn noticed that Larken and Callifae remained in the same place. But now, instead of an apprentice’s cloak, Callifae sported the ritual cloak of the Order.

A mixture of elation and nervous anticipation consumed Aeryn at the sight.

“Gailen,” Larken called.

Aeryn watched as Callifae exited the Circle and joined the members of the Order at the other side. She let out a nervous breath. As happy as she was for her friend, she was unable to shake the anxiousness pertaining to her own trial.

As Gailen stepped into the Circle, Aeryn let out an uneasy breath. She understood that the rules of the Order dictated that only thirteen members could be active at once. Therefore, for each new Initiate, the oldest member was required to retire. It made sense to Aeryn, that for that reason, the number of Initiates was generally limited.

Aeryn waited for the change in the air, she waited for hum beneath the ground, the light around the Circle. But for the longest moment, nothing at all occurred.

Finally, Larken spoke. “I’m sorry,” she said simply, in a voice that did not reveal pain or regret.

Gailen bowed his head and retreated from the Circle. He stood next to Elara, and took her hand briefly before letting it go.

“Elara,” Larken called.

The redheaded woman walked into the Circle. Aeryn once again waited for the welcome Callifae received, but only silence met Elara’s entrance.

Elara bowed her head before Larken said anything. Words weren’t always necessary. She reclaimed her place beside her boyfriend.

“Aeryn,” Larken said, her tone held a hint of hesitation.

Aeryn noticed nothing but the sound of her own name. She started toward the edge of the Circle, each second passing as an individual fragment through her mind. Each step was as significant as the last, and Aeryn wished to hold on to each slip of time still bathed in the blissfulness of hope.

It was inevitable that she should cross into the Circle eventually. And as she did, all thoughts of time and space drifted from her consciousness. The outside world vanished completely. She could see nothing but white, beautiful light shining from every direction at once. She felt enraptured by the moment, by the peaceful quietude that surrounded her. She was no longer standing in the woods, of this, she was certain. She’d stepped into a different plane altogether.

It was then that Aeryn noticed that Larken was still there. “Congratulations, Aeryn.”

Aeryn stared at the High Priestess, unable to comprehend what was happening.

“You have made it to the final stage of Initiation.” Larken offered a smile that never quite reached her eyes. “The rest of the process is up to you. There are several laws you must abide by at all times. Failure to do so will place you in probation. Break one law more than once, or any two laws, and your powers will be bound. The Circle of Elders will decide your fate from that point forward. Do you understand?”

Aeryn nodded.

“You must never, under any circumstances use your knowledge of the Craft for the purpose of causing bodily or emotional harm to another. You cannot influence a person’s thoughts or emotions for any reason, even if you feel it is for their own benefit. It is your solemn duty to protect others, but always remember that the Order’s war is with the Guardians alone. It is ultimately up to you whom you choose to help and how you choose to help them. But you must never lose sight of why you’re really there.

“Until the day you retire from your duties, your life will be dedicated to the protection of the common people, and to maintaining the balance between Dark and White Magick. Those are your first and foremost priorities.” Larken paused and looked at Aeryn for a moment. It seemed as if she wanted to say something else, but chose not to. “Do you accept?”

“I do.”

Larken bowed her head. “So mote it be.”

As the words were spoken, the light surrounding them began to fade away. The woods became visible through the dissipating brightness. Aeryn became aware of the change in her attire. Her cape was gone. In its place was a velvet black cloak. Her hands tingled with a kind of energy she was not yet used to. She felt reborn.

“Welcome to the Order of Akasha,” Larken whispered.

 

6:

The events of the night replayed in Aeryn’s mind hours after the ceremony ended. Every now and again, she’d glance at the closet to make sure the cloak was still hanging there. Memories had a funny way of sometimes seeming like a dream.

Staring at the ceiling was a pleasant enough pastime, but it did nothing to quell the anxiety surging through her. The details of her mission were to be delivered at some point that night, and with each second that passed, her nervousness escalated.

Aeryn had spent her entire life in Lare. Her knowledge of the outside world was limited to the facts she’d read about in books, through the images on television. She knew of many things, but had never experienced any of them. The thought of leaving the safety of the island was both exhilarating and terrifying.

The knock on the door startled her, the sound both sudden and sharp. Her heart pounded in her chest as she crossed the short distance between her bed and the door. Her breath caught as she swung open the door to find Braeden standing there.

“Hi, Aeryn.” He smiled at her, his eyes lighting up with the gesture. “I’ve been asked to deliver a letter.”

Aeryn was surprised to find that outside of the Circle, Braeden looked a lot younger, and far less intimidating. She smiled. “You were?”

“Well, not so much asked, as allowed to once I begged.” He held up the envelope he carried, and placed it in her hand. “I wanted to meet you.”

Aeryn glanced down at the letter in her hand, wishing to tear it open and read what it said. But the conversation had suddenly sparked her interest. “Meet me, why?”

“It’s not every day that a shapeshifter is Initiated into the Order. It’s bound to spark some interest.”

“Should I expect a line of people assembled at my door, then?” Aeryn arched a brow, amused, and a little bit intrigued. Something about him made her want to prolong the conversation. “I’m sure I’ll be too busy to sign autographs.”

Braeden grinned. “Please open it. I know you’re dying to.”

Unable to dispute his observation, she conceded to the request. She tore through the envelope and pulled out the sheet of paper inside. Anxiously, she unfolded it, only to find that there was nothing there. Confused, she glanced up at her visitor. “I don’t understand.” She showed him the blank piece of paper.

“It’s a special ink,” Braeden explained with a hint of amusement. “We use it to send messages back and forth within the Order. Most of the information we exchange is confidential. This assures that no one else reads it.”

“Clever,” Aeryn admitted. “But it would help if I could read it.”

“It took me about five hours to figure it out when I got it. Fun times.” Braeden smiled. “The record stands at fifty-two minutes and thirty-three seconds. Impressive, believe me. But I suppose that’s why she’s our High Priestess.”

Despite her annoyance at the situation, Aeryn liked the thought of a challenge, especially one that was timed. “I suppose if it were easy it wouldn’t be any fun.”

“Welcome to the Order,” Braeden replied with a wink. “Anyway, I’ll leave you to your letter. I’m sure I’ll see you again.”

Aeryn wished him a good night and retreated back into her bedroom. Once on her bed, she assessed the situation. There had to be some way of making the ink appear.

Ah, the magickal ink, Kalan’s voice resounded in her mind. This should be fun to watch.

“You’ve been shockingly silent for a while.”

Sorry, there was a meeting I had to be present at. Though, I did catch the Initiation ceremony. Congratulations.

“Thanks. You sure have a lot of meetings over there.”

Who said being a Spirit Guide was easy?

Aeryn smiled. “I don’t think anyone’s ever said that.” She stared at the paper. “Do you know how to solve this?”

Yes.

“But I suppose you’re not allowed to tell me.”

Correct.

Aeryn chewed on her bottom lip thoughtfully. She ran through a list of possible spells in her mind, but none of them seemed likely. “Maybe if I bleed some ink on it?” she wondered. She reached for the bottle of ink on her nightstand, and let a drop fall onto the sheet of paper. Nothing happened. “Hmm.”

You seem to be doing pretty well here. So, I’m off to play some tennis. Call me if you need me.

“Have fun.” Aeryn turned back to the paper. It had to be something simple. Something so obvious it would be continually overlooked. She glanced around the room, searching for ideas.

Half an hour later, she was nearly ready to give up. She’d tried everything from soaking it in water, to lighting candles around it, to setting it on fire.

Aeryn lay back against her pillows and stared up at the ceiling. “Please, Goddess. Show me the way.”

It was then that Aeryn caught her reflection in the mirror. The mirror. She grabbed the paper and rolled out of bed. Once in front of the mirror, she turned the paper toward the reflection. The text appeared there clearly, though upside down. Quickly, she turned it over and read:

Dear Aeryn,

Please join me in my office so we can discuss the details of your mission.

Sincerely,
Larken

“Oh, you’ve got to be joking.” Aeryn crumbled up the piece of paper and threw it in the trash by her desk. Grabbing the cloak, she exited the bedroom and headed outside.

The night was warm and festive, dressed in the spirit of the day’s occasion. It was a night of celebration for all involved, even those outside of the Order’s ranks. The island of Lare was a small strip of land cloaked beneath the spells of ancient magick. It existed between dimensions, thus far concealed from the attention of the Guardians. Those witches inhabiting the island were there to train, to do research, to search for spiritual knowledge, and above all, to assist the members of the Order.

She nodded to the people she recognized. Congratulations were shouted from all directions as she passed. She smiled, feeling proud. She had grown up among these people, and they had encouraged her all of the way. She wouldn’t be who she was if not for them. And still … she always wondered who she might have been if fate had not brought her there.

Aeryn had been brought to the island by a witch whose name she was never told. She’d always hoped that joining the Order would help to shed light on her past. The amulet around her neck being the only link she had to a life she couldn’t fathom. She’d learned not to ask too many questions of the Elders. She’d been encouraged to let the past go, to focus on the future. And so she had. But the questions always lingered, and she hoped to one day find the answers.

At the door to the Elders’ Hall, she paused. Of the many times she’d ever been in Larken’s presence, this would be the first time that she’d face the High Priestess alone. A shiver of excitement ran up her spine as she pushed open the door.

Inside, a long, expansive hallway greeted her, its wooden panels lined with portraits of prior members of the Order. As she walked, she could hear her footsteps echoing on the black marble tiles beneath her feet. She wondered if the Hall was usually so quiet.

Aeryn found the door to Larken’s office slightly ajar.

“Come in, Aeryn.”

The young mage stepped inside the office and closed the door behind her. Larken was seated behind a large, mahogany desk cluttered by piles of old books.

“Please sit.” The High Priestess pointed to one of the chairs in front of the desk. “Thirty-two minutes and fourteen seconds. You beat my record.”

Aeryn sat where instructed and nervously pushed away strands of brown hair behind her ear. “How did you know the exact time?”

“There are few things I don’t know.” Larken leaned forward, her hands folded across the desk. She whispered, “And so you know, it took Braeden fifteen hours to figure out the ink spell.”

Aeryn smiled. “He lied?”

“Well, some people have to try harder than others to impress.” Larken offered a smile. “He’s not one of them. But, I suppose everyone has details they’d like to conceal.”

Aeryn wondered if the statement applied to Larken as well. “Yes, perhaps.”

Noticing the approaching lull in the conversation, Larken changed the subject. “You’ve been assigned to a place called Merfolk. It is a small college town on the eastern coast of America. You’ve been enrolled as a freshman at the university. Everything else you may need to know is here—” Larken held up a huge binder filled with paper. “A little light reading for your trip.”

The ‘light’ reading weighed a ton, but Aeryn accepted it without comment. “When am I to leave?”

“Tomorrow. I suggest you pack lightly. You can purchase appropriate belongings when you arrive.”

Aeryn nodded, trying to hide her surprise. She’d been expecting at least a couple of days to prepare.

“I know this is quite overwhelming for you, Aeryn,” Larken said, her tone softening. “As difficult as it may be to conceive of, I was not born a High Priestess.” Larken smiled, sitting back against the chair, which seemed as ancient as the knowledge behind the woman’s green eyes. “I once sat where you sit now, nervous—well, petrified, really—of what was to come.”

Aeryn couldn’t picture Larken being afraid of anything. “And were your fears justified?”

Larken’s smile faded with the question, but her gaze held Aeryn’s steadily. “The world is a dark, mysterious, fascinating place; glorious in its innate perfection, but tainted by the flaws of humanity. My fears rose from self-doubt, and a lack of confidence in my abilities. They were justified in that I created them, and gave them life. There is no greater enemy to magick than doubt. Doubt yourself, and inevitably, you will fail.”

A question floated into Aeryn’s mind, but she had to struggle to voice it. She did not want to offend Larken, or cross any boundaries. “Did you ever fail?”

A long sigh preceded the answer. “I did.” The High Priestess looked older at that moment. Despite her silver hair, she couldn’t be older than forty. And most of the time, she didn’t look older than thirty. But wisdom, Aeryn suspected, had a way of making the young seem old.

Aeryn wanted to know more, but didn’t dare ask. “I suppose I should go pack.”

“Have a safe journey, Aeryn.” Larken’s tone was distant, distracted.

Aeryn nodded, and rose, holding the binder to her chest as she walked toward the door.

“Aeryn?”

At the doorway, she turned. “Yes?”

The High Priestess appeared to be struggling with something. Finally, she said, “Just be careful.”

“I’ll do my best,” Aeryn said, feeling a rush of excitement at the prospect of heading out into the world. She was a member of the Order now, armed with the Greater Power of the Goddess; she had nothing to fear.

She closed the door without noticing that Larken’s eyes were filled with tears.

 

7:

Azure entered the building quickly, pointedly ignoring the voices of the students outside who called out to her, wishing to know her name, wishing for her to stop and have a smoke and relax. They didn’t—couldn’t—understand that she didn’t have that luxury.

She passed through the bulletin boards covered in multi-colored papers. Clubs, meetings, parties—so many fun-sounding activities she would never have the courage to be a part of. Regretfully, she glanced at one of the flyers stapled in front of another. She wondered how far back it all went; how many layers of history were dressed in outdated photocopies of events. But the thought drifted away into the back of her consciousness, replaced by a more immediate interest in the words: “Open mike at Paraiso, Thursday night at ten. Bring poetry, music, and an open mind.”

Chewing nervously on her bottom lip, Azure glanced around. When she was certain that no one was looking, she ripped the paper from the board, and stuffed it in the pocket of her sweatshirt. Quickly, she headed for the stairs.

The narrow hallway that led to her dorm room presented a challenge. People had the unfortunate habit of lounging around outside of their rooms, taking up space. Azure paused, considering for a moment going back downstairs and taking different stairs. But there was always the risk of more people blocking her path. It was inevitable.

The students in the hallway glanced at her curiously, but continued their conversation undisturbed.

Hesitantly, she headed toward them. With luck, she’d be able to pass by without drawing too much attention to her anxiety. Please, God, don’t let them touch me. As she approached, the conversation trailed off. They stared at her questioningly. “Excuse me.” The fear in her voice was palpable.

The girl on the floor looked up at her with a raised eyebrow. “You can just jump over us.”

Azure glanced at the maze of legs blocking her way. The girl and the guy were sitting zigzagged, with their legs stretched out in front of them. She would never make it across without touching one of them.

“Are you a freshman?” the guy asked.

“Um, yes.”

The girl stretched out her hand. “I’m Dawn.”

Azure stepped back, her heart beating furiously in her chest.

Dawn stared at her in confusion, and maybe embarrassment. “It’s clean.”

Azure swallowed. “I’m sorry, it’s not you.”

Dawn lowered her hand with a shrug. “Whatever.”

“Oh!” The guy snapped his fingers. “I read about this is Psych last year. Phobia, right?”

Azure nodded, though it wasn’t entirely the truth. “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. I’m terrified of spiders.” The guy stood up, motioning for the girl to do the same. She reluctantly complied. “I’m Dan.” He waved.

“Azure.” She offered an appreciative smile. “Thank you.”

Dan grinned. “No problem.”

Azure walked across the path they’d allowed her, and didn’t stop until she reached her door. Once inside the room, she glanced around, making sure that she was alone. Relieved, she dropped her bookbag on the bed, and sat down.

It had been two and a half days since her last hallucination, although, sometimes it was hard to keep track. Questioning every little thing was far too difficult, and occasionally impossible. Real, imagined – what was the difference, really? It was hard enough getting through day-to-day activities. It was exhausting to avoid human contact at every turn. She was tired of fearing the darkness, the light, the silence, the noise. There was no hiding from the visions in her mind.

She thought of the flyer in her pocket, of the surreal possibility of performing for a crowd full of people. She had spent so many nights attempting to fill the silence with her music. She had spent so much time in the company of her own words. It was a lonely existence, having only one’s own reflection for an audience. Yet, she could not conceive the notion of being heard.

 

8: Serendipity

At dinnertime, Azure succumbed to the power of hunger and headed outside. Quietly, she trailed behind the clusters of students headed to the dining hall.

“…and then he told me to drop it ‘cause it was harder than that class we had with Simmons last semester..”

“…I don’t think so, but it’s possible…”

“…take it with Professor Quell, trust me …”

The voices passed by, sounding so clear in the temporary proximity, then trailing off with the distance. Azure wondered how it came to be that people made friends so easily. She had never met anyone she could just talk to. Maybe it was her fault. Perhaps a person had to be open to the possibility of friendship. Still, whom could she befriend in a place like this, where everyone joined a clique three seconds after arriving?

Abandoning her thoughts, she glanced around, suddenly expecting to encounter something out of place. She could feel it, a subtle, yet unmistakable change in the air. She looked at the people, wondering if anyone else had noticed it, but they continued on, unaware of a shift in the ambiance.

The unexpected vision hit her so hard that she stumbled to the ground. But she didn’t feel the ground beneath her, colliding against her body with the force of the fall. Her mind was lost to the images flashing before her eyes.

A black cape … a symbol… fire … a man … pain … a girl’s body … naked … bed … wrinkled sheets … a shot of pleasure …

Azure gasped, her breathing a series of desperate intakes of air, as the vision vanished. She was surprised to find she was on the grass. She was surprised to find her elbow was bleeding, and that someone with soft hands was touching her.

“I’m sorry,” the stranger was saying. “I felt this … um, there was a rock or something. I must have trip—Goddess, you’re bleeding.”

Azure’s breathing evened out, and she managed to ignore the memory of the vision long enough to notice the person kneeled beside her. Strands of long brown hair fell across the girl’s features, and all Azure could determine was that the girl’s eyes were green. They appeared so concerned, that Azure was at a loss for words.

“Are you hurt anywhere else?” The girl pushed her hair away from her face; her green eyes meeting Azure’s brown ones.

Azure’s gaze drifted from the girl’s eyes to her lips, then back again to her eyes. She quickly looked away, her heart pounding. God, not this again.

Soft fingers brushed against Azure’s arm again, sending her reeling into another vision. It was brief, detailed, the kind she’d come to recognize as inconsequential premonitions. When it ended, Azure took a deep breath.

“Are you okay?”

The soft voice caught Azure’s attention, and she glanced into green eyes once more. “Sorry. It’s … I’m fine. I … should go.” She ignored the girl’s offered hand, and stood up on her own, making sure to keep a few steps away. The pain in her arm was nothing compared to the onslaught of emotion coursing through her. Physical pain she was used to.

Azure tried to keep her gaze on the grass, but she was unable to keep her eyes from drifting. Her mind registered the black boots, the cargo pants, and the black tank top under a black hooded sweater. Finally, she pushed her shyness to the side, and met the girl’s gaze. “Thanks.”

“For hurting you?” The girl’s voice was a mixture of amusement and concern. “I could treat that for you.” She motioned to the wound on Azure’s arm.

Azure shook her head. “I have to go. I… um. Bye.” She turned to walk away, and then paused, feeling the need to add, “Watch out for the ketchup.”

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing,” Azure said, suddenly regretting her words. She’s going to think I’m a freak. As if she doesn’t already. She walked off in the opposite direction of the dining hall, not bothering to wait for a response.

The memory of the first vision came back to her so vividly that she halted in her steps. She had never experienced anything so fully, so personally, so intense. But that wasn’t what had thrown her. That wasn’t what had caused her to suddenly lose her appetite.

… a girl’s body … naked … bed … wrinkled sheets … a shot of pleasure …

Azure shut her eyes. That was me.

 

9:

Naia had spent most of her life – since watching a special on UFOs on the Discovery Channel at the age of six– trying to uncover the hidden world of Merfolk. Every occurrence of possible paranormal activity within a 2 mile radius of her center of operations (room) was recorded, studied, and analyzed. In the course of fifteen years of intensive study, she had come to discover, without a shred of doubt, that Merfolk was inhabited … by morons.

How was she supposed to get through to the other-dimension spirits when the only calls she received where from people confusing creaking floorboards with ghosts, and mundane shadows with fantastical creatures? It was exasperating! All of that wasted time spent listening to the settling of wood, and photographing what turned out to be nothing but specs of dust set aglow by the afternoon sunlight.

Naia seethed as she recalled the latest findings. An entire night of sneezing out dust balls and attempting to find comfort in the unyielding wooden planks beneath her body had culminated at six o’clock in the morning, when, after rising to leave, she had discovered, quite by accident, the object of Mr. Fluffy’s attention. Wedged beneath a rotting old couch was a chewed up tennis ball that Naia had seen the flea-infested mutt toss about in the backyard for years. It was this saliva-soaked abomination that had been the cause of the dog’s commotion. The second she’d stepped down from the attic holding the dreaded object between her thumb and forefinger and dropped it in front of Mr. Fluffy, all barking suddenly ceased.

Indeed, Naia had wanted nothing more than to shoot the owner, the dog, and herself as she walked home to change for her first day of classes.

Now, two days later, she found herself tapping her pencil against the blank page of her notebook, wanting only to shoot herself. At the rate things were going The Weekly Bizarre was headed nowhere. She adamantly refused to print one false word upon its pages.

Defeated, she sunk down in the desk, and dropped the pencil on the notebook. What she needed was a miracle.

 

10:

Aeryn burst into her dorm room, and quickly removed her now-stained sweater. Staring at the moist patch of ketchup that now adorned the front, she shook her head. “Great, just great,” she muttered. She’d been there less than a day and had already succeeded in making a complete fool of herself in front of a cafeteria full of students. If she were to successfully blend in, she would have to attend a crash course on ketchup dispensers. Clearly, the Order had forgotten that very important lesson.

Sighing, she sat down on the bed and stared out of the window. Her thoughts trailed away from the memory of her dining hall catastrophe, and settled on earlier events. Rolling her eyes, she leaned back against the wall and shook her head. “I’m such an idiot,” she mumbled, recalling the collision preceding dinner. “A member of the Order of Akasha, top-level mage by anyone’s account and I can’t even—”

Her self-deprecation ceased instantly as a thread of recollection made its way to the forefront of her thoughts.

“Watch out for the ketchup…”

Aeryn frowned, sitting up. She knew. Quickly, her mind’s eye replayed the accident as vividly as her memory allowed.

There had been a sudden change in the air, but nothing like Aeryn had ever felt before. It was not otherworldly or supernatural in anyway that Aeryn could recognize. Instead, it felt like a peaceful calm descending upon her, as if she were close to something…

And then she’d felt the jolt of her body hitting something solid. Mere seconds elapsed before she realized she’d knocked someone over. She’d quickly set about inspecting the girl’s body for physical injury, and finding blood, felt her own draining quickly from her face. She’d never hurt anyone before.

Aeryn had done a quick overview of the girl’s aura, finding it an odd mixture of colors that at the time she’d attributed to the shock of the accident. She’d also dismissed the girl’s strange behavior as surprise.

But now, thinking back, Aeryn recalled the way the girl’s eyes had glossed over as if looking at something that wasn’t directly in front of her. It had occurred twice, and both times as a result of physical contact.

“Watch out for the ketchup…”

Aeryn paused in her train of thought, not wishing to jump to conclusions. Before reporting back to the Order she would have to make sure that her suspicions were correct. Having a Seer in the area was too much of a coincidence. It was far likelier that she was working for the Guardians.

Jumping from the bed, she went straight for her bag. First things first: a location spell.

 

11:

Jael flicked his cigarette over the railing of his balcony, in a mindless, casual way that illustrated the monotony of habit. It was not the first time one of his cigarette butts would land on the freshly mowed lawn of his estate, and it would certainly not be the last time his gardener would be forced to bend down and remove it from the grass.

Balance, cause and effect, those were the things that Jael had spent his life studying, observing, perfecting. It was a shame the others did not see life the way he saw it. The way his ancestors had seen it.

Those with the answers always suffered at the hands of the ignorant. So many brilliant minds wasted, lost to the fear and cowardice of those too scared to taste progress. This “God” to whom the masses prayed to, He did not exist. And they, blind to the truth, felt it necessary to destroy every testament of proof.

“Fools,” he muttered into the wind. He leaned against he railing, breathing in the salty air. “Such possibility wasted.” An eye for an eye, his father had said, and Jael agreed. For centuries, they had struggled to take vengeance upon the world, and for centuries, they had failed.

He let out a laugh draped in a bitterness brewed from countless years of regret. He’d held the key to humanity’s undoing in his very hands, and then made the mistake of letting it out of his sight.

“An accident,” he’d been told. He smiled humorlessly at the thought. Even without his powers, he could tell it was a lie. Still, decades of searching had proved fruitless, and with the years, his anger and resentment had grown into full-blown rage. “Larken,” he whispered, the name tasting bitter on his tongue, “you will pay dearly for what you have cost me.”

Chapter 2:  Plan B

1:

Azure could hear the growling of her stomach above the sound of her guitar. It had been unwise to skip dinner, she admitted, as her fingers sailed over the strings, leaving in their wake a random assortment of discordant notes.

She had prayed for hours, kneeled at the side of her bed, hands clasped together so tightly that her knuckles ached. She had begged God to banish the images from her mind, to guide her away from whatever temptation might lead to such unforgivable sin. In the aftermath of such unabashed pleading, she had clung with desperate need to the idea that the vision had been a warning; and not, as she feared, a snapshot of an inevitable future.

Her fingers paused, the echo of the last note drowned out by the knocking at the door. Frowning, she listened a second longer before moving to answer. She turned the knob with utter hesitation, her breath catching as the arch of the doorway gave way to the identity of the visitor in the hall.

Azure swallowed back the impulse to cry. She wanted to shut the door in the girl’s face; to somehow disappear from the room unnoticed. Instead, she stared into a pair of light green eyes, and waited.

“How did you know?” the stranger said, seemingly unaware of the effect her presence had on Azure’s state of mind. She held up the sweater she’d worn earlier, displaying the dark stain across the front.

Azure froze. Oh, no… She ran a quick inventory of possible explanations, but none made any semblance of sense. She felt completely cornered, on the verge of full-fledged panic. The only other person she’d ever confessed a premonition to was her mother … and that had ended badly. She couldn’t imagine how a complete stranger would react to the news that Azure just “knew things” sometimes.

“Can we talk?”

Unsure of what else to do, Azure allowed the girl inside, shutting the door after her.

The memory of what she’d seen earlier lingered in her mind. She recalled, with vivid detail, the feeling of lips upon her skin, the dampness of the sheets beneath her back. What troubled her, most of all, was the complete abandon with which the ‘she’ in the vision gave herself up: no shame, no panic, no regret; all thoughts lost to the comfort and familiarity of the experience. And though she had decided, with utmost conviction, to stay far away from the source of her perversion, she couldn’t help but notice that it was standing now before her.

Azure turned to find a pair of eyes regarding her curiously. “I don’t know what to tell you,” she whispered, hating the sound of trepidation in her voice.

“My name’s Aeryn.” For the first time, Azure noticed that the girl had an accent: British, maybe.

“Azure,” she found herself replying, more out of reflex than anything else.

They stood in complete silence for a moment: Aeryn glancing around the room curiously, Azure watching her; until finally, Azure’s stomach chose to interrupt with a long, loud rumbling sound that was at once audible and unmistakable.

Blood rushed to Azure’s cheeks in embarrassment.

“Hungry?” came the amused, teasing voice of the stranger.

“No,” Azure said. She was mortified.

“How’s your arm?”

Azure had forgotten all about the injury until that moment. “It’s fine,” she said, without really thinking. She suddenly realized it didn’t feel fine at all.

Aeryn stepped closer. “May I see?”

“No.” Azure stepped away. “I said it’s fine.” Aeryn regarded her silently, her eyes full of questions and concern. It made Azure dizzy just looking into them, so she looked away.

“Why are you so afraid of me?”

Azure blinked, thrown by the question. “What makes you think I’m afraid of you?” She tried to sound confident, but even she couldn’t ignore the slight tremble in her voice.

“Well, first of all, you’re pressed so tightly against that door it looks like you’re trying to go through it…”

Azure noticed for the first time the pressure of the wood against her back, and eased away from it.

“…and then there’s that look…”

“What look?”

“That…what’s the expression?” Aeryn stared down at the blue rug as if it held a wealth of answers. “Something about a deer…”

Azure remained silent.

Aeryn’s head snapped up, and she grinned. “A deer caught in headlights?” She frowned. “What a horribly depressing image.”

Azure forced herself to breathe. She wanted to smile, to relax, but knew she shouldn’t, couldn’t, let her guard down.

“How did you know about the ketchup?” Aeryn asked suddenly.

“I…”

“Actually, don’t tell me. I think I figured it out.”

Azure’s heart pounded furiously. “What?”

“I bet that ketchup dispenser gets everyone,” Aeryn smiled. “But I appreciate the warning. Are you a sophomore … junior?”

Azure opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Finally, she said, “Freshman.”

“Oh, a wise freshman. Me too. A freshman, not wise.” Aeryn looked around the room again, and spotting the guitar, moved over to look at it. “Nice. Do you play?”

Azure had the unsettling feeling that her entire life was spiraling out of control. “A little,” she finally responded. “Do you?” and the question flew unbidden from her lips.

“No, I never picked it up. I play some piano, though.”

Azure was about to mention the open mike event, but closed her mouth in time. Warning bells resounded in her mind. Don’t get close. Get her out of here. She’s dangerous. She’s corrupt. “I really have a lot of homework to do…”

Aeryn took the hint. “Sorry. I really just wanted to apologize about the accident earlier. I’m not usually so clumsy.”

“It’s okay. Really.”

Aeryn started toward the door, and automatically, Azure moved to open it.

In the doorway, Aeryn paused. “It was nice meeting you, Azure.” And with that, she walked away.

Left with the unsettling feeling of disappointment, Azure closed the door and leaned against it. She crossed herself, and closed her eyes. God, help me.

2:

Ry was in the middle of a Shakespearean monologue when he was rudely tossed out of character by the incessant knocking at his door. “This is Hamlet speaking, Ry is unavailable, could you please come back later!” he yelled, his gaze fixed upon his own reflection in the full-length mirror.

Hamlet, he knew, would not have been dressed in silk boxer shorts, or even a Dragonball Z tee shirt, but acting called for a certain level of imagination. Clearing his throat, he assumed a Hamlet-like posture, and continued. “Whether tis nobler in the mind to—”

KNOCK. KNOCK.

“—suffer the slings and—”

KNOCK. KNOCK. KNOCK.

“—ARROWS that are going through the head of whomever’s at the door,” he yelled crossly, heading in that direction. “Oh, it’s you,” he said, finding Naia in the ill-lit hallway. “I’m rehearsing one of my monologues for grad school.”

Naia stepped inside the room and closed the door behind her. She glanced around, and with a face illustrating disgust said, “How do you keep this room so neat all the time? It’s like—” Her eye caught the posters of naked men on the walls. “— a museum of penises.” She arched a finely plucked brow at the picture over the bed. “That one’s new.”

“Yes, I call him Kevin. He reminds me of this guy I had a crush on back in high school.”

“Quarterback?”

“Ballet instructor. Have a seat.” He motioned to the bed. “I could use an audience.”

Naia sat at the edge of the neatly-made bed and, catching her reflection in the mirror, fussed with her dreads for a moment. “I can’t really stay, I’ve got about 300 pages worth of reading to do for tomorrow. I just came to tell you I had an epiphany.”

“I can’t begin to imagine.”

Naia sat up straighter, suddenly energized by the thrill of her idea. “People always discover things in pictures, right; UFOs, ghosts – that sort of thing. So, what if I place some cameras around campus? On some deserted hallways, or out by that park where no one ever goes.”

Ry could only blink. After realizing that his best friend expected some kind of response, he coughed – a method of stalling he had learned in acting class – and scratched the back of his head. “Look, Naia, not that I don’t think it’s a grand idea, but—”

Naia raised her hand in an effort to quiet him. “Listen, my father, in another of his guilt-induced frenzies, sent me a check for $5,000. I can get a bunch of equipment with that money.”

“Didn’t he just send you $1,000 like two weeks ago?”

“In his latest Hallmark card he wrote to apologize for being so cheap with me.” She rolled her eyes. “I really think screwing around with all those teenagers has done some permanent damage to his brain. His blood must be incapable of traveling north of his you-know-what.” Pointedly, she jerked her head in the direction of one of Ry’s posters.

“Lovely.” Ry certainly didn’t need that imagery. Naia’s father, though not an unattractive man, was too much of a jerk to regard with anything but disgust. He was an adulterer, and potential pedophile – if Naia’s accusations were correct – who made himself feel better by lavishing his only daughter with money and expensive gifts. Ry wasn’t entirely certain where the man got all of that money from, since Naia was seldom forthcoming with the details, but it seemed like quite the healthy source, going by Naia’s possessions. “Well,” he started, recalling the point of their conversation, “do as you will.”

Naia nodded. “I shall.” She stood to leave. “Sorry I can’t stay to watch your Hamlet monologue, again, but Professor Brown assigned us to read half of Jane Eyre by tomorrow, and write a response paper.” She let out an exasperated sigh. “I’m so glad I’m graduating this year. I’m so sick of all this crap.”

“Know the feeling,” Ry agreed.

Stopping at the doorway, Naia turned to add, “Careful where you scratch yourself from now on. My cameras will be watching.” With a fake evil laugh – that sounded to Ry’s ears as eerily authentic – she exited stage left.

3:

Familiar footsteps alerted Jael to an approaching figure, and he opened his eyes to find Zora standing beside his lounge chair. He regarded her, as he had many times before, with the same cool, distant air with which one feigns indifference. The truth of the matter was that Jael found Zora to be a bit of an incomprehensible mystery, the likes of which appealed to him far more than the perfect way she had of fitting into a bikini. That fact did not, however, keep his gaze from traveling up the perfectly sculpted form before him.

“The new members have been chosen.”

Jael smiled up at her, blocking the South California sun with one hand. “Well, well, has it been seven years already? Funny how time flies.”

“We’ve detected—”

“I’m sorry,” Jael interjected, “would you mind moving to the side. I can’t see a thing.”

Zora moved over, casting a shadow over Jael’s face. “—white magick activity.”

“Oh?” Jael perked up at the news. “Of what sort?”

“A location spell, but there was nothing to indicate that it came from an Akashan, other than the fact that it was cast by someone who obviously knows what they’re doing.”

Jael closed his eyes. “Probably just someone playing with the Craft.”

“And if it isn’t?”

Jael took a second to decide, eyes still closed. “Send someone,” he said finally. “Just to investigate.”

“I can go myself.”

Jael stared up into the violet eyes of the woman he’d secretly loved for nearly half a decade. It had been his lesson, a costly one, but a lesson nonetheless: never trust a woman. “Go,” he said, wanting to trust her, deep down in that part of himself that he loathed for feeling things he wished he didn’t. “Report back immediately upon your return.”

“Yes, sir.” She started to walk away, her body moving in silk-smooth fashion across the edge of the pool.

“Zora,” he called, after allowing himself the visceral pleasure of staring at her lithe body. “Where is it you’re going?”

“East coast. To a town called Merfolk.”

4:

Clutching a wrinkled copy of her class schedule, and a newly acquired campus map, Aeryn passed through the doors of Kinney Hall and headed through the maze of hallways until she found room 138. It was officially her first day of class, as she’d spent the previous day setting up protection spells around the campus, and attempting to figure out if the Seer posed any viable threat. Of course, that excuse wouldn’t fly well with the professor, she imagined, so the flu would have to do.

She pulled the door open and stepped inside the classroom, where the students already seated turned to look at her. The woman behind the desk, whom Aeryn presumed to be the professor, glanced up as well.

Aeryn almost smiled at the predictable alignment of desks, neatly assembled in rows, facing a blackboard covered in the hieroglyphics of some other teacher’s class; the evidence that life existed in that room before those in it had entered it. Beautiful, Aeryn thought. She had seen movies, had experienced this moment many times before, but never in the three-dimensional wonder of actual life.

“Are you in this class?” asked the woman.

Aeryn took a step toward the desk, feeling awkward and on the spot. She could feel the eyes of the other students following her every move, as if she were the lead in an ill-conceived version of her life. “Yes, I missed the first class.”

“Your name?”

“Aeryn.” She then realized that a first name was not enough in the world outside Lare. She glanced quickly at the schedule in her hand, at the fake last name she’d been allotted by the Elders. “Larson. Aeryn Larson.”

“Right.” The woman leaned forward in her desk, chestnut-colored hair falling over her face as she searched through her briefcase. She pulled two sheets of paper out and handed them to Aeryn. “Here’s the syllabus and the first assignment. You can turn it in to my mailbox by 4 p.m. tomorrow.”

Aeryn stared down at the papers, wondering what a “syllabus” was. “Thank you.” She retreated to the nearest available desk and made a point to read the fine print.

Principles of Literature
Ellie Brown, Ph.D.

Required texts: Vineland by Thomas Pynchon; Jazz by Toni Morrison; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte; World’s Fair by E.L. Doctorow; and The MLA Handbook. All books are available at the Merfolk College Bookstore.

Class 1 (M): Read pgs. 1-85 of Jane Eyre. First assignment due next class.
Class 2 (Th): Read pgs. 86-118 of Jane Eyre. First assignment due.

Aeryn scanned down the sheet. The Elders were crazy. How was she expected to attend college full-time and help protect the world? There were only so many hours in the day.

5:

Azure was lost in the images behind her eyelids. She felt the phantom-cold hands of her father clutching at her neck, as he whispered, “I know what you are”, in patches of air and wind. There was never a voice; just thoughts implanting themselves in her subconscious like knowledge through osmosis. And she would say—no, think—Please, Daddy, no, until the pain became too deep to foster words.

She heard her mother, in a voice that was real, asking, “What were you thinking?” And the light from the hanging light bulb in the basement would catch the metal of the belt in her hands. There were no more words, then, at least none that Azure could ever remember. There were only the sounds of leather meeting skin, of skin breaking into red, and the muffled screams that died in her throat.

Azure awoke to a blurred and watery pattern of shadows on the ceiling. She wiped the tears with the palm of her hand and turned on her side. She stared at the wall, where the shadows danced in rhythm to the wind. Outside people were laughing, and the distinct smell of cigarette smoke wafted through the open window.

The seconds passed, ticking away through her empty thoughts, until her heartbeat slowed, and her breathing evened. The ritual was always the same; the nightmares were always the same. You can run, but you can’t hide, or so the saying went. Azure was used to it all. In some perverse way, she found solace in the consistency.

She lay there for interminable minutes, staring blankly at the play of hidden life upon the canvas of concrete. Eventually, she ventured a glance at the alarm clock on the other side of the bed. The blood-red numbers floated in a sea of black, forming symbols that somehow made sense: 9:42.

Go, Azure, she instructed herself. Get yourself out of here.

And so she did.

6:

Aeryn sat in her dorm room, sprawled out on the bed, Jane Eyre open in front of her. The sound of voices drifted in from the hall like misplaced thoughts. She’d spent her afternoon watching people pass by the open door. Some would wander by, glance into her room, and offer a smile or half-nod by way of greeting; others, lost in the superiority of belonging, would offer nothing but the sound of their retreating laughter.

She was captivated by these moving pictures of time, brief snapshots of alien life framed by the open doorway. It reminded her vaguely of television, of the feeling of being a part of something fascinatingly different, of experiencing only through the act of observation.

Aeryn knew deep down that she didn’t belong there, that it made no difference if she read Jane Eyre or not; if she wrote a response paper to it. She understood truths far greater than this caricature of life, full of burdens and worries that in the end meant nothing. She felt the depths of these strangers’ suffering; saw through to the pain behind the laughter, to the questions behind the smiles.

She wished she could explain that their lives were not meaningless, that their souls would live out their own destinies, and then return home, bruised, yes, by the knowledge of their experiences, but so much wiser for having lived. It was unfortunate that no one would listen, and those who did would undoubtedly forget, would lose themselves again and again in the trivialities of everyday life.

Dejected, she returned to the words on the pages before her, and she read through a full sentence before she was interrupted.

“Hi!” The cheerful voice caught Aeryn’s attention in an instant, and she glanced up to see a girl she didn’t know leaning against the doorframe. She wore a pink tank top with a silver cat printed on it and a pair of faded jeans. Her hair was shoulder-length, blonde, and looked as if three hours had been spent perfecting every curl. “You know it’s Thursday night.”

Aeryn got the feeling that the statement was meant to elicit a specific response, but she couldn’t figure out what it was.

The girl looked around the room, taking in the bare walls with a look of utter confusion. “Freshman,” she guessed.

Aeryn felt momentarily self-conscious by the emptiness of the room. She wondered if her inability to hang posters made it obvious how little she understood of the world she now inhabited. “I haven’t started decorating.”

The girl’s expression changed and she stepped into the room, smiling. “Hey, you’ve got an accent. Where are you from?”

Aeryn had gotten used to that observation during her time in Merfolk. It made sense, since the nearest landmass outside Lare was Australia, that the speech patterns would be similar. “Australia,” she fibbed.

“Wow, I’ve never been there. What’s it like?”

Aeryn thought quickly. She’d never really been there. “Big.”

“Yeah.” The girl nodded as if Aeryn had revealed some well-kept secret about the place. “Cool. Listen, my boyfriend and some friends went outside for a smoke. We’re going to a party on frat row a little later. Wanna join?”

“Um.” Aeryn looked uncertainly at the copy of Jane Eyre. “I have a paper due tomorrow,” and the words slipped out so casually that she barely noticed how normal she sounded. “Maybe I can catch up with you later?”

“Great. Hopefully I’ll see you.” She glanced up at the door, which, thanks to the Resident Advisor, displayed “Aeryn” in black permanent marker, inside a cardboard cut-out of a thought bubble. “Aeryn, huh? Cool name. I’m Tina. If I don’t see you tonight, come say hi sometime. I’m in 214.”

“I will.” Aeryn waved as the girl disappeared out of sight. Alone again, she stared down at the cover of the book in her hands. What use was she with her nose buried in 19th century literature? Tossing the book aside, she headed to the closet to change.

7:

The coffeehouse sported its name, “El Paraiso”, in white see-through lettering across one window. Inside, the atmosphere was candlelight dark and bodies moved like shadows across the ill-lit space.

Outside, the night was warm, humid; the air a combination of car exhaust and the loud streaming voices of strangers. Individual fields of experience drifting along like gusts of wind, lost in themselves and each other.

Azure stuffed her hands in the pockets of her jeans, unsure what else to do with them. She stared through the window at the people inside, longed to open the door and step inside, be welcomed by whatever waited there. But she lingered shyly, leaned her body against the cement wall next to the café, and watched the people pass by.

Her thoughts drifted along with the monotonous rhythm of the world outside; the glimpses of soon-forgotten faces and fragmented sentences caught mid-story. She thought of the girl with the light green eyes and silk-brown hair, thought back to the gentle voice, to the soothing, accented way she spoke and somehow, unexplainably, felt calm.

Even the vision, which now loitered in her memory like the fading footprints of a dream, felt almost alluring. She allowed herself, for an instant, the forbidden pleasure of its recollection: the smooth, soft body gliding against her own, lips trailing feverishly along her neck; the cool, sweat-soaked sheets against her back, and those eyes: beautiful green sparkling in the moonlight…

I know what you are. Her father’s voice spoke inside her mind, startling her. But it was only a memory, the imprint of a whisper burned into the fabric of time.

8:

Blocks away from the dorms, office buildings, and lecture halls, along the sidewalks by the pizza joints and late-night eateries, Aeryn joined the throng of students in search of a good time. She’d spent twenty minutes in the company of Tina and her friends, in the dark, loud basement of a ratty old house, before insisting she had to leave; the smell of cigarette smoke and spilled beer becoming unbearable after only a short time. College life might take some getting used to.

In the meantime, Aeryn was enjoying her self-guided tour of Merfolk. She passed by the neon lights flashing the words “pizza” and “open”, the ice cream parlor with a line of people stretching out into the sidewalk, the sushi restaurant, tattoo parlor, arcade, comic book store; something for everyone.

Everyone, she thought, her gaze landing on the solitary figure a few steps away, but us. She remembered their last encounter vividly: the shyness, surprise, and palpable fear radiating out of the girl’s body. You don’t know what you are, Aeryn thought sadly. I wish… What? What did she wish; to help; to swoop in and turn the girl’s self-perceived curse into a blessing?

“Your powers are not all-encompassing,” Kalan’s voice echoed in her ear. “But friendship…” Yes, friendship. That, she could offer easily.

Brown eyes glanced up, focused on Aeryn, and widened in surprise. “Are you following me?”

Aeryn was surprised by Azure’s voice: soft and gentle, as if she feared disturbing the air with its sound, apologetic even when it tried to sound accusing. You are a world of contradiction. “I was just passing by,” she said, her own voice sounding far shyer than she was accustomed to. She stood awkwardly, unsure if approaching the girl had been the smartest idea. She stared down at a spot of gum on the sidewalk.

“It helps if you actually attempt conversation,” Kalan prompted.

Aeryn looked up to catch a strange look on Azure’s face. Her gaze was fixed slightly to the left of her. Aeryn turned to look at what Azure might be seeing, but aside from a group of people across the street and random cars driving by, she saw nothing out of the ordinary. Turning back, she said, “I’m sorry for showing up at your dorm like that,” and was pleased when Azure turned brown eyes on her.

“I’d like to know how you found me.”

Aeryn hesitated. How much did the Seer already know? How much was it worth it to conceal? She didn’t want to lie any more than she had already.

“You’re a terrible liar anyway.”

Again, the strange look from Azure, her gaze shifting once more, before turning quickly back to Aeryn’s. She looked panicked. “I have to go.”

“Aeryn, I think she can see me.”

What? Aeryn looked at Azure. “Is something wrong?”

“I really wish you’d leave me alone,” and the words were laced in pain so deep that Aeryn took a step back.

“Of course.”

“Azure, we are not the enemy.” Kalan spoke as Azure began to walk away.

Azure heard it; she halted in her steps, and her shoulders tensed at the voice, but she didn’t turn around. With her arms crossed against her chest, she hurried up the street.

After a few moments, Kalan said, “If the Guardians find her…”

Aeryn nodded. I know. She has no idea how powerful she is.

“Neither do you.”

She could sense that Kalan had gone, and she frowned. What does that mean? Shaking her head, she continued on her way. I hate when he’s cryptic.

9:

The hallway was empty when Zora passed through the doors of Dexter Hall. All the students were outside, it seemed, enjoying the warm weather. There was so much laughter carried through the air in puffs of smoke. Schoolbooks lay forgotten on the grass. Knowledge exchanged for the immediate pleasure of fun, the satisfaction of procrastination.

Zora walked slowly, taking in the off-white walls and once-blue carpet, now stained with age and the occasional dark spot: the contrast between someone’s good time and someone else’s misery. She trailed long fingers along the wall, encountering the occasional construction paper-covered bulletin board, layers of bright colors masking the imperfections beneath. She smiled humorlessly at the flyers and announcements. She always forgot how mundane the world really was, how utterly idiotic. These worthless souls trapped in their own reflections. So few left in the world wise enough to turn the mirror around, to live on the other side of truth.

She halted in front of room 128 and read, “Aeryn”, off the cardboard cutout of a thought bubble. She stared at the name for a long moment, a spark of recognition igniting her memory. And she felt the physical world slip away, replaced by the flash of something long forgotten. She remembered a voice – female, familiar – speaking in urgent whispers. Saw bleeding lips form the words: “Her name is Aeryn,” before succumbing to the darkness.

And then she, too, saw nothing.

Blinking wildly, Zora took a step backward, away from the door and the name that sparked such recollection. The memories were coming more frequently now, a fact that was as unsettling as it was reassuring.

Shaking away the memory, she stepped forward again. Certain that no one could see her and that there was no one inside, Zora placed her hand on the doorknob and whispered, “Aperi.” The door clicked open.

Inside, she found the expected arsenal of academic weapons: textbooks, notebooks, pens, all stored neatly on a wooden desk. The bed was made, and the clothes carefully put away. There was nothing to betray the identity of the spellcaster, no posters or pictures, no personal gadgets, nothing but a picture-perfect example of a college dormitory.

Too perfect, Zora thought, her curiosity piqued by the memory. Assignment or no assignment she intended to find this Aeryn. She circled the room several times, hoping she had missed something. Finding nothing, she kneeled down and placed her hand on the cream-colored tile. She could feel the remnants of the spell, particles of air still crackling from use.

“Retege,” and the air lit up in a brilliant spark. The images flickered past in rapid succession: a building, a number, a door. And then everything vanished.

Zora smiled. “Time for plan B.”

10:

Azure could tell she was not alone without even bothering to turn the light on. She gasped in the entryway, grasped the doorknob tightly and debated on whether or not to leave. “Please go away,” she pleadingly whispered at the shadow by her desk.

She stepped inside the room, knowing that she shouldn’t; if she left, odds were that when she returned the shadow would be gone.

And the shadow that was not a shadow stepped away from the window. It moved slowly and deliberately toward the corner by her desk.

Azure shut her eyes, more angry than afraid. Too many years of voices and shadows had left her immune to anything but annoyance. And the room was dark but she did not wish to turn the light on. It was easier to disbelieve in the dark.

She’s coming, the shadow said without speaking. You must run.

And she instantly thought of the beautiful girl with haunting green eyes. This is all in my head, she remembered. Just in my head.

No time to doubt, said the voice that was not a voice, sounding much closer than before.

Azure hit the switch and fluorescent lighting flooded the room. When she opened her eyes, the shadow was gone. She breathed deeply, her lips trembling with the effort not to cry. She walked cautiously toward her bed; afraid that whatever had been there would reappear. On her pillow she found a notebook she had not left there. As she got closer she realized something was written on the page. In large, strange handwriting, the word: RUN.

And Azure ran.

11:

Aeryn felt her entire body tense. She could feel her skin prickling, the hairs on her arms standing on end. Is this what it feels like? She looked around, knowing that she was still too far away to make it to her room in time. A spell had been cast; a dark spell.

Azure, she thought in a panic. Into the air, she whispered a protection spell, “Robores benignitatis, robores luminis, praemonete vatem sui praedicamenti.” She ran as she cast, praying that she was not too late. She could not have failed so miserably in only a few days. How had they found her so quickly?

The grass in Merfolk was checkered, dry patches mixing with green. Under the blue mist of the light posts everything looked dull. She could hear the crunching of rocks and dirt as she ran, the occasional softness of actual grass. She could hear her heart beating furiously in her chest, its pace due to everything but exertion. Urgency was not something she was used to. Neither was fear.

She reached the path to Azure’s hall. Around her, life continued undisturbed and she felt a pang of envy at their ignorance. But it passed quickly. At the door, a guy blocked the way and offered her a drag of his cigarette. When she declined, he took it for himself.

“Why you runnin’?” he asked, the smoke swirling out of his mouth like a soul leaving the body. “Chill out, it’s Thursday.”

The others–nameless voices–agreed in chorus. And Aeryn stepped away. “Can you swipe me in?”

“What dorm you from?” he asked instead of answering.

“Dexter,” she replied, trying to sound calm. “Just visiting a friend.”

“Cool,” he answered, drawing from his back pocket the pass card. “What’s their name?”

Aeryn hesitated. “Azure,” she replied.

Someone else, someone behind her said, “That weird girl? She ran out of here like five minutes ago. You friends with her?”

But Aeryn didn’t hear the question. She turned to the source of the voice, a girl. “Which way did she go?”

“Shit if I know.” And the girl shrugged as she said it, dismissing the question and turning her attention to a book.

Aeryn stood there, pondering her options, unsure whether to feel relieved that Azure had left, or panicked. A location spell would take too long. And then her thoughts stopped, save for one fragment: The location spell. That’s how they tracked me. And if they’d cast a spell to rebuild it … Aeryn turned sharply, regarding the guy by the door with a smile. “Can you still swipe me in? I’ll just leave her a note on her door.”

He obliged, sliding the card through the slot. He made a show of opening the door for her as if she were a lady, and he a gentleman, and they caught in a bizarre rendition of Victorian times.

Aeryn passed through without a word. She was in no mood for humor. She headed for the stairs, to Azure’s room on the second floor, and found the door unlocked. Inside, she stood and waited. For what, she didn’t know. And as the minutes passed she grew progressively more worried that instead of coming there, the perpetrator would have found Azure after all. The thought made her ill.

As she waited, she found the notebook on the bed with the word, “RUN,” printed awkwardly upon its surface. She frowned. Who could have left this? She thought of her protection spell, but shook her head. Certainly her spell could not have manifested itself so strangely. But if not hers, then whose?

The knock at the door came soon after, and Aeryn dropped the notebook on the bed. She felt a wave of relief at the sound. “Who is it?” she called.

There was a slight moment of silence, and then, “Sorry to bother you. I live down the hall.”

The voice surprised Aeryn, but only insofar as it sounded too sincere to be the intruder. But that meant nothing. She thought quickly. “I just got out of the shower,” she replied. “I can come by your room when I’m dressed.” If it really were a neighbor, then surely they’d agree.

“I can wait.”

Strike one. “One moment.” Aeryn looked around the room. In the closet, she found a case of bottled water. She poured the contents of one over her head, careful not to drip too much on the floor. She grabbed a towel and dabbed at her hair as she opened the door. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said to the person standing there.

The woman gazed at her evenly. And they stood there, both studying each other silently. Aeryn guessed that she was around twenty-seven or twenty-eight. She was beautiful, gorgeous really. Her eyes looked almost violet, her hair long and dark. She was taller than Aeryn, her body slim but muscular. If circumstances had been different, Aeryn might have looked at her in a different way. But as it happened, the moment was tainted with a different sort of tension. “May I come in?” asked the woman.

Aeryn stepped aside and allowed her in. The woman’s aura revealed nothing out of the ordinary. If she were a threat, she was an expert at concealing it. Aeryn kept her guard up, and her emotions in check. Who knew what kind of powers this stranger possessed. She had to pass for Azure, for someone innocent and uninvolved. “Can I get you anything? I think I have soda. Did you just move in?”

As soon as she closed the door, she felt the switch in the air. She could sense, almost see, the darkness dripping from the woman’s fingertips. Strike two. Aeryn smiled, keeping the charade in place. “I hadn’t seen you here before.”

The woman said nothing, but Aeryn could see the debate in her head. She waited patiently for the truth, or for a lie, or for whatever came next. She could only hope that Azure didn’t think to return to her room yet. She couldn’t warn her without invading her thoughts, and she couldn’t invade her thoughts without permission.

“I’m a friend of Aeryn’s,” the woman said finally.

“Aeryn?”

“She said you knew her?”

Strike three. Aeryn was about to answer, but the doorknob started to turn.

12:

Azure ran until she realized that she had no one to run to and nowhere to go. She got as far as the Student Center, felt lost among the swarm of students, and finally turned back.

She’s coming. The voice rang clear in her mind, so clear that Azure wasn’t sure it was a memory. She shivered despite the warmness of the air. She crossed her arms against her chest, but kept walking. Why should she fear a girl? After all she had gone through, and all she had seen, there was nothing left to be afraid of.

But she remembered the girl speaking to the ghost beside her, and felt unsure. She remembered the shadows warning her. Run. She’s coming. But who was she? It would haunt her, she knew, not to know. And she felt haunted enough already.

When she reached the dorm, there were a few people sitting at the steps by the door. The girl from the hallway—Dawn, was it—glanced up from a conversation with some guy Azure didn’t recognize. “Your friend’s upstairs.”

Azure paused, feeling afraid and wishing not to. “What friend?”

“Some girl. Said she was leaving you a note on the door. Must be a long note. She’s been up there a while. Maybe she decided to wait.”

Azure swallowed, but walked up the steps and into the building. When she reached her door, she paused. Come on, it’s not the first time you open this door to find something at the other side. At least this time you know what it is. She closed her eyes briefly, and then turned the handle. She gasped when she saw what awaited her. Her gaze fell on Aeryn, then to the strange woman by her bed. “Wha…” And then she did want to run.

“Baby!” and Aeryn was standing in front of her. Her mouth was speaking words that made no sense: “I wasn’t expecting you back so soon. Was Wendy’s closed already?” But her eyes, her eyes were saying something different, and Azure had no idea what.

And then Aeryn was kissing her. But Azure had no time to register that fact, had no time to process that instead of a vision, she was hearing Aeryn’s voice in her mind. I’m sorry for doing this, but I had to act quickly. This woman is after me, not you, but if she knows of your visions she’ll be after you, too. Follow my lead. You’re Azure and my name is Claire. You can tell her that you don’t know Aeryn very well. That she bumped into you, that she found you somehow and came to apologize, and that you haven’t seen her since. I know you have no reason to, but please trust me. I can protect you, but I’d rather not make a scene here.

As Aeryn’s voice faded, Azure grew progressively aware of Aeryn’s lips on hers. Oh God. Oh God. And she couldn’t figure out if she was praying for forgiveness or lost in the sensations. She broke the kiss, but not harshly. She tried not to think of the lingering feeling of softness on her lips. She looked into pleading green eyes and felt her heart tear in a thousand directions. Then, “It wasn’t closed, but I realized I’d forgotten my wallet.” She arched a brow at the woman and found her looking at the floor. “Who’s this?” and she’d added a hint of jealousy to her voice.

Aeryn turned to look at the woman, and Azure could sense her relief. “She just moved in down the hall. She’s a friend of Aeryn’s? I figured she meant to be talking to you.”

“Aeryn?” and here Azure frowned.

The woman cleared her throat. “Aeryn said she knew you.”

“Knew me? That’s odd. I mean, yeah, I know who she is, but I’ve only seen her twice. She nearly trampled me in the sidewalk.” As proof, Azure lifted her arm and showed the cut. “And then she just showed up randomly at my door to apologize. That’s the last I’ve seen of her.” She paused. “Wait, no. That’s a lie. I saw her earlier today. She was walking in town.” She turned to Aeryn. “Remember, babe, I pointed her out to you.”

Aeryn looked surprised. “That’s her? The chick with the weird fro? And that thing on her lip?” She made a face, then winked. “I would’ve thought her cuter from the way you talked about her.”

Azure was completely thrown by that. She chose to ignore it, but then realized she couldn’t. “Sorry, Claire’s a bit insensitive sometimes. Hope you’re not too offended? She must have forgotten you’re her friend.”

Aeryn pretended to be embarrassed.

“Not in the least. I’m sorry to have bothered you. How long ago would you say you saw her?”

“An hour, maybe two,” Aeryn said.

“About that,” Azure agreed.

“See you girls around, then.” And then she was gone.

Azure waited until the door had closed. “Don’t you ever kiss me again,” she demanded, her voice trembling too hard to sound anything but frightened.

“I’m sorry,” Aeryn replied. “There was no other way.”

Azure stepped away, wishing … God, I’m so lost I don’t even know what to wish for. “Please just tell me what’s going on.”

“I’m afraid you wouldn’t believe me, if I did.” Aeryn spoke softly, regretfully.

Azure nearly laughed at the words. “Trust me when I say there are very few things I wouldn’t believe.” She caught Aeryn’s gaze. “Tell me.” And then, “Please.”

Aeryn sighed and looked away. “I never meant to drag you into this. I hope you know that.”

“I’m not sure I know anything right now.” But there was something in Aeryn’s voice that made Azure want to trust her.

Aeryn glanced up. “Though I didn’t mean to drag you into this, I am starting to see that it wasn’t an accident that we met.” She sighed. “I know that you see things when people touch you. I know that you see things even when people don’t. But that power that you shy away from, it’s a gift.”

Azure’s anger swelled at the words, it rose from the well where she kept all her negative emotions buried and burst out. “My curse is not a gift. You know nothing of what I’ve been through, of what I’ve endured because of this … this …” she breathed, started again, “You know nothing of what I’ve been through.”

Aeryn smiled sadly. “You’re right. Still, I know more than you think. What you wish to know, I cannot tell you. I can, however—“ and here she extended her hand, “show you.”

Azure stared at the professed hand. She had never voluntarily touched anyone. Anyone. And here was this stranger inviting her to take her hand. Here was the person she’d been running from not twenty minutes prior, inviting her to trust her.

“Blue pill? Or red?” And Aeryn laughed.

Azure didn’t get the joke – if it was one.

When Aeryn realized that, she laughed again and said, “And I thought I was sheltered.”

Azure stared at the hand. She was tired of being sheltered. She took it.

And the world as she knew it disappeared.

13:

When Azure opened her eyes – or perhaps they had been open all along, but only now could see – she was standing by a lake. She grew conscious of the crystal clear water only inches from her feet, grew aware of the trees surrounding her, of the rhythm of the waterfall, the chirping of birds. She blinked, looked frantically all around her. I must be dreaming… But she had never dreamed of anything so beautiful.

“Do you like it?” a voice asked softly.

Azure turned to find Aeryn watching her. “I…” and she didn’t know how to finish the sentence.

“No one else really knows about this place, or at least, no one else comes here.” Aeryn’s voice was thoughtful, distracted. She was looking at the water as she spoke. “But then, not that many people grew up here.”

Azure waited. She didn’t know why, but she was hesitant to interrupt the moment. “Where are we?” she asked finally, worried that Aeryn would be annoyed by the interruption; unsure why she cared, considering that only moments before she had been filled with anger. Had it been only moments before? Everything seemed so long ago. Everything seemed so different.

“That is a tricky question.” Aeryn took a step forward, coming to stand beside Azure. “This is merely a projection. Our bodies are where we left them, but our consciousness is here.”

Azure looked again at the water, not really understanding. She was now certain that this was a dream. But she wasn’t afraid, as she usually was in her dreams. There was no darkness and no pain: only a vast and ever-present sense of peace.

“The world, the universe,” Aeryn continued, her tone serious but kind, “is connected by a series of dimensions. Every second there are bodies traveling from one to the other. There are portals, doors, everywhere; very few people are aware of them, and even fewer can see them.” She smiled at Azure then. “You’re one of them, Azure. That’s what makes yours such a rare and special gift.”

Azure didn’t say anything. And when she blinked, the world had changed again, the peaceful scenery replaced by a much busier one. She was in a city, a bustling city filled with buildings of all shapes and sizes and people walking briskly throughout. The streets, or what Azure took to be streets, were paved in marble. There were no cars or any signs of motorized transportation.

And the people—crazy people, by the looks of it—walked with giant books opened before them. They read aloud as they walked, they mumbled to themselves, they stopped to think and then kept walking. A woman standing by a fountain appeared deep in conversation with a bird. A man played the violin without a violin to play; but he seemed lost to the music all the same, his hands stroking the air at nothing.

As if reading her mind, Aeryn said, “I’m sure people would’ve thought you were crazy, too, if they saw you talking to yourself.”

And Azure thought of the many times her mother had asked, “Who are you talking to,” before dragging her down the cement steps to the cellar below.

She shuddered, shook herself out of the memory, finding it odd that she should have memories in a dream. But then, the rest of this dream was odd enough already.

Aeryn had taken her hand, and Azure looked down in alarm at the gesture. She expected something to happen, a vision, a premonition … something. But all she felt was the warmth of Aeryn’s fingers interlocking with her own.

“You’re safe here,” Aeryn whispered.

Azure didn’t answer, but started walking when Aeryn did. They passed by the crowds of people, none of whom seemed to notice them. “This is a dream, isn’t it?”

“The truth can seem like a dream,” Aeryn replied, and led her through the streets and into a building.

Inside, the ceilings were high and majestic, like a castle or a palace. Azure imagined that a Queen and King must live there, for whom else could inhabit such a place?

But Aeryn said, “This is the library.”

And at once, Azure noted that the walls were not walls at all, but bookcases filled with books. People would float through the air to reach the ones at the top, and sometimes hover in mid-air as they flipped through the volumes.

Azure stared all around as they walked. She took in the beautiful desks, the floors so shiny that they looked like mirrors.

“Every book that has ever been written is here,” Aeryn told her, and her voice carried a hint of pride. “We have books on everything imaginable. There are millions of collections. There is one collection, however, far more special than the rest. But only the members of the Order may access it.”

Azure glanced up. “The Order?”

Aeryn sighed. She stopped walking and let go of Azure’s hand. “You asked me who I am, and I told you that I could only show you.” She looked around. “This is what I am.”

“A library?”

Aeryn smiled. “This library. This island. These people. That is all I have ever known.”

Azure pretended to understand, but she didn’t, and knew that it didn’t matter. Soon she would wake up. “What does any of this have to do with me?”

“I suppose that’s up to you,” Aeryn replied. “And if not you, well, her.” And she pointed upward. “You’re a Seer and I’m a Mage. I don’t think it was a coincidence that we met. Did you feel it? That day when I bumped into you, the air changed. I didn’t understand it at first but now …”

And Azure did remember. She remembered the feeling, though she still couldn’t place what it was. It had felt as if she were close to something, as if something were coming together.

“The night I showed up at your room, I needed to make sure that you weren’t working for them.”

“Them?”

“The Guardians,” Aeryn replied. “Whatever you fear, whatever negative emotion ever fills you … it’s because of them. They have saturated the world with their anger, with their hatred and revenge. They are your demons, your shadows, your fears. My job—the Order’s job—is to stop them.”

Azure thought about it but none of it sank in. A dream… “That woman…”

“She’s one of them.”

“I see.”

“Do you?”

And there was no sense in lying. “No. I think I’d like to wake up now.”

Aeryn looked disappointed. She nodded. “Just close your eyes.”

Azure complied, and soon, the warm fingers were around hers again. And she realized she had missed them.

14:

When Azure opened her eyes she was back in her room, with Aeryn standing before her. She stared at their locked hands and felt a sense of panic so severe she thought she would black out.

It was Aeryn who pulled her hands away first. “I’m sorry if that made things worse,” she whispered, looking lost. “I’m new at this.”

At what? Azure wanted to ask her, but she was scared to. She was scared to ask any more questions; the answers were too disturbing to conceive.

“I wish you weren’t so afraid of me.” Aeryn’s voice held a hint of regret. “Is there anything I can do to prove I would never hurt you?”

Azure tried not to think of the vision, tried to push away the images now lingering at the forefront of her thoughts. But it was harder now that she knew what Aeryn’s lips tasted like. She could almost feel them trailing down her neck. She could feel Aeryn’s fingers on her body. “Oh God,” she found herself saying.

Aeryn was staring at her with concern. “What’s wrong?”

Everything. She needed to stop thinking of this. Her body was trembling and she couldn’t make it stop. She tried to focus on something else, “Why did that woman come here?” she asked, though she almost didn’t care. She wanted Aeryn to disappear and never return again. She was starting to realize that that would never happen. That she would see Aeryn again. And again … until … Stop!! And she forced herself to breath, to concentrate.

Aeryn started to speak. “I had cast a spell to locate you, and in my haste to find out who you were, I failed to conceal it. She traced it back to my room where she must have recast it. It brought her here to you.” She looked down. “This shouldn’t have happened. When I report back to the Elders I may be removed from my post.”

“Your post?” Azure was growing frustrated by her inability to comprehend. And for the moment, she chose to ignore the mention of spells. “You claim to have shown me something, but I still don’t understand.”

“My post here in Merfolk. Think of me as a mystical bodyguard,” Aeryn replied. “I think …” she hesitated. “I think I was sent here specifically to protect you.”

Azure blinked. “Protect me?”

“You’re very special.”

“I’m cursed, and I’m evil. And I am fairly certain that you are, too.”

Aeryn frowned. Then she shook her head, almost smiling. “The wicked are not born with gifts. They simply learn to steal them.” She gazed softly into Azure’s eyes. “You may not think that I know you at all, but I can tell so much by simply looking at you. Your sadness and your loneliness flow out of you in waves. But there is nothing that is dark about you. You take such care not to hurt me or yell at me, even when you’re so frightened of me you can barely stand. That amazes me. It makes me desperate to prove to you that I would never do anything to hurt you, even if I could.”

Azure looked away, wanting desperately to cry, but not daring to. How could this girl possibly protect her? And from what? And how could she explain that the reason she was trembling was not because she feared pain or hurt… but rather, getting swept up in a pleasure too forbidden to express. “Do you,” and this she desperately wanted to know, “kiss girls often?”

Aeryn blinked at the question. She cocked her head to the side and glanced at Azure with a hint of amusement. “Why? Did I not do it properly?”

Azure didn’t smile, though she was certain she was blushing. “I meant, is that … are you …” she didn’t know how to phrase the question.

“We don’t discriminate between genders in Lare,” Aeryn replied. “Where I’m from,” she added, to clarify. She looked at the floor, at the cream-colored tile, and said, “But no. I’d only kissed guys. And really, only one.”

Azure wasn’t sure if she was relieved or disappointed. She sighed, looking around the room. She didn’t know what to make of anything anymore. And she was suddenly too tired to bother. Why should it seem unbelievable to see people flying in a library, when she had spent her childhood, her life, watching people pass through walls? She had told Aeryn that there were few things she wouldn’t believe; it was true. Despite the many years she had spent suppressing every vision, denying every apparition … she knew, knew, deep down, that they were real. However, that didn’t mean that she didn’t still feel that all of it was wrong.

“I promise I won’t kiss you again,” Aeryn said after a moment. “If that’s what’s bothering you.”

The promise lingered in her mind. Azure instantly wondered what it meant for Aeryn to have made that promise, in light of the vision to the contrary. She wondered if that changed anything, or if it simply meant that Aeryn wouldn’t stick to her word.

“It’s important that you trust me, Azure. I have no way of knowing what the Guardians have found out. I don’t know if they know that you’re a Seer—“ and there was that word again “—or if they have a way of finding out. All I know is that they’ve been here, that they know that we exist. You have to promise to let me protect you, if it comes to that. You have to trust me to keep you safe.”

Safe? Azure didn’t know the meaning of that word, not from personal experience, at least. “I wish I could,” she answered. “But I don’t think there’s much you can do to protect me from anything.”

Aeryn smiled, then. “You have nothing to lose.”

Azure wasn’t sure that was true.

15:

Zora stared outside the airplane window, watching the clouds swim by. She had been thinking non-stop since she’d left the dorm room and the two girls the previous night. They had been lying, she knew. And still, she hadn’t had the urge to make them tell the truth. Why? The question bugged her.

She had almost turned around after she’d walked away. She had almost wanted to believe them; but she couldn’t. She could tell, just by looking at them, that something was amiss. They didn’t kiss like lovers; they barely stood together like friends. No, they had recently met. But why, then, should they protect each other?

Her memories hadn’t stirred at all during the encounter. The only piece of the puzzle she could fit, for now, was the memory of the woman and the whisper of the name.

Aeryn, she recalled. Her name is Aeryn, the inflection on the is. Zora frowned at that. Is Aeryn. Is. As if someone had argued to the contrary.

Zora sat back on the chair, trying to ignore the slight feeling of claustrophobia that airplanes always brought her. She closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on her thoughts. What, for instance, should she tell Jael upon returning? The truth? A lie? She didn’t know yet.

One thing was for sure, however: she would not tell him of her memories. Over the years she had gotten the distinct impression that he didn’t wish for her to remember. And she wanted to know why.

Is Aeryn.

She listened to the sound of the woman’s voice in her head.

Opening her eyes, she gazed outside again, and wondered, for the millionth time in what felt like as many years, Who was I?

The clouds rolled by, not knowing.

16:

Aeryn took a deep breath and stood before the Elders. She swallowed nervously and tried not to fidget. They had summoned her, as expected, in the middle of the night. There was little she could do or say to defend herself; the Elders knew all. There were no excuses for putting another person’s life in danger. None.

Larken addressed her first. “You know why you are here.”

Aeryn hung her head and nodded. “Yes.”

“You’ve led the Guardians right to your doorstep,” said Faedyn. She shook her head. “I’ve never seen such carelessness. Really, Aeryn, we expected much better from you.”

Aeryn swallowed again. Please, Goddess, don’t let them kick me out. I know you didn’t choose me so that I could prove a failure after only a week.

“Have you nothing to say for yourself?” Telwen asked.

Aeryn glanced up. “It was a mistake.”

“A mistake!” cried Faedyn. “We wish it were that simple!”

“You brought her to Lare,” Larken said. “Why did you do that?”

“She’s a Seer,” Aeryn replied. “A very powerful one. And I …” her voice trailed off, then picked up again, “I just wanted her to understand.”

“A Seer?” Faedyn laughed. “Impossible.”

Larken asked, “Why do you think her a Seer?”

“She saw Kalen. She sees things. She-“

“All the Seers are accounted for,” Faedyn interrupted, rather sternly. “There are already two. There can only be two.”

Aeryn looked at Larken. The High Priestess was gazing at her curiously. “She is a Seer,” Aeryn insisted. “And if she isn’t, then she is something else. But she knows things.”

“Psychic, perhaps,” Ellowyn said, speaking for the first time. “A girl with psychic powers is rather ordinary. A Seer…”

Aeryn sighed. “Whatever she is, she must be protected from the Guardians.”

“Well!” cried Faedyn. “Then what exactly have you been doing?”

Aeryn clenched her jaw, feeling ashamed.

Larken held up her hand, and the Elders, who now murmured amongst themselves, quieted. “Seers are chosen at birth, Aeryn, and they are raised to be so. Their powers are too great to be allowed to co-exist in great numbers. Two is the limit. This …”

“Azure,” Aeryn supplied, rather quietly.

“Azure,” Larken repeated, “might harbor psychic powers. Those are common. She might be a great help to you in your mission. But a Seer, she cannot be.”

Aeryn nodded, not knowing what else to do.

“You’ve made a grave mistake,” continued Larken, “in failing to conceal your spell. We expect that from now on you will be more attentive. We cannot know what the Guardians will do with whatever information they have acquired. So, in the meantime, we must wait. You’ll change rooms at once.” She glanced down at a sheet of paper. “Bickford Hall, room 218.”

Aeryn arched a brow. That was Azure’s building.

“Now that you’ve put her in peril, there is not other choice but to keep watch of her. And if she does have psychic powers, as you say, then she might be of help to you.” Larken stared at her evenly. “The strange thing, Aeryn, is that we cannot detect her power.”

“I don’t understand.”

“She doesn’t appear to have any powers at all. We checked her completely.”

Aeryn frowned. What could that mean? “Just for future reference, how would I be able to tell if someone is a Seer?”

The Elders erupted in laughter.

Larken remained serious. “There would be a mark.”

“What kind of mark?”

“The mark of the Goddess.”

“Where?”

“Somewhere…intimate.” Larken smiled.

And Aeryn blushed. “I see.” She swallowed. “So … then … how do you know who the two are?”

The laughter abated.

“Let’s just say, they are among us,” Larken replied. “And leave it at that.”

17:

When Azure opened her eyes, it was dawn. She blinked in surprise and glanced at the alarm clock: 6:04. It had been two the last time she’d looked at it. She didn’t remember falling asleep.

Slowly, the night’s events seeped through her sleepy consciousness and exploded in her mind. How much of it was true and how much had been a dream, she couldn’t decipher. She did, however, recall asking Aeryn to stay. She had feared, in spite of everything, that the girl was in danger. And so, she had placed blankets on the floor along with an extra pillow. She had ignored Aeryn’s protests and looks of confusion. But, Aeryn had finally agreed, saying, “It’s probably best that I’m here if that woman returns.”

Azure hadn’t replied. She had crawled into her own bed and turned off the light. But then, after she was certain that Aeryn was asleep, she’d turned on her side and stared at the slumbering figure. How could someone so small think themselves a protector? The girl couldn’t be more than 5’3”, weighed barely over 100 pounds, if that. She was hardly muscular, as far as female wrestlers went. And still, she had insisted, to the point of almost begging, that she be allowed to protect her. It would’ve been comical, if not for everything else.

It was the everything else that Azure didn’t want to think about.

The clock read 6:06, now, and she thought to glance down and see if Aeryn was awake. What she found, instead, were the blankets and the pillow neatly placed upon the desk.

Azure frowned, but not deeply. A part of her was relieved. The other parts were still too dazed to give it all much thought.

She turned so that her back was to the room. She stared at the bare wall beside her bed and tried to think of nothing. Sleep came easier than she expected. She left consciousness far behind again, slipping away into a place where, for once, the nightmares didn’t haunt her.

At some point, minutes later, or perhaps hours later, she turned around, searching for a more comfortable position. And as she did so, her eyes opened for a brief second; long enough to notice something strange: the wound on her arm had healed.

That’s weird, she thought, or started to think, but then the dreams pulled her back in.

18:

“What do you think of these jeans?” asked Ry, gazing at his reflection. He turned to face Naia. “First impression.”

Naia looked at him thoughtfully. “Nice butt,” she answered.

Pleased, Ry turned once again to his reflection. “Yeah? Guess I’ll wear these tonight, then.”

“What’s tonight?”

“Boys night at Cupid.” He looked at Naia in the mirror. “Want to come?”

“As much as I would love to watch some hot gay man point his arrow in your direction, I have some things to take care of.” She fussed with her dreads for a minute, and then gave up. “Installing cameras in a University campus is hard work.”

“Never mind that it’s illegal.”

Naia shrugged. “Journalists live by different rules.”

“So do sociopaths and murderers,” Ry pointed out. “Doesn’t make their actions any less wrong.”

“You’re not being supportive.”

“I draw the line at invasion of privacy.”

“Yeah? Well those jeans make your hips look fat.”

Ry frowned. “Seriously?”

Naia stood, feeling frustrated, and somewhat angry. “It’s not like I’m putting cameras in people’s rooms. Just in the hallways. I don’t want to invade anyone’s privacy. I just want to see what goes on when no one is around. I could care less about people picking their noses when they think no one’s looking. I care about the ghosts. I care about the shadows and the orbs. There has to be something lurking behind all of this normality.”

He let out a sigh and turned, pants and fat hips forgotten for the moment. “So, is your supernatural surveillance all set up?”

“Sort of. I am still trying to work out the kinks.”

“And are there many of those?”

“A few,” Naia admitted. “I can’t get any actual picture yet. But that’s just a technicality.”

“Of course,” Ry agreed, turning back to the mirror. “And I suppose that’s what you’ll be ‘taking care of’ later?”

Naia nodded. “Indeed.” She smiled. “Ry, when I get these cameras working, the possibilities are endless. It will be like unlocking the door to the unknown.” She sounded almost giddy with excitement.

“Yes, yes it will.” Ry frowned, distracted by other thoughts. “Now please be honest: do these jeans really make my hips look fat?”

But Naia wasn’t listening. She was lost to the dreams inside her head, to the ghosts and the fairies and werewolves that lurked in the shadows of darkened hallways. “This could be it,” she said nodding. “I’ll find them. And when I do, the Weekly Bizarre will be the hottest newspaper in the world.” She smiled, satisfied with her brilliance, and drunk in her hopes.

“You get creepier and crazier by the minute, I hope you know that.”

Naia simply smiled.

 
 

Chapter 3: “The Weekly Bizarre”

1:

Naia pounded her fists against the computer screen monitor. “Work, damn you!” Frustrated, and more than a little pissed off, she checked all of the cables again for what felt like the millionth time—but was probably only the thousandth.

She’d been at this for days to no avail. Her surveillance system was state of the art; everything had been tested and re-tested right in front of her. There were no flaws with her equipment. “You must be connecting it wrong,” they’d told her. But she’d connected everything exactly how they’d instructed her to.

“I don’t get it,” she mumbled, sitting back in her chair, defeated. Unless, she thought suddenly, there’s some kind of supernatural block. Why hadn’t she thought of that before? Her excitement turned to confusion. But, why should ghosts be camera shy? Wouldn’t they want to be exposed? Wouldn’t they want to be recognized, set free?

Brown eyes scanned the room and narrowed. What were they hiding? And then her gaze came to rest on the clock, and she jumped. “Crap!” She was late for class. Stupid Friday class from hell, as she preferred to call it. Led by Dr. Satan Myars.

Naia grabbed a pen from her desk and dug out a notebook from the pile of junk on the floor. Flipping through the pages to make sure there were blank sheets left, she made her way down the hallway.

Four years at Merfolk College and it had never occurred to her to get an off-campus apartment. She loved the dorms, loved Kings Hall, with its winding hallways and abandoned basement. She’d slept down there many times, in the company of strange sounds and even stranger sensations. There was something down there, even if she’d never seen it. Sometimes it wasn’t what was seen, but rather, what was felt.

People thought her insane, but to her, they were the crazy ones. The world was filled with hidden truths and unsolvable mysteries, and yet people went on with their lives, turning their backs on what might lie behind the shadows. Well, Naia would rather die than ignore everything she had grown up believing; everything she had grown up knowing. And if there were mysteries in Merfolk, she would be the one to solve them.

She hurried across the freshly mowed lawns of the Merfolk campus. The town could use some rain, Naia noted, as her boots crunched down on the patches of dead grass. She looked up at the clear blue sky. No chance of that any time soon. If she’d been religious, Naia would’ve prayed for rain at that moment. She would have prayed for her equipment to work, for her newspaper to do well, and for the professor to start class late.

But Naia didn’t believe in a higher power. There were things even too unbelievable for her.

2:

Azure stared at the Rosary in her palm. She’d been clutching it so tightly that the cross left an imprint on her skin. With a sigh, she closed her fingers around it and looked up.

She’d been sitting at the steps of the dining hall for twenty minutes, waiting for Aeryn to appear. She’d risen from bed to find a note on her door: “Thank you for letting me spend the night. Want to meet me for lunch at 11:30?” Azure had meant to ignore the invitation, but there were still so many things she wanted to ask. How had her wound disappeared, for example? She rubbed at the skin that not twelve hours prior had been red and broken.

Think of me as a mystical bodyguard, Aeryn had said. But what in the world did that mean?

“I’m late, aren’t I?” and Azure realized that Aeryn was now standing in front of her, looking apologetic. “I forgot I didn’t have a watch or a clock or a sundial or anything to tell time by. I’m sorry to keep you waiting.”

Azure stared into light green eyes and wondered why she hadn’t opted for ignorance after all. “What happened to my arm?”

Aeryn hesitated a moment before responding. “I said I could treat it for you.”

“Normally, that involves a band-aid or gauze,” Azure replied, her eyes fixed on Aeryn’s.

Aeryn lowered her head for a moment, and as she did so, her long, silk-brown hair fell across her face, covering her features. She pushed some strands behind her ear and her gaze rose to meet Azure’s. “I just didn’t want you to be in pain.”

Azure stared, unsure how to reply.

“Especially on account of me,” Aeryn added after a moment.

But it still didn’t explain how her arm had been healed, or who Aeryn was. Azure remembered the Rosary she held and, almost without thought, placed the cross against Aeryn’s hand. She wasn’t sure what she expected to happen; perhaps that Aeryn’s skin would sizzle and burn, that Aeryn would recoil in shame.

Instead, Aeryn glanced down with a confused expression, and then with a smile of amusement. “I’m not a vampire,” she said.

Embarrassed, Azure pulled back. “Then what are you?”

Aeryn sighed and sat down on the step next to Azure. She glanced straight ahead, at the students passing by, or at the campus buildings, or at the sky—Azure couldn’t be certain. Then, she looked at Azure and said, “I’m a mage.”

“A … mage,” Azure repeated, sounding out the word in order to emphasize how ridiculous it sounded. The Devil’s work, her father’s voice spoke inside Azure’s mind and she swallowed. She glanced briefly at the healed wound on her arm, or rather, at the absence of a wound. “Are you saying you’re … a witch?”

Aeryn stared at Azure curiously before shaking her head. She grinned while staring at the ground. “Something like that.” She bit her lip for a second. “Only … different. Slightly more … powerful.”

Azure breathed evenly for a long moment. “Right.” She didn’t have any more words than that. She didn’t even know where to begin comprehending. She’d had thought the girl insane if not for all the evidence to the contrary. Not unless they were both crazy, which, at the moment, seemed like the most reasonable answer.

“I know this is a lot to take in.” Aeryn watched a group of students pass by and disappear inside the dining hall. “I mean … magick in your world is …” She shrugged, and for a moment, Azure thought she saw a hint of bitterness in her eyes. But the look subsided. “I don’t blame you for not believing me; or rather, for not wanting to believe me.” Aeryn glanced up, stared into Azure’s eyes. “I know that you have seen many things others have never wanted to believe.”

Azure looked away. She couldn’t bear the intensity of Aeryn’s gaze. “I’m not sure I even believe what I’ve seen.”

“You saw Kalen.”

“Who?”

“My spirit guide. You saw him speaking to me, in front of the café.”

Azure recalled the ghost standing beside Aeryn. “Do you see him too?”

“No, I only hear him,” Aeryn answered.

Azure looked at Aeryn’s profile, and forgot for a second what it was they were talking about. It was confusing and troubling, to be filled with so many conflicting emotions about the same person. It was disturbing, really. “So if you’re such a powerful mage, or whatever … how come your only mode of defense last night was to kiss me?” And the words seemed so strange coming from her lips that for a second she wondered if she’d dreamed the entire ordeal.

Aeryn looked at Azure. “It wasn’t my only mode of defense, but it was the best one under the circumstances. The woman made no attempt to attack or harm us, and I am bound by my laws not to use magick unless necessary. Against someone, I mean,” she added, as if remembering Azure’s arm. “Plus,” Aeryn said and smiled, “you’re kind of cute.”

Azure felt the blood rush to her cheeks and she looked away. “Don’t say things like that, okay?” she pleaded. “I’m not … I don’t … want …”

Aeryn laughed and stood up. “No kissing and no complimenting.” She offered her hand to help Azure up. “Anything else?”

Azure looked at the hand and back up at Aeryn. “No touching.”

Aeryn pulled her hand away and shook her head. “You’ve got issues.” She laughed good-naturedly and started climbing the rest of the steps to the dining hall beyond. “You’ll have to type me up a rule book.”

Azure watched Aeryn for a moment and shook her head before following after her.

3:

Larken paced nervously behind her desk. Something was wrong. She could feel it, but couldn’t place it; and that fact troubled her most of all.

Faedyn cleared her throat. “Larken…”

The High Priestess stopped, recalling that she was not alone. “I don’t know,” she said finally.

“What don’t you know, Larken?”

“I don’t know what it is that I don’t know,” Larken replied, frustrated. “I feel it. But I can’t see it.” She looked up. “Do you pick up anything?”

“Now why should I pick up on something you can’t?”

Larken ignored the trace of bitterness that accompanied the words. “And the girl?”

“Still nothing,” replied the Elder. “I ran all the tests I could think of.”

“That is so very odd,” said Larken thoughtfully. “I think I would like to test her myself.”

“Of course you would.”

Larken stared evenly at her sister. “I’m in no mood for your petty jealousies, Fae. After all of these years—“

“Yes,” interrupted the angry voice, “after all of these years of standing by while they rained rose petals at your feet; while they worshiped your every word, your every sigh … all of those years of knowing the truth and standing at the sidelines, watching them adore you.” Faedyn’s eyes narrowed in anger. “If they only knew that it was you that nearly brought an end to all of this. If they only knew that—“

“Enough!” Larken cried. “I know what I have done. I have spent the past twenty years of my life trying to make right by my mistakes.”

“Have you?” Faedyn wondered. “Or have you merely gotten lost in the glory of your reign?”

Larken’s eyes darkened.

“Don’t look so surprised to hear me allude to it, Larken,” Faedyn replied. “They might not know what you did, but I do.”

“Is that a threat?”

“Now why would I want to threaten you?” Faedyn smiled thinly. “When it’s you that’s the threat?” She gave Larken a long, hard look before retreating from the room.

Larken watched the door slam close but didn’t flinch at the sound. She shook her head, silver-white tresses falling across her face. “She thinks she knows everything,” she murmured softly.

The spirits, which had remained silent during the confrontation, spoke up now.

She’ll know when the time is right.

They all will.

Larken walked to the window. Outside, Lare was bathed in darkness. She could hear the ocean and the wind and the murmur of voices near and far. Her gaze lingered on the island below before turning back to the spirits. “The girl that Aeryn brought here,” she said. “Who is she?”

They hesitated.

In time, Larken. Everything will be revealed, in time.

4:

Azure stared at the pen in her hand and then at the attempted lyrics on her notebook. She read over her words and crossed them all out.

The ghost by the door stared at her.

Azure ignored the intruder. She picked up her Biology textbook and pretended to read. Her thoughts, however, kept drifting.

She had spent the past seven years of her life trying to unlearn all of the things the first eleven had shown her. She had spent her childhood listening to the ghosts—like the one standing by her bed now—tell her stories upon stories. They told her she was special. They told her to be strong. They told her never … ever … to change. At night, she would fall asleep to their whispers, to their stories of Heaven and God.

“Ghosts!” her mother had cried when Azure had told her. And foolishly, Azure had insisted. Until, finally, there came the first of many trips to the basement, the first of many scars; the first of many nights she wished she would die.

Azure traced her fingers along her arm, at the place another wound should be. She thought of the visions she’d had upon touching Aeryn the first time. The most disturbing of which, she’d been recalling frequently. But she had pushed the others away, had nearly forgotten them: the black cape with the strange symbol of fire upon it, the man with piercing green eyes…

“His name is Jael,” spoke the ghost.

Azure flinched at the words, but didn’t look up. “I don’t want to hear this,” she whispered.

The ghost was silent for a long time. So long that Azure was certain it would never speak again. But then, it said, “Why do you insist on trusting the words of those who hurt you most deeply?”

“Honor thy Father and thy Mother,” Azure replied bitterly.

“Do you find cruelty an honorable thing?”

Azure did look at the ghost, then. Miserably, she said, “Must you torture me further?”

It seemed to sigh. And then it vanished.

5:

“Light refractions,” Naia said in disgust, deleting another email. “Damn these people and their so-called ‘orbs’! Don’t they know there’s a difference?” She went on, “And what’s with these idiots trying to capture orbs with digital cameras? Don’t they know digital cameras are unreliable for this kind of thing?”

Ry mumbled something from the bed. To Naia’s ears, it sounded like, “Why do you let bee people wet the panties and the lisp.”

“What?” Naia turned around. “What bee people?”

Ry looked up from a copy of The Advocate. “I said, why do you let these people get your panties in a twist? At least they send you things. If I were you, I’d print those pictures and paste them to the first page of The Weekly. I’d even pursue the ‘bee people’ at this point ‘cause, honey, you’re running out of time.”

“Thanks,” Naia replied. Bitch, she added, turning back to her desk. She was about to go back to her mail, when she noticed movement out of the corner of her eye. She blinked in surprise at the monitor screen. “It’s working!”

Ry appeared at her side a moment later. “Yeah, wow,” he said. “I see now. An empty hallway will surely make all the difference.”

Naia rolled her eyes. She was used to his cynicism … but it was still annoying. “Go back to your little magazine, Bartholomew.”

“Actually, I’m due at work soon. I should get ready.” He kissed the top of Naia’s head and started toward the door.

“Are you closing the Gay and Proud tonight?”

“Unfortunately.” At the doorway, he asked, “You’ll watch me rehearse later?”

“Ah-huh.”

Shaking his head, Ry left the room.

6:

Zora leaned against the doorway of the game room and waited for Jael to take his shot.

He stood by the pool table staring down at the constellation of balls. He frowned only slightly and then, with a wave of his hand, the white ball rolled suddenly against a striped one, and sunk it into the pocket. He crossed his arms and smiled. Without looking up, he said, “Care for a game?”

“No thank you,” she answered and stepped closer. “Is this what you do all day?”

He looked at her, smile still in place. “Just enjoying the fruits of my labor.” He glanced down at the table again and his smile began to fade, replaced instead, by a frown of concentration. “How did it go?”

Zora hesitated only a moment before saying, “I didn’t find anything. Like you said, it was probably some novice delving into the occult.”

Jael nodded distractedly. “It’s a shame that they’re delving into the white magicks, don’t you think?” He waved his hand again, and again the white ball flew across the table, hitting the blue striped one. It fell into the pocket easily. “There are so fewer restrictions in our world.”

Zora offered a brief smile.

Jael sighed and looked up. “Did you know the Pope apologized for the Inquisition?” At her surprise, he added. “Oh yes. It was in the papers.” He shook his head. “Meanwhile, ten stories spring up at the same time about how there were fewer deaths caused by the witch-hunts than had been previously theorized. As if any number would have been justified!” He waved his hand again, and the balls flew in all directions at once. It sounded like thunder.

Jael paced alongside the table, and continued: “So really what the apology was intended for was to shut the pagan community up, and at the same time belittle their reactions. ‘The Church is very sorry that we burned your people and tortured them, rather needlessly, but it was imperative for the progression of our beliefs. And really, it was such a small number anyway … can you really be that mad, after all of these years?’”

Zora didn’t reply.

Jael looked at her. “Tell me, Zora, doesn’t it just make you seethe?”

Perhaps years ago, when she began with the Guardians. Perhaps, then, she would have joined in Jael’s rage. But now, she was left with a feeling akin to emptiness. “Wouldn’t you consider it, at least, some progress?”

Jael laughed and seemed genuinely amused. “Do you think he feels truly sorry?” He smiled thoughtfully. “Perhaps we should find out. A trip to the Vatican should do it. We’ll invite the dear Akashans as well. We’ll all sit down to a pleasant meal to discuss sports and the weather. ‘Why, yes, I did just make it rain in Connecticut,’ I would say to him. And he, of course, would laugh good-naturedly, and reply, ‘Oh, Jaely – for we’d be on pet names by then, naturally – aim for Arizona next time, will you? And if you would be so kind as to slip me the lottery numbers, that would be rather grand. Pip. Pip.”

Zora placed the ball back on the table and smiled. “I don’t think they say ‘pip pip’ in Italy.”

“Well, they should. It’s a lovely expression. Whatever it means…” Jael shrugged, and started to move away from the table. “Let me show you something marvelous.”

She followed him out of the game room and into his office, careful, as always, to remove her shoes before treading on the snow-white carpet. Jael was rather meticulous about his things. Her gaze lingered on the surveillance system. Every inch of the estate was viewable from the sixteen television screens Jael had in his office. He took great care to ensure the protection of the Guardians in his care.

“We have located six of them,” he announced proudly.

And Zora looked down to see a map of the world, and the pentagram symbol over several locations. “The Order?”

“Only seven to go,” he answered brightly. He looked as if he wanted to add something, but instead sighed softly and rolled the map back up. “Unfortunately, we have been unable to find any trace of their secret lair. Their Queen must be exterminated first, of course.”

Zora arched a brow. “How would we defeat her if we don’t know where she is?”

“We’ll just have to force her out,” Jael answered. “I expect it won’t be long now before she grows restless in her cage.”

“Do you know who she is?”

“I have a fairly good idea,” Jael answered somewhat bitterly.

Zora caught a flash of something sinister in his ice blue eyes and she chose not to ask any more questions.

7:

“What is life?” Professor Clark asked the class, her voice reverberating through the small lecture hall. “What is death? Can we define one without the other?” On the board, she wrote “Life” and next to it “Death,” before turning back to the students. “The way we perceive death can sometimes influence the way we live life. ‘Live each day as if you will die tomorrow.’ Why is that such a popular motivational motto?” The professor stared at the class for a second. “Anyone?”

Azure shifted in her seat, waiting for someone to raise their hands and say something. In her notebook she wrote, “The way we perceive death can sometimes influence the way we live life.” She wondered if that was true, but only briefly. A voice—not the teacher’s—broke through the otherwise silent classroom.

“If we thought we might die tomorrow we might be motivated to do something more meaningful today,” a girl said from somewhere in the front row.

Professor Clark smiled. “So, in essence, dying tomorrow would rob us of the ability to procrastinate.”

There was a small wave of chuckling from the class.

“Everyone has their own ideas of what happens after we die. But what do these beliefs mean in terms of our daily existence? Should the knowledge of our impending eradication from the life we know be the catalyst for our actions? Why is the idea of death such a powerful reminder to live fully, to live meaningfully?

“We spend most of our days trying to escape life. We watch television, we read books, we play games. We live outside of ourselves for a greater part of our existence. Why, then, is the idea of no longer being here so profoundly terrifying? If you knew you would not be here tomorrow, what would you do differently today?”

“Well I wouldn’t come to class!” a student called.

The professor laughed. “Touché.” She smiled. “For Tuesday, I want you to write me two-to-four pages, double-spaced, on your beliefs about life. Tell me how you would like to live your life. The sky’s the limit.” She paused. “That’s it. Have a good weekend.”

There was an eruption of noise as everyone started moving at once: the seats of chairs folding noisily against the backs as students rushed to leave, the sound of zippers and books slamming shut.

Azure watched the stampede of students nearly trample each other on their way out of the doors. She shook her head. Idiots. She took her time packing up and as she stood, she saw a familiar form sitting a few rows away. Damn, she’s everywhere. Azure hung back for a moment, hoping Aeryn would leave without seeing her.

But Aeryn caught her gaze a second later and smiled. She picked up her book bag and headed over. “Fancy meeting you here,” she said when she was close enough.

“I didn’t know you were interested in Life and the Afterlife.” Azure glanced around, trying to do anything but look at Aeryn.

“It sounded like an interesting class. Are you done for the day?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you hungry? Want to join me at the dining hall?”

Azure hesitated. She couldn’t figure out at what point her plan to keep away from Aeryn had become completely obsolete. “Okay. I just have to drop off my books at the dorm first. I hate carrying stuff around.”

“I’ll go with you. Oh, did I mention we’re neighbors now?”

Azure glanced at Aeryn in surprise. “What?”

“Yeah I just moved in this morning. Order’s order.” She laughed. “Oh, and I’m sorry for calling you a Seer. Turns out I was wrong about that.”

Azure didn’t know what to say to that. There was a part of her that was certain Aeryn was insane, and another that found her completely intriguing. “Um, okay.”

She did look at Aeryn, then, and the first thing she noticed was that Aeryn’s hair was in a ponytail with several strands hanging over her face. She was dressed in a black tank top with a blue half moon in the center and black baggy cargo pants. Azure’s gaze drifted to the black choker around Aeryn’s neck. From it hung a silver pendant.

Azure took a step back at the sight of the symbol. She remembered it vividly from her vision. A star encircled in a ring of fire; the man the ghost called Jael standing at its center. “I just remembered I have other plans,” she said suddenly. “I have to go.” She didn’t wait for Aeryn’s reply before heading toward the nearest exit.

8:

Hours later, Azure was so hungry she couldn’t sit still any longer. She abandoned the half-finished lyrics and the protective shield of her guitar and headed out. The hall was empty, the dorm quiet and still, and Azure felt like the sole survivor of a nuclear war, emerging from a bomb shelter.

The weekends were lonely for those without a home to run to.

And Azure thought inevitably of her mother, alone now in that house with memory-stained walls, the color of spilt blood. Her mother, undoubtedly sitting at the old maple desk, hovered over the Bible, reciting Scripture quotes to the lingering ghosts.

Azure shook away the vision of her mother and started down the hall, not meaning to glance into the room with the open door, not meaning to halt in her steps. And her gaze inadvertently fixed itself upon the sleeping figure on the bed, whose body lay buried beneath the shadows. The room was dark, save for three candles burning away on the nightstand and the blue fluorescent lighting seeping in from the doorway.

Azure recognized Aeryn despite the near-darkness and was dismayed to learn that the girl now lived only three doors down from her. She felt a tinge of fear at the corner of her senses, fear mixing inevitably with an alien sense of exaltation.

“You are right to fear her, but not for the reasons you think,” said the voice beside her, and Azure turned to face the ghost from earlier. The ghost, looking almost as real as anybody else, stared at her with a kind of motherly disapproval.

“What do you want from me?” Azure asked in a whisper, hoping that her voice would not wake Aeryn.

A hint of a frown passed across the ghost’s dark features. “Must someone always want something from you?” she asked. The ghost paused, and then she, too, whispered: “You’re the only one that can stop her.”

“Stop who?” and here Azure’s voice rose because she forgot that she was standing in the middle of the hallway talking to thin air; forgot that Aeryn was sleeping a few feet away.

“Rayne,” the ghost said simply before it vanished.

“Rain?” Azure whispered to herself, more confused than ever.

“Am I interrupting something?”

And Azure turned to find Aeryn staring at her curiously from the doorway, her hair messy and her eyes squinting under the light of the hallway. She was clad in boxers and a tank top and it was all Azure could do not to stare.

She blushed instead, knew that if she spoke she’d stutter, and decided to keep her mouth shut for as long as possible.

Aeryn said, “Guess I fell asleep with the door open.”

And all Azure could come up with was: “You know candles aren’t allowed in the dooms; fire hazard.”

Out of reflex, or perhaps sleepy-confusion, Aeryn turned and glanced back into the room. “Oh.” She offered a smile. “Guess I’ll have to keep my door closed when I light them then.” She blinked a few times, her eyes getting more used to the light now. “Are you going to run off on me again?”

The bluntness of the question caught Azure off-guard. “I was actually going to get food,” and that came out easily, because it was true.

“Am I allowed to come with you?”

Azure hesitated.

“Well how about I walk about ten steps behind you, would that be okay?”

Uneasily, Azure glanced at the charm still hanging from Aeryn’s neck.

Aeryn touched the silver pendant with one hand as if remembering that it was there. “Contrary to popular belief, the pentagram is not the devil’s symbol,” Aeryn said lightly. “I wear it for protection. But if this is all that’s keeping you from saying I can go eat with you, I’ll take it off.”

Azure didn’t know how to explain her vision. “Didn’t you have dinner already?” she asked, because she was stalling. Because she didn’t know how to say yes to Aeryn’s question or even how to say no. She didn’t know how to ease the anxiousness she felt when in Aeryn’s presence; didn’t know how to sort through all of the mixed emotions long enough to find consistency in her reactions.

Aeryn had disappeared inside the room, which was now bathed in the soft white light of hanging Christmas lights. Azure stepped up to the doorway and glanced into the room. The walls were bare but the floor was covered in a blue/black rug.

“Protection spells always wear me out,” Aeryn replied now standing by the closet. “I guess that’s why I passed out. I’m starving now.” She held out a pair of jeans and stepped into them.

Azure averted her eyes, despite the fact that Aeryn hadn’t taken off the boxer shorts.

“Is the act of me putting on more clothes embarrassing to you?” Aeryn teased. “You are so strange.” But she laughed. “Hey, can I show you something?”

And Azure didn’t answer, but allowed her silence to be interpreted as a yes.

“Here, come in and close the door.”

Azure complied and Aeryn turned off the Christmas lights, leaving only the candles. She then blew them off one by one.

Before Azure had a chance to panic, Aeryn turned on a black light, its purple rays revealing glow-in-the-dark stars scattered all over the walls and ceiling.

“It took me all day, but I managed to recreate a few of the constellations,” and Aeryn sounded so proud that Azure had to smile. “What do you think?”

But Azure couldn’t think of a single thing to say regarding the stars. She was too busy being conscious of Aeryn’s presence near her. Because if she was honest, all she could really think was that Aeryn was beautiful. And that the pattern of stars, however impressive, dimmed in comparison to what she felt when Aeryn was near.

You are right to fear her, but not for the reasons you think, the ghost had said. But Azure couldn’t think of a better reason to be afraid.

“I love them,” she said finally because she could no longer put off answering. “They’re beautiful.”

And the Christmas lights returned, drowning the stars. “Thanks,” Aeryn said. “I’ve always wanted to make love beneath fake plastic stars.”

And Azure felt the blood rush to her face, her heart skipping far too many beats for her to still be breathing.

“Whoa, I didn’t mean with you,” and Aeryn laughed. “I’ll keep my comments PG from now on, okay?” She opened the door. “Ready?”

Azure merely managed a nod before stepping out into the comfort of the hall.

9:

Feet propped up on the desk, Naia leaned back on her chair and stretched. She sighed as she straightened up. Failure was not something she was used to, neither was resignation or defeat. But all of it stared back at her now, reflected upon the blank template of what would’ve been The Weekly Bizarre’s first issue. The cursor blinked expectantly, drumming out the seconds of wasted words and lost opportunity.

Shaking her head she leaned back again. Movement on one of her monitors caught her attention and she focused her semi-disinterested gaze on the screen. She idly watched a girl she didn’t know exit one dorm room and head down the hall. As Naia was about to turn back to the computer, the girl on the screen flinched, jumped as if startled and turned toward nothing. Naia leaned forward in her chair, eyebrows narrowed and interest piqued. “What the …?”

The girl on the screen spoke to the air, her facial expressions illustrating a mixture an annoyance and confusion. She paused, as if listening, and then spoke again.

Naia stared, perplexed and fascinated.

But the moment ended. The girl turned around and faced somebody that was there. Naia regretted not installing speakers on the system.

The moment the girl disappeared inside the other girl’s room, Naia hit rewind on the tape. She played it over and over, watching the same scene replay, coming to the same conclusion every time.

“She can see them,” Naia whispered, almost disbelieving. Her face broke into a smile. “The Weekly Bizarre lives.”

10:

Jael finished reading Zora’s report on her mission to Merfolk and sat back thoughtfully in his chair. Something was amiss, he knew. Zora was either lying or withholding information, and neither option pleased him. How dare she lie to him after all he had done for her? It pained him, for many reasons, to think that Zora might have betrayed his confidence. It pained him, but it did not surprise him. She had betrayed him once before, and he had forgiven her. He had absolved her of all of her actions, gained her confidence, and freed her from the memories of her past misdeeds.

“What are you hiding from me, Zora?” Jael wondered aloud. “What could you have seen in that little town that would make you go so far as to lie to me?”

He stared at the two names on the report, Aeryn and Azure. “Who are you?” He smiled to himself, reclining in his chair. “I guess we’ll find out.”

 

 


Chapter 4: “Visions”

 

Azure Varden
Life and the Afterlife
Professor Clark

If I could live my life differently, the quiet would far exceed the noise. I would close my eyes against the darkness and surrender to the beauty of peace. I would not hear whispers against my ear. I would not question my sanity. I would let people get close to me. I would let people touch me. I would not be the empty shell I fear I have become.

~*~
Aeryn Larson
Life and the Afterlife
Professor Clark

There was a time, not very long ago, when all I wanted was to know my mother’s name. I would lay awake at night and wonder what she was like. I’d wonder what her last thoughts were before she died. I thought that if I prepared myself, that if I became the strongest version of myself possible, that I might one day face the ones who hurt her and exact revenge.

Now, years later, I’m not sure what it is I want.

~*~
{Azure}
I was sure, for a very long time that I wouldn’t live to see my eighteenth birthday, so I haven’t given much thought to what I want the rest of my life to be like. I think I am beyond repair. I think there are some scars that stay forever. The ones that disappear, well, even those have the power to forever change your life.

~*~
{Aeryn}
If you look closely enough, you can see that everyone is lost. How can you imagine the future of a life you feel is constantly spiraling out of your control? You make decisions every day and all that you can do is hope is that you don’t regret your choices. In the end, that’s what it all boils down to: choices. If we could all go back and choose differently, what would we change?

1:

After a few days of careful observation, Azure had finally figured out the perfect bathroom schedule. By her calculations, the rush started around 8:30am. After that point, it was nearly impossible to find an available spot at the sinks, an open shower, and worst of all, a way to get by without accidentally brushing against someone. There was no other way to ensure utmost peace and privacy: she would have to wake up earlier than everybody else, much, much earlier.

When Azure pushed open the bathroom door at six in the morning, silence rewarded her. She stood in the doorway for several seconds, making sure she was indeed alone, before stepping inside. She breathed a sigh of relief at the stillness.

She placed her shower caddy at the edge of the closest sink and faced her reflection. The fluorescent lighting did nothing to flatter Azure’s appearance, its dull, unforgiving light shining down in blue-tinted rays. She took in the puffy brown eyes, the disheveled black hair rising awkwardly on one side of her head, and sighed.

“I’m such a mess,” she whispered, lowering her gaze to stare idly at the white tiles behind the sink. She half expected someone or something to answer her, but her comment was met with silence.

She cast nervous glances at the reflection behind her, while brushing her teeth. She wasn’t alone, this she knew, and she couldn’t decide what was worse: seeing who was there, or being left to wonder. She rinsed her mouth and with a last glance at the seemingly empty bathroom, headed for the showers.

She turned on the spray and waited outside of the shower stall while the water warmed up. The showers were a nightmare, the temperature turning from freezing cold to scalding hot without any warning. After some trial and error, Azure had figured out which of the stalls maintained the most stable water temperatures, but even that didn’t guarantee anything.

The water having turned a pleasant enough temperature, Azure began to take off her bathrobe. She heard the divider curtain between the bathroom and showers area slide open, but it was too late. The robe was halfway to the hook outside the stall.

“Wow.”

Azure quickly covered herself back up with the bathrobe, blushing furiously as she turned to see Aeryn standing a few feet away. “What are you doing here?” she demanded. She couldn’t imagine anything more humiliating than this moment.

“I decided to shower at an ungodly hour in the off chance that I might catch you naked.” Aeryn grinned and surveyed the row of shower stalls. “You took the best one. I suppose you don’t want to share?”

Azure swallowed, her brain was having technical difficulties, and she wasn’t sure she was even breathing.

“I’m kidding, Azure, relax,” Aeryn chuckled, and placed the objects she carried on the floor.

Azure glanced down at the shampoo and conditioner bottles, thinking it a safer place to land her gaze. Before long, however, she found herself looking back up. Aeryn was in the process of turning on the shower, and Azure knew this was the perfect opportunity to jump under the spray unseen. Still, she remained rooted in place. What am I doing? What am I doing?

Aeryn caught her staring. “Something wrong?”

If possible, Azure blushed more. “No. The water’s just cold, still,” she lied.

“Ah.” Aeryn smiled at her, and then without any warning whatsoever, removed her bathrobe, and slipped into the stall.

Azure blinked, staring at the space that Aeryn had just occupied. Her brain officially short-circuited, and she swallowed again. She tried to push away the vision of them, the one that snuck up on her at the most inopportune moments. She fought against the memory of Aeryn’s mouth on hers. She breathed, shut her eyes against the images of Aeryn on top of her.

“You know, it helps if you actually get in the stall,” Aeryn teased, her voice sounding strange against the noise of running water.

Azure opened her eyes, and leaving behind memories of soft breasts against her skin, placed the robe on the hook. As she pulled open the curtain to her shower stall, she prayed the water was cold.

2:

Like any true journalist in the quest for truth, Naia Dalton was well versed in the ways of stalking. Following living people, Naia was finding out, was far easier than following dead ones. She’d had no trouble spotting the black-haired girl as she’d exited the dorms, and no trouble at all following her into the dining hall. College life, Naia was also finding out, provided the perfect setting for a mission such as hers.

When the girl sat down at an empty table, Naia followed. She chose her seat carefully, taking one that was close enough for conversation, but also far enough that it didn’t break any pesky personal space laws. The last thing Naia wanted was to be thought weird. There was, after all, a very thin line between passion and obsession, and between madness and everything else. It was important to maintain a balancing act between all aspects of human nature. Seeming normal was, of course, the key to successful integration. Just like the aliens, Naia thought, idly spearing a leaf of lettuce.

She cast subtle glances at her subject, memorizing the facts: black hair, brown eyes, dresses like she’s on her way to church, cute in an unmarred, virginal sort of way. Naia focused on the gold cross around the girl’s neck for a second. Interesting. She chewed on a tomato while she pondered her next move.

As it turned out, her next move came in the form of doing nothing. The arrival of a third party added a new dimension to the situation. Cue the co-star. Naia took out a notebook, a pen, and a textbook. Under the guise of multi-tasking, she eavesdropped on the unfolding action a couple of seats away.

The new girl sported long cargo shorts and a tight green and yellow shirt with faded print. The silver pentagram hanging from the girl’s neck caught Naia’s attention a moment longer than it should have. She quickly looked back down at the sea of letters on her book, nearly smirking as familiar lyrics rose from her subconscious: So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table…

“Mind if I join you?” Naia heard girl number two ask. And before the other girl answered, she added, “Yes? Well, I’m joining you anyway. I’m sorry about walking in on you this morning. Well, I’m not really sorry, in the regretful wish-I-hadn’t-seen-what-I-saw way. More like, I’m sorry if I embarrassed you, although, I saw nothing to be embarrassed about, actually. You should wear nothing more often.”

Naia’s brows shot up to her hairline at the conversion. She turned the page on her book. I see gay people.

“Have you made it your personal mission to embarrass me at every possible opportunity?” the Christian girl replied.

“It’s not my fault you embarrass so easily. Besides, there’s nothing embarrassing about the human body. It should be celebrated.”

“Look, if you’re going to insist on randomly appearing everywhere I am, I’m going to have to ask you to please stop being so–”

“Honest?”

“Crude,” the black-haired girl finished. “I believe in being–”

“Repressed?”

“Will you quit–”?

“Being so damn charming?”

“Interrupting me!”

Naia turned another page and took a drink of water to hide her smile. Who knew stalking could be so entertaining? Just then, her cell went off, its ring tone identifying the caller. It was bad timing, but she picked it up anyway. “I’m studying,” she said by way of a greeting.

“Studying? Is that code for something?” Ry asked.

“Yes,” she said distractedly.

“… something I need you to help me with,” the Pagan girl was saying. “I need to know if you saw some…”

“So I asked that guy out,” Ry said suddenly in her ear, and Naia didn’t catch the last part of the girl’s sentence.

“Sounds great. I’ll see you tonight, then,” Naia said quickly, and hung up before Ry could say anything else.

Whatever the Pagan girl had said had upset her companion. So much so that Miss Repressed USA was on her feet and rapidly gathering her belongings.

“Azure, wait,” said the Pagan girl, standing up as well. “I need your help.”

Azure, Naia thought, making a note in the memo pad of her mind.

“I can’t help you,” Azure answered, holding up her tray of mostly-untouched food. “If you can’t accept that, then–”

“It’s not me that needs to accept things,” the other interrupted, taking a tone that no longer sounded light or flirtatious.

Without another word, Azure walked away.

Naia considered her options. It would seem too suspicious for her to do anything other than sit there and pretend to read. She tried to make sense of the conversation, but was lacking too much context. She needed a plan.

Meanwhile, the remaining party sat back down and poked at the food on her plate.

Who are you people? Naia wondered, her gaze fixing itself upon the girl’s profile. And without warning, the girl turned to look back at her, light green eyes staring back at Naia’s brown ones. Naia instantly recognized the girl from her Principles of Lit class. Offering a friendly smile, she nodded in greeting. What the hell is her name? Erin?

The girl smiled back, briefly, before turning back to her food.

Naia turned another page.

3:

Larken followed the path of shadows on the floor, letting the random patterns of light guide her through the otherwise darkened corridor. She knew that she was dreaming, in the same way that she knew that she would soon wake up; soon, but not quite yet.

Though she couldn’t see the floor, she knew it was tiled. She could feel the coldness under her bare feet as she walked. She could sense the walls at either side of her, closing in on her. The darkness was suffocating, the silence overwhelming. Where am I? She’d meant to speak the words aloud but couldn’t.

The sounds began as whispers, barely audible voices seeping through the walls, permeating the air with gentle breaths.

“Seer…”

“…cannot…”

“…the balance…”

Larken struggled to understand the broken phrases. The voices spoke at one, their words mixing together, jumbled and unrecognizable. They grew urgent, breaking occasionally into fragments.

“…maintain…”

“…stop…”

Larken felt the darkness descend upon her, the shadows at her feet disappearing under the cold grasp of buried memories. She gasped at the suddenness of change.

“Larken,” said a voice she recognized all too well; a voice she’d hoped to never hear again. “You know I will find you …”

She tried to speak, tried to retaliate. I am not afraid of you, she wanted to say. She was not afraid, that was true, but she was not altogether immune. Even after twenty years, their history, the pain of it, left fresh scars upon her soul.

“And when I do, my dearest, you will regret the day you betrayed me,” Jael continued, his voice coming from nowhere and everywhere at once. “I will find them all, Larken, every precious one. It is only a matter of time.”

Larken realized she was awake before opening her eyes. She stared into the darkness behind her eyelids for a long moment, breathing slowly. When ice blue eyes opened to the outside world, she stared at the deceptive emptiness of the room.

“It has begun,” she whispered to the silence.

“It started a long time ago,” a voice replied. “You knew it the moment you made the choice.”

Larken closed her eyes briefly. “He will not win.”

“Then you must help them.”

“Them?” Larken narrowed her eyes in confusion. “The Order?”

“You will understand when the time is right.”

“We’re running out of time.” Larken sighed, exasperated by her inability to comprehend. Them. Them who?

4:

“Look,” Aeryn said, pushing her way into Azure’s room the second that Azure opened the door. “As much fun as it is to watch the progression of our … whatever it is we have, see-saw back and forth between hot and cold, I think it’s bound to get old really fast. So, I think the best thing for us to do is just deal with it.”

Azure closed the door slowly and leaned her back against it, facing Aeryn, but not speaking.

Aeryn sighed and took at seat on Azure’s bed. “Just tell me what I can do to make you more comfortable, and we’ll take it from there.”

“Leave.”

“Okay,” Aeryn said slowly. “How about less uncomfortable, then?”

Azure shook her head, walking away from the door to sit at the desk. “I don’t know why you keep insisting that we hang out together.”

“You’re the only one that I can trust,” Aeryn said. “You’re the only one I can be honest with, even if you don’t want to believe me. And I’m the only one you can be honest with, even if you don’t want to believe in yourself.”

Azure lowered her gaze and swallowed nervously.

“Whatever reasons you have for wanting to pretend that your visions aren’t real, that the things you see or hear aren’t there, well … it doesn’t stop them from being true.” Aeryn chewed on her bottom lip. She glanced at the items on Azure’s desk and without much of a second thought, watched them levitate. They lifted up from the surface of the table and floated to the center of the room: pencils, papers, notebooks, and paperclips, all of them suspended in the air by the power of will.

Azure gasped, rising from her chair. She backed away from the objects. “How are you doing that?” she breathed.

“This is nothing, Azure,” Aeryn said, leaning back on her elbows. “This is first day of class stuff.” The items floated back to their original place on the desk. “I was just illustrating my point.”

Without thought, Azure ran her fingers over her arm; over the healed spot that remained. “You’re not real,” she whispered. “Oh God, I’m losing my mind completely. I’ve gone Schizophrenic.”

Aeryn groaned, falling back on the bed. “You are impossibly stubborn and ridiculous.” She sat up and regarded Azure seriously. “I’m very real, okay? Do you usually make out with figments of your imagination? Or run into them in the shower? I mean, if you’re imagining me then what … am I your sexual fantasy?” Aeryn grinned wickedly.

Azure blushed beet red.

Aeryn stood and walked over to Azure. “What did you see when you touched me?” she asked softly, almost pleadingly.

“I …” Azure swallowed, looking away. “I saw … a man. He was standing in the center of a symbol.” She glanced briefly at Aeryn’s necklace. “It was surrounded by fire. He … he was chanting.”

Aeryn stared at Azure, processing her words. “The man … do you know who he is?”

Azure swallowed. “Jael.”

Aeryn’s heart sped up. “Jael …” But why would Azure see him when touching her? Would they meet? Did that mean she’d fail the Order? Her mind reeled with Azure’s words. She had to sit down. She had to …

… the light in the room grew suddenly dim. And then it went black.

5:

Azure had no choice but to catch her, or try to catch her, but in doing so, all she managed to do was fall down right along with her onto the light blue carpet. She had no time to register what had happened: the vision hit her like a brick.

“I don’t love her, okay?” she heard herself say, in a panicked, anxious sort of way, in a tone that was entirely out of character. “She’s not … she’s not …”

“She’s not what?” Aeryn asked.

“She’s not you,” was what Azure responded. “Don’t you see that it kills me to see you with him?”

The scene disappeared from her mind, and Azure suddenly found herself on top of Aeryn. Oh God, oh God, oh God. She quickly rolled off.

Aeryn opened her eyes slowly. She blinked several times and looked all around as if trying to understand her location in the world. “What just happened?” she asked, and started to sit up.

Azure wanted to help her, but she was terrified of touching her. “You fainted.”

“I fainted?” Aeryn asked in confusion. “I don’t faint.”

“Then you did a convincing job of pretending.” Azure stood up. “Do you want water or something?”

Aeryn shook her head, rising from the floor to sit on at the edge of the bed. “No, but thank you.” She looked confused. “That was weird.”

Azure tried not to think of the latest addition to her collection of inappropriate thoughts. It couldn’t possibly be a vision of the future. It couldn’t. Realizing that Aeryn had spoken, she quickly said, “Yeah. Are you okay?”

“I think so. Sorry about that.”

“It’s okay.”

Aeryn looked at her carefully. “I didn’t mean for you to have to touch me. I know you don’t want to see things.”

“I didn’t see anything,” Azure lied.

Aeryn nodded. “Look, I really do understand why you feel scared about all of this. Growing up in a world like this, how could you not be? You’re conditioned to fear and abhor everything that doesn’t fit into the pre-packaged rules of conventionality. I get it. I do. It’s just that, Azure, there is so much good you could do.”

Azure stared at her.

“You’re not going to get rid of me,” Aeryn said. “But I’d prefer not having to force my presence upon you. I hope one day we can be friends.”

Do you know how much it kills me to see you with him? Azure pushed the words away, struggling to stay in the moment. “I can’t promise anything.”

“I’m very persistent,” Aeryn replied smiling. “I will win you over eventually.”

She’s not you… Azure looked away. God, I’m so lost. She knew what her father would say to all of this. He would say that Aeryn was an abomination; possessed, unnatural. He would think the same of Azure, too, if he knew the things she’d been thinking, seeing … feeling. Was there no clear path to all of this uncertainty?

Aeryn was standing again, and Azure felt her breath catch. “I have to go to class. But, thank you.”

“For?”

“For telling me about Jael. For trying to catch me.”

“You’re welcome, although, I did a lousy job of trying to catch you.”

Aeryn smiled. “It’s okay. I didn’t much mind you on top of me.” She winked, and then she was gone.

~*~

I have often wondered about my father. In the quiet solitude of night such thoughts seep in uninvited, despite my best efforts to dispel them. I was never told much about him, other than I was better off not knowing him. But how could that be true? Even if he was a bad man, as I was told he was, there had to be some good to him. I’d like to believe that there is good in everybody.

6:

Jael smiled pleasantly at the girl sitting at the other side of his desk. She looked predictably nervous and fidgety, running her hands through her blue-and-black hair with anxious anticipation. “Thryn,” he said calmly, sitting back on his leather chair.

The girl looked up at him, over the neat piles of paperwork between them. Her blue eyes widened. “Yes, sir?”

“Do you know why you’re here?” Jael asked her.

“No, sir.”

Jael leaned forward and folded his hands on the desk. “I’ve been watching you in your training. I have it on good authority that you are the best.”

She visibly relaxed at his words, even ventured at tentative smile.

“The reason you’re here, is because I need your help,” Jael explained, pushing a manila envelope towards her. He nodded for her to take it. When she opened it, he sat back again. “I’m sending you on a little mission, Thryn. I feel that I can trust you. I can trust you, no?”

Thryn looked up from the file in her hand. “Of course, sir.”

“Excellent.” Jael clapped his hands together. “I want to know who they are.” He pointed to the folder. “I want to know why one of them was practicing white magick. I want to know what they know about the Arts. And most importantly, I want to know if either of them have any involvement with the Order.”

Thryn stared at him, eyes widened again. “The-the Order?”

“The one and only,” Jael confirmed. “We are trying to locate its members; every last one of them. But we must be discreet in our search. Unless it is absolutely necessary, you are not to use your powers. You must come to fit in among these pimple-brained Neanderthals. You will have to lower your normal intelligence by a couple of digits in order to comprehend their esoteric worldview. Lay low for a while. Observe. Learn their habits, their likes and dislikes, but keep a safe distance. Whatever information you can gather from afar will help you get closer to them in the end.”

Thryn nodded. “I understand.”

“Good.’ Jael smiled at the young girl. “Don’t disappoint me, Thryn. I foresee a bright future for you among the Guardians.”

Thryn smiled. “I won’t fail you, sir.” She closed the file and stood. “Am I dismissed?”

He nodded. “I will send Zora to brief you on the details of your journey. Safe travels.” He watched her go. Another woman he’d be forced to trust. Did it never end? Alas, he had no choice in this matter. If the girls were indeed interested in girls, then only a girl could get the upper hand. Jael had faith that Thryn would have no trouble in that department. He smiled to himself. “Larken, Larken. We’re getting so much closer to your inevitable demise. I hope you’re scared.”

7:

“He’s up to something,” Larken said. She gazed at the Elders across the circular table.

“Of course he is,” Faedyn answered her. “He’s always been up to something. That doesn’t mean he’s gotten anywhere.”

Ellowyn shifted uncomfortably. “It’s been twenty years, Larken. Do you think he’s finally figured out a way?”

“I do,” Larken admitted. “I do, and I think he’s gotten farther than we can possibly imagine.”

“We need to pull Aeryn from her post,” Telwen said quickly. “It’s too dangerous. If Jael really is tracking down the Order, he will eventually find her. If he realizes who she is, we’re doomed.”

“Not if she fights on our side,” Larken replied sharply. “You’ve seen her powers—”

“Yes,” cried Ellowyn. “And where do you think she gets them?”

Larken swallowed her words. She glanced briefly at Faedyn who stared back at her sharply. “Aeryn is not going to betray us.”

“How can you be so sure?” Faedyn asked her.

“Did you have a vision?” Telwen prodded.

“I don’t need to. I know–”

“Larken, you don’t even know the child,” Ellowyn cut in. “What you are suggesting is preposterous. When Aeryn realizes that we have lied to her about who her father is there is no telling what she will do.”

Larken closed her eyes. When she opened them, the Elders were staring at her expectantly. “We need her.”

“We should tell her the truth,” Ellowyn said.

“No!” Larken said forcefully. “It is not an option.”

Faedyn cleared her throat. “With all due respect, High Priestess, you are being unreasonable.”

“If we tell her now, it will compromise her position in Merfolk. It will weaken her and make her more vulnerable.” Larken stared back at her sister. “It is a risk I am not willing to take.”

“Then what risk are you willing to take, Larken?” Telwen asked. “The risk of losing her completely to the Guardians?”

“There is something I’m missing,” Larken said softly, suddenly lost in her own thoughts. What was it the ghosts had said? Help them? Them. Did they mean the Order? Did they mean Aeryn? Aeryn and someone else?

“Larken,” Ellowyn said in a tone that revealed it was not the first time she’d called for the High Priestess’ attention.

Larken cast ice blue eyes on the Elders. “Braeden,” she said.

“What about him?”

Larken smiled. “We’ll send him to Aeryn.”

“What good would that do?” Faedyn asked her impatiently. “It will only call more attention to the location. And quite frankly, with Aeryn’s magickal misstep, I’d be shocked if she hadn’t been pegged already.”

“If Jael is going to go after Aeryn then she’s going to need backup,” Larken said. “She will not turn against the Order knowing that it would mean turning against Braeden as well.”

“Larken,” Ellowyn said softly, “what makes you so sure that Aeryn cares that much about Braeden?”

“Because she does.”

The Elders exchanged dubious glances.

“The Goddess did not initiate Aeryn so that we would pull her out of her mission a few weeks into it.”

“And Braeden’s reasons for being where he is? Are those not as important?” Faedyn asked, her tone unkind.

Larken locked eyes with her sister. “Our war is against the Guardians. Our duty is to protect our own.”

“And you think sending Braeden to Merfolk is going to make a difference?” Telwen wondered.

“I do.”

The Elders exchanged glances again, this time coming to a unanimous decision.

“I hope you’re right about this, Larken,” Ellowyn responded.

As do I.

8:

Ry finished folding a table of shirts only to have a pack of inconsiderate teenagers destroy it all over again.

“Can I help you find anything?” he asked, in the hopes of salvaging some of the work.

“No thanks, just looking,” said one of the girls.

Breathe, he told himself. And when they’d gone, he began folding all over again. One day, working in retail would be a distant memory. Something to tell a talk show host during an interview. One day, he would pass by the GAP and smile at the miserable employee folding away his dignity, and think, Thank God I am not you. But for now, he was resigned to the fate of folding and refolding the remnants of someone else’s thoughtlessness.

“I really don’t envy you,” said a familiar voice.

Ry looked up to see Naia standing by a display of cargo shorts. “What are you doing here? I thought you were boycotting the mall for all eternity.”

“I needed to get out and think about things for a while.” She shrugged. “And besides—“ She looked around the store “—being surrounded by such normalcy helps to fuel my ambitions.” She picked up a shirt as if it were a dead rodent she’d found in her sock drawer. “Do you know how many children were tortured in the making of this inauspicious travesty of a garment?”

Ry rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, Big Business is Evil. When did you become such a hippy?”

“I’m seeing things in a new light, best friend of mine. Fascinating things have been revealed to me.”

Ry stared at her. “What things?”

“I can’t tell you here,” she said, as though it were obvious. “This place might be bugged. Big Brother is always watching.”

“Aren’t you the one with the hidden cameras?”

“Indeed. And it was the most brilliant thing I’ve ever come up with.”

Ry finished folding a shirt. “Right. Look, Naia, darling, unlike some people, my father does not throw gratuitous amounts of cash my way just for being my precious little self. My father is a homophobic dickhead who likes to drink and fart into his Lay-Z-Boy while his beer belly expands to the size of a woman carrying triplets. So I need to concentrate on this soul-numbing, but monumentally important activity. Ya dig, girlfriend?”

“Yes, girlfriend, consider it dug. Just come by my room after work. I have to show you something. My research has yielded fascinating results.”

“Stellar,” Ry answered, without emotion. He watched her leave, noting how strange it was to have Naia in his store. The contrast of her black X-Files tee shirt and worn baggy jeans against the preppy Caucasian mannequins was bizarre. Naia Dalton was known for projecting a clear “fuck off” attitude that intimidated most people. It was one of the things he loved most about her. But she was one crazy cookie.

His headset crackled suddenly to life and Ry was instantly reminded of his place in the world: a peon to the corporate gods.

9:

Her name is Aeryn. Zora repeated the words like a mantra. The woman’s voice echoed in her mind, hadn’t stopped echoing since her trip to Merfolk, since catching a glimpse of the name on the door. She had tried to probe, had tried to get into the girl’s head, but nothing. Even the most recent attempt, while getting her closer than the others, had yielded nothing. Who are you? She desperately wanted answers, but whom could she ask? Jael was out of the question.

How had she come to distrust the one man who’d saved her? He had rescued her; he had shown her how to live. Who would she be without him?

Who am I with him? Who was I without him? The questions nagged at her. She leaned forward, over the railing of the balcony overlooking Jael’s estate. She let the wind blow through her hair; let it blow away her questions.

She hadn’t been the same since her return. How could she be? After years of not remembering anything, the veil had lifted, however briefly, and shown her a glimpse of the life she’d left behind.

Frustrated, she turned to walk away only to find Jael standing behind her, watching her. She didn’t jump, but her heart invariably sped up at the sight of him. He made her nervous.

“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” He joined her outside, breathing in the fresh air with exaggerated enthusiasm.

His hair was graying, Zora noticed. It suited him somehow. She decided to relax in his company. It was Jael, after all. “It is,” she agreed, turning back around to face the view.

“I’m sending Thryn to Merfolk,” Jael announced without precedence or warning, in the same casual way in which he said everything else. He glanced at her; his blue eyes studied her reaction, before turning away. “What do you think?”

A part of her felt panic at the thought. She wanted to tell him it was a bad idea. She wanted to tell him to keep Thryn away from Aeryn. But why? Why would I want to protect someone I’ve never even seen? She didn’t know. The feelings lingered for a few more seconds before fading away. Indifference quickly replaced her initial alarm. She shrugged. “What for?”

Jael considered the question silently. He turned to look at her. “I think the place might require further investigation.”

“I could always go back—”

Jael shook his head, cutting her off. “I need someone who’ll fit in with the students, someone young and fresh—” He stopped quickly and smiled. “I didn’t mean to imply that you’re not young or fresh…”

Zora laughed. “Thanks.”

“Well, anyway, I just want someone there. Just in case.”

Zora had the distinct impression that Jael was keeping information from her. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last. Still, she couldn’t help but feel that this time it was personal.

“I want you to tell Thryn everything you know about this Azure and this … Claire, was it?”

“Yes.”

Jael nodded, seemingly distracted by the thoughts in his mind. He looked at her and smiled thinly. “Thryn is getting ready for her trip. I told her to expect you sometime today.”

“Yes, sir.” She watched him walk away, and for the first time since joining the Guardians, felt afraid.

10:

Naia finished applying a coat of red lipstick and pressed her lips together. She stepped back from the mirror and admired her reflection. Gone were the baggy pants and dark t-shirt. In its place: a tight yellow top, and a black leather mini skirt. She arched a brow and offered herself a smile. “What do you think?” she asked, whirling around to face Ry.

“You look like a hooker.” Ry looked her up and down. “I never thought I’d say this, but please go back to your usual ensemble.”

Naia frowned, turning back to the full-length mirror behind her door. “You don’t think I look hot?”

“Not even a little bit. No. Why are you doing this?”

“I need to go proposition a lesbian,” Naia answered casually, attempting to manually adjust her cleavage.

“And since when are you into girls?”

“Since they hold the key to the biggest story of the century. I’m willing to go the extra mile for the story and I’m hoping this does the trick,” she said, while cupping her breasts and sucking in her stomach. “You think a little technicality like sexual attraction is going to deter me?”

Ry rolled his eyes. “And this girl you’re propositioning, is she into Ladies of the Night Couture?”

“Funny, ha.” Naia turned back around to face him. “Okay, wish me luck.”

“You do realize this is insane?”

“We’ve been over this already, Bartholomew. It’s all about the story.”

Ry nodded slowly. “Yes. But don’t you think there are better, less crazy ways of getting to a story?”

Naia stared at him blankly. “No.”

“Alrighty,” he said, giving up. “Good luck.”

~*~
{Azure}

My father found my diary when I was fifteen. I’d hid where I thought it would be safe, back when I still thought there was such a thing as a safe place. He read it all, every last word that should’ve never been written. “I know what you are,” were his first words to me when I came home that day. I stared at the diary on the table, and I thought, this is the day I’m going to die.

I was right.


Chapter 5: “Questions”

My third day of investigation has yielded very little. Subject #1, Azure, is the epitome of boring. It’s not enough she dresses like a conservative Republican on her way to the latest convention, but she does little else besides go to class, eat, and return to her room. If she’s gay, I’m the Queen of England.

Occasionally, Subject #2, Claire, is at her side. I don’t know why, though. They don’t seem to get along very well. If they’re sleeping together, they’re clearly having trouble in the sack. It’s probably because Saint Azure is frigid. Oh, and not gay.

Claire, on the other hand, is hot. And if I weren’t supposed to be stalking her for Top Secret Guardian purposes, I’d be hitting on her. Following her around, however, is going to be hard. She keeps an odd schedule. I’ve managed to figure out her classes, but I don’t know what else she does. Every time I start to follow her, I lose her.

I hope to find something more interesting in the next few days before I send my report to Jael. I doubt that he cares if the cafeteria food sucks – which it does. Almost as much as my roommate, Cornelia. Shouldn’t stalkers get their own room? If I were allowed to use my powers, I’d hex her.
I had to settle for putting green hairdye in her shampoo bottle.

College is fun.

~Thryn

1:
The pink bubble obscured all vision of the brownstone building and the door she’d been staring at for the past hour and twenty-two minutes. Thryn stared through the rose-colored globe, trying, out of boredom and nothing more, to maintain her view of the tall black door even with an object in her way. Quite expectedly, the bubble popped several seconds later, covering her mouth and nose with pink, sticky gum. At least it had missed her hair.

Thryn spent the next few minutes trying to remove the mess from her face, and became so absorbed in her task, that she nearly missed the object of her stakeout exiting the building.
Nearly.

“Ah, crap!” Thryn muttered, tossing the gum on the grass beside her, and simultaneously collecting the books she’d been pretending to study from.

Azure was on the move, and even though Thryn had a pretty good idea where it was the girl was going, it was always best to be sure. Besides, she was hungry. A meal didn’t sound like a half-bad idea.

As she trailed behind Azure, Thryn jotted down several things in the notepad of her mind:

1. Azure had changed from her earlier getup. The current ensemble consisted of: a long black skirt, and a plain white button down shirt.

2. Claire was nowhere near her, which meant that a) they’d gotten into a fight – again, b) Claire had finally realized Azure was not gay and broken up with her , c) Claire was studying in her room or doing some other college-like thing, or d) Thryn had accidentally missed Claire’s exit from the building.
While Thryn mused over the appeal of option 2b, she managed to note something else: Azure was not headed toward the cafeteria after all.

Where the fuck? Thryn hoped she wasn’t as obvious as she felt, trailing after the strange girl. Normally she was better at this stalking thing, having done it in prior relationships, but this was different. And besides, since when did Saint Azure not keep to her excessively boring, yet precise schedule?

Thryn slowed down, letting Azure take a bigger lead. She hoped not to lose her, but she also didn’t want to be spotted. There were few students out at this hour and it made blending into the crowd just a little harder.

Eventually, Thryn realized that Azure was headed toward the student parking lot. She has a car? That was a new one. It was day 5 in her stalking, and she’d never seen Azure even remotely glance in the parking lot’s direction. Where the hell could she be going? And how the hell was Thryn supposed to follow? In her next letter to the Guardians, she’d have to ask for some wheels. A motorcycle would be hot, Thryn decided.

She stopped walking when she reached the parking lot, hovered instead by a nearby tree, and watched as Azure approached a car as unremarkable as its current occupant. It wasn’t long before Azure had pulled out of the spot, and was driving away.

Towards where, Thryn had no idea.

Weirdest thing happened today while I was stalking the hot chick. I realized I wasn’t the only one following her around. This girl sure is popular with the ladies.

Subject #3, The Other Stalker, couldn’t be more obvious if she tried. She first caught my attention cause she was wearing a Mars Attacks t-shirt, and I thought that was lame. Then I realized she was going where I was going. Only, where I was going was where Claire was going. Not suspicious, considering it’s a college campus and there’s only so many places to go.

But then I realized that Claire wasn’t really going anywhere in particular. She just kept walking around aimlessly. That’s when I realized that the Other Stalker was doing the same thing. So there we were, two losers following around this girl that just kept walking around in circles. Well, I was far less obvious. I hope, anyway. It’s not like they do Stalking 101 in Guardian training.

I guess now I have to stalk Subject #3, too, just to figure out who the hell she is. This is starting to get tiresome.

Azure The Boring did nothing of interest today. She sat under a tree for hours reading the Bible.
The Bible.

Jael is going to get a kick out of that one.

The only thing of interest today is that I told my roommate, Cornholia or whatever, that I’m a bonafied lesbian. I think it totally freaked her out. I think tonight I’ll start moaning her name in my sleep. Tomorrow I’ll steal a pair of her underwear and have her “accidentally” find it in my things.
I’m hoping she moves out by the end of next week.

-Thryn

2:
“Any idea yet who’s been following you?” Larken questioned, pushing away, as she spoke, the long tresses of white hair falling over her face.

The question hung in the air for a second longer than the High Priestess had expected, perhaps longer than even Aeryn had. When the mage finally spoke, she sounded troubled. “It seems like there’s two, not just one. One is a girl in my class. But without using my powers, I haven’t been able to gather much,” she said, sounding to Larken’s ears, as somewhat frustrated. “I think she’s a journalist. I think she might know something, but I don’t know what. I can’t imagine why else she’d be following us.”

“Us?”

Aeryn sighed. “They’ve been following Azure as well.”

“Azure. The psychic. Interesting.”

Aeryn stood from the chair across from the High Priestess’ desk and paced. “This is all my fault. If only I hadn’t left that spell uncloaked maybe none of this would be happening. How could I have been so stupid?”

Larken said nothing. She watched the troubled young mage for several seconds, letting the girl vent.
“Perhaps it would be in the Order’s best interest if I quit my post,” Aeryn said.

The words caused the High Priestesses’ eyes to narrow. “We cannot change the past, Aeryn, we can only learn from our mistakes, and hope to do better in the future. That is the lesson we hope you’ve learned. Aside from that, there’s no definite proof that any of these things are related.” She paused. “Who is the other one?”

“That I don’t know. I’ve never seen her before. I can’t read her. She’s … Well, I think she’s the one we should be most concerned about.”

“Why do you say that?”

Aeryn looked down. “Just a feeling.”

“Never doubt your intuition, Aeryn,” Larken said. “If you feel she is trouble, then it’s your duty to protect yourself and others from her.”

“But-

“Do what ye will.”

Aeryn sat down with a sigh.

“Is there something else?”

Aeryn looked up, her light green eyes suddenly dark. “Azure. Well. When she touched me, she said she saw Jael.”

Larken felt the world around her still. She struggled to maintain her calm as she spoke. “What to you mean?”

“She said she saw him standing in a ring of fire, that he was chanting.”

“How do you know it was him? How do you even know that her visions are true?” Larken was clinging to denial, something so unlike her, she saw the startled look on Aeryn’s eyes.

“Azure called him by name.”

Larken sat back, feeling defeated. How could she possibly have seen him? How would she even know his name? No psychic is that powerful. “What else has she told you?”

“Nothing,” Aeryn said regretfully. “Azure doesn’t like to talk about her visions. She thinks they’re evil.”

“But there’s probably more?”

“I’m certain there’s more.”

Larken sighed. “Find out what it is.”

“But-

“By any means necessary.”

Aeryn frowned. “But I’m forbidden to-

“By any means necessary,” Larken repeated slowly. “There is no question that this is imperative to our mission, to the very purpose of our existence. If this girl has information that could be beneficial to the Order, we need to know what it is.”

Aeryn looked away.

“What is it?”

“I just want her to trust me.”

“Are you sure you can trust her?”

Aeryn’s gaze landed sharply on Larken’s. “Without a shadow of a doubt.”

Larken stared at her curiously. “How can you be so sure?”

“I can feel it.”

3:
Azure parked the car across the street from her final destination. Instead of getting out, she sat there, engine still on, ready to bolt. What was she doing there? Had she finally lost the final vestiges of her sanity?

Her mother’s house loomed in the near distance, quiet and dark. A light was on in the living room. Her mother’s car was parked in the driveway, where it had undoubtedly sat, unmoved, for weeks.

Azure put her cheek on the wheel, stared across the seeming miles of pavement between her and the source of all her fears. Why would she come back here? Why now, after all of this time?

A shadow passed by the window. Azure stifled the impulse to hide. She worried for a moment that her mother would peer outside, would see and recognize the car. Azure would have to go inside then. She would have to go inside, and face what she’d run away from all those months ago.

The shadow moved away, the curtains undisturbed. Azure let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding and sat up, clutching the wheel with both hands.

Her mother was still inside, alive in body, if nothing else. For now, that was all that mattered.
She didn’t notice the dark brown eyes peering out of the window, as she drove away.

The strange thing about trying to avoid someone is that the more you try, the less it works. Especially when said person lives only a few doors down, and redefines the laws of stubbornness. I’ve never met anyone who could be at once so infuriating and so incredibly … alluring. It unsettles me in a way I can’t describe. In a way I don’t even wish to think about.

It’s getting harder and harder to rein myself in, to push her away and out of my life. She’s so insistent on breaking through my every barrier. Has she put a spell on me? A curse of some kind?

The visions have stilled since the last one. The one of us – her and me – and the mysterious “him” the other me spoke of. There’s been no sign of “him” – whomever he may be, assuming, of course, that my visions when I touch her are at all accurate, and not – as I desperately hope – just day dreams; momentary flashes of nothingness.

But the ghosts keep speaking. More and more, it seems. Words that sound like warnings. They speak in riddles I’ve no motivation to decipher.

Still, I wonder … are they warning me about her?

-Azure

4:
Azure wasn’t sure what compelled her to knock on Aeryn’s door the second she got back to the dorms. Perhaps it was the same thing that compelled her to drive the many miles to her mother’s house and sit outside in the dark. Perhaps it was insanity. Or maybe it was desperation, fueled by her ever-present loneliness.

Moments later, the door opened.

Aeryn was clad in black pants held at the waist by a thick brown belt. She wore a brown, long-sleeved shirt, and a sleeveless jacket over it. Azure was vaguely aware of the fact that her eyes were trailing up Aeryn’s body. She quickly snapped her gaze upwards to meet with curious green eyes.

The room behind Aeryn was dark, save for the glow-in-the-dark stars and the white Christmas lights that had replaced the dorm’s default fluorescent lighting. Though Azure normally shun away from darkness, Aeryn’s room was undeniably cozy. It had its own magnetic pull.

“Hi,” Azure said, realizing she hadn’t said anything yet.

Aeryn smiled. “Where’ve you been? I missed you at dinner.”

Azure glanced away; worried that the truth would shine too clearly and distinctly in her own eyes if she dared allowed Aeryn to gaze into them. “I, uh, went for a drive.”

“Oh,” Aeryn replied, leaning against the door. “Do you want to come in?”

Azure should’ve said no. She shouldn’t have knocked in the first place, or done any of the things she’d been doing lately, like having dinner with Aeryn every night. But she couldn’t say no. She couldn’t stay away. The other girl’s company was becoming something she undeniably craved. A fact that she wasn’t sure she altogether accepted, or else, she might’ve not been standing there in the first place.

But she walked into the room, looked around the impeccably neat surroundings while Aeryn closed the door. There was never anything out of place in Aeryn’s room; never a book on the floor or an article of clothing hanging on the back of a chair. How could someone seem so carefree in life, and live with such meticulousness in private? Every time Azure walked into Aeryn’s room she expected it to be in chaos, in some sort of disarray. But it never was.

“So, to what do I owe the pleasure?” Aeryn was standing against the door, leaning against it in her usual casual manner.

Azure didn’t know what to say. How to explain she didn’t know what she was doing there? A part of her wanted to tell her, tell her how she’d driven a hundred miles to her mother’s house for no reason she could ascertain. That she hadn’t gone in, or made herself known. That she feared the very air surrounding her home, or what had once been her home, if one would go so far as to call it that.

So much of her wanted desperately to give in, to tell Aeryn everything about herself. But she feared, and rightly so, that saying one thing would open a door she’d be incapable of closing. There would be no turning back from that, and the fact remained, despite it all, that she wasn’t altogether sure she trusted Aeryn. The girl remained, to Azure’s eyes, a question left unanswered.

It was then Aeryn’s eyes lost their usual glimmer of amusement, their casual nature, and when she spoke, her voice revealed concern. “Is something wrong? Did something happen?”

Azure backed up as Aeryn moved forward, towards her, in a movement intended to offer comfort. But Aeryn stopped mid-way, either by Azure’s reaction or the recollection that her physical presence was not welcome, or perhaps, a combination of the two. “Nothing happened,” and that was the truth. The other question she didn’t know how to answer. “I just came by to see …” To see what? “To see if you’d done your homework for class.”

Aeryn smiled, relaxing a little, though Azure could tell she was still concerned. “You came here to ask me if I’d done my homework?”

“Yes.” There were lamer excuses, Azure thought, though she couldn’t think of any.

“No, I haven’t.”

“Ah.” Azure nodded.

Aeryn waited expectantly for Azure to say something else.

Finally, Azure sighed. “Can I just stay here for a little while? It’s just … I just … I don’t want to be alone right now. Don’t ask me why. I just don’t.”

“No problem.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

“Take a seat.” Aeryn motioned to the chair by the desk Azure was pressed up against.

Azure complied, feeling the usual combination of relaxed and uncomfortable that generally accompanied any time spent with Aeryn.

“Actually, I’m glad you’re here. I was going to come look for you anyway,” Aeryn revealed, once seated on the immaculately made bed.

“Oh?”

Aeryn nodded, and for the first time, Azure didn’t think she was the only one feeling uncomfortable. Aeryn refused to meet her eyes, something incredibly uncommon. “See, I spoke to Larken, you know, the High Priestess, and she said … well, I told her what you’d told me about Jael, and she wants me to find out what else you know.”

Azure had gotten very good at pretending that Aeryn wasn’t what she claimed to be: a mage, working for some secret witches association located in a hidden island near Australia – because while Azure was certain her own sanity teetered very close to the edge, she didn’t consider herself to be that insane. And yet, what else could she do but pretend to accept, just like she could pretend that all evidence Aeryn had provided was mere illusion. “Uh huh…”

“Look, Azure, I could get to the answers I need by unorthodox methods if I have to, but they’re my orders. So, I beg you to tell me. I would hate to invade your thoughts. It’s not something I believe in.”

Azure frowned. “Invade my thoughts?”

Aeryn looked away.

Could she really do that? Azure shifted uncomfortably in the wooden chair, unsure of what to say. Something akin to fear began to worm its way through her body.

“I would never want to do that,” Aeryn replied after a moment, and her gaze rose to meet with Azure’s. “You have to believe me on that.”

“But you could if you wanted to.”

“Yes,” Aeryn answered. “Just how you could touch me right now and see my future.”

Azure bit her lip, then said, “But I don’t do it on purpose. I can’t help it. It’s something you would do consciously.”

“Yes, but it’s something that, under normal circumstances, I’m forbidden to do. The truth is, Azure, I think the Order is in trouble. I think they don’t even know just in how much, and that’s the problem. If you saw Jael when touching me, well … it must mean that I’m in danger, and if I’m in danger, it means everyone in the Order is.”

Azure swallowed, not really caring much about this ‘Order’ Aeryn spoke of, but caring very much about Aeryn being in danger.

“Just tell me if you know anything else about it.”

Azure sighed, looking away. “I’ve only seen him the one time. But there is one more thing.”

Aeryn sat up and leaned forward. “What?”

“There was a warning. A woman, a g…” She paused, feeling ridiculous, but the urgency in Aeryn’s eyes made her continue. “A ghost told me I was the only one who could stop … rain.”

“Rain?” Aeryn frowned, sitting back thoughtfully. “What does that mean?”

“I don’t know.”

“Hm.” Aeryn looked contemplative for a while, and Azure didn’t know what to say, so she remained silent as well. When Aeryn spoke, she sounded more relaxed. “You know we’re being followed.”

Azure stared at her. “What?”

“By two different girls that I’m not entirely certain even know each other.”

“But why?”

“I have no idea. But I will find out.”

“How?”

Aeryn smiled. “I have my ways.”

Azure wasn’t sure she wanted to know what that meant.

“Thanks, by the way, for telling me all that you told me.”

Azure wasn’t sure why she had. “Well, you did threaten to read my mind otherwise.”

“I’m sorry. Really.”

Azure merely nodded, looking away from Aeryn’s gaze.

Silence fell over them for several minutes, and when Azure finally ventured to glance at her companion, she found green eyes staring at her. “What?”

“Just wondering why you’re dressed like a waitress.”

Azure glanced down at her outfit. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”

“It’s just so … so boring.”

Azure frowned. “I’m not really trying to go for interesting with my wardrobe.”

“That’s obvious.”

“Hey!” Azure was about three seconds from pouting.

“And your hair…”

“What about my hair?”

“I just think it could look a little more … lively.”

“Lively.”

“Yeah.” Aeryn crawled across the bed until she was closer to Azure. She sat at the edge and looked Azure up and down. “Let’s go shopping.”

“What?”

“Shopping. You know, that things girls are supposed to do together.”

“I hate shopping.”

“I would, too, if I always came home with that kind of outfit.” Aeryn glanced pointedly at the clothes in question. “And you need a haircut.”

“What?”

“Some layers would do you good, I think.” Aeryn looked at her subject thoughtfully. “Yeah, we’ll go tomorrow. Don’t worry it’s my treat. You just do the driving.”

At some point, Azure realized, she’d lost control of the conversation. When had that happened? It was probably when she’d first walked through the door. “No haircut,” she said seriously, wondering if that meant she’d somehow agreed to everything else. What the hell was wrong with her?

Aeryn smiled. “Now do one last thing for me.”

“What?”

“Touch my hand.”

Azure stared at Aeryn as if she’d lost her mind. “We’ve talked about this, no.”

“Trust me.”

“The last time you said that, the world as I knew it got flipped upside down.”

Aeryn smiled and stretched out her hand. “Please.”

What was it about those eyes that made her want to do anything but say no to them? There was no doubt in Azure’s mind that she no longer had one. After a resigned breath, she reached over and took Aeryn’s hand, startled, as she did so, by various things at once. The first was the softness against her palm. The next, and the most surprising, was that nothing happened. There were no visions, no voices in her mind, no weird mind tricks. She stared at their hands, and then up at Aeryn’s brilliant smile.

“All of the other times you caught me off guard, so I couldn’t block you, but I’ve been working on it.”

Azure was vaguely aware that their hands were still intertwined. What did Aeryn expect this to change? That they’d be able to touch all of the time? She pulled her hand away.

Aeryn’s smile faltered. “Guess I thought you’d be glad there was at least one person you wouldn’t have to worry about accidentally brushing against.”

The thought of any kind of physical contact with Aeryn made Azure nervous. “Yeah.”

“What’s wrong?”

Azure started to rise. “Nothing. I should get going, though. You have homework to get to, and I have some reading to do.”

Aeryn looked confused but didn’t argue. “Are we still on for tomorrow?”

“Sure,” Azure responded automatically, not really thinking it through. Suddenly, she just had to get out of there. She was thankful that Aeryn didn’t try to stop her. Out in the hallway, the bright lighting hurt her eyes. She closed Aeryn’s door, feeling like she’d suddenly stepped out into an entirely different world.

And left another behind.

5:
Thryn tapped the rubber end of her #2 pencil against the side of the desk. Tap. Tap. Tap. Three rows below, in the crowded auditorium, which smelled vaguely of cheap perfumes, cheap colognes, and feet, someone snored loud enough to wake himself up. Thryn rolled her eyes and slouched down on her seat, stifling her own inherent need to yawn. Now she remembered why she’d quit school.

Why were the Guardians forcing her to attend class, anyway? She remembered something about ‘fitting in’ and ‘looking believable’; though she didn’t think skipping class would make her seem any less believable as a college student. Perhaps she’d have to start skipping. She doubted Jael would really mind. And it’s not like anyone was watching her, nor cared about what she did or did not do.
She did yawn, then, letting it all out.

Somewhere on the stage, a plump man in a suit continued on about Carbon, writing hieroglyphics on the dry-erase board as he went. No one was listening. No one cared. It said a lot about the state of the world when people paid thousands of dollars a year to sit around not caring. Thankfully, Thryn hadn’t had to pay a cent. She also had little reason to care.

The sounds of books slamming and feet stomping clued Thryn in on the fact that class was over. She appreciated the domino effect it had across the auditorium. All it took was for the front row to pay attention, and bam, everyone knew what was going on by following their lead.

Thryn gathered her books and the notebook she’d been doodling on. A big-breasted woman releasing bolts of lightning from her fingers stared up at her before disappearing behind the cover of the notebook. Thryn tossed everything in her bag, and made the slow descent down the steps of the auditorium, held up by the crowd of half-asleep zombies before her.

Once outside, she breathed a sigh of relief and headed toward the cafeteria. Stalking would have to wait. She was starving.

Years of intense training with the Guardians had prepared Thryn for nearly anything. She was a top practitioner of the Dark Arts, feared by her peers for her impressive abilities in various realms of magickal expression. She’d been trained in defense, offence, curses, spells, white magick, and had been complimented highly by her mentors on her casting abilities. Thryn was not a force to be reckoned within the Guardianship. Everyone knew that. She could hear a needle drop from a mile away; was attuned to nature in a way that baffled even the most powerful of her fellow warlocks.

So why, then, hadn’t she been aware of the other girl until she’d practically fallen into step beside Thryn?

Thryn saw the shadow before she ever saw the figure, and looked up, though not too far up, since the other girl wasn’t much taller than she. Light green eyes stared back at her. Oh, shit! She had no idea what to say.

“Hey,” said her once-stalkee-turned-stalker. “Can we talk for a minute?”

Thryn stopped walking and looked around. They were standing in the middle of the sidewalk leading to the cafeteria. Hardly the place for an intimate chat about stalking and the like.

The other girl didn’t seem too concerned with things like privacy or not making a scene in public, or the subtleties of life. “Why have you been following me?”

Thryn couldn’t very well say: Sorry, I didn’t mean to get caught. Hold on a sec while I contact the man who sent me here in the first place so I can get an approved plan of action. So she said something else instead. “You’re really hot.”

“Excuse me?”

When in doubt: flirt. It was not a secret she’d been taught in her many training sessions with the Guardians, but it was just as effective as say, striking the girl with lightning. “Sorry, was that too forward? I meant to say, your ass is nice. Particularly in those black pants you had on yesterday.” It wasn’t a lie, really.

“And my friend’s ass, is hers hot too?”

Oh, crap, she knows about that too? I really suck at this stalking thing then. “I’m sure you’ve noticed it. No need to ask me about it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some dinner to consume.”

“Who are you?” the girl demanded, undeterred. Fire burned in those green eyes, and Thryn was tempted to reconsider her strategy.

What the hell is she going to do to me? She almost laughed, but managed to turn it into a cocky smile instead. “Just consider me an admirer.”

“Yeah? Well go admire someone else. And stay away from my friend.”

Was that a threat? “Or?”

“You don’t want an answer to that question,” the girl said, and started walking away.

Thryn called after her. “Actually, I would love to know the answer to that question. Perhaps over lunch? My treat.”

But the girl didn’t turn around.

Thryn watched the girl’s retreating back for a minute. Actually, these pants aren’t half bad either. Then she turned and headed in the opposite direction. Lunch would have to wait. It was time for plan B.

6:

What the hell was that? Aeryn wondered as she trekked the rest of the way toward the student parking lot. Since when was she caught off-guard by someone? Flirting was her thing. Hers. Who was that chick? Why was she really following her and Azure around? Was it all a coincidence? And did her ass really look better in the other pants?

All compelling questions, but answering them would have to wait. Shopping with her favorite enigma was next on her agenda, and she was looking forward to a bit of fun. Perhaps her entire purpose on Merfolk was simply to get Azure into normal clothing. Goddess knew she’d need all her years of training for that miraculous feat. Getting Azure to agree to go was one miracle, but there remained several more to undertake.

Aeryn found Azure sitting on the grass by the parking lot, predictably reading the world’s best-selling book. “Sorry I’m late,” she said when she was close enough to plop down on the grass. “I had a run-in with our stalker. Well, one of them.”

Azure glanced up in alarm. “What happened?”

“Not much. I basically asked her why she was following us.”

“And?”

“Well, it seems I have a nice ass,” Aeryn replied with a shrug. “But yours is still in question. Though if you ask me-

“I’m not asking you.”

“Fine.”

“So, what, she’s like … just interested in you?”

Aeryn contemplated the question, and lined the possibility against the facts of her encounter. “Though all signs would point to yes, I’m not convinced. I think she’s lying.”

“But why?”

“That, I do not know.”

Azure rolled her eyes, and put the Bible back in her bookbag. “You know, for an All Mighty Whatever, you’re really quite useless.”

“Are you trying to hurt my feelings?”

“Well, you just went up to her. I could’ve done that. Anyone could’ve done that. I thought you were going to do something hocus pocus-y.”

Aeryn smiled. “And here I thought you didn’t believe in that.”

“Well you’re not helping convince me otherwise.” Azure stood up, swinging the black bag over her left shoulder. “Are we doing this shopping thing?”

Aeryn started to follow Azure to her car, feeling her ego deflate slightly. ‘All Mighty Whatever.’ She’d show her all mighty.

When she was allowed to.

7:
Ry was re-folding another endless stack of shirts, while entertaining thoughts of flinging all the clothes around and screaming like a madman, when he spotted them.

Now, Ry was no fan of Naia’s insanity-driven obsession-fest, but he respected it enough. Well, respect may have been a strong word. He humored it. Which is why he instantly reached for the cell phone on his belt, and headed for the stock room. Pick up. He muttered the phrase in his mind, while peaking out at the store. He didn’t want to lose them.

“Yeah?” came the groggy voice at the other end.

“They’re here.”

“What?”

“Those chicks you’ve been following around like a crazy-ass person. They’re here at the store.”

“What! What are they doing?”

Ry glanced out again. “It looks like they’re holding a séance. One of them is chanting, while the other is saying something about ghosts speaking to her — what the hell do you think they’re doing? Looking at clothes. Ooh, I love that shirt. Though I think the green one would match her eyes better.”

“Well, damnit, go talk to them. Eavesdrop as much as possible. Call me right back when they’re gone.”
Ry sighed against the phone. “Fine. Bye.” He clicked off, and headed back out into the show room. He never would’ve thought he’d be sucked into Naia’s crazy schemes while at work. Then again, he’s the one who’d called her. “May I help you?” he said when he was within hearing distance of the two girls.

“Just looking,” one said gruffly.

The other smiled brightly. “Actually, yes. Do you think she’d look better in a yellow or a pale blue?”
Ry considered looking at the girl in question with his Queerical Eye. “Actually, I think both look great. You could even layer the two. Give you a bit of color.”

His answer received a grin from the green-eyed girl. “Excellent. We’ll take them in extra small.”

Ry carefully removed the shirts from their corresponding piles; thankful neither girl had opted to destroy his handcrafted masterpiece of a shirt mountain. “Here you go,” he said, handing the shirts to the one who actually looked happy about them. “Anything else?”

“We’ll let you know. Thanks.”

“Okay.” He smiled, and set about pretending to fix the table near them.

The conversation went as follows.

“I’m not wearing that.”

“Yes you are.”

“No, I’m not.”

“You’ll look hot.”

“I don’t care about looking hot.”

“Why not?”

“Because.”

“Because why?”

“Why do you ask so many questions?”

“Because you never give me a decent answer!”

“Are we done here yet?”

“No.”

Silence.

“Fine. But I’d like one in black.”

“Fine.”

Ry handed her one in black.

“Thanks.”

“No problem,” Ry replied.

And so it went.

By the time they’d left, he’d made himself a hearty commission, and couldn’t wait to call Naia. Except he couldn’t decide which juicy bit of gossip to deliver first: that one didn’t like thongs, or that the other wore a 36C bra.

She’d be so proud of him.

8:
Azure stared at her reflection in the dressing room mirror, at the “new and improved”, Aerynized version of herself, and sighed.

“Well?” Aeryn stood outside the dressing room, waiting impatiently for the final product to emerge. “Do you like it?”

Did she like it? Azure remained silent while she pondered the question. It was like staring at a different person; at her long lost, though admittedly more attractive, twin. She realized the question wasn’t really whether or not she liked it, but rather, did she feel comfortable in it?

Behind her, the curtain slid open with a loud SHHH sound, and Aeryn joined the reflection.

“Whoa,” were Aeryn’s first words.

Azure whirled around, blushing furiously at the words. “I feel ridiculous.” She pulled uncomfortably at the bottom of the small tee, trying to get it to cover more than it was intended to. Giving up, she pushed her brown hair behind her ears instead. “It’s not me.”

Aeryn took the words as an invitation to close the curtain behind them both. She stepped closer, making Azure progressively more nervous in the small confines of the space.

For a minute, Aeryn dug through the piles of clothes Azure had wandered in with, and pulled out a black long-sleeved shirt. “Here, put this underneath.”

Azure took the shirt, wondering if Aeryn intended to remain where she was. When it became clear Aeryn wasn’t budging, Azure said, “Privacy?”

Aeryn smiled and turned around to face the wall.

Azure sighed, but did as instructed. Arguing with Aeryn was as exhausting as this whole shopping spree was turning out to be. “Okay,” she said, when she was finished. She turned to the mirror, realizing this was the first time in a very long time she looked at herself in the mirror in such a manner. She couldn’t recall ever caring what she looked like before.

“Is that better?” Aeryn asked, watching Azure’s reaction carefully. “The shirt underneath is longer, so you won’t have to worry about accidentally exposing that beautiful stomach of yours.”

Azure glared at her.

“Sorry, no compliments, I forgot. I meant to say hideously flat and-

“Okay, enough.” Azure resisted the impulse to smile. “Just tell me what you honestly think.”

“About your stomach?”

“The clothes.”

Aeryn crossed her arms against her chest and looked Azure up and down. “Honestly?”

“Yes.”

“I think you look gorgeous. And I think you were born to wear jeans.”

Azure looked away, feeling entirely self-conscious under Aeryn’s gaze. “You said I looked great in everything.”

“That’s cause you did. I have an excellent eye for such things.”

“You’re so modest.”

“Just aware of my strengths.”

“And weaknesses?”

Aeryn was quiet for a moment while she thought it over. “Even All Mighty Whatevers have their kryptonite.”

“So what’s yours?”

Aeryn didn’t answer. Instead she said, “I think we should hit the cash register. You need a jacket to go with all that, and I have just the thing in mind.”

The curtain SHHH’d open again, and SHHH’d closed. And Aeryn was gone.

Azure frowned at the sudden stillness of the dressing room. Guess I hit a sore point.

9:

“I’m never going shopping with you again,” Azure said, much later, slurping soda through the straw in her Taco Bell cup. When was the last time she’d eaten fast food? She couldn’t remember. Possibly never.

“You said that already,” Aeryn replied, unveiling her fourth soft taco and staring down at it with excitement. “This looks so good.”

“You said that three tacos ago, and I still think it looks disgusting.” That hadn’t stopped Azure from ordering a couple for herself and finishing them off. But then, she’d been famished. Shopping with Aeryn belonged in the Olympics. It was a sport unto itself. They should have people handing out towels and bottles of water at the entrance to each store.

Aeryn smiled and held up her taco. “Do you ever have anything positive to say? I feel like I’ve asked you that before.”

“You’ve asked me many things.”

“Then I’ve either not asked you enough, or you’ve not given me good answers, cause I feel like I know absolutely nothing about you.” She bit into the taco and chewed happily.

“You do know nothing about me.”

Aeryn nodded and took another bite.

Azure glanced wearily at the shopping bags sitting at their feet. Aeryn had opted to pay, and Azure hadn’t been able to stop her. She almost regretted bothering. She’d just have to figure out a way to pay her back, or sneak out in the middle of the day tomorrow and return everything.

“Thanks.”

Azure looked at Aeryn, noticing that she was now on her fifth and final taco. “What?”

“Thanks for agreeing to this. I know it’s entirely not your thing.”

Truer words had never been spoken. This was certainly not Azure’s ‘thing’, assuming Azure even had a ‘thing’, which she wasn’t altogether sure she did. But despite her protestations, she’d enjoyed herself. She might even go as far as saying she’d had … fun. Fun. The thought startled her. “Uh, well, you’re exhaustingly persistent.”

Aeryn grinned. “I’m getting complimented left and right today.” She crumpled up the taco wrapper in her hands and sat back with a satisfied sigh. “That was the best meal I’ve had in a while. The dining hall needs to up its culinary standards.”

“Nothing beats a home cooked meal,” Azure replied.

“Are you offering to cook me a meal?”

Was she? No! “Of course not. I was merely offering my thoughts on the subject. Besides, we have no ‘home’ to cook at.”

“There’s the kitchen in the dorms.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Hm. Well, maybe we can move out of the dorms next semester. Get an off campus place.”

“Just so I can cook for you?”

“I wouldn’t mind.” Aeryn smiled brightly.

“I’m not moving into an apartment with you.” Though the thought of moving off-campus was particularly intriguing. It would certainly make her life easier. How much would that go for? Probably more than she could afford. Which reminded her: she needed a job. What her grandfather had left her wouldn’t last forever.

Aeryn shrugged. “Just an idea. And no, not so you could cook for me. Just seems safer somehow.”
The last word that sprung to mind when imagining living alone with Aeryn was “safer.” But she didn’t voice the thoughts; instead she hoped that silence would make the conversation turn to something less uncomfortable.

She should’ve known better.

“So, what’s wrong with thongs?”

Azure sighed. “Can you ever talk about something … I don’t know … not personal?”

“Thongs are personal?”

“Underwear is personal.”

“Okay, what would you consider impersonal?”

Azure thought about it, not really wanting to think at all. She wanted nothing more than to go back to the dorm and sit in bed with her guitar. For some reason, she felt music at her fingertips. It had been a while since she’d felt inspired to compose. “I don’t know,” she said finally. “Something other than my underwear choice.”

Aeryn studied her for a moment without saying anything. “Let’s go home. You look like you’re all malled out.”

Was it written on her face? Azure wondered. “In a minute. I’m actually too tired to get up.” And that was the truth. She’d probably be sore in the morning. When was the last time she’d exercised? Never.
And this wasn’t even actual exercise. Maybe she should start visiting the campus gym.

“Well, here’s something impersonal: what do you think we should do about our stalkers?”

“You’re asking me? I thought you were handling it with your Super powers.”

“Well I highly doubt that turning either of them into a cockroach will help solve the mystery.”

“You can do that?”

Aeryn smiled, but didn’t answer, and Azure decided she really didn’t want to press the issue. “I think you and I could come up with something more innovative.”

“Like?”

“I don’t know. I guess we’ll have to figure out why it is they’re following us in the first place.”

“That worked well for you earlier, Miss I-Have-A-Hot-Butt.”

“Hey, I’m sure my butt has plenty of pulling power, but I sincerely doubt it’s great enough to make two random girls follow me around for no other reason than to stare at it. Besides which, they’re following you, too.”

“And my butt has no – what did you call it? Pulling power?”

“Oh so talking about underwear is personal, but butts are okay?”

Azure sighed. No wonder she was exhausted. “Let’s talk about neither.” How did a relatively normal conversation somehow end up in guttersville? Scratch that. No conversation with Aeryn was ever ‘normal’, relatively or otherwise.

“You brought the butts up.” Aeryn frowned. “What an odd statement.”

“So what’s your big plan?”

“Stalking them back.”

“That’s your big plan? What if they realize we’re stalking them?”

“We tell them they have nice butts?”

Azure shook her head, reaching for her soda. “You really suck at this.”

“And you’re much better?”

“Why don’t we just lead them astray? Like, instead of doing the usual things we do, we do something totally random and confuse them. If they have some hidden agenda, that might warp it.”

Aeryn considered. “Not a bad idea.”

Azure was secretly proud of Aeryn’s approval. Not that she really needed it or anything. But still. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt … good about herself, or about an idea she’d contributed. When was the last time she’d even contributed an idea? Where were all of these questions springing from?

“We’ll do that, then. We’ll jumble up our schedules, save for classes. Hopefully, at least one of them will get frustrated enough to do something insane.”

“That’s seriously comforting.”

“Well, not insane. Just, stupid. Something that will give them away.”

“Like, come at us in the night with a knife?”

“I wouldn’t let that happen.”

“Forgive me if my trust in your capabilities is a little non-existent.”

“You’re forgiven.” Aeryn looked around. “I’m still hungry.”

“Leave something for the other hungry shoppers, Aeryn.” And Azure stood, grabbing some of the bags at her feet. When she realized Aeryn wasn’t moving, she looked at her. “What?”

Aeryn was grinning curiously. “You called me Aeryn.”

“So?”

“You’ve never said my name like that before. Actually, I don’t think you’ve ever really said my name.”
Azure started to feel self-conscious in that way she hated. “I’ll meet you by the car if you want to pick up another 20 tacos.” She started walking away from the table.

Aeryn caught up to her two seconds later. “Sorry if I made you uncomfortable back there. It’s just that … have you ever realized how intimate it sounds when someone else says your name?”

Azure didn’t answer.

“Sorry. I have this weird compulsion to tell you the truth about everything, and I probably shouldn’t because …”

In spite of her better judgment, Azure turned to look at her companion. “Because why?”

“Because I’m not supposed to. I wasn’t meant to get close to anyone here. My job is merely to blend in, observe, protect, and above all, not call attention to my-Oh! Can we take escalator again? I love that thing.”

Azure rolled her eyes. “You already made me go up and down three times earlier.”

“Live a little.” And Aeryn rushed toward the first step, shopping bags swinging in the air.

So much for blending in, Azure thought, and a soft sigh escaped her lips. She watched Aeryn for a moment before stepping aboard.

10:

As expected, Jael hadn’t been pleased that Thryn had been found out, but he was relieved that her cover hadn’t been blown. Thryn was relieved that Jael hadn’t been too pissed. Pissing Jael off was not something the Guardians were in the habit of doing. In fact, it was advisable to avoid it at all costs.
Plan B, otherwise known as Operation: Befriend the Subjects, was next on her agenda; as was the issue of figuring out who Stalker #2 was, and what she wanted with the two girls. Thryn had called this Plan B.2 or Operation: Stalk the Stalker. So far, neither operation was going well. All subjects were currently M.I.A. and Thryn had no way of locating them without doing a location spell.

Jael had told her to avoid magick, where possible, but had not forbidden her entirely from using her powers, yet, truth be told, she could use a day off from all the sneaking and following around. Besides, she needed a plan for the plans, and a day of quiet contemplation would work nicely toward that goal.

As would the new motorcycle Jael had agreed to deliver to her within the week.

“So, what are you doing?”

Thryn glanced up from her sketchpad to find a pair of brown eyes staring back at her. Technically, she’d been drawing while simultaneously attempting to stifle any impulses to turn her annoying roommate into a multi-legged creature. But she couldn’t very well say that. So instead, she said, “I was contemplating how to go about falsely befriending three potential members of a secret, White Magick Order created by the Goddess to destroy my Dark Master’s plans to destroy Christianity and take over the world.”

Cornelia stared at Thryn silently for about three seconds. “No, seriously.”

“I’m drawing you naked. Now, you can help by removing all of your clothes, and standing near the light.”

“You’re gross.”

“You asked.” Though, Thryn had to agree with the sentiment. She had no desire to see her roommate naked, no matter what kind of lighting. She shuddered at the thought, and quickly pushed it away from her mind. She focused instead on the drawing in front of her. She’d been working on a potential comic book idea; only, she didn’t know what to base the plot on. That, and the heroine came out looking differently every time she drew her. Maybe she could find an artists’ club on campus. There had to be something worthwhile to do at this crappy college.

That’s when the idea struck her.

Suddenly, she knew how she might get to Azure.

[Author’s Note: There’s a scene missing from this chapter that I can’t seem to find in my files. Once I track down the complete version of this chapter I’ll post it. I apologize for any confusion.]

 
 


Chapter 6: “Memories”

“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been three months since my last confession…”

“What brings you here today?” prompted the gentle voice at the other side of the divider.

Azure hesitated, looking around the small, confined space of the confessional wondering why, exactly, she was there. Had she come there to confess, or simply to find someone to talk to? She sighed quietly, feeling pathetic. “Lately,” she whispered finally, casting her gaze downward at her hands, “I’ve been having … unnatural thoughts,” she found herself saying, “about … about another girl…”

~*~

Aeryn sat outside, watching the sky above the dormitory buildings change colors in the approaching darkness. It had been two days since Braeden had shown up at her door; two days since she first realized that the Elders didn’t trust her. And why should they, she asked herself. What had she done to earn their trust? Nothing, she had to admit. Not a single thing. So why should she be surprised that they’d sent another member to watch over her?

She sighed, hugging her knees to her chest. Perhaps she had been wrong all along. She wasn’t meant to be in the Order. Maybe it was time to walk away before anyone got hurt.

“Hi,” said a quiet voice, and Aeryn turned her head to find Azure standing near her.

“Hi,” Aeryn said, and forced a smile. “Haven’t seen you around lately.”

Azure hesitated, as if debating whether to sit down or walk away. Aeryn was pleased when Azure opted for the former. “Yeah, I know. I figured you’d be busy with your … friend.”

Aeryn glanced at Azure’s profile briefly before looking away. “Braeden? He’s not a friend. He’s …” She shrugged. “A colleague, I guess you could call it.” She stretched out her legs and leaned back on her arms. The grass felt rough against her fingers, and Aeryn realized that she had yet to see it rain in Merfolk.

“So, is he sticking around for a while?”

“It would seem that way,” and Aeryn noticed the bitterness in her own voice.

Azure glanced at her. “I thought you might be happy to have someone you know here. You know, someone who … understands.”

“Don’t you?”

Azure didn’t answer, and Aeryn didn’t press.

“You haven’t been in class,” Azure said after a moment.

“You noticed?”

“I guess I must have.”

Aeryn smiled to herself, wondering if that meant Azure had missed her. “I’ve had a lot on my mind,” she said. “Class seemed unimportant.”

“I have the notes. In case class ever seems important again.”

“Thanks.”

Azure simply nodded and they fell into a silence that was neither companionable nor awkward. After several minutes, Aeryn began to wonder why Azure hadn’t left.

“So,” Azure said quietly, in her usual hesitant voice, “what’s been on your mind?”

“You want to know?”

Azure shrugged, seeming embarrassed. “You don’t seem like yourself, so I figure whatever’s bothering you must be pretty serious.”

Aeryn looked away, fixing her gaze on the sky. “I’m thinking of quitting,” she said finally. “I think Braeden getting sent here is a sign that I’m not trusted. And if I’m not trusted … what’s the point?”

“So what would you do instead?”

“I have no idea,” Aeryn admitted. “Maybe I could go back home, teach.” She shrugged, sitting up, wiping her hands on her pants. “I don’t know.”

“Well, have you asked him why he was sent here?”

“He said they wanted me to have back-up.”

“So, maybe that’s all it is.”

“Back-up for what?” Aeryn shook her head. “And it’s not like he’d tell me he’s here because everyone thinks I’m incompetent.”

“Seems to me like maybe it’s you that doesn’t trust them…”

Aeryn glanced at Azure sharply. She opened her mouth to protest, but closed it again.

Azure smiled. “I’ll take that to mean I have a point.”

“I didn’t say that,” but Aeryn smiled. She looked at Azure, regarding her curiously. “You seem to be in a good mood today.”

“Do I?” Azure cast her brown eyes on Aeryn’s green ones. “I just came back from Church. It always makes me feel … I don’t know, at peace, I guess.”

Aeryn simply nodded.

“Anyway, I should go,” Azure announced, standing. “I have homework,” she added, as if needing an excuse.

“Maybe I’ll stop by later and pick up those notes?”

Azure smiled. “Okay.”

Aeryn watched Azure walk away and disappear into the building. She glanced around, trying to decipher whether or not their stalkers were still on the prowl. She hadn’t seen either of them for days, and that worried her. Had they given up? Or were they up to something?

Neither option made her feel better.

~*~

Since arriving at Merfolk, Thryn had learned many fascinating lessons. College, she’d realized, was a constant source of valuable information, and not the pointless, mind numbing hell she’d once imagined.

So far, she had learned that college girls didn’t take kindly to having their curtains opened in the middle of their shower, even if Thryn did provide (what she thought) was a valid excuse.

“Sorry, I just wanted to see you naked,” did not (Thryn soon learned) fly well with the general female population. Neither did, “Just wanted to see if you were as hot with your clothes off …”

Which is why, after only a couple of weeks in Merfolk, Thryn found herself in the R.A.’s office, staring into irritated brown eyes.

“Thryn, there’s been a lot of complaints,” said the R.A., who’s name Thryn hadn’t bothered to catch. “Sexual harassment is a serious offense.”

Thryn nodded. “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

“I’m making sure that it doesn’t. In fact, I’ll be taking this up with the Residence Dean…”

Thryn looked deep into those brown eyes and focused her thoughts. Though, I can see that you’re sincere in your apology.

“… or at least I was, but since it’s obvious that you’re truly sorry…”

I’ll let you slide with just a warning.

“I’m going to let you slide with a warning this time, but if I ever get another complaint …”

My you have beautiful eyes.

“… has anyone ever told you that you have beautiful eyes?”

Thryn raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

The Resident Advisor’s eyes widened and she shook her head. “Uh… um…”

Thryn stood. “Will that be all?”

“Uh … yes …”

Thryn smirked to herself as she started toward the door. College was wonderful, indeed. So what if Jael had told her to keep a low profile? Certainly that didn’t really count as black magick. Thryn did have beautiful eyes, after all.

And speaking of beautiful eyes, it had been several days since she’d followed around her gorgeous subject. Claire, whose name, she’d learned, was actually Aeryn, had become nearly impossible to keep track of, and Thryn had decided to hang back and research from afar. As it turned out, information came faster when she wasn’t trying to gather it from the sources themselves.

Unfortunately, little of what she’d heard about Aeryn proved useful to her research. Nobody seemed to know anything about her, other than she liked to read a lot, and was friendly enough.

Azure, on the other hand, was a little bit more interesting.

Quiet, boring, Azure, whom nobody seemed to like, had earned herself the title of ‘dorm freak’ thanks to her odd showering hours, and bizarre please-don’t-touch-me freak-outs. Other than Aeryn, it didn’t appear that Azure socialized with anyone else.

Also, despite Jael’s report that “Claire” and Azure were a couple, Thryn had found no evidence whatsoever that Aeryn and Azure had any kind of romantic involvement, which made Thryn wonder why the Guardians had thought otherwise. And why had they thought that Aeryn’s name was Claire?
It was all strange, Thryn thought, as she entered her dorm room. Strange and intriguing.

“I hope you’re getting kicked out of the dorms.”

Thryn closed the door and looked at her roommate. “Actually, the R.A. started hitting on me, it was strange. I’m pretty sure I should report her for that.” She shrugged. “How was your day?”

The curly-haired girl made a sound of disgust and reached for her purse. “I’m going to go talk to Jane myself.”

Jane, Thryn wondered, momentarily confused. Oh, the R.A.

“I’m going to get your gross, lesbo ass tossed out of here,” her roommate promised, and Thryn narrowed her eyes at the threat.

It would be so easy, Thryn thought, to hurt her…

But she let the door slam closed without a word.

College life, Thryn realized, did have its setbacks.

~*~
“You look nice with glasses,” Aeryn said, leaning against the doorframe. She’d been watching Braeden quietly from the doorway, having found him in the dorm’s study lounge. While her first instinct had been to let him be, she found she couldn’t pass by without saying something.

Braeden looked up from the textbook on his lap and smiled. “I usually wear contacts, but the glasses made me feel more college type-y.” He closed the book and regarded her silently.

Aeryn looked away, his blue eyes making her nervous with their attentiveness. “Anyway, I just thought I’d say hi, since I saw you sitting here.” She started to wave a goodbye when his voice stopped her.

“I know you don’t want me here,” he said, still looking at her. “I’m sorry.”

Aeryn froze in the doorway, and then, after a second, she moved to join him on the couch. “It’s not that I don’t want you here,” she said quietly, feeling embarrassed that her emotions were so transparent.

“I can’t say I blame you, Aeryn, but you need to believe that they wouldn’t have sent me here if they didn’t think something bad was going to happen. Larken actually seemed … scared.”

Aeryn looked at him then. “Scared?”

Braeden nodded, eyes worried. He glanced around. “We’ll need to find a safe place to talk about these things.”

“My room is safe,” she said, wondering if she’d grow to regret that confession. Could she trust Braeden?

His eyes widened in surprise. “You’ve been practicing? Here?”

“Yeah,” she said, finding that she wanted to trust him. “I have.” She stood. “Stop by sometime. We can talk about it.”

“Aeryn,” his voice carried a warning that seemed to deflate. “Okay.” He held up the textbook, and Aeryn saw it was about Organic Chemistry. “I just want to finish one more chapter.”

Something in his eyes made her pause, but when he looked away, she dismissed it. “See you later then,” she said, and continued down the hall.

~*~
“Everyone wants to save the world, to be the hero. Everyone craves that kind of power, the kind that sets them apart from the rest. But what does anyone know about power? Is it really about saving people? Is it really about doing good? Or is it about finding a reason to be alive?”

“Let me go.”

“You must know that’s not possible. You are here for a reason, Zora. Just as I am here for a reason. Today our reasons for existing collide.”

“I don’t know where she is…”

“No, of course you don’t. She wouldn’t have told you, would she? No. She couldn’t risk it.” Silence spilled across the room before the dark voice filled it again. “But one day, she will come to you, Zora. One day, she will find you again, and you mustn’t be able to warn her…”

“What are you doing?” Zora’s cries died in her throat as shadows began to choke her.

“One day she will lead you straight to Rayne … and I will be waiting.”

Zora’s eyes burst open and she listened to the pounding of her heart as she waited for her breath to even. Daylight bathed the bedroom in warm hues and soft shadows, and Zora went over every detail of the dream in her mind, trying to burn everything to memory. She didn’t dare write anything down, though the memories had been coming more readily with each passing day.

Rayne, she thought, filing the name away. Whoever you are … I hope I am able to warn you. She sighed into the quiet stillness of the morning. If only I knew from what.

~*~

“Okay, so say you were trying to befriend a lesbian,” Naia began, writing ‘How to Befriend a Lesbian’ at the top of a blank sheet of paper, “what would be step one?”

Ry stared blankly at Naia for half a second. “You’re serious?”

Naia looked at him impatiently. “It’s clear that stalking doesn’t help. I gathered nothing from following them around for two weeks. Obviously they’re not going to discuss ghost sightings in public. I need to get closer to them. And you’re gay, so you’d know what might get me invited to their club.”

“Club?”

“So to speak.”

“Hm.” Ry pondered for a moment. “Well, since we have so much in common, they and I, I would open up with a line about how hot George Clooney is, then take it from there.”

“Lesbians like George Clooney?”

“Oh yeah. He’s like the Madonna and Cher of lesbianism.”

“Wow,” Naia said, writing this down. “Who knew. Okay, what else?”

Ry sighed. “Look, Naia, if you’re really serious about this, why don’t you just … I don’t know, try to talk to them like you would anyone else?”

Naia put her pencil down. “Ry, I don’t talk to people unless I’m interviewing them for a story.” She glanced at her watch. “Shit! Just missed a deadline.”

“Again?”

“Goddamn stupid story about how the football team just won their first game in like 8 years or something. Stupid E.C. dropped it on my lap at the last minute.” She picked up the pencil again.

“E.C.?”

“Editor in Chief,” Naia clarified. “He’s such a tool. Like anyone cares about the stupid football team. You know, he turned down my story about the vampire in the Psychology building.”

“There was a vampire in the Psychology building?”

“Well… there was a bat. It was a huge scandal that no one got to hear about because they wouldn’t let me write a story about it. Molly Green – of all people – got the story, and she turned it into a one-paragraph fluff piece.”

“Clearly they don’t grasp the severity of a vampire seeking psychological help.”

“Don’t make a joke. Something really weird is going on in Merfolk, and I’m the only one that realizes it.” She tapped the pencil against the desk. “Anyway, back to this whole lesbian befriending business. What else do they like besides George Clooney?”

~*~

Azure pressed her cheek against the side of her guitar, and allowed her long black hair to cascade over her face before pushing the strands behind her ear. She hadn’t yet gotten used to the newfound silkiness of her hair. Ever since Aeryn had cut it, Azure’s hair had remained shampoo-commercial perfect. A part of her wondered what Aeryn had done to it; a different part of her didn’t want to know. It was nice, all the same, to look in the mirror and think complimentary thoughts for a change.

Her fingers strummed the chords absently. It had been weeks since she had worked on her music and the urge to compose had struck her the moment she’d entered the room. She didn’t know why, but she felt content for the first time in a very long while. The Priest’s words had gone a long way; his gentle assurances that her feelings were likely temporary and that even if they weren’t it didn’t mean she was alone.

She had been smart to confess, to absolve herself of sins and attempt to move forward. The key, the Priest had told her, was not to avoid temptation, but to meet it head first. “If you can conquer it, then it will cease to tempt you,” he had told her, and Azure had agreed. Avoiding Aeryn was not the answer; hiding from temptation did not make it go away.

The knock startled her, and she stared at the closed door for several seconds before moving to open it. In the hallway, a group of drunken girls passed by, laughing obnoxiously, and nearly pushing Aeryn into Azure as they stumbled for balance. Azure was quick to back up, out of reflex if not fear, and Aeryn managed not to fall.

One of the girls shouted, “Sorry,” through her laughter, and the others broke into hysterical giggling.

“Are you okay?” Azure asked, feeling irritated by the girls’ carelessness; wanting to touch Aeryn, but not knowing how.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Aeryn glanced toward the hallway at the sound of shrieking laughter echoing through the halls. “At least they’re having a good time.”

“Is that what you call it?” Azure closed the door as Aeryn stepped inside. She turned around, expecting to find Aeryn seated on the bed. Instead, Aeryn remained standing.

“I actually just came for the class notes. I’m supposed to meet with Braeden later.”

Azure felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, but forced a quick smile. “Oh, sure,” she said, and moved to her desk to look for the notes, careful not to brush against Aeryn as she passed. “Does that mean you’ve found classes worthy again?”

“You were right,” Aeryn said, to Azure’s surprise. “About me not trusting them.”

Azure turned around, feeling concerned. “Why wouldn’t you trust them?”

Aeryn shrugged, looking lost. “That’s just it. I have no reason not to trust them. They’re my family. I mean, as close to having a family as I’ve ever come. You’re supposed to trust your family, right?”

Azure turned around again. “I would be the wrong person to ask about that,” she whispered, facing the neat pile of notebooks on her desk.

“It’s strange,” Aeryn continued, as if she hadn’t heard Azure’s comment, and Azure was grateful that Aeryn hadn’t asked her to explain. “But I find myself trusting you more than I trust anyone else.”

Azure stiffened at the words.

“I guess that’s why it’s so important to me that you trust me,” Aeryn finished.

Azure found the notebook she’d been searching for and turned around. She didn’t know what to say to Aeryn. “Here’s the notes,” she said, embarrassed that she couldn’t think of something else.

Aeryn took them with a sad smile. “Thanks.”

“What about Braeden?” Azure found herself saying.

Aeryn looked up. “What about him?”

“Do you trust him?”

“I suppose I have to.”

Azure bit her lip, wanting to say more, but not knowing what.

“Anyway, thanks,” Aeryn said and headed for the door. “I’ll get these back to you tonight.”

Azure watched the door close, and after a moment, felt herself smile. Aeryn trusted her. Her smile faltered. Now if only I could trust her …

~*~
Jael hadn’t been happy when Thryn had explained about getting in trouble in the dorm, mind-controlling her R.A., and getting caught stalking by one of her subjects. In fact, he’d been downright pissed.

Thryn wasn’t afraid of many people, but if she were to make a list, Jael would be right at the top. Martha Stewart would come at a close second. The woman had supernatural powers that stretched beyond the scope of Thryn’s understanding of the Universe.

One thing had to be said for Jael, however: he was a forgiving soul. And so, despite the incredible mess Thryn had made of things, she’d been granted a second chance and a clean slate to work with.

The memory reversal spell was simple enough, normally, but if she truly wanted a clean slate, she had to wipe everything clean. Placing a black magick spell on the entirety of Merfolk was bound to be tricky.

“Man, I really made a mess of things,” Thryn muttered under her breath, the crunching of her boots on the dry grass drowning out the words as she walked. “Crap. This sucks.” She shook her head, making it further into the woods, and as far from the University as she could.

She waved the flashlight in front of her, looking for a good spot to camp. Arriving at a clearing, she finally stopped and dropped her stuff on the ground. After a few minutes, she’d created a perfect pentagram out of black candles. She lit them carefully and sat at the center facing the two points. At the center of one she placed a picture of the University she had found at the library; at the center of the other, she placed a picture of herself.

“Powers of dark and shadows I implore you, place upon this place a veil of abstraction. Take from their mind all memories me, of my past deeds and actions…”

Thryn opened her eyes, taking a knife from her bag. Without hesitation, she pressed the blade against her arm until the blood flowed freely. She flinched at the pain, though she knew it was nothing compared to the pain that was to follow.

She moved her arm over the candle marking one of the top points of her upside-down pentagram. She let the blood flow over the flame until it fizzed out. She moved her arm over the candle at the other point.

As the drops of blood extinguished the second candle, the wind picked up, blowing out the rest of the flames.

“So mote it be,” this wind hissed.

And in the sudden darkness, Thryn screamed.

~*~

Aeryn had been in the middle of copying Azure’s notes when she felt it. It started as a burning sensation in her stomach, then spread. Her arms began to ache, and she dropped the pencil on the desk, staring at her hands. They began to tremble as the pain grew stronger.

“Goddess…” she cried, her breathing labored. What was happening to her? She glanced up and caught her reflection in the window. Her eyes, normally a green, were pit black.

She gasped and nearly fell backwards as she tried to stand, but the pain tightened around her body, forcing her to cry out. She fell to the ground, and shut her eyes. She tried to concentrate, tried to think of a spell to counteract whatever had gripped her, but couldn’t think.

Then, without warning, the pain stopped. She blinked, staring at the carpet in shock at the sudden absence of agony.

The flash of light that followed caught her by surprise.

She remembered laughter before she passed out. Laughter that sounded vaguely like her own.

~*~

Azure put the Bible down and frowned. Something had made her pause. She listened, but other than shouts from the drunken students outside, she heard nothing. She was about to return to her reading, when she felt it. What ‘it’ was, she couldn’t immediately decipher. Then it hit again. It was something akin to fear; fear that was not her own.

Aeryn, she realized, not knowing how. She was up at once, her chair scraping against the tile as she pushed back from her desk.

The hallway was empty as she hurried toward Aeryn’s room. At the door, she knocked out of habit. When no one answered, she tried the knob. It turned in her hand and she pushed the door open.
She followed the arc of the door as it gave way to the room inside. Her eyes flew to the figure on the floor and she gasped. “Oh no.” She ran inside and knelt beside Aeryn. Her hands were on Aeryn’s cheek before she could stop herself. “Aeryn,” she cried. She checked for a pulse and to her relief, found one. She was about to reach for the phone to call an ambulance when she heard a faint groan.

Azure looked down to see Aeryn blinking up at her.

“Hey,” Aeryn said softly. Her green eyes closed briefly before opening again. “What happened?”

“I don’t know.” Azure felt a tear slide down her cheek and wiped it away quickly. She felt foolish for worrying so much, and feeling so scared. “I was just about to call the paramedics.” She started to reach for the phone on Aeryn’s desk but felt Aeryn’s hand move to stop her.

“Hang on,” Aeryn said. She struggled to sit up, and after a second of hesitation, Azure offered to help.

Azure was still too shaken up to pay much attention to the feel of Aeryn’s arm around her neck as she helped her friend to the bed, but once Aeryn was settled, she moved away, her barriers of proximity beginning to rise now that she knew Aeryn was okay. “I really think I should call a doctor.”

Aeryn shook her head. “I don’t think a doctor can help with what happened.”

Azure stood silently for a moment, then stepped toward the door to close it. “What happened?” Aeryn looked worried, which in turn made Azure worry.

“I’m not sure. One second I was copying the notes you gave me, the next I was on the floor, looking up at you.” She was silent for a while, and Azure waited patiently for whatever would come next.

Suddenly, Aeryn looked up, panicked. “What color are my eyes?”

“Green,” Azure said easily. She didn’t even have to look to know that, but she looked anyway. It seemed important for whatever reason. “Light green.”

Aeryn relaxed. “Okay… good.” She frowned, staring down at the floor, at the spot Azure had found her in. “I felt something before I blacked out. It … hurt. It hurt a lot.”

“You should see a doctor, Aeryn,” Azure insisted. “Please.”

Aeryn smiled weakly. “I felt your hand. You touched me…”

“I was worried about you,” Azure said softly, feeling shy.

“Did you see anything?”

It was then that Azure realized she hadn’t. “No. Nothing.”

“Good.” Aeryn sighed. “I’ll see a doctor, if it will make you feel better.”

“It would.”

They fell into silence until a knock on the door broke through the stillness of the room.

“Come in,” Aeryn called.

Azure knew it was Braeden before he stepped inside, and she inwardly sighed. He was wearing glasses now, and they did nothing to hide his beautiful eyes or take away from the fact that he was a great looking guy. She glanced briefly at Aeryn and saw in her eyes that she agreed.

“I’m sorry, was I interrupting?”

“I was just leaving,” Azure announced. “Just came to see if Aeryn was done with some notes I lent her.”

Aeryn was watching her curiously, Azure noted. “I’ll drop them off by your room later.”

“I’m probably going to bed soon, so just give them to me tomorrow.” Azure didn’t look at Aeryn as she passed by Braeden and headed back to her own room. At her door, she paused and glanced back down the hallway in time to see the door to Aeryn’s room closing. She shook her head, and stepped inside.

~*~

“I don’t think she likes me,” Braeden said as he closed the door.

Aeryn shrugged, sliding back on the bed so her back was to the wall. “Don’t take it personally, she doesn’t really like anyone.”

Braeden smirked as he took a seat at her desk. “She likes you.”

“She puts up with me, there’s a difference.” She thought briefly of Azure’s tear-stained cheeks as she’d reached for the phone, and the touch of her hand on her cheek. Concern didn’t translate to genuine caring, did it? Her thoughts drifted to the events that had led to Azure’s concern and she frowned. What the hell had happened? “Did you feel anything strange earlier?”

“Well, I tried some of that dining hall food and it didn’t exactly sit well.” Braeden turned serious when he saw her face. “Why? Did something happen?”

Aeryn didn’t know how much to tell him. At least not until she knew more. “I felt something … odd.”

“Odd?”

“Something’s not right here, Braeden,” she said, shaking her head. “I just wish I knew what was going on.”

Braeden shrugged, looking confident. “We’ll figure it out, Aeryn. Whatever it is. That’s what we’re here for, right?”

“Right,” Aeryn said, but didn’t entirely believe it.

~*~

“Thryn has fallen off the radar, sir.”

Jael narrowed his eyes at the young man standing across from him. “What do you mean ‘fallen off the radar’?”

The guy swallowed nervously. “She performed a type 6 black spell about three hours ago. It was … reflected.”

“Reflected? By what?”

“We don’t know, sir. It doesn’t make any sense. There’s no protection charm in existence that could reflect a type 6.”

“No way for her to survive it if it were true,” Jael said thoughtfully, anger darkening his green eyes. “Find out what happened. I want to know everything.”

“But sir, we—“

Jael looked up and without a second thought had the boy pinned to the wall. He stood from his desk and made his way to where the boy was struggling against unseen forces. Jael would have laughed had the severity of the moment not made amusement impossible. “Find. Out. What. Happened.” And he let the boy drop to the ground. “Now.”

“Yes sir.” The young man stood and hurried toward the door. There, he paused. “What should we do about Thryn?”

Jael turned to look at him and shrugged. “Forget about her. Even if she survived, she’s useless to us now.”

~*~

Azure’s eyes flew open. Her bedroom was dark, the walls dressed in pre-dawn shadows. Outside, all was quiet, and Azure was on her feet before she knew what she was doing. Her feet were bare as she walked out of her room and down the empty hallway.

Azure passed by Aeryn’s door as if in a trance. Everything appeared to her in black and white, though she knew the lights were on in the corridor. The shadows followed her down the stairs, until she stepped outside, into the cool night air.

The wind picked up as she walked down the steps toward the path below. Her black hair swirled behind her, her nightgown flapped against her skin.

Somewhere, a car drove by, the sound of tires on gravel fading into the distance. Azure stepped onto the grass, the dry blades digging into the soles of her feet.

She kept walking.

It wasn’t the first time something like this had happened, and she was as powerless to stop it now as she had been then. She recognized the absurdity of the situation, of the fact that she was walking barefoot in her nightgown outside in the middle of the night. She recognized the danger, the irrationality, and still she kept going, ignoring the sting of foreign objects beneath her feet.

The buildings passed by, one after the other, and the sky lightened with each step. The sun would come up soon, and morning would find her somewhere she wasn’t meant to be.

At the edge of town, she stopped to listen. Then turned and headed away from civilization, and into the woods.

Had she been in control of her body, she would have thought it suicide. It was dark beneath the trees, her sight impaired. Twigs and dry leaves broke beneath her steps and she knew her feet would be bleeding by the end of this. Whatever this turned out to be.

Animals scurried as she passed. She heard the flapping of wings overhead, felt small, inhuman eyes on her.

It was a while before she reached the clearing, and by then, sunlight filtered through the branches, lighting her path.

She hadn’t known until that moment what it was she’d been searching for, but as she drew closer, she knew.

The girl lay on her back. Blood stained her arm, and pooled beneath it. Her eyes were closed, and Azure wasn’t sure the girl was breathing. Briefly, she noted the candles on the floor, half-covered by leaves. She saw the outline of a symbol, noted the knife in the girl’s hand. Then Azure stepped closer, and her heart sped up.

It was the girl who had been following her.

She knelt on the ground, and for the second time that night, felt for a pulse. It beat against her fingers and Azure drew her hand away. “Hello?” she tried, but the girl didn’t move. She got closer, her face inches from the girl’s. “Hello?”

The girl stirred, and for the first time all night, Azure felt frightened. She glanced briefly at the knife in the girl’s hand, then back to the girl’s face.

Pretty blue eyes were looking at her in confusion. “Hi,” the girl said softly, and she tried to sit up. It was then she noticed the object in her hand and let out a yelp. The knife fell to the ground, and the girl backed away from Azure. “Who are you? What did you do to me?”

Azure blinked. “I didn’t do anything. I just found you here, like this.” She nodded to the girl’s arm. “You should put something on that. To stop the bleeding.”

The girl glanced at her arm, and turned pale. “So much blood.” She turned frightened eyes on Azure. “What happened to me?”

Azure shook her head, feeling helpless. “I don’t know. You don’t remember how you got here?”

The girl shook her head and looked all around. She took in the candles and the knife. It was then she saw the bag on the ground. “Is that mine?”

“I guess,” Azure replied. She studied the girl for a moment, not knowing what to say. “My name is Azure. You don’t remember me?”
“No. Should I?”

“You were following me.”

“Following you?” She frowned, thinking. “Why would I do that?”

“I don’t know.” Azure bit her lip. “What’s your name?”

Frightened blue eyes began to tear. “I don’t remember. I don’t remember anything.”

 


Episode 6: “Seers”

1:
The woman entered the room, her steps echoed with the rhythm of confidence. She wasn’t smiling, but her features were relaxed. Blue eyes focused, thin lips in a tight line; her hair, blonde, cut short around her ears.

Then it changed.

With each step, her hair turned a different shade of dark, until it was a dark brown that bordered on black. It grew out, long, past her shoulders. It framed her face perfectly. Then her features began to change. Where before she looked to be in her thirties, now she looked twenty. Her eyes, now violet, sparkled in the sunlight streaming from high windows. Full lips turned into a lazy kind of smile.

By the time she stopped walking, she was a different person altogether.

A young man stood in front of her, and beside him, a girl no older than seventeen. He bowed before speaking. “This is our new recruit. She claims to be a Seer.”

Amused violet eyes regarded the girl in question. “A Seer, huh? Why not claim to be a unicorn?”

The girl looked up, blue eyes defiant. “I only speak the truth.”

“We make the truth here, little girl. The Guardians have been the Keepers of the Truth for centuries.” She paused and stared into the girl’s eyes. “Seers are a myth.”

The girl didn’t answer. Instead, she lowered her gaze.

“What do you wish me to do with her, Zora?” the young man asked.

Zora narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. “Leave her to me. I’m sure the Master will want to meet our latest addition.”

“The Master sent word that he’s not to be disturbed,” he said. “Jael is making the rounds in his place.”

Zora smiled, looking at the girl. “Let’s go meet Jael, then. I’m sure the two of you will hit it off.”

The young man bowed and walked away.

Zora watched him leave and then sighed. “What’s your name?”

The girl looked up, brown hair falling across her face. “Larken,” she said. “My name is Larken.”

Azure opened her eyes, taking in the darkness of the room before letting out a breath. Another strange dream. Recently, they had taken the place of her nightmares, and for that, she was grateful. She was about to close her eyes when realized that she wasn’t alone. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the figure sitting at her desk, watching her. Fear gripped her and she sat up, clutching the covers as though they could protect her.

Ghosts … shadows, those she was used to. This was different. This person was really there.

“Do not fear me, Azure,” the voice said. It was female, older … kind. “I’ve not come to do you harm.” A subtle movement and the light came on.

Azure blinked, the light hurting her eyes until they adjusted. She looked at the woman once she could. She was in her late thirties, maybe early forties, Azure couldn’t be sure. The white hair made her seem older, but her face was still young. “Who are you? What do you want?”

Instead of answering, the woman closed her eyes. When she opened them, she looked sad. “So it’s true,” she said, almost in a whisper. “How did I not See it sooner?”

Azure swallowed and looked around her room for something to protect herself with. A potentially insane woman was sitting in her bedroom in the middle of the night. No good could come of a situation like this.

“The mark on your inner thigh is of what?” the woman asked. Then she laughed softly. “Forgive me. I’ve forgotten my manners in the shock of it all. My name is Larken.”

Azure instantly thought back to the girl in her dream. She looked up and saw that the blue eyes were the same.

“I am the High Priestess of the Order of Akasha,” the woman continued. “First Seer to the Goddess. My sister, Faedyn, is Second Seer.” She turned her head to the side, watching Azure intently. “I apologize for the intrusion, Azure. I don’t make it a habit of coming to young women’s rooms in the middle of the night.”

Then why are you here? Azure wondered, but didn’t verbalize.

Larken seemed to read the unspoken question in Azure’s eyes. “A great injustice has been committed against you. Well…” She sighed, and suddenly seemed tired. “I suppose everything has happened as was meant to. “ She said this more to herself than to Azure. She closed her eyes again and flinched as if something had hit her. Blue eyes were moist when she opened them. “You have suffered a great deal, and you don’t even know why.” She shifted, taking in her surroundings without really seeing them. “Please forgive me for asking, but the mark, what is it of?”

Azure thought of the scar on her thigh, the one she didn’t remember getting. She had always assumed her father had given it to her, like the others. “It’s just a scar,” she said, uncertain now. She looked around, trying to find elements that might give this away as another dream. But everything was as it should be. Everything but the woman at her desk.

“Is that what they told you?”

Azure didn’t answer. She thought of the scar. Pictured it in her mind. To her, it had always seemed more like a half-moon on its back, its ends pointed at the sky as if praying. Below it, three dots, like water droplets, or maybe tears. She had always wondered how she’d gotten it. Unlike the others she couldn’t recall.

Larken was smiling when Azure glanced over. “The symbol of blessing,” she said, nodding. “I always wondered what it would be.” She stood, and Azure drew in a sharp breath. “Relax, Azure.” She walked to the window and gazed outside. “We thought you had died,” she said softly. “Some thought you had simply never existed, but I saw you. I was there when you were born. “ She turned back to Azure. “I was there but I had no idea.”

Azure didn’t know what to say. She had long lost track of the conversation. Wasn’t sure she’d ever had it to begin with.

“I can see you’re not ready,” Larken said. “You’re still scared. Still resistant.” She nodded as if coming to a decision. “We will speak again soon. We have many things to discuss.” She stepped toward Azure, and gently touched her chin before Azure could move away. She smiled, albeit sadly. “You look just like her.” Her hand moved to Azure’s forehead. “Sleep now, Azure. Your dreams can’t hurt you now.”

2:

When Azure opened her eyes again it was daytime. The usual shadows danced on the ceiling, the usual sounds drifted in. She glanced at the desk and found the chair empty. In the stillness, in the absence of proof, she could almost pretend that the woman’s visit had only been a dream.

The knock on the door was soft but audible, and Azure stared at the wall until the sound came again. She rubbed her eyes and yawned as she crossed the room. She guessed it was Aeryn. It was always Aeryn.

Except this time.

“Hi,” the girl said shyly, staring down at a pile of papers in her hand. “I know I shouldn’t be here. You were very kind to find me and take me to the University clinic. It’s just … I didn’t get a chance to really thank you. “ She looked up and bit her lip as she took in Azure’s attire. “I’m sorry. I must have woken you.”

Azure hesitated, feeling awkward in her nightgown. She had meant to wake up and take her usual four a.m. shower, but her alarm didn’t ring. At least, she didn’t think it had. “It’s okay,” she said. “Um. Could you just… wait a couple of minutes while I get dressed? I promise I’ll be fast.”

“I can just … come back.”

“No, it’s fine. Two minutes.”

The girl nodded. “Take your time. Really.”

Azure closed the door and rushed to her closet to pick something out. Without thinking she chose one of the outfits Aeryn had picked out. She had been meaning to return the clothes, knowing she felt uncomfortable in them, but now she was oddly grateful she had them.

She finished buttoning the jeans and regarded her reflection. She looked almost normal; a college girl like all others , and still anything but. Running a hand through her hair, she opened the door. “Sorry about that.” She let the door hang open by way of invitation.

“Don’t apologize. I’m the one that came unannounced.” The girl turned in the middle of the room, looking around before settling blue eyes on Azure. “I really appreciate what you did for me the other night. I don’t know how you found me out there. I don’t even know what I was doing. I got this checked.” She lifted a bandaged arm. “They said it was self-inflicted. They’re making me go to counseling, which seems like a good idea, except I don’t know what to tell them. I still don’t remember anything before seeing you there. Everything’s … “ She shrugged. “I don’t know. Like it’s not there. Like it never was.”

Azure leaned against the door, waiting patiently for the girl to continue. After a moment, she said, “You’re welcome to sit.”

The girl chose the chair by the desk, and Azure moved to sit on the bed. Again, she waited.

“They told me that my name is Kathryn. Kathryn James. They showed me my school I.D. They told me where I lived on campus. They assured me tuition had been paid for, but suggested I go home. I told them I didn’t know where home was. They looked up files. I had no emergency contact, no mention of a family. Everything was under my name.” She paused. “So I went to the room they told me I lived at. I opened the door and my roommate cursed at me. I tried to explain that I couldn’t remember anything but she threw a notebook at my head, and told me she was going to stay with her boyfriend until they kicked me out.” She looked at Azure. “I guess she doesn’t like me very much.”

Azure shook her head, feeling horrible for the girl. How awful to wake up and not know your own name. She almost wished they could trade places. There were many things Azure wished to forget.
“So what are you going to do?”

Thryn held up the papers she carried. “Well, after my roommate left I tried to figure out which side of the room was mine. And I found a bunch of papers with the name Thryn on them. I assume that’s me. They were mostly drawings and sketches of…” She looked down, shyly. “… of women.” She coughed. “Um. But I also found some things that were weird. The student name book was open to a page with your picture on it, and it was highlighted. That’s how I found your room, actually. And I remembered you telling me, that night, that I had followed you around before. I still don’t know why I would have done that. I almost don’t want to know, actually.” She drew in a breath. “Anyway, I started thinking what an odd coincidence it was that you’d be the one that found me. I was hoping you could tell me how you did. Maybe something might spark my memory.”

Azure sighed. She had feared this. She shifted uncomfortably on the bed, trying to conjure up a lie that was both believable and rational. She couldn’t think of a single thing to say.

And then there was a knock at the door.

Grateful for the interruption, Azure went to answer.

Aeryn looked her up and down with what looked to Azure as genuine surprise. “Wow. You’re actually dressed in that? I’m not hallucinating?”

“I was out of clean clothes.”

“Ah.” Aeryn smiled and nodded in understanding. “May I come in?”

Azure bit her lip, her relief at the interruption fading under what could potentially be a complicated situation. “It’s not a good time.”

“Oh I can leave.”

It was Thryn who spoke, causing Aeryn to lift an eyebrow. “Who’s that?”

“It’s … um…” This is why Azure avoided people. Anything concerning people only led to weird situations involving sleep walking and bloody knives and women passed out on the floor. At least, in her world. She turned around and regarded Thryn. “Could you excuse me for a sec?” And then she closed the door behind herself, and stepped out into the hallway.

“Do you have a girl in there?” Aeryn looked amused. “Is she naked? My, I knew you were naughty. Can I meet her?”

Azure sighed. “Look, it’s… complicated. She’s got amnesia or something. I found her in the woods…”
Aeryn was frowning now. “In the woods? What were you doing in the woods?”

Azure lowered her voice. “I can’t talk about this right now.”

Aeryn looked concerned, and before Azure knew what was happening, Aeryn had pushed her way into the room.

“You!” Aeryn said, staring at Thryn.

“I need to stop answering the door,” Azure mumbled under her breath as she followed Aeryn. She closed the door behind them. “Don’t pester her. She doesn’t remember.”

Aeryn was glaring. “Or she’s just pretending to forget to get close to you.”

Thryn was standing, looking petrified. “I-I’m sorry! What is it that I did?”

Aeryn crossed her arms and let out a breath. “Well, technically all you did was follow us around and compliment my butt.” Two pairs of eyes naturally drifted to the body part in question, and Aeryn frowned. “Hey!”

Thryn shifted her eyes. “I’m sorry. Uh. Okay. Well, I think that what I need to do is figure out what happened to me, and then maybe it will start to come back. I mean, already I am starting to think that … well…” She glanced at the two of them. “… that I’m gay.” She lifted her chin, aiming for a confident stance. Then looked uncertain. “I’m guessing I was proud of that, I don’t know.” She sat down, looking confused. “Maybe I wasn’t. Maybe I was repressing it and it manifested into a creepy, stalker-like … thing.”

“Um, no. You seemed pretty gay to me.” It was Aeryn who spoke. “I’m going to have to see your butt. Drop your pants.”

Thryn stood up and backed away. “Look, I’m not really ready for a threesome or … whatever. Or… gay bashing. Oh god. You’re not going to kill me, are you?”

“What the hell are you doing?” Azure was mortified. “What is wrong with you? You can’t just … What is wrong with you?”

Aeryn stared suspiciously at Thryn for a long time, then turned to Azure. “Guardians have their symbol burned into their skin when they’re officially inducted. If she’s one of them, then there will be proof. If she has nothing to hide then there’s no reason not to comply with my request.”

Azure blinked. “Are you serious? You would just take off your pants if some random person came in and said, ‘I’m going to have to see your butt. Drop your pants’?”

Aeryn contemplated. “I see your point.” She turned back to Thryn, who looked like she was about to jump out of the window at any second. “Would it make you more comfortable if I took mine off too?”

“Aeryn!” Azure was staring at Aeryn incomprehensibly. Strange women visiting in the middle of the night was suddenly starting to seem far more believable than this moment right here. “Did you hit your head when you fell off your chair the other night?”

Aeryn frowned and touched her head. “Actually, yeah. I think I did.”

“Look, no one is taking off their pants,” Azure said, ignoring Aeryn. “We’re going to settle down and try to figure this out.” She paused. “With clothes on.”

Aeryn sighed. “What’s your name?”

Thryn’s back remained firmly against the wall. “I-I was told it was Kathryn … but I think I went by Thryn.” She took a deep breath. “Listen, I really don’t remember anything that happened to me before your friend here found me out in the woods. I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t. I cut my arm for some reason. Maybe I was depressed or something.” She sighed. “I have no idea. It’s all black. I can remember world events, things that happened to everyone else, but nothing about me. Who I was, what I did, who I knew…”

Azure noticed that Aeryn’s eyes were beginning to soften, though her mind seemed to still be processing the situation. Even if the girl was lying, wasn’t that a cry for help? And if she was telling the truth, shouldn’t they go out of their way to help her? There was a reason Azure had been led into those woods. She was supposed to find the girl. She was supposed to help her.

And she would help. With or without Aeryn.

It was the Christian thing to do.

3:

Naia rewound the tape and played it over. Her face wrinkled in concentration as she stared into the monitor. “See, it’s weird. Where the hell is she going in her pajamas? Barefoot, even.”

Ry moved away from his place behind Naia. “Maybe she had to go to the bathroom.”

Naia swiveled around in her chair and shook her head. “See, I actually considered that, but it doesn’t make any sense. Her room is around the corner from the bathroom. And if you watch the rest of the clip, she clearly heads down the stairs.”

“Early morning booty call? Who knows?”

“Well, she knows.” Naia shrugged. “I’m just saying it’s weird. Earlier today I saw that girl that I’m pretty sure was following them around go into this girl’s room.” She shook her head. “None of it makes sense. I need sound. I need to bug her room.”

“That is so inappropriate.” Ry slid back on the bed until his back was to the wall. “Here’s a theory for you. Stalker girl has a crush. Follows them around to try and figure out if they’re a serious item before making an approach. She decides they’re not. She makes her move on the one you think talks to dead people. They hit it off. Ghost Girl invites Stalker Girl over. The Other Girl shows up wanting to hang out like usual, hears a voice inside, and bam! Instant dyke drama caught on tape.”

“No.”

Ry sighed. “It makes perfect sense.”

“That’s the problem. None of this makes perfect sense. Life doesn’t make perfect sense. You can’t just attempt to make sense out of a situation that more than likely doesn’t have any.”

“So what’s your explanation? UFOs called to the girl in her sleep and she wandered out in her gown to meet them? The Stalker Girl is really an alien? What? What is your big theory?”

Naia frowned. “Well, I don’t have one yet. And there were no UFOs in the area the other night. I would have known.”

“Right.”

“I think I’ll go ahead and have a talk with the Stalker Girl, as you like to call her. I think it’s about time we compared notes.”

Ry nodded. “Great. It will be a New York Times bestseller once you guys team up and publish your findings.”

Naia turned her back to him, and played the tape again. Whatever it was these girls were hiding, she would find it.

4:
Aeryn was looking in the mirror when the knock came. More specifically, she had been looking at her eyes, trying to determine whether there were any shades of black lingering in the green. She couldn’t find anything, and she was beginning to wonder if she hadn’t actually imagined the entire thing. “Come in,” she called, moving away from the mirror.

Azure entered, still dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt. She looked so different that Aeryn had to smile. “Hey, I was just wondering if I could get my notes back. I have class in a couple of hours.”

“Oh, sure, sorry.” Aeryn reached for the object and handed it to Azure. “Thanks.”

“Any time.”

Azure started to walk out so Aeryn called out to stop her. “Can we talk for a minute?” she asked, hoping Azure was free.

Hesitantly, Azure closed the door and stepped further into the room. “Is this about Thryn? Because I don’t care what you think … that girl needs help. And it would seem to me that you, of all people, would be first in line, what with your superhero complex.”

Aeryn crossed her arms. “You think I have a complex?”

“Well you have something.” Azure sighed and dropped the notebook on Aeryn’s bed before taking a seat on the beanbag chair Aeryn had recently added to the room. “What do you want to talk about?”

“Thryn.” Aeryn leaned back against the edge of the desk. “One second she’s following us around, the next she’s got amnesia? And what was she doing in the woods? Better yet, what were you doing in the woods?”

“Since when do I have to answer to you?”

Aeryn frowned. “You don’t … I just … I want to help you.”

Azure rolled her eyes. “Why do you think I need help? You’re the one that was passed out on the floor the other night. And it’s not even the first time that happens. Remember that one time you collapsed in my room? And you’re supposed to be my bodyguard against the forces of evil? It seems to me like you’re the one that needs help.”

The memory of the other night flashed into Aeryn’s head. The pain. The helplessness. Was she fooling herself in thinking that she could protect someone? She couldn’t even protect herself.

“I’m sorry,” came Azure’s soft voice. “I didn’t really mean to say that. I’m just a bit …” She hesitated. “Do you know someone named Larken?”

Aeryn stiffened. “She’s my High Priestess. Why?”

“I don’t know what that means exactly, but okay. Anyway, she was in my room last night. She was talking about how she’s the First Seer and someone else is the Second Seer and she called my scar a symbol of blessing or something. It was all very weird and … is she always so cryptic?”

“Wait, Larken was in your room?”

“Intense blue eyes? White hair?”

“That’s her.” Aeryn’s mind tried to wrap itself around the notion that Larken would come to Azure.

Azure was still talking. “… and that woman that was in my room before … remember? When you … uh … kissed me? She was there—“

“With Larken?”

“Well, no Larken was with the guy—“

“Just how many people were in your room last night?”

Azure stared at Aeryn for a second, a confused look on her face. “In my dream.”

“Oh.” Aeryn decided to sit down. “So Larken wasn’t really in your room?”

A loud sigh, then, “No, first I had the dream. Then Larken was in my room.”

“This is all very confusing.”

“Okay, forget it.” Azure stared to rise.

“No, no, please sit. I’m just trying to get all of the facts straight. There was a dream. That intruder woman was in it. Larken was in it. And so was a guy. Got it. Go.”

Azure hesitated but sat back down. “It was really strange because the woman, they called her Zora. Well, at first she looked totally different. Then she changed. Her entire face became younger, her eyes turned violet, her hair turned dark. That’s how she looked when she came here. But in my dream, at first, she was blonde, and older.”

“Hm. Go on.”

“Well, there was a guy and next to him was Larken, only Larken was really young. Late teens, I’d guess. And the guy introduced her as their latest recruit. And then they talked about a Master. Wait, no, first Larken said she was a Seer, and the Zora woman was like, ‘There’s no such thing,’ and something about how the Guardians are the Keepers of the Truth. Then Zora said they should introduce Larken to the Master. Only, apparently the Master was unavailable, and Zora said …” She hesitated. “You’re not going to pass out again are you?”

“I might, once I make sense of everything you’re telling me, but continue.”

“Well, Zora said that she’d introduce Larken to … Jael.”

Aeryn shook her head. “But.. that was just a dream, right?”

Azure shrugged. “I don’t know what it was. When I opened my eyes, Larken was there. Speaking in riddles and telling me I’d suffered and I didn’t know why . And that they’d thought I was dead and that she was there when I was born… You know, the more I think of it, the more I hope it was a dream.”

“It had to be. I mean … Larken is the High Priestess of the Order. She couldn’t have been part of the Guardians. It doesn’t make any sense. And …” She decided to sit down on the bed, just in case the world started to spin. “I have to talk to Larken. There has to be an explanation.”

“She said I wasn’t ready. That we’d speak again.” She paused and looked worried. “Aeryn? You’re not going to tell Braeden about this, are you? I don’t even know why I told you. Maybe I shouldn’t have.”

Aeryn glanced at Azure, taking in the worried expression, the fear in the brown eyes. “I won’t tell him. And … thanks for telling me. Though, unless Larken asked you specifically not to tell me, I kind of feel like she wanted me to know.”

Azure stood, and at first Aeryn thought that she was going to leave. Instead, Azure came to sit beside Aeryn. “The other night, I woke up sometime before dawn, and I walked out of my room in my nightgown. I walked down the hall, and out of the building, and I kept on walking until I found a girl in the woods. Don’t ask me how or why I did that. There were no visions, no voices guiding me. It was more like someone was holding my hand and leading me to that place, except, I didn’t actually feel a hand on me. I recognized her, but I could tell she didn’t recognize me. She was covered in blood, holding a knife, surrounded by black candles—”

Aeryn flinched. “Did you say black candles?”

“Yeah, they were all around her.”

Aeryn stood and began to pace. “So it was a spell. How many candles?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t count them. Five or six.”

“Okay. We have to go there. You have to take me to the place you found her.”

Azure stood too. “I don’t remember where it was. Like I said, I was walking in a sort of trance. It’s a miracle we even found our way out.”

Aeryn was shaking her head. “My charms must have reflected it. Whatever she meant to do to us she did to herself.”

Azure blinked. “So you think she’s dangerous?”

“Let’s just say, I hope she’s not faking that amnesia.”

5:
Thryn sat down on the chair and folded her hands over her lap. The woman on the chair across from her stared amiably in Thryn’s direction. Expectant brown eyes blinked patiently behind a pair of black glasses. Thryn swallowed.

“I’m Doctor Brustle. I’m told you were sent here because you’re suffering from a certain type of amnesia, is that correct?”

Thryn nodded. “They couldn’t find anything wrong with me so they had to let me go. I guess they figured if it wasn’t physical it was psychological.”

The Doctor nodded and wrote something down. “And what do you think?”

She lifted the arm with the bandage on it. “Well, I seem to have cut myself on purpose. I guess that doesn’t bode well for my mental state.”

“Did you find any other evidence on your body that suggests this was something you were in the habit of doing? I’m assuming you don’t recall how you came to have your injury.”

Thryn shifted in her seat, feeling uncomfortable under the scrutiny. She couldn’t remember the her that came before three days ago and talking about her felt strange. As if she was betraying someone else’s confidence instead of her own. “I found a few scars, yeah. I don’t know how I got them. Maybe I liked to cut myself or something.”

The scratching of pen against paper filled the silence between conversation. “When you came across these scars, how did you feel about them? Were there any in particular that conjured up a specific feeling for you, or even a memory?”

“No. I just thought …” She sighed. “I thought I must have been a really fucked up person.” She flinched. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to curse.”

“Did it feel natural to do so? Like it’s something you’re accustomed to doing?”

Thryn shrugged. “I think most people curse from time to time. It’s possible I did a lot of it. Everyone I come across, who knew me before, seems to hate me. So, odds are I wasn’t a saint.”

“How does it make you feel, when these people, these strangers to you now, approach you with hostility?”

“I feel scared. And guilty. And … like I’m sort of glad I can’t remember what I’ve done because then I’d have to face myself, and those things. Whatever they are.”

“Hm, interesting.”

The pen moved quickly against the notebook and Thryn watched it with interest .She wondered what conclusions the doctor was making about her already. They’d told her that part of the counseling was meant to determine whether or not she was psychologically fit to continue her studies. Thryn hoped they’d let her stay. She didn’t know where to go otherwise.

“It says here that the people at the clinic were unable to reach your family. Is that still the case?”

Thryn nodded, feeling suddenly depressed. Was it possible that she didn’t have a family? Even if she didn’t, there had to be a guardian somewhere. Someone had to have paid her tuition for the year. “I still don’t know where they are.”

“In your dorm room, do you have any letters from people outside of the University? Emails? Maybe some pictures. Evidence that you led a life before you came here?”

Thryn shook her head. “No. Just my books, some notebooks filled with drawings.”

“So you draw?”

“I guess I must have.”

The doctor capped her pen. “When you get back to your room, try to draw something. Whatever images pop into your head. It might be a good exercise for freeing your subconscious. If you feel comfortable, bring one or two in so I can look at them with you. Don’t feel bad if you don’t want me to see them. My feelings won’t be hurt. Just try to look at what you draw and see if it brings anything back for you. If you get anything, write it down, and bring that to me.” She closed the notepad on her lap and placed it and the pen on the glass coffee table between them. “I think it’s important that you stay close to what’s familiar to you right now. Attend your classes. See if the routine of it comes back to you. If doing something doesn’t feel right or normal to you, don’t do it. Aim for the things that feel natural, and hopefully memories will start to come back to you.”

Thryn nodded.

“Do you have a roommate?”

“Yeah, but .. she threw a notebook at my head and said she refused to come back to the room until they kicked me out.”

The Doctor frowned and reached for the pen and notebook again. “Did she say why?”

“Uh, well her parting words were, ‘I refuse to spend another minute in the company of a fucking dyke,’ so … well, it seemed pretty clear.”

The pen uncapped, the notebook opened. “Did you report her to an R.A.?”

“No, I … I don’t know. I was too frazzled to think clearly.”

The doctor was nodding as the pen danced frantically over the page. “And your roommate hasn’t been back to the room?”

“Some of her stuff has moved, but I haven’t been in the room to see her move it.”

The Doctor frowned. “I’ll be honest with you, Kathryn. This is a very complicated situation, and if your family had appeared to claim you, I’d be telling you to go home to them and come back next semester. It’s clear that the University environment hasn’t been healthy for you. Perhaps you had a hand in that, perhaps you didn’t. I don’t want to assume anything. For now, I think that the best thing for you is to find a comfortable place to get your thoughts in order. If I put in a request to have you moved to a different dorm, would you find that too disruptive?”

“No, not at all. It’s mainly the people in my dorm that have made me feel uncomfortable.”

“Do you have any friends? Anyone that has come forward since the incident? Someone you feel comfortable around?”

Thryn instantly thought of Azure, though it felt wrong to call the girl her friend. “There’s a girl … the one that found me. She’s been kind to me.”

The Doctor nodded. “I’d feel more comfortable if you had a roommate for the duration of the semester, if not the year. I think you understand where I’m coming from in saying that I’d rather you weren’t alone.”

“Sure.” Thryn felt the cut on her arm ache by way of a reminder.

“If your friend … or your acquaintance is willing, we can arrange to have the two of you in a room. If that’s something you’d prefer. Otherwise, Housing will find a roommate for you.”

Thryn shook her head. “A random roommate is fine. The girl … well, she’s not my friend. Just a nice person and I don’t want to disrupt her life any more than I have. Plus, she has a single room. I’m sure she’s happy with that.”

The Doctor nodded. “Very well. I think our time is almost up, so unless there’s anything else…?”
“No, nothing. You’ve been very helpful, thank you.”

“It’s my pleasure. Someone from Housing will be in touch with you about the move. These sort of things take time, so don’t worry if you don’t hear back right away. Remember what I said about the drawings and trying to find your routine. I will see you back here on Friday. Same time okay?”

Thryn nodded and stood, extending her hand to the doctor. “Thanks again.”

Outside, the University campus stretched out before her, and Thryn removed the campus map from her back pocket. She stretched out the paper like an accordion and regarded the maze of paths and buildings. She couldn’t imagine knowing all of this by heart. She was in the process of figuring out where to go, when the map flew out of her hands.

“What the..?” In front of her, a black girl stood, staring at her with caramel eyes and a blank expression. She wore a black t-shirt with the words ‘The Truth Is Out There’ printed in white across the chest.

“We need to talk.” The girl placed a piece of paper in Thryn’s hand, and the map in the other, then began to walk away. “Meet me there tonight at eight o’clock.”

Thryn looked at the girl’s retreating back, then down at the paper. It turned out to be a business card.
_______________________________
NAIA DALTON
Editor in Chief , The Daily Bizarre Newspaper
Expert in the Supernatural
Mercury Hall, room 213
________________________________

Thryn arched an eyebrow in question, then looked up again.
But the girl was gone.

6:

“Thanks for seeing me, High Priestess,” Aeryn said, her hands behind her back. She wore her cloak, hood down, as she stood before Larken’s desk.

Larken smiled and sat back, her chair emitting a soft squeak at the weight. “I can see by the look on your face that you’ve spoken to Azure.” She nodded and pointed to a chair. “Please sit.”

Aeryn obeyed silently. She had asked for a meeting with Larken the moment Azure had departed from her room. The trail of confusion she’d left behind needed clarification. “I’m sorry if it’s not my place to be here asking questions. I thought perhaps you not asking Azure to keep things a secret was a sign that … in some way … you wanted me to know.”

Larken raised an eyebrow. “And what is it you presume to know, Aeryn?”

Aeryn lowered her head. Larken’s presence always made her feel small. “I’m not sure.”

“It is up to Azure to decide what she reveals and to whom she reveals it to. She is not a part of the Order. She knows nothing of our rules. For me to demand silence from her would be inappropriate. I spoke to her as a friend, not as her leader.”

Aeryn swallowed, feeling foolish and somewhat embarrassed by her own presumptions. “I apologize, High Priestess.”

“Understand, Aeryn, that what Azure told you is but a fraction of the truth. She is not ready for the complete picture. For that matter, neither are you.”

“I understand.” Though she didn’t. What was the point of continuing with only half-truths and broken pictures? Why not be honest from the start?

Larken was watching her intently, a smile flickering at the corner of her lips. “You think that I am the architect behind all of this, that it is my vision that guides you all. I am but a messenger. We must all follow the path that was designed for us, long before we were even born. The Goddess has her ways and we must respect them.” The High Priestess stood and walked to the window. She spoke quietly when she turned. “The day is fast approaching when you will face who you really are, Aeryn. There is a fork in the road of all of our futures, and there will come the day when we will have to follow your lead.”

At this, Aeryn frowned. “Why mine?”

Larken offered a wistful smile. “It is the way it is.” She paused and closed her eyes, then opened them. “You were right about Azure.”

Aeryn’s heart sped up at the admission. “So she is a Seer?”

“She is much more than just that.” From the bookshelf behind her, Larken retrieved a book so old that the pages were no longer glued to the spine. Small chunks of brown dust fell to the ground as Larken walked over. The High Priestess placed the book on the desk, facing Aeryn, and she opened it to a marked page.

The language was familiar to Aeryn, but she wasn’t fluent. She spoke many ancient languages, but this was not one of them. She stared at the calligraphy of letters, and managed to make out only a few words. “The Third Seer,” she read.

Larken only nodded.

“What does that mean?”

“As far as we know, the Third Seer will one day be called upon restore the balance between good and evil.”

“But I thought that was our job?”

“It is … until it’s not.” Larken closed the book, and dust floated over the object , catching in the light. “You are wrong in assuming that I have all of the answers, Aeryn. This is not my master plan. I am but another servant to the Goddess’ vision. As are you. Remember that.”

“But Azure doesn’t even believe in the visions she sees. She is afraid of herself, of me, of the world at large. How could she be called to anything?”

Larken fell silent for a long moment, her eyes distant. When she spoke, her tone was reserved. “She has already been called. It is how I realized who she was.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Why do you think you’re meant to?”

“How can I help if I don’t have the answers.”

“What makes you think you need answers to help?”

Aeryn sighed. Azure was right. Larken was cryptic. Purposely cryptic, which made things worse. “I fear the Guardians have infiltrated Merfolk.”

Larken nodded.

“That a spell was cast, perhaps reflected by my protective charms. I suspect a girl named Thryn of being one of them. She claims to have amnesia, to not remember who she is. Azure is insisting we help her, when all I want to do is pin the girl to a wall and demand answers.”

Larken considered Aeryn’s words. “And if she were to tell you that she is a Guardian. That she attempted to put a spell on your town … what would you do?”

Aeryn hesitated. “I would fight her.”

“And if she didn’t put up a fight?”

Aeryn frowned. “But why wouldn’t she? A Guardian facing an Akashan… it is what we were trained for.”

Larken breathed audibly, a sound akin to a sigh. “You can’t know what a Guardian is going to do. That is what we trained you for. Expect the unexpected. That does not necessarily mean expect an unexpected attack. The world is not black and white. This girl, this Thryn, could very well be a Guardian, but if her spell was reflected it was not without consequence to her. It was not without consequence to that which reflected it.”

“I tested the charms. They were all intact.”

Larken closed her eyes briefly. “I see,” she said, as she opened them.

Aeryn suddenly felt frightened as a different truth pressed at the edges of her consciousness. “It was me, wasn’t it?” she said after a moment, remembering the black of her eyes. “I reflected it.”

Larken didn’t answer right away. She studied Aeryn’s face as if debating what to say and how much to reveal. “Yes,” she said finally. “It was you.”

Aeryn tried to wrap her mind around the possibility but failed. Nothing she had ever learned allowed for something like that to happen. She had somehow called the entirety of a dark magick spell into her being and expelled it without a protective ward, without even knowing it was coming. She wasn’t trained for such a thing. Nobody was. “How is that possible?”

The sound of the clock on Larken’s wall ticked away the seconds of sudden silence. When Larken spoke it wasn’t without a trace of fear. “I honestly don’t know.”

7:
Thryn glanced down at the number on the card, then up at the door just to verify one last time that she was in the right place. She had debated strongly whether or not to come, then decided to follow the doctor’s advice. If this person had any ties to her, then maybe she could help her fill in the dots. It was worth a shot, anyway.

She knocked.

Behind the door, Thryn could hear jazz. The music stopped abruptly. “Identify yourself,” came a voice from within the room. “Human? Alien? Other?”

Thryn frowned and seriously contemplated turning around and walking away. Instead, she said, “Uh… it’s me … Thryn …” She hesitated. “Human…”

A second later, the door opened just enough for an eyeball to peek through. “Wow, you came?” The door opened all the way. “Can’t believe that actually worked. I’m going to have to try that again. Come in.”

Thryn cleared her throat and stepped inside, nearly slipping on a magazine on the floor. She glanced down and tried not to look horrified. The floor was covered in newspapers, magazines, papers, and other assorted items. It looked like a landfill.

“Close the door, please.”

Thryn did as she was told, and stood perfectly still, afraid to move.

The girl, whom the business card called Naia, reached for a legal pad notebook and pushed the contents of her desk onto the floor. They joined the pile of mess already there. She sat down on the surface of the desk and began to write on the notebook. “Please state your name.”

Thryn tore her gaze from her surroundings and focused on Naia. “Uh… you mean you don’t know me?”
“Should I know you? Are you someone important? The daughter of a senator, perhaps? If so, I wouldn’t know, nor care. What is your name?”

“Kathryn… uh, Thryn James.”

“Please take a seat on the table there.” Naia nodded with her head at an empty table at the center of the room. It faced where Naia was sitting.

Despite the strangeness of the situation, Thryn decided to comply.

Naia slid down from the desk and placed a photograph on the table top. She slid it toward Thryn. “Do you recognize this person.”

The picture, Thryn easily saw, was of Azure. “I recognize her, yes.”

Another photograph flew in her direction. “How about her?”

Thryn recognized Aeryn and nodded.

Naia placed a sheet of paper on the desk, placed a finger on it, and dragged it toward Thryn. “On the dates and times listed there I caught you following and otherwise spying on Subjects A and B. Please tell me why.”

Thryn sighed. “Are you a cop?”

Naia laughed, somewhat oddly. “A cop? Do I look like a cop to you? No. I am a journalist.”

“Ah.” Thryn shrugged her shoulders. “I’m sorry, I really can’t help you. I came here hoping you had some answers.”

“Answers about what?”

“Who I am. I had … an accident, I guess. In the woods. I can’t remember anything about myself.”

Naia narrowed her eyes. “The woods, you say?”

“I cut my arm.” Thryn raised her arm as evidence. “On purpose, it seems like. I must have passed out. I came to and … nothing.”

Naia sat back down on the desk. “Could you describe the place where this occurred?”

“It was a clearing in the woods.” Thryn tried to think back. “There were candles on the ground.”

“Candles?” Naia looked interested suddenly. “What color candles?”

“Black.”

She was on her feet at once. “Were there any dead animals?”

Thryn frowned. “No… no dead animals.”

“How about a symbol, sort of like this.” Naia drew something on the notebook and turned it around to face Thryn.

Thryn took in the upside down star within a circle and shook her head. “I didn’t see that, but I was a little distracted.”

Naia was nodding. “You were a victim of a Satanic ritual.” She said this with such conviction that Thryn froze momentarily. Naia pulled at the chair on her desk, dragging it through the piles of junk of the floor until it was close to the table. Then she turned it around and straddled it, pushing her weight forward until the back of the chair touched the edge of the table Thryn was sitting at. From her pocket she withdrew a small tape recorder, which she placed before Thryn. The wheels on the tape were already turning. “Tell me everything you know.”

8:

“The Third Seer will have her hands full with that one,” a voice said before its spirit form materialized in Larken’s office.

Larken was still staring at the spot Aeryn had occupied during their talk. She looked at the spirit with tired eyes. “Her powers grow stronger by the second. While Azure’s …” She sighed softly. “Azure is haunted by a past she should never have lived through. I can see her suffering so vividly.” Her vision blurred with tears. “She belonged here. All of this time. She belonged here.”

“You said it yourself, everything happened as was meant to. The Goddess makes no mistakes.”

Larken tightened her jaw, having no argument.

“You will have to teach her, Larken. You will have to guide her toward her destiny. She answered the Goddess’ call to aid the young Guardian. Her spirit is willing, even if her mind isn’t. You need to make her see.”

“She needs more time.”

The spirit shook its head. “Time is not in our favor.” The spirit paused, its tone shifting to one of understanding. “You have done well, Larken, all of these years. The Goddess knows of your sacrifices. I am confident that the balance will be restored.”

“Without bloodshed?”

“Even I don’t know that.”

Larken grew silent, her gaze falling on the sky beyond her window. “The Elders are getting restless,” she said at last. “They want Aeryn pulled from Merfolk. They fear Jael will double his efforts now that one of his Guardians has fallen. Undoubtedly, he’s caught wind that her spell was reflected. It must be driving him insane not knowing how.”

“He’ll figure it out sooner or later.”

“Yes.” Larken nodded. The tears returned to her eyes. “He’ll figure out that our daughter is still alive.”

 

END OF DRAFT #1

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