Everything is dark. I hear the sound of dripping water, as light starts to stretch out from around me. The floor is freezing under my bare feet and the air isn’t much better. I rub my arms. This must be a dream because I can’t feel the fire. I watch the lit area grow and hold my breath.
A figure is illuminated from the floor up. They’re on their knees, pants stained with dirt and blood. As the light rises I see it’s a woman. Her black hair is tangled in a mess, stuck to her face with sweat. I notice the bright red lipstick smeared across her cheek. Her arms are spread out to either side, wrists bound in irons, hanging from chains.
A familiar snap cracks through the room following by a piercing scream from the girl as her entire body convulses, restrained by the chains. She throws her head back in agony, allowing her hair to fall back and I recognize her face. It sends a chill through my body and I stumble back with my hands on my stomach, about to retch; recent events jump to the forefront of my memory and I can almost feel her dagger again. Her grey eyes seem to look right through me before her head hangs limp against her chest again.
“Welcome, Niece,” the gravelly voice makes me nauseous.
“Mortecai,” I hiss. The hair on the back of my neck raises.
His robe drags across the stone floor making an ominous scratching sound as he circles around me and stops on my right. “Enjoying the show?” He asks with amusement. The whip cracks again and I flinch at her screams.
“No,” I turn away, cringing.
Mortecai’s brow raises. I see it from the corner of my eye, though I try not to look at his equally disgusting face. “No? This is for you, dear Niece. For what she did to you, to both of you…” he hums, reaching a misshapen wrinkled hand toward my stomach.
“Don’t,” I step back. “I don’t want this. Any of this.”
He chuckles a deep laugh that resonates in my bones. “Why do you fear me? If I wanted to harm you I would have already done so.”
“You have,” I spit. “Did you forget, when you had me drowned? Or trapped here with all your illusions?”
He waves his hand. “That was then.”
“What the hell is different now?” I demand though I’m afraid I know the answer.
He steps up again, surprisingly fast. His hand rests over my lower belly and I feel violated. I push him back, feeling a solid connection. He doesn’t go far. My hands tremble, hanging in the air, and I feel like my lungs seize and I can’t breathe. I felt his hands, I felt his body. He’s not just a spirit, he’s there, just like Andrei.
“I look forward to meeting her,” his laugh echoes as he fades away. The last thing to disappear is his eyes, one bright blue, the other a cloudy grey. The image of Samantha fades with one last, ear-piercing scream. I’m left alone in the dark, still trembling.
“Hey, Kat!” the voice makes me jump. I spin on my heel so fast it makes my head spin.
He appears in that same white outfit, glowing in the darkness. “Andrei…” his name escapes my lips like a breath of fresh air.
He smiles, tilting his head. “Why are you dreaming about nothing?” He gestures to the space around us. “I was worried you’d have another nightmare. I tried to fall asleep quickly, but…” he takes a step toward me and I step back. How can I know what’s real anymore? “Is… everything alright?” he asks.
My head shakes involuntarily and I breathe shallowly. “No.”
“Kat, I know I’m late. I’m sorry. Did I… did you have the nightmare already?” He asks, taking another step forward with a worried look on his face.
I feel the tightness in my chest and move away. “I… I don’t know if it’s over,” my eyes sting. Why am I afraid of Andrei? I don’t want to be… I don’t want to let Mortecai win… Andrei looks hurt as I move away. How can I know, anymore? If he can manifest too…
“Kat, hey, listen to me, it’s not a nightmare. It’s really me, you gotta believe me. He doesn’t know you like I do,” he insists.
I close my eyes and hold out my still trembling hands. “Take me somewhere else,” I whisper. At least, I’m pretty sure only Andrei can do that space shifting thing. If it’s not him… Well, I guess that’s why they call it benefit of the doubt. I feel his hands as they take mine and he gently pulls me to take a couple steps with him. When I open my eyes, I see a beautiful beach with clear turquoise water. Behind us, a cliff looms overhead, covered with trees. I let out a ragged sigh of relief.
Andrei stands in front of me, still holding my hands in his. “What did you see before I got here?”
I hesitate, trying to find the words. “I… There was a woman. She was hanging by her hands, and… being whipped. She looked awful, and I didn’t recognize her, at first,” I twist my hands together, hoping to avoid having to speak her name. “He appeared then, and he said… He asked if I enjoyed watching it,” I nearly gag, and swallow hard. What kind of sick monster does he think I am?
Andrei grabs me and pulls me close, covering my face with his shoulder. I feel his firm hands on my back and on my head and he hugs me close. “Shh. Forget it. It’s just a trick, remember. I’m sorry. I should have come sooner,” he says. I feel his voice vibrating in his chest against my cheek and it soothes me a little.
I clutch onto his shirt. “I… I don’t think it was. You can’t… You can’t fake screams like that,” I lean back to see his pained expression. “He’s punishing her because she came after me. He said…” I pause. Wait, what he said doesn’t make sense.
“What?” Andrei’s eyes grow wide. “Who was it? Samantha?” his lip twitches as he says her name. He seems just as uncomfortable with the idea as I am.
I chew my bottom lip. “He touched my belly, here,” I pull one hand back to show him, though I’m sure he could have guessed. “And, he said he can’t wait to meet her…”
“What?” he asks, placing his own hand on my tummy where I showed him. “How can he know?” his brows crease.
“I don’t know,” I study his beautiful hazel eyes. I can’t imagine anymore what I would do without him… “Do you think it’s possible? I mean… we really have no idea what he can do.”
“I don’t wanna trust a stinking word from his mouth. I’d rather hear it from Gwen, or wait,” he says with a hard expression. He glances at the beach before pulling me to sit down on the white sand.
I look out at the water. It laps against the shore gently with the breeze. I wish I knew how to swim. It seems like it would be nice if I wasn’t petrified. The sound of the waves is soothing, at least. It’s peaceful. No one gets hurt by gentle waves, right?
My mind soon wanders back to before. I don’t understand his motives. I thought he wanted me dead. I thought I was in his way. Now he’s… trying to protect me, in his own twisted way? Or is he only interested in my daughter? I know Andrei is skeptical, but… it feels right. Maybe I’m just falling for his mind games, but I can’t shake the feeling. I remember reading that sometimes, you just know. Maybe he found it, in my subconscious?
Andrei clears his throat, drawing my attention again. “I worry about you all the time. I worry about the things that might happen to you. I worry about what’s happened to you. I’m so filled with worry all the time and I don’t know what to do about it, but… I want you to be safe. I care about you so much it hurts. Sometimes I’m worried that I will cause you hurt because of my love, and that other people will hurt you because of that love too… ” he trails off.
I stare at him, wide-eyed. That was… unexpected. He waits anxiously, so I scramble to put words together. “I… I’m sorry. I wish I wasn’t such a burden. I wish you didn’t have to worry so much…” I reach up, placing my hand on his cheek. “I know you would never hurt me, at least, not on purpose. What she did isn’t your fault. You have to know that.”
“What she did is because of something to do with me, something I can’t remember. I don’t know what it is with me but something is still wrong with my memory. Whenever I think about her I get this headache. And tonight, while I was reading one my journals the same thing happened,” he pauses, running his hand through his hair. “Worrying about you is a burden I’m glad to take. It’s something I want to do, I just wish it weren’t always life and death. Please understand, this isn’t me complaining about it,” he turns to me, lacing his fingers between mine.
I blush and smile. “Well… Whatever it is, I’m glad you’re not with her anymore. I know I’m nowhere near perfect, but… It would break my heart to see you with someone so… heartless,” I lift his hand to kiss the back of it. “I hope you know how grateful I am, that you exist.”
He looks up at me and I see a sparkle in his eye. For such a flirt, he sure can be emotional. “I am grateful too, that I met you that day at the library. I doubt I’d be doing anything with my life if I hadn’t met you. it sure didn’t turn out as I expected it but, I still love it,” he grows quiet again, that look on his face he gets when he’s thinking about what to say. I wait.
“Samantha wasn’t always heartless…” he rests his hand on his temple as he talks. “I don’t know what made her change, but I know she wasn’t always like this. It really hurts… to think about her…” he says, squeezing his eyes shut.
I place my hand over his. “Then stop thinking about it, silly. She put a charm on you before, maybe she did something else. We should ask someone… maybe Selene?” I doubt he’ll like the suggestion, but she’s kind of an expert on mind powers.
“I don’t like the idea of her in my head… it sounds… weird. Only you,” he winks, still holding his temple.
I giggle. “You know I would if I could. Sometimes I wonder what goes on in there… but I don’t have her powers.”
“What if you could? Would you? I wonder, you come into the Veil in your dreams like I can, which is strange in of itself. Maybe Selene could take you with her. I’d feel better about it knowing you were there… though… I’m afraid of what you might find,” he grimaces.
I purse my lips. “Why, what do you think we’ll find?”
“I don’t know. That’s the problem. Before I fell asleep I was reading a journal. There were pages missing and my notes ended abruptly. I’m worried about who else has seen my journals,” he admits.
“Oh…” I frown. That’s definitely suspicious. Who would do that? “I think we should ask Selene then, in the morning,” I remember then, that we’re not alone. “Oh… but the girls… maybe we shouldn’t, in front of them. They might get scared.”
“You’re right. Maybe we can have Caroline watch them, or maybe my parents will be back. We’ll figure it out later. I also remembered, all our bags are in Africa. I told Kaede, so they might arrange a trip out there to retrieve them,” he says.
“Right,” I hum. I guess we did kinda leave in a hurry. “Well… I don’t know about you, but I’d like to stay here a little while longer,” I lean into him, sliding my arms around his waist. I think I could lay here for hours on the warm sand, listening to the water, as long as he’s here too.
“Same, I’d like to stay a while too,” he wraps his arm around my shoulders and rests his ear on my head and we watch the water for a long time in silence.
He lifts his head away and I’m about to ask when I feel his finger under my chin. He gently guides me to look up and I’m met with his lips. His fingers trace along my skin down my neck, leaving a trail of goosebumps as they slip under the collar of my shirt. My heart flutters, and I feel the blush on my cheeks. How does he do that, every time?
The bed shakes violently with the rising of the sun. A voice blares in my ear. “Kitty wake up! It’s morning! I wanna see the castle!”
I squint to see the face of a young girl. The grogginess takes a moment to pass before I recognize her. “I’m awake…” I mumble.
“Come on! Come on!” Ylenia bounces off the edge of the bed. I sit up in alarm, only to see her run over to the corner to the oversized chair I used to always read in. Andrei lounges in the deep round seat, fast asleep clutching a pillow. I can’t help but snicker. It’s too cute. “Andi, wake up!” She grabs his arm and shakes him.
He slowly stirs, peeking one eye open. “It’s too early, Lini.”
“Nuh uh! See, Kitty’s awake!” Ylenia whines, pointing to the bed. “She’s gonna get me a dragon, right Kitty?”
I gawk at her. “What? When did I say that?”
“The pretty lady said you’re friends with them, and you could get one for me,” she looks up at me with her big brown eyes. Andrei’s eyes close, fighting the summons to wake.
Kira sits up in the bed and combs her hair with her fingers. “She said she’ll ‘show’ you the dragons, not give you one,” she corrects her sister. I blink at her. When did I agree to that?
“Um… Well, you can’t go in your PJs, or before breakfast. Don’t you want to see the castle first?” I ask, hoping to distract them. Going to the nest with kids is a terrible idea… I’ll have to figure something else out.
“Fiiiine… but promise we’ll see dragons today?” she pouts holding out her pinky finger.
I reluctantly mimic her actions. I assume it’s some sort of binding ritualistic practice children do. If I’m lucky, she’ll forget, but if not, maybe I can get Blue to come down. I glance over at Andrei, but he’s fallen back asleep. I don’t blame him. It must be tiring to have to focus his subconscious to protect me. Maybe I’ll let him sleep a little longer…
“Okay, let’s get dressed. We’ll go ahead to have some breakfast,” I keep my voice down as I usher the girls to move. I quickly dig out fresh underwear, a pair of tights, and a tank top. I pull the closet open carefully, slipping on a pair of flats as I look through my sweaters for a warm hoodie.
I feel a tug on my elbow, and when I look down I find the elder sister there, her bright hazel eyes wide and curious. “Kaitlyn, what’s that?” Kira asks, pointing to my right arm. I turn my arm over; she points again to the glowing Guardian mark, it’s little flames dancing as though real.
“Oh. That’s called a Guardian mark. It means I’ve become a Guardian,” I smile as I lean over to let her see better.
“What does that mean?” she frowns.
I pause. How do you explain it to a child? “It means… It means I’m really really strong, and I’m really good at magic,” I feel blush on my cheeks. That sounded really conceited.
“Kitty, why do you have those marks on your chest?” Ylenia skips over beside her sister. She reaches her little hand up to touch one of the scars just below my neck.
My blood runs cold. I glance at Andrei, still asleep. She waits for an answer. I guess there’s no point in lying… they saw us get attacked last night. “I got hurt a little while ago. These are scars.”
“Andi didn’t protect you?” she asks, angrily, placing her hands firmly on her hips. It reminds me a bit like Caroline when she gets angry.
I take a deep breath. Kids are harsh! “Andrei was somewhere else, but he came after and helped me,” I stand up and grab the first hoodie I can reach in the closet, eager to put it on and hide from any further interrogation. “Come on, who’s hungry?”
I scribble a note on a piece of paper and leave it on the bed near Andrei before we head out the door. Hopefully, he’s not too upset. I take each of the girls in one hand and lead them down to the cafeteria. Most of the Guild is still asleep so I’m not surprised to find the cafeteria nearly empty. I gesture up to the menu.
“Do you see anything you like?” I ask the girls, kneeling to their level.
Ylenia frowns. “Aren’t you going to cook for us, Kitty?”
Kira nods. “Dad always says food tastes better when it’s made by hand because it’s made with love.”
I chew the inside of my lip. I should have waited for Andrei… How am I supposed to tell them that a grown woman doesn’t know how to cook on her own? I decide maybe lying isn’t such a bad idea. “Okay… What would you guys like?”
The girls share a look, and Ylenia grins. “Pancakes!” Kira nods in agreement.
Sounds easy enough. “Alright. Come on, let’s pick a table and I’ll go make them.”
“With chocolate chips!” Ylenia adds, bouncing excitedly. Oh man… Why do I get the feeling I’ll get in trouble for this?
I lead them to the closest table to the kitchen, visible from the inside with the door open. The girls climb up on the chairs and Ylenia starts chatting aimlessly. I slip into the kitchen and bite my lip. I pull my phone out of my pocket and search online for how to make pancakes. I manage to find a step by step guide on “pancakes for millennials,” I don’t know what that means, but it’s not really relevant.
Caroline pokes her head in as I’m laying ingredients and utensils out on the counter. “Oh hey! You’re… you’re cooking? with Andrei?” She asks, sliding in and reaching for a bowl.
“Um… No,” I mumble, scrolling down on my phone. “Andrei is still sleeping.”
Car pauses as she picks up the empty kettle. “Oh? late night with his sisters?” she smirks.
I laugh awkwardly. “No, not really. We each took a shower, and the girls fell asleep with me on the bed, so he passed out in the chair. I don’t know why maybe he thought the bed was too crowded.”
“Oh, I see. Too many girls in the bed I suppose,” she laughs. “Do you want any help?” she offers.
I look up at her, hopeful. “Have you made pancakes before?”
“Sure! They’re really simple. First, mix the dry ingredients and then add the wet,” she instructs.
I nod. “Okay. I think I can handle that. Would you mind sitting with the girls? I’m worried they might run off…”
“Sure. If you need me, just call,” she pours hot water into her bowl of oatmeal and heads back out the door. I push my sleeves up and flex my fingers. Okay. I can do this.
I mix everything together in stages as the website instructs, adding in the chocolate chips last before I pour small amounts into a hot pan. How many of these will they eat? I have no idea… I carefully prod the round mush until the bottom is solid enough to flip over. I try to make them all about the same size while being thick and fluffy like the picture. It doesn’t take long before I run out of batter and have a plate with a pile of steaming hot discs.
I take the plate out to the table with a couple extra plates and cutlery. “Yay!” Ylenia squeals as it’s placed before her. She giggles as she looks up at me. “Kitty, you’re all dirty!”
I look down at myself, covered in flour and melted chocolate. “Oh… whoops,” I laugh, “I’ll just… Clean up. You girls eat, okay?” I half-jog back into the kitchen and I realise that I’d been so engrossed with trying to cook well that I made an absolute mess. How does Andrei cook so well and not make a mess? I sigh to myself as I rinse my hands and arms in the sink.
Arms slip around me, warm and gentle, and I feel a weight on my shoulder. “You missed a spot.” Andrei teases as he slides his hands down my arms to my hands, rubbing together to make more suds.
My whole face burns. I gulp. “Y-you’re awake.”
“Someone didn’t wake me up,” he mumbles. I glance over from the corner of my eye. Yep, he’s pouting.
“I’m sorry,” I chew the inside of my lip,
“Don’t like my cooking anymore?” he fakes a sniffle.
“Of course I do!” I gasp. “The girls were hungry, and you just looked so tired… I wanted to let you rest.”
“Oh, right, sorry I guess I was pretty tired,” he sighs. “Let me help you clean up.”
I lean into him. “Will you eat after? Promise you’ll tell the truth if it’s any good?” his opinion is really the one that matters because I don’t think anyone could be a better cook than him.
“Of course, but I’m sure it’ll be great,” he chuckles as he takes the cloth from my hands. “I’ll do dishes.”
“Are you sure?” I purse my lips. I made the mess… “Um… Okay, I’ll bring them for you,” I move to slide out of his grasp.
He squeezes me tighter. “No, you stay,” he kisses my cheek. “I don’t want you to leave me again.”
I giggle. “The dishes won’t bring themselves, silly. I won’t leave you.”
“You promise?” he asks in a cutesy voice, holding up his pinky finger.
I nudge him with my elbow. “Looks like you weren’t so sleepy this morning after all. Next time I’ll let them bug you instead!”
“What? Why? I swear I was…” he balks defensively.
“Mhm,” I hum, as I slide out of his arms. “So then how would you have known that Ylenia made me do that too?” I raise an eyebrow as I collect the bowls and utensils from the other counter.
“Must be a family habit,” he shrugs, hiding a smile.
I roll my eyes. “A habit you’ve totally forgotten until now? I think it’s more likely you’re teasing me,” I stick my tongue out as I place some of the things in the sink.
“I’ve just never had a need for a promise before, I suppose,” he disagrees stubbornly.
Once I’ve collected all the dishes, I take another cloth to wipe down the counters. I risk a glance over at the table. Caroline smiles as Ylenia excitedly tells her a story. Kira watches carefully, eating in silence. What kind of future will they have if Mortecai gets his way?
My stomach rumbles, but it’s not the kind of hunger that food can satiate.
I know… I close my eyes and breathe. We will protect them. The flames hiss in my ears. It doesn’t seem to understand words very well. I guess I’ll need to give it more than that.
“Kat? Did you hear me?” Andrei’s voice cuts through my thoughts.
I blink and turn to look up at him. “Sorry, I was… Um, what did you say?”
“I said, do you want me to make you a coffee before we sit down?” he repeats.
I blush and laugh. “Yea, that would be nice. Thanks.”
“Ok, you take a seat. I’ll be there in a sec. Save me some pancakes,” he winks.
I grab a couple more plates and forks and I head over to sit with the girls. I sit between Caroline and Ylenia, who is ecstatic that I’ve returned. “Kitty’s back!”
It’s going to take some getting used to her nickname for me. I smile and ruffle her hair as I sit down. Ylenia takes the liberty to pile several pancakes on a plate for me. The family resemblance is uncanny.
I start to cut one into bite-sized pieces as I glance at Caroline. “Hey, um, I was wondering… You haven’t really had much formal training when it comes to combat, have you?”
“Combat? Heavens no. I’ve never held a weapon,” she says. “I don’t know if I could even bring myself to kill someone… even with my magic.”
“You’d be surprised what you would be capable of,” I muse absently. I cough and try to smile again. “We should probably work on that though. We seem to keep ending up in fights. You can’t always rely on magic.”
“I guess you’re right. Fighting off those weird void things Samantha sent at us was very challenging. I can’t believe I had to deal with two on my own!” she says with wide eyes.
I grimace. “Sorry about that… It was poor timing. Even now, I’m not back to full power…” I hate how long it’s taking. I know Markus said it would, and I understand why… but it’s inconvenient.
“I imagine so. You seem to have so much more power than the rest of us. Your aura is clearly the brightest. I bet you it’s because of the dragon blood. Though I saw Hitomi the other day, you know, just after the ritual, and she seemed very bright as well. I hope she’s doing ok. Have you seen her lately?”
“No, I haven’t,” I muse. “The dragon blood is part of it, but only a part,” I glance at the girls, “Not really something to talk about now.”
“Kitty, you have dragon blood? Does that make you a dragon princess?” Ylenia asks loudly. “Is that why you’re friends with them? Is that why you don’t want me to have a pet dragon?” her tone suddenly become very accusatory.
Again, I said none of those things. I stare at her with my mouth hanging open. Where does she come up with these things? “I… Uh… No?”
“Lini. Enough. Kaitlyn doesn’t appreciate your constant questions. You’re being rude,” Andrei says, walking up to the table with a cup of coffee in his hand. He sets it down in front of me with a smile and takes a seat. I let out a breath of relief. Ylenia glares hard at him.
“You can’t tell me what to do. You’re not daddy,” she huffs. Andrei looks away and I can’t see his expression.
“No, but you’ll listen to him if you want to see any dragons today,” I warn as I sip my coffee. Where did that tone come from? That was so unlike me…
Ylenia pouts but then nods. Kira elbows her and her head spins to her older sister angrily.
“Apologize to Andi. You hurt his feelings,” she tells her sister.
“Why should I? It’s true,” she grumbles.
“Because it was rude,” Kira says, taking a bite of pancake. Geez, it’s hard to believe she’s also a kid, not much older than Ylenia.
Ylenia bites her lip and she looks like she might pop from some pressure build-up, but then she apologizes quietly to Andrei.
“Thank you Ylenia. I know I’m not dad. It’s just, you were overwhelming Kat with your questions. You tend to get a bit excited,” he says, picking up his fork and digging into his pancakes.
I look to Caroline, who is strangely quiet. “So… What do you think? I could teach you.”
She turns back to me with an amused smile. “Yes, I guess I’d like that. Maybe we can arrange a group lesson or something? I’m sure some of the others could use the training too, and I’ve seen the way you fight. You’re very skilled. You make a great teacher too,” she smiles encouragingly.
I blush, though I try to play if off. “Group would be good, so everyone can see each other’s skills. We should try to coordinate more, so it doesn’t fall on one person or another,” I muse, shooting a pointed glance at Andrei. He looks at me from the side, an eyebrow raised questioningly. “Though it’ll take more than one session. Training takes time.”
“I expect so. Should we start today? What plans do you have?” she asks.
I hum, glancing at the kids. “I think we’re looking after them for now, I’m not sure for how long though. I promised to show them dragons at some point…” I mumble. “I mean… I was younger than them when I started training. It couldn’t hurt them…”
“That’s a good point. Maybe they’d be interested,” Caroline muses.
Andrei gives me a flat stare. “Maybe we should ask my parents first. I don’t know how my mother might take her daughters learning to fight.”
“It’s self-defense, Andrei,” I retort. “Yesterday, Ylenia tried to stand up to…” the name catches in my throat. “If she’s going to be so bold, she should at least know how to defend herself.”
“She what?!” his face pales. I nod.
Ylenia puffs out her chest. “She hurt Kitty.”
“Lini, she’s dangerous. She could have…” he trails off, but I know what he’s trying to say.
I put my hand on the girl’s head. “You were very brave, but next time if you see her, you need to run away,” she frowns. I can’t say I blame her. I hate the idea of running away too. “We’ll ask your parents if you can learn now. If not, you can in a few years, okay?”
She looks ups happily, a huge smile on her face. “Ok! I want to protect big sister too!” I bite my tongue. That’s not the point… I glare at Andrei. Just look at what he started.
By Krystyna Yates