Part 1—The End of the Beginning
The runes moved under my fingers as the fabric of space split and fluctuated within the confines of the portal. This doorway separated the human reality from the hidden world of my people. Same earth, different dimensional plane.
I concentrated on the coordinates as my mind linked telepathically with the system. A step forward, a tugging sensation, an eternity of cold nothingness and I materialized in Ireas. Strands of magic swirled everywhere, revealing more vibrant colors and scents than on the human side of the barrier.
The palace foyer and grand staircase were empty, the halls quiet. Even the second busiest week of the year in my world exuded peace. If only we could push this calmness through the portal.
Where would Mother be today?
Outside. The colors of the garden danced in the sunlight—shades of red, white, yellow and green jumped from plant to plant, mingling, changing. They wrapped themselves around the sound of buzzing insects and the humming of bird wings.
This is what I missed the most when living among humans—this symbiosis of sight and sound. The collective magical ignorance of the human race compelled the colors to remain motionless. Here they played like joyful children.
Mother straightened from her spot by a rose bush bursting with flowers. Their soft peach coloring swirled around her arms as she placed the cuttings in a basket.
"Caedan? What’s wrong?" At almost four hundred years old, her dark hair had streaks of gray, but her skin was as flawless as her rose
"I need more time."
“Sweetheart, you know that’s not possible.” She reached for my hand. “Enjoy your sister’s wedding. Afterward we can decide who you should choose for a bride.”
“What’s a few more months, or years for that matter?”
She squeezed my fingers. "You’ve been preparing for this your entire life."
"It’s pointless. Humans aren’t ready and our people will have to wait another thousand years no matter who I choose. Since I have to marry a human, why can’t I take more time to fall in love?"
"Caedan," She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin, looking every bit the queen she was. "You’ve had enough time. The High Council requires it by your birthday."
"Fine." The rose bush beside me wilted.
“Shame on you!” Mother shook her head. “Put it right.”
With a groan I pushed all the negative energy out of my body. Experience had taught me I couldn’t manipulate the threads of life when angry. Once calm, I focused on the colorful swirls around the rose bush, looking for the break in the pattern. A nudge here, a twisting motion there and the black streaks in the ethereal blueprint faded away. The roses brightened, and the petals plumped and smoothed. Mother nodded in approval.
"Before you leave, visit the Oracles."
“You need to be reminded of certain things.” She grabbed her basket and headed toward the house.
“Humans will never be able to feel the threads of magic, much less control them." Why couldn’t I drop it?
Mother returned and squeezed my arm. "You must look deep within yourself and find compassion for them."
So many thoughts and questions ran through my mind, but only one really mattered at that moment, "What if I choose a human girl and then find my Anamchara?"
"Caedan, most of us never find our soulmates. You shouldn’t even worry about it. Open your heart to love and you'll find it. Anamchara or not. Just keep the balance." She kissed me on the forehead.
“But if I find her after getting married—” Even the thought of losing my soulmate, someone I’d never met and probably never would, made me feel sick inside.
“Let’s hope you never do. However, I know you’ll do your duty no matter what happens in the future. Right?”
“Caedan, stop.” She pointed the clippers at me. “I expect you to be at the wedding.”
My insides twisted tighter than the strands of rust colored hair my sister braided. "Tomorrow is going to be horrible. Not only is she stealing my best friend, but she has to taint graduation week too. This is a new low, even for Jessie. "
My sister forced a laugh. "In a year or two it won't even matter. You don’t have to go if you don’t want too."
"Yes I do. He’s depending on me."
Heather harrumphed. "When are you going to stop making such a big deal over Kevin?"
She wrapped the ponytail holder around the end of the braid, pulling a little harder than she needed to.
“Sorry.” She rested her chin on the top of my head meeting my eyes in the mirror.
“I know you don’t trust him, but he’s still my best friend."
"You can do better, and this is the perfect time to let him walk out of your life for good." Her fingers traced a line of scar tissue through my shirt.
I glared back at her through the mirror until she backed away. She handed me the brush, and I set it on the dresser at Prince Charming's feet. I no longer believed in what the faded plush doll represented, but I couldn't throw him away. He’d been a gift from the boy down the street. My best friend and biggest regret. With a deep sigh I faced her.
“He didn’t do it.” I hated the way it hurt her—the never knowing for sure, but I’d never admit Kevin knew more about my scars than she did. My silence protected him. I’d promised myself one drunken mistake wouldn’t ruin his football career. Not if I could prevent it.
"Whatever, Ry.” Heather turned her back to me. “Will you be on the bus?"
"No, I close tonight, so I’ll catch the ten-thirty."
Heather paused at the door. "I got a letter from Dad. No money this month. Think you could pick up an extra shift or two?"
I pinned the nametag on my shirt. "I’ll try. What are we going to do this fall?"
"We'll figure it out. Any news on those scholarships?"
"It'll be fine. We've managed the last three years on our own. We can get through a few more." She waited, but I didn’t ask where he was this month. “He’s in Alaska.”
“Guess he couldn’t get much further away without leaving the country.” The words slipped out in spite of my gritted teeth, but Heather had already disappeared down the hall.
My head ached from a night of no sleep, but I sat on a city bus headed for the Hilton and Kevin’s wedding. He’d offered to give me a ride, but I needed the time alone. Plus, being his best man was stupid, except I doubted Kevin thought of me as a girl. At least not when sober.
The hotel sat on one side of a large pond near the University in a posh little shopping area with a playground, walking trail and fountain in the middle of the ‘lake’. I walked into the lobby, and someone pointed me to the room where Kevin waited.
My feet stalled in the doorway. Two of his football buddies lounged in the room with him. Every muscle in my body tightened.
I should have known!
I’d avoided Brad and Tyler all year, but they were Kevin’s buddies. Of course he would choose them to be groomsmen. I took a step back and barely kept from running away.
They won’t do anything here.
“Hey, Ry. Lookin’ good. Where’ve you been hiding?” Brad leered at me with his squinty green gaze.
Tyler jerked his head to toss the blonde hair out of his eyes. He grabbed me by the elbow, dragging me into the room, “Come on in. We won’t bite.”
I yanked my arm away. “Don’t touch me.”
Tyler laughed at me as I retreated across the room. “That’s what you say, but we know you don’t mean it.”
Kevin looked out at the lake. He obviously wasn’t going to help me and his dad was nowhere in sight. Joining him by the window had taken me farther from Brad and Tyler, but also farther from the door. Not smart.
I should have stayed home.
No matter where I went in the room, I couldn’t escape the weight of Brad and Tyler’s stare. Their whispers and low chuckles made me blush. And not in a good way.
“Where’s your dad?” I whispered to Kevin.
“He was pacing, so I sent him out to sit with Mom.”
“Oh.” I glanced at my watch. “Is he going to come back?”
“I hope not.” Kevin ran his hands through his hair.
“I’ll see if it’s time to start.” I hurried toward the door, but Tyler blocked the exit.
“Why’ve you been avoiding us?” He slid his hand up my side toward my breast as I shoved him away.
“Stop.” A shiver trembled through me as fear and revulsion fought for control. And guilt. I swallowed it down. This is not my fault. Not my fault.
Tyler put his hands in the air. “Sorry, it’s just been a while, and I thought you might like to join us for more role play.”
“I’d rather die.” I hissed.
“Come on, Ry.” Brad joined Tyler at the door.
I held my purse in a vice like grip. It didn’t hide my shaking hands, or quiet the roar of my racing heart.
“Lighten up guys.” Kevin finally left his perch to stand beside me.
The usher poked his head in the door. “It’s time.”
“Okay, get out there.” Kevin’s sandy blond hair fell into his blue eyes and he pushed it back. “Give me a minute with Ry, and we’ll be out.”
“Only a minute?” Brad laughed and winked. “This is it before you’re tied down to Jessie.”
“Come on.” Tyler punched Brad and dragged him out the door.
“It took you long enough.” I sucked in air and sank into a chair.
“They don’t mean anything by it.” Kevin looked in the mirror and straightened his collar.
“Yes, they do.”
“Can you blame them?”
“What?” I jumped up.
“You could have said no that night.”
“I did! I begged you to stop them.” My eyes misted up, and I swallowed the lump threatening to choke me.
“Hey, don’t.” Kevin pulled me into a hug. “I’m sorry. I should have stopped them, but I guess I was too drunk to know better.”
“That’s not much of an excuse, and I’m getting tired of hearing it.” I shook my head and pushed him away. “Just forget about it okay.”
“Then stop bringing it up.”
"Sure." My entire body ached from the tension. Change the subject. “Are you sure you want to get married?”
“It's too late to change my mind now." He looked over my shoulder toward the window again.
What was so fascinating out there? "No, it isn't."
He wouldn't look me in the eyes. "Yeah it is. Jessie's pregnant."
My stomach twisted. "Is that the only reason you're marrying her?"
"I don't know. I hoped to play college ball, maybe go pro before getting married." He checked his boutonniere and walked to the door.
I blinked back tears again. His life was over even though I had done everything I could to protect him. It had all been for nothing.
Kevin turned toward me one more time before stepping into the hall. My heart melted just a little.
"Promise me you'll stand by me through this." He reached for my hand.
I sighed. When would I learn to tell him no?
The reception was in the ballroom. Jessie didn't want a traditional line, and the dance music started immediately. I made my way to a table by the large windows overlooking the lake, searching for whatever had given Kevin the strength to go through with this. Blue sky stretched for miles, but grey clouds gathered on the horizon. A light breeze played with the trees, and the ducks clustered close to shore watching over their new ducklings.
The air conditioner hummed above the table, but it was still unbearably hot. I sat down and used a napkin to fan myself while a restless drumming built inside to match the pounding bass. The entire senior class danced, celebrating graduating earlier in the week and now the marriage of the two most popular students at school. I hid in a corner.
Even Brad and Tyler were occupied with their girlfriends. A quick look revealed Kevin and Jessie melded together in the center of the dance floor. He looked happy enough. They swayed and gyrated with the music. I gripped the edge of the table. Was I free to leave?
At the end of the song, Jessie broke away from the groom and pounced on me. "What's wrong with you?"
"Headache." I tapped my temple, determined to be good for Kevin.
"Whatever. Look, if you need some air feel free to take a walk. We don't need you for anything now." Jessie smirked and continued. "Want to know a secret?"
"What?" I watched Jessie's face, inwardly cringing at the jab I knew was coming.
"Kevin already told me." I smiled sweetly. Hateful witch.
Jessie shot a quick look at Kevin before glaring at me again. "Just stay away from him. Got it?"
She didn't wait for an answer before running back to the dance floor. Kevin pulled her close and kissed her in front of the cheering crowd. The drums reverberated in my heart until I couldn’t take it anymore. I fled to the sidewalk surrounding the lake.