Avery knew she had a knack for attracting trouble, but even she is shocked when a six-foot-something harpie shows up on her doorstep. Coping with the existence of a mythological race? Okay. Unwittingly finding herself in the middle of a vicious harpie conflict? A little less okay. Having to rely on an arrogant harpie boy who gets under her skin? Now that is something Avery isn’t sure she can handle.
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She fled, tearing into the dark forest with only the dim moonlight as her guide. She burst through the first layer of trees and her sprint died. The icy air of October had frosted over the huge treacherous roots that covered the forest floor and each step farther, the path grew darker. The terrain from there was too dangerous to keep running and Avery reluctantly slowed to an agonizing crawl. She held out her hands to map out her surroundings before she took another careful step. Her fingers met rough bark and she lifted her boot over another root.
Maneuvering carefully, she cast a hurried glance backward. Beyond the forest itself, she could see the hint of artificial fluorescents glowed on the hill. The faint smell of rich redwood smoke from the huffing chimneys even reached her. Her home, the source of the light, now seemed so far away as compared to the bitter cold and dry air in the forest in which she stood now. She never got the chance to become absorbed in the nostalgic image. The sharp crack of a twig breaking nearby sent her back on edge. She was supposed to have more time than this. She was supposed to have a head start.
Heart pounding, she kept moving. She delved farther into the woods until the canopy took away the moonlight and she had been swallowed by complete darkness. Only her firm grip on a nearby branch gave her any sense of placement. The vertigo was actually welcomed. If she couldn’t even find herself, no one else could either.
Suddenly an explosion of noise ripped through the woods. Branches snapped and trees cried out as something slammed into them. The canopy parted and, just for a second, let in a splash of blue moonlight. The movement caught her eye and she saw a flicker of white crash down a quarter mile away from her position. Avery didn’t hesitate. She ran for it, leaping over the tangles of roots and dodging branches before her moonlight faded away.
The image waiting in the newly formed clearing made her slide to an abrupt stop. Laying limp over muddy snares of weeds and chipped branches was a man. Brown hair covered his glassy green eyes and scratches marred his porcelain smooth skin. Massive white wings, strewn to either side of him, rested crookedly under a fresh layer of falling snow.
“Mason!” Avery dove to her knees beside him, careful not to make contact while he looked so fragile. “Are you okay?”
His entire tan shirt was splotched red with blood. Eyes darting over him, she sought the origin of his most grievous injuries. The lack of light made it difficult, but gently tracing her hand over his limp wing, she found the source of the hot liquid near the wing base. He’d been sliced badly and the wound hadn’t even remotely clotted. Crimson blood continued to steadily soak his white feathers. She swallowed before any bile threatened to rise in the back of her throat.
“What do I do?” she asked desperately.
Mason shifted to life and unexpectedly jerked forward. Lashing an arm out, he dragged her down to his hard chest. Long fingers clasping over her mouth, he forced her silent. Mason didn’t need to say anything. The distinctive flapping of wings sounded overhead. She shut her mouth, pressed her cheek to his chest, and stayed quiet. The flapping continued, forming circles in the sky above the clearing with some persistence.
Anxious, she wanted to move right then and there, but knowing she couldn’t lift Mason, she was forced into a silent submission while waiting for the danger to pass. Her mind spun, only landing on the same repetitive question: how exactly did she end up here?
She remembered it now.
She had clasped her hands together tightly as the car’s tires lumbered over another thicket of rocks and twigs. The paved roadway had ended long before the school’s entranceway began and the taxi’s low clearance wasn’t up to take the terrain’s beating. Avery waved for the driver to just stop there. She could already see enough of the gothic brick spires belonging to Mayweather Academy to know that she’d arrived.
She slid out of the cab, just hearing the gruff mutter of the driver before the door swung shut. Even though she’d tipped him well, she couldn’t exactly blame him. While the boarding school sat within Seward city borders, the trip here brought them through a desolate road, after it seemed that all civilization had long since ended. Tucked into mountains and hidden by hundred-year-old trees, no one would find the Academy by accident. The taxi driver had sworn she was just getting them lost until they reached the only sign a mile back.
The cab then took off in an explosion of dirt. Eyes burning, Avery dredged forward through the heavy wrought iron gates and to the stairs that led up the hillside. She’d barely made it halfway up the staircase when she heard a howl that made her stop short.
“Avieee!” Avery turned to spot the source at the top of the stairs.
Her one and only friend at the school, an auburn haired girl small enough to disappear into her hoodie, sprinted down the stairs at light speed. Before she even cleared the final step between herself and Avery, she opened her arms and leapt forward. The combination of extra weight and radical sideways movement almost knocked Avery off her feet. The girl then closed her into a tight hug.
“Hi, Leela.” Avery lightly squeezed the girl back and then happily broke away after a minute.
“Welcome back to Alaska. I was convinced you’d like California too much and not come back!”
“I was certainly considering it.”
“You know you like this place more than that,” Leela teased, knowing full well they looked forward to senior year as one step closer to freedom.
“Because everyone just lovessss high school,” Avery said. Half smiling, she looked back toward the man hesitating by the stairs. He’d walked with Leela only a moment ago but now waited cautiously in the distance. He wore a parka from his neck to his knees that managed to block out any details of his person. The weather wasn’t cold enough to warrant it. The odd scene irking her, Avery found herself staring.
“Who’s your friend?” Avery asked while glancing back toward the Leela.
“That guy with you.” Avery indicated but looking back, the man had gone. “Uh…never mind,” Avery amended.
“Okay, stop distracting me and tell me how your summer was. I’m still jealous you got out of Alaska,” Leela changed the topic.
“Yea, staying at my brother’s was pretty awesome.” She didn’t want to sound like she was bragging, but it had to come out that way. Everything that busy urbanized California was, their small section in the woods of Alaska wasn’t. She then filled Leela in, adding a few things about the surfing, heat, and traffic as they worked their way back up the stairs and through the heart of campus.
They finally reached their destination, a circular brick courtyard in the middle of the school, and the distractions came quickly. Today the courtyard was home to an array of wooden booths, sorted by last names, to hand out class schedules and room assignments. Freshmen panicked and raced back and forth while seniors in her class floated around to socialize, making the courtyard painfully packed. She nearly lost Leela in the tall body of students, but they both already knew where they were heading. They made for the booth for “Z” names in the back.
“Hi Avery. Leela,” Ms. Morrison, the staff member at the table, greeted them personally. “How was your summer?”
Avery gave the same great review she’d given to Leela.
“Avery’s rooming with me this year,” Leela pointed out as Morrison began shuffling through her blue index cards for Avery’s senior year assignment.
“Oh. I see you’ve already picked up your card.” Morrison had finished the stack and leaned back.
Avery shook her head. Leela had an assignment card that listed Avery as her designated roommate so she knew already her room, but Avery always was supposed to be given a card too. Morrison thumbed through the entire stack of blue index cards a second time around. Brows pinched, she looked over the papers on her clipboard.
“I’m not sure why but I don’t have you here. You’re registered as a student…” She flipped through a few more papers before giving up. “And you’re certain no one else picked it up for you?”
Avery nodded. Short of Leela, her friends at this school were nonexistent. Not that she wasn’t popular… she was just in more of the loner crowd.
Frowning, Morrison finally said, “I suppose it could have gotten mixed up courtesy of first day chaos. I’d say you should check the other tables.”
Avery didn’t even take one look backwards.
“Can I just pick it up tomorrow? I know where I’m staying already.” Avery gestured toward Leela as proof.
“Of course. I’ll get to it tonight and personally deliver it to your dorm room. I’m sorry for the mix up.”
Without another word, Avery slid free of the crowd and followed Leela up the nearest grass hill. Seniors were placed in the oldest and, coincidentally, the best dorm. Crepuscule Hall had been built next to the river. Immersed in woods three out of four sides, it sat the farthest back from the center of the campus. Almost like its own entity, the brick building had gated doors and its own kitchens. Outside was a long balcony that was home for crazy parties. Also, this hall was the only one on campus that could be coed.
They descended the last set of stairs that led to the main gate. Students congregated just outside by the concrete picnic tables. More uncomfortable by the second, Avery wrung her hands.
“What happened to your hand?” Leela asked abruptly, successfully reminding Avery of something she had nearly forgotten.
Avery flexed her right hand that had been bandaged in ace wrap from fingers to wrist. The wrapping already loose, Avery unraveled it to show her palm in the light.
“I went looking for seashells on the beach and picked up glass or something.” She showed Leela the purple and black bruising. There was no visible cut and the nurse at the walk in clinic had shrugged off Avery’s worries.
“You probably picked up a crab,” Leela said, dismissing it too.
Her attention soon drifted to the congregation of students nearby. Avery scanned the crowd over for anyone familiar. She’d gone to school with all of these students for years, but she wasn’t exactly friends with any of them. Then, out of the mass of colorful faces, a familiar person surfaced. Avery groaned when she recognized it. Nathan walked out, slicking back his black hair greaser style and wearing a sideways smirk. Nathan, resident slacker, acted as the campus pretty boy. Dressed to crisp perfection with big price tags, he flaunted his parents’ money more than not.
“Isn’t it my favorite girl?” Nathan maneuvered by Avery and right up to Leela’s side.
On par, Avery’s friend lit up pink and fidgeted on her feet.
“Be nice,” Leela admonished with no real force behind her words.
“Sweetheart, I’m always nice.” Smirk growing, he pressed open palms against his chest as a sign of innocence.
Sensing the situation grow awkward fast, Avery backed to the very edge of the sidewalk. Nathan absorbed the extra space in seconds and posted himself between the girls. His eyes never once left Leela even though he spoke more than loud enough for both of them to hear. Avery didn’t know which bothered her more, Nathan’s interest in her friend or his point to make a show of it. She twitched in spot, mind rolling over potential ideas to force Leela out of the situation. The only one she could come up with would involve dragging, kicking, and screaming.
“So you excited about the party tonight?” Nathan suddenly asked.
Leela opened her mouth to respond but Avery beat her to it.
“Party? What party?”
“Sorry, select invites only.” Nathan finally acknowledged Avery’s existence only to give her a cool glare through pretty boy long lashes.
Avery ignored him and whirled to face Leela straight on.
“It’s nothing big,” Leela defended herself immediately.
“Don’t buy into her fit just because she’s not invited,” Nathan piped in from behind them.
Avery didn’t even grace it with a response. She focused on Leela even though Leela seemed more focused on the floor.
“It’s not the party. It’s the fact that you’d even go with him,” Avery whispered harshly.
“Don’t worry about it, okay.”
Face heating, Avery clenched her fists before she could overreact. Turning back to the man behind her, she gave a potent glare. He seemed unaffected.
“I’ll see you tonight, Leela,” he said.
Avery rolled a few choice words around in her mouth but ended up swallowing them. She nodded as politely as her tight muscles allowed. Without another word, Nathan turned on his heels and headed back for the gaggle of students. Shifting the heavy duffle bag over her tense shoulder, Avery turned her attention back to the dormitory.
“Forget about it,” she told Leela grudgingly while knowing full well this was a battle just beginning.
Her friend rejoined her side and then together they walked through the last gate into Crepuscule Hall.
“Party that lame, or have you forgotten something?” Avery swung open her dorm door in mid-rant, and abruptly froze.
Rocking back in her pink slippers, she looked over her unexpected guest. Where she’d been expecting Leela, a tall man stood. At least six foot seven, he barely would have fit through the doorframe. She didn’t recognize the face beneath the mop of brown hair, but she recognized the heavy parka and the wide shoulders. It was the man from the top of the stairs. Closer up, she could see distinctive details. His skin was soft but his jaw line was sharp, making him look both young and old at the same time. She couldn’t peg his age. His jade green eyes studied her in return.
“Uh. Hi.” Somewhere in the surprise, she’d almost forgotten her manners.
“This yours?” He slid a card out of his jacket’s pocket and handed it over. Avery took a moment to identify the blue index card with her name printed in bold.
“My assignment.” It clicked in her head. Shutting her open mouth, she nodded gratefully and put it on her nightstand. “Thanks. I forgot that Morrison would have it brought down.”
It’d become so late that she hadn’t expected anyone but Leela. In fact, she suddenly regretted answering the door in her pajama slacks, oversized t-shirt, and bunny slippers. Subtly losing the slippers, she kicked them into the corner.
“So you’re Avery Zane? I’ve seen you before. My name’s Mason, I’m new here.” It sounded forced, like a practiced line of a shy person. And, characteristic of a painful conversation, he smiled but refused to open his mouth all the way. Not that Avery felt offended. So far, he seemed more like a kindred spirit.
“Yea, at the stairs earlier today. So you’re on as staff here?”
“Uh, something like that.” He paused for a moment of thick silence. Before she could think of anything else to say, he asked, “So your roommate’s gone?”
“Oh yea. She’s at…” Avery stopped herself. Leela was at the party but that wasn’t exactly a detail she’d tell to a staff member. Worse yet, he was new and would likely sell them out in a heartbeat. “She’s just out. She’ll be back before curfew.”
They both glanced at the wall clock in the same moment. Leela had exactly fourteen minutes to book it across the dorm.
“Well, thanks for bringing my assignment by. If you see Morrison, thank her for me too.” Avery leaned back, stiffly changing her body motions to end the conversation. While any other time she wouldn’t mind having a nice chat with a cute guy, tonight friends came first. She wouldn’t let Leela get busted and blame her for it the rest of the year.
Feigning a yawn, she murmured, “Nice meeting you. Have a good night.”
“Wait.” He held his hand out to stop the door from shutting. “Would you mind taking a walk with me?” he asked in the next second.
“What? Like a date?” It slipped before she could stop it. With her face flushing, Avery mentally cursed herself for being so tactless. “I don’t think we can date staff,” she immediately said in the best joking tone she could. Whether or not he bought it, she couldn’t tell. His face hadn’t changed much from the same placid stare.
“Just like a walk. We won’t get caught. You won’t get in trouble for being out after curfew,” he said.
Her face still hot, she nodded. A walk with a staff member, cute or not, couldn’t hurt.
“Okay, just uh gimme one minute.” She stuck a single finger in the air until he backed up to clear the doorway. As soon as she closed it for him she rushed for her phone. Ripping her sheets apart she snatched up the blue device from its hiding spot.
Leela was on speed dial and the phone started to ring before Avery even brought it to her ear. With her free hand she dug through her duffle bag. With advanced notice, she would have laid out something alluring, but with thirty seconds or less she had to settle for her nice dark jeans and a black tank top.
“Stupid girl, answer your phone,” she hissed a second before Leela’s voicemail came on. Something this cool never happened to Avery, and Leela would pick this moment not to answer. Giving up, she tossed the Nokia back on the bed.
Stripping off her pajamas, she changed and threw her hair up in a messy bun. She did not have time to hide the freckles on her face so she embraced them reluctantly and focused on framing them with her bangs.
He had posted himself up against the opposite wall when she came out. From here, he looked even lankier with his legs stretched out and folded. She did a quick check of the hallway before announcing her presence. This late at night, the corridors were empty and only the staff would eventually meander through the halls. Morrison always wore thick heels that would clack on the carpeted floor so that any student would have to be deaf to not hear her coming. Idly thinking, Avery began to wonder if Mason would be the same. So far, he wasn’t scolding students but inviting them out to wander around.
“Hey,” he greeted catching sight of her.
“Where’d you have in mind?” she prompted him as he began to walk.
“Just around.” He strolled left. “So, I hear you went to California this past month.”
“Yea, you and everyone else.” She rolled her eyes over-dramatically. “I can’t have been the only person who has left the state of Alaska before.”
The first official day hadn’t even started yet and she was already sick of talking about it.
“No, I’ve been to California too. In fact, I was there this very summer.”
“Seriously? That’s awesome… Wait.” She paused, distracted, before they reached the end of the hall. In front of them was the fire escape door. The hot red letters adorned on it reminded everyone it couldn’t be used except in emergencies.
“We can’t go out this way.” She told him.
While the door wasn’t hooked up to an alarm, no one would ever sneak out through this exit. Outside were steep, blocky stairs that led straight down into the forest, an ongoing joke about emergency safety by the students. From there, the campus was a good twenty-minute walk back after having to march up a woody hill. This exit never had any lights either. At night, the path was pitch black and treacherous.
“You want to get caught?”
“I’d sooner get caught than die.” Her voice broke and she turned away. An ugly feeling crept up her spine, and she watched the empty hallway. Avery wasn’t afraid of the dark, but there was also no way she’d take a creepy trip out at night either. This stroll was turning out different than she’d pictured.
“I’ll make sure nothing gets you. Come on,” he said, but his voice sounded anything but reassuring. In fact, he bit off the words harshly. Muscles drawing together tightly, his entire posture changed. The transition happened in a heartbeat. Avery never got a chance to properly react.
He abruptly lashed out and caught her shoulder. Spinning her, he whirled her towards the exit, and with a sharp push, he knocked her forward. She stumbled into the door and it tipped open from her weight.
“I had to follow you all the way to this bloody place, you stupid thief! Do you understand how much time this cost me?” he roared.
“Stop it!” she hollered when he pushed her again.
Outside, her heel slipped on the first blocky step and sent her sprawling. No railing to brace herself, Avery landed on her elbows hard. She struggled to stand, but panic made her clumsy. Her thoughts were minimized to two simple ideas: Bad situation and must get out.
“Where is it?” he demanded. “I’ll tear apart your whole room if I have to. Where is it?”
Somewhere in his rage, he stopped paying attention. She regained her balance, stood up, and bolted down the stairs. Gravity and momentum helped. By the time that he pursued, she’d jumped the last step and run into the forest. The thick roots threatened to knock her over again, but adrenaline kept her on her feet. His footsteps finally thundered down the same path, but he didn’t follow her into the woods.
“You can’t run. Hear me out.”
The absolute firmness of his words made her slow. She slipped behind a tree, and slammed her back up against the rough bark. The moonlight didn’t shine through the thick canopy, and the visibility where she stood dropped to zero. Unsure if she should even take her chances with Alaskan wilderness over him, she gave it a minute. Common sense telling her that he would get her to talk to locate her position, Avery stayed quiet. He waited a moment before speaking again while indicating he’d probably thought of the same thing.
“This is about when you were in California. I told you before. I was at the very same beach, the very same night. The fourth of July.”
At first, Avery spit out a confused “what?” before she thought about it. She had been in California all summer, not just on the fourth of July, but she couldn’t deny that night had been particularly strange. That was the night she was on the beach collecting seashells. One specific shell had caught her eye as it washed up on the foamy waves during high tide. Driven by an unusual impulse, she’d snatched it up. Once the odd looking shell touched her palm, it stung. She’d dropped it quickly only to find that it’d injured her right hand and left a bizarre bruise. It was the same bizarre bruise she still had. Other than the sole instance, nothing else about the night stood out. She didn’t meet anyone, she didn’t see anything, and she definitely didn’t take part in something strange.
“So what?” She asked, at least giving him her full attention again.
“That night my boss dropped a pendant off the coast. It was a shiny black pendant. This pendant has a particular way to be found again. I tracked it to the where it washed up in the surf and then I tracked it to Seward, Alaska. I tracked it back to you.”
Her mind processing slowly, she took a minute before she drew her hand up to her face. The bandage had partially unwrapped to reveal her palm. Before Avery even considered the possibly, she curled her hand back into her chest.
“I need it back, and I won’t be the only person looking for it. I’ll take it from you nicely but these other people will hurt you for it,” Mason kept talking.
She didn’t believe her own ears. It sounded like a line from the movies. She stumbled upon the mob boss’s family brooch and now became a mark. The seriousness of the statement didn’t escape her either. She let out a deep breath.
“I don’t have it. Even if I picked it up, I don’t have it. I left everything at the beach.” She wouldn’t be above begging him to believe it.
He didn’t answer. Only the quiet rustling of the forest filled up the silence. The wind picked up off of the water and blew through the trees. Growing cold, Avery wrapped her arms around herself. She listened for the crunching of leaves or the snapping of twigs. While she’d picked a terrible vantage point, she could still hear him if he got closer.
“Then come out of the woods and prove it. I’m not going to hurt you,” he said after a tense moment.
“No way,” she shot back. She may have been naïve, but she was not insane.
“If you just give me what I want, then I’ll leave. Believe me, if I wanted to do anything, I could have done it before.”
The rational part of her brain held out on believing him, but then she also knew it’d be a nightmare staying in the forest. If she had any intention of crawling out back towards the school, she’d be doing it in the dark. Opting to cooperate, at least temporarily, she called out.
“I’d help you if I could. But I don’t have it.”
“Then show me. And I’ll leave. Or are you planning to rot to death in there?”
She struggled to draw her shaken nerves together. “Okay,” she announced at last. “At least talk to me so I can find my way out of this forest.”
Brushing her fingertips over the tree, she stepped carefully to avoid protruding roots. In her last kicks of summer, she’d opted to wear a pair of thong sandals. Knowing she just needed one misstep and a firm knock into a rock to be in serious pain, she moved slowly.
“You have my word, I won’t hurt you. I just have…temper problems,” he admitted the last part as an afterthought.
Avery could have hysterically laughed. Temper problems? Is that what they called psychotic rages now days?
“In fact, my only intention here is to get what I’ve come for and then leave you in peace,” he kept talking, and she focused on following his voice.
The moon resurfaced in the sky, and it lit up the clearing in front of her. Mason stood in the center and behind him were the steps back up into the dormitory, her home. Happy to see it, she rushed forward but only managed to catch a root and stagger. Hands flailing in the darkness, she threw herself off balance. Hitting the ground, she kissed the dirt. Avery couldn’t get up quick enough. Only she, in the presence of a psychotic raving man, would still be clumsy.
A shadow fell over the ground. Glancing up, she saw him towering above her. With deliberately slow and gentle movements, he offered a hand.
“Uh, hi,” she greeted him meekly. Already too close to him to escape again, she didn’t fight it.
Crawling to her knees, she nearly handed him her right hand—her dominant hand—before realization made her switch it out. Lightning fast, he snatched her right wrist mid-motion. Wrapping his long fingers around her right wrist, he yanked her up in one swift, effective movement. The quick motion jarring, old adrenaline spiked again and she pulled away from him. He held her wrist with a steel grip.
“Wait. What happened to you?” he demanded to know.
The bandage had already come loose from her rough fall and the black bruise peeked out from beneath. The moonlight made it glow.
“Lemme go. Lemme go, or I won’t show you,” she hissed, still attempting to tear away from him.
Frowning, he released her but beckoned her to keep her hand up. After giving him a sufficient suspicious glare, she unraveled the bandage in a few quick rotations. To her surprise, the mark had grown worse over the daytime. Instead of the charred black that covered the side of her palm, the black had turned purple-ish and reached from the heel of her palm to her thumb. She felt sick looking at it. Mason didn’t shy away from it. Tentatively reaching out, he brushed his thumb over the mark. Something under her skin abruptly pulsed in response. Jolted by the sensation, she yanked her hand back to her chest.
“How did that happen? How’d you get that?” he asked before she could get a word out.
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “I just went picking up shells on the beach and a crab bit me.”
He eyed her, disbelieving, and then he asked her something strange.
“What did the shell look like?”
“It was...” She fell silent, listening to her thoughts before she voiced them. Then she admitted it. “It was shiny and black.”
He must have expected it, urging her on immediately.
“And where is it now?”
She gave him a helpless look.
“It broke when I picked it up. It turned to dust. You don’t think... you don’t think it was the pendant that I picked up, do you?”
Mason’s face paled considerably and mouth open, he said nothing. When he finally spoke, his words came out quiet and short.
“This is not good.”
“Look, I’m sorry if I picked it up, and I’m sorry if I broke it. But believe me, I don’t have it anymore,” Avery said.
She might as well have been talking to herself. Mason wasn’t listening. Shortly after his cryptic declaration, he’d fallen into a silent thought train that left his green eyes staring at nothing and his hands wringing. Worry seeped off of his taut body but none of his agitation was directed toward Avery any longer.
Even though the situation had calmed remark-ably, Avery still didn’t trust it. She trekked back towards the stone stairway and created a berth between them. The clearing just outside the building’s emergency exit was better than the woods, but she was still beginning to feel the effects of being outside too long. Without a jacket, it was getting cold, and without real shoes to traverse the rough ground, she’d beaten her toes bloody.
“I know you don’t have the actual pendant,” Mason said suddenly, earning her full attention once again.
“You believe me?” She did a double take to be sure about his sudden change in heart.
“I believe you don’t actually have the glass pendant. But you don’t understand.” He marched a few steps forward, and closer now, he lowered his voice as if someone in the woods could hear them. “That pendant was an amulet, and that amulet was very special. It was filled with magic.”
She stared at him blankly, waiting for the punch line. When it never came, she shook her head and stepped back.
“Are you nuts?” she asked carefully. She eyed her exit, one quick sprint up steep stairs and though it was dangerous, she certainly wasn’t going for the woods again. He didn’t make any quick movements so neither did Avery.
Instead, he slowly raked his hands through his mop of brown hair and let out a frustrated growl. “It makes sense doesn’t it? The amulet broke from the fall and when you picked it up, that magic inside of it then jumped straight into you. How else do you think I tracked you all the way to this god-forsaken place sixty miles north of nowhere? The magic in your body left me a trail.”
She let the words process for a full minute. His expression didn’t waver once while waiting for her reply. Humoring herself, she reasoned it aloud.
“You still lost me at the magic part. I mean...magic. Do you really believe that?” she spoke delicately too, waiting for him to flip out anytime.
Instead, Mason just said, “Don’t patronize me. You’re the stupid human.”
The venom in his words didn’t strike her. Instead, she replayed what else he’d conveyed.
“Human?” she repeated. “I’m a human?”
Mason gave her a long look and then in a sudden flurry of motion, he tugged his oversized parka off. The fabric dropped to the floor, forming a puddle at his feet, and then she was able to see something white twitch behind him. That something white spread out on either side of his body in the next second. She’d known his coat was unusually heavy for late fall, but now she understood that it had been hiding something. Wide angel wings, made up from thousands of short feathers, now surrounded him.
“Uh. Bird?” She pointed dumbly, unable to form a single coherent thought more.
“Harpie.” He gave her a glare that could have killed. “You don’t need to understand. You need to come with me.”
Still in shock, she forgot about her getaway plan, and walked toward him. Avery then circled around him, needing to see the entire phenomenon in detail. He twisted to face her a few times until he let her behind him, growling from deep in his throat.
“This is… unreal,” she whispered. The moonlight cast a hearty blue glow on them both and let her see clearly.
Hands tentatively reaching out, she lightly brushed her fingertips over the feathers. Stiffer than they looked, they were still soft. She could feel the hardness of bone over the arch of his wing. He wore a shirt so she couldn’t see how they were directly attached to his skin, but Avery didn’t need any more convincing. His wings were hot, twitching, and very very real.
Curling her hand back to her chest, she whispered, “This is…”
“Unreal?” he offered.
Bobbing her head, she agreed, “Unreal.”
His wings then stirred up a quick gust and the cold wisps that hit her face snapped her out of her daze.
“You’re a harpie. Like a legit harpie.” She put a hand on her forehead while still having trouble wrapping her mind around the concept.
He nodded again.
“I thought harpies were actual birds.” She thought of the pictures from her mythology books. Most were small, white creatures with beaks, long feathered abdomens, and talons. The man that stood before her was just that—a man.
She studied him head to foot, one last time. She had long since recognized that he was tall, but that fact combined with his long lanky limbs suddenly took on a new significance. His entire body stature, most importantly his broad shoulders, must have been used to balance out the weight of his wings. His leaner physic probably kept him light to fly. His nails were short but a little sharper than they should be too— not just for a man but for any human.
“Hardly. Harpies have naturally become more humanoid in recent centuries to blend in with bloody humans,” he snapped the last part, tilting his chin up with a blast of superiority.
“And you have bad tempers,” she remembered, absolutely ignoring his attitude now. With some effort, she recalled her old school lessons on Greek mythology. “Harpies are notoriously bad tempered. We even derived the term harping from them...uh, you.”
She used to draw her mother as a half-human half-harpie nagging about her homework. Of course, even that version of a harpie came nothing close to the one that stood before her now.
“You believe me now?” he asked dully, like she’d just caught up with the news flash.
Catching his eyes, she paused.
“You were serious about the magic?” Letting out a gasping breath, she shook her head. “No way. This just isn’t real. This just doesn’t happen.”
“Well, then I have a rude awakening for you. You, in your human curiosity, picked up a harpie amulet and became the home to harpie magic. Now believe me or don’t, but it’s the truth.”
She opened her mouth to speak but couldn’t think of any words. Her mind finally grasped the full situation. Unable to control her twisting facial expressions, she turned and faced the woods. Her right hand itched at the revelation. The black smudge she’d gotten back in July still marred her palm like she’d burnt it yesterday. That, combined with the unbelievable evidence that stood a few feet away, left her reeling.
“Oh my god, is this dangerous?” she voiced the thought as it hit her. “This thing, will it hurt me?”
Jerking her hand out in front of her, she held it away from the rest of her body.
“The magic won’t hurt you. But there are people who want it. Dangerous people and they will kill you to get it.”
After moving closer, he reached out and touched her hand. The jolt of warmth made her flinch. He wrapped his fingers around hers until he pushed her palm closed and hid the black mark. It hardly felt reassuring. His rough skin stung, and he squeezed her hand too tight.
“Come with me, and you’ll be fine,” he said.
Abruptly, his wings snapped open. He used his grip on her to twist her around quickly enough to make her dizzy. From there, she saw his wings clearly. Almost over ten feet they nearly touched both the tree line and the staircase.
“What are you doing?” she gasped.
His wings began to flap. The dirt kicked up and the wind dropped the temperature. His long arms looped around her waist and he pinned her to his broad chest. His wings caught enough speed to begin to lift them from the ground.
“Let’s make this as painless as possible,” he said. “Struggle and I’ll drop you.”
She did just that. Bracing her elbows against his chest, she pushed backwards to break his grip.
“I’m not doing this with you! Stop it!” she shouted.
Ignoring her completely, he kept his grip tight. The ground disappeared below her feet. Just an inch up, the cloud of dust nearly made the rest of the world disappear.
“Stop it, you stupid pigeon!” she screamed.
Arms abruptly going lax, he let her go. Unbalanced, Avery fell back and landed on the ground painfully hard. She didn’t complain though. Adrenaline still pounding in her veins, she used the opening to run toward the stairs. His large wings made it impossible for him to fly without a clearing so she dashed up to the top step where there was no space. The dust fell away, revealing his face. Lips drawn back, he glared at her sharply.
“Pigeon?” he hissed.
Pride was a fall point, Avery realized quickly. Even though the anger radiating off of him grew suffocating, she kept her chin up resiliently.
“I don’t know how harpie mechanics work but I’m not going in the air on that. You’re not a plane!” Her last words grew so high pitched that she hurt her own ears. Still shaking, she gripped the doorknob.
“Did you not hear me earlier? People will be coming for you if you stay here.”
Thoughts swirling in a million different directions, she hesitated. Maybe there would be bad people after her, but he could just as well be one of them. Any bird that would try and take her out of here would have to do it while she kicked and screamed.
“I’ll take my chances.”
Yanking the door open quickly, she jumped inside while half expecting him to follow. The door swung shut and he never made chase. Avery was relieved until she noticed someone else standing before her in the hall.
“Morrison,” Avery said, immediately recognizing the new problem. She was caught out after curfew. The staff woman saw Avery and immediately shook her head.
“You know I have to put you on notice now,” Morrison sounded about as bummed out as Avery felt. Morrison always wore the pumps so everyone would hear her coming and no one would get caught. Of course, a student wouldn’t hear the pumps if they were outside being chided by a mythological creature. She seemed to expect Avery’s excuse just as much as Avery expected her own excuse. But in the moment, Avery couldn't think of a single lie.
“Okay. That’s okay,” Avery settled for instead.
Morrison took the omission of guilt without admonishing her further. With the initial confrontation over, Avery sent a quick look behind her. The fire escape door remained both shut and silent. Mason wouldn’t be dumb to charge into a crowded room apparently.
“By the way,” Morrison began as she stepped to the side and guided Avery back to her room. “I couldn’t find your assignment anywhere. It must have fallen out and I’m going to have the office print up another one.”
Avery walked to her door and knocked on it twice to get Leela’s attention. She’d use her key if there was no answer, but still wanted to give forewarning in case her roommate already did arrive home.
“It’s alright, I have it. Uh, someone found it on the floor and brought it back to me.” By the floor she meant probably straight off of Morrison’s desk. Mason had obviously stolen it.
Morrison’s brow still pinched at her explanation. Looking significantly older than she ought to have, she gave Avery one last speech.
“Okay. Just be careful. This curfew isn’t in place because the faculty is bored. The Alaskan wilderness come nightfall isn’t the place for a student. The danger is very real. Please keep that in mind.”
The door swung open and before Morrison could get in another word, Avery charged forward and nearly toppled Leela out of the way. The heavy wood slammed shut behind her and sealed them inside the dorm room. Avery did nothing until she could hear the last clacks of Morrison’s heels echo down the hallway. She then shifted her attention back towards the room.
Leela stood before her, fully dressed in fashion wear. Pumps, leggings, and the denim dress gave away that she hadn’t been home long. Avery prepped herself to explain everything that had just happened, but she never got the chance. Someone else in the room spoke up.
“Look what the cat dragged in.” The familiar ring of Nathan’s voice made Avery flinch.
He’d stretched out on Leela’s bed, ankles crossed, showing everyone the bottom of his expensive boots. Black hair slicked back and leather jacket adorned, anyone else in the world would have looked like a cheap imitation of a movie icon. Not Nathan though. Nathan pulled it off in his own individual way. Had Avery not hated him so much, she could have admired it.
“What’s he doing here?” Avery asked.
“Calm down.” Leela stood between them. “We were just hiding out until Morrison dipped.”
Avery noticed, first and foremost, that Leela only directed that toward her and never once admonished Nathan. Secondly, she noticed the rest of the room. Leela’s sheets on the bed sat perfect, starch, and undisturbed. The television sat in a mess of unhooked wires and the only light on was the painfully bright overhead fluorescent. Leela, for the first time, unstrapped her heels and kicked them to the corner. Avery surmised they hadn’t been in here long and definitely not long enough to get into trouble. Still, the thought nearly made her shudder.
“I heard her catch you. You’re lucky I let you in, bringing her over here like that. Do you have any idea how much trouble I could have gotten in?”
“One week grounding?” Avery tried for a joke but Leela’s scowl grew darker.
“Little Avery just wants company since she’s too deaf to avoid trouble,” Nathan said and brought every bit of attention back to himself.
Before Avery could even respond, he stood and moved between her and Leela with agile quickness. Standing directly in front of her now, he popped her personal bubble and then some. This close she could smell his minty aftershave and the hot spiciness of his cologne. Just a few inches taller than her, he leaned forward until their foreheads touched.
“Don’t worry girl, I’ll come visit you if you want,” he whispered just to Avery.
“You should be leaving,” she snapped at him. He made a hurt face just for theatrical effect, and then slinked out the door. Once it closed firmly behind him, Leela turned on Avery.
“That was so rude. He was just here to see me! What do you have against Nathan?” Leela, even though not included in the initial exchange, had been clearly embarrassed.
“I- nothing. I mean, I just know he uses girls. I don’t want you to get with him.” Avery rubbed her arms, feeling unsettled enough already.
“You don’t even know him!”
“I know him enough.” Suddenly busying herself, Avery went for her bed.
“What are you not telling me then? Did you guys used to date or something?”
“N-no.” Avery found herself stuttering worse in front of a tiny girl than she had with a crazy harpie. “No. I just know Nathan through school,” Avery finally amended, firmer this time. With the sheets on the bed fixed, she climbed beneath them, dirty jeans and all. Curling the unsightly black mark on her hand back into her chest, she stared at the wall.
As expected, Leela didn’t let it go.
“You’re lying to me. He says that you guys have met before. You said you only knew him through school.” She marched right up to Avery’s bedside. “You know I like him.”
“I told you. I hate Nathan because he’s a jerk to me period. There isn’t anything more.” The familiar tightness of guilt weighed on Avery’s chest but she stuck to her story.
Though she couldn’t see Leela’s reaction, she could certainly picture it. Cheeks red, Leela marched away and threw herself onto her bed hard enough that the springs cried in protest.
Clicking off the light, she sent the room into absolute darkness. Leela said one last thing.
“You always lie to me, and you wonder why I never believe you when you say anything.”
Then Avery wouldn’t say anything. Especially not about crazy human birds. Especially not about Mason.
- Avery’s rant Avery talks about where her life is at during Airborne.
- On location: Airborne A few photos of places from Airborne