Adelaide has made a deal with monsters. She wants to live. They want Leon Colton to die. Adelaide is determined she can get to him, even if he is the most powerful mage in the world. She only needs to get to his brother, Adam, to do it.
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The sound of twisting metal chilled her to the bone, but she forced her muscles to remain lax. The wind whistled by, fiercer than she’d ever heard it, and took agonizing moments to calm. She let out an embarrassing moan of discomfort when it finally ceased. Her anchor to the rock fissure remained intact and the tips of her boots planted firmly on the rock wall’s deformations. Finally remembering how to move, she released her white-knuckle grip on the sling and reached out for the mountainside. Her fingertips brushed it idly before she found a place to dig her nails in and she lifted the last of her weight off her safety line.
With lowered morale, she continued her climb up the mountainside.
“Death wish, Adelaide,” she whispered to herself. “Stupid, stupid death wish.”
The sun beat down on her back and glinted brightly off of each notch of rock. Every inch had become painful after her two slips and near misses. She didn’t dare peer below to see how far the ground appeared; instead her eyes remained glued on the nearest shelf. The tour guides had described this as a rock climb of moderate difficulty because the shelves were considered cheating by experts. She couldn’t care less about looking like a pro, when the cliff offered her relief from hanging there any longer.
Her phone’s buzz made her flinch and loosen her grip. The immediate loss of control left her gripping at stone until her nails bled and she felt secure. She shot her phone a dirty look, seeing its blue glow even through the thick denim fabric of her skinny jeans. She neglected the desire to try to wrangle it out from clothing wholly unsuitable for her current task, and let its shrill ring die on its own. The incessant buzz was an alarm reminding her of the time: five o’ clock.
She paused during ascent, partly to take a desperate breath and partly to scan the area. Adelaide hadn’t made it as far as she’d expected this far into the climb. The sun threatened to leave the sky in a few hours and leave her in chilly darkness. The crunch on time left her hopelessly gazing over the side of the cliff for other climbers. She hadn’t seen anyone else like she’d expected and it made her nervous. Maybe all of the good rock-climbers knew something she didn’t.
She forced herself to focus on the shelf above. Between her sweaty palms and blistering feet she welcomed the break. When she finally reached the ledge, a second wave of energy slipped through her body. Throwing her leg over first, she used her thigh muscles to hoist the rest of her body up. Feeling secure, she freed her cam and then drilled it in a fissure above her. The wind had been decent this far, but she refused to trust Mother Nature this high up.
“You’re cheating and taking the easy way out,” a voice carried from somewhere nearby.
“Hey, I didn’t even feel like coming out today. You’re lucky you have company at all…” A girl’s voice seconded the man’s. Adelaide pinpointed the voices to somewhere below her.
Adelaide moved into a crouch, feeling for the first time the push of a breeze near an unsteady edge. Peering over the side, she spotted two climbers in neon green gear crawling up the side. They’d made it up to a ledge just to the east of her position, but staring directly down at the top of their heads she couldn’t identify any distinctive features about them. They sounded young, close to her age. It made her wonder.
“You aren’t going to fall anyway,” the male replied as Adelaide pictured his location in her mind. They climbed not far from the lower rock side plateau and she sat back when she established their location.
Squeaks of metal and a hiss of rope reached her, a sound Adelaide recognized just in time for the scream that followed.
“Angie!” The male hollered but his voice disappeared under the distinct thundering of a loose boulder. The rope unwound with a piercing whistle, and the rock’s collision with the side of the mountain made even the shelf where Adelaide rested tremble. The sensation snapped Adelaide stiff and using sheer will power, she crawled close to the edge again. Glancing over, she saw only the man still hanging. His attention remained below him toward a mass of distant rocks.
“Angie, Angie!” He kept screaming until something soft and incoherent sounded back. It could have been a dire moan; Adelaide couldn’t tell.
The man cursed violently.
“Are you okay?” Adelaide yelled down to him. “I heard screaming. Are you okay?”
The man’s head snapped up instantly and his hazel eyes landed on her. His mouth dangled open, but scrutiny defined the wrinkles on his brow. He looked as surprised as she felt by her actions, but she didn’t stop while his companion was hurt somewhere below.
“I’ll help. I know first aid.”
“What are you doing?” he shouted back. His gaze slipped away and landed above her. Adelaide didn’t recognize the horror on his face, until something struck her. The blow to the side of her ear stung more than anything else, but the force also knocked her askew. The entire world sounded muffled now and she planted her hand on her wounded ear. Right hand still rooted to the ground, she felt the floor tremble beneath her palm. Her breath escaped her. The trembling grew to shaking, and the shaking grew violent.
Her equilibrium lost, she staggered back when she stood. Her head slammed into the rock wall, and her chin snapped up. The mountain shifted, exploding with a massive cloud of orange dust before the mountainside collapsed.
Focus too far gone, she didn’t realize she was slipping until her body slid free of the cliff. The drop, short and sudden, came to a jerking stop. Her rope caught her but she still dangled. Swinging her feet madly, the tips of her boots scraped the rock. Not even seconds had passed, but the world moved slowly.
She never saw him move, but she felt his sudden grip on her belt. He held tight while screaming above the thunderous roar of the rockslide.
“Unlatch your belt!”
His words sounded foreign, her brain stuffed with cotton, and yet she instinctually obeyed. The sensation of falling was only momentary. In the next instant, she was pushed up against him.
Dust exploded and consumed the air. Eyes burning, she lost sight of him but felt his powerful grip. With another violent yank, the heel of her boots brushed the shelf. She gripped the stone, hoisting herself up. Pebbles slid first and the deafening plummet of rocks followed. She hurried before the trembling caused her to lose her grip. The pair finally reached the ground of the shelf as boulders exploded down the mountainside, but nothing struck them. Adelaide blinked her eyes half a million times before the sunlight pierced the dust storm. They stood in the middle of the impact zone but remained unscathed. She did a double take but couldn’t identify what didn’t make sense. The rocks glided over them, through the empty air, like they were standing under an unbreakable glass sheet.
“Don’t budge,” he hissed. His voice sounded so much clearer, so much closer to home. When the last of the rocks split down the edge they still stood unharmed.
He dropped his right arm back to his side and released her with the left. The dirt in the air made her lungs burn and she struggled to catch her breath.
“What?” she asked automatically.
“You’re probably dizzy. We’ll get to ground and you’ll be okay.”
“No, don’t touch me. Don’t move,” she commanded. She desperately clung to the extra minute to reorient herself. The idea that one boulder had caused a rockslide felt foreign to her; she couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that they still stood, in the wake of it all. Her eyes gazed back up to the sky. The mountainside above them now shined with clean slope. Lowering her eyes, she found that the rocks had piled up on the ground below.
“Please. Um, just tell me your name,” he demanded urgently. She looked back at him, feeling hollow.
“Adelaide. Give me your hand and I’ll help you back down. Can you do that?”
Her mouth was dry so she only nodded. He offered his hand and she took it. He focused on her intently as he guided her to the left and drew her closer. The drop didn’t seem that far down now and he jimmied her rope in with his. Adelaide’s mind never stopped spinning until their feet finally reached the rocky mass below.
“What is your name?” she suddenly asked. His attention piqued and he seemed uncertain for a fleeting moment.
“Adam. Do you think you can walk?”
“Yea, why?” she asked before she noticed the stumble in her steps. Her hand found her head and pressed against the temple, finding slick blood beneath her fingers. The gash on her forehead felt superficial, but she recognized now that the thunderous crashing had stolen some of her hearing.
He leaned closer, apparently studying the same thing she had. Her attention finally fell on his appearance, seeing him clearly for the first time. He didn’t stand much taller than her, at six feet, but he had more distinctive muscle mass. His skin had been sun-kissed and accented with brown hair and hazel eyes. Her studying came to an end when he backed up, and beckoned her attention.
“It doesn’t look bad, but I can’t tell if you have a concussion yet. We need to get to my car and take you somewhere to get help.”
“I don’t feel sick...” she protested weakly, but accepted his helping hand anyway.
The rough terrain made it difficult, but with her feet on solid ground, she didn’t care. She sized up the place. The rockslide didn’t cause much damage on the bottom of the mountain, but did cascade close to a newly tarred road. She couldn’t spot any cars nearby or hear any voices, but Adam marched them forward. He only slowed when they reached the roadside.
“Your friend?” Adelaide cued quietly.
“I’m sure she’s okay.”
“She would’ve gotten crushed. Unless...unless the rocks didn’t hit her either...” she muttered, doing little to contain the confusion in her tone.
She knew he heard her, but he didn’t answer. His face turned away, he scanned the area.
“Angie! Angie!” he hollered a few times.
She never expected an answer, but Adam’s redheaded companion surfaced. The woman actually jogged out from behind a rocky obstruction, helmet in hand and a grin on her face. She slowed abruptly when her eyes landed on Adelaide.
“She’s hurt,” Adam interjected quickly, “we need to get her to the car.”
Angie stiffened and let her helmet fall to the ground. The woman had no apparent scratch on her, and only dust and dirt coated her skin.
“There’ll probably be park rangers coming to the scene…” the woman added, clearly hesitant.
Adam sent her a look that Adelaide couldn’t decipher, but she could feel the tension heavy in the atmosphere.
“We don’t know that.”
Angie’s shoulders visibly slumped and the woman remained silent. Adam chose that moment to inch Adelaide along, and she followed obediently. At long last, she finally saw the car that Adam had mentioned. A red Jeep sat not terribly far and was luckily sitting out of reach of the destruction. She shamelessly sized it up, memorizing the Colorado plates and the parking decals on the windows.
“We’ll take her home where she can call someone. I’m not going to a hospital,” Angie declared as she sprung into the front seat. The Jeep’s suspension shook, and Adelaide took a few slow, assisted moments climbing into the back. Adam joined her there. His face seemed permanently wrought with lines now, but he kept his emotions to himself. Instead, he spoke with remarkable calmness.
“Is that okay? Do you have a car you need to pick up?” he asked Adelaide.
“Home is fine,” she said.
“Where do you live?”
Adelaide hesitated for a minute. The car was in gear and peeling out onto the road before she could spring out or think twice. After another minute, she found no harm in telling them where she lived and rambled off an address, along with the nearest major street names. Angie gunned it when she had some direction. Even when the mountain rapidly disappeared in the rear view mirror, Adelaide never saw any emergency vehicles pull up. The highway appeared in a short amount of time– or at least it felt like it. Adelaide rubbed her ears, willing her hearing to come back. Adam, at some point, handed her a handkerchief.
“For your...” He made a vague gesture to her head.
She nodded, quick to rub away the blood she could. Head wounds always bled too much, she knew, but the sight of crimson made her stomach churn.
“Will you have a ride to a hospital?” Adam asked.
Up front, Angie groaned overdramatically. Her fingernails beat loudly against the steering wheel as she floored it back to the city. The tension in the cab alone felt overwhelming and an elephant sat in the Jeep with them. For the amount of speeding Angie did, it seemed like the trip still dragged on. Luckily, no one felt the need to fill the space with mindless, polite chatter. Only Adam spoke.
“Just make sure you go to the hospital, okay?” he asked.
His question calling for an answer, she turned to gaze directly at him. He shifted back against the wall of the cab. Her face spoke worlds when she said nothing. After a few minutes, Angie pulled up to Adelaide’s street, and, from there, Adelaide pointed out the right house. On a block where every house looked the same, the only thing setting it apart from the rest was its overgrown grass in the pavers.
“Home sweet home,” Angie commented dryly from the front, a clear indication for them to disembark. Adam got out first and rushed for Adelaide’s door but she had beaten him to the handle. Her boots hit the ground and she proceeded slowly toward the house. Adam trailed at her side, only speaking when they were noticeably out of his redheaded companion’s earshot.
“The hospital,” he reminded.
Shock and adrenaline had worn down enough that Adelaide cleared her head.
“Cut it out,” she snapped. “I’m not in shock because I got hit. I’m in shock because I saw what you did. That wasn’t normal... that was magic...”
“Shush, please,” Adam interjected, almost begging her. His hands came out in a pleading gesture, but he didn’t reach out. She felt her face redden as she delved instead into whispers.
“I just haven’t quite wrapped my head around it yet. But I know what I saw.”
“Yea and Angie’s going to flip shit on you for knowing that,” he insisted. “Look, I don’t want to hurt you but I definitely don’t want you to tell anyone what you saw. We need to hash this out.”
They reached the door and Adelaide posted herself in front of the frame before he could offer to open it. The Jeep seemed both close and far away, and she never forgot about Angie sitting there.
“I’m scared shitless,” she said slowly. “But you also saved my life. Adam, you saved me.”
This time he did reach out, brushing her shoulder as if the touch would anchor them both to Earth. The gesture did more than exhibit a friendly goodbye, but a stranger’s beckoning for trust.
“I’ll come by tomorrow to make sure you’re okay, and we’ll talk about this whole thing without Angela breathing down our necks. All I ask is that you don’t do anything crazy, and don’t tell anyone about us.”
About their names, their tag, their car—or any of the identifying information she had gathered. He would be back, she knew then, because he wouldn’t risk not coming back now. And maybe he even cared; that thought left her with a weak smile.
“Tomorrow around noon. I’ll even spring for pizza.”
He matched her grin.
“Sold. Be safe now,” he said.
She refused to go inside until Adam walked away, hopped in the Jeep, and disappeared down the street. A few moments passed before she jingled the knob. The door creaked as it opened, and the explosion of dust made her cough. She slipped inside and sealed it behind her. Between closed blinds and no lights, very little of the interior was illuminated. She strolled by the plastic covered couches and into the living room where the musty scent was the most minimal. The rugs had blackened and the coffee table dry rotted, but she plopped down in the only leather chair that remained uncovered. Shadows of frames once on the walls decorated the place, and the home resounded with absolute, bitter silence.
She didn’t consider for a second the cleanup she’d have to do by tomorrow. Instead, her smile radiated. She whispered to the empty room, “I’ve become quite the good actress.”
She squinted at the road until the asphalt appeared to steam from the sunlight and flickering mirages danced before her eyes. Looking away, she blindly sought out the flimsy shade cord and shut herself in the dimness of the downstairs bedroom.
“What a way for another guy to make me wait for him,” she complained aloud, officially giving up on watching for his car. She hadn’t looked at the clock in a while but knew the digital display would only make her more anxious. Willing away her headache, she slid off the window sill and walked back into the hall. She sized up her artificial curls that were falling by the hour. Her makeup held well, at least, and the pink baby doll tee fit just as nicely as it always had. When she was satisfied her look was the perfect balance of wholesome and whoresome, she walked into the living room.
When the knock finally came at her door, she resisted the urge to run to open it. She forced her feet to move slowly and waited precious moments before she stopped at the front door. Looking through the peephole, she found a man on the other side, but it took a minute for her to recognize that man as Adam. Since the last time she’d seen him, he cleaned up surprisingly well. Stubble gone, his face was clean-shaven and his jaw line more prominent. His brown hair had been cut and brushed neatly. He wore a dark collared shirt that had been pressed and accented the natural color of his skin.
“It’s me,” Adam called through the door, as if she couldn’t see him. The sound of his voice snapped her out of her daze though, and she unbolted the locks.
“Hey, I was waiting for you,” she said with a careful smile as she opened the door. Adam actually looked taken aback to see her, but if he checked her out at all, he did it subtly.
Something drew her attention behind him and she spotted a black sedan, just in time to see it pulling away from the corner. Her driveway was empty, making it very clear that Adam had not driven here alone. She didn’t blame him for the safety precautions, but stashed the information in the back of her mind.
“How are you doing? Did you see a doctor? Please tell me you’re doing better,” Adam asked.
He shamelessly searched for the gash on her forehead, which had been red and raw the day earlier. She’d concealed it well with caked-on foundation and it appeared to be sufficient enough to satisfy his inquiry.
“Yea, yea, doctors. I’m feeling all right. Come in, please.”
His lips formed a thin line of disapproval but it disappeared when she waved him inside. He followed her into the dining room before turning his attention to the home. She anxiously waited as he took a cursory look around. She’d spent hours cleaning the place and moving furniture in and out until it looked like a home again. It only lacked personal touches, photos, and a true sense of being lived in. She hoped he would overlook the latter. Nineteen year olds were never known for their decorating skills.
“It’s nice,” he surmised lightly and it sounded like he’d given it as little thought as she hoped.
“We can sit in the living room,” she said and gestured to the other room. Of all of the rooms, it smelled the least of bleach and more of fresh air from the open windows.
“Do you have roommates?” he asked.
“Just me,” she said.
He made it into the living room and did another sweeping look. This time he made a face.
“This is huge for just you. I wish I had these digs in college. Do you own it?”
She laughed but her stomach did a somersault.
“I rent. I thought later I’d find a roommate but I haven’t been trying that hard,” she said.
He apparently bought it.
“I don’t blame you. I hate sharing a house.”
Once in the living room, he invited himself to sit down on the leather couch and stretched out. He seemed fairly relaxed with her, so she tried to follow suit. She circled to the fridge and fetched two cans of Coke.
“Would you like something to drink?” she offered.
“Please sit. I came to check on you, not for you to wait on me.”
She waved him down before he could get up from his seat. Sliding the cold cans onto the counter, she grabbed the phone from its cradle. Hitting the button, she listened for the dial tone.
“Well, I gotta order the pizza anyway. Preference on type? Place?”
“I like everything. Your choice,” he said.
“Papa John’s it is.”
She dialed from memory and pressed the phone to her ear. A medium pepperoni was always the go-to, but she honestly wasn’t even hungry. The cashier on the other end rattled off an estimated time and hung up. She replaced the phone in the cradle and readied herself for the inevitable.
“So, let’s talk,” she regarded him. Crossing into the living room, she handed him a can before settling into a rocking chair. Adam finally perked up and slid to the end of his seat.
“What do you want to know?” he asked cautiously in return.
“It’s so weird that I don’t even know what to ask you. I spent the whole time doubting what I saw, but every time I convinced myself that what I saw was the result of heat stroke or a concussion, it didn’t add up. I know I wouldn’t have survived that rockslide if not for a miracle. Or magic.”
“I was hoping you’d think it was just a concussion. That works on a lot of people,” he said.
“I guess I’m not ‘a lot of people.’ I want you to know, though, that I didn’t tell anyone what I saw.”
He met her eyes and nodded.
“Thank you,” he quipped.
She cracked open her soda and took a long sip while she formulated her thoughts. This conversation wasn’t going as easily as she’d hoped. She could see the tension in the muscle ticks of his neck and shoulders. If she could have found a way to make him feel more comfortable, she would have jumped on it. When she found no way out, she just dove in the only questions she could ask.
“How did you do it? How did you save us?”
“I used magic to shelter us, the same as Angie used to stop the boulder from crushing her.”
“So you’re both the same,” she gasped. Putting a hand to her forehead, she focused on the ground. “How come I’ve never heard of this before?”
“It’s not exactly something that’s common knowledge. My kind has been hunted and killed all throughout history. But unless we have that label affixed to us, it’s impossible to tell us apart from other people. We are normal with normal lives and only other mages can see through that.”
She looked up at him.
“So you’re a witch?”
He laughed dryly.
“No,” he said.
“No. No way. I am a mage. Angie is a mage. It’s a bit different, but please don’t picture the green woman over the smoking cauldron. I’m also not on the X-men team or anything of the sort.”
She smiled at him shyly. She was certain she saw a hint of pink in his cheeks now.
“Sorry. I’m still learning. What else can you do?”
Adam frowned momentarily, as if he reconsidered teaching her anything. If he had reservations, he finally gave them up.
“It’s hard to show really. We work within the power of our auras upon the world around us. I’ll spare you the long explanations though.”
Right when he finished speaking, she heard the fridge door open. Glasses rattled overhead. The candles in the corner flickered and reached all the way up to the ceiling. The potted plant in the corner sprouted flowers and died within the same second. Her head was whirling to keep up with it all. She let her jaw hit the floor.
“You’re a superhero,” she said.
This time she was certain his face lit up. He focused on his Coke now.
“I’m not. It’s useful but surprisingly less useful than you think it would be. Those are just parlor tricks. The hard things come with work and exercising your aura is like exercising any other muscle. Some are better athletes than others.”
“Well, I’m sure you’re one of the best,” she exclaimed.
Adam denied it with a shake of his head.
“You saved my life, Adam. I can never thank you enough for that.”
This clearly affected him.
“I’m glad I did, Adelaide. But I do have one thing to ask you for now. Angie babbled to my coven about what happened at the rock wall and now they’re concerned. They want to meet you and see that you are harmless.”
Before she could answer, a resounding knock came at the door and she could smell the pizza before she opened it. The sixteen-year-old driver did little more than pocket a twenty and thrust a hot box at her face before he was out in the driveway again. She swiveled and found Adam back in the dining room, but his attention wasn’t on her. He faced the back window and the weedy yard beyond it. His fingertips drifted out and brushed the thin curtains. Her heart skipped a beat.
“Is something wrong?” She cued.
“No,” he said, sounding uncertain. He strode across the room, his footsteps silent on the wooden floor, as he drifted back into the hall.
“What’s wrong?” she asked again. She was rapidly becoming desperate for an answer.
“Nothing,” he insisted.
As if in a rush to dismiss the weird behavior, he hurried to take the pizza from her. She followed him back into the kitchen where he’d already opened the box.
He plopped it down into the counter, and opened the nearest cabinets. She didn’t have many plates but he found them, setting them out on the counter.
“You said you didn’t care!”
He smiled again.
“I love everything. I eat pizza all the time. Have you ever heard of JoJo’s down on Market Street?” he asked. When she shook her head, he added, “We’ll have to go there when you meet my coven. Best in town, but, unfortunately, they don’t deliver.”
They returned to the couches once they had plated the pizza.
“That’s fine. When were you thinking?” she asked while picking off the crust.
“Tomorrow, if that’s okay. Sooner rather than later will help calm them down. I think if they meet you, they won’t be concerned either.”
“Okay,” she said. She watched her food but had yet to eat it.
“I’m sorry if I’m making you uncomfortable,” he finally acknowledged. “I thought it was going well until now. What got you? The coven thing?”
He seemed genuinely concerned so she was honest.
“What were you looking for just now? In the other room?”
“It’s hard to explain. I wish you didn’t ask…I just get a really bad feeling here. Not from you, but your entire place. I feel something foreboding…something dangerous coming, but I can’t pin what.”
Her heart pounded and she could hear the blood rushing in her ears. She curled her hands into fists on her lap, fighting to keep her face stoic.
“That’s creepy. Are you psychic too?”
“No,” he denied with a half chuckle. Despite his odd revelation, he seemed calm and interested in his food. She tried to mimic him.
“If you want to know, I’m not psychic but I do feel like I can get a good read on places. Even on people. You, for example, watch me an awful lot like you don’t trust me. I can feel your discomfort, your fear, even if it’s subtle. That’s not exactly the effect I want to have on humans who find out I’m a mage.”
She’d underestimated how sharp Adam would be, and it struck her hard now. While he read her correctly, he read her absolutely incorrectly as well. She moved to change the subject quickly.
“How do you like the pizza?” she asked.
“It’s good.” He polished off his plate with ease. She had a few bites before she gave up and set it down. His phone buzzed and he pulled it from his pocket. After glancing at the screen, he made a face.
“I’m sorry but I guess my ride is here. Adelaide, lunch tomorrow with my coven at one?”
“I hope they’re as nice as you,” she said.
“I’ll make them be nice to you. Don’t be nervous. I’ll pick you up tomorrow so you don’t have to drive.”
She beat him to the door and held it open. The black sedan waited at the curb. Adam hesitated beside her. Barely a foot away, she could actually feel the heat of his body. He leaned closer and she froze. But his lips only brushed her ear instead of her lips.
“I don’t mean to scare you, but please be careful, Adelaide. I hope I’m wrong about my feeling here.”
Before she could react, or remember how to breathe, he was already down the driveway. She closed the door to block her face from his sight, scared her expression might betray her secrets. What danger was Adam picking up on? Was he already, even subconsciously, onto her?
She couldn’t breathe. The lack of air woke her from a dead sleep, clawing at her throat. She finally gasped and got a solid gulp of oxygen. Red faced and wheezing, it took a few minutes to calm down. A thin layer of sleep left her mind hazy and her vision blurry, but she remembered the foreign house and the strange bedroom. She frantically pushed the sheets from her until they slipped to the floor. The air smelled fine now. Maybe the constriction in her throat had been a dream. She tried to convince herself of that as she was no stranger to night terrors, but something still irked her.
“Hello?” she humored herself with the question. No sound returned. “Anyone here?”
She rose from the bed carefully. Though this house was firmly rooted in the middle of suburbia, the streetlights were sparse and little outside light filtered through the windows. Feet touching the cold floor, she counted the steps until her outstretched fingers grazed the light switch. The room illuminated and revealed no one.
She walked into living room where cold pizza and dirty dishes waited. The lingering scent of bleach mixed with the pizza, but she didn’t smell anything else. She circulated the house and did a ten point inspection to find that nothing seemed out of place. She returned to the living room and dropped onto the leather couch. Her hand returned to her neck. She was certain she felt the singe of smoke in her throat.
She paced her breathing now. With her mind set so much on Adam, she was surprised that she had enough energy to dream at all.
“Adelaide. Come here, Adelaide.”
Adelaide froze. Her eyes snapped open and she coughed. If she’d imagine smoke before, it was real now and burned her lungs. The voice hadn’t been in her head, nor had the scent. She lunged to her feet and struggled to stay upright as she looked for the source of the voice.
The living room was empty so she rushed into the dining room. She saw the figure by the door and backpedaled, but the figure followed quicker than she could move. It stood in the living room with her in seconds. Adelaide’s back smacked against the wall and she went still. The light from the bedroom illuminated the figure and revealed a woman. At first look, she appeared short and thin. Curls of bleached blonde hair tumbled down into her face and her coat seemed to swallow her being. Closer inspection revealed glassy, pale skin that appeared to be tinted blue. The tattoo like brand on the back of her neck glowed red and had grown in size since the time Adelaide had last seen it.
“Shit,” Adelaide cursed.
Adelaide pressed back into the cement, as if she could distance herself more from the woman. The woman before her was the closest thing to a monster the world would ever know, and she looked barely over the age of twenty-four. The woman was a shade and greeted her with a smile.
“How did you find me?” Adelaide asked, cutting to the chase. She scoped out the exit compared to her position against the wall, but found no way out that wouldn’t leave her painfully vulnerable. The shade, named Mistel, clearly knew that. Her smile widened.
“You think I couldn’t sniff you out?” Mistel asked in turn.
Adelaide spoke after a beat.
“No, I don’t believe that you can.”
Mistel twitched, confirming that Adelaide was right.
“That masquerade doesn’t work so well when I already know who you are, what you look like, and your new human name. So I found you because of the landlord at your old place, the stewardess who sold your ticket, the cab driver who probably really misses all of his digits…” Mistel hissed, her words trailing off. Adelaide gagged in return, her mind flashing through all of the people that she met on the way to Denver.
“All that effort to find me? Almost like your new coven has little use for you…” she pointed out brazenly.
Mistel exploded and screamed. Adelaide clasped her hands over her ears but still lost her equilibrium. While Mistel’s scream was crippling, it was the explosion of aura magic that followed that was worse. It rushed through the air and felt like a wall of concrete upon impact. Adelaide yelped as a cold, prickling sensation snaked up her spine. The scent of bitter smoke thickened until it permeated every inch of the house.
Through the darkness now, Mistel looked different. Her pale, blue tinged skin seemed more prominently discolored and shattered, like broken glass. The pupils in her eyes dilated until they consumed the entire iris with deep black.
“Don’t taunt me, Adelaide,” Mistel whispered. “I will drag you back to my coven served on a bloody platter if I have to.”
Adelaide knew, without a doubt, that Mistel wasn’t lying. She stayed quiet until the shade calmed down. As if nothing had ever angered her in the first place, Mistel continued talking.
“I haven’t taken you yet because I think waiting for the best opportunity is worth it. Don’t misperceive my mercy thus far. I am not going to let you get away, and I’ll be extremely angry if I have to come find you again. Why did you run, Adelaide? Are you running away from me?” Calculation crossed Mistel’s face, and the shade blatantly sized her up.
“Stop it! You can’t touch me. I am being protected by the Hawthorn coven,” Adelaide said, the jumbled set of words escaping her. She regretted it immediately, but the atmosphere did shift. Mistel retreated a step back. It was shock, instead of anger, showing on her face.
“The Hawthorns are shades,” Mistel pointed out.
“They are powerful shades. In fact, they are one of the most powerful shade covens in the northwest!” Adelaide added on now, too late to stop this train. Her fingers unconsciously rose to clasp the egg shaped pendant around her neck, a gift from the Hawthorns, and she held it tight.
“I don’t believe you. Why would the Hawthorns protect you? Hawthorns don’t negotiate with mages,” Mistel spat.
Adelaide worked to sell it.
“I imagine they usually don’t, but I’ve made a deal with them. They are going to spare me, they are going to protect me, because I’m doing them a favor,” Adelaide explained.
“What? What are you doing for them?” Mistel’s questions sounded like accusations.
Adelaide paused. She never wanted to reveal this to anyone, much less Mistel. But if saying it stopped the shade from tearing her apart in the living room, she would do it.
“How long did it really take you to find me, Mistel?” Adelaide asked slowly.
Mistel’s eyes bored forward into the darkness.
“That’s it. I’m the one mage in the world that blends in with humans, right? It makes me an easy spy,” Adelaide added.
Mistel shook her head with her clear deliberation. Suddenly, she made eye contact.
“You know what’s funny? Funnier than the inane lie you are trying to sell me? I think it’s funny that the Hawthorns even know who you are.”
Mistel’s face lit up with the realization.
“So you can blend in perfectly as human. So much so that shades have never looked twice at you, which is why you’ve lived so long. Most shades would have torn you to pieces. Your safety was your anonymity, but it turns out, you’ve lost it. So who told your secret to the Hawthorns? How do they know who you are?”
It sounded less like a question and more like a taunt, but it was painfully true. Adelaide’s face grew hot and she officially lost her composure.
“I screwed up once or twice. I was just trying to look into magic. To find other people that could do what I could,” she admitted.
“But you had me,” Mistel whispered.
Adelaide was surprised by how much her eyes burned.
“I was looking for mages; I wasn’t looking for shades,” she said and it hurt her to say it. The shade in front of her hadn’t always been a monster. In life, she had been a mage once. In life, she had been Adelaide’s cousin. That was the reason Mistel always knew her secret and Adelaide always ran away from her. The woman today wasn’t her cousin anymore as far as Adelaide was concerned. She was just a monster and, if Adelaide waited long enough, Mistel would prove it. The shade was mercifully calm though, at the moment.
“Well, you did a great job of finding mages then,” Mistel said. The shade took to pacing. “So the Hawthorns have met you in person? They know who you are?”
Adelaide nodded. It was embarrassing, but a solid case of ‘had she’d known then what she knew now’ it wouldn’t have happened.
“They do, but they didn’t try to kill me. They will spare me and I will be doing better than I was before!”
Then Mistel snapped.
“You’re an idiot. Nothing will be better for you ever again!” she screamed.
Mistel crossed the room in seconds. Adelaide backpedaled, but she couldn’t escape her in time. The shade knocked her sideways, into the table. The wood collapsed under Adelaide’s weight and she hit the floor.
“Stop! Stop!” Adelaide held her hands before her face. She struggled to feel the magic within her chest, to conjure anything to help her survive, but she struggled. Mistel, on the other hand, did not.
“You’ve really fucked up, Adelaide. You could have pretended to be a human forever. Or you could have joined my coven and rejoined the only real family you have left in this world. But now you’ve put your head on the chopping block for the Hawthorns instead.”
Mistel’s words were harsh but the shade never attempted to strike out again. Adelaide stood on shaking knees and collected herself. The fall had hurt but her attempt to rapidly conjure magic hurt more. She focused on speaking over the pain.
“Not everything to do with other shades has to end badly. They promised me protection! I can do this task for them. It’ll be easy, and hell, Mistel, maybe if I curry favor with the Hawthorn coven then I can help you too. I know you’re not doing well at your coven now. They can help you.”
Mistel laughed bitterly. “I don’t need your help,” she hissed. Within seconds, she left Adelaide to stand there shaken and alone.
Minutes passed before Adelaide finally animated. She checked the doors and the windows. She double-checked that every bolt was in place and every exit was closed up. There was no telling when Mistel would come back, but she felt reasonably safe now. The shade had made numerous appearances in her life and had never done anything truly harmful.
By the time she returned to her bed, exhaustion overtook her. She didn’t remember falling asleep, but she woke to the sound of knocking. She heard it and ignored it until a voice followed.
“Adelaide, it’s me. Are you there?”
She suddenly perked up. The sound of the voice pierced the lingering haze in her mind. She sprung from the bed. Her body was sore from yesterday, but she still made a mad dash to the door. How long Adam had been waiting, she wasn’t sure. She passed the front window and saw the red Jeep still outside. She hurried to unbolt the locks and she threw the door open.
“Hi Adam,” she whimpered. She struggled not to sound as winded as she felt, but likely failed. Both of his eyebrows rose when he caught sight of her appearance.
“Sorry, I’m so sorry. I have no idea how I overslept.”
He kept watching her. She hadn’t checked a mirror, but knew that the last night couldn’t have been kind to her. Her makeup from yesterday awkwardly caked her face and her artificial curls had fallen into disarray.
“Um, you,” he stopped. His face had flushed.
“You’re welcome to sit, but I still need a little bit. Am I making you crazy late?”
She paused and tilted her head.
“Shit, I’m sorry,” she gasped when it hit her. She hadn’t changed from her sheer nightgown. The number might not have classified as lingerie, but she suddenly felt naked in it.
“Oh geez. I’ll be right back.” Feeling lightheaded, she was lucky she could conjure words at all. Hurrying to her bedroom, she left him on the porch. She shut her door and went straight into overdrive. Tearing clothes from the closet, she put together the first matching outfit she could find.
Adelaide slowed only to peer into the mirror. Her skin had held up well and she didn’t see any visible bruises from last night. She brushed out the last of the curls until her black hair fluffed around her shoulders and tried on the shiest smile she could manage. When she came back, Adam stood in the living room. His attention fixated on the kitchen.
“I’m sorry about the nightgown, I literally forgot I was wearing it,” she admitted. While she wasn’t above that brand of subtle flirtation, she hadn’t mentally prepared herself for it either. She didn’t control the situation.
“You should stop apologizing. Its fine,” he said, but sounded unsure. His cheeks still held a pink hue but he managed a straight face. When he sized her up this time, he seemed to relax.
“I came early,” he pointed out. “That’s my bad. We have to exchange numbers to stop the awkward house calls…”
This time she snagged a look at the clock in the corner. Its metal hands and painted numbers agreed.
“Good plan,” she said, feeling a little a bit better. While there was no reason to sleep so late, it wasn’t all her fault.
“Why did you come so early? Did your family move up the time?”
Adam became engrossed in the carpet for a few moments. The sounds of the outside world in the morning slipped in, even through the closed windows, allowing for a lull in the conversation that didn’t feel awkward. Children yelled somewhere down the street, cars rumbled by, and neighbors spoke loudly.
“I just wanted to make sure you were okay,” he said. “It’s been bugging me since last night. And my feeling around here hasn’t changed.”
She sobered at his evaluation. Maybe it was Mistel’s coming that Adam sensed. Maybe it was even something worse. She steeled herself with the reminder that she was still protected.
“I’m still in one piece. See, there’s nothing to worry about.”
Adam frowned but said nothing.
“If we’re going nowhere immediately, make yourself at home.”
He agreed and she remembered how to act normal. She remembered how to be human.