Chapter 1 Aloria
I nervously speed through the darkening copse of trees, my hands unexpectedly slick with sweat where they grip the sticky handlebars of my old bike. Even now, Mother’s incessant warning echoes in my skull. I could repeat her words in my sleep, but out here, alone, they unnervingly hold fresh power. “Aloria, you can’t let anyone find out about you. If she ever learns we survived, she will kill us all.”
She. The Dark Mage. The name Mother will never utter aloud in our home as if the very mention of her name could summon the evil queen from oversea. And perhaps it can. I’m uncertain how magic works because everyone refuses to teach me. All I know is it’s part of me. Part of my blood.
I shouldn’t have come to my woods today, not when my whereabouts could be compromised. But I had to. My high school health sciences teacher would call it an addiction, if he knew. This need. My gut tightens like a screwdriver winding my insides. The pressure will continue to build until I release this power in me—and there’s only one place I can do that. My secret woods. I just have to get there.
The old bike rattles its metallic death throes as I pedal harder, forcing the wheels over sticks, stones, and gnarled roots protruding after thousands of years of rain. Leaves and branches snag on my arms and hair as I sail past, but I don’t slow. With less than a mile to go, I stand and press my feet harder into the pedals. So close.
Even here, I’m haunted by a shadow. I could be fleeing in the dead of night or standing still in the center of an open field warmed by midday, but it still lingers. Wherever I turn, darkness is just outside my peripheral vision. I sense it now and I never have so close to my woods. I think I’ve been followed.
I should turn back. Not lead this shadow-being to my only sanctuary.
But the pressure of power building in my chest is too strong. I’ve waited too long to come here. I need this release.
I anxiously glance back through the dense forest so crammed with trees I can barely see through the pines and ancient oaks with massive rough trunks and sprawling limbs. Only dappled shade and sunbeams battle for residence behind me. My eyes tell me I’m alone, but my pounding heart warns me I’m still pursued.
I don’t slow my pace, not until the thick foliage grabs so ruthlessly at my tires and I’m forced to abandon the bike. Panic rises in my chest, but I slam it back down as I draw the wand from the inner pocket of my shirt. With a furtive glance around, I grow the bush thicker with leaves until the bike’s dull metal frame and wheels are concealed.
Running now, my feet are light as a deer’s as I skim through the tangle of undergrowth. Having grown this mess of ivy years ago, only I can navigate it so surely—but unfortunately not quietly. I run faster, harder, until my chest heaves with my need for oxygen. Almost there. The eager promise of freedom makes my legs move quicker when they want to slow.
This place is my secret alone. Not even Mother knows. She believes me to be at a pool party with Sierra and Jenna and the other Ordinary kids from school. She doesn’t understand what it’s like to be me, to be ever filled with this kind of power building red-hot in my core until I’m a volcano, spilling magic everywhere. I have to release this before I burn from within, and more often all the time. My heart thunders in my chest just thinking how hard it’s getting to conceal my abilities from the world. I don’t want to have to hide what I am. I just want to be known. Accepted.
I race deep into the forest until I’m so far from people I could shout for all I’m worth and no one would ever hear. My muscles tighten with anticipation, like a racehorse at a starting gate. As expected, the foliage parts to reveal the most alluring meadow.
Concern falls off me like a lizard shedding his skin.
I draw out the slender wand, excitement spreading throughout my whole body until I tingle from head to toe. And I hold back. I might be a volcano, but I will release it slowly, gently. A trickle of magic here, a little there. Nothing so great as when I created the glittering pond ahead of me.
Near the water, I allow my pace to slow so, for just a moment, I can savor nature’s beauty. My huge expanse of glassy water shimmers like diamonds under the sun as the light prepares to sink behind tall trees toward the far shore. My little black butterflies with glimmering blue wings dance around me before returning to their redbud trees. I breathe deeply, drinking in the fresh air as if I’ve never drawn a breath before this moment.
I created this place.
Instinct keeps me in the shadows as I circumnavigate the lake, carefully scanning the shadowy places beneath the madrones even though no one ever comes here except me. Forest animals move about, but no people. No threats.
Using a trickle of power, I let tendrils of magic untie my hair until it falls in long, light brown curls down my back. My skin tingles as I wave the ancient wand around my body and watch the skinny jeans and bubble gum tee shirt turn to a swirling mist around me before forming into a flowing white dress. I’m aware of the gown, with dozens of layers of organza, giving me the illusion of floating as I walk. My steps become hushed as my gray sneakers become thin, white dress-slippers. As my legs stretch, lengthen a few inches, my body relaxes as if my muscles are relieved not to have to cram into an Ordinary teenage body any longer.
The release of power is sweeter than drinking the purest, cool water on a hot day. Immediately, the heavy weight of secrecy lifts off my chest and I move lighter through the tall grasses and white flowers along the water’s edge. Joyous laughter bubbles up as I drink in this freedom.
As I walk toward my hideout, I transform the white flowers under my fingers to pink, leaving a distinctive trail behind me. I’ll turn them back before I go home.
From when I discovered my need to release this power at thirteen until now, four years later, this landscape’s changed a thousand times. But I always leave it in this exact picture—just in case anyone ever does find this place.
Walking in circles and spirals, I create patterns of pink in the long grasses and flowers. An exultant giggle escapes me. Chickadees and sparrows chirrup their congratulations on my designs as I pass by. Frogs croak and hop out of my way. Everything here is perfect.
I stop at the entrance to my dugout in the hillside, indistinguishable unless someone knows it’s there. Focusing my thoughts on the compact bushes, I begin to clear the camouflage from the opening.
A deep, sparkly cavern yawns before me, revealing hundreds of gems scattered across the floor and embedded in the walls. A dragon’s paradise, if dragons existed. But the gems are nothing to me—a decoration. It’s the lunky piece of carved-out wood I love. I’ve put more effort into crafting this one object than anything else I’ve dreamed up.
My canoe. It’s heavier than I’d like, but lighter versions have dumped me overboard and left me swimming to shore. On the very front, I’ve sculpted a slender fairy with wooden wings so thin they appear gauzy. I’ve had to repair them more than once when they’ve caught on a branch or two on my way down to the lake.
With a pang of remorse, I think of what it would be like to be normal, to experience actual loss when a favorite trinket breaks, or the joy of having someone else spontaneously replace it. I will never experience this. My best friend, Sierra, was crestfallen when she broke her mom’s favorite silver necklace last week, and it took all my willpower not to simply fix it for her and reveal what I am. Instead, Jenna bought her a new one. And Sierra loves her for it.
And I am outside, trapped in a prison of my own making—or my parents’ making. A prison of secrecy. I hide who and what I am, putting on an Ordinary mask to make people like me.
I shove the unwanted feelings aside. I escaped to this place to be free, not to be bogged down by my home life.
I return my gaze to the boat. Affectionately, I draw my hand along the side where I’ve etched details along every inch of the exterior with decorative vines and of stories of my life, some true, and some I’ve made up about my ancestors. Fighting dragons and saving warriors in distress, since mages are all female. How I wish I knew the actual stories.
My brother, Joashin, would love my canoe, if he could know about it. Except, he’d have me add boxes of fishing gear, poles, and what not. But it’s heavy enough as it is. As I haul the boat out, again one of the wings catches on a branch and snaps off. My wand is still in my right hand after clearing the bushes, so I don’t stop tugging the boat along as I think solid wings onto the figurine. The wooden fairy doesn’t complain about being made nearly unbreakable.
I’m panting hard and thirsty by the time I finally push the canoe into the water, ruing the fact I can’t simply levitate the heavy lug of a boat. I can only create. I feel a trickle of sweat run down my brow and cheek, and I brush it away along with a lock of hair obscuring my vision. I climb into the boat and, with a thought, I watch a glass of clear water form in the palm of my hand. Then I quickly drink, feeling the refreshment all the way down into my stomach. Just as quickly, I transform the empty glass into a leaf and watch as it floats down to the surface of the water.
By the time I shove away from the shore, the sun has left most of the lake in shadow. Better this way, since the sun exposes all secrets. I remember the unease I felt coming here, as if someone watches me with ill intent. Now, even the chill coming off the water feels malicious. But it’s not possible. Not here.
The repetition of my oar slicing into the water eventually begins to relax me. The pull against the finely hewn surface of my paddle. The flex of my muscles working. I could create a current beneath me and sit back, but I prefer enjoy the full experience like an Ordinary.
I stir up a breeze and let it tug at my curls and flutter the yards of my dress around me like wings. I’m a queen, or a regal bird. Little fish jump into the air beside my boat, trying to catch a glimpse of their creator. Sometimes my creations adore me, but I haven’t figured out why, or if I caused this somehow.
But I’m glad the little creatures like me. Fish intrigue me. Something about being able to breathe underwater. Being able to live in a world completely locked away from the world of humans. I’ve considered trying on gills and a tail, but I’m always afraid I’ll get stuck, not quite remember to put all my organs back in the right place. Adding fish parts to my body is a far cry from removing the Ordinary girl camouflage. Like peeling a banana rather than recreating parts used to keep me alive.
On the edge of the far shore, two white bunnies wait for me to reach them and disembark—more of my fans. Behind them, two deer watch me indifferently, tails twitching.
And behind them, I glimpse long white hair before it’s obscured by an oak.
Chittering birds fall silent.
Chills skitter up my spine. My palms grow sweaty and I immediately stop rowing.
Fog rolls in, cloaking me before I even realize I’ve summoned it. I feel eyes on me, from everywhere, like an actual presence lurking inches away in my mist. Nature has always been my protective barrier, shielding me from the eyes of the world. But, shrouded in the thickest mist of my own making, I realize it’s always been a false sense of security. How easy would it be for the Dark Mage’s powerful minions to follow me to my secret wood? I could lose this special place to discovery and have nowhere to safely release my power.
Panic crashes into me. I shouldn’t have come. I’ve pressed my luck returning so many times. All it would take is one spy watching me use my power and my family and me would spend the rest of our days fleeing for our lives.
What have I done?
Regretful, I quickly hide my wand back into the front pocket of my dress. An eerie silence falls over the lake. I tug at the water again, quickly rowing back the way I came, cringing at the too loud splash each time my paddle slaps the water. When I look back through the mist, forcing it to part a moment, I notice the bunnies are gone. See the deer bound away into the trees. Along the bank, my trail of pink flowers among the white are a shout in the silence to testify a greater mage was here, a creator mage no less.
My heart beats painfully fast in my chest and the mist instantly thickens. My blood rushes so loudly through my ears I no longer hear anything else as I skim across the water. The wet fog continues to form around me as if my fear still creates it. When I finally reach the edge of the lake, I’ve gripped the oars so hard it takes a moment to peel my stiff fingers away.
Suddenly the fog sinks, hovering only above the water. I stand, working up the courage to step out of the boat. If only I understood what my enemy can do! But no, Father refuses to tell me anything. My imagination has no limits to supply the holes with terrifying explanations. Haunting eyes materializing from a shadow that could suck the life from me. Or tear me apart. Or eat me. Or worse, take me to her.
My hands shake as I grip the wooden edge and step over. As my white slippers sink into the soft mud at lake’s edge, I emerge from the mist. I go still and scan the trees. Nothing crashes out of the forest to kill me. Yet.
I swallow hard and will my hands to stop shaking as I fix my hold on the edge of the boat. The canoe feels so much heavier than when I brought it down to the water. The cave feels even farther. And every step away from the mist leaves me more exposed.
My feet crash through the needle grass and mugwart. Branches grab at me, tearing pieces of my dress and leaving a short trail of white flags of surrender against the forest of green—as if even my clothes betray me to my enemy.
When the cave yawns before me, my relief is almost painful. Gasping great heaves of air, I struggle with the weight of the canoe until I finally pull its full length inside.
The cool damp air inside the cave immediately wraps around me. I quickly draw out the wand and concentrate my power on the young white alders until they are thick with leaves, enough to conceal the opening.
In the stillness, a pebble scrapes the floor behind me. My heart nearly stops.
I drop to my knees, hiding. My body hugs the side of the canoe, feeling the intricate carvings pressing into my arm. I listen, straining in the stillness.
Nervously licking my lips, I craft a ball of light and hastily toss it toward the back of the cave, already shrinking back from an unknown enemy about to be revealed.
Nothing but the shiny gems along the floor gleam back at me. No hungry eyes. No spies. Nothing I can see, at least. I breathe with careful relief, almost sure I’m alone. Almost.
I lift the wand and begin turning my hair, stature, shoes and clothes back to normal. It feels like a weight has been tied back onto my back once more, always reminding me I must pretend to be someone I’m not.
I pull back the dense foliage and hesitate at the opening of the cave, scanning the forest. It takes all my courage to step out into the open. I feel small, like an ant under a magnifying glass. My chest tightens and I feel tears gathering in the corners of my eyes. I can’t come here again.
I begin walking home, casting one sad goodbye glance at the lake now entirely cloaked in shade. I should turn the pink flowers back to white.
A thick shadow appears between the trees to my right, lurking just outside my peripheral vision. I quickly turn to look, but I see nothing except dappled shade.
My body stiffens with dread but I keep moving forward, willing myself to believe it’s not real. An odd chill brushes my right arm closest to the forest, as if summer is on my left and winter on my right. Emptiness slams inside my chest, and for a brief moment, I feel as empty as a lake turned to a dust bowl. As if my heart stopped beating. As if the world froze in its orbit. I quicken my pace as my head snaps right to look again.
The shadow moves out into plain sight, as real as the trees surrounding its darkness. The shadow turns toward me as if it has viscous arms and legs—and eyes watching my back as I flee.
I stumble and snap my gaze back to what’s directly in front of me. Tree limbs grab at me as I tear past, as if everything I’ve created has suddenly become my enemy. Everything wants to catch me for the Dark Mage. I feel strangely violated. No one was supposed to ever find me here. This was my one safe place so far from people, no one can sense my use of magic.
Tears blind me as I sprint like a gazelle fleeing a lion—only I’m not nearly as majestic. If it weren’t for the touch of magic that keeps flowing from me in my state of panic, the vines and bushes would’ve tripped me a hundred times by now.
The shadow’s grip on me fades and I breathe again, feel my chest expand within me. And I realize I forgot to change the flowers back to white.
In my frenzy to get home, I skid to a stop past my bicycle, dart back, and yank at the bike until the bushes finally release it. I slap my bag onto my back and stomp the pedals into motion. The wheels spin and spray an arc of loose dirt behind me before they catch. I risk a glance back, but as far as I can, tell nothing follows me.
If it does, I can’t lead it home. Should go to the pool party like I’m supposed to? It would be good for my cover. But do I risk leading the shadow to Sierra?
Unable to think of a better plan, I reluctantly decide to make for her house anyway. Guilt twists in my stomach. I’m a terrible friend.