By S. J. Drum
Urban Fantasy, 90,000 words
I hate this town, she thought, swiping a hand across her damp forehead.
Elaina Mathews sat alone in Dino’s Coffee Shop, nursing one of those five-dollar iced lattes that took longer to order than to drink. She pressed the cold plastic cup to her forehead and sighed. It was so damned hot. A few irritating strands of her hair had escaped its ponytail and were plastered to the back of her neck, sticky with sweat.
She folded the single-page map she’d been studying and shoved it into her damp back pocket. Elaina was granted two nights off per week, and tonight was one of them. Why does a chiropractor need a receptionist from 5 to 11 p.m. anyway? Because people in this town are strange, that’s why.
Uncomfortable and unused to making nice with the townspeople, she shifted position in her seat, fidgeting from the inevitable tightness of jeans on a too-hot summer day. She wondered again why she’d allowed curiosity to get the better of her. Why she couldn’t just pack her mother’s hand-drawn maps away and forget about them. She’d tried, but something kept pulling her thoughts back to the collection of maps. So, against her better judgment, Elaina had decided to go sightseeing.
A five-minute walk along the paved bike path behind Dino’s Coffee led her to the edge of a forest. She stood atop a long, winding stone staircase etched into the earth itself. The ancient-looking steps wound deep into the gorge of the Glenn Helen Nature Preserve. Rummaging through her mother’s bookshelves, Elaina had found hundreds of hand-drawn maps of the trails at Glenn Helen. She hadn’t known her mother to be much of a hiker, so the maps puzzled her.
Clumsy to the point of injury, she concentrated on taking each step one at a time, careful not to trip over the rough stones. A tumble down this particular staircase would probably gift her with a broken neck. After reaching the bottom—to her great relief—she crossed a questionable wooden bridge so battered and worn she feared it might collapse under her cheap tennis shoes and began rounding the base of a giant hill.
I can’t imagine Mom doing this. What the hell had her mother been thinking?
Sweat trickled a stream from the small of her back to the waist of her jeans. Again, she regretted her choice in clothing. Thick, confining jeans weren’t made for hiking in the summer.
Suddenly she was on her hands and knees in the middle of the dirt path. Her foot had twisted around a stone. “Shit!”
She stayed put for a moment, deciding if standing would require a limp. Nope, she was fine. Shaking her head, she sighed. Almost more embarrassing somehow to not have a serious injury. Leave it to her to find the one misplaced rock on the path and trip over it. To make matters worse, someone was laughing at her.
Rubbing the dirt from her knees, she begrudgingly rose to her feet. “What’re you doing up there? Collecting material? You a comedian?”
The laughing abruptly stopped. That was easy. She expected to be heckled for calling out the stranger’s rudeness. Squinting, she searched the trail for the person witnessing her humiliation with such relish. There. He sat, as if astride a great horse, on a huge gray boulder directly above her.
White-blond hair fell over his left shoulder, cascading nearly to his hip. He’d been eating a strange piece of fruit, something she didn’t recognize. The odd fruit was the size of a softball, red and shaped like a bleeding heart flower bloom. The skin, like that of a banana, he held peeled back between two fingers. He sat motionless, silent, while red juice trickled down his arm.
She worked her eyes up the length of him, slowly taking in his odd clothes and winter-sky blue eyes. The sunbeams seemed to focus on him, seeking him out through the leafy canopy much like a spotlight. His unfashionably long, white linen vest—as if any vest could be fashionable to begin with—and the matching loose-fitted pants only served to increase the other-worldly glow of sunshine around him. She started to speak but couldn’t find her voice. Finally, she cleared her throat. “Er… Hello.”
The man cocked his head to one side and stared, saying nothing.
“Sorry. About yelling at you, I mean. I hate falling in front of an audience.”
Especially handsome strangers currently staring in some very naughty fantasies.
He pushed off his perch with one hand, sending him in a freefall toward the ground below.
“No! Don’t!” What the hell was this guy thinking?
She gasped. He’d surely be injured, if not mortally wounded, from the fall. But before her heart had a chance to skip a beat, he stood directly in front of her, bare-chested steel strength apparent through the flowing linen garment.
He studied her, pressing his lips together in a tight line before speaking. “I am Ellis. Son of Enon. Brother of Eris.” His voice rolled a sensual caress over her shoulders and down to her fingertips.
“Okay. Should I tell you who I’m related to?” she asked, taking a nervous step backwards.
“If you wish. I’ll admit I’m curious, I’ve never met a human who can see me. My apologies.” The beautiful man executed a low, sweeping bow. “I never would have been so crass with my laughter had I any idea you would hear.”
Human? What the hell did that mean? He had to be kidding. If he wasn’t…Well, he was insane. Maybe she was stereotyping, but the guy was too damn attractive to be insane. It just wouldn’t be fair.
“So you only laugh at injured women behind their backs? Haven’t you ever heard of a damsel in distress?”
Ellis cocked his head to the side, one corner of his mouth turning up in a smile. “If I were responsible for rescuing all fallen maidens in my forest, I’d scarcely have time for anything else.”
Good looks could often make up for an incredible lack of other personal qualities, but Mr. Tall, Odd, and Handsome wasn’t getting anywhere with Elaina. It didn’t matter how nice he acted or how tight his abs were packed, she still thought it a bad idea to indulge this particular curiosity. Part of it was the realization that she was standing, alone, in the middle of nowhere with a strange male who could drag her off to his lair without anyone hearing her scream.
“Right. Well, I should be getting back. I’m meeting someone.” It was a lie, but something told her that pointing out she’d be missed was the smart thing to do in this situation. Even as she realized nobody, save her boss, would have a reason to acknowledge her sudden disappearance.
“I’d like to see you again,” Ellis said, his brows slanted as though the idea of this confused him.
Despite the sex appeal, Elaina was certain that running into this man again was not a good idea. “I don’t think I’m your type. But it was…nice to meet you.” Although “nice” probably wasn’t the right word for a stranger who laughs at you when you stumble over jagged rocks.
Ellis’s icy blue eyes took on an eerie glow. That can’t be right, Elaina reminded herself, blinking a couple of extra times. A man’s eyes just don’t glow. He seemed to be trying his best to stare through her as she took a few steps backward, away from him.
Finally, after the longest fifteen seconds of her life, he bowed his head and smiled. “I suspect you will change your mind. In the meantime, if you’re to keep your…meeting, which I assume is in town and, in fact, not deeper within these woods, it would be beneficial for you to head that way.” Ellis pointed in the direction she’d come from, opposition from where she was backing down the trail.
Her cheeks heated with a blush she regretted but was unable to stop. Eventually, she managed a nod and started forward. The only problem with this solution was she’d have to squeeze past him on her way out, and he wasn’t stepping off his claim of the trail that was barely wide enough for one person. She contemplated going out and around him, walking off the path and through overgrown weeds and God-only-knows what else. In the few seconds she had to decide, she found she’d rather not look like a cowering idiot and instead, hold her ground.
If Elaina had known this moment would change her life forever, she may well have braved the possibility of ticks and poison ivy over losing a bit of her dignity.
As Elaina neared Ellis, she could swear the air was charged with electricity, a palpable sway of push-and-pull between them. Holding her breath, she quickly brushed past him. Just as she prepared to exhale a sigh of relief, she felt the lightest of touches on her shoulder.
She jumped, her defenses behaving as though he’d gripped her in a vise bent on crushing bone, even though the contact was barely more than the flutter of a dragonfly wing. With her runaway heart in her throat, she stared up at him with gold-green eyes from under her thick dark lashes.
Ellis leaned down from his considerable height, as though moving for a kiss. She should have slapped him, this stranger who spoke of Humans as if he wasn’t one. She should have told him to back off, anything to keep him from bringing that sensuous mouth closer to hers. Standing still, waiting, lips parted, hoping for a kiss…absolute insanity. Yet she was paralyzed, held captive by the fear and lust punching it out with the butterflies in her stomach.
He bent forward until his lips brushed her ear. Before speaking, he drew in an audible breath, as if he liked the scent of her. No man had ever done something so base, so primal, to Elaina. The action paralyzed her, left her waiting to see what he’d do next. Instead of nuzzling her neck, or tilting his head for a kiss, he whispered against her skin, “So you may find your way back to me.”
He slid his hand down the length of her arm and briefly caressed the inside of her wrist, his thumb moving in a small circle.
Then he was gone. Just gone. Not as in “walked away” but “vanished”.
Ellis stood at the boundary between the Elvin Kingdom of Yellow Springs and the human world. Staring at the doorway that would take him home to his clan, he closed his eyes and focused on calming his thoughts. He could still smell the citrus and honey fragrance of Elaina’s hair. He fairly shook with the need to go back, track her down and kiss her senseless. But surely the odd human would have been offended if he had taken the liberty. Or maybe not… He shook his head, attempting to calm his thoughts.
Camilla, his former lover, was one of the few Solar elves with the power to read minds. He wasn’t ready to reveal Elaina to his clan yet, which meant keeping his thoughts concealed from prying minds. He was fortunate that he had decades of practice at keeping secrets, especially from the vile likes of Camilla.
Hidden to all but the clan, the Solar Elf portal appeared as a tall wooden door with a rounded top and a heavy brass handle set inside an enormous Elemental Fire-Oak tree. Gears of bronze and gold twisted over the surface of the door in perpetual motion to maintain the level of magic needed to operate the portal.
With his thoughts forcefully sequestered, Ellis stepped through the portal. Not that he intended to hide Elaina’s existence. Not forever, anyway. But he needed to figure out the why and how of her ability to see through his glamour before alerting the clan. Caution is always best when dealing with the unknown.
The sky was just yawning with dusk when Elaina stepped inside her parents’ house. Well, it was her house from here on out. She was still having trouble getting used to that. She tossed her worn-out canvas bag on the faded brown sofa and knelt down to untie her shoes. Where her parents had found a matching set of brown furniture with a pattern of water mills and old cottages, she couldn’t even begin to guess.
Giving her shoes a haphazard kick to the side, she headed for the kitchen. “Here, kitty kitty. Virginia…where are you?” she called in a sing-song voice. The plump calico was yet another piece to the puzzle of her inheritance. Her mother loved that cat. The evidence of it was proudly displayed in fifty percent of the framed pictures that littered the house’s walls and table tops. Half Virginia the cat, half family and scenery.
With the cat nowhere in sight, Elaina pulled a can of food from the cupboard and rummaged a drawer for the can opener. As soon as the puncture wound from the opener caused the pop-n-hiss of the smelly tin, a set of fluffy paws made an appearance on the counter.
Something about Elaina’s parents being gone made her take a special interest in the cat. She needed to set eyes and hands on Virginia every time she came through the door before allowing herself to unwind.
“I’m gonna put a bell on you. That way, I’ll always know where you are,” she told Virginia, running her fingers through the soft multi-colored fur. “Now where do you keep finding this stuff?” Elaina pulled her hand away from Virginia’s coat to find a fine sheen of iridescent powder stuck to her palm.
This cat must have a secret supply somewhere. Maybe a bottle rolled under something and lost its cap. She decided to add searching for the source of mystery powder to the top of her to-do list. Inevitably she would find dustings and trails of the stuff throughout the house. Just this morning she dust-bustered a pretty patch on the bathroom counter and one on top of the TV.
With the cat accounted for, Elaina traipsed through the house to the library, though it wasn’t much of a library at all. Probably once a bedroom, the library was no more than a small room with worn wooden floors and floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves. Her mother’s ornately carved wooden chair and scuffed-and-nicked handmade desk were the only pieces of furniture.
She tossed a bundle of unopened bills on the desk and pulled the worse-for-the-wear map of the Glen Helen Nature Trails out of her now stiff back pocket. Fitting a knuckle between Tim Winton’s Dirt Music and Jimmy Buffet’s A Pirate Looks at Fifty, she slid the map back in its hiding place on the shelf.
Why would my mother painstakingly draw this collection of maps and then scattered them between the hundreds of books in the library? Elaina also wasn’t sure why she felt the need to put the map right back where she found it. She thought about rounding them all up and putting them in a file or box, but it seemed wrong to disrupt her mother’s method. Even if it was madness.
Taking a slow turn around the small room, she contemplated which map she should follow next.
“Ouch!” Elaina rubbed her wrist and brought it to eye-level for inspection. A burn mark? How the hell… “So that you may find me.” The handsome stranger’s words echoed through the library, or maybe just in her mind. She was too shocked to figure it out. Right where Ellis had placed his thumb, there appeared to be a simple tree with a circle around it. Tiny, about an inch in either direction, Elaina’s wrist had been…branded. No other description would do. The raised red lines couldn’t be denied, but damned if she wouldn’t try.
Dropping into the carved wooden chair, she held her wrist across her chest, clutching at herself to hold in the panic. “What the hell is going on?” she asked the empty space. “I’m losing my mind.”
The encounter with Mr. Tall, Blond, and Rude had been on her mind all evening. She’d finally convinced herself it wasn’t as strange as she’d imagined. Now, looking down at her scarred wrist, she wasn’t sure what to believe.
“Poison Ivy. That’s it. I’m just seeing things. That’s all there is to it. No tree, no circle, no burn. Just a bit of poison ivy.” Nodding to herself, she went to the medicine cabinet in the hall bathroom and slathered her wrist with Neosporin and the biggest Band-Aid she could find. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, things would be back to normal. She’d go to bed tonight and wake up tomorrow to a normal life.
Eyes still heavy with sleep, Elaina struggled with the can of Folgers. The stupid container refused to give up the goods. The pull tab on the aluminum seal at the opening of the new tub tore away, leaving her to pinch at the edge with too-short finger nails.
“Fuck it,” she mumbled to herself in her raspy morning voice. Leaning to the right, she grabbed a butcher’s knife out of the wooden block it called home and jabbed the blade through the seal with a satisfying, if not excessive, bit of force. The scent of fresh coffee grounds drifted to her nose. She took a long deep drag of the intoxicating scent, instantly relaxing. Now she could start her day. She still wasn’t used to living in her parents’ old home and she could use all the help she get, including—but not limited to—and excellent fresh cup of coffee.
Three years ago, Elaina’s parents moved to Yellow Springs, an artsy town of little note except for the vast Nature Reserve perched at its backdoor and the college that swelled the town’s population every fall. Most people she knew retired to Florida or the like. But her parents, they moved here. Two months ago, a wet-behind-the-ears teenager ran a red light. A boy made one mistake and her parents were gone forever. The boy lived. He was extremely sorry for what he’d done, she knew. He’d told her, repeatedly.
Two months ago, she’d been happy in her familiar southern world of Hilton Head. With a beach, handsome men who bathed regularly, and a veterinarian in need of an assistant, Hilton Head had had everything she needed, and everything Yellow Springs lacked. She’d even rented a lovely post-divorce apartment there until she’d guilted herself into moving to Yellow Springs to care for her parents’ house. Her parents had requested, in the event of their deaths, that the home not be sold for at least two years.
Now, instead of a sunny beach and a job she liked, she had mysterious maps and an overweight nuisance of a cat. Only twenty-two months to go.
Hidden deep within the Glen Helen Nature Preserve, inside the Kingdom of the Elves, Ellis paced in front of his door. He’d made it through the night without a single question from his brother. A miracle, but he still couldn’t relax.
With his mark activated on Elaina’s wrist, he felt the pulse of magic connecting them, tugging at him, alerting him to her location. If she found her way back into the forest, she’d be drawn to him by the same force. Unfortunately, proximity wasn’t an issue on his side of the spell; he’d feel the pull no matter the distance between them. He should have considered that before branding her with his magic. If he thought resisting touching her was hard before, now that she carried his mark it would be torturous.
He could go to her, technically it was an option. He wanted to go to her. The problem being she was no doubt well beyond the limits of the Nature Preserve and Solar Elves didn’t often travel beyond the forest, with the exception of the soldiers. The sights, sounds and social oddities of the human realm changed so frequently that Ellis hadn’t bothered to keep up to date. Interaction with humans was much more of a Zentry pastime.
Ellis hated the Zentry with a fervor that walked the thin line between madness and passion. There had only been one elf of his rival clan worth the air they breathed. He swallowed a lump in his throat, the same one who always crept up when he thought of her. But it didn’t matter. She was dead and they had killed her. And he would never forgive them. Any of them.
The Zentry are the darkness to the Solar Elves’ light. The Zentry, also Elvin in nature, dallied in the human realm regularly. They have to. Their magic, their lives, depend on it. They draw their power by siphoning negative emotions from the humans. Some mistake their sub-species for succubae and incubi, but they’re not quite the same.
Succubae and Incubi are demonic by birth. Zentry, genetically speaking, are not. Though some of them strive to get as close to becoming a demon as is possible for a mortal being. While the Zentry can live off of existing excess emotions most aren’t content with it. The more powerful the emotion, the more powerful their magic becomes. In essence, the bigger the hit, the bigger the score. Many of them, if not all, create turmoil for their human subjects. Turning bad situations into terrible ones, small fights into apocalyptic meltdowns.
A certain amount of siphoning is actually therapeutic for humans. The Zentry have the ability to take the edge off of their fear, anger or sadness, leaving the human able to operate with a clear mind. Once upon a time, the Zentry did this and only this. They were healers, sought out and worshipped as noble forest spirits. Generations of corruption and greed within their ranks led them to where they are today. Unknown enemies of all that is human. With only the Solar Elves to stand in their way.
Elaina opened all the windows, letting the humid summer air breeze past the curtains. She picked up her IPod and then tossed it onto her rumpled bed with a flick of her wrist. She could have plugged it into the dock but that required her to decide what she would listen to and the fewer decisions she had to make today, the better.
Flipping on the stereo, she hit the scan button and walked away, leaving it up to the radio Gods. Staring into her closet, wondering what to wear on her last day off this week, she sighed and scratched at the bandage on her wrist. The radio caught a country station and “Boondocks” by Little Big Town started pouring through the speakers.
She grabbed her most comfortable pair of cut-offs and shimmied into them, hoping they’d still button. At a size 8, she wasn’t fat but had always been aware of the fact she could stand to lose ten or fifteen pounds. Twenty, according to her ex-husband.
With only mismatched loner socks in her drawer, she settled for two of similar shape and thickness. One gray and one pink, but no one would see them anyway and she probably wouldn’t care if they did. Broken-in cowboy boots and a green tank top, to set-off her currently red hair, completed the outfit.
She strolled towards the library thinking if she wanted to fit-in in Yellow Springs, she should at least pick up a few tie-dyed t-shirts. Maybe one of those scratchy wool ponchos everyone seemed so fond of, even though it’d been a steady 90 degrees for a month. She had to draw the line at dread-locks though. She enjoyed running a comb through her ever-changing hair.
“What the hell! Virginia! Did you do this?”
That damn cat. The library was a mess. Some of Elaina’s mother’s hand drawn maps had been pulled from their homes between books and the peculiar glitter was everywhere. How did that stupid cat manage this?
“I’m taking you to get declawed! Do you hear me? Now, where are you hiding the glitter you little villain!”
She stomped through the house, pushing chairs and tables aside, convinced a secret stash of the sparkly menace must be hidden somewhere but ultimately finding nothing.
Defeated, she scooped up the dust buster and charged into the library, grumbling about the mess but still resigned to the clean-up. Cleaning this mess of epic proportions grew more infuriating by the fact that Virginia was now sitting serenely under the desk, staring at her and purring. Purring! The nerve!
After the adventure of dust-busting came to an end, Elaina gathered the maps and stacked them on the old wooden desk. Plucking one from the top of the stack, she shoved it inside her canvas messenger bag along with a bottle of water and a few other essentials. After switching the stereo off, she swiped her keys from the kitchen counter and headed out.
Ellis could not keep the human woman off his mind. Inevitably, his thoughts would turn to her at every available pause. His obsession with her was strange because Elaina wasn’t classically pretty, with red hair that was obviously chemically induced and strange gold-green eyes. She wasn’t as tall or as thin as the Solar Elf females. Still, there was something to be said for a woman with wit and spirit. Deciding he couldn’t wait any longer, he sought out his most trusted friend, Emile. Emile, one of the Clan’s soldiers, was his best bet at getting the information—and discretion—he required.
“Ellis, friend, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
Emile swung the elaborately carved door to his stone cottage wide, inviting Ellis inside with a grand but mocking sweep of his arm.
“Working today, Emile?” Ellis asked, noticing Emile’s human attire.
The soldiers, to blend in, wore whatever style of clothing was popular at the time in the human world. Today Emile wore jeans that appeared worn and dirty, even though they were clean and new, heavy leather work boots and a steal colored t-shirt depicting something called “The Grateful Dead”. A thick leather cuff on his wrist and a ring in his inquisitively arched eyebrow completed the look. And totally baffled Ellis.
At 6’3”, lean muscled with the white blond hair and ice blue eyes of pure Solar Elves, Emile still managed to look handsome, even wearing the strange human garb. Ellis wondered if the same would apply to him. It had been many years since he had worried over his appearance or become nervous at the thought of a woman receiving or rejecting him, his pulse sped with the possibilities.
“I need your help with a small project,” he told Emile.
Narrowing his eyes, his friend replied, “Do tell. What is this project you speak of?”
“A mere curiosity. I’ve been thinking of going beyond the forest, into the town. I have not mingled among the humans in many years, as you well know. I seek to re-educate myself.”
Emile let out a booming laugh. “You might have said anything to me, my friend, but wishing to ‘mingle’ with humans was certainly a surprise.”
Ellis clenched his jaw and begged for patience. A bit of humiliation was a small price to pay to see Elaina again.
“I thought perhaps you could lend me one of your costumes. Tell me where I might station myself for adequate observation.”
Emile slapped Ellis on the back, pushing him farther into the cottage with a blinding smile burning his lips. “Come. Let us see what we can find.”
Elaina took a deep breath and pushed open the door of a store that her mother had ranted about being her favorite in the small town of Yellow Springs. “House of Hallow-wood”, tarot, crystals, stones, metaphysical tools, gifts. Oh mom, what were you thinking? The sound of the bell on the door jingled her nerves as she proceeded forward, determined to start trying to give this town a chance.
Tables piled high with colorful rocks and gemstones crowded the center spaces of the small two-room shop. Tiny fairy figurines clung to the walls and ceiling as though the building were infested with magical creatures like a dank apartment complex might be infested with cockroaches.
“Welcome to Hallow-wood,” said the woman behind the counter. “Is there anything I can help you with?”
She was tall, much taller than Elaina’s 5’8”. Long unruly burgundy hair hung to her waist and as Elaina met her eyes she had a moment to think that they didn’t match the body. Deep blue weathered orbs, an old tried-and-tested soul stared out at her from within the woman’s thirty year old shell.
“I… I’m sorry.” Elaina wiped a hand over her clammy brow and tried to blink away the strange sensation. “I’m not sure what I’m looking for. My mother, Claire Mathews, told me this was one of her favorite places. I guess I just wanted to see for myself.”
The owner’s smile slowly crept up until her bizarre eyes shown with it. “Ah. My name’s Raven, I knew Claire well. I’ve been waiting for you. She had something on order for you before the accident. Let me just grab it from the back.”
Elaina’s breath caught at the thought of a gift from her mother that never had the chance to be given. Why hadn’t the woman mailed the package? She’d been waiting for her? It’d been two months! Two months Elaina could have had this last gift from her mother.
Saddling back up to the glass counter, Raven gently laid a necklace before Elaina. It was nothing more than a long leather chain with a pretty black, red and white rock attached at the end. She hoped her mother hadn’t paid too much for it.
“This is a Jasper Amulet. Wear it over your heart. Always. It will stabilize your personal energy and help maintain your aura during astral travel. It will also help you with relaxation, contentment and enhance your courage for the conflicts ahead.”
“Astral travel? Well… I don’t think I’ll be doing much of that.” Elaina laughed, shaking her head while Raven stood stock-still, offering the Amulet on a black velvet pouch.
Eventually pulling the necklace over her head, Elaina felt the amulet heat in her hand as it touched her skin. Curious.
“Well, thank y—“ Elaina leaned over the counter, squinting her eyes at the woman’s shoulder. No way. “Is that glitter? It looks just like the stuff I keep finding in my house. Where did it come from?”
She was sure it hadn’t been on Raven before she went into the back of the store to fetch the necklace. She started to reach for the sparkly dust when Raven snatched Elaina’s hand from the air between them and turned her wrist so the poison ivy was facing up. Elaina still wore the Band-Aid but the woman seemed to be looking past it. Suddenly, with a hiss, she released Elaina and backed up.
“Take care of yourself, Elaina. Keep the amulet touching your skin at all times.”
With that, Raven disappeared into the back, leaving Elaina totally befuddled. I live in a crazy town. Cra-Zy Town.
“I look ridiculous,” Ellis grumbled, tugging at the hem of the borrowed t-shirt that Emile had insisted he not tuck-in.
Leading them onto Main Street, Emile clapped him on the back, shaking his head with a wry smile.
“What is a ‘Weezer’ and why am I wearing its name on my shirt?”
“First of all, Weezer is the name of a band. And you’re wearing it because these people love art and music more than just about anything else. Besides, I thought we decided the black t-shirt was preferable to the tie-dyed one. We could always go back and change,” Emile said, pausing in invitation, his eyes twinkling with mischief.
“Gods, no. I can’t imagine how that multi-colored monstrosity would help me to blend in.”
“Just wait,” Emile said with a wink. “Now, I’m going to introduce you to a little thing called Classic Rock. It’s the best of what modern music has to offer, in my humble opinion.”
Ellis nodded but had to force his feet in the direction Emile was taking them. He could feel that Elaina was close, within the town and in the opposite direction in which the two men were headed. Emile handed Ellis a small rectangular piece of metal with two long cords attached.
“This is an IPod. It’s ridiculously expensive in the human realm and everyone has one.”
Ellis frowned his confusion until Emile added, “It’s an audio listening device. It holds music. You put these pieces inside your ears and use this dial to select songs.”
The two men stopped on the cracked sidewalk while Emile equipped Ellis with the ear buds, which weren’t as uncomfortable as they looked, and pressed a few times on the front of the IPod. Sound blared and Ellis jumped, ripping the cord from its metal counterpart.
“What was that?! Are you trying to render me deaf?”
“Sorry. Sorry. That was the Beastie Boys. You’re not ready for that yet. Let me find you something a little more… mellow.”
“I doubt I’ll ever be ready for that. It was nothing but a horrible screeching sound. If I want to hear someone yelling, I’ll simply hang around you and one of your women the morning after you’ve bedded them.”
Emile, good natured as always, laughed. Ellis knew his friend tended to “love them and leave them”, as the humans say. After Ellis settled the ear buds back into place, Emile started the player.
“This is The Beatles, Imagine.” Emile said as they continued on their way.
Walking into Superfly Comics, Emile approached the counter. As he began speaking to the attendant about some sort of “file” he maintained there needing to be emptied, Ellis browsed the collection of what Emile told him were “comic books”.
Many of the picture stories contained caped men and masked women. Some even contained vampires but he found none that showcased Elves. He wasn’t sure why, but he found that truly insulting.
Straightening his shoulders, with pursed lips, he grabbed one of the offending copies and headed to the counter. Slapping it down in front of Emile, he protested.
“What is this? This woman is clearly supposed to be a vampire slayer yet she is seen here kissing one. It makes no sense.”
“First of all, this comic is based on a book, which I own and I will loan you because it’s fantastic. Second, the woman, and the men, within these drawings are hot so it gives you reason to forgive a bit of plotting.”
Ellis’s brows pinched, wondering how temperature could possibly have anything to do with forgiving a conflicting plot line.
Coughing as if to cover a laugh, Emile asked the clerk, “Has the new Hollows Comic come in yet?”
On the edge of the Glen Helen Nature Preserve, Elaina pressed the map flat against a worn wooden railing, smoothing the paper’s creased edges with her palms. After studying the route for a moment under the baking sun, she tucked the map into her pocket and started forward.
Today, she bypassed the old treacherous stone staircase. Instead of taking the stairs straight down, she walked a winding trail of dirt and rock around the Frank Lloyd Wright inspired Nature Center building, built directly within the side of a large hill.
Swerving back and forth down the miniature mountain, a path with a gentle slope, took three times as long as the stone steps did to get to the bottom. But, this was the trail outlined on her current map. Following her mother’s directions, Elaina turned left at the bottom and walked until she found a large tree, a good 2 ft in diameter, lying across the gushing river. The end closest to her was perched precariously on the jagged rock edging of a short cliff. The opposite end angled down gradually to the packed dirt on the River’s opposing edge.
When her map indicated to cross the river at this point Elaina had assumed there would be a bridge. Well, a real bridge, anyway. She eyed the seemingly naturally fallen tree with her lips pressed into a tight line. Pulling her bottom lip between her teeth for a bit of nervous chewing, she thought of seeking out a bridge made of concrete, treated wood and steal bolts. She knew the point of trekking this forest wasn’t for her to be comfortable, rather to follow the trails her mother had drawn and see if she could figure out what the hell it was all about.
After confirming her shoes were tied and canvas bag secured, she inched out onto the ancient tree.
Three quarters of the way across Elaina slipped on the moss covered bark, landing spread eagle with her legs grasping either side of the trunk. She squeezed her thighs together, thanking the universe for not making her a male, which would have required surgery after such an event. Refusing to stand up, she shimmied the rest of the way across, letting the bark abrade and score the delicate skin of her inner legs and hands.
Finally safe on the other side of the river, Elaina stepped along the roughly hewn path laid out before her. She had been walking deeper into the forest for close to an hour when her wrist started to tingle. She rubbed at it, staring at her arm while she removed the bandage like she expected to find something new once her skin was visible.
“Poison Ivy,” she reminded herself, working the adhesive loose.
Suddenly a low growl filled the space in front of her. She choked back a gasp and looked up to find two glowing frost blue eyes staring back at her from the face of a large black dog. Pausing, she tried to slow her breathing, knowing if she panicked it would only encourage the beast to attack. The dog took a step closer and Elaina felt the amulet around her neck warm slightly.
“Stop,” she said in a voice she didn’t recognize. The command escaped her lips in layers upon layers of sound and appeared to still everything close to her in the forest. The same feeling ignited in her core that always caught fire while she was sparring with opponents on the mat, unleashing a surprising power through her voice.
What the hell was that?
The dog stood motionless, the menace in his eyes toned down quite a bit.
The huge animal sat back on his haunches and tilted his head as if trying to figure her out. At the sound of her words the forest seemed to release the breath it’d been holding. The leaves swayed with the breeze once more and the chatter of woodland creatures resumed.
Something inside Elaina told her the dog meant no harm as she stepped forward. She held her hand out, a gesture of trust. The animal whined and sniffed her wrist before settling down on his stomach, resting his huge head on oversized paws.
Elaina dropped to her knees next to the giant dog and petted him, scratching a bit behind his ears.
“Why did you growl at me?”
The dog snuffled and crinkled his nose, the canine equivalent of shrugged shoulders.
“The scout didn’t want you going any farther on this trail,” a soothing male voice said from behind her.
Elaina jumped with a very un-grownup “meep” sound squeaking from her lips. Turning to meet who she suspected to be Ellis, she looked up and up until meeting his eyes. Eyes the same eerie shade of the dog’s. How the hell had he gotten so close to her without making a sound?
She swatted his calf as she climbed to her feet. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to sneak up on people?” God, I hope he didn’t see me pull that Jedi mind-trick on the dog. Something tells me that’s a skill best kept secret.
“I did not sneak. You were merely not paying attention.”
Elaina narrowed her eyes, taking him in from head to toe and back again.
“What happened to your pajamas?” She asked, waving at his jeans and t-shirt. “Not that I’m complaining.”
“Yeah, you know. The white flowing mess you were wearing out here yesterday.”
“Those are not pajamas,” he said with indignation. “Those are the customary robes of the Solar Elves.”
Elaina snickered. “Elves? Oh, please tell me you’re part of one of those lame live action role playing groups that meet in the park to parry with cardboard swords. Although I have to admit I’ve never met a Cosplay nerd quite as attractive as you.”
Ellis simply stared at her like she’d lost her mind.
“A costume?” She asked. “Is that what you’re saying? Because I hate to break it to you, but there are no such things as Elves. At the risk of rocking your world, I’ve gotta tell you Santa and the Easter Bunny aren’t real either,” Elaina teased.
He continued to frown and a line formed between his brows while he studied her like an interesting insect. Elaina wiped her hands over her face. Oh just my luck. The one gorgeous guy in this town is insane.
“Ellis, she does not believe in our kind.”
Elaina searched for the voice and found a man who looked too much like Ellis to be unrelated, sitting on a tree branch high above her head.
“Jesus! Ellis, are you multiplying?” She quipped, looking up at the stranger, then down at Ellis and back again. “I know I haven’t gotten you wet. Have you eaten after midnight?”
Emile’s laughter consumed her for a moment with its rich lyrical quality.
Ellis shuffled his feet in a nervous gesture totally at odds with his broad, squared shoulders and high-held chin. As if he had no idea what she was referring to and preferred to keep quiet than answer with the wrong response.
“My dear, Ellis isn’t quite familiar with cult classics. However, I do agree he can sometimes be grumpy as a Gremlin. Like right now, for example,” Emile replied from his perch.
“I think I might just like you,” Elaina said with an affirming nod to the captivating man in the tree.
Casting a scowl in Emile’s direction, Ellis tried to think of something to say to Elaina that would put him back on the inside of their conversation. He held his hands clasped behind his back, palms itching to touch the human temptress. Even disgruntled with her obvious mockery, he still could not negate his need for her. Until he realized what she was doing …
“Are you petting that scout?”
Elaina looked up from her once-again-crouched position next to the now relaxed dog. Rolling her eyes at Ellis’s question, she asked, “Is Scout your dog?”
“Scout is not his name. He is a scout for our clan,” Ellis replied.
“So he isn’t your dog.”
“Not personally mine, no.”
“Then why the hell do you care if I pet him?” Elaina asked, exasperated with the whole exchange.
Emile leapt from his position in the tree, landing on the trail beside Ellis with all the grace and impact of a falling leaf. Crossing his arms over his magnificent chest and raising one pierced eyebrow, he studied Elaina.
She swallowed hard, fighting the panic gnawing at her chest. Rationally she didn’t think either of these men would hurt her. Fear often tramples rational thought and leaves it in the dust with all other intelligent thought. Not now. Not today. She’d conquered her fear and she could escape these men if she had to. She knew how, she’d trained. Even if they did outweigh her by fifty pounds each and she was without a blade or gun.
“Because we’ve never seen anyone pet one of our scouts. They aren’t friendly towards humans. Their job is to ward off trespassers from finding their way too close to our lands. Usually this does not involve fondling,” Emile stated, his lips twisting in a suppressed grin.
“Okay, you got me. Where’s the camera? Humans? Your people? This is a joke, right?” When in doubt, rely on sarcasm. And Elaina knew how to wrap sarcasm around her like a flack jacket.
Elaina straightened from her crouch and studied their faces, her hip cocked to the side. Are they both crazy or are they just playing with me? Sure, they looked like Greek Gods and Ellis had a strange way of speaking but Elaina didn’t believe in the paranormal and she definitely didn’t believe in fairy tales. Of course she was wearing an amulet said to help her during “astral travel” but she wasn’t wearing it because she believed such nonsense. She wore it because her mother had, for some reason, bought it for her.
Ellis discreetly wrung his hands behind his back, the muscles in his shoulders ached with tension. How can I make her believe? He had already decided that not exposing her to his world was not an option. If she were a normal human, he wouldn’t cast a second glance. This human, she could see through his glamour, was apparently immune to his overwhelming charm and… well… there was the nasty business of him branding her with his magic.
When Ellis had felt Elaina enter the forest and draw near to the portal today, he’d hastily made the decision to divulge his predicament and knowledge of Elaina to Emile. Emile had been too curious about his sudden and immediate need to return to the forest. Accompanied by Ellis’s recent odd request of mingling with humans, Emile could not let it go.
Ellis gave Emile a questioning look, silently begging for his help in making Elaina understand that this was no game. He was rewarded with a small nod and the prickly static feeling of magic being drawn upon.
Elaina stood motionless as Emile slowly raised his hands, palms up, a swirl of leaves and forest debris starting to accumulate in the air. His brilliant icy blue eyes flashed brighter, if that was possible. Foliage, sticks and rocks created a moving circle around her, spinning smoothly at eye level. When Emile’s hands dropped, the dancing debris dropped with them to lie in a perfect circle around her feet. She brought a shaking hand to her mouth and squeezed her eyes shut for a moment.
“Nice trick,” she said, raking a shaky hand through her hair.
“You still do not believe us. What of the brand marking your wrist?” Emile asked.
Elaina slapped her hand over the mark on her wrist. “I don’t have a brand. I have poison ivy and I don’t know why you’re doing this. If you’re trying to scare me, it isn’t working.”
“Ellis, show her.”
Ellis bought his hands together in front of him in a prayer pose, level with his strong chest. He held them pressed firmly together for a moment, brows drawn, concentrating. Slowly he spread his hands apart as though he meant to catch water dropping from one of the many small, slow moving waterfalls that trickled through Glen Helen.
Unfortunately, his hands did not hold water. Suspended above his now open palms was what appeared to be a hologram. Elaina couldn’t help herself; she took an apprehensive step closer.