Marked

A Shift Chronicles Short Story

Alex woke to the sound of tiny paws attempting to sneak their way across the floor of her bedroom. She popped one eye open, a tired, crooked grin curling the corner of her mouth.

She pretended to still be asleep.a

The paws, and the tiny lycan pup they carried, crept closer, closer, closer…

And then stopped.

Crouching and ready to spring, Alex knew, even though her back was turned, her eyes fixed on the other side of the bed where her mate, Kael, was still peacefully resting and hogging all of the covers.

Here lately he could have slept through bombs going off outside their window, she was sure of it.

She was also glad for it, though. Because it had taken years for them to get to this point—to where they could both sleep somewhat normally, somehow making it through the nightmares of their past that tended to come visit as soon as they closed their eyes.

Last night had not been one of these ‘new-normal’ nights for Alex, though; she had been drifting toward wakefulness for almost an hour now. So when her nephew sprang and tried to pounce her awake, she was ready. She spun to meet him. She caught him in mid-air and, laughing, hugged the squirming pup against her chest and planted a kiss on his fuzzy head.

“Gotcha,” she said, triumphantly.

The pup gave a disgruntled snort and swatted playfully at Alex’s chin.

“Going to have to work on that stealth, Liam,” Alex said.

(I almost had you,) came the tiny squeak of his voice in her thoughts.

“Almost.” She laughed, softer this time, as Kael stirred in the bed beside them but still didn’t wake. “You could still get him, though,” she suggested in a conspiratorial whisper. “Uncle Kael loves being woken up early.”

Liam gave a quiet whine, because they both knew it wasn’t really true, and Alex held in another giggle.

“Go on,” she said, “I won’t let him get you.”

Liam’s tail slowly, cautiously began to wag, his whole body to wiggle, and after a little more encouragement, he pounced on Kael’s chest and began to furiously lick the sleeping werewolf’s human chin.

Kael’s reaction was swift. His eyes shot open and he bolted upright. The movement was momentarily aggressive; however far they’d come toward a peaceful life, old habits died hard. But as soon as he saw the sheepish smile spreading across his mate’s face, and the tiny wolf squirming in her arms, he gave a sleepy sigh. The tension in his muscles released. His lips quirked—not quite a smile. His overall expression was borderline amused, but there was still a dangerous gleam in his eyes.

There should probably an expression about this, Alex, thought. Never tickle a sleeping werewolf.

Solid advice.

Why?” Kael asked with a yawn. “Why would you do that?”

Liam gave a playful yip, which made one of Kael’s eyebrows lift.

“Did she put you up to this?”

Alex scooped the pup from the bed and plopped him down onto the floor. “Run for your life,” she whispered, shooing him into a scamper for the door. She made it less than five steps after him before Kael’s arm wrapped around her waist, and, with a sleepy grunt, he lifted her off her feet and carried her back to the bed.

“You don’t get to run,” he mumbled. “You’re in trouble. So much trouble.”

“I’m innocent,” she laughed. “It wasn’t my idea. I tried to stop him—”

“I don’t believe you.”

She squirmed, but he was stronger, and he collapsed back onto the bed with her tightly wrapped up in his arms. He rolled toward the bed’s center with her, surrounding both of them in a cocoon of blankets and sheets. And then he simply held her like that, the curves of her molded against his bare chest, the heat from their skin making her feel safe and sleepy.

“I thought I was in trouble?” she said after a moment of this perfect stillness.

“You are.”

“And you were going to punish me?”

“That’s what I’m doing.”

“What, by turning me into a human burrito? This is your idea of punishment?”

“Yes.”

“I think you’ve gotten a bit too soft in your old age.”

“Well,” he said, a mischievous hint to his voice. “Perhaps I’m saving your proper punishment for later. I’m still tired at the moment.” He punctuated his sentence with a yawn, his warm breath causing shivers against the back of her neck. “So I vote we just go back to sleep for now.”

She wriggled her way free enough to turn and and look at him for a moment, and then snuggled her face into his chest. “I think I’m too awake to go back to sleep now. But I’ll stay here while you sleep.”

“How long have you been awake?” There was a touch of concern in his voice that made Alex wish she hadn’t said anything.

“Just a little while.”

“Alex.”

“Okay. A few hours, maybe.”

He twisted so he could glimpse the alarm clock on the nightstand. “It’s only just past six thirty now.”

“…Yes.”

He studied her but stayed quiet. They had an agreement between them, one they had put in place years ago: They didn’t hide their nightmares from each other. That was part of how they got through them and managed to sleep. And Alex had always honored that agreement— they both had—and the trust between them had only grown as the years passed.

But last night, something had changed.

It wasn’t a nightmare that had kept her from sleeping.

She wasn’t certain what it was, not yet, and so she wasn’t sure how to answer the anxious look Kael was giving her now.

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yes.”

“Nervous about the council meeting today?” he asked, almost hopefully. Because that would have been a simple enough fear for them to work through, Alex knew, and it was tempting to pretend that really was the only thing bothering her.

It wasn’t, though. She had been holding council with other leaders among the supernatural world for years now. It was part of the aftermath of the war she had fought against an enemy that didn’t belong in this earthly realm. One that had caused noticeable destruction among the human world, and a bloody final showdown that had caught the attention of other supernatural entities—creatures that Alex had scarcely known about, much less believed in. They hadn’t come to her aid during those initial battles—a fact that she tried not to feel bitter over—but they had been increasingly interested in talking to her about them in the months that followed.

It was because of this that Alex had suggested an alliance, a combined effort to monitor threats of the supernatural variety. Things like skirmishes between the different races; reckless behavior that might alert humans to their existence; the presence of dangerous artifacts or energies, such as portals to earth from Other worlds, for example— portals like the one that the feral demons she’d gone to war with had found their way through.

These monthly council meetings were the backbone of that alliance, during which leaders among different species gathered to discuss these threats and possible solutions to them. Everything from vampires, to elementalists, to dragon-kind—they were all represented here. She was the main representative for both werewolves and lycans, a uniting figure who carried titles such as Mother Alpha and Wolf Empress, though she had never asked to be called either.

And yes, there were still moments when she thought she was far too young and inexperienced for this role—a mere twenty-seven human years old, versus many of the council members’ century-long existences.

But no; this was not what had caused her to lose sleep.

“The council doesn’t scare me,” she said, working her hand through the twists of blankets and sheets to find Kael’s. She slid her fingers between his and gripped tightly as she forced a smile onto her face. “I’ve faced scarier things than all of their old, grumpy faces combined, after all.”

“True,” Kael agreed, his head tilting closer so he could press his lips to hers in a gentle, reassuring kiss. “But then what’s the matter?”

She hesitated. “Nothing. I don’t think it’s anything, really; if it becomes something, you’ll be the first to know. I promise. Now go back to sleep. Grumpy council members are one thing; grumpy Kael is more difficult to deal with.”

“Should have thought about that before you rudely woke me up.”

“I’m still pleading innocence in that particular case.”

“And I still think you’re full of it.”

“Full of nothing but innocence.”

“Uh-huh.” He snorted in disbelief, but dropped the argument and opted for kissing her again instead. “You’re staying?”

“For a little while, at least,” she agreed.

“Good.”

And it was. It was beyond good, and Alex did her best to hold tight to this simple moment. Because she had a feeling that something more complicated waited, just offstage of this flawless scene, and she had learned a long time ago to trust her instincts.

***

Kael hated these council meetings.

He came for moral support, mostly. Always seated directly to Alex’s left, always within an arm’s reach of her, but almost always silent. Just listening. She was the speaker for their kind, and he was fine with that arrangement. She had always been the more talkative between the two of them, anyway.

But today she hadn’t said much.

Today her eyes were distant, and there was a strange anxiety rolling off her; a scent, almost, that the wolf side of his brain kept catching hints of, but that it couldn’t completely decipher. It was so faint that Kael was likely the only person in the room who noticed it—which is precisely what Alex wanted, he was sure—but it was there all the same.

He sat as still as possible. He worried. He kept himself from checking on her via thought speech, not wanting to distract her from the meeting taking place around them. That meeting seemed to stretch endlessly on.

Eventually, though, it reached its last order of business: An introduction of possible new members to their alliance—a coven of earth witches who had sent their eldest to lobby for their inclusion in these supernatural politics and protections. This particular witch’s energy was a new presence. A powerful one, no doubt, and Kael tried to convince himself that perhaps it was this witch who was causing his mate’s anxiety. There was always a bit of unease, after all, whenever all of these other supernaturals came to town. Allies or not. Because it was unnatural, as far as their wolf side was concerned, to be aligning with these other creatures.

But then, Alex had never been a particularly natural or normal lycan.   

And some would say his relationship with her was unnatural as well.

But here they were all the same, still beside each other eleven years later.

They left the meeting room together. Alex walked swiftly through the long hallways of the mountain mansion that most of their pack called home. She said nothing of her destination, but she moved as though she had one in mind. Kael still didn’t pry. But her thoughts were racing, and he was intimately connected to them in a way that made it hard not to catch traces.

Air.

That was what she kept thinking.

Fresh air.

There were dozens of balconies and porches that wrapped around their home, and all of them led to that crisp mountain breeze she was craving. But Alex marched herself all the way to the front of the house, and she made a point to speak with as many council delegates as possible as those delegates were leaving. Pretending, in other words, that nothing was wrong, and today was simply business as usual.

(Don’t worry about me,) came her voice inside his head a moment later. (And no, I’m not eavesdropping on your thoughts.) She glanced back at him out of the corner of her eye, a faint, wry smile on her face. (I can tell you’re worried just by looking at you. Your movements are all off.)

He shuffled against the porch railing he was leaning on. (Because I can tell that you’re feeling sick.)

Her smile faded as she turned to shake the hand of Maric Blackwood, a leader—or king, as his kind called him— among one of many hidden sorcerer societies. Which did nothing to soothe Kael’s nerves. He had never liked Maric. Had never trusted him. Maric was always one of the first to arrive to these meetings and the last to leave, and it looked like commitment on the outside, perhaps—but in that extra time he spent here, he always seemed to be hunting. For weaknesses. For an excuse to test Alex and all of her kind in a way that seemed less cooperative, more predatory.

And he was doing the same thing now.

Still holding her hand, and he was talking in that low, hungry voice that made Kael’s fingers twitch and curl into a fist.

“I’ve several friends who have a gift for foresight, you know,” Maric was saying.

Alex firmly pulled her hand from his and stood up a little straighter. Her body pitched forward the tiniest bit as she did— as though, just for a moment, she might have lost her balance.

“And I’ve heard that the same is true of you,” Maric continued. “I’m not sure we’ve ever talked about it before, though, have we?” He shook his head, answering his own question. “So I simply wanted to let you know that I would love to know of anything…interesting that you might have seen.”

“My visions have never been particularly reliable,” Alex said, easily.

It was a lie.

Kael wouldn’t be the one to call her on it, though.

Not at the moment, anyway.

“Perhaps not,” Maric replied. “Divination is a tricky subject regardless of race or power, isn’t it? But all the same, I would like a chance to compare the prophetic thoughts of my kind with your kind, you understand. Who knows? They may intersect in interesting ways. Ways that might help us act preemptively to help better protect our world. Which, of course, is the purpose of this little council we’ve formed—isn’t it? Protection against any possible threats to our supernatural world.”

There was no denying how Alex’s balance seemed to slip at these words.

Kael took a step toward the two of them.

“I assure you,” Alex said, “if there was anything worth telling the council, I would have already mentioned it.”

Maric studied her closely for a moment, and all the air around them seemed to tense and tighten along with Kael’s muscles.

But then Maric smiled and simply said, “See to it that you do.”

“Anything else?” Alex asked. “I believe you have a long way to travel to reach home, don’t you? So don’t let me keep you.”

“Magic makes the distance short enough,” said Maric, his smile brightening. “Short enough that perhaps I’ll pay you another visit soon, if necessary. In the event that anything interesting does come up, of course.”

“Of course.” Kael wasn’t sure how she managed it, but Alex’s voice was calm and her body as relaxed as the smile she offered him as she added, “You’re welcome any time.”

Welcome was pushing it, Kael thought. But Maric was finally turning to leave, so Kael kept that thought to himself—at least until the sorcerer was out of hearing range. Then he nudged Alex in the side and quietly asked, “Do you think he practices that vaguely menacing tone of voice that he has?”

“Probably,” Alex replied. “Records himself and plays it back until he gets it just right, I bet.”

They exchanged a small smile. The last of the council filed out of the house and nodded their goodbyes. A few gathered toward the edge of the woods, where Maric had paused to talk to a white-haired woman with skin that seemed to shimmer in the setting sun’s light; one of the faery-folk. They had always had a close relationship with Maric’s kind, even before the alliance Alex had initiated.

(I wish they would take their conversation to someone else’s territory), Kael thought, feeling a strange, sudden need for the privacy of thoughtspeech.

Alex didn’t answer right away. She was staring at that conversation Maric was having, her stance rigid and still, and after a moment her hand reached and fumbled for the porch railing in front of her. 

(Alex? Are you okay?)

Her chin lowered to her chest. Her eyes closed, and for a long, frightening pause she seemed too far away to hear him. But then she whispered, “I should sleep.”

Kael was startled, having expected her normal, stubborn response—I’m fine—and it took him a moment to react.

So he barely managed to catch her when she swayed and stumbled away from the porch railing.

Her body went limp as soon as she hit his arms.

And as he lifted her and rushed into the house, Kael glanced back only for a second—just long enough to find the sorcerer king watching them, his eyes knowing and expectant.

***

“If you knew she wasn’t feeling well, then why didn’t you make her rest?”

Kael could sense Vanessa’s glare, digging into the back of his neck like a hot knife. But he didn’t take his eyes off of the bookshelf that he’d been staring at for most of the past half hour.

“Because,” he finally said, after another minute of Vanessa’s insistent staring. “She doesn’t know the meaning of that word. She never has.”

He got to his feet and moved to the window, pressed his fingertips to the cool glass.

Vanessa followed, and she started to speak several times before she begrudgingly said, “Okay. Yes. Sorry. It’s not your fault, I know— I’m just worried.”

“And I’m not?”

Worried enough that the doctor had gently but firmly insisted on Kael waiting outside while he performed his exam, because, as the doctor had put it, anxiety is contagious, and isn’t going to help her feel any better.

Not that Alex seemed particularly anxious, now; she hardly seemed to have the energy to be anything, or even stay awake.

“I still don’t understand exactly what happened,” Vanessa said, “or why you think that sorcerer had something to do with it.”

“I didn’t say he did anything. Not exactly. But they had been talking about premonitions just before she fainted. He mentioned strange prophecies, and Alex said she had nothing to share, but…”

“But?”

His fingers clenched against the glass. “But she hardly slept last night. And she wouldn’t say why.”

Vanessa folded her arms across her chest and leaned back against the wall next to him.

A minute passed in heavy silence before Kael suggested, “Shouldn’t you be putting Liam to bed?”

It was a half-hearted attempt to get a break from her—anxiety was contagious, and Vanessa’s brand of it was particularly potent to Kael—but she shook her head. “I tucked him in an hour ago. And Eli said he’d check on him once he finished up in the study.”

Kael thought of pointing out how absentminded Eli could be. How he had probably gotten caught up watching a documentary on the mating habits of duck-billed platypuses or something equally obscure and forgotten that Vanessa even had a son.

But before he could say anything, the bedroom door opened.

The doctor stepped out and gently closed it behind him. “She’s asleep,” he informed them as he pulled a small notepad from his back pocket and began to scribble in it.

“And?”

“And she’s still incredibly weak. I’m going to stay and monitor her vitals for a little while longer. Blood pressure, particularly, is too low for my liking. But they both seem to be out of any extreme danger for the time being.”

Silence for a moment, and then Kael heard himself asking: “…They?”

The doctor stopped scribbling for a moment and glanced up. “They,” he repeated.

Kael’s vision blurred a bit around the edges. The room was silent enough to hear all three of their individual heartbeats, to count them, to pick out the way Vanessa’s accelerated just before she whispered, “Oh,” and followed the exclamation with a rush of mostly incoherent words.

She took a step toward the bedroom. Kael managed to stop her with a look, miraculously, though she practically bounced in place with impatience.

“Sleeping,” the doctor reminded her.

“This is the definition of torture,” Vanessa whined.

“And you are the definition of contagious, anxious energy,” the doctor mused, back to his scribbling now.

They kept talking, but Kael had started to move, and he didn’t seem able to focus on more than one thing just then. There were only his footsteps, carrying him toward his mate. The only thing that mattered. The doctor didn’t stop him, couldn’t have stopped him. The door creaked a bit as he closed it and stepped into the dimly-lit bedroom, but Alex didn’t wake.

The warm light of the lamp in the corner was more forgiving than the daylight he’d last studied her in. But her lips still seemed too pale. The circles under her eyes, too pronounced. He watched her breathing in the stillness for a moment, and listened for the other sounds he’d gotten used to sleeping beside, just to be sure the doctor was right—that the danger had passed for now.

He wished he could hear her voice, just to be sure.

He didn’t want to wake her, though, so he settled for carrying a chair to the side of the bed and gently laying his head next to hers. And everything seemed to split. On one side was the world behind him, outside of this room, outside of the small radius surrounding their bed.

On the other was her.

No, them.

He stretched his hand slowly, carefully toward the blanket covering her stomach and let his fingers rest against her, trying to get the thought of them to sink in. She automatically turned toward his touch, same as she usually did whenever he brushed against her in the middle of the night. Except she wasn’t asleep anymore. Her eyes had fluttered open.

Her hand reached for his and held it against her stomach.

“Hey,” she said with a sleepy little smile.

“Hey. How are you feeling?”

How are both of you feeling? He kept that thought to himself, but it didn’t matter; Alex had lifted her head from the pillow and was staring at the hand he still had against her stomach.

“I take it the doctor told you.”

“It might have slipped out.”

She leaned her head back against the pillow, that sleepy grin still on her face. “Well. That’s anticlimactic. But I hadn’t figured out how to tell you anyway, so perhaps it’s for the best. I’m too exhausted for coordinating surprises right now.” Her speech slurred a bit toward the end, and she tried, but failed, to cover up a yawn.

He reached to brush the hair from her eyes. His hand was steady, but his heart erratic, squeezed between elation and a fear that was slowly creeping into his veins, determined as he was not to let it. 

“What else did the doctor say?” Alex asked.

“He said you were incredibly weak.” She scoffed at this, and it made him smile. That grip fear was taking on his heart loosened slightly. Just for a moment. “I assumed you would disagree. But he was going to stay for a bit. You know, to be certain of everything.”

She hesitated, fidgeting with the corner of the blanket. “Yeah, he didn’t say these symptoms were completely abnormal, but…I don’t know.”

“He’s just sticking around to be thorough, I’m sure.”

She nodded. But her eyes were clouded, tilted toward the window in an obvious effort to avoid his gaze. “He told me it might be because we’re mixing werewolf and lycan cells, which causes difficulties sometimes, apparently.”

“Yes,” Kael said, softly. “I’ve heard of that.”

She shrugged. “It’s usually fine in the end, though, based on the evidence from most studies that have been done. So I’m not worried about that.”

“…But you are worried.”

Her gaze stayed fixed on the window. “Because I don’t think that’s what’s making me sick.”

Kael’s mouth was incredibly dry, all of a sudden. He thought of earlier on the porch. Of the sorcerer king’s words. And he realized, now, where that fear in his blood was coming from. “What you told Maric wasn’t true. You’ve had visions before that were worth paying attention to.”

She stopped fidgeting with the blanket and clenched it in her fist.

“Alex. Is that why you couldn’t sleep last night? What have you seen?”

“Nothing clear.” She finally looked back at him. There was a tear stain on her left cheek. “That’s what makes it so exhausting, I guess. I don’t see anything; but I have this feeling, this really bad feeling, and it keeps waking me up at night.”

Kael considered her words for a long moment before he crawled into the bed and pulled her close, wiping away the new tears attempting to stain her cheek.

“And this isn’t how I want to feel,” she mumbled into his chest. “It isn’t how I should feel. After everything else we’ve been through I…I just wanted us to be able to be happy in this moment, you know? Normal and happy.”

He found her hand and wrapped it tightly in his, considering his words very carefully. “I am happy. And I hate to break this to you, but I think we gave up any chance of normal a long time ago.”

Her laugh was soft, but genuine, as she snuggled closer to his chest.

“Definitely happy?” she asked.

“Recklessly, deliriously happy.”

“I like the sound of that.”

“Then let’s forget all of the other stuff for a minute, and just be that,” he suggested,

She was quiet for such a long time that he thought she’d finally given in to that exhaustion that was so obvious in her voice. But then she shuffled against him and said, “Good plan.”

“Most of my plans are good.”

“Debatable.” She lifted her head from his chest enough that he could see her grin—a grin that he couldn’t keep himself from kissing. They melted together, the playful kiss turning deep and slow, their movements finding an easy, familiar rhythm with each other’s.

And Kael did forget all of that other stuff for a minute.

But this room was filled with too many reminders of it.

The picture on their dresser was the first one he noticed. Vanessa had insisted they all take it before they got on that plane ten years ago, and headed off to the fate awaiting them. She hadn’t said it then, but Kael had wondered since if she’d thought to take it because she knew not everyone was going to make it back from that journey. And, if so, she had been right. Because there were two people in that picture that should have been here now, but weren’t; Will, his best friend who had volunteered to be front and center in most pictures they’d taken, and who would have been the first person Kael told about his becoming a father.

Or maybe the first person he told would have been his own father, Joseph; it was impossible to say, really, because Joseph was the other person who now existed only in photographs like that one on the dresser, and there would always be an uncertainty surrounding their relationship because of it.

And then there were the reminders on Alex herself, which were especially difficult in moments like this, when all he wanted to do was look at her. But looking at her peaceful, resting face meant seeing the scars over her eye. Scars that he’d been responsible for. Scars that had faded somewhat over the years, taking perhaps a bit of his guilt with them, but that still served as a reminder that she was and would always be partially blind.

“We weren’t supposed to be thinking of anything else, remember?” she asked, reaching and cupping the side of his face without opening her eyes.

Her touch usually had a way of bringing all of the anxious and screaming thoughts in his head to a single, silent and focused point: to her. But tonight it didn’t seem to be enough, and he was somewhat relieved when a soft knock at the door drew both of their attentions a minute later.

“Vanessa,” Alex said.

“I can’t believe she had enough self-restraint to knock,” Kael said. “I should probably let her in before she beats the door down.” Alex nodded, looking bemused, as Kael rolled from the bed and planted his feet on the ground. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He paused long enough for a whispered I love you and one last kiss, and then he stepped out of the room to meet a wide-eyed Vanessa who looked as though she’d finally made it to the front of the world’s longest amusement park line.

“I’m impressed you lasted so long,” Kael said, wryly.

“I’ve been entertaining myself with thoughts of you attempting to change diapers and remember the words to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star at three ‘o’ clock in the morning,” Vanessa replied, giving him a lighthearted poke before she sped past. Kael might have retorted, but he wasn’t quick enough; he glanced over his shoulder and Vanessa was already at Alex’s side, and he was fairly certain she’d already forgotten about him.

Kael found himself wandering toward the outdoors.

The night was clear and cold, the moon a barely-there sliver that didn’t provide him with much light. He didn’t need it to see, but he wished there was more of it all the same. The trees took on a ghostly sort of edge with his night vision, and between that and the wind brushing through them, it looked as though they were alive, all of their limbs and shadows and everything they concealed threatening to rise up and consume the peace they’d fought so hard to build.

“You are entirely too paranoid,” he muttered to himself, glancing back toward their room where, hopefully, Alex was resting.

They’re safe, he reminded himself. Again.

Safe, and surrounded by what had become nearly the largest lycan pack on the east coast of the United States, several of whom nodded to Kael as he walked past them. There were always plenty to patrol all corners of their extensive territory. And if they weren’t enough for some reason, Kael could always summon more from neighboring packs. From neighboring supernatural communities, even—that was the whole point of the council. They had vastly more allies than enemies now.

They were safe.

His mate, his child… both of them were safe, and nothing was going to take them away from him.

But all the same, Kael shifted and darted into the woods as a wolf, hunting for things that might try to.

***

One week before Alex reached the seven-month mark, the visions became clear for the first time.

She woke with the image of strange pinpricks of light dancing in her mind. She tried to escape them, but they followed her even as she sat up and opened her eyes. White, hazy lights against a deep blackness that made her feel cold and desperate.

And there was a girl standing in front of it all.

Alex thought it was herself, at first. But this girl’s eyes were different. They were the only difference Alex had a chance to notice, though, before those lights began to change. A shadowy figure disrupted them first, making its way to where the girl stood. And then the figure offered her its hand, and all of those individual lights began to glow brighter.

Alex could feel her lips moving, speaking a single word: Don’t.

The girl didn’t listen.

She took hold of the shadow’s hand. The light exploded, enveloped them for a bright, blinding moment. And then it collapsed into a blackness that swallowed them whole, and Alex felt as if she’d been sucked into that blackness along with them. Such a disturbing, complete darkness that she could feel a scream building in her throat. She scuffled her feet toward the floor, thinking of running, of somehow escaping from that darkness that seemed intent to consume everything in its path.

But then her balance swayed, and she promptly remembered that she was nearly seven months pregnant, and she wasn’t running anywhere.

She dropped to her knees beside the bed. The thump of her awkward landing jerked Kael from his sleep and brought him to her side in a panicked instant. The last of the vision cleared at the touch of his hand against her side.

But the memory of it lingered, this time.

She wanted to tell Kael she was fine. Don’t worry. Go back to sleep.

But her body refused to stop shaking, and all she could think to say was, “It took her.”

“What?”

“The light. Took. Her.”

“What light? Took who?”

Alex kept shaking, wishing she could explain further, but she wasn’t sure she understood what she was saying either.

She shook her head. Kael massaged his temples and tried to rub the sleep from his eyes, and then he helped her back into the bed. He retrieved a glass of water from the adjoining bathroom and carried it back to her.

She sipped it in silence until she could stop shaking long enough to try and speak more clearly. “That feeling. The cold one that kept waking me up, even though I could never remember where it was coming from, or the vision that caused it…”

“You remember the vision, now,” Kael guessed quietly.

“There were lights. Like stars, but not against a sky. Against an abyss, a blackhole, a… I don’t know how to describe it. But it made me feel terrible, looking at it, and it reminded me that I…I’ve seen those lights before.”

“Where?”

Sciath domhanda,” she whispered. “They were portal lights.”

Kael leaned against the nightstand and closed his eyes. It was obvious that unwanted memories were flooding into his mind, same as they were into hers. “Lights at a point where worlds intersect.”

“And that light…” Alex said, “that other world…it took her. And it didn’t stop with her.”

“Didn’t stop?”

“It got very dark. It felt like my whole world had gone dark, like it had been swallowed up by whatever was coming out of that portal.”

They fell silent. After a minute, Kael reached for her hand, and he absently traced the lines along her palm as he said, “It still doesn’t sound particularly clear. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything.”

“Maybe not,” she agreed.

But Alex was fairly certain he didn’t believe that anymore than she did.

Which is likely why he followed up a moment later with, “But this her…do you think it’s…?” and he let the question hang in the air.

Alex took a long, slow sip from the cup of water, wishing she could come up with another explanation—any other explanation besides the one she felt in her heart was true.

“She has your eyes, I think,” she said softly.

His fingers froze in their tracing. “So it’s a girl.”

“It’s…oh. Yeah, I think so. Sorry. I know we said we weren’t going to find out the sex. Whoops.”

He shook his head, exhaling something between a laugh and a happy sigh. “It’s okay.”

The cold from her nightmarish vision still lingered. She didn’t know what it meant, or what was coming, but Kael’s words had stirred something warm inside of her chest. And now that warmth was rising, chasing away the desperation she’d felt earlier.

“We’re having a daughter.”

“A daughter,” Kael repeated.

“She had your eyes. But the rest of her looked…like me. It was weird.”

“I think that’s pretty common, actually,” Kael teased, “for the child to look like the parent.”

“Ha ha, smart guy. I meant it’s weird that it’s actually happening. It all feels very real, now.” She lifted the hand Kael was still holding to her swollen stomach, pressing their fingertips against it just in time to catch a few flutters of movement. “She looked like me. I wonder if she’ll be anything like me?”

“If she is then I’m doomed.” Alex rolled her eyes, but she was smiling in spite of herself as he added, “I’m not sure I can handle two of you.”

“I’m not sure you can either,” she said, dryly, “you should probably get out while you still can.”

“Nope. I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “You’re stuck with me. Sorry.”

“Could be worse, I guess.”

“It could always be worse.” He rose to his feet and reached for the now-empty cup in her lap. He walked away to refill it while Alex stared at the ceiling, thinking.

“Hey, Kael?”

“Yes?”

“If my vision was right, if it is a girl…I think we should name her Eleanor. You know. After your mom.”

Out of the corner of her vision, she saw him pause in the doorway of the bathroom, one hand resting on the frame. He didn’t turn around right away. He simply nodded, and he took a little longer coming back to her this time.

“Eleanor,” he said as he settled back beside Alex.

“Elle for short, maybe.”

Their gazes met, and there was an adoring look in his eyes—so much softer than his usual intense glare—that made her cheeks feel warm.

“I mean, I could be wrong,” she stammered, “and we should probably have a boy name ready too, just in case.”

Kael was quiet, pensive. The clouds outside shifted, spilling more moonlight into the room, and its hazy glow made Alex sleepy. She leaned her head against Kael’s shoulder, and she had nearly drifted off before he spoke again.

“I don’t think you’re wrong,” he said. “And I think it’s a perfect name.”

***

Alex was not wrong.

At least not about this: She gave birth to a daughter on a cloudy September day. Two weeks earlier than planned, but otherwise in an uneventful manner. And Eleanor had eyes like her father, and by three weeks she was already attempting to roll herself over, suggesting she had her mother’s inability to sit still.

But she was accompanied by no strange light or shadow, as in Alex’s vision, and she was— as far as her parents and the rest of the pack were concerned— as perfect as it was possible to be.

Then, on the fourth week after her daughter’s birthday, Alex woke in the dead of night and sat up straight in her bed.

Her heart felt unbearably heavy.

“What is it?” Kael asked, still half-asleep. “I don’t hear her crying…?”

The house was silent.

“She’s not crying,” Alex reassured him. “She’s fine.”

 “You should sleep while you can,” Kael suggested. He rolled his back to her, then, so he didn’t see what Alex was now staring at: the monitor. The picture was blinking in and out, switching between waves of static and a black screen with the words No Signal flashing across it.

“I’m going to check on her, though, since I’m already up,” Alex said, and she was already on her feet and walking before she received an incoherent mumble in reply.

Elle’s room was not far from theirs. The door was cracked partially open, and as Alex approached it she noticed more flickering light—the soft orange light of the lamp beside the rocking chair, she thought.

She held her breath and pushed her way into the room.

And she exhaled, finally, at the sight of Elle resting peacefully, of her chest rising and falling with easy breaths, the sound of occasional sleepy grunts escaping her.

The lamp continued to flicker. Alex unplugged it and walked back to the crib, rested her arms against the edge of it and leaned over. She’d learned, by this point, to let sleeping babies lie.

But tonight, something made her reach for her daughter.

Her fingers brushed the fine strands of strawberry-blond hair from Elle’s forehead and then curled them against the soft skin of her cheek. It was burning hot. Frowning, Alex turned and tried to remember where she’d put the thermometer. When she found it and returned, Elle had stretched her body to her full, tiny length and unclenched her right fist.

There was a strange mark on her flattened palm.

Alex nearly dropped the thermometer at the sight of it.

It looked like a fresh burn—bright red and blistered— but it had a definite, clean-edged form: a four-pointed star, surrounded in bursting light. And Alex had no idea where it had come from. She touched it, gently. The room seemed to swift and sway as she did; the air, to crackle with electricity.

Alex knelt beside the crib. She watched. Elle slept on, and Alex’s thoughts raced recklessly—so loud and so turbulent that it wasn’t much of a surprise when Kael appeared in the doorway, worry etched deep into his tired expression.

He looked at Alex, expectant, and she managed to hoarsely whisper, “Look at her hand.”

Kael hesitated only a moment before doing as she asked. And for a long time he seemed stuck to the side of the crib, unable to move, unable to speak. His silence was excruciating.

Alex swallowed hard. She called on the strength she had cultivated through years of being a leader of her kind, and she spoke in nearly the same tone she used in council meetings—albeit in a whisper, as Elle still slept on as though nothing in her world had changed. “Marks that appear out of nowhere are not a good sign in any supernatural community.”

“No.”

What does it mean?”

Kael opened his mouth several times to speak; to attempt to comfort her, maybe. But no comforts ever made it out. And there was fear in his eyes. She almost didn’t recognize it, because she could count on one hand the number of times she had actually seen him visibly afraid.

“I need to talk to Eli,” he finally managed to say.

He was gone too quickly for her to come up with an argument.

Elle began to cry, and Alex did the only thing she could think to do—she picked her up and held her close, trying to keep her warm in a room that suddenly seemed desperately cold.

***

“You could have waited for me,” Eli said with a yawn, sweeping a disgruntled look over the books and papers Kael had already managed to spill across the table in front of him, even though he had only made it to the library a few minutes before Eli.

“I don’t have time to wait,” Kael said, grabbing another book and racing through its pages.

“I am only trying to say that going about this in a more methodical manner will likely help us find an answer more quickly,” Eli replied. “I know it seems counter-productive right now, but you need to calm down.” He picked up a scrap of paper, retrieved a pen from the nearby desk, and slid them both in Kael’s direction. “Can you draw the symbol you saw from memory?”

Kael gave him a look that was most decidedly not calm, but he snatched the pen from Eli’s grip and scribbled something that closely resembled that mark that had been burned into his mind. He went back to frantically flipping through books while Eli studied it.

“There are too many symbols to count among the magical world,” Eli said after a minute. “Nearly every race has dozens, scores of things like this among its unique histories…I don’t recall seeing anything like this among any lycan or werewolf books I’ve read, but…”

Kael replied only by going back to the nearest shelf, grabbing a few more books that looked as though they potentially held answers, and slamming the stack of them onto the table.

“We have to narrow this down,” Eli pressed. “Somehow, anyhow—was she exhibiting any other symptoms I don’t know about? Anything strange that led up to this?”

Kael’s hand paused, closed the book he had just started to open. “Alex had a vision,” he said, almost reluctantly. “The same one, four times over the past few months.”

“A vision? Of Eleanor?”

Kael nodded. “Only she was older. And surrounded by lights. Portal lights, is what Alex said they reminded her of.”

Sciath domhanda?” Eli said, frowning.

“Yes.”

He was quiet, thoughtful for a moment. Then he darted to the back corner of the room, and soon reappeared with a large, greenish-grey book tucked under his arm. His expression was even more grave than before. “So we shouldn’t be searching only for symbols of this world, maybe.” He walked to Kael’s side and placed the book—Icon and Symbolism Throughout Ages and Worlds— on the table between them.

A strange numbness had overtaken Kael’s body, so he simply watched as Eli searched the pages, flipping and referencing them in his calm, methodical way.

And, in that way, he found what they were looking for. At the top of a page toward the end of the book, drawn in red ink beneath a heading that read Canath, was the exact symbol that hadburned so brightly on Elle’s hand.

Canath,” Kael repeated after a moment of staring at it. He scanned the paragraph beneath the heading and the drawing. “What language is this? Gaelic?”

“Old Gaelic. And so I’m not sure I can properly translate it, but…”

“But?”

“But I’m not sure I need to.” Eli’s fingers traced the page, the blood red symbol, the individual letters of Canath. “Because I’ve seen this name before, in already translated texts. It’s the parallel world the feral came from, as best I could discern from my research.”

Kael’s gaze turned sharp; it was an automatic reaction he had anytime anyone mentioned those beasts to him. “They were destroyed. And so was the portal to this Canath place. Right?”

Eli’s eyes were fixed on the table. He was never one to speak until he was sure of himself. And Kael had grown more patient in the decade since meeting Alex, and more patient still in the weeks since their daughter’s birth.

But he still had to concentrate very hard on not flipping over the table in front of him.

“Alex encountered the portal to this particular Other world first hand,” Eli began, slowly. “She was touched by its energy, its light, and she saw the feral’s true form as revealed by that light. And Carrick poisoned her while in that true, otherworldly form.”

“She healed.”

“Yes, but it’s possible that traces of these things were lingering in her blood, and now she has passed it on to—”

No.”

Eli hesitated, eyeing the powerful, violently shaking grip Kael had fixed on the edge of the table. “This is all just speculation,” said Eli, closing the book with a gentle hand. “And I could not even begin to speculate what, exactly, might have been passed on to Eleanor, anyway…” he trailed off, still watching Kael closely, uncertainly.

Kael gripped the table so tightly that it began to splinter and crack. He bowed his head, closed his eyes, helplessly wished that he didn’t have to say these next words: “Your speculations are right more often than not. Keep speculating.”

“Maybe we should just—”

“Keep. Speculating.”

“I…well, it would be different than with Alex, maybe. Alex was exposed to this same power, but she had her own power developed enough to protect herself against succumbing to this evil she was exposed to. Eleanor has no such defense. It makes her much less predictable.”

“And dangerous?”

“Perhaps.”

“A possible threat to the supernatural world?” Kael finally looked up, hoping to see disagreement on Eli’s face, that he might take that know-it-all tone of his and inform Kael that the council would think nothing of the sort.

But instead, Eli looked as though he understood Kael’s fear all too well. “She could cross worlds. Or possibly bring more of this other world—this Canath— into ours, at will or by accident.”

“More of this other world…More like the feral?”

“Worse things, possibly,” Eli said, very softly.

It felt as though the vast library was shrinking around him, pressing in, reducing Kael to something small and insignificant. Powerless. He couldn’t remove that mark from his daughter’s hand. He didn’t know what would happen because of it.

And the only thing he could think to do, in that moment, was to swipe furiously at the books and papers scattered over the table, because he couldn’t stand to look at them anymore. His heart hammered. His breathing was rapid and shallow. He was doing his best to swallow the wolf that was trying to rip free, desperate both to protect and destroy.

He pictured Alex waiting for him to come back. It forced a sort of order back to his thoughts as he tried to imagine how he could explain things to her.

A book, balanced precariously on the table’s edge, teetered and tipped over the brink. Kael caught it in mid-air. And as he slid it back onto the table, he sensed something that didn’t belong: magic.

A familiar magical energy that made his teeth bare and his every sense focus on trying to pinpoint where it was coming from. There were other strange energies folding in as well, surrounding it—some he recognized, others he couldn’t immediately place—but none that made him as furious as that first one he’d sensed.

Maric’s.

Eli had apparently sensed it as well, because he’d paused next to the pile of books he’d been cleaning up. His eyes were trained toward the window. “They’re here.” He frowned, looking as though he couldn’t believe it. “Now. At this time of the night? That’s incredibly rude, isn’t it?”

Kael moved swiftly to the window. He watched as several figures materialized in the moonlight and started to make their way across the yard. Oddly enough, he found himself growing calm once more as he watched them.

Because here was something—someone—he could fight.

“Alex is in Eleanor’s bedroom,” he said. “Go make sure they both stay there. And don’t tell her anything we discussed. Not yet.”

Eli nodded, somewhat reluctantly. He looked as though he wanted to ask Kael what he was planning to do; Kael thought he could hear that exact question nervously flitting at the edges of Eli’s mind, even.

But they parted at the doorway without another word.

Kael called for support on his way outside, and some two dozen wolves—and a dozen more shifters in human form— met him as he made his way down the front steps and into the yard. Their heads were lifted in a non-threatening manner, but their bodies stiff, eyes gleaming and fixed on the various supernatural creatures who had invaded their territory. Maric stood toward the front of those various creatures, holding a conversation with a pale woman with ruby-colored eyes—a conversation that he abruptly stopped when he caught sight of the furious werewolf stepping toward him.

“Alliance or not,” Kael snapped, “this is not neutral territory for you to visit whenever you feel like it.”

Maric’s face was impassive, even as a chorus of growling wolves backed up Kael’s words. “We’re here for an emergency council meeting,” the sorcerer king said.

“Says who?”

“Say the very by-laws that you were present for the creation of. Allow me to quote: the full power of the council may be summoned at any time, any place, that a majority of leaders feel it is necessary to do so in order to properly carry out the responsibilities outlined in the previous section of this record.” He paused, glanced around at the group who had presumably followed his lead in coming here. Most of their expressions were some variation of resigned, obligated to the duty before them. “I believe I have collected more than a majority,” Maric said.

“Whatever responsibility you feel like you have here, it can wait.”

“Can it?” Maric asked, his tone sharpening. “I have been waiting. For nearly ten months now, ever since I was first informed of the troubling visions and prophecy; those things that I warned the wolf empress of, only to be ignored by her and the rest of her kind, yourself included—but I will not be ignored anymore. Dangerous things are beginning to shift into motion, and I will not be pushed aside in my attempts to protect this world from them.”

“There is nothing dangerous here.”

“Where is your daughter?”

Kael’s hand shot forward and snatched the front of Maric’s jacket. He lifted the shorter man several inches off the ground so that they were eye to eye. “Listen very closely to me, sorcerer: Nothing about my daughter is of any concern to you.”

The crowd around them shuffled uneasily.

“I’m afraid you’re wrong about that,” Maric said.

The tips of Kael’s fingers shifted to claws, and he tightened his grip enough that a few of those claws pierced through cloth and found skin.

Maric’s eyes narrowed. “You spill my blood, and you are dangerously close to voiding this alliance—and of having the possibility of war on your hands, at that.”

“And if you think I won’t start a war over my daughter, then you have severely misread me.”

“Clearly,” Maric said, clenching his teeth. “As you don’t seem to notice you’ve nearly already started it.”

Kael’s glare darted—just for a moment—to the ones around them. To the sight of hackles raised, and air filling with anxious whispers and sparking with bits of nervous, uncertain magic. He took a deep breath.

“Leave,” he commanded. “We’ll discuss your concerns another time. Not now. Not like this.”

“I’m not leaving until I see her.”

Kael flexed his claws. Purplish-red blood swelled up, slid down those claws and stained his still-human hand.

Maric gave a startled jerk, but his voice was pure and calm poison as he said, “You are going to regret that.”

Energy pulsed in the space between them.

Kael tightened his grip even further. “I don’t think I will.”

People began to rush toward them—to separate, or to join the fight; Kael wasn’t sure which. And he never found out. Because a sudden voice, quiet but strong, said his name and brought everything and everyone to a halt.

He turned to see Alex standing on the porch, her expression silently willing him to release his grip on Maric.

And he would have gone to war with any person in this yard, yes, but he couldn’t bring himself to fight with her.

He threw Maric away hard enough that the sorcerer stumbled and nearly fell, and then he took a step back. Maric regained his balance and wiped away the last of the blood on his neck just as Alex reached him, surveying the scene around her with a combination of horror and disgust and fear.

“What is the meaning of all of this, Maric?” she asked.

Eyeing Kael somewhat warily, he nodded to the red-eyed woman he’d been conversing with earlier. “We have seen your daughter more clearly in visions, now. And there is a mark over her. An omen that we would like to examine in the physical world.”

“She’s only a few weeks old. What threat could she possibly pose that made you think you needed to—”

“Haven’t you felt it? What’s changed tonight?”

Alex’s hand reached for her heart, and then she became very still.

“I thought so,” Maric said, smugly enough that Kael had to keep himself from darting toward him again.

“It…” Alex cleared her throat. “The mark revealed itself in full tonight. Yes.”

“And we have come a very long way, some of us, because of this. So we will see her now.” There was a gleam in his eye—that of a hunter who had nearly managed to corner his prey. “Besides, surely you don’t wish to go against the diplomatic policies that you yourself played such a large role in creating?”

“Nothing about this feels particularly diplomatic,” Alex replied. “But if seeing her will help you understand that she is no threat, and that you have no business with her or our family—”

“That will be for the council to decide. Diplomatically, of course.”

The yard grew quiet enough that Kael could hear the way Alex’s breath caught in her throat. It took a long time dislodging. Her gaze swept over the faces of all of the council members. They all stayed silent—and that silence was as good as consensus, it seemed.

So he knew what Alex was going to say next.

What she had to say.

He closed his eyes, shook his head against the words, but that didn’t stop her.

“I will not stand against what the council has decided,” she whispered. “This emergency meeting can convene here. And I…I will join you, and bring my daughter when she wakes up.”

Maric nodded. There were murmurs of approval. Fervent conversation began all around him.

And Kael ignored every word of it, and walked back inside, thinking only of finding his way back to his daughter’s room.

***

Alex found Kael sitting in the rocking chair in the nursery, Elle sprawled across his chest and sleeping peacefully. He didn’t look away from the window when she stepped closer. Afraid of waking Elle—and of where she had promised to take her when she woke— Alex did her best to focus her thoughts enough that she could keep this conversation silent and private.

(Are you angry with me?)

Thoughtspeech was better anyway; tears were threatening, and asking that question out loud would almost certainly have made them start falling.

(Not at you,) Kael replied after a moment, though he kept his eyes on the moon and stars through the window.

(I’m just trying to keep the peace. All I want is peace.)

(I know.)

(I’ll be with her in the meeting. You can be there too. It’s just protocol, and we can follow it, but still keep her safe—)

(Can we?) He finally looked over at her, and Alex found herself unable to answer. So Kael kept going. (Do you understand what this mark means? Even if the council decides she isn’t an immediate threat, and she’s safe for now, I don’t think this mark is going to go away. Not if it’s what Eli thinks it is.)

(Which is what, exactly?)

Elle snuggled closer to her father’s chest, and as she slept on, Kael filled Alex’s head with the conversation he’d had in the library. With the fear and speculations about unpredictable magic, about the new threat of a whole parallel, dangerous world colliding with their own. Of what that meant for the peace and alliances they had tried so hard to build.

The more he spoke, the harder Alex found it to stand.

By the time he had finished, she was on her knees and clutching a teddy bear—one of the dozens of gifts her sister, Lora, had brought them over the past few weeks. Picturing Lora, and all of the painful memories they’d shared together, made Alex have to bury her face into the stuffed bear’s stomach to help muffle her sobs.

It wasn’t enough, though, and after a moment she had to step outside to try and calm herself back into silence. When she didn’t—couldn’t— return after a few minutes, Kael joined her in the hallway.

“She’s going to be a target,” Alex whispered. “A marked target. Just like I was for so long. If I had known that I would pass—”

“Stop it.” He gathered her up in his arms and held her tightly against him. “This is not your fault. I never thought it was. Not for a second.”

Alex shook her head, unconvinced. “This is all wrong.”

Kael started to agree, but stopped, and appeared lost in thought for several moments before he said, “Not all of it.”

The door to Elle’s bedroom remained partially open. Alex stepped back inside. Kael followed, and the two of them stood, hand-in-hand, and watched as the night sky began to lighten to a pale, stormy blue.

A soft cry sounded from the crib. Alex’s skin flushed hot, and her scalp tingled at the memory of her words, of her promise to the rest of the council.

Go back to sleep, she wanted to plead with her daughter.

But the baby only cried louder, and Alex’s knees felt weak again.

“What do we do? What if we…” she trailed off as Kael squeezed her hand more tightly.

“We do what we’ve always done,” he said. “We fight whatever we have to—whatever comes. And we teach her to do the same.”

It would not be that simple, Alex knew. But when he glanced over at her, she nodded anyway, believing him. If only for that moment.

And together they went to soothe their waking daughter, bracing themselves for whatever the day would bring.

The rest of Elle’s story, featuring new characters, new magic, and a new world, is available here!