Saturday, January 4, 2014

Shiny New Idea for a Seven Day Challenge...

I began a story quite a while ago based on an image.  It was supposed to be a short story that came and went.  It wasn't.  I have thought about it almost every day since and haven't been able to keep the story from continuing on.  So, when I posted a #7daychallenge at the beginning of the week, the same story begged to be told.  What I'm posting for the challenge is not a complete story, nor is it, by any means, polished to perfection.  It is a work in progress, and one that will continue beyond what is written here.  Because it is still under construction, I would love to hear feedback.  If something doesn't make sense or rubs you the wrong way, go ahead and comment.  These are things that help steer the story and right the wrongs I may not be able to see.  I have been slaving away at it for a week, after all.  So, without further ado, enjoy!











The catering truck slid through the fresh snow, making its way up the drive to Shadow Hall.  I had followed it from town, keeping to the trees that lined the road like stalwart knights at their post.  The wind had finally settled with the snow, and I was grateful.  I had only the light jacket I’d worn the last few days on the journey, and hadn’t bothered to foresee where I was going.  There just wasn’t time.

The truck curved around the massive mansion to the back entrance, where the vendors were already beginning to style the sculpted grounds into a spectacle of elegance.  A large, rectangular pool, set off by columns at each corner, anchored the garden.  Hundreds of black roses were lying atop the water, shimmering in the mid-afternoon sun.  Off at the edge of the garden, a bright red bridge looked out over the grounds.  Round tables dotted the expansive stone patio surrounding the pool, all covered by crisp, white linen.  Servants in coattails and bow ties were scattering black petals and black candles on each table, followed by what looked like a statue of a raven in the center.  Lights had been hung from the pillars, all meeting over the center of the pool at a giant paper lantern that seemed to glow, though it didn’t appear to be lit.  They were preparing for the Solstice; their most sacred day of the year.  It was forbidden for any of the Light to attend.  It was beautifully dark; enchanting, even, and would be even more so when the sun set.  I prayed I would not be around to see it.

I crept toward the house as silently as I could manage.  I had to get to Gavin before the Circle.  I reached the edge of the trees and ducked behind a table to avoid a servant.  He walked around and began to place the petals, candles and raven on the table, adjusting them with gloved fingertips.  I clapped a hand over my mouth and waited, feeling the blood pulse in my ears.  I could see his shoes, shining black in the sun, as they turned and pointed right at me.  I looked up to see him staring down, a quizzical arch to his brow.  Just as I thought he was going to raise the alarm, I noticed something peculiar about his face.  His eyes were clouded over, a murky white and without an iris or pupil.  His mouth was stitched over with black thread and the skin beneath was purple and shiny.  He had been silenced.  I glanced around to the faces of the other servants, only now seeing what was there all along.  They had all been silenced.  Every single one of them. 

The servant moved past me to the next table, adjusting petals, as though he hadn’t seen me at all.  He probably hadn’t.  Silencing was a painful process that repealed sight and speech, the two most important factors in both light and dark casting, from those that misused their gifts.  The Circle had been using it as punishment for decades against the shadows.  The silenced were supposed to be sent to an outcast community overseas, though admittedly, some had been kept as conductors for the rare occasions when the Circle needed to channel more power.  I had never seen one out in public before.

I willed the breath to return to my lungs and swept over the rest of the patio.  The servants may not have been able to see me, but I had no doubt there were other eyes watching over the grounds.  I reached one of the french doors and slipped inside, flattening my back against the wall and waiting for my eyes to adjust.  They had been used to the bright sun reflecting off the snow, so I felt as if the dark interior had pulled a blanket over my eyes when I stepped inside.  I waited, the panic rising in my throat, but they didn’t adjust.  There was nothing but black, thick as wool, over my eyes.

I felt for the ring that occupied the third finger of my right hand and rubbed the tiger’s eye in the center, hoping for some help.  There were footsteps echoing nearby, whether coming or going, I couldn’t be sure.  I rubbed the smooth stone, but my eyes remained blackened.  The fear threatened to claw its way up my throat and out through my mouth in a scream, but I held it back with clenched teeth.  I tried to retrace the way I had come, using the wall to steer me back outside onto the patio.  Instead of the light returning to my eyes, they grew even dimmer.  I didn’t feel the breeze on my face or hear any sounds of the waterfall that flowed into the pool.  The cold wall behind me was my only guide and it seemed to continue on where the door had been before.  The footsteps grew louder and then disappeared altogether.

“Can I help you, miss?” a voice echoed through the room.

I froze against the wall and was about to reply when I felt burning fingers slip between mine, covering my ring.  Another soft touch on my head made my scalp tingle and sent shivers all the way down to my spine.

“She was just looking for me, weren’t you, love?  Come on, we’ve got to get you ready for the party.”

I nodded in the general direction of the first voice and let the hot hand pull me into the middle of the room.  Being guided through complete darkness was maddening and I fought the urge to lash out and run.  My instincts were screaming in my ears, pulsating through my veins, and itching beneath my skin, but still I followed up stairs, around corners, until finally we came to a stop and I heard a door close behind me.

“Gavin, what’s happening to me?  I can’t see a damn thing.”

“It’s the enchantment.  For our protection, should a keeper of the light ever find us here.  They- you- cannot enter with the sight.  How did you find me here?”  His voice sounded as if it came from everywhere, instead of one particular direction.  I tried to follow the sound.

“Don’t flatter yourself.  I’ve hunted many like you.  It wasn’t that hard, really.”  My patience was wearing thin and I felt the beginnings of a dull ache between my eyes.

“This is the only place we are truly safe; it’s supposed to be unforeseeable.  How did you do it?” he asked, sounding genuinely curious.

“I don’t know, I just thought of you and the village came to me.  I asked around and there was talk of a celebration out here.”

“So you’ve been thinking of me.  Frankly, I’m not surprised.”

I stifled a groan.  If I could see, I would have rolled my eyes at him.  “This is really starting to give me a headache.  Can you take it off?”

My hands went to my temples, the ache spreading from between my eyes all the way around my head.  It was dulling the rest of my senses, propelling me into a vacuum of nothingness.  My feet swayed under me and I felt his burning hands guide me to what felt like the edge of a bed.

“I can take it off, but you have to remove your ring.  The light within it is what’s holding the enchantment on you,” he said.

“You must think I’m stupid,” I answered.  “The last time I saw you, you tried to kill me, remember?”

“After you slipped me halting dust.  Tell me, did you actually intend to bring me in, or were you just looking for a good time?” he asked, as his hand glided beneath my jacket to my neck.  I slapped it away.  “Besides, I didn’t try to kill you.  I knew you would wake up.  And, as I recall, you stabbed me, so I suppose that makes us even.”

“You are unbelievable,” I said, the words sounding suddenly far away.  My head felt heavy, as if it might roll off my neck and onto the bed.

“Lucy?  You’re fading out.  You have to take it off.”

“No,” I mumbled, trying to get up but falling backward onto the bed, instead.

“So stubborn,” he said and I could barely hear the grin that formed the words. 

Then the sound was completely sucked out of the room and I was adrift, floating through a black sea.  I felt myself slipping and was barely able to hold up my hand and pull the ring off before I was swallowed up in the darkness.

                                                                       ***

I awoke to the heavy scent of incense burning beside me.  The smell of burning sugar stifled any hope of fresh air in the tiny room.  I turned my head and blew what should have been an extinguishing charm, but instead, it sent ash flying across the floor.  A plume of smoke rose from the fading embers on the carpet, curling into a bird-like shape in the air.  It seemed to bow its head to me and then disappear as the embers faded to black.

What is going on?

My fingers went to the place where my ring had been and found the indent just above the knuckle it had left behind.  I sat up and felt the restriction of tight fabric against my legs and stomach.  I was wearing a dress.  A tight, black dress.  Again, I felt for the finger my ring should have rested on and noticed my fingernails had been painted a deep purple shade, glittering in the soft light of a nearby lamp.  I thought back to the last moments before I had passed out, but my memory was fragmented.  It felt like it had been shattered, leaving only shards behind; flashes of a garden, virgin snow, and darkness.  I shook my head and saw a deep auburn curl fall over my shoulder and come to rest on my collar bone.  I picked up the lock of hair and examined it in the light.  It shimmered, many shades darker than it should have been, against my pale fingers.

A mirror hung above a red chest of drawers at the foot of the bed and I went to it, slowly, wary of what I would see.  The woman that met my gaze in the mirror was stunning, with auburn curls and chocolate eyes rimmed in shimmering black kohl.  I licked my lips and so did she, the deep red shade painted on them as stark as blood against a pale complexion.  The dress gathered and then split around my neck, hugging my body so tightly it felt like a second skin.  It stopped abruptly mid-thigh, causing me to tug on the hem continuously, as if it would lengthen at my touch.  It was obviously not designed for a protector like myself, as I could barely walk in it, let alone fight.  Once the novelty of my altered appearance wore off, I searched the top of the chest for my ring.  It was bare, aside from a stack of books and a comb.

Gavin.

He must have it, I thought.  I felt the heat on my face as I realized he must also have dressed me while I slept.  I glanced around the room and saw something gleaming over by the door.  An intricate mask was hanging on the handle, beaded and painted to delicate perfection.  The top half was black and rounded above each eye, while the bottom ended in a silver pointed beak.  I was to be a raven, then.  I pulled the mask over my face and silver words looped across my vision, hanging for a moment before they vanished into the air.

You are a vision in black, love.  Come down to the party.  There are things you must see.  Do not speak to anyone.

He knew I couldn’t leave, not without my ring.  I had no choice but to find him and get it back.  My feet carried me to the round window beside the bed and I looked down on the scene below.  The sun was just beginning to set, casting the dark shapes on the patio out against the warm glow of the sky.  I tried to take in as much of the sun as I could, steeling myself for what was to come.  I would need every bit of its light to immerse myself in shadow.

I slipped on a pair of precariously high heeled ankle boots that had been left by the door and descended the steps.  The house felt eerily quiet but alive with excitement, as if it had a presence hanging just beneath the silent surface.  I reached the bottom of the steps and followed the soft hum of conversation through another hall and into the living room.  The whole house was opulent, with rich velvety fabrics in deep crimson and gold accents.  It was everything I had come to despise, having been raised by the Circle in the modest surroundings of the conservatory.  They lived richly here, enveloped in indulgence.  It was sickening.

My heels click-clacked through the room as I reached the french doors at last, peering out at the party that had begun while I slept upstairs.  Everyone was formally dressed in gowns and suits, mostly in black and purple, though a few in silver and gold stuck out.  People were twirling and gliding across the patio with a grace not often seen in the light of day.  Some were dancing, others seated at tables, and still more standing in groups, all animated in their conversation.  They appeared to be enjoying themselves, though their faces were mostly obscured.  It was a masquerade ball.  How convenient, I thought with a smile.

As I watched from inside the door, a servant approached with a tray of ornate glasses, all filled with a fizzy, purple liquid.  He lowered the tray toward me in offering.  I was about to say no thank you when Gavin’s words resurfaced.  Do not speak to anyone.  I shook my head, and he continued around me and out the doors.  I took a deep breath and followed, feeling the absence of the ring on my finger like a hole in my chest.

There was a tangible excitement among the crowd, as if they were all waiting for something spectacular drawing near.  The sun had almost dipped completely below the horizon line, and I guessed they were waiting for darkness.  I wondered as I watched them all move fluidly through the dusk, if I blended in among them.  Could they see the light within me?  Could they feel that I was not one of them?  I prayed they could not, as I scanned the crowd for Gavin’s square jaw and blue eyes.  Since everyone was wearing a mask, it was hard to pick out any discernable features.  I waved off another fizzy liquid offering and moved across the patio to the pool, feeling the shadows begin to grow around me.

The black roses floating in the pool had all been adorned with candles, mirroring the stars that had just begun to stand out in the darkening sky.  The effect, with the lights hanging above on strings, was quite magical.  I searched the faces by the pool and saw one that resembled Gavin’s.  I approached and realized the man was much too short and paunchy to be him.  The petite woman next to him seemed oddly familiar.  Aside from Gavin, I had never been acquainted with another shadow, though I had apprehended many.  Something about the way she moved, less fluid than the others, stuck out in my foggy memory.  Her golden dress reflected the candlelight in hundreds of tiny sequins, shimmering every time she laughed and raised her glass to her lips.  I felt drawn to her, though I couldn’t determine the reason.  I decided to keep an eye on her after I had found Gavin.

I circled the pool and was on my way back to the patio when I felt scorching fingers at the crease of my elbow.  I spun around, expecting Gavin, but saw, instead, a pair of green eyes beneath a simple, black eye mask.  It flared up to a point at the temples, but was otherwise unadorned.  Gavin would never wear something so plain.  And he didn’t have green eyes.

“Hello, gorgeous.  I suppose I should bow before the raven.”  He inclined his head.  “And what a raven you are.”

His voice was much deeper than Gavin’s, and his features were sharper and more severe.  I tried to return his smile, but everything about him made my skin crawl.  His touch, at my arm, was oppressive in its heat.

“Have I seen you here before?” he asked.

I shook my head in reply.  My eyes flitted to the masked faces around me, hoping to see Gavin’s.  I could only remain silent for so long.

“A shy raven,” he said, his grin widening.  “How endearing.”

“She’s not much for small talk,” a voice chimed in behind me. 

Gavin appeared at my side, guiding my arm through his.  The man in the plain mask looked genuinely put out at his arrival, the grin all but disappearing from his face.  I couldn’t help the relief that spread through me, feeling his arm around mine.

“Gavin, I didn’t know you brought a date.  A friend of yours?” he asked, still eyeing me as if he could see through the mask.

“Something like that.” 

The green-eyed man and I both watched Gavin, waiting for more of an explanation or an introduction, but none came.

“Please excuse us,” Gavin said, steering me away toward the edge of the patio.

I felt the man’s stare on our backs the whole way, until we stopped at an outlying table that was unoccupied and I looked back to find he had disappeared into the crowd.  I tugged the hem of the dress down as I lowered myself into a chair Gavin had pulled out.  He wound around to the opposite side, glancing at my bare legs on his way, and I quickly crossed them away from him.  I saw the hint of a grin at the corner of his mouth.

“You must be loving this, watching me squirm.  I want it back, Gavin.  Now.”

“Can’t you just enjoy yourself, for one night?”

“You think I could enjoy this?  This fake hair, this ridiculous dress, these masks?  What are you even celebrating?”

He leaned in, grabbing a wisp of hair that had blown across my mask in the cool breeze and twisting it in his fingertips.  I could feel the heat radiating from his hand on my cheek, though our skin wasn’t touching. 

“If you’d rather parade your illumination around, I’d be happy to undo what’s been done.  Personally, I think it suits you quite well.”

I watched as the hair between his fingers lightened to the platinum shade it had always been, the dark hue retreating upward to my tingling scalp.  He smiled and released the curl.  It immediately blended with the rest, a deep auburn, and I brushed it back behind my shoulder.  As much as I hated to admit it, he was right.  Without his help, they would spot the light within me instantly, not to mention the ring on my finger.  I rubbed the indent just above my knuckle again, absently.

“We’re celebrating the Solstice, love.  The longest night of the year,” he said, as he looked around to the blazing sky.  The sun had disappeared, leaving a fiery trail of orange and pink behind.  Soon, it would be dark.

“If you’re all going to turn into a bunch of winged freaks, I would like some kind of protection.  Won’t it be obvious when I’m the only one that doesn’t change by the moon?” I asked, picturing the way he had swept out of the doorway at our last encounter.

He smiled again, as if remembering something dear to his memory.  “This is the only night we are not claimed by the moon, and remain our true selves.”

“There’s nothing true about this.  Everyone’s wearing a mask.”

“Only enemies speak the truth, love.  Friends and lovers lie endlessly.”

A couple passed by our table, laughing loudly, and I leaned in closer to his face across the table.  The candlelight danced on his bright blue eyes through the mask.  It resembled mine, coming to a point below his nose, but his was much shorter and blunter.  It was feathered above the eyes, blending with his unruly black hair.  It was easy, getting lost in in his smile.  I wondered if it was another of his enchantments.

“Look, I’m not here to celebrate with you, alright?  I came here for a reason.”

“Yes, let’s hear it.  What brings you to the Underworld?”

“The Circle.  They’re looking for you,” I answered, avoiding his eyes.

“And this is what you came all the way out here to tell me?  You’re more desperate than I thought.”

“No, I mean they’re looking for you, specifically.  They’ve been tracking you for months.”

“Well, they’re not very good at it, are they?” he said, but even as the words left his lips, I could see the recognition dawning in his eyes.  His grin faltered for a split second, before he could recover.  He leaned forward, again, so that our faces were inches apart.  “How long were you following me before the night in the castle?”

“Two weeks.  You’re cleverer than most I’ve hunted.”

“I think you’re mixing business with pleasure, love.  Are you sure it’s not fate bringing us together?”

“Why are they after you, Gavin?  What have you gotten yourself into?”

“You’re the one tumbling down the rabbit hole.  Now you’ve gotten a taste, you just can’t stay away, can you?” 

“Don’t flatter yourself.  I was ordered to track your movements.  That’s exactly what I’m doing.”

He leaned in closer, holding my eyes with his own.  I could smell the familiar scent of burning wood that always seemed to cling to him.  Somewhere near the house, a faint voice rose in song above the chatter.

“You really expect me to believe that the Circle sent you here, alone, to find me?  Look around you, Lucy.  I’m nowhere near the top of the guest list.  And you’re good, but you’re not that good.  I bet they don’t even know you’re here.”

But they do, I thought.  That’s what I’m trying to tell you.  The singing voice grew louder, drowning out most of the conversation around us.  I tried to pinpoint the source, but couldn’t see beyond the crowd that had gathered on the other side of the patio.  I turned back to Gavin’s face, still intent upon mine.  As I watched the candlelight flicker across the glassy blue of his eyes, I wondered what it was that drew him away from the light.  He wasn’t born in shadow, that much I knew.  Something had pulled him under.  But once you surrendered to shadow, there was no going back.

“They didn’t send me, but they’ll know I’ve gone before long, if they don’t, already.  They want to bring you in and question you.  So whatever you know must be pretty damn important.”

He stared at me for a moment, a somber look keeping his lips from curling up into his usual grin.   I wanted to pull the mask off, to see every thought pass over his face.  My fingers curled into fists in my lap.  He stood up and held out a hand in front of me, and before I had time to think it through, I placed mine in his.  He led me out to the main part of the patio, where couples had begun dancing to the haunting voice that seemed to come from nowhere.  I didn’t know how to dance, having grown up in the conservatory where such a thing was considered frivolous.  There was no need for such instruction.  But his hands led the way, one pulling my palm while the other pushed at my waist.  The movement was hypnotic, along with the heat of his hands on my cold skin.  We twirled and wove our way around the space, in time with the song that was now the only audible sound, aside from my rapid heartbeat.  It hammered its own rhythm inside my chest, much quicker than the pace our feet kept to. 

I tried to remember the reason I had come, the warning that weighed so heavily on my tongue.  I tried to remember the last time his blistering touch had felt alien to me.  I couldn’t.  It felt familiar, now, as we clung to each other in a haze of black satin and moonlit skin.  I tore my gaze away from the deep blue of his eyes to see the faces around us, just as intent upon each other.  A couple twirled just a foot away from us, brushing past in a blur of devilish smiles.  I noticed they had removed their masks, revealing their dark eyes against pale faces.  The woman’s eyes met mine and as she passed, she flashed a wicked grin, her fangs bared to the moonlight.  Her eyes were completely swallowed by shadow, stretching to garish black smudges on her face.  The sight was horrifying and I turned my head away, hoping it had just been my foresight reaching into the shadow within.  Another couple passed on the other side, both faces bare and menacing, tilted toward the sky.  I glanced around, hoping to see the masks that had made the evening seem enchanting and elegant, but there were none.  Every face my eyes passed over was bare and contorted, every hand stretched to claws.  The shadow inside each of them lashed out at me as they passed, as if it knew I was an intruder.

I dropped Gavin’s hand and ran from the patio, pushing past scorching arms and shoulders, until I reached the bridge above the garden.  The snow was unmarred and glistening beneath, and I fought the urge to lay in it the way I had as a child in the conservatory.  I longed for its welcome chill on my skin, in the midst of the black fire around me.  Their laughter rang across the patio and I felt eyes on my back, but couldn’t bring myself to turn around.  I shouldn’t be here, I thought.  The snow had piled on the railing of the bridge, so pure and white against the riotous red handrail.  It felt like a tangible memory; something I could cling to in the middle of this foreign place, and I couldn’t keep my hand from squeezing it between my fingers.  I studied the flakes in my palm, suddenly wishing I hadn’t come to this place at all.  I could almost smell the chill of home, like metallic ice.  But the Circle’s plans echoed in my mind, forcing me back into the moment.  They were coming.  They would descend upon this place and snuff it out, leaving nothing but a black smear of ash and dust.  I pictured the faces again, delighting in the evil that dwelled inside them, and squeezed my eyes shut.  Would it be so bad, letting it happen?  Isn’t that what these shadows deserved?  To be punished for absconding from the light?  Somewhere inside me, something had changed.  I didn’t believe it anymore.

“Is this your idea of blending in?”

I felt his warmth at my side and looked up to see his unmasked face.  I flinched, expecting the same bared fangs and black eyes, but he was just the way I remembered him.  Black hair askew, bright blue eyes gleaming beneath the lights, and that crooked smile that kept him from being taken too seriously.  No, I didn’t believe what they said about him.  Despite the claim the moon had on him at night, there was something undeniably pure in him.  A flicker I had never felt in a shadow before. 

“I don’t think the forecast called for more snow, so unless you’re trying to be discovered, you may want to snap out of it,” he whispered, placing a hand on mine and melting the snow inside it.

I hadn’t noticed the flakes falling through the air around me and shook them out of my hair.  The last few fell to the ground, blending with the rest on the bridge, and the air was still again.

“Sorry,” I whispered, meeting his eyes again.

 “I’m sorry, too.  I didn’t think about how hard it would be for you.  I know how they condition you back home.”

“Is that why they want you?  Are you some kind of spy?”

He laughed, stepping closer to me and leaned against the railing.  “Hardly.  You’re the one undercover, love.”

“Then how do you know so much about me?  About the Circle?”

“I was born into it.  I had their rhetoric shoved down my throat just like you.”

I pulled my hand from under his and the drops of melted snow dribbled off the ends of my fingers.

“They didn’t shove anything down my throat.  They told the truth.  Can’t you see that?  You’re not like these people, Gavin.  What are you doing here?”

“Only enemies speak the truth, remember?  I’m in search of my own truth.  The Circle has you so caught up in this quest for justice, did you ever stop to think about what kind of justice it is?  You hunt down shadows blindly, without a moment’s pause.  Don’t you ever question what they did wrong?”

There was no trace of the grin that so often painted his face a sly shade.  His stare was hard and cold.

“The Circle would never pursue someone unless they were guilty.  My vision is clear.”

“Is it?  You said you came here to warn me.  Am I guilty, too, Lucy?”

I hesitated, swallowing back my initial response.  My conditioned response.  He had woken something inside me, a beast that both lamented and loathed my own task the Circle had laid before me: doubt.

“I know you don’t believe that.  So why don’t you tell me why you’re really here?” he asked.

I turned and squared my shoulders in front of him, pulling the mask off and tossing it into the snow below. 

“You first.  What am I doing here?  You could have kept me upstairs, or let me go.  Why am I playing party favor?” I asked, watching the couples continue their eerie dance on the patio.  Their faces had returned to normal, but their movements were a blur as they twirled over the stone with an unnerving swiftness.

Gavin turned to the crowd and pointed to a man in a simple mask by the pool.  It was the same man that had approached me before I had managed to find Gavin in the crowd.  He was now chatting with the woman in the golden dress I had been watching earlier.  He offered his arm to her and they wound their way up to the raised portion of the patio, near the house.

“Jaiden Reese; the newest leader of our coven.  I wanted you to see what we’ve been working toward.”

I frowned, squinting to pick out the man and woman, who were followed by a few others to the front of the crowd that had stopped dancing and parted for them.  The woman pulled off her mask and was greeted with several gasps from the crowd.  My fingers gripped the edge of the railing tightly as I craned to see what was happening.  My natural eyesight paled in comparison to the sight my ring gave me.  Just as I was beginning to feel like a helpless child, I felt Gavin’s hand slip the ring back to its rightful place on my finger.  The panic that had risen to the brim inside me finally began to ebb and I breathed deeply.

“Think you can manage to listen quietly?  Under the radar?” he asked as I watched the grin return to light his face.

I nodded and turned my attention back to the crowd across the garden.  The woman was much easier to pick out now, her dress almost blinding me as it reflected the lights around her.  The elegant twist of hair at the nape of her neck had turned a pale shade of gold since I had seen her before.  Her hands went to her neck, where a stunning opal necklace followed the shape of her collar bone in a Y, and my eyes picked out the ring on her third finger instantly.  Her eyes were gray and almond shaped as they scanned the crowd warily.  There was a smile on her lips, but up close, it twitched slightly at the corners.  She was on edge, anxiously awaiting something.

As I took in her appearance next to Jaiden Reese, I finally realized why she seemed so familiar to me.  I had seen her only once, though I’d heard of her many times before.  She was a prominent member of the Circle, and the one that had ultimately agreed to the raid they had planned on Shadow Hall.  My grip tightened on the rail.

“Just listen,” Gavin whispered in my ear and leaned down over the edge of the bridge on his elbows.
I attuned my heightened sense of hearing to the front of the group, where Jaiden had just begun to speak.

“Welcome, all, and a merry Solstice.  This will be a very special celebration, one to be remembered for years to come.  If I may, I’d like to introduce a very special guest who has graciously agreed to be a part of our festivities this evening.  In the name of peace and prosperity, she comes before you as an example of hope for future generations.  Please give a very warm welcome to Abigail Ayers, ambassador to the Circle.”

There were hisses and whispers from the crowd, clearly unhappy with the man’s choice of guest.  I watched as their eyes grew to black stains on their faces again and their fangs sparkled in the moonlight.  Abigail took a step back, but kept the hesitant smile pasted on her face.  The whole situation made me feel uneasy and I rocked on the balls of my feet.

“People, please.  I know this is all very unorthodox, but let us move past the unfair conventions that have plagued both our communities for so many years.  Abigail and I have reached an accord, one that, I think, will reshape our future into a peaceful and prosperous one.  Let us lay down our prejudices against each other,” he said with a wink and a convincing smile.

“Peace, Lucy,” Gavin whispered in my ear.  “We are tired of being persecuted.  Abigail has agreed to bring the message back to the Circle and end this war.”

His grin was so genuine, his eyes shining with pride.  This was what he had wanted me to see, that the revulsion between our people would finally be coming to an end.  That our leaders were standing together, united in an attempt to bring peace.  It was a beautiful image, written on the soft curve of his lips.  I only wished that I believed it.

“Gavin,” I started, shaking my head with regret for what I was about to say.

A flash of something reflective caught my eye from the patio and I turned to see what it was, only to realize that the entire crowd had disappeared from view.  There was no pool, no garden, no vast mansion in the distance.  Everything went black for a second and I tried to blink it away.  I could hear a faint voice echoing from somewhere nearby.  My hands still gripped the railing of the bridge tightly, the only thing anchoring me to reality.  All at once, an image of a necklace falling to the ground played before my eyes.  The round opals fell one by one and shattered as they hit the hard stone.  I watched as each one fell, followed by drops of something red that pooled amid the jagged pieces of the necklace.  The image travelled upward from the stone to a man that held something shiny in his white-knuckled fingers.  It was a blade, smeared with red and dripping from the tip.  He wore a devilish grin as he removed the simple black mask from his face, revealing a pair of narrow, green eyes.  I gasped and sprung over the railing down to the snow, desperate to stop the horror playing out before my eyes.  A scream tore the vision away and I looked around to see the party scene had returned.  There was the beautifully lit pool and patio, twinkling in the darkness.  The mansion stood just as foreboding as it had been before.  The crowd that had been listening to the talk of peace was still congregated on the patio, before Abigail and Jaiden.  Only now, every single eye was fixed on me, crouching in the snow before them.

I looked from face to face, stopping on the man next to Abigail.  His green eyes flashed hints of anger as he pulled his arm down from Abigail’s shoulders.  She stared at me, recognition dawning in her eyes, and I realized my fingers were curled around the dagger that was supposed to be sheathed at my thigh.  I didn’t recall pulling it out.  I turned to see Gavin, still standing on the bridge behind me, a horrified look twisting his face and knew I had made a mistake.  What I had seen had not really happened.  My foresight had crept up on me at the most inopportune moment, as it sometimes did.  I had just had a vision of Jaiden killing Abigail.

He waved a hand in front of him and I felt the tingling sensation return to my scalp.  I rose from the snow and saw the ends of my auburn curls return to the platinum shade I was born with.  He looked at me as though I was some kind of insect, a pest that he desperately wanted to squish beneath his shoe.

“It seems we have an intruder.  Welcome to the party, luminary.” 

He pointed down at me as two men in suits came at me from opposite sides.  I thought about running.  It wouldn’t be so hard to take out the two shadows closing in.  But Gavin’s horrified face appeared in my mind again, taunting me.  He would surely be punished for bringing me here.  I couldn’t let that happen.  I let the dagger fall to the snow as the two men grabbed me by the arms and led me toward the house.  I could play captive for a while, I decided.  I knew something they didn’t: the Circle was on its way.