Gusting breezes moved through towering pines, their branches dancing with dappled shadows. The dry California air held traces of campfire smoke and burnt marshmallows. Beneath my feet was a depression, deep and dark, caused once upon a time by an immense and unnatural lightning strike. The body parts and debris were gone, but the epicenter was still black as pitch, a reminder of my long-ago position on this, the stage of my worst nightmare.
I stared at the space before my sneakered feet, where stubborn weeds pushed through the charred surface of rock and crumbled earth. I stared until my eyes stung and watered, until my numbness was shattered by a swift, sharp pain on my forearm. Reflex had me slapping the offended skin, then lifting fingers to peer at a small red welt. The culprit, a mosquito, was smeared on my thumb.
I finally put two and two together.
“This isn’t a dream.”
My voice didn’t sound convinced, but my brain was increasingly so. Yes, this was the campsite where, nearly fifteen years ago, I’d been enjoying time with my friends and fiancé on the evening of July 27. And this was the earth that had been scorched by lightning at midnight on what came to be known as Ascension Day, killing my companions and changing me.
“Indeed, you’re fully conscious.”
I spun to see Lucian Ó Cléirigh, emissary of the White Court of the Fae, standing above me on the lip of the crater. For once, he wasn’t trying to charm me with a smile. His lean, wolfish features were set in somber lines, his usually relaxed mien replaced by the stiffness of military stance. He looked like an alien—a beautiful, humanoid one—with faintly glowing skin, long white braid, and luminous gray eyes.
I didn’t waste breath on a greeting. “What the hell is going on?”
“You’ve completed the agreed upon four weeks in the Sidhe of the White Court. The queen thanks you for your service. You may go now.”
Everything slowed down as shock exploded about a million of my brain cells. I dragged air into my starving lungs. “W-what?” I sputtered.
Lucian, apparently done with the conversation, began to turn away. I scrambled up the side of the crater and grabbed his arm, yanking him around to face me. “What are you talking about? I don’t remember anything. Nothing after you showed up in Montana.” There. A tiny flare of emotion. Which one, I had no idea, but it was something. “What happened, Lucian?”
Warm fingers trailed down my cheek, barely grazing my skin. It felt demonstrative rather than suggestive, confirmed as a muted electrical current followed his almost-touch. Lucian was like me—only the purebred Fae version—and thus touching me couldn’t harm him.
“You did well, Fiona. You were an apt pupil.” A small smile lifted his lips. “A frustrating pupil, but apt. You’ll be pleased to know your special gloves are no longer necessary. Your element has been brought to heel.”
Brought to heel. He was talking about lightning. Freaking primordial plasma. Brought to heel like we’d done nothing so miraculous as potty train a dog. He wasn’t lying; at least, I wasn’t throwing sparks at the moment, which happened as a rule when I was experiencing intense emotion. Right now definitely qualified.
I clenched my hands and felt a deep vibration but no electricity. Stuffing down the panicked thought that I’d been power-neutered, I asked, “Then why don’t I remember?”
The smile vanished. “The White Queen wished it so.”
Spectral cold oozed down my spine. “Something bad happened, didn’t it? What did I do? Insult some royalty? Chew with my mouth open?”
Lucian sighed, his apathetic façade cracking. “I’m truly sorry for the violation of your mind. I argued against it most vehemently, as did several others.” He glanced away. “The queen was not swayed. She felt it in the best interest of the Court for you to forget your time with us.”
He sounded tired and faintly annoyed. There was also a thread of something in his tone I couldn’t put my finger on, something like fondness, only more. It terrified me.
“Uh, Lucian? We didn’t, you know . . .” I waved a hand aimlessly between us.
The pointed tips of his ears went pink. “No,” he said curtly. “Rest assured, you left the Sidhe in the same untouched state you entered it.”
I swallowed a sigh of relief. My rare mix of human and Fae genetics were like catnip to Fae men, who had several millennia of practice seducing human women. A substantial portion of my preparation for the Sidhe had been exhaustive meditation and physical training, both for the purpose of resisting the charms of the Fae. And since Lucian couldn’t lie outright, either I wasn’t as alluring as expected or my hard work had paid off.
“Great. Well . . . okay, then.”
He made a pained noise. “Ever the wordsmith, Fiona.”
Ignoring the affectionate reprimand, I glanced around the rapidly darkening forest. “You’re just going to leave me here? How am I supposed to get back to Montana?”
“Your uncle will be here momentarily.” His eyes found mine again, once more calm, glistening pools. “I am disobeying my queen by speaking with you.”
I rolled my eyes. “Fine. Sorry. Thanks for whatever training you gave me that I don’t remember.”
His eyebrows pinched together. “Is that your sarcasm?”
Feeling a bit slaphappy, I grinned. “Why yes, it was.”
Shadows crowded around him, licking at his light. Not for the first time, I was struck by his unearthly beauty. “You can trust the training,” he said. “It was very thorough. If you have any struggles with your element, call my name thrice. I will come if I am able.”
“Thanks,” I said, sans-sarcasm.
He smiled softly. “One final warning, because you seem to bring out the deviant in me. You spent the last week with another teacher.” At my sharp glance, he added, “A woman. She was helping you hone your ability to perceive auras. I was told they’ll now appear more vivid to you, perhaps disconcertingly so.” He ducked his head. “I didn’t want you to think there was something wrong with you.”
A memory floated forward of a deep, dulcet voice—one I had been doing my best to forget—telling me I could track the resonance left by auras. That I could, and would, for him. Pompous ass. In the end, though, I’d done exactly as he wished. Not by tracking resonance, but by using Sight, a tricky gift inherited from my mother.
I eyed Lucian’s glowing aura, but it looked the same to me, a white radiance like he constantly stood in front of a lamp. “It’s different from Sight, then,” I mused.
“Different from Foresight, yes, but it comes from the same branch of power.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Of the same paternal Fae ancestor, you mean. A Seer?”
Lucian’s shoulders twitched. “We call them Oracles.”
That he looked so uncomfortable was a mark in his favor. Clearly it wasn't a secret that Fae men liked to wine, dine, and impregnate women of my bloodline. The result of such a union, I’d been lucky enough to be born with dormant power. Of no interest to my Fae father, I’d been left in my mother’s care. She, in turn, had passed me off to her husband, Frank Sullivan, who was the only parent I’d ever known. He’d given me a good life, a normal life, for twenty-eight years.
Until Ascension had taken it away.
“And my mother? Can she see auras?” I had no idea why it mattered, but it did.
“Fiona!” hollered my uncle Mal from somewhere nearby.
“Here!” I yelled back.
Lucian said, “Delilah didn’t inherit the skill. But if I’m not mistaken, her Foresight is quite a bit more developed than yours. Power often manifests in the world in checks and balances, as you humans say.”
I nodded, relieved. “I’ll take pretty colors over Sybil-madness any day of the week.”
He glanced over my shoulder. “Anything else, Fiona?”
“Not unless I can convince you to return my memories.”
He shook his head. “Even if that were an option, it’s outside the scope of my power.”
I took a slow breath to calm a sudden burst of temper. “Just so we’re clear, I’m going to get them back whether you help me or not.”
He was silent for a long moment. “I sincerely hope you rethink that course of action. You must believe me, nothing vital was taken.”
“I disagree.” Our staring contest lasted a few more seconds, and he looked away first. “Since you won’t help me, I guess this is our final goodbye. Thank you, Lucian, for the training.” This time I tried to sound like I meant it.
He watched me a beat longer, then turned and strode away. The shadows swallowed him after several feet, and an instant later I heard nearby undergrowth crunching under heavy boots. The swinging beam of a high-powered flashlight found me. Squinting, I offered a middle finger to the spotlight.
“I hate camping,” grumbled my uncle. “Come give me some love, kiddo.”