The story so far:
Warm, wet breath enveloped Layla’s cheek, rousing her in an instant. Her eyes flew open and met a menacing stare. A snarl sent a shiver of fear down her spine, but she held her ground and stared back. Soon, the ominous gaze melted into a friendly one, and the dog licked her face playfully. “Good boy,” she whispered, “Sorry to intrude…” She glanced around, becoming aware of the craziness around her. Monsterous metallic beasts roared past the small wooded area she had stumbled upon the night before. Unlike her world of forests and trees, this sparse vegetation was drowning in a jungle of stone and glass. And the people… Humans were walking here, there and everywhere. She kept still and studied some as they passed. Back home, she had no trouble discerning between a fairy in human form and the actual human. In their realm, humans stuck out like a sore thumb. But here, all the faces blurred together, increasing the lonely ache inside. She longed to see a familiar face, a common essence. Another trickle of fear washed through her as she wondered if her human form would blend in, or if everyone who glanced her way would know that she was not one of them. She took a deep breath and whispered peace to her anxious heart. Carefully, she rose, and winced at the unfamiliar pains. She pressed her hands into her back, and worked the kinks out of the muscles. As her hands grazed over the lump in her pocket, she fought the urge to pull out the diamond and study it then and there. The urgency of her mission was overwhelming. She needed Zane to find her. She had to stay hidden from the elves. The paradox frustrated her, and she squeezed her eyes tightly against the searing morning sun.
“You okay, Miss?” came a lazy drawl. She turned startled eyes in his direction and stumbled to make a reply. He grinned and winked. “Skipping school? Don’t worry – I won’t turn ya in.” Layla gulped, and forced a smile, then turned away and attempted a purposeful walk down the street.
As she lost herself in the mass of humans flowing through the streets of the city, Layla mentally skimmed through her years of training to find some morsel of guidance for the current situation. She knew that other fairies dwelt among the humans, but knew also that they were few, and far between. What she could not seem to recall was how to find one. With the heat of the day draining her strength, other needs were brought to mind. She forced herself to focus, heightening her senses. Following the faintest of sounds and smells, she walked blindly through the streets. Soon, her goal was in sight, and she gave a relieved cry as she saw the river ahead. The feel of the cool water against her skin revived her and she drank deeply. She sat back on the bank, and watched children playing in the water nearby. Families dotted the riverbank, and the wafting smells that accompanied them made her stomach growl. But she was stuck in grief’s chokehold, and had no desire for food. Though the trees around were nothing like the forests she had known, their presence comforted her. She climbed through the leafy branches and watched the sun retire. Shadows enveloped, and exhaustion overtook her.
A loud crack punctuated the general’s angry words, and the fly that had borne the brunt of his fury slipped into oblivion. Zane eyed the other guardians, sizing up each for the mission ahead. His mind still whirled with the events of the night before. Somehow, they had eluded the dark prince, escaping to areas known only by the elite. The air was thick with betrayal, and suspicion clouded several pairs of eyes. Zane had worked and fought beside each one of the seven, defending their land from the dangers without. How had no one seen the evil brewing within?
“We must get the diamond, and restore our queen!” Roland insisted. “This has to be our top priority!” Fire burned in his amber eyes, and his muscles rippled under his tunic, emphasizing his rage.
“But what of the castle? What of our people? They can not lose their leader and their protection!” Maggie protested, her ocean eyes belying the pain they all felt.
“We must be united,” reasoned Digby, the oldest of the group. His cocoa skin displayed scars of many battles, giving weight to his wisdom.
General Trine’s head shook. “We can be united, but we can’t be in two worlds at once. And all eight of us are needed to preserve the castle. We do not yet know how many Ras has turned against us.”
Zane met the general’s eyes and bowed his head. “I will go. I will find Layla and bring her back.”
Chelise whirled to face him. “Are you insane? Going to the human world on your own, with Ras hunting us down? There should be a minimum of four who are sent to retrieve the diamond.” Though young, her incredible swordsmanship had earned her a place in the guardians, and her tactical input was invaluable.
Zane stood, determination strengthening his gaze. “I sent our queen into the human world with the apprentice. I am the one who should retrieve them. While the perils of the human world are many, the threat here is much greater.” The dispute rose around him, but he stood firm in his decision.
Finally, the general laid a hand on his shoulder. “Go in peace, my brother, and return quickly.” The other guardians surrounded him, echoing their leader’s words and encouragement. “Go in peace.” A hum filled the room as they focused together, using their combined energy to direct Zane’s journey. He closed his eyes, and opened them again in Austin.
Fighting to maintain her body’s temperature in the blinding mid-day heat, Layla walked the streets once more, desperate for a glimpse of home. The water she had consumed before she set off that morning was a distant memory, and pangs of hunger and thirst drained her strength. Her body shook with the effort of simply placing one foot in front of the other. Desperation melted her brain, and the chatter of the passing people pounded her tired ears.
“Mamacita!” The stares of the group against the wall sent another shiver of fear through her. She guessed they were not much older than herself, but their tanned skin was stretched taught over large muscles, and the wild look in their eyes reminded her of the elves back home. The tallest one approached. “What’s a chica like you doing in a place like this?”
“I must find a mage,” she gasped, backing away.
“I’ll show you my mage,” he laughed, lasciviously. The rest of the boys joined his mocking as she turned and fled down the street.
Panic propelled her another mile before the world blurred around her. Piercing pain shot through her temples and she fell hard to the rough concrete. Fire danced along her skin. Voices faded in and out in the fog surrounding her. She felt herself being lifted, and a cool sensation against her face and arms. Her mouth was opened, and the icy rivulet introduced snapped her out of her daze. She gulped hastily, emptying the glass she’d been offered. The faces around her expressed concern, but none held the tell-tale aura she sought. With a muttered thanks, she tried to stand.
“Honey, you likely have heat stroke,” cautioned an older woman, “You really ought to rest for a bit. Probably need to have a doctor check you for dehydration.”
“But I need to…” Layla’s protest was interrupted by another glass set in front of her.
“She’s right,” said a man, his eyes kind, but stern. “Do you have friends or family I can call to come get you?”
Layla closed her eyes and shook her head. Her fingers drifted to the pocket that held the diamond which trapped the essence of the only mother she’d ever known. The lack of fluids in her body was the only thing that stopped the tears from flowing. As she touched the jewel, a tingle ran through her fingers. The buzz zipped up her arm, flowed through her neck and blossomed into her brain. She took a deep breath against the shock of it, but then her eyes snapped open. A smile played on her lips, and the sound of her voice startled her. “I’m fine, really. Thank y’all for your concern.” Her voice, though hers, sounded off. It’s inflections and intonations were more those of the people around her than her own. The strength that surged through her seemed borrowed as well, and as she disentangled herself from the good Samaritans, she considered the implications.
As the sun wandered closer to the horizon, she caught glimpse of a familiar form ahead of her. “Zane!” she screamed, relief causing her to throw caution to the wind. She ran toward him. “Commander Zane!!!” The man turned, but by then she was nearly on top of him. Unable to stop in time, they were both flung to the ground. Dismay filled her as she realized, “You’re not Commander Zane.”
“Not I, Little Lady,” a twinkle lit his emerald eyes. “But I know why you thought I was. This your first time here?”
She furrowed her brow, afraid to hope she had understood the meaning behind his words.
“I’m Jonas,” he introduced, helping her find her feet. “And I believe we share a similar…” he gave a quick glance around, “…heritage.” A warm smile slid across his face at her confused look. “Come with me.”
As she debated the merit of joining the familiar stranger, a woman joined them. Again, the recognition Layla felt was disconcerting, as she had never before lain eyes on her. Hair the color of dark honey cascaded down her back, and her brilliant eyes shared the same hue of the man in front of her. The glimmer she had searched for… “Are you both…”
Both shot out a hand to stop her, and she felt a surge of hope at the affirmation. “I’m Jayde.” The woman touched Layla’s face, her hair. “Come to our home, it is safe to speak freely there.”
Darkness shrouded the castle, and as Ras stared out the window, the blackness seeped in, filling his mind, stemming the tirade he was spouting. As each day passed, his anger increased. “Incompetent fools,” he growled. Leaving the shaken elf behind him, he stormed to the throne room. Sitting in this coveted place of authority soothed his frazzled nerves. Just a matter of time, he fumed. I just need the jewel. Once *her* essence is destroyed by the mage, nothing will stop me from taking my rightful place as king. A smile played on his lips as he envisioned the coming event. He closed his eyes and let the scene play through his mind. Obsidian eyes snapped open. The time for waiting was over. He would not be content to sit and watch for the elves he had dispatched to return with the diamond. It was a dangerous task, but he would have to face it himself. He ran his fingers over the obsidian jewel in the handle of his sword and felt the familiar pulse surge through his arm, filling his being with the essence of another soul, even blacker than his own.