Genre: Young Adult Urban Fantasy
Title: When Shadows Refuse to Fade
The smog from half-a-dozen school buses fills the air as the deep rumble of idling diesels rattles the ground, signaling the start of another monotonous day at Westgate Prep. Our rusty, green Jeep bounces erratically, the shocks worn from years of proper Jeep use, as Ella and I pull into the last open Senior parking spot.
"Are you nervous for tonight?" Ella asks, pushing a pair of harsh, rectangular glasses into place. A sad smile spreads across her porcelain face as soft, blonde curls bounce above her shoulders. Her lanky arms are covered in a long-sleeved tunic while a pair of leggings wraps to her ankles. The sight makes me sweat.
"I'm not too nervous," I lie, turning the key to cut the engine. "Honest."
She draws back, narrowing her eyes while exhaling in disbelief.
"Raquel, your nails are completely gone," she says, grabbing my hand off the stick shift and waving it in my face, "and I've heard you at night. Your nightmares are back again, aren't they? Mom would go crazy if she knew."
The memory of this morning's emotional goodbye comes rushing back, and my hands suddenly feel the warmth from Mom's as she placed a small mahogany box in my open palms.
"This was your father's," she had said, opening the box to reveal a small dagger inside. "He left it home on, well, on /that/ day," she said, her voice hardly above a whisper. "I want you to have it." She had stopped there, unable to go on.
"Ok, maybe I'm a tad anxious," I admit to Ella, staring into the open backpack in-between our seats and seeing the box peeking out of the top. "But I'm sure it's normal for a Soleian to be uneasy before their first Hunt."
"I hate to break it to ya," she says, pulling slightly on the neckline of my long-sleeved shirt to reveal the three odd Soleian marks above my heart, "but you're not normal, even by Soleian standards."
I yank my shirt up, grab my bag and hop out the door. Ella joins me, and together, we navigate the rows of parked cars. My hands tremble as they mindlessly pick at my non-existent nails. Ella notices, then grabs my arm and puts it around her shoulder. The sweet smell of fresh rose petals fills my nose and I close my eyes, draw her near and kiss the top of her head.
"Hey, it's just a basic Hunt," she says. "Nothing like what Dad was doing, ok? You'll be fine. Plus, the whole Guard will be watching. It'll be like riding a bike with training wheels."
"Maybe for you. You aren't afraid of anything. You're destined to shine. Pun intended."
"Oh, come on. All you need is confidence," she says, giving me a side squeeze. "You've got this." She wraps her delicate fingers around my wrist, and immediately my spirits lift, as if every drop of anxiety is being drawn out.
"Quit it," I say, only the words come out half-hearted.
"I can't help it," she replies with a shrug before taking off after a friend, and my love for her swells. In our darkest days, she was always the one to pull us through. She's a Giver, and even now at fourteen, she uses her Giving well.
By the time I reach the curb, my pants are covered in dust from the unpaved lot, and, by no surprise, a drop of sweat has run down my temple and is threatening to jump off the sharp edge of my jaw.
A small, blue bench, cradled into the nook of a fully grown Desert Willow, sits outside the school's front door. The tree is in full bloom, and the fragrance from its bright flowers envelopes me in peace. I sit on the cool, metal bench in a spot worn gray, and wait.
I scan the crowd of schoolmates, searching for the familiar flash of Kaia's chestnut-colored hair. She's usually here by now. A burning sensation sears through my finger, and my mouth is filled with a bitter, metallic taste. I don't remember putting my hand in my mouth, but I've gone too far, this time drawing blood. A smear of crimson oozes from the tip of my pinky, and my mind wanders as streaks of deep red dissolve away, reforming into the purple-pink colors of California's Redwood Forest. Here, night has fallen, and the Hunt has begun. A smoky shadow beckons from behind a tree, its long, wispy finger calling me to battle. Suddenly, a grisly scream pierces the air. It's a terrible distortion of Kaia's voice, and the deafening noise makes the hairs on my neck stand. My hands automatically summon The Light. A swirling ball of energy materializes in my left palm, illuminating the ground around me. The golden orb pulses with strength as bits of light dance around inside. The shadow recoils, slowly retreating behind the tree, yet is still dark as ever. The Devati have gotten her, and she must be hurt, or worse, dead.
Then I see her, in real life, and the knot in my stomach loosens. The forest disappears and the crowd separates, allowing me a glimpse of her trademark cheeky smile. She spots me in my usual seat and plops down on the armrest beside me, one foot resting on the bench while the other balances on concrete.
"Biting your nails again?" Kaia asks while picking a goat head from the hem in her leather pants. "What's up?"
"Nothing," I reply, shoving balled fists into my lap. "Just wondered where you were."
"I stopped for gas, dingbat," she quips as the warning bell tolls. "You need to relax. Your imagination is running wild." She whips onto her feet in one fluid motion and offers a hand, before adding with a sly wink of her eye, "Again!" I accept her help, lugging my bag onto my shoulder while stabilizing myself on my own two feet.
"At least I care enough to worry when you're late!"
"For ten seconds."
"What's with the leather pants today?" I ask, giving her a once-over.
"I think it's time my wardrobe reflects my personality," she replies, slowly turning on the spot. "What do you think?"
She's paired the leather pants with a fitted, white tank over a visibly black bra. The tank is asymmetrical, and is cut sharply along the bottom. The ensemble hugs every inch of her curves, accentuating her femininity with a fierce exclamation mark.
"I was going for 'bad-ass'. Do you think it works?" she asks, putting one hand on her hip while throwing on aviators with the other.
"It screams it."
"Good." She smiles, adding a strut to her step. "What's on tap for the weekend?"
"Nada." I grimace, walking alongside her. "Mom has me volunteering." The lie tumbles out on auto-pilot, but this time, it's hard to hide the sarcasm in my voice. Luckily, Kaia is distracted by an argument behind us. Ciara, a sophomore with more attitude than all Glendale, stands near the parking lot while a small crowd circles around.
"What's the witch up to now?" Kaia groans.
"Probably beating up another Freshman," I reply, rolling my eyes. "But, if it's not my sister, then I stay clear. Come on, let's go."
"Do you /see/ this?" Kaia says, moving her hands up and down her body like she's showcasing a prize. "/This/ is my bad-ass outfit. And /that/," she says, pointing straight at Ciara, "needs a visit from /this/."