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          White Lies

by Hannah Rose Williams



The ground was stained red. I had never smelled so much blood. I’d seen it — well, fake blood in the movies — but this — I couldn’t just turn away to breathe fresh air. That smell was everywhere. So suddenly. So — like abundantly. I think I would have thrown up, but I was in too much shock.

          I hugged myself. Because I was cold and because I wanted to hide my bare chest. The smell still stung in my nostrils. The horrible sight wouldn’t go away. And I felt myself moving backwards, to how this ever could’ve happened…

          Almost a year ago, I stepped off the plane and into a sea of red hair.

          That's how it felt, anyway. Not even half the people were actually gingers, but there were still a lot. It was hilarious. At the time, I mean. It really did feel like a different country.

          I drew just as many stares. Probably shouldn’t have worn my cowboy hat. I wasn’t thinking. Lots of people back home wear them. There was also my hoop earrings, blue jeans, cowboy boots, and sleeveless T-shirt with the Chippewa symbol slapped across it. “Red Lake Nation,” it said on the back. It was from a trip to the reservation where my mom grew up.

          Oh yeah, and then there was my long black hair, copper skin, and huge-ass cheekbones. I might as well have bounced down the walkway with a flag for a cape and a big sign that said, “AMERICAN!!!”

          “You’re a real American, aren’t you now?” the customs lady laughed, and I laughed too because her high voice was fluttering all over the place like a bird song, and her T’s were extra sharp.

          As I waited for my cab, a few old people just plain stared, babbled to each other while pointing at me. I couldn’t understand even half of it.          Later, Finn told me that they could have been speaking Irish. I think he meant Irish Gaelic. But there was still a chance I wouldn’t have gotten their English either. Some of those older people have crazy accents.

          The cab driver was only a little older than me, and he hardly had an accent at all. I told him what pub to take me to, then rummaged in my bag to find the directions my friend had sent me. The cabby said not to worry, he knew the place I was talking about. As he drove, I watched the meter tick up and wondered again what the difference was between euros and dollars.

          So, I’d never left America before. Big surprise, right? I’d been debating between coming here to visit one of my best friends, or saving the money and taking a bus to the reservation, maybe to stay there for good. Now, trying to convince the cab driver to take my American money, I felt pretty stupid for choosing Ireland.

          How’d I let Finn talk me into it?

          Yep. My Irish friend is named Finnian Byrne. We met in a common-interest chat room. He was a druid, taught in some kind of oral tradition all his life. I was a baby Wiccan, curious about my new religion’s roots. We talked about, like… abstract stuff a lot, which was cool, because most of the kids at my school weren’t really smart enough to discuss that with me. So as pathetic as it might sound, Finn was my best friend through senior year, before we even saw each other’s pics.

          And then I graduated, and didn’t know what to do with myself. Cathy, the Wiccan lady who runs the used bookstore, took me under her wing all summer. She taught me how to channel and spellcast, and warned me about how dangerous love spells are. Really nice lady. Of course, the rest of town made fun of me for talking to her so much. I wish I lived some place where there weren’t so many Christians. They called us witches and meant it in a bad way, but they spent all their free time binge drinking and having unprotected sex, while I spent all my time talking to mature people like Cathy and Finn and making myself a better person, so you tell me who the sinners are.

When I told Cathy about my dream, she said I should go to Ireland. Actually, she said I had to go.

          I was a wolf, but I also wasn’t, and I was running through a gorgeous moonlit forest with Finn in Ireland. We realized our godhood and started a family on another planet. I didn’t mention that part, because I was embarrassed and hadn’t told anyone about my crush on Finn, not even Finn. What I did tell her was that I saw the goddess (the one I picked out for myself) telling me I was meant for something greater.

          “That wasn’t just a dream,” Cathy insisted. “You’re supposed to go to Ireland.”

          “I can’t afford that,” I said.

I mentioned it to Finn just to test the waters.

“Yes, come visit me! Now’s to book it!”

          Again, I lol’d. But again, he was serious:

          “The clan flies people out to show them our way of life all the time. There’s a fund.”

          I froze. If I agreed now, I would maybe never have a chance to move to the reservation. “Aww, that sounds really nice! But lately I’ve really been wondering what it means to be Chippewa. I need a job so I have a savings to fall back on if I can’t find work on the res.”

          His answer popped up a few moments later. “Come on. Don’t waste your money. Your government will always pay you to live on a reservation, right?”

          I’m not actually sure if that’s how it works. But, long story short, Finn is very persuasive.

          So here I was in a real live Irish pub. Where I was apparently old enough to drink. I have to admit, that was pretty cool, though I didn’t want anything just then. My stomach was going crazy over this whole “meeting Finn” thing. Not because I was scared. If I thought there was any chance that he was a creep, I wouldn’t have agreed to meet him alone in a strange country. That’s what I had to tell Mom over and over. I wasn’t nervous-afraid.

          But I guess my world was changing. Finn was never really real all that time. Back home, Finn was just words on a computer screen. (We usually couldn’t afford to talk on the phone.) If I ever decided I didn’t like him, I could block him and never hear from him again. Now… I don’t know. I wasn’t really analyzing it. I just felt extra aware of everything.

          “Excuse me?”

          It was a woman’s voice. Still, I almost fell off of my stool. I turned to see a girl about my age, big pale eyes and a crazy smile. “Pardon me for asking, but where are you from?”

          “I’m from America!” – I didn’t mean to sound so arrogant when I said it.

          She rolled her eyes, and the eavesdroppers laughed, and I felt like an idiot. “I know that,” the girl said. “Where in America?”

          I blushed. “Montana.”

          “And you’re Native American?”

          “Yep!”

          She didn’t ask what tribe I was. Nobody ever does. Instead, she held up a camera, and now she was the one turning red. “Can I snap a picture with you?”

          I felt like the headline exhibit at the Dublin Zoo. I have to admit, it was a little insulting, but it was also kinda flattering. After a few shots, we traded information and she promised to E-mail the pics to me. Then, I think just because it was awkward, she made excuses to leave.

          “Enjoy your visit!” she said as she left.

          The bartender stopped by to check on me. “I hope you don’t think we’re all starin’ at you,” he said. “Truth be told, most of us don’t think the States are worth shite. No offense.”

          “Uh, okay.”

          “I just don’t want you to think we’re all drunkards and leprechauns, meself.”

          “We’re not all war-crazed Republicans,” I replied. “Or scalping savages!”

          A voice spoke behind me. “That’s good to hear.”

          “Finn!” I yelled, while I started having a heart attack. Before I could get a good look at him, he bent over and hugged me. I returned the hug, kind of like a clothes mannequin would, until he let go. And then… we were face to face for the first time.

          “Hi,” I said.

          “Hi, Ember. Welcome to Ireland.”

          He smiled, and all my nervousness was gone. He was the same guy I’d been chatting with online, except now I could see all his expressions and mannerisms. Funny, when you know someone so well on the inside and still have to learn all the obvious little outside things. His long dark hair had little frizzy curls in it, and his eyes were this totally stunning blue.

          He reached out and patted the shoulder of the friend he’d brought with him. “This is Sean.”

          Sean, who I actually hadn’t noticed at first, was a skinny tan guy with dark eyes and a huge nose. He squinted critically. “I guess you wasn’t joking, Finnian. She really is Native American.”

          “Ah…” I waved him off. “Just call us Indians, that’s what we call each other!”

          Sean got really heated. “No! I’m Indian! You’re Native American!”

          “Okay, okay!” I held up my hands like he had a gun. “Sorry!”

          People were still staring at us — more than they were before, I realized. Actually, they were staring at Finn. I guess he didn’t notice, though, ‘cuz he just kept smiling at me with those beautiful eyes. “I wasn’t expectin’ you to be taller’n me.”

          “Oh!” I showed him the heels on my boots, and we laughed.

          “I feel a little better now,” he said.

          “Finnian,” Sean whispered, leaning close to him and looking around. “I don’t like this. Let’s get back.”

          I gave Finn a look, like, Who’s this psycho you brought with you? Finn mimicked Sean’s attitude, took him by the shoulders, and whispered, “Go wait in the car, mucker.”

          Whatever it is that Finn called him, Sean loved it. His face got all bright for a sec. Then he nodded and shuffled toward the exit. The rest of the bar pretended they weren’t watching.

          Finn’s smile quickly grabbed my attention again. “Sorry,” he said. “Sean doesn’t leave the house much. Yet when he hears I’m comin’ to get you, he insists on tagging along.”

          “What’s his problem?” I asked. “Hasn’t he heard of the Indies?”

          “He’s a literal man.” Before I could answer, Finn caught the bartender’s eye. “Let’s have a Shamy for the lady. We’ll show her what a real drink tastes like.”

          Finn put down a couple of euros as the bartender filled up a glass. “That’s you,” he said when he handed it to me.

“Thanks,” I said. The last thing on earth I wanted to talk about was Sean, but it was better than awkward silence. “Isn’t Sean gonna be mad if we keep him waiting?”

          “Not at me,” he replied, and winked.

          Ugh, I giggled like a vapid little ditz.

          I don’t really know how to describe whatever that beer was, but I liked it. Finn had one, too, and after talking for a few minutes I was feeling a lot more comfortable.

          “I would reckon that Sean is pretty worried now,” he chuckled. “Are you ready to meet the clan?”

          “Ready as I’ll ever be.”

          He looked at the little wheely suitcase I had leaned against the bar. “Where’s the rest of your luggage?”

          “This is it,” I said. “I travel light.”

          He smiled broadly. “I always knew I liked you.”

          That was pretty blunt! With my heart fluttering, I told myself not to overreact. It could be culture difference or something, and anyway, “like” can mean anything. I followed him out. A few of the other patrons accidentally made eye contact for a second. Looking… creeped out. Scowling.

          That was pretty weird. I was worried for a second. Then I thought, screw them! They didn’t know me, and I’d known Finn for almost two years!

          It was a little cold outside. The sky was a pale gray and the sidewalk was wet. Sean had an old car idling right by the front door, and he looked like he’d been leaning over the steering wheel the whole time, waiting for us. I smiled at him. He glared at me.

          Annoyed, I hopped into the back with my suitcase. As soon as Finn was in the front passenger’s seat, with the door closed behind him, I let them have it. “Okay, what is going on?”

          “What?” Finn asked innocently. “Oh, the people in the pub? They think we’re a cult.”

          I let that sink in for a second. “You’re kidding!” After everything Finn had told me about druidism, I couldn’t imagine anyone being freaked out about it. “What is with people?”

          Sean started driving, and God, I am never going to get used to the steering wheel being on the other side of the car. “Most Irish have certain beliefs,” he fumed, “…not to be questioned.”

          “They used to trust the druids,” Finn added. “They came to us for everything. Counsel, medicine, justice, education. Now they’re no inclined to see past their own steeples.”

          “They watch the house!” Sean added.

          Finn kept going before I could ask about that. “Then the Christians came and took us as slaves or forced us to convert. Saint Patrick isn’t even real. Did you know that?”

          I shook my head. “What about people watching your house?”

          “They’re trying to destroy the old ways!” Sean ranted. “There ain’t no place for true druids in this world! Not no more!”

          I kept waiting for Finn to turn to me and say Sean was being paranoid. Maybe he didn’t want to do that in front of Sean. I hoped that was it. He’d tell me if there were any actual danger, he’d tell me before I visited. He’d tell me before I even thought about visiting, because we tell each other everything.

          But as Sean ranted on, all Finn said was, “Don’t worry. The house is safe.”

          My stomach was twisting again, and I wished I hadn’t had that beer. “I know the Catholics and the Protestants are fighting in Northern Ireland, but—”

          “Thing they both have in common is, they don’t want to see paganism come back into power! Which we are!” Sean smiled then.

Finn gave me a confident smile. “You’re safe with me,” he promised.

          We’d already entered this old… folksy part of town. Now we were leaving it for the country. Beautiful round hills, cattle, and farm houses more spread out the further we went. Up ahead this huge stone wall blocked off one estate so I couldn’t even see the house. Loose rocks scattered the ground around it. We turned up the drive.

          Finn reached for what I’d thought was a garage opener. When he pressed the button, the uneven wooden gates swung open. Now I could see the old farmhouse. The only thing new about the place, I think, was the shingles. And I guess those pipes on the outside walls were plumbing, I dunno.

          There was a barn, too, though I’m not sure how many animals were inside it. And there was a cellar. Everything else was beyond the stone wall, which was too tall for me to see.

          As soon as the car was through, the gates swung shut behind us. Sean immediately sighed, like he was real relieved. We’d hardly had a chance to climb out of the car before the front door slammed open and like a million people ran out. I was dumb enough to think they were excited to see me, but they didn’t return my smile. They all looked at Finn like they were scared and hurried over to him.

          “Did anyone try anything?”

          “Thank goodness you’re back!”

          “People were civil, but you could tell we wasn’t welcome there,” said Finn.

          “Oh, my heart’s poundin’! I guess I worry more den I tot I dit!”

          “I got him back safe, didn’t I?” Sean asked loudly.

          Finn gestured to me. “Everyone, this is my guest, Ember Monroe.”

          Then they all figured I was important. I had to force my smile. But once they started introducing themselves, I decided to forgive them. They were nice. Sure, it still seemed a little… weird, even after what Finn had told me in the car. I wondered, did they think he wouldn’t come back at all? But yeah. They were nice.

          One girl a bit older than me, Susan, offered to help me with my luggage. Sean grabbed it then, like he was competing with her to be nice to Finn’s guest. She ignored him and invited me inside. “I’ll give you the tour.”

          “Did we make up a bed for her?” asked Finn.

          “She’ll have to bunk with me,” Susan replied.

          The inside of the house was totally cute. Wooden, creaky floors and everything. The rooms were all kind of crowded, with stuff and people and low ceilings, but it had this real homey feeling that I kinda liked. Nothing like the empty house I grew up in. (My mom had to work a lot.) Susan led the way upstairs, and Sean dragged my suitcase loudly behind us. Finn was at the back, laughing at everyone’s silly, worried questions.

          “We have to share the bed,” Susan told me apologetically, “but I got fresh sheets and I keep to meself.”

          “Thanks,” Finn and I said together, and then we smiled at each other.

Someone approached Finn for a hug, and I lost sight of him as we climbed the stairs.

          Pretty soon it was just Susan, me and Sean, and now we were climbing another staircase. “So… you’re all druids, huh?” I asked.

          “Sean isn’t,” said Susan, and she grinned at the sour face he made. “But I was just initiated two months ago, in another clan, before Finn asked me here. It takes twenty years to learn druidism. Lucky for me I started young!”

          Sean dropped my stuff and trudged downstairs again.

          “What’s his problem?” I whispered.

          “It’s just the way he is. We’re here, anyhow.” Susan opened a creaking door.

          The room was narrow with a slanted ceiling. The bed took up most of it. I wasn’t thrilled about sleeping with a stranger, but at least she wasn’t weird.

          “What about you?” she asked me. “Are you going to learn?”

          “I’m Wiccan,” I replied. Susan’s smile flickered for a second. What was up with that? “I’m not so sure about it anymore though,” I added. “Some of my spells didn’t work last year. I’m trying to learn more about Chippewa spirituality, but I can’t find any good books. A lot of traditions got lost in the last couple centuries.”

          “Missionaries,” Susan snorted. “I am so sorry. You know they burned all our books in the fourth century. Finn gave me to understand that you were interested in our beliefs.”

          “A little,” I nodded. “I’m still giving Wicca a chance, and a lot of Wiccan stuff is tied up with Celtic stuff, so I thought maybe… maybe I was just learning the modern, pop-culture version of something deeper, you know?”

          “So your parents aren’t Wiccan, then?”

          “I don’t know. My mom and me don’t really talk about religion. I was raised with a choice, you know?”

          “She sounds like a fine mother. And your dad?”

          I shrugged. I hate people going “OH I’M SO SORRY” when they find out that I don’t know my father. It’s not a big deal. Susan took the hint.

          “What made you choose Wicca?”

          “It’s kinda funny.” I grinned and sat down next to her. “I went to a sweat.”

          “Sorry?”

          “It’s an Indian tradition. You go underground where they’re throwing water on these rocks, to make steam. It gets crazy hot in there, they chant. It was the first time I really felt Chippewa. It was like coming home. And then… I saw things.”

          Susan sat up straight. “Like what?”

          I giggled. “It’s hard to describe. But it was powerful. It was real.”

          “Brilliant!”

          “Yeah! But I had to go back home, and no one at my school was Indian. So I asked the local Wiccan about what she believed and we became friends.”

          “And the rest is history,” Susan chuckled.

          I realized I should call my mom and tell her I was safe. Finn had told me my cell phone wouldn’t work overseas, but I’d bought a phone card and learned the dial-out number. “Do you have a phone?” I asked, like, rhetorically.

          “We don’t,” she replied.

          That totally blitzed me. “How do you call your family?”

          “The clan is my family,” she replied, but not in a creepy way or anything. “We don’t have any need for contacting the outside world.”

          “Except for E-mail,” I pointed out.

          “No internet, either, I’m afraid. Sorry.”

          Okay I knew that wasn’t true, because otherwise how could I have met Finn? But luckily I figured there was a reason Susan didn’t know about that, and I decided to keep my mouth shut. I’d ask Finn if I could use his computer once we were alone.

 

***

 

          Oh, but no, turns out no one is ever alone here. Especially Finn. Everyone wanted his attention, which left me sitting alone more often than not. But Susan was really nice. The whole clan was, really… We just didn’t have much to talk about. I kind of wanted to cry a few times.

          Halfway through supper, something occurred to me! I almost blurted it out then and there! But the way everyone was craning their necks at Finn, who was sitting at the end of the table… I decided to wait before bringing it up. We had to be alone sometime.

          Susan passed me the rolls. “Are Wiccans inclined to believe in reincarnation?” she asked. I guess she was trying to include me.

          I shrugged. “I’m confused about that…I don’t know if there’s anything that all Wiccans believe. I mean I read about reincarnation in a lot of the books, but there’s also this place called Summerland, the afterworld. It’s where a soul can at least rest for a while.”

          “Oh really, I think that stems from one of our legends.”

          Someone groaned. “Not that again, can’t we just eat?”

          “Ember might not know of it—”

          “Ember!” Finn interrupted. “Are you done eatin’?”

          I was just glad he’d finally remembered me. “Yeah!”

          “You don’t want afters?”

          “What are — No, can I talk with you?” I asked.

          “Yes, let’s have a walk outside.”

          We leapt up from the table and met halfway to the door. No one said a word as we left, but it wasn’t creepy like at the pub. I beamed as we stepped outside.

          Afters are dessert,” Finn said, smiling at me like he thought I was adorable.

          “Oh!”

          He thrust his hands into his pockets and led me across the farmyard. “Was it wrong of me to have you here, Ember? Do you wish you hadn’t come?”

          “What? No! I mean it’s weird, but I’m jetlagged. I’m just figuring out how I fit in here, I guess.”

          Is it weird?” He looked hurt.

          “I’m just adjusting! Don’t worry about it.”

          He sighed moodily. “I’m sorry I left you alone all day. They expect a lot from me. All of ‘em.”

          Then I remembered what I’d wanted to say to him at the table. I managed to hold it in for about two more seconds. “Susan said it takes twenty years to become a druid. You’re only like twenty-six, so how are you a leader?” Finn didn’t say anything. He hung his head, and then turned to survey the yard. I stepped around him so he’d look at me. “Did you lie about being a leader in the clan?”

          “Well… I wasn’t completely honest.” He sighed and grimaced for a moment. “I’m the leader, Ember.”

          I raised an eyebrow. “Are you kidding me? That makes even less sense.”

          “I’ve been the leader for… a very long time.”

          I wasn’t sure about this. “Did you like inherit the position from your father or something?”

          He laughed. “It doesn’t work that way. If things were normal, I wouldn’t be head druid yet. But things aren’t normal.”

          “What do you mean?” I demanded.

          He thought for a moment. Then he seemed to make a decision. “I’ll show you,” he declared. “In just a few days.”

          I’m no idiot. I wasn’t going to give him time to think up a good lie. I think I was just scared, four thousand miles away from home with my only friend acting all weird. So I folded my arms and asked coldly, “What happens then?”

          “It’s what they were talking about in there.” He nodded toward the house. “I wanted to tell you myself. Have you ever heard of the Otherworld?”

          I hadn’t. “If it’s anything like Summerland, then it’s an endless field. A paradise.”

          “The Land of the Immortals,” he said, “the Fae.”

          I shivered a little. This one time on accident, I channeled a Faerie, and it was… it was terrifying. You don’t even know. Faeries aren’t the cute little pixies that everyone imagines. They’re powerful, and I can’t explain why, but the one I saw… I felt like a steak on a plate, and the Faerie wanted to devour me.

          Finn noticed how uncomfortable I was. He smirked. “They speak through me,” he confided. “They have all my life. They’re going to bring us to the Otherworld, Ember!”

          My jaw dropped. “You mean — like, kill you?!” For a second I was imagining everyone lining up to drink Finn’s poisoned Kool-Aid.

          He laughed. He spoke with deep passion, but he was in control, so cool, so sure. “No, that’s just it! We’ll see it without dying. We’ll have our own world, Ember. The druids will have their place in society again!”

          I remembered my dream. This was unreal. “But how do you get there? Where is it?”

          “We’re still figuring that out. But it’s happening soon, Ember. I’m going to channel a Fae this week.”

          I couldn’t begin to tell him how not cool I was with that. But before I could say anything, he touched my shoulder and said, in a soothing voice, “There are no Christians there, Ember. No Muslims. And no atheists. No inquisitions or wars. We’ll be the only humans and we’ll have nothing to fight about!”

          I thought of the kids at school who’d made fun of me. First for being Indian. Then for being Wiccan. The Christian kids looked at me funny, and most of them wouldn’t talk to me much. The atheist kids just sat there smugly, congratulating themselves on being sooo much smarter than everyone else.

          I thought of my people, originally east-coast natives, who had been cheated, then hunted to near-extinction, then relocated to what basically amounted to concentration camps on the cheapest land available. Christian missionaries had forced them to wear stiff shoes and tight clothes, adopt a completely foreign language, religion and culture and start farming, which is something many Native Americans thought was so demeaning that they chose starvation instead. What was left of all those tribes and clans was now one mixed and dehumanized… mess, scattered across a few reservations. Our languages had nearly died out, along with many of our traditions. And then there were people like the Mohicans, Abenaki, Illini, Oltec, Aztec, Maya, and Inca. What was left of them?

          “Why did you come here?” Finn pressed gently. “Why did you choose me over the reservation?”

          I didn’t answer. It was because the thought of going to a res, only learn the bits of my people’s tradition that hadn’t been lost… it scared me. It broke my heart. I was almost ready to declare my own people extinct, and I’d barely even started to think of them as my people. Maybe they wouldn’t even accept me. They all stopped talking to my mother when she left for the white man’s world. They called her a traitor. I didn’t know who I was, but I wanted to be someone.

          “Can you imagine what it would be like?” Finn asked, locking eyes with me.

          “Amazing,” I admitted.

          “Come and hear the Fae speak through me.”

          My voice felt weak. “A few days, you said? I can come?”

          He grinned. “I was hoping.”

 

***

 

          The clan was too big to fit into the den. And it was a pretty big room. With the furniture overloaded and the floor packed, another crowd peered in from the dining room, and another looked down from the stairs.

          Finn made me stand in front of them all.

          “Ember,” he announced, “shares our vision for the White Planet.”

          I looked at him sharply. That wasn’t exactly what I’d said, but I didn’t have a chance to correct him because everyone exploded into celebration. I’d never had so many happy people looking at me before. It was terrifying. But they loved me.

          “Don’t feel like you have to hide anything from her,” Finn continued, and they got quiet again the second he spoke. “She may not be a druid yet, but she’s one of us now.”

          Yet? I hadn’t said anything about ever converting, but oh well, slip of the tongue, we could talk about it later…

          “Show her everything we know,” Finn concluded.

          I blushed. This was ridiculous! But people came forward and started hugging me, more hugs than I’d ever had in my life. Drinks were called for. It wasn’t long before one ended up in my hand. Jet-lag, I explained, I was so tired, but people were finally taking an interest in me, almost too much interest! And I’ll admit, I liked it. I liked having to fight them off.

          Soon everyone in the house was drunk, and I’d been pulled onto the couch by people who suddenly wanted to know my life story. At some point I ended up mentioning a rumor that went around at school a few years ago. An old wives’ tale about Wiccans turning into birds and spying on people. A couple of the dumb kids believed it.

          “I fucking cannot believe the shit some people fucking believe!” I slurred. “I mean who thinks fucking shapeshifting is real?!”

          “It is!” yelled one of the Michaels, who was very, very drunk, so I ignored him.

          “It’s fucking medieval paranoia!” I ranted. “Sure, some people can channel and see through a bird’s eyes, but—”

          “If the spirits give you the senses of a wolf,” said a girl named Tara, “the strength of a wolf, the appearance of a wolf— well then you might as well be a wolf then!”

          “Bang on!” someone shouted.

          Wow, they really were drunk. Sitting up as tall as I could, I bellowed, “I’ve never heard of anyone who—”

          I never finished that sentence. Right then, Sean tucked his head in and rolled forward.

          And unfolded somehow, into a giant, white wolf.

          His clothes had disappeared. Even his drink had vanished at some point in the transformation. He/it had huge paws and long tufts of fur at the tips of his ears. The fur around his/its shoulders was so thick it looked like a mane. The wolf-druid loomed over me, staring with yellow… intelligent eyes.

          I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I bet I was as pale as the rest of them, then. But that noise… I realized everyone else was laughing and applauding. Next thing I knew, someone else had changed into a wolf. Then a white raven or whatever was cawing as it flapped over my head. Wolves appeared everywhere, lumbering back and forth on padded paws.  The ones who stayed human laughed and chanted and cheered.

          I slumped against the couch. I might have lost my grip on my drink, I don’t remember.

          “Stop!”

          The noise ground to a halt. One of the wolves instantly turned back into fully clothed Sean. It’s like he was popping out of a reversible jacket. He crouched on the floor, eyes full of fear, maybe hoping that no one had seen him transform. The others changed back, too. Silent, clumsy, mortified.

          Finn stood in the doorway. And he was furious.

          “Finn,” I began, in a teeny little voice, calling him. He was the only thing here I still understood. My head was throbbing.

          “There is no shifting in this house!” he yelled, like he’d said it before, like they’d done something terrible.

          No one dared to argue. But some of them started to cry. “Sorry, Finn!”

          “Do you think they aren’t watching us?” Finn raged. “Walls can be climbed, you know! This room is full of windows!”

          “We’re sorry,” someone wimpered.

“We’re so sorry!”

          That night, I threw up in Susan’s bed.

 

***

 

          “No! Shut yer mouth, Ember, we’ve done something terrible! How could this happen?! He told us not to shift above ground or by windows, he said!”

          It was 2 PM, and the clan had been sad and quiet all day. Sean was on the verge of tears. He kept staring off down the hallway as if he expected to see Finn with grim reaper scythe. “What if someone from town saw us? Teenagers sneak over the wall sometimes. And the garda, they’re watching us! That’s why it’s not allowed! We aren’t safe from them! They’re all against us, th’ narrow-minded bastards! You don’t know, you’ve just got here. We never leave the farm. Not even for groceries, they’re delivered outside the gates! Picking you up at the pub was the first time in years!”

          I’d totally had it with Sean’s insanity. He didn’t value free will, his or anyone else’s but Finn’s. I was ready to quote the Rede to him like some Pagan kind of Bible thumper. An harm ye not, do what thou wilt. I kept trying to say, “You weren’t hurting anyone!” But in Sean’s mind, disobeying Finn was like disobeying… I don’t know… a god.

          Himself was right! Imagine if people knew we really had power! They’d think anything else they say about us could be true, too. Soon they’ll say we do human sacrifice, or, I don’t even know, and they’ll be mad with fear, they’ll kill us!”

          “Look!” I yelled. “You don’t know that! And Finn’s a good guy, he isn’t going to kick you out or anything!”

          “And he’s a good leader,” Sean said, almost like I hadn’t been talking. “He’ll protect us. He won’t stay angry forever…”

          I might. I couldn’t believe how unfair Finn was being. These people had amazing abilities, and if they wanted to risk discovery by using those abilities, that was their right. I didn’t care if Finn was special, or head druid, or whatever.

          I still hadn’t contacted my mom. She was probably really worried, and pissed. “Where’s Finn’s room?” I demanded.

          Sean looked at me, really looked for once. For a sec I thought he was going to call me some name, but I guess he’d changed his mind about me. “The master bedroom,” he said. “That way…”

          It was the only room with a closed door. I knocked loudly, and I didn’t have to wait long.

          When Finn cracked the door open, the look on his face was — I almost laughed at him. He looked so strict and condescending. When he saw it was me, he smiled a little and opened the door wider… though not wide enough for me to come in.

          “Don’t you think you’re being hard on them?” I demanded.

          “Oh,” he joked, “after they’ve made a pilgrimage on their knees and said a few hundred Hail Marys, I’ll—”

          “It isn’t funny,” I said. “And I need to use your computer.”

          “Ah—!” He looked past me, scared that someone had heard. Drawing me into his room, he shut the door tightly. Turning to me, he said loudly, “We don’t have contact with the outside world.” Then he motioned for me to be quiet. After thinking for a sec, he walked over to a stereo, turned its speakers to face the wall, and turned it on with the volume loud.

          I lowered my voice. A little. “So like how exactly did you explain your internet friend to them?” I demanded.

          “They wouldn’t understand! I told them…” He looked bashful then. “I told them that we met in dreams.” The way he said it stunned me a little. Hopeful, I looked up into his eyes. He glanced away. “Ember, I need the computer to… to talk with people like you. It’s important.”

          “Were you…” My mouth was hanging open too much for me to talk. “Were you recruiting me this whole time?”

          “No! But I needed you all the same, you see? I needed to know what kind of spiritual activity was going on in other places and other people besides ourselves.”

          I calmed down a little. But still… “Last night was totally out of control! You were being a dick. And I never said I wanted to be a druid!”

          He nodded. “I’ll tell them you haven’t joined us. It’s fine, really. I wasn’t trying to force you to join, you know. Our organization is massive. I’ve brought in many new druids since my birth.”

          Wow, arrogant much? All I said was, “Great. So can I tell my mom I’m safe, or what?”

          He sighed sadly. Then he led me to a little closet.

          The walls were lined with books. Not even shelves, just old books stacked halfway to the ceiling, a tangle of blankets and pillows on the floor, an old TV/VCR, and a laptop. He signed on for me. Satellite hookup.

          As I signed into my E-mail, he said, “I’m sorry I let them think you were converting. It was accidental.”

          “Okay,” I said. I just didn’t want to be mad at him anymore.

          “I’m…” He looked down for a long moment. He toed the hardwood floor with his sneaker. “I’m really glad you’re here, Ember.”

          My heart melted a little. “Me, too.”

          He smiled at me. A real smile. I suddenly realized how much older he was than me. But no one knew me like he did.

          Someone knocked at the door. Finn motioned for me to stay in the closet, then walked over to peek out. Someone choked out something about just wanting to see him, and he stepped out to talk. He’d probably be gone for a while.

          I turned back to the computer. Now that I could finally E-mail my mom, I wasn’t sure what to say to her.

 

Made it! Sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, but I was sooo tired. Finn’s great. He’s just like he is on the internet. So not a stranger! Everyone else here has been really nice, too.

 

          I stopped typing, biting my lip. I couldn’t tell her about people turning into animals. What else could I tell her? “I’ll be home soon?”

          I realized I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go home. I could believe in Summerland… and I love my mom and all, but… I really wanted to see it.

          And then there was my dream. What if Cathy was right? What if it was more than a dream?

          I didn’t have many E-mails that weren’t from my mom. After clearing my inbox, I stopped to look around. Once again, I was realizing that even though Finn would always be my best friend, he was much more “real” than I’d thought. I mean, people are complicated. They have all this depth you’ll never know. Like now. I wouldn’t ever have dreamed I would someday sit in a closet full of weird books. A lot of them were journals filled with symbols made from lines and triangles.

          There were videotapes, too. Not marked, only dated. Though the tapes themselves looked pretty new, the videos must have gone back almost thirty years…

          I turned down the volume on the TV/VCR. I’d still be able to hear it, and with Finn’s stereo playing, nobody would know. I popped in the oldest tape.

          The footage was shaky and blotchy, like it had been copied from film. I saw a room without windows or doors, crowded with white people in white robes. One of them, a woman, held a naked baby boy.

          The baby’s huge blue eyes ran across the room, happily soaking everything in, his arms and legs waving compulsively now and then, especially when he saw something he liked. Normal baby, as far as I could tell. They should’ve at least had a diaper on him.

          The woman set him on a table in the middle of the room. He was so tiny and weak. She had to put him down so gently. No one said a word as he lay there, kicking. He grabbed his own foot and stuck it in his mouth.

          “Aww,” I laughed.

          An old man in the corner of the screen spoke up. “Finnian,” he said. “What should we do?”

          The baby’s face went blank. He let go of his foot. Then this calculating look appeared on his face. He gracefully pushed himself up.

          My eyes widened. I don’t know much about babies, but I’m pretty sure most of them can’t sit up when they’re that little.

          It got worse. The baby’s head turned, without wobbling, to survey the room. And it spoke in a man’s voice.

          That was when I got dizzy. I couldn’t really understand what the baby was saying. Part of me knew it was clear English, but I was too freaked out to focus. I punched the eject button, snatched the tape, and shoved it back into its place.

 

***

 

          I was in shock for a while after that. Kind of kept to myself. I don’t think anyone noticed, since they were all still scared that Finn was going to punish them. Oh, fuck, for turning into birds and wolves! Seriously! What was happening to my life?!

I guess I’d always believed in weird stuff and I guess Finn had told me that the Fae always spoke through him, but damn! I caught myself staring at him. And he looked right back at me, with this little smile, like maybe he knew somehow that I’d watched the video.

          But I realized that, even though I was scared, I was also excited. None of this was hurting anyone. And now I’d experienced proof of all the things people laughed at me for believing in. If only they could see me now!

          These people around me — I’d been looking down on them because I’d thought they were a little crazy. But they’d invited me into their home and treated me like a member of their family. And I mean, I’d never had a real family before. It was nice. It wasn’t like they were weird. They were just childlike. They’d never lost their… their sense of awe.

          And hell, why not? They were part of something big.

          Why wouldn’t I want to be a part of this?

          The more time I spent with them, the less I felt like I could ever stand to leave. I was hardly ever alone. How did I spend so much time alone after school? How did I stand it? This might sound dumb, but being with Finn’s clan was like being wrapped up in a big hug all the time. I loved the way people talked to me here — they gave advice without sounding like they were giving advice. I even missed them when I went to the toilet, that’s how often I was with them. And I got used to how weird the toilet is. And I got used to the no hot water.

          Their mission was real. The clan had already built their own world; they just needed a place to plant it. And it would be wonderful. They were all about freedom and love. The more time I spent with them, the more I realized I’d only been a little girl playing with wands and candles. I guess that’s why my spells hadn’t worked: It had never, for a second, been about anyone but me.

          And I realized one morning, I collected eggs in the chicken coop — that even if the thought of leaving with the druids still terrified me — I knew more than ever that I had to do it. They were the home I had always been looking for. Finn was

          Well, anyway. Months went by, and I fell in love. With the clan, I mean! They were all so open with each other, so understanding, that it was easy for me to open up to them. I didn’t mind how cramped the house was anymore, or the fact that I had to share my bed with Susan. Susan was like a sister to me now.

          Finn’s computer broke and I couldn’t E-mail my mom anymore. But after a while I stopped worrying about it.

          The big channeling event kept getting postponed. I forgot about it.

          At least, I forgot about it until the day Finn whispered to me, “We’re contacting the Fae after supper. I want you to be there.”

          “Uh, okay.” I remembered that Faerie I’d channeled so long ago, and instantly felt all wobbly. I hoped Finn wouldn’t notice.

          I didn’t eat that night. I sat on Susan’s bed, fidgeting, praying that the goddess would give me peace. The door creaked open. I looked up to see Finn.

          We didn’t say a word. He crossed the room, drew me to my feet, and squeezed my hand briefly before letting go. “Follow me.”

          I did follow him, downstairs, outside, and across the lawn. Maybe seven of the oldest druids were waiting by the cellar doors Finn had visited many nights without me. When they noticed me, they made curious faces.

          “She needs to see it,” Finn explained.

          Some of the elders looked uncomfortable with that idea, but nobody spoke a word. They nodded and sent me tight smiles.

          Finn pulled a key out of his pocket and handed it to one of them. She bent to unlock the cellar doors and then, as they were pulled open, returned the key to Finn. Kinda weird, but whatever.

          The sun was already hidden, and the cellar stairs descended into pitch blackness. The elders went down first, and when the first one reached the bottom, a light bulb flicked on. I felt a little better then. I realized I’d been afraid of the dark, and smiled a little.

          “Shut the doors behind you, Ember.”

          I did, and crept down after them.

          The cellar was small and bare. But not gross. There was an old chair in the center of the room, carved to look like an oak tree. One of the walls had a bunch of white robes hanging on it, with long staffs between them. The staffs were pointed with curved sickle blades.

          I had always thought it was a myth that druids wore white robes. But then, nobody knew about these druids. And I guess they called themselves the White Planet.

          Finn and the others pulled the robes over their normal clothes. Feeling useless, I retreated to an empty corner and watched. The floor was dank and cold, like the air. When I realized this was the room where that video had been filmed, I shivered.

          Finn pulled up his hood and lowered a crown of gold oak leaves over it. Like I’d expected him to, he walked over to that big cool chair and sank into it, cradling his staff in his arms. He acted like it was made of glass. It was older than the other ones. I guess it was mostly symbolic. The elders sat on the floor around him.

          They didn’t chant or sing or say any magic words. But I felt the air getting thicker, heavier, kind of vibrating like it was alive. I was maybe six feet behind everyone else, but it felt like someone was standing right next to me. All around me. I felt a rush of cold flood the veins in my legs, and I looked at Finn.

          His beautiful eyes somehow reminded me of an emptying glass, like all his personality was being sucked out through a straw. When he straightened and looked around, he wasn’t Finn anymore. His face… I don’t know. Was just different somehow. His eyes glittered like… I don’t know. I don’t. But I didn’t like it. Now I wished I had watched the end of that tape.

          He spoke in a tone I had never heard before. “I am Arizellane.”

          The elders sighed in relief and gasped in excitement. “Welcome, Arizellane,” someone murmured.

          “My compeers tell me your numbers are now great. Are you prepared to reclaim our world?”

          “Yes,” was the whisper.

          “In the language of the Fae, its name is Lenovra.”

          An elder sighed in awe. Like a parent learning the name of the baby she was about to adopt.

          The Fae motioned for silence. Finn’s eyes were narrow and grim. “We will be glad to send you a guide to our world. But that will only be the first step. You will yet have much blood to shed.”

          Nobody breathed. Inside, I was going crazy. Whose blood?

          “The Fae are not as they once were. Some of us have broken away from our original forms. They are now physical, mortal… and evil. Since their alteration, they have brought chaos and war to our realm.”

          Everyone wilted in despair. One of the elders was ready to cry.

          “They can be killed,” Arizellane reminded us, “and this will cause them to be reborn as pure beings again. We will gladly help you through the dimensional barriers if you will free them. We will lend you still more power. But are you willing to make the sacrifice of war?”

          “We’ll do what we have to,” said an elder. “If the one whose body you’re in… if he agrees to lead us.”

          There was a pause. “It pleases him,” Arizellane said finally, using Finn’s lips to say it. Oh Finn, please be in there. I’m all alone! “We have been with him since before he was born. He is wise. Only one thing, then, remains. You must amass your forces. Bring them here. Enter the portal.”

          Finn’s face went blank again, and his head fell hard against the back of the chair. When he blinked, I almost cried. It was him. The cellar felt much, much bigger now, clearer, and I sighed. Arizellane was gone.

          But nobody else was excited about it.

          “Wait, that can’t be all…?!

          “What portal?!”

          “She’s gone,” Finn said. He looked confused. He also looked like he was trying to hide it.

          I just wanted to tell him how glad I was to see him.

          “Finnian, what are we supposed to do?” an elder cried.

          “Send for the rest of the White Planet, obviously,” he retorted. “Trust that the Fae know what they’re doing.”

          “Hello?” A voice echoed from the stairs. “Is anyone down here? Excuse me!”

          Everyone scrambled to their feet. “Ember, I thought you closed the doors!”

          “I did!” I cried, horrified to see them holding their staffs up like weapons. I turned, and yes, someone was coming down the steps. Leather boots appeared, hesitating. Then an Asian guy bent down and peeked at us... and slowly raised his hands. He wasn’t armed.

          I say he was Asian, but I’m not sure — he probably had some white heritage, too. He was cute. Not very tall or built, but he still had a sort of athletic look. The tips of his longish black hair were dyed bright red. He wore fingerless gloves, a form-fitting leather jacket, and durable tan pants. A few belts looped around his waist and legs, where dozens of charms and amulets jingled softly. I recognized an Egyptian one. But they all seemed to be from different eras and cultures.

          “Um. My name is Dom Thorne?” he said, in a sort of British accent. “I was sent by Arizellane.”

 

***

 

          Dom had asked for water. Crowded in the dining room, the clan offered more, but water was all he wanted. He did look kinda pale. Finn was at the head of the table, as usual, but he’d made sure Dom was right there next to him. He held our visitor’s gaze, so compelling that even I couldn’t look away, and asked question after question.

          “I know more than one way to cross dimensions, though I don’t use every method,” Dom was answering. “Sometimes I cross paths with other D-hops — that’s what we call ourselves. Some find other worlds by accident, or using gadgets involving some near-impossible kind of arithmetic, or magick. I use magick.”

          “And you’ve been to the Otherworld, then?” Finn asked.

          Dom looked confused for a second. “Oh! No, but I’ve met beings like your Arizellane. With enough meditation, I know they could show me the way. That’s why they sent me. That’s not what you need to worry about.”

          That was when he decided to finish his water. We all waited, holding our breath. I think for a second there Finn struggled to keep his smile going. “There’s a problem?”

          Dom sighed and lowered his glass. “Right, well, moving to another dimension could make you a dangerous enemy.”

          “We won’t be trespassing on anyone’s land,” said Finn, “only driving bad spirits out.”

          “I agree. But the way some look at it, you’d be spreading diseases and stealing resources. Some even think it unbalances the universe, causing unthinkable disasters.”

          Finn’s eyes narrowed, but not in a threatening way. “And what are you thinking?”

          “I haven’t seen any evidence for it,” Dom shrugged. “What matters is that the Ex-D believe it.”

          “The Ex-D.”

          “Silly name, innit? But you learn to fear it. If they catch anyone leaving his home world, they kill him and anyone associated. They have militias in, I dunno, maybe hundreds of worlds, just watching their fancy computers and waiting for someone to cross their dimension.” Dom lifted his glass, realized it was empty, and continued: “I suggest you team up with them.”

          Finn almost laughed. “You’re serious now? — Una, run and fetch more water for Mr. Thorne.”

          “Thanks — and yeah, I don’t love the Ex-D, not by a long shot, but this is the safest move. Tell them how great your numbers are. Tell them that Lenovra is your home world and the corrupted spirits are the invaders.”

          “We don’t need their help,” Finn said gruffly. “We need to keep them from noticing us.”

          “Wrong. You need their approval so they never come after you.” Before Finn could argue, Dom held up one hand. “Look, right? As far as I can tell, the Ex-D is a cult. It’s not run by people what believe. Just the soldiers believe. I absolutely hate the gobshites. But if you want to stay on their good side, I say throw in with them.”

          I squirmed. This was wrong. This was all wrong.

          Finn seemed to agree. Bristling, he said, “They sound psychotic, and you want us to be allies with them.”

          Dom sighed grimly. For a moment he didn’t say anything, and when Una came back with the water he ignored it. “You can tell his force that you belong in Lenovra, and they’ll die to get you safely home. You tell their general that this war will hurt Inter-D…”

          “Inter-D?”

          “The Alliance of Dimension Travelers. They pick up the Ex-D’s pieces. Mercenaries disguised as philanthropists. We can lure them in easy enough. Imbeciles. The Ex-D general loves slaughtering them.”

          Finn looked at me incredulously. I was so glad he felt the same way about it that I did. “You want to turn a war with two armies into a war with four! That’s mad!”

          “Wrong again, Byrne. That’s the plan. That’s why Arizellane sent me. I’m to make it happen.”

 

***

 

          That night, even more than usual, we all had questions for Finn. I had decided not to even try talking to him about what I’d seen him do, channeling something so powerful, so easily. But there was something else that I didn’t understand, that I couldn’t talk to Finn about because we’re never alone.

          I had just started a board game with Susan. I was feeling sorry for myself when Finn actually came looking for me. He pulled me down the hallway and into a cranny where maybe no one could find us, out of the way and out of the light. Susan said nothing. Just started looking around like she was standing guard for us.

“That was one of the most scariest, amazing things I’ve ever seen,” I told him. I laughed nervously. “The other one being, you know, the shapeshifting.”

          “Right, but we need to figure out how to get you home, and soon.”

          “But…” I went numb. What he’d said had just devastated me. And the fact that it devastated me… shocked me.

          Finn didn’t seem to notice, just kept right on with that sexy, concerned look. “This business is getting more dangerous by the day. I don’t want you here when someone from the Ex-D arrives. Ember, I honestly didn’t think what I was getting you into—”

          “I want to stay,” I blurted.

          He looked at me, just a little doubtful.

          I continued. “I would be honored to be a part of something like this. The story of the White Planet. And I’m terrified, don’t get me wrong, but—” I laughed again, kind of embarrassed. “I feel like you guys are my family.”

          A grateful look washed over him. He squeezed my arms for a second. “You want to stay, then? Really?”

          “Can I?”

          “I thought you didn’t want to be a druid.” He took a step back, looking around and rubbing his jaw. “And we don’t have twenty years to make you one, do we?” he asked, and more disappointment closed in on me. “And us having a war on our hands…”

          I dove forward and hugged him. I hadn’t hugged him since the first time, when we met, and it was all I’d wanted to do since I first saw him. I felt like an idiot when I started crying. “I never want to be away from you.”

          His hand caressed my cheek, his thumb wiped a tear. God, he likes me back! After a long pause, he said, “You’ll need to learn how to shift before we go…”

          I drew back a little to look him in the eye. “Finn, thank you!” I cried, diving into another hug. He stumbled backwards, taking me with him into the hallway. I saw Susan watching us before he pushed me behind the wall again. He kissed my forehead impulsively, and then we both blushed.

          “The cellar,” he whispered. “Meet me there at 3 AM. To learn to shift, I mean. It’s the only safe place to change shape,” he explained.

          My heart thumped. “What about Susan? She’ll notice me sneaking away—”

          Finn’s mouth twitched. “I think you’ll find she can keep a secret.”

 

***

 

          The first time I changed shape, I hardly noticed. I thought I’d just fallen over.

          Crouching in the pitch dark cellar, with only a little moonlight flooding down from the stairs, I sighed and wished someone besides Finn was teaching me. Someone I didn’t mind embarrassing myself in front of. I’d just done a somersault and landed on my chest, face full of dirt.

          But then Finn said, “You did it!”

          On my first night of trying? I lifted one arm, looked… and one feathered wing stretched out from me. I was a white raven, like Finn!

          I tried to speak then, and it came out as a garbled squawk. Finn laughed— “Caw, caw” —and without moving his beak, he spoke in his normal voice. “Let’s go.”

          He flapped and soared upstairs, into the bright night.

          “Wait,” I tried to say, and another awful noise rose from my throat. I ran after him on my short little legs, jumped—

          I was in the air, gliding upwards.

          Turns out flying is pretty easy. I hardly had to flap my wings. And I guess ravens see and hear everything like people do. At least, magical raven forms do. As we rose above the farmhouse, everything clear and sharp, Finn led the way over the wall.

          Now, plenty of parts of America are beautiful. But I’ve seen it. When you go somewhere new, even the most common plants are weird and interesting. Every little thing is different somehow. While the wind raked over my feathers, I stared at the hills, the moss, the jutting boulders, the tall twisting trees as old as the island. Finn guided me over three neighboring farms before the woods grew thick, and we floated down to land in its deep shade.

          Just before hitting the ground, Finn flared his wings and somersaulted, unfurling into a man again. Like an idiot, I tried to do the same — and went tumbling across the rough ground.

          And for some reason, I was naked.

          Finn burst out laughing. He wouldn’t shut up, honestly, as I struggled to cover myself with my hands and ran behind a tree. Like it wasn’t already humiliating before the impossible lack of clothing. Where were my clothes?!

          “What harm?” Finn gasped, and laughed some more. “I thought Wiccans did all their ceremonies in the nude!”

          It’s called skyclad. I’d read that it represented unity with nature, with the All, but Cathy said it was a mistranslation of the Aradia, probably because Gerald Gardner wanted to see some boobies. Since there wasn’t a coven in our small town, I couldn’t ask anyone else about it.

          “What happened to my clothes?” I squealed.

          “I dunno!” he chortled. “They might be back the next time you transform. Don’t be so prudish, Ember. You have a nice body, you know, nothing to be ashamed of.”

          “Easy for you to say!” I snapped, and stayed behind my tree.

          “Here!” he said. I heard some rustling and peeked out to see him pull at his white robe, tugging it off, and then his regular clothes, too. Totally naked, he spread out his arms to taunt me. “Now we’re all naked, so come out and focus on your wolf form. Up you get!”

          You need to understand. Finn didn’t have to do things like this just to get a girl alone. There were plenty of pretty girls in the clan who would have thrown themselves at him, girls who didn’t have my manly shoulders and funny mouth. But still, this was weird, right? Thinking about it, I stayed where I was and squatted, fuming. Maybe I would be a wolf before he saw me again.

          Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to focus. I only ended up flopping out into plain view. Still a girl. Still naked.

          This time, Finn managed to keep his laughter inside. “Yer angry,” he said. Uh, duh. “Relax, and focus. You’ve changed twice already now, remember that.”

          He ducked, rolled, and unfolded into a pale form three times my size. Giant paws, thick fur, gorgeous. Kingly.

          I realized I’d been acting childish. Finn wasn’t a predator (nevermind how ironic that was with him being a wolf now), he was interested in me. I brushed my hair back and looked away. Like he’d been telling me all night, I concentrated on not concentrating.

          After a few minutes, I sighed. “I don’t know, maybe that last transformation was just a fluke!”

          “Crybaby. I won’t look.” Finn sat back on his haunches and stared through the trees, out at the nearby field. I did the same, trying to chill. Minutes ticked by.

          “You know what’s great,” he said conversationally. “You’re not afraid of me. And you don’t worship me.”

          “Heh. Anytime you need to be knocked down a peg, I’ll be there,” I teased.

          His laugh came muffled from his furry body. “I’ll always need that.”

          Suddenly I got scared. That he would want to be more-than-friends, and I wouldn’t know what to do, and I’d end up stuck out here without any friends at all. Don’t get me wrong, being Finn’s girlfriend was an exciting idea, too. It’s just that I was so far from home.

          I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and cleared my mind again. I felt the power seeping in, filling me.

          The next time I rolled, I landed on four paws in wolf form. Even though Finn was bigger than me, I was still huge. I felt like I could rip apart anyone who messed with me. I looked at him, grinning, and felt a long pink tongue flop out of my mouth.

          Finn chuckled. He lunged at me with a snap and bounded away, into the underbrush.

          I chased him. We were faster than we had been as ravens, or maybe it felt faster, being so close to the earth, moving so vigorously. It was like one of those moving floors they have at the aiport, except with a wind in your face, running its fingers through all your glorious fur. I didn’t feel the saplings as their branches slapped at me. I didn’t feel my claws dig into the earth. I just felt awesome.

          I saw Finn’s tail, a blank flag in the darkness, taunting me before slipping away. I nipped at it playfully. He turned in mid-stride, and I saw him snarl. We ran in circles under the trees.

          I felt a brief pain when he caught my ear in his teeth. Yelping, I scratched at him. He let go — and then he rammed me in the side to knock me over. My hind legs kept me stationary, and we rose with our foremost paws in the air, boxing at each other.

          I toppled. A bunch of ferns caught me rolling. Finn was there, shoving at me. I shoved back. I realized we were human again, skin on skin, no natural weapons. One of his arms looped around my waist, the other behind my head, and he pushed me onto my back. A thrill shot through me.

          He eased off just as quickly, blushing. He wanted me. I could tell that pretty easily. I realized he’d probably always wanted me. Everything he’d done or said all this time might have been a trick to get me here, naked, under him.

          “I didn’t mean…” he began, but only to make me insist, I knew.

          Just like he’d manipulated me into begging to stay, into giving him my money, and fighting his war, and leaving my world. The bastard.

          And I didn’t care. I loved him. I wanted him.

          It was just too easy to pull his head down and kiss him.

 

***

 

          Dawn was breaking as we flew home. Watching Finn’s wings flap gently in the air, I kept remembering his human body, naked in the starlight. It made me want more. It made me afraid. Finn had probably slept with a lot of other women in his clan, I kept thinking. Not that it was a big deal. I mean, he hadn’t been my first, either. I was just unclear on what our relationship was exactly, now that we’d done it. I had to be mature about this. He hadn’t actually made any promises. I shouldn’t hold him to any promises.

          I hoped he loved me back.

          We swooped over the farmyard’s wooden gates, and I blinked, back in the present. The gates had been blown open. They were lying on the gravel drive, cracked and burning. A dozen government vehicles surrounded the battle-damaged house. And someone lay dead on the step. Cops shoved clan members outside, making them step over the dead man.

          Finn circled the property once before landing on the wall. I fluttered after him. As a deafening helicopter swung over us, we counted the enemy. We could hear the barn being searched. What could they be looking for?

          “We didn’t do anything!” Sean was screaming. “Let Finnian go!”

          “Where is he?!” Una cried. “What have you done to him?!”

          Most of the clan was stretched on their stomachs with their hands behind their heads. Sean was flipping out. Two guys had to pin him to the ground while he shouted, “Fecking bastards! We know you’re going to kill us!”

          The hostages sobbed and shuddered.

          I looked over at Finn, perched with unruffled feathers as his — our family was arrested for — for what?

          “Where’s Dom Thorne?” asked Finn. His voice was totally calm. Was he not even surprised?

          I didn’t see Thorne. “Do you think he was a spy? But we have nothing to hide!”

          Below, an officer got uncomfortably close to one of the elders. “Where’s your leader!”

          “You know very well,” an elder said coldly.

          “We were content to leave your little cult be. You were the ones who kidnapped a tourist!”

          I hadn’t realize how weird it was that some of the cops’ jackets said “CIA.” Did Ireland have their own CIA, or were these guys from America? Had my mom sent them looking for me?

          The officer was still ranting at the elder. “…And brandishing weapons in the public streets!”

          Finn figured it out before I did. “The Ex-D arrived early.”

          Shots clapped from the barn, and I almost fluttered away. Then came a wave of energy. I felt it more than I saw it — a boom, I heard that too — it rippled out from the center of the farm.

          The cops were instantly moving, some to aim their weapons at the barn door, others to hide behind their cars. Several had grabbed their radios. But their radios weren’t working.

          Soldiers burst out of the barn. They were armored, and heavily armed. I wouldn’t have known who they were if I hadn’t seen their armbands: Ex-D. They shot a dozen cops before I could blink.

          The cops reacted quickly. Some grabbed rifles from their squad cars. Others already had rifles, and still others were just using handguns. But most of their heads were bare, and these Ex-D guys had ruthless aim. In seconds, they just…

          The blood, the burning smell…

          The clan wasn’t just sitting and watching, either. It had only taken a moment for them to shift into wolves, wildcats, birds of prey, things I’d never even heard of before. The mere shock of seeing that happen was enough to get a few men killed.

          “Tell me what to do!” I squawked.

          “Wait,” Finn ordered. “See if they win.”

          “What?!” My cry had sounded more like a warbled caw, but he could have guessed at my outrage. I stared at him, twitching at the sound of every gunshot, but his beady bird eyes never left the slaughter. He never flinched.

          I only stayed on the wall because I didn’t have any ideas. But Finn! Couldn’t he see that they loved him? They were dying for him!

          The “enemy” was pretty scattered now. Most were trying to hide or escape. Behind a bush, I saw Susan transform back into a woman, right next to an agent.

          “I told you, I told you,” she seethed. For once she looked vicious. “Do ya still think I’m crazy?”

          The man she was yelling at looked terrified, said nothing. I don’t think he realized he was aiming his gun at her.

          That was when I finally did something I can be proud of. I spread my wings and dove straight at the man’s face. We collided, and I tried to scratch his eyes out, but my balance was off and I hit the ground. I saw my own hand, then. I was human.

          “Ember?”

          For some reason, my pants had rematerialized with me. My pants and nothing else. I hugged my chest and rolled over, only to see the agent was aiming at me now. I closed my eyes, waiting for the BANG that would end my life.

          Then Susan was holding me protectively. “This is she, idjit! The missing girl!”

          The agent backed down. My head swam.

          “Ember, dear?” Susan was saying. People were dying all around us, and that was all I could hear. “You’re safe. Your mum is worried about you. We’re taking you home. Do you understand?”

          Her words were just this buzzing noise over the screams and the gunshots.

          I looked at the wall. I pleaded with my eyes, Please, Finn, tell me these people are wrong.

          Susan followed my gaze, and I felt her shudder.

          When he spread his wings, Susan’s heart started pounding, I felt it, while she clutched me to her chest in terror. Was she pulling me back, or making me a shield?

          Finn was in his true form before he hit the ground. His dazzling white robe fell in folds across the dirt. He only looked a little angry. Mostly smug. There wasn’t a drop of fear in him.

          He pulled a sickle-staff out of nowhere.

          “Freeze, Byrne!”

          The staff struck the ground with a loud CRACK—

          It shouldn’t have been so loud—

           A ghostly wind sprang up like a shockwave—

          I closed my eyes—

          My ears filled with ringing—

          As the blinding light faded, I found myself on my feet. I was standing next to Finnian Byrne, his clothes still dazzling white. The crown of golden oak leaves had reappeared on his head. One hand clutched the ancient staff. Another closed around my arm so tightly that I yelped.

          The farmyard was red with blood.

          I hugged myself. Because I was cold and because I wanted to hide my bare chest. The smell still clung to my nostrils. The horrible sight wouldn’t go away. And I felt myself moving backwards, to how this ever could’ve happened…

          In little groups, the faceless Ex-D soldiers emerged. Dozens of them. Dehumanized behind their helmets, leaning fearlessly and casually to this side or that as they lifted huge guns to their shoulders. “Let’s get this over with,” said the leader.

          Finnian had this horrible look on his face. Pride. Calm pleasure as his clan, the White Planet, gathered around him. They were silent. Susan lay at our feet, I realized. He’d killed her.

Finnian hooked the dull, inner circle of his scythe around my neck, pulling me to my feet, keeping me at his side. A trophy.

As if knowing what Finnian and the Ex-D wanted, a nervous Dom Thorne stepped forward. He raised his hand and drew a strange symbol in the air. Space distorted, and a portal gaped open.

          As Finnian led us out of this world, I felt an almost unbearable urge to run. To scream. But the same fear that put those urges in me helped me to do as he wanted. I’d seen what happened to his enemies.

          And strangely enough, I was still more afraid of how I could ever live without him.

          I shut my mouth and followed him.



The rest of Ember's story is continued in Never Taste Death, available now for as low as $2.99!

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