Two faerie courts striving for power. One mortal girl desperate to save her father.
When Kayla lost her father, her family wanted her to move on. But Kayla knows that he never died. She also knows that he is no longer in her world. After years of searching for the faeries he told her about, Kayla encounters the Seelie Princess Fay, who saves her life and sweeps her off to Tír na nÓg.
Cast among strangers, Kayla has to resist a strong magnetic pull that draws her toward the princess of her dreams and closer to the Fair Folk’s trickery. Soon she is caught amids a rivalry between two courts, and as secrets of the past are revealed, Kayla must question if she’s been chasing a ghost all along.
READ CHAPTERS 1-3 BELOW!
On some days, missing her father was only background noise. On others, the hole he’d left behind sucked all the sound from the world around her.
Today was one of those silent days.
Kayla gazed out the window at the dull sky, her reflection blurred by the glass vibrating as the train rushed over the tracks. The image vanished as a ray of sunshine broke through the thick clouds, making Kayla squint. Her eyes took some time to adjust to the sudden brightness, but when they had, the train was already approaching the station.
“Kay, are you even listening?”
Turning away from the window, Kayla blinked at her friend Abby, who had her phone held out toward Kayla. “Did you see this? It’s a new club opening tonight,” Abby said. “We should go.”
Kayla frowned. “Can’t you ask Meghan?”
“No,” Abby said curtly. She took her phone back and shoved it into her handbag. Kayla glimpsed several textbooks, all dog-eared and worn, but that was what happened when you took a handbag to school. “Meghan’s not my best friend, is she? Besides, we didn’t go out for your birthday last week.”
Kayla hugged her backpack closer to her chest. “We went to the movies,” she said. “With popcorn and everything.”
Abby raised an eyebrow. “That’s not the same as partying. Anyway, I’ve got to get off.” Tossing back her long dark blonde hair, she leaned in for a hug. Kayla held on for a second, the scent of Abby’s coconut shampoo tickling her nose.
“Text me if you change your mind,” Abby said. She stood and filed out of the train, waving at Kayla through the window.
Kayla watched Abby grow smaller and smaller as the train pulled out of the station. Once her friend was out of sight, Kayla took out her phone, scrolling up and down without reading any of the words. Her eyes stung with an exhaustion she couldn’t shake off.
People around Kayla rose to their feet as a crackling voice on the intercom announced their next stop and the train slowed down again. The platform was packed with commuters, impatiently waiting for the arriving train.
The brakes squealed, and the train came to a stop. As soon as the doors slid open, people pushed outside, while those waiting on the platform tried to squeeze inside. Kayla let her gaze wander over the crowd, taking in all the different people: short and tall, thin and thick, young and old, black and white. Unfamiliar faces. Except…
Brown eyes, tousled russet hair. A face she hadn’t seen in years. As the platform cleared, her father turned the other way.
“Dad, wait!” She leaped to her feet. People cursed as she pushed her way through to the exit, her eyes fixed on her father out on the platform. He was heading toward the stairs. A voice sounded from the speakers, announcing their departure. Kayla pushed and shoved.
“Dad!” She stumbled out of the train, the doors slamming shut the moment she stepped outside. The wheels of the train screeched as it left the station.
The platform had cleared. Kayla hurried over to the stairway where she’d last seen him and sprinted down the stairs, almost slipping on the last step. She skidded to a halt on the sidewalk.
Cars were rushing by, people walking along, but her father had disappeared. Heart thrumming in her chest, Kayla spun around, scanning the area. She could hardly breathe, and the rush of her blood was so loud in her ears that she couldn’t hear either.
Tears stung her eyes. She sank to the curb, hugging her trembling arms tight to her chest. After all this time, had it really been him?
It couldn’t have been him. He hadn’t been standing on that platform, just like he hadn’t been in the crowd of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade five years ago. Or in that restaurant back in her home town. Or at the lake where they went camping when she was younger.
It never was her father, just a ghost she kept chasing through the dark.
Kayla reached into her jacket pocket for her phone, but her fingers brushed something round and rough. She pulled it out and stared at the object in her hand. It was an acorn, larger than any she’d ever seen. Not that she’d held many acorns before.
Frowning, she looked up and down the streets, but the sidewalk was empty. As she twisted the acorn in her fingers, the cap came off, revealing a hollow inside. Stuffed within was some paper, which Kayla pried from it and unfolded.
For a second, the entire world stopped, shrouded in white noise, and Kayla stared at the paper in her hands. Only four words were scribbled on it.
By the time Kayla had reached her home, rain was coming down in sheets, soaking her through to the bones. She climbed the front steps to their building, a red brick house they shared with three other families, and unlocked the door with shaking hands.
The hallway was warm, the smell of fresh linen wafting from the laundry room. Kayla ascended the stairs two steps at a time, the acorn still clasped in her hand. Once in their apartment, she slipped out of her sneakers, tossing them into a corner, and let her toes thaw on the carpet. She inhaled that familiar scent of home, a mixture of oranges and cleaning agents, and she almost forgot about everything that troubled her mind.
Then she went cold all over with the memory of her father’s face.
She moved through the apartment in a trance, first to her room to change her clothes, then to the bathroom to rub her hair dry with a towel. All the while, she held on to the acorn. If she left it out of sight for too long, it might vanish. Evaporate into thin air. And then the only clue she had would be gone.
Kayla pulled her black hair up into a messy bun. Her father used to brush her locks from her face when tucking her into bed. ‘My little princess,’ he’d called her.
It was odd to think about someone who’d been absent most of her life. Some memories were a blur, while others were vivid, as though someone had taken a snapshot of that moment and saved it for eternity. Her father tucking her in at night was one of those snapshot memories.
Kayla hurried back into her room, thinking of the time after he’d vanished. Back then, her mother had been busy making phone calls, talking to adults, and getting Theo to stop crying. Whenever her mother was looking the other way, Kayla snuck out of the house and into the forest.
It hadn’t been long until Kayla had discovered a ring of mushrooms—a faerie ring, her father had called them. Tiny lights popped up and danced inside the ring. It made Kayla think of the stories her father had told her.
Maybe he wasn’t dead. Maybe the Fair Folk took him.
Kayla pulled the door to her room shut. Her bedroom wasn’t spacious, but she liked that about it. Small stacks of books littered the nightstand, desk, and floor, and the door of her wardrobe was open, clothes spilling from it. She made her way toward the desk and kneeled to reach for the bottom drawer. It contained a few loose sheets of music, which she brushed aside to reach for the box underneath.
Kayla had labeled the cardboard box as ‘Old Diaries,’ hoping her mother would respect her privacy. With another glance back toward the door, Kayla opened the lid of the box and rifled through the notes.
Over the years, she’d collected pieces from the newspaper, printed out articles, and tiny notes she’d scribbled in a haste. She skimmed them now, wishing she’d somehow sorted them according to topic. An article called “Faeries—are they real?” was followed by a personal note, barely legible, that was something about ghosts haunting their relatives.
None of the snippets referred to mysteriously appearing acorns.
Kayla reached the bottom of the box. With a sigh, she closed it again and put it back in its hiding spot. She took the acorn out, considering it, when the front door slammed shut.
Footsteps carried down the hallway, followed by the voice of her little brother. “Kayla, are you home?”
“Yeah, coming.” Once the acorn was back in the pocket of her hoodie, she went into the living room.
“You’re home early, Theo,” she said. “Everything all right?”
He looked up at her from the sofa and shrugged. “I’m fine.”
“No, you’re not.” She sat beside him and reached out a hand to brush back his messy brown hair. The area around his right eye had a purplish color and his eyelid was swollen. “What happened?”
He flipped his head back, his hair falling into his eyes again. “It was stupid,” he said. “I didn’t pay attention to the game for a second and then the ball hit me. The coach sent me to the nurse. She said I should go home and rest.”
“It needs some ice on it,” Kayla said. She stood, went over to their kitchenette, and retrieved a bag of peas from the freezer. “Here, hold this to your eye.”
Theo took the bag and dabbed his closed eye, wincing. “I’ll have to sit on the bench for the next game… I don’t think the coach likes me much.”
“You only joined the team two weeks ago,” Kayla said. “It takes time to get good at it. And you’ll make an excellent baseball player one day. Trust me.” She reached out to ruffle his hair. He groaned, shooting her a one-eyed glare.
He lowered the bag of frozen peas. “You can’t know that.”
“But I do,” Kayla said. “It’s in your blood, you know. Dad played baseball for years and he was fantastic at it.” As she mentioned their father, she braced for the usual throbbing in her hollow chest. This time, there was a flutter in her stomach instead.
Theo bowed his head. “I wish he’d been here to teach me.”
She watched her brother press the peas to his face once more. He was growing so fast and starting to resemble their father, a man he had never known, and yet they shared the same brown eyes and the same stubborn frown.
When their father had vanished, Theo had been too young to feel grief. Too young to understand that something was missing from his life. Kayla ached to tell him about today, to show him the acorn. But Kayla wouldn’t burden him with the hope she’d felt all those years. She would bring their father back once and for all.
“You know,” Theo said, “you always tell such great stories about him. It makes me miss him.”
Kayla straightened up. “Do you want me to stop?”
Theo peered at Kayla with his one good eye. “No, never. You’re the only one who talks about him.”
“Because I think you should know.” And because their dad wasn’t dead. She nearly crushed the acorn between her fingers.
“Thanks,” he said and scooted closer to hug her.
Kayla held on as long as he let her. When he pulled away, he gave her that stubborn frown before pressing the peas to his eyes again, and Kayla smiled.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
“Starving. You think Mom would be okay with us having mac and cheese?”
“Sure,” Kayla said. “I’ll fix us some.” She was only halfway to the kitchenette when a soft click sounded and the front door opened.
“I’m home early,” their mother called, “and I brought some pizza.”
Kayla stopped in her tracks and turned around to her mother, forcing a smile. “Great!”
A few minutes later, they sat at their kitchen table, each with a plate of pizza and a can of soda. Theo recounted his story of the day while they ate.
“And then the ball hit me right in the eye.” He pointed at it with a finger, the only one that wasn’t yet smeared with tomato sauce. “I dropped to the ground like this.” He let one hand drop onto the table with a thud.
“The next time you’re playing, you need to be more careful,” their mother said. “Promise me that?”
Theo nodded his head. “Promise.” He gobbled down the last bite of his pizza. “Can I play with my Nintendo now?”
“One hour. I’ll come check on you later.”
He dashed out of the room without another look back.
Kayla’s mother hid a smile behind her slice of pizza. Then, she turned to Kayla. “Honey, you haven’t eaten much,” she said. “Are you all right?”
“I’m not that hungry,” Kayla said, glancing sidelong at her mother. She was wearing her brown hair loose today, and her gray-blue eyes looked more lively than usual. Kayla noticed that her mother had put on eyeshadow, which she only did on very special occasions, and Kayla wondered where her mother had gone after work. Not that she would tell Kayla if she asked.
No other face was as familiar to Kayla, yet more and more often, looking at her mother felt like looking at a stranger. Kayla averted her gaze, staring at the untouched slice of pizza on her plate.
“I can see there’s something on your mind,” her mother said. “You know you can talk to me about anything.”
Except the one thing Kayla wanted to talk about.
Her mother placed a hand on Kayla’s and Kayla flinched back, covering up the sudden movement by tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “I’m fine,” she said. “Mind if I stay at Abby’s tonight?”
“Tonight? I thought the three of us could watch a movie together.” Her mother leaned closer, offering a bright smile.
“Abby needs my help with an English essay,” Kayla said as she stood. “We can always watch a movie another night, right?”
Her mother took a moment to respond. “Yes, sure. Text when you get there, okay? Will you be back for lunch tomorrow?”
“I’ll let you know,” Kayla called, already halfway down the hallway. She stopped in front of Theo’s room and peered inside, but he was too engrossed in his game to notice her. After putting on her sneakers, still wet, and grabbing her backpack, she slipped out of the apartment.
2 MORE THAN CHANCE ENCOUNTER
It had been some time since Fay last visited Chicago—or since she’d been to this world. Cool fall wind tugged at her hair and clothes as she hurried across the Millennium Park and toward the nearest subway station. No matter how long she stayed away, she would always remember the L train and the sharp wind off Lake Michigan. They were old friends greeting her and for a moment, as she stood at the crossroads, a feeling of warmth spread through her.
The light at the crosswalk switched to green and the flow of people carried her to the other side. She walked in a daze and suddenly the city felt less like an old friend and more like a recurring nightmare.
A car to her right honked. Fay flinched, startled by the unusual noise. She’d forgotten how loud Chicago was, and the air was stale and smelled of exhaust.
Another gust of wind swept across Chicago, carrying along a drizzle of rain. Fay drew her jacket closer around her. She’d put on a floaty black dress and a denim jacket, something she thought humans would wear in the summer, but she’d misjudged the weather. It was never easy to tell what season you were heading into when coming to this realm. Luckily, Fay didn’t get cold as fast as humans did.
She reached the subway stop and rifled in her jacket pocket for her ticket. Or at least what she would use as a ticket. She pulled out a large leaf she’d plucked from a tree, cast a quick Glamor, and pressed it against the scanner. With a peep, she was admitted.
She filed onto the platform with the other commuters. No one was paying much attention to her, which was a nice change for once. Back at the court, Fay was often the center of attention. And if she bowed to the queen’s wishes, she’d be of even more interest.
Not if she could find the girl first.
Fay took out the stone the queen had given her. It was opaque, about the size of an egg, and it fit smoothly into her hand. Deep pulses emanated from it in a slow, rhythmic pattern. She turned south and the pulsing faded, but when she faced north, it gave off powerful beats. She was on the right track then. The train rolled into the station and Fay got on. As it rushed north, the beating of the stone grew more intense. At one stop, the beating got so fast that Fay pushed through the crowd and out of the train seconds before the door shut again.
Using the same technique as before, she walked up to each crossroad, turned each direction, and followed the one that the stone indicated. Even after all the time she’d spent at the court, she didn’t fully grasp what made the stone work. It was a kind of magic she hadn’t seen before. One that only the queen had access to.
On and on Fay went, houses and unknown faces flashing past her, but even without looking, she knew where she was heading. The area around Lincoln Park Zoo had always been one of her favorites. Years ago, when she was little.
The stone was now beating fast and hard; it was hot to the touch. Fay turned a corner and hurried down a one-way street with brick houses. One last beat and the stone fell quiet.
She had found it.
Fay faced the two nearly identical houses. Both were two-story red brick houses with eight white windows and a white front door. One of them had a bare yard, the other white gardenias and wild ivy.
The stone in her hand responded to the house with the flowers.
As Fay stood there gazing at the front door, she realized how flawed her plan was. When the queen had pressed the stone into her hand, Fay had been so relieved to have been offered a chance to escape her looming responsibilities. The queen had explained how to use the stone and Fay nodded along, eager to get going.
Now she’d reached her destination and had no idea what the next step was. But she knew her mission: locate the girl, bring her to the court. It couldn’t be that hard. After all, Fay had a few useful skills at her disposal.
She drew closer, glancing at each window. All of them were draped with curtains, making it impossible to see inside. There was a doorbell right next to the door. Four buttons with four different names.
Fay took the last step up to the front door and ran a finger along the names. She could just press one of those buttons and ask whoever picked up. But that would require her to know the name of the person she was after.
The stone was the only clue she had.
With a sigh, Fay leaned against the wall. She shouldn’t have come alone. Her friends would find a way, probably by breaking and entering. But they would have also stopped her from coming here at all. Maeve would have thought the whole thing was stupid, and Nooa would have nodded in quiet agreement with Maeve, as usual.
Fay straightened, shaking her head. No, it was a good idea she’d come alone. She could do this. She would just ring one name and—
The door flew inward with such force that Fay staggered back a step. A person shot out of the house and crashed right into her.
They both collapsed to the ground, Fay onto her back and the other person on top of her. She caught a whiff of rosemary and lavender, then the weight on her was gone.
“Oh god, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
“Don’t worry.” Fay scrambled to her feet, dusting debris off her dress. Her left elbow felt a bit sore, but that would be fine once she returned to the court.
Her assailant was kneeling on the ground. It was a girl about Fay’s age, her face hidden by long black hair. She was holding her backpack, surrounded by an array of things that had fallen from it. Fay glimpsed a notepad, some pens, a wallet, a charger for a phone, an acorn—
The girl grabbed it and stuffed it into her backpack.
“I’m very sorry,” she said. Once she’d returned all the things to her bag, she stood and glanced at Fay. “Are you okay?”
Fay noticed the girl’s gorgeous blue eyes. They were deep blue, like the depth of the sea.
“I’m fine,” Fay said, her mind grappling for a plan. She’d dropped the stone when the girl crashed into her and there was no time to search for it now. But that girl was carrying an acorn with her, so chances were good she was the one. “You live here?”
The girl wasn’t even listening. “Again, I’m sorry,” she said, turned on her heels and bolted.
Fay itched to race after her. This was her one shot! It had to be the girl. Cursing, Fay dropped to her knees. “Where did that stupid stone go?” Her hands searched the grass, finding stones that weren’t hers, until they closed around one that pulsed. Before the girl could vanish out of sight, Fay set into motion.
3 FAIR FOLK
As soon as Kayla was on the bus, she flipped out her phone and texted Abby. On my way.
Then, she opened her browser. Her thumb was hovering over the search bar for a few seconds when a message popped up. Her mom, asking if Kayla wanted to go to the movies tomorrow. Kayla swiped the message away and returned to her search.
Where do faeries live?
After some scrolling and clicking, she found an online version of a book called A Treasury of Irish Fairy and Folk Tales. She scanned the document. One line read, “Faeries are deenee shee or fairy people. Who are they?”
That wasn’t helpful.
Kayla tucked a strand of wet hair behind her ear and kept scrolling. Another headline caught her attention. “T’yeer-na-n-oge.” She brought the phone closer to her face.
“There is a country called Tír-na-nÓg,” it read,“which means the Country of the Young, for age and death have not found it. According to many stories, Tír-na-nÓg is the favorite dwelling of the faeries.”
It did not mention where to find such a place.
Kayla locked the screen of her phone with a sigh. She racked her brain for any clue her father had given her in his stories, but she couldn’t remember him ever mentioning where the faeries lived. He’d always said they were everywhere in nature—in the forest, at lakes, up in the mountains. She’d looked in all those places when she was growing up and she never saw any faeries.
Except the night her father had disappeared. Kayla shuddered at the memory of the spectral woman crying in their old garden. She hadn’t been a faerie but she hadn’t been human either.
Maybe Ms. Pinderhughes would know something about acorns and faeries. The elderly lady owned a bookshop that had many books on folklore, but Kayla would have to wait, because the shop was already closed for the day.
When she got off the bus a few stops later, she noticed a twinge in her ankle and cursed herself for crashing into that girl earlier. She hurried two blocks down the street, approached a tall apartment building, and rang the doorbell.
“Abs, it’s me.”
The intercom buzzed. Kayla entered and took the elevator up to the fifth floor. She stopped in front of the door with the sign Welcome at the McCoys and waited. One… two… and three.
The door flung open, and Abby welcomed Kayla with a frown at her wet shoes. “Do I smell coffee on you?”
“Huh? Yeah, I had some before coming here.”
Abby pursed her lips. “You could’ve brought me a latte.” She vanished into the apartment.
Kayla took off her shoes and followed her friend down the hall and into her room. “Abs, I’m sorry I forgot. I wasn’t thinking…”
Abby spun around, her eyes narrowing on Kayla. “Spill it.”
“You know what I’m talking about. You said you couldn’t come over, so what changed?”
Kayla froze. The acorn in her backpack felt like it weighed a ton. “Plans can change, right?”
Perhaps Abby hadn’t heard her. She went to sit on her bed, crossed her legs and then her arms, and glowered up at Kayla. Her brown eyes darkened with a fury that Kayla knew wasn’t real. But just the idea of upsetting Abby caused Kayla to cave in.
“I didn’t feel like being at home,” she said.
Abby’s frown softened. “Did you have an argument again?”
Kayla slumped down on the bed next to Abby, hands folded in her lap. She knew she should just tell Abby, who always managed to cheer her up, but she also knew that Abby was a realist who didn’t believe in faeries. Last time Kayla had thought she’d seen her dad, Abby had been comforting, but she’d also insisted it had been her eyes playing tricks on her.
“I know you miss him,” Abby had said. “But he is dead. And the dead don’t come back.”
Kayla grabbed one of the fuzzy pillows sprawled out on Abby’s bed. “It doesn’t matter, really. Can I stay here tonight?” she asked. She would head to Ms. Pinderhughes’s bookstore first thing in the morning.
“Of course! But you can’t stay away from home forever. You know that, don’t you?”
Silence fell over the room while Kayla plucked at the fringes of the pillow. Then Abby leaped off the bed. “I know just the thing for us!” She beamed at Kayla before striding over to her closet.
Kayla sat up. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” Something black came flying Kayla’s way, hitting her right in the face. A shiny, almost translucent piece of clothing rested in her lap. “Abby, I’m not doing this.” She launched off the bed, dropping the shirt.
Her friend peeked around the door of the closet. “You sure are. I will not miss out on another great club, you hear me? Besides, there’ll be plenty of hot guys who’ll make you forget all about your mother.”
Kayla raised an eyebrow at Abby.
“Or hot girls. Whatever you feel like tonight.” She winked, and Kayla blushed.
“Even if I agreed to this, you know I don’t like to wear things like that.”
Abby sighed. “Seriously, Kay, you shouldn’t worry.”
“Can’t you at least give me something with a little more fabric?” Kayla picked up the shirt again. “This doesn’t seem right.”
“Fine.” Abby disappeared into the depths of her closet again to retrieve a pair of high heels. “Don’t worry. These are for me. I’ll find you another shirt and then we’ll fix your hair.”
“What’s wrong with my hair?”
But Abby had already vanished into the bathroom.
An hour later, Kayla and Abby rode a crammed L train toward the Loop. The air was heavy with sweat and cheap perfume, and Kayla tugged at the hem of the dress Abby had forced her to wear. It was a desperate attempt to gain a few inches of length.
“Kay, you look amazing,” Abby said. “The mascara brings out the blue in your eyes.” She fluttered her glittered eyelashes at a boy squeezing past them. He grinned back at her, because no boy could resist Abby’s doe eyes or flawless golden-brown skin.
Kayla was as pale as moonlight.
“I look ridiculous,” Kayla said, blinking. Her eyelashes were sticking together and blurring her vision. “Did you have to do my hair?” She tried to cover her ears with her dark curls, but Abby had tied it into such a tight braid there was no way of loosening it.
Abby gave Kayla’s hand a tap. “Stop it. You’re ruining my masterpiece.”
Despite the harsh tone, Abby smiled and reached down to the nape of Kayla’s neck. Kayla felt a pinch as Abby removed a few bobby pins and her hair came tumbling down her back.
“Thanks,” Kayla mumbled.
“I don’t get why you won’t wear your hair up, though.”
Kayla didn’t want to have that conversation again, and Abby knew better than to expect a response. So Abby changed the topic to how she hoped to run into Matt, the quarterback for their football team, and how Kayla would have to be her wingman. Kayla hated that part. She always got stuck with the boring guy.
Kayla’s phone buzzed, and she took it out to find another message from her mom.
Movies in the afternoon?
She typed a quick Sounds good before shoving the phone back into the tiny beaded bag Abby had insisted she take. She already longed for her spacious backpack.
“It’s your mom, isn’t it?” Abby asked.
“No.” Kayla tried to tug her dress down again. “Maybe.”
“You can’t avoid her forever.”
Kayla slumped her shoulders. “I know. But I can for a while.”
“You’ll work it out. You always have,” Abby said. “This is our stop.”
People pushed toward the exit and Kayla followed the throng, holding on to Abby’s hand. Out on the streets, a wave of fresh air, smelling sweet after the rain, welcomed them. The night sky had cleared over the last hour and was now hazy with the orange glow of city lights.
“It’s right down this way,” Abby said. They continued walking, apparently in the same direction as everyone else who had been on the train.
A tall building rose in front of them, and its many windows reflected the city lights back on the people lining up.
“Isn’t this great?” Abby said as they took their place in line. The heavy beats from the club carried outside, filling the streets with dull thumps.
“I guess so.” Kayla glanced at a group of boys swaying back and forth and singing at the top of their lungs, and she found herself humming along.
Sooner than she’d expected, she and Abby reached the entrance to the club and Kayla rummaged in her bag for her fake ID. The bouncer scanned it twice before letting her pass.
Inside, the club was gloomy and packed with people. Kayla clutched Abby’s arm like a baby sloth clinging to its mother. Abby dragged her straight onto the dancefloor, where people were swaying to the music blaring from the speakers. The mist being pumped into the room made it difficult for Kayla to see and move around. She eventually found herself in the middle of a dancing crowd, nothing but strange faces staring at her.
Somewhere along the way, she’d lost Abby.
“Excuse me. Sorry. May I?” she said as she tried to press through the crowd. But people were shoving her, and then she was elbowed in the side.
That was enough.
Kayla stopped, only to be pushed back a few inches by a couple dancing so close that she feared she’d soon be a witness to something very intimate. She ducked just in time as another elbow came flying her way.
The song faded out and was replaced by a voice speaking into a microphone. The fog cleared, people slowed, and Kayla could finally see where she was standing.
“Good evening, ladies and gents!” a voice called, and many answered by pumping their fists into the air and making hooting noises. “Welcome to the Midsummer Night Bar, the place to be tonight. And now, I’m thrilled to announce our opening band, Song of Fili.”
More shouts erupted from the crowd as people clapped and cheered. Kayla stood on tiptoes to get a glimpse of the stage, where a group of five men were preparing their instruments; one of them moved forward to talk into the microphone.
Kayla pushed through the crowd while they were distracted by the band warming up, and she headed whichever direction would lead her out of that mess.
When the band struck the first chord, people around Kayla broke into motion, drawing her back into the crowd once more.
As she struggled to move forward, someone tapped her on the shoulder.
“Would you like to dance?”
Kayla whirled around, a rebuff already forming on her lips, but she stopped as her gaze found the person who had spoken. The blond-haired girl had unusual, mesmerizing green eyes and a gorgeous smile.
Maybe Abby had been right and this was just the distraction she needed.
“I would,” Kayla heard herself say.
The girl reached out a hand, which Kayla accepted in a daze, and they began to dance. Kayla was more or less jerking her limbs to the odd tune that the band played, while the other girl moved with a light-footed grace. Unlike Kayla, she appeared entirely comfortable in her black dress and denim jacket.
The girl leaned in closer. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Kayla. And yours?”
The girl smirked. “Ava.”
“Have you been in this club before?” She realized at once how stupid that question had been, considering it was opening night. So she sucked at dancing and making conversations.
“No,” Ava said. “I’m not from the city.”
“Oh, where are you from?”
“You wouldn’t know it.”
A guitar solo from the stage filled the air.
“What did you say?” Kayla shouted into Ava’s ear.
“Do you want to go outside?”
Kayla scanned the crowd for Abby, but all she could see were blurry shapes engulfed in an artificial fog. She glanced back at Ava, at her luminous green eyes. Kayla had never been spoken to by such a beautiful girl. Surely, Abby would understand…
“Okay, let’s go!” Kayla said.
Ava’s smile was lit up by multicolored lights. She turned and led the way through the crowd, which seemed to part for Ava. They passed the bouncer and stepped outside, into the cool night.
Kayla sucked in a gulp of air.
“Much better,” Ava said. “Should we walk a bit?” She held out a hand to Kayla, who took it without hesitation.
As they walked along the sidewalk, Kayla tried not to stare at Ava. Something about this girl was… different. Her green eyes shimmered like emeralds, and her white skin was almost too pure to be real, but there was an edginess to her face. As if she was slightly older than she looked.
Ava tipped her head and their eyes met. Blushing, Kayla averted her gaze. Then Ava tugged at Kayla’s hand and pulled her into a side alley.
Kayla cried out. “What are you doing?”
The streetlights barely reached into the alley and Ava disappeared in the shadows, taking Kayla along with her. She spun Kayla around, pushing her up against the wall. Kayla’s foot hit something on the ground and she gasped. Ava was so close now that Kayla could smell her mossy, flowery scent, like a forest after a fresh burst of rain.
Ava lifted a hand and caressed Kayla’s cheek with her fingertips, slightly trembling. Kayla shivered too, and as Ava came closer, Kayla let her eyes travel across the face in front of her, soaking it all up.
What was it about this girl?
And then Kayla noticed it. Poking out between the strands of Ava’s pale blond hair were the tips of sharply pointed ears.
Kayla shoved Ava away.
Heart racing, Kayla searched Ava’s face, her pointed ears, her bright eyes, and the shape of her jaw and cheekbones. Her skin was perfectly white and showed no apparent trace of age. Was this another dream?
It couldn’t be, because Kayla saw Ava’s chest rise and fall with heavy breaths, and her blond hair blowing in the wind. Ava was as real as any person Kayla had ever met.
“What are you?”
“I think you already know the answer,” Ava said. She spoke with a haughty tone of voice now, no longer flirtatious. “After all, you carry a faerie acorn with you.”
Kayla clasped one hand on her borrowed bag. She could feel the rough outline of the acorn through it. “How do you know about that?”
“I saw it earlier. At your house.”
“Are you stalking me?” Kayla’s loud voice rang through the alley. She pressed her back flat against the wall, the coolness of the bricks seeping through her thin dress. “What do you know about the acorn?”
“Only that you have it,” Ava said. She stood still as a statue, her arms stiff at her side and her face nearly motionless. “Who gave it to you?”
“Probably one of your people if it’s a faerie acorn,” Kayla said. Something snapped into place then, and her grip on the bag tightened. “And you’ll help me find that person.”
Ava raised an eyebrow. “Why would I do that?”
Kayla pushed off the wall and glared up at Ava, who was just a few inches taller. Seconds ago, Kayla had been about to kiss her; now all she could think about was her father. If Ava was a faerie—if the stories were really true—then there was a chance to find him after all.
But Kayla never had time to answer.
Something shattered in the alley’s depth, like a mirror breaking into a million pieces. Another loud thump shook the ground. Kayla and Ava spun toward the source of the sound, but there was nothing but darkness.
A disembodied growl echoed off the walls. Kayla ducked with a yelp as bags of garbage came flying her way. Her vision was obscured by all the objects hurtling through the air, broken china, rotten fruits, plastic wrappers. She tried to stand and was shoved aside. Something moist that reeked of rotten eggs cushioned her downfall.
She staggered back onto her feet, trying to find her bearings. When the dust settled, it revealed Ava, spinning and twisting, with something short and pointed clutched in her hand.
A gigantic boar charged at Ava.
Kayla’s first instinct was to cry out. Even without having seen a boar before, she knew this one was different. It had gold-bristled fur and long golden tusks, and it had to have been at least twice the size. It growled as it dashed forward.
Ava spun her weapon, stabbing at the beast, but it only grunted and continued to shake its head, its tusks missing her by an inch. Ava leaped to the side, hair flying, and chanced another attack.
Kayla forced her eyes away from Ava. The ground was scattered with all kind of debris, and in a huge pile of refuse Kayla found an old rusted pipe. She seized it and plunged forward.
“No!” Ava called, but it was already too late.
With a tight grip on her makeshift weapon, Kayla jumped up onto the boar’s back. She struggled to hold on while she battered the beast’s head with the broken piece of pipe.
The boar stopped going after Ava and tossed its head from right to left in confusion, howling at Kayla’s every hit. But as soon as it realized where the attacks were coming from, it bucked.
Kayla clung to its fur.
“You need to get off it! Now!” Ava cried. She came back into sight, thrusting her dagger into the boar’s left leg. It howled, its body convulsing.
Kayla was flung off the boar and landed hard on her back, the impact knocking the air out of her lungs. The beast’s heavy panting grew louder, and Kayla, unable to pull onto her feet, crawled backward, away from the noise. She saw Ava sprinting to catch up with the boar, but she wasn’t fast enough.
The tip of the boar’s tusk cut through the sleeve of Kayla’s left arm. She wailed with pain, rolling to the side. The ground underneath her vibrated as the boar’s tooth connected with the concrete.
“Get away from her, filthy beast.”
Ava whirled around with the weapon in her hand and the boar groaned. Drops of blood seeped from the gash at its side. As the boar retreated, it knocked over one of the containers and spilled rotten garbage.
Once the beast had disappeared down the far end of the alley, Kayla sat up, her head heavy and her arm throbbing.
“Hurry. It might come back,” Ava said, sinking to her knees at Kayla’s side. She sucked in a breath through clenched teeth. “It hurt you.”
Kayla stared at Ava. Her dress was ripped, revealing most of her right thigh, and dirt and blood covered her face. Ava leaned in closer and pushed aside the torn fabric of Kayla’s cardigan. Underneath it, the flesh was cut in a straight line, and Kayla’s stomach turned to jelly at the sight of it.
“We need to take care of this,” Ava said. “There could have been poison on the boar’s tusk, and if that’s the case, you have to come with me right away.”
“What? No!” Kayla said. She gaped at her wound, then at Ava. “I’m not going anywhere with you, maybe to a hospital, but I don’t even know who you are.” She gestured down the alley with a nudge of her head. “Or what that was.”
Ava frowned. “There’s no time for this now.” In one swift motion, Ava retrieved something out of her jacket pocket and clasped her hand over Kayla’s mouth. Kayla struggled against Ava’s grip, but to no avail. A strange and wonderful smell wound its way up Kayla’s nose, like all the flowers of the world combined.
The edges of Ava’s face blurred, as if she was paint on a canvas that was smudged by the strokes of a brush. Only her emerald eyes remained clear in focus.
Then Kayla’s whole being was overwhelmed by a dazed sensation.
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