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“What’s your weapon of choice?” Alatar asks me nonchalantly, coming up beside me as I watch nervously as Ember and Beckett ready themselves for our trip.

“I don’t have one? I’ve never used one, before today I’ve never had to use one.” My voice comes out shaky, and my chest feels unbelievably tight. I want to save my aunt, and my uncle, but I also don’t want to go where more vamps may be.

“Maybe we should leave her here, Alatar.” Beckett snides, his cold eyes looking at me. He calmly cleans his knife, I notice now he has several of them all of which are tucked away in various places on his body.

“Don’t be an ass,” Ember scolds. Despite everything that has happened today, a very strange birthday indeed, I find myself grateful for Ember and her advocacy. She mentioned earlier that their parents were, what’s the word, defenders? And they had fought in the Umbra Bellum, causing a rough upbringing. So I have to wonder how she came out to be so kind, while her brother is cold as ice.

“You say you’ve never used a weapon? Strange, as your guardians were instructed specifically to train you to fight in battle. I wonder why they opted out of obliging.” His words weigh heavy on me, and I feel a new burst of questions. Ember's prior statement comes back to mind.

“Ember said you wouldn’t be happy that my Aunt Amelia didn’t tell me about everything. Does that mean you’ll answer my questions? Because I’m feeling a bit lost right now-” Beckett per usual can’t help but cut me off.

“All you need to worry about right now is not dying, alright? Which will prove to be difficult since you’re hell bent on going to get your aunt.” Alatar calmly puts up a hand, shockingly enough Beck just stops talking and goes back to his cleaning. Then Alatar turns to me and puts a warm hand on my shoulder, looking down at me kindly.

“I will answer any questions you have, once you three are back safe. Alright? Now I’m going to give you this gift, a ring, don’t let anything take it off of you alright? You’ve never been to the Umbra Realm and it’s hard to stay tethered to our Realm. This ring will help. It will protect you.” He places the ring in my palm, it’s a small silver ring with a dark crystal wired onto it. It’s beautiful. I slide it onto my finger and smile at him, to show my thanks.

“What is it, exactly?” I can’t help but ask.

“Obsidian,” he winks playfully, “great for protection.” I notice then that Beckett had already prepared a portal, and Ember is reaching a hand towards me. I find this strange, more than anything else I had experienced today, as I’m not used to kind people like Ember in my life. Besides, of course, my Aunt Amelia.

I take it shyly and she gives my hand a squeeze, comforting me. I think she can tell this makes me nervous. Again, I notice Alatar looking at me strangely from where he leans.

“Let’s get in and out, ok? Let’s not dilly dally, and for shits sake please don’t act like a hero and do as we say.” Beckett snaps at me, but instead of getting defensive I just nod. I am too nervous about this to get on the defense.

Beckett’s steps into the portal, his body disappears into the silver mist and before I can even regain my nerves Ember is yanking me in as well. I feel the same feeling, everything falling out from under me and immense pressure everywhere on my body.

Then I’m rolling onto a ground, my hands and knees finding dirt and clinging to it. I don’t enjoy portal experiences. It feels like the first drop of a rollercoaster over and over again.

“On your feet, Astra.” Ember encourages, and I do so quickly. I need to remember to stay on edge here. The Shadow Realm takes my breath away.

It looks exactly like our realm, but almost as if it had been designed by Tim Burton. I’d watched his film’s religiously as a child, but I now feel as though I’m standing in one. Everything has dark blue undertones, the air holds an icy chill, and the sky is dark like midnight; even though in our Realm it’s only the evening.

“Woah-” I expected something scarier, maybe blood or dead bodies. This is just like home, just darker.

“Yeah looks cool now, while we’re alone. Try not to look suspicious…” Ember whispers, I notice then that they both have their weapons tucked away from view. Maybe in an attempt to not welcome guests.

“So...where’s my aunt?” We stand in a dirt field, overlooking a small broken down town in the near distance. I’m sure it’s safe to assume she’s there somewhere.

“They’re holding her in their club until Parallax comes to retrieve her. The goal is to use her as bait to grab you. So we’re going to have to get her before he shows.” We begin a jog towards the town, which is quicker to reach than I’d originally thought.

“The obsidian Alatar gave you will sort of mask you, Shadow Creatures will see you but they won’t be able to register you as a threat. So just try to not talk or, well, do anything.” I feel grateful for my protection, but I can't help but notice that the siblings don't have obsidian of their own.

We get to the town quickly, where we slow down to a walk. They walk casually, but I can see in Beckett’s eyes that he is focused. My blood runs like ice, vamps walk freely here. They pass us by without a glance. Other creatures walk as well, creatures I had not yet seen. I wasn't aware that there were so many of them.

Men whose faces are mainly hair, women with scales, and some people flying by on wings. It's a whole community of Shadow Creatures. Fear creeps up my neck and I have my steps fall in line with Embers, keeping my arm very close to hers.

Ember is a sleek beauty, but in this world she manages to look even more graceful; I didn’t consider that possible. Beckett, on the other hand, looks like he fits in.

“That ring is really doing nothing, Astra is like a golden beacon.” Ember mutters under her breath, looking around nervously. I wonder in what way I am like a golden beacon. Is it my eyes? I catch my reflection in a dirty window, but my eyes are dulled to a brown and everything about me seems washed out. The obsidian, maybe?

“You know what else is gonna get us caught? You looking like a scared cat. You're going to draw attention to us.” At his words her face cools, and she smiles at me. We come to a club, dark with deep purple lights and intense music pouring out the door.

“It’s a literal nightclub? When you said club I pictured more…grotesque things.” They don't say anything, pushing forward towards the door and heading in. I follow, holding my breath.

Inside it's filled with more of the creatures we’d seen outside, only now they're all crammed into a small low ceilinged room. It's pandemonium. Vamps feed in the corners of the rooms, while others drink red liquid straight from glasses.

Women with wings dance in cages that descend from the ceiling, I notice immediately that they're not clothed at all; but instead vines sprouting red flowers wrap around their bodies covering them.

“Don't leave my side,” Ember instructs, and then we charge into the tight group of people. I try my best not to shiver when their bodies bump into mine, but it's mostly involuntary. Their kind had attempted my death twice today, as well as already abducted my family, so I'm all set with touching them.

“Here, drink.” A woman says slyly to me, stepping in front of me, successfully blocking my view of Ember who continues to make her way through the crowd.

“Oh, no thanks, ” I say awkwardly, trying to scoot around her. She's tall, with waist-length red hair, her eyes are completely black and she also wears vines for clothes.

“Drink, you must.” The woman whispers, leaning into my ear and gently taking my hand to wrap my fingers around the small glass. I don't want to drink it, I know I shouldn't. But I look up at the woman, her eyes meet mine, and suddenly I find myself raising the cup with light green liquid to my lips.

“I'll take that, ” Beckett takes the glass from me and pulls my arm away from the woman, who now offers a drink to someone else.

“My drink…”, I mutter numbly, my head feeling heavy.

“Has nobody ever told you not to take drinks from strangers?” Beckett hisses at me angrily, looking down at me with a furrowed brow. “From the Fae no less! It's like babysitting a toddler, with you.” His words sting, I didn't ask for any of this.

“I always thought fairies were nice.” I retort, thinking about my childhood books.

“Not in the Shadow Realm they're not. Don't ever trust anyone from the Shadow Realm, got it?” We stop our brisk walk back to Ember, he looks down at me but this time his eyes are earnest. Maybe the kindest I've ever seen them. The music pounds, and the dull purple lights flash. In this setting, in this moment, Beckett doesn't seem like someone hateful; but rather someone who just wants to keep people safe.

“I have more questions.” I respond, and he only nods, before we make it to Ember who's stance at that moment is shocking, to say the least.

She leans seductively against a wall, her dark hair pushed back, daringly showing off the pale of her neck. Her hand rests playfully on a vamps chest, she laughs a little too hard at something he says and I watch shocked as she bats her eyelashes up at him.

“Don’t stare, ” Beckett states and I drop my eyes to the dark floor. Why would she be flirting with the enemy? They laugh again, and I peek up at them through a curtain of hair, dancing bodies hit mine and I force an awkward sway of my body to appear more natural.

The two of them slink away, Ember taking his hand and giving him a wink before they disappear into a room.

“Now we go,” Beckett states, and I follow his quick-moving body to where Ember had just stood. A door I hadn't noticed before makes itself seen, and with one last look over our shoulder, we enter the dark hall.

“Is this where my aunt and uncle are?” I whisper as we walk silently in the darkness, towards the end of the hall I can make out a rectangular shaped thin light; the silhouette of a door.

“Hopefully.” We get to the door quickly, over the feeling of electricity between us I’m able to feel fear tingling at my neck. I’m scared to go through the door, I can hear voices muttering on the other side.

I can hear the door open from down the hall and I gasp, in a flash Beckett releases a throwing knife and I hear it strike wood.

“Don’t kill me, you ass!” Ember says, coming closer holding his knife. Her sword is out and bloodied, I guess the lustful vamp is gone. He takes his knife back from her, and we turn back to the door.

Beckett opens the door slowly, it creeks and I clench my teeth knowing what comes next. Only four vamps are inside, they don’t look up immediately when we enter the bright room; I assume it’s because they never thought we’d get here.

Without a word Beckett hands me one of his throwing knives, and moves towards the vamps. I clutch the knife, feeling better because I at least have defense this time.

“Hey, boys,” Ember taunts, clutching her sword. They look up and growl, getting on the defense immediately. “Let’s dance.” Fighting is like dancing for Ember, she moves quickly and fluently. Beckett fights more like a ninja, moving quickly and making sharp jabs; his throwing knives slicing the air quickly.

Ember downs the first vamp quickly, but a second one gets her before she can entirely deflect and they tumble to the ground in a heap. Beckett pins another one to the wall, slicing his head off slowly while it tries to bite at him.

The last one comes at me, stopping directly in front of me and smiling.

“Mmm, a new defender.” No, I'm not a defender. I can't fight like the other two. He jumps at me and let out a scream, jabbing my knife out and squeezing my eyes shut. I feel the knife impale, and my arm caves.

The vamp slashes at me and tries to bite me but I force my arm straight, the knife going through his chest. He still tries for me, but I turn our bodies by twisting the knife and force him against the wall.

He's strong, stronger than I could ever imagine, but he's weakened by the weapon stabbing at his chest.

“Where is my family?” I growl, clenching my jaw and twisting the knife some more. His eyes grow wide but he says nothing. Behind me Ember and Beckett both finish off their vamps and come up to my flank.

“Talk!” My aunt isn't in this room, at least not that I can tell. I need to know she's safe, I've never tortured before but I find myself not caring in the slightest that he is hurting.

“Who...are you?” The vamp asks, I push the blade deeper into his heart. My arm drips with vamp blood and scratches from his attack, I never imagined to see this image.

“Astra, maybe we should-” the vamp laughs loudly as Ember speaks.

“Astra? You had balls bringing her into this Realm…I won't tell you where your aunt is-” Beckett jumps forward with his other knife, this time slashing the vamps head clean off.

I let the body fall to the ground, my hand sliding out from his chest and falling to my side.

“You killed him before I could find her.” My tone is hard with my anger, I feel it radiate up my body.

“Yeah that's what I was trying to tell you? We found your aunt. She's over there…” Ember says kindly, and I feel a rush of both stupidity and relief.

“Aunt Amelia?” I call, following the siblings to a small closeted room I hadn't noticed prior. Inside is my aunt tied up and unconscious. I rush to her side, kneeling beside her and holding her limp body. Her pulse isn’t there, but she doesn't even have a scratch on her. My uncle is not here, I think now that he is dead also.

“Let me grab her, we need to go. We killed too many to go unnoticed.” Beckett says, and I almost don't let him take her; afraid to let her go. But he's earned my trust if anything. And I watch him make a quick portal before he grabs her into his arms.

We're bruised and scraped up, and we were too late for my aunt. I can feel sorrow creeping up, but it hovers just before I can genuinely feel it. We slide through the portal back to Alatar’s place one by one, where he waits to answer my questions as he promised.

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