A stick stung Nicholas’s cheek and he ducked under the next one, putting a hand to his face and feeling the moistness of blood seeping from the scratch. The townsfolk in the Capital had begun to whisper about him, called him a man-Wolf behind his back, but he knew better. They might think he crept as soundlessly as they did, and maybe he had begun to fight like a Wolf as well, but he was not one of them. The trees didn’t injure them when they ran through them, large but lithely graceful despite the darkness that seeped from their very being.
By his mother’s orders, Nicholas had accompanied his father and the pack of Wolves on this trip to sniff out whether the “muse” his father kept raving about was around. There had been rumors of strong magic in these parts, and yet no one could point any fingers to where it was coming from. The stink of the beasts was so overwhelming, he’d had to get away, begging the need to relieve himself in private. The Wolves has sneered at him, their sickly yellow eyes disdaining the lanky boy, not even into his teens yet, who had often been given leadership over them when his father wasn’t around. They didn’t like taking orders from a mere boy. Nicholas didn’t blame them. But he didn’t like them either, nor did he want to be compared to them. So when a tree lashed his face again, he grinned through the burn.
His stomach growled and he stopped, glancing a distance away at the sunshine dappling some brew berries. Stalking toward them, he picked a handful and greedily stuffed them in his mouth. Watching the Wolves tear raw meat from the animals they took down was enough to turn any man’s stomach off for a while, and Nicholas was just a boy. He crept along the path, not much caring where it would take him as long as it took him as far away as possible from the stench of the beasts he was forced to share a fire with, when he scented the magic.
“Racell’s balls,” he cursed. Now he was smelling magic? Fortunately, smelling magic wasn’t a Wolf power, it was a Drianna talent—one she must have passed down to her son, because there was no denying it, it rippled in waves, the hair on his arms stood on edge, and he felt inspired to sit down and play something. He clasped the pack at his shoulder, but enticed by the low hum of the other music, his hand dropped and he moved forward, following the childish tune.
As he grew closer, he realized it was the thin, wavering tune of a little girl’s voice. From behind the trees ringing a small cottage, he crept and gazed into the grove of a backyard, where a small wisp of a girl sat on her knees, her face scrunched up tight, eyes closed, and a soft whisper of a song stretching out across the breeze, tossed to him by the trees. The forest didn’t love him, but they did her, because it was a gentle bounce and then her tune was to him. It was a melody his mother had often hummed while working her own magic, and the power of music called to him as if it was …
That was it! The girl was working magic. And yet, she was doing none of the same things his mother often did. Drianna ground herbs, burned incense, meditated by looking into mirrors when working magic. This girl was simply humming and staring, he scoffed to himself. What a silly girl.
It crossed his mind to tell her what a fool she was. After all, his mother was a Daughter of the Will, but the air stilled around him, the trees ceased their rustling, and a hush fell amongst the animals as the girl, who was really quite dazzling when he thought about it, with brown hair glistening in the sun and her hum as sweet as sugar drops, reached out one hand, and as if she was grasping an invisible door knob, twisted her wrist.
A whooshing wind threatened to smack him to the ground, but he fought against it, desperate to see what she had done. In the middle of the grove, in the middle of that cottage’s backyard, Nicholas set his dark gaze on something he’d never seen before. The air shimmered as if a mirage on a hot, hot summer day, but instead of field or forest, cottage or city path, there was flashing lights, tall buildings that towered in the night, like nothing he’d seen before. A sharp cry rang in the air, and the girl screamed, “Ninian!”
Nicholas shuddered at the name, it was a name he knew well. His own mother’s dearest friend. With a certainty he’d never had before, Nicholas knew this was who his father sought. This little girl who had the power to open doors into other worlds, of that Nicholas had no doubt, for his world had no such lights or buildings.
A golden blonde woman came darting out, and she grabbed the little girl in an embrace, comforting the girl while looking at the gaping hole in their reality. She murmured words to the girl, who nodded and closed her eyes once more, the door closing in on itself and disappearing.
“Story,” Ninian murmured, “it’s all right, love.” A man, who’d tripped out the door, not quite as fast but quick enough for a man of his size and bulk, joined them, his burnished beard glittering in the setting sun.
The girl was sobbing, and the large man scooped her up, shooting Ninian a dark look, and hurried her into the cottage. Nicholas turned his gaze back toward the space where the door had been, his chest heavy with the loss of such an escape. For he knew where the doorway must have led, it had to have been the Real World. And yet, leaning forward and ignoring the batch of brambles that reached up to scratch him on purpose, he noticed a glimmer in the air, a shimmering that shouldn’t have been there. The door was not completely closed, a crack in their reality remained open. So with that in mind, Nicholas started back to the Wolf-infested camp, the glimmering doorway and the golden, dazzling presence of the girl heavily on his mind. But most importantly of all he realized that the doorway could set him free.