A moving van was idling outside the small stone cottage I’d called home for seventeen years, spewing exhaust fumes into the rose bushes. The four boxes that contained all my worldly possessions were stacked haphazardly on the porch step.
I heard a tapping noise and turned to see Mom’s woodpecker familiar knocking its beak against the inside van window to get my attention.
All Mages have bird familiars. They’re meant to reflect their personality. Mom’s is a downy woodpecker. I think that says it all.
I spotted Mom sitting in the driver’s seat looking very bored. The sound of the radio murmured through the closed windows.
“Isn’t she even going to say goodbye to anyone?” I said to Gus. I knew she disliked Dad’s side of the family but that was pretty extreme, even for her.
He slow-clapped. “Bravo, Vivian, you aloof witch.”
Just then, Mom caught sight of me. Through the window, she tapped her watch. I held my hands up in the universally recognized gesture of a half-assed apology, then headed toward my aunt and uncle’s cottage next door to say my goodbyes. Mom could be as passively-aggressively impatient as she wanted. I was still going to say goodbye to the people I loved the most in the world.
I knocked on Uncle Salix and Aunt Shanaya’s door. Salix was Dad’s older brother, and Shanaya was the exceptionally beautiful Indian Elkie none of us could believe he’d convinced to marry him.
The door opened, and there they stood. The both of them, as if they’d been expecting me. They flashed me matching sorrowful smiles.
“Theia,” Aunt Shanaya said, taking me in her arms. Her flowery perfume wafted into my nostrils. “Are you leaving already?”
I could feel tears forming, so pressed my lips together and managed a strangled, “Uh-huh.”
“We’ll miss you,” Uncle Salix said, patting my shoulder.
“Ungh,” I added, grief tightening my throat and making me even more unintelligible.
My cousins Juniper and Birch appeared behind them. Having inherited Shanaya’s warm brown skin and dimples, and Salix’s crystal-blue eyes and impish features, they were a strikingly attractive pair of siblings.
They held up a handmade sign that read, “We’ll Miss You Theia!” Then they wrapped me in a bear hug.
I was seconds from losing it. My cousins were my best friends, along with Gus. Tomorrow, they’d be walking into Sunny High without me—Juniper as a senior, Birch as a sophomore—while I walked into Zenith as a stranger. A newbie. A forest freak. I’d be walking into unfamiliar classrooms filled with unfamiliar faces and the thought made me cold with dread.
“Grandma’s waiting,” Juniper said, releasing me.
Oh man. This was the big one. Grandma Amaryllis is literally my favorite person in the entire world. My role model. Foul-mouthed. Open-minded. A talented hunter. The sort of woman who can drink anyone under the table.
From behind, I could hear Mom’s woodpecker peck-peck-pecking on the van window. Any harder and it would smash the glass. I turned back and flashed a “five minutes” sign with my hand, then hurried up the creaky stairs to Grandma’s room.
Grandma was in her rocking chair by the window, with a clear view of the idling van below. A checkered blanket was draped over her knees.
“I’m going,” I announced from the door.
She looked over at me. The melancholy in her eyes was unmistakable. It sent a shard of pain straight through my heart.
Then she extended her arms and I went to her, kneeling beside her, resting my head on her lap just like I’d done as a child. She stroked my vibrant red hair.
I couldn’t hold it in anymore. Tears streamed from my eyes.
“Your mom deserves this,” I heard her say. “I know you don’t see it that way, but she never liked living here. She misses her home. She misses being with her own kind.”
If her own kind were so important to her, then why did she move to Bear Mountain for an Elkie? She’d been disowned by her parents and sacrificed untold wealth to be with Dad, only to spend the whole sixteen years of their marriage loudly regretting it. She and Grandma hated each other, so it was a testament to Grandma’s good nature that she could be so empathetic toward the daughter-in-law who’d always treated her like dirt. Either that or she was secretly glad to see the back of Vivian Delacour and knew how to present it diplomatically. Knowing Grandma, it was probably the latter.
I raised my head and looked at her through teary eyes. “I don’t want to leave you.”
Grandma nodded her understanding. “I know. But as long as an Elkie has their bow, their family is always with them.”
She patted her own bow and quiver, which rested against the wall beside her. Even though she was too old to use it now, it was still so precious to her.
Elkie take great pride in our weapons. They’re family heirlooms, whittled from the wood of our birth forest, and passed down through the generations. According to Elkie lore, after we pass, a bit of our soul enters our bow. I don’t know if I believe that or not, but it’s a comforting thought. My bow was Dad’s before he died.
From outside, the van horn began to blare. I couldn’t put this off any longer.
I sighed and stood up, then planted a kiss on each of Grandma’s papery cheeks. She held both my hands in hers for a moment, then let me go.
I hurried away before any more tears came.
When I reached the van, Gus came over for one final goodbye hug.
“Promise to call me every day,” he said.
“I will,” I replied. “And you promise to tell me all the gossip from Sunny’s. I want to know who’s dating who. Who’s accidentally gotten pregnant. Which teacher’s got a drinking habit. Everything. Okay?”
“I promise.” He squeezed my hand. “And remember. Hot Vanpari boys.”
I smirked, then pulled open the passenger door and leaped up into the van.
Mom looked over from the driver’s seat with an expression so cold it could freeze over hell. Her downy woodpecker mirrored her movement with creepy synchronicity.
“You took your time,” she said.
I sighed. “Yes, Mother. When you have people you love and care about in life, it’s nice to say goodbye to them.” I didn’t even bother hiding the disdain in my tone.
I was just about to shut the door, when something on the radio caught my attention. I paused.
“Breaking news… One of the Vanpari Five is on the lam…”
My eyes widened, and my brows shot up.
“Shut the door, Theia,” Mom snapped.
But I held a hand up to shush her, craning closer to the radio to get a better listen.
“This news just in,” the reporter continued. “It has been confirmed that one of the accused Vanpari in the upcoming murder trial that’s gripped the nation has indeed escaped from prison. A manhunt is now underway. The suspect is considered dangerous.”
I thought of the terrified Vanpari I’d stumbled across in Bear Mountain. Could he be the escaped Vanpari in the news report? He hadn’t looked dangerous. He also hadn’t looked capable of slaughtering a Celestial woman with four of his buddies…
I flashed terrified eyes at Gus, who was hovering on the other side of my passenger door with the rest of my family. He frowned, looking perplexed.
“The Vanpari,” I mouthed, exaggerating my mouth so he could read my lips. “In the forest.”
“What about him?” he mouthed back.
“He’s a murderer!” I mouthed, pointing at the radio.
Suddenly, Mom reached over me, grabbed the door handle, and slammed the car door shut.
“For Belenus’s sake,” she muttered. “You really are hamming this up, aren’t you?”
She put the van in drive and hit the accelerator. She obviously couldn’t wait to get out of the forest.
As we lurched forward, I peered through the window at Gus as he turned to Juniper and Birch to relay the news. There was just enough time for the three of them to stare at me with terrified expressions before they were out of sight.
I sat back in my seat, stunned. I’d been expecting to leave Bear Mountain feeling sad. Instead, I was leaving with a disquieting sense of dread, fearing that my forest was harboring a murderer.