The eyes were still wrong.
Serafina stuck out her bottom lip and stared sulkily at the drawing she’d been working on all morning. The shape was right, deep-set under heavy brows, and she’d gotten the fine spray of lines at the corner of his eyes from squinting in the sun. Somehow Serafina knew they weren’t from smiling. She’d shaded his changeable eyes and the dark ring around his irises, but there was something missing.
“Shit!” she said aloud. Conrad, Ian’s trainer, was always swearing under his breath and lately Serafina had been trying it out. It was surprisingly satisfying. “Shit, shit, shit!”
She could picture the face from her dream so perfectly. So why couldn’t she capture it on paper?
She had the wolf dream again last night. In those dreams, she was a giant brown wolf—she’d seen her reflection in a lake once—doing wolf things. Sometimes alone, sometimes with other wolves. The dreams were never the same, more like episodes of a TV show. Serafina enjoyed them. Sometimes it was raining and she spent the entire dream in a cave. Other times she stalked and hunted a deer or rabbit—then ate it. It didn’t seem disgusting until she woke up.
A few times she’d been in terrible, violent fights with people or other wolves. Sometimes the people turned into wolves before they fought. But in the dreams Serafina was strong and powerful and felt angry, not scared. Sometimes she got hurt and once, she almost died. That one had really scared her. Not because she was afraid to die, but because there would be no more wolf dreams if she did. It was the only freedom and adventure in her life. The only time she felt strong and powerful and in control.
Somehow, she managed not to die in her dream that night and a year later Serafina was still having them. But last night’s was different. Last night, she’d dreamed she was running through a winter forest, the sound of howling wolves close by and the crunch of snow under her feet. Trying to get somewhere before it was too late.
Then suddenly she was transported to a warm, cozy bedroom with a window facing snow-capped trees in the distance. The mattress had dipped underneath her as she sat down, as if she weighed a lot, and her legs were long enough to plant her feet firmly on the floor.
Grief and anger and loneliness and an overwhelming sense of yearning had flooded through her as she looked in the mirror over the dresser opposite the bed. But they weren’t her grief and anger and loneliness and overwhelming sense of yearning. They belonged to the man looking in the mirror back at her.
A grown man, at least as old as Conrad but much, much more handsome. The face had a dark scruffy beard and brilliant green eyes that seemed to swirl with gold, like the colours were fighting to take over. Thick brown hair was cut short at the sides, with the long top pulled back into a ragged bun that revealed a row of unmatched earrings up one ear and a large sparkling jewel in the other.
Flipping to the next page of her sketchbook, Serafina started again on a fresh piece of paper. She didn’t have to close her eyes to summon the face in her mind, every detail as clear and familiar in her mind as her own
She lifted her head briefly at the sound of her name over the caws of the gulls and waves lapping on the beach.
Knowing she wasn’t visible from the cliffs, Serafina pressed herself against the large rock at her back and pretended not to hear. Ian trained until noon so unless the sun was wrong and it was actually later than she thought, he wasn’t coming to tell her she was late for lunch. Someone must need her for something. Something Serafina was sure she wouldn’t want to do.
The voice was closer now, from the bottom of the cliff. Footsteps pounded in the sand behind her.
“Serafina.” A shadow fell over her. “There you are.”
Ian braced a hand on the rock and looked down at her. At fourteen, he was five years older than her and a growth spurt over the summer had left his brawny form towering over a foot above her. “I’ve been walking around looking for you for half an hour.”
“I’ve been here,” she said with a shrug.
“Figured that out, thanks.” Ian slid down the rock to settle beside her. “Elder Vera says you missed your lessons this morning.”
Serafina shrugged. “They’re boring and probably all wrong, anyway.”
Ian sighed. He hated it when she talked like that. “Can I see?” he asked, leaning over to peer at her sketchbook.
Serafina nodded and let him see the latest version of her sketch.
His brow crinkled at the face on the page. “Who’s that?”
“I had the wolf dream again last night, but this time at the end, I was a person. I was him.” She pointed to the page. “I think he’s the wolf.”
She missed the flash of alarm that crossed Ian’s face. “What do you mean?”
“In my wolf dreams, sometimes people turn into wolves.”
Ian frowned. “You never told me that before.”
Serafina shrugged. “The eyes are wrong,” she said, pointing to the sketch. She’d erased too many times and the paper was all smudged and grey. “I can’t get them right.”
“You will,” Ian said. “You always do. You’re the most amazing artist I know.”
Serafina rolled her eyes. “Gee, thanks.” Ian didn’t know any other artists, as they were both aware.
Ian grinned and they sat together staring out at the water for a few minutes, absorbed in their own thoughts.
“We should go.” Ian patted Serafina’s leg. “Please tell me there’s an easier way back up than the cliff steps.” The narrow stairs carved into the side of the cliff were sturdy but steep and unprotected against the wind.
She raised her brows at him. “Like a helicopter?”
“Yeah.” He nodded. “Or a boat.”
Serafina looked out at the water. “If I had a helicopter or a boat, I wouldn’t go back there.” She gestured vaguely to the small coastal community above the cliffs.
“Where would you go?”
“Mexico. Canada. Anywhere it can get me.” Serafina closed her eyes, squeezing them together. “Anywhere but here.”
Ian sighed and slung a heavy arm around her shoulders. Ian was the only person who didn’t try to make her feel guilty and ungrateful for complaining or tell her how honoured she should feel to be chosen. He knew how it felt to be forced into a role he’d never asked for. He’d been chosen too—not by the Moon Goddess but by the Elders, who had appointed him her guardian the day she was born. Serafina had seen pictures of the ceremony. An adorable five year-old boy, solemnly kneeling before a baby laying on a large white pillow, his hand curled around her tiny foot dripping with their mingled blood. Swearing to devote his life to the White Goddess before he even knew what that meant.
The next day he would be taken from his parents and his friends at kindergarten and moved into the church compound to begin training for his role, doomed to stay forever at her side.
“Can I come with you?” Ian asked now.
“Why would you want to?” Serafina frowned. “With me gone you can be normal. Live with your parents. Go to school.”
“My parents have three other kids now,” Ian said. “And you actually think I can go to school? Be a normal teenager who just happens to know how to know how to kill a grown man with his bare hands?”
“You don’t have to tell anyone you can do that,” Serafina said. “Or if you don’t want to live here maybe I could drop you off somewhere. You always wanted to go to Colorado.”
“Why don’t you want me to come?” Ian sounded hurt. “Wherever you go, you’ll need someone to protect you.”
Serafina pulled in her legs and turned herself so she was facing him. “See, that’s just it.” She looked into his eyes, needing him to understand. “As long as we’re together you’ll always feel like you have to protect me. You’ll never be free. Don’t you want to do something else with your life? Have a real job someday? Make money? Have friends and go out with girls?”
“Of course I want all that stuff,” Ian said slowly, a furrow appearing between his brows. “But that’s not my destiny.”
Serafina flopped back against the rock with a huff. “Screw destiny.”
Ian’s frown deepened. “Serafina, the Goddess...”
Something inside Serafina broke. “Screw her too! And screw the Elders and screw the stupid Church. I hate them!” The bad word felt right, the disrespect so liberating on her tongue. “And that’s why you can’t come, because you won’t! You’ll just follow me around forever waiting for someone we don’t even know exists to possibly attack me!”
She was crying now, shouting through the tears running into her mouth. “It’s so stupid! And you’ll never get a life and neither will I because of some STUPID prophecy that the Elders DON’T EVEN UNDERSTAND!” She screamed the last words, so loud it hurt her own ears.
Her chest ached from her wracking sobs. Ian pulled her into his arms roughly. It wasn’t comfortable but Serafina didn’t move. Nobody else ever touched her.
“Fine then. Okay?” She could hear tears in his voice, low and determined. “You’ll go without me. We’ll get cell phones. If you need me you’ll call and I’ll come. I’ll bring my girlfriend. She’ll be cool, so you’ll definitely like her.” His arms tightened as he felt her huff of laughter. “You’ll have your own house and people will pay you to paint them. You’ll probably become a famous artist,” he added.
“I don’t want to be famous,” she mumbled into his shirt.
“Just an artist, then. Okay?”
Serafina let out a shuddering breath. “Okay.”
Ian pressed a kiss into her hair and squeezed her tightly before pulling away. “You going to be all right?”
Serafina shrugged, swiping at her tear-stained face. Ian stood up in a smooth single motion and held out his hand wordlessly. It was time to go. Gripping her sketchbook tightly against her, she let him pull her to her feet.
His shirt was damp with her tears. “I got your shirt wet,” she said.
Ian shrugged. “At least it’s not pee. What?” He pretended to cringe as she smacked his arm. “I’m just saying.”
“I was a baby!” Serafina said with a huff. “You probably peed on someone when you were a baby too.”
“Yeah but...” Ian spread his hands and looked around. “They’re not here to make fun of me.”
Serafina could feel Ian’s familiar, comforting bulk at her back, steadying her as they climbed the steep stairs up the cliff. She had never known a time when he hadn’t been there, making her smile with his stupid jokes, protecting her against scary shadows and even scarier bugs, holding her when she cried. It was Ian who carried her back to her room after Friday services and made her giggle with his impressions of the Elders as sickness worked its way from her body. But as impossible and heartbreaking as it was to imagine life without her only friend, Serafina knew that he would never willingly abandon his role as her protector, and she would never be free from the Church of the White Goddess as long as they were together.
At the top of the cliff they paused, breathing heavily from the climb.
“You haven’t asked me why I was looking for you,” Ian said as they looked out at the row of houses in the distance.
“Did your training finish early today?”
“No. They pulled me out to come find you.”
“Is lunch ready?” she asked.
Ian frowned. “No.”
Serafina shook her head and started walking. “I didn’t think so.”
Ian fell silent, adjusting his long stride to match hers.
She let out a long breath. “Just tell me.”
“A guest arrived this morning. A famous musician.”
“Javier Byrd?” Ian said.
They looked at each other and shrugged. The Church had no wifi and occasional forays into town were their only exposure to popular culture.
“So what do they want me for?” Serafina asked. Her heart dropped at Ian’s expression.
He swallowed hard. “He has cancer.”
Serafina’s breath hitched in her throat. “No.”
“I’m sorry.” Ian bit his lip. “I’m sorry, Sera. I’m so sorry.”
A sob rose inside her, fear tightening like a metal band around her chest. The last time she’d healed someone with cancer she’d passed out from the pain and puked black for hours afterwards. Her body had felt like a wrung-out dirty rag. She’d spent the next four days in bed with a needle in her arm, too weak to ingest solids. It was weeks before she’d fully regained her strength.
Ian gave her a sad look, but said nothing as they continued walking. Another thing she appreciated about Ian. If there was nothing to say, he didn’t say anything. Serafina had heard enough meaningless words in her nine short years to last her a lifetime.