Gem

Chapter 1

A Lion in the Desert

The day my aunt went missing was the day that I was truly introduced to her world. Sure, I'd always known she was a witch, which I thought was pretty cool. Most people in the community thought of her as a Wiccan witch, spiritually attuned to the earth and such but unable to alter more than say, a small electromagnetic field. I knew better than that, but back then, I had no idea that witches were just the beginning.

I was just trying to graduate high school. My world was full of books and tests and friends, and that was quite enough for me to handle. Especially since I tended to drift off into daydreams when I was bored.

It was one of the worst days I'd had in quite awhile. I was a full day behind in my calculus class and I had an English paper to revise that night since I had procrastinated working on it all weekend. At least it hadn't gotten too hot in this arid desert yet that I couldn't suffer the walk home. Home, with sweet air conditioning and ice cream and the lure of the television I could watch until I was relaxed and dreamy.

No, I couldn't go home right away or I'd never get all this work done.

So I sat out on the benches right outside school and pulled out the mondo calculus book with accompanying calculator and set to work untangling the world of numbers and signs.

I was thoroughly engrossed in a particularly nasty problem when some disturbing noises got too loud to ignore.

"Weirdo Lerdo!"

"Hey pansy, what, does your retarded, colorblind mom dress you every morning?"

I came out of the world of the equations and saw a blond head ducking down and scuttling between a large group of boys. I recognized him as one of those slightly odd kids. He was wearing a bright yellow shirt that was way too big for him and jeans that might've been made for girls. Despite his atrocious sense of style and stiff mannerisms he was one of the smarter students at the school.

"Leo!" I called.

There were a couple of catcalls, but then the boys drifted off to some other form of amusement.

"Thanks, Gem," he said, head still ducked down.

"Let's get out of here. In fact, I have a favor to ask. Would you help me revise my English paper?"

"Sure."

Neither of us had a car so we walked to my place. Even for winter, the sun's constant glare was piercing hot. It was a constant battle between the cold wind and the sun. The shade was too cold to stay in very long, so we walked along the far side of the road, where the sun blinded you if you dared to cheat to look for oncoming traffic.

"Where do you live anyway?" I asked.

"Farther than you do."

"Out more in the middle of nowhere, huh?" Out beyond the road, the rows of development, houses built one exactly like the other, broke away into pure sand. This was the real desert, the bottom of the valley, only a sparse scattering of dry brush varying the landscape until you eventually reached the hills that climbed quickly into mountains.

"Yea," he'd said long ago, but too much time had passed now for me to continue and so we walked in silence.

I stopped in front of our little house. Instead of long grassy lawns and picturesque rows of flowers in front of it, the whole yard was walled off with a flagstone wall. It certainly made the house stand out from the rest of the nice manicured lawns on our block. My Auntie preferred to keep her gardening skills a secret.

In fact, there were a lot of things that were quite usual about my Aunt and suddenly I wasn't too keen on letting a guy from school whom I hardly knew come in and meet her. Then I remembered that this was Weirdo Lerdo (as those taunting boys invariably called him) and my Aunt couldn't be any weirder than him or his relatives.

I walked around to the back, through a wooden door, through more of the garden, and to the double French doors that opened into the kitchen.

The one of few nice things about the desert was that it got so much sun you could grow nearly anything there, provided you had enough water. In the walled front and backyards, my Aunt could place the plant where it got as much shade or sunlight as it needed. She spent hours every day out here, though usually only early in the morning and very late afternoon and into twilight. The sun was approaching the edge of the mountains so I was surprised not to find her gardening.

"Hello, planties," I called out to the vast garden. The wind must have shifted because those with leaves rustled.

"My Aunt must be in the kitchen," I said.

But when we walked inside she wasn't there. The skylight and large windows streamed light into the large room, but it was empty.

"Auntie? Sephona?"

The kitchen was her sanctum. It was full of dried herbs and plants, and plants in the process of being dried, and some still growing in the pots, not to mention other fruits and vegetables, some of which I was allowed to eat, others reserved for other purposes.

"Take an apple," I said. "I mean, if you want. Or would you like some juice?"

"Water would be agreeable." After he had tasted of the sweet river of heaven, and believe me that is what cold water tastes like after a hike through the heat, he looked about the room.

"You're Aunt's not here?" he asked. I shifted my weight back and forth.

"It seems not."

"Is she really a witch?" He took a seat at the bar counter.

"So you've heard about that," I sighed. There were two types of people interested in asking about my aunt: those who wanted to convert her back to 'the love of god' and those who wanted love potions.

"But you're not a witch?"

"Not that I know of." He slumped down in the stool. He played with the glass, letting his fingers tap on the sides of it, making a clicking sound.

"But, you've got the eyes. I was hoping you would know, I mean, you definitely have enough blood. You don't know anything about that? Your Aunt didn't tell you about how she got to be a witch?" The tumble of words out of his mouth, more than I had ever heard him speak before, took me off guard. I stepped back, my side against the cool door of the refrigerator.

"Everyone's got blood." Ok, now I was beginning to understand why people called him crazy. And I, dumb girl, had invited him into my house and my Aunt wasn't exactly here. So I was alone with a crazy guy, good job, Gem. I told myself to keep cool and try to get more information, "What do you know about witchcraft?"

"Do you trust me?" He looked up, and I noticed the odd golden tint to his eyes.

Hell, no.

"I don't really know you," I said instead. He'd transferred into the school last year.

"What you do know about me?" He craned forward, his entire torso over the counter. I moved to the fridge and got out some orange juice. I had squeezed it yesterday.

"You are definitely…" Crazy, I wanted to say. "Strange. You act older than you are sometimes. You're smart, but you don't take an interest in other people or any activity or anything that might bind you to society."

I was surprised by how much I had noticed without really taking conscious note of it. I poured a glass of the o.j.

He kept craning forward, his eyes drifting about until he spoke.

"And you've always wondered what is so different and strange within yourself that you feel you don't quite belong. Who is your mother? Who is your father? If I could help you answer those questions, would you swear your loyalty to me?"

"Loyalty?" I nearly spit out my juice. "You'd have to define what you mean by that."

But his offer rang in my head. My mother, whom I could hardly remember, how could he know something of her? My father, well, I never knew him at all. But if there was a chance to gain some little bit of knowledge I knew I would take it. Even from a crazy person.

"Loyalty to the rightful Prince of the Seelie Court." He was utterly change din that one moment. His bones seemed to glow beneath his skin and his posture straightened. I'd never even noticed before that he was taller than me; he'd always been hunched over. I ran my fingertips along his jaw line, and the glowing was no trick of light. He was certainly not just a high school geek. And his eyes were what dragon's eyes might've looked like, all golden and calm and powerful. The plants shivered in the air around him.

"You really are a prince."

He grinned, and some boyishness came back to him, grounding him and making him seem just a bit more real again. The plants wavered in the air.

"The plants know you," I said in awe. He frowned and looked up at the vines hanging from the rafters and skylight.

"No," he said, caressing the lowest tendrils. "The plants know you. Your eyes glowed like I thought they would and the plants responded to your power. Watch this."

He moved forward like lightening, his arms suddenly around me with a vicious intent. I gasped, reaching out, but my arms were constrained. Then green lines spattered across my vision and Leo was pulled away from me.

I breathed and they breathed with me, pressing their thorns into the flesh of the one who had threatened me.

But he wasn't really a threat, and with that thought, they loosened their hold.

Leo broke from the vines, and laughed.

"Why'd you…Did I hurt you?" There were bloody scratches all over his arms and face. He looked over them with indifference.

"It's nothing, they're shallow. Thankfully you don't have completely control over it yet, just the defensive instinct."

"But I've never done anything like that before." Even as I said it I knew it to be a lie. The one time I had come to my aunt to ask her why plants were whispering to me in my dreams, she had soothed me with some tea and sent me back to sleep. The next day, she had me trying to brew a potion, and it had ended disastrously; it was confirmed that I had no magical ability. Except I hadn't told her the plants also whispered when I was awake.

He ignored me, pacing back and forth with too much energy for the room. The kitchen, which had always been a haven to me, now seemed too small for a prince. Or maybe it was just me, feeling out among the vines for that odd spark I had felt. It flowed through me, as if I was part of them, they my extended limbs.

"…This is better that I would have even have guessed. You're not just a witch, you're nearly full blooded. Things are looking much brighter indeed." I realized I had tuned Leo out and I tried to return to reality.

"Ok, you've got to tell me everything. Right now." I sat down at the bar counter and gestured for him to sit. Next to my aunt, the one thing I valued was knowledge.

"Lady," he said, turning toward me, his head lowered to mine. "I need your oath first. And then, when I am King, you shall be first among my board of advisors."

"King of what?"

"King of the Seelie, part of the forces that govern this world. Oh, I don't suppose your aunt told you anything about that."

I shook my head. No she certainly did not, and I was beginning to feel a little animosity at her for not telling me anything about other kinds of magic, or for being here when I needed her. But then, she had always tried to get me involved in the witchery stuff, I'd just never been any good at it.

I remembered sitting before the cauldron, crying when I had to put the leaves in, it had smelled like burning plastic. I shook away the memory.

"There are two forces that are in constant opposition and attempt to balance each other out. The Unseelie are chaotic and dark, the Seelie, my court, is in charge of keeping the peace on earth, maintaining order and such. But my court was overtaken by a power-hungry human, the Mage Erydus. And so I was sent to exile in the human world."

"And an Exiled prince can't exactly do his job." I nodded.

"The Unseelie have had too much power as of late. The exponential growth of humans has created a great imbalance in the natural order of the earth. There is so much that needs to be done in order to preserve the plants and animals that also share this earth, not to mention the gaseous imbalances created in the atmosphere." He leaned his head back, and his shoulders looked heavy with this weight of realization.

"Humans, they know about this, yet they won't stop, even though they see the possibility of wiping out their entire race," he waved his arms about for emphasis. He was truly impassioned about it.

"Hey, I'm an environmentalist; I know these things, no need to preach to me." I understood how he felt though. I'd always felt like we as a human race didn't appreciate our amenities and always took more than we needed. I had watched kids throw away things they didn't want any more for the latest model, clothes, ipods, even laptops.

"Yes, of course." He put his arms down. "I just feel so helpless here; trapped in this world I cannot utilize my full powers. And without the court, well I cannot affect anything on a large enough scale to make a difference." He looked so sad with his slumped shoulders and drawn face.

"Well, it sounds like a fine set of goals. You got me on your side now."

He looked up and then grinned. I'd never thought I could've made someone so happy just saying a couple of sentences. His smile was the contagious kind. I guess he'd never smile at school before or he would've been a bit more popular. I could definitely feel the edges of my lips rising in response.

"And they say humans don't believe magic even if it is shown right before their own eyes."

"I've seen my aunt do things and apparently I'm not human," I said, drawing out this statement in my mind. I wasn't, or at least not completely, human.

"But you were raised by them. This poses a problem." He held his chin in his hand.

"Problem for what?"

"For infiltrating the court." He drank some more water. "No, perhaps you don't have to expose yourself at all." He turned to me. "This task I'm appointing you, it would not be so dangerous if you knew the Otherworld well, but it is our safest choice. If you swear your fealty to me, I promise to protect you as best I can, and you shall be my top advisor when I am King."

He was stuck on his own problems, and sure I guess they did make mine seem petty. Somehow I couldn't turn down his hopeful eyes. I found the words rising to my mouth and flowing out as easy as a breath.

"I swear to be loyal to you as you are the rightful heir to the Seelie throne…and I promise to help you attain that throne." I had no idea how to do this sort of thing, and I hoped I wasn't getting in too deep too quickly. Something I've learned from reading way too many novels is that sometimes you got to take the road when it's offered. Who knows where these journeys might take you.

Maybe that's what I had looking and waiting for. I had always wanted something unusual like this to happen, it was my chance out of a boring and predictable life, at least for a little while.

"Very well, it is done. There must be a portal about here somewhere nearby." He got up and walked over to the French doors.

"Whoa, are we leaving so soon?" This I had not expected. I needed to talk to my Aunt before I did anything too rash.

He turned back to me.
"You must take this ring; it is my signet and mark of my powers. It will let the others know that you are truly loyal to me. They meet at midnight in the Otherworld in the Garden of Lions at the palace." He shoved the ring into my palm. His hair slid over his face to hide his eyes again as he assumed his hunched-over posture.

"So I take it I'm doing this alone?" I turned the golden ring about in my hands, letting the heaviness sink my hand down to my side.

"You must, I know it must be quite a lot to absorb in one day, but this process will take awhile and I need to make contact with those who are still loyal to me as soon as possible."

"You still have to tell me about my parents."

"Well, obviously your father was or is part of my court. I won't be able to tell you more until I'm there once again…" he drifted off, still as a statue.

We were outside now, and the sun had fallen below the line of mountains, but was still shining in bright twilight.

"Here it is. I knew the witch would keep it nearby, to watch over it." The place in question was a curiously bare patch of earth, surrounded by a ring of various mushrooms and small flowers. I shook my head, how had I not noticed it before?

"I have to talk to my aunt before I leave."

"I can tell her where you've gone."

"How long will I be there?"

"I can't say, time moves differently there."

"But I've got school…"

"That's' important to you, isn't it? You've learned of the real world and you still want to finish your schooling?"

"It's one of the few things I've ever decided for myself, that I would do my best at school." The only other thing I'd decided for myself was to help this lunatic out…

"I'll plan something with your aunt. I'll do your homework and we'll say you're sick or some such."

"Thank you. But I have to talk to my aunt before I leave."

"Very well, just, please try to leave tonight." There it was again, the stopped breath and slumped shoulders and half-lidded eyes that made me want to help him.

"If you're telling the truth, then I'll do all I can to help you." I put my palm on his shoulder, and he stiffened. He let out his breath and continued on.

"When you're ready, step through right here. When you get there just follow the sun; it will guide you to the palace. In the palace, work through the maze and keep following the signs of the lion. At midnight, the others should be there, gather their names and any news they have for me. I'll come by here every afternoon to wait for you to get back."

The twilight was waning, the whole sky reflecting the last bit of sunlight.

Leo looked up into the sky. He cursed under his breath.

"I have to go." He turned to me, his golden eyes blazing. "Thank you for trusting me, Lady."

He kissed my hand and then bounded out of the garden, as if his heels were on fire.

Dark started to fall. Still, my aunt did not come, and a sinking feeling developed in my stomach. Should I go? But where was my aunt? Leo had promised to tell her everything, but if she wasn't here now, who's to say what happened to her. What if she was dealing with something in the Otherworld as well?

I went back into the house to get a jacket, I had no idea what to prepare for but I figured a jacket was a good start considering most places were always colder than here. I dumped my books out of my backpack and put in a bottle of water, some granola bars, a flashlight and a small blanket.

I stopped on my way back through the kitchen and looked underneath the back cabinet, something I should've thought to do earlier. Sephona's Grimorie, her magical book/journal of spells, was missing. That meant she had taken it with her. Then why hadn't she left a note? Or someone had taken it.

I walked back outside. Dark had settled fully over the garden. I turned on the lights; they were long ropes of white Christmas lights woven through the roof trellis. I made my way through the garden again to the weird circle.

"Well, Gem," I told myself. "It must be time to make like a tree and leave."

And then, since there seemed nothing else left to do, I stepped into the circle.