"So everything will be there when we get there?" Valerie asked again.
Darren rolled his eyes. "Yes. Err personally took both of your suitcases to your new rooms. You can relax."
"I'm about to move to a place where fairy tales are real and you expect me to relax?" She snapped, rubbing one arm.
"Deep breaths Val," Isaac said. "They'll love us. After all, we are so very pretty."
She looked up at him. He was grinning at her and winked when she caught his eye. He swept his arm to indicate the clothes they were both wearing. Valerie looked down at her black pants, loose and full so that when she was standing still, they looked like a skirt. On top, she was wearing a Chinese-style shirt in bright red, embroidered with black and gold phoenixes. Low-heeled black boots were on her feet and her sword was belted over one hip.
Flicking her eyes over the boys she nodded. Isaac was in tight black pants and a loose poet shirt in a green that matched his eyes. He'd taken a cue from the other three, all in pants tighter than they'd worn before, with loose shirts on top. Darren wore an embroidered vest on top of his shirt, Erramun was wearing what looked like actual leather armor, and Lyel had a high-necked shirt underneath his loose one. With the exception of Isaac, all of them had swords belted on. Lyel and Darren had them around their waists while Erramun had his strapped to his back, the hilt visible over his left shoulder.
Valerie took Isaac's advice before walking back up the porch to say goodbye to her family one last time. "I'll see about sending a letter when I get settled," she said, hugging her stepmother. "And if I do decide to stay, due to some head injury or something, I'll come back and visit. I promise."
Claressa smiled as they pulled apart, wiping away the tears that had her eyes shimmering. "Be safe. And don't worry about us. Do what makes you happy."
Fighting back tears of her own, Val nodded, unable to speak. She moved next to Cate, hugging her tightly, using the time her face was hidden to compose herself. "You behave. And keep an eye on Paige. If I come back and find you monkeys have torn the house apart, I'll lock the pair of you in the zoo."
Cate nodded solemnly. "I'll be good. Will you take lots of pictures for me?"
Valerie smiled. "Of course," she said, reaching out and tweaking the end of her sister's nose. Then she turned to the youngest.
"Now you, you especially need to be good. You listen to Claressa, okay?"
Paige frowned. "I want to come."
"You can't. But if you're really, really good I might bring you something back."
"I want a crown! A real princess crown!"
Val laughed. "I'll see what I can do. Now are you going to behave?"
Paige nodded emphatically. Valerie smiled again then leaned in and hugged her sister. "I'm going to miss you all."
Straightening, she marched off the porch, stopping in front of Darren. "Alright. How do we do this?"
Darren took one look at the expression on her face, pulled her against his chest and kissed the top of her head. "It'll be fine. And you can come back and visit any time. It's not really goodbye."
Valerie grabbed a fistful of Darren's clothes and took one, deep, shuddering breath. Then she released her hold on him and stepped back. "Thank you," she whispered, not looking at him.
He smiled and put a hand on her head. "C'mon now. Show a happy face for your family? Or at the very least for me?"
That got him a wavering smile. He returned it with something brighter then pulled a thin gold chain over his head. Dangling on the end, glittering in the shafts of sunlight that penetrated the pines scattered around Val's house were two plain gold bands.
She took a step back. "Those look like wedding rings. I never agreed to marry you."
Darren laughed. "They're not. These are transport rings. Put one on, turn it three times and you'll arrive at the preset destination. The great hall of the palace in this case. Lyel has one for you, Isaac," He called before turning back to Valerie. "They're fairy made and have been passed down for several generations. So please don't lose it. My parents will kill me. And that's only if my godmother doesn't do it first."
Now she grinned. "That's reassuring. At least someone besides me is around to smack you for being stupid."
He sighed dramatically. "Alas, it is my fate to forever suffer the abuse of the ones I love."
Val snorted. "Only when you deserve it." She turned and waved to her family, who waved back. Smiling, she held out her hand to Darren.
That's when smoke exploded around them. Coughing and reaching for their weapons, they stumbled inside a mass of grey clouds. "Claressa," Valerie yelled between coughs. "Take the monkeys inside and lock the doors."
The sound of the thick front door thudding into place reassured Val as she turned to find the others.
Darren swept the air in front of him with his sword, eyes moving and ears straining for some sign of anyone. The slight skritching sound of a pebble being ground under foot against the asphalt had him swinging around to face the driveway. He brought his blade up in time to stop the knife that came hurtling towards him. "We're not alone!" he shouted to the others, shoving his assailant's weapon away.
Isaac hissed as a dagger sliced through his lower arm. Twisting around, he grabbed the wrist that held the weapon and yanked down as his knee rushed up. The snapping sound and scream were satisfying but he still whipped his leg around to kick the man in the head, knocking him out. "They're armed," he warned.
"Found that out ourselves, thanks," Lyel retorted, jumping backwards. The point of his enemy's sword just missing his stomach. He kicked up, forcing the attacker's arms over his head and darted in to strike while the other man's guard was broken.
Erramun hammered down on his opponent's sword, forcing the man to break and roll away. He pursued, sending a whistling strike towards the man's head. This time when he rolled away, he found himself stopped against Lyel's foot. With no hesitation, Lyel kicked him viciously in the head. "Glad to know you're still alive Err. Let's go find the others, shall we?"
Err nodded. "We're moving together."
"Try not to kill us," Lyel added, facing away so his back and Erramun's were together as they slowly walked in the choking smoke. Their lungs and throats were sore from the clouds of it but still they were forced to cough the stuff in and out.
"Back up to the porch!" Darren shouted, swiveling his head this way and that as he walked.
"Way ahead of you," Isaac called, standing on the front steps. "I'm guarding the stairs so please don't stab me."
"Did we get them all?" Lyel asked, he and Erramun joining Isaac at the stairs.
"I think so," Darren replied, walking up to them. "And look, the smoke's blowing off."
A light wind was blowing across, thinning out the smoke as it rustled the tops of the trees. They all watched as the grey mass was shredded slowly. When it finally cleared, there was nothing left in the front yard but some drops of blood and a single forgotten knife.
"So glad to know they took their wounded away with them," Isaac drawled, crossing his arms over his chest.
Darren looked at them, then back at the field, then back at them. He shoved his way past them and began frantically pounding on the door. "Claressa!" He shouted. "It's us!"
"What's the matter?" Lyel asked, surprised by Darren's violent outburst.
The prince turned around to stare at them, face pale, eyes bright with panic. "Where's Valerie?" He cried.
The other three froze then turned to look back at the empty lawn and driveway. Valerie was gone.
(Yes, I am mean enough to end on a cliffhanger. But before you pelt me with angry reviews, the sequel is already up. It's called Cinderella vs. The Fairy Godmother)