Stars and fire seemed to rain across the sky as huge bolts of light were fired from hands of frightened warriors. Children screamed when their beloved elders were shot down, still trying to direct them to safety. At least a dozen men in black uniforms and gear grinned at the commotion, their ancient black eyes glinting wickedly. They made a hissing noise that drove the masses to screaming in pain and fear. A few brave, powerful men and women stood up to them and chanted words of a different language, ancient words that could have been Latin or Greek. A bolt of lightning struck the ground and shot several offenders into the ruins of the building. One man in a blue robe unsheathed a long sword and charged at the attackers with a war cry. One attacker in dark gear smirked and raised a hand. A bullet of fire shot from his hand and engulfed the brave man with a roar. A woman in the distance cried out as she watched her husband burn into ashes. Smoke from the corpse clouded the world, and burned the eyes of a watching child, too shocked to register that the dead man was his father—
I woke up in a cold sweat, my eyes stinging from the memory of smoke. I sucked up a big lungful of air, trying to get the smell of fire and burning skin out of my system.
I'd had the nightmare again. The same stupid nightmare that I'd been getting for weeks. I didn't know where it came from, or what it meant. All I knew was that it was making me lose sleep.
I'm Anthony Darwin. I'm fifteen, and I live in a small town in California. The snowy, northern part, without the beaches and tan, blonde surfer dudes. I've lived a pretty normal life, for a foster kid. I've moved into more foster homes than I can count, and I've gone to three different elementary schools, two middle schools, and the high school I'm enrolled in now.
"Anthony! Pancakes are ready!" The ever-patient Mrs. Smith called my name again. I smiled and got out of bed. I swear, her breakfasts were the only thing I woke up for. I don't think it's how the big, fluffy pancakes tasted that made it special, but that little smile she had on her face when she made them. She was definitely my favorite foster parent, so far. She was always nice to me and treated me like I was really part of the family. I didn't want my year with her to end. She would be awesome to have as a real mother.
I got dressed, stumbled out of my bedroom, and went down the stairs. Images of my rerun nightmare rolled through my brain. I thought of the man who I'd seen die at least a hundred times, burned to a crisp by fire shot from another man's hands. I had no idea where the whole shooting fire idea had come from. I'd run through theories about magic, super powers, and being bit by a radioactive spider. Maybe I'd hung out with my nerdy, marvel-loving friend too much in my last foster family, and he'd poisoned my mind with wizards and all of that magic myth stuff. But that wasn't it.
The source of the recurring nightmare was something...different.
The clearest image in my dream was the child. Icy blue eyes wide with terror, white-blonde hair, skinny arms and legs. He looked about six years old. That poor kid had watched the man I somehow knew was his father burn. I couldn't imagine how scarring that would be. My parents had disappeared when I was a baby, so I didn't have enough memories to truly miss them. To watch his father die like he had, I had no idea what that would be like.
I jumped when I saw Kell, Mrs. Smith's biological son, at the bottom of the stairs, sighing as his foot danced around with a soccer ball involuntarily.
"Rough practice?" I said.
"Yeah." He yawned. "If coach just didn't make it so early..." I laughed a little. He and his mother looked a lot alike, with their blue eyes and blonde hair, but Kell was definitely not a morning person.
"What about you? For a minute there you looked like you'd seen a ghost." He called to me as I entered the dining room. I pretended I didn't hear him and sat at the table, pleased at the sight of stacked pancakes and bacon.
Mrs. Smith poked her head out of the kitchen. "Ghost? What's that about?"
"Kell's just joking around."
She sighed. "Well, then. I'm sure the ghost will be pleased to hear that I made plenty of pancakes for him. He might even get yours if you don't hurry and eat up." She nodded at the clock. I frowned at how late it was. I stuffed the pancakes in my mouth and ran upstairs to get my bag.
Fifteen minutes later, I shuffled past people on the street and stepped onto a Pleasant Grove High school bus.
For the record, Pleasant Grove is anything but pleasant. I'm willing to bet that even some of the teachers think that the name is totally ironic. It was a private school, so if you were enrolled in it, you were either government-funded or super rich. Since I was a foster kid, I was one of the unlucky funded ones who didn't have pockets exploding with cash. I'd only been going to the school for a few months, learning very quickly what it meant to be in Pleasant Grove. Get rich quick or get beat up.
I'd mostly been able to avoid that sort of thing. I didn't do so much as blink whenever some spoiled kid made a remark about my clothes or hair or whatever. They got bored of me quickly.
The only trouble I had was with Phil Enkers. He was the biggest, richest, and dumbest kid in school. He was a classic bully, and I'd seen plenty as I moved from school to school, family to family. Phil had military-cut brown hair, a pug nose, and a thin lip that always seemed to snarl. He always acted tough, but I was sure that the moment a kid actually challenged him, he'd wimp out. He constantly picked on the new kids, beating them up and "initiating" them. He ticked me off so easily. I could never stay composed and calm like usual when he threatened other kids. But when he tried to get me, I could practically pretend he didn't exist. His frustrated looks were hilarious.
I had one class with him; science. Right before lunch, when a lot of the kids were riled up and hungry, including Enkers. He was picking on this smaller kid next to me named Wiley, calling him weird nicknames and spilling mud from the erosion experiment all over his papers. I balled up my fists. I glanced at Wiley, and I saw he was biting his lip. He wanted to punch Enkers right in his pug nose, I could tell, but he was afraid that Phil would do worse. I didn't know what to do. I wanted to defend Wiley, but I couldn't do much in a classroom but tell the teacher. And the teachers, well, a lot of them picked on us as much as Enkers did.
Lunch was even worse. He was smirking at one of the scholarship kids, holding up a plunger and a roll of toilet paper, threatening them with "initiation". I glared in his direction.
Seriously? That initiation thing was so lame, so condescending. It made me angry that this idiot had pushed around other students just because his daddy had a little money and some good genes. My eyes flicked from the objects to Phil, and I felt my calm look tighten. My cheeks became hot with anger. And then, a strange feeling overcame me. A stormy anger mixed with heart-thumping adrenaline.
"Back off, Enkers." I found that, somehow, I was already standing between Phil and the scared kids.
Phil smirked. "Well, someone came to the rescue for these little dweebs." He shoved a little kid to the floor, spilling his lunch everywhere.
"I said to back off." I glared at him. My eyes twinged, like the anger I felt had even reached them. My vision started to cloud.
Phil's face paled. He backed up, then turned around and bolted out of the cafeteria. When he left, my freaky anger immediately dissipated, abandoning me like adrenaline. My mind started working sensibly again. I realized that sure, this kid was a jerk, but there was no need to go on a rampage, right? He was just an idiot.
Well, at least Phil was gone. But what had scared him? All I'd done was look at him.
"Did you see that... His eyes...freaky..." I heard some kids muttering around me.
A pale, skinny boy who looked too young to even be in high school, with black hair and coal-like eyes, was the only one without a surprised look on his face. He just stared at me with his dark eyes.
I ignored them all and left. I swallowed back the strange event and tried to continue school without any more weirdness. It was hard to do, because now there were some whispers going on behind my back, with some kids pointing at me every now and then.
I managed to make it through the day and took off from school as soon as the bell rang. I was grateful it was a warm January day, with only a little snow making my steps awkward. I breathed in the fresh air. It felt good to be outside. If I could just stay outside all the time, just live in the fresh air, I would be the happiest kid in the world. I didn't like living in the city, swallowed up by the cars and buildings and people. I always planned that the moment I turned eighteen, in four years, I would move into a country house with fields of nothing but grass and trees. I'd spend my life just staring at the sky and exploring the fields.
I know, it sounds kinda weird. But, that's what I thought about most days. Getting away from it all.
My thoughts were shattered by a chill down my back. Someone was watching me.
I looked around, my body tensing with the urge to run. All I could catch was a flicker of shadow across the yards nearby. A figure zipping from bush to bush. Someone was there. All of my instincts were screaming to bolt down the sidewalk, but for some reason, I didn't move.
I blinked, and there was a man standing in front of me. I almost cursed in surprise.
"Er, hey, neighbor." I muttered when I gathered my wits. I turned around to walk home, but another man dressed similarly to the first was behind me, staring at me like I was a piece of meat. I gulped and looked between the two. One had fair blonde hair that reached his shoulders and the other had brown. The blonde was much shorter, but seemed to make up for it with a stiff lip and a tight face. They had different physical characteristics, and yet...they were the same. They wore the same black clothes, but there was something else...
Their eyes, I realized. Their eyes were both ancient, black arrowheads that seemed to pierce my soul. They were eyes that I'd seen before. I couldn't quite place when, but I knew I'd seen them.
I realized that four others with the same eyes had joined them in a circle, surrounding me.
"That's him. That's the boy I saw doing it." The youngest of them, probably twelve, muttered. He was the black-haired boy that I'd seen staring at me at the school.
"What do you want?" I demanded. They only smirked and closed me in. One grabbed my arm. I twisted my wrist and yanked it away, then tried to run between him and his friend. I didn't get very far before the guy swung around and grabbed the cuff of my neck. I desperately unzipped my jacket and struggled out of it, but by then his buddies were grabbing my arms. My breath caught when I felt a cold blade at my neck.
"Stop struggling." the blonde said. I yelled for help as loud as I could, hoping someone in the nearby houses would hear. The men only laughed.
"That won't help you, kid." Said the guy holding the knife, and pressed it closer to my throat. He shoved me closer to a gray van, his buddies opening the back doors for me, nice and wide.
Adrenaline and fear pumped through me, telling me to bolt, but I couldn't. If I moved anywhere other than towards the van, this guy would slice me. Even if I escaped him somehow and ran home as fast as I could, high on adrenaline, I was sure these guys would beat me.
Apparently yelling for help worked, because just as I stepped on the ramp to the van door, I heard a girl's voice yelling, "Stop them! They've got the kid!"
The six kidnappers whipped their heads around, and glared at what they saw. The guy holding me turned his entire body around, and I got a full view of several other people, standing in the street, ready to take these guys on. They were wearing strange green robes and carried even stranger weapons. Every one of them had bright green eyes, and they each carried a weapon that seemed taken straight out of a fantasy. The girl in the middle with long, curly red hair tied back in a ponytail held a long, thorny whip. A man next to her with brown hair had a huge, curved blade. A woman on the other side of the girl, her mother, I guessed, since she had the same hair and pale complexion, held a black, metal staff in both hands. Had I gotten caught in the middle of a psychotic gang fight?
"Give us the boy, Axian." The woman spat his name like a curse word.
"Any closer and I'll slit his throat." He growled, pressing the knife deeper into my skin. A small drop of blood tickled my neck. I grimaced at the pain of the cut the knife had made. The girl winced, like she knew what a blade felt like. Okay, so these guys weren't playing around. I was in actual danger, and these people were here to help, for some reason.
The red-haired girl flicked her whip. "Let him go, or else."
"You're all crazy." I muttered. What was she gonna do, wave the lady's magic stick and explode him?
By the fierce look in her eyes, I had a feeling she was planning on doing something like that.
The man holding the knife laughed. "Did you hear that? He thinks we're all crazy!" He chuckled again and pressed the knife so hard I choked. How did he even hear that, anyway?
The girl clenched her teeth and raised her whip. It flashed across the distance between us, the man cried out in pain, and the knife clattered to the ground. My hand went to my bleeding neck and I scrambled away from the "Axian".
A good twenty feet away from both groups, I watched his buddies drag him to the van, he was moaning and rubbing a two-degree burn on his hand. The green-eyed people chased them, and I realized that energy was crackling around the woman's staff, shooting her enemies in the behind occasionally. My jaw dropped when one of them exploded into ashes.
"Stop staring and move!" The girl grabbed my arm and pulled me towards a car. I was so shocked by witnessing spontaneous combustion that I didn't care where she dragged me to.
She shoved me inside a car, yanking her green robe inside so that it wouldn't be caught between the door. She stared out the window with a sort of longing. I guess it's every girls' dream to make someone explode into ashes.
"Put this on your cut." She handed me a cloth. I did it, staring at her warily. She then went back to staring out the window.
"Good, they got 'em." She finally said after a minute.
"They just exploded all of those guys? They killed all of them?" I said with horror.
"They're not dead, just somewhere else."
"When they turn into ashes, they're taken into the Axian prison."
"The what? How does turning into ashes put you in a prison?"
"It's a form of teleportation."
"Telep—Okay, you know what? I am so out." I reached for the door handle.
She grabbed my shoulder. Her flashy green eyes met mine. "You step out of this car, you're dead, Anthony. More of those people will come after you. They will find you. And next time, we might not be there."
I gulped. "How do you know my name?"
She couldn't answer before her mother and the other guy sat in the front seats and stepped on it. The car wailed into acceleration. I looked back down the streets, barely glimpsing the Smith's house at the very end of the street before we whipped around the corner.
"Who are you guys? What's going on?"
The girl met her mother's eyes in the mirror. They looked at me with a sort of sympathy, like they had a lot to say, and they knew I wouldn't like it.
"That...teleporting ashes thing. Your staff. Those aren't...magic, are they?" I guessed. I really didn't want to hear the answer.
"Yes." Said the girl quietly. "It's magic."
My mind sort of exploded when she said that. Come on, what do you say when you've just figured out magic's real? Gee, if only my old friend was here. He would be absolutely giddy. I was just trying not to wet my pants.
"Well, say something." The girl said. "Your face is totally blank."
Okay, well, I guess didn't appear to be freaking out. I guess showing emotion wasn't my thing. Even when magic showed up.
"Um...what's your name?" I asked. I got a closer look at the girl. She was about my age, with thickly-curled red hair tied back in a ponytail, flashy green eyes, and freckles that lightly dotted her pale complexion like stars on her cheeks.
"Felicity Nite-Mesther." She smiled. "And this is my mom and my dad."
"I'm Luna Nite-Mesther." The woman turned around and shook my hand.
"I'm Brevon Nite-Vivian." The father nodded at me in the mirror, keeping his hands on the wheel. How come he had a different last name then the rest of his family? And they all had the same middle names...weird. I decided not to ask.
"We're glad to finally meet you, Anthony." Mrs. Mesther smiled.
"How do you know me? And...who were those guys? Why did they come after me?"
"We aren't sure why they're after you. We've been charged with your protection."
"The academy, of course." She answered as if it was obvious. I stared at the seat. Could I just roll into a fetal position and die of confusion, please?
"Mesther Academy, doofus." Felicity smirked. She liked my confusion too much.
"I go to Pleasant Grove." I said.
"Well, Mesther Academy is way better. It teaches us how to fight with magic." She took out her whip. It glowed green for a second, matching her eyes.
"And about the history of Teikians." Her mother added.
Brevon glanced at me in the mirror. "You two are confusing the boy even more."
No, duh. The city slowly started turning into fields through the car windows. "Um...Where are we going?"
"To the Academy. You'll be much safer there."
"The Academy? No, I have to get home. My guardian is going to freak out!"
"She's been contacted. Mrs. Smith will meet us there."
"How do I know you aren't kidnapping me, like those other guys?"
"We've been charged with your protection. The Axians are the ones who will hurt you."
"Axians? What is that, some kind of horoscope?"
Felicity snorted. "If only. The Axians are a thousand-year old line of magical blood. Our enemies."
"They all had black eyes." I remembered.
"Yeah, that's one of the traces that all Axians have."
"And you guys all have green eyes."
"That's the Mesther trace. My dad is Vivian, actually, so he has a blue eye."
I snatched a closer look at his eyes in the mirror, and saw he had two colors of eyes; one blue and one green. He was...what was that word? Bichromatic.
"He got the green eye when he married Mom."
"That's amazing. Why doesn't she have a blue eye, too?" I asked.
"Sometimes the man gets it, and sometimes the woman." She shrugged.
"So, Vivians have blue eyes, Mesthers have green eyes, and Axians have black eyes, and they're all magic blood lines?"
"You catch on quick. There's also the Turis. Strange, rare bunch. They have silver eyes."
"Okay...I know a bunch of people with different colored eyes. They are, in no way, magical. Including myself."
"There's a difference between Mesther green eyes and normal green eyes. A sort of shine, magic in the eye. And, Anthony, you are definitely a Teikian."
"Teikian? What's that, another blood line?"
"It's what we call all of the magic blood lines. It used to be one family, but they separated and labeled themselves. Now we have four Teikian heritages. You appear to be Vivian." Felicity's mother explained.
"Just because my eyes are blue doesn't mean I'm a part of your Teikian club." I said a little harshly.
"Your eyes aren't just blue. They have that...different look. That magic about them. It's hard to spot unless you've been around Teikians your entire life, and then you walk into a town full of normal people. Elementary schools are especially difficult, children always have that little bit of magic that they end up growing out of."
I imagined a four-year-old picking his nose
"Right. Magical. So, that's why I almost got killed and kidnapped today? Because of that magical look in my eyes?" I gestured sarcastically with my hand that wasn't on the cloth.
"Your aura, too. And believe me, that's obvious enough." Felicity scoffed.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Was she insulting my aura? Who even does that?
"I'm just saying, you got a big aura." She shrugged. I stared at her blankly.
"O-okay...You know, the more you talk, the more I think I'm on funny gas and I'm actually strapped to dentist's chair having illusions."
Felicity laughed. "Good. You're sane."
That made me even more worried. Can anyone blame me? I had no idea what was going on. Felicity and her parents were making no sense. I was in a stranger's car, and my neck wouldn't stop freaking bleeding.
After we crossed a long bridge over a ravine, the fields outside soon turned into tall, snowy redwoods. Mr. Vivian parked on the side of the road and we got out of the car. The temperature had dropped at least ten degrees and the wind had picked up, so I was shivering in my polyester jacket. I didn't know why we had stopped, there wasn't a school around here for miles. It was just a huge redwood forest. I turned and glanced back at the car, but it was gone. I pointed it out to Felicity, and she just smiled and said that was how it was supposed to happen. Magic car invisibility, I suppose.
We trudged into the snow, deeper into the forest. I guess we walked for about half an hour, but it felt like forever, with it getting colder and colder every minute. I was afraid the cloth was going to freeze to my neck. I didn't ask why we were walking, I just wanted to wait until we got there to find out. We walked straight through one of those cool car-sized holes in one of the redwoods. Before going all the way through, I'd seen nothing but more forest up ahead. But when I got through, the temperature shot up at least twenty degrees, and my surroundings transformed when I blinked. The trees were gone, replaced with a huge lawn and a bright sun. There was no snow, no gray clouds in the distance. I hadn't seen a patch of green grass since December, and now there was miles of it, with a ring of trees surrounding four huge buildings.
"It's like summer!" I said. Felicity grinned at me and gestured to the fields and the buildings.
"Cool, huh? Warm and perfect year round. We have snow on Christmas, though, and sometimes Lady Beatrice lets the leaves turn colors and fall off during autumn."
"Who's Lady Beatrice?"
"She's our...well, kind of like our principal. She's in charge of the school." I thought she sounded nice, letting the perfect weather go so that the students could have a white Christmas.
"Um...but isn't school out at Christmas time?"
"Some kids leave, a lot of them stay. They live all over the world, and traveling can be hard on their wallet sometimes. Some of the kids don't have a home to go to." Her face darkened for a second. I decided not to ask anymore questions about that.
Felicity quickly smiled at me. "I pretty much live here since my family runs the school. I don't mind, though, this place is huge and full of stuff to do."
I wondered what she had been sad about a moment before. I studied her for a moment, trying to find a crack in her mask of a smile, something that would show what she was really thinking. Her lip quivered for second, but so did mine, since I was still a little chilled from the cold air in the forest.
"What are you looking at?" She eyed me warily.
I looked away. "Nothing. I was just wondering...um...what are the five buildings for?"
She sighed. "Oh, well, there's probably more than four thousand students here, so they divided up the academy into five buildings. The one on the far left is where the ninth-graders have their dorms and their classes. The second is for tenth-graders, and so on. The fifth is the bunker, where we keep weapons and scrolls. It's got plenty of extra dummies and targets and a couple special rooms for magic experiments." She smirked as she said experiments, like she had one going on right now. That huge smirk made me nervous every time.
I studied the buildings. They looked exactly like normal school buildings. No one would ever suspect magic was inside. There was no one on the grounds, except for two people far off in the distance. Two blondes, I realized as we got a little closer. One was an older woman, one was a kid.
The Smiths, I realized. They were here, and by the looks on their faces, I was probably in a lot of trouble. I had never seen Mrs. Smith angry before, and I never want to see it again. Scariest thing ever.
Felicity's mom noticed it too. "Oh, dear. We appear to have some explaining to do." She mumbled behind me.
"Aadi has never been one for listening to explanations when she gets upset." The father whispered to her. I looked at him. First off, it was weird that he used Mrs. Smith's first name. I don't even do that. Second, he was acting like he knew her personally.
"Aadi? How do you know that about her?"
They looked at me in surprise. I guess they hadn't meant for me to hear that. It's not my fault I heard fail whispering.
Mrs. Smith stomped the rest of the way to us, Kell looking kind of nervous behind her. I really didn't blame him. His mother was scaring me.
"It's over! I can't believe you took the liberty of taking Anthony to this place! I've told you he's not enrolling!" She snapped at the Mesthers and stood between me and them. Kell grabbed my shoulder and started steering me away. He was nervous of his mother's rage, but angry at the Mesthers all at the same.
"If we hadn't moved him here, he could've been taken!" Felicity's mother argued.
"You should've brought him straight home! You know you should've! He's not your responsibility, just because he's got your bad blood!"
"You share that blood, too, Aadi!" The man claimed, his voice cracking just a bit. Wait...did that mean Mrs. Smith was Teikian?
"No, I don't! I left that way of life, and I will make sure that me and my children will not suffer like I did!"
"Anthony's not yours, Aadi!" She called as Mrs. Smith followed me and Kell back to the redwood forest.
"Yes, he is. He's mine." She said so silently that the others probably couldn't hear. I didn't stop Mrs. Smith from taking me home. I couldn't. I mean, she sounded like she was about to cry. And...well, I'd never heard a foster parent claim me as their own before, except once when I was in trouble at school, and they'd said it like I was burden and nothing more. It was sort of...well...strange. And amazing, too.
I did look back, though. I saw Felicity fade into the background. She gave me a sad little wave, and I just looked at her. I didn't know whether to be relieved or sad or angry like Kell and Mrs. Smith were. To go and learn magic at Mesther Academy sounded really cool, but I wanted to be home. At least, I thought I did.
The temperature dropped, and I was shivering again. We got in Mrs. Smith's old, blue Chevrolet wagon and she took off down the road.