I was saved from having to contact the Winter Crone. There was something waiting for me in the woods close to our house. The Crone's power awoke me at an ungodly 5 am and I grumbled as I moved from the warmth of Kevin's arms. I wasn't a happy camper.
Stumbling into dad's room, Aurora was already out of her cradle. She was on the floor looking up at me expectantly. Dad and Sara slept on blissfully, and I sighed with envy. I gave Saetan a quick kiss and, with Aurora in tow, I walked out of the house. The sun hadn't risen entirely, but I saw pinks and oranges painting the sky. Aurora was quiet in my arms, and I looked down at her briefly before I concentrated on the pull within. Keeping my eyes closed and my senses alert I walked unhesitatingly through the woods, following that strange tug. I could hear the early birds cheeping their greeting to the day, and the sounds of rustlings from animals and swaying branches.
For a brief second, I hugged Aurora to me, knowing where this would lead. I would miss her dearly. I opened my eyes and an old memory flashed through my mind. This was the exact clearing that I caught Kevin cheating on me with Leila. It seemed like another lifetime ago. I laughed at myself, thinking the Winter Crone had a wicked sense of irony.
I turned around, peering into the shadows to try and spot the person I was waiting for. Aurora crowed and I looked down to see her hands waving at something to my left. Looking up I saw a handsome, dark headed man. He had large almond shaped eyes and dark skin to match. He nodded at me, turned and looked at Aurora, and then gave a deep bow. She chortled and waved her hands in the air.
"Thank you, Guardian, for watching over the Princess. I would have come earlier, but Princess Aurora commanded us to leave her be until she was ready."
I picked her up until we were eye level. Directing my question to the young man, I asked, "Where will you take her after this?"
"To the Crones. It is the only safe place in all of Faery."
I turned my head sharply in his direction, and placed Aurora on the side of my hip. "What the hell is happening in your realm?"
"I am sorry, Guardian, but I am forbidden to answer."
I barely stopped the snarl from escaping my lips. Staring down at Aurora I kissed her on the cheek. "You take care, Princess."
Her hand came up and touched me on the face. I looked into those beautiful ice blue eyes and felt serene and loved. I smiled back at her. When I turned to give her to the young man, in his place was a Kelpie. Those same dark eyes glinted back at me with mischief, and Aurora clapped her hands.
For a second I was confused as to how this Kelpie was going to hold a child on its back, and then I kicked myself. Kelpies had a way of holding onto any victim silly enough to try and ride them without permission. However, in Aurora's case, if anyone ended up being the victim, it would be the poor Kelpie. Chuckling to myself at the idea, I placed her on his back and watched as she crowed her approval.
With a jaunty step, the Kelpie glanced at me over his shoulder and trotted toward the trees. One moment he was there, the next gone. I sighed deeply, feeling a little lost and lonely.
I called Pounamu. He appeared beside me, looking disgustingly fresh and spritely at such an unforgivable hour. "Have you had any luck in hunting down Saetan's family?"
He shook his head regretfully. "However..."
I was still thinking about Saetan when I realised Pounamu hadn't finished his sentence. "What? Spill it out."
He hesitated, "The Tohunga Karouwa wishes to see you."
"Australian Homeland security got in contact with him. They've briefed him on what happened at the school."
I sighed, feeling grim. The Summer Queen had made a mess of my school and pretty much all the students that went there. Now that I was operational again, it was time I fixed up this mess. "Where does he want to meet me?"
"He spoke to your principal last night. They were going to arrange a meeting with you and your dad at the school."
I rubbed my head. "Tell Jay I'll come along, but I don't want dad involved in this."
"Don't you think he has a right to know?"
Thinking back on our conversation earlier, I shrugged. "There are some things that dad doesn't want to know about. The less he knows, the easier he can sleep at night." I must have sounded bitter because Pounamu stared at me with worry upon his face. "Sorry," I said, "Dad is worried that I take on too many things, and dealing with this situation that's arising, well...let's just say he wouldn't like it."
Pounamu's frown deepened. "I don't like your father being kept out of the loop. This will only cause more friction if he finds out from someone else."
"I will tell him," I cut Pounamu off abruptly, "in my own time and in my own way."
School felt odd. People tiptoed around me. The teachers avoided my gaze and the students gave me a wide berth. I griped my books tighter and walked toward the principal's office. The receptionist saw me coming and dialled a number. A moment later Mr. McDonald, the Principal, walked warily out of his room.
Kevin wrapped his arm around me and squeezed tight. I had tried convincing him to remain behind, but he wouldn't budge.
I nodded my head. "Yeah."
Two people walked out of the Principals room, flanking him. Even though they were dressed casually, they screamed military. There was an observant quality about them and when I scanned them, it showed me special ops training. They weren't the two guys I normally spoke with from Homeland Security, but they had the same feel.
A third person came into view, the one I was here to see. Jay was the leader of the Maori people. The last time we met we had pitted our strength against each other. It was an inconclusive battle, but I had a suspicion that if Mother Earth had not interfered when she did, Jay would have knocked me down. It was only a feeling, but I wasn't stupid enough to test it.
His eyes narrowed for a second and I felt him scan me before a smile lit his face. He was a handsome man and, if I didn't have Kevin, I would have had a major crush on this guy. Although in his mid thirties (ancient in my book) he looked much younger.
"So it is truly you, James."
"In the flesh and still breathing." I walked up to him and gave the Maori greeting. Right hands clasped and noses gently touching. I pulled my head back and opened my eyes. I had to remind myself that I was taken. But this man had charisma oozing off him. Truth be told, I wasn't sure if he was gay or straight. My abilities had never truly been able to get a hold on his mind. It was the most powerful mind shield I, or even my mother's memories, had come across. Even my empathy, the most powerful tool in my arsenal could only get limited impressions from him.
"Why are we here at my school?"
The smile left his face as he stared at me. He quickly looked around, as if noticing where he was for the first time, before Mr. McDonald ushered us into his office. I sat down, knowing I wouldn't like what Jay was about to tell me.
Kevin stood at my back, and he was a comfortable presence. Redemption had a nifty trick of shrinking, so Kevin had a small leather glove that had a sheath built into the palm for easy access. I could sense his watchfulness and, beneath that, deep satisfaction that he was an active partner in this.
Mr. McDonald stared at Kevin's leather glove, and sat heavily in a chair to the left of us. I grabbed Kevin's gloved hand and placed it on my shoulder. I heard the sword whispering, but I paid it no heed. Kevin had destroyed the Summer Queen here at school. There had been many witnesses. Parents were screaming and Mr. McDonald had been caught in the backlash. He wasn't able to deal with too much stress because he was still recovering from his own ordeal.
I turned my attention back to Jay. During my convalescence it had taken Homeland Security and a lot of help from Jay and his people to prevent this disaster from reaching the news. However, it was only a matter of time before something leaked. The internet was a powerful tool. There were plenty of smart kids at school. They were bound to find a way around the protections the Australian Government had established to keep anything related to this dilemma from getting any air, or Internet time. No matter how I looked at it, I was fucked, plain and simple.
Jay watched in sympathy as I squirmed. He knew how uncomfortable this conversation was going to get for me. "I don't think that erasing this will work," Jay stated.
I nodded my head in agreement.
"It's been planted in too many minds and we could do more damage if we interfered again. But, we have a plan."
I stared out the window. "Again, why are we meeting here?"
"Ah, that's part of the solution. The school is the central point where the trouble began; it's easier for what we want to do."
"So what's my job in all of this?"
I turned and looked at Jay as he gave me a Cheshire cat smile. "You'll find out soon enough."
Oh great. He liked surprises and tormenting people. I guess it was my lucky day.
I stood out on the large track and sports field. Jay, Kevin, and I were in a roughly drawn diamond. Students were gathered at the school windows and even on the outskirts of the field. They kept their distance, thanks to Mr. McDonald and the two Homeland security guards walking the perimeter. But there was a watchful, almost morbid quality to the crowd. I saw hostility and fear in those eyes and my chest burned, knowing that the Summer Queen had caused this, using my face and powers.
I felt like an animal in a cage. I didn't like it and fervently wished I was somewhere else, or that the students couldn't see what we were doing. A surge of fire and ice filled my veins and, before I could scream out a warning or take the thought back, wild magic exploded out of my body.
Jay shouted, but I couldn't hear as the sound of my pumping heart filled my head, drowning out any noises. We were enclosed in a golden haze. I sank onto the grass and lowered my head. I felt nauseous and disorientated.
Jay stormed over and wrenched me up off my feet. Kevin had his sword out so fast it looked like magic. "Back off," he warned in a menacing tone.
Jay held me in front of him. "I'm not going to hurt James. I just need to know if this new power will get out of hand."
"Then lower him to his feet and take a few steps back."
I felt the grass beneath me and sank back down trying to stop the world from spinning. I wasn't sure what was going on. This was the first time I had a strong physical reaction to the power that belonged to Faery. I was confused and unsure about why creating this shield had been so draining.
"Are you okay, James?"
I closed my eyes and opened up my healing skill. I sighed as I felt the nausea ebb and the dizziness fade. "I'll be okay in a sec."
"What happened?" Kevin asked.
I kept my head against the cool grass as I answered, "Pounamu warned me that wild magic works on a subconscious level. It draws upon our deepest desires and wishes. I didn't want any of the other kids watching me. But even with my healing, I still feel like I was run over..."
"That's because your wild magic clashed against me and you got the backlash."
I didn't need to turn my head to know who was standing beside me. I heard Kevin sigh in awe and he sank down on his knees, never taking his eyes off her. She placed her hand on the back of my nape, and I gasped as my empathy blossomed, bright and strong. My healing flooded through my system, and I felt buoyed and completely recharged.
"Thank you, Mother Earth," I replied reverently.
Kevin was still staring wide eyed, and I lifted his chin to close his mouth. The last time I saw Mother Earth, her face had been hidden beneath a deep cowl. I assumed that this would be the case now, but was pleasantly surprised to see her face.
It wasn't one face; it morphed and changed to many. One moment youthful, the next aged. Through all her transformations, they all had two things in common. The faces were all beautiful, and her dark, expressive eyes remained the same. It explained why she had hidden her face the first time. Mother Earth was change. I understood that now.
"Thank you for coming, great Mother." Jay said, lowering his head.
"Humans are not yet ready to understand the world of magic. So I will grant you the boon to return in time and change what has happened here."
I gasped. Changing the timeline was a dangerous thing. I could go back into the past with my precog, but I couldn't affect it physically. When I had been experimenting with my precog, I had attempted to try and go back into the past combining my astral and precognitive talents.
That had been a disaster. I had managed to go back into the past okay, but it was as if I was being stretched and pulled until I could actually feel my bones popping out of their sockets. The backlash from that trip had been so severe I lost consciousness for three days. Pounamu, Dad, and Kevin had been yelling at me non stop when I finally woke up.
Pounamu had then informed me that there was a block on the timeline, specifically the past, and that I needed Mother Earth's permission to ever delve into it on a physical level. Glimpsing it with my precog was the exception because Mother Earth needed to glimpse the timeline herself, and therefore there was no actual way of preventing that talent from being used.
As for the present, that was okay, because the present was constantly changing. But it was my precog (future sight) that Pounamu, and Jay frowned upon. Since this talent belonged to my mother originally, it had been a sporadic thing at best. With the power I could generate, I was reaching the point where I had better control over what I could predict for the future. It meant I could manipulate things in the present to affect how the future was supposed to pan out.
Some things I couldn't prevent; they were predestined. But there were other, smaller things I could do. Such as see the winning horse races and bet on them, or see next week's lotto numbers. Stuff like that. Don't get me wrong. I was tempted but I also knew that there were consequences. My precog talent had gotten so acute that I was able to foresee events and all the possible actions from that one event. I saw how it created ripples and the way it affected other people's lives. Because of that, my mantra was `every action has a consequence.' However, the future wasn't straight forward or completely mapped out. To make sure I never got complacent or cocky, there were blank spots in the timeline, so I had no way of knowing what would happen next.
That is what happened with my rescue mission with Sam. This entire undertaking was a blank spot for my precog. I had assumed it was because I would be outside of the Earth realm and therefore its influence. But looking at what we were about to do meant that this was one of the reasons it was a blank spot?
I concentrated on Jay as he nodded once more in acknowledgement of Mother Earth's boon. Bowing his head, Mother Earth came up and rested her hand on his crown. It looked like a benediction and Kevin and I stared, enraptured at the sight. I felt the energy of the world around me respond. It was as if every living thing at that moment stood still, waiting on what Mother Earth would do next.
Suddenly I felt my body floating, as if gravity were suddenly gone. Kevin stifled his exclamation of surprise as he too lifted off the ground. Seeds and debris from the grass floated up around us in a haze of green and browns. I looked through the swirling plants to see Jay with his eyes closed in a serene expression. Mother Earth was whispering something to him and, as much as I tried to listen, I couldn't make out any words.
Like a bubble popping my golden dome disappeared, and I stared out at the rest of the students. They were as still as statues. Even the birds were frozen in mid flight. Mother Earth turned and stared at me. I felt her gaze penetrate to the depths of my soul and I trembled at her perusal.
She spoke mind to mind. "You will need to use a glamour to hide your true faces."
I looked at her, confused as to how I was going to go about doing that. I didn't know enough about wild magic to make it do my bidding. I only had the intuitive leaps of insight from my time rescuing Aurora and Saetan. However, I was willing to give it a go. I closed my eyes and wished. I wished for my face to be manlier with a square jaw, and that I was taller. I wished for Kevin to have blonde hair but baulked at changing his eye colour. I considered them one of his most beautiful assets and, instead, asked to make his nose a little more defined and his eyebrows the same colour as his hair. I smiled as I thought what I would do with Jay. There was a mischievous lilt to my lips, and I thought about giving him red hair and cobalt eyes. It would give him an exotic appearance with his beautiful light brown skin as contrast.
There were exclamations of surprise and I opened my eyes to see how they looked. At first I was disorientated. I seemed to be higher off the ground and staring Kevin evenly in the eyes. He was gazing at me wide eyed too. Kevin's hair shone in the morning sunlight. Streaks of brown shot through his blonde curly hair and I smiled at him. He looked as good in blonde as he did in brunette. However, he still looked like himself, except with a very well done hair colour. I needed to do more. I touched his face and reluctantly began smoothing his jaw, as if I was moulding his face. I felt his jaw move until it was more rounded and less defined. I blunted his strong cheek bones, and mourned the loss of them as I did so. That thought was my undoing as Kevin's original cheek structure came back. I had to take a deep breath, and repeat over in my head what I wanted. Like a reluctant virgin on her wedding night, his bone structure finally lost the battle and succeeded. He didn't look like Kevin anymore. He seemed unfinished, almost plain. That was until I stared into his eyes, and I saw the real Kevin staring at me. I had to turn away in case my subconscious mind decided it didn't like this new look and changed all my efforts back to the way he was.
I turned and looked at Jay instead. As I had thought, the hair and eye colour were a stunning contrast. But, his orange locks needed to be darkened to make it look natural against his light tanned skin. I touched his hair and thought of ruby red jewels. I added black with the red strands to give it a more natural look, and Jay was finished. He was different enough not to need to change his bone structure. In fact, he stood out, and that's how I wanted it. I wanted to make sure that most people's eyes were drawn to him instead of us. These people knew Kevin and I. Truth be told, I was a little unsure about how long my illusion would hold up.
"What are we supposed to be doing?" I asked. I hated going into anything unprepared and, to me, this smacked of a half baked idea.
Jay looked at me apologetically. "We had to do it this way. We didn't want the Crones knowing what we got up to."
"What are you talking about?"
"They've marked you. It's why your power back lashed when Mother Earth appeared. Slowly, you were turning into a Fae." I gasped, but Jay paid no attention and continued, "She was informing the Crones that, since you are one of her children, they had no right to try and steal you."
My mind was spinning at the concept. "Unfortunately," he said, "you must complete your task before they will release you completely."
I was frustrated at how the Fae worked. They beat around the bush and preferred to torment a person instead of giving a straight answer. "I don't even know what it is I'm supposed to do!"
Jay shrugged. "Somewhere during the time you were within the Faery realms, there would have been clues or hints that were given."
I rubbed my temples, tired of these little games. "Fine, I'll sort that out another day. Right now we have to tidy up this mess because of a fucking interfering Fae, namely the Summer Queen."
"And so you shall." Mother Earth murmured. "You and Kevin must stand in the centre of this diamond. Jay, go over and join them too."
I raised my hand to stall her. "What is going on first? I know that we're going back into the past. But where and why?"
"I am taking you back to the first day that your doppelganger walked to school. To avoid detection, you will be sent here to this spot at 4am that morning."
My mind ticked over a few possibilities before I blurted out, "So I'm going to destroy my doppelganger before it can influence the students?"
"No, that will be Kevin's job." I watched from the corner of my eye as Kevin grimly nodded. But Mother Earth was still talking, so I tuned back in. "You are here for something else entirely. You are here to stop the Winter Queen from stealing your nephew from the womb."
I felt the blood leave my face. "No, that can't be true. I would have sensed something when I came back from Faery."
"Perhaps not," Jay interjected. "Think about it. You told Pounamu that while you were in the Faery realm, your tree of power had been taken away from you. When you finally got it back, there was wild magic flowing through it. So, maybe, just maybe, wild magic was used to prevent you from seeing what was truly within Leila's womb?"
I laughed with an edge of hysteria. "So you're telling me that Leila is carrying a changeling around in her womb, and that the child I named Saetan is, in actual fact, my nephew?"
Jay shrugged his shoulders, but I could see in his eyes that he believed this to be true.
I sat down on the grass, my knees up and rested my forehead against them. "This is some fucked up shit." Raising my head I looked directly at Mother Earth. "Wait, won't all of this affect the future outcome?"
She shook her head. "When you went into the Faery realm, the time line snapped and a new one replaced it. You are here to ensure that the original future pans out."
"Hang on," Kevin spoke, "What about Redemption? If we interfere, will I lose my sword?"
Mother Earth turned to him. "That sword has a binding contract that is outside the timeline. Even I would not be able to break it."
I fumed silently. I had hoped that if we destroyed my doppelganger before Kevin got his sword, it would not have manifested. Mother Earth must have had some inkling about what I was thinking because she looked at me and smiled. I ducked my head in case Kevin also saw my expression.
"So when does the Winter Queen plan to steal Saetan, and what will happen to him once we return to our proper time?" I asked.
"The child you have in your home right now will go back to where he belongs: within your sisters' womb. The Winter Queen's attempted abduction will occur a week from the day I return you in the past. I will inform Pounamu as to what is going on so that Jay and Kevin will have an ally and a place to stay while you change the timeline."
I was sad, but relieved to hear that piece of news. Thinking back to the psychic scent of the asylum around Saetan, I gritted my teeth. I wanted to kick myself for being so complacent. He shouldn't have gotten that way in the first place. I felt arms around my shoulders and looked squarely into Kevin's face.
"It's not your fault." He hugged me tighter. He gave me an odd look, rubbing my arm as if to make sure I was real. "Sorry babe, but I'm finding it hard to adjust to this taller...you. I'm used to hugging you with your head fitting just underneath my chin."
I smiled and hugged him back. "Yeah, I find it odd looking at you this way too." Turning to Mother Earth, I thought about what she had not said. "Okay, you said Kevin and Jay will need a place to stay while we wait a week for the Winter Queen to pop in, but where will I be?"
Kevin looked up and made an `Ahuh' sound as he figured out where this was all leading. I was still puzzling it out and waited for Mother Earth to answer me. "You, dear Guardian, will be taking over as the doppelganger."
"Okay, once I establish myself as `me,'" That was a mind boggling thought, "why can't I tell dad and the rest of the family that it's the `real' me? After all, Pounamu will already know too?"
"Many of the protections that have been put up around your house have Faery origins. They can be used as the eyes and ears for the Faery Royals. I do not want this to get back to them." I nodded my acceptance.
She smiled assurances as she continued, "I have managed to block part of the mark that the Crones have placed upon you so they are unaware of where you are. You can even use small magics like the glamour you placed over the three of you without them being able to sense it. Your Tree of Power has been altered to channel wild magic more effectively and prevent it from spilling out unpredictably. But, all of these safety procedures will only last for a week and a half. "
"Thank you, Mother Earth."
She gave me a grim smile. "Nobody messes with those I consider my own."
I knew she was a nurturing person, but seeing this look of war in her eyes had me quietly grateful I wasn't one of her enemies. To say she looked scary was an understatement. To say that she would stick up for me was a precious moment I would treasure.