Emma–Rose sat up with a bolt, fighting off the tentacles of the familiar nightmare. The remembered cold invaded her limbs until she had to reach, her fingers like ice, for the abandoned blanket strewn across the bottom of the bed. Curling the blanket around her shoulders, she sat back against the headboard and hugged her knees to her chest.
If only it were a nightmare.
But it was more than that. It was a memory. Not someone else’s, either.
It would be easier if it had belonged to another.
Every night, she endured the memory. One of many. They disturbed her sleep so often she was lucky to steal a couple hours’ rest each week. Huddled in the shelter of her blanket, Emma grabbed her sketchbook off the end table and ran the pencil over the paper while looking out the window, where the sun was making its first appearance over the tops of the buildings. The city would wake soon. For over two millennia, she had witnessed the sun rise and set, the days blurring together as the years passed.
Things had changed since that fateful night, in ways she could never have imagined.
She was now one of nine Council members, the youngest member in the Seventh Council. Eleven winters old, outcast… That had been the night Menora had saved her life. A member of the Sixth Council, Menora had taught Emma everything she knew.
Menora had explained Emma’s ability to read memories wasn’t witchcraft but a gift she could use to help others. She had become the closest thing to a mother Emma ever had. They’d trained together for fifty years before Menora had passed away with the rest of the Sixth Council.
Shoving herself out of the comfort of her prized blanket, Emma pushed back the clouding mental fog and went to the small closet nestled in the corner of the miniscule apartment she had rented. One of many dwellings she had used over the centuries, the room had the basic necessities and little else.
On the single shelf sat a small, antique wooden box, one that had followed Emma through the ages and countless jobs. It was one of the few items she kept, one she had to keep. From inside the box she took a pair of black leather gloves and slipped the familiar, worn fabric over her long, pale fingers. Supple and frayed around the edges, the coverings were her constant companions, a boundary against the unwanted memories.
Emma packed her things into her only bag, an oversized duffel. Scanning the barren room, she made sure no trace of her remained. With the duffel over one arm, she locked the front door with the other. Depositing the key into a white envelope, she then slipped it into the landlord’s mailbox.
In the quiet morning light, Emma opened the door to the rental car and set her bag down in the passenger seat. She took one last look at the imposing apartment building in a city just like many others and started the ignition.
She had a Council meeting to get to.
* * * *
The beaten-down path through Yosemite was littered with dirt and debris, covered in the darkness of night, the only light to guide her way coming from the crescent moon. In every country, they had a designated meeting place, difficult to get to and remote in location. Havens that technology hadn’t yet encroached on. Places where they wouldn’t be overheard or interrupted.
Dried leaves uncovered with the thawing of early spring crunched with every step she took. The forest was quiet, peaceful. Glancing into the blackness, one would think that it was devoid of animal life. But she knew they were there in the shadows, watching. Silent at the invasion of their territory, waiting to see if the intruders were predators or prey.
Halting on the edge of the clearing, Emma scanned her surroundings. Out in the middle of the clearing a figure huddled over in the grass, an ebony jacket and matching hood concealing its identity. As the lanky figure straightened, a sputtering fire took shape, the flames twisting and flickering with every gust of wind. The glow of the blaze lit up the figure’s face. Violet and midnight eyes met hers across the empty clearing.
Jade. The eldest of them all. Jade raised one gloved hand in greeting before pulling back her hood to reveal her mass of curling ivory hair that contrasted with the encroaching gloom.
With her footfalls light in the grass, Emma advanced to the fire and sat on one of the logs that surrounded the small cocoon of warmth. One by one the other Council members strode out of the forest and into the circle, the mist clinging to their figures like second skins. They all sat, except for the two eldest, who stood guard. No one spoke until Jade nodded in a signal they all recognized, a signal that they were alone in the forest.
“It’s been almost three centuries since we were last together,” Emma stated, looking around the fire into the weary faces of her Council sisters.
Taking a deep breath, she centered herself, each inhalation deepening her connection with the energy surrounding them. They all felt it, the ebb and flow of what was only known as the balance. Almost a separate entity in and of itself, it surged around the women, never speaking in words, but with images and feelings, its messages nudging them to journey to remote parts of the planet to dispatch justice to those who would threaten it.
As Emma studied each of her sisters, she was faced with the inescapable reality that their days were numbered. Their cycle was nearing its end. Emma was almost relieved. Her purpose had run its course.
What more could she give the world?
The wind wisped through the ends of Emma’s hair, tickling her senses and calming her with the scent of pine and the first blossoms of spring. The land was just waking from its long winter sleep, blooming and sprouting with the new season.
On Emma’s right, sat Ceila and Aslynn. Ceila, with her midnight hair swept up in a bun, didn’t speak a word, her face set in stone. Next to her, Aslynn looked almost ethereal with her pale skin and white-gold hair that cascaded to her waist in riotous curls.
To her left were Rachelle and Gwendolyn, the quietest in the group. Blonde hair with interwoven vines and flowers accentuated Rachelle’s lithe form. Gwendolyn, on the other hand, had her nose stuck in a book, hair pulled back in a severe ponytail.
Sitting opposite, across the fire, were Esmeralda and Contessa. Flame-red hair matched Esmeralda’s personality to a tee. Tessa was similar in nature. Dubbed ‘the troublemakers’ as teenagers, they’d lived up to the name ever since. Though with time, even their antics had dulled considerably.
The oldest, Jade and Isabella, stood off to the side and kept watch, always observant. Isabella’s pale blue eyes were sharp, scanning the surrounding forest. White hair and violet eyes marked their eldest sister, Jade, as did the violet strands of color that swirled and trailed down the sides of her face, disappearing into the collar of her jacket.
Out of all the sisters, she was the one Emma feared for the most. Dark circles permanently marked the shadows of her eyes and she had lost weight. They all had, but Jade looked as if a stiff wind would knock her over. Everyone worried she would be the first one to succumb to the need for eternal rest.
“You know you’re getting old when three hundred years doesn’t seem like that long anymore.” Rachelle smiled despondently at Esmeralda.
Affronted, Esmeralda put her hand to her chest. “Are you calling me old? I am two thousand years young, thank you very much. I think Bella might be showing a gray hair or two over there, though.”
Emma grinned. No matter how old they got, they were family…a bickering, estranged family on occasion, but a family nevertheless.
“Well, none of us are getting any younger, that’s for sure.” Isabella grinned while scanning the forest around them. The fog veiled the trees in an impenetrable blanket of mist and a slight move of her hand sent it rising until it was tall enough to conceal them, a vaporous cloud of anonymity.
Pushing the wire frame of her glasses up with one finger, Gwen placed her book in her lap. “Technically speaking, we are the oldest living beings on this planet, besides germs. So, I suppose that would make us old farts, in today’s terminology.”
Ceila and Aslynn both snickered half-heartedly. Jade turned back to face the group. The rest of the sisters quieted. When Jade spoke, which wasn’t very often these days, everyone listened.
“I brought you all here because we’re running out of time. I know that all of us have come to the tipping point with our gifts and we need to make it our first priority to find our Fated and the Next Generation. Compound that with the shifter disturbances of late, and we have serious problems.”
“We always have problems, what else is new? What’s happening with the shifter packs?” asked Emma. Their Fated and Next Gen were perpetual problems—she was more interested in what was happening with the shifters. Of all the species, shifters had one of the largest populations, second only to the humans. A problem with the shifters would have global repercussions if not dealt with immediately. Their packs, clans and tribes spanned the planet. They ranged from predator packs to more docile species. The three dominant species were bears, wolves and the cats.
Gwen spoke into the silence, “Kidnappings, random acts of violence, territorial disputes outside the normal parameters. Each species is having its own sets of problems that fall outside the realm of coincidence and they all appear to be interconnected.” Gwen looked around at their stunned expressions. “What? You know that I read extensively.”
“Yes, but you usually read books, scrolls and digital articles. How did you find out the specifics?” Ceila asked into the silence. “I’ve had impressions from the balance, but they’re never that detailed.”
Gwen fidgeted in her seat and stared into the flickering flames. “My gift demands new information at an alarming rate. I may have felt nudges from the balance and looked into it…by hacking into all their digital files. They need to beef up their security and firewalls. It really wasn’t that hard to bypass them.”
Tessa raised her hand, guilt written across her face. “All my recent visions have been about shifters, too.”
“What have you seen?” asked Isabella.
Emma saw Tessa’s stricken face and knew she wasn’t going to like the answer.
Taking a deep breath, Tessa let it all out in a rush. “Death, war, disease and if we don’t stop it… The demise of the entire shifter population.”
Shit. Just when Emma had thought they would be able to start taking it easier, the whole world had to go to pot. Typical.
Calling her sisters workaholics would be an understatement. Just once it would be nice to have a break, a vacation. A life. Alas, it was rather impossible when the whole planet depended on you for supervision. Like teething toddlers, the species couldn’t be left unattended for even a minute without them getting into trouble.
Jade walked into the center of the circle. Tucking her gloved hands into the pockets of her jacket, she met each of their gazes squarely. “As of now, your first priority will be finding your Fated and Next Gen. We’ve put it off for too long and if we don’t find them now, we never will. As for the shifter problems, we’ll split into three groups, each taking a shifter species here in the Americas.”
Isabella turned with wide eyes to Jade. “But that leaves Europe, Africa and Asia without any protection! We’ve never left an entire continent without one of us there to keep watch.”
Jade shrugged. “I have posts set up and minds everywhere. I’ll take over the task of watching the east while we deal with the shifters. Things seem calm on that side of the world, for the moment, anyway, but if it’s needed, you can teleport me there, Bella.” Murmurs of protest went up among the group.
Esmeralda stood up, placing her hands on her hips. “You can’t take on half of the world by yourself, Jade.”
“What about your Fated?” added Ceila.
Rachelle’s quiet voice entered the melee, “We can all help watch over Europe and the rest of the east. You shouldn’t burden yourself.”
“There is a ninety-seven percent chance you’ll burn out within the next three years if you take on that much territory,” Gwen stated.
Jade let out a soft sigh, bringing silence to the group. “Enough. I have stated what will happen, and that’s my final word on the subject.”
Emma was the first to reply, “If that’s what you want, Jade, then so be it. What are our assignments?”
“Emma, I have a transport set up for you, Tessa and Gwen. Tomorrow morning, you’ll meet with a driver who will take you north to the main bear compound on the border of the US and Canada. Damien Ryder, the Alpha, will be expecting you.
“Ceila, Aslynn, Esmeralda, the wolves are having problems with an unknown disease. You’ll leave in the morning to go east, to the Appalachians. Their Alpha, Lex Tremaine, will be ready when you arrive. Rachelle and Isabella, you both will board a flight straight to South America. The cats don’t know about our arrival yet. I have not had contact with them, so you need to establish that when you arrive. I’ll meet the both of you there as soon as I’m able. I want frequent updates from everyone.”
“Done and done. Why can’t we ever get an easy job, Jade, like sitting on a beach for a week and do some whale watching? I could take Tessa with me and we’d have one hell of a time,” quipped Esmeralda.
The tiniest of grins upturned Jade’s mouth. “Because I know you. You’d get bored and try to use the whales to take over the world.”
Esmeralda’s innocent look was ruined by the smirk she couldn’t control. “Who, me? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Rachelle’s pale hair swung over her shoulder as she stood up, flowering vines intertwined in the long strands. Her lilting laugh drifted through the clearing. “You’d unbalance the ecosystem with your army of whales and then I’d have to come in and save you.”
Jade shook her head at their banter. “The assignments I’m sending you on have a chance to be lengthy ones. I do not know how long you’ll be tasked to stay there. May I be blessed to see you all again.” With those parting words, Jade strode off into the forest, the gray mist shielding her from view.
Emma shook her head and sighed. “Is it just me or are we getting too old for this crap?”