Outling

Welcome to Crystal Wing Academy, where the magical Elite reign…and Outlings are an endangered species.

Magic doesn’t exist in the human world. As far as I know. But when I fling a fireball at a bully, my horrified Mom dumps me at Crystal Wing Academy, a place straight out of my favorite fantasy books.

They tell me I’m an Outling, a wizard born from non-magical parents. Mom’s human. Dad? I don’t exactly know who he is….

One thing I do know is I’m not an Elite–descendants of the original six families who split from the Fae ages ago. At seventeen, their children and despised Outlings like me attend the Academy to learn to control our power.

I’m barely on campus when I’m targeted by a mean girl. Figures. Thankfully, the Academy’s not all bad. My pixie roommate’s awesome. I score a coveted moonstone during Stone Selection. And let’s not forget Donovan, a hot guy who seems to like me, not the mean Elite girl who’s determined to win him.

Except something’s luring students into the forest and draining their power, leaving only shriveled husks behind.

The Headmistress warns me not to investigate, but the killer’s after my friends. Big mistake there. My magical skills may be untrained and wild, but if a power-sucking vamp thinks he can harm people I care about, he’s about to discover I’m a wizard unlike any other.

An exciting new world for Potter fans, filled with magic, suspense, a badass heroine, and flirty romance.

 

 

 

Excerpt:

OUTLING
A Crystal Wing Academy Novel
© 2019 Marty Mayberry


CHAPTER ONE

Seven Years Before

“I’m sorry,” Mom said after we both got into the car. She stared forward, through the windshield, and her shoulders shook as if she cried.

“What are you sorry for?” There was no hiding the concern in my voice. What was going on?

I had my suspicions. A week ago, I’d done something bad. What happened…It wasn’t even possible, was it?

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Magic wasn’t real.

Mom’s body tightened. She started the car and backed down the driveway, saying nothing.

“Where are we going?” I asked as we drove across town. My beat up, stuffed rabbit lay on the seat where I’d left it months ago, and I lifted it and held it close, barely resisting the urge to suck my thumb. I was ten, not two, well beyond the age where I’d do a thing like that.

But something was wrong.

Her fingers blanched on the steering wheel as she took our old Honda up onto the highway.

An hour later and after snaking along a series of smaller roads, heading north and deeper into the remote parts of Maine, she still hadn’t said a thing.

“Mom?” Even I could hear the nervous edge in my voice. “Please. Where are we going?”

“I…” She shook her head. “This is…the way it needs to be, sweetheart.” Utter defeat rang out in her words.

My heart ground to a halt before jumping around in my chest. I clutched my rabbit closer. “What do you mean?”

“Fleur. Please. I need to focus on my driving.” She turned the radio on and rock music blasted through the car loud enough to drown out any further questions.

Dropping my rabbit, I clamped my hands together on my lap and tried to keep my feet from fidgeting on the floor mat, but they wouldn’t stay still. She’d never done anything like this before. Yet after what happened last week at school…What I might’ve done…I was scared.

She turned the car onto a dirt road. The vehicle bumped along for thirty minutes or so while a dark, spooky forest grew closer and closer around us.

A sudden fog fell, engulfing the vehicle. It crept on spindly spider feet through the car. So thick I couldn’t see more than an arm’s reach beyond my window. Mom slowed but kept going, inching along the road, leaning forward, her face scrunched tight with tension.

“Should we, um, turn around?” I asked. I’m scared, I did not say, though the words hung around my neck like a lead weight.

“We’ll be there soon.”

“Where?”

The fog suddenly lifted and we reached a dead end. As I stared out the window, my palms sweaty, Mom parked in front of a huge arched gate spanning the gap between a long, spiky, black iron fence. A sign mounted beside the gate said, Crystal Wing Academy in gilded letters.

Magical worlds were my go-to reading material. I might only be in the fifth grade, but I’d read everything I could get my hands on, even adult fantasy books. Crystal Wing, plus the word Academy sparked my imagination. Despite my worry about what we were doing here, I couldn’t help wondering what exciting things lay beyond the gate.

“Wait here,” Mom said as she shoved open her door and got out of the car.

Since the incident at school, she’d been short with me. I’d heard her crying late at night. How could she blame me for the fire? I hadn’t had a lighter or matches, and everyone knows you can’t start a fire without creating some sort of spark. But leave it to Mom to find a way to pin what happened with Tristan on me.

Mom’s door slammed shut, and she strode over to the gate where she paused to study the sign. Her shoulders lifted and fell, and she hesitated before pushing a button that must engage a bell somewhere deep behind the fence because a distant gong shivered through the air.

The woods were dense around us, hovering on both sides of the road. Vines crept and draped, hanging so low they brushed the top of the car.

We’d found our way inside a shaggy beast’s belly.

As if by magic, the steel gates creaked open; the grinding, rushing sound raking down my spine and making me lean forward, almost afraid to find out what might come next.

The sound must’ve scared Mom, too, because she stumbled backward. Then her hands clenched and her back ramrodded. Nodding, she hurried back to the car and slipped into the driver’s seat. She ground the starter and the engine fired. Again, without saying anything, she drove through the gate and it thudded closed behind us.

My mouth drier than a desert, I shrunk into my seat, too frightened to beg Mom for more information.

As she took the vehicle up a long, paved drive, I leaned against the vinyl door and stared out the window at the blur of woods we passed. The forest gave way to sunshine and an enormous lawn with flower beds, benches, and paths weaving through clusters of trees. Just beyond the lawn, a series of connected, tall stone buildings with turrets and towers and even what looked like a broad moat waited. The Academy had been constructed of cinder-gray stone that looked cold enough to freeze my fingers if I touched it.

Mom shut the car off in front of a steep, granite staircase that reached toward a platform extending over the moat. The platform ended at two matching, tall wooden doors with a silver knocker shaped like the head of a dragon.

After releasing a whoosh of air, Mom turned to peer back at me. “You know I don’t want to do this.”

She hadn’t told me what this was yet, but I didn’t like it. Not one bit.

“Are we…” I shook off the quakes pinching my bones. “Why are we here?”

“Get out.” Mom thrust open her door again, and we both soon stood outside on the hot pavement. The heat of the sun made sweat slither down my back.

One of the huge doors opened, and an old man strode out. To greet us or to send us away?

He wore a robe. Whenever I got out of the shower, I put on my pink slippers and matching fluffy robe. This man’s robe was black, and it had a shooting star and a dragon head on the right pocket. His graying hair gave way to a long, silver-flecked beard that hung partway down his chest. His pointy nose arched over his thin lips. And his wrinkly face contrasted with sharp, deep green eyes centered beneath bushy eyebrows.

He took the stairs quickly for an old guy and joined us on the drive.

“Someone at the hospital said I could bring her here,” Mom said before he could open his mouth.

Leaning sideways, his emerald gaze pinned me in place behind her.

Cringing, my eyes flitted away from his, and I shuffled my sneakers, wishing I could sink deep beneath the ground.

“I see,” he finally said.

What did he see? Probably a scared kid who had no clue what might happen next.

“You need to take her. I…can’t.” Anguish bled into Mom’s words. Reaching back, she snagged my arm and dragged me forward, thrusting me in front of her. Exposing me in front of her. I tried to huddle against her to steal comfort, but she shoved me away as if I’d been dipped in poison. She gripped my arms tight enough to make me wince and nudged me closer to the man.

When my sneaker snagged on something, he caught me before I fell.

Reeling away from him—a complete stranger—I strained to reach my mother, but he held me back. “Mom! What’s going on?”

Sadness flickered in her lavender eyes that were just like my own, but the sadness was quickly replaced with steely resolve.

“She…” Mom shook her head, and her shoulders slumped as if she’d given up on something. Me? “I could ignore the odd things that went on during preschool, the way she made impossible stuff happen—”

A jolt went through the man at the word preschool, but he continued to grip my arms, saying nothing.

Mom’s hands trembled. “But that boy? There’s no way I can reconcile what she did in my mind. It’s…wrong.”

Was she leaving me here with someone I didn’t know? I drooped against the man, and he cupped my shoulders in his wizened hands. What was Mom doing? She couldn’t be…This wasn’t…

“I won’t do it again, Mom,” I said in a shaky voice, not even sure what I’d done wrong. Preschool, I didn’t remember. Tristan, I did. But I hadn’t done anything. Really. I’d just…pulled on the colorful strings in my mind then released them with a wish.

“Come, child,” the man said, stooping down to speak softly by my ear. “We’ll find the right place for you.”

A tall, rounded woman about fifteen to twenty years older than Mom with deep chestnut hair joined us. Weird how she’d randomly arrived, because there was no other vehicle in the drive and the doors to the Academy hadn’t opened. Where had she come from?

“What’s this?” she asked.

This. Was I a thing to be disposed of?

Her high-pitched voice suggested she was as upset as Mom had been after the school called her about Tristan.

 “We’ve got a new girl, Justine,” the man said. “Sent by…our contact at the hospital.”

“She’s much too young, Cloven. You know they’re useless until they turn seventeen.” Justine glared at Mom. “Bring her back in a few years.”

“I can’t. I tried. Truly, I did,” Mom said. “Heaven knows I did everything I could to…restrain her, but she’s cursed. The woman at the hospital said…” Her attention drifted to the imposing stone building behind us that stabbed all the way to the clouds and then farther. “She suggested you might be able to contain her here.”

Contain? My throat choked off with pain, making it impossible to swallow.

“Mommy,” I whispered. I hadn’t called her that for years, but she was wrenching me apart.

She didn’t look at me. Couldn’t look at me, I supposed.

Justine narrowed her brow and mumbled something I couldn’t understand. Papers and a pen appeared in her hands. Appeared. Had I blinked at the wrong moment? She must’ve pulled them from her pocket because things zapping from mid-air didn’t happen outside of my books. She strode over to the car and thrust the papers in Mom’s face. “Sign, please.”

“What?” Mom lurched backward, and the word came out breathless, almost bewildered.

“Sign,” Justine said firmly, “And we’ll take care of this matter forever.”

Forever? Wait. My pulse leaped in my throat. What did Justine mean by forever? I wrenched against the man’s hold, but I couldn’t break free. I needed to run. Not toward my mom—the sole person I’d trusted for all of my life—but into the forest. The dark, gloomy space surrounding the Academy called to me. I could stay there until this terror disappeared.

Mom’s gaze lingered on me before she nodded and, with pursed lips, yanked the papers from Justine’s hands. After dropping them on the hood of the car, she scribbled without bothering to read what she was signing.

“The father?” Justine asked in a sharper tone. “Will he step forward to demand custody?” Her heavy gaze fell on me, and I couldn’t help it, I squirmed.

She’d told me my dad…

Mom shrugged. “No one has claimed her so far.” Her attention drifted toward me again, and fear crept into her voice. “You’ll…hide her away from everyone else? She’s not safe to be around others.”

“Hide her?” Justine snorted as if this was the funniest idea in the world. Her entire body shook when her laughter took hold. “No, no, no. Here, outling children like this one are welcome. Always welcome.”

What was an outling?

“Thank you.” Mom stumbled forward and stooped down in front of me. She grabbed my hands and squeezed hard enough I winced. “You understand, don’t you, sweetheart? This is the way it has to be. I just can’t handle it any longer.”

“No. Mom. Please.” For the first time in my life, I begged for something that truly mattered. Not a new book or to stay up past my bedtime but for my very existence. “Don’t do this.” Because I knew. She did plan to leave me here with strangers. She’d signed me over to them. Forever. “I won’t do it again.” Whatever it was, I’d find a way to stop it.

My belly rolled, and I bit back my scream.

“You won’t be able to help yourself,” Mom said sadly. “And next time, it could be directed at me.”

The fire? “I won’t. Really!”

“Be good.” After a quick kiss on my cheek and a hug that didn’t last anywhere near long enough, Mom pivoted and raced to the car.

“Mom!” I bolted after her, but Cloven snagged the back of my shirt and held me in place. Tears streamed down my face. I felt like Mom had reached inside my chest, grabbed onto my heart, and squished all the blood out of it. “Don’t do this,” I cried as she opened the door and settled in her seat. She started the car and, without a glance my way, she shoved the vehicle into gear and floored the gas. The tires spun and small rocks clattered around us as she flew down the long, sloping drive.

“Wait! Don’t leave me. Please,” I whimpered, my body sagging against Cloven. My legs wouldn’t hold me up. Crushed, all I could do was sob.

Mom. Please. Come back.

“Well,” Justine said as the car was swallowed by the woods. “The child cannot remain here. She’s much too young.”

“Agreed.” Cloven leaned forward and gripped my shoulders, his intent gaze meeting mine. “Tell me your name.”

“Fleur.”

His fingers tightened, and he blinked before his face cleared. As if he’d confirmed something in his mind. “And you’re ten?”

Sniffing, I nodded. How could he know how old I was?

“So young,” Justine said with a wry shake of her head. “And tasting power already.”

Power? Something deep inside me burst into flame like a match dragged across concrete, but my questions fell away when a big object on the lawn snagged my attention.

A giant fountain sat on the broad stretch of grass. How had I missed it when we drove up the drive? Water shot up in pale blue spurts, the sparkling droplets reaching for the sky. In the center of the water stood a two-story, gleaming dragon. Made of clear material—glass or stone or crystal like in Crystal Wing Academy—it caught the late-day sunlight and shattered the beams, sending bright arcs whirling away from it in blinding disarray.

Mesmerized, I forgot Mom and what might happen to me now, everything else except the dragon. I couldn’t drag my eyes away.

In the beast’s chest, a red light winked at me.

I gasped. Was the sun playing tricks, or was that a heart beating?

A glistening cluster of threads in deep blue, purple, and yellow slithered out from the statue, straining toward me as if they’d die if I didn’t touch them.

Unable to resist, I raced toward the strands—the call—my arms extended in greed.

“Not yet, child,” Cloven said with a chuckle. A few quick strides and he’d grabbed the back of my shirt again, bringing me to an abrupt halt. “I’m afraid it’s much too soon for that.” Humor bubbled out of him as he took my hand and led me back to Justine. “All in time.”

“Eager, isn’t she?” Justine said with what sounded like satisfaction. “So unusual. Do you think…?” She shook her head as if dismissing an unbelievable notion. 

Like she thought I’d break free and race toward the beast again, she latched onto my arm. I would run toward the dragon. I couldn’t resist. I didn’t care if I got wet. If it came to life and roared.

Not even if it engulfed me in flames.

A quick wave of her hand, and tingles flashed from my head to my toes. I sagged as if something precious and unnamed had been snuffed out inside me.

“Suspended,” Cloven said with a nod. “It’s awful doing this to someone so young.”

“As if we have a choice? She can’t be allowed to go rogue.” Justine tapped her chin, frowning. “I believe…We’ll place her with Ester at Broad House.”

“Ester. You’re sure?”

“Of course.”

“But she’s…”

“What? It’s not as if there are many options.”

“True.” He stroked my hair. “It’s only for a few years, child. Bear with it and better things will come for you after. Ester’s…harsh, but she’ll protect you. Harden you so you can survive when you return. Soon, you’ll come back to Crystal Wing Academy as a student, and we’ll teach you wonders you can never imagine.”

Like in my favorite books?

“Here, you’ll be taught to touch real magic,” he added.

Yes…

“Outsiders bring too few children like Fleur to us. Most outlings…” Justine shuddered. “are disposed of instead.”

Cloven nodded. “As if they’re flawed.”

“We need to keep this one safe. Ester, while lacking in many ways, is capable of that. I’ll make sure she secures the house with wards.” Bending down in front of me, Justine gripped my upper arms, holding me still until my eyes—now flooded with tears—rose to meet hers. “Listen to me, Fleur. You did nothing wrong.”

I sniffed. “But Mom said—”

“Those without aptitude never understand. But one day soon, this will all make sense. Then you’ll be able to find forgiveness for your mother, as well as for yourself, in your heart.”

“What do you mean?” My urge to run into the woods had disappeared, but I was frightened, not knowing what might come next. Mom abandoning me had left me floundering in a rough sea, without an anchor to hold me in place.

Straightening, Justine brushed my long, dark brown hair off my face. “No worries, dear. It’ll all be clear in time.” She took my hand. “Are you ready to take a little trip?”

I shrugged, tears wetting my lashes all over again. How could Mom leave me?

“Close your eyes and promise not to look.”

Scrunching my face up, I did as she asked, scared that disobeying her would make her reject me, too. Where would I end up then?

The world spun around me and wind picked up my hair and slapped it in my face. The weight of a thousand soaking wet blankets fell across my shoulders, and my knees gave way. I started to fall, but I didn’t hit the ground. I met nothing except air. My belly heaved at the weightless feeling, and my heart bolted against my ribs, straining to break through muscle and bone. As I opened my mouth to scream, my feet slammed onto solid ground, and my teeth jarred together.

“Okay, you can open your eyes,” Justine said with a soft laugh. “Well done, by the way.”

I blinked and stared around. “How…” This was impossible. Seconds ago, I’d stood beside Cloven in front of Crystal Wing Academy and now, my feet were firmly planted on a narrow cobblestone walkway leading up to a tiny brick building with two floors, four gleaming windows, and a slate-colored front door. A deep, dark forest surrounded the building, encroaching to the point the trees looked poised to engulf it. Spooky shadows flitted around where the sun couldn’t reach.

The door opened and a short, plump woman with gray hair secured in a tight bun at her nape stepped outside. She strode forward but stopped on the walkway a few feet in front of us, well within the shadows. Her arms linked on her ample chest, and she grunted.

“You received my message, Ester?” Justine asked.

“Hard to miss when you’re screeching in my head, now isn’t it?” Her brown eyes sped down my frame as if assessing my worth and finding me distinctly lacking. Her lips twisted into a knot. “I assume she comes with a stipend because times are tight.”

“Naturally.” From the way she tossed out the word, I could picture Justine rolling her eyes. “You do have room, don’t you?”

Ester huffed. “One bed, as you very well know. But only if she’s suspended. Won’t take her otherwise.”

“Would I bring her here if she wasn’t?” Justina drew herself up and stared down her nose at Ester. Her fingers dusted across my shoulders. “This is Fleur. She’s ten. You’ll need…wards.”

Ester blinked and reassessed me, though it wasn’t clear if she saw anything new. “Even suspended?”

“She has no discernable aptitude. I tested her myself. She could be…We just don’t know yet.”

What was aptitude? A skill, maybe. I cringed because it sounded bad that I didn’t have one.

Ester grunted. “Don’t like what that could mean.”

“Me either, but we shall see. And one other thing? She has…true power.”

“Some keep it. Some don’t.” Ester’s shoulders rose and fell. “Time tells all, eh?” A growl slipped from her mouth. “Seven years, then.” With an unimpressed lift of her bushy gray eyebrows, she waved to me. “Well, come along, girl. Don’t just stand there. It’ll be dark soon, and I need to get you settled so I can return to my work.”

As Ester led me away with a pinch of her fingers on my elbow, I peered back.

Justine had disappeared.

How…? I shook my head. Things were going on here I may never understand.

And while I was scared, no, worried, a tiny thrill went through me because I seemed to be living an adventure straight out of one of my books.

Where would this path take me?

Ester directed me into a small kitchen with a big old woodstove like something I’d seen on one of Mom’s historical shows. A round pot simmered on top, and my mind perked up when I took in the intriguing smells filling the air.

 “There are two rooms upstairs. One is mine, so stay out if you know what’s good for you.” She tapped my back. Not in a friendly way. More in a warning way. As in, enter her room and feel the full impact of her wrath.

The tap she delivered to my arm was firmer. It didn’t quite hurt but I rubbed the spot to sooth it anyway.

“Bedtime is promptly at eight. You’ll help in the kitchen to pay for your upkeep. Stipend won’t be enough. I homeschool any outling that resides underneath my roof and right now, you’re it.”

Homeschooling? Ugh.

“What’s an outling?” I asked.

“Never you mind about all that. You’ll learn what you need to know once you return to the Academy.”

“You said there are…no other kids here?” My initial excitement had fizzled. This wasn’t an adventure in one of my fantasy books. Being an outling—whatever that was—was starting to sound like being worse than Cinderella.

Ester braced her palms on her hips. “I run a tight house. You’ll be up at dawn and there won’t be a spare moment for you to get into trouble. I’ll ward you, all right. Not just the building and the surrounding area.”

“Is this going to be my home now?” Anguish leached into my voice. Mom! How could she do this to me?

“You’ll remain here until you turn seventeen when I’ll ship you off to Crystal Wing Academy.” She pushed me across the room and into a small entry with a narrow set of rickety stairs leading upward. “Go on, then. Your room is at the top, on the right. Remember, stay out of the other. It’s not for you. And I’ll know if you peek.” Her gaze drifted to the pot simmering on the stove as she tapped her temple. “I can see.”

I shivered. Forget excited. Now, I was totally creeped out. “What do you mean by get settled?” I refused to ask what else she could see. “I didn’t bring anything with me.” Just the clothes I’d dressed in this morning. My throat tightened. I’d forgotten my rabbit…

“Cloven sent your things over already.”

“Um, what?” I couldn’t imagine what that meant.

Ester’s face twisted. “All your belongings.”

“But Mom—”

“Is gone and this is your life, now.” Her palm hit my back. Harder this time, enough to cause pain. “Go on with you, I said. Don’t be a bother.”

Holding back my tears, I rushed up the stairs and turned right. A dingy carpet covered the hall and a worn path led to a solitary door. A quick shove and it hit the wall. I shuddered, worried Ester would screech about me damaging her property, but silence hung in the air like a thick fog. Maybe she hadn’t heard the bang.

I fled inside the room and shut the door carefully. Turning, I stared around through blurry eyes, taking in the solitary bed covered with a homemade quilt. Two cardboard boxes sitting against the back wall. A tall wooden bureau, plus a stand beside the bed. On the left, a closet door I wasn’t sure I wanted to open. And a floor lamp sat near a small desk set up underneath the only window. Orange and green wallpaper in a floral pattern covered the walls. One corner had pulled away from the plaster and drooped.

Like I drooped.

My rabbit lay on the pillow. How…?

Collapsing on the mattress and clutching my stuffed friend, I stared up at the flecked white ceiling. I pressed my fist against my mouth to hold back my sobs.

No use.

Giving up the fight, I turned and shoved my face into the pillow. I suffocated my grief, my wails, shoving my anguish into a tiny box in my mind and slamming the lid shut.

That was the last time I cried. Chapter One

Seven Years Before

“I’m sorry,” Mom said after we both got into the car. She stared forward, through the windshield, and her shoulders shook as if she cried.

“What are you sorry for?” There was no hiding the concern in my voice. What was going on?

I had my suspicions. A week ago, I’d done something bad. What happened…It wasn’t even possible, was it?

Magic wasn’t real.

Mom’s body tightened. She started the car and backed down the driveway, saying nothing.

“Where are we going?” I asked as we drove across town. My beat up, stuffed rabbit lay on the seat where I’d left it months ago, and I lifted it and held it close, barely resisting the urge to suck my thumb. I was ten, not two, well beyond the age where I’d do a thing like that.

But something was wrong.

Her fingers blanched on the steering wheel as she took our old Honda up onto the highway.

An hour later and after snaking along a series of smaller roads, heading north and deeper into the remote parts of Maine, she still hadn’t said a thing.

“Mom?” Even I could hear the nervous edge in my voice. “Please. Where are we going?”

“I…” She shook her head. “This is…the way it needs to be, sweetheart.” Utter defeat rang out in her words.

My heart ground to a halt before jumping around in my chest. I clutched my rabbit closer. “What do you mean?”

“Fleur. Please. I need to focus on my driving.” She turned the radio on and rock music blasted through the car loud enough to drown out any further questions.

Dropping my rabbit, I clamped my hands together on my lap and tried to keep my feet from fidgeting on the floor mat, but they wouldn’t stay still. She’d never done anything like this before. Yet after what happened last week at school…What I might’ve done…I was scared.

She turned the car onto a dirt road. The vehicle bumped along for thirty minutes or so while a dark, spooky forest grew closer and closer around us.

A sudden fog fell, engulfing the vehicle. It crept on spindly spider feet through the car. So thick I couldn’t see more than an arm’s reach beyond my window. Mom slowed but kept going, inching along the road, leaning forward, her face scrunched tight with tension.

“Should we, um, turn around?” I asked. I’m scared, I did not say, though the words hung around my neck like a lead weight.

“We’ll be there soon.”

“Where?”

The fog suddenly lifted and we reached a dead end. As I stared out the window, my palms sweaty, Mom parked in front of a huge arched gate spanning the gap between a long, spiky, black iron fence. A sign mounted beside the gate said, Crystal Wing Academy in gilded letters.

Magical worlds were my go-to reading material. I might only be in the fifth grade, but I’d read everything I could get my hands on, even adult fantasy books. Crystal Wing, plus the word Academy sparked my imagination. Despite my worry about what we were doing here, I couldn’t help wondering what exciting things lay beyond the gate.

“Wait here,” Mom said as she shoved open her door and got out of the car.

Since the incident at school, she’d been short with me. I’d heard her crying late at night. How could she blame me for the fire? I hadn’t had a lighter or matches, and everyone knows you can’t start a fire without creating some sort of spark. But leave it to Mom to find a way to pin what happened with Tristan on me.

Mom’s door slammed shut, and she strode over to the gate where she paused to study the sign. Her shoulders lifted and fell, and she hesitated before pushing a button that must engage a bell somewhere deep behind the fence because a distant gong shivered through the air.

The woods were dense around us, hovering on both sides of the road. Vines crept and draped, hanging so low they brushed the top of the car.

We’d found our way inside a shaggy beast’s belly.

As if by magic, the steel gates creaked open; the grinding, rushing sound raking down my spine and making me lean forward, almost afraid to find out what might come next.

The sound must’ve scared Mom, too, because she stumbled backward. Then her hands clenched and her back ramrodded. Nodding, she hurried back to the car and slipped into the driver’s seat. She ground the starter and the engine fired. Again, without saying anything, she drove through the gate and it thudded closed behind us.

My mouth drier than a desert, I shrunk into my seat, too frightened to beg Mom for more information.

As she took the vehicle up a long, paved drive, I leaned against the vinyl door and stared out the window at the blur of woods we passed. The forest gave way to sunshine and an enormous lawn with flower beds, benches, and paths weaving through clusters of trees. Just beyond the lawn, a series of connected, tall stone buildings with turrets and towers and even what looked like a broad moat waited. The Academy had been constructed of cinder-gray stone that looked cold enough to freeze my fingers if I touched it.

Mom shut the car off in front of a steep, granite staircase that reached toward a platform extending over the moat. The platform ended at two matching, tall wooden doors with a silver knocker shaped like the head of a dragon.

After releasing a whoosh of air, Mom turned to peer back at me. “You know I don’t want to do this.”

She hadn’t told me what this was yet, but I didn’t like it. Not one bit.

“Are we…” I shook off the quakes pinching my bones. “Why are we here?”

“Get out.” Mom thrust open her door again, and we both soon stood outside on the hot pavement. The heat of the sun made sweat slither down my back.

One of the huge doors opened, and an old man strode out. To greet us or to send us away?

He wore a robe. Whenever I got out of the shower, I put on my pink slippers and matching fluffy robe. This man’s robe was black, and it had a shooting star and a dragon head on the right pocket. His graying hair gave way to a long, silver-flecked beard that hung partway down his chest. His pointy nose arched over his thin lips. And his wrinkly face contrasted with sharp, deep green eyes centered beneath bushy eyebrows.

He took the stairs quickly for an old guy and joined us on the drive.

“Someone at the hospital said I could bring her here,” Mom said before he could open his mouth.

Leaning sideways, his emerald gaze pinned me in place behind her.

Cringing, my eyes flitted away from his, and I shuffled my sneakers, wishing I could sink deep beneath the ground.

“I see,” he finally said.

What did he see? Probably a scared kid who had no clue what might happen next.

“You need to take her. I…can’t.” Anguish bled into Mom’s words. Reaching back, she snagged my arm and dragged me forward, thrusting me in front of her. Exposing me in front of her. I tried to huddle against her to steal comfort, but she shoved me away as if I’d been dipped in poison. She gripped my arms tight enough to make me wince and nudged me closer to the man.

When my sneaker snagged on something, he caught me before I fell.

Reeling away from him—a complete stranger—I strained to reach my mother, but he held me back. “Mom! What’s going on?”

Sadness flickered in her lavender eyes that were just like my own, but the sadness was quickly replaced with steely resolve.

“She…” Mom shook her head, and her shoulders slumped as if she’d given up on something. Me? “I could ignore the odd things that went on during preschool, the way she made impossible stuff happen—”

A jolt went through the man at the word preschool, but he continued to grip my arms, saying nothing.

Mom’s hands trembled. “But that boy? There’s no way I can reconcile what she did in my mind. It’s…wrong.”

Was she leaving me here with someone I didn’t know? I drooped against the man, and he cupped my shoulders in his wizened hands. What was Mom doing? She couldn’t be…This wasn’t…

“I won’t do it again, Mom,” I said in a shaky voice, not even sure what I’d done wrong. Preschool, I didn’t remember. Tristan, I did. But I hadn’t done anything. Really. I’d just…pulled on the colorful strings in my mind then released them with a wish.

“Come, child,” the man said, stooping down to speak softly by my ear. “We’ll find the right place for you.”

A tall, rounded woman about fifteen to twenty years older than Mom with deep chestnut hair joined us. Weird how she’d randomly arrived, because there was no other vehicle in the drive and the doors to the Academy hadn’t opened. Where had she come from?

“What’s this?” she asked.

This. Was I a thing to be disposed of?

Her high-pitched voice suggested she was as upset as Mom had been after the school called her about Tristan.

 “We’ve got a new girl, Justine,” the man said. “Sent by…our contact at the hospital.”

“She’s much too young, Cloven. You know they’re useless until they turn seventeen.” Justine glared at Mom. “Bring her back in a few years.”

“I can’t. I tried. Truly, I did,” Mom said. “Heaven knows I did everything I could to…restrain her, but she’s cursed. The woman at the hospital said…” Her attention drifted to the imposing stone building behind us that stabbed all the way to the clouds and then farther. “She suggested you might be able to contain her here.”

Contain? My throat choked off with pain, making it impossible to swallow.

“Mommy,” I whispered. I hadn’t called her that for years, but she was wrenching me apart.

She didn’t look at me. Couldn’t look at me, I supposed.

Justine narrowed her brow and mumbled something I couldn’t understand. Papers and a pen appeared in her hands. Appeared. Had I blinked at the wrong moment? She must’ve pulled them from her pocket because things zapping from mid-air didn’t happen outside of my books. She strode over to the car and thrust the papers in Mom’s face. “Sign, please.”

“What?” Mom lurched backward, and the word came out breathless, almost bewildered.

“Sign,” Justine said firmly, “And we’ll take care of this matter forever.”

Forever? Wait. My pulse leaped in my throat. What did Justine mean by forever? I wrenched against the man’s hold, but I couldn’t break free. I needed to run. Not toward my mom—the sole person I’d trusted for all of my life—but into the forest. The dark, gloomy space surrounding the Academy called to me. I could stay there until this terror disappeared.

Mom’s gaze lingered on me before she nodded and, with pursed lips, yanked the papers from Justine’s hands. After dropping them on the hood of the car, she scribbled without bothering to read what she was signing.

“The father?” Justine asked in a sharper tone. “Will he step forward to demand custody?” Her heavy gaze fell on me, and I couldn’t help it, I squirmed.

She’d told me my dad…

Mom shrugged. “No one has claimed her so far.” Her attention drifted toward me again, and fear crept into her voice. “You’ll…hide her away from everyone else? She’s not safe to be around others.”

“Hide her?” Justine snorted as if this was the funniest idea in the world. Her entire body shook when her laughter took hold. “No, no, no. Here, outling children like this one are welcome. Always welcome.”

What was an outling?

“Thank you.” Mom stumbled forward and stooped down in front of me. She grabbed my hands and squeezed hard enough I winced. “You understand, don’t you, sweetheart? This is the way it has to be. I just can’t handle it any longer.”

“No. Mom. Please.” For the first time in my life, I begged for something that truly mattered. Not a new book or to stay up past my bedtime but for my very existence. “Don’t do this.” Because I knew. She did plan to leave me here with strangers. She’d signed me over to them. Forever. “I won’t do it again.” Whatever it was, I’d find a way to stop it.

My belly rolled, and I bit back my scream.

“You won’t be able to help yourself,” Mom said sadly. “And next time, it could be directed at me.”

The fire? “I won’t. Really!”

“Be good.” After a quick kiss on my cheek and a hug that didn’t last anywhere near long enough, Mom pivoted and raced to the car.

“Mom!” I bolted after her, but Cloven snagged the back of my shirt and held me in place. Tears streamed down my face. I felt like Mom had reached inside my chest, grabbed onto my heart, and squished all the blood out of it. “Don’t do this,” I cried as she opened the door and settled in her seat. She started the car and, without a glance my way, she shoved the vehicle into gear and floored the gas. The tires spun and small rocks clattered around us as she flew down the long, sloping drive.

“Wait! Don’t leave me. Please,” I whimpered, my body sagging against Cloven. My legs wouldn’t hold me up. Crushed, all I could do was sob.

Mom. Please. Come back.

“Well,” Justine said as the car was swallowed by the woods. “The child cannot remain here. She’s much too young.”

“Agreed.” Cloven leaned forward and gripped my shoulders, his intent gaze meeting mine. “Tell me your name.”

“Fleur.”

His fingers tightened, and he blinked before his face cleared. As if he’d confirmed something in his mind. “And you’re ten?”

Sniffing, I nodded. How could he know how old I was?

“So young,” Justine said with a wry shake of her head. “And tasting power already.”

Power? Something deep inside me burst into flame like a match dragged across concrete, but my questions fell away when a big object on the lawn snagged my attention.

A giant fountain sat on the broad stretch of grass. How had I missed it when we drove up the drive? Water shot up in pale blue spurts, the sparkling droplets reaching for the sky. In the center of the water stood a two-story, gleaming dragon. Made of clear material—glass or stone or crystal like in Crystal Wing Academy—it caught the late-day sunlight and shattered the beams, sending bright arcs whirling away from it in blinding disarray.

Mesmerized, I forgot Mom and what might happen to me now, everything else except the dragon. I couldn’t drag my eyes away.

In the beast’s chest, a red light winked at me.

I gasped. Was the sun playing tricks, or was that a heart beating?

A glistening cluster of threads in deep blue, purple, and yellow slithered out from the statue, straining toward me as if they’d die if I didn’t touch them.

Unable to resist, I raced toward the strands—the call—my arms extended in greed.

“Not yet, child,” Cloven said with a chuckle. A few quick strides and he’d grabbed the back of my shirt again, bringing me to an abrupt halt. “I’m afraid it’s much too soon for that.” Humor bubbled out of him as he took my hand and led me back to Justine. “All in time.”

“Eager, isn’t she?” Justine said with what sounded like satisfaction. “So unusual. Do you think…?” She shook her head as if dismissing an unbelievable notion. 

Like she thought I’d break free and race toward the beast again, she latched onto my arm. I would run toward the dragon. I couldn’t resist. I didn’t care if I got wet. If it came to life and roared.

Not even if it engulfed me in flames.

A quick wave of her hand, and tingles flashed from my head to my toes. I sagged as if something precious and unnamed had been snuffed out inside me.

“Suspended,” Cloven said with a nod. “It’s awful doing this to someone so young.”

“As if we have a choice? She can’t be allowed to go rogue.” Justine tapped her chin, frowning. “I believe…We’ll place her with Ester at Broad House.”

“Ester. You’re sure?”

“Of course.”

“But she’s…”

“What? It’s not as if there are many options.”

“True.” He stroked my hair. “It’s only for a few years, child. Bear with it and better things will come for you after. Ester’s…harsh, but she’ll protect you. Harden you so you can survive when you return. Soon, you’ll come back to Crystal Wing Academy as a student, and we’ll teach you wonders you can never imagine.”

Like in my favorite books?

“Here, you’ll be taught to touch real magic,” he added.

Yes…

“Outsiders bring too few children like Fleur to us. Most outlings…” Justine shuddered. “are disposed of instead.”

Cloven nodded. “As if they’re flawed.”

“We need to keep this one safe. Ester, while lacking in many ways, is capable of that. I’ll make sure she secures the house with wards.” Bending down in front of me, Justine gripped my upper arms, holding me still until my eyes—now flooded with tears—rose to meet hers. “Listen to me, Fleur. You did nothing wrong.”

I sniffed. “But Mom said—”

“Those without aptitude never understand. But one day soon, this will all make sense. Then you’ll be able to find forgiveness for your mother, as well as for yourself, in your heart.”

“What do you mean?” My urge to run into the woods had disappeared, but I was frightened, not knowing what might come next. Mom abandoning me had left me floundering in a rough sea, without an anchor to hold me in place.

Straightening, Justine brushed my long, dark brown hair off my face. “No worries, dear. It’ll all be clear in time.” She took my hand. “Are you ready to take a little trip?”

I shrugged, tears wetting my lashes all over again. How could Mom leave me?

“Close your eyes and promise not to look.”

Scrunching my face up, I did as she asked, scared that disobeying her would make her reject me, too. Where would I end up then?

The world spun around me and wind picked up my hair and slapped it in my face. The weight of a thousand soaking wet blankets fell across my shoulders, and my knees gave way. I started to fall, but I didn’t hit the ground. I met nothing except air. My belly heaved at the weightless feeling, and my heart bolted against my ribs, straining to break through muscle and bone. As I opened my mouth to scream, my feet slammed onto solid ground, and my teeth jarred together.

“Okay, you can open your eyes,” Justine said with a soft laugh. “Well done, by the way.”

I blinked and stared around. “How…” This was impossible. Seconds ago, I’d stood beside Cloven in front of Crystal Wing Academy and now, my feet were firmly planted on a narrow cobblestone walkway leading up to a tiny brick building with two floors, four gleaming windows, and a slate-colored front door. A deep, dark forest surrounded the building, encroaching to the point the trees looked poised to engulf it. Spooky shadows flitted around where the sun couldn’t reach.

The door opened and a short, plump woman with gray hair secured in a tight bun at her nape stepped outside. She strode forward but stopped on the walkway a few feet in front of us, well within the shadows. Her arms linked on her ample chest, and she grunted.

“You received my message, Ester?” Justine asked.

“Hard to miss when you’re screeching in my head, now isn’t it?” Her brown eyes sped down my frame as if assessing my worth and finding me distinctly lacking. Her lips twisted into a knot. “I assume she comes with a stipend because times are tight.”

“Naturally.” From the way she tossed out the word, I could picture Justine rolling her eyes. “You do have room, don’t you?”

Ester huffed. “One bed, as you very well know. But only if she’s suspended. Won’t take her otherwise.”

“Would I bring her here if she wasn’t?” Justina drew herself up and stared down her nose at Ester. Her fingers dusted across my shoulders. “This is Fleur. She’s ten. You’ll need…wards.”

Ester blinked and reassessed me, though it wasn’t clear if she saw anything new. “Even suspended?”

“She has no discernable aptitude. I tested her myself. She could be…We just don’t know yet.”

What was aptitude? A skill, maybe. I cringed because it sounded bad that I didn’t have one.

Ester grunted. “Don’t like what that could mean.”

“Me either, but we shall see. And one other thing? She has…true power.”

“Some keep it. Some don’t.” Ester’s shoulders rose and fell. “Time tells all, eh?” A growl slipped from her mouth. “Seven years, then.” With an unimpressed lift of her bushy gray eyebrows, she waved to me. “Well, come along, girl. Don’t just stand there. It’ll be dark soon, and I need to get you settled so I can return to my work.”

As Ester led me away with a pinch of her fingers on my elbow, I peered back.

Justine had disappeared.

How…? I shook my head. Things were going on here I may never understand.

And while I was scared, no, worried, a tiny thrill went through me because I seemed to be living an adventure straight out of one of my books.

Where would this path take me?

Ester directed me into a small kitchen with a big old woodstove like something I’d seen on one of Mom’s historical shows. A round pot simmered on top, and my mind perked up when I took in the intriguing smells filling the air.

 “There are two rooms upstairs. One is mine, so stay out if you know what’s good for you.” She tapped my back. Not in a friendly way. More in a warning way. As in, enter her room and feel the full impact of her wrath.

The tap she delivered to my arm was firmer. It didn’t quite hurt but I rubbed the spot to sooth it anyway.

“Bedtime is promptly at eight. You’ll help in the kitchen to pay for your upkeep. Stipend won’t be enough. I homeschool any outling that resides underneath my roof and right now, you’re it.”

Homeschooling? Ugh.

“What’s an outling?” I asked.

“Never you mind about all that. You’ll learn what you need to know once you return to the Academy.”

“You said there are…no other kids here?” My initial excitement had fizzled. This wasn’t an adventure in one of my fantasy books. Being an outling—whatever that was—was starting to sound like being worse than Cinderella.

Ester braced her palms on her hips. “I run a tight house. You’ll be up at dawn and there won’t be a spare moment for you to get into trouble. I’ll ward you, all right. Not just the building and the surrounding area.”

“Is this going to be my home now?” Anguish leached into my voice. Mom! How could she do this to me?

“You’ll remain here until you turn seventeen when I’ll ship you off to Crystal Wing Academy.” She pushed me across the room and into a small entry with a narrow set of rickety stairs leading upward. “Go on, then. Your room is at the top, on the right. Remember, stay out of the other. It’s not for you. And I’ll know if you peek.” Her gaze drifted to the pot simmering on the stove as she tapped her temple. “I can see.”

I shivered. Forget excited. Now, I was totally creeped out. “What do you mean by get settled?” I refused to ask what else she could see. “I didn’t bring anything with me.” Just the clothes I’d dressed in this morning. My throat tightened. I’d forgotten my rabbit…

“Cloven sent your things over already.”

“Um, what?” I couldn’t imagine what that meant.

Ester’s face twisted. “All your belongings.”

“But Mom—”

“Is gone and this is your life, now.” Her palm hit my back. Harder this time, enough to cause pain. “Go on with you, I said. Don’t be a bother.”

Holding back my tears, I rushed up the stairs and turned right. A dingy carpet covered the hall and a worn path led to a solitary door. A quick shove and it hit the wall. I shuddered, worried Ester would screech about me damaging her property, but silence hung in the air like a thick fog. Maybe she hadn’t heard the bang.

I fled inside the room and shut the door carefully. Turning, I stared around through blurry eyes, taking in the solitary bed covered with a homemade quilt. Two cardboard boxes sitting against the back wall. A tall wooden bureau, plus a stand beside the bed. On the left, a closet door I wasn’t sure I wanted to open. And a floor lamp sat near a small desk set up underneath the only window. Orange and green wallpaper in a floral pattern covered the walls. One corner had pulled away from the plaster and drooped.

Like I drooped.

My rabbit lay on the pillow. How…?

Collapsing on the mattress and clutching my stuffed friend, I stared up at the flecked white ceiling. I pressed my fist against my mouth to hold back my sobs.

No use.

Giving up the fight, I turned and shoved my face into the pillow. I suffocated my grief, my wails, shoving my anguish into a tiny box in my mind and slamming the lid shut.

That was the last time I cried.

COLLAPSE

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