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Chapter One

Phillipsburg, Montana – Halfling Fae Academy

 

Early June

 

 

“If you just focus a little harder, you can figure it out,” said the halfling fae teenager. Her long, silver braid shimmered in the sunlight as she turned to address the girl standing across from her.

“Oh, because you’re doing it so perfectly, right?” the other girl spat.

Several inches shorter, and with hair so inky black it had a blue sheen, she was a stark contrast to her fellow fae. Their appearances marked each of their differences, creating a visual of the distance between them.

As with the two boys who stood several yards away, they were from opposing courts. court rivalry was the reason they weren’t getting along as they paired off to train in the field behind their academy, perfecting their abilities. But it was also why they’d been forced together.

As the most powerful and promising Halfling Fae of the Elmhurst Academiae Superiorum, the four young fae were required to train together by the headmaster. They were supposed to collaborate, build their skills, and assist each other to reach their potential. On paper, it had seemed like a good idea.

With their abilities, they could become exceptional. If they worked hard, each of the four had the potential to pursue successful careers. It wasn’t lost on Principal Elmhurst that some healthy competition among the four would push them all to do better and reach new goals faster.

But in practice, things weren’t working out very smoothly. The two Seelie and two Unseelie were having a tough time cooperating, and the struggle showed when they met to hone their skills and work on new abilities. Principal Elmhurst didn’t care about the tension. She had no patience for the politics and deep-rooted conflict between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts—neither of which were excuses she’d accept. The four had reluctantly resigned themselves to spending at least their foreseeable future at the academy together.

“Actually, if you would stop flailing around long enough, I could show you,” Luna, the silver-haired Seelie fae, said.

She had always tried to encourage cooperation in the group and had made an effort to be nice to the others, but today Vivi was pushing Luna to her limits. Even Carson, Vivi’s fellow Unseelie, put more effort into cooperating and making the most of their forced alliance. Not so much with Vivi. The somewhat embittered wild card of the bunch made no secret of her frustration at being stuck with a pair of inferior Seelie fae.

Vivi was absolutely confident in her belief that she was the best halfling at the academy. She would complete her education there, go on to graduate college, and have no problem at all in obtaining a job at the embassy. It was what she had to do. Her father expected it of her, and he would tolerate nothing less. She wasn’t alone in her aspirations to land one of the highly coveted jobs at the embassy. Securing such a position was the only way a halfling could gain admittance into Faerie, and Carson also had his sights set on the same goal.

Though both had the potential to achieve such an impressive accomplishment, the most skilled fae in the academy was actually Luna. Quieter and more studious, she possessed a better mastery of her magic and tried to help the others—like Vivi—as much as she could. When Vivi would accept it, that is. Far more often, the antagonistic Unseelie pushed away any offer of help. Sometimes this meant choosing to do her own thing and figure it out for herself. And sometimes it meant creating trouble for the group just to make a point and have a laugh.

“We’ve been at this for hours.” Zander, the other Seelie fae, strode toward the girls. “I’m hungry. Let’s all take a break and cool off.” This was his way of telling the pair to take a step back from each other before they started another fight.

“I’m hungry, too,” Luna said. “Let’s go to the café. My mom will make us something.”

Meeting at Luna’s mother’s café was one of the few ways the four willingly spent time together when they weren’t training. Like everyone but Zander, Luna had a human mother and a fae father. But she didn’t know her father, didn’t even know his name. She attended the halfling academy on a scholarship, and the only way Nicoletta was able to open the small café near the campus was through the secret support of an unknown investor.

Luna had always suspected that her father had sent the money for her mother to start her business. But Nicoletta had rejected the possibility immediately. She didn’t believe he would go to such an extent to help them.

It wasn’t that he’d had absolutely nothing to do with Luna. Not wanting to be a full-time father to a halfling child, he had left Nicoletta as soon as he’d found out she was pregnant. But over the years, he had been a part of Luna’s life from a distance. Every once in a great while, he would send money for Luna. Usually, these moments of fatherly attention came when she demonstrated a special skill, accomplished a major task, or had done extremely well in a class. She pushed herself to excel for many reasons, but a fundamental part of her drive to do well was for her father. She craved his attention, even though she didn’t know him or anything about him.

Nicoletta had refused to divulge even the most basic details to her daughter. She didn’t tell Luna her father’s name, or where they had met, or anything about their relationship. The only thing she’d revealed was that he was very powerful. Of course, to a human like her mother, Luna was also very powerful, so that piece of information didn’t mean much.

This was another thing setting her apart from the other three in her group. She was the only one relying on a scholarship to pay for her tuition at the halfling academy. Even Zander had his dues paid by his fae parent. He had been left on his human father’s doorstep by his fae mother and had never met her, or had anything to do with her, but she’d seen to it that her son attended the school and received a monthly stipend like the others.

But the café did well for Luna and her mother. Though humans often came by to indulge in Nicoletta’s delicious cooking, the spot mostly catered to the fae, which included the halfling students. Few local eateries provided vegetarian menus. Montana was beef country, where restaurants offered heavily meat-based menus, so the fae had limited options when it came to grabbing a bite to eat. Nicoletta’s diner ensured that the students at the academy, and any family who visited or lived in the area, had somewhere to rely on for a meal consisting of more than a plate of iceberg lettuce and a handful of meager cucumber slices.

There wouldn’t be many halflings or fae in the café. Summer meant most of the students were gone. The summer season was supposed to be spent at home with their families, or on vacation with a fae parent. Usually, the only students who lingered around the campus during breaks were those who needed extra tutoring to hone their skills and abilities, and the orphans surrendered to the academy for training.

Neither case applied to Luna or her group. This summer, Principal Elmhurst had insisted the four halflings stay behind at the academy to give them more opportunity to gel. It was the first time in which students had crossed courts to work together. These four were a unique unit. Never in the history of the Elmhurst Academiae Superiorum had a group of Halflings succeeded in harnessing the Power of Five. But the academy board and the principal believed it might be possible with the collaboration of these four, even with the unusual combination of two from the Seelie Court and two from the Unseelie. All they needed to do now was find the right fifth person, and they could accomplish this incredibly rare and amazing feat.

It had been centuries since any group of halflings anywhere had created the Power of Five. Most fae didn’t even believe it was possible anymore. But Principal Elmhurst was convinced and had insisted on the four students working closely to try to achieve it. Which had meant foregoing their summer away from the school in favor of spending the weeks working on their skills and learning to deal with each other more effectively.

And while they trained, they also waited. Searches were being performed across various academies around the world to find their fifth member. Though conducted among the most powerful and highly skilled of all the halfling academies, the search was yet to discover anyone who came even close to matching the power required to complete the group.

They arrived at the café and sank onto the benches arranged out front. Vivi groaned and dropped her head back against the bench.

“I’m so tired of working with these Seelie scum,” she muttered to Carson.

Vivi and Carson were from the Unseelie Court. While Luna and Zander were from the Seelie Court. Neither fae court played well with the other. The fae could be nuisances, but the Unseelie seemed to have a bit of evil bred into their souls. Of the two courts, a human would fare better after meeting a Seelie Fae. Most human interactions with the Unseelie ended in disaster or broken hearts.

The lucky humans worked for the different courts in menial labor positions, or they were used for consensual breeding purposes.

Luna and Zander ignored Vivi, which only made her angrier. She wanted a reaction. She intended to make them just as uncomfortable and frustrated as she was. Her gaze lingered for a brief second on Zander, but she looked away, forcing down the thoughts and feelings which always crept up on her when she glanced at him. She focused instead on utilizing her magic in a new way, a way to at least allow her to have some fun if she was going to be forced to work with the Seelie. A practical joke would bring Luna down a couple of pegs, and that was exactly what Vivi needed.

Zander looked at Vivi, not for the first time curious about the expression in her intense eyes when they flickered over him before she turned away. The possibility that she might like him sometimes flashed through his mind, but just as quickly as it did, he pushed it away. It was impossible. Simply being from the different courts would stop it. No one ever crossed courts for romantic relationships, not that he had ever heard of.

“I have an idea,” Luna said, pulling them all out of their own thoughts and bringing their attention to her. “We’ve been having trouble working together to make anything happen. We can’t just keep focusing on our individual skills and abilities. If we’re going to accomplish the Power of Five, we have to be able to work together. I think we should try to create a Faerie circle of purple pansies. We will have to merge our powers together to make it happen. We’ll have to be in harmony, or it could end up just becoming a jungle or some other disaster.”

Vivi snorted. “Are you kidding me? That’s your big idea? How could you be so childish?”

“We have to start somewhere,” Zander said. “So far, all our other attempts have failed. We’re stuck together, so we might as well put some effort into making something happen.”

“Are you suggesting we sprout up some purple pansies right out here? Right out in the open in front of everyone?” Carson asked.

“No. We need to go somewhere out of the way,” said Zander.

“How about the field outside the academy?” Vivi suggested. “Where we always practice.”

“No. It’s not isolated enough. We need to be able to focus completely,” Zander said.

A tension simmered within the group as to who truly held the leadership position, but in almost all situations, the Seelie male was the one who rose to the spot.

“There’s another field on the outskirts of town. It’s not too far from here, but no one is ever there,” Luna said.

“Perfect. Let’s get something to eat and then head that way,” Zander said.

After lunch, they made their way toward the field. The two pairs walked along separately, each fae speaking only to their court-mate.

“How am I supposed to survive the school year living with her?” Luna asked, glancing over her shoulder at Vivi and Carson. Their heads were close together, and the brief snippets of the conversation she caught told her they were also discussing the impending moves that would force the two girls and the two boys to live together.

“It’s going to be fine,” Zander said.

“That’s easy for you to say,” Luna said. “Anyone can get along with you. You’re going to convert Carson into your best friend by the end of the first night.”

Zander let out a short laugh. “I doubt that.”

It might have been a bit of a stretch to imagine the two fae guys suddenly bonding and creating a tight friendship within the first few hours of forced cohabitation, but Luna could still believe it was possible. If anyone could make something like that happen, it was Zander. He was the undisputed golden boy of the academy, the type of student every teacher longed for. A parent could fill all the walls in the house with pictures of amazing things, running out of space long before he ran out of accomplishments. He led in any activity he chose and achieved straight A’s in all his classes with seemingly little effort.

But his grades weren’t so unique among the group. With the exception of Vivi, they all maintained A averages in their classes. Only Vivi coasted along just behind them, her report cards cluttered with B’s. Not because she wasn’t smart enough to score the same high grades and achieve the academic awards as the other three. In fact, she was brilliant. Vivi simply didn’t apply herself to any of her work.

She used to work just as hard as the others, but her enthusiasm had faded. She’d given up pushing herself all the time after last Christmas. She’d been excited for weeks about the upcoming skiing trip she was going on with her fae father. It had been only the two of them after her mother had died, and the time they spent together had meant so much to her. She would never admit that, of course.

Everyone knew how hard Vivi’s father was on her, and the pressure he put on her to excel at everything. She wanted nothing more in the world than for him to show her love and approval. But she wouldn’t let anyone know that. To an outsider, she appeared to not even care. Giving up on trying for more impressive grades meant he didn’t give her the approval she wanted, but it also meant she didn’t get hurt as often.

Christmas had been her breaking point. She’d been looking forward to it, had worked hard to make sure there would be plenty for the two of them to talk about, and she’d silently longed for the praise he would give her. Then, exactly two days before he was supposed to arrive at the academy to pick her up, he’d bailed on her.

He had no big excuse, no reason for why he couldn’t be with her. Only a terse phone message delivered by someone from the office. It wasn’t just that he hadn’t come or that they weren’t able to go on their skiing trip. Her father punking out on her meant Vivi spent the Christmas holiday at the academy by herself. Her only companions were the unsociable halflings who got off on being alone…or had been abandoned by their fae parent.

Since then, she’d been pissed off and had carried an even bigger chip on her shoulder.

“I don’t know which I’m looking forward to less,” Carson said. “Being in such close quarters with Zander all the time or the swarms of Seelie girls who will darken my doorstep.”

“Don’t even try. You know you’re going to enjoy every single second of it. You might only date Unseelie girls, but you’ll mess around with anyone who has breasts. Zander living with you will just be like a funnel bringing in a constant supply of fresh girls. When he rejects them, you’ll be right there to scoop them up and make the most of all their desperation,” Vivi said with a laugh.

Carson had the reputation around Elmhurst of being a male slut, and he did his best to live up to it.

They arrived at the field and reluctantly gathered in a loose circle at the center.

“I can put up a shield to keep the humans from seeing what we’re doing,” Carson volunteered.

It took him only a few moments to create the enchantment that would prevent any wayward human from happening by and seeing them conjuring flowers and creating little bursts of magic. It was a caution they had learned to employ early in their education. Their academy didn’t exist in some different realm or in a place inaccessible by anyone other than their kind. They were right smack in the middle of a very human town, which meant always having to be careful and avoid being caught.

When the shield was in place, they started their attempts to conjure the Faerie circle. Every time they got close, Vivi derailed them. Her concentration wasn’t there, her mind too far away with her plans to punk Luna.

“Seriously, Vivi,” Carson finally snapped. “Unless you want to throw up camp out here and rough it until this thing happens, you need to get yourself together and stop screwing around.”

His threat was enough to make her focus, and they made one more attempt. All around them, the Faerie circle formed. It was large and impressive, and the group was briefly excited until they realized the blooms around them were black instead of purple.

“Vivi!” the three shouted at her, but she only responded with a smirk.

Zander cleared the field of the black pansies. “Again,” he snapped.

“Who are you to decide what we’re going to do?” Vivi asked.

“You’re the one who’s making this so difficult,” he replied angrily. “Shut up and focus.”

A few hours later, Luna scanned the large circle of purple pansies that finally surrounded them. She smiled and nodded. “It looks good,” she said. “Let’s try another one.”

Carson and Zander murmured in agreement, but Vivi scowled and backed away from them. With a slight sweep of her hand, she turned all the purple blooms black again and crouched to gather some in a bouquet. She presented them to Zander with a mocking smile. Instead of taking them, the Seelie male snapped his fingers and the flowers disintegrated in her hand.

“Don’t be too impressed with yourself because of your little parlor trick,” he said to Vivi. “Any of us could change the colors of the flowers. In fact, any of us could create the entire circle on our own. The difficult part of this is creating something with the four of us merging our powers together. It’s the combination that matters. We have to be in harmony in order to accomplish tasks together.”

The reason they were attempting to obtain the Power of Five was the level of power it would bring them. If a full-blooded group of fae obtained the Power of Five, they could do anything. Bring down planes, build a skyscraper in a day, make an entire neighborhood disappear, really anything they set their minds to. Of course, the fae knew not to mess with humans on such a grand scale.

But for a group of Halflings to obtain the Power of Five meant great respect from the Faerie world. They couldn’t do quite as much as a full-blooded Power of Five could, but if records were correct, a halfling Power of Five could do more than any individual fae could.

The Seelie and Unseelie Queens could use them to keep the rebels at bay. The Power of Five could be harnessed to defend the Faerie Courts, or any large group the courts deemed worthy of protection. They could also be used as a weapon against their enemies.

Vivi didn’t want to hear it. She still believed Luna’s plan to be woefully childish, and that it offered no real benefit as they worked on their abilities. Creating Faerie circles was something the halflings learned before puberty. A very basic skill, it was a common feature of playtime for the young of their kind. The challenge came when trying to do it as a group. Just the temperaments of such different people working together rendered the task almost impossible.

“It’s a huge achievement that we were even able to do this to begin with,” Luna said. “We need to keep practicing so we can get better at it.”

Zander moved to stand between Luna and Vivi. “Look, we all know these tricks are child’s play. The difficulty comes in merging our powers together. That’s what the Power of Five is all about. If we can learn to work together in harmony, we will be unstoppable and can do anything we want.”

“No,” Vivi said. “I’m done. We’ve been out here for hours, and I’ve had my fill of silly flowers. I want to leave.” Sometimes, she even wondered why they were trying. Sure, if she was one of the Five, she’d get her dream job, or rather her father’s dream of what her job should be. But she was beginning to understand that her father would never show her any love. He was using her to advance his own status, exactly like most fae parents did with any of their children.

It wouldn’t matter if she was one of the most powerful halfling fae in the world. She still wouldn’t be worthy of his love.

___________________

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