When I woke up the next day I still couldn't quite believe what Adina had said. She'd just spent a whole day surrounded by Mortals, and then she'd come out with something like that. I turned over and looked at my clock, trying to figure out if I was allowed to go back to sleep - what a surprise, I wasn't. I sat up and looked across at Adi's bed. She was still asleep, her little body rising and falling as she breathed, and she looked so adorably innocent that I thought maybe I'd dreamed what had happened yesterday. She couldn't have said that. Could she?
"Ash, you up yet?" called a soft voice from the other side of the door. I opened it and went out into the corridor with Malachi, making sure I didn't disturb Adi as I closed it behind me.
"We got a letter from Mum," replied Malachi. I gaped at him. He handed it to me wordlessly, then turned and disappeared back down the corridor. I unfolded it and stared at the achingly familiar handwriting, not quite believing this could be true. The last time I had seen my mother, she had been completely oblivious to everything, trapped in her own private hell, and not even noticing her children starving to death or the Caster Healers taking her away. Even the fact that she was able to write a letter was proof that she was getting better, but that didn't make me feel happy or even relieved, just more anxious. What would happen when the Healers let her go? Would we go back and live with her again? What if she gave up again?
Even though the letter was there in my hand, I still couldn't quite believe it, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to read it. I knew that what was written there was probably important, but would it be better not knowing? I realised I had scrunched it up in my fist, so I carefully flattened it with shaking hands and began to read.
My dearest children,
Let me first say that I am so sorry for what I did to you. I shouldn't have left you like that - it was selfish. I am so proud of you for how you helped each other, and me, and I will always be grateful for that. For now I am staying with the Healers, and probably will be for a long time, but you will be safe with Jones and my father. Please do not inconvenience him too much, as he is doing me a great favour by taking you in and we are all in his debt.
Malachi, do not argue with my father, whatever he has decided is for the best. You should get to know Mortals.
Aislinn, I know how hard this is for you and trust me, it will get better. For now, enjoy your time in the Mortal world and don't let yourself be pressured into your Declaration. You can make that decision when you are ready. If you ever feel overwhelmed, talk to your grandfather. He can be more useful in matters like this than you'd think.
And lastly, Adina, I love you pumpkin, and I am so sorry you have to deal with all of this so early in your life. Listen to your grandfather and your brother and sister, and be good and helpful.
I love you all, and I will be with you again as soon as possible. I have heard nothing from your father, but I know he will be in contact with us soon.
I fought the urge to cry. This letter had not been written by my mother. It was her handwriting, but not her words. The Healers had revived her from her comatose depression, but they had not healed her mind. That was still lost. Still trying to find my father. They had drugged her and put her into therapy, and that had made a small part of her come back, enough to make them think she was okay. But I knew that as soon as she was released, she would revert straight back to how she had been. Broken.
"Ash? What's that?" I spun around and hid the letter behind my back.
"What's what?" I asked, tucking the letter into the waistband of my pyjama bottoms. She frowned at me.
"Nothing. What's for breakfast?"
"I don't know. We'll get dressed and then go downstairs, okay?"
When we got downstairs Malachi and Uncle M were already waiting for us, a huge breakfast spread out on the table in front of them.
"Please help yourselves. I know that the breakfast you were given yesterday wasn't exactly the best because you were in a hurry, but I hope to rectify that today. Dig in." I glanced at Malachi before pouring myself a small bowl of cereal, ignoring the impressive array of foods in front of me. "So, how did you sleep?"
"Fine, thank you," replied Adi, smiling sweetly. "What about you?"
"I don't sleep, little one," said Uncle M. "I am an incubus."
"Mummy used to talk about them sometimes," said Adi. "What are they?"
"Incubi are the males of our species and succubi are the females. We are creatures of the night, mainly, and most are allied with Dark. We need the energy of Mortals to survive, like you need food and water, and most, especially those who have chosen to work with Dark, choose to take life energy in the form of blood. Others, however, live on other forms of energy, such as spiritual energy or chance energy." I noticed that he didn't mention the fact that as well as blood many incubi and succubi also fed on sexual energy. Surprise surprise.
"Do you eat Mortals lives?" asked Adi.
"No, I refuse to take a Mortal's life. I live on a much more benevolent kind of energy - imagination, mainly in the form of dreams."
"Mortals are what keep the balance," replied Uncle M. "If they did not exist, neither could anything else. We should never forget that and, even if they do not realise it, they should always be treated with respect."
"So you and Uncle Dale and Rayann all live on Mortal energy?"
"If I may interject, sir, I think it's time we were leaving," said Jones from the corner.
"Ah, yes, Malachi and Adina, go and get ready," said Uncle M. "Aislinn, you are staying here today."
"What about school?" I asked. Even though it was stupid, I was completely panicking that I had imagined yesterday and that Jack and Gabe and all my friends didn't exist, and I needed to go back to show myself that it was all real.
"You have the day off today."
"There are things we need to discuss," he replied, gesturing for Jones to take Adi and Malachi out of the room.
"That's my decision, and I'm not ready to make it yet," I said coldly.
"I know, and I'm not trying to force you," he replied. "I just want to talk to you about the implications of your decision."
"I'm perfectly aware of the implications of my decision," I told him frostily. "Funnily enough that's why I'm thinking about it so much."
"There is more to your Declaration than you might think. It affects more than just you."
"What do you mean? The whole point of a Declaration is that it's a personal choice, and no one can judge you for it."
"Not in your case. You're very special, Aislinn," said Uncle M softly. I narrowed my eyes at him. "Did your mother never tell you? Your Declaration will change our world forever."
"How? Why am I so special?"
"Let me start right at the beginning," said Uncle M.
"You alright dude?" asked Kev. "You keep looking round like you're expecting an axe murderer."
"No, I'm, uh-"
"Looking for the new girl?" he guessed. "Don't worry about it; I'm sure she'll turn up. Maybe she's ill."
"Maybe… Is Jack in school today?"
"Kingsmill? Yeah, why?"
"He bunked with Ash yesterday, I thought they might be doing the same today," I told him. "It's only her second day, why isn't she here?"
"Why don't you go up to her house after school and ask?" suggested Kev. I frowned at him, then I realised he was serious. Actually, it's not such a bad idea, I thought. And it can't do any harm.
"Come with me?"
"Hell no, are you serious? I'm not going up to the big scary house on the hill just for you to stalk the new girl. No way."
"Come on, Kev, I need to make sure she's alright," I pleaded. I knew it would probably be really creepy to turn up on her doorstep asking why she wasn't in school but I couldn't help it - I needed to see her. I was addicted, and I needed my fix.
"No. Why don't you ask Eva or one of them lot, they're her friends right?"
"Yeah, but I don't really talk to them."
"I don't really talk to the new girl and you're still trying to drag me up there," Kev pointed out. "Just go and ask Nate, you talk to him, and you managed it yesterday."
"Fine," I muttered. Rather conveniently Nate and Dexter chose that moment to walk into the room, so I beckoned them over. "Hey, have you guys seen Ash?"
"She's not in today," replied Dexter. "No idea why."
"I think I'm gonna go to her house after school," I told them. "You know, just to make sure she's okay. Do you guys wanna come with?"
"Uh, yeah sure," said Nate. "She lives up at Greenfeld's place right?"
"Oh great," muttered Dexter. "That sounds like a good idea, let's all go up to the creepy house on top of the hill to ask the creepy guy who lives there why his granddaughter isn't in school today."
"Shut up, Dex," said Nate, slapping him on the arm. "We'll meet you at pupil reception after last lesson," he told me.
"I don't understand; why am I so different?"
"Because of your unique heritage," replied Uncle M, smiling slightly. "I am an incubus and your grandmother Lilith was a powerful Dark Caster. Her father was a Light Caster and her mother is a nymph. Your mother is a powerful Light Caster, and your father is a lycan. His parents were both lycans, but they had Caster and incubus blood in them. Most members of our world have only one type of blood in them, in some cases two. Lycans mate almost exclusively within their own species, so for your father to have chosen your mother is almost unheard of. In your blood you have the power of lycans, incubi, Casters and nymphs. A very potent and rare combination; you have more of each of their powers than you know."
"But I can't turn into a wolf, or live on Mortals' blood, or stay young forever because I'm half tree, I can't even Cast yet! I don't see how my bloodline affects my Declaration at all."
"It shows how different your parents were in their choices, and all of that has been channelled into you. The Light is from your father's side, and from your mother herself, and the Dark from Lilith and I. You and your siblings have an equal mix of Light and Dark in your blood, rather than having an excess of one, and so your decision is that much more difficult."
"Why weren't Mal and Adi different to any other Casters? Why is it me?" I asked. "What's so special about me?"
"I don't know," replied Uncle M, annoyingly calmly. He gestured to my cereal, and I took a grudging spoonful.
"So what big effects will my Declaration have?" I finally asked. Well, there wasn't much point in avoiding such a big question, and I might as well know what I was up against.
"At the time of your birth the Fae made a prophecy about you," said Uncle M slowly. "They said that you would be forced to Declare yourself to save a Mortal you loved from a Dark being, and that when you did, one of two things would happen: either the barrier between the Mortal and Caster worlds will disintegrate and the Mortals will declare war on all of our kind, or the barrier will strengthen to the point that no one will ever be able to pass through it again." He glanced anxiously at me, trying to gauge my reaction. I gaped at him, unable to process what he'd just told me.
"So either I'll start a war or cut us off forever? Which is which?" I demanded.
"We don't know," replied Uncle M. "That is all the prophecy says."
"So I have to make this huge decision and I don't even know what it'll do? I could choose one side thinking it'll be the lesser of two evils and accidentally start a war! How the hell am I supposed to do this? What kind of choice is that?" I exploded. "I'm sixteen, for God's sake! I don't need to Declare myself for another four years, why are you telling me now?"
"Because if you don't make your decision soon, both of our worlds might disappear."