Ephaney Stormsinger, daughter of the Lord and Lady of The Stormsong Isles, prepares for her Final Trial—the test that will see her live to become a true, graduated coven member, or dead and dashed upon the mountainside. Falling from the platform atop Storm’s Peak, she prays to the Goddess for Fate to intervene.
Sensing the undeniable pull of the Fated mate bond, the great owl shifter Reuben Skywing rescues the Air witch from her fall … breaking the unspoken law that forbids the shifters from interfering in the affairs of the witches.
The purple of dusk bleeds across the sky, blending into the sapphire and onyx hues of the gloam above. The last glowing rays of the sun are sinking below the ocean, causing the waves to glitter. I sigh as the last of the warmth leaves the day and the chill of the evening sets in. I shake my head in the direction of Storm’s Peak in dismay. Again, the witches are at it. Kicking their chicks from the nest to see which ones will fly, and which ones will plummet to their inevitable deaths.
Surely there’s a better way. So many lives lost… Half of those who have taken the Final Trial just today have seen their last sunset. Merciful Goddess, the screams are the worst part. With my keen sense of hearing, their final cries fill my soul with a deep and unsettling revulsion. Such a waste. So many of those Air witches—gifted women in their prime—could have gone onto greater things, been powerful witches who could have made a real difference in Avalar. But just because they couldn’t perform in that one moment in time… I bristle my feathers. It’s not my place, I remind myself. We, the great owl shifters, share The Stormsong Isles with the Air witches—in peace—as long as we stay out of each other’s affairs. No meddling.
As often as I have wanted to swoop in and save those who clearly don’t look like they’re going to make it, I cannot. The witches don’t value life as we do. They place a higher value on purity of bloodlines, and strength of magic. As far as they’re concerned, every young woman who finds herself dashed upon the earth is nothing more than wasted time and resources.
I have heard that even the girls’ families feel this way. This belief system is so ingrained into their culture that they feel not grief upon their child’s demise, but shame and regret. Shame that their offspring failed to achieve and honor their family name. The very notion boils my blood.
Life is precious. Why can’t they see? Just as I’m about to take wing, and leave the witches to their ghastly ways, another witch jumps, or rather, falls. With my near flawless vision, I see the glint of her sun-kissed golden hair streaming past her, obscuring her face. Her arms are spread wide, and everything about her posture as she free-falls suggests implicit trust and serenity. There is no fear, no screaming, no wild abandon, just peace. Peace.
And then, as if we’re connected by some cosmic, esoteric tether, my heart feels as though it’s being physically ripped from my chest—plummeting along with her. I snap my beak in sudden confusion and rage as the pain continues to build the further the woman descends. With each foot she falls, I feel like I’m going to die. And with sudden clarity my heart understands, and I’ve launched myself into the sky, in the direction of Storm’s Peak, even if it takes my logical mind a few moments more to make sense of what the fuck I’m doing.
There is just one phrase that plays on repeat in my head as I soar faster than I have ever soared before. She’s my Fated mate. She’s my Fated mate. She’s my Fated mate? There’s no time to think it through. All I know is that if this Air witch doesn’t survive, neither will I. Every day hereafter would be spent merely existing. She is my peace. My hope. My heart. This golden, sun-kissed witch is my mate.
I wing through the growing dark, and my mate continues her serene fall, her golden hair and white smock billowing. As I pump my wings, eyes locked onto her, everything feels surreal, and dream-like. It’s as if somehow time has slowed down, and there’s just us—her and me. I don’t know if she can fly, if she can save herself, like the others that have lived to see another day, but I can’t risk it. My heart says intervene—consequences be damned!
The ground is drawing nearer with every breath, and suddenly a thousand feet up seems like nothing at all. The canopy of the forest is much too close for comfort. I hear several shouts from below. No doubt, the survivors have spotted me. But it’s too late. Like an arrow piercing the flesh of the sky I fly, until at the last second—just feet above the treetops—I back-wing, and snatch the witch out of the air, ending her Trial.
I glance down as I work to gain altitude once more, and the witch opens her eyes, stealing my breath away—they’re a deep, vibrant orange, like the wings of butterflies, or the sun, just as it burns below the horizon at sunset.
“I’ve got you,” I say, speaking to her mind instinctively.
Her lips part, as if to speak, but instead, she answers me with the mindspeech. “Who are you?” she asks, curiosity in her voice.
“My name is Reuben Skywing, and I’m the heir to The Stormsong Isles Eyrie.”
The witch seems to ponder this for a moment, before smiling.
As we gain sufficient height, I turn back towards my favorite perch.
“My name is Ephaney Stormsinger.”
My blood chills in my veins and a cold sense of dread settles over me. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I just managed to snatch away the most eligible witch in The Isles, the family for which the bloody things are named! This is their land—their home. These islands have always belonged to the Stormsingers.
Ephaney reaches up to lay a gentle, reassuring hand on my foot as I carry her. “You know I can hear you, right, Reuben?”
“Can you feel it?” I ask. “Us?”
“I can,” she answers. “We’re Fated mates, aren’t we? I can feel it burning inside my chest, like a white-hot flame.”
“We are,” I confirm. “And I think I may have just inadvertently started a war between our people in claiming you…”