The dream always started out the same way. I’m standing alone in a clearing. The sky above is clear and blue, completely unbroken by any clouds. The grass covered ground of the clearing is a lush green that looks almost too perfect. The trees that circle the clearing are not only tall, but wide as well.
The entire place had an ancient feeling to it, as if maybe the place was sacred or something. There’s a quietness to it that is almost otherworldly and unnatural. No matter how I strained my hearing I couldn’t pick up the sounds of any other living creatures. That’s when the dream shifts, and I pick up the sound of another heartbeat.
The heartbeat is strong and steady, vital and important. I can almost feel it the sound is so strong. The heartbeat belongs to a guy who now stands across the clearing from me. Even with the distance separating us I can tell he’s tall with broad shoulders.
His features are harder to distinguish, but I can see his dark olive skin and his platinum blonde curls that cover his forehead and the tops of his ears. He doesn’t move towards me, and I don’t move towards him. We simply just stand there on opposite sides of the clearing until I feel the heat at my back.
I know without looking that what I feel is my phoenix. My phoenix is beautiful and breathtaking. She stands at six and a half feet tall with blue and white fire running through her sunburst orange and red feathers. Her massive claws dig into the soft grass with ease. This is probably the oddest part of the dream.
It’s not that I’m in some random place I’ve never been or that I’m having a silent staring contest with some random guy I’ve never met. It’s that my phoenix is standing behind me and not a part of me. As a shifter, my animal is as much a part of who I am as any other body part. She is a part of my very DNA.
We might be separate intellectually, but I’ve never been without my phoenix or her without me. When I give myself over to the shift she emerges and when she submits to the change I emerge. There is no such thing as your animal being outside of you. Yet she stands behind me, just as silent as I am, her golden eyes trained on the animal standing behind the guy.
The guy has a massive dragon sitting behind him. His dragon was even taller than he was. Given the distance it was hard to really judge, but if I had to guess his dragon was at least twelve feet tall and maybe even twenty feet long. His scales were like nothing I had ever seen before.
For the most part his scales were silver, but there were swirls of sapphire along his spiked spine and the tip of his tail was completely sapphire. The ridge of each wing was also completely. While I had never seen one in person, I was about ninety-five percent sure he was a celestial dragon.
The dream never lasted long, it always faded to black in the end, but this time felt different. It looked like he might be trying to say something, but I couldn’t even hear the whisper of sound except for the beating of his heart. Before I could try to respond and tell him I couldn’t hear him, the ground beneath my feet started to vibrate.
“Ava.” The voice rumbled all around me, pulling and tugging at me. I tried to shake off the sensation. I wanted to stay in the dream longer. I wanted to see where the newest change might take me. I wanted to know more about the guy with the dragon.
“Avalon!” The voice snapped, successfully yanking me from the clearing and into wakefulness. I blinked several times to bring Sloane’s face into focus as he loomed above me. My cousin’s expression had two states: completely passive and annoyed. Of course, that morning he was glowering down at me in annoyance.
I rolled my head to eye my alarm clock which declared that I was beyond late getting up considering our grandfather was going to be visiting and the whole clan would be gathering for the ceremony that night. I sighed in resignation at just the thought of the ceremony. Some of our rituals were so archaic and could even be seen as barbaric to outsiders. Yet none of the Elders thought they needed to be changed.
“You couldn’t just let me sleep through it?” I asked as I pushed myself into a sitting position. He stepped back from the bed now that he was sure I was awake and would be staying that way. He leaned back against my closed bedroom door and crossed his arms over his chest.
“And have Grand-asshole berate me?” he prompted as he quirked a single eyebrow at my ridiculous question. “Not likely. Besides, this is your day. It’s all about you.”
“It’s pointless,” I muttered with a shake of my head. “I’m the first female phoenix in six generations and we all know that I’m not an alpha. So, what’s the point of the ceremony?”
“Tradition mostly,” he answered with a shrug. He, of course, didn’t care. His ceremony had been four years ago when he was sixteen and there wasn’t any surprise amongst the clan when he was proven to be an alpha. He was then promptly enrolled and shipped off to Alpha Academy.
It had been the same when Tristian was tested last year and then Aiden when he was tested a few months back. I would be the last one of our bloodline to be tested – even though my testing took place on my eighteenth birthday instead of my sixteenth – until Con and Jon turned sixteen in four years.
Like with Sloane, no one was surprised when Tristan tested as alpha. Just like Sloane he showed all the early signs and characteristics of an alpha. He was strong, stoic and every bit as responsible as Sloane. They were almost like mirror images of each other. When Aiden tested as alpha though there was shock throughout the clans given his laid back and easygoing nature.
No one knew Aiden like I did though, that underneath his happy-go-lucky attitude there was a seriousness and determination that could rival even Sloane’s. He was a quick thinker and often able to keep the peace much more easily than his older brother or cousin. Still, they often overlooked him and underestimated him.
“Come on,” Sloane prompted as he straightened. “Get dressed, everyone’s already downstairs and lunch should be ready in a few minutes.”
“Okay,” I agreed then watched him leave my room. I had no doubt that the whole family was downstairs. It would be just the immediate family at lunch, the rest of the clan wouldn’t show up until the ceremony after the sun went down.
While it was just me and my father that lived in this house, it was still large enough to be considered a mansion. The second floor had five bedrooms while the main floor had the massive kitchen, open floor plan dining room and living room along with a home office and separate den. The basement had a workout room and an indoor pool that connected to the outdoor one.
All the open space on the main level was definitely needed for family gatherings like this. Brendan was my father’s oldest brother and was Sloane’s, Aiden’s and Conan’s (Con) father. His wife’s name was Cass. The biggest miracle was probably that she had not only survived three pregnancies but had also stayed through all the craziness that came with being a part of the shifter world.
Bryant was the next oldest and was Tristan’s and Jonah’s (Jon) father. His ex-wife’s name was Marissa. She decided that all the expectations of being a part of this specific family was just too much for her after Jon was born. He wasn’t even a month old when she split. I wasn’t sure who I felt worse for, Jon who never knew her or Tristan who had.
Last of the three brothers was my father, Bradley. My mother’s name had been Lila. I would never know if she would have chosen to stay or leave since she died giving birth to me. My mother’s death was a sore spot for me even though I had never known her. The way it was so easily dismissed just didn’t sit well with me. The fact that humans so often died giving birth to shifters was something that no one talked about. It was just an accepted fact.
Had she known the chances of survival were slim? Had she known everything she was risking by marrying my father? Had she truly loved him? Had she really loved him enough to sacrifice everything? I would never really know. My father refused to talk about her and honestly so did everyone else.
I dressed in jeans and a t-shirt before I braided my fiery red curls, a few of the curls escaping around my face then headed downstairs. I could hear the cacophony of everyone from the top of the stairs. I could hear Con and Jon as they watched some kids show on the TV. I could hear my father, Brendan and Bryant talking about something. I could hear Aiden and Tristan arguing.
I wasn’t surprised that I couldn’t pick up the sound of Sloane’s voice. He was no doubt reclined back in one of the recliners in the living room. His eyes would be closed and to the untrained eye he would appear to be sleeping. That wouldn’t be the case though, his senses would be on high alert – even here among family – just waiting for the moment he would need to switch to fight mode.
When I made it to the bottom of the stairs, Sloane was exactly where I thought he would be. Con and Jon were on the loveseat while Tristian and Aiden were on the couch. My uncles and father were at the kitchen island along with Cass. The only one missing was my grandfather. As I reached the back of the couch, he strode in through the garage door.
“Is lunch ready?” he asked, his eyes going to my father who just nodded. My grandfather lifted his chin in acknowledgment then moved toward the dining table. He stood behind the chair at the head of the table and simply waited.
I suppressed my sigh and eyeroll as everyone moved to the table and took their seats. I played my part as well, taking the place between Tristian and Aiden. We all had our part to play and when Grandfather was present no one hesitated or missed a cue. Grandfather was the last to take his seat, his eyes meeting my father’s, who sat at the other end of the table. “The east coast clan will be arriving within the hour,” Grandfather said, his voice calm and neutral as we all started eating our salads. “They’ll be joining us for the ceremony tonight. I’ve also already discussed with Lorenzo, and he has agreed to have his eldest – Giovani – mate with Avalon.”