Sometimes dreams are just that. Dreams. And sometimes they’re a royal pain in the butt. I learned that lesson the hard way a couple of months ago when the shadow of my nagual, my guiding spirit, stalked me at my high school. Since coming back to the compound after Chichen Itza (more on that nightmare later), I was having this horrible recurring dream about a Mayan village in danger. Their ceiba tree, the heart of their village, was on fire, and there was total chaos as the entire village tried to put it out. But they couldn’t do it. No matter what they did, the tree just kept burning. And there was this old woman. Her wrinkled face and beautifully embroidered Mayan clothing were covered in soot. She begged me over and over to help them. The pain in her dark eyes just seemed so…so real.
My waking life wasn’t going much better than my nightmares. We, twenty or thirty friendly neighborhood shape-shifters, had just come back from Chichen Itza. I had opened up the earth’s energy so that the New Age at the end of the Mayan Calendar could begin. It seems I’m able to contain more k’ul, the life energy in all things, than anyone else on earth. (Cool, eh?) But there were some nasty repercussions. One of our shifters had been killed by Toltec, and I was permanently scarred by my silver necklace when it became super-heated by the energy flowing through me.
Now, as we all stood outside in the darkness watching Liam’s funeral pyre, I looked across the fire at all of my friends’ faces. The twins, Lyssa and Damian, stood shoulder to shoulder. I saw Damian wipe his cheek on his shirt before he thought anyone would see. Lyssa, our Energizer Bunny, stood motionless, the heat from the fire causing her hair to ripple. I looked from one shifter to the next, watching as the flames lit up the faces of those I had come to love.
Somehow, even though it was possible that we’d been successful in our mission, the loss of one of our own still made it feel like we’d failed. I watched in silence as Cesar held Selena, our healer. She was crying inconsolably. Cesar and Liam had been close, but he wasn’t looking at the fire. The look on his face was haunted, as though he was transfixed by something, but I couldn’t tell what it was.
As I continued to gaze at the pyre, the image of the burning ceiba tree from my dream appeared in the flames. The blaze felt suddenly hotter on my sensitive skin. Feeling panicked, I started to back away.
Thank God, my mate, Matt, was there by my side. He slid his hand in mine and began to lead me toward the main house.
“The old woman again?” he asked.
I sighed. “The tree.”
“Well, tomorrow’s Christmas Eve. It’s your favorite holiday. You’ll feel better then,” he said, planting a kiss squarely on top of my head.
“Yeah, I guess.”
Damian jogged up behind us. “The shifters are going to meet down by the cabins and tell stories in honor of Liam.”
“I’m really tired,” I said. “I’m sorry. You guys go ahead.”
“Why don’t you two head down and we’ll try to meet you there later,” Matt suggested.
“For shiz,” Lyssa said.
“I’m the worst friend,” I groaned as we walked into the bedroom Matt and I shared. (Major perk of being a shifter!)
“They understand, My. You’ve been through a lot.”
“Everyone has. You phased, the twins share telepathy and got marked in some way we still haven’t figured out yet and—”
“Hey, come here.” He pulled me into a hug. “Do you want me to help you put your ointment on?”
“Just let me wash up first.” I walked into the bathroom, turned on the light, and closed the door. That wasn’t something I would usually do just to brush my teeth, but if I didn’t get a few minutes of downtime, I was going to lose it. I decided on a bath. I turned on the tub, pulled my sweatshirt off, and grabbed my hairbrush. Then I picked up my hair and looked in the mirror. The scream I heard was earth-shattering. Wait—it was coming from me! What the hell?
Matt started pounding on the door. “My? Maya! Let me in!”
I couldn’t move. It was like my feet were cemented to the floor. There was a huge bang and then a cracking sound like splintering wood. The next thing I knew, Matt was standing inside the bathroom with me.
“What happened? Are you okay?”
Seconds later, Adriana, our shifter second in command, was trying to climb over what used to be the door. “What’s going on? Who was screaming like that?”
“I guess it was me.” I tried to force myself to swallow, but my throat had dried up. “My burns…,” I managed.
Matt gently ran his fingertips along my upper chest and neck. “Adriana, look at this.”
She gasped. “They’re gone! It’s as though they were never there.”
Richard stood in the doorway, glaring at Matt. “Did you do this to my door?” He was Adriana’s mate and the HSIC. He did not look happy right now.
“Richard,” Adriana said, “you have to see this!”
Sometimes it gets to the point where I almost want to start charging admission, you know? I picked my hair up again, pretty sure no one was noticing that I was about to have a stroke. Seriously, I was really thankful that the burns were gone and all, but was I the only one worried about how that happened? Sheesh.
“That’s incredible,” Richard was saying.
I tried like hell to keep breathing, but apparently my body had other ideas. I started trembling all over. And then my legs went out. Luckily, Matt was still standing right behind me and caught me as I went down. He carried me into the other room and sat me on the edge of the bed.
Adriana followed us. “I’m sorry, honey, I know it’s a shock. Do you want Richard to get Selena?”
I shook my head. Selena was an amazing healer, and I really trusted her because she had basically saved my life. But needing her because I was having some ginormous panic attack was just embarrassing. Besides, she was in pretty bad shape herself.
“What’s a shock?” Lyssa asked, popping into the doorway. I swear sometimes just watching her made me tired.
“Maya’s burns have healed,” Richard replied.
“More like vanished,” Matt said, “They were there this morning.”
“That’s amazing.” Damian had followed his twin into the room to check out the latest attraction. As usual, he looked deep in thought. I can’t imagine what goes on in that kid’s mind. He can think circles around most people on their best day.
“Can I get you some water?” Adriana asked me.
I nodded. “Thanks.”
“She looks like she could use a Diet Coke,” Lyssa said.
My ears perked up at the mere mention of mon élixir de vie. (Did I mention that I now speak about a billion languages?)
Adriana shook her head. “I think we’ll skip the caffeine just now.”
“I think you should try to get some rest,” Adriana said, handing me the glass of water. “You know, I think Selena might have something that would help you sleep better.”
I hadn’t told anyone but Matt about the nightmares. I was pretty sure Selena wouldn’t have anything to fix those.
“I’ll be fine,” I answered.
I looked up into Matt’s eyes and could tell he didn’t agree with keeping the dreams a secret. Actually, I could feel it. Since Matt and I had become mated, we were able to feel one another’s emotions. That wasn’t exactly normal for shifters, but what else was new? Right now, he was totally annoyed with me.
After everyone else had cleared out of the bedroom, we lay on our sides facing each other, then he slid forward so that our bodies were touching. He tilted my chin up and kissed me gently.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked.
“Doing what?” As if I didn’t know.
“Keeping the nightmares a secret from everyone.”
“I need to talk to Grandma first, for one thing. I mean, what if these aren’t nightmares? What if I’m seeing the future?” But I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to think about it. I knew deep down that was the reason I hadn’t told anyone. If I was having premonitions, if I was actually seeing the future, then I had failed at Chichen Itza.
Matt brushed my hair away from my face. “Hey, you can’t put all this on yourself.” He ran his lips down my face and neck. My first instinct was to push him away because I knew that he shouldn’t get near my burns, but then I remembered that they weren’t there anymore. I guess I should have been elated. Instead, I just felt totally lost. As Matt drifted off to sleep, I snuggled against his chest, willing the soft sound of his breathing to lull me to sleep. It was no use.
My usual routine may have started later that night, but as always I stayed awake as long as I possibly could to try to avoid the inevitable. I would sleep. I would dream. And the nightmare would come back. It always did.
One of my favorite ways to avoid sleep was to take long walks around the compound, so I got up, grabbed a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, threw my hair in a ponytail, and headed toward the back of the property. Matt never realized I was gone. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. That kid can sleep through anything.
It was humid out, and the damp air smelled amazing as I got closer to the gardens. I walked through the grass and looked up at the stars. There was something about being out at night under the moon like that. My mind wandered back to when I had first started phasing into Balam, the Jaguar. Like other shifters, I possessed enough k’ul to phase into the form of my guiding spirit. One night I had chased the moon, trying to catch her like there was a part of me that was missing and I was desperate to get it back. I wasn’t sure why, exactly, but that’s how I felt now, too. Empty, like part of me had been left behind somehow. It sucked.
I headed toward my usual bench, but when I noticed the shadow over it, I nearly jumped out of my skin. Ocupado. Crap.
“Maya, qué haces aquí?” It was Cesar.
“I guess I could ask you the same thing,” I said. “It’s pretty late.”
“Ya, it is, I know,” he said in his cute accented English.
I took a seat beside him. “Thinking, eh?”
He nodded. He took a strand of that fabulous, shoulder-length, dark hair he has and tucked it behind his ear. (What? I can look!) Then he turned to me.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Of course, anything,” I said.
“When you first knew that you were mated with Matt, what did it feel like?” He fixed his dark eyes on me.
Hello! I froze. This couldn’t be happening. I thought he understood that I was with Matt and that there could never be anyone else. I mean, that’s how mating works with shifters. Ah, hell. “Well…um, it felt like…it felt like my whole world started and ended with him. I couldn’t be without him. It physically hurt to be separated from him. And then other stuff started. We were able to feel what the other person was feeling, which I guess isn’t technically, you know, normal or whatever.” I felt myself flushing. Yeesh.
“I’m sorry, Maya. I didn’t mean to embarrass you. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“No, it’s okay.” Seriously, time to put on my big girl pants. So he had a crush on me. He was our friend and he needed me.
“I just, I’m not…I have these same feelings…but it doesn’t make sense!” He flexed his jaw in frustration and looked away from me. Something wasn’t right. I’d never seen him that way.
“Hey,” I said, “whatever it is, you can tell me. I promise.”
Instead he stood up. “It’s late. I’m sorry to have bothered you.” Then without another word, he turned and walked off into the moonlight. He sure had that mystery-man-in-the-moonlight thing down.
Well, that went well. I sighed and stood up. I decided to start back to the main house. By the time I walked into the kitchen, it was after two. I pulled slid the sliding door closed and turned around. There was another man in the moonlight, and this one wasn’t so mysterious.
“Out again, huh?”
Busted. Sadly, it was the again that had me worried. I lowered my chin and trained my eyes on my mate as he leaned back against the counter and crossed his arms.
“Err,” I began.
“Yes, I’ve known the whole time. I figured I should give you some space.”
My eyes felt hot as I fought back tears. “I’m sorry.”
He walked over and put his arms around me, gently rocking me. “You have to try and remember that I feel everything that you’re feeling. I know that can be hard, but…God, My, you don’t know how much I wish I could make this better for you.”
Just like that, I started snotting like a kindergartener. Between the nightmares, the lack of sleep, and Liam’s funeral, I was exhausted beyond words. Add that to the disappearing act my burns had pulled, and I was about ready for more than just a good night’s sleep. I wondered briefly about the state of mental health care in Mexico.
“You need to sleep, babe,” my mate whispered gently against my neck. “Just for a little while. Please? For me?”
What. An. Idiot. Before I knew it, I was back in my boxers and tank top, staring at the moonlight on the ceiling. I was fading fast. I reached over to the little nightstand and set the alarm for five. How much trouble could I get myself into in two hours?
My bare toes felt muddy. I looked down and realized that I was wearing my long white gown again. A warm, humid breeze blew through my hair as I turned and began the walk to the Mayan village at the top of the hill. Again, I heard the shouting and screaming in Quiché, the Mayan dialect of Guatemala. I had grown accustomed to the chaos of the village. As always, the men were yelling for more water. I stepped out of the way as the children ran by me in a panic, their bellies bloated from hunger and their faces gaunt. I started to walk toward the very center of the village. Knowing what awaited me there, I began to shake. I didn’t want to go there, but I knew that it was supposed to happen. So I let it. First I would see the burning ceiba tree. And then she would be there. The old woman, her face smudged with ashes and streaked with tears. I suddenly felt the weight of her as she grabbed my robes and looked up into my eyes. But as she sobbed and begged for help, her face began to blur. I squinted, trying to clear my vision, and suddenly her features began to transform. Her jaw became squarer. Her once wrinkled face softened and her hair darkened. Her eyes lightened to a turquoise color. Eyes like the sea, I found myself thinking. As the face at last became clear, I realized that I was looking at a man. A man I knew.