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Chapter Three: Return

Four solemn-faced Lycans stood before the arched doorway, their eyes flickering across the room but never resting on us. They were the four women of the Luna-guard; beautiful, but dangerous women with strength coiling in their toned muscles and a solid, unbreakable resolve that their lives would be given in protection of the young woman standing beside me.

There were no words for this moment, nothing that even Dem could think of to say as we began to move through the portal. First, two of the Luna-guard went, then Jenna and two more of the Lycans. The Riders went next; my body was trembling, and my limbs were cold as I forced myself to step towards the door. Shadows slinking along the cool stone whispered that this doorway had been built centuries ago, hidden away in the remote countryside of Ireland, thought to be nothing more than a relic of an ancient people. That was what the magic surrounding it allowed people to see. It lay forgotten, abandoned because it was not some majestic castle or fort.

To those of magic-less blood, it was just a rough mound of stone in the corner of a farmer's field in the West, beloved by the family who owned the fields. But I knew that one day it would be torn down to build a shed, or destroyed because it was a nuisance, and one more portal binding Valaxia to the human realm would be gone.

This one wasn't known, so it was perfect for our crossing. As Dem stepped forward and vanished before me, I stopped to take one more look at the rolling countryside around me. A pang of homesickness had struck me violently when I landed in the country and heard the accents, or recognised the ticks of people's humour. We had travelled in cars and I listened to Dem marvel at the tight, small country roads with too many potholes to count and wondered what I would have been doing here at this time had things been different.

I had to tell myself it wasn't my home anymore. My home was a place I couldn't find, a soul I was searching for, so I had turned away from the windows and tried to get some sleep.

Dem's body vanished, and I stepped forward into the coolness of the portal next. For a moment, there was only a cold chill on my skin, and then I felt it.

There was a rush of magic-laden air filling my lungs and I gasped as if I hadn't taken a true breath in months. The air of Valaxia, burdened with magic and free of toxins, rushed through me. An ever-present headache seemed to clear, and my low, vicious mood shifted. I stepped off the portal platform, a slap of stone that had been worn down by centuries of storms, and a strange feeling of euphoria filled my veins. It was like the air here was a drug and the human realm had sucked me dry.

Jenna stood just before the edge, and I could see one of her guards, a dark-skinned woman with serious and watchful eyes, tracking how close she stood as if she would lunge if Jenna so much as made to slip. I stepped up beside her and just stared. All around, Valaxia was in a bloom of colour. Spring was slowly emerging into summer and the colours were magnificent. The trees, that stretched as far as the eye could see, were thick and luscious. The grass was thick, and a warm breeze tracked across my skin like a comfort.

I was nearly careless as I descended the smooth stone steps, staring at everything in wonder. Gabriel slowed so I fell into step beside him, and he had a content smile on his face as the feel of Valaxia sunk into him. As I watched the sun catch on his golden hair and how it made Dem's eyes glimmer, a sobering thought struck me.

"This is the first true summer I have seen in Valaxia." I only cast a glance to the sun blazing among the clouds, mere wisps among the azure blue of the sky.

Gabriel glanced to the sky. "It's nothing much. It practically rained all through last summer."

I thought of the cold, windowless cell with the damp stone where a skull watched me during many lonely nights. "Did it?"

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