Erika watched as the children played near the surf far below her usually quiet home. Shrieks and laughter reached her even over the sound of the waves rolling onto the beach. The white walls of her house rose behind her, while below her the gray-white rock of the cliff separated her from the families on the narrow stretch of white sandy beach. Wearing a white T-shirt and loose white pants, Erika would have blended into the side of the cliff, if not for her shockingly bright red hair that the summer ocean wind was quickly pulling free of its braid. However, from the beach below nobody would see her hair or the violet eyes that were so often filled with a pain and loneliness.
Memorial Day was always a popular beach day with families, and this year Erika had been drawn to the edge of the cliff, to the sound of childish laughter rising enticingly from far below her sanctuary. Children and adults amused themselves and relaxed as they enjoyed the perfect summer day, warm and bright. The sky was a deep blue filled with fluffy white clouds, and below, spread out in glorious blues and greens, was the beauty of the Pacific Ocean. Erika watched for a long time.
The first two years she'd spent at the cottage, Erika had not even noticed the families that came to her beach. She'd been mired in her grief then, seeking solace in the protection of the magic that surrounded her cottage. Emotions had ruled her, so strong that the energy they'd generated had strengthened the barrier around the cottage until even sound could not penetrate.
That third summer had been the first time the sounds of the children had reached her. She'd found their laughter offensive. How dare they laugh and enjoy themselves? she'd thought. Couldn't they feel that her heart was shattered? The urge to show herself and banish them from her beach was almost overwhelming, so powerful that she frightened herself. In an effort to control herself, Erika had barricaded herself in her large bathroom, deep in a tub filled with hot scented water until she was wrinkled like a prune, but calm.
Last year, well, she hadn't cried at all. She'd been angry at the world, furious. Only the thought of the children's fear had kept her safely away, kept her from appearing to them and demanding they leave her beach and leave her to her rage.
Erika peeked over the side of the cliff once more, a smile playing around her sensuously full lips as she watched the young ones. This time, she had not been able to stay away, drawn to the sounds of families enjoying themselves. Something she couldn't name had pulled her towards the edge of the cliff where she'd stood for what seemed like hours, watching them enjoy the warmth of the summer sun and the refreshing splash of the cold Pacific waters. She couldn't turn away, but she also couldn't join them. Not yet. She wasn't ready.
Her own Memorial Day would be spent alone again, a quiet dinner and a glass of wine to help her relax and perhaps allow her a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. The dreams had begun a few months before, and it seemed like she would never enjoy a continuous night's sleep again. What disconcerted her most was that she could never remember her dreams on waking. All she knew, all she recalled, was the fear that gripped her while she lived them.
Erika watched, noticing the lone child far from the water, apparently searching for shells closer to the cliff wall. Erika wondered why she was off by herself and continued to watch her for a few minutes. Her straight golden hair was loose and looked like a halo as the wind tore at it.
Erika wondered if her own child would have looked like that. Samuel, her mate, had been blond. His long golden hair had been thick and straight, hanging down his shoulders when he'd left it loose. She'd enjoyed playing with it, running her fingers through the silky strands or holding it to her nose, inhaling his wonderful scent as they'd made love. Tears filled her eyes suddenly as she watched the child, but these were healing tears. She was finally able to think of him without the guilt and horror she'd felt just after his death.
Erika was lost in her own thoughts when she realized that the happy shrieks from the beach below had changed. She quickly scanned the beach, searching for the source of the fear she recognized in the children's cries. The children on the shore had stopped playing and were calling out to the parents, but the parents had yet to notice that they were now crying out in fear. The adults were too far away to see what she could perceive clearly from her perch above them. The blonde-haired girl was in the water, and the current was dragging her out to sea as the waves beat at her helpless little body.
Without thought for herself and the consequences of her actions, Erika took several steps back, then ran for the edge of the cliff and with a mighty shove from her long, muscular legs, threw herself into space. She felt the fine hair of her body stand and her heart pump frantically in her chest as she passed through the magic that had kept everyone out for the five years.
For an instant, she hung suspended in midair before gravity took hold and her body began its inevitable descent towards the rocky shore below. There was no fear. Her senses were flooded with sensations, her skin became sensitized, and she could feel the wind that whipped over her body in a familiar caress. Her eyesight sharpened, and she could see the beauty of the sunny day, the dark, mysterious ocean below. She took a deep breath of the crisp ocean air, both dreading and anticipating what she knew would come next.
Pain. Pain, stronger than any she had ever experienced before, tore through her body, forcing a cry from her lips as the bones of her back shifted and the skin of her back tore. She felt it as it happened and arched her back. From just below her neck, down the curve of her back to just above her waist, she lay open for only an instant, yet the sensation of it was indelibly etched in Erika's mind. Before the first drop of blood could escape, however, the torn skin began to reform around fragile-looking bones, bones that quickly turned into large, white-feathered wings. Her white T-shirt had torn and fallen away from her, but she couldn't feel anything except the excruciating pain that still radiated from her back and rushed throughout her body. She had no need to worry about her nakedness, however, since soft white feathers covered her chest, appearing surprisingly similar to the shirt she'd worn.
The large wings unfurled and expanded to almost twice her height as she worked to catch the wind. The silky, sensitive feathers worked to collect data and sense changes in the air around her and now flooded Erika with sensations. She'd forgotten what the change demanded of her. She knew the pain was due to her stubborn refusal to fly for so long, but still there was a price to pay for the freedom of flight. The universe demanded balance, and so there was always pain, though rarely so excruciating.
She had not flown in over five years, not since the day Samuel had been killed. She had not allowed herself the freedom and the joy flight always brought her, probably as a way to punish herself for her inability to stop Samuel's death. Now she paid the price for her stubbornness, becoming disoriented and falling in an uncontrolled spiral as her body contorted with agony. Tears of pain and anger filled her eyes, but Erika concentrated on the reason she had done this. The child.
Must find her. Must find the child.
The words were a chant that pounded through Erika's head as she struggled to control her dive, desperately beginning to search for the blonde girl. It took a moment, but the enhanced vision that allowed her to hunt with uncanny ability zeroed in on the blonde head just as it dipped beneath the waves. Erika tipped down, her wings pulling back to allow her to drop quickly. She would not allow the girl to die.
With an enormous splash, Erika dove into the heaving waves. Once in the water, her wings disappeared much faster than they'd appeared and with a lot less pain. Erika fought to swim to the surface. She couldn't see the girl, but she must have landed close. The waters of the Pacific, which were never warm, held the scent and taste of the Arctic waters from which they originated, and Erika knew she had to get the child out before the cold killed her. She barely felt the cold herself. Her concentration was all given to finding the girl.
"Child, where are you?" she called out, hoping the girl would be able to answer. When there was no response, Erika dove down again. She had a much better chance of finding her beneath the waves. Diving until she was able to look up, she searched for a small silhouette that she hoped would be bobbing near the surface.
Erika turned frantically, scanning the water above her, and finally, after a large wave crested near her, she saw the girl, still, her lovely blonde hair floating around her. The child was no longer struggling against the waves. Her eyes were closed as she floated about a foot beneath the heaving waves.
No. No. No.
Erika swam towards the girl, her strong legs helping her move through the rough waters faster than a human could. She reached the small body before the next wave could take her and gently turned the child over, pulling the small, unresisting form against her until the girl's face was out of the water.
The girl wasn't breathing. Panic threatened to swamp her, but Erika fought it back and concentrated on checking for a pulse. It was very weak, but she sensed the gentle flutter beneath the child's skin. It was too weak, Erika realized, and she knew the child would never make it back to the shore alive.
Looking down at the still body in her arms, Erika fought with herself about the decision she had already made, but found difficult to carry out. She would not allow the child to die. Something about the small blonde girl called to her, had drawn her, since she'd watched from the cliff earlier. Yet Erika hesitated. The gift she was bestowing never came easily, for either the recipient or the one imparting it. The two of them would have a connection that could never be severed. Then there were the other consequences, much less predictable and not always pleasant, that came from receiving the Breath of Life. The gift often demanded a cost that many humans had found impossible to accept.
She felt the child's pulse again. It was weakening. There was no time to find another solution.
"Forgive me, little one. I can't let you to die."
Placing her lips over the girl's sweetly open mouth, almost as if she were kissing the child, Erika blew gently. The child's lungs expanded, and Erika waited until all the air left her small lungs before repeating the procedure. She did it several times, each time waiting longer to fill the child's lungs with her own breath. She began to worry when the girl failed to respond. Erika had never attempted this before and wondered if she was doing something wrong.
Finally, after she'd repeated the process for several minutes, the child held the breath. Her cheeks, which had begun to turn blue with lack of oxygen and cold, were now almost pink again, and her large blue eyes slowly fluttered open.
What Erika had done was more than sharing her breath with the child. She'd given the child the Breath of Life, a gift only a god or goddess could impart. The child would live, would have no health repercussion due to nearly dying, but Erika knew that she would be more than human now. Unfortunately, it was virtually impossible to know when or how the child's gifts would manifest. That was why the bond between them was so important. Erika was responsible for her now, and it was her job to make sure the child was properly prepared for what was to come.
"I've got you, love. Hang on to me," Erika said when she felt the girl begin to struggle. She tightened her arms around her and began to swim towards the shore.
The child calmed and wrapped her tiny arms around Erika's neck trustingly.
"How do you feel?" Erika held the child close to her, keeping the worst of the waves off the small girl.
"'Kay. What happened?" The girl, whom Erika judged to be almost ten years old, clung to her and looked around nervously.
"I don't know, baby, I just saw you in the water and came in to get you." Luckily, the girl hadn't seen her dive off the cliff and sprout wings to do so. Erika hoped that nobody on the beach had seen her, either. She hadn't really been thinking of hiding her actions--her focus had just been on getting to the girl.
"Daddy's gonna be so mad." They reached the shore, Erika dragging the surprisingly tall girl out of the water, as the adults she'd glimpsed earlier from the cliffs descended on the beach.
"Danika! Danika! My God, baby, are you okay?" The man who raced over the sand was large, and Erika could see that his daughter looked a lot like him. They shared the same golden hair and deep blue eyes, though his were clouded with worry as he came to a stop beside them. He dropped to his knees in the sand and hauled the small girl into his arms. His eyes closed, and Erika watched as tears squeezed past his tightly closed eyes. It was clear he loved the girl.
"She'll be fine. Just a little bit of a fright." Erika spoke softly, though her heart beat too quickly and nerves made her hands shake. Now that the girl was safe with her father, Erika realized what she'd done. She'd left the safety of her home, a step she could not take back. The magic only worked as long as she remained within the borders of the shield. While humans would still be gently pushed away, discouraged from going towards the cottage, anyone with magic could now get past.
"Baby, I told you to stay away from the water's edge. Didn't I tell you that, Dani!?" he scolded even as he pulled her small body back into an embrace so tight, Erika was sure he would succeed in killing the girl where the sea had failed.
"Daddy, I didn't go in. I promised!" A small sob stopped any more words the girl was preparing to speak; instead, she clung tightly to her father. Her small arms wrapped around his neck.
For a moment, Erika watched the two blond heads as they clung tightly to each other. Longing filled her, but she pushed it away, then quickly left. Moving swiftly past the group of people, she headed towards the steps that led to her cottage. She never allowed the humans to see her, and though this time both the child and father had seen her, Erika knew they would soon forget what she looked like. Eventually, they would wonder how the child had survived, unable to recall that a woman had pulled her out of the ocean. Her magic protected her by wiping the memory from them.