Our lives were never easy, but they were never boring, either.
Every period of calm and prosperity was eventually followed by some kind of challenge, an unexpected crisis or a frantic quest to get our loved ones back home. I guess, in a way, getting into trouble was part of the Novaks’ way of life.
Six months had passed since our young ones had managed to liberate Neraka, a beautiful planet far away in the In-Between, a natural gem that orbited three suns and carried three moons of its own. It was home to a variety of fascinating creatures whose lives had been turned upside down by the arrival of the Exiled Maras. The Imen, the Manticores, the Dhaxanians, and the Adlets had already been dealing with a local threat—the daemons—when the Exiled Maras landed and made everything worse.
And the Maras had only gotten there by chance. The interplanetary travel spell had not had a specific destination. It was supposed to be their opportunity to start anew and be better creatures. Instead, they did the exact opposite and turned everything from bad to worse.
By the time they’d reached out to us under false pretenses, they’d already decimated the Imen population and had formed a horrible alliance with the daemons. They’d captured a Druid delegation and imprisoned their swamp witch—Lumi, now the last of her kind. They’d used her spells to fortify their position in the Nerakian food chain and to cause misery to those who’d opposed them.
Fortunately, they didn’t count on us sending a dragon to join the recon mission. In their greedy, bloodthirsty minds, they’d thought they could stage an elaborate play to fool us and draw more supernaturals to Neraka, so they could capture and force them into breeding camps solely for the purpose of replenishing their food source. They’d become addicted to consuming souls on top of their appetite for blood, and that had made everything worse.
But our kids and allies were strong and determined, driven to restore the freedom of the oppressed Nerakians. We were all so proud of them—Harper, Caia, Blaze, Avril, Scarlett, Patrik, Heron, Jax, and Hansa had turned that place around. They befriended the local rebels and worked to systematically dismantle both the daemon kingdom and the Mara city. The bonds they made were unbreakable. The relationships they built would last a lifetime and beyond.
Most importantly, they succeeded. Our intervention toward the end was pretty much minimal. Harper had already killed the daemon king. Hansa, Jax, and the others had defeated the Mara Lords. By the time we managed to get to Neraka, all we had to do was get the innocents out and let the dragons loose.
Time flowed smoothly after that. We buried the dead, we established a Nerakian GASP base, and we helped the planet resume its progressive ways. When they weren’t shackled or mind-bent, the Imen were extraordinarily cultured and artistic people. We had a lot to learn from them, in fact. Perhaps one of the biggest discoveries we made there was the existence of Hermessi—supernatural entities made of pure energy that manifested as the four natural elements. Fire, water, air, and earth weren’t just naturally occurring phenomena. They were the manifestation of elemental spirits—the same who fueled the fae, in fact. Harper had only met one of them, though; Ramin had concealed himself in the form of an Ekar bird. In exchange for an unspecified favor, the Hermessi helped Harper against Shaytan, the daemon king. Afterward, Ramin was nowhere to be found.
But we knew about them. We were aware of their existence. The Imen and the other Nerakians believed in them. The more faith people had in the Hermessi, the more powerful they would become. Derek and I agreed that it was only a matter of time before the elements would begin to manifest, to present themselves to those who acknowledged their existence.
After numerous back-and-forths with the Nerakians, Jax agreed to surrender the sentenced Exiled Maras back to the newly formed daemon-Iman alliance. According to Zane, the young daemon king, and Wyrran, the elected leader of the Imen, it was only fitting that those who’d wanted to conquer Neraka were forced to spend the rest of their prison terms in the underground daemon penitentiaries. Velnias, former High Warden of Draconis and now Zane’s right-hand man, had been put in charge of the prisons. He, too, agreed that the Exiled Maras deserved to experience loneliness, emptiness, and desolation. He considered it a way to give those creatures a taste of their own medicine.
However, with GASP present on Neraka, we made sure that the prisons themselves followed a humane protocol. Fiona and Wyrran shared a joint leadership position in Neraka’s GASP, which was befitting of the new alliance, too. After all, Fiona was going to one day become the queen of daemons via her marriage to Zane, and Wyrran represented the Imen, the people most oppressed by the Exiled Maras. Nevis, prince of Dhaxanians, continued to lead his people and work with the local GASP chapter, while scoping out potential missions outside Neraka to satisfy his urge to travel. Neha, the Manticore queen, and Hundurr, Adlet pack leader, had also joined the local GASP leadership in executive and tactical roles.
Zane had become a king equally respected and feared. The daemons obeyed him, almost unequivocally. His firm rule made sure that no one dared cross him. His harsh punishments secured the new alliances and protected the Nerakians as a whole. The daemons who’d given in to their soul addiction were currently forced into rehabilitation programs. Those who recidivated, however, were jailed for life. There was zero tolerance for soul-eaters, and it was the only way in which peace could be pursued and preserved in the long run. Those who refused to get with the program and insisted on eating souls paid a heavy price.
Despite the rough reforms, we were all looking at a long period of peace ahead.
Eritopia had also fully regained its balance, with the Daughters and Druids working closely together to rebuild their societies on all twenty planets. Persea’s Grand Temple was flourishing and bringing forth new and highly skilled Druids. The Maras were exceptionally ruled by Jax. And our Eritopian GASP bases were a welcome addition to their development.
The Shade was prospering. Our family tree was growing.
The younger generations were adjusting to their new roles in GASP, excelling at everything they did. There were new couples coming together. The dynamic had shifted, and inclusiveness had become a crucial component of Shadian culture. We were an organic society of hybrids, as love transcended species and entire galaxies, in the end.
We grew bigger and stronger as a whole each day, and that filled my heart with joy and warmth. It gave me hope for even better days ahead. We could always do better, after all.
For now, however, we were all on edge, nervously huddled in a waiting room inside the Green Clinic—a hospital operated by mostly Druids, and annexed to Luceria, Calliope’s leadership residence. Aida had gone into labor.
Derek and I kept to one of the corners, while the rest of our ever-growing clan occupied the seats. Field was in the delivery room with Aida, holding her hand every step of the way. Jovi was with us, nervously pacing the room back and forth, over and over, unable to take his eyes off the door to Aida’s room. River watched him quietly. She was worried and excited at the same time. We all were, for that matter. Pregnancies were usually a cause for joy, but, until labor was over, there were always risks to consider. It was even more dangerous where hybrids were concerned.
There were rarely problems, and that had mostly been due to having Corrine and the other White Witches on board. Their magic and skills had kept all our young mothers safe throughout their pregnancies and during labor.
“Honey, you’re going to dig a ditch into the floor,” River said softly.
Jovi sighed but kept moving. “Sorry, Aunt River. I just can’t sit still,” he replied. Anjani didn’t take her eyes off him, endeared by his brotherly concern.
“Relax, dude,” Dmitri chimed in, then smiled broadly. “Our sister’s a warrior. I doubt delivering a baby will do much to hold her back.”
“The pregnancy increased her appetite to dangerous levels,” Phoenix mumbled.
Serena, Draven, Vita, and Bijarki were also present, as were Harper, and Caspian. Viola was inside the birthing room, with the rest of the Daughters, as well as Field, Corrine, Arwen, and Lumi—Aida had the best care anyone could ever ask for.
“Yeah, I’m glad that part’s over.” Jovi chuckled softly.
“It’ll be okay, Son,” Bastien said. “The Blackhall line is extra sturdy, given their wolf genes.”
“You’ve got that right,” Victoria replied.
The whole Novak gang was crammed inside the waiting room: Grace and Lawrence, Hazel and Tejus, Yelena and Benedict, Vivienne and Xavier. Even Marion and Lucas had made their way to Calliope for this special moment. We’d kept the others away and in charge of key GASP roles in our absence; fortunately, there were enough of us to go around for pretty much anything.
There are obvious advantages to having a big family.
The other Hawk brothers were whispering and chuckling among themselves. It was their boyish way of dealing with such an important milestone. After all, they were minutes away from becoming uncles.
“Jovi, have they picked out a name yet?” Sky asked, stifling a grin.
Jovi stopped, then looked at him. He narrowed his eyes. “Yes, they have. And no, they’re not naming my nephew Mountain or Spring or whatever else you’ve got cooked up in your heads.”
Sky chuckled, then nudged Dmitri, who was sitting next to him. “Says the guy named Jovi. I mean, what kind of a name is that?”
“It’s the name we picked out for our son,” Bastien interjected, wiping the grin off Sky’s face, then laughing lightly. Bastien had a way of intimidating the Hawk brothers, almost effortlessly.
“And he wears it with great pride,” Anjani replied, smiling at Jovi, who softened like a blob of jelly whenever she looked at him.
Just then, Aida’s cries of labor pain pierced through the waiting room once more. The contractions were getting more frequent, their intensity increasing as well. The sounds of labor pain exhilarated and terrified me at the same time—memories of my own experiences coming back to me… but not in a bad way, I realized. Lately, I’d been thinking about the joys of motherhood.
Sure, it was a messy and tiring business, but it was all worth it. Gifting the world with amazing creatures did come with its perks. My favorite was the pride I felt whenever I looked at Ben and Rose. They’d done so well for themselves. They’d been through their own ordeals, and they’d risen to the top, relentless and filled with love.
I knew the day would come when Aida and Field would experience that same mix of emotions. I could only imagine their expressions while in the delivery room, as the baby prepared to enter this world. Meanwhile, in the waiting room, Jovi’s face depicted pure dread. He’d stilled, his eyes wide and his face covered in a sheet of sweat, as he listened to his sister’s wails.
“I should be in there,” Jovi breathed.
“Aida was pretty specific about you and all of the immediate family staying out here,” Dmitri replied. “Field barely made it in there!”
“She sounds like she’s in a lot of pain, though,” Phoenix said.
“You’re not helping!” Serena shot back, then gave Jovi a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry. Seriously. Aida’s getting the best care right now. She and the baby will be okay.”
“Did you see something?” Jovi asked, putting on a hopeful expression.
Serena giggled. “I peeked in a little, yeah. She’s close, Jovi. It sounds horrible, I know, but Corrine’s got her covered,” she replied. “It was Aida’s choice to have a fully natural birth. Besides, Field is in there with her.”
“My guess is she didn’t know what she was getting herself into,” Dmitri muttered, crossing his arms.
“None of us knew,” Jovi replied, then chuckled softly. “But I can’t wait to see my nephew… or niece.”
“Oh, yeah,” I interjected, “Field and Aida decided to keep the baby’s gender a surprise.”
Jovi nodded. “They’ve got the names ready, and the room was painted in a more neutral tone, anyway,” he said. “Though I’m hoping it’s a boy.”
“Why a boy?” Sky asked. “A girl’s too much of a handful for ya?”
“If it’s a girl, and she’s even half as gorgeous as her mom, do you realize the number of males that Field and I will have to put the fear of the Novak clan into?” Jovi replied, grinning. “That is a lot of hard work, buddy. I’m not trading my sister’s cravings for the sheer horror of looking after a niece—because we all know I’ll be babysitting a lot.”
“And if it is a girl?” I asked, then laughed lightly as a resigned expression settled on his face.
“If it is a girl, well… I’ll have about seventeen years to prepare for her first prom,” he said, then pinched the bridge of his nose. “Gosh, if I’m feeling like this already, I can only imagine what Field is going through. He’ll be doomed to a lifetime of misery once she goes away.”
“For a father, it will be just as painful with a son.” Derek finally spoke, mildly amused. He stood, then walked over to Jovi and put a hand on his shoulder. “Jovi, that’s the thing with having children. We don’t have them forever. We only get a few years to spend with them. Whether it’s a boy or a girl, it doesn’t really matter. The process will be pretty much the same. I have no doubt that Field and Aida will raise an extraordinary creature, anyway. And that creature is already incredibly blessed to have an uncle like you.”
Jovi teared up, just as Aida’s screams cut through me, directly.
“Aida’s generally loud, anyway,” Serena murmured. “She’s probably just externalizing everything at a higher volume, as per usual.”
“Making a big deal out of nothing?” Dmitri retorted.
“She’s in labor, dude. That’s not nothing,” Serena shot back, laughing.
Vita’s baby bump was showing now. She, too, had fallen victim to mood swings and cravings. And Dmitri had inadvertently just set her off. She scowled at him.
“Oh, you think Aida’s loud with her labor pains?” she demanded. “Cool, I promise I’ll make your ears bleed when it’s my turn!”
“Who says I’ll be around for that?” Dmitri replied with a grin.
“I do.” Anjani cut him off, giving him a cold death stare. Nothing worked better to keep Dmitri grounded than the young warrior succubus. While Jovi fawned over her, Dmitri was downright intimidated by her. We’d all agreed that he secretly worshipped her, but that if she were to make any kind of sudden move, he’d jump out of his skin.
We all chuckled throughout the exchange. Vita was handling her pregnancy quite well, despite her petite stature. Bijarki was still literally glowing, his silvery skin shimmering extra bright—a sign of intense emotions in his species. Fatherhood definitely suited him.
As expected, the guys noticed just that, for the umpteenth time.
“I can’t take my eyes off you, Bijarki,” Dmitri said, the corner of his mouth twitching. “You’re literally too bright.”
Bijarki grinned, then shrugged. “Can’t turn it off,” he replied, gently brushing his knuckles against Vita’s baby bump. “I’m ridiculously happy.”
“And I’m ridiculously pregnant.” Vita sighed, resting her head on his shoulder.
“Yeah, but you’re the one who’s supposed to be glowing, not lantern-husband over here,” Sky said.
“He’s glowing enough for the both of us,” Vita replied, smiling.
“Bijarki, the lighthouse warrior,” Jovi said, stifling a laugh.
“Bijarki, the radioactive incubus,” Harper pitched in.
The group burst into roaring laughter, Bijarki included. He shook his head slowly, then dropped a soft kiss on Vita’s cheek. “Hardy-har-har, but I’m the luckiest creature in the world.”
A baby’s high-pitched cry made us all freeze. My heart skipped a beat.
The doors opened, and Corrine came out wearing a pale yellow hospital gown. She was beaming like Neraka’s triple suns.
“Well, then, everything is A-OK in there,” she said, then looked at Jovi and Dmitri. “Congratulations, pups! You’re the uncles of a healthy, gorgeous baby boy!”
Cheers burst from the entire waiting room, as we all shot to our feet and applauded. It was a funny reaction from all of us at once, but I figured it still made Aida feel better, after everything she’d just been through.
Jovi, the poor thing, was beside himself as he hugged Corrine and burst into tears. Corrine laughed lightly, then pulled herself back and squeezed both his shoulders.
“Now, we don’t yet know what kind of hybrid he’ll be, but we’ve taken some blood samples,” she added. “We’ll have the results over the next few days.”
“I’m not sure I care about that right now,” Field replied from inside the delivery room, then called out to River, whose tears of joy were already streaming down her cheeks. “Mom… I’m a dad now. Can you believe it?”
We entered the room with, Victoria, Bastien, River and Ben and witnessed a most incredible sight—Aida, sweaty and exhausted, but smiling so brightly that she lit up the whole room. Field, trembling like a leaf next to her. And the Daughters and Lumi huddled around the baby on a separate table, taking care of the umbilical cord and wiping him down. River sighed, then hugged Field. He wrapped his arms around her.
“I’m so happy for you. So proud of you,” she whispered in his ear.
“We all are,” Bastien chimed in. Victoria was hanging by a thread—barely.
She and Bastien were grandparents now.
Our family was growing bigger and even more beautiful. Sometimes, I felt guilty for experiencing this much happiness. I knew I shouldn’t, but I couldn’t help it, either. In all fairness, we’d worked hard, and we’d suffered a lot to get to this stage in our existence. Others weren’t so lucky. We’d made the best of what had been given to us, and then some.
We’d earned our happiness, and so had Field and Aida.