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Awethology Light

 

AWETHOLOGY LIGHT

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The #Awethors

Published by Plaisted Publishing House Ltd

New Zealand

COPYRIGHT 2015 THE #AWETHORS GROUP

All Rights Reserved

 

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted

in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information

storage and retrieval system, without permission in

writing from all the authors in the #Awethor

Anthology, except in the case of brief quotations

embodied in reviews.

 

Book Cover by Travis West

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Organisers D M Cain & Rocky Rockford

Book Cover Illustrator – Travis West

Editors

 

Christ Hayes

Rebecca P McCray

Chess Desalls

Pam Elsie Harris

L E Fitzpatrick

Christie Stratos

William Frank Lloyd Jr

Travis West

Stephanie Stacker

 

Proofreaders

 

L E Fitzpatrick

J B Taylor

Pam Elsie Harris

Travis West

D M Cain

Anita Kovecevi

 

Publisher

 

Plaisted Publishing House Ltd, New Zealand

 

Contents

Modern Mythology

Beginnings – Protectors of the Elemental Magic

Thunder in the Sky

Dylan

A Neophyte’s Tale

Queen of the Small Seas

A Strong Tower

Sweet Dreams – Remember

Big Climb

A Martian Folk Tale

Passage

Seven Years’ Time

Kristen – Witch Hunter

The Dreaded Birthday

The Falstaff Vampire Werewolves

Writers Block

Little Bird

Nina

Enchantments

She was like the Island

Eternal Arguments

The Bridge

The Valley of Tears

The Amulet

 

Modern Mythology

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Keanan Brand

 

Copyright 2015 Keanan Brand

All rights reserved

 

Acknowledgements

 

Many thanks to the fellow writers and editors who provided feedback and encouragement on this story: L.S. King, C.L. Dycke, Lyndon Perry, and Jennifer Easter.

 

Dedication

 

To Suzan, who has walked with me through many “valleys of the crazy,” one of which inspired this tale.

 

 

Modern Mythology

I slide behind my other self and smile. There are many of me. We are equidistant, fractured, slightly askew. Today I am professional me, dispensing information, smiling, laughing at inane chitchat, refusing to feel the pinch of my high-heeled shoes or the odd gummy-dry sensation of lipstick worn too long.

The hotel lobby is polished, vast, filled with light and the constant hum of voices. Hotel Aspyrion rises higher even than the engineering marvel that is Don’Ayghel Ionic Energy, and from the roof, one can see across the city to where a dark smudge is all that marks the Hinterland and the edge of civilization.

Travelers claim to have been to the Hinterland, but I am never sure if their stories are true or simply a modern myth. Here There Be Dragons.

Yet people who have been to the Hinterland and then come home to Spectra tend to wander back into the wilderness, and rarely return to the city a second time. Some returners who remain in Spectra either are so frightened they eventually live out their days in a hospital, or they build their homes on the very edges of the city and tell their stories in books, songs, bars, and coffee shops. There is a melancholy to them, as if the returners wish they could leap over their own invisible walls and find whatever they left behind in the Hinterland.

The round clock hanging above the reception desk reads four o’clock. Name tag gleaming in the ambient light, a young woman in an elegant grey suit and a string of pearls approaches, greets me with a smile as robotic as mine, and immediately takes over my duties.

Out of sight of customers and supervisors, I pull off my shoes and hobble on aching feet to where my single-seat craft hovers in its mooring.

Air-sea-land craft overtook automobiles sometime in my parents’ childhood, just as the crano-aural transceiver implant overtook the telephone and many other sources of sound communication.

My implant is on permanent “off”. My mother’s transceiver is always busy. She cannot talk enough, but I find most speech unnecessary. That’s no impediment to our time together, because Mother will fill the void whether I’m listening or not. She has friends so numerous I cannot recall their names or faces, especially since my accident a year ago, and Father has so many business acquaintances his transceiver is rarely out of use. It is modified, in fact, to allow the transmission of great quantities of information, and I sometimes wonder how he can keep such massive wads of data in his brain. No wonder there is so little room for remembering anything — or anyone — else.

Stepping into the craft, I sink into the cushioned seat and close my eyes. The city is a mass of noise, grinding my ears, berating my stillness. I touch a small sphere. The glass shield hisses shut, sealing me in silence.

After a few moments, I open my eyes again, lean forward, and tap a screen to plot my route through the city.

I flinch as something slaps against the left shield.

It is a crude map, and behind it is the shape of a hand, fingers splayed to hold the paper flat.

It probably isn’t really paper, though we still call it that. When my grandparents’ grandparents still lived, a synthetic reusable material was invented to replace all plant-produced fibers used in the manufacture of papers. That’s why there are so many trees now, the eco-scientists say, and so few environmentalists.

My heart lurching back into normal rhythm, I click the release toggle and hear the mooring lines snap away from the craft.

“Wait!” The voice is sharp, with an elderly quaver. “Wait!”

I want to go home, change clothes, and collect all my selves into one being for a few hours. Yet I hesitate.

“Please?” The map moves aside to reveal a vaguely familiar face. An old man from the lobby.

I let the craft settle back into its slip, and open the shield a little.

He squints as if trying to find my name tag, but it is in my locker in the personnel lounge. “Professor Quarlton Pathington Shinnegal.”

He offers his hand, and I shake it briefly before withdrawing once more behind the half-open shield.

“You were not in the hotel lobby.” Professor Shinnegal tilts his head like a curious bird, his squinched-up eyes examining me. “You stood there, but you were elsewhere. I’m always looking for someone who isn’t there.”

“Who are you looking for?”

“Didn’t you hear me?” His voice sharpens again. “Someone who isn’t there.”

“Listen, Professor, my shift is over, and I really want to go home—”

“This is home.” He thrusts the map at me. It waves in his trembling grasp, but I can see the rough shapes of trees and mountains, and curving lines that might be rivers or roads. “This is where you’ll find what’s lost.”

He pauses as if this is significant to me.

“But I’m not looking for anything.”

“No?” Again he studies me.

“No.”

“How long has it been since your soul went missing?”

I tap the sphere; the shield closes. Professor Shinnegal stumbles backward as my craft lifts smoothly from its slip and enters the stream of traffic.

All of my selves, except the lethargic or distracted ones, burst into simultaneous complaint. I try not to listen, but a few voices push through the clamor:

“We were poor representatives for Hotel Aspyrion.”

“Speak for yourself! I don’t represent anyone.”

“You didn’t have to be so rude. It’s not like we’re in a hurry to keep an appointment. We could have listened to him.”

“We don’t owe him anything.”

“Who does he think he is?”

“I’ll tell you what he is. He’s crazy!”

“He wants something from us, and it has nothing to do with that map.”

“He wants nothing from us but the truth.” This self is intelligent, observant, apt to see what all my other selves cannot. I trust her, but I do not always understand her. “Truth is what we fear.”

What? Fear truth? I’m a fairly honest person. I think.

I negotiate the bobbing, hovering traffic along the metroway—although craft are equipped with wheels, they are rarely used except when the solar panels fail—and veer toward a tall, elegant building with a blue glass façade. After mooring my craft in the slip beside my balcony, I wait a few moments while the security system scans the vehicle and identifies me as the legal occupant of the locked apartment.

The shield slides back with a gentle sigh, and I step out of the craft and onto the balcony. Locks snick open on the apartment door; the glass glides silently aside. My feet sink into the deep carpet, and tension eases in my neck. Tossing my purse on to the kitchen counter, I pile my earrings and watch beside it, then turn toward the bedroom to deposit my shoes.

Anchored by a wooden carving in the shape of a twisted tree, Professor Shinnegal’s map lays on the dining table.

Tapping my finger on the bone behind my right ear, I activate my transceiver. “Scan residence.”

The emotionless asexual voice of the home security system replies, “All secure.”

“Display security log.”

A holographic block of text hovers in front of my right eye. There is no record of anyone entering or leaving the apartment between the time I left for work this morning and my return two minutes ago.

“Scan objects on dining table.”

With a soft whir, a line of white light passes back and forth over the paper and the figurine. “Antique paper. Fibrous content. Linen. Tree pulp. Unknown ink. Archaic writing form.” The security system pauses as if thinking then continues to scan the carving. “Aboriginal motif. Ash. Hand carved. No correlation to items in Spectra Museum of Ancient History.”

But how did it get here? “When did the objects appear on the security grid?”

The holographic report reappears before me. Lines of text and numbers scroll so quickly they are only blips and flashes—until they come to a sudden halt: a year ago. Surely it doesn’t take a year for a girl to notice what’s sitting on her dining table. Maybe the system needs a tweak. Been a while since operations were upgraded.

“Scan objects for fingerprints. Cross-reference with police database.”

Now blue, the light broadens to include the surface of the table. “Fingerprints found. Jaysha Don’Ayghel.”

My prints.

The voice drones on, but I’m staring at the carving and only hear phrases: “…accident report, 23 March…14 June…left university…revived on scene…”

I turn off the transceiver, leave my other selves standing around the dining table, and go to my room.

Like uninvited guests at a formal party, old sturdy boots made of synthetic leather lurk behind the rows of designer shoes neatly shelved along one side of the closet. Shedding my suit, I pull on faded jeans and a holey T-shirt stretched and stained past redemption, then rummage for socks. I find orange ones, at odds with the fire-pink shirt, but—in a blaze of fashion defiance—I put them on with the boots.

I sit on the edge of the bed for a moment, sensing I have done this before, and not very long ago. Shaking off the feeling, I begin packing a suitcase. Bypassing my selves still arguing with one another, I go to the bookshelves, pull down a few volumes, and tuck them among the folded garments. I toss in toiletries, no makeup; paper, writing utensils, no computer. I look around for other items to pack: a few framed early family images, a couple of leather-bound books, an antique flute my grandfather gave me.

The flute is ivory, made from elephant tusk. I have seen pictures of elephants in books, and the skeleton of one in the museum. The flute is older than even the experts can tell, its finger holes no longer perfectly round, its sides concave from the touch of unknown generations of players.

There. The suitcase is full.

I pick it up, bracing for the weight, grab my purse, and then drop it again. I leave the watch but take the earrings, stuffing them into a pocket of my jeans.

“Pardon.” I lean between two of my selves to grab the paper map and the wooden carving.

My selves stand staring at me, transparent faces concealing neither thought nor emotion.

“Where are you going?” one demands.

“Wait for us!” commands another.

I slam the balcony door shut, locking it just as the selves run to catch me. I almost feel the shudder of their impact. They press their faces, soft and translucent, against the pane.

“Goodbye.”

Why do I say that? It is an archaic farewell, deriving in ages past from a religious saying, wishing the departing one to go with God’s blessing. Nevertheless, I say it again. “Goodbye.”

I secure the suitcase in the hatch of the craft, step aboard, and release its moorings. Giddy and daring, I lift my hands from the controls to let the craft go where it will, and I laugh.

What do I fear? Being alone? Misunderstood? Unliked? Unloved? Unemployed? Homeless? Dead? Forgotten?

I am already forgotten.

I smooth the map, tracing its crude lines with my fingertip. The unknown. That’s what I fear. But I also fear existence. I want to live. I want to believe. I want to know.

I want to be known.

A siren wrenches my attention from the map. Red lights flash. A police horn blares. “Jaysha Don’Ayghel, you are hereby ordered to cease acceleration and withdraw from the metroway.”

I look around. My craft is bobbing along in the wrong direction. Others are swerving, ducking, leaping to avoid mine.

With one glance at the police craft and another at my energy gauge, I tap in a code. My craft spurts upward, then forward, hurtling toward the dark rim of the Hinterland that I cannot yet see but know is there.

The police craft follows, and the message repeats, ordering me to cease acceleration.

My skin tingles. My heart surges. I cannot stop smiling. I zoom past my father’s building — Don’Ayghel Ionic Energy — and wave at the topmost window where I imagine my mother is lounging in the penthouse, her transceiver humming with gossip.

Goodbye.

The Hinterland rises across my vision in a leafy arc. Freedom.

The bright orange bars on the energy gauge falter, then fall. My craft bucks — decelerates.

The police craft looms behind me. “Jaysha Don’Ayghel…,” and the police bot drones the message again.

My dizzy excitement plummets like my craft, and I fight to stay aloft, ahead of the grapnel line that will bind me to the police craft at any moment. My fingers fumble as I type codes into the computer, engaging the auxiliary energy cell and slicking the bottom portion of the craft with a thin layer of lubricant to discourage the grappling hook.

Something bangs against the hull and slides across the hatch. The craft jerks sideways. My head slams into the shield. Blood slurs down my face.

If I release the hatch to disengage the hook, my suitcase and belongings — the trappings of myself — are lost. If I don’t release the hatch, freedom is lost.

There is a jolting pause as the towing action of the police craft opposes my craft’s forward motion.

With the auxiliary energy cell wide open, I set a course for the Hinterland, then release the controls. I unlock a small toolkit, unscrew the panel between the hatch and the forward pit, pull the suitcase into the tiny space of the pit, then brace myself and switch the toggle that controls the hatch door.

Propelled by the sudden release and the surge of power, the craft tumbles forward, end over end. My stomach roils. My head spins. Wind tugs at me. The old map is sucked through the gaping hatch. The carved tree — I don’t know where it is.

Contorting around the suitcase and the seat, I grab the control sphere and tilt the craft upright again. The police craft resumes pursuit.

Trees delineate, rising in gilded green spires and umbrellas against the western sun. Towers and metroways become less frequent, and the city crumbles at the edges until it flattens, populated with old-fashioned surface dwellings and other small buildings so ancient they seem held up by little more than memory.

“Jaysha Don’Ayghel, you are hereby ordered to decelerate immediately and await arrest in the name of the Spectra Judiciary and Civilization Loss Prevention Unit. Repeat, decelerate immediately!”

My craft scrapes along the tops of trees. Wiping blood from my eyes, I plead, “Up! Up! Up!”

It obeys. I am borne a little higher, perhaps by a sudden wind now tossing the tree branches.

A wide circle opens in the green expanse. I look back — it is the last time I do — and see the police craft hovering as if in indecision, but there is no human pilot at the controls. At the bounds of its power, it wavers, turns, still blaring its orders at me. The words become a decreasing whine on the wind.

Trees surround my craft, pummeling and tossing it like a ball in a game. I wedge myself between the seat and the suitcase, cover my head with my arms, and wonder why I chose today to die.

The sensation is familiar. Have I been in a headlong fall like this before?

There are no splintered selves, however, to rail at me — to chide or sneer or question — for this is a doom of my own choosing.

My bones jar with every crashing bounce of the craft rolling awkwardly across the clearing, punching holes in the earth, cracking the shields.

 

  • * *

 

I waken in twilight. My head rests on the suitcase; my feet dangle from the hatch. The control sphere is a fractured lollipop on a tortured stick, thrusting at a broken angle from the torn padding of the seat back.

“Ah!” A pleased expression on his face, Professor Shinnegal peers down at me. “You brought the tree!” Reaching through the hatch, he plucks the carving — perfect but for purple stains — from my tangled hair, and wipes the ancient wood across his sleeve. “We’ll have you out in a moment.” He disappears.

The craft rocks upright. My heels drum the ground as my body launches forward. I control nothing.

“Wait, lassie!” Burly arms hold me upright then gently draw me from the broken craft. They belong to a man the height of a child, but with a luxurious beard and a merry smile.

A warm hand touches my forehead. “Not as bad as it looks,” murmurs a soft voice. “More blood than injury.” Rosy light forms a nimbus around an ethereal creature, tall and graceful, bending over me. “At last. Welcome, Jaysha Don’Ayghel, to the Hinterland.”

 

At last? Have I been expected?

My head aches, my body screams, and my eyes burn, but I smile — I think — even as darkness reclaims my vision.

 

  • * *

 

The morning is alive with sounds I cannot name. The city roared, but the Hinterland whispers, and each new noise is soft and clear.

Timid breezes poke their heads through gauzy curtains, stirring the sunlight. I lean against the headboard, sip blackberry tea, and marvel that I have just been served breakfast by a goat. She’s a kind old nanny with a ruffled apron and soft brown hide cross-hatched by faded surgical scars. Her name is Gerta.

I hear her rattling about in the kitchen below, bleating instructions to the household: Bertrand the dwarf must go cut more wood for the cook fire; Elsa the elfen housemaid is dispatched to beat the rugs; Professor Shinnegal is off searching for mushrooms, but he’ll be wanting his tea when he returns, so Liam the dray horse must purchase honey from the neighbors (who are, according to Gerta, a flitter-witted collection of fairies).

Elves and fairies? I close my eyes. Yes, perhaps I dream. Perhaps I still lie in the wreckage of my craft. Perhaps I was arrested by the police bot and am adorning my jail cell with boundless mad fancy.

Perhaps I am dead.

If any of those possibilities are true, I am in no hurry to return to reality. Opening my eyes, I drink the rest of the tea, eat every piece of toast dripping with butter, and spoon up all of the strawberries floating in thick cream. None of the half-organic, half-synthesized meals in Spectra’s finest restaurants could ever compare to this. No, indeed.

 

  • * *

 

Days pass. I am given chores that will not overtax me while my head heals and my muscles unbruise. One afternoon I stop to look closely in a mirror, and see a purple blotch on the bandage around my head. The rosy woman from the clearing must have put something herbal on the wound.

I feel at home here. I hang pictures, shelve books, drape clothes on fat wooden pegs. Professor Shinnegal has given me the carven tree. I move it around the bedroom, searching for just the right place.

He sits with us at supper and tells an amusing tale: The centaurs challenged the satyrs by the brook, but it was all in good fun. Just a bit of rope-tugging to determine if two legs are better, or four. The tree-dwelling dryads judged it a draw.

The professor has yet to tell me why I am here. I think I know. A niggling unease scratches at the back door of my mind, but I refuse to invite it in.

No one questions my presence nor asks when I will leave. Sam — once a robotics engineer in the city, but now a farmer — sits with me on the veranda in the evenings, teaching me to play simple tunes on the elephant flute. In turn, I teach Bertrand to read from my leather-bound books of old tales, illustrated with once-vivid prints whose colors have mellowed in the past hundred years.

Sometimes rain falls, sometimes a storm raises its fist, but for me all the days are bright.

 

  • * *

 

Gerta sits at the kitchen table and sips a cup of blackberry tea. Though quite deft with her dainty hooves, she drinks it through a straw made of reed. I savor crumb cake while she tells of a new village springing up half a day away and ponders the rumors of a great desert waste west of the Hinterland, and of a wide water beyond.

“They call it Pass Iffick,” Gerta pronounces the words with a wavering carefulness, as if still unaccustomed to a human voicebox or to the new palate that allows her to speak. “They say the water tastes of salt.”

“An ocean.” My fork chases the last bits of buttery cake around the delicate china plate. “I learned about oceans in school, and there is a whole wing of the Spectra Museum dedicated to their study.”

“No!” she bleats. “It’s true?”

I nod. “Man has explored the deeps, but not the greatest depths.”

“Pshaw!” Gerta waves a hoof in disbelief. “Next you will be telling me Man has been to the heavens.”

“And beyond.”

She props a foreleg on the table, leans her chin on her hoof. “What wonders you must see, living in the city.”

I smile. “But there they do not believe the wonders I see here.”

“But so many of them have visited the forest! Surely they have told others?”

I clear away the dishes, pour Gerta another cup of tea, and stir in a generous dollop of honey. “Professor Shinnegal — does he often bring people from the city?”

Gerta sips the tea. “He seeks people who aren’t there. He gives them maps, but each must choose to follow. Your map brought you here.” Her warm brown eyes study me. “But you do not have to stay.”

“Why do people return to the city?”

“Some find the quiet too frightening, too humbling. They cannot connect with themselves. They choose separateness. Some go mad.” When she shakes her head, her ears flop.

They cannot accept what they know to be true, so they go mad trying to say it isn’t. I know that kind of insanity.

“They must be about business that eats their time but never their discontent. Who can be happy thus?” Gerta bleats a sudden laugh. “Listen to me! I am a goat. All my kids are grown, so I pour my words into any willing ear.”

“Jaysha!” Bertrand bursts into the kitchen, and Liam ducks his head through the door. Twigs and leaves populate the dwarf’s red hair. A fiery weal marks his cheek. “Men with strange weapons set upon us near the clearing. They wore this.”

He hands me a sleeve made of silver-bronze fabric, thin but strong, its colors changing until it echoes the kitchen and my palm. Only the patch near the shoulder remains distinct: three twined circles encasing the portent-filled initials that mark my father’s company—D.I.E.

“We ran around a bit to lose ‘em” — Bertrand is still catching his breath — “and met up again by the bridge over the brook.”

“They are looking for you, Jaysha,” Liam whinnies low. A bloody cut streaks along his powerful neck and down his chest. “Do you want to be found?”

No. I do not. Yet I cannot bring trouble to this house. “Lead me to the clearing.”

Liam gently noses the bandage still wrapping my head. “I will carry you.”

We bear as our only weapons Bertrand’s blunted pitchfork, my flute, and Gerta’s nutcakes.

All sign of my wrecked craft is gone. The clearing is empty but for a flutter of white. Bertrand kicks aside the rock that anchors it, then stabs at it with the pitchfork and lifts a piece of synthetic paper, folded into a square, addressed to me.

Even as I open the letter, the tall woman encased in a rosy glow steps from the trees, followed by Sam and a handful of ordinary folk clothed in garments the colors of the forest. Behind them emerges a small herd of horned horses, a horse with bandages still swaddling the base of the wings grafted to his back, two lion-eagle hybrids with reptilian tails, and a clan of dwarves aswarm with firefly-people — Professor Shinnegal’s neighbors, the flitter-witted fairies.

The rose woman approaches. “Jaysha Don’Ayghel, do you wish to remain?”

Looking past her, I see Sam’s somber face. He does not help me — no nod of the head, no quirk of the brows — but I see in his eyes a guardedness, as if he wants to say something but is afraid. Of what?

I look down at the letter. My father’s strong handwriting commands me return to Spectra for proper care. Mother worries. Doctors think I may have done permanent harm this time.

“Sam?”

After a small hesitation, he steps nearer.

“Have I been here before?”

His shoulders ease a little. “Almost. You crashed on the edge of the city last year. The story was that you were ill and lost control of your craft.”

“But that’s not true.”

He shakes his head.

I touch my forehead. “This purple patch. It’s smaller every time Gerta changes the bandage.”

“Because you’re healing, dear,” she assures me, but Sam replies, “It’s the replacement fluid that keeps the biologic alloys healthy. It’s like blood, produced by the living metals we used to reconstruct the bones crushed in the accident.”

“The metals heal themselves?”

“Just like human tissue.”

Disconnected images flicker through my mind, as halting as the earliest black-and-white moving pictures stored in the museum’s vault. I remember. My father has a research contract with the Spectra Judiciary. About making more human-like police bots. And repairing the human officers injured in the line of duty. I remember the crash.

Liam shifts his hooves. I lean forward to rest my head against his neck. His mane tickles my cheek. I struggle to keep my eyes open.

“Jaysha?” Sam shakes my shoulder.

“I was at the museum, studying. Student intern with Professor Shinnegal. Curator’s assistant.”

Sam nods. “And your field?”

“Ancient cultures. Customs, religions, mythologies.”

“Aye, ye did.” Bertrand gestures with his pitchfork. “He said ye knew more than the so-called scholars.”

Sam’s callused hand cradles my face. “Stay with me, Jaysha. Stay awake. After the museum closed one evening, you went to the research center. At your father’s company. What happened there?”

“Dissecting. Centaurs.”

“Went a little crazy, remember?”

I nod my head against Liam’s coarse hide. He is warm, and smells dusty.

I remember the impossibility of what I saw — a storybook creature, cut open, spread gruesomely on a sterile table — and how poised my father seemed, telling me to be calm, to go home. It was just an experiment, a spliced half-man, half-horse clone rendered from genetic material gathered from the museum and an old DNA databank. It was nothing but a test of the process by which biologic alloys could be put to a variety of uses — not just the production of new human body parts or even new species, but also the generation of a constant energy source.

Just imagine, he said, if energy and tissue could perpetually reproduce itself!

Then he put guards at my apartment — just in case I experienced another “episode” — and sent them with me to the university and the museum. My friends were forbidden to be alone with me. I lost them or Father paid them off, I am not sure which. Then the university expelled me for cheating — an unsupported claim — which meant the museum would no longer employ me. Working at the Hotel Aspyrion was bland, routine, numbing. Soon even Father’s guards were gone. I was alone.

That’s when the selves arrived, one by one, haunting me. Yes, I remember going mad, and I remember the moment sanity returned. I tried to escape to the only place where being forgotten was my own decision.

“Jaysha,” the rose woman asks once more, “do you wish to remain?”

Yes.

“Jaysha!”

All these people saying my name—

I hear gasps, hear the hard pound of boots and the distinct click of weapons ready to fire. I raise my head. The woodland creatures huddle around Liam and face outward.

My father strides across the clearing. He wears a pristine grey suit: collarless, double-breasted, fastened with jewel-like buttons, and tailored to his trim form. Flanking him is a quartet of men in medical smocks, masks over their mouths and noses. They carry small white boxes. Behind them, two other men carry a stretcher with long white straps that buckle together in the middle.

They bring unwanted guests. My abandoned selves rush toward me.

Professor Shinnegal steps in front of them, and everyone stops. Every one.

His arm fully extended upward — he is much shorter than my father — he waggles the tree carving before my father’s face. “Recognize this, Mr. Don’Ayghel?”

Father swats the figure aside.

“It sat on Jaysha’s desk in the Spectra Museum. Before you took it away and accused her of delusions when she went looking for it. Remember?”

Again, Father pushes it away, annoyance on his aristocratic face. “Jaysha, who is this little man?”

Sam lifts me from Liam’s back, then steadies me with an arm around my shoulders.

I ask, “Are you not even a little surprised, Father, to see so many fantastical beings gathered in one place? And alive?”

He looks around, smiling. “What beings?”

His men chuckle, even the ones in the chameleon armor, their positions betrayed by their boots, goggles, and weapons that remain black, though their bodies reflect the colors of the woodlanders.

He reaches out a hand as if to summon me to him. “It’s the new injury, coming so soon after the last accident.”

“Then why the guns, Father? Am I dangerous? Is the professor’s carving a bomb? Is Sam a human weapon? What about this?” I draw the flute from where it hangs inside my shirt.

Bertrand rumbles dryly, “Nay, lass, it’s Gerta’s nutcakes. They make fine rocks to hurl at men’s heads.”

The woodlanders laugh, and Father’s troops tense.

“Why are you here, Father?”

“You are living proof that biologic alloys work.”

I had hoped he might say something else — I miss you, or I love you — but that is the mad fancy. That is the dream.

He flicks a hand, and the men in smocks move forward.

Sam tightens his arm around me.

The fairies are a flickering, parti-colored swarm, surrounding the doctors, pestering the guards. Little bloody bites appear on the men’s necks, faces, and hands, and my father disappears behind a cloud of light.

Sam lifts me onto Liam’s back once more, then turns Gerta toward the forest and gives her a push. “The trees!”

Guns fire, animals scream. A unicorn, bleeding along his flank, skewers one man’s hand, and then, with his iridescent horn, flicks the guard’s fallen weapon into the undergrowth. The winged horse lumbers upward on his still-healing grafts, then soars above the clearing and intercepts an approaching troop carrier, his rear hooves cracking the shields before he tumbles down, barely righting himself in time. Centaurs and satyrs run to meet another small carrier landing on the perimeter of the clearing. They attack before the troops can exit the craft, but bows and arrows are little use against body armor and superior weapons.

Hot bursts of gunfire whine overhead and around us, but Liam does not waver from his stand behind a thicket. Gerta stamps her hooves and mutters. I am helpless, and I hate it.

Then I remember the elephant flute. Its imprint, stark white and bright red, is pressed into my palm. I know the frequencies may not mesh, but I tap the bone behind my right ear, turning on my crano-aural transceiver, then put the flute to my lips.

I play the melodies Sam taught me, bright airs and melancholy ballads, all my breath behind them until the volume inside my head pounds against my skull, pulses behind the wound. Still I play. The flute feels warm, alive to my touch.

The mercenaries falter. Their weapons tip downward. They clutch their heads, fall to their knees, and pound frantically at their transceivers. It is enough to give the woodlanders the advantage, and they take it. In moments the troops are disarmed or dead, the medical men bound and shunted aside.

My selves disintegrate and disappear.

Suit torn and face bloody, Father stands swaying in the center of the clearing while Sam binds his arms behind his back.

I lower the flute, turn off my transceiver, and touch Liam’s neck. His great head nods once, and we emerge from the thicket. My head aches, and I struggle to keep my spine straight, my chin up. Liam halts before Father, who glares up at me with a look of mingled hatred and despair.

“I died, didn’t I?” Truth jolts through me — memories of bright lights, constant pain, voices blurred past understanding. “I was dead, and you used me as an experiment.”

He looks away.

“How much of me is real?”

My father sneers. “Ask Sam.”

Sam steps forward. “Jaysha—”

Tears sting my eyes. “Why?”

“I thought I was doing good. You woke up. You didn’t remember. I thought you were fine.” He runs a hand through his hair. “But you kept wandering toward the Hinterland, and we kept bringing you back. Mr. Don’Ayghel had us reset your memory — had us insert new alloy — but you seemed to fracture a little more each time. I couldn’t do it anymore.”

Reaching up, he takes my hand. “Forgive me?”

I withdraw from his clasp. “Liam, take me home.”

 

  • * *

 

Rain drips from the eaves and splashes the window box outside my window. Washed clean, blooms glow bright against the grey sky.

I curl on my bed, wrapped in one of Elsa’s knitted shawls. The elf brought dinner, but it grows cold on its tray. A letter lies on the floor, slipped under the door by Sam. He said nothing, but I knew his footsteps on the stairs. Know he still waits outside the door.

In spite of the weather, Bertrand and Liam work the garden. I hear them passing back and forth along the rows, turning soft earth over the seeds of a mid-spring crop. Bertrand keeps a merry commentary. Liam ventures an occasional song. Below, in the kitchen, Gerta and Elsa speak in low voices, and the door to the professor’s study shuts with a discreet snick.

A tightness unravels in my chest, and I close my eyes against the tears.

 

  • * *

 

It is night, but I know my way in the dark.

I remove the family pictures and shove them in the back of the bottom-most drawer, beneath the extra blankets folded there. Then I find the paper I brought from the city, and the pens and pencils, and light a candle.

Sitting at the window, a book for a desk, I fill page after page — and, in the writing, reconcile what I know with what I believe. Reconcile what I can no longer have with what I truly want.

As morning tints the sky, I set the pages aside and stretch, pulling out the past, reaching for the future.

Sam’s letter still waits on the floor.

I snuff the candle and, pulling the shawl close against the chill, put bare feet to the wooden floor. Elsewhere in the house, a board creaks. I pick up the letter.

 

Jaysha, I came to the Hinterland for two reasons. First, I was curious why you kept striving to reach it, even after your father thought he had successfully altered your desires enough to make you stay in Spectra and live a normal life. Second, I was running from my conscience.

I might not have come but for the Professor. One day in the museum, as I gathered courage to leave everything behind — my career, my comforts — and go off into a mysterious, possibly dangerous place, I stood looking at one of those faded tapestries from a couple millennia ago, the one with people hunting mythical creatures in the forest, and wondered how I could pass the Civilization Loss Prevention Units without being caught.

Professor Shinnegal said he was collecting people who were not there. Then he handed me a map and a packet of granules he said were vegetable seeds. He said I looked like a farmer.

Now he’s brought you to the Hinterland; I do not think he will go searching for other lost people. He was afraid the experiments would steal your soul as well as your mind. They very nearly stole mine.

I will not ask your forgiveness again, Jaysha, but I hope you live a life that is your own. Whether you stay in the Hinterland or return to the city, find your purpose. Laugh often. Be at peace.

Sam

 

Something whispers against the door, and a shadow shifts.

I lift the latch and open the door. Sam looks up from his pallet of quilts across the entryway. His hair is mussed, his clothes rumpled. He blinks against the growing light. Propping himself up on his elbows, he studies me for a long silence.

I place the letter on his chest, holding it there with the flat of my palm.

He covers my hand with his.

 

  • * *

 

After the skirmish in the clearing, David Don’Ayghel’s men — those who survived or had not wandered glassy-eyed and incoherent into the Hinterland — were escorted to the very edge of Spectra City. One of them carried a letter addressed to Mrs. Ardith Don’Ayghel, informing her she is a widow and childless, and is now the sole heir to Don’Ayghel Ionic Energy and all its subsidiaries.

Each mercenary will forever bear inside his body a tiny bit of altered biologic alloy that Professor Shinnegal harvested from me and corrupted with something malodorous concocted by the rose woman. The Hinterland remembers those who do harm. If the men return, they will never leave.

David Don’Ayghel remained imprisoned in the professor’s woodshed until his fate could be decided. Then he was taken to the vast desert waste bordering the Hinterland on the west. Five days from the forest but in sight of the northern mountains, he was given food and water, an extra pair of shoes, and one small knife. He was bound, hand and foot, but in such a way that he could free himself in an hour or two, enough for his captors to be long gone, their footprints swept away by the desert wind.

I know this, though I did not see it, because I asked that he be left alive. Bertrand had wanted to kill him in the clearing, in sight of the hired soldiers, as both warning and justice. More fitting, I argued, that he — like me — be forced to walk a new path.

Professor Shinnegal and I are planning to catalog all manner of life in the Hinterland — plants, animals, people. We will learn new languages, songs, and histories, and perhaps build a small museum filled with the professor’s artifacts so the woodlanders can see what life was like long ago, before Spectra City, before the Hinterland, before science attempted to destroy belief.

As for biologic alloys, they may be a worthy pursuit, but there are other scientists than Sam and other test subjects than I.

Yet I am haunted by the possibility there are other experiments like me. Should I, as Professor Shinnegal did, go searching for people who are not there?

Hot wind fans my face, and kicks up a curtain of dust. I wait, just inside the shelter of the trees, straining my eyes to see the sojourners return.

Images move against the billowed sand. I have seen them before, mirages and shadows, but now they emerge into recognizable shapes: Liam dragging supplies on a light sled, Bertrand’s squat form, the centaur Sylvio with a coil of rope slung on his shoulder, Professor Shinnegal in a floppy hat — and a figure with a certain swing to his arms, a cant to his walk, that can only be Sam.

I fill wooden mugs with fresh water, set out a bowl of berries picked this morning, and go out to meet them.

Keanan Brand’s Bio & Links

Keanan Brand is a pseudonym for an author who writes a variety of fiction and poetry. He is also a freelance editor, and the author of the forthcoming epic fantasy duology, The Lost Sword, which titles include Dragon’s Rook (2015) and Dragon’s Bane.

He contributed a short story, “Shooting the Devil’s Eye”, for Raygun Chronicles anthology (2013). The story is a prequel to Thieves’ Honor, a science fiction serial (2008-2012) he wrote for Ray Gun Revival, an online magazine specializing in all things space opera. Prior to that, his post-apocalyptic story “At the End of Time, When the World Was New” was published in the final issue of Dragons, Knights & Angels magazine (December 2007).

He blogs at Adventures in Fiction and at Penworthy Press.

 

blog1: https://keananbrand.wordpress.com/

website: http://keananbrand.wix.com/keananbrand

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/KeananBrand/e/B00JMNMMW0/

Shakespir: https://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/503416

CreateSpace: https://www.createspace.com/5191527

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6914471.Keanan_Brand

FB author page: https://www.facebook.com/KeananBrandWriter

 

Beginnings

Protectors of the Elemental Magic

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By Marnie Cate

Copyright 2015 Marnie Cate

All Rights Reserved

 

Dedication

 

Dedicated to my beloved Gram, my inspiration Judi Dench, my furry muse, the voices in my head that come to life on paper and my little sister that is shaking her head at my dedication.

 

Bright Blessings, Marnie Cate

Protectors of the Elemental Magic

Three Generations in the Future

 

“Will you tell me the story of why we have to protect the magic?” the young boy said, as he stared up at me. Kneeling down to him, my blue eyes gazed deeply into his pain filled ones.

Gently, he began to smooth the colored streaks of my long white hair. “Breeze, I am not too young to know the truth,” he pleaded.

“Mile, my love, you are too young for all of this,” I said, gently cupping his face in my hand.

“No!” he cried. His green eyes welled with tears. “I am ready to know. Please tell me.” Wrapping his arms tightly around my neck, I weakened. He was right. In his short life, this small boy had seen more tragedy and pain than a man of eighty.

“Fine. I will tell you the story of how your great grandmothers saved magic,” I said, wiping the tears that were streaming down his cheeks. “Now watch and listen carefully. I will not tell it again.”

As Miles took a seat on the ground, I decided that the only way to keep him safe was to tell him the truth. “Mara has told you about our Goddess, Danu, correct?” Eagerly nodding, he patiently waited for me to continue.

“Danu is the daughter of Arianolwyn, who is the goddess of the Moon and guardian of time. Her father, Alaunius was the God of healing. Her parents were joyous when they found out that they were going to be parents. Sadly, Alaunius died before his child was born,”

Questioning my decision to tell him the story I paused. “Tell me if you want me to stop.”

“Ok, Breeze,” he said “I’m listening very carefully like you told me.”

Patting him on the head, I decided to continue, “When Danu was born, she was the first child born. She was followed by her sisters, Snowystra and Brighid.”

“Each of them were very different. Danu was born to be the mother of the elements – Air, Fire, Water and Earth. She brings life to the world.” I explained. “Snowystra is the Goddess of Darkness. She brings loss to the world.”

“She is winter,” Miles whispered.

“You are correct,” I confirmed. “When Snowystra was born, she immediately disliked her sister and they fought. In frustration, Arianolwyn called her third daughter, Brighid. This child was born to be the balance between the Light of Danu and the Dark of Snowystra.”

“Danu and Snowystra lived for many years in peace but Brighid became unable to control her dark sister. Snowystra disliked the joy that my brothers and sisters brought to the world. Slowly, she began to hurt the elementals. When Danu confronted her, they had a horrible fight and Danu was injured badly.”

“Miles, this is where your great grandmothers come in,” I said, taking his hand. “Are you ready to learn about the time I first met them?”

Climbing onto my lap, I began to tell the small boy the story of origins of The Protectors of the Elemental Magic.

The Reason

The room was softly lit…not from a lamp or sunlight but from the soft glow from the other girls around me. Girls did not accurately describe us. We were called faeries and fae by the humans that would sometimes catch glimpses of us in the forest where we lived. They told stories of our magic dust because of our snow white skin that shimmered in the sun. While we looked similar in many ways, from our slender frames to our large cat-like eyes, each of us had a very distinct style. Many of the stories that were told about us were embellished with accounts of mischief and deceit. While some of our behavior could be could be playful, we were not child stealers or thieves. Our mother had taught us to love the humans. Her greatest delight was for us to share the stories they told about us – her elementals.

Blaze stood next to me. Her long, curly, red hair flickered as the soft flames of fire she emitted struggled to stay lit. Staring down at the body on the floor before us, her golden eyes filled with deep concern.

“I don’t know how much longer we can live like this, Blaze. She is so sad,” I said, in my soft childlike voice. Trying to hide my tears, I let my long white hair fall in front of my face, covering my eyes.

“There is nothing we can do to help her, Breeze,” the pale yellow-haired Daisy interrupted, as she smoothed the hair away from my face.

Turning away from her, I realized that I was not the only one crying. Daisy had directed her attention to Bay. Stroking her long royal blue hair, Daisy tried to comfort her.

Daisy was the oldest of the four of us at seventy-six years old. Since our life force began, she had always been the one to guide us. Ten years after her birth, Blaze and I arrived. Daisy joked that we were the fire twins and that my role was to feed and fan the flames of Blaze. At the young age of fifty, Bay was the baby of our group. We were all very young in our world. The small time that we had lived was nothing compared to the centuries the older fae had on us.

With her emerald green eyes focused on the tear streaked face of the now sobbing Bay, Daisy said, as if scolding her child, “Bay, there is no time for tears. We need to prepare for the worst.”

“You are wrong, Daisy. There has to be a way to help her,” the strong voice of Blaze fired at her. We could feel her determination, not only from her words but by the fire reflecting in her golden eyes. Standing with both hands on her hips, she faced us like a small warrior ready for battle. “We cannot just leave her like this. She needs us.”

I worried that Daisy was correct as I looked down at Danu, our mother, lying before us. She was sprawled out on the floor not moving. The color of her hair was once a brilliant silver but it was now dull and lifeless. She was not sick but defeated and had allowed herself to drown in her sorrow. Sinking into the abyss, she had given up and was in a place where we could not reach her.

“We are going to save her. We are going to save us. There are too many of us left to not at least try,” Blaze said firmly, as she knelt down to the woman and lightly kissed her cheek. Standing back up, she commanded, “Call everyone together. We are going to fix everything.”

“How are we going to fix everything?” Bay cried, as the large tear drops fell from her silver eyes. “How do you think we are going to repair all of the damage that has been done?”

“The four of us are strong. We were made from the fire, water, air, and earth magic inside of us. She gave each of us this power to use, not to ignore. We are more than the elements inside us. We are her children. We are her elementals. We will bring her spirit back,” Blaze contended.

“What about…” I said, looking around in fear. Scared that the one that had hurt Danu might hear us and suddenly appear, I struggled to find the correct words. “I mean, she will…”

“We cannot be afraid of her,” Blaze chided. “We have nothing left to lose. Do you want to be like her children? They have no joy. They are always cold and scared of her anger.”

“But, Brighid said—” Bay began, but was abruptly cut off by Blaze.

“She doesn’t do anything to stop Snowystra. She is not going to help us,” Blaze said. “She never has helped in the past. We can’t count on it now.”

Kneeling back down to the woman on the floor, she said to the other girls, “We need to pick her up off of the floor and move her somewhere more comfortable. She can’t stay here.”

“Where will we take her?” Bay said. Her tears had stopped and she had composed herself enough to assist.

“We will put her somewhere safe until she is ready to return to us,” Blaze instructed. “No one but us must know where we take her.”

We nodded hesitantly. Blaze narrowed her eyes on us until we all eagerly agreed.

“I know the perfect place to take her,” Blaze said excitedly. “Let’s go now.”

Whispering to the woman, Blaze softly said, “Danu…Mother, we will not fail you.”

The Plan

Once Danu had been brought to a safe place, we each kissed her softly and promised that we would return soon. While walking through the forest, I was on alert for anything out of the ordinary. Hypersensitive, we found that any unusual sounds forced us to fade into a ball of elemental light and hide until the noise was confirmed as safe. When we finally reached a large oak tree that was wrapped with the same green moss that was covering the forest floor, Daisy stopped and inspected the thick bark.

“Kai said it was the largest oak tree with the most twisted vines,” Daisy said, as she pointed at the limbs of the tree. “This has to be the spot.”

“What are we waiting for then?” Blaze snapped and walked directly into the solid bark of the tree and vanished. Quickly, we followed.

As we walked through the darkness of the tree, a pulsing sounded.

bu dum bu dum bu dum

“Can you hear the beat?” Daisy whispered. “It is the spirit of the tree.”

With those words, we reached the end of the blackness and entered a brightly lit room. The room was filled with the rest of the elementals. Boys and girls with the same large, almond shaped eyes and a rainbow of hair colors stood facing a large stone. The group that had gathered seemed as faded as Danu. The reds, blues, yellows and greens of their hair and eyes were dull, not the vibrant shades that usually could be seen. Their conversation and laughter was loud but not as joyous as it would normally be in a gathering of this size.

Weaving through crowd, Blaze made her way to the rock. Climbing up onto the stone, she addressed the crowd. “Danu has been moved to safety. She is still with us but she is diminishing fast. It is time for us all to take action.”

Pacing back and forth, she continued, “Our mother, our creator has been destroyed emotionally, weakened physically and I fear she is losing her spirit. I am afraid she will perish if we do not do something.”

Looks of fear and panic filled the faces of her audience and murmurs in the crowd filled the room.

“Silence, I need you to be brave now,” she commanded. “We must work together to restore her spirit. If we do not, we will start to lose more of us. Look around. How many of us are gone? How many more of us will disappear if we do not take action?”

Snapping her fingers several times, she blew out a long breath. Frantically snapping her fingers again, she stopped when a small flame formed on her fingers.

Blaze said dismally, “As you can see even my magic is not as strong as it once was. We will soon lose everything and then where will we go? Will we survive when the magic stops or will we wither away like the others?”

Staring at her, I realized she was exaggerating her magic loss but her demonstration had the effect that she had intended. The crowd gasped and the soft murmurs from before became a slow roar of anger and panic.

From the middle of the crowd, a strong male voice shouted, “I know where we will go. We will all be gone unless we save her.”

Stepping out of the crowd and up onto the stone next to Blaze, he addressed the crowd, “We need to convince Danu to believe in herself like we do. We need to remind her that she is needed. She needs a reason to fight to preserve the world she has created for us. She cannot bow down and give up. We need to connect her to the human world. They will remind her how important she is.”

Blaze grabbed the young man’s hand and raised it in the air. “Kai is right. We will reach out to their young. Together we will bring back the magic.” With those words, their raised hands burst into flames.

The roar of panic that her demonstration had inspired turned into a cry for battle. Smiling she said, “We will keep our magic. We will protect the magic.”

 

  • * *

 

“I don’t know how we are going to find anyone here. No one is friendly,” Bay said, as she stared down at her feet, covered in heavy brown shoes. “And these clothes are so uncomfortable.”

Fidgeting with her black hair that she had pulled back into a tight bun, she looked pale in her lifeless gray dress. Continuing her complaints, she moaned, “I feel like I am in a clothing prison right now and I’m going to die.”

“Hush,” Blaze said, as she looked around. Wearing a similar outfit, she looked just as miserable as she smoothed her hand over her now dark red hair. “We just need think harder. There has to be a place to find friendly people.”

As Daisy and I had returned from our search, Blaze quickly turned her attention on the now blonde Daisy with anticipation. Each of us was wearing the clothes of a school girl and had taken a more human appearance – a glamour.

“Any luck?” Blaze questioned hopefully.

“People have not been approachable. So, no we haven’t found anyone yet,” Daisy said sadly, answering for the both of us.

Quickly, I chimed in, “There are nice people around. Lots of smiles. I was greeted by only one though. But, I don’t think a cat rubbing along my leg and purring counts.”

“Okay, so there are nice animals here. There has to be nice people also. We just have to figure out where to find them,” Blaze insisted.

“The ice cream shop is not a good place to meet people because everybody is just eating their vanilla ice cream and the shoe store is depressing,” Bay chirped. “Just look what you end up with if you shop there. Nobody can be happy in the shoe store with their toes trapped.”

Interrupting Bay’s rant, Daisy said, “The library might be a good place to go. It is quiet and we can observe.”

“You are right, Daisy,” Blaze said happily. “We will find someone there.”

 

  • * *

 

Entering the town library, we were greeted by a pinched faced woman. Sitting behind the dark, chestnut-colored desk, she looked sharply at us through her glasses that were resting on the tip of her nose.

“Can I help you girls?” the librarian said in a nasally voice.

“We are just here to find some books to read,” Blaze said innocently.

Looking us up and down as if she was trying to determine our intentions, she said, “Very well. If you find any you would like to borrow return to me.”

As we began to leave, she pointed her long, bony finger to a plaque on the wall. “Be sure to read the rules of the library before you go further,” she warned.

Standing in front of the sign like attentive soldiers, we read the rules. The extremely long list of items could have been summarized into only two rules – Be Quiet and Be Courteous. Once we had read the sign, we all turned to the librarian and smiled before retreating towards the library books.

After we were out of earshot, I began to mimic the librarian. “And there will be no fun ladies.”

My impersonation sent Bay into an uncontrollable laughing fit.

Immediately, we were scolded by the librarian. “Ladies, this is a library not a fun house,” she hissed.

Quickly apologizing, Daisy quietly responded, “We are sorry. We will be quiet.”

“Let’s go find a place in the back, out of her view,” Blaze whispered.

Nodding, we silently walked to the very back corner of the library. In this section, the books were on shelves that enclosed a large rectangular table with eight chairs. Sitting down at one side of the table, we began discussing our plans.

“We have to write a book that has everything we know about the magic,” Blaze said. “Well, almost everything. Once it is written, we will find the humans that we will teach about our magic. This is our only chance to bring Danu back from the dark place she is in.”

Daisy agreed, “It will all be up to them but we need to make it appealing. We have to make sure that this book is written so convincingly that they will want to be part of our world.”

“How could they not want to be part of our world?” Bay exclaimed. Quickly looking around to make sure that she had not been heard, she continued in a soft whisper, “At least the world before Danu faded.”

“This will happen. We are going to bring her back. No more negative thinking,” Daisy scolded. “Blaze, please shows us what you and Kai have started.”

From out of the air, a large silver book appeared. The book was embossed with the symbols of the elements surrounding an outline of the Goddess. The individual elements shimmered in soft colors representing their power.

Running her fingers over the shimmery aqua blue sign of elemental water, Bay smiled, “The book is very pretty. Who wouldn’t want to read it?”

Page by page, we read each line. As we added and removed words, the silver wording slithered around the sheets of paper.

“We need to also tie things to this world. Things that they have available and consider important,” Daisy said. Leaving the table, she went to one of the bookshelves and returned with a small brown book. “Here are some of the flowers around here. We can write uses for each of them.”

“That is a great idea,” Blaze praised. “But, we need to do more than that. We need to teach them each how to connect with an element. At first, they will not really be connecting with an element. We will have to convince them that they are full of the magic like us.”

“How will we do that?” Bay asked, looking concerned at the task ahead of us.

“We will be there,” I explained, “We can’t give them magic. But if they learn to call it, we can provide the magic.”

Words on the paper began to frantically form.

 

A sprinkle of lavender flowers

A pinch of sage

A call to Air

With a feather of blue

 

“Ok, read this out loud, Bay,” I instructed.

As Bay read the words, a soft wind circled her gently at first and then ended with a strong burst.

Excitedly, I said, “If this is done correctly, we will convince the reader that they have a gift.”

“At first it will be pretend but if Danu returns to us, she may be so happy she will bless them,” Blaze said excitedly.

“This is a dangerous game,” Daisy warned. “How do we know this will work?”

With a spark of fire burning in her eyes, Blaze said firmly, “What else can we do? This has to work.”

“You are right.” Daisy conceded. Touching Blaze gently, she patted her hand until the fire burning in her soft brown eyes disappeared. “It will work. We will make it work.”

For the next few hours, we wrote in the book filling the pages with different spells we created and prayers to call the elements. When we reached the end, Daisy shut the book proudly.

Blaze said, with tears glistening in her eyes, “This will be the book that brings her back to us.”

 

  • * *

 

“I think we need more than a book,” I insisted. Opening my hand, I held out a small silver box. “What if they were each given a chest like this?”

“What good is a box?” Bay said, picking it up and examining it. “It looks pretty boring to me.”

Snatching it back from her, I said, “It would hold something in it. Something that the girls here would like.”

“They like boys,” Bay teased, taking the small chest back and opening it. As she looked inside, she said, “We definitely cannot fit a boy into this small box.”

“I meant like jewelry. The girls here seem to wear lots of it.” I said, not hiding my frustration with her. “Why do you have to be so ridiculous?”

Taking the box from Bay, Daisy carefully opened it. As she stared inside the box, her eyes gently glowed. The empty box soon had a soft lavender material inside.

“A piece of jewelry should go in the box…a ring,” Daisy said confidently.

With a pointed finger she began to swoop and draw lines in the air. The delicate strokes soon turned into threads of silver. As her movement became more frantic, the silver slowly began to shape a ring. When she finished, she held a band of braided silver that had a strong nest like appearance.

“The ones we choose will each be given a ring. A symbol of their vow to protect the magic,” Daisy said softly.

Taking the ring into my hand, I stared at it. “Each ring should be unique and special like a small bird egg waiting for its mother to hatch it.” With those words, I created a stone the color of sunset with streaks of red and pink. Placing the stone on the band, I inspected it closer. “Yes, this will do.”

With the book finished and a symbol of commitment in mind, we were now faced with the difficult task of finding the protectors. As we discussed ideas on where to look, a loud thump filled the room.

The Girls

At opposite end of the table, a tall red head had tossed a stack of books onto the table so hard that the solid table shook. With a dramatic sigh, she plopped down in a chair and began glaring with disgust at the pile in front of her.

A dark haired girl with soft brown eyes appeared quickly. “Camille, you could be louder,” she scolded. “We don’t want Miss Clasby to move us again.”

A blonde girl with nervous blue eyes sat down next to me and whispered to her friends, “She will tell my mother if we get in trouble. If that happens, I will be going nowhere but my mother’s shop after school.”

“She won’t move us again,” Camille said confidently. “I will be as quiet as a church mouse. Right, Michelle?”

Camille had focused her eyes on a fourth girl who standing outside the alcove. “What?” the girl said, looking confused. “What am I agreeing to now?”

“Never mind, come sit down,” Camille said, not hiding her frustration. “Let’s get this over with. I told Brandon Drygen that I would make an appearance at his baseball game.”

Michelle sat down next to her and began to pull books out of her bag. Her long black hair fell over her shoulders and she absently began to twist it. “You hate baseball. Why would you promise that?”

“The game is boring but he is really cute,” Camille said, with a devious smile.

Realizing that they were not alone at the table, Camille focused her hazel eyes on Blaze. “You are new to Starten,” she said, her words sounding more like an accusation than a question.

Blaze nodded, “We are. I take it that you are not?” With her usual confidence, she mused, “Are you the welcome committee?”

Laughing, Camille said, “Something like that.”

“Ignore her,” the dark haired girl said apologetically to us, “Her bark is worse than her bite. My name is Genevieve Silver but my friends call me Viv.”

“The loud one is Camille Black,” Viv said, pointing to the red head who rolled her eyes.

“The confused one is Michelle Elliott,” Camille said sarcastically. Then pointing to the blonde, she said, “And our quiet library mouse is Lucy Andrews.”

After the introductions had been made, the eight of us softly chatted. Blaze created a story of our families move to Starten from Great Winds. She even took the time to describe how difficult the move was on all of us and how much we were going to miss our old friends. Blaze painted such an amazing picture of the life that we had left that I almost felt sorry for myself.

With a sincere look of empathy, Viv said, “Well, you have new friends now and we are having a sleepover tonight at my house. Why don’t you join us? We can get to know each other and we can tell you about the town.”

Lucy and Michelle both brightened at the idea and nodded in agreement. Camille’s eyes narrowed as she looked harshly at Viv. After an awkward minute of silence, she finally relented.

With a dark look on her face, Camille said, “It might be nice to have some new faces around.”

“How nice of you to invite us,” Daisy said to the girls. “We would love to come”

As we were given the details of when and where we would meet, Camille began to pack up her things, “I promised Branden and he won’t forgive me if I don’t show up for his game.

“Camille is right. I need to get to the shop or my mother won’t let me come tonight,” Lucy said. Following suit, the rest of the girls began to and said goodbye.

As we watched them walk away, I said softly, “They are going be the ones.”

“I think so too,” Blaze said, unable to hide the excitement in her voice. “I really think we have found the girls.”

 

  • * *

 

As we walked up the pathway to Viv’s house, the property that the house was on was large and filled with acres of fruit trees, a variety of plants and dozens of animals. The sun was setting behind the mountains and the sky was slowly fading from a deep blue to a brilliant orange.

Knocking softly on the door, we were greeted by Viv, who began to pull us into the house where she gave us each a long, warm hug.

“My mom has been baking for us,” Viv said excitedly. “She is a fabulous cook.”

Commenting on the jeans and t-shirts, we had “changed’ into, she said, “How cute you look! Where did you get such fun clothes? Not from anywhere here.”

“We brought them with us,” I said. “Your house looks lovely from the outside. I can’t wait to see the inside.”

Entering the house, we found a collection of brightly colored furniture that did not match but it seemed like the perfect set. “Let’s go find everyone,” she said, as she guided us past the living room. “The girls will be so glad to hear that you have arrived.”

“You don’t need to tell us,” Camille said, appearing from the other room. “We all heard you. Your mother said everyone should come to the kitchen. Dinner is ready.”

When we didn’t immediately follow her, she glared at us, “The sooner we eat, the sooner we can have some fun.”

As Blaze began to respond to Camille’s rude behavior, I stepped in front of her and took Camille’s hand. “Great, I am starved. Lead the way.”

Surprised by my contact, Camille demeanor softened. “I am glad you are here,” she said quietly.

“Me too,” I said, squeezing her hand.

When we arrived in the kitchen, we were greeted by a tall, voluptuous red head with a beaming smile. “You must be the girls that Genevieve has been telling me about,” she said warmly. “You will have to tell me everything about yourselves. But not before we have dinner. Go on have a seat. Genevieve, seat your guests and then let’s get them all a glass of blueberry lemonade.”

Turning to us, she said, “That is if you like blueberries.”

Bay beamed, “We love blueberries. At home, we love to eat fresh berries right off the bush. Why, I eat so many that Daisy has to…” Her voice trailed off as she realized she had almost revealed that Daisy was an earth elemental.

I quickly piped in, redirecting Mrs. Silver’s attention to me. “Bay, forgets that her eyes are bigger than her stomach. Daisy is always there to keep her in line.”

“Well, we will make sure that she doesn’t overdo it here tonight,” Mrs. Silver laughed, putting her arm around Bay.

 

  • * *

 

For the appetizer, we were served a tomato and cucumber salad that was drizzled with a tangy sauce.

“The tomatoes are so good today,” Michelle said, scooping more onto her plate and taking a big bite.

“Save room for the dinner,” Mrs. Silver chided, as she went to the stove. “I have made your favorite.”

Returning to the table, she began to serve us, “This is one of my mother’s recipes. I hope you enjoy it. I made the macaroni noodles fresh this morning.”

Hesitantly, I took a bite of the cheesy concoction that was sprinkled with a crunchy crust and was pleasantly surprised by the taste. Realizing that I was being watched, I said, “This is really good. I can see why it is your favorite.”

“Now, you need to try my garlic twists,” Mrs. Silver bragged. “You will fall in love.”

Taking a bite of the buttery bread twist as she watched, I smiled. “You are right. I might have found my true love.”

Laughing, she patted my hand. As our hands touched, I sent a small bit of my magic to her. Her response was a calm smile before she began to eat the dinner she had prepared.

As we ate the meal, we basked in the warmth of the home. This was a home full of love. A child raised here would be the perfect person to help us restore Danu’s spirit. It was a simple home with mismatched furniture, dishes and accessories but the right colors felt like they belonged together. Books about mythology, herbs, fairies, goddesses and magic lined the bookcase.

Following the dinner, we played a card game and talked about school. Since the four of us had only arrived in Starten that day, we listened more than we talked. Blaze was perfect at making it appear that we had been around for a while. As the sun set and the night began, Mrs. Silver said her goodnights hugging each of us tightly and telling us to not stay up too late with a wink.

When she was sure that Mrs. Silver was safely tucked in her bed, Camille held up a bottle of zizzleberry wine and mischievously said, “For our campfire.”

Quickly, Viv took the bottle and shoved it in the picnic basket that she had prepared. “Not here,” she scolded. “Wait until we are outside or everyone will be sent home.”

With a look of amusement, Camille said, “You are acting as paranoid as Lucy.”

 

  • * *

 

Leading us through the house, Viv warned us to be quiet. When we stepped out into the cool night air, I took a deep breath. As I focused my energy on connecting with Danu, I felt a sadness envelop me. The warm energy that I would normally feel when I thought of the Goddess was muted. The sadness and pain that our mother was feeling overshadowed the joy I had felt.

Whispering to me, Blaze said, “No time for sadness. Energy on our task.”

Holding hands, we followed as the girls led us through the Silver’s property and into Starten forest. The black barked trees with red leaves left me with an eerie feeling.

When we reached a clearing, Michelle handed me a blanket and said, “It gets chilly out here at night even with the fire. We should have warned you to dress warmer.”

“Thank you,” I said, taking it from her. Silently, I sent a warm breeze towards her. Her eyes brightened as she felt the air.

“How odd. The night air smells like lavender in bloom tonight,” she commented.

“Everyone come sit in the circle,” Camille said, pointing to the clearing that was surrounded by sticks and twigs. “I will start the fire. Viv, can you hand me the matches.”

Digging through the picnic basket, Viv had a look of concern. “There are none in the basket,” she said, nervously. “I know I put some in here.”

Frustrated, Camille took the basket and began pulling everything out. When she reached the bottom, she snapped, “Who forgets matches?”

“Obviously, we do,” Viv said, looking around. “I can run back and get some.”

“No don’t,” Blaze said, as she went to the wood that Camille had stacked. “I can start the fire.”

Unsure what she was planning, I watched her rub her hands together and then hold each palm down over the wood. Smoke grew from the logs and then erupted into a blazing fire. With a look of amazement and a hint of fear, Lucy, Michelle and Viv stared at Blaze like she was a magician.

Shaken but not silenced, Camille marched over to Blaze and said, “How did you do that? Where are the matches?”

Examining the area, her eyes narrowed onto Blaze when she did not find the evidence she was looking for. “Cute trick. Can you do any other magic tricks?”

In a cold voice, Blaze released the glamour she had been holding and showed her true form. “No trick, Camille.”

As quickly as she had released her human appearance, she called it back. With no other words, she went to the picnic basket and picked up the zizzleberry wine. “You might want to have some of this if you want to learn more about me.”

 

  • * *

 

Huddling together, the girls stared at us with a look of concern. Daisy being the eternal mother hen walked to them and held out her hands. “You are safe,” she said, softly. “We are here to give you a gift. One that you will need to promise to protect.”

Holding the book that we had written in the library, Blaze gave it to Camille and said, “You have been chosen to help us with a very important task. The words in this book will answer your questions.”

“Why should we trust you?” Camille glared. “We don’t even know who you are.”

Viv stepped in between Blaze and Camille, “We will read the book,” she said, extending her hand to take it. As she held the silver book in her hands, the elemental design on the cover glowed.

Nice touch. I thought to myself.

“We don’t know them, Viv,” Camille said, trying to take the book. “They will probably kill us before the night is over.”

Not letting her take it, she said, “Camille, don’t you feel the energy from them? I have felt it since the library. They are special. What can it hurt to read this and see what it is about?”

Sitting down, she opened the book and carefully began to read it. Michelle and Lucy each took a seat beside her. Michelle called to their friend, “Cami, come join us.”

Releasing our glamour, we said our goodbye to the girls. With a look of shock, they hesitantly waved.

I said, “Call us when you are ready.”

With those words, we transformed into colored balls of light and floated off. Sitting in a tree above them, we changed into the smaller versions of ourselves and watched as the girls returned to the book.

 

  • * *

 

Carefully, they read each page. Even Camille eventually became engaged. When they reached the section on calling Air, Viv stood up and carefully read the words. As she finished, I sent a stream of air around her and her friends.

Laughing, she cried, “It worked!”

When they arrived at the Fire spell, Camille stood up and read the words we had written. Holding her hands out in front of her as detailed in the text, she soon found a ball of orangey red flames flickering in her hands.

Quickly, Michelle read a water spell to douse the flames and Bay called a small rainstorm onto the girls. Giggling and dancing in the rain, the three girls continued to read their spells. Only one sat back not participating – Lucy.

Realizing her friend was not having fun, Viv wrapped her arms around Lucy tightly. “Why don’t you join us?” she questioned.

“I don’t have any magic in me,” Lucy said, as the tears began to stream down her face. “My mother says…”

Interrupting her, Camille took her hands, “Your mother is wrong about many things including anything she has to say about this. Come on. Read this.”

Camille handed her the book open to the Earth spell, Lucy stood up and began to read:

 

Earth, I call upon you with an open heart

Green Grass

Solid Ground

I beckon you to show yourself.

 

“See. I don’t have a connection,” Lucy said, defeated. She sat down on the dirt covered ground and began to cry. Hunched over, she wrapped her arms around her legs.

“Lucy,” the girls cried in unison as tall blades of grass began to grow around their friend.

“I am sorry,” Lucy sobbed. “I can’t even read a stupid spell right.”

Pushing their way through the waist high grass, they ran to their friend.

“Look what you did Lucy,” Michelle said, hugging her tightly. “You did all this.”

The area surrounding the fire now looked like a tropical forest with green grass, orange flowers and twisting vines. As Lucy stared mouth wide open, she murmured, “I did this?”

“Yes,” Viv said, holding the book. “We did this. I am ready to hear more? Are you?

Cheers of agreement travelled to us and filled the air around us.

“We need to send a message to Kai,” Blaze said to me. “We have found the answer.”

 

The Promise

As the girls continued their celebration, we joined them at the campfire. No longer having to maintain a glamour, we returned to the girls in our true fae form. We were meet with warm welcome.

“We are glad to be back,” Blaze said resolutely, “You have learned about the magic and now we need to know if you are ready to join us.

Daisy held out the palm of her hands to us holding four silver chests. We each took one to give to the girls. Inside the boxes, we had placed silver rings that were identical except for the different colored stone in the center of the braided nest design.

“You read the book we gave you and you are ready to protect the magic that you now hold within you?” Blaze asked solemnly.

The girls nodded. Viv stepped forward. “We are ready. What do we need to do?”

“Over the next few days, you will need to practice your gift,” Daisy said to the girls before turning to Lucy. Handing her the box with the emerald ring, she said, “You have been given the magic of Earth. Strength and healing will be your guides.”

Taking the chest with the lavender ring inside, I handed it to Viv. “Your gift is Air magic. Intuition and insight will be your guides.”

Blaze gave the chest with the ruby red ring to Camille. “You have been given the gift of Fire. Passion and determination will be your guides.”

Bay took the last chest with an aquamarine colored ring and held it out to Michelle. “You are the luckiest. You have been given joy and the calming spirit of Water.”

“You all have been given an incredible gift. It is now your turn to see your path,” Blaze commanded. “Open the box you have been given.”

As each girl carefully lifted the lid to their chest, a bright light shone from them. After staring intently into the boxes for several minutes, one by one taking their ring and slipping it on their finger and each declared, “I promise to protect this magic from those who would misuse it.”

 

  • * *

 

Saying our goodbyes again, we let them think that we had left Starten. The next few days were full of magic and practicing their connection. As we watched over them, we found out how much work this plan was going to be for us. We were on duty twenty-four seven as the girls practiced calling their element. Growing flowers, lighting fires, small rainstorms and gusts of winds filled the town.

On the third night, the girls had a campfire where they thanked Danu for the magic. The words we had written in the book about Danu had reached them. They understood how special our Goddess truly was.

Calling each of the elements in her name, the night air filled with the essence of the magic. Silver strands of light filled the sky. When the last of the girls finally fell sound asleep, we traveled back through the oak tree to report our progress.

The crowd of fae were happier. The reports we had been sending back to Danu must have made an impact. Bright shades of hair and beautiful eye colors replaced the dull versions from just days ago. Conversations of fear and sadness were replaced with hope.

Climbing onto the rock to address the crowd, Blaze wore a look of pride. “Our plan has worked,” she boasted. “I have been informed that Danu is slowly healing and will soon be with us again. While I am confident, we must still be cautious until she has returned to full strength.”

Cheers from the crowd echoed in the cavern. Kai stepped up by Blaze whispering in her ear, “I have just come from Danu. She would like to see you.”

Turning to the crowd, Blaze said, “I have been called to Danu. Continue with your celebration. She will return with us soon.”

As she stepped off the rock, Kai took her arm. “You have done a great thing for us,” he said, kissing her softly on the cheek.

Blushing, she replied, “It was your idea. Without you, we wouldn’t have had a plan.”

Caressing her face with the back of his hand, he said, “We make a great team. Let me take you to her. She needs you.”

 

  • * *

 

As Kai guided us through the intricate underground maze, he showed us the different areas that elementals had made their own. Rooms dedicated to each of the different types of element were filled with laughter and magic. Leading us through the passageway, we entered the center of the elemental world they had created.

“We have been gone only four days. How did you do all of this?” I questioned.

With a chuckle, Kai said, “Happy elementals can move mountains. When news of Danu awakening came to us, they were so filled with excitement that we got right to work. In the center, we have made a place of honor.”

We entered a large room that was filled with silver framed mirrors. Surrounding the silver frames was a nest-like design around the polished metal centers. The room smelled of lavender, cinnamon, fresh cut grass and a summer rainstorm. The scents alternately filled my senses without overpowering or bleeding together to make one complicated scent.

In the center of the room, there were four high-backed silver chairs. Each chair had a different design representing the elements running up the back of it. In the middle of the circle of chairs, there was a large granite stone with a smooth top. The stone was a light blue with streaks of dark blue, yellow, pink and white running through it.

“These chairs are a gift to each of you,” Kai said, as he left the room. “Take a seat.”

Blaze walked to the one with the flames of fire running up the back and sat down. As each of us sat in the chair with our element, we quietly waited.

The stone in the center began to glow and lavender light filled the room. The light was blindingly bright. As the light softened, Danu appeared. She was stunning in a long, flowing gown of lavender. Her silvery hair shimmered down the length of her back. Sitting down on the stone, she crossed her legs and held a small brown cat tightly in her arms. The cat purred contently as Danu stroked the long fur of her content pet.

“That is the cat from Starten,” I said with a look of surprise on my face.

“Yes, my sweet child. When I saw her through your eyes, I knew she was meant to be with us,” Danu said, in her silky voice. “Such a small gesture of kindness can do much to restore a broken spirit.”

Stepping to her, Blaze said, “What about the girls? Did they have an impact on your healing?”

With a light giggle that filled the air with bubbles, she said, “Genevieve, Camille, Michelle and Lucy had very much to do with my healing. Each of them brought back a different piece of my heart that felt broken beyond repair. Their words have reminded me of who I am.”

“But, what about Snowystra. She is why we had to seek out the girls,” I said cautiously. “She is too strong. She hurt you so badly this time that we almost lost you. How can we stop her?”

“Hush, child,” Danu said, taking my hand. “I am the daughter of Arianolwyn – Moon goddess and guardian of time. I am the keeper of elements. Air, Fire, Water and Earth are my children. With you, I bring life. She will not destroy what I have created.”

A burst of icy wind filled the room. The cat hissed and jumped out of Danu’s arms. Kai entered the room with a look of anger. “She has taken the humans and insists you face her.”

Taking a deep breath, her face wore a look of determination, “Lead me to her.”

Face Thy Sister

As Kai led us through the Starten Forest that was now covered with a heavy snow, we flew above the treetops towards the river. From above, I could see the girls huddled together. Holding onto the arm of Camille was the raven haired sister of Danu – Snowystra.

“Snowystra,” Danu called, as she landed in front of the girls, “You truly are the darkness, sister. As mother predicted, without the dark, there cannot be light. But be warned without the light, there is no you. Release those girls, they have been blessed by me.”

Cackling, Snowystra threw her head back. “The pretend magic you have given them? They know that your minions have been hiding in the shadows making them believe they were gifted.”

Viv watched me with a hint of sadness in her eyes. Our plan was never to hurt them. They were never going to know that their magic was not real.

Holding her hands above her, Danu said, “I call Brighid. My sister. My third.”

In response to her words, a burning ball of orange filled the sky above us. Growing and becoming brighter, a woman with coppery hair of flames and golden skin emerged. Extending her hands to her sisters, she gripped their wrists.

“Brighid,” a voice on the wind whispered, “You will be the balance. You will heal.”

“The words of our mother,” Brighid said softly. “A truce must come today from you both. Winter and Summer are here for a purpose. Danu, while you bring life, Snowystra must bring loss.”

Turning to Snowystra, she said, “You have not honored the harmony we must have to exist. For your misconducts against the balance, you will pay your price with time. Ten years gone from this realm. When you return, you may not take forcefully what belongs to Danu and you will obey the rules established by our mother.”

Taking Danu’s hand, she said, “Sister, you gave up too easily. There will be more hardship to face as there will always be a battle to balance the dark and the light. While Snowystra may not take what is yours, you must leave the rest of the mortals. The four before you and their future generations may benefit from the gift you bestow but no more.”

Looking at the girls with a cold glare, she warned, “Those that are gifted but choose darkness with their gift will be forming an unspoken alliance with Snowystra.”

Snowystra angrily said, “I will not leave because you are telling me I must. You do not control me.”

A long silver tendril flew through the air and wound itself tightly around the waist of each of the three goddesses. Holding the other end of the silver line in her hand, a golden haired woman rode through the sky on a silver chariot. Yanking the thread, the woman pulled them up into the night sky before landing. When she landed, Blaze, Bay, Daisy and myself fell to our knees and bowed before her.

 

  • * *

 

“Mother,” Brighid called from above, “Let us down. The issue was under control.”

With a chortle, Arianolwyn said to us, “Stand, stand. No formalities today. Rise and greet your grandmother.” Warmly, she held out her arms and embraced us tightly.

“Now what do we have here?” she said, as she released us and inspected the girls. Tapping Lucy on the head, she said, “This one is strong with elemental earth. Child, call the flowers to rise from the snowy ground below us.”

Stuttering, Lucy said, “I…I don’t… don’t have magic.”

“Tish tosh,” she responded. “Call the flowers before I get disappointed.”

Looking to Daisy, Lucy knelt to the ground and softly whispered a prayer. With her words, a row of white flowers popped through the snow.

Smiling, she looked at Daisy who said, “I did not do that. It had to have been you.”

With a look of disgust, Camille snorted. The woman pointed at her. “Call the fire you have been given and burn off this snow.”

Fear filled Camille’s eyes. “I have no magic. It was a trick.”

“Are you saying I am a liar?” the woman boomed “Arianolwyn does not lie. Call Fire before you anger me.”

Kneeling to the ground, Camille slowly murmured words and a small spark of fire spread along the ground burning the flowers. Laughing, Arianolwyn said, “You must practice controlling your magic.”

Pointing to Michelle, she demanded, “Water is your gift. Call the rain before these flames burn down the forest.”

Confidently, Michelle held her hand above towards the sky and cried, “Water, I call you to rain down on us. A gift to our Mother Goddess – Arianolwyn.”

Soft rainfall began to fall and cover us. The shower of rain lasted barely a minute but the warm rain melted the snow covering the ground and brought the flowers back to life.

“And you,” Arianolwyn said, as she walked to Viv who had been silently watching. “You, child, have been blessed with Air. Show me what you have been gifted with.”

Viv called a strong gust of wind. The magic she sent was not controlled and it soared into the sky. The force of the magic she called was so strong that it knocked the goddesses from the sky. As they landed with a thud, the three deities stared at Viv with looks of surprise. I knew they were wondering the same thing I was. How did she have magic inside her that was strong enough to compete with many Air elementals? Brushing herself off, Snowystra glared at the girls and cast a stream of ice at them. In their defense, I called a strong wind while the other elementals called their magic. My Air magic slowed hers but it was not enough to stop it. Stepping forward to assist me, Daisy, Bay and Blaze sent a stream of their magic at the speeding magic. Everything was happening so fast. Realizing that I was not strong enough to face Snowystra, Viv stepped in front of her friends ready to protect them.

Moments before the Viv would have been hit with the dark magic, Danu stepped forward and cast a lavender ball of light that grew until it surrounded the forest. In response, Snowystra sent lime colored sparks out from her fingertips to the sphere until it exploded, sending millions of small pebble-like magic through the air, covering the ground and the river.

The river changed to a purple color with blue froth. Gold and silver butterflies jumped from the water as they swam upstream. A flock of squirrels with metallic green fur flew overhead. Along the river bank, trout snapped their teeth as they scrambled to the nearest bush. Their black and pink bodies shimmered in the sunlight.

“Enough,” the sound of Arianolwyn echoed. “Three can become one again if needed.”

Her words quieted the goddesses. Walking to her, the three sisters took hands and bowed.

“Brighid has spoken. The balance will be restored.” Arianolwyn said firmly. “Snowystra, you will leave here now.”

Snowystra glared coldly but nodded before covering herself with a veil of black light and fading away.

With gray eyes focused on the golden eyes of Brighid, she said, “You will be called again to heal the wounds of your sisters. But, you are done for today.” Turning into a burning ball of light, Brighid floated away.

Arianolywn’s gray eyes turned a milky white as she looked at the girls. “Danu, these girls have been blessed by you. Watch over my new grandchildren.” With those words, she evaporated into a mist and disappeared.

Danu stood before the girls. “Thank you,” she said simply before changing to a ball of lavender light and disappearing.

 

  • * *

 

Left alone with the girls, we told them the entire story. We explained why we needed them. Nothing was held back. Quietly, they listened to our reasons and our apologies. With a promise to be there for them always, we were forgiven for our deception.

 

A New World

“Everyone thinks that there is a toxic leak in the Drygen’s cannery that has caused the changes in the animals and the color of the river,” Camille said dramatically. “Brandon is sick with worry. His family’s business is under attack and it is our fault.”

“We cannot tell anyone what happened. They will not believe us,” Michelle said vehemently. Lucy nodded her agreement.

Unaware of the conversation around her, Viv stared into the night sky with a look of deep concentration. Her brown eyes filled with small specks of silver. Focusing on the bright moon above, she said in barely a whisper, “I understand.”

As her eyes returned to their normal color, she said, “We will tell no one of the magic that happened. We will tell them that the love of our Goddess has changed Starten. Our children will tell their children the stories. We will protect this gift no matter the cost.”

Sitting next to Camille, she whispered, “Everything will be as it should if we remember the oath we took.

Resting her head on Viv’s shoulder, Camille sighed, “None of us will forget our promises.”

 

Epilogue

As I finished the story, Miles softly said, “Thank you for trusting me with the story, Breeze. I promise that I will remember it always.”

Tousling his hair, I laughed, “We should return to your home. Everyone will be wondering where I took you.”

Shifting from my human form into a large blue bird, Miles climbed onto my back. As we flew over Starten, I saw the world as it was before the magic. Sadly, I knew that the world would change again in the very near future. Saving my worries for another day, I extended my wings and soared.

Marnie Cate’s Bio & Links

Marnie Cate was born and raised in Montana before adventuring to the warmer states of Arizona and California. Her love of Dame Judi Dench and dreams of caticorns and rainbows inspired her to chase her dreams. One great sentence came to mind and the world of elemental magic and the humans they lived amongst filled her mind. With Remember, the story of The Protectors of the Elemental Magic has just begun.

 

My sincere thanks to you for reading this novellette. Authors love reviews. I hope to see yours.

 

Bright Blessings ~ Marnie

 

The Protectors of the Elemental Magic series:

Remember

[+ http://www.amazon.com/Remember-Protectors-Elemental-Magic-Book-ebook/dp/B00UEW0ZJ0+]

Audible: [+ http://www.audible.com/pd/Sci-Fi-Fantasy/Remember-Audiobook/B014JRVOM2/ref=a_search_c4_1_1_srTtl?qid=1443660040&sr=1-1+]

 

Ways to Connect with Marnie Cate

 

www.marniecate.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Marnie_Cate

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MarnieCate

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/Marnie_Cate

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Marnie-Cate/e/B00UJNT7J8

Thunder in the Sky

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Simon Coates

 

 

Copyright 2015 Simon Coates

All Rights Reserved

Thunder in the Sky

Introduction

 

It is the year 2300! Humans have developed a special racing formula with spaceships; think Formula One but with spaceships instead of cars. This document is a test report written by a top pilot from the sport’s formative years, reporting on what an early championship winning spaceship is like. Before we begin, it is worth clarifying a number of special terms:

 

Cr – short from credit, the universal currency of the time. One credit is worth the same as an English pound today, or (US) $1.50.

 

Formula X – the name for the spaceship racing formula. The sport has a championship, the Formula X Galactic Championship, that takes place over the course of the year, with races over celestial bodies, examples being ten laps of Planet Mars or one lap of the Moon. Points are awarded to the pilots based on their finishing positions, with the pilot gaining the most points at the end of the year being declared Galactic Champion.

 

THz – short for terahertz, a measure of power in a spaceship engine (a bit like brake horsepower in cars).

 

There are also a number of spaceship companies mentioned:

 

Britus – the manufacturer of the spaceship on test in the report. Britus are a specialist engineering company and a top spaceship racing team (think McLaren).

 

Clydesale-Frisson – specialist dealer who sell retired and prestige spaceships to the public. An advert describing some of their current stock is at the end of this report.

 

Gilbern – builder of top quality super-luxury spaceships, a car equivalent today would be Rolls-Royce.

 

Palatia-Sonnar – a race team who also make upmarket ships for the public (like say Mercedes-Benz today).

 

Sunstar – their spaceships have a distinctive sporty feel with very powerful engines. A good comparison with a car maker today who are similar would be Ferrari.

 

Hope you enjoy the report. At the end there is an advertisement for a specialist spaceship dealer so you can see the sort of spaceships that are readily bought and sold.

 

All there is left to say is tighten your safety belts, and get ready for the ride of your life. From here on, you will be transported to the 24th century. Enjoy!

 

Flight Test of a 2287 Britus B Type Formula X Galactic Championship Race Spaceship

 

By John Messier, 2283 and 2284 Formula X Galactic Champion

 

On 5th October 2037, Sergy Abramov stepped out of his spaceship onto the surface of Mars, becoming the first human in history to set foot on a planet other than Earth. On doing so, he uttered the words, “Well, it’s red, dusty, barren, but one day might just be called home.” It was a beautiful moment which harked back to 68 years previous, when Neil Armstrong uttered equally poignant words as he set foot on the Moon, to become the first human to step on the surface of a celestial object other than Earth.

 

From those beginnings, the project to colonise the Red Planet began. It became the biggest civil engineering project ever undertaken by humankind: to terraform Mars and transform it into a planet that people could live on. It took over a century to complete, and from that point, people started to live there. As the population became settled, so the interplanetary transport system developed alongside. In 2250, the first commercial spaceship was put on sale for the public, the Galaxis Solar Explorer, giving people the option of having their own personal interplanetary transportation device. With spaceships now capable of flying to Mars from Earth in just one week, and with the price of such machines falling, making ownership possible for an increasing number of people, interest in spaceships was at unprecedented levels. Inevitably, people began to take an interest in the speed of these machines, which led to an intriguing offshoot spin-off: competitive spaceship racing.

 

The start of what would eventually become a full-blown racing formula was relatively low-key. In 2283, a group of Earth-based spaceship enthusiasts decided to hold a race to the Moon, and then have a second race back to Earth. I was one of them, and I won the first two of these races, in 2283, and then a year later in 2284. From those early beginnings, a sport was born, what has become known as Formula X, the biggest and most popular motorsport in history. Today, it attracts huge sponsorships and has a following of billions. The ships that compete in this motorsport today bear little resemblance to those early fire-breathers, but the ethos remains the same: if you were to create a spaceship with one goal in mind — to make it as fast as possible — what would it be like? Today’s Formula X racers represent the ultimate incarnation of a spaceship built for one purpose, to go as fast as possible, with absolutely no concessions to anything else. This insatiable quest for speed is why Formula X started in the first place and it remains a central point of the sport.

 

Today, Formula X spaceship racing takes place over the course of a year, with a number of teams competing against each other in the ultimate test of speed. It covers set routes over the surface of a celestial body, or between bodies in the case of the Earth to the Moon event. A modern racing spaceship has an engine with a power output well over 15,000 THz and weighs less than ten tons. These machines represent the absolute state of the art in propulsion technology. They will never, however, be used to transport people; these monsters are created for the sole purpose of racing, and are not legal for use on the public highway.

 

Sadly, most ordinary people will never experience what they are like. To fly one, you need a special racing licence, and also a contract with a Formula X race team. However, with an increasing interest in older spaceships, it is possible to bypass this procedure by purchasing a retired racing spaceship, but only if you can afford it! A Formula X race ship is insanely expensive, with running costs to match, and it is no different with the older machines. However, thanks to a very generous owner, I have been given the opportunity to fly such a machine, and to give a very detailed report here. Even if you might never get the chance to do so yourself, at least by describing to you how it feels, you might get some sort of idea what such a machine is like to fly. What does it sound like? What is the acceleration like? And is it really as terrifying as it looks, flying at over one hundred thousand miles per hour over the surface of Planet Earth? In this report, I hope I can answer these questions and convey what a racing spaceship is like to fly. Yes, you have every right to be jealous. This experience is one that will remain with me for many years, as opportunities to do what I am going to do are very rare and occur once in a lifetime. It is going to be fantastic.

 

Here we go then. The ship I am going to fly is a 2287 Britus B-Type, one of the early nuclear powered racers. It had phenomenal success in racing, winning the championship at the hands of Gilmon J’olum that year. The ship was used for just one season, being replaced in 2288 by the C-Type. In the year it raced, there were just four races, and the actual ship I will be flying is the same one that was used for the final race (the five laps over the Earth event) which it won, giving Britus their championship win. It was built as a spare machine in the event of the primary ship having some sort of problem, which indeed is what happened; the engine failed in the third race, meaning the spare ship was used for the final race.

 

The ship features a nuclear-powered engine, the Britus FX Quad 16, which produces 8,300 THz in base tune, and over 10,000 THz in maximum hard-tune form. The whole ship weighs just 17.8 tons, which gives a power-to-weight ratio of 561 THz per ton. This compares very favourably to the most powerful and fastest spaceship ever produced for public use, the Sunstar Type C, which has 200 THz per ton. This ship is a very fast machine, but Formula X racers, even older ones, are on a totally different level compared to even the fastest public spaceships. By way of comparison, a modern Formula X racer for the 2298 racing season has 15,000 THz and moves the scales to 9 tons, showing the development made in the years since the B-Type. However, where the ship I’ve got use of today scores heavily over the modern racer is value, and this is a huge point, and the reason why doing this test required a very generous owner.

 

You see, classic spaceships have increased in value tremendously in recent years. A good early Sunstar Type C could easily set you back over five million credits but the most valuable ships are the Formula X racers. In terms of value, the earlier the better, with race winners adding tremendously to the value. A championship winner has the very highest value. The ship I am going to fly has all those things; the championship it won was in the fourth year of the sport, so (it) is a very early racer, and the actual ship on test won the final race of the season. It ticks all the right boxes, and as a result, it is incredibly valuable; it has an insurance valuation of Cr 40m. To put that in perspective, that is around 1,500 times more than the average yearly salary for someone in full-time employment. My job is to fly this thing, close to the limit. I did say it has a very generous owner, didn’t I? It is just the sheer monetary value; it is difficult to comprehend this. But more than that, this is a very historically important machine, so it is a very rare privilege to be able to fly such a spaceship. The one I am going to fly is actually for sale, so I am going to be extra careful! People in the know consider this machine to be one of the ultimate ships in existence, and in many respects it is priceless.

 

OK, so here we go then. Firstly, it would be good to describe the look of the thing. At first glance, it looks very similar to a modern Formula X machine, the main difference being the absence of solar cells; this spaceship is from an era when nuclear was the powerplant of choice. It was a good few years before solar power would be used for Formula X racers. So, as a result, it has a far greater surface area for graphics, and inevitably, sponsor logos. Of note are the companies and organisations themselves. At the time when Britus raced in 2287, their main sponsor was Forlami, the Mars-based watchmakers, along with the Mars Tourist Board, with co-sponsors being Force Major-Greenbelt, who today are their main sponsors. How times change. The engine is very big, housing the nuclear powerplant, and is one of the things that give away the fact that this is an early Formula X racer. Modern racing engines are much neater and smaller; one of the main developments in engine technology has been in the improvements in power delivery through the powertrain, and it is quite obvious that the Britus FX Quad 16 is of the older generation. It still looks fabulous, though, as all racer engines do, and has a very serious look about it. The engine has that edge to it that screams pure performance, and just looking at it, even if you didn’t know much about the finer points of spaceship engines, you just know it has immense power. An interesting design feature are the side turbines; in this machine, the turbines taper to a very wide rear thruster, whereas for the current racer, Britus have an asymmetric design where the front is slightly wider than the rear. Overall, the general consensus is that the older Formula X racers look better than the current machines, but that is personal preference. I think any racing spaceship looks great! Here is a technical illustration of the machine:

 

 

I think that is enough of an introduction, it is time to get in the machine and see what it is like to fly. The cockpit is very much like the machines of today, and indeed a current Formula X pilot would be at home in one. The ergonomics are superb, which is a feature of all Britus spaceships I’ve seen and been in. All the main switchgear is easy to locate, with the control units falling to hand. It is a place of work, and the view out of the front is very good. The nose tapers sharply to the very front of the ship and the overall impression is of a serious piece of machinery, with promises of a very exciting experience to come.

 

The engine start procedure is extremely complicated. It is far more complex than a current racer, partly due to it being nuclear powered, and partly due to it being an early Formula X racer. It would be years before the ships would become much easier to start. The mechanics on the ground operate various computers to prime the engine, all the while with the main cockpit hatch open. As I am sat in the cockpit, I need to give feedback to them, to ensure all is good. Then, after doing a number of small tasks, the mechanics tell me to put my helmet on. They will communicate with me via the intercom system, as the engine start is about ready, and once that happens, it will be impossible to hear anyone over the noise.

 

The starter spins, and the engine cranks over a few times. The mechanics set it going again, and the engine starts. The engine powers on with a huge thud, followed by a deep drone of pure raw energy. And what a noise! The engine is incredibly loud, and as I’ll find out later, becomes so dominant as to totally overshadow everything else about the ship. The cockpit vibrates so much that the instruments are difficult to read. The mechanics assure me this will settle down, and even more so once I’ve set off and launched the machine in the sky. After about five minutes, the mechanics give me the all-clear to take off and fly this spaceship. With the realisation that I am doing something that only a few people in history have done, and something that is a dream for many millions, I carefully allow the ship to move off the ground, and to begin flying.

 

My first impression is that the ship feels unhappy. I get the feeling that the ship wants to go fast, that crawling along is not the natural habitat for such a race-bred spaceship, so I crank up the power. The engine spools up, the main turbine now whistling at a higher pitch, and as we smash through the sound barrier at 700mph, the ship feels happier. I notice the turbine pressure increasing, and the cockpit displays show that the various temperatures in the mechanical components all have good numbers as the ship gets to the optimum operating settings. The mechanics were right; the vibrations have settled down and the ship starts to feel happier. Still accelerating, I go for close on half throttle, and the ship launches forward.

 

Although we are quite a bit off full capacity, the spaceship accelerates with incredible force. I need to concentrate fully as the horizon starts to blur, and my mind struggles to keep up with the landscape. I am, of course, flying over the ocean, but I can no longer make out that it is the sea. It is one blanket of blue, with a lighter blue colour of the sky above split by the horizon. I am still accelerating and the engine note is hardening. The sound from the specially-designed Britus FX Quad 16 engine is quite astonishing. The noise coming from behind me is staggering, and sounds almost impossibly loud. It is a combination of whistling, whirring, banging and it is absolutely fantastic. It actually sounds angry, like all the best race engines. I then go for full throttle.

 

Oh. My. God.

 

The turbines spool up to full capacity, and the internal couplings are now at maximum power. And the sounds! Now, at full power, the engine sounds absolutely wonderful. The assault on my senses is amazing, the engine now sounds so violent it is like all the individual components are having one massive heated argument. Imagine all the Gods of War in one room, having the biggest row in the history of eternity. It is so incredibly loud, and so insanely intensive, I get the impression the engine wants to move into the cockpit and start an argument with me.

 

I do five minutes close to maximum power, and then pin the throttle to maximum, and it is wonderful. As a racer, this is an adrenaline rush beyond anything I can imagine. The engine sounds astonishing, the volume and sheer violence is an intoxicating combination. The engine feels on the verge of exploding, such is the urgency by which the power is being transferred to the turbines. And you can actually feel it. The energy powering through the spaceship makes the vibrations more intensive and the whole ship feels alive. This is what it was built for, and it shows. What a rush! Nothing comes close to the thrill of flying such a machine. It is so raw and visceral you can almost touch the intensity, it is so real and physical. After running full power for about ten minutes, I ease off and go for braking, and the retardation force is brutal. It is not as fierce as a modern racer, but I am sure it is not too far off.

 

After a few laps of warming the engine and turbines up nicely, I start to put the spaceship through its paces to see how it handles turning around and manoeuvring. is a vital part of a ship’s performance; it is not all about pure speed. A good racer has to change direction instantly, so that it can gain speed and allow the pilot to pick the best line on a particular race, when overtaking another spaceship for example. This ship handles actually very well. The response is excellent, no doubt helped by the very rigid chassis structure. Other ships that the Britus competed against had very old-fashioned designs which flexed badly when forced to change direction; the Britus had a very advanced chassis design that was rigid and strong, and inspired confidence with the pilot. Indeed, when I spoke to Beckton Monter, he said this was one of the main aspects about this ship that enabled him to gain such success with it. The ship also uses gravitational downforce well; don’t forget, this was in a time when little was done to use the natural gravity of the celestial body the ship was flying over to gain some sort of competitive edge. Modern racers have, of course, much more downforce, but the Britus was one of the first to make it a feature of their spaceship.

 

I decide to do a lap of Earth at full-on speed. The pit crew agree this is OK, so I press on. I settle the machine into a nice cruise, and focus on getting the ship to fly as smoothly as possible. Speed increases nicely, with the response very good. With well-set-up racers, the faster you go the better it flies, and this is definitely one of them. As I hit sections where I get to the highest speed, close on 140,000 mph, the ship is fantastic. The sound is amazing, the sheer raw brutal power is obvious from the engine and is so loud, it totally dominates the entire experience. What a thrill! I manage to beat twelve minutes, with a lap time of 11:54, which I am pleased with, for an average speed of 126,000 mph. To compare that to a modern Formula X racer, Shas’olum got the lap record during the five lap race of Earth in 2298, with 4:57. That was an average speed of a barely comprehendible 300,000 mph, but he did have a spaceship with about double the engine power and half the unladen weight of the one I’m using today!

 

I do a few laps, before I get a message to return to the pits. I protest, I was having so much fun, and I laugh with the realisation that my reaction is one of a school kid playing outside being asked to come in for dinner.

 

On landing, I remember the sheer physical effort that is required to fly such a machine. When I raced in 2283 and 84 I was an athlete and very fit, but that was a long time ago! Despite having only flown it for a short period of time, I am totally wasted. You have to be very fit to do it well, the sweat is pouring off me. When the engine powers down, I reflect on what this spaceship is like. Overall, with the relatively limited time I had with the spaceship, I have to say I fell in love with it. For someone who has the natural racing instinct, the ship is a wonderful racer with superb handling. The engineering and quality of the build is first class, and that gives you confidence that it will hold together when being pushed to its limits. The engine is powerful with a strong pull that leaves you with a feeling of immense weight of power. The chassis is very rigid which makes for a very sharp response. All in all, the ship oozes class. The ship is beautifully balanced, with the engine giving ample power. I am not surprised it dominated the 2287 racing season.

 

My overall impression is that this machine has character and that rare thing in machinery, a real soul. It is for sale for Cr 30m, which is a bargain, but to be honest it really is priceless. I am really looking forward to seeing this machine in action during the Classic Formula X Race Series.

 

In conclusion, I have to say that ‘magnificent’ and ‘amazing’ are words often overused, but in the case of this ship, they are entirely apt. It has to be said, that any Formula X spaceship is special, and it is hardly difficult to argue against the idea that the championship winners are the most special of all. And of those, this must rank up there as one of the most special. If I need to use one word to describe it, I think I’ll settle for ‘perfect’.

 

One final thought – if you hear a very distinctive noise in the sky that is far too loud for thunder, it might just be this magnificent machine or another ship from this era. All of them really are wonderful, and it is hardly difficult to argue that this one is the most special of them all. Don’t have 30 million credits? I hope my report will give you some idea about what this spaceship is like, so even if you might never be able to fly one, it is a bit of a consolation prize, at least.

 

Spaceship Details

2287 Britus B Type Formula X Race Ship

Engine power: nuclear

Engine: Britus FX Quad 16

Power: maximum 10,000 THz, base 8,300 THz

Unladen weight: 17.8 tons

 

Race history

Pilot: Beckton Monter

2287 Galactic Championship: 1st

Individual race results:

One lap Earth – 1st

One lap the Moon – 1st

One lap Mars – DNF (did not finish, engine failure)

Five laps Earth to the Moon – 1st

 

 

*** Advertisement Feature ***

 

 

Looking for something a bit different? Then have a look at what we have got to offer. We are an official Gilbern service centre, which means we can service your Gilbern to exacting standards you would expect, at competitive rates. We also have a number of pre-owned vehicles in stock, and in the case of racing spaceships, certifiable provenance with full papers. We are a company with full Galactic Motorsports Council accreditation to sell and service Formula X racing machines, so if you purchase such a machine from us you are guaranteed its racing history.

 

If you are someone wishing to purchase a retired Formula X racing ship for use in the Classic Formula X Race Series, then we can help. We always have a number of racing ships for sale, and we also have a dedicated servicing department to ensure your spaceship can be race-prepared to exactly how it was when it raced in the Galactic Championship.

 

Spaceship Stock list

 

Formula X

 

2287 Britus B Type A quite fabulous opportunity to own what is regarded as one of the most significant racing spaceships in the history of Formula X. The Britus B Type won the Formula X Galactic Championship in 2287 at the hands of Beckton Monter, and was a pivotal machine that made Britus the biggest name in spaceship racing today. The actual ship for sale was used for the final race of the season, the 5 laps of Earth to the Moon event which Monter won, giving Britus the championship. The ship has been subject to a complete factory overhaul and is offered in superb condition. The Britus FX Quad 16 nuclear engine has been verified to produce 8,300 THz in base tune, and is in fine mechanical state. As classic racing ships go, this really is the ‘Holy Grail’ and is a pleasure to offer for sale. The ship comes with full Galactic Motorsports Council papers and an extensive document file, including original technical drawings and test notes. Quite fabulous. Offered at Cr 30m.

 

2293 Palatia-Sonnar Nebulus 3 test ship This is the ship that was built by Palatia-Sonnar as a test and spare ship for the 2293 and 2294 Formula X race seasons, but was not used in racing. Due to its history, it has a number of very interesting and unique modifications to the bodywork and engine. At the end of the 2294 season, Palatia-Sonnar used it for testing mechanical components and engines for their racing ships. In 2296 it was decided to undertake an extensive nut and bolt restoration, which was undertaken by the Palatia-Sonnar factory to return the ship back to its original specification and has been very rarely used since. As a result, it is offered in fantastic condition. This is a ship with a very interesting and unique history so should be of great interest to a Formula X enthusiast. Will be sold with a number of spare parts and engine components, and comes with complete GMC papers. First offer over Cr 750,000 will secure or may go to auction.

 

Public ships

 

2274 Sunstar Type C This is a fantastic opportunity to own a very low mileage early Type C, from the first year of production. The ship is offered in superb condition, with just 2m miles. It comes with full service history from Sunstar. Price Cr 6m.

 

2279 Sunstar Type C One of the later Type Cs, with an above average mileage. It has been fully re-commissioned by us and offered in first class mechanical condition. This spaceship is not 100% cosmetically perfect as it has been used as the manufacturer intended it should be! The ship has been enjoyed by a number of owners, and due to the high usage and obvious wear and tear it is offered at a very reasonable Cr 850,000.

 

2295 Gilbern Star Master One of the last Star Masters produced by Gilbern. The ship was commissioned by an industry captain and as such comes with full conference facilities and accommodation for a number of people. As usual with Gilberns, the fit and finish is impeccable. The ship has been maintained without regard to cost so is in perfect condition. Recent service included a new heat shield and full engine rebuild so is virtually as new. Mileage is 2.1 billion, which is reflected in the fact that the ship was used mainly for journeys from Earth to Mars. Cr 750,000.

 

2283 Sunstar Type D Tolmor Tuned Here we have a very unique spaceship. This Type D has had its engine modified by engine tuning specialists Tolmor to run a very solid and reliable 3,000 THz. Offered in very good condition with 200m miles. Cr 175,000.

 

Simon Coates’s Bio & Links

Simon Coates, is an author from North-East England, UK who has been writing for a number of years, after getting an idea about what the future might be like in the 24th century. This was originally a bit of fun that he decided to take up a level when he published his first paperback in December 2014. The general idea is to think of events and concepts that are only possible in this future existence, and basing a story around them. For example, in the cycling story Bike Racing into the Red, the main theme is of a hill climb of Olympus Mons on Planet Mars, which is entirely possible in the proposed future where we live on the Red Planet after it was ‘terraformed’ and made safe to live there. His ultimate goal is to become a full time writer.

Outside of writing, he is a keen bicycle racer, having raced in many events up to National Championship level.

 

Website: www.galactic-echo.com

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @GalacticEcho

Facebook: www.facebook.com/Galactic-Echo-533091686779159

 

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Dylan

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Jack Croxall

Copyright 2015 Jack Croxall

All Rights Reserved

 

Dylan

Are you sure nobody is watching you right now?

There are good versions of the being watched feeling. That buzz you get when you catch an attractive person looking at you, or when someone is watching you play an instrument and you can tell they’re impressed. Stuff like that. But then there is the bad version. That eerie, nauseating feeling that your actions are being monitored, analysed even. It’s that same feeling the old black and white movies are so obsessed with; some PI trudging through the rain in a trench coat and upturned collar, his slick Chicago voiceover announcing, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was bein’ tailed. But in real life it’s not thrilling, it’s not something you can brush off whilst you woo a dame and solve a mystery, it’s stifling.

I’m not exactly sure why anybody would want to watch me. I’m normal. Sixteen years old and doing okay at my local school. Yet still, I think I am being watched. All the little signs are there: deliberate footsteps in the distance, something wrong with reflections I pass in shop windows, and that unshakeable sensation, that instinctive sense that I am never alone.

I think the fact that my parents have gone away for their anniversary makes it worse because the house is empty. I tell myself I’m being paranoid. I live in a busy little town so of course there are people looking in my direction. But they’re probably staring beyond me at a posh car driving along the road, or at someone in the distance they recognise. I tell myself over and over that I’m being stupid. I’m struggling to sleep as it is, exams results are soon, after all.

Anyway, that’s what I should do now, try and get some rest.

 

When I wake it’s still dark. And there’s a noise. A rhythmic pitter-patter outside, like an infant tapping on a toy bongo. I’m scared, should I cower under my duvet? No. I’m not a child anymore for God’s sake. I need to look out of the window and see what it is, probably just a fox or something. I imagine how my dad would react: annoyance at something disturbing his rest on a weekday. That’s what I should be feeling, not fear.

Slowly but surely, I climb out from beneath my covers. The noise continues, never breaking rhythm or getting any louder. Carefully, I tweak my curtains open and peer outside. There’s a figure. He’s standing in my driveway with his back to me. He’s shuffling from foot to foot like he’s cold. I know it’s night time but it’s mid-August, hardly freezing. In his hand is a lit cigarette, a glowing red dot amongst the dull greys and blacks of the municipal gloom.

As he lifts his cigarette to his mouth and takes a long drag, I realise that he’s about my age, maybe a year or so older. Some competitive, aggressive animal instinct surges through my body. I’m going outside and I’m going to demand to know what he’s doing on my property. I move away from the’ curtains and grab my old hockey stick for good measure.

I slam open the front door and take several confident strides outside, brandishing my makeshift weapon. The figure turns and drops his cigarette.

“What are you doing on my driveway?” I shout, surprising even myself at how angry I sound.

His hands shoot into the air like I’m aiming an assault rifle at him. “Holy crap, don’t hurt me, bro!” He’s American.

I stop a few paces in front of him, hockey stick poised to strike in case he tries something. “It’s the middle of the night, what are you doing here? Are you trying to rob me?”

“No, bro, you got me all wrong, dude.” He seems terrified, but it could easily be a ruse so I don’t lower my stick.

“What then?” I demand.

“I’m just checking up on you, bro,” he answers, his hands still raised, “making sure you’re all good, y’know?”

“What the heck is that supposed to —” My blood boils. “Is it you that’s been watching me? Is it you that’s been following me?”

“Er — yeah, but it’s not what you think, it’s —”

“Are you some sick pervert or something?”

“No, no. I’m Dylan; I’m your guardian angel, bro.”

I can honestly say I was not expecting that. “Guardian angel …” I mutter. “Are you mad? No, of course. You’re high. Right, I’m calling the police.” I begin to turn.

He drops to his knees, stopping me. “Bro, please, you can’t.” His hands are clasped together and he looks almost sincere.

“Why shouldn’t I call the police? A stranger on my property in the middle of the night claiming to be a guardian angel? I think the police might be interested in that, bro.”

“Please,” he begs, apparently close to tears, “if you call the police, the guys upstairs — my bosses — they’ll find out and I’ll be in serious doo-doo. Everything I’ve told you is straight up true, I swear it, bro. You gotta believe me.”

I’m stood here in my pyjamas, brandishing my primary school hockey stick, gawping at a madman. I can’t believe what I say next. “If you’re my guardian angel, then where are your wings?”

He looks at me like I’m the mad one. “We don’t have wings, dude, that’s just what parents tell their kiddies …”

I start to turn again.

“Wait,” he shouts, raising himself, “I can prove it!”

As he approaches me, I lift my weapon and he halts, his palms held up in surrender. Next, he slowly reaches inside his leather jacket and pulls out a single cigarette. He snaps the fingers in his other hand and, suddenly, his index finger is on fire. He lights his cigarette from the flame and takes a pull. “See?” he says, exhaling with a smile, “want a drag?”

It’s an impressive trick but it hardly proves the existence of angels. I find myself wondering if this Dylan, this American with shaggy brown hair and loose, ripped jeans, might have some sort of condition. He absolutely seems to believe what he’s saying after all.

“I’m alright,” I say, declining his offer of a smoke, and then, strangely, I add, “thanks.”

He nods and I lower my hockey stick. “Is there someone I can telephone for you?” I ask, as he smokes. “Someone I can ask to come and collect you?”

“Collect me?” he says, confused. “I’m exactly where I need to be.”

“But you can’t stay out here,” I say, trying to sound firm but ending up sounding concerned, “it’s the middle of the night.”

“Thought you’d never ask, bro, it’s freezing out here.”

Before I can stop him, he’s breezed past me on his way towards my front door.

“You can’t go in,” I shout, chasing after him.

“Oh, sorry, bro, where are my manners?” He flicks his half-finished cigarette onto the drive and promptly disappears through the door.

I stammer a few pointless, exasperated syllables before stomping out his cigarette and following him inside.

When I catch up to my guardian angel, he’s already rooting through my fridge.

“I’m stoked you’ve got a fridge full of eats, bro. I’m starving.”

I consider whacking him on the back of the head there and then, but I know there are laws against that kind of thing. And to be frank, my weapon was really just for show anyway.

“You can’t stay here, Dylan,” I say, leaning my hockey stick against the wall as I speak. In the meagre light of the fridge, Dylan looks pretty thin and weedy. I honestly doubt he could do me much damage if it came to blows.

“I totally hear you, bro,” he says, munching on a slice of ham, “just a quick time out and I’ll head straight back outside.”

“No, I mean you can’t stay anywhere on this property.”

He turns to look at me, swallows and then says, “But I’m your guardian angel, dude, I have to stick around to protect you.”

He looks so sincere, so innocent and maybe even … vulnerable? I let out a heavy sigh. “Just make yourself a sandwich, I’ll be right back.”

I need advice. This situation is way beyond me. I head up to my room and grab my phone. I turn it on and, after it’s blinked into life, I try to call my dad. I know it’s night time, but he and Mum are on holiday, maybe they’re still up after a late dinner?

Straight to answer phone. Damn.

I trot back downstairs and find Dylan sitting at my kitchen table, eating a large sandwich in the ambient glow coming through the window. I flick on the light.

“Woah,” Dylan says, squinting, “give me a heads up before you do that again, bro.”

“Dylan,” I say, crossing the kitchen, “do you have a mobile I can use to call your parents? Or maybe a friend?”

“Don’t have a cell,” he says, stuffing more sandwich into his mouth. He swallows and then continues, “Oh, and it would be totally rad if you don’t tell anyone we’ve talked. I’m not really supposed to make contact with my subject unless the brief specifically says so.”

“Brief? What?” I shake my head. “Dylan, you do understand that I need to find someone to come and get you, to take you back home?”

“You are my home, dude,” he says happily, “at least you are whilst I’m on assignment. What’s your name anyway?”

“My name? You say you’re my guardian angel and you don’t even know my name?”

“Sucks, right? They only give us pictures and addresses, say names aren’t important.” He puts on a shrill voice which seems to be an impression of someone he knows, “You only need to know information which will aid you in completing your assignment.” He laughs at his apparently hilarious joke, and then takes another bite of his sandwich. “So what is it?” he asks, between chomps, “Steve? David? Adam — I bet it’s Adam, right?”

I shake my head at all of his suggestions. “James,” I tell him, “it’s James.”

“Hmm. Didn’t have you pegged for a James, dude.”

“I’m sorry,” I respond, backtracking, “what was that you were saying about an assignment just now?”

He puts his sandwich down and swallows. “I’ve been assigned to help you make it through tomorrow, bro. So don’t worry, I got your back.” He gives me a quick thumbs up and goes back to his meal.

“What’s happening tomorrow?” I ask, despite myself. “What is it you think you need to help me through?”

He swallows and then bites his lip. “Erm, I’m afraid I don’t actually know that, bro, I kind of left the assignment doc at my friend Chen’s house. Sorry about that, dude. We’ll work something out though.”

“Your ‘assignment doc’?” I think his sincerity is infectious, I find myself strangely engrossed in what he has to say.

“I’m sorry James, man,” he answers, “but Chen found this old N64 in his basement, and we were playing this righteous racing game, and I sort of forgot to finish reading the doc which explained what’s going down tomorrow, and then I got transported here, and now I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to do. So — erm — sorry about that, bro.”

I’m scarcely keeping up with him and I’m making those strange, monosyllabic noises again.

“Oh, and, also, dude, this is kind of like my first ever assignment, so it’s totally rad that you didn’t phone the cops on me. That would not have ended well for me, man.” He laughs once more and goes back to his sandwich.

I take a deep breath; as surreal as it is, this is the situation that has landed before me and I need to take control and deal with it. It’s what my dad would do.

“Do guardian angels sleep?” I ask, formulating a plan.

Dylan finishes the last of his sandwich and nods. “We certainly do, bro.”

“Then, would you like to stay here tonight? Then we can try and work everything out together in the morning?”

“That would be chill,” he beams, “you’re one awesome dude, James.”

“Excellent. Then follow me to the spare room, it’s all set up so you can sleep in there tonight.”

When I show Dylan into the guestroom, he drops straight onto the bed. “Far out, bro, this is one comfy bunk.”

“Far out, indeed,” I agree somewhat awkwardly. “Do you need anything else?”

He shakes his head, his eyes already closed.

“Great, I’ll see you in the morning. Night, Dylan.”

“Sweet dreams, bro.”

Once I’ve closed the door, I retrieve my hockey stick from the kitchen (just to be safe) and set myself up on a chair in the hallway outside of the guestroom. I resign myself to try Dad’s mobile every fifteen minutes, and begin my watch. It’s only a few hours until morning, and soon I’ll be able to ask my parents what to do. Then I can deal with the situation safely and correctly.

 

I’m woken up by a gentle shake of the shoulder.

“Rise and shine, bro,” Dylan says merrily.

My heart starts to race and I frantically grasp for my hockey stick.

Dylan reaches down to his side. “Here it is, bro,” he says, holding it out for me, “you must have dropped it when you fell asleep.”

“Er — I — thanks,” I stammer fuzzily, taking it back from him without knowing quite what to do with it.

“No, problem. You really like hockey, huh?”

At first I think he’s goading me but then I realise, just like last night, he looks wholly genuine. Crap, last night, my plan. I shoot up from my chair, my aching back and neck protesting painfully. “Do you want any breakfast, Dylan?”

“You read my mind, man,” Dylan answers, “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”

“Right, well, do you want to sit out on the porch in the back garden?” I ask, noticing the sunshine streaming in through the hallway window. “Then I can bring some toast and orange juice out for us?”

“OJ? Righteous!” Dylan exclaims, already heading off down the hall and towards the backdoor.

Once I’m safely alone in the kitchen, I slip my phone out from my pocket. There’s a text message from my dad:

 

Hey, couple of missed calls from u, u ok? Mum and I having a great time, weather perfect D x

 

I hit “call back” and the phone begins to ring, and then keeps on ringing. Eventually, it goes to answer phone. I bet dad left it in the hotel room, he’s always doing that. Cursing myself for sleeping through his text, I leave a hurried voice message asking him to call me back as soon as possible. Then in my head I decide that, if Dad doesn’t phone in the next hour, I’m going to have to call the police and get them to come and sort Dylan out. That notion makes me feel slightly guilty though.

When I take the toast and juice outside, Dylan is sitting on a garden chair smoking. I find myself wondering if he used his little trick to light his cigarette again.

“Awesome,” he says, eyeing the food, “I’m starving.”

I sit down as Dylan puts out his cigarette and we both start eating.

“So, how are you feeling today?” I ask tentatively, through mouthfuls of toast and jam.

“Stupendous, bro,” he answers, “thanks so much for putting me up last night.”

“No problem,” I say graciously. But I’m really more interested in knowing if he still thinks he’s my guardian angel. Maybe he’ll claim he’s my talking pet dog today, or maybe even an alien. “And what about everything we talked about last —”

“Bro,” he interrupts confidently, “don’t you worry about a thing. Whatever happens today, I got your back — that’s what being a guardian angel is all about.”

At least that answers that. I swallow another mouthful of toast and, before I’ve even considered whether I should really be humouring his fantasy, I ask, “So how does the guardian angel business work, then? How do you people know something bad is going to happen to me?”

“Beats me,” Dylan answers between chomps, “I just get sent a brief from my bosses. Then, at a designated time I get transported near to where the subject is living. That’s usually a couple of days before the bad thing goes down, that way we have plenty of time to scope out the situation.”

“And then what?”

“Mainly keep our distance, and intervene only when the bad thing finally happens. Some briefs have specific tasks, so, like, make sure the subject has no access to dangerous substances in case they try something reckless, or make sure a loved one is around that day to comfort them.”

“Sounds like a worthwhile job.” I notice it”s me that sounds sincere now.

“It is,” Dylan answers. “I kinda just fell into to it, but it”s been pretty rad so far.”

I’m about to ask something else when my phone rings. “Excuse me,” I say, standing from the table, “I’d better answer this.”

“Go for it, bro.”

As soon as I’m in the hallway, I lift the phone to my ear. “Dad, I’ve —”

“James,” the voice says, “it’s Michael.”

“Michael?” I say, annoyed it’s my best friend and not my dad. “Sorry, but I can’t really do anything today, I’m —”

“No, it’s not that, mate,” he says. I can tell he’s nervous.

“Is everything okay?” I ask.

“Look, James, you know how I said I was going into school to help mum out yesterday?”

“Yeah?”

“Well I did, and I managed to sneak into Davenport’s office when mum and the other cleaners went for a coffee break. I had a look through everyone’s results …”

“How did we do?” I ask, my stomach doing butterflies.

“I’m sorry, mate,” he answers dismally, “but you only got three C and above.”

“Oh…” I say, the world around me turning grey.

“But you got an A in History,” he adds with a glimmer of cheerfulness, “and a B in English, that’s good.” But the damage is done. Without five C and above the head of sixth form will never let me in. I’m finished.

“How did you do?” I manage to ask, trying to care.

“I did okay thanks, mate. I’m really sorry, but I thought you’d want to know now rather than finding out in front of everyone at school.”

“Yeah, thanks for telling me,” I say, sounding as miserable as I feel.

“Do you want me to come over?” Michael asks.

“No — no, thanks. I just need a bit of time. I’ll call you later. Thanks.”

“Of course, let me know if you need —”

I hang up and pocket my phone, staring at the walls. That’s it, my entire plan; get into sixth form, get my A-levels and go to university, scuppered. The head of sixth form, Mrs Davenport, is exceptionally strict. There’s no way she’s going to let me in with just three C and above. What happened? I’m no Einstein, but I was certain I’d done enough to get my five Cs. I was sure of it.

Leaving Dylan to fend for himself, I head up to my bedroom. It’s the only thing I can think to do; crawl under my covers and hide from the world forever.

Just as I collapse into my bed, my phone starts ringing again. It’s dad. I don’t answer; I have bigger problems than Dylan now.

my life is over

 

After about an hour, I hear a soft knock on my bedroom door.

“Everything cool in there, bro?”

I ignore him so he knocks again, louder this time. “James, you in there, man? You’ve been gone ages, I kinda ate your toast …”

“Go away!” There is real venom in my voice because I want to be left alone, I just want to wallow in my own misery.

My door bursts open. “Did the bad thing happen?” Dylan asks desperately, peering around my room.

“Dylan,” I say, as his eyes find me cocooned in my duvet, “I just want to be on my own right now.”

“Just tell me what happened,” he says, “are you alright?”

I open my mouth intending to tell him to leave, but something in his wide, innocent eyes stops me. “My friend Michael called me,” I say, surprised at how honest I’m being, “I didn’t do well enough in my exams to get into sixth form.”

Dylan looks genuinely distraught. “Dude, that blows. I’m so sorry, man.”

“Thanks,” I say automatically.

“I remember the not doing well enough in your exams feeling,” Dylan says, “I’ll leave you to your thoughts.”

“Wait,” I say, “you didn’t do well in your exams either?”

Dylan turns back and shakes his head. “I totally flunked my angel entrance exams, no performing miracles or chillin’ with the big dog for me.”

“But you are an angel,” I say, “you told me you’re my guardian angel.”

Dylan nods. “Totally. You don’t need top grades to get on the guardian angel training programme, so, after I flunked my angel entrance exams, I enrolled on the guardian course instead.”

“So being here, it’s not what you really want?”

“I love being a guardian angel, bro,” Dylan answers passionately. “Even though classes were tough and I’ve only been doing it a few days, I just know it’s what I want to do. Sounds corny, but I think it’s what I was born to do. Making a difference, it’s what I aspire to, man. The guardian course made me realise that.”

“Would you not prefer to be a proper, miracle-performing angel though? You know, if you could?”

“Screw that,” Dylan says, “a fully-fledged angel was what my parents wanted me to be. Besides, I like being down here amongst you guys.”

I nod slowly.

“Do you have any idea what you’ll do?” Dylan asks. “If you don’t get into sixth form do you have to, like, flip burgers til the end of your days or something?”

I chuckle. “No, of course not. There are college courses you can get onto with lower grades, apprenticeships, and you can even take a gap year or study abroad.” I’m taken aback by my own knowledge. I guess some of what the careers people said sunk in after all.

“Righteous. Well, I’ll go clear up the breakfast stuff, let you get your head together.”

“Okay, see you later, Dylan.”

As Dylan leaves, I close my eyes. I missed a lot of sleep after last night’s excitement, and I’m feeling physically and mentally drained.

 

I wake feeling a lot better. My first thought is that it’s all due to Dylan, and I need to get up and thank him for our little talk.

When I go downstairs, he’s not in the kitchen or the sitting room. He’s not out on the porch either, so I head for the guestroom.

Inside, the spare bed is made and the window is open. A gentle breeze circulates the room, bringing the sweet scent of summer in with it. Dylan is gone. I smile. Somehow, I know he’ll be back if I ever need him. I close the door and head upstairs to fire up my laptop. Time to do some research, time to find some new life goals. I’m excited.

Jack Croxall’s Bio & Links

Originally trained as an environmental scientist, Jack Croxall soon discovered a life in the lab wasn’t for him. He started writing for student publications at university and writing quickly became his passion. He’s now the award-winning author of Wye and the Tethers trilogy, and can be found toiling away as a science/literature writer in between working on his books.

He tweets via @JackCroxall and blogs at www.jackcroxall.co.uk

 

 

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A Neophyte’s Tale

An Abbey Thorne Short Story

 

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CK Dawn

Copyright 2015 C K Dawn

All Rights Reserved

 

Dedication

 

To all the lost souls out there. May you find shelter,

kindness, and your way home.

 

A Neophyte’s Tale –

Prologue ~ Ships Passing

 

New York ~ 2000

 

The nine year old was trying to match her father’s long stride as they walked down the street to the movie theater. It was a warm sunny day and her father had finally relented to leave his desk, piled high with countless gadgets, and spend it with his daughter doing whatever she wanted. A new movie called Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was playing and the young girl wanted to check out the new fighting styles. As they walked she practiced some combat techniques of her own and tried to open her senses to her surroundings. Birds were chirping in the trees that lined the sidewalk. The scents of freshly baked lemon biscotti and French roast coffee from the bakery three blocks down mingled with the smells of hot tires on asphalt and three day old dumpster trash. And, there was a baby crying in the alley.

A baby? she thought suspiciously. The young girl could have sworn the cries had come from deep within a nearby alley and not from an open apartment window.

As she and her father neared the alley the young girl slowed, stopped, and bit her bottom lip. Only silence greeted her now, but something still felt wrong. The darkest crevices of the alley seemed almost too quiet, as though they were hiding something or someone. She slowed her heart rate, steadied her breath, and concentrated. Her mouth watered in anticipation.

“Practicing your hunting skills?” her father whispered proudly.

The young girl nodded. “I think there’s something down there,” she whispered back remembering her parents’ lessons to avoid panicking dociles.

Her father nodded, not questioning his daughter’s uncanny pre-gloamer senses. “Hmm, I better report it then,” he said taking his phone from his pocket as he resumed walking down the street.

The young girl didn’t follow. Instead, she looked deeper into the alley trying to pierce the darkness with hunter eyes she did not yet have. Again, only blackness and silence greeted her.

Up the street, her father stopped as he ended his call, “Come on, Lourdiebug, we’re going to be late.”

“Okay, Daddy!” As the young girl ran to catch up, she could have sworn she felt the flux shift followed by an almost imperceptible fading laughter, gloating and self-satisfied, echoing from the alley.

 

Urban Surviving

 

New York ~ 2012

 

The word was back, soft and sweet, strumming in her ears with its gentle caress of hope and promise. It was just an ordinary word, but it felt so tactile, so kind and pure, it had to mean something. With the word always came the pull, a yearning, an unexplainable desire, to be part of a something bigger. Pulling her towards… something, but towards what, she couldn’t say exactly. She only knew what direction called to her. South, always south, toward Manhattan. Maybe someday she would be brave enough and go, just leave everything behind and seek out the simple little word that sang so profoundly in her mind and haunted her so lovingly.

But, not today. Today, they were on the move again, and moving further away from the direction of the call. Her mom didn’t like to stay in one place for too long, not since she and her stepdad had lost the house and parted ways. “‘Too many shadows,’ he tells me. ‘Take her, she’s yours’.” Her mom, Jennifer Thorne, would mumble in her sleep after she had drunk too much. Her mom always tried to hide the bottles along with her staggering and slurring, but Abigail Thorne knew. Kids, especially smart inquisitive twelve year olds left to their own devices for days on end like Abbey, always knew what their parents try to hide.

Abbey put the black trash bag containing what few belongings she had under her pillow and sat on the latest bare mattress. Home, she thought, shuddering as she stared at the big yellowish-brown stain covering half her mattress. The room had little in the way of furniture. There was an old mirror that had been permanently glued to the closet door with a fading “Welcome to the Jungle” sticker in its upper corner. Abbey caught a glimpse of herself, but quickly turned away. Her rounded cheeks were sunken and her wavy blonde hair was dirty and unkempt. The sights around her were cruel, full of a grim despair that never seemed to end. She closed her eyes on this dreary world and listened to her other senses instead.

With her eyes closed, smells seemed richer and sounds became symphonic. From across the alley, she heard a mother singing to her crying baby. Someone else was cooking with their apartment window wide open. The smells of curry were heavenly. Abbey ignored the grumbling in her stomach and focused on the joyous sounds from below. It was dusk and cold, but a few kids were still playing ball in the alley. Abbey wondered if she knew any of them. She and her mom hadn’t moved too far from old haunts, yet.

As she wiped a tear from her cheek, she made a silent vow to stay in school or find a nearby library. She would keep reading and studying no matter how far they ran this time. Learning and normalcy with the few friends she had was what she wanted and desperately needed. But, she also craved something darker. She craved something that made her bleak reality fade away, if only for a little while. Something she knew was in her mother’s bathroom under the sink, far left hand side, behind the roach spray and forty-grit toilet paper.

Abbey waited until she heard her mother’s breathing slow as she fell into a deep intoxicated sleep on the sofa. Silently she retrieved her mother’s hidden vodka bottle and headed back to her own room. Her mom wouldn’t notice the missing bottle, she never did. Jennifer would simply think she had finished it herself and get another, and then maybe one more.

Bottle in one hand, Abbey ripped the mocking sticker from her mirror. She placed an old wooden chair beside the small window in her bedroom and propped the broken window-sill open with a large stick she had found on the fire exit stoop. She sat in the dark, cracked open the bottle, and gazed out into the night searching for the origins of the homey dinner she had smelled earlier. Her stomach growled again, thinking of the meal. She clenched her eyes shut. When was the last time I ate?

Abbey’s eyes popped open when she heard a faraway doorbell chime. With her senses heightened she followed the sound and heard a fading conversation “…thanks for the tip, Bernie. See you next Friday.” A door shut then Abbey noticed the lovely smells of buttered popcorn mingling with the arrival of pizza. She decided to peek out of her own window to investigate.

The man’s window was wide open and he had his bare feet propped up on a worn wooden coffee table enjoying a large bowl of buttery kernels. She quirked her head, Bernie, huh? Nice to meet ya. Abbey’s attention was drawn to the windowsill and giggled when she noticed a smaller bowl of popcorn. He had placed it right outside his window, obviously waiting for someone. The man, Bernie, seemed warm and kind. When his TV screen lit up with the familiar blue words, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…,” Abbey knew she had found a kindred spirit.

But for how long? she thought. Her mom would undoubtedly have them on the move again, and soon. Just when Abbey found a little happiness and settled in to a place, her mother would pack them both up and leave.

Abbey looked down at the bottle in her hand and instead of taking a drink, put the cap back on and placed it on the floor. She wanted to enjoy the moment with all her senses intact, not dulled by alcohol. Abbey gave a contented sigh as she listened to the symphonic explosion of the movie’s theme song fade into a galactic battle.

Suddenly a tiny black kitten jumped down from the fire escape and landed on Bernie’s windowsill, purring so loud Abbey swore she could hear it from across the alley. The scrappy little thing meowed happily before eating from the small bowl of popcorn. Wait, Abbey quirked her head again, Do kittens eat popcorn? Is that a thing?

Then the kindest voice in the warmest southern accent Abbey had ever heard pierced through the darkness. His voice resonated with the same tangible prospect of hope that her simple little word always had as it rang in her head. Abbey couldn’t help but weep as if Bernie had spoken directly to her instead of welcoming the scraggly kitten in, “Hiya, hon. Welcome home.”

 

  • * *

 

Looking out the living room window again she tried to determine what time it was. 6:45 maybe 7:00 p.m.? Abbey thought.

Her mother hadn’t come home last night and Abbey was beginning to wonder if she would even come home tonight. From the kitchen counter she took the heels of bread from the now empty bag and made herself a cheese sandwich. Deli meat was a luxury she hadn’t known for weeks. She didn’t bother grilling it, she couldn’t. The gas had been shut off a day ago.

It hadn’t always been like this. She remembered being happy before her stepdad left. Her mom even seemed happy, most of the time – or at least not drunk as often.

Abbey wondered if she should report her mother missing, but then what? Even if they did find her mother she’d still end up stuck in the system. She knew the drill. No, her mom would be back, eventually. Abbey would give her one more day. Her mom always came back after three days.

From the chair in her bedroom, she sat down to enjoy her neighbor’s television and her cheese sandwich. Bernie’s sci-fi marathons these past few months had kept Abbey sane and sober. Watching the tiny alley cat grow more comfortable around this friendly southerner had been the cherry on top of her lonely life. Abbey allowed herself a little bit of anticipatory excitement as she wondered what film he would watch today. Positioning herself so that she could avoid detection but see her neighbor’s TV screen, she readied herself for his evening show. Oddly, his TV was off and it looked like he was about to leave. This change in routine had Abbey curious, so she threw on her shoes and followed him.

 

Keeping her distance, Abbey put her hood up as she ducked behind corners and stood behind trees, making the chase a game of sorts. She followed Bernie down the stairs of the subway station and covertly slid on her knees under one of the ticket stalls. No one had noticed. She giggled to herself and her stealthy moves.

When they emerged in Manhattan Abbey turned in circles enjoying all the sights and sounds.

Her word was with her and seemed to be stronger here, like she suspected it would be. It was as though the innocuous string of letters was wrapping her in a blanket, welcoming her in out of the cold, and saying ‘you belong here with us.’

They made their way down 5th street and Abbey watched from across the street near Central Park as Bernie entered a luxury apartment building. Ooh, fancy! She knew the apartments had to cost well over a million dollars each.

Abbey quirked her head. Huh, so weird. He’s got an apartment, why is he here? Oh! Maybe he’s the janitor. Hmm, the Vaughn Building, huh? Sounds uber snooty!

From behind the reception desk a very eager young man held up a plate of cookies and smiled. Abbey’s neighbor waved them off, shook his head no, and headed for the building’s elevator without looking back.

The young man behind the desk seemed to deflate with disappointment as he slowly put the cookies back behind the desk. He looked out the building’s vast windows as if he were waiting for someone. Abbey ducked behind a tree.

Definitely not the janitor then. Abbey tapped her finger on her chin as she quirked her head again, so, who are you Mr. Alley Cat Dude?

 

  • * *

 

Abbey was tired, tired of being the only adult in the relationship with her mother. She wanted to play and dance and do normal things that normal twelve year olds were supposed to do, not wait around like a worried parent wondering where her mother was all the time. She was also angry. Angry at the yelling and sirens that always woke her up in the middle of the night. Angry at her mother for leaving yet again. She hated this neighborhood and she hated her mother for abandoning her to it. Abbey tried to stay in touch with her stepdad. Every time she and her mom moved, she would leave him a message with their new address, but he would never pick up the phone and he had never written.

After her little excursion to the Vaughn Building four months ago things had gotten a little better between her and her mom for a while. Jennifer had gotten a part time job at a deli down the street and had promised to enroll Abbey in school. Abbey tried to believe her mom’s promises that things would change, but she knew better. As always, her mom’s pattern of bad habits had surfaced again. Abbey felt completely alone and empty as she sat in the dark apartment and waited for her mother to come home.

 

A sound she couldn’t immediately identify woke Abbey. As she struggled to get her bearings, she realized she had fallen asleep. She heard keys scratching at the door as her mother fumbled with the lock.

Abbey jumped up, rushing to the door. She pulled it open and began admonishing the intoxicated woman. “I’ve been alone for three days! Mom you promised,” she then looked her mother over with the aid of the hallway lights, assessing whatever injuries she may have sustained during her absence. “And, where are your shoes?”

“Shh, don’t exaggerate. I’ve only been gone a couple of hours.” Jennifer Thorne moved passed her daughter, leaning on one side of the small hallway for support. A grocery bag was tucked beneath her arm. Abbey looked at it with a sigh, hoping the bag contained food but knowing that it most likely held alcohol.

“No, it has been three days! Just like last time! You’ve been with him again, haven’t you?”

“Let him taste the sugar and you get the candy for free,” her mother said, with an evil laugh and a swift, graceless shake of her butt.

The bag full of cheap vodka crashed to the ground as Jennifer lost her balance.

Anger swelled inside Abbey. “Pimping yourself out to a drug dealer to support your stupid habits? Stepdaddy would be so proud!”

A smack on the face usually came next, but not this time. Abbey watched like she was having an out of body experience as her mother raised her hand to strike. Time seemed to slow as she easily moved out of the way. Not just once, but twice, and on the third swing Abbey stood steadfast, grabbed her stunned mother’s wrist, and pushed her away.

Abbey looked down at her hands. How did I do that? It’s like I knew where mom would strike before she did it.

Jennifer stumbled back against the kitchen counter. Her eyes were wide as she stared at her daughter almost as if she were afraid of the twelve year old. “It’s your fault he’s gone – Shit!”

Whatever cruelty Jennifer was about to assault her daughter with was interrupted by a shard of glass that had sliced her foot. Stumbling towards their kitchenette she managed to step on a few more pieces.

Abbey moved to her mother’s side to help her walk. “Stop. Just stop, you’re stepping on more. OMG, even drunk you’re so-” she frantically waved her free hand trying to think of how to describe how disappointed she was in her mother’s behavior. “You’re so typical! Drunk or sober you sound like every other horrible mother in this stupid building, blaming their kid instead of taking responsibility for-” Abbey refused to let her tears fall. Instead, she pulled a handkerchief from inside her hoodie and tried to wipe away the blood from her mother’s foot.

Jennifer pushed Abbey’s hand away. “Get off me. It’s not that bad.”

Abbey felt like a stranger looking in at her life. A scene from a sad movie was merely playing out before her as she unthinkingly folded the sullied handkerchief and placed it on the kitchen counter. She even refrained from asking her mother the same questions that plagued her every time they argued. Why did you even have me? And, why do you keep dragging me around everywhere? The answers didn’t seem to matter anymore. Abbey was numb to her surroundings as she looked around the barren apartment. She could almost predict everything that would follow. Her mom was already limping to the couch, lighting a cigarette. Her foot was still bleeding as she propped it on the milk crate they called their coffee table.

Abbey scoffed at her next prediction. In fifteen seconds mom’s chest will start to heave, then she’ll begin to cry. This is where she apologizes and I become a blithering, snotty mess. Then it’ll all start over again.

Abbey took a deep breath and started before her mom could begin to cry. “Mom, I love you. You’re the only family I have, but I need more. I want to go back to school and I want to stop stealing your stash of vodka. All of this moving is just not healthy for us. My friend Maggie said I could stay with her for a while,” she lied. She would clear it with Maggie when she showed up at her house. Abbey looked down at her feet as Jennifer began to cry. “I can’t do this anymore.”

Several minutes of Jennifer’s sobbing turned into sniffles. “Baby girl I-” Jennifer paused and sat up. “Wait. What did you do with my vodka?”

Abbey shook her head in defeat and walked to their front door without looking back. “I’ll be at Maggie’s,” she said, and slammed the door.

Worlds Colliding

 

He gave her that look. Abbey hated the sympathetic look people always gave her when she went searching for her missing mother. This time the look was coming from her mother’s boss. He hadn’t seen or heard from her in seven days. Neither had Abbey. Yesterday, the look had come from Maggie when Abbey lied and said her mom and stepdad were back from their impromptu second honeymoon. It was obvious that Maggie hadn’t believed her. The sad looks were always followed by too many questions that Abbey was ashamed to answer. She couldn’t stay with Maggie any longer, the sad looks made it impossible.

After Abbey left the love and warmth of Maggie’s house to return to an empty apartment and an eviction notice, she knew something was wrong. A week had passed and the blood and broken glass were still covering their kitchen floor and her mother’s remaining alcohol stash remained untouched.

From behind his glass counter her mother’s boss was rolling up several deli sandwiches making Abbey’s mouth water. “If she comes in early tomorrow, I’ll give her another chance, but this is the last time.”

“Thanks,” was all Abbey could manage as she walked out of the man’s store.

“Hey, kid!”

Abbey turned. The man tossed her a sandwich, still warm and fragrant in its waxy wrapper.

“Good luck out there, huh?” he said, giving her another sympathetic look.

Abbey barely nodded her head as she left the deli. She tucked the sandwich into her hoodie’s kangaroo pocket for later as her stomach growled in protest. Yes, she was hungry and had been walking around for hours, but she wasn’t starving. Yet.

She headed for the last place on her mental list of where her mom could be. It was also the last place she wanted to find her mother.

 

Please don’t be pee, please don’t be pee, Abbey thought as she walked down the abandoned building’s ratty hallway, avoiding the wet debris. As she made her way to the apartment and drug den she knew lurked within Abbey gathered her strength. It was the same apartment building her mother swore she would stop coming to. Abbey hadn’t believed her, not after seeing first-hand how many drugs were being passed so freely. But this time the building was quiet. There was no loud music blaring, no thick haze of smoke clinging to the air, and no coughing or wheezing coming from the countless addicts Abbey had passed during her first encounter. The building seemed empty now. When she reached the last door at the end of the hallway she took a deep breath and swung it open without stepping inside. Abbey gasped and put her hands to her mouth.

Jennifer Thorne was sitting alone on the floor propped against a wall staring into nothingness. The apartment was bare, abandoned but for a few pieces of ruined furniture, and her mother had been left to rot. She looked like a rag doll that had lost all of its filling, weak, frail, and so limp her muscles looked like they had atrophied. The drying vomit surrounding her on the floor had started to attract flies.

Abbey jumped as Jennifer took an unexpected shallow ragged breath, but still her mother didn’t blink and she actually looked… happy.

Abbey’s shock was replaced by anger as she stepped through the threshold. “Well, you really did it this time didn’t you!”

 

The grungy, barren apartment instantly morphed into a familiar house. Her stepdad waved at her from the kitchen as he pulled a turkey out of the oven. Her mom swatted him with a towel while he basted the bird. He pulled her into a kiss and smiled as he grabbed the towel and swatted her back. The sights and smells were intoxicating and Abbey swore she could live in the perfect memory forever.

 

Memory? Abbey thought as her stomach growled. A flash of soiled couches assaulted her vision. She shook her head trying to remember something, but her mind felt hazy. “Abigail Renee Thorne,” her mother’s voice whispered in her head as the couple before her remained locked in an embrace. The welcoming smells of Thanksgiving dinner began to sour, morphing into odors of rancid human waste.

“Abigail Renee Thorne!” her mother said holding her stepdad’s hands and looking into his eyes.

 

Abbey shook her head again, closing her eyes for a moment. She looked across the room at her frail mother as the apartment kept shifting from a festive holiday home into a dingy graffiti tagged drug den.

“Mom! What’s going on? Mom?” Abbey ran across the room, fell to her knees, and shook her mother. Jennifer was lifeless, staring blissfully into nothingness. Abbey followed her mother’s gaze up to the ceiling and noticed an out of place shadow hovering in the darkest hollow of the room.

The shadow looked like a canopy of mist draped in the corner of the ceiling, almost tangible, like a physical three dimensional thing sculpted from onyx.

Jennifer gasped for air as Abbey was pulled back into the Thanksgiving vision.

 

Her mother smiled at her husband as he carved the turkey. “I’m so sorry, baby girl. For everything.”

The man stopped carving and lifted his head towards Abbey. Only smooth pale flesh stared back at her, no mouth, no nose or eyes, only emptiness. Her stepdad had no face. He began carving again, but this time the bird was gone and he used the blade on himself. As he cut parts of his own flesh from his arm, the skin and sinew fell to the floor. They disappeared, one after another as Abbey’s reality threatened to slip away. For a moment she feared her spine was melting as she strained to avert her eyes from the horrific and jumbled images.

 

From above her the shadow appeared and rattled like a snake’s tail. It was as though her two realities were morphing together. The shadow shimmered from the darkest black to the bleakest of grays, as if it were reacting to Abbey’s awareness of it.

“No time. Hood up, like I taught you!” Jennifer said cupping her stepdad’s cheek as he kept cutting.

Abbey complied without question as the shadow rattled louder and louder.

“Now run and don’t look back! I’m so sorry, baby girl. Always remember that I love you.”

Abbey looked at the shadow again as it began to slither off the ceiling and morph into…Oh my god!

A sharp pain ran up Abbey’s leg. It felt as though something had pierced her thigh. The dregs of her happiest memory faded as her awareness completely returned to the filthy room. She looked down once more. Jennifer had grabbed her leg and was now looking directly at her.

“Run.” Jennifer mustered a shaky warning as she took one last breath.

Instincts Abbey didn’t know she possessed kicked in as she jumped up and ran from the apartment, slamming the door shut behind her. Running down the hall with her head down and hood up she heard a loud roar and a thud against the apartment door that vibrated through the floor beneath her feet. Her mind was still hazy, the illusion of her stepfather on Thanksgiving had been so real. Please tell me I’m hallucinating that creature, too!

“Hey!” an arm reached out and grabbed her.

Ouch! What the hell was that?

The policeman let go and recoiled as a jolt of electricity surged through Abbey’s body.

He must have felt it too! Abbey thought, taking advantage of the cop’s stunned reaction. Pulling her hood further down to cover her face, she ran down the stairs and didn’t look back.

“Hey, Kid! Stop!” but the cop didn’t follow.

Fighting back tears, Abbey heard another splintering thud against the apartment door that demanded the officer’s attention. The shadow creature sounded like a caged beast, feral, and wild. Her mind was hazy as if waking from a dream. She wondered if the shadow had done something to her. Fearing the creature had been real and that her mother was truly dead she ran blindly down the city street trying to make sense of what had just happened.

 

  • * *

 

“What about the girl?” asked Detective Jack LaCrosse.

“Abbey? That’s her name as far as I can tell,” Bernie Stevens said with a southern drawl. He sighed and walked away from the apartment towards the detective waiting for him in the hall. “I heard her momma yellin’ it once or twice.”

Detective LaCrosse seemed shocked. “That was her mother?” he said, pointing down the building’s ratty hallway littered with trash and flickering light bulbs.

Bernie lowered his head slightly, trying to erase the image of the dead woman’s body he wouldn’t soon forget. “Well, if she wasn’t her momma she was the closest approximation to family I gather Abbey had. It’s a damn shame.”

“Do you think you can find her again?”

“She’ll find her way to us. She’s almost ready.” The southerner scoffed. It was apparent the detective didn’t know much about what a shepherd actually did. “I’ve been watchin’ her for a while now.”

The young detective scratched his head. “So, she’s a neophyte then?” he asked, waving another uniformed officer over who had sworn the girl was one of them. “You’re sure, Bernie?”

Bernie looked at Detective LaCrosse.

Shrinking a little under the seasoned guardian’s gaze, LaCrosse waved the uniformed officer away. “Of course you’re sure…Why-How did she end up like this?”

Bernie looked around, waited for a few dociles from the precinct and coroner’s office to pass, and then whispered to his fellow guardian. “The Court may’ve been built of stone and mortar, but there are cracks in any foundation, my friend. Sometimes people slip through.”

LaCrosse let a few more dociles pass then whispered, “Well, whoever she is she’d make a damn good hunter.”

 

  • * *

 

Abbey shoved her back against the brick wall as hard as she could, trying to wake up from the nightmare she now found herself in, but she knew it wasn’t a dream. As the haze in her mind began to subside, reality set in. She was alone and her mother was dead. Abbey bit down hard on her forearm and muffled her screams of terror into her sleeve. The jagged bricks dug into her back as she slid down the wall. She welcomed the pain. Unencumbered her tears flowed, mingling with the rain streaming down her face as she slumped to the ground. Exhaustion consumed her and the edges of her vision dimmed. She welcomed the darkness as sounds faded and everything around her turned to black.

 

  • * *

 

“Run!” Her mother’s frail body flashed in her mind and startled Abbey awake. She realized that she must have passed out. Trying to stay warm and dry she tugged her hoodie down further over her face, but it was no use. The rain had already seeped through the fabric and she was soaked and freezing.

How long have I been here? How many days? Abbey took a minute and finally surveyed her surroundings. Even in a daze, running away from her mother’s body and the strange sensation from the cop, she had still ended up in a familiar alley. She remembered the sun setting and rising at least once. She was extremely tired, but closing her eyes again and seeing her mother’s dead body was not an option.

A shimmer of light caught her eye. Crazy Carol’s stash of whiskey was behind the dumpster next to her. Abbey could see the glass bottle hugging the same brick wall she was. That would warm her up and numb everything else, at least for a little while.

But then what? Abbey shook her head back and forth trying to make sense of it all, but her brain still seemed clouded by a fog. A haze of doubt was clinging to her subconscious. She wasn’t sure what was real or imagined anymore. Did I really see that shadow turn into a monster? And what about that strange buzz I felt around that cop? I felt it down in my bones. What the hell was that? OMG, am I freaking turning into spider girl or something? What’s happening to me? She rubbed her eyes ferociously, as though it would wipe away the image of her mother’s withered body. That had been real. She was certain. What am I going to do? I’m all alone!

Sounds of happy school kids walking down the street drew her attention to the alley’s opening far in the distance.

The strange buzzing started to resonate through her body again, just before one of the kids slowed their pace. What the hell? Abbey thought.

A boy with floppy brown hair tripped over his own feet as if he, too, had felt something. He stopped and looked down the alley.

Abbey gasped, cowering deeper into the shadows waiting for him to leave.

The boy and his friends looked like snooty rich kids, all dressed up in their school uniforms and plaid ties. They even had umbrellas with their school’s name on them; S.B. Devere Academy.

“Humph, sounds stupid,” Abbey whispered.

“C’mon Muddle!” another boy shouted. And with that, the curious boy turned and walked away.

As the group of students continued their journey, Abbey’s senses seemed heightened. She could still make out some of their conversations and she could feel the buzzing dissipating the further the kids walked.

“… I don’t understand. Why can’t I just have my driver take us to the museum? I cannot get out of this neighborhood fast enough.”

Abbey imagined the boy who responded was the same one who almost spotted her, “Headmaster Frobisher said it would build character…” Their voices finally faded into the cacophony of the busy New York street.

She may have imagined the strange shadow creature, but she was sure the tingling she felt was real now and she knew exactly where she was going to go to get answers. Her brain was screaming for her to follow her instincts.

Abbey placed her uneaten sandwich next to Carol’s bottle of whiskey, dried her tears, got up, and walked out of the alley.

 

Hope Rising

Abbey’s instincts led her to the alley below her apartment. The smell of burnt popcorn assaulted her nose, but was comforting and familiar somehow, just like her little word. Standing in the alley, Abbey kept her back to her own apartment, there was nothing left for her there. Instead she only looked forward, up through the pouring rain into her neighbor’s open window on the fifth floor. Above her head there was a fire escape ladder on the second. Finally being so close to Bernie’s apartment, she could feel the same faint buzzing in her bones that she felt when the cop had grabbed her arm and when the school kids had walked by. I knew it! she scoffed.

Whatever it was that had happened while her mom lay dying, she knew it had awoken something within her. The buzzing seemed almost second nature to her now, like breathing in a warm familiar scent, like home. Abbey felt as though she were on the verge of discovering a hidden world that these unnatural encounters had opened up to her, like a cloak covering her eyes had been lifted and she was finally seeing the world as it truly was.

Taking a deep breath and a leap of faith, she jumped, grabbed the ladder, and pulled. It came down to the ground with a rusty squeal. She couldn’t help the chuckle that filtered through her rain soaked tears as the burned popcorn’s scent came towards her again. Mr. Alley Cat Dude, I think you forgot to check your microwave.

Feeling like the scrappy little black kitten herself, Abbey took another deep breath and started to climb. With every rung she knew she wasn’t just leaving the city’s alleyways behind but her sewers of despair and addiction as well. She knew she was climbing towards her little word and her future. The word was with her now. It was becoming a part of her with every rung she climbed. She knew she was climbing towards her fate.

When she reached Bernie’s balcony she crouched down, peered through the open window, and began to panic. What am I going to say? He doesn’t even know me.

A soft chuckle reminiscent of Saint Nick’s came from the couch. Then Bernie, and the scruffy black kitten curled up beside him, looked up towards the window. The kind hearted man waved Abbey in from behind his bowl of popcorn, “Hiya, hon. Come on in. Welcome home.”

 

Epilogue ~ Cloak Unveiling

Manhattan, NY ~ One Year Later

 

Bernie folded his hands as he finished telling his audience the young neophyte’s tale. He didn’t need shepherd senses to know that Abbey’s unfortunate journey had touched Lourdes Reese. Bernie contemplated giving her a tissue but knew that as a hunter she would take it as an insult.

Lourdie blinked several times. She sat in stunned silence, images of the story Bernie had just told her undoubtedly playing wildly in her head. She seemed horrified by Abbey Thorne’s story as Bernie had recounted it.

“That’s awful, Bernie!” she finally said, wiping away her tears.

“Sorry, hon, but it’s true,” Bernie said, still fighting the urge to hand the brunette beauty a tissue. “It’s as much as I’ve been able to get outta the poor girl, but I’m sure there’s more we’ll never know.”

Lourdie shook her head. “Why are you telling me all of this?” she asked, looking between Bernie and Marcus Vaughn.

“The neophyte took her gloaming bond and chose the path of a hunter” Marcus Vaughn, knight of the King’s Court New York, stated matter-of-factly from behind his desk.

“Lourdie, hon?” Bernie looked to Marcus for approval before continuing. “We think she would benefit from a strong female role model in her life and well-”

“You want me to take her on as an apprentice?” Lourdie asked, looking straight at Marcus. She suddenly seemed displeased, having spotted the ambush.

Bernie couldn’t recall a time he’d ever seen the hunter with an apprentice in tow. Which was odd, really. Lourdes Reese was one of the best hunters in the King’s Court so naturally she should have an apprentice, or several for that matter. Bernie tried to ignore trivial things that weren’t his business, but his senses were telling him there was something hidden here. Opening his senses a bit, he picked up that Marcus, as least, was failing to conceal some sort of relationship with the hunter. With Lourdie, there was something more.

Heavily relying on his southern disposition for discretion, Bernie concentrated on his goal instead. “It’s still your choice, but I was hoping you’d meet the girl before making your final decision,” Bernie said. “Abbey and the rest of the freshman hunters start orb training at school tomorrow.”

“I’m actually making your participation in the delvir class a bi-annual event as of now,” Marcus said. “I hope you choose an apprentice, Lourdie, whether it’s this girl Abbey or not. It’s time my best hunter had an apprentice.”

“I’ll meet her, but I’m not promising anything and I don’t like being cornered like this. You know me, Marcus.” Lourdie stated.

“I know.” Marcus seemed pleased with himself.

“I have training, so if that’s all?” Lourdie got up from her chair without waiting for an answer.

“That’s all,” Marcus said, coolly.

“Thanks, hon,” Bernie beamed at Lourdie.

“Only for you, Bernie,” Lourdie said, giving Marcus a look before leaving the knight’s office.

Bernie waited until he heard the elevator ding before continuing his conversation with Marcus. “Have you had time to consider my personal request?”

“I have,” Marcus stated. “Do you have anywhere in mind?”

“I figure I can work the reception desk for a while. Stan could use some field trainin’ anyway,” Bernie scoffed. “That kid’s shepherd senses didn’t even tell him what Abbey was up to when she followed me to the Vaughn building.” Bernie laughed to himself, remembering how eagerly Stan had raised the plate of cookies as Abbey watched from across the street. Stan, the rookie shepherd might benefit from Bernie sticking around, as well. “And I reckon other neophytes will still find their way to us even durin’ my semi-retirement. I’ll help them as best I can, too.”

Marcus drummed his fingers on his desk as he contemplated Bernie’s request.

Bernie knew that a shepherd asking to stay in court for an extended period of time after shepherding a neophyte in was unusual, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that it was important to stay. He tried to erase the image of Abbey’s mother from his mind and focused on his shepherd senses that had never failed him. “I just want to stay close for a while, you know, in case Abbey needs me. The kid’s been through enough. I don’t want to be the next one that leaves her.” He couldn’t explain his feeling to Marcus, but something was telling him that there was more to Abbey’s story, a lot more.

“Okay, Bernie, okay,” Marcus said. The knight leaned back in his chair and both men looked down at Central Park, the Chiarshadrin they had sworn an oath to protect.

 

  • * *

 

Lourdie waited until the elevator doors closed before she allowed herself to hyperventilate. Marcus and Bernie didn’t have a hunter’s keen hearing, but she wanted to be safe rather than sorry. She had gone to Marcus’s office to finally tell him her secret, but she was thrown off guard by Bernie’s unusual visit. She knew his shepherd senses were as keen as her hunter ones so she hoped he wouldn’t tell Marcus she was hiding something until she was ready to tell him herself. She also hadn’t expected the ambush ‘pick an apprentice or else’ speech from Marcus.

The master hunter played with one of her chainmail relics on her wrist as she steadied her breathing and slowed her heart rate. Marcus’s request wasn’t outrageous, just unexpected. He’d never demanded she take on an apprentice before. She scoffed defiantly to herself, I’m not going to start now just because you told me to, Marcus! But, if she did decide to mentor this neophyte, the girl deserved Lourdie at her best. Lourdie swore that she would never look at the girl with sadness in her eyes, only strength and confidence no matter if she chose her or not, with all that the girl had been through, she at least deserved that.

As the elevator descended to the subterranean virtual chamber below New York City, Lourdie whispered her word against her relics. Cupping her palms together she slowly pulled her hands apart revealing a beautiful translucent purple orb. Letting it grow slightly, she admired the delvir for a moment. She then let it dissipate and quickly cupped her hands together again without saying her word. Sighing in shame for hiding such a big secret from Marcus, she peeked into her hands, but she already knew it was there. Another beautiful orb, glowing brightly and impossibly, greeted her. It hissed and popped almost demanding to be wielded against the evil that lurked in the shadows. No, no, no! Lourdie thought, How is this possible? She squeezed her eyes closed and slammed her hands shut.

CK Dawn’s Bio & Links

Coffee loving gamer girl, Sci-fi enthusiast, and sneaker wearing advocate. CK Dawn loves to snuggle up with her cats and read, but found writing fantasy stories was even better. In writing, CK has truly found her bliss. Stay tuned, because there will be a lot more to come in the Netherwalker series. Seriously, things have only just begun.

 

Website: http://www.ckdawn.com/

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Queen of the Small Seas

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Chess Desalls

 

Copyright © 2015 by Czidor Lore, LLC

All rights reserved.

 

No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed,

transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a

database or retrieval system, without the prior

written permission of the copyright owner, except

for noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

First Edition: 2015

Queen of the Small Seas is a work of fiction. The characters and events portrayed are used in a fictitious manner and are the products of the author’s imaginings. Any resemblances to real persons, living or dead, or to actual events are purely coincidental.

 

Dedication

 

To anyone who has ever felt small

 

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Marjorie Bicknell Johnson, Linda Judd,

and Christina McMullen for their tough love

comments on ‘Queen of the Small Seas.’

Thanks for making May’s adventure better and her character bigger. Special kudos to D.M. Cain and Rocky Rochford for getting everyone together to participate in this publication. Great idea. Your efforts and talent are much appreciated.

Queen of the Small Seas

GLIMMERS OF LIGHT emphasized the creases of a crone’s forehead as she passed a wand back and forth along the figure of a baby. The child thrashed and cooed and then closed her eyes.

“Sleep now, young one. You will be needed once the king falls.”

The crone scooped the baby with withered hands, her nails black with gore. Caught in the middle of her task of bleeding fowl, she hadn’t washed. The nursemaid’s call demanded priority.

“I can’t believe a woman of Queen Isra’s strength died during childbirth,” said the nurse. She slumped on a chair carved from a tree stump.

The crone mashed her lips together over toothless gums. “It’s as common as a father rejecting the birth of a daughter, eh?” With the baby wedged in one arm, she tore open a sack of flour. A spray of powder mushroomed from the bag. “How many years does King Ezrek have left?”

The nurse sneezed and swatted at the cloud with her handkerchief. “I have no way of knowing.”

“Then I shall modify the enchantment.”

With the gentleness of a mother tucking her child in at night, the crone began to slide the baby inside the sack. Tongues of flame flickered from candles crowding the room, casting a yellow-orange glow on the newborn’s skin as she disappeared into the sack.

“Queen Isra chose a name for a male child,” said the nurse. She yawned, lulled by the dance of candlelight. “What do we call her?”

The crone dipped a finger in a basin of fowl’s blood. With the tip of her nail, she scribbled a word across the baby’s forehead.

“Maya,” the nurse read, crumpling her nose.

Without wiping her hands, the crone picked up her wand and swirled it above the flour sack. “Maya, child, it will be easier if you stay this size. As you age, you’ll develop into a lovely young woman. But you must hide.”

With a flip of the wand, the edges of the sack the crone had torn began to reseal.

“And you must stay small.” The bag closed further.

The crone flicked the wand one last time, sealing the baby inside. “Until we’re ready for your return.”

“Are you sure,” said the nurse, “that this is the wisest choice?”

“There is no other choice.”

Inside the bag, the baby twitched.

A tiny hand rubbed an eye and then smeared blood from the left edge of her forehead, blotting out a single letter. Unknown to the crone or the nurse, the baby settled into a deep slumber with the marking on her forehead forever changed.

 

  • * *

 

SIXTEEN YEARS LATER

 

The point of May’s needle glistened in the sun before sideswiping to the left and missing the nose of her opponent. Her pupils shrank to pinpoints, enhancing iris-colored irises. Nostrils flared.

“Dare ye dodge again, Scallywag?”

May grabbed a fistful of curls and crushed them back inside her headscarf. She sucked in a breath, backed up three steps, and charged again. Scallywag, unarmed, twitched his whiskers.

“Rogue! Devil! Rascal!” She advanced with each insult. Yet the darting of her feet across the ship’s planks made no discernable sound.

The whip of her needle went unnoticed by the men who passed alongside and above the dueling pair. No one looked on, except a parrot—orange and gold, hook-billed, and slightly larger than May. The parrot lowered his head and then shook it back and forth.

May ignored him as she continued her assault. “This will be th’ last time ye board this ship, ye moochin’ Bilge Rat!”

“I’m not certain he appreciated the pun,” said the parrot.

“I found ‘im eatin’ our provisions, Swig. That’s all the food we have until the next pillagin’.” May gritted her teeth as she backed her opponent into a corner. “Feed the fish, ye will!”

The rat’s ears twitched. It wrapped his tail around its face to cover its eyes.

“See, now you’ve scared him. You weren’t this vicious when I first found you.”

“Swig! Not that ol’ fairytale again. Who d’ye think believes such flotsam?”

“Anybody who’s set eyes on you, dear.”

May squared her shoulders and lunged at the rat. “Arr!”

Swig cringed at the squeal that ensued. He averted his eyes from the slaughter, remembering the night he’d found a baby inside a sack of flour plundered from Sprite Island. That day, sixteen years earlier, Swig began believing in fairytales.

May had changed over the years, as any woman would, except that she wasn’t of a regular size. Her proportions were ordinary; her sixteen-year-old body was thin, rounded, and fair. But she was no taller than she’d been as a baby. At only nine inches high, May had been the smallest newborn Swig had ever seen. The girl was as delicate as a doll but more vicious than a rabid raccoon.

Swig blamed the pirates.

“Ahoy, May!” A leather boot crashed down alongside the girl, swiftly enough to crush her. “Ye caught another one, have ye? That’s me girl. Th’ ship’s finest huntress.”

The compliment tingled May from headscarf to boot heels. His girl. Her cheeks flamed as she tried not to stare too long at the familiar smirk, accented by a scar to the left of his lower lip.

Swig rolled his eyes. “This is not a proper place for a lady, Daniel. You’ve taught her to cuss, to fight—” His feathers ruffled as he glanced at the rat’s carcass. “You’ve turned her into a killer.”

Daniel’s grin widened. He tightened his tail of dark locks. Like May, he wore a headscarf, knee breeches, and a shirt belted with leather. “Captain raised us together. En’t that so, May?” He bent down and opened his hand.

May stepped up onto his palm. “Aye, he did.”

“If ye have a problem with that, Swig, best ye speak to th’ captain.”

“Will your leader officiate the wedding as well? Or is May free to choose as she pleases?”

Daniel’s eyes bugged out. The laugh that followed bounced May up and down. She held out her arms for balance. She wanted to laugh with him, but she was too busy trying not to fall.

“Flotsam, Swig! I can’t marry her.”

Every drop of the pint of blood in May’s body turned to ice.

“And why not?”

“She’s barely half the size of me forearm. A man needs a relationship—of th’ physical kind.” With a wink and a snigger, he added “Imposs—”

Daniel jumped, shouting curses of flotsam, jetsam, scabs, and dung. His hand flew up, bloodied and throbbing with pain.

May fell from the pirate’s hand to the floor, her landing softened by a wing of orange feathers. She scowled at Daniel as he stomped off, leaving her insulted and unarmed.

“Forget him,” said Swig. “And the needle.”

 

  • * *

 

RAYS OF SUNLIGHT danced across a swaying horizon where the sun met the sea. May’s elbows sank into her knees, her cheeks cupped in her palms. She sat with her legs swinging over the edge of a boat, keeping watch as it rocked from side to side.

Moments ago, the boat had been the captain’s dory, a fishing boat measuring sixteen feet long. To the captain’s misfortune, he’d roped the dory on the outside of the ship, not far above the water. To May’s great fortune, Swig had a beak that cut through rope as easily as it cracked nuts and seeds.

“Where d’we go? Life aboard th’ Water Lily is all I’ve ever known.”

Swig perched next to May. “We’ll go where the water takes us.”

“But th’ captain—we’re deserters, en’t we? We won’t be welcomed back.”

“I wouldn’t call it a desertion per se. It’s more of an escape. You weren’t born a pirate, May. The pirates stole you when they robbed food from your homeland. I refuse to believe you weren’t meant for greater things.”

May’s lips formed the tiniest of smiles. “I bet ye say that to everyone ye find in a flour sack.”

“Don’t you ever wonder where someone of your unique stature came from—what it all means?”

“No more amazin’ than a bird that speaks.”

Swig huffed. “It’s not an unusual trait for a parrot.”

May smirked as she stretched a section of fishnet found inside the boat. She slung one end through a hook and hitched it. She’d learned how to tie knots from Daniel. A knot of equal strength formed in her stomach.

Stiffly, she looped another knot at the other end of the net for a bed swing. Swig was right. She must forget Daniel and the Water Lily. At least she had Swig, even if he was a bossy know-it-all bird. Trust was hard enough to come by when all her human friends were pirates.

Comfortably tucked in for the night, May stared at the sea until the last fingers of sunlight faded into dusk. “Unique,” she said, tasting the word as she drifted off to sleep.

She woke the next morning to sounds of dolphins laughing. Swirls of spinning noses and tails flipped alongside the boat. Swig glided up above to dodge the splashes and sprays of water.

May rubbed her eyes and inhaled the freshness of the open sea. “Where are we? D’ye see land ahead?”

“Not yet. Although, the dolphins seem to be creating a reverse wake that’s driving us somewhere.”

“En’t that strange?” said May, peeking over the side of the boat. The water surrounding the dolphins rippled forward, the way a wake—a type of wave created by a boat passing through water—would have, only it ran in the opposite direction.

The nose of the nearest dolphin turned toward her. With a laugh, it flipped backward, creating a silver blur of tailfin and water droplets.

“I don’t believe the dolphins would do that for just anyone.”

“Huh, yeah,” said May. She wiped seawater from her cheeks and forehead. The water’s saltiness reminded her how thirsty she was. Her stomach grumbled. “D’ye think they can help us find breakfast?”

“That would be something, but I think not. For now, it’s all the sea air and sunshine we can absorb.”

“Yeah, well, don’t gorge ye’self. Told ye we should’ve stolen some of th’ captain’s stores.”

“That sounds like something a pirate would do.”

“I en’t a pirate.” May sighed, squeezing her arms across her rumbling stomach. “Not no more.”

Swig dipped his head. “Perhaps we should work on your speech, then.” He flew downward, landing in front of May. “Let’s try again. Repeat after me: I am no longer a pirate.”

May’s lips twitched. “I yem no lun-ger a pirate,” she said, testing out the words.

“Again. This time, less swarthy.”

The frown that followed would have made Swig’s cheeks pink, if that were possible. He raised his wings in a placating gesture. “I realize you grew up among men and boys, but you don’t need to sound like one. You, my dear, are a lady.”

“A lady,” repeated May, her eyes wide. She remembered watching what the pirates called ladies from afar. After a good plunder, one that covered more than provisions, ammunition, and fuel, the captain pocketed some of the gold before divvying it among the crew. The pirates of the Water Lily weren’t fond of saving their pay; they spent it right away. Mostly at parties with food, women, and drink.

May wrinkled her nose. The women at the merrymakings smelled like stale ale and rotting flowers. But a lady…She’d seen one once.

Years ago, per their usual routine, Daniel had carried May to a party in his satchel. She’d listened to the music and carousing as she’d peered through an opening in the bag.

“See that, May?” he said, his voice low. “Th’ captain’s got his eye on th’ rich man sittin’ at th’ table. Even his buttons be made of gold. Bet ye they play at cards t’night. Th’ captain will win, ye know. Then we’ll have a real party.”

May smiled from inside the satchel, nestled against the lower left side of Daniel’s abdomen, where she felt the rise and fall of each breath he took. She kept still, careful not to draw attention to herself by jingling his ration of gold coins. She feared her discovery would lead to a new life, one as a dancing monkey. Only the captain knew why her oddity hadn’t already been used for that purpose.

She observed the rich man. Unlike Daniel’s, the rich man’s belly was round. The gold buttons on his vest strained against the fabric, looking like they’d pop off at any moment.

May patted her own stomach, flat in the middle, the bones of her lower ribs sticking out against her skin. “What’re ye goin’ to buy with yer gold?”

She felt his ribs rise as he shrugged. “Ale, maybe rum. Did ye bring yer tankard?”

A brass thimble poked out of the satchel. “Aye!” she said, in her best stage whisper.

Daniel gave the satchel a gentle squeeze and chuckled.

While waiting in line for drinks, May and Daniel learned that the rich man had a daughter with him. She, too, had a taste for rum. Her gaze rested on Daniel longer than May would have dared. Shining eyes reflected a taste…for Daniel.

May felt his heartbeat quicken and instantly felt jealous and then thirsty. Daniel talked up the lady instead of filling May’s thimble. Seething, May took an inventory of the lady’s features, finding all of them superior to her own. Unlike the brown curls trapped beneath her headscarf, the lady had locks that were flaxen and smooth. Her clothes were finer and her features more delicate, despite her larger, regular-sized frame. May gritted her teeth. Even the lady’s fine words had a softness to them.

May shook her head from side to side, clearing the memory from her mind. Forgetting Daniel would be difficult. He and the pirates were all she knew. She stuck out her chin and placed her fists on her hips. The time had come to learn new things.

In her softest, most ladylike voice, she said, “I am no longer a pirate.”

Nor did she need the pirates, any of them.

“Excellent. We’ll have you speaking like nobility by the time we reach land.”

 

  • * *

 

MAY SLIPPED IN and out of consciousness.

She coughed. The inside of her mouth tasted like sandpaper. Her stomach cramped with emptiness. She opened her eyes and stretched out a hand, searching for something. A blob of orange with rumpled edges lay nearby. May squinted. As her eyes focused, lines and shades of light formed the shape of a parrot. Unable to continue flying, Swig had curled up in a corner of the boat.

While staring at her friend, May wondered where Swig had come from—how he’d ended up on a pirate ship. She’d never thought to ask. She’d always taken his companionship for granted. Her old self, that is. Her selfish self, the part of her that had been a pirate.

She turned over on her back and stared at the sky.

A dolphin barked. Then another, answering the first call with high-pitched snaps and crackles. Before long, the dolphins’ song filled the air. The racket was symphonic, almost celebratory. Something was happening outside the boat, but what? May needed to know.

She sat up. Weakness hit her full force, leaving her lightheaded and dizzy. With limbs that felt like lead covered with parchment, May stood. Her legs wobbled. She reached for the fishnet she’d tied into a hammock the day before. After multiple tries, she climbed up to where she could see outside the boat.

An intake of breath scratched her throat, making it feel drier. “Wake up, Swig,” she rasped, her tongue thick like leather. “Ye—” Despite her discomfort, May remembered her goal to speak like a lady. She began again. “You have to see this.”

The parrot remained still with one eye open.

“Swig?”

She’d seen him sleep that way before but never in such a weakened state. When he didn’t respond, May scooched herself up, as high as she dared without putting herself in danger of toppling over the edge of the boat. She was not fit for a swim, much less a rough landing.

As the dolphins danced and played, their splashes created a mist, a sea spray of water particles. The spray was beautiful, but there wasn’t a shore in sight. May’s lips tugged downward. A pang of regret followed. She wasn’t upset about leaving the pirates but for having escaped without a thorough plan. And for listening to Swig about not taking along food and water.

May mopped her forehead with a billowy sleeve. To her horror, she found it was possible to be thirstier than before.

Sunlight mingled with sea spray created a double rainbow. Dolphins jumped and looped, driving the dory toward the mist. As the boat bobbed closer, the sea spray arched and the rainbows converged. The largest of the dolphins swam to the head of the pod, a group of twelve. It turned and whirled its head in a semicircle, toward the mist. It repeated the gesture twice more.

“It’s as if he’s inviting them to follow,” May whispered.

The lead dolphin barked again before it leaped through the mist. And disappeared. Its companions followed, driving the boat with their wake.

May rubbed her eyes with scorched fists, wondering whether these were delusions brought on by dehydration. When she reopened her eyes, she continued to doubt what she saw. But she was too small—felt too helpless—to do anything about it.

She, Swig, and the boat that carried them were about to pass through the sea spray.

 

  • * *

 

KING EZREK CLENCHED and unclenched his hands, his skin now fissured with age. He mused, entranced by how the wrinkles disappeared while his hands were fisted, creating a translucent sheet across his veins. He relaxed, letting the skin pucker into ripples once more.

“My daughter would be a young woman by now,” he muttered. “The kingdom would have a princess with smooth hands, capable of ministry and healing.”

The king dropped his hands to his sides and looked up. Rheumy eyes lingered as they scanned various points in the room. He sighed, remembering the past and yearning for what had been better days. His throne room was bare and unwelcoming. Sixteen years ago, he’d torn down draperies and pulled up carpets in a fit of rage. The halls had remained empty and cold ever since.

Once he’d learned that his wife had died after bearing a daughter, his world and his desire to rule had ended. Search parties for the princess had returned empty-handed. The kingdom was in shambles. Most of its subjects had given up and moved on. Two loyal subjects remained within the boundaries of his kingdom: an old crone who’d stayed on as the king’s healer and a nurse who’d denied any knowledge of what had happened to the baby.

Too depressed to light the evening candles, King Ezrek rose from his throne and made his way toward his bedchamber. He passed the dining hall, which housed a table that stretched nearly forty feet long. What had once been a site for grand banquets and merriment was now covered in cobwebs. Spiders feasted among blankets of dust. Minstrels were no longer welcome.

The king and the late queen had hoped for a son, perhaps too much. Together, they’d chosen a name for a male child. The king regretted having neglected to decide on a backup name should a female baby be born.

“If only I’d given her a name,” he said, pulling at wisps of grey beard, striped with white, “perhaps I’d know whom to seek and where to search.”

He paused to look out a window that looked upon his land. “Where are you, my daughter? Are you alive and well? Is there any chance the world will return you to me?”

 

  • * *

 

SWIG’S OTHER EYE popped open once the boat passed through the sea spray. “What happened?” he said, raising his wings. “I’m as refreshed as if I’ve drunk from the sweetest waters.” He squawked and flew upward. “I feel as if I’ve been granted a new set of wings. I’m a whole new bird!”

May grinned. “I feel better too.” Her mouth and throat were no longer parched. Sensations of warmth and contentment filled the emptiness in her belly. “Ye—you missed it, Swig! The dolphins, they danced and sang. Then they drove th’—the boat through mist surrounded by rainbows.” Her iris eyes sparkled. “Is this real? Please tell me this en’t—” She cringed at having made three speech errors in a row. “That this isn’t a dream.”

Swig dipped his beak. “I hope not because that would mean the land I see up ahead is not real.”

May bounced up and down inside the hammock, unsure what else to do with the happiness bubbling inside of her.

Dolphins continued to lead the way with clicks and squeaks that played off the sounds of their splashing. The largest of the pod fell back to join its friends as the group split in two lines. Six silver crescents swam along the dory’s right side as the other half fell into position on its left. From Swig’s aerial view, the small fishing boat was a chariot ushered by creatures of the sea.

Once the boat reached the shore, the dolphins retreated into the water and swam away. May felt a pang of loss as she watched them go. “Thank ye, I mean, you,” she called out, waving after them. They’d done so much for her without expecting or asking for anything in return. They’d saved her life and Swig’s.

May climbed out of the boat and jumped to land. Her boots sank into the sand, almost up to her knees. She laughed and kicked her heels free before falling backward and stretching her limbs. “I’m happy to have a boat, but I hope not to sail again anytime soon.”

“Nor I,” said Swig, landing beside her. He looked past the beach, toward a copse that was wild and overgrown. “Something about this place feels familiar. Why would the dolphins have led us here?”

“I wish I knew. Either way, we’ll need to find shelter for the night.”

“Well done, young lady!”

May’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean? I haven’t done anything.”

“You haven’t sounded like a pirate since we touched ground.”

May blushed. It couldn’t have been the mist. She’d made four mistakes just after they’d passed through. Was it the shore? The sand? Or something she’d accomplished on her own through practice? She puffed her chest out the slightest bit. Maybe she had something to do with it. Perhaps a person’s inner magic could be just as effective as an enchanted sea spray.

She and Swig walked away from the shore in high spirits. Two-inch footprints and claw prints trailed behind them, side by side.

As they traveled, the sand become more compact until it formed a black soil covered in moss and vines. Scattered trees thickened into a copse as they wandered deeper inside. A canopy of trees blocked the sun, as well as a palace that lay ahead in the center of the island.

May shivered. She crossed her arms and squeezed each opposite limb with her fingers, trying to conserve the warmth they’d left behind at the shore. Darkness accompanied the chill of the shade.

“It’s quiet, Swig. What if no one lives here? The dolphins are gone! We don’t know whether they’ll ever come back.”

“Don’t panic, my dear. From up above, the island appeared quite large. We’re bound to bump into someone at some point.”

“And fresh water, I hope.”

“As well as a feast of nuts and seeds.”

May shot him a look.

“You, of course, are under no obligation to abide by my vegetarian diet. If need be, I’ll accompany you back to the shore. The captain’s dory is well-equipped with nets and hooks. We’d just have to find someone larger to help us reel in and cook the catch.”

“If we wander around long enough, nuts and seeds might taste good to me too.” They were her least favorite foods, bland and hard to chew with her tiny teeth. Nuts were especially bothersome. Cracking them reminded her just how easy it would be to bust open her own skull.

As they walked, the thicket of trees opened into a clearing. May’s legs ached. She’d done more walking in a day than she had living aboard the Water Lily.

The path steepened, making her miss her days of riding within the protection of Daniel’s satchel. She clenched her fists, determined to be strong without him. The more she thought about it, the more certain she became that his attentions had made her soft and useless.

 

  • * *

 

THE PAIR TRUDGED along until they were forced to stop at a hill that looked like it had grown out of nowhere. A pimple of earth, covered in moss and vines just like the ground below them.

To May, the hill looked as wide as it was tall. “Can you fly up above it?” she said, pointing. “Can you tell whether it will be easier to climb over it or to go around?”

“A fine idea.” Swig took flight.

May watched as he drew an invisible circle in the sky. When he reached the airspace to her left he plummeted until she lost sight of him. She covered her mouth, suppressing a gasp. “No,” she said. “Swig wouldn’t leave me behind.”

The words barely left her mouth when a flash of orange shot up from where the parrot had disappeared. Wings flapped toward her, this time in a straight line.

Swig landed, feathers ruffled and out of breath. “A light,” he said. “I saw light—coming from the side of the hill.”

May blinked. “Light from inside the earth must have been made by living creatures. We’re not alone out here!” She grasped the tips of Swig’s wings. They danced around in a circle.

“I’m too heavy for you to fly back with me,” she said. “That’s never worked.”

“But we can walk around the hill to the source of the light.”

They felt along the hillside until they reached its westmost side. They slowed when they noticed a faint glow.

May piled several flat stones, one on top the other, and stepped up. “You didn’t tell me there was a window. Could this be someone’s house?”

Swig beat his wings, gently enough to stay aloft while he looked past May’s shoulder. “I hadn’t inspected this closely. I didn’t want you to worry, so I flew back as quickly as—”

He and May simultaneously gasped as the shadow of a person came into view. A shriveled hand, that hadn’t felt the sun in decades, picked up a wand. Sour sounds—words that May couldn’t quite make out—escaped a tangle of skin and gums.

May’s heart stuttered. She’d seen many things as a pirate but nothing as frightening as this. She pulled her eyes away from the crone and scanned the rest of the room. A frail woman regarded the crone with great interest. She didn’t seem frightened at all. Coils of gray stuck out from a heavy braided bun tied at the top of her head. The woman sat with her hands folded across her lap, which was covered with an apron that frayed at the edges. The dress underneath spilled alongside a tree stump.

The eavesdropping pair exchanged glances. As if their look confirmed an agreement, they pressed in closer toward the window. May slipped and toppled forward. Her nose crunched against a sheet of glass.

Flotsam. She blushed, grateful that the word screamed inside her head where no one could hear it. The impact of nose to glass had barely made a sound, but it was strong enough to push the glass toward the interior of the room, opening the window just a crack.

“The king still lives, eh nurse?”

“He does. Is it possible your enchantment failed?”

“It would have worked by now if the flour sack hadn’t been stolen!” All listening jumped at the crone’s rage. May dug her fingers in the side of the house to keep from slipping again.

“Who would have expected pirates to invade your home?”

Mucous dripped from the crone’s nose. “Nothing’s more disgusting than a pirate,” she said, wiping her nose. A thread of snot stretched from the end of her nose to where the tips of her fingers clutched the wand.

“But I can’t believe no one has called the child by her given name. You wrote it on the babe’s forehead in blood. It should have happened by now.”

This time, instead of stuttering, May’s heart stopped. Pirates. A sack of flour. A baby—stolen. A king. An old witch with a wand and everything…discussing her!

“Perhaps her captors were too stupid to read.” The crone wiped her nose again. “Those idiots ruined my plans!” She danced around the room as she mocked the pirates. “All any one of them had to do was wait until her sixteenth birthday and say her name, to her, in front of a witness. Is that asking so much?”

“That would have been a suitable replacement for what you and I intended to do when she was of age. It would have worked, had we managed to keep her hidden inside the sack.”

“Then the king would fall over dead, and the princess would assume her true form and take the throne. As her counsellors, we could have ruled the land.”

“Instead, he stands in our way—”

“With the kingdom ruined.”

“It’s as bad as if he’d broken the enchantment by saying her name to her himself.”

“You’re sure he doesn’t know—” The crone’s eyes darkened, her gaze pointed and cruel.

Hands flew up from the nurse’s apron. “I’ve kept the secret all this time, never revealing her name to his highness.”

The crone exhaled a stale breath. “And yet the child’s still missing. Likely still among those disgusting, filthy pirates.”

The nurse held out her arms as if cradling a doll. “And still the size of a baby.” She shook her head. “Poor, dear, Maya.”

 

  • * *

 

BUCKLES FLASHED AS soles of boots sank into the sand. A weathered pair, studded with skulls and fish bones, stopped before a boat.

“Avast ye, Samuel, Simon! Collect me property and hitch it to th’ ship.”

“Aye, captain!”

“Aye!”

Two pirates hastily claimed the dory and dragged it toward the Water Lily.

A third pirate stood by, waiting for his orders. The captain turned to him. Mismatched eyes—one brown, one blue—regarded the young man with a coldness reserved for battle. His face, trained from years of gambling, betrayed no emotion.

“Fetch yer girl, Daniel, and anythin’ else of worth ye find along th’ way,” he said, his voice cold.

“Aye.”

The captain squinted at Sprite Island with no intention of straying deeper than where he stood upon the shore. “Magic plagues this land, both th’ good kind and th’ bad. I want leave of it before its curses be ours.”

Daniel looked at the captain, his eyes focusing on one eye and then the other. “Aye, thank ye.”

A massive hand grabbed Daniel by the shirt, raising him so that their noses met. The jewels strapped to the captain’s fingers dug into fabric and flesh. “If ye en’t returned before the sun falls, we leave without ye.” His words shook the shells and plumes that adorned his hat, including a carroty-orange feather, the sight of which would have made Swig faint.

“Aye,” wheezed Daniel, forcing out the air left in his lungs.

 

  • * *

 

TINY LEGS DANGLED from a rock along a stream. May splashed her face clean. Holding her hands as a cup, she drank deeply. She missed her thimble. Her lack of thimble would have made her think of Daniel, if her mind hadn’t been full to the brim.

Swig paced back and forth as he rambled. “If there’s a king, then there must be a palace. If you’re the child that was stolen, then you are a princess. I knew there was something more to your—”

“But my name is May. All the pirates called me that, even the captain. It’s the only name I remember.”

“I saw what was written on your head when I found you. M-A-Y.” Swig frowned. “Oh.”

“There was an O?”

“No, but now that I think more about it, there was a smudge after the Y, as if somebody had wiped it away. I had no way of knowing that your name was Ma—”

“Nooo! Don’t say it!” She smothered his beak with her hands. “You heard what the nurse and the crone said. If you say my name and I really am a princess, then the king—my father—will die. He has to be the first to say it, to call me by my true name—to break the enchantment.” She unclasped his beak from her grip. “There could be witnesses in the trees. We can’t let those rotten women get their way.”

“And then, you’ll no longer be…May. You’ll have your family, a whole new life. You won’t need me anymore.”

“Of course, I will,” she soothed, squeezing him so tightly that his feathers molted. “I’ll always need you, and we’ll stay together. Forever.”

A crystal drop leaked from Swig’s eye. “Let’s find that palace and turn you back into a princess.”

 

  • * *

 

KING EZREK SAT upon his throne, pondering the misery and dullness of life. He held court every day. His doors stayed open, but no one entered. Years had passed since anyone sought his guidance regarding the laws of the kingdom or submitted a petition for his approval and signature. Still, he waited, hoping someone would arrive with news that would stir his soul.

The room dimmed as the hours slogged by. He held out his hands, ready to resort to studying his skin, when a parrot entered the throne room. A teen girl followed, no larger than the bird, and stranger yet, dressed like a pirate.

King Ezrek wondered whether his misery had finally ended. But not because he found the visitors amusing. His face paled. “Am I dead?”

“I should hope not,” said Swig. “We got here as quickly as we could.”

May stepped closer, until she stood at the foot of the throne. “Your highness,” she said. “We’ve come to report an enchantment, one that has been used against you.”

Blood flowed through the king’s heart—warming parts that had given up beating—as May repeated what she’d overheard at the crone’s house, everything except for her given name. After absorbing the tale, King Ezrek closed his eyes and squeezed his forehead.

“Are you the girl that the crone hid in the flour sack?”

May smiled. “Yes! You just need to say my name.”

The king opened his eyes. “I’ve dreamed of meeting my child every day since Isra’s death. But we have a dilemma. I’m afraid I don’t know your name.”

“Allow me to help,” said Swig. He flew to the king and perched himself on his shoulder and then whispered in his ear.

The king’s thin lips stretched into a smile. He knelt before the girl and shook her hand with his forefinger and thumb. “I am honored to meet you…Maya.”

A dome of mist formed around her.

She felt her hand being pulled away until forced to let go. “Father!”

The air grew hot and humid.

She couldn’t breathe.

Her body tingled as the mist spread higher and then wider, blinding her eyes with rainbows and deafening her ears with the dolphins’ song. Moments later, she stepped forward, gasping for air, as the mist evaporated behind her.

Swig and King Ezrek replied with gasps of their own.

She stood before them as Maya. Tall and regal, dressed in ivory silks corded with silver and gold. Her hair lay smooth across her shoulders, rich and chocolatey, the way Queen Isra’s had been.

“Welcome home, princess,” King Ezrek said, wrapping her in a fatherly embrace.

Swig, still perched on the king’s shoulder, leaned forward and did the same.

 

  • * *

 

THE KINGDOM TRANSFORMED, starting with the palace’s inner heart.

Swig flew from sconce to sconce with sprays of wildflowers while Maya lit the candles. With renewed strength from his daughter’s return, the king bounced from room to room, brushing away cobwebs, unrolling carpets, and hanging tapestries.

“Ouch!” Maya’s hand dashed to her forehead. It was the second time she’d knocked it on a low lamp. Being able to reach things others took for granted required adjustment. But she never expected to be so tall she’d need to stoop from harm’s way.

Swig flew to her and tucked a sprig of pink heather behind her ear.

The smile that stretched across Maya’s face was dazzling. The parrot shrank under the gaze of her iris-colored eyes.

“What’s wrong, Swig?”

“Nothing, my dear. I just—I always knew you were lovely. Now it’s magnified.”

Maya pinked, rubbing the tender spot where she’d bumped her head.

A third voice sounded through the hall. “May? Swig?”

Heads turned to the doorway where a young man stood, his eyes wild as they darted between the parrot and the princess. “I reckoned I heard yer voices.” He stepped carefully as he scanned the ground below him. “Where’s May?”

“Daniel.”

He looked up and froze, realizing he’d been addressed by the princess. That voice. It was like May’s, only a touch deeper and more amplified.

His breath quickened. He knew that pout, that curve of cheek. He swallowed. He recognized her eyes, and the daggers inside meant for him. “I’ve found ye to take ye back to th’ crew.” Lowering his head he added, “And to say I’m sorry.”

Maya continued to glare at him from across the hall.

“Haven’t ye missed us?”

“My name’s Maya. I am no longer a pirate.”

Daniel looked her up and down, his eyes grazing her figure. “Ye’ve always been a lady, ye know. It’s just easier to see that now.” He grinned. “Now that we’re of a similar size—”

Maya walked toward him. She stopped, looking him in the eyes for the first time, as a person of regular size. “Now, what? You mean, we’d be able to have relations between a man and woman—of the physical kind?”

The muscles of Daniel’s jaw twitched ever so slightly. “How else would it have worked? Small as a pup, ye were.”

She crossed her arms. Having been a pirate herself, she knew what fueled their motivations. “No doubt you’ve heard I’m a princess. With treasures. My father has more gold than can be used to button all the coats of your crew.”

“Aye, so I’ve heard.” Daniel, too, had stumbled upon the crone on his way to the palace. The legend was true, the magic of Sprite Island, the reason the captain had wanted to keep May hidden for himself. And why he’d trusted Daniel with her charge. “What of it?”

“Don’t ye be playin’ with me—” Maya’s hands flew to her lips. Her cheeks burned at how pirate-like her outburst had been. She didn’t know which was worse—having been small or having been a pirate.

After a slow breath, she began again. “I’m finally where I belong—where I came from. Did the captain put you up to this?”

Daniel’s face fell. All but the scar to the left of his lip sagged. The Water Lily would sail at sundown. There wasn’t much time left.

“D’ye think yer better than me now? Just say so, and I’ll never bother ye again.”

He’d barely finished speaking when he felt a hand grab the back of his shirt. His front collar dug into his throat.

“Is this pirate upsetting you, daughter?”

Daniel reached around to release himself from King Ezrek’s grasp. His hand looped through a tasseled drapery cord. Before he could remove it, Swig pounced, landing on Daniel’s head.

Feathers, fabric, and bits of hair fell to the floor as the parrot shredded the headscarf with his beak.

King Ezrek twisted the cord and looped it around Daniel’s other hand, securing it with a handcuff knot that tightened the more the pirate tried to resist.

Maya’s heart hammered. Instead of standing by while her father and best friend protected her, she jumped into the brawl. Dodging Daniel’s kicks, she pinned down his legs while Swig distracted him with more jabbing.

King Ezrek looped a second drapery cord around Daniel’s boot, twisting and tying until both ankles were cuffed.

Groaning, Daniel lay still.

Swig stopped pecking and wiped his beak with a wing.

Maya’s chest heaved, her lungs gulping for air. She watched as the king dragged Daniel away, seeing herself with her mind’s eye. What had she become? She’d left pirate life behind. She’d reunited with her father. She’d changed her clothes, her speech, her destiny.

Had she failed to abandon her pirate heart? Was she unable to forgive?

“Whatever ye were meant to be,” Daniel said, battered and bound. “The pirates were a part of that.”

Maya said nothing in reply. She was a princess, the heir to the Kingdom of Sprite Island, who would someday be queen.

Surely, she’d forgive Daniel. But not before he missed his ride home.

Chess Desalls’s Bio & Links

Chess Desalls recently authored the first two installments of the YA time travel series, The Call to Search Everywhen. She’s a longtime reader of fantasy and sci-fi novels, particularly classics and young adult fiction. When she’s not reading or writing, she enjoys traveling and trying to stay in tune on her flute.

Connect with Chess at

www.chessdesalls.com

https://twitter.com/ChessDesalls http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/8183466.Chess_Desall

https://instagram.com/chessdesalls/

 

 

 

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A Strong Tower

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Tom Fallwell

 

Copyright 2015 Tom Fallwell

All Rights Reserved

 

 

Chapter 1

The scene before him was terrifying, yet there was an almost unbearable beauty as well. The dark storm clouds swirled and shifted in endless patterns with an unending dance of lightning mixed in. From behind the clouds a faint light could be seen, but its source was never revealed. The lightning was blinding at times, but there was something about the other light he could not quite figure out. Despite its dimness, he could not shake the feeling it was an anchor of order for all the chaos surrounding him.

It would have been disconcerting and would have caused him to be disoriented and dizzy if not for the presence of the solid structure upon which he stood. Paul wondered if he was dreaming because it was so unreal. No sky, no ground, nothing but the storm dancing above and below, as if the tower he was in were floating in the clouds. Dream, or nightmare? It was unsettling and frightening, but his logical mind grasped to what was more real — the balcony upon which he stood.

He struggled to remember, what had happened? He was Paul Darvin, computer programmer, software developer, and coder. He was twenty-eight years old and worked at Winston-Lackey Corporation in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma as one of their lead developers. He remembered he had gone to bed and slept, but the next thing he knew, he woke here — wherever here was. Could he be dreaming?

His logical mind dwelt on the possibility for a moment. The balcony felt real. He could feel the roughness of the stonework beneath his hands and the grains of loose rock under his fingertips. He could feel the wind blowing and shifting in different directions around him and the presence of moisture in the air. With the loud crack and fading rumble of the thunder, he pinched himself and felt pain. It certainly seemed real.

He appeared to be in some kind of stone tower that stretched into the clouds in both directions. He turned and walked back through the open archway to the room he had awakened in. As he passed beneath the arch, the sound of the raging storm vanished into complete silence, as if some invisible barrier were there. It startled him almost as much as when those sounds had assailed his ears when he first walked out onto the balcony.

The room was about a hundred and fifty square feet in size and contained a four post bed, a small wooden desk, and a chair. Four tapestries, depicting abstract drawings he did not understand, were hung around the walls, and opposite the bed was a large mirror. The desk had a single center drawer. On the bed were a comfortable mattress, pillows, sheets, and blankets. A stone doorway on the far side of the room had a smooth metallic door with no visible means to open it. It stood out from the rest of the room because it resembled polished aluminum.

His mind wandered over what had happened to him. When he had first awakened on the bed, he had been disoriented, like when you wake in a strange place and are lost for a moment. The balcony was the first thing that attracted his attention, as he could see the storm clouds and lightning flashes, though he could not hear the storm at the time.

He walked over to the desk and opened the drawer. Inside were blank sheets of paper, a few pens, and a Holy Bible. A Bible? That seemed odd to him. He picked it up and thumbed the pages — nothing out of the ordinary. He laid it back down and closed the drawer, then turned his attention to the door. There were no handles or buttons, but when he approached, the door slid upward into the frame without a sound. Startled, Paul stopped and gazed out into what appeared to be a foyer with a stairwell. The stairs wound up and down.

He walked out into the foyer, looking at the winding stairwell. He felt fear gripping at his heart, but he pushed it way. He would not let fear muddle his thinking. Be logical, he thought. There must be an explanation.

From his perspective on the balcony, the tower appeared endless in both directions. He considered this a moment and concluded he needed to see what was on the next floor down. Descending the stairs, he realized he had not seen a single light in this place, not even a candle, yet there were no dark corners or shadowy spaces. There was light, but he could not see a source. It was as if the wall, floor, and ceiling radiated light, though none were glowing.

The staircase wound down to the left, and as he was turning the bend, he saw there was another foyer at the bottom. Another metal door like the one he had come from stood at the end. He approached the door, unsure of what lay behind it, but he half expected to see another room like the one above. The door opened, sliding upward into the door frame without a sound. He released the breath he held as he saw what he had expected — another room like his own.

His own? He thought and chuckled aloud to himself. He had already claimed the room above in his mind. The room he now entered was identical — the same size, the same decorations and the same furnishings. There was even an opening leading to a balcony. A balcony? When he had been standing on the one outside his room, he had not seen others. In fact, the outer walls of the tower showed no other openings at all. Yet, here he was looking at another one identical to the one in his own room. He walked out to confirm what he had seen.

As he passed through the archway, he was once again startled as the sound of the storm outside assailed him. A sudden flash of lightning made him jump. The scene was the same as before. The storm clouds swirled, the lightning flashed, and he could see the diffused light behind the clouds. He looked at the walls of the tower, but there were no other balconies. He looked up to where his balcony should be. Nothing.

He went back into the room and looked in the desk drawer — paper, pens, and a Holy Bible. He looked around the room and confirmed it was identical to his own. A thought crossed his mind, and he removed a piece of paper and a pen from the drawer. Closing the drawer, he wrote on the paper, This is my room. He turned and went out the doorway and back up the stairs to his own room. Entering his room, his suspicions were confirmed. Lying on the desk was a single piece of paper and a pen. On the paper was written, in his own handwriting, This is my room. He felt like a rat trapped in a maze.

 

Chapter 2

Paul tried going up and down the stairs, but the direction made no difference. He was always in the same room. He was trapped in this room. There were no other rooms. Maybe the whole tower was an illusion. He started to wonder if he was dead. He checked and could find no pulse, no heartbeat. Had he died in his sleep to awaken in . what? Was this hell? He thought. Something else?

He stopped his frantic mind from racing out of control. Think, he thought to himself. I need to think this through logically. He was used to thinking in the terms of programming. A software program was a conglomeration of decisions and tasks. Make a decision and perform the tasks assigned to each specific decision.

Another thought occurred to him as he thought about the time he had spent exploring and finding nothing more than this room. He realized many hours must have passed since he arrived in the tower. Maybe a full day. He analyzed himself. No hunger, no thirst. He went to the mirror and put a hand to his face. No stubble. His face was smooth as if he had recently shaved. No pulse. No hunger. Though the answer seemed impossible, it was the only logical explanation. There was no passage of time. Time was standing still!

The thought of alien abduction came to him, but he rejected the thought as improbable. He did not feel like a prisoner. What else? He could move around, move objects, open and close his eyes.

“Can I talk?” he said aloud. Yes, he could speak and had heard his own voice. If time were stopped, would those things be possible? Logic was not being very helpful in this mystery.

“Is anybody there?” he shouted. No answer. “Can anyone hear me?” Still, no answer.

He felt helpless and afraid. If this were a puzzle to be solved, he needed clues, but he had found nothing to help figure it out. Or had he? His mind went back to the Bible in the drawer. He had read portions of the Bible but not most of it to be sure. He considered himself a Christian, but he had not been active in practicing his assumed religion. He had not been a frequent church goer and had only attended on special occasions with friends who invited him. He did believe there was a God, an almighty creator of the universe.

The sermons he had heard made sense to him in a way, but he had never put his trust in anything except his own mind, in himself. “I am the master of my own fate,” he was fond of saying. However, he did not feel much in control at the moment. He went to the desk and opened the drawer, taking out the Bible and looking at it. He had no clue as to where he was or what to do. Maybe he needed to read the Bible for a clue.

Paul laid down on the bed, propping up his head with the pillows, and opened the book in his hands. He looked at the page he had opened to. It was Proverbs 18:10. “The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe.” It seemed rather odd the first verse he looked at would mention a tower. Was God doing this to him? He closed the book, laid back and closed his eyes, and drifted off into sleep, thinking maybe now he could wake up and find this had all been a strange dream.

 

Chapter 3

Paul opened his drowsy eyes, and the dream about being at work faded from his mind. As consciousness returned, awareness came back to him. He was back in the room of the tower. He looked for the Bible he had started to read, but it was gone. He sat up with a sudden start and looked around, his eyes went to the desk. The paper he had written on and left on the desk was gone.

He walked over to the desk and opened the drawer. Several sheets of blank paper, some pens, and a Bible were inside. It was as if what he had experienced before falling asleep had never happened, yet he remembered it with great detail. He glanced toward the balcony and saw the same swirling clouds and flashes of light outside as before. Yet, something felt different. He put his fingers to the side of his neck. A pulse! He had a pulse!

His stomach growled, and he realized he was hungry and thirsty. He felt his face, but still there was no stubble of a growing beard. He felt so lost and confused. Another realization came rushing into his mind. He had gone to bed and slept before he arrived here, yet he was dressed, and the clothes he now wore felt fresh and clean. They were his clothes — his gray T-shirt, blue jeans, and his shoes. Could time move for some things and not for others? He had no idea. He was not a physicist. He wondered if even a physicist would know.

The mystery of the tower was not being solved. It was becoming even more of a mystery, but right now he was hungry and thirsty. Yet, there was no food or water in this room. This drove him to try to find something in this tower besides the same room over and over. He went to the door, and it slid open as before, but there was no foyer on the other side.

His mouth dropped open in astonishment as he looked out into a larger room than his own — in the center stood a large wooden table with two chairs. What astonished him more was the food on the table. He entered and looked around to assure himself this room was real. The door closed behind him, but he paid no attention as he walked up to the table and looked it over. There was flat bread and what appeared to be a red wine in a large ceramic pitcher.

He had thought of his hunger and thirst, then there was food and drink. What is going on here? He decided to look for an answer later as he sat down in one of the chairs. There were two metal goblets on the table, and he poured a goblet full from the pitcher and drank. Yes, a red, fruity wine of some kind, or maybe juice. He was not sure, but it was very thirst quenching. He began to eat. The bread was delicious.

 

Chapter 4

His hunger and thirst abated, Paul pushed back from the table. He felt like a medieval king eating with his hands, but it was a filling and satisfying meal. There was a napkin on the table near him and another on the opposite side of the table where the other chair was. He picked it up and wiped his mouth and fingers as he leaned back in the chair.

With his hunger and thirst taken care of, his mind started wandering again. His room had been returned to its original state while he slept, by someone or something. He looked around the room he now occupied. It was about twice the size of the room he came from. In addition to the dining table and chairs, there was more. As with his room, the same four tapestries decorated the walls, and there was a long divan in the room with soft cushions. It appeared to be a room for relaxation and conversation, as well as dining. Conversation? With whom?

He looked back at the door from which he had entered to confirm it was still there. It was there, so the door on the other side was not the one from which he had entered this room. He did not remember seeing that door when he first entered. Perhaps his hunger caused him to miss that fact. He rose from the table and decided to explore some more. So far he had found no clues, but his logical thinking said there must be clues somewhere. There must be an explanation. He began walking towards the opposite doorway, but before he got within six feet of the door, it opened suddenly and without a sound.

The woman on the other side of the door jumped with a squeak of surprise at the sight of Paul. Her eyes showed fear as she drew back from the open door. Paul was surprised as well but not afraid. He was relieved he was not alone after all. Though he did not know what was going on, he could not stop a small smile from forming on his lips. Not only was there someone else, but she was beautiful as well. Perhaps five and a half feet tall, slender build, green eyes, and she was a welcome sight to Paul. Her shoulder length, red hair framed a beautiful young face. She could not be much older than twenty, Paul thought.

Paul held out his hands, showing them empty. “Don’t be afraid. Please,” he said with a warm smile, hoping this was not another tower illusion. Even if she had no answers, it would be so nice to be able to talk to someone.

“Who…who are you? Where am I?” she asked as she relaxed a little, her fear vanishing.

“My name is Paul. I have no idea where we are. I was hoping you might have an answer,” said Paul. He stepped toward her with slow movements. “I awoke here a day ago, I think. I found this room with the food a short while ago.”

She eyed the food with a hungry look. “Food? You have food? I’m starving!” Her fear seemed to abate, and she stepped into the room, the door closing behind her.

Paul smiled and with a nod, gestured toward the table. “Please, help yourself. There’s plenty.”

She quickly moved to the table and began to eat. It was apparent she was as hungry as he had been, if not hungrier. He sat down opposite her at the table, watching as she poured some wine and drank the whole goblet in almost one gulp, then began eating the flat bread.

“My name is Caryn. Caryn Steil. I feel like I haven’t eaten in days,” she took a mouthful of bread and started chewing, speaking between bites. “What is this place? How did we get here?”

“I don’t know,” Paul said. “I woke up here a day ago, I think. Time seems to have no meaning here, so it is hard to say. Where did you come from?”

“I’m from Kansas. Topeka actually,” she said between mouthfuls, gulping the wine to wash each bite down. “I woke up in a strange room with a storm outside. I have been terrified and wondered if I’d been abducted by aliens,” she tilted her head inquisitively and looked into Paul’s eyes. “You’re not an alien, are you, pretending to be a human?”

Paul shook his head with an amused smile. “No, but I could ask the same thing of you. You’re the only other living soul I’ve seen,” he grinned. “Are you an alien?”

For the first time, Caryn smiled and her eyes twinkled with amusement. It was a beautiful smile, and Paul felt disarmed by it. There was something about her that pulled at him — an appeal that went beyond mere beauty. Paul realized he was attracted to her, not just physically.

“No,” she said, a shy smile appeared upon her face. “I guess we’re both in the same boat, huh?” Caryn looked around the room. “Have you found any other rooms? This is the first I’ve seen besides the one where I… appeared,” She looked at Paul with curiosity.

Paul shook his head, “I searched what I thought were other rooms, but they turned out to be all the same room.” He shrugged. “This room wasn’t here before, but now it is. I’m as confused as you are.”

Caryn finished eating and took a long drink from the goblet, then wiped her mouth and hands with the napkin. She looked at Paul with expectation, her eyes piercing him. A feeling washed over him, and he felt he knew this woman, though he had never met her before. He felt there was more to her than he could now see.

“Well, I suppose a proper introduction is in order. I’m Paul Darvin, a computer programmer from Oklahoma. It is a pleasure to meet you, Caryn, even in this unusual and mystifying situation,” he smiled and extended his right hand.

Caryn took his hand to shake. “I’m a digital artist. A starving artist, I guess you would say,” she laughed and the sound was like music to Paul. He was a bit amazed at how comfortable he felt with her. His logical mind would not have thought such a reaction possible, yet here he was, feeling all warm inside.

Paul stood up, looking at their surroundings with a serious expression. “I don’t have any answers yet, but perhaps if we explore together we might find some clues to help solve this mystery.” He looked back at Caryn and she nodded and stood as well. Paul said, “I wonder, was your room the same as mine? Did you have a desk with paper, a pen, and a Bible?”

She shook her head, looking a bit confused, “Bible? No, I did not see any Bible — pens and paper, yes, but no Bible.”

Paul frowned. “Can you show me your room? Maybe there’s a clue there I didn’t see in mine.” She nodded and began to lead the way back from where she had come. Paul followed, wondering if there were going to be clues, or more mystery ahead.

 

Chapter 5

Paul was wondering if he would ever find an answer to what was happening to them. Caryn’s room was identical to Paul’s, minus the Bible. They had ascended a short spiral staircase to her room. A stairwell like he had seen before when he was exploring rooms on different floors. The Bible? Was it a clue? Why did he have a Bible in his room, and she did not? He decided not to pursue the fact at the moment, remembering her confused look when he mentioned it before.

“Everything seems identical to my room,” Paul said as he turned from his visual inspection to Caryn. “No clues here. I wish I could find something, anything. I’ve no idea if we’re prisoners of some kind, or just lost somewhere.”

Caryn looked around nonchalantly. “I don’t feel like a prisoner.”

“Neither do I.” Paul reached for her hand, which felt so warm in his own. “Let’s go back to the dining room and search it. There seem to be no other rooms, at least yet.”

They left her room and descended the stairs back to the lounge area. As the door opened for them to enter, Paul noticed a difference immediately. The table and food had returned to their original state. No dirty plates or partially filled goblets or used napkins. It appeared as it had when he had first seen it.

“I guess there will be no shortage of food and drink,” he commented as he nodded toward the table.

Caryn smiled. “And I don’t have to clean the table after we eat or wash dishes.”

He chuckled, noting she was very calm and collected for someone in their situation. He could not shake the feeling he had known her for years, he felt so comfortable with her — almost intimate in a way. He did not feel they were in any danger, but there was still a puzzle he needed to solve.

He started thinking about the whole experience. He remembered his original panic, finding he had no pulse, wondering if he had died. Then while he slept, things changed. When he last woke up, he had a pulse and felt hunger. Then he found the lounge and the food. He thought about being alone. Then he found Caryn. He was beginning to see a pattern.

He looked at Caryn again. Was she created like other things seem to be because he thought about them? Was she real, or part of the tower’s illusions — if they were indeed illusions. The food tasted real enough. Perhaps, she was a clue.

“Why don’t we relax a bit and talk. See if we can’t figure out what might be happening.” Paul gestured toward the divan.

Caryn smiled and nodded, releasing his hand and sitting. Paul sat next to her and looked at her. She turned her green-eyed gaze upon him, and he noted there was a look in her eyes which reminded him of how his mother used to look at him when he was young. Her smile was subtle, and it pulled at him — tugged at his insides. His heart maybe? He could not help but smile back.

“Tell me about your first experiences when you arrived in the tower,” he said.

She thought a moment, then replied, “I woke up in the bed in the room. I saw the lightning outside, the desk, and chair. I remember opening the desk and seeing the pens and paper. I looked in the mirror and saw I was in my clothes, not my nightgown. Then I went to the door, and it opened. I went down the stairs and another door opened, and there you were.” She shrugged, then returned to smiling at him as before.

Paul had to use force to tear his gaze from her so he could think. When he was looking into her eyes, seeing her smile, his mind could not focus on anything but her. He felt drawn in, like falling into a hole. Her description indicated she had arrived a short moment before they met.

“I wonder why my room has a Bible, and yours doesn’t,” he said thoughtfully. He looked back at Caryn and noted the confusion on her face.

“I don’t know. I didn’t think…” she stopped abruptly, then smiled at Paul. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t see how it could mean anything.”

Didn’t think? He wondered what she meant, but did not press the issue now. He did not want to make her uncomfortable. Though it seemed suspicious, he could not help feeling it was unimportant for now. She was so… captivating was the word that leapt into his mind. He decided to change the subject.

“So, you’re an artist. Tell me about yourself. Let’s get to know each other.” He flashed a warm smile.

She shrugged. “I’ve always drawn things. Always created things. It’s so wonderful to create new things, pictures. I started with pen and paper, of course, but when I started going to college, I started learning to do computer art. It’s so fascinating,” she said with excitement. She looked around the room and pointed to the abstract drawings on the tapestries hanging on the walls. “I don’t know how, but these are my drawings, from my childhood. Do you like them?” She looked back at Paul with pride and smiled.

He glanced around the room, a little surprised at this declaration. “Your drawings?” He has a Bible, she does not. The paintings are hers. This is a clue. “Yes, they’re very nice. Relaxing in a way.”

She smiled with satisfaction. “I’m glad you like them. When I first woke up and saw this place, it made me think of my drawings, and there they were. Except, they were somehow on these tapestries.” She stood and walked over to one of the drawings. “This one I drew when I started grade school. I was 6 years old. I was so nervous about going to school. Not having my mother or father there with me.” The drawing did a good job of representing the nervousness she described.

She looked at him again, those eyes dancing in his soul. Why was she so attractive to him? She was beautiful, yes, but his interest was rooted deeper than mere physical attraction. Was he in love with her? Is such a thing even possible in such a short time of knowing each other? Yet, he felt he had known her all his life. And the way she looked at him… almost like love for him in her eyes.

Paul smiled and nodded to the other tapestries. “Tell me about them.” He thought there might be a clue here, and he wanted to know more about her. She walked over to the second tapestry and looked at it, remembering.

“This one I drew for my father, for his birthday. I was ten, I think. He was so pleased when I gave it to him. I’ll never forget the genuine smile and hug he gave me, and how he told me how proud he was of me. It was at that moment I decided I wanted to be an artist.” She wiped a small tear from her eye, remembering, and smiled back to Paul.

Paul returned her smile, and found his interest growing. “Please, go on.”

Caryn walked to the third of the four tapestries. This drawing was more chaotic in design than the others. Paul had never paid much attention to art, so he was not aware of how art could be a translation of the artist’s heart and soul, but he was starting to realize this as she described the third drawing.

“This one was not a happy memory,” she said as she looked the tapestry. “It was my senior year in high school. I’d discovered my boyfriend had invited another girl to the prom instead of me. I was devastated and heartbroken.” She spoke with sadness at the memory, but then turned to Paul and smiled. “But it turned out to be for the best. I understood later I wasn’t meant for him.”

She walked over to the last tapestry. This one was a happy and pleasant splash of colors and shapes. Caryn smiled at her memories as she looked at the drawing. Then she looked back at Paul and smiled with joy.

“This one is my favorite,” she said. “I drew this when I surrendered my life to Jesus. I was so full of peace and joy after confessing and repenting at the altar in church. I’d gained a hope and joy I would never again be without.”

Paul was not surprised by her declaration. Hearing her, he could now recognize what he had not before. Joy radiated from her like a light in the darkness. The feelings he was having toward Caryn were like giant hands grabbing at him, pulling him towards her, or perhaps towards something inside her.

He decided to surrender to these feeling for now. It was a new experience to him. He had girlfriends before, but he had never felt as he did now for Caryn. He liked the feeling. They sat there for what must be hours talking, as he fell deeper and deeper into the spell she had thrown on him. But all the while, there was his logic pulling at the corner of his mind. He decided to ignore it for now since logic was not providing any answers.

 

Chapter 6

Paul awoke in his room. The lightning flashes from outside flickering on the walls, and he remembered he and Caryn had talked for many hours. He had never enjoyed a conversation so much in his life. She was so wonderful and beautiful, her personality so sparkling and her company so pleasurable. He did not know how it was possible, but he felt he must be in love with her. He missed her presence even now.

After a time, they had decided it was time to sleep, and she had gone to her room and he to his. Time did not seem to be standing still anymore. They grew hungry, thirsty, and tired as time passed. He felt his face. He still did not need to shave, and he still did not seem to need to shower and put on clean clothes, as his clothes felt fresh though he had evidently slept in them a whole night.

These thoughts brought him back to the mystery of the tower. He realized there were clues he had not seen at first. It seemed when he felt he had a need, something happened and the need was met. He had needed assurance he was alive, then food and drink, and finally someone to talk to. It had all appeared, right on time. Even when he was needing to get over his initial fear, the passage from the Bible had relaxed him, allowing him to sleep.

The Bible! He remembered Caryn’s words from before, “I didn’t think…” What had she been about to say? The thought occurred to him that maybe she was the one behind all this, that somehow this was all her doing. If so, who was she? Was she even human? She had said the tapestries had appeared when she thought of her drawings. His mind raced over these thoughts, but after their long talk, he felt in his heart she was indeed human. The feelings he sensed from her were real, and she had not been untruthful to him.

He went to the desk and pulled out the Bible again. Were the answers in here? Was it God who had brought him here? He sat on the chair at the desk and opened the Bible and looked. He had once again opened to Proverbs, this time 16:9, “A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the Lord directeth his steps.” This is more than coincidence. Maybe God was trying to lead him somewhere.

Paul closed the book and prayed — something he was not used to doing. “Lord, I have no idea what is happening to me. I have tried to figure it out, but logic does not seem to help. Logic is all I have trusted before. I want to trust in you now. Please help me to understand. Amen.” Was it a good prayer? He didn’t know. He spoke what he felt. His logical thinking was not getting him anywhere. Maybe it was time to turn to God.

He remembered his friends telling him once that a good place to begin reading the Bible and studying was the Book of John, so he opened the Bible to the specified book and began to read in earnest for the first time in his life.

 

Chapter 7

After reading for a while, Paul went to the dining room. He was getting hungry again, and also wanting to see Caryn again. He had a different attitude this time about the whole thing. He had decided he was not going to try to figure it out himself. He would trust God and let the whole thing go where it will. The fact was, he was falling in love with Caryn, though he had just met her. He now had no doubt of his feelings and wanted to know more about her — to be closer to her.

As he entered the room, he saw Caryn sitting at the table, eating. She smiled up at him, “Good morning, or evening. It feels like morning though.”

He smiled back at her, pleased to see her and nodded agreement. “Yes, morning works for me. I slept great, and it does feel like a new day.” He sat down across the table from her and began to fill his goblet. Before he started eating, though, he looked up and asked, “Caryn? Do you trust in God?”

She gave him a broad smile. “Absolutely. Don’t you?” She took a bite of the bread.

“I do, but I don’t think I was trusting Him before. I had always trusted my logical thinking, but with all of this happening to us…” He shrugged a little. “I think I’m learning to trust Him.”

“In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. Proverbs 3:6. A verse I’ve always tried to keep in practice. I trust God in all things. Even this dream.”

Paul looked at her a moment. “Why do you think it’s a dream?”

“Well,” she said. “I’m not exactly sure, but it seems I can think of something, and it will happen. I thought of my drawings, and they appeared on the tapestries. I thought of food, and there it was. I thought of …” She looked embarrassed. “Someone to talk to, and there you were.” She smiled, and her eyes gazed upon him with such affection it made him turn red as well.

Caryn then continued with a puzzled expression. “But there is one thing I didn’t think of. You said it appeared, and that confused me. Your Bible. I hadn’t thought of the Bible until you mentioned it. So now I wonder if I’m dreaming you, or are you dreaming me?”

Paul chuckled. “I hadn’t considered I would be a part of your dream.” He pulled his chair around the table and sat down next to her, taking her hand in his hands and gazing into her eyes as deep as he could. “If this is a dream, by either of us, I don’t want to wake up. I’ve never felt as I do with you. Do you feel it? Or is it my own expectations?”

She smiled and leaned forward and whispered, “I feel it.” They kissed, and Paul felt himself falling deep into the kiss and her love. He was losing his mind as he fell deeper and deeper. Consciousness faded. Darkness overwhelmed him.

 

Chapter 8

There was a light, small and dim in the distance. It came closer and grew brighter as Paul’s consciousness slipped awake, sleep filling his eyes as he tried to open them. He was disoriented for a moment, before realizing he was in his room. Not the room in the tower, but his room at home in Oklahoma. He sat up with a start, fully awake from the dream.

A dream? It was all a dream! He looked at his cell phone for the date and time. It was Monday morning, 6 AM. The day after he had gone to sleep in this very bed. It had all been a dream. Yet, it was so real. He remembered every detail. It was not fading like a dream. 6 AM? He had to get ready for work. He felt his face, and the stubble scratched his hand. Time to shave and shower.

He could not believe it had all been a dream. He could remember every detail; the lightning, the feel of the stone on the balcony, the taste of the food, the smell of Caryn so close to him. As he got ready, he went over it all, remembering the scriptures. After his shower, he dug through a drawer and found the Bible his mother had given him on his fifteenth birthday. He recalled the scriptures he had read and opened to them.

There they were, word for word as he had remembered them in his dream. This left him puzzled because he had never read those scriptures before. How could he dream of something he had never read? He sighed and put the Bible down on his nightstand, planning to read more after work. He got ready and prepared to leave for work.

He pushed the dream away a moment and brought back the reality of his life. Today was a big day. He and his team had been working on a new software project, and it was finally in the last stages. The new program would be released within the next couple of weeks, and he had several meetings planned this week to meet with different artists to find one to design the box for their new software. A thought occurred to him. Is that why he dreamed about an artist?

He grabbed his briefcase and headed out the door. Time to go to work.

 

Chapter 9

The next several days Paul threw himself into his work, trying to put the dream behind him. He began to study the Bible and found reading plans on the internet to help him plan his reading. He went to church on Sunday, to the delight of some of his friends who were happy he was beginning to take his faith more seriously.

He had interviewed four artists about the box artwork they needed, but he had not found any designs he really liked as yet, until today. He had received a package from his boss today with a design the boss thought promising. There was something familiar about it, and he found he liked the design as well. He was meeting with the fifth artist shortly.

Sitting at his desk, Paul punched the keys on his keyboard, finishing up the outline for the final testing he and his team would be doing. It was now 10:17 AM. There was a knock at his door.

“Come in,” he said. It must be the designer. Their appointment was at 10:30. The door opened. The young woman had a purse slung over her right shoulder and was holding an art portfolio in her left hand, tucked between her side and left arm. As the door opened, she dropped it to the floor, papers flying everywhere, and gasped as if she had seen a ghost.

Paul looked up, and nearly fell out of his high backed office chair. Both he and the red headed woman spoke at the same time.

“You!”

They both stared at each other in shock for what seemed an eternity, then a smile came to Paul, growing wider and wider as he stood to help her gather her artwork. Caryn also began to smile. Realizing they both recognized each other, Paul was the first to speak.

“The tower. You remember?”

She nodded excitedly, “Yes! My dream!”

Paul corrected her with a grin, “Our dream.”

She looked at him, perplexed, “How?” How could they have had the same dream? Shared the same dream experience?

Paul remembered what he had read in the Bible and his prayer. “Only God knows. All I know is, I’m glad we did. Whatever the reason, it’s strengthened my faith in God and given me hope for the future. I’ve been praying it was more than a dream.”

“Me too,” she said, taking the portfolio Paul had retrieved for her from his hands, grinning with great affection.

“How about we discuss it over coffee?” said Paul. He was beaming brightly at the sight of her.

“Let’s.” Caryn took his offered hand.

As they walked out of his office, Paul thought, God does work in mysterious ways. One thing he was sure of, he knew he had a lot to learn about God, and he wanted to be sure God was the center of his relationship with Caryn, as he had been in the tower. He was not so inclined to trust his logic as he had been. Trusting in God was far more wonderful. As he and Caryn walked down the hall, Paul put his arm around her, grateful to have God as the strong tower in his life.

 

Tom Fallwell’s Bio & Links

Born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1951, Tom Fallwell spent much of his career as a software developer and programmer. Now retired from that field, he has taken up writing, which he had always loved to do, but did not have the time to indulge himself in. Now he is writing the stories he had always wanted to write.

Still living in Oklahoma, Tom is active in church, running the sound system and sometimes teaching adult Sunday School. He has always had a love of fantasy and science fiction, both in reading and in movies. His love of story-telling came as a result of playing table top role playing games with friends, in which he created adventures for the other players to experience.

 

Website: http://tomfallwell.com

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/TomFallwellAuthor

Goodreads:http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/11303749.TomFallwell

 

 

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Sweet Dreams

Remember

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Tory Gates

Copyright 2015 Tory Gates

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*Author’s Note: the following is the prequel to the forthcoming ‘

‘Sweet Dreams Series’ This story is seen through the eyes of a mother, who will one day pass on her family’s destiny.

 

Remember

“Yes. I remember the bomb.”

The girl looked up into the eyes of the elderly woman seated beside her at the low table.

Age and glaucoma had obscured her grandmother’s vision, transformed her black hair to gray and turned her skin into a river of wrinkles. Her mind, however, remained sharp. “Why do you wish to know, Hiro-chan?”

Hiroko Nakajima paused before speaking. Her grandmother’s given name was Chihiro, but all Hiroko’s short life she had affectionately called her Obaasan. The woman spoke with quiet authority, but also kindness. That never changed, but now her voice was one that foretold a need for caution.

“I have heard Mama and Papa-san speak of it,” Hiroko said. “They told me you lived near Hiroshima during the war.”

Obaasan gave an ominous nod. “Yes,” she slowly replied, “I lived outside of the city, in the suburbs. That is why I was spared, but not so for so many others. There is more to your question, is there not, Hiro-chan?”

Hiroko thought before she spoke again; Obaasan understood, and waited. Her grandmother and others often commented on how Hiroko was so mindful for a little girl. She could ask the most honest and mature of questions.

“It has to do,” Hiroko replied, “with what I have seen, and what I’ve heard at night. Mama-san says you would know.”

Obaasan’s head rose. Straightening, a painful effort, she adjusted the folds of her yukata. Hiroko stood up and helped Obaasan to her feet.

The grandmother smiled gratefully as she rested her right hand on Hiroko’s shoulder and took up her thick wooden cane. “Let us take a walk, my inquisitive grandchild,” she said. “There is much to discuss, and to show you.” Hiroko was at the perfect height for her shoulder to steady her grandmother, and they passed slowly through the living room. They paused to step into their sandals, then passed out the sliding glass door and out to the back garden.

The small, traditional garden was carefully maintained by Hiroko’s grandfather, Hiroshi. The narrow path, a mere six steps, was laid with flat stones and lined with larger rocks taken from various expeditions to the nearby mountains. A small lantern rested in the center, suspended above a statue of Tara, the Goddess of Compassion. Around her, the remnants of recently lit candles and incense remained from the earlier observance of the holiday. Hiroshi would clear these away after the guests had departed.

Their destination in the garden was the ornate wooden bench before the statue. As they approached, Obaasan said, “I am so glad you can come visit us, Hiro-chan. At my age, getting out is hard to do, and I would miss seeing you.”

Hiroko smiled. “I like being here,” she replied, “It’s peaceful. I love being around you both.”

“And we’re happy that you’re around,” affirmed Obaasan as they walked. “I wonder… has your mother told you why you should ask me about the bomb?”

“No, Obaasan.” They reached the bench, and Hiroko helped her grandmother sit comfortably. With her cane between her gnarled hands, Obaasan looked over her glasses at her granddaughter. Hiroko gazed steadily back; intensely curious. She hoped Obaasan would not be offended by her questioning.

“You’re much like your mother,” Obaasan replied, and smiled, a relief to Hiroko. “It’s a good thing. Esumi is a seeker who wishes to know more than what is perceived on the surface. I have of course told her the story,” she continued, “but never have I fully explained certain things, Hiro-chan.”

“What things?” Hiroko asked.

Obaasan paused. “How I was spared from the blast,” she replied with gravity, and removed her glasses. Obaasan looked hard at Hiroko, and the girl thought she saw the old woman’s eyes change. The irises were a dark, almond brown, but they now opened like the shutter of a camera, an eye within an eye.

The withered hand that gently took hers made Hiroko relax again. “Look carefully into these eyes, child,” the lady coaxed, “and you will see the universe.”

Obaasan’s voice echoed. Hiroko looked, there was a reflection in Obaasan’s eyes, and Hiroko could now see herself. She could see her face, and her own eyes began to widen. Hiroko could see and feel them follow her grandmother’s suit.

She was being drawn right into Obaasan. Then she saw it: darkness, and then millions, no, billions of stars, intermittent flashes of light which reached out for her…

The hand that held Hiroko’s kept a firm grip. “It is all right, Hiro-chan,” Obaasan said. “You are safe. You must see this with your own eyes. Open them now.”

Though she hadn’t felt them close, Hiroko opened her eyes as instructed. They stood together on a hill, or perhaps a small mountain. It had to be the latter, Hiroko guessed, because the air seemed thin. They were looking down over a city — or rather, where a city had once stood.

As far as Hiroko’s eyes could see, the landscape was gray and deserted, a dead zone. Where there once were buildings, there was rubble. Here and there, a sturdier structure had survived the onslaught, but these too were damaged beyond repair. She could see where the roads and streets were, and how they’d been laid out, the borders and squares of a checkerboard. There were no trees, no vehicles, and no people.

What struck Hiroko was the silence. “Where are we?” she asked.

“This,” Obaasan said as she gestured with her hand, “was Hiroshima. It is one day after the bomb fell. There were, and are, people here on this day, but they shall not see us. There is no need for us to see them, either. You recognize this place, Hiroko.”

Obaasan did not ask. Hiroko nodded; she held to Obaasan’s hand as it rested on her shoulder. “I have seen this place,” she said, “and these people.”

“They are our people, Hiroko-chan. I remember them as well,” Obaasan replied, “for I saw them. I was a nurse attached to one of the hospitals. A terrible time, the end of this war,” she went on. “We were short of doctors and nurses, and also essential medicines, bandages, all manner of supplies. Then the bomb came. What I saw, and what I experienced, shall never leave me.”

Obaasan sat (this time without difficulty) on a rock outcropping, and Hiroko sat beside her. “What happened?” She asked.

The woman continued to look down on the city, her face impassive. “I was to have been at the hospital that morning,” Obaasan explained. She spoke as if Hiroko was further down the hill rather than beside her. “Your grandfather had already left for work that morning, and I sent your mother off to school. Esumi was about your age at the time; she does not remember much about it. I suppose that’s just as well.”

“You said you were spared,” Hiroko ventured. “How?”

Obaasan turned and looked at her, her expression the same. “The reason for that is why we are here, Hiro-chan. This is not a dream, nor is it imagination. We have traveled back in time to this place because you and I share a special power. It is the power that saved my life.”

“What is this power?” Hiroko wanted to go back now, but she knew Obaasan would never harm her. They had a reason to be here; Hiroko knew she must listen.

“It is called the Amida.” Obaasan turned her body to face Hiroko on the rock. “Recently, Esumi and I had a long talk about you,” she explained. “Your mother recognized the signs in you; to those with experience they are confirmation that you have acquired this power. I have passed it down to you. The Amida is why we can sit here and observe this place I lived in so many years ago. That, however, is only one part of the story. I must tell you why I am still alive.”

Hiroko nodded.

“The train was late,” Obaasan said, “and crowded. Eventually, we made it to the station. I alighted and made my way out to the street.”

“Yes,” Hiroko asked, “and then?”

“I saw the bomb,” Obaasan told her as she looked up and motioned with her hand. Hiroko’s eyes followed.

“People were pointing to the sky and saying, ‘look, look at the parachute.’ There was a large one floating down from above,” Obaasan said. “We thought someone was jumping into the city. I thought how strange a thing that was.” She continued without gravity or change of emotion, “Then I saw the explosion.”

 

The blue sky disappeared, blotted out by a ball of fire. The ground trembled, and Hiroko felt the heat as from a furnace. She watched the world vanish as if watching a cartoon on television, only this was actually happening. Then Hiroko heard the screams, the same ones from her nightmares…

“The blast occurred above-ground,” Obaasan carried on. Her voice changed not at all, even as she took Hiroko’s quaking body into her arms. “The rush of energy that came down is what destroyed the city, Hiro-chan. I saw it happen, even as I escaped.”

Hiroko turned into the folds of Obaasan’s robe and tried to hide from the fire, the intense heat, and the deafening roar. “All I saw was fire,” Obaasan said, her calm voice above the maelstrom, “as everything around me was consumed. I thought the entire world was being torn asunder before my eyes, and I with it. I knew I had only one chance to survive: I traveled away from the blast, back to where I had started my commute.”

The elements of the nightmare died away, and deathly calm again took over. “You went home?” Hiroko looked up in surprise. “But how?”

“The power of the Amida. I used it for myself,” Obaasan replied, “in an act of self-preservation. No one outside the family knew of my powers then. As quickly as we arrived here, I returned home. I survived the explosion, the firestorm, and the initial radiation.”

“Then you did what anyone else would have done, Obaasan. A bird would fly away, or a squirrel would run if you threw a stone at it.”

“That is so.” Obaasan sighed and continued, “Still, I had a duty to perform. I knew the hospital would need me. I got a ride from a friend who was headed into Hiroshima, but it was a long trip. Panic was setting in, and as we got closer to the city roads became impassable. I ended up walking the last five kilometers to the hospital.”

She paused, and Hiroko saw the expression. “It was then,” Obaasan breathed, “that I saw what I had avoided.”

The lady lowered her head. “I saw the destruction of the city,” she said, “and of Japan. I believed I had seen all before: bombed and burned buildings, the war wounds, the shattered limbs, the dismembered bodies, the dead — even worse, the men driven mad by war and what they’d done in service of it.”

Obaasan sighed. “We did not know what kind of bomb we were dealing with,” she went on. “Burn victims, so many of them were there when I arrived, and more and more were brought in. The doctors at first thought it was a fire bomb, but the burns were different.”

Hiroko turned to look up at Obaasan. She had removed her glasses, and let them hang by her gold pince-nez. She hid her eyes with one hand and said quietly, “The victims,” she whispered, “were in such agony. Their skin fell from their bodies in strips, and yet they still lived. We did not know about nuclear radiation; I don’t think even the Americans knew what they had unleashed on the world.”

She returned her hand to her cane and sucked in a deep breath. “The world changed for us Hiro-chan,” she said. “We were adrift; we heard the Emperor speak on the radio and say publicly that errors were made. He had agreed to end the war, to surrender. The divine right which we believed to be ours, to pull the corners of the blanket together, was not so. We as a people had to submit ourselves to the invaders, and as the Emperor said, endure the unendurable, for we had caused much of the suffering. In turn, we too suffered, and I suffer.”

Hiroko hid her face in her small hands. She wept for some time, and she felt Obaasan’s arm pull her closer. “Why do you weep?” Obaasan asked at length. “Not for me, I hope.”

“For you,” Hiroko sobbed, “and for all of them. Now I understand why this scared me so. Obaasan, why did we fight?”

“This is a question we asked ourselves,” Obaasan replied, and her voice took on an embittered tone. “We were lied to, Hiro-chan. We trusted our divine leader, all of our leaders, really. It is something each of us has had to consider and come to terms with. I know now that war equals only one thing, and that is futility. The world knows the madness of war, but future generations always repeat history. They never learn from it.”

Hiroko looked through her tears as Obaasan gazed down at her. The lady’s smile returned, along with her gentle voice. “I bring you here,” she said, “not to frighten you, Hiro-chan. I have done this so you can see the Amida’s power for yourself. In my life I have seen much. Often I have felt ashamed that I survived this when so many of my friends did not.”

“Why would you feel ashamed?” Hiroko asked as she wiped her eyes.

“Part of me,” Obaasan replied, “was thankful to survive, for Hiroshi and Esumi would not be deprived of me. Yet I felt a painful guilt: I feared I abused the Amida for a selfish reason. Over time, I was able to understand my reaction, as you so smartly pointed out. My conscience cleared, I was able to take solace in my husband and daughter. I also saw our nation rise again, but as a different country. My hope is that we stay that country.”

Hiroko felt Obaasan’s fingers brush along her hairline. “In the end, I did what I had to do. My family still had me, and I could be the person I chose to be.”

Obaasan’s last words echoed out, and Hiroko opened her eyes. They were seated once again on the bench in the garden. Hiroko wiped her wet face and eyes; she did not want her grandfather or her parents to see them.

She looked up. Obaasan was still there. “I am sorry if that was too strong,” Obaasan said with a nod, “but you and I share something very special, Hiro-chan. You have seen the worst, but one day,” she declared, “you shall see the best.”

“I hope so.” Hiroko felt dizzy, and she leaned against her grandmother again. “So I can do these things?” she asked. “I can go back in time?”

“Yes,” Obaasan replied, “but you should not use it unless you must. You are very young, Hiro-chan, and you have a long life ahead of you. You will be able to live, to work and raise a family. The world is a beautiful place, and we must each take steps to keep it that way.”

Obaasan slowly got to her feet, again with Hiroko’s help. As they retraced their steps through the garden, Obaasan said, “The reason I took you to that place was to show you what I saw, and what I remembered. Secondly, I needed to show the potential of man, both good and bad. From this, Hiro-chan, you will go forth. I will teach you what I can in what time is granted me. You shall see that what we share is indeed a gift, a most incredible gift.”

 

Tory Gates’s Bio & Links

My book A Moment in the Sun will be released in 2015 through Sunbury Press Books, and independent bookshops. My first book, Parasite Girls was released in 2013 and is available through Amazon.com and Shakespir. Selected writings, audio projects and other materials can be found at www.behance.net/torygates

I’ve been a broadcaster for 31 years, currently as a reporter with the GeoTraffic Network, and a news/sports anchor-reporter for the Radio Pennsylvania Network. A native of Vermont, I live in York, Pennsylvania with my five cats and the herd of deer that come to sleep on my lawn every night. I am always available for interviews!

 

Tory Gates Media * P.O. Box 3722, York, PA 17402 * [email protected] *

www.behance.net/torygates

https://www.facebook.com/ToryGatesMedia?ref=hl

[+ https://www.reverbnation.com/thedharmafools?profile_view_source=profile_box+]

 

 

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The Big Climb

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Ann Harrison

Copyright 2015 Ann Harrison

All Rights Reserved

 

Dedication

 

For Zack and Sharen,

you both are near and dear to my heart and I love you very much

 

Acknowledgements

 

Special thanks goes to T. Bouvier Wiliams, whom I met on twitter during NaNoWriMo and to my wattpad

followers for giving me suggestions to make

‘The Big Climb’ a much better story

The Big Climb

“Come on Mandy, let’s go climb that little rock over by the waterfall. I’ll race you.” Dana and I harnessed up to do some mountain climbing.

“Now Dana, you know we’ll have to use climbing ropes for that little rock, because it’s steep in places.”

“I know, I know, but we can still do it. I have some extra rope with me, and look! Somebody tied some rope to the side of the rock. Come on Mandy, let’s race.”

“Oh all right, let me tell my sister where we’re going, so she can look out for us.” I ran to tell Julie which rock we would climb, so she could wait for us at the foot of the rock like she did when we were kids. “Okay Dana, I’m coming!” I followed Dana up the little rock as we began using the ropes to climb up the forty-five degree angle.

“Mandy! Look out!”

 

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Ring, ring! I jumped as the sound of the phone in the hall pulled me back from my inner thoughts. “Hello?” I grabbed the phone and ran to my room.

“Are you ready for the big climb today, Mandy?”

I sighed with relief at the sound of Dana’s voice on the other end of the line. “I don’t see how we’ll be able to do it since it’s raining. To tell you the truth, I’m as nervous as a cat! I don’t know if I can do this.”

“Well, the fact that it’s raining here doesn’t mean it’ll be raining up there. I’ll be climbing ahead of you to warn you of any danger. Hey, by the way, is Julie coming with us?”

“As far as I know she is, but she won’t climb with us. She’ll stay at the foot of the mountain in case there’s any trouble. By the way, we’ll pick you up in an hour.”

“Okay, see you then.” I hung up the phone, swung my backpack onto my shoulders, and sauntered downstairs to the kitchen, where Julie was making breakfast. “Do you want to drive your truck, or go in mine?”

“We’ll ride in your truck, to save on gas.” Julie stared at me for a long moment. “Mandy, what’s wrong? You look a little green around the gills.”

“Well Sis, I am a bit nervous, that’s all.”

“Honey, you’ll be just fine. I know that fall scared you, but you can’t let that keep you from doing the thing you love to do most in the world. I’ll pray with you every step of the way.” My sister gave me a quick hug.

 

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When I pulled into Dana’s front yard, I noticed that the rain had dissipated to a fine mist. Julie got out and put Dana’s pack in the back of the SUV, as Dana climbed in the front passenger seat beside me. As I drove up the ramp onto the interstate, the sun began peeking through the clouds. Oh Lord, please don’t let anything happen to me out on the rocks today. I tuned the radio to my favorite classic country station and set the cruise control to sixty-five miles per hour. My heart began to pound and my hands grew clammy, as my mind kept wandering back to that day I fell off the rocks.

 

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As my foot slipped off the edge of the rocky cliff, I screamed in sheer terror. Before I fell to my death, I felt the rope jerk me back to the side of the cliff. I pulled myself back up onto the rock and turned to get off the mountain as fast as my shaky legs would carry me. Mandy, where are you going? Dana caught up to me as I made my way back to my car.

“I can’t do this Dana, I’m so scared I’ll fall again!”

“Why didn’t you just let the rope hold you up, Mandy? You wouldn’t have gone anywhere as long as you were clipped to the harness.”

“I don’t know. I guess I got scared when the rope jerked me back toward the rock.” I tried to blink back the tears stinging my eyes.

“You can’t just stay off the rocks Mandy girl, you’ve got to go climbing again. We need to plan a climbing expedition up Adventure Mountain.”

“Mandy, look out!” All of a sudden, Julie jerked me out of my reverie as a truck came barreling toward me. I slammed on the brakes and swerved to miss the drunk driver who’d somehow wandered into my lane. Before I knew what happened, I lost control of my SUV and we ended up in a ditch. “Mandy honey, let me drive.” Julie clambered out of the back seat and switched places with me.

As Julie backed out of the ditch and eased my truck back onto the highway, I felt the sting of unshed tears. “I don’t understand! I’m already scared to go climbing again, and now this. Why do these things always have to happen to me?” My sister handed me a tissue from the box I always kept in the glove compartment. I buried my face in it as the tears began to fall in earnest.

“Honey, these things just happen. It has nothing to do with you necessarily, you just had a bad break, that’s all.” Dana reached back and patted me on the knee. “You know what? We’re gonna make it up that big rock. God’s got our backs, and we got this thing. Remember what I said last summer? I told you we’d take a trip up Adventure Mountain, and I intend to help you get up to the top of that big rock.”

“Okay, if you’re sure Dana, because I don’t feel so confident at the moment.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll see what I mean once we get started.” Dana turned to look out the window as I blew my nose and wiped my eyes.

“Dry your eyes Amanda Gene Simmons, because you know as well as I do that daddy wouldn’t let you blubber like that if he were here to see you. He’d tell you to stand up straight and tall, and climb that mountain with the best of them.” Julie knew how to make me laugh.

“Yeah Sis, I know, but it ain’t always easy to keep a stiff upper lip.”

As Julie parked near the foot of the mountain, my gaze fell on the wide expanse of rock that loomed ahead of me. A frisson of fear crept down my spine as my stomach sank to my knees. “Can I really do this?” We unloaded the packs and gear out of the back of the truck.

“You’ll be fine Mandy, I’ll be just ahead of you. You can do this!” Dana gave me a reassuring pat on the shoulder.

“Good luck girls!” Julie sat down at the foot of the mountain with her radio and a book.

After getting ourselves geared up, Dana and I began our long ascent to the top of the mountain. “I’ll guide you through the roughest parts of the climb and control the ropes when you need to use them to climb up the steep slopes.”

“Good idea.” I stood at the foot of the mountain for a few minutes to give Dana a head start and try to work up the nerve to take my first steps out onto the rock. I took a deep breath to calm my pounding heart. I began to relax as I made my way to the summit. I hummed a merry little tune under my breath as I hiked, but I stopped in my tracks when Dana called, “Steep grade ahead!”

“How in the world am I supposed to get up to the top of that rock, Dana?” A wave of nausea threatened to bring me to my knees as my palms began to sweat. “I don’t think I can do this!”

“Follow me, I’ll show you.”

I watched in horror as Dana placed her hands and feet into the crevices of the rock. No! I can’t do this, I can’t climb up this way! I don’t know how! I think I’m going to be sick! A voice screamed inside my head as I started to gag.

Now, Amanda Gene Simmons, you wanted to do this, so now’s your chance! Are you going to blow it and chicken out or push your way up to the top? It’s now or never! I swallowed the urge to throw up and clipped the fixed rope to my harness, before climbing with all my might. When I reached the top of the grade, I paused to take a drink from my canteen. Thank God that’s over. I trudged up a section of rock that felt almost flat.

“Mandy!” I stopped short at the sound of Dana’s voice. “The slope gets steeper up here, it’s a sixty degree climb, so don’t unclip yourself from the rope. Just climb to the end. If you need it, I have some extra rope here.” Dana waved the length of rope she carried over her shoulder.

“Oh no, not again! Thanks, Dana.” I gritted my teeth as I began the long dangerous ascent up the steep expanse of rock.

As I took my first step onto the steep grade, the nausea returned with a vengeance and my knees buckled, sending me crashing down on all fours at the foot of the slope. “Oh God, help me! I can’t do this Dana.” Tears began streaming down my face as Dana clambered back down the slope where I knelt.

“Mandy, are you okay?” Dana sat beside me on the rock.

“I don’t think I can do this. I made it up the first slope, but now that rock looks so steep and I’m afraid I’m gonna fall again!” I buried my face in my hands and sobbed in fear and frustration.

“It’s okay to be scared. You had a bad fall off that rock over by the waterfall, but you can’t let that stop you now. Take a minute to catch your breath and we’ll climb this grade together. Okay?”

“Okay.” When we reached the top of the slope marking the halfway point, my radio squawked to life.

“Is everything all right up there?”

I dug my radio from the outer pocket of my bag. “Yeah, I’m okay, Sis! We’re halfway to the top.”

“You go girl! You can do it!”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Sis. I’m biting the bullet here, but I’m okay.” I signed off and followed Dana up the mountain. The steep grade curved into a gentle slope and I was able to unclip the rope from my harness. I sauntered up the rocky path. “If I don’t look down, I can make it to the top!” I muttered under my breath as I reached the top of the grade.

“Steep grade up ahead, eighty degree slope.”

I laughed at the image of Dana calling out the different scoring positions at a football game as I clipped the rope to my harness and heaved myself up the steep slope. I stood still for a moment and took a deep breath of the cool crisp mountain air. “I’ve made it this far, and you know what Dana? I feel so free up here! I’d better not look down, or the climb thus far will be a wasted effort.” I glanced up at the sky and imagined myself jumping up into the air, touching the clouds with my fingertips, before landing on the mountain top.

“I know it makes you feel like you could fly up here, but you’d better be careful! There’s a narrow ledge just ahead. Stay clipped to the rope and climb up here where I am.” Dana tossed me her rope. I unclipped the fixed line from my harness, attached the two lengths of rope together and clipped the whole thing back in place. I carefully placed one foot at a time on the ledge, pulling myself up over the rocks with the rope. I slipped off the ledge and shrieked as I dangled in midair. “No! I can’t…” I relaxed my body and let myself float free. ‘Fall.’

I dangled like this for several moments, thinking back to my first fall off the rock by the waterfall. If I had allowed the rope to carry me safely back to the side of the cliff, like I’m doing now, would I have turned away from climbing last year, like I did? I began to ponder that point. Why had I run from the rock that day? Had I been too afraid of the rope, or the rock to trust Dana to help me back on my feet? “What have I missed?” I asked myself as I floated there in the breeze.

“Mandy, what in the world are you doing? Are you okay down there?”

“Oh! Uh, yeah. As a matter of fact, I am. I fell off the ledge, and I wanted to see how it feels to dangle on the rope for a moment.” I pulled myself up onto the rock and jammed up the wall. When I reached the top, I unclipped the ropes from my harness and handed the longer one back to Dana.

“Wow girl! I’d never thought of climbing that rock wall like that. How in the world did you get up here?”

“There’s a crack just big enough to put your feet into and I pulled myself up with the rope.”

“How did dangling on the rope feel?”

“To be honest, I thought I’d be afraid of falling to my death, but when I relaxed and let the rope hold me up, I felt like I was floating in midair. Hey Dana, you know something? The longer I dangled on that rope, the more I realized that being so scared of falling off that rock was so stupid of me. I could have made it up to the top if I wanted too. I guess I was just too scared to trust this harness. I think I’m gonna run up to the top of that wall and back before we leave today.”

“Well Mandy, I told you that there was nothing to be afraid of. If you’d just let the rope catch you, you wouldn’t have gone anywhere.”

“You’re so right.” I kicked that thought around a little, as Dana and I walked the rest of the way up the mountain together.

 

  • * *

 

When we reached the summit, Dana threw her arms around me for a quick hug. “This is only half the battle! Now comes the hard part, getting back down the rock face.”

“Why do you say climbing back down the mountain is the hard part? I found climbing up the steep slopes of this giant rock to be difficult enough.” I dropped my pack and pulled out my camera to take some pictures of the top of the 5000 foot peak.

“It’s not as easy to get down those slopes as you think my friend. You’ll see.” Dana and I celebrated my victory with a light picnic lunch and then we started the descent together.

When we stopped to climb down the first ledge, I watched as Dana clipped the rope onto her harness and repelled down the mountain to the next slope. Dana tossed the rope back to me so I could do the same. I hesitated at first, but when I let the rope carry me down the mountainside, I felt free all over again. I came to a bone jarring halt as my feet landed on the top of the next slope. “Are you all right?” Dana placed an arm around me to keep me from falling to my knees.

“Yeah, that was a bit scary at first, but letting myself dangle when I fell off the ledge a few minutes ago made the descent down that slope easy as pie, except for that bone jarring landing.” I giggled as I handed Dana the extra length of rope and made my way down a steep grade, taking extreme care not to go sailing down to the foot of the rock head first. I ran down the gentle slope and then I stopped dead in my tracks. “Dana, I’m about to do something crazy, but I’m feeling a bit goofy right about now.”

“What are you up to Mandy girl?” Dana gave me a wink before sailing down the steep grade.

“Watch this!” I sat down and slid yelling, “Weeeeee!” all the way down. “I ain’t never had this much fun since we were little.” I got up and dusted myself off, and ran down the gentle slope to the foot of the mountain.

“You did it Lil’ Sis! See, I told you that you could do this.” Julie threw her arms around me as I ran up to her, squealing in delight. “How did it feel to climb that big hunk of rock?” Julie held me at arm’s length and looked deep into my eyes.

“Although the climb up the rock scared me half to death, I have to admit, I feel better than I expected! I have learned a couple of lessons from this climb. First of all, don’t look down, and last, but not least, be sure to trust the rope.” Tears of joy clouded my vision for an instant.

“What are you crying about, Sis? You did what you set out to do. I know you’re happy, but instead of crying, we ought to celebrate!” Julie put a hand on my shoulder.

“I know, I’m just so happy, but you’re right, Jules. Dana and I had a small celebration at the top of the mountain, but we’ll get a bite to eat, then drop Dana off at her house. When we get home, I’m taking a much needed nap.”

“But wait a minute, Mandy, what about climbing to the top of that little rock over yonder?” Dana pointed to the rock beside the waterfall.

“Oh, that’s right! Come on girls, I’ll race you!”

 

Ann Harrison’s Bio & Links

Ann Harrison loves God, her family, including her church family, traditional music, and the music of bells and wind chimes. Although Ann has worked as a freelance writer off and on for a few clients during the past four years or so, she has discovered that she loves writing stories from her heart.

Ann is currently working on the first Christian suspense novel of her Chosen Path series, entitled A Journey of Faith. This novel, and the entire series was inspired by recurring dreams of mountain climbing, which took on many different forms. She is also in the process of writing a self help guide entitled Embracing the Healing Power of Music: Seven Steps for Finding Your Way out of the Darkness and into the Light with God’s Gift of song, to explain how she discover this God given source of healing, by delving deep into the music she loves.

To read more of her inspirational writings, book reviews, character interviews from her novel, and a lot more fun stuff, please visit her blog at

http://www.wwannwrites.wordpress.com

To comment on anything you’ve read within these pages or on her blog, send email to [email protected], like author Ann Harrison on facebook, and follow her on twitter @annwrites75.

 

 

 

A Martian Folk Tale

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Chris S Hayes

Copyright © 2015 Chris S Hayes

All Rightes Reserved

 

A Martian Folk Tale

It all started with Danny-Boy Mackenzie, on weekdays just the youngest of his brothers, on weekends the best damned jazz orchestra conductor in existence. Of course, since this story takes place about fourteen years after everybody on Earth managed to blow themselves to kingdom come and take every half-way decent saxophone player with them, that’s not saying a whole hell of a lot.

Danny-Boy was the spitting image of all eight of his brothers, which wasn’t a surprising thing since they were all clones of Mackenzie the kweesh farmer. Generous-minded folks said that Mackenzie just liked big families. Some of them joked that maybe he was looking to start his own baseball team. More realistic segments of the population suspected that he was a stingy man who’d discovered how to pay his workers next to nothing and leave all his money to himself once he was gone.

Breeding females were in short supply back then on Mars. What with terraforming being such a dangerous occupation, all the really smart girls had stayed back home on Earth until the job got done right. Unfortunately for everybody, the job on Mars wasn’t quite done yet when the boys with the toys back home decided to get hostile with each other, leaving Danny-Boy to grow up on a planet where the men outnumbered the women ten to one.

Fortunately, it didn’t take long after the big blow-up for the bio-wizards in Grissom City to start cranking out the next best thing. Reverse gender clones, they called them. They weren’t any help with the population problem since their chromosomes were still XY, but something those scientists did to the poor things in-utero made them into little girls with all the trimmings. Danny-Boy never understood the mechanics of it, but he sure enjoyed the results—in particular, one by the name of Dorinda who lived next door at the sawmill with her daddy, old Barney Klump.

Barney had kept the mill going long past the time when the thing should’ve fallen apart. He was good with machines, a regular tech-wizard, and that was fine by everybody in Ozyk. Martian dust got into everything. Even the simplest machines seized up eventually unless they were treated right, and without the machines, there would be no kweesh. In Ozyk, it was all about the kweesh—kweesh lumber for building, kweesh fiber for clothes, and most importantly kweesh leaves—dried and smoked, powdered and snorted, chewed like tobacco, baked up in brownies and cakes and eaten—you name it, they did it. There wasn’t much else to do in Ozyk that could make a man feel so good.

Dorinda didn’t look much like her daddy, which in retrospect should probably have given Danny something to think about, but he didn’t think much, especially when Dorinda was around. Dorinda, on the other hand, was always thinking. In that sense she was just like her daddy. Danny started having dreams about her the year they turned fourteen, but she didn’t seem interested. He figured if she had any dreams at all they were probably about board-feet, cants, and flitches. She was much more interested in helping her daddy keep the sawmill running than in boys. Of course, it never occurred to Danny that it might just be him she wasn’t interested in and not boys in general. Fourteen year old boys don’t generally think that way.

One Saturday, Danny was in his room conducting to a recording of Cab Calloway and His Orchestra he’d downloaded from the Central Library. He stood in front of a full length mirror with his white tailcoat on and was just really gettin’ down with the hi-de-ho’s when he got a text from Dorinda.

“CM OVR NEED U”

Naturally, he dropped everything and ran right over. He found Dorinda at the water wheel looking a mite distressed. It took him a second to figure out why, but he eventually noticed that the canal was bone dry.

“Well, ain’t that something!” he remarked. “Where’d all the water go?” Dorinda shot him one of her looks.

“The canal’s been dry for three days now, Danny. Where have you been?” She didn’t really expect an answer, and he didn’t disappoint. He just blushed.

“Never mind,” she said, sighing and rolling her eyes as a goofy grin spread across his face. Dorinda cut to the chase. “Daddy took the truck up to the dam yesterday. He thinks there’s a problem up there with those Grissom City suits and their darn computer diverting our water. He was supposed to be back this morning at dawn.”

“But it’s noon!”

“Exactly.”

Danny thought for several seconds with his face all screwed up. They’d had no end of trouble with the WMTC’s central computer deciding to ration their water supply during droughts the past few years, but the water had never been completely turned off before. Come to think of it, his da had mentioned something about ‘that evil computer with a mind of its own, tryin’ to take over the planet’ just last night. Danny hadn’t paid him much mind. Da always talked like that after a bellyful of his brother Patrick’s kweesh beer.

“We could call my da. He’ll know what to do.”

“Or we could borrow transportation and head up there to find out what’s going on ourselves and not bother your father,” Dorinda countered.

Danny stared at her and scratched his head. Although it was true that his da would probably be pissed if they bothered him in the middle of an irrigation crisis, neither of them was old enough to drive. And besides, every truck within reach was in use. He’d just opened his mouth to point that out when Dorinda gave him his marching orders.

“Go get Colin’s ID. I’ll make us lunch and meet you at the tether tower.”

His brother Colin was 18, which happened to be the legal flying age for personal airships. Dorinda didn’t hang around long enough for him to argue with her, so he went home to get Colin’s ID.

Colin was usually out by the drying sheds that time of day with the rest of his brothers, having a joint and watching Ian pummel the brother who’d annoyed him the most. Danny had felt all grown up the first time they’d invited him along and let him light up. Now it was a daily habit for him, just like it was for the rest of them. In Ozyk, especially in the Mackenzie household, smoking kweesh was just something a man did—like working, eating, fighting, and sleeping. It really didn’t occur to him that he hadn’t had a single day without it in over ten months. So when he went into the house, he picked up Colin’s ID from his bedside table, a loaf of bread and a sausage from the kitchen (since Dorinda’s taste in food was sometimes questionable), and a bottle of Patrick’s homebrewed root beer from the pantry, then shoved them all in a sack, slung the sack over his shoulder, and headed straight for the tether tower sans kweesh.

 

  • * *

 

“They took him? Took him where?” Danny’s confusion was typical of his recent behavior. Dorinda had noticed him becoming increasingly distracted during the two hours it had taken them to fly the helium airship up to the dam. She’d finally been forced to take the controls from him while he rummaged through the glove box and under all the seats looking for kweesh.

“He’s been taken to WMTC headquarters in Grissom City,” replied the uniformed security guard in a disapproving tone of voice. “Apparently, he was caught trying to sabotage the dam’s diversion systems.” The deeply tanned fellow wore a rust red coverall (a popular color since it hid the dust) with a prominent Western Mountain Terraforming Corporation logo on the left breast pocket. He looked like he spent all day every day sitting in his little glass cubicle, baking in the sun and guarding a mostly empty parking lot. Behind him was a small cinder block building set beside the yawning chasm of the Cooper Dam. Beyond that, the Cooper Reservoir gleamed silver in the sun, stretching for miles. That much surface water was a sight rarely seen back then on Mars.

Dorinda gave the guy one of her looks. Then she turned to Danny, who still looked confused.

“Go back to the ship and get ready to go. I have a few questions for the Dam Supervisor.” By the way she said it, it wasn’t clear whether she was cursing out the individual in question or just identifying him, but she was surely not pleased. She stalked across the parking lot.

Danny stepped closer to the guard, his hand twitching. “Got any kweesh, man?” At the guard’s negative head shake and disapproving look, his shoulders sagged. He made his dejected way back to the ship, tied up at its tether.

Meanwhile, Dorinda got her claws into the hapless fellow and got enough information out of him for her to make a decision. She returned to the airship, eyes blazing and jaw set.

“Fire it up, Danny. We’re going to Grissom City. The WMTC’s central computer decided that the food production regions need water more than we do, and they’ve cut off everything but the potable water allowance for our region. When Daddy tried to reprogram the dam’s irrigation parameters, they arrested him.”

Danny fumbled with the keys a few times before she shouldered him aside and did it herself. He was pretty shaky by then, sweatin’ bullets. He plopped himself down in the copilot’s seat, popped in his earbuds, and stared out the window. When he didn’t even seem curious about where they were going and why, she got worried. Once she got them aloft and figured out how to set the autopilot for the Grissom City aerodrome, she sat back and looked him up and down. He was staring out the window, pale and perspiring, with a spaced out look on his face.

“You sick, Danny?” He turned to her with one of his goofy grins, looking half-stoned, even though she knew he hadn’t had any kweesh at all.

“Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi….” he crooned in a dreamy voice, nodding his head to music only he could hear. She reached over and pulled his earbuds out of his ears, but it didn’t help much. He kept singing, staring off at nothing with a vacant smile on his face. “Ho-de-ho-de-ho-de-ho…”

“You okay, Danny?” she shouted. Danny blinked and finally focused on her.

“Oh, hi, Dorinda,” he said, as if he’d just noticed she was there. His face screwed up for a second like he was thinking hard. Then the question he wanted to ask occurred to him. “You got any kweesh?”

Danny had always been the smartest of the Mackenzie boys, or at least Dorinda thought so. Growing up, she’d been schooled with all of them at one point or another, and it seemed to her that long about 14 or 15 years old, all of them turned into slow witted idiots more interested in beating each other up than in doing anything useful. She’d chalked it up to his brothers’ influence when she’d noticed the same thing happening to Danny lately, but it was obvious now that this was something much more serious.

“How much kweesh are you doing, Danny?” she probed. Dorinda herself rarely indulged. Kweesh fogged the brain and interfered with clear thinking, and she hated not being able to think straight. Dorinda liked being in control. She was that kind of a girl.

Danny considered her question with great seriousness. After some seconds he replied, “Not more’n five or six joints a day, I wouldn’t think. Is that a lot?” In reward for his great mental effort he got another one of Dorinda’s looks. She turned back to the controls, shaking her head.

For just a few seconds, she allowed herself to be scared, and her stomach clenched. She was a fourteen-year-old girl headed toward a showdown with the evil computer overlord of the largest corporation on Mars, and all she had for help was a kweesh junkie in the first stages of withdrawal. Then she got her act together, grabbed a blanket from the back seat, and tucked it around Danny where he sat shivering.

“Go to sleep, Danny. You’ll feel better when you wake up.” She was that kind of a girl, too.

 

  • * *

 

By the time they got to the aerodrome Danny was totally out of his head. Dorinda had managed to get a little root beer into him for fluids, but he hadn’t eaten anything for over a day. The authorities didn’t question his ID. He looked just exactly like his brother, even had the same DNA, so Colin Mackenzie got admitted into the Grissom City Medical Center for kweesh withdrawal, and nobody thought to ask about how the two of them had gotten to Grissom City in the first place. The way Dorinda figured it, Danny’s daddy had probably already figured out which one of his boys was missing and what he’d gone missing in. Once the hospital contacted him, Mackenzie senior or one of the older boys would high-tail it up to Grissom City to fetch them and her time would be up. So she left Danny to his IV’s and jello and headed off to WMTC headquarters all by herself.

The building was a huge red brick monstrosity in the center of town. It must have been a scary sight for anyone raised on a farm in the Central Drylands, but Dorinda marched right in like she owned the place. The plaque next to the elevator had about two dozen names on it. Right at the top was the name she needed.

“Joseph Wainwright the Fourth, President and CEO,” she read. Dorinda decided that he sounded like just the guy to pull the plug on the evil overlord, so she took a deep breath for courage, turned around, and walked right up to the reception desk.

There was an honest-to-God girl at the desk. Dorinda hadn’t ever met a female under thirty before. There were a couple of older women in Ozyk, the ones who’d braved the dangers of terraforming and ended up surviving the nuclear surprise party, but none even close to her own age. This girl had two inch long zebra-striped fingernails, bright purple hair, and a lovely natural tan.

“I’d like to see Mr. Wainwright, please,” she told her with a friendly smile. The purple-haired one just popped her gum and checked her computer screen.

“Do you have an appointment?” the girl asked in a bored voice.

“No,” Dorinda admitted. “But it’s very important that I see him right away.” The girl looked dubious and kept chewing her cud. “It’s a serious matter,” she hastened to add. “He’s going to lose millions of dollars if I don’t warn him about what’s going on.”

Miss Zebra Nails pursed her lips. “I’m-sorry-but-Mr.-Wainwright-isn’t-available-would-you-care-to-leave-a-message?” she replied, all in one breath.

Dorinda’s smile became significantly less friendly. “No, I would not care to leave a message. When will he be in?” The girl chewed and stared Dorinda down. Dorinda stared right back, until Miss Zebra Nails broke eye contact to look behind her in the direction of the elevators. Swiveling around, Dorinda caught a glimpse of a grey-haired man in an expensive silk suit stepping into the elevator.

On a hunch, she shouted, “Mister Wainwright!” The older man’s head snapped up as the elevator doors shut. Cursing under her breath, Dorinda kept her eyes on the elevator, fidgeting nervously and watching the numbers. Behind her, she could hear the quiet voice of the receptionist as the Traitor to All Womankind called security.

Once the elevator stopped, Dorinda knew her destination. She ducked into the stairwell and started running up the stairs. As she reached the second floor landing, she could hear footsteps tromping up the stairs after her.

 

  • * *

 

It would make a nice story to say that when Danny woke up in the hospital his first thought was of Dorinda, but he was a fourteen year old boy who hadn’t had any solid food in a day and a half, so mainly he woke up hungry. After he’d eaten every scrap on the tray that had been left on his bedside table, he did start to worry some. His mental faculties were surprisingly clear; enough to make him start to believe some of Dorinda’s nonsense about how bad kweesh was for a person who needed to think straight. His eyes went to the clock on the wall and he did a mental countdown.

“Shoot,” he muttered, and rolled out of bed. Somebody from home would be here soon, likely Patrick or maybe even Ian. He was going to be in big trouble, so he pulled the IV catheter from his arm, rooted in the bedside cabinet for the bag containing his clothing, and started to dress. While he was dressing, the box on his IV pole began a shrill beeping. He was putting his shoes on when a nurse walked in to check on him. The guy was all muscle, not someone Danny really wanted to mess with, so he smiled and said cheerfully, “My brother called. He’s waiting for me in the lobby. Can I leave now?”

The nurse shook his head and sighed. “You guys are all the same. Can’t wait to get out of here so you can get stoned again. You mind if I check with the doctor first?”

Danny kept grinning, but he was more than a little put off by the guy’s attitude. Trouble was, he’d actually been thinking that even if he didn’t get away in time, at least whoever came for him would have a joint that he might be willing to share. Was he really that predictable?

“Sure. Go ahead. I’ll be fine,” he told the nurse.

As soon as the fellow left, Danny ducked out of his room and down the hallway in the opposite direction, doing his best to look like a visitor who knew exactly where he was going. It worked until he got to the lobby. That’s when he noticed the hand plate of the DNA scanner at the doorway. No wonder there weren’t any security guards anywhere. No one was getting in or out of the building without a DNA scan.

After a few seconds of debate, Danny walked up to the help desk and flashed a friendly smile at the guy sitting there. The unusually pretty boy batted long lashes and gave him a slow, shy smile in return. He raised a brow. How interesting…and useful.

“My name’s Danny. What’s yours?” he asked. The boy’s expression brightened, turning from shy to delighted.

“Hey, Danny. I’m Tom,” he replied in a breathy voice.

Danny leaned up against the desk like he was about to divulge a secret. “Listen, Tom,” he confided. “I was just upstairs with my brother Colin. He’s admitted, and I’m pretty sure there was a mix up when we came in. See…we’re clones, and I think the scanner confused my ID with his.” Danny brought out his own ID (Colin’s was in the other pocket) and showed it to Tom. “See? Scan this one. The computer’ll tell you that nobody by this name is in the building, but you can see I’m here.” Tom took Danny’s ID between two perfectly manicured fingers, keeping eye contact the entire time. Danny bit his lip, forcing himself not to laugh. The poor guy couldn’t help it if he was barking up the wrong tree. Tom’s brow creased in concentration as he scanned the ID, then smoothed as he handed it back to Danny with a warm smile.

“There ya go. All fixed. You’ll be able to walk out now without setting off any alarms,” he replied, as perky as you please. His eyes went back to the screen. “And your sister left a message that she’ll meet you at the airship when she’s done,” he added.

Danny laughed. “Dorinda’s definitely not my sister, but thanks for the message.”

Tom’s brow furrowed. “She seemed like a nice girl. Why wouldn’t you want to admit she’s your sister?”

Danny was starting to think Tom was a heck of a lot prettier than he was smart. “Because she’s just not, that’s why.”

“Well, I sure never saw two people with identical DNA scans who weren’t brother and sister, but if you say she’s not, then I guess she’s not,” he replied, pouting.

Danny studied the fellow. He’d never seen eye makeup like that before. It was a unique look. Then his words registered. “What did you say?”

Tom’s eyes grew wide; his lips parted in distress. He reached out and placed a slender hand on Danny’s arm.

“Sweetie, the only difference between the two of you…besides the obvious…is a tweak for eye and hair color. Otherwise both of you have got to be clones from the same donor,” he explained, his voice dripping sympathy. “Didn’t you know?”

Danny stood there with his mouth open. A second or two later he shut it, cleared his throat, gave Tom an absent nod of thanks and walked out.

 

  • * *

 

Dorinda slipped out of the stairwell and into the fourteenth floor hallway. She was huffing and puffing, but based on the heavy breathing filtering up the stairwell, she was pretty sure that her pursuer was in worse shape. After all, she was fourteen years old, and he was ancient, maybe even over thirty.

The hallway was deserted. At the end was a polished wooden door that looked like it was made of real oak. The transport costs of bringing something like that from Earth (back when Earth still had things like oak trees) was more than the sawmill’s entire gross income for a year. Now, of course, the door was irreplaceable. On it was a bronzed name plaque which read, “Joseph Wainwright, IV, CEO.” As she sprinted down the hallway, she heard footsteps on the landing behind her. She managed to knock three times before a security guard in a rust-red uniform caught her, pinning both elbows behind her back. She tried to kick him where it would hurt the most, but he sidestepped, cursing.

“Dammit, girl! Behave yourself! I don’t want to hurt you!”

“Let me go! I just want to talk to him!” she cried, and stomped as hard as she could on his instep. Her rubber soled shoes didn’t faze him.

“Let her go, Hudson,” said an authoritative voice. Dorinda looked up and into an open door. A muscle-bound bodyguard dressed in a tight black suit held the door knob. Another one had a gun out and was pointing it at her and her captor. That really caught Dorinda’s attention. No one had ever pointed a gun at her before.

Standing behind the fellow with the gun was a man even older than her father. It was the same guy she’d seen getting on the elevator. He motioned to his bodyguard to stand down. The man obeyed without hesitation. The building security officer took one look at the old man’s expression, dropped Dorinda’s elbows, and stepped back.

“Sorry for the disturbance, sir,” he apologized with an embarrassed grimace. “She got past us and ran up the stairs—”

“Did she, now?” The old man smirked like the idea tickled him to no end. “I’d say that entitles her to have her say.”

“But, sir…” protested the security officer. The old man gave him an exasperated look and then gave Dorinda a head to toe inspection.

“What’s your name, girl?” he asked.

“Dorinda, sir. Dorinda Klump,” she managed, sounding a little squeaky to her own ears.

“Klump’s the name of the guy Sheriff Whitecloud’s holding for sabotage, sir,” warned Hudson.

“I know that,” Wainwright told him impatiently. “Sam Whitecloud knows his business. He called me a couple of hours ago to tell me he didn’t think the guy was dangerous.”

“But sir, what if she’s…”

“Just look at her, son,” he interrupted. “Does she look like a terrorist to you?” The security guard’s face turned red. He didn’t answer, but he also didn’t object when Wainwright ushered Dorinda into his office and shut the door.

 

  • * *

 

Danny hesitated outside the imposing brick building, but it wasn’t the fifteen stories in front of him that made him stop to think. He was going in there to find Dorinda—his sister. The concept gave him a headache and made him want to go find some kweesh. How could he not have seen the resemblance?

Granted, they weren’t identical. While Danny and all of his brothers had their father’s black hair and green eyes, Dorinda’s hair was a light brown that looked reddish in the right light. Her eyes were blue and she had freckles on her nose. What was it that Tom had called it? A ‘tweak’ for eye and hair color? That shouldn’t have been enough to completely change her appearance. Some of the difference was likely related to whatever the biotechnicians had done to her to make her female—a smaller frame, less muscle, more curves—but now that he thought about it, she did look a little like Colin—and even more like Danny himself. He shuddered a bit at the memory of what he’d been dreaming about the girl, then pulled himself together and walked through the double glass doors of WMTC headquarters.

There was a desk in the lobby, and behind the desk was a vision of exotic loveliness. Danny stopped and stared. All thoughts of Dorinda left him. This girl was something special, he could tell. She smiled at him. Her eyes were deep chocolate brown, her skin only a shade or two lighter. He wondered whether the hair color was a “tweak” or a dye. No matter; purple was an awesome color for hair to be. He smiled at her. She popped her gum.

“May I help you?” she asked, chewing. Danny blinked a couple of times before it registered that she was talking to him.

“Umm…yeah,” he managed with a self-conscious grimace. “Has a girl come through here?”

The purple-haired angel’s smile vanished. Her chin jerked toward the elevator. “Your girlfriend’s upstairs with the boss man. If you’re lucky, he’ll decide she’s too cute to send to jail.”

“Dorinda’s not my girlfriend,” Danny hastened to point out. “She’s my sister.”

The girl smiled at him again, even more brightly. “Really?”

He nodded and leaned with both forearms on the desk, fascinated by the patterns on the girl’s fingernails. How had she managed that? Then the word “jail” penetrated. He didn’t have time to be worried, though, because the girl was still talking. “She’s got some nerve, your sister does. The security guard told me she outran security and forced her way into the boss’s office. He’s my dad and I wouldn’t even have the balls to do that!” Her admiration sounded genuine.

“So, you think she’s okay, then?” Danny asked.

The girl reached out and patted his forearm reassuringly. The contact gave him goosebumps. “My dad’s cool. Don’t worry about it.” She paused. “I’m Ariel Wainwright.”

“Danny,” he provided. “Danny Mackenzie.”

She extended a hand. He took it and forgot all about Dorinda.

 

  • * *

 

Joe Wainwright had started out as the foreman of the group of construction engineers who’d built Grissom City. He’d been a loyal company man for years, working his way up the ranks. When the Earthers blew themselves to smithereens, he was the one that everybody trusted to pick up the pieces, and he’d taken full advantage of the opportunity. He was a rich man now, CEO of the conglomerate that included companies responsible for terraforming, construction, farming and food production, and even the medical services that were being used to populate the planet in the absence of adequate numbers of fertile females, but he hadn’t gotten rich by ignoring good advice. And this little girl was making a lot of sense.

“Sir, the guys that are feeding your computer its data are screwing you over. You say that computer analysis indicates that kweesh addiction is becoming a serious problem and that something needs to be done about it. I can see that, but turning off our water isn’t the answer.” Her big blue eyes grew wide, like a pleading puppy’s. “I understand that water for food is more important than water for kweesh, but there’s plenty of water. I was just there at the reservoir.” She shook a finger at him and he had to bite his lip to keep from grinning. “This is political. They want to shut us down just because of a few idiots who overindulge, but if you take away our water, you’ll have all of us on the dole. Kweesh isn’t just a luxury item where I’m from.” Her young face was sincere when she pulled on the collar of her windbreaker. “Kweesh fabric.” She pointed at one of the chairs in his office. “Kweeshwood.” She sat back in the chair and he smiled. He couldn’t help it. She was just so cute. “It’s how we make our living. It’s how we pay for the things we can’t make ourselves. My dad knows that. He was just trying to save us all. How many people are living in the Central Drylands now, Mister Wainwright? Do you know how many lives your company’s irrigation strategy will destroy?”

Joe looked at the girl, impressed by her eloquence. Then he picked up his phone. “Sam? Yeah. Joe here. Let the Klump guy go, Sam. I’m not pressing charges.”

 

  • * *

 

And that was pretty much it as far as the adventuring went. Old Barney had a conference with Joe Wainwright and his economic advisors. Minds were opened, asses were kicked, evil computer overlords were reprogrammed, and Ozyk got its water back.

Danny was in the doghouse with his dad for a while for taking the airship, but Mackenzie Senior was so impressed with Danny’s initiative and intelligence compared to the rest of his brothers (once Danny got off the kweesh his IQ went up considerably) that he sent him away to school in Grissom City. He and Ariel Wainwright hit it off, and Danny ended up a corporate vice president for Western Mountain Terraforming Corporation. Ariel, being the natural born daughter of Joe Wainwright and one of the few fertile females in her generation, eventually did her part for the balance of the sexes by providing Danny with eight daughters.

Old Barney died of a congenital heart condition about four years after his grand adventure, the same condition that had made him a poor cloning candidate to begin with. Turns out, he’d asked his buddy Mackenzie to donate some DNA to the cause instead. Neither of the men had apparently given any thought to the likely consequences of raising a little girl right next door to an entire houseful of boys without telling any of them that she was their sister, but things turned out pretty good anyway. Dorinda took over both the sawmill and Barney’s machine repair business. It wasn’t long before she had a reputation for being an even more impressive tech-wizard than her daddy had ever been. Over the years, she took it upon herself to teach all of her brothers’ children, cloned and natural-born, male and female, purple-haired and otherwise, how to disassemble and then reassemble a household appliance. Most times it even worked afterwards.

 

Chris S Hayes’s Bio & Links

Chris S. Hayes is a life-long reader of classic science fiction and romance. She works as a college health physician in Lafayette, Louisiana, U.S.A., where she lives with her wonderful husband, a very talented teenage daughter, and a skittish cat. Her first novel, a science fiction romance entitled Sikkiyn, was published in November 2014 by Solstice Publishing.

Her favorite pastimes are writing, reading, and chatting up the cosplayers at the conventions she attends. She is of the opinion that dressing up in costume makes life more enjoyable, and although she now considers herself a bit too old and out of shape to pull off the Mirror Universe Star Trek costume hidden in the back of her closet, she quite often dresses like a medieval princess just because. 

 

http://www.chrisshayes.com/  

https://www.amazon.com/author/chrisshayes

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Passage

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Anita Kovacevic

Copyright 2015 Anita Kovacevic

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To Zagreb and all world cities with history and soul,

And all those who keep their secrets.

Passage

 

In the beginning I was merely an idea – a rough sketch of a tunnel-like passage. But as soon as the idea was born, I became conscious.

James, a renowned young bookkeeper and bishop’s scribe, comissioned an old stonemason, Master Reinhardt, to construct me between two alleys, connecting two houses – one belonging to James, and the other to Bacchus, a wealthy 60-year-old merchant.

Master Reinhardt was almost as poor as the blind beggar woman singing at the cathedral doorstep every Sunday, but he always had a kind word and a dime to bestow on her. I once heard James explain that kindness and honesty were the main reasons why he chose Master Reinhardt to build me – he believed only a solid man could build solid walls. James would pay handsomely, and old Master Reinhardt appreciated the opportunity. The old man knew illness had numbered his days, his wife’s death weakening his spirit. In his younger years, when work was all his focus and money was plentiful, he had tried to buy his sons’ respect with large allowances, which they would squander with reckless disdain. Now that his fortunes had changed, this commission provided the perfect opportunity to teach his two sons the craft which would become their profession, as well as the importance of relying on each other. As Master Reinhardt and young James stood among a portion of the stones which would grow to be me, they discussed my design and shook hands to seal the agreement, and I was hoping the plan was sound. I had wanted to be built through good, strong team-work. I intended to be there for a long time.

The neighbour, Bacchus, was another breed entirely. I would rather have been the prison wall separating him from the rest of the world, but my fate was to be a passage, so I reconciled myself with it. My era brought the dawn of stone-built cities. Rich men, like Bacchus, built their houses where they wanted and how they wanted, gold greasing each and every hand necessary. He lived in a huge mansion with his beautiful young wife Ophelia. He paid good money to have his house walled off from the rest of the world, like a castle in the middle of town – he had secrets he didn’t want the world to know.

Sitting out there, in the pile of stones, waiting to be built, I soon learnt the real reason behind my construction. People talked. I listened. I was being built by men because of a woman.

It had all started a year before I saw the light of day.

Ophelia was barely sixteen when her dear mother died, and her father considered his daughter nothing but a burden in his life of debauchery. One evening, as he gambled away another portion of his wealth to Bacchus, he shouted at Ophelia to play the piano and sing for them. Her fragile silhouette slid along the room without a sound, and her pale face, trimmed with raven black hair and sparkling with sapphire eyes, caught the attention of Bacchus. He grabbed her hand in passing, holding her wrist till it turned blue, and his hungry gaze made her blood freeze. As she quickly turned from a burden to an asset, her father promised her as wife to Lord Bacchus, breaking her heart. Later that night, she cried and begged her father to release her of the promise, but he was only too happy to lose his daughter and keep his house. At the mere dawn of her life, Ophelia became payment of debt.

On the first morning of her marriage, Ophelia regained consciousness on the floor of their extravagant bedroom, lying amidst the blood-crusted pieces of her torn wedding dress. Her head pounded, still echoing with her own screams, which had ricocheted back and forth against the thick walls of the bedroom on their wedding night, as she had become intimately acquainted with her beastly husband’s fists and appetite. His violent grin floated before her eyes, with the haunting promise of all that was yet to come. She tried calling for help, but her voice was too weak to carry any sound. Trapped like a canary in a golden birdcage, she gathered her feathers, and managed to rise. Her eyes scanned the room in panic, relieved that her husband had long been gone on business. The silvery bathtub was prepared in the corner of the room. She didn’t wash herself – she couldn’t bear even her own touch for the pain. She just sat in the water till it turned as cold as ice. Then she put on her mother’s pale yellow dress and covered her bruises with a matching silk scarf.

As Ophelia started wandering the mansion, desperate to find help, servants avoided her gaze and shut the doors before her as they cherished their lives. Gold and threats had always been Bacchus’s powerful allies. The guards at the main door had been given strict instructions not to let her out of the estate by any means necessary, and they followed the orders to the letter. So the poor canary climbed up to the tallest tower and sat at the window, lost and alone. Music had always been her solace; perhaps that was the reason she started to sing an old tune her mother used to sing to her when Ophelia needed solace. There she sat till her husband’s shouting announced his return. The first time she tried to remain in the tower, he took his rage out on the cook and her children. The following evening, and every other evening since, Ophelia would descend her tower and be the wife Bacchus expected. While she had respite on Sundays when her husband went hunting, the tower remained a refuge for her songs and unheard prayers.

James heard her over the wall. As he worked in his house in silence, copying scrolls and documents, his house would fill with that fairy-like voice, and he fell in love with that sound of sadness and longing, innocence and childhood, long before he’d ever learned it was hers. He, too, had sorrows to tell, and he recognised the pain from the first note that reached him.

James had learned all about suffering at the hands of his step-father. When he was five, his mother did her best to save her son’s life by taking refuge behind the city church. Going to morning mass, the bishop found her on the doorstep, lying next to little James. They had both been beaten, starved and were terrified. James’s tormentor soon died of liver failure after drinking away his fortunes, and his mother joined the monastery, finding peace and solace in chores and prayer. James grew up in the abbey orphanage, and the bishop became his patron, urging him to excel at his studies and skills. James was now in his early twenties, never ordained, but well-educated and hard-working. The bishop employed him as a scribe and readily recommended his services to wealthy lords.

But James still remembered how pain sounded. And Ophelia was only seventeen, but the horrors she had known were already worth a lifetime of nightmares.

One Sunday at mass, among all the voices singing their hymns, James recognised the enchanting voice. Church was the only place Ophelia was allowed to attend regularly without her husband. Being called a lady didn’t change the fact that she was sold into marriage to a money-packed brute, heavy-fisted and light on liquour. Her gentle song made James breathe hard, swallowing the urge to go up to her and help. At the end of service, his gaze followed her silhouette as she moved towards the exit. Her unsteady walk reminded him of his mother’s, and he could imagine the horrors she had suffered during the previous week. Ophelia stumbled over the hem of her dress, and James rushed to hold her before she fell. As he touched her arm, she released a painful cry. Her blue eyes washed over his face, and he felt blessed and cursed at the same time.

She averted her gaze as fast as a hunted doe, and vanished among the crowd. But James’s warm brown eyes and eager face started haunting her songs, bringing with them the yearning for rescue and love.

Yes, these are the stories stones know. You would be shocked and amazed at what you could hear, if only you could listen. And I listened.

As time progressed, and James found his heart wandering more and more toward Ophelia, torn to help her, he knew he needed council. He was apprehensive to talk to the bishop, since Ophelia was a married woman; the bishop knew him only too well and would easily guess that James’s desire to help Ophelia was not without romantic notions. The bishop was a kind man, but old and burdened by strict regulations.

On one of his regular visits to his mother, James decided to ask for his mother’s advice. As he retold the whole story to her in the seclusion of the monastery garden, she became very quiet. Having been a woman of those times, married to a rich and abusive lord herself, she knew very well, much better than young James, the dangers lurking in every crevice of such an unhappy home. Tears trailed the creases of her wrinkled face as she took her son’s hands and gripped them tightly. James kept on whispering.

“I would go to her father, but he’s a drunken monster who cares nothing of others. I cannot go to the bishop. Ophelia is married, and you know the church never meddles in marital affairs, unless the lady pleads sanctuary, and Ophelia… I cannot even send her a note to do so, without risking her life. I must do something,” he implored.

His mother’s fervent gaze pierced his eyes with decisiveness.

“Yes, you must. We must take a different route. Use the bishop’s help…”

“But, mother…”

“Just use a different approach,” she urged on. “Tell the bishop you need a passage. Tell him Bacchus’s wall prevents you from getting from one place of the city to another, so you cannot get to his lords in time to provide your services.”

This was actually true, in part. James did manage to get everywhere, but he was also forced to turn down several clients or delay them due to inefficient routes, which did not make the bishop too pleased.

“Have the passage built in honour of a patron saint,” she suggested. “That will go well by the bishop, mark my words. You will see – the passage will change things. Bacchus won’t be able to hide. The wall needs to come down.”

The bishop readily agreed to the plan, as the new passage would also shorten his morning walks and he could come by James’s house more easily. He was getting old, but he loved walking around town and visiting his protégé. Since the passage would be named after a saint, he even offered for the church to pay for building material.

This is how I knew of all this. I was going to be built from stones gathered from all over the city by poor folk, in exchange for a proper meal. There were so many people, with so much to say.

People talk, stones listen. So I listened.

One evening, Master Reinhardt and his sons drew my initial design in James’s study. James provided dinner and the four men exchanged ideas, pretending not to hear the awful screams from across the wall. The background noise, however, did urge them on, and they seemed to work harder and faster than usual.

Line by line, my sketch grew, as workmen tore down Bacchus’s wall. He protested, of course, and tried paying off whoever he could, but there was always a bigger fish, and a bishop always outweighed a pawn, even if the pawn was a wealthy merchant. Brick by brick, stone by stone, I grew. Day by day, scream by scream, the Reinhardt men learned the whole story, and they bonded with James more and more.

The brothers were about James’s age, and the three had become friends before my foundation was set. They were delighted with the fact that a renowned man would treat them as equals. When the bishop came to oversee the work every morning, he was always eager to hear Master Reinhardt’s reports on progress and fascinated by his craftsmanship. Seeing James and the bishop treat their father with respect, the brothers regretted their past behaviour. They now knew how difficult the work was, and observing their father at work strengthened their family. James taught the brothers to read better, and his access to various books from the abbey library opened up a whole new world for the two young stonemasons. Spending more time with his sons made old Master Reinhardt content. One of his sons was creative and quite the architect, whereas the other was practical, with a natural feel for stone quality – their father realised they would run the family trade well.

The old man’s heart was filled to the brim, and he feared death no more. One morning, when I was half-built, Master Reinhardt grabbed his chest, leaned on me, looked up to the sky and sighed.

“My dear lass, here I come!”

Master Reinhardt died with a smile, before the rooftop section of my tunnel-like design was finished. His sons blessed my stone with several tears before they carried his body away from me.

All building work was stopped for burial. In the evening, James led the blind beggar woman to the cemetery, to sing Master Reinhardt an old goodbye folk song she knew he had loved. Ophelia cried in her tower, without any song to sing.

Observing the funeral procession from his dark mansion, Bacchus rubbed his hands together, grinning in the hope they would stop building. He had already gathered a crew of brutes to knock me down, and the sunset funeral provided the necessary distraction.

In the shadow of the evening, masked men with scarred arms and heavy hammers came to see me. They raised their tools to strike at me and crush me in the name of their wealthy master. Little did they know the Reinhardt brothers had made sure their father’s work would remain intact. They had friends among the workmen, friends who respected and loved the old stonemason.

The scarred hands raised their heavy hammers, but the workmen snuck up on them from behind. Hammer clashed hammer, blood splattered my walls, stone smashed skulls, fury raged… Eventually, heart proved stronger than money. Bacchus’s crew of men scattered like rats down dark alleys, and the workmen cleared my passage, so nobody would know what had happened. Bacchus knew. He had seen and heard everything. He drank till he could barely walk, and collapsed on the floor of his living room, providing Ophelia with a night of peace.

The following morning, the builders were back at work, just as Master Reinhardt would have required them to be. As each stone was added on top of me, Bacchus’s rage inflamed even more. Ophelia paid heavily for his frustration each night, which made my creators work even faster and harder.

But I was being built for love and with love, and there was no way Bacchus would stop it.

James felt happy as he saw me grow, but I was worried about him. I saw him clench his fists and bite his lip in fury and frustration, whenever his gaze fell upon the Bacchus house. I feared he would not be able to control himself till the work was done; he feared Ophelia would not live till then. Still, she was a married woman, and James was not a killer. The Reinhardt brothers stood by him, respecting their friend’s feelings, and yearning for me to fulfill my purpose as a passage to change.

Finally finished and complete, I took my first deep breath in a brisk spring dusk, and all my stones clicked together. I was built from good, sturdy stone, and no effort was spared to make me resistible to all kinds of weather and disaster. I welcomed spiders and worms crawling into my crevices, knowing they would be my spies, as long as I was their shelter. They had already started telling me secrets, and I listened, as always, with an eager heart. My work was only beginning.

James invited the bishop and the Reinhardt brothers over for dinner on the eve of my great blessing ceremony. The bishop arrived, as modestly as ever, with only his assistant as entourage, and no great fuss or ceremony. As the men enjoyed dinner together, raising their glasses in honour of old Master Reinhardt, Ophelia’s screams slashed the night, and my tunnel channelled them directly to James’s door.

The bishop froze. He had heard rumours, but refused to believe them. His young priest, who was Ophelia’s confessional, had tried to tell him something, but the secrecy vow prevented him from revealing the whole story. The bishop looked at the faces of his companions, and he read them with wisdom and severity. He could no longer be still. He jumped to his feet and marched to Bacchus’s door, banging on it so hard that his knuckles bled. The screams stopped instantly, yet the door remained shut.

The bishop had his assistant write a formal order for Bacchus to appear in his chamber the following morning. This was within the bishop’s prerogative. He also sent another letter to the King and Queen. The letter would take time, but I knew true justice would be swift.

James didn’t dare relax yet. He feared for Ophelia’s life.

I didn’t. Not anymore. My spider spies had already told me so many of Bacchus’s secrets that I knew exactly what to do.

The following morning Bacchus stormed through me on his way to the bishop’s, stomping my foundation with his heavy boots, followed by a group of his own thugs – a pitiful attempt at showing power, knowing full well they would not even be let onto the church ground.

I waited. Stones are patient. We have time.

An hour later, Bacchus returned. He’d sent his men away to avoid showing weakness. James had gone to work, and so did the Reinhardt brothers. It was just me and Bacchus. I had him all to myself now.

He stormed into my tunnel and stopped. I knew he would. He let out a beastly bellow and kicked my walls with his boots.

I shook. On purpose. A tiny lady spider living on top of me, in the crevice right above Bacchus’s head, received my signal, quiet and clear. She spread out her web strand, and descended, like an elegant acrobat down a silky line, right onto his hair. She disappeared within his gray hairs for a few seconds, completely ignoring his rage, his stomping and kicking. When she resurfaced, she climbed back up her web strand, and crawled into her crevice, with a whisper to me.

“It is done,” she smiled.

Bacchus scratched his head, and went into the house, ready to let out all his rage on his wife. He staggered, feeling dizzy, and demanded some wine first. Ophelia complied, as always, with a quick step and without a word. His hand trembled and he released the mug. Ophelia jumped at the crashing sound and scrambled to clean up the mess. He kicked her body with his heavy boot and ordered her to the cellar for some fresh wine. She scurried away to obey his command, holding her ribs in pain. His heavy hand wiped the sweat from his forehead, as he gasped for breath. The image of the room clouded, and he fell off his chair with a big thump.

Bacchus’s cook heard the noise from the nearby kitchen. She found Bacchus dead on the kitchen floor, swollen and disfigured. Shock did not prevent her from sighing in relief. Then she called for help.

I listened to the commotion and watched them fetch the doctor, but all was in vain. I knew my mission was a success. You see, my spider ladyfriend may have been tiny, but her venom was deadly. She had known Bacchus for a long time. She loved to crawl into his mansion and listen to his servants gossip about him when he wasn’t around. I loved to listen to them too, as they passed through my passage telling stories. Some of the servants had known Bacchus ever since he was a boy and whispered of the time he had almost died of spider venom. Another dosage would be fatal. It is useful to listen, you know. I may not be able to move, but I hear things.

People talk, stones remember.

Several years after I was born, the bishop performed the wedding ceremony for Ophelia and James. They lived in James’s house and their little girls’ laughter echoed my tunnel for years to come. Bacchus’s house was donated to the church, which turned it into a workshop and home for the Reinhardt brothers and their families. As I said, I was built for love and with love.

I am now almost a thousand years old, and I am still standing strong. I have seen procclaimed witches hunted through my tunnel, and I dealt with their hunters. I have seen drug dealers stalk innocent graffiti-artists, and dealt with those dream peddlers too. My spider ladyfriend wasn’t around for all of this, naturally, but there have been others willing to do the job. Always. There still are.

The world changes, but people don’t. Some still do horrible things, but others do things for love. It keeps the balance.

People still talk. And I? I remember.

 

Anita Kovacevic’s Bio & Links

Anita Kovacevic is an author and teacher of English, who draws inspiration from her family, friends and students. She writes various genres, and has self-published two children’s books (The Winky’s Colours and The Good Pirate), and an urban-legend novella (The Threshold). As a member of an international teaching community, she has also participated in a worldwide anti-bullying charity e-book Inner Giant with some of her short stories and poems. She enjoys writing about tales which come to her on her dreamstep, right before you wake up or fall asleep. You can read her interviews with other indie authors on her Wordpress blog Anita’s Haven, as well as book reviews and some free stories, poetry and essays. She loves reading, writing songs, creative hobbies, and using anything and everything for a story, a lesson or teachers’ workshops. Anita lives with her husband and two children in Croatia and doesn’t know the meaning of ‘free time’.

 

AMAZON: https://www.amazon.com/author/anitakovacevic

FACEBOOK https://www.facebook.com/anitashaven

TWITTER https://twitter.com/Anitas_haven

LULU SPOTLIGHT http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/Anita_K

WORDPRESS https://anitashaven.wordpress.com/

 

 

 

 

 

Seven Years

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Amelia Mapstone

 

 

Copyright 2015 Amelia Mapstone

All Rights Reserved

 

Seven Years

The town of Amarelle was beyond barren. It had been stripped of its power, dignity and fortune all in one night, and had shed its life as well, every last soul licked up in a flame storm.

The village’s once beautiful establishments were in shambles. Ash painted the ground as far as the eye could see, even as far as the edge of the forest, where a pleasant little cottage sat. The cottage itself was in perfect condition. How it had managed to go unscathed through a blustering firestorm of at least a dozen young dragons, no one would ever know.

No one, that is, except for a young boy named Max, who made his way out of the wrecked city alive and quite alone.

The dark-haired, stark-eyed boy was a mess, with second degree burns on his arms and forehead and a thin cut on his bottom lip. Of course, that was nothing compared to what his family had endured. By then they were no more than dust collecting among blades of grass.

Frantic from the previous night’s attack and desperate for some kind of help, the boy knocked hard on the old wooden door of the cottage. He stood there for a moment on the colorful cobblestones, but his knees were growing weak and his vision was blurred with tears and ash. His body felt as though it was being dragged down by weights.

“Help!” he called out in a fragile voice that matched his fragile state. “Is anyone there?”

In reply the door swung open, and he was met with a figure only a bit taller than he. It was a young woman dressed in the colors of the forest, her eyes the deep green of the spring foliage. Her skin was whiter than any white the little boy had ever seen, and her hair was the pale color of sea foam.

The words “who are you?” hadn’t even left her lips before the boy collapsed into her arms, unconscious.

 

  • * *

 

Max awoke hours later from a nightmare in a fit of distress. He rubbed his eyes, which were surprisingly clean and clear. His hands were clean as well; even the dirt under his fingernails had been scrubbed away. There were bandages wrapped around his arms and forehead to protect the burns. Altogether, he felt refreshed, well rested and very safe. It was a strange thing to feel, since for as long as he could remember the people of the village of Amarelle had warned him not to go to the cottage by the woods.

It was this memory that made his lower lip tremble. It was also this memory that made him jump in surprise when the mysterious woman appeared from behind the veiled doorway. He must have looked wild and frightened, because the look on her face softened. “Calm down,” she told him sternly. “You have nothing to fear.”

“I…” Max searched for words, but none came. He let his head fall back on the pillow and relaxed as she approached him with a bowl of soup.

“Eat this,” she commanded gently.

He obeyed, lifting his head slightly only so he could swallow properly. If she had been nice enough to clean him and tend to his wounds, surely she wouldn’t feed him poison now.

And it wasn’t poison. But it wasn’t soup either. It was sweet like honey. “What is this?” he asked, but she ignored him. She moved to the fireplace that was on the other side of the room and tended to the pot that boiled there. He watched her for a moment and was reminded of his mother. When she returned to him, she sat on the edge of the bed and fed him another spoonful of the unknown substance.

Seeing fire blaze in the fireplace made the breath catch in his throat, and she noticed this. “It’s all right,” she assured him. “You’re safe here.” He relaxed yet again, but once she was finished feeding him, he turned to face away from the fire and curled up under the warm blankets.

He looked at the wall opposite the bed, and all the strange things that hung from it. There was a boar’s head which didn’t scare him as much as it should have because it wore what looked like a pink sun hat. A shelf filled with books and other little knick-knacks hung below the boar’s head, with a longer shelf next to it, filled with an odd assortment of knives, bottles of spices and colorful liquids.

He cleared his throat. “Are you a collector?” he asked, turning slightly to look at her. The woman shook her head, a faint smile on her lips.

“Oh… are you a scholar then?”

Again, she shook her head, leaving him befuddled.

So, he turned away and returned his gaze to the shelves. There were animal skulls here and there as well, which he found very odd. That wasn’t even the half of it, but he was becoming too tired to worry about it. Slowly but surely, he slipped back into sleep, and she left him there to rest.

 

  • * *

 

When Max next awoke, he heard someone singing outside. Slowly, he sat up in the bed and listened. The voice was so full and pretty; it reminded him of his mother. Despite this, he could summon no tears, only wonderment. When the singing stopped, he got out of bed and went to the other room.

On a round table a bowl of soup sat, waiting for him. He could only assume she meant for him to take it, so he sat down in front of it and blew steam away from the hot broth. It smelled different than before, much saltier.

He didn’t jump this time when she walked in, but smiled pleasantly at her return. Her long, thick hair was drawn messily into a braid down her back, and she wore a cloak. “Hello,” he said to her, and she nodded in his direction.

“Is this for me?” he asked, gesturing to the soup.

She nodded again.

Feeling content, he took the spoon in his hand and sipped away at the soup. It was nowhere near as sweet as before, but he liked it this way. It made him feel even better.

“Why are you taking care of me?” the boy asked, unable to stop himself.

She looked at him with a bit of amusement, before saying, “It would have been a sin to leave you out in the summer heat to die.”

“So you’re a priestess, then?”

She laughed, her voice confirming that the singing from before had been her. “No.”

“But you’re so charitable,” he insisted innocently, “You must do some good in the world.”

She paused for a moment, reflecting on this statement. Her eyes drifted to the window, settling on the swaying tree branches outside. “Well, yes,” she said, and her eyes fell back onto the boy. They shimmered like fish scales. “I protect the forest.”

“You protect… the forest?” In his mind, the boy was putting the pieces together. Something was very different about this lady. Something big.

“Yes, my dear boy,” she replied, in a voice that made her sound much older than she looked. “I assume you know the rumors… about how a sorceress lives at the edge of the forest, protecting it for all her years? I’ve heard them all, boy, and I can assure you, most of them are not just rumors.” She smiled a little, but still held a certain level of seriousness.

This made the boy practically leap out of his chair. “A sorceress!” He bounced up in his seat, looking at her with wide eyes. “Is it true, then? What the people say… what the people… said…” He trailed off, lost in his own nostalgia. Tears formed in his beautiful brown eyes.

“Don’t you dare cry,” she warned, giving him a stern look. “Not after you’re finally back to optimal hydration. Don’t dwell on the past. What’s important is that you’re alive to tell the tale of your people, to spread the stories of your past.”

The boy shivered as he held back his tears, but smiled a little in return. “You really are very nice, my lady.”

The sorceress flinched visibly at his words, then looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “Why did you call me that?”

“You are a sorceress!” the boy exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air dramatically the way only a child could. “What else am I to call you? Also, you haven’t told me your name.”

She eyed him for a moment before saying, “And I probably never will. Speaking of… what is your name, boy?”

“Maximus Grace.”

A smile came to her lips. “Do you mind if I call you Max?”

He grinned. “That depends… May I call you my lady?”

The fond smile was replaced by a scowl. “If you must.”

 

  • * *

 

Although most of Max’s wounds had healed, he remained underfoot. Occasionally, he suffered from headaches or dizzy spells. She usually blamed it on him overexerting himself.

“You need to stop moving around once in a while,” she chastised him one morning as she prepared their breakfast, “All you do is jump around and babble and ask questions!”

From the look of it, he was having immense trouble sitting still even in that moment. He rocked back and forth on his toes as he watched her mix ingredients into a bowl. “Whatcha makin’?” he asked, ignoring her scolding look.

“Pastries,” she replied, feeling exasperated. “Would you like to help?”

“I’d love to, my lady!” he exclaimed, throwing his arms around her waist. She peeled him off, and together they attempted to make and bake what looked like little fruit tarts.

“Where do you get all the fruit from, my lady?” Max asked as he was balling some dough into a container. “Do you have a garden?”

The sorceress couldn’t hide her smile. “The biggest one of all,” she replied, glancing out the window into the forest.

“Oh, of course,” he said right away. After another moment of balling dough and sifting flour went by, he perked up yet again. “What’s it like being a sorceress?” he asked, as if it was such a simple question.

She paused to think about it and took her time putting the pastries in the oven. “It’s lonely,” she replied hesitantly but truthfully. There wasn’t much else to say, in her opinion.

“Well it’s a good thing I’m here now,” he replied, his smile the biggest she’d seen yet. She shut the oven and looked him over.

“And what makes you think you’ll be here for a while?” she asked, skeptical and a little amused.

“Well, I… I’ve got nowhere else to go,” he said sadly.

Not wanting him to cry, she knelt down in front of him and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Well, now that you’ve healed up for the most part, you could be pretty useful around the house…” She didn’t want to be mean, but she couldn’t let him think he could get anything he wanted just by quivering his lower lip.

“Oh, yes! I’ll do anything you want, my lady, anything! I don’t know much about magic or stuff like that, but I do know how to keep a house clean!”

A flicker of a smile came across the sorceress’s lips. “I do not expect you to know anything about magic.” Then, she paused, a thought passing through her mind like a gust of wind. “Of course, I could teach you…” She’d never thought of taking an apprentice before, but then, she’d never really had the chance.

Max became overwhelmed with excitement, almost knocking over some dishes as he bounced on his toes. “Oh, really? Gosh, if you could teach me magic… or how to become a sorcerer, that would be amazing!” he gushed.

“Well first of all, you should know that there is a huge difference between magic and sorcery,” she began, unable to stop herself. “Magic is for fools and cheap street magicians. Sorcery is… well, it’s an art. A lifestyle, even. It takes time and energy and focus, not just clever tricks.”

Max tilted his head, looking both curious and confused. “Has it always been that way? I remember hearing stories about the old days of magic and mischief, but only the richest of people could afford to learn it.”

“There was a time when there was no such thing as wealth in anything but magic,” she explained, “But times have changed. If one wants attention or fame, one should study magic. If one wants wisdom or power, one should study sorcery. I’ve spent a long part of my life studying sorcery.”

“And which one do you want?”

“What?”

“Which one do you want, wisdom or power?”

There was a pause.

“I can tell you I didn’t choose to become a sorceress for either of those reasons, and even if I did, I have yet to obtain wisdom or power. You have a lot to learn, little one.”

 

  • * *

 

It took a long time for the sorceress to warm up to Max in the way she really should have, and even then, she kept a wary eye on him. He worried her, even at the best of times. He was a reasonably useful roommate, cleaning the house when she asked. He even picked up on some of the more bizarre chores, such as sprinkling pine dust into the garden (which he often got confused with pixie dust, causing many outbreaks of pixies to come buzzing around the hydrangeas). She did her best to be patient with the boy, but she simply wasn’t used to having someone else around. Not only was he obedient, he was overly kind as well. Sometimes it was shocking.

This was evident one particular morning when the sorceress returned from the forest with a bundle of herbs in her hands. She strode into the kitchen only to find a large basket already filled to the brim with herbs and greenery. Her mouth hung open in surprise and confusion, when she was met with a light kiss on the cheek.

“Surprise! I got as many as I could, and I’m pretty sure I remembered all of the herbs and plants you said you were going to get. I even got some that looked good enough for a meal!” He babbled on giddily, rocking back and forth on his feet while he waited for her to say something.

In the stunned silence, she approached the basket tentatively, lifted up a couple of leaves of lettuce, and peered inside.

“Oh, and don’t worry, I made sure I didn’t get anything that was poisonous or smelled funny,” he added with a bit of a giggle.

The sorceress blinked as she peered at the mouthwatering haul. And here she was thinking that she was the one with a great affinity for gathering. “And how can you be so sure of that?” she asked, not bothering to hide the surprise in her voice.

“I’ve been living with you now for almost a year, my lady. I’ve taken the time to notice the things you do.”

She turned to look at him for a moment, and was surprised to see he looked a little different. She didn’t pay much attention to him nowadays, but she remembered what he looked like the first time she saw him. He was almost a year older now, and still just as foolish, in her opinion, but a bit taller. Just a bit.

“Well, don’t look so shocked, my lady,” he said with a bit of a blush in his face, “Take a look in there for yourself. I got all the best. Anise, chervil, oregano, parsley, chives, basil, coriander, lavender… oh and some peppermint… At least, I’m pretty sure it’s peppermint.” He giggled nervously, and still she stared at him. This boy was growing up fast.

After a moment she snapped out of it and returned to her original placid stare. “That’s very good of you, Max,” she said to him. “Thank you.” Just the right amount of praise, with no extra words of kindness. She had to remember her place, after all. She was not the boy’s mother; she was his teacher, his guardian. Nothing more.

 

  • * *

 

It was a few months later during his eleventh birthday celebration when she began to think otherwise. She’d prepared a cake for him and even apologized for the lack of things that make a good birthday party.

“Oh, I don’t mind, my lady,” he said sweetly as he sat down across from her at the table. “You even decorated the house a little bit!”

The sorceress looked at the colorful baubles she’d hung around the room and laughed. “It isn’t really anything special. Someday I’ll give you a real celebration, with lots of delicious food and the most magnificent fireworks you’ve ever seen!”

Max’s eyes twinkled. “I-is that a promise, my lady?”

She realized that she had perhaps gone too far, but she could only smile. “Most definitely.”

“Gosh,” Max whispered, before taking a big bite of cake. “Wah gur yer gur ert?”

She took a sip of water from a glass goblet and laughed. “Chew, swallow, and then ask me again when I can understand you.”

Max’s face went red in embarrassment, but he did as he was told. “I said: why do you do it?”

“Do what?”

“Why are you so nice to me? You’re the kindest person I know, and you have been ever since I came here.”

“Now, now, Max, let’s not get over emotional. I’ve only given you what you deserve.”

“But you do so much!” he exclaimed. “Not only for me, but for the forest. For people you don’t even know.”

Her eyebrows drew together, forming a heavy crease of concern. “That’s not true.”

“Of course it’s true!”

“I’ve failed, you know. I’ve failed… in the past.”

“Are you talking about the village I used to live in? Gee, my lady, that wasn’t your fault… It was the dragons.” He shivered at the thought, but didn’t shed any tears. It hadn’t been long enough for the wound in his heart to heal, but it had been long enough for him to learn how to control his emotions. That was one of the first things the sorceress had taught him. She always told him it was of the utmost importance that he remain calm, even in times of tragedy or turmoil.

“I know,” she replied. “I know.”

He couldn’t see what she was so distracted by, but he let it be for now. Over the past year or so, he’d also learned to be gentle with her, and to not poke his nose where it didn’t belong. She was a sorceress, so she had a lot of secrets.

The two continued eating the cake in silence, until Max thought of something he couldn’t wait to ask any longer.

“When’s your birthday, my lady?”

“Why does that matter?”

“Well, I just thought… since you’re promising me some big kind of birthday bash, I should be doing the same for you… right?”

She didn’t respond. She couldn’t. Not when he was being so openly kind to her for something she didn’t deserve. She couldn’t even bring herself to tell him her birthday. Someday she’d end up telling him too much information, and that would scare him and his perfect little world away for good.

 

  • * *

 

Max’s keen eye for detail was not the only thing that encouraged the sorceress to teach him. In fact, there was more potential inside him than she felt she’d ever had, but she didn’t tell him that right away.

Years passed slowly at first, trickling like leftover rainwater. The sorceress allowed herself to focus on the present, and she made sure Max did the same.

He was thirteen when he learned something about sorcery he didn’t quite expect.

“Time is a tricky thing, Max,” she told him as they sat next to a bubbling brook. “Even for people who practice sorcery, it is something to be treated with tender care. Like a child… temperamental, but sweet and occasionally forgiving.”

Max was full of impatience, unable to stop twiddling his thumbs or picking at the grass beneath him. “It’s difficult.” He was staring at the rushing water. “I just don’t understand what time has to do with magic… and I don’t know how to keep myself from thinking too far ahead.”

“Don’t try to control time,” she instructed, “Encourage it.”

Max took a deep breath and let his hands drop to his sides. His eyes locked onto the crystal water as it rushed by. The intensity in his eyes was huge; she had never seen him so focused. She watched tentatively beside him, her hands folded in her lap. Patience and focus, she’d told him. Patience and focus.

Out of nowhere, the creek exploded, soaking them in fresh water. Max threw his head back in laughter. “It worked!” he managed to say. “Well, kind of…” His laughter faded when he caught the sorceress’s eye and gulped nervously. For a moment she looked as though she would chastise him, but then he realized the look in her eyes wasn’t of anger, but of shock. She was looking at the water with eyes wide. After the explosion, more water gushed from the earth below, widening the creek. She took his hand and pulled him away from it so they wouldn’t get any wetter than they already were.

“Max,” she breathed, “I told you to make the water run faster by gently encouraging time.” A small laugh fell from her lips and she spoke louder. “So you blow a hole in the earth and summon more water from its depths!”

Max’s face was rosy from both embarrassment and exhaustion. “Is that bad, my lady?”

“Bad!” she repeated, still laughing. “Child, you’ve just learned one of the most important lessons of sorcery.”

Max blinked profusely, his soft face the epitome of innocence.

“There is no amount of magic that can manipulate something as intangible as time, my dear,” she explained. “So you did exactly what I wanted you to do. Which, I must say, is a very large feat. Congratulations. I suppose there is some spark inside you after all.” Her last words were followed by a teasing wink and a light pat on the back. Her silvery hair was soaked and stuck to her face, but she pushed it back and began tying it up with a ribbon.

Max looked at her for a moment, rather dumbstruck. Slowly but surely, his lips pulled into a smile. “You’re a wonderful teacher, my lady!” He threw his arms around her in a tight hug. For someone so small, he was becoming quite strong. The doubt and hesitancy in her mind was replaced with pride and excitement. And while she had every right to be excited about his progress, in the back of her mind, she knew it was only a matter of time before they would have to meet hardships head-on.

 

  • * *

 

For a while, everything went smoothly. At the age of fourteen Max could boil water and heal minor wounds with nothing but his mind. He had the intelligence and wisdom of a true sorcerer, and he wasn’t even fully grown. She could tell he had grown some, however, because his hands were now bigger than hers.

“Look at those hands of yours,” she remarked one afternoon as they were both cleaning the house. “They’re so strong, yet so gentle at the same time. You can do a lot of good with those hands of yours, you know.”

He laughed softly. “But, a sorcerer doesn’t really use his hands all that often, does he?”

She gestured to his hands. “You’d be surprised how much good can be done without the use of sorcery.”

Max’s smile shrunk a little, his eyes glazed with nostalgia. “I know that, my lady. I remember learning how to braid hair because of my sisters. I guess I was good at it.”

The sorceress nodded and smiled. “Precisely. And along with that comes many other esteemed talents, far beyond the powers of sorcery.”

He stopped cleaning to look at her with raised eyebrows. “Really? Like what?”

She tried to hide her smile with her hand, but was unable to hide the giggle that came from her lips. “Many things, you silly child,” she replied, “Making, creating, mending, reassuring… There is a softness in your fingertips that is even more powerful than brute strength.”

A blush settled in his face. “But I can be strong too… like you said?”

“Of course. But it is a rare thing to be so gentle and so strong all at once. It’s also commendable. So ah… good job.” She grinned at him, and he laughed.

“I feel as though all you do is compliment me,” he replied with a small shake of his head. He went back to cleaning for a few moments, his fingers tracing over the dust that had collected on the shelves. The items the sorceress owned were always unique and intriguing, but most of them were just unexplained trinkets that he’d never given second thoughts about. There was something on the shelf that caught his attention: a mirror. It was silver and gold and shimmered multicolor in certain light. He was drawn to it immediately, though he wasn’t sure why. “My lady… this is a very interesting mirror you have.”

The sorceress looked up, her eyes falling on the mirror as it lay flat on the shelf. “That, my dear, is no ordinary mirror.” The familiar feeling of caution clouded her heart.

“What does it do?” he asked, reaching out to hold it. She wanted to stop him, but she knew she couldn’t. She recognized that look in his eyes; the curiosity in them was remarkable.

“Well, it… it shows one’s past,” she told him, “It’s not at all as useful as your own personal memories, mind you…”

Max stared intently at his reflection in the mirror, at the colors that flicked in his eyes and his lips. A different image was already forming. It was a much younger version of himself, a round-faced little boy with intensely curly hair and the eyes of a cherub. He looked at himself in the mirror, feeling a little shocked. It was as though he was watching his childhood take place before his own eyes, watching it unfold from a bystander’s point of view.

In the mirror, little Max was running through a garden that was much bigger than he, chasing after a little girl. Her hair was dark and curly like his, but her eyes were the color of the sky. “Come get me, Max!” she yelled, and the sound resonated through the room. Someone else was singing. It was another girl close to the house, throwing autumn leaves up into the air. She was a little bit older than the two young ones, and her long dark hair was in braids. “Come along children, supper’s almost ready,” a woman’s voice said.

“Mother?” Max said softly, squinting a little as he watched the vision in the mirror change before him.

It was a dinner table lit by a single candle in the center. There wasn’t much food, but it was enough. Five children sat at the table, filling their bellies with turkey and bread. Their parents were too tall to be seen within the small mirror’s face, but Max knew they were there somewhere.

“Mommy, how much do you love us?” little Max asked, after swallowing a particularly large mouthful of food.

There was a small laugh from the table. “To the moon and back!” the woman replied.

“Mommy, how far away is the moon?” one of his sisters asked, eyes sparkling in the low light.

“Very far,” she said, and from somewhere else in the room, the father chuckled.

“Is it a long journey?” another little girl asked.

“Even longer than your beautiful hair, Elizabeth,” the mother told her daughter. The girl blushed and the whole table was full of laughter and giggles. It was a sweet scene, one that made the sorceress feel a little embarrassed. She felt like she was wandering through Max’s memories, even though she was only listening. No one had ever used that mirror but her.

Meanwhile, Max couldn’t stop watching. His memories poured into the mirror in the form of someone else’s visions. They flooded by, starting off slowly, then tumbling out of control. There were a lot of memories outside in the gardens or fields. Sometimes he saw faces he recognized but couldn’t name. There were family members, neighbors, old friends and imaginary friends. There were birthdays and celebrations, days that were wonderful and days that were terrible. Just when Max thought he was too overwhelmed to watch anymore, the visions broke off and changed into something much darker.

It was nighttime again, but there was a storm up above the family’s house. Thunder cracked the skies and made the ground beneath them rumble. Even as Max held the mirror in his hands, he could feel it vibrating from the strength of the sound. The children were huddled under the table this time, holding hands in a circle, but little Max was nowhere to be seen. The rumbling sound was growing, changing. It was no longer just thunder in the sky.

The sorceress heard the sound coming from the mirror and couldn’t take it any longer. She stood up quickly and made her way over to Max, where she placed her hand over his. Something made her hold on, and the magical mirror began channeling both their memories now, paneling back and forth between scenes.

Little Max was running down the stairs of his home with a piece of paper in his hands. “Look, look! I drew you a picture!” He seemed very proud of himself.

The vision changed, and the sorceress was there, watching the sun set and the storm approach. It was a beautiful sight, as the last light of day slipped from beneath the violet clouds and circled to earth. But as the storm grew, so did the darkness. And the darkness brought something far more terrible than any storm.

The image changed again, and Max was being pulled away from the staircase by his eldest sister. “Max! Come with us. It isn’t safe near the windows or the staircase.”

“But why? Look, Adrianna, I drew you a picture.” He handed her the piece of paper, and she smiled a little before setting it on the table. Then she sat down in one of the chairs and pulled him close.

Little Max was confused. “Why are you all hiding under the table? Where’s Mom and Dad?”

Adrianna’s hazel eyes were filled with a sudden sadness, just before the image shimmered and dissolved. Instead of the calm, reassuring eyes of his sister, Max was now looking into the mirror at the fierce, bulging irises of a humungous reptile. It seemed to be staring into him, straight through his body and into his soul. He shivered as he watched. It was then he realized the creature was not looking at him, but at someone else in the vision.

A slightly younger version of the sorceress stood in the frame of the mirror, looking up at the black dragon with stern eyes. She didn’t say a thing at first, watching the creature with silent hatred. The dragon and the sorceress stared at each other, a moment of tension so great even the mirror they held began to quiver.

The younger version of the sorceress made a gesture toward the dragon. “Go. Wreak havoc. See if I care.”

Eyes glittering greedily, the dragon spread its scaly wings and lifted up into the sky. The image changed again, and it was the old town of Amarelle, sitting quietly and awaiting certain doom. Street lamps were lit, but people had locked themselves in their houses. They had heard the sounds of roaring thunder and hid away, but it was not thunder. It never had been.

A whole slew of dragons dove down from the clouds, fire flooding from their mouths. Their giant wings fanned the flames, spreading them from trees to pastures to buildings, where they caught and flared violently. It was a storm of flame.

The mirror began to feel warm in Max’s hands. “No,” he whispered, his voice cracking. “No.”

The flames continued to spread across the city, engulfing the houses and the people in brilliant light. Most of the people were asleep, but some could be heard screaming, their voices falling from high balconies or tumbling from windows.

One house still had its lights on, and the front door burst open. A child ran out, his body shaking with fear, making him stagger as he ran. It was Max, and he was wailing, “Water! Water! I gotta get water!”

“MAX! GET BACK HERE!”

The dragons were getting closer to the house, but the little boy continued to run. He was headed for the town well.

The mirror that fourteen-year-old Max currently held became increasingly hot, almost painful to hold. His eyes watered as he watched the image unfold in front of him: the dragons swooping down over his house, his whole family screaming in terror and agony, and the flames swallowing everything in sight. A searing pain flooded through his fingers, and he felt the burn as though the dragons were emerging from the mirror right then and there. With a small whimper, he let the mirror fall from his grasp.

The sorceress was quick; she caught the mirror just before it hit the floor and swiftly placed it back on the shelf. The memory faded, but it left strangely shaped burns on Max’s palms. She turned to him and took his hands in hers, immediately soothing the burns with coolness.

Tears fell from Max’s eyes like a flood that had been long barricaded. For a while, he stood there, silently crying. But soon, crying turned to sobbing and he buried his face in her shoulder. She stood there and let him sob, despite everything she’d told him before about controlling his emotions. She knew better than most that there was a time for control, and there was a time when no amount of self-control could prevent an overflow. Crying had its place.

Once he was finished crying, Max lifted his head to look at the sorceress, his eyes red and his nose dripping. She said nothing at first, but wiped his face with a handkerchief.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly after a moment. “I was doing so well.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she replied, though her voice quavered. “You have every right to be upset. This is why I tend to avoid that godforsaken thing. I’d prefer to leave the past in the —”

“Why did you do it, my lady?” he asked. His voice was steady now. His rapid recovery was alarming. “Why?”

The sorceress swallowed nervously. She didn’t bother asking what he meant; she knew what the boy meant, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to avoid his questions any longer. “I… Well, it’s kind of a long story.”

He sniffled and sat down at the table. “I’m not going anywhere.”

The sorceress stared at him for a moment, watching the curiosity in his eyes outgrow the sadness, and the fear that still lingered there as well. She drew in a long breath and exhaled, before sitting across from him at the table.

“I made a deal with the wrong kind of sorcerers,” she explained quietly. “I couldn’t hold up my end of the bargain. They were angry with me. Those dragons were my punishment.” She thought he would want to say something or ask a question as he usually did, but he just sat and watched her, waiting for more. So, she continued. “They gave me what I thought was the wisdom of the greatest wizards in history, and I was to repay them with interest, in the most crude way. In exchange for access to knowledge and tutelage, I was to pay a hefty price… They wanted souls. Lives. A thousand and one, to be exact. I had to kill a thousand and one people with the use of sorcery. In doing so, they said that I would obtain endless amounts of magical knowledge.”

Max sniffled and rubbed his nose, like the child he still was.

She proceeded. “Of course, I refused to make such a deal, even after they’d showed me amazing things… I knew I was a sorceress, but I am no killer. I don’t…” Her voice faltered and she suddenly found it very difficult to look at him, even though he refused to take his eyes off her.

Much quieter this time, she continued. “They were very angry with me… They followed me back home. They threatened me, they threatened my home… No amount of begging would persuade them… I had nothing else to offer. No wealth… just my life, my home, my town…”

Still, Max said nothing. She gave him a quick glance before looking back down at her lap. Her vision became blurry with tears, and the aching feeling behind her eyes felt too familiar. “So, they sent the dragons… They knew I loved Amarelle and its people dearly… They knew all about me and my life, because I told them. I told them everything.” She shook her head, altogether frustrated with herself. “I shouldn’t have let them do it. I should have stopped them. But I didn’t… I… I let them go. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.” A terrible sob slipped from her lips and she buried her face in her hands.

She did not want to look at Max, out of fear and shame. But she did not have to move at all then, because he moved to stand beside her and wrap his arms around her quaking shoulders. He held her tight and let her cry against him, just as she had done for him.

“My lady?” he said quietly, once her sobs subsided. “It’s okay. I forgive you.”

 

  • * *

 

Max and the sorceress were closer after he learned the truth, which she found to be strange. She had spent so much time worrying about him hating her that she hadn’t taken the time to realize how much he adored her.

Over the course of the next year, Max learned much more about sorcery than he ever could have hoped for. She taught him how to focus his energy into materials to make them freeze or melt. She taught him the ways of the stars, and how to find his way home by using nothing but the clear night sky. She also taught him simpler tasks, like how to write with a pen and ink, and how to draw with charcoal, or paint with melted wax. It was important to her that he learned such practical talents so that he could study and explore different ways to express himself.

The sorceress could not deny that she loved watching Max focus. It was like peering into a glass as dye was poured into water, something simple on the outside but intensely complex upon closer inspection. She often found herself sitting, watching him with the sudden intrigue and admiration of a mother watching her child. She felt as though she had brought him to such a high place of intellect and talent. This growing feeling of pride was new to her, but she accepted it.

Things were not always good between them. The sorceress tried her best to make him eternally happy, but her attempts were in vain. One afternoon, as autumn leaves fell from the trees overhead, the sorceress sat in the grass, plucking dandelions for a salad. Max was murmuring to himself as he sat a few steps away from her, staring at the ground. She heard a curse word fall from his lips, and with a raised eyebrow, moved to stand beside him.

“Max, you are fifteen years old. Is that any way to speak to the grass?” she teased, knowing full well that he’d probably learned the word from her.

“Shut up!” he snapped at her, eyes still glued to the grass beneath his feet.

The sorceress was taken aback by this; his words hit her like a slap across the face. She’d been taking care of him for five years now, and he’d never once said anything remotely cruel to her. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” he spat, turning to look at her. His eyes glowed an angry shade of red.

The sorceress’s first thought was that he had been possessed by a demon, and that she’d have to perform some kind of exorcism. And then she remembered that this was not one of her fairy tale books, and the symptoms he had meant something else entirely.

“Max, what are you doing?” she asked calmly.

He gestured emphatically to the ground beneath him, where dozens of daisies lay drooped and wilting. Now she understood.

“Max, darling, you have to calm down.” She chose each word carefully, unable to stop herself from reaching out to touch him.

He slapped her hand away, resisting any ounce of help. “You don’t understand! I was trying to make them grow! They were supposed to grow to be as tall as me, and then some! And then they were going to live forever, through winter and everything…”

She bit her lip and shook her head. “You don’t have that kind of power.”

“Their lives are so short. Why can’t they live forever? WHY CAN’T THEY LIVE FOREVER?” he demanded, his voice cracking. For the first time, the sorceress caught a glimpse of the anger that was within him, the explosive, crackling fire that raged beneath his childlike surface. He wasn’t just a child throwing a tantrum now; he was an angry young man with fire in his eyes and ice in his heart.

“You don’t have that kind of power, Max,” she repeated, though her voice quaked. “Nobody does.”

“Well I SHOULD! I should… I should have… I should have saved them. Why couldn’t I save them?!” He was yelling loudly now, and sounded nothing like a child.

The sorceress flinched; he looked as though he was about to hit her. When he moved his hand, a glittering ball of electricity left his fingertips, aimed toward her face. She dodged the spell quickly, feeling suddenly feverish with guilt. She had not only neglected to tell him the truth until a year ago, but she had avoided teaching him proper offensive and defensive sorcery as well. She didn’t have long to lament about this, however, because another ball of energy was coming her way, this time in a shocking shade of blue.

Swift as a bird taking flight, the sorceress gathered all the energy she could muster, opened her palms and clasped the sphere firmly. She pushed the energy down, dividing each molecule with her mind until there was nothing left but a single yellow flame that hovered in the center of her palm. Sweat trickled down her neck, but she ignored it.

Max’s eyes faded back to a warm brown. His rage reverted to frustration, and then sadness right before the sorceress’s eyes. He collapsed into her arms, shaking his head furiously.

“I’m so sorry, my lady, I’m so sorry!” he said over and over again, his body shaking. “I-I don’t know what happened… I don’t know how to control it…” His mouth opened to say something else, then closed as he stood up straighter. He was a whole head taller than the sorceress now, making her look younger than she really was. Tears trailed down his face in shimmering streams.

“It’s all right, my darling, it’s all right,” she replied, managing a gentle smile. She took his face in her hands. “I know why you have trouble like this sometimes. I know why you’re angry. I know why you cry.”

He shook his head. “I feel stupid. I’m not a child anymore. What’s wrong with me?”

The words made her heart swell and deflate all at once. “I… Nothing’s wrong with you, Max. Nothing at all. You’ve experienced serious emotional trauma. And because you’ve decided to study sorcery, sometimes your strong emotions come out in the form of magical energy. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

His eyes were dark. “I almost hurt you, my lady. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m just so…so…” He searched for the right word.

“I know. I’m sure you’re feeling about a thousand things right now, and that’s perfectly fine,” she told him. Without another moment’s thought, she placed a kiss on his nose, then took his hand to take him back inside.

 

  • * *

 

Later that night, as the sorceress was getting ready for bed, she heard Max murmuring to himself again in the kitchen. She entered the room with a familiar nervous feeling in her stomach. “Max? Are you okay?”

He looked up at her, no red in his eyes, calm as ever. “Yeah, sorry… I was just thinking aloud.”

“Do you want to talk? It might help.” She sat on the edge of the table and watched him.

He was tentative at first, moving slowly over to the table and contemplating the offer before taking a seat. “Life’s not fair, is it?” he asked quietly, as though he already knew the answer.

The sorceress smiled solemnly and shook her head. “When I was very young, I was raised to believe that there is woe in the world for a reason. While we may not know what that reason is, it helps us appreciate the good things in our lives.”

“That’s stupid,” he replied stubbornly, crossing his arms over his chest.

Her smile grew and she laughed softly. “I thought the same thing,” she told him, reaching out to run her fingers through his hair. He looked sleepy for a moment, blinked, and looked up at her innocently.

“I mean, I guess it makes sense… You can’t have one thing without the other. All opposites are that way. It’s one of the rules of the world, right? But it’s still… Oh, what is it? I can’t think of the word.”

The sorceress collected her thoughts and played them back to him. “Painful? Ridiculous? Obscure?”

Max laughed, his voice sounding much older than usual. “Something like that,” he replied.

“Well, regardless of what word you use to describe life, I’m glad you’re part of mine.” She smiled, genuine and full.

“You’re so nice, my lady,” he said, sounding like a child all over again. “I’m happy to be a part of your life, too.”

 

  • * *

 

They spent the next couple of years almost blissfully. For his sixteenth birthday the sorceress followed through with her original promise and gave him a birthday celebration to remember. They ate all kinds of foods he had never had before, and he helped her make them. There were only two of them at the party, but by this time Max was hungry enough to eat everything in sight. Sometimes it was difficult keeping up with his appetite. His birthday was the only exception. They ate an enormous amount, and then sat outside during the night to watch the stars. Max was adept at star reading by then, so he could point out every constellation and tell the ancient stories. The one thing the sorceress didn’t follow through with was fireworks. She didn’t tell him why, but they both knew it was probably best to avoid anything big and fiery for the time being.

Despite the stinging memories, his anger had subsided, only returning in bursts when he was practicing offensive sorcery in the woods. The sorceress knew it was good for him to release his emotions, even though it was destructive.

He found balance eventually, but it came with nightmares that he couldn’t control. Some nights he would wake up in a screaming fit, and though no magic was involved, his eyes and head blazed with pain. Sometimes he cried; other times he would toss and turn till he couldn’t take the pain any longer. Each time, terrible images burned in his mind. And each time, the sorceress awoke and sat by his side through it all.

Usually the nightmares didn’t last too long, but when they did, the sorceress would try to wake him up. She’d hold him, let him cry if he had to, and if he didn’t, they’d sing together till he felt better.

Even when he slept silently through the bad dreams, the sorceress felt the pulse of each image shoot through his mind. Whenever she closed her eyes, she felt snippets of his mind inside hers. This didn’t startle her as much as it could have. It simply meant that he was getting stronger as a sorcerer. He was becoming as powerful as she was, if not more, and he was only sixteen. The magical energy he bore had begun to seep outward into other planes of existence.

It occurred to her that she didn’t have as much time with him as she would have liked.

“The world is so big and amazing,” he said, marveling at the map the sorceress had laid out on the table. “How do you know so much about it?”

The sorceress laughed softly. “Contrary to what you might think, I haven’t really been anywhere outside of this region. I know a lot about the world, but only from what I’ve been told, and what I’ve read in books.”

There was a pause, as he sat, pondering it all. “Did you learn it all from the um… other sorcerers? The bad ones?”

She blinked, swallowed a lump in her throat and nodded.

He reached across the table to take her hand in his, and then looked down at the map once more in awe. “My lady, this really is amazing. I’ve been thinking… I’d love it if I could see the world some day. I want to explore the world. I want to travel, and learn about all the places you’ve told me about.” His smile was warm, but the sorceress felt cold.

She returned his smile, though it was a sad one. “You know… your sorcery skills are excellent already. In a year’s time, you’ll be a full sorcerer.”

Max’s eyes widened. “That’s right… It’s almost been seven years already.”

“Mhm. You can go see the world whenever you’d like after a year. You’ll be as ready as I can make you.”

“Really? You mean it?”

Her smile grew. She loved seeing him so hopeful. She loved seeing him happy. “Of course.”

His eyes sparkled and he got up to give her a hug. She was beginning to feel small in his arms. “Thank you, my lady! Thank you so much! Gosh, a whole year… What will we do until then?”

She laughed, resting her head on his shoulder. “Oh, I’m sure we’ll think of something.”

From then on, the sorceress made sure they spent every moment of their day to its fullest. If she had been more organized, she would have planned everything out with lists and calendars. But as it was, they were both fairly disorderly most of the time, even when the sorceress tried to structure their day.

During the winter, they spent their time baking, reading and singing. It was a long, cold season of quiet things such as these, with the occasional burst of anger from Max here and there. He was getting better though, and they found that the more they talked, the better he felt. She taught him how to use insulation spells to keep the house warm and smaller incantations to warm his hot chocolate or tea. She even taught him how to create sparks of fire from his fingertips. He’d known for ages how to light a fire without sorcery, which was just as useful and even more important. She made sure he had a balanced understanding of both sorcery and common things such as this. It would be beneficial for him on all accounts, especially if he was going to leave her in a year’s time.

Thinking about him leaving made her heart ache, so she tended to avoid that thought altogether. She focused on spending time with him, and letting him have a little time on his own as well.

He had more time on his own when spring came, and the sorceress had him take walks in the woods. He found solace during these walks, and a newfound tranquility in each step. He didn’t go far, never abusing the privileges she gave him, even though she sometimes expected it from him. Sometimes she would join him, but most of the time, he went alone. In the mornings, she could hear him singing out by the creek, which was very comforting to her.

He was always so compliant and so kind, doing everything he was told and then some. Even after all these years, she was still surprised by how kind he was to her, despite everything he’d been through.

He turned seventeen during that spring, but they decided that he would stay until autumn, because that’s when he’d arrived all those years ago. The sorceress was relieved by his decision, because she clung to every precious moment with him desperately. She couldn’t help it. It was becoming part of her nature to do so.

By the time summer arrived, he was cooking almost every meal himself and was practically a pro when it came to magic, closer and closer to becoming a “true sorcerer”. He had a few magical tricks up his sleeve that he liked to use just for fun, and while he was becoming more mature, he was also becoming more mischievous. Sometimes he’d lure pixies into the garden (this time on purpose), and sometimes he would startle the sorceress by randomly appearing in the middle of the room. It was all harmless, good fun, and it made the sorceress laugh when she felt low.

During the hottest days of summer they went swimming in a small lake in the woods. They swam for hours, picnicked under canopies of trees, and used deflective spells to protect their skin from the sun. They liked these days best. When the sun set, they made shadow puppets with the last light of day and exchanged stories from when they were little. Max’s stories were always intriguing, because he remembered things from when he was barely four years old that the sorceress could never even imagine. She liked hearing what his childhood had been like, even if it hadn’t been much of one to begin with. It made her happy that he still had some good memories to cancel out the bad ones. Despite this, he didn’t remember as much about his family as she thought he would, or if he did, he didn’t talk about them very much. She found it funny that even in their last year of living together, they were still learning so much about one another. It was easier now because he was older and more willing to talk. He was old enough now that he had to shave. His first shave was a learning experience for both of them, and funny enough that they laughed about it for days.

When summer left them, they fell back into the familiar rhythms of cool weather, and along with that came gloom. It could have been coincidence, but it was the rainiest and gloomiest fall the sorceress had seen in a long time, and inside she felt exactly the same. Her heart cried every time she looked at Max, even on quiet afternoons when they were doing nothing special. She was excited for him, but she was sad as well. She thought about him leaving constantly; the prospect shook her up badly. Seven years previously, she’d known how to cool her emotions down so they were as durable as stone, but now there was nothing stopping her from bursting into tears at the sight of him. It was everything at once, all the time, night and day, and every season of the year melded into one.

It wasn’t as if Max didn’t notice, of course. The magical empathy between them was increasing, and some nights, Max could feel the highs and lows that swept through the sorceress like a storm. At times they shared nightmares, which ended in the way they always used to when he was younger: the two of them, sitting in bed or next to the fireplace, singing old lullabies together. It wasn’t long until the nightmares went away, however, and were replaced with sweet dreams of excitement. The sorceress filled her own mind with thrilling thoughts of Max and the great things he would accomplish out in the world. She’d seen amazing sorcerers before, and just one look at him gave her the reassurance she needed to be certain that he was going to be one of the best.

When the day came for him to leave, her mind felt ready, but her heart trembled. Her hands shook as she was packing his travel bag with food, and there were several moments that morning when she almost ran into the kitchen table. It was early afternoon before Max said anything to her.

“My lady?” He spoke softly as he entered the kitchen. “I’m ready to go now.”

She looked up to meet his eyes, her dirty white hair in a braid that was beginning to fray from rushing all over the place. Her lips pulled into a smile. He was dressed in travel clothes he’d made himself, and his hair was freshly washed, his eyes bright and curious, as they had been when she’d first met him.

“I see,” she replied quietly. There wasn’t much else to say. She stood up and handed him his bag, which was filled to the brim with food and the materials he’d need to get to his first destination. They’d planned out his whole trip the night before, or at least the beginning of it, on a map. Everything was set, everything was ready. Including him.

He took the bag but didn’t waste another moment before pulling her into a tight hug. “Thank you for everything.”

She tilted her head up to rest her chin on his shoulder, smiling a little. “You’re welcome. Now, Max… Don’t hesitate to return if you need anything, all right? You’re always welcome here.” She wanted to say more, but the words caught in her throat. All she could do was hold him close until he wanted to let go.

When he did, she let out a small, shaking sigh. It was strange; she knew there was nothing wrong with showing her emotions, but she’d promised herself she wouldn’t cry until he left. After all, above everything else, she was excited for him.

“I know, my lady.” He grinned, took her head in his hands and kissed her forehead. “I love you.”

The sorceress could no longer stop herself. Her forest-colored eyes became misty with tears, and she rubbed them like a child. “I love you too, Max.”

He giggled, his voice still a perfect melody, then gave her one last hug before opening the door to leave.

She watched him go, eyes following him until she could only see the outline of him against the pale blue horizon. It took her a moment to realize she was completely alone, and when she finally turned away from the window, she burst into tears.

That night, the sorceress slept restlessly. There were no nightmares; there weren’t even any dreams. She continued to toss and turn, her mind etched with worry and ache for no reason. It was as if the absence of Max had disconnected her soul from her body. Nothing she thought made any sense, and for the first time in a long time, she felt hopelessly useless.

A few minutes before sunrise, she flung herself out of bed, wrapped in a blanket, and went to the kitchen for some tea. As the water was heating up, she considered using sorcery to make it go faster, but felt unmotivated to do even that. She felt lost. She felt cold. And all the while, she knew there was nothing she could do but occupy her time and try to fill the hole that was left.

Once her tea was ready, she sat down at the table, eyes on the chair across from her. Why had there been two chairs in this house in the first place? She’d built it with the full intention of living alone, so why had she made two chairs? She couldn’t even remember a time when there was anyone other than Max in her life. Everything seemed pointless now that he was gone.

“What a strange feeling,” she observed aloud, her voice rough with the coat of sleeplessness. She ran her fingers through her hair, which she’d given up on trying to tame. At some point she would cut it all off, but for now she let it do as it pleased. Her eyes were red and puffy from crying, but other than that there was no emotion left for her to show.

She hadn’t even realized that her tea was gone until she almost dropped the mug mid-thought. It slipped from her grip but she caught it with a bit of magic, setting it back on the table and finally understanding the one thing she knew to be true. The cup was empty, and so was she.

The sun shone through the window; there was a knock at the door, startling the sorceress out of stasis. Ordinarily she would have noticed someone approaching; she had always been so good with that. But there was no reason to keep watch. There should have been no one around for miles. Her mind pulled into focus; the familiar feeling of electricity warmed her fingertips.

“Relax,” she told herself, and the feeling slowly passed. There was another knock, and as she got to her feet, she grabbed a small knife just in case.

When the door opened, the knife fell to the floor with a small clatter. There, looking just as he had seven years before, was Max, his face streaked with tears. Immediately he fell into her arms, holding her tightly and crying into her shoulder. “I’m so, so sorry. I’ll never leave you again!”

It didn’t take long for the sorceress’s instincts to snap into action. “Max, sweetie, what’s wrong? What happened?” She smoothed his hair.

He pulled himself up to look at her, but still held her in front of him, not looking away. “Nothing happened. I just… I left you! I left you all alone. I’m so sorry, my lady! I’ll never leave you ever again.”

“Shh, it’s all right. I… I thought it’s what you wanted.”

“No!” he replied, shaking his head and hugging her close again. “I was wrong. I’m sorry, Mom! I promise I’ll never leave you again.”

The sorceress couldn’t hide her tears as she held him close. In all her years of studying sorcery, she’d had to live with regrets and things to hide. But the one thing she wasn’t ashamed of, this boy, turned out to be the one thing she never would have expected she’d have. And here he was, right in front of her all along.

 

  • * *

 

It should come as no surprise that Max did end up travelling the world, but this time with the sorceress at his side. Together, they helped heal wounded souls and sick hearts, using both sorcery and kindness. They learned new things together, side by side, rather than on their own. As they grew older they discovered how different they were, yet how alike in the oddest ways. Life was good again, and although it wasn’t perfect, they were happy.

They didn’t have glory, nor did they have absolute power and wisdom. But they did have each other, which was better than all the magic and sorcery in the world.

 

Amelia Mapstone’s Bio & Links

 

Amelia Mapstone is an eighteen year old writer who constantly dances between worlds. Ever since she was a little girl, she’s used fiction as a way to explore the possibilities in her own life as well as the lives of others. For her, writing is both a means of escape and expression.

She is currently about to enter her first year of college, with a major in English and a focus on Creative Writing. Her passions include writing, reading, drawing, and spending time with her friends and family.

She hopes to someday publish her first novel which is currently in the works!

 

http://fairflying.blogspot.com/

 

 

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Kristen – Witch Hunter

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K S Marsden

 

Copyright 2015 K S Marsden

All Rights Reserved

 

Kristen – Witch Hunter

One

 

The finish line was coming into view, and she kept running. Kristen’s feet pounded along the all-weather track, and her breathing was as steady now as the last eight-hundred meters. She felt that she could sprint the remaining distance without too much effort, but her coach had drilled her on pacing. Pacing, pacing, pacing—the word echoed with her every stride.

Kristen loved running; it was the only time that she could switch off from all other stress and focus on the purely physical task.

 

There was a scattered cheer from the other gathered athletes as Kristen crossed the line. On training days like today, they all tried to support each other.

She walked until her pulse returned to normal, glancing over her shoulder to watch the next runner come in, red-faced, a gap of thirty second between them. The girl shot Kristen a dirty look, before starting her own cooldown.

“Well done, Kristen,” Coach Radcliffe called out as she walked over. “I do believe you’re even faster than last year.”

“Thanks, Coach.” Kristen grinned, grabbing her water bottle and bag.

“You’ll be a shoo-in for County. And I know it’s early, but I could see you on the Olympic team.”

Kristen paused to take it in. “Thanks, Coach!” she repeated, before bouncing away to her friends.

“Kristen, that was awesome!” her best friend Hazel piped up. “All that training we did over the summer paid off.”

Kristen felt an arm wrap around her waist.

“I should hope so—you didn’t have any time left for me.” A handsome face and two big, gentle brown eyes gazed down at her.

Kristen twisted and pushed her ex-boyfriend away.

“What? I’m not allowed to congratulate you now?”

“C’mon, Chris, you know this is an important year for me,” Kristen said, rolling her eyes.

“We’re all seniors this year, Kristen,” Chris reasoned. “Everyone else seems to have time for a social life. For dates.”

“I’m not everyone else,” Kristen smirked.

“Don’t I know it,” muttered Chris, crossing his arms. Thanks to his football training, his muscles were defined, even beneath his loose jersey. “You’re still coming to the party tonight?”

Kristen rolled her eyes at the reminder of the adolescent ritual of the school’s Halloween party. It was a holiday that her family had never celebrated. Dr. Davies refused to let her daughter out of the house or partake in anything remotely halloweeny. And her husband never argued for his stepdaughter to do what many considered normal.

This year was going to be different. Kristen was old enough to have a say in what she did. It also helped that Hazel had been bullying her for the past few weeks until Kristen conceded and even bought an outfit. And it had been Hazel’s continued bullying that meant Kristen really, really had to go tonight.

“Yes, she’s going,” Hazel piped up, grabbing Kristen’s arm. “I’m picking you up at seven.”

“See you tonight, Chris,” Kristen said, pulling Hazel away to the field gates.

Hazel twisted to look over her shoulder, and sighed. “Remind me again why you two aren’t together anymore?”

Kristen refused to say anything but pinched Hazel’s arm.

“Hey! Come on, you were Kris and Chris; everyone wanted to be you,” Hazel continued, rubbing her sore arm.

Kristen sighed. “I’m not the same person. I couldn’t remember any of the reasons we were together…”

 

Two

 

The townhouse was quiet when Kristen arrived home. Clearly her stepfather wasn’t home, and her mother was still sleeping after a late shift. Kristen liked these moments when she could be completely detached from the mad world.

She showered and was finishing drying her long, blonde hair into natural curls when her mom came in. The sight of her messy, blonde bed-hair and pale pink dressing gown was very familiar to Kristen. The only thing missing was a steaming mug of coffee.

“You look nice, sweetie,” her mom said with a yawn. “What’s the occasion?”

“There’s a school party tonight,” Kristen replied drily, tightening her own bathrobe and reaching for her makeup bag.

Her mom frowned, looking very confused. “On a Monday night?”

“It’s Saturday, Mom,” Kristen said, rolling her eyes. “Go get your coffee, and we’ll talk.”

Kristen knew that is was useless trying to get any sense out of Dr. Davies before her caffeine fix. Especially, after a night shift at the emergency room.

Annoyingly, even when she first rolled out of bed, her mom was beautiful. On days like this, when Kristen put in the effort, she was able to take after her. Her grandparents always said that Kristen was the image of her mom as a teenager.

Kristen glanced up as her mom returned, precious coffee in hand.

“I’m sorry. I lost track of time.”

Kristen shrugged. “S’fine. Have any exciting cases last night?”

Her mom snorted. “Nothing I’m sharing with you. How was training today?”

“I’m on the first team for the next meet. It was a breeze,” Kristen said, sitting up straighter. She could be modest later—she had earned this!

“Oh, well done, sweetie. Do you want to go out for dinner tomorrow to celebrate?” Her mom asked, giving her a careful one-armed hug that didn’t spill her coffee or flatten Kristen’s curls. “Did you think any more on trying out for the hockey team?”

Kristen rolled her eyes at the old argument. “We both know I’m not a team player, Mom.”

Her mom shrugged. “But I had so much fun on the hockey team when I was at school, and your gym teacher said you could excel at any sport…,” her mom trailed off, knowing it was pointless to continue.

Kristen smiled up at her reflection in the mirror.

“It’s the thirty-first today, isn’t it?” her mom asked, her brow furrowing as she caught up. “You know how I feel about Halloween.”

Kristen looked up with pleading eyes. “Come on, it’s just a party. It’s at school. What could possibly happen?”

The older woman sighed at the old argument. “There are a lot of strange people out there, and they only get stranger on Halloween. You know how many more inpatients we get in the emergency room every year on this night.”

Kristen half-turned away before her mom came out with the same old stats.

“Look, Mom, I’m seventeen now. I’m not gonna put myself in danger. Hazel will pick me up at seven, and we’ll be home by eleven—way before midnight.” Kristen sighed bitterly. “Which is when the migraines will kick in and spoil the fun, anyway.”

Dr. Davies looked down at her lovely daughter, her eyes bright with pity at the mention of the migraines that had tainted the last four years of her life. She put down her coffee mug and gently wrapped her arms around Kristen’s shoulders.

“You know it’s just because I love you and I worry about you.”

“I know, and I love you too. But you need to trust that I can look after myself.” Kristen forced herself to smile. “Besides, I’ve just proved that I can run faster than ninety-nine percent of people!”

“OK, you win,” her mom conceded, raising her hands in defeat. “Just make sure you show your costume to your dad. He’ll be so disappointed if he missed you.”

Stepdad, the word immediately rose in defense. Derek and her mom had married when Kristen was five years old, and he was a good father-figure, but Kristen still struggled to think of him as simply “Dad.” Not that she ever told her mom or Derek.

“Deal,” Kristen stated. “Now shoo. I need to finish getting ready. Hazel is picking me up soon.”

 

Kristen checked her image once more in the full-length mirror. The black and pink dress was quirky, but Kristen thought she pulled it off in a punk rock style. She grinned. At seventeen, she was supposed to be concerned with looking a little sexy; but she was as giddy as a little kid on her first Halloween!

Still in shock that her mom had agreed to her going out, Kristen grabbed her hat and left her room.

Her mom glanced up as Kristen came into the lounge, quickly surveying her daughter’s outfit and frowning.

“A witch?”

“I know it’s not very imaginative, but it is my first time.”

Dr. Davies attempted a smile at her daughter’s humor. She stared down at her coffee mug, debating whether to say something.

Before she had a chance, the front door flung open and her husband came in, dropping his briefcase in the hall and looking up with a smile.

“Look at you! You managed to convince your mom, then?” He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out his cell phone. “I’ve gotta get a photo.”

Kristen groaned dramatically but duly posed with the broom she was sure she was going to lose by the end of the night.

Derek looked over to where her mom hovered. “Rachel, let’s get a photo of you two.”

Dr. Davies shook her head and went to walk past them, when her husband put his hand out to stop her.

“I don’t condone this, so I’m not going to encourage it.” She pulled away from Derek. “There are things out there…I won’t be happy until she’s home.”

There was a sharp beep of a car horn, and Kristen checked her cell to find a missed call from Hazel. “Gotta go. I promise I’ll be home safe by eleven.”

 

The school grounds had been transformed by the school council and their minions. Plastic skeletons and crepe paper set the standard of the scene.

Kristen loved it.

Ghosts, vampires, and other witches milled about, talking and laughing above the spooky background music filtering over the PA system. The classrooms were all open with teachers and other semi-willing victims manning games and challenges. The hall provided food, music, and a balloon-covered dance floor.

Kristen spotted a six-foot zombie, who stopped staggering and walked over to her in a very human manner.

“Hey, you made it.”

“Hi, Chris,” Kristen said, already looking for an excuse to say goodbye. “Have you been drinking?”

Chris shrugged. Behind the makeup, it was hard to notice his slightly glazed eyes. “A bunch of us are going to the party at Ministry after this. Are you in?”

She sighed, meeting his gaze. “No, Chris. Stop asking me out, stop moping over me, and stop stalking me at school. We are over.”

“Kris, babe…” Chris touched her arm and tried not to look too hurt when she snatched it away. “I understand you need space and want to concentrate on track, but we were so happy last year, and you said yourself I didn’t do anything wrong…”

Kristen put her hands on her hips and glared up at him. “So let me see if I’ve got this right—I want personal space, and I want to concentrate on my sport. But my reasons don’t count because you want to date me. Why—because you’re the guy and I’m only the girl? Am I not allowed to want to be single ‘cos I’m attractive?”

Chris raised his hands defensively. “Whatever. There’s no talking to you when you’re like this.” He backed away to where his friends gathered.

Kristen bit her tongue. She had plenty left to say, but Chris was doing as she wished and was backing off. She turned and immediately walked into someone.

“Coach Radcliffe, sorry!” Kristen cringed with embarrassment as she steadied the older woman who wore some plastic fangs as the bare minimal concession to Halloween.

“I hope you’re not starting fights, Miss Davies.”

“Nah, just putting some boys in their place, Coach,” Kristen replied, without quite hitting the right amount of humor.

Coach Radcliffe grunted, eyeing Kristen for a while before making up her mind. “Close enough to trouble, which means I can rope you into being my assistant. No arguments. You’re helping me with the haunted house.”

Kristen smirked. She was sure it was a chore nobody volunteered for, hence the arm-twisting. But she was keen for her first taste of a haunted house.

“If you insist, Coach.”

She followed Coach Radcliffe to the math department and went through the classroom door that the coach held open for her. Suddenly, a pungent cloth was forced over her mouth, stifling her scream. As Kristen breathed in the fumes, everything started to fade.

 

Three

 

Kristen groaned, her head pounding and her mouth dry. Wherever she was lying was not comfortable; it was cold and hard. She shifted and felt a surge of panic when she couldn’t move her arms. Kristen opened her heavy eyelids and slowly focused on the movement of people in the flickering candlelight.

“She’s coming round already,” an unfamiliar male voice drifted by.

“I used the sedative potion you gave me. Obviously you didn’t make it strong enough.”

Kristen strained to look behind her, startled by the sound of Coach Radcliffe’s voice.

“Or she’s even stronger than we’d hoped.”

“I did say she was the top athlete at the school.”

Kristen didn’t have to see the coach’s face to know that she was bragging.

“Wh…wh…,” Kristen tried to push words through her numb throat.

Those around her ignored her.

“Almost midnight,” murmured the stranger, brimming with excitement. “Celeste, sharpen the knife. Cole, prepare the talisman.”

“What about my payment?” came Coach Radcliffe’s voice.

“Shut up, you mundane fool. You will get it when all is done,” the man who was clearly in charge snapped. “Now, go sit down and keep out of the way. Halloween is too important this year for you to screw up.”

Kristen caught sight of a beautiful young woman, testing the blade of a knife as she gazed dispassionately down at Kristen.

Kristen quickly dismissed the notion that this might be a distasteful prank and realized she was in a lot of trouble. She pulled again at her bonds. They creaked but did not give. She wriggled her feet and almost sighed with relief that there was some slack in them. All she needed was the right moment to get her legs free.

“Give me the knife, my love,” the man purred, holding out his hand to the beautiful woman.

Oh crap! Right moments were running out!

Before Kristen could react, she cringed against the powerful wave of a headache. She took a few steady breaths, tears of pain leaking from the corners of her eyes. Chanting voices drifted past the thrum of the headache. Was it coincidence that the two seemed to beat in time?

Kristen tried to rise above the chanting and, suddenly, everything became clear again. The pain hadn’t gone, but it was shut away.

She looked up to see the leader leaning over her, both of his hands gripping the handle of the blade, ready to drive it into her heart. As Kristen pulled one foot loose, a new voice called out, “By the Malleus Maleficarum, I charge you to stop…”

She didn’t wait to find out what was happening. Kristen took advantage of the leader’s distraction and kicked him in the kidneys.

The woman, Celeste, let out a scream—how dare this girl attack their leader! Kristen twisted to deliver a kick to her face, but with a speed and strength that her tiny figure shouldn’t have possessed, Celeste knocked her leg aside and caused the whole table to topple over. Kristen screwed her eyes shut and braced as the table slammed into the floor, the impact reverberating through her very bones.

Kristen grimaced with the pain of new bruises. She moved and found one of the ties on her wrist had loosened in the fall. There seemed to be chaos and noise around her and no one was paying her any attention.

No matter how she twisted, she couldn’t undo the knot tying her right wrist to the table. Kristen glanced around and noticed the knife, lying abandoned on the floor. She stretched out with her legs and nudged it carefully in her direction.

Cutting herself free, Kristen bounced onto her feet, moving the knife into her strongest hand. Celeste was crumpled in the corner. Kristen couldn’t see if she was alive or not, but a more pressing matter distracted her.

The leader was still standing and, as though sensing she was about to cause trouble, he turned to face Kristen. He frowned at the blonde girl, obviously not seeing her as a threat.

He raised his hand and Kristen felt the air ripple. “Stay” was his single command.

Yeah, like that was going to happen. Kristen went to move but found the air viscous and unforgiving around her.

Content with his work, the leader turned back to the real threat, those that dodged in the shadows. He saw a gun raised, and he countered with a wall of fire that appeared as if by magic but was fierce and real.

Kristen gasped and then realized that the only thing holding her still now was her own shock. Without hesitation, she flipped the knife in her hand and swung the blunt handle at the base of the leader’s head. There was a soft crunch, and the man dropped like a stone.

The flames that had reached six feet or more suddenly stopped, leaving smoking residue behind.

There was movement as three people stepped out from the shadows, dressed ready for a fight in combats and black stab vests, the thick padding adding bulk to their torsos. The military gear didn’t slow them down, as they moved into the space; all three aimed their guns at Kristen until their leader raised a hand.

“Are you OK, miss?” asked the man, moving slowly forward.

Kristen looked at the unconscious body at her feet and noticed two others across the room. “Sure, why wouldn’t I be?” she snapped.

“What’s your name?”

“Kristen Davies,” she answered, raising her hand to push back her loose blonde hair, before realizing that she still held the knife. Kristen suppressed a shudder at the sight of it, channeling her nerves to snap at the strangers, instead. “Who the hell are you?”

“Alan Thomas, and my colleagues, Shania and Eric North. Don’t worry. We’re here to help. We’ve been tracking these witches for some time.”

“And you expect me to believe that you—” Kristen broke off from her defensive tirade as she processed what the guy had actually said. “Witches?”

He nodded, waiting for the reality to sink in. “Eric, check them.”

The man to his left obediently moved away to check the fallen.

“Witches? You can’t be serious,” Kristen insisted. “What psycho sacrifices people just because it’s Halloween?”

“As I said—witches. They are real, Kristen, and a very dangerous breed.”

“You’re telling me,” Kristen muttered. “They were strong, so strong. And I couldn’t move…”

“Hey, Thomas. Cole’s dead,” Eric reported back, breaking the tense atmosphere. “Celeste and Dean are unconscious. I’ll get them bound. Shania, can you call it in?”

The woman nodded and pulled out her cell, walking away to get reception.

“Kristen,” Thomas said, regaining her attention. “I need to know, did you know any of these people before tonight? How were you taken?”

“Um no…I mean, the only one I recognized was my coach. Hey, where’s Coach Radcliffe? She isn’t a…” Kristen broke off, hardly believing she was about to say the word, much less entertain their crazy story. “A witch too, is she?”

Thomas shook his head. “No, she’s human. She’s in restraints outside. We think she may be responsible for other disappearances linked with witch sacrifices. Trust me. She’s going away for a long, long time.”

Kristen took her time to process it all. “Human? You mean witches aren’t?”

Thomas shrugged. “They’re a subspecies. They look human, but that’s about it. They use magic to many a dangerous end, and when they need a power fix, they drain the life from human victims…It’s our job to stop them.”

“So what are you? You’re not like another subspecies are you?”

Thomas chuckled. “We’re witch-hunters, working for the Malleus Maleficarum Council. And we’re human—although some of the hunting families have gained a few perks.”

Thomas checked his watch and then looked up to Kristen again. For the first time, she noticed his blue-green eyes, soft and so deep.

Thomas coughed and Kristen blushed, realizing she was staring. “Sorry, they witch-roofied me. I guess I’m a bit out of it.”

“Well, drugged or not, you handled yourself well tonight. It was very impressive, and the way Dean’s spell didn’t affect…never mind.”

Kristen shrugged. “My mom insisted that I learn to defend myself and signed me up for jiu-jitsu when I was six. I guess after all these years, it finally came in handy. Not that I’m saying I wanted to get attacked sooner, I just meant…what was I saying?”

“I think you’re saying you have a concussion,” Thomas replied, the corner of his mouth tilting in a distracting smile. “I can give you a ride home.”

“Ah, I don’t think so, I can get myself home.” Kristen retorted, not about to get into this very strange man’s car, a lesson her mom hammered into her. She went to step away and had the fleeting realization that the adrenaline was leaving her body, as her knees buckled and the room started to spin.

 

Buckled up in Thomas’s car, Kristen rested her head on the cold window and watched the street lights flick by. She hadn’t exactly accepted Thomas’s help, Kristen grated with the idea that she’d collapsed; she was far from a damsel in distress. She sighed loudly—seeing as she was stuck in this car, she might as well make the most of it.

“What happens now?” she asked quietly.

Thomas glanced over at her before returning his attention to the road. “Now, you go home, get some sleep, go to school on Monday, and get on with your life.”

“So you want me to forget about tonight?”

“I think it would be healthiest if you put it behind you. Trust that the Council will see that justice is done.”

“But there are witches in the world!” Kristen waved a vague hand. “How am I supposed to ignore that?”

“Because it’s the safest option.”

“But what if I could help?” Kristen insisted.

Thomas gave her a doubtful look. “You’re still just a kid.”

“I’m seventeen,” Kristen said defensively. “Besides, you said I did good against those witches.”

“Kristen, I don’t doubt your ability, but…hunting witches is dangerous. There’s a constant war between the witches and the MMC. It’s death and it’s pain.”

Kristen fell silent as Thomas turned down her street, only speaking to let him know which house was hers. It was past one a.m., but the lights were all still on. Kristen’s gut twisted, and she was suddenly more fearful of facing her irate mother than the witches.

Thomas put on the parking brake and leaned past her to pull a card out of the glove box.

“If you need anything, here’s a number to call in the MMC. They can provide counseling if you wish.” Thomas eyed Kristen, noting the complete lack of shock on her face. He scribbled quickly on the back of the card before handing it to her. “And here’s my direct line. Just in case.”

“Thanks,” Kristen said, feeling the word was very much insufficient. She took a deep breath and let herself out of the car. Every step toward the house felt like a step closer to reality.

As she took her keys out, the door opened to reveal a very worried-looking Dr. Davies.

“Kristen, thank God, you’re home safe!” Rachel pulled her daughter into a crushing hug, before her relief gave way to anger. “Where the hell were you? I don’t set many rules, Kristen—you’re two hours late! I’ve been calling all your friends—what am I supposed to do when they all tell me you’re missing?”

“Rachel, sweetie, let her get a word in,” Derek said gently, although by the look on his face, Kristen could tell that he was far from forgiving her.

“I’m sorry,” Kristen said, backing away from the parents and making for the stairs.

“That’s not good enough. I want to know what happened,” her mom snapped.

Kristen paused. She didn’t want to drag her mom and Derek into her new, mad world. Her mind shifted to something that was true. “There was this guy…,” she said, caught by the memory of blue-grey eyes. “I lost track of time.”

Derek didn’t look impressed, but her mom seemed somewhat relieved that her daughter had simply been acting like a typical seventeen year old girl—easily distracted by a handsome boy. Not that Thomas was a boy; he had to be ten years older than her.

“Well…don’t think this is over,” Dr. Davies said, the strength of anger no longer in her voice. “We’ll be discussing your lack of responsibility tomorrow.”

 

Four

 

A few days later, Kristen sat in English class, safely near the back where she could get away with paying next-to-no attention. Her mind still labored on that evening—her first Halloween and she had almost been sacrificed by witches but was saved by a secret organization. Kristen had, of course, googled them as soon as she awoke on Sunday but found nothing beyond some very ancient history. The only reference to the Malleus Maleficarum was a fifteenth century how-to for hunting witches. There was no mention of a Council.

Kristen turned the card over in her hand, her fingers tracing Thomas’s number. She should be more scared by the fact that she was nearly killed and that magic was real, but instead she felt an intense desire to know more.

She pulled out her cell before she lost her nerve and texted. “I need to see you ASAP. Kristen.”

A couple of minutes passed before there was a responding buzz. “I’ll pick you up after school. Thomas.”

Kristen heard a huff behind her and looked over her shoulder to see a gruff-looking Chris.

“Hmph, stalk much.” Kristen muttered as she stuffed her cell away.

 

Later that day, Kristen sat perched on the school wall, watching the cars pass with growing nerves. She was going to insist that Thomas take her seriously. She wasn’t a kid and, deep down, she knew that this was the right thing to do.

“Hey, Kristen, ready to hit the shops?” Hazel asked, popping up by her elbow.

“What?”

“Shopping…,” Hazel repeated, waiting for the memory to click with Kristen. Hazel frowned, concerned that the normally sharp Kristen was being this flaky. “Remember, you were gonna help me find a birthday present for my horrid little stepsister.”

“Oh crap! Sorry I forgot.”

“Well, you’re here. Let’s go.”

Kristen winced. “I kinda made plans.”

“What?” Hazel looked very hurt. “What could be more important…?”

She trailed off as a car pulled up on the curb and Thomas rolled down a window. “Hey, Kristen. Jump in.”

“See you tomorrow?” Kristen asked, hoping that Hazel would take this at face value, that she was simply a terrible friend that was bailing on her in favor of a guy.

Trying to set aside her guilt at not sharing the truth with her best friend, Kristen got into the car.

“You’re looking brighter,” Thomas commented.

“Yeah, I’m getting into your car as a conscious decision this time,” Kristen said with a wary smile. “So where are we going, Mr. Thomas? To your Council?”

“Not yet. I’m not officially signing you up for anything until I’ve got an idea of what you can do. We’re going to my studio,” Thomas replied.

After a short drive downtown, they pulled up outside a nondescript building. There was a sign by the door that read Alan Thomas: Martial Arts. Kristen looked curiously at Thomas and followed him to the first floor, which revealed a large open space with lots of light coming through the full-length windows.

“You teach martial arts?” Kristen asked.

Thomas took off his coat and tossed it aside. Kristen couldn’t help but notice that his navy jersey did little to hide his trim figure.

He rolled up his sleeves, looking at his studio fondly. “Witch-hunting pays pretty well, but I wanted to give something more to the community. I can’t tell them about witches, but I like to think I’m giving them the skills to defend themselves.”

“You really are one of the good guys, aren’t you?”

Thomas smirked and changed the subject. “So who did you train with?”

“Mike Chang.”

Thomas nodded. “He’s a good guy. Right, let’s see what he’s taught you. Shoes off.”

Kristen grinned, kicking off her sneakers and joining Thomas on the large, worn training mat. This was something she felt comfortable with; this was what she knew.

“Right, let’s see what you’ve learned,” Thomas said, taking up a ready pose.

Kristen followed his lead as he went through some basic movements. She flowed from one block to another with ease.

“Good,” noted Thomas. “Your technique is clean, efficient. Let’s step it up.”

Without giving her time to refuse, Thomas upped his attack. The blows were strong, and he moved faster than anyone Kristen had ever seen but his accuracy and control never faulted.

Kristen kept up at first, moving back and forth across the mat, trying to throw him off balance. But as Thomas kept up his relentless attack, she began to falter. A few of his blows got through her defenses. Pushed beyond her limit, Kristen lashed out, her fist connecting with Thomas’s shoulder.

Thomas immediately stopped and stepped back, breathing heavily and frowning at the girl. “You’re strong.”

Kristen struggled to catch her breath and was very aware of the clothes sticking to her sweaty skin. “Yeah…I’m stronger…than I look.”

Thomas gave her an odd look. “You’re stronger than I am,” he said quietly as he moved across the room. He opened up a cupboard and pulled out a couple of bottles of water. He tossed one over to Kristen, who gladly drank half of it before replying.

“Not to brag, but I am the school’s top athlete. I’m heading for the Olympics and everything.”

Thomas twisted the bottle in his hand, struggling to find the right words. “No, Kristen, you don’t understand. I’m not…not your average person. Do you remember that I said some witch-hunters have certain gifts?”

Kristen narrowed her eyes. “Vaguely. I was drugged at the time.”

“The MMC has long known that when a person fights witches, their descendants gain certain traits that make us more effective. With each generation, we get stronger and faster. We have an inborn immunity to some magic, and we can sense magic being cast.” Thomas took a deep breath.

“So what, everyone in the MMC is walking round with superpowers?” Kristen asked, trying to get her head around the bigger picture.

Thomas shook his head, trying to hide a smile at her choice of words. “No, not all. There are 1st gens—men and women with no witch-hunter blood in them—that take up the fight. We try and keep the witch chaos out of the public eye, but there’s always a steady stream of new recruits. The 1st gens don’t have any inborn gifts. As much as I admire their bravery, they are too much of an easy target and always have to stick with a higher gen. Their children are 2nd gens; but it’s only at the 3rd generation that the gifts start to show themselves. My family has been fighting witches for a hundred years. I’m what’s known as a 4th gen.”

“And what exactly does that translate to?” Kristen interrupted. “You’re not about to tell me you’re some immortal being?”

Thomas snorted. “No, I’m very much mortal. But I’m strong and fast. There are a few 5th and 6th gens, and I heard there’s even a 7th gen in the UK—they’re the only ones more powerful than me.”

“So?”

“So, my point is—what is so special about you?”

“Aw, you think I’m special?” Kristen asked, batting her eyelashes playfully.

“You’re only seventeen, and a girl, yet you’re stronger than me. Plus you were able to defy Dean’s spell when he tried to control you…” Thomas eyed her carefully. “Are you sure you don’t have witch-hunter blood in you?”

“Alan Thomas, now you’re just teasing,” Kristen replied, crossing her arms. “I wish. My mom’s a doctor, and Derek is a lawyer—admirable but mundane jobs. I bet they’d freak to learn the truth about witches.”

“It was a long-shot anyway. The Council keeps strict tabs on witch-hunter bloodlines…,” Thomas trailed off. “Derek? Not ‘dad’?”

“He’s my stepdad. He married my mom when I was five. Before you ask, no, I don’t know who my dad is. My mom won’t tell me, and my grandparents are as clueless as I am,” Kristen said huffily, making it clear that this topic wasn’t up for discussion.

“But what if he’s a witch-hunter?” Thomas asked. “It would help explain everything.”

“Please, drop it.”

“Do you ever get migraines?” Thomas asked.

Kristen froze, looking up at him warily. Had he researched her medical history? She shrugged, playing it cool. “Everyone gets headaches.”

“Do they happen more frequently at sunset or midnight? Do they happen every Halloween? Every summer solstice?” Thomas asked. “They are the times that witchkind is most active. Witch-hunters detect any spell-casting within a small range—and in the untrained it can be mistaken for a headache.”

“I think you’re making all this up,” Kristen argued.

“Kristen, you came to me for answers. I’m sorry if they’re not the ones you want,” Thomas replied gently. “Look, I’ll train you if you want. And…I know it’s not my place, but I think you should talk to your mom. Even if you could get a name, it would be a start.”

Kristen stood quietly, feeling dazed. She wasn’t sure quite what she was expecting from Thomas, but an interrogation over her absent father wasn’t it.

“Can I drive you home?” Thomas asked, stepping closer.

Kristen moved quickly away. “No, I’ll get the bus.”

She grabbed her shoes and bag and left, avoiding Thomas’s gaze. Who was he to say that she might be a valued witch-hunter progeny? Her father was nothing to her—he had never been there, and she had never wanted him. Now she was supposed to believe that the one thing special about her—her athletic ability—was only because of his DNA? What did she have left? Surely she was a straight-A student because her mom was smart…oh please, God, she hoped that she could at least hold onto the idea that she’d inherited her mom’s brain.

The long bus ride home seemed to take no time at all, her thoughts turning in constant circles. By the time she got to her house, things weren’t any clearer.

When Kristen got into the hallway she almost walked into her parents, who looked about ready to leave, keys in hand.

“Are you OK, sweetie?” her mom asked, instantly recognizing that something worried her daughter.

“I need to speak to you, Mom. It’s important.”

Dr. Davies looked meaningfully to Derek. “Can you go for the groceries without me?”

“Sure.” Derek glanced between the two tense women. “I’ll pick up extra ice cream.”

Dr. Davies waited for her husband to leave before she spoke. “OK, what did you want to talk about?”

Kristen walked into the lounge and lowered her aching body onto the couch. “I want to know about my father.”

Dr. Davies’s breath hitched, and she took her time to sit down before replying. “He’s never been a part of your life, sweetie. I don’t think digging into ancient history is going to help you now.”

“But you don’t understand, Mom,” Kristen stressed. “I need to know about him. I’m changing, and there are things about me that only he can explain. Things I…I can’t tell you, and you wouldn’t believe anyway.”

“Oh, Kristen,” her mom sighed, refusing to meet her eyes. “I just wanted you to have a normal childhood, a normal life!”

“Wait…you know? About…”

Rachel looked up, her eyes glistening with tears. “Witches?” She wiped her eyes, trying not to smear her mascara. “It all happened so long ago. I was in my last year of medicine at Cambridge in England. It was Halloween—there wasn’t as much hype about it back then, and definitely not in the UK, but I went out for a few drinks with my classmates.

“On my way home, I was accosted by two men—I only had time to register fear before everything went blank. I woke up in a room filled with candles. There was a scuffle, as witch-hunters came in to stop them from sacrificing me.

“One of the witch-hunters took me to an all-night café to make sure I had a drink and wasn’t in shock. He explained everything and then swore me to secrecy.

“I struggled with the knowledge that there were witches out there, so one brittle day in November, I marched up to his house and demanded to help. From then on, when I wasn’t studying, I was his secretary, writing up all the details of his work, making official reports to his Council. I learned so much. I was awakened to the danger posed by witches. I confess that it scared me.”

“That’s all well and good, but what about my father?” Kristen demanded, her ears turning red at her own nerve of speaking to her mom this way.

Rachel picked at a loose thread on her cardigan, her blue eyes lost in the past. “I’d been working for him for about a month…he would have never made a move; he was twice my age, and I swear there wasn’t a caring bone in his body. Besides, he wasn’t the type to get distracted by a pretty girl. But I thought myself in love with him. He looked like a marine with his short-cut hair, broad shoulders, and muscles that…well, you never would have guessed he was well into his forties. And he had this aura around him, that he was confident and strong and would always keep me safe.”

“What happened?” Kristen asked quietly.

“We became a couple, and for a few months I was deliriously happy. The honeymoon period.” Rachel sighed and gave a bitter smile. “But as that wore off, my fear of this life fighting witches started to bubble up again. The more time I worked for your father and the Council, the more aware I was of the dangers. Did you know that they have a thousand 1st gen witch-hunters? Did you know this translated to only having a hundred or so 3rd gens and a handful of higher gens? The average life expectancy is less than fifty years, and any witch-hunters who make names for themselves are painting targets on their backs!

“The day after graduation, I found out that I was pregnant. Suddenly, everything became clear. As much as I loved your father, I couldn’t imagine a future with him and I definitely couldn’t hand over my child to the witch-hunters. You have no idea how tenacious the Council are in keeping track of bloodlines and future fighters. There is no choice with them. It is mandatory for the sons and daughters of witch-hunters to sign up to serve them.”

Kristen sat silently absorbing this new history, trying to ignore the emotions that were threatening to boil over. She had never seen her mom look so utterly defeated, but she found it difficult to pity her.

“Screw the Council, Mom. You mean to tell me that my father doesn’t even know I exist? All this time I thought he didn’t want me, and instead it was just you running scared! I can’t believe you were so selfish!” Kristen’s voice gradually raised, and she jumped from her seat.

“Kristen, sweetie, I did it all for you. So you could have a normal life,” her mom pleaded.

“Bul—”

“Kristen Anne Davies, watch your language!”

Kristen grabbed her bag and swung it over her shoulder. “I can’t stay here, I have to get out.”

“Where are you going to go?”

Kristen shrugged. “I’ll crash at Hazel’s if I have to. I just need some space. I’ll see you tomorrow after school.”

Kristen marched to the door and then paused. “Can you at least tell me his name?”

“Brian. Brian Lloyd.”

 

Five

 

Kristen thought about going to Hazel’s house, her best friend would be totally fine with her staying. But Hazel’s parents would do that thing where they played devil’s advocate and tried to make Kristen realize that whatever was going on, her mom likely had her best interests at heart. Was that some top-secret clause in Parent Club? To support other parents?

Kristen walked down Main Street until her ride arrived.

“Hey, you OK?” Thomas asked as she got in.

“Yeah, you know, just finding out my whole life is a lie, but whatever.” Kristen shrugged. “Thanks for coming.”

“Well, after everything I’ve dropped on you these last few days, I figure I owe you.”

 

They drove in silence, stopping by an apartment block. Thomas pulled out his keys and led the way up to the third floor.

“Come on in,” Thomas invited. “Sorry it’s a mess. I wasn’t expecting guests. The fridge is empty, so we should probably order a pizza. You’re a bit young for beer…hot cocoa?”

Kristen smiled, thinking a beer would be perfect right now. “Yeah, cocoa sounds great.”

 

Later, as they relaxed on the sofa, a half-eaten pizza on the table in front of them, Thomas finally found the courage to broach the important subject.

“So…what did you find out?”

Kristen sighed, brushing back a loose strand of blonde hair. “My mom lied to me my whole life. She knew all about witches and knew my father was a witch-hunter. She was a coward and ran away.”

“But you found out who he was?”

Kristen bit her lip. “Just a name—Brian Lloyd.”

Thomas sat straighter. “Brian Lloyd? From the British MMC? You’re kidding me—he’s a 5th gen and famous around the world.”

Kristen pulled her knees up on the couch. Her capacity to be shocked had been well used up today. She felt like she couldn’t react to anything more.

Thomas leaned forward to grab his bottle of beer. “You know what this means?”

“My Christmas card list is longer?”

Thomas ignored her humorless comment. “It means you’re a 6th gen. Do you know how rare that is? Or what the MMC would do to get their hands on you?”

Kristen cringed, remembering everything her mom had said, the fears she had expressed. “Look, I don’t want to involve your Council. Not yet, not until I’ve figured all of this out. But…will you still train me?”

Thomas smiled at the uncertain but hopeful blue eyes. “Sure, I guess I can understand that. It’s a big step to take. I’ll have to fit it around my witch-hunter duties, but yeah, I’ll get you trained up.”

Kristen tried to stifle a yawn, but Thomas spotted it anyway.

“I’ll get you something to sleep in. You take the bed. I’ll grab the spare blankets and take the couch.”

Kristen took the offered cotton pajamas and disappeared into the bedroom briefly to change.

“The pants are too big, but I’ll make do with your shirt,” she said, holding the grey pants in hand and wearing nothing but the loose grey shirt that hung comfortably to her thigh.

Thomas gawked for a moment at the leggy teenager and then turned away, his cheeks reddening.

“Why, Mr. Thomas, are you blushing?” Kristen teased, less-than-secretly pleased that she’d caused such a reaction.

“Get yourself to bed, Kristen,” he replied tersely.

“I didn’t realize you liked me like that. You know, it’s perfectly natural to be attracted to someone,” Kristen said, perfectly calmly. “To be honest, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about your eyes all week.”

Thomas turned, his grey eyes warming as he realized they were mere inches apart. “It might be natural, but it is inappropriate. You are effectively a minor in my care.”

“I’m seventeen. That’s hardly a kid,” Kristen replied, reaching out and tracing the skin of his arm with the tips of her fingers.

Thomas grabbed her wrist to stop her. “And I’m ten years older than you.”

“Perhaps I like older guys…” Kristen looked up. They were close enough to kiss. Her heart thudded and her mind raced with possibilities. She couldn’t ever remember feeling like this with Chris.

Thomas pulled away, breaking the spell. “You need to go out with people your own age.”

Kristen groaned with frustration. “Alan Thomas, you…fine. I’m going to bed.”

Kristen stomped away into his bedroom, being surrounded by his things hardly helped diffuse the situation. She climbed into the soft double bed and checked her cell: three missed calls from home and a couple of texts from Hazel and Chris.

Kristen quickly texted Hazel, so she knew not to worry and then lingered over the message from Chris. They had broken up months ago, but this was, firstly, a guy that was not afraid to be interested in her, and, secondly, was her own age.

With Thomas’s rejection still stinging, she texted Chris to meet up after school on Friday.

 

Kristen tried to put the awkward silences that made up breakfast at Thomas’s apartment behind her.

She’d called home and left her parents a message to say that she had been fine staying at Hazel’s, and was on her way to school. It was weird to be using that cover again. Last year, Kristen had always said that she was with Hazel when she wanted to stay the night with Chris. At least to begin with, but it turned out that her parents were relatively OK with their then-sixteen-year-old daughter sleeping with her boyfriend. They trusted her to be careful.

Kristen didn’t think they’d be quite as understanding with her staying with a twenty-seven-year-old witch-hunter.

 

Six

 

The date seemed to be going well. Kristen sat in the movie theater, gazing up at the big screen. The film was the latest trying to satisfy the post-Twilight vampire demand. But beyond the fact there was a really hot guy with fangs starring in it, Kristen couldn’t tell what the plot was about.

I wonder if vampires are real too…, she thought idly as another interminable romantic scene played out. Would she have to rethink and relearn everything she thought she knew? Witches were real, but what about demons, werewolves, spirits, sprites, imps, ghosts…everything her mother had ever mentioned in an innocent fairytale.

She supposed she should ask Thomas the next time she saw him. If they were still on speaking terms, that is. She still couldn’t believe what a fool she’d made of herself…Kristen took a deep breath, grimacing. No, tonight she was here with Chris. She shouldn’t be wasting any thought or energy on Alan Thomas.

All too soon the credits rolled, and Kristen had to go back to trying to be interested in what Chris was saying.

“And the part where he turned against his master, that was so cool,” Chris rattled on, his enthusiasm negating any need for Kristen to answer. “I mean, you can hardly tell it’s CGI…”

Kristen linked her arm through his and let him lead her to his car. If she was being very honest, she had missed this, just being with someone, feeling connected and a part of normal life. Even before all the witch nonsense, the summer had been a little lonely.

At the car, Chris leaned in and gave her the briefest, gentlest kiss on her lips and then opened the passenger door, holding it open for her. Kristen smiled and slid in.

 

On the journey home, they chatted easily, catching up on (almost) everything that had happened. Chris was excited about a football scholarship that would keep him in New York, and they batted around some of the options Kristen had ahead of her. Kristen sensed that Chris wouldn’t mind at all if she accepted a local offer, too.

She shook her head and looked out the window, immediately frowning. “Chris, this isn’t the way back to my place.”

“I know. It’s a surprise,” Chris said, concentrating as he turned onto Fourth Street.

They drove along silently, before pulling into a very familiar and very quiet spot.

“Do you remember? This is where we came last year when we were ready to be serious,” Chris said as he put on the parking brake. “I know we’ve been apart for ages, but I want you to know that I can’t imagine my life without you.”

Chris twisted in his seat, reaching out to gently cup her face. He moved in close enough to kiss. “I think I love you,” he murmured, just before their lips met.

The panic Kristen felt at his sudden declaration was quickly subdued by his kiss. There was familiarity and desire as Kristen responded, her fingers running through his thick hair.

His hot breath and pulse seemed to kick up a gear as Kristen felt his hand move purposefully over her hip.

Suddenly snapping out of it, Kristen shoved his hand away and pulled back. “I can’t do this, Chris.”

“W-what? Why not?” Chris stroked her cheek. “I’ve really missed you, Kris.”

“It’s Kristen,” she snapped. “I never liked my name being shortened. And I’m not doing this because it’s just too much too soon.”

“Kristen…we used to sleep together all the time,” Chris said, frowning at her nonsensical argument.

Kristen pulled back further, her brows raised questioningly. “So you think just because we used to have sex, you have the right to jump straight back into it? I think you should take me home, Chris.”

Chris hesitated, unsure what to make of her reaction. “No, I just think part of you has forgotten how much fun it used to be.”

Kristen ignored him, putting her seatbelt on. “Take me home.”

“But, Kristen, we’ve come this far,” Chris replied, moving his hand slowly and seductively from her knee toward her thigh.

Kristen snapped and grabbed his hand, twisting it off her leg.

Chris’s sharp scream was loud in the small space of the car. Kristen looked at him warily as he cradled his arm.

“What the hell was that?” Chris snapped. “What have you done, you crazy bitch!”

Kristen bit back a smile. “Watch your language. You should get that checked out. I might have done some damage.”

“You think?” he hissed.

“C’mon, give me the keys. I’ll drive you to the emergency room.”

“This car is brand new,” Chris argued.

“Then don’t tempt me into banging it into something,” Kristen countered. “Or I could leave you to get your own sorry ass to the hospital.”

Chris swore beneath his breath and reluctantly switched places with Kristen.

 

The emergency room was reasonably quiet when Kristen drove up. She held the doors open for the scowling Chris, torn between leaving him to deal with this on his own and staying to watch him suffer.

“If you sit over there, dear, a nurse will be with you shortly,” the bone-tired receptionist said, pointing toward a curtained booth.

A familiar face soon came along. “Kristen, honey, I haven’t seen you for ages! Rachel’s on break at the moment. Do you want me to go get her?”

“Maggie! No, it’s fine. I’ll catch up with her later at home.”

“OK, well let’s see to your boyfriend,” Nurse Maggie said with a teasing smile.

“Not my boyfriend.”

“OK, OK. Well we’re gonna get you strapped up and off for an x-ray.” Maggie pulled out a clean bandage. “So how did you do this, playing football?”

“Umm…sort of—”

“Ha, not likely. He got handsy and I put him in his place,” Kristen interrupted, crossing her arms.

Maggie glanced at the boy that dared upset her Kristen. She didn’t say a word, but tugged the bandage firmly.

Chris yelped and shot a look at Maggie. “Hey, you did that on purpose,” he growled, nursing his half-bandaged wrist.

“Oops,” Maggie replied, wide-eyed and very much innocent.

Kristen snickered, suddenly feeling very fond of Maggie.

There was the buzz of her cell phone in her pocket, quickly followed by her Royal Blood ringtone blasting out.

“Honey, you’re not supposed to have that in here,” Nurse Maggie warned.

Kristen saw Alan Thomas flash up on the screen. “Yeah, I’ve got to take this,” she said apologetically, leaving the curtained area and hitting answer.

“Thomas, hi.”

“Kristen, thank God I got through. Where are you?”

Kristen stepped out into the cool winter air. “I’m at the hospital. You sound worried. What’s up?”

“What? What happened?”

“Nothing. I went on a date with a guy my age, just like you suggested, and I kinda broke his wrist,” Kristen said dismissively. “Now, tell me what’s wrong.”

The silence from Thomas’s end dragged on before he finally spoke. “There’s a witch uprising. The British MMC have confirmed the existence of a Shadow Witch.”

Kristen felt a chill across her spine at the very sound of it. “A what?”

“A Shadow Witch.” Thomas repeated, stress coloring his voice. “A witch whose magic is without limits. The last time one rose up, she put an end to the Dark Ages and destroyed societies worldwide.”

“So that’s bad…”

“It’s worse. We got news half an hour ago that the Shadow Witch has declared war. She has broken the walls of England’s most secure prisons and released hundreds of witches with one drive—revenge. She’s already done the same in Glasgow, Paris, Madrid…we know she’s working her way here. It’s only a matter of time before she attacks.”

“You’ve got a few hours, right? For her to fly from Europe?”

“No, Kristen, she’s not like other witches. She’s nothing we’ve ever seen before. She can vanish into shadows and reappear anywhere. Which means she could appear at any time.” Thomas took a deep breath. “All witch-hunters have been ordered to their nearest prisons—I’m driving up to Blackrock now. Hopefully being proactive will save us from the same fate as the Brits.”

“What do you mean?”

“The word is that the British MMC knew the Shadow Witch was coming, and practically handed her the key to releasing bound witches around the world,” Thomas said bitterly. “They were arrogant enough to think that it was secure. And now their MMC has been decimated.”

“Fine, well, sign me up. I can drive over and—”

“No,” Thomas interrupted. “No, I need you to stay where you are.”

“I can help,” Kristen argued.

“Look, I know you want to, and I know that this is what you were born for, but you’re not an official witch-hunter and you’re not even trained,” Thomas broke off and Kristen could hear the sound of an indicator in the background. “The truth is I can’t go into the biggest fight of our lives worrying about your safety.”

Kristen gritted her teeth, feeling incredibly useless. “OK.”

Thomas breathed an audible sigh of relief. “Right, next I need you to warn your mom. There’s gonna be a lot of casualties coming in, and Rachel has the most knowledge about us. She’ll know what to do. Keep safe.”

“Yeah, go…kick witch ass,” Kristen said lamely.

Thomas laughed and hung up, leaving Kristen with a dead line.

“Come back to me,” she murmured, before going inside to find her mom.

 

Seven

 

Kristen couldn’t remember the last time she was this tense. Waiting around and doing nothing when she knew that something bad was happening made her so short-tempered that her mom sent her to pack emergency bandages. The mundane task helped to occupy her but not much.

In the early hours of the morning, Kristen had fallen asleep in the doctor’s lounge. Then, all hell broke loose. There was a stampede of feet and gurneys as every person hurried to the front of the hospital as casualties arrived.

The walking wounded helped move their more-injured colleagues before they allowed themselves to be taken aside for their own abrasions.

Kristen stood from the side of the reception area. Her mom darted about, giving orders and doing everything she could. Kristen had never seen her face such a challenge at work, and it was like watching a confident stranger on a mission, rather than her flaky mom.

Kristen continued to watch as the flood of injured witch-hunters became a trickle and quickly stopped. There had only been about fifty people when they had been anticipating much worse.

Kristen moved through the less-seriously injured patients, keenly looking for a familiar face. Her hope wavered and she moved on to the beds that were crowded with doctors and nurses doing their best in the emergency. At the very far end, his perfect face so covered with contusions that Kristen could barely recognize him, she finally found Thomas.

“Thomas,” she gasped, panicking as he gave no sign of knowing she was there. Kristen looked up to see Nurse Maggie at his side. “How is he?”

Maggie sighed and moved toward Kristen. “Not good, honey. He’s lost a lot of blood. There’s damage to his spine, but we won’t know how bad it is until the swelling goes down.”

 

Kristen sat on an uncomfortable hospital chair, watching Thomas sleep. They had moved him to a private room as soon as he’d been stabilized, and Kristen hadn’t left his side.

Kristen had gotten the full story when her mom came to find her about midday, and Rachel had heard it from the various witch-hunters she had treated.

They hadn’t stood a chance.

The Shadow Witch had returned the powers of every single bound and vengeful witch and unleashed them on the witch-hunters, beating them back.

Then, as though she were simply bored with the concept of war, the Shadow Witch had swept the other witches up, and spirited them away. Which left the few surviving witch-hunters to piece themselves back together and retreat.

So many had died. Kristen knew she should be thankful that Thomas had returned, even if he was a little worse for wear.

There was a groan from the bed, and Thomas shifted. Kristen was immediately on her feet, next to him.

“Thomas, you need to relax and stay still. You’ll pull your stitches.”

Thomas’s eyes fluttered open and fixed on Kristen. “Hey, you did as you were told,” he croaked.

Kristen found tears springing to her eyes, her nerves making her control waver. “Damn it, Alan. Staying away was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m so glad you’re back.”

Thomas smiled, and reached up to gently stroke Kristen’s cheek, but as he moved to balance himself, he froze.

“I…,” he broke off, terrified to say it aloud. “I can’t move my legs.”

Kristen bit her lip. “There was swelling—once it goes down the doctor says you might recover full use of your legs.”

“Crap.” Thomas collapsed back on the bed. Tears threatened to leak from his eyes. “Um, Kristen, I need you to…get me a full report of survivors. We need to plan where we go from here.”

Sensing that he wanted to be alone right now, Kristen nodded and obediently went to leave. She paused at the door and glanced back at him. “I’ll be back soon. I’m not going anywhere.”

 

It was midafternoon the following day, and Kristen was hunting down her mom with a peace offering. She found Dr. Davies making her rounds and handed her the steaming cup of coffee that she’d bought from an actual coffee shop down the road.

“Is everything OK, sweetie?” her mom asked, savoring the smell of freshly-ground coffee.

“Yeah, it’s all just…overwhelming.” Kristen bit her lip. “I’ve been meaning to say—last night—you were awesome, Mom. I—I’ve never seen you like that, but the way you took control, and…”

Dr. Davies blushed at the compliments. “Can I have that in writing?”

“You know what I mean,” Kristen said, flustered. “And look, about the other day, I’m really sorry I lost my temper. I really had no right to snap or call you a coward; you are definitely not a coward.”

Dr. Davies looked down at her daughter, worried by this unusual show of emotion. “What’s brought this on?”

Kristen sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s knowing all those people died and that this is much bigger than whatever is going on between us.”

Dr. Davies pulled Kristen into a hug, careful not to spill coffee on her. It scared her that her daughter was acting so mature. She just wanted to keep her little girl safe. “Kristen, I love you, and I am so sorry for keeping the truth from you. I promise, whatever you decide now, I will support you.”

Kristen felt a wave of emotion, and the world stopped around her…only the world didn’t restart. Kristen gasped at the headache that she was quickly learning for magic casting. Before she had a chance to panic, she realized that it was faint, so far away she could barely detect it. What the—?

There was shouting coming from the wards.

“What’s happening?” Kristen asked as her mom pulled away.

Dr. Davies rushed to the nearest patient who lay comatose, the machine that normally clicked and whirred happily as it kept her alive, was silent.

“She’s failing,” Dr. Davies shouted as she hit the alarm.

Nothing happened.

Rachel hit it again, distressed. “Kristen, get out. Get help,” she shouted to her daughter as she started to manually keep the comatose woman’s heart beating.

Kristen dashed out to find the ward in mayhem. Everything electrical had shut down. But how? What could have possibly done it? And why?

Kristen walked down the corridor, dodging the nurses and interns who were racing between lost causes.

“The witches…the witches…”

Kristen looked to find a young woman with a bandaged head, sitting and hiding behind the nurse’s post.

“Are you OK?”

The woman looked up at her, eyes bright with fever. “The witches…they’re coming.”

 

 

K S Marsden’s Bio & Links

 

Kelly Marsden grew up in Yorkshire, and there were two constants in her life – books and horses.

Graduating with an equine degree from Aberystwyth University, she has spent most of her life since trying to experience everything the horse world has to offer. She is currently settled into a Nutritionist role for a horse feed company in Doncaster, South Yorkshire.

Her first book, The Shadow Rises, was published in January 2013. The main Witch-Hunter trilogy is now available as paperback and download.

 

Website: www.kellymarsden.wix.com/home

Twitter: @KSMarsden

Facebook: www.facebook.com/KSMarsden

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6905238.K_S_Marsden

 

Discover more about Kristen, and the British Witch-Hunters

in the main trilogy.

The Shadow Rises (Witch-Hunter #1) is free to download.

 

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The Dreaded Birthday

A Miyran Heir Series Short Story

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Rebecca P McCray

Copyright © 2015 Rebecca P McCray

All Rights Reserved

 

Dedication

 

Dedicated to my father, tireless editor and grammar guru; to my super beta readers that hold nothing back; and to all the talented Awethors that contributed time and effort to make this anthology possible

The Dreaded Birthday

Tip stopped by the river’s edge, stepping down from the bank to stand by the flowing water. Wiping sweat from his brow, he scanned the terrain behind him, letting his eyes pick their way across the tall grass and nearby vegetation stalks. No movement. He breathed a sigh of relief.

The summer heat made his efforts to run full speed through the fields seem crazy, but he had been successful in losing his pursuer. An hour before, about ten of them had abandoned their chores and started the game with Sri, his older brother, as the chaser, armed with a satchel of paint balls that would stain clothing, skin, and pride. However, if Tip was the last one tagged, he’d win. He smiled. Even though Sri was four years older — well, almost four years since his sixteenth birthday was tomorrow — Tip was faster. When they raced, he usually won.

As he gazed across the water, he snatched the small container from his side and bent down to refill it. Little ripples a few feet away might indicate a small fish, yet as he shifted to catch a glimpse of it, all he could see was the high sun reflecting off the water. His container full, he capped it and returned it to his waist.

He needed to start moving again as a sedentary target was an easy target. Then, something snapped behind him. He spun around and ducked at the sight of an object flying toward him. It connected with his forehead, snapping his head back and propelling him backwards. As a sticky substance ran down his face, he flailed his arms to catch his balance, but couldn’t stop the momentum. Cold water rushed over him and he gasped for a breath before he went under. The current started pulling him away from shore and he fought to find footing on the slick riverbed before slipping too far into the middle to stand. Finally able to anchor himself on a craggy rock, he pushed to his feet, the water nipping around his hips.

On the bank, Sri grabbed his stomach, howling with laughter. He pointed and slapped his best friend, Reni ― sporting a bright red stain on his own shirt ― on the back. Other targets emerged from the vegetation, each already taken down by his brother.

Yellow painted the entire arm and hand of one girl, which she waved in the air and circled around her face. “Blue’s a good color for you, Tip,” she said. “That’s going to be hard to explain to your mother.” Turning to Sri, she asked, “Anyone left?”

His brother straightened up and shot a wink in his direction. “Nope. Tip wins again.”

“I think that depends on the definition of winning,” the girl said. She snorted and motioned for the others to follow her back toward town. “We better get back to the fields before they realize we haven’t finished our chores.”

As the other kids left, Reni’s smile faded. He flicked his eyes to Sri and then back at Tip, still waist deep in the water. “So, tomorrow’s the big day.” He shoved his hands into his pockets. “Do you think what happened to your older brother…you know, the mark…do you think it’ll happen to you?”

Sri ran his hands through his brown, shaggy hair. Despite being wet with sweat, the bright, purple tips ― a distinguishing characteristic of their species, the Liputs, with the color changing daily ― sprung back like a halo around his head. “Maybe. Probably not. Why would it? It’s not like I know how to fight, so what good would I do for Lady Anyamae in her struggle against the Tyrnotts?” Loosening a knot at his waist, he handed the bag of remaining paint balls to Reni. “She marks those that can serve her as warriors. Growing produce is hardly a worthy skill.”

As Tip neared the edge of the water, Sri held out his hand to his brother. Taking the offered assistance, Tip found a solid piece of ground and hoisted himself out of the water.

“Sorry about your face, but you ducked at the wrong time. I was aiming for your chest.” Sri ruffled his hair.

“You’re really not worried?” Reni continued.

Tip held his breath. How could his brother not be concerned? Trul, their eldest brother, was the first and only of the Liputs to ever be marked, waking on his sixteenth birthday to discover behind his left ear the brilliant mark of the Miyran that appeared as a red, winged creature landing. Being marked meant expulsion from the village because harboring one would bring the wrath of the Tyrnotts on the entire community. After a few days, traders returned Trul’s ravaged body in a box. That was three years ago. Now, the family was on edge and hadn’t Sri just said himself that he wasn’t a fighter? Facing the dangers outside the walls without any training was akin to a death sentence. He squeezed his dripping shirt as he waited for the answer.

After staring in the distance for a moment, Sri shrugged. “Not really.”

Reni gnawed on his lip. He didn’t seem convinced.

Sri punched his friend on the shoulder. “Don’t be so serious. Tomorrow, we’ll play another round. And you’d better be rested or Tip will win again.”

“Can’t have that happen,” Reni said, eyeing Tip as he chuckled. “That last shot was hilarious. See you tomorrow, Blue-Face!” He pushed through the stalks and disappeared from view.

“You’re really not worried?” Tip could hear the shakiness in his own voice. He’d already lost one brother and didn’t want to lose another. He wiped away the water collecting around his eyes.

Sri’s eyes softened as he looked at Tip. “Maybe a little, but I’ll let you in on a secret.” Leaning closer, he slung his arm around his brother’s shoulders. “I’ve been stashing money aside. While it’s not a lot, it’s enough to buy a seat on the air transport to the city. I’d just have to make it to the station, which should be easy. Nobody was prepared when Trul was marked, least of all him. While there’s no reason she’d mark me, I’m ready enough. Don’t worry.”

That sort of made sense. Tip sniffed as his brother propelled him forward and tried to focus on how he was going to explain the blue paint to his mother after he finished his chores. Thinking of her surfaced a story she once told him about being lost in Caldot, the large city where the Liputs sold their produce each fall after the harvest. She’d been about his age and wandered down a narrow, twisting alley after a small ball. A few turns later and she found herself on a dark and dingy street. Following the sound of voices, she stopped at the next intersection and peered around the corner. Two Tyrnotts were discussing how they were going to dispose of something. While she hadn’t met one, she’d recognized them by their dark, straight hair and the scars lining the left side of each face as though a claw was raked down them. At their feet was a girl, sprawled on her back, blood pooling at her side. A bright red mark shone behind her ear. She turned her head toward Tip’s mother, her eyes pleading for help. Then, her body convulsed and she called for help, which was squelched when the nearest Tyrnott plunged a sword into her chest. Her eyes glassed over, though remained pinned on his mother who fled back to the main square and her parents, fearing that the Tyrnotts would one day identify her. Though that never happened, she shared the story on more than one occasion, emphasizing the plight of the marked.

He learned more in class about the dangers in Caldot and with the Tyrnotts, yet none of the stories resonated like the one his mother experienced. When Trul was marked, she’d been devastated and given the condition in which his body was returned, her fear was warranted. While they’d never know what happened, did Trul die much in the same way ― afraid and alone? Could Sri really handle himself against such brutality?

After trudging behind Sri for a short while, they reached the broken irrigation motor, their chore for the day, and he tried to steer his thoughts to the task at hand. Most of his friends worked in the crop fields, but his family was more skilled in building and repairing machines, resulting in afternoon tasks frequently consisting of maintenance. He pointed out what appeared to be the problem and moved over to help Sri start the repairs. This might be the last day they tackled a job together.

Letting his thick mane of light brown hair fall across his eyes, he stole a glance at his brother, whose full face mirrored his own. However, where Tip was lean and wiry, Sri sported defined muscles and broadening shoulders. If the opportunity to train had presented itself, he was certain those muscles would have made him a strong fighter, yet that’s not how they were raised. ‘Settle your disputes through negotiation. Violence solves nothing.’ The rhetoric was drilled into them at school, and while appropriate for life in their little community of Kentish, physical conflict was a matter of survival outside the protective, electronic barrier that encased the town. It was a life the Liputs avoided at all cost.

They worked side by side until the sun began to set, then packed up their tools and headed for home. While their antics were nothing new in the community, Tip’s bright blue face earned him some smiles along the path through town, though each passerby’s gaze turned downcast at the sight of Sri. Everyone knew about his looming birthday and the possibility he might be marked by Lady Anyamae, the last surviving Miyran heir and founder of Caldot. Since Anyamae’s enemies would punish the Liputs if it was found that they’d hidden a marked one, they feared what the next day might bring. After all, a decade earlier, the Tyrnotts committed near-genocide of several villages found harboring the marked, which had subdued some of the resistance against their self-appointed rule. The guilt associated with forcing Sri to leave and fend for himself was nothing compared to the fear of facing the Tyrnotts’ wrath.

 

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Tip’s mother peered around the kitchen wall as they entered the house, nearly dropping the spoon she had been holding at the sight of them.

“What happened to your face?” she demanded. Shaking the spoon at Sri, she kept her wide eyes plastered on Tip. “What did you do to your brother? He’s…blue.”

“Sorry, Mom. Was supposed to hit his shirt.” Sri kissed his mother on the cheek, probably in an attempt to diffuse her irritation. “We’ll wash up for dinner.” He grabbed Tip, dragging him upstairs.

After scrubbing his face at least five times, Tip stared in the mirror. He pulled back his thick, red-tipped hair and studied the splotch. A huge circle of blue rested smack in the middle of his forehead with streaks down his face and into his hairline. Brushing the hair down, it didn’t look so bad. Not much he could do about it until time wore it away.

He bounded down the stairs to the small kitchen below to find his parents and brother waiting for him. Grabbing a seat against the wall, he avoided making eye contact with his father until he heard the snickering. His father had covered his mouth, shoulders shaking intermittently, and even the corners of his mother’s mouth turned up. Shaking her head, she handed him a plate of food. The dinner conversation consisted of polite requests for one dish or another. No one mentioned Sri’s birthday.

When everyone finished, his mother stood and started stacking the plates. Sri reached over and stopped her. “Not tonight, Mom. I’ll do it.”

Tears welled in her eyes as she turned her head away and nodded. She hurried into the other room, followed by their father.

“Do you want help?” Tip offered.

“No. Go ahead and do your homework. I may skip mine tonight.”

To the sound of clinking dishes, Tip trudged upstairs to his bedroom, flipped on the electric light, and pulled out his math questions. His teacher had assigned him more advanced work than normal for his age, which, for the first time, caused him to struggle. After starting and scrapping an answer several times, a possibility occurred to him and he tackled the question in a different way. He sat back and grinned when he had the answer. After a short time, sounds filtered into the room from his family turning in for the night. Would they be together for dinner tomorrow evening or was this the last night they’d all sleep in the same house?

Once it quieted, he crept down the hall to Sri’s partially opened door and peered through the crack. His brother sat slouched in a straight-back chair with his elbows resting on his knees and chin on his hands, staring at the wall. After a few minutes, he grabbed a mirror off the bedside table and held it out to the left side of his neck, shook his head, then returned to his original position. He closed his eyes and murmured something Tip couldn’t hear before dropping his head into his hands.

Tip leaned closer and nudged the door, inching it open with a squeak.

Without looking up, Sri said, “You can come in.”

“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop…the door was open,” he said, slipping into the room and fiddling with his hands. “Did it…did the mark…”

He leaned back in the chair, one side of his mouth turning up. “Nothing yet, but it’s not technically my birthday.” He grabbed another chair and placed it in front of his. “Sit.”

Tip obeyed, sitting straight with his legs together.

After running his hands through his hair, where the tips were changing from purple to green, he sighed and looked at Tip. “If it happens, you’ll have to be there for Mom.”

“But you said—”

“I know what I said. Look, you need to listen.” He leaned forward and put his hand on Tip’s knee. “If the mark shows, I’ll have to leave. Mom struggled when Trul was marked and she’ll need you to stay close. No more running all over the hills and disappearing for hours like we do. Can you do that?”

He swallowed hard and bit his lip. It wouldn’t happen. It just couldn’t!

“Promise me.”

“You’ll be here tomorrow. I know you will.” Tears started pooling in his eyes.

“Tip…I need you to—”

“No. I won’t. You’ll be here.” He pushed back, knocking over the chair in the process. There was an odd pressure in his chest and his throat felt dry. “I won’t listen to you.” He ran down the stairs and out into the balmy night air.

He zigzagged through the box-shaped dwellings, their brightly-colored facades dampened by the moonlit sky. While the moon provided more than enough light to run without use of an electric torch, he could have journeyed by memory alone to the same open patch of ground where he worked earlier. He stumbled to a stop by the irrigation motor and wiped the tears from his face. Sinking to the ground, he wrapped his arms around himself.

When his eldest brother had been marked, Tip had been nine. Since no Liputs had been marked prior to Trul, he hadn’t understood the meaning and course of action the council of elders would take when they discovered it. He could still picture Trul’s body when it was returned and now Sri might be next. It wasn’t fair. Anyamae was supposed to be good and protective. Would she really take another brother from him? And if Sri woke with the mark, what did that mean for Tip in four years when his sixteenth birthday arrived?

He curled up with his back to the motor and rested his head on his arm. Despite the warm air, he shivered. His eyelids grew heavy, though he fought to keep them open. If he stayed awake, maybe morning wouldn’t come.

 

  • * *

 

What was that infernal sound? Tip covered his exposed ear with his arm in an attempt to block the noise. Nothing helped. The chirping bird seemed bound and determined to sing its way through the night. Although that seemed odd because birds usually sang in the morning. He pried his eyes open, bringing the vegetation growing around the perimeter of his work area into view.

He bolted upright and scrambled to his feet. The sun peaked over the horizon, splashing the tops of the plants in light. Morning had arrived. A lump formed in his throat. What had he done? He’d run like a coward when Sri asked for so little, just a promise. Had the mark appeared on Sri? He sprinted toward town and his house. He had to speak with his brother.

The path was unusually quiet as he darted between the rows of houses. His front door stood just ahead and nothing seemed amiss. He barreled through it and called out for Sri. Running up the stairs, he found his brother’s door open. Not only was the room empty, but it seemed vacant. His brother’s favorite hat that usually hung on the dresser mirror was gone. The bed was neatly made. In the kitchen, he found remnants of breakfast. Everyone must have eaten and left the house without him. He swallowed hard. Had it really happened?

Rushing outside, he saw his next-door neighbor. Looking at him, her eyes glistened and she shook her head, pointing toward the main path through town. The council must have already been here and inspected Sri, finding the mark. She reached out to him as he backed away.

Without a word, he ran in the direction of the most likely town exit from which Sri would be expelled. His breath grew short and the morning dew clung to his skin. In the distance, he could see his parents and a few other family members, along with the council, standing about twenty feet from the electric barrier. He darted around them without hesitation, even when his father called out, skidding to a stop just before colliding with the barrier. As he scanned the path toward the neighboring town where Sri would catch the air transport, he could see his brother striding away.

“No!” he yelled. “Wait!” He signaled the guardsman to open the barrier, but the man shrugged and did nothing.

Sri stopped and looked back at him, pointing to a spot behind his left ear. Even at the current distance, Tip could see the bright red mark. Anyamae had chosen him. His brother hiked his backpack higher on his shoulders and smiled. As he patted a small pouch strapped to his waist, one that likely held the coins he’d mentioned yesterday, he winked and pulled his favorite hat low on his head. Then, he turned, stepping off the path and into the fields, out of sight.

As he bit his lip, Tip inhaled a deep, shaky breath. His father beckoned to him from behind. As a tear rolled down his cheek, he whispered, “I promise.”

 

Rebecca P McCray Bio & Links

Rebecca McCray is a financial consultant by day and fantasy world-builder by night. Her short story, The Dreaded Birthday, takes place in the same world as her young adult novel, The Journey of the Marked, a finalist in The Wishing Shelf Book Awards. She enjoys building out a world that is a cross between high-fantasy and gritty sci-fi and plans to publish the second novel in the series in the first half of 2016. Besides being an avid reader, she loves to travel and experience new cultures. Additional information and links to social media can be found on her website: www.rebeccamccray.com

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The Falstaff Vampire Werewolves

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Lynne Murray

 

Copyright 2015 Lynne Murray

All Rights Reserved

 

 

The Falstaff Vampire Werewolves

We met the werewolf at the San Francisco International Airport as I stalked along behind Mrs. Battle and her latest Vampire Survival 101 class. There is no Vampire 201. The rules are simple, set in stone, and those who disobey go from undead to true dead in a hurry.

When you disintegrate in open sunlight, your travel options are limited, but after dark the airport is a vast buffet of distracted humanity. When I became undead a few months earlier, I survived Mrs. Battle’s class. She lets me tag along when she takes the newbies to the airport.

The casual observer of our teacher would see an African American woman of middle years with a serious face and a medium dark complexion. Her stout form was clad in a dark-blue trench coat with a matching fedora anchoring her braids. She wore sensible tan shoes and carried a matching huge tan purse.

I followed the three new vampires who scurried along after Mrs. Battle through the airport terminal like a family of baby ducks. I was the most informal in my long wool sweater over a tee-shirt and jeans, running shoes, no hat. I’m short and wiry with curly dark hair shot with gray and green eyes behind gold-rimmed glasses. Vampire vision means I don’t need the glasses but they make me look even more harmless. I dragged along a wheeled suitcase-style cat carrier. Brutus, my vampire cat, is a great conversation starter. After a little kitty talk and hypnotic eye contact on my part, we adjourn to a more secluded corner of the airport. Then I open the carrier. Brutus needs to feed too.

Unlike fictional vampires, not even one of the newbies looked like a stripper or an underwear model.

Gordon Fong, a very thin, shy teenager, had been terminally ill when a vampire night nurse brought him over. As a new vampire, the cold wouldn’t bother him anymore but he wore a heavy blue quilted fleece coat.

“Jenny often gets attached to a young patient and brings him over.” Mrs. Battle told me.

“Does she ever come to class with her newly turned vampires?” I asked.

“No,” Mrs. Battle said with a frown. “Most who make vampires don’t. I’ve told Jenny she shouldn’t turn so many, most of them won’t make it as undead. But she can’t help herself. She’s like one of those cat hoarders, addicted to rescuing strays.”

My eyes turned to Brutus, but I kept my mouth shut. In human life I had four indoor cats and fed two feral cats in my back yard. Too late, I found out cats fear vampires, as well they should, we’re predators. My beloved cats ran from me and what I had become. My human friend, Kris, took over the care and feeding of all my kitties, indoor and feral.

Eternity is a long time to spend with no feline companionship. Then I rescued Brutus. Trust me to find the only vampire cat in town. We’ve been together ever since. Okay, I’m a vampire cat lady. I won’t say “bite me,” but Brutus will be happy to bite you.

 

Two new female vampires joined Gordon Fong on their first airport excursion with Mrs. Battle. Leeann Mackenzie must have been in her early teens, but she looked like a child to my eyes despite way too much make up and revealing clothes. She wore a pink crop top that kept riding up to show the jeweled barbell piercing her belly button. Her matching pink micro-miniskirt kept Gordon looking, turning away and then looking back again. He hadn’t been undead long and teen hormones hadn’t faded. I think he would have blushed, but we hadn’t had our first full meal of the night, so he didn’t have enough blood in him for that.

Leeann wasn’t shy about telling us that she had overdosed at a wild party and been turned by a handsome vamp. “Now he never returns my phone calls,” she said.

The third new vampire was Trisha Salazar, a dark-haired woman in her mid-twenties. She looked like a fashionable business woman dressed for travel, although she did manage to produce a come-hither look in her dark eyes and a quirk in her sensual mouth that had already caught the eye of a traveling salesman who just might become her evening meal. She wore blue jeans, grey suede boots with a matching jacket over a green silk blouse. Her bright blue designer scarf kept falling open to reveal a twisted scar on her neck that even her new vampire powers hadn’t healed. I wondered if the vampire that turned her tore up her neck past healing, or if silver was involved. It’s toxic to vampires and can leave permanent scars.

I didn’t ask. It’s considered rude and might even be dangerous to inquire about the last, worst day of a vampire’s human life.

I sure don’t want to talk about how Sir John Falstaff brought me over. It’s best not to say much about the creatures who drained my life and nearly destroyed me just before Sir John saved me. I was too weak to ask questions at the time. Those creatures had left a sliver of something terrifying in me and my cat that persisted even after Sir John shared his blood with me and I rose as a vampire. In typical male fashion, Sir John left as soon as the deed was done, but he gave my non-vampire friends a top secret phone number. On my first night of undeath I met Mrs. Battle. She taught me the basics of surviving without turning into a soulless killer. She never mentioned werewolves.

Did I mention that the moon was full that night at the airport?

Earlier in the evening before we set off in my car, a couple of unsteady drunks outside a bar on Geary followed Leeann’s micro miniskirt into an alley where they provided us a brief breakfast snack. Leeann looked so underage that I felt icky about it, but the drunks weren’t asking for IDs and we were all hungry. I concentrated on Mrs. Battle’s instructions on how to feed without killing the victim. She had it down to a science. Our feeding ended with a dazed satisfaction on the human side and a recharged vitality on ours. The drunken humans wandered back out of the alley leaning on each other. They wouldn’t remember what the hell happened, but the next morning each would reflect that whatever it was, it felt way better than sex.

There were just two of them, and the five of us drank responsibly, so by the time we reached the airport, we were all hungry again.

We entered the main terminal at SFO, but before we could hunt, Brutus started to growl louder than I’d ever heard. My quiet cat, who charmed potential victims with a blink of the eyes and a soft “meow,” was making sounds like an angry grizzly bear. People’s heads snapped around, and they steered a wide circle around us as they streamed past toward the security checkpoint.

“He hates the carrier,” I apologized to no one in particular.

Brutus started throwing himself against the sides of the carrier so that the handle shook in my hand.

Then we all sensed it.

None of us could look away from the heat that shimmered visibly around the man walking toward us. Tasty in every sense of the word, hard not to drool.

“That guy is like the cover of a shape shifter romance,” Leeann said.

He did have that olive-skinned outdoor look, the square jaw and hair falling in black curls over his brow. He walked with predatory confidence, dark eyes scanning the crowd, brown leather jacket gaping open to show how his tight tee-shirt clung to his washboard abs. The painted on jeans didn’t leave much to the imagination.

I swallowed, imagining how hot his blood would taste compared to normal human vintage. It was hard to think straight.

“Werewolf. Dangerous. Don’t look. Keep walking,” Mrs. Battle commanded in a firm tone. We walked on, trying not to look.

But the werewolf wasn’t having it. When we passed him, he turned on his heel and followed us. Damn.

“I always preferred the vampire romances,” I said to Leeann, trying not to look over my shoulder.

“Not me, Team Jacob all the way,” Leeann said, twisting round to track the werewolf’s every move.

Gordon moved up to walk next to Leeann, “I’m more of a gamer myself,” he said. The werewolf wasn’t bothering him, but Leeann had his full attention. “I like vampire and werewolf games, though. Zombies too. “

I gave Gordon an “A” for effort.

But Leanne tripped over her feet turning back toward the werewolf. “You think we could get him to take off his shirt?”

Gordon didn’t have reply for that.

Trisha seemed even more swayed. She kept staring at the werewolf. She seemed to be trying to make eye contact.

“Do you know him?” I asked, wondering if she knew more about werewolves than I did (which wouldn’t be hard as I knew nothing). “Did he give you that scar on your throat?” I couldn’t believe I’d just said that. I kept babbling to distract myself from the werewolf, his predatory gaze reminded me of the things I must not name. The things that had almost destroyed me and Brutus as well. The cat growled in his carrier.

“No, I’ve never met this guy. The vampire who turned me gave me this scar.” She didn’t seem upset at me, but her voice trembled with rage and when our eyes met for a moment hers were wet with tears.

“Sorry,” I said. She was a new vampire and must have gotten that awful wound less than a week ago. Being bonded to a vampire who could do that to her must have been particularly awful. I had a bond with Sir John, the vampire who turned me, but he never brutalized me.

“He gave me the scar to remind me to obey him!” She didn’t say a word to curse him, but it was in her eyes.

“Class listen to me,” Mrs. Battle snapped her fingers, stopping us in our tracks before one of us fell or smashed into another pedestrian. “Get away from the wolf. Move to the side, out of traffic, and keep an eye on me.”

“Are you going to fight him?” Gordon seemed hopeful.

“Here? With all these humans milling around?” Mrs. Battle’s voice was soft enough that only vampires could hear it, but she gave Gordon a cold look that frightened him into silence. “Use your head and you’ll live longer.” she said. “Violet, get that cat carrier as far away as possible. If I give the signal—go. Everyone go home. I’ll meet you later. For now, wait. Don’t move. Trisha, this means you.” She wheeled around and bustled up to the werewolf.

We followed instructions, but Trisha moved slowly. Her eyes were still on the werewolf, she said she had never met him, but she seemed to be anxious to contact him. We waited at the edge of the concourse watching the flow of people heading for the departure gates. They steered a wide circle around Brutus, still snarling in his carrier, but ignored the werewolf as they talked on cell phones or stared up at the monitors for arrival and departure times.

Mrs. Battle marched up to the werewolf. When she stopped in front of him, he met her eyes and they had a little stare-down contest. He blinked first but recovered quickly. “I know what you are.” His voice was very soft, but we could all hear him with our vampire-sharpened senses.

“And I know what you are,” Mrs. Battle said. “Does the Palo Alto pack know you are here?”

So there were packs of werewolves in the Bay Area near the airport? First time I’d heard of that.

“I came on my own.” The werewolf glanced around, lowering his voice even more. “I need to find a vampire in San Francisco.”

Mrs. Battle snorted. “What do you want that can’t wait till after the full moon?”

“It’s urgent. Please, I need your help to find . . .” He whispered, though we vampires could hear him. “Sir John Falstaff.”

“You know him?”

“I do, from long before he came here, before your country even existed.”

“You’re older than you look,” Mrs. Battle hesitated a moment.

“This is a matter of life and death. Our pack leader is in danger. I mean no offense, as you are all undead, but once a werewolf is dead, it’s permanent.”

“Sir John needs to sort this out himself.” She beckoned me over. “Violet, you’ve got a chance of reaching Sir John because he turned you. Can you call him?”

I came close, hauling the growling cat in his carrier. The werewolf edged a few paces away from Brutus.

“I’ve called him before,” I told her, ignoring the werewolf, who radiated danger and yet smelled irresistibly of hot blood. Our breakfast meal of drunks in the alley had worn off and I was hungry. “Sir John can find me anywhere because of our bond, but he doesn’t always answer when I reach out to him.”

“Try. Take this man to your house. The rest of us will take a cab and meet you there. What’s your name?”

“Roderick, you can call me Rod.”

Rod. Of course.

Mrs. Battle ignored my raised eyebrows at the humor attached to the name. “I’m Mrs. Battle. This is Violet. She will drive you into the City.”

We both nodded from a safe distance.

“No biting.”

“Yes, ma’am. No biting,” Rod said seriously.

My mouth went dry. Standing within arm’s reach I could feel Rod’s pulse like the beat of a deep bass drum. I should have been afraid. Maybe once I would have been aroused. But mainly I wanted to sink my fangs into a vein, any vein and drain a few pints of his blood like a hot beverage.

“That goes for you too, Violet.” I just nodded and swallowed.

Brutus growled even louder. Mrs. Battle’s little class of newbies leaned toward the werewolf like preteen girls at a boy band concert, tracking his every move and only barely restrained by Mrs. Battle’s stern presence. Trish craned her neck forward, still trying to make eye contact.

“Have Rod sit up front with you. Put the cat in the back seat. On the driver’s side.” Mrs. Battle said, “And Violet—” I had taken several steps toward the parking garage. I turned back as she added, “I mean it. Don’t feed from him or let anyone else drink his blood. You have my permission to hurt anyone who tries.”

Wow. Now I really didn’t want the guy in my car. Way too close for comfort. But Mrs. Battle was not to be denied. “Let’s go, Rod. My car is in the short term parking.” I led the way.

Mrs. Battle moved back to herd her charges toward the taxicabs. Trisha kept turning back to look at Rod.

Neither of us said anything, but when I gestured for him to walk beside me rather than behind me, he moved to my left side, as far away as possible from Brutus, who kept up a steady growling in his carrier. The cat could easily smash his way out the carrier door if he wanted to. Instead he chose to hunker down and vibrate like an outboard motor. I tried to communicate my determination to protect him and it soothed him just slightly.

I also kept mentally summoning Sir John, just calling him in my mind. Sometimes it worked. He showed up when things got dangerous. Letting a werewolf into my car and taking him to my house was scary enough for me, but Sir John was a force of nature with a whim of iron. He was a rogue who lied more than he told the truth, but he’d never tried to rip my throat out like Trisha’s vampire master. Now I wanted him to show up and protect me quite literally from the big, bad wolf.

When we reached my car, I put Brutus in the back seat just behind me. Rod sat next to me, seriously testing my self-control. I gripped the steering wheel and concentrated on not breaking it—a definite possibility given my newly minted vampire strength.

I found a parking place a few blocks from home, a minor miracle with all the early evening restaurant traffic on Clement. When I walked up my front steps, I stood aside and beckoned Rod through the door. “You can sit or stand, but stay back. My cat will probably run out and hide.” I set the carrier down and opened it.

Brutus shot out of the door and charged over to the werewolf, every hair on his body puffed into aggressive attack mode that made him look like an irate, gray-haired porcupine.

Rod didn’t flinch. He leaned down and put his hand out to Brutus.

A suicidal move.

“Hey, watch out!”

Sure enough, Brutus bit him.

“Omigod, I’m so sorry.” I took a step toward them. The cat stayed attached to his hand, drinking his blood.

“It’s his turf,” Rod said. “He can feed.”

I watched, spellbound as he let Brutus drink his blood for a full minute. Then he firmly pressed on the sides of Brutus’s jaws to remove him. The cat moved off several feet, sat down and started grooming himself in his usual post-meal way.

Rod held up his hand out me, the blood dripping down it as if to say, You know you want to.

“No thank you.” I tried to look away from the blood. Fighting the craving made it flare up worse. I stepped back, and ran into a tall, solid body I hadn’t known was there.

“Wise woman,” said a deep, velvety voice with a British accent. Even for a vampire, the fat man moves quietly.

“Sir John!” I turned to see the rogue himself, tall, wide and white-bearded, with red cheeks that testified to an encounter with a willing blood donor tonight.

“Good evening, Mistress Violet.” He regarded Rod with a steady gaze.

“Sir John Falstaff.” The werewolf bowed, letting his hand fall down to his side, no longer dripping. It healed before our eyes.

“Rodrigo, you old war dog,” Sir John sketched a short bow in reply. “You seek me out under the full moon. Foolish.”

“My blood runs hot. But I must come here now. The local pack here is unstable. Even amidst the steel and concrete forest, they will find a few wooded acres to run and hunt tonight. I stay in human form to gain your help.”

“Were you not a lone wolf?”

“I found a home in Idaho, I’m second in command.”

Sir John nodded.

“My Alpha, Thomas, is a good man. Someone is holding him here against his will. I need to find him.”

“You come alone?”

“One of us trespassing here might die. Too many might cause a war.” Rod said as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

Sir John nodded sagely. I listened, trying to wrap my mind around it. In the last few months since becoming a vampire, I’d sifted out the some of the truth from the myths. The San Francisco Undead Fraternal Organization had put me in touch with Mrs. Battle but they also loved to put out vampire disinformation that helped vampires to live under the unsuspecting noses of humans. Some of it I put on hold for future verification. Sir John bragged that he was the true inspiration for Shakespeare’s silver-tongued rogue. Or was he even older than that? Some things you can’t look up on Wikipedia.

“How did your Alpha come to danger here?” Sir John asked.

“He has safe passage from this pack to visit here for business, but a vampire sorcerer kidnapped him and restrains him by some magical means.”

Sir John nodded.

Okay, I had to accept vampires — particularly now that I am one. But they were discussing werewolf packs living among us and hunting under the full moon in nearby parks or recreation areas. And now sorcerers and magic?

Mrs. Battle arrived with Trisha in tow. She didn’t have to knock. She reminded me to invite Trisha in and I did. I’d invited Mrs. Battle to enter my home before, so she had a permanent vampire welcome mat.

“We took a cab and the driver provided a nice snack,” she said. “I sent Gordon and Leeann home. This is no place for newly undead teenagers. Here.” She dug into her purse and produced a unit of blood in a transparent bag and handed it to me. “I hate this packaged fast food, but we need you alert.”

She turned to Sir John, “This is my student, Trisha. She asked to come and I think she may be of use.”

While Sir John bowed and murmured a greeting, I sucked at the blood, close to body temperature. I finished and felt revived. I slit the bag open and put it on the floor near Brutus. He came over to sniff it, put a paw on the bag to hold it down and scoured it clean of every drop.

I turned my attention back to the vampires. Trisha was still staring at Rod. He looked at the floor, avoiding her eyes. Interesting.

“Sir John, you know this werewolf?” Mrs. Battle asked.

The old vampire raised an eyebrow. “I know Rodrigo of old. I have heard rumors of the visiting Alpha he seeks.”

Trisha flinched at this. I couldn’t stand it any longer. “What do you know about all this, Trisha?”

“I knew a werewolf before,” she said. “Before I was changed.”

“A werewolf from the pack here in this city?” Rod looked at her with a frown.

She shook her head. “No. Please, I want to help.”

“Time is short,” Sir John said. “Thomas has fallen into the clutches of a vampire sorcerer.”

“We’re wasting darkness,” Mrs. Battle agreed. “The closest thing to a sorcerer in San Francisco would be Dr. Quiller, though he calls himself a man of science.”

“Quiller!” I was so angry that my voice came out in a buzzing hiss. Brutus snapped his head up and looked at me. A slight red glow burned in his eyes. “Quiller experimented on my cat, tried to turn him into . . . you know.”

Sir John put a warning hand on my shoulder. “Have a care, mistress. Less said on some matters, the best.”

An unwelcome presence started to rise in me. Brutus licked the last of the blood from his whiskers then suddenly bounded up to the top of the sofa and from there to my shoulder.

“I know where Quiller lives,” I muttered.

Sir John bowed. “Then there we must go, Rodrigo.” He lifted his arm to include Mrs. Battle and Trisha. “Ladies”

We walked up Clement Street to my car with Brutus on my shoulder and the full moon high in the sky.

“‘Tis now the very witching time of night,” Sir John said.

I looked at my watch, past midnight.

“Now could I drink hot blood,” Sir John continued, nodding towards the werewolf. “But I will not. Gallant Rodrigo’s blood bears a beastly taint.”

“Brutus drank his blood,” I told Sir John, “Will he be okay?”

“Et tu, Brute?” Sir John turned his eyes to the cat. “Mayhap he might survive unswayed, primed as you both are by the road you both traveled to undeath . . .”

Mrs. Battle and I looked around nervously. Trisha and Rod hadn’t had our experiences with those life-destroying monsters. With any luck they never would.

My car’s engine hadn’t even had a chance to cool down.

The largest passenger, Sir John, sat in the front. Mrs. Battle squeezed into the back between Rod and Trisha. Brutus moved from my shoulder to the center of the dashboard as if he knew not to block my vision.

The curbs were crammed with parked cars at Laguna and Pacific. I pulled into Quiller’s driveway, despite the No Parking sign. He grew up in the 1800’s. He wasn’t likely to call a tow truck. Brutus hissed at the house and stayed on his perch on the dashboard. We left him there and headed for Quiller’s front door at the top of a long flight of steps bounded by a carved, white-painted, wooden railing.

“My Alpha walked up these steps,” Rod said, tilting his head to pick up the scent.

Most of the old Victorians on the block had been renovated and converted to flats with astronomical rents. But Quiller and his antique coffin probably had occupied his house since the place was built in the early 1900s.

We knocked on the door. No answer. “Quiller invited you in before?” Mrs. Battle asked me.

“He needed help to go home after I, um, persuaded him not to experiment on Brutus or any other animal. He was pretty shaky.”

Mrs. Battle nodded. “I don’t doubt it.”

No one asked why. I think my eyes were glowing red now.

“Did he give you permission to enter his home?”

“I forget, but we got in. Kris and I put him to bed in his coffin.”

“Next time remember, it’s important. Break the door.”

No one argues with Mrs. Battle. I threw myself at the door. The lock broke and the door itself shattered. The strength I gained when I became a vampire still surprises me.

I stepped in, took a breath.

“Now try inviting us in,” she said.

“I invite you all to enter this house.”

Mrs. Battle, Sir John and Trisha couldn’t cross the threshold but Rod walked in with no resistance. He let out a faint whimper, “My Alpha was here. He’s gone.”

From inside the house we heard, “Help me. Please, I’m back here.”

“Invite us in Doctor!” Sir John bellowed.

“I invite you all in.” Quiller’s reply was almost too faint to hear. “Help me.”

Sir John led the way down the narrow carpeted hallway. Mrs. Battle followed him with Rod at her heels. Trisha and I fell in behind the werewolf. The rooms branched off the long, straight hall. The cries for help got louder as we entered the room at the end of the hall. We couldn’t see Quiller at first. Ornate Victorian furniture had been tossed about. The broken pieces of gilded decorations covered the antique carpeting. The mirror above the mantelpiece was cracked.

“Was it like this before?” Mrs. Battle whispered to me.

“We only saw his coffin room. It was crammed with decorations, but all tidy.”

Groans came from under the wreckage of what must have been a large, silver-barred cage in the center of the room. A short, portly man lay under the twisted metal.

“Help me!” Dr. Quiller tried to raise his head but flinched away when his skin touched the silver bars. The doctor always wore formal suits. His slicked back brown hair and huge mustache made him look like a tintype from the 1870s. Now his jacket and vest were ripped and torn, his hair was scrambled into a spiky nest. His head was gashed open and he whimpered in pain.

Sir John stepped up to the cage and Rod stood beside him. Both of them hesitated to touch the metal wreckage pinning the doctor to the floor.

Rod leaned down to sniff the bars. “Thomas was restrained in this cage. He was hurt here. I can smell it.” He growled at the vampire under the twisted silver. “Where is he?”

Quiller turned his face away.

“How do your shield your hands against the silver, doctor?” Mrs. Battle asked.

“Asbestos gloves,” the doctor gasped, “On the mantelpiece.”

Sir John picked up the gloves and pulled them on. He gripped the bars and pulled them apart with a groan of effort. Screws popped out as the welded joints parted. He threw each piece behind him until he cleared an opening to lift the largest piece of the cage away from Quiller, who gasped as it brushed his skin.

Mrs. Battle reached in, gingerly avoiding the twisted wreckage, and pulled the doctor to his feet.

Rod picked up a pile of clothing the doctor had been lying on and sniffed. “Thomas’s clothes. They smell of his blood and burned flesh when he twisted the silver. Then he shifted.”

“The little she-wolf knocked me down. He told her to hit me with my lead doorstop. She smashed the lock on the cage before I could get back up. He threw the cage on me.” Quiller sank down onto an overstuffed fainting sofa. For a moment it looked like he might actually faint. He was in the right place for it.

Trisha stepped over to stand in front of Quiller but didn’t touch him. “Where did they go?” she asked, her tone grim.

“He took her with him. She almost bashed my head in. She’s fast, the little—”

Trisha took a deep breath. She tried to raise her hand to hit him.

“Get back,” Quiller said. The scents of Trisha and Quiller so close together told us all that Quiller was the maker who had turned Trisha into a vampire. She might want to hurt him, but she had to obey his commands. We all knew it.

“She was a strong child.” Quiller’s voice got louder. He seemed to be recovering quickly. “Get her back and my experiments will be most illuminating.”

I pushed Trisha aside to stand over him. “Doctor Quiller, you agreed to stop the experiments.”

“On animals, yes. But werewolves are human, mostly.”

Mrs. Battle pulled me away from Quiller. “Another time, Violet. Where did Thomas and his daughter go?”

“They went out the back window at the end of the hall. I heard the glass smash.”

I followed Rod out into the hall and up to the broken window. “I’m going to track him by scent.” He stripped off his shirt and handed it to me. “Here, take my clothes and follow me.” Then the jeans. Interesting, he was going commando. Simpler to change with no underwear, I guess.

I had to back away from Rod as his body changed form in a dramatic way. Bones shifted under his skin, his face lengthened and he fell on all fours, a coat of fur crept out of his body, thickening in waves.

“Follow him on foot, Violet.” Mrs. Battle said, taking a firm grip on Trisha’s arm. “He’ll need the clothes when he changes back.”

“Trisha can you drive?”

“I’ve got a license,” Trisha said.

I tossed her my keys.

“We’ll follow you.” Sir John led them down the hall toward the front door.

I turned back to see Rod, who had bulked up considerably, a huge wolf with dark brown fur, padding toward the window. He smashed the last bits of glass leaping out. I had no choice but to jump.

It was a one-story drop, I landed on my hands and knees. My vampire durability kept me from injury, but it took me a moment to get to my feet. Rod cast his nose along the ground. The scent trail led him to the seven-foot tall fence. He leaped it in a single bound.

I scrambled up after him, across another yard. Another damn fence and we turned left along an alley that intersected Pacific Street. I heard an engine starting and looked over my shoulder to see my car following us.

I ran after Rod. It was well past midnight and the residential streets were quiet. I didn’t have time to worry that an older woman running like a sprinter after a huge wolf just might get them to call the cops—or animal control. I caught up with Rod when he stopped with his nose to the ground finding the scent when it turned. Then he raised his head and started to run again.

We rushed across the street past a man walking a miniature poodle.

“Hey!” He snatched up his dog up in alarm. We left them far behind before he could utter another word. I could hear the engine of my car behind us, but I didn’t dare look back. I had to keep Rod in sight.

Damn, he was heading for the Presidio.

Spanish soldiers build it in the 1770s. It became a Mexican fort, then a U.S. Army base. Now it was a national park with a historic site with barracks, disintegrating artillery and military cemeteries. No guards at the gate, just carved stone pillars open to several hundred acres of urban forest from the Marina around the Bay to the Pacific Ocean.

The vampires driving my car would be able to follow us easily if Rod stayed on one of the roads that crisscrossed the wooded area. He did that for awhile after he went through the open gate. But, when the trees got thicker, he plunged off-road and headed west toward the ocean. I followed.

I heard car doors slam and Mrs. Battle, Sir John and Trisha began to crash through the undergrowth behind us.

We emerged in a clearing near the edge of the cliff. Even in the night we could see a large wolf and a girl of about nine or ten standing there. The wolf’s coat was white, tipped with gray. The little girl wore a thin, cotton shift. A pack of about thirty wolves crouched pinning them close to the cliff edge. The ocean roared, invisible below the girl and the white wolf. If the three-hundred foot drop to the rocks didn’t kill them, the cold Pacific waters crashing at the base of the cliff awaited.

I gasped just to see it. My fear of heights kicked in.

The white wolf’s fur was matted with blood, his forepaws seemed dipped in it. The child standing next to the besieged wolf wore a strangely woven silver collar gleaming on her neck. Her feet were bare and bloodied, her hand clutched at the white wolf’s ruff.

Sir John caught up with me. He was fat but fast with the speed of hundreds of years of vampire existence.

“That must be Thomas, your Alpha,” Sir John said to the werewolf.

Rod growled in answer. He threw himself into the mass of wolves. He gripped the first wolf in his path by the throat. It screamed as he tossed it to the side like a rag doll. The next wolf in his way yelped as he shouldered it out of his way.

A deep-throated roar from the edge of the cliff froze all of us. Whatever that roar meant, the pack of thirty hunkered down. Rod thrust his way through the wolves. He took up a post on the other side of the girl, snarling a challenge.

“That would be the Alpha of the Frisco Pack,” Sir John whispered.

“You’re not supposed to call it Frisco,” I said automatically.

“Will you argue with them?” Sir John asked.

“What’s that collar on her neck?” The silver glinting in the moonlight kept drawing my eye.

“To keep her from changing, and escaping,” Mrs. Battle came up behind us.

Trisha came panting up to stand beside her, the youngest and slowest vampire.

“Kayla!” The cry seemed ripped from Trisha’s heart. .A few of the wolves turned to look.

“Trisha, no!” Mrs. Battle said.

But Trisha threw herself into the pack of wolves.

Sir John moved, calling out, “Stop!”

Trisha made it through the first line of wolves, pulling past those who snapped and bit at her. Then three wolves piled on and knocked her down into the middle of the pack.

No roar from the Frisco Alpha at that.

In an instant all fear left me as rage surged up inside me. I tapped the force that whispered under my thoughts. The hiss I needed to ignore. The power I didn’t dare name.

“All of you! STOP!” I yelled. My voice echoed over the crouching pack.

Something small flew toward me from the direction of the road. The werewolves all turned to look. The three holding Trisha down froze. Their snarls died to silence.

For a moment I thought it was a bat, but it was a gray cat, flying. Flying at shoulder height towards me with his eyes burning red.

Brutus.

I had never seen him fly, but his tainted power called to mine. Brutus landed on my shoulder with his usual heavy thump and dug in his claws to balance as if he had just jumped from my living room armchair.

The cat growled at the wolf pack. Every one of them was five times his size. His voice held a deep rumbling warning.

Then I felt a counter pressure from the ground beneath our feet. The Presidio held a military cemetery with more graves than anywhere else in San Francisco. They were soldiers once, then ghosts. Now they were hungry.

For a moment we all balanced on a knife edge. I started to walk towards the cliff where Thomas stood, next to his daughter and Roderick.

I pushed my way through the densely crowded wolf pack with Brutus riding on my shoulder staring down any challengers with his eerie red eyes. Sir John followed and Mrs. Battle took up the rear, I looked back and saw her scanning the crowd for attackers. But the wolves all moved aside to let us pass.

Sir John pulled Trisha to her feet. Mrs. Battle took her other arm and they escorted Trisha to where Rod, Thomas and Kayla stood. Trisha took the little girl in her arms.

“My daughter,” Trisha said, still hugging Kayla. She kissed the top of her head. “I thought you were lost.”

Rod changed form while Sir John, Mrs. Battle and I kept the pack at bay. They cringed away from Brutus, which I thought was wise. I gave Rod his clothes. He stood guard while Thomas changed back to human form, a tall, imposingly muscled man with short-cut sandy hair. The wounds from trashing Quiller’s silver cage stood out more clearly without the fur to hide them. Mrs. Battle handed him her trench coat, which fitted with some effort around his massive arms but only came down to mid thigh on him.

Thomas put his arm around Trisha and his daughter. “Kayla was born here, we didn’t know she could shift shapes,” he said.

“I wanted her to have a normal human life.” Trisha said. “I think Quiller knew about your shape shifting. He stalked us.” She looked up at her husband. “You were back in Idaho when he attacked me, Kayla was there and she got so upset she changed into wolf form. When I rose as a vampire she was back in human form and Quiller had that collar on her. He took her away and told me not to try to find her.”

Trisha couldn’t disobey a direct order from the vampire who turned her. As a new vampire, she scarcely knew how to survive.

The wolves all turned to look at what must be their Alpha, a very large dark gray wolf at the head of the pack. He had already begun to change into human form. No one had clothing to offer him.

“You want my sweater?” I asked, once he was done.

Brutus snarled and the Frisco Alpha shook his head.

“No, vampire woman.” He made it sound like an insult. Just as glad he didn’t borrow my sweater after that attitude.

He stood in human form over six feet tall, lean and dark-skinned, at ease standing naked in the cold night. He turned to face Thomas. “We endured your short visits to our territory in the name of business for years,” he said. “If you want to raise a family here, you need to join our pack.”

“Nathan, you know me,” Thomas told him. “I would never submit to you. I might defeat you in a contest for dominance.”

“You might,” the Frisco Alpha—Nathan—said.

“I don’t want to fight you or to take over your pack. I only want to take my wife and child home. You understand me?”

“Dawn is near,” Nathan said, addressing himself to Thomas. “Your vampire allies will leave you soon. Your wife will die when the sun rises.”

“I’m leaving your turf and taking my family home.”

“Will your pack accept your vampire wife?” Nathan sneered.

“Not your problem,” Thomas said.

All the Frisco wolves crouched at some invisible signal from their Alpha.

Sir John’s deep voice made everyone freeze. “Friends, werewolves, night creatures, lend me your ears! Look to your own pups, your human families. Dr. Quiller stalks shapeshifters for his experiments. You see what he did here? Caging Thomas, attacking his wife, capturing his child. Who will be next? You owe Thomas and his family safe passage for warning you of this danger.”

Nathan held up his hand in a gesture that caused all his wolves to relax slightly. “Where can we find this Quiller?”

“Follow our scent trail back,” Rod told him. “We just came from there.”

“You’re going through the city streets naked?” I asked, not that I really wanted to help after he was so snarky, but still…

Nathan shook his head again. “We run here often. Our clothing is not far away.” He made another wordless gesture and his wolves cleared a path for us away from the cliff. They trailed along behind us, but not too close.

When we got to my car, the pack of werewolves moved off toward the Arguello gate, retracing the route Rod and I had traveled.

“You think all those wolves will run through the Marina and freak out the pre-dawn joggers?” I asked.

Sir John shook his head. “When werewolves stalk, they come as single spies, not in battalions.”

“Can we ask the Council for help in restraining Quiller from taking more child victims?” I asked.

“The Council has no interest there,” Mrs. Battle said. “Vampire laws are few and only enforced when they threaten our own survival.”

“Nathan and his pack may threaten Quiller’s survival,” I said.

“Quiller’s a few hundred years old, hard to kill,” Mrs. Battle said with a shrug. I couldn’t bring myself to feel sorry for Quiller either.

“Dawn is nigh,” Sir John said.

“We must get back to our coffins,” Mrs. Battle said. “Violet, keep Trisha in your basement till dusk.”

As we hurried back to the car, I called my friend, who lived in the cottage behind my house. “Kit, it’s an emergency. Meet me in front of my place. I need to get a guest out of the light before dawn. “

“I’ll be there. Can Bram come too?”

“Please. I need help with three other guests. They can stay in my house during the day.”

“We should have gone to the Idaho pack long ago,” Thomas told Trisha.

“I had a great job. Kayla was in school.”

“You could have found a job there.”

This was an old argument.

“Come on you guys, discuss this later. Trisha and I need to get to shelter.” I turned to her. “My keys?”

Trisha handed me the keys and we piled into my car. Rod sat in front. Thomas and Trisha got in back with their daughter who huddled between her parents.

“What can I do now?” Trisha moaned. “I can’t go anywhere in daylight.”

Thomas leaned back between the seats and took her hand. “Our daughter needs us. The pack will accept you as my mate, I’ll see to it.”

Predawn light threatened when I left the car in the bus zone in front of my door. My friends Kris and Bram were waiting on the sidewalk, well aware of the danger of daylight to me. Bram took the keys and went to park my car while we ran up the steps and in the door Kris held for us.

I pointed out Kayla’s collar to Kris, “It’s Quiller’s work.” Kris nodded. She had met Quiller. “We can’t take it off because the silver burns us.”

Kris unclasped the link that held the collar on. When she pulled it away from Kayla’s neck, the girl began to shift into the shape of a half-grown wolf. Trisha reached out to her, but Thomas hovered over his daughter protectively. “I’ve got this. You go rest for the day. I’ll keep her safe.”

“Whaaa?” Kris turned to me.

“Oh, yeah, they’re werewolves. They’ll explain. We need to get down to the basement.”

Brutus led the way. I pulled Trisha through the basement door and shut it against the dawn light.

Trisha collapsed on the rug at the foot of the basement steps and died.

I stepped over her body climbed into my coffin. Brutus curled up on my chest.

Before I could close the lid, I died.

Again.

 

When I awoke at dusk, Trisha and Brutus had already left the basement. I went upstairs. My human friends, Kris and Bram stood by the front window with Mrs. Battle and Sir John. They were old vampires, but their speed at reaching my place from their own lairs so soon after sunset astounded me.

“Trisha just went out the door with her family,” Mrs. Battle said.

“Bram and I helped them rent a trailer today and pack up their apartment,” Kris said.

“They’re heading back to Idaho,” Mrs. Battle pointed out the window.

I joined her just in time to see a Haul-It-Yourself truck pull into traffic on Clement and drive away into the dusk.

“Quiller is her maker, will he be able to call Trisha to him?” I asked.

“Rumor has it Quiller was attacked by werewolves at dawn,” Sir John said. “By the time he recovers, she will be too far away.”

“Do you think Thomas’s pack will accept a vampire?”

Mrs. Battle sighed, “Thomas thinks so. The young girl must learn the werewolf ways from a pack. But Kayla needs her mother too, even an undead mother.”

“That must be the ultimate blended family, vampire and werewolf,” Bram said

Mrs. Battle gave him one of her stern looks.

Kris took his arm, “These folks will be hungry. Let’s leave them to do their thing.” Bram’s eyes widened and he let her pull him away.

“Gordon and Leeann won’t join us this evening,” Mrs. Battle said. “Gordon asked her to go to the gamer store and feast on the blood of the nerds. Leeann said it sounded fun.”

“My ladies, we must prey for our supper.” Sir John offered an arm to Mrs. Battle and me.

We went out into the night.

Lynne Murray’s Bio & Links

I live in San Francisco happily indulging with a small group of formerly feral cats, all of whom were rescued and who daily return the favor. This story takes place after in the events in The Falstaff Vampire Files and before The Falstaff Vampire Ghosts (to be published in early 2016).

 

The Falstaff Vampire Files – http://amzn.com/B005HVU4EY

Twitter URL: https://twitter.com/lynnemurray

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lynne.murray.7771

Website: http://www.lmurray.com

Blog http://lynnemurray.blogspot.com/

 

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Writer’s Block

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DeAnna Quietwater Noriega

Copyright DaAnna Quietwater Noriega

All Rights Reserved

Writer’s Block

“I was ringing up this guy’s books in the bookstore and you wouldn’t believe what he said,” exclaimed Annie, shoving her granny glasses up on her snub nose. She flipped back a wayward strand of hair the color of sandalwood. Widely spaced blue eyes and a pair of faded dungarees gave her the look of a Wisconsin farmer’s daughter — not the fine arts major from California that she was.

“So, tell!” coaxed Dee, a petite, dark haired girl with the high cheekbones of her Chippewa ancestors.

“Well, he was talking about you and Tammy. He’s in your psych class and was complaining about you bringing her.”

“Why would he do that?” Dee said. At her feet lay a large, black Labrador. The dog’s golden amber eyes were fixed on the girl, following her every move.

“Well, he said to his friend that if you kept bringing that huge dog to class, he was going to start bringing his horse. Then his friend said you had to have her there because she’s your guide dog. The guy said, ‘No she wasn’t’ because he’d seen you running down a hall with her coming along behind you on a leash.”

“I wonder when that was.” Dee mused. “I sometimes answer the dorm phone without bothering to put her harness on. I guess I might have run a few steps after a friend inside a building without telling Tammy to guide me. It’s not like I need her help in a familiar setting like I do out on a street. Look, I’ve got to run,” Dee said, lightly sliding slender fingers over the face of a braille watch. “I’ve got English Comp in ten minutes.”

“Who’ve you got?”

“Anderson.” Dee sighed.

Tammy moved to press close to her girl and growled softly.

Annie giggled. “Sounds like Tammy doesn’t like him any more than you do!”

“I don’t dislike him,” said Dee. “It’s the other way around. He seems to hate my writing. I get an upset stomach every time I know he’s returning an assignment. He can be so sarcastic!” She dropped her hand to the handle attached to Tammy’s harness, straightened her shoulders, and stepped away in a swirl of her long skirts and dark chestnut hair that nearly reached to the backs of her knees.

A few minutes later, Tammy wove confidently through the crowd of college freshmen to a desk in the front row. She dove under the attached seat, curling herself into a compact ball. Dee let her backpack slide to the floor and started to sit down on the seat her dog had located for her. To her embarrassment she discovered it was already occupied. Quickly, she attempted to haul Tammy out from under someone’s feet.

“Girl, when I said chair I meant an empty one! Sorry! I think my guide dog wants to improve my social life by making sure I meet more of my classmates. I’m Dee and this devious female in the dog suit is Tammy,” she said.

The boy jumped up to move to the next desk.

“Ah, no problem. I’m Dave Cross.”

“Dave Cross? Aren’t you in my biology class too? I heard you tell my friend Annie you’re premed,” said Dee. “I was going to ask you if you’d be my lab partner. If you could do the dissections and microscope work, I could take all of the notes and keep the lab books up to date.”

“That sounds great. I’ve already started working on becoming a doctor by having handwriting so lousy sometimes even I can’t read it.”

Professor Anderson strode across the front of the room to the far wall. As he talked, his steps kept tempo with the rapid fire of his speech.

“You write like grade school children! These essays are what I would expect from naive prepubescents, not college students.” He tossed all but one paper onto his desk as he swept past it. Pausing in front of Dee, he ripped her paper dramatically in half and threw it contemptuously in the wastebasket before striding off.

“With your disability and minority heritage, I expected better of you, young lady! Where is your passion, your anger, and pain? You are obviously sublimating because no one with your problems could possibly be that full of sunny, optimistic tripe. I want you to forget all of that attention to sentence structure, punctuation, and elements of style bunk and give me truth. This Pollyanna sweetness and light is crap.”

Anderson reached the door again and spun back to resume his diatribe. He was forced to skid to an abrupt halt by a black bulk sprawled directly in his path. The dog hadn’t been there moments before when he had stomped past the little blind girl with her tape recorder. He liked dogs. Guide dogs were supposed to be gentle and friendly. Didn’t Labradors have big, sad brown eyes? This dog stared up at him with the feral, yellow eyes of a wolf. They didn’t look the least bit gentle or friendly.

“Where was I? Oh yes, for your next assignment I want you to read chapter two of my book and write about a painful experience. Make me feel your anguish. Class is dismissed.” He turned his back to exit the room.

A pretty blonde freshman cut him off, skipping ahead of him to block his exit. “Sir, how long does our essay have to be?” she asked.

Before he could snarl at the empty-headed little bimbo, something slammed into the back of his right knee. He staggered to avoid landing unceremoniously on his backside. The damned dog shouldered passed him with her little blind waif in tow. That buffoon who headed the music department had dubbed her the wood nymph. With her long, flowing chestnut hair and childlike face, she did resemble one. It was witches, not wood nymphs, that were supposed to keep familiars. After twenty years of teaching freshman English classes, he usually enjoyed challenging the one or two students who showed promise. But there was something uncanny about how the dog glared back at him each time he tried to push that little girl she guided to reach her potential.

As the two of them sped off down the hall, Dee was torn between wanting to laugh and feeling she should have apologized. Instead, she murmured to her companion, “That’s one way to remove a writer’s block!”

 

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Professor John Anderson scanned the pages of a typescript before him on his office desk. Frowning in concentration, he read:

 

 

 

Resolution

By Delia Stillwater

(The vow)

 

I won’t ever let anyone make me cry again,” said the little girl with welts on her back and legs.

She had been so excited when Isabel came over, bringing her new jump rope to play. It had bright red plastic handles with silver jingle bells on its ends. When the girl’s baby brother wanted it and she tried to give him her own jump rope instead, he threw himself down—hitting his lip on the bottom step. His screams of anger turned to ones of real pain. Daddy came out on the porch. She started to cry too because she knew the blame would fall on her. Crying never made him stop. It only made it harder to talk and explain. Daddy grabbed Isabel’s jump rope from her hand and used it for the spanking. He yelled that he would teach her to be mean to the baby. That didn’t even make sense. Shouldn’t he have said that he would teach her not to be mean? Isabel ran home. Now she would never want to come over to play again. It wasn’t fair!

The next time her daddy got angry, he spanked her with a piece of wood until it broke, but she didn’t cry. She held her breath until the pain and yelling went away. When she woke up, mama was holding her and crying. Didn’t she understand that tears didn’t help?

 

(She couldn’t)

 

I’d love to dance,” said the teenaged girl through her gritted teeth. “Could I catch a ride home with you and Betsy after the party? Donny seems to have forgotten he was my date in his eagerness to make the new girl feel welcome. If I let him take me home I will have to kill him!” She tossed her head and stepped out onto the dance floor with Mark. She couldn’t cry. She wouldn’t give June the satisfaction. She didn’t want her friends to pity her.

 

(She wouldn’t)

 

Why can’t you understand? I need to go to college for at least one year. I have to be myself and find out who that is before I step from being my parents’ oldest daughter to being your wife.” Chuck was ten years older. He had a good job. He owned a home, and her parents were so thrilled she had found a man to take care of her. All of her friends were envious over the half-karat diamond he had given her. She was a senior in high school and had won a scholarship. Was she asking too much? Why couldn’t he believe she would come back to him after she had proved to herself that she could make it on her own?

You had better take back this ring if you can’t trust me out of your sight,” she said, slipping it from her finger. Entering her parents’ quiet house, she closed the door. She took deep calming breaths. She wouldn’t allow herself to cry.

 

(She could)

 

How can you think I would be so shallow as to pretend to be his friend just because he has a car and can drive me whenever I need a ride? I thought we were friends!” said the college girl as she fled the dormitory room. For twelve years, she hadn’t cried—no matter how much they’d hurt her. It had never been safe to cry. If you shed tears, they had won. They had made you give in to the struggle and they hurt you more because you were weak. She knelt on the cool grass, pressing her face into the glossy, black fur of her guide dog and let the tears flow. For the first time since she had been a child, she wasn’t afraid to let someone else know she was hurt. She wasn’t alone against the world. She was safe within the shelter of her dog’s love and it was all right to cry.

 

Professor Anderson slowly laid the manuscript back down on his desk. He studied his student. She sat stroking the silky head of the dog resting on her knee. Her long dark hair screened her face from him. The black Labrador’s gaze was fixed on the downturned face of the girl. The dog’s eyes shone with a golden glow of devotion.

“Miss Stillwater, this piece is very different from what you usually write. It is almost minimalistic in its lack of descriptives. It doesn’t have the vivid texture and color of your other work.”

Dee lifted her head to face the man who never seemed pleased no matter what she wrote.

“You asked for truth. I don’t think there was much color in that girl’s life. She was like a spindly weed struggling to find some sunlight and nourishment in a vacant lot. I’m not her anymore. If I choose to glory in the bright, beautiful things all around me, rather than pick at old wounds to watch them bleed, then that is what is true for me. I won’t keep exploring the past when there are so many tomorrows to look forward to. I have always loved the poetic beauty of Steinbeck rather than the stark ugliness of Hemmingway. Maybe I will never achieve the elegance of the one, but I don’t intend to be a mediocre imitator of the other. If it means failing your course, I will write the way that seems real to me.”

Dee rose quickly and her hand dropped to the handle of Tammy’s harness as the dog swiftly fell into position at her left side. The two whirled away out of the stuffy little office belonging to Professor Anderson.

John Anderson watched them flee. He was only mildly irritated. The stupid child had missed the point entirely. Only by forcing her to stretch and struggle would she reach her potential and find her voice as a writer. Even the ones possessing a grain of talent were too egotistical to see that he was only trying to bring out the best in them when he demanded more effort. If he was never going to write the great American novel, then he was going to keep prodding and pruning in the hopes that one of his students would someday write it instead.

DeAnna Quietwater Noriega’s Bio & Links

DeAnna Quietwater Noriega is half Apache and a quarter Chippewa. She has been a writer and story teller since childhood. She has had work accepted in six anthologies. Her writing has appeared in online magazines like, Magnets and Ladders and Generations, a native literature magazine. She has been totally blind since the age of 8. DeAnna lives with her husband, youngest daughter three grandchildren, 9th guide dog, five horses, barn cats, a donkey and assorted other critters in Fulton Missouri.

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Little Bird

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Megan O’Russell

 

Copyright 2015 Megan O’Russell

All Rights Reserved

 

Dedication

 

To the wonderful people at Silence in the Library Publishing

for believing in Larkin’s world enough to give

The Tethering series a home.

 

To my wonderful husband for putting up with my madness. And to the Awethors for inviting me to their party.

Little Bird

“A MAGI never quits!” Stone bellowed. “A MAGI who quits is dead. The people around them are dead. Are you going to let your MAGI team die, Gardner? Are you going to fail your team?”

Larkin looked down at the mud that had crept up to her waist. Tendrils of the filth were crawling higher on her black uniform, pulling her further down with every breath.

“So what is it Gardner?” Stone shouted at Larkin. “Are you going to fail your Clan?”

Larkin’s mind was racing. She raised her arms over her head, trying to keep her hands free as the mud clawed its way up to her neck.

“Do you want me to call Elder Gray? Tell her she sent the worst MAGI candidate I’ve ever seen?”

Larkin looked up to the towering tree overhead. “Colubra me bratus!”

The tree branch nearest her began to quiver, lengthening and bending before dropping snake-like into Larkin’s hands.

“Evedeo!” As though an invisible giant had gripped onto the other end of the branch and pulled with all his might, Larkin was jerked out of the mud. Pain seared though her shoulders as she fought to hang on to her slithering rope, which was turning back into a normal branch on the tree. In less than a second, Larkin was hanging from a branch twelve feet above the ground, Stone glaring at her from below.

“Tardego.” Larkin let go of the branch and fell slowly to the ground, landing gently on her feet right in front of Stone.

She looked up at him. MAGI Jeremy Stone, the agent in charge of their training group, was tall, bald, dark skinned, and terrifying. Every ounce of him looked like a MAGI agent.

Larkin was small, blond, and at twenty still looked like she was sixteen. She had spent the last month trying to tell herself that was why Stone hated her so much. He thought she was too small to be an agent, too young. But as she looked up into his glaring eyes, she knew she had been wrong. He didn’t just hate the way she looked. He hated everything about her.

“What was that?” Stone growled.

“You told me to get out of the mud,” Larkin said, fighting to keep her voice strong and even. “I got out of the mud.”

“I told you to fight your way out,” Stone growled.

“I did,” Larkin said, keeping her chin held high. “There’s more to fighting than loud bangs and things flying everywhere.”

“Just like a Gray,” Leo Coldwater spoke from behind her where the other candidates were waiting. “It doesn’t matter what anyone tells you to do, just whip out some fancy magic. Rules are for other Clans, isn’t that right Gardner?”

“Is that why the head of your Clan sent his own son to the Grays to be trained? So he can learn our fancy magic? Maybe Wayland doesn’t think it’s such a horrible thing to fight like a Gray,” Larkin spat, taking a step toward Coldwater, feeling the magic crackle in her fingertips.

“Do you really want to fight me?” Leo asked, pulling himself up to his full and significant height.

“Not tonight,” Stone said, stepping between them. “It’s been a long day, and I don’t want to stay up late filling out the paper work for a dead candidate.”

“Don’t worry,” Coldwater sneered, “I’ll get my chance.”

 

  • * *

 

Larkin sat on her bed in the candidate dorm. There were bunks with a desk on bottom and a bed on top. Thirteen desks for thirteen Clans.

Larkin looked around the room. Six beds had already been stripped of their sheets. Those candidates hadn’t even made it to the third week of training. The Virginia Clan candidate hadn’t even shown up, but his family had died in a feud fight the night before he was set to report. Probably because he had been chosen instead of someone from a more favored family. That was the way of the Virginia wizards.

Larkin rubbed her forehead with the heels of her hands. She had been chosen from the entire Gray Clan to be this year’s candidate for the Magical Agency for the Gathering of Intelligence. Being a MAGI Agent was all she had ever wanted. Ever since she was six and made all the trees in her yard bloom in the middle of a Massachusetts blizzard. Isadora Gray had shown up at her door the next day. Iz had told her that there were witches and wizards all over the country, and Larkin was one of them. And MAGI protected them all.

And now she was finally a MAGI candidate. All she had to do was make it through the training and she would be in. Larkin let out a stifled laugh that echoed coldly around the dorm. Last year five candidates made it to MAGI, the year before, none. And if Stone was right about her…

Larkin lay down, burying her face in her pillow. It didn’t matter what Stone or Coldwater or any of the rest of them said. She was good enough to be a MAGI. They just didn’t know it yet.

 

  • * *

 

The tiny town’s main street had definitely seen better days. The buildings around them were rundown. The shop windows weren’t cracked, but that was about the best thing that could be said for them. The glass was as filthy as the buildings, and the few people who mulled around in the shops seemed like zombies. Even the sign that read Main Street was chipped on the corners and hung a little crooked. No wonder Stone had chosen this for their human interaction drill.

“Coldwater,” Stone said, calling on his favorite first, “what is the biggest risk that comes with solving a magical problem in a human populated area?”

“Humans can never be allowed to see magic,” Coldwater said, regurgitating the same thing every witch and wizard was taught before they were even allowed to begin learning magic.

“Why?” Stone rounded on Belfry.

“If humans found out about magic, it would destroy our way of life,” Belfry said. Larkin glanced sideways to see Belfry’s face. His chin was tucked so far in he looked like a duck. Larkin tried not to smile.

“How would our way of life be destroyed?” Stone asked Benard.

“At best,” Benard responded, “they would want magic solutions to their human problems. At worst, they would attack us, forcing us to fight back.”

Stone nodded.

“Tonight’s exercise,” Stone said, turning to look at the street, “stop the incident. Do what you have to do. Work as one unit. Your primary objective is?” Stone glanced over his shoulder at Larkin.

“Keeping the humans safe,” Larkin said. She knew it was wrong, knew she shouldn’t have said it even as the words escaped her lips. But she stared defiantly back at Stone.

“Coldwater?” Stone said.

“The primary objective is to ensure that all magic goes unnoticed and to protect our team.”

“Excellent, Coldwater,” Stone said. “You’ll be the unit leader. Find someplace safe to blend in. When the incident occurs, take action. If any of you are indentified as magical by a human, you’re out.” Without a further word Stone turned and walked away.

Unnoticed my ass, Larkin thought. Stone was dressed in his black MAGI uniform. He looked terrifying walking down the cracked sidewalk. The humans inside of the shops were gaping out the window at him as he rounded the corner.

Larkin glanced down at her own clothes. Stone had told them to dress for interaction with humans but not where they would be. She was wearing jeans, sneakers, and a button-down blouse. Coldwater was wearing a suit that probably cost more than most of the people in this town made in a week.

Benard was wearing a sundress and heels. Belfry looked like he was going to a funeral. Larkin raised a very blond eyebrow as Coldwater began scanning the buildings.

“We need to find a place to wait out of sight,” he said, glancing down at the sidewalk.

“We’re already in sight,” Larkin said. “All those people have seen us, and if seven strangers dressed like they’re either going to a funeral or a gala disappear down an alley, people are going to start wondering. We can’t hide.”

“Then what do you suggest, Gray?” Coldwater sneered. “Are you going to whip up a clever little spell so the humans just forget they’ve ever seen us? Changing fifty memories should be easy for a Gray, shouldn’t it?”

Benard and Belfry laughed.

“Actually,” Larkin said through gritted teeth, “I was going to suggest treating all of us to homemade pie.” Larkin pointed across the street at the rundown little diner who’s sign flickered pathetically “O en. Hom mad Pie!”

“You really think that going into that rat hole is going to help us achieve our mission—”

“Which you so graciously pointed out is primarily not to be noticed.” Larkin started across the street. “Come on folks! Who wants pie?” she called back, daring the others not to follow.

Coldwater wouldn’t. She knew he wouldn’t, but if she could just get a few of the others to eat some damn pie she might have her own team to deal with whatever this incident was going to be.

Larkin stopped with her hand on the grimy diner door and sent a silent wish back to the Gray’s cook Molly. Please be right. If you’ve ever told me a true thing, let it be this one.

Larkin looked back. Three of the group were right behind her. Pudgy Pillion was already licking his lips. Coldwater, Benard, and Belfry were glaring at her from across the way.

Molly had been right. The best way to lead a wizard is with his stomach. Offer him good food, and he’ll listen to whatever you have to say. If Larkin survived this mission, she would send Molly a pie from every country that made pie. All the best. Molly would like that.

Larkin swung the diner door open. A bell on the inside tinkled. Larkin smiled. It was just like the diners back home. Well, her human, non-magical home. Really, the diners back home were cleaner and smelled less like old grease. But after the past month, Larkin would take old bacon grease stench if there was pie in the bargain.

The waitress looked up from behind the counter, seeming almost afraid at the sudden flood of four customers.

“Can I help you?” the woman asked, her words dragging lazily.

“We need four cups of coffee and four pieces of your best pie,” Larkin said. The bell behind her dinged. “Make that seven.”

They all sat at the bar, eating as much pie as they could and drinking heartily from the bottomless cups of coffee the waitress kept pouring. It had been an hour, almost two. The sun had set, and the streetlights had flickered feebly on.

Larkin kept chatting with the others. Christmas plans, did it matter if Christmas was five months away? It’s never too early to start shopping. Clothing designers, cars. Anything that sounded human and kept the unit from falling into another dreadfully tense silence.

Every round of pie, Larkin placed more money on the counter. If the street suddenly exploded, she didn’t want the waitress to be stiffed. Why was she worrying about a waitress’s paycheck when whatever hell Stone could think up was about to let loose on the street?

“Honey,” a man said, walking up behind Larkin and draping a meaty arm over her shoulder, “you gonna keep payin’ for all these boys? ‘Cause a real man would treat you to more than just a cheap piece of pie.”

Larkin gagged on the foul onion stench coming from the man’s armpits as soon as she opened her mouth to speak.

“Are you calling my pie cheap, Bobby?” the waitress said to the man, glaring at him with such ferocity that Stone might have shied away.

“Now, Eva, for the last time—” Bobby began. But he didn’t have the chance to rationalize his insult of Eva’s pie. Instead, he let out a terrible squeak as, simultaneously, all the lights in the diner went out and a noise like a freight train echoed down the street.

“We’ll just get out of your way,” Larkin said, heading toward the door as Coldwater shouted, “It’s time!”

He ran to the front door and pulled it open.

“It’s time,” Larkin muttered to herself as she tossed money for a tip onto the counter before following the other six. “It’s time. ‘Cause that’s real casual.”

Wind pounded down, slamming Larkin into the diner window as soon as she reached the streets. The rest of the team were struggling to find their footing as well, each of them searching the shadows. Larkin gazed into the darkness, half-expecting to see a giant fan Stone had magicked up at the end of the street. But there was nothing. Only wind and a sense of terrible cold that was creeping closer with every breath.

“There!” Belfry shouted, pointing up into the sky. A dark cloud was blocking the stars above the street.

“Kids,” Eva called, pushing her way out onto the street. “I don’t think you should be out here if we got a storm coming.”

“Get inside!” Coldwater shouted at her.

“You get inside, young man,” Eva said, not moving from her spot. “Storms come up quick around here, and I don’t want you stuck out on the street.”

A crackling roar sounded from above.

“We’re right behind you, Eva,” Larkin said, using all her strength to wrench the door open for the woman.

“Smart girl,” Eva said as she struggled back inside.

As soon as the waitress was back through the door Larkin slammed it shut, pressed her palm to the door, and muttered, “Compingere.”

Another roar sounded from above. Larkin looked up at the cloud. Something was silhouetted in the blackness now, sparks crackling from the tips of its wings.

A scream came from down the team line. “What is that thing?”

“Wyvern!” The word had barely escaped Larkin’s throat when another terrible roar rent the night. Air so cold she couldn’t breathe surrounded them. She tried to take a step, but her feet had frozen to the ground.

Larkin looked at the others. Benard was clawing at her throat. Coldwater’s arms flailed as he tried to free his legs from the ice that was forming around his ankles and growing quickly up his legs. Belfry was pounding his chest, his eyes wide with panic. None of the others could move their legs or breathe either. Larkin’s mind raced. The ice had begun to grow up her ankles too. She would not die here. She would not be frozen by a wyvern outside a rundown diner. Her head was starting to pound. She needed air. “Alavarus,” she whispered with the last trickle of breath from her lungs.

The air around her warmed, and Larkin gulped it in. Pulling with all her might, she wrenched her legs from the ground, shattering the ice that had surrounded her feet. She heard the whooshing of the wyvern’s wings coming closer before she could see the beast himself.

He wasn’t that large, no bigger than a mastiff. His scales were dark and shone brightly in the dim street light. His face was black and rimmed in horns. The giant wings that beat the air crackled with a strange blue light. If the wyvern hadn’t been trying to kill them, it might have been beautiful.

The beast snapped his sharp, black teeth, tossing his head from side to side as though trying to catch the whole team in his sight at once.

“Perectus!” Coldwater cried. The shimmering spell shot toward the wyvern, hitting him in the flank.

The beast let out a roar that pounded through the air.

“Primurgo!” Larkin shouted just in time as a shimmering sheet of ice flew toward her. Shards of ice shattered against her shield. The sound of their tinkling to the ground was lost as the beast roared again. The sound echoed between the buildings, shaking the glass in the windows.

“We have to surround it!” Larkin shouted.

“No.” Coldwater shook his head, his own shield trembling in front of him as the wyvern roared again. “We take it head on. Kill the thing.”

“We could trap it!” Pillion shouted.

Larkin felt a sudden rush of gratitude toward the pug face boy.

“We kill it!” Coldwater shouted. “We all attack on three, aim for the heart. Whoever gets the kill shot gets a drink from me tonight.”

Larkin wanted to argue, to shout that wyverns were a rare and dying breed. But something else caught her eye. Three people at the other end of the street were frozen with fear, staring at the backside of the wyvern. Humans.

As though the wyvern had read Larkin’s thoughts, the beast turned, tilting his head back and forth, sniffing the air as he searched for the humans. He let out another roaring breath, and one of the three screamed for a moment before the cold hit her. She was young, not even a teenager. And now she would suffocate surrounded by the wyvern’s deadly cold.

“We have to help them!” Larkin shouted, starting to run forward, but Belfry grabbed her arm, pulling her back.

“They just provided the distraction we need to win this thing,” Belfry growled.

“On three!” Coldwater called. The wyvern was stalking closer to the humans now.

“It will kill them!” Larkin said, turning to Coldwater. But the light in his eyes made her stomach disappear. He didn’t care if the wyvern killed the humans. Not even a little.

“One!” Coldwater shouted. The team raised their hands and wands, preparing to strike.

“We have to help them!” Larkin screamed over the new howl that filled the wind.

“Two!” Coldwater continued.

With a curse that was swallowed by the night, Larkin turned and ran toward the wyvern. The thing had its back to her. “Fulguratus!” she shouted as she approached, watching the crackling silver bolt form in her hand before she threw it at the beast, hitting it in the back of the neck. The beast howled and turned to search for whatever had caused the pain, but Larkin had already run past.

The beast growled, and Larkin screamed “Primurgo!” casting a shield behind her. She heard the echoing crunch of the beast’s fury hit her shield, but she didn’t look behind. She was close to the humans now. A screech that stung Larkin’s ears reached her a moment before something hard and frozen struck her in the back. Larkin landed on the pavement, skidding forward before crashing into something hard. Blood oozed from her shoulder, freezing the moment it touched the air.

Larkin looked up. She had been stopped by the legs of one of the humans, which were hard as a wall and frozen to the ground.

“Alavarus!” Larkin coughed. She could feel the air around her warming as she pushed herself to her feet. “Run,” she said to the humans who stood still, frozen by fear. “Run!” Larkin shouted.

The young girl grabbed the two others and ran down an alley and out of sight.

Larkin turned back to face the wyvern. He was closer now, only twenty feet away, sniffing the air as he crept closer. Larkin knew better than to look for her team. They had wanted to use the humans as bait. She had saved them, and now she would take their place.

“Better to die fighting than to live complacent,” Larkin muttered, raising her hand as the wyvern reared back on his hind legs.

He towered taller than seemed possible. His snarling, dark-fanged muzzle was seven feet in the air as the beast balanced on well-muscled hind legs, his talons cutting easily into the pavement.

“Manuvis!” A shimmering ball of red light glowed in Larkin’s hands for a moment before she launched it at the beast’s chest.

The wyvern howled in pain as her spell struck. Larkin ran for the side of the street. There was a dumpster ten feet away. If she could get to cover—

Icy air hit her in the back. She felt it flow to the very tips of her fingers, freezing them in place, before everything went black.

 

  • * *

 

Death hurt. It wasn’t surprising, but it didn’t seem to be very fair either. If she wasn’t supposed to have a body anymore, why did hers hurt so much? Or maybe the pain meant she hadn’t quite managed to die yet. The thought that the agony might eventually end was comforting even as the pain changed. The terrible cold became burning hot as a thousand fiery needles pierced her skin.

But then the pain shifted again. She could feel her lungs taking in aching breaths and her blood pumping through tired veins. And just when she had decided that the pain would never end, Larkin managed to open her eyes.

She was staring at a bright white ceiling with florescent lights above her. She couldn’t be at home. Isadora Gray would never allow florescent lighting in her home.

“Looks like the little bird might live after all,” a deep voice said from beside Larkin’s bed.

“Little bird?” Larkin managed to croak out.

Stone lifted her by the shoulders, holding a cup up for her to drink. “On your ring,” Stone said.

Larkin’s eyes stung as she glanced down at her hand. The silver ring with the tiny bird carved on it was still there. “Isadora Gray’s ward picked the bird for me,” Larkin said. “Larkin, lark, she thought it was funny.” Larkin tried to laugh, but her chest ached too much. “Did the team stop the wyvern?”

“No,” Stone said, laying Larkin back down. “I did just before he tried to eat you.”

“And I thought he was almost cute,” Larkin said. “The others are all safe?”

“Depends on what you call safe,” Stone said. “Coldwater’s been sent home, and Belfry, too. They were the ones that stopped the others from helping you. MAGI agents don’t sacrifice their team. That’s not our way. I’d hate to be sent back to the Wayland or the Proctor Clan as a MAGI failure.”

“Not so bad for a Gray though,” Larkin said, her heart dropping. What would she tell Isadora Gray. They would take her back. They would give her a home. But to disappoint Iz…

“I don’t think you’re going to have to find that out,” Stone said, his brow furrowed as he looked down at Larkin.

“But I’m in a hospital bed,” Larkin said. “I failed.”

“You saved the humans and managed not to die,” Stone said. “I think that makes you a pretty good MAGI candidate, Little Bird.”

“Is that my new name?” Larkin asked as Stone stood to leave.

“Be happy, Little Bird,” Stone said, and for the tiniest second, Larkin almost thought she saw him smile. “I only bother naming people I think will live long enough to bother me.”

“Thanks then,” Larkin said, lying back in her bed as MAGI Stone disappeared through the door.

Little Bird. There were worse nicknames.

 

Megan O’Russell’s Bio & Links

Megan is thrilled to be a part of the Awethors Anthology! Her other published works include Young Adult fantasy series The Tethering books one and two of which are currently available with book three out in spring 2016. Megan’s Christmas novella Nuttycracker Sweet will be release by Fiery SeasPublishing this holiday season. Megan is also a featured author in the Athena’s Daughters 2 anthology of women in speculative fiction.

Megan is a professional performer who travels the country living out a thousand lives on stage. Her wonderful husband and frequent dance partner is always by her side.

 

For more information on Megan’s books, you can visit her website at www.meganorussell.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ORussellauthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/MeganORussell

 

 

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Nina

A Deathless Trilogy Short Story

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sarah Perlmutter

Copyright 2015 Sarah Perlmutter

All Rights Reserved

 

Acknowledgements

 

Thank you to my incredible readers on Wattpad, who continue encourage me to expand the Deathless universe, including this short story. We are deathless.

 

Dedication

 

To my sister Becca.

 

Nina

Gunshots pierced the silence. I peered out the window of the abandoned vacation home I’d claimed last month. No homeowners or neighbors to worry about since the apocalypse, so the noise must mean traveling bandits filtering through the streets, stopping to raid vacation homes along the way. Mine was at the end of the road, at the ocean’s edge. I still had time to hide. I had few belongings, just my guitar and my wallet, so I collected what little I had and hid beneath the bed, concealed behind the lace dust ruffle, like the one Mom used back home to hide my football gear when I was in high school.

I waited in silence, which wasn’t hard for me. I hadn’t spoken a word since I lost my travel companion. Then I heard the doors open on the floor below and voices echo through the empty rooms

“Nina, check upstairs for valuables,” an older male voice ordered. It reminded me of how my voice used to sound when I still used it.

Footsteps creaked on the polished wooden stairs, but paused part way up. “Terran, are you coming?” asked a smoky, female voice, likely belonging to this person named Nina.

A different voice called back, fresh and deep like the Three Lakes in Henrico, Virginia, where I started my journey. “I’m going to check out the garage, and then I’ll be up.”

Nina’s footsteps continued up the stairs. Clop, clop, her boots hit against the wood. Despite the force of her steps, I could tell she was light weight, and that she was coming toward me. From beneath the dust ruffle, I spotted the bottoms of tan lace-up boots, which were cheap, unlike the boots my travel companion used to wear.

She stopped by the vanity, most likely checking the drawers for precious metals. That’s what I would have done. That’s what any smart scavenger would have done. She crossed into the adjoining bathroom, and whispered to herself, “Wow.” It was a sight to see to be sure. The white marble still gleamed as if it were new, though a lot of that shine was thanks to me. Living alone in a giant house like this provided me with many opportunities to clean. My travel companion would have wanted it to look as beautiful as possible. She lived for beauty.

Nina stepped back into the room and searched the drawers of the armoire. Then she stopped, and lowered herself to her knees. Soon, she would find me, but I didn’t tense. I had lost the capacity for fear, a fact discovered by many people who have survived their nightmares. All I could do was wait for the inevitable.

First I saw the torn, dirt-stained jeans, then her calloused, cracked hands and her gun, a model I couldn’t identify. I was never a weapons expert. Then I saw her scraped arms, tanned from the sun. And finally, her face came into view. Her near-black eyes met mine.

She gasped, but quickly caught her breath. “Get out,” she ordered, though her voice didn’t raise above a whisper.

I wondered why she didn’t report me to the men downstairs, as I had expected would happen. But I followed her instructions, sliding my body out first, and then pulling my guitar after me.

Her deep eyes widened. “You play guitar?” she asked, her voice lifting with excitement.

I nodded. Now I could see her fully. Her tattered clothes were covered in dirt and grass stains and her long mahogany hair hung down her back in such complex tangles that it resembled the closest thing I’d seen to dreadlocks since the world ended. She was organic, of the earth, and beautiful in her simplicity. My travel companion would have asked to paint Nina, and would have relished using every shade of brown in her arsenal to bring her to life on paper.

Keeping her eyes fixed on me, Nina walked to the door, and called out, “Dad!”

“Yeah?” the older man from downstairs shouted back.

“Go ahead without me. I won’t be long.”

“Be safe,” the man shouted.

She held her gun at her hip, pointed at my chest, and crossed to stand on the opposite side of the bed from me. We watched each other for a moment across the black and white floral print comforter.

“Put your guitar on the bed.”

I did without question. She watched me in confusion, probably wondering why I was so submissive. That’s what I would have wondered.

She tucked her gun into the back of her pants. Examining my face, she lifted the guitar from the bed, and held it to her chest. In a moment, she began to play scales, tuning the strings as she went through the notes. One last strum of the strings to check that they were in tune, and she sat on the bed to steady the instrument on her lap.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

I opened my mouth to answer, but my throat was so dry, so forgotten, that no sound escaped.

“Can you speak?” she asked.

I nodded, and cleared my throat. Like an old jalopy, I tried to start my voice once, twice, and a third time, when it finally roared awake. “Reed. My name is Reed.”

She continued to stare at me, now smiling, and she chuckled a bit. “Good to meet you Reed. I’m Nina. Do you have anything on you Reed? Anything of value or anything that you could use as a weapon?”

I cleared my throat again, a final sweep of the dust from my lungs. “Just the guitar.”

“And the wallet in your back pocket.” She smiled. “You didn’t think I’d miss that, did you? Let me check it.”

I slipped it from the back pocket of my jeans, and after a brief moment of hesitation, handed it over.

With the guitar propped up beneath her arms, she opened the wallet and flipped through it. She lifted a ten dollar bill from the pouch, and held it up for me to see. “If anyone in my group sees this, they’ll take it from you. I know it doesn’t mean much anymore, but you should keep it somewhere safer. Who knows, maybe the U.S. will magically return, and you’ll want this then.” She placed the bill back in my wallet, and her eyes stopped on the picture of my travel companion that was tucked into the photo holder. She furrowed her brows, and her thin lips fell in a frown. “Who’s this?” she asked.

“That was….” I couldn’t bring myself to say it. “My travel companion,” I said instead.

She lifted her eyebrows. “She must have been more to you than that, but… okay. I get it. There are some ghosts we want to keep at bay.”

Nina closed the wallet and returned it to me. I slipped it back where it belonged. She placed her slender fingers on the strings of the guitar.

“Teach me a song. A song that means something to you. A song that maybe your travel companion liked.”

“Why?”

“Music is my currency. I’m sick of money and trinkets. They’re useless now. I want something I can keep forever, something that will never lose its value. But the thing is, I don’t want you to teach me just any song. I want you to teach me a song that has value to you. That’s where the payment comes in.”

Yes, she was beauty inside and out. My travel companion would have painted galleries of this girl, and once upon a time, I would have written songs for her. I thought the apocalypse took the art out of life, but for this girl, the apocalypse was her reason for creating it.

I smiled for the first time in months, the muscles around my mouth actually straining with the expression. “I wrote a song for my travel companion long ago.”

“An original song?” she asked.

“Yes. Is that valuable enough for you?”

“That’s the most valuable currency I accept. You may as well have handed me a gold bar,” she joked.

I laughed. I had forgotten my body was capable of laughter. “Okay,” I said, accepting the guitar from her, and sitting down to play. “It’s called ‘For Hattie.’”

I placed my fingers over the frets for my first chord, when I noticed someone in the doorway. A golden blond boy about Nina’s age, late teens, early 20s maybe. He watched me with a suspicious stare. I froze and shut my throat off to sound as I had been before Nina pulled me out from beneath the bed.

She looked up and gestured for him to come and sit beside her. “Terran, this is Reed. He’s going to teach me an original song he wrote.”

Terran’s skin would have been painted with the same tan as Nina’s, but my travel companion would have used all of her yellow paints to complete his portrait. Even his eyes were yellow-brown, and they lightened in tone as the suspicion cleared from his face. “Did you check him for money?” he asked.

“Yeah, already told him to hide what he has.”

“Okay,” Terran said, and finally approached the bed. “Let’s hear this song.”

I had never met bandits like these in my life, but I was glad they found me. I hadn’t indulged in art since I lost my travel companion. I played her song for her the night before I lost her, and hadn’t touched the strings of my guitar again until this moment.

“For Hattie,” I repeated, and then strummed the first chord. I picked my fingers through the notes, until it came time for me to sing. My voice was weak, but my words were powerful. At least to me. I sang them proudly.

 

When we go to the ocean,

Sand beneath our feet,

We’ll crawl into the licking waves,

Healing all wounds that we may keep.

Until all is well,

Until all is beautiful.

 

When we go to the ocean,

I’ll bring an easel and a brush,

And you will repaint the world,

No need to ever rush.

Until all is done,

Until all is beautiful.

 

And if you can’t find beauty,

And if you can’t find peace,

I’ll search the beach for pearls,

And treasures for you to keep.

Until all you see is art,

Until all you see is beautiful.

 

When we go to the ocean,

We’ll live a life that you deserve.

Saltwater in your hair,

Your livelihood preserved.

Until all is repaired,

Until all is beautiful.

 

I strummed the last few notes, and sang a soft ah along with the melody. When I had finished, I took a few moments to allow the memory of my travel companion—Hattie, her name was Hattie—to once again hide in some dark corner of my mind.

I set the guitar back down on the bed between me and the bandits.

Terran hung his head in… thought? Sadness? Respect? Displeasure? I couldn’t tell behind his fixed expression. But Nina didn’t take her eyes off me. They pierced through me as the gunshot had pierced through the silence earlier.

“Who was Hattie?” she asked.

Then, there she was, Hattie, crawling out from that dark corner, just as she had when she was a baby. When she was first learning to move on her own. I watched her during the day as her parents worked to support her and as her father worked to support his struggling musician brother. I knew Hattie better than either of her parents did, so when they were shot and killed during a mugging in downtown Richmond, it was easy for me to assume guardianship of my niece. The summer the world ended Hattie had been at a camp for children coping with traumatic events. I fought through the chaos to retrieve her. Her only keepsake was a painting of us all, her mother and my brother included, in sloppy water colors. As the years rolled on, her paintings became more detailed, and more painful. Her dream was to live at the ocean and to find beautiful scenes to paint, so a few months ago we grabbed all her paints and headed toward the ocean.

Her symptoms began with a nosebleed. Then the rash on her arms. When she began vomiting blood, I realized what was happening to her. Being outside when the bombs went off left Hattie vulnerable to radiation poisoning, and it began consuming her. We stopped in a cabin along the way to the ocean, and she withered into death beside me. After silence fell over us, I left. I continued to the ocean, both to honor her and to escape her.

I didn’t say any of this to Nina, though. Instead, I simply repeated, “My travel companion.”

Nina frowned. “I liked the focus on the ocean,” she finally said. “Teach me the chords. I’ll write my own lyrics about the ocean. Those words belong to you; they’re too valuable for me to take from you.”

Verse by verse, I taught her the music, and after Nina accepted my payment, she and Terran left me. I returned to the silence, but it wasn’t the same. Now there were echoes. Now the silence had lifted.

In my solitude, I moved my fingers over the strings of my guitar once more. I wasn’t sure what this song would be, but thanks to the girl painted with beauty, my throat was open to whatever words I might choose.

 

 

Sarah Perlmutter’s Bio & Links

Sarah Perlmutter is a young adult fiction writer and English teacher. Her Watty winning debut novel The Blast is available on Amazon and takes place within the same universe as her short story “Nina.” When she is not reading and writing, Sarah enjoys spending time with her husband and cat, cooking food that is far too spicy, making arts and crafts, and teaching her amazing students. For more about Sarah, check out her website at www.SarahPerlmutter.com, or connect with her on

 

[email protected]

Facebook at www.facebook.com/sarahperlmutterbooks

 

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Enchantments

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Claire Plaisted

Copyright 2015 Claire Plaisted

All Rights Reserved

 

Dedication

 

To all those wonderful AWETHORS who help each other on a daily basis and in times of need

 

Thanks

 

Acknowledgement

 

To Dawn Thorp Yurkas, J B Tayor and Chess Desalls for proofing and editing my work.

 

Enchantments – Prologue

The darkness whispered to her as she ran through the forest, rain beating down on her head, soaking her to her skin. Shivering, she looked over her shoulder, making sure the red eyes were gone. Her heart pounded in fright. It was following her; it wasn’t hurrying to catch up. An evil laugh echoed through the night sky, turning her fear to terror. Tripping over a root, she landed in the mud face first, rolling quickly to her back. The red eyes were staring down. A mouth opened, sharp fangs appearing, dripping with blood. She opened her mouth to scream; its saliva dripped onto her face.

Its nose nuzzled her, its tongue licking her neck. She stilled, looking up when the fangs came down biting her shoulder hard. Her body jerked in shock, the force of electricity powering its way through her and then was gone. The fangs withdrew from her shoulder, licking her wound. It wandered off into the forest.

She sat up, her body felt alive as if for the first time. She looked into the darkness and saw shadows surrounding her.

Who are you? What do you want?”

She heard mutterings as they crept closer. She backed into a tree, banging her head. Standing up, she wiped her shaking hands down her jeans.

Leave me alone,” she cried out, her voice full of fear.

She’s arrived; finally, we have hope,” a voice said.

Keep away from me,” she said, pressing her body into the tree.

So beautiful; are you sure she’s the one?”

Yes; the wolf chose her. She’s the one to save us.”

A light appeared behind them, shining brightly. They screamed in agony, sinking into the ground.

Come child,” said a sweet, light voice from within the light, “you are in danger here.”

I want to go home,” she whispered.

And so you shall,” it said gently, “come we will walk. I’m here to guide you to your destiny.”

What destiny?” she enquired.

Walk with me and find out.”

She walked towards the light, the creatures of the night screaming in protest when their saviour disappeared.

 

 

Enchantments

I woke with a jerk, the dream still vivid in my mind. Sitting up, scrubbing my eyes with my fists, I looked around. I was in my bed in my room, my dark purple curtains blowing in the gentle breeze through my open window.

“What the hell?” I whispered out.

“Farron, will you get up?” yelled my mum.

“Coming,” I called back.

“You’ll be late for work if you don’t hurry.”

Dragging on my jeans, blouse and black leather jacket, running my fingers through my short dark hair, I dashed down the stairs, grabbing a piece of toast and juice from the fridge.

“See you tonight, Mum,” I smiled, giving her a quick hug and kiss.

“Farron, you need to sort your life out,” she said, muttering as I dashed out the door.

 

I was lucky; I loved my job. I worked in a graphic design office where we produced all different kinds of artwork, from advertisements to book covers. We were superb too. I loved letting my imagination run wild.

Driving my gorgeous red Harley 1000cc motorbike, I was soon at work. I parked in my usual spot, entering the office by the back door. The office was quiet. I was first to arrive.

Walking into the kitchen I put the coffee on to perk, shoving my helmet and backpack into my security box. Grabbing a cup of coffee, I sat at my desk, opening my computer to work on my latest project. My computer remained blank, light from the centre of the screen appeared with the words “follow the light, not the dark.” The words faded; my screen flickered on. I jumped when a hand landed on my shoulder.

“Shit,” I yelped.

“You okay, Farron? I’ve been talking to you for ages and getting no response, it was as if you weren’t in,” laughed Garth, a co-worker.

“Yeah, fine, I was just thinking about something,” I muttered sipping my coffee. “How was your weekend?”

“Good for once, I took Phena to the movies,” he smiled.

“Oh my god, you’re in love,” I said, choking on my coffee.

“Hush; don’t tell everyone.” He grinned. “She’s adorable.”

“No wonder she likes you, Garth,” I laughed and got to work.

 

The day was weird; my computer screen and phone kept sending me messages, which were there one moment and gone the next. It was annoying, distracting me continuously. By two in the afternoon, I gave up on my work. Turning my computer off, I left the office. Grabbing my helmet; I sat astride my Harley deep in thought before roaring off down the street, heading for the highway. The messages were crazy.

Trouble was, the messages were only the start. Changes in my life were afoot—of which I wasn’t aware—I mean I was me. Nothing unusual with a young twenty-one-year-old woman making a living and breathing computer art.

I’m a dreamer; a lover of music and books. My family was great, loving me unconditionally. What the hell was happening!?

I powered down the highway. When a hand touched my shoulder, how come I didn’t crash, I’ve no idea—I know I wobbled on the road before regaining control.

“Fuck,” I said, pulling off the highway and looking behind me. “Shit, who are you!? How the hell did you get on my bike?” I yelled taking my helmet off.

“Hi Farron.” He grinned calmly.

“Don’t you Hi Farron me, how the hell did you know my name?” I frowned.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” he said.

“W-who are you?” I replied, getting off my Harley, putting it on its stand before my shaking body took over. “Why are you waiting for me?”

“I’m Kendrall, your guide to your future.”

“I don’t need a sodding guide, I know where I’m going,” I yelled at him.

He just stood there, looking at me, all six foot three, purple hair, violet eyes and creamy skin. A beautiful mouth most women would sigh over, just not me.

“Your direction will change soon, Farron,” he said and disappeared before my eyes. I gasped in shock, shook my head and sat down on the grass verge to think.

“What the hell?” I muttered.

I didn’t see the cop car pull up behind me; I did see a shadow standing over me. I looked up with a frown.

“Excuse me, Miss, are you having bike trouble?”

“I’ll have it fixed shortly, thanks officer,” I smiled, jumping to my feet.

“It’s dangerous to rest here,” he replied.

I apologised again, starting to pretend to mess with my bike. Taking hold of my helmet, I sat back on my Harley, revving the engine.

“Thanks officer,” I smiled.

“Take care now, Miss,” he smiled as I roared off down the highway.

“Follow the light,” a voice whispered through the wind. “Don’t forget to follow the light, Farron.”

 

I stopped at the next café for coffee and cake, eating quickly. I looked around to see if anyone was watching me—whoever these people were, they were scaring the hell out of me. I wanted to be left alone, to get on with my life. I asked for the check and the waitress shrugged.

“It’s been paid for.”

“Who paid?”

“Him over…oh, he’s gone.”

I left the café angry and confused. I’d not felt anyone watch me at all. My head down, I walked to my Harley to find Kendrall sitting on it, smiling.

“Who the hell are you, why can’t you leave me alone?” I snapped out.

“Please don’t get angry, Farron,” he said gently, “you’ll bring the bad guys out.”

“What the hell are you on about?”

“The shadows,” he said, looking around, seemingly getting a bit worried. “If they’re released all hell will break out.”

“Oh, give me a break,” I said, picking up my helmet.

“Your dream,” he said, looking at me with a sad smile, “remember your dream,” and he faded into nothing. AGAIN.

I stood there, shaken to the core when a hand rested on my shoulder. I spun around quickly to find a young woman behind me. I didn’t smile.

“Are you okay?” she asked, concern lacing her voice.

“I’m all right,” I replied with a weak smile.

I put on my helmet, climbed on my motorbike, and with a wave, I drove back towards home.

 

I felt like I needed to pinch myself and wake up; today had been weird and I still had no idea what was going on. I entered the house finding no one home. Looking at the clock, it was only four in the afternoon, so I shouldn’t really be home yet. Grabbing juice from the fridge, I dragged my body up to my room, sitting on my bed, trying to make sense of Kendrall and my dream.

Who was the wolf? Why had it bitten me? I shrugged my shirt off my shoulder and sure enough, I had a bite mark. I sat up, wondering why I’d not noticed it this morning.

“Shit, what the hell’s going on?”

“Follow the light, not the dark,” a voice whispered.

“What light,” I yelled out in frustration.

“Farron, are you okay?” My mum had arrived home.

“Yes, Mum; just trying to work something out.”

“Don’t yell; you scared the living daylights out of me,” she called back.

I picked up my drink, taking a slug, and wandered down to the kitchen to talk. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be alone.

“Mum,” I said.

“What’s the matter, Farron?”

“Did you ever have any weird dreams and hear voices?”

“No, I can’t say I did. What voices have you heard?” she asked in confusion. My face coloured in embarrassment.

“Whispers,” I muttered.

Mum walked up to me, holding my hands, her head to one side as she looked deeply into my face. She kissed me on the cheek, then smiled.

“Help me cook dinner; we’ll talk about it later.”

“You know something, don’t you?” I accused her.

“Later, Farron, for now I need help with dinner before the others get home.”

I gave up and started to peel the potatoes.

 

Kendrall paced the ante-room of the palace; he was convinced this wasn’t going to work.

“The Mistress will see you now Kendrall, good luck,” said her secretary.

Lifting his head, he sauntered through the massive silver doors to give his opinion.

“Kendrall, you have good news I hope?”

“Farron isn’t ready ma’am, I’m not sure she ever will be.”

“Pray, why is this, Kendrall?” she asked calmly, her hands relaxed.

“She doesn’t know about us,” he replied. “We don’t know yet,” he sighed.

“Find out, Kendrall. While you’re doing so, track down our other destiny children. We’ll need them all this time.”

“The shadows threaten us so much, ma’am?”

“Yes, they do. Be gone and bring them all here quickly; we’ll have to act soon.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, bowing his head and leaving the room. The doors slammed shut behind him.

“A hard task you have, Kendrall,” said the secretary.

“More like impossible,” he said angrily.

“Now then, Kendrall, you’ve never failed before.”

“Name the others so I can be on my way,” he said. She passed him a scroll instead.

“All the names and energies are on the list; good luck.”

“I’ll need it this time,” he grumbled.

“Why don’t you take Joz with you?”

“I prefer to work alone,” he replied and walked off through the portal.

“Stubborn man,” she muttered, continuing with her next task.

 

Qwain Prepares for Battle

Qwain wandered through the forests, his mind on the next battle with the shadows. His wolf by his side, licking his hand, made him smile.

“You did good, Sharam,” he said, rubbing his head. He gave his wolfish smile, continuing to walk by his master. “She should come to us soon.”

“She’s difficult, Qwain,” said Kendrall, appearing beside him.

“Needs a little push, does she?”

“More like a kick in the butt,” he replied, his fists clenching.

“All you had to do was bring her back,” he sighed. “What went wrong?”

“She doesn’t know about us,” Kendrall replied, his face in deep thought.

“How the hell did that happen?—The chosen ones always know,” he said in a shocked voice.

“They’ve kept it hidden from her.”

“They’ve no right to do so,” he exclaimed angrily, “I need her, and soon; the shadows are getting restless.”

“Send her a dream tonight, Qwain, make her understand the importance of her destiny.”

“Bring her tomorrow,” he said.

“I’ve others to find; I’ll see what I can do,” he sighed.

“I’ll go for her if you cannot.” He smiled.

“See you soon, Qwain,” Kendrall muttered as he disappeared.

“I dislike it when he does that,” he grumbled to the wolf, letting him continue to lick his hand.

Who am I?

Dinner was over. The dishes washed; the kids all in bed. Mum and dad took me to their study and we sat around the meeting table.

“So what’s going on, Mum?”

Mum looked at Dad and he nodded his head slowly.

“You’re a special young lady,” said my dad.

“I’m yours; of course I’m special. We all are,” I laughed.

“Farron,” she said, taking my hand, “you’re different from the others, darling.”

“What do you mean, different?”

“You have unique energies which help us all exist in this world.”

“I don’t understand!?”

“We should’ve told you when you turned eighteen. We just couldn’t bring ourselves to, and now they need you,” said my mum standing up, pacing past the window.

“Told me what?” I said, puzzled, “what do you mean exist in this world?”

“You’re not human Farron; you’re Bul’ith; a special person who’s given extraordinary energies to keep the shadows at bay.”

“My dream,” I murmured.

“You’ve dreamt of them?”

“Your time is near, Farron,” said my mum turning to look at me.

“A wolf bit me, I saw shadows and then a light; it made them disappear.” I shrugged.

“It has begun. Have you met your guide?”

“What’s Bul’ith?”

“I am,” said Kendrall from behind her.

“You again.” I glared.

“Kendrall, welcome to our home,” my parents said.

“You know him?”

“Yes, of course we do.” They smiled.

“So tell me, Kendrall, what is Bul’ith?”

“As your parents said you are special,” he smiled. “Your dream gave you the energies of the wolf.”

“Which means what?”

“To find out you’ll need to come with me to Do’rath and talk with Qwain.”

“Who’s Qwain?”

“He is the Wolfman; he will train you.”

“You are honoured, Farron,” said my father.

“So, you expect me to believe this fairy story and just go…” I trailed off as a light appeared in front of me.

A gentle voice whispered, “We have need of you Farron, follow the light and learn your destiny. Go with Kendrall; no harm will befall you.”

My parents were kneeling, their heads bowed as the light slowly disappeared.

“You’ve been honoured twice,” said my mother. “The Mistress doesn’t speak to many.”

“What happens to my life; my job?” I replied uncertainly.

“If you don’t go, then there will be no world; no life for you, or any human on this planet.”

“Fine, let’s go—get this battle over with,” I snapped.

“Qwain will pick you up in the morning, Farron, take heed and learn fast, the battle will soon be upon us,” Kendrall finished with a whisper as he faded from view.

“Just wonderful,” I said, standing up. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It was never the right time; you’re so young and full of joy for this world.”

“So overnight I have a dream and I’m suddenly expected to drop everything and go.”

“We’re sorry Farron; we didn’t realise the shadows were so close again.”

“Are you Bul’ith?”

“We were when you were born; we are human now.”

“Another thing I have to understand?”

“When the battle is over, you’ll marry and have a child, a Bul’ith child. Afterwards, you can become human with your husband if you wish.”

At least the frustration had gone now. I knew what I was. I just had to learn who I was.

“I’m going to bed; if I don’t see you in the morning, you know Qwain has…”

“Yes, Farron.” They smiled. Taking me in their arms, they hugged me and kissed my cheek.

“We wish you the best in your training and battle darling,” my father said.

“Night,” I said, walking out of the study and up the steps.

I looked in on each of my siblings, kissing their foreheads as they slept, knowing I would miss them; knowing I may just save them and our world for another generation.

 

Red Eyes in the Night

I was running through the forest again, rain and snow drenching me as I ran. In the distance, I heard the screeches of the shadows as they chased me. The wolf with red eyes ran by my side. I smiled at Sharam; the energy pulsing between us. Sword at my side, we continued towards the mountains. We would soon lose the shadows. They sink in the rain, which I found amusing; especially the horror on their faces. They certainly didn’t like it. No sense of humour at all.

Qwain had taught me well. I knew all the myths and legends of time and battles of the Bul’ith, for which I was grateful.

Rolling down a bank, we hid in the bushes. Sharam washed my face and snuggled in. Suddenly, his fangs appeared, his red eyes glowing. Sighing, I tugged my top off my shoulder and he bit me deeply. I shut my eyes, letting the burst of energy flow through me. My body tensed as the pain eased. Sharam washed the blood away and kissed me, his wet nose making me want to laugh.

My energy pulsed higher, which was a good job because a shadow looked down and saw us. Before they screeched, my dagger cut its throat. It sank down to its own world.

“Thank you, Sharam, though how you always know is beyond me.” I patted his head.

I woke to find a hand on my shoulder, a man looking down at me. I nearly screamed when I noticed the huge wolf standing by his side. The wolf buried its nose in my face, licking me, making me giggle.

“Hi Sharam,” I said, rubbing his ears. “I presume you’re Qwain?” I continued, looking back up at the man.

“Aye; tis time to leave Farron.” He smiled.

“I’ll meet you in the study. I need to dress,” I said.

“You come now. You’ll be dressed once we arrive.”

“Right; so how does this work?”

“Hold on to Sharam.” He smiled.

I didn’t feel anything. One moment I was in my bed, the next I was in the middle of a forest dressed in green. The apparel wasn’t too bad, though I’d seen better. I felt a bit like Robin Hood.

“So what happens next, Qwain?”

“Your training begins here. It will be hard work. The battle isn’t far away.”

“What are you teaching me?”

Suddenly, I was on my backside, sliding in the mud. A dagger appeared in my hand. I stabbed it into a tree as I slid past, coming to a shuddering halt, my muscles taut. Looking up there was no sign of Qwain and Sharam.

“Now where have you gone,” I muttered standing up. Something caught my ankle; I looked down as my foot started to sink into the mud. ‘Oh no, you bloody well don’t,’ I muttered.

I released the dagger from the tree and stuck it in the hand holding my ankle. It released my ankle with a shriek, disappearing into the mud.

I walked back to where I’d been talking to Qwain. Seeing their footprints, I started to track them deeper into the forest. They were easy to follow—well, until their tracks disappeared. I stood in the middle of a clearing, frowning. My dagger in its sheath, hands on my hips, I looked carefully, scouring my surroundings. Trying not to smirk, I walked over to a tree and leant against it casually.

“You can come out now, Qwain,” I said. “I can see you.”

He detached himself from a tree across from me and smiled.

“Well done, Farron,” he nodded, “now where’s Sharam?”

I pointed to a bush on the far left of him and the wolf jumped out; charging at me. Paws on my shoulders, he washed my face.

“Your wolf likes you, Farron,” he said in surprise.

“Sharam is my wolf?” I said, looking at him.

“Of course; he’s the one who gave you your energies and will for a long time to come.”

“You mean he gets to bite me again?” I said in shock.

“Yes, of course. You should consider yourself lucky, the other trainees…never mind,” he finished.

“Different animals for various trainees giving different energies to win the battle,” I said softly.

“Yes. Well done.”

“Well, that was easy. So what’s next?”

“Lunch,” he smiled, “though you have to hunt it, catch it, kill it and cook it.” He smirked, nearly laughing at the disgust on my face. “You’ll get used to it, Farron.”

Wild Briar

Briar knew all about the Bul’ith, or thought she did. She couldn’t wait to start her training and wondered which energy she would get.

The hood down on her sports car, she raced along the street, powering round the corner, nearly knocking a cyclist over.

“You need to take more care, Briar,” said Kendrall.

“Who are you?”

“You don’t seem surprised to see me.” He smiled.

“Nah,” she smirked, “you must be Bul’ith; only they appear out of nowhere,” she laughed. Screeching the car to a halt, she parked, took off her seat belt and turned to him.

“So what happens now, and what’s your name?”

“I’m Kendrall.” He smiled. “Just a short chat today. You’ll get your dreams shortly; make sure you remember them or you’ll fail your destiny,” he said and disappeared. She pouted, started her car and raced off again.

 

Briar wasn’t as savvy as she made out to everyone. It hadn’t gone unnoticed as she made her way through her teens and hit twenty-one.

A shadow had seen through her bravado. It smiled savagely, knowing this one would help them out of the eternal earth. How to catch her and change her before her training was the hard part. After seeing Kendrall, it knew Briar’s destiny would be soon.

The shadow sank into the gutter, speeding through the pipes, back to its domain, to report.

“So what news do you bring?” rasped the voice of evil.

“She’ll be training soon, my Lord. We need to infect her or we will surely fail.”

“So be it. Infect the girl and bring back her soul tonight; make sure it’s returned before she wakes,” he laughed in glee.

“As you command, my Lord.” It smiled and sped away to find Briar.

 

Briar slept fitfully that night, expecting a dream which didn’t materialise. By one in the morning, she’d given up, snuggling into her teddy bear. She never felt the knife nicking her arm, though she shuddered in her sleep when something entered her body. Moaning, her body protesting, the shadow smiled, pulling her soul out of her. Briar’s body lay still in a deep, comatose sleep, her heart slowing with each passing moment, until it lay still, her body resting until the shadow returned her soul.

The shadow sped back to its master, Briar’s soul kicking and screaming, protesting violently. Shackling her arms, he pushed her to the floor as they materialised in front of his Lord.

“I have her soul, my Lord.”

“Good; now do what you must with it—make sure your magic is unnoticeable.”

“Yes, my Lord.” He smirked, dragging the soul to his den. He shoved her into a chair, tying her.

“What do you want?—Leave me alone!” she cried.

“You’ll be our reward, little one.” He sniggered.

“Let me go,” she screamed.

He approached her with his knife; it sank deeply into her chest. He watched for her reaction as he twisted it, carving out a hole and pulling out her soul’s heart. Her face went blank; she hadn’t uttered a word. It seemed his knife worked well.

Carrying her soul’s heart to the table; he sliced it open until he got to the place he needed. Gently, he took the jewel out, replacing it with a fake jewel, which the shadow lord had control over. Putting the heart back together again, he shoved it in her soul body. Working backwards with his knife, he pulled it out and she was screaming at him once more.

“You’re annoying me; be quiet,” he said.

“Please let me go I beg you,” she whimpered, tears falling down her face.

“Oh, fine then,” he said. “Here, drink this.” He handed her a cup of wine.

“What is it?”

“Tis wine to help you calm down,” he replied.

“Take me home,” she pleaded.

“Yes. Drink, and I’ll take you back,” he said softly.

Briar’s soul knocked back the drink. The cup fell to the floor. Before she could scream again, her soul blacked out, her memories wiped of her time in the shadow world.

“Tis done, my Lord.” He smiled, bowing to his master.

“Good; take her back, the dawn is breaking.”

Speeding away, he returned to Briar’s apartment where her still body lay. Opening the small cut on her arm, he released her soul back into her body. Her body jerked as her heart began to beat once more. She moaned in distress as he slowly disappeared back to his master, a smile of satisfaction on his face.

 

Briar slept later than usual; missing her alarm. She was in panic mode when she remembered it was Sunday.

“God; I feel awful,” she muttered, holding her head. “What the hell was in my food last night?” she whimpered as pain lanced through her head. Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she staggered to the shower, turning it on full blast. Groaning, she stood there until a thump came on the door.

“Hurry up Bri; you’re not the only one who lives here.”

“Yeah; be out in a few, Ruben,” she called back, wincing in pain when it slashed through her. “What the hell,” she muttered. Washing her hair, she massaged her head, easing the ache. Slowly, it ebbed away. Rinsing her hair and body, she got out of the shower wrapping a towel around her; walking out of the bathroom, straight into Ruben’s arms.

“Took you long enough,” he grouched. “Hey, are you ok?—You kinda look peaky.”

“Sorehead,” she muttered, pulling out of his arms and heading for her room. Ruben watched her, puzzled. He’d never seen her so pale before. Shrugging his shoulders, he went for a shower.

Briar dressed, sweeping her long hair on top of her head. She smiled into the mirror, then frowned. Walking closer to the mirror, she looked again; whatever it was had gone. Grabbing her purse and phone, she went to the kitchen, making breakfast and coffee. Ruben was unusually slow this morning.

“Shit, Bri, you used most of the hot water,” he grumbled, walking into the kitchen, drying his hair with a towel.

“Soz Ru, what we doing today anyway?”

“How about some beach time?” He grinned.

“Nice; I could do with some sun.”

Eating their breakfast and drinking coffee, they were soon ready to roll.

“Here we come beach,” they yelled as Briar roared off down the street in her car.

“Well, she’s a bit wild,” muttered Kendrall from the shadow of the building, “hope she calms for the coming battles.”

“She’d better if she wants her energies,” said Qwaun.

“What are you giving her?”

“Wait and find out, Kendrall.” He smirked and disappeared back to his home.

“Charming,” muttered Kendrall.

 

Briar and Ruben had a blast at the beach, playing volleyball, swimming and sunbathing, though Ruben noted Briar stayed under the sun umbrella this time, which was odd as she loved the sun usually. Mind, after her headache, maybe it was a wise choice.

“How you feeling now, Bri?”

“Really great, this is just what I needed.”

“Headache gone then?”

“Yeah—no idea where it came from, though. I’m not usually one for headaches.”

“Maybe a doctor’s visit, Bri,” he said in concern.

“If it comes back, I will. I promise Ru,” she smiled, kissing his cheek.

“Good enough,” he said, closing his eyes to the sun’s glare and pretending to snooze.

 

Briar shuddered when the falcon flew low over her head; she ducked out of the way, the wind from its wings causing the hair on her arms to lift. Looking around her, she saw the desert in front of her and an oasis behind her. Puzzled, she wandered down to the water to find camels drinking, lizards flicking out their tongues and flies buzzing.

The Falcon charged again. Briar ran, falling in the pool, choking on the water as she tried to swim to the surface.

“What the hell do you want?” she yelled, dragging herself out of the water.

The falcon dived again, this time landing on her shoulder, its claws settling deep in her body. Energy shot through her; making her shudder, she lifted her arms with a huge smile before turning to stroke the falcon’s chest.

“Well, why didn’t you say so,” she muttered as the falcon took off and faded into the distance.

 

“Briar, are you okay?” said Ruben, shaking her shoulder hard. “Bri, wake up,” he said worriedly.

“What, Ru?” she muttered, blinking open her eyes.

“Your shoulder,” he said, holding a hanky to it.

She sat up, wincing, “What the hell,” she muttered, seeing the holes in her shoulder. “What happened?”

“I don’t know; I just woke up and you were bleeding.”

“Look—it’s stopped now, Ru,” she said, lifting the hanky. “Err, Ru; the holes have gone,” she said in confusion.

“What! My god, they’ve gone,” he said, lifting the hanky off her shoulder. “What the hell?” he said, backing away, “Who are you? What’ve you done with Briar?”

She closed her eyes, remembering her dream, remembering she was Bul’ith and Ruben wasn’t. How could she explain this? Sighing, she stood, picking up her towel.

“We need to go back to the apartment, where it’s more private,” she murmured. “I can’t tell you anything here.”

“I-I…” he stuttered, staring at her.

“Ru. I’m still Briar; go pull yourself together and let’s get out of here—before we attract any more attention.

 

The master shadow screamed with pleasure; the raw energy wave hit him hard. His counsellors ran quickly to his side as he laughed. Blue energy waves were beating his chest; his shadow became less vague. Suddenly the energy flow stopped, his head bowed for a moment before looking up.

“It worked—I feel the power inside me! It worked. Bring the shadow wizard,” he laughed with glee.

The wizard bowed low before him.

“Look at me wizard. What do you see?”

“My Lord, you look —how can I put this?—You look lively,” he said, a smile on his face.

“I feel it too, wizard; your idea worked. I can’t wait for the next energy strike.” He smiled.

“We will surely win this time my Lord,” he replied.

“Yes, we shall.” He smirked. “Now go and tell the news to everyone, sing out the wizards’ praises,” he ordered.

The shadows scattered quickly; the wizard bowed, leaving the room knowing it was only the beginning.

 

Ruben was pacing the lounge while Briar poured two drinks, adding ice.

“What the hell is this about, Bri?” he said, turning to her.

“I’m not human, Ru,” she replied, watching his mouth open and close without any words. “I’m Bul’ith,” she carried on.

“You’re not meant to tell him, Briar,” said Kendrall from behind Ruben, “no one’s supposed to know about us.”

“W-who the hell are you?”

“I’m Kendrall; I’m her guide to her destiny,” he sighed shoving his hands in his pockets.

“Well, what did you expect me to tell him,” she snapped out.

“Ruben, you can’t tell anyone we exist,” he said, walking past him to Briar.

“Why?” he said, bewildered.

“Trust us, or you’ll have to come with me until…”

“What the hell is going on?” he snapped. “She was bleeding, had holes in her shoulder, and then they were gone.”

“She’s Bul’ith, we heal quickly.”

“Right,” he said, sitting down, “so I’ve been living with…a Bul’ith for two years and she… Hang on, she had a headache this morning; if you heal quickly, why didn’t her headache go away?”

“What headache?” he said with concern. “Bul’ith never get headaches; it’s impossible,” said Kendrall looking quizzically at Briar. “Tell me what happened?”

“I woke with a blinding headache this morning. I had my dream last night, like you said,” she muttered.

“Do you feel energised?”

“After my shower I felt better,” she said.

“I’ll consult with the Mistress; until then take care. Qwaun will come for you soon.” With that he faded into nothing, making Ruben gasp.

“I-I…did I just see him disappear?”

“Yeah,” she laughed.

“Can you do that?”

“No, I’m too young. I have to train to accomplish the disappearing act.”

“B-but he looked no more than eighteen—I mean he has purple hair for god’s sake.”

“Don’t be fooled; he’s over a thousand years old, give or take a few centuries.”

Ruben gulped loudly, making Briar laugh.

“Come on Ru, you’re safe with me, I promise.”

“Y-yes; of course I am. If you weren’t safe, then you’d have done something ages ago,” he sighed shoving his hands in his pockets.

“Actually, I couldn’t Ru; we don’t get any powers until we turn twenty-one.”

“So, you have powers now?”

“I have energies now.” She smiled. “I need to go and train with Qwaun and my mascot.”

“R-right,” he said, stumbling over his words.

“You can’t tell anyone about this. If anyone finds out, your life will be in danger. Kendrall will probably come get you and put you somewhere safe if that happens.”

“I won’t say a word,” he muttered.

“Ru, I’m sorry I got you involved with this,” she whispered. Briar walked to him, putting her arms around his waist, kissing his cheek. “I honestly didn’t mean this to happen,” she sighed.

“It’s okay Bri,” he said, holding her gently.

 

 

Kendrall’s Concern

Kendrall didn’t like the idea of a Bul’ith having a headache. The last time it had happened, something had gone wrong, though he couldn’t remember what. It was time for the history books.

Seeking out Joz in the library, he requested the books on rare medical conditions with Bul’ith.

“Is everything alright, Kendrall, anything I can help with?” she asked.

“Yes, fine thank you Joz, I just wanted to check something out before I approached our Mistress.” He smiled calmly.

“Here you go,” she replied. “I’ll bring the scrolls over to you, in case you have to go back further.”

“Thanks Joz; you’re a gem,” he said, walking away without seeing her blush at his compliment.

Settling down to read, he sighed, hoping he could find the relevant information quickly. He knew it was there.

 

Qwaun the Bird Keeper

Qwaun wasn’t pleased his falcon had chosen Briar for her energy strikes; she was too wild for his tastes. Needless now, the Falcon had chosen; he’d have to train her for the coming battles.

Dulcie settled on his shoulder, biting his ear. He lifted a hand to stroke her feathers, making her preen with delight. She snuggled into his neck.

“Well Dulcie, I can’t say I’m surprised with your choice, though I do wish you’d thought about this a bit harder,” he muttered.

Dulcie bobbed her head up and down in excitement; she loved her challenge and knew training would be fun this time.

“We’ll get her tomorrow?” He smiled. Dulcie flew up into the air, doing a somersault. “Show-off,” he called out with a laugh.

Qwaun was the handsome twin, with his long, deep red hair plaited with beads of many colours, his startling golden eyes with green flecks and a face any woman would adore.

His eyes twinkled with amusement as he walked the forest pathways, watching Dulcie flit to and fro, diving for her dinner and sitting regally on a branch, waiting for him to catch up. She offered him the mouse before taking off into the air again.

Thanking her, Qwaun watched her soar, looking down at the dead mouse. He blew gently on its face. The mouse wriggled wildly, so he let it go to live for another day.

Kendrall appeared beside him, muttering, a frown on his face.

“What’s the matter Kendrall?”

“I’m not sure. I was talking to Briar earlier.”

“She’s all right?”

“Apparently she had a headache this morning—an excruciatingly bad one; you may have to watch her carefully when you’re training her.”

“We don’t get headaches.” Qwaun frowned.

“Exactly, I haven’t found anything in the old books yet, so I thought I’d warn you.”

“Thanks Kendrall,” he said, though Kendrall had already disappeared. “Dulcie,” he called out, holding out his arm. She flew back and settled down, looking at him, her head to one side. “You keep an eye on Briar when we collect her,” he said softly, stroking her feathers. A nod of her head and she was off again.

 

Briar was happy in Ruben’s arms; he felt good, though she knew they could never be together in life. She enjoyed his friendship.

“Ru,” she said, looking up at his face.

“Yeah Bri,” he said, smiling down at her tenderly.

“I’ll be gone soon, you’ll wake up one morning and I won’t be here. Please don’t panic. Call out for Kendrall if you need anything.”

“I wish you didn’t have to go Bri,” he said, kissing her head.

“Ru, you can’t love me; we can never be together,” she said sadly, stepping away from him.

“Why?”

“My destiny is with another Bul’ith,” she said, turning away, her eyes filling with tears.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

Briar turned back to him, lifting her face and looking directly into his eyes.

“We have to produce another Bul’ith—it’s part of our world —after which, we can choose to be human, or stay Bul’ith; we then provide more children to protect your world.”

“Complication after complication,” he muttered, sitting down. “What do I have to do to become Bul’ith?” he said, his hands flowing like a conductor.

“You can’t, you have to be born Bul’ith,” she said.

“Shit,” he muttered. “I’ll be back later Briar, I need some fresh air.”

“Take care, Ru,” she said, kissing his cheek.

 

“We go into her dreams tonight, Dulcie,” said Qwaun. “He’s getting too close to her. Tomorrow her training will begin.”

Dulcie nodded her head in excitement; she loved the dream world and sharing her energies with another.

 

Ruben hadn’t returned by the time Briar went to bed. She was worried about him, wishing she could help him through the pain he was holding close to his chest.

Tossing and turning Briar finally fell into a deep sleep, welcoming the falcon to her with a smile. Dulcie landed on her shoulder, nuzzling Briar’s neck, her talons sinking deep into her shoulder, making her wince. Powerful energy surged through her body. She jerked in shock as the talons withdrew and the falcon rose into the air, flying away. Briar sank to the ground, her body trembling; unconsciousness claimed her.

Ruben couldn’t wake her, he shook her shoulder violently. He’d returned just in time to hear her scream.

“Wake up Briar,” he urged. “Damn you, Kendrall, something is wrong!—Briar needs you,” he yelled out.

Kendrall materialised beside him. Pulling Ruben out of the way, he placed his hand on Briar’s forehead. Light pushed inside her body, slowing, combing her body for problems.

“What are you doing?” Ruben said.

“Trying to find out what’s wrong with her,” he muttered, his head down in concentration. “Her brain is fine,” he murmured. The ball of light continued its journey, closing in on her heart. The light wavered and stopped. Kendrall lifted his head, looking at Ruben.

“Tell me,” he pleaded.

“She has evil in her heart,” he said.

“No, she’s not evil,” he cried out clenching his fists.

“I didn’t say she was; I said she has evil in her heart. I need to take her now before it gets stronger.”

“Take her where?” he said.

“Ruben, I can’t tell you. I’m sorry,” he said, disappearing, taking Briar with him.

“Noooo,” he cried out, flinging himself down on her bed and beginning to sob.

 

“Joz, I need you to call the Mistress—someone has invaded Briar’s heart.”

“Oh no!—This is terrible,” she replied, rushing away.

Kendrall set Briar on a couch in the library, brushing her hair from her face. Qwaun suddenly appeared; anger on his face at the injustice.

“What happened?”

“Evil did, Qwaun,” he muttered checking the rest of her body.

“She’s meant to start her training tomorrow,” he replied.

“Not going to happen,” he said, sitting back with a sigh and looking up at Qwaun. “We need to repair her heart. I’m not sure how much damage has been done yet; she may not survive.”

“How the hell did this happen?!”

“The shadows are obviously improving their techniques.”

“Do you know what’s wrong with her heart?”

“The Mistress will reveal all. I can only say something is amiss.”

“Dulcie won’t be happy about this.”

“Stay with Briar, please, Qwaun. I need to check on Farron and collect the other trainees.”

“How many trainees this time?” he asked, sitting down beside Briar.

“We have a total of seven,” he replied.

“Go find them, Kendrall,” he said, “Farron is fine, Qwain has her training in the forest—no medical issues so far.”

“Must be great being a twin,” he smiled and faded into nothing.

 

The Mistress arrived quickly, gasping when she saw Briar motionless on the couch.

“What has happened, Qwaun?”

“Kendrall said there is evil in her heart,” he said sadly, “he said you’ll be able to fix her.”

“Bring her to my medical rooms; we’ll find out.”

“She’s meant to start training in a few hours, Mistress,” he replied, picking Briar up.

“Put a hold on Dulcie—she will understand.”

They hurried through the compound, crossing into the medical area. Qwaun placed her down, nodded to the Mistress, and disappeared.

“What can I do?” the Mistress muttered as she scanned Briar’s body. Just like with Kendrall, the light hovered over Briar’s heart. Pressing the light deeper, checking the heart layer by layer, she finally came to the gem. Only the gem didn’t look right. Something was off. Puzzled, the Mistress pushed harder still and got rebuffed.

“Joz,” she called out.

“Yes, Mistress?”

“Please ask the keeper of souls to attend me, along with Briar’s soul.”

“Yes, Mistress.” She nodded and disappeared.

The Mistress paced the medical room restlessly while she waited. He appeared moments later, carrying a bottle with a soul in it.

“Mistress, what can I do for you?”

“Briar has evil in her heart. I can feel it, though I can’t remove it. It’s trapped between her body and her soul. I want to know why, and how we can repair the damage before it’s too late.”

“Her soul should be fine, Mistress.” He frowned.

“Well, it isn’t. You feel her heart.”

He leant over her, pushing his light deep, coming to the same place and not being able to go further.

“Strange,” he muttered. “I can see her gem, though it isn’t right; it’s as if it’s not real.”

“The shadows?” she asked, “but how?”

“The Bul’ith soul only comes to me when they dream; the soul takes a while to adjust before it lifts. It’s possible the soul was stolen before it reached me.”

“Can you release her soul to me? Maybe we can replace the gem with a new one.”

“Mistress, I can remove the gem, as can you, though if we do she’ll become human, no Bul’ith has a spare gem.”

“We need her for the battles, Soul Man.”

“Has she had her first energy blast?”

“Yes, by Dulcie, the falcon.”

He turned away deep in thought, pondering about the difficulties of training a human.

“Have we ever trained a human before, Mistress?”

“Yes; once, many centuries ago. Why?” she asked.

“What happened to the human?”

“They survived, just,” she said.

“If you think it’s worth the risk, we can remove the gem from her soul’s heart and still train her, with two energy blasts and her knowledge she should be stronger than…”

Kendrall appeared at her side.

“She has a human love; it will probably be for the best.”

“So be it; please, Kendrall, let her young man know.”

“So be it,” he echoed her words as he faded from view.

 

Kendrall found Ruben sitting on the couch in his apartment, his head down, his hands between his legs, tears of anguish dripping on the floor.

“Ruben,” Kendrall said gently, touching his shoulder.

“W-what?—Oh, it’s you. What do you want?” he asked, wiping his eyes.”

“Briar will need you, are you willing to come with me?”

“Briar!” he yelled, standing up. “Is she all right?—Please let her be all right.”

“She needs you in our world, Ruben—will you come with me?”

“Yes; take me to her,” he said with a glare.

“She’ll survive, though she’ll need your support, especially during her training.”

“Why?” he said.

“Come, I’ll show you.” He smiled.

“W-w…” his voice trailed off as the apartment disappeared. “Where are we?” he said, looking around.

“We’re in Chantari,” he smiled, “the world of Bul’ith.”

“I’ll leave you here, Ruben; someone shall be here for you shortly. Take care,” he said, disappearing.

“W-where did you go? Well damn,” he muttered.

“You must be Ruben; I’m Joz. I’ll take you to medical and the Mistress; she’ll tell you what you need to know and do.” She smiled gently.

“Thanks; I think,” he said frowning.

 

 

Praxel’s Dreams

Praxel had always dreamt; they never left him. The best part was remembering them and writing them down; he still couldn’t believe he was such a famous author. People loved his books.

With a stretch and a yawn, he stood up from his desk, stretching his limbs and shoulders, easing out the knots. Turning, he walked right into Kendrall.

“Where the hell did you come from?” he said. “There again, who are you?”

“I’m Kendrall.You must be Praxel,” he said holding out his hand.

“How did you get in here?” He frowned. “The door’s locked.”

“I have my ways.”

“So, where did you come from?”

“Chantari,” he replied, “home of the Bul’ith.”

“You’ve obviously read too many of my books young man,” he laughed.

“I’m not young and you’ve had lots of dreams.” He smiled. “The next one will reveal more than you’ve ever…” his voice trailed off as Kendrall disappeared. Praxel’s mouth hung open in stunned shock.

“W-what the hell?” he muttered sinking into his chair. Muttering, he turned back to his computer and started typing fast, his fingers flowing over the keyboard, his imagination soaring into the night.

His eyes drowsy, his fingers finally stopped, he staggered to his feet and laid on the couch. Closing his eyes, sleep claimed him.

Praxel looked around him in disbelief. He found himself in the middle of the Savannah, gazelles’ rushing around, jumping in a mad dash trying to escape a cheetah’s jaw.

The dust swirled around him, choking him. Closing his eyes, he suddenly found himself on the hard, dry ground with a heavy weight above him. Opening his eyes, wiping his hands over them, he knew his time had come.

A cheetah had her paws on his chest, looking at him in wonder. Her tongue came out and licked his face. Praxel’s eyes opened wider, wondering what the hell was going on. Then he remembered the guy with the purple hair.

“Who are you?” he said, picking up his hand and stroking her fur, suddenly unafraid. “What do you want of me?”

She purred and nuzzled his shoulder, a claw ripped his singlet; Praxel shook with fright still not understanding. The cheetah licked his shoulder, opening her mouth, her fangs revealed. She lowered her head, sinking her teeth into him. Praxel cried out in fear, until a surge of energy shot through his body, his mind dancing and swirling at dizzying speeds, until the cheetah released him, licking the wounds; they healed almost immediately.

“Thank you.” He smiled, finally understanding, “You are mine. We’ll work well together,” he laughed, rubbing her head.

She stood up, licking his face once more, then raced off into the distance. Praxel stood smiling, realising his dreams on one plane, were true. He walked for a while, enjoying the sun on his skin.

It was a thumping on his study door which woke him.

 

Bunita’s Bear

Boss, the bear, roared into the night. He wasn’t happy being awakened before his time; he walked out of his cave, looking around in the snow to see who’d made a noise.

Avron stood still and silent, waiting for Boss to see her, a smile slowly spreading across her cold, pink cheeks. Blowing a frosty breath, she turned slightly. Boss saw the movement. About to roar in anger again, he saw who it was and ran full pelt toward her tiny frame. Knocking Avron over, she laughed joyfully as they rolled around in the cold snow, play fighting.

“Gerroff, you idiot,” she yelled when Boss stilled, washing her face. “It’s nearly time to meet your destiny trainee, Boss.”

He growled with displeasure, rolling away, climbing to his paws, plodding off into the forest.

“Don’t you leave me behind, Boss,” she called out, chasing after him. He stopped in his tracks and sat down just as a snowball sailed through the air, hitting him squarely on the nose. Avron burst out laughing when he shook his head in disgust. Nose in the air, he continued on his way, leaving Avron yelling after him.

 

Bunita walked down the dusty dirt road towards her village, carrying water on her shoulders. Sweat dripped down her back, the weight making her nearly bend in half. Her little brother followed with a bucket on his head, a smile on his face as he sang out of tune.

“Shush, will you,” she muttered out.

“I love to sing, Buni,” he grinned, running to catch up with her.

“My name is Bunita,” she grouched through gritted teach.

“Ma calls you Buni.”

“Ma has the right to call me what she wishes; you don’t.”

“Come on, slowcoach, or we’ll be late for the ceremony,” he yelled out, stalking away.

“You come carry this then, and I’ll carry your load.”

“No way, not that daft,” her brother smirked and hurried away.

 

Finally arriving back in the village, Bunita dropped the water barrels by the house, covering them with a cloth to help keep them cool. Wiping her face, she entered the mud house, asking her mother what else needed doing.

“Nothing Bunita, you go to the ceremony, make sure all the children behave. It is a special one tonight.”

“What’s so special?”

“You will learn who, about the Bul’ith race—the chosen one will go to train with them.”

“Really Ma?” she smiled.

“Yes,” she smiled, cupping her daughter’s chin in her hands. “This year, you’re old enough, so be brave if you’re the chosen one, my daughter.”

“Yes, Ma, I’ll be brave.” Her little brother sniggered in the background, making her frown.

“Come, brother, we need to gather the children,” she ordered.

“Yes, Bunita,” he scowled. He dare not disobey when his ma was around.

Bunita quickly unplaited her hair, pulling her fingers through it, so it draped down her back like a curtain.

“You look lovely, Buni,” said Ma.

“Now go catch up, and blessings be with you.” She kissed her daughter’s face and watched her walk down to the village square.

 

The children and unmarried adults all sat and listened to the lessons of the Bul’ith; stories they’d heard before.

They grew up surrounded by them. There were stories of the purple-headed boy who came and left at will, disappearing in front of your eyes. Only destiny’s children saw him. Many of the tribe’s people didn’t know what to believe. Destiny children were sorted from many different tribes.

“They are mystical and enchanting beings,” he said. “One of you will become Bul’ith,” said the Shaman. “It is your destiny to go and has been since your birth.”

“How do we learn who is to go?” asked one young man.

“You’re chosen via dreams.” He smiled.

“Dreams?” another asked.

“An animal will come to you, is all I know. You will receive energy from them; this is a sign of your connection.”

“When does the dream happen?”

“Soon my son, very soon.” He smiled. “Now go and enjoy the time you have left here. By week’s end, one of you will have left us. Good luck and blessings.”

The younger children raced home, telling their parents the stories they’d heard. They smiled, remembering their own time during the chosen ceremony. The old ones walked, talking, wondering who’d be the chosen one.

“Who went last year?”

“Graith did,” said Bunita.

“I wonder if he met the purple-headed man.”

“One of us will soon find out,” she said. “Good night; I need to go help Ma with supper and the children.” She smiled, her beauty lighting up her deep brown eyes. She turned away, the young men looking at her wistfully.

 

Sleep came quickly to Bunita. So did the cold seeping into her bones, making her shiver. She opened her eyes, finding herself sitting on something wet and white. Standing quickly, she looked around; all she could see were trees and more white stuff.

“Where am I?” she said quietly. “What is this place?”

“You are the chosen one, Bunita,” said a young, dainty woman. “Come; Boss is waiting to meet with you.”

“Who’s Boss, who are you, where am I?”

“My name is Avron, I’m your trainer and Boss is your energy. You will like him; he’s great fun.”

“Boss is my animal.” She smiled.

“Yes,” she replied. “I see you’re well-taught, Bunita.”

“Where is this place?”

“I can’t tell you until later.”

They walked in the snow. Bunita shivered. Suddenly she stopped—fur clothing replaced her summer sari and shoes on her feet. She smiled.

“Magical place,” she muttered, making Avron laugh.

“That’s Kendrall for you.”

“Who’s Kendrall?”

“He’ll come and talk to you soon.”

As they approached a clearing, Bunita put her hand to her throat at the sight of the huge black bear.

Avron continued forward. Realising Bunita had stopped, she beckoned her forward. Bunita shook her head. “Bunita, come, Boss won’t hurt you.” She smiled, holding out her hand.

“Boss is the bear,” she said quietly, slowly edging her way toward Avron.

“Yes, he’s a cool dude.” She grinned when Boss lifted his head and growled. Bunita backed away.”Behave, Boss,” Avron said sternly.

Sitting up, he yawned, looking Bunita up and down. Slowly he stood, wandering over to her, sniffing at her small frame.

“You sure he’s safe, Avron?”

“Yes,” she giggled watching the bear behind Bunita open its mouth, ready to pass the energy on.

Avron walked over, taking Bunita’s hands. Looking her in the eyes, she started to chant. The fur coat disappeared for a moment. Bunita, mesmerised by the chant, didn’t feel the cold. Boss leant over Bunita’s shoulder, his sharp fangs ready. Watching for Avron’s nod, he bit into Bunita’s shoulder, his teeth sinking deep. Energy coursed through her body. She closed her eyes accepting her destiny; her head thrown back, she felt Boss lick her shoulder and the fur coat return to heat her body back up.

Her shoulder ached a little, though she felt great.

“Go to sleep now, Bunita; Kendrall will visit and then Boss and I will come get you, to begin your training.” She smiled. Touching Bunita’s face, she dropped to the hard, dry floor in the mud house and slept contently.

 

Bunita woke to the usual family noises around her. Smiling, she prepared herself for her chores, helping Ma with the children, knowing time was short now. She was the chosen one, and her animal was Boss, the Bear.

Tears ran down her face with joy. All she needed to do now was wait for a person called Kendrall.

Seeing her face, her ma ran over, taking her into her arms, smiling at the joy.

“You are the chosen, Bunita?”

“Yes, Ma; I am.”

“Good luck and blessings on your journeys,” she said, stroking her soft cheek.

“I’m not sure when I will go Ma, so I will help you until the time comes.”

“Tis good we trained up your sister to take your place.”

“Aye. She’ll do good Ma.”

“Don’t go,” said the voice of her young brother. His hand slipped into hers, his grip tight. “Please don’t leave us.”

“I’ll always be in your heart,” she said stroking his hair.

“I don’t want you to go, Buni,” he cried.

“I am the chosen one. I have no choice. Come with me today, and help with the chores.”

“Yes, Buni,” he muttered, his face dirty with tears.

Yani moped around all day, wishing he’d not teased her the day before.

 

Bunita and Yani were by the creek when Kendrall appeared beside them; he was so out of place with his purple hair—never mind his jeans and T-shirt.

Bunita nearly walked into him. She screeched, dropping her water barrels. Yani glared at the man, then looked closer, his mouth dropping open in surprise.

“The purple-headed man,” he whispered out.

“Hi, Yani, it’s nice to meet you,” he said, stretching out his arm and rubbing the boy’s hair. “I need a word with your sister, if you’ll excuse us for a moment.”

“O-of course,” he mumbled, sitting down on the dry dirt ground.

Bunita pulled herself together, patting down her dress and looked at Kendrall properly for the first time.

“You scared me,” she murmured.

“Apologies, Bunita; let us walk and chat.”

“You’re mentioned at each ceremony. They say you appear at will.”

“I appear, as you say, to all new trainees.” He smiled.

“What do you tell them?”

“You’ve already met Boss, and your trainer is Avron,” he said. “Once you’re fully trained, Avron will leave you with Boss. It is his job to keep you energised with bear energy.”

“How do I get the energy?”

“Due to Boss’s size, Avron will teach you a chant to say.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Boss will bite your shoulder with his fangs, like he did in your dream last night.”

“He bit me,” she said, stopping on the track, her eyes widening.

“Bul’ith don’t feel much pain,” he smiled. “Avron will teach you the chant due to your small stature. It’s entirely up to you, if you use it.” He shrugged.

“He bit me,” she muttered, “where…,” she trailed off. Kendrall had gone.

“Avron will collect you tomorrow morning, Bunita,” she heard whispered on the breeze.

“Buni, Buni,” shouted Yani as he raced towards her. “I saw,” he yelled, his eyes wide.

“Yes, you did.” She smiled gently, taking him into her arms. “We’d better get the water back to Ma,” she continued.

“Yes Buni.”

 

Mitsuoshi

The anaconda slid through the long grass, hidden from Avrain, who was waiting at the edge of the forest, impatiently tapping her foot, her hands on her hips.

“Hurry up Contra,” she yelled out.

Contra stilled, hissing in displeasure. She didn’t like her hunting disturbed; she was dangerously hungry. Seeing a rabbit she slithered closer. The rush made the rabbit freeze, and then it was gone, down Contra’s throat.

“We need to go Contra,” Avrain called out.

Rushing at speed to Avrain, she wrapped around her body, hugging her.

“Let me go, you daft sod; I can barely breathe.” The anaconda let go, piling in loops around her feet on the ground, making Avrain stumbled slightly before righting herself.

“Honestly, I don’t know what to do with you at times, Contra,” she muttered. “Come on; we need to visit Mitsuoshi, it’s nearly dream-time.”

Eager to please Avrain, Contra slid after her quickly, keeping pace, slithering through the wet grass towards the river.

 

Mitsuoshi had a brilliant mind and the world at his feet—or so he thought. He knew everything; knowing he was superior to anyone else in his village. His scorn for them showed on his face, the pity he felt making him feel like a god.

He did work hard, though he couldn’t wait to leave the village and prove he was a master of all. One day he would be rich and famous and they would bow to him and his superiority.

Kendrall watched from a distance; with a sigh, shoved his hands in his jeans, wondering why this Bul’ith was one of the chosen. Shaking his head, he faded from sight to see what Avrain was going to do to bring this young man to heel.

“Avrain,” he called out.

“Kendrall.” She smiled impishly.

“Why did you choose Mitsuoshi?”

“You need a leader for the battles; he will make a great leader for the Bul’ith.”

“I’m worried. He thinks he is better than everyone, Avrain.”

“Which is why I chose Contra to be his energy.” She smiled.

“Contra?” he asked.

“She’s behind you, come say hello.”

Kendrall turned. He couldn’t see anything.

“Lower your eyes a bit,” she giggled.

Kendrall’s jaw dropped. He hurriedly stepped back. “My god, Avrain, you gave him an anaconda—twill scare him to death,” he managed to get out.

“They will work well together.” She smiled as Contra slid up her body, flicking her tongue over Avrain’s face.

“Well, you know best, I suppose. Are you going tonight for the first dream?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“He may reject you, so be careful, his character is disdainful and strong.”

“Don’t worry; I have my plans set, Kendrall.”

“Good luck,” he replied as he faded from sight.

 

In the days which followed, Mitsuoshi started to dream about weird and wonderful creatures. One turned into a nightmare. He woke, sweat dripping off his body. He shuddered, looking around. He wasn’t one to dream—dreams were your fate and if read correctly, his future didn’t look good.

His determination to ignore them grew, though it never worked. He tried not to sleep and became a shadow of his former self; not the strong, arrogant leader, now a pale face with black shadows under his eyes. The village people looked at him, some laughing behind his back, enjoying his downfall.

The time had come for Contra to visit—not that he knew his life was about to change forever.

Mitsuoshi sat in his chair in his bedroom, his eyes wide, his brain asleep; his dreams seeping in.

 

The river was loud. The water thundered along at a rapid pace, dirty from the recent rains. Mitsuoshi stood and watched, his hands in his pockets, totally unaware of his surrondings for a moment.

His eyes blinked. He hurriedly stepped away from the river’s edge, not wanting to be caught in its rage. He looked behind him to find a lush green forest. He walked up the riverbank, his eyes searching for he knew not what.

“Where the hell am I?” he muttered.

“You’re in Chantari,” said a soft female voice by his side.

He looked over and stumbled backwards over a root, landing on his butt. “Who are you? Where did you come from?”

“I’m Avrain, your trainer.” She smiled.

“Trainer for what? I don’t understand, this is a dream,” he replied, looking her up and down.

“I’ll train you to battle the shadows. My friend here is your energy.” She grinned as Contra popped her head up with a hiss.

Mitsuoshi scrambled backwards on his butt, his eyes wide with fear. “Shit, there’s an anaconda behind you!—You’d better move,” he cried out, obviously not hearing what Avrain had said.

“Contra is your anaconda, she will give you the energy you need to train and become Bul’ith.”

“I don’t want an anaconda,” he cried out, his fear great.

“Come now, you’re a big strong young man. You love to lead—surely you can cope with little Contra now.” She laughed, stroking her head.

“W-what will she do to me?”

“Come and say hello, she’s friendly.”

Contra hissed, her tongue flicking out as she smelt him approach unsteadily. Nervously, he held out his hand. She flicked her tongue out to touch and taste him. Sliding forward, she curled part of her body around his feet, her head appearing over his shoulder, as she continued to smell and feel him.

“She likes you, Mitsuoshi,” Avrain laughed.

“She’s beautiful, though, so big,” he muttered, trying hard not to move.

“Relax; she needs to pass her energy to you.”

“How does she do that?”

“She will bite your shoulder and sink her fangs in.”

Mitsuoshi shook with fear.

Avrain calmed him with a chant, though she didn’t put him in a trance.

“I-I can’t do this,” he muttered.

“You’re chosen; you have no choice in the matter, Mitsuoshi.” His top disappeared; his heart rate soared. “Relax, you’ll feel better. It won’t hurt, you’re Bul’ith.

Contra opened her mouth, lowering it over his shoulder and bit deeply. A surge of energy flew through Mitsuoshi, so powerful he closed his eyes, clenching his fists, his body jerking in welcome. Releasing him, Contra licked his wound and the bite disappeared from sight.

“My god, what was that?”

“Your energy,” Avrain smiled.

“I don’t feel any different,” he frowned in puzzlement.

“You are no different in your dreams and the human world.”

“What’s Bul’ith?”

“Kendrall will visit and tell you all you need to know,” she replied.

 

The dream faded and Mitsuoshi woke suddenly, his whole body shaking in…he didn’t know…he remembered every part of the dream and tried to work out what it meant.

He wandered around, bemused with what he’d dreamt. Had it been real? He touched his shoulder; it didn’t hurt at all, no marks, nothing. His attention span was short; to the other workers’ amusement, Mitsuoshi was yelled at several times.

It was during lunch when Kendrall appeared in front of him, his purple hair sticking out a mile. Mitsuoshi gaped at him for a moment. “Where did you come from?”

“Remember your dream, Mitsuoshi.” He smiled.

“Y-yes.”

“I’m Kendrall. Avrain will come for you on the morrow.”

“Where will I go?”

“Back to Chantari to train in the Bul’ith ways,” he said.

“What’s Bul’ith?”

“You are.” He smiled and faded away.

“Well, that didn’t tell me much,” he muttered.

“Look, see,” chuckled one of the workers. “He’s going mad; he’s talking to himself.”

They all laughed, though Mitsuoshi ignored them, returning to work. He’d be glad to get home and ponder over his dream and the little lady called Avrain.

Farron’s Encounter

They just wouldn’t leave me alone; shadows were always making a grab for my legs, trying their best to pull me into their world. It never worked of course. I was far too quick for them.

Though I was late in learning about the Bul’ith race, I gained the knowledge quickly. Qwain was impressed—I could see it in his eyes.

“Sharam stop,” I hollered out to my darling wolf: we’d become inseparable, much to Qwain’s delight.

He skidded to a halt and bounded back to me, knocking me flat on the grass and washing my face. “Gerroff you nut,” I said, shoving his face away, wiping my arm over my own face to get rid of the slather. “I wish you’d not do that, Sharam,” I said. He just lay down and rolled over, expecting a rub on his tummy.

Sharam bit me nightly now. I was used to it. The surge of energy was most welcome. My powers of the wolf grew stronger. I could hear better, my sight had improved dramatically. Nothing passed me without notice, though I am sure Qwain had something up his sleeve to trick me with.

Out of the weapons of choice, I still preferred my dagger. I had a quick hand, as well as quick feet.

“Qwain, tell me why the Shadows keep attacking me?”

“Remember your dream, Farron.”

I lay back in the grass, leaning my head on Sharam’s stomach, closing my eyes. I thought back to the night I thought evil had caught up with me.

“I remember some voices calling me a saviour, and a white light, who took me out of danger.”

“The shadows were drawing you to them—the Mistress took you out of danger; it’s not yet your time to confront them.”

“How close are we to battle?” I asked opening my eyes.

“You still have much to learn and others to meet, Farron,” he said in an amused voice.

“Where are you?”

The light distorted and Qwain appeared beside me.

“I’m here,” he chuckled.

“How do you do that?”

“One day you will learn, though tis not for you just yet.”

“So what’s next? I’m sick of the forest, could do with a change of scenery.”

“What sort?”

“Somewhere hot?” I said. “Eek, how the…” I trailed off, looking around in wonder at the Savannah and all the wild animals surrounding me. “Wow,” I whispered.

“Good enough?”

“Yeah; can we go and explore?”

“Of course you can. Stay with Sharam though, Farron; he will protect you if the need arises.”

“This is cool,” I said, though Qwain wasn’t there.

We watched the animals saunter along, the elephants in a queue, the old bull elephant leading them, the cute babies running to keep up, trying hard not to get stepped on. Gazelles jumped and ran like delicate ballerinas pirouetting in the air after each jump. The lions, tigers and cheetahs stayed in the background, watching, hunting; waiting to pounce.

“It’s beautiful here,” I muttered, wishing there was someone to speak with.

A cheetah walked out of the grass, sauntering over to us. Sharam growled low in his throat, before sniffing the air. Tongue hanging out, he bounced forward, and they—to my utmost disbelief—began to play, racing around like kids.

“Seems they like each other,” said a male voice beside me.

“Aargh, where the hell did you come from?”

“Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you,” he smiled. “I’m Praxel; who are you?”

“Farron,” I said gruffly. “The wolf is Sharam.”

“The cheetah is mine and we roam the Savannah together.”

“Are you Bul’ith?”

“Yes, and no doubt you are too,” he smiled, holding out his hand to shake mine.

“Yes,” I smiled. “Though I’ve much to learn,” I said taking his hand.

“I have known all my life, though only through dreams, which I honestly thought were only dreams,” he laughed, dropping my hand.

“Who’s your trainer?”

“Trainer.” He frowned. “I have only got cheetah,” he said.

“Weird, we’re all meant to have trainers,” I replied with a frown.

“Who’s your trainer?”

“Qwain; he’s great.”

“You called?” He smirked when we both jumped.

“Qwain this is Praxel; he says he doesn’t have a trainer.”

“Hello, Praxel.” He grinned. “You do have a trainer; you just haven’t met her yet,” he laughed, “she’s, how do you say…”

“You can stop right now, Qwain,” hissed out a little, musical voice. “I can’t help being late,” she harrumphed.

“Ngaire, you were meant to start training him days ago—how he got here without you I’ve no idea.”

“Coz he’s an intelligent young man.” She grinned.

“Thank you Ngaire.” He smiled. “Does cheetah have a name?”

“Yes, you can call her Kobi.”

The wolf and cheetah raced up at that moment, pouncing on Praxel and me, taking us to the ground. Ripping our tops they bit us hard with their fangs. The sudden burst of energy had us screaming out in shock as it poured through our veins. Licking the wounds closed, they lay beside us and went to sleep.

“What the hell?” I said.

“Well, that was interesting.” Qwain smirked to Ngaire.

“Why did the cheetah bite me?” I asked.

Praxel was looking at me, his eyes wide in shock; he shook his head and smiled at Sharam.

“Thank you for your confidence in me Sharam,” he said gently, receiving a lick.

“W-what…is…going…on?” I said, getting to my feet.

“We’re betrothed, Farron.” Praxel smiled.

“What the hell does that mean?”

“After the battle, we will marry and have a child.” He grinned.

“Hell!—no way,” I said, stumbling back.

“The animals have chosen, there is nothing you—” He grinned. “Nor I, can do.”

“You have to be kidding me,” I yelled out. “Qwain?”

“What he says is true, so I suggest you start getting to know each other. And you can train together too.”

“Well, crap, what happens if I don’t like him?”

“Tough. Anyway, I’m a nice guy, honest,” Praxel replied.

“What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a writer of novels, fantasy,” he replied, walking away from Qwain and Ngaire. “What about you?”

“Computer graphics,” I muttered hunching my shoulders.

“Hey, it’s not so bad, Farron,” he said, gently pulling me into his arms.

“Gerroff, me,” I said, trying to pull away without success.

“We’ll deal well,” he murmured smoothing my hair out of my face.

“You like motorbikes?”

“Hell yeah—they’re awesome—I have a Harley at home!”

“Ok,” I muttered against his chest, “maybe this could work.” I looked up, seeing a smile flash across his face. Our eyes clashed and I couldn’t drag mine away. He kissed my hair softly before releasing me. Taking my hand, we went for a walk, Sharam and the cheetah on either side of us.

We turned back to the shady tree. Qwain and Ngaire had gone, leaving us supplies for the following few days.

 

Maxwell Grange

Max loved life and lived it to the fullest; surf, sea and good friends were all he needed. The Raglan coast had the best surf on the planet, as far as he was concerned.

He was standing on his surfboard, dancing through the waves towards the sands, when a guy appeared behind him on his surfboard. Yelling out, they both plunged into the cold sea water, Max trying not to gulp too much saltwater down, swimming to the surface. Max looked around for the dude with no success. He hurried into the sand, to raise the alarm, only to find him standing beside him in dry clothes.

“What the hell?!—How did you get dry so quickly?” He glowered.

“Sorry Maxwell, I mistimed my landing,” he chuckled.

“How the hell do you know my name?” he said, shaking his hair out of the way and dragging his board up the beach.

“I know lots about you, Max. Don’t worry though,” he replied, “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“As if,” he tossed over his shoulder. “So what do you want?”

“Just here to prepare you for a dream you’ll have this night, Maxwell, your destiny lies elsewhere.” He smiled and disappeared.

“What the?” he muttered.

“You all right, Max? You were doing so well and then suddenly, for no reason you went under, never seen the like before.”

“Soz, Garth; lost my concentration for a moment.” He shrugged.

“Not like you to do that.”

“Everyone has off days, Garth,” he said mildly.

“Well, its competition tomorrow, so you’d better keep practising.”

“You too, Garth; I aim to beat you again,” they high-fived and went their separate ways.

 

Sun, salty air and the roar of waves put Maxwell to sleep that night. Exhaustion set in with all the extra training he’d done. He’d pleased his coach in the end after his slip up that morning. Arms behind his head, he relaxed. The image of a guy with purple hair came to him; he frowned, so not understanding what the hell he was on about.

“Dreams,” he muttered with a shrug. Closing his eyes, he did exactly that. It was the most vivid dream he’d ever had.

 

The ocean disappeared, as he dragged his feet inland to his home in the mountains. He was footsore, weary with life and what it did to him. It wasn’t fun anymore. His friends left him to his solitude. Sighing deeply, he trudged up the last hill and over the rise, looking down at his hut.

His mouth opened in shock; blinking his eyes, he slowly opened them again to find his imagination wasn’t playing games with him. He sat abruptly on the dirt track, scratching his head, trying to work out why a huge, dragon-like lizard sat in front of his door with a tall Maori fellow leaning against him.

“Kia Ora, Maxwell, come, let me introduce you,” he said with a huge smile.

Climbing to his feet, Max walked down the slope, still wondering about what he saw. “Who are you?”

“I’m Nikau and this is Jenga.” He smiled.

“Why are you sitting on my doorstep?”

“Coz, we couldn’t get in bro.” He grinned. “Would love a cuppa tea too,” he said climbing to his feet.

“You want to come in?”

“What—don’t you like visitors bro?”

“Not used to them,” he muttered, “people don’t like me.”

“Well, we do,” he chuckled, ordering Jenga to his feet.

“You do what?”

“Like you, of course, you daft sod,” he said, putting his arm around Max’s shoulder.

“Oh, right, of course,” he said, opening the door. “You’d best come in and tell me why you’re here,” he added, shuffling through the door; plonking himself into a chair. “Help yourself to tea; sorry, I’m exhausted.”

“You’ll be okay Max,” he said cheerfully, helping himself and making a cup for Max.

“Thanks; you didn’t have to,” he muttered. “What did you want?”

“Well, as this is a dream, you need to get to know Jenga. She’ll give you an energy boost you need to get to Bul’ith.”

“What’re you on about?” he asked.

“I’m going to train you to fight in the battle of the shadows; first you need your animal energy boost, so you can return to Bul’ith in two days.”

“Where’s Bul’ith?”

“Not too far—just around the corner,” he chuckled.

“How do I get the animal energy?”

“Oh, that’s easy, Jenga bites your shoulder,” he said gravely.

Max spat out the tea in his mouth, gaping at Nikau. Jenga rose to his feet and approached Max, her tongue flicking out.

“That thing ain’t biting me; it’ll kill me,” he said, shoving his chair back, banging into the wall.

“It won’t hurt Max,” he said. “She’ll heal you too.”

“Of course it’ll bloody hurt; it’ll rip me sodding shoulder off.”

“No, she won’t; she’s as gentle as a giant.”

Max closed his eyes, hiding the terror in them. His top disappeared and Jenga the dragon dripped saliva on his shoulder. Shuddering in terror, he waited and waited. A sudden shot of pure energy hit him hard, making him scream out. Then it stopped and he was sitting by the hearth, once more fully dressed.

“See, it wasn’t that bad now was it?”

“D-did it bite me?” he stuttered.

“Yes, Max.”

“So what happens now?”

“I think I’ll send Kendrall back to see you; you seem a bit of a mess.”

“Th-the man with purple hair?” he asked.

“Yeah.” He grinned. “He can’t seem to help loving purple.”

“Tell him tomorrow night, if he’s going to come here,” he replied.

“You rest now and get some much-needed sleep. I’ll see you in a couple of days.”

 

Max woke early feeling totally refreshed, his energy levels high and alert; he was determined to do well in the competitions today. Rolling off his bed, he found a toy dragon on the floor; puzzled, he looked at it before picking it up and tossing it over his shoulder.

Soon he was sprinting along the beach, a smile on his face, enjoying the salty air. He knew he’d have a great competition day; he’d show Garth what he was capable of.

Briar’s Breakthrough

Ruben stood waiting, looking around him in awe at the magnificent building which surrounded him.

“Hi,” said a voice, “I’m Joz; you must be Ruben. Will you come this way, please?”

“You’ll take me to Briar?” he said urgently.

“Yes.” She smiled, taking his hand. “Don’t worry so; she’ll be fine. The Mistress and soul keeper will bring her through.”

“Are you sure, Joz?” he said, his face still pale from all the tears he’d shed.

“Yes Ruben.” She smiled gently, leading him to a room where he could rest. “I’ll tell Mistress you’re here,” she said and disappeared through an archway.

 

The Mistress’s worry heightened; she didn’t know if Briar would like the change in her life.

“Mistress, Ruben is here.”

“Thank you, Joz, I’ll see him shortly.”

“Will Briar be all right?”

“Yes; though I need to speak with Ruben first. He may be able to answer a question for me.”

Ruben was startled when a beautiful woman appeared in front of him. Her golden hair shone in the light. Blue eyes smiled at him.

“Ruben,” she said.

“Yes, are you the one they call Mistress?”

“Yes.” She smiled. “I need for you to answer a question to the best of your knowledge.”

“I’ll do anything to help.”

“How would Briar react to being human and no longer Bul’ith?”

“Oh god; is this what it comes down to?”

“Yes,” she nodded.

“She’ll be devastated, though I’ll be here for her; I love her.”

“You’d have to be strong to get her through this.”

“What happened for it to come to this?”

“Her gem has been stolen,” the Mistress sighed.

“Her gem?”

“All Bul’iths have gems in the heart of their souls. Briar’s is fake, meaning someone stole hers.”

“How could this happen?”

“The shadows will go to any lengths to gain control over your world.”

“Will she still train?”

“Yes; she’s one of the chosen. She will still train, though you’ll need to be with her.”

“I would be happy to stay.” He smiled.

“You love Briar a lot.” She smiled. “I’ll do my best Ruben,” she said, shimmering from view.

 

Briar didn’t know where she was. It was dark; she couldn’t see anything at all. No sound; nothing. She wondered if this was what death was for Bul’ith. Briar stood up trying to look harder. She didn’t like the darkness; she wished Ruben was with her. Wrapping her arms around her, she spoke, wondering if she’d get a reply.

“Hello, is anyone there?”

“Be calm Briar, we’re trying to help you,” said a soft, female voice.

She felt a hand on her arm, heat flooding her body, and she calmed. Sitting down, she closed her eyes, relaxing into sleep.

 

“How much longer, Soul Keeper?”

“We’re at the tricky part. You’ll need to keep her calm; one small move and…” he replied. He opened the soul jar, nothing happened.

“Hurry,” the Mistress said.

“Her soul must still be inside of her,” he muttered.

“Yes; of course it is—she came here from the human world.”

“It needs pulling out of her. I need to take her gem out of the soul’s heart.”

“Will you hurry before we lose her, Soul Keeper!?” she murmured.

He pulled out her soul and delved into her soul’s heart, mumbling and muttering as he cut layer after layer until he found the fake gem. “It’s a mess, there’s a protection shield.”

“Break it!—Take it out—I’m losing her—she’s getting agitated.”

He cracked the shield. A loud scream rent through the air; the fake gem dropped into his hand. Quickly, he closed the heart back up, sewing her soul and replacing it inside her body.

Ruben burst into the room; the scream had seized him, his pale face full of fright. “What happened!?” he yelled.

“Calm down, Ruben; she needs you calm,” said the Mistress. “What you heard was evil protesting its eviction.”

He walked over to Briar, touching her warm skin. Her eyes flickered open, a small smile on her lips.

“Ruben,” she said then closed her eyes settling into a deep sleep.

“Call Qwaun,” the Mistress said, “she’ll need energy to get better for training.”

“When will you tell her she’s human?”

“When the time’s right, Ruben, and not before,” she said sternly.

They transferred Briar to a more comfortable room with en-suite facilities. Ruben sat in the chair beside the bed and soon fell asleep.

 

The falcon flew high, looking for Briar. She was getting anxious not seeing her; it was nearly time for another energy boost. On and on she flew until Briar suddenly appeared by the pool at the Oasis. She flew down, landing on a rock close by, looking at her. She seemed different. Dulcie called.

Briar lifted her head and smiled, holding out her arm. “Come here Dulcie,” she said. “Let’s walk for a while.”

Dulcie flew up and carefully landed on Briar’s arm, keeping her talons withdrawn.

“How are you?” she murmured. Dulcie hopped onto her shoulder and nuzzled her cheek, nipping her ear. “Behave, you scoundrel.”

Qwaun materialised in front of her, smiling. “How are you feeling Briar?”

“A bit sore,” she replied. “Is it time for Dulcie to give me some energy?”

“We thought you’d like a bit extra.” He smiled.

“Thank you, Qwaun.”

Qwaun started to chant a relaxing tune. Smiling, he held Briar’s hands, watching Dulcie get ready. Both knew it would probably hurt Briar—it was different for each human and at least she’d had her first energy as Bul’ith, they hoped it would help.

Dulcie’s talons bit into her flesh, digging deep; Briar winced, though she relaxed, listening to Qwaun.

Suddenly Briar’s body started shaking. A powerful energy boost rippled through her body, throwing back her head. She cried out, her body jerking in shock; her heart pounding faster and faster until she blacked out.

“Hell,” said Qwaun, picking her up. He looked at her shoulder; it had mended slightly, though it would leave scars.

Qwaun chanted her back out of the dreamscape; she smiled at him and settled back into her normal dream patterns.

Ruben had jumped at her cry, though he saw she was still sleeping deeply. He sat on the edge of her bed, moving her hair from her eyes and kissing her cheek, praying she’d get better.

 

Mitsuoshi and Contra

Mitsuoshi woke to find Avrain standing by his bed; an enormous anaconda beside her; its head on her shoulder. He shuddered before remembering they were taking him to a place called Chantari.

“Why are you choosing me? I have a good life here.”

“You are Bul’ith and chosen to train; you are honoured.”

“I have no idea what Bul’ith is,” he whispered.

“You will learn, Mitsuoshi,” she said, placing a hand on his arm. His surroundings changed and he found himself back at the river of his dream, from the night before.

“Is this place real, or am I in another dream?”

“It’s as real as you are, Mitsuoshi.” She smiled.

“What happens now?”

“You need more energy, and then we’ll train.” Avrain smiled.

“N-no way is that creature biting me again,” he stuttered out.

“You won’t feel anything. You’ll be fine; I promise.” She smiled. “Come let’s walk.”

“W-what about the energy?” he asked.

“You’re too nervous; you need to calm and accept your destiny.”

“What is my destiny?”

“To battle the shadow realm and keep them from breaking free.”

“What happens if they break free?”

“They will invade the human world and cause chaos from deep inside each and every person they can get into.”

“Why would they do this?”

“It is part of the evil of life,” she murmured.

“Why don’t they invade the Bul’ith?”

“It’s happened on the odd occasion, though they have survived and turned to human.”

“How does a Bul’ith change to human?”

Avrain stopped; turning to stand in front of him, she placed a hand on his heart. Mitsuoshi looked down in surprise.

“Deep in the soul of your heart is a gem,” she said. “It’s this gem which makes you Bul’ith. You were born to Bul’ith parents.”

“M-my parents were human,” he said.

“Your adoptive parents were human.” She smiled. “Your birth parents are still Bul’ith and very much alive.”

“Why did they abandon me?”

“A Bul’ith child is reared in the human world until the age of twenty-one. At this age, they can become a chosen one like you. Your parents decided to stay as Bul’ith; they wished to carry on working in this realm.”

“Couldn’t they live as Bul’ith in the human world?”

“No; it’s not possible—they’d have died quickly. We can only visit. This is why you’re given a choice after the battle is over.”

“So I can go back to my village or stay here.”

“Yes, the only other thing you need to do is produce a Bul’ith child before you decide where you’ll live.”

“I-I don’t have any…”

“Don’t worry, you will be betrothed before the battle begins.”

“Oh, err, right, I think,” he replied, making her chuckle.

Looking up at him she smiled; Contra was behind him, ready for the bite. Avrain nodded her head. Contra opened her mouth, her fangs biting deeply into his shoulder. Mitsuoshi felt the surge of energy pump through his body; he turned to look at Contra, her fangs firmly implanted in his shoulder. He sighed. His body jerked when she released him, closing his wounds and healing them. She wound her body around him, her tongue flicking out over his face. He smiled, feeling no terror anymore.

“Hi, Contra,” he said, sliding his hand over her head.

“She likes you, Mitsuoshi,” Avrain laughed.

“So what’s next, Avrain?”

“I’ll leave you two to get to know each other.”

“When does my training start?”

“Soon,” she said, shimmering out of sight.

“Well Contra, what would you like to do then?” He smiled at her.

She hissed, uncoiling her body from around him and slid off into the undergrowth, lifting her head she looked at him. With a grin, he followed her; excited about his new life.

 

Kalos the Wild Boar

Kalos, the wild boar, raced through the field, heading for the forest to scrounge for food. He was starving and knew the bugs were bigger in the forest.

His tusks curved like mighty armour, his short brown hair covering his body was rough and tough. A grunt of pleasure and he was nosing under a log sniffing out his food.

A sudden noise made him lift his head.

“Kalos,” a voice yelled, “where the hell are you?”

He snorted in amusement. He loved hiding and charging at the Bul’ith when they least expected it.

“Kalos,” shouted Kendrall, standing on the forest edge, hands on hips, his purple hair ruffling in the breeze. Kalos charged, missing Kendrall by mere inches. He skidded, turned and charged again. Kendrall grabbed his tusks, flipping him over and landing on his stomach, tickling him. Kalos grunted in pleasure. “Behave you old…” He grinned.

A young woman appeared before them; she screamed and jumped away.

 

Fleur loved her dreams; they’d taken her to visit some unusual places since she was a little girl. Arriving in this dream, she screamed when she saw a purple head and an animal, which looked like a pig.

“Hello,” said Kendrall, “you must be Fleur.” He smiled, standing up, the pig-like animal standing at his side.

“W-who are you? Where…” The boar walked forward making her back away.

“Hey, don’t worry, Kalos won’t hurt you.”

“Where am I?”

“You’re in Chantari, the realm of the Bul’ith,” he said, “my name is Kendrall and I’ll be your trainer for the up and coming battles.”

“Battle?”

“What do you know of the Bul’ith people?”

“Nothing, who are they?”

“Well, for a start you’re a Bul’ith or you wouldn’t be here.” He smiled. “We’re the protectors of the humans.”

“Protecting them from whom?” she said, her curiosity pulling her forward, past Kalos, her hand trailing down over his back.

He shivered with delight. “The shadow realm,” he replied.

“This is real, and not a dream, or just a different dream?”

“This is a different dream. It’s genuine, and you will remember; you’ll have two of these before you I collect you to train.”

“What happens next?”

“Sit down, Fleur, and you can get to know your animal.”

“Kalos is my animal?” She looked at the huge ugly boar in amusement.

“He will give you the energy you need to train and fight.”

“Energy?”

“Hold out your hands.” He took them with his, stroking the back of her hands, making her smile. “Relax and enjoy the energy surge.”

Kalos sank his fangs into her shoulder, she winced at the discomfort when an electric pulse hit her. She yelled out, her whole body lighting up with pure energy.

“Stop Kalos,” he said urgently. Kalos removed his fangs, looking at Fleur with curiosity. “She’s the one,” he muttered in shock.

The Mistress appeared before him; Fleur slumped to the ground unconscious.

“Wow, that was spectacular,” she said mildly.

“We’ve not had a star since…I can’t even remember,” he mused.

“She’ll need extra tuition Kendrall, bring her to me before you go and train,” she said patting his shoulder.

“Yes, Mistress.” He smiled, pulling Fleur into his arms and disappearing back into the human world.

“Sleep now Fleur, you are very precious. Kalos will visit you again, and then I’ll collect you the following day. Be at peace.”

He left Fleur sleeping deeply.

 

Fleur woke to the thunder of footsteps. Rolling over with a sigh, she looked at her alarm. Her door burst open and the footsteps leapt up onto her bed, some paws landing on her bladder.

“Will you horrible lot get off me,” she called out, rolling onto her stomach to prevent more bruises.

“They wanted to snuggle,” giggled a voice from the door.

“I do wish you’d not let them in,” she muttered.

“It’s good fun, Fleur,” she giggled.

“Not when they land on me it isn’t,” she grumped, sitting up, accepting all the licks from the pups. “Away now; let me get dressed. I’ve much to do today,” she said pushing them off her bed. “Willow, take them to the park to play, please.”

“Do I have to?”

“Since you woke me up?—Yes, you do.”

“I’ll see you in an hour,” she muttered, taking the pups with her.

“So now what am I supposed to do?” she murmured. “How can I leave Willow and the pups by themselves for a dream?”

“We’ll make sure they all stay safe Fleur,” a voice whispered through her mind.

“It’s all very well saying that—I don’t know you though,” she shouted out. Scrambling out of bed, ducking into the shower, Fleur let the heat of the water ease her thoughts.

“Settle Fleur, you need not worry about Willow; we have everything in hand,” the voice said gently.

“Who are you,” she whispered out, “why can’t Willow come with me?”

“She’s not Bul’ith, Fleur.”

“How come?—She’s my sister,” she retorted angrily.

“Bul’ith only bear one Bul’ith child if they decide to stay in the human world.”

“My parents are Bul’ith?”

“Yes, they were, though as you know they are gone now.”

“So trust you to care for Willow, and all will be okay?”

“Yes, Fleur,” the voice said.

“What happens next; who are you anyway?”

“I’m called Mistress. I rule Chantari,” she replied. “You will dream tonight; the following day Kendrall will collect you.”

“What do I tell Willow?”

“A twin will replace you; she’ll never know the difference.”

“She’s not daft you know, Mistress.”

“We know; she’s very bright for her age. She’ll do well in life, though she won’t see anything other than you.”

“Good, now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get dressed and see to breakfast.”

“Call out my name if you have further questions, Fleur.”

“Thanks,” she muttered, drying her body and dressing quickly in a skirt and tank top.

Wandering through to the kitchen, she groaned at the mess Willow had made. Dishwasher loaded, benches clean. The door slammed open with Willow and pups bouncing around happily.

“You need to remember to clean up after yourself, Willow.”

“Sorry,” she replied, dropping her bottom lip.

“Come here, you scoundrel, and give me a huge hug,” she laughed, enjoying her sister’s warmth. They wrapped their arms around each other.

“I thought I heard voices?”

“Just me talking to myself, Willow; you know I do that sometimes,” she laughed.

“Were you practising for the next play?”

“Yes love, it’s going to be…” she trailed off, realising she wouldn’t be participating.

“Fleur?”

“I’m all right.” She smiled, pulling her into her arms for a hug. Let’s go out today and have some fun.”

“Are you sure you’re feeling ok, Fleur?” she said, putting her hand up to her forehead.

“Of course. I just decided I needed a day off.” She smiled. “Come on. Let’s pretend we’re tourists.”

“What about the pups?”

“They’ll be fine for a few hours,” she said, grabbing her arm and dragging her out of the apartment.

“What about your coat?—It’s icy cold out there.”

“Oops,” she chuckled and ducked back inside for her winter coat.

“Now you look better. Where should we start?”

“At the beginning, of course,” Fleur replied.

“Silly me,” laughed Willow.

 

Kalos came to her that night; she smiled in welcome, stroking his hairy back. He rolled over with a squeal, making her laugh and scratch his tummy.

“You’re not bad for a boar,” she whispered in his ear. “I suppose you’re here to give me more energy?”

He licked her face, making her laugh.

“Where are we anyway? This doesn’t look like a forest—more a private garden.”

“Yes, Fleur, you’re in my private garden,” said a lovely woman appearing before her.

“Who are you?”

“I rule Chantari. They call me Mistress.” She smiled. “Now take my hand and we can let Kalos do his job.”

Fleur held out her hand; Mistress held it tight. A warm feeling flooded through her. Kalos pushed his fangs into Fleur’s shoulder; her body jerked, her back arched. Mistress held her tight as her body shone brightly.

“Enough Kalos,” she said, and he removed his fangs, licking her wounds and healing them. Kalos, the boar, put his head on her knee, waiting for her to return.

“Come on Fleur, time to come back again; you’re fine,” the Mistress said softly.

“W-what happened?” she finally said.

“You’re very special Fleur; your affinity with animals gives you more energy than we’ve seen in a long time.”

“More energy?”

“Yes; you are blessed. For the first few energy strikes Kalos gives you, it will be a bit more powerful than your body can take; which is why I’m here with you.”

“When will I be able…” she trailed off.

“Very soon, now go back and sleep deeply, Kendrall will come to you on the morrow.”

“Thank you, Mistress.” She smiled, closing her eyes, her dream fading and her sleep deep.

 

Kendrall arrived early; Fleur was still sleeping. Picking Fleur up gently, her replacement smiled. Kissing her forehead, she transformed into Fleur.

“Be good to Willow; she’s an incredible young woman.”

“Yes Kendrall, go before she wakes,” she replied.

Kendrall disappeared back to Chantari with his trainee; laying Fleur on a bed, he sat in a chair at her side, looking forward to the days ahead.

 

Maxwell’s Big Break

Maxwell was all fired up and ready to go for the competitions. He looked forward to putting Garth’s nose out of joint. Flexing his arms above his head, he grinned at the young women whispering behind their hands at his muscular body.

He’d been tormented as a youngster, especially by Garth, who was always calling him a wimp. He took up surfing and weightlifting to prove he was as good as anyone else. It had worked to a degree, though Garth still irritated him.

Well, today was the day he’d show him how a guy won the regional champs. The surf at Raglan was tremendous. It would be great getting out in the ocean.

 

Kendrall watched, amusement lacing his face with each high score Maxwell achieved. Nikau appeared beside him.

“So what do you think?”

“He’ll be okay, Nikau. I think he just wanted to finish proving himself to the most unworthy, snide Garth.”

“Yeah; must admit he seems a nasty piece of work.”

“Karma will get Garth eventually,” Kendrall chuckled.

“So when you going to chat with him?” asked Nikau.

“After the competition, like he asked; be great to have a surfer dude in Bul’ith.”

“Why they leave you in charge of all this, I don’t know,” said Nikau as he faded from view.

“Coz they like my purple hair,” he chuckled.

“Yeah, right bro,” whispered Nikau’s voice on the gentle breeze.

Kendrall leant against a tree, watching the event unfold. Maxwell’s incredible skills and strength showed through. With his power matched with Jenga, they’d be a force which would kick ass.

 

Kendrall caught up with Max as he walked down the beach. Dusk had fallen, though it was still warm.

“Max?” he said.

Max stopped, turning he smiled.

“Hey, Kendrall isn’t it?”

“Yeah. Well done on your win today; you deserve it.”

“You were watching?”

“Aye, for a while.” He smiled.

“So you’re here about the dragon?”

“Jenga is her name; she’s a beautiful, strong creature.”

“Jenga,” he murmured. “It was a weird dream last night, though, for some reason, I was a hermit with no friends.”

“You chose the dream Max; we only decided when to visit.”

“So what’s all this Bul’ith stuff?”

“You’re Bul’ith, you’ve had one animal energy strike, after the next you’ll live in the Bul’ith realm and train; just like Nikau said.”

“The shadows,” he muttered.

“You leave tomorrow morning; Nikau will collect you.”

“Thanks.” He finally grinned. “I’d better go and celebrate with everyone for a while. Pleased to meet you, Kendrall,” he said, looking up into a woman’s face.

“Who’s Kendrall?” she asked, “I can’t see anyone but you.”

“Hi Vanya.” He smiled. “I was talking to myself—was thinking… Never mind; let’s go get some beer and some food,” he said, putting his arm around her shoulder as they walked to the pub.

 

His dream came swiftly; he was sitting on the beach when Jenga walked out of the palms, her tongue flicking out as she made her way over to Max.

“Hello,” he said, turning to look at her. She towered over him, her tongue flicking across his ear, making him laugh. “So this time I have to cope with any pain; no Nikau tonight?”

“A strong young man like you shouldn’t need me,” said Nikau, appearing out of nowhere.

“Well then; I suppose I’ll see you in the morning Nikau,” he replied.

“As you wish,” and he disappeared again.

“Do you want to share now Jenga?”

She flicked her tongue over his naked shoulder, opening her mouth. She bit him hard. He sighed. Powerful energy moved through his body at a rapid pace. Removing her fangs, she healed him and lay down on the sands beside him. They sat there watching the waves crash on the shore.

“Thanks Jenga,” he said, scratching her tummy. The dream faded and he continued to sleep.

 

Nikau found Maxwell asleep on the beach; he grinned and sat down beside him, waiting for him to wake. He enjoyed the sun warming his face as it rose above the ocean. He really missed his people and their traditions, though loved the new ones he’d learnt over the years with the Bul’ith.

He remembered being a trainee—it was over a hundred years ago now. He remembered the battle, which had been fierce; the shadows were getting better as each battle progressed.

“Morning Nikau,” muttered Max.

“Morning Max. You ready to go?”

“Yeah; may as well,” he said, sitting up.

“Jenga is waiting for you, like an excited puppy instead of an adult dragon. What on earth happened last night?” he chuckled.

“Nothing,” he said. “She gave me energy and I scratched her tummy after.”

“Oh; friends for life now Max, she loves having her tummy scratched.”

“Well, are we going or what?”

Nikau put his hand on Max’s shoulder. The beach disappeared and he shivered when he landed in the snow.

“Shit, you could’ve warned me,” he yelped, standing up.

Once Max was on his feet, his clothing had changed to winter wear.

“Apologies, Jenga didn’t say,” he said.

“Thanks for the clothes, what’s next?”

“You two get to wander the landscape; getting to know each other, after which training will begin.

“Nikau how many destiny trainees are there?”

“Seven.”

“Will we meet?”

“The first trainee you meet is your mate, the others you’ll meet just before the battle.

“My mate, what the hell…”

“Your animal will guide you to your mate. In your case, your future wife.” He grinned.

“I don’t want a mate,” he said.

“It is the way of the Bul’ith, Max,” he said before disappearing.

“Oh great; this is all I need,” he said, sitting down on a rock.

Jenga approached him, her tongue flicking out. Licking his hand, he stood and they wandered off on a trip of discovery.

 

Bunita meets Maxwell

 

Running through the snow, Boss padding along at her side, she laughed in the sheer joy of the cold. Where she came from, the land was always hot and dry. She couldn’t get enough of the white stuff which Avron called snow. Her joy was so great she didn’t see Max standing in her way; his reaction was so slow that Bunita crashed into him. His arms went around her body as they hit the snow; he rolled over to find himself looking into the most gorgeous brown eyes he’d ever seen.

“Hey.” He smiled.

She put her hand up in wonder, stroking his cheek when Boss grumped.

“Who are you?”

“Max,” he replied. He stood up holding out his hand to help her up. “What’s your name?”

“Bunita.” She smiled, awed by his curly, golden hair and sky blue eyes.

She looked around her and saw Boss looking at some kind of lizard, an enormous lizard.

“That’s Jenga; my animal.” He grinned, much amused.

“What is she?”

“A Komodo dragon,” he replied, “and it looks like they rather like each other.”

“Bit weird that, though Boss isn’t fussy about his friends.”

“So; Bunita with the gorgeous, brown eyes,” he said, watching her blush. “Where are you from?”

“India,” she said. “Where it is hot and dry most of the time, what about you?”

“I’m from a small town called Raglan, in New Zealand,” he said.

“I’ve heard of your country.” She smiled. “It is gorgeous.”

“You’d be right,” he said, looking up at the animals. They approached together, the dragon in front of Bunita and Boss in front of Max.

“Looks like they’re up to something,” said Bunita nudging Max.

“Yes, they are,” said Nikau, who suddenly appeared, Avron at his side.

“Relax and take the energy,” Avron smiled as she began to chant softly holding Bunita’s hands.

“What’s going on,” said Max, his eyes widening when Boss stood behind him.

Nikau just smiled, nodding his head and the animal’s fangs sank into the shoulders of Bunita and Max. Energy surged so suddenly, both whimpered. Jenga licked Bunita’s wound as Boss did the same to Max.

“Why did her animal bite me?”

“Bunita is to be your wife.” Nikau smiled. “You’re betrothed, your lives linked.”

“We don’t know each other, Nikau,” he said, his eyes widening.

“You will get to know each other Max; now take her hand and go discover some joys, your training starts in the morning.

“He is my husband?” Bunita asked, shocked.

Avron smiled. “He will be.”

“He’s very handsome,” she giggled.

“Said the woman who has the most gorgeous, brown eyes.” He grinned, taking her hand in his.

“I don’t think we have anything to worry about with these two,” Nikau chuckled.

“An excellent match, I must say,” she replied. Grabbing his hand, they disappeared back to the Mistress.

 

Human Trainee

Briar stretched and yawned. Looking around her, she saw Ruben by her bed. Puzzled, she realised she wasn’t in her own room. It sure wasn’t a hospital either.

Thinking back to her dream, she remembered Dulcie, her falcon had given her more energy; it was a bit painful that time. Rolling to one side, she watched Ruben sleeping. Smiling, she climbed out of bed.

A beautiful woman materialised in front of her. “Good morning Briar; how are you feeling today?”

“Really good,” she said. “Who are you and where am I?”

“You’re in Chantari, the realm of Bul’ith. My name is Mistress; I’ve been taking care of you.”

“Why is Ruben here?”

“You need him; he is your partner in life.”

Ruben opened his eyes; seeing Briar talking to the Mistress he smiled. Standing up, he pulled Briar into his arms, his head resting on her head, his heat warming her body.

“I will partner a Bul’ith,” she replied. “Ruben let go of me; this isn’t meant to be.” Mistress shook her head at Ruben, making Briar glower. “What’s going on?”

Ruben held her tighter, his face appealing to Mistress, to tell Briar the truth.

The Mistress sighed in distress, she hated doing this.

“Sit down, Briar,” she said gently. Ruben pulled her onto his knee as he sat back in his chair.

“Tell me,” she snapped out.

“You were attacked by someone from the shadow realm; they stole the gem from your soul’s heart. They collected some of your energy every time Dulcie gave you some.”

“Th-they stole my gem?”

“Yes; they put a fake in its place. To stop them getting your energy, we had to remove it.”

“So I have no gem now, which means I’m not Bul’ith?”

“Correct; you’re human now.”

“What about my training and Dulcie?” she asked.

“Due to receiving your first energy as a Bul’ith; you will be able to train and battle. It will be slightly different for you—the energy you receive may hurt, and your shoulder will forever have scars.”

“Why can’t you replace my gem?”

“You’re born with it. Unless it’s retrieved from the shadow realm, you’ll never be Bul’ith.”

“So it is possible then?”

“It’s never been done so we’re unsure.”

“What about me, Briar?” Rubven asked softly.

“I don’t know; I need to think about what I want.”

“I love you, Briar,” he said, kissing her forehead.

“You’ll work it out,” said Mistress.

“When does training begin?”

“You’ll both be trained together. Qwaun will collect you both tomorrow.”

“Both of us?” said Ruben in astonishment.

“Yes. You’ll need each other to survive; it’s different for humans than for Bul’iths.

“He has no animal, though,” said Briar.

“He can’t take the energy, Briar; though you’ll need him to help you.”

“Thank you for saving my life, Mistress.”

“You’re welcome,” she said, shimmering out of the room.

Qwaun entered via the door.

“Tis good to see you awake, Briar—we were worried about you for a while,” he said with a smile. “Ruben, welcome to our realm. Tis not often we have humans here.”

“What training will we be doing?” he asked.

“We start tomorrow with running.” He laughed at Ruben’s groan.

“I hate running.”

“Tis easy; you’ll do well,” said Briar gently.

“It’s all right for you; you have extra energy,” he replied gruffly.

“Relax now, I’ll tell you more in the morning.”

 

Fleur and Mitsuoshi

Kendrall continued to watch over Fleur, waiting for the next energy she was to receive. It was hard, seeing her unconscious, though it worked better for her this way.

“A star. How about that,” he muttered. “You don’t see one for centuries and then…”

“Are you talking to yourself again, Kendrall?”

“Joz,” he smiled, sitting up. “How are you?”

“All the better for seeing you, Kendrall.” She smiled.

“You’re a saucy wench, Joz,” he chuckled.

“How is she?”

“Fleur is fine; she’ll improve after a few more energy pulses from Kalos.”

“Kendrall,” she said softly.

“I know Joz,” he said, standing up, pulling her into his arms. “I know,” he added, kissing her, making her sigh. “The time is not quite right, though,” he muttered against her lips as he pulled away.

“Why not, Kendrall?”

“Soon, Joz, my sweet.” He smiled, wondering how he got so lucky, having a woman’s love.

“Well; you know where to find me,” she sighed, pulling out of his arms and out of the room.

 

Fleur was in a bright, shiny place, with all colours of the rainbow surrounding her. She wandered around, her eyes lighting up at the sight. She could see figures surrounding her, though she couldn’t touch them. Puzzled, she spoke out. “Hello, is anyone here?”

“Come, Fleur,” said a voice, “join us in our ceremony.”

“Where am I?”

“You are in the Star realm,” a soft voice said.

“Why can’t I see you and what’s the Star realm?—I thought I was Bul’ith?”

“You are a Bul’ith star Fleur. You’re very rare and need training from both realms.”

“You can see us, dear. Open your heart to us and you’ll see,” said another gentle voice.

Opening her heart, she stared, astonished to see people of all races; colours. All in bright garments, their bodies sparkling like crystals in the sun.

“Wow,” she whispered. “You look so beautiful.”

“Thank you, child,” said the first voice she’d heard. They stepped forward and took her hands, pulling her to the Star Master.

“We are pleased you’ve joined us at last, Fleur,” he said kindly.

“How did I get this star thingy?”

“You were born with star power. It became stronger due to your kindness to people and animals. All will help you on your journey into the shadow realm and meeting your mate.”

“My mate?—Do you mean boyfriend?”

“I think tis what humans call them.” He smiled.

“So how do I meet this mate?”

“You will gain further power from Kalos. As your power extends, you will grow and become a stronger force.”

“Is this a dream like when I first met Kalos?”

“No, Fleur. You’re asleep in the Bul’ith world and your soul is visiting us as a means of helping you learn. You will continue to sleep until Kalos has given you the energies you need; at present it is slow, due to your humanness.”

“What about Kendrall?”

“Kendrall is keeping watch over you Fleur; he won’t leave your side unless it’s an emergency. Someone will always be with you.”

“She needs to go and rest, master; her energy pulse is due shortly.”

“You mean Kalos?” She smiled.

“Yes, Kalos.”

“He’s lovely.”

Suddenly Fleur screamed in agony; electricity pouring through her, her arms held wide. Star power shot out of her body, throwing rays of pure energy around. She collapsed on the floor. This was her worst yet.

“I thought it was meant to get milder for her, not stronger,” said the Star Master.

“It is; I’m not sure what happened.”

“She may need her mate soon. Return her to her body and talk to Kendrall; something is amiss.”

 

Kendrall was alarmed when Fleur screamed out in her sleep; he eased her into his arms until she calmed. Mistress arrived in a hurry, wanting to know what had happened.

“I don’t know Mistress.” He frowned in concern.

“I do,” said a voice from the door.

“You’re a star like Fleur.”

“Yes, I am. Fleur needs her mate; she needs his strength to help her through the next few days.”

“Can you find Kalos and Contra?—We need to find out if they like each other. Bring Mitsuoshi too,” said Mistress.

“What about Fleur?” he said anxiously.

“We’ll look after her, now go.”

 

Mitsuoshi was having fun learning the way of a snake; she had incredible speed and agility. Mitsuoshi ran hard as Contra slid through the undergrowth, encouraging him on. Suddenly she stilled; her head level with the grasses.

“What’s the matter Contra?” he hissed.

The next moment a wild boar stepped out from behind a tree, sniffing the air. He approached slowly, shaking his head until he too stilled.

“Kalos; come here,” said Kendrall, stepping out of his hiding place.

“Oh, it’s you Kendrall; what do you want?”

“I need you and Contra to come with me, your mate requires your assistance.”

“I don’t have a mate,” he said with a frown.

“Look at the animals,” he chuckled.

Contra was wrapped around Kalos; they were face to face, their mouths touching.

“Wow,” he muttered.

“Your mate is Fleur; she’s in need of your help.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“We think she needs your strength to get her through the next few days,” he replied. “Will you come?”

“As Contra wishes.” He smiled.

“Good,” he said, touching his shoulder. They all appeared in Fleur’s room. Joz choked back a scream when she saw the Anaconda, making Mitsuoshi smirk.

“Don’t worry, she’s safe,” Mistress said.

Contra slid over to the bed and looked down at Fleur, her tongue flicking out over her face as if she was giving her a kiss. Fleur squirmed; then was still. Turning, she looked at Kalos. The wild boar approached Mitsuoshi, then licked his hand.

“Sit down, Mitsuoshi.”

“Why?”

“The animals have to bite their Bul’iths’ mates to seal the deal.”

“So Kalos has to bite me?”

“Yes,” Kendrall smiled.

Sitting down on the carpet, Kalos moved behind him. Connecting eyes with Contra, they both bit into the shoulders hard. Fleur screamed and calmed in an instant. Mitsuoshi watched, stunned at the sight of Fleur lighting up like a fairy. His mouth hung open as Contra and Kalos healed their wounds.

“Why did she shine so bright?”

“Fleur is unique and you are a very lucky man to be her mate.”

“She’s gorgeous.” He smiled. Standing up, he crossed over to her bed and sat beside her.

“Let us hope this works; when she gets her energy pulse tomorrow from Kalos, all should be calm.”

“What happens if it isn’t?”

“We will work through this until it does.”

 

Farron and Praxel

We sauntered back to the tree, finding Sharam and Kobi snuggled together fast asleep.

“Well, they obviously approve of our union,” laughed Praxel, yanking my arm and pulling me back into his arms, “so how about…”

“Let go, Praxel,” I muttered.

“I was only going to ask for a kiss, Farron.” He smiled.

“Oh, fine then,” I mumbled, lifting up my face and quickly kissing his lips.

“Oh, come on Farron; you can do better than that surely?” he laughed. He held my chin, his lips descending on mine. God, they tasted fantastic—I think I even moaned. He put more pressure into the kiss, sliding his tongue over my lips. I don’t know when, but I found my arms were around his neck, pulling his face closer, his lips tighter to mine. I opened my mouth to him and was a goner—well for a moment.

Coming to my senses, I pushed him away, sitting down by Sharam and investigating the packages, not daring to look at Praxel. I felt like a fool.

“I enjoyed your kiss,” he murmured in my ear, making me jump. “Thank you.” He smiled.

I felt the heat rise in my face. Looking back down at the bag, I noticed my hand was trembling. God; I’d never really had a boyfriend and now I had a fiancé. Sighing, I took the items out one by one until Praxel’s hand covered mine. I lifted my head to one side.

“Why are you so nervous of me, Farron?”

“I’m not,” I muttered.

“Yeah, you are,” he said gently. “I’m not going to hurt you, Farron.”

“I’m not used to hanging with guys. I’m a loner,” I snapped out. Getting up, I wandered out of the shade, looking over the Savannah to the distant hills.

He came and stood by me, hands in his pockets.

“Before I came here, I was a bit of a hermit. I’d lock myself in my study and write for hours or days on end—it used to irritate my mother to no end,” he said. “If I wasn’t writing, I was off on my Harley, speeding down the highway to the beach. I’d stand and throw stones into the ocean, wondering why my dreams were so vivid.”

“What sort of dreams did you have?” I asked, turning to look at him.

“Dreams of Bul’ith and the city of Chantari.” He smiled. “It was like I was like having a history lesson,” he said softly.

“Sorry; I’ve never read your novels,” I said.

“Well, they hit the bestseller list and though my mother lets me be now, she still hammers on my study door.” He grinned.

“My mother yells,” I said. My lips quirk in memory. “I miss her,” I sighed.

“Farron?” he said slowly.

“What?”

“Whatever happens during training and the battles we’ll be together—We’ll both get used to it, eventually,” he said.

“I know,” I replied. “Look, Praxel, it’s not that you make me uncomfortable, it’s just something which will have to grow on me. You’re a handsome man,” I said, looking up at him again. I cupped his face with my hands pressing another kiss to his lips. “I’m, sure we’ll deal well, just give me time.”

“Aye, of course Farron.” His smile lit up his whole face, his eyes crinkling at the corners, his eyes alive and sincere. “Thank you for the compliment.”

“You’re welcome,” I laughed, still unsure of myself.

“You’re a rather stunning person, Farron.”

Sharam licked my hand, making me jump, bumping into Praxel, who caught me.

“Behave, you villain,” I said to Sharam, when just as suddenly, Praxel was pushed into me by Kobi. Arms around each other again, we smiled, bursting out laughing at their antics.

“Well, when push comes to shove,” he muttered, leaning his head on mine.

“Kiss me again, Praxel,” I said.

His breath hissed in, his heart starting to pound. Lifting my chin, he did as I requested.

Oh god, it was so beautiful, his smell and taste; he had a hint of sandalwood about him. I breathed it in deeply, moaning when he deepened the kiss, holding me closer. I closed my eyes in bliss, trailing my hands through his short black hair. He pulled back with a moan. Our foreheads touched.

“You are beautiful, Farron,” he muttered, his breathing easing our heart rates, slowing to normal.

“God, I’m hungry,” I replied, giving him a wicked smile.

“Good idea; we also need a change of scenery. I think we should continue with our training, well proper training.”

 

The Savannah disappeared. Before they knew it, they were shivering. Sharam and Kobi jumped through the snow with joy, racing around.

“I really don’t like it when they do that,” muttered Praxel, making me giggle.

“Well, you did ask,” said Qwain, tossing some winter coats over our bodies. “Thought you might like to see where Farron was training.”

“Thank…” He choked on the snowball I threw at him. I bent over, holding my tummy, laughing hysterically. Narrowing his eyes, Praxel collected some snow and charged. I ran for the trees, running full pelt. It was not to be—Cheetah energy was faster. Grabbing my arm, he swung me into his arms, pushing the snow down my back, making me scream.

“Well, I see you two don’t need any help at the moment,” said Qwain with a laugh. Next moment, snowballs were heading his way, one hitting him square in the face before he disappeared.

“That was great fun,” laughed Praxel.

“Be careful of the ground shadows in here; they grab your feet when you least expect it,” I said, pulling my dagger out with a sigh, stabbing the hand holding my ankle.

“Are they the same shadows we’ll be battling?”

“You know, I didn’t ask Qwain.” I shrugged. “Anyway, let’s go eat, my hut isn’t far from here.” I grinned, my stomach grumbling. I grabbed his hand, tugging him after me, looking forward to showing him my home.

 

Bunita and Maxwell

They stared at each other for a moment, not sure what to do with this new information. Max was bemused; here was this young Indian woman with lush curves and black hair which hit her butt. Behind her; a huge male bear was standing; Boss was nearly twice her size. Jenga nudged him forward; he looked at her and frowned.

“Will you stop it, Jenga?” he hissed out.

“You’re so different from what the men in our village are, Max,” murmured Bunita.

“A different culture and lifestyle does that.” He smiled.

“Tell me more about your country?”

“It’s young and unstable; we have many earthquakes which can be very scary.

“What about where you’re from?”

“Raglan is a beach community,” he said. “We have a lot of surfing competitions there.” He grinned. “I won the last competition before coming here.”

“To live by the ocean,” she sighed. “Until I arrived here, I’d never even seen snow.”

“Tell me about your village?”

“I lived in a mud hut with my family; we slept on the dirt floor and had to go walk to the river for water every day.”

“You sleep on the ground?” he asked in astonishment.

“Yes.” She smiled up at him. “What about you?”

“I had a bed,” he replied.

“I think this is going to take some getting used to; we’ll have many differences between us, including marriage.”

“What’s different about marriage?”

“Maybe it doesn’t matter here, Max,” she sighed, “in my village we married to improve our circumstances, it is rare to see a love match.”

“Well, this isn’t a love match,” he said.

“No, you’re right, though you are very handsome.”

“Bunita, come here,” he said.

Slowly she walked towards him, her body swaying in time to her movements. She held out her hands to his, he took them and looked into her dark eyes.

“You are beautiful, Bunita, and I’d like to kiss you,” he said pulling her closer.

“I’ve never kissed,” she replied, looking up at him a startled look in her eyes.

“It doesn’t hurt—it’s rather nice,” he chuckled.

“Show me then, Maxwell,” she smiled shyly.

Hands on her shoulders, he lowered his lips to hers, brushing them firmly across warm, moist lips. Angling his head, he nipped her bottom lip, deepening the kiss slightly, inhaling her scent as he did so.

Bunita stood still, enjoying the sensations flickering around her body. She stepped closer, opening her mouth slightly, feeling his tongue probing against her teeth gently. She sighed, her arms slipping around his neck, accepting more, enjoying his taste and the ocean smell of his body.

Maxwell pulled back, smiling down at her leaning against his chest, hiding her blushes.

“How very wanton of me,” she muttered.

“Not at all Bunita; you’re a delight, and I look forward to getting to know you better,” Max replied softly.

“Your body is so hard yet the skin is so soft Max,” she said without thinking; she looked up and blushed, making him chuckle.

“I have to train to be a top surfer, Bunita.”

“Yes, of course,” she sighed, still in his arms, enjoying his warmth and the beat of his heart. “So what happens now?”

“I believe we train together, Bunita. Maybe Boss and Jenga will…”

“Maxwell,” she said, feeling him still, his heart rate speeding up. His face was ashen. She turned, her eyes widening in fear. “What do we do?” she whispered.

Boss and Jenga stood in front of them. The shadows approached quickly, menacingly, their weapons cutting through the air with a swish.

“We fight,” he said calmly.

“With what?” she said.

“Ask and receive the weapon of your choice,” said a whisper on the breeze.

“Two swords—not too heavy for Bunita,” said Max quickly as the animals charged at the Shadows. “You know how to use a sword, Bunita?”

“Swing it?” she said in question.

“Yeah; just swing it at them—not me or the animals.” He smiled.

They stood back to back, watching the animals kill and maim some of the shadows.

“Get ready, Bunita,” he said, raising his sword. “Now, attack,” he yelled.

Swinging her sword, she yelled out. Bunita’s sword went right through the shadows; heads bounced on the ground, their bodies disappearing into the ground. She shuddered, continuing to swing from left to right. Boss joined her, flinging bodies far and wide. Max yelled in triumph. Slowly, the shadows were no more and Bunita and Max stumbled to the ground, exhausted, their animals lying beside them panting.

“We did it,” Max grinned, looking down at Bunita, who was fast asleep. Getting to his feet, he picked her up and looked at Boss. “Show me home,” he said and off they walked.

 

Claire Plaisted’s Bio & Links

Claire Plaisted was brought up in Cheshire, England with awesome parents and siblings. After living in North Wales, Claire decided to settle in New Zealand and marry the man of her dreams.

Claire has three out of four children, losing the youngest as a baby, and with two cats.

Claire have a variety of books written for entertainment, from Adults to Young Childrens. At present she has all has published 11 books with a few more to be published by the years end. Claire also runs her own small Publishing House, helping Indie Authors get their work formatted and for sale online.

 

www.claireplaisted.wordpress.com

www.plaistedpublishinghouse.wordpress.com

www.billionaireromances.wordpress.com

http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00P26WF2I

https://www.Shakespir.com/profile/view/Rotosis

[+ http://myjourneyintowriting.blogspot.co.nz/2013/12/where-it-all-started.html+]

https://www.facebook.com/Rotosis

https://www.facebook.com/billionaireromances?ref=hl

https://www.facebook.com/GarrettInvestigationBureau?ref=hl

[+ https://www.facebook.com/Plaisted-Publishing-House-249186435274458/timeline/+]

 

 

 

She Was Like the Island

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L G Surgeson

 

Copyright 2015 L G Surgeson

All Rights Reserved

 

Acknowledgements

 

Thanks to the editing and proof-reading teams.

 

Dedication

 

This story is dedicated to Louise.

She Was Like the Island

My hands were shaking on the steering wheel. For the first time in fifteen years, I wished I had a cigarette. I wanted to cry, but tears wouldn’t fall. With my foot pressed flat on the accelerator pedal, I flew along the island’s only main road, throwing the car into the bends like a slalom skier. I had no idea why I was driving so fast. I didn’t want to get home. I didn’t want to have to deal with what happened next. I couldn’t imagine a time when it would be possible to think of anything else, to do normal things like putting on the kettle or watching the telly. All thought was taken up with her. The way the sunlight had danced in her eyes in those final moments; the way the years had tucked laugh lines around them. How, even though I was looking through the fine mesh of time, she was still the beautiful girl I remembered. The years rushed in my head, passing between now and then. I let out a painful, dry sob and flung the car around a corner.

 

  • * *

 

She was like the island — a wild, stark beauty shaped by the weather, always at her best after a storm. She has lived on in my memory for forty years exactly as she was on the day I last saw her. Sometimes, even now, when I close my eyes at night, I see her standing bolt upright, solid and unmoving, the fishing boat pitching and tossing, the other passengers tipping unceremoniously port to starboard. Even on the stillest night, the fierce wind sweeps her hair, tugging it and flinging it about her face. Her obsidian eyes fix on mine, unblinking. That picture of her has never left me.

Her eyes were always the same, even on the day she left. There were no tears, just the thin wisp of a melancholy smile curled on her cold, pale face. I cried enough for both of us. Trembling, I remembered the freedom of that first parting grief and longed to cry like that again. My cold cheeks were dry, aching to be warmed and blotched by tears. Perhaps I had lost the innocence that had allowed me to cry so freely then, the childish petulance that does not understand why things do not last forever. I could not even manage a single, chilly, self-indulgent tear. My heart was too heavy, too full of panic over a hastily made decision. The hollow sting I had felt for so long when I thought of her had become a gaping chasm; forty years had not been long enough to let me forget. I doubt any longer would be enough.

The morning light was grey as it had been many mornings of late. It was hard to distinguish between dawn and daylight. The gulls did not care. They continued to circle the house, their cacophonous call and response starting before first light. Spring comes late to the island, and while the mainland enjoyed a flock of daffodils, we had yet to see any signs of life. I was late to work on the harbour and was just opening the shutters on the café when the early boat arrived at the jetty. Enoch was wearing a red hat, and my eyes were drawn to him as he hefted the day’s papers on to the boards.

That was when I saw her. In a bizarre mirroring echo, she was standing there, bolt upright and solid. The raven hair was now shining silver and cropped close around her ears, but it didn’t matter. I knew it was her. Only islanders and birdwatchers ever come on the early boat.

Nonsense, I thought as I walked down to take the bundle from Enoch, but my guts knew it was not. There it was, that echoing pang I felt whenever I thought of her. As I got closer, I was less sure. The woman moved with an uncomfortable inelegance, shuffling to the edge of the boat and scrambling on to the jetty. She had been deft and athletic, sure-footed, never pausing in her stride. This woman stood still for a moment on the quay, her arms folded in front of her, hands pushed up opposite sleeves of her anorak to keep them warm. Her eyes were closed and she was breathing deeply. It was as though she was immersing herself in the island air. I reconsidered her for a moment, still uncertain.

I was barely ten feet from her now, a bail of newspapers at my feet. It is difficult to see through the veil of time, only the eyes would tell me. I could not keep staring. Enoch had not noticed; he was talking to himself and was already half way to the café and his morning tea. I paused for a moment longer, desperate for the woman to open her eyes. In an instant, the deep obsidian fell on me, but there was no recognition there. She greeted me with a faint, questioning smile, probably curious as to why a complete stranger was staring at her. I picked up the papers and staggered back to shore.

I was distracted, gazing out at the harbour where she had been standing, when the tea urn boiled. I had not seen her leave, but by the time I had got back to the café, she had moved from her spot and there was no sign of her on the harbour at all. Enoch slammed his hand on the counter to bring me back, and gestured roughly with his thumb towards the bubbling urn. It was barely seven in the morning, and I knew already the whole day would be about this woman — this smartly dressed, silver-haired woman with eyes from forty years ago. I took the doughnuts from the pantry, and Enoch helped himself before I had finished taking the cling film off.

It was a slow morning. An unfriendly squall had kept the pensioners indoors; in the off season, very few others ventured into the café midweek. I was reading the previous day’s paper when she came in. I looked up from the trite headlines at the sound of the door hinges creaking. I was half expecting Enoch, back early and demanding his lunch. She was gazing out of the picture window by the time I looked up, but I recognised the jacket. There was a fluttering in the pit of my stomach when I realised it was the woman from the jetty and I felt silly. It was just another customer.

“Can I help you?” I said, sliding off my stool and flipping the switch on the urn. She turned slowly, smiling.

“Lesley?” she asked in a whisper. I nodded, disbelieving. Her smile twinkled in her eyes, and at once I saw through the years to the beauty I remembered. I could see now, in the light of her smile, that it was still there, varnished by time.

“I knew by your voice,” she said bashfully, hovering by the door. I was surprised. Had the years trodden such a path over me that I could only be recognised by my voice? Time does not really pass on the island. Changes are gentle and few; that has always been its appeal to me. It seemed that I had not seen the differences in myself. I just kept looking at her, unable to find words.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” she murmured, her embarrassment growing with my expression of incredulity.

“Yes, I do,” I said, almost too forcefully. “I know exactly who you are.” There were no words to say next. My head rushed with all the things I wished I had said before she left. None of them seemed appropriate; they were ending words, the last phrases of a dying conversation. They were not opening words, welcoming her. My eyes were drawn to her left hand. A plain white gold band on her fourth finger told me part of a tale I had not expected. She followed my gaze to her hand with a soft, measured glance, realising almost instantly what had caught my attention.

“Widowed,” she said quietly by way of explanation, the same melancholy wisp of a smile that she had left me forty years ago curled again across her face. “Six months ago.” I nodded again. I had never imagined she would continue living once she left me, that she might have had a whole other life with someone else. For all I knew, she might be a mother or a grandmother. This thought drove a stake into me. I didn’t know where to start. It was all I could think of:

“Tea?” I said.

  • * *

 

I had gone the wrong way. Whether in an unconscious effort to extend my drive or because I wasn’t concentrating, I was heading north now for the wrong side of the island. I was heading towards her house. I drove on autopilot trying to remember what we had talked about. Somehow we had condensed forty years into a few hours of minutiae. I had not expected her to stay for so long. I was numb. Without really thinking, I overtook a tractor and headed towards town.

 

  • * *

 

Somehow, without there ever being an explicit invitation, I found myself making her dinner. Not in the café: I closed early, as Enoch had removed himself to the pub early to avoid the chatter. I took her to the cottage. At least here, time had been kind. Trailing ivy and a tumbledown porch made it more becoming. Instinctively, she bent low as she stepped through the door. With interest, she took in the lounge, and I felt myself flush as her eyes rested on a faded snapshot of us. Suddenly, I was ashamed. There had never been anyone else since she had left. I had stayed in our cottage, on our island and run our café. Time had passed, and I had not noticed. Like a faithful lapdog, I had waited for my mistress to return. Or so it seemed now. Two-thirds of my life had been spent paused here, living out the shadows of our dying dream. I didn’t want to talk anymore; in my discomfort, I let her continue.

I had never imagined that she would actually stand in her spot by the kitchen door again. She leant gracefully against the door frame, and somehow the room looked right once more, as though someone had returned a beloved piece of furniture that had been missing. She gazed on me kindly as she made a nonsense of my life without her. I wasn’t really listening to what she was saying; I was just watching her face move as she spoke. I was beginning to regret not quite inviting her here.

Her eyes followed me around the room as she kept on talking. I went in to the kitchen to start cooking, and she spun around in the doorway to keep up the stream of conversation. I could tell from the way she was speaking that she was using this speech as a diversion from what she really wanted to say. She had always done that, meandered slowly towards the heart of the problem. I had thought that this habit irritated me. When she had gone, I discovered the awful truth: I wanted to find it irritating, but actually I didn’t.

She talked about her travels abroad and watched me prepare salad. Without thinking or even pausing in her sentence, she reached into the cupboard behind her and handed me the colander. She seemed content to rattle away about Egypt and her son, who sounded a bit pompous. I wished I could confront her head on, stop this incessant drivel and find out what had really brought her here. It wasn’t sight-seeing, and by the sound of it she didn’t need a holiday. But I wasn’t sure where I stood. The years made such a wide gap that I didn’t dare jump it. I didn’t want to risk offending her.

She picked over her plateful, moving pasta with her fork. At first I thought she was trying to politely cover up the fact that she didn’t like the food. Then I remembered. She had always eaten, or more accurately not eaten, like this when she was distracted. She was still talking, rattling on about this and that, but if she thought I was still listening, then she was a fool. We both knew that she was trying to use the words to bridge the intervening years.

I realised after a few minutes that I was letting my own dinner get cold. With little grace, I began to shovel pasta into my mouth, chewing ferociously. There was no point in me speaking. It was clear that she had no interest in recounting the last forty years; she hadn’t said anything of any actual importance since she had arrived. It was all just bus-queue chatter. She had come here to rewind her life, not to bring it full circle. She did not want me to hear the rich tapestry of the life she had woven, without me, on the mainland. She wasn’t going to validate her decision to leave. I would have been surprised if she had, but then again, age mellows the heart, and the headstrong become the regretful.

Eventually, she talked herself out and fell silent. I cleared the plates away once I had finished. She didn’t argue with me when I took the nearly full dish from her. She just put her fork down, almost grateful that she could stop pretending. I brought the wine bottle in from the kitchen and filled her glass, then sat deliberately on the sofa and waited patiently. She didn’t move from her chair; she just turned sideways on so that she could lean on the back rest and see me. It wasn’t as though the room was big enough for the distance to be a struggle. For five minutes, maybe more, she wouldn’t meet my gaze. She just swirled her wine in the glass, watching as it clung to the smooth sides for a second or so. It was a strange, still silence, forlorn, yet not sorrowful. Then her voice, clear but quiet, cut through. She said:

“I have cancer.”

 

  • * *

 

Town was empty; the early morning light fell on last night’s streets and cleaned them. I could see a few of the smaller boats in the harbour were springing into life. It would be hours before the shutters on the shop fronts were lifted. I drove past the café, noting without caring that in my haste I had forgotten to drop the shutter. I put my foot down again, and headed out towards the dunes. In moments the bundled little town gave way to the wild marram grassland on which it huddled against the wind. I headed north on the coast road, away from what civilisation there was. My mind raced with images, a spectral collage of summer days and inky nights. As I cornered by Hunger Rock, I felt the storm winds on my cheeks and was transported in time to a night nearly half a century before. Racing through the dunes, battered by rain and gale, grass and clothing sticking to us, laughing as though nothing else would ever be this funny. In fifty years, nothing had ever been that funny. I managed a weak half-smile.

 

  • * *

 

It was as though a dam had burst. I could not remember the last time I had seen her cry. Maybe the day her mother had slapped her across the face, and she had arrived on my step with a livid mark on her cheek and tears waiting to fall. Even then, it had only been a few angry tears, not this. A flood tide of anxiety and regret tumbled out of her. For the first time, we really spoke.

The cancer was not new. She had been in remission, but instead of the all clear she had expected, she had found on her last check-up that it had returned, and now it was starting to spread. She had agreed to chemo, although the prognosis was poor. She had even started the course. Then her husband had suddenly died. He had had a heart attack as he was leaving to collect her from hospital. Her children had seemed sad but unsurprised by this. It turned out that he had been hiding his heart condition from her for nearly three years, fearing that she would not cope with his illness on top of her own. She had been devastated. I knew as well as she did that it was not the deceit that she had been hurt by. After all that time, after years and years of what she had thought of as a near-perfect marriage, it turned out that her husband did not know her at all. Had she seemed so frail to him that she needed protecting from the truth? Had she become so self-absorbed that he had thought she would not care? She had begun to question everything. What else had he not told her?

She impressed on me that she did not mean that she suspected him of infidelity or large scale deceit of any other nature. It was the little things. What else had he dealt with alone rather than burden her with? It was a loving gesture, to shield a loved one from unpleasantness. I tried to defend a man I had never met, but I knew I would not win. It was not an action I would have taken, and my protestation lacked conviction. She had strength beyond belief, and even at her weakest I would have not dared to conceal anything from her. She would sooner be wounded by truth than swaddled by lies. She had not even been eighteen when she had shouted that at me, and I knew she had not changed.

I did eventually put my arms around her, standing awkwardly by her chair. She clung to me in a way that I had not expected. I just let her. I didn’t know what else to do. When she had cried herself into a gasping, shivering stupor, I let her go and led her without resistance to the sofa. She seemed somewhat abashed that she had let me see her outburst and sat subdued next to me whilst I tried painfully to move the evening forward.

It was nearly an hour before she spoke. I had given up long before on conversation; instead, I lit the fire and flicked the stereo on. I can’t even remember what was playing, but it was better than that viscous, cloying silence. I had finally dared to leave the room to open another bottle; lack of conversation was making me drink faster than normal. As I reappeared with a bottle and a cork screw, she fixed me with an incredibly assured gaze and said:

“Help me.” It wasn’t a question or a request; it was an instruction.

It would be a lie to say that I liked her plan, but I couldn’t deny her. It was flawless logic. Almost poetic. I drank half the bottle while she explained. It was her all over, raw and real, life to the bare-boned truth of it. Not swaddled in lies and platitudes, left to dwindle in a soft perfumed hell. As she spoke, I remembered. In fact, I think I even saw her as she had been, her dark hair whipping about her face as she ran through the pounding rain, her chest heaving and her pale cheeks tinted with the vaguest hint of pink. When she had finished, I looked at the clock. We had three and a half hours.

The details of our conversation are lost in the grief for now. One day, I hope I will look out at the sea and recall what we said. It was an odd night, an echo of a night forty years before, the last time we had waited for dawn. We talked about heaven and reincarnation. We talked about God and what we thought about life. We talked about the transient nature of beauty and the passing of time, the melancholy of middle age. And we talked about love, choices and regrets. I didn’t want her to say that she wished she had stayed, not really. I would have been saddened to hear her say that after all this time she had made the wrong choice. She didn’t bother to pretend; it would have been a lie. In spite of everything, her husband sounded like a kind man. I almost wished I’d known him. I asked her if she had ever told him about me. She didn’t answer.

Lying on the sofa, my head in her lap, I could see the black of the island night turning grey as light started to creep in. I tried to ignore it. It was strange to think that for a few hours I had experienced the future I had dreamed of at twenty. Grown old, we could still make each other laugh .We could still argue without malice. We could still lose hours to animated discussion and drink the night dry. There was still warmth and affection there, unchanged by age. At last we ran out of conversation, but even the companionable silence was delicious to me.

For ten minutes, we hadn’t spoken. She just sat there looking at the clock and the fire, holding my hand and stroking my hair. I didn’t want her to go. I hadn’t wanted her to go when we had last sat here watching the clock, the first time we had lived through this night. Now in a strange mimicry of the past she said softly, “It’s nearly time.” I didn’t move. She squeezed my hand and I felt a cold tear fall on it. Last time she hadn’t cried. For a moment, I hoped she would change her mind. I don’t know what I thought we would do if she did. Did I think she would stay here and make up for all the years we had lost? A childish hope. She squeezed my hand again and said, still echoing the last, “Please don’t make this harder for us.”

Grudgingly, I sat up. Her face glowed in the soft orange light of the guttering embers. A wistful smile curled up to her eyes. I kissed her cheek; the saline on my lips told me that she had cried more than one tear in the last few minutes. I stood up and stretched, then offered her a hand. To my faint surprise she took it. As she heaved herself to standing, I became aware for the first time of the pain she was in. I must have had a pleading look in my eyes, because she put her hand on my shoulder and said the same words she had said before:

“I love you, but I have to leave.” Then, she leant forwards and kissed my forehead with uncharacteristic sweetness.

 

  • * *

 

I only became aware that I was heading back to Robin’s Cliff when I passed the North East pier. I had driven a complete, although not direct, lap of the island. It was still deserted. Black, salt blasted trees leaned away from the vicious sea wind. The rip current was fierce in the bay below, and the tide had risen in the hours since dawn, hiding the rocks. On a clear day you could see the faint blue outline of the mainland, but now the morning’s haze hung a shroud over it. I rolled down the windows and let the wind blast through. It was salty and wild; I gulped several breaths before collapsing forward on to the steering wheel. Almost choking on grief, I battled for a fleeting moment with the thought of releasing the handbrake and letting the car roll forward over the cliff edge. I could catch her up and we would be together forever on the waves of the rip current. I even put my hand down to the brake, but I didn’t mean it. I couldn’t pretend that I would die for her; it would have been a lie.

I must have cried myself in to a brief but absorbing sleep. It was nearly half past six when I woke with a start, aching in the back and neck. Numb now, and unable to think of what else to do, I drove back to town to open up. When I got to the café, Enoch was waiting outside and tapping his watch. He nodded a curt ‘good morning’ and stood back as I unlocked the door.

“Late night?” he said gruffly as he pushed passed me into the warm.

“Yep,” I said as I flipped the closed sign over. “Sorry I’m late.”

L G Surgeson’s Bio & Links

LG Surgeson is a writer and teacher who lives in West Wales.  Originally born in South Africa, she moved to the UK when she was so little it seemed normal and eventually found her way to Aberystwyth University. She lives in a cottage by a stream and teaches maths to delinquents because it’s better than living in the real world. She writes stories, novels and articles in her spare time which she creates by not sleeping properly. She has two cats who like to help. They aren’t very good at it.  

 

twitter @LGSurgeso

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https://scriggler.com/Profile/lilian_surgeson_lg_surgeson

 

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E[]ternal Arguments

An Introduction to

The Eternal Trials Saga

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C.E. Vance

 

Copyright 2015 C E Vance

All Rights Reserved

This story or any portion thereof

may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever

without the express written permission of the publisher

except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

 

Dedication

 

From The Author

This story is dedicated to everyone I have passed along the bumpy roads of life and to all those I will miss some day. It is also dedicated to anyone who believes in true love, brighter tomorrows, and happy endings.

 

 

http://cevanceauthor.wix.com/books

 

Eternal Arguments

Part I

 

Jason sat in the cool intake area, waiting patiently for his client to arrive. He quietly observed the room around him for the hundredth time; he had always thought that it looked more like the reception area of a big office building than anything else. The walls and glossy floor were sterile white, sharply contrasted by a thick, black area rug and modern black furnishings.

Honestly, it all made him want to groan inside. It wasn’t just the walls and floor; everything in this area was the same. The pictures on the walls were done on white canvas with simple black scenes or faceless, black figures painted unassumingly in the center of the frame. Ugh. Black and white, then more black and white. Even the massive reception desk was jet black. The only real color in the room came from the potted trees placed stylishly in each corner of the room … and, of course, from the door.

Jason dropped his head, rubbing at his temples in an effort to rid himself of the headache that had camped out between his ears. He too, fit right in with his surroundings. His perfectly tailored suit was flat black and sported a crisp white shirt underneath. He had finished off his look with an expensive-looking black tie, and shoes polished to a high shine. To be sure, Jason took pride in his appearance, but there was more to it than that. His job required him to be smooth, no nonsense, and to the point. His style of dress represented this in every sense and had served him well thus far. The more distinguished and to the point he was able to appear, the better. No one in this line of work had ever seen any benefit from wearing their heart on their sleeve.

Oblivious to the slight bustle around him, he glanced down towards the floor and noticed a blemish on the reflective surface of his sable oxfords. He quickly pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket, leaned down, and vigorously rubbed the offending spot away. After he’d restored the shoe to a flawless finish, he sat up and adjusted his jacket. Looking at his watch, he frowned a little. Any minute now …

Before he could even sigh, Jason’s ears perked up to the familiar sound of movement from the heavy red door across the room. He got to his feet, and squinting against the bright bluish light that emerged as it swung open, stood expectant and anxious as the newest addition stumbled from out of the brilliance beyond and into the room.

Jason gave him a quick once-over. While the older man’s unkempt gray hair came to the bottom of his ears, it was obviously starting to thin on top. His face was wrinkled and worn, but seemed kind, nonetheless. His hands were covered in calluses and scrapes, definitely showing their age. He wore a red long-sleeved flannel shirt, with the front buttons undone and a dingy, sweat-stained t-shirt underneath. Faded jeans hung loosely over a pair of beaten up work boots, and the man’s knees showed through big rips in the fabric. It was apparent that he was a working man, but his overall appearance seemed to be about the same as any other male his age.

The man was quite bewildered and his eyes jumped wildly around the room as he staggered in. This was not at all unusual. Jason had seen many reactions from new clients, everything from denial to hysteria, but confusion was definitely one of the most common. Clearing his throat, he took a few steps forward and extended his hand.

“Mr. Jenkins, my name is Jason Newman and I’ll be representing you.”

The older man looked down at the hand before him, and hesitating, took it in his and gave a weak effort at a greeting. His eyes darted around frantically and his head drooped a little, as if he was afraid to confront his surroundings. Still clasping Jenkins’ wrinkled hand in his, Jason could feel that the man was lightly trembling. He ignored it. He knew by now that the best thing to do was move along briskly and deal with any questions or concerns later. Besides, the pair was due before the court in about an hour, and he didn’t want to be late.

Jason ushered his client over to the row of chairs against the wall and addressed him again. “Ok, Mr. Jenkins …”

“Robert,” the old man interrupted.

Caught off guard, Jason stopped midsentence and glanced at his charge. “Pardon?”

For the first time, the man really looked Jason in the face. His soft grey eyes earnestly searched Jason’s green ones and his voice caught in his throat as he repeated, “Robert. My name is Robert.”

Jason momentarily lost his poise. “Oh sure, Mr. Jenkins … I mean Robert. Of course, from here on out I’ll just refer to you by your first name.” Clearing his throat again, he tried to recover. “Robert, you are welcome to call me Jason, if you like. We need to go over your paperwork really quickly so that I can get accustomed with your case. Is that all right?”

Robert nodded and Jason motioned for him to take a seat. Sitting down beside his client, he flipped open the top of his briefcase and pulled out a file. He glanced over it one more time, making sure he had the right person, and then flipped to his list of questions.

Clearing his throat, Jason began, “Your full name is Robert Earl Jenkins, is that correct?” When Robert nodded in confirmation, he continued. “Ok, you were born on June 12, 1950 to Claira Isabel Gaines and Earl Rae Jenkins, both of whom were killed in a house fire in 1975.”

A startled expression flashed across Robert’s previously somber face. He nodded silently. Unfazed, Jason continued, reading aloud the list of information before him in factual and emotionless statements, rather than asking anything in particular.

“Right. Now Robert, it looks as though you were never married, but that you did have a child, a daughter named Susan, now aged 39 and living in Tuscaloosa. It appears the two of you were estranged …” he paused, glancing quickly at his client. “I’m sad to hear that, by the way,” he offered in a no-nonsense tone.

Robert gazed at him, blinking moisture from his eyes, and muttered a small “Thank-you” in reply. Jason carried on, business-like and smooth, not even missing a beat.

“It appears that you chose a relatively quiet existence as a local ranch hand and that you succumbed to emphysema at age 65.” He flipped the file closed and looked levelly at the older man. “Which brings you here; on behalf of everyone on this side, I want to take the opportunity to formally welcome you to the Afterlife.”

Robert bit his lip, and nodded as he rubbed his hands together nervously. “What happens now?” he asked hoarsely, his brow furrowed with worry.

Jason got to his feet and smiled calmly. “Well actually, right at this moment you’re due for a physical.” He chuckled at the look of puzzlement on Robert’s face and tried to reassure him.

“There’s nothing to worry about, Mr. Jenkins. It’s purely procedural. We just want to see how you have held up after 65 years of life. Follow me and I’ll take you to the exam room.”

Robert got to his feet and straightened his shoulders, seemingly deciding in that moment to meet whatever was ahead of him without reservation. Jason was glad to see this change of demeanor and was hopeful that it would last throughout their time together. Acceptance was always the best course forward; those who made a scene or refused to believe their circumstances always had a harder time in the long run.

The pair left the waiting area and headed down a long hallway. The sharp black and white theme continued. Though it was clean and contrasting, it was not exactly very inviting. When they came to door 104, Jason turned the knob and ushered his client inside. Robert obliged without hesitation, and after he’d entered, Jason walked inside the room and set his briefcase down on the simple chair to the side of the exam table.

“Ok, Robert. Go ahead and disrobe down to your under-clothing. You can keep your socks on as well, but everything else comes off.”

Robert blushed slightly. “Are you doing the exam?” he asked sheepishly.

This was a common worry and Jason addressed it quickly. “No, no. I’ll just be observing and taking notes. Doctor Williams will be in shortly.”

Robert sighed with relief and began to comply with his representative’s request. He pulled off his work boots and then slid his tattered jeans down over his thin legs. He tossed them into a heap across the room and started to pull off his shirt. Jason sat down in the chair and slipped the client file out of his briefcase again. He had just retrieved a pen out of his suit pocket when the door opened again and the doctor came into the room.

“Good morning, gentlemen!” Dr. Williams said in his usual booming voice. He nodded towards Jason, “Good to see you again, Mr. Newman.” Grabbing the chart off the back of the door before closing it, he squinted through tiny bifocals at the name printed neatly across the top. He then cleared his throat and looked over the shiny rims at his newest patient.

“Robert Jenkins, I presume?”

Robert swallowed hard and nodded nervously, leaning back against the exam table as he stood. He looked curiously at the Doc as he waited for whatever poking and prodding was in store for him.

Jason smiled a bit in spite of himself. A physical exam courtesy of Dr. Williams was not what most recently deceased people expected to encounter after they passed on. But truthfully, nothing here really fit in with the image that most people had in their minds of the typical afterlife.

Dr. Williams himself was a short-statured but fairly plump individual. He had a shiny bald head with bright white hair on the fringes. A thick, white push-broom mustache wiggled across his top lip as he spoke and thick, curly eyebrows spidered down into his serious, old eyes. His tiny spectacles completed the look, which had always reminded Jason of an old-time shop clerk. If you exchanged the white coat for a striped apron, the comparison would have been spot on.

The Doc parked his generous rear on the rolling stool in the middle of the room and continued to flip through Robert’s chart. “So my dear man, it looks like you are 65 years old and you must have been a smoker, because you died of emphysema.” He raised an eyebrow and glanced up at Robert expectantly.

Robert swallowed hard and nodded. “Yes sir. Since I was a teenager.”

Dr. Williams clicked his tongue in disapproval and shook his head. “That’ll do it every time. You’re lucky that it took this long for it to become fatal, although I suspect you must have suffered with it for years.”

Again, his patient nodded meekly. “Yes sir.”

Setting down the chart, Dr. Williams scooted across the room. “Well, come here and let’s have a look at you. We’ll see what other surprises you have in store for me. Please go ahead and have a seat.”

Robert hoisted himself up onto the table as directed. Dr. Williams rolled his chair closer. He looked quickly at his patient’s dangling toes and then gave his knees a quick once-over. Getting to his feet, he then approached Robert with an outstretched hand and softly placed it on his abdomen.

He closed his eyes and slowly moved his hand across the body of his patient, making quiet “hmms” and “uh-huhs” as he went along. He moved his hands from Robert’s lower torso up to his chest, nodding as he continued his curious utterings. His soft, wrinkled hands moved over Robert’s rib cage, hesitating momentarily above his heart and lungs, and then up towards his neck and face. He pulled Robert’s eyelids open, searching the eyes behind them intently.

As the exam progressed, Robert appeared to be a little puzzled, but he remained quiet and let the doctor go about his work without objection.

Dr. Williams continued, taking Robert’s hands in his and studying them, carefully turning them over and feeling across the calluses and deep grooves in the palms. After examining the nervous man a moment longer, the doctor again sat down on his stool.

“Well, Robert, I have to say it is about what I expected.”

“Oh?” Robert replied, raising an eyebrow.

The doctor nodded at him and then turned to Jason. “Are you ready for my analysis, Mr. Newman?”

Jason smiled and nodded. Clicking his pen, he held his hand poised above Robert’s client file. Dr. Williams cleared his throat, and casting a sideways glance at Robert, began to dictate his findings to the lawyer.

“Well it does appear that Mr. Jenkins was quite a heavy smoker; unbeknownst to him, on top of a fairly nasty case of emphysema, he was also in the infant stages of lung cancer.” Ignoring a shocked gasp from Robert, Dr. Williams continued.

“It also appears that he enjoyed his liquor, and the evidence can be found in his mildly cirrhosed liver. I’m going to venture that he had not been a heavy drinker for a long period of time, but it seems that in recent years, with the decline of his health, Mr. Jenkins did find solace in the bottom of many bottles.”

Robert again uttered his surprise. “How in the world could you possibly know that?”

Spinning slightly on his stool, the doctor peered at Robert over the shiny rims of his bifocals. “Because it’s my job to know these things, Mr. Jenkins,” he said matter-of-factly. “Now may I continue with my findings, or are you in need of a longer explanation?”

A bit taken aback, Robert pursed his lips and shook his head, looking helplessly at Jason. The younger man winked at his client, and put a finger to his lips. The attorney then smiled at Dr. Williams.

“Please, Doc … continue.”

“Of course,” the doctor replied. He folded his arms across his chest and continued to recite details about his patient the same way he would recite an order to a waiter in a swanky restaurant.

“Aside from the smoking and drinking, this man suffered from a less than ideal diet, consisting of mostly diner food, fast food, and TV dinners. He enjoyed his red meat and also had quite the sweet tooth. I guess this is not too surprising, as the patient was a bachelor most of his life and primarily lived alone. One thing to his benefit is that he was not afraid of a bit of vigorous labor, as evidenced in his muscle tone and the show of wear on his hands. He has most definitely been a hard worker the majority of his life.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Jason could see that Robert was nodding as the doctor spoke. He pretended not to notice and continued to write down the findings of his colleague on the crisp form inside the file. The doctor waited politely for him to finish.

Jason finished his sentence and then double-checked his work. “Ok, Doc. Is that all?”

The elderly doctor rubbed his chin. “Well from a technical standpoint, yes.” When Jason looked up at him expectantly, he continued.

“I’m sad to say that Mr. Jenkins did not take care of his heart properly, in the personal sense.”

Jason glanced over at Robert who now seemed fixated on a spot on the floor. Looking back at the doctor, Jason nodded. “Please, continue.”

“Well it seems as though he only let himself fall in love once, you see. When she walked out on him, Mr. Jenkins let himself become a broken man. He engaged in multiple affairs and flings. He even fathered a child with one woman he met along the way; however, he never allowed himself to get close to anyone again. His relationship with his daughter was rocky at best, and except for a few male friends, he lived a very lonely life and died with no one important by his side.”

Jason sighed and shook his head. It was not an uncommon story to hear about one of his clients, but it was always something that made their cases a little more difficult to argue. He quietly looked over at Robert again. The nearly naked man appeared to be much smaller and weaker now. His shoulders were hunched and he was staring at the same spot on the floor, his face unmoving and expressionless.

“Ok, Doc. Thanks for your time, as always.” Jason stood and shook hands with Dr. Williams, who also rose as he prepared to leave.

The doc turned to Robert and, giving him a slight pat on the bare shoulder, spoke softly. “Don’t worry, Mr. Jenkins. It’s always a little hard on everyone to hear their lives summed up in such black and white terms. Just get through the rest of the day and you can begin your sentence.”

Robert straightened and stared at the pint-sized doctor in shock, speechless but very obviously disturbed. Dr. Williams gave him a small smile and turned, quietly shutting the door as he exited the room. Jason was again alone with his client.

“Well, Robert, it’s time to get dressed. We’re on a tight schedule, so it’s best if you hurry. We need to go before the panel shortly and I’d like to have a few minutes to brief you beforehand.”

His companion complied, silently slipping down from the exam table and reaching for his clothes. He began to hum quietly as he did so, and Jason paused momentarily, sure that he knew the tune but not quite able to place it. Disregarding the distraction, he packed up his briefcase.

Jason allowed Robert to dress alone, letting him know that he would be waiting in the hallway. He then quickly retreated, relieved when the door shut behind him. He could finally be alone with his own thoughts.

This was not the easiest job, and at times it had taken its toll on him. Without a doubt, the most difficult adjustments had come at the beginning. It had taken him quite a while to accept his own fate, let alone get used to the idea of watching others accept theirs. He’d been forced to train himself to remain objective and to take an almost clinical approach with each case, approaching each new set of circumstances as if he were a surgeon. He had to sift through the composition of each client’s life, cut out the bothersome or unneeded parts, and then splice the person back together so that they could move on to the next phase. The hardest part, however, was that, like medical cases, most of the time the outcomes for Jason’s clients were unpredictable and out of his control.

Jason sighed, leaning his slender body against the cool wall behind him. He’d gotten pretty good at not letting most cases get to him, but every once in a while one snuck up on him. He was not sure what it was about Robert Jenkins’ case that tugged at his heart strings, but he had to get himself centered and back to business-as-usual before it became too personal. Getting attached to Robert and his story was not an option.

The door to the exam room opened and Robert peeked out. He seemed relieved to see that Jason was standing there patiently, as promised. He appeared to be a bit more composed now, and Jason had to admire his resilience. It was not easy to handle the dose of reality that Dr. Williams was notorious for handing out, but the fact that Robert seemed able to bounce back meant that things would be easier for him in the phases to come.

Jason straightened and met Robert’s eyes with his. “Are you ready to move on now, Robert?” he asked. When the elder man stated that he was, Jason forced a smile and began to head further down the hallway. “Let’s go then.”

Part II

 

They sat in the conference room together in an awkward silence. Robert stared into his cup of coffee, swirling the wooden stirring stick around and watching the whirlpool it made in the middle of the dark liquid. He began to hum again. Jason ignored him, instead pulling all of the papers out of the client file and organizing them into small stacks on the table. He hated this part.

As he glanced briefly at his charge, Jason felt his eyebrow begin to twitch. Why did Robert get to him so much? He had seen nearly every reaction imaginable in the decades he had served in this position. Some people sobbed and cried; others literally freaked out, scratching at the walls or pulling their hair as they rocked back and forth. Then of course, there were the angry ones, sure that they had been cheated and demanding to be sent back. Finally, there were also a surprising number of individuals who welcomed the end of their mortal life and were happy, even excited, to see what came next. The truth was that everyone had their own way of dealing with death.

Robert seemed to be in his own category. He was sorrowful, sure; but there was a melancholy sense of resignation about him as well. He hadn’t tried to bargain, and he didn’t have a lot of questions. He just waited. It was not at all similar to the way that Jason had reacted. The young man shuddered slightly now, remembering the way he had sunk to his knees, begging for reprieve and screaming as he’d clung to the leg of his own Representative. But of course, unlike other new arrivals, he’d had more than his own death to be distraught over.

Swallowing hard, Jason shook his head quickly and blinked back the tears that threatened to give him away. Not now, not today. He cleared his throat and looked back at Robert, noticing that the older gentleman was looking at him curiously. Dammit. He had broken one of his most important rules: never let the client see you vulnerable. All he could do now was move on as if nothing had happened.

“Robert, it’s time to move on to the next stage. We’re going to go through the door behind you, where you will find a small dressing room. I will need you to change into the robes that are provided. I will also be changing. After we have dressed, we’ll head into the adjoining room for your hearing.”

Robert cocked his head to the side and furrowed his brow. “What sort of hearing?”

Finally, there it was. Jason set down his pen, folded his hands together on the table, and looked at his client squarely. “Basically your life is on trial. Pretty much everything you’ve