Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Adventure

Jamyria: The Entering (Sample)

Jamyria

The Entering

 

Sample Chapters 1 – 7

 

By Madeline Meekins

The First Book of the Jamyria Series

[
**]

 

Copyright © 2015 by Madeline Meekins

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

 

First Edition, 2015

 

ISBN 978-1-943847-27-3

 

Edited by Dominique Scott

 

www.MadelineMeekins.com

 

 

To those who became my world:

Jason, Myra, and Jaden.

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

 

Prologue

[+:+]

The Most Talked About Nobody

Chapter Two:

For Curiosity’s Sake

Chapter Three:

Beneath the Icy Surface

Chapter Four:

The Welcoming Woman

Chapter Five:

The First Man

Chapter Six:

Margo’s Choice

Chapter Seven:

Hidden Surprise

Chapter Eight:

The Penny Challenge

Chapter Nine:

Past’s Farewell

Chapter Ten:

The Unwelcome Duo

Chapter Eleven:

Misunderstood

Chapter Twelve:

The Jamyrian Jungle

Chapter Thirteen:

Into the Depths

Chapter Fourteen:

Strength Lacking

Chapter Fifteen:

Ian’s Insight

Chapter Sixteen:

Cleanse

Chapter Seventeen:

The Feather of a Clarxen

Chapter Eighteen:

Under the Lighted Tree

Chapter Nineteen:

Destiny Despised

Chapter Twenty:

The After

Chapter Twenty-One:

Not of This World

Chapter Twenty-Two:

Without a Plan

Chapter Twenty-Three:

Storm the Castle

Chapter Twenty-Four:

The Acceptance

 

 

Prologue

Nearly Fifty Years Prior

 

A chilling scream fills the desolate forest.

Thin trunks of ebony stripe the snow-clad woods. The howling wind swirls vicious flurries. All fauna is silenced; the creatures sense the impending battle and burrow into safety.

The cry ebbs in the background, fading into the relentless wind.

Flames burst to life on the edge of an outcrop, a shocking contrast to the black and white world, and drop to the ground below like molten lead. The flames collect and quiver. A circular patch of grass melts to reveal its verdant self from around its source.

A growl rumbles from within its fiery core.

With a roar of his own, a dark man appears from overhead, readying his sword. Each of his strides rips into the snow, uplifting black soil from beneath its luscious white overlay. He skids to a stop, having noticed the flames settled in the clearing below. With a glare of suspicion, the man whips the sword once in his meaty hands. But he does not approach the fiery being. Not just yet.

A woman, small in stature, follows suit though her footing, unlike his, is light and barely disturbs the snowy earth.

The flames before the pair bend their light, shifting into the molten shape of a man ablaze. His skin is charring embers, both blackened and aglow. The sudden increase in heat sears the land, snow sizzling to steam in its wake. A jet of flames streaks from his breath, the darker man unable to dodge it in time —

The woman steps in front, outstretching a hand to block and cast away the blaze with a burst of energy. Her fingertips blister in response.

“Fool! Rushing in to battle will accomplish nothing! Save your hot-headedness and first analyze our foe!” She buries her scorched hand into the snow.

In the shadows of the trees, a curious watcher gazes at the scene.

The flaming beast digs his hands into the soil underfoot, heat spewing from his nostrils. The woman, too, regains her composure, steadying her sword on point. Liquid energy pulses through her veins, strengthening her calves. She prepares to attack, but —

The darker man emerges from near nothingness, blade piercing the distracted beast’s chest. A hot, blaring scream rages until his flames burn out to reveal his true self. The man, brown-haired and stocky build, staggers away from the darker man, clutching his gushing chest.

The boy in the shadows sneers.

The air of a threat burned out with the man’s flames, but for reasons inexplicable, he does not give into death but hobbles away into the moon-kissed forest, leaving a bloody pathway behind him.

The darker man whoops in celebration, while the woman futilely attempts to repair her singed fingers; healing has never been her forte.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” she mumbles irritably.

He turns to her, victorious smile shifting to a grimace. “What’s this? Are you jealous?”

“Humph!” She turns away coldly. “You wouldn’t have been able to strike him down, had it not been for my distraction. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you will take all of the credit.”

“A kill is a kill. The one who drives in the blade still receives the glory.”

“Speaking of kills,” she says, cocking her head. “The job has yet to be finished….”

He booms a menacing laugh. “Did you not see the state he was in? Crawling off like a wounded animal? Ha! The coward’s ran off to die under a bush somewhere. Call on the others to search for his corpse. The Marked One is dead.”

 

*

 

The screams in the distance blare on.

She is frightened, the dying man thinks. She must have been the one who brought in the snow.

It is in her direction he runs.

The only sounds are her scream of terror and his own overworked breathing. Must find her. Must…

The man falls into the snow in a heap, crying out as the pain becomes unbearable. The bleeding doesn’t stop, and he recognizes the empty feeling, though he has never experienced it before, as his spirit leaves the physical behind.

The screaming has finally succumbed. A smile plays at his lips at the irony as he, too, is now willing to succumb.

A gasp.

His eyes pop open to find the girl staring down fearfully at his crimson body. She couldn’t be more than fourteen, brown hair to the waist, primped in a summer dress and sandals despite her wintry surroundings. Her eyes are splotchy with tears but stare wide at his open chest.

She drops before him, knees buried in the snow. A hand reaches out for his wound but drops away. Whether out of fear or the realization that there is nothing she can do, he does not know.

“What happened to you?” she whispers simply.

But the man’s chest breaks out into spasms, breaths grow uneven. He doesn’t have much time. He must reach out for the girl. “I’m — sorry —” he says between gasps.

The girl jumps to her feet, with a sudden uncertainty in her brow. She notices it then: the cluster of dark scars patterned beneath the collar of his shirt. He lifts his hand, placing it on her thigh, and fire prickles her skin. Her scream resounds. A bright light flowing, his hand fuses to her leg, knitting the fibers of their skins together.

It is over as quickly as it began.

The man grabs her by the hips, using what little of his strength remains to lean forward and breathe the word “Run.”

She skids away from him, clutching her bleeding leg.

A series of black tree trunks blur past as she runs through the forest, putting as much distance between herself and the crazed man as she can. Snow falls heavily, obstructing her vision. She blinks away the cold, pressing on.

A whirl of black appears out of the corner of her eyes. The hooded figure runs parallel, watching her from the shadow of his cloak.

Out of nowhere, fire splits her jaw in two, and she is suddenly on the ground looking up at the slight woman. Her cheek throbs from the blow.

The hooded man runs into view with a ferocious expression.

“I warned you,” says the woman. “Did I not tell you to finish the Mark off?”

He says nothing in return.

“What a bother.” She raises her sword, the girl scurrying away. “I wonder if he accomplished what he set out to, prolonging his power for mere minutes. Oh well…”

“That’s enough.” A third cloaked figure approaches, a younger boy with a terrifying calm. “Always eager to kill, you two are.” He kneels before the girl to roughly wipe a smear of blood from her lips. He speaks to her now. “Well, it’s a shame for you. Wrong place at precisely the right time.”

“She must be killed,” the woman insists.

The girl splutters in response, which only causes the woman to cling tighter to her sword.

Standing coolly, the third says, “Unfortunately for you, she has landed herself in my region. The decision is now mine, and I choose to pass it along to her Majesty.”

The darker man growls. “Just barely in your region!”

“But my region, all the same. No objections, I presume?” He stares thoughtfully at the girl, though not in a kind way. It is as if he sees something tantalizing worth consuming. “Her energy level must be off the charts having completely fused with a New Mark. It’d be an utter waste to destroy her.

“I suggest you two scour the land for the Marked One’s remains.”

 

*

 

Flurries catch the moonlight and shimmering stars in their descent. He wonders, as his life leaves him behind, how everything can change so suddenly. How priorities and events that seem as miniscule as snowflakes can turn into avalanches in an instant.

Will she have the necessary strength to tame my curse?

He looks up to find the woman he fought standing over him, curved sword in hand.

“You are much less formidable in that state. Far less bothersome.” The woman nears.

He says nothing in return, but rather coughs, splattering blood from his wound.

“I must ask…” She lowers to his level, face scrunched up beneath the cover of her hood. He hadn’t noticed before that her head is shaved to the scalp, an unsettling look for such a pretty face. “Why? You are but a new enterer, alone in the midst of the forest…. I’m certain you haven’t made contact with any others, so…why? For what reasons do you oppress?”

His lips crack, a maniacal laugh bursts through. “Why do I oppress? This land is a lie! Anyone who stands by allowing others to be taken is not in their right mind!”

The woman’s cheek twitches.

“That’s right,” he says, striking a nerve. “That includes you. The moment I received this curse, I vowed to free those who —”

Her wrist flips while she simultaneously bounces to her feet. Her outstretched sword drips in red.

“Silence,” she says calmly, though her breathing is uneven. She stares at his disfigured form which now lacks a head. The brown cluster of scars emblazoned on his chest disappears beneath a layer of blood.

“Come, Belitza,” calls the darker man.

The girl whimpers behind her hands. She stands awkwardly between the two men, her wounded thigh trembling. The woman, Belitza, considers her momentarily, wondering idly if the Queen will, in fact, show the girl mercy.

Frowning, she swipes her blade clean and sheathes it before turning to follow the others and leaving behind the corpse of the world’s only savior for the coming half century.

 

 

Chapter One
The Most Talked About Nobody

 

The night sky is tinged orange and dotted with sparks that ascend toward the moon through thick billows of purple smoke. The scents of chemicals and burning plastics fill her nose, which she inhales willingly. Her body blisters against the heat as she takes a step toward the rushing flames.

It is a beautiful form of purification, charring everything to the ground in one swift movement and ridding the world of its impurities. The flames roar like the ocean behind a vast stretch of ash. Her outstretched arms welcome it as it cleanses the earth in its wake. It is unforgiving. It is final. It is, or so it has been said, her destiny.

The skin of her face sears, smile fixed in place. After all, to burn in lieu of another is a noble act.

Without a thought, she plunges into the fire allowing her mind to disappear. Her final cry ebbs beyond the flames. She does not turn to ash, though, but instead shrivels sickeningly into a dried up human form left bald and naked. Nothing more than a corpse and one last recognizable trait.

A glint of gold around her wrist catches the light of the blaze.

Margo Grisby kicks her legs violently into a sitting position and hurls her body over. Ribs clutched and breaths ragged, she counts her pulse as it pounds in her head. Flames haven’t visited her dreams for weeks, but it seems hell has greeted her like a distant friend. She shivers and squeezes her eyes shut tightly. So much fire…

But there is no fire here in her bedroom. Only buttery walls and mismatched furniture. Slowly she cracks her eyes. Faint gray light filters through her blinds. It could pass for a rainy day. But it’s simply early and overcast as St. Joseph, Tennessee, generally is in the fall.

A dream, she tells herself again as she presses the soles of her feet to the cold floor. Vivid as it was, it was nothing more than that. She swears, running her fingers through her tangled hair, partially to reassure it is still atop her head. Wiping a faint sheen of sweat from the back of her neck, she allows herself a moment to wait out the shakes.

In the other room, Margo hears the sounds of her mother in the kitchen. The aroma of hot food drifts into her room and knots her stomach.

After one last steadying breath, she rocks up to her feet and spins into the small hallway that leads to the living room. An odd assortment of frames filled with photos from better days obscure the dark paneled walls. Since the Hederman’s — the owners of their cottage and the Grisby’s landlords — refuse to let them paint the paneling, Margo’s mom made one too many attempts to warm the space up: from acrylic slathered canvases to bejeweled pillows. Her mother claims it takes more than dark walls to dampen the spirit of a Grisby.

Margo abruptly stops halfway across the living room as the morning news catches her attention: a second child within the past month has gone missing. This time a six-year-old girl from Alabama, not twenty miles from their farm. Disappearances near St. Joseph are rare, and twice in a month is practically unheard of. She shivers again, not certain if for the girl or the lingering nightmare.

Peeking through the pots overhanging the counter is a head of honey-blond hair, now mixed with a few white strands. “You’re up early. Must be anxious to get to work.”

“Anxious to be done with it.” Margo plops herself upon a stool.

With buoyant laughter, she replies, “Well, I’m making my anxious daughter her favorite meal.” She does this sometimes, talks to Margo as if she’s still a child. A sixteen-year-old, frizzy-haired, hard-headed child. “Ham and eggs,” she announces.

Margo picks at a piece of the mustard-colored linoleum countertop, pulling it up with her nail and letting it snap back in place. To her a new day just means new work. She doesn’t see what it’s worth being so chipper about.

“Hey,” her mom says softly, leaning in. “I appreciate the long hours you’ve been putting in. The extra pull really does help out.” She cracks an egg in the skillet with an expression as if satisfied with her motherly words of encouragement. “I just wish you had a normal teenager’s life,” she continues absentmindedly. “I mean, you’re a junior now, and you still haven’t made any friends. Don’t you think it’s time you —”

“I’m not putting in extra hours,” she breaks her off sorely. “Working on this farm isn’t exactly a new thing around here. Dad left over a year ago.” Margo immediately winces as the words escape her lips.

Mrs. Grisby flips the egg and scrounges for a clean plate. “Tough night?”

Margo’s eyes cut away to the floor. She considers lying, but knows her mom’s nights are as nightmarish as her own. “Yeah.”

“Eat,” Mrs. Grisby commands. She pushes the plate roughly to interrupt Margo’s fidgeting with the linoleum, but Margo can only stare at her eggs with her hands folded upon her lap.

“I didn’t mean it, Mom. What I said about the work.”

“I know you didn’t, sweetie.” Sitting down with a cup of hot tea, Mrs. Grisby begins her morning dose of reading.

A long moment passes, the only sounds the whirring of the refrigerator and the scraping of metal against the ceramic of their plates until Mrs. Grisby takes a deep breath to steady herself. “Margo…?”

She automatically looks up into her mother’s troubled eyes. They are the same eyes as her own: hazel and wide. “Yes?” she encourages.

“Have you talked to…him lately?” Mrs. Grisby drops her gaze to her plate.

“No.” Margo shoves two pieces of ham in her mouth to avoid further explanation. Anything to buy time on this sore subject. Her mother rarely brings Owen up, but it seems she used the brief mentioning of his name as a convenient prompt.

“You should at least give him a call every once in a while.”

Margo’s cheeks darkened. “Why should I? This isn’t my fight. You should call him.”

“I’m not asking you to fix anything,” she replies unperturbed. “Just to have a relationship with your father.”

“A relationship,” scoffs Margo stabbing the yolk with her fork and picturing Owen’s face as it oozes. “Like he deserves that after what he —”

He left,” she snaps so sharply Margo freezes mid-stab. Her mother composes herself before finishing her sentence. “Because he was hurt.” She takes a sip of tea. No amount of time will ever be enough to heal what he’d done to her, so how can she so calmly defend him? “What happened with Kylie was a —”

A deafening screech interrupts her as Margo’s chair scrapes across the floor. She rises to her feet in a swift motion. “I can’t be here. I can’t — I can’t listen to this. I need to get to work.” She leaves her half-eaten breakfast, dons her jacket and rubber boots by the door, and dashes into the chill of the morning before her mom can speak another word. She half expects her to call after, but all is silent as she walks the distance from their front door to the barn.

They’ve rented the cottage on the Hederman’s farm since Margo was a child. After Owen left, her mother couldn’t afford rent, so Margo offered to help out on the farm in exchange for the difference. Mrs. Hederman was all too willing to accept free labor.

Pulling on a pair of work gloves, Margo tries her hardest not to look in the direction of her landlords’ house where she can hear the scratching of Mrs. Hederman’s broom upon her porch. The woman has never particularly liked Margo, all thanks to her sister Kylie. With two buckets of feed in tow, she stomps off through the fields of corn with nothing more than a spiteful glare from Mrs. Hederman.

Thick fog creeps over the farmlands, the rolling hills peeking through like the fin of a shark. The pond is still, and the distant hum of the tractor lulls her. Stalks of corn sway gently in the wind. It is an ordinary gray day on an ordinary gray farm.

When she reaches the cow pasture, she climbs over the metal fence, careful not to spill any feed. A curious group of cows already make their way over to her while she dumps a bucket in the trough. A chorus of grateful moos sound as she begins the walk across the field with the other bucket.

The cows never cease to amaze Margo. How they move in unison, how they expect her to bring their food every day. They seem genuinely satisfied with their short, pathetic lives. Perhaps even happy. It is their perpetual stupidity that amazes her. How can they not see there is a greater field just beyond that gate? One that offers freedom and less ground beef.

The metal handle of the bucket digs into her palm. She’s no more than halfway across the field but is in such a foul mood she decides to dump the feed right where she stands. A dozen or so cows take notice of her and slowly gather to see what she’s dropped. Spinning on the ball of her foot, she begins her trek back.

Margo kicks her leg once again over the gate and slushes her way through the muddy pathway that leads back to the cornfield. She’s in no rush to face Mrs. Hederman, so she opts to amble on her way back to the barn.

It is particularly dark within the confinement of the corn stalks on this day. The lurking fog obscures her vision and the wind rips her hair so violently around her face she has difficulty seeing. Grasping at the loose strands of hair and shoving them into the safety of her hood, Margo suddenly has a terrible sinking feeling that she is not alone in the cover of these crops. She freezes, eyes scanning the stalks, unable to see far beyond the fog. Something suddenly feels very wrong.

But everything appears the same. Nothing unusual. Except, have the stalks ever stood so still?

She takes a step forward, more cautious of her footing now. Indeed, the wind has disappeared, but that doesn’t excuse the sinking feeling in her stomach. She tries to shake it away without any luck.

A crunch beneath her foot. Something vivid orange gleams beneath the soft soil underfoot. Dropping to her knees, Margo digs out the vibrant, pearlescent feather. It’s a shocking shade of orange with flecks of red that shoot through its wispy strands. It’s nearly the length of her forearm, and toward its tip, the color shifts to turquoises and blues, contrasting its vivid body. Its touch leaves a light burning sensation on her skin when she slips it through her fingertips.

“Strange,” she whispers as the burn lifts and is replaced with an icy tingling.

Mr. Hederman toots the horn on his tractor to remind Margo of the current time. She shoves the feather into her work jacket’s pocket and rushes out of the rows of corn and across the field, giving him a nod of appreciation in return and feeling slightly guilty for not getting much work done. She is grateful he understands the importance of an education. His wife, on the other hand, would rather spit a string of obscenities at the mentioning of anything that pulls her from her job on the farm. But Margo is determined to become someone and refuses to be eternally attached to this town, like the cows in the back pasture.

The screen door slams behind her. She drops her boots at the door. Her mother still sits at the table and does not look up from her book as Margo runs past.

She tosses her work clothes on her bed and searches out a tee shirt and jeans. Atop her dresser in its usual resting place, sits the most precious article in her room. She grabs the silky chain by its gold clasps, gently locking them at the base of her neck. The warm tingling in her middle returns. Margo takes the tiny wishbone charm between her thumb and forefinger, smiling to herself.

“Crap,” she mutters when she catches sight of her clock in her dresser mirror reading a backwards ‘seven-eighteen.’ She snatches her bag and dashes to the kitchen.

“Before you leave,” her mom says firmly as she claps her book shut. “I think you should think about what I said earlier.”

Margo grabs a bottle of water and a granola bar. “Fine, Mom. But I can’t think before I leave.” She makes her way to the front door, turning to add, “I’ll think about it at school. Promise.”

She hears the scoff just as the door slams shut behind her.

The wooden porch steps sag and creak with each bound. She slips through the picket fence and breaks out in a run. Not twenty feet across the field, she hears the screen door a second time.

“Wait! Margo, wait!”

She hopes her eye-rolling goes unnoticed as she turns back to meet her mom. “This is why I’m late every day.”

“You know how much I love you.” Her mother grips her face to kiss her cheek. “Let’s just forget about our argument and move forward, okay?”

“Already forgotten,” Margo mutters through tightly squeezed cheeks. “I’ve got to run. Literally.”

Her mom chuckles. “You’re just like me, you know? Stubborn.” And Kylie is like Owen. It’s what people have said for as long as Margo can remember. Of course, Kylie isn’t as self-absorbed as he is. She carries his gene for passion in a more positive way. Their mother, on the other hand, is stubborn, unmoved by an argument. Margo is her daughter to a tee.

As far as looks are concerned, Kylie and Margo both inherited Owen’s with a dapple of their mom’s. Their heart-shaped faces favor his with their dominant cheekbones and widow’s peaks. Kylie, however, has their mother’s creamy skin and blond hair. Margo has her hazel-colored eyes that blend in with Owen’s olive skin and light brown hair. What sets the sisters apart the most is their six-inch difference in height. Kylie towers over Margo’s mere five-foot-one.

“If you decide to play hooky and skip out on work again this afternoon, you call me,” she fusses, pulling Margo back into the present.

She nods, and as soon as her mother releases her, Margo takes off across the fields.

“Oh, and don’t play hooky,” she calls after her.

Margo simply waves without turning back.

Chapter Two

For Curiosity’s Sake

 

The morning air is crisp, leaving Margo’s fingers numb, a sure sign that a fierce winter approaches in the coming months. The dirt road meanders through the woods until it meets the graveled one a mile and a half from her home. It is to this intersection she heads to catch the bus, and with only a few minutes’ delay, she has no choice but to start jogging. She kicks up a trail of dust behind her.

“Morning, Indiana,” calls a familiar voice. She grits her teeth. With a mile already behind her, she’s made it to the crossing of Old Dobbin Drive, and Michael Peters strolls around the corner at that precise moment. His attempt at getting underneath her skin does not go easily ignored.

“Silent treatment’s getting old,” he says from behind her shoulder. Margo can hear his feet shuffling not too far behind, his long legs easily keeping up. “I liked it better when you fought back.”

Anger pulses through her. Resisting the urge to turn around and tell him off is beyond difficult. What’s worse is she’s been resisting for weeks now. But like a deep, pestering splinter, if you try picking it out it will only end up irritating you more.

“Fine,” he huffs.

The bus is already waiting at the stop by the time they arrive. This has become somewhat routine; neither is known for their punctuality.

“Ladies first, Indiana.” Michael gestures in a mocking manner.

“You know, that’s really getting old.” Margo snaps her mouth shut. He grins victoriously.

She stomps her way up the bus steps and slings her cursed bag into the first empty seat she can find without speaking to anyone. Not that they care. Everyone went silent around her after the accident.

She presses her head against the cold glass, longing for the time when the stares were minimal or nonexistent as long as her sister was near. The only person at school who speaks to her nowadays is Michael with his lame Indiana jokes, and only a half-wit can find his moronic sense of humor entertaining. So why does she still shrink up inside?

She loops the strap of her bag around her fingers absentmindedly. It wasn’t long after Owen gave her this ugly thing that she was dubbed Indiana. “Looks like something out of ‘The Temple of Doom,’” Michael had taunted back then.

Suddenly it isn’t the boy sitting across from Margo who angers her but her father. This bag is the last gift he gave her before he walked out high and dry on her mom at their lowest point. The last positive memory she has of him. But it is also a reminder of what he did to them.

It doesn’t make sense, really. How hatred swarms Margo’s thoughts, yet she cannot unclench her hand from the strap of his bag.

This is exactly what Michael gets off on: her weakness.

She squeezes her eyes shut and focuses on the changes in the drive as the bumpy road shifts to smooth concrete, allowing her mind to wander.

The shadows of two empty faces fill her thoughts, both fading memories. She has long since given up on the girl. The boy, however, still holds a fraction of a chance, and every once in a while, his blue eyes slip into Margo’s dreams. His warming smile, his thick chocolate-brown hair, his sun-kissed skin… A flicker of hope rises within her that he will make his return, acting as if his absence the previous summer had never occurred. Margo understands his reasoning, of course. After what her family has gone through, she would never have expected his parents to send him and his sister to visit. But a phone call explaining his absence was expected.

“Hey, Margo.” The boy snickers.

The memory fades. Gawking with a couple of his friends on his heel, Michael grins the usual smirk he wears before a joke at Margo’s expense.

“Is it true what they say?” he blurts. The laughter rising within him makes his words almost unintelligible. “What they say about your sister? That she —”

Before Margo realizes what she’s doing, she’s already towering over him. Michael cowers away, a look of utter fear on his face.

“Say it!” she threatens, inching closer to him with each word. “Just try to pull that one!”

“Sit down, Margo,” the bus driver yells. “Michael, if she hits you, I’m sure I won’t see a thing.”

The bus roars with laughter, for once on her side. It takes every ounce of restraint within her to sit back down across from him, but somehow Margo finds the strength. And after another five minutes of riding, her anger fades and is replaced by the depression she works so hard to keep buried deep within. The last of the trip is, for the most part, painless and quiet, other than the boy across the aisle muttering private jokes to himself — trying to recover his pride, Margo guesses. Another student whispers to Michael something about taking it too far as students file out of the bus.

Margo stays behind.

After the last person shoots an awkward glance in her direction just before exiting, she lugs herself to her feet dragging the stupid bag behind her.

“It really ain’t fair,” says the bus driver when she reaches the stairs. “Life, ya know?”

Margo sighs. It isn’t the first time she’s heard this. “Teenagers are vicious.” Once her feet touch the asphalt, she turns to add, “Thanks.”

“Anything to see that pretty smile.” The air brake exhales as he cranks the door shut.

Margo faces the building. Rogers High School. The penitentiary of her eleventh grade sentence. Swarms of different classes are fighting their way inside the building. There are the popular ones: cheerleaders, athletes, preps. The expressive and talented: artists, band members, glee club. The techies. The ‘individually unique’ — the definition of ‘unique,’ of course, meaning whatever is considered ‘in’ this year. The dark wearers.

Below all of these classes rests one lone category. Margo’s category. The nobodies. They consist of the randoms who don’t quite fit into any other group. The lone rangers. The brave souls. Just fancy terms for who they truly are: the rejects.

Last year things changed slightly, though not willingly. For a short while, Margo became the school’s most talked about nobody. The whispers were like the buzzing of cicadas. Only upon her entering the room did it stop so abruptly that the eerie silence became palpable. Nothing could have made that first day back more humiliating.

A year later and the iciness still follows her through these halls, the bubble of silence around her so chilling. The torture behind her lids every time she shuts her eyes is unmanageable enough without the tangible reminder.

Michael Peters does not talk to her in lunch. Or in fifth period, the only class they share. His eyes shy away nervously throughout the whole hour. It isn’t until the ride home that he does something unexpected.

He quietly slips into the empty seat next to her. Even though they are mere inches apart, neither speaks. She waits patiently to see where this will lead.

His shoulders wilt. “I’m sorry about what I said earlier,” he nearly whispers. “I didn’t mean to —”

“You sounded like you knew exactly what you meant,” Margo says hotly.

He nods stupidly.

“Well then, I guess I’m done talking to you, Michael.” She turns to watch the hills roll by, counting cows as they pass. Michael doesn’t leave her side.

“Margo, do you… Can you ever forgive me?”

She scowls at him. “No.”

His lips sullenly twitch downward the slightest bit, and suddenly Margo feels obligated to elaborate. “It’s not that I don’t want to,” she huffs. “But you don’t mean it. Not really.”

Her cheeks shake as the bus turns onto the gravel road. Relief rushes through her knowing that her escape is near. Michael heads toward the front of the bus long before they reach the stop. She doesn’t rise until the bus slows.

The walk home is quiet. Margo is grateful for the silence and takes in the calming scenery. The trees’ leaves have shifted into warm hues over the past few weeks and have formed a tunnel of gold around the road on which they walk. The afternoon sun warms the air.

The two near the crossing of Old Dobbin. Margo welcomes the impending lone walk, albeit she is aware of Michael’s eyes on the back of her head. Of course he would find a way to prolong their time together….

“Can we talk about this?”

Without faltering her steps, Margo replies, “I don’t have anything to say.”

The thudding of feet behind her speeds up until Michael blocks her path. “Well, I do.”

She groans.

“I shouldn’t have brought up your sister like that.” His voice is firm, eyes strong upon her face. “It was wrong, and I’m sorry.”

“So what?” she shouts so loudly a flock of birds take flight at the sharpness of her tone. Suddenly it all spills from her lips. “Did you really expect me to forgive you just because you realized you took it too far this time? How about the past twelve years of you messing with me? Am I supposed to forgive you for that, too?”

“Look, Margo, I’m just saying that I —”

She jolts from under his touch, and in an attempt to keep her in place, Michael catches hold of her bag from which she also jerks away. Her textbooks fall out in a series of loud plops.

Defeated, Margo holds stock still, hands balled at her side, cheeks darkening. A hiss escapes through clenched teeth, and a rush of energy pulses down her arms to her fingertips. Her fists tighten in reaction, eyes squeezing tighter until the spasms subside. Her heartbeat slows to an even rhythm.

Michael, noticing nothing, grunts and steps forward to help retrieve her books.

“Just go home, Michael!” She kicks up a cloud of dust in his direction and falls to the ground; her head drops to her knees. Disgust builds inside her once she realizes just how close she is to breaking down. She wills her tears away certain that crying will only allow him to win, and lifts her head to pick up her fallen books.

“I’m just sorry,” he whispers. “That’s all.”

Shoving her belongings back into her bag and not wanting to even acknowledge him, Margo mutters under her breath, more to herself than to the boy standing over her, “You’re just lucky I’m not suicidal or something.”

Michael’s body tenses, unsure how to respond to such a morbid thought. He turns toward Old Dobbin as if her statement went unnoticed and continues walking along. Once he’s around the corner, he runs beyond sight.

A hysterical laugh breaks through her lips. Suicidal? Yes, she is far from that. Of course, there are other ways to cause pain to oneself, and she allows them more often than not. She shuts her eyes to prove her point. The two silhouettes are burned in her lids.

It is far past time to move on, and she knows that. She isn’t entirely certain why she has endured the memories for so long. It’s not because she is being selfish and coveting the past, exactly. Nor is it because she is too fearful to forget. The truth is she simply cannot, no matter how hard she may try, force them out of her mind.

Margo pulls the buckle of her bag and dusts off the bits of leaves from her pants when out of the corner of her eye a sudden flash of orange light streaks through the woods. The unexpectedness startles her; she instinctively whips her head in that direction. The breeze picks up, rustling the stray leaves on the road. Her eyes dart about the trees searching frantically for any reflective, shiny object to no avail.

She shrugs her bag into place and walks forth, assuming her imagination has run amuck. Or worse, that Michael is up to more trickery, and his lame attempt at consoling her had been nothing more than a ploy. She will not allow him to humiliate her twice in one day.

An image — one Margo has grown all too accustomed to over the past months — of Mrs. Hederman pops into her head, her wrinkled face contorted into something much like after having sucked a lemon, which Margo thinks coincidentally suits her personality. She picks up her pace as she is certain the vision will soon come to pass if she isn’t in her work gloves by five o’clock sharp.

She skids to a halt. A second twinkle of orange light emits in the woods to her right. Planting her feet, she scrunches up her face to scrutinize the trees.

Michael,” she calls rather harshly.

But there is no answer in return. The haunting silence only leaves her searching harder until something indeed captures her attention, though it is not shiny or alight.

A path meanders through the trees, its foot meeting the road on which she stands. Quite charming and edged with cobblestone, it twists away until it disappears into the woods. To discover something new in the area is a surprise. Margo’s spent her entire upbringing in St. Joseph, Tennessee, known every rock along this road, watched every tree age over the years. How can such an ancient-looking path have gone missed all this time?

Just where the path fades in the distance, Margo catches sight of yet another ‘flash of light.’ The excitement builds within her like a firecracker ready to pop. It isn’t a light after all but a fiery animal with reflective skin walking deeper into the woods.

As quickly as it appears, the animal vanishes around the bend, leaving Margo alone and dumbfounded. She stands there for nearly half a minute, awestruck and in wonder. What kind of animal has skin that reflects light like a mirror?

Curiosity overcomes her. The dirt road slips behind as she joins the animal on the narrow trail. It is unlikely Margo will catch up with it, but it’s too beautiful and rare an animal not to try. Imagine the discovery of a new creature, a new life form, a new existence…. It’s well worth the slander of a Hederman.

Oddly, the woods shift from amber to green as she presses onward. How unlike September to carry such rich, lively colors. Even the soil on the path seems fresher, filling the air with the scents of sweet earth. The trees grow tighter as she walks along the unknown path. There is hardly room to squeeze through. Margo forces on, determined not to lose the flaming creature.

She comes to a halt, facing a wall comprised of thick, unified shrubbery, which ends the path and her search, as well. It is an unsatisfying conclusion, but turning back seems unavoidable until Margo lets out a small yelp. A thorny vine overhead has caught hold of her hair in its hand. She reaches to untangle the strand from the nasty vine when a faint triangular splotch of orange light catches her attention. It dances around her forearm like a prism set in a window casting its colorful rays upon a wall. As if to catch the light in her palm, she turns her hand over twice, and slowly follows the direction of the light to find a small opening in the shrubs.

Peering through the keyhole in the leaves, the orange light bouncing across her cheek, she sees it: the mystery animal. A tall, exotic bird, much like a peacock, with feathers of vibrant orange shimmering in the sunlight and the long graceful legs of a heron. Its tail drags behind it with long feathers whose tips are blue-green, and atop its head sits an emerald crown of feathers. The bird pecks its pointed beak at the ground.

All of the pieces seem to fall into place at the sight of it. Obviously, she’s encountered the same bird whose stray feather she found that morning.

A twig snaps as she shifts her weight.

The bird’s head soars high, its long neck curving elegantly. Its tiny head shoots in several directions until its eyes find Margo’s and locks with hers. With that, the bird soars through the trees like a gazelle.

Determined not to lose it again, Margo pulls apart the vines like tissue paper and forces through, ignoring the scratching thorns against her bare arms. Without much time wasted, she catches sight of the bird not thirty feet ahead of her. Running at a rapid speed, its head bobs gracefully with every stride. The closer Margo gets to it, the more dominant its colors become. Its body is not merely orange but has hints of reds and golds, and the feathers of its tail have blues and deep purples. Like a bleeding watercolor, its vibrant colors dazzle in the light. Her heart pounds in her ears and her chest burns, but she has come too far now.

Suddenly, Margo is forced to a stop.

A narrow opening in the woods is laid before her as beautiful as a page torn from a fairy tale. Sunlight pours through the treetops in rays that dance upon vibrant green grasses. A cluster of moss-covered boulders is strewn across the area. Pops of red from mushroom caps and wildflowers add zest to the already perfect setting.

But what truly demands Margo’s attention are the thousand light specks bouncing around the clearing. The grand bird stands before her proudly with its tail feathers spread. Like water upon a flame, the cool colors of its tail surround its blazing body. And to Margo’s satisfaction, the peculiar bird no longer runs but waits, studying her while she studies it.

Her mouth gapes as she absorbs the beauty surrounding her. A dream would make more sense. Surely this is no reality.

The bird stands strangely before her now. Almost as if waiting for something; its beady eyes are fixed on Margo. She takes a few cautious steps closer, and it shows no sign of fear. The sun reflects off of a glossy surface from behind the bird’s spread feathers.

“Are you keeping something?” she asks, automatically feeling silly for questioning a bird.

But the focus of its eyes intrigues her, as if it would indeed answer.

No sooner had Margo made that assumption, the creature bows its graceful head and retracts its tail feathers to reveal what is behind it: a globe set in a gold stand which rests upon a boulder. It couldn’t have stood more than ten inches high with perfectly smooth glass and glistening filigree.

The colorful woods suddenly turn gray as ash. Nothing matters but what is now placed in front of her., the only thing remaining in color: this globe. She is drawn in like a magnet. The world around her slips away. The only clarity lingering emanates from this globe.

She blinks. The world erupts into brilliant color as she stumbles backwards to the ground. She curses under her breath clutching her numb hand into her chest.

“What…” Margo searches the woods, disoriented. Her arm throbs in violent spasms up to her shoulder, but her hand remains deadened. “How did my…arm…?”

She breaks off in a scream as the pain suddenly becomes unbearable, her face meeting the grass, which she finds is not as soft as it appears. She writhes, its blades scratching her cheek, as the icy current pulses through her arm.

She notices it then. The woods are strange, much too vibrant for early fall, the grass too green, mushrooms too bright. Even the trees seem oddly hued as if brought in from a different forest.

Margo,” calls an airy whisper.

She scrunches her eyes tightly shut. “No!” she wails. Rolling over, she uses her bad elbow to help push herself to her feet, ignoring the razors digging under the skin of her arm. Her hand flops about as she makes a break for the path.

Margo.” The voice returns. Not a man, nor a woman. Just a taunting voice, one she should not acknowledge. “Margo.”

But this time she spares a glance in its direction. The colors of the forest dull into grays around the source of the voice once more. Her feet carry her toward the whispers, the woods no longer holding a flicker of her interest. Eyes black with lust, she craves for the promises of the globe. She can hear it calling for her, begging for her to take it into her hands. To own it. To claim it as hers.

You cannot escape what has already been decided. I am yours. And you will be mine.”

She peers into the crystal sphere and finds a forest encircling a small city glittering with tiny lights.

“A snow globe,” whispers Margo.

That was all you could say upon our last encounter.

“Perfect…snow globe…”

More perfect when the snow is falling.”

She marvels over its every detail. Crystal smooth as glass, golden trees intricately shaped in filigree, and, most unusually, a spiral-shaped etching in the front of its base. It appears haphazardly added, its style contradicting the fairy tale feeling.

You who are cursed must meet your fate.” The whispers grow impatient. “Take me, Margo. You are only prolonging your suffering.

The fire blazes within her, the yearning overwhelming. Her numb hand reaches outward and ignores the fact that the cold, deadening feeling grows stronger. She lays her fingers upon its cool surface, and her pain ceases. Life returns to her hand. It seems such hilarity for it to have hurt mere seconds prior when all it took to subside the pain was a single touch. She even laughs aloud, though it is a strange laugh that doesn’t belong to her body.

‘More perfect when the snow is falling,’ it had said.

Margo picks the globe up in her hands looking deep into the forest. She gives it a shake and watches the little sparkles float down from the crystal sky like fairy dust.

Smiling at her new possession, Margo sets the globe down to properly enjoy the falling snow and tries to let go.

All greed vanishes. The fire within her extinguishes.

“How did I…?” She stares at the globe in her hands unsure of where it had come from. She cannot let go. Ice creeps through her fingertips and into her palms. Fingers contorting, she tries with all her strength to peel away from the globe. She puts her foot on the globe to force her hands apart.

“Gah! Stupid!”

Her impulse lands her with three limbs fused to the globe. Her body weakens, and she does the only thing she can think of: she screams at the top of her lungs, knowing it is a wasted effort. The closest house is Michael’s, nearly a mile away.

The cold spreads into her forearms and calf like icy splinters climbing from the globe into her body; her scream shifts from a plea of help into pure agony. In a matter of seconds her entire body is frostbitten.

Rays of light break through globe, and it shakes uncontrollably in her hands. The forest is drowned in white. Her eyes tighten; her lids glow red. Wind rips at her hair, and her feet leave the ground. The ice sends her into convulsions until her body shrivels and twists into any shape to ease the pain. Her throat throbs, head feels as though at any moment it will burst.

The cold, hard earth meets her back, and everything stops.

Margo lays upon the ground panting with her eyes still tightly closed, wondering what pain could be inflicted upon her next. She cringes in fear, not certain it is truly over. But all she feels now is cold prickling at her skin.

Something else is different. She opens her hands studying her palms. The globe is gone. Maybe it allowed me to drop it through the torture, she thinks, instantly mortified for considering it allowing her to do anything. As if it thinks…

She spares a glance at her new surroundings. The once bright forest is now very different. Darkness has fallen over the woods and the coldness from the globe lurks. A layer of ice frosts over everything. The wind whips violently through the air. But what disturbs her the most is the way she had entered this clearing is flipped in the other direction. It is as if everything is opposite, like looking through a mirror.

Margo hops frantically to her feet, scrambling around in search of answers, until —

Her steps grow wobbly and her head heavy. The ground teeters below her as what little light is left continues to fade.

She isn’t sure what is happening, but two things are certain: one, touching that globe was a huge mistake; and, two, she is passing out.

Her body falls limp to the ground and she hits her head on something hard. Slowly, Margo gives in to the darkness and drifts off into nothingness.

 

Chapter Three

Beneath the Icy Surface

 

Two faces emerge from behind her lids, swallowed in blackness. Margo waits amidst the dark void, preparing for the minute possibility the boy’s silhouette would define its eyes, and that they might momentarily lock with hers. The longing seems to last for hours aching her to her core. But when the time arrives, the other set of eyes open instead exposing an emerald so vivid they light up her whole face. Her creamy skin shines more radiantly than Margo remembers. Blonde strands ruffle around her heart-shaped face, softening her already smooth lines. She smiles as if thankful Margo has finally let her into her dreams. The brightness flowing from the being illuminates the entire vision, the golden light taking the form of the dream’s backdrop.

The boy for once fades away.

“Margo,” she calls out from across the Hederman’s golden fields of wheat. She giggles and runs in what she considers her ‘stealth mode,’ though she is hardly as sneaky as she thinks.

“Kylie, what did you do?” Margo fusses but couldn’t help laughing back at the sight. Her sister has hold of the rim of her tee shirt with a bulging weight sagging its middle downward and bouncing off her abdomen with every stride.

“Hedermans are out,” she pants. “Thought I’d show Helen. Live up to the name of ‘brat.’” Mrs. Hederman isn’t exactly fond of the two of them roaming the farm, Kylie in particular. She’s been known to throw a few parties past the eastern side of the farm where the woods meet with the creek. Though she’s never been caught red-handed, the aftermath is enough for Helen Hederman’s assessment to point toward the two Grisby girls. She was only half right.

Kylie catches up to her sister, and Margo joins her flight back toward the house, catching sight of the green rounds her blouse holds. “Apples? The Hedermans already suspect you for last week’s party. You know they’ll catch on.” She glances over her shoulder at their landlord’s grand white house with its green-tiled roof. It sits at the opposite end of the pond as the little replication they rent. Their driveway is empty of the blue pickup.

“Don’t you see?” she asks, almost surprised at Margo’s remark. “That’s the point! Let her know it’s me, but only on the inside. She’ll never catch me. It’ll drive her insane!”

Margo pops the latch on the picket fence that runs the perimeter of their house letting Kylie slip in first. The steps moan as they make their way up the porch and into the living room. Her sister drops the pile of fruits onto the kitchen counter sending them spinning in wild circles. Their mother looks up from her book sliding her reading glasses down to the brim of her nose.

“Where did you —” She shakes her head. “I don’t want to know.”

Kylie’s glorious smile spreads across her face, hardly masking the mischief inside.

 

*

 

Margo awakes to a rough texture, cold and sharp as daggers. The skin of her arms is exposed and numb. Her eyes crack to see a cloud of frozen air streaming from her nostrils and blades of grass individually frozen over peeking through a light dusting of snow.

It wasn’t a dream; she is still in that dark, cold place, crumpled in pain on the hard ground. When has St. Joseph ever been known to have such sudden-changing weather? In all of Margo’s life, she’s never seen it shift so drastically.

A moan escapes through clenched teeth, a plea for warmth.

The sky glares down upon her with angry clouds, threatening to release their violent weather again. Frost-coated trees line the clearing with icicles snarling down at her like pointed teeth.

The stabbing pain in her scalp suddenly returns. She finds the warm, sticky patch of matted hair which throbs beneath her quivering palm. Margo sits up, much slower this time, to look at her red, tacky hand and stares, once she sees it behind her, at the bloodstained patch of snow. Crimson upon white stretches on.

Lightly massaging her head around the severed spot, she finds the bleeding has greatly slowed. Once she makes it home, she will likely need stitches, but her mom won’t be pleased with a trip to the hospital in the middle of this storm.

Still a little dazed, her eyes sweep over her surroundings. The reality of the situation is sinking in and approaching fast. Her body creeps from the feeling of cold into a silent numbness. Blood pumping slower, muscles stiffening…

But she will not give into nature, no matter how strangely it decides to act. Suddenly, Margo is on her feet and determined to escape. She keeps her arms wrapped around each other trying to create as much friction as possible. Her purple hands contradict her white, splotchy knuckles.

A sudden chill runs up her spine that has nothing to do with the cold. So much has changed in this autumn forest. Sunlight no longer pours through the trees. A heavy fog lurks over the area making it nearly impossible to see more than a few yards ahead, and a light sleet streaks the air stinging her bare arms with each drop.

Branches bow, straining against icicles’ pull. She notices, then, a tiny hint of green hidden under the casing of ice. The leaves are still bright beneath, and she realizes the life of the woods hasn’t fully disappeared; the ice merely stifles it. The grass is still fully green under a thick layer of ice. Mushroom caps have frozen solid. Even the wildflowers hold their blooms perfectly. Yes, there is still much life to be found in this forest.

What caused such bizarre weather anyway? she wonders. It’s late September in the south; snow isn’t due till mid January if it is to even come at all.

The wind tears through the icy branches creating a dulcet sound like wind chimes. The sharp wind encourages her to get moving. She cannot be sure of which way is home, but her feet seem to lead her in a good enough direction. With every step there is a sound like the snapping of bones. The sleet, now accompanied with snow, beats across Margo’s face. She uses a frost bitten tree to brace herself on a slick patch of ice when — Snap!

A massive icicle, thick as Margo’s thigh, falls from the trees towering above. It stabs the earth not three feet from her.

Change of plans.

She backs into the middle of the clearing again, huddling next to one of the large rocks and trying to get in the direct center of the clearing. She scurries to the top of one of the stones, but it, too, is covered in ice. She slips back to the ground, slightly injuring herself again.

Now with a scraped knee and a bloody head, Margo looks quite disastrous. But her only worry is finding protection against the harsh winds, and since walking home is no longer an option, crouching between the stone parapets is the next best thing.

The wind is kept to a minimum, but there is no way to avoid the falling snow and ice. She digs her foot in the ground to soften the icy grass and sits on the cold, damp ground to wait out the storm.

 

Over the next half hour, Margo stays curled up in her soft patch of grass, checking her cell phone for service to no avail. For each gust of wind, she braces herself for the coming crash. She cringes at the sound of each fallen icicle.

While she isn’t worrying about life-threatening ice, she tries retracing her steps in her head. She remembers following that unusual, fiery bird that disappeared without her even realizing it. She chased it through the trees down a path she didn’t know. Deeper into unknown territory. Deeper….

And then she was here in this very clearing.

Something deep down tells her there is more to the story than she remembers. This place is off, other than just the weather.

“Y-yes!” she attempts to shout.

Her school bag is still draped over her shoulder. She yanks it open and searches through it frantically. She pulls out a textbooks and rips out its pages between tender fingers to use as kindling only to realize she doesn’t have a lighter. To be certain, she digs deeper, tossing everything out that is in her way, desperate for anything of use. Of course, she has no need to carry a lighter or match. The closest thing to an emergency item in her bag is a small flashlight on a key ring.

“Sh-shoot,” she stutters, throwing more things into the snow.

After a moment’s pout, she wrinkles her face up to fight back tears as she bends forward and puts her fingers in the icy snow to gather her things. With jittery hands, she buckles the flap of her bag in defeat and slings back it over her shoulders.

What if I’m so lost I can never find my way home?

She squeezes her eyes again. She barely kissed her mom goodbye that morning. Margo can’t bear the thought that their conversations that morning might be their last. She wonders if her mom has even realized she’s gone yet.

A pang of guilt hits her. She may assume Margo’s skipping out on her chores again. She drops her head to her knees, flushed with anger. If only she’d gone straight home she probably would have never followed that stupid bird and never have found….

Her head snaps up, eyes widened in realization. “The snow globe,” she whispers. And then she remembers everything. The globe. The allure it held. The pain. The coldness running through her body. The twisting and contorting of muscles. The wind. The bright light. The whispers blending into her screams. And of course, the changing of scenery as she fell upon this cold, hard earth.

Is it possible that I’m crazy…to think that I’m in a different place? Margo shivers and shakes harder, the panic taking over.

It isn’t logical. New places don’t just come about at the turn of a globe. But this certainly feels new. Not only must she have fallen into a different forest, but into a different season, as well. Maybe in this place, fall has long since passed and winter is at its peak. Maybe the globe sucked her through time and spit her out on a different part of the planet. But what if she’s not even on the same planet anymore?

Suddenly, the millions of questions halt, and her mind is silent, reeling her back to her first question: where is she?

The white fog against the snow makes it near impossible to see, especially crouched below the scattered boulders, but for some reason Margo concentrates harder than before as if trying to place something. Perhaps something has subliminally caught her eye….

Her heart skips a beat, picking up at double time.

Two luminous rounds of aquamarine float in the white fog, a pair of curious eyes. Their sharp, intense gaze sends needles up her spine. The figure stands on one of the overlooking stones, dangerously close to Margo’s safe place.

She scurries to her feet clumsily and stares back at the figure, her heart pounding out of her ears. Suddenly Margo feels more alone as she stands there. It is just her and this stranger in the thick white infinity.

Backing out of her stone protection, she doesn’t dare look away from her visitor. The eyes follow her every step, and for the first time she is oblivious to the sleet’s sting as it beats across her skin.

The faint edges of the lurking creature become clearer as it steps lithely down from the boulder and prowls toward her, a thick body standing on four muscular legs as high as Margo’s chest. It moves in familiar, cunning patterns. The edge of a tail flicks outward, a feline’s sign of distrust. Nearly transparent in the whirl of snow, the pure white lioness watches Margo curiously. Her thick fur ripples in the wind as she skulks forward. The beautiful beast turns and encircles her, eyes twinkling through the flurries. She cracks her jaw to glare dagger-sharp teeth as long as Margo’s fingers. A purr-like snarl seeps through.

The cat drops her head to her front paws, her back curling identically to the Hederman’s barn cat. The pose snaps Margo out of it. This is no beauty. This is a hunter and, scrawny as she is, Margo her prey. A lump forms in her stomach as this sinks in.

The wind clatters the icy trees and whistles through Margo’s hair. Her hand twitches involuntarily at the open air, as if some form of salvation would magically appear. But it won’t. She is quite alone.

A second flick of the tail. The cat claws the ground with paws the size of mitts.

Without a plan, Margo does the only thing the prey of an animal can do. She uses her instincts. She runs — straight into the dangers of falling icicles. But she’d rather take a spear through the head than be eaten alive by a wild cat. Panting, blind against the snow, she knocks branches out of her way, giving the cat exactly what she wants: a head start in the game.

Thum-dum! Thum-dum!

The rhythmic thudding of feet catches up faster than she expected. She weaves between trees. If only the snow wasn’t falling so hard….

Not ten feet ahead, the outstretched body flies through the air landing with an ice-crunching crash. How the cat ended up in front of her, Margo is not sure. In two bounding strides, it is right on her, paw extended and swiping through the air.

A blaring sound escapes Margo’s throat. The impact against her cheek shoots bright lights across her vision and sends her flying into a tree. She quickly pulls her legs into a fetal position just before the second attack plummets from above. A dozen icicles shower down from the treetops like darts. Once the creaking of the straining tree above her quiets, she peeks through her arms hoping the icicles scared the cat away.

It hadn’t. The feline paces as curiously as ever, not the slightest bit baffled by the fallen spears.

A spasm throbs up Margo’s arm.

“Gah!”

Frostbite? She doesn’t know all of the symptoms but is sure muscle spasms are on the list. But how can this happen now? As she faces her death.

There is a new dullness in the cat’s eyes as if she’s grown bored of her prey. Fur stands on her arched back. In a deliberate crouch, she rocks back one last time before propelling herself forward. Her feet leave the ground as she sails through the air with claws out and paws spread. She pulls her lips back to expose her teeth for a fatal strike.

The liquid, tingling runs down Margo’s arm to the tip of her fingers. She shrieks, turning her head to shield it with her arm. The other flails out wildly behind her. A crushing weight hits her back arm, threatening to snap the bones. Margo is suddenly gripping something cold until her knuckles hurt. It is met with a hot liquid. The crashing boom followed by a whimper is the last sound of the attack.

Margo sits there trembling, not knowing what happened, why she isn’t dead. Slowly, she turns around and carefully pulls her protective arm away from her head. In her other hand is a long icicle, piercing through the cat’s chest. An icicle she knows for a fact she was not holding before.

She releases it, staggering away from the animal.

The cat slowly moves as if attempting to sit back up, but the burden overwhelms her and her body falls limp, crystal eyes glossy and empty. Her luscious white fur, which Margo now sees has faint gray stripes, ripples in the wind and is painted in red.

Margo falls to her knees, her hands shaking and unable to peel her eyes away from what she has done. The last bit of the weapon melts from the warm blood of the cat’s side. Without the intent of the hunt, she suddenly holds the innocence of any ordinary house cat with her silky black lips, pink tongue rough like sandpaper, even a collection of grey whiskers. How could she have seen her as a beast?

A hand involuntarily reaches for her nearby gut disappearing into a layer of fluff. Her fingers instantly thaw. There is no stopping it; Margo melts into the side of the cat’s body. It still holds much warmth. She pulls her arms into its side feeling the goose bumps disappear. The numbness soon follows.

What a strange place I’ve discovered, Margo thinks to herself. She knows she should be more concerned with nearly losing her life, but mountains of questions seem to fill her mind once again. She is desperate to unlock the mysteries of this icy forest and longs to discover its secrets and more of its fascinating creatures. Or maybe this is just hypothermia talking.

Her mind wanders through wintry woods in hopes of forgetting the beast whose life she’s taken. She closes her eyes and involuntarily snuggles closer to the cat.

Icy branches clatter above. She cracks her eyes open, unsure of how long she’s slept next to the animal, to find herself lying in the middle of the forest.

Limbs sore from sleeping stiffly for so long, she eases to her feet. The wind hits her cold, wet side. She was so warm a moment ago that she hadn’t realized her nap took place in a pool of the cat’s blood. She shivers in the breeze. Perhaps her indulgence caused more harm than good.

She decides that since she is somewhere between the clearing with the stones and the road, she would to take a risk and search for the road. The cold envelopes her as she leaves the cat alone in the woods. Her hair drips cold blood as she makes her way through the crystallized forest, leaving a speckled trail of red behind her.

Conflicting thoughts battle on within. One side believes this is all just a strange coincidence and that she’ll soon be home snuggled up on the couch with her mom and a cup of hot cocoa. The other part of her knows something greater had occurred.

The fight for the first option presses her to keep searching for the dirt road. There has to be a way back home. She’ll search through the night if she has to. No matter how thick the air is, or how chilling the winds. At least for the time being the winds have died, decreasing the chance of falling ice.

An upcoming tree is split in its center creating a distinguishable fork in its trunk that Margo is certain she’s seen before. On the way into the woods, she remembers taking a left so if this time she takes a right —

Her hand thrusts backward wrapping around the trunk of a tree as she nearly loses her balance. A wave of vertigo sweeps through her causing her to cling tighter to the limb. Margo teeters over the edge of a cliff that she is certain is nowhere near her home. The woods should continue on, not drop off into a rocky descent.

This confirms her greatest fear.

Hanging onto the tree for dear life, she uses her feet as leverage in order to pull herself back up. She scoots around until she is safely behind the trunk of tree.

The clean drop off is completely out of place. Her forest would never have ended so abruptly.

Margo gasps.

Light! Below a layer of fog sits rows of little structures that appear carved in ice. And within them is light. Puffing chimneys. Life. Warmth.

The streets of the little town are empty, but it is obvious people reside below. If only she can manage a way down to the warmth. But the only apparent way is to slide with the hopes of surviving. The sheer drop has to be at least thirty feet down.

Margo backs into a tree and slides to the ground with a painful crunch, and before she’s able to stop it, she is crying. Her willpower is gone. The severity of the cold takes over. Not to mention, the odds seem to be against her.

She lays on the hard grass with her eyes closed, losing feeling. Tears freeze halfway down her cheeks.

Margo has thought of herself as a brave girl having been through enough to call herself that. But now she is scared. Actually scared. She lays flat and motionless. A drop of warm water hits her cheek.

Stop crying.

The droplets spread across her cheek to her neck, her arms, sprinkling lightly and warming her even more than the cat had.

An illusion, she tells herself. Rain doesn’t fall warm, especially when surrounded by ice. It isn’t real.

But then something else happens: her eyelids begin to glow red. She pops them open in confusion and a powerful ray cast above causes her to shield her eyes. The warmth is satisfying, but the magnitude slightly overwhelming.

She squints. The sky above the trees is clear. Not rain but showers of warm, melting ice beat down on her skin, confronting the goose bumps. Each drop sizzles away the cold.

The rest of the forest remains in darkness and frozen. The light is only cast upon her. She decides not to let it bother her — the fact that the light is only focused on her. After all, she deserves a moment to soak in every ounce of heat available and relax.

 

Chapter Four

The Welcoming Woman

 

The light touches the earth heating a perfect ring of fresh grass that livens the stark wintry forest. Sunlight filters through the trees overhead casting an emerald glow upon Margo, the canopy showering warm drops. She nestles into the soft grass with her arms stretched over her head to bask in warmth. Her muscles lose stiffness and blood pumps regularly again. All thoughts of white monsters and icicles slip far from her memory….

The sun grows warmer and prickles at her skin until all of the drops overhead have sizzled away. She expects a sunburn by now but doesn’t bother to check. Not with the comfort of heat in her bones again. No more tingling or numbness, only the toasty warmth that somehow seems to be increasing still. The warm, burning… Scorching even…

It is suddenly too hot. Overwhelmingly and unbearably hot. In a matter of seconds, it strengthens from a day at the beach to the Sahara deserts to the belly of Mount St. Helens. Margo’s blood boils in fury, violently pumping through her veins.

She jumps to her feet covering her face, protecting what she can. She has to move — but to where? The only place to go is back into the biting cold.

Whoosh!

The ground slips out from under her feet sending a painful echo through her head when it meets the soil. The air in her lungs escapes, and heat stabs her face as the invisible force flattens her.

Her eyes dart about in search of what caused her collapse. The woods are empty.

The spotlight intensifies growing into a cloud of heat focused solely upon her. Her body is bound to the earth as if gravity has magnified. She cannot escape; to budge is even impossible.

The air around her stirs. Not wind, but more a violent charge of energy, a furious swarm of invisible bees whirling around her. And she is forced to remain still and broken and take the invisible beating.

Her head spins as the light above grows as blinding as the snow globe had. The motion is nauseating, but she keeps her eyes open this time. She has learned throughout the day’s events that closing them will only make it worse.

A bolt echoes throughout the sky as the source of the light above explodes. Showers of illuminated rain fall, splattering down on Margo’s face and tearing through her flesh like scorching drops of molten metal. She screams and writhes from the impact. Oddly, the places that hurt the most are the inner part of her arms and the back of her neck. The intensity brings tears to her eyes. Like razors digging into her spine. Daggers carving out the core of her arms.

Margo’s screams do nothing. Nothing but lose oxygen.

The pressure lifts, the invisible weight no more. Margo slowly looks around expecting to find pieces of her body, pieces of her own flesh, strewn about after this last beating, but she doesn’t. In fact, she feels…good.

She rises shakily to her feet. Margo stands within the same forest she was in after following that flaming bird, the same forest that had been covered in ice and snow, and it has somehow changed yet again. To look inside this forest is to explore the works of a dream in hard form, granted a chance to see imagination. The colors are hardly hues found in ordinary woods but are more vivid and saturated. The leaves not quite a lime green nor the woodsy hunter green they’re expected to be. Flowers are scattered throughout the branches painted in vibrant neon. Even the cloudless sky is a shade closer to turquoise. It is as if she’s walked into someone’s realism painting in which the artist has slightly mixed the wrong colors, throwing off the whole mood.

But — and this realization churns her stomach — this is wrong. This feels like someone has played God, and the forest is the result of not mixing the colors just right. Abnormal plants and trees fill the woods. Spiky bits of moss cling to trees like sea urchins. The tree trunks are more russet than brown, some with unusually smooth bark. Wild-looking flowers wear large, exotic petals. Even little things she notices — the soil she walks on being too fluffy or a patch of weeds she brushes against too slick against her skin — are strangely off-putting.

The great vast of turquoise sky peeks through break in the trees ahead, attracting her attention. She suddenly remembers the city below and sprints to the edge of the cliff to capture the full view of the valley.

Expecting to find the village as oddly hued as the forest, Margo is surprised to find the opposite. The town is drained of color. The grassless land of dust has a few dozen rows of shacks running down its center. There is little vegetation, which appears to be only several acres of crops and a few trees, though even these plants are gray. There are small plots of land with pitiful tufts of grass to feed unrecognizable animals. The buildings are constructed of what appear to sea-bleached logs, but there is no ocean in sight.

The sadness Margo feels for the deadened town lifts when she notices movement below. The villagers hurry about as if simply getting on with their lives, not taking notice to the vanishing ice and lava-spewing spotlight from moments ago.

The arduous drop will pose a problem. She cannot make it safely down from such height. Searching the edge of the cliff for some sort of pathway, her mouth gapes. What she stands on is not merely a valley but a crater, a circular chunk sliced clean out of the ground. The cliff wraps around the city with a several miles between Margo and the other side.

She scans the entire lap, but can find no obvious way below. She does notice something; though, it is not nearly as safe as she had hoped. A tree grows from the valley below extending above top of the cliff. Its branches brush against the side of the bluff and grow into the wall of the cliff, forming a perfect ladder. It must have been planted for this very reason, she decides.

She reaches out and grabs onto a sturdy limb about eye level and peeps over the edge. The ground below sways. Margo and heights are not exactly on good terms. But she only needs to step a few feet over and then climb down.

Something catches her attention causing her to freeze in place. The inside of Margo’s left arm is covered in congealed blood. She runs her fingers over the area flaking off some of the loose pieces and looks down to finds various blood splatters all over her clothes. From the cat, maybe?

It wasn’t. It was from her.

Looking closer at her arm, she finds a series of oddly shaped cuts, almost pattern-like. Her other arm has similar cuts, too. What’s strange is that they don’t hurt. If Margo hadn’t looked, she wouldn’t have even known they were there. Strange, yes, but the questions will have to wait until she is on lower ground, or at least not halfway hanging off a cliff.

Margo gulps back her fears and pulls herself onto the tree, focusing on the injuries on her arms rather than the jagged rocks below.

As she climbs down, she tries thinking back to what might have happened to get the cuts. The cat did jump at her, but she didn’t feel anything from the impact. She was already dead by the time she hit Margo. The first time she struck, her claws weren’t even out. Even if it were from the cat, these cuts are not in the shape of claws but more like…etchings.

There isn’t much else Margo can think of as she lowers herself down the tree. The branches hold their form as she drops down onto each one below. The gray stone of the cliff runs parallel to her with veins swirling a design on its exposed surface.

Margo freezes mid-step as she remembers something.

The light, the explosion, it had hurt her arms. Actually, it was the very spot of these cuts. The back of her neck hurt as well, and, as she thinks this, she reaches her hand back to where she had felt the pain. And there it is: another grouping of slightly healed gashes. But what can this mean? Is this one of the unusual punishments received when someone enters this place, whatever this place may be?

Margo lowers herself onto the next branch, taking another glance at the strange cuts. Her mind is overloaded with questions. And still with no one available to answer them. She can hardly keep up with the events that have occurred.

She reaches the bottom limb, still about five feet from the ground, and slings herself down without missing a beat, landing in a low crouch.

“Huh?” she says out loud, somewhat surprised at herself.

She shakes away the thought and turns to look at this new part of the land. Margo has never been to Arizona, but this is what she pictures it to look like: hardly any green, the minimal shrubs, dull colors, dust and sand fading into the distance, the bare cliffs….

Looking up, she can see the stretch of unnaturally turquoise sky, a glorious sea whose shores are broken off by the cliff’s edge. The few rays of sunlight that shine from above cast eerie shadows into the valley.

A stone wall wraps around the strange city, exposing only a cluster of rickety, gray rooftops. Directly in front of Margo is a looming door, and she is thankful for her first bit of luck. She only hopes that once she reaches the village she will be able to get the answers she needs. Most importantly, what happened when she touched that globe?

The smells of dust and burning wood fill her nostrils. She chokes as a gust of wind spreads sand past her. It is disorienting to experience the humidity the moist forest offered only moments ago disappear into this dry wasteland. The ground below is more sand than soil and slips beneath her feet, which only adds to her weariness. At least most of the sun has fallen behind the tall cliffs.

The wall doesn’t have the look of machine-construction. Mix-matched rocks in different shades of gray, tan, and brown are held together with what looks like mud. The door is made of unstained wood and has a rough, natural texture to it. There is no handle.

She’s unsure whether it would be appropriate to just push the door open or knock first but eventually opts to give a courteous knock. She holds up her fist and taps lightly a few times, hardly creating a sound through the thick wood. That does not stop her from being heard. The door swings open.

A small man with a curved back grips the frame of the door with stubby fingers blackened in grime. His eyes are sunken into his leathery face and do not seem to follow one another properly. He has no teeth which causes his grimace to disappear into his face. What’s left of his paper-white hair grazes the top of his shoulders and wisps in the wind.

After the brief look over, Margo realizes he is glaring at her. “Come in, come in,” he fusses.

Suddenly, she feels a bit uneasy and reconsiders. She cannot be sure that if she goes in there she won’t come out looking like him — if she is to come out at all.

He grows impatient with her hesitation and reaches out for her hand, giving it a tug.

He freezes, staring down at her, eyebrows tightening. Margo doesn’t know what he sees, but grows even more uncomfortable with his boorish staring.

Suddenly, his eyes widen in realization, slightly popping a vein out of his temple. His good eye jumps from Margo’s face to whatever it is he is gawking at.

“Could it be?” he whispers to himself. “Already…?”

Margo tries to hold it together, but is unable to control her features.

Instead of pulling her into the city, he quickly steps out with her. A few clumsy tugs on his poncho, and he shoves the heap into Margo’s arms.

“Put this on,” he says urgently. He glances around nervously.

It smells like stale dirt and body odor, but Margo is too frightened to do anything but obey — and pray she doesn’t catch anything. She breathes through her mouth.

“Follow me.” He is whispering again. “Quickly. Keep your eyes down.”

He takes her by the arm again but only long enough to pull her through the open door. Once they are in the village, he lets her go and scurries off into the streets.

His request to keep her eyes down proves difficult. There is much to see. Now that the ice has vanished, the streets are full of peculiar people. Most stay busy with their tasks or hustle on their way to where ever it is they are going. Some shop from the little kiosks set up along the streets, chatting about. Others pop in and out of buildings. On occasion, Margo receives an unwelcoming, sneering expression.

Something is very wrong here.

There are even fewer plants inside the walls, not even the shrubs that grow on the other side. The sandy roads are packed down harder than outside the gate, and every time the wind blows, a cloud of dust swirls through the air. Margo is reminded of an old western movie. She almost expects to see a bar fight in one of the buildings or a lone tumbleweed flipping down the road.

The graying buildings stand no more than six feet apart. A short set of steps lead to each door, and a small sign hangs outward from above every doorway with a name carved on it and a number hung beneath. She passes ‘Herbs and Plants, Number 23’ and ‘Fruit, Number 27’ before nearly losing sight of the little man in the crowds. She quickens her stride.

The people here are wrong, Margo notices as a couple duck out of a shop labeled ‘Eyewear, Number 21.’ That’s when she realizes what is bothering her: their attire. They are all dressed in different styles of clothing. Some are from a different era. Those wear anything from tattered bell-bottoms to long ruffled dresses that could have easily been from the early twentieth, maybe even nineteenth, century. The others, though fewer in numbers, are dressed more modern — jeans, short trendy dresses, business suits, or graphic tees.

The crooked man reaches down to give Margo’s hand a yank. Apparently, she still isn’t going fast enough. He takes a sharp left around the street corner weaving through the crowd.

They stop abruptly in front of the third house on the left. ‘Jamyria Welcome Center, Number 12’ reads the sign. The building is small. There’s nothing that makes it any more special than the other graying, dilapidated buildings she’s seen.

But she can’t study it for long. He steps up behind her and gives her a push toward Number 12.

“Hurry,” he fusses.

Margo climbs the rickety stairs and opens the door. He shoves her into the dark room, and the door slams shut behind her. There is hardly room inside. Bookshelves line all four walls containing stacks of papers along with other odds and ends—a clock, a telescope, a few framed drawings, a skull. The room is lit mostly by the high windows that peek over the tops of shelves and a few lit candlesticks.

In the room’s center sits a woman at a small desk, smiling wide. Compared to the townspeople of this dirty place, she is clean-cut. A sleek, chocolate ponytail coils around her shoulder. On her perfectly curved nose rests a pair of trendy red glasses. Even sitting down, it is obvious that this woman is tall and slender. Her presence is misplaced in this town.

“Welcome to Jamyria,” she says, smile still in place. She rises to greet Margo, extending a soft, well-manicured hand, which Margo shakes reluctantly, embarrassed by the roughness of her own against this lady’s delicate palm. But the woman doesn’t seem to notice — at least, she does not say. In fact, her warm spirit is welcoming.

“Jamyria?” Margo asks a beat too late.

“Oh, sweetie, I know it’s difficult to understand…or to take it all in at first, but you’ll soon know everything.” Her face is strained as she speaks, almost sympathetic. “We’ll help you get settled in.”

“Miss Saunders.” The gruff voice comes from behind Margo. She hadn’t realized the hunched-back man was still there. He shuffles his way over to the lady to whisper something in her lowered ear. Her warm smile shifts to something harsher. They both glance up at Margo at the same time.

“Impossible.” It is nothing more than a whisper, but the intensity of the single word is not fitting for such a sweet face. Margo wishes to look away from the woman ferocious glare. And then, her expression relaxes and her voice calms. “Well, that is an interesting theory, Dawson, but we will have to investigate this further.”

She looks down upon Margo sternly. The man is still glaring, too, which makes Margo feel very uncomfortable once again. The stench from the poncho suddenly returns causing her to gulp back bile.

“Dawson,” the lady continues, softening up her face a bit. “I shouldn’t have used the word ‘impossible.’ It’s just…unheard of. Thank you for bringing her to me.”

And with that, the little man nods and scoots his way out the door.

“Tell me,” says the woman stepping closer, arms folded across her chest. “What happened to you arms?”

Margo takes a step back realizing what they’re after now. Her wounds.

“Let me see,” the lady says pulling at the hem of the poncho. Though her stomach clenches, Margo obeys and removes the smelly garment.

Mouth dropping open, the woman studies the rows of cuts that run the length of Margo’s arms. The blood has thickened and scabbed over into jagged marks. She turns her face away, not wanting to see the injuries she sustained without a conscious realization.

“There’s so much,” whispers the lady. “So many…”

Her eyes follow the lines on Margo’s inner arms, truly studying it as if it is some encryption she understands.

“There was a light,” Margo says quietly, unsure of what else to say to answer her earlier question. “It exploded, and I think…it cut me…”

Margo flushes with embarrassment. Why should this woman believe her? Hearing the words spoken aloud shames her. She would label herself as a lunatic had their roles been reversed.

Except, from the knowing look on the woman’s face, she just might believe her story.

“And my neck,” she continues with a little more enthusiasm, lifting her hair to share the other cuts with this stranger.

“More?” the lady asks, though she is already lightly tracing her fingers around the cuts. Thankfully, it doesn’t hurt, like areas are desensitized. “So it is possible.”

Margo is unsure whether she is asking a question or simply stating a fact, so she remains silent.

“You’re going to have to come with me.”

Margo nods. She doesn’t have many options to choose from. Besides, she has never been on her own before, and this lady is the most decent person she’s yet to encounter.

She dons her bag from under her desk and hands Margo back the poncho. “Put this back on, honey.”

Without hesitation, Margo pulls the smelly thing back on and holds her breath again. She understands her reasoning for the cover-up, though; the wounds seem to attract a lot of attention.

They step out onto the small porch of the Welcome Center. Margo attempts to look inconspicuous in the middle of this strange town — Jamyria. The people scurry by on the streets. A variety of emotions pass her ranging from anger to sadness, depending on the person, but Margo notices that nobody looks happy. Except one.

The lady turns to lock up the building, and meets Margo’s gaze with her blazing smile. “I’m Janie Saunders, by the way.”

“Margo Grisby,” she returns, nodding once.

“Margo,” repeats Janie. She holds her hand out toward the street, a cue to start walking. “The town isn’t much to look at, but we’ve done the best we can.”

Margo doesn’t reply, but instead hopes for further explanation which does not come. Janie leads the way around the opposite corner that Margo had been brought in on. This time she isn’t instructed to keep her head down, so she tries to absorb as much of the town as possible. The daunting shadows from the cliffs cause it to feel darker than it is.

The walk is short, only about a block from the corner. Janie stops in front of a building that looks more like a cottage rather than a cabin. Instead of wood, it is made of stone similar to the surrounding wall. ‘The First Man, Number 1’ reads the signage overhead, the most ornate sign in the village. The letters are painted in gold bordered in winding green ivy, and it’s attached to the house with scrolling tendrils of iron.

Janie walks up to the door with her arm around Margo’s shoulder and knocks. Minutes pass before the shouts start on the other side of the door.

“What do you want? Come to bother me some more? To question an old man?” he shouts. “I’ll blast you all to hell if I have to, I will! Blast you all —”

“Nick, it’s me,” Janie laughs.

The door swings open. A tall, lanky man leans out with his eyes wide and full of excitement behind his dark-rimmed spectacles. He looks in his late fifties with glossy blue eyes and short gray hair sticking out in several directions.

“Janie!” he shouts pulling her into his embrace, bouncing a bit. “It’s been so long.”

“It’s been no more than two days, Nick! Honestly, you make me feel like I never visit when you talk like that.”

Margo’s hunches over in the corner of the porch awkwardly as they exchange their brief conversation. She wishes to escape their pleasantries. How can they act so happy amidst such a drab town? How can they pretend the ice had never occurred? She wishes to disappear.

“So, what is it that brings you this way?” he asks, still clinging to Janie’s arm in excitement.

“Well,” she says bringing his attention over to their guest. “I have someone I think you’d be interested in meeting.” Her smile beams on as she gives him a wink.

His face suddenly goes slack as he takes Margo in. “Has it really been fifty years?” he whispers.

“So it seems. Time flies around here, eh?”

“It certainly does,” he muses. He can’t take his eyes off Margo, and she now knows why.

It takes him a moment to snap out of his gaze, giving his head a shake. “Well, come in,” he waves. “We have much to discuss. Janie, start some tea. I’ll heat up the stew. Come in, come in.” He tugs Margo inside. A slight annoyance creeps through her after being pulled around again, but she enters without a fight.

His home is polar opposite from the Welcome Center. The walls are the same stone as the outside decked in a variety of sketches and paintings (Margo wonders if he provided Janie with the sketches she spotted in the Welcome Center). The honey wood furniture warms and invites. She follows them into the small kitchen — which is even smaller than her parents’, if that’s possible. Gray stone continues throughout the room, hollowed out in some places to create storage crevices, and is topped with an ancient, honey-colored wooden countertop. In the center wall is a stone fireplace with a fire roaring and licking at the iron pot he places in the flames.

“Have a seat,” Nick offers, pulling out a chair.

Margo glances down at the chair and recognizes the warmth in her cheeks. For the first time this afternoon she truly feels safe. It is in the arms of these two strangers she takes comfort, and she is gracious to happen upon them.

Just as she is about to accept his seat, her smile quickly fades. Before she hadn’t noticed that his right hand is completely covered in dark scars very similar to her own cuts. A vine-like pattern scrolls across the back of his hand.

What she also hadn’t noticed is that half of his hand is missing. He lacks his ring finger, pinky, and the outer half of his palm. A chunk has been sliced clean off.

Margo feels her mouth fall slightly open, and snaps it shut, feeling rude.

“As I said before,” Nick says darkly, “we have much to discuss.”

 

Chapter Five

The First Man

Margo’s eyes are incapable of leaving his hand. The brown cluster of scars screams for her attention. She feels a strong connection to this stranger, certain she is not alone in her suffering.

“Well,” he says after a moment or two. “First of all, I’m Nick Thomas.” He waits, but when Margo does not reply prompts, “And you are?”

“Margo Grisby,” she blurts, breaking her gaze from his hand. “What happened to your–” She stops herself, flushed in embarrassment by her audacity.

“We’ll get to that,” he promises. “But first, tell me what happened to you. What can you remember?” He leans forward, eyes intense, and crosses his arms so he can tuck his partial hand into his side.

Margo thinks this over for a minute. “Well, the last normal thing I remember was walking home from school.” Had that walk down the dirt road been merely a few hours ago?

“Yes, good! What next?” He asks it as if he already knows how the story will unfold, which Margo is certain he does.

“There was a bright bird, as bright as fire. I followed it through the woods.”

He and Janie turn to one another in confusion, as if thrown by something she’d said.

“A fiery bird?”

“It led me to where it was guarding a globe.” Margo’s eyes dart to Janie just in time to see her spilling hot water onto the counter as it overflows from her cup.

“Guarding it? As in keeping you away from it?” asks Nick.

“More like it was trying to bring me to it. Like it wanted me to…” Her voice trails off as the flash of a memory stirs her. Touching the globe, all the pain in that instant. The icy splinters under her skin. Muscles so strained they could have peeled from her bones.

“Well,” says Janie. “That certainly is…different.”

“Different, indeed.” Nick’s face twists up in concentration. He paces back and forth in the tiny kitchen. It only takes him two steps to reach each side, and he nearly knocks Janie out of the way in each passing.

“Is something wrong?” Margo asks nervously. The weird parts are yet to come, and she is surprised to find that this part of the story has set their minds turning.

“It’s just that I’ve never heard of one of this world’s creatures crossing over to the Real World. It’s quite strange.”

Janie is silent in the background keeping her eyes on the floor. Both are in deep thought. Margo almost dreads telling them the rest of the story. Almost.

Then his words hit her a little harder.

“I’m sorry,” she says too harshly, tensing her back. “Did you just say that we’re in a different world?”

Nick chokes, turning slightly green. “Oh, dear… Janie I thought you’d already gotten that far.”

“No, I —”

“Oh, thank goodness,” Margo says quietly, placing a hand over her heart. “I was afraid I was losing it.”

The tension lifts. Nick chuckles. “I’m impressed, actually. You seem to be adapting pretty well. And fast. Most new enterers have trouble accepting even pieces of what’s happening, but you seem to really have a knack for this.” He smiles crookedly to himself.

Janie shoots him a nasty look.

“I’m serious,” he goes on. “She hasn’t once asked when she gets to go home or anything. Like she already knows why she’s —”

Nick,” Janie says firmly.

He clears his throat and is back to business. “So after you saw the bird guarding the globe, what happened?”

“Well, I felt funny. Like I couldn’t escape from it. Something felt very wrong, but I had to shake it.” She skips over where her memory clouds. “Then everything grew bright, and I woke up in the snow.

“Then, there was this huge cat.” They exchange another nervous glance. “It was all white and tried to attack me. I couldn’t outrun it. I thought I was going to die but… There was an icicle in my hand — I don’t know how it got there — but I… I killed it.”

To Margo’s surprise, Nick bursts out into a hysterical laugh. She grimaces.

“Well, that’s something we didn’t see coming,” Nick belts out.

Janie nods back, joining his laughter.

“Sorry, but you lost me again.” She fails to mask her irritation.

“We’ll explain it all, I promise. Now, please continue.”

She sighs, and continues to tell them the rest. Without any more interruptions, she tells them of the nagging cold and spotting the village from above the valley. How the circle of light cast down upon her and somehow cut her arms and neck. They listen intently to every word and even after Margo has finished they wait patiently in silence for more. “So then I just came down here to find help after the ice was gone.”

Nick’s pacing finally stops, his face still scrunched up in concentration. “Can I see them? Your marks?”

She nods while removing the filthy poncho once again. Janie silently darts over to her side to help and then backs out of the way with the poncho draped over her arm. Margo hopes she incinerates the thing.

Nick steps forward with his partial hand holding his chin and begins studying the marks as Janie had — as if there is meaning beneath the strange characters. She stretches her arms out into the shape of a U for him to have a proper look at her inner arms.

Margo, too, gives them a scrutinized look-over. There are four rows of patterns that hide neatly in her side when her arms are down. Each row contains a single line of sharp, jagged characters running from her elbow all the way to the joint where her arm meets her shoulder. Studying them even closer, she sees that there are etchings within each tiny character. She is curious to see the one on her neck.

What’s strange is that even though she received these cuts merely hours ago, they are completely healed. The skin isn’t pink as an ordinary scar would be but has healed a shade or two darker than the tone of her skin, leaving them brownish.

Nick traces the scars with his two fingers, carefully examining them.

“I just don’t think I understand what happened to me,” Margo finally says, interrupting his studying. She can feel her eyes widening in fright, although she is trying her hardest to keep her emotions under control.

“There’s just so much to tell. Where to begin, where to begin?” He sighs, looking down at Margo with troubled eyes, and she knows then that something greater than all that had happened today is coming. “Alright, Janie. You start, I’ll finish.”

He gently glides Margo’s arms back to her side and offers the same chair he’d pulled out a moment ago. This time she sits without question. Janie places a cup of steaming tea in front of her.

“Well, this is Jamyria,” says Janie as she grabs the other two cups and hands one to Nick. They both sit down across from Margo, settling in for a long discussion. “Jamyria is a world that was created by someone with great power. We’ve learned as much as we can about this place over the years, but we were brought in here just as unexpectedly as you.”

Only one word sticks out to Margo, and it isn’t the obvious. She should be terrified that someone created an entire world with their ‘power.’ Or that everyone here was brought against their will. But that isn’t what scares her.

“Years?” It can’t be possible for them to have been here for that long. Surely they have families looking for them, detectives and police searching for answers.

“Years,” Janie repeats, her smile vanishing. “Some for centuries even.”

“Centuries?” For a moment, Margo can’t even form another sentence. “How is that even possible? Unless… Oh, you mean they’ve died here….” She bites her tongue.

Janie’s lip twitch slightly. “No. You see, when you enter Jamyria, the Queen — that is, the creator of this land — sets a curse on you so that you can only age to a certain degree, and then you stop. This allows children to grow to their fullest potential, their most powerful stage. You become temporarily immortal, meaning once she finished with you, you’ll continue to age until you pass.”

Margo processes this. It all sounds so bizarre and unreal, but why stop believing at this point?

“As you can imagine, we all want to get out of here.” Janie takes a sip of her tea between sentences. “In a way, we’re all prisoners. Slaves to contributing energy to her source of power.” Margo isn’t sure what that means, but Janie speaks too quickly to ask. “Sure, we do what we can with what we’ve got, but who wants to live their entire life that way? Who wants to be told that the only freedom they have is within this little box?” She air-draws a square with her thin fingers. “And even still, we have limitations of what we can do and where we can go within our box. It’s miserable, Margo.”

Her chocolate eyes plead. For a moment, Margo empathizes. Until she remembers that this hell is her reality, too. Janie searches Margo’s face for something, like she desperately has something to ask.

“But we’ve done our best,” she finally says. “We built this town from the ground up, starting with this very cottage. Nick built it himself.” She smiles at him, though it does not touch her eyes.

“You built this alone?” Margo asks, amazed.

“From the ground up,” Nick repeats proudly.

“Margo, I honestly feel like you’re missing the major points here. Your questions seem to be avoiding the facts, so let me reiterate.” Janie takes in a deep breath and slowly releases it through her tightly rounded lips. “You are in a different world. And we are all stuck here.”

Margo is somewhat miffed that she’s spelled it out so simply. Of course she heard what Janie had said, but somewhere inside of her, Margo had already sensed that.

“I understand, really,” she defends dumbly. “But to be honest, I feel like you’re not telling me something.” Margo’s voice is even, eyes dead on Janie and unwavering. At last, she sees what she needs: Janie’s gaze nervously flickers to Nick and back.

“Perceptive, eh?” says Nick, the wrinkles around his eyes more dominant as he grins. “My turn, Janie. Thanks for the intro.” He rearranges his posture and intertwines his two fingers with his good hand. “Well, Margo, it’s time to talk about your marks.”

This she is not surprised to hear.

“When someone enters Jamyria, normally they simply fall into the snow and wait for warmth to come. After about an hour or so, the sun will come out, and as soon as the light spreads, the cold vanishes melting the snow and ice away instantaneously. But every fifty years, someone will enter who has more meaning than just being captured by the Queen.” He leans in on the table, his eyes wide. “They’re destined to enter.”

Margo’s eyes narrow, still unsure where this is leading.

“Those destined are brought here just as unknowingly as any other person and have what’s already growing inside of them revealed. These marks. These,” he taps the scars on his right hand lightly, smiling crookedly, “are marks of power.”

Margo’s own scars come into focus. What exactly is he saying? That these marks have power in them…?

“Yes, Margo. You, too, have that power in you. And you have a lot of power, I might add. Look at all those markings!”

“Don’t forget the ones on her neck,” Janie adds.

“It’s remarkable! Unheard of.”

She stares at him blankly.

“You’re confused,” he points out. “Several unique things have happened here; two very significant unique things. One, there’s never been a marked woman.” Margo raises her eyebrow skeptically, knowing that he just mentioned a queen having power to create this world. “Let me rephrase that. There are marked women, but a woman as the New Mark, now that’s unheard of…

“The second thing is that I’ve never seen so much power wrapped into a single body.” He absentmindedly traces the etchings on his hand again. “The more detailed the patterns are, the more power that person contains. And yours are so big! But, at the same time, intricate.”

“New Mark?” Margo sighs. “I really am trying, but it’s hard to keep up.”

“Once someone has been given this power,” Janie says softly, “and once they know what they’re doing with it, they can pass it along to someone else. There are plenty of women that have marks here, but we’ve never come across a woman that has received a New Mark, as we call it. That is, their mark is original…freshly created and unique. Do you understand, sweetie?”

“What about this queen?” Margo asks.

“She got hers from her father,” Nick answers before Janie can. “That happened long before anyone was in Jamyria, though. Long before it was even created.”

“You said this happens every fifty years.” Margo went back over their conversation. She glances at Nick’s marks. “Does that mean you’ve been in here for fifty years?”

“Wish I had,” Nick says darkly. “I’ve been here for over a hundred.”

The room falls silent. Margo isn’t sure how to respond to that. That’s a lifetime, or more. And to spend it all here… There’s a small part within Margo that cannot help but worry that that will be her fate, too.

“We’ve gotten a little sidetracked again,” Nick finally says. “So, after I entered Jamyria, I received my power, my markings.” He holds up his partial hand, and Margo can’t help but wince. “My whole hand was covered then.” He keeps his eyes on his hand, reminiscing.

“I thought I was going crazy, too. One minute I was in my house, the next I was in this wintry forest. I wandered, searching for any type of shelter — the ice was harsh, as you know. That’s when I saw a tower of smoke in the mountains, so I headed that direction. When I grew closer, a man cut off my path. I was so relieved to find someone else that I didn’t even think to fear him. But before I could ask him for help, he struck me to the ground. I surrendered hoping that he would either kill me quickly or at least bring me to warmth — you’re willing to do almost anything in a moment so desperate.”

Margo shivers remembering the icicle in her hand, the hot blood spilling down her hand.

“But I was lucky. I was brought to the pillar of smoke which was coming from the Queen’s house.” He pauses, watching for Margo’s reaction. “He took me into a grand white room lined with scarlet drapes. And directly in front of me she sat there watching me with a cold grin on her face, but she still managed to come across as beautiful. Her smoky-grey eyes…somehow they drew you in, making you almost believe she was good.”

“But,” Margo says interrupting for the first time, “she’s not, is she?”

“No.”

Margo guesses she should have realized this, but from the way he describes this queen, she almost believes differently.

“Does she do anything besides just take people in?”

“Far worse,” he replies somberly. That is the only answer Margo will receive for now. “When I met the Queen, I was not afraid — not of her at least. She greeted me politely and introduced me to Jamyria, much like Janie just did for you. She also explained that there was no way possible for me to go back and that I would have to get used to life here.

“I became her servant in the beginning, helping her with whatever task or assignment she had for me. I watched her bring in more people, too. Some of them she became more attached to and hired to work for her as protection rather than as mere servants — her Crew, as she calls them. So we servants, along with some of her Crewmen, were ordered to build the castle. It took us many years, but once it was finished, the Queen had no further purpose for most of us. She released us into the jungle.

“It was a relief to be free from the life I had been forced into, but as Janie said earlier, we are only free to a certain extent. We are still extremely limited. I, for example, was never allowed to return to the castle without the Queen’s request. And returning to the Real World is impossible. The only chance of that happening occurs every fifty years.” They both stare at Margo again. “Are you making the connection, Margo?”

But Janie speaks first. “She’s just a girl, Nick. She isn’t ready for this.”

“Fate certainly thinks she is,” he says. “About a year before the Queen released me,” he continues. “Rumors began to spread of a prophecy stating that every fifty years the New Marked One would enter. That one of these New Marks would free all of the people of Jamyria.”

And now it all makes sense. The click in Margo’s mind as she makes this connection is nearly audible. “So you think I’m this ‘New Mark?’” Margo cannot help but to burst into hysterics at that.

“You are the New Mark, Margo. The question is: are you the one who will save this world?”

Margo gives this a generous thought of about thirty seconds before she replies, “No thank you,” and scoots her chair out to leave.

But before she can rise to her feet Janie reaches out for her hand. “Wait. Please, just consider it.”

“Consider what?” she snaps. “I’ve barely been in this place a day, and you’ve already got my life mapped out. I don’t even know who you people are!”

“We’ll help you as much as we can —”

“Why didn’t you free everyone?” she shouts at Nick. “And if it’s every fifty years, isn’t there another one out there somewhere?”

Nick’s face slightly drops. “I was injured,” he says, quietly glancing down at his hand.

Margo is suddenly ashamed of her reaction. Of course he would have tried. He’s been in this world — she will have to get used to saying that — for over a hundred years.

“I still have some power left, but I’m no longer a match against the Queen,” he adds ruefully. “As for the previous Marked One, they found him not long after he discovered his marks. He was executed immediately.”

Margo cringes. So that means that if this Queen were to find her, she will be put to death? Perfect.

“There’s nothing to worry about, though. I have reason to believe that you will be the one to fulfill the mission. There’s just so much about you that’s different than us previous Marks. Yes, I have much faith in you.”

Janie’s sweet face is still lit up in excitement or awe. Tears well up in her eyes.

“Well,” Margo breathes. “That’s an interesting story.”

“Ha!” Nick bellows. “Story? Sorry to be so forward about this, but it’s no story. It’s reality. And you’re the center of this reality. Do you realize how many people are waiting for you? Depending on you?”

She grits her teeth. There is obviously no way around them. “Let me think about it.”

“Excellent,” Nick says.

Janie squeals.

“No, no!” Margo says firmly. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. I just agreed to consider it. Nothing more.”

“Fair enough,” he says getting to his feet. “I think we’ve put enough on you for one night. Janie, do you mind if she stays over at your place tonight?”

“It’s pretty late, Nick,” she says still smiling. “She could just stay with you. I mean, we don’t want anyone to notice her, right?”

“Sure, of course. As long as you’re okay with that, Margo.”

“Yes, it’s fine.” Margo agrees, though she would have preferred to go with Janie.

He leads Margo into the tiny spare guest room, which is more of an art studio than a bedroom. He clears off all the sketches and bits of charcoal on the bed allowing enough room to sleep and offers to get anything Margo needs. She assures him she is fine and only needs a little peace after such a long day.

He shuts the door on his way out, and Margo prepares herself for the most tears she’s shed in a quite some time.

 

Chapter Six

Margo’s Choice

The eruption of voices and shouts fill the room, as the ocean would roar against the sands of the shore. Cheers echo throughout the auditorium directed toward the twirling girl in the center of the stage. With blond curls bouncing off her shoulders and lavender tulle fluttering with her movement, Kylie demands all attention. It has been years since Margo has sat in the crowd watching her sister dance upon a stage, yet every twinge of jealousy has suddenly rushed back. Margo’s heart sinks as she watches her sister enjoy every moment. She shrinks down in her chair hoping to block out the sound of applause but finds herself sinking between the cracks of her seat until she grows so small she is nothing more than a weightless being shriveling into darkness.

Margo does not want to be taken from her sister; she loves her dearly. She is even proud that this moment belongs to her. She despises this feeling of jealousy. But it is too late. Margo has already escaped that room landing into a pool of darkness. In the distance a dark figure is slowly growing visible. The person is standing several yards away with their back to Margo. She steps forward and reaches out to touch the boy just as he turns to reveal himself.

She welcomes his familiar face. He smiles as Margo stretches her hand out for him, longing to uncover the thoughts behind those clear, blue eyes — has he missed her as well? But the closer Margo’s fingers come to his face, the further he drifts away.

She screams, hating this. The two people she needs, gone. Taken from her. Gone.

Her voice drones on until her throat burns, and suddenly a light forms around her. The flight through the brightness is quicker than she remembers this time, melting into a spread of beautiful colors, more beautiful than imaginable. The world around her is too perfect, too vivid.

Margo notices something cold is in her hand. Clenched in her fist, she finds a magical feather encased in ice. That moment she knows she must have fallen into something even stranger: a land engrossed in power.

And smiling cruelly at the top of a tower is a woman with haunting grey eyes.

Margo’s eyes snap open and her body shoots upright. The ledge over the bed meets her head, a blinding pain splits her forehead in two, and she’s showered with Nick’s sketches. Without a care, she pushes them to the ground along with the others and lies back down, her head throbbing. Surely the downpour of tears should have stopped by now. She allowed herself one night to be weak, one night to give into the crying. But now as sunlight beams through the grainy glass of the window, Margo still has to fight to keep her eyes dry.

They threw a lot at her last night, and she deserves a moment of vulnerability; though, it is not in her character. There is much for her to consider.

Stepping only on the gaps of wood peeking through the scattered artwork like flagstones, she cracks the door, surprised to see that Janie is already sitting with Nick on the honey-stained bench and sipping drinks from steaming mugs. She turns her head in Margo’s direction with her radiant smile already in place and gestures for her to join them.

But Margo passes through the living room and ducks into the bathroom before speaking a word to either of them. The bathroom is small, more of an outhouse than anything, but to her surprise has a working faucet. She immediately crumples over the sink and splashes cold water on her face. Holding perfectly still, Margo tries to relax her muscles letting the water drip back into the bowl.

At least now she understands why everyone reacted the way they did when they first saw her scars — or marks, as they call them. They are overwhelmed with excitement, hopeful for a better future. Or they may have been afraid of being associated with Margo. After hearing this queen executes anyone bearing a New Mark, Margo decides she wouldn’t want to be caught with herself either.

The natural fibers of the towel scratch her face as she pats it dry. She catches her reflection in the tiny mirror above the sink expecting to look much older than she had the prior day, but strangely she finds the same minuscule sixteen-year-old girl. Still, she feels as if she has gained ten years. The lives of all of Jamyria depend on her. Margo forces this to sink in; surely that cannot be accurate….

The swirling pool of water in the sink is tinted pink. Margo gasps hoping not to find anymore of the strange cuts, but the source comes from her hair and the memory of lying in the cat’s blood yesterday comes rushing back. She gives her hair a thorough rinse and winces when her fingers run over her first cut after entering. Her scalp is still sore from the gash she received from falling after landing in the snow. It is still raw, unlike the markings that have completely healed. She towel dries her hair around the tender spot as best she can.

Then, Margo sees them again: her marks. Tears are already spilling over, breaking her one night rule. Angling herself in the mirror, she is able to see the third mark running down her neck. Three more rows of tiny symbols are etched along the back of her neck, the middle extending slightly further down than the outer two creating a point. This group is slightly different than the ones on her arms, more rounded and swirly.

Margo suddenly realizes that it looks like she has tattoos. Ah, my mom is gonna kill me! Maybe if I hold my arms like this, Margo thinks pulling her elbows into her sides, maybe no one would notice them. She practices waving to her reflection, careful to only move her forearms, but the similarities she has with a tyrannosaurus rex are uncanny.

She lets her arms fall limp opting to settle for the yelling from her mom — Margo’s stomach churns at the thought — if she is to ever get out of here. She’d take a hundred yellings and a year’s worth of grounding if it means she could leave this place. Or even just to know that one day she can return home. But Nick made it very clear that that is never going to happen. Unless, of course, Margo is the one to find the way.

She is faced with two choices now.

One, she can sit back and tell them she simply won’t do it. That would be the easiest thing to do. She’ll try to make life as meaningful as possible in this world until someone else comes along who can do the job she is too afraid to do. This plan’s only flaw is that, according to what Nick said, it will be another fifty years until that chance comes. Janie had mentioned ‘temporary immortality’ meaning when Margo gets out she will be the same age and can continue life at home where she left off. The downside is that her mom will have aged well into her eighties by then. If she is still alive…

The second option is to just suck up her fears and find the way out. What scares her the most about this path is that she has absolutely no idea what it entails. She doesn’t know what’s expected of her, but if this really is her purpose, it should all fall into place…theoretically.

And if she fails? She suddenly is reminded of when Janie had knocked on Nick’s door yesterday, and he shouted at the door. Do the people of the town still hold a grudge against him? Margo already knows the answer to that. But would failure for her result in a lifetime of ridicule? Or would it mean death?

There is a small part of her that subconsciously knew what her choice would be from the beginning. No matter how high the negatives are stacked against her, nothing could ever stop her from trying to return home.

After one last glance at the new girl staring back in the mirror, she heads back into the living room.

*

Eighteen Hours Earlier

The winds are ferocious, ripping through the highest tower like whistling blades on a battlefield. Two men clad in black stand at attention taking nature’s beating in stride. One faces north, the other south. They are lean and structured. They are void of emotion. They are cunning. They are the Queen of Jamyria’s Guard.

The majority of the Jamyrian commoners struggle to adapt to the world’s extreme weather shifts, but the elite members of the Crew must face these challenges head on without so much as a word. Those who show any sign of cowardice, any weakness at all, are discarded. Those are considered nothing more than trash to the Queen. To survive among her Guard means to live and breathe the essence of fear. They must face death willingly.

There has been a new enterer in Jamyria, and a new enterer means a potential new threat. Although the alleged threat only enters at a fixed time, the Queen finds it necessary to tighten security upon the entrance of each of the world’s new occupants. A precautionary measure.

In the highest tower upon Mount Jeidone, the two guards take watch over the land, searching out any irregularities. The weather is so harsh they can hardly see several mere feet before them let alone survey the expanse of land that lies beneath the ocean of fog and ice. Nonetheless, they remain poised at attention without question.

An enterer after Day Seven is always a bother to those within the world. The rain lingers. And when there is rain there is only more ice, which means these two must suffer through biting sleet.

“Luka,” calls one of the Crewmen. His eyes narrow against the wind, trying to make out something he spots in the distance.

“Got something?”

“Yeah…”

Luka leaves his post to scan the southern half of Jamyria with his partner, Evan. It is so far off the two of them struggle to see the beam of light through the thick air, but they are certain there is a ray forming from the sky.

“I thought the sun always came out at once, spreading across the land and melting the ice in one sweep.” Evan crumples his face in confusion. It is the first time he has ever noticed even the slightest change in the weather sequences.

“That’s what usually happens,” replies Luka, equally confused.

“Could be a glitch in the sun?”

Luka focuses harder on the light as the snow picks up. “I don’t think so….”

The light intensifies until it no longer appears to be a ray but a ball floating above the trees glowing an effulgent white. It is such a powerful force, the cloudy skies around it tremble. Suddenly it explodes, showering sparks in its wake. It ripples outward, casting out the snowy clouds. Both Evan and Luka cringe as the light passes over the tower in a gush of warmth. It takes no more than a few seconds and the world in its entirety is rid of the cold.

Evan’s mouth hangs open. “No one will know,” he finally says. “This is wrong. Something wasn’t right about that, and nobody will know.”

“It was similar to the usual sunrise,” agrees Luka. “But different, indeed.”

They stare across the vivid land deliberating. “You don’t think…”

“Can’t be,” barks Luka as if it is obvious. “It’s not near time for that yet.”

The two return to silence, the images of the strange exploding light flashing through their heads.

Suddenly, Luka curses aloud realizing his partner’s idea could possibly hold some truth. “Do not lose sight of it,” he orders just before he turns to the center of the tower and steps off into the void. He drops into the circle that has been cut out of the floor, falling the height of the tower and landing in a crouch at its base.

 

The room is made entirely of white stone. The only color comes from the red curtains hung along the walls every few feet which give off an eerie effect as if the walls are bleeding. A lush pathway of tiger-skin leads to the grand throne. She sits with her legs crossed, chin in her palm as if she is somewhat bored on this particular afternoon. Her gown puddles in indigo silk with pleats that give the illusion that her gown ripples. Hair black as ink is piled atop her head in complicated twists. Her full lips are mauve and striking against ivory skin. A woman so fair is worthy of the title Queen.

The Guardsman is nearly out of breath upon his arrival. He does not stop running until he approaches her throne.

“Your majesty,” calls Luka, bowing his head momentarily. “I have come to report an irregularity in the land.”

“Oh?” The Queen sounds curious, although she does not yet look in his direction.

“Rather than the sun rising as it usually does, a light formed in the sky. The light then exploded and melted the snow.” Luka broadens his shoulders, a nervous act to hide his uncertainties. “It is possible that this is just a misunderstanding, but I thought I ought to report it just in case.”

“Shomari.” The Queen’s voice is light and mockingly playful, but the power behind the single word is enough to tremble her Crew.

The distortion of black slowly molds into shape as the man pulls himself out of the shadows of a tall, draping black curtain which takes up nearly the back wall of the Queen’s throne room, a stark backdrop against the white stone walls. He circles the silver throne before him and steps down the three short steps of her dais. The man drops to a knee using his fist to balance his bow. Even kneeling he is close to five feet tall and has twice the muscles of the other Guardsmen lining the perimeter of the room. Skin like caramel. Face nearly hidden behind his hood with every inch of him clothed in black fabric. He is in a different class among her Crew. He is Noble.

“Your Majesty,” he says in a rough voice.

“Shomari.” The second time she speaks his name somehow holds even more severity than the first. “How long has it been?”

“It…cannot possibly have been that long….”

“How many years, Shomari?!” she wails, growing impatient.

His face scrunches up as he tallies up the years. A low growl escapes through his set jaw. “It must have been fifty,” he says shaking his head in disbelief.

The Queen rises from her throne, her hands tense and in fists. “Fifty?” she repeats much harsher than he had said it. “Shomari, what is the one threat to this world?”

He pauses only because he hates being spoken to as mother would her child. “The New Mark.”

“So wouldn’t you find it appropriate to pay attention to the years considering there is only a New Mark every fifty years?”

“It’s the immortality…. It is almost as if time doesn’t matter. Or even exist —”

Enough!”

The word echoes through the room. Shomari follows her order and remains silent, clenching the fist he has buried in the fluff of the tiger skin. The Queen walks the width of her corridor and paces before her throne, her grand dress coiling behind her. She ignores the nervous faces of her Crew. Her mind turns faster than her pacing.

Something has to be done, surely. The last Mark nearly led her prized Nobles to disaster, and her lower ranks are no match to one freshly created; they have the potential to be dangerous and unpredictable. But if the Mark were to end up in the wrong hands…

“Guards,” she speaks abruptly. “Send out a small team to locate the New Mark. Be discrete. We don’t want anyone knowing we are hunting him yet. And we can assume he does not know what is going on yet. That is, unless he somehow makes contact with someone who will inform him of who he is; though, that is doubtful. Send word to our insiders. You,” she points to Luka. “Give them the coordinates of where you saw the light. That’s where they will begin.

“And when you find the Marked One, bring his body to me.”

 

Chapter Seven

Hidden Surprise

A speck of golden light dances before her face. Margo reaches out and grasps at the air, but the bug slips between her fingers and floats off into the night. She takes a deep breath of the humid air. Summers on the farm are always memorable, especially during the six weeks the Hunters spend with their grandparents. They are Margo’s favorite thing about living on the Hedermans’ property. Each summer, Cameron and his older sister Crystal are sent to the farm to enjoy their vacation properly while their parents stay behind to work in Nashville. They wind up spending the majority of their time with Margo and Kylie, and it is always perfect.

The purple sunset reflects off the pond, surrounded by dozens of fireflies that dot the night air. The past month and a half surely has flown past. Margo cannot believe it is already over. The four of them sit quietly in the grass occasionally bringing up some of the highlights of their time together, but mostly they sulk because tomorrow afternoon it must come to an end.

The Hedermans’ front door creaks open across the field behind them. They all seem to shrink a little at the sound. “Supper time,” calls Mrs. Hederman from their front porch. “And I only made enough for us,” she tacks on sourly.

“Guess that’s our cue,” Kylie says, stretching out her long limbs. She brushes off her shorts as she rises. She helps pull Crystal up, whose long chestnut hair falls over her shoulder.

“Right,” Margo agrees ruefully, also getting to her feet.

A hand lightly touches her shoulder. “Hey,” says Cameron softly. “We still have all day tomorrow. Besides, we’ll be back next year.”

Margo tries to smile without success, finding it difficult to look upon his face.

“Come over first thing,” Crystal urges Kylie. “Let’s have one last shopping trip before we head out.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Kylie agrees with a giggle. “You too, little sis?”

For some reason Margo cannot lift her head. She nods with a weak smile on her face wondering why this year it is so hard to say goodbye.

Kylie sighs and grabs Margo’s hand. “We’ll see you then. Let’s see if Mom has dinner ready, too.”

Her feet move her, but Margo doesn’t look to see where she is being led.

“Night, Margo.” The boy’s voice is somber, but at the sound of her name, Margo perks up a little. Warmth fills her chest, but her happiness is shattered when she remembers he will be gone by this time tomorrow. Just then, he turns to follow his sister across the field toward the Hedermans’ home.

Margo raises her hand in response far too late, but for some reason her throat is thick and no words come out.

“Come on,” says Kylie, giving her sister’s hand a tug. They walk the length of the pond. “If I were you, I’d just make out with him and get it over with already.”

Margo plants her feet and Kylie stumbles backwards against the sudden jerk. “What?” says Kylie. “I mean, it’s pretty frustrating seeing you two all googly-eyed over each other. Neither realizing it. Neither willing to make a move. You like him — just admit it!”

“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Margo’s cheeks darken again for some reason. “Or why you’re accusing me of this.”

“It’s not an accusation, sis!” Kylie wraps her arm around Margo’s neck. “I’m just calling it like I see it. It’s cute.”

Margo brushes her off and stomps harder through the grass. “I do not like him in that way. It’s Cameron. The jerk.”

Kylie’s voice softens. “He hasn’t been a jerk since the first summer he visited. And that’s ‘cause of you.”

Margo thinks back to when he and his sister first visited. He teased her for nearly everything she did, called her every bad name a seven-year-old could conjure, until her temper got the best of her. He was the first person she ever stood up to. She had told him he’d better start treating her like a lady or else. A lady? She was only six-years-old.

A giggle slips out.

“See! Admit it.”

Margo shakes away the hint of euphoria. “I’m fifteen, Ky. I have more important things to worry about than boys.”

“Do you even hear yourself? We’re young and should be out living life carefree! Not worrying about —” Kylie scrunches her eyebrows together, perfectly imitating her sister’s voice “— important things.

A laugh breaks through again, but what surprises Margo the most are the feelings inside her that also seemed to break through in that moment. “You’re right,” her voice cracks when she admits it aloud. “I do like him. A lot, actually.”

Kylie sits down on their porch steps looking up at Margo. “So tell him….”

“Can’t.”

Her face grows serious. “Margo, he’s leaving tomorrow. It’ll be another year before you can let him know how you feel.”

“Exactly.” Margo pauses. It makes the most sense to wait. “Imagine telling him the truth and then having to say good-bye right after.”

Her sister frowns. “What if, God forbid, something happened between now and next summer?”

Margo plops next to her on the porch, beaming at their strange reversal in character. “We’re young, remember? Stuff doesn’t change that drastically overnight. At least not in St. Joseph, Tennessee.”

*

“Any crushes?” Janie asks.

Nick left abruptly after breakfast on some secret errand leaving Margo alone with Janie and her hundreds of questions. Her own questions of her impending mission will have to wait. Margo can hardly get a word in other than a quick response to Janie. For some reason she seems to have taken an interest in Margo’s mundane life outside of Jamyria.

Blushing, Margo answers with a lying ‘no.’ Most of Janie’s questions are easy enough to answer. From school to free time — Margo chuckles at that one as free time is nearly nonexistent considering her work schedule — to favorite books and recipes. Those answers are simple and one-worded, but every once in a while Janie slips in an unexpected question.

“And your family? What are they like?”

“Oh,” Margo gasps, not prepared to answer this question. Of course, for most the answer would be easy. The truth is her family was once close, but they have been damaged. The broken pieces are still scattered about awaiting repair. Even if it were possible to move on, Margo knew that some of the pieces will never find their home again. It just takes time, she’d been told repeatedly. She still isn’t convinced.

“We aren’t how we used to be. Things were always great between us, but now we’ve…drifted. It’s been difficult.”

For probably the first time that day, Janie’s smile disappears. Margo’s eyes dart away knowing a lecture of some sort is brewing. That is definitely a conversation she wishes to avoid.

“So tell me more about this mission,” Margo says quickly.

Janie grins at her forced enthusiasm. “Well, that’s Nick’s area of expertise. He’s been through this already, so I think it’d be best if he gave you the answers you’re looking for. He should be back pretty soon…with a surprise.”

Now Margo struggles looking for another way to distract her, so she asks the one thing she is too embarrassed to ask in front of Nick and a part of her really needs to know the answer.

“What happened to Nick’s hand?” she blurts.

Janie places her mug on the table and lets out one small, humorless laugh. “Nick has been through a lot for this world,” she mutters to herself mostly. Margo expects her to leave it at that. Maybe it’s the eagerness or urgency Janie sees in her eyes, but something makes her continue. She leans in and sighs, speaking each word rather harshly. “Many of the people of Jamyria don’t give him the respect he deserves. They’re ashamed of his failure. Makes me wonder if they really understand the risk he’s taken for them — for us.

“He traveled for months searching for answers, but was faced with dead end after dead end. He couldn’t find the way out, obviously. And after almost a year of searching, he and his followers decided to start back at square one. So he headed for the castle —”

“Which he was never allowed to go back to.” Margo finishes her sentence.

“Exactly.” Janie’s smile grows darker. “He was caught, of course. It’s almost impossible to enter the palace without someone finding out. You see, the Queen can keep track of people in this world. She always watches us.”

Margo shivers.

“There are a couple of exceptions, though.” Janie nods once towards Margo.

“Me?”

“The original marks are cloaked. There’s about a ten-foot radius around them at all times that makes them and anyone standing within those ten feet invisible to the Queen.”

“So for the most part, I’m safe.”

Should be safe,” corrects Janie. “Nothing in this world is definitive — don’t ever completely rely on anything anyone says. Your power should cloak you from the globe, but who’s to say she won’t find a way around that someday? I’m sorry we don’t have any better answers, but this is a learning process for all of us.”

“The globe?” Margo asks curiously.

Janie winces, as if aware she has spilled too much information. “Remember how you found that globe before you entered?”

Margo nods.

She picks up her tea and takes a sip to stall. “The Queen also has a globe very similar to the one that brought you into this world. Hers is much larger, though, and contains a lot more power. She can locate anything or anyone in Jamyria with just a few words.”

Margo thinks about this and finds herself wondering if there is more to the globe than that. It seems too simple a feature to react the way Janie had. Either way, she decides she shouldn’t push luck on the subject. “So, Nick was going back to the castle…?”

“Right,” she says. “He snuck back in with a few people. I still don’t know how he managed to do that. The Queen was furious after learning the Marked One was in her castle. She was even more upset to see that the New Mark was Nick, one of her first true prisoners in Jamyria.”

Margo remembers the sign to Nick’s house labeled as ‘The First Man,’ but she cannot get a word in to ask if this is the reason why.

“The first great rebellion took place, a battle the people of Jamyria will never forget.” Janie clenches her teeth. “But they were no match against the Queen and her Guard. Nick was soon on his back, others dead. The Queen pulled out her sword to finish him off, but just as she struck, he raised his marked hand blasting her away with his power. From what I hear, she was injured, too, but was able to heal herself without leaving a scratch in the end. The same is not true for Nick. As you saw, her blade cut off half his hand.”

Her eyes fall to her cup. “He and his followers retreated, and the Queen never looked for him again. I’m sure her arrogance played a role in it, knowing that he lost most of his mark.” Janie chuckles darkly to herself. “She no longer saw him as a threat, so she just let him go….

“It wasn’t long until he moved back into his home here. What was left for him to do but to come back? Of course, now he has to deal with the locals’ bad attitudes.” She scrunches her nose up in disgust. “But like I said, he deserves all the respect in the world for what he did for us.” Janie tilts her head. The corner of her mouth pulls up slightly, and she stares into the space between herself and the table as if recalling a private memory. Margo realizes just how strongly she feels about Nick. Perhaps, there is more than friendship between Nick Thomas and Janie Saunders. The way she defends him against the people here… It obviously strikes a nerve every time she mentions his failure. Her expression moments ago tells Margo that she does not condone the actions of these townspeople nor would she allow them to hurt him.

Thinking of his failure and the many people who seem to dislike Nick, Margo wonders if she would have a ‘Janie’ to look after her if things were to end similarly. Would she be left alone to deal with the heckling? The thought of having to shoulder the lives of everyone within this world is difficult enough to fathom, but failure could mean a lifetime or two of ridicule.

“That’s going to be me, isn’t?”

Janie’s face freezes, holding her smile in an unnatural way. She places her cup on the saucer with a barely audible clink. “You will be faced with obstacles, yes, but these challenges will be your own. Mostly, you will find yourself faced with mental difficulties as you begin to learn the uniqueness of this power. You seem like a strong girl, Margo, but if you don’t feel you’re ready for this, please tell me. Nick feels you’re capable of the task, but if you’re worried, speak now before you’re in too deep.”

In Janie’s eyes, Margo finds something unexpected. This is no cry for help, but instead a plea for her to stay behind. Whatever lies ahead is so dangerous Janie would rather wait to return home than see Margo through it.

But she’s already decided she can’t sit around and wait for the Queen to find her.

“I’ve sort of made up my mind,” Margo says. “I’m going to do it.”

Janie’s smile grows more genuine. “Well, then, we must prepare you for the journey. Nick will be back any minute now.”

*

Light floods the room before Nick in the shape of a growing triangle as the door opens slowly to the dark room. It is a quaint room made of the Central City’s common gray, salt-stained wood. There are few furnishing about the room, all of which are abandoned. Sitting on the floor against the back wall is a boy with his knee propped up with an arm draped over it. He wears dusty brown clothes without shoes and has to shade his eyes as the morning light meets him.

“Ever hear of knocking?” he groans from behind the shadow of his hand.

“Why so dark in here?” Nick ignores him and immediately heads over to the window to push open a pair of shutters. The room illuminates too quickly for the boy’s liking. “There. You see? That’s much better.”

The boy moans and considers laying face first on the cold floor but decides against it. “Come on, Nick. It’s too early for this.”

“The day is nearly half over, my boy. We cannot have you wasting away in solitude. This world is too big, too magnificent, to be contained in this room!”

The boy snorts. “We talking about the same world? ‘Cause it sounds almost as if you like it here. Keep talking like that, and I won’t know what side you’re on.”

Nick chuckles. “You really are grouchy in the morning, do you know that?”

The boy has yet to find the humor in their conversation.

“Truth is,” Nick continues, “I’m in the market to buy a new shika. Now, nothing too fancy. Just something young, reliable. And it has to —”

“You know my rule,” he cuts him off. “You were the one who made me who I am in this world. Take whatever you like. No need to come in here opening shutters and babbling on about what this screwed up world has to offer and all….”

Nick doesn’t answer. He instead turns to the window and stares out into the adjacent field catching sight of a pair of brown shikas grazing in the distance. “There’s more, too….”

“Oh?” His tone has sparked the boy’s curiosity.

“Yes.” Nick drops his gaze. “I have also come to keep my end of our bargain.”

For a split second, every muscle in the boy’s body tenses, and he suddenly jumps to his feet. He crosses over to Nick and slaps a hand on his shoulder. “The New Mark has arrived?”

Nick wears a sheepish expression. “Seems my math was off. Fifty years is hard to keep track of in a world where time deceptively holds still.”

He’s shaking his head. “None of that matters! The Marked One? It’s really him?”

The joy in Nick’s eyes is enough confirmation. “But I have to send her away. And I’m here to ask you to be her guide.”

Confusion strikes the boy’s eyes. “Her?”

Nick smiles. “This one is slightly different from its predecessors.”

*

Janie’s mountains of questions about Margo’s life in the outside world have yet to cease; though, Margo finds it difficult to concentrate on anything other than what is occurring in the present. Luckily, Janie doesn’t seem bothered with a single word answer while Margo mulls over the changes happening to her. As long as Margo permits her to babble, Janie seems satisfied. She must really need a friend here.

It’d been no more than a half an hour when they hear the front door open. With her grin somehow widening, Janie jumps to her feet, pulling Margo along with her. “Come and see. Oh, I do hope you like it!”

The sun hits Margo’s eyes as they step outside, blinding her temporarily. It takes her a few blinks for them to adjust. That’s when she sees it towering over them.

Margo was so engrossed in her thoughts of this new world and finding an escape that she only now recalls what Janie had snuck into the conversation earlier. Nick wasn’t on just an errand; he was bringing back a surprise. Where Margo is from, surprises come wrapped in pretty packages. Janie’s definition is slightly different.

With its back alone as tall as Margo, the lean creature arcs its graceful neck to peer down at them. It has an elongated deer-like face with short creamy fur rippling down its back. It is unlike any animal Margo has ever seen. It holds a demeanor of power and elegance.

“Surprise! We got you a shika!” Nick stretches his hand out toward the giant thing, but it is no longer the animal that holds Margo’s interest.

It is the boy standing behind it.

His crystal blues eyes outlined in indigo lock with Margo’s and her chest rushes into spasms. He, too, must be surprised because his face instantly grows horror-stricken. But it is a familiar face framed with short chocolate hair and the most captivating eyes she has ever seen. He is taller than she remembers and his face has thinned into a man’s.

Can it really be him? Locked away in this place, too?

Seeing him is like a wonderful dream that suddenly turns sour. The kind of dream where you are not sure if you would rather wake up or keep it going just to see if it will turn into a happy ending.

Nick is spewing facts about the animal he’s gotten for her, but Margo ignores him and rushes past. She freezes in front of the boy unsure of what to do.

“Is this some kind of…joke…?” He whispers the words as if they are not meant for her to hear, but Margo jolts as a slew of memories are brought back at the sound of his voice.

“Oh my…” says Nick. He looks between the two of them thoughtfully. “Cameron, my boy, do you…?”

At the sound of his name, she outstretches a hand desperate to touch him yet too frightened to learn if he truly is real. He is mere inches from her grasp. This time will he slip away?

“Margo?” Janie calls in confusion. “What’s wrong?”

The blood rushes from his face. Margo’s fingers tremble before her and suddenly Janie’s delicate hand is on her shoulder.

“No… Not you, too.” His voice is but a pained whisper.

Margo looks away hoping he will disappear back into the Real World. He cannot, cannot, cannot be locked away here, too.

“You know her?” Janie gasps, backing away.

It isn’t real. It isn’t real. He can’t be…

“Another mystery with this one…” Nick mumbles.

Margo looks down at her dusty feet. She doesn’t dare take her eyes off the ground, even when she notices his feet approaching. But when Cameron grabs her outstretched hand and pulls her toward him, Margo steals a second glance at the boy she admittedly might love, and she is certain he is indeed real. He is much older than the boy she had last seen two summers ago, tanner, with more wisdom in his eyes. Still strong and still perfect. His face wrinkles in pain as he takes her in his embrace, and then she can no longer see anything as she crumples into his chest. A pair of heavy arms encircle her, locking her within their grasp. It takes all of her effort not to weep.

He touches his forehead to hers and breathes in the scent of her hair. “I just can’t believe it’s you…here.”

Perhaps it isn’t a bad thing that he’s here. Perhaps she deserved a moment of selfishness.

Margo isn’t sure how long he has held her, but it is not long enough. Eventually, Cameron pulls away and kisses her on the cheek. Her skin darkens beneath his lips. “I’m happy to see you. I just wish it were under different circumstances.”

Margo nods in agreement. The moment is bittersweet.

Nick clears his throat rather loudly, interrupting their reunion. “We should probably take this inside.” He points to his inner arm to remind her of the need to remain inconspicuous. The crowds shuffling around have yet to take notice of them, but Margo would rather not take any chances. The four make their way inside, Cameron with his arm tightly around Margo’s shoulder as if the reassure she is truly there.

The animal — or shika as Nick had called it — bounces playfully as they pass by, startling Margo. Nick grabs the reins around its neck and ties them to the column of his porch, which Margo finds foolish since an animal of such mass could easily tear trough such flimsy wood. She keeps her mouth shut, though.

“So you two know each other?” Janie asks once they are in the safety of the house and sitting side by side on the living room bench. Janie and Nick settle into a pair of chairs opposite them.

The moment is surreal and Margo struggles to find words. From waking in fear of never seeing his face again to sitting with his arm around her is quite the turn of events.

“It’s a long story, but yes. Pretty well, actually.” Cameron smiles down at her, the butterflies erupting from within.

“You see,” Margo tries explaining. “My family lives in a cottage on his grandparents’ farm, and every summer he comes to visit…” She loses her train of thought when everything seems to come into perspective. Margo looks up at him at this realization. The look on his face shows that he must be thinking the same thing. Margo cannot believe how selfish she was to think that he hadn’t visited because he didn’t want to. She made up so many reasons as to why he didn’t show up last summer, and all of them seemed to revolve around her in some way.

Was he really stuck here this whole time?

It’s been over a year since she’s seen him last. And every time she asked his grandparents about him, they acted upset. Now it all makes sense. They probably were upset because he was missing, and it was too much for them to talk about. Or maybe they thought he’d simply run away and were ashamed of him. Or of his parents for not looking after him. Margo can never be sure, but she is happy to have him there with her now — even if not for long. She knows she must soon leave him again, but just seeing his face gives her more confidence and possibly even hope.

“Margo and I hung out in the summertime. And it was always perfect,” he says still looking at her as he speaks. She takes in the new details of his face. He must be seventeen by now. Gorgeous is no longer a strong enough word for the boy sitting next to her.

His eyes fall to her arms, and his face loses color. “You told me the shika was for the New Mark, but you didn’t tell me it was Margo.”

Nick answers quickly. “We were getting to that. I felt no need to tell you, as I would have never guessed you knew her. It’s very rare to find two people that knew each other in the Real World to cross paths in Jamyria.”

Cameron assesses his words, but the look on his face says that he’s still troubled. He pulls Margo’s elbows outward to view her marks. She watches as his eyes follow the lines of them, searching out every detail.

“This is a lot of power, Margo.” He sounds impressed.

“That’s what I’ve heard,” she responds lightly, a little surprised that he knows more of this than she does. She follows his busy eyes a little longer and then asks, “Cameron, how long have you been here?”

“Since November of last year,” he says conversationally.

Margo quickly does the math. “Ten months?”

“Yeah,” he says chuckling a little. “I guess so… How about you?”

“Since yesterday.”

His eyes meet hers again, full of anger now. “Yesterday?” he barks. He turns to Nick. “And you already got a shika for her? She’s been in here for one day, and you’re ready to ship her off? You can’t do that! She doesn’t even know what she’s up against!”

Nick raises his hands defensively, but it is Janie who speaks up. “She’s too young,” she says softly. “And she’s so…small.” Her eyes meet Margo’s apologetically.

“That Mark seems to think otherwise,” Nick answers sharply, stabbing a finger in Margo’s direction.

“The Mark can’t think, Nick! It doesn’t decide when to come out. It just does!”

“It wouldn’t have revealed itself had she not been strong enough,” says Nick. “It knows she is capable of handling its power.”

“I can do this,” says Margo confidently. “I’m sure of it.”

All three faces turn toward her. She tries keeping her face as cool as possible, no matter how numb her legs grow.

“Margo, I know you,” says Cameron. “Headstrong, confident when there’s a challenge. But this… This is completely different.”

“What choice do I have? It’s either me or no one for the next fifty years. So I have to at least try.”

He can only stare at Margo for a moment with his mouth hung. “What choice do you have? You can say ‘no.’ It’s that simple. That’s what choice you have,” he spits. “But…I already know that’s not going to happen.”

He is quiet for a minute, pinching the bridge of his nose, as he thinks it over. Margo says nothing. She’s already made up her mind and refuses to hear any negatives now. It wouldn’t be fair for him to try to talk her out of it at this point, and she can see on his face that he knows that.

Suddenly Cameron laughs darkly to himself. “This world sure is fickle, eh, Nick?”

“Indeed…” he replies.

Margo looks between the two of them unsure of what to make of their remarks. Janie seems indifferent. It is like, once again, they are part of an inside joke that she is unaware of.

Cameron drops his hand. “At least I am now certain… This is what I’m meant to do.”

“It is as if fate arranged this.” Nick smiles oddly in Margo’s direction.

“What are you two talking about?” she finally blurts.

“I’m going with you,” Cameron says matter-of-factly. “That’s why I came here to begin with.”

Margo’s heart stops. She shakes her head at him. “If they catch you with me, they’ll —”

“Kill me. Margo, I know the consequences. I’ve been here much longer than you,” he says grabbing her shoulders. He looks deep into her eyes and says, “I’m not going to let you go out there alone. I can be stubborn, too, you know?”

Margo warms.

Janie’s face is just as bright as ever. “He’ll take good care of you, Margo. I feel better about this already.”

“So do I,” says Nick, his lips pulling into a crinkly smile. “We trust you, son. Guide her.”

Suddenly, relief warms Margo as she realizes that she won’t be alone. She would never have guessed that something good could come from this place, but something has. And now she has motivation knowing that she will not only free the people of this world, but she will free Cameron, too.

But there is a part of her that is now much more afraid of what will happen if she fails. And failure now will be much worse since there is more to lose.

 

Find out what happens next…

Download [+ Jamyria: The Entering+] for Amazon Kindle

www.MadelineMeekins.com

 


Jamyria: The Entering (Sample)

This is an excerpt of Jamyria: The Entering (Book 1 of the Jamyria Series) Freshly marked with power upon entering the alternate world of Jamyria, Margo Grisby explores vibrant forests, battles unimaginable beings, and seeks out the world's darkest secrets. Together with her friends, she must find the Witch hidden amidst the forest in the hopes of discovering an escape while outrunning the world’s creator and her guardsmen. EXCERPT: To look inside this forest is to explore the works of a dream in hard form, granted a chance to see imagination. The colors are hardly hues found in ordinary woods but are more vivid and saturated. The leaves not quite a lime green nor the woodsy hunter green they’re expected to be. Flowers are scattered throughout the branches painted in vibrant neon. Even the cloudless sky is a shade closer to turquoise. It is as if she’s walked into someone’s realism painting in which the artist has slightly mixed the wrong colors, throwing off the whole mood. But — and this realization churns her stomach — this is wrong. This feels like someone has played God, and the forest is the result of not mixing the colors just right. Abnormal plants and trees fill the woods. Spiky bits of moss cling to trees like sea urchins. The tree trunks are more russet than brown, some with unusually smooth bark. Wild-looking flowers wear large, exotic petals. Even little things she notices — the soil she walks on being too fluffy or a patch of weeds she brushes against too slick against her skin — are strangely off-putting.

  • Author: Madeline Meekins
  • Published: 2015-12-16 17:50:18
  • Words: 27459
Jamyria: The Entering (Sample) Jamyria: The Entering (Sample)