Subject One Hundred

So many choices.

There were so many he could choose from. Which one should he take next? Which one would be the most interesting? Which one would do exactly what he wanted?

Not a single one so far had accomplished what he wanted. All were failures and all had to be terminated prematurely. He didn’t mind though. He’d grown to enjoy that moment when it became clear they were wrong. But he was growing tired of how predictable it became. He could tell as soon as the program started how long the subject would last.

Premature termination. He’d hoped it would only occur a few times before he found the right one, but so far ninety-nine subjects had failed. Ninety-nine failures that never came close.

But he had a good feeling about subject one hundred. He just needed to find her.

He searched the screens, his eyes twitching from one face to another. The images weren’t as clear as he’d like, but he’d have to make due. This was a quick set-up. It had to be a quick set-up in case he needed to move again.

They’d almost caught him last time. It was his own fault, he chose the wrong subject not only for the program, but also for disappearing. She’d seemed perfect. Until the police tracker in her wallet attracted nearly half the city. He was lucky his instruments picked up on it in time, but he had to leave her behind after a quick clean up.

The police claimed they found DNA, but they were liars. It was the closest they came to finding him and they wanted the people to believe in them.

The screen in the top right corner flashed. His eyes shot to it. A match? He stared at the face and slowly stood, leaning close to the screen. He hit several keys on his keyboard and the image cleared, distorting the others.

A smile cracked his lips. There she was. She was perfect.

Subject One Hundred.

  *       *       *

Five minutes. Five more minutes and she’d be free. Her eyes bore into the clock, wishing for the hands to move faster, but only succeeding in making them move slower.

“Come on,” Tess whispered under her breath. She gripped the box on her desk tightly. All of her belongings were ready to be taken home and out of this building.

The activity of the office around her continued on, not as focused on the approaching five o’clock hour. As with any time one waits for minutes to pass, the five minutes Tess watched the clock were the longest in her life.

Thirty more seconds to go.

“Tess,” a booming voice called from behind her.

She jumped and turned, seeing her soon to be ex boss Stephen standing with a package in his hand. She looked at the package and then at Stephen.

“No, Steve, come on. It’s my last day,” she whined, knowing the look in his eyes.

“I know and we’ll miss you, wish you well in your future, and blah blah blah, but I don’t trust anyone else to actually get this done.”

“Jim could,” she said, sounding hopeful.

“You and I both know he can’t. Look, it’s not out of the way. It’s on your way home,” Stephen said.

“And how do you know where I live?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Office party two years ago.”

She cursed. She forgot he had to take her home after that particular disaster. “What is it?”

“Home delivery of a few new computer screens. The buyer doesn’t need them installed just delivered. Simple drop and run,” Stephen said, smiling. He held out the package.

Taking an annoyed breath in, Tess took the package and placed it on top of her box. “Fine, but only because you asked me in a good mood and because if anything goes wrong you can’t blame me since I don’t work for you anymore.”

“Is the only time you’re in a good mood when you’re leaving? I should’ve asked you to make deliveries every night.”

“Funny.” She eyed the clock. Two minutes past five. “Guess this is it. Bye Stephen. Tell everyone else I’ll miss them but not that much.”

“Really, Tess, take care of yourself. We’ll miss you around here.”

Tess picked up her box and smiled at him as she headed towards the door. “You’re only going to miss me cause now this place is back to being all lazy bums.”

“Don’t I know it. And Tess?”

Tess stopped and turned to him. “Yeah?”

“Be careful out there.”

  *       *       *

The address was halfway between her house and the office. Tess cursed at the dumb luck. It was like the person who ordered it knew it was her last day and wanted to make sure she delivered it.

She looked up at the tall buildings. She’d miss her long walks home from the office, though lately they’d been a bit more nerve wracking.

Usually she’d take the bus home or drive herself, but for her last week she wanted to walk, taking in the feeling of going to the job she had for almost seven years. Seven years too long, she thought. But she enjoyed it. The work was crap and having to do deliveries whenever Stephen didn’t want to pay extra for the drivers had been infuriating, but she loved the people and enjoyed her own job.

Then the murders started. Almost one hundred women in the past three years had been kidnapped and found dead. The police wouldn’t release the cause of death, which only made everyone speculate, though some claimed the causes weren’t released because the police didn’t want copycats.

Tess knew it was dangerous to walk around alone even in the early evening before the sun went down, but the most recent murder had taken place clear across town. The murderer wouldn’t hit here so soon…would he?

She shook the thoughts from her head. All she wanted to do was deliver the package and get home.

She stopped outside the address and double-checked it with the package. The building was stuck between two tall, modern apartment complexes. It was an old mansion. Tess had seen a number of them throughout the city. The owners refused to sell their homes and companies were forced to build around them, cramping the houses, making them look out of place.

But this mansion seemed to blend seamlessly with the buildings. The surrounding gate was outfitted with state of the art technology and the house itself appeared to have recently been renovated. Tess tried to find a slot to place the package in, but there was none. She looked at the package and, turning it over, found additional delivery information.

There was a gate code, a door code, and a small message written. Please leave package in the small lobby between the outer front door and inner door.

“Damn it,” Tess said. She input the gate code in the small keypad and crossed the wide yard to the front door. She searched it for a similar keypad, but couldn’t find it. She noticed a doorbell and sighed. She hated talking to those she was forced to deliver to. They usually spent most of the time asking her questions and wasting her time.

Pressing the doorbell, she heard its chime echo through the house. After a moment a small mechanical whirr preceded a keypad emerging from below the doorbell.

Hesitating, Tess punched in the door code and waited. The front door opened and she peered inside. It was a metallic room leading to another door.

Her mind tried to think back on anything she’d ever heard of like this and the closest she came was sterilization rooms. She’d read a long time ago that some of the wealthy that became ill would build sterilization chambers for any visitors to use before being admitted into their home.

She’d never seen one before, but she assumed this was where she was to leave the package. She walked inside and placed the package on the floor by the second door. She turned to leave only to see the front door slam shut behind her.

The lights went out and her heart raced. She ran to the door, slamming into it in the dark and tried to open it. She banged on the door, but it wouldn’t budge.

The sound of gas entering the room filled her with panic and she fought against the door. Her motions slowed as her body became heavy. Drowsiness overtook her and she lowered to the floor. As she drew closer to unconsciousness she could see a tiny red light flashing at her from the top corner of the room.

Aegle Sample

Pain exploded from her back with the beat of the song. She screamed and fell forward, but her voice was drowned out by the shouts of the large crowd. It wasn’t until warm liquid landed on the faces of those around her anyone realized something was wrong. Screams of terror mixed with the excited cheers.

She grabbed her belongings in a blind rush and ran down the stairs. She was thankful she had an aisle seat, but there were so many stairs and it was dark. The small lights to help illuminate the steps were difficult to see with the flashing lights from the stage momentarily blinding her.

She made it to the bottom and turned to exit the arena. Something knocked into the wall and she screamed at the pain in her back. She guessed she had hit a railing, but she didn’t want to stop. She had to get out. Her back was burning. She made it out into the hall of the arena and the blinding lights stopped her for a moment. She searched for the stairs to the ground floor. She ran down them, feeling warmth drip down her back to the floor.

She reached the ground floor. Screams erupted all around her and she looked into the faces of terrified concertgoers who had run out to the bathrooms between songs. Seeing their expressions she felt a greater desire to get away from this place. She turned and ran around the ring of the arena. She didn’t know where she was in relation to the entrance, but she couldn’t risk stopping to ask. The pain was pushing her forward.

A stroke on her cheek made her scream and she turned. No one was near her. She could see employees staring at her wide-eyed and some were frantically speaking into radios. She felt another stroke on her other cheek and turned her head. Her eyes widened at the sight.

Wings. Two large, grey wings were following her. Her eyes followed them down to her back and the two bleeding wounds where the wings had exploded from her skin.

Security guards ran towards her from where she had been running. She panicked and started to run faster. She spied doors that looked like the exit and forced them open. She ran down another flight of stairs and emerged into a long hallway. She didn’t recognize it and felt her heartbeat grow faster. Where was she?

The door at the top of the stairs opened and closed and she could hear footsteps as well as the radio blaring in the stairwell. She turned and started to run again. There had to be an emergency exit somewhere, right?

Her eyes suddenly blurred and began burning. She screamed in frustration as her vision made it difficult to see any signs. She tried to rub at them carefully to fix the blurriness, but it only made it worse. She crashed into something and felt her wings flapping wildly. Whatever she crashed into began wrapping around her and she became tangled. Her wings were pulled tight against her back and she couldn’t move her arms.

The panic inside of her reached a terrifying level and she began to cry. She screamed in terror, but managed to form one word. “HELP!”

She heard a door open in front of her and footsteps ran to her. “What the hell?”

She tried to calm down enough to speak, but her voice came out as terrified sobs. “Please! Help! I need to get out of here!”

The footsteps from behind finally caught up and she could hear several men breathing heavily. Hands grabbed for her and she started to scream again, pleading for help.

“Hey! Stop! She’s tangled in the curtain! You’re only making it worse!”

“We’ll take her. She’s with us anyways.”

“Are you crazy? She just created a scene in the halls! We got reports from everyone stationed at the doors that she was running around like a maniac! We’ve been ordered to kick her out.”

“We’ll take care of her! She was supposed to stay down here in the dressing rooms, but she got away from us. If the person who gave you orders has a problem with it, he can talk to us.”

A pause. She tried to calm her frantic breathing, but the cloth of the curtain was tight around her and she couldn’t see. The panic started to come back and she whimpered helplessly.

“Fine, but you should get someone to look at her. I think she’s bleeding.” She heard footsteps walking away.

Her whimpers grew louder as it became harder to breathe. She could feel hands help her to her feet and someone untangled her head from the curtain. She took deep lungful’s of air. The burning of her eyes caused tears to continually stream down her face, but she tried to look at who had saved her. It took a moment for her eyes to focus properly, but she still couldn’t make out her rescuers’ faces.

“Are you okay? Do you need a doctor?”

She shook her head. A sudden wave of nausea forced her to grab one of the men’s shoulders. “I need a bathroom.”

“We should take her to the locker room. There’re bathrooms and showers.”

“And privacy.”

They tried to untangle to rest of the curtain off her, but she furiously shook her head. “No! Please, I don’t want you to see.”

They didn’t argue and led her through a set of doors. They walked down a long hallway and even with her burning, blurred vision she could make out other people who stopped to stare at her. They walked through another set of doors and she was taken to a stall. She quickly ran in and kneeled to the floor and vomited into the toilet. She was thankful her hair was up in a ponytail. Her arms were still trapped in the curtain and she could only use her hands to stop herself from falling into the toilet.

When she was sure she was finished she tried to stand. Hands helped her and a blurry figure flushed the toilet. The men led her to a bench and sat her down.

“We’ll just give you a minute to…clean up.”

“Do you want someone to take a look at you? Like a nurse or something?”

She furiously shook her head.

“We’ll be right outside. Take your time.”

“Thank you,” she said, shyly. She watched their blurred figures disappear through the doors and she released an exhausted sigh. She pulled her arms free from the curtain and raised a hand to her eyes. She pulled her contacts out of her eyes and blinked several times.

The burning disappeared and she felt relief fill her. She looked up and to her shock she could see perfectly. She blinked a few times and looked down at the two pieces of thin plastic in her hand. “Weird.”

She untangled the rest of the curtain and placed it on the bench next to her. She put her bag under the bench, making a mental note not to forget it. She noticed for the first time, blood on her arms and clothes. She stared at it with wide eyes. She looked around and spied the showers. She stood and ran to one and turned it on. The water poured down from the showerhead in a spray of cold. She adjusted it to a comfortable temperature. She tried to take her shirt off, but it caught on something. She reached to her back and froze.

She had forgotten.

The back of her shirt had been torn in two places. She cursed and ripped the rest of her shirt off. She didn’t bother with her pants. She walked under the water and rinsed the blood from her arms. She took her hair down and ran her hands through. The water ran down her back and she winced at the dulling pain.

She raised a shaky hand behind her and touched the wings. She could feel where they were on her back and tried to move them. She found them easy to control and maneuvered them in front of her so she could get a better look.

They were no longer grey. They had probably only looked grey because of the lighting and because of…all the blood. She shivered and saw the feathers on the wings ruffle. The feathers were actually a light golden brown. She stroked the wings and her eyes watched her hands. She stopped and moved her hands to her face.

Her hands were different. Her fingers and nails were longer. Her nails were black, but it wasn’t nail polish. They were naturally black with golden tints toward the cuticles. She slowly lowered to the floor and cried. She could feel her hair sticking to her face and she squeezed her wings against her back as she leaned against the cool linoleum wall. She closed her eyes to try to stop the tears, but they forced their way through.

“Well, well. Looks like someone shouldn’t play with things she doesn’t understand,” a voice said.

She quickly looked up and saw a man in black staring at her. He leaned on a sink and smiled at her.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Who am I? According to you nothing. I don’t exist. Though you were quite quick to make a deal to get what you wanted. Too bad you weren’t specific. I improvised. How do you like them? I figured something dramatic would be best.”

“What are you talking about? What deal?”

The man leaned his head to the side and then appeared in front of her. She jumped at his sudden appearance and tried to move away, but he grabbed her throat and raised her off the floor. She gasped in fear and started to struggle, but his grip was only meant to hold her not cut off her breathing. “I want them to notice me. I would give anything to be special enough for them to want to know me.”

Her eyes widened as she heard her own voice come from the man’s throat.

He cleared his throat and when he spoke again he returned to his voice. “Again, not very specific, but improvisation was always my strong suit. Your words those many nights ago caught my attention, but I figured the excitement should wait for the big night. Now here we are.”

She stared at him in disbelief. “You’re the devil?”

He laughed. “Well, a devil. One devil isn’t exactly how it works. You may call me D. Don’t bother asking for my real name. Human tongues can’t form the correct pronunciation.” He pulled her closer to him. “I bet you haven’t even had a real good chance to look at all the work I put into you. Here.”

They appeared in front of a mirror and he turned his head to look at their reflection. She turned her head and her mouth opened. D released her and stepped away. She leaned close to the mirror and raised her long fingers to her eyes. They were now black with golden irises, like a wolf or eagle’s eyes. She opened her mouth wider. Her teeth had become perfect, white, and her canines had grown a little longer and sharper on bottom and top. Her hair, starting to dry at the ends, was now the same light golden color as the wings. She stroked the dried ends and felt how much softer it had become, like the feathers on a baby chick.

“What did you do to me?” she demanded turning back to D.

He was gone. She looked around, but she was alone. The water from the shower echoed in the empty room and she stared at the ceiling.

“Oh, one last thing,” D said suddenly. She jumped and looked back in the mirror. He stood behind her, but when she turned he wasn’t there. He was only in the mirror. “This was not done for free. I will be back to tell you my price. For now, enjoy talking to your idols.” He disappeared.

She moved back from the mirror. Voices echoed down the hallway outside the doors.

“I’m telling you she may be hurt. I didn’t want security to just throw her out.”

“So you brought a crazed fan backstage? You’re a real fucking genius.”

“She wasn’t crazed! She sounded scared and kicking her out would only do more harm than good.”

She looked over and then at her reflection. She grabbed the curtain and ran back to the shower. She turned the water off. The doors opened and she scrambled to find a place to hide, but it was too late. She covered herself with the curtain, but forgot to pull her wings in. She cursed and without thinking wrapped her wings around her.

“She’s probably going to kidnap us and take photos of us naked or some shit.”

“What the fuck is that?”

There was a short pause before another voice said, “Holy shit.”

Footsteps quickly moved closer and she felt hands touch the feathers of her wings. “Hello?”

She bit her bottom lip and slowly pulled her wings away. The men staring at her gasped.

“The hell?”

“Is this a prank or something?”

“I think those are real.”

“So, what’s the story here?”

She couldn’t answer them. Her voice had caught in her throat when she saw their faces. Without her contacts to blur the world she recognized the men standing in front of her. They were the members of the bands she had come to see that night, the two opening bands and the main event, Ashes of Snow, Animal Den, and Between Silence.

She pulled the curtain closer to her face and looked away, embarrassed about her wings and the fact she was only in her bra under the curtain.

“Hey, are you okay? People said you were bleeding a lot.”

“That’s what happens when wings unexpectedly explode out of your back,” she grumbled. She slowly turned, lowering the curtain to show them the still sore wounds.

A gentle hand carefully touched where her back ended and the wings began and the owner whistled. “That’s crazy shit, man.”

“What do we do with her now?”

“She should come with us!”

“What?”

“Are you crazy?”

“We can’t leave her here in the showers and I don’t think we can just send her off outside. She can stay with us for the night.”

“You said come with us. That implies taking her to San Francisco tomorrow.”

“Well, why not? She could be our new mascot.”

“The least we can do is let her sleep. You have a car here, right?”

She nodded. “The keys are in my bag.” She pointed to the bench. One of the members walked to it and grabbed it, carefully digging through it for her keys.

“You remembered your shit?”

“I can think pretty clearly in a crisis. For a while, at least.”

“So who’s going to get her car? None of us can go outside right now. There are still people walking around waiting for us to emerge.”

“We’ll get one of the roadie’s to do it. Tell ‘em it’s one of our family’s or something.”

“Right, so where is she going to sleep?”

“We’ve got an extra bed in our bus. Curtained and everything so she can have some privacy.”

“Settled then. Come on. We’re going to have to sneak you past the fans.”

She stood and grabbed the curtain. She pulled her wings close to her back and one of the members helped her wrap the curtain over them. She followed them out and they helped sneak her past a line of fans wanting to catch a final glimpse of their idols. The main band, Between Silence stopped to keep them distracted and the others got her to their bus.

“I guess they meant this bed. It’s the only clean one.”

She took the curtain off, having a little trouble keeping her wings from hitting the walls of the cramped bus. She managed to squeeze into the bed and looked at the other members. They said goodbye and left, leaving her alone.

She pulled the covers of the bed back and tried to find a comfortable position with the wings. She finally managed and closed the curtains. She stared at the curtains in silence.

She was on Between Silence’s tour bus. She was going with them to San Francisco. She wished she was happy or excited about it, but all she felt was fear and confusion. She tried to calm her mind as she heard the band members enter the bus. They spoke quietly so as not to disturb her and she heard them move to their respective beds. The bus engine started and began moving. The rocking of the bus lulled her into a dreamless sleep.

Errol 2

Snow still sat on the grounds commonly protected with shade from the few trees and bushes that could survive the high altitude, but the birds sang loudly of spring’s return. Luckily, it arrived early this year.

Errol finished prepping Squall for the journey, much to her annoyance. She’d be leaving the warm paddocks for the first time in months and preferred to remain, eating to her fill. Taking one last stock of his weaponry and other supplies, Errol lead Squall out into the warming sun.

“Heading out early, Errol?” a voice called from ahead.

Errol shielded his eyes from the sun and spotted a second horse prepared for a trip. The man holding his reins brushed the horse’s black mane caringly.

“I am. And I’m guessing from what I can see so are you, Undrell,” Errol said, climbing into Squall’s saddle. He nudged her forward and she reluctantly walked forward at a slow pace.

Climbing onto his own horse, Undrell shrugged his shoulders. “You seem to get better luck the earlier you leave, I figured I’d give a shot, too. Mind the company?”

Knowing his answer was irrelevant, Errol only continued past him. Undrell smiled and followed. The path down the mountain would take two days. It could be done in one, but with the snow still present in patches it was safer to take the journey slow. One false move and both rider and horse would spend a good distance rolling downwards with nothing to stop them but rocks and thick tree trunks.

The two horses easily navigated the twists and turns of the path, having walked them many times. White snow hares rushed across the path when the two approached. Birds sang louder as the sun rose higher in the sky, melting any snow unfortunate enough to be in its line of sight.

The two men passed the first hour in silence. Though it was rare for two Majisters to travel together, when it happened not much talking ever truly occurred. The company was only welcomed because it usually meant larger jobs and higher pay. Today, however, Errol knew there was no coincidence to why Undrell had a horse ready so early.

“I don’t understand why you’re following me, Undrell,” Errol finally said, annoyed. He glared at the smaller man riding next to him. “And don’t say you aren’t planning, too. There’s no other reason for you to leave at the exact same hour as me otherwise.”

Undrell smiled, eyeing Errol with a look that generally caused more trouble than it was worth. “We’ve all heard the rumors. None would dare approach you with their questions and many wouldn’t believe any answer you’d give even if you gave one. Therefore, I decided to end the speculation it was time for someone to discover your secret.”

“I have no secrets. If I did,” he reached for the hilt of his dagger at his side, “I wouldn’t let those who knew live.”

Holding up a gloved hand with one finger missing, Undrell rolled his eyes. “Threats mean nothing to me. Let me see what you’ve been hiding so I might satiate our brethren before one of the more dangerous ones decide to find out in a more, shall we say, typical brutish way.”

Errol returned his hand to Squall’s reins. His eyes narrowed as he studied Undrell’s snake-like smile. He didn’t dislike the man. In fact, compared the rest of their brethren, Undrell was the closest to a true brother. He could trust him more than any of the others. And he had a point about the more dangerous ones. They enjoyed the more forceful ways of finding out secrets.

“Fine. But I would appreciate it if you watched your tongue. If you don’t I’ll cut it out.”

“I can make no promises. It’s a long trek to Augon Hall.”

“What business do you have in Augon Hall?”

Shrugging, Undrell waved his hand. “Something to do with a dragon or a potential uprising, I can’t remember. The summons was smudged with blood by the time it reached us and when Treya could actually make anything out, the meaning was lost. Basically she told me to just go and figure it out once I got there.”

“Isn’t that Berton’s territory? Why isn’t he travelling there?”

“He’s been requested to oversee the graduation of the new trainees.”

Errol laughed. “He must be thrilled. Has it really been twenty years already?”

“Ah, you remember,” Undrell leaned close as though Breton were nearby to overhear, “The older ones were a little iffy about allowing him to oversee it, but Treya of all people encouraged them to agree. She even got Berton to start preparations early.”

“Was that because she truly wanted him to be overseer or because you wanted the Augon Hall job?”

“I would never cheat a fellow of his work.” Undrell’s eyes avoided Errol’s and he bit the corner of his lip. “But there’s no other work down south along your trail. Truthfully, Treya wanted to speak up for Berton, but naturally I had to give her a little extra push.”

“So not out of the goodness of your heart, but out of the need to satiate the curiosity driving you mad about my business.” Sighing, Errol glanced briefly back up the mountain. “Three months to ask me and you all chicken out because of some strange thought I wouldn’t be forthright with you? Is that what you all truly think of me?”

The smile faded from Undrell’s face and his eyes narrowed. “I can never tell when you’re being sarcastic or not. It doesn’t suit you.”

“Shut up. If you want to follow me, it’s fine. You’ll soon learn it was for nothing.”

“We shall see.”

They rode the rest of the day in silence, quickly reaching a campsite used many times in the past. Cooking a small meal of rabbit on the fire, Errol stared across the flames at Undrell.

“If you’re heading to Augon Hall, who will be keeping an eye on the Teivar Isles? Surely you haven’t cleaned them out permanently?”

Leaning against the rock wall, Undrell watched the flames dance. “Mer Gair will be handling them.”

Surprise filled Errol’s face. It was rare for the Sleiyer to venture out into the world for anything other than war related issues.

“You all want to learn my secret that badly?” Errol wondered aloud.

Raising his eyes to Errol, Undrell’s smile seemed even more serpentine with the shadows deforming his face. “Don’t read too much into it. Apparently a water god has appeared and they specifically asked for him. He’ll be taking Colom along.”

“Leaving you free to spy on me,” Errol said. “This will be Colom’s first large job, won’t it?”

Undrell nodded and poked at the cooking rabbit with a metal prong. “It may end up being nothing. I may have planted the seed in the minds of the people a year ago. They wouldn’t leave me be about the sudden increase in storms off their eastern shores. They’ve been losing a lot of trade ships lately and I may have mentioned that used to be the ancient signs of a water god on a rampage.”

“Mer Gair will beat you if he finds that out.”

“He can try, but once he learns what’s really causing the storms, he’ll thank me for the high pay for such an easy job. We need the gold to prepare the next class of trainees for their first ventures.”

Errol grabbed a cooked rabbit from the fire and ate it slowly, savoring the meat. He wanted to question Undrell further, but he could tell from the man’s posture he was finished talking. They ate quietly, until Errol noticed Undrell staring at him with a serious expression.

“Have you spoken to Mer Gair about accepting the Trial?” Undrell asked.

Rage filled Errol and he threw his finished rabbit carcass at him. “We only speak of such things within the walls of Culina. Mer Gair would slice another finger off if he knew you asked me such a thing.”

“There are more whispers among the brethren outside of the walls than within. All pertain to you and all pertain to you becoming a Sleiyer. We know it wouldn’t be for another few decades, but fears of another taking it before you are growing.”

“I shall not break our laws by justifying your questions with a response. It is between me and Mer Gair.”

Undrell’s eyes lit up. “So you have spoken to him about it.”

“I didn’t say that and you will stop asking.”

Reluctantly raising a hand in surrender, Undrell finished his meal. Errol prepared for sleep. He placed a sword by his hand and watched the flames until his eyes fell heavy with sleep.

  *       *      *

The house was small, only two rooms, but for the three who lived inside, it was perfect. A small garden to the left of the house was full of vegetables and herbs. The smell of cooking meat filled the air and movement could be seen through the open windows.

Undrell stared at the house, confused. “This is your secret? A tiny house between Fintler and Darenworth?”

Climbing off Squall, Errol laughed. “Were you expecting something far larger?”

“I was expecting a brothel.” He climbed off his horse, Timber, and stared at the small garden. “Everyone thought for sure you’d bed a prostitute and given her more than a fun night.”

Before Errol could dispute the disturbing claim, the door opened and a small girl ran towards him.

“Arrow!” She leaped at him, barely giving Errol time to open his arms for the hug.

He lifted the giggling child high into the air. “Little Mal! You’re growing too fast for this man’s heart!” As he smiled, Errol could almost clearly see the unexpected shock on Undrell’s face. When he turned to him, he was greeted to a gaping jaw and bulging eyes.

Recovering his usual calm demeanor, Undrell cleared his throat. “Perhaps I spoke too soon.”

“She’s not my blood, Undrell,” Errol growled.

Malhia noticed the second man suddenly and her bright smile vanished. She wrapped her arms around Errol’s neck, clinging tightly to him.

“Malhia! What have I told you about running outside alone?” Shayla called from the doorway. When she saw Errol a smile broke on her face, but faltered when she spotted Undrell. “Errol, you’re back early this year. Who is this?”

Lowering a reluctant Malhia to the ground, Errol slapped Undrell’s shoulder hard, sending a warning through the man. “This is one of my comrades, Undrell of the Teivar Isles. He’s business further south and chose to accompany me.”

Undrell bowed his head. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Shayla, and that is my daughter, Malhia. Derrick is asleep inside. He was out all night with the watchers,” Shayla said, easily returning her attention to Errol.

Malhia clung to Errol’s leg as she glanced up at Undrell. Easily walking with the child in tow, Errol raised a curious brow. “Watchers? Why are there watchers? Are the wolf packs becoming more aggressive?”

“You’ll have to wait for Derrick to wake and ask him. He refuses to tell me a thing. Malhia, leave Errol’s leg alone. He needs it to walk.”

“Arrow, you stay for food?” Malhia asked, her wide eyes pleading as she craned her neck to look at him.

“Of course, Little Mal. I always stay for food, don’t I?”

The answer brought the bright smile back and Malhia rushed inside to prepare the table. Errol hugged Shayla as he reached the doorway. “Another year, another surprise,” he said as they pulled apart.

Shayla put her hand on her hip and turned to glance into the house. “She’s been waiting for you for three days straight, staring out the window. I don’t know how she knows, but she claims she can hear Squall’s footsteps the second you’re a week out. But I think she’s just starting to understand when the flowers bloom you usually come around.”

Errol smiled. “Five is about the time most children begin to sustain permanent memories.”

Shayla caught sight of Undrell still standing by the two horses, the shock not fully gone. She waved to the Majister. “You can come in if you like. We always have plenty of food for guests. Master Undrell, was it?”

Snapping out of his stupor, Undrell lead the horses to a small water trough. “Master Undrell if there must be titles, otherwise Undrell is fine.”

Shayla nodded her head and disappeared into the house to prepare another seat. Joining Errol at the door, Undrell peered inside. Two beds could be seen through a small doorway, one occupied. The table took up most of the room in the main room with the wall to the left dedicated to the kitchen with the oven and shelves of jarred foods. To the right sat a chest and on top a collection of sewing material lay. An almost finished dress of magenta cloth hung from a makeshift clothesline.

“I’m going to need an explanation for this, Errol,” Undrell said, turning to him. “I don’t quite understand what’s going on.”

“Five years ago I saved Derrick and Shayla. She was pregnant with Malhia and I assisted in the birth. Every year I visit for lunch before heading south to Darenworth and on to the desert cities. Then on her birthday I visit for dinner and spend the night before returning to the Feilor Mountains.” Errol winked at Undrell. “My big secret is now revealed. I’m a godfather.”

“I think I’d have preferred a brothel.”

The two men walked inside, shutting the door behind them. Errol sat at the table while Undrell surveyed the house again. His eyes continuously glanced in at the sleeping figure on the bed.

Malhia climbed into Errol’s lap and played with the string of his cloak. “Mommy is making me a new dress for me to wear when we visit the town. I got to pick my favorite color and she’s almost finished, but she says I can’t wear it until after the next harvest moon comes. I don’t know what that means but she said it’ll be soon but I really want to wear it now even though it’s not finished. She says I can wear it for you when you come back but daddy thinks I should have another new dress by then cause I keep growing and I may not fit the dress before you come back. I also learned a new word. Madenta, it’s what mommy calls my favorite color but I always just called it Arrow’s eyes cause it’s the same color as your eyes. Is that the right word? Are your eyes madenta like my dress?”

Undrell stifled a laugh at the small girl’s long winded speech, having a harder time keeping it quiet when she tried to turn on Errol’s lap only to nearly fall off. He sat across from Errol, seeing how the tiny seat next to him was meant for a smaller owner, and watched with enthusiasm.

“I think the word you mean to say is magenta, little Mal.” Errol poked a finger at her nose making Malhia squeal with delight. “And yes, that is the correct word. I hope your father’s wrong though. I’d love to see your new dress. I can tell from here the stitches were done with great care. You’ll have to be very careful when you wear it not to dirty it.”

“That’s why I’ll only wear it when we go to town or when you come back.”

Shayla brought food to the table and smiled at Malhia. “Honey, go wake your father. He shouldn’t miss another meal, not when we have guests.”

Errol helped the now squirming Malhia to the floor. She ran into the other room and jumped onto the bed, issuing a loud cry from its occupant. Sounds of a small struggle drifted from the second room, followed by a yell of surrender. Malhia sprinted back out followed by a slower, untidy Derrick. The beginnings of a beard grew on his chin and his hair stuck up in places. His eyes spotted Errol and he nodded his head once in recognition. When he spotted Undrell he hesitated, but Undrell waved a friendly greeting, encouraging Derrick to sit at the table.

“Errol, didn’t expect to see you so early in the spring…and with company,” Derrick said.

“The snows thawed quickly this year. I figured the sooner I left the sooner I could enjoy Shayla’s food. This roguish fiend is—”

“Master Undrell of the Skeivar Isles,” Undrell interrupted. “I apologize for the additional mouth to feed, but Errol’s brethren and I have been far too curious about what he does here in the south when he leaves so early. Curious rumors were swirling and I thought it about time to find out who stole our brother’s heart.”

“He also has business in Augon Hall and didn’t want to travel there on his own,” Errol added, kicking Undrell under the table. To Undrell’s credit, he hid the pain well though a responding kick soon followed.

Derrick yawned suddenly, covering his mouth quickly. “Apologies. I haven’t been sleeping well the past few nights.”

“Shayla mentioned watchers. Have you been having trouble with the wolf packs again?”

“Unfortunately, no. Some of the local townsfolk have been hearing strange sounds outside their homes around midnight. When they investigate, there’s nothing to be seen, but in the morning blood is left on their doorsteps as though someone bled out. A couple of chickens and cattle have disappeared as well, but as far as we can tell the blood isn’t theirs. Watchers have been gathering at the center of town every night to see if we can learn of the culprit, but so far we’ve come up empty.”

“Malhia, help me with the rest of the food,” Shayla said, taking her daughter by the hand. Malhia’s eyes widened and she looked quickly at Errol before nodding. The two walked out of earshot, Derrick watching them with knowing eyes.

Shifting his eyes down to the table, Derrick lowered his voice to be sure Malhia couldn’t hear. “Two nights ago, a child went missing. Her ma and da put her to bed no problem, but come morning she was gone. Not a trace of a struggle or even any footprints to track.” He swallowed. “But as with the others, blood was found on their doorstep, too much to belong to a child. And last night while we were keeping watch, we heard a child’s laugh in the night. We all knew the girl, we all recognized it as her, but we couldn’t see a soul.”

Undrell crossed his arms over his chest and eyed Errol, but remained silent. Errol leaned on the table to ensure his voice wouldn’t be overheard. “Has this happened before? Blood appearing on doorsteps?”

“If it has no one remembers it. We’re going to have another watch tonight, but they’re pointless. None of us are willing to actually venture into the forest to find out what’s making the strange sounds.”

“That may be a good thing. Wouldn’t want any of you folk getting killed,” Undrell said.

Lifting his eyes to Undrell, Errol hoped the warning in his glare would keep the other man’s mouth shut. “Tell those participating in the watch tonight to stay home. Undrell and I will take their place and stop whatever’s causing this.”

Holding Room Sample

The door to the new holding room opened. The room was made completely out of thick glass except for the door and hallway leading into the room. Those were made of thick metal for security reasons. There were two beds set up side by side against one of the walls of the room. One was made with gray sheets and a single pillow at the head. The other bed was specially made up for the occupant of the room. The sheets were emerald green with a pink pillow at the head. A few stuffed animals were laid out on the bed, but they were really only to add a more homey touch to the barren room. Across from the beds was a table that had a cover made of cloth stuffed with cushioning to prevent injury. A chair, covered similarly to the table, was pushed in against the table. On the wall opposite of the door was a flat screen TV protected behind a thick layer of glass that protruded into the room. A smaller screen, made of inflatable material, was connected to the wall by a short chain. Underneath the TV was a shelf where a few books were kept. There was also a small array of drawing materials including markers and sketchpads. However, there were no pens or pencils.

Dr. Benjamin Travis, Sr. was standing in an adjoining, observation room, keeping a watchful eye on the door that had just opened in the holding room. His gray hair was combed back close to his head and his green eyes stared out from behind thick glasses. He kept his hands in the pockets of his lab coat. Today was a special day, for two reasons. It was the first day the new holding room was going to be used, but it was also Dr. Travis’s last day. He had been “asked” to retire by the higher ups of the program. The only positive thing about it was he got to pick his successor. That had been an easy choice for him, but one that the higher ups and those who had been working closely with Dr. Travis had voiced numerous arguments about. The choice was his alone. Therefore his first choice for successor was the one who had gotten the job.

Screams came from the open door leading into the holding room. Dr. Travis watched patiently as the backs of two workers came into view. They were struggling with something just out of sight. The screaming became more frantic as the two workers managed to move further into the room. Slowly, a young woman came into view. Her short, dirty blonde hair was messy, a few strands sticking up. Her eyes were wide and filled with terror. They were amazing eyes. The inner most part of them were a dazzling royal blue while the rest of the iris was a mixture of green and small specks of gold.

They were the most unusual and beautiful eyes Dr. Travis had ever seen. They were only one of the reasons she had been chosen for this program. Recently, ironically just before he was asked to “retire”, Dr. Travis had received a large grant for his research and a new building to use. That was where they were now. They had been moving everything in before even attempting to move her.

One of the workers was kicked in the stomach and thrown across the room. He hit the wall and crumpled to the floor clutching his shoulder. The other worker managed to grab the woman’s leg before it she could do the same to him. The woman’s screams became ear piercing and Dr. Travis sighed.

He leaned forward and, calmly, removed his right hand from his pocket and pressed a small button in front of him. “Leah.”

The woman became silent and froze. The worker still holding her looked at Dr. Travis. Dr. Travis nodded and the worker released the woman. He hurried to the other worker and started to check his shoulder.

Dr. Travis kept his eyes on the woman. “Leah. Look at me.”

The woman flinched at the commanding tone of his voice, but slowly turned her head. Her eyes hesitated at the floor before moving up to meet Dr. Travis’s.

“Leah, what did I tell you about kicking?”

Leah was fighting to keep her eyes locked onto Dr. Travis. She raised her right hand up to her chest, showing a homemade doll. It was made of gray cloth, similar to the sheets on the second bed, and clothes had been stitched onto it using other kinds of fabric. A small black and white plaid shirt matched a pair of shorts and hat. Leah clutched the tiny thing against her tightly.

Dr. Travis took a deep breath. “Leah? What did I tell you about kicking?”

“Don’t.” Her voice was barely audible through the speaker.

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t kick.”

Dr. Travis smiled. “That’s right. Now, I already explained to you yesterday what was going to happen today, correct?”

Leah nodded.

“What did I tell you?”

“I was getting a new room.”

“And?”

“And…I’d have to leave my old room.”

“That’s right. I told you all of that and you still decided to make this move difficult. Why is that?”

Leah mumbled something inaudible over the speaker.

“Speak louder, Leah.”

“I don’t like leaving my room. I don’t like change.”

“Look around the room, Leah.”

Leah, happy to look away from Dr. Travis, quickly searched the room.

Dr. Travis leaned forward, watching her very carefully. “Everything looks exactly the same. We made sure everything stayed the exact same as your room. The only thing that’s different is the outside.”

Leah looked back at Dr. Travis, still clutching her doll to her chest. “But I still had to leave my room. This isn’t my room. This is a new room.”

Dr. Travis stared at her in silence. He turned his attention to the two workers still huddled on the floor. “How is he?”

The second worker looked at Dr. Travis. “His shoulder is dislocated…and he may have a concussion.”

“Take him to first aid. I no longer need your assistance.”

The men hurried out of the room, moving around Leah carefully. Leah flinched when the door slammed shut and locked.

Dr. Travis returned his attention to Leah. “Look at me.”

Leah slowly shook her head.

“Leah. Look. At. Me.”

Leah bit her lower lip and slowly looked at Dr. Travis.

“No more fighting. Okay?”

Leah nodded her head and squeezed her doll tighter. “Yes, sir.”

Dr. Travis leaned back and put his hand back in his pocket, cutting off the speaker into the holding room. Leah slowly moved towards the shelves under the flat screen TV. She ran her fingers across the few books placed on the shelves then she grabbed one of the sketchpads and a handful of markers. She hurried to the center of the room and placed the markers on the ground. She cradled her doll under her armpit and started to tear sheets of paper out of the sketchpad and throw the sheets onto the floor. She then threw the sketchpad behind her and fell to her knees. She grabbed two of the markers and, quickly uncapping them with her fingers, she began to draw.

Her hands moved over the papers quickly, but were never sure of what they were doing. An image slowly began to appear across all of the sheets of paper. Dr. Travis moved closer to the glass wall that separated him from Leah. His eyes searched the drawing being formed in front of his eyes.

“Doctor?” a lab assistant asked opening the door into the observation room. “He’s ready to meet her.”

Dr. Travis waved his hand at the lab assistant. “Then send him in.”

The lab assistant left. Dr. Travis pressed his hand against the glass and strained to see the full image Leah was creating.

Leah’s eyes were locked onto the papers in front of her. Her hands moved like separate beings. They switched markers without a pause and soon the drawing was almost finished. She just needed to use two more markers and it would be finished.

The door to the holding cell opened and closed. Footsteps approached Leah, but she was too caught up in her work, until the shoes appeared in her vision. Her hands stopped their work, only one line left before completion. The shoes were unfamiliar to Leah. She knew everyone who worked with Dr. Travis. She knew everyone, but the man who was now standing in front of her.

Her eyes slowly made their way up to the stranger’s face. He was young, close to Leah’s age. His eyes were green and his hair was a deep, dark brown. He wore thin glasses, most likely worn not very often.

Leah’s eyes widened. She dropped the markers in her hands and her doll fell, forgotten to the floor. Her breathing quickened and she  whimpered. She scooted away from the stranger until her back hit the wall. Then she curled up into a tight ball, but her eyes were still visible and locked onto the newcomer.

The man watched her patiently. He took a few steps forward. He bent down onto one knee and picked up Leah’s doll. He looked into her eyes and smiled. “Hello, Leah.”

Leah began to shake her head furiously. “No! No! I don’t like change! Leave! You have to leave!”

The man stood and started to walk towards her. Leah squealed and curled tighter into a ball. “I’m sorry we had to meet under these circumstances, Leah.”

Leah uncurled and quickly crawled towards the bed made up for her. She grabbed the covers and roughly pulled it off the bed, pulling the stuffed animals and pillows to the floor with it. She wrapped the thick fabric around her, hiding herself from the man.

The man looked at Dr. Travis. “You really didn’t tell her anything about me.”

Dr. Travis laughed and pressed the intercom button. “I thought I had more time before I would be forced to leave the program.”

“No, you didn’t want her to know about me. You were going to try to convince her I was you.”

“What could possibly have put that thought into your mind?”

The man sighed and walked over to the emerald green, breathing blob that Leah was hiding inside of. He held out her doll. “Leah, you forgot Lee.”

The green blob flinched and slowly Leah’s head appeared from underneath the fabric. “How did you know her name?”

“I know a lot about you and Lee. Why don’t you come out and Dr. Travis will properly explain everything to you.”

Leah hesitated, but eventually she began to stand and reached for her doll. She quickly grabbed it from the man and looked at Dr. Travis.

The man turned to Dr. Travis and raised an eyebrow. “Are you going to be good and tell her what’s going on or do I have to do it?”

Dr. Travis took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Leah. I have been asked to leave. I will no longer be here watching over your progression.”

Leah shook her head. “You can’t. You’re always here. You can’t leave.”

“It’s not my choice, Leah. I have been asked to leave, but I was given the chance to name my successor. He is my successor.”

Leah looked at the man standing next to her. “But he isn’t you.” She looked back at Dr. Travis. “Things cannot change! I don’t like it when things change!”

“You don’t have to think of it as change,” the man said.

Dr. Travis eyed the man, a warning in his gaze. “That’s right, Leah. This man here is the closest to me I could possibly have found for you.”

Leah’s eyes flickered between Dr. Travis and the man. “What do you mean?”

“This is my son. Dr. Benjamin Travis, Junior. He is the only man I could possibly entrust my research to.”

Leah turned her complete attention to the man next to her.

He met her gaze and smiled. “If you’d like you can call me Dr. Travis. Although I prefer Dr. Ben.”

Leah clutched her doll to her chest. Suddenly she looked down at the doll as though it were talking to her. She slowly looked back at him. “Lee says I should call you Dr. Ben. She says I shouldn’t be afraid of this change. It will be all right.”

Dr. Ben looked at Dr. Travis. “How very kind of Lee.”

Dr. Travis cleared his throat. “I’m so happy this went so well. Dr. Ben, I would like to have a word with you before I leave for good. You, too, Leah.” He turned and left the observation room.

Dr. Ben turned to Leah and held his hand out to her. She stared at it and then at him. He laughed to himself and put his hand in his pocket. “We can be informal if you want to be.”

Leah wrapped the fabric of the covers around her tighter. “I don’t know what would be informal for the son of Dr. Travis.”

Dr. Ben wrapped his arms around her. Leah’s eyes widened and her heart began to pound in her chest. She roughly pushed him away.

“That would be informal, Leah.”

Leah hugged Lee close to her chest.

Dr. Ben’s eyes moved to the floor where the drawing Leah had been working on was lying forgotten. He walked to it and leaned down to get a closer look. “What did you draw, Leah?”

Leah walked forward and looked at her work. “I saw it in my head.”

The drawing was of a strange ship. It looked like a cruise ship, but some of the windows and the shape of the ship were unlike anything Dr. Ben had ever seen. The colors Leah had used added a haunting quality to the ship.

Dr. Ben looked into Leah’s beautifully, odd eyes. “You saw this just now?”

“Yes.”

Unknown Age

“You! Wake up!” a guard yelled, banging on the bars of the prison cell. “Need to check to see if you’re still alive.”

The man inside lifted his head and glared at the guard with eerie blue eyes. Even in the dark of night they seemed to glow.

The guard laughed and waved his finger at the man. “Don’t give me that look. You don’t want me to come in there, do you?”

The man smiled and stood. He walked to the bars and leaned against the cool metal. The guard took a careful step back, but the man raised his hand and waved his hand at the guard to move closer. The guard hesitated before moving closer to the bars. The man’s smile grew. He grabbed the guard and slammed his head into the bars then kicked him in the stomach. The guard gasped and stumbled back holding his head in one hand and his stomach in the other.

The guard took a moment to catch his breath and stormed up to the cell. “You bastard! I’ll kill you!” he yelled.

The man walked back to his spot on the floor and sat down, leaning his back against the wall. He closed his eyes, knowing the guard would soon be joining him and not having the energy to fight back. He knew the guard wouldn’t kill him. He was too important to kill, but the guard would beat him to near death.

The guard opened the cell door and walked in, grabbing a broken metal bar from the floor. He walked up to the man and raised the bar above his head. He brought it down on the man, but the man moved out of the way at the last second. He looked up at the guard and smiled. The guard’s face turned red from rage and he kicked the man in the side. The man fell to the floor and braced for the impact he knew would be coming.

The prison shook. The guard stumbled, but managed to keep his footing. He looked out the tiny window. “What the hell was that?”

The man lifted his head up quickly. He had heard it. Mixed into the sound of he earth shaking had been a terrifying roar. The man knew the creature’s voice well. It was roaming the streets of the city again, searching for food.

A sharp pain in the man’s side shocked him. The guard had returned to his quarrel. He brought the metal bar down on the man’s side again and again. The sound of bones breaking made the guard stop. The man was clutching his side where his ribs had been shattered.

The man coughed. It hurt and caused him to clutch his side harder. He looked up at the guard and a weak laugh escaped his lips. “Finished already?”

The guard sneered.

The man looked towards the window. A large shadow slowly moved across, casting a shadow on the floor. The man slowly began to crawl across the floor. He wanted to be as far from the window as he could. The guard, thinking the man was simply trying to escape him for fear of another beating, laughed and moved closer to the window. He couldn’t see the dark shadow outside the window.

“What’s wrong? Are you out of sarcastic words? Or are you simply ready for more?”

The shadow filled the window, blocking light from the moon. A small black hand slowly reached through the bars of the window. The attached arm stretched unnaturally, allowing the hand to enter the cell and move freely. It grasped at anything loose, but then continued its search. The man watched as a second hand gripped the bars of the window before moving into the cell. The hands searched the cell, the fingers being sure to touch everything.

“If you beg for mercy, maybe I’ll leave you conscious,” the guard said. He couldn’t see the hands feeling along the floor.

A third hand appeared at the window, feeling the bars of the window curiously.

The man watched the terror happening behind the guard, aware that the guard could not and would never see the thing at the other end. But that didn’t mean he was immune from its touch.

The guard raised the bar above his head. The man winced as he prepared his body for what would come next.

The bar came down, but missed the man. He had pushed himself to his feet and grabbed the guard by the neck. The guard dropped the bar in his hands in surprise. The man leaned close to his ear. “You never should have come in here.”

He threw the man at the window. The hands, sensing someone approaching grabbed for the guard. One grabbed his leg, another his chest, and the last wrapped across his face.

“What the hell is this?” the guard screamed. He could feel the hands on him, but there was nothing to be seen. He tried to wipe the unseen captor with his hands, but the hands were wrapping around him, covering his body in black. His wide eyes searched for the man and pleaded for help.

The man turned away, knowing what came next.

From the window something else snaked its way through the bars. It wasn’t black like the hands. It was dark red and clear liquid dripped to the floor as it stretched into the cell. It lowered around the guard and his screams became muffled.

The man squeezed his eyes tighter, fighting his curiosity to see the guard’s fate. A sickening sound echoed in the cell. It sounded as though something had been squeezed through an opening far too small. The silence that followed filled even the inside of the man.

He slowly opened his eyes and turned to the window. Red stained the bars and the stone. It would be gone by morning. The creature never left anything behind. Even as he watched the hands were back, cleaning the red away.

He lowered to the ground and pulled his knees to his chest, watching the hands clean what remained of the guard away. He wondered if when the creature was finished with him he would endure the same fate of many guards who had dared to attack him late at night.

 

 

 

“Hello, everyone. I am Professor Horvath and welcome to the first day of class. As some of you may be aware, this class deals with literature that some may view as controversial. But I hope throughout this course we are able to have open minded discussions about what makes them controversial and the relations of today’s society to the societies when and where these books were written. I have handed out the syllabus for the course and I would like to go over it with you.”

The class collectively sighed and looked at the small packet of papers on their desks.

Every class was the same. The first day was simply going over what was expected of them and how they were to be graded. For many it was what determined whether they would continue with the course or drop it. It was easy to determine how much work was involved in the class based on the syllabus and how the professor described the course.

Professor Horvath was a well-known ball-buster when it came to grades. He graded hard, but those who had taken his class, even those who failed, had only good words about the course and professor. He was well liked by students, but had trouble with other faculty and administration.

He was stubborn when it came to how he taught his classes and recently had gotten into a quarrel with the English department about his subject matter when he added a highly controversial book to his reading list. The school refused to provide the books so Professor Horvath went out and spent his own money to buy the books for his class. It was a brash move, especially for a professor who didn’t have tenure.

He was a campus hero for standing up to the school board. Faculty that didn’t despise him highly respected him and made efforts to speak with him about his work. He was young, only in his early thirties, but already he had published several books in regard to book bans, adaptation and interpretation of language, and telling of history based on place, time, and authorship.

However, he was a private man. He was unmarried and as far as anyone knew was not in a relationship. He rarely attended department meetings and when he did he would end up leaving early. He occasionally would be spotted sitting on the quad reading. Once a student even bumped into him at a restaurant. Outside of class he was a phantom. Even his office hours seemed to suggest he rarely spent time on campus when he wasn’t teaching.

All of these facts about the professor were only parts of the overall reason Leslie Witt had signed up for the class. The main reason was for the reading material. Leslie found controversial books intriguing. Namely those that were considered not politically correct and were banned from schools. She remembered getting into a heated argument with her high school English teachers about why she needed her parents’ permission to study books such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill A Mockingbird.

There had been a rumor going around that one of the books Professor Horvath was assigning for the class was a fiction novel that some believed to have actually happened. It was a controversial book written centuries ago, but only recently discovered and published. It would be the first time the book would be used in a college course and many students had signed up just for that.

As she scanned the syllabus with her golden brown eyes, she began to feel overwhelmed. She hadn’t fully grasped how much reading they would be required to do in the course. It was almost a book a week and after buying the required texts the previous day, she knew that most of the books were almost five hundred pages of small text. But her curiosity about the new addition to the syllabus outweighed her fear of late night readings and spark noting.

“As you are all aware, there is an addition to the syllabus from previous years. You are also all probably aware that the book was not available in the student bookstore. That is due to the school’s desire to keep students who are not taking this course from purchasing the highly controversial text. Therefore, I have copies for you and will hand them out when it is time to study it,” Professor Horvath said, finishing his coverage of the syllabus. “Are there any questions?”

He searched the room with his hazel eyes and then ran his hand through his blonde hair. “If there are no questions then class is dismissed and I highly suggest that you all begin reading the first text. It is one of the longer ones and will take some time to get through. Thank you.”

Chairs scraped on the floor and laptops were closed. Groups of students gathered and exited the room, speaking excitedly about the class. Professor Horvath packed the extra copies of the syllabi into his briefcase and placed the arm sling on his shoulder. His eyes locked onto Leslie who was still sitting in her seat.

“Class is dismissed and there are no more classes in this room for the rest of the day. Therefore I can only assume you are still seated because you wish to speak with me.”

Leslie stood quickly, her black hair bouncing on her head. “Ah, yes, professor. I hope I don’t come off as pretentious, but I was wondering, with all of the controversial texts out there, why are you deciding to include one that is clearly a fictional story blown out of proportion by a select group of, for lack of a better word, fanatics? Surely there are other books that would be far better discussion topics.”

Professor Horvath stared at Leslie in silence, his face showing no sign of any emotion. He slowly put his briefcase back on his desk and then crossed in front of it. He sat on the edge and crossed his arms across his chest.

“I can see you are one of the few who did not take my class solely due to the fact I was including this fictional story. I respect that you have come to me outspoken about this, but it will not change the fact that we will be reading it.”

“I just don’t understand where the controversy comes from. It’s a fictional story that has been accepted by a small group of non-influential people, who have no power or authority, as historical fact.”

“The controversy comes from the period it was written. Why do you believe it took centuries for a copy to be found and republished? All other original copies were destroyed and by studying the content of the story and discussing the words of those who believe it to be true we can discover why. But to clearly answer your question, the controversy comes directly from those who believe it to be historical fact. We will discuss this in detail in a few weeks when we begin our study of the book.”

Leslie rolled the syllabus in her hand into a tube and patted her leg with it. “That’s not a good enough answer for me, professor.”

Professor Horvath studied Leslie’s face. Then he sighed and squeezed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. “What is your name?”

Leslie swallowed. “Leslie Witt.”

“Miss Witt, I’m having trouble understanding why you are so against the inclusion of this book.”

“You’ve read it.”

“Yes, have you?”

“No, but I have read articles and reviews about it.”

“And?”

“No doubt you realize there are geological irregularities as well as irregularities of religious figures, societal hierarchy, even objects and machines that were not to be invented for centuries?”

Professor Horvath stood and grabbed his briefcase, slinging it onto his shoulder again. “Miss Witt, all of these things you are mentioning will be discussed in detail when we begin reading the book. However, I know this response is not what you are looking for and I can already tell that you will most likely have more to say about this particular novel in comparison to the others we are scheduled to study. Therefore, I am going to allow something that goes against all of my principles.”

Leslie’s eyes widened in surprise. She hadn’t expected him to say that. Hell, she’d expected him to kick her out after her first question.

Professor Horvath walked up to Leslie and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I want you to come to my office tomorrow at noon. I will tell you what I mean then.” He smiled and then walked out of the room.

Leslie took a quick breath. She hadn’t meant to trouble Professor Horvath. Now she only hoped he wasn’t going to give her more work than the other students. But she couldn’t have just stayed quiet and waited until they had started reading the book. She had to tell Professor Horvath how she felt on the first day.

She grabbed her bag and left the lecture hall. She joined the traffic flow of students walking through the hall and out the door. The sun blinded her for a moment before she put her sunglasses on.

The campus was crowded. The first couple of weeks of school would be crowded. After that, students would understand how their classes worked and the beginning of skipping classes would begin. Most of the professors didn’t care if students showed up to every class. They just cared that papers were turned in on time and tests were taken. Every now and then there would be a professor that demanded attendance at every class, especially if the classes were mainly lectures.

Leslie looked at her printed out schedule. She only had one other class. It was a class she was only taking for the extra credits. She put her schedule away and began walking towards her next class, but her mind was filled with thoughts of what Professor Horvath wanted to tell her the next day.

The rest of the day was uneventful and Leslie nearly forgot about her meeting with Professor Horvath the next day. She managed to find his office exactly at noon. The door stood open and she cautiously leaned her head in.

“Miss Witt, come on in.”

Leslie walked into the nearly empty room. The only thing inside was a desk, a single filing cabinet, and a bookcase. The walls were barren and a layer of dust covered everything.

“Wow. You basically live here, right?” Leslie joked.

Professor Horvath smiled and looked around the room. “I prefer working from home, myself.” He held his hand out to an empty chair.

Leslie shut the door behind her and sat down, beginning to feel uncomfortable. The empty room was unsettling and cold.

Professor Horvath threw a book onto his desk and stared at her. Leslie slowly looked down and read the title. End of an Unknown Age by B. N. Smith. Her heart pounded in her chest.

“This is what you wanted. The real reason you spoke to me yesterday wasn’t because you were against us reading this book. You wanted to read it as soon as possible. Correct?”

Leslie looked at him.

He motioned towards the book. “Go on. Take it.”

She slowly reached for the book sitting alone on the barren desk. As her hand touched the cool cover, Professor Horvath grabbed it. He leaned close to her.

“I trust it will live up to your expectations, Miss Witt.” He released her and she pulled the book quickly to her.

She looked at the cover. The outline of an unknown city was behind the silhouette of two men facing each other. She smiled and stood. “Thank you, Professor.”

She turned to leave.

“Don’t be afraid of what you think,” he said as she opened the door.

Le Cirque de Disparaître Sample

The tent was filled with patrons, cramped close together in the smoke filled room. They ate their small bags of popcorn and nuts, watching those before them with wide eyes. Children cooed with excitement and grabbed the coats of their parents, pointing with their free hand at the sights in the center of the ring.

Yseult walked to the edge of the ring, sitting against a support beam for the tent, and watched the crowds with a blank face. She could see the awe filling their eyes at each act. Her violet eyes turned to stare at the next act preparing to go on.

Bipin stretched his muscular arms over his head, waiting for his cue to enter. His long black hair was braided down his back and one of the other acrobats quickly pinned it up into a tight bun to keep it out of his way. All he wore was white pants. His almond eyes were focused as he prepared his mind and body for what was to come.

The act before him finished and exited the ring. Bipin entered, surrounded by other acrobats, carrying chairs. At the center of the ring, a spotlight landed on a single chair, placed by the exiting act.

A loud cough and snort next to Yseult caught her attention. She turned her head to see a blonde haired man with thin glasses sitting against the support beam next to her. His dark coat was wrinkled from sitting on the ground and his eyes blood shot. A bottle in his hand was empty and his hair stood on end. His eyes rolled to look at Yseult and a gruff laugh escaped his lips.

“Came to see how the new one fares, eh? Or does La Reine have you on a little errand?”

Yseult stared at the man with the same blank stare, not answering.

“Do you think I have her out here for you, Monsieur Hammond?” a deep voice spoke.

Yseult and the man, Hammond, look up at a tall woman. Her sparkling hazel eyes burn with a youthful light. Her body was lean, muscular, an athletic build that was only accentuated by the black and purple corset she wore. The matching jacket she wore covered her shoulders and the tail rested atop the ruffled back of her skirt. The front of the skirt was cropped shorter, ending halfway down her thighs. The high knee black heeled boots and black tights covered her legs. The gray in her brown hair was the only sign of her age and a black and purpled feathered hairpiece held the loose curls from her face. The strong jaw and pronounced cheekbones almost gave her face a mannish look, but it didn’t lower her beauty.

Hammond flushed at the sight of her, but anger quickly replaced the lust that filled his eyes. “Madame Géroux, always a pleasure to see you.”

“I wish I could say the same to you right now, but as I can see the drink still drooling from your mouth I will have to hold my tongue.”

“Drinking is the only way I can feel normal anymore, Madame. All because of you and this little circus of yours.”

Madame Géroux leaned her hip to the side and placed a hand on it. She smiled

“Yseult, come.”

Yseult stood and followed Madame Géroux away from Hammond. When they were safely out of earshot, Madame Géroux turned to Yseult. She held up a pin with a white feather attached. Yseult stared at the small item.

“It is time for Bipin to be welcomed into the family. You know what to do, Cerise.”

Yseult’s violet eyes changed to black. She took the pin from Madame Géroux. “Oui, Madame.”

Madame Géroux smiled and patted Yseult on the cheek. “Très bon, mon métamorphe.” She walked away, disappearing backstage.

Yseult returned her attention to Bipin in the center ring. A tower of chairs stood nearly twenty feet high. Standing at the top, Bipin held his hand out to the side. An acrobat using a long pole, held another chair up for him. Bipin grabbed it and balanced it on the top of the tower. Another chair already waited for him when he placed his hand out and he grabbed it. He angled the chair and, with the chairs balancing precariously, he placed both hands on the chair, one at the top back and the other at the edge of the seat. His arms tensed and he slowly raised his body until he was in a handstand at the top of the tower.

For a moment, no one made a sound or breathed. Bipin took a deep breath and slowly raised a hand. The chairs shook slightly and sharp intake of breaths was heard in the audience. Bipin spread his legs and turned his head to look at the audience. At that signal the audience exploded into applause. Bipin calmly returned his hand to the chair and lowered his body down to a standing position. He held both hands out to the side and the applause grew louder. He began dismantling the tower, handing the chairs off to the acrobats below. He took one last bow once he reached the ground and the audience leapt to their feet and cheered their amazement.

Yseult moved to the side of the entrance to backstage. Bipin ran towards her, but before he could pass she reached a hand out to him. He stopped and walked to her.

With a movement as fast as a snake strike, Yseult plunged the needle into Bipin’s arm. He jumped away from her, but blood already trickled down his arm from the tiny wound. Yseult looked at the pin and the white feather changed to red. Her black eyes met Bipin’s confused face.

“Madame Géroux would like to see you to discuss your permanent addition to Le Cirque de Disparaître,” Yseult spoke in fluent Mandarin.

Bipin answered her in his native tongue. “I’ve passed her test then?”

“You have.”

“I’m ready.”

Yseult lead Bipin backstage, past many acts preparing for their turn. They exited the main tent and walked passed the smaller tents housing animals, families, and other things. At the back of the circus grounds was a purple and black tent. The door was made of intertwining cloths and Yseult stopped in front of it.

“You must go in alone. Take this.” She handed the feathered pin to Bipin and held several of the curtains to allow him entrance.

Bipin nodded his head and, taking the pin, entered the tent. Yseult dropped the curtains and moved to sit against a tree, waiting.

An hour passed before Bipin emerged from the tent, followed by Madame Géroux. She patted his back and spoke to him quickly in French. The wonder in Bipin’s eyes brought a smile to his lips and he thanked her in Mandarin. She motioned him away and he quickly headed for his own tent.

“Yseult,” Madame Géroux called.

Yseult stood and crossed to her, her black eyes returned to violet and she watched the older woman eagerly.

“I need Sévérine. It’s time to locate our next stop.”

Shifting uncomfortably, Yseult closed her eyes. When she opened them they were emerald green. “Madame Géroux, you must really be stumped if you need me. What can I do for you?”

“It’s time to find a new destination.”

“Oh? You’ve found everything here then?”

“Yes.”

“Your in luck, Madame. Since last we spoke a new signature has been screaming in my head.”

Madame Géroux stared at Yseult with wide eyes. “A new signature? Do you mean someone who…?”

“That’s right. I’ve located someone who may possibly be your heir.”

“Where?”

Yseult smiled. “The better question is when?”

A somber expression filled Madame Géroux’s expression. “I promised everyone we wouldn’t do another jump for a long time.”

“Well, it’s your circus. It’s your choice. Though if you don’t mind waiting, she isn’t going anywhere.”

“She? It’s a woman?”

“Not yet a woman. A young girl.”

Came Back Sample

“Kara. Kara, where are you?” Eric called. He walked through the small house. His eyes moved to the glass door leading to the backyard. He sighed and walked out through the opened door. “What’s wrong?”

Kara turned to her husband. Her green eyes were red from crying. “Nothing.”

“You hate the backyard. You only come out here when something is wrong.”

Kara hesitated. “I had the dream again…the memory again.”

Eric walked up to her and wrapped his arms around her. “It’s okay. It was only a dream. We’re safe.”

Kara looked at him. “I know that, but I have a bad feeling. It’s the same feeling I had that day.”

Eric laughed. “Calm down. We should get to work. One more day and then our relaxing vacation can start.”

Kara smiled and wrapped her arms around Eric, but her eyes couldn’t hide the worry.

 

 

 

 

Kara finished her final sale. She looked at her watch. 2:15 pm exactly. Eric would already be off from the bank. He was probably already waiting outside for her.

“All right, Kara. I have been sent to relieve you of your duties,” Jessica said, walking up to Kara. “Have fun on your vacation. Where are you and Eric going?”

“We’re going on a cruise. We’ve been saving up since the wedding.”

“Really? That sounds so relaxing!”

“That’s the reasoning behind it…Eric’s reasoning.”

Jessica leaned close to her. “Is everything good between you two?”

Kara laughed to herself. “Yeah. I’ve just been having…some stress lately.” She looked away from Jessica’s questioning eyes. Her face blanked.

Across from them moving between racks of clothes and crowds of people was a man dressed in weird black clothes. He looked at her and smiled.

“Kara?”

“I have to go,” Kara said.

She hurried away towards the man. He watched her move closer before turning and heading away. Kara picked up her speed. The man exited the store out into the blinding sunlight. Kara followed, slowed by two couples entering the store. She ran to edge of the street and looked around. She lost him. The man was gone.

A tightening in her chest pre-empts the tears that fall from her eyes. He couldn’t be here. If he was here, then they were here. But why would they be here? Why would they come back, unless…?

“Kara!”

Eric was across the street. He waved to her excitedly, but the excitement slowly drained from his face as he saw the tears in her eyes.

“Kara?”

The ground shook. People screamed and fell to the ground. The lampposts and stoplights swung wildly. Kara covered her head and kneeled to the ground. Eric does the same across the street. The sky darkened and soon it was dark as night. Automatic lights flickered on and the shaking slowed.

As the ground stopped, people stand and look up to the sky. They point with wide eyes. Eric slowly stood and stared at Kara. Kara slowly uncovered her head and looked up.

A black shield-like object covered the entire sky. Just inside a large ship was seen. It slowly moved directly over them. Kara stared at the ship with wide, terror filled eyes. She remembered. She remembered seeing the ship years ago.

A loud noise erupted from the ship. Those standing around covered their ears and screamed. Kara looked to Eric. Neither covered their ears. They knew the sound. It did not hurt their heads like the others. It did not hurt them because it was meant for them.

“Eric,” Kara whispered, but she knew he could hear her.

A light turned on over Eric. He looked up at the ship. Then he looked at Kara, but his eyes were slowly glazing over. He reached a hand out to her.

Kara slowly shook her head. “No.”

A second light turned on over her. She jumped away from it and hid under the store awning. She looked at Eric as he disappeared. She screamed and both lights turned off. The loud noise faded and those around her began to stand.

A hand grabbed Kara’s shoulder. She screamed and jumped back out into the opening. A light turned back on her and she rushed back under the awning. She looked at the man who had grabbed her. It was the man she had been chasing.

“Ryan,” she gasped.

The man leaned close to her. “We came back for you and Eric. They’re ready, Kara. But they need both of you to finish it.”

Kara pulled away from Ryan. “No, we escaped. They left.”

“You knew they would come back. You know why they came back.”

Hidden Danger

The silence of the cold night seemed alien. Trees appeared lifeless, barren of their leaves for the winter. Though even if there were leaves there would be no movement. No wind dared to blow on this silent night. Even the darkened house seemed to respect the night, settling softly.

A single owl broke the silence, its hooting echoing sadly through the cold night air. It signaled the beginning of the nocturnal world’s creatures venturing out for food. It doubled as a warning to those who live in the daylight to stay in hiding until the safety of the sun’s rays returned.

Missy’s eyes opened slowly. As they focused they wandered to her lone window. Sitting on a branch of the tree outside her window was the solitary owl. Its piercing yellow eyes met Missy’s bright blue eyes. The owl’s stillness emphasized the stillness of the night. With one sudden move the owl spread his wings wide and flew into the night air. With no other sounds to fill the night Missy could hear the beating of the owl’s wings until he was far in the distance. He was off searching for any small creature brave enough to wander out in the open. There would be no hooting or sound of beating wings when the owl chose to become invisible.

Missy slowly sat up and looked up at the full moon. Its light shone through the trees casting strange shadows onto the snow-covered earth. Though it looked barren there was an ethereal beauty to the land that brought a sense of calm to any who looked at it.

It was nights like this Missy treasured.

There weren’t many chances to view these kinds of nights in Southern California, namely because it didn’t snow there. At least, not where she lived. It also rarely became the kind of cold that made even the plant life become still. It was the kind of cold that could be felt at every intake of breath, as though the air was laced with ice crystals. Only in the coldest of winters could these nights be found.

Missy loved to tell those she knew in SoCal the reason she moved there was to escape the cold, but it was a lie. She missed the real winters. She missed the stillness it brought.

She stretched her arms over her head and arched her back, moving strands of her dark brown hair from her face. She looked over at her bed stand and was greeted by the glowing, red numbers of her alarm clock. 2 o’clock in the morning. She sighed loudly and fell back on her pillow, pulling her comforter close around her to keep as much warmth as possible. Her eyes looked over her moonlit filled room, lazily.

The vaulted ceiling shaped the room unlike most bedrooms. It was actually a second attic to the house. The previous owners wanted to change the attic into a room and renovated the walls and floors. When Missy’s family bought the house and they chose what rooms would be what Missy automatically gravitated to the attic room. The only tricky part about making it her bedroom was the ladder leading up to the room.

Though the previous owners had redone the room and even hooked up wiring for electrical outlets, they hadn’t changed the ladder. It had been very cheap wood, strong enough only to hold one person at a time. If Missy wanted a bedroom they needed to fix the ladder. With a little bit of work and money raising, Missy was able to convince her parents into buying a metal ladder with actual steps that were strong enough for two movers to carry furniture up.

Her room was still the same as when she left it. Her queen size bed took up most of the space. Next to the window was a tall chest of drawers.

On top of the chest were small sculptures. Some were made from clay, wood, or even metal. Missy made them all. They were characters from stories her grandmother used to tell her. The stories had been of a fantastic place with amazing people and creatures. The sculptures she made were of the founders of the main groups. She long forgot the names since her grandmother passed away, but she kept the sculptures as reminders of the stories she loved as a child.

A desk with a lamp held her computer and printer. The drawers were filled with miscellaneous writing utensils, office supplies, notebooks, and other items. A chair and a second table with a mirror was where Missy kept jewelry and other valuables. Sitting next to the table were Missy’s bags. She had two large suitcases and one backpack she had brought with her from SoCal.

She hadn’t expected her father’s phone call two weeks ago. It wasn’t unusual for her father to call, but he called at 4 in the morning. He apologized about the early morning call and promised it wasn’t due to any emergency. Missy had been comforted only a little and tried to ask as nicely as she could why he called her so early. She hadn’t expected even more her father would tell her he was calling on behalf of Bixby Deshler.

Bixby Deshler.

It was a name Missy never expected to hear again after she moved. She didn’t need her father to say anything more. She told him she’d find a flight home as soon as she could. It took her a week to get time off from her job at the bank and book a flight back home. She didn’t need her father to give her any information about what Bixby Deshler wanted.

She already knew.

 

 

 

Missy sat up from her warm bed and searched the floor for her slippers. She put them on and walked to her chest of drawers. She quickly pulled out some clothes and changed out of her pajamas. She put on thick leggings and a white long-sleeved undershirt. She pulled on a gray skirt and a second long-sleeved button up shirt. Then she put on a black puffy vest and a scarf. She grabbed a hat, gloves, and her favorite coat. She walked over to her table of jewelry and opened a small, decorative wooden box.

Inside was a single necklace. A beautiful green gem on a long piece of silver reflected the moonlight. The gem was twisted as though it were blown glass, but the natural cracks and discolorations only showed it to have been naturally shaped.

The necklace belonged to her grandmother and she gave it to Missy when she turned nine after her mother’s death. She told Missy the necklace had been passed down in her family generation after generation. Now it was Missy’s to keep and, eventually, give to her own daughter.

Missy placed the small wooden box in her pocket, keeping the necklace safe inside. Then she grabbed her backpack and, after putting her computer and power chord in it, placed it on her back. She searched the floor for her boots. When she found them she carefully and quietly opened the door to her room. It was easy to be quiet opening the door since it was separate from the ladder steps, but she didn’t have to worry about lowering the ladder. Since it was only she and her father, she was able to keep the ladder down all night. This meant she only had to be careful to not fall down the ladder in the dark.

She made it softly down the ladder and she quickly walked down the flight of stairs to the ground floor. She opened the front door and put on her boots. She took off her backpack so she could put her coat on. Then she put her backpack back on and grabbed her purse by the door. She went outside, carefully closing the door behind her.

The cold air made her breath catch in her throat, but after taking a moment to adjust to the thinner air, Missy walked out to the end of her driveway. She looked back at her house surrounded by tall trees. It was dark and still, like the night. Memories of her childhood rushed through her mind. It was nice to be home. Even if it was for a reason other than to visit family or relax.

Missy sighed, her breath coming out as a white cloud. She turned and walked down the sidewalk away from her house. She passed other homes, each as dark and silent as the next.

The neighborhood had stayed the same. Most of the families had lived in the same house for generations. It wasn’t easy to leave, not for these people. If they did finally decide to move it was only to another part of the neighborhood.

It wasn’t a bad place to live. Just boring and monotonous. Some of the teenagers thought of themselves as renegades and caused occasional trouble. Mostly they drove on lawns, knocked over mailboxes, stole lawn decorations, and so on.

Missy stopped at an intersection and stared down at a cul-de-sac. She looked around until she spotted a sign. Plain Run Circle. She began walking down to the end of the cul-de-sac. At the end was a path leading further down. Missy followed this path down to the docks.

A man-made lake was in the middle of the many connecting neighborhoods. When Missy’s family bought their house it had come with a boat slip. It was to this slip she walked. She put her backpack and purse down and walked to the end of the dock. She had to be careful with the fresh snow on the wood not to slip. She made it to the edge and stared out across the ice-covered water.

There was no ice where the dock touched the water. It had been broken when Missy walked onto the dock. She kneeled down and took off her glove. She placed the tips of her fingers into the freezing water. When she had been younger she would never put her fingers or her feet in the water.

One day during a hot summer she and a friend had been playing in a nearby creek that led to the docks. When they reached the docks they noticed a fishing line tied to one of the dock’s poles. There was only one person who ever fished off of the docks. He was an older man who lived in one of the houses along the shoreline of the lake. He was always fishing off the docks. He had a small Yorkshire Terrier that wore a pink bow on her head.

Missy’s friend  noticed something was caught on the fishing line and dared her to pull it up. Missy, not wanting her friend to think she was scared, quickly pulled on the line. A giant, giant to two small girls at least, snapping turtle appeared out of the murky water, snapping and thrashing. Both girls ran away screaming. Since then she never swam in the lake again.

Missy laughed to herself at the memory and pulled her hand from the water. She put her glove back on and stood. She looked up at the night sky. Clouds were moving in, blocking the moonlight. Flying across the sky, Missy could see an owl. She guessed it was probably the same owl from the tree outside her window and turned to leave.

She stopped when she saw the lone figure standing in the middle of the ice further out in the lake. She was surprised to see anyone else awake, but even more surprised to see someone standing on the ice. It may have been thick enough to stand on in some places, but it was still dangerous to stand on in the middle of the night and alone.

Missy debated yelling out to the figure, but he walked away before she could decide. She watched him for a while longer then turned back to her bags.

Gareth Sample

“Are you sure you’re okay? You’ve been looking a little nervous since you got here,” Harper asked, leaning close to Gareth. “You don’t have to be here if you don’t want to. I know it brings up bad memories.”

Gareth nodded his head and picked up his clipboard. “I’m fine. Don’t worry.” The feeling in his head grew stronger.

“Okay, but I’m going to keep an eye on you anyways.”

Gareth grabbed the back of tools and smiled as he left the through the side of the barn yet to be built. His eyes trailed the line of stones leading towards the dirt road and the feeling in his head changed to singing. He stopped walking and the smile faded from his face. The singing echoed in his head and he could almost see His eyes staring at him from an unseen place hidden beneath the rocks.

“Gareth?” Harper called from the entrance of the barn, worry thick in her voice.

Gareth heard something to his left and suddenly his vision cleared. He could see where everything used to stand. The two lines of stones used to be walls leading to the doorway of His home. But the home above was only a façade to protect what lay beneath the earth. He stared down and could see passages spreading like veins through the ground. One led far to the left where the small pond at the head of the creek sat.

Sensing the change in Gareth, Harper dropped her tool and ran for him. “Gareth!”

But she wasn’t fast enough. Gareth dropped the tool bag and clipboard and took off at a sprint. The singing in his head had now changed to His voice telling him where to go.

Find me, Gareth.

Gareth leapt what was left of the rock wall and tumbled down the hill beyond. He nearly rolled right into the creek, but managed to scramble to his feet and bolted up towards the pond. Harper’s screams behind him were drowned out by His voice.

Find me and bring me back.

The pond appeared before him and Gareth slowed his pace as his eyes searched for the secret entrance to the passage, but the cleared vision was gone. He stared at the large pipe sticking out of the side of the hill. Black sludge dripped from it into the pond turning the water a nauseating brown with a matching smell.

Gareth waded into the pond and searched, his eyes scanning every inch beneath the disgusting brown water. He spotted something hiding in the muck and dove his hands in, grasping for it.

Arms wrapped around him and pulled him roughly from the water. The sudden attack caused him to flail his legs sending large waves of water into the air. He struggled, hearing His voice fading as he was pulled from the pond.

“Gareth! Calm down! It’s us!” Harper screamed.

Gareth twisted in his captor’s arms and faced Jamison, his face pale and eyes wide. Black sludge had splashed onto his face from Gareth’s ferocious splashing. Jamison threw Gareth to the ground in front of Harper and glared at her. “I told you he shouldn’t have come. It’s still affecting him.”

“He was fine. Something must have triggered it.”

“Yeah, being here! He needs to leave.”

Gareth stared up at his two friends and fear filled him. He couldn’t leave. He had to find Him. “No! I need to stay! I won’t run off again. I’m sorry. I just thought I…saw something.”

“What did you see?” Harper asked.

Jamison huffed angrily. “He’s lying. He’ll say anything to stay. I’m sorry, Harp. We tried, but he can’t be trusted here. He needs to leave before he does something that puts all of us in danger.”

“What danger are you thinking of, Jamison?” Harper demanded.

“What if the next time he runs off it’s while he’s holding a power tool and he drops it on someone?”

The singing grew in Gareth’s head as the two argued and he looked back into the pond. He could see it now. The entrance was there, beneath the murky water. There was no handle or obvious opening. But there must be a way in.

“Then we don’t give him a power tool. He can stay with me and manage things. I’ll keep him in line.”

“And when he runs off you’ll tackle him this time?”

“Yes.”

Gareth’s eyes searched the pond and he saw it. A small line of wire buried in the mud. Find me, Gareth. Reaching his hand for the wire, a small smile formed on Gareth’s face. He’s almost there.

Hands grabbed Gareth and pull him to his feet. “We’re heading back and if he does anything else, it’s on you, Harper.” Jamison shoved Gareth ahead of him and Harper followed in silence.

 

 

 

“Gareth, did you hear me?” Harper asked.

Gareth’s eyes rolled up to meet hers. “Sorry, what?”

Sighing with a mixture of frustration and pity, Harper held her hand out. “Could you hand me the staple gun? Once I finish this we can go. Jamison’s waiting in the truck and I don’t think he’ll stay much longer. So if you don’t want to walk home, hand me that staple gun.”

“Right.” Gareth grabbed the staple gun and handed it to her. He stared at her back as she reached up to staple. Her hair pulled back into a ponytail bounced and he could see the sweat forming on the back of her neck.

Find me. Bring me back.

Gareth could see Him. He’s waiting for him. Gareth had to go to Him.

“Gareth?” Harper held the staple gun at him. “Sorry, could you hand me the hammer? I’ve got to hammer in some of the staples. I told Jamison we needed an air staple gun. The hand staple guns never get them all the way in.”

Gareth took the staple gun, his hand brushing Harper’s hand. He paused and the staple gun fell to the ground. Harper turned to him, worried that he’s having another episode. Instead, she sees him staring at her.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

The singing in Gareth’s head changed and a new feeling filled him. He carefully put the tool bag down and pulled Harper down from the stepladder. Confusion filled her expression and her eyes darted around.

“What are you doing, Gareth?” she asked.

Gareth moved close to her, staring in to her eyes. He leaned down, hovering his lips over hers. He could feel her body tense against him. Her breathing picked up and Gareth closed the small gap between their lips. He could feel Harper pull away slightly, but then her arms wrapped around him and pulled their bodies closer.

Find me, Gareth. Bring me back.

Gareth gently led Harper to the wall until her back was against it. He grabbed both sides of her head in his hands. He pulled away from her and her eyes opened. Staring into her eyes, a strange smile formed on his lips.

Suddenly, Gareth slammed Harper’s head into the wall, knocking her unconscious. Her body slumped, but he carefully laid her on the floor instead of letting her fall. He stood and walked out of the barn. He stared at the remnant of the wall and headed for the pond.

He grabbed the wire buried in the mud and pulled it. The ground trembled and a tube appeared at the center of the pond. The top opened, revealing a ladder heading deep down into the earth. Gareth crossed the pond and climbed into the tube. As he climbed down the ladder the top closed and he felt the walls shake around him as the tube sank back into the pond.

After a short climb, he reached the bottom and lights automatically turned on. The hallway was bare, empty. Gareth walked forward and followed the hallway for several minutes before reaching a large room.

At the center of the room was a large machine. The screens were dark except for a single line of text. Gareth approached and stared at the text.

Bring me back.

Gareth’s hand moved on its own, knowing exactly what to do. He pressed several buttons and the machine turned on, low hums growing in intensity and the sound of machinery deep in the walls moving grew. The screen in front of him brightened and a slot opened. A tray moved out and a strange thing sat on it. Gareth took the thing and stared at it. At one end was a needle and a thick cable connected a second piece. He twisted the needle and the cable grew warm.

Bring me back.

Gareth raised the thing and stabbed the needle into his temple. A bright light filled his vision and he felt his body collapse to the ground before everything went dark.

Errol

Rain.

There hadn’t been rain in months, but of all nights for the sky to release a sea’s worth it had to be this one.

Errol pulled his cloak about him tightly, trying desperately to keep warmth from seeping through his armor. He laughed at the absurdity of the idea. If the metal couldn’t keep the heat from escaping, what good would the thin, falling apart fabric do? He longed for the fire filled rooms of the inn he’d been spending the past two weeks in.

Some would say God was having a laugh at his expense, but the truth was he saw the signs of the rain long before it hit. What chased him from the inn hadn’t been a desire to leave, but a need to. The people could only stand having him there for two weeks and that’s longer than normal. They were a forgiving town, but only until his usefulness ran out.

He smiled at the thought. His usefulness ran out? They’ll be praying to the old gods for his return long before they realize it’s too late to call him back. They’ll have to wait a whole year before he ever plans to return this way.

It’s why he did this work. There was always plenty of it. He may clean out a town, but soon they’ll be asking for him again. It’s kept his purse and his belly full for this long and he had no plans to stop anytime soon.

“You’re probably enjoying this, aren’t you, Squall?” Errol said, patting the neck of his horse.

A loud snort and rough shake of a head was his response. Laughing, Errol wiped the water from his eyes. His hood was already soaked through. When he reached the next town he’d find a tanner to make him a new leather hood. Luckily he had the perfect skin for it thanks to his work in the town long behind him. He’d also need to buy a wool cloak. The weather was only going to get worse the further North he rode.

The next town, he’d only stay long enough for the tanner to work. He couldn’t wait too long or else the coming snows would make the cross through Feilor Mountains impossible, even with a horse like Squall.

Thunder rumbled in the distance. Cursing, Errol realized the storm was becoming worse the further on the road he went. But as he watched the clouds they moved lazily overhead. More than likely the storm would continue through the next day. He’d have to find somewhere to camp soon. A cave would be preferable, but he couldn’t remember if there was one nearby.

“How’s that for irony, Squall? We’ve ridden this way for years and I can’t remember what’s even between the last town and the next. Should we stop or pray for a miracle?”

Squall picked up her pace, answering the latter. Never one to argue with a horse, Errol urged her on. The rain fell harder as the timing between each thunder grew less and less. Lightning flashed in the distance, lighting the mountains far away.

An hour passed as the rain made it difficult to see, even with Errol’s well-tuned night vision. The lightning preceded each thundering clap and only once did Squall jump at the noise, having been bred to fear very little. To her credit, Errol felt fear shoot through him at the same clap, but once the following rumble fades, he realized why.

There had been a scream mixed into the booming sound. He slowed Squall and listened, his eyes searching the few trees to the side of the road. After a quick succession of lightning flashes, a long roll of thunder rose in volume before a second boom hit. As the boom faded, Errol heard it.

A woman’s scream came from the right.

Clicking his tongue, Errol kicked Squall’s sides and she immediately leaped into a gallop, leaving the muddy road behind. The few trees are revealed at each flash of light, but Errol had no trouble leading Squall around them. The scream became clearer now that he’s listening for it. It wasn’t one of terror, a sound he’s used to hearing, but one of immense pain.

Easily finding footing even in the tall grass, Squall got them closer and closer to the screams and at the next flash of lightning Errol saw a cave appear amongst the hills. He urged Squall faster and the great beast eagerly obliged, seeing a dry place from the rain.

Reaching the cave as a bolt of lightning hits nearby, Errol only slowed Squall to keep her from losing her footing. He dismounted as soon as they entered the cave and removed his hood, revealing his shaved head. A small fire projected two shadows on the cave wall. A man and a woman huddle together.

The woman was on her back, her legs apart and face red and sweating. She grasped the man’s hand tightly, turning her knuckles white. The man held her in his other arm, whispering encouraging words to her. They hadn’t heard Errol or Squall’s approach due to the rain and thunder.

“You’re going to be fine, Shayla. The rain’ll be stopping soon and we’ll get to Darenworth. Just hold on a little longer,” the man cooed into the woman’s ear.

In response the woman’s breathing grew ragged before a scream grew from the very depths of her. She leaned forward over her large belly, her free hand clenching at her dress.

“You’re wrong about the rain,” Errol said, making the man jump in fear. “The rain won’t be stopping for maybe another day.”

“Who are you? What do you want? We don’t have anything valuable, please, just leave us be,” the man pleaded.

Squall shook, water flying everywhere, some droplets hitting the man and woman. The woman’s eyes locked onto Errol and widened with fear, but another wave of pain caused her to moan loudly.

Walking closer, Errol’s eyes quickly surveyed the woman before locking onto the man. “We need water, now.”

“What?”

“Water. Do you have any supplies?”

Startled, the man shook his head. “When Shayla started having the pains I grabbed only an extra pair of clothes and money for the doctor.”

“There’s a small pot in the saddlebags. Grab it, two towels, the hunting knife, and fill it with water.” Errol held up a hand at the man, whose mouth was open to speak. “Rain water will be fine. When it’s halfway full bring it back and boil the water. Hurry, the baby is coming whether you get it or not.”

The man stumbled to his feet and headed towards Squall who’d found a small patch of dried grass to munch on.

Errol moved in front of the woman, Shayla. He locked eyes with her and held his hands so she could see. “This is going to be an odd thing to hear from a stranger, but I need to take a peek below to see what’s happening with the baby. You can trust me or we can do this the dangerous way.”

Breathing quickly, Shayla thought only for a moment before nodding her head. Even with the next wave of pain already seizing her she managed to squeak out, “Have you done this before?”

A wide smile filled Errol’s face as he gripped her skirt in his hands. “Never in my life.”

 *           *           *

What little light could break through the thick storm clouds did little to brighten the world. But it mattered little to Errol. His eyes could see well in the day or in the dark. The darkness of storm clouds changed nothing.

He stood at the mouth of the cave, washing the blood from his hands, and towels. Even if he managed to clean all the blood and other fluids from them he was going to buy new ones as well as a new cloak.

Once his hands were clean he grabbed the pot, no longer filled with just boiling water and ventured out a good distance from the cave. He dug a small hole in the ground and dumped the bloody mess in. The rain hitting the leaves of the trees filled the air and the sound of snapping twigs grew more frequent.

Errol paused in his work a moment, listening intently. He took a deep breath in, releasing it slowly. The smell of blood was strong even with the rain beating down on him.

Covering the after birth as fully as he could with the muddy ground, he cleaned the pot before returning to the cave.

Sobs and gasps echoed against the walls, as well as a third sound. A tiny sound, so small it couldn’t even make an echo. Finishing, Errol placed the soaking towels on two rocks to dry and the pot upside down on the floor. Turning to Squall, he realized she’d made her way towards the couple. The horse lowered its head tentatively, sniffing curiously. Errol walked up and sat beside the couple, gently nudging the horse’s head from the tiny bundle in Shayla’s arms.

Shayla was still a little pale and sweat remained on her forehead. Dark bags under her eyes showed her exhaustion, but otherwise she was filled with new energy. The man, Derrick, Errol had learned as they worked, held his wife with one arm and waggled a finger at the bundle of cloak.

The baby girl cooed softly, her hands and fingers reaching out into the new world before her. Her tiny tongue pushed out from between her lips, a new sensation for her. Her eyes remained closed, not yet ready to take in the sights. One small hand gripped the fabric of Errol’s cloak tightly as she drifted off into a short sleep.

“Thank you,” Shayla whispered, forcing Errol to look away from the tiny newborn.

Crossing his arms over his chest, straining the leather of his armor, Errol shrugged. “You’re only lucky I was riding close enough to hear the screams. Now that everything’s settled down, I have a few questions.”

Derrick’s eyes widened with a mixture of his exhaustion and slight annoyance. “What kind of questions?”

“Nothing too personal. Just wondering how you got this far in the middle of a storm? I doubt you walked the whole way, considering.” He motioned to the baby.

“We had a horse, but when the thunder and lightning became worse he took off. I was barely able to get Shayla off before she was thrown. Shayla knew about this cave from when she was a girl,” Derrick said.

“It was better than trying to walk the rest of the way. We thought the storm might pass quickly,” Shayla added, a rosy tint filling her cheeks. “Praying more, actually.”

“When it didn’t clear up I thought about making a run for the town, but I couldn’t leave her alone.”

“Why not stay home? How far are you from the town?” Errol asked, already knowing the real answer.

“The doctor in our town died during a recent…attack. The next closest doctor is in—”

“Darenworth,” Errol finished for him. “I came from Darenworth. You’re still half a day’s ride even in perfect weather. You should’ve stayed home.”

Shayla glanced at Derrick and he took one of her hands in his. “We were afraid to do it alone. This is our first and the last woman in our town who did it without a doctor died along with the child.”

“Though, you said you’d never done this before. How did you even know how?” Shayla asked.

“Good to know every possibility in my line of work. That includes the human as well as nonhuman.”

A silence grew between the three, interrupted only by the baby’s tiny coos. Realization filled Shayla and Derrick and the fear returned to their eyes.

“You’re a Majister,” Derrick choked out. His arm around Shayla squeezed her and his new daughter closer to him.

Errol laughed, a sudden sound that caused the young couple to flinch. “I haven’t been called that in these lands for years. You aren’t originally from here, are you?”

“I was born in Stoven further North.”

Stoven? Errol thought, but aloud he said, “You’re a long way from home. Why did you settle here?”

“I found a reason to stay.” To emphasize, he moved closer to Shayla.

Eyeing the new mother, Errol leaned his head to the side. “So you’re the local.”

Shayla nodded. “Lived in Darenworth most of my life, but left when the church was built.”

“Moved or forced out?”

“Moved before they could force my family out.” The tiny bundle moved with sudden energy and the soft coos grew into agitated cries. Shayla did her best to try and calm the baby, but she only cried louder.

Errol leaned forward to get a better look at the babe. “She’s hungry.”

“How can you tell?” Derrick asked.

“Wouldn’t you be hungry after such a struggle?” Standing, Errol takes a firm hold of Squall’s reins. “I’ll give you two a moment to rest.”

“You’re leaving?” Shayla asked.

Shaking his head, Errol lead Squall further into the cave. “With the stench of fresh blood filling this cave and the storm still raging, it wouldn’t be very courteous for me to abandon two unarmed people and their newborn, child.”

“What do you mean?” Derrick asked.

Errol found a thick root boring through the wall. He loosened the earth around it enough to tie Squall’s reins to it. Then he lifted the heavy leather cover to reveal a selection of weapons.

“I heard them outside when I buried the after birth. They’ll trace the scent back here soon.”

He grabbed a long blade, a broadsword with runes carved into the metal. Strapping the blade to his back, he maneuvered it to a comfortable position that wouldn’t interfere with his arm or shoulder movements. He pulled on a pair of thick leather gloves and strapped several jars of strangely colored liquid to his belt.

“What’s coming?” Shayla asked, holding her baby close to her breast. The child’s cries grew more agitated, but she soon quieted.

Finishing his preparations, Errol walked across the cave towards the entrance. He stopped only when he saw the baby girl’s eyes watching him curiously. They were bright eyes filled with wonder at the first sight of a new world and he felt for a moment the baby knew his very soul.

The wonder soon passed as hunger pains reminded her of her true desire. Her face twisted and scrunched as a wail rose from her ready to use new lungs. The sound echoed through the cave and out into the storm and to the couple’s fear and Errol’s expectation howls answered.

“Wolves? Out in a storm?” The fear in Shayla’s voice was tinged with rage and Errol could hear the willingness to fight in her. But there’d be no need. Not this day.

“A small pack, but a starving one. More dangerous than a large well-fed group. I would suggest moving further into the cave. If something happens, Squall won’t mind taking you far from here.” Errol drew his broadsword, easily holding the heavy blade with one hand. In his other, he fingered the jars on his belt, waiting to decide which to use.

The baby’s cries grew louder, enticing the howls and growing sound of growls. Errol’s eyes searched the cave opening for any sign of movement, but the wind of the storm made it difficult to see what’s beast and what’s a trick of the eye.

“Feed her. Once she latches, she’ll be silent and, if we’re lucky, won’t realize what’s happening,” Errol hissed at the two. “And for gods sake, get away from the opening.”

Derrick quickly climbed to his feet and helped Shayla to hers. As they moved towards Squall, Shayla slipped out of the top of her dress to reveal a breast. She held the wailing babe up, finally silencing the cries.

Dark shadows danced along the border of the tree line outside the cave, but Errol was able to count three wolves. He lowered his center of gravity and gripped his sword eagerly. He opened a jar of red liquid and held it in front of him, waiting.

“What’s her name?” Errol asked as one of the shadows to the far left crept closer. As only the sounds of the storm and the approaching pack filled his ears, he wondered if the couple even heard him. But soon a tiny reply rose from the darkness behind him.

“Malhia.”

A smile crept across Errol’s lips. The old tongue for rain. A fitting name.

The shadow creeping ever closer suddenly leaped at Errol. Expecting this, he threw the red liquid in an arc before him. As soon as the liquid hit the earth flames erupted. They created a wall between Errol and the shadows, but he wasn’t planning on hiding behind them. The flames did what he expected them to do.

The wolf that attacked immediately leaped back while the others hesitated. In that moment, Errol jumped through the flames, his armor protected him from burns and swung his large blade at the closest wolf. The force behind his swing was strong enough to cut the animal’s head from its body, throwing the head towards its fellow pack mates. The wolf’s body stood a second longer then collapsed to the ground, blood pooling at its neck.

The other two beasts bared their fangs, their hunger greater than their fear. They knew weaker prey was just beyond this strange man. They only needed to get past him and there were two of them and only one of him. The two beasts split, one going to the left the other to the right.

Errol watched both beasts already planning his counterattack. The animals were weak from hunger. There were only a few methods of attack they’d attempt and desperation lead to mistakes.

The wolves snapped their jaws at Errol, waiting for an opportunity, but Errol only smiled. This would be over quickly. A snap of thunder shook the earth and lightning lit up the forest. Errol braced for the attack he knew would come.

The wolf to his left leaped at him, jaws open wide, while the wolf to his right ran for the cave opening behind him.

Neither reached their goals. Errol surprised both beasts by going after the one to the right, swinging his broadsword upwards to bury the blade into the wolf’s torso. He continued the swing, throwing the dying animal at its pack mate. The wolf to his left, startled at missing its prey doesn’t realize until its mate slams into it what’s happening. Errol grabbed another jar of red liquid and threw the entire thing at the wolves. It broke against the dead wolf spilling its contents on both animals. Fire engulfed both bodies and the cries of the dying beasts filled the night.

Cleaning his blade of the small amount of gore, Errol returned to the cave. He sighs as water puddled at his feet. He hoped no more creatures attempted to find food or shelter. He didn’t like the idea of fighting in the rain again.

He headed further into the cave, noticing the fire had gone out while he fought. The little daylight barely reached into the cave, but he saw no need to make a new one. He reached the small family and saw all three asleep, exhaustion beating out the danger of being torn to shreds. Or perhaps they felt safe enough with Errol.

Squall tugged angrily at her still tied reins and Errol crossed to her. He gently ran his hands over her, calming the horse enough for him to untie the reins. She shook her head before nudging her snout against his hand in appreciation. She sauntered towards a small pool of water and drank as Errol sat opposite the couple. He laid his sword at his side and leaned against the wall of the cave.

His eyes, easily able to see in the dark, scanned the couple for any signs of injuries or possible illness. Running in the rain while pregnant wasn’t the smartest decision, but with sleep finally being allowed the two looked well.

Movement in Shayla’s arms drew Errol’s eyes to tiny Malhia. She was still awake and her eyes seemed able to find him in the dark. As they stared at one another, Errol felt the same unnerving feeling he had the first time. Those tiny, new eyes saw into his very being and he wondered whether the girl would be afraid.

To his surprise, the child smiled and a soft laugh, her first laugh, echoed across the cave to his ears. Errol felt his heart pound in his chest. Such a pure sound, he felt almost ashamed he’d been the cause.

The baby girl, Malhia, slowly closed her eyes and burrowed against her mother’s chest, falling asleep.

Glancing towards the opening of the cave, Errol thought carefully. Perhaps a year was too long a period between work hunting. If he started sooner he could go farther south into lands few of his kind dared travel.

Or he could find time to stay in certain towns longer.