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.

RT Samples

November

The winter cold had settled in as many had predicted. It was going to be a cold winter, one of the coldest. There was even talk about possible snow in the lower elevations.

Sara and Alice were safe from the cold inside of the small café, their winter coats on the back of their chairs. Alice stared out the window at the people walking by, wrapped up in coats, scarves, and hats to guard against the cold.

“Alice!”

Alice looked at Sara. “What?”

“Were you even listening to me?”

“No, sorry. What were you saying?”

Sara sighed. “I was telling you about that jerk off bartender who wouldn’t give me the time of day! I swear, I’m glad I didn’t give him a tip. With his attitude he’d be lucky to serve a girl like me!”

“What did he say?”

“Nothing! That’s the point! He asked me for my order and then nothing! I sat there an extra twenty minutes trying to get his attention so we could talk!”

“Was his manager there?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Well, it would explain why he didn’t spend too much time with you. He didn’t want to get fired.”

“That’s no excuse to ignore a gorgeous, single woman!” Sara exclaimed.

Two men walked into the coffee shop in heated discussion.

“Can you believe what they’re saying on the news? Those people must be reading too many conspiracy websites. Storms with freak lightning causing massive power outages? Did you see anything like that last week?”

“No, they’re probably getting confused with Nevada weather. They always have freak storms like that.”

Alice laughed to herself. “Can you believe some people? I thought I was bad about missing things.”

Sara nodded. “Yeah, those people on the news have made mistakes before, but nothing of this scale. They’re saying it was one of the worst black outs in years. I thought news channels had people check the stories before they went on the air.”

Alice stared at Sara confused. “What? No, I mean those guys missing the storm last week. They must have been out of town or under a rock.”

“Alice, what are you talking about? There wasn’t any storm last week.”

“Yeah, there was. Are you making fun of me for finally being aware of what happened around me? I know I can be a little out of it sometimes, but I remember the storm last week. Our house was without power for seven hours. We had to light each room with candles. I nearly burned my curtains down. Remember?”

Sara raised an eyebrow. “Alice, don’t tell me you believe what those reporters were saying. Are you trying to impress me by acting like you know what they’re talking about? Well, I caught you in the act.”

“I’m not acting anything! Why don’t you remember?” Alice asked, standing.

“Alice, don’t make a scene!”

Alice looked around and saw eyes staring at her. They were eyes people used to stare at crazy people. She sat down in her chair, her face flushing red.

Sara rested her hand on Alice’s shoulder, reaching across the table. “It’s okay, Alice. Maybe you dreamed about the storm because you heard it on the news.”

Alice stood and put her coat on. “I’m going home. I need to pick something up before I head back to work.”

Sara stood. “Do you want me to come with you?”

“No. I need some time to think.”

“Don’t think too hard, Alice. When you do you start to get all weird and sci fi nerdy on me.”

Alice grabbed her purse. She threw her empty coffee cup away and waved to Sara. She opened the door and was greeted by a rush of cold air. She zipped her coat up and headed for her car. As she drove she turned on the radio and listened as the DJs joked about the “bogus news story” and asked listeners to call in if they had a comment. All the callers said the same. There was no storm. Alice even changed to the news station and listened as they broadcasted an apology to the morning’s news saying the story must have been tampered with just before airing.

As soon as she walked through the door of her house she ran to the pile of newspapers by the back door. She searched through them, throwing paper all around her.

She stopped, scanning the paper in her hands. It was dated the second of November, last Wednesday. On the front page in large letters the headline read:

 

Freak Lightning Storms Black Out Southern California For Nearly Ten Hours

 

There it was in black and white text. There was even a photo of darkened houses and the lightning.

Alice lowered the paper. Why was she the only one who remembered it? Had she just read it in the paper and made it all up in her head?

She looked at her watch. She had to get to work. She was going to barely make it as it was. She cleaned the newspapers up and ran out the door.

 *           *           *

It was a slow day, one of the few of the month. Glori’s Department Store was one of the biggest department stores in the country, beaten only by Macy’s and Sears. Thanksgiving and Christmas were coming. That also meant sales and crowds. Alice hated working when there were large crowds, but those were the days with better pay. She would work every sale day. She was lucky since Harlequin Insurance gave her Thanksgiving and Christmas off. She worked all day at Glori’s and made one of her largest paychecks.

“Alice, would you mind restocking these clothes from the fitting rooms?” Alice’s floor manager asked.

Alice stared at her. “That’s Megan’s job, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but she still hasn’t come back from her break.”

She took the clothes from her manager. “Right, just these?”

Her manager nodded her head to a rack of clothes. “Those as well. Thank you, Alice!”

Alice began to restock the clothes. It was the third time in the past week she had to pick up on Megan’s slack. She finished the pile of clothes in her hand and moved to the rack of clothes. She stared at the clothes in disbelief. All were men’s clothes. She would have to take the rack all the way to the other side of the store and then take the elevator down to the first floor. That meant she wouldn’t be able to ring any customers up while she was restocking, which meant she would probably not meet her quota for the day and would have to work twice as hard tomorrow.

“Thanks, Megan,” she said under her breath.

She began her long trek across the store. She hated the sound the wheels of the rack made on the hard floor. Anyone inside of the store could hear the racket and they stared at her as though she were making it harder for them to decide whether to buy a size smaller than they actually wore or accept they weren’t their ideal size.

“Hey, Alice. Don’t tell me, Megan’s late from break again?” a worker said as she walked past.

Alice smiled. “How could you have possibly guessed that?”

“It’s a gift.”

She reached the elevator and didn’t have to wait long before the doors opened. She pulled the rack in behind her and pushed the button with the number one on it. The doors opened on the first floor and Alice was greeted with the sound of screaming from across the store. She could hear Jerry, the security for the store yelling angrily. He had probably found a couple of teenagers shoplifting.

She pulled the rack out of the elevator. As soon as she started walking down the main aisle a man nearly crashed into her.

“Sorry!” he yelled back as he exited out the main doors.

Jerry appeared from behind a display with male mannequins wearing suits. His uniform was rumpled and sweat stains were growing under his arms. “Alice! Did a guy just run through here?”

She pointed to the doors.

“Shit! He’s quick!” Jerry rested his hands on his knees and struggled to catch his breath.

“Shoplifter?”

“I don’t even know. Megan just started screaming and told me to stop him.”

“Megan? What was she doing down here?”

Jerry laughed. “She claimed that guy tried to kidnap her.”

“And you believe her?”

“It doesn’t matter if I did, he took off running as soon as she started screaming. My instinct took over.”

Alice raised an eyebrow. “Did she say anything else before your instincts told you to run after a random person that Megan claimed was trying to kidnap her?”

“She did mention something about seeing him attack a family while she was walking back from break, but the family in question denied that…At least, I think they did. I sort of caught bits and pieces as I jogged past.”

Alice looked out the doors, but the man was gone. “Well, guess we’ll never know without the actual culprit. I’ve got to restock these clothes since Megan is busy getting kidnapped.”

Jerry waved at her as she passed. “See you later, Alice.”

“Bye, Jerry.”

Alice tried to restock as quickly as she could, but an occasional shopper would distract her, asking where they could find the restroom, a specific type of clothing, or even the nearest Starbucks. She finally finished restocking and headed back to the elevator. Before she could reach it her manager appeared.

“Thanks again, Alice. Jerry and Megan told me what happened and I made sure Megan got points for her lateness. Since you were down here I appointed her to the register upstairs. If you wouldn’t mind, could you stay down here and just be on the floor? Jerry said you got a look at the man who supposedly attacked Megan and it would be helpful if you could keep an eye out for him. Is that alright?”

Alice squeezed the rack. “Yeah, that’s no problem. I assume my quota for the day won’t be changed, however?”

Her manager grimaced. “I’m afraid not, but don’t worry. They’re hoping for a busy day tomorrow so I’m sure you’ll have no trouble making it up.”

Alice’s manager took the rack and left her standing in the middle of the main walkway. She sighed and walked the floor.

It was true the man had nearly crashed into her, but as she thought about it she couldn’t remember what he had looked like. She couldn’t even remember his hair color. Even his voice had sounded so common she wouldn’t be able to pick it out again. It was just an excuse. Megan had probably been hysterical when she finally made it back upstairs. She probably argued that if she worked the floor there would be a chance for the man to attack her again.

Alice wouldn’t complain though. It was fine. It wouldn’t be the first time she would suffer because of someone else. She just had to work twice as hard tomorrow and make up for today.

Thanks, Megan.

Ruins

People milling around the crowded town square paid attention only to what they themselves were doing, ignoring everyone and everything around them.

They ignored the beautiful pieces of art placed around the square, except for one. The most recent addition, a beautiful fountain titled Waiting Pool wasn’t like other fountains. It didn’t have a tall centerpiece with water flowing down neither did it have water shooting from below into a tower of naturally made shapes.

The main piece was a simple two-foot high wall, about one foot thick, in a circle with a diameter of about twenty-five feet around. The water continuously poured over the side of the walls into the grated ground below where it circulated through a cleaning system and then returned to the pool.

Students and children sat around the edge of the fountain, allowing the water to flow over their bare feet as they relaxed in the sun or worked on papers.

Sitting on a bench facing Waiting Pool, Digory Clark stared intently at the screen of his laptop. He typed on his computer quickly, working fervently to finish his term paper. The week was almost gone and if he didn’t finish on time he would be in deep shit with his history professor.

He wasn’t even a history major. He took the class because the subject matter interested him. That didn’t matter to his professor and he’d been worked to the bone every assignment.

Taking a break from the bright screen, Digory leaned back on the bench and rubbed his eyes. He couldn’t stare at the white screen and black letters any more. After his eyes readjusted to the sunny world around him, he peered across the fountain at the building straight ahead of him.

A short walk from the fountain stood the natural history museum. Though its façade appeared older, the building was actually a new addition to the city. The intent was for the museum to host traveling exhibits. But the city wasn’t quite popular enough for the larger exhibits and, in order to still be profitable, the museum resolved to house one exhibit donated by an anonymous, local donor.

The exhibit included unknown artifacts found in excavations around the town. Ruins were discovered that suggested humans had been living in the area hundreds of thousands of years ago. However, symbols written on several of the artifacts had never before been seen.

At the edge of the square stood one of the main contributions to the museum. A ten-foot high, pyramid made from large blocks of stone. Carvings of strange symbols were on one side. It hadn’t necessarily been contributed so much as the town had been built on top and around it.

Twelve years ago, while digging deep in to the earth to begin construction on a new building, the construction crew uncovered the pyramid and the carvings.

The mayor declared it part of the town’s history as many in the community fought to stop the construction company from destroying the amazing find. Construction ceased immediately and archaeologists were flown in to study the pyramid.

Digory, ten years old at the time, had been one of the few who witnessed the pyramid’s discovery and allowed to move close to touch the old stone. When his fingers traced the symbols he knew in his heart what he touched was something magnificent and his interest in history ignited.

The stone of the pyramid was smooth, even after being buried in the earth for thousands of years. Three main carvings were on the front. The first was a rectangular carving in the center. Lines inside the rectangle most likely formed words. But the language was unrecognizable. Above the rectangle was an eye staring up to the sky. On either side of the rectangle were identical carvings of lines forming a spiral shape.

Surrounding the pyramid was a gate to prevent anyone from getting to close or tampering with it.

For a short time, during the exhibit’s premiere, the town hosted some of the biggest names in history and science studies, even a few celebrities who had a large interest in the subject. Most came to prove that the discovery was bogus, but when they studied the artifacts and the pyramid closely, they were all left baffled. The symbols could be found nowhere else on Earth.

Digory remembered that time. The large crowds and annoying questions the media would ask random people of the town. The excitement died down quickly, but occasionally a fresh-faced grad student would find his or her way to the town and try to find anything someone may have forgotten to earn their immediate fame.

Though he lived his entire life in the town and enjoyed some of the attention it garnered from the discoveries, Digory missed the rural escape it had once been. It was now growing into a business capital, nearing the change to city status as more and more businesses found a niche in the relatively unknown town. Because of this, Digory had chosen to major in Business instead of History. He knew it was the better choice, but his interest in history kept him even busier than his business classes.

And that was saying a lot about the class he was frantically trying to finish a term paper for. The professor, Janice Kade, had been a historian who came to the town to study the artifacts. In order to remain close to the artifacts after open studies were discontinued Kade had taken a teaching job at the local college.

Now she had taken Digory, against his will, under her wing, claiming to see herself in his youthful intrigue of history. Digory couldn’t understand the similarity. They were the exact opposite of each other, not only in appearance and sex, but personality as well. She was loud and boisterous, tending to say things in a way that wasn’t controlled or fully thought through. She spoke her mind a little too often according to those who knew her. And everyone knew her, she made sure of that.

Ringing from his pocket brought Digory back from memories and he pulled his cell phone from his pocket. Looking at the number, a distressed groan escaped his lips. The number on the screen was a familiar one. At least, it had become increasingly familiar over the past year.

Answering, Digory placed his phone between his shoulder and ear so his hands could be free to return to typing. “Hello, Professor Kade.”

“Hello, Iggy. How are you today?” Janice Kade’s voice spoke a little too loudly over the phone, causing Digory to not only wince at the nickname, but also the ringing in his ear.

“Professor, my name is Digory. I already told you I don’t like it when you call me Iggy.”

Kade’s laughter sent a wave of annoyed anger through Digory’s body. “Don’t be like that. I think it’s a cute nickname.”

Focusing more on his writing, Digory had a feeling this conversation wasn’t going to lead to anything important. Kade had started having an annoying habit since she first met Digory. She called him about the most miniscule of things.

Usually, they were to ask if he had heard about the new discoveries reported in the news. Sometimes he lucked out and had a chance to catch them. But most times he had no clue what she was talking about and she didn’t seem to care either way. She was happy to have someone to call for every little thing.

“Professor Kade, if this is about some obscure little discovery about fossilized feces or something, I don’t have time for it today. I’m trying to finish my term paper for your class and on top of that, I have three other classes that I have projects and papers due by the end of this week, too. So if this little phone call isn’t about you canceling the paper, I don’t really want to hear it,” Digory said, allowing frustration to enter his voice.

Silence came from the other line and he was almost one hundred percent sure Kade had hung up on him. He listened carefully and caught the sound of her breathing. She was still on the line.

Not a good sign. The only times Janice Kade ever became silent like that was when she was furious. Digory happened to be the main one who caused her to become furious. So he knew what was coming.

Quickly grabbing his phone, Digory held it away from his ear.

“You listen to me, Digory Clark! You have no reason to be angry with me about trying to keep you up to date with the great scientific discoveries of our time. Did you know when I was your age there were never as many great new discoveries in such a short amount of time as this? Your generation and those younger than you need to get your lives together and be more aware of what’s going on in the world outside of your own little problems! As for your term paper for my class, congratulations. You’ve just added five hundred more words to yours. Now then, besides your obvious desire to make your own life harder, I would like to know how you are feeling today,” Kade yelled.

People walking by Digory stared at him with wide eyes. Some tried to avoid being noticed, but it wasn’t every day they heard someone being chewed out via a phone call. Especially by someone who could project it across the square.

Slowly moving the phone back to his ear, in case Kade had more to say, Digory lowered his head to avoid the glances of others. “I’m feeling great, Professor. How about yourself?”

A loud sigh through the phone stung his ear. “I’m doing very well. Thank you for asking.”

“Are you serious about the extra five hundred words?”

“Of course I am. And let me tell you, I’m very excited to find out what you’ve decided to have as your topic.”

Digory rolled his eyes and continued working on his paper. He’d already predicted Kade would get angry at him for something before the due date and already planned to write more than everyone else.

“Don’t get your hopes up too much. I’m sure you’ve already read many papers on my topic,” Digory said, trying to focus most of his attention on his computer.

Kade made a curious sound. “Really? You think so?”

“I’m pretty confident, yes.”

“Would you mind telling me your subject?” By the way she asked, Digory knew she was smirking.

“Shouldn’t you wait until I hand it to you?” Digory wasn’t sure whether or not he wanted her to know.

“Come on, Iggy.”

Raising his eyes from his computer screen, Digory thought carefully about it. He wasn’t worried she would hate the subject. In fact, it was the exact opposite. He was sure she would love his subject so much she would try to help him find more information, even if it meant illegally obtaining it.

“Fine, but you have to promise you won’t go crazy and try to help me.”

A shocked gasp preceded Kade’s answer, “What do you mean? I’ve never done anything like that my entire teaching career.” She didn’t even try to sound convincing.

Everyone in town remembered when Janice broke into the museum for extra study time for one of her students a couple years before. She had been arrested and had to spend two days in jail.

The following year, the owner of a business who she believed had built over a suspected area where numerous artifacts were rumored to be located placed a restraining order on her. She claimed the business had found the artifacts, but continued to build over them to prevent being forced to cease construction.

The idea had filled her head after a student’s proposal for a paper. Kade had taken the student’s proposal as truth. But it was later revealed that the business in question had been the one who had been forced to move after the pyramid was discovered. They had already had many archaeologists and lawyers search the current location to insure they didn’t build over any other artifacts.

“Iggy, are you going to tell me or not?” Kade asked, snapping Digory out of his thoughts.

Rubbing the bridge of his nose, Digory sighed loudly. “Are you going to promise?”

“I promise I won’t go crazy and try to help you.”

“Very good, Professor.”

“Unless you really need it,” Kade grumbled under her breath.

Pointing his finger at the phone, even though he knew she couldn’t see it, Digory leaned forward. “No. Even if I really need it, you aren’t allowed to help me.”

“I am your professor, Digory Clark. If I find that you need help in order to complete your education, I will do it.”

“If you want to help, it can only be in the form of gathering information from books you already own and providing that information to me. No other forms of help will be accepted.” Digory tapped the phone for emphasis.

Kade groaned and even without seeing her face, Digory knew she was having an argument with herself. “Fine! I promise.”

“I’m writing on the pyramid in the square.”

Releasing a short, exasperated breath, Kade began whimpering as she fought to contain herself. After a few moments, listening to the painful sounds coming from Kade’s end of the line, Digory took a deep breath. “What do you want to say?”

“Nothing,” she gasped.

Digory saved his paper on his computer and slapped the laptop shut. “No, no, you have something you want to say.” If she didn’t spit it out she would only get angry with him for not asking her about it later.

“No, I promised I wouldn’t help.” Kade’s voice sounded strained.

Feeling his anger growing, Digory clenched his free hand into a fist. “You promised not to go crazy and help me. If you already have information you can tell me.”

“It’s just…the pyramid’s been so over written,” Kade said, releasing a large breath as she spoke. “I was hoping you would think outside of the box and try for something no one else has had a chance to write about.”

“I told you it was something you’ve already read.” Digory was annoyed that she was giving him lip even after he warned her.

“I know, but I thought you were joking.”

“I’m not a joker, Professor.”

Kade whined loudly. “Pick something else, Iggy! I’m sick of reading the same information over and over every year.”

Digory fell silent.

He had chosen to write on the pyramid because of what he had experienced the day he was allowed to touch it when he was younger. The pyramid was the reason he even bothered to take the few history classes he had, including Janice Kade’s class.

So many people warned him not to take it because she was insane, but he wanted to learn the town’s history and get a chance to explore the other artifacts around town. He wanted to know the secrets of the civilization that had built the pyramid. He wanted to learn the pyramid’s secret. There had to be more to it than the carvings on stone.

“Professor, you told us to write about something we had interest in. That pyramid is the only thing I want to write about. It’s the only artifact that has been uncovered that I have felt this strongly about. Even if it is the same information you’ve read before I don’t think you’ll have read it the way I’ll write it. Please, let me write about it.”

The silence on the other end of the line was deafening. Digory waited, patiently, not sure what Kade would decide.

Sudden yelling at the fountain drew Digory’s attention momentarily from the phone and he looked up. A crowd had gathered in front of him, blocking his view of the cause of the commotion. He stretched his neck up as high as it would go to try to see over the large crowd, but more people moved in front of him.

“All right,” Kade’s voice answered. “I’ll allow your topic. But there had better be at least one thing in your paper I haven’t read before or else you won’t get anything higher than a C on it.”

“I understand. I need to go, Professor.”

“Yeah, you always have to go when I call. You’re avoiding me.”

“If I was avoiding you, I wouldn’t have answered.”

“True. Talk to you soon, Digory.”

“Goodbye, Professor.”

Hanging up his phone, Digory quickly, but carefully, placed his laptop in his bag and his phone in his pocket. He lifted the strap over his head so that it crossed his chest and stood. Quickly crossing the short distance between him and the crowd, he gently forced his way through to the front. Those around him glared at him, but the yelling from the fountain soon grabbed their attention again.

When he reached the front, Digory’s eyes stared at the scene with shocked, wide eyes.

Home By Friday Sample

Mary Harrison walked into her kitchen and proceeded to wash her hands making sure to use about half the bottle of soap. A small alarm went off announcing the time as 1:00 PM. Mary stopped scrubbing her hands and leaned against the sink.

Sunlight poured in through the window in front of her reflecting off the water in to her eyes. Shadows of insects fluttered past every now and then. A butterfly landed on the windowsill and crawled up the glass. Its shadow slowly traipsed across the foamy water then onto Mary. As it reached the top of the window it started to fall. It fluttered its wings furiously trying to stay on the glass to no avail. After a few seconds it finally fell but catching itself with its wings flew off.

Mary stared at the soap bubbles being pushed around by the running water and eventually being pulled down the drain. Lingering soap on her hands dripped down the side of the sink making a long frothy line on the porcelain sink.

Mary jumped as the phone rang. She took a moment to take in what happened and then ran to the phone.

“Albert, did you find her?” She was met with silence on the other end.

“I…I’m sorry, Mrs. Harrison? This is Alexis Marshall from AMVETS. I just wanted to confirm with you that we will be stopping by on Monday. Is that all right?” Alexis’s voice came over the line tinny and high-pitched. Mary’s heart sank and she grabbed her forehead.

“Yes, yes, that’s fine. Thank you.” Before Alexis could say anything else Mary slammed the phone down.

She stared at the phone longingly and yet she didn’t want it to ring again. As she stared at the soundless phone she felt her shoulders begin to tremble.

Her heartbeat quickened and she felt her breathing start to become short gasps. She grabbed her shoulders with her hands to try and stop them. As she tried harder to stop them they became worse. Her legs began to feel like jelly. She slowly lowered to the floor still clutching her shoulders.

Tears formed in her eyes and her instinct was to hold them back, but they wouldn’t be held back. They rolled down her cheeks continuously. The gasps coming from her throat were now sobs. One of her hands moved up to her forehead and balled into a fist. She leaned her back against the cabinets and banged her head against them.

Her cries echoed in the empty house causing her to cry harder. She could feel her heart tighten in her chest and she gasped between each cry. Her tears fell into her open mouth leaving a salty taste.

A strange ringing echoed over and over in her head. Mary looked up and saw a red light flashing on the phone. She blinked and a few tears finished traveling down her cheeks. She quickly clambered to her feet and grabbed the phone.

“Hello?”

“Mary, it’s me.” Albert’s voice made Mary catch her breath.

“Albert…did you find her?” Mary clutched her necklace. There was a silence. “Albert? Did you find our little girl?”

“Mary, don’t worry. I’m sure she’s fine.”

“They have no idea where she is,” Mary said letting the sob into her voice. Albert sighed on the other end.

“They thought they could track her with her credit card, but she hasn’t used it since she filled the car up that morning. They have a PB out with her car type, color, and license plate number, but if she’s in another state they say it’ll take longer.” Albert’s voice was strained with exhaustion. Mary was silent.

“We should have told her the news in person. She needed us and we were thousands of miles away.”

“Mary, calm down. We had no idea she would do this. No one could have seen it.” Mary sniffed and tried to compose herself.

“Where do they think she’s going?” she asked surprised at how controlled she sounded.

“They think she’ll be heading back home, but without proof from her credit card spending they aren’t sure. Honey, please just stay home in case she does show up.” The doorbell rang. Mary gasped loudly. “Mary, what is it?”

She leaned around the corner. She slowly walked to the front door. She peeked out the side windows. The face of her neighbor greeted her. She waved and then held up a bag of cookies.

“It’s Jane, Albert. I’ll call you later.”

“All right, love you.”

“Love you, too.”

“Don’t worry, Mary, they’ll find her.” Mary hung the phone up and opened the front door.

Dragon Graveyard

Wednesday.

Not only the day of the week, but the name of a restaurant located in the center of the city. It opened ten years ago, but was still one of the most popular restaurants in the city.

Sitting at one of the high tables in the bar area was a man with fiery, red hair. He read the small placard at the center of the table, sipping his beer lazily. Leaning back in his chair, he checked his watch.

1:17 pm.

She was late. Again.

About to read the dessert special for the fifth time, his eyes caught sight of a woman wearing shades walking towards him. As she reached the table, he stood.

“Bout time you got here. I thought you were gonna ditch me.”

The woman took off her sunglasses and put her purse on the table. “Trust me, Dennis, if I wanted to ditch you I would’ve called.”

They hug, smiling happily.

“It’s good to see you again, Berry,” he said, squeezing her tightly.

“You say that every week.” She broke the embrace first and both sat.

“Is it annoying for an older brother to miss his younger sister?”

“Annoying is too strong a word.” She eyed his beer. “I see you couldn’t wait twenty minute before drinking.”

“Twenty minutes? I ordered this as soon as I set foot through the door. In fact, this is my second glass.”

A waiter appeared carrying a tray of appetizers and a second glass of beer. He placed the drink in front of her and the appetizers in the middle of the table.

“Glad to see you made it, Beryl.”

Smiling at the waiter, Beryl tapped the warm plate of food. “How long were you waiting to bring this out, Steve?”

“Not too long. Your beer’s still cold.”

“Thanks, Steve,” Dennis said.

Steve left the two alone. Beryl took a sip of her beer and released a relieved breath after swallowing.

Dennis watched his sister with a smirk. “Long day?”

“Something like that. I might be graduating this year, but that hasn’t meant less work. I thought senior year of college was supposed to be the easiest?”

“Depends on where you are, what your major is, and who’re your professors.”

“Guess I struck out then. Anyway, it’s your turn to start the traditional Wednesday Catch-Up Talk at Wednesday.”

Dennis grabbed a potato skin and held it high. “By the wrinkles on this potato skin, I call to order the weekly Wednesday Catch-Up of the Cowen Siblings!” He took a large bite of the appetizer.

Beryl kicked him under the table. “Smart ass.”

“Hey, now we’re official.”

“How was work A today?”

“Same old, same old. Couple of school groups so a lot of noisy kids running around. The simulator broke down again and as usual we don’t have any money in the budget for repairs. So, the head of the museum is trying to have me sweet talk the Council for extra spending cash.”

Beryl nearly inhaled her beer. “God! Why doesn’t he grow his own pair of balls and ask himself?”

“That’s what Maddie told him. Next thing I know, he’s calling me from the Council’s room. Apparently, they’re going to review the request some time next week.”

“In other words, humor the head until he forgets.”

“Oh, we got a new exhibit to replace the Dragon Egg Exhibition. An anonymous investor donated it. It’s supposed to have something to do with the Colored Cotta Dragons or something. Even Gran doesn’t know what it is exactly.”

Beryl’s eyes widened. It was rare for their grandmother not to know something about the Cotta Dragons. Especially a mysteriously donated exhibit about them. “She approved it?”

“You know Gran. She’s curious about things she doesn’t know about as much as things she does.” Dennis ate another potato skin before continuing. “We had a break-in last Friday. Happened during operating hours. Someone broke into the storerooms under the museum. They didn’t steal anything, but we found books scattered everywhere. It was the weirdest thing. None of the books pulled had anything to do with each other. The police think the culprit did it so we wouldn’t know what he or she had been looking for.”

“That’s exciting. Work B must’ve been blah in comparison.”

Falling silent, Dennis glanced out the windows of the restaurant to the green mountain range. “I heard you turned down Greg Fisher’s proposal.”

Glaring at him, Beryl held her beer close to her mouth. “He asked me on a date, he didn’t propose anything.”

“But you turned him down.”

“When did we get on the topic of my love life? It’s still your turn to talk about your week.”

“Yeah, well, I work with him at work B, remember? That’s how I found out. Berry, when are you going to go out with a nice guy?”

“When I want to. Can we please talk about something else?”

He stared at her before sighing, knowing he wouldn’t get any farther with her. “Fine. Work B. Same as usual. We worked at the new site for hours and only found dirt and rocks.”

“Really old dirt and rocks.”

“Doesn’t matter how old, dirt and rocks are still dirt and rocks. My superior’s thinking of moving onto a new site next week if we don’t find anything by Saturday. Everyone’s stressed.”

“Move? You’ve only been at that site for a month. It took three months for you to find anything at the lake site.”

“We told him that, but he still insists on the deadline. My thought is the Council’s giving him trouble since technically we aren’t supposed to be digging within a hundred yards of the Dragon Graveyard Cave.”

“And your superior happened to start digging before you got the proper clearance, right?”

Dennis laughed. “It’s like you know him.”

“Between the stories you tell me and the ones Gran tells me about him, I feel like I do. Why didn’t he wait for the Council’s go-ahead? They weren’t going to say no.”

“He thinks…he thinks there’s something big under the graveyard. Something big enough to change all we know about dragons.”

“That’s not too difficult. We don’t know much about them now.”

Dennis leaned closer to her. “I think he’s on to something.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”

“Look, so far what we know about dragons is based on fossils, drawings, outdated books, and what the Council chooses to tell us. Even we, who lived with a Cotta and were exposed to a dragon for all of our lives, can barely say we’ve scratched the surface of what Dragons are. Aren’t you at least curious to find out why there are no more wild dragons?”

Beryl stared at her brother. She had always been curious why the only dragons left were those the members of the Cotta had. It didn’t make sense. The Dragon Graveyard Cave had the bones of thousands, maybe even millions of Dragons, ranging in size. Yet, the Dragons of the Cotta all remained at the size of house cats. Then there was the question of where do the Dragons of the Cotta come from? When a Cotta changed so did the Dragon. Where did they come from?

Dennis looked at his watch. “I’ve talked long enough. There’s just enough time for you to talk about your week.”

Beryl groaned. “Speaking of Dragon mysteries, my Dragon Lore professor has no fucking–”

“Language.”

“Sorry, my professor has no freakin’ clue about any of it. I swear, the University picked the only Ph. D. who couldn’t even tell you what a Dragon looks like let alone the stories written about them. I know more than he does, but when I correct him he fails me.”

“You’re failing?”

“No, but he isn’t making the class easy for me.”

Dennis laughed. “You know, a lot of professors don’t like being corrected about their own subjects. It makes them feel incompetent and no longer the superior voice in the classroom.”

She waved her hand at him. “Whatever, besides that class everything else is smooth sailing. I had another fever Sunday. Oh, did you know Jillian and Lee are engaged now? He asked her during the last performance of his band at the Black Fire Club.”

“Hold on, you had another fever? That’s the fifth time this month. Did you go to the doctor?”

She took a deep breath. “No, I didn’t.”

He grabbed her hand. “Berry, this is serious. You’ve been getting these fevers a lot recently. You have to get it checked out. What if it’s something serious?”

“Like what? Hmm? Like stress? I’ve just been stressed out lately and it’s messing with my immune system. That’s all. Once classes and finals are over I’ll be back to my old healthy self. Besides, I can’t afford to miss any more classes.”

“Miss any more? What have you been doing that has caused you to miss classes?”

“Nothing.”

His eyes widened. “You’ve been sneaking to the Black Fire Club to see Kingdon, haven’t you?”

She fought to keep her face from turning red. Kingdon was a bartender at Black Fire as well as the bass guitar player in Lee’s band.

“Why do you have to ask that way?”

“He’s too old for you, Berry!”

“He is not!”

“Yes, he is!”

“He is not! He’s only two years older than me!”

“He has a girlfriend!”

“Yeah, but it’s a horrible relationship! She’s only into him because Lee’s band is actually good! When the next big band starts playing she’ll move on to a new bassist!”

“That’s a little too desperate sounding coming from you. But that’s not the point! You can’t miss classes just to go talk to him or stare at him from afar or whatever you do!”

“Den! We have such great conversations together! I have more in common with him than that over-bleached bitch!”

A family with two kids glared at the two. They both smiled apologetically and sat in silence while they finished the appetizer plate.

“Speaking of over-bleached,” Dennis said after gulping down the last of his beer, “How’s Sal doing?”

Beryl shrugged her shoulders. “Okay, I guess. She’s slowly getting over you, but it’ll be a while before she moves on and starts dating again. What an effect you have on women.”

“I feel terrible, but it wasn’t going anywhere.”

Beryl noticed the time on a TV over the bar. “Unlike you. You should get back before the head of the museum finds out you forgot to kiss his ass before you left.”

He smiled. “Don’t worry. James is covering for me until I get back. We both have soft lips.”

“Just go. It’s my turn to pay anyway.”

They both stood and gave each other a hug. As he pulled away, he placed a hand on her forehead. She quickly pulled away.

“You’re warm. Is it the same fever?”

“God, you’re just like mom. No, I’m just a little flushed from the beer, now go!”

He hesitated before leaving. She watched him until she couldn’t see him anymore then looked at the empty plate.

Steve appeared and started to clear plates away. “Would you like anything else, Beryl?”

Beryl looked at him and smiled. “Some ice water would be fantastic.”

“You got it.” Before he left, he handed her the bill.

Pulling out her credit card, she placed it in the plastic pocket inside the bill folder. Then she stared ahead, placing her head in her hands. A shiver ran down her spine, but the goose bumps that broke out on her arms left her feeling hotter than before.

Somewhere

Callie sat up, gasping. She looked around, but it was too dark to see anything clearly. From what she could make out, she was in a room with a door. Nothing else. No furniture, no windows, no one else.

She rolled onto her hands and knees, slowly feeling her way around the room. The floor was hardwood, she could feel each panel as her fingers searched for anything. She used the wall to help her to her feet and felt her way to the door. Grabbing the doorknob, she prayed it wouldn’t be locked.

It wasn’t.

Dim light revealed a hallway with other opened doors. She stepped out cautiously, searching for any signs of people.

Windows at the end of the hallway were pitch black and she walked towards them. Glancing through the glass, all she could see was complete darkness.

Not the darkness of night. The darkness of complete lack of light.

Turning away from the window, she swallowed a nervous lump in her throat and headed towards the opposite end of the hallway.

“Hello?” Her voice echoed down the hallway in front of her, but there was no response. “Is anyone here?”

As she reached the end of the hallway, a stairway appeared to her right. She looked down, but could only see a door waiting for her at the bottom. It was red, standing out from the brown walls and grey carpet. Grabbing the handrail, she descended the stairs.

The stairs creaked as she took each step. She watched the door with intense eyes, half-expecting someone to open it. The door stayed closed as she took the final step onto the floor.

Opening the door, she didn’t expect what she saw. She expected another hallway with more rooms, but what she found was similar to a room in a factory. Long tables surrounded by chairs created long rows of metal. A small kitchen was against one wall including two refrigerators.

Across the room was a second door with a long window next to it. Unlike the earlier window, light filled a large room.

Callie walked through the tables and chairs to the window. Placing her hands on the glass, she stared into the large room with confused eyes.

Catwalks ran across the immense cave, she could only assume it was a cave, making the large room reminiscent of a villain’s lair from old action movies. Lighting fixtures were built into the rock walls and hanging from the ceiling. On the floor were stacks of boxes ranging in sizes and numbers, creating a maze-like appearance.

She couldn’t imagine how large the cave actually was from where she stood. The catwalks went on forever, but all connected at one point or another.

Another large building was across from her. As she stared at it she thought she saw movement, but when she tried to find it again there was nothing.

“Where the hell am I?” she whispered, her breath fogging the window.

“Hey, you! What are you doing?” a voice called behind her.

Turning, she saw a small group huddled on the floor against the far wall. There were four of them, two men and two women. The women looked like sisters as they hugged each other tightly. The man next to them was a round man, his hair shaved and large gauges in his ears. A labret and eyebrow piercing completed the look along with the tattoos on his arms.

The second man, the one who had spoken, was an older man, wearing a business suit, but she noticed his shoes were missing. “Get away from the window.”

She stared t him with the same confused eyes from the window. “What?”

“There’s something out there, man. Get down,” the other man said, his voice cracking as he spoke.

Dropping to the floor, she crawled over to the group. “What’s going on? Where are we? How’d we get here?”

The man in the business suit laughed. “You just wake up?”

She nodded.

“Then you know about as much as us. We all woke up here. None of us can remember when or how we got here. We haven’t seen anyone else. Except for you.”

“Maybe she’s the one behind this,” one of the sisters said.

“Erin, be quiet,” the other said.

“What’s your name?” Business suit asked.

“Callie. Callie Dait.”

“Andre Brooks,” Business suit said. “Those two are Erin and Sandy Jackson and this is Freddie S. He won’t give a last name.”

“Why should I? We’re all going to die here, man.”

Andre glared at Freddie. “We aren’t going to die. We need to figure out where we are. Then we can get out of here.”

Callie glanced back at the window. “You said there was something out there. I guess that means you haven’t left this room?”

Sandy leaned forward. “We saw a shadow run past a couple hours ago. It didn’t look human. Since then, we’ve been hiding here.”

“What if there are other people out there? There’s another building across the catwalks. If we reach it and find other people maybe they’ll know what’s going on and help us get out of here.”

Freddie grabbed her arm tightly. “What if that thing out there wants to kill us?”

“Then it would’ve already. That door doesn’t have a lock.”

“Maybe it can’t open doors?” Erin asked hopefully.

Callie looked at Andre. “Why don’t you have any shoes?”

Staring at his bare feet, Andre wiggled his toes playfully. “I guess whoever brought us here got me before I could put them on.”

“Do any of you remember what you were doing before you woke up here?”

The group fell silent as they thought back.

“We were having a girl’s night at Sandy’s apartment. We finished out first bottle of wine and were about to eat some ice cream. I remember you walking into the kitchen, but after that nothing until we woke up here,” Erin said. Sandy nodded.

“I was leaving my buddies after a night of drinking and smoking. I don’t remember how far I got before I woke up here,” Freddie said, his hands tapping against his arms. “Thought I was having a bad trip at first.”

“I guess I was getting ready for work. Yeah, I was going through my sock drawer and that’s it. Next thing I knew I was here,” Andre said. He met Callie’s eyes. “What about you?”

She looked around the group and smiled. “I was getting ready to kill myself.”

 

Bitten Sample

Vera’s footsteps echoed through the halls as she ran, her breathing filling her ears along with her pounding heart. Shrieks in the distance made her jump and her grip on her gun tightened even though she knows it’s out of bullets.

Red and blue lights flashed wildly, creating strange shadows across the metallic walls. Signs and arrows on the walls flew by as she ran, but the lights made them difficult to read. Stopping to catch her breath, Vera read the closest sign.

“Hydrogeology, Hydrokinetics, Hydroponics…water labs? Shit!” Vera pulled out a flashlight and a small map. Her eyes searched the collection of papers. “That means I’m somewhere in the center and if I take the next left I should…should pass the Core Chamber.”

A sharp pain in her neck sent a shock through her. The flashlight fell to the floor and she slapped her hand to her neck. Blood from a deep wound quickly soaked her glove.

“Gotta keep moving.” She grabbed the flashlight and put it and the map away. She ran forward, taking the first left she saw. The hallway stretched on and on, but soon it opened into an enormous circular room.

The room was one hundred yards across and stretched high above and below. Every level of the compound could be seen. A faint blue light shone down from above, providing enough light to see. Vera wasted little time sight seeing and ran around the large circular opening. There should be stairs five hallways to the right.

If the emergency systems hadn’t locked them down.

Reaching the hallway, Vera paused grabbing her flashlight and peering into the dark stairwell. The doors were open and the stairs looked stable.

Roars echoed suddenly around the chamber. Vera turned and saw shadows moving on the other levels, drawn to her light. She turned back to the stairs only to see something large crash down from above, blocking the stairs.

Cursing, Vera ran towards a different hallway, not daring to stay long enough for the shadows to catch up to her. Even as her thoughts filled with keeping distance, she could hear them reaching her level. She turned down different hallways, attempting to confuse them.

“Vera? Vera, come in!” a voice called from her pocket.

Reaching into her pocket, Vera placed the small earpiece into her ear, feeling something wet on her ear and cheek. She realized the blood on her glove was still damp and she quickly removed it. She smeared blood down the beginning of one hallway and threw the glove as far as she could before turning down the opposite hall.

“Come in, Vera. Are you there?” the voice called again.

Vera tapped the earpiece once, activating the microphone. “Sam! Thank God you’re alive.”

“Vera,” relief filled Sam’s voice and a small laugh echoed in Vera’s ear. “You’re still…we found your crew. We thought the worst until your tracker suddenly showed back up on our scanner. Where are you?”

“I just passed through the Core Chamber on Level T, but I’ve got a group of them on me. I’m doing my best to shake ‘em, but not having very good luck.”

“But other than that you’re all right, right?”

Vera fell silent and her hand rose to her neck.

“Vera, you’re all right, aren’t you?” Sam asked.

“I… Shit!” Vera groaned in frustration as she hit a dead end. She quickly turned and retraced her steps back to the last hallway crossing. “Where are you, Sam?”

A brief pause before his answer made Vera aware he wouldn’t forget she hadn’t answered his question. “We found a possible exit back up to the surface, but its only access point is on the maintenance level of the entire compound. You just passed through the Core Chamber? Vera, you need to get down here.”

“All the stairs on this level are either locked down or destroyed. I’m making my way through the hallways, but I’m in unfamiliar territory and don’t know any other way down.” Vera swallowed a lump in her throat. “Unless I head back to the Core Chamber and try to climb down.”

“You wouldn’t make it down before they got you,” Sam interjected. He spoke quickly to someone out of range of his microphone. “All right. Vera, look around you for any sign with your exact location. We’ll see if we can find another way for you to get down here.”

Vera slowed her pace enough to read the next few signs. Her eyes locked immediately to one with large yellow letters and numbers. “Okay, here we go. I’m Level T Sector 45…”

“What is it?”

“This is strange. Beneath the Level and Sector it usually states the nearest stairwell. The last stairwell I saw was ST 25, but on this sign it says EX 60. What does that mean?”

“Yes!” Sam exclaimed happily. “We lucked out. Vera, follow those EX numbers. You have to get to T-45-1. The EX means there’s an emergency stairwell in that sector and you’re heading straight for it. The number indicates how far you are from it in meters. It’s one of the few stairwells that’ll take you directly to the maintenance level.”

“Sixty meters? Even if I make it to the stairwell, there’s no way I’ll make it all the way down to you. They’re getting closer!”

“You’ll make it. I know you will.”

Slowing her run, Vera placed her hand on her neck. “Sam, I have to tell you something…”

“It can wait until we’re out of here. Keep going until you reach T-45-1. The stairwell should be clearly marked. Be careful.”

Before Vera can respond the line cuts out. Strong emotions filled her and she slammed a fist against the wall. She stormed down the hallway, her eyes searching the walls for every sign.

T-45-55. T-45-54. T-45-53.

Running and running, the hallways blurred as she ran. The sounds behind her grew closer no matter how fast she ran.

Her foot slammed into something and she fell to the cold, hard floor. Quickly crawling to her feet, she glanced behind to see a body torn in half. The scraps of cloth on the floor belonged to a lab coat.

It must’ve been one of the many scientists and judging by how hard the body was when Vera tripped over it the person died hours before. But it might still give her a little more time. They didn’t seem to mind eating the dead.

Turning down another long hallway, Vera’s eyes caught sight of the next sign. T-45-44. She was making progress.

She heard roars from behind as her pursuers found the body. She pushed herself faster, trying to gain additional distance. She recognized the layout now. Every level was similar with small changes depending on the needs of the levels, but overall they ended up still being the same.

Reaching T-45-31, Vera stopped to rest. Her legs ached and her lungs burned. Sweat rolled down her forehead and her uniform clung to her body. She leaned against the wall and rested her head against the cool metal. The dead body wasn’t going to keep them busy long, but at least her neck wound finally stopped bleeding.

She dropped her gun and took off her bulletproof vest. The weight was only slowing her down and even if she had bullets, they were useless if she couldn’t see her targets.

Her neck stung as sweat rolled across the sensitive skin and Vera’s eyes teared up. What was she going to do? What was she going to tell Sam? How could she tell Sam?

Soft static came from her earpiece. “You have to keep moving, Vera,” Sam’s voice whispered in her ear.

Vera clenched her fists and opened her eyes. “Sam, I really need to tell you—”

“When you get here we’ll talk, but not until then. Keep moving.” The static cut out.

Taking a deep breath, Vera pushed herself from the wall and moved forward. Damage on the walls and doors showed the results of fighting. Burn marks from fire and bullets as well as long tears in the metal grew more frequent as she moved.

Turning a corner quickly, sparks flew at her from a loose cable. Vera barely managed to keep herself from running right into the live wire. She ducked low to the ground and passed safely beneath. She hoped if any were following the cable would manage to shock a few.

She didn’t know how long she ran, but soon her eyes caught sight of the signs. T-45-5. Rereading it to be sure she wasn’t delusional, Vera smiled with laughter. She could make it. She sprints down the hallway, her gasps growing louder and louder.

T-45-4. T-45-3. T-45-2.

T-45-1.

A lighted doorway stood open with arrows only visible in the emergency lighting pointing in. Vera quickly ran inside and searched the inside of the doorway for a way to close the door. She pushed a large red button and the door slammed shut.

Relief flooded her and, even though the stairwell was dark, she felt far safer inside than back out with the flashing lights. She reached out until her fingers found the railing and she peered down. Light from the bottom floor could be seen and she took out her flashlight. She leads with the small circle of light and began the climb down.

She was on Level T, which meant she had to go down seven flights to reach Sam and the others.

A slam on the door she closed made her jump and Vera hoped the door was strong enough to keep them out. The slam was followed by several smaller thumps and scratching. She quickened her pace down the stairs, passing two levels when a terrifying thought revealed itself.

The doors from the other levels were still open.

She quickly ran up to the two doors she’d already passed and pressed the buttons to close them, but a sound from above proved her effort useless.

The sound of clawed feet rushing down the stairs sent a shock of terror through her. She had no weapon and she still had five floors to go. She quickened her pace, but as she made it one more level down, something blocked her path. She shown her flashlight in front of her and saw something had blown the door and debris across the stairs. She couldn’t get past.

Gripping the railing, she quickly glanced over the edge. It was a clear shot down, nothing obstructing her. She risked a glance up and saw movement getting closer.

“This is a stupid idea,” she whispered to herself as she swung her legs over the railing, resting her butt on the top. She carefully turned herself around as the sound of growling and clawed footsteps grew closer.

Taking a few deep breaths, she pushed herself from the railing down to the opposite railing a level lower. She did it again, nearly missing and falling four floors, but her hands caught hold of the railings. A roar from above preceded the sound of something rushing past behind her.

Vera screamed as claws tore into her back and her grip loosened. She fell, readying her body for the impact of the concrete below, but the body of the creature that fell before her softened her landing. Judging from the screech it made when she landed, it had survived. Thinking quickly, Vera pulled out a knife and turned, stabbing the thing in the head, or what she hoped was the head with the light still too faint to see. It jerked once before falling limp and she sighed. She rolled off and stood, not realizing she’d rolled beneath the lower stairs.

Her vision blackened as she slammed her head into the concrete and she fell to the ground. Before falling unconscious, her eyes regained focus and she stared into the reptilian eyes of the creature that had been chasing her. She could see her reflection in its large golden eyes and almost thought she saw her own eyes mimic the beast’s reptilian slits.

“Shit.”

Then the world faded away.

 *           *           *

“It’s a Code Red Evacuation alert. Everyone up and at ‘em,” Sam yelled across the room.

As though to emphasize his point, alarms rang loudly. Dozens of bodies climbed from their beds and dressed. Vera was one of the first ready and hurried to Sam.

“What’s the cause? Gas leak? Fire?”

Shaking his head, Sam stood to the side to allow the others passage. “We don’t know for sure yet, but your father was throwing around the big ‘T’ word.”

Vera’s heart pounded and she leaned close to Sam so he could hear her whisper over the alarms. “Terrorist? Really?”

“We’ll find out soon enough. Let’s go, Vera.”

The world around her darkened, but Vera could still hear Sam’s voice.

“Vera. Come on. Wake up! You’ve got to wake up!”

Jerking awake, Vera stared up into Sam’s worried face. “Sam?”

Pulling her into a tight hug, Sam released a loud rush of air. “Thank God! I thought for a moment that thing got you. I saw the blood and was convinced you were dead.”

“Blood?”

Releasing her, Sam shone his flashlight to the floor. Vera saw the dead body she’d landed on before she spotted the small puddle of blood where her head had been. She raised a hand to her head and winced at a sharp pain. When she pulled her hand away it had blood on it.

“I should be dead,” she whispered.

“It’s not bleeding anymore. That’s from the puddle,” Sam said as he placed a hand on Vera’s head. He flashed his light at her and his eyes scanned the damage. “You banged your head pretty good, but the cut isn’t deep.”

Eyeing the dead creature, Vera placed a hand at her throat. “I don’t think there were anymore following me. But this bastard got a good chunk from my back.”

“Shallow cuts, as well. Come on,” He helped Vera to her feet, “we have to head to where the others are. They’ll be worried.”

Hesitating, Vera avoided Sam’s eyes. “I have to tell you something.”

He took her hand and led her out of the stairwell, her eyes briefly catching a glimpse of a sign with the word maintenance in large letters. “I won’t tell the others. If they ask, you got it when you fell down the stairs. It’s a scratch, nothing more.”

“But…” Vera trailed off, unable to find the right words.

“I promised your father to get you out alive. I’m going to keep it. That’s all I’m going to say on the matter.”

“Thank you.”

They hurried through the dark hallways. The maintenance level, unlike the rest of the compound had metal walkways and piping along the walls. Beneath the walkways were more piping and wiring with cement flooring beneath. The emergency lights were red and made it harder to see except for a lighted path along the edges of the walkways pulsating towards emergency exits.

Sam pulled Vera behind him, expertly navigating and ignoring the direction of the pulsating lights. Soon voices could be heard further ahead and he stopped, quickly turning to Vera.

“Let me cover up that…mark before we get closer.” He pulled some bandages and gauze from his pack and quickly covered the wound on Vera’s neck. “Don’t need them to see the damage.”

A sharp pain sent an involuntary twitch through Vera’s body. Sam flinched and jerked back, staring at her. Vera saw fear fill his eyes for a split second before Sam regained his composure. Her heart dropped.

Seeing how his reaction affected her, Sam grabbed her and pulled her into a hug. “It’s going to be all right. We’re getting out of here and we’re going to find a way to help you.”

Vera carefully raised her arms and squeezed Sam back. Her neck ached and she closed her eyes.

You’re mine, a voice echoed in her mind. Her thoughts filled with everything that happened since the first alarm sounded and tears threatened to form. She fought them back and pulled away from Sam.

“Let’s go,” she whispered, afraid if she spoke any louder she’d lose her composure.

Nodding, Sam took her hand and headed in the direction of the voices. Turning the corner, Vera could see at the end of the hallway seven people, two women and five men, standing around a door. One man and woman are dressed in regular clothes while the rest wore the same uniform as Vera and Sam.

Two of the men in uniform stood on either side of the door, struggling to open it. Vera recognized Greg’s vibrant red hair, made even more so with the emergency lights, as he rammed into the door. Allen searched the sides of the door for anyway to loosen it or dismantle it.

“Are you sure it’s a way out?” Vera asked.

“Well, as sure as we can be,” Sam answered.

As they approach, everyone in the group besides Allen and Greg look up at them. Erin, the other woman in uniform, gripped the small computer on her lap, the light from the screen lighting up her face. She smiled at Vera, relieved to see her alive. Dried blood on her arms and abdomen don’t appear to be from any wounds and Vera fights the urge to ask whom it belonged to.

“Look who finally decided to join us in the basement of horrors,” one of the men said smirking.

“Not the time, Jason,” Sam warned.

Jason shrugged his shoulders, wiping a trail of blood from a cut above his eye. “It’s not far from the truth. We’ve no idea what’s on the other side of this door. It could be a closet for all we know.”

“It’s not a closet, according to the map it’s an exit,” Erin said.

“What’s the situation with the door? Are we closer to getting it open?” Sam asked.

“When the emergency systems turned on all of the doors in and out of this place were sealed off.”

“We already know that, but why would the emergency exits be sealed off?”

“I was getting to that.” Erin held up her computer screen for everyone to see. “Every emergency system has its own set of rules and protocols, but there’s only two that seal off all emergency exits.”

Vera felt eyes on her and she looked towards the man and woman in civilian clothing. The woman’s eyes were glued to Vera’s neck.

“And they are?”

“Quarantine and…” Erin hesitated, “and Irreversible Contamination.”

“What?” Sam demanded.

“If this was simply a Quarantine System our codes would be able to open the emergency exits,” Erin continued.

“But?” Vera asked.

Jason threw his hands up in the air. “But our codes don’t do shit down here. Which means no one can leave unless the higher ups on the surface give the all clear or all biologics cease.” He laughed, covering the fear in his voice. “As someone once said in a similar situation: ‘Game over, man.’”

“That was a movie,” the other uniformed man said, his deep, monotone voice hiding any emotion or thoughts.

“Still the same situation. We’re fucked, Roy.”

“What happened to your neck?” the woman in civilian clothes asked suddenly. She walked towards Vera, never taking her eyes off the bandages.

“I was scratched when I fell four stories down a stairwell. And you are?” Vera asked.

“Kara and Jacob. They refuse to give us last names. We found them huddled under a table in the pharmaceutical labs,” Sam said. He turned back to Erin. “Is there a way to open the door via a programming loophole in the protocols?”

“Not unless you want to open every door in this building, giving those things a way out.” Erin wiped sweat from her forehead, leaving a smear of blood from her glove.

Kara stopped a few feet from Vera, her eyes still boring into the bandage on her neck. Vera tried to ignore the woman, but she could hear Kara’s breathing quickening.

“Or giving people a way in to be food for them,” Jason added.

“All we have is this door between us and freedom.” Sam watched Allen and Greg slam their hands or kick the door in frustration. “Have we at least found out if this is really an exit?”

“It’s not listed in the main system, but I found an old blueprint of the first three floors, including maintenance level. It’s not very detailed, but it may show what’s on the other side of this wall,” Erin said.

“Keep searching those blueprints. I’m going to check in with Allen and Greg and see how close we are to getting through that door. Wherever it leads, it’s our best chance to escape.” Sam patted Erin on the shoulder as he passed her. When he reached Allen and Greg the two stopped and the three spoke quickly.

Exhaustion swept over Vera, being in the company of her comrades calming her. She collapsed to the floor, leaning her back against the wall. Her eyes drooped lazily, but the eyes watching her kept Vera alert.

Kara strained against Jacob’s arm resting across her shoulder. He struggled to keep the woman close, but she dragged him closer to Vera with surprising strength. She stopped in front of Vera, towering over her like a statue.

“It’s not a scratch,” Kara said, her voice shaking. “You were bitten.”

“It’s a scratch,” Vera said, raising her eyes to meet Kara’s.

“You’re lying. You were bitten,” Kara’s voice rose in volume, “They go for the neck when they bite. It’s the best place for injecting the venom. You’re going to turn into one of them!”

Jacob desperately tried to pull her back. “Kara, be quiet.”

“No, no, I won’t be quiet! She’s been bitten! She’s been bitten!” Kara screamed.

Strong hands grab the frantic woman and drag her away. Kara’s wide terrified eyes meet Sam’s as he slapped her across the face. “I saw the mark, Kara. It was made with claws, not fangs. If you continue to scream and draw attention to us I’ll be forced to hit you again, harder.”

Tearing herself from Sam’s grip, Kara placed a hand on her sore cheek. “Then let’s see it.”

“No. There are more important things happening right now besides playing into your crazed paranoia. Let me also tell you this bit of important information about me. I only give one warning. If I have to tell you to be silent again, I’ll forego hitting and just shoot you.”

Ceremony

Gina moved the bone comb through her hair slowly, gently loosening the tangles. Water dripped onto her bare legs, creating small pinpoints of coolness on her hot skin. Her hand shook and she grabbed her arm with her other hand. She placed the comb on the table in front of her, staring at her reflection.

She couldn’t hide it. She couldn’t hide her fear. Everyone would know she wasn’t ready for this, could never be ready for this.

She pulled her robe tight around her and took a deep breath, willing the nerves away. But they’d never go away. Not until this was over.

Today was the day.

Laying on her bed was a beautiful white dress, the thin fabric rippling with the warm summer breeze blowing through her window. It was the only dress she owned and she’d only worn it once. The day her sister married.

“Gina?” a voice called through her door. It was Lucas, her assigned watcher. He opened the door, used to not waiting for her voice. When he saw her only in her robe, he turned his back, but not before she saw his face flush red.

“What is it, Lucas?”

“The elder wishes for both candidates to meet at the fountain when the sun passes below the western wall. The ceremony will begin as soon as the sun is out of sight.”

Standing, she looked out the window and saw the sun beginning to sink close to the western wall. She only had an hour at the most.

As she turns back, she saw him watching her. “Was there anything else?”

Turning away again, he shook his head. “N-no.”

“Thank you. I’ll be ready soon. Wait for me outside the door.”

“As you wish.” He quickly left, closing the door behind him.

Releasing a shaky breath, Gina sat on the bed next to her dress. She traced the light material with her fingers wishing the day was done. She wanted everything back to normal, but depending on the outcome of the ceremony…

Shaking her head clear of troubling thoughts, she walked back to her mirror, sitting on the stool in front of it. She ran her hand through her damp hair before rolling it and coiling it into a tight bun. She pulled hairpins from her robe pocket and dug them into the thick hair to hold its shape. Then she grabbed the white ribbon hanging on her mirror and tied it around the bun, leaving enough material to hang down the back of her neck.

On the floor next to the mirror was a small jar of powder. She picked it up and carefully placed a light amount on her cheeks and eyelids. She hated the feeling of it, like a mask even with the small amount.

Next came the dress. She walked to the edge of the bed and stared at it. At her sister’s wedding she’d felt trapped to be the perfect little sister. What would she be trapped being at the ceremony?

Dropping the robe to the floor, she picked up the dress and slipped it on, careful to keep it from wrinkling. She turned to the mirror and stared at the different reflection.

It’s finished after today.

“Lucas?”

Almost immediately, Lucas entered the room, keeping his eyes aimed at the ground. “Yes?”

“I’m clothed. I need your help to tie the back.”

Lucas looked up and his breath caught in his throat. He quickly moved behind her and pulled on the thick white string to tighten the fit of the dress. When he finished he stepped back, his eyes moving up and down her.

“You look amazing,” he said.

“They said to look nice for the ceremony. Is there anything I’m supposed to bring?”

“Just yourself, I think.”

Swallowing, she held her shaking hand tightly. “Right. Have you heard from Jarid about Ophelia? Is she already at the fountain?”

The nerves in her voice grew as the time approached. She wondered if Ophelia was feeling the same rush of emotions or was she excited?

“I’ve only heard she went to the baths to have others clean her and bathe her in oils and perfumes. You know, you could’ve done the same. The candidates don’t have to pay if it’s for the ceremony.”

“I don’t like being treated differently. If I want to go to the baths, I’ll pay for it myself.”

“And that’s why everyone knows you’ll be chosen.”

Gina scoffed, squeezing her hand tighter. “Why? Because I’m cheap?”

Taking her hand in his, Lucas turned her towards him. “Because you wouldn’t make others wait on you. You’re a good soul and believe in the goodness of all people.”

“That doesn’t mean I’ll be chosen.” She pulled her hand from him, stepping back with shame. “Ophelia is a good person, too. She wouldn’t have been chosen as a candidate if she weren’t.”

Studying her face, Lucas slowly nodded his head. “Of course. We should get going. Today is not the day to be late.”

Gina turned back to the mirror and gave herself one last look. Today decided everything.

*          *         *

“Are you cold?”

Gina looked at Lucas and shook her head. “Not really. Just wishing I could’ve worn shoes.”

Concern filled his eyes. “Are you afraid of what the outcome will be tonight?”

“You see right through me. A little, but whatever happens is destined by the holy beings.”

“I’ll ask again. Are you afraid?”

Hesitating, she finally nodded. “Terrified.”

The fountain stood at the center of the city. Everyone in the city had already gathered around, waves of excitement echoing in the early evening air. The sun was almost  out of sight behind the western wall.

Lucas forced a path through the crowd, holding Gina’s hand tightly.  The crowd reached out to her, eager for the chance to touch the possible chosen candidate. Miraculously, no wandering hand messed up her hair, but an occasional foot stomped on her own bare feet. Tears fought to roll down her cheeks, but she kept them at bay.

The elder stood at the edge of the fountain, waiting patiently. His tall, thin frame appeared small in his large robes. A walking stick in his hands helped keep him stable. His hair was white and a long beard reached nearly down to his knees. His pale eyes were kind and smiled as Gina approached.

Standing next to the elder was Ophelia, a large woman, nearly the size of three Gina’s. Her skin shone with the expensive oils and perfumes covering her. Her hair was braided tightly to her head and her eyes matched the smile on her face. Arrogant.

Her assigned watcher, Jarid, stood to her left almost hidden behind her large frame. He had large bags under his eyes and Gina could guess why. Ophelia could be very demanding and had probably given him little time to rest since he’d been appointed her watcher.

The elder held his hand out to Gina and she took it, bowing to one knee. He smiled. “None of that. I should be the one bowing to you, one of our glorious candidates. Come stand to my right and we shall begin.”

Gina stood and did as he asked. Lucas moved to her right and gave Jarid a small nod.

The crowd grew more excited now that both candidates had arrived. There’d been much talk over the past year about the two candidates. From the moment the elder announced them everyone already knew who would be the chosen one. Though there were still a few who believed Ophelia could possibly be selected, the majority believed it to be Gina.

Now they would discover if they were right.

The elder watched as the last of the sun disappeared behind the horizon. When it did he stamped his walking stick against the ancient stone to silence the crowd.

“The time has come. For thousands of years the Dai-Gems and the Meh-Yads have been waging an ancient war against each other. It was written in the ancient texts that on this day one from each race would be chosen to become the vessel of the spirit of one their saints. The two saints would lead both races into the final battle finally ending the war. One year ago the holy beings gave us the names of two candidates to be the vessel of our saint. Now the decision has come. The chosen one will be determined by one simple test.”

A sudden movement on a distant roof caught Gina’s eyes. She searched for the source, but only saw birds nesting for the night. Her nerves were growing, making her see things that weren’t there.

The elder grabbed a bowl and dipped it into the cool water of the fountain. He pulled out a flower. The elder carefully placed the flower at the center of the bowl and held the bowl out between Ophelia and Gina.

“As it is stated in the ancient texts, ‘The chosen vessel will be determined by the first bloom of the Agaya plant. Whosoever draws the bloom to them shall be the chosen one.’ Ophelia, Gina. Please place a hand on the edge of the bowl.”

Gina and Ophelia did and the elder slowly lowered the bowl to the ground. Ophelia and Gina followed slowly never allowing their hands to break the connection.

The elder stood and looked from one to the other. “Now, carefully stand and whosoever makes the bloom rise into their hand is our chosen one.”

The crowd leaned forward to see. Gina looked up at Ophelia. Their eyes locked for a moment and Gina could see that she didn’t believe. Ophelia would’ve laughed out loud at the very idea that this was how the decision was to be made, but she knew when to be quiet.

Gina believed.

“Good luck, Gina,” Ophelia said.

Gina nodded her head. “You, too, Ophelia.”

They looked back down at the bowl and both slowly rose. Nothing immediately happened. As they both stood a small breeze picked up. The water rippled and the bloom shook. As Ophelia and Gina stood halfway up the bloom slowly rose off the water.

It rose higher and higher, staying at the center. The crowd gasped in awe and Ophelia’s eyes widened in shock.

Gina stared at the bloom and felt her heart tighten in her chest. Fear grew inside her. Fear that she may be the chosen one. Fear that she may not be the chosen one. Fear of the Meh-Yads.

The bloom stopped rising and tension filled the air. Ophelia and Gina stood completely straight, holding their hands out as though they were still holding the bowl.

The elder raised his hands to the sky. “Now turn your hands over to accept the bloom.”

Ophelia and Gina looked at each other. Ophelia was confused and uncertainty filled her eyes. Gina smiled and gave her one nod. Ophelia returned the nod and they both turned their hands over.

The bloom flew high into the air above Gina and Ophelia. Then it floated down towards the two. The crowd held their breath.

This was it.

This was the time.

The bloom finally landed in the hand of the chosen vessel and all became silent.

 

Paint

Henry dips his paint roller in the tray and rolls it to cover the whole brush. He stands and continues painting the wall of his study. The radio plays soft rock as he works. The song finishes and the DJ comes on.

“And that was Hall & Oates with She’s Gone, dedicated to one of our own, the Hill family who are still searching for Sarah. If anyone has any information on her disappearance please contact local authorities immediately. Henry and Addison, you’re in our thoughts and prayers.” Chris Rae’s Josephine plays.

Henry hums along as he works. A bubble appears in the paint on the wall and he stops. He leans close to the wall and raises a finger. He pops the bubble and smiles.

Addie walks into the study, watching her father. “You’re changing the color?”

“Needed something to keep my mind distracted. If I sit still too long I think about Sarah.”

Coughing, Addie sits in a nearby chair. She pulls her legs up to her chest and watches him paint silently.

He continues working for a few minutes before looking at his daughter. “Is there something you needed, hon?”

“You missed a few phone calls. Channel 6 and 3 are interested in interviewing you. A couple other shows would also like to speak with you. Even America’s Most Wanted is interested in doing a segment on Sarah. The newspapers want to interview you for the weekend editions or want to ask some follow up questions from other interviews.”

“You wrote down all the numbers, right?”

She coughs. “I don’t think you should do anymore interviews.”

“They’ll help us find Sarah.”

“But it’s already been a month. They say if you don’t find the lost person within a few days then most likely they’re already…”

Henry turns sharply to Addie. “Don’t say it. You’re sister is alive. If the police had only listened to my advice maybe we would’ve already found her.”

“You mean Brady? He had nothing to do with it, dad.”

“He was the last one to see her before she disappeared. He did it.”

Addie coughs again. “You’re only saying that because you didn’t like him. They were going to get married.”

“I don’t want to talk about this.”

“But—”

“Enough!”

Addie’s cough intensifies, forcing her to lean forward.

“Are you all right?”

“It’s the paint. Did you have to buy the most disgusting smelling paint?” she wheezes.

“It’ll only smell this way until it dies. You should head back up to bed before you get too sick.”

“I’m fine.”

“Addie.”

Taking deep breaths, she eyes her father. “Fine, but at least open a window.” Standing, she heads out of the study.

Henry waits until he hears her door close before dipping his roller in the paint and continuing his work, humming along with the radio.