Soul Gazer Chapter 2

Read Chapter 1 here

One more semester, all that’s left of her college life.

As she finished her workout, Kaila’s mind drifted back to her insecurities and newly blossoming fears.

She would be a graduate, entering the real world as an adult. She’ll have adult things to worry about. A job, paying rent…being happy. She thought going off to college was the scariest thing she’d ever done. She was wrong and this new chapter of her life didn’t even require moving to another state.

But could she really say if she’d stayed in Indiana she’d feel any different? Would she have found her life’s calling if she’d stayed home? No. She would’ve found what was expected of her. Married, kids, the whole nine yards. But she wouldn’t have been happy with that either.

Grabbing the bar on the underside of the starting platform, she maneuvered herself so her back was to the wall and stretched her sore arms. Taking a few deeps breaths, she raised and lowered herself, kicking her legs gently under the water. Through her goggles she saw everyone else already out of the pool.

Last again,Kaila thought as she placed her goggles on the pool edge. It wasn’t because she was the worst in class. She liked swimming. The longer she could forget about the rest of the world the better. But everything ends and reality always came back.

She watched the other students drying off, getting dressed, and a few even taking advantage of the spa to ease their sore muscles. Two unfamiliar figures caught her eye, standing next to Pam, the teacher or honestly the one who had to be present.

She’d never seen the two before, clearly they weren’t students, but they didn’t look like professors either.

One wore a brown suit, matching his hair and bringing out the green of his eyes. He did most of the talking, throwing an occasional smile at Pam. It clearly did the trick as Pam laughed and placed a hand on his arm.

The other man leaned against the wall, barely paying attention to the two. His blonde hair was obviously not natural and even his clothes, which were baggy and oversized, seemed unnatural on him. He wore horn-rimmed glasses, but even those were most likely for show.

Why were they here? Were they looking for someone? Everyone else was already out of the pool…were they waiting for her?

As if hearing her thoughts, the man with blonde hair raised his head and his eyes met hers. Her heart skipped a beat and she nearly lost her grip on the starting platform. His eyes were a beautiful golden color and she knew they were real, the one real thing about him.

A smile spread across his lips and she felt her face blush. She turned away in an attempt to hide it, but she heard laughter from the wall. A flush of embarrassed anger filled her and she turned to face the pool edge. Placing one hand on the edge of the pool and squeezing the bar of the starting platform, she took a few deep breaths then tried to pull herself from the water.

This always ended up being the hardest part of the class, trying to figure out how to climb out of the water without looking like a complete fool or beached whale. There wereladders, but they were on the opposite side of the pool from her warm towel…and meant getting out directly in front of the two weird men.

She didn’t need them seeing the bruises on her legs from her many attempts at climbing out over the past few weeks of the class. Most people became concerned when they saw them, but she considered them badges of honor, reminders she’d succeeded more times climbing out than giving in and swimming over to the ladders.

She pulled herself from the water with shaky arms, kicking with her legs to gain more height. Her muscles were weak, sore, and made her body feel thousands of pounds heavier. Managing to pull herself halfway out of the water, her grip on the starting platform slipped and she fell back into the water with a loud splash.

Hovering under the water, she prayed no one saw her miserable, failed attempt to climb out, even if they heard it. Maybe she could stay under the water forever. Would drowning really be that bad? It couldn’t be worse than the embarrassment of popping out of the water.

Her lungs made the decision for her. Her survival instincts were far stronger than her bashfulness. She kicked her legs and broke through the surface, taking a deep lungful of air. She wiped the water from her eyes and grabbed the bar again, freezing when she saw a pair of black shoes next to her goggles.

Slowly looking up at the owner of the shoes, her eyes widened when she saw the man with golden eyes smiling down at her.

Holding a hand out, he leaned down. “Would you like some help, Miss—?”

She tore her eyes from his gaze to his hand before taking it. “Kaila. Yeah, thanks.”

Pulling her out of the pool with surprising strength, the man managed to avoid getting any water on his clothes. He stepped back giving her space.

Grabbing her towel, she rubbed her face before wrapping it around her shoulders. Noticing the man standing, watching her, she hesitantly met his eyes. The golden orbs moved up and down her body, surveying her. She felt like he was taking notes in his head about her and she fought the urge to lower her towel, covering as much of her as she could.

Leaning close to her, the man placed a hand on her shoulder. “You’re going to be fine. You’ll be someone amazing.” With that, he walked away.

Standing, frozen to the spot, Kaila slowly turned her head, her eyes following the man as he joined Pam and the other man. The green-eyed man gave him a confused expression before glancing at her.

Quickly looking away, she felt a single tear roll down her cheek. She placed a hand over her mouth, holding the sobs back. Suddenly, she was seventeen years old again sitting in her room.

*            *            *

“Kaila?”

She turned away from the doorway, pulling her knees up to her chest. “Go away. I don’t want to talk.”

Her father stepped into her room, closing the door behind him. “We don’t have to talk. We can sit.”

She fell onto her side, holding her knees tightly. She felt her bed lower as her father sat down. He didn’t touch her and she was sure if she looked at him he would be facing away from her.

They stayed that way for several minutes before the dam broke. Tears rolled down her cheeks and sobs shook her body. She buried her face in her pillow, a burning sensation in her throat as she fought from crying out loud. She gasped for air and the sounds finally came.

Minutes passed, perhaps even hours, she didn’t know. Her throat hurt, her chest hurt, her eyes hurt, even her arms hurt from squeezing her legs tightly. She didn’t know when the hand on her side was placed there, but she appreciated the comfort.

“Ready to talk?” Her father’s voice held no judgment. Honest care and love filled each word.

“What am I going to do? Who am I going to be?”

“Ah, your mother mentioned colleges again, didn’t she?”

She shook her head. “We talked about where we see ourselves in ten years at school.”

“And?” It wasn’t a demand, only a simple gentle encouragement.

“I couldn’t answer. I don’t have an answer. I don’t…can’t see myself in ten years. Everyone else had something to say. I thought about lying, but when my turn came I just…sat there…silent.” She rolled onto her back, staring into her father’s eyes. “What am I going to do? Who am I going to be?”

Taking her hand in his, her father pulled her into a sitting position. He wrapped his other arm around her and hugged her. She listened to his heartbeat. Feeling more tears well up in her eyes.

“You’re going to be fine. You’ll be someone amazing.”

 

*            *            *

 

The last thing she expected was pain as something slammed into her left shoulder. Her eyes widened as the unknown object hit her with enough force to push her back. The ground disappeared from beneath her feet and time slowed.

She managed to glance towards the two strange men. The green-eyed man’s expression reflected her shock. The man with golden eyes was running towards her, but it was his hand her eyes locked onto.

Something was there. Something in his hand, but at the same time nothing.

Hitting the water brought a gasp from her lungs, one last attempt at life before the water swallowed her.

Hidden Danger Chapter 2

Read Chapter 1 here

Fresh snow fell. Missy put on her backpack and purse and left the docks, stopping at the top of the path leading back to the cul-de-sac. To the right was an opening to the sewer. Beyond that was a creek leading into the lake and a small bridge connected the two sides on either side of the creek.

She crossed this bridge and up another path to a different part of the neighborhood. She followed the street until she reached a block of houses far larger than the others. She passed numerous three-story houses, gates surrounding the properties.

She stopped in front of the largest house in the neighborhood. It was four stories including a basement. On the second floor, a large balcony covered the porch and front door. The yard, usually a beautiful garden, reminded Missy of a cemetery in the winter night. Statues of angels normally surrounded by vibrantly colored flowers most of the year were instead covered in snow.

Winter was when Bixby Deshler moved into the house nearly thirteen years previously. The house remained empty and dark until Bixby moved in. Neighbors didn’t even know the house had been sold until the first moving truck arrived. They watched movers bring in the furniture noting how all of it was new, freshly brought pieces except for one. A large cabinet, the dark stained wood worn from years of use and wear, was carried carefully. It was old and clashed with the new furniture.

For his first year in the house no one saw a single person come and go. The only signs of life were lights inside and the care of the garden. If Bixby did ever leave the house no one knew when.

The children of the neighborhood hadn’t taken long to start rumors about the mysterious Mr. Deshler. Even his name sounded like a mystery. It always reminded Missy of the name of a character from an old cartoon.

They started out as common childish rumors. He was a crazy, old man who hated people. Then he became a widower who killed his family for the insurance money. Next he was called a devil worshipper who spent the days cursing those in the neighborhood. Finally, he was called an evil wizard, courtesy of a particular children’s series released the same year he moved in.

Around that time, Missy and a group of the neighborhood kids (not friends, merely the only children close by enough that their parents forced them to play and occasionally they pretended to like each other) decided to break into Bixby’s house. They wanted to find proof he was performing black magic.

Missy was eleven years old when she first entered Bixby Deshler’s house. She and the other children entered through an open window. They searched the house for anything possibly related to black magic, but to no avail. Before they knew it, they’d gotten lost in the immense house. When Bixby found them, several had broken down into sobs.

Missy hadn’t.

She’d been separated from the group early and was exploring the large living room. She remembered how she’d been drawn to the old cabinet there. Something about the dark, aged wood stood out in the room of clean, bright furniture. The dark glass preventing curious eyes from seeing its contents, reflected her curious face back at her and she only longed to open it more.

The other children’s sobs warned her of Bixby’s discovery of the young intruders and she managed to hide in a small coat closet as he led the group out of his house. She debated whether to sneak out while the other children distracted him or wait until he went to sleep.

She didn’t have time to make a decision before Bixby found her. It had actually been an accident and the surprise in his face almost made her giggle.

“What have we here? A clever child or a mischievous pixie?” His voice was gentle and far too kind for someone finding a group of children who broke into his home.

She remembered how she felt no fear when she met him. “I’m not a pixie. I’m a little girl and my name is Missy Harper.”

Bixby laughed at her rashness. “Well, Miss Harper, my name is Bixby Deshler.”

“Are you an evil wizard?”

“No, but I’m a pretty good cook. Would you like something to eat before I call your parents to come get you?”

“Spaghetti, but only if you don’t call my parents. I can make it home on my own.”

“All right, but if you try anything, I’ll turn you into a frog.”

Both laughed.

It would be the first of many laughs. Missy found herself liking Bixby and wanting to talk with him more. The other children thought she’d been put under a spell, but Missy knew it was something else.

She didn’t have a name for it, but the closest word would be connection. She found herself visiting Bixby after school almost every day. Sometimes they would talk. Sometimes they would eat. Sometimes they would wander Bixby’s garden. And sometimes Missy would sit on the floor and do her homework whether or not Bixby was in the room.

On Missy’s thirteenth birthday, Bisby gave her a key to his house. He told her she was welcome any time and if he needed to leave town he wanted her to look after the place. She’d been very happy at his gift, but she gave him a condition. He had to meet her family. They’d been nervous and slightly disapproving of her friendship with a man in his early seventies.

Bixby invited her family over. Her grandmother, who’d been living with she and her father since her mother’s death, refused to meet him not out of disapproval, but because unbeknownst to Missy and her father, she knew she was going to die that night.

Missy’s father immediately took to Bixby after talking with him for only ten minutes. The two found common ground on the strangest things. She’d been surprised to learn her father was a closet antique lover. The two discussed at surprising length episodes of Antique Roadshow, boring the young Missy to tears.

When she and her father returned home they found her grandmother in her bed, having passed away silently in her sleep.

Bixby came to the funeral, keeping to himself and leaving a white flower on the grave. He offered any help he could to her father, but Missy stopped visiting him and they didn’t speak for six months.

Then she received a letter from him requesting her presence at his house. She almost ignored the letter, but he sent a second letter that contained a cryptic message.

Red Rover, Red Rover,
Send Missy Harper right over.

Missy made it to his house, though she couldn’t really remember how. She walked through the garden amazed at how, though he claimed to know nothing of gardening, his plants thrived unnaturally well.

Bixby opened the door before she even finished climbing up the porch steps. He beamed at her, a secret glistening in her eyes. He quickly led her to the kitchen and sitting on the counter in a large black and white doggy bed were two Doberman puppies.

He told Missy they were gifts for her, but he understood her father was allergic to dogs. Therefore he’d keep them at his house, but she had to promise to visit them as often as possible.

Missy immediately fell in love with the excitable puppies and asked their names. He told her he wanted her to name them. She named them Zelda and Link in honor of her favorite video game.

Bixby asked if she was doing all right since her grandmother’s passing. She told him she cried enough tears. Now sh only looked back with smiles. She showed Bixby her grandmother’s necklace.

He’d been very impressed by it, a mysterious twinkle in his eyes.

 

 

The hoot of an owl brought Missy back from her memories, her hands resting on the locked gate surrounding Bixby’s house.

She used her key to open the gate and walked into the garden. She crossed it quickly to the front door. She opened it and entered the warm house. Taking a deep breath, she sighed as the familiar scents filled her nostrils.

The sound of eight paws running on wooden floors brought a smile to her lips. She kneeled down to the floor and opened her arms.

Two Dobermans turned the corner and jumped onto Missy. Merry and Pippin were the sons of Zelda and Link who passed away just before she’d left for college. They were trained to only bark at strangers, but they could always tell when it was Missy at the door.

She laughed as the two dogs licked every inch of her face. She hugged them and scratched their necks. “I missed you guys, too.”

She stood and closed the door behind her. The house was dark and silent, but it was so familiar to her. The day she arrived back home she had immediately gone to visit Bixby Deshler, after calling to let her dad know she landed safely.

When Bixby opened the door and saw her, his familiar kind smile appeared on his lips. “Miss Harper, it’s simply wonderful to see you. I hope California is treating you well?”

Missy hadn’t answered him. She wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug. She hadn’t realized until she saw him how much she missed him.

Bixby had trouble understanding Missy’s reaction, but he easily raised his arms around her. They stood in silence before he cleared his throat.

“Why don’t you come inside? This cold is doing neither of us any good.”

After making it into the living room and after a long game of catch-up, Bixby told Missy why he had her father call her.

“I’m going out of town for a little while, but just house sitting isn’t why I asked you to drop everything and come back.”

“You know I would have done it for that reason alone, but since my dad called me at 4 in the morning I imagined there was more to it.”

Bixby smiled. “I did ask him to call you as soon as possible. Anyway, back to the task at hand. I received a request from a very dear friend of mine. Well, to be more exact, my nephew.”

Missy started. “Nephew? That means you have a brother or a sister.”

“A sister if you must know. But that’s beside the point. My nephew is travelling and unfortunately has become very ill. He’s asked to spend several nights here, but I can’t postpone my trip. I need you to be here when he arrives and assist in any way you can.”

“You want me to play nurse?”

“No, nothing of that nature. He’s travelling with a friend and he’ll be taking care of him. I just need you to escort them to the master bedroom and keep Merry and Pippin away.”

Missy smiled. “That shouldn’t be too difficult.”

Bixby’s eyes darkened slightly, but his smile remained unchanged. “There is one other thing. If anyone comes to see my nephew please don’t let them in. My nephew is very private.”

“He isn’t really famous is he?”

“No. It’s a complicated story. If you need anything my friend can help. He should be arriving in a few days.”

 

 

Missy opened her eyes. The fire in the living room fireplace was slowly dying, but she felt hot air on her face. She lifted her head from the couch and saw Pippin had crawled onto the couch with her. His head was on her chest and at each breath she felt warmth. Merry was on the floor asleep, his back leg twitching now and then. He was probably chasing something in his dreams.

She hadn’t meant to fall asleep after starting the fire, but it was welcomed. Sunlight filled the room and Missy slowly sat up, stirring Pippin. He yawned and then hopped down to the floor, shaking his entire body. Merry lifted his head and watched his brother curiously. Pippin sat and stared at Missy.

She put her feet on the floor and rubbed her eyes. Her bags lay by the door to the living room and she debated whether to take them upstairs.

Loud knocking came from the front door. Merry and Pippin stood and growled. Missy stood. The knocking came again and Merry and Pippin backed away.

Missy slowly walked to the front door. She could see a shadow through the tiny window on the door. It moved slowly and Missy’s heart pounded loudly in her chest.

She opened the door quickly, blinding herself with the sunlight. After her eyes adjusted she realized there was no one outside. She took a few steps out and looked around. No one. The only footprints in the snow were her own from the night before.

“It’s a little early for ding-dong-ditch, isn’t it?” she yelled. She turned and walked back into the house. She closed the door and locked it.

She leaned back on the door and closed her eyes. She saw somebody through the tiny window. Or was she just seeing and hearing things?

Merry and Pippin walked to Missy and whined softly. She couldn’t have mistaken it. Both of the dogs reacted to the strange knocker.

She leaned down and scratched them behind their ears. She’d worry about it later. First she needed to feed these two.

Parasite

Screams pierced the darkness of the house.

Kristi shot up from her bed, her eyes searching her room for the source. Her eyes went in and out of focus. The first thought racing through her mind was she could still be dreaming. It wouldn’t be the first time she woke because she thought she heard someone screaming.

The longer she sat, fully waking up, the sooner she realized the screams were coming from her younger sister’s room.

She pulled her sheets back and leapt from her bed. She ran for her door and almost crashed into it instead of opening it. Swinging it wide and stepping into the hallway, she heard her parent’s shocked voices from behind their bedroom door.

But she was closer to her sister’s room and was already banging on the door loudly before her parents even managed to reach the hallway.

“Becky! Becky, what’s wrong? Are you all right?” Kristi screamed, her mom and dad storming towards her.

“What’s going on?” her father asked.

Shaking her head, she tries to open the door, but it’s locked. “I don’t know. I just woke up to her screaming.”

“Where’s the extra key?”

“Above the door frame,” her mother says.

Standing on her tiptoes, Kristi reached for the top of the frame, feeling for a key. Her fingers feel cool metal and she grabs it. Her shaking hand had trouble putting the key into the lock, but once in she quickly turned it. Hearing the click, she shoved the door open.

The room was pitch black. A small breeze brushed Kristi’s hair in her face. As her eyes adjusted she saw the window above Becky’s bed open. Or rather broken, the glass shattered on her sister’s bed.

Becky was lying on the floor, her screams tearing Kristi’s eyes from the window. A trail of blood led from the bed to where her sister lay.

Running to her, Kristi grabbed Becky, but the small girl flailed in panic. Her nails dug into Kristi’s face and she felt burning pain as her cheeks were scratched.

“Becky! Becky! Calm down! It’s me, Kristi!”

Becky’s eyes were wide and even in the dark Kristi could see the whites around the brown pupils. Realizing who held her, Becky’s arms fell to her sides and tears poured from her eyes.

Kristi stared at the source of all the blood. Her sister’s neck looked as though an animal ripped into it. It was amazing her sister hadn’t bled completely out yet.

Their mom screamed, falling to the floor in horror. Their father ran out the door, heading for a phone to call 911. Kristi tried to put pressure on Becky’s neck to stop the bleeding, but there was too much. Far too much for such a small child.

A hand grabbed her arm and she stared into her sister’s eyes.

“He said he would come back. He’s going to come back to finish it,” she whispered.

Shaking her head, Kristi sucked in painful breaths as tears fell from her eyes. “You’re going to be okay, Becks. We won’t let anyone hurt you anymore.”

“He…said he couldn’t take the hunger anymore,” Becky said, her voice growing weaker. Her head fell back as her eyes closed, the rest of her body going limp.

Shaking her sister, Kristi shook her head. “Becky? Don’t close your eyes! Becky, look at me! Oh God, please, Becky! Don’t close your eyes!”

 

*              *             *

 

A cold chill ran down her spine, the hairs on the back of her neck stood at attention. She felt the eyes watching her, but couldn’t see the owner. Would he show himself to her? She spent so long trying to find him and made sure their meeting place was safe.

But what was safe? She’d lost sight of that word’s meaning years ago.

Footsteps approached from behind her and she cautiously turned. She fought down her fear, anger, and desire to run. She needed to be strong, show she wasn’t afraid of him.

The man stopped a few feet from her, crossing his arms across his chest. The clothes he wore looked expensive, tailored perfectly to fit his body. His smile was pleasant, but his unnatural eyes scanned her face. She could feel them reading her every movement, every breath, maybe even every thought crossing her mind.

She wrapped her coat about her tighter telling herself it was because of the cold breeze moving through the alley. Not because of the man standing in front of her, if she could even call him a man.

“Are we going to be standing her all night or did you want to talk? I have all the time in the world to wait, but unfortunately the opera I’m attending doesn’t and I’ve been waiting all year to see this production. So please, ask your questions,” he said with a voice soft and calculated. There was a slight accent, but it was only barely audible and nearly impossible to decipher what language it was related to.

“Dutch,” he said. “My accent is Dutch. Well, Flemish Dutch, but I haven’t had to speak it in…years.”

“So you canread my mind,” she asked.

The man smiled, showing his brilliant white teeth. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw the longer than normal canines.

“I can do a lot of things, Kristi,” he spoke the words with a warm, welcoming tone as though speaking to a lover. “What do you want?”

She felt her heart lift at every word, desire filling her at the hint of temptation in his voice. Her sister’s face flashed in her mind and she remembered the purpose for this meeting.

“I want answers.”

“That all depends on what the questions are.”

“How long…how long have you and others like you…” She hesitated. She can’t bring herself to say the words. She prepared for this moment, this chance to finally learn the truth, but her voice shakes with nerves.

The man’s smile faded and he moved his hands to his pockets. “You did a lot of work to get into contact. Don’t tell me you’re getting cold feet now that you’re face to face with me.”

“How long have your kind fed on humans?”

“Hmm, my kind? Are you afraid to call us what we are because you still have some denial? Vampires. We’re vampires.”

“I want to know everything. I want to understand,” she adds, her anger rising inside.

“Everything? There isn’t enough time for everything, but I could tell you the shortened version if you like. Then again, why should I tell you anything? Give me a good reason to tell you any of our secrets and I might consider it,” he said, smiling again and leaning his head to the side.

“I want to understand why my nine year old sister had to die because one of you bastards decided you couldn’t stand to see all of her blood just sitting there, waiting to be sucked dry. Exact words from the mouth of one of your own kind,” she fought to keep her voice controlled, but there was still heat in the words.

He chuckled lightly and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I doubt you actually heard him say that.”

Kristi grabs the scarf around her neck and pulled it and the shirt underneath down. A large bandage covered the left side of her lower neck and shoulder. “He said it as he tried to carve me open. But you wouldn’t have known that since you haven’t fed from me in over two months, right?”

The man’s smile disappeared, his face blank. The only sign of emotion was his eyes flashing a dark color. The air around him seemed to suck the life out of anything that dared to come near.

“You are very brave,” he said, the warmth long gone from his voice. “But you are also very stupid.”

“Really? Please, explain.”

“Whether you realize it or not, you’re entering a very dangerous territory asking me questions about my kind. We don’t take lightly to our prey discovering us, let alone speaking ill of us. If anything, I should kill you right now, but that wouldn’t be the proper way for a gentleman to act around a lady.”

“Drinking our blood without us knowing is proper? Why not go ahead and fuck us too while you’re at it?” She released her shirt and scarf, covering the bandage again. “You could at least tell us your names so we know who to curse when we’re rotting in hell.”

The man raised an eyebrow, his lip twitching with amusement. “Is that what you want? You want to know my name?”

The question surprised her. She hadn’t thought about it, truthfully, but she did want to know his name.  “It wouldn’t hurt to know it.”

“Vince. Right now my name is Vince.”

“What do you mean, right now?”

“I’ve been alive for a very log time. If I kept the same name than people would’ve discovered long ago I wasn’t human. To protect myself, I change my name every half century or so.”

“I want to know your real name,” she said, staring into his eyes.

His friendly smile returned and he took a few steps closer to her. “It isn’t something I plan on telling you anytime soon, my dear. I’ve never told anyone my real name, not even other vampires.” The warmth slowly oozes into his voice.

She feels her head lighten and her heart pound. “Stop that.”

“You wanted to talk to me, a vampire. I’m just giving you the full experience. Aren’t you enjoying it?”

“You don’t need me to answer. Of course, I’m enjoying it,” she said, trying to calm her quickly beating heart. “This isn’t what I wanted…wanted to speak with you…about.”

Somehow he’s closed the distance between them. His head lowers to hers, threatening to touch their lips together. His hands rose as though to stroke her arms.

“Of course not. You want answers.” His breath on her skin sends chills through her. “You want to understand.”

“Yes.” It’s barely a whisper. A stinging pain in her neck made her gasp. She stepped away from him, her head clearing suddenly. “Stop it!”

A cold wind moved through the alley, blowing Kristi’s hair into her face. She raised a hand to move the loose strands, but Vince beats her to it. His hands are cold to the touch, but strikingly smooth. He moved her hair behind her ear, his eyes locked to her throat. A look of longing filled them, but also something else hidden deep inside.

“It wasn’t always like this. Feeding off humans like parasites,” he said, his vampire tricks gone from his voice. He spoke with no hidden power trying to confuse her.

“Please, tell me everything,” she pleaded.

His hand flinched away from her and his brows furrowed. He smiled, but it was a sad smile. “No, not everything. There’s not enough time. I can only tell you the shortened version, but not here.” He laughed to himself before turning and walking away. “Damn, I guess I’m going to miss my opera.”

When he didn’t sense her following her turned back. He held his hand out, keeping his eyes low.

She walked forward and grabbed his hand, ready to hear the answers she’s been searching for.

Errol Chapter 2

Read Chapter 1 here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What business do you have in Augon Hall?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We shall see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  *       *      *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unknown Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The guard sneered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man turned away, knowing what came next.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leslie swallowed. “Leslie Witt.”

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

“You’ve read it.”

“Yes, have you?”

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

“And?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Miss Witt, come on in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leslie looked at him.

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

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

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

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

She turned to leave.

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

Hidden Danger Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

It was nights like this Missy treasured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bixby Deshler.

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

She already knew.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Chapter 2 here

Errol Chapter 1

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.

Read Chapter 2 Here

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.

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.”

 

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.