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

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

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

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

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

It was nights like this Missy treasured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bixby Deshler.

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

She already knew.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Errol

Rain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A woman’s scream came from the right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“Water. Do you have any supplies?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *           *           *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was born in Stoven further North.”

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

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

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

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

“Moved or forced out?”

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

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

“How can you tell?” Derrick asked.

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

“You’re leaving?” Shayla asked.

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

“What do you mean?” Derrick asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Malhia.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Dedman’s Dreams

August 5th, 4:23 pm.

Death.

Death is final. Death is the ultimate line we cross as living things. Everything dies. It is a constant and unarguable fact of the world.

So why are we so afraid of it?

For many it’s the unknown. What happens after we die? Is there a Heaven or Hell? Will I see my loved ones again? Do we reincarnate? Do we cease to be? So many unknowns there aren’t answers for.

Others, even though they claim they believe in the life here after still show fear even when preaching to have no fear.

If you are a good soul and follow the word of God, have no fear and you will be rewarded in Heaven. Strong words said by those who are terrified of death.

There are others who are afraid of death because they have done nothing in their life or will die before they can accomplish anything of importance. Truthfully, they aren’t one hundred percent afraid of death. They are afraid of not leaving their mark on the world and being forgotten. They fear no one will ever know they lived or remember them.

So with all this fear it is necessary to note that some of the most expensive and lavish events can be and are funerals.

This is not sanctioned only to America, but many cultures. Some cultures even have weeklong or month-long celebrations for the deceased. They say it is to please the spirits of the dead to help them move on and not hang around and haunt the living. Also to bring luck and good fortune to those who celebrate the dead, even if the deceased was a horrible person or a complete asshole.

But what about those who don’t fear death?

Those who laugh in death’s face and perform outrageous feats or live as though they have a get out of death free card?

What about those who think about or commit suicide? There’s no fear of death there, right?

Wrong.

The fear of death is not a choice. It is a natural reaction. Our nature is to survive. Death is not surviving therefore we have an inherent fear of it. Even if someone acts as though they don’t fear death, deep down there is still a sliver of terror, though they may not consciously be aware of it.

I guess my point is this: Acceptance is the only way to end this pointless debate about death.

We all die.

We all will die.

Being afraid or not afraid won’t change that.

August 12th, 1:07 am.

I would like to respond to the flood of messages and comments I have received over a post I published on August 5th.

First off, I am not sorry for anything I typed. Just because you can’t look past the initial shock of something and see the meaning underneath is not my concern. Intelligence is based on the idea of observation and discussion. If you don’t even want to allow free and open discussions to be had get out. This may seem cruel, but the fact remains that you are trying to force your ideas and beliefs on someone who is stating their opinion. For those of you who are simply making an intelligent argument based on your beliefs, please disregard this response. You are doing it correctly. I speak mainly to the ones who have decided to simply call me names immaturely, denounce all of my intelligence, and hide behind masks of anonymity.

Second, you have choice. You have the freedom to decide to read or not read. Do not make it sound as though I am forcing anything onto anyone. I am not. You consciously chose to read my post. You consciously chose to instead of closing the window continue reading and become more offended. Do not blame me for forcibly offending you. That is your own sadomasochistic issue.

Third and I can’t believe I’m having to type this, no, I will not send you my personal information so that we may discuss this topic in detail. That’s not how this blog works. I’m simply recording my observations of the life I’m living and those around me. I don’t feel comfortable giving out my home address, phone number, or any other information that can, though not necessarily will be, used to locate me, attack me, or to cause my readers to become so dependent on me that they will be unable to live.

If that last one doesn’t make sense to you, good. I will not be explaining it.

Oh and for the one commenter who thinks it’s funny to continuously send me an invitation to a funeral, please stop. I don’t know what you’re doing or what you’re thinking will come of it, but I’m going to block you if I receive anymore.

*         *          *

“You keep pissing off more people when you respond, you know,” Laura said, sitting across from Jessica Dedman.

Jessica stared up at her ex-roommate from her computer. “How did you know I was responding?”

“Please, when you aren’t watching YouTube videos you’re working on that blog of yours. Why did you even put up that post? I told you people would flip out if you mentioned God in any form.” Laura handed Jessica her coffee.

“I didn’t say anything negative. I mentioned people’s beliefs and they immediately started calling me the devil’s harlot or some other medieval insult that doesn’t mean anything in the modern world,” Jessica said, angrily taking her coffee. She placed it on the table and pulled off the top to allow the hot liquid to cool.

“But you mentioned God. Some people only have tunnel vision in the worst way. They immediately assume you’re being negative about their beliefs. Plus, there are people who just like to start fights.”

“Anonymity is the worse thing in the world. People grow balls when they think no one can find out who they are.”

Jessica looked over her posts and started reading several new comments. There were those trying to defend her against the ones attacking her. Honestly, she didn’t even need to respond to any of the comments. People were willing to defend her even if they had no idea what she actually believed.

“What about that creeper who keeps sending you invites to that funeral? Has he stopped contacting you?” Laura asked, sipping her coffee.

Jessica shrugged. “He stopped sending me invitations, but he keeps sending me letters asking for a response instead of returning the invites.”

“You always attract the weirdoes.”

“I don’t think he counts as a weirdo. Besides, it’s the Internet. Everyone’s a weirdo.” She tested her coffee carefully. It was still hot, but bearable enough to drink. “How’s your life? I’m sick of talking about this blog. That’s what the blog is for.”

Laura pointed a finger at her. “Careful. Is that really how you want to talk to someone who could let all your dedicated readers know who you are?”

“Sorry. What’s going on with you, Laura?”

“Same old thing. Trying to convince my boss that just because he’s one of the youngest employers in the building he doesn’t have to act like an ass. Especially when he starts blaming us for his shortsightedness.”

“Typical office life. Hmm, maybe I should write about that?”

“If you do, you aren’t allowed to use any of my stories. For all I know, he may be a fan. He spends a lot of time on his computer.”

“You make it sound like I have a million followers. I only have a couple hundred, if that. Though I think after this fiasco of non-existent bible burning I may be down to a dozen.”

Laura laughed. “Do you really think you have that many religious followers? Your blog is called Dead Man’s Dreams. Not exactly screaming out ‘Praise the Lord’ or ‘Bless the Lamb’, is it?”

“I don’t know what’s more terrifying, the fact you remember the name of my blog or that you said bless the lamb.”

“Oh, so funny. You should write that down for your next entry.”

*         *          *

The knock at the door, at first, Jessica thought came from her dreams. It wasn’t until she heard Laura’s angry groans she realized the knocking was real. Laura stayed the night because the drive back to her place was too long. Jessica mimicked Laura’s annoyed groans and got to her feet.

The cool wood of the floor leading to the doorway helped Jessica lose a little of the drowse from sleep. Her anger at being woken up lost the rest. She took a passing glance at the bright clock in the kitchen as she moved and gave a moan. 4 am. No one should ever be up at 4 am and whoever had woken her at this hour was going to hear all about how no one should be awake at this hour.

The knocking stopped as she approached the door and any other person would have gone back to bed, but Jessica wasn’t letting the rude awakeners leave without a word.

She unlocked the door and swung it open a little harder than she planned. “Someone better be dead,” she growled at the back of a man.

The man turned to her with surprise in his eyes. The surprise only made Jessica angrier, but after taking the man in fully her anger faded to confusion.

Icy blue eyes, which sparkled with surprise and excitement, and brown hair combed to create a clean look fit so well with the young-looking face, though Jessica had a strong feeling the man was older. He wore a well-tailored black suit, tie, and shined black shoes. The black tie was satin and caught what little light there was in the early morning. A black umbrella and coat hung on his arm and he held a pair of black gloves in one hand.

Jessica took in all the black and felt her face drain of blood. “Sorry…about the someone being dead.”

A smile brightened the man’s face, but his eyes became cold like ice. Jessica immediately believed it was the cold of anger, but when the man spoke his words were warm. “There is no need to apologize. I realize I could have handled this a little better, but time was running out. I figured coming myself would be the best thing. Jessica Dedman, I presume?”

“Yes.” Jessica looked inside the house. Laura hadn’t come out which meant she’d fallen back asleep. She was alone to deal with this.

“Very good. Well, come on then.” The man walked away and Jessica saw a large black Rolls Royce parked in front of her house. A chauffeur, standing next to the open door, waited for the man.

She didn’t know why, but she grabbed her keys from the rack by the door, pulled on her tennis shoes, and followed, locking the door behind her. She stopped next to the car and leaned over to look in at the man, already seated inside. “So, um, you’re not kidnapping me, are you?”

The man laughed and patted the seat next to him. “Get in, Miss Dedman.”

Jessica hesitated and looked up at the chauffeur. He bowed his head and smiled at her. She took a deep breath and climbed in.

*         *          *

“Where are we going?” Jessica asked, feeling strange sitting in a luxury car next to a man wearing a silk tie in her flannel pajamas.

“You need to change.”

“Excuse me?”

Those icy blue eyes locked onto her and she felt her heart pound. The coldness behind it, she realized, was deep sorrow. This man was weeping on the inside.

“You can’t go to a funeral in pajamas,” he said it so easily and with such warmth it took a moment for Jessica to fully grasp what he had spoken.

“Funeral?” She wished her voice didn’t sound so small. “Why are we going to a funeral?”

The cold eyes looked forward and the man took a long, deep breath. When he released it, it came out wavering and he tightened his grip on the umbrella in his lap. “I have been trying to be polite, Miss Dedman. I understand you thought it was a practical joke or some kind of trick, especially after I discovered you wrote a post online along the same theme. But I assumed after the fifth attempt to contact you, you would have realized it was very serious.”

Jessica’s body went still and she felt her throat dry. “You were the one sending me the funeral invite?”

“Normally, I would give someone time and then approach them, but due to the circumstances, I had no choice but to approach you in a truly inappropriate manner. I apologize for that, but it’s a very thin apology. The man who is being celebrated today was a very close friend and someone I respected more deeply than any other man. So if I seem to be rude at any point I apologize only because it’s impolite to ever be rude to a lady. If you wish to argue with me, please don’t until this day is over with. With that said, clothes and makeup have been provided for you. I’ll give you my word as a gentleman that I won’t peek as you change.”

He pointed to a box and bag placed on the seat across from them. The larger box was from Chanel and Jessica swallowed. She’d never worn a Chanel dress before. She felt her heart pound in her chest when she saw the Louboutin box sitting next to the dress box.

Before she could stop herself she looked at the man and said, “Who are you?”

“Corbin Wyght. Get dressed, Miss Dedman.”

Corbin was good on his word. As Jessica changed he covered his eyes with his gloved hands. She had trouble at first getting the dress on, mainly for fear of tearing the expensive fabric. She found it odd that it fit her perfectly and wondered how Corbin had known her size. The shoes, as well, were the perfect fit. She began applying her makeup, having trouble in the moving vehicle, but Corbin, after asking if she was decent, assisted her. Surprising her with his detail to makeup. She wanted to jokingly ask if he’d helped many women with makeup in a car, but the sorrow in his eyes kept her quiet.

The drive lasted for two hours and Jessica was thankful. If it took any longer she would have gone insane in the silence. Gentle rain fell and as the chauffeur opened the door, Corbin opened the umbrella and stepped out. He held his hand out to Jessica and she took it.

The first thing she noticed was the smell of the air. It was clear and she could smell the ocean. The cool air brought with it a peaceful sense and she looked at the small church in front of her. She didn’t recognize it, not that she would. She hadn’t been in a church since middle school, but something about this church was different than any she’d been in before. It was old. Very old. Older than it should have been, she thought.

“They’ll be starting soon, Miss Dedman. Please, come with me,” Corbin said. He held his arm out for her and she took it.

They walked around the church to the cemetery stretched out far behind it. Her eyes widened at the sight of the ocean and realized why everything seemed off. They weren’t in California anymore. The view looked more like the East coast, but she couldn’t believe that. They’d only been driving for two hours.

The rain drummed on the umbrella, growing more heavily as they walked towards a small gathering of people in black. Umbrellas blocked Jessica’s view of those standing around the open grave and white casket. A priest, his umbrella held by a solemn, young man in black, watched Corbin and Jessica approach. A few heads turned to stare at the two newcomers, but many were focused on the casket.

Corbin led Jessica to two chairs at the front of the group and they seated themselves in silence. The two seated next to Corbin stared at him with wide eyes, but Jessica couldn’t tell if it was shock or anger. Corbin gave a sharp nod to the priest. The priest smiled and opened his bible. He held it to the young man holding his umbrella. They traded places and the young man cleared his throat.

“A reading from the book of Job. Then Job answered, “O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. The Word of the Lord.”

The group responded. The man seated next to Corbin stood and crossed to the young man. He took the bible from his hand and the young man took the umbrella from the priest.

The man licked his lips and changed the pages of the bible. “A reading from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. The Word of the Lord.”

The group responded. The man closed the bible and handed it to the priest before returning to his seat next to Corbin.

The priest closed his bible and looked each person in the eye before continuing. “We are here to celebrate the life of a man. Finley Tierney was a husband, father, brother, and to many, a good friend. In life he was a good soul who would help those who asked and many who didn’t. He found comfort in laughter, harmony in song, and happiness in life. He would not wish for any of us to mourn his passing. He would instead want us to remember the joy he brought and pass that joy on into the world. Now, the family will say a few words.”

Desmond

They don’t deserve this place.

He wished this moment could last forever, but he knew in several minutes the entire church would fill with people and the peace and quiet would be lost until nightfall.

He didn’t like the noise of the worshippers.

They don’t deserve to feel safe.

Desmond Fleischer opened his eyes, taking in the emptiness of the sanctuary. The sacred emptiness and silence. He wished it could remain this way.

The lines of pews stretched far back, punctuated by the vibrant red of the velvet. The soft morning sunlight through the stained glass windows created an almost otherworldly look. Floating in the rays of light, dust danced slowly, adding to the calming environment. The sanctuary was its most beautiful in the early morning.

Sitting on the steps leading up to the altar, Desmond wore the traditional black cassock with a blue velvet fascia. He was the only one in the church who wore the blue fascia, the symbol of one who lived in a church, but not a priest, in training or otherwise. The strict rules of the church didn’t bind him, which many women of the town were relieved to know.

At twenty-five years old, Desmond was young and handsome in many of the townsfolk’s eyes. He was also a commodity in Grenda. His rich, black hair and deep green eyes set him apart from the blonde haired, blue and gray eyed people of the town.

To Desmond, his differing appearance made it blatantly clear he was an outsider. Even if the other priests acted as though he were family and the people of the town welcomed him, Desmond knew he didn’t belong.

And he hated them for it. He hated everyone and wondered what would happen if one day he simply chose to ki—

“Are you thinking of something sinful, Desmond?” a light, soothing voice said from behind.

Turning away from the sanctuary, Desmond stared at the tall man standing behind him.

Though an older man of fifty years, Father Reginald, the head of the church, had the body and spirit of a twenty year old. Strong muscles could be seen even through the cloth of his cassock. His brown hair faded to gray at his ears and back of the neck. His eyes, once almost as dark as Desmond’s, were bright green. When he smiled, decades melted from his face.

“I’ve a lot on my mind today, Father,” Desmond said, turning back to the sanctuary.

Reginald sat next to Desmond and sighed. “Does that include thoughts of leaving us?”

Quickly turning his head, Desmond’s eyes widened. “How did you—?”

“You’re a young man who’s been trapped in one place his whole life. I’d be more surprised if you didn’t think about leaving. I always thought it wrong of your mother to abandon you here at the church instead of the orphanage. I assume she meant for you to take on the cloth and never have the urge to search for her, but you weren’t meant to be a holy man. The church isn’t an easy mistress to give your unconditional love to, especially for a young man like you.”

“Like me?”

“Don’t make me spell it out, Desmond. Some men are meant to venture across the land in search of their life’s calling. Others, like myself, are happy to find one place to settle down and spread fortune to others. I’m not saying you haven’t done fine work here in the church, but when I watch you doing your duties or talking to the people, I can see you’re hiding something in your eyes. Something you don’t want anyone to see.”

Desmond leaned his head on his knees and stared at the floor, feeling his earlier thoughts try to come out.

“That’s the look I’m talking about,” Reginald said.

Desmond’s eyes narrowed and he turned his head so he could see Reginald’s face. “You’re the only one who could ever see through me, Father.”

Reginald smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “It’s gotten harder as you’ve gotten older. Sometimes that can be a burden of its own.”

Desmond raised a questioning eyebrow, but Reginald didn’t continue.

“Father Reginald,” a voice called.

Both turned to see Father Michaela enter from the back room with a lighted candle. “We’re ready to begin,” he said, lighting candles for the sermon.

Father Michaela was a short, lean man with blue eyes, but his muscular appearance gave Desmond the impression the man hadn’t always been a priest. His straw colored hair was kept back in a ponytail, but when it was loosed it reached past his shoulders. The other priests constantly badgered him to cut it, but he refused. He kept it long in memory of his murdered family and vowed to only cut it once the guilty party had been caught and punished.

“Thank you, Father Michaela,” Reginald said, standing. Michaela bowed his head and headed for the doors of the church. A few more priests entered the sanctuary, lighting candles down the aisles or placing flowers on the altar. Gregory, no more than twelve years of age, walked down the long aisle to the back of the church.

Desmond turned away from the growing activity in the church and his eyes found their way to the stained glass window closest to the chancel.

There were twelve windows in all, six on each side of the sanctuary. Each represented different moments from the Old War through Lady Giselle’s victory against the Snake King. An anonymous donor donated them a few days after Desmond’s eighth birthday.

Reginald watched Desmond, hesitating a moment before he spoke. “Many changes are occurring in Phalandria. I just hope when it’s all over everything will be better.”

“Phalandria is a country of many conflicting beliefs and power. It would be a miracle if anything good came from those changes,” Desmond said, meeting Reginald’s eyes.

“Then it’s only an old man’s dream for everything to be better, but you have to admit, I’m a special old man.”

Without responding, Desmond glanced back at the stained glass window closest to the chancel. The window, mostly blue, showed the image of a beautiful woman at its center. Long blonde hair framed an enchanting face with emerald green eyes. She held a sword above her head while a large snake curled around her, baring its fangs at her viciously. Desmond had always been drawn to this window. Something about it pulled him in.

Following Desmond’s gaze, Reginald smiled knowingly. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

“She is.”

“I was talking about the window.” Reginald laughed. “So you were thinking about something sinful.”

Blushing, Desmond dropped his eyes to the floor. “Father.”

Reginald placed his hand on Desmond’s head. “It’s alright, Desmond. You aren’t bound to this church as I am. A few earthly desires are allowed.”

Desmond quickly stood, slapping Reginald’s hand away. “Are you jealous?”

“A little bit.” Desmond’s eyes widened and another fit of laughter overtook Reginald and he patted Desmond on the head. “I’m only joking.”

Desmond stepped away from Reginald, but stopped when he saw the window again.

Reginald sighed. “That window is the most beautiful in the sanctuary. It’s no surprise since she was the most beautiful woman to have ever lived. That’s who our Lady Giselle was. A beautiful, strong woman.”

“Father Reginald,” Michaela called, annoyed, from the doors of the church.

Groaning, Reginald waved his hand at Michaela. “I know, I know. Go ahead and let them in.” He leaned close to Desmond. “Sometimes I wish the sanctuary could remain just as it is. Peaceful and quiet.”

Looking at him surprised, Desmond caught the small smile on Reginald’s lips as he turned away to head for his seat on the chancel. Desmond hesitated then moved to his seat at the far left end. It was as though he read Desmond’s mind.

But of all the people in Grenda, Reginald was truly the only one who seemed to understand Desmond…even his darker thoughts. Michaela was afraid of him, even as a child Desmond had frightened the man.

The other priests chose to ignore him, but whispers often found their ways to Desmond’s ears. He knew they were both afraid and jealous of Desmond. Jealous at how much freedom he was granted and afraid of what that freedom allowed him to do. Rumors from the town involving Desmond rarely were positive.

Fear, Desmond enjoyed their fear. It meant his freedom was secured. Only Father Reginald had a hold on him, but it wasn’t as strong as when he’d been a child. If he left, it would be gone.

As he sat in his chair, Michaela opened the doors allowing the people to enter. Some waited hours for the church doors to open and they hurried to the front, securing their place. When they sat in the pews they immediately bowed their heads and softly prayed.

Others who arrived after these eager for salvation, fought to find seats as close to the front as possible, a few even arguing. But the arguments never devolved into actual fights. They were still able to realize where they were and often the one with the weakest faith ended up losing and moving back.

The pews filled quickly and Michaela had trouble making his way back to the chancel. He sat in the chair beside Desmond, leaving one chair empty between him and Reginald. Another empty chair was on Reginald’s other side as Fathers Gerard and Nico sat in their respective seats. The two empty chairs were for the two new priests sent from the capital.

With the threat of another war growing, the people became more fearful, as well as the High Church in the capital. As fear grows, negative feelings about the ones meant to protect the people grow. A decree made by the church’s council ordered priests from the churches located in the capital to be sent out across the country to smaller churches far from their “guiding hand”.

The council feared the smaller churches would turn against them, causing the people to revolt and dethrone all of the powerful bishops, but if they could have their own leaders guide the “lost souls” then a revolt wouldn’t be possible or would be stopped long before it could become a threat.

The two priests assigned to this church were from the High Church itself, but it was clear from their presentation of themselves they weren’t high in the clergy. Though they believed themselves to be just as superior.

“The church has really become a lot more popular lately, hasn’t it?” Michaela said, leaning close to Desmond. A thin veil of annoyance entered his voice from having to fight his way through the mob.

Shrugging his shoulders, Desmond smiled his usual smile. The smile he wore for everyone except Reginald. He’d been practicing it for years to make sure those who saw it believed they had his respect or could feel safe around him. Of course, only Reginald had gained his respect, but even he couldn’t tell the difference.

“I think they just want to see priests from the High Church.” Desmond eyed the crowd of worshippers still filling the sanctuary. The entire town had shown today making it a full house, standing room only.

“You think too cynically, Desmond. Now is the time for the church to welcome those who live in fear of the threats to the country.”

“Interesting how they turn to the church only when something may be a danger to them physically,” Desmond snapped back.

Michaela guarded his emotions, which meant he agreed with Desmond, but couldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing. Desmond sighed and his eyes moved slowly over the hundreds of heads bowed before them.

Many of the worshippers came today due to fear, fear of the threat to the north and fear at the growing power of the one who gave himself the title of Demon King.

Hundreds of years ago, during the Old War, a monster power was birthed when the first Demon King begun his ruthless campaign to control all of Phalandria. Thousands of innocents were slaughtered before the High Church and the legendary warrior Glain stopped the Demon King’s campaign. After the war the Demon King disappeared, no one knowing for sure whether he lived or been killed during the final battle.

Now a new Demon King, claiming to be a descendant, rose to power in the north. He was even carrying out the same campaign, attacking any town, village, or city in his path. Hundreds had already been mercilessly slaughtered or taken prisoner for unknown reasons. Those who survived his attacks were left homeless with nowhere to turn to except for the capital.

But the true fear came from the rumors. Survivors claimed their homes were destroyed not only by the Demon King’s army of men, but also by the guardians and the generals of the Snake King, the lord of all demons. If the rumors proved to be true than it would mean the two greatest evil powers to ever exist in Phalandria not only returned, but joined forces.

No surprise then people were afraid and no shock when they appeared in the church having found his or her religious selves again. Most of the people in the church hadn’t been to a sermon in years, but the new threat filled their minds and they came in swarms.

Destroying the peace and quiet of the sanctuary and dirtying it with their selfish desires. Praying for the first time in months, for some years, as though one moment of confession could so easily wipe away the sins of their lives. Some churches in the larger countries believed confession refreshed the soul, but as far as Desmond was concerned, confession was only to make the people feel better. It meant nothing once they left this world.

“Pointless,” Desmond whispered under his breath.

“Desmond?” Michaela asked softly. He stared at Desmond with furrowed brows, unsure of what he may or may not have heard.

Turning to him, Desmond shook his head. “Nothing, Father.”

Michaela kept his gaze on him a moment longer before turning back to the worshippers. Desmond’s smile faded into a sneer before he made his face blank.

Twenty-five years Desmond lived and was raised in the church by Father Reginald. All he knew about his family came from Reginald. His mother and father were from the capital, but his mother was married when she met Desmond’s father. Though it didn’t stop them from giving birth to him. Therefore, to avoid scandal, they gave Desmond to this church far from the capital. Reginald raised him and loosely taught him the teachings of the church.

For twenty-five years Desmond watched the people of this town forget their faith and just as easily come crawling back begging for forgiveness and expecting retribution. For twenty-five years he stood in the sanctuary, alone, seeking answers and guidance, receiving nothing but silence and darkness, darkness that filled Desmond’s soul, consuming him.

The church’s teachings meant nothing to him. He acted the part well enough, the good honest man not really of the cloth, but respectful of it, but behind it lay nothing but an empty, hollow darkness. Even the ones who came to the church for enlightenment, forgiveness, or safety, those who sought him and the priests out for comfort, were nothing more than insects that didn’t deserve his attention.

Insects he wouldn’t mind squashing.

Scars

The letter came yesterday.

Besides being an outdated mode of communication, there wasn’t anything particularly unique about it. Standard white envelope, plain stamp (a hand drawn flower and ladybug) on the top right corner, and handwritten addresses…again, nothing particularly unique about it.

The letter sat on the counter since I pulled it from my mailbox. It’s been sitting there because I didn’t have the strength to open it. Or throw it out.

The name at the top left corner, written in beautiful, familiar cursive writing, read Sara Colby.

My mother.

I haven’t heard from my mother in ten years. I didn’t know she knew where I lived. Never gave her an address. She never asked for one. Yet, here was this letter with her curly handwriting. The bottom of the Y in Colby underlined her full name and circled up at the end. There was no doubt, her signature.

And in my hand, another letter freshly picked up from my mailbox two minutes ago. The letter had a fresh stamp placed on the back, keeping the envelope closed.

This letter, from my best friend from childhood…it had to be a joke. But the name was printed clearly and in familiar slanted letters. Warren Poste. No mistake, it was his handwriting. I’d never forget it. But it couldn’t be from Warren.

Dead people can’t write letters.

The scars on my arms, back, neck, and chest ached. They remembered the night I received them, the fire in the old church back in Colden. Warren’s screams.

The burning.

I threw Warren’s letter on to the counter next to my mother’s as though it became a hot coal. A twitch in my right hand brought a gasp from my tightening lungs. I could smell the smoke, hear the fire roaring in my ears.

Grabbing the side of the counter I leaned my head against the cool tile. I took deep breaths, forcing the air through. “I’m in a safe place. I’m not burning. I’m safe,” I repeated over and over.

The moment passed, though it felt like hours, and I stood straight inhaling deep breaths. My eyes bounced from one unpleasant letter to the other. I debated which to open first since neither one stood out as the better choice. But I eventually decided the one from someone still living would be a good start…painful, but less painful.

Grabbing the pristine, clean letter, I caught a whiff of my mother’s perfume. Memories flooded back and I quickly tore through the envelope.

Dear Andrew,
I know it’s been a while since our last communication to you and I want you to know that your father still doesn’t want me to write you. Even about something as important as this. As you may…or may not know, this year marks the 100th anniversary of Colden’s founding. There’s going to be a big parade and celebration. Your sister, Ellie, will be participating in the parade and she would love to have her big brother in the crowd supporting her. In fact, it was her idea to write you and she’s the one who found your address. She’s very bright with computers.

Of course, my sister. When I left home, she was the only one I kept in touch with, but eventually even that stopped. I didn’t want her to be easily able to track me. Obviously that hadn’t stopped her.

      Your father and I want to support Ellie as much as possible. If you could make it even just for the parade, I think that would be enough. You and your sister were so close. You were both also very close to the Poste boys, God rest their souls.
      She hasn’t been the same since you left, Andrew. I also know that you haven’t been the same since…the accident.
      Please let us know if you will be able to make it out for the parade. If not, we I understand.
       Mom
P.S.– If you do decide to come, we really need to know in advance so we can book a hotel room for you. They’re filling up very quickly.

Added at the very bottom of the letter, as an after thought:

I love you, Andrew.

I laughed quietly to myself. Of course if I decided to come back they wouldn’t let me stay in the house. If I was anywhere with my father it always ended badly.

The letter wasn’t exactly what I expected. But it wasn’t exactly a fantastic, happy surprise either. If I’d been born an only child I could’ve separated from them cleanly.

But I loved Ellie. Definitely enough to suck it up and go back to Colden.

My eyes wandered over the same sentence: You were both also very close to the Poste boys, God rest their souls.

I locked eyes on the second letter, the one from Warren Poste. It appeared larger, as though it had grown since I last saw it seconds ago. Laying mom’s letter down I gently, with a shaking hand, picked it up.

Was this a sick joke by Ellie? As revenge for cutting me off?

I had a little trouble tearing through the thin paper, but soon I managed to pull out the wrinkled notebook papers. On the top page was the date:

7-13-XXXX

My back ached. That date…same day as the accident. I didn’t want to keep going, but I had to. I opened the sheets of paper. The first paper was a drawing. I didn’t recognize it from anything, but felt I knew it, as though it was buried deep in my memories.

After the drawing, someone placed a sticky note over the beginning of the letter. I carefully peeled the yellow square from the wrinkled paper. Ellie’s big letters barely fit on the small note. The message simply said: Found this. Thought you should read it…I did. Sorry bout the name on the front, it was already addressed. Creepy, right? – Ellie.

I stuck the note on the letter from mom and, after nearly tearing the papers and throwing them in the trash, read Warren’s letter:

Hey Andrew,
       If you’re reading this, one of two things happened. We saved Eric…or we failed. I hope it’s the first, cause if it ain’t…that probably means I’m dead. If that’s the case then fuck, this must seem crazy. Cause if I know you and this town it’s probably been a couple years.
       Anyway, let me get right to the point, man. You gotta get away from the town. I hope by the time you read this you’re already thousands of miles away. I can’t really explain it in a way that makes sense, but trust me. STAY AWAY!!!
      We got ourselves involved in some serious shit, man. We should’ve listened to everyone and stayed out of it, but…fuck! You know I can’t couldn’t just sit around with Eric missing. I know this seems weird…it’s weird writing you in the future when I’m about to see you in like twenty minutes.
       Do you remember that symbol on the first page of this letter? If you don’t, don’t worry about it. It’s for the best if you don’t.
       Andrew, something big is happening soon. BE CAREFUL! I think they’re going to come for you. I don’t know who they are, but I’ve been hearing some fucked up shit from…well, doesn’t matter where, but trust me, it ain’t good.
Please, please, PLEASE, Andrew. Once we finish what we do (did) tonight, forget about Colden and STAY AWAY!!!!
Warren

Disbelief. The only word to describe what I felt at that moment. It wasn’t a joke. If it was, it was an awful, cruel joke. I could hear Warren’s voice in my head. He’d written this letter before the accident. Minutes before I saw him alive for the last time.

More terrifying, Warren knew he was going to die. Something in the town was wrong. What we’d finished years ago was only the beginning. If I went back what would happen? Would anything happen?

I grabbed my mother’s letter and read through it again. Then I read Warren’s letter again.

I had two choices. Ignore my parent’s, and Ellie’s, request to come home or ignore the last wish of my dead best friend.

A half-smile came to my lips as I crumpled Warren’s letter.

“Sorry.”

Colden here I come.

Wolfheart

Magic feels different.

Even those who don’t have a lick of it in their bodies can sense it. They don’t understand what it is, but their instincts tell them something is wrong and strong feeling of fear fills them. Most run away. The rare few who manage to stay, not understanding the intense feeling of dread and uncomfortable shaking, usually pass out…or they’re the targets.

The man behind me shivered and stood abruptly. “Dæmon.” His voice trembled and he kissed the necklace around his throat. His eyes locked onto mine and I wondered if he was speaking it to me as a warning…or labeling me.

I turned my head to watch the others in the café, the bandage over my right eye blocking a small portion of my view.

Everyone was leaving. Not a single person, even the workers who knew magic, stayed. I saw Tomas put the glass goblet he was drying down and crack his neck. Then he peered across the café at me, a piteous smirk on his face.

I recognized that look. I’d been getting it a lot lately. Sorry, mate. You understand. Can’t fight magic.

Seeing the look on Tomas’s face in his own café brought an amused smile to my face. If it was strong enough magic to kick an Erlkönig from his home, I had no fucking chance. And since I didn’t feel the intense urge to flee that meant only one thing.

The target of this particular magic was none other than me.

∗          ∗         ∗

Bad luck. That was all it had been. Pure, stupid, dumb bad luck.

I knew all the rules. I understood all the lessons they taught us growing up and how to recognize the dangers. None of that mattered.

Bad luck is bad luck and it only takes a little to completely change, or for some destroy, their lives. I wouldn’t say my life was destroyed. But I wouldn’t lightly say it was changed. It was unluckily forced to readjust to my stupid situation.

I remembered someone telling me once; victims never remember the actual attack. They don’t remember the pain. They don’t remember what happened. They just wake up in a hospital bed terrified and confused.

I had bad luck with that, too. I remembered everything, every tiny detail. I remember every speck of pain that coursed through not only body, but my mind as well.

The first injury was a scratch to my back that tore not only my clothes, but also the flesh from my bones. I could hear the flesh tear and feel the blood waterfall down my already hot skin. The next attack came from below. Long, sharp teeth burying into my thigh. The massive head shook ferociously, trying to free some more flesh from my body. I was tossed around like a rag doll, unable to do anything but scream and flail helplessly at the large head.

But my attacker ultimately won the struggle. I heard a loud pop and more tearing. I fell to the ground blinded by the intense pain that followed. It took me seconds to figure out my entire left leg had been torn from my body, but it felt like an eternity. Most people would have passed out by this point, or more likely died.

More bad luck for me.

I remained conscious, the edges of my vision darkening as the beast returned to feast on more of me while I still lived. I felt him dig into my stomach, but I was beyond pain at that point. I only felt pressure and my body involuntarily twitch as it pulled meat from me.

The final attack soon loomed over mend I finally got a good look at my death before the jaws closed around my throat.

And here comes the worst of the bad luck. Instead of piercing my carotid artery and bleeding me dry or snapping my neck with one powerful twist, the jaws released me and my attacker stepped back.

The only strength left in my body was used to roll my eyes to stare into the icy blue eyes of the werewolf that attacked me.

∗          ∗         ∗

I wish I could say that was when I finally passed out into the sweet bliss of unconsciousness. But like I said…bad luck.

The werewolf licked the blood from his jowls, his long tongue emerging from his dark lips like a snake. I remember thinking how beautiful his fur was. Black everywhere except for his belly and lower jaw.

Like an upside down skunk. The thought brought a smile to my lips and a laugh to my throat. Unfortunately the laughter only sent me into a coughing fit that brought blood to my lips.

The werewolf leaned hid head to the side and sat down on his immense haunches. He leaned forward and nudged my head with his nose, smearing the fresh blood onto his fur. His long tongue reached out and cleaned the line rolling down the side of my face.

The almost comforting action brought another fit of laughter-coughing.

And that was when the worst of it came. My head exploded into thousands of pieces, sending electricity shooting through the remains of my body. Voices screamed through my thoughts. Centuries of life filled me and I could feel everything expanding and converging all together and in one spot. Me.

Flashes of millions of lives filled my vision. Stars exploded into life and died before me. I knew everything and yet could never know anything. I existed, but would never exist again.

Then the howling began. It started soft, like a hum at the edge of my perception. It grew surrounding me in a protective bubble against the infinite wisdom and life circling me. It carried me back through time and locations so remote and yet so familiar. The howling surrounded me and soon filled me, erupting from my throat and sending a strange, intoxicating surge of power through me.

And then I woke up in the hospital.

∗          ∗         ∗

The room was so normal I thought I was dreaming. The sudden shock of being alive and in a room painted achingly plain sent a wave of panic through me. my breathing grew ragged and my heart pounded loudly in my chest, making the heart monitor next to my bed beep loudly.

“You’re all right,” a deep voice said from the chair next to my hospital bed.

I looked over at the owner of the voice and was startled to see a large man glaring at me with his arms cross over his chest. The hair on his chin was dark, matching the mop of black on his head. His chocolate brown eyes were locked on my face. His thick body was pure muscle and I could tell even seated he had to be at least six feet tall.

I swallowed, feeling the dryness of my throat. “What?” I wanted to ask what happened, but I didn’t need to be told. I knew what happened. Plus, the scratchy voice that came from my mouth cut off my question.

“Don’t talk.”

That was when I felt it. I felt what this man was and I felt his power. My first experience with an Alpha werewolf and I could barely move. I’d spoken to werewolf before, but this was something completely new. I couldn’t tear my eyes from him, but I knew not to look him in the eye (some of the lessons sticking even in my moment of weakness).

I knew this man could kill me any second if he chose and I knew he’d killed men before. I knew with one word he could make anyone shudder with fear. But most importantly, I knew he was the one who nearly killed me.

“Rest.” His voice was comforting in its roughness and I felt him release power. My eyes grew heavy and as I fell asleep, a new fear filled me because even with the power of an Alpha, he couldn’t control humans with his voice.

Which meant I was no longer human.

∗          ∗         ∗

The café was empty now. I sat alone at my table, drinking the last of the liquid in my glass. My head was pounding. not from the magic, but from the pain medication wearing off.

My leg twitched involuntarily and I hissed in a sharp breath as my mending ribs groaned against the sudden movement.

I debated acknowledging the magic caster’s presence, but thought it too cliché. Instead I reached into my pocket and pulled out the small bag with my new best friends, painkillers. And these were the good shit, as people say. Strong enough to work on a werewolf, so you knew it was legit.

I popped three pills into my mouth and used the last of my spit to swallow. The caster still didn’t show him or herself. So I leaned back in my chair and looked up at the ceiling, closing my eyes and waiting for the medication to kick in.

“Do you choose to ignore me out of some show of bravado or are you, plainly put, simple-minded?” The voice hinted an older language, certain vowels emphasized in unusual patterns. The light footsteps, hard even for my ears to detect, hinted an older race.

“Plainly put, in large amounts of pain.” I opened my eyes and stared at the being standing before me. I laughed when I saw what he was wearing. “I’m underdressed. Is there a war happening I don’t know about?”

The being wore armor made of the finest metals any dwarf would be jealous of. But of course, this being’s race and dwarves weren’t currently on speaking terms. Not since the death of Oi’lian, the royal mother to the High Light Elves. Her sons believed her death to have been caused by the carelessness of dwarves.

And that was who stood before me, one of the sons of the royal mother. Not just any son either, but the one who inherited the throne and became the Royal Father of the High Light Elves. Luthwain.

∗          ∗         ∗

I don’t know how long I rested, but when I woke up I realized there were multiple people in my room. Most I didn’t recognize, but there was one tiny figure seated next to me, holding my hand that sent a such a wave of relief through me, tears fell from my eyes.

“Mom,” I whispered.

My mom’s lips curved up into a smile and her eyes glistened with mirroring tears. But I could still see the fear causing the hand holding mine to shake. “Hey, baby. How’re you feeling?”

Glancing behind her at the Alpha werewolf sitting in the same spot I’d last seen him I squeezed her hand tightly. “Fine. Are you okay?”

She nodded her head and brushed a loose strand of hair from my face. “Would you like anything? A glass of water or something to eat?”

“Water and anything else you can find.”

She leaned forward and kissed me on my forehead before leaving me alone with the pack of werewolves standing around me. I didn’t want her in there with them any longer than she had to be.

The Alpha werewolf stood from hissed and walked to the side of my bed. The other wolves formed a protective semi circle around him and my bed. My eyes moved from face to face, sensing annoyance from some, anger from others, and odd curiosity from the last.

“Meyer Fredric,” the Alpha’s voice immediately snapped my attention back to him. “What do you remember?”

“Everything,” I said without hesitation.

“Why were you in my territory?”

“I wasn’t. I was at the pre-approved government sanctioned camping area three miles north of your territory. Then I fell.”

“What, you fell three miles south?” a raspy voice said at the foot of my bed. Several of the others laughed.

If these were humans I would’ve risked a look at whoever spoke, but since they weren’t, I kept my gaze firmly on the Alpha. His chocolate brown eyes flashed at the speaker, silencing him and any who laughed.

“Tell me everything,” he said, returning his eyes to me.

“We, my friends and I, had been hiking one of the trails up into the hills. We took a break and I ventured off to handle some personal business. On my way back I heard something behind me. When I turned a gust of wind slammed into me, knocking me off my feet. When I stood up I was in a different forest and the sun had gone down. I tried to find a clearing where I could get my bearings. Then I felt a large thing run past me and when I turned I saw it had been a deer. Then you attacked me.” I winced slightly at the glare that greeted me. “I guess I scared your dinner away. Sorry.”

“It wasn’t my dinner,” the Alpha growled at me. “I was teaching the younger wolves how to hunt. It took almost all of my strength to keep them back and as such, I didn’t even realize you weren’t the deer until I almost snapped your neck.”

I hesitated before asking my next question…because I already knew the answer. “What happens now?”

The Alpha smiled, but it wasn’t a kind smile. “Now, you belong to me.”

∗          ∗         ∗

The fresh blood dripping from my cut lip stained my shirt and the café floor. Tomas was going to be pissed at me…not the five high elf guards who’d been beating the shit out of me for the past five minutes.

Luthwain watched with a bored expression. Seeing him made me laugh. He could pretend all he wanted, but he enjoyed the show. Werewolves weren’t a favorite species among High Elves. Frankly, we weren’t a favorite among most races.

But that wasn’t the reason I was getting the shit beaten out of me. Like sharks, High Elves tended to only attack the wounded or ill. And boy was I wounded.

A powerful punch to my face tore my lip open further and I watched my blood fly to the floor. A second punch broke my already tender nose and a new waterfall of blood poured down my face.

I didn’t fight the men grasping my arms, but they weren’t exactly holding me. I stood still, allowing the guards to do what they needed. But I kept my eyes on Luthwain. He was my height making our eyes meet easily.

After another powerful punch across my left cheek, Luthwain stepped forward, raising a hand. The guards stepped away from me, releasing my arms. I rolled my shoulders as though to roll off the touch of the elves.

“We can continue this, or you can answer my question.” Luthwain’s bright green eyes darkened as he traced the lines of blood rolling down my chin.

I licked the blood with my tongue and spat it on the floor in front of him, a small drop landing on the metal of his boot. “I thought I did answer your question.”

“I believe the answer you gave me was to give your, in your words, ass a big wet one.” Luthwain’s face twisted in disgust. “I’d hoped my guards would be able to loosen your tongue.”

“Maybe if you ask again, nicely,” I said, smirking. The pain medications were definitely working. I wouldn’t have been as snarky if they weren’t.

“I humbly ask, as Royal Father to the High Light Elves of this realm, where is the girl?”

I wiped the remaining blood from my chin before taking a dangerous step closer to Luthwain. At the movement, his guards immediately surrounded me with weapons drawn, stopping me from proceeding any closer to their king.

I leaned forward, the guards’ weapons digging into my chest as I pushed my way closer to their king. Luthwain’s eyes widened as he witnessed his guards having trouble keeping megrim him. I took two steps forward, nearly dragging the men with me.

When my face was merely inches from Luthwain’s face, I smiled widely. “Go fuck yourself.”

∗          ∗         ∗

I was now a member of the Umbra Pack, the head pack of my hometown, Granfeld.

Our Alpha, Liam Tipton, was not only our leader, but also in charge of all packs in the mountainous region.

Like I said, bad luck.

I was at the bottom of the pack, not only because I was a new wolf…but apparently because I shouldn’t have even been allowed into the pack. The rest of the pack at every opportunity beat that fact into me. The first month was terrifying.

Picture it, an entire pack ready to find an excuse to kill you. The only one who could protect you is yourself. Liam would stop anything bordering murder, but otherwise I was on my own.

You see, there are strict rules werewolf packs have to follow. It may change from pack to pack depending on location, numbers, or bottom line power their Alphas. For Umbra pack, the rule is no new wolves are to be created without years of planning and interviewing of willing men and women.

but the wolves in charge of the Alphas declared me a unique case and approved my admittance into Umbra. All of that, by the way, happened while I was unconscious in the hospital for two months. It took that long for my leg to grow back and all the wounds to heal. For new werewolves the magical healing takes longer since the human body wasn’t fully transitioned into its new make-up.

Another reason the rest of the pack hated me. Liam used most of his Alpha magic to keep me from turning while I was in the hospital. In doing so, the pack was weakened and privy to attacks from other packs and beings.

Even when I was finally allowed to leave the hospital, and forced to say goodbye to my mother for lord knew how long, I wouldn’t be having my first turn for at least another week. That meant everyone else could turn into a wolf at will, but I was trapped in my human form.

And that meant I was weak. When you’re weak, you’re prey.

∗          ∗         ∗

The night of my first turn came quickly, thank god. I had moved into Liam’s mansion, a common practice for new werewolves. Until I could control my wolf I would stay with Liam. Once he felt I was safe to release into society he’d move me into the homes the rest of the pack stayed in .

Which meant I’d be living with one of them, too. My initial thought was feeling sorry for whoever that was, but then realized it meant I’d have a better idea who would be the first to attempt to kill me in my sleep.

Liam took me out into the forest, close to where he attacked me. He only brought one other wolf with him, his second in command, Arnold. We stood in the clearing waiting.

“How long does this usually take? The first time?” I asked, shaking with the cold.

“The first transformation can take any where from five minutes to half an hour,” Liam said. A smirk, one I’d come to know as Liam’s smirk, appeared on his face. “The longest I’ve ever seen was two hours.”

My lips shook and I wrapped my arms around myself. A sharp pain in my stomach made me wince. “God, it’s cold.”

Arnold and Liam eyed each other. Liam made the slightest motion with his head and Arnold stepped back.

I clenched my fists together, but couldn’t feel my fingers. My legs gave out beneath me and I fell to the ground.

“What’s going on?”

I couldn’t stop shaking. the pain in my stomach sharpened. I coughed and felt something warm on my lips. I touched it with my hand and saw blood stain my fingers red.

Liam appeared in front of me, grabbing my shoulders. His brown eyes flashed icy blue and he bared his teeth as my body convulsed violently. He shoved me onto the ground and placed a hand over my eyes, blocking my view.

“Don’t move,” Liam’s voice rumbled with a deep growl.

I immediately became still, but my body continued shivering and the cold filled my body. The pain extended from my stomach to my chest and back. I’d heard of first transformations. Everyone said it was intensely painful and hot, like the body was on fire.

“Wh-what’s ha-ha-happening?” I struggled to get the words out.

“Your wolf is trying to kill you.”

∗          ∗         ∗

There’s always been speculation among those who studied werewolves whether the human and the wolf were one in the same or two separate beings sharing a body. I personally leaned more to the one in the same, but after hearing Liam say my wolf was killing me…yeah, I went full team two beings in one body.

My vision darkened, but I could still hear Liam’s grunts as he held me down. “Meyer. I can’t do anything for you. Your wolf will kill you unless you—”

That’s when I blacked out. Perfect timing, right?

I hoped blacking out would relieve me from the pain and cold. I guess, if I was still human it would’ve, but having a wolf trying to tear me from the inside out wouldn’t let me have a moment of reprieve.

“I won’t be trapped in the body of a weakling,” a deep voice growled behind me.

I turned in the darkness and saw amber eyes watching me. Light filled the darkness and a wolf appeared in front of me. I released a breath, seeing the small cloud it formed. I still shook from the cold.

The wolf leaped at me, slicing long, sharp claws across my stomach. I yelled and grabbed at the torn flesh.

The wolf rammed into my back, his fangs burying in my shoulder. I collapsed to my knees and felt his claws digging into my back as he shook his head. I kicked with one leg and rolled onto my back, pinning the wolf to the ground. He released my shoulder and used his legs to kick me off.

I quickly climbed to my feet and faced him. “Why are you trying to kill me?”

“Because you’re weak,” the wolf’s voice echoed through the darkness. He bared his fangs, the skin around his nose wrinkling. “You’re prey, not a hunter.”

“But if you kill me, you die, too.”

“Better to die than live in a weakling.”

He leapt for me, slamming into my chest and knocking me onto my back. I grabbed his jaws with my hands, his fangs cutting into my skin. He clawed my chest and tried to push his jaws lower, but I kept him back.

Everything was wrong. I wasn’t supposed to be in the forest where Liam was hunting. I wasn’t supposed to be alive after the attack. I wasn’t supposed to be turned. I wasn’t supposed to be allowed in the pack. My first transformation shouldn’t have been like this! Everything was wrong!

I felt strength surge through me and I threw the wolf away from me. I rolled onto all fours and glared at the shocked wolf. “I AM NOT WEAK!”

I released a ferocious yell that morphed into a howl. I felt my voice fill me and skin burned. Fire filled my veins and my flesh tore. The pain was intense and my vision flashed with stars and light.

I lunged for the wolf, tearing at him with my own claws, my fangs burying into his throat. He howled in pain, but I only clawed and bit harder. I could smell his blood and wanted to taste it. I felt my fangs slice through muscled and arteries. Blood erupted into my mouth and it was intoxicating.

The wolf whimpered and collapsed to the ground. I stood over him, baring my long, white fangs. I raised my head and howled, filling the darkness with sound. An answering howl from beyond the darkness answered.

“You are a true Alpha,” the wolf said before releasing his final breath.

∗          ∗         ∗

I woke to see Liam in wolf form, howling to the moon. Arnold paced behind him, a large grey wolf with light brown eyes. Liam lowered his icy blue eyes to me and nudged me with his snout.

I slowly stood and stumbled when I realized I now had four legs. My legs shook at first, but my muscles easily showed me what to do. I opened my mouth, testing out the new muscles and licking the sharp fangs with my tongue. I shook, feeling every hair stand on end. My tail twitched on its onward it felt strange to move it myself. I wagged it back and forth, turning my head on the long neck to watch it move.

A huff brought my attention back to the black wolf in front of me. He snarled at me and I immediately lowered myself back to the ground to keep my head below him. His snarl vanished and his ears perked up. He made a quick motion and Arnold cautiously moved forward.

I looked into Arnold’s brown eyes. His lips pulled back for a moment, before returning to normal. He whined and lowered to the ground, trying to place his head below mine.

I’m not sure what a confused expression on a wolf looks like, but I’m sure I had one. Liam raised his head and released a full chested howl. I felt his power as an Alpha force Arnold up and he joined his Alpha. I slowly stood, watching them. I could feel Liam’s power, but it didn’t have as strong of a pull on me as it had before.

I heard the answering howls from the other wolves of the pack and felt left out. I raised my head and released a full-throated howl that seemed to overpower all the others. Even Liam’s howl faded before mine and I felt his power surround me. I lowered my howl to just below his.

That was when I knew…I knew I wasn’t going to be allowed to stay in the Umbra Pack.

∗          ∗         ∗

A hard slap to my face Brought me back to consciousness. My eyes took in the angry face of Tomas and I smiled.

“Guten morgen, herr Erlkönig,” I said in my best German accent.

By the frown, Tomas didn’t find it as amusing as I did. “You’re paying for the damages.”

I sat up, rubbing my freshly mended ribs. “There aren’t any damages. Only blood stains.”

“And you’re paying for them.”

“I think I paid for them while I was causing them,” I wiped a fresh trickle of blood from my nose. “I’m fine, by the way.”

Tomas grabbed me and lifted me easily to my feet. “I know you’re fine. Luthwain didn’t want you dead. He wanted youth feel every ache and pain.”

“And I will for the next few days.” I removed the bandage over my eye and tested it out. It was still light sensitive, but I could make out most shapes and colors. I replaced the bandage and sat in a chair. “So where did His Highness run off to?”

Tomas’s eyes narrowed. “You know I can’t tell you that.”

I laughed. “Can you at least tell me if he went back to his realm or after my pack?”

“His realm. He has no interest in your pack.”

“Good.”

Hesitating, Tomas disappeared behind his bar and returned with a pint of a strangely colored liquid. “Here, this will help.”

I leaned forward and sniffed the liquid. It smelled sweet, but also very alcoholic. The perks of frequenting an Elf King’s café: he knew how to get non-humans the same buzz they couldn’t otherwise get with normal alcohol.

I took the offered drink and held it up to him. “Thanks.”

As I drank a large gulp, Tomas sat down and crossed his thick arms over his chest. His weight made the chair creak and he leaned back, eyeing me curiously. “The girl Luthwain was asking about…she have anything to do with that incident at the dam?”

I placed the glass on the table and stared at a drop rolling down the side. I smiled and when I looked at Tomas I knew it was with my wolf’s amber eyes.