Are you as excited as we are for the OF DREAMS AND DRAGONS launch?
You can read by either clicking on the PDF (it should open to a new window to read) or scrolling down and reading directly on this blog post. (The PDF is useful if you’ve ready the first three, for example, and want to jump to chapter 4 easily.)
Either way, let us know what you think! To make this extra fun, some random person who comments on this post will win a surprise after launch! So read, comment and keep checking back for more!
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(This book is still undergoing proofing, so may change in the final version. The ebook is launching October 17, with the paperback to follow within a few weeks. There will be an opportunity to buy signed print books closer to launch. We don’t have a date for the audio launch yet, but will let you know when we do. It is being planned for.)
OF DREAMS AND DRAGONS
by Karpov Kinrade
“And if she fails?”
“She will not. Not if she’s ready. Not if we make her ready.”
“And if she doesn’t listen?”
“Everyone listens. You just need the right words.”
Everyone has a word. That one word that encapsulates and articulates so much of who you are, that on a Venn diagram there would only be a sliver that falls outside the scope of that word. Most people never learn their word, but it’s out there, waiting to be found. Waiting to be called forth.
I… I have two words. My first word, only because I learned it first, is hiraeth. It’s not even English—though the best words seldom are, so that should hardly be counted against it. I initially discovered hiraeth on social media, and it made me suck in my breath as something stirred deep within me. It’s Welsh, and there’s no direct translation into English, but it’s defined as a kind of homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over a person or place that is lost to you. It carries with it a sense of longing, nostalgia and wistfulness, and it’s an emotion that has weighed on me every day of my life that I can remember. Discovering there is a word for what I’ve always felt does help ease the sorrow some, but only in the way that identifying the monster helps ease the fear. It’s still a monster. It still hunts you. But now you know its name.
My second word is so closely aligned with my first that it maybe doesn’t count. Saudade—originating in Portuguese and Galician—takes hiraeth another step, though. It is often defined as “the love that remains” after someone or someplace is gone—or even if that person or place is still in your life, but it has changed so much that you mourn the past or future.
These words are my ghosts. They haunt me, teasing at my mind as I go about my day. And they are directly tied to a life I can’t remember, because I never lived it. A life that could have been.
If my father hadn’t died before I was born.
If my mother hadn’t married Pat.
If fate had taken a swing at someone else the day I was born, instead of setting its sights on me.
And today, my ghosts are more active than usual as I count the change for my groceries.
I try to shop early in the morning usually, when the crowds at Safeway are shorter. But today couldn’t be helped. We’re out of too many things and the kids are hungry, so I came after running other errands, when the lines are long and people are tired and impatient and ready to get home to their families.
Women are trained from childhood to be polite, accommodating and docile. To make others happy before themselves. To be self-sacrificing and humble. Which is why, as the line behind me lengthens, and tired shoppers check their phones for the time and sigh dramatically, I feel guilt. Guilt that I have to count out the quarters and nickels and pennies I found in the couch to pay for groceries for the three hungry children at home. Guilt that I have to keep putting back items that push my total too high. Guilt that I couldn’t do all the math and taxes and weights of produce in my head, thus saving everyone the hassle of waiting on me. Guilt that I have to use food stamps to cover what my couch change can’t.
Even though they aren’t my children I’m feeding.
Because I’m making the people behind me wait too long.
The cashier, Martha, is a middle-aged woman who’s worked here as long as I can remember. She’s always been kind, and fast, and I try to pick her line whenever I can. She doesn’t shame me with silent looks and frowns that others sometimes do, even without realizing it. She gives me a small, sympathetic smile as I help bag my groceries in reusable bags that have seen better days. One is so frayed I’m not sure it will survive this trip. While I appreciate the efforts California is making for the environment, having to buy bags has hurt low-income families more than anyone realizes.
“You sure you don’t need another bag?” Martha asks.
“Gotta make these work till payday,” I say, loading up my cart.
She nods in understanding. “Hang in there, Sky. You know what they say… this too shall pass.”
I give her the best smile I can muster and nod. “Thanks, Martha. Sorry about this.”
She’s already scanning the next customer’s food though, so I leave quickly, hoping I don’t bump into anyone I made wait on my way out.
Fall has settled into the bones of the little city of Ukiah, and today is colder than usual. Winter is indeed coming, though we feel less of a sting two hours north of San Francisco than most of the country. The wind whips around my face, freezing my nose and ears, as I push my cart through the expansive parking lot to my car.
I can smell the rain before it falls, but I have no way of covering myself or my groceries, and the deluge of water soaks me to the skin by the time I pop open the trunk. I make quick work of getting the groceries into the car, but the last bag doesn’t survive the experience and rips apart in my hand, depositing my food onto the wet asphalt.
At least the rain is cover for the tears threatening to fall. I’m exhausted, overwhelmed and so very tempted to leave the food there and get home, but some of it’s still salvageable. And this was our grocery budget for the week.
A few eggs are still in one piece, and the fruit is only slightly bruised. If I cut it up for a salad, the kids will eat it without complaint. Probably.
I grab whatever looks edible and deposit it on top of the remaining bags, then finally slide into my car, where I’m marginally more sheltered from the rain. When the engine starts on the first try, I offer a prayer of thanks to whoever’s listening. The car’s an old beater I got off Craigslist. It’s missing a window, the heater doesn’t work, the engine looks like someone tried to repair it by blasting it with fire and hoping for the best. I taped now-soggy cardboard over the missing window, and that was the extent of my repair budget. Now I use the powers of manifestation and luck to keep the thing running.
One perk of living in a city that’s only about five square miles, despite it being the largest city in Mendocino County, is everything is under ten minutes away.
I drive past the 101 onramp, past the Starbucks I can never afford but always look at with longing, and turn at the corner gas station. Our house is across the street from a park, near an elementary school. On the outside, it looks like every other house on the block. Remarkable only in how ordinary it is. The lower middle class dream, minus the white picket fence.
It’s when I unlock the door and walk inside that the truth of my home life hits the hardest. That’s where the shadows live, behind the closed doors and draped windows of houses that look like everyone else’s. Skulk past the white-washed exterior and you’ll find the rot fast enough. But most don’t care to dig even that deep. They may smell the decay, but they don’t want to deal with the reality.
The groceries are nearly put away when Caleb sprints down the stairs at full speed, nearly breaking his neck as he trips over the last step.
I don’t know how I get from the kitchen to the living room so fast. Sometimes it’s like I blink and am standing where I want to be.
I catch the six-year-old mayhem-maker before he kills himself, and nearly sob from relief when he looks up wide-eyed, and then grins like a little idiot. “That was amazing, Sky! Let’s do it again.”
I grip him harder before he escapes my arms, his black hair flopping over eyes almost as dark. “Oh no, kiddo. Not again. I need your help in the kitchen. Where’s Pat?”
Caleb shrugs and runs back upstairs before I can stop him. I sigh and stand, my body feeling a lot older than its twenty-four years. I trudge upstairs and check Caleb’s room. He’s sitting on his disheveled bed playing with his toy fire truck and another toy car flipped over on its side. The fire truck races across pillows and blankets, as Caleb shrieks in a high pitched squeal meant to mimic the sound of a siren.
“Look, Sky, it’s you and Blake saving people,” he says as the fire truck arrives to help the turned over car. He pulls out two dolls dressed in nursing outfits and mimics them helping another doll who was thrown out of the truck. “This one’s you,” he says, holding up a female doll with brown hair.
I ruffle his head. “She looks just like me.”
Caleb grins, putting his attention back on his truck as I look around the room.
Caleb shares the room with his teen brother, Kyle, and little sister Kara. I expected to see her in the crib under Kyle’s bunk bed, but it’s empty. “Caleb, where’s Kara? And where’s Pat?”
Caleb looks up from his truck. “Gone.”
“What? Where? When?” I’m trying to stay calm, but my voice is rising in pitch and volume. How long was Caleb left alone? And why did Pat take Kara?
“I dunno. Just gone. They left when I got home from school.”
I grip the doorframe so hard my fingers turn white, then take a calming breath. “Thanks, buddy.” I ruffle his hair and leave him to his toys as I run downstairs.
The living room is a mess. Pat left empty beer cans on the coffee table, and cigarette butts on the ground. The litter box in the corner stinks to high heaven and the cat’s food and water bowl are empty. “Marshmallow? You around, kitty?” I pull out a toy and dangle it, hoping the bell will entice the white fur ball from her hiding place, but nope. She’s not interested in humans right now. I give up and clean out her litter box, refill her food and water, then grab a trash bag to clean up after the man who calls himself head of this family.
The kids are his.
I’m not part of this family.
Pat makes that abundantly clear.
I rub at a bruise on my arm and stretch my sore back.
The dishes are done and the house is as clean as I can make it by the time Pat returns with Kara. Kyle trails behind them and drops his backpack by the front door.
I don’t bother telling him to put it away. Not today.
I storm over to Pat. “Where were you? How could you leave Caleb alone?” The anger has been boiling in me for hours, and I can’t contain it anymore.
“Back off, you free-loader.” Pat slurs the drunken words, but I don’t need to hear him speak to know he’s been hitting the bottle. Hard. His dark eyes are glazed over and there’s a vagueness about his expression that is familiar. He sneers at me, his lip curling. “I knew you’d be home soon. He’s old enough to look after himself.”
“He’s six, Pat! That’s not old enough, that’s child endangerment. And where did you take Kara?” When she hears her name she reaches for me, and I take the toddler from her father. She has snot all over her face, her cheeks are red from the cold, and she’s not wearing a coat.
“She’s helping me make a little cash. At least someone does.” Spittle flies out of his mouth, hitting me in the face. “I swear, the only reason I still let you live here is because of the debt I owe your mother, God rest her soul. But the dead aren’t much good to the living, are they?”
I hand Kara to Kyle and tell him to take her upstairs. Kara’s face crinkles into a cry as she calls my name, her arms held out to me. Kyle frowns, wanting to stay and help, but I shoo him away with Caleb following behind. I don’t want them around when Pat’s like this.
“You let me live here because without me running this house and raising these kids, you’d lose everything, including the extra money you get from your social security for them.”
I should have kept my mouth shut. I know better, especially when he’s like this. Hard liquor rather than beer, was his poison of choice today. I can smell it on him. And I know what that means.
But knowing changes nothing. I seem pathologically incapable of biting my tongue. A character flaw I would be happier without.
Sometimes, the anticipation of pain is worse than the pain itself.
When his fist flies at me, I feel the pain of its impact on my jaw before it lands. And then my whole face is on fire.
I fall to the ground, hitting my head on the sharp edge of the staircase as I fall. But I don’t cry or scream. I’ve learned not to. The last time I did, Kyle heard and came to help, and ended up in the ER due to a ‘terrible fall’ that broke two bones. I won’t let that happen again.
When I was a child, I always wondered why I never saw stars when I was hit. In cartoons they always saw stars, but I only ever saw darkness as my vision blurred and shrunk in on itself until there was nothing.
I always wished for the stars.
Pat stands over me, waiting. He knows I’ll get up, despite conventional wisdom telling me I should stay put and wait for him to grow bored and walk away.
Another character flaw.
I get up.
And in that moment, something happens.
A light ignites in me, burning my skin from the inside out. Energy rushes through my body.
Pat takes an unstable step backwards. “What the—”
I take advantage of the moment and step forward. He dwarfs me in girth and height, but somehow I feel bigger, stronger, taller right now. “You will never hit me again,” I say, my voice sounding foreign, distant, like someone else talking through me.
Pat stumbles back. “Get away, you freak. You creature. You’re not of my blood. You’re not of my kin.” His face turns ashen, all color draining from him as he stares at me in horror. I know what he’s seeing behind my eyes. I have seen it in his too often.
I point to the front door. “Get out. Now.”
And to my utter shock, he listens. His drunk ass flees the house, the door slamming so hard behind him it rattles the walls. When it’s clear he’s not coming back anytime soon, I slump to the ground, hugging myself. I think of the power that just overcame me, and I tremble. Not because I don’t know what happened.
But because I do.
FROM THE GRAVE
“She’ll be our weapon.”
“That’s what you said last time.”
“Last time was a mistake. Too many uncontrolled variables.”
“So you think you can control her?”
“Perhaps. At least unleash her in the right direction.”
“That’s your plan?”
“You have a better one? It’s not like we have many options.”
“Well, I suppose the world is at stake. Multiple ones, really. Fine. Take her.”
The surge of adrenaline I had is gone, leaving in its wake a shaken shell of a girl with a crashing headache. Viscous liquid drips into my eyes, stinging, and I wipe at it, leaving a crimson stain on the brown leather wristband I always wear on my left arm. I rub at it with my shirt, but the stain persists, the crevices of the engraved vine soaking up the blood. This had been a gift. A reminder. Protection, of a kind.
My eyes fill with tears, whether from the pain, the confrontation with Pat, or long buried grief, I don’t know, and I’m too weary at a deep soul level to parse it out just now.
Kyle creeps down the stairs holding a washcloth. “Is he gone?” he asks in a whisper.
I nod, and Kyle speeds up, taking the stairs two at a time with his long, gangly teen legs until he’s next to me, pressing the wet cloth against my head. “You might need stitches this time,” he says softly.
“Grab my bag,” I say.
He nods and runs back up the stairs to my bedroom. He comes down with the first aid kit I keep at home.
He opens the canvas bag and rummages around. “What do you need?”
“I have to wash it first,” I say, trying to stand, but a wave of dizziness lands me back on my ass, and I groan at the impact.
Kyle puts a hand on my arm. “Let me help you.”
I hate that he has to do this, but he’s right, it’s bad this time. I could walk him through the steps, but I don’t want more on his shoulders than there already is. Instead, I pull out my phone and text the one person I know will help without question.
Can you come home? Urgent. Bring med supplies.
Blood is stinging my eyes, and I don’t bother waiting for a response. I know he’ll come. He always comes.
I touch Kyle’s shoulder. “Thank you for your help, but I’ll be fine. Blake will be here soon.”
At the mention of Blake, Kyle relaxes, though the stress around his brown eyes doesn’t ease. I must look even worse than I feel. “Remember, head wounds always bleed more. There are a lot of blood vessels close to the surface, so it looks worse than it is. I promise.” My words seem to reassure him some. “Where are the littles? Are they okay?”
He frowns. “They’re in the closet.”
I close my eyes and sigh. “I’ll check on them soon. Go do your homework.”
He’s about to argue, but the front door opens and Kyle runs to greet Blake.
“How’s our girl?” I hear Blake ask.
“Not good,” Kyle says, his voice so broken I feel my heart break a little too.
“I’ll take good care of her.”
I open my eyes enough to look at Blake, and he whistles as he takes the wash cloth from me and examines the cut on my head. “Sky Knightly, you are a mess. This will leave a scar. Stitches would help.”
“I can’t afford the ER bill.”
There’s pain etched on his perfect face as he nods. “I’ll do what I can.”
He makes quick work of it, cleaning it first, then applying pressure to stop the bleeding. “I’ll give it 15 minutes. If we can’t get the bleeding to stop, I’m taking you in whether you like it or not.”
He lifts my head gently and sits on the couch, then places my head on his lap as he holds sterile bandages against my wound. “What happened this time?” he asks.
“The usual. Just Pat being Pat.”
“This isn’t normal, Sky,” he says softly and without judgment. Only love. Compassion. Kindness. All the things that make me feel weak right now.
“I know,” I say. “But I can’t leave the kids alone with him.”
“There has to be a better way. You could still try to get custody.”
“A single 24-year old who couldn’t even make rent without her best friend paying half the bills and has the kind of work schedule we do? In what universe would a judge give me custody of three kids? Steve barely got custody of his own. Forty-eight hour work shifts that often become longer don’t impress in custody cases. And Pat doesn’t have a record, he’s just an asshole.”
“An abusive asshole,” Blake says.
“Yes,” I agree.
“Maybe the kids, and you, would be better off if you report—”
“Don’t say it,” I say. “They have no one else. No other family. With Pat gone, they’d be separated. Kyle would end up in a group home for teens. It would ruin them. Who knows what kind of abuse they would endure if the system got ahold of them? At least here I can protect them. We can protect them.”
We’ve had this conversation before. Many times. The facts never change.
“And who will protect you?” Blake asks softly, as he strokes my long hair.
I don’t have an answer for him. I will have to protect myself. That’s always been my life, especially since my mother died giving birth to Kara.
“He’s escalating,” Blake says.
And I do. I know Pat is getting worse. I know it’s only a matter of time before this gets really bad. We get a lot of domestic violence calls at the station. And they’re often the ugliest. I’ve seen my future with Pat, and it isn’t pretty. So I know the risk. What I don’t know is what to do about it. How to fix it. How to stop him. How to keep our family together and keep these kids safe. And stay alive.
After fifteen minutes, Blake checks my head. “Looking better. I’m putting butterfly bandages on it… though you really should get stitches. You’ll need to ice it when I’m done.”
“Yeah, I know the drill.” Blake and I have known each other since we were kids. Fun fact, he was my first husband. Of course, we were in kindergarten at the time, so it wasn’t legally binding. Then around puberty he realized he was gay, and all romantic notions between us ended. Now he’s like a brother. A ridiculously gorgeous brother with perfect black hair and a perfect physique. And he’s my roommate and surrogate uncle to the three kids I call my own. I don’t know how we’d make it without him.
Blake hands me two pills and I pop them in my mouth without asking what they are. Pain relief of some kind, and that’s all I care about.
When I can finally sit up, I realize he’s dressed for work. “Our shift isn’t until Saturday,” I say, hoping I didn’t screw up my schedule somehow. I don’t have childcare lined up until the weekend.
“Steve called in,” he says.
“Kid sick again?”
“Poor guy. Single parenting sucks.”
Blake laughs. “You would know. But I’m going to call and tell them to find someone else. I need to stay here with you, in case you have a concussion.”
“No, I’m fine. Kyle’s here if anything happens. You go.”
He stands reluctantly, grabbing his bag. “You sure?”
I nod, but regret the movement as pain lances through my head. “I’m sure.”
He doesn’t look convinced, but I know he needs the money and there aren’t many who can cover the shift. We’re too understaffed and dependent on volunteers as it is. So I stand and walk him to the door. “See? I’m fine. Just a headache. I’ll be right as rain tomorrow.”
He snickers at that. “Tomorrow you’ll have a black eye and feel like something that exited the back end of a sick dog.”
“Thanks for the optimistic prognosis, doc.”
He kisses the side of my head that isn’t a bloody mess. “Be careful. Don’t let that drunk asshole back in. And call if you need me. I’ll be home in minutes. With backup.”
“Thanks, Blake. For everything.”
He nods and steps out to the porch. “I’ll come straight home after my shift.”
Once he’s gone, I shut the front door and lean against it, closing my eyes as I collect my thoughts. I need a better plan than wait and hope I don’t die at Pat’s hands. But right now, I need to check on the kids.
I find Caleb huddled in the back of the closet in their bedroom, with Kara sleeping next to him on a pile of dirty laundry, her black hair stuck to her head with sweat. This used to be my room, so I know every nook and cranny and hiding place. I crawl in with them and he snuggles into my arms, his nose dripping snot onto my shirt as his tears swell his big brown eyes.
“He hurt you,” he says.
I don’t want to lie to him, so I say nothing for a while, and just hold him. Minutes later, his tears dry up and he sighs deeply into the crook of my arm.
I lean down, whispering in his ear. “Did you know this was my closet before you were born?” I ask him.
He shakes his head no.
I smile. “It was. And did you know there’s a secret to this closet?”
Now his eyes widen, all fears forgotten as his young mind is gripped with the mystery. “A secret?”
I nod. “A hidden treasure. Want to see?”
He bobs his head eagerly, and I grin as I move clothes, toys and old shoes away from the corner. I pull up the edge of the carpet and show Caleb how to loosen the board to access the secret hiding place. “Go ahead and see what’s in there,” I tell him.
With all the eagerness of a curious six-year-old he reaches in and pulls out everything he finds. There’s a box of dusty crayons that smell like childhood and summers and wax and imagination. A coloring book that’s mostly colored in, but there are still some blank pages left. A metal box full of odds and ends I collected as a child: dried leaves, stones, loose change, a matchbook, some old Halloween candy that could probably survive the apocalypse, and a journal.
I take the journal from him and open it, my hands shaking. It’s pink and green, with a dragon on the cover that used to be covered in glitter that’s mostly faded now. Inside is my childhood scrawl filling up page after page with dates, times and the exact things that happened in the most boring and mundane detail. What I ate, what I wore, what so-and-so said that was completely awful and ruined our friendship. But somewhere in the middle my hands pause, and I slow my breathing as I try to make sense of what I’m seeing.
There’s a shift in my writing. Not just a different pen or different hand, but a different language. Words turn to symbols. Glyphs. I don’t recognize them, but seeing them sends shivers through my body, because as foreign as they are, they feel familiar. Like I should know what they mean. And it brings me back to my words. Hiraeth. Saudade. The homesickness and loss and nostalgia hit me hard, rocking me back until I’m pressed against the wall.
I slam the book closed and clutch it in my hands. Caleb has forgotten all about me as he scribbles in the coloring book. Kara is just about to wake from her nap and will need changed and fed. I ruffle his hair and plaster a fake smile on my face. “Now you’ll always have something to do when you’re in here,” I say.
He nods, content with the small treasure of a child.
I pick up Kara and crawl out of the closet, still clutching my old journal, my head pounding from the movement. “What do you want for dinner tonight? Fish sticks or… fish sticks?” I try to hide my pain under a smile.
He looks up at me, a goofy grin splashed across his face. One that isn’t fake or forced. Children are so resilient. It’s the only explanation for how any of them survive to adulthood.
“Pasgetti!” he says.
I frown dramatically and put a finger to my mouth as if thinking about it. “That didn’t sound like fish sticks. But I’ll see if we have any noodles and pasta sauce, okay?”
He nods. “Okay!”
“Will you settle for fish sticks if that’s all we have?” As if he has a choice. But he’s a good boy and he knows how this game works, so he nods.
I’m about to walk away, when I pause, remembering the cat. “Have you seen Marshmallow around?” I ask.
Caleb doesn’t look up from his drawing; he just shakes his head no.
I leave him to his closet and crayons and take Kara to the couch downstairs to change her. She looks up at me with large dark eyes, blinking slowly, as if she’s trying to figure out the human words for all the deep thoughts she holds in her mind. I wonder if babies come to this world knowing all the secrets, but forget them when they learn how to speak.
I kiss her forehead and she smiles and wraps her pudgy fingers around my index finger. “Sky!” she says in her baby voice. The fact that my name was her first word still makes me weepy. She may not be my child biologically, but I’ve been raising her since she was born, and couldn’t love her more.
Once she’s changed, I put her in a high chair with a sippy cup and some cut grapes to snack on while I set about making dinner.
We do indeed have the makings for ‘pasgetti’, and a few hours later the littles are fed and happy and in bed, and the kitchen is cleaned up of Kara’s attempts at using spaghetti as art. Only Kyle remains awake, watching me with worried eyes. “Some day he’ll go too far,” Kyle says, not looking up from the math book he’s pretending to study.
“I’ll be okay,” I assure him.
Now he looks up, setting his book aside. “What happens when you and Blake aren’t here anymore? What will happen to us?”
My heart breaks a little as I walk over to him and kneel so that we’re eye to eye. “I’m not going anywhere. You’re my kids and I’ll always be here to protect you.”
I can tell he’s about to cry, and that he doesn’t want to do it in front of me, so I let him go without a word as he runs upstairs to get ready for bed.
I stay downstairs, enjoying the peace and quiet. While Pat technically lives here on paper, he spends most nights elsewhere. With women. At bars. Drunk in alleys. When it’s just me, Blake and the kids, it feels like a real home. Pat could be gone for the night, or for the week. We won’t know until he comes back. So I’ve learned to take advantage of the moments without him whenever possible.
I get comfy on the living room couch and turn on the TV, flipping through channels until I find something semi-decent. Some kind of soap opera western fantasy thing. When I finally fall asleep, dreams haunt me. Dreams of faceless men taking the children away.
I wake in a cold sweat on the couch, the TV still on, my head pounding from a horrid headache. I check the time: 3:48 a.m. Too early to be up, too late to try to go back to sleep.
So I put on a pot of coffee, pop a few more pills Blake left me, and prepare a breakfast of oatmeal for the kids. As I sip my coffee and stir the oatmeal, I hear a thump at the front door. Probably Blake coming home after his shift. He really needs to work on being quieter in the middle of the night, though.
It’s still dark out, and when I open the door, the cold mist of morning washes over me. The porch is empty—no Blake. Maybe it was the cat. I’m just about to go back inside when something catches my eye. A stained leather bag—cracked and old—sits at my feet. There is something unnatural to its shape. Something wrong. I lean down, and a rancid smell hits my nose. My stomach turns. I try not gag as I use the edge of my shirt to cover my hand and pull the bag closer. There is something. A piece of paper sticking out. I clutch it and read.
“I told you there will be consequences. This is but the first.”
And then I see what’s in the bag. And my stomach cramps and vomit spews from my mouth. I try to aim it at the potted plant to my right, but only half meet my mark.
I just found Marshmallow. Or part of her, at least.
A POUND OF FLESH
“I must be off then.”
“You mean, you intend to do this yourself?
“Only way to do it right. I was a warrior once, you know. We all were.”
My eyes fill with tears, and I force myself to look around, to look for the person who did this in case they haven’t disappeared. I find something, someone, in the shadows. A man steps forward. A man in a dark cloak wearing a dark hat. His cane clicking against the concrete path. His short, grey beard neat against his chin. Thick silver buttons run down the front of his coat, and black boots cleaned to a shine cover his feet. When he speaks, his voice is old and thin like withered paper. “Hello, Ms. Knightly. It appears you have found my message.”
My throat goes dry and I clench my fists, assessing the man standing before me. His composed expression hides whatever he might be feeling or thinking. His dark tailored suit and finely stitched trench coat speak of wealth. His tone is that of a man accustomed to getting his way.
But there’s something more about him. Something that gives me pause, and prevents me from responding as I might otherwise. He just killed my cat and seems entirely unconcerned. He could be armed, and likely is. I’m not. Pat’s gun is locked upstairs, with the bullets secured in a separate locked case—at my insistence if he was going to persist in his desire to have the weapon in the house with children. All I have on me is an old cell phone, hardly a worthy weapon, my lightsaber app notwithstanding.
I need more information. I need to know what—and who—I’m dealing with before I let myself react. I need to stay calm as I think of a plan. If he attacks me, I’ll run into the house and bar the door and call 911.
“How do you know me?” I ask, my voice only wavering a small amount.
His gray eyes bore into me as he speaks. “I know your family. There is a long history there. I am… an old friend, you might say. Call me Mr. Pike.” He tips his short top hat towards me while partially bowing, a conciliatory smile on his aged face.
My voice remains steady as I slowly move my hand towards my pocket, to reach my phone. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Pike. I’m curious, why are you visiting?”
“It was time,” he says. “This meeting was scheduled long ago, you see, between Pat and myself. Yet, he is not here and you are.” He smiles warmly. “Oh and you needn’t bother about hiding your phone. You may use it, but I’m afraid it won’t perform as you wish.”
I’m baffled by his remarks, but I pull my phone out of my pocket slowly as he nods in approval. I look down, seeing the numbers that I need to dial. I move my finger over the nine, but it slips off the phone screen. I try again, but it’s as if I’m trying to climb a wall of ice. My finger can’t connect. It slips off each time I attempt to dial.
Panic wells in my gut, and Mr. Pike clears his throat. “As I said, it won’t do as you wish tonight. So let us continue as we were.”
My voice is no longer calm, as fear settles into my bones. “What do you want?” Whatever game he’s playing, or trick he’s managing, it’s preventing me from calling for help. I need another plan. Maybe I can scream. Get a neighbor’s attention. Or maybe I can run back into the house before he can stop me.
Or maybe… I glance down at my wristband as I weigh the cost of such a choice. No. I can’t. It’s too high a risk. Even for this. Not yet, at any rate.
“Pat and I made an agreement,” Mr. Pike says, ” a long time ago. I have honored my side of the bargain, but he has yet to honor his.”
“So you killed my cat?” I ask, too harshly. With too much anger. I cringe, expecting him to attack me for my insolence.
But he doesn’t look the least bit aggravated. If anything, his eyes turn sad. “Yes. Yes, I did. You see, I arrived in this town a week ago. It was a week ago that the deal should have been honored. It was not, and so I am back here again, as Pat knew I would be, with a reminder.” He pauses. “I am truly sorry it was you who found my message. It was meant for Pat and no one else.”
He’s seems sorry I found the cat, but not sorry he killed an innocent animal; I need to get away from this man. He’s most likely a sociopath, perhaps even a psychopath, and if so he would have no qualms about taking another life… maybe even a human one.
Perhaps if I can get him talking—distract him with the sound of his own voice—I can creep back into the house. Get the kids somewhere safe. Call the police, if my phone will work.
“What deal did you and Pat make?” I ask, as a feeling of rage for my bastard step-father surges in me. Of course this would be his doing.
“That is between Pat and myself,” Mr. Pike says. “But, in essence, I helped him with a problem, and now he must help me with mine.”
My eyes narrow. “What kind of problem? Pat isn’t very good at helping himself out of trouble, let alone anyone else.”
He cocks his head. “It is not a problem you would understand. Not yet, at any rate. Oh, and don’t bother trying to creep back into the house while distracting me. You may leave at any time. It is Pat I came for, not you. But perhaps you could help me find him? As a friendly courtesy?”
Beads of sweat break out on my forehead despite the frost in the air. I nod, willing to say anything this man wants to hear to get him off my porch. “Yes. I’ll let him know you were here.”
“Very well. I will return once again tomorrow at this hour. And if Pat has not honored his side of the bargain, then I will bring another message. One far more personally painful.”
He turns to leave, the moonlight glinting off the opal tip of his walking cane. As soon as his eyes are off me, I dash into the house, slamming the door shut behind me. I latch the deadbolt, my hands shaking in terror. My thin cotton shirt is soaked in cold sweat, and I can’t stop the tears that flood my eyes.
I take a deep breath and once again attempt to dial 911. This time, my fingers don’t slip off the phone.
A SLAB OF GREY
I wait by the window, watching my breath fog the glass. My palms are slick with sweat. My chest is heavy. Every second, I imagine the man with the cane walking back down the street, returning before the police arrive. Every second, I imagine what I may have to do to protect my family. I think of Pat’s gun again. I don’t want to use it. But I will if I must.
A minute goes by. Another. And after what feels like forever, a police car pulls up by the sidewalk. I recognize the officer who gets out. Dean Lancaster, a tall blond with a guy next door look. We met before—on the job. The fire department was called in to offer back up on a car accident with suspected fatalities. It involved a messy body extraction and the jaws of life. He was on duty at the time, and we all went out for drinks after our shifts ended. One thing led to another, and there was kissing involved, but it never went further than that. My choice. Not his. And I’ve been trying to walk the line of friends with him ever since.
He’s been trying to erase that line all together.
When he walks up to the porch, I open the door and invite him in. We sit on the couch as I explain all that’s happened.
“Can you describe him again?” asks Dean, putting a hand on my knee.
I stand up, slipping away from his unwanted advance, and go through the very detailed description I already gave. Tall—at least 6’2″, graying short beard and hair, cold gray eyes. I describe Mr. Pike’s face in exacting detail, down to the mole on the lower right corner of his jaw, and everything he was wearing, down to the tri-colored wood of his walking staff.
Dean frowns. “That’s not much to go on. It could be almost anyone. But we’ll do what we can.”
“What do you mean? I gave you so many details a sketch artist should have no trouble capturing his likeness.”
He pats my leg and stands. “I just… I just don’t see how this will be enough.”
I stand to face him, and notice there’s something about Dean’s eyes, about his expression, that makes me think of how my fingers slipped off my phone. Something’s not right.
“Look,” he says, “I’ll come by again tonight to check on you. Maybe we can get some coffee or a late dinner, talk more about this.”
His words barely register. My mind is on one thing and one thing only. Protecting my kids. “You need to find him,” I say. “And until you do, we need protection.”
Dean rubs his stubbled chin, then nods. “We’ll leave a patrol outside the house. Let me know if you learn anything more about this Mr. Pike.”
I sigh and nod. “I will.” Though I doubt it will help. Whatever voodoo this man works, it’s good at protecting him.
“You need to find Pat,” Dean says. “Ask him about this. I’ll check around town too.” He glances at my head, the bandage there, and his voice turns soft. “You know, if… if you file a report—“
“This wasn’t him,” I say, covering my cut self-consciously. “I fell down the stairs carrying laundry. It looks worse than it is.” A lie. Always a lie. But if it’s a lie you’ve told yourself so many times you’ve started to believe it, does it still count as a lie?
“Right. Well, if you remember that happening differently, give me a call.” Dean grins, his tone shifting. “So… what do you say to that dinner?”
His words pull me away from the things that matter. I meet his gaze, my face serious. “Dean. I’m not interested. I told you so before, and I’m telling you again. Back off.”
His jaw stiffens. “Look, Sky, things will go a lot more smoothly if you just… co-operate. Remember, this investigation can go easily, or—”
“Or I call your boss, Nick, and let him know your impeding this investigation and sexually harassing a victim. I suppose it could go that way, if you’d like.” I raise an eyebrow.
He frowns, then turns sharply and heads to the door just as Blake runs in.
“What happened? What’s going on?” he asks, pushing the black hair out of his eyes and glaring at Dean.
“I’ll let you two talk,” says Dean. He checks his watch, then leaves the house, closing the door behind him.
Blake turns to me. “What’s going on? Why was he here?”
I push thoughts of Dean away and explain everything that happened for the second time tonight. When I reach the part where I described Mr. Pike to Dean, I sigh in exasperation. “Can you believe he thought my description wasn’t good enough?”
Blake’s eyes glaze over a bit and he frowns. “Well, to be honest… he’s right. That’s not much to go on.”
I flinch. “What’d you say?”
“Hmm? Oh, I know you don’t want to hear this, but I agree. That’s not much to go on.”
That’s not much to go on.
Dean used the same words. The exact same words.
“Wait,” I say, my whole body shaking with stress. “What did you hear, exactly? How did you hear me describe Pike?”
He shrugs. “Average height. Average build. Like I said, that’s not much to go on.”
I remember my phone. The way my fingers slipped off.
“But don’t worry,” says Blake. “We’ll find him. Nothing like this will happen again.”
For the first time in a long time, I don’t believe my best friend.
Despite my best efforts to describe Pike, Blake doesn’t hear what I want. When I tell him this, he just shrugs. “I’ll grab some coffee,” he says. “Something tells me, we’re both gonna need it today.”
He runs to Black Oak Coffee Roasters—a locally owned coffee house with the best lattes in town and great latte art—and when he returns, we spend an hour digging a hole in the backyard in which to burry Marshmallow. We wake the kids and get them breakfast before breaking the news to them, and through tears and sorrow, we have a mini funeral for the faithful Marshmallow. He got hit by a car, we say. It is a small lie, but a big kindness.
Then I manufacture a fake smile and go about making the day as normal as possible for the littles: Launches packed. Backpacks ready. Hugs and kisses exchanged. And after the kids are all dropped off at school and daycare—with warnings to the offices that the kids need to be watched extra carefully and not leave with anyone not on the list—I make a quick stop at Home Depot and head back home. With a fresh pot of coffee brewing—nothing as good as Black Oak but it’ll have to do—I get to work changing all the locks in the house and making sure the windows are secure. I’d love to get an alarm system put in, but that’s not happening right now, so I make do the best I can. Satisfied that neither Pat nor Mr. Pike can just waltz back in here, I lock up the house and climb back into my car, sagging against the steering wheel as I try to keep my wits about me.
Before I try starting the engine, I pull out my phone and call Pat, knowing he would have been passed out somewhere earlier. The call goes to voicemail and I leave a stern message. He needs to call me back now. We have something to discuss. Then, I drive.
It doesn’t take me long to reach my destination, and a light trickle of rain splashes against my face as I walk through the expanse of grass with gray granite slabs marking the end of a life every few feet. With head bent, eyes to the ground and my coat pulled tightly around me, I make my way to the one grave I care about in a sea of them.
The rain obscures my tears as I kneel in the grass and rub a hand over the headstone I came for. Laura Knightly. Beloved wife and mother. She died too young, leaving behind too many who needed her. I lay a flower next to her name and speak in a hushed voice, though I see no one around me.
“I miss you, Mum. Things were different when you were here.” And they truly were, because Laura Knightly was a good mother. She protected us all from Pat’s wrath and alcoholism as best she could. I don’t know why she never left him. Maybe her religious beliefs prevailed. Maybe she, like me, worried what would happen to the kids if she did. Maybe she was charmed by his good days, because he did have them. Days when he taught me how to shoot his gun. Days when we would work on repairs around the house or put together cheap furniture. But the day she died changed everything.
We lost a mother. Pat lost his wife. And then he lost himself completely in drink and anger. There were no more good days. And he blamed me. He blamed me for stealing her attention from him when she was alive, and he blamed me for her death, though it was complications from birthing Kara that ended her life. But then, he blames me for everything wrong in his life. I am his scapegoat, whether it’s poor weather or stock market changes, I’m responsible.
It’s been nearly two years since my mother passed away. Since then I’ve made it a habit of coming here once a week, and though on hard days like this I’m tempted to forgo the ritual altogether, in truth, it’s on hard days like this that I need to visit the most. Because I find a kind of peace here, even if only for a while.
“Is today the day, mum?”
Like always there is no response, and like always I am left wondering. “What did you mean that day?” I ask again, remembering the day Kyle and I played outside many years ago, how he ran out onto the road without a care, how a car came speeding, me too far away to do anything, and then how in an instant I was across the street, holding Kyle in my arms, safe. My mother found us only moments later, and through tears she said some things I barely remember. But what she said last, I remember still. “One day, little feather, your true self will be revealed, and even though those closest to you will turn against you, you must promise me something. Promise me, that when that day comes, you will remember what’s in your heart. Promise me, you will never forget who you are.”
I asked her what she meant, but she said no more. And now every day I wonder, is today the day?
Is Pike’s arrival simply the precursor to something more? Something my mother tried to warn me about?
I don’t know, and I don’t bother worrying more. I swore to my mother I would take care of the littles. Keep them safe. Make sure they had a chance at a good life, and that is what I intend to do. First, I need to find that bastard, Pat, and force him to tell me what evil deal he’s made. Then, I make him pay up, no matter the cost.
The smell of rain and freshly cut grass invigorates me, and I stand, ignoring the tickling numbness in my legs as my blood gets moving again. I clutch my jacket around my chest and walk back through the cemetery, the rain fizzling into barely a drizzle. It takes several moments before I realize I’m no longer alone. A man sits nearby, leaning over a grave, a silver flask clutched in his hand that he takes long swigs of. His coat is black and long and whips in the wind, revealing pants and a shirt that are just as dark. Even his short hair is raven black. The only bit of color he wears is a blood red scarf… a streak of fire in the windy rain.
“Those we love don’t go away; they walk beside us every day,” a deep voice says, startling me. It’s the man with the scarf, but I can’t tell if he’s speaking to me or to the grave. His voice is resonant, and his accent sounds British. “Unseen, unheard, but always near. Still loved, still missed, and very dear.”
My eyes mist as I pause to look at him. “That’s… that’s beautiful. Who said it?”
He shrugs. “Not sure,” he says, still facing away from me. “I saw it on Etsy once.”
I can’t help but smile at his unexpected answer, and it feels good. It’s the first real smile I’ve had in a while, so unlike the fake ones I put on for the kids and Blake.
“Thank you,” I say to the back of the man’s head.
“For what?” He stands and turns towards me, his piercing blue eyes taking me in with one look.
“For reminding me there are still things to smile about,” I say.
He tilts his head towards the graves we are surrounded by. “Lose someone recently?”
“No… not recently. But I don’t think time makes as much of a difference as people say.”
He nods, his face flickering with a glimpse of his own grief so fast I almost think I imagine it. “I don’t suppose it does,” he says. “For what is time, but a measure of things that have already happened or have not happened yet? What is time, but a measure of nothing.”
“Another Etsy quote?” I ask, trying to lighten my voice, but failing.
“Actually, I made that one up.”
A smile plays at my lips. “A philosopher, are you?”
“More a collector of philosophy, and purveyor of fine ideas.” He winks at me, and I grin.
“Is that a lucrative career? High demand?” I tease.
He chuckles and reaches to shake my hand. “I’m Kaden, by the way. Kaden Varis.”
“Sky,” I reply, slipping my hand into his. “Sky Knightly.” His grip is firm, but reserved. Controlled.
After too long a moment, I drop my hand back to my side reluctantly. His warmth beat out the cold of the day for just a moment. “I lost my mum,” I say suddenly. “It’s been a few years, but it feels like yesterday.” I don’t know why, but I feel like I can share with this man. Perhaps because he is a stranger. He doesn’t know my history. My problems with Pat and the kids. I can hold my grief close to me a little longer, in my own private space.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Though words such as those are never sufficient, are they? I too lost someone dear. An old friend. Like a brother.”
I glance at the gravestone he’s standing over. Chadwin Morrison, it says. He died at twenty-six years old, just one year ago today. So young. So tragic.
“It’s never easy, is it?” I say.
“No, it never is.”
My eyes focus back on him. “Are you from Ukiah?” This is not a big city, and he doesn’t look familiar. I’d remember a face like his.
“No,” he says. “But I was in the area on business and I came to pay my respects. Did you know, the French don’t really say, ‘I miss you.’ They actually say, ‘tu me manques,’ which translates to, ‘you are missing from me.’ He pauses, searching my face for something I don’t understand. “I think they may have the right of it, because when I’m here, with him… or his spirit or memory… whatever you want to call it… I feel more complete than anywhere else.”
“Complete. That’s a good word for it,” I say, thinking of my own feelings. “Like you don’t want to leave, because the world out there is wrong somehow. And sometimes… sometimes you just wish you could forget the person who is gone, because then it might be easier to live without them.”
He nods, his eyes losing focus as he thinks of something—or someone—far away. “It is true, what you say. But I read another quote, one that has stuck with me, particularly in times of grief. ‘If you can’t get someone out of your head, maybe they are supposed to be there’.” Kaden pulls a hat out of his jacket, a sleek black beret, and puts it on. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Sky. I hope one day you’ll find peace in the world of the living, and not just the world of the dead.” With that, he walks away, and the sky turns darker once again, pouring down on me as I walk back to my car.
I’m about to start the engine when my phone buzzes. I check the screen, hoping it’s Pat.
It’s Blake. His voice is hurried. “All hands on deck at the station. We’ve got a fire and need you here immediately.”
EYES IN THE FLAME
There are technically four firehouses in Ukiah, but only two are staffed full time. Even only running two, we are constantly short staffed, and rely heavily on volunteers to keep our department going, which is why it’s not surprising to get called in on a day off. What’s surprising is the time of year. This isn’t fire season, but that doesn’t mean fires don’t happen.
I primarily work the South Station, which I prefer. The north is more plush. It’s a house with a kitchen and living room, big screen television, bedrooms and a real home feel. The running joke is that it’s Club North. The South Station is where all the personnel offices are located, so it’s not just the two to three firefighters on duty, but also the fire chief and everyone else. It’s more political, but you also get to know more about what’s going on. I like being in the know.
However, on weekends, the South Station feels empty, cold, and sterile. It doesn’t have the home-like feel of the North Station, which I don’t like. But today there’s a larger group than normal when I arrive, as everyone prepares to assist on this fire.
Blake arrives at the same time as me and frowns when he sees me. “How’s the head?”
“Hard as ever,” I say, smiling through the headache I still have.
“I’ll take a look at it later,” he says as we enter the garage. “Make sure it’s healing.”
Blake, with his dark hair, blue eyes, and aristocratic features, is more like a movie star firefighter than a real life one. When we went through training together, he was worried his sexuality would be an issue at the station. You work so closely with your crew, sleeping and living together three or more days a week, covering for each other, protecting each other on the job. We both quickly saw that as long as he did his job—and Blake is an amazing paramedic and firefighter—he’d be treated with the same dark humor and respect everyone else is. That is to say, he gets teased as much as anyone. No one cares that he’s gay. But he gets ribbed a lot for his excessive use of hair gel.
It was always Blake’s dream to be a firefighter. For me, it was a way out of the life I’m stuck in. A way to help others and a way to do good. But also, it’s a way to stay close to Blake, to the only adult family I really have. Our crew is a second family for me, and one that treats me a lot better than my real family. And… there’s something about the fire that has always called to me. It draws me in. It’s a living, breathing thing that must consume in order to live. Fire has always fascinated me. The secret truth is, you won’t find a firefighter anywhere who isn’t at least a little bit a pyromaniac too. It’s the love of fire that seduced us to this job, not the desire to kill it.
I head to my locker to grab my gear. Steve sees me first and laughs. “Well, folks. Dragon Girl is here. So today should be eventful.”
I roll my eyes at him. “Don’t be stupid, Steve.”
Steve’s been in the department a long time, and is a staple here, which is why he gets so much support from the chief when his kids interfere with his shifts. He swings an arm over my shoulder and squeezes. “Everyone loves being on shift when you’re here, DG. What firefighter doesn’t want a good fire now and then? Especially this time of year.”
“I think tales of my fire-attracting nature are highly exaggerated,” I say.
The chief walks over to us and smiles. “Actually, I ran the numbers on a lark. Statistically we have 60% more fire calls when you’re working.”
My jaw drops. “You ran the numbers? That can’t be true. That’s impossible.”
We get called out for just about anything. Car accidents, support for paramedics, support for police… you name it, we’re there. But fires are what we all live for. It’s kind of messed up, when you think about it. Any of us who work in emergency response basically depend on tragedy to strike for us to practice our skills and do our jobs. We don’t wish for bad stuff to happen, not really. We just hope that if it’s going to happen, it happens on our watch. There’s nothing worse than a firefighter who’s gone too long without fighting a fire. We start to get bitchy and restless.
But there will be no rest today.
I pull on my pants and boots, then my jacket and climb into the fire engine. Connected to the back of my seat is a tank—a Self Contained Breathing Apparatus—that I’ll strap on as we drive, so I’m ready to roll the moment we get to our destination.
I’m sitting in the back, with Blake—who’s our engineer—driving, and Steve navigating. Once we get there, Steve will call the shots. Blake will work the engine. I’ll assess and be ready to respond.
But we’ll have to wait for the South Station to arrive before we can go in. There needs to be four firefighters present at all times, two to enter the building, two to stay outside.
My heart pounds against my ribs as the sirens blare into traffic, clearing our way. We get as much information as we can before we arrive. It’s an apartment complex on North State Street. Four stories. Possible casualties.
When we arrive, there’s no visible fire, but we can see smoke pouring out of a corner window. When you work an area like Ukiah you have to get to know the buildings, houses, structures, so you know what to look for when tragedy strikes.
This building has four units on each floor, for a total of sixteen. We need to isolate the unit that’s at risk and protect the others, plus make sure the whole structure has been evacuated. The rain has completely subsided, and the day has turned warm and sunny—not an advantage for us.
Fires are living things. They hunt. They feed. They move through space with intention. A good firefighter understands the fire. Respects the fire, even. And learns to anticipate the fire’s next move.
“Time to fight the dragon,” Steve says to us, a gleam of that familiar excitement I know we all have reflecting in his eyes.
We share a smile, then get busy. Blake works the engine, getting the hose ready, while I walk the periphery to assess any risks. I’ve determined the point of origin and am about to holler to Steve, when something catches my eye. A man lurks in the shadows near the building. He’s dressed in black and I can’t see his face. “Sir, I need you to come with me,” I yell.
He doesn’t respond.
I run forward. “Sir—”
He steps back. Into the shadows. And he’s gone.
Dark smoke hangs in the air. The fire’s spreading.
I walk forward, searching for the man, but finding nothing.
Then I hear a scream on the second floor. It sounds like a young girl.
“Steve! We’ve got a child in the building. I’m going in.”
This is risky. And dangerous. And the only time we’re allowed to break the rules and go in before there are four firefighters present.
I know Steve will join me soon, but I don’t wait. I can’t. There’s a girl up there, and I need to get her out. With ax in hand I push through a door and take the most direct path to get to the second floor. The mission is simple and direct. Get the girl and get out. We’re not trying to stop the fire right now, just rescue the child. The fire will come later.
Flames envelop the space in front of me and I step back to avoid the blast. My suit will protect me, to a degree, but still I feel like I’m boiling alive.
The flames rise up and I avoid them to find the stairs. I move carefully, checking the stability of each stair, each door and wall, before inching forward. One mistake could be fatal.
When I get to the second floor and locate the unit, I use the ax to break the door in.
“Sky?” Steve yells.
“Up here! Second floor!”
I do a quick search of the living room. The flames are licking at my feet as sweat trickles down my back, arms, face. “Hello? Anyone here?”
I hear a sob, but it’s fading, which isn’t a good sign. I think it’s coming from one of the doors in the hall, likely a bedroom. I rush forward with more speed, and miscalculate the structural integrity of the unit.
The floor breaks under my right foot. I fall hard against the ground, my ax flying from my hand as I use my arms to break my landing. I try to stand, but my foot is stuck in the hardwood floorboards. “Steve!” I call for my backup, but don’t hear him. I know the girl is in that bedroom, and that she’s likely running out of air. I pull at my foot, desperate to get unstuck. The wood groans and burns around me.
Panic fills me, but I push it aside. You can’t afford to let fear take over with a job like this, it would be paralyzing and deadly. I can still hear the girl cry if I strain, but it’s so faint.
And then… it stops. Nothing. “Hello! If you can hear me, yell. I’m coming for you. Don’t give up.”
Fun fact, most people don’t die in fires from the fire itself, but from smoke inhalation.
It’s not really that fun of a fact, now that I think about it.
I’m moving so deeply into the fire that I know I have to find her or leave, and soon. I don’t have the equipment to contain or control what this is becoming.
All I hear is the crackle of flames eating into the apartment and the tearing of wood as it falls apart. My radio comes to life, Blake’s voice on the other end. “Sky, get out of there. Steve can’t get in. We’re using the ladder, but the structure isn’t sound. Get out now!”
I reach for the ax. It’s just out of reach and I push myself to stretch further until it’s just barely in my grasp. Carefully, I pull it towards me until I can hold it securely.
With measured blows, I break apart the wood keeping my foot trapped and pull myself out, then stumble towards the bedroom door and push it open.
I see her there, on the other side of a wall of flames. She’s unconscious, doesn’t have much time left.
So I rush forward.
And the ceiling collapses.
Beams of wood crash down between me and the girl, and I fall back just in time to avoid getting buried under the bulk of the debris. A large piece of stone ricochets off the wall and hits my mask with a loud crack. I scream in pain and suck in a lungful of smoke. The mask is broken, obstructing my view, so I tear it off and try to avoid taking deep breaths.
There’s a window on the other side of the room, near the girl. If I can get there, I can get us out and use the ladder to get down.
Smoke fills my lungs. The room is a burning inferno, the wood turning to ash. A rush of dizziness sweeps over me. The smell of fire fills my nostrils. From the corner of the room, something moves. A flicker of a shadow, then the silhouette of a person. A man, I think. He faces the flames and I look to where he’s looking, into the fire. And there… there I see the impossible. I see eyes in the flames. Red and burning. A set of teeth. A pair of claws. The world around me narrows in, growing darker, and I fall…
Arms pull at me.
My body is lifted.
Fire above me.
I can’t breathe.
I suck in air, but it feels as if my lungs are full and can’t take it all in.
Someone sticks a mask over my face, and oxygen forces itself into my reluctant lungs. Blake? I try to speak, but I can’t.
“Gotta get you to an ambulance… ”
I’m fading. My mind blinks out. And in the darkness, I see the beast writhing in the flames. Hungry. Waiting. Hunting.
And then I remember her… and my eyes pop open, and I pull the mask off my face, choking out words as I do. “There’s a girl in there. Save her.”
Blake stands over me, his eyes downcast. “I’m sorry, Sky. We can’t go back in. Not until we put out the fire. The foundation is collapsing. It’s… It’s too late.”
PAIN IN THE PAST
The fire takes hours to put out. I stay, but only as support. I’m not allowed back in, and my condition is monitored. In the end, amidst the ash and ruin of the apartment complex, they find the remains of a girl trapped on the second floor, her body as charred as the house. An autopsy will be done, but it’s likely she died from smoke inhalation before the flames ever touched her.
The fire will be investigated as to cause, but likely it was carelessness. Someone left a candle burning or the stove top on. Or a cigarette fell from a drunken hand.
The hardest part is when a middle-aged couple arrives on the scene, their faces filled with fear and shock. They live here, they tell us. Their daughter, she was home alone working on a school assignment while they were out of town for the day. A trip to Santa Rosa. She was old enough to be alone for the afternoon. They never imagined anything would go wrong.
Blake is the one to break the news, while I stand by his side, knowing how he feels. I’ve been in his shoes.
The man breaks first, falling to his knees, tears streaming down his face. The woman grabs her husband’s shoulders, her face frozen in shock.
I wince at the ferocity of emotion I bear witness to. I am to blame. I should have gotten to her in time. They didn’t deserve to have their lives ruined like this. That girl didn’t deserve to die today. What did any of them do to deserve this?
I walk away as Blake goes into the details, trudging my feet along the grass, reliving my time amongst the flames, and what I saw within. My mind loses itself in a haze, and I don’t know how much time goes by until Blake pats me on the shoulder. “Head home. We’ll finish up at the station.”
I nod, still dazed. It takes about fifteen minutes to reach the station, to grab my things and my car. By the time I arrive at Mrs. Ruby’s, the kind old lady next door who sometimes watches the kids while I work, the sun has already set. The day has felt eternal and never ending, and I still have to find Pat. My twenty-four hours is almost up, and I don’t know what the man who calls himself Mr. Pike will do when he shows up and Pat isn’t here.
I move in a haze as I lock Kara and Caleb into their car seats, my mind torn between my personal problems and the fire that took a young life today. I look at Kyle, who sits next to his siblings with earbuds in his ears, lost in his own world. The girl was about his age. I try to imagine myself in the position those parents were in today. I shudder at the thought and push it from my mind. These are my kids and I will do whatever it takes to keep them safe. Losing them would kill me.
Blake arrives home shortly after me and makes dinner—bless his heart—while I call every place Pat might be. Every dive bar in town. But no one has seen him.
Which means he likely hit a liquor store and is hanging somewhere with the homeless to avoid detection. The homeless are invisible to most, their plight swallowed up by the self-enforced blindness of a people unwilling to look that kind of fate in the eyes.
Once the littles are in bed and Kyle is upstairs playing video games, Blake brings out a bottle of something strong and pours us both a glass, then holds his up. “May her family find healing, and may her spirit find peace.”
I can’t keep the tears in anymore, and the taste of them bleeds into the alcohol as it burns down my throat and numbs me just a little.
A few drinks in, I can see the sorrow on Blake’s face, the sadness trapped behind his tough exterior. He does it for me, I think. Staying composed.
“It’s okay to cry,” I say to him, finally, the drink making the world a bit fuzzy around the edges. “You don’t have to be strong for me. We have the right to grieve together,” I say, reaching for him.
He wraps an arm around me, and I lay my head on his chest, and together we let our pain out.
We must have both fallen asleep at one point, though it’s not that late, only eight by the time I wake up and head to the bathroom. I’m washing my face and changing the bandage on my head when I hear glass breaking. A far too common noise in a house full of kids. “Kyle? What happened? I won’t be mad, but speak up.”
I follow the sound, walking into the kitchen, and I see the middle window is shattered, broken glass splayed over the tile. Pat crawls through the opening, huffing and puffing until he sprawls onto the floor. He’s shirtless, smells of drink, and I notice he wrapped his shirt around his fist to break the glass.
“You bastard,” I scream. I look around for something hard to hit him with and find Kyle’s baseball bat lying by the door. I grab it and hold it up.
Pat throws his arms in front of his face. “Now come on. I just wanted to get some food.”
“So you broke into the house?” I’m livid. I can’t afford to replace that window. And I’ve been trying to reach him all day, but instead of contacting me, he breaks in like a thief to steal food I need for the kids. Food I paid for.
“Well, I know you don’t want me around. Figured I’d sneak in and grab some grub. But hey, since we’re all here, wanna share a meal with good ol’ step-dad?” His voice is slurred and his footing unstable as he tries to stand. I’m surprised he made it through the window without injury.
“You want food, Pat? Then tell me something. A man came to the house early this morning looking for you. Calls himself Mr. Pike.” I pause and watch his face for any signs of recognition.
His eyes go wide and he reaches for the window. I get there first, slamming my bat down on the window sill. I’m not trying to hit Pat, but his hand gets in the way and the bat smashes into his fingers. He falls back cradling his knuckles. “What’d you do that for?” his voice is a shrill whine.
“Sky? What’s going on?” Kyle stands in the doorway of the kitchen. “Everything’s fine,” I say. “We’re just having a grown up talk. Go get ready for bed. It’s getting late.”
“It’s only eight,” Kyle says. “I’m allowed to stay up till nine, you said.”
I sigh. “Fine, but you have to stay in your room reading a book, remember?”
He looks at me, then Pat, then me again. “Why’s Blake sleeping on the couch?”
“Kyle, go to bed. Please.” I’m trying not to let my frustration show, but this has been the day from hell already, and I’m afraid it’s just going to get worse.
“Okay, fine.” He finally leaves, and I hope he’s not spying in the other room. There are some things a kid his age doesn’t need to know.
I turn back to Pat, lowering my voice. “Tell me everything. Now. Or I swear to god I will beat you with this bat and not think twice.” He flinches at the threat and I press my advantage, remembering his fear of me yesterday. “Who is Pike? What deal did you make?”
Pat looks ready to run again, but seeing my resolution, he reconsiders and slumps into a kitchen chair. “It was… just a favor.”
“What kind of favor?” I ask, raising the bat a little higher.
“I was in trouble, all right? Bad trouble.” He sighs, acting the consummate victim. “Some people wanted money from me. Said I owed them for a deal gone bad, but they knew there was a chance of that from the start—”
“Stop making excuses for once in your miserable life!”
“Look… these people, they were trouble. And Mr. Pike, he made the trouble go away.”
I scowl at him. “How?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “You don’t ask questions. That’s his way. He fixes it, and that’s all you need to know.”
“And what did you offer in return?”
“I… ” he pauses, biting down on his lips.
“What?” My voice is cold, low, scary.
He doesn’t answer. He looks away, avoiding eye contact.
“What!” I raise my voice and the bat.
Spittle flies out of his mouth as he talks. “You gotta understand. I would have been killed. They would have killed me, and then where would we all be? What would have happened to the kids? To Laura? I had to think of the family!”
Right, like his motives have ever been that self-sacrificing. But his words send a chill down my back. Whatever he did, it’s bad. And not bad for him, because Pat never makes deals that would be bad for him if he can help it. “Pat, shut the hell up and tell me what you did.”
His head falls forward. “I offered one of the kids, okay? In exchange for Pike making the problem go away, he could come and take one of the kids at his chosen time.”
The bat falls to the ground and I fight the urge to vomit as all the blood drains from my face. My voice is barely a whisper now. “You offered… I… I can’t believe it… how could you?”
“It’s the only offer he takes, okay? He makes your problems go away, and then, when the time is right or his need is great or whatever, he comes to take a kid.”
“For what? Why does he want kids?” A dozen reasons flood my mind, each worse than the next. What kind of child slavery ring is this bastard running?
“I don’t know, I swear!” He’s sweating now, and his eyes dart around the kitchen, likely looking for something to drink. “To be part of their cult, or something. That’s how they recruit, I think.”
My knees are shaking and I sit down in a chair across from him. “This can’t happen, Pat. Pike is going to go away, and you’re going to make sure he does. He’s not taking one of my kids.”
“You can’t stop him,” Pat says, his voice defeated. “He can do things no normal man has any right doing.”
I think back to how I couldn’t call 911 on my phone, and how Dean and Blake couldn’t register my description of him. “Which one?” I ask. “Which of the kids does he want?”
“The youngest,” he says. “He likes them young, impressionable, I think. So they take to the training better.”
Kara. He’s coming for the baby. My baby. The baby my mother died to give birth to. She was told she shouldn’t carry to term, but she insisted. She knew she was too weak, but she didn’t care. As she lay in the hospital bed hooked up to machines, her skin so pale and translucent I could see her veins, she held my hand and looked into my eyes. She was delusional. Calling me by another name. “Elliana.” Grasping for me. “Elliana.” Screaming at me. “Elliana. I am scared, my friend. I am scared.” I could see the terror in her eyes. I swore then and there I would take care of the littles no matter what.
When the machines started to beep faster, and the doctors and nurses came to rush me out, I knew it was over. Hours later they handed me a baby so pink she looked like a tomato, and I held her in my arms and whispered in her ear even as tears still poured down my face. “It’s a big scary world out there, I know, but I’ll protect you, okay? I promise.” She seemed to smile then—though the nurse said it was just gas—and I don’t know if I’ve ever been as happy and as sad in the same moment since.
Strength returns to my limbs and I stand, emboldened by a new determination as Pat sits there and weeps his tears of self-pity. He reaches out and tries to touch my hand but I push him away. “I don’t want your tears. You sold one of your own children to save your skin. One of my children. The child Laura gave her life to save.” He flinches at the name of my mother.
“Please,” he begs. “Please find a way to save her. The place she’d go. The things she’d have to do… ”
“What things? What place? What do you know of it?”
“I wasn’t always a useless drunk,” he says, surprising me with this brief moment of self-honesty. “I used to work for people… people with power. I knew things. Too many things. I was a liability when their system of power crumbled. This man, this Mr. Pike and his ilk, they enslave children into a life you can’t imagine. She’ll be brainwashed or worse.”
A knot forms in my gut and I pace the kitchen floor. I need to find Mr. Pike before he comes back for Kara. Whatever this child trafficking ring is, it needs to end now.
My phone buzzes, and I check the message. What I read makes me curse under my breath. I hoped something like this wouldn’t happen, but of course it was a fool’s hope.
“How would you find him?” I ask, clenching my jaw, my knuckles turning white around the bat, an idea—probably a very stupid idea—forming in my mind.
Pat rubs at his nose. “Well, he’s looking for kids, right? If any are missing, that’s where to start.”
I was thinking the same.
I look down at my phone again, rereading the message from the station.
Calling all available personnel for an immediate search and rescue. A child has gone missing in Low Gap Park.
GHOST IN THE FOREST
I grab my pack, check to make sure it has all my supplies–water, power bars, a headlamp, change of socks, a GPS and my radio–and slip on a thick coat. I turn to Pat. “Stay here. Keep an eye on the kids. There’s a patrol car outside for protection. I’m going to try to find Pike before he finds us.”
Pat nods, and I wake Blake and show him the text.
We get to the staging area at the parking lot outside the park as others from the fire and police department show up to help. There’s about twenty people total, which isn’t a great head count but not our worst either.
It only takes a few minutes to get the basics. Teenage boy went hiking alone, never came home. This was his last known whereabouts. He’s not answering his phone and the GPS tracker for the phone isn’t working. We all take a map and a partner–Blake and I choose each other– and head out.
It’s a new moon, which means limited natural lighting. We both wear our headlamps to keep our hands free as we hike through the woods. It’s late, dark, and the only sounds are the crunching of twigs under our feet and the calls of creatures in the night.
I explain to Blake what I learned from Pat and tell him my plan. Then I show him what else I brought in my pack.
“A gun? Are you nuts?”
Blake doesn’t like guns.
“I’m going to find this guy. Before he takes my baby.” Just the thought of losing Kara kills me inside.
Blake shakes his head. “That’s insane. We need to let the police handle this.”
“Like Dean?” I ask, knowing his answer.
“Well, not like Dean, but someone else in the department surely.”
“Blake, something weird is going on. I can’t explain it, and even when I do you don’t seem to understand, but this isn’t a normal guy we’re talking about. I can’t risk leaving this in someone else’s hands alone. I’m running out of time. I only have a few hours before Pike said he’d return.”
I stumble over a rock, catching myself against a tree. My limbs are too tired to be hiking tonight–I’ve already dealt with a head injury today, a fire call, and loss of consciousness due to smoke inhalation. I should be resting, letting my lungs and body recover. Instead, I’m trekking through a dark hiking trail, hoping the kid we’re looking for is okay, and hoping I can catch Pike before he comes to collect my baby.
We’ve been walking for an hour when Blake stops, takes a swig of water, and excuses himself to find a tree to relieve himself.
I look down at the picture of the missing kid on my phone. Mat Parson. He’s thirteen with a shock of bright red hair and a face full of freckles. He’s from the same school as Kyle, and I think I may have seen them hanging out together. I try not to imagine what my little brother will have to go through if his friend is never found. I try to look for–
A twig snaps nearby.
I turn to the right, pointing my headlamp at the source of the sound. Nothing but trees and darkness. But… Wait. A sound. Whispering.
“Blake? That you?”
I look around but don’t see anyone, so I creep forward in the woods, following the whispers. “Blake? Hello?”
It occurs to me it could be the boy we’re looking for, and I yell his name as well. Maybe he’s hurt and calling for help, but his voice is too weak to talk. I walk faster, suddenly certain he’s close by. I pull out my gun, just in case I find Pike, and hold it securely as I pick up my pace.
The cold metal feels foreign in my hands. I’ve trained at a shooting range and have a license to carry a concealed weapon–not uncommon in the fire department–but I’ve never actually pointed a gun at another human. I hope I don’t have to pull the trigger tonight, but I will if it means saving a life.
The path I’m on divides into two, and I travel right, where a dried-up stream used to live before the draughts and heat wave. Another whisper. A bitter wind.
I step onto a short cliff overlooking a clearing. I scan the area, my headlamp illuminating the broken trees and large rocks and–
Splayed unnaturally over a fallen tree. Limbs at odd angles. Someone stands over him. A man dressed in black.
I raise my gun.
And then I see it.
The wind catches his red scarf.
“Step away from the boy!” I yell, pointing my gun at him.
Kaden turns towards me, his blue eyes shining against the beam of my headlamp. “I didn’t harm him,” he says instantly, bending down over the body.
“Don’t move!” My arms are steady, but my heart pounds against my rib cage. Sweat beads down my forehead. I unlatch the security on the gun and slow my breathing.
“Please,” he says, his voice urgent. “I must finish cleansing the body.”
“Don’t move, or I will shoot!” My mind is frantic, trying to piece together what is going on. Pike isn’t here. Kaden is. Is Kaden working with Pike? Is Pike at my house already?
“If I don’t finish what I started, we will all be in danger,” he says.
What is he even talking about? “Don’t touch him!” I walk down the cliff, closing the distance between us. This is even harder than I thought; I try to push the thoughts away, but I can’t stop my mind from recoiling at the thought of hurting another person. A person I know. A person I was actually attracted to. I went into my career to save people, not kill them.
Kaden pulls back from the body and lifts his gloved hands in the air. “I know what this looks like, but you have to trust me. The boy’s body must be purified, otherwise–”
A strong wind hits us. A stray lock of hair comes loose from my ponytail and flies around my face. His scarf flails about, but… it doesn’t drift in the same direction as the wind. It’s moving against it, to the west. This makes no sense. My eyes follow the direction his scarf is blowing and… I see it. In the woods.
A pair of eyes wreathed in flame.
Nostrils filled with smoke.
A razor sharp mouth.
It’s just like my vision in the fire. But I was hallucinating. A side effect from lack of oxygen.
Am I hallucinating again? Am I more injured than I realized? Nothing about my life in the last twenty-four hours makes sense.
The creature glides out of the trees, its large red body half mist, half physical form. Its head is that of a wolf, its body that of a serpent.
I blink, expecting it to disappear.
It doesn’t. It draws near instead.
My gun wavers in my hand. I shouldn’t be holding a weapon if I can’t even decipher fantasy from reality. What if I shoot someone innocent? What if none of this is happening and I’m just losing my mind?
My mum never said much about my father, but she did say he wasn’t right in the head before his death. What if I inherited something from him? What if I’m totally losing it? Where’s Blake? I need him right now. I need him to tell me what’s real and what’s not. Because I don’t even know anymore.
And then Kaden speaks, in a voice so low, I almost don’t hear him. And I realize he’s not looking at me anymore. He’s looking in the direction of the monster. He sees it too.
“Run,” he says. “Run now!”
I hear his words, but they become jumbled in my mind. I can’t think. Can’t move. I’m paralyzed by self-doubt.
And then the creature lunges forward.
And I act on animal instinct.
I fire my gun, aiming directly for the vision before me.
But the bullets do nothing. They fly through the creature as if it were a ghost. A spirit. As if it didn’t exist at all. But this all feels entirely too real. And I don’t think I’m imagining the body of the boy, or Kaden standing before me.
I brace for death, hoping that when it comes I’ll wake up and realize this was all a nightmare.
Death doesn’t come. I don’t wake.
Instead, the creature passes me by. And heads straight for Mat Parson.
Kaden yells something I don’t understand and jumps in front of the boy’s body, but the spirit whips around him.
And slams into the corpse.
The creature vanishes, and for a moment, everything turns quiet. Even the wind dies down to nothing, the air so still it’s stifling.
Then the boy gasps for breath. His chest rises and falls. Impossible.
I rush forward to help.
“Stop!” yells Kaden.
I follow his gaze.
And I see the boy’s eyes. I see them roll back into his head until only the whites show. I watch as his hands and legs crack and move at odd angles, rearranging themselves to work again.
“It’s too late,” Kaden says. “It possessed him.” He pulls something from his coat.
Something metal that glints against the light of my headlamp.
It takes my mind a moment to process what I see. A sword. The largest sword I’ve ever seen. I wonder how he even manages to hold it. The hilt is simple, wrapped in leather strips, made for large hands. The blade is bare, no markings or embellishments, the steel black as night.
“I’ll hold if off,” Kaden says, positioning himself between me and the moving corpse. “It will follow you, Sky. It will follow you until it kills you. Run. Run now!”
The boy stands, but his movements are awkward, as if someone wears him like an ill-fitting outfit. His eyes turn red as if they burn with flame. The boy roars, but the sound he makes is not human. It is guttural and monstrous, and it makes every instinct in me terrified. His young teen muscles expand, getting larger and larger, growing until his skin rips open, revealing raw, unnatural flesh. His jaw comes unhinged, then tears his face apart as a new head explodes from his throat, its giant mouth full of layers of sharp teeth, its tiny eyes at the top of its head like a deep sea fish. Its grown twice the size of any man I’ve ever known. It lashes out with a giant pink tongue forked like a snake’s. Trying to grab something. Trying to kill something.
My body takes over as my brain freezes.
And I run like I’ve never ran before.
I push my body to the limit.
I’m not fast enough.
The serpent-like tongue lashes out, grabbing at my ankle, pulling me to my knees.
Steel flashes through the air and Kaden cuts the tongue in half, freeing me from its clutches, but the severed part lives on. It jumps and wiggles and tries to wrap itself around my leg.
I kick it away and stand up, forcing myself to keep running.
Through the darkness I run, over stone and bush and underbrush, zigzagging through trees, twigs snapping underfoot, my body covered in cold sweat, the world around me a blur of blacks and grays.
Behind me, the creature cries out in pain from the blow Kaden dealt. The sound is like a dying deer, a blend of child and animal and fear and pain, and it chills my soul.
I have no idea where I’m going–the map I committed to memory long forgotten–but I know I’ll reach the end of the woods soon. Will that mean safety? Or will I be leading this monster towards a populated area, putting more people at risk?
I make a split-second decision and change directions, knowing I’m heading deeper into the woods, but away from anyone else who might be harmed. This new path is less traveled and the terrain more wild. I trip on the root of a tree and stumble. Something inside me snaps as I fall forward and pain shoots through my body. I bite my tongue until it bleeds, and tears well in my eyes as I cradle my right foot.
Despite the pain, I force myself to stand. My foot can barely handle my weight, likely broken somewhere. I look around, trying to figure out what to do next, and I see the creature and Kaden behind me.
The beast strikes with claws, a savage flurry of destruction, no pattern to its assault. And yet, Kaden evades each attack. He’s fast, unnaturally so, but something about his movement is wrong. His left side is more agile than his right. His shoulder is stiff. Was he injured? Did the beast wound him?
Kaden told me to run. He said he had to purify the body. Did he know this would happen? That this monstrous thing would take the boy’s corpse for itself?
If he knew… if he’s here to help, then he wasn’t the one who killed Mat Parson. And if Kaden is innocent, and he’s in danger… I need to help him.
The creature appears more corporeal than before. Less smoke, more mass. I can use that to my advantage. I raise my gun and aim, hoping to get a good shot, but Kaden’s too close. He’s blocking my line of vision. I need a different angle.
I circle around the two of them, limping through the pain in my ankle, as I ignore my survival instincts. I’ve grown used to fighting my flight instincts as a firefighter. We run into the kind of danger most normal people flee from.
And so I do the same now. I take position against a tree–where I can remove all pressure from my foot, and I raise my gun and aim, my line of sight clear, my finger on the trigger.
The creature turns towards me, as if it knows my thoughts. My intentions.
And it charges.
I fire as many bullets as I can.
Some of them strike true, taking the creature in the arm, the chest, the head.
Dark black blood splatters into the air. But the creature does not slow. It fills the night sky with unnatural sounds of agony, but it does not pause. It does not show any other sign that it feels pain in the least.
It closes the distance between us so quickly, I barely have time to think. To move. To react.
Kaden lands at my side, as if he flew or leaped to reach me. How he got here before the beast, I have no idea.
He pulls me into his arms, and he jumps.
We fly into the air, higher than many of the trees around us, moving so quickly the wind whips at my face, forcing my eyes closed. My stomach lurches at the change in motion, and I cling to Kaden for my life.
We seem to hover forever, and then we land.
The impact reverberates throughout my entire body, rattling my bones, shaking my vision.
Kaden doesn’t slow at all. He carries me as if I weigh nothing, navigating through trees and rocky terrain, his boots barely touching the ground.
The beast gives chase, filled with a bloodlust that seems unstoppable. What remains of its tongue lashes out, cutting into the flesh of my arm, my blood mixing with its own, creating a crimson mist around us. I hold in my cries of pain, knowing I dare not distract Kaden right now; He is the only thing keeping either of us alive.
I hold my trembling hand over Kaden’s shoulder and fire more shots into the night. Whether my bullets make contact or not I cannot tell, but the beast is unfazed regardless. I need to find a weak spot, something that will stop it in its tracks.
The eyes. I need to hit the eyes.
I take aim, steadying my hold with both hands, as Kaden jostles us over rocky terrain.
My bullet errs to the right
The creature gains on us.
My next shot is too far left.
The creature continues gaining on us.
I close my eyes and slow my breathing. I remember my mother’s words as she would guide me in meditation, as she helped me control my heart rate. “The physical form is controlled by the mind and the mind is controlled by the spirit. Center yourself in your truth, Sky. Center yourself in your truth, and you control all things.”
I steady my breath, heed her words, and fire.
The beast recoils, clutching at its head with its monstrous hands. One of its eyes runs red with blood.
We begin to pull away, but the creature leaps forward, one eyeball dangling from its socket. It almost lands atop us.
Then Kaden drops, sliding through a stretch of mud, me still in his arms. We propel into darkness, and I realize we are passing under a bridge. Kaden moves one of his arms, gripping me with the other, and reaches into his jacket. He tosses something to the ground… a golden coin covered in symbols I can’t decipher. It hits the ground at the edge of the bridge, and a wall of golden smoke fills the space between us and the monster.
The beast smashes into the smoke, then jumps back as if electrocuted, letting out a wail of pain and anger as the wall bursts with white light. Moving quickly, Kaden tosses another coin at the other side of the bridge. The beast leaps over us, searching for an opening, but it’s too late. It hits the second wall and lightning flashes in the golden smoke.
Kaden falls back against a wooden pillar under the bridge. His breath is heavy and his body is covered in sweat. And then… he laughs. “Thought we were dead.”
I slide out of his arms and sit down in the mud, keeping weight off my right foot. “What is that thing?” I whisper.
“A Fenrial Spirit,” he says. “A corrupted one.”
“A spirit… ”
He looks at me, his blue eyes piercing. “It wants you. Your body, to be more exact.”
My eyes widen. “What? Why?”
Kaden sucks in a breath, and his body calms as he replies. “There are people… people like you who draw spirits to them. You’re like a conduit. You’re not an empty shell, but you have an opening–a crack in your spirit. And your power, it leaks out, attracting them.”
“What are you talking about?” Spirits, conduits, empty shells… My mind is spinning and I’m trying to grab hold of something that makes sense, but nothing does. Not the beast. Not the golden walls of smoke. Not the powers Pike displayed when I tried to use my phone or describe his appearance.
Kaden continues, his voice calm. “Spirits can’t affect the physical world by themselves. They need a body. But they can’t take one already occupied. They need one that’s empty. They need someone dead.”
“Like Mat,” I say, things begin to click in my mind.
“Yes.” He holds my gaze, his blue eyes pleading with me to believe him. “I swear to you, Sky, I found him already dead. I think he stumbled down the cavern and fell on the broken tree. One of the branches tore through his gut. He was stuck there, on the tree, bleeding out until he died.”
I can’t imagine his pain. His agony. His helplessness, as he tried to call for help. As his words were whisked away by an uncaring wind. As his life bled out of him. He must have been terrified. So alone. What were his last thoughts? Were they of fear? Of sadness? My heart breaks for the boy who died alone, and bile rises in my throat. I turn away, emptying my gut into the mud.
When I finish vomiting, Kaden continues. “Usually, bodies stay dead,” he says. “But I knew Spirits were in the area. So I sought the boy out. I tried to purify his body before it could be possessed, but, well, you showed, and you know the rest.”
“With this,” he says, pulling another coin out of his coat, this one silver, the symbols on it just as strange but different. “This is a talisman,” Kaden says, shuffling the coin across his knuckles. “This one purifies a body to protect it from corruption. The ones I threw earlier form barriers against unwanted spirits. They don’t last forever, though.”
He pushes himself off the pillar and hisses in pain, falling back down.
“You’re injured!” I limp towards him. “Let me see.” I have enough medic training to know what to look for, how to handle it.
He nods and pulls off his coat to reveal his shoulder. The cloth from his shirt is burned through, and his flesh is a seared red blister. “It’s from earlier. Nothing I can’t take.”
“This is a third degree burn,” I say. And then it hits me. “The fire! You were there, at the fire. You were the man I saw.”
He rolls his shoulder, flinching so quickly I barely notice. “Yes,” he says. “When the girl died amidst the smoke, I knew the Fenrial would come for her. I was too late, though. I fought the possessed body as best I could. Almost won, even. But… the house collapsed. I got out with the burn. The Fenrial got out too. They do that, leave a body if they must.”
At mention of the girl, I am overwhelmed with fury. “If you were there, why didn’t you save her? Why did you let the beast take her?” I expect him to strike back with words.
But his voice remains calm. “I didn’t let her die. I wouldn’t do that, but I have no way of finding those in danger.” If anything, he sounds sad. Helpless. “I can only find those who are already dead. Or very near it. Only those who have opened themselves to the spirits.”
“I see.” Though I don’t see at all. I don’t understand any of this. I shake my head, looking around for anything I can use to help Kaden, but I don’t have a med kit with me. I slump back down, shivering in the cold wind, pulling my jacket close. Around us, the wall of gold holds strong, but I hear the beast, the Fenrial, behind it, pacing along the bridge. The night is dark, and getting even darker.
“You said the Spirits want my body. Why?” I ask.
“You are what some call a Broken One,” Kaden says. “You draw spirits even though you live, because some part of your own spirit has fractured. It’s not something you were born with, not usually. It manifests later, from trauma. Even then, it begins as a small crack in your spirit. A crack that grows over the years. Eventually, that crack spreads into a gaping hole that leaks enough of your own spirit to reveal a chasm that needs filled. Spirits are drawn to that empty space. And so are those like me.”
Pieces of a convoluted and mysterious puzzle begin to fit together. A puzzle I didn’t even realize I’d been trying to solve since I was a child. Ever since my mum gave me my leather cufflink. “That’s the business you’re in, isn’t it? You’re here because of me.”
He nods without saying a word.
“So what? You protect me? And then you fix this crack in my spirit?”
He sighs. “Not exactly. I protect you, yes. But there is no way to fix the break. There is only a way to fill it.”
He nods, a lock of dark hair falling into his eyes. “With another spirit.”
“But… I thought the point was to not let spirits get those like me?” My eyes dart to the wailing beast and I shudder. Is that what he wants to do to me?
Seeing my fear and revulsion, he reaches for my hand. The contact shocks me. I’m so cold. So chilled to the bone and scared beyond anything I’ve ever felt. But the feel of his hand, of his warmth, of the reassurance his touch provides, sends a calm wave through my body.
“There are two basic kinds of spirits, Sky,” he says. “Those that are corrupted, like the one outside this wall. And those that are not. Corrupted spirits wish to cause chaos and destruction in the world. They seek out dead bodies, hoping to possess them. They seek out Broken Ones even more, hoping to overtake them. With dead bodies their time is limited. Decay and rot set in. If they can possess a Broken One, they can live forever. Over the years, because of the leak in your spirit, your body has grown closer to the spirit realm. And thus, you would make for a much more powerful vessel. If a Fenrial inhabited you, even I would have a hard time stopping it.”
I squeeze his hand gently and glance at the fading barrier, the dissipating smoke. “Seems like you’re having a hard time already,” I say, my voice hopeless.
He nods. “Fair enough. But it’s my shoulder. It’s slowing me down. If I’d had a way to keep the spirit still for a moment, I could have ended it, but it’s too fast. Well, too fast for me in this condition, at any rate.”
I raise an eyebrow at that. “You seemed unnaturally quick. And the way you jumped, how is that even possible?”
He chuckles. “That’s where the second kind of spirit comes in. The Pure Ones. They can bond with a Broken One, but they will not take over your will. At least, not if you keep them in line. Instead, they seek to establish a symbiotic bond with their host. That bond is the only way to make a Broken One whole again.”
“So you have one of these spirits?” I ask. “A Pure One?”
He nods. “I do.” He pauses, staring at the golden smoke, a thin wisp now. “How about I tell you more about this when we get out of here. That wall won’t last forever.”
“When? You’re sure it’s not if?” I eye the Fenrial prowling on the other side of the golden light.
“Come now,” he says, grinning with such confidence I wonder about his sanity. “Pessimism never won any battles. I believe Eisenhower said that.”
I shrug. “I wouldn’t know. Public education around here isn’t what it used to be.”
I can’t help but smile too.
For a moment, we grin and snicker at our own foolishness, forgetting our impending doom. Perhaps that is why we laugh. To drown out our own despair.
Kaden’s face grows dark. “I will admit, we aren’t in the best of positions. The Talisman’s weakening, and I don’t have any more of their kind. In about two minutes the Fenrial will be upon us.”
My heart races again at his words. We need a plan. “So these Pure Spirits. They give you powers? Abilities?”
“Yes,” he says slowly. “If you know how to control them.”
“They let you do things… things that should not be possible?”
He narrows his eyes at me. “Not what most consider possible, true.”
I try to deny it, but the pieces have been coming together in my mind for some time, filling in so many gaps of my childhood. “I… I can help us,” I say, holding out my arm.
He shakes his head, his eyes widening. “No. Before the barrier falls, we must run. I’m in no shape to fight off the Fenrial. It will consume you and kill me.”
“No. It won’t.” I pull the leather cuff off my wrist, exposing the symbol beneath. The creature jerks its head towards me, its red eyes glowing.
“What are you doing?” Kaden asks, voice raised.
“I’m saving us,” I say. And I hold my hand forward, revealing the secret my mother kept hidden for as long as I can remember. Adrenaline surges through me, and though I don’t know what I’m doing, or how to channel what I’ve always known I have, I focus my thoughts and my feelings and my fears into one purpose. And as the golden hues that carved out the smoke walls fade, I walk forward towards the beast. My body convulses.
And I change into my true form.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve worn the leather band around my left wrist. If I ever took it off, my mother would scold me. If Pat ever saw me without it, he would fly into a rage that often ended in bruises. But in my most private of moments, I studied the mark on my skin that the band hid. The mark that made me different. The mark that made me move from one place to another in a blink, made water boil or freeze around me. The mark that made me powerful.
The mark that made me dangerous.
I don’t know why the band is special. But I finally understand what my mark means.
Spirits are real.
And one lives within me.
A white glow explodes from the symbol on my wrist, consuming my body. My skin turns ivory, my hair turns silver and whips around my head in the wind. I feel lighter on my feet, as if I’m barely touching the ground. All the pain in my body is replaced by a euphoric feeling of endless power.
With the barrier down, we are vulnerable, but the Fenrial sees me glowing in the darkness of night, and it jumps back, hissing, as if realizing I’m not the host it was hoping for. I’m not a Broken One. I already have spirit. Now it’s time to see what I can do with it.
I whisper something, then. Words I do not understand, but which feel part of my very soul. And the light from my body pushes outward, taking shape before me. Claws. Wings. Scales. Eyes of silver, glowing, like me. My spirit, in its own form. A silver, winged serpent, ready to defend me. Ready to fight.
It crashes into the Fenrial, biting down on the monster’s neck and knocking it to the ground, pinning it with sharp claws.
Kaden rushes forward, leaping past me, and impales his sword into the Fenrial’s neck. There is a bone crunching sound as Kaden saws through the creature’s neck, cleaving off its head. It rolls away from us, with eyes still moving, tongue still lashing out. But then, as if realizing it’s no longer connected to its body, it gives one last gasp and falls still. Its headless body squirms and shakes, the muscle and skin melting away, burning like a pile of steaming sludge, until only the boy’s body remains, fully intact, and just as fully dead.
Kaden pulls two silver coins from his coat and lays one on each of the boy’s eyes, then whispers words in another language.
“Alar argaris.” A hissing sound rises from the body, then it goes quiet and Kaden sighs. “It is done. The spirit is purified. We will not see the corrupted Fenrial again.”
The silver serpent that saved us vanishes, and the glowing of my skin fades to my normal cream. My hair darkens to its ordinary brown, and I fall forward, exhausted, and land on my knees on the cool earth.
Kaden kneels next to me, his eyes studying me. “You’re a Twin Spirit. But how?”
I lean back onto my feet to face him, and for the first time I realize my ankle no longer hurts. “I don’t know,” I say. “Ever since I was little, I knew something was different about me. But I never knew what, not until you told me about the spirits. Not until you showed me what you could do. I knew, somehow, I could do the same thing.”
“Not the same. Not yet. Not without practice.” He frowns. “This is strange. I could sense strength in you, but it was barely a sliver. The sign of a Broken One. And yet now I can clearly see the spirit within you. A Dracus, or Dragon, in your tongue.”
“It is said, all spirits were once living creatures. That Fenrial once hunted in the northern mountains. That dragons… well, dragons are another matter. You will see, in time.” He pauses, and picks up the wrist band I wear. “I wonder… ”
He hands it to me and I put it back on, a reflex so ingrained in me I don’t even think about it.
Kaden nods, as if I’ve just answered a question. “I see. It appears this leather cuff keeps your spirit hidden, but not completely. It’s leaking out some of your power, making you look to others like a Broken One.”
“Do you have a mark like mine?” I ask.
He rolls up his sleeve, revealing a black horned serpent caged within a circle of flame. “It is the seal that makes a Broken One whole again,” he says. “It’s what makes one Arayel, or a Twin Spirit. Of the two worlds. That of the seen and the unseen.” He pauses. “In simpler terms, it means that once you bear the mark, you are of the physical and the spiritual. Both together. At once. Never apart.”
That doesn’t really make it sound much simpler. It sounds unreal. Impossible. Fantastical. And for a moment I wonder if this is all a dream… a terrible game played by my imagination. But then I look at the boy, dead so young, a tool for the Fenrial to get to me, and my eyes burn with guilt and grief. “Tell me truthfully,” I say through a thick throat. “Did he die because of me?”
Kaden frowns. “Corrupted spirits have little power in the physical realm without a body. But the more ancient ones do have some sway. Enough to make a log roll out of a fireplace. Or to make a boy trip in the woods.”
The tears I’ve been holding in are released, and I bury my face in my hands and cry. I’m the reason that girl died in the fire. The reason this boy bled out in the woods.
Kaden scoots closer to me, putting his arm around my shoulders. “You did what you could. More than I expected,” he says softly. “You knew nothing of this world, of corrupted spirits, or the true nature of your mark. Their deaths are not on you, they are on me.”
I can hear the pain in his voice and I look into his eyes, into the heartache etched on his face. “It is my duty, the duty of the Ashlord, to protect those who need protecting. To defend them from the spirits who seek to take their life. And twice today I have failed.”
He swipes at his eyes and as suddenly as his sorrow appeared, it is gone, replaced by a cold determination. “Thank you,” he says, “for using your spirit to help stop the Fenrial. But you must not summon your dragon again. Not until you learn to control it. You were lucky that your mother knew how to bind your spirit. Most of us suffer a painful fate when first we discover our powers.”
“Why must I keep it hidden? My spirit did as I willed it to. I wanted to stop the Fenrial and I did.” I’ve never felt that kind of power before. That kind of freedom. I realized in that moment as my spirit was unleashed that I’ve been living my whole life imprisoned by this wristband, a part of my soul chained by whatever my mother did to bind my spirit and hide it. I know she did it to protect me, but I don’t think she realized that in protecting me she was also killing me little by little. Sometimes a person needs a taste of freedom to realize they have never been free. After, they can never go back to being who they once were. They are forever changed by what could be.
“While it’s true that your spirit did as your instincts commanded, it will not always be so. You were lucky. We were on a mountain, in the woods, with no one else who could have been caught in the collateral damage. But it will not always be so. You have power, Sky. I believe you are the second strongest untrained person I have ever met, and though that is a gift, it is a curse as well.”
“I would never hurt anyone,” I say. “Not unless I had to.”
His eyes soften, but his voice is still firm. “I know that’s not your intention, but intention is not enough. You need training.” He holds his hand out to me. “Come with me, Sky. Let me train you. Let me show you how to control the spirit within. If you don’t, it will only be a matter of time until you hurt the children you so desperately seek to protect.”
I freeze, the blood draining out of my face. The children. “How do you know about my kids? I never mentioned them to you.”
I back away from him, suddenly suspicious.
“Like you guessed,” he says, dropping his hand, “I’m here because of you. At least, I am now. And it would have been foolish not to do research.”
I feel violated. Lied to. And… panicked. How much does he know about me? About my kids?
This unease feels all too familiar, and I wonder… is he working with Pike? Was this a distraction to keep me away so Pike could go after Kara? I hoped to catch him out here, but… Pike must have a spirit as well. That’s how he did so many crazy things that made no sense. And if he does, the police will be no match for him. “I have to get home,” I say, my mind focused only on my kids. “Now!”
“Sky, wait! I need to–”
His words hang in the wind, a distant echo, and I realize I’m no longer in the woods. I’m on a cold, dark sidewalk, one lone streetlamp flickering as if it’s about to die at any moment. Across from me, shrouded in ominous shadows, is my house.
My vision spins, and I suck in the cold air as I attempt to still the dizziness threatening to overwhelm me. How did I get here? I was just with Kaden, on the mountain. This has happened in the past, where I find myself moving from one place to another in a blink, but never this far. Never to a place I couldn’t have even walked. Something inside me is changing. I look down at my wrist, and see the leather cuff still in place. Either the power in me is growing, or whatever magic my mother gave me is fading.
I shake my head. I don’t have time to figure this out right now. I check my phone to make sure I’m not late, then run to the police car parked across from my house. I gesture at the two officers inside. “We need to leave! Now! Help me get the kids out of the house and–”
I stop at the rolled down passenger window. The streetlight illuminates their faces. A red line across each of their necks, and a waterfall of blood spilling from their throats, their skin pale, their eyes open and glossy, unseeing. Dead.
My heart beats a frenzy against my chest and my gut twists as I dash across the street to my house. I can’t be too late. I can’t–
The front door is cracked open. I barge through it, into the living room. It’s dark. Light from the street casts everything in a sickly pale hue.
From the kitchen I hear a whimpering. I take a step, then two, until I see a maddening sight.
Pat slumps on the cracked linoleum floor, his teeth shaking, his eyes bulging in fear and pain, his arm outstretched, pulled up so unnaturally his shoulder looks dislocated.
Pike stands over him, cloaked in black and wearing his hat. He holds Pat’s arm against the kitchen table, and moves an object back and forth in the darkness. A long, thin saw, thin enough to hide in a cane. It grinds against Pat’s arm, cutting through flesh and bone.
Pike looks up when I enter, a banal smile on his face. “Good evening Ms. Knightly. How good to see you again.”
“The screaming stopped five minutes ago,” Pike says. His words are calm. Smooth. As if he exerts no effort hacking through a man’s arm. “He is only tentatively hanging onto consciousness now.”
“Let him go!” I roar, my voice tearing through the room. It shakes the glasses in the sink, but Pike doesn’t even blink.
He looks back down at his handiwork. “In a moment. Once the deed is done. You see, Pat would not give up a child. He had forgotten about his bargain, it would seem. But pain can be a potent reminder.” He pauses, his expression thoughtful, as if mulling over a complex math problem. “About halfway through the process, he finally surrendered, finally owned up to his end of the deal. But, I’m afraid it would be wrong to stop cutting now. The reminder would feel unfinished, and I despise leaving things half-done.”
He resumes sawing at Pat’s arm, the bone crunching sound reverberating through the small space. My stepfather drools, his eyes half-closed, his body limp, his arm held up by the force of Pike and nothing more.
The sheer horror of it all dulls my mind for a moment, but then his words fall into me one by one, until they form a complete thought. He finally surrendered, Pike said. Finally owned up to his end of the deal. The deal to give up one of his kids. One of my kids.
There are no more rational options left to me. I cannot talk my way of out this. The police cannot help. I have but one choice. I reach for the leather cuff around my wrist, and I pull–
Pike throws up his hand, and a screech fills the air. It drums in my ears, pounding into my skull, into my blood and bones, pulsing in my heart, like a hammer beating down on me. I fall to my knees and try to cover my ears, but I can’t move my arms. The sound is too loud, too encompassing. I can’t reach over to pull off my wrist band. It’s like trying to move the earth.
Pike smiles, completely unaffected by the sound ripping apart my insides. This is how it all ends, I’m convinced. This sound is the end of it all. But Pike, he continues his gruesome task of sawing Pat’s hand off. “Do not worry, the children will not wake. I have made sure their night is restful.”
My eyes widen and Pike chuckles. “Oh, they are not harmed, have no fear. Only sleeping.” Pike looks down and smiles a satisfied smile. “Ah, there.” He pulls the saw across Pat’s arm once more and Pat falls to the ground, his body limp and draining of blood on the tattered linoleum floor. Pike holds the severed hand up triumphantly like a crimson trophy from a macabre game. He examines it briefly, a clinical expression on his face, then tosses it aside. “Now, it is time I had what I came for.”
He wipes down his saw with a kitchen towel, then sheathes it back into the cane until it once again looks innocuous. He walks around the puddle of blood pooling around Pat, and passes me. “I am sorry you had to see that. It was not necessary. You should have stayed away. It was none of your concern after all.”
None of my concern? None of my concern!
He heads upstairs, to the children’s bedroom. To take one of my kids.
I will not let this happen. I will protect them with everything I am. I swore this to my mother. To myself. To them.
With all the strength I have left in me, I fight this force that’s paralyzed me. Despite the crushing weight pinning me in place, I stand. Slowly. Painfully. It feels as if every bone in my body cracks from the effort. Every muscle tears at the strain. But I push through it.
And I manage to get to my feet. I grab the kitchen counter for support as I push my legs to move. One step. Then another. One more.
But I’m taking too long.
The stairs creek and Pike descends, a bundle of blankets in his arms.
“What beautiful eyes she has,” he whispers, smiling at me.
And then he leaves out the front door. And the screeching sound in my head is nothing compared to my own pain exploding from within.
My baby. He took my baby.
I try to scream her name, but no words leave my mouth. Instead, there is the roar of a beast, the roar of my spirit fighting to be free.
And with all I have, I charge outside, following him into the dark street. He’s already down the road. “Give her back!” I yell, my voice carrying far, the power of my spirit strong.
He stops and turns to face me. He looks impressed despite himself. “You resisted my power. How interesting.”
Branches snap to the left of me, and I see a man running towards us, from the park, a red scarf waving behind him.
He notices me, then shifts his eyes to Pike, but I don’t have time to think about him, or what he’s doing here.
I grab my wrist band, knowing I must end this now.
“No!” yells Kaden. “He’s not like us. You can’t fight him.”
It doesn’t matter. Nothing he says matters. Because I have no choice. Even if he’s right and this is a fool’s hope, it’s the only hope I have.
Pike raises his cane, and then… he changes.
His eyes turn red. His face sinks into itself, his lips pulling away to show teeth and gum and bone. His cheeks become stretched tight over his skull. Even his clothing changes, his robes turning to torn rags, as if he is decomposing in front of me.
His walking stick extends, pulsing. The crystal orb at the top explodes into pieces and red steel pushes through, turning the cane into a scythe. He’s using his spirit, changing like I did, but this seems different. Wrong.
His ragged robes reveal his pale skin. Crystals jut out from his chest, his arms, his shoulders. Red gems that look as if they’ve been impaled into his body.
They glow, and that glow spreads through his flesh, beneath his eyes, throughout his whole body.
I’m mesmerized by his transformation, by the power he wields over me. It all happens in a blink, a moment severed by a split consciousness as I register what’s about to happen, unable to prevent it.
In an instant, Pike stands before me, moving through the air as if he’s one with it.
I don’t even feel his scythe as it slices upwards.
He missed, I think.
But even as I think this, I collapse to the ground, my body catching up much faster than my mind as my feet buckle under me. My jaw hits the hard concrete. My body rattles from the impact.
A spray of crimson rain splashes around me, and it takes another moment to realize it is my blood in the air.
Then the pain hits.
Brutally. Fully. Completely. I scream, and it is the sound a deer makes when it’s being attacked by a mountain lion. The primal scream of prey helpless against the predator.
My eyes search my body for the source of all this blood, and I see it. He’s cut through my Achilles tendons, cut them open. Cut through muscle and bone. One ankle barely remains attached to my body. The other is half torn off.
I reach for my foot, my mind frozen, my body in shock. And I scream again. My fingers are gone, my hands now just bloody stumps.
I’m done. I never stood a chance. He will take Kara, and she will be in the clutches of this monster, and I will have failed her. Failed my mum. Failed myself.
I know the killing blow is about to come.
And then I hear the crash of steel behind me. Kaden stands between me and Pike, his sword locked with the scythe.
“We meet again, Ashlord,” Pike says with icy calm in his voice. “Let’s see if you’ve learned anything since our last encounter.” He pulls away and strikes.
Kaden throws up his arm and something black and thick, like dark steel, grows over his hand, down to his elbow. The scythe hits the hardened skin and ricochets off.
I need to help, but I’m losing blood so fast. Pike doesn’t need to strike me again to kill me, I can already feel myself dying. But I still have power in me. Power untapped. Unused. Raw and untrained, but still… it’s all I have left.
Through agony, through the most pain I could have ever imagined, I lift my severed hand and hold my wrist to my mouth. With shaking teeth, I tear at the leather strap around my wrist, then pull it free, revealing the symbol beneath, unleashing my power.
Kaden said it could be dangerous, using my spirit form again, but I don’t care. I need to save Kara.
My body fills with light, my skin turning ivory, my hair turning silver. I feel my muscles knitting back together, healing. No less painful than when they were severed, but some strength returns, and I roar with all the fierceness I’ve left buried in my soul. I roar with all the pain, all the fear, all the outrage of this unjust world. I roar as a body forms around me… scales, claws, wings, teeth. I see my spirit materialize, roaring along with my rage. Sparks fill the air… lightning, not from the sky, I realize, but from me. From my spirit. It strikes out left and right, tearing apart the earth wherever it lands, ripping jagged wounds into anything it strikes. When it hits near Pike and Kaden, they break apart.
It is only then that I hear the voice. A whisper on the wind. “Sky… ” Too late, I turn and see him. Kyle stands outside the house, his face drowsy. He looks at me with worry. With fear at the horrible sight before him.
And I see the lightning, now out of my control, unwieldy in its wildness, turn on him.
No. No! Noooo!
I will it to stop. To end.
But even I cannot contain what I have unleashed.
The lightning strikes towards Kyle. The darkness of night fills with unnatural light.
And then he is there.
He rushes forward, faster than I’ve ever seen him, and somehow… somehow he outruns the lightning. He grabs Kyle, pushing him out of the way just as the lightning strikes them both.
I hear Kyle scream in pain.
And Pike escapes into the shadows, holding Kara close to him.
I remember her baby breath on my face as I held her close to me.
The way her tiny hand squeezed my finger.
The weight of her against my chest at night while we slept, in between midnight feedings and diaper changes.
How exhausted I was those first few months, dealing with the loss of my mother, a newborn baby to care for, and Caleb and Kyle, in their own grief and anger.
The joy I felt at her first word, her first tooth, her first attempts at walking.
And I remember my very first words to her after our mother died. My promise to her. “I’ll protect you.”
Kara is mine.
And this bastard isn’t getting my daughter.
I will not break that promise.
Kaden has Kyle.
I need to get to Pike before he’s gone.
My feet and hands have healed themselves, and though pain still floats in me like an ever-present houseguest, I push myself to stand and force myself forward.
I run through the shadows, through the dark streets, as fast as I can. Faster than I have ever moved. So fast everything around me is a blur.
I don’t have a weapon, but I think back to what Kaden did, how his body transformed. I concentrate, and my arm changes, my hand extending, turning into a crystal claw. I stare at it a moment, in awe of what I’m doing with these new powers, flexing and moving this weapon that I now wear as a second skin.
Pike won’t get away.
I catch up to him, surprising both of us I think, as he turns to see me, shock in his eyes.
I strike, ready to kill him with my crystal claw, preparing myself to grab Kara before she falls, but Pike is too fast.
He slashes up with his scythe, a trail of fire in its wake.
It takes me at my legs, slashing my body in two.
The scythe cuts through my neck.
And everything goes black.
The shock of coming to consciousness is not one I can easily describe. I thrash about trying to feel if my whole body is still complete. It is. Was I having a nightmare? Am I dreaming now? The pain of my evisceration is still heavy in my mind, but as the millisecond pass, the memory flees, as if it was only an imagined thing. My eyes spring open, and I search around, looking for something familiar.
I am surrounded by a field of grass so green it looks painted. Of trees so lush and bark so thick and rich that it is more real than anything I’ve ever seen, so real it seems fake in its aliveness. Nothing in my life has ever held so much life, so much presence, so much realness. Flowers bloom around me in pinks and purples and reds and blues. A vibrant garden that renders me unable to imagine anything more beautiful or visceral. The fragrance of such flowers overwhelms my senses with honeysuckle and lavender and the scent of roses so pure my mind is spinning.
I can practically taste the smells carried on the warm breeze. I look down at my body and see it is healed, the blood gone, though the memory of being severed in pieces still lingers, like a bad odor. In the distance, a grassy hill rises to the too-blue sky, and on it grows a silver tree, with branches and leaves that glisten their metallic beauty in a sun I don’t see but still feel the warmth of.
In all of this beauty and wonder, in all this majesty, it takes me a moment to notice the slab of gray beside me. A grave stone, so like the one I visit regularly to commune with my dead mother. But this one does not bear the name of Laura Knightly. This one bears a name much more familiar.
And there are two, side by side. Both with my name.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t stop him.” The deep voice surprises me and my I turn to see a familiar face.
Kaden is standing, his silhouette against the light of the invisible sun.
“Am I… dead?” I ask. I can think of no other explanation for this discombobulated experience.
“Yes,” he says, tilting his head, his black hair falling once again into his too-blue eyes. “And no.” He walks forward, leaves crunching under his boots, until he stops before my headstone. “Remember what I said earlier? You are of two worlds now. The seen and the unseen. Even with your body gone, your spirit remains.”
“What is this place?” I ask, though some part of me surely knows. I’ve been here before, after all, but my memory eludes me.
“The spirit realm. Well, a part of it, at least. Your part. Your unique space, made by your mind alone.” He looks around, smiling. “You have a gentle soul. A kind and protective one. You’d be surprised to see what others form for their realm. Some call it a sanctuary. Others a dream. It is a place Ashlords can go at will. And a place we all go in death.”
I died, I think, though the memory is separate from me. I was sliced in half by Pike, even as he held my baby Kara in his hands. My heart breaks and I fall to my knees. She’s gone. My baby is gone with that monster. The tears come, then. Unbidden but full of fury and rage. I dig my nails into the earth, squeezing my hands until they hurt. “It’s over then, isn’t it? Pike took her.”
“He did.” Kaden walks towards me and kneels before me, his hands on mine. “But there wasn’t anything you could do. Anything either of us could do.”
I look up into his eyes, the blue of them even brighter in this realm. “Are you even real? Or just some phantom conjured to make me feel better?” If I am dead, the thought occurred to me that this could all be in my mind. An endless cycle of pain and false comfort.
“I’m as real as you,” he says, smiling with a hint of his dimple showing. “With enough practice, Ashlords can visit each other’s sanctuaries, at least while in close proximity, and while the sanctuary is being manifested. I saw you come here upon death, and so I followed. I thought you could use the guidance. You could try to get rid of me, of course. Each person is quite strong within their own sanctuary, and each visitor quite weaker.”
I try to process all he says, but my mind is on one thing. “Is there a way back?” I ask. “A way back to the real world?” I have to find Kara. I have to save her, and protect Kyle and Caleb.
“Yes,” he says, but he pauses, his voice hesitant. “In time, your body will recuperate, but it will be weak for days, at least for someone as untrained as you.”
“How long?” There’s an urgency to me, now. A hope. A burning need to set things right.
“A while here, but not long in the physical realm. Time moves differently here, you see. Slower. Every world, every dimension has its own way of gauging time, which is, after all, just an illusion. Time itself doesn’t really exist. It’s a construct we use to measure the unmeasurable.”
I can’t process everything he’s saying, but one thing sticks out. I will recover. I will get my life back. “So… I can’t be killed?”
He cocks his head, thinking. “If only it were so… All Ashlords can be killed. First, you must destroy their body. Then you enter their sanctuary and kill their spirit.”
“But… if I’m stronger here, and you’re weaker, how does that work?”
“You are stronger,” he agrees, “which would make it difficult. But I can assure you, Pike would have no trouble destroying you.”
My bravado fades at the mention of Pike. He bested me so quickly. So easily. And he took my baby. “Is he coming? Here?”
Kaden looks to the trees, a frown on his face. “I doubt it. He seems to be leaving us alive. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s part of his code.”
“Whatever code he abides by. Think about it, he must have one. You’ve seen how powerful he is, and yet he only takes children as part of a bargain. He could, theoretically, just steal them. No one would be able to stop him, and yet, he insists a contract be made and honored. That the debtor pay voluntarily, though how voluntarily is debatable given his methods. Still, it’s curious, isn’t it?”
“Not exactly the word I’d use for it,” I say, as I remember Pat’s hand being cut off… as I remember how my cat looked in that bag, dead. And how Kara looked in that monster’s hands as he killed me without remorse.
Kaden nods his head. “Of course. Apologies. You see, I’ve been hunting Pike for many years now, and yet his ways seem more and more mysterious.”
“Hunting him? Is that why you were really here, for him?”
Kaden is still. Quiet. I hear only the sound of a gentle breeze blowing through the flowers as he contemplates his answer. “Yes. I was tracking him. But then I found you, a Broken One, or so I thought, and suddenly I had two matters to deal with. I did my best to keep you safe. Perhaps I focused on you too much.” Kaden frowns and rubs his face with his hand. “Enough to let Pike get away.”
“You could have stopped him?”
“No.” He frowns. “I couldn’t have stopped him. Not alone. If I find Pike, my orders are not to engage. Instead, I’m to call for reinforcements and attempt to set a trap.”
“And yet, you helped me. Me and Kyle.”
He folds his hand into a fist. “I wasn’t about to stand there while he hurt you and the children,” he says.
My voice softens and I reach for his hand, laying mine on top. “Thank you,” I say, my mind spinning with all the new information. “You said you’ve been hunting, Pike, right? Then there must be a way to find him. A way to find Kara.”
“Maybe, but tell me… even if you could catch Pike, how would you defeat him?”
“I…” I pause, stumped for a proper answer. I don’t know how I’d stop him. I gave all I had, and Pike killed me in one blow, as if breaking a toy…
Kaden puts a hand on top of mine, squeezing gently, his eyes pleading with me. “Come with me,” he says “to the place where Ashlords are trained, and I will teach you how to fight.”
I hesitate, not sure how to react to this offer. “You said even you can’t beat him.”
“Not alone, but maybe we can together.”
I can’t leave, I can’t leave the children… but I can’t abandon Kara either…
“You know,” says Kaden, his eyes intensely holding mine. “I take back what I said. You are the strongest untrained person I have ever met. And if you don’t take control of your abilities, it’s only a matter of time before you hurt someone again. Maybe kill them.”
“Kyle…” My hands fall away from Kaden’s as I remember the lightning striking my brother. Kaden pushed him out of the way… risking himself. But Kyle didn’t escape unscathed. The lightning hit his arm. Burning him. He yelled. Screamed in pain.
“I need to help him!” I pull myself up, and realize I feel no pain. My foot is truly healed, my body mended.
Kaden stands before me, holding his hand out in caution. “You will, soon. Your body has almost regenerated.”
I look around at this beautiful world and realize how empty it feels without those I love. I nearly killed Kyle, but only because I unleashed whatever spirit is inside me. “I’ll go back. I’ll wear the leather band my mother gave me. I’ll keep the kids safe.”
“But for how long?” asks Kaden. “Your power keeps growing. Right now, you seem a Broken One while wearing the band. How long until you seem a full Ashlord?”
“What will you do,” I ask, “if I don’t join you?”
He holds my eyes with his, his face chiseled from stone. “Traditionally, I would have to kill you, but I won’t do that. Not to you. However, consider what will happen if you don’t come with me. Even if by some miracle you don’t lose control of your powers, it will only be a matter of time before another Ashlord finds you. And I promise, they will not be as considerate as I am.”
I bite my lip and frown. “Maybe I’ll fight them off.”
“You wouldn’t even know how to enter their sanctuary. You would never be able to kill them.”
“So what then? My only choice is to die or go with you? To train somewhere to be this thing you call an Ashlord?”
“Put simply, yes. Come with me to the Cliff, and train to be an Ashlord. It’s your only chance of saving Kara someday. Or don’t, and wait here to die, hoping you don’t hurt anyone before you do.”
This choice seems like no choice at all, but I must consider everything. What will happen to Caleb and Kyle if I leave? How do I keep them safe then?
I look to the gravestone… a sick reminder of the lives that hang in the balance of my decisions. “If this is my sanctuary, why do I have two gravestones here?”
“It’s not uncommon. Usually, they represent the number of times your physical body has died.”
That takes a moment to sink in, and I step back, shocked. “So you mean, I’ve died twice?”
He shrugs, as if this is all very normal. “It appears so. The first time must have been when you were young, if you can’t remember, that is. And if that’s true… you must have had your spirit for a long time. Rare, but not impossible. Some people are born Broken Ones, you know. Kara was one. I suspect it’s why Pike wanted her.”
“Kara… how?” And then I remember her traumatic birth… how the effort ended up killing my mother.
“Of course,” continues Kaden. “As I said before, a Broken One has not yet bonded with a spirit. Often doesn’t until they reach adulthood. But there are a few exceptions. Like you, apparently.”
“What does Pike want with her?” I ask. “What does Pike want with my baby?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “We’ve never found a child he’s taken. But he always takes them alive. One would assume he’s keeping them somewhere, but for what purpose, I do not know. You could help us find out. If you came with me.”
He’s good at the bait, I’ll give him that. “All these things you don’t know. How am I ever supposed to get Kara back, even with your help?”
“Just because something hasn’t been done yet, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I’m not one for giving up, and I suspect you aren’t either.”
No… My entire life I’ve kept going, even when some days all I’ve wanted to do is give up… but I keep going… for them… for Kyle and Caleb and Kara. For my mum.
I sigh, knowing I have very little choice in this. “Tell me what I have to do. How do I get out of here?”
Kaden rolls a silver coin over his knuckles, the metal glinting in the sun. “It’s a lot like waking up, actually. You just have to decide to do it.”
I close my eyes and imagine this place a dream. I think of home… of days cuddled up on the couch with Caleb, Kara in my arms, Kyle sitting next to us on the floor as we watch an old movie together and eat buttered popcorn.
I open my eyes… and nothing has changed. The trees still sway around me, the gravestones cast their shadows.
I sigh, letting my head fall, and then I see my hand… breaking apart like burning paper… specks drifting off in the wind.
“Good,” says Kaden, a smile in his voice. “You’re learning. When you get back, remember my offer. I must leave soon, and if you wish to have a chance of saving Kara, you must leave with me.”
I nod, and then my body turns to nothing.
DEATH BE NOT PROUD*
I wake up on wet asphalt still covered with my blood. I check my body for severed parts, but it seems that once again I am whole. Everything is healed… physically at least. My heart is still bleeding out. My daughter is gone.
I call for her, but I know Pike took her somewhere I can’t hope to reach on my own. Somewhere not of this world. And then I remember Kyle, and I jump up and run back to the house.
It’s as if no time has passed. He is laying on the grass with Kaden, who stretches to help him up. There’s an angry burn covering Kyle’s right arm, and tears stream down his face. He clenches his jaw, groaning in pain. “It’ll be okay,” I tell him, as I lead him into the house. I examine the wound, and it’s not as bad as I first thought. “We need to run it under cold water, then put clean bandages on it.”
I tell Kaden where to get my first aid kit as I take care of Kyle. “Where’s Caleb?” I ask, trying to distract him from the pain as the cold water wakes up all the nerves in his arm.
“Sleeping,” he hisses through his teeth. “Sky, what happened?”
He glances at the blood in the kitchen. At Pat passed out and missing a hand.
“Don’t look.” I say. “Let’s just take this a moment at a time. Keep your arm under water. I’m calling this in, okay?”
He nods and I step away and use my phone to first call 911, then Blake. I make a tourniquet for Pat’s arm, to stem the blood flow. I find his hand and put it in one of the kids’ lunch coolers with some ice, hoping it’s not too late to save it. I have no idea how much time has passed through all this. There’s too much to do and only one of me. I don’t know how to help everyone. I don’t know what to do about Kara. I’m lost.
Kaden returns in a flash with clean bandages, and I dress Kyle’s wounds and lay him on the couch with an ice pack on his forehead and some pain pills to take the edge off. “Stay here. Don’t move. Don’t look at anything. We’ll get through this.”
He grunts, and I know when he’s recovered from this he’ll have questions, but for now, he’s too out of it to notice that his baby sister is missing. That Pat could be dying. That I did die, but somehow didn’t.
Death be not proud… the first line of an old sonnet by John Donne flits through my mind, and I can’t recall why I know it—likely from an old English class, but the words settle into me, helping me process what I just went through in a way my own words can’t. “Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.” Death. The one thing you can’t walk away from. And yet I did. I walked away from death. Death cannot kill me.
A strange euphoria stirs in me, and I’m torn between this indestructible power I feel, and the pain and grief of losing my child. What is happening? Nothing makes any sense in my mind, but somehow, I still have to operate in the human world, with human rules and human laws.
The paramedics arrive with the police. They triage my uncle and brother, getting them settled into the vans as Blake arrives.
“I have to go with Kyle,” I tell the police, who have questions I can’t answer. Kaden stays, surprising me. His hand rests on my back, his eyes unreadable. Blake looks to me, then him, his face full of confusion.
“What’s happening, Sky? Who’s he?” There are questions beneath those questions, and I know it. He knows it.
“I can’t explain everything now. Will you go with Kyle? Keep him safe? Caleb is still sleeping.”
He nods, then kisses my forehead. He side-eyes Kaden again, then leaves with Kyle in the ambulance.
The police question me and Kaden. He answers more than I do, and seems to know how to navigate human procedures. A missing person’s report is filed. An ABP put out for a man matching Pike’s description.
All the things that a cop in this town can do are done, and none of them will be enough. They’re wasting their time, but I can’t tell them that.
Dean, of course, is one of the officers taking my statement, and he can’t seem to stop himself from glaring at Kaden. “Who are you again?” he asked, several times.
Each time Kaden patiently explained he was a ‘good friend’ of mine in from out of town. Surprisingly, he was able to provide proper identification and an address located in Swords, England. I raised an eyebrow at that, but said nothing.
Eventually they left, though I could tell Dean didn’t want to leave me alone with Kaden. I would have laughed, if my heart hadn’t been so broken.
And so here we are. The two of us. I’ve checked on Caleb at least six times, but he’s sleeping peacefully. I woke him once to make sure he wasn’t in a coma, and he moaned about being tired and fell back into bed. I kissed his cool forehead and pulled the blankets more snugly around him, tucking him in for what would likely be the last time.
The sun is starting to rise, and I can’t believe how long I’ve been awake, and how much has happened.
And now I live.
And Kara is gone.
My mother knew this would happen. Or at least, something like this. But how? Why? I need to know.
Kaden picks up his coat and slides it on and says he has to leave. “I have a few things to handle. But tonight, we must leave. Meet me at this address,” he says, handing me a slip of paper with the name of a winery in Healdsurg. “By the fountain. I’ll wait as long as I can. If you don’t come, worse things could happen to you and your family.”
“Are you threatening me?”
He frowns. “No. Some might say I’ve lost my edge around you, that I’m failing at my job by giving you an option. But I believe people are capable of making the right choice, and in so doing, they have more power on their path.” He looks deeply into my eyes. “I hope I’m not wrong about you.”
I watch him walk away, and I pull my sweater around me as a sharp wind digs into my skin. “You’re not,” I whisper, though I know he can’t hear. But still, his head tilts, and he looks back, just once, and just for a moment, and I wonder if maybe he did hear, because there’s a small smile on his face, before he turns away once again.
I have no choice. Not really. My only chance of finding out what happened to Kara, is by going with Kaden. I will save her if I can, avenge her if I can’t. And I will learn to control my powers.
If Kaden hadn’t been here last night… I shudder to think what would have happened to Kyle. He would not have come back from the dead as easily as I.
I spend the next several hours scrubbing blood out of our floors, trying to make the house as comfortable as possible for my little family.
I try not to cry. I try not to think about what I’m about to do. About what I’m losing by making this choice.
Everything I have ever cared for. Everything I have ever known.
When Blake and Kyle return from the hospital, I hug them both, my eyes swollen from tears that refuse to stay contained.
Kyle pulls back eventually, his eyes tired, his face gaunt. “What was that… outside?” he asks. “I saw you… glowing.” He whispers the last word as if scared I will tell him he’s crazy, and he takes a strand of my brown hair in his fingers, looking at it, studying it, wondering—very likely—how he saw my hair turn silver.
“It’s not something I can explain,” I tell him.
He scowls. “Why? Because it’s grown up stuff?”
I almost laugh at that, because what I wouldn’t give for a normal grown up problem right now. “No, not at all,” I say, looking him straight in the eyes. “It’s because I don’t understand it either. But once I do, I’ll tell you everything, okay? Pinky promise.”
His eyebrows shoot up in surprise, but he holds out his pinky and nods, and we lock fingers.
I ruffle his hair with affection. “It’s time for bed now.”
He’s about to do as I say, but then I see his face change. I see him remember everything else that happened. “Where’s Kara?”
I glance at Blake, who looks as gutted as I feel. “She’s… ” I don’t know how to say this. “She’s… gone, Kyle.”
“Gone where?” His eyes roam the house and fall on the blood stains I’m still struggling to get out of the floor. “Did that man take her?”
I can’t shield him from this. If it were Caleb, I could frame it differently. But Kyle is a teenager. He’s not stupid. He knows what he saw. So I tell him as much of the truth as I can. “Yes, he did.”
Kyle’s eyes widen. “How do we get her back?”
“Not we. I.” I let my words sink in, as I frame my next thought carefully. “I don’t know where she is. But I swear to you, I will find her. One way or another, I will find her.” I don’t promise to bring her back, because I can’t. I’m not sure I’ll find her alive. But I will find out what happened to her. And I will make Pike pay for what he’s done. That I promise.
Kyle nods. “So you’re leaving?”
“I wish I didn’t have to, but yes. I’m the only one who has a chance at this.”
Kyle hugs me again, harder. When he pulls away, his face is older. This night has aged him. “Go. Do what you have to do. But catch the bastard who did this to my sister. Promise me, Sky?”
I nod, swallowing my tears. “Blake will take care of you two while I’m gone, okay?”
He nods again, his eyes filling with tears. “Will I see you again soon?”
His voice breaks. “Will I ever see you again?”
He feels the weight of what I’m doing. We all do.
“I hope so, kiddo. If I have anything to say about it, you will. We will be together again.”
After getting him to bed, Blake and I sit on the front porch as I get ready to explain everything to him.
But before I can say a word, Blake looks down at my wrist. “You’re not wearing your band.”
“Then you understand,” I say, realizing I don’t have to explain it all. Not to him.
“So it’s like we always thought, then? You’re not the only one.”
He nods. “Well, that explains what Kyle told me he saw.”
He puts his arm around me and holds me close. I know Blake will take care of my kids. I know he’ll keep Pat in line. I know he’ll keep my secret.
Because when we were kids, we made a vow to look out for each other. And when we sat alone in Blake’s treehouse, behind his parent’s home, I took off my bracelet, and I showed him what I could do.
Back then it wasn’t much, but it was enough to astonish him, and convince him I had power. He was the only one I ever told. The only one who ever saw my true self.
We each held each other’s secrets, when the world would have turned on us. When his parents turned on him for being gay. When Pat turned on me for being different. We were each other’s save harbors.
Leaving him is almost harder than leaving my whole life.
“I’ll take care of them, Sky. Don’t worry about the boys. I got them. You find our girl.”
The tears flow, and I wrap him in a hug. “You’ve been a brother to me, you know that, right?”
“I know that, sis. We’re family. Now and forever.”
Before the kids wake up, I kiss them each, saying silent goodbyes. It’s better this way. Caleb is too young to understand what’s happening, and Kyle already knows. Even still, Caleb’s eyes pop open as I adjust his stuffed bunny next to him. “Why you cry?”
“I’ve got to leave for a bit, little guy. To help Kara. But Kyle and Blake will be here to take care of you, okay?”
He doesn’t understand what I’m saying, but he snuggles closer to me. “Love you, Sky.”
“I love you too, Caleb.”
With one last hug for Blake, I turn away from my home, from everything I’ve tried to build in my life, from my work as a firefighter, from my kids, from my best friend, from a step dad who made my life hell… I say goodbye to it all.
I know what this decision means: I will be a suspect in Kara’s abduction if I disappear. I’ll be replaced at work. The kids will miss me. Maybe hate me.
But it’s the right choice.
The only choice.
I can’t keep living as if I’m an ordinary girl.
It’s time to claim my power and save my daughter.
THE ELDER DRAGONS
It is dark by the time I reach the winery. People have long since gone to their beds, leaving the night to the crickets and frogs and foxes. Even the roads are near empty, missing the hum of engines. I drive through a gravel path until I can park my car on a gravel lot. Then I text Blake with my location, in case he needs to find me, and so he can pick up my beat-up car. There’s a dirt road that leads deep into fields of grass. The man I seek is at the end of the path.
Kaden sits under an olive tree, sharpening his blade with a whetstone. His skin is pale in the moonlight and his eyes bright blue. His coat is crumpled off to the side. I see the vest he wears unbuttoned, revealing his bare arms and chest. His muscles coil and stretch as he grinds stone against steel. The burn mark on his shoulder doesn’t appear to bother him anymore. He seems more sculpture than man. A relic from a time long past. When warriors and monsters did battle.
His voice is soft when he speaks. “I will be honest with you, Sky. There is a chance you may never see your daughter again. Even if you master all there is for you to learn. Even if you find your enemy and end him. It may already be too late.”
My hand curls into a fist. “I know Kara may be dead already. But even if I can’t save her, I won’t stop fighting until Pike is stopped. Until he can never take a child again.” I take a step forward toward Kaden. “You held your own against Pike. Teach me how to do the same.”
He grins. “Usually, you would begin with a more basic teacher—“
“I need to be the best. Better than you, even, if I’m to defeat Pike.” I lock eyes with him, studying his reaction.
For a moment, he seems to contemplate my words, then he smiles again. “Very well. I will begin your training. But, once we reach the Cliff, we shall have to go our separate ways. I will have my duties to uphold, and you will have lessons to attend.”
I take another step closer. “The Cliff? I’ve heard you mention it before.” Back in my Sanctuary.
“It is the place where Ashlords are trained. Where you will be trained.”
“And what happens if I change my mind? If I want to leave?”
He grinds the stone once more against his blade, and the sharp edge glints in the moonlight. “You cannot. Those who give up on training, or those who fail, are made Charred. They remain at the Cliff, serving to its every need.”
“So they are made slaves?”
His eyes look far away. “We are all slaves in a way. Our duty is simply different.” He pauses. “It is too dangerous to let Twin Spirits run amok. So one way or another, they serve the Cliff. Willingly, or not.”
I look around at the dark rolling hills that surround us, at the fields of olive trees and their leaves swaying in the wind. “So where is this Cliff?”
“Like me, it is not of this world.”
I step closer again, sitting next to him by the tree. “What do you mean?”
“I grew up in a land far away, a land much different than yours. A land you will soon see. It is a place of harsh winds and magnificent beasts. A place of windswept ruins and towering castles. A place of spirits and serpents. A place of dragons.”
I glance at him, my gaze intense. “Dragons? Like my spirit?”
“They say spirits come from the dead. I speak of dragons that yet live.” He points to the night sky. “Once the stars are aligned, I will take you to my world. To the world of the Cliff and the Wall of Light. The world they call Nirandel.”
“Nirandel… ” I repeat, trying to commit the name to memory.
Kaden flips his sword over in his hand and begins to work on the side yet dull. “I recommend you leave any electronics behind. They will not serve you in my world.”
I pull my cheap cellphone from my pocket. “Why not?”
He shrugs. “Each world has its own rules, laws of nature, as it were. Your technology does not work in Nirandel, nor can it even be made if one tried.”
He raises an eyebrow. “Why does gravity pull us down? Why does time move forward? It’s just the way things are, whether we like it or not.” He pauses. “For example, your world, this world, Gia as we call it, has no limit on technology, and yet it is weakest when it comes to any forms of magic. In Nirandel magic is strong, but technology weak. There is no reason, as far as anyone knows, though some scholars do have a theory: that a world has only so much space for technology and magic. If it has much of one, it must have little of the other. A balance can also be struck, some say, if both magic and technology were to be of middling levels, but I have yet to see such a world.”
“I see…” I say, my thoughts spinning. “So it’s like a person. You can be lithe and agile and small. Or huge and muscled and strong. You could even be something in-between, but you can’t really be both.”
Kaden nods. “Interesting perspective. I shall have to tell the scholars.” He puts the whetstone away, and with the tip of his sword, draws a triangle in the dirt.
“What is this?” I ask.
“You’re first lesson.” He points to each corner of the triangle. “These are the three pillars of Spirit. Transmuting, Imbuing, and Beckoning. Beckoning you have already done twice. Once in the forest against the Fenrial. Once against Pike. It is when you summon your Spirit into physical form. Transmuting you have also done, when you changed your hand into a claw. Transmuting, you see, is the art of blending your body and that of your Spirit’s into one. Imbuing, you have yet to try.” He pulls a silver coin from his pocket and runs it across his knuckles. “For it is the art of infusing other objects with Spirit in order to give them power.” He flicks the coin to me, and I catch it.
“So Imbuing is how you make talismans,” I say. “Like the one you used to create a barrier around us under the bridge.”
Kaden nods. “Talismans may not have great power, in the literal sense, but their strength lies in their versatility. They have far more varied uses than Beckoning or Transmuting.”
I grin, excited by the wealth of new knowledge I have access to. “How do I make one?”
“You start as we all start. By learning the glyphs.” He points at the talisman in my hands. “That is the glyph for purify. One day, you will need to use it to vanquish corrupted spirits as I did with the Fenrial. Memorize it. Know it as well as you know your name.”
He hands me a stick. “Draw the symbol into the sand. Over and over until you can draw it without looking. Until you can draw it without thinking.”
I begin the exercise, remembering Kara. With every stroke I draw in the sand, I imagine a world in which I could have saved her. A world in which I could have used my abilities to stop Pike. A world in which Kyle and Caleb and Kara and I sit together on the couch eating ‘pasgetti’ and laughing at the silly things in life.
“Are you sure you wish to come with me?” asks Kaden. “If you do not, another Ashlord will come for you, but you may have more time with your brothers. Once we leave, you may not see them again for years. You may not see them again ever.”
I have considered all the options, and this is still my choice. “Like you said, I need to learn to control my powers. If I don’t, I’ll harm the very people I care about.”
He nods, then looks to the sky. “The stars are almost aligned. Before we go, let me tell you a story. A story of how the nine worlds came to be.”
My eyes go wide. “Nine?”
“Don’t get too excited. They are not all inhabitable, much like the planets around earth. But yes, there are nine. Keep drawing the glyph and listen. For here is the legend of Nir and the creation of the Nine Worlds.
Out of darkness was born the first dragon, Alandel, and she had nine children. Nir and Gai, Ava and Inf, Heln and Spri, Var and Min and Undi. When their mother died, the elder dragons divided her body amongst themselves. Var took her flame. Min took her blood. Undi her eyes, and Spri her wings. Inf took her scales and Gai her bones. Ava took her heart and Heln her spirit. And last Nir took her mind. And with what they took, each elder dragon formed a world for themselves, and so the Nine Worlds were born.
Nir, however, was not content with simply land. Why have land but no one to share it with, he asked? And so, using the last pieces of Alandel’s mind, he created mankind. He treated them as his children, and taught them how to master fire, how to tame water, how to grow crops and build homes. Nir enjoyed people so much, he took their form often for himself, and one day, even fell in love with a woman. They bore three children together, the first High Dragons, blood of both dragon and man.
It was not long until the other elder dragons grew jealous of Nir and his children. They too wanted the company of people, and so they approached Nir, asking for people of their own. The elder dragon Nir said he would let his children decide whether they wanted to live in other worlds or not.
Gai, who had taken her mother’s bones, had built a large world full of mountains and seas and rivers and lakes, and some people said they would go to her world. Ava had built a world of flying islands and deep caves, and some people too said they would go there to live. Other people preferred other worlds. But Var had built a world of fire, and Min a world of ice, and no people chose to join them there. The two elder dragons grew furious. If they could not have mankind on their worlds, they said, then they would take the other worlds for themselves. And so, a great war began.
For millennium, the elder dragons battled each other, until it is said only Nir, the smartest, and Var, the strongest, remained. The two were equal on the field of battle, and so Nir devised a plan. We can continue for another millennium, said Nir, and accomplish nothing, or we can divide the worlds between us and have peace. But there are Nine Worlds, said Var. How do we divide them fairly?
We split one world in half, said Nir, and each take one side.
And so the elder dragons met on the world of Ava, and together they prepared to cast a powerful spell to split the world in two. We stand on different sides of this river, said Nir, for this river is in the middle of this world, and this way it will be fair. Var agreed. And so they cast the spell. A giant blade of light fell from the sky to tear the world in two, but it did not fall upon the river, for you see, Nir had lied. The river did not split the world in half, instead it was the field that Var now stood upon. And thus the blade of light fell upon Var himself, tearing his body, instead of the world, in two.
What Nir did not know however, was that Var was pregnant, and when Var died, from his stomach spilled a thousand dragons. They spread throughout the worlds, killing mankind and feeding off their Spirits. In days, almost all the people were dead, and so Nir did the only thing he could. He used all his strength to draw the dragons together and cast a wall of light around them, cutting them off from Spirit and man. So powerful was the spell, that Nir gave his own life to cast it. And so, the final elder dragon died to save his children, and the age of the Ancients ended. But some say Nir is not dead, just asleep, regaining his strength, and when mankind needs him once more, the elder dragon will awaken.
Kaden pauses, letting his words sink in.
His mythology is so different from the ones I grew up hearing. It reminds me of a children’s fable more than real history, and it would be easy to call it trivial. But I’ve seen too much dismiss the fantastical anymore. And I have a feeling I’m about to see a lot more.
Kaden stands and throws on his long black coat. “I can see the questions in your eyes,” he says, “but it is time. The stars are aligned.” He holds out his hand to me, and I take it, and he guides me to a fountain amidst the olive trees. The shallow water shimmers in the light, casting our pale reflections back at us. Kaden pulls a coin from his pocket and flips it in the fountain, and the surface of the waves changes. Where once the water seemed shallow, it now seems of infinite depth. Where once it seemed chaotic, it now seems as still as a mirror. And where once the stars seemed but a reflection, they now seem to shine from beyond the waves.
“Are you ready?” asks Kaden.
And together we jump into the fountain.
I brace myself for the cold shock of water, but instead emerge into a sea of stars. A night sky never ending. I float through the darkness, as if there is nothing but space around me. No air. No water. Only cold. Only night. And the stars and planets and moons shimmering in the unspeakable distance.
There is the sound of water breaking. I look up and see Kaden appear from nothingness. His scarf and coat and hair drift up slowly, as if he were sinking, and he moves through the space as if swimming, until his arm is touching mine.
I want to speak, but I dare not let the air out from my lungs. I do not know if I can breathe in this strange place. Kaden gestures for me to follow him, then swims forward, toward a ring of golden light. A nebula, I think I’ve heard it called. I follow Kaden, paddling through the sky, and find that moving here is much like moving through water, but easier and faster, as if there is no friction of any kind. It’s like my dreams, where I would fly as if swimming. I wonder if I am really in space, but I cannot be. I would freeze to death.
The nebula grows larger before us, until it covers all my vision with gold. Up close now, I realize it’s not a multitude of stars as much as a wall of light. Or perhaps it changed as I grew closer. Kaden swims past me, disappearing behind the golden hue. For a moment, I hesitate to follow, but there is no turning back now. I reach out with my hand, touching the light. It feels soft and smooth and warm. With one final push, I plunge forward, letting the sea of stars engulf me in its warm embrace.
My head breaks through the surface, and I emerge as if from a deep dive, gasping for air. I stand in a shallow pool of crystal clear water, my feet touching sand that was not there before. The air is thinner here. The wind weaker. And the heat stronger.
It is bright. Night has turned to day, the sky a clear blue. Lush green bushes that look like the tops of palm trees circle the pond we just stepped out of, and thick vines fall from taller trees. Dense emerald grass covers the ground, and small purple flowers that sprout in clusters dot the landscape. Far above, I hear a shrill bird call, then a chorus of responses from the nearby trees, a beautiful song reverberating through the air.
Past the trees and the grass, past this little oasis we have landed in, is an endless horizon of silver sand shining too brightly in the sun. An endless stretch of desert with no signs of life, at least above the surface.
“Something is wrong,” says Kaden, walking out of the water, his clothes dripping onto the grass. “We were supposed to arrive closer to the Cliff. This place…” His words trail off, and he stands silent, looking at the sky.
I walk onto dry land, my wet clothes rubbing against my skin. At least it’s warm. I’d be freezing in the wind. “What happened? Your fountain portal broke or something?”
“They’re not portals,” he says, “not really. It’s more about the stars. When the stars align over certain bodies of water, that water can be used to travel between worlds. All one needs is a travel talisman and the knowledge of which stars align where and when. It changes from month to month, year to year. It’s not a simple science, but I was certain we should have arrived miles north of here.” He pauses, frowning. “I heard whispers… talk of the stars fading, the light dying…”
I raise an eyebrow. “Care to explain what you’re mumbling about?”
He turns to me. “Some say this world is ending. That soon our magic will fade away and the light will vanish. That darkness will come. Of course, there are always those who speak of the apocalypse and there always will be. I gave no credence to it, but the stars…” He shakes his head. “I must have made a mistake is all. Simple as that.”
He glances around. “Now where was… ah. Here.” He runs up to a tree with emerald vines and large, multi-faceted crystals that grow in place of fruit. He brushes away a pile of sand and stone, revealing a symbol underneath: two black swords crossed over each other in an X. “One of our hidden caches,” he explains, grabbing a handle obscured in the ground and pulling. The symbol opens like a hatch, revealing a small space stuffed full of objects: clothing, a pair of daggers, something that might be food.
Kaden passes me a blue cloak and robes and a towel. “Dry off, then put these on. They will keep you warm in the night. And they’ll help you fit in with the locals.”
He grabs a pair of black robes for himself, then pulls off his shirt. He starts unbuckling his pants and—
“What are you doing?” I ask.
He pauses. “Apologies. I forget myself. Modesty is much less important on Nirandel than in your world. I’ll find a more private location.” He walks away, disappearing behind a tree.
I take the moment to undress and dry off, then put on the new robes. They are thin and light and seem made of silk, and it isn’t long until I start to feel cooler in the heat. I throw a hood over my head to shade my face, and adjust the blue cloak on my back, then check my reflection in the lake. I look as if I’ve stepped out of a fairytale, one about knights and princesses and wizards.
Kaden emerges from the trees, dressed all in black once again, except for his red scarf. He grabs a bag from the cache and packs our old clothing. “This look suits you,” he says.
“Is this how everyone dresses here?”
“More or less. This world is much like your medieval age in some ways, and yet quite different in others.” He pulls a scroll of leather from the cache and unrolls it on the sand, revealing pictures of mountains and trees and cities and borders. A map. Kaden points to the bottom left of the scroll. “We are here, in the Silver Desert. We need to get here.” He points to a picture of a fortress to the north.
I read the script next to the drawing. “Dragoncliff.”
Kaden nods. “The place where you will train. We call it the Cliff for short.” He points to a line on the map near our location. “We will follow this river until we reach a village. Then we can hire a carriage. I’d say we should be at Dragoncliff in three weeks.”
That’s much longer than I expected, and I feel anger burning inside me for the delay. Every moment I’m not training is a moment I waste. The faster I master my abilities, the faster I can stop Pike. But this rage is foolish. I was stupid to think this journey would be a quick one. I will need to train, but I will also need to eat and sleep and rest. I will need to learn about this new world: the laws, the manners, the customs, just so I can survive long enough to defeat my enemy. This journey may take months, I realize, even years. I will need to steel myself for what is to come.
A small creature flutters down from the trees and hovers before me, pulling me from my stupor. I almost think it a bird, but it’s unlike any bird I have ever seen. Its skin is smooth, featherless, and glows a pale blue. Though it has wings, they are more like fins, and the creature appears to swim through air rather than fly. I raise a hand, and it twirls around my finger, gently touching it with its wispy long tale. The creature hums, a sort of ethereal purr, and rubs against my palm. It has no beak, more a toothless mouth, and it seems to smile.
“Starcatchers,” says Kaden, as he grabs two water skins from the cache and fills them in the oasis. “This one seems to like you.”
I pet the little Starcatcher in my hand, half wondering if this is all a dream. “Where did the name come from?” I ask.
“They are born as little Pods.” He holds his index finger above his thumb. “Little bitty things, that can’t fly or glow. But when they’re old enough, the old tales say Pods go on a quest, a voyage amongst the stars. And when they find a star of their own, they eat it up, and let it engulf their bodies in warmth. The star becomes a part of them, and so they glow from within and forever get the power of flight. And thus a Pod becomes a Starcatcher.”
The little bird squeals in delight, then zips up, disappearing amongst the trees. I chuckle, and realize my sadness has been swept away by the little creature, at least for a while. There is so much to see here, so much to learn. Perhaps I can lose myself in this new knowledge, and make learning, and not despair, my guide.
“Tell me more about your world,” I say, gesturing to the map. “Show me your capitols and borders. Your cities and towns.”
Kaden begins. “As I said, we are in the Silver Desert. Just north of us is the city of Al’Kalash, and deep within, lies the Palace of Storms. It is where the Emperor, Titus, rules.”
“How much land does he control?” I ask.
Kaden gestures at the map. “He is Titus, the Unbroken, the Slayer of Dragons, the Emperor of Nirandel.”
“Of Nirandel… so you mean… all of it? The whole world?”
Kaden nods. “Yes. The whole world. Though of course, there are places where his laws are… difficult… to enforce. The Ashlands, for one. The Frozen Mountains, for another.” He points to the locations. The Ashlands at the center of the map. The Frozen Mountains to the north. Then he points to the east. “Here are the Sunstar Isles, where people ride giant beasts amongst the waves and study the ancient arts of Kargara, a form of martial arts.” He points to the west. “And here is La’Moko, a giant island with a proud and wise people, who believe in peace above all.” Kaden leans back, sighing. “Once, long ago, these lands were ruled by the High Dragons.”
“The ones in the story? Half man? Half dragon?”
Kaden stares into the distance, at the silver sand, his eyes dark. “They were real. Magnificent beings with a connection to Spirits unlike any other. They could do things with Beckoning, Transmuting and Imbuing that I can only dream of. Their Spirits were like giants, titans, forces of nature capable of shaping the very earth.” There is awe in his eyes now, wonder in his words. “I dreamed of being one of them, wished for it with all my being. But…” the thrill leaves him. “But it was not meant to be. And the High Dragons were not meant to live on.”
There is a sorrow in him now, and I touch his hand with mine, seeking to ease the pain. “What happened to them?”
“First, they turned on each other,” he says. “They divided the lands amongst themselves, but like Alandel’s children, they were not content with a small piece of the world. They had to have it all, and so civil war after civil war ravaged the land. There were times of peace, of course, but they were always short lived. And then the High Dragons made a terrible mistake. They burned the wife of Titus Al’Beckus.” He pauses. “Titus was a man of the middle class, a group of people who had grown in wealth and power yet still had to heed every High Dragon’s order no matter how mad. They were tired of wars they cared nothing for, tired of rules that did nothing but rob them, and so, under Titus Al’Beckus, they rose up. Like a tidal wave, the rebellion swept through the land, killing every High Dragon in its path, until none remained.”
He takes a swig from his water skin, and says no more.
“But if the High Dragons were so powerful,” I ask, “how were they defeated in battle?”
“The Emperor’s Shadows,” Kaden says, his brow furrowed. “Little is known of them, other than they were Titus’s most loyal servants, and underwent rituals best forgotten. They are… more beast than man. Unnatural things. I pray you will never come across one.”
He turns back to the map, his mood shifting, turning lighter, as if to brush away the darkness of the past. He points to a large circle at the center of the map. “And here is the Wall of Light.”
I trace my hand over the lines on the map. “The Wall of Light? Like the one in the story?”
He nods. “It is the one in the story. The one Nir created to keep the dragons at bay. It is an Ashlord’s sacred duty to defend the Wall, for if it were to fall, the Nine Worlds would be covered in death and ash.”
I point at the picture of Dragoncliff. “But if this drawing represents a fortress, then the Wall of Light is huge. Longer than all your rivers, and larger than any city. This map can’t be to scale… can it?”
Kaden sighs. “The Wall of Light is vast. It can be seen from nearly all of Nirandel. Especially in the night, when the skies are dark.”
“So it’s enormous.”
“Thousands of dragons live within. Maybe hundreds of thousands. The Ashlands past the wall stretch on for hundreds of miles. We do not even possess an accurate map of them. Every couple hundred years, an Ashlord with great ambitions will set out to make one, but none have ever returned from the center alive.”
Kaden glances at the sun. “It’s past midday now. We should travel while we can. Before it gets dark. Then we’ll make camp.” He rolls up the map, stuffs it in a bag, and throws the pack over his shoulder. “Once I get a better look at our surrounding area, I should be able to pinpoint our exact location,” Kaden says. “Then it should be easy to find the river.”
“You seem to know these lands quite well,” I say.
He smiles. “There is a library at Dragoncliff full of books and scrolls. As a child, I would pour over all the maps, dreaming of adventure. I wanted to uncover new lands and discover new creatures, but as my teacher once said, such things are not for those of Ash.” He looks down. “It saddens me, sometimes.”
This world may be old to him, but it will all be new to me, and for the first time since jumping into the fountain I’m filled with something akin to excitement. Then a thought occurs to me. “You were at Dragoncliff as a child?”
Kaden doesn’t look at me. “We do not choose when we become Broken Ones, nor when we become a Twin Spirit, and my training began when I was very young.” He walks away before I can say more.
I follow him through the brush and emerge onto a desert of silver sand, a vastness of rolling dunes as far as the eye can see. Kaden stares at something in the distance, his smile fading. I follow his gaze to a ruin amongst the sands. Structures and pillars half buried in the earth, withered by time and wind and weather.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“That place…” Kaden clenches his fist. “That place is where my best friend was murdered.”
“How did it happen?” I ask, staring at the ruins. There are burn marks along pieces of fallen stone, and deep grooves that look like giant claw marks.
“There were rumors of a Corrupted One,” says Kaden, his gaze fixed on the rubble. “A Broken One taken by a Corrupted Spirit. Reports said it attacked a caravan by the ruins, slaughtering all but two woman who escaped, feeding off the souls of the dead. My friend, Alec, and I, were ordered to investigate the matter and slay the beast. We found the creature at night. A Scabrial who had taken a strong host. It stood the size of three men. Had pincers for a mouth and four arms covered in razor sharp spikes. A hard blue shell protected most of its body, and a hundred eyes sprouted from its head. It was a challenging fight, but nothing we couldn’t handle. I took the beast head on. Alec circled around to strike from behind. We were winning, until…”
His fist hardens, vein pulsing on his neck. “Until she appeared. A woman. Clad in white armor, her face covered in a featureless mask, her hair crimson red. She had been sitting on top of the ruins, hiding in the shadows. She moved in an instant. Above us one moment. Then behind Alec the next. She stabbed him through the back, her sword exploding from his stomach. I entered his Sanctuary, to help him fight, but he was already dead there too. She stood over his corpse, the world around us disintegrating into ashes. The Sanctuary burned, and my friend burned with it.”
Kaden’s eyes glisten in the sun. “I tried to chase her. But she just vanished. One moment she was there. The next gone. As if she faded into shadow. It was as if… as if she had been waiting for us. As if the whole mission was a trap. But how? How could she bring a Corrupted One to the ruins? Or maybe… maybe she knew where we would be, and so she decided to strike. Maybe…”
His words turn to erratic murmurs, and I take his hand, stilling his trembling fingers. He looks at me then, eyes full of rage and sorrow and heartache. “He always wanted to return home. So I took his body back to Ukiah, the place he grew up. I made sure he was buried at the cemetery near his father and mother.” He says no more, though his tense body sends off waves of anger, like an energy pulse I can practically feel.
I let the silence linger before asking, “What happened to the woman?”
Kaden shrugs. “Some see her, now and again, clad in that white armor. They say she burned a manor in Al’Kalesh. Sunk a ship in the Frozen Sea. No one knows who she is. Only that she appears as if from nowhere, bringing chaos and death in her wake, and disappears just as quickly. They call her the Outcast now. A ghost on the wind.” He turns his eyes to mine, and they are hard and unyielding. His body is still, focused. A warrior bent on one thing. “I’ve been tracking her for three years now. Someday, I will find her and make her pay for what she did.”
“She’s your Pike,” I say softly.
He nods his head briefly, then begins walking, into the desert.
It takes us hours of hiking over sand to arrive at the river that will take us to Al’Kalesh. Kaden says we will have to pass through the city on our way to the Cliff, or waste days going around. By the time we wade into the river to refill our waterskins, tall grass sprouting all around us, my legs are tired, my lungs are dried husks, and the water I sip on tastes strange.
When I say as much to Kaden, he chuckles. “You’re used to plastic or glass.” He holds up the waterskins. “These are made from the bladders of Boxen.”
I wrinkle my nose at that. “What’s a Boxen?”
He points past my shoulder, and I turn, following his gaze to the horizon. In the distance, against the backdrop of the blazing sun, a caravan travels over the sands. Two giant beasts, covered in fur, carry large packs upon their backs. Two more pull a huge cart. The animals remind me of bison. But far larger, at least four times the size. Their horns are massive, elaborate things, splitting off at the tips like branches to make intricate shapes. There are symbols and lines and drawings etched into the white horns, difficult to make out, but beautiful.
Kaden walks up to my side. “The Akari—the people of the desert—carve their history into the horns of their Boxen. Tales of many generations. For you see, Boxens live for hundreds of years, passed down from mother to daughter. They are gentle, loyal creatures, used all over Nirandel, but never respected as much as here in the desert.”
“They’re beautiful,” I say, as the caravan tracks across a sand dune. “Are they hunted?” I ask, holding up the waterskin.
“Yes, though such things are frowned upon. These waterskins were made in the natural way. When a Boxen dies, its family makes use of its entire body, letting nothing go to waste. They make tools from the horns. Clothing from the furs. Food from the meat. And of course, these waterskins from the bladder. They were a gift, from a family I once helped.”
I smile. “So is that why the water tastes funny? Boxen bladder is the special ingredient?”
“Yes, partly. Our water also has a lot more mineralization. Your water is rather… ” he pauses, trying to think of the word. “Bland. Lifeless.”
“It’s water,” I say. “It’s not supposed to taste like anything.”
He just shakes his head. “You’ve really grown up with such deprivation. It’s hard to imagine. But alas, now you will see all you’ve been missing.” His tone is lighter, and it feels good to engage in some gentle banter after hours of tortured silence.
“Sorry if I don’t find animal bladder to be a delicacy,” I say as we both use the river to wash the dust off our faces and hands. “At the risk of sounding like one of my kids, how much farther until we reach Al’Kalesh?”
“We should be there in two days.” He refills his waterskin and I do the same. “Perhaps soon if we catch a ride.” He grins at me, then turns and runs towards the caravan we saw traveling over the dunes.
By the time I catch up, Kaden is already speaking with a small man wrapped in white robes, his skin dark, eyebrows large and expressive. Kaden passes the man three coins—talismans, I realize upon closer inspection—then gestures to me. “Sky, this is Massani. He and his family have agreed to allow us to travel with them.”
I look at Massani, then at the cart behind him, at the woman with raven hair sitting there, three young boys scrambling around her and a little girl no older than four on her lap. “Thank you,” I say to all of them.
Massani walks up to me, grabbing my hands. “Olkesh amish, Shashami. Orta enhu.” He leads me forward, toward the giant Boxen in front of the cart. “Artu, Shishami. Artu.”
“What is he saying?” I ask, smiling to cover my nervousness.
“He wants you to touch the Boxen,” says Kaden. “The Akari say the animals have the ability to read a stranger’s heart.”
“Alright then,” I say. I step forward toward the Boxen. Its head is huge, about the size of my entire body, its nostrils near the size of my head. I raise a hand slowly and gently place it above the Boxen’s dark lips. The beast groans, exhaling sharply, kicking up dust.
“Ikashi. Ikashi,” calls Massani, grabbing the Boxen by its harness, calming it down.
I back away. “I’m sorry. I didn’t—”
Kaden laughs. “No. It’s good. The Boxen likes you.”
My hand falls on my chest, and I sigh in relief. “Oh… okay.”
“Artu, Shishami. Artu,” says Massani, taking my hand and guiding me onto the cart. I sit next to the woman with black hair and yellow robes, Kaden on my other side.
“Anavri et tuu ah,” says Kaden, and the woman says something back, smiling.
Kaden glances at me. “She is Etu. Massani’s wife. And these are their four children. Gatack. Alep. Etoon. And the little girl is Kenta.”
I wave hello to all of them as the cart begins to move, catching up to the rest of the caravan. The little girl pulls on my hair, and I barely escape her grasp, laughing. We chat for a while, Kaden translating my words, until the sun begins to set, and the children become drowsy.
I turn to Kaden, whispering in his ear. “They called me Shishami. What does it mean?”
He turns his head to the side, squinting. “I believe it means traveler… in Akari.”
“Traveler,” I repeat, grinning, as the caravan stops for the night. We make camp under the shadow of a great ruin, a black tower jutting from the sand. Kaden tells me it was once a fortress of the High Dragons, shattered in the uprising, and now withered by time, as we help Massani and his family set up tents. A great fire is made at the center of the camp, using wood carried by the Boxen, and the entire caravan huddles around, dozens of people all related in some manner. I sit with Kaden and Etu, her children playing a game in front of us, making symbols with their fingers. As the sun sets, three moons rise in the desert sky, and I marvel at the wonder of it, so different from my own world. Kaden notices and winks at me. “Magnificent, aren’t they? Legends say the moons represent the mother dragon and her children, for only one is ever full at one time. The other two are always growing, trying to become as great as the mother.”
My focus is pulled away from the sky as the elders begin to tell stories. Kaden translates the main details, but mostly I enjoy the flow of the language, the poetry in its beats and rhythms even when I don’t know the exact translation.
The younger men and women pull large drums from the carts, and play loudly into the night, chanting as the thunderous thumps of their instruments reverberate across the sand dunes. Their voices blend together, a rising cry both primal and beautiful, filling my body with euphoria.
A young girl runs up to me, presenting me with a necklace. Black beads with a small black horn as the pendant. “Is this for me?” I ask.
The girl nods, and I take the necklace, smiling and thanking her. She runs back to Massani, and I catch his gaze. He nods thoughtfully, and I think the gift may have been his idea.
Kaden leans closer, his voice soft. “That is dragonstone, Shishami. A great gift, taken from the horn of a dragon.”
I trace my hands over the necklace, feeling the weighty pendant. “Why would they give this to me?”
“Because they know who you are,” says Kaden. “A Twin Spirit. In their culture, our kind is revered, our connection to the Spirits honored. They know we keep them safe, and this gift is but a small thank you.”
I raise my shoulders, mouth agape. “But… I haven’t done anything.”
“Perhaps not yet. But you will. One day. It will be your duty to defend the worlds of men and women.” He pauses, taking a piece of bread from a plate. “The Akari have a special sense when it comes to the Spirits. An understanding most could only hope to achieve. Perhaps they know things we don’t. Perhaps they see something in you that even I do not.”
He says no more, and I turn back to the fire, to the pulsing drums and chanting voices. Some of the men and women begin to dance, their bodies writhing around the flame, their figures casting strange shadows on the sand. The rhythm of the music grows louder, syncing with my heartbeat, echoing within my very chest. My skin grows hot, my palms sweaty. The dragonstone seems to throb in my hand, matching the drums. Thump. Thump. Thump. The music grows louder. My vision begins to spin. The fire and stars and moons and people blending into a chaotic painting. Dots cover my eyes. My head feels light. The dragonstone pulses. Thump. Thump. Thump. I notice my wrist then. I notice the bare symbol there. Stripped of the brace I left behind. The dragon gazes back at me, pushing against its circlular cage. Thump. Thump. Thump.
The world spins.
And I fall back.