A night spent asleep in the arms of his wife was considered a good night. Other nights, well, they varied from either the horrible, waking nightmares to periods of restlessness that he couldn’t describe. Thankfully he couldn’t ever truly remember the dreams that left him waking in cold sweats, his entire body shivering despite the two down comforters he and his wife slept under. Unfortunately within the back of his mind was a small voice that never seemed to go away telling him that he needed to remember. That was the most frustrating part, knowing without understanding that he had a past that had been stripped from him.
The only solace he’d found on nights such as these was to wander the gray sands that lay only a short walk from the house he now resided in. Gently waving seas of yellowish-white dune grass separated his home from the western shore, the rustling of winds blowing through their haphazard bulk somehow soothing in the cool night air. As all nights during which he found no solace in sleep Roland walked to the beach unarmed, with only a shirt and a pair of pants to protect him from the chill winds that rolled in off the water.
In all honesty he didn’t mind the cold, it felt good against his aged and wrinkled skin. He’d kept his hair cropped short, though nothing could hide the iron gray that had crept in and taken over years ago. When he’d first found himself upon the beach several miles north of here he’d still possessed a good amount of black within his now silver hair. The trials that he’d undergone alongside his friends in the past years however had aged him in ways that went beyond merely physical.
Roland had been one of five men that had washed up on that shore, or rather seven men, since two had been found dead, their lungs filled with fluid. Since they’d washed up on the same beach and apparently from the same wreck the five men had banded together in order to survive, since strangely none of them had retained any memory of who they were. Not a single shred of remembrance had surfaced even when they had searched the wreck of the boat they had all supposedly been in, its strangely charred and decimated remains yielding little to nothing. The only reason he’d even retained his name, at least he assumed it was his, was that it had been upon the shirt he’d been wearing upon waking. Only one other man, Stiles that had been, had retained anything that said his name upon it, a driver’s license that had read Maxwell Stiles.
Though his picture had been upon the license along with an address and other specifications the younger man still hadn’t been able to link memory with hard evidence. Thus they had simply called him Stiles, which he had fully agreed to. The others, Skins, Cross and Bear, were named later. Skins had earned his name in a rather silly fashion, being the smallest of the group and used often to scout the surrounding areas they’d walked through trying to find a suitable spot to camp. It was strange, but though they’d retained no memory of who they once were, simple survival skills had seemed to come
natural. Skins had earned his name only a day after they’d set out, though if given a choice he might have well preferred another name.
While climbing up one of the many stout limbed fir trees that covered wide expanses of the peninsula the young man had lost his footing, sliding down the tree for a good thirty feet or more before catching himself upon a branch. The resulting injury had left him scraped both front and back, raw flesh peeking through his tanned exterior over his entire body. It was a hard way to earn a name, but it had stuck. Cross and Bear had been far simpler, their names coming from physical attributes over which they had no control. Bear was easily justified with his name, since his size alone brought to mind one of the large brown bears that were said to roam woodland areas. Whether there were any within those woods at the time none of them could have said, but Bear had taken to his name with an aplomb that was just short of humorous.
Cross had possessed a stylized tattoo of a gothic cross on each shoulder, each emblazoned with a set of initials that none of them, even him, had recognized. Roland could remember each of them fondly, their faces always in his memory despite the fact that among the four of them only Bear remained. Cross and Stiles had met their end defending the woman that was now his wife nearly eleven years ago. A band of humans known as Tainted had struck in an effort to take the son of two of his friends, Kera and Tyler. The only explanation that made sense had been that the dark being known as Sivis had wanted both the offspring of the Chosen, the boy Corbin and the girl Caitlin.
Roland hadn’t known of Caitlin, in fact he hadn’t even known of Tiffany, Brady, Andrew or Matt until after Matt had ventured north into Ocean Park. His first impression of the large youth had been that he was an uncultured and barbaric oaf. The young man had since proven himself many times over, fighting alongside the rest of them against nightmarish creatures that had been unleashed upon this world.
“Daddy?” The small voice startled him out of his dark thoughts, snapping him back to the present as he spun quickly, almost regretting that he’d walked away from his home unarmed. That regret changed to relief however as he saw who was behind him. Clad in a set of pajamas that had been found within one of the rooms in the house was a seven-year old girl with hair the color of autumn leaves, the tangled locks blowing about in the gentle winds as she stared up at him. A tattered teddy bear lay cradled in the crook of her left arm while she rubbed her eyes with her right hand.
The girl was a spitting image of her mother, possessing her father’s calm and assured demeanor. Since she’d been born Roland had thanked his luck that his daughter had been born such a beauty. Offering up a smile for the girl he strode towards her, his feet making deep imprints upon the gray carpet of sand beneath him. Going to a knee he faced her eye to eye as she gave him a little smile, her full lips reminding him so much of her mother.
“Whatcha doin’ daddy?” Roland grinned as he reached up to brush away a stray lock of hair from Corrin’s face as she blinked. She folded into his arms as he embraced her warmly, her red hair blocking his vision for several moments as he enjoyed the nearness of his daughter.
“Nothin’ muffin, I just couldn’t sleep. Let’s go back inside okay?” She nodded against his chest as he rose, lifting her in his arms as several pops and cracks came from his body. She giggled as she heard this, snuggling a little closer as he held her tight.
“Daddy, you sound like you’re falling apart.” Roland couldn’t help but chuckle at that as he kissed the top of her head, wading carefully through the knee high stalks of dune grass.
“We’re gonna get in trouble again!” The harsh whisper came from her right, the speaker little more than a shadow among shadows. They’d snuck out as they had so many times before, their adventurous natures acting against the restrictions their parents had attempted to lay upon them. Thankfully for them they’d managed to leave their younger siblings behind, asleep within their home.
“No we’re not, just relax and shut up!” Elizabeth waved a hand for silence, gratified as both of her companions, Ian and Samantha, complied. The two blonde headed children were fraternal twins, having been born while their parents, Brooke Landis and the large man named Bear, had been on the road. Their younger siblings, Chandler and Kathleen, had also been born during that journey, though they had come one and two years later.
The three of them hadn’t grown up together, having just met only months ago, but already they had become the best of friends. They were seldom out of each other’s company, especially since their parents lived quite close to one another. Both the Landis’s and the Mckenzie’s had selected homes that were on the outskirts of Ocean Park, not far from the school actually.
Since the day they’d began to pal around the trio had found no end of trouble, usually causing it themselves. Only a few months ago they’d stirred up a nest of creatures that had borne a strong resemblance to what their parents had told them were once called raccoons, though these creatures had possessed a temperament ten times worse than the masked mammals they’d resembled. Upon seeing the beasts Brooke and Sarah had both been startled as to their appearance. Though furred all over and possessing a black mask over their eyes, these creatures had been anything but cute. Bony ridges had been evident above their eyes and along the ridge of their spine, while their claws on all four feet were barbed and wickedly hooked. Their muzzles were twice the length of a normal raccoon, though they were in actuality no bigger than their original size.
The two Chosen had just managed to save their children from the gang of razor toothed critters that had sought to attack. Later on Brooke had found that the children had unwittingly stumbled upon a sizeable den over which the enraged animals had kept watch. The admonitions that had flown that day had been thick and fast as Ian and Samantha’s father, Bear, had lain into them with a lecture that had blistered their ears. Still, here they were.
Ahead of them, nestled within the ruins of what had once been a simple two bedroom cottage, was a small family of the cutest creatures they’d seen yet, and they’d seen many. Long eared, no larger than maybe two feet tall, they were little more than balls of fluff, their tails in particular. They were cute enough that all three kids found themselves thinking that they could in no way be dangerous, which was why they were keeping their distance. Not a one of them had forgotten the raccoon incident so quickly.
The fuzzy little critters numbered around ten, three adults and seven younglings that were quite frisky. Several of the smaller creatures were currently wrestling around with one another while one of the adults looked on, ears perked up as though it had heard something. Elizabeth had no doubt that they’d been detected somehow, since in the escapades the three of them had already been through it had been seen that the woodland creatures that lived all around them were possessed of senses that were abnormally heightened.
Elizabeth was about to tell Ian and Samantha that it might be time to go home when she saw the eyes of the creature that was watching the young ones glow an alarming shade of red, its fuzz covered mouth opening wide as it turned in their direction. The fine hair parted to reveal a maw that was impossibly large for such a small creature, lined with twin rows of small, sharpened teeth that were coated with some strange, green fluid.
“Umm maybe we should be going now.” Elizabeth backed away as the fuzzy creature settled back and forth on its front legs for a moment, keeping it jaws wide open as a runnel of green slipped from its lower jaw. Ian and Samantha had no arguments as they too backed slowly away. If nothing else the raccoon incident had taught them to not simply run away at the first sign of danger, since many animals took that as their cue to give chase.
They were still backing away when a low snarl stopped them in their tracks, the sound freezing the blood in their veins as their eyes went wide. Though only five years old all three children had seen enough in their lives to this point to understand that the fuzzy little creature hadn’t been responding to them, but rather the danger that now was behind them. As they slowly turned however the three kids heard a startling crack like that of wood on bone, followed by the sound of something heavy crashing to the overgrown roadway.
All ten of the little creatures bolted then, disappearing into the wild tangles of brush behind the ruin of the house. Turning quickly now the three children gasped as they saw the darkened form that stood upon the cracked and weed strewn road, a long, white staff grasped in one hand. Swathed in a dark blue cloak with its cowl raised his face was almost completely hidden, though each child knew exactly who had come to their rescue this time. As they realized who it was each of them hung their heads, casting surreptitious glances at the fallen form beneath the man. The creature’s fur was black as the night sky above, matted in several spots and actually threadbare in others.
They’d seen hellcats before, the feral creatures were all over the peninsula, though this was the first time they’d almost fallen prey to one. As the beast slumbered thanks to the well placed blow from Tyler, the children began to understand just how close to death they’d come this time. Ian paled a bit as Tyler stepped forward, his face coming into clearer view as they could now see his stern visage. There was no telling how bad the lecture would be this time.
More than one person within the small community found that sleep was an elusive luxury this night. She’d sat upon the gray shores since shortly after supper time, professing that she needed some time alone. A large muzzle bumped into her head gently as she sat poring through her memories, demanding her attention as she looked to her left. Reaching up with her left hand she patted the gentle beast on her muzzle, caressing the side of her velvety smooth face. The horse whickered gently in pleasure, laying her large chin upon Jayden’s shoulder for a moment not unlike a dog. Grinning in spite of her somber mood Jayden didn’t bother to push her large friend away, enjoying the warmth and companionship the animal offered.
While those whom she’d come to live among were more than enough to satisfy her emotional needs, there were times when Jayden felt it necessary to trust only in the presence of the animal that now stood beside her. Six years ago she’d had no one, not even a loyal pet or even the wind to talk to. Those had been hard times for her, she’d lost her mother accidentally by her own hand, been chased all about her hometown by a creature that had sought to do nothing less than devour her, and to top it all off, she’d very nearly lost her mind from loneliness. Jayden was not the type of woman who was comfortable being alone for more than a few days, so the six months she’d spent alone after the Darkfall had very nearly broken her.
A spark lit in her eyes as she remembered just how she’d met the three individuals who’d eventually changed her life. At that time she’d still been in her hometown of Woodland, Washington, hunted by the creature that had not once left her alone in the past seven months. Why she’d never left the town had been simple: where would she go? Through the backwoods, the desiccated ruins of the town, even on the grounds of her home, the beast had followed and managed to block off any and all means of easy escape. Its pursuit had been so dogged that there had been periods of four or five days when she was not allowed a moments rest, forced to be on continual alert for the creatures attacks.
Only a short time before she’d met Brooke, Bear and Rebecca she’d finally lost control of the strange and terrifying ability that had been mysteriously granted to her shortly after the Darkfall. Woodland had been reduced to ashes, its once calm and quiet streets melting beneath the volcanic explosion that had erupted from her. Of the creature there had been little left save ash and charred flesh, it had proven to be tougher than the lands that had surrounded the two of them. How the trio she’d later met had survived the initial blast had been amazing, though Jayden’s thoughts hadn’t been directed down that course until later, when she had regained her senses somewhat.
For six years she’d traveled with the three individuals that had come to be her best friends, quickly becoming an integral part of their group, though one of the most unstable. The reason for this had been the nature of the alteration she’d undergone, since it had taken nearly four years for her to bring the strange and often powerful ability under her control. Snapping her fingers once Jayden felt her irises contract at the sudden influx of light, opening once more as the small flame within the palm of her hand flickered and danced with the gentle wind currents that blew by and around her.
“I am the fire.” The words, spoken in barely a whisper, had escaped her lips only one other time nearly five and a half years ago. During this time she had been caught up in a vision so powerful that she’d believed it to be reality. In this strange scene she’d found herself wreathed by flames, the ground beneath her feet buckling and flowing in response to the tremendous heat she had commanded. Twin batons wreathed in ribbons
of blue flame had sat within her hands, their black metal shining brilliantly as she’d twirled them expertly. The scene in which she’d found herself had only been vaguely familiar, though she had recognized it at least enough to know where it was. The Clark County courthouse had been obliterated in her vision, the red brick of its overall exterior lying in heaps all about the lone figure that had emerged from the blasted rubble.
She could remember that figure well, though she’d never once spoken of it to anyone, not even those she’d braved so many a battle with in the past six years. Much of this had to do with the heart rending revelation that the figure within her vision had turned out to be the noblest man she had ever met in her life. In her dream the man had been little better than a berserker, his eyes flaring with a darkness deeper than any she’d seen to that date. So intense had his gaze been that Jayden had felt the deepening darkness within his being as though it were a visible presence.
Upon meeting the man however Jayden had been taken aback as she’d felt nothing but a strong and driving purpose that so benevolent that she found herself believing that perhaps her dream had been wrong. Tyler Ferris was a good man, not a berserker as she’d seen in her vision. In her eyes he was a man who had done the best he could with what he had to work with, and honestly had done quite well. It hadn’t been hard to come to like and even find a soft spot in her heart for the man. She just found herself hoping that her dream was not true. At this point only time would tell, and time in her view was a cruel mistress that had no true love for anyone, be they man or woman. Closing her eyes she tried once more to erase the lingering vision. Forgetting would have been bliss, if it were possible.
Corbin dreamt of darkness, of shadows that leaped from their moorings to threaten the unwary and devour those that were too weak to defend themselves. He stood upon the ravaged shore of what had been dubbed Impact, though he had heard his parents and a few of the others he’d grown up around call it Astoria once or twice. All he’d ever known was that it was a damned place, a broken ruin that had once been called what his parents had told him was a city, a gathering spot for many people who lived together and shared a variety of interests.
He had no true idea of the world as it had once been since he’d been born and raised upon the peninsula until he was six years old. Only shortly after his sixth birthday had his father taken them all from their home to a distant place he’d heard called Seattle. Corbin had gazed in wide eyed wonder at the lands they had passed along the way, wondering why everything that he’d seen had been so vastly different from what he’d learned of in books and the stories handed down to him by his parents and aunts and uncles.
The terms of aunt and uncle were more honorary than anything, since he’d been told as soon as he could understand that not a single one of those who claimed the title were related by blood. Still, it was a comfort to know that he had so many people that would at the first shout come running to his aid. That hadn’t helped him all that much in Seattle however.
It was there, just before the vicious battle that had taken the life of one of their companions, that the Chosen and their friends had made a stand. It was also there that Corbin had finally discovered the burgeoning power that ran within his veins. While the battle upon the streets of Seattle had been in the process of becoming a full blown melee, Corbin, Shyla, Corrin, the hellhounds, Nikko, his youngest cousin Brandi and another young man named Dean, had been in the top portion of the large spire known as the Space Needle. The child Corrin, still a baby at that time, had been in their care as well, while all others had been drawn to the street. That hadn’t stopped several of the vicious creatures known as hellcats from ascending to their supposed sanctuary however.
Corbin felt his body shudder as he remembered the wanton destruction that had been unleashed within the Needle, the gale force winds and terrifying arcs of electricity that had ripped the hellcats apart. The top of the spire had been so severely compromised that the three children had been forced to flee towards the street, utilizing the elevator that was still thankfully intact. Corbin however had not escaped unscathed, at least not within his own mind.
All his life, meaning since he was able to understand, his parents and others had done their best to teach him the nature of his abilities, cautioning him always about the dangers of abusing his talents. At twelve years old he now had just began to realize what they were speaking of, though true comprehension had yet to come. He knew well enough that he was capable of great feats, though he had no idea of his limits as of yet.
Within his dream he came back to his senses, the winds that raced along the river behind him tugging at both clothing and hair. Looking to his left and right he noticed finally that he wasn’t alone. Caitlin, the other child born of two Chosen, stood to his right, her strawberry blonde hair half obscuring her face from his view as her eyes raked the ruined town that still stood before them.
Though the two of them had never been allowed an exorbitant amount of time with one another Corbin could honestly admit that he had come to like the girl. With high cheekbones and a face that was a few steps shy of being severely angled, Caitlin was somewhat of an exotic beauty, slender like her mother yet powerful as her father had been. Corbin had met her father Brady when he was only six years old, though he could scarcely remember the man. All he did remember was that the red headed warrior had been stern but also somewhat friendly.
This place is done for. Caitlin’s voice was grave as she spoke within his mind, her dark eyes flashing as she beheld the once peaceful hillside. Glancing back towards the ruination of the town Corbin found that he couldn’t disagree. Buildings that had once stood proudly, their signs proclaiming their services and wares, were now little more than weed choked dens of filth and decay, the interiors having been reclaimed by both the surrounding land and the creeping darkness.
Come to us little spawn, come to play.
The voice seemed to radiate from everywhere, penetrating both of them as they stiffened under the unseen blow. Caitlin reached out instinctively for Corbin, grasping his hand tightly as he allowed this. In the short time he’d known her he’d found out much, most of all that despite being the same age as he was, she had not led as peaceful of a life. Upon her birth and for almost six years after Caitlin had been under the sway of
the dark lord, Sivis. Her life had been entirely his, she’d served as his unwitting pawn, never once realizing who she or her parents truly were. Only the savage attack on Sivis by Tyler had broken the hold, damaging her in the process. So deep had the link between her and her master run that upon severing that tie, Tyler had unknowingly ripped free a chunk of what she had been, leaving her in a catatonic state for weeks after.
She’d recovered eventually, but making up for six years of a life she’d never understood had taken a toll on her parents. Even worse, her father had met his end not long after she’d become aware of herself, killed at the hands of a beast that had reportedly once been a classmate back in their younger days.
Come closer little children, come to us, let us play.
Corbin shivered, feeling as Caitlin did the same.
Sweat glistened upon both their bodies as they lay together, each of them spent. Hair the color of crimson flames lay spilled out upon the bed and across the tan skin of Nikko’s chest, the young woman it belonged to nestling against his right shoulder. A smile of pure satisfaction spread across his lips as he reached his left hand over to caress her stomach, grinning a bit wider as she shivered slightly. Shyla snuggled even closer to him, grinning before planting a tender kiss upon the side of his jaw.
“That tickles.” She shuddered as he did it once more, enjoying the way she responded. Reaching down his body with one hand she grasped a certain part of his anatomy tenderly, grinning wide against his skin as he shuddered in turn.
“I can do that too honey.” The two of them shared a laugh as he rolled over, pressing his body to hers as she wrapped her arms around him. Sweat from both of their bodies mingled as they shared a deep, passionate kiss, slumber beginning to take each of them. Deep within her body Shyla couldn’t help but imagine that she felt a spark, some stirring that she’d never felt before in her life.
She’d seen two of her older friends, both Kera and Kylie, go through their pregnancies, and even at that young age a pang had shot through her when she’d seen Corbin and Corrin born. As the years had passed by that pang had only grown stronger, until just a few years ago when she had realized it for what it truly was. She wanted a child of her own. Laying there in the home they’d claimed as their own, Shyla and Nikko shared in each others warmth, each of them still glowing with the thought of what they might have finally accomplished.
Morning came once more as it had done for countless eons before, the cobalt blue sky retreating from the waxing sunlight as it began to crest over the eastern horizon. So many times he’d found himself here, awake far before anyone, his eyes scanning the horizon for something he couldn’t seem to find. He knew there was something beyond the horizon, something past the seemingly endless waves, that he could not as of yet grasp. It was frustrating, since after all they’d been through, after all the heart rending moments and the painful losses, Tyler felt as though it were barely the beginning. As
disheartening as this was however, he gained a certain peace from knowing that whatever happened in the future, his friends would stand beside him. For a time at least.
This morning was only slightly different however, since he was not alone. The soft panting of the female wolf creature that sat on her haunches next to him just barely registered in his mind. Like her twin and smaller brother the she-beast had become a part of the community into which they’d been accepted, though some still had their reservations about them. Her name was Soka, and though she was identical to her twin Kerbe in every way there was still notable difference in their temperaments. Each of them stood nearly seven feet tall, built strong with thick twists of muscle along their bodies. As Tyler had found out during one sparring session they were fierce opponents, and far tougher than they looked, which said quite a bit.
Black furred with a mask of white across their eyes, there were times when both Kerbe and Soka were docile enough that they resembled little more than giant raccoons. Aside from those rare moments however, the three wolf-like beasts were often a footstep away from becoming little more than death on paws. They were fierce allies however, sticking close to those that had become their pack. Soka often stayed close to either Tyler or Matt, though when hunting she and her twin remained inseparable.
“So boyo, just what lesson’re we goin’ t’be learnin’ t’day?” The deep Irish accent caused Soka to whirl in surprise, her teeth bared until she saw who it was. The snarl disappeared instantly from her muzzle as she affected a wide grin in the next moment. Tyler didn’t have to wonder how Taegan had managed to sneak up the two of them. The half-breed Shaper had her ways, many of which she’d yet to reveal to those she’d lived among for the past several months.
As she strode up beside him Tyler did not allow his gaze to tear away from the horizon, feeling more than seeing the grin that rode the blonde woman’s lips. In the past four months, ever since Brooke, Bear and Rebecca had arrived with their two new friends and four extraordinary steeds, Tyler had spoken many times to both the fiery-haired Jayden and this enigmatic woman. She was a mystery to be sure, but her sense of infuriating superiority had at times rankled him enough that he’d seen fit to ignore her, a reaction she hadn’t cared for. In fact it had incited their first and only real fight, during which Tyler had found out just how dangerous the woman truly was. Of course, she had found out he was far worse, a revelation that had vexed the three centuries old woman.
“I thought we might learn silence. Of course, I don’t expect you to get the hang of it right away.” He almost grinned as in his peripheral vision he noticed her golden brows beetling over her ebon gaze. For all her power, wisdom and knowledge Taegan was still rather impulsive, reacting rather than acting to any and all stimuli. Such a person was easy to read and far easier to goad. Normally Tyler wouldn’t have stooped so low, much preferring to get along with those who could be labeled as friends. This was almost too difficult to accomplish with Taegan, as though she were fire and he was water, neither compatible with the other.
“P’raps, though maybe it’d be best t’ focus more on what we spoke of not long ago.” Tyler had to suppress a frown as he knew too well what she was speaking of. The discussion of his heritage, the root of their conversation, had not come up until a month
after her arrival. What she had proposed made little sense to him though she’d been quite adamant about it.
“Ye are what ye are boyo, no amount o’ denial can e’er change that.” Tossing her head back she swept her ridiculously large brimmed hat from her head, holding it behind her as she turned to him. Matching the gesture Tyler patted Soka upon the shoulder as she whined low at him, her desire plain. He’d already seen the glint in her eyes, there was game to be chased down, and she was tired of simply sitting. As she loped off he faced Taegan from a distance of only two feet, the proximity more than enough.
“My parents were human, both of them one hundred percent.” At his words her eyebrows arched just a bit as a smile creased her full, pouting lips. There was no doubt, she was beautiful, as exotic and otherworldly as Aliyana had been, or rather still was, but in his heart, he would not allow his more base human instincts a chance at swaying him. His loyalty in such a regard was to Kera and her alone.
“As I’ve already told ya, such things’re known t’skip generations, they don’t just appear fer awhile ‘tis all.” Tyler remained defiant in his denial, the look in his eyes easily telling Taegan that he refused to believe her words.
Any other words he might have spoken were cut off as he heard the chatter of many voices coming towards them, the footsteps of their friends and his family barely noticeable above the din. Nodding once to each other, both Tyler and Taegan shared a look that could only mean one thing: they would talk more on this later.
Very precious few things ever stayed dead anymore. Since the first day of the DarkFall this indisputable fact had increased exponentially as those who had passed on continued to find themselves returning from what they had thought was a well deserved peace. At least that was Howard Woodall’s opinion. Almost a year after he’d met that damnable kid from the peninsula, he’d found himself facing the young man once more. Personally he would have been happy to never hear his name again.
His death, much like many others within Astoria, had been excruciating, the agony following him even into death. Or rather, into his undeath. Touched by a dark, slimy tentacle that had been no larger than his forearm, Howard had felt as his body was rapidly infected by something, be it poison or whatever. Sickly grey had filled his every vein and artery, suffusing him with a foul disease for which mankind no doubt had no name. In less than a day he had risen, finding himself little more than a shadow of what he’d been, quite literally in fact.
Howard’s mind had nearly broken in its outward rebellion of his fate, finding that what he had become was almost too much to handle. While he wasn’t a genius by any means he was also not a dullard, which in itself had allowed him to come to terms with his new and horrifying condition. All in all it hadn’t been a complete torment, save for the absence of a heartbeat, the vague understanding that he was no longer human, and of course, the undeniable hunger that had gnawed constantly at his being.
Facing Tyler again had been terrible, mostly because of his gods cursed staff. Howard had been so sure after draining the life force from several survivors that Tyler would fare no better, but he’d been wrong. As he had the first time Howard had tried to
attack him, Tyler had fended him away quite easily. Howard’s last true memory had been when the staff had connected with his chest, its unnatural light burning through his darkened form as though he were no more substantial than mist. The pain had followed him into the darkness once more, more of an irritant that time than the intense agony it had been before.
This new sensation however, of being lighter than air, it was admittedly refreshing. His last thought as Tyler’s staff had torn him apart had not been of regret, nor had it been of hatred, but instead he had thanked God or whatever force was out there that his time was finally over, that the torment his life had become would finally, mercifully end.
“My Lord? The visitor you summoned has arrived. Shall I show them in?” The high pitched sound of his loyal servant’s whine penetrated his thoughts like little else could, causing him to turn from where he stood. The Columbia River lay before him in all its dark glory, the few whitecaps that dotted its surface not fooling him for a bit. He knew the dangers that now lurked within the wide expanse of water, he’d seen enough unwary fools fall victim to either large, mutated versions of what could have only been sturgeon, to the dark blots of quivering flesh that hurt to even look at. Several of the survivors of the DarkFall, seeking perhaps refuge across the waters, had fallen prey to the massive fish, which were easily fifty feet or larger. The exact length was hard to tell, since the creatures hadn’t come fully from the water but had dragged the unfortunate souls down, needle sharp teeth being exposed as they’d turned small craft to kindling in a matter of seconds.
This was further proof that the world had changed, as though anyone needed any. Standing upon the very spot where he had first met the young man that had so easily caught every one’s interest by his mere appearance, Howard could not help but think that perhaps it was for the best. The old world hadn’t been doing so well anyway, circling the drain each passing year in his estimation. Human kind had warred upon itself since the first humans had taken breath, finding offenses in everything from words to simple actions to differences in faith.
Humanity was complex in its simplicity and vice versa, they gave themselves such importance while trying to understand why. It was a confusing race really, though Howard did not lament even a second of having been a part of it. Over the past few months he had come to fully realize that he was no longer the man he used to be, yet nor was he a shadow any longer. By all outward appearances he was still human, though upon closer inspection he was anything but.
“Yes, show them in and offer them a drink. I’ll be in shortly.” The small man, his name was Larry Benitil, nodded once before turning to walk away, his steps light and quick upon the moss covered stones. As he reached the ruins of what had once been the pier leading towards the Red Lion Hotel Howard turned back towards the river, catching a faint spray of water against his face as nearly fifty yards out a massive finned tail slapped the water, disappearing only a second later. The sight caused a shiver to run down Howard’s reconstructed spine, the human gesture far too familiar for his liking.
A war raged across the face of the world, a war that human kind had never known possible. It was a conflict that had raged for uncounted eons, far before mankind had even been a thought ready to take flesh. Light versus Dark, energy against inertia, a never ending cycle that perpetuated its own demise while replenishing itself continually. Each side tore at the other while it in turn was consumed.
Humans had later on applied their own terms to these forces, preferring to see things in shades of darkness and light, proclaiming one good and one evil. Such was their struggle, the eternal battle between the forces of those who considered themselves pure, honest and noble and those who lived to tear such peace loving institutions apart. To the human mind it was far easier to distinguish between good and evil, their own biases and personal beliefs led them to whatever conclusion they secretly preferred.
Those who survived the Darkfall were far less than the world had contained only years ago. In the moments before the pulsating tentacles had slithered forth into the world billions of souls had inhabited the planet, going about their day in their same old routine. From the second the dark tide had hit Astoria, now called Impact, the tentacles had spread like a plague, infecting each and every thing they touched whether it was alive or not.
In only two days it had spread across the vast Pacific Ocean, skirting deftly around the Longbeach Peninsula. The strip of land was anathema to the darkness, as were several other select areas throughout the world that had been sanctified within the distant past. The untouched areas were not unlike islands dotting the largely infested and overrun regions of the world, remaining untainted even as the neighboring lands to all sides were decimated and claimed by shadow.
Within Asia there were several areas, twenty-one in number that she could remember, and her memory was long. There were a little over forty sites spread out all over Europe. The vast land of Africa was left woefully untouched by the Light, earning its moniker of “the dark continent” several times over as the tentacles took hold. Within the northern reaches, in areas such as Greenland and the North Pole there were only faint hints and glimmers of light to oppose the darkness, slivers that danced among the encroaching waves of blackness. Farther south upon Australia there were twenty-five sites all along the coastline of the continent, areas that had been carefully secured so that they might continue to flourish.
Upon South America there were only ten, areas deep within the ever dwindling rainforests that she had so carefully selected long ago. Antarctica, the large land mass of ice and snow that was at the bottom of the world, at least according to many humans, was left untouched, allowed to repel or accept the darkness as it would. North America, where she had made her home for the past several hundred years, was host to only nineteen sacred areas, each of them a considerable distance from the other.
At the moment she lay bound to only one of them, though the others burned within her mind like torches within a long, dark tunnel, showing her glimpses of what had been allowed to happen to the rest of the world. She could feel within her heart the wounds caused to the planet, each of the K’alajy, or Sacred Glens, seeming to stand out as accusations against her inability to turn back the dreaded DarkFall. Aliyana, one of the last true blooded Shapers, quaked within her soul as she was forced to endure the knowledge of what had been unleashed, her heart ripping apart as she felt the agonized screams of a world that had never been allowed ample time to recover from its many grievous injuries of millennia before.
This was not the first time that the DarkFall had blighted the world, though the last time had not been in any way her doing. In truth, it hadn’t been her doing this time, though she felt responsible regardless, seeing as how if she had done the will of her clan on the day she’d been sent to eradicate the originator of the DarkFall, none of this would have come to pass. Like all her kind however, she knew well enough that all things that happened within the world served a purpose, no matter how many strange twists and turns the path to such a purpose might take.
Her former love, the dark and twisted thing called Sivis, had managed somehow to reenact a second DarkFall, devastation that this world should have never been forced to experience again. How he had done this was easy to understand, it explained so much. After the Ja’klya, or Joining, Aliyana had been made painfully aware of the collective that had been passed onto her being, the gathered wisdom and knowledge of her people in their entirety. Such an act was only undertaken in the most dire of needs, and the DarkFall more than qualified.
Upon cornering her friend and lover however she had found herself unable to simply destroy him, finding within her heart the mercy to simply absorb him into herself as had been done with their people. He had fought her tooth and nail, but he had failed, finding himself imprisoned within her heart for the next several thousand years. When she had selected her latest Chosen, her last really, Sivis had managed to slip away somehow, using her uncharacteristic lack of attention to part himself from her. From that point he had attempted to spread his dark taint upon the land as he had ages before, his twisted soul exerting its foul influence upon every facet of life that he touched.
At first he’d been weak, barely able to remember who he was, though as his power had slowly grown he had remembered, and in that he had come to better understand just what had happened to him. It was quite natural for him to become enraged at her, she had imprisoned him after all, no matter how justly. The whispers in her mind that had been her only true company within the last thousand years had faded gradually, slowly enough that she had failed to notice until it was too late.
The shocking truth had only been revealed to her when she had nearly met her end in front of the peninsula’s only movie theater, where she had met up with her old friend for the last time. No human hand should have been able to strike her, the safeguards that she had set around herself long ago had seen to that. Yet she’d been struck by one of his minions, a child no more than sixteen years of age who’d wielded one of the crude iron weapons constructed within the high school foundry, once the woodshop. The shock of being struck had nearly undone her, though Aliyana had recovered quickly, escaping rather than doing harm to those who truly did not know better.
Her feeling of vulnerability had only been compounded when her First, Tyler Ferris, had struck her during a confrontation she had initiated shortly after their return home to Ocean Park. His anger that day had been just, though in an unusual fit of spite she had chosen to ignore this. She had struck him, meaning only to remind him of who
was truly in control. Instead, she had started a fight that in only seconds had escalated into a life or death situation. No matter how hard she hit him, or how difficult it was for him to regain his feet, Tyler had not stopped, defying her in front of all those who had followed him, Chosen and normal folk alike.
At that time she had thought that he was simply too stubborn to realize when he was outmatched, his need to retain face in front of his friends enough to beckon his demise. When the small red-headed child known as Shyla had stepped so boldly in front of her however Aliyana had come to a far different realization. He was their protector, they loved him more than she would have ever been able to guess. Also, he was not entirely human. It was more than the alterations she had done to him and his friends, more than the strangeness she had sensed in him since he was a child.
Throughout her long, long life she had witnessed miracles and even more than a few instances during which human beings had performed acts that should have very well been impossible. Those were always in times of greatest need however, when either said human or someone they cared for or perhaps needed were in a dire situation. It was true that Tyler was no different, he had done much the same, though during the times he had lost himself to his own inner darkness he had not been faced with life or death situations. As a boy he had been quite content and capable of taking care of himself.
There was something more however. Aside from being able to take care of himself and others, Tyler was far tougher than any human had a right to be. The final fight between Tyler and herself should have resulted in him being either mortally wounded or even dead. He had walked away however, and her body still lay upon the top of a concrete cylinder, buried within the withered nest of vines that had claimed her corporeal form years ago.
The taint that was the DarkFall had come to the world again, and this time, she could do nothing. As a shade, unable to move to any other level of existence, Aliyana was little more than an advisor to her Chosen now, and a poor one at that. If the scales were to balance once more, it would be by the hands of the eight remaining warriors that still roamed this land. To their keeping fell the responsibility to fix what she had so unwittingly allowed. She only prayed they would be enough.
“I trust you haven’t traveled all this way to try and stare me down.” Howard sat across one of the only surviving wooden tables within the much ravaged bar of the Astoria Red Lion Inn. Upon waking facedown in front of the main building of the inn Howard had claimed this place as his new home, finding that despite being ravaged along most of its landward facing side the hotel was still habitable. He had chosen the finest rooms for himself, allowing those who had flocked to him to have their pick of what was left.
“You’re right in assuming that. In fact the only reason I stopped here is because I thought maybe you’d be able to help me in getting across the river. I’ve already seen what happened to a few people that tried, it wasn’t pretty. I was just hoping you might have an alternative that doesn’t involve getting chomped to bits.” The man who spoke was easily younger than Howard, though his eyes contained enough wisdom for someone
twice his age. He was quite muscular, had hair that looked almost bleached by sunlight and a deep tan all over his body. Howard had already decided that if this man were here for anything other than peaceful intentions there would be little anyone save himself could do to stop him.
“Well I have to tell you, crossing the river these days isn’t what it used to be. Back in my younger days the only impediment to getting across the river was a toll at the beginning of the bridge. They took that down some time ago, years before the DarkFall even hit.” The man sat up in his seat, his eyes taking on a curious glint as Howard spoke, as though something he’d said was of great interest.
“The DarkFall? Is that what this brought on all this filthy crap over the world? Is that why my best friends in all existence died screaming?” Howard leaned back just a bit in his chair at the vehemence in the man’s voice, not sure what to make of this sudden outburst. As the man seemed to calm down in the next moment he decided that it would be wise to choose his words carefully from this point on.
“I realize it might not mean much coming from a stranger, but I am sorry for your loss. I too have lost, though before the terrible tragedy we now live in. If it would make you feel any better, I believe there is a way I can help you find the one who caused this nightmare.” The man’s eyes widened noticeably at this pronouncement, his eagerness to learn the reason his friends were dead obviously driving him more than anything.
“Do tell. So, where is the soulless bastard who caused this?” Howard allowed himself the ghost of a grin, a plan already forming in his mind as he began to speak.
Dean walked down the main street of Ocean Park, looking left and right as he tried to remember what this place had looked like nearly twelve years before. He’d only been eight years old the last time he’d visited family upon the peninsula, though his memory was intact enough to know that much of what he saw now had not been this way. The rusted out hulks of cars, trucks and even a few trailers tucked away here and there next to or behind buildings were sad testaments to the world as it had been.
The memory of his own torment after the DarkFall still clung tenaciously, not allowing itself to be forgotten. Dean wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, he did his best to hold onto the memory, feeling in his heart that he owed this to his mother and sister. It was the very least he could do to hold onto what they had once been, and not what his sister had become near the end.
His mother had died nearly two months after sealing herself and her two children within the cellar of the Wet Dog, a popular tavern within the town of Astoria. There had been three others with them, a man and two women that had managed to find refuge in the tavern before the gargantuan mass of tentacles had come crashing full force upon the town. With the meager supplies and food that had been available it had been a miracle that any of them had lasted so long.
He and his sister Amelia had been the last among the group of six, their mother had passed away only days before he had laid his sister to rest. The sickening crack of her spine dislocating from her skull still sounded within his mind, reminding him of the terrible thing he’d done to remain alive. His sister, his last link to the world at that time,
had been corrupted by the foul taint that he later on learned had encompassed the wider world he’d known. She had very nearly dug her jaws into his stomach before he realized that something was wrong, that she was not simply frightened beyond belief. He’d killed her in self-defense, though this thought had never once managed to rid the stain from his soul, the self-loathing over having killed his own kin.
The ring of steel on steel grabbed his attention as he came to the single major intersection of the town, his gaze turning left towards the beach approach as a sudden gust of wind caressed his body. He’d chose to walk about the town this day instead of either watching or joining in the morning exercises as usual. He’d been offered the chance to train with the Chosen, Tyler had told him he was most welcome, though there were days when he simply didn’t have it in him to even go through the motions. No one said anything about this, perhaps since all of them had times when they too felt the need to be alone with their thoughts. Looking first right and then straight ahead he decided to turn left, heading towards the beach and the sounds of combat.
A single flag, actually just a large branch with a handkerchief tied to its length, sat behind and in the middle of the eight figures that were in the process of fending off twenty-two other individuals. The remaining eight Chosen held their ground despite being outnumbered almost three to one, and by those who knew how they fought no less. All eight of them, Tyler, Kera, Sarah, Brooke, Alex, Tiffany, Andrew and Matt, fought side by side in a new formation they’d decided upon after much debate. The Octagon, a multi-sided defense formation, was undoubtedly nothing new in the history of warfare, but for them, it was a concept that they’d yet to try.
Tiffany, Andrew and Matt had decided to rejoin their friends at the northern end of the peninsula six years ago. After the passing of her husband Tiffany had realized that no longer did she know what course they should take. She had confided in her two companions that it might be time to join their force with Tyler’s group, a decision that Matt had embraced fully. He had traveled with Tyler six years ago towards Seattle, and like a few upon that expedition been changed.
He’d told Tiffany and Andrew of the battle that had taken place underground, of how the changes to his body had taken place, and ultimately how they’d returned home. The sunlight of the day glinted off his massive body, sparkling against the areas of amethyst stone that had been grafted into his musculature. From the crown of his head to his feet he had discovered that nearly a third of his body had been covered over by gemstone, its hardness enough to resist massive amounts of damage that would surely crush even the strongest of humans.
His sledgehammer whirled in a ponderous but still dangerous circle as his muscles bunched, fending off the lightning swift attacks of Jamie Mack, one of the deadliest among their group. Trained by Tyler himself, Jamie fought with a passion that few among their small community could match. As she tried to feint high Matt refused to take the bait, blocking the low slap she aimed towards his left knee. To his right Andrew fended away the tip of a mongrel long sword, one of the many weapons that had been forged within the hellish foundry that had been created from the high school woodshop.
In fact, this blade had been Jamie’s first until she had found her current weapons, a wickedly sharp long sword and dagger that had been found within the ruins of Seattle. Brianna Woodall now wielded the hunk of metal that Jamie had once used, having learned how to wield it from both Tyler and Jamie in the past few years.
Andrew did not fight with his normal weapons, instead using two knives he’d obtained from within the general store, a healthy alternative considering. Tiffany had been quick to tell everyone, Andrew included, of the strange rage that came over him in the heat of battle, the absolute bloodlust that filled his eyes when he wielded his own weapons. He still had them, though they were at the moment back in the small home he had chosen for himself, wrapped carefully in a towel and placed in a closet.
This was a fight that should have happened years ago, though much had changed in that time. Brianna could still remember the sudden pain that had sent her reeling into the front of Jack’s Country Store, unconscious before she’d realized she was hurt. Upon waking she’d found herself in the care of the Chosen, her bumps and bruises tended to by Brooke Landis. Over time she had believed that she’d come to forgive Andrew for the beating she’d received so long ago. As she came close enough to see the glint of light from his weapons Brianna found that she harbored no ill feelings towards this man. For this she was glad.
The two of them stared at one another as battle was joined, the circle closing around the eight remaining Chosen as blades, staff’s and other weapons were crossed in a stunning display of skill and grace. There was little power being used this day, since combined the Chosen would easily eliminate the sizeable force that was arrayed against them. As Matt began to fend off Jamie’s rapid attacks next to him Andrew kept his eye on the three young women that stood in front of him, though particularly on Brianna. The other two, sister and niece to Tyler, were just as dangerous, though at the moment their attention was fixed more on the blonde headed woman to his right.
Like many of the others he still marveled at the appearance of the young woman, Analyn Ferris. She was by the reports of the others the second hellcat to have ever retained her identify, her sense of self. Sleek golden fur coated her entire body, showing at least where her clothing did not cover her body. As with all hellcats a thick mane ran from her hairline to her lower back, much of it flattened beneath the hooded sweatshirt she wore. Her face, catlike in appearance with large, almond shaped eyes of pure amber, still was quite beautiful, lending all who looked upon her the thought that she had been quite attractive while still fully human.
Snapping his attention back to Brianna he quickly raised his blades in defense as she came close to smacking him with the flat of her blade. She stepped away quickly as he sought to counter her attacks, his quick jabs coming just short of her stomach. The exercise was one of simplicity, one person from outside the circle of Chosen was to reach the flag and thereby end the session. Until that point however it was up to the Chosen to fend their friends off the best they could.
No matter how furiously they attacked however the Chosen responded with a defense that was nothing short of amazing. Not once did their defensive perimeter waver, each of them covering the gaps that lay between them and those next to them with a ferocity that was nothing short of inspiring. The flag that lay in the center flapped in the
gentle winds that coursed along the beach, blowing unnoticed by the many combatants as it intensified for every ten feet it traveled.
Standing atop the dune that led into town Dean marveled at the display of martial prowess being played out before his eyes, the sight forcing his breath to catch in his throat. So enraptured was Dean that he too missed the small spectacle of the wind as it raced by his friends, appearing as little more than a normal occurrence.