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Summer’s Tales

Summer’s Tales 3

The Farm Adventure

By Tom Foster

 

 

Summertime on the farm was always a fun time!  Her Grandpa Jack and Grandma Darlene had a small farm up in the hills just past Washougal and there was nothing Summer liked better than to go out back and help her Grandpa Jack tend to the animals.  Sometimes she would help Grandma Darlene and her mom pick fruits and vegetables from the garden too, but she really liked helping with the animals, that was a lot of fun!

Grandpa Jack had told her about a lot of farms that were a lot bigger than his, but Summer thought his was fine, there was enough room to run around.  During the school year she didn’t get as much time as she liked to play with the animals, she had homework to do most days and could only spend a little time when she was done.  Sometimes she thought it might be fun just to be a farmer and not worry about school, but Grandpa Jack, her mom, and Grandma Darlene had all told Summer repeatedly that even farmers needed school.  She knew they wanted her to learn and to have fun, but sometimes it didn’t seem like there was enough time for both.  It was nice though that the farm was just outside, so she could go and play whenever she wanted, or when she had time.

Tending the farm in the summertime was fun since it meant that she had a lot time.  They had to get up early, but that was okay since after an hour or two of working she was awake anyway, and after the hard stuff was all done it was time to run and play.  Her mother and grandparents didn’t know how she managed to keep going after the work was done, but then Summer did what she could, which wasn’t quite as much as the adults.  She liked to help, but she couldn’t lift certain things or even reach some things on the farm, so she was kind of limited to what she could do, which was help everyone when she could.

Her grandparents and mom enjoyed her help, in fact they often had her do some of the harder jobs, but with them right there to help.  Summer liked to spend time on the farm, it gave her something to do and on top of that, it made her feel good.  The rest of her family would come up to the farm sometimes, but they didn’t get into the farming mood all that often.  Her Aunt Carrie and Uncle Eric weren’t farmers, but her mom had told her that when Aunt Carrie had been younger, she had been big into 4H, where she had shown the farm animals for something or other.  Summer didn’t fully understand why anyone would want to award ribbons and trophies for a rabbit or a pig, but her Grandpa Jack had told her it was a big deal.  Summer just liked having the animals close by, it was a lot of fun to feed them and watch them run around.

Grandpa Jack got up at five in the morning on the days he had off, which was what he called sleeping in.  Summer thought this was kind of funny, but her grandpa got up a lot earlier on the days he worked, which meant he was gone to work before she got up sometimes.  That was okay, Grandma Darlene was here most of the time, but she worked on some days too, which meant that Summer had to be up and off to school before her mother went to work.  It was a hectic house as her grandparents had said before, but it worked.

Getting up early was hard sometimes, but since it always meant that she got to work on the farm it was worth it.  All she had to do was wake up, brush her hair back into a ponytail and then change into what Grandpa Jack called her “grungies”.  Those were clothes that were either almost worn out or had stains that Grandma Darlene couldn’t get out, so they were just fine for working on the farm or out in the garden.  They were clean, but they were comfortable and worn out enough that she could use them to play outside on the farm.  The best part about her grungies was that she could get mud and dirt on them and her mom wouldn’t get on her case about it.  After all, like Summer had already figured out, farming could be hard work.

It was still a little cold in the house as Summer went about getting her socks on and shuffling her way out to the kitchen, rubbing at her eyes to get the sleepies out.  Her tummy rumbled as she came into the kitchen, telling her that she was hungry as she went to the cupboard.  She was just tall enough to reach the counters, and the cupboard holding the cereal and other food was at her level, the top of it was just a little higher than the top of her head.

Summer felt a little fuzzy, just she always did when she woke up, but she knew that would pass.  A bowl or two of cereal, Cap’n Crunch with crunchberries, and some milk would help.  Sugary cereal wasn’t always something her mom or grandma bought, but it was sure good when it was there.  Taking the box of cereal out of the cupboard she closed it, Grandma Darlene didn’t like finding her cupboards open all over the place.  Putting the box on the small table in the kitchen she then went to the sink, hoping to find a bowl that had been cleaned out.  Her grandma didn’t always find room in the dishwasher for everything, but today the sink was empty.

Frowning slightly Summer looked up at the cupboards that she couldn’t reach, knowing that the bowls were in there.  She picked a spoon out of the drawer just to the left of the sink, but she couldn’t very well eat cereal without a bowl!  Summer’s eyebrows rose slightly as she thought of something, but she was almost sure her mother and grandma wouldn’t like it.  But then again, she was hungry.

*                      *                      *

 

“Morning Summie, did you get-Summie!”  Summer looked up from her breakfast as her grandma entered the room.  Grandpa Jack and her mother had already gone to work, leaving her with Grandma Darlene today.  While grandma didn’t have to go to work she’d been planning on doing some gardening, which was just fine with Summer.  That meant she’d have a chance to go out and play with the animals sometime.  Her mother and grandparents didn’t like her going out on the farm alone, but aside from telling her to leave some of the animals alone she didn’t know why.  Grown-ups were weird sometimes.

Summer put her spoon down next to the pot she’d found to put her cereal in, milk dripping off of her chin as she quickly wiped it.  Her grandma didn’t look angry, but as she closed her eyes Summer knew she was probably going to get a lecture.  Sometimes when she did things she got a lecture, and that meant that she had to sit and listen to why whatever she’d done was wrong.  Her mom and grandparents never yelled at her, but what they said usually made a lot of sense.

Grandma Darlene opened her eyes, “You could have come and gotten me Summie,” she said, shaking her head as she slowly put the cap back on the milk to put it away, “I would have gotten a bowl down for you.”  Summer’s eyebrows rose, though she didn’t think she was off the hook that easy.

“I was hungry.” Summer said, her voice quiet as she expected a lecture at any moment.

“I can see that,” Grandma Darlene said, smiling as she closed the refrigerator, “But the pots and pans are for cooking with Summie, not eating out of.”  Summer swallowed, wondering if Grandma Darlene was just getting warmed up to give a lecture.

“But we eat the stuff that gets cooked in them, isn’t that eating out of them?”  Grandma Darlene shook her head, looking at Summer funny for a moment before answering.

“Yes, but we don’t dip our forks and spoons into the pans and pots now do we?”  Summer had to admit that made sense, like always.  Shaking her head she looked up at her grandma.

“I’m sorry grandma, I was just really hungry.”

Grandma Darlene smiled, “I know honey.  Are you finished?”  Summer looked down into her cereal, seeing only a few floating crunchberries that had gotten soggy.  She wrinkled her nose, soggy stuff was kind of icky, which meant she wouldn’t eat it.

Nodding to her grandma she wiped her chin again as Grandma Darlene took the pot, smiling again as she placed it in the sink.  “Are you ready to do some gardening today?”

Summer nodded as she smiled, sliding from the half-circle booth that sat around the kitchen table, her socks hitting the floor just before she grabbed the box of cereal.  Her mom and grandparents had taught her how to clean up her messes and why it was important, so Summer always helped with the housework too.

“I think the carrots are ready to pull, and we can pull some corn to go with dinner tonight, and then we can pick some tomatoes and cucumbers too.  After that we’ll go feed the pigs, see to the other animals and then we’ll kick back and relax.  That sound good?”  Summer had to nod as she smiled, thinking that that sounded just fine.

*                      *                      *

Summer wiped the sweat off of her forehead as she looked up to the sky, squinting in the sunlight.  It was bright out today, and really, really warm, but she was still having a good time since she was with Grandma Darlene.  Her grandma had brought out an old radio that ran on batteries and they were listening to the oldies station, sometimes singing along with their favorite songs while they worked in the garden.

It was easy to pretend that she was lost in a wide, wild jungle sometimes when she went out into the garden, especially when she went in between the rows of corn.  Summer loved to wander around the many rows, peering here and there as though she were lost.  The rows of corn were so tall that even Cousin Tommy couldn’t see over them when he was here, and he was a tall guy!  For Summer they were really tall, and despite being only a few dozen rows, it was really easy to wander into them and just pretend that she was somewhere else.

She could still hear the radio in the distance, as well as the sound of Grandma Darlene’s gardening tools as she dug into the soil to get the vegetables loose.  It was a lot of hard work to have a garden, but Grandma Darlene seemed to enjoy it.  As Summer wandered into the corn rows she let her imagination take hold, pretending she was in a jungle far, far away, the waving cornstalks seeming more like some giant, green trees that towered over her with each step.

The sudden grunting and squealing she heard though from in front of her took away the illusion quickly as Summer stopped, her heart racing a little as the cornstalks just in front of her waved back and forth with more than just the wind.  She stood absolutely still, uncertain of what was coming until a pink nose, followed by the rest of the animal, pushed through the rows to stand in front of her.  Summer’s eyes widened as she took in the sight of a piglet standing in front of her, rooting in the dirt as he, or maybe it was a she, squealed once before running off into another row, where the piglet soon went out of sight.

“Grandma!” Summer called, not sure if she could be heard over the radio, “Grandma one of the piglets is out of its pen!”  Summer went racing to where she’d seen the piglet go through the corn, pushing her way into the next row as she tried to see the animal.  Her Grandma and Grandpa had told her that the big sow that they’d had for years had given birth to piglets just this last spring, and she’d gotten to see them.  There were about six piglets, each one just as cute as the other.  They were always hungry, always suckling on their mother’s belly, and they were rascals too, as her Grandma had said.  This wasn’t the first time that one of them had gotten loose from the pen.

“Grandma!” Summer called again, this time a little louder.

“I heard you Summie!” Grandma Darlene called back, the rustling of the corn telling Summer that her grandma had come into the corn as well.  “Just stay where you are Summie, don’t try to catch him by yourself okay?”  Summer’s shoulders slumped, she never got to help with the pigs.

Her grandma and grandpa had told her that pigs were too big for her to take care of right now, they would knock her down and most likely hurt her if she wasn’t careful.  Summer didn’t think the pigs would be that mean, but she had minded her elders as her mother had told her.  But it was just a piglet, what could a piglet do?

Just  at that moment the piglet came racing by her, only a few feet to the left as Summer’s mouth opened wide in excitement.  Forgetting what Grandma Darlene had just said she took off after the piglet, racing through the corn until she finally exited the rows, well behind the piglet but still within sight as the little critter went bolting past the pigpen and further into the other areas of the farm.  Summer heard Grandma Darlene thrashing around in the corn, she even had a mind to tell her grandma that the pig was out and running around, but then she heard the clucking and frenzied sounds of the chickens.

The piglet had just somehow entered the chicken coop, and the chickens didn’t seem too happy about it all.  As Summer watched the big, red and black-feathered rooster that had been put into the coop began to chase after the piglet, his beak jabbing at the poor animal as the frightened piglet tried to get away, making a bigger mess of things as its hooves caught on the edge of a feed barrel, spilling grains and other foodstuffs all over the ground.  That wasn’t bad really, Summer knew that the chickens ate right off of the ground, but the scared piglet was trampling their food all over as the rooster chased it, trying to get the piglet out of the coop.

Summer saw the gap in the chicken wire that made up the walls of the coop then, that was how the piglet had gotten in, and now as she watched, chickens were getting out!  All the commotion had obviously upset the hens and they were hightailing it somewhere else!  Summer raced toward the chicken coop, not sure what she could do but knowing that something had to be done.

“Summer don’t chase him!” Grandma Darlene said, raising her voice to be heard.  Summer was about to stop when the piglet, with the rooster chasing after, went right in front of her, almost stepping on Summer’s feet as though she weren’t even there!  All sense of minding her grandma seemed to go away in that moment as Summer tried to reach out for the rooster, trying to get the bird to stop chasing the piglet.  The rooster was too fast for her though, determined to let the piglet know just what he thought about the intrusion.

Piglet, rooster, and Summer went running off across the farm, with Grandma Darlene trying to chase after them and the escaped hens at the same time.  The scene might have been extremely funny had her grandma not been a little red-faced and out of breath.  Summer wasn’t feeling funny either since she was determined to get the rooster to leave the poor piglet alone and get the little piggy back into his pen with his parents!  As the piglet and the rooster zigzagged over the farm grounds, over broken stumps and around small grassy hillocks, Summer followed, almost tripping several times as the two animals changed directions, unable to follow a straight path until Summer saw them dart into a crack between the door and frame of the goat pen.

Summer didn’t expect what came next, though as she came near the pen the startled bleat of one of the three Billy goats her grandparents kept came from just behind the small dwelling that sat at the back of the pen.  Watching curiously Summer’s eyes widened as she saw the piglet, again chased by the rooster, and now by a goat, coming straight towards her!

Moving out of the way Summer watched as again the piglet and the rooster passed right by her, escaping the pen through the gap between the door and the jamb as the Billy goat lowered his head, ramming hard into the doorframe as he could not break free.  Summer almost laughed until the goat butted its head into the door again, startling her as she turned back to the piglet and the rooster, who were still running across the farm grounds, the rooster pecking the poor piglet in the behind again and again as the pig grunted and squealed, unable to outrun the cranky old bird.

Grandma Darlene was coming up behind her as Summer took off again, watching as the piglet and the rooster made their way up the slight hill that the farm lay on.  She could see that they were headed towards the building where the rabbit hutches were kept, though as the two disappeared through the doorway she didn’t pause, running as fast as she could as she imagined how frightened the poor bunnies in their hutches would be to see a rooster harassing a piglet in such a manner.  Bunnies were fragile creatures after all.

“Summer!” Grandma Darlene called.

“It’s okay grandma!” Summer called, “I’ll get them!”

She didn’t hear whatever Grandma Darlene said after that as she kept running, not stopping until she was inside the doorway, searching for the troublesome animals as she could hear the clinking and crashing of cages.

Grandma Darlene stopped just outside the rabbit hutch to catch her breath, leaning over slightly as she shook her head.  She loved her granddaughter dearly, but sometimes the girl was just as much a handful as the animals.

As she straightened up though Grandma Darlene heard Summer squeal, a loud, high-pitched sound that was followed almost immediately by a loud crash and a banging sound.  The cry of the rooster and the squealing of the piglet came next as the two came racing out of the dark room, the rooster hot on the piglet’s heels as Grandma Darlene watched.

Summer came next, waving her arms frantically and hopping about as Grandma Darlene watched.   There was something big and fluffy on top of Summer’s dark hair, it’s almost snowy-white fur standing out against Summer’s hair as it held on somehow while the little girl danced about, screaming for her grandma to get it off.  Grandma Darlene didn’t have a chance though as Summer came close, the bunny having other ideas as it leaped free of Summer’s head and landing squarely on Grandma Darlene’s face.  She couldn’t even yell in surprise as the bunny almost adhered to her face, knocking her backward as she lost her balance, falling hard on her butt before the bunny went bouncing away, perhaps trying to find someplace safe where people and animals weren’t chasing one another.

The piglet, chased by the rooster, which was in turn chased by Summer, went bounding by again, Summer had taken up the chase once more, her dark hair flying behind her in tangles that had been caused by the bunny that had ridden atop her head for a moment.  Grandma Darlene watched as the three made their way to the front of the farm, which was close to the driveway and close to the gravel road that served the many homes that lived along the lane.  Her eyes widened as she saw Summer and the two animals race around the edge of the horse stables, presumably heading towards the interior.  Getting to her feet quickly Grandma Darlene didn’t even worry about the other animals as she raced toward the horse stables, afraid that Summer might upset the horses and get herself hurt.

She’d just made it to the corner of the stables, breathing hard and feeling the redness in her cheeks, when one of the horses let out a loud and very upset-sounding whinny, the sound almost shaking the walls as Grandma Darlene kept going.  Sure as she’d thought once she rounded the corner, the piglet and the rooster came bounding out, followed very quickly by Summer as the three then ran to the opposite corner of the stables, disappearing once more.

Grandma Darlene saw as one of the two horses came up to the doorway, snorting loudly as she shook her long, blocky head, her mane flying as though she were angry.  As the horse, Strawberry her name was, pawed heavily at the ground Grandma Darlene knew that the mare was not happy.  Still, she couldn’t help but smile at the horse’s antics as she passed by, wondering what sort of mischief Summer and the two animals might have gotten into by now.

As she came around the corner though Grandma Darlene could see just what had already transpired, and her eyes widened as her jaw dropped.

The rooster was still chasing the piglet, which was running back and forth across the small farm, still squealing and dodging the hens and other two Billy goats that had gotten free of their pen.   He was trying his best to evade the rooster, which was still on a mission to catch the piglet and supposedly jab some sense into him, and the rooster was in turn being chased by Summer still, her small hands outstretched as though to pick up the bird.  Even as she came close though Grandma Darlene had to stifle a laugh as she saw one of the Billy goats, the bearded one named Grumpy, chasing after Summer, trying to butt her in the backside with his head every chance he got.  It was almost like watching a cartoon.

“Where’s the video camera when I need it?” Grandma Darlene said to herself, laughing before she went to help Summer out.

*                      *                      *

 

 

Somehow things got done, all the animals got put back in their pens, the holes in the chicken wire got fixed, and order got restored to the farm.  It wasn’t easy, in fact it was the opposite of easy as Summer and Grandma Darlene found out.  None of the animals wanted to go back into their pens willingly, the goats least of all.  Summer and Grandma Darlene got butted more than once in the legs and stomach before the Billy goats were put back into their pen.  The rabbits had to be found and rustled up into their cages once more, which was not easy since one of them was a biter when he got nervous.  Grandma Darlene had the band-aid on her finger to prove it.

The rooster was one of the easiest animals to get back into his pen, and once he was back the hens seemed to follow, which was not too bad, but the piglet was difficult.  Not only did he keep trying to get away once they got him, his parents didn’t seem too happy to have Grandma Darlene putting him back.  Summer would have figured that the piglet’s mother would have been happy, but Grandma Darlene had said that mommy animals were really protective of their young, and when someone else handled them could be really easy to upset.  The piglet went back into the pen though finally, and the sow stopped attacking the fence once the piglet went squealing back to her.

Somehow the gardening and even a bit of canning got done, though this left almost no time to do the housework that had to be done, like the laundry and the dishes and other things.  That was okay Grandma Darlene said, everyone still had clean clothes and there were enough dishes for dinner.  That was what really mattered.

Summer and Grandma Darlene were in the living room, enjoying a big bowl of buttered popcorn and soft drinks when they heard the gravel crunch under Grandpa Jack’s truck tires outside.  Her mom would be coming home soon too, Grandpa Jack started earlier in the morning though, so he got to come home earlier.  Taking a sip of her cola Summer kept her eyes upon the television, the movie that Grandma Darlene had put on showing the inside of a stable where a pig and a spider were currently having a conversation.  Her eyes were getting heavy despite the fact that it was only five o’ clock in the evening, they’d both had a long day.

The screen door squealed as it was opened, and the small breeze that came in with Grandpa Jack felt nice as the sound of his boots meeting the hardwood floor made Summer smile.  She liked when Grandpa Jack came home, it was nice to have her family there.  Today though she just smiled, she didn’t get up to give him a hug as she normally did.  She was tired.

Grandma Darlene was just as tired, but she at least had the energy to talk.

“Evening dear,” Grandma Darlene said, smiling at Grandpa Jack as he stood in the entryway looking at the two of them funny.  He looked around the house then, stepping into the kitchen to see that the dishes weren’t done and then into the laundry room to see that the laundry wasn’t done.  Coming back to the living room he smiled as he shook his head.

“You girls decide to have a lazy day?”  Summer and Grandma Darlene looked at each other then, their eyes widening before they looked to Grandpa Jack.  And then they laughed.

Quote From the Reverie

Quote From the Reverie

By Tom Foster

 

Keller Falls Park, Portland, OR

April 2nd, 1998

“It’s getting worse,” he said, sliding the crenellated piece across the board.  His opponent at the moment, a pleasant fellow named Charles, nodded without speaking as he pushed his spectacles up on his nose slightly, studying the board with the practiced eye of a veteran.  Charlie could have ended the game at any time, but he was a nice guy, more prone to lead a person on in order to teach them rather than squash them like so many of the pros that came to this park.  Perhaps that was why Charlie was his favorite.  Of course, it could have been that Charlie always remembered to bring him a mocha too.

“Things will get worse until they get better, and sometimes they won’t get better at all,” Charlie said, moving his queen forward two spaces, “Check.”

He noted the position of his king in regard to Charlie’s queen, the haughty-looking piece seeming as though it might be sneering at him. Shaking his head he banished that thought, that was taking the game just a little too far for his liking.  He couldn’t help it though, each piece looked as though it might soon enough snicker or even outright laugh at him, further indication that he didn’t even belong on one of the boards at this area with even the least among the players.  Charlie didn’t judge him though, he just asked him to move when another opponent wanted a turn.  More often than not though, no one wanted to play Charlie.  The guy was just too good.

“Well that’s reassuring, so I’m just screwed through and through.”  Charlie raised his eyes slightly from the board, giving him a “don’t be ridiculous look” that he did so well.  At the venerable age of sixty-nine Charlie Magdelier was quite good at simply giving pointed looks, no matter that he was perhaps a hundred pounds soaking wet and looked about as threatening as a closet full of stuffed bunnies.  There was just something about the old man that demanded respect, an aura of some sort that Charlie never explained, mainly because he didn’t talk about his past much.

“Are you referring to the game or your life?”  Giving Charlie a look of irritation didn’t lessen the man’s regard any, but it also didn’t faze him in any other way.  Charlie only laughed or even smirked on rare occasions, and even then it didn’t last for more than a fleeting second, making some people wonder if the expression was more of a phantasm or a passing wisp of cloud that had shadowed the old man’s features.  In his own estimation he figured that Charlie was just one of those old guys who’d learned how to exude confidence and thereby insure that whoever he dealt with felt it or was bludgeoned with it.

It was almost like being beaten to death with a child’s toy hammer.

“Come on, you know what I mean,” he said, moving his king in the only direction that was currently available, straight towards the left corner of the board, and soon enough into a real pickle.  He had several of his pieces left, Charlie had everything but his pawns and his knights, but despite the odds being stacked in his favor, as far as the number of pieces went, he knew very well that Charlie would take every last one of his pieces before he could rally a comeback.

“Yes,” Charlie said, moving a single piece, not his queen he noticed, so that his king became even more hemmed in, “Unfortunately  I do.”  Rolling his eyes he then looked at Charlie, tired of the man’s supposedly uncaring attitude.  He knew the older man cared, he knew that Charlie would miss tormenting him if he weren’t here.  At the same time however he knew Charlie wouldn’t coddle him or tell him it was okay, that everything would even out in time.  Charlie wasn’t like that.

“So then you know what I should do?”  Charlie didn’t answer right away, staring intently at the board, as if he didn’t already have things all figured out.  This game had been over after the first two moves, and one of them had involved sitting his ass down in the chair opposite the older man in the first place.  Charlie was a genius when it came to chess, though for some reason he couldn’t apply that genius to life, finding no correlation between the real world and that which existed upon the ceramic board.

The intricately carved white and black plaster pieces were just that, pieces.  Charlie lived his life according to different rules than the game, rules that didn’t factor in much strategy or even cunning.  He lived his life simple, cut and dry as possible.  How anyone could play chess for so many damned years, win awards even, and not see the similarities between the game and life was simply amazing.  Too many times now he’d thought to himself that Charlie just didn’t want to see.

“I know what I would do, but you’re not me,” Charlie said, watching as he moved his king one space closer to the corner.  Making a face of disinterest, one that was feigned, he looked back to Charlie, noting that the older man still appeared to be thinking.  A young boy passed behind his older friend, his short stature making him almost as tall as Charlie was while seated.  Something about the boy caught his attention just then, though he couldn’t say for sure what it was.

The boy was Latino, or perhaps some other darker-skinned nationality, but he was a handsome-looking kid.  He was clean cut, wearing a tank top and faded blue-jean shorts.  Sandals, the type that strapped over the foot and behind the heel, adorned his feet, sans socks as some people seemed to enjoy.  He’d never understood that, why anyone would wear socks with footwear that was designed to be worn in warm weather.  It just didn’t make sense to him, and no doubt the boy had ever given it much thought.

For some reason the boy, even after he was well enough away to not even warrant another thought, stuck in his mind.  Shaking his head he turned back to the game, noting that Charlie was still pondering the board.  It wasn’t much of a game any longer, his last piece was on the verge of being driven into a corner he couldn’t get it out of.  He didn’t care though, he rather enjoyed Charlie’s company more than the game.

He would never dare call the old man Charlie to his face though, it was always Charles.  He’d tried it once and only once, and Charles had refused to speak to him for nearly a week because of it.  The slight altercation had almost cost him a good friend, so it was with the utmost respect that while he thought of the man as Charlie, he still called him Charles.

“How are Terra and the kids?”  More than the strange feeling about the Latino boy, this question caught him almost completely off guard.  Charlie never asked about his home life, as though it were a subject best left between a man and woman.  He didn’t answer at first, thinking that Charlie was just making conversation, but then, the old man rarely did that just for the sake of talking.  He didn’t like people that jabbered on and on, he’d said as much in one of their discussions when they’d first met.  Perhaps that was why they got along so well, he didn’t jabber like a monkey and neither did Charlie.  Sometimes the silence was better company than any.

“They’re fine, the youngest is a pill sometimes, but I think they’ll turn out okay.”  Charlie nodded, obviously still more engrossed with the game than the conversation.  The old man knew he’d won, though for some reason he still pondered over the damned board, as though trying to help him find a way out of his predicament.  This wasn’t the case and he knew it, Charlie just liked to consider every possible angle of the game before he committed to ending it.  At one point he’d thought that Charlie might just like to be an asshole, but he’d learned different in the past couple of years.

“And your job, if that’s what you call it?”  Somehow Charlie knew what he did, no matter that he hadn’t said a single word about it.  When the discussion of work had come up during the beginning of their friendship he’d never lied, he worked overseas.  Well, it wasn’t a complete truth, but it wasn’t a lie either.

The truth was, he killed people.

Charlie couldn’t possibly know that, not just by having talked to him.  He kept his tone light, kept his words simple, and he didn’t speak about anything that might be incriminating, but still Charlie had known for some time now.  Only twice had Charlie stated that he wasn’t stupid, and didn’t appreciate being treated that way.  Since then he hadn’t tried to hide the fact of what he did, nor did he try to convince Charlie that his cause was just.  He killed for his country and for the money they paid him, it was simple as that, no matter how complicated it got sometimes.

Like the dreams.

He’d started having them not long after he’d been selected for special ops at the young age of twenty-two, a prodigy among his peers and the favorite student of many teachers.  His career in the Marines had begun right out of high school, a means to escape life at home, which in truth was a hell that he’d been eager to escape.  The Marines had taken him in, given him a purpose, and eventually led him to the lovely young woman he now planned to marry, and her two sons.  A pre-made family, as his stepfather had so kindly pointed out, was another stress factor that might well have pushed his nighttime reverie into something far more dark and sinister than it should have been.

It had been a mistake to tell his parents, or rather, his mother and his stepfather, about his dreams.  Sigmund Freud would have had a heyday with the two raving alcoholics, or perhaps would have overdosed on cocaine much sooner than he could quit.  Telling them had been like telling the wind, by the time he’d been out the door he’d been surprised that they hadn’t taken out an ad in the Columbian and tried to hire him a shrink.

They started out usually the same, no matter how much he tried to forget the basis for all of them.  His father, his real father, had been a drunk, a cocaine abuser, and a terrible husband and father to boot.  He’d not seen the bastard in a good amount of time, though according to his mother he looked just like the asshole.  So in truth he saw the man all the time, but only in a reflection.

He knew in part where the dreams came from, it more than explained why he woke up some nights in a cold sweat, only to be told to go back to sleep by his fiancée.  She didn’t have a lot of sympathy for what she called his “night terrors”, professing that it kept her awake and made it difficult to wake up in the morning.  That was true love for you, it meant never having to tell the one you loved you were sorry, or even comfort them when it was needed.

In his dreams, the faces of those he’d killed in the last few years came back to him, appearing out of nowhere within moments that should have been memory, but were much more.  For a young man of his age, he’d seen far too many disturbing things to be normal, and he was bound to see more since he was still active.  At the current moment he was technically on leave, though he could be recalled at any time.  The two cell phones he carried on him at all time were easy enough to distinguish between, especially when certain numbers came up.  In his left pocket was his civilian phone, still accessible by his handlers and superiors and by Terra, while in the right pocket was his other phone, the one that meant he needed to get his ass moving even before he hit the SEND button.  With either one he knew it was wise to answer, no matter if it was business or if it was Terra.  His fiancée didn’t like to be ignored, nor kept waiting.  Yet for all her faults he still loved her somehow.

The constant rush of water finally got his attention as he looked behind him, grimacing slightly as he turned back to Charlie.  Still with his eyes on the board, the old man moved a bishop forward, sliding it the one space that was currently allowable.  He had to wonder just what Charlie was trying to do with this game, humiliate or teach him.  Maybe it was both.

“I don’t know how you can concentrate in a place like this,” he said, looking back to the ever-flowing curtains of water that fell and burbled over the massive stone slabs that made up Keller Fountains Park.  It was an impressive sight really, but the rushing of water and the crashing of its falls into the pools at the bottom were enough to drive all thoughts of concentration from his mind.

“It’s peaceful.  You of all people should know how to keep distractions at bay.”  Charlie did not look at him as he spoke, keeping his eyes only upon the board, as though the game were one of such great importance that even a single glance away might ruin it.  There was no intensity upon the old man’s lined face, though for some reason he couldn’t help but believe that Charlie felt a great deal more about this game than he had any of the others they’d ever played.

The two of them met regularly upon this spot when he could afford the time, which was more often than not on Tuesdays, at roughly ten in the morning.  Charlie said he liked it then, most people were at work and the traffic that did present itself wasn’t too heavy or too loud.  He didn’t know about that last part, but the park was relaxing in a way.

“I’m afraid you don’t have much of a chance left,” Charlie said, rubbing his lightly bearded chin between thumb and forefinger as he kept his eyes still upon the board.  He snorted, thinking that this was an understatement, but Charlie didn’t laugh along with him.  As he looked at the old man he could see as Charlie squinted his eyes , as though he’d found something troubling within the game that he couldn’t understand.  Shaking it off he moved his king again, rolling his eyes as Charlie sighed, sounding extremely disappointed as he began to study the board once more.

“You move too soon,” he said, his voice tinged with regret, “Sometimes the best actions are taken after at least moderate consideration.”

He snorted gain, cocking an eyebrow as he spoke, “The game is pretty much over Charles.”  He almost slipped, almost called the man Charlie, but he’d caught at least.

Charlie shook his head, seeming even more disappointed as he spoke, “I’m afraid the game hasn’t even started yet my friend, but it will soon.”

Sitting up just a bit he closed his eyes, rubbing at the bridge of his nose with his thumb as he replied, “I don’t know what board you’re looking at Charles but on this one I’m down to one piece, the least mobile and most important piece.  This game is pretty much over.”

Charlie nodded, “This one is, I’ll agree to that.”

He didn’t even know how to respond to that, but he shook his head as though to dismiss the strangeness that had come over him, as well as Charlie it would appear.  Clapping his hands briskly together to rid them of any clinging dust or dirt he sighed, waiting for Charlie to make his move.  What he didn’t expect was the old man to suddenly lean across the board, taking his left cheek in hand as he looked him directly in the eye.

“You don’t understand yet my young friend, but you will unfortunately one of these days.  Your dreams are not just dreams, and those you’ve killed are not just memories.  They wait for you on the other side of that river, and they’ll welcome you when the time is right.  You have a penance to pay young man, and a debt to collect on.  Remember the quote to your dream, and you’ll know how to answer when they ask you that one question.”  He couldn’t move, it was as though Charlie had the strength of ten men in that moment, holding him as effortlessly as he might hold a child.

He couldn’t understand, but for some reason this felt right, no matter that that world around him seemed to disappear for a moment, flickering in and out of existence as his eyes remained locked upon Charlie’s.

“What,” he licked his lips, breathing hard as he spoke again, “What question?”  Charlie smiled broadly, revealing a sudden shark’s grin that was far out of place with his old, wizened features.  His eyes were still the warm, gentle orbs that he could remember, but as Charlie opened his mouth to speak again the terror that ran down his spine in icy spikes of dread froze him in place, unable to move as the old man grated out the words.

“Why is the blade like the dance?”  He frowned, not understanding in that moment as Charlie’s hand was taken away from his cheek in that second, only to come crashing back with enough force to snap his head to the left, his neck creaking audibly as he fell to the right, and-

-landed with a hard thud on the floor of his apartment, disoriented and covered in sweat.  He blinked rapidly, not understanding fully how he’d come to be where he now found himself, his feet and legs tangled together in the blankets that had come down with him.

“Hey!” a small, tired voice called from the top of the bed, “Give back those covers!”   There was no mistaking who the voice belonged to, nor was he surprised as Terra suddenly leaned over the bed, trying to yank back the covers from around his legs as her eyes remained mostly closed.  Her lips were set in a frown as she tried to figure out the tangle, growing more impatient by the moment.  He told her to wait as firmly as he could, though she continued to try and get him out herself.  She just wanted the blankets, he knew that she didn’t care why he was suddenly on the floor.  Despite claiming to love him, a claim that was not entirely untrue, Terra was a very selfish person, and as such didn’t translate well when she was still mostly asleep.

“Why’re you up anyway?” she mumbled as he finally kicked away the blankets, allowing her to pull them over herself as she turned away, curling up on her side of the bed again.  “You woke me up.”  He rolled his eyes, folding into a seated position as his muscles twitched slightly, his abs and legs trembling as he put his head in his hands, unable to stop shaking for several moments as the dream that had woke him faded gradually, until it was nothing more than a wisp of fanciful thinking.

“I just had a bad dream, that’s all,” he said, “I’m going to go downstairs and get a glass of water.”  Terra just mumbled something in reply that might have been “Don’t wake the boys” but he wasn’t sure.  It didn’t matter, she was almost back asleep as soon as he reached the door, clad only in his underwear and a t-shirt.  Unlike Terra he didn’t like sleeping in the nude, it gave him strange dreams.  That thought almost made him laugh as he made his way quietly down the stairs, using the wooden handrail to keep his balance.

Upon reaching the kitchen he managed to find a clean glass in the left cupboard above the sink, though it was rather lonely in its space, since Terra didn’t really enjoy doing the dishes, which meant that it was usually up to him.  There were so many qualities about her that others had told him were lacking, but he still couldn’t deny that he loved her.  She didn’t clean, she didn’t cook, she didn’t always tell him positive, uplifting things that might have been more polite than the usual verbal barrage of insults and demands, but he still loved her somehow.  A large part of him figured it was the sex, the mind-blowing, always creative sex that they had almost every night.  It wasn’t the most important part of their relationship, but it was definitely one of the most enjoyable aspects.

Filling his glass he looked to his left, seeing the side of the refrigerator with its multitude of magnets, school papers and other items that such appliances seemed to accumulate with kids in the house.  For all that she wasn’t, Terra was still a proud mom at most times, when she wasn’t stoned or drunk out of her mind at least.  A note was hung there amidst the school papers, one that was written  in his own handwriting.  He left himself notes now and then, though this one was among the few that stayed up for any length of time, one that he would pay attention to.  As he read it though a sudden shudder ran down his spine, causing him to drop the glass in his hand into the sink, where it struck the jumble of dishes and silverware before it broke.

Don’t Forget, the header read, with an orange tabby holding up a single digit with a red ribbon tied around it.  Below this was his writing, Chess with Charlie, Portland, ten o’ clock.  So gripped was he by dread in that moment that he didn’t even notice as Terra called down to him, demanding to know what had just broke.   He couldn’t answer her, couldn’t even breathe in that moment.  But he hadn’t the damndest idea why.

Escape

Escape

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

Many, many millennia ago…

 

It was torment to have all one’s sins laid bare, to have to relive the pain that had been enacted upon those who had no right with which to do so.  Madness held him in a grip that would offer no leverage, forcing him to babble incoherently at times within his unseen prison as he attempted to escape, to flee, even to block out the multitude of voices that now assailed him, damning his every action within the past few decades.  So few years were little to one of his kind, or one of his former kind he should amend.  Three decades in the life of Shaper were little more than a pittance, a laughable passage of time during which much or little could happen. What was happening to him?

Sivis felt like screaming as he was torn apart over and over again within the mental prison that his former lover had placed him.  His body was gone, he was nothing more than energy, ethereal and unable to affect the world he had so desired to rule.  It was his right!  It was their right as the masters of the energies that ran so rampantly within, without and all through the realm!  Why should they not enjoy the full benefits of this world, why could they not-?!

The scales must balance!

You must be judged.

            Yes judged!

            Held accountable for your sins.

            Sins against all Shapers, all kind, all races and all beings!

            You have killed!

            You have destroyed!             You have maimed and burned!

            There must be punishment!

The swirl of voices that thundered through Sivis’s mind, or rather the cloud of dark matter that had once been his mind, were like lances of the purest light, tearing at him a piece at a time.  Somehow he knew, through the madness, through the torment, that this would not end, that his diminished race would seek to flay what was left of him a piece at time, tearing away what was his as they exacted their vengeance.  It was what he would have done.

Wait?  What?  He was in confusion, a stupor that he could not shake off, though he knew in the pit of whatever soul he still possessed that he would never allow such a thing to happen.  Or would he?

Sinner.

            Defiler.

            Enough! Sivis roared, or at least tried to.  In his current form he could not muster the energy he needed so badly, the power that had come to his touch so readily only a short time ago.  How had this happened?  How had a slip of a girl like Aliyana been able to defeat him so easily?  He knew the shape and color of his prison at least, though he could see no walls nor even a single hint of anything other than the swirling, veiled mists that swirled all around him.  There was pain of course, but there had been pain aplenty since his rise to power.  The Dark did not simply give without taking, exacting a price that Sivis had almost not been prepared to pay once he had realized what it was.

Foul, unclean.  Sivis tried to ignore the voices, but this of course did not work. Simply ignoring something or someone did not make them go away, it only made them more insistent, more determined to slip past the hasty guard that had been erected.  He could no more escape the voices than he could the unknown walls of this prison.  It was a state of mind, that was all, but in this current moment Sivis knew that his mind was not up to the challenge of maneuvering past the unfathomable gates that would set him free.  So he would wait, and he would suffer.  It was what he did best after all.  At least until it was time to strike.

*                      *                      *

 

Aliyana had never known pain such as this.  It was an agony not of the flesh but of the heart, a pain that would not be sated by mere creature comforts of any sort.  She had stood against her former lover for many years now, though in the course of their lives it was little really.  Still, three decades of destruction had taken a heavy toll upon the world, turning once verdant and lush countryside into wasteland uninhabitable for even the most decrepit of beasts.  Only daemons and the filthy creatures of the Dark would see fit to exist in such regions, though thankfully the majority of their numbers had been either pushed back, exiled to this plane or simply destroyed.  The resulting catastrophe of so many daemons and angels falling in battle however had been just as devastating.

Composed of the opposing energies of Light and Dark, the death of such creatures was never mild, nor was it a simple death like say, a Shaper or an Ellevayne.  The immortals, those who had come first, would pass away peacefully in comparison to the volatile inhabitants of the two primal forces.

She could feel through the connection to her people the vicious craters and widespread canyons that had been torn into the face of the world.  Aliyana knew that Mother Earth, the seemingly metaphorical creature who presided over this realm, would not take vengeance for such acts, though she would indeed seek to heal the damage as best she could.  The scars that would mark the realm would remain for countless millennia she was sure, but Aliyana could not help but add herself to the long list of creatures that would receive their comeuppance eventually.  Though Mother Earth would not deign to lower herself in such a manner, the edicts and laws of nature would surely bring about the means of enabling either ka, karma or fate, whichever it might be, to exact what was rightfully due.

She was still pondering the strange, cryptic words that the stranger she had seen before confronting Sivis had said.  I damn you Lady of the Mists, and I salute you.  The utterance had confused her greatly, especially given the title he had used to describe her.  Or at least that was what it had sounded like.  She knew not who the man was, but there was still something so achingly familiar about him, something that she could not help but feel a kinship with, a closeness that beckoned to her in a way that was not entirely uncomfortable.  Truly she felt as though she should know the male that had spoken to her, yet she could not bring to mind a name, or even the full face of the dark-eyed character.

He was powerful, of that she was sure.  No one among her kind had such eyes as the stranger’s, not unless they had reached such a point in their lives that power was no longer a thing to be measured, but embraced.  There were few ancients left among the race of Shapers when the war had started, and as of now she could only surmise that maybe a handful remained.  Such members of her race were those who had existed for longer than even the elders of her former clan.  She had known one of them, a man named Eldis, quite well.  The ancient had been alive at the creation of the realm, the inception of the very universe that held this delicate orb aloft, or so he said.  Aliyana had been taught to respect the elders of her clan and to revere the ancients, though even she had trouble believing everything she was told at times.  Of course this would explain just why Eldis had acted so strangely, taking himself from the war time and again, claiming he just wanted to be left alone.

It was said that the ancients, having weathered the tumult of creation, had grown tired and weary of what had become of the realm.  The race of Shapers had done their best to maintain balance, but even that had not seemed to please the ancients, who wanted only solitude and a chance to contemplate when the creation would end.  Eldis had told her of such a thing more than once when she had pressed him, expressing her interest in the way of the young that few elders can ever ignore indefinitely.  And so he had told her.

Everything that had a beginning had an end, it was a part of the precious balance, he had almost sneered using the word, by which the many realms hung upon.  If one side should ever grow heavier than the other then there would be imbalance, there would be collapse.  Such had the war demonstrated.

Eldis had entered the war more than once, though he had always sought his own form of solitude time and again, much preferring his own company to that of others.  After the last fiasco that had erupted near the coastline not far from where she sat now, Aliyana had known better than to seek him out again.  What had happened on the rocky shores had been so horrible that even she had thought to find her own manner of exile for a time.  But of course for her, that had been impossible.  She had been given a responsibility, and it could not be shirked, not even to heal the mental wounds of those who had suffered.

She knew vaguely where the old man was now, but she would not dare to confront him, nor would she seek out the wounded Ellevayne that had somehow managed to walk away from the failed attempt to close yet one more rift that Sivis had opened between this realm and the dreaded Dark.  The forces of Light had been involved as well in the ill-fated debacle, but they too had failed in their charge of closing the rift.  At this moment it was still open, but it was unable to be accessed thanks to the Joining.  The ultimate sacrifice of her people had seen to the binding of every rift across the vast breadth of this world, sealing each one away until such a time as Aliyana could find a way to close them.  The power of the Shapers would not wane until she saw fit, though it was a strain upon her mind and heart each day that she had not imagined possible.

Any lesser being would have surely perished under the constant assaults of the Dark upon the barriers and the charge she had been given to harbor their master.  Against her chest dangled the single red pearl that her former love had given her, his prison in a sense and the only means she had of keeping him locked away from the world he had tried to destroy.  As prisons went it was not perfect, she knew that it had its share of faults, but she could only pray that Sivis did not discover them.  Aliyana could only hope that the punishment he endured now at the hands of their people was enough, that he would find it difficult, perhaps impossible, to think of anything other than the pain and torment that was even now being foisted upon him.

She had no inkling what to do first.  The world was a tattered place, much different than it had been before the war.  Sivis had attempted to foist the Dark upon it, unleashing horror after horror along with the help of the Ellevayne and Shapers that had joined him.  The battles that had erupted over the many lands of this realm had been cataclysmic and eventually fatal to most, tipping the scales one way and then the other as the forces arrayed against one another had sought to tap into the various sources of power that had been secreted away by her race so long ago.

From the Sacred Glens to Echoes Pass to the fabled Guardian Stone, Sivis had attempted to subvert and dominate every last piece of their world, though he had been stopped more often than not.  Still, the damage he had wrought had been more than substantial, laying waste to entire budding civilizations that had stood absolutely no chance of withstanding his fury.  Aliyana had not wept for the new race, these beings called humans, but she had done her best to insure that they were not erased from the face of the realm before they had a chance to taste the riches to which they had been introduced.

No one, not even the ancients, knew where the humans had come from, nor why they had deigned to call themselves such a word.  Human, what did that even mean?  Aside from a few rough differences between them, her race and the humans looked very much alike, though she at least knew the value of clothing that covered her for modesty.  As of yet she had not seen a single human that knew how to completely cover up, they’re women walked around topless for pities sake!  Yet there was a certain ingenuity that the race possessed, an intelligence that was just as bestial as it was of a higher regard.

They could not shape, nor could they even perform the simple acts that all Shapers learned in their youngest years of life.  There was obviously no power within the forms of the humans, though Aliyana had sensed at times something that could perhaps be described as latent abilities among a few of them, innate talents that emerged in different ways that set them apart from their fellows.  The humans were powerless, but they were not helpless.

Of course this had not helped them when Sivis had come to them.  She had been forced to watch the subjugation of more than a few humans during the war.  Sadly enough several of the new race had chosen to stand with Sivis, believing the promises he had told to them.  Thus had the race of humanity already began its perilous turn towards the same path that had created such a schism between her own race.  Aliyana could not help but think that this was the way of all thinking beings.  Any and all who could see past the animalistic needs of their bodies were essentially doomed if her beliefs were correct. Higher thought did not denote a higher existence, it only insured that they would revert once more to the beasts they truly were.

These were dark thoughts born of a shadow upon her heart that would not be banished so easily.  She had seen terrible things during the war, sights that would no doubt be burned into her mind for all time to come.  As a Shaper she would weather centuries, even millennia, without aging more than a few years for ever few hundred.  Her youth would remain indefinitely however thanks to the Joining, the ultimate trust her race had placed in her to keep their memory alive.  It was a terrible burden, a yoke across her neck that she had not desired.  But it had been her duty.  She would do as she had been bade, it was the final act anyone of her race could have possibly done.  And she would carry the burden, no matter what came.

*                      *                      *

 

The voices did not relent, just as he’d known they would not.  Sivis knew that beyond the darkness of his prison, where the callers and jeers came from, that his kind would remain safe and secure, free to say what they wished and free to pass judgment upon him as they pleased.  It was what he expected, they were cowards that would not commit to their own condemnations.  They had sent a girl, barely a woman, to confront him.  It mattered not that Aliyana was of the same age as he, she was virtually unschooled in the ways he had become.  Sivis had become a master of the Dark, one who could bend the shadowy strands the realm was composed of to his whim.

Murderer.

            Betrayer.

            Foul, unclean son of Chaos!  Sivis smiled despite the pain that was heaped upon him, not rebuking the voices even once as they continued, their constant babble threatening to overwhelm each and every thought he attempted to entertain.  There was supposedly no way out of his prison, but that also meant that there was no way for them to get in.  They were bound by the walls of his confinement just as he was.  Thus it was easy for him to withstand the agony and vitriol that they hurled in his direction.  It was almost laughable really that they believed he would relent, that he would repent his ways simply to gain favor.  There was no such thought within his mind, he knew that there would never come a day when he would be forgiven, and he relished in this fact.

He did not want forgiveness, he didn’t even desire a reprieve from the pain, though it ached horribly and reminded him of the betrayal he’d suffered.  It also allowed him to focus however, to watch and listen as those who harried him insistently pressed against the walls of his prison, no doubt seeking to make their point known upon each none-existent cell of his incorporeal form.  He would have laughed, but that too would have pained him.  And it would have broken his concentration.

*                      *                      *

 

“It’s a nice day at least I guess.”  Aliyana didn’t turn around as she heard the familiar voice, smiling faintly before blinking once.  The day around her was indeed quite nice, though its beauty was somehow diminished by the fact that she still harbored the dire thoughts that had troubled her for the past few days.  She had returned to her homeland, the narrow strip of land that had for so long been her place of sanctuary.  It was a Sacred Glen and by dint of this had survived much of the devastation that Sivis had brought to bear.  Still, it had been touched by the hand of darkness and as such had been forced to suffer somewhat.  That damage could be repaired, though the damage she was truly concerned about would no doubt take far longer to heal.  She wondered idly if it ever would.

“What are you doing here Taevan?”  She had to admit that she had become used to the Ellevayne that had stood at her side through much of the war, though she still had her reservations about him.  She neither hated nor liked Taevan, but he was at the very least useful.  And he wasn’t all that bad, just a bit impulsive, like most of his kind.

Taevan affected a confused look as she turned her eyes upon him, “What, I can’t just stop by to say hello?”  Aliyana did not blink as Taevan looked hurt.  She knew this act a little too well.  “Alright, I just came by to say goodbye for a while is all.  I figured since you and I had been through so much with, you know, that I would at least extend that courtesy.”  Aliyana didn’t really know how to feel about what Taevan’s words implied, though she was hardly surprised as a part of her seemed somewhat shocked.  The Ellevayne had not left her side more than a few times during the war, sticking around even when the two of them had butted heads over the next course of action.  He wasn’t really a friend, but he was no enemy either.

“Where are you going?”  Taevan shook his head, indicating that he didn’t know, but Aliyana knew that this was only to be expected.  The race of the Ellevayne were far different than her own, they were flighty where Shapers were dependable, shifty where her race was determined and carefree when Aliyana’s people had been resolute.  In short they were the balancing force for her kind, though they were nowhere near as powerful.

“I’m not sure yet, but I need a change of scenery.”  Taevan chuckled softly as he continued, “You’d think after all we’ve seen and been through I’d have had enough, but Geoff and Jill are ready to move, and I can’t really blame them.  Scott is kind of wanting to stay, but he’ll follow us no matter what.”  Aliyana nodded, she knew those that Taevan spoke of at least in part, and she knew that the small group had always stayed together through thick and thin.  She could easily admire their dedication to one another, especially given the limitations that their race was known for.

“I’ve learned through many a sending that certain parts of the few land masses that have broken free have need of someone-“  Taevan cut her off with an apologetic look, waving one hand in dismissal.

“No, no, and no.” Aliyana closed her lips as he continued, “No offense intended towards you and your people Aliyana, they made a sacrifice that my people would be hard-pressed to even consider, but we’ve had our part of this war.  The four of us are thinking of finally blending in with the world rather than flitting just above its concerns.” Aliyana’s eyebrows rose as Taevan laughed, “Yeah, I know, strange words coming from an Ellevayne right?  But war changes people we’ve found out.  We just want out for a while, or rather, we want to see what life is like on the inside, not just sitting above and looking down.”  Aliyana nodded as a small smile curled the corners of her lips, finding a bit more respect for Taevan in that moment as she turned her gaze out towards the vast ocean in front of the two of them.

The rolling waves crashed hard against one another farther out, as though vying for the right to be first upon the shore.  She breathed deeply through her nostrils as the scent of the salt air wafted in towards shore, closing her eyes briefly as she savored the smells and sounds of her home.  A soft wind caressed her body in that moment, catching Taevan as well as he fell silent for several breaths.

“What will you do?” he asked her.

For a moment Aliyana had no answer for the Ellevayne, but as she turned back to him, opening her eyes, she said, “I am where I belong Taevan.  The world will heal itself in time.”  That apparently was a good enough answer for the Ellevayne as he merely nodded, his look one of pure acceptance as he returned her gaze.

Taevan then held one hand out to Aliyana, cocking his elbow so that she might grab his forearm in the traditional style of friendship.  Aliyana hesitated for only a moment before reaching out, feeling as Taevan’s strong fingers wrapped softly around her slender forearm.  The larger being could feel the power in her body as well as she gripped just as softly, the bond that passed between them in that moment serving to link them in a way that she knew would never be broken.  It was an odd thing to become bonded in such a way to an Ellevayne, but for once, Aliyana didn’t really find it displeasing.

“Safe travels and bright skies Taevan.” Aliyana spoke softly.

“May the scales balance.” Taevan said, just as softly.  Aliyana nodded, releasing the man’s forearm as he did the same.  Stepping back he nodded once, leaving without another word as she listened to his retreating footsteps upon the sandy plain behind her.

If he’d looked any closer he might have seen the trickle of sweat that had began to course down the left side of her face, the beginning effects of the sudden strain that had come on when he had touched her.  Something was wrong deep inside of her, something she did not understand and could not control.  Something very bad was going to happen soon, no matter what she did to stop it.

*                      *                      *

 

A stunning discovery: his prison was not infallible.  Sivis had waited, and waited, and waited for what seemed like centuries.  Time had no meaning in this place, there was no sun or moon to pass the time.  Light and Dark did not exist within his prison, thus he was diminished.  But the one who carried the prison had power, as did the one who had made contact with his jailor.  He continued to listen to the railings and ranting voices of those who sought to condemn him, but as the surge of unknown power had coursed along the darkened skies of his new domain Sivis had felt something, some indefinable yet crucial piece of his new world, shift.

The power was somehow familiar, he had felt something much like it during the war.  His insubstantial form roiled as he could recall the touch of the Ellevayne that he had managed to convince to his cause, only their power could carry such a quality.  And as his prison shifted so did the voices, becoming higher in pitch and taking on a fervent, maddening quality that entered his mind like the sharpest knives imaginable.  Sivis reeled for only a moment, adjusting to the sudden change quickly as he attempted to block them out once more.  And then the inexplicable happened, one of the voices somehow grew closer, as though the speaker were only a few paces from him.

He could hear the voice as though the speaker were right in front of him, detached from the others in a way that made Sivis’s mind whirl with the sudden possibilities.  His prison had been breached!  If that were possible from the other side, then perhaps it was so on his side!

Murdering, dark son of madness, you must be punis-!  The damning specter never got a chance to finish as Sivis reached out with his own will, finding the strength to do so by latching quickly onto the surprised ghost.  Here there were no solid beings, no firm grips to be had on flesh or clothing.  There was only the will, and his was very strong.  As the forgotten member of his race tried to free himself from Sivis’s dire grip the dark lord resisted easily, keeping his hold upon the specter as the others beyond the prison walls continued to clamor.  Perhaps they did not notice that he now held one of their own within his grasp, or perhaps they did not care.  That would certainly place a damper on the theory that they were so benevolent, so pacifistic and just.  They were hypocrites, doomed to repeat their mistakes again and again in this new world or the next it did not matter.

You who would dare to judge me, now it is your turn to face judgment.  Sivis spoke the words though he had no lips, voiced his rage even though he had no physical body to vent it with.  He was the Dark, he was a twisted will that would prove stronger than his captors and with the aid of whatever Ellevayne had provided him the power, he would be free.  As he drained the last of the essence from his most current victim Sivis opened eyes that did not exist, looking desperately for where the spirit had somehow managed to slip through the barrier that divided the yelling, screaming, condemning voices from him.  His power was still somewhat weak, but it was far greater than it had been only a short time before.  With this new insight he saw something that he had never noticed before.

His prison was not perfect.  There were cracks, fissures and other such gaps that he had not seen thanks to the unending pain and agony as his former race had knifed into him with each passing comment.  With his eyes wide open however Sivis could easily see the gaps he might penetrate, the fissures looking wide enough to accommodate a marauding army should such a thing be possible.  He knew too well why he had missed these, but now that he saw them he couldn’t help but wonder if the spirits that tormented him knew of them as well.

He was powerful, he knew this with a certainty that would not be erased, but he also knew that he was greatly diminished from what he’d once been.  Had Sivis been at full power he knew very well that breaching the walls of his cell would have been a task easily accomplished.  His whoring lover would never have been able to contain him had he been at his very best.  But then doubt niggled its way into his dark heart, reminding Sivis that he had not been weak when he had confronted Aliyana.  He had killed and killed again in the attempt to take her life, creating the dreaded death circle that younglings of his race were taught and yet cautioned never to use.  Why would anyone show something so that it could not be used?

You are the first that will feel my wrath little Shaper, there will be others.  With that said Sivis ascended quickly, or descended, since direction meant as little as time in this place.  He eyed one particular fissure, hammering his will against it quickly as he could feel the power racing across his incorporeal form.  He would be free, and then he would have his revenge.  It was all that remained.

*                      *                      *

 

Aliyana was not well, in fact she had never felt this much pain in her entire life.  Sweat ran down her face and body in runnels, coating her in a chill coat of salty liquid as she sat with her eyes closed and her arms hugged around her body.  Seated upon a large piece of grayish-white driftwood the young woman felt her stomach heave yet again as she could sense the disturbance within the red pearl she still wore.  She wanted so badly to throw it away, to toss it into the waves and let it drift away, but she could not.

Her charge lay imprisoned within the imperfect prison, but that would soon change as she could feel his dark will hammering again and again upon the walls she had placed him within.  Aliyana knew that even should he escape Sivis was too weak to do much more than battle her to a standstill, but even that was not desired.  She could not hope to keep the dark lord within the pearl, not at this juncture when she was still weakened from her ordeal, but she would try.  Against the creamy white skin of her chest the small bauble pulsed madly, its red hue seeming as deep as blood as its occupant continued to pound away at his walls, seeking release even as she attempted to deny him.

The world had suffered enough for now, she could not allow Sivis to run free yet again, she just could not.  Thirty years of war would soon become three centuries, and then more and more until he was finally sated.  Unfortunately she didn’t believe that time would ever come.  She had wanted to tell Taevan so badly of her plight, but there was little the Ellevayne could have done, and nothing he would have offered could have delayed the inevitable any longer.  Sivis would be free soon enough, there was only so much she could do, but in the Creator’s name she would certainly make the betrayer work for his freedom.  She would insure that he would be easy enough to recapture in time once he emerged.

It had only been days since he had been placed within his prison, though obviously the walls had been discovered easily enough.  Aliyana could only think that it had been contact with Taevan that had allowed such a thing to happen.  The energy given off and consumed by an Ellevayne was not subject to the same scrutiny as it was when utilized by a Shaper.  Her kind were far more analytical and conservative in their manner of using energy, where an Ellevayne allowed it to ebb and flow like the tides.  That quality had no doubt had much to do with how Sivis had managed to find a way to escape so quickly.

She could not blame Taevan, it was her own fault for what had happened.  It was to her the responsibility for his escape would fall, she could blame no other.  It would also fall to her to rectify the mistake, something she would do without complaint.  As another spasm wracked her Aliyana shuddered anew, closing her eyes as the sight of the onrushing waves were shut out, taken away by the darkness behind her lids.

Aliyana could see many things in the darkness, though nothing of what she expected.  The images that came to her had been coming for the last few days now, though not once had she been able to understand them.  They were images of battle, of figures that seemed as though they should have been familiar.  The power that each figure had thusly displayed had been easy to recognize, though their speech, their mannerisms and their faces were not.

As the images came again Aliyana could do nothing more than watch, mesmerized, as the scenes within the shadows took place.  There was power here, but also a temperance that would not be denied, that would keep the balance no matter what.  It was this perhaps that allowed her to watch without interrupting.

A single young man, perhaps no older than twenty winters or more, stands upon the gray sands of her home, a staff she has come to know very well in his left hand, held vertically to the ground and at his side.  His right hand is pressed firmly against his heart, his head is bowed and there is a look of, sorrow?, upon his handsome, bearded face. 

            Three figures surround him, one of them is massive, while the other two are normal-sized.  One is a woman with flowing blonde locks that gleam even in the dusk of the coming evening.  The large male possesses chunks and pieces of a strange stone upon his body, its angled surfaces gleaming a deep lavender in the fading light.  Each of the warriors, they are warriors she can tell from their bearings, carries a weapon, and look intent upon the man in the center.

            Before she can wonder why the three attack, coming at the young man from each side as he then reacts, faster than even Aliyana can see.  His staff, the Staff of the Shapers as it has been named, licks with cerulean flames as it becomes a blur, striking the big man first as he is knocked back, his strange, heavy-looking weapon flying backward as he just barely keeps hold of it.  The other male is next, receiving a hard kick from the young man’s left leg that strikes just above the man’s darting blades, catapulting him backward as the young man and the female meet.  Their weapons connect with a resounding peal of thunder as the sky seems to resonate with the force of their attacks.  She is not stunned, but rather intrigued as both combatants trade blows for several heartbeats before the males re-enter the fray, weapons diving for the young man’s body.

            The man disengages and then-

-Aliyana gasped, leaning forward as the glow from the pearl against her chest throbbed painfully, causing a headache to spread quickly into her temples and around to the front.

I will have my freedom.  The voice was unmistakable, it could be no one else, but she still tried to deny the dark bastard, tried to stem the tide of shadows that seemed to be creeping in upon her vision.  She could not allow Sivis to simply stroll back into the world, her charge in this regard was more serious than even Life and Death.

Her head was spinning as she attempted to keep Sivis contained, denying the dark one his freedom even as another vision appeared, this time slightly different but still of the same young man.  Aliyana almost gasped as-

the young man was beset again, this time by two females, each wielding weapons, of course they would, what foolishness was she thinking?  The young man fended off their rapid attacks left and right, high and low as they came on, never once allowing him to rest as Aliyana can feel the power behind each strike and block.  Something, perhaps a voice she would remember from the past or perhaps not, tells her that the two women, for all their ferocity, are no match for the young man.  Worse still, the women know this, but still they fight.

            There is a sadness within their actions, a sorrow that shows upon their faces as they continue to attack, pressing the young man back as thunder seems to rip across the sky, perhaps urging them to stop this foolishness.  The three combatants do not heed the storm however, merely going forth to attack again and again, moving ever onward as their strikes are met with the same ferocity by the young man.  The Staff of the Shapers is still in his hands, and its runes still lick with blue and white hot flames, though they do not so much scald the young man, licking across his skin without harm as he becomes a whirlwind of action, never ceasing as he defends and attacks, attacks and defends.  He is a warrior born and bred she thinks, a soul who was old when time was still young. This is an odd thought to have, though Aliyana allows it to paint the surface of the vision with her bold opinion.  She is-

-in pain.  Aliyana felt her stomach lurch as she was forced to slide painfully from the rough wood beneath her, holding one hand to her ailing abdomen as she fell to her knees upon the sands beneath her.  She felt as though she were about to retch as the red pearl came away from her skin, dangling free at the end of its braided cord, free of her confining garments.  The last of the Argen Nebul clan could feel the dark will of her former love as he surged again and again towards the walls of his cell, battering away at her resolve as the voices of her people, their people, wailed and moaned within her mind, their dim voices just barely registering as yet another vision came to her, assaulting Aliyana’s sensibilities as the emotions of the battle came through like nothing more than pain, raw, animalistic agony that tore at her heart, chafed against her soul and threatened to unravel the very fabric of her mind.  Aliyana almost screamed as-

thunder ripped the sky in two.  This was not the warning rumble she heard only moments ago, this is a tempest that threatens to split the very heavens asunder.  Lightning dances among the iron-gray clouds above, sparking here and there as the will of the one who has called it demands.  There are only two this time, the young man and a young woman who carries a long, silvery blade in each hand.  He still carries the staff, though its light is dimmed for now, as though he sees no need for such illumination.  Indeed, as the sky lights up with the flashes of elemental force there is no need for any further radiance.  The woman and man both have their heads bowed, their eyes closed as though in grief. 

            Aliyana cannot help but feel a definite sense of loss, of pain and misery that escapes all definition.  Beneath this however, she feels something that she has not felt in far too long, she feels love.  The young man and woman are in love, they care for each other so deeply that to them the world might well not exist, it might well not matter for all that they are bound to one another.  Their world is here and now, there is nothing else.

            Thus as they race toward one another Aliyana is confused.  As her blades meet the staff the artifact blazes with piercing blue flame, not harming her as it reflects away from her body, repelled as though by a high wind.  Above them the sky nearly tears itself apart as thunder crashes and lightning bolts collide, creating the most glorious and terrifying vision Aliyana has seen to date, in fact she cannot think-

            -of anything save for her pain.  This is nothing like she would have expected, though neither is it something she would have been surprised by.  She knew her former love would find a way out.  The red pearl he gifted to her years ago, a rarity, was not the most adequate of prisons, though it had seemed capable enough at first.  It had taken a good deal of patience, concentration and power to enact the current properties of the pearl, though it had still been incomplete.  The war had been going on after all, her attention had been pulled in many different directions at once.  She is not to blame for the expediency that was used, nor the efficiency that was lost.

If any blame lay anywhere, it was with Sivis.  Though he would not accept such a mantle the coward had not allowed any of them to rest, striving tirelessly to make the world in the image he so desired.  He had allowed the most dangerous creatures of the Dark free reign within the realm, inviting them freely into this world, the only method by which they could enter.  He had been a fool, though in his mind he was no doubt a savior, or perhaps the only true power worthy of what lay within his veins.  As she reminded herself, he was a fool.

A dark, maniacal cackle filled her mind as Sivis slammed against the walls of his cell yet again, his desire for freedom spurring him on towards great heights of madness with each passing breath. She could not hope to hold out much longer, but she must.

You cannot defeat me! Sivis screamed at her, his voice the screech of a daemon as he railed against her.  Wait, was that right?  Was she experiencing another vision or was that just the struggle between her and Sivis, what was-

she doing in this image?  She did nothing really, just stood there, watching as the fight unfolded far beyond the shore, the effect of blade meeting blade parting the waters as the two combatants stood upon what looked like a giant sandbar.  But sandbars were not copper in hue, nor did they tilt such as this surface seemed to ever so slightly.  The force of the blows that each combatant rained down upon one another managed to part the waters on all sides of them, creating swells that nearly exploded outward as the power roiled all around them.

            That was Sivis!  And it was the same young man!  Who was the dashing young man who seemed to appear in all of her visions?  He was no one she knew, yet she feels so close to him!   

            The staff was no longer in his hands, but as Aliyana watches she can see that the weapons he holds, two long blades that have a definite curve to them, each burn with the same blue and white flames of the staff.  Could these weapons possibly be imbued with the same power as the staff?  But how would that be possible?  She continues to watch, feeling as though she is somehow a part of this but not understanding how.  This is not right, how can she-

            -hope to withstand the dark lord any longer?  She knew there would be no appealing to his honor, he had none.  Aliyana could not hope to barter for anything, there was nothing that Sivis would want save for her death.  As the dark pools that were her eyes narrowed into slits of the darkest midnight she growled, a very unlady-like sound that was more akin to a wild animal than a Shaper.  She would not allow the dark bastard to best her, even if he did escape.

That thought came a moment too late as the pearl pulsed once more with the crimson light from within its unknown depths, disgorging a ribbon of shadow that coiled quickly away from her form, growing and expanding quickly with each passing breath as Aliyana cried out, falling to her face as the strength left her limbs.

FREE! The cry came from the wisp of shadow, though it was little more than a hazy, indistinct ribbon of darkness that floated along with the breeze, drifting quickly away as Aliyana watched.  Her eyes were still narrowed in pain, her body was clenched in agony, but her heart was still torn as it had been for many years now.  As she watched the twisting ribbon of shadow escape she could not help but feel as the shadows gathered around her, closing off the world from her sight as the maniacal laughter followed her down into the darkness.  Soon there was not even that.

*                      *                      *

 

She woke with a splitting headache and a wracking pain that had stiffened every last muscle in her body.  Thankfully the healing properties of a Shaper were always in effect, thus upon waking Aliyana was able to shake off the worst of the pain, rising slowly to her feet.  Sivis was nowhere to be seen, whether in his true form or the curling wisp of shadow that had emerged from the pearl that remained hanging against her chest.  She felt a deep ache within her heart, she had failed.

This will come to pass more than once.  The unknown, no, not unknown any longer, voice came from off to her right.  Looking in that direction she saw the robed figure that she had seen in her visions, the same young man with the eyes as dark as hers.  The silver mists she had seen before in his gaze still traveled on their endless course throughout his eyes, though no longer did she find this strange.

“Just tell me one thing.” Aliyana said.  The strange specter was silent as though waiting.  His dark form rippled slightly as a stiff breeze came in from off the ocean, threatening to tear the apparition apart.  “How will it end?”

The specter’s response was not what Aliyana had expected, though as the young man smiled she found that she could accept this as an answer.  No one was allowed to know the entire future, not even the seers that had existed among her kind.  It was a futile effort at best and a dangerous curse at the very worst.  There were those that had gone mad in an attempt to see what would be, their minds refusing to accept what had been shown to them.  She would not attempt such a thing unless it were absolutely necessary, but for some reason Aliyana could believe it might be one day.  Perhaps she would be much wider when that day finally came.

“There is much to come, isn’t there?” she asked, taking her eyes from the specter to look out upon the ocean.  The ghostly figure said nothing, merely nodding his head in as ubiquitous a manner as he could.  There was something about the ghostly young man that Aliyana could not place her finger upon, but she would have with at least a little clarity been able to guess that she would be seeing him again somewhere down the long road she must now travel.

She would stake her life on it.

Darkfall

DarkFall

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

1348 AD

Florence, Italy

 

 

It is the time of the Black Death, rumored to have been spread by the common black rat that infests the holds of so many cargo ships.  Many have already been afflicted, suffering the painful boils and blotches under their skin that herald the final stages of the plague.  None may survive this horrid spectacle, nor will any ever forget the heavy toll it takes upon much of Eastern Europe during its recurring visitations.  It is a horror that afflicts more than several households, taking whom it will and leaving the others to remember the pain and agony that their loved ones must deal with.  Among the afflicted are those who share a destiny greater than any, those who are chosen for something so much greater.  Yet it lies upon the shoulders of only three as to what fate will have in store for them, the final rest, or a greatness they will perhaps never fully understand.  Into this morass of human suffering and filth come the three who will shape the destiny of many, those who will decide who lives and who dies.  They alone will decide who is saved, and who is damned. 

 

The stench was nearly overwhelming, and she was standing outside the ruined home that held the one she was looking for.  Taegan wore a large scrap of cloth tied over her nose and mouth to cut out the worst of the smell, but still she felt the bile rising within her throat.  She could only pray that she got lucky and this would be the place where she found the unfortunate soul she’d come here to find.  Of course, she wasn’t going to hold her breath that this would happen.

She knew hardly anything about the individual, only that something had called her to this place in this time.  Her mentor had told her more than once that as a half-breed she would be far more sensitive to the world’s flowing currents than she’d been before.  Taegan didn’t know if she particularly liked such a sensitivity, though now that she felt it was almost impossible to turn it off.  She wondered how Aliyana did it, but couldn’t find the trigger that might allow her to do the same.  Taegan couldn’t help but wish that her mentor were here now, if only for companionship.

Such thoughts were not helpful however as she stared up at the sweeping archways and grand marble pillars that stood in front of the home, supporting the decorative roof that spanned for several yards in either direction.  Taegan had never really understood the desire to have such elaborate paintings being affixed to stone and plaster, it seemed rather ludicrous to her really.  Who would want the painted eyes of so many looking down upon them each time they entered their homes?

As she looked up into the dark, brush-stroked gazes of the benevolent angels and other beings that looked down upon the ground she walked upon Taegan felt a mild chill run down her spine.  The eyes of each painted figure seemed to follow her as she made her way to the ornately crafted front door, perhaps identifying her as an intruder, a defiler of the dead, for surely the stench coming from the partially opened door could mean that only carrion awaited her.  It was far too gruesome to think that anyone living could sit among such filth for longer than a few moments.

Screwing up her nerve Taegan approached the front of the opulent brick and wood home, feeling the weight of the large weapon that was strapped to her back. The curved sword, a shamshir she’d been told it was, had been a gift from a friend along her travels.  Its size, weight and curving blade might have intimidated or likewise warned away many others from its use, but she had managed to master its unwieldy nature well enough that she was more than a little dangerous whether at a distance or in close.  Thanks to her mentor Taegan knew how to use each part of the sword to maximum effect, utilizing the strength of her body along with the weapon to keep herself safe from harm.  Thus far none had managed to use the size of the weapon against her, nor did she see such a thing happening in the days to come.

As she approached the door she stopped halfway up the wide, stained steps.  She’d already seen the dark stains marring the stone beneath her feet, though she wasn’t sure how much was blood and how much was something else.  The dried liquids were a panoply of color, ranging from a sickly yellow to the dried, crusted over red that signified a massive loss of blood.  The smell from the disgusting miasma of fluids was potent enough to cause Taegan to crinkle her nose, but it wasn’t what had made her stop.

She’d heard something from within, some slight noise behind the partially opened door she now glared at suspiciously.  Her breathing was low and controlled beneath her mask, warming her face as her dark eyes peered from beneath the floppy b rim of her hat.  There was little light here, though there was a soft glow from the doorway, almost inviting in a way.  The night around her was quite dark save for a few lanterns that swung idly on high poles up and down the lane.  Taegan had made her way to this place with as much stoicism as she could, trying to ignore the piles of dead bodies that had been lain out here and there.  It was dire time within the country, a time of such horrors that many might never have thought possible.

She knew the cause, she even knew what the humans thought it was.  It was odd to think of them as another race, especially considering that she half-belonged to their race as well.  But as her mentor had told her, she was of two worlds, belonging to neither and yet both at the same time.  Taegan had more often than not felt herself something else, something beyond either human or what Aliyana had revealed herself as, another species entirely, all alone in the world.  It was a lonely thought, but it was also strangely comforting at times.

The sound came again as she tensed, squinting her eyes as she was sure that she could see a hint of movement through the partially opened door.  Someone was moving.  That realization alone heartened her somewhat, though the confusion of how anyone could remain in such a place with such smells abounding reached deep into the darkest recesses of her mind, claiming that nothing good could come of this.  Taegan couldn’t help but agree, but her instincts had taken her in this direction, the strange feeling that she’d had insisting that this was where she was to find the one she was being drawn to.  Why she was being drawn or just how she could feel this was still largely unknown, but Taegan was doing as her mentor had directed her so long ago, just feeling her way along.

Many years ago she would not have done such a thing, preferring to know what she was running towards instead of simply taking action.  Her time with Aliyana had taught her to trust the instincts that thrust her forward however, insisting that she do something instead of pondering whether she should take that next step or not.  As she continued to listen and watch the doorway Taegan still heard it, a soft muttering, almost like a gasp, though she saw no more hint of movement.  Fully confused now she made her way forward again, taking short, tentative steps that carried her slowly and inexorably to the front entrance.

She knew of the darkness that had been visited to this part of the world and she knew just who had caused it.  Humans had been allowed to believe that the common black rat, a carrier of so many diseases, had infected them on such a widespread scale.  While Taegan would not, could not in fact, disabuse humans of this notion she also knew better.  Her mentor had told her much of the dark being that had at one time brought such ruination to the world.  She had told Taegan of her former love, the dark lord Sivis, and Taegan had listened with rapt attention.

She’d learned of the dark lord escaped every so often, and of how Aliyana was pledged to hunt him down before he grew too powerful.  Taegan had thought this rather redundant, not to mention foolish, but had kept her mouth clamped shut over such words.  Her mentor had done much for her in the past, opening her eyes to a world that Taegan had never known.  She had listened patiently and with mounting fear as Aliyana had told her of the Chosen, the individuals who were meant to combat Sivis at her side, further dampening the chances of the dark lord’s full return to the world.  She’d also listened to Aliyana as the woman had told her simply, something truly horrible was coming.

It had been many years since she’d spoken to her mentor, though Taegan still remembered her words, thinking that perhaps whatever the woman had spoken of was in the process of happening.  The population of Florence alone had been decimated by the seemingly simple disease that had afflicted so much of its people.  Taegan knew within her heart that Sivis was responsible for this, a feeling that would not desist as she had watched more than one cart filled with human detritus, once healthy, living people, had been carted away to be buried or burned.

Taegan had been within Florence for only a few months, but she’d witnessed horrors that she’d never known, not even back in her own home when the plague had hit.  The Black Death, as it had already been dubbed, caused excruciating pain among its victims, creating massive, infected boils and eventually blotches under the skin that signaled the end.  She’d watched more than one afflicted with such plague wither away and die not long after contracting the horrid disease.  It was not pleasant, nor was it any way for anyone to die.

She knew only what she’d heard of Sivis, though in her heart Taegan had known that this disease could not possibly have been born of anything occurring in nature.  Or rather, it had been nature-born, but infused with something that was somehow not supposed to be here.  It was too confusing to figure upon, but in her heart and mind Taegan knew that the dark lord she’d heard so much was behind this in some way.  The pall of darkness, or the DarkFall as she’d heard one delusional woman mutter before choking on her own blood, could not be natural.

Finally reaching the doorway Taegan peered inside through the gap between door and jamb, doing her best to keep out of sight as she saw within.  What she saw was little more than she’d expected, a rather posh home bedecked with fine rugs, comfortable-looking chairs and a fireplace that, strangely enough, still had a moderate blaze burning within its depths.  Taegan frowned as she saw this, wondering again who could possibly stand to remain within the stench that still wafted out of the home.  She saw no sign of anything other than perhaps a fine layer of dust upon some of the items that were kept nearest the door, a few lamps, unlit, and busts of folk she did not know or recognize.  She did not push the door open just yet, remaining outside on the stoop as she thought over what to do.  Should she just barge in, sword unsheathed and swinging, or should she open the door gently, hoping against hope that nothing was waiting for her on the other side?

Aliyana had told her of Sivis’s dark abilities, of how he could bend the flesh and mind of humans to his own whim, making them in effect mindless servants, little better than animated corpses.  If the dark lord had beaten her here, which her instincts were screaming that yes, he had, Taegan knew she would undoubtedly be in for a fight.  She had nothing more to go on concerning the dark lord than her own memories of what Aliyana had told her, but that would have to be enough.

Taegan had yet to see any of the wonders or horrors that Aliyana had spoken of, though she was beginning to wonder if she would ever desire to truly encounter any such things.  Tightening her lips she squared her shoulders, deciding that only a coward would come this far and not keep going.  Reaching out with her left hand she kept her right loose, ready to reach back for her weapon at a moment’s notice, or perhaps one of those that still rode upon her hips, the last pieces of her old friend Marcus that she still carried.  Whatever decided to come at her, Taegan felt she was ready.

Stepping across the threshold she placed her left hand firmly against the door, stepping into the home as she held her breath.  Taegan stayed close to the door, following it inward as she panned her gaze around the massive front room.  There were no less than three hallways that led from the front area, which must have doubled as a sitting room as well as foyer.  It was not an entirely common method of construction, though she’d seen far stranger during her search for the one she felt to be within this place.  The decorations were rather elaborate, the hardwood floor was festooned with rugs of all sizes and colors, offering a veritable rainbow of dark hues and intricate designs that must have fetched a hefty price at whatever market they’d come from.  The ornamentation that bedecked the walls, hung from the ceiling and stood upon end tables all around the room spoke to her of a rather eccentric mind, perhaps someone who was more concerned with the oddities of the world than function or grace.

It was a hodgepodge of knickknacks, fine pieces mixed in with what might be considered gaudy or outright ludicrous.  Taegan’s eyes were drawn to more than one piece at a time as she entered the room, though she did her best to focus, not wishing to lose her attention lest she be caught unawares.  As she came fully into the home Taegan left the door hanging wide open, it was without doubt that the residents would mind any longer.  Standing just within the entry however she panned her gaze to the left, her eyes widening as she saw the source of the soft noises she’d heard.

A  woman stood there, a rather shapely woman wearing a very lovely, if somewhat soiled, evening dress.  The rich folds of fabric hung loose around her curved form, the hem dragging along the floor just barely inches from her bare feet, which looked rather haggard as Taegan took in the woman’s appearance from behind.  She could not see the woman’s face, but her bared shoulders and the small part of her back that Taegan could see indicated that this woman was not in good health, nor should she even be standing.

Taegan had seen the effect of the terrible boils she’d seen upon those afflicted with the plague, and from what she could see of this woman she knew that the lesions and boils that showed through on the female’s skin should have placed her either on the floor or in one of the many piles of rotting flesh outside.  She could see a sort of blackness that rimed each boil, an oozing, pus-like substance that seemed to exude from the woman’s otherwise healthy-looking skin.  To Taegan it looked as though the woman had been in good health only a short time ago, as though the plague had hit her far quicker and with obviously less debilitating effects than anyone else.

The woman tottered slightly as another small, hitching gasp came from her, causing her body to shake as the folds of her dress were caught up in the slight motion.  Her hair, black in color and unbound from what must have been a long braid, hung loose around her shoulders, wisps catching in an unseen breeze that Taegan could feel coming from behind her, from the doorway.  She cursed herself mentally just before the woman began to turn, no doubt alerted to the presence of another by the slight breeze.  Taegan readied herself to draw her blade, already calculating just how far she could swing before her blade caught upon one thing or another.  The room was quite large, offering more than enough room for the massive weapon, but she knew that the hanging chandelier that she could see only a foot or two above them could easily check her swing if she was unlucky enough to strike it.  The last thing she needed was to tangle her weapon up on the intricate loops and whorls of metal while in the process of defending herself.

As the unknown mistress of the house, Taegan assumed as much, turned fully around the half-breed gaped at what she saw.  The female must have once been beautiful, though Taegan now could imagine that none would have bothered to see such fleeting beauty had they seen what had been left.  A face that was nearly skeletal in appearance glared at Taegan with such hunger that the half-breed was nearly frozen in place, her hand still reaching for her blade as though in slow motion.

Her face was stretched tightly over her skull, revealing the hollows of her eyes as the wasted orbs gazed with menace at Taegan from their shadowy pools of sunken flesh.  Teeth that were bared in a grinning rictus of hatred and anger gnashed several times as the woman hunched her shoulders, flexing the diseased skin of her body as several small popping sounds came from beneath the woman’s dress.  Taegan cold only believe that the boils extended to the front of her body as well and was reward in that next moment as the woman’s dress was suddenly riddled with blossoming spots of darkness as it was pressed against the oozing sores.

Despite all she’d seen to this point, Taegan’s stomach lurched as she caught the foul scent of the woman’s decaying body from where she stood, still trying to gather the nerve to reach for her weapon.  The woman rolled her shoulders back in the moment, spreading her fingers into crooked claws as she lowered herself slightly, an unearthly shriek coming from her mouth as she suddenly rushed forward, her feet slapping hard against the floor when she passed over a bare section.  That single scream galvanized Taegan as she drew her large, curved blade in a single, practiced movement, shrugging it over her right shoulder as she almost flung the sheath away before shrugging her right shoulder again, returning it to her back.

The woman came at her fast, not slowing down despite the dangerously trailing hem of her gown as she extended her claws to tear at Taegan’s face, coming closer with each pulse-pounding second as the half-breed waited.  Her unwanted opponent came within striking range before Taegan moved, her filthy claws swiping hard at Taegan as the half-breed moved aside easily, ducking the wild swings as she responded in kind.  Her blade cleaved hard through the air between them as she raised it up high and then chopped down, cleaving the woman’s chest wide open and continuing down to her abdomen where the tip sliced through dress and flesh easily, disgorging the entrails that lay just beyond the woman’s stomach wall.  The ghoulish thing screeched in what sounded more like amazement than pain, but as the momentum of Taegan’s blow forced her to the right she paused for several moments, shuddering madly as though attempting to stay upright.

Taegan almost gagged on the putrid odor that now exuded from the woman, looking at her blade as she tried not to vomit.  The blood and fluid upon her weapon was not red, but instead black mixed with a disgusting shade of yellow, oozing along the edge before she flicked it expertly, dislodging much of the clinging material.  She did not know what to think at that moment, it was as though the woman had been rotted from the inside out, or perhaps had stood there long enough for the disease to have soured every last part of her body.  Did the woman know pain any longer?  Taegan reasoned that she must since she’d not yet risen to attack again.  But then she could not believe that anyone, no matter how tough they might be, could simply shrug off such heavy damage.

She’d seen battle more than once, witnessing the horrors of such conflict as limbs had been lost, bodies had been torn apart and even separated piece by piece until little was left to identify that the resulting hunk of meat had even been human.  Taegan knew that some could still fight no matter how grave their injuries were, it was the desire to keep fighting, to die with some semblance of pride, that would keep one going even after incurring such ghastly wounds.  But as she watched the woman begin to rise once more she had to wonder.  What did this woman have left to fight for?

The question was moot as the woman rose, her face still locked in a mask of absolute hatred as she glared at Taegan, her gasps and snarls of pain turning more into those of hunger.  The half-breed could scarcely believe that the woman, her entrails hanging out like some macabre sort of fashion accessory, could be standing let alone look as though she were ready to surge forward once more.  Taegan’s mind reeled with the possibilities of what Sivis could do, for now she knew that nothing human had created this woman in such a horrid image.

She had no more chance to debate with herself as the woman attacked, her hands crooked into claws as she swiped at Taegan with her filthy, ragged fingernails.  The half-breed could see the same black, oozing substance as it flew from the woman’s wildly swinging hands in streamers of dark gore, splattering wetly upon the many curios among the room. Thankfully none hit her, the stench of it was too great to even believe.  The woman continued to swing at her, the ragged nails coming nowhere near to hitting Taegan as she evaded each one, looking for the perfect moment to strike.  She managed to find it in the next moment as the woman slipped, almost tripping over her own entrails as she slid to a stop, balancing herself quickly, but not quick enough.

Taegan’s blade arced high before descending in a blur, its sharpened edge biting hard into the left side of the woman’s neck as it continued.  The weapon severed the she-beast’s spine just above her shoulder blades and then kept on, separating bone with a harsh crack as she swept the weapon through the woman’s left shoulder blade, demolishing the bone as she then yanked hard, furthering the damage as the blade emerged from the woman’s right side, where it then bit into her arm, taking it off just above the elbow as Taegan finally completed her swing.  The entire motion had seemed to come slowly, though she knew it had been only a heartbeat since she’d swung, her heightened senses allowing her to feel every last bit of the impact and the resulting damage.

Black and yellow blood spurted in a geyser-like fountain as the woman fell away with nary a shriek of protest, separated into three separate pieces that landed heavily upon the floor.  The main part of the woman’s body was now missing its head, neck and right shoulder, not to mention a significant part of its right arm.  Each piece lay still as it hit the floor with wet thuds, splattering blood and viscera as Taegan watched.

The head still functioned slightly, the eyes fluttering as the jaw worked spastically, the teeth still gnashing as though seeking something to chew upon.  Taegan grimaced in disgust as she stood over the head, the cloth over her nose and mouth doing little to mask the wafting odors that had already arisen from the fallen woman.  She could see past the flesh and bone now, could even see the thumping heart as it beat out its last few frantic beats.  The organ had become a darkened, diseased lump of flesh, shriveled and wasted away within its cavity as she could see.  How it had even functioned was terrible to think of, though as she cast her gaze back down to the woman’s head she narrowed her eyes, feeling not a single measure of pity for the creature.  Whoever this woman had once been, she had been dead long before Taegan had come upon her.

*                      *                      *

 

He tensed, hearing the shriek from downstairs followed by the dull thud of metal cleaving open flesh.  Sivis smiled despite the pain that still wracked his body, he was not ready.  For some time now he’d known of another who sought him out, a presence that seemed to burn only slightly less than his former lover.  While he could feel Aliyana like a bright torch within his senses most times this woman that now sought those he’d already found was a far more muted sensation.  She was a filthy half-breed he knew, an amalgam of Shaper and human blood that should not have been possible.

Sivis wanted little more than to tear the still-beating heart from the woman’s chest, watching it beat its last as she tried to grasp her own defeat.  But he was still far too weak, having just escaped not long ago from his dreaded prison.  Each time was growing harder, each time Aliyana had shored up her defenses, making it far more difficult for him to escape.  It was confounding that each time he escaped she tracked him down once more, continuing the deadly, never-ending farce that had began so long ago.  Sivis snarled as he looked down at the ruined form beneath him, disgust and triumph mixing upon his withered features as he gently stroked the porcelain-like flesh of the woman who lay upon the bed in front of him.

She was the last piece of this particular quest, the only one within many miles that had been possessed of the qualities he’d known would make her useful to Aliyana.  He’d enacted yet another version of the dreaded DarkFall, the same wasting attack that had at one time almost dominated the world, though this time he’d been far too drained to cause it to spread much further than this miserable continent.  He knew the humans would grasp hold of any explanation that they could find to justify their growing numbers of dead, and already many of them had clung to their dreaded superstitions that the plague had been something not of this world.

He’d laughed to think that they had so readily accepted that this was the work of their fabled devil, a plague allowed to run rampant by a god they could not understand or even realize was but a fable.  Humans were so gullible, so easily fooled, and so easily misdirected.  And they were so weak, enough to the point that even in his debilitated state Sivis had found little to no trouble decimating those who had dwelled within the household.  He wondered what the filthy half-breed would think if she’d known that the woman she had most likely met within the parlor had been one of those she had come to save.  The smile upon his face grew even more as Sivis fully enjoyed the irony of the situation, finding humor among the festering remains of the creation that now lay sprawled in front of him.

The Lady had not managed to reach this particular specimen as of yet, though the potential within her slight frame had remained.  No longer would she serve to become an agent of the Light however, not after Sivis had corrupted her so fully.  The black and yellow cast to her veins attested to the taint he had invited into her body, changing the human against her will so thoroughly that upon waking she would know nothing more than the need to destroy, to rend and tear anything or anyone in front of her.  He would have thoroughly enjoyed the thrill of seeing the half-breed as she was torn down, her screams would have echoed within his ears for years to come, but no, he could not.

There were others, more souls that the Lady could use he sensed.  He knew by now that the Chosen were not limited to just a scant few, but could be adapted from others readily enough if needed.  The Lady needed only to find capable warriors, souls who were willing to accept her gifts, and the Chosen would unfortunately rise again.  Three decades before he had thought her power trapped within the souls he’d so successfully defeated, though the balance had not allowed for this to happen.

The power of the Chosen had been stripped from them, flowing back to its source as the Lady had willed it.  She could find others, she would no doubt find others.  Sivis knew this with a certainty that he could not deny but would strive to with every last breath.  He would see the Chosen of any era driven into the ground, stomped to dust and forgotten as surely as an errant breeze is forgotten by those who have felt its fleeting touch.  He would not be denied his freedom again so long as he could help it.

Sivis looked down as he heard the creature beneath him stir. She was still human in appearance, not forced to bear the blemishes and boils that her sister had suffered, but the black and yellow cast of her veins as they pulsed beneath her skin belied the truth of what she was.  The dark, arcane forces he had plowed into her body had transformed the girl into something so much more, so much deadlier, than she could have ever been.

“This is one that shall never be yours my love, mine own creation and none others.”  Sivis grinned even wider as the girl rolled over onto her front, the gauzy dress she’d been wearing when he’d come upon her crinkling as she rolled her neck, shrugging her shoulders as she did.  Her filthy nails, oozing the black residue that came with the conversion of a living being into a creature of darkness, stained the covers of her four-post bed as she opened her eyes.  Orbs of absolute ebon hatred looked upon Sivis as he backed away, watching as the creature he’d birthed from his dark arts opened her mouth wide, digging her ragged nails into the covers as she ripped backward suddenly, spitting and hissing at him as she did.

The creature threw her arms behind her, nails trailing bits and scraps of fine velvety blankets as she did.  Oh yes, she was perfect, a fitting use for one of those who might have stood against him.  A fitting tool for the demise of one who might have sought to stop his continuing machinations.  Sivis’s smile widened even more as his gleaming white teeth reflected the dim light of the room, his yellow eyes piercing the gloom as he looked upon his thrall.

A thick tangle of dark black locks fell across the woman’s bared shoulders and hung in front of her face in lank strands, seeming like wisps of living shadow against her delicate white skin.  She continued to hiss at him for several moments, her rotted teeth bared in a feral grimace as though she were damning him for what he’d done. Sivis just kept smiling, enjoying the mental hold he gripped the creature with.  She would not dare to attack him, nor would she move again until he willed it.  Humans were such amusing playthings, easily corrupted and just as easily held against their pitiful wills.  It was almost too easy.

He noted as the woman tensed within his unseen grasp, her eyes tracking to the doorway through which the silent, furtive sounds of footsteps could just barely be heard.  Sivis highly doubted that her human senses would have been able to hear the slight noise, but he had made her better.  He had given her heightened senses, toughened flesh, a need to kill and to feed, the strength of a juggernaut and the desire to destroy.  Had he been given more time she would have eventually become the perfect servant, one bent on nothing less than the utter annihilation of whatever target he pointed her at.  She could be destroyed, but he highly doubted that the half-breed coming up the winding stairs at that moment would find it an easy task.  In fact, he doubted that the vile woman could even manage to defeat this creature.

Unfortunately he would not be present to witness such an event.  The Lady could be felt not too far from where he was now, her presence a damning beacon within the darkness of his senses.  He would not be caught again, nor would she be allowed to seek out those he could feel even now, further away.  There were others that would serve as the Lady’s willing Chosen, though not if he could find them first.  As he slipped deftly into the shadows Sivis smiled once more at the creature upon the bed, releasing his hold even as the darkness swallowed him.

*                      *                      *

 

Taegan heard a voice from one of the rooms above, deducing quickly that it had come from the only room that showed a dim light glowing from its open doorway.  She’d already made her way to the stairs, ascending halfway before stopping.  The voice was rather raspy, as though the speaker were in great pain, but she could not hear each word.  Something about “none other’s”, or something like that.  Taegan didn’t understand and didn’t try to as she attempted to make her way stealthily up the stairs, keeping her blade in her right hand as she went along.

Her boots were hard-soled, hardly the footgear needed for such a task, but she had to make do with what she had.  The hard stairs would echo every last footstep if she were to rush forward, though as she took one step at a time she almost winced at every last shuffling sound she made.  If she were wise she would have ditched her heavy coat and other accoutrements that would give her away, but she had not.  There was something up there, or someone, that might need her and the time it took to divest herself of any extraneous gear might have made the situation worse.

Of course if her heart was correct in telling her that the rasping voice could only be Sivis, and she was not sure it wasn’t, Taegan realized she might already be too late.  She wouldn’t accept this though, moving steadily upward.  As she came upon the halfway point however she stopped, hearing a series of hissing and spitting sounds that did not sound friendly or conducive to the health of whoever might be within the room.  Was she in fact too late?

She didn’t get the answer to this question in quite the way she wanted as a form suddenly came bounding from the room, running in a shambling manner just as the woman below in the parlor had.  Taegan was suitably surprised as she saw this new female, enough so that she did not have time to finish her flight up the staircase as the she-beast attacked, her rotted teeth bared as she reached out with cracked and torn fingernails, leaping at the half-breed with a fervor that was nothing less than maniacal.

Taegan just barely managed to move to the side, striking the wall near the staircase hard as she allowed the she-thing to go flying past, the look of absolute rage upon her face giving way only partially to surprise as she struck the stairs just beyond Taegan hard, rolling face-first upon the staircase as she thumped and thudded her way to the bottom, the wet snap of something breaking reaching Taegan’s ears as she watched in shock.

That emotion faded rapidly as she descended the stairs, watching as the woman rose, her left arm hanging limply as bone gleamed wetly from the torn flesh of her where her shoulder met her arm.  If she was in pain it didn’t show as she snarled up at Taegan, teeth bared once more as she twisted her entire body, flinging the dislocated arm as a result.  The popping noised that accompanied this action was loud within the parlor, almost startling Taegan to inaction as she saw the woman suddenly flex the limb, which was almost whole once more.  Dark threads of what looked like sinew and fibrous flesh had breached the gap, flowing easily over the bone as Taegan watched.

She swung in that moment as she reached the bottom of the stairs, her blade hacking into the monster’s chest as the feral woman screeched, perhaps in pain or rage, Taegan could not tell.  Her blade carved hard into flesh as the woman backed away, her chest torn apart enough to show the dull gleam of bone.  As with the woman’s arm however Taegan watched as strands of dark flesh shot from across the ragged edges of the wound, sewing the breach shut even as the woman attacked.

Blood flew and flesh quivered along the wound as the woman raked at Taegan’s eyes, each one not coming even close as Taegan backed away, still looking upon the heavy wound she’d inflicted.  It was not possible, but there it was.  Until this day she’d not seen anyone that could walk away from such a damaging blow, but the woman was still on her feet, advancing with each step as the half-breed stared in absolute horror.  Looking upon the corpse of the woman she’d already slain Taegan realized quickly that she might well have to dismember this woman as well, though it was a guess at best.

As the woman came forward again Taegan ducked low, avoiding the ragged claws as she sliced down at the woman’s legs, seeking to hobble the she-beast if possible.  The woman might have sensed this however as she spun, allowing Taegan only a glancing blow that was healing even as the half-breed rose, the dark tendrils closing the flesh once more without any apparent effort.  Taegan didn’t know what to do as she rose, holding her blade in front of her defensively as the woman attacked once more, the claws of her left hand finally finding purchase along the right side of Taegan’s face as the half-breed cried out in pain.  The bloody furrows that were dug into her cheek burned with an ache that was not natural, but as she straightened Taegan grimaced at the beast, striking out again with her blade as she caught the woman heavily upon the midsection, folding her over nicely as she pulled back on her blade, carving far deeper into the woman’s body as she placed one boot upon the creature’s side, thrusting her away as she drew her blade towards her.

Taegan’s wounds still burned, but she could feel the fires within her body burning brightly as her own regenerative qualities kicked in, seeking to seal the wounds before she bled too much.  She grinned madly at the beast as the woman rose, snarling still as the healing properties of her body sought to piece her back together.

“Yer not the only one with healin’ bitch.” she snorted, beckoning the woman forward with one hand as she then adopted a defensive stance.  The woman snarled and spit at her, lowering herself before charging, slashing wildly with both hands as her ragged nails sought Taegan’s flesh once more.

The half-breed was ready this time as she sidestepped, her blade swinging out heavily as she connected with the monster’s left arm, sending it flying free as the creature howled in genuine pain this time, watching as its trailing limb flew far to the left.  Its fury was not completely spent however as it swung a backhanded, raking blow at Taegan with her right, the blood streaming from the woman’s left stump leaving a grisly trail of blood spatter over the floor as Taegan dodged away.  She was not surprised to see several wavering tendrils of dark, fibrous material twisting and churning from the stump of the woman’s arm as she positioned her blade, seeing quickly that the woman was attempting to move towards her arm.  Could she reattach it?  Taegan didn’t care as she swung, seeking to take another piece of the woman as she attacked.

Her zeal proved to be too much this time however as the woman showed amazing dexterity, ducking low to avoid the head-hunting blow as Taegan was forced to follow her own momentum, stepping to her left in order to keep her weapon in hand.  As she came back around she saw the woman reach her missing limb, which was still twitching, grasping it quickly to hold the torn flesh to the writhing mass of dark, slippery-looking tissue protruding from the stump.  Taegan grimaced in distaste as she watched this, moving forward to prevent the healing from occurring.

She could already feel her energy spiking, it was time to finish this while she was still energized enough to take down this monstrosity.  Something deep within told her that this was the woman she’d come for, that this was the soul she’d been meant to protect, but she would not listen.  She could only hope that whoever she’d come for was still alive, that there was still hope.  If not then she’d just wasted a trip, and it had all been for nothing.

Her next chopping blow came nowhere near hitting the already-moving form, thunking hard into one of the richly colored rugs as she saw the limb beginning to reattach to the monster’s body.  The wounded limb came together with a horrid squelching sound, though Taegan immediately noticed that it did not heal fully, ragged strips of flesh hanging from where the severed limb had been reattached.  She hoped in that moment that this meant the creature was weakening somehow, that she’d done enough damage to overtax its strange healing qualities.  It was a slim hope, but at this moment it was all she had.

The beast was far from done with her as the woman chopped down at Taegan with both claws, the reattached one clubbing her hard without managing to gouge into her body.  Taegan rolled with the hit, coming back to center as she struck out, again missing the beast horribly as the woman shrieked at her, the hateful black eyes glaring intently as she responded in kind.  Taegan narrowly avoided having her face clawed away as the she-beast came close to striking her twice in rapid succession, closing the short distance between them as Taegan was forced to improvise.

She’d been taught long ago that a real warrior was never without means, no matter the situation.  Even the most hopeless case would provide a solution somehow, one just had to find it.  This close in, her weapon would no doubt be seen as useless, but Taegan knew better. As she raised the heavy blade to guard she drew it in closer to her body, stepping towards the beast with one solid stride as she thrust the weapon straight out, keeping it vertical to the ground as she tried to rake it down the woman’s body.  Seeing this however the beast moved aside, off to Taegan’s left, obviously not fooled by such a tactic or proving just too fast to be caught by such a forward attack.  Taegan tried to roll with her, evading the next two attacks the woman threw at her as the trailing hem of her coat defeated the woman’s second clawing strike.

Her next attack was made in desperation as Taegan reached out with the weapon, pulling it back as she felt it lay upon the woman’s form.  She was not disappointed as the wound closed almost directly behind her strike, but she was growing increasingly frustrated.  Back and forth they went, each one trading blows that did not land as the two women, one undead and one striving to stay alive, sought to gain dominance.  As they danced around one another Taegan could see that the beast was indeed weakening, though not nearly fast enough for her liking.  As she swung her sword again the woman was not nearly fast enough this time as the blow took her hard in the abdomen, carving deeply into her body as the flesh parted and gray, diseased looking intestines began to spill out.

Despite this however her body still sought to repair itself, closing haphazardly over the gray loops that had already emerged, leaving a decided gap within the woman’s stomach as the flaps of dress that had surrendered to Taegan’s blade fell down around her legs.  The woman howled as she attacked, claws raking again at Taegan’s face as the half-breed just barely managed to fend her away.  The woman was weakening, she could tell this from the way her swings were beginning to slow, but it was still not happening quickly enough.  Unfortunately for the beast Taegan’s blood was now up, lending her sword arm a bit more strength as she snarled at the she-beast, swinging once again, seeking the creature’s head as she swung hard from left to right.

This time her blade bit hard into the creature’s neck, sending blood flying in all directions as Taegan narrowed her eyes in anger and against the sudden spurt.  She pulled her blade away once more, carving the wound even deeper as the woman’s head suddenly flopped grotesquely to the left, hanging askew even as she sought to scream in agony once more.  Taegan watched in horror as the woman flailed about, trying to claw her open, trying to move in a straight line, just trying to survive.  As she evaded the woman’s clumsy attacks though the worst suddenly happened, though she had no idea how.

“S-sheeee ca-ca-mmme!” the woman uttered in a half-moan, half-shriek.  “Sh-sheeee cammmme!”  The dark light within the woman’s eyes faded slightly as Taegan watched, giving way to a haunted look that she could not bear to meet.  Taegan swallowed hard as the woman fixed her with that gaze, the eyes of the creature almost pleading as she shambled forward.

“L-l-laaddddyyy!” the beast moaned, reaching for Taegan, “La-ladddyyyy!”  Taegan struck out again, not worrying this time as she struck more out of horror than anger, seeking to put the beast down, or at least to get those eyes to where they were not looking at her.  There was an unholy truth in those eyes, a pain that she could not bear to look upon, and a revelation that her heart had already told her was real.  Her blade hit home, finding the gap between the thing’s head and shoulder where she’d already struck, where the dark, questing tendrils were sluggishly attempting to seal the gap in their non-ending quest to heal the creature.  Taegan had no trouble believing that the monster would recover fully if given time, but she did not intend to let that happen.

It took two devastating chops to sever the woman’s head fully, but as the creature was felled it continued to wail, that high keening sound piercing Taegan’s ears and heart as she felt a sob welling up from deep within her chest.  As the woman’s head tumbled away the body toppled heavily to the floor, not far away from where the first one had landed.  It didn’t matter to her though, Taegan knew in her heart that she’d failed, that the woman she’d just slain had been the one she’d come for.  It had all been for nothing.

*                      *                      *

 

Three months later…

 

Vienna, Austria

 

 

 

Sivis crept upon the unsuspecting male, his hands already twining within the intricate patterns he would require to call forth the darkness that would transform yet another of the Lady’s precious selections to a creature of absolute darkness.  The fool was leaning from his bedroom window, a heavy traveling coat and a ridiculously large hat hiding his features as he stared idly out of doors.  The dark lord knew this would be too easy, though he could not help but feel how strong this one must have been, to resist the dark plague he had wrought throughout the lands.  It was no matter, as he stretched his hands forward Sivis knew that this would be yet another one that would not serve his former love, just as would continue to happen.  He would not be denied.

In the next moment however he was indeed surprised as the figure went from unsuspecting male to the fierce woman that now stood in front of him, the floppy brim of the hat flipping upward to reveal her dark beauty as she frowned at him over the gleaming blade that was now held poised just in front of his throat.

“Now, ye didn’t think I’d be forgettin’ the last time, did ye?”  Sivis’s eyes widened noticeably as Taegan struck, his hands reaching up to ward off the blow.  Taegan would not fail this time however as she struck with all her might.  She would not fail again.

Tinker’s Dream

Tinker’s Dream

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

 

Spring, 1880

 

            It could be great.  He agreed, it could be, but dreams were uncertain things sometimes, they could lead one to lengths they weren’t prepared to go.  Tossing lightly in his sleep Henry shifted to his right side, feeling the rough blankets covering him slide away just a bit, inviting the chill of the morning just outside his home.  He didn’t want to move though, he was comfortable despite the chill.

It would take so little.  Perhaps, but then he’d be the one taking all the risk, all that risk for a dream.  Even if Charlie really wanted to sell, and there was no evidence to the contrary, Henry knew that the man was asking a great deal.  Monetarily it was a steal, he couldn’t do much better right now and he knew it.  Hell, most everyone knew it as well, though he had to wonder if they really knew just how much work would be required to pull this off.  Somehow he doubted that much.

Many will come.  But how did he know that?

The land he’d become interested in was largely untamed, only the most adventurous had thus far made their way onto this long strip of wilderness.  From what he heard the storms that washed their way across the lightly wooded areas and scraped along the flat, gray sands of its coastline were quite vicious.  Henry hadn’t seen the worst of them as he’d been told, but he could well enough imagine that without cover, any storm coming in off the coast would hit with a vengeance that was almost biblical.

The land will accept what is given.  Now what did that mean?  Henry shook his head as he allowed this strange thought to pass through his mind, paying it little heed as he tried to turn over in his bed, only to find that he was no longer in bed.  The shock of suddenly coming awake jolted him so badly that for several moments he had the horrid sensation of falling, his loss of control frightening him so badly that his heart thudded madly within his chest.

Henry stumbled forward, then to the right, and then finally stopped, finding his balance as he spread his arms out wide, breathing hard as he opened his eyes fully.  Blinking rapidly Henry gulped loudly, his senses reeling as he opened his eyes wide, taking in just exactly where he was.  What he saw he didn’t fully believe.

The vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean rolled out in front of him, the crashing waves that cascaded towards the dark gray shore roaring with their loud, unknown voices.  How had he gotten here?  The last he’d known he was still in bed, dreaming of what he could possibly make of the land he was thinking to purchase.  It would become something wonderful, he could somehow believe that wholeheartedly, but he couldn’t explain how.

“Some beliefs don’t need an explanation Henry.”  He spun to his right, the sand beneath his feet becoming further disturbed as it worked its way between his bare toes, brushing over the tops of his feet as its chill caused ripples of gooseflesh to raise on his arms and legs.  A cool breeze wafted by him just then, rippling his sleeping gown as Henry’s teeth chattered, the wind tousling his dark locks slightly as he looked towards the speaker.

The slim silhouette that he saw only several paces away was little more than a patch of darkness, a lithe figure wrapped in shadow that he could not identify.  Henry’s heart pounded a little harder despite the obvious size difference between the two of them.  He was not the largest of men, but he was easily taller and wider of girth than this slip of a character.  Still, he couldn’t advance, couldn’t even begin to demand anything of the unknown figure.  Henry didn’t know what to think, what to do, or even what the hell he was doing on the beach, in his sleeping attire, freezing his ass off, and scared almost to the point of hysteria.  He’d been having such a nice dream.

“It is a nice dream Henry, one worth pursuing.”  The voice that spoke, he finally calmed down just enough to listen clearly, was female, leaving him with an incredulous look upon his face.  While he still didn’t know what had happened, or how he’d walked out here in his sleep, Henry knew well enough that the voice sounded young, no more than a girl perhaps.  He almost laughed at the absurdity of it.

“Who are you?” he asked, the question sounding almost absurd as another breeze blew by, this one ruffling the edges of his sleeping gown as he clasped his arms over his chest, trying his best to stave off the chill.  The girl, she couldn’t have possibly been all that old, didn’t answer for several moments as she continued to face the ocean, her features obscured for the most part by the cowl of the long, elegant-looking cloak she wore.  Henry could detect just a hint of something glittering beneath the cloak, though he was too much of a gentleman, or at least he tried to be, to look any closer.

What he could see of the girl was very little really, but from what he was able to view was that she was dark-haired, her locks as black as the night around them, and of pale skin.  The contrast  between the color her hair and skin was almost astounding, though he couldn’t help but find it somehow beautiful.  As the girl turned slowly Henry could feel his heart speed up, as though expecting some ghostly vision or something else entirely.  He didn’t know why he would expect such a thing, but he couldn’t keep his hands from trembling in that moment, finding that the expectation of what he would see was almost too great.

“You are a man of vision,” the sweet, melodious voice spoke to him, “Such people as yourself are rare Henry, though they are highly treasured among your kind.”  That confused him, though as he looked upon the girl’s countenance Henry found it didn’t matter quite so much.  The young woman, not a girl after all, was beyond beautiful.  From her porcelain-like skin to her rich, luxurious black locks, she was a picture-perfect vision of beauty.  Henry found his breath stolen away in that moment as he took in her complete form, awestruck to the point of speechlessness.

The cloak that wrapped around her form revealed little, though he could see that as petite as she was, the woman was quite shapely.  Within the folds of her cloak he could see the strange shimmering that had caught his eye only a moment before, the garment she wore beneath the dark covering seeming to catch even the faint light from the stars above as it glimmered brightly against the night.

Licking his lips nervously Henry finally found his voice, “Who, who are you?”  He felt not unlike a foolish boy who has fallen in the type of love that is both immediate and fleeting, his body trembling as though with palsy.  Struggling to control his own body Henry watched as the young woman smiled, the gesture both warm and inviting as Henry continued to shiver.

“Merely a servant my good fellow,” the girl spoke, “someone who knows that change must come.”  As she finished the girl turned to view the opposite direction from the waves, looking upon the undeveloped wilderness that faced westward.  Henry looked in that direction, teeth chattering as he continued to hug his arms to his body, wishing he’d at least had the foresight within his sleepwalking state to find a coat or at least a heavy sweater.  Even though it was spring it was so damned cold!

He should have been used to such weather. He’d been born and raised for part of his life in Maine after all.  The long trip through the seemingly endless stretches of land, the ever-shrinking plains, the thick, lush forests and vast, barren deserts, had shown him a great deal of this country, but once he’d reached this coastline he’d finally come to realize just how wide the world outside his own perceptions had been.

There was still much to discover, he knew this with a certainty that was more hypothetical than anything.  Charlie had told him a great deal of the land he was going to sell him, claiming that it always seemed to have a few more surprises to offer even those who’d been up and down its length.  Henry had remained somewhat skeptical, though he could well imagine that there would be much to be seen once he decided just how to go about building his dream.

“This land has seen much already Henry,” the girl said, earning a narrowed look as she used his first name, “it has seen war and it has seen peace, betrayal and redemption.  Yet it will see much, much more before it is restored to what it once was.”  This was ludicrous, standing here listening to the prattle of a girl who didn’t look old enough to have seen more than twenty winters talking about such matters.  What could she possibly know about anything?

Henry wasn’t a complete chauvinist, he knew very well that women served a purpose other than to raise and rear children and keep a household.  Had that been his manner of thinking his own wife might have clonked him a good one up the side of head with a skillet by now.  Through the many trials and hardships they’d come through his wife had helped in more than a few ways to keep their little household afloat.  She couldn’t do all the things a man could, there were just some limits that she couldn’t breach, but she damned well could try.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Henry stated, still hugging himself tightly, not letting up on his firm resolve to find out just who this young woman was.  There were several settlers already living on the peninsula, though at the sufferance of Charlie and soo enough, at his.  The land would be his soon and then, depending on who wanted to stay, his dream would be placed on a fast track.  His goal of creating Tinkerville, the name of his new town, perhaps one day a city, would be realized no matter who wanted to stay or leave.  He welcomed anyone who wanted to settle, he’d even welcome the natives that reputedly lived at the north end of the peninsula, there was no reason not to encourage good relations between their different peoples.

“My name is of no consequence at the moment Henry, what is important is that your dream be realized.  Without your future, the past will not matter.”  Henry screwed up his features in confusion at the young woman as he listened, not understanding just what she was talking about.

“What?”

“Walk with me Henry, see what might be, and what will be.”  Henry’s frown deepened as he turned along with the girl, looking upon the flat stretch of sand that led back towards the rolling plains of long grass, green shrubbery, and twisted trees.  He took one step and-

-was held back by an outstretched hand, grunting as he halted immediately.  Looking to his right he saw the girl, though her garments had changed, as had his he quickly saw.  Instead of the dark cloak and shimmering gown beneath she was adorned in a bright red dress that extended as far as her ankles, where he could see her feet were clad only in dark brown sandals, a rather curious look with the long-sleeved dress.  Looking at himself he could see that he was dressed quite the same, wearing a fine suit jacket with an elegant silk tie and finely creased trousers.  He could feel suspenders stretched across his front and back, rolling his shoulders as he smiled slightly, feeling a bushy moustache over his lip as he raised one hand to run his fingers along it.  The feeling of the unknown moment did not claim him at that moment, sinking in slowly as he looked around, his eyes widening as his jaw dropped noticeably.

Nothing seemed, there.

“What, what is this?”  Henry breathed.  He could just barely make out the forms of people, walking to and fro on either side of a gray, wide expanse of what looked like wooden platforms.  Looking down at the wide space that separated the platform they stood upon Henry could see the obvious form of railroad tracks protruding from the ground, their gray, iron forms seeming to fade in and out of existence.  Blinking several times he tried to bring them into sharper focus, though he couldn’t seem to do so.

“This is what might be Henry,” the girl said, her voice gentle and calm.  Looking up from the tracks he could see the ghostly form of a train receding into the distance, to the northern parts of the peninsula.  The railroad ran right through the town, almost bisecting the strange, unknown buildings he saw as he turned about.  The people that passed him and the young woman were just as insubstantial as anything else, though he could just barely see in their walk, their dress, that they were normal folk, just as he was. Even the warmth of the sunshine that spilled down from the sky above could not aid him in focusing a single item or facial feature among the many people he saw.

“Why, why is it so hazy?” Henry asked, his voice still breathless, not daring to believe that this was real.  It had to be a dream, that was all it was, nothing more.  Dreams were strange things, they showed strange and sometimes revealing oddities about the dreamer.  Henry knew his own desires, he knew what he wanted, but what he saw now he couldn’t quite equate with his own wants.

“The future is always in motion,” the woman replied, “Once it is viewed in any length it changes, because you’ve seen what might be.  Things must change, so that you do not know what will be.  Things must always change, so that you will be surprised, so that you might create your own path.”  Though Henry didn’t fully understand he found that her words made sense, in some strange way.

“It’s wonderful,” Henry said, still turning about like a child in a candy shop, his eyes wide and his mouth agape, “This is going to be my town, my place in history.”  He did not see the young woman smile as he took in the gray, hazy surroundings, seeing not the ghostly forms of the buildings or the people, but the dream that he had thought of ever since Charlie had told him what he knew of this place.  He saw what could be, what would be, and what he would make of this place.  Henry Tinker saw his dream, and it was glorious.

“With great rapture must also come great sorrow, for that is that is the way of this realm.”  The words spoken by the young woman did not penetrate his consciousness for several moments until Henry turned to look at her once again, noting that she’d somehow reverted back to the clothing that she’d worn upon the beach.  Looking down at himself he could see that he was still garbed in the fine suit he’d been given, though the light that had come from above seemed different now, far more harsh and offering less warmth in some way.

“What happened?” Henry asked hurriedly, turning about as he saw the landscape change, turning from the wooden walkways and platforms, the comforting storefronts and familiar sights, to something that was almost completely alien to his senses, something that he could not equate with the world he knew.  There were still buildings, though if he was looking correctly they were made of stone, not wood.  There were wooden planks set together here and there, though not nearly as much as what he’d seen before.

His heart raced as Henry saw that the railroad tracks had been covered over by some strange, black ribbon of a material he did not know.  The dark path stretched both north and south for farther than he could see, as well as east and west in several locations that were well within view.  Buildings that easily towered higher than those he’d seen in the first vision loomed over him, as though waiting to fall upon him at any moment.

The sense of hopelessness that threatened to overtake him at that moment was so terrible that Henry hugged his arms around his torso once more, feeling not unlike a child as he looked fearfully around, not sure what was happening.  This was not Tinkerville, it was not the dream he’d envisioned.  Turning to his right he felt his eyes widen even further in shock as he noted a garish yellow sign, jutting from the upper portion of a horrid green-colored building that read Longbeach Tavern.  Longbeach?  Who in all the hells had decided to name this town Longbeach?  What a stupid name.  Was he even in the same place?

From the west he could hear the roar of the Pacific, though as he tried to look in that direction he found his view blocked, the gray sands hidden away behind buildings and trees that were far too tall to allow him an easy line of sight.  Henry didn’t know whether to be angry or saddened by what he saw now, the chill that touched him so readily seeking to greedily suck the last bit of hope from him as he turned back to the young woman, seeking an explanation for what he now saw.

She was still standing to his right, though her eyes, which had been a rich shade of blue when he’d first looked upon her, were now completely dark, liquid pools of black that seemed to absorb the light around her, revealing nothing save an empty, yawing darkness that Henry immediately recoiled from.  Taking a step back Henry cried out, not understanding what was going on and not wanting to.  The young woman’s kind smile was still in place, though from the cast of her feathered eyebrows she felt more pity than warmth at that moment, as though he were some helpless scrap of a boy who could not hope to realize just what was going on.

Henry felt anger then as he matched her gaze, his upper lip, bereft of a moustache any longer, peeling back over his teeth as he growled at her.  “What is this?!” he demanded, standing his ground as he glared openly at her, wanting an explanation now, right this minute thank you kindly.

“This is what will be Henry. Your dream will come to pass, though it will pass within time, as will the wonders that will shape what exists now within your mind.  From the tiny seed of imagination your town will grow, to this.”  The woman spread her arms wide, taking in the strange town around her as she continued to gaze at Henry.  He shook his head vehemently, not wanting to listen, not wanting to believe, but a part of him could not hope to deny what she was saying.  A part of him knew this felt right, that this was true, but he would not admit it.  He couldn’t.  That way lay madness, and he wasn’t a madman, not by a damned sight.

“What once belonged to my people will belong to yours, and in time, to his.”  The young woman lowered one arm to point her left index finger at a point behind Henry, her tone neutral as he sensed that there was someone behind him. Of course there was, she was pointing at someone wasn’t she?  He didn’t want to turn though, feeling as a sensation of dread crept over him once more, chilling him to the very bone as he closed his eyes.  He had to look, it was pure and simple curiosity, the same failing of all his kind that had ever been.  One had to look, just like the fabled twit Pandora, they had to know what it was that they were not supposed to see.  Henry could remember the tale of Pandora and her ill-omened box, the chest filled with all sorts of terrors, nightmares and woes.  She had let those into the world unknowingly, her curiosity allowing them to escape to bedevil the many days of mankind, all because she’d just had to know.

It was no different now, though what he was going to look upon was no doubt far worse than anything Pandora had released.  How he could sense that he wasn’t sure, but the raising of his hackles didn’t allow Henry to think any less.  As he began to turn around the soles of his shoes uttered a grating sound against the gray surface beneath him, the strange stone seeming to crackle as he turned completely.  He was shaking, though he tried to still the slight tremors as he stiffened his lower lip, determined not to fear anything that might appear within his dream.  It was just a dream after all, there was nothing so bad that he wouldn’t awake feeling foolish for having been afraid.  Nothing here could hurt him, right?

He wasn’t so sure when he set eyes upon the individual that now stood only several paces away.  Henry’s eyes, already wide with fright, widened even more as he took in the appearance of the newcomer.  Upon the strangely transformed streets Henry saw no one else, only this single character, who in truth didn’t look much older than the young woman behind him.  He could sense however that the man was far older somehow, older than even he was in a way.  That was ridiculous of course, this blonde-haired man couldn’t have been more than in his twenties at best, no matter that he sported a beard and moustache that would have made any man in his thirties or forties proud.  The lush, dark blonde hair was neatly combed and swept back from the man’s face, though it spilled across his broad shoulders, while several braids swung to the sides of his face, an oddity that did not go unnoticed as Henry took in his appearance more fully.

The man wore dark blue pants made from some material that Henry couldn’t identify, and a dark black jacket that appeared far too thin to offer any protection from the elements.  If he suffered any discomfort however he did not show it, standing tall and resolute as his powerful frame did not move an inch.  Henry felt another chill make its tedious way down his spine as he looked upon the man’s face, his heart nearly stopping as he saw the same ebon orbs that he’d seen upon the young woman staring at him.  How he could tell this without seeing any hint of iris or pupil within the man’s eyes was unsure, but he knew, the man was looking right at him.  The younger man was no illusion, no specter like the others had been, but just as real as Henry was.  As Henry watched he noticed in mounting horror as threads of what seemed like silver mist passed through the man’s gaze, there and gone within a moment.  He felt his jaw wag as he tried to think of something to say, some horrified oath to utter.  All that came out however as a single croak, a pitiful sound that he felt somehow ashamed of as he turned around once more.  He wanted to tell the girl to stop this, to take him back to the beach, to let him wake up, to just let him do anything but stand here and face this stranger, to let him be away from this place.  But she wasn’t there.

Henry whirled around again, fully believing that it would be the last thing he did, his heart hammering away a mile a minute as he backed away step, gasping in surprise as the man was right there, staring at him still.  The man had covered the few paces in total silence, coming right up to Henry without being noticed.  Well of course he wouldn’t notice such a thing, he was scared out of his mind, how could he possibly notice?  Henry wanted to beg, to plead for his life, but something wouldn’t let him, some force would not allow him to even whimper, let alone speak.

And then, inexplicably, the stranger spoke, “You are Henry Tinker, founder of Tinkerville, later on known as Longbeach, and this day known as Origin.  My name is Tyler, though you won’t remember.” The man smiled slightly as he spoke, the gesture doing much to erase Henry’s fear as he felt the sense of purpose, rightness, within this man.  There was nothing to be afraid of, nothing to fear from this young man, this Tyler.  In fact Henry felt somewhat foolish in the next moment for ever having feared Tyler at all.  The man was no one to be feared, he was instead to be admired.  He couldn’t reason just why this was so, but it didn’t matter.

“Your town will grow Henry, and it will prosper.  There will be times of hardship, there will be times of despair, but in the end the land will be returned to what it once was.  And you will have helped to continue the cycle.”  The man smiled warmly at Henry, eliciting a similar response from Mrs. Tinker’s son.  Henry felt safe around this man, as though Tyler were the best friend he could have had.  Maybe he was.

“Will I live to see this?” he asked, already sure of the answer.

Tyler merely smiled as he replied, “No Henry, your time will end long before what you see here comes to be.  You will pass on to the next life content, though only then will you recall even a hint of what has happened here.”

Henry appeared crestfallen, “But why? Why can I not remember?”

“You’ve looked upon the future Henry, and now it must change, if only slightly so.”

“But-“

“Wake now Henry, and build your dream.  Let Tinkerville flourish and grow.  It will all make sense in the end.  The scales will balance.”

He had so much more to ask, so much more to say, but before he could utter a single syllable Henry was yanked forcibly from the dream, his mind soaring quickly back to his waking body as he sat bolt upright in bed, the shadows all around him cloaking the room he and his wife lay in.  He could hear her snort lightly beside him, rolling over as she continued to slumber.  Henry swallowed as he leaned forward, placing one hand upon his sweaty brow as he blew out a long, silent breath.  That had been one hell of a dream, though for the life of him he couldn’t recall exactly what it had been about, except of course the vague sense of what he would want Tinkerville to look like eventually.

He couldn’t sleep any longer, he had to rise and do something, anything, to get his mind working.  Always an early riser, just as his family had been, Henry slipped quickly and as quietly as he could into a pair of pants and a heavy sweater, feeling the chill beyond their walls as he kept one eye upon his wife the entire time.  She remained asleep as he padded, barefoot, out to the front room of their simple home.  It would be much, much more when he was finished, when he’d finally secured the purchase from Charlie, when his dream had been realized.  He didn’t even notice the gray sand that trailed behind him as he’d climbed from his bed and made his way to the front room, clinging to the soles and tops of his feet as though refusing to be cast aside.  Perhaps it didn’t matter.

*                      *                      *

 

Henry Tinker did see his dream realized.  The town of Tinkerville remained thusly named until eventually being dubbed Longbeach, the longest beach in the world.  Though such a bold claim was disputed by others, none saw fit to change the name.  It was in the year 1922 that Longbeach became incorporated, though by that time the narrow gauge railroad owned and operated by the Ilwaco Railway and Navigation Company had been serving the peninsula for a little over two decades.

Though the man never did remember his dream, Henry Harrison Tinker did indeed realize his every desire, no matter the hardships and strife that came along with it.  He did remember that with every part of history, there is a beginning, and an end.  Having seen his dream realized, Henry eventually realized that he was neither, but something comfortably between.  And he was just fine with that.

 

Dreams of Fire

Dreams of Fire

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

Monday, September 9th, 2002

 

 

Everything burned, crisping to ash at the merest touch, blackening and curling under the intense heat that was generated so freely and so easily.  Everywhere there was fire, flames dancing in all hues as she could see little more than heat and destruction.  The world was a scintillating ball of flame, a globe of little more than absolute, delectable, churning death that rose and fell to the whim of only one.  She was that one.

From the tips of her toes to the flowing strands of flame red hair that haloed her features the young woman could feel the power of the flames as they surged throughout her body, energizing her in such a way that she could adequately describe.  There was pure power here, with the capacity to scour away all iniquities and destroy what did not belong.  She was the fire goddess of so many legends, the absolute queen of the flame that could withstand all and destroy at whim.  There was nothing that could stop her if she did not wish it to be so.  Yet even as the thought crossed her mind she sensed a darkness, a shadow on the edge of her vision that should not have been.  The young woman glared at this shadow, wondering how or why such a thing would dare to challenge her, her, the one woman in all creation who could lay waste to the world if she wished.  Who was this shadow to stand in challenge of her?

Turning to face the shadow she glared in absolute rage at the dark blot upon her field of vision, feeling as the fire sought to consume her from within, the only saving grace she possessed being the iron control that she exerted over it.  It was hers to command, not anyone else’s.  This power was for her and her alone, no one deserved to bask in the glorious appearance that was the goddess of the flame, the uncontested divinity of fire that she represented.  No one could dare to challenge her, and none would be given such an opportunity.

Even as she turned to punish this intruder however something happened that she had not anticipated, something that stopped her cold in her tracks.  She wasn’t allowed to take even a single step towards the unwanted presence as her lungs were suddenly seized in a powerful, wracking spasm.  She could feel as the organs tightened painfully, expelling every last breath as the flames around her person began to wane and gutter away.  The shadow did not move, its muscular form standing amidst the darkness within this scope of her vision, surrounded by desolation she could not recognize nor understand.  The shade was a man, that much could be discerned from its shape, the powerful shoulders and muscular body that sent an unknown thrill through her body that she could not control.

Fear touched upon the fringes of her heart and mind, alighting with tender, questing fingers that sought to sink deeper into her conscious mind.  She fought against the need to quake before this shadow, reminding herself again and again that she was the fire goddess, she was the power within this domain and none other.  She would not be forced away or intimidated by a shadow.  As she jutted her chin out defiantly she could feel as the flames around her person grew in strength, climbing higher once more as she could easily exult in the power that flowed so easily through her veins.

For some reason her heart grew heavy in that next moment as she looked upon the shadow again, sinking to the depths as the figure seemed to look at her with little more than malice in its, or his, gaze.  Why would she feel sorry for such a being?

Please, please don’t make me do this.  She frowned suddenly as she could hear her own voice, though she hadn’t felt her lips move a single bit.  What had she just said?  The voice was hers, she’d spoken, yet she could not understand why.  There was no response from the shade, but in that moment she could feel a wave of unrelenting power that washed over her, a feeling unlike anything she could ever recall in her life.  It seemed somehow familiar, yet she knew very well that never in her young life had she felt something like this.

Please Tyler, don’t do this, I’m begging you.  She didn’t beg!  Even outside of her dreams she didn’t beg!  Who was this stranger she’d turned into?  And who the hell was Tyler?  She didn’t know anyone named Tyler, never had.

Please.

Shaking her head she attempted to get the voice to stop.  It was her voice, there was no denying it, but she would be damned if she would beg anyone to stop anything.

Please.

No, no she wouldn’t beg again, she couldn’t even stand the thought of it, she wouldn’t, no she wouldn’t, this had to stop now.

Please

“-wake up and pay attention Ms. Garrison.”  Jayden came awake to the sound of a heavy book, a sociology book she could see, slamming down on the desk just in front of her folded arms.  The sound of hushed giggling and laughter could be heard behind and to the sides of her as Jayden opened her eyes wide, leaning back against the plastic backrest of the combination desk and chair she was in.  The metal legs of the seat screeched just a bit as the force of her quick movement shifted the desk across the tile floor.

“Now that I have your attention Ms. Garrison, perhaps you can tell the class the importance of what we’ve been discussing for the past half hour.”  Jayden rubbed her eyes briefly before looking up at her teacher, a thin, gray-haired man named Mr. Hickman.  Widening her eyes to wake herself a bit more she stretched a little before answering, leaning forward as she splayed her fingers outward.

“Um, something boring?”  Jayden grinned wanly as Mr. Hickman gave her his patented “Oh really?” look, his mouth hanging open slightly as he widened his eyes just enough to make her feel rather foolish.  The look never failed when Mr. Hickman used it, in fact some kids had even been heard to claim that the look was far better than being sent to the principal’s office.

“It must have been extremely boring if you couldn’t manage to keep your eyes open young woman.  Tell you what, if you need to feel a little more stimulated, how about you teach the class for awhile?  I’m sure the experience will keep you busy enough to stay awake.”

“No, I think you do just fine Mr. Hickman.”

“Is that why you were asleep?”  Jayden almost rolled her eyes as he asked this, thinking that it would be nice if just for one day she could go without getting into a verbal sparring match with Mr. Hickman. The CWP teacher was a nice man, in fact he was the type of teacher who would help out his students no matter when they asked.  He’d been known to stay after school when he was ready to leave when a student had presented a question with their assignment that just couldn’t wait.  In fact he had gone to great lengths for more than a few of his students in the past and was known just as well for his generosity as he was for his acerbic wit.  In Jayden’s opinion the man was an ass, but he was also one of the best teachers Woodland High School could have asked for.

“I’m sorry Mr. Hickman, it won’t happen again.”

Mr. Hickman raised a single eyebrow as he went back to the dry erase board, holding in his right hand the black marker he’d been using to jot down notes that the class would copy down onto their notebooks.  “You said that yesterday too Ms. Garrison, perhaps this time you’ll mean it.   Getting back to the lesson now…”  Jayden stuck her tongue out briefly at Mr. Hickman as he turned around.  “See me after class Jayden.”  Her eyes widened as he spoke, causing another round of giggles and hushed laughter as he continued to write.

*                      *                      *

 

“Out of all my students this year you’re the only one that seems to find the need to push my patience time and again Jayden. Why is that?”  Jayden slouched in the single chair that sat on the other side of Mr. Hickman’s school-issued metal desk, her gaze focused on the door that led into and out of the classroom.  This wasn’t the first time she’d been called on to stay after class, she and Mr. Hickman had had more than a few conversations such as this.  In fact she’d had this conversation with Mr. Hesh, Mrs. Oakes and Mr. Holland as well.  Each one of the teachers had talked to her before the inevitable call that had gone out to her parents, asking why she felt the need to challenge everyone that sought to teach and help her along.

Jayden wasn’t a bad student, in fact she pulled mostly A’s and B’s in all her classes.  It was her attitude that was in question more often than not.  Like the fiery locks that grew from her scalp her temper burned brightly enough to cast her into a steaming cauldron of trouble more often than not.  She was at most times even tempered, but it took so little for her to explode that at times it was only a word or even a gesture that caused her to become the smartass that everyone in the school knew her as.  Many times this quirk was harmless, it was even funny and enjoyable to those around her.  It was when it impeded the class and her own learning that her teachers had found fault with it.

“I don’t know Mr. Hickman, it’s a part of who I am I guess.”  Mr. Hickman leaned back in his faux leather office chair as he sighed lightly.  There was no doubt that he enjoyed having her in his class, but as Jayden shrugged in response to his question he couldn’t help but feel that he was doing something wrong with this girl.  Russ Hickman had been a teacher for nearly two decades at this point and had yet to find a student in all that time that had challenged him as Jayden did.  He’d had many a redhead in his class, hell at one time he’d had a class that consisted of nearly six individuals that had been sent to juvenile hall a time or two before they’d hit high school.  But with Jayden it was different.  It was almost as if the girl was proud of the fact that she could cause such turmoil.

Jayden wasn’t a bad kid, in fact she had plenty of friends, enjoyed school so much it was obvious and had respect at most times for everyone and herself.  But something within her young mind seemed to think it was okay to challenge her superiors time and again, as though she needed to constantly test her limits, to see just how far she could go before it was too much.  Russ couldn’t help but think that when the proverbial crap hit the fan that Jayden would somehow feel vindicated, that she had taken the measure of those she challenged.  And then there would be no stopping her.  It was an odd and even disquieting thought to have, but he couldn’t abolish it from his mind.

“You know I wouldn’t have a problem at all if you were this way after class.  It’s when you disrupt the rest of the class though that we I have an issue.”

“You still managed to get the lesson through.  We all copied the notes and got the information.”

“Getting the information isn’t enough Jayden.  Why do you think you do so good on your tests?”  Russ had taken this tact before, but he was hoping, as he always did, that Jayden would respond in a different manner.

“Because I study and work my ass off to get the information down.  Isn’t that what school’s about Mr. Hickman?  Aren’t we just supposed to do as we’re told and make sure that we get the work that’s assigned done?”

Russ sighed as he lowered his head, this was not the answer he’d been hoping for.  “I swear you kids get more cynical with each passing year.  That’s not what I was getting at Jayden.”

“Then what?”  Jayden sat forward as she fixed Russ with a level stare that he had seen a time or two, it meant she was getting frustrated.  He could have sworn that her hair grew just a bit redder when this happened, as though the term “fire-hair” was more than just a way to classify the reddish cast of her long locks.

“I don’t know what you want to say Mr. Hickman.  I work my ass off in each class, I do what I’m told and when I pop off just a little it’s like the world ends and I’m the person who hit the button.”  Russ couldn’t help but smile at this analogy as he leaned forward, placing his hands upon his desk as he shuffled his many papers around a bit.

“You have a lot of potential Jayden, that’s why your teachers, and myself, are so hard on you.  It’s painful to watch that kind of potential just fade away after school is over, and that’s what a few of us think might happen to you once you leave this place.  Your study habits are well developed and are a boon to your potential, but your attitude is what will eventually drag you down.  I know you don’t want to hear this, but you’re going to have to change that if you expect to survive outside of high school.”

Jayden was frowning as she always did when it came time to tell her of how she had to change.  No one liked being told what they had to do, especially when it concerned who they were as a person, but Jayden simply didn’t like to hear such a thing coming from someone who was supposed to give at least somewhat of a damn about her.  Russ did indeed care about Jayden just as he cared about all of his students, but unlike a great many of them this young woman seemed to have an air about her that bespoke something great in her future.  She didn’t come off as just another teenager that would be set through the paces of high school and later on adopt the same attitude about life.  She was meant to do something, to be somebody great, it was something he’d learned to see in his students, especially when it happened so rarely.

Every student was special, every student deserved the chance to learn and make something of themselves, but it was only a select few that seemed to have a path set out for them.  It wasn’t a thing that was lightly given and could not be taken for granted without losing it, but Russ felt that Jayden had the grit and determination to follow any path she was placed upon, if only she would curb her attitude. At the age of forty-five he’d already seen enough of the world to know that it didn’t care a bit for those who couldn’t conform it to their whims or vice versa.  He’d worked his ass off to make sure that he could do what he wanted and that his family could have all that they wanted.  His oldest, Jason, was now attending Oregon State University and would graduate in three years, while his youngest, Ali, was currently a sophomore in this very high school.  Jayden and Ali were extremely good friends and as such Russ couldn’t help at times but feel as though his own biases towards Jayden might compromise his role as her teacher.  He’d expressed this very concern to the principal, a kind and very tall man named Alden Pass.

Alden had been understanding of Russ’s concerns, but had told him in no uncertain terms that he couldn’t exclude a single student from his class just because he felt a stronger connection to her than he did the others.  Russ had had his son and daughter in his classes, in fact Ali was in Jayden’s class, and yet he had never once expressed a need to have someone else step in.  He loved his kids without restraint and he admired Jayden’s spark at times, but the young woman knew very well how to push the buttons of each teacher that had expressed concerns about her attitude.  In no uncertain terms Alden had told Russ that if he wanted to reach Jayden he would have to treat her as he treated his own children, but talking sincerely and honestly with her.

“So you’re telling me the problem is me.”  Jayden said in a low voice. Russ knew that the young woman was on the verge of walking out, he could see it in her eyes and in the way she leaned forward.  He didn’t want her to walk out just then, but he wouldn’t stop her if she decided to.

“Yes, to be honest.”  Jayden chewed at her lower lip as she did when she was about to get mad, her green eyes flashing just a bit as she began to shake her head.  Russ waited patiently, knowing that no amount of planning or preparing could stem the flow of anger she would unload if she so chose.  He’d weathered the storm of Jayden’s anger before and had come away a bit saddened but still confident that he had reached her somehow.

“I can’t believe a teacher would say that to a student.”  Jayden said, not meeting his eyes.

“You’re one of my best students Jayden, but you’re also without a doubt one of the most stubborn.  You and Ali have been friends since the two of you could toddle, I think of you as more than a student outside these halls, but in here I have to be your teacher first and your friend second.”  Russ took a breath as he then continued, “I care about you a great deal young lady, enough to tell you the truth, as hard as it might be to hear.  You need to curb this little rebellious streak just enough to realize what it means to have self-restraint.  You’re a bright girl Jayden and a promising student, I really don’t want to see you do nothing after school.”

“I’m going off to college Mr. Hickman, I wouldn’t call that “nothing”.”  Jayden crossed her arms over her chest as she stared defiantly at her teacher, growing just a bit more impatient as she cast her eyes to the clock.  As the last period of the day this was the time when she would normally be gearing up for volleyball practice, but thanks to her current situation she was instead languishing in a classroom.  She hoped that her coach, Mrs. Nelson, would be at least a bit understanding of why she was late.

“I know Jayden, and I’m glad that you have direction.  But do you have purpose yet?”  The question threw her off for just a moment as Jayden attempted to answer that of course she did.  How could a person have direction without having purpose?  Unfortunately she couldn’t think of a good enough answer to fire back at that moment.

“I didn’t think so.”  Mr. Hickman smiled warmly at her as he leaned over his desk to look at the clock that had been set above the door.  The contraption was the same standard time piece that seemed to be bought in mass quantities for each school across the country, a broad white face with the numbers one through twelve set around its inner edge.  It was a good enough device for the utilitarian use it received, but at times he’d wondered if perhaps he could request something with a little more pizzazz or at least style.

“You’re late for volleyball practice Jayden, best get going now.”  Russ’s voice was calm as he turned his gaze back to his student, his smile still pleasant as Jayden quickly retrieved her books and cell phone, putting the small device in her right hip pocket as she rose.  Russ allowed phones in his classroom so long as they were either muted or shut off.  He did not allow calls to be taken in class, such an offense earned a quick trip to the principal’s office and the confiscation of the phone for at least the remainder of the day.  If it were up to Russ he would keep the damned phones and ship them back to the manufacturer with a giant note reading DEFECTIVE.  He wasn’t the greatest fan of cell phones.

“Mrs. Nelson is going to chew me out for being late.  Can I blame it on you?”  Jayden asked this with a small grin, a gesture that didn’t reach her eyes as Russ couldn’t help but smile.

“No she won’t.  I already sent a note to her saying you’d be late.  Thankfully Mrs. Nelson reads her email on a regular basis.  She’ll understand.”  Jayden stopped at that moment as she was heading to the door, her jaw hanging open just a bit.

“Oh, thank you.”  Russ waved as she exited the classroom, sighing to himself after she was gone.

*                      *                      *

 

“Come on ladies hustle, hustle, hustle!  Let’s go, let’s go now move those arms!”  Jayden had forgotten just how much she hated the first month of volleyball practice. She loved the sport so long as she was allowed to bump, spike, set and move around the court as she knew how to do, but running monkey miles, running laps around the track and running stairs was not enjoyable.

“Go Jayden!”  Her best friend, Ali Hickman, was one of the best players on the team and her constant supporter.  The volleyball team was a close-knit bunch and did most everything together no matter if they were in season or not, remaining close friends at all times.  It was this factor that allowed Jayden to pull through the physical conditioning that Mrs. Nelson had put each of her teams through. There was a reason that the Woodland volleyball team always managed to make their way to the state championships, and it wasn’t just because they knew how to play the game.  Next to such teams as Ilwaco, Fort Vancouver and Mckinley High they were a close second, but they were able to outmatch most teams in the state of Washington every single year thanks to their superb physical fitness regimens and the dedication they brought to their training.

As Jayden moved from the back of the line up to the front she grinned as the leader of the pack, a senior named Lori Nickell, sped up just a bit.  The senior grinned sarcastically as she cast a look back at Jayden, raising her eyebrows as though daring the younger woman to keep up.  Jayden poured on the speed as the rest of the procession adjusted their speed to Lori’s, attempting to overtake the older girl as was the point of the exercise.  The monkey mile was designed not only to condition but to teach teamwork as well, honing the physical and mental attributes of the athletes as it taught them to rely on one another and to adjust to each person’s individual needs.

The training method was simple; a line of perhaps six or seven athletes would start at one end of the football field near the goalpost.  It would then be up to the leader of the pack to set the first pace as they jogged to the opposite end of the field, where they would then make their way around the other goal post.  At this point the athlete in the rear of the line would speed up, seeking to take the place at the head of the line where they would then be responsible for regulating the pace.  It was an exceedingly simple training method, yet it often favored those who had run Cross Country or Track and Field since such individuals were known for being able to set nearly any pace.

“Having troubles Jayden?”  Lori asked, her voice sounding husky as she slowed just a bit.

Jayden shook her head as she sped up a bit more, “Just didn’t want to make you look bad is all.”  Lori gave her a mock glare as Jayden easily pulled up ahead of her, shaking her head at the younger girl’s cocky attitude.  Being friends made such insults easy to weather, but every now and then Lori had expressed her desire to smack Jayden a good one.  Such a thing would never happen during practice and would probably never happen anywhere else.  The girls excelled at giving one another a hard time, but rarely were there any hard feelings.

“You’d better step up the pace then sophie!” Lori exclaimed, rushing forward as the others behind her groaned just a bit.  Jayden laughed as she managed to keep away from Lori easily enough, reaching the midway point of the field as they passed by their coach.

“Enough horsing around ladies!  Set the pace and follow it!”  Jayden couldn’t help but roll her eyes as she and Lori both fell back into their normal pace, breathing a bit heavier thanks to their added exertions.

*                      *                      *

 

Water hardly ever seemed to cool her off, no matter how cold it was.  Standing in the cool, refreshing spray that was pushed so forcefully through the silver nozzle Jayden felt as the liquid stabbed against her body with the pressure that was used to cleanse those who so desperately needed it.  She’d heard rumors that the boys’ shower room was far gentler despite smelling much worse.  The guys always seemed to think that the rumors of the women’s locker room smelling like perfume and other pleasing odors were true.  They also seemed to think that women, unlike men, could walk around one another completely naked or with nothing more than a bra and panties or a towel on.  She grinned as the water continued to pelt her relentlessly, doing almost nothing to cool her body as the natural warmth that radiated from her being kept her from growing chill.

Closing her eyes she stood under the spray, feeling as it moved from her chest to face, where it beat upon her brow with just as much force, running quickly down her features and her body as the spray went off to either side.  A shower always felt good after practice, the sweat and grime that collected was often too much for her to bear on the short ride home.  Jayden wasn’t a clean freak, but she didn’t like being dirty for an extended period of time unless there was no other choice.

“Hey Jayden don’t take too long, I want to get home so I can help my mom with dinner.”  Lori’s voice reached her through the pounding of the shower as Jayden called out that she’d be done in a minute.  The girls locker room was designed to give privacy within the showers, offering several open-ended stalls that extended off the main locker room area.  To the other side of the expansive room were the offices held by the coaches and gym instructors, well out of view of the showers.  Steam rose quickly in the shower area and had already clouded up much of the room, making it quite warm.

Jayden.  Spitting out a small jet of water Jayden turned her head to the end of the stall, shaking her head as she spoke, “I’ll be out in a sec Lori, don’t get your panties in a twist.”  Turning back to the shower she lowered her head so that the stream would catch her atop the head, running down into her long red tresses as she leaned against the wall with both hands.

Jayden.  Turning again Jayden was about to call out to Lori once more when she suddenly realized that the voice did not belong to her friend.  Frowning she stepped away from the wall, wiping the excess water from her face as she leaned out just enough to see past the wall of the stall she was in.  Spitting out water she peered first towards the open end of the shower room, where it connected with the locker room beyond.  She could see no one standing in that space, in fact she couldn’t see much of the room beyond thanks to the steam.  Turning in the other direction she could just barely make out the cream-colored tiles of the wall.  There was no one there either.

Turning back to the shower she reached for the bar of soap that rested in its place within the soap tray, seeking to pick it up so she could clean herself and get moving.  Even as her hand came close to the bar of soap however she frowned at what she saw.  Her hand was only a few inches from the smooth green bar, but as she watched Jayden could see the bar slowly dwindling in size, its once smooth surface rippling as it began to dry despite the moisture that continued to pound down upon her body.  Jayden swallowed hard as the bar finally cracked under the strange heat that had assailed it, splitting almost in two.  Stepping away quickly she blinked several times, hoping that this was nothing more than a trick of her mind, some sort of hypnosis that she had somehow put upon herself.  Her rational mind said that was ridiculous, but she knew what she was seeing and it couldn’t possibly be real.

Remnant.  The voice came again, much more forceful this time as Jayden could feel it within the back of her mind, a tingle that she couldn’t explain or enjoy.  Closing her eyes Jayden shook her head forcefully, pressing her lips together as she did.

You have a destiny, something greater.  That almost sounded like Mr. Hickman’s voice, but he couldn’t be in here.  Not only was it not allowed for a man to be in the girls locker room, but Hickman would never dare.  Jayden had known him for most of her life and knew him well enough to assure herself that Russ would never dare peep on her or any other girl for that matter.

“Hello?”  she called, blinking as she tried to see through the steam that somehow still clouded her vision.  Jayden realized at that moment that she could no longer see past the steam clouds that billowed within the opening.  It was as though the shower room had been curtained off by the diaphanous cloud.

Remnant of the Elemental, your title and life.  Jayden wiped her face free of the water once more as she reached forward to shut the water off with one hand, twisting the single knob that controlled the water pressure and temperature.  Her eyes widened though as she twisted the knob to the full OFF position and nothing happened.  The jet of water still cut through the air towards her, striking the floor as she backed away, frowning in confusion.  Jayden felt her heart begin to pound just a bit as she felt a whisper of steam caress her back and hamstrings, caressing her naked skin just barely as she whirled around.  It had felt as though someone had touched her, but as she looked from side to side once more she could still see no one.  Her breathing had become a bit heavier as she swallowed hard again, not sure of what was going on but damned sure that she didn’t want to be in the shower room any longer.

The tiles of the back wall were barely visible as she looked in that direction, turning towards the other way to begin walking to the locker room area where her towel was hanging on the wall just outside the shower area.  As she turned in that direction she took only a step before she noticed a dark shadow standing in the entrance, directly in the center where she would be effectively blocked from any easy passage.

“L-Lori?  Is that you?”  Jayden’s voice was weak as she looked at the dark figure, realizing quickly that the shoulders, the height and the build were nothing like her older friend.  Lori was a tall and muscular girl, but she wasn’t built like man, like this figure.  Something about the way the man stood reminded Jayden oddly of her dream in Mr. Hickman’s class, the powerful way the figure was towering striking in her a sense of dread as well as defiance that warred with one another as she stood there, naked save for the steam that continued to roil throughout the shower area.

“Who are you?  You’re not supposed to be down here.  There aren’t, um, there aren’t supposed to be any boys down here.”  The figure didn’t move, but neither did he retreat as the shadows upon his person were just barely enough to conceal his identity.  There was no young man stupid enough to trespass in the girls locker room, the punishment would be severe enough to deter anyone no matter how adventurous or rebellious they were.  So who the hell was this?

“If you don’t get out of here now I’m going to call the coach and she’ll call the cops.”  Jayden’s threat sounded as hollow as it felt, its dire implications not even seeming to faze the stranger.  She could see little of the figure, but Jayden could quickly note that he was blonde, easily over six feet tall and looked powerful enough to easily overcome any resistance she could give.  That fact alone pissed her off, which only made her mouth work that much better.

“Or maybe I’ll just kick your nuts up to your chin if you don’t clear out now.”  The figure still didn’t move as she threatened to savage his manhood.  What kind of freak was this guy?  Jayden was so focused on her rapidly beating heart that she almost didn’t notice the fact that she was growing incredibly warm, that her body had almost dried itself as the heat began to radiate from her.  Not a single drop of water reached her skin as the rest quickly dried away, leaving her standing completely naked within the steam, her skin growing just a bit red as she looked from her own body to the stranger, narrowing her eyes in anger as she set her jaw.

Daughter of the Light, product of the Dark, you have much to learn.  Jayden wanted to shout at the figure to shut up, but in that moment six more figures joined the one, or rather they stepped from six of the stalls that lay between her and the shadowy figure, their presences seeming to part the mists in front of them as they stood close to one another.

The six newcomers were all women and each one of them were fully clothed, or armored in the case of one.  Clad in gleaming plates of armor the short-haired woman had the stance of one who is both proud and sure of herself, her spine ramrod-straight as she stood beside the others.  Three of them were dressed in more casual garb, but the other two were dressed in a midnight-blue robe and a low cut, elegant-looking dress with long, graceful sleeves.  The hairstyles ranged from a ponytail for the three normally dressed women to a bun for the robed one and curled ringlets for the one in the dress.  Jayden noticed all this detail in seconds, but it took her several moments longer to realize one crucial thing.  Despite all the different hairstyles and clothing, the women all looked alike.

She tensed even more as she realized that the women were just as dry as she was, their clothing and hair not suffering even a mild dampness that would come from the steam all around them.  Jayden retreated several steps as the women advanced, their identical faces with their strange, glowing white eyes and platinum hair seeming rather speculative, not to mention unfriendly.

“Who are you?  Coach Nelson!  Coach Nelson help!”  Jayden shouted as loud as she could, but with the certainty granted to all daydreams and nightmares she was rewarded with nothing, not even the hurried sound of running feet that would announce the welcome aid of her coach.  What in the hell was going on?

Calm yourself Remnant.  You will not be harmed this day. 

“Why do you keep calling me that?  Who are you people?” She looked past the six women at the male figure, her jaw dropping further as she noticed his eyes.  They were black pits within his face, liquid pools of something so black that the shadows seemed pale in comparison.  As she watched her breath hitched suddenly as she noted the thin ribbons of what looked like silver threading their way through his eyes, leaking slightly from the corners as he kept absolutely still, not speaking a word.

You are a Remnant of the old world, a being that was old when your kind was still in its infancy. 

Jayden narrowed her eyes as she continued to look uneasily at the male figure, not trusting that he wouldn’t suddenly surge forward, intent on doing her harm.  Why wasn’t anyone coming running?  Hadn’t anyone heard her shout out for help?  Jayden tried to tell herself that this was a dream, it was only a daydream, she was still standing under the shower as she waited to feel clean.  Yes, that was it, she was still showering, ridding herself of the accumulated filth of the day.  At any moment she would wake up and realize that Lori was waiting on her, then everything would be okay.

A loud and very dangerous sounding crack suddenly came from behind her as Jayden whirled around, her eyes going to the wall that was now revealed to her in all its smooth lines and roughly caulked edges.  Her jaw shut with an audible snap as Jayden saw a massive crack running from the floor of the showers to the ceiling, its dark appearance nearly an inch wide as many smaller cracks radiated out from the main stem.  As she continued to watch the wall shuddered as the smaller cracks widened and raced outward, seeking to sunder the wall even further as bits and pieces of tile and dried caulking clattered to the floor, sounding like falling bricks in the confines of the shower room.

“What the hell was that?!” she yelled back at the women.  Their strangeness had worn off suddenly as she whirled back to the wall, feeling horribly exposed as she stood naked in the midst of the shower room.  The wall shuddered violently again as something hit it from behind, furthering the cracks as they now spread almost from one side to another.

It is an enemy most dire and most ancient.  It hunts the Remnants, that it may feed the fires within its dark soul. 

“What?!”  Nothing was making sense, just as always happened in a dream she reminded herself.  Nothing was supposed to make sense in dreams, they were abstracts just as she’d learned, little more than the subconscious urgings of a living being when under duress of some sort.  Well, she was under a lot of duress now, that was for sure.

The wall suddenly shattered inward as Jayden crouched down, holding her arms over her head as she was liberally peppered with shards and fragments of the wall.  The beating of her increased as the explosion ripped through the shower room, sending clouds of dust and drywall throughout the room to be soaked almost instantly by the condensation as it became soggy and then even mushy.  Jayden barely felt the bits that clung to her skin as she stood back up, rising slowly as she kept her eyes narrowed in disbelief, shock, fear and even anger.  What she saw revealed behind the wall however took away at least two of those sensations, leaving only anger and fear behind as she felt her lower lip tremble in rapidly mounting horror.

Standing nearly nine feet tall was a dark thing that almost had to bend over to be in the shower room, its heavily muscled body filling the corridor between the stalls as it loomed over her.  Jayden looked up, and up, and up as she took in the scaled appearance of the demonic thing that now loomed over her, noting mostly its claws and the heavy tail that swished powerfully behind it before focusing upon its crocodilian face as the thing glowered down at her, its small, beady eyes pinning her with great intent as its jaws parted to reveal the double rows of jagged, pointed teeth that glinted with drool and other fluids she didn’t want to imagine.  The stench from the beast was such that she couldn’t help but gag as the fear overtook her, washing through her body even as the anger railed against it, causing a sudden reaction she had not expected.

Fire spread throughout her veins as Jayden cried out in sudden shock, her eyes widening as she felt the liquid warmth take over her entire body, suffusing her with such power that she couldn’t help but arch her back, exposing her throat and entire front to the creature.  The dark thing did not reach forward as Jayden suddenly felt as though her entire body exploded, every nerve releasing in a rush of such intense ecstasy that she could not help but cry out loudly and with as much passion as her young body could hold.  Her entire form felt as though it had been dipped in fire, though never had she felt flames such as this, that caressed her form in such a way that it was not unlike the most intense and pleasurable rush she’d ever experienced.  She could feel as every part of her body responded to the unknown stimulus, her every cell crying out for more as the flames cascaded from her form, spreading quickly throughout the entire shower room as the demonic creature was instantly engulfed, its form disappearing almost instantly as a great spill of ash fell to the floor where it had stood.

Turning to the six women Jayden felt the fury within her body as she glared at them, noting that the flames had not even touched them despite the fact that they had been wreathed on all sides by the liquid, shifting fire.  The tiles of the shower room burned, blackening and cracking under the fiery assault she had unleashed.  This was power, this was unbridled, all-consuming power, and it was all hers.

You will awake soon Remnant, but not yet.

She wanted to rebuke the women, but even as she opened her mouth the females began to shimmer and fade away, as though they were no more substantial than the steam that had already boiled away.  This left only the shadowy figure that still remained within the entryway, his form still darkened enough that Jayden could not see everything.

“You want some of this boy?”  she challenged, feeling as the flames danced around her body, clothing her in an impenetrable armor of shifting and roiling fire.  The figure did not respond save to raise his left hand, his fingers splayed as he kept his palm towards her.  Jayden frowned as she felt the familiar tingle within her mind, not understanding what was happening until the stranger suddenly closed his fist, bringing it just as quickly down to his side.

At the simple gesture the flames within the shower room were extinguished as though they’d never been, not even fading away as they were cruelly snuffed.  Jayden felt the emptiness of their absence in that short moment as she gasped in surprise, glaring in disbelief at the male as he then stepped forward with his right foot, shaking his left hand which she could see was licking flames.  Not a single tongue of fire blackened his hand as Jayden watched, remaining almost completely contained within his fist as he cocked his left hand back as though he were going to throw something.

Too late Jayden guessed at what was going to happen, watching as the man threw sideways, slinging his left hand as though he were throwing a baseball.  As she watched his hand opened, disgorging the flame she’d seen licking from his hand straight towards her.  Jayden couldn’t move in time as the flame hit her squarely in the chest, rocketing her backward towards the large hole that the wall had become.  Surprisingly she felt the harsh impact of tile against her back as her head rebounded off the hard surface, causing spots to appear in her vision.

Jayden hit the floor hard in the next second, her body landing with the loud smack of flesh on tile as she felt the warmth continue to flow throughout her every cell.  She just barely heard the sound of footsteps as the man approached her, the rubber soles of his shoes making hollow sounds upon the tiled floor.  Rolling over took every ounce of energy she possessed, but she managed as she flopped onto her back, gasping for every last breath as she looked up into the man’s  eyes as he stood over her. She still couldn’t see his face entirely, there were somehow still too many shadows, but Jayden could see his eyes just fine.  The ribbons of silver still flowed strangely through his ebon-black gaze, a confusing and somehow familiar sight.

“You aren’t ready yet, but you will be.”  Jayden found his voice to be pleasing and also familiar, but she was sure she’d never met this man before.  As he turned away she couldn’t help but croak at him to stop, to tell her who he was.  All she could do at that moment was listen as his footsteps became even more distant, fading into memory as Jayden’s eyes closed, the darkness taking over as she fell willingly into its embrace.

*                      *                      *

 

“Hey brain-dead!  Are you listening at all?  I want to get going so if you don’t want to be walking towel yourself off and let’s go!”  Lori’s voice caused her eyes to snap open as Jayden jumped slightly as she pressed her hands a little harder against the shower wall.  She couldn’t be sure, but she had been daydreaming about something.  She just couldn’t remember what.

“Yeah, yeah I’m coming.”

 

 

Words of Worth

Words of Worth

By Tom Foster

 

            In the end, most folks want to say something.  They want to at least give some accounting of their lives, maybe just to be able to say that they were here, or that they’re sorry for this or that.  And I’m sure most do, but the demented and sometimes damned and doomed, the double-d’s as some of the guards have taken to calling them, don’t say a word.  It’s not like you see in the movies, where the hardened killer suddenly turns into a spineless jellyfish or a little girl, squealing to anyone who’ll listen that they’re sorry, they want to take it back, they want to be forgiven for their sins.  They don’t repent of their evil ways in a revealing and ultimately selfish manner, they don’t waste their last breaths on heartfelt emotion that most likely won’t be felt by others.

            The men I deal with are animals, the worst sort.  They’ve killed, raped, molested, and even worse, but I won’t go into the more lurid details. I’m sure your mind can fill in those horrid little gaps that Hollywood often deems so entertaining.

            In any case, these men stopped caring about the world some time ago.  Yet for some reason, part of the world still cares about them.  Part of it concerns our government and the differing views on capital punishment that vary from state to state.  Some say yes, some say no, and the others have their tongues tied in knots because they can’t make up their damned minds.  That’s where the plot thickens and twists to such a degree that no one can figure out any longer what really matters.  Some believe that these amoral killers and predators deserve a chance to change.  I wonder if, given a chance to live among those they’re trying to “save”, such folks would still hold firm to their beliefs.  Somehow I sincerely doubt that would be the case for long. 

            These monsters are good actors at times, but even they know that when their time is up, there’s no negotiating with the executioner. And the governors?  Pssh, might as well ask for a reprieve from rain in the Amazon. 

            I’ve observed these types of men for nearly three decades now, two as a guard and one as a warden.  I can with all honesty and accuracy tell anyone in all honesty, they will not change.  Those sent to death row are placed there for reasons that hopefully most folks will never hear of, and as such are beyond reprieve.   And yet, somehow, for some damned reason that no one can explain, people have enough imagination to think that a man facing death will have a sudden need to justify himself, that he’ll apologize for what he did, like it’s going to make it all better.  There’s no use praying at that moment, nor even begging those who are there to watch him die.  They know where they’re heading once the lights go out, and they all know there’s no bargaining once the devil’s got that pitchfork in your ass.  Just like I know now.

            This might be my last will and testament to a life that went off the rails at just the wrong point, but in truth the word you read here will be the only real words of worth I feel the necessity to convey any longer.  I know what I did, I know what I had, and I know what I did to get to this point.  At one point my life was great, I had everything I could ask for and didn’t want for a single thing. My family was taken care of, and thankfully all but a few of them had gotten off to the fast track in being successful. But there’s always those select few in the family who don’t seem able to let others enjoy their lives. Those pitiful assholes always seem poised to drag down anyone that even wanders in their direction, and my family is no different.

            Had I been smarter about it, those festering bitches wouldn’t have affected me in this

way. But if you’re reading this then you already know I didn’t manage to rein in my more

aggressive tendencies.  If you’ve got the stones then keep reading, otherwise I’ll tell you now,

put it down.  Still here?  Alright then, you were warned.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

February 18th, 2011

Oregon State Penitentiary

 

            Chains rattled and loose fittings squeaked and squalled as the rocking motion of the bus forced them in and out of true.

            “I heard about you esse.”

            He didn’t bother turning around. Taking issue with someone while incarcerated, even on a prison bus, could be an extreme health hazard. Screwing around with someone that might have ties to any one of the Hispanic gangs could be a death sentence.  There was no way to tell without looking if the vato behind him was hooked up or not, but judging by the loose way he spoke and the fact that he’d said anything to begin with, it was a reasonable assumption.  No one spoke to anyone without a good reason.

            “Yeah man, I heard you was a guard or some shit, you know?  I heard you was guard up at the pen.  You worked on death row right?”

            Still he said nothing, and he could already feel that deadly shift between indifference and insult.  Say nothing for a short time and you might be safe, but continue to say nothing and the wrong person might start to take offense. In prison it took very little to offend anyone. When you had almost nothing you fought for everything, even if it was just a snippet of conversation.

            “Hey man, you deaf or something?”

            Still no answer.  That shift was growing stronger. He could almost feel the emotional needle settling into the red.  Talking now would only complicate things, but not talking would continue to let that pressure keep building. 

            “Inmate, quiet down back there.” The rough, stern voice of the guard in the front of the bus carried back to them as he kept his eyes lowered. Apart from a few new guards at the penitentiary Lorne knew just about every one of them on a first name basis. Hell he’d had a good many of them over to his home for dinner, parties, even Super Bowl get-togethers.  He’d watched their kids grow up with his own, shared genuine moments with many of them, and counted all of them as good friends, or at least acquaintances in some cases.  They all knew he was coming here, and most of them still looked at him in the same light, but with that measure of uncertainty in their eyes that he knew he wouldn’t shake.

            “I’ll catch you on the fly man,” the vato said, leaning back as he offered on last parting shot, “You best watch your back, cop.”

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            He didn’t deny what he’d done, nor would he ever deny that it had felt good at the moment.  But coming to a place like this and being known for what he was carried certain risks. Tack on to that the reality that news traveled quickly in a prison and his risk became even greater as the other inmates discovered what he was really in for.  He’d killed a woman after all, a woman who’d been a mother and a grandmother, and at one time his closest cousin.  He couldn’t rightfully say that he’d lost all control, he could recall what he’d done, why he’d done it, and the feeling that had come after. It hadn’t been regret, not for the first few hours. It had been satisfaction.

            Sick as it was he’d been satisfied that he’d done it.  There were many emotions that he

could have professed to feeling in those first few hours, but regret had not been among them. Sorrow had been a part of it. He’d loved his cousin dearly from the time they’d been very young, but she had become so crazed by the end that he hadn’t seen any other way out.  She had gone after his family more than once in many different ways, and he had warned her more than once to stay away.  Some might have called it an act of defense, but the legal system had decided to call it first degree murder.

            When the cell door clanged shut behind him, it was more than evident that the jury, supposedly of his peers, had made the best decision.  A part of him had wanted to spit at them and ask how dare they call themselves his peers. They hadn’t gone through what he had, they hadn’t been around the type of scum he had for so long, and they certainly hadn’t had a family member go off the rails and try to murder their children.  Well, maybe some of them had, but that wasn’t the point.

            “Hey, is this him?”

            The cell door was locked, but he knew very well that didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. All it took was a small bribe and a guard willing to look away for a few seconds to seal someone’s fate.  The vato’s at his cell door knew that.  He could almost believe that he’d seen two out of the four individuals before, but he couldn’t be certain. After all, he’d been one of the guards on the end of the line, not one of the unlucky bastards in gen pop.

            “Yeah man, that’s the puta that thinks he’s hot shit, the cop.”

            “He’s a cop?” asked one of them, a heavyset bruiser that couldn’t have stood more than five and a half feet tall. Looking up just enough to see that each one of the quartet had their hands cupped over something as of yet to be seen, he knew he was in trouble. What came next would depend largely on the prep time he’d already put in upon entering his cell and his reaction time, which had slowed in the past ten years of working in this hellhole. He knew how to subdue a prisoner, now he had to depend on every last ounce of that training, as well as the old Army training he’d received when he was in his early twenties. 

            He was still a big man and strong enough to take one of them on his own, but keeping them all at bay was going to be tough.

            “That right man? You used to be a pig?”

            One of them snorted, laughing as he said, “Yeah, used to be.  Ain’t no room in here for no pig man.  You feel like cuttin’?”

            “Cuttin’ me a slab of bacon esse,” another one said, “See if he squeals like a pig.”

            He was tired of the talking, it was time to push them over the edge.  If they felt the need this would draw out for longer than he liked, and he’d be making more than one trip to the infirmary.  From experience Lorne knew that cops who were placed in gen pop didn’t last long. They were either harangued mercilessly before being chopped to pieces, or they were jumped and sent to the morgue without hesitation. 

            If he was lucky this example wouldn’t leave any doubt that he meant business.  It might even convince any other wannabe hardasses that he wasn’t to be screwed with. The chances of that were low, but he was willing to make that bet.  He had nothing else to lose.

            “I’ve heard enough of your yipping you damned chihuahua’s, so unless you wanna come in and have a little fiesta I suggest you take your little taco stand elsewhere. Otherwise get on with it.”

            One of them “tsked” him as the one in front, the one from the bus, looked at him in what

could only be described the glare of a predator that thought he was king shit of turd hill. That one

would make the first move, if not because he wanted some payback for an imagined insult, then

because his crew would expect it from him. You had to make your bones to speak, put in your work, or whatever other euphemism you wanted to use once you got to the pen, otherwise you got labeled as a bitch or a pussy very quickly. That was how you wound up someone’s property, or worse.

            “Why do white boys always go racist?” one of them asked, causing the others to laugh. 

            “They know they ain’t shit so they gotta try and prove somethin’ eh?” another replied.

            “C’mon, let’s get this shit done, I got better stuff to do.”

            Rolling his neck around he stood to his feet, waiting for the door to open. The first of them would rush in to keep him busy while the others came in and started stabbing him repeatedly. He’d seen the aftermath of a prison shanking before and knew the sight wouldn’t be pretty.

            That’s why it wouldn’t be happening if he could avoid it.

            The metallic clank of the control lever reached his ears, and it was as though a switch turned over in his mind. No longer was he a tired, beaten down older man with back problems, knee problems, and the certainty of being sent to death row when all was said and done. He was something more than that, and a little less. That little less was what helped him.

            As the first one came in he was already grabbing for his bedroll, which had yet to be unfurled. No guard had come along to ask him why his bunk wasn’t made yet, which was lucky but sloppy on their part.  If he’d still been on the line such an oversight wouldn’t have occurred.  As it stood though it might have saved his life as he used the rolled up blanket to block the first strike the initial attacker threw, the fabric managing to catch the shiv as he struck the grasping hand with his right while pulling away with his left.  It was a stroke of luck that the modified weapon didn’t go skittering away to the ground, and another stroke that allowed him to pull the shiv free as the first attacker was swiftly joined by the other three.

            This was where the order of the fight fell by the wayside. The other three weren’t about to make things fair, just as he’d known they wouldn’t. That didn’t matter, he didn’t intend to make it a fair fight either.

            Even before the three additional vatos came rushing in he was moving towards the bed, where another surprised awaited as he stuck his captured weapon deep into the stomach of his first attacker, dragging it along with him as the unfortunate vato was forced to either pull away and do more damage or follow him.  Either way would be just fine as he held onto the shiv, waiting those precious few seconds to see what happened. 

            The wounded man was obviously smart enough to not pull away as he moved towards the blade rather than away from it, offering Lorne just enough cover that the other three had to adjust their line of attack as they quickly surrounded the bed, seeking to stab him from three different angles.  It was child’s play at that moment to let them get close enough and then attack.

            He  stabbed out in front of him as he pulled his first victim close, disengaging the shiv before ramming it hard into the reaching arm of the man trying to stab him in the throat. The vato yelped as he dropped his weapon, pulling back as Lorne grabbed the second weapon just as the other two went around the other side of his first victim and tried to gut him.  He lashed out with both feet as they came close, catching one in the throat and the other in the nose as blood spurted and cartilage crunched. They both had to pull away suddenly as he then exploded off the bed, shoving the first victim away while moving towards the man he’d stabbed in the arm.

            That one was already coming forward, ready to hit him and keep hitting until he dropped. 

Such a notion was quickly forgotten when he sprouted a sharpened toothbrush in the hollow his

throat.  He fell away gagging, blood pooling and spurting around his grasping hands as he left

the fight. The first man was already down holding his gut as Lorne quickly finished off the other two, incapacitating rather than killing them.  By the time he was done they would need several weeks in the infirmary instead of just a few days.  It had been worth it though, especially considering that he’d been heading the final mile anyway.

            “Inmate!” came a booming voice from his doorway, “On the ground, now!”

            “About goddamned time,” Lorne muttered as he went face down.  To either side men were dying as the officer in command started shouting orders and calling out the situation over his walkie.  Through it all Lorne just wondered how long it would be before he was sent to isolation.  If he was lucky it would be immediate.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            As it went the trip didn’t take too long.  Perhaps it was the example written in crimson in his cell, or maybe it was just an attempt to keep him safe from retaliation, but Lorne was sent to the showers and then off to his own private cell within the hour.  That was record time as far as he was concerned, and it allowed the anger felt by the other inmates, particularly those connected to the vatos he’d sliced and diced, to simmer and bubble.  He had no illusions that he’d be safe in isolation, but at the very least they would have to work a little harder to get to him.  Anyone could be gotten to in any place, but he was figuring that isolation would at least give them pause.

            “Open the door,” came a muffled voice from outside his door.  He’d almost expected this type of visit, in fact it would have been foolish to think that the individual would leave him alone this entire time.  Old friends had a habit of bending the rules now and again for those they cared about.

            The rattling clank of the door being opened announced the aging, white-haired individual that stepped through the opening, his face set in the same perpetual scowl he always affected. That scowl had been the same facial expression he’d worn at Lorne’s wedding, at parties, and at any other social function they’d attended over the years. It seemed to be the only facial expression other than a sad, hangdog smile that Jimmy Millson seemed capable of producing.

            “Lorne,” Jimmy said with a nod, “Or rather, inmate Stilton.”

            “Why bother with formalities?” Lorne asked with a shrug, “Come to deliver a DOE?”

            Jimmy shook his head as he stood against the opposite wall, “You know I couldn’t be the one to tell you even if that was the case.”

            Lorne nodded, “Then why bother coming at all?”

            “Goddammit Lorne,” Jimmy said, shaking his head, “This isn’t easy for any of us, you most of all.”

            “Thanks for reminding me.”

            “You cut those men badly Lorne.  I mean it, one of them was dead before the guards got there and the other three are going to spend weeks in the infirmary most likely. What the hell were you thinking? And how the hell did you do it?”

            “You’ve been here long enough,” Lorne said, “You should know the answers to those questions.  I pissed off someone on the way in and he was obviously connected in some way. Even if he wasn’t it would have been just a matter of time.”

            “I know very well what must have happened. But the last time I remember you being here I don’t remember you being so violent.”

            “I wasn’t in as much danger as I am now. There’s a difference between being an armed guard and an unarmed prisoner.  One of them has a shorter life expectancy.”

            “You killed a man Lorne.”

            “And I’ll do it again if the situation calls for it. Anything else?”

            Jimmy looked at him then, long and hard.  That look spoke volumes, it said that he was being an asshole, and much more.  Right now though he didn’t care.

            “Is this the kind of person you want your family to remember?”

            This time Lorne’s look was one of pure venom, and Jimmy knew very well what it meant. But he didn’t move, he didn’t budge a single inch.  He knew too well what Lorne was, and he knew how far he could be pushed.  Lorne was a family man, someone who put the welfare of his wife and children above his own more often than not, but he was also an animal inside, someone who when pushed would go to great lengths to push back harder than could be expected. 

            “Don’t ever let my family or anything concerning them pass your lips again, warden.”

            Jimmy felt his own anger flare, “What the hell happened to you Lorne? What in God’s name happened that you turned out like this?”

            Lorne didn’t answer, he was done talking.  Jimmy saw this before he continued, shaking his head as he walked away slowly, in defeat.  There was no way to hide it and both he and Lorne knew this.  Their friendship had changed even before this whole sordid mess, and now it seemed only a shell of what it had once been. 

            “Lock it up,” Jimmy said as he stepped out.  Lorne didn’t even look at him as the door closed with a hollow bang.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            Days passed, and no further attacks came.  He wasn’t certain if he had Jimmy to thank for this or if he’d just been forgotten, but the isolation that Lorne was now enduring was only broken up by the thoughts and remembrances of a life he’d treasured more than anything only a short time ago.  He’d been incarcerated for almost a year now, and had never once fought against the idea that he should be considered for the death penalty. His wife and children had come to see him only a few times at his insistence.  She had been angry at him after a while and had even pleaded that he reconsider, that he take the advice of his court-appointed lawyer and claim defense of his family as an excuse. 

            Needless to say he’d not taken that advice.  He had taken a life in anger, and he deserved to be punished for it. He’d robbed another family, an extension of his own family, of a daughter, a sister, and a mother.  Lorne had killed his cousin in rage for daring to strike out at his family, which was in his mind a sin worthy of death.

            It was not enough to say that Desiree had posed a serious threat to his family. He’d known that just as well as anyone.  She’d been off of her meds at the time, delusional, and angered by the fact that no one had seemed capable of understanding her.  In truth her condition, that of a dyslexic, ADHD-afflicted individual with a severe inferiority complex, had taken over and caused her to lash out at everyone that had bothered to try and help her. At one point he would have done anything for her. He would have even pushed her out of the way of a speeding car no matter if it meant he’d be crushed.  She’d been his cousin, his family, his blood.  But no more.

            The moment she’d raised a hand to one of his children in anger she had become the

enemy, the threat.  She had dared to strike his eldest child because she had bothered to ask her

what was wrong with her, had dared to bring the problem out into the open, and she might not have stopped if Lorne hadn’t stepped in.  Desiree had had a temper in the past, but with age it had only gotten worse.  Despite being half his size she had taken his daughter Laney down to the ground where she had proceeded to pummel her with open slaps to the head.  Her rings had laid Laney open more than once before Lorne had attempted to pull her off. His reward for that had been an elbow in the crotch.

            Anger had been his first reaction, and his last, as he had seen red at that point.  Desiree had been his favorite cousin since childhood, closer to him than his own sister, but she had been out of control. His vision hadn’t cleared until after the few seconds it had taken for him to reach out, grip Desiree’s chin in one hand and the back of her head with the other. A violent yank to the left had snapped her neck, and an equally violent yank to the right had finished her.  The truly heinous act he’d committed had been revealed during his trial, which had gone exactly as he’d expected.

            His first action had snapped her neck, but it hadn’t killed her.  That first yank to the left had snapped several of her cervical vertebrae. She might have lost the use of her body from the neck down if not for the second vicious crank he’d given to the right, which effectively snapped her spinal cord in two.  Death hadn’t been instantaneous as in the movies, but it had been relatively quiet as her body had swiftly shut down, any and all communications between her heart and brain having been effectively ended. 

            The court-appointed attorney that his wife had enlisted to help him had attempted to get his charges lessened to manslaughter, which would have still gained him a prison sentence, but with the possibility of parole.  Unfortunately the testimony of Desiree’s elderly, spinster mother Doreen had been enough to sway the jury into accusing him of first degree murder, thereby insuring him a room at the pen.  Headlines had run shortly before and after the incident, and he’d been vilified by those who knew him and by several relatives during and after the trial.  The one person he’d hoped to never lose favor with aside from his family, Desiree’s only daughter, Autumn, had remained strangely silent throughout the ordeal. 

            He knew the strenuous relationship between Desiree and Autumn, but had never doubted their bond. Her silence had unnerved him like nothing else could, though she had said nothing damning upon the stand when she had been called up, stating only that she had been taken by surprise and that she had seen her mother assault Laney for absolutely no reason.  When asked why she believed he had done as he had, Autumn had looked at Lorne with a sorrowful look and said simply, “He was protecting his daughters.”

            There hadn’t been anything to read into those words beyond their simple meaning.  He and his wife Emily had always treasured Autumn, and had done their best to see her happy and content every time she and her mother came around. But he had seen the hurt in her eyes, and had known that no matter what, he had taken from her. He had hurt her in a way that he could never forgive himself for, and that was the absolute worst feeling of all.  Lorne knew his family would stand by him, they had already said as much during one of their only visits

            It was one of the only things getting him by right now, and it was enough.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            Another month passed, and he was taken from isolation. His rep had gotten around since

his run-in with the four members of Norteno, as he’d been told they had been. The three that had

been wounded had been transferred to medical for a time before being released, but were

apparently now under strict orders to leave the “old gringo” alone.  He’d been approached by no

less than three different sets upon his release into gen pop, and he’d done his best to deny them all what they wanted, an ex-cop on their roster.  Someone who knew the prison and how to get around certain obstacles would have been highly valuable and might have kept him safe, but it would’ve been a life he despised, and he didn’t need that type of shit on his conscience any longer.

            The white supremacists that had approached him had first applauded his actions, telling him that “beaners needed to recognize real strength”.  He’d been polite and even respectful right up until the point when they’d attempted to recruit him.  Saying no to a white supremacist was almost like telling an angry dog not to bite you after kicking it, there was a good chance that it might bite anyway.  Still, they had offered, he had said no, and they had gone on their way.  They had of course told him to think it over, that everyone needed friends in a place like this, but Lorne had only been listening with half an ear at that point.

            The day after that the local chapter of the Crips had come to see him, wondering if he wanted to make a deal of some sort.  When he had deduced that they wanted something from him because of his status as an ex-cop, he had politely declined.  He’d known that the three individuals that had come to see him, Krazy, Jimmy, and Bonez, as they called themselves, had all been packing shivs, but he hadn’t cared. He was going out of this place just one way in any case, and it wasn’t on his feet.

            After his polite dismissal of the Crips the most unlikely gang of all had come to him, the Norteno’s.  The tension around him upon their approach had been strong enough to feel on his skin, though no one had made a move.  Instead the leader of their small group, a man half his size who had identified himself as Loco, had passed him a well-worn Robert R. McCammon book titled “Swan Song”. He hadn’t understood that bit at first, but when he’d made his case for staying away from the gangs, Loco had nodded, stating that he understood. Before they had parted ways though the diminutive leader had told Lorne to check out the book, see if it grew on him.  It had been an odd request at first he believed, but when he had gotten back to his bunk for lights out he’d found out why Loco had bothered to give the book to him.

            So far he was about eighty-six pages into the apocalyptic story, but it wasn’t the tale or the script that had him thinking so intently now.  Instead, the slip of paper that Loco had planted within its pages had him thinking harder than ever.  It was just a slip of paper, nothing much, but it had kicked his mental and emotional gears into a frenzied pace that had left him unable to sleep the first night after receiving the simple little question.

            What are your words of worth?

            It was an odd question really, no doubt one that a grammar teacher would rip apart without pause, but it had still made him think.  So many times he’d seen inmates come and go with a range of emotion beginning with a whimper and ending with a boisterous cry of denial over circumstances they couldn’t change. Only a few times in his life had he ever heard a single inmate offer up anything insightful about what they were facing. 

            What are your words of worth?

            Even after a month he still couldn’t answer the question.  He had to wonder if by the end he’d ever be able to.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            More time passed, and eventually he was taken from gen pop to death row, his sentence

moving along steadily as the governor had already taken the time to approve his DOE.  Strangely

he felt at peace in his cell while awaiting his end.  Something had changed at this point, and he

knew what. 

            He had spoken to his family one last time before the DOE had come in, and had made his peace as much as he could.  His wife had been understandably emotional, as she always was. His kids had been tearful and wanted to do anything and everything they could to keep him in their lives. Visitation to the condemned had never been a popular thing he recalled from his time spent as a guard, but he could see how it could ease the pressure of what was to come.  Saying goodbye was so final, but at the very least he’d come to understand the reason why Loco had slipped him the book when he had. 

            His trip to the gas chamber hadn’t been a surprise to anyone, but it had least been respected by one person.  In speaking to his wife and children Lorne had made his peace with what was about to happen, but it had been when he had spoken to the other visitor that had come to see him, the one above all individuals that he had worried over for too long, that had truly set him at ease.  Autumn had sat silently behind the thick pane of glass for several moments before reaching up to the cracked and faded receiver hanging on the wall. 

            Their conversation had been brief, but it had been meaningful.  She had forgiven him completely for his actions, no matter that she was now without a mother and only a half-senile grandmother for support.  She knew very well that she was always welcome with his family, and that she would be taken care of in any event.  They had spoken only long enough for him to impart the words of worth he had thought long and hard on, words that had made her smile and cry at the same time.  She had forgiven him and that was enough.  But she had accepted his words, and that was more than he could have ever hoped for. 

            At the very least, he knew now the meaning of the message.

Common Ground

Common Ground

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

            She woke to the feeling of cold cement beneath her cheek, the chill of the stone stiffening the muscles in her face.  A puddle of drool had collected beneath the left side of her head, its wetness unpleasant as she regained consciousness.  Her plain brown locks spilled all around her as she lay there, some of it catching in the wet puddle as she began to slowly move her head about.  A sense of vertigo hit her as she tried to crane her neck backwards, sending her crashing face first back to the floor beneath her. 

“Hey, are you okay?” she felt a rough hand gently touch the back of her neck, its warm touch causing her eyes to snap open.  Trying as hard as she could she attempted to rise, her arms and legs moving in spasms no matter how hard she tried to regain her control. 

“Hey relax, you’re still groggy.  Just take it easy.” Another hand clamped gently on her shoulder, further aggravating her.

            Vanessa did not like to be touched.  Why this was so even she could not say, it was just a character trait that had been with her for most of her life.  The merest brush of another she did not know or care for set her teeth on edge.  Even those she knew didn’t always find that they could just offer a friendly touch. 

“Get off of me.”  She managed to speak the words, but found that her jaw clamped shut immediately after.  Whatever had been done to her had yet to wear off, leaving her body still halfway paralyzed. 

“Fine, have it your way”, the voice said, muttering as the speaker moved away.  She wanted to apologize, to tell whoever it was that she didn’t mean to be so rude, but first she had to rise.  Gathering the sparse strength she still possessed she attempted to work her arms, planting them beneath her shoulders as she struggled to push herself up.  Fire burned in her muscles as she ground her teeth together, keeping her eyes tightly shut as she struggled to raise herself from the ground.  The rough feeling of the cement was quite unpleasant, though it was nothing compared to the pounding in her head as she continued to strain herself, managing to rise halfway before she collapsed, her cheek meeting the ground quite rudely as she grunted in pain. 

“See?  That’s why I tried to help you.  All of us had that problem apparently on waking up.  Do you want help?”  The voice became a little more distinctive as she lay there in pain, its masculine tone carrying a hint of irritation in it.  Vanessa ground her teeth together as she steeled herself against the answer she knew she’d inevitably give.  The fire within her body did not subside as she lay there, her muscles seizing even as she tried to lay as still as possible.  She could feel her cheeks burn with the shame of not being able to stand on her own two feet. 

“Yes please.  If you don’t mind can you help me up?”  A short snicker caused her cheeks to flush even more as she heard the footfalls coming in her direction.  Keeping her eyes closed she could feel as her entire body tensed upon the stranger’s touch.  If he noticed he said nothing, picking her up quite easily before setting her back first against a wall that felt just as solid as the floor.  The chill touch of it even through her shirt caused her to at least try and arch her back, though she found that she couldn’t even do this as the fire in her veins surged yet again.  Her hiss of pain was followed by yet another short burst of chuckling from more than one throat.  Opening her eyes Vanessa prepared herself to glare at those who were laughing at her expense, though what she saw caused her to think twice. 

She quickly counted nine other individuals within the well-lighted room, seven of them women and two of them men. They were in a round room that, as she could now see, was composed of concrete walls, floor, and nothing else.  Blinking several times she attempted to look up, but after just a few seconds her head began to swim as black spots started appearing in her vision.  Lowering her chin she gasped at the pain that had erupted at the nape of her neck, reaching back with one hand to feel for the sore spot. What she found left her wincing anew as her fingers probed the sensitive, raised portion of flesh along the back of her skull.

“You too huh?” spoke the voice that she now recognized, one of the two men she reasoned.  “I woke up with a pain inside my skull that I still can’t get rid of.  I suppose whoever put us here wasn’t too gentle in the doing.”

Vanessa didn’t answer, closing her eyes for a moment as thoughts of drifting off to slumber began to enter her mind.

“Don’t fall asleep,” she heard a woman say, “If you’ve got a concussion it’s likely you won’t wake up.  That’s what my mom always told me anyway.”

She had no intention of falling asleep, not when her head hurt this much, but it was at least good to hear another voice at this moment.  Her memories were so badly jumbled at that second that remembering her name felt like a grand accomplishment as she gently massaged around the tender spot on her skull.

Someone let out a long sigh as the sound echoed faintly in the chamber, “So, anyone have any ideas on how we got here and why?”

No one answered the second man as he spoke, though Vanessa was desperately attempting to remember the last thing she’d done, said, or even ate before waking up in this place.  What had she been doing?

“All I know is that I was folding my family’s laundry when I felt a sharp pain in the back of my head and I dropped. When I woke up I was here.”

“Me too,” said another woman, “I was coming out of my home and felt a jab at the base of my skull, right here,” Vanessa didn’t look, but could imagine the woman pointing at the spot, “and then I was out.”

“Where is ‘here’ though?” one of the men asked.

No one spoke for a moment, though as she opened her eyes Vanessa once again attempted to look up, but this time without craning her head back so far.  What she saw was absolutely nothing, just pitch black without any hint of an end, as though they’d been dumped in a pit that light never reached. Except there was at least some light, though it took her a moment to realize that it was coming from wall-mounted halogen lights that were burning just bright enough for them  to see by.  The cylindrical lights were located far enough up on the wall that jumping for them would be quite impossible.

 Looking around the room with half-closed eyes she took in the state of her fellow captives.  No one was chained or bound in any way, and none of them appeared to have suffered anything worse than whatever had been done to subdue them and bring them here.  The seven women ranged in age from what looked to be two teenagers to one woman who could have been in her thirties.  The men looked old enough and rough

enough to be in their thirties and possibly forties in the case of one of them. 

“I don’t know any of you,” she said plainly.

A bark of laughter came from one of the women, her blue eyes meeting Vanessa’s sudden glance as she shook her head.  The mass of blonde curls that swung about her head looked as though someone had shoved a dirty mop on her head, though Vanessa kept her mouth shut. The problem of foot in mouth disease had always been her biggest fault. It was one of the reasons why her last boyfriend had dumped her apparently. Well, that and the fact that she’d been acting “slutty” in front of his parents apparently.

“Something funny?” she asked before she could bite the words back.

The woman raised an eyebrow at her, sitting forward as she spoke, “No one knows anyone in here.”

“Where is ‘here’?” Vanessa asked, daring to look up again as her head began to pound more.

“Here,” spoke a voice that seemed to reverberate off the walls, “is where I’ve put you.”

 Each one of them looked up and all around, searching for a source that could divine just where the voice had come from, but they could see nothing past the lights and the darkness above.  Vanessa didn’t bother rising to her feet as she watched them, confident at least that they would find nothing. Whoever had put them here, and it had to be a who, had likely seen fit to insure that their cement prison was inescapable and ultimately too confusing to figure out.  Her mind had been racing since waking only a minute before, formulating questions that might provide answers as to what had happened, but so far nothing had come to her.  The only question that remained now was why they were here, and that she couldn’t begin to fathom.

“Who are you?” one of the women asked, her voice sounding close to panic.

The modulated voice came again, offering no clue as to its owner’s gender, age, or identity.

“I’m your tormentor, just as you all were mine at one point and time.”

That elicited looks around the room as Vanessa managed a slight frown that didn’t send a spike of pain racing across her skull. It was a clue at least, but one given so freely that surely the speaker was banking on the fact that no one in here would understand how to solve the rest of the puzzle.

“We don’t understand,” growled one of the men, “You mean we all know you?”

Ah, that made sense Vanessa figured, but it still didn’t provide an answer.  Even if led somewhere though she had a sick feeling in her gut that the speaker wouldn’t care, that he, or she, would believe themselves beyond reproach.  Somehow she couldn’t fault that logic.

“At one point and time, yes,” the unseen speaker said. “You’re here to conduct a little social experiment.”

“You can’t do this!” one of the women screeched, standing to her feet as she pounded a hand against the wall.  Vanessa quickly noted that all she received for her efforts was a sore hand and a dull, empty thud, meaning that the walls were likely a foot thick or more. 

“I already have,” the voice said, “Now to the experiment. This chamber will fill up periodically with water, which will be stored for no less than two minutes at a time.  In order to survive the only method you will have will be to hold your breath for that period

of time.”

“That’s not an experiment, that’s torture!” snarled one of the women, a young lady no more than twenty or so Vanessa figured. Her pretty face was pulled into a hideous grimace that spoke of fear and something else, though she couldn’t guess what just now.     

“Beyond the darkness of your chamber there are eight holes only two inches in diameter, enough to breathe through once the chamber is filled. But as there are more people than there are holes, you must decide to share, or allow two of your number to expire.  The experiment starts now.”

“Wait!”

The sound of the woman’s protest was drowned out by a sudden, blaring noise as the lights grew brighter for a moment, confusing them all even as the sound of something, perhaps a heavy slab begin dragged along, reached their ears.  Only a few seconds after the first drops hit them, and then the chamber was filling with water as from above the deluge began.

Vanessa knew that to remain seated was a death sentence, but as the others sprang to their feet, moving about like frightened crickets in a jar, she could only sit, feeling as the water immediately began to fill the bottom of the chamber, creeping upward until she felt it filling her shoes and saturating her pants and the flimsy underwear she’d selected just before….

Wait.

A memory was surfacing, something she’d been doing just last night. If her head hurt this bad then her assailant couldn’t have attacked her that long ago.  Of course that was assuming that her pain wasn’t the lingering type that waited until the body fully woke.  She was going with her initial thought however as she tried to hold onto the memory of picking out her underwear for….for….

Dammit, where had she been going that she’d needed a lacey thong riding between her cheeks?

“Get up!” one of the men said as he rushed towards her, “Get up or you’ll be sucking water soon!”

He wasn’t lying at least, the water had already risen to her waist and was steadily climbing now, the rush from above becoming a full on roaring waterfall that was filling the chamber without pause. 

“What do you remember before coming here?” she all but yelled at him, standing to her feet with some help as she felt a sudden chill.  She’d just stood under one of the direct streams feeding into the full mass of the waterfall, leading her to believe that one of the holes the voice had spoken about was right above her.

“Not much!” the man said as he shook his head, “I just remember that I was walking around outside my home and I felt a sharp pain in the back of my neck! After everything went black I woke up here!”

“Where do you live?”

It was forward and blunt, but it was something at least. She had to ask.

“We need to get ready to swim!” he said, looking down.  Vanessa could already feel the water rising hungrily to her waist, almost as if it was a living organism that wanted to devour them all.  But she would not be swayed from her question.

“Where?” she all but demanded.

“I’ve got a house with my girlfriend and her kids, one of ‘em’s mine, out in Vancouver, Washington!”

That struck no chords, but it was surprisingly forthcoming. 

“Where’re you from?” he yelled at her, keeping his head down so water wouldn’t gush into his open mouth.

“Portland,” she yelled back, giving nothing else as he merely nodded. This wasn’t the moment to be giving life histories after all as the water reached their waists, lapping at their bodies as if eager to pull them under. 

“We’ve got to find those holes!” yelled one of the women from across the room. Her voice reverberated off the walls as the water continued to pour down, ceaseless as the group began to go in their own directions, looking ever upward as though the water and the darkness would part just a bit to allow them a better view. Vanessa could have told them that this was pointless.  Eventually they would have to start kicking their legs to propel upward, where they could search in the darkness of those holes yet again, hopefully with better luck.  She reasoned that if they paid attention to where the water actually joined to make the singular column they would be able to find the holes that each spout was coming from.

People in a panic however did not think straight, nor did they allow logic to settle their frightened minds in their time of need.  Vanessa knew how to think when her back was to the wall, at least when emotions weren’t involved.

Another memory began to surface, but even as it did she felt the chill water reach her armpits, and any thought she might have had was gone in the next instant as she reflexively lifted her arms from the water.  The man she’d been speaking to had moved away by now, joining the others in seeking a way to see past the darkness.  She might have rolled her eyes had the situation not been so dire.

“Eight holes!” someone called, “We’ve got to survive with eight holes for air!”

“No shit!” yelled someone else, “Just don’t get in my way and we’ll be okay!”

Vanessa shook her head despite the pain it caused, wondering just who would be given the short end of the stick when it came time to ascend. She didn’t intend to be one of those left out.

                                    *                      *                      *

 

10 minutes later…

 

            As it turned out she hadn’t been the one who got the short end.  The man she’d been speaking to lay face down across the chamber, isolated in his own little spot as the others had left him.  The waters had indeed filled the chamber just as the voice had said, and had lasted for what felt like hours, but according to the watch that one of the women wore had been no more than a couple minutes.  At the very least the voice was being consistent.

            “Did anyone know his name?” The weak voice of one of the young women across the way sounded pitiful in the soaked chamber, and even more so as her voice shook. Each one of them were shivering and shuddering where they sat, well enough apart from one another that the sharing of body heat wasn’t even a possibility.  No one here trusted their fellow captives any further than they could throw them apparently, and more than that it was evident that whether he had never found a hole or  been forced from one of the

holes, the dead man had become a casualty of this little “social experiment”.

            “Does it matter?” asked the sole remaining man in the room, “He’s dead, and none of us know each other anyway.”  That remark elicited silence for nearly a minute before another person spoke up, one of the women across the way.

            “My name’s Jennifer Marsh, but everyone calls me Jen.  I’m from Portland, Oregon. I was going to pick up my kid from daycare. I’d just gotten in my car when I felt a sharp pain-“

            “In the back of your neck?” the man asked sarcastically, “Yeah, me too.  Anyone else?”

            The others muttered a “yes” or nodded in turn, which made Vanessa’s mind turn even quicker as she filed the thought away for a later time. So they had all been abducted in the same manner it seemed, and so far the woman, Jen, who had just spoken didn’t live too far from the man whose name she’d never gotten.  That gave her an idea as she rose to her feet, walking over to the corpse. 

            “What’re you doing?” the man said, shying away from her as Vanessa steeled herself for what she was about to do. It wasn’t anything like she’d ever seen on The Walking Dead, but it was still repugnant enough to be standing so close to a dead body, let alone shoving her hands in his pockets.  Thankfully she retrieved what she’d been looking for without needing to go through them all.

            “Have some fucking respect!” shouted one of the younger women.

            “Shut your hole,” Vanessa said, turning around just in case the younger woman wanted to do something foolish like sucker-punch her.

            The wallet was made of nylon, almost like something a young child or adolescent would carry, and featured the New England Patriots logo on its front, the swooping face of the mascot seeming to disapprove of her actions. She blinked as she opened the wallet, poring through the sparse contents until she found a drivers license with a stamp reading REVOKED across its front. She almost laughed, as she’d never thought the DMV would do anything like this. Instead Vanessa read past the permanent red ink, seeking his name and where he’d been living.

            At least he’d been telling the truth about his home.  Clinton Morgan, age 38, living in Vancouver, WA.  His picture spoke of a certain gleeful arrogance that the man she’d met had not seemed to possess. But then they’d been scrambling for their lives, and panic did strange things to people.

            “Clinton,” she said aloud, “That was his name. Happy?”

            There was a sullen silence as the other woman muttered “You don’t have to be a bitch about it.”

            “It’s what I do,” Vanessa shot back as she looked to the woman who’d spoken, seeing her eyes widen as she realized she’d not been as quiet as she’d thought.

            “Now that we know two of our names, anyone else want to volunteer?”

            Vanessa looked around the room as she spoke, not too surprised that no one bounded forth attempting to end the mystery. Finally though the only remaining male spoke up.

            “I’m Phillip Reddenthal,” he said plainly, “I live in Vancouver, Washington, and I was just getting home from work when I felt the pain in my neck. I thought a bee stung me at first, but when the lights went out, well, I suppose the rest of you know.”

            No one else spoke, but Vanessa was thinking hard now. Two from Vancouver, and two from Portland counting herself. That was a very limited area so far to pull from, and begged even more questions that she couldn’t answer right away.

            “Anyone not with us?”

            The voice, the hated voice, the cowardly voice she thought to herself, boomed out of the hidden speakers once again, and this time sounded almost jovial.

            “Clinton is gone,” she dared to say, “He wasn’t able to make it up to the holes.”

            Vanessa just barely saw one of the women twitch, as though the statement had caught her unawares, or had struck a nerve. She ignored it for the moment but would recall the tic later.  At the moment she listened to the silence from the speaker, wondering if she should infer anything from it, or if it meant nothing at all.

            “Does that make you sad?” she asked, daring just a little now as she looked up.  Something blue and crackling suddenly appeared in midair, spitting and creating a blue, arcing spark.  Too late she and the others realized what it was, and that the floor was still very wet.

            Electricity danced along the water-slicked floor, slamming hard into all of them as Vanessa felt her muscles seize and her body drop from the sudden shock.  She heard the others cry out from across the chamber and knew that they’d been tased too.  Though it lasted only a few moments she was still jerking and feeling the pain as she rose to her feet. 

            “That was only a taser,” the voice said, “Next time I might try a live wire when the chamber is filled.” Vanessa looked up, her muscles still seizing slightly as she closed her eyes against another spasm. “Does that make you sad?”

            She’d touched a nerve it would seem. File it away for later use she thought, and continue on.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            The room filled up a short time later, and they all made their way to the top.  Once it had drained again they were all still alive, but Clinton’s corpse had somehow vanished. No one had seen it, none of them had even noticed a change in pressure or the feeling of water rushing from an opening. To be fair they’d been worried more about saving their own lives than keeping an eye on a dead man, but it was still a shocking revelation. 

            As the chamber drained she kept an eye upon the others as much as she could, finding that none of them seemed willing to meet her eyes. Once their feet touched the floor however another of them spoke up, revealing that her name was Jenna Ogden, and that she lived with her family in Vancouver.  So it was three for Vancouver and two for Portland now. Vanessa knew there was something that tied them all together, otherwise what was the point? 

            The connecting piece was still unseen as of yet though, and seemed to dance just out of reach. Somehow she had the idea that it was something very simple, and that she might feel like a fool once it came into focus.  This had happened more than once.

            “So what’s your story?” Phil asked her as they began to shiver anew from the wetness they’d endured so far.  “Who are you and where are you from?”

            Vanessa was inclined to tell him to mind his own business, but instead she revealed her name and where she was from, though the details she recalled before waking up here she kept to herself.  Phil didn’t press the issue, but she could see in his eyes that

he wanted more.  He would have to wait, just as she was doing.

            “I was just getting home,” said one of the women. She had yet to offer her name, but her sopping wet hair and rumple clothing had already revealed a body that was obviously well-cared for and indicated that she took care of herself. “I’d gone for a run around town and was walking up to my front walk when I heard footsteps behind me, and then, here.”

            Vanessa wondered if anything was going to make sense in that moment as the woman kept talking. What she said next though made her pay attention.

            “I was supposed to be going to work the night shift.  I live in Brush Prairie and work in Jantzen Beach at the Doubletree as a waitress.  I didn’t get to clock in. They must be missing me by now.”

            “Likely they’ll think you just skipped out,” Phil said, shaking his head, “Any chance of anyone else being missed?”

            Heads rose at that remark, though no one but Candace spoke as she shook her head, “No, no, no. They know me well enough. They know I never do a no-show without a good reason. I always call, always call. They know me, they know I like my job.”

            Vanessa could hear the panic in the woman’s voice and deduced very easily that this young woman didn’t handle stress well, at least when her situation was as dire as this.  Under the circumstances she couldn’t blame her.

            “Likely as not we haven’t been here that long,” Vanessa said, “But it’s also likely that our tormentor is someone who has all the time in the world.”

            “What makes you say that?” Phil asked, looking at her askance.

            “Something like this had to have taken time,” Vanessa replied, looking up and all around, “I couldn’t even say what this place is, but obviously it’s a well-used system. It had to have required some planning and some effort to get us all in here, particularly without a scratch on us.”

            “Other than the obvious lump on the back of our heads,” Phil remarked.

            Vanessa nodded, “Whoever it is had to know our routines somehow I would think to know enough about where we’d be and when. I can’t believe it’d be dumb luck or done on a whim. That would be too dangerous.”

            “Regular detective aren’t you?” spoke one of the women from across the way, “Well then Sherlock, maybe you can tell us the best way to get out of this goddamned hole?”

             Vanessa and Phil turned their attention to the speaker, a rough-looking woman in her twenties perhaps who looked as if life had used her up and put her away wet.  Her face was a roadmap of scars and abuse, and her body was stocky and quite muscular. As she came to stand only a few feet away she scowled heavily at them, as though expecting them to speak.

            “What’s your name?” Vanessa said calmly.

            The woman scowled even heavier, “My name is Jean Burleson, and I asked you a question.”

            “First, where are you from?”

            Jean looked to Phil, then to Vanessa, then back to Phil, “Is this bitch for real?”

            Vanessa bristled just a bit at the woman’s tone, but did not rise to the bait. Instead Phil just smiled and replied, “I think this is all about as real as it can get. It might be best if you answer her question, ‘cause right now she seems to be the only one with any ideas

on what’s going on.”

            “Is that right?” Jean said, cocking her head in a manner that almost shouted her intent to get physical. That was fine if it happened, Vanessa had knocked a few bitches down in her life, as well as a few men.  She already knew where she would strike if it  came to that.

            “Well I’m from Vancouver.  Is that helpful missy?” she asked, her voice condescending and quite angry as she stood there glaring at the two of them. Vanessa couldn’t quite understand the reason for her vehement attitude, but did not decide to say as much.  Instead she processed the small bit of information and kept going.

            “What were you doing before you woke up here? Do you remember?”

            Jean moved just a little closer, one eyebrow raising suggestively as she eyed Vanessa up and down. “You really want to know sweets?”

            “Are you a dyke or something?” Phil asked, frowning slightly.

            Jean snorted as she looked at the older man, “The only thing a man is good for is what’s between his legs, and any real woman can still do without that limp little thing.  You want to know what I was doing sweetheart? I was tongue deep in-“

            “I get it,” Vanessa said, interrupting as she held a hand up between herself and Jean. “I get it.”

            Pursing her lips Jean pulled back, raising her hands in mock surrender as she crooned, “Oooh, well lookie here. Little Miss thong up my crack is a genuine prude!  Who would’ve guessed?”

            Vanessa frowned, tugging at her skirt to keep it covering her upper legs. She wasn’t afraid of Jean seeing anything, obviously she’d seen enough, but she didn’t need her lady parts to be on display, especially not in sight of this woman.

            “What, or should I say who, were you doing before you came here? Hmm?” Jean let this last word draw out as she went back to her place, sauntering now as she obviously believed that she’d hit a nerve. Vanessa could only shake her head, wondering again what connected all of them.

            “Wait, you were with someone?” she called.

            “Yes and no,” Jean said as she sat down, obviously pleased with herself. “My bitch and I were already done and she’d hit the road like I told her to. I was about to fall asleep when I felt the pain in my neck, and then nothing.”

            Shaking her head Vanessa looked up, half-hoping to hear something, anything, that might have given her a clue as to where they were. But of course it was silent save for the breathing and other noises made by her fellow captives.

            When the rushing sound of water reached her ears she wasn’t surprised, but she’d almost been expecting the voice to come again. This time she had at least a facsimile of a plan, though she had no idea if it would work.

            “Here we go again,” said Phil. As he spoke the water rushed in, and the nine remaining captives waited.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            One of the remaining three women who’d not identified herself as of yet was sobbing once the room had been drained, sitting with her head in her hands as she wailed into her interlaced fingers.  No one bothered to tell her to shut up, but as her sobs finally tapered off she spoke.

            “My, my name is Amy, and I don’t belong here.  I don’t, don’t belong, here.”

            It was almost too pathetic to listen to her hitching sobs, but Vanessa was listening all the same. She needed to know as much as possible, and could only hope that the voice came eventually. 

            “Where are you from Amy?” asked Phil, who was leaning up against the wall not too far from Vanessa.

            “Beaverton,” she said meekly, “I’m from Beaverton, out near Sunset High School. I work at the Costco over by TV Highway.”

            Vanessa knew where the woman was speaking of, and was growing more and more intrigued. She knew what question she wanted to ask now, though it might seem outlandish and a bit of a stretch. If the voice came back though she was primed and ready to deliver the challenge and see what happened.  If they were unlucky they might get another taser thrown down into the chamber just before the water came again.  If they unlucky….she didn’t want to think about that.

            “What were you doing before you got here Amy?”

            The young woman shook her head as she tried to recollect, to discover just what she’d been doing before being abducted. But then the voice returned, and Vanessa forgot about Amy for a moment.

            “Having fun playing detective?”

            The playful tone keyed her into something she’d not thought of before, a familiar note that almost struck a chord she could work with. But then the voice kept talking and her concerns swept that thought away immediately.

            “I feel it prudent to tell you that one of the holes has been covered over and will not be in use for your next swim. Now I understand that this means that you will need to work together once again or allow someone else to perish, but I feel confident that you will do as expected.”

            “And what are we supposed to do?” Phil managed to challenge.

            The voice was silent for a moment before coming back, the tone grave now as the unseen speaker said, “Simple. You will survive.”

            Before the speaker could step away Vanessa voiced her question, making her voice loud and clear as she looked up.  “How do you know all of us?”

            Again there was a moment of silence. Vanessa was well aware of the others turning to look at her, perhaps wondering how she had come to this deduction. She would reveal that later, but for now she wanted the speaker to at least think that she was beginning to figure things out.  If she could keep their unknown captor off balance they might stand a chance of surviving this ordeal.

            Instead the water began to pour in again, and as she noted the lack of a single stream Vanessa realized  that the speaker had been telling the truth.  She wanted to believe that she had struck yet another vital nerve by challenging the speaker in such a way, but as the chill of the water began to lap over her shoes again it was hard to feel any sense of victory.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            Amy went next.  Once the water had receded again, once more without a visible drain to flush it away, the young woman was found lying face up on the cold concrete floor, her eyes wide open and a look of horror etched permanently on her face. Worse than this however were the bruises that ringed her throat, speaking volumes to the assault she had suffered at the hands of someone within the room.  So far Vanessa had let her opinion remain buried within her thoughts, but the others had not been so reserved.

            “Lookit the marks and look at your thick porkpie hands bitch!  You could’ve helped her survive and instead you saved your own ass!” Phil was vehemently attempting to reach Jean, being held back by three of the women while the other two held Jean in place.

            “And why would I waste a fine piece of ass like her?! It was probably you!  Where were you when we were all fighting just to breathe?”

            “He and I shared a breathing hole,” Vanessa said, piping up as she finally took note of the conversation.  Instead of furthering it however she looked to the two women who’d not yet identified themselves.  One of them, a woman with thick jowls and a heavy frame, looked to be in her mid to late thirties, while the other, who was rather pretty but in a plain sort of way, had to be in her twenties at least. 

            “You two haven’t said much since we started talking,” she said to them both, “Now would be a good time to start.”

            “I don’t have anything to say,” the older of the two said.  Dark brown eyes regarded Vanessa with a mild amount of suspicion as the woman then looked away. The other simply stayed quiet.

            “Your names and where you’re from would be a good start.” 

            “What does it matter?” the same woman said, “It won’t help us get out of here.  Just leave us alone.”

            “’Us’?” Vanessa asked, cocking a brow, “You two are an ‘us’?”

            “No!” the woman protested, “But since she’s not speaking either I spoke for both of us.”

            The other woman twisted her lips in distaste as she looked to the older woman, finally leaning her head back as she spoke, “My name is Margo and I live in Portland. Good enough?”

            Vanessa just nodded, turning her attention to the other woman.

            “Oh Jesus Christ,” the woman muttered, “Fine. My name is Pepper and I live out in Milwaukie.  I’m a Capricorn and I enjoy binge-watching Netflix on rainy days and I’m a caregiver at a Foster Care home.  Is that good enough?”

            That last bit struck Vanessa in a way she’d not expected, but it was not yet enough to spring any lasting memory.  Instead of showing that it had affected her, she nodded, moving away a few steps as she allowed her thoughts to churn.

            “We were all taken from somewhere,” she began, “And as near as I can tell the limits are Brush Prairie to Milwaukie. That’s not a huge jump.”

            “So?” asked Margo, “What does that mean?”

            “It means our kidnapper, whom I hope is listening, is either limited in their geographical influence, or knows all of us from their dealings in whatever city we were grabbed. The bastard knew us all in some capacity, that’s my theory.”

            “Oh yeah?” Jean challenged, “Then tell me this sugar tits, how come none of us know each other then?  You’d think if this puke pulled only people that they knew then at least one or two of us would recognize each other.”

            “Pepper what did you say you did?” Vanessa asked, ignoring Jean.

            Blowing out a breath Pepper rolled her eyes and said, “I work for a Foster Care

home.  I was taking out the trash when I felt a jab in my neck, and then nothing.”

            “In Milwaukie,” Vanessa said.

            Pepper just nodded.

            “What’s the goddamned point you’re trying to make woman??” Jean asked impatiently.

            “My point is that if someone who knew us did this, they would know where we were, when to hit us, and that we wouldn’t be missed.”

            “But I’ll be missed,” Candace piped up, “I didn’t show up for work and they’ll miss me.  That means they’ll call my mom, and she’ll miss me, then she’ll call the cops, and they’ll be looking, and then-“

            “Oh shut up!” Jean shouted, “We haven’t been here that damned long!”

            “And how would you know?” Phil almost growled.

            Jean looked at him askance, grumbling under her breath.

            “What was that?” Phil said, shaking his head.

            “I said I’m a diabetic!” Jean shouted at him, “I need a shot every six hours or I start to get the shakes. And I haven’t felt so much as a twinge since we woke up here.”

            Vanessa and Phil exchanged a look.  There was far more to that statement than either of them wanted to contemplate at the moment. For now Jean looked and sounded fine, but Vanessa had known a few diabetics in her life, and knew what could happen once Jean’s blood sugar dropped. It wouldn’t be pretty.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            The water came again, and then receded. As it did though the voice spoke again.

            “Everyone still with us?”

            Looking around Vanessa could see that Amy’s body was, predictably, missing.  How it had happened she still didn’t know, but the eerie quality of the abduction was enough to give her chills on top of the cold that had already seeped into her bones.

            “Amy is gone,” Vanessa said, “But I suppose you already knew that, Trent.”

            All eyes were on her now as she spoke, but the voice was silent for the moment, as though in contemplation or shock, she couldn’t be certain. 

            “Trent?” Jean said, “You know a Trent? So do I.”

            “Trent Farlaine?” Phil asked in a shaky, almost unsure voice.

            “Is his dad Abel Farlaine?” Pepper asked as she raised her head.

            Vanessa felt vindicated for the moment, but there was no definitive way to know yet that she was correct. The fact that they all held at least a small amount of common ground at this moment was tenuous at best. But if the voice-

            “I guess I should have known you’d figure it out eventually,” the voice said, still modulated despite the admission, “Of all of you in there I suppose Vanessa is the smartest.”

            “Trent??!” Candace suddenly erupted, “You took me from my home?? What the hell is wrong with you?!”

            “Oh pipe down Candace,” the voice, Trent, said in reply, “None of you have any room to stand on indignation.  Each one of you was selected for this little experiment for a reason, and a very good one I might add.”

            “What possible reason could you have for killing two innocent people?!” shouted

Jean, “You snot-nosed little puke!  Who the hell gave you the right to play with others

like this?!”

            “Oh come on now sis,” Trent said, obvious pleasure in his voice, “It was you who gave me the idea.”

            “’Sis’?” Phil echoed, looking at Jean now with obvious mistrust in his eyes.

            Jean was stunned to silence as she looked up, then at her fellow captives, her mouth working soundlessly as she obviously was trying to sort out just what had happened.

            “Don’t be so modest Jean. I had to wait for the right time to get you after all. Right when you were done with that little guttersnipe you enjoy so much I slipped a needle in your neck and, for good measure, I knocked you over the head.”

            “You little sonofabitch,” Jean whispered, shaking her head, “I never, goddammit, I never-“

            “You never what?!” Phil roared at her, coming dangerously close as Jean tensed up, no doubt waiting for him to strike her.  Vanessa had the feeling that this would be the worst thing Phil could do just now, but wasn’t willing to step in between them.

            “Back off,” Jean said calmly, silently, and in a tone that Vanessa couldn’t think of as anything but dangerous.  “Just back off old man or you’ll be singing the high soprano for the rest of your life, all two seconds of it.”

            Phil looked as if he wanted to try that threat, to see how far she would really go, but he did not advance. Instead he stormed off to the far side of the chamber, fuming and ready to punch something, or someone.  Vanessa on the other hand was putting two and two together. She knew Trent Farlaine, and in fact had met his parents, but never his sister. In fact it was fair to say that she’d never known he had one, as he and his family had never spoken of her. 

            She’d been dating Trent for some time before he had unceremoniously dumped her after she’d been too flirty around his parents.  In truth Vanessa had believed she was being affectionate, but Trent’s parents had been a couple of prudes in her estimation, and hadn’t approved of her from the get go.  But where did the others fit in?

            “Truth time,” she said to the chamber as a whole, “How do each of you know Trent?”

            “I worked for his dad,” Phil said, “Painting company, he was on the same crew as me and to be honest we didn’t get along too well.”

            “You’re an idiot Phil,” said Trent, his voice booming into the chamber, “Each day you came to work either drunk, stoned, or both, and wanted to do things your way, not the company way.”

            “That didn’t mean you had a right to get me fired!” Phil roared to the ceiling, “You ratted me out to your old man and he fired me on the spot!”

            “As he should have,” Trent said calmly.

            “I, I worked with him  years ago, but we kept in touch. Why Trent?” Candace’s voice was so pathetic that she sounded on the verge of tears, though upon looking at her in the weak light Vanessa figured that she was simply cold and tired, like the rest of them.

            “Ah Candace.  You might have been left off the list of people to include if not for one thing.  You screwed me over when it came to advancing within our place of employment those many years ago. You stood in my way when I wanted something, and now you get to pay the price.”

            “After seven years?” Candace whimpered, “You told me we were good, that we were friends. What the hell?”

            “Oh shut up Candace, you’re already boring me.  Just in case the rest of you don’t feel like confessing I’ll save you the trouble and tell you why each of you is here.”

            “Jenna, you’re a stupid little bitch that ran back to your sniveling boyfriend even after I tried to make you happy.  Jenny, you’re easy, and I mean that in every possible way.  I tried my best to show you another way to be happy and you laughed at me. You LAUGHED AT ME!”

            “Oh cry me a river,” Jean muttered, though no one was listening to her.

            “Shut your goddamn muff-eating mouth Jean!” Trent roared, his voice a roar within the chamber as he continued, “Margo, I told you more than once that I didn’t want you around. And what did you do? What did you do you dumb bitch?!  You stalked me and came to my parents’ home time and again!  Pepper, you tried to cheat my parents time and again, bilking them for as much as you could get in supplies and pay advances, only to turn around and do it again!

            “And Jean, ah Jean, the dark horse of the family, the one who never shows up in pictures, or conversations because she cut herself off from the family.”

            “That’s a goddamn lie!” Jean shouted, “You’ve got no idea what happened! You were only in junior high when I was kicked out!”

            “When you left, you mean?” Trent said, finally calm and composed as his voice flowed through the unseen speakers rather than thundering down like an angry god.  “I remember very well sister, dad gave you an ultimatum: shape up or ship out.”

            “You spoiled little privileged shit!” Jean snarled, “They  gave you everything and left me out in the cold!”

            “You put yourself there,” Trent said, still composed.

            “What about the rest of us?” Jenna said, finally speaking up again, “We’d likely forgotten about you, at least some of us. So why attack us like this now?”

            Trent chuckled, the sound filling the chamber as a few of them shivered, “Oh Jenna, you want to know why? Why I would do this?” Vanessa was certain that she didn’t want the answer, but it came all the same in the next second.

            “Because I can.  Just to stir the hornet’s nest a bit, there is one of you in this room who knows what’s going on and why, but it’s up to the lot of you to find them. Oh and by the way, two more holes have been plugged, so enjoy trying to share after this fun revelation.”

            With that, the audible thump of a connection being cut came over the speakers, and the small group was alone again. With nothing and no one but the recent history to ponder over. Vanessa could only watch, and wait.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            There was no more trust.  Each one of the remaining group stood looking across the chamber at the other, wondering if that person, or the one next to them, was the individual that Trent had spoken about.  There was a mole among them, but Vanessa figured that such a revelation might have been Trent’s way of sowing further discord among them, therefore making the experiment a little more interesting. 

            She couldn’t suppress a shudder as the water came again, pouring down from far above as two more streams had gone missing, lending more truth to Trent’s words.  He was going to kill them all she was certain, but it was likely going to be a long, torturous death that he would somehow enjoy. To think that he was keeping them in here for such petty reasons as he’d listed was hard to swallow, and even harder to fathom.  She’d thought him to be a much more deep-minded individual, someone who thought about the things he did rather than acting on impulse. After all it had taken her nearly three dates to figure out if he was just being coy or if he was genuinely nervous about touching her in any way.

            The water reached her ankles as she kept a close watch upon the others, wondering if any one of them might make a move towards her or the others. It was a little disturbing to think that she’d shared a bed with Trent but had learned so little about him.  She could reason away not knowing about past co-workers or those who worked for his father, but his sister was still one that she couldn’t figure out why she’d never learned of.  Vanessa had known many families that had split in such a manner, and had known the resentment that could separate one from those who loved them. But this level of animosity between family members was still quite rash she believed. 

            “Why were you kicked out Jean?” Vanessa asked, raising her voice to be heard over the water. She didn’t expect a response, but Jean surprised her by shouting back an answer.

            “I came out to my parents when I was still in high school!  I told them I was a lesbian and they freaked.  My father said I needed to straighten my life up or find another place to live. My mother tried to help me but she couldn’t understand.  I left, and Trent was there alone with them.  Our father didn’t want him making the same decision so he made an example out of me. He cut me out of their lives.”

            It was as simple an explanation as she’d ever received from another person, but one that made her shudder all the same. Her parents were no prize. Her mother had at one time had a parade of losers coming through the door, some that had even gone so far as to think that Vanessa was one of the perks of the relationship.  None of them had lasted more than a few months at most, but the current one that her mother was seeing, a guy who at least didn’t look at Vanessa with anything other than contempt, was one of the worst.

            “What about the rest of you?” she called out, “It would seem this is the time for explanation if not absolution.  What else have we got to lose?”

            “Stuff it you bitch,” Phil snarled at her, “How do we know you’re not the mole? You showed up after the rest of us after all.”

            “And I had as little memory as the rest of you,” Vanessa challenged.

            “But you figured things out so fast,” Candace countered, standing to her feet, “Too fast.”

            “I used my goddamned brain,” Vanessa countered, “If the rest of you hadn’t been wallowing around you might have come to the same deductions I did.”

            “How did you know it was Trent?” Jean asked, her voice raised and her head cocked curiously as she took a step forward, placing her almost under the cascading water, which had by now filled the chamber to knee level.

            “I guessed,” Vanessa said, tensing herself just a bit in case Jean decided to try and rush her. “I’m not the fucking mole here. How do we know you’re not?”

            “Me?” Jean chuckled, “He’s got no reason to reconnect with me. When he did

find me I told him to piss off and deal with his own problems. My brother and I haven’t

got anything in common other than the same bitch of a mother.  But you, I’d imagine he

got his little carrot wet a few times and found it was worth the return trip, yeah? He’d be more than willing to put you in here just to screw with us I would imagine.”

            “Trent dumped me not long ago,” she almost snarled, “I could have cut his balls off for the way he did it, and if I saw him now I most assuredly would.”

            “That’s a fine speech,” Jean said, “But I don’t think I buy it.”

            “I don’t really care,” Vanessa spat, “Because I’m not selling it.”

            “Enough! Both of you!” Margo said from where she stood, “The water’s rising and we need to make a decision!”

            “And what’s that sunshine?” Phil asked, standing where he was, still drenched and obviously unwilling to trust any of them as far as he could throw them.

            “Who’s the mole?”

            “We’re looking at her,” said Jean, her gaze lowered menacingly as she clenched and unclenched her fists, the intent obvious. 

            “You can kiss my ass with that,” Vanessa said as she too clenched her fists, “I was dumped in here the same as you.  Maybe we should be asking you a few questions.”

            “Like what?” Jean sneered, “I’ve got nothing to hide.”

            “Except that you’re Trent’s sister,” said Phil, eyeing Jean with suspicion, “I never knew he had a sister either.  That seems damn suspicious to me.”

            Jean looked at him incredulously, “Are you shitting me? You’re going to back her on this one?”

            “I’m not backin’ anyone,” Phil said, not moving as Vanessa watched him tense up. “I just want to survive this is all.”

            “Open your eyes already old man,” Margo said, shaking her head, “None of us are getting out of here.”

            “Except maybe the mole,” Jean snarled.

            “Making plans already?” Vanessa smirked.

            The water was at hip level now and climbing, and so far no one had moved. They wouldn’t start kicking their legs until it had rise above their heads, so as to conserve energy.  Vanessa got the feeling they were doing more than just waiting to tread water now though.  It was about to get ugly.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            “Did you have to hit me so hard?”

            “You can take it.”

            “That’s not the point,” said the speaker, “I wanted to make it real, not make it really hurt.”

            “Sometimes reality hurts,” said the other speaker.

            “You’re such an ass sometimes.”

            “And yet you keep coming back.”

            “I can’t help it. I like what I’m getting.”

            The other speaker smirked, leaning back in the sole office chair within the room.

            “I know.”

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            For being such closed quarters the water was incredibly murky, limiting visibility to less than a foot in front of her face. Vanessa could only guess that this was why none of them had been able to see whoever had removed Clinton and Amy’s  bodies. Whether it had been Trent or someone else, the supposed mole perhaps, they wouldn’t have been able to see. Even the lights were all but useless once the chamber was filled.

            No one had made a move yet.  What that meant was that they had made their way to the holes, but so far no one had hassled Vanessa as of yet.  She wouldn’t be able to see anyone coming until they were right in front of her, but by then it might be too late. As a result her heartbeat had increased slightly, thudding in her ears as she pressed her lips to the hole she had managed to find. She could only imagine what might be going on across the way at the other holes. 

            Her breath was coming in and out of the hole at the most even pace she could think of, considering that she was scared shitless now. There was no reason to believe that the others wouldn’t be coming after her. She had after all figured out that it was Trent who was pulling the strings on this macabre little screwjob, though it had been simple deduction as she had pointed out. Whether or not his sister was the mole was hard to figure out, though she couldn’t see it being anyone else.  The others seemed to have a genuine dislike of Trent in some way, or at least a good enough reason to stay away from him.

            She sensed movement in the water behind her, prompting a return to watching out in as many directions as she could swivel, keeping her eyes peeled for any sign of movement. What she saw as she continued turning was only more and more murky water, without another body in sight.  If anyone was thinking of coming for her they would have already done it she figured, which left only another option: they would wait until the water receded. 

            In the dim murk Vanessa waited, and she watched.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            It turned out her worst detractor was no longer a worry she needed to concern herself with. As soon as the waters receded she saw two bodies floating gently in the chamber, each one facedown with their arms out to their sides.  It seemed strange that there were two this time, though could easily deduce that the added bombshell that Trent had dropped had caused this.  He’d thrown a metaphorical live grenade into the room and watched to see what would happen. 

            Despite her hatred of Jean and what the woman had said, in that moment Vanessa couldn’t have hated Trent any more than she ever had. They didn’t even need to roll the bodies over to see who they were, as the forms were known well enough by now. Phil bothered to roll them face up once the waters had completely receded, the hollow trickle of the last few liters echoing in the chamber despite the fact that whatever grate had opened could not be seen. This was an oddity that Vanessa could not understand. But if there was an outlet somewhere it was obvious no one on the outside could hear, or was bothering to listen.  Their voices had been raised loud enough at one point that any passerby should have at least taken passing interest.

            “Miserable bitch anyway,” Phil muttered as he stepped away from Jean’s inert corpse.

            “That’s goddamn cold,” Jenna said, hugging her arms to her as she rocked back

and forth, not bothering to even look up as Phil glared her way.

            “No fucking respect,” Margo almost hissed, and that did it. Phil turned around, glaring hard at her as he took a step forward.

            “You want respect?  You want respect?! Take a good look at that drowned piece of shit! For all we know she was the mole!  For all we know it’s because of her that we’re here!”

            “How do you figure?” Margo challenged, standing to her feet as she didn’t flinch from Phil’s gaze.

            “You heard him!” Phil shouted, “He said that it was her idea from the get go!”

            “He could be lying too!” Jenna managed to shout, making her voice heard as she remained seated. It was not a wise move in Vanessa’s estimation, as Phil went immediately to her, obviously fed up and not wanting to hear anything contrary to what he believed.  As he loomed over her Jenna went quiet, though this didn’t save her. The slap that Phil delivered to her face was loud in the closed off chamber, eclipsing Jenna’s whimper as she rocked to the side, the force of the slap more than enough to knock her to the floor in her weakened condition.

            “Now what?!” Phil said, “Say something else you stupid little-!”

            Both Margo and Jenny were the in the next instant, followed swiftly by Candace, who stood nearby waiting to something. Vanessa found it less than helpful the way she just stood watching, but then she wasn’t doing anything either, and wouldn’t until things went too far.

            “Let me go!” Phil howled, thrashing as the two women attempted to keep him contained.  Margo and Jenny weren’t quite strong enough as they tried to hold him, allowing Phil to weasel out of their grips to back away several steps.

            “That’s not helping anything,” Margo spat, “Just keep your damn hands off of her and everyone else from now on.”

            “Or what?” Phil said, spreading his arms wide as if in challenge, “Huh? Or what? What’re you bitches gonna do?”

            It was just then that Vanessa heard a rumbling sound deep within her body, followed by a gnawing feeling in her gut. She was hungry, which meant she hadn’t eaten in at least six hours or more. Her body often metabolized food very slowly, which meant she tried not to eat so much, which in turn meant she often went long periods of time without food. But it would appear that they’d been here long enough for her body to remind her that it was past time to eat.

            Too bad, she thought to herself, it looks like it might be a lot longer than usual.

                                                *                      *                      *

 

            Trent’s voice did not come again for some time, and thus no more holes were plugged when the water came again, drained, and then came again. The seemingly endless cycle was sapping the strength and the will to go on from each of them, as during one purge she noticed Phil lying on his face in the water as it drained out. She entertained the thought that he might have finally expired, but was surprised when he rolled over, coughing out the murky water before swearing to himself, lamenting the fact that he couldn’t seem to commit to his own demise.

            The second purge they lost Jenny. Vanessa had the misfortune of finding her

floating nearby when the purge reached the level at which they could stand.  She’d just

noticed the floating body when it rolled around, and Jenny’s dead gaze had found her

own. Vanessa had almost screamed aloud at the dead woman, but had clamped a hand over her mouth as she’d looked away.  Even now though, perhaps several hours later, that glassy, vacant gaze haunted her.  In a way it even mocked her, as if to say “I got out, and you didn’t.”

            She didn’t speak to anyone after that, not even when Phil had bothered to call her name.  His teeth had been chattering, and in truth he had barely gotten the syllables out. It was then that she realized they were slowly freezing to death, though the temperature in the chamber was still easily warm enough to avoid such a fate. 

            Wait.  That wasn’t right. If they were this cold then it meant something other than being immersed in chill water every so often. Staying very still Vanessa closed her eyes, relying solely upon her hearing and sense of touch in that moment.  It took only a matter of moments, but as she heard the telltale sound of wind whistling through a seam somewhere in the chamber her eyes opened.

            Virtually no prison was inescapable, as most such constructs were made by men and women who were just as fallible as their creations. It was true that this chamber had yet to offer any reliable way out, but she hadn’t yet given up hope.  The only problem now though would be how to allay suspicion from the others by searching for the source.  Even if she were up front and completely honest about what she was doing there was little chance any longer that the rest of them would believe her motives were pure.  It was a dog eat dog situation now, and they would likely turn upon her if she was caught searching for a way out.

            Casting a glance across the dimly lit chamber she saw the remaining captives, noting that each of them were casting suspicious glares at her and each other. Their watchful manners would make it impossible to go searching for the slight breeze she had felt. 

            She was tired, hungry, wet, and cold.  The others had to be in the same sorry condition, but she found at this moment that she didn’t care.  It was hard enough to care about her own predicament just now.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            At one point she fell asleep.  She hadn’t meant to, but her body had demanded it.  In this type of crowd however it could mean the difference between waking up cold and hungry and not waking up at all.  As she slept she dreamt of the last thing she’d been doing before Trent had somehow crept up behind her. She couldn’t remember that part, and it was probably for the best.  Who knows what the sick bastard had done when she’d been unconscious.  Thankfully nothing south of her hips had been sore or otherwise damaged, as that would have been noticeable. 

            Her dream took her back to the master bathroom of the apartment that she and her mother shared, where she had been getting ready for, for what?  Vanessa saw the dream but could not equate what was happening with what she could recall.

            “I’m so glad you came back,” she heard herself say, a smile on her lips and in her voice.

            “You were worth it,” spoke another voice as a figure appeared behind her, draping a fine silver chain around her neck as she gasped in pleasure. The pendant that was attached to the chain was a small cameo of a mother and child, a favorite rendering of hers that Trent had known about for some time.  As she saw him materialize behind her Vanessa gasped, aloud and in her dream.  She didn’t wake until Trent had already stuck the needle in her neck, and by that point in the dream he’d clubbed her hard enough that she stumbled forward, her face slamming hard into the sink as she submerged. 

            Vanessa awoke with a start, shaking her head only to realize that she was already underwater, her eyes opening wide with the realization as she took a deep breath out of reflex.  She almost gagged as she felt the chill water rush in, choking her as she quickly stood up, stumbling about for several steps as she spit the brackish fluid out, coughing in a loud, barking manner as she wiped at her face with shaking hands.

            Trent had come to her.  He’d been so damned smooth, so nice, and so obviously smitten that she’d listened to him. She’d opened the door for him, and she had let him in. The dream wasn’t just a dream, it was a memory.

            Wiping at her eyes with the heels of her hands blurred her vision for several seconds, but as her sight finally cleared she looked around and saw something that made her blood run cold. 

            There was no one left.

            She stood alone in the chamber, with the water already having risen to waist level, the streams coming down from above drowning out her voice as she spoke.

            “Hello?”

            It was foolish she knew to even expect an answer, but as her blood turned to ice in her veins she moved forward, dreading what she might find.  She knew very well that Phil, Candace, Margo, and Jenna had remained, but where were they?  Moving around the cascading water she saw nothing, not even a hint of movement within the water.  Despite the moisture in the room her mouth was suddenly dry, almost barren as she attempted to sort out the puzzle of where the others had gone. She had been so smart up until this point, able to figure out at least bits and pieces of what was going on, but now she was at a loss.

            A faint ripple just ahead of her grabbed her attention, but as she moved in that direction she felt a stirring upon the back of her neck.

            “He was always mine you silly bitch.”

            She didn’t even have time to turn around as a large, heavy object crushed the back of her skull, allowing the darkness to crowd in as she fell face first into the water. All Vanessa was aware of as she fell was that she’d been a fool, and that she should’ve never opened the door.

                                                            *                      *                      *

 

            “So I’m safe, yes?”

            “With me? Always.”

            “It’s not just because I’m hot and you’re horny, yeah?”

            “If it was just that you might be floating down there with the others. No matter what happened between us, we’re square as far as I see it.”

            A smile made Trent just a bit nervous, but he could at least feel safe knowing that if his secret got out, he wouldn’t be the only one ruined for it.  After all, the woman he’d taken as his partner years before stood to lose just as much as he did. 

            “So what now?” she asked, “I don’t suppose there’s anyone else you have such a huge grudge with, is there?”

            There was a twinkle in her eye as she said this, as though she expected him to say yes.

            Instead he pondered for a moment before replying, taking his time to think it over.

            “The day’s still young.”

The Last Tree

The Last Tree                                                                                      Started 10-17-08

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

Portland State University

June 2nd, 3021

3:28 pm

 

“Myths and legends, fairy tales and fables line many pages of text that were once thought to be rather important to our species.  Upon these pages were stories of individuals, groups and creatures large and small that were often capable of feats that we know today are simply not possible.  The ink used upon the pages was a co-conspirator in a way to the lie that was told by the authors of such tales to amuse and divert our kind’s attention from the world we knew.  Yet perhaps the greatest crime of all was the material used by each unsung individual to transfer their often hedonistic and sometimes cautionary tales.”

Alyssa paused as she gauged the attention of her audience, raising her eyebrows as though to accentuate the point she was about to make.  There were far too many half-closed eyes that were barely focused upon her, especially given the lack of attendance that had thinned her class to less than half of its original size.  She lamented that many of these absences were due in part to the fact that those who had not chosen to attend this day would not be returning.  She was fast becoming unpopular in this place, just as she had in others.

“Paper, as you all know, has become a highly restricted medium. It was once upon a time something that mankind took for granted because it was there, readily available, and easy to use.  Of course the thought of where it came from never once entered the minds of those who wrote upon it, tore it to shreds, used it for mundane and sometimes vulgar purposes, but that then is the point of this course.  The study of conservation is one that came far too late for our benefit, an idea that was born in the time of our grandparents and yet was somehow not implemented until it was too late.”  Alyssa watched with just a little heartache as two students, a young man and a younger woman, rose from their seats with backpacks in hand, each of them already reaching for the breathers that were stowed so haphazardly in amongst their other school materials.

No one wanted to hear about something that couldn’t be changed any longer, and as a result her course, while barely tolerated at any university, was swiftly becoming like the fabled forests of ages ago. It was dangerously close to becoming extinct.

Another student got up to leave, though he at least gave her a backward glance, perhaps to see if she was going to keep going or not, or maybe just because he had at least something of a heart.  Nonetheless he was up the stairs and out the door into the steadily increasing winds that had scoured the city clean only a few days before.  The weather patterns of the past several centuries had shifted so erratically that at times even the barriers that encircled the great cities had not been enough to keep the worst of the windstorms out.  At times she had to wonder if she was even reaching any of her students. Most of them took this class as something easy to pass, an elective that could allow them to keep their grades up, or in some cases allow them to catch up on their beauty sleep.  In any regard it felt like a bad joke, and she was the punch line.

*                      *                      *

 

6:54 pm

 

She was enjoying a pleasant sip from the glass in her right hand while holding onto her holopad with her left when the doorbell to her office chimed. One of the perks of being a tenured professor at any university was that she had at least rated an office with more than a single room and its own toilet facilities.  As such she had spent many a night in her office either drinking herself into oblivion after a hard day, or studying up on her ongoing research, which was more common.

Inhaling through her nose she set her glass down sans coaster, something that seriously irked one of the only friends she had at this place, keeping the holopad in her left hand as the strap that adorned its back rested snugly against her knuckles. Rolling up from her chair she made her way to the heavy, metal door that had been installed long before she’d ever been born. Everything made of wood had slowly but surely been replaced as the material had slowly been allowed to fade and dwindle away.

The world’s wood supply wasn’t gone, but it might as well have been.

Reaching the door she peered at the viewscreen at the hinge-side of the door, smirking as she saw the goofy-looking woman mugging for the camera outside of her office.  Melodie Amberveldt was anything but a normal person in her estimation, but she was a good friend.  She’d known Melodie since high school, and had kept in touch throughout the years despite the distance that had separated them at times. Pushing the intercom button that would carry her voice to the hallway just outside her door she spoke.

“I’ve had my quota of crazy today. Peddle it somewhere else.”

“Ah but I’ve brought a new and unique brand of psycho bitch that you may not have experienced lately, and are desperately in need of. So open the door o’ favorite love pet of mine.”

Rolling her eyes as she reached for the lock Alyssa wondered idly, for the millionth time perhaps, how she and this wild force of nature had ever stayed friends for so long.  She had heard that opposites attracted one another throughout her entire life, but was always reminded of its absolute truth every time she spent time with Melodie, or “Mel” as she liked to be called. Even before the door was all the way open Mel was pushing her way in, brandishing a bottle that sloshed welcomingly as she clicked her tongue in greeting.

A faint noise drew her attention as she looked back to the hallway, her steadily blurring vision showing her nothing more than the empty, somewhat intimidating hall lined by marble tiles on the floor and drywall along the faded and chipped walls.  This wing of PSU had yet to receive a true upgrade that required actual money, but it was still functional at least.  Shaking her head she decided it had been nothing, perhaps just the janitor making his rounds. He would be the only one still here aside from herself after all, the other professors all had lives or homes they enjoyed returning to.

She had a studio apartment only a short walk away that offered little more than the flat screen television filled with newscasts of how the world was dying a little more each day.  There was a TV in her office too, but was hardly ever turned on save to watch a movie or something else of interest.  Alyssa wasn’t much of one to watch TV, she much preferred the classics, old, ancient movies really that had for some reason been preserved throughout the centuries.  Her favorites were the films and cartoons that featured the very subject of her research.

“So my little dandy throw rug, what’s on the docket for tonight?”

Mel had a way to speaking that normally astounded whomever she talked to, especially her students. She’d had more than one student complain over her use of the English language, thinking that she was being impolite or even degrading at times. To those who really knew her, like Alyssa did, they would have understood that this was how Mel signified that she liked someone. It was a little bit degrading in fact, but the tone she used was almost always with love, and Alyssa had learned how live with her quirky, sometimes off-color friend a long time ago.

“Oh, I was thinking of kicking back with a pleasant, stomach-warming vintage and perhaps switching on some of the oldies.  Care to join?” Alyssa collapsed into her oversized, very comfortable chair as she pointed at the television where it sat upon the wall, the proverbial fly that would only buzz when she desired.  A holo-player sat affixed to the all just below it, a full load of ancient programs loaded and ready to go at her command.

“Tom and Jerry or Looney Tunes?” Mel quipped.

“Maybe both, or maybe I’ll feel adventurous and watch The Sandlot just for kicks, or the The Goonies even. Maybe I’ll have an all out oldies orgy.”

“Sounds fun,” Mel said with a smile, “Should we order in?”

In truth she’d been kidding, but as her friend continued that maniacal smile that Alyssa loved so much she had to laugh.  It did sound like a damned fine idea.

*                      *                      *

 

8:59 pm

 

“So are you still on about your research into the world of long ago?” Mel said, stabbing at a wad of greasy noodles in their plastic packaging as she finally managed to wrap a few around the plastic fork that had come with the meal.  Food was never far away in a city such as Portland, and given its ethnic diversity they’d had a wide variety of places to choose from. Despite it all, they’d gone to their favorite, Panda Express.  It had been their favorite as kids and remained so to this day.

“As much as I can be,” Alyssa replied, swallowing her current bite before going on, “Professor Lansden thinks I’m nuts of course.  He tells me that researching something that went extinct over a hundred years ago is like searching for a single rock at the bottom of the ocean.”

“Pacific or Atlantic?” Mel mused.

“Oh shut up,” Alyssa said with an amused smile.

“You have to admit that it’s almost a lost subject,” Mel said as she kept stabbing at her meal, as though expecting it to fight back. “Trees have been dead and gone for a long time now ‘Lys, no matter how people tried to preserve them.”

She nodded, “I know, but I also know that there’s likely a chance that a few still remain.  If I could only-ow!”

The crunch of her tooth upon something solid and unyielding forced her to sit up

in her chair as she quickly set her food and utensil down, reaching two fingers past her lips to retrieve the item she’d just chomped on.  Her jaw ached a little from the unexpected effort, but as she saw what it was that had been hidden in her chow mein she and Mel both raised an eyebrow.

“I didn’t know they were giving out prizes in noodles these days,” Mel quipped, her eyes focused on the object that Alyssa now held in her hand.  A plain platinum band without any decoration lay dormant upon her palm as she and Mel looked down on it, almost innocent in a way despite the ache in her jaw.  It wasn’t much to look at, but Mel pulled back suddenly as her eyes widened. Putting down her box of chow mein she looked hard at Alyssa, her jaw working as though in thought.

“What the hell?” Alyssa asked, still looking at the ring, “Did someone drop their damned jewelry in my dinner?”

“Put it back ‘Lys,” Mel said quietly, not bothering to look at her, “Put it back and pretend you never saw it. Please.”

Alyssa looked at her friend with confusion written plainly on her face, “What? Why? Someone just lost a ring in my food is all. It’s gross and unsanitary but it’s not-“

“Put it back ‘Lyssie, please.” There was no mistaking the urgency in her tone now as Mel leaned forward, “I’ll explain later, but please just put it in the box and throw it out. Believe me, you’ll understand soon enough.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Alyssa asked, palming the ring as she stood to her feet, “It’s just a ring.”

Mel sighed, a sound that was usually reserved for her students when they were being naïve or intentionally stupid. It wasn’t a sound that Alyssa was used to hearing directed at her.

“Give it to me then,” Mel said, “And I’ll show you why it should be tossed in the trash.”

Alyssa wasn’t stupid, she’d seen enough old movies to see where this was heading, or at least where it might be heading in theory.

“Why Mel?” she asked, “That is your name, right?” She was only half-kidding, but the sudden change in Mel’s demeanor and the fact that she’d used a variation of Alyssa’s name, Lyssie, that she hadn’t used in years, had alerted her to the fact that something was very off about this situation.

“Alyssa I’m your friend, and you can trust me. I’ll explain it all once you give me the damned thing.  Just, please.”

Alyssa handed the ring over slowly, watching Mel closely but not wanting to believe that anything untoward might happen. She’d known Mel since they were kids, she didn’t want to believe that anything she’d seen in the old movies could possibly be real.  Despite the fact that the futuristic depictions of the world back then were in some sense coming true, she still didn’t think that the drama of such films could possibly have occurred in the exact manner that she’d viewed them.

“Activate,” Mel said into the center of the ring, her lips almost brushing the metal as the ring suddenly glowed from within.  Alyssa had seen such things before, as most things nowadays had hidden circuitry buried deep within to keep the item in question from appearing as anything other than a mundane object.  The effect was nothing new, but if not for Mel’s action she might have thought it was just another wedding band, or something similar perhaps.

Instead the ring began to glow with a bluish-white tinge, an inner mechanism causing the interior of the ring to shift and spin slowly until a minute click could be heard, and a voice issued forth.  Alyssa felt a slow, methodical frown crease her brow as she could have sworn she recognized the voice, but she listened without interrupting.

“Forty-five point six-two-two-four North, One hundred twenty-two point seven-zero-one-eight West. June 6th, 3021.”

“What is that?” Alyssa asked, looking to her friend. Mel swallowed hard, closing her eyes as she shook her head. As the ring went inert again it gave one final click, but Alyssa didn’t notice. She was too interested in what her friend might be holding back from her.

“Mel, what is it?”

“Those were coordinates,” Mel said in a voice barely louder than a whisper. “They were meant to direct the selected individual to a designated location at a certain time.”

Alyssa waited, and waited, but her friend was obviously ready to stop talking.  She wasn’t ready to stop listening though.

With a sigh, Mel said, “This wasn’t an accident ‘Lys.”

She was ready to laugh at the joke, but she saw that Mel wasn’t in the mood.  Instead of smiling Alyssa suddenly felt her stomach turn to ice. Her heartbeat began to quicken slightly, though she still didn’t know why.

“Do you know where those coordinates point to Alyssa? Do you have any idea?”

Alyssa shook her head, “I don’t do latitude and longitude, that’s your forte.”

Mel nodded as she sat down, lacing her fingers over her abdomen as she leaned back. “I know.  That’s why I was hoping this would never happen.”

Alyssa’s frown deepened, “Mel you’re starting to scare me.”

Mel shook her head, “Honey you have no idea. But you will.”

*                      *                      *

 

June 3rd

6:26 am

 

The last tree was reportedly cut down as part of a preservation project in the year 2998, over two decades ago when the Presidential Accords were signed to act in order to preserve what was left of our fading atmosphere. The effect of eliminating the last of the earth’s forested regions had a drastic effect upon the ecosystem, creating vast gaps within the food chain that were necessary to fill with other, artificial means. 

            “What this mean for humanity was that our race soon become the beginning and the ending of the food chain, as we were forced to resort to drastic measures to keep life moving ahead in a manner that would prove beneficial for our race.  Due to new innovations in DNA and technological advances in artificial agriculture it was possible to all but eliminate the risk of our atmosphere failing and our world eventually becoming a poisonous greenhouse that would eliminate all life on earth.”

Alyssa waved her right hand over the holo-control embedded into her chair. She didn’t want to hear anymore, especially after last night. Her head was still whirling from what Mel had told her, though she found herself wanting to believe at least part of it. What had been discussed was so unbelievable that even her own bias towards the subject seemed to be weighing against the decision she felt compelled to make. Mel had of course told her again and again to throw the ring away, and she had almost listened.  What Mel hadn’t told her was why she had never bothered to tell her that she was a part of something so clandestine in the first place.

She wanted to be mad at her friend but it wasn’t as easy as all that. Mel had given her the truth during their little talk, and had even expressed anger that she’d been given the ring at all.  The issue of who had put it in her food and why hadn’t been touched upon as much, but she had at least asked. That part Mel hadn’t been able to decipher, though she had at least made a guess.  What was truly confusing and yet still gave her the smallest glimmer of hope was what Mel had said at the midpoint of her explanation.

There was a tree still living within the world.

It had sounded like a bad joke to be honest, something that she might have seen on a documentary or a movie from the modern age.  Trees had been a disappearing resource since before she’d been born, and had died out finally when she had still been in grade school.  Her teachers had always told her class that absence of trees was why they wore breather masks, and why they would never be safe outside for long periods of time.  When it was needed human beings could go outside for about an hour or two at most before the radiation and poisonous gases that existed in the atmosphere would begin to affect them.

The scrubbers and various windmills that were designed to cleanse the air and keep the earth from being completely overrun by carbon dioxide had been installed worldwide nearly three decades before.  Such a system was reported to have a veritable army of redundancies just in case one section went down, but it was still far from perfect. The coordinates that had been revealed by the voice from the ring were directly in the middle of one such area that had gone down when she was still in high school.  It was officially called the Neutral Zone, like something out of the old Star Trek films, but in truth it was called the “Dead Zone” by anyone living within twenty miles of it.  That was  how close anyone had ever come to the area once known as Hayden Island since the year 2923, when the world had felt the first massive effects of deforestation.

Alyssa and Mel had been born into a world where it was necessary to remain indoors more often than not, and had never known the joys of running in the long, green grass as was depicted in the films she favored. They had never built a tree fort or swung from an old tire swing.  Humanity had  been forced to adapt and change far too quickly for anyone to recall the old memories of a world that had moved on before the next generation could catch their breath.  It was a cruel joke really that the culture and records of such a life would be left to be viewed and remembered by those who had at one time walked barefoot upon a lush, green lawn, or climbed an actual, living tree.  It all seemed so horribly unfair.

There were no classes today, and no one had bothered to check and see if she was still here or not. As a professor she was required to check out of her office every so often just to keep with protocol, but as an individual she often made the decision to use her office as her living space. It was well within the rules after all, but the need to leave every so often was recommended by the council of health that overlooked both students and faculty.  It was to avoid the dangers of isolation and to insure that professors were kept psychologically healthy.  Today though she didn’t feel like going anywhere, and she especially didn’t feel like venturing to the Dead Zone.

That lack of desire though was slowly losing ground to the desire she felt to see whether or not the words Mel had spoken were true.  For almost three decades trees had been relegated to history, a growing myth that the new generations cared for and knew even less about.  An important part of the world had been eradicated and no one seemed to care.  Of course when a person had never experienced something for themselves they didn’t know there was anything to be missed.

The knock that came upon her door was not expected, but it was hardly unexpected either.  Going over to the image that presented itself in the viewscreen she was hardly surprised to see Mel standing there, but her friend wasn’t mugging for the camera any longer. Instead she just gave a sad look into the camera, as though she had come to a very difficult decision.  Sighing to herself she went to open the door, allowing her friend inside before closing and locking it. For some reason she felt the need for privacy and security, as much as she could get.

“Any change in that scotch-soaked sponge you call a brain?” Mel asked, seating herself in one of the office chairs. The attempt at humor was at least mildly comforting, but right now it came off as a bit flat.

“After you dropped that nuclear bomb in my lap? Not really.  My research will likely keep going, but with this in mind now I don’t know as I’d be able to look at myself in the mirror without at least checking the veracity of it.”

“I kind of figured you would say that,” Mel said, shaking her head, “But at the very least the people I talked to last night have agreed that we should move ahead.”

Alyssa frowned, “Move ahead? What are you-? No, no no no.  You can’t mean going out there!”

Mel nodded, “That’s exactly what I mean.  If you’re going to know everything then you need to see everything. People have theorized about this subject for a long time Alyssa, but no one has ever been allowed into the truth in this manner.  Public opinion was formed and fostered a long time ago in order to keep interest from becoming too high on this subject. People were made to believe that trees were no longer important once civilization found other means of keeping itself alive.”

“But the exposure between here and there-“

“Is minimal when considering how you’d be transported. And the methods that have been used to keep it alive are such that the environment it uses are far more suitable to life than in any sterilized, artificial setting. It’s a clean room without peer ‘Lys, one that relies on its own natural ability to cleanse itself.  But it isn’t infinite.”

“This is all coming really, really fast,” Alyssa said, closing her eyes as she held one hand to her face, “Last night I believed that trees were extinct, just like the rest of the world.”

“Ah, but you always suspected I believe.”

“No, I didn’t.” Alyssa said, shaking her head. “I was along for the ride with public opinion. I really thought they were gone.”

“One immutable reality of our world young ‘Lyssie is that matter cannot be created or destroyed, only altered. So in truth, trees are around, but in ways that we no longer recognize.”

“I know that,” she almost snapped, “But, but it’s not the same.”

Mel nodded, gaining momentum now, “You’re right. You can’t scrub carbon

dioxide from the air with a sheet of paper, or with an antique chair covered in untold

layers of stain and lacquer.  But the reality of it is that the trees still exist, just in a

different form. Thus, their DNA still exists as well.”

“No,” Alyssa said, shaking her head, “That isn’t the same thing.”

“No,” Mel said, nodding, “You’re right. But it is still there.”

“What’s your point Mel?” she asked, growing a bit irritated now.

Mel leaned back a bit, interlacing her fingers as she placed them over her stomach. “If the remains of a tree are real, then so must be the tree.”

“Just tell me what is going on and what you want me to do. After last night my head is still spinning.”  Alyssa sat down with a groan as she spoke, pinching the bridge of her nose lightly between thumb and forefinger.

“The people who I’m in contact with want you to see something,” Mel said plainly, “I wanted you kept away from it, as it’s a secret that is more than a little dangerous.  But after your last little lecture they decided to bring you in on the little secret. Well, it’s not really a little secret, but something along the lines of a world-changing conspiracy that might just get us both locked away or killed at any moment.”

Alyssa sat forward, looking at her friend as though she’d gone insane. “What’s that now?”

Mel just grinned.

*                      *                      *

 

June 4th

4:54 pm

 

Her lecture that day came and went without fault.  Alyssa was looking for someone, anyone, who might be paying more attention to her words than the others, but she saw nothing.  Mel’s words were still echoing in her mind as she took to instructing her students by rote, not even hearing her own voice for the strange clanging in her head, alarm signals that she knew were part paranoia and part inborn security systems meant to keep people safe.  The only problem was that she had absolutely no idea which way to look.

Alyssa was gathering up her materials for the day, closing books and turning off the holoprojector in the front of the class when she suddenly noticed that she was no longer alone in the room.  Fashioned after the old-style lecture halls, the stadium seating that this room featured allowed the students to keep line of sight to the front of the class, but could easily obscure anyone from the view of the teacher, if that teacher did not look up.

She felt her breath hitch in her throat as she did look up, noting the individual seated in one of the rows nearest the door. His laid back posture indicated that he had been waiting patiently to be noticed.  The small grin upon his stubbly features told her that he was perfectly at ease, and that he was anything but an interested admirer.  There was something dangerous about that grin, almost predatory.  It was the grin of a man who knew he had his prey cornered.

Deciding to play the authority card she tossed her long, curly brown hair back behind her neck, “Can I help you?”

His eyebrows rose as he leaned back a little further. She could see that he was in excellent physical condition as the dark shirt he wore stretched over a torso she might have been attracted to under normal circumstances.  Alyssa could also see what looked like a gun holstered beneath his right arm.  Now her heart began to pound, and she wondered if she might survive this encounter.

“Yeah, I suppose you can.  If you could just give me the coordinates that you were handed a couple of days ago I’d be on my way and you could go on lecturing about ancient history.”

She was thunderstruck, despite what she already knew.

“What?” she murmured, “Who, who are you?”

“Professor,” he began, leaning back a little more, “I could tell you everything you want to know before I get what I want, but-gah!”

The man attempted to get up, but a light shock from the cattle prod now pressed against the side of his neck stopped him cold.  He jittered madly in his seat for a moment before attempting to pull the pistol from its holster under his arm. Unfortunately for him the wielder of the prod jabbed him again, sending another shock through his body as his teeth clacked together, painfully from the sound.

“If your ass moves from that seat big boy you’ll be shitting sparks for the next few days.”

“Mel?” Alyssa asked, “Where did you-?”

“It’s not the time and we need to go,” Mel said pointedly.  “Dick-lick here beat me to you by just a few minutes it would seem, but at least he’s the type that likes to talk before he takes. Get the stuff you need ‘Lys and let’s scoot.”

“But-“

“Now Alyssa! Please.”  Mel adjusted her tone as she held up her free hand, putting it quickly upon the base of the prod as the faint humming that Alyssa now heard cranked up just a bit. “As for you Mr. Assmunch, I would prefer you not remember a single thing about this meeting, but I’ll settle for you being reduced to a jittery mess of nerves for the next few hours.  That way you won’t be following us where we’re going.”

“Y-you don’t ha-have the b-b-balls,” he managed to stammer. The electric shock was still firing through his body as he tried to regain control, but as she dug the prod a little harder into his neck she smiled.

“You’re right about that,” she said cheerily as she pushed the button. The prod actually sparked as it discharged its deadly current into the seated man, making him jump high and hard enough that he upended his seat, almost knocking into Mel as she leapt backward.

“What the hell?!” Alyssa exclaimed, “Mel?”

“Oh he’ll live,” she said nonchalantly, “Just get your stuff and let’s get going. I get the feeling that he isn’t alone.”

“What, I mean how, I mean-“

Mel started walking down towards her, sneakers squeaking slightly as she approached Alyssa calmly, quietly, turning off the prod as she came.

“Alyssa, I told you all about this,” she said in an even tone, “I told you it would be trouble if you kept that ring.  What we spoke about is something of a secret that has been kept for a long, long time now, since before you or I were born.  My family has kept the secret for many years, and I was initiated when we were still in high school.”

“Let me get my stuff,” she said stiffly, still not daring to believe what was going on was real. Mel stayed with her, following Alyssa from the lecture hall back to her office, making good and sure they weren’t being followed or in any way watched.  So far as she could tell they were in the clear.  Now the only hard part would be reaching their destination without a  hitch.

*                      *                      *

 

June 5th

3:23 am

 

Her world had been turned on its head.   No, scratch that, her world had been turned upside down, inside out, and then broken apart to be pieced back together with components she’d never known existed.  Only a couple of days ago she’d been a tolerated professor at one of the more prominent universities still left in the state. It hadn’t been a glamorous existence, but it had been comfortable. Her life now was anything but torturous, but it was so foreign to her that Alyssa still hadn’t learned to cope yet.

The area known as Hayden Island, or Jantzen Beach from historical records, had for a long time been off-limits to the public, as it was a hot zone of seismic activity and was continually flooding from the various weather patterns that sent the river it rested upon into a frenzy.  At one time it had been a garbage dump, then a water park, and then a shopping center according to records that were accessible to the general public.  She’d overlooked this stretch of land many times largely because of its designation and the fact that twenty miles or more of barren and forgotten landscape surrounded it.

Portland and Vancouver, the two cities that had surrounded Hayden Island, had been walled off and kept away from the continually shifting island for centuries now.  Reports had come in continually throughout the cataclysmic era that Hayden Island was in continual danger of simply dropping into the Columbia River and washing downstream bit by bit, but to date it was still there, a blasted hunk of rock where nothing grew and no one dared to venture.  There was no interest in the place for even the clandestine government agencies that were in charge of keeping people safe and secure behind the walls of ordered society.  It was for all intents and purposes a place that lived up to its name.

She was only now discovering just how wrong they’d been.

“Beautiful aren’t they?” Mel asked, her voice filled with wonder and a strange quality that Alyssa had only heard on a few occasions. It was longing, a desperate cry to the past that might have been had humans ever learned to live with their home rather than destroy it. Alyssa was no activist, but she didn’t need to be to know that human kind had done more damage to the planet they lived on than any natural catastrophe could have ever accomplished.

“They are,” she nodded, still breathless as she knelt before the grandeur, the majesty, of the small grove in front of her. “But how do you keep them safe? How do you keep them from being noticed?”

Mel smiled, “Technology can be a lifesaver, but it can also be a very effective method of keeping secrets.  You see that shimmer in the air?”

Looking up Alyssa squinted as she tried to see through the darkness to whatever Mel was talking about. The heavy-carbon-dioxide-laden cloud cover didn’t allow for star or moonlight, but she could finally see a faint shimmer as an errant breeze rippled across an unseen barrier.

She gasped, and Mel chuckled.

“There is a holographic barrier over this place that was designed specifically to fool every possible scan known to human kind.  People in key places know how important this secret is, and are doing their very best to keep it.”

“But, but how?” Alyssa asked. Words were failing her at every turn just now, refusing to take form in her mind or be delivered to her tongue.  Never before had she felt this type of awe, this type of absolute wonder that could steal away her very breath.

Mel sighed, “Well despite how much you like those old, ancient movies that keep getting recycled for some reason, there is no order, no secret society, and no other clandestine reason for keeping these trees except for the one thing that’s kept my family in this whole mess from the start.”

“How long?” Alyssa asked, “How long has your family been…?”             “In charge of this place?” Mel asked, eyebrows raised. “Oh man, since my great grandfather really.  The dead zone was created a long while ago, and back then most people had figured this place as a lost cause. I mean it still floods, the bedrock is failing, but overall it’s still an ideal place to keep these beauties alive.”

“But the atmosphere,” Alyssa said, now thoroughly confused, “How do they survive?”

“If there were more of them they might thrive on their own and make a difference in this small part of the world. But we have our own scrubbers and filtration systems hidden here and there, all covered by the barrier so as not to draw any unwanted attention.”

“Are they viable?” Alyssa asked, looking back to the trees, “Are they able to produce more trees?”

Mel smiled, “At one point there was only one of them. So what do you think?”

Alyssa turned her head back to the wondrous, leafy sentinels, her jaw hanging open as she began to count each one.

“There are twenty in all,” Mel said, leaning over her shoulder with a smile, “The last tree took root just about twenty years ago.  The first among them, we call her Genni, has been here for roughly three hundred years and counting.”

“Genni?”

“For Genesis,” she said, grinning at her friend as Alyssa grinned back, feeling the contagious emotion as it finally washed over her. There were trees here, and suddenly life had gained a very different aspect.  There was life to be had for their world, if only they protect it for long enough.

“So what is my place in all this?”

To that, Mel could only smile.

Raise Tough

Raised Tough

By Tom Foster

 

 

 

 

June 21st, 2501

Year 78 of the New Era

 

Clatskanie, OR

 

No one here was any good. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t good either. It was a failing that had come from years upon years of living with the aftereffects of something that none of them understood any longer.  During the dark years, when the town had almost disappeared, it was by simple misfortune that someone had come to finally call this place home.  In truth it had been all but deserted by anyone except the damned crows and wild animals that had roosted in the empty remains of a once civilized population.  Nowadays they were just barely civilized and were more likely to turn on each other for some half-imagined slight.

One thing did keep them together though.  It’s just too bad it happened so often.

*                      *                      *

 

Doug spat a phlegm wad onto the faded and cracked sidewalk, wiping his chin as a thin ribbon of spit drooled down his lip.  The stuff he’d taken to chewing tasted awful, but seeing as it was a trophy from one of the last raids he didn’t dare throw it away.  Not only would his father knock him upside the head for throwing away good spoils, he knew that anyone who grabbed it would be crowing up and down that they’d taken it from him. That was almost the same as admitting to weakness, and people in Clatskanie didn’t last long if they were marked as weak or feeble. Even their old folks didn’t like being told they were weak.  Likely as not such an insult would entail being beaten over the head with their gnarled old canes or having something flung at you when your attention was elsewhere.

It just wasn’t wise to screw with the old folks.  They did what they could, and too often it could hurt despite their lack of strength.

Heaving a large sigh he looked to the east, where the old road that led up into the trees wound up and away into the shadows.  Long ago, as the histories said, that road had been a major highway between here and Shadow’s End, one of the longest-lived cities that still stood.  He’d never known anywhere besides here, the small little piece of thing on the side of the road that was Westport just a few miles away, and the surrounding forest that lay to all sides.  This had been his world for a long, long time, and he didn’t see that ever changing.  He was comfortable here, and he was needed.

Only cowards went and left this place.  They were the ones that couldn’t hack it, couldn’t

stand the lifestyle. They were the ones that didn’t have what it took to live through the fighting. He’d been through nearly twelve major raids in his time, all of them against such forces as the Longblades, the DarkSongs, and a few minor ones against the ridiculous group called the Holy Ghosts.  That bunch were little more than saps in robes that didn’t know how to fight their way out of a wet sack.

Of course, such views were his fathers.  The fact that he was comfortable here was really only born out of habit.  Truth be told, he was curious to know what went on outside his little world, and why the clans that raided them seemed so adamant to have Clatskanie as one of their posts.  He’d found out from one raid, after taking prisoners, that Clatskanie was desired as an outpost for the clans, a place where they could station their people, expand their reach, and even, and this had made his father laugh, convert the lot of them over to their way of living.

It was cleaner, they said.

It was safer, they said.

Hell they even said it was more honorable, which had made his father laugh even harder before he’d planted the sole of his boot directly into the face of the speaker. The fact that it had been a woman he’d stomped didn’t make one bit of difference to Doug, but the fact that his father had kept stomping until the woman fell still did. There’d been no need to kill anyone. They’d always sent the survivors of any raid packing, hurting and in need of medical assistance, but still alive.  The rest of their captives had been free to go, but only after they’d been sufficiently roughed up as well. The half dozen souls that had made their way out of Clatskanie had never come back so far as he knew, but their clans had.  Even the deplorable act of setting their companion on a stake and displaying her just outside of the trees hadn’t changed that.

Nothing stopped them from coming, and it was safe to say that their efforts wouldn’t be able to keep them safe forever. To date they couldn’t use several of their methods any longer since the opposing clans had figured out how to counter them.  They were still able to use their geographic defenses to their best advantage, but overall they were getting to the point that stopping anything larger than a full, standing army was going to next to impossible.

They had traps that were continually checked and set according to their needs, they all carried weapons of some sort, be they bladed, blunt, or the rare incendiary device. The latter tended to come from those who fell during the raids, and were by and large extremely hard to come by. Those devices were from the old world, and it was safe to say that every one out of three devices would work.  The rest just fizzled and popped with a depressing, almost mournful sound.

Their greatest weapons however weren’t due to geography, or their ingenuity, or even their blind, stupid luck. They had warriors unlike anyone had ever seen that would protect them from time to time, and who had taught them to fight years before.  Those individuals had not been through Clatskanie in some time, but he could still remember their last visit, and it was with a smile that he remembered it fondly.  It had been three years ago as a matter of fact…

*                      *                      *

 

June 2nd, 24998

Year 75 of the New Era

 

The thud of his body hitting the hard-packed earth hurt just as much as the actual impact.  He could feel his damned teeth rattle as he tried to quickly gain his footing, expecting to feel at any moment a heavy boot colliding with his shoulder, or his face. When it didn’t come he stood to his feet, looking at the disapproving frown that the woman across the way wore.

“We don’t train for mercy here,” he grunted, shifting his shoulders around slightly as he adjusted himself.  He was knocked to the ground in the next moment as he raised his eyes, his body hitting the dirt hard as he wheezed in response.

“Be glad you’re not an enemy then,” said the blonde warrior that stood above him now, blade poised just above his heart as she looked down with that same disapproving frown.  “I don’t want you dead young man, I want you trained.”

He rolled quickly to his feet, shame staining his cheeks a bright scarlet as he heard the few snickers and saw the pointed looks from his companions and fellow initiates. In that moment he wanted to hurt the woman who was supposed to be training them, he wanted to knock her pretty ass in the dirt and make her see how it felt. But he was in this training group at the behest of his father, and would suffer greatly if he showed his anger.

“You look like someone who wants to do something,” the blonde woman said with a grin, spreading her arms wide.  “So come and do it.”

The part of his budding manhood that would indeed like to do something with her was thankfully dormant, though the other part, the more feral part that seemed to be the natural way of life in this place, wanted something entirely different. It wanted to hurt her, to take the sword she held and ram it hard into her body, to see the blood come spilling out and her eyes widen as the life began to drain out of her. It was brutal and it was wrong as he’d been taught, but it was what he wanted, and what he might try to take if he could.

But then things went as he’d expected.

His own blade, a dulled-down piece of metal that each of the trainees was given upon their first lessons, felt heavy and unbalanced in his grip, far unlike his father’s blade.  That weapon felt like it could slice a small tree down with one chop if he so desired. His father had laughed and told him that such a thing was not possible when he’d voiced his opinion, but it could in fact cut a human being in two. This clunky piece of trash in his hand couldn’t have done much more than raise a welt if he managed to strike anyone. But unfortunately, he was one of the weakest in the class at this time, and had no chance of striking anyone.

But he meant to try.

He rushed forward, brandishing his club-like blade as he sought to take her off balance,

to perhaps use ferocity instead of skill to push her on her heels.  It was one of the worst mistakes

he could have made.  For one blissful instant he believed that she was backing away in fright,

that he had accomplished at least that much. But then he was falling forward, the lights going out

for a short time as a hard rap to the back of his skull took him out of the fight and even out of the

training session as he saw the ground rush up to meet him.

*                      *                      *

 

It was only a short while later when he woke, but his head felt fuzzy and the back of it hurt as though he’d been kicked by a damned mule.  Sadly he knew the feeling, as his friend’s irascible old donkey had once managed to clip him in the temple when he’d come too close.  He’d been attempting to re-shoe the damned thing when it had decided to buck and almost level him with one kick.

“Eat this,” said a voice from beside him, “You won’t feel better, but the pain might go away a little bit.”

It wasn’t the same woman he saw through bleary eyes, but another face that, despite his obscured vision, was known to him.  Of course at this moment he wasn’t wanting to see anyone, at least she wouldn’t be kicking his ass to the ground if he refused. When he saw what she was holding out to him though Doug took the proffered item, chewing it in silence as a spicy burst hit his tongue, warming his throat all the way down as he swallowed. The numbness that came as a result wasn’t all that pleasant, but only a minute later the pain in the back of his skull was at least bearable.

“Why is she so hard on me?” he bothered to ask. It was the question that someone who wasn’t accustomed to pain might ask, not someone from here. Clatskanie had been a place of hard living for several generations now, despite the fact that they were largely self-sufficient. They knew how to grow and sustain crops, they knew enough about livestock to keep them alive and well-bred.  They even had a handy supply of fish to draw upon from the meandering river that ran alongside the town.  But they were still tough as nails, no good, and very realistic folk. They didn’t trust outsiders, didn’t often trade with others, and had a general disdain of anyone that wasn’t from these parts.  Except for those few individuals that had earned their trust, including this woman.

“She’s hard on everyone,” Alexis said, “But on you she goes a little harder I believe because you show the most attitude. As the son of the town’s chief guard it’s likely that you have a great deal more expectation placed on your shoulders.”

He groaned, “Tell me something I don’t know.”

He couldn’t see it, but he could hear the smile in her voice, “Your father was watching.”

Doug almost sat upright in that second, fear and anger stoking his action as Alexis easily kept him from reacting by placing one hand gently upon his shoulder. For such a slight woman she was surprisingly strong. But then, as she and her companions had already shown, they were all just as fit and as strong as anyone in Clatskanie, perhaps even stronger.  Summer certainly was.

“Did he see what happened?” Doug asked, the pain in his tone telling her that he really didn’t want to know.

“He did. And to be honest, he said you need some experience yet.”

“He hates me,” Doug said miserably, “I know it. He wishes he’d had someone else as a son.”

“This isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation,” Alexis said with a sigh, “And I’ve told you more than once that your father doesn’t hate you.  He’s a hard man to be sure, but he still has hope that you’ll turn out okay.”

“Then why won’t he ever tell me?” Doug said, “One word of encouragement would be nice. It doesn’t have to be kind or even loving. Just one word that shows he’s proud of me would be nice.”

Alexis chuckled.

“That’s funny?” Doug asked, already feeling the fire within his heart burning again as the need to challenge someone, anyone, almost had him leaping from the cot he was laying upon.

“It is, kind of,” Alexis said, “If you knew half of what your father wanted and thought about you I seriously doubt you’d be thinking he hated you. He’s a hard man, there’s no doubt, but he’s far and away better to you than our mentor was to us in the beginning.  I assume Summer has told you the story already?”

Doug nodded. She had, in a way.

“Our teacher, the man who became our protector, leader, and in some ways our father figure, almost kicked us forcefully out of our future home.  He was fully intent on knocking us into the dirt without remorse until….”

“Until what?” Doug asked. He hated cliff hangers, he always wanted to know what was going on right now.

Instead, Alexis’s features clouded over a bit, as though she’d remembered something that had the power to affect her still.  Doug knew little about the collective pasts of Alexis, Summer, and Alexis’s husband Kenyan, but he did know that they had all been involved in the fabled war between the Light and the Dark, the war that had ended the threat of the Dark to this world and given it back to human kind.  He also knew, as did the rest of the town, that she and Summer were of immortal blood, perhaps not full members of the immortal race, but half-breeds. They would outlive everyone within this town, including Alexis’s husband.

There was legend of another half-breed that had come from this town, but it had long ago been lost to history, at least until Alexis and her journals had brought it back to light. The half-breed immortal, Marijka Cotrone, wife to one of the fabled Chosen, had been born and raised in this place in the old world, a place that was little more than legend despite the remnants that were still to be found.

“Rest here awhile Doug, then return to the practice arena.” With that Alexis rose to her feet, leaving him behind as he snorted in disdain. He respected the outsiders, but he did not always agree with them. Laying back he couldn’t help but wonder as he always did what they saw in this place, and why they had decided it was worth training its people to defend it.

*                      *                      *

 

“I was really hoping this would come later, after we’d left,” Summer said with a sigh,

“No offense to you and yours Mark.”

The grizzled, middle-aged guard shook his head, “None taken.  Like I’ve said since the beginning, we can handle ourselves. It’s always nice to have you here though.  So what’s it looking like?”

“It’s looking like the Longblades are sending another scouting group forward, with a combat-ready battalion dogging their heels only a mile back,” Kenyan said, unfolding one of his many maps as he laid it across the large table that stood between them.

“What in the world are they looking for out here?” Mark asked, rubbing his hand over his beard stubble with a faint rasping sound.  “We’ve got enough to take care of ourselves, but we don’t have nearly enough to provision an army.”

“They want what they’ve always wanted,” Summer said, “A waypoint closer to the coastal regions. They’ve been unable to push any further than Naselle for so long that they’ve all but abandoned that route, and in truth there’s been talks about them heading towards Origin with a new attempt at creating a fleet.”

Mark snorted, “That’s not likely. There hasn’t been a working fleet of ships since the old world, and I don’t see anyone building one any time soon.  At the very least a fleet wouldn’t be reaching this place.”

He looked around at those gathered, receiving at least one nod as he went back to listening.

“At last glance the scouts were about five miles out, but there’s nothing to say that they won’t be making their way forward soon enough.”

“How soon?” Alexis asked Kenyan, her dark gaze piercing him as he sighed, showing not an ounce of the intimidation that she was able to evoke in others.

“That’s a bit harder to say. Their movements have been a bit, erratic.”

“How so?” Mark said, eyebrows raising as he stood closer, “Have they discovered the traps?”

Kenyan shook his head, “No, there’s no indication that they have yet, but that’s not saying much.  Look, Mark, they’ve been changing their tactics ever since you and your people, with our help admittedly,” he added this in response to Mark’s sudden hard look, “started fighting back. Once they realized they couldn’t just roll over you any longer they started taking different paths. They’ve found backroads and trails that we never knew existed.”

“We didn’t miss a damned thing,” Mark shot back, “We know this region like no one else.”

Kenyan nodded in response, “Which is most likely why they’re keeping their movements as hidden and indirect as possible.”

“What do you mean by indirect?” Summer asked, clearly not understanding.

Kenyan sighed, “They could have been here as early as yesterday if they’d kept a straight course. Instead the veered off to the north and south, zigzagging in a manner I’ve only a seen in a few different engagements.”

“They’re stalling,” Summer said, quickly deducing the reason for such a move, “They’re letting the bulk of their forces stay close while they try to ferret out the traps.”

“That would make sense,” Kenyan said, standing straight as he looked at Mark, “Just how fortified are the woods around this place at the moment?”

“About a dozen traps of some type or another per acre,” he said with a shrug, “Some are obvious, others not so much.  Others are contingent on the springing of other traps.”

“Redundancies set into mechanical traps,” Summer said with a grin as she shook her head, the blond tail of hair that swept out behind her swaying as she looked at Mark. “You and your people are just mean.”

“Damn proud of it too,” Mark said with a fierce grin, “I’m getting damned tired of these shiny-shelled assholes thinking our town is up for grabs.  Didn’t we tell that button-down, limp-wristed little bitch of a commander they’ve got what would happen if they tried this again?”

Alexis cocked a single eyebrow, “You expected a man like Jarred to listen? The guy thinks the sun rises and sets on his ass. He doesn’t acknowledge danger until it’s got a blade up against his smooth cheek and is ready to slice him from chin to nuts.”

A few exclamations earned their attention as the four of them looked outside of the former council chamber where they’d been allowed to hold their meeting.  The beating of heavy wings could be heard just before the crunch of heavy talons punching into the ground came along, the light, gentle tapping of lighter claws following soon after.  Alexis and Summer smiled while Kenyan went outside, accepting the shoulder nudge as the snowy white creature resembling a blend of lion and eagle almost bowled him over.  Scratching idly just behind the crown feathers of the griffon he reached up to retrieve a rolled up missive as the other creature, a fiery-colored bird named Incen, held up one claw with perfect balance.

The bird’s claws were each roughly the size of a short sword and could rend steel as easily as flesh.  Had the bird been so inclined she could have brushed Kenyan then and there, but he had earned her respect long ago, when she had still been capable of the mind speech that had made communication easier. These days they still managed to figure out what their animal companions were saying without such niceties, but there were days when he missed the mind to mind speech.  Unrolling the sheet of paper that Incen had borne upon a strap on her scaled leg, he sighed as he looked back to Plume, who seemed almost apologetic as she lowered her head towards him.

By this point the other three had caught up and were staring at Kenyan as he gave Plume another hearty scratch behind the tufted “ear” that was in truth just a covered hole beneath her feathers.  She let out a screech of delight as he spoke gently to her.

“It’s not your fault, either of you.  I didn’t expect much from that poor excuse for a commander.”  Incen shook herself, ruffling her feathers as though in agreement.  Kenyan couldn’t help but smile despite the news. When Alexis and Summer asked what had been written in response to a request they’d made for the Longblades to stand down Mark joined them, looking over their shoulders as he tried to make out each word.  Capable as they were in Clatskanie, education was still a skill that they were attempting to master.

With each word she read Alexis could feel her anger growing, and her disdain for the Longblade commander stationed in Shadow’s End continued to burn.

 

To The Intruders of Fort Clatskanie,

 

            I have received your continually ridiculous message on this bright morning and have decided, yet again, that you do not know to whom you are speaking.  My will is the will of the vaunted grandmaster of our order, and as such is not to be confused with that of a weaker man.  Should the grandmaster, in his mercy, decide that you are to be spared and allowed to return home to your rebellious state, then it shall be. Until then, realize that I have spared the lives of your ridiculous, feathered pets only because I require them to send this message back to you in return.

            The Longblades will not be denied their due, nor will our proud order be bullied about by the likes of two former commanders who continue to ride the coattails of a legend long since relegated to the overblown myth it should have always been.  The world as we know it now exists because of the tenacity of mankind, and it is humanity that will decide the fate of our ascension, not eldritch beings composed of fantasy and myth. 

            By the order of the grandmaster you will vacate Fort Clatskanie so that it can be properly garrisoned and placed under the command of myself and whomsoever I choose as my second in this endeavor.  You will have a day to decide, less if your pets are slow in returning.  You will not receive another warning.

             As an added bit of caution, should you ever send such filth-ridden beasts to my city again, they will not be returned. 

 

Your Commanding Presence

Jarred Y. Woodall

 

“He’s a Woodall?” Summer asked incredulously, “As in, Howard Woodall?”

“Does that name mean something?” Mark asked suspiciously as he saw the reaction it had upon the rest of them.

Alexis just nodded, “Whether or not he’s related to the individual we remember doesn’t matter. He still thinks he’s a military genius and is bound to underestimate us at every turn. That works in our advantage. And to answer your question Mark, Howard Woodall was one mean son of a bitch who could do very bad things when he was still alive.”

“He had magic?” Mark said, his eyes widening. It wasn’t a secret that the people of Clatskanie hadn’t ever had any use for stories of how the rest of the world had fared during the war between Light and Dark.  The amazing things that had been accomplished and the supernatural feats that had been quite normal in those times had been lost on the citizens of this town. In fact it was safe to say that the touch of the Dark that they’d had to endure and move past had soured them to the war altogether.

“The darkest kind,” Alexis said as she nodded. “But he was vanquished at the tail end of the war.  If this man is one of his descendants it’s just coincidence.”

“If he thinks he’s that smart though, we can use that. How close were the scouts?” Summer asked, looking to Kenyan.

The blond man shrugged as he shook his head, “When last we saw them, which was recently, they were only a short way out of town.  Anything you want to attempt needs to be done now and without hesitation, or they’ll likely be able to see or hear anything we attempt.”

Summer’s eyes were alight with an idea that Alexis could already see might mean trouble.  Whether it was for their enemies or for them however, that remained to be seen.

*                      *                      *

 

“I said no, and that’s final.”

“But I can fight!” Doug protested, “I know how to swing a damned sword and I can take my place with the others!”

Mark towered over his son as he glowered, his warning growl not seeming to faze Doug as the younger man stared up at his father, his gaze never wavering as the two glared at each other.  He knew how he felt about his son, and he knew that in time he might make a great warrior, but as of now he was still too unskilled and unprepared for what might come.  He knew that others in the village felt that Doug was a lost cause, that he did not have the killer instincts that the other young men his age possessed, but Mark knew there was something there. His son was like him in many ways, but his martial skill had yet to surface.

“When you can complete a session without being knocked on your ass you can be considered for the guard, but there are no promises,” Mark said as calmly as he could, “Until then you remain under cover, and out of sight.”

“With the children and the elderly?” Doug asked bitterly, “I’m supposed to be grateful that I’m seen as a weakling and a coward?”

“You are my son,” Mark growled, “Never have I doubted your bravery.”

“But you doubt my skill,” Doug accused.

“You are not ready!” Mark roared, wishing that he could be anywhere else at this moment. He wished that Doug’s mother were here, that she had not perished in a raid by a roving clan, and that he had been able to better understand the needs of his son long ago.  He was trying, by all the watching fates he was trying. But he was failing.

“If I have to wait on your word, I’ll never be ready,” Doug said, moving away as he went to sit near his bunk, where he proceeded to stare at his practice blade, not even acknowledging that his father was still in the room.  Mark did not know what to say, nor did he think it would have come out correctly if he said anything at all. Instead of making it worse though he quickly gathered up his gear, grumbling under his breath as he then made his way out of their shared domicile.  He had to meet Summer and Alexis soon to coordinate their part of the plan, and he didn’t mean to miss them.  At this moment he needed action, a means to vent.

As it turned out they were already waiting for him as he came striding from his home, each one of them girded for warfare and looking at him carefully, as though weighing what they should say next.

“You heard?” he asked, almost feeling ashamed despite not knowing why.

They nodded.

“You two have kids,” he said brusquely, “How do you manage?”

“Well, being a single mother is just as hard as being a widower in many regards,” Summer said as they began to walk, “Brooke and Melody keep me on my toes continually when we’re back home, and Belle seems content enough to accept the fact that her mother and father are important enough to be needed far from home this often.”

“Do they ever challenge you like mine does?”

Summer grinned at Mark as she raised a single eyebrow, “I’d be worried if they didn’t.”

The three of them continued to walk along the main road through town as they observed the quiet, battened down doors and windows of the buildings that remained more or less intact after years of raids and full-on attacks from clans that had been eradicated or slowly absorbed into bigger, more vicious groups such as the Longblades. Summer took note that many doorways featured marks and signs that spoke of the independence of Clatskanie, the proud markings of a town that owed no allegiance to anyone but their own.  She could honestly respect that, especially considering that she’d seen what the Longblades could do when one swore fealty to them.

It wasn’t fair to condemn the entire order for the actions of a few, but when the entire order operated under the fallacy that those few were without fault, then it became easier to defend those who stood in their path.  At one point and time, long before she and Alexis had been born, the order had stood for justice and the defense of those who could not defend themselves.  The Longblades might have sought to protect and ally with those of Clatskanie, and would have perhaps left them to their own devices rather than force their will upon them.  The stories that she’d heard of Belle Roninsay, she of the cursed name, and Aeris Peders, wife of a Chosen, were such that they had been saints and warriors alike.

They had created an order that was based on freedom and the survival of humanity, not the oppression of one’s fellow human.  The Longblades that existed now were a twisted mirror image of what had come before, and they were anything but honorable in her mind. Unfortunately, the order had drawn many thousands of followers from one coast to another, uniting them under a supposed banner of order and justice that, she knew in her heart, was simply another lie told to excuse the injustice and chaos they’d sown in their conquest towards power.  The justifications they used to explain away their forays into the wilds had long ago ceased to be anything but virulent lies that were told to the common folk in order to appease their faded sense of honor.  After all, principles didn’t mean much to those who knew so little.

The three of them reached the edge of town in short order, where Kenyan and another

member of the town’s militia stood with Plume and Incen. It had been decided that Mark’s

second in command, a strapping young man of nearly twenty-five years, would join them. His

name was Ferdinand, but most people called him Freddy to spare the time it took to speak his name.  He was brown of skin and almost as tall as Summer, and would have been quite attractive if not for the horrendous scar that began at the left side of his chin and etched its way up along the corner of his left eye before disappearing into his dark, black hair. Where the scar entered his closely shorn locks it had left a well-defined line of scar tissue where hair would no longer grow, giving him a rather dangerous look that he had claimed to prefer.

Freddy was a good man in their estimation, always aiming to please and always ready to throw down when necessary.  For what they were about to do it would be wise to have another experienced hand on board.

“Are we really doing this?” Kenyan asked, turning away from Freddy, who was gently stroking Incen’s wing as the bird almost shuddered in pleasure.  Shaking her head Summer stepped close, addressing them both as Freddy turned to pay attention.  Incen ruffled her feathers, as though insulted that he’d stopped.

“We need to stop this thing before it goes any further.  The town is battened down and the traps are all set.  If the Longblades make that final push they’ll find out quickly that they’re walking right into the jaws of a very pissed off populace, and whether they fall back or not it will be too late. The traps that will be set off behind them will cut off any easy means of retreat and will help to keep separation between the line of command and their troops.

“Getting to Jarred won’t be a walk in the park, as he’s likely to have the most skilled and capable fighters he has surrounding him.  If he even came this far I’ll be slightly amazed.”

“What?” Freddy asked suddenly, “What do you mean he might not have come this far?”

“Think about it Freddy,” Mark said, “When was the last time you saw that noodle-loving princess out this far? He’d rather let his soldiers do the work and not get his pretty boots dirty than come out this way.”

Freddy muttered something in his own language that only Alexis understood, which made her smile as she responded.

“He might not agree with that description, but I would agree that it’s very likely.”

The others ignored this, as Freddy had often spoken in his native Spanish but never bothered to interpret. If Alexis did it would be later, when they weren’t so pressed for time.

“If he has come this far, which is unlikely, he’ll be in plain sight. He won’t want to risk moving out into the woods where he knows there are traps everywhere. And since the roads aren’t trapped every few dozen yards…”

“He’ll stay to the main path,” Mark reasoned, “But he’ll have archers because he knows about these two.” He motioned towards Plume and Incen, who were obviously chomping at the bit to be airborne, as their constant shifting would indicate.

Summer nodded, “He’ll have archers and spears around him to insure that we won’t just come swooping in to take him out.  That’s why we’ll stay high enough to be out of range, and if we see him, then we dive.”

“I’m not sure I like that plan,” Mark said with a grunt, “I don’t much care to be feathered by a damned Longblade arrow.”

“Neither do we,” Summer said, “That’s why we won’t be diving where he can see us.”

The confused look that Mark gave them in that moment almost made Alexis laugh, but she held it in.

*                      *                      *

 

He hated just standing here, doing nothing, relegated to being protected. He should have been out there with his father, or at least with the others protecting the town.  Standing in the doorway Doug could see a great deal of Clatksanie, and could see that it was battened down as always in anticipation of an attack.  Only twice before had he been allowed to help out, but that had always been because they needed an extra person manning the traps or someone to help out with any injured townsfolk.  He’d always wanted to be in the middle of combat, where he could prove that he was worth something.

But his father had told him no.

Doug was tempted to pick up his practice blade and go out anyway, but he knew the penalty if he did this.  His father would not only enforce town law on him, but he would inflict the punishment, three days in the hot box, on his own.  Doug knew that his father cared for him, but sometimes it was that same quality that irritated him to no end.  It wasn’t fair, and more than that, it wasn’t right that as the son of one of the most influential people in town that he would be allowed to be held back when others his age were fighting.  It almost made him ashamed to be his father’s son, but he had to remind himself again and again that there was a reason why his father would do such a thing.

Doug didn’t feel like being groomed to be the next chief guard of the town, especially considering that he was still a ways behind his fellow trainees in matters of combat training. He had other skills, but he…

His self-ruminating was cut short as he looked out towards the river that ran east to west through the town, dividing the town proper from the wilderness beyond.  Had he seen something? Or was he imagining the telltale gleam? Doug watched carefully as he cast one glance back towards where he’d seen his father departing town on the back of one of the large birds. They were already airborne, winging away and well out of shouting range, but as he looked back to the river he saw nothing but gently flowing water, trickling around reeds and lapping gently against the embankment.

Considering the placement of the home his father and he had been given at the top of the hill, Doug had no trouble seeing for at least a mile or more in every direction. Now, as he continued to look, he saw the gleam that had attracted his attention again, his eyes widening as he took in the sight of not one, not even two, but eight different forms, all armored, and all floating along the river’s edge, keeping close to the embankment as they submerged again.

Panic attempted to set in quickly as he realized that a small contingent of the enemy had

somehow pushed through their many traps and sentries, utilizing the one pathway they had not

thought to guard.  As he watched for just another second Doug was already formulating a plan,

his mind working overtime to deduce just what he should do, and how he should go about it.

Without realizing it he was about to prove his worth as he went towards his father’s room, grabbing one weapon after another before dashing out of his home, fully intent on warning the others.

As of now he had the element of surprise, and he didn’t intend to waste it.

*                      *                      *

 

They lifted off without an issue and proceeded to gain altitude as each rider clung tightly to their mount.  As instructed, Incen and Plume did not fly high enough to look down upon the world from a noticeable vantage point, but remained just above the treetops, away from the main road where they might be easily seen. This was not their intended method of attack, as they would be setting down wherever they could after affirming whether or not Jarred had indeed made the trip.

It only took a short amount of time to discover that the commander had indeed decided to follow his troops this time, albeit from a safe distance of nearly a mile or more behind the front lines. He was protected by no less than a full contingent of men and women bedecked in full armor and bristling with weapons. He had spearmen, archers, and even fire-slingers, a specialized regiment among the Longblades that had been included only a few years back.

Fire-slingers were more or less just how they sounded. They would arm themselves with several flasks of volatile liquid and, armed with a variety of ways to create fire, would on command begin to launch volley after volley of incendiary attacks at an enemy. It was a deadly method of attack, but an uncertain one as well, as most fire-slingers were not known to survive more than one engagement thanks to the fact that they often carried their entire arsenal on their person. Even those who were smart and carried their liquid in packs or on carts or other contraptions did not last long, as they were in effect the only regiment in the Longblades known to willingly sacrifice themselves for their beliefs.

“He would bring the craziest bastards he could find,” Summer muttered as they touched down in a small, unnoticed glen some distance away. “What do you think the chances are of taking the fire-slingers out first? He doesn’t dare keep them close and they’re not well-protected.”

“With good reason,” Mark replied as he dismounted from Plume’s back, “They’ll torch whoever’s in the way to get their enemy, even if it’s their allies.”

“All the more reason to press them back,” Alexis said with a grin. She looked up at Incen and then to Plume, “You two feel like trimming the hedges?”

Incen looked to Plume, who cocked her head quizzically before blinking a few times.  It would seem they were in agreement.  It would be dangerous, but it might just work to their favor.

“Just a little off the top,” Summer said as she nodded at Alexis, “We’ll take care of the rest.”

Mark just looked at them, obviously confused but willing to go with whatever they were planning. It was usually better that way.

*                      *                      *

Tap-tap tap tap-tap.  Doug wasted no time as he went from one boarded-up door to another, hitting every home and shack he knew to house those who were inside, ready to fight. He knew very well that traps had been set and were waiting to be sprung around and outside of town, but those would do no good for those who were in town and needed protection. His father’s weapons were hanging heavily on his person as he made his way quickly through the town, keeping an eye out for any armored forms that might come around the corner at any moment.

He knew the signal to warn those inside of an invasion, as it had been devised by the town council and finalized by several of those in charge, including his father.  Doug had learned a great deal from his father, despite being left out of the specialized lessons he so badly wanted to learn.  At least he could do this much.

Even as he was passing he could hear people stirring, weapons being drawn, and doors creaking open as those townsfolk who’d been left behind to defend the young, elderly, and infirm came forth to protect the town. The plan was simple once they were roused, to move slowly and cautiously towards the main strip, as this was where the bulk of the raids that had ever come against Clatskanie had been focused. Invaders knew very well that taking their homes would be a devastating blow, but taking the strip would be the end of Clatskanie.

The main strip that had existed for longer than anyone alive in the town to date had been the gateway between the fabled land of Origin, though Doug had never known just why this was so important.  He had heard the stories of Origin, and of course had the privilege of being trained by the two women who’d allied themselves, and supposedly Origin, with this town. But since he’d never seen much more than this, he had no reason to think much of why anyone would want to visit such an isolated place.

Some said Origin was a place of power, others said was simply another holdout that the Longblades wanted. All agreed however that Origin was a prize of some sort, a treasure that many clans would gladly kill to possess. Those of Clatskanie had no such designs, as they simply wanted the right to exist and take care of their own.  The Longblades and every other raiding clan that had ever come this way threatened that, and by that they had become the enemy. Those of Origin had only ever tried to help them, as his father had said, and that made them allies.

They didn’t have many of those.

He’d made his way down the hill from his home by the time he saw the first of them.  Stopping behind the large building that served as the town’s supply house he stopped cold behind one of the larger trees that created a perimeter around the building, peering hard towards the intruders.  They were at the moment making their way towards the buildings nearest the river, weapons out as they kept their movements slow and methodical, peering around corners and into the few shadows that were cast thanks to the overcast day above them.

There was no one within the buildings they were searching as far as he knew. During a

raid most of the townsfolk would head for the hill, sharing their homes with one another while

others took up positions near the areas that were most heavily fortified with traps.  He had been

one of those who was there to help before, but  this was the first time he had stood in direct

opposition to the enemy, and he could feel his heartbeat as the organ seemed ready to explode out of his chest.  A new feeling was washing over him as he sought to master his fear, tingeing his every breath as he looked at the invaders in a new light, his eyes narrowing as he felt his body steadying, his hands ceasing to shake as he realized what needed to happen, and why they were truly here.  Maybe it was a sudden revelation of sorts, but he could now understand why Summer and Alexis, and his father, had continually pressed upon him, and all the other initiates, the need to hold this town, to keep the invaders that attacked from pushing any further.

He’d known of the vile practices of the Longblades and their ilk since he’d been a young boy, but never once had he felt this type of responsibility, this vitality that now surged through his limbs. These armored parasites were attempting to secure his home for their own purposes, to serve as an outpost so that they might pillage and conquer their way ever onward towards a goal that most of them likely did not understand. He was filled with a fury that was anything but righteous, but still felt right, for lack of a better word.  This was his home they were attempting to take over, and for all its importance, it was just a stepping stone to the Longblades.

The people of Clatskanie did not exist to be stepped on.

“Hey!” The whispered shout caught him unprepared as he swung towards the sound, one of his father’s weapons already out and swinging as a firm grip was laid upon his right elbow, thankfully halting the blow as the unknown assailant grinned back at him.  He almost felt his ears go red from embarrassment as Jacqueline Imenara, one of the fiercest and prettiest young women in Clatskanie, pushed his arm away with ease.  Her olive-toned skin and dark, raven-black hair shone as always as she came up even with him, standing so close that he could smell the faint whiff of her.  She was almost pressed up against him as they huddled behind the tree, though he did his best not to react.

“How many?” she asked, grinning as she noticed his reaction to her nearness.

“Eight that I, counted,” he grunted as she purposefully shifted against him. It was no secret that she favored him, but being the most attractive young woman in the town and his age, it was expected that she would fall for one of the more athletic and handsome warriors, not him.  Yet for all that, Jacqueline preferred his company to any other.

“And you were going to take them on all by your lonesome?” she asked with a grin.

“No,” he said defensively, “I gave the signal.”

“I know,” she said in a friendly manner as her impish grin faded just a bit, “And we’ve answered.”

In response to his confused look she pointed to east, further along the road, where he could just barely make out the movements of several forms as they made their way from one shadow to another.

“So are you going to wait this one out or come have some fun with us?” she asked, pressing against him again just because it made him nervous.  Her body was that of a grown woman, but her attitude was still that of a young teenager, which he could not deny that he enjoyed.  “Your father might give you a good dressing down I would imagine. But wouldn’t it be worth it for this?”

Before he could answer she leaned even closer, kissing him hard on the lips as her tongue danced across his teeth, her hand wrapping the front of his shirt as she moaned softly.  He was reaching for her when she pushed him away, nibbling lightly on his lip as she grinned at him.

“Stay alive big boy,” she purred, “and there’ll be a lot more later.”

With that she darted off, keeping to the shadows and the brush as much as she could, leaving Doug staring after her.  It was a full minute before he went running after, moving as she did, and trying his best to maintain his silence.  At least now he had proper motivation to be defiant.

*                      *                      *

 

The cries and shrieks of the men and women ahead told them that Incen and Plume had already made their first pass. After that, the whirling of hemp cords and the sudden breaking of ceramic jars, followed by the sudden whoosh of flames, told them that the fire-slingers had done their work. This was followed by the sudden twang of several bows as the archers were no doubt attempting to reload in the few seconds it took them to reach for another arrow.  That was their cue.

Summer went first, as her armor, a reconditioned set of Longblade plate mail that had been given to her some time ago, would allow her to absorb more punishment if they were not quick enough. Her powerful form was moving so quick however that Alexis and Mark had to hustle to keep up, their own legs churning furiously as Summer reached the first of the soldiers, her heavy blade clanging hard against armor and producing solid, meaty sounds as she used the flat of the blade as they had discussed.

They had no control over what Mark did, but as he drew his own weapon he was at least attempting to utilize the more pacifistic holds and throws that he’d been taught.  Alexis had no trouble disarming and throwing down her opponents. She and Summer had been taught by some of the finest warriors that the world had ever created, and they knew how to wade through an unsuspecting band of trained and seasoned warriors as though they were mere novices.  In only a handful of seconds several bowstrings had been cut, rendering them inert and all but useless, and many bodies had hit the ground without pause, many of them sporting painful bruises and bloodied lips, noses, and in one case a heavy knot forming upon the brow of a young archer who hadn’t seen Mark’s fist crashing down at him.

Their target was still behind a contracting wall of spears, his face livid and his eyes bulging as he glared at each of them.  He looked mad enough to spit fingernails, and in truth Summer couldn’t blame him. Jarred must have thought he’d had quite the failsafe protecting him on his way towards what he might have thought was an easy victory. As the cries and sounds of battle in the distance began to rise however, it was a little too apparent that he’d mistakenly underestimated his opponents yet again.

“You. Dare!” he huffed, holding his hand near his own blade.  Despite the usual

qualifications for an initiate to become a knight, let alone a commander, Summer already knew

that Jarred had little knowledge of what to do with his blade other than to stick the pointed end

into another person. How he’d ever risen this far was a question for another day however.

“Aren’t we supposed to be the indignant ones?” Summer asked Alexis, not turning around as she had at least three spear points aimed at her just then.

Alexis shrugged, “Takes too much time and effort.  I’d rather just find the problem and get rid of it.”

“You’ve no idea what you’ve done!” Jarred said, attempting to sound haughty and in control despite his current situation.  Summer might have laughed at him had the situation not been so serious.

“You guys just saw us drop your friends like a bad habit and you still want to stick around?” Summer asked, looking to the spear wielders and ignoring Jarred entirely.  “You really think your tent stakes are going to keep you, or him, safe?”

She could see a few of the knights looking as though they’d rather just tuck tail and run.  But the rest were resolute, no doubt because they were zealots, or knew what would happen if they were accused of cowardice. Such a thing could brand a knight and eventually get them kicked out of the order. It had taken far less in her case.

“You dare ignore me!” Jarred shouted, sputtering as he attempted to move past the spearmen. They didn’t budge, and he simply looked like a fool.

“Zip it kiddo, adults are speaking. So how about it you guys?” Summer asked, “Are you willing to go down protecting this limp-wristed little punk or are you ready to put them up and leave?”

“Attack!” roared Jarred, his face red all the way to the ears now as he pointed at the three of them, “Attack attack attack!”

Summer almost laughed at the mini-tantrum, but by then the spearmen were on them, and it was time to fight instead.  She dodged one spear before rapping her blade against it, forcing it out wide to her left before stepping within its reach, punching out hard with the pommel of her blade as it caught the underside of the soldier’s jaw, dropping him instantly. She might have had a clear line to Jarred then if not for another two spearmen that took the place of the fallen, each of their tips hovering menacingly towards her as Summer actually managed to grab one of them, slicing the tip away easily with her blade before bringing her weapon across for a vicious slap to the first soldier’s face.

That soldier was still falling when she sliced the other spear in half, backhanding the second soldier with the flat of her blade so hard that she could actually feel the woman’s face shift perhaps an inch or so to the left. She might live after this, but the soldier would never be pretty again.

Three were down thus far, and as she watched she could see another eight engaging Alexis and Mark, who were doing their very best to keep them at bay and not get impaled.  Incen and Plume had done their job and were even now winging off to help back in town should anyone need it.  They were on their own for the moment, and suddenly Summer noticed that she had a clear run towards Jarred. It was too good of an opportunity not to take as she dashed towards the man, baring her teeth in a growl as he saw her coming.

Jarred uttered a feeble squeak that made her blood burn as he attempted to draw his own blade, fumbling with it so badly that he nearly dropped the weapon. Even as it cleared the scabbard she was striking at him, the flat of her blade rapping his knuckles and perhaps breaking a finger as she reached out.

Her left hand grabbed at his collar as her right brought her blade up and over his head, the edge finally coming to rest firmly against his throat, just beneath his Adam’s apple.  She felt him gulp and then try to halt the movement as she smiled, yelling loudly enough to be heard as she bellowed into the melee.

“HEY!  Look at me! Who is this I’ve got under my blade?!”

“What are you doing?!” Jarred tried to squawk, going still as his actions forced her blade to dig into his skin just enough to break the surface, causing a small trickle of crimson to burst free as he went still once more. The fighting ceased only a moment later, the spearmen surrounding Mark and Alexis, who were both breathing heavily as they’d successfully fended their opponents away, but were in danger of tiring.

“Release him!” one of the spearmen said, making a threatening move towards her. As a means of reminding him what was at stake she gripped the back of Jarred’s head, her bare hand touching his soft, silken hair as she grabbed without any thought. He squealed like a little girl as she yanked his head back, making her grin even wider.

“So soft,” she breathed, “Do you put oil in your hair you little priss? Or are there some hidden stores of the old shampoos and conditioners still left after all this time?”

“Kill, kill her, if she does anything!” Jarred said, being careful not to move too much as the blade still rested upon his skin.

“You never were that smart were you?” she chuckled, “Even if you would have gotten it right, you should have threatened them,” she indicated Mark and Alexis, “instead of me. They threaten me I bleed you like a little piggy.  They threaten them, well, I can’t speak to their level of skill, but Mark and ‘Lex would likely use your men’s own poles to skewer them like hunks of meat. Isn’t that right?”

“I might,” Mark said with a sneer.

“Okay, please don’t make me puke,” Alexis said, earning a reproving glance from Summer.  “I mean, yeah.”

“You stupid bitches,” Jarred said, “You’ll have nothing left to go back to now.” He continued to speak, but was still being as careful as he could not to move. “My soldiers will have already infiltrated and killed, every, last, one, of your filthy, common asses!  What you stopped here is nothing!  Even if you kill us, another commander will be stationed here and you’ll be driven out regardless!  You stupid, uneducated in-breeders!”

Summer looked at Mark quizzically, “How did that rumor get started?”

He didn’t look at her, staring heatedly at Jarred as he growled, “I’m not certain, but it’s another propagandist lie that they like to spread.”

“Very nice word usage,” Alexis said quietly, to which Mark just grunted in reply. “No

seriously, you’ve been practicing it would seem. Anyway,” she said as she looked about at the

spearmen in that second, “I would advise you gents, and ladies, to drop your oversized toothpicks and let us go, or I’ll let Mark here do what he is no doubt itching to do.  Please just make it easy and go. I really don’t want to watch you all become meat skewers.”

“My people will burn your town to the ground! And I will personally shit on the ashes!”

Summer pressed her blade a little closer to Jarred’s throat to shut him up again, looking to Mark and Alexis with a grin as she said, “Should we reveal the big surprise now?”

“Why not?” Alexis shrugged, “It’s not like his people are really going to fare any better than they probably are now. You want to tell him Mark, or should we?”

“I don’t have the right words,” Mark said, grinning wolfishly at Jarred, “So you might as well.”

Jarred was looking at the three of them as though they’d gone crazy, but as realization dawned on his face he once again tried to buck out of Summer’s grip, but was unsuccessful.

“You know what I like about assholes like you, Jarred?” Alexis asked, coming close enough so that she could flick his nose with her fingernails, “It’s that you think you’re smarter than those who’ve come before you.  Whether you want to believe it or not, Summer and I are easily old enough to be your great-grandmothers, and we’ve seen pricks like you come and go for a long, long time.

“You might wonder what that means to you, if anything, but I’m getting to that part. Oh put those down already before I go ahead and let Mark have his way with you.”

The spearmen still didn’t move, but neither did they look ready to threaten them again, not with their leader in such dire peril.  But was that fear she saw in the eyes of a few of them?

“Anyway, as I was saying, men like you don’t seem to understand that for all your tactics, all your supposed smarts and battle-minded antics, you’re children.  The comprehension of abstract thought is well within the realm of believability for people your age, but it’s still incomplete.  You don’t think around corners yet, you don’t try to understand your enemy, and judging by the ease with which we took you down, you don’t respect your enemy.

“Now, as for the matter of back in town.  Your soldiers are likely dead, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to perform as you wanted them to, and largely because we, unlike you, know how to plan ahead and move people where they need to be. His son for instance,” she indicated Mark, “is a great thinker, but not such a great fighter yet.  He’ll come around, I have confidence and so do the rest of us, but at this point and time he’s more of a fledgling leader than anything.  He’s also a damned fine sentinel so far as the rest of us are concerned, since he can take a greater view of the world around him and apply it to whatever he needs.

“What this means is that he likely saw at least one or more of your soldiers entering the town and alerted those left behind, which is, fair to say, a veritable host of armed warriors just itching and ready to shell your knights and see what their guts look like.  It’s strange after all this time that you still fail to realize that people in Clatskanie aren’t born to be weak. They’re not sissies or limp-wristed wimps that need to hide behind a full contingent of soldiers. People in this region are born and raised tough by necessity, and are each ten times harder than your knights could ever be.

“So yes, we knew you were coming, and I think we’ll find that the traps surrounding the town are rather full or have worked with grim efficiency once we’ve checked. But I also suspect that when we head back into town we’ll see however many shiny-shelled miscreants you sent in either trussed up or laid out, depending on how nice they decided to play.”

“Then there’s whatever Incen and Plume might do to them, don’t forget that.”

“That’s right, and maybe even Kenyan if he got in on the party.”

“It’s always possible.”

“Hey, my man knows how to fight.”

“But he prefers not to,” Summer chided.

“So did I at one point,” Alexis said, affecting a false, wounded tone, “He’ll come around.”

“Do you ladies need a moment or something?” Mark said, still eyeing the spearmen, who had yet to fall back.

“Oh yeah,” Alexis said with a sigh, “Them.”

“Tell you what,” Summer said, directing her words towards the soldiers, “You lot can clear out and take ol’ fuzzy nuts here with you, or you can stay and get your asses kicked with the others. Either way, you’re going to want to turn around and head back to Shadow’s End. This little game is just about over.”

“Then let him go,” said one of the soldiers, a woman by the sound of it.

Summer grinned, “Put the spears down, start walking back home, and I will.  I may be a lot of things, but a fool and a liar aren’t among them.”

“That’s debatable,” Alexis said in a low voice.

Summer offered her a cool, calculating look as she said, “Seriously?  I told you I didn’t touch that guy the last time, he made a run at me and I did what I had to do.”

“Mm-hm, and I suppose he broke his fingers off at the knuckles when you knocked him down, right?  After you said you wouldn’t harm him?”

“He had a knife!”

“Most of them usually do,” Alexis countered.

“Is this really necessary?” Mark said, almost shouting as he was still staring down the pointed end of a spear.  The two women looked at him, noting that he was likely just about out of patience and would attack at any moment unless matters were handled soon.

“Make your choice then,” Summer said to the bunch, “My arm is starting to get tired.” As if to make her point she drew her sword arm back and down just a fraction of an inch, creating a longer furrow in Jarred’s neck as he howled as though she was trying to saw his head from his shoulders.

“Help me you imbeciles!” Jarred managed to cry, tears streaking down his cheeks as he stood rigid, still held firmly by Summer. She just shook her head as she raised her eyebrows, not caring one way or another what happened.

“That’s how he talks to you guys?” Alexis asked, “And you expect them to jump with

that kind of attitude?” She directed this to Jarred, who was openly weeping now as the soldiers

looked contemplative.  It would be a serious breach of command if they were to walk away without their commanding officer, but it would also be an easy thing to accredit his death or capture with the three people who had accosted him.  It was a tough decision to make no doubt, and more likely it was because not many people cared for him.

“Let him go,” the same soldier said, leveling her spear at Mark’s heart.  He looked to Summer, who rolled her eyes as she then sighed.

“Fine then, the hard way it is.”

*                      *                      *

 

Doug stood looking over the kneeling prisoners that had been beaten or forced into submission, every one of them stripped of their weapons, and in some cases, their dignity. Those few knights that had manage to make their way past the traps had fallen easily, either because they’d already been overtaxed by the march towards the town or because they’d been furiously attempting to avoid the traps that had snared so many of their companions.  Whatever the case, they had been subdued and forced to relinquish their weapons in short order.

He’d been a part of the fighting of course, but had done little to turn the tide of battle.  His father’s blades had availed him no special skill or insight on how to incapacitate another, and had worked largely for defense until Jacqueline had found him.  She had done her best to finish those few opponents he engaged, smiling at him after it was over.  Any other person might have chided his lack of skill, but Jacqueline said nothing other than a heartfelt thanks for joining the fray, and had even stayed with him even up to this point, when they stood facing the prisoners, wondering just what would be done with them.

“Your dad’s probably going to be pissed,” she said with a grin.

“Likely,” he said with a sigh, “But it was worth it.”

“Of course it was,” she said, nudging his elbow, “You saved the town after all. He couldn’t possibly be disappointed in that.”

“This is my dad we’re talking about,” Doug said solemnly.

“Oh I think he might surprise you this time,” she said, pressing close as she rested her head against his shoulder, “Even your old man can’t be too upset that you helped spot the intruders.”

That got Doug to thinking about something that had been troubling him since he’d seen the first few warriors filing into the town proper.

“What were you all doing in town?  I’d thought you’d all gone to face the enemy.”

“Does it really matter?” Jacqueline said, casting her eyes down.

“It should,” he almost growled, “But considering that our home is safe for the time being, I guess not.”

This elicited a grin from Jacqueline, who thrust her arm through his, snuggling up against him as she said, “You showed you’re ready today Doug, that’s all that matters.”

Looking up from the prisoners he could see several forms approaching from the east,

each of them appearing whole and well enough. He could almost make out the form of his father,

as well as Summer and Alexis.  Doug couldn’t help but inhale sharply, grateful in that moment for Jacqueline as she remained beside him, squeezing his arm in support as they awaited the arrival of his father.  He had some explaining to do.