BHC Press 2019 Young Adult/Teen Fiction Sampler

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BHC Press Young Adult/Teen 2019 Sampler Hood Academy Copyright © 2019 Shelley Wilson The Path Keeper Copyright © 2019 N.J. Simmonds Remeon’s Quest Copyright © 2019 J.W. Garrett The Uncovering Copyright © 2018 Drea Damara Light of Darkness Copyright © 2019 Lonnie Davidson The Secret of Dinswood Copyright © 2019 Ellen Alexander Johnny Hunter Copyright © 2018 Richard L. DuMont Guardians of the Dead Copyright © 2017 Shelley Wilson Compilation Copyright © 2019 BHC Press All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the publisher. This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

All titles published by BHC Press Visit the publisher at:

Hood Academy Shelley Wilson The Path Keeper N.J. Simmons Remeon’s Quest J.W. Garrett The Uncovering Evan D. Heuker Light of Darkness Lonnie Davidson The Secret of Dinswood Ellen Alexander Johnny Hunter Richard L. DuMont Guardians of the Dead Shelley Wilson

ABOUT THE BOOK Nestled deep within the forest lies a mysterious school dedicated to wiping out the werewolf population. But where exactly do werewolves come from? And why are children not bitten by a werewolf turning? Mia is about to discover the answers to these questions and more. When fifteenyear-old Mia’s father is murdered, it’s her estranged uncle that comes to the rescue —but what he offers her in return for his help could be worse than the life she’s leaving behind. Taken to Hood Academy, a unique school deep in the forest, she discovers friendships, love, the courage to stand on her own…and werewolves. Is Mia destined to become one of the pack or will she be the hunter chosen to destroy them? This unique twist on the origins of werewolves and werewolf hunters will grab readers by the throat as they are drawn alongside Mia into a dark and mysterious world as she quests to discover her true identify.

Chapter One The blue flashing lights pulsed through the fractured front window, illuminating the blood splatter on the walls. The click-click of the forensic team’s camera ate into the sterile silence as the officers combed through the living room. Like something out of a macabre horror show the blood covered everything, coating the threadbare rug in front of the fireplace with its crimson wash. The splintered remains of the coffee table littered the overturned chair, and the smell of death clung to the walls. I lifted my eyes to look at the police officer who knelt in front of me, his face a mask of professionalism even though he must be wishing he was anywhere but here. ‘Did you see who killed your dad?’ I slowly shook my head as the officer tried to determine what had happened. ‘Someone tried to kill you, miss. I want to help. Did you see who broke in and attacked you?’ I couldn’t answer. The words were stuck in my throat. How could I tell him that my dad was the one who tried to kill me and that a wolf had jumped through the window and ripped out his throat? Who would believe me? The paramedic dropped a medical kit at my feet and began wiping the blood from my face, the sudden cold of the antiseptic wipe causing an involuntary shudder to run through my bones. The police officer and paramedic exchanged a look. The same kind of look that my teacher and headmaster used to give each other when I tried to cover up the bruises down my arms. I slumped a little further into the kitchen chair, letting my long dark hair fall around my face. ‘Anything you can give us by way of a description will help.’ The police officer clicked the end of his pen and poised it over the clean sheet of notepaper. ‘Big,’ I managed to say. My lips cracked as I spoke, and I could feel a trickle of blood slide down the side of my mouth. The paramedic wiped it up before moving to the gash on my forehead.

‘It…he was big. Dark hair. Brown eyes.’ The officer noted it down and let out a deep sigh. Not the best description for them to go on, but it was all I could give him. If I’d told him the attacker was hairy, with sharp claws and fangs, the paramedic would have had me committed. I didn’t need to escape from one prison to then find myself in another. ‘It’s late. Who can we call?’ the medic asked as he secured a small bandage to my head. ‘Any family?’ The police officer grabbed the radio from his shirt pocket. ‘I’ve already called social services. As she’s a minor we need to find her a bed for the night. I’ll chase them up.’ ‘No!’ I could hear the flicker of panic in my voice as the threat of being sent away loomed. ‘I can call my brother. He’ll let me stay with him. He’s much older than me and has his own place. It’ll be fine.’ They exchanged another look. ‘What’s his number and we’ll call him for you?’ Shit. I hadn’t seen Zak since he walked out nine years ago. He’d promised to come back for me but he never did. He left me alone with that bastard who called himself our father. ‘I’ll find it,’ I mumbled, standing up and moving towards the living room. The police officer barred the door. ‘It’s probably best that you don’t enter the crime scene, miss. You’ve been through enough tonight already, so why don’t you take a seat and tell me where to look?’ Double shit. I needed to stall for time. If only someone were willing to lie to the police about being my brother then I wouldn’t have to go with the social worker. Unfortunately, friends were a luxury I never got to enjoy. My heart beat faster as I wrestled with the possibility of leaving this house. If I went with them, Zak would never be able to find me. I stumbled against the dresser, knocking a vase to the floor with a loud crash. The paramedic led me back to the plastic kitchen chair and I lowered myself

into it, resting my head on the wooden table and letting my long hair fan out around me. The softly murmured voices of the police officer and the medic washed over me as I closed my eyes. Throat torn open – blood gushing from the wound as it sprayed across the furniture –his eyes wide in shock and panic as he fell to the floor. Keeping my head on the table, I tuned into the conversations around me. The officers were speculating on the attacker, trying to understand how someone could cause that much carnage. Strong assailant – nothing missing – bloody mess – no chance of survival. They went on, talking through all the possibilities. Of course, none of them came close to the truth – how could they? I squeezed my eyes more tightly shut as I tried to block out the images that danced across the inside of my eyelids. His eyes. The blood. A man’s deep voice cut through the air and a shudder skittered down my spine. The sharp tone and arrogance reminded me of my father, and I had to lift my head to check he hadn’t risen from the dead. I opened my eyes and blinked against the stark brightness of the kitchen light. ‘This is Sebastian Roberts, miss.’ The police officer led him into the room. The well-dressed man filled the kitchen doorway; his dark suit and long overcoat looked as if they cost more than my dad earned in a year. His shoes shone in the bright light of the kitchen, and I instinctively tucked my tatty trainers under the chair. I figured him to be middle-aged and he had thick black hair that was neatly clipped around a square face. The hard lines of his nose and jaw worked to highlight the cold grey eyes that stared down at me. ‘He says he’s your uncle.’ The police officer gestured for Mr Roberts to take a seat, but he remained where he was, watching me with predatory eyes. I’d only met this man a couple of times when I was a kid, but the striking resemblance to my father would have convinced anyone that he was who he said he was. They could have been twins apart from the difference in hair colour and the small fact that this man was clean-shaven and professional, and my father had been a drunken mess with a violent temper.

‘We were about to call her brother to come and get her.’ My uncle huffed. ‘If Mia’s brother gets in touch, then do feel free to pass on my details so he can come and visit her at my home.’ Sebastian Roberts looked pointedly at me as he said it, and I understood immediately that I was busted. He knew I didn’t have a clue where Zak was. Shit. The police officer took Sebastian to one side as his female colleague escorted me towards the stairs to pack a bag and collect anything I needed. I took my time ascending the steps as I strained to overhear their conversation. ‘Is there a number where you can be reached, sir?’ ‘Of course. Here’s a business card with my direct number and the address where Mia will be staying for the time being.’ Where I would be staying remained a mystery to me. The only flicker of hope I could hold onto was that it couldn’t be any worse than here. As I gazed around my dismal bedroom, it struck me what a pathetic life I had led so far. A handful of books, some of my mum’s handwritten poetry that I’d managed to salvage after she died, underwear, four tops and two pairs of jeans. My worldly belongings fit into one backpack. I avoided looking directly at the female officer as she glanced around the dank bedroom. The pity on her face was almost too much to bear. Staying in this house was supposed to have been temporary. Zak had promised that he would come back for me. I didn’t need a new bed or lots of pretty things, not if I needed to get away quickly when he came. Of course, he never had come back to get me. I gave a sharp nod to indicate that I was done, and we made our way back down to the kitchen. Sebastian was waiting by a large black car when I arrived. The medic pressed a spare bandage into my hand as I stepped out of the front door, and the police officer gave a grim nod of his head as I walked towards him. ‘We’ll be in touch, miss,’ he told me. I didn’t care if he did get in touch. I just wished this whole brutal night would disappear from my memory, but I forced a smile and whispered my thanks. The fresh night air settled around me like a cloak, the sky dotted with grey

clouds that swept across the full moon, its creamy light bathing the front garden in an eerie glow. Sebastian watched me as I trudged down the path and joined him on the passenger side. ‘We have a long drive ahead of us, Mia.’ He opened the door. ‘We better get started.’ I didn’t look back. I didn’t want to see the broken window or the blood splattered across the walls. The neighbours had congregated on the pavement and were watching the events unfold. I avoided their staring faces as I slid into the leather seat and closed the door. The tinted windows offered me some comfort as the black car slid past the gawping faces. I shut my eyes and let the exhaustion creep over me. *** The sound of the car engine cutting out stirred me from a frenzied dream of blood, teeth and carnage, and I was grateful for the reprieve as the whirlwind of images steamrolled through my brain. Sebastian sat motionless at the wheel and stared ahead through the windscreen. ‘Are we here?’ I wasn’t quite sure where here was, as my mysterious uncle had been a bit vague on our destination. I’d been too distracted to bother asking and now my uneasiness troubled me. He grunted and shifted his gaze to look over at me, his eyes sweeping over my face and hovering on the split lip and bandaged forehead. ‘Not yet. We’ve been driving most of the night, and I thought you might need a bathroom break.’ He had stopped at the motorway services. I noticed the glass-fronted building in the distance and saw the steady stream of people rushing in and out. The car park was busy with motorists in need of a caffeine fix before resuming their journey. The flickering sign for beverages beckoned to me, and I sat up straight in my seat. ‘I could do with a coffee.’ We entered the building side by side but in silence. I didn’t know this man and he didn’t know me. If I was going to spend the next God knew how long with him, I needed to open my mouth and at least attempt to hold a conversation with him.

‘Two white coffees.’ He handed over the cash, ignoring the pleasant smile from the barista as he motioned for us to sit in a free booth. ‘I’m not sure that sixteen-year-olds should drink coffee.’ I almost laughed. ‘You don’t have kids?’ ‘No, my brother was the sibling graced with offspring.’ I did laugh at that. ‘I don’t think my dad thought he had been graced with anything.’ I stirred my coffee a little too violently and watched as it slopped over the rim and left a muddy puddle on the table. ‘Your father had a lot to deal with. The death of his wife, the loss of his son. It all took its toll on his mental health and…’ ‘How dare you.’ I dropped the teaspoon with a clatter as I raised my voice. A couple of patrons glanced in our direction. ‘What do you know about our life? Dad was a bastard, plain and simple. These bruises were from him and they weren’t the first. They wouldn’t have been the last either if that…if he hadn’t been killed.’ I dropped my gaze and lifted the coffee cup to my lips. My hands shook slightly as I let my little outburst settle. I’d never done that in the past. I’d never verbalised what my dad had done, even when my teachers tried so hard to get me to admit it. It all went back to Zak. If I had spoken out about the violence, social services would have taken me away. Zak wouldn’t have been able to find me when the time came. I couldn’t risk that happening, so I kept my mouth shut. ‘I’m sorry.’ Sebastian’s words surprised me. ‘What have you got to be sorry about? He was the bad one, not you.’ I realised that there was every possibility that Sebastian was also a bad one. Could this be a family gene? As if reading my mind, he began to shake his head. ‘I’m nothing like my brother, Mia. You are perfectly safe with me. The death of your mother changed him in ways none of us could understand. He was such a kind man once. A long time ago.’

‘Well, I must have been out that day because I never saw any kindness, not a single moment of it.’ I wanted to say more, but as I opened my mouth to speak his phone began vibrating in his pocket. ‘I need to take this. I’ll be back soon.’ With that he stood up and walked away, his mobile pressed up to his ear. *** The smell of diesel and strong coffee assaulted my senses. I took another sip of the hot liquid and screwed my eyes shut. I’d never really liked coffee, but I opted for it in a bid to convince Sebastian that I was a sophisticated teenager. Why I believed that drinking a cup of coffee would make me look less of a child was a mystery to me. I remember seeing it on a TV show once. Road to nowhere and a cup of coffee, please. Stupid. As he was paying, I should have gone for the hot chocolate with extra cream. The tiny screen above the entrance showed the network of motorways, giving out up-to-date advice on scheduled roadworks and estimated travel times. The southbound route was busy, even at this time of night, with a flow of vehicles heading to the capital. The traffic heading north was much lighter. North; I had a faint memory of Zak telling me that he wanted to go to Scotland. He had shown me a map once, trailing his index finger up to the centre of the United Kingdom and tapping the spot over the county of Nottinghamshire. ‘This is the belly button of the UK,’ he had said. ‘I’m going to start here and work my way up north until I make it to the Scottish mountains.’ Zak’s need for adventure was palpable. Being outdoorsy kids, we thrived on that glimpse of freedom. I only wish that I’d been allowed to venture further than the garden gate more often. We both loved the smell of the trees after a rainstorm, and lying on the grass to watch the clouds or the stars in the sky. We had been brought up in a colossal concrete jungle. Grey boxes stacked on top of each other with a token patch of green grass at the centre of each estate. The trees were dead and the animals were either feral cats or angry dogs. I shifted in my seat as I tried to shake the memory of home, or rather, the house

I had lived in. My thoughts were interrupted when a young man placed a steaming mug of hot chocolate in front of me. ‘Can I join you?’ He didn’t wait for an answer but slid into the space opposite and took a long drink from his own mug. ‘Please.’ He gestured for me to drink. ‘It looks like you need an injection of chocolate.’ The skin around his mouth crinkled when he smiled and his front teeth were slightly crooked. I guessed him to be in his early twenties. ‘It’s a gift,’ he continued as he nodded at the cup. ‘A simple act of kindness.’ I fidgeted in my seat and looked around for Sebastian. ‘People aren’t kind and gifts don’t exist,’ I said, pushing the mug away and waiting for the explosion of anger that normally accompanied my backchat. ‘Hmm, I see.’ He put his own mug down and laced his fingers together, studying me with mysterious brown eyes that seemed much older than the face they occupied. His gaze rested only briefly on my split lip. ‘You don’t believe in acts of kindness?’ I shook my head, my hair swishing around my shoulders. ‘No, I don’t. Nobody does anything without wanting something in return.’ ‘So if I offer you a hot chocolate what do you suppose I want in return?’ I sat back in my chair and squared my shoulders. The gravity of a sixteen-yearold girl sitting in a service station all alone in the middle of the night suddenly hit me. ‘My uncle will be here any minute and he won’t be pleased to find you in his seat.’ ‘I’ve scared you,’ he said, holding his hands up. ‘I’m sorry, that wasn’t my intention. I was looking for a bit of light conversation to pass the time, that’s all.’ He picked up his mug and took another gulp, his eyes still fixed on me. ‘I’m sorry,’ I whispered. ‘I didn’t mean to be rude. I’m…’ I stopped myself from opening up to this mysterious stranger. Reaching for the mug, I smiled weakly at the young man. ‘Thank you for the hot chocolate.’ He watched me as I sipped my drink.

‘I’m Terry.’ He extended his hand across the table and I took it, shaking it firmly just as Zak had taught me. ‘I’m Mia.’ ‘So Mia, where are you heading on this chilly morning?’ I hesitated; regardless of the sweet, hot chocolatey gesture I needed to lie to this guy. I wasn’t ready to spill all the gruesome details of my screwed-up life, especially to a stranger. ‘I’m going to Scotland.’ He raised his eyebrows and let out a long, low whistle. ‘That’s a hell of a long journey.’ I laughed at his expression and managed to relax my posture, realising for the first time how tense I was. ‘I’m visiting my brother, and he lives in the Scottish mountains.’ Terry cocked his head to one side as if weighing up my answer. ‘How do you know he lives in the mountains?’ I blinked. ‘Excuse me?’ ‘How do you know your brother lives in the Scottish mountains? Did he tell you?’ I shook myself out of the shocked silence and stammered a reply, ‘Yes…he told me.’ The fact that Zak had only mentioned Scotland to me nine years ago didn’t matter. It was the first thing that had popped into my head. This conversation was making me feel uncomfortable, and I looked around again for any sign of Sebastian. Terry slipped out of his chair, and I curled my fists ready to fend off an attack, but he smiled and moved towards the exit. As he reached the door, he glanced back at me. ‘You might be interested to know that your brother is closer than you think, Mia. I wouldn’t bother going all the way to Scotland. Perhaps stay close to the belly button, and be careful who you trust.’ He winked and then he was gone. The gasp froze on my lips. The ‘belly button’ was Zak’s phrase. I flew out of my seat and rushed to the door, stumbling over my own feet as I

went. The cold air hit my face as soon as I stepped outside. I scanned the car park for Terry, but he was nowhere to be seen. ‘Mia?’ I whirled around to find Sebastian standing behind me, his posture rigid, deep grooves trailing along his forehead. ‘I…I was worried about you,’ I lied. ‘Thought you’d dumped me and run.’ My eyes continued to roam the car park. ‘I’m sorry. It was a business call that couldn’t wait.’ I trailed after him as we made our way back to the car. Sliding into the seat, I scoured the dark corners, the parked cars and the surrounding area for any sign of Terry. Hope filled my chest like a helium balloon. There was only one way that he could know about Zak’s quirky phrase. Whoever this guy was, he knew my brother, and if that was the case, then my brother knew where I was.

Chapter Two When Sebastian told the police that I would be staying with him, I’d pictured a semi-detached house with a front lawn and overgrown flower borders. As he pulled through the tall, wrought-iron gates and into the winding driveway of a stately home, I began to feel slightly cheated. How could he live in such a grand place while my dad barely scraped enough together to afford the dirty hovel that I’d called home? ‘It’s a school,’ he mumbled, as if sensing my animosity. Panic gripped me and my fingers tightened around the car seat. I was briefly reminded of Terry’s warning about who I should trust. ‘You’re dumping me into a boarding school?’ ‘No, Mia, this is my home. I run this school for gifted girls.’ I snorted. ‘I’m sorry to disappoint you but I’m not gifted. In fact, my grades are about as good as my conversational skills.’ Sebastian huffed, the stony exterior wavering momentarily but snapping back into place as he stopped the car in front of two huge wooden doors. ‘I apologise. I should have forewarned you about the nature of my job and home, but Hood Academy is not for the academically gifted, Mia, it’s for the physically gifted.’ ‘What, like a prep school for Miss United Kingdom? Ohmigod, do you run an underage brothel?’ ‘Mia!’ For the first time since he walked through the door of my ruined house and into my mess of a life, Sebastian looked flustered. As we sat in the car, and I waited patiently for a worthy explanation, the front doors opened and a stream of girls burst through. They were dressed head to foot in tight-fitting grey jumpsuits with long poles strapped across their backs. Like water breaking around a boulder in a stream, they swarmed past the car and sprinted off across the open lawn to the right of where we were parked. A tall, lithe student with long red hair split from the group and began shouting commands. The others quickly manoeuvred into pairs and began sweeping their

arms in slow, deliberate movements. ‘Are they dancing?’ Sebastian shook his head and reached for the door handle. ‘They are training, using Tai Chi movements to prepare their bodies ahead of the hand-to-hand combat.’ ‘Hand-to-hand combat! What the hell is hand-to…?’ I didn’t get a chance to finish my sentence as the girls swung the poles off their backs and began fighting each other, using them as weapons. The clash of wood on wood filled the early morning air as I stepped out of the car. They moved with grace and determination, and I was transfixed at how fast they could wield the long staffs. There were a few grunts and yelps as fingers got caught in the onslaught, but none of them gave up. ‘This way, Mia. I want to get you settled into your room before breakfast.’ Reluctantly I followed Sebastian up the front steps, losing my footing as I kept an eye on the girls. *** I had to admit, the interior entrance hall of Hood Academy was impressive. The high ceilings bore lavishly painted frescoes from Greek mythology. The walls were decorated in rich, golden, wood panelling that gleamed in the warm light cast from the chandeliers. Chunky pieces of furniture hugged the walls. Intricately carved sideboards, full of dusty old books and red sofas occupied every available space. The room was clearly designed to be multipurpose. An inviting entrance for visitors and a communal gathering space for the students. To the left, through an open door, I could see a large dining area. Several tables and long benches filled the floor space, and I heard the gentle clatter of cutlery being laid out. Directly to my right a half-glazed door stood slightly ajar with a name plaque in the centre. Dr Sebastian Roberts. So my uncle was a doctor; interesting. Two staircases leading off from the hallway dominated the space; one veered to the left and the other to the right. Sebastian walked up the left-hand stairs and I followed, swinging my rucksack over one shoulder. ‘Breakfast will be served at eight in the dining room. Follow the smell and you

should be fine. If you need me, come to my office, anytime.’ ‘What is this place?’ Sebastian stopped suddenly on the stairs, and I walked straight into the back of him. Jumping back, I grabbed onto the handrail to steady myself. ‘Mia, there is so much you don’t know, so much that your dad probably should have told you but didn’t. I need you to be open-minded about this place.’ When he looked at me, I noticed the dark circles under his eyes, and I allowed myself a brief moment of guilt. Was he grieving over the loss of his brother? In the horror of the aftermath, I hadn’t considered it, or maybe I just didn’t care enough. He turned his back and kept on walking up the stairs. It seemed that neither of us could communicate our true feelings. We stopped on the first-floor landing and Sebastian gestured to the higher levels. ‘The second and third floors are for the older students and teachers. This floor is for our newest students. We do maintain a basic curriculum of maths, English and science, but predominantly your studies will be centred around learning to fight, defend yourself and hunt.’ My mouth went dry, and all I could hear was the sound of a clock ticking somewhere off in the distance. ‘What exactly is it that I’m learning to hunt?’ I said, deliberately grinding out each word. ‘Werewolves, Mia. You will be hunting werewolves.’ *** I sat on the end of the bed and stared at the wall. He had been so matter-of-fact when he’d told me. So cold and clinical. Not once did he stop to think that I might not believe him or that I’d laugh in his face and tell him there was no such thing. Memories of a huge brown wolf crashing through our living room window stomped through my thoughts. I’d seen it with my own eyes. Fear had crippled me as I watched the creature pace the floor, broken glass crunching beneath its immense paws. The only other sound had been the whimpering sobs from my dad. He didn’t move to protect me, he just mumbled words I couldn’t understand. And then, the creature launched itself forward to rip my dad’s throat out. As it turned

to face me, all I could focus on were the hazel eyes and blood, lots and lots of blood, smeared over a long snout, and sharp fangs. I stood up and paced the floor. Sebastian had dropped his bombshell, dumped me in my new room and left. He had nothing more to say to me. Did he know what I’d seen? Was he fully aware that a werewolf had killed his brother? My head was spinning as I tried to comprehend everything that had happened. In twelve short hours, I’d watched a mythical creature murder my dad, been whisked away by an estranged uncle werewolf hunter and had an odd conversation about my brother with a complete stranger. I’d just hung my coat on the hook behind the door when it burst open and a pretty, young blonde girl dashed inside and collided with me. We both fell and hit the floor with a bang. ‘Oh no, I’m so sorry. Are you okay?’ She jumped to her feet, extending her hand to help me up. ‘I didn’t know you’d arrived.’ ‘I didn’t know you were expecting me.’ I fumbled to my feet with her help and dusted off my jeans. ‘You’re Mia, Dr Roberts’s niece. He told us you were joining the school and I, for one, am so excited to be your roomie.’ I glanced around the bedroom, seeing it properly for the first time. There were single beds on either side of the room with a large mahogany dressing table separating them. Single wardrobes and a huge chest of drawers sat on the opposite wall. A doorway led to a private bathroom. Fresh cream linen and soft blankets covered the bed I’d been sitting on, whereas the other bed was covered in multicoloured cushions and an assortment of stuffed animals. Rich purple curtains framed the window and a plush grey rug stretched across the centre of the room. ‘I’m Elizabeth, but my friends call me Lizzie.’ I shrugged and sat back on the bed, crossing my legs underneath me. ‘I guess you know all about me, then.’ Unfazed by my abrupt manner, Elizabeth sat on the end of her bed and scrutinised me. ‘You look so similar to your mum.’

I recoiled. ‘How the hell do you know what my mum looks like?’ ‘Oh, there are tons of photographs in Dr R’s office. When I first arrived here, I thought the pictures were of his wife. I actually told him I thought his wife was pretty.’ She laughed and her blue eyes twinkled. ‘What did he say?’ ‘He got all embarrassed and told me she was his sister-in-law but that they were close. I felt like such an idiot.’ Her smile was infectious, and I could feel the corners of my mouth twitching in an attempt to return her warmth. She was nice. I didn’t know how to handle nice. So I did what I do best and clamped down on any attempt at being friendly. ‘Have you eaten? Breakfast is great and there’s plenty of it. Come on.’ My stomach growled, confirming that I hadn’t eaten for far too long. Elizabeth giggled, and grabbing my hand she pulled me off the bed and towards the door. She ignored my veiled attempts at being moody and didn’t stop talking all the way to the dining hall, filling me in on which student stayed in which room, who held the best parties and where to get my equipment. As we got to the ground floor, I noticed another door close to Sebastian’s office. I hadn’t seen it when I first arrived. ‘Where does that lead?’ Elizabeth pondered the existence of the door for a moment then shrugged her delicate shoulders. ‘I think it’s Dr R’s storeroom. It’s always locked and I don’t remember ever seeing anyone use it.’ I followed Elizabeth into the dining hall. The smell of bacon and eggs filled the air and I realised just how hungry I was. With a full plate and a large mug of hot chocolate, I trailed behind Elizabeth to sit at one end of the dining table. The hall was full of students, in their grey jumpsuits, chatting and eating and laughing. It was strange to think this was a school. The lunch hall back at my old school hadn’t been as upbeat. In fact, nobody dared to eat the slop they dished up or to take on the popular kids who taunted anyone with a pulse.

I was halfway through my sausages when a hush fell over the room. I glanced up to see the tall red-haired girl from the garden saunter into the hall with what looked like two bodyguards bringing up the rear. I rolled my eyes. Apparently even Hood Academy had its own popular crew. Elizabeth stiffened beside me as I became aware of the redhead hovering over me. ‘You must be Mia.’ I chewed the remains of my breakfast and swallowed before staring up at her stern face. ‘Stay out of my way.’ With that, our introduction was over, and she left as quickly as she’d arrived. The hush lifted and the laughter resumed. ‘Who the hell is she?’ Elizabeth glanced nervously around her. ‘That’s Felicity. She’s a true breed.’ ‘A what?’ ‘True breed! Her father, grandmother and great-grandmother were all hunters. She’s the latest in a long line of dedicated hunters. They’ve written books about her family.’ ‘Well, I don’t give a crap about her ancestors or her inbreeding, she’s a freak.’ Elizabeth sniggered. True breed not inbreed.’ ‘Whatever. I don’t like her.’ ‘No-one does. Because of her family’s connections, she gets to run some of our training sessions and pushes us to the limits, and it’s hard for the younger kids.’ ‘How long have you been here?’ ‘I’m still in my first year. A werewolf attacked my sister and me when we were camping last summer, so my parents enrolled me here.’ ‘I don’t get it. Why did your family ship you off and not your sister?’ ‘She doesn’t have the sight. Only I could see the werewolf.’ ‘So you only get to be a hunter if you can see werewolves?’ ‘Yes, you can’t fight something you can’t see. When did you see your first werewolf?’

I closed my eyes and then thought better of it as the scene unfolded in my mind for the millionth time. ‘Yesterday, when it jumped through our living room window and murdered my dad.’

Chapter Three Elizabeth was right. Sebastian’s office was full of old photographs, not just of my mum, but my dad too. I picked up a brass frame with a faded picture inside; three happy faces beamed up at me. I’d never seen my dad smile. Being so young when my mum died meant that I missed out on the pleasant side of family life. Sebastian opened the door and stopped midway between his office and the hallway, his jaw slack and eyes wide. ‘You did say I could come and see you anytime, remember?’ With a deep sigh, he walked into the office and closed the door behind him. ‘Sorry, Mia, I’m still getting used to seeing your face.’ ‘Oh, thanks. I see we both need to work on our family bonding skills.’ I flopped into one of the armchairs that sat in front of his desk, tracing the intricate carvings with my fingertips. ‘You’ve got a lot of old stuff in this house.’ He huffed and I realised that was as close as he came to a laugh. ‘The original owner of the property left the house and its contents to me in their will. I’ve just added the odd piece over the years.’ I stood up and walked across to the large picture window. The view looked out over the front lawns, the same piece of land where I’d watched a bunch of schoolgirls thrash the living hell out of one another. ‘I can’t do this.’ I watched as it started to rain, big fat blobs of water chasing each other along the imperfections of the glass. ‘Actually, scrap that. I don’t want to do this.’ I spun around to catch him studying me from his leather desk chair, his fingers laced together behind his perfectly coiffed head of hair. ‘I understand now why you brought me here, but I don’t know why I could see that werewolf. I do know that I don’t want to get that close and personal with another one anytime soon.’ He lowered his arms and placed his large hands flat on the desk. He addressed his knuckles when he finally spoke.

‘Why didn’t it kill you, Mia?’ ‘What?’ ‘How is it that you survived a werewolf attack that claimed the life of your father?’ I opened my mouth to speak, but the words dried up in my throat. I’d asked myself that same question over and over. The sight of all that blood, the broken glass and the piercing scream as the creature’s fangs ripped out my dad’s throat. Those huge brown eyes that looked…sad. It had played out in my mind a million times. I was paralysed with fear, unable to move a muscle, and I thought I was going to be next to die. The wolf watched me for a long time as if it was studying my reaction. When it approached, terror had vibrated through my entire body, but it licked my hand and then left. ‘Werewolves know when they are facing a hunter, Mia. That monster could see that you were dangerous and it fled.’ I shook my head. That wasn’t right. ‘No, it could have killed me, but it didn’t. It just walked away.’ Sebastian rose from his chair and walked over to the nearest bookshelf. He pulled out an old book, bound in soft green leather, and handed it to me. ‘The history of the hunter line is in this book. I suggest you read it before making any rash decision to dismiss your calling.’ ‘My calling! I don’t have a calling, I’m a sixteen-year-old orphan with no friends, and I have severe trust issues.’ He huffed again. ‘What about your roommate, Elizabeth? She’s a pleasant young girl.’ ‘Oh, now I get it.’ I threw my hands in the air. ‘How much did you pay her to befriend me?’ ‘I didn’t pay anyone, Mia. Have a little faith in people.’ ‘It’s very hard to have faith when your own flesh and blood made your life a living hell.’ ‘What your father did to you was unforgivable. He can’t change what he did, and he can’t make it right, but I can. I can take his place and look after you.’ I had a highly inappropriate urge to giggle. It was clearly well out of Sebastian’s

comfort zone to act the all-conquering uncle, but here he was, pleading for me to stay put. ‘Give it a try,’ he said softly. ‘If you’re still unhappy here in a few months, I’ll enrol you in the secondary school in town. You can go off and be a normal teenager and leave all this behind.’ He swept his arm out in an arc. ‘I’ll do my best, but I’m not making any guarantees. I’ll try to fit in with your weird hunters, but if this doesn’t work I’ll hold you to that promise of a normal life.’ The corner of his mouth twitched as he nodded. ‘I promise, Mia. Now, let’s go find your tutor. She’s a lethal hunter and an excellent teacher, and I do have to pay her to be your friend.’ I laughed and followed him out of the office. Mysterious uncle had a sense of humour; maybe there was hope for this place yet. *** Miss Ross swept an analytical eye over me before piling two jumpsuits, a tracksuit and various other outfits into my arms. Topping the pile with a pair of dark grey pumps, she steered me out of the stock room and back to the staircase. ‘Drop it all off in your room and then meet me back here. I want to give you the grand tour.’ She beamed at me and nudged me gently towards the stairs. None of my teachers back home had been so nice. They’d tried to help me, but I’d turned away from all of them. With nobody to talk to, and no friends to speak of, I was easy to forget, and so, after a while, they stopped checking up on me. I became a ghost. Here, in such a short time, I’d potentially made a friend and engaged positively with a member of the teaching staff. There was a lightness about me that felt alien, but not at all unpleasant. When I got back to the entrance hall, Miss Ross was waiting patiently for me. She led us out of the front door, and we deviated towards the side of the building, walking along the flower beds until we came to a low stone wall. We stopped briefly, which allowed me a glance at the extensive grounds that spread out across the back of the property. Huge circular lawns divided by gravel paths and neatly trimmed shrubs stretched for miles around us.

‘The building dates back to 1866,’ said Miss Ross, sweeping a hand wide to encompass the Victorian architecture. ‘The gardens were designed at the same time to complement the buildings.’ I glanced to the right of us where a large willow tree with a stone bench beneath its branches stood proudly. A young man tended to the borders nearby with a longhandled spade. ‘That’s Adam. He’s the groundsman.’ Adam looked up at the mention of his name and gave us a wave. We moved off and cut across the open lawns until we reached an old wall. The aged stones were discoloured and covered in overgrown ivy revealing the level of neglect on this part of the estate. Beyond the wall lay a dirt track, leading down to what looked like outbuildings or a stable block. There was a row of four cages with iron bars and heavy doors, all of them empty. The ceilings were far too low to accommodate a horse but were just high enough for a person to stand up if they curved their shoulders. ‘What is this place?’ ‘Years ago, we used to catch the werewolves and hold them in the animal cages, but these days Sebastian prefers to keep any captives in alternative accommodation.’ ‘Captives? What do you mean?’ ‘Well, the creatures are only wolves at the full moon or if they are provoked by attack. The rest of the time they are as human as you and me. Sebastian thought it more humane to let the prisoners rest inside rather than on the ground outside.’ Shock reverberated through my bones, the image of those sad brown eyes flashing across my mind. Yes, the animal was terrifying, but imagining it in its human form was too much to take in. ‘Come on, I want to show you the gymnasium next.’ She bounded off up the track heading back to the academy, leaving me reeling at her revelation. The wind picked up ever so slightly and ruffled my hair as I watched the lethal hunter bounce lightly up the path. I glanced back at the cages and swallowed down the nausea. A snap behind me made me jump, and I whirled around. There was

nobody there, only the endless woods that bordered the property. I shook my head to dislodge the unease, certain that my mind must be playing tricks on me. The trees swayed gently as the wind lifted the leaves and shook them, the scent of damp earth and moss filling the air. I backed away from the forest with a heavy heart. Would my hunter training keep me from enjoying the woods and nature? Was I destined to shed blood and cage these creatures? I’d told Sebastian I’d give him a couple of months and I would do my best to stand by that promise. But as I rushed past the animal cages I felt closer to despair than anything else. ‘I was sorry to hear about your father.’ Miss Ross stepped in front of me and I forced myself to look up into her face. She was probably in her late fifties and still strikingly beautiful, her dark skin complemented by the bright blue jumper she wore. Her voice echoed around the huge room with wooden floors and ropes suspended from the ceiling. She’d referred to it as the gym, but it looked more like an army assault course. ‘Thank you. The police said they’d contact my uncle if they find anything out.’ She smiled at me, her gaze flickering to the fading bruise on my cheek. ‘Mia, I want you to prepare yourself for the possibility that your father’s death will be classed as a cold case. The investigators won’t find anything because it was a supernatural death.’ She paused to fiddle with a stack of boxing mitts. ‘What happened to your father is happening all over the world. It’s our job, as hunters, to put a stop to these attacks. The murders remain unsolved as the police fail to find answers.’ Was it wrong to tell her that my father may have deserved what happened to him? He had been an evil monster too, no fangs or sharp claws, but what made him any different? I didn’t think my confession would help the situation, so I shut my mouth and nodded along as she explained the need for hunters and how the work they did was for the greater good. When she started to talk about my mum, I snapped to attention. ‘You knew her?’

‘Yes, I knew her. She was a lovely lady, a very talented photographer and a welcome visitor to the academy. Your uncle was very close to her.’ ‘Yeah, I’ve seen the photos in his office. It was a bit creepy. Dad didn’t even have any pictures of her at home.’ ‘Well, I’m sure her death was a huge blow to your father. Grief can cause ordinary people to do extraordinary things.’ ‘Was my mum a hunter too?’ The silence stretched out. A tiny muscle in Miss Ross’s jaw worked hard as she formulated a response. I began to think I’d rather not know until finally she spoke. ‘She was passionate about the work Sebastian was doing here, and she understood the importance of the hunters’ oath, but no, she wasn’t a hunter.’ ‘What’s the hunters’ oath?’ ‘Once you begin your full training you will be sworn in to the academy. It’s a great honour to serve as a hunter, and we uphold that tradition by requesting that our students swear allegiance in front of their fellow students to be loyal and fierce.’ ‘If my mum wasn’t a hunter, how did she know about the oath?’ ‘I believe your uncle explained the ceremony.’ By the tone of her voice, I knew that more questions weren’t going to be welcome, and as she made her way to the exit, I realised that my tour was also at an end. ‘We’ll catch up tomorrow in class, Mia.’ Then she was gone, leaving me with a head full of questions and an ache in my heart. *** I ate lunch alone, as the other students were in class. The silence was a welcome distraction. It was hard to take in some of the information I’d received since Sebastian had turned up at my house. After devouring a burger and fries, I found my way back to the front entrance and ran up the stairs two at a time, eager to get back to my room. Three figures blocked the way as I reached the corridor to the bedrooms. Felicity and her squad watched me as I made my way towards them.

‘You don’t belong here.’ Felicity crossed her arms over her chest and swung her fiery hair over her shoulder. ‘Why not?’ I didn’t really want to get involved in a war of words with the resident school bitch, but the look on Felicity’s face told me I wasn’t getting away from her anytime soon. ‘Sebastian has worked incredibly hard to build this academy into a respected school for hunters, and the likes of you will lower the tone.’ ‘I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t seen a werewolf, so I guess that makes me a hunter, and that means I am eligible to attend the academy.’ I crossed my arms to mirror her standoffish body language. She laughed loudly, a cruel sound that dripped with malice. ‘You may have seen a werewolf, but you will never be a hunter. Sebastian knows it, I know it, and soon enough you’ll realise it. When Sebastian rushed off to collect you, my father called your uncle and told him exactly what he thought about you coming here. You’re not welcome. You are weak like your mother and a waste of space just like your father.’ Her smile was callous as she spun on her grey pumps and stalked off down the corridor. I felt winded. The lightness that I’d felt earlier left in a whoosh and a heavy rock settled on my chest, squeezing out any emotion I had managed to claw back. Through a haze of tears, I ran back down the stairs and out through the front door. I didn’t falter, sprinting across the open lawn, down the gravel driveway and into the woods beyond. I kept running and I didn’t look back. *** The air was crisp as I ventured deeper into the woods. I don’t know how far I ran or how long I had been running but the further I went the more relaxed I became. Eventually, I stopped running and strolled through the trees at a more leisurely pace, noticing the fauna around me. When the sky began to darken and my stomach growled, I realised I must have missed dinner. I kicked myself for not taking more notice of my surroundings; I was in a strange town and didn’t know anyone, and yet being in the woods felt familiar and safe.

I remembered the times Zak had taken me to the park close to our house, which had a small pond. The neighbourhood boys had set up a tyre swing across the water and dared each other to swing across. I used to climb one of the trees and sit in its branches, watching the boys fall in the pond or cut their knees. They were happier times full of laughter and innocence. I pushed through the drooping branches of a willow tree and stopped. Beyond the trees was an outcropping of rocks; big boulders bleached a sandy colour by the sun were now illuminated by the light of the moon. I climbed the nearest rock, its surface smooth and cool to the touch. Swinging my legs over the edge, I marvelled at the view. Far below, the countryside stretched out like a blanket. On the horizon, I could make out the twinkling lights of Ravenshood, the town Sebastian had driven through on our way to the academy. I watched the world ready itself for the evening, and a sense of peace settled over me. A cool breeze ruffled my hair, and I wished I’d grabbed a jumper as I ran away. I was pondering how I would find my way back to the academy when a sharp noise in the bushes behind me made me jump. Shit. Standing up, I backed away from the edge, keeping an eye on the surrounding bushes and trees. The moon was large and bright in the sky, bathing the woods in a creamy iridescent glow. Double shit. Looking up through the overhanging branches, I watched the wisps of grey cloud float across the moon, momentarily hiding it from view. Last night the moon had been at its fullest, and as Miss Ross told me only hours earlier, werewolves changed on the full moon. Did she mean for just one night, or did they stay in their wolf form for a few nights? Shit, shit, shit. The bushes ahead of me stirred. My heart hammered inside my chest. I strained to see what was in the bushes. My palms were sticky and a bead of sweat trickled down my spine. Whatever it was, it was getting closer. I backed up to the nearest tree and felt the bark dig into my shoulders. The bush parted and a wild rabbit

hopped forward, sniffing the ground as it searched for food. I let out a deep breath and leant my head back against the tree trunk, my shoulders sagging against the rough bark. All the talk of werewolves and hunters had me spooked, and I was turning into a quivering mess. The rabbit was oblivious to my distress and continued foraging for its dinner as I pushed away from the tree and turned in the direction of the academy. My heart froze and my legs trembled as I came face-to-face with four sets of eyes. The huge wolves were standing in a semicircle just ahead of me. Their eyes gleamed in the moonlight, and the fur on their hides shimmered under the bulbous moon. They were immense, much larger than any of the wolves I’d seen on Animal Planet. A brown wolf, this one even bigger than the rest, separated from the pack and took a tentative step forward, sniffing the air. My dad’s screams echoed in my head as the other wolves followed and circled me. The terror I felt held me in its rigid grip; the only part of me I could move were my eyes. I wanted to close them, squeeze them shut so I didn’t see the blow when it came, but whether it was morbid curiosity or something else, I couldn’t stop watching them. They walked around me, never looking away. Sebastian had said the wolf that killed my dad knew I was a hunter. If these wolves had any suspicion that I could be dangerous, they weren’t showing it. In fact, they probably knew I was a hunterin-training and would snuff me out before my first lesson. My legs were shaking as I struggled to stay upright. Every inch of my being wanted to lie down and curl up into a tight ball. The brown wolf growled, and I braced myself for the attack, but instead of launching itself in a flash of fangs it turned its back and walked away. Two others followed, and I watched them disappear into the darkness of the trees. The last wolf was much paler than the others, the light of the moon reflecting off its golden fur. I was drawn in by its blue eyes, which sparkled like the ocean. It hung its head to one side, and I got the distinct impression that it was giving me a lopsided smirk. I blinked and it spun away, bounding off into the woods. It was a good twenty minutes until I could move any of my limbs. For a short

moment, I thought it had started raining but then I realised I was crying. Whether that was from fear, relief or a mixture of the two, I wasn’t sure. This was the second time in as many days that I had escaped death or at the very least serious injury. I was too numb to process what that might mean, but I knew I couldn’t chance the wolves returning to finish me off. Eventually, the feeling in my legs returned and I stumbled through the trees, slowly at first and then picking up speed until I was sprinting through the woods and hoping it was in the direction of the academy.

Chapter Four I hadn’t realised I was still holding my breath until I spotted the glaring lights of the school in the distance and I released a loud sob. As the woods petered out and the lawn came into view, I raced the rest of the way. Sebastian was waiting for me on the front steps when I approached the old building. His face was a mixture of anger and relief. ‘Where did you go?’ ‘I needed some fresh air so I went for a walk in the woods.’ I leapt up the stairs until I stood in front of him and then stopped, folding my arms protectively across my chest. If he had even a sliver of my dad’s temper, I was in for a barrage of abuse. It was clear to anyone that I had been crying, but he either didn’t notice or he chose to ignore it. The dark cloud that crossed his face lifted temporarily as he let out a long, slow breath as if he’d been holding it in for hours. ‘I have dealt with Felicity. She was bragging about her treatment of you to some of the girls in the common room and Miss Ross overheard.’ I cringed. If she had received a roasting because I’d skipped out, I was certain there would be repercussions. If not from Felicity, then from her girlie goons. ‘There was no need for that,’ I said. ‘She’s a bitch and doesn’t know how to behave in any other way. I can handle her.’ ‘I don’t want you to have to handle her. She can be passionate about the academy, and it doesn’t always come across in the right way.’ ‘Passionate! Oh, she’s definitely passionate, especially when it comes to her hatred towards my parents. What the hell’s that about?’ Sebastian sucked a breath in sharply. ‘I want you to ignore her and keep out of her way. Her family are wealthy benefactors for the academy, and she believes this gives her a right to interfere in how I manage the school. Clearly she is a young girl out of her depth.’ ‘She’s an idiot, and I’m more than happy to stay out of her way. Is that all?’ Sebastian studied me for a while longer before nodding. If he had any inclination that I’d had a run-in with wolves, he wasn’t letting on.

‘Yes, get some sleep, I know Elizabeth was worried about you, so she’ll be glad to see you’re back safe.’ I smiled to myself as I walked through the front door. It felt nice to know that someone cared. ‘Mia.’ I looked back over my shoulder. Sebastian was standing with his back to me, looking out over the grounds and into the woods. ‘I don’t want you to take a walk in the forest at night again. Do you understand?’ He couldn’t see me nodding as he was still staring at the trees, but I knew that walking in the woods at night wouldn’t be on my to-do list any more. ‘Sure, whatever. Goodnight, Sebastian.’ ‘Goodnight, Mia.’ *** The lamp was on in the bedroom when I crept through the door. I had thought that Elizabeth would be sitting up waiting for me after what Sebastian said, but the long wait had clearly exhausted her. She was fully clothed and propped up on her pillows, fast asleep and surrounded by masses of stuffed animals. She looked incredibly young as I checked her sleeping form, but she was the same age as me. Maybe the dark circles under my eyes were a side effect of a lousy life. I slipped into my sleep shorts and T-shirt and climbed between the clean sheets. The bed was soft and comfortable, and I was suddenly aware of my aching limbs. Running wasn’t an everyday occurrence for me, especially at the breakneck speed I’d fled the woods. My mind wandered back to the wolves. Despite Sebastian’s warnings, the animals hadn’t attacked. Did they believe I was a hunter and could destroy them? Somehow I didn’t think so. There had to be another reason I had been spared – twice – and I intended to find out why. Sebastian’s office was the best place to start. Tomorrow. First, I needed to get a good night’s sleep. There was a light tap at the window and then another. Something struck the glass. Elizabeth stirred and I was just about to open my mouth to warn her to be quiet when a male voice called her name. Elizabeth’s eyes flew open and she grinned at me in the pale moonlight streaming through the curtains.

‘It’s Adam,’ she whispered, bouncing off the bed. ‘The groundsman?’ I recalled the handsome, dark-skinned gardener I’d seen during my tour of the grounds earlier. She nodded enthusiastically and climbed on the desk. I raised an eyebrow as she unlocked the window latch. ‘We’re two floors up,’ I hissed. I knew I was stating the obvious but I worried that in her euphoria Elizabeth had forgotten this simple fact and would launch herself into mid-air. She giggled. ‘I know, silly.’ There was a light tap and the top of a ladder appeared against the frame as Adam’s face appeared at the window. ‘Come inside, quickly.’ Elizabeth grabbed his arms to help steady him. With his dark skin and black clothing, Adam was perfectly camouflaged against the night sky. He swung his long legs over the sill and jumped down to the floor. Elizabeth laced her fingers through his and glanced in my direction. Her expression was one of delight and also apprehension. Was she worried that I’d disapprove? ‘Mia, I’d like you to officially meet Adam.’ I climbed out of bed and extended my hand to the handsome young man who fidgeted on the spot. ‘It’s lovely to meet you.’ Adam’s posture relaxed as he took my hand and shook it. His palms were rough to the touch, no doubt from working in the academy garden, but his smile was genuine and I found myself warming to him. ‘It’s great to meet you in person, Mia.’ Elizabeth grinned at me and bounced up and down on the balls of her feet. ‘I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you about him sooner, but with everything that’s been going on I didn’t get a chance, and then you weren’t at dinner and…’ I put my hand up to stop her chattering. ‘It’s fine, really. You don’t need to tell me your business.’ ‘Oh, but I do; we’re friends and roomies. We must share our deepest secrets.’ She turned to smile up at Adam, then added, ‘And he’s mine.’

I suddenly felt the urge to flee. Soppy looks and romantic gestures were for romance novels and chick flicks and I didn’t have the first clue how to be around that. ‘I’m going for a walk,’ I said, rather too loudly. ‘I’ll give you guys some privacy.’ I slipped my feet into my grey pumps, grabbed a hoodie and the small book Sebastian had given me and headed for the door. ‘You don’t have to leave, Mia.’ Elizabeth’s brow creased as she watched my fumbled attempt at escape. ‘I know,’ I said, smiling at my roommate, ‘but I fancy exploring and hopefully I’ll be able to avoid a certain redhead at this time of night.’ ‘Be careful,’ she said. *** I didn’t want to think about the teenage romance that was unfolding back in my room. No matter what Elizabeth said, it was her business and nothing to do with me. I was, however, pleased that Adam seemed to be a decent lad. The boys back home had been cruel and relentless in their bullying. Zak had taught me at a young age who to avoid and how. A tip I should remember when trying to stay out of Felicity’s way. The redhead pushed her way into my thoughts as I crept along the first-floor corridor towards the staircase. Why did Felicity hate me so much? Why did I care? It wasn’t that I wanted us to bond and braid each other’s hair but she possessed a deep-set vindictiveness that involved my entire family and that bothered me. There was no-one around at this time of night. Sebastian’s office door was closed and no light shone through the glass to indicate he was up and still working. I realised I didn’t even know where his bedroom was. He had failed to share that with me. Clearly I only had access to him during office hours. The cafeteria was in darkness and the heavy wooden doors that I’d sprinted out of earlier today were now shut and bolted. I curled up on one of the many sofas hugging the wall in the entrance hall, flicked on a small table lamp and pulled out the green leather book Sebastian had given me. The pages were well worn and yellowed, their edges marked in gold. A handwritten inscription on the first page read: ‘Never stop searching, love C x.’ I

recognised the handwriting instantly from the rescued pages of my mum’s poetry, and my pulse quickened as I thought about my mum, Cassie Roberts. This message was from her. I raised an eyebrow as I turned the book over in my hand, searching for some other message sent from beyond the grave. The book had come from Sebastian’s bookshelf, and judging by the number of photographs of my mum in his office, they obviously had a deeper connection than anyone realised. The book covered every topic from the history of hunters to weaponry through the ages. It was the strapline on the title page that caught my eye. To every pack, a cub is born. Unleash the hunter to protect and serve. The author, a man named Dr P.S. Neale, had written a long-winded introduction, dated 1862. He waffled on about the importance of hunters and how they were necessary to correct the balance of nature, of creatures so vile and brutal that Queen Victoria herself had assigned him as a master hunter to the realm. Impressive. Not only was I now a member of an elite werewolf hunting academy, but apparently we were to report directly to the royal family. According to Dr Neale, it was the birth of a child to a werewolf mother that triggered the hunter gene in a human child. Mother Nature’s way of balancing good and evil. For every werewolf that gave birth to a cub, a hunter was born to kill it. Closing the book, I rested my head back against the wall. Did I believe that all this supernatural crap was true? Sebastian believed in it. He ran a school dedicated to that principle. I certainly couldn’t deny that werewolves existed, but hunters being born for the sole purpose of killing them? I wasn’t so sure about that. Besides, there were hundreds of girls in Hood Academy. Surely there weren’t hundreds of werewolves hiding in the surrounding woods. From somewhere upstairs I heard hushed voices and the sound of people approaching. I switched off the light and slid off the sofa to crouch on the floor, hiding myself away behind a large mahogany dresser. Felicity’s voice was clear and harsh. ‘It’s a privilege to see what I’m about to show you. Nobody else in this godawful school even knows about the lab.’

The two girls walked across the foyer oblivious to my presence and headed for the door beside Sebastian’s office. It was the one I’d seen yesterday, the one Elizabeth had thought was a store room. From the pocket of her jeans, Felicity produced a key and quietly unlocked the door, swinging it open. She glanced around the dark foyer and I crouched lower, curling myself up so as not to be seen. Satisfied that they were alone, Felicity ushered her companion inside. I raced across the carpet, catching the handle so the door couldn’t click shut behind them. A torch light bounced off the walls, and I waited until their muffled voices had faded away before following. The small space looked like a typical store room until I moved further in. Shelves covered the walls from floor to ceiling with stacks of paper, printer inks and dusty exercise books, but beyond the shelves was a long corridor hidden from view behind the shelving unit. A faint light glowed in the distance, and I could see shadows moving about. Felicity and her companion disappeared through an opening to the right. My heartbeat was rapid as I tiptoed after the two girls. Maybe this was an unknown route to the science classrooms. Somehow I didn’t think that was true. The same feeling of dread I felt earlier, coming face-to-face with the wolves, trickled back into my veins. A low moan filled the darkness and I dropped to my knees. It didn’t sound like Felicity or her companion. The sound was masculine. The moaning ceased and I was about to creep forward when a scream filled the air. The hairs on the back of my neck rose at the desperate sound. I was close to the entrance where the girls had disappeared. Hugging the wall, I skulked closer until I was alongside the opening. I risked a quick look around the corner and saw that it opened up onto a staircase that went to a lower floor. The screams were coming from below. Felicity’s wild laughter floated up the staircase. Although they were faint, I could hear her words clearly. ‘Do it again. That’s right, hold the knife in your right hand and press down. Don’t worry, nobody in the school can hear us. The lab is soundproofed.’ A dreadful howl followed, and I felt bile rise up in my throat. Whatever they were doing down there, it wasn’t good.

‘You deserve to die.’ Felicity’s voice filled the darkness and her friend laughed. I spun on my heel and ran. The entrance hall was still empty when I emerged from the store room. Nobody heard those terrible screams because the rooms were secure. Did that mean Sebastian knew about the lab, or the prisoner? I knew that I should run and tell my uncle what I’d heard, but my gut instinct told me not to trust him. Not yet. I pushed the door closed behind me and rushed to the stairs, taking them two at a time. I needed to get back to my room. I wanted to feel safe, but I doubted that I’d ever feel that way again.

Chapter Five The morning sky was overcast as the student body filed through the huge wooden doors and assembled on the front lawn. Miss Ross stood on the top steps surveying the bleary-eyed girls like a kestrel watching its prey. I spotted Felicity and her squad congregating by a tall flagpole stuck in the grass and steered Elizabeth to a stop at the furthest possible point from them. ‘Avoidance tactics,’ I mumbled when Elizabeth gave me a quizzical look. When I returned to our bedroom last night Adam had left and my roommate was fast asleep. Something I was grateful for. I wasn’t sure if I could, or should, confide in Elizabeth about what I’d seen and heard in the secret store room. I didn’t want to get her mixed up in any trouble. Miss Ross punctured my thoughts as she called for silence. ‘Today’s assignment is our boot-camp training run,’ she said. A rumble of discord filled the air. ‘Yes, yes, I know how much you love these runs, but our stamina, strength and agility are what make us deadly. The only way to maintain the high level of fitness that Hood Academy is famous for is to push ourselves to the limit.’ ‘What’s a boot-camp training run?’ I asked Elizabeth who was stretching her calf muscles out. ‘We’ve got to run through the woods, loop around the town and return before dark.’ ‘Doesn’t sound so bad. Why does everyone look like she just cancelled Christmas?’ ‘It’s about fifty miles.’ ‘Whoa, fifty! That’s really far. How often do you do this?’ ‘We run regular circuits once a week but Miss Ross likes to spring the ultramarathon on us at least twice a year.’ ‘Terrific,’ I mumbled, grabbing my ankle and bending my leg back in a vague attempt to warm up my quads. ‘There’s no way I’ll be back before dark. Do they send out search parties?’

Elizabeth laughed. ‘The route is marked with green flags. Just follow them and you’ll be fine. If you’re not back at the academy by nine, Miss Ross collects the stragglers in the minibus.’ ‘Well, that’s a relief. Maybe I could just take a book with me and lounge around at the final marker until it gets dark.’ ‘I’ll run with you and we’ll take it slow.’ Elizabeth beamed at me and my mouth tugged in something resembling a smile of gratitude. She was really sweet and so far hadn’t given up on me. Maybe I wasn’t so unlovable after all. Miss Ross was now standing next to the tall flagpole with a whistle in her hand. The students spread out across the lawn in varying degrees of panic. There were the ultra-sporty girls bouncing on their heels as they eagerly awaited the shrill screech of the start whistle, and then there were the rest of us. The I can’t believe we have to do this brigade, loitering near the back. ‘Remember to follow the markers, girls. The green flags are there to keep you safe and protected. We can’t venture into unmapped territory, and I wouldn’t want anyone to risk their lives for a training exercise.’ I spun to look at Elizabeth who quickly held her hand up as if expecting me to have something to say about this latest revelation. ‘It’s just a precaution,’ she said. ‘There are huge parts of the forest that even the tutors don’t know about. Just stick to the path that’s marked. No need to panic.’ ‘Panic! Who’s panicking? It’s my second day at this place and so far I’ve risked my life three times…’ Elizabeth’s eyebrow rose. ‘Well, you’ve tasted the food here!’ She chuckled and I released the breath I’d been holding. It wasn’t the right time to reveal my extracurricular activities or my run-in with the local werewolf pack. The whistle sounded and everyone swarmed forward, jostling for elbow room. Miss Ross nodded at me as I passed her, giving me a pity thumbs up. She knew I wouldn’t be able to breathe after the first mile. Maybe that thumbs up was her way of telling me she’d meet me soon with the minibus. *** Elizabeth was clearly using all her energy to stop herself from running at a halfdecent pace and I felt a pang of guilt. ‘You should go ahead,’ I rasped, already struggling to talk let alone suck air into

my lungs. ‘I’m fine, honestly. I’ll meet you for dinner.’ ‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘I promised to look after you on this run.’ ‘Lizzie, I insist. You can look after my blisters when I get home later.’ She giggled. ‘If you’re sure.’ ‘Hundred per cent, now go.’ She gave me a sympathetic wave then shot off up the path, overtaking the other girls who were also striving to survive this physical assault Miss Ross had forced on us. As I rasped my way further along the path the hairs on the back of my neck prickled, and I turned to look behind me, half expecting to see a few stragglers, but I could no longer see any of my fellow students. Even the most unfit girl in the school had overtaken me and disappeared into the trees. I was alone once more, and yet I had the strangest sensation that I was being watched. I slowed down to a fast walking pace and wiped the sweat off my face with the bottom of my T-shirt. The sound of the birds high up in the branches filled the air, and I could hear the distant trickle of a stream. My breathing steadied, and I felt a deep sense of belonging. Zak would love it here. The small dell back home had been our sanctuary but these woods, with their endless paths and beautiful clearings, would have kept us amused for days at a time. The path ahead split in two directions; the western route seemed to be the more obvious track as I knew the town was that way, but the green flag stood further along the eastern path. I veered right and picked up the pace again heading away from town. The further I ran, the more uneven the path became. The compacted earth of the running track had given way to moss and weeds. Tree branches dangled across the trail making it difficult to run without bending to avoid a twig in the eye. There hadn’t been a green flag for about half an hour, and I worried that I’d somehow missed a turning. Sweeping aside a beautiful willow tree, I stepped into a clearing and froze. I knew this place. The same sandy-coloured rocks hugged the edge of the overhang where I’d marvelled at the view under a full moon. Shit.

My heart began to race as I looked around the clearing. Not twenty-four hours ago, I’d stood here, face-to-face with four huge wolves. How could Miss Ross lead her students through woods that the enemy had claimed? My mind wandered to the uneven path and the lack of green flags. ‘Felicity.’ I said her name aloud as if looking for confirmation from the trees that she had something to do with this. It had to be her. She was the kind of person who would change the flags and send me into danger. But I didn’t feel like my life was in danger. In fact, I felt calm and comfortable. Finding this place again was like discovering silence in a storm. There was no full moon to unnerve me this time, so I climbed onto the smooth rocks and took in the view. Fields, wooded glens and paddocks of grazing horses stretched out below me. ‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ I jumped at the sound of a voice behind me. Scurrying to my feet, I half expected to find Elizabeth or Miss Ross. Instead, I was looking into the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. A boy stood in the clearing, his hands shoved deep into his jeans pockets. His hair shone like brass despite the cloudy sky. He couldn’t have been much older than me, perhaps seventeen. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m Cody.’ He gave me a lopsided smile. ‘Mia.’ I lifted my hand in a lame half wave. ‘Can I sit with you?’ He motioned to the overhang and I jumped back, giving him room to manoeuvre. He walked to the edge of the rocks and lowered himself down, his long legs disappearing over the ledge, the lightly tanned flush to his skin deepening as he glanced back at me. I hesitated for a moment before joining him, making sure I was a safe distance away. ‘I love it here,’ he whispered. ‘It’s always so quiet.’ ‘Why would you need to find a quiet spot?’ I asked, wondering if he attended a boys’ version of the academy. ‘My family can get a bit loud so I like to escape.’ His smile lit up his entire face,

and I couldn’t help but smile along with him. ‘Do you have a large family?’ ‘My parents are foster carers and over the years we’ve grown as a family.’ He laughed out loud. ‘At the moment, I’ve got four brothers and two sisters.’ ‘Wow, that is…loud!’ He laughed again and I felt my shoulders relax with every second that passed. ‘Your parents must be amazing,’ I said. ‘They were,’ he replied softly. Unfortunately they were killed a few years ago.’ I mentally kicked myself. ‘I’m so sorry. How did it happen?’ I scolded myself a second time for asking such a personal question. It was none of my damn business, but I felt a strange bond with this boy. We were both orphans who had been touched by tragedy and looking for an escape. Cody didn’t seem to notice my discomfort. ‘It was a car accident. They were here one minute and gone the next. My brothers have looked after me ever since it happened.’ ‘I’m sorry to hear that. My mum was killed in a hit-and-run, so I understand that pain, but it sounds like your parents did a wonderful job of raising all those kids, if they’re still here for you when you need them.’ I didn’t mean to sound so envious, but it slipped out in my tone. Cody must have noticed as his eyebrows lifted slightly as he looked over at me. I didn’t want him asking about my tragic past, so I jumped in with another question. ‘Do you live in the woods?’ He nodded, his fair hair flopping into his eyes. ‘We live in a farmhouse deep in the woods. Luckily there’s a lane that leads us to the outskirts of town so we’re not totally cut off. My parents ran a vegetable store and sold all the produce they grew in the fields. We’ve kept it running ever since they died.’ ‘You don’t look like a farmer.’ He laughed again and the sound melted something inside my chest. ‘What do I look like?’

I could feel my face burning as I thought about an appropriate answer. ‘You know, don’t answer that. I don’t think I want to know.’ He smiled and tilted his head to the side. ‘Want to see something cool?’ I grinned and he took that as a yes. We left the outcrop and ventured further into the woods. Somewhere deep inside my subconscious I knew I shouldn’t be wandering through the forest with a strange boy, but my gut told me a different story. I had the oddest sensation that I knew him – on an emotional level. We’d suffered the same tragedy and our grief united us. The smell of the earth and woods filled my senses and calmed my nerves the further we walked. The trees began to thin out as we reached a clearing with a huge oak tree in the middle. It was like no tree I’d ever come across. The trunk was immense and someone had chiselled a seat into the wood. ‘My dad carved this for me when I was little. I used to come here after they died so I could feel close to them again. This tree and the overhang are special places.’ I could understand that. After my mum died, I would sit in the bottom of her wardrobe soaking up the scent of her clothes and the lingering smell of her perfume. Loss is hard, but when you are so young it is life-altering. ‘It’s also a great climbing tree.’ He winked at me, extending an unspoken challenge, and strode off across the clearing until he stood beneath its branches. He reached up and grasped the lower bough, then swung one of his long legs up and over until he was perched in the tree. ‘Come on up.’ His voice was teasing as he began to swing higher and higher. I hadn’t climbed a tree in years, not since the days when Zak had taken me to the park as a kid. It came back to me in a rush of adrenalin and I scrambled up the branches, catching up to Cody in no time. ‘Ah, an expert in tree climbing, I see. What other talents does the mysterious Mia hide beneath her grace and beauty?’ I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. He had a way of making it feel easy. My T-shirt clung to my back as I moved from branch to branch. I knew I looked like someone had thrown me in an oven and finished me off in the swimming pool,

my mediocre run through the forest adding to my not-so-glamorous appearance. Cody, however, didn’t seem bothered by my frizzy hair and blotchy cheeks. By the time we reached the top I was wheezing, but I felt fearless. Cody nestled into the crook of two branches and I did the same, our feet planted side by side. ‘I can understand why you like coming here,’ I said, trying to catch my breath. Through the top layer of leaves we could see for miles. The houses and shops down in the valley glinted in the sunshine and the faint outline of the peaks framed the horizon. It was a breathtaking view. We talked, mostly about our likes and dislikes, favourite music and authors. It was nice. Apart from with Elizabeth, I’d never really experienced the joy of a normal conversation without there being an ulterior motive. My dad always managed to twist my words, leaving me with an incessant fear of saying the wrong thing. His way of picking a fight. However, Cody was easy to talk to, and I was about to tell him this when he spoke up. ‘So then, Mia, are you going to tell me what you were running from?’ I flinched slightly as suspicion flooded my senses. Had I misjudged my bad boy radar? I didn’t think so. Cody didn’t give off that homicidal maniac vibe, but how did he know I’d been running? Had he followed me to the outcrop? Realising that I’d done nothing wrong and was merely on a training exercise, I relaxed my shoulders. We stared at each other across the branches of the tree. My mind whirled with possible scenarios that I could share without divulging too much. I opted for part truth in the hope that it would pacify his curiosity and spare me from the fear I felt at opening up. ‘My dad recently passed away and my uncle brought me to live with him. He has this strange opinion that family should stick together.’ I laughed, nervously. Cody’s head automatically dropped to the side in the universal language of sorrow and I glanced away. I didn’t want to see the pity shining in his beautiful blue eyes. I omitted to tell him the part about the werewolves and the gore. It seemed safer sticking mainly to school-related topics, so instead I told him about my new life amongst the spawn of Satan, who happened to have red hair and her own set of bodyguards.

‘Felicity and her crew are determined to make my life a living hell, but all I want to do is melt into the background and get on with my studies.’ ‘Are you talking about Hood Academy?’ ‘Yeah, I arrived yesterday, and I’ve already run away twice; doesn’t bode well, does it?’ He smiled but his features were tight, not the open, warm expression from earlier. ‘Is something wrong?’ I asked. ‘I’ve heard things about that school – bad things.’ ‘What kind of things?’ I was starting to feel uneasy. Cody didn’t seem to be talking about schoolgirl bullies. Did he know about the werewolf hunters? Could I ask him? I only realised at that moment that the academy might be a secret society, and here I was telling the first guy I stumbled across. ‘I think I better go,’ he muttered. He began climbing down the tree, slowly at first and then much faster. I struggled to keep up and worried that he would run off and leave me. I didn’t play the damsel-in-distress card very often, but I was lost in the woods and I kind of needed him to guide me back in the direction of the school. I sat on the lowest branch and steadied myself to jump, but Cody raised his arms to help me down, and as I leapt he caught me. His hands felt solid at my waist, and our bodies were so close I could smell the tang of his shower gel. I looked up into his bright eyes and saw a flickering of pain there. ‘Follow the trail to the right and it will lead you back to the academy. Stick to the path and you shouldn’t get lost again.’ ‘I feel like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz,’ I said quietly, trying to lighten the tension that was evident on his face and in the tightness of his hold. He smiled, a fraction of that warmth returning to his eyes. If I had given some serious thought to the situation I would have said that Cody looked scared. ‘Stay safe, Mia, and be careful who you trust.’ With that, he turned away and jogged off into the woods, leaving me reeling from his words and his touch.

*** Being the first to return back from the ultra-marathon should have been a memorable occasion. However, as I strolled across the lawn I could just make out Miss Ross’s outline through Sebastian’s office window. She threw her hands in the air and disappeared from view, only to reappear with Sebastian by her side at the main door, rushing down the front steps of the academy and heading my way. ‘What’s wrong?’ It was Sebastian who spoke first, worry etched in the frown lines across his forehead. ‘Nothing. I got totally lost when I missed a green flag, but I managed to find my way back.’ I’d been proud of myself for following Cody’s vague directions but the look of horror on Sebastian’s face made me wish I’d stayed lost for a few more hours. Miss Ross waved him away and herded me towards the school, wrapping her arm around my shoulder like a protective mother hen. ‘You appear to have an aptitude for getting lost in these woods, Mia.’ ‘It was an easy mistake,’ I told her. ‘I was far too busy enjoying the scenery, and I must have missed a couple of flags.’ ‘Hmm, I doubt that very much.’ ‘Miss Ross, we don’t know that Mia didn’t get lost of her own accord.’ Sebastian strode alongside us, his jaw taut. ‘Sebastian, you know as well as I do that young Felicity had a hand in this. In all the years we’ve been doing these exercises, nobody has missed a flag. Felicity is behind this because she is unruly and petulant and…’ ‘Bitchy.’ I waded in with my opinion and Miss Ross cackled. ‘Indeed.’ Sebastian paused on the top step and rubbed his hands over his face. He looked tired. ‘She is still a student and I have an obligation to protect her as much as anyone else in this academy.’ ‘With all due respect, Sebastian, you do everything you can for these students, but your talents lie in the management and structure of their education rather than their emotional welfare.’

Well, that explained his lack of paternal instincts. I’d wondered if his coolness towards me had been down to the distant relationship with my dad but now I understood. He didn’t know anything about teenagers, especially teenage girls. ‘Mia, could you wait in my office, please.’ I nodded at him and thanked Miss Ross for her kindness. Pushing open the front door, I wandered through the foyer to Sebastian’s office. The store room door was closed and I couldn’t resist trying the handle as I went by. Locked. How did Felicity have a key? I made a mental note to ask Elizabeth if her friend Adam had a set of keys to the academy’s many rooms. The lights were blazing in Sebastian’s office and there was a fire roaring in the grate. I warmed my hands before ambling over to his desk. Documents and open books littered the surface. He had obviously been in the middle of something when I strayed out of the treeline. I glanced at the papers filled with data that made no sense to me. I was about to flop into the chair opposite the desk when a Manila file caught my eye. The label in the top-right corner read ‘Private & Confidential – Fatalities’. Taking a quick peek through the window, I saw Sebastian and Miss Ross were still deep in conversation, so I risked a look at the file. There were lists of names inside the folder, dating back to the 1970s. Three column headings stood out on the crumpled page. Name, Drug Trial Administered, Date of Death. I ran my finger along the long list of names until I reached the bottom of the page. My heart froze. The last name was Cassandra Roberts. My hands began to tremble as I read the information alongside her name. Trial notes: Prototype 0118 failed. Subject fell into a coma. Bite site infection. Unable to resuscitate. Date of Death: October 11th. My chest was tight as I fought against the tidal wave of tears that threatened to fall, and I found it difficult to breathe. The back of my throat burned, but I refused to allow myself to cry. Sebastian would be here any minute and I was reading his private files. His files. Files that contained information about my mother’s death. Memories of my brother’s arms wrapped tightly around me barrelled to the front of my mind. He held me as I wept, both of us listening to the police officer who told our father about the hit-and-run driver who had left our mother by the

roadside. Zak’s strength had kept me glued together over the weeks that followed. He was fifteen and I had just turned six. Our dad had lost it, drinking more than usual in a miserable attempt to blot out his pain. The shouting was too much for me, and I would sit on my bed with my hands clasped over my ears, blocking out the sounds of Zak and Dad screaming at one another. Zak left me a year later. Mum’s death hit our family hard. A tragic accident that tore us apart. And it was all a lie. For more information about Hood Academy

ABOUT THE BOOK What if our lives were mapped out before birth? Does anyone have the power to change their destiny? Ella hates London. She misses her old life in Spain and is struggling to get over her past—until she meets Zac. He’s always loved her but isn’t meant to be part of her story. Not this time. Not ever. Little does she know that his secret is the one thing that will tear them apart and force her to live in a world that no longer makes sense. A world full of danger, lies, magic...and angels. The Path Keeper is a passionate tale of first loves, second chances and the invisible threads that bind us. Can love ever be stronger than fate?

Chapter One Mistakes didn’t happen in his world. Miracles did. He knew the girl was on her way, and he would wait as long as it took. He was good at that. He shifted on the bench and arched his back as the nineteenth bus in three hours pulled away in a cloud of choking smoke. London always suffocated him. As far back as he could remember, the city had wrapped her iron fingers around his throat and brought him back to her, time and time again. He could hear the capital whispering her secrets. Old secrets filled with a relentless rhythm; a drumbeat only her people could hear as they hurried from A to B. He pitied them. They didn’t understand that every step they took left a unique footprint upon layers of history stacked beneath their city’s pulsating pavements. Neither did they care that every one of their laboured breaths had been inhaled a million times before. There was nothing new here; there never would be. He stretched his legs. A light fluttering in his stomach was followed by a dull ache. Perhaps he was nervous. The sensation was new. It hadn’t been like this with the others; he had done his job, his call of duty, and he had been satisfied. But this girl was different; she had always been special, and she was on her way. He continued to watch the people streaming by—constantly rushing to the next place. Didn’t they realise the present didn’t exist? That it was nothing but a monotonous treadmill pulling them along, tripping them up and dragging them into a future they hadn’t yet created? But the past was always there, waiting; it never hurried. The past was a safe place, a private space where every story lay holding all the clues and all their answers. Yet the people continued to file by him, busy, so busy, forever moving forward to the next life without a backward glance. He squinted against the weak September sun at a bus trudging its way up the hill. This was it. The girl’s appearance would have changed, that was normal, but would she be the same? Would he recognise her? Of course he would. The soft hiss of the bus doors opening pulled him out of his reverie, and, with the measured actions of one who had done it a thousand times before, he stood and leant against the bus stop. A man in paint-splattered trousers stepped out and

turned down the hill, followed by two schoolgirls laughing and pushing each other towards the Tube station. Nobody else followed; she wasn’t there. He sighed and headed back to the bench. Then he heard her voice. ‘Bollocks! Esto es una mierda!’ A young woman was marching to the front of the bus. ‘How can you say it’s the last stop when we’re in Archway and the front of the bus says Highgate?’ She was younger than he’d expected and wore her hair differently. It was still thick and brown, but this time tousled waves tumbled down her back. He wondered what it would feel like to dip his finger into one of her curls, pull on the silky lock, and watch it bounce back into place. She pushed her fringe out of her eyes and peered into the bus driver’s window. ‘Oi!’ she shouted, banging on the glass. ‘I’m not getting off. You have to take me to the top of the hill; my bags are really bloody heavy!’ She turned her back to the glass and scowled, blowing her hair out of her eyes. The driver twisted the dial to Not In Service and kissed his teeth. ‘Look, lady, I don’t make the rules. Get off the bus or I’ll radio the police.’ She shot him a dark look, shrugged on her backpack, and grabbed a large bin bag in each hand. She half carried, half dragged them to the exit and stumbled down the steps as the closing doors folded shut. She kicked the heaviest bag down the last step and sent dozens of books tumbling in a flurry of pages to the pavement. ‘Hijo de puta!’ she shouted as he pulled away, leaving her squatting on the floor, inspecting the torn plastic bag. She looked up in the direction of the bus shelter. ‘Excuse me. Yeah, you, can you give me a hand?’ The girl was talking to him; he was the only one there. What was he going to say to her after all this time? His stomach clenched again as he raised the hood of his grey hoodie and grasped the frayed cuffs in his fists. It felt good to hold onto something. ‘Oh, hi,’ she said as he squatted beside her. She picked up two books and looked at him again. ‘Sorry, I thought I recognised you. Do we know each other?’ ‘Not yet.’

She hesitated then turned her attention back to her ripped bag, her olive skin failing to hide her blushes. Together they stacked the crumpled paperbacks into two neat columns on the side of the road. She stood up and wiped her hands on her jeans. ‘Thanks,’ she said, eyes fixed on the books at their feet. When he didn’t respond, she rushed in to fill the silence. ‘I’m Ella by the way.’ So that was what she called herself. He let her name hang in the air, feeling it form behind his closed lips, his tongue flicking against the roof of his mouth. Ella. Ella. It was close enough. She kicked the curb with the toe of her boot, waiting for him to introduce himself too, but he didn’t. He was there to listen not speak. ‘These aren’t all mine,’ she said, pointing at the books with her foot. ‘The librarian at uni…I’m at RCU. Royal City University? It’s in central London. Anyway, the librarian mentioned she had loads of books she didn’t need anymore, and I offered to take them to my local charity shop as the bus stops right outside. Except for today, of course. Prick!’ She jerked her thumb at the stationary bus on the opposite side of the road, her hands flying up in a hopeless gesture and flopping back against her thighs with a smack. The flickering sign above their heads displayed the minutes until the next bus. She glanced at it and screwed up her face. ‘Twenty minutes? What’s the matter with this bullshit city?’ She kicked the torn bin bag and he watched it blow down the road. He envied its freedom. ‘This is bollocks. I might as well leave these books here,’ she said. ‘I can’t be arsed anymore; the bags are all ripped. Mierda!’ While Ella moved the books out of the gutter with her foot, he took the opportunity to look at her. Really look—at her thick lashes that framed her dark brown eyes, the tiny freckle on her cheek, the curl of hair above her ear that kept coming loose no matter how many times she tucked it away. He wanted to remember every detail. ‘I’m heading for Highgate too,’ he said, nodding at a long, black holdall under the bus stop bench. ‘Put the books in my bag. It’ll be quicker to walk.’ She thought

about it, then shrugged a ‘why not.’ They walked side by side in silence, the bag slung over his shoulder which he shifted occasionally as the sharp book corners dug into his back. His neck strained with each step and small beads of perspiration ran down his temples. He pretended not to notice when she looked at him, although every one of her glances scorched his skin. She may have found him familiar, initially, but she would never remember who he was. ‘Was that Spanish you were speaking?’ he asked after they had been walking for a few minutes. ‘Yeah, sorry, it just slips out when I’m a bit, um…stressed.’ Ella rubbed her finger along her ragged thumbnail then filed it across her teeth. ‘I’m Spanish,’ she continued. ‘Well, half. My dad’s Spanish. Never met him, the waste of space. My mum’s English.’ She turned to him but he didn’t respond. ‘I’ve only lived in London a few months. I was brought up in Spain, in the south. We moved to England after Mum married Richard Fantz.’ She slowed down. ‘You not heard of him? He owns a bunch of hotels.’ He kept his pace and Ella quickened hers to catch up. ‘OK, well, he’s beyond loaded, and now my mum’s turned into a real airhead. Would have followed him to Mars if he’d asked her. I have no idea why I’m telling you this. Anyway, she’s a selfish cow. I liked it in Spain. I could see the sea from my bedroom and it was always sunny. You can’t be pissed off when it’s sunny.’ ‘Why didn’t you stay and go to university in Spain?’ he asked. A shadow passed over her face, and he wished he hadn’t said anything. ‘I was going to. The plan was to live with Juliana and study in Malaga. You know, keep my life as normal as possible.’ She noted his look of incomprehension. ‘Juliana was my grandmother, the closest thing I had to family. She raised my mum and came to Spain when I was born. She died six months ago. I could hardly leave my mum; she was in bits.’ Ella sniffed and cleared her throat. ‘I wanted to go travelling, but I had a huge fight about it with my mum. She made this big deal about how she never got the chance to get a degree so I had to and that I could go abroad any time. As if I was going to be stupid enough to get knocked up on my first holiday like she did. So here I am.’

The landscape softened as Archway melted into Highgate. They passed a church with two green domes and a large, stained-glass window, and stopped to catch their breath outside the gated entrance to a park. Highgate Village was just visible at the crest of the hill. He dropped his bag and rolled his shoulders, looking at the cutesy shops with little signs swinging above their doorways. ‘Posh,’ he remarked, nodding at the row of town houses sporting glossy wrought iron fences, flowers at the windows, and stone steps leading to pillar-box-red-andracing-green front doors. ‘You got one?’ ‘Nah, mine’s bigger.’ His grin made her giggle. He closed his eyes and let the sound wash over him. Her laugh hadn’t changed. It gave him hope. ‘The house isn’t mine, of course,’ Ella said. ‘It’s my stepdad’s. It’s nice though, right in the middle of Highgate Village but hidden. It’s like you’re driving down a little side street, then there’s a small turning—no one would know there was anything there—then there’s these huge gates. It’s like the TARDIS, you’d never think a big house like that would fit there, you know? Anyway, they sweetened me up and gave me a massive room. It’s OK, I guess.’ He peered over her shoulder. ‘Is that the shop?’ Across the road was a blue doorway crowded with over-stuffed bin bags seeping discarded clothes and shoes onto the pavement. She nodded and they walked over. The ‘closed’ sign was partly hidden by the mountain of debris. He crouched and placed the books one by one on the step. Ella picked up his bag and shook it, the books flying into the doorway and narrowly missing his head. She read each one aloud as they slithered to the floor. ‘Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, Paradise Lost. Gives you flashbacks of English Lit classes, eh?’ she said. ‘I don’t know, I haven’t read them.’ ‘What? Not even Dickens or Shakespeare? You’re joking! Here.’ She handed him a small paperback in shades of red and yellow. ‘1984, Orwell. It’s about a guy who lives in a world where the people in control are complete dictators and he can’t do anything about it. Story of my life. Keep it.’ She gave him a wry smile and looked at her watch. ‘Speaking of tyrants, I better go. My mum flew back from Italy

today and she’ll be hounding me soon.’ He put the book in his empty bag. ‘Where shall I meet you to return it?’ Ella raised her eyebrows and he pretended not to notice, scolding himself for being overly familiar. ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. Just sling it in the doorway when you’re finished,’ she replied. She took a breath as if to say something else but was interrupted by her phone ringing. She glanced at it and pressed the red button. ‘My mum,’ she said. ‘You don’t like her, do you?’ ‘Not really.’ She sighed, leant against the wall of the shop, and put her phone in her pocket. He stood back up. Her eyes were narrowed, clearly wondering if she could trust him—if only she knew the things he was capable of. ‘OK, it’s like this… What kind of woman decides to marry an old widower—who, by the way, already has a son and happens to be minted, then insists he adopts her daughter as part of the deal? No biggie, but I was sixteen years old, for God’s sake, and he has a son, so it’s not like he needed another kid. So three years ago, I was made to change my whole identity—my birth certificate, my passport, they even had to rename me at school. My mum said Richard’s surname would make my life easier. Yeah, right!’ Silence.‘His surname’s Fantz, she added, eyebrows raised. She waited expectantly, but he still didn’t react. She sighed. ‘Hello! My name is Ella. Ella Fantz. I’ve spent the last three years being called Dumbo and hearing trumpeting noises every time I walk into a classroom. So yeah, that’s the kind of mum I have.’ Was she expecting him to laugh? He couldn’t. The silence hung thick between them. Ella picked at the pink skin of her thumb, pulling at a hangnail until it bled. ‘What’s your real name, Ella? The one you were christened with?’ he asked, though he already knew. She blew out a puff of air. ‘Right, like that’s any better. My real name is Arabella Imaculada Santiago de los Rios. Honestly, what was my mum on when she came up with that! She reckons she hardly knew my dad, doesn’t even have a photo of him, yet she gives me his

surname and a middle name after the Virgin Mary. Can you believe it? She’s not even religious.’ She pulled her coat tighter around her. ‘Oh, and get this, she said she never even liked the name Arabella. So why name me it in the first place? The woman’s nuts.’ ‘I like Arabella.’ ‘Whatever.’ He laughed lightly. It felt good to enjoy himself for once. She was a lot more fiery than he was expecting. It amused him, but it didn’t surprise him. After all, she was different every time he saw her. It was clear that he also intrigued her. She kept glancing up at him through her outgrown fringe when she didn’t think he was looking. Was he making her nervous? The thought thrilled him. Either way, he wouldn’t allow himself to get close to her—he could never do that. He wasn’t going to stay. ‘Your surname is Santiago de los Rios. Rios means Rivers, doesn’t it? Restless, yet beautiful. It suits you.’ He smiled. ‘It was nice to meet you, Rivers.’ He nodded and turned to go. ‘Wait!’ She reached for his arm, which flexed under her touch. ‘Thanks for your help…what’s your name? Wow, I’m so rude. I’ve been, like, half an hour telling you my life story and I haven’t even asked your name.’ He liked the way she used her hands when she spoke, each word illustrated by a twist of a wrist or a flutter of fingers. He wanted to take her hand, feel her fingers intertwine with his. He dropped his empty bag on the pavement and lowered his hood. She wanted his name. There was no harm in telling her, or at least a variation of it. She would never make the connection. Running a hand through his damp hair, he scanned her face for that flicker of recognition again. Nothing. Ella was looking up at him expectantly and he noted that her breaths were now fast and shallow. He held out his hand and she shook it, flinching at his touch. He’d felt it too, but it was too late. Could this time be different? ‘Nice to meet you, Rivers,’ he said. ‘I’m Zac.’

Chapter Two Ella’s arm hummed from Zac’s touch. Weird. She rubbed it as she watched his retreating figure merge into the bustle of the high street and disappear. Tying back her hair, she swept her fringe out of her face and took a deep breath. Could she be any more socially awkward? Why the hell had she blurted out all of her business to a complete stranger? It was fine to do that back in Spain, everyone spoke to everyone there, but this was London. That guy could have been a serial murderer, and there she was walking alongside him like a naïve idiot. She’d been flustered, that’s what it was. It was bad enough after the issues with the bus and the books and her mum calling, but then he’d kept looking at her with those eyes of his. She shuddered. Had he noticed her staring? She had been trying to see if he was wearing contact lenses. His eyes were unreal, bright blue turning to lilac when the sun hit them. Some girls would have had the balls to ask for his number—it’s not every day a hot guy randomly talks to you—but he didn’t seem interested, not in that way. Anyway, it was too late now. He was gone. *** Her gilt-edged gates gave a ceremonious buzz as she placed her thumb on the security system. It hadn’t sunk in yet that this palace was where she lived—she still got a thrill that she didn’t need a key to enter. Nothing about her new home was subtle. The landscape artist had made a miraculous job of shielding the house from view by importing tall cypress trees to surround the perimeter, creating privacy while still letting in the light. She loved those slender, pointy trees; they conjured up images of Tuscany, a place she had always felt a spiritual connection to even though she had never been to Italy. The Fantzs had two gardeners who ensured the lawns were green year-round and not a leaf was out of place, yet most of the time, Ella was the only person who got to admire their hard work. The marble fountain at the front of the house was switched on, signaling somebody was home. It was the height of pretentiousness, not to mention a waste

of water and money. So were the decorative white columns flanking the double wooden doors whose gold studs the poor cleaner had to polish every week. None of that occurred to her parents though. As long as their house reflected their status, it was all that mattered. It was rare for Ella to enter via the front door—she only did it when she knew someone would be home to greet her, which wasn’t very often. She normally entered through the back as it led directly to her bedroom, where she spent most of her evenings watching TV or reading. Life was one big party. Ella crossed the hallway and winced. She hated walking through the echoing house alone. Her mother had made the mistake of not carpeting the ground floor. It looked impressive, but the clip-clopping of heels against the shiny tiles put Ella on edge and made the place appear cold and impersonal. It felt like a grand hotel, although considering Richard’s profession, that wasn’t surprising. Her mother’s shrill cry bounced off the stark walls before Ella had time to shut the door behind her. ‘Darling, you’re home; I’ve been ringing you all afternoon!’ Felicity Fantz didn’t walk; she glided, her golden mane swishing in time with her hips. Her feline eyes were always dark and smoky with heavy lashes that gave her a sleepy, satisfied expression. ‘Richard, quick; I think Ella is actually smiling. Honestly, darling, are you feeling OK?’ She laughed at her own joke and gave her daughter a light kiss on each cheek, resting her manicured fingers on Ella’s shoulders. Today she was wearing a black jacket over tight jeans and skyscraper heels. Had Ella looked anything like her mother, people would have thought they were sisters. Except when they entered a room together, nobody noticed the petite, dark-haired girl. ‘Seriously, sweetie, you are definitely flushed. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you met a nice young man. Oh, look! She’s hiding a smile! Come on, tell Mummy.’ Ella shrugged off her jacket, draped it over the banister, and kicked off her trainers. Ignoring her mother, she headed for the kitchen and threw her backpack on the counter. Richard replaced the phone into the receiver and beamed at Ella, loosening his

tie and giving her a hug. She’d liked her stepfather from the moment she’d met him, even if he was old enough to be her grandfather. It was obvious how much he adored her mother and, most importantly, he always took Ella’s side. Since the death of his first wife, when his son Sebastian was just a toddler, Richard had been linked to countless models but had never remarried. Within two weeks of meeting Felicity, he’d proposed and announced to the world he’d found ‘the one,’ a story her mother had never tired of telling over the last three years. ‘What’s all the commotion?’ he asked. ‘Have you got yourself a beau, Ella? ‘God, can’t I just be in a good mood?’ Ella bypassed him and walked to the kitchen. ‘Don’t worry, my life is still pathetic. No need to get excited. I’ve just had an interesting journey home, that’s all.’ How did her mum always know when she was crushing on someone? She thought of Zac and the curl of his lip when he smiled, how his hand had felt in hers and the way he’d stared at her until she’d teetered on the edge of discomfort. This was ridiculous; she needed to get out more. She felt her cheeks grow warm when she remembered asking if she knew him—bloody idiot! London was a huge place, and she knew no one, so why would she know him? And why was her heart still racing? Her mother sauntered over and pressed her hand to her daughter’s cheek. ‘If I’d known bus journeys could be that exciting, I would have ditched the chauffeur.’ Richard gave a deep, throaty laugh and wrapped his arms around his wife’s waist, reducing her to a fit of giggles as he kissed her neck. Ella screwed up her nose and turned away. ‘Get a hotel room, for God’s sake. It’s not like you’re short of them,’ she said, making them laugh harder. ‘Darling, guess what we’re having for dinner?’ Felicity sing-songed. ‘You’ve cooked?’ ‘No silly, of course not. Richard’s new sushi chef is over from Tokyo and has compiled an amazing menu for the New Year’s Eve restaurant opening, so we are sampling it tonight. Scrummy! Oh, and talking of Asia, Sebastian called from Cambodia this afternoon. The hospital build is coming on wonderfully; he thinks he might get a mention in Time magazine. He sends his love, by the way; your brother always asks after you.’

‘That piece of shit is not my brother!’ Wow. She hadn’t meant to say that out loud, let alone shout. It had been over a year since she’d last seen Sebastian, Richard’s angelic son. A doctor and Mr Sexiest Millionaire of the Year as voted by Cosmo. Mr Charming. Mr Complete and Utter Bastard. He was miles away and still managing to fuck up her day. ‘There’s no need for that, young lady. Sebastian welcomed you as a sister from the day we got married, and all you have done…’ Felicity stopped and frowned. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Making a sandwich.’ ‘I just told you we’re having dinner, darling.’ Felicity plucked the mayonnaise out of Ella’s hand. ‘Don’t be a piggy.’ Ella snatched it back and squeezed it onto four slices of bread. ‘No, you said we are having sushi in two hours. It’s hardly a banquet. Anyway, I’m hungry now. What’s your problem?’ She knew exactly what her mother’s problem was. Since Ella had arrived in England ten weeks ago, there had been a photographer outside her house every day. The media were intent on making her London’s new ‘it girl,’ the smart, pretty girl that completed the perfect Fantz family, and her PR Director mother had assigned herself as her agent. Ella had already been coerced into an interview with The Sunday Telegraph and a shoot for Elle magazine. It was humiliating. Some days she wondered whether her mother paid those eager men in black to point their cameras at her every time she stepped out the door. With interest in the new addition to the Fantz dynasty mounting, there was no way Felicity was going to run the risk of any magazine blaring out a ‘Herd of Ella Fantz’ headline about her daughter, so what she ate and when had become a constant source of contention between them. Ella rolled her eyes and piled on an extra layer of Gouda cheese for good measure. She may not have inherited Felicity’s long legs or blonde hair, but Ella was quite happy with the way she looked—even though she was as averse to exercise as Felicity was to flat shoes. ‘Do you have to put cheese on everything?’ Felicity said. ‘Honestly, darling, you have an obsession. It’s full of fat.’

‘Let her be, Flic,’ Richard said. ‘She’s a young lady. What’s a little sandwich in the big scheme of things?’ Richard smiled indulgently, and Ella gave him a grateful look. She grabbed her towering creation and stomped across the kitchen flagstones. ‘Don’t leave that plate in your bedroom, darling,’ her mother called after her. ‘Ylva cleaned in there today and told me she found six bowls under your bed. Six! I was mortified! And please don’t wear those jeans again. You have plenty of clothes; those make your bottom look huge, sweetie.’ Ella counted in her head, promising that if she could get to her bedroom before she reached twenty, she wouldn’t scream. It hadn’t always been this bad. Before England, before Richard, her mum had been normal. On Ella’s sixteenth birthday, it had all changed. *** It had been one of Spain’s hottest summers. The streets were empty in the day, the town coming to life once the sun had set and everyone could breathe again. Ella hadn’t wanted a big fuss, but her mother had other ideas. She’d said there was no point living in the most fashionable place on the coast if they weren’t going to enjoy the lifestyle. Stepping into the white marble foyer of Marbella’s newest and most prestigious hotel, La Estrella Blanca, Ella and her mother attempted to blend in with the other guests invited to the grand opening. Ella had never seen a hotel like it. Felicity smiled and nodded at a lady she knew from the press and a gaggle of snobby charity organisers. She accepted a glass of champagne from the waiter, and they followed the rest of the guests to the back of the hotel. Outside was every bit as magnificent as the entrance. The infinity pool appeared to cascade over the cliff edge and straight into the sea. Large marquees furnished with white sofas had been erected on the lawn. They sat beneath a chandelier that speckled their bodies with tiny diamonds. Felicity fanned herself with her hotel brochure and smiled at Ella. ‘Can you imagine staying here, sweet pea?’ Ella couldn’t. ‘Thanks for letting me come, Mum; my friends are going to be so jealous.’

Her mother worked for a local newspaper—part journalist, part ad sales. It was low paid and low interest and most of the stories she covered were about expats or abandoned animals, but she got the occasional perk, like tonight’s launch party. ‘This place is magical!’ Felicity said, staring at the ocean. ‘Imagine what it would be like to be here with a man who adores you, walking hand in hand along that path. See the one that leads to those steps? He’d lead you down to the beach, holding your hand as you made your way to the bay. You’d lie on one of the big double beds and draw the curtains around you. I bet if you had enough money, the hotel would let you have that beach to yourself all night. They would make you a romantic picnic with lobster and champagne, and you could look at the stars and feel like you were the only people in the world.’ ‘Don’t break out into song just yet, Cinderella,’ Ella said, laughing. ‘Honestly, Mum, after all the shit Dad gave you, I can’t believe you still think one day your prince will come.’ Felicity drained her glass in one go but kept it clasped in her hand, staring out to sea. ‘Ella, I know I don’t talk about your father often, but there are things in this world we will never understand. Things beyond our control. What is meant to be is written in the stars and I have grown to accept it.’ Her mum liked to speak in riddles, but she never complained or spoke badly of others. It infuriated Ella. After Felicity was left pregnant at nineteen and then disowned by her parents, Ella figured her mother had more than enough people to slag off. Felicity, though, remained tight-lipped about her childhood. The little Ella knew about her family had been garnered from a photo album she’d found under her mother’s bed when she was ten years old. There had been one particular photograph, faded and creased, of an old man with a bushy moustache and a little blonde girl on his lap. Behind them stood a slim woman with wispy hair and a faroff look in her eyes. It had given Ella the creeps and she’d never looked for the album again. They sat in the hotel marquee for over an hour, taking in the beauty and listening to the rustle of the waves lapping at the rocks below. Ella got up to look for the restroom, and that’s when everything changed.

How Ella wished that she’d made the most of that night. What would she have said to her mother had she known it was to be the last time she would have her to herself? What would have happened had her mother gone to the bathroom with her or they’d gone home early? When journalists asked Felicity how she’d met Richard, she always replied that they were introduced that night by mutual friends, although the truth was a lot less glamorous. Ella had got lost on her way back from the toilet and mistaken Richard for a waiter. How different would her life be now if she’d turned right instead of left? Would her parents have met anyway? One of the first things Ella noticed about Richard, as he led her to the pool area, was the way he moved. He reminded her of an animal keeper she’d seen at Fuengirola Zoo; slow and unthreatening. Every gesture was measured and deliberate. His first words to her were, ‘Have you lost your mother? I’ll find her.’ Find her he did. He also kept her. ‘But I thought we were looking for your mother?’ Richard said, giving Felicity a wide smile. He had a kind but strong voice, dripping with wealth. ‘Surely this is your sister?’ This was nothing new. The only reason the boys in Ella’s class had ever wanted to come to her house had been to check out her mum. No one ever believed Felicity was old enough to be her mother. Richard introduced himself and shook their hands, and Ella thanked him for his help. He then bid them a good night, joining a nearby couple that had beckoned him over. ‘Did he say his surname was Fantz? Richard Fantz?’ Felicity mumbled, gazing at the middle-aged man across the lawn. She handed Ella her shoes and said, ‘I think he’s the one the boy told me about. I have to speak to him; it all makes sense now. I know what he meant.’ To this day, Ella had no idea what had made her act that way. She was mortified that Felicity was literally running after a complete stranger, jogging across newly watered grass with specks of green staining the soles of her feet. Ella cringed when her mother pulled Richard away from a plastic-faced blonde and her fat, cigarsmoking husband and ushered him into a corner.

Ella couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she watched them through her fingers. At first, Richard listened politely, and then Felicity stood on her tiptoes and whispered something in his ear which made his expression change. His eyes widened as if he’d awoken from a deep sleep and it had taken a moment to recognise the woman before him. He said something and Felicity agreed, making him grin broadly and shake his head in disbelief. Then he kissed her, a deep kiss that made Ella hide her face even further and Felicity raise her bare foot from the ground, pointing her green toes in a balletic pose of ‘happy ever after.’ Ella never discovered what it was that Felicity had whispered to Richard on her sixteenth birthday, but Ella soon learnt it was at that precise moment that she’d lost her mother forever.

Chapter Three Ella had no friends. Of course, she’d had more than plenty in Spain back before her new stepfather changed her name, her school, and her very existence. But they’d eventually been frightened off by her newfound wealth and now remained distant Facebook friends. They didn’t have her telephone number, and even if they did, they wouldn’t have called. Ella didn’t care—the fewer people in her life the less chance of it being fucked-up further. She was sitting at the breakfast bar in the kitchen eating cereal when her mother breezed past, filling Ella’s mouth with the acidic scent of her expensive perfume. Ella put her spoon down. ‘Ah, darling, I’m glad I caught you before you left for school,’ Felicity said, removing Ella’s sugar bowl off the counter and handing her an apple. ‘It’s university, Mum. You know, big girl school?’ Felicity waved the words away, wafting her thick perfume closer and making it catch in Ella’s throat. ‘I have tickets for a fashion show tonight. Would you like to come?’ Ella shrugged. ‘It’s Chanel, sweetie, next year’s Spring/Summer collection. Front row, no less!’ ‘What?’ Ella sighed. ‘I don’t wear anything designer, let alone Chanel. Anyway, I’m busy.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Yeah, I’m seeing friends,’ she lied. Felicity sat on the stool beside her and patted her hand. ‘You made some friends, how fantastic. You must invite them round for tea.’ Was this woman for real! The idea of inflicting her overzealous mother on any friend—imaginary or otherwise—was too much to bear. She mumbled a maybe and left, noting not to return that night until her mother had gone. Even if it meant sitting in a pub on her own until closing time. *** Ella shuffled along the queue of the canteen and peered into the large, metal

containers. What was that crap? It was all either fried or turd-like and floating in its own congealed goo. Most days she brought a sandwich with her or went to the café. Sometimes she took the bus to Soho for noodles. But today it was raining, again, so she stayed inside and attempted to find something remotely edible. She settled on a carton of juice, a dry salad, and a ham sandwich; boring and tasteless but least likely to kill her. Finding an empty table by the window, she stared out at the grey, wet streets. God, this country was depressing. ‘Excuse me.’ A small, sparrow-like girl with a sharp, black bob hovered beside Ella. ‘Are you…?’ Ella rolled her eyes and gave a smile. ‘Yes, I am. I’m Ella Fantz. Hi.’ She recognised the girl from her Anthropology module—she never said much and was always the last to leave. The girl stared down at her chunky trainers, the only thing that appeared to be stopping her from floating away. Her head twitched from Ella to the table and then to the window. Her mouth opened for a second too long before she found her voice. ‘Sorry, I know who you are. Everyone knows who you are. I was actually going to ask if you’re using that chair. There’s nowhere left to sit.’ ‘Right, yeah, of course,’ Ella said, waving at the seats in front of her and taking a bite of her limp sandwich. ‘I’m Mai Li.’ Ella swallowed and wiped mayonnaise from the side of her mouth with her sleeve. ‘I’m Ella, but you already know that.’ Mai Li looked around the room, her Tupperware unopened. A flicker of a smile passed over her porcelain face, and she gave a small headshake as a tall, blonde girl ran over in small steps, her heels clicking against the wooden floor. Mai Li’s slight frame and shiny hair made her a miniature china doll in comparison to the curvy Barbie now standing beside her. Mai Li gave Ella a smile then jumped at her friend’s shriek. ‘Oh. My. God!’ The blonde spun round to face Ella. ‘Mai Li, is Ella Fantz actually sitting at your table?’ She scraped the spare chair back and sat down like a

woman who had been on her feet all day. ‘Oh my days, someone told me Ella Fantz was studying here, but I thought it was, like, a rumour!’ Ella looked up and cleared her throat. ‘Why are you talking about me like I’m not here?’ The Barbie stared at her with her mouth open, a masticated ball of fluorescent gum ready to roll off her pierced tongue. ‘Ella, this is my flatmate, Kerry,’ Mai Li said. Kerry waved and blew a bubble, giggling as it popped and spread a sticky web around her lips. ‘Do you study Anthropology too?’ Ella asked her. Why was she wasting her time engaging in conversation with this bimbo? She looked like she’d struggle to spell her own name. The smell of synthetic strawberry was making Ella gag. Kerry wrinkled her button nose. ‘Shut up!’ she said, making each word three syllables long. ‘Nah, no way. That would be boring. I’m actually in my last year in Linguistics and Theology.’ Ella felt her cheeks prickle—that would teach her for being a snob. ‘It’s quite interesting,’ Kerry continued. ‘Of course, there’s been a lot of Aramaic stuff, bore on, and bla-di-bla about the lost languages of the Incas. But what I’m really interested in is the different Hebrew dialects that existed before the birth of Christ and their influence on religious scriptures. That’s probably what I’ll write my PhD on.’ The three of them fell silent, save for the smacking of Kerry’s chewing gum. Ella was wondering what excuse she could make to leave when Kerry grabbed her arm, her manicured nails digging through Ella’s jacket. ‘Oh my God, Ella, I need to know. Has it been, like, totally freaky that your ex is here?’ Could this conversation get any weirder? ‘What? I don’t have an ex. I don’t even have a boyfriend.’ Ella thought back to the guy at the bus stop. Zac. Now where would she find a man like that around here? ‘Joshua de Silva, the actor slash model you were totally in love with?’ Kerry

made a chopping action with her hand when she said the word slash ‘You were mega cute together.’ ‘Newspapers are always making up crap about me. I’ve never heard of him.’ Kerry grabbed her other arm. ‘Oh my God, how can you not know who he is? He’s, like, a total sex god. His dad is that director Pascoal de Silva. You know, the one that makes those Hollywood action movies. Josh is, like, the most gorgeous man ever, and he’s even modeled for Armani. Oh my God, you should see his abs.’ Kerry’s grip on her arms tightened the faster she spoke. ‘I haven’t actually seen him here. I thought it was another rumour, like you being here. But maybe, if you’re real, then that means he’s here, too. Oh my God, that would be so friggin’ awesome!’ Ella prised Kerry’s fingers off her arm one by one. ‘I might have heard his name somewhere,’ she muttered, not wanting to appear out of touch with the real world. Whatever that was. Ella looked at her watch. Her next lecture wasn’t for another forty minutes. She had to think up an excuse to leave. ‘Well, you lived in Spain, right?’ Kerry continued. ‘I guess the hotties are different there. What was that like? Was it amazing? You know, I feel bad for you that your mum married Richard Fantz,’ she said, her hand back on Ella’s arm. Ella shook her off. ‘What the hell do you know about my family?’ Kerry shrugged. ‘Only what I’ve read, which is that you live a fairy tale life. But now I’ve met you, I don’t believe you do. I’m guessing you probably preferred your life the way it was. I know I did.’ Ella frowned and looked at Mai Li. ‘Kerry’s mum moved to Australia to be with her new husband, so she’s on her own now,’ she whispered. ‘Yep. My stepdad is, like, such a nice guy. You know what that’s like? I want to hate him but I can’t, so I’ve just got to accept that my mum chose him over me.’ Ella gave a small nod and blinked three times. Was she seriously going to cry in front of these strangers? Kerry perked up, a huge smile appearing on her face. ‘I wish I hadn’t been wrong about you and Josh. You kinda match, you know?

Should we hunt him down?’ Ella couldn’t help laughing. Maybe Kerry wasn’t so bad. Maybe if she was to make any friends in this fucked-up city, she had to give people a chance. ‘OK, whatever. Tell me more about this guy.’ ‘Josh? Oh, you’ll love him, every woman does. He’s perfect. I bet if you two met, it would be true love, like the newspapers say it is. I read this morning he’s going to Indigo for his birthday.’ Kerry frowned. ‘Wait, I thought he would have invited you. Obviously not. Shame, because we’ll never get entry to a place like that.’ Her petulant expression would have looked ridiculous on any other woman, but with her full, glossy lips and bouncy hair, she looked like a Playboy bunny. A student walked past their table, his jeans slung so low his hips stuck out at an angle in an attempt to keep them from falling. He flicked his earphones out and did a double take, slowing down to say something. Kerry gave him the finger and then winked at him. He lost courage and left the canteen, attempting to pull his trousers up while simultaneously replacing his earphones. ‘What’s Indigo?’ Ella asked, looking from the boy to Kerry and then to Mai Li, who shrugged. It was good to know she wasn’t the only clueless person. ‘Seriously?’ Kerry screeched. ‘Oh my God, Ella, where have you been the last five years? Indigo is this, like, amazing club in Camden that’s so exclusive it’s got no website, no Twitter, and no one’s even seen photos of the inside. Its reputation is, like, totally word-of-mouth, and it’s impossible to get in. They have a mega strict member’s policy.’ ‘Is it really expensive?’ Ella asked. ‘That’s the weird thing, because it has nothing to do with money,’ Kerry said. ‘My friend had a friend whose neighbour went and he lived in a council flat in Tooting, but Madonna and Princess what’s her name have been turned away. I mean, what is that about?’ ‘When’s Josh’s party?’ ‘Tomorrow night.’ Mai Li had lost the thread of the conversation a long time ago. Ella grinned at her and plucked her mobile phone from her back pocket, pressing three on her speed dial.

‘Hi, Caroline. No, I don’t want to speak to Mum, thanks,’ she said. ‘Can you get me entry to Indigo for tomorrow night? Yes, me and two others.’ She hung up and beamed at the girls, who were frozen in awe. Her phone beeped, and she looked at the screen. ‘It’s all done. Where shall we meet?’ She knew it was pathetic to use her fame to make friends, but it felt bloody amazing. The week was shaping up to be rather interesting after all.

Chapter Four Fuelled by excitement and champagne—one of Richard’s vintage classics Ella had taken from her stepfather’s collection—the three girls chatted as they made their way to Indigo. ‘I’m not lying, I swear,’ Kerry said. ‘Some girl was interviewed in Cosmo and said she thought Indigo pumped weed through the air con system because she left the bar feeling like she was floating, totally, like, super chilled. Oh, and they have some cocktail called Indigo Sky which is meant to be amazing.’ A buzz of excitement was growing in the pit of Ella’s stomach. It had been over three years since she’d gone out with a group of friends, and although they were a somewhat motley crew, she was having fun. It was good to laugh and have a chance to wear the high heels her mother insisted on buying her. ‘Do you think Josh will be there?’ Kerry said. ‘I think I’d die if we got to sit anywhere near him. This is seriously going to be the best night of my life.’ ‘Who’s Josh?’ Ella asked. The blonde gave her an incredulous look. Oh yes, the actor stroke model. Camden had a split personality. During the weekends, the suburb was a mecca for every hippy and punk wannabe. Eager teenagers spent the day with ten pounds in their pocket, looking for cheap, silver jewellery or wild piercings, leaving them with enough change to get a kebab for their journey home. Its colourful market along the canal throbbed with tourists clutching falafels in one hand and shopping in the other, navigating the rabbit warren of tunnels and walkways that led to the converted horse stables where they would be overcharged for thirty-year-old clothes branded as ‘retro.’ But at night it was a different story. Although the student flats were within walking distance from Camden’s high road, in the not-so-cool district of Mornington Crescent, the girls rarely ventured into Camden after dark. Mai Li flinched as an elderly man with a can of largerin his hand stumbled into her and burped an apology, then turned and held out his hand for spare change. The Tube entrance erupted with a group of

young men in their uniform of tight jeans and band T-shirts. In the shadow of the station wall leant a skinny boy with a beanie hat pulled over his eyes, the lads speaking to him in hushed tones as his thick-necked dog strained at its rope leash. The girls crossed over the lock and turned a sharp left, gratefully exited the High Road, then walked down the long steps to the water’s edge. ‘Are you sure it’s under the next bridge?’ Mai Li asked no one in particular. They peered ahead into the gloomy tunnel. Tracks of green slime trickled down the walls, forming puddles in which they tiptoed, their footsteps echoing the drip-drip of the water. ‘Now what?’ Ella asked. The canal was on their left, and three moored barge boats bobbed up and down beside them, their garish Romany decorations a cheerful distraction. ‘Do you think anyone actually, like, lives in those things?’ Kerry asked. ‘Hey, maybe they know where Indigo is?’ Ella shrugged and looked around. A faint glow was visible through the undergrowth beside the lock. They walked down a rough path that had been beaten through the trees until they reached a carved wooden door flanked by torches. Two men stood outside. One was dark with a wide neck and broad shoulders, the other younger with floppy, bleach blond hair and tight jeans that cut into his hip bones. They both wore dark T-shirts bearing a faded logo on the front. It looked like a Greek symbol, but it could only be seen when the light caught it at a certain angle. ‘Is this it?’ Mai Li asked. ‘It doesn’t say Indigo anywhere.’ The thin man glanced at his iPad and then at Ella. ‘Miss Fantz and guests, please follow me.’ The girls looked at one another wide-eyed as the bouncer opened the large doors. They followed the doorman down a flight of stone steps dotted with tealights where silver lanterns flickered, projecting their shadows along the smooth walls. The sound of their footsteps was loud against the slate flagstones. At the base of the stairs was a white room with an oval carved in the wall, behind which sat an exotic gypsy girl. Her thick, black hair, held back by a

glittering silver scarf, shone a deep purple in the candlelight, and her large eyes were highlighted with eyeliner. ‘Welcome to Indigo,’ she said, her accent hard to place. ‘Please leave all bags and possessions here. No cameras, telephones, or money allowed on the premises.’ She handed Ella a silver bracelet with a small chip hanging from it. ‘The barman will scan you when you order drinks, and you can settle the bill when you leave. Enjoy your evening, Ella, Mai Li, Kerry.’ The girls handed over their coats and bags, looking at each other in mild panic. ‘I didn’t know you gave them our names,’ Mai Li whispered. ‘I didn’t,’ Ella said. The doorman scanned them with a handheld metal detector, then once satisfied, he walked to another set of wooden doors and yanked them open. The club wasn’t as big as she had expected, and she couldn’t see any electric lighting. The central strip of ceiling was transparent, although fragments of starry sky could be seen through the canopy of leaves that dusted the glass ceiling. There were lanterns on every wall and surface, and huge, church-like candles dripped over the bar. Candelabras stood in the corners, and above the tables hung hundreds of glass globes, each one with a tea-light in its centre. Some walls were draped in sheer white fabric and others were painted in shades of lilac, mauve, and dark blue. All the tables were low and surrounded by plush, white cushions and sheepskin rugs. Small, cavern-like spaces had been gauged out of the walls and filled with low, white beds. Kerry gave a low, long whistle, and Mai Li giggled. ‘Play it cool, yeah?’ Ella whispered, her heart hammering against her chest. ‘It’s just a club. Nothing special.’ Who was she kidding? It was something from another world. Most of the tables and beds were already occupied by couples and groups sitting or lying on the cushions and talking softly. Kerry mouthed, ‘I can’t see Josh. This doesn’t look like a club to me. There’s nowhere left to sit and no music. What the hell is this place?’

There was a soothing noise emanating from the speakers, but it was hard to distinguish. It sounded like nature sounds, but nothing like the irritating CDs Ella had been forced to listen to the last time her mother had booked her in for a facial. It was more than that—it was the sound of lying in the garden in springtime; the quiet rustle of leaves, a distant bird call, the wind blowing gently. A hushed reverence descended on them, like entering an ancient cathedral during mass. Ella could see why Indigo needed to remain protected, why it was so secret. She watched a couple open a glass door into a narrow hallway then go through another door to a space packed with writhing bodies. She pointed it out to Kerry, who visibly relaxed; there was music and dancing after all. ‘Let’s get a drink first,’ Kerry said, looking around for an empty seat. The doorman appeared beside them. ‘Follow me, ladies.’ He led them to a wall draped with muslin and signaled to a waitress wearing the uniform dark T-shirt. She pulled a tasselled cord and revealed a small room hidden behind the curtain. The space was piled high with more cushions and silver lanterns hung from the ceiling. There were candelabras at each corner, and on the low table in the centre stood a silver ice bucket with two bottles of champagne, along with a selection of canapés on silver trays. The waitress poured their drinks into three silver flutes. ‘Enjoy your evening, ladies.’ ‘This is totally amazing, Ella. I heard there was no VIP, but oh my bloody God, this is it!’ Kerry said, running in and throwing herself on the cushions. ‘You are, like, the bestest friend in the whole world. I mean, look at us!’ ‘Everyone is looking at us,’ Ella hissed. ‘Who cares? That’s because we are officially the most ‘very important people’ here. Like, wow, we even get free…’ Kerry picked up a canapé and popped it in her mouth. ‘I haven’t a clue what it is, but it’s delicious. Could this night get any better!’ ‘I think it could,’ Mai Li said breathlessly, easing herself down beside Kerry

but looking in the direction of the entrance. The girls followed her gaze to another hidden alcove, where a sandy-haired man in a leather jacket sat surrounded by friends. They were all laughing and taking it in turns to knock back shots of a clear liquid. ‘Holy crap, that’s him. That’s Josh!’ Kerry whispered, elbowing Ella in the ribs. She plumped up her hair and leant forward, giving him a huge smile and a view of her copious cleavage. ‘Ella, you need to talk to him,’ Kerry whispered, even though he was too far away to hear them. She turned to the waitress. ‘Hey, go tell Josh de Silva that Ella Fantz requests his company.’ Ella whacked Kerry on the arm. ‘I can’t believe you just did that!’ she exclaimed. ‘Oh no, he’s looking over. Shit, shit! Mai Li, stop laughing. You’re making me look like such a…’ ‘Hey, birthday boy, come join us!’ Kerry shouted as Josh approached their table. ‘Shuffle up, Ella, there’s plenty of room. Do you want some bubbly?’ Josh looked at Ella, who shrugged, and he sat on the cushion beside her. ‘Hi.’ His voice was deep, which sat awkwardly with his boyish features. Kerry handed him a glass of champagne, but he ignored her, his eyes trained on Ella. Now they were face to face, she recognised him from the kind of magazines they had in the hairdresser’s. The girls weren’t wrong; Josh was hot in a perfect kind of way. What were the chances of Ella meeting two attractive guys in one week? She thought of Zac from the bus stop, and her tummy flipped. ‘Finally, I get to meet the illusive Ella Fantz. I’m surprised to see you here,’ he said. ‘I didn’t think you did celeb hangouts.’ He shuffled up and leant in closer so only Ella could hear him. ‘Did you know that according to Extreme Magazine, we were an item last summer? It was very cruel of you to dump me for a football player when we were so madly in love.’ He sat back and laughed, two dimples appearing in his cheeks. ‘Nice to meet you at last.’ Ella shook his hand and smiled. It was easy to see what her friends were getting so excited about. ‘Hi, Josh. These are my friends, Mai Li and Kerry.’ He nodded briefly and turned his attention back to Ella. He’d clearly spent a

long time sculpting his hair into its tousled, windswept style, light strands falling into his almond-shaped eyes and over his perfectly arched brows. His skin was flawless, his lips full, and he had very straight, very white teeth—far too straight and white to be natural. ‘This celebrity thing’s tough, right?’ he said. ‘That’s why I love this bar, it’s so discreet.’ Ella smiled but kept quiet. Regardless of what the press or her mother insinuated, she had no interest in fame or being gawped at. ‘So, how are you going to make my birthday special?’ he said with a wink. Kerry sighed far too loudly, and Mai Li poured herself another drink. They turned to Ella simultaneously, waiting for her answer. Josh’s shoulder was pinning hers against the sofa, and she twisted her body to the side to make room. ‘I didn’t realise I was the entertainment,’ she said flatly. She was probably the first girl not to have dropped to her knees for him. Josh ignored her sarcasm. ‘I’ve heard so much about you. Ever since I found out you’d moved to London, I was hoping we would meet. Is there anywhere we could sit and talk? You know,’ he said, raising his eyebrows, ‘just you and me?’ ‘Give me a minute,’ she said, clambering over him. ‘I need the…I have to… the loo.’ She grabbed her glass and headed around the corner to the bar and out of view. What the hell was it with that Josh guy? All that fake charm and talking in her ear was making her claustrophobic. He wasn’t exactly horrible; he was friendly, and she couldn’t deny he was attractive, but god was he full of himself. No thanks. With any luck, Kerry would get her claws into him, and Josh would forget about Ella. She’d just hide until he got bored. Normally, she’d be annoyed with Kerry for inviting Josh over in the first place, but the club had such a chilled vibe Ella was too mellow to care. She understood now what that magazine had meant about the place making you feel stoned. She signaled the barman over, pointed at the Indigo Sky cocktail the person beside her was drinking, and held up one finger. The barman smiled and scanned her bracelet. He had bright jade eyes that contrasted wildly with his

dark skin and cheekbones too sharp to waste on a bar job. Did this place only hire models, or was she suddenly finding every guy she came across insanely attractive? The barman gave her a half smile while handing her the drink. She felt herself flush and looked down. She needed to get out more. The cocktail was in graduating shades of blues and lilacs. Ella took a small sip then finished it in two gulps. It tasted of blueberries. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to order a second before Kerry and Mai Li noticed she was missing? She leant over the bar and tried to catch the barman’s eye again, forgetting her original glass of champagne on the counter. As she signaled him over, she knocked the glass with her elbow, sending it smashing onto the slate floor tiles. Ella jumped at the sound, stumbled and slipped on the wet floor—scratching her ankle with broken glass as she fell. ‘Mierda! For fuck’s sake!’ she shouted. She tried to stand and fell back but was caught before she hit the floor. ‘Whoa, Rivers, there you go falling at my feet again.’ Ella stood up quickly and adjusted her dress. ‘Zac? Shit! What are you doing here? What are you…I mean, how…You remember me?’ He was already on his knees, picking up shards of glass and dabbing a paper napkin to her bleeding ankle. ‘How could I forget the girl with a face of an angel and the mouth of a sailor?’ Ella crouched too. Face of an angel? She liked that. ‘Thank you,’ she said, taking the napkin from his hand. ‘Déjà vu. You save me, I thank you, and we end up squatting on a damp floor together.’ He laughed and helped her up, their eyes locking and sending her stomach into a familiar spasm. This was too weird. People didn’t just randomly bump into each other in a city as big as London. ‘I’m with friends,’ she said, checking if they could see her. ‘Well, they aren’t really my friends, not close friends. We’re at the same uni. What about you? You here with friends, or a girlfriend, or…’ She was jabbering like an idiot again. ‘I mean, do you come here often?’

For fuck’s sake! Zac laughed again then reached behind the bar and brought out a mop. ‘Yep, I’m here every night.’ He worked there. Of course he did—he was wearing the same T-shirt as the rest of the staff. It was tight across his chest and arms then loosened around his toned waist. As he reached for the bucket, she glanced at his backside. Yep, small and tight. No surprise there. ‘So you live near here?’ she asked. ‘No, I live in Highgate, near you. Not far from the park.’ Why hadn’t he mentioned it before? Had she even asked? She thought back to when they met and how she had done most of the talking. ‘You live near the park? Is your house one of the pretty ones with the sash windows?’ She pictured an airy, open plan sitting room with abstract paintings and strategically placed carvings from his travels. She didn’t know why she imagined it like that—he just struck her as someone who had seen the world. He kept his eyes down and wrung out the mop. ‘No, nowhere that nice. It’s very small. I’m really not that interesting.’ ‘I wouldn’t say that,’ she said far too quickly. She handed him the broken champagne flute. His fingers brushed hers, sending sparks shooting down her arm and into her aching stomach. What the hell was this? Was that normal? Although, unlike before, he was looking everywhere but at her. His colleague with the sharp cheekbones was mouthing something at him and didn’t look happy. Zac raised his palms up apologetically and turned back to Ella. ‘I really should get back to work. Are you OK, Rivers?’ Zac nodded at her scratched ankle. ‘You need help getting to your table?’ She’d forgotten about her injury—it no longer hurt. ‘Nah, I’ll live,’ she said. ‘But can I buy you a drink? Are you allowed to join us? We’re back there.’ She pointed to the far end of the club. ‘In the VIP area.’ ‘No, no, you get back to your friends.’ ‘Please, Zac. You would be doing me a favour. They’re trying to set me up with someone, and, well, I’d prefer to talk to you than this Josh guy. He really

rates himself.’ ‘Give him a chance.’ Zac was looking straight at her now, his eyes narrowing and a vertical line appearing between his brows like he was trying to solve a complicated puzzle. ‘What? No! Not now I’ve bumped into you. Come on, join us.’ He gave a slight nod. ‘OK, I finish my shift in an hour. I’ll come and say hi before I leave.’ Ella floated back to her friends, a huge grin plastered on her face. Bloody hell, she had been thinking about the hot stranger all week, and all this time he lived two roads away. At least she knew where to find him now. ‘Where’s your sex god got to, Kerry?’ Ella asked, grateful to see Josh had disappeared. ‘He left as soon as you did. He’s so into you. He asked all these questions then said he had to get back to his friends. You took, like, forever in there!’ She folded her arms theatrically and crossed her legs. Ella flopped down, grinning. ‘I adore this place,’ she said, hugging a cushion to her chest. ‘I don’t care about Josh. Let’s go and dance.’ *** The music was like nothing any of them had heard before. Ella’s body moved instinctively to its own beat. She was buzzing, and everyone around her was grinning too, like they were high on life itself. When they returned to their fancy VIP area, they found three Indigo Sky cocktails waiting for them. ‘This bar rocks,’ Kerry squealed. ‘Man, do they know how to look after you. You seen the bar staff? Hot hot hot!’ Mai Li sipped her cocktail and gave a small smile. ‘I like those T-shirts they are wearing. They’re very…’ She giggled and mouthed the word ‘sexy.’ Ella grinned but Kerry didn’t. ‘Something’s been really bugging me about the logo for this place. The one on their uniforms,’ she said, running her finger along the rim of her glass in concentration. ‘What do you mean?’ Ella asked. ‘Well, it looks like a letter “I” right? Like, Indigo, which I get because it’s all

purple and dark blue inside here. But that squiggle is a really old sigil.’ Her friends stared at her. ‘The word “sigil” comes from the Hebrew “segula,” which is a talisman meaning “remedy.” I recognised the mark from one of my classes. It can be traced back to the Neolithic period, way, way back. I think it was used for, like, communicating with…’ Kerry stopped dead, her gaze travelling over Ella’s head to someone behind her. ‘So, Rivers, this is where you’ve been hiding.’ Ella jumped up and threw her arms around Zac’s neck, burying her face into his hair and breathing in his peppery scent. Shit! What was she doing? She had to be drunk or high on whatever this bar pumped out. She hardly knew the guy —why was she throwing herself at him? His breath tickled her neck as he laughed. ‘I see you missed me.’ Mai Li and Kerry’s mouths were two perfect Os. Even Josh was looking over from his table. ‘Zac, these are my friends, Mai Li and Kerry,’ Ella said, sweeping her arm out. ‘This is Zac. He’s a friend of mine. Well, more like a sexy superhero. He’s very good with damsels in distress.’ Kerry was silent for the first time since Ella had met her, and Mai Li’s mouth opened and closed like a dying fish. Ella realised what she had just said. Oh well, now he knew she fancied him. Big deal. He hadn’t once flirted back, so he clearly wasn’t interested. He probably had a girlfriend or, knowing her luck, a boyfriend. ‘I can’t stay long, I’m afraid,’ Zac said. ‘Company policy, no fraternising with patrons.’ He gave her friends a crooked smile, and they giggled, knocking back the rest of their cocktails. ‘Girls, do you mind if Zac and I have a quick dance before he goes?’ Ella asked. The girls’ heads shook, but their faces remained blank. She grabbed Zac’s hand before he could protest, and he followed her to the glass doors of the dance floor where it was quieter.

‘Rivers, I’m really not a good dancer, and I…’ ‘Hey, we could share a cab back to Highgate,’ she said, putting on her huskiest voice. He looked uncomfortable. ‘No, you stay here with your friends. I don’t want to ruin your night.’ ‘Ruin it? But you’re the highlight!’ she protested, regretting it at once. Why did she have no filter? ‘Rivers, you don’t know me. You don’t know what you’re saying.’ He looked down at his trainers and ran his hands through his hair. ‘I saw the way that guy back there was looking at you. He likes you. Maybe you should be dancing with him.’ Why was he so eager for her to talk to Josh? His mouth was saying one thing, but his eyes were saying the opposite. ‘He’s no one, Zac. I’m not interested in him. Just one dance? Please?’ She opened the door to the dance floor, their voices drowned out by the music. ‘One dance, I promise,’ she shouted, draping her arms around his neck again. The music slowed, and Zac rested his hands on her hips, her body swaying and merging with his. After a few seconds, his body relaxed, and he pulled her into him. His arms slid up her back, and she rested her head on his shoulder. ‘You don’t understand. It’s not me you should be dancing with,’ he whispered, his lips brushing against her ear. ‘I’m breaking all the rules.’ She wrapped her arms around him tighter and pretended she hadn’t heard.

Chapter Five Ella buttoned up her collar and adjusted the strap on her backpack. She had worn her light jacket then realised her mistake the moment she’d stepped outside. It was mid-October, and the smell of soggy leaves and smoky embers was quickly being replaced by the crisp bite of winter. Her feet slipped on the pavement as she hurried to the bus stop, hoping her half jog would warm her up. Her phone rang, and she fumbled with it, her fingers numb from the cold. ‘Morning, Mai Li,’ she said, her voice coming out as sharp bursts. ‘I’m heading in now. Sodding alarm didn’t go off.’ Her mind hadn’t been on her studies lately. In fact, there was only one thing, one person, she could think about. ‘I haven’t seen you since the club last week,’ her friend said. ‘How amazing was that place!’ ‘I’ve been meaning to ask you about that. Do you remember getting home?’ Ella’s memory was hazy; she recalled every detail about seeing Zac but nothing after their dance. She must have been drunker than she realised. ‘Zac got us a cab, I think,’ Mai Li said. ‘To be honest, I felt so floaty I can’t really remember. He was just looking at you all intense, like he was from another planet and you were the first woman he’d ever seen. I can’t believe you didn’t ask for his number, but if it’s meant to be, God will find a way to bring you together again.’ Mai Li was sounding like her mother with her soul mate bullshit. ‘He’s just a guy, Mai Li,’ she said. ‘Nothing happened. Anyway, what were you calling about?’ Her friend’s reply was staccato and robotic before she was cut off. Ella would call her when she got on the bus, although she had probably missed it. She broke into a run and stopped when she saw the bus stop was empty. The owner of the nearby newspaper stand nodded at her in recognition, then he looked at the main road and shook his head. Highgate Village was jammed with cars and cabs, much more than usual. The noise was like a swarm of flies, and the intense smell of exhaust fumes was dizzying. ‘What’s going on?’ she asked the vendor.

He handed her a copy of the local paper and pointed at the headline. ‘Bus strike,’ said a voice beside her. ‘Unions announced it last night. Complete chaos.’ Ella looked up from the newspaper and let out a yelp. ‘Zac? What are you…’ ‘Hi.’ He was smiling, and she grinned back. ‘How do you do that?’ ‘Do what?’ ‘Appear out of nowhere every time I’m thinking of you.’ ‘Maybe that’s because you’re always thinking of me.’ His words remained suspended in the airtight space between them. His smile had faded, and his blue eyes were rendering her to stone again. ‘I said you buying that, love?’ the newspaper vendor asked, holding out his gloved hand. His impatient breaths snaked tiny puffs of smoke between them. Without taking his eyes off Ella, Zac reached into his pocket and placed a pile of coins onto the counter. ‘I’m heading for the Tube. What are your plans?’ Zac said. She’d been so surprised to see him that she hadn’t thought of the implications of the bus strike. He was right; with the roads gridlocked, there was only one way to get to class and it was by Tube. But there was no way she was going to travel on the Underground. No bloody way. ‘I can’t. I’ll just have to ask someone for their notes and skip uni. I can’t go on the Tube.’ He nodded. He didn’t ask her why or try to convince her; he just waited for her to continue. So she did. ‘It’s really weird and stupid,’ she told him. ‘I’m not claustrophobic or anything. God, I’ve been on the Paris, Madrid, and Barcelona Metro. I even went on the Subway in New York once without any issues. But as soon as I go near the Tube, even just the entrance or the steps down, I freeze and can’t breathe. I feel like the walls are closing in on me. I remember my mum getting angry with me a few years ago when she wanted me to go with her and Richard to the opera. You can’t park easily in Covent Garden and even a cab takes ages, I get that, so they convinced me

to get the Underground with them. I got as far as the escalators then had a massive panic attack. It was so embarrassing. The train staff called an ambulance, and they had to write it in their accident book. Everyone was staring and pointing at me. Some journalist even wrote about it in one of those crap gossip magazines—’Tube Not Fantzy Enough for Millionaire’s Daughter.’ Made out I was so posh and disgusted by it that I fainted, which wasn’t what happened. Anyway, I’m not going down there. No way.’ The newspaper vendor had edged closer, listening intently. Ella glowered at him until he turned around and busied himself rearranging his magazines. She signaled to Zac to follow, and they sat down on a bench in the square. The traffic was at a standstill. She watched a couple get out of a taxi and head down the hill to the train station. It looked as if everyone was getting the Tube. ‘Where you going, Zac?’ ‘Camden. I need to pick up my wages, but I have tomorrow off. I’m not in any rush.’ ‘Can’t they just put it in your bank account?’ ‘I don’t have one.’ She wanted to ask him how he’d got to his twenties without a bank account, but he was still talking. ‘Are you heading home now?’ She screwed up her nose. She couldn’t really ask anyone to take notes for her— Mai Li and Kerry were the only people she knew, and neither of them were in her Psych class. She had two choices: fail or risk having a public meltdown again. Or even worse, make a complete tit of herself in front of Zac. She took a deep breath. Perhaps with him beside her, it would be different. ‘No, let’s do it,’ she said. ‘I’ll try to get the Tube, but only if you come with me. Please?’ He stood up, picked up her bag and handed it to her. ‘Thought you’d never ask. Come on, the longer we take, the busier it’s going to get.’ Taking a deep breath, she stood up and took her first step towards the station. *** They walked down the hill in silence. Ella distracted herself by looking at the different shades of orange and yellow of the oak trees lining the road.A mother was

holding her excited son’s hand on the way to the swings at Highgate Wood, his mittens on a string swinging in step with his Wellington boots. The station was on the main road but hidden, although through the balding autumn trees, she could just make out the red and blue Underground sign peeking through the branches. Her stomach lurched. The Archway Road, the main artery from north London into the centre of town, was rammed with cars and lorries on one side with the odd car zooming by on the empty lane up north. Her head pounded to the rhythm of car horns. Like most of them, she too wanted to do a Uturn and head back the way she came. Zac stopped and placed his hand on her arm. ‘Rivers?’ She stood, staring across the road. ‘Come on,’ he continued, ‘let’s see how you feel when we get there.’ The entrance was at the end of a dark, narrow road sheltered by towering trees with steep stairs leading down to the ticket hall. There was no way she could make it on her own. Her legs were slowly dissolving, and her high-heeled boots weren’t helping. She hovered over the first step as commuters pushed past them, tutting as she wobbled on her heels. ‘Zac, can you hold my hand, please?’ Her voice broke, and the steps blurred as tears pooled in her eyes. Gently, he moved her to one side and let the crowd pass. Ella was expecting him to hold her hand like the mother had with her little mitten boy, but instead, Zac threaded his fingers through hers and clung on tightly like he was never letting go. As they walked through the ticket barrier, he lifted her arm so she didn’t have to let go of his hand. Her eyes darted to the steep metal escalators clanking and whirring beside them, and her shoulders tensed. The passengers on the right side of the steps looked straight ahead, like rows of tin soldiers heading into battle, while dozens of suited men and women dashed down their left. Zac maneuvered Ella to the wall and held her trembling shoulders, urging her to look away from the swelling crowd at the base of the escalator swarming into the tunnels. ‘Hey, Rivers, look at me,’ he whispered. ‘Look at me. It’s OK.’ She turned and focused on his blue eyes, gazing at the navy rings of his irises

melting into deep aquamarine before fading to a misty grey around his pupils. She felt her breath steady, and his grip on her shoulders loosened. He smiled and gently stroked her cheek. ‘Welcome back. Do you think you can make it to the tunnel?’ She nodded. ‘This is how we’ll do it,’ he said. ‘You get on the escalator, and I will hold you steady. Face me and don’t look down if it helps. I promise I won’t let go.’ Ella wasn’t sure if it was his voice, his words, or simply the fact that he was with her, but she felt a little calmer. This was the furthest she had ever made it. She braced herself and led the way to the top of the escalators. Gingerly, she placed her foot on the first step and turned to Zac, her face level with his chest. True to his word—his hand still firmly in hers—he wrapped his other arm around her waist and held her to him. She rested her head against him, inhaling the warmth of his sweatshirt as they sunk lower. He turned her around just as the escalator reached the bottom and walked her to the wall. A rush of people pushed past them, and she closed her eyes, concentrating on keeping upright and on the feel of him beside her. *** When she opened her eyes, she was alone, and the station was still and quiet. The escalators were stationary and scattered with limp bodies, their limbs so twisted and tangled it was difficult to see what belonged to whom. They lay slumped on every wooden step, some curled into tight balls and others perched precariously on the edge, their clothes tired and tattered. Three young men in collarless shirts crouched on the steep metal partition and stared into nothing, a veil of cigarette smoke forming halos above their cloth caps. A red-headed girl in a full skirt sat cross-legged at the base of the stairs, tears drying on her sooty cheeks, ignoring the infant at her naked breast. Ella tried to move but couldn’t. She managed to take a step back against the cold wall and felt its rough grime settle on her fingertips. She turned her head away from the terrifying vision, the stench of urine and dirty bodies making her wretch. Suddenly, a low, deep rumble sounded above. The men on the stairs looked up as a few of the bodies on the steps began to stir, white dust falling like snow around them. Small fragments of plaster soon turned to large chunks of brick which rained

down and crashed at Ella’s feet. The ground shook, the lights went out, and a baby started to scream. *** ‘Rivers, hey, it’s OK.’ Zac was beside her, and the screams were hers. The escalator was no longer wooden, and commuters continued to stream past, no one bothering to look at the hysterical girl in the corner. ‘Zac, did you see that? The ceiling caved in,’ she cried. ‘There were bodies everywhere. I don’t know if they were dead or…Did you not see it? I can’t breathe. We have to get out. It’s dangerous.I’m going to die’ He pulled her to his chest and held her shaking body as her tears subsided. She wanted to take a deep breath but the air was still too thick and dusty. ‘I know, I know.’ He stroked her hair. ‘It’s all right. I’m here, and I won’t leave you. I promise.’ She pulled away and looked at him, wiping her eyes with the back of her sleeve. When had she heard those words before? What did he mean, ‘I know, I know’? His hand in hers, his bright eyes, that voice, the smell of the dirty station. It was all rushing back to her, but she didn’t know what it meant. This was a bad idea; she shouldn’t have come here. No uni assignment, nothing, was worth the fear that was currently coursing through every cell in her body. ‘I don’t think I can carry on, Zac. Get me out of here, just get me out…’ ‘Shhhh, you’re safe,’ he said. ‘I’m here. We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. I won’t leave you.’ There were those words again. He wasn’t going to leave her, and she believed him. She was acting like a freak and Zac, still a stranger to her, seemed to totally accept it. She took another deep breath and nodded. ‘You won’t let go?’ she said, tightening her grasp on his hand. ‘Never.’ She picked her bag off the floor, and they turned right to the Northern Line platform. Six stops, she told herself. All you have to do is get on the next train, stand still for six stops, and it’s done.

On the platform, the electronic sign announced that the next Bank train was four minutes away. Ella swallowed down the bile rising in her throat. Bank, the business district in the centre of London’s square mile and the home of the Bank of England, was not anywhere Ella had ever visited nor had any intention to, yet the name always evoked such strong emotions in her. In her mind’s eye, she saw a grand white building with tall pillars and a horse, accompanied by a piercing wail. She could sense that ominous feeling creeping up on her again. She glanced at Zac, and it melted away. She had no idea what was happening to her, but he didn’t seem at all worried. ‘Zac, those visions, they were so real it was like I was transported to another time,’ she said. ‘You must think I’m crazy.’ He didn’t reply, just stared straight ahead and squeezed her hand. Why hadn’t he run a mile from her psycho blabbering? Surely he had better things to do than give up his morning to babysit her? She had to get those awful images out of her mind. She needed to stay strong and focus on Zac—he was the only thing keeping her from passing out right now. A stale, metallic breeze swept her hair across her eyes and into her mouth, signaling the arrival of the train. Travellers on the edge of the platform stepped back en masse as the train slowed down and surged forward again as the doors split open. Ella was pushed from behind as the entire platform of commuters focused on the three empty seats in the carriage. She knew not to stand by the doors, so she shuffled to the back and leant against the glass partition to her left, relieved to have finally made it on in one piece. More passengers joined their carriage and, with each new person, Zac inched closer until his face was directly above hers. With their chests pressed together, she felt him shuffle his feet to avoid her toes. ‘You OK?’ he asked. ‘You look like you’re still in shock. Just focus on me, pretend no one else is here. Just me.’ Ella kept her eyes on his and concentrated on the feel of his hips against hers. ‘I can do that.’ The doors shut then sprang back open. On the third attempt, the driver announced that something was blocking the doors, so the passengers sighed and shifted, attempting to contort their bodies into the smallest available space. Ella

couldn’t believe people did this every day—and to think her classmates laughed at her for getting the bus. She glanced to her right at all the people crammed between her and the only exit and tried not to think about her mounting anxiety. Then she looked at Zac, and her stomach flipped. He was staring at her with that same look again, like a tiger that’s seen something moving in the long grass. She shivered and glanced down, realising he was still holding her clammy hand. He squeezed tighter and lowered his head. ‘I’m proud of you, Rivers.’ The tube jolted, and his light stubble brushed over her cheek. She leant into him, breathing in his spicy scent, his cheek resting on the crown of her head. Their bodies swayed to the movement of the train, and that’s how they stayed for the rest of the journey. *** ‘Come on, we’re at King’s Cross.’ Zac nudged her, and she glanced up. They were still pressed up against each other even though the carriage was no longer as crowded. She smiled and looked around. ‘That was quick! Let’s get out of this bloody place.’ She raced through the tunnels and up the escalators, her hand cold and empty without his, zigzagging past commuters and straight to the ticket hall. A strip of white sky was peeking over the last flight of stairs, and she ran up two at a time, never having been so happy to see King’s Cross in all its grey, gloomy glory. Once outside, she bent forward, her hands on her knees, and fought to get her breath back. She grinned from ear to ear and didn’t care who was staring. Zac arrived beside her as she straightened up. He wasn’t even out of breath. ‘I did it! I only bloody did it!’ she shouted, jumping up and down. She ran at him and threw her arms around his neck. He hugged her and spun her around, laughing. They stopped and the smile faded on his lips. Was he going to kiss her? He leant in closer, his hands stroking her waist, and her breath shuddered in her chest. She closed her eyes and parted her lips a little. Their faces inches apart and then…nothing. When she opened her eyes, Zac was looking at her as if he were trying to

decipher an equation. ‘Sorry, Rivers, I have to go.’ Her cheeks were stinging with shame as she looked at her watch. The Tube journey had taken less than fifteen minutes, but to her it had felt like a lifetime. ‘Oh, right, of course,’ she said. She was such an idiot. The poor guy had gone out of his way to help her and there she was expecting him to make a move. He walked backwards, his hand in the air. ‘See you around. Look after yourself.’ ‘But what about my journey home?’ she shouted. ‘How will I make it back on my own?’ ‘You’ll be fine now. You won’t have those visions anymore.’ What did he mean? How did he know she’d be OK? She watched him turn and walk back to the station, his hands buried deep in his grey tracksuit top. Then he stopped. She stepped forward, but he was just zipping up his jacket and raising the hood, his shoulders hunched against the wind. No. This was not going to happen again. Was she really going to let him walk away for the third time and keep hoping they would accidentally bump into each other? London was a big place; she wasn’t going to be that lucky again. ‘Zac!’ Her desperate cry was louder than she’d intended. He swung around, his eyes full of concern as she ran up to him. ‘Zac, sorry, I…’ She hadn’t planned on what she was going to say. Shit! She was being a bumbling fool again. ‘I…um…I wanted to say thanks again. You know, thanks.’ He nodded and tilted his head. ‘Shall we exchange numbers?’ She got her mobile phone out of her bag. ‘You know, so we can meet up some time, maybe have a drink? I was totally freaked out after seeing that…vision thing…and, well, I think I would have died if you hadn’t been there. I really need to talk about it. Please, let me make it up to you and say thanks properly.’ Zac’s face remained still as stone.

‘Don’t worry, Rivers, you’ll be fine. And you’ve already said thank you.’ ‘Well, can I have your number anyway? What’s your surname? I could look you up on Facebook? You know, keep in touch.’ ‘I don’t have a mobile, and I’m not on Facebook. It’s complicated.’ Had she upset him? Or had she read the signs wrong? It didn’t make sense. One minute he was holding her, nearly kissing her, and now he was backing off. She gave a resigned sigh. ‘I wasn’t asking for your hand in marriage, Zac. I just thought it would be nice to meet up one day. Whatever. I get the message.’ She picked at the skin around her nails and turned to go. ‘What time does your class finish?’ Her head snapped up. ‘In three hours. I have some books I need to get out of the library, but I could be quicker than that. Why?’ ‘I’ll meet you here at five o’clock,’ Zac said, nodding at the station entrance. ‘I don’t want you going through that on your own.’ ‘Really? That’s great. I mean, cool, yeah.’ Ella buttoned up her coat and shrugged her backpack on. ‘Oh and, Rivers,’ he said, laying a hand on her shoulder, ‘I genuinely don’t have a mobile phone, otherwise I would have given you my number the day we met.’ She grinned and hugged her arms around herself as she made her way to class. For more information about The Path Keeper

ABOUT THE BOOK A young man struggling to forge his own path… A priestess forced to conceive an heir… A forbidden love… Captured in a sweep of beings from Earth to aid planet Remeon’s dying society, Jack is plagued by deep ceded deception and mind control from those on the planet who seek to dictate the end of life choices of their citizens. Sides are chosen as ancient magical powers thought to be long dead align to intervene in the fate of the two young lovers forcing a chain of events in motion that cannot be undone. Truths will be destroyed. Myths will find life. Whose ultimate power will reign?

Chapter One Jack Livingston pulled his thin, baggy jacket tighter around himself as a barrier to Utah’s February chill. He shivered, the cold reaching into his bones. Although the coat was buttoned, the loose fit offered little protection from the wind. He wrapped his wool scarf around his nose, mouth and neck, secured it under his coat and set a brisk pace toward the mine. A nod sufficed as a Good morning to those who passed by as he stopped at the general store to peruse the headlines. Ever since that awful day last year when the stock market fell to pieces, he vowed to stay informed; his mother now depended on him. Jack scanned the headlines, reading quickly for the few minutes he had before the shopkeeper would find him and chase him from his store. He locked gazes with the owner and flashed a quick smile as he returned the newspaper to the rack and continued on his way. Who knew what to call it—this panic affecting everyone—almost like a sickness. People depressed and killing themselves. I’d say they were more far gone than depressed. How about the death of life as you know it or the loss of innocence maybe? Those would be more accurate descriptions. Many had it far worse than him; that’s a fact. At least he wasn’t alone. He had his mom, even if not his dad. When Jack had left home at the end of last year, he had vowed not to waste time pretending that his dad would return. Hope was silly. The past few months had taught him that, and all the horrors he had seen since that day had driven it home. Jack shook his head, releasing a frustrated sigh punctuated by his fists aching to be set free beside him. That evening in October of 1929 when his father came home from work, he pretended—no, he lied—telling them everything would stabilize and return to normal. What did he know? The next day he left early for his job at the bank and never returned. They hadn’t seen him since. Jack closed his eyes, shielding them for a few seconds from the wind. A stray tear fell down his cheek, and he brushed it away. Dead or alive, the outcome was the same. His father had been weak. He had

broken their family. Jack’s job now was to fix it. Jack loosened his scarf as he approached the mine. His walk in had warmed him if nothing else. He nodded to Gene, the general manager, as he barked orders to the men in the yard preparing to go down. Personally, Jack got along fine with the man. They had an agreement. Jack would do what Gene asked of him, and his boss would lie on the books about his age. Every miner here was eighteen or older “officially.” But all the men knew Jack was only a few weeks shy of his seventeenth birthday. Jack pushed through the doors of the mining office and headed to the back to change. The now-familiar scent of the mine assaulted his senses. The mixture of dust, dirt and gas commingled with the rotten egg smell produced a stench that never failed to make him queasy. He knew it would eventually pass. He took a deep breath as he pulled on his cotton shirt, overalls and hard hat. A wooden bin held his belongings. A change of clothes mostly. Ah, here’s where I left it. Jack pulled out the book and opened the cover as he glanced at the time clock. Damn. No time. Inside the book he flipped to the second page and reread the inscription he knew so well. Forget your stupid dream of becoming a soldier. You are destined for great things, and war isn’t one of them. Love, Sam. The corners of his mouth turned up, forming a grin. Sam, he meant well. Reluctantly he returned his copy of All Quiet on the Western Front to his bin and headed for the door, stooping by the basket on his way out for a day-old piece of bread. He chewed quickly, groaning with pleasure as the bread worked its way down his throat and into his empty stomach. Jack stowed an additional piece of bread in his pants pocket, then clocked in for the day. He meandered into the mine’s entrance. Not slow exactly, more of a pensive stride. Each day he had to prepare himself to go down into the mine’s depths. He wasn’t afraid; Jack just had to adjust his thoughts. The men below depended on him. Jack was a gopher of sorts; he was their lifeline aboveground. Three times a day he would go down to their location, determine any immediate needs, run and get those items, and return to the miners. This way the workers had ongoing communication during the day, through Jack, their intermediary. The temperature dropped noticeably as Jack traveled deeper into the recesses of the tunnel, on his way toward his transport, the cage. His thoughts lingered only a

few seconds each time he stepped into the latticework metal cage, wondering if it might be his last journey down, to be eternally entombed in the mine shaft with whoever was unlucky enough to be working below. It was the chance he and other men took daily. He couldn’t dwell on it. So he let the rampant thoughts roam only upon the initial descent into the cavity, as the rattling cage swung from side to side and the darkness swallowed him whole. Next year when he turned eighteen, this would be his life for ten to twelve hours a day. There was no choice, no other jobs; his mother needed him. Jack would die before he let her down, and each and every day he was reminded that his underlying fear was a very real possibility. Finally the cage reached its destination with a jarring thud. Jack adjusted the light on his hard hat and followed the dim trail of illumination through the mine shaft that would take him to the small group where Sam worked. First one step, then another. With each successive stride, his confidence increased. The damp was pervasive now and had permeated his system. He felt the black dust cling to his face as he made his way through the maze of tunnels, stooping through the structure when it narrowed too far to permit easy passage. When Jack heard the chisels and hammers clanging repetitively ahead, he knew he was close. Moments later Jack found his way into the niche where the men worked. He had to duck his head to fit into the space but, once inside, stood again at his full height of six foot one. First one man recognized him, then another, and finally Sam laid down his chisel, then greeted Jack with a hug, sending circles of coal dust in puffs around their faces. “Been wondering when you’d make it down. You were sleeping like a babe when I left you early this morning.” Sam laughed good-naturedly, then patted him solidly on the back, sending new wisps of dust up into the air to resettle once again on the same surface in the stale air. Jack smiled back at Sam, aware that only his teeth and eyes were visible in the darkness, just as from each man facing him. So he exaggerated the movements of both facial features, bringing laughs, then coughing, from the small work team. “And I thank you for leaving me so, old man,” Jack responded. At those words of endearment the men laughed, aware that Sam was only twelve years his senior. Although work in the mines aged a man, Sam was hardly an old man at age twenty-

nine. Marty came alongside Jack and handed him a basket full of empty canteens. Then discussion began over the supplies crucial for the next few hours of work, after which the men would resurface for their lunch break. After haggling back and forth over the additional items that would fit into the basket, Jack turned to leave. “Be back in jiffy. You won’t even miss me.” “You’re wrong there,” George piped up, a worker closer to Jack’s age at nineteen. “I’ve got a horrible thirst. Double time it, would ya?” “You got it,” Jack said, crashing into a dim low-swinging lamp in his haste to exit. He paused momentarily to right the light and gave one last glimpse of a toothy grin to the gathered men before heading back the way he came. *** The February day had warmed up nicely, unseasonably so to a balmy fifty degrees. Jack waited patiently as he read under a leafless sycamore tree with the supper pail that he and Sam shared beside him, the food within untouched. Occasionally Jack glanced up from his book in anticipation of Sam coming his way. His second descent of the day into the mine had been uneventful, completing his delivery of supplies and water to the men, along with the additional daily mundane tasks assigned to him while in the depths of the mine. The afternoon would bring more delivery trips and loading coal into shuttle cars for carting aboveground. “There you are,” Sam said, as a cloud of coal dust followed him while he situated himself on the ground beside Jack. Jack blew the dust from the page, then carefully closed the cover, protecting its pages. “Yes, I am here, patiently waiting, not eating all the food within my reach.” Jack sifted through the pail and pulled out two tin cups and filled them with water, while Sam divided the bread, honey and bits of cheese between them. Sam took a bite of bread liberally doused with honey, then licked his coalsmeared fingers, eliminating the sticky excess. “How’s that book? Still think soldiering is the life for you?” Jack readjusted his position against the tree. “Still think mining is the life for you?” “You got me there, Start-Up.”

One corner of Jack’s mouth turned up, forming a lopsided grin at the mention of the nickname given to him by Sam. He had christened Jack “Start-Up” from their first meeting when Jack had told Sam how he would clean his clothes in exchange for food. Sam had looked him up and down, and said Jack was in no condition to start up a conversation about working for Sam when Jack could barely put one foot in front of the other and was on the verge of starvation. Sam had taken him in that night, fed him, insisted on a bath, then had given him a place to sleep. And, as each successive day passed, Sam’s role as Jack’s mentor grew steadily stronger, each drawing benefit from the relationship. These days, unless one of them was in the mine, you rarely saw one without the other. “Do you ever think of going back? You know? Joining the service again?” “No, I don’t, ever. How far along are you in that book? You still sound like you’re chomping at the bit.” Jack grabbed the book and opened it to his bookmarked page. “Let’s see. I’m on…page seventy-five.” “If I remember correctly, that’s far enough. The stuff between those pages is real. I lived it.” “So you’ve said. Learning how to shoot your gun isn’t enough for me. I want the real thing. This—this is what I want,” Jack said as he slammed shut the book and shook it at his friend. “Jesus, cool it, Start-Up. No one wants war. That’s your pain talking. I’ve spoken to kids younger than you, all gung ho, then their leg or arm gets shot all to hell. Who do you think they want then? Well, I’ll tell you—their mama. So just calm down, all right? There’s no rush. Plenty of time for that later, if you choose it when you’re eighteen AND if you’ve finished that book.” “Oh, I’ll finish. Probably tomorrow or, for sure, the next day.” “Always in a hurry. Take your time. My home is your home. There’s no rush. Right?” Jack took a deep exaggerated breath, then exhaled loudly. “Right, okay.” Sam smirked. “Besides, it’s not time for you to grow up yet. Go do what other guys your age are doing. Find a girl, make out. Heck, go to second base, if she’ll let you. Be a kid for now. Just don’t get anyone pregnant.”

“Yeah, girls really go for this sooty-face look,” Jack said as he animatedly pointed at his face. “Can’t you tell? I’m fighting them off with sticks.” Sam half tackled, half grabbed him in a giant bear hug, then tousled his hair as the horn blew, signaling the lunch break was over. “Meet you here after the shift. And don’t be late, Start-Up. I’m taking you out on the town tonight. There are gals just itching to be found who will find you irresistible. Just wait and see.” “Yeah, right,” Jack said to Sam’s retreating back. “You maybe, not me.” “Oh, and the book stays home,” Sam yelled back. Sam disappeared into the mine. No maybe about it. It was a fact. Women did find Sam attractive. He was the only one in their circle of friends taller than Jack. And if it was Sam’s combination of blond hair and green eyes that made women throw themselves at him, well Jack was luck. While Sam wasn’t serious about anybody currently, when the two of them went out together, one or two women always ended up hanging all over Sam. But it was only seldom he didn’t make it home for the night. People were drawn to him. Sam’s different than most. He cares. Jack focused on work, loading coal for the duration of the afternoon. Exhausted from the day, and feeling permanently bent over, he changed out of his sooty coalcovered grime, back into his everyday grime, chugged some water, grabbed his book and headed toward the entrance. He had decided. He was beat and filthy dirty to boot. He didn’t want to go anywhere but to bed. Sam would have to go out on the town alone. Jack took a step toward the entrance, then the floor rumbled underneath him, followed by yelling, then screams that chilled Jack to the bone. Gene almost ran him over. “Get outta here, kid! The whole place might collapse. Go!” Jack turned back toward the mine, and the scene altered as if in slow motion. Sam. Jack hurtled toward the mine shaft and was instantly trampled by the deluge of injured pouring from the opening leading to the cage. Gene jerked him back and yelled through the chaos. “Stay clear, kid. You’re getting in the way. Move! Let the men through.” *** Jack paced outside the mine entrance. The flood of men had slowed. They were

coming in sets of two, individually or assisted. He scanned them, covered in filth and blood, some only recognizable by their eyes, all the while hoping to find Sam or someone from his work team so Jack could get some news. A smaller secondary explosion jarred Jack from his stunned state, and, armed with the only aid he had, water, he moved toward the growing mass of men. The stench increased as he neared the group. He recognized the gas smell. It was part of working in a mine, but he had never been around it with this degree of concentration. His throat constricted, and he coughed. They must be covered in it. Jack paused, grabbed his bandanna from around his neck and pulled it over his nose and mouth, and tightened the knot. The gas still permeated his senses. He gagged and fought to control the unrest in the pit of his stomach as others vomited around him. Jack made his way through the small gathering of miners. He overheard Gene say thirty-five miners had been below when the explosion occurred. Jack kept a mental tally as he moved among the men, offering water and inquiring about Sam. “Jack? Is that you?” Jack turned his head to the familiar voice, then breathed a sigh of relief. “Marty, are you all right? You look okay,” Jack said as he patted his friend’s arm and briefly checked him over. “Just a few cuts, burns. I’ll be fine. But, Jack, it’s bad.” Jack’s gaze shifted uneasily toward Marty’s face. “Marty, where’s Sam? I can’t find him.” Marty looked down at his sooty bloodstained hands and wrung them together. “Well…” he stammered. “He’s…still below.” Jack’s eyes bulged, and he pulled Marty closer by the collar. “What? And you left him?” “Jack,” he started, his voice almost a whisper. “He’s trapped. We couldn’t reach him.” “Oh, God.” Jack slid to ground. “He’s still down there…” Marty met his gaze and nodded slowly. “Six of them are.” Jack scrambled unsteadily to his feet, then felt a strong hand jerk him swiftly back to the ground.

“You can’t,” Marty said. “Sure I can. My family…is down there,” he said as he choked back a sob. “A search-and-rescue team is already below. Besides, Sam said to keep you safe, aboveground.” Jack gasped. “You talked to him? After?” “Yeah.” Marty cleared his throat. “We were separated. The rest of our group, except me and George here, went aboveground after the explosion. I had to help him, so I volunteered to stay and wait.” Jack scrunched his brows together. “Wait for what?” “For these,” he said, reaching inside his jacket. Marty pulled free several crumpled pieces of paper. Scribbled bits of writing showed through the sootcovered notes. “You’ll have to look through them. I don’t know which is his. Not sure you’ll even be able to decipher the handwriting.” Jack automatically clutched his own chest, where, had he been wearing his mining attire, individual pieces of paper and a pencil stub resided, just in case of an emergency, if a quick note was ever necessary. Jack felt a tear escape and fall down his cheek as he accepted the last written words of his friends. “I’ll hang on to them for now,” he said, his voice hoarse, and shoved them into his pocket. “Why weren’t you two with the group? And you said George was with you. Where is he?” “Yes. That’s right. We were working in the tunnel beside the main anteroom when the explosion happened.” Marty shrugged, then tears fell down his face, leaving a grimy trail among the soot and ash. “I guess you’d call George and me the lucky ones.” “Where is George?” Jack repeated, looking into the faces of the men beside him. “He’s right here behind me. He’s injured. Not too bad I don’t think. But he wanted to lie down.” Jack thought back on Sam’s words. With George’s parents dead years ago in a fire, Sam had said Marty looked after George like he was his own son. Ever since he turned eighteen and began working at the mine, Marty had been there for him. He had trained George—looked out for him; they never strayed too far from one another.

Jack pushed through the men crouched behind Marty. The injuries he witnessed spanned the gamut from superficial to life threatening. Moaning and crying replaced words as there were none appropriate for the horrors they were experiencing. Jack tapped Marty on the shoulder. “Come with me.” Jack helped Marty to stand, and they navigated the few feet between the men until they came to George. Jack squatted by his head. “Marty, you need to see.” Marty gasped. “No—it can’t be. He talked to me on the way up—said he was fine.” Jack took one more glimpse at the lifeless eyes still gazing at the sky, then slowly closed them. Marty bent over the body and took it in his arms and swayed back and forth, humming under his breath to a tune Jack didn’t recognize. “Can I have your attention?” Marty and Jack glanced up toward Gene addressing the growing crowd of miners and now their families as word had quickly spread. “If any wounded are in need of care or assistance getting to the hospital, raise your hand, and someone will come and help you. Alternatively a makeshift morgue is off to the far right in the field. If you are looking for a loved one, please come see me as I have a list of the confirmed dead, missing, those who are still trapped below and those known to be alive.” He paused as he appeared to struggle with his next words. “We are praying for all. God rest their souls.” Afterward Gene made his way through the crowd with an unfamiliar man at his side, clipboard at the ready, writing as Gene gave him instructions. The sun hung low in the sky. How long have we been here, waiting? Jack moved to intercept Gene. “Any news on the six men trapped?” Gene cleared his throat. “No, sorry, son. Not yet. We are switching out the rescue teams and sending another group down. The explosions have weakened the surrounding structure. We’re hoping to make it to the men before another collapse. If that happens, well, we may have to pull out altogether.” “What? And then? What about the men?” “Now, son, I know this is difficult to hear. But those men are likely dead already.

To send more men to their deaths to search for those that the firedamp has already killed, well, that’s not reasonable.” “Send me down. I’m off the books. I got nobody looking for me. Let me go.” Gene met his gaze and spoke softly. “No, son. I can’t do that. Take Marty and go to that wagon over there. See it? You both should get checked out at the hospital.” Gene pointed to Marty. “He needs you now. See if you can get him to go with you.” “I’ll take him. Then I’m coming back for word on Sam.” “Suit yourself. But we may never recover his body, son. I know it’s hard, but you need to face the truth.” “The truth? Don’t you think you need to find out the truth? This—it shouldn’t have happened,” Jack said, pointing to the destruction surrounding them. “All this blood and death, it’s on your hands. And stop talking like Sam’s already dead. You don’t know shit!” The clipboard man opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again like a fish out of water. “Let him be,” Gene said. “Let him be.” Jack leaned down to grab Marty’s attention. “Marty, let’s get you to the hospital. Someone should look you over.” Marty nodded his head silently as he sat with George, one of his limp hands covered by both of Marty’s. “Can you take him? Over there?” he asked, pointing to the area where the dead lay. “I don’t want some stranger to throw George out like he’s trash.” Jack patted Marty’s back as fresh sobs convulsed his body. “You go on to the hospital. I’ll take care of George and meet you later.” Marty’s shoulders slumped in resignation as he turned toward the direction of those gathering for the trip to the hospital. “Thank you, son. Sam would be proud of you.” Jack pulled George’s limp body over his shoulder and plodded slowly along in the direction of the makeshift morgue. As he got closer, the stench of death and gas fumes mixed with coal dust overcame him. He slowed and yanked the bandanna back over his mouth and nose. He knew he had to continue. He had to know

without a doubt that Sam wasn’t among the confirmed dead. It was difficult to see, even with the fires that now illuminated the perimeter defining the morgue. Shadows danced among the flames, giving the bodies the cruel illusion of movement in death that they used to have so freely in life. As visions of ghosts formed like echoes of the soul through the fire and ash, Jack shuddered. Then overcome with the stench and his grief, he fell to his knees and vomited. He rose to a shaky stand, then, covered in his dead friend’s blood, sweat and his own tears, he set to the grim task of ensuring that the one man he loved in the world was not among the dead. *** It was late into the night when Jack found his way back toward the gathering at the mouth of the mine. Some slept while others waited anxiously for word of the trapped miners. Jack searched those remaining for Gene, hoping for an update. “Jesus, kid, you look like shit. Go take the wagon to the hospital,” Gene said, pointing off in the distance. “There’s nothing you can do here.” “Any word on the trapped miners?” Gene shook his head. “They’re dead, Jack. No way they survived this long. The gas would have killed them by now, even if they didn’t have an injury from the collapse.” Jack yanked Gene by his jacket and threw him against the nearest tree. “There’s no body,” Jack hissed. “I just spent the last hour sifting through blood and guts, and he’s not there. So, until you find him, I’d really appreciate it if you’d not call my best friend dead.” “Let me go, Jack,” Gene said as he grabbed the hand that held him immobile against the tree. “This isn’t helping anyone. I’m not the enemy.” “No? Well, right now you’re close enough,” Jack said, loosening his grip. Gene pulled free. “Go and check up on your friends at the hospital. As I said before, there’s nothing more for you here.” Jack took a half step back and stood erect, hovering over Gene at his full sixfoot-plus height. Jack had been hunched over, bent or stooping for the past several hours. Every muscle in his body hurt. He was just too scared to notice.

Their gazes met. “I think you’re right. I’m done here,” Jack said. And silently he turned and walked toward the waiting wagon. The farther Jack walked from the scene behind him, the better he felt. He breathed deeply, and, for the first time in hours, his lungs filled with fresh air instead of soot, ashes and the remnants of death. He came to a standstill several feet from the wagon, closed his eyes and let the February wind wash over him. He breathed in, held it, exhaled, then repeated. That’s it, Start-Up. You can do it. “What?” Jack’s eyes startled opened. “I said, are you getting on?” Jack glanced at the driver. “Last trip in tonight most likely. You don’t look so good. Need help?” “Nah. I’m fine. Just give me a minute to climb in.” The passengers swayed back and forth, and Jack along with them. Between the motion of the wagon and Jack’s exhaustion, he fell asleep within minutes. Even through the bumpy ride, Jack slept, his dreams haunting him, continuing the horror from the day into his nightmares as his psyche struggled for peace and closure. Suddenly the motion stopped, and Jack’s eyes shot open. He recognized the horde of people filling the hospital. Fear was evident on their faces; he heard the desperation come through in the tone of their voices. There was still a chance. There had to be. Maybe, just maybe, Marty was wrong—he had somehow missed Sam in the confusion, and Sam got out. If so, he might be unconscious at the hospital. Jack had to find out for himself. Jack surveyed the waiting room. He yanked at his filthy shirt, pulling it loose and giving him more room to move and breathe, then maneuvered through the pockets of people, eventually making it to the nurse passing the unmanned checkin desk. “Hello, could you…” The nurse continued walking along with not so much as a “Get lost.” “Excuse me…” Same thing. Jack threw up his arms in frustration.

The next hospital worker who passed him, Jack grabbed by the arm. “Stop. You need to listen to me. I need help.” The man pulled away and turned breathlessly toward Jack, scanning him from head to toe. “Are you hurt?” “No, but I need information on my friend. He might be here.” The hospital worker shook his head while continuing his forward motion. “If you’re not family, I can’t give you many details. And we’re in the middle of a crisis. You’ll need to wait with the others,” he said, pointing to the packed waiting area. “Wait,” Jack said as he watched the retreating back continue down the hall. “His name is Sam. And he’s the most important person in the world to me,” Jack finished, his voice now only a whisper. A tremor began in his legs, and, as he watched, the shaking continued as if his body parts were not his own. He eyed the bench a few steps away and clumsily walked several steps before plopping hard next to a sleeping old man with a child in his lap. Jack wriggled from his jacket and threw it over his knees, hiding the strange wobbling that he couldn’t control. His coat started to slide, and he caught it, snatching it before it hit the ground. Crumpled bits of paper fell from the inside pocket, swaying softly through the air until they landed just out of his grasp. The notes—he had completely forgotten. How could he? Jack retrieved the stray paper pieces, scrunching them between his fingers before settling back into his tiny allotted space. He flipped through them, looking for the distinctive script that he knew to be Sam’s. At the third note he froze. It was written to him. It was confirmed. Sam was trapped and probably dead. Jack forced his gaze to focus on the words written before him, but his eyes brimmed with tears, clouding his vision. Jack, if I don’t get out, go. We had plans—keep them. Send Mom wages. Take what need. Go. Love. Jack read through the cryptic message again and again, imagining the different possible meanings of the one-syllable words. One part was clear. Sam wanted Jack to leave. How could he? Sam was here. Jack read the note once more, then shoved it in his pocket. The remaining notes were still clutched in his other hand. A familiar voice rang out from across the room. Jack singled out the supervisor, then

willing his frame forward, he stood once again face-to-face with Gene. “You don’t look so good,” Gene said, giving him a cursory glance, still fully concentrating on the clipboard in front of him. His voice quivered. “Well, that fits. Take these. Find the family members and get these notes to them.” “Sure, Jack,” he said, flattening out the pieces of paper and clipping them to the board in front of him. “Go get some rest.” Jack nodded. Then something within him snapped; he turned back toward the bench, paused and swung his head around to square off in front of Gene again, only inches from his face. “Rest? Do you think I can sleep? These pictures pop into my head every time I close my eyes, of my friends struggling to breathe, crushed and suffocating. All because of YOU.” “Now, Jack, have a seat. You’re exhausted and hungry. We can fix that.” “Fix it?” Jack shook his head. “I don’t think so.” Jack heard a loud beating sound, then looked through the gathering crowd, attempting to find its source. People mouthed animatedly at him, but Jack heard no voice, just a thumpy kerthump, thump, thump that raced forward, sounding like rapidly beating drums. Seconds later Jack unleashed the first blow. Through the steady din he heard the crunch of bone shattering. Even as his fist burned in pain, he punched with his alternate fist, landing a hit square on Gene’s left eye. It felt good. Energized, Jack unloaded three more punches in succession as a spray of blood hit his cheek. Stunned, he stopped. Three men pulled him back, jarring him once again to conscious thought. Jack glanced at Gene moaning on the ground, his face covered in blood and then back to the men who restrained him. His own hands reached up to his chest where his heart raced, threatening to burst. “I have to go,” Jack mumbled. A familiar voice rang out. “Go where, son?” “Anywhere else.” Jack struggled free and staggered momentarily, swaying as he attempted focused movements, heading for the main entrance and freedom from the cloud of pain that hovered in the waiting area. Blood trickled down the side of

his face, or was it tears? He wiped at the wetness, clearing his eyes and his way forward. “Wait.” The tone of the voice made him look backward. Jack’s breath came in deep heaving gulps. He licked his cracked lips and panted to catch his breath. Marty reached him first. “I’m here, son.” Jack grabbed Marty’s shoulders and leaned heavily on him for support. Finally catching up to him, a hospital staff member administered a sedative. Jack slid to the floor. His eyelids fluttered as Marty held his hand. “It’s gonna be okay. We’ll all be all right. Time will heal you and me. It’ll heal all of us.” Jack chuckled and attempted to speak through the mental fog of his brain. “We… we… were leaving, to make our fortune. Sam and me. Now… never… be.” “Rest. I’ll be here when you wake.” Jack opened his mouth to speak, but a deep guttural wail poured from him instead. Strong arms wrapped around him, and finally he fell silent in a restless, tormented sleep. *** The doorknob Jack held grew warm as he stood in front of the apartment door that he and Sam had shared. It had been two days since the disaster; Jack had been out of it for those two days, sedated at the hospital. He didn’t remember much after reading the words that Sam wrote. It seemed like a nightmare then. Now coming face-to-face with the reality of life without him, it felt very much like when he lost his father. Pain. Abandonment. Although the situations weren’t exactly the same—his father had made a choice. But Sam’s love was real. Though he appeared carefree to those around him, Sam had nurtured Jack in many tangible ways. Involved as he was in Jack’s everyday life, Sam knew him and cared for him when he came to town in a most unlovable state. He had clothed him, fed him, gave him a place to stay and a job. And, most important, he gave him hope for the future—their plans—so many plans. Now with that hope shattered, Jack languished. Tears fell down his cheek; he remained stuck in place, his hand still perched on the doorknob. He would try what he did

when he lost his father: push aside the hurt. It could be dealt with later. Well, this isn’t gonna get any easier. Jack twisted the knob and crossed the threshold. Instantly, alternating feelings of comfort and loss assaulted his senses. Clothes were strewn on the bed and floor. Dirty dishes littered the sink. Books and magazines, waiting to be read, were stacked beside the bed. Jack plopped down, and the bed squeaked under his weight. Any minute Sam will walk through the door… any minute. Jack lost track of time, drifting in and out of sleep. It’s time. Wake up, Start-Up. Get moving. “What?” Jack jolted awake and scanned the room. He had heard Sam. Must have been a dream. He released his breath he wasn’t aware he’d been holding, then slumped against the bed, loosening a piece of paper that fell from his pocket. He unfolded the paper which held Sam’s words and read them again. Jack, if I don’t get out, go. We had plans—keep them. Send Mom wages. Take what need. Go. Love. We had plans—keep them. Take what need. Sam wanted Jack to leave the mine. Go. Love. At first he thought the last word was meant to be Love, Sam. After rereading the note multiple times, Jack believed the last two words to be commands, calls to action. He didn’t want me to crawl in a corner and wither away. Maneuvering to the end of the bed, Jack set his gaze on the footlocker. He swung his legs over the foot of the bed, then sat down in front of the massive trunk. The hinges came loose with two clicks, and, within seconds, Jack had delved into the minutia of Sam’s life. They had spent hours right here. Sam had recounted his experiences as a soldier, unwittingly encouraging Jack’s budding desire to enlist. Now Jack wasn’t sure what the future held for him, but he was going to decide while surrounded by Sam’s influences. Jack grinned despite himself at the first items he came to. Pin-up pictures. He had seen all these before. He unfolded one. She is pretty unusual…but for another day. Jack folded the picture and pushed a small stack of them to one side and dug deeper. Newspaper clippings littered the small space, mostly old accounts of the war. He had read them, and a few he wanted to keep. Placing a small selection on the floor next to him, he continued his

search. Being here among his things, Jack felt encouraged. He knew now, unlike when he started, he was choosing the items that he would remember Sam by in the future. Jack reached next for the aluminum tags that Sam had worn in the war. The set of two had been stamped with name, rank, serial number, unit and religion. Its bumpy metal exterior felt cool to the touch. Jack clutched them tightly in his fist. They had debated long hours on many subjects, one of them being religion. Jack was raised Presbyterian. Sam, Baptist, although he hadn’t been deeply religious before his tour in WWI. But after the horrors he had witnessed, then coming out alive, Sam had sworn it could only have been the work of a holy God who brought him through it all in one piece. The aluminum discs and the attached cord were added to Jack’s collection. As he continued to rummage through the items, he finally found what he was looking for: word of a new construction project along the Colorado River. He and Sam had planned to go sometime this year. These are the plans Sam wrote of in his note. Jack would head there now. Thousands would be needed for this project in the Black Canyon area. With a little luck, hiring would already be underway, and he’d have a new job easily. Besides, it would take a while to get there and to find the funds. He would need to take a train. Jack combed the article for more details. From what they had read earlier, the construction project had been mired in a bunch of legal mess. Sam had told Jack about a month ago that the issues had been mostly settled. I hope so. My mind’s made up. Aware from their past conversations that this was a way to deter Jack from enlisting, he had played along initially. Now, with this awful turn of events, it seemed more like fate, like it was meant to be. And, though it seemed a little odd, even to Jack, it felt like Sam was with him, continuing on with the plans they had made. Digging down even farther into the chest, Jack grabbed a sweater and a thermal shirt, as well as two T-shirts, all in better shape than his own clothing. He filled his travel bag with three changes of clothes, work overalls, Sam’s clothing, a few personal items and the keepsakes from the footlocker. Next he added two books, the gift from Sam, All Quiet on the Western Front,

and his Bible, given to him by his mother. Finally, he would add Sam’s heavier jacket which was better suited for winter weather than his lighter hand-me-down coat. That, with his wool scarf and boots, should be all Jack would need. Sam’s aluminum tags went around his neck. He opened the worn cover of his mother’s Bible and read the words again that she had written when he had left home many months ago. You’ll never be truly lost if you seek direction from between these pages. Love, Mother. Jack scoffed. Maybe that’s my problem. Behind on my Bible reading. He would forgo his other book tonight and read from the Good Book. Hell, it couldn’t hurt. While thinking of his mother, he pulled out pen and paper and inked a note. He should let her know of these life changes, plus send whatever money he could. Trains were expensive; he preferred even travel by horse. This, however, was a necessity. He needed work soon. A train was the most efficient way to get to Nevada. The funds to his mother would be less train fare and travel money. Mother, I trust all is well at home. You might have heard of the mine disaster in Utah by now. Know I’m safe but have decided to leave in search of work elsewhere. There’s no future for me here. So I’m headed toward Nevada in search of work where a huge new dam will be built. You might have read about it. You’ll hear from me soon. I’ve enclosed my final pay from the mine. All my love, Jack. Sam’s funeral was tomorrow, but there was no body. Jack wouldn’t go. He couldn’t go. He wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Sam was still with him—he could feel him. Jack would honor Sam’s impact on his life in another way, by starting a new phase of his life. A decisive calmness came over Jack as his focus returned that had been lost since the disaster. Actually he felt more settled than he had in weeks. Jack prepared a light dinner of eggs, bread and milk, then retrieved the Bible and perused through its marked pages, ultimately deciding on the gospel of Matthew. It had been a long while. He read deep into the night, eventually falling into a sound sleep, the Bible strewn open on his chest. And this particular night, his demons didn’t haunt him as he rested. Jack woke refreshed and even more determined than yesterday of his course of action. His appetite returned, and, with what was left in the cupboard, he put

together a large breakfast, complete with the last of the coffee. Jack couldn’t put his finger on what else had changed. Then, as he stared at the small space he and Sam had shared, bits and pieces of their time together flashed in his mind. They were good times, special and unique. He blinked, and a glimpse into the future flashed into the forefront of his mind. Then he knew what was different. Hope. He had found a glimmer of hope in his future again. Whatever that future held, he was ready. He grabbed Sam’s coat, his pistol and holster from the nightstand, threw his scarf around his neck and mouth in preparation for the February cold, then picked up his bag. With a final glance, he nodded and left the apartment. Even the monotonous trip to the mine seemed shorter since it was his last trip inside. The mine had not reopened yet. They still had not recovered the bodies. It was unfathomable to believe that this would be Sam’s final resting place. So Jack dismissed that possibility. Already there had been many other funerals. Jack had attended none of them. But he planned to witness the gathering that would take place outside the mine at sunset. The group memorial today for the six unrecovered miners would include no bodies or caskets, just a service for these men who had died during the course of their jobs. Jack entered the main entrance, then veered into the office where he knew Gene would be, preparing for the gathering later. “Gene.” “Oh, surprised to see you, Jack.” Gene grimaced as he spoke. “It’s early yet. Maybe you’d like to throw one more punch before the service, huh?” So the bruises and cuts on his face still bothered him a bit. Good. “I guess you’ll not forgive a man overcome by grief then?” Gene cleared his throat. “Well, that depends. I didn’t hear an apology.” Jack slammed his fist on the desk. “And you’ll get none from me. You’re responsible for the operation of this mine. You’re to blame.” “I, I just do what I’m told,” Gene stuttered. “Clearly. It’s no matter now anyhow. I’m leaving. I’m here for my pay and Sam’s to send to his mother.” “That’s your emotions talking. Are you sure you want to give up your job? Give

it a few more days. Mull it over.” Jack raised his eyebrows in response and glared into Gene’s eyes. “Completely sure.” Gene shifted uneasily under the intensity of Jack’s gaze. “Well then, let me count it out, and you can be on your way.” “And Sam’s. And the way I understand it, there’s some sort of death benefit to be sent to next of kin, his mother in this case. I’ll send that too.” Gene nodded his head. “Indeed there is. It is prepared in the back. I’ll be just a few minutes.” True to his word Gene returned moments later with two envelopes, one marked for Jack and one for Sam. “How much is the death benefit?” Gene responded without looking up, “A week’s pay, $30.00.” Jack scoffed. “Mighty generous of you.” “And for you there is one week’s additional pay due to the temporary closure of the mine.” “Well, that will help some at least.” Jack opened the envelope and counted the contents. “It’s all there,” Gene assured him. “You wouldn’t want to short-change a grieving mother, would you?” Gene sighed deeply. “No. And I have not.” Jack nodded in agreement. “Looks like you haven’t.” Jack pocketed the envelopes. “I’ll be posting the letter to Sam’s mom today on my way out of town.” Jack headed for the door, then turned to face Gene. “For the record, I hope I never see you again. You and those like you have the blood of these men on your hands.” Jack left without waiting for an answer. The dumbfounded look on Gene’s face said all he needed to hear. Jack got a table at the diner in town—an unusual splurge for sure. He absentmindedly patted his inside pocket which held his train ticket for first light tomorrow. Earlier he had posted his two letters, one to his mother, the second to Sam’s. It felt like a small weight had been lifted with those two deeds done. He ate his fill, then sat back and nursed his second cup of coffee for the day. Relaxing, he

stretched his legs and picked up a discarded newspaper and caught up on the local happenings. He kept his eye to the sky, judging from the sun’s height when sunset would occur to mark the service for the miners, which would be just before dusk. An hour later, Jack headed back to the mine, made his way up the hill to the sycamore tree where he and Sam met for lunch and started a fire. Down below, a circle of family and friends gathered around their own fires. Jack could hear the words of the pastor, which gave him little comfort. He pulled a cigarette from his pocket, one of the personal items of Sam’s he chose to take from the locker, leaned in to the nearest flame and drew deeply, inhaling, pausing, then exhaling, letting the words he heard leave him with the discarded smoke. He didn’t smoke often; it was dangerous down below in the mine. But now it seemed fitting, to complete his homage to Sam. The sun set, its golden fluorescence falling behind the same tree where Jack’s head rested. He glanced wistfully toward the gathering crowd. He fought the urge to walk down and speak to them. A clean break would be better. Jack stood for the final prayer, then raised his head and added a line of own—more to Sam than God. If there is a God, I hope you and he are talking. Maybe you could let him know what a mess it is down here? Then Jack stomped out the fire, took one last draw of his cigarette and headed for the train station, crushing the discarded cigarette butt under his boot. *** The sun had set over the empty train station by the time Jack arrived. He pulled Sam’s coat tighter around his middle in an attempt to create additional warmth. Wind rushed through the small waiting area, sending a chill through him that started at his neck and traveled the length of his spine. It would be a long evening. The plan to wait here overnight had seemed good at the time. Maybe one more night at the apartment would be a better decision? Jack glanced in the direction of the apartment he had shared with Sam, judging the distance and calculating the time. No—he quickly discarded that option. He didn’t want to take any chance of missing his train. Sam had woken him every day they were together. His face flushed. God, just like my mother. It was a glaring fault of his, so better not take the

chance. Jack opened his bag and rooted through the carefully packed items for his winter cap. Before leaving the mine this morning he’d checked his bin for anything valuable and had grabbed the winter cap and shoved it in his pocket, just in case. He yanked it out now and pulled it down over his ears. Next he grabbed a sweater. Wrenching free from his coat, he added the new layer, grateful for the added warmth, then buttoned the jacket closed again, adjusting his coat so that no skin was bare to the wind. Still he felt a cold inside that caused him to shiver and shake. Discarded newspapers danced by in the wind, imitating life in the repeated rush through the air, the subtle drift to the ground; then, with the next gust, the movement repeated. He chased these down, and, as he caught each one, he shoved them under his coat, creating a further barrier to the cold. The quick movement also warmed him and got his blood flowing. Jack saved two pieces to sit on. The biting cold seeped through any surface eventually, including the wooden bench where he would spend the night. The newspaper underneath him would make this a little more bearable. He moved awkwardly with paper shoved in every crevice. It crinkled noisily with each step. Jack didn’t care as every little bit helped. This way, camping out here in the cold, at least he wouldn’t miss his train. He wasn’t sure, but it must have been each hour he got up to warm himself. Two of these times he moved between the buildings and relieved himself, frustrated with the prolonged undoing and redoing involved in the process. The stars shone in the early morning sky, giving Jack more light than needed to button and wrap his garments around him again. Judging by the sky, sunrise was only a couple hours away. At least I can sleep on the train. He stretched his aching muscles, then lay down on the bench, tucked his knees under the coat and burrowed his face between the folds of the jacket. This blocked a majority of the wind, and, as sunrise got closer, Jack dosed contentedly, one hand clasped around the aluminum tags he wore, dreaming of happier times with Sam. The blaring train whistle woke Jack abruptly, and he sat with a start. The

morning sun stung his eyes as he adjusted to the cool brightness of the day. Passengers departed, staring as they passed him, his bits of newsprint peeking through neck openings and coat hem alike. He stood and pulled these free, laying the trash on the bench where he spent the night. His stomach rumbled, reminding him how he hadn’t eaten since before the service yesterday. Jack nodded an acknowledgment to travelers in his midst, ignoring the remaining glares, and headed back to the diner. Time was short. He couldn’t miss his train. There would be an abbreviated delay for passengers to depart, unload luggage and reload luggage for those boarding. He had to be in and out quickly. Jack ordered eggs over easy, toast and coffee. He breathed in the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and groaned softly in pleasure. His senses sparked awake, and, while he shoveled the eggs in his mouth, refills of coffee warmed him completely through. With a little sleep he now felt more human and able to face the oncoming travel. Jack upturned the cup and finished the last drops, then paid the bill and headed toward the waiting train. With the boarding process underway, Jack exhaled deeply, releasing the pent-up breath he’d been holding while in the queue to climb on the train. Finally the recent devastating events could be memories in his past, where they belonged, instead of constantly barraging his conscious thoughts. Jack hoped his new life would come with a clean slate as well. He chose a window seat, stowed his bag and prepared for a few more hours of shut-eye in his more comfortable location. The sun felt deceptively warm through the window. Jack closed his eyes, leaned his head against the glass and soaked in the rays as they permeated through to his bones, warming parts of his body still chilled from the cold night spent outside. He had drifted to sleep when a nagging tug woke him. “Yeah?” “I said, may I join you? A family has asked to take my seat. There aren’t many left. Seems to be filling quickly.” Already disoriented, Jack nodded. “Suit yourself. Just be quiet, will ya?” “Uh, sure. My name’s Harry.” Harry reached out his hand.

Jack closed his eyes and returned to his prior position. *** “Pleased to meet you too,” Harry muttered. He stowed his travel bag and sat down with a heavy thud next to Jack. Soon the hustle and bustle of the boarding process diminished. Passengers found their seats, and the train horn blared obnoxiously. “All aboard,” the attendant yelled as he leaped inside. The train emitted a loud hiss as the steam released and the wheels began their forward motion. The train cars lurched and jerked while the locomotive gained speed. Harry turned to his left to see if his traveling companion woke from the noise. Whoever he was, he could sleep through anything. Soft snores, punctuated here and there by louder snorts, let Harry know the young man was indeed still asleep. The sun was well past its zenith when Harry’s companion stirred again. *** Jack blinked. The cool chill from the window against his cheek flowed through his body in an involuntary shiver. He slid his head to the chair back and blinked several more times as he tried to get his bearings. Jack turned to his neighbor in a silent question, then bent his head and glanced out the window toward the sun low in the sky. “Yep. You missed lunch.” Jack resettled in his seat. “Figures.” Harry reached his hand below the seat into his bag and pulled out a cloth napkin. “You looked dead to the world, so I brought back a sandwich from the dining car before lunch service ended.” Jack’s mouth watered as Harry pulled back the napkin. “You did?” Jack licked his lips, and his stomach gurgled. “Here. Take it before you start frothing at the mouth.” The sandwich barely exchanged hands before Jack lunged forward, taking a huge bite. “Jesus, are you starving or something?” Jack paused his assault on the sandwich midgulp. “Mind your own business.” “Sure. You’re welcome.”

Minutes passed, then an hour. Jack opened his bag, grabbed his book and laid it in his lap. “Hey, about before. It’s been a rough few days, but that’s no excuse for being an ass. I’m not really thinking straight. So, I’m sorry.” Harry cleared his throat and nodded. “Let me know if I can help. I’ve been on my own for two years now. I don’t have much, but I’m a good listener, so I’ve been told.” “Humph.” “What book are you reading?” Jack flipped the book on his lap so the title showed. “Ah.” Harry dug in his bag and thrust another book in front of Jack. A flash of a smile crossed his lips. “Farewell to Arms. Looks like we have similar interests. I’ve heard of it. Actually, I’d like to read it, when I’m done with this one.” “Maybe we can switch. After all, we’re stuck on this train for a few days.” “Sure thing.” Jack flipped through his remaining pages. “I’ve only got about fifty pages left.” “Are you planning to enlist? You don’t look old enough.” Jack rolled his eyes. “Thanks for the news flash. I’m seventeen. So, almost. You?” “I was thinking about it. But, while I can, I want to travel, but first I need money. I’m headed to Las Vegas in search of work.” “Me too—the Black Canyon area. I hear hiring will begin soon for a huge dam. I wanna be one of the first they hire—me and Sam did, that is.” “Sam?” Jack’s brows furrowed in deep concentration. He began tentatively. “Sam was a very good friend. Kinda like an older brother.” He paused. “Maybe more like a father… I’m not quite sure what I’d call him now.” Jack shook his head and fought the rising tide of tears that threatened to spill free at any moment. “But he was everything to me.” Harry laid a solid hand on Jack’s shoulder. “Jeez. I’m sorry, man. That’s rough.” Jack nodded. A stray tear fell down his cheek. “Tell me about him. I mean, if you want to.” Jack wiped his face with his sleeve and took a deep breath. “You want to know about Sam?”

“Sure. If you want to tell me, I’m all ears.” The corners of Jack’s mouth rose slightly in a half-hearted smile. “Okay, I’d like to.” Harry adjusted in his seat and leaned in toward Jack. “Shoot.” The two discussed animatedly for hours, undisturbed by the clickety-clack motion of the train or the other passengers. Locked in conversation, neither paid attention when a man patiently stood beside their seats. The attendant cleared his throat. “Excuse me. The dining car will close to dinner service in fifteen minutes.” Jack looked up. “Food? We’ll be right there.” Jack’s mouth hung open as he entered the dining car. Pristine tablecloths covered the table. Napkins wrapped in ornate shapes adorned each place setting. Jack followed Harry’s lead as they were escorted to a table for two. “Will this do?” the waiter asked. Harry nodded his head. “Yes, quite nicely as a matter-of-fact.” Jack smiled nervously to the waiter as he took his seat, then whispered to Harry, “This is extra. Take a look at the prices.” “Yeah, it is. I got you covered, if you need it though.” Jack scooted back in his chair, almost sending a china plate to the floor while accidentally yanking on the tablecloth. “I was planning to eat at one of the depot stops along the way. At the train station, the attendant told me it was the cheapest way.” “True, but this food is much better. Take a look around. This is good stuff.” Jack hung his head. “Listen. We have several more days of travel. Let’s see how it goes. I’ll spot you the cash. We’ll both have jobs soon. Pay what you can. I can help on the rest.” Jack’s gaze followed a sizzling steak dinner, the plate piled high with mashed potatoes and green beans. His mouth watered as the waiter set the plate down on an adjacent table. “You’ve got a deal. Thanks.” Jack ordered the chicken, and Harry ordered the steak. A half hour later they eagerly dug into their dinners. “So tell me. Are you done with mining for good?”

Jack scrunched his forehead and paused the methodical emptying of his plate midbite. “What kind of stupid question is that? Of course I’m not going back.” “Sorry, that sounded quite daft, I’m sure. I only meant, are you committed to seeing this new project through in Vegas? They’ll likely give us a sign-on bonus if we commit for the full estimated term—at least that’s what I’m hoping.” Jack nodded. “Oh. Well, if it will get me more cash, I’ll agree to it. I hear it’s dangerous, but I don’t care. I almost died a few weeks ago. I figure fate owes me one. I’ll be fine.” Harry flashed a tooth-baring grin as his gaze met Jack’s. “Jack, you and me, we’re going to do great things together. I can feel it.” “Uh-huh. We’ll see,” Jack said somewhat less enthusiastically. *** “Hey, wake up. After almost four days, and many stops, we’re just about there.” Harry elbowed Jack a little harder. “Jack.” Jack adjusted in his sleep, releasing his book he’d been holding, sending it crashing to the floor, startling him awake. “What?” “I said, we’re almost to Las Vegas. Look,” Harry said, gesturing with his hand toward the window. Jack rubbed his eyes, then stretched and groaned. “I’ll be glad to be outta this seat and off the train. The novelty’s worn off.” Harry grabbed the book from the floor and turned it over. “Did you finish this last night? Finally?” “Yeah, I did.” Jack glared at Harry and grabbed the book from his hands. Jack’s fingers slid down the front cover. He opened it solemnly and reread the note Sam had written in the back of the book. He already knew it by heart. War isn’t the answer, Start-Up. Especially for the men who are the cogs trapped in its death machine. Always protect you and yours, but your destiny lies elsewhere. Be in the world. Go find it. Love, Sam. Jack’s hand grasped the dog tags hidden underneath his clothing. He spoke softly. “It wasn’t the ending I was expecting, Sam. I really thought he’d make it.” “Huh? What’d you say? You look like you’re miles away.” Jack blinked. “Yeah, I guess I am. Are you ready to switch books?”

“Sure, I’ve been ready.” Harry reached for the book. A rising panic clutched at Jack’s heart. He yanked the book back possessively. “On second thought, let’s wait till we’re settled somewhere. Who knows where we’ll end up.” Harry raised both hands in the air. “Whatever you say, man.” Jack turned his attention toward the window and the scene passing by. He shed his jacket that he’d slept in during the night, allowing the sun to create a thawing effect that warmed him from the inside out. He closed his eyes as he felt the sun’s rays on his face. This should have been you and me, Sam. It was our plan to go and find it together. Now I’m lost. Jack opened his eyes and scrutinized the distant mountains. I guess this is my new temporary home. Jack bowed his head. May it be a better outcome than the last one, Lord. That’s all I ask. The attendant’s voice brought Jack back to the present. The train station loomed ahead. “I’m starving. You up for some food in town?” Harry asked. Jack’s forehead creased as he paused in loading his items into his travel bag. Once his book was safely stowed, he shrugged. “Sure. Let’s eat.” As they filed down the row of the train car, Jack dug in his pocket and counted out twenty-five cents for a tip. It had been a unique experience. He stepped down from the platform after tipping the attendant and smiled at the passersby. The town bustled before him. The horn blared. Steam hissed from the engines. The town was alive with activity. It was a fresh start. Harry called from the distance. “Hey, pick up the pace. I found a diner.” Jack inclined his head, then followed Harry’s rapidly disappearing form. *** The bell on the door rang a merry hello that further tested Harry’s patience. He understood the kid was sad—he got it. But did Harry want to attach himself to so much intense raw pain? Jack had a lot he needed to work through. Hell, we’re all in pain from something or other. Should I make a clean break now? Harry nodded to a waitress who pointed him toward an open table. He slid in and grabbed a menu while he waited on Jack. As he scanned the options, his gaze repeatedly found the door, and his irritation rose the longer he waited. Finally the sound of the door jangling accompanied Jack’s arrival.

Harry inclined his head toward Jack, and his lopsided grin broadened. In his haste, Jack’s bag bumped a rather large fellow who didn’t quite fit the dimensions of the chair. “Pardon,” Jack began, “I didn’t—” Harry watched as the man abruptly scooted his chair back, then stood to his full height. “Yeah, you didn’t watch where you was going, huh?” Jack’s expression changed to surprise as he fumbled over his words. “Uh, sorry. No harm intended.” Harry debated his involvement, waiting for the scene to unfold. The man breathed heavily. Rolls of fat, too tightly contained, peeked out beneath a plaid work shirt, and the two fellows joining him were not small by any means either, although they were still seated for the moment. “See to it that it don’t happen again,” the man spat as stray bits of partially chewed food flew in Jack’s face. “Right,” Jack said, gathering his composure, as he pulled the offending bag closer by his side. Moments later Jack joined Harry at the table. Harry heard him exhale loudly, his face an odd combination of white and red splotches from the encounter. “Good God, does trouble follow you everywhere you go?” Harry asked in an exaggerated whisper. Jack’s gaze rose to meet Harry’s. “You saw the whole thing, right? It wasn’t my fault. That…that…giant over there is obviously having a bad day. I barely brushed him.” Jack’s focus continued to stray from the conversation with Harry to the offending table of men. “Okay, let’s try and deal with our own issues. Food, then job, in that order.” As if on cue the waitress appeared. “What can I get you fellows? Pancakes? Eggs? A bat?” She giggled. “No, seriously, they’re troublemakers. Pay them no mind. Just don’t bust up the joint. Now what’a you having?” “I’ll have pancakes and bacon,” Jack said. “Oh, and lots of coffee.” “And I’ll have eggs, sausage and toast. Just bring us a pot of coffee, will you?” “You got it. Be right up, boys.” She left with a wink.

“Well, now are you ready to get down to business? Took you long enough to get here.” Jack reached into his bag and pulled out a flyer. “As a matter of fact, I had a conversation outside with a couple guys looking for the building site as well. Said they’d already been there, and jobs weren’t available just yet. It says right here on the flyer. Looks like we’re about six months too early.” “Let me see that.” “Sure.” Harry perused the information on the announcement. “Humph. They’re getting lots of supplies and equipment but not ready for the workers yet…” He paused and rubbed his head. “What if we went out there anyhow and convinced them that they needed us—to monitor, organize, make sure their stuff doesn’t disappear, whatever. It’s worth a try, right? Otherwise we’ll need to walk the streets here in town looking for temporary work. And I’m sure lots of other guys are planning to do the exact same thing.” Both Harry and Jack glanced simultaneously at the neighboring table of hungry men, still busy noisily shoveling food in their faces. Jack’s mouth transformed into a grin as he fought to hold back his laughter. Harry did the same, snorting to keep from laughing out loud. “Here you are. Just off the grill.” After the waitress set down the steaming food, she poured coffee, then left the pot. “I’ll be back to check on you in few,” she said, leaving the check on the table. Harry closed his eyes and breathed in the mixture of aromas. “I’m so hungry, and, from the looks of it, so are you.” Jack looked up from his half-eaten stack of pancakes. “Well, we’ve got places to go and important people to see. Catch up with me.” The two ate and strategized, formulating a plan in the process. “Ready to head out?” Jack asked. “Sure. Grab the flyer with the directions to the site, and I’ll settle up the bill.” Jack nodded. “It’s here in my bag. I’ll meet you out front.” Harry turned toward the commotion he heard while paying the check, hoping it wasn’t Jack this time. Of course it’s Jack.

Jack lay splayed on the floor, his open bag in the hand of the fat plaid-wearing diner from the earlier scuffle. “Damn.” Jack’s gaze would have killed the man had he actually been focused on his victim. Harry was sure the sight of the man rummaging through his friend’s personal belongings and Sam’s things would be too much for Jack to handle. He was right. Jack righted himself and didn’t bother asking questions. He threw the first punch, landing square on the man’s left jaw, causing little impact. The man returned the favor, slamming Jack with a one-two punch. He fell to his knees, blood streaming from his nose and mouth. Harry snatched the closest chair and smashed it on the attacker, who recoiled momentarily, giving Jack the few minutes he needed to regain his footing. With renewed vigor, the fat man focused his attention on the source of the last blow, Harry. Harry crouched, poised and ready as the man who seemed truly a giant close up, loomed over him, cursing Jack all the while under his breath. A look of surprise came over his opponent’s face then, and Harry barely had time to move out of the way as the man crashed to the ground, taking out a chair and table on his way down. Harry spotted Jack, still bleeding from nose and mouth, with his lips pulled back and nostrils flared. The man moaned. “Come on, Jack. Let’s get outta here.” “My bag. Where is it?” Harry spotted it next to the fallen table, half unzipped. “Here, Jack, take a quick look. We need to move before he comes to.” Jack’s gaze darted around the room and settled on the man’s two friends who sat stunned against the wall, appearing terrified of the man waking up as well. Skirting along the wall, they hurriedly moved toward the front door of the diner. “Well, everything there?” Harry asked. Jack wiped his nose with his hand. “Yeah, I think so, from what I can tell.”

The waitress from earlier appeared and offered Jack a cool towel for his face. “Go on now. Get going. He’ll be up in a few minutes, and I don’t want this to start all over again.” Jack flashed her one of his lopsided grins, and the waitress practically swooned. “Sorry about the mess,” Jack said. She dabbed lightly at his face, their gazes locked momentarily “Never mind it. Now take this and go.” Harry cleared his throat. “Let’s go, lover boy. Grab your bag and out the door.” Jack shouldered his bag, and they left the diner in much worse shape than they found it. “Do you cause this much commotion everywhere you go?” “That wasn’t my fault. He attacked me.” “What did you do to make him drop like that?” Jack grinned. “Oh, that? Sam taught me that move—a leg swipe from behind. He never saw it coming.” “I do think you’re right. He never knew what hit him.” Harry patted Jack on the back. “We make a pretty good team. Now let’s go catch a bus to the building site.” After the morning’s physical event, the two dozed on the bus headed toward the construction site. Ground hadn’t broken yet, but they weren’t alone in their hopes of a job. The bus was full of others with similar prospects. Harry elbowed Jack. “Hey, we’re close. Look out your window. This is going to be massive.” Jack blinked, then took a closer look. “So many people. We sure aren’t the first.” “No, but maybe that’s a good sign. Some are working. Maybe there’s room for us yet.” “Maybe.” Jack pointed. “Up ahead. See? That must be the temporary office. Everyone is coming and going from there.” The bus lurched to a stop. Jack and Harry unloaded with the rest of the men. “Take a look at this place. Can you believe it? All this mountain and rock. It’s incredible.” Harry took a few steps, then turned in a circle, his arms swept wide, taking in the view. “We’ll be a part of something huge. Can you see it, Jack?” He glanced back to the bus. “Jack?”

“Here. Up here, behind you.” “Ah, coming your way.” Harry sat down with deep sigh. “Why are you all the way up here? Down there is where we need to be, begging for work.” Jack nodded, then shrugged. “Yeah, but up here it’s peaceful. And, after this morning, it feels good.” “You ready to go down there and tell those men this place won’t work without us?” “I’m ready.” The office had a constant flow of men coming and going. It was hard to determine who, if anyone, was in charge. Several men carried clipboards and appeared to sign off on invoices or other documents. The office was bigger than it appeared from the outside. The various rooms seemed to be organized by function, yet there were no signs displaying this. It appeared everyone just knew where to go. “Well, what do you say we just go into the first office?” Harry asked. “Nah. I don’t think so. Look how busy the three rooms are here in front. That’s where everyone is going. And look—some are getting turned away.” They moved closer in an attempt to hear the conversations; then the two watched the same scenario play out several times, always ending in dismissal. “Let’s try that office in back,” Jack said, pointing toward the far end of the building. “See? No line there.” “Okay, what’s the worst he can do? Throw us out?” Harry made his way toward the far side of the floor with Jack close on his heels. “Excuse me. I hear you need some men ready to work in advance of the actual construction? Would this be the place we could apply for those positions? I can assure you—” “No, young men,” he said, interrupting Harry. “For any jobs currently available you’d need to apply up front, in the labor office. It’s right there, close to the entrance,” he said with a deep sigh, “convenient to all the foot traffic. This is the security office.” Harry and Jack exchanged a knowing glance. Jack nodded. The man behind the desk returned his focus to the paperwork in front of him.

“Pardon me please. We are just the two you need for the job,” Jack said. The man directed his gaze toward Jack and Harry. “Job? What job? I just told you none are currently available in this office. Now leave, or I’ll have you removed.” “Give me just a minute—hear me out.” The man scooted back his chair abruptly. “Very well, you have one minute.” Jack continued. “All those supplies, the machinery coming in, do you have men watching all that? I’m sure looters are around who’d steal you blind.” “Yes, we have men hired to take care of that. Now, if that’ll be all, as you can see, I have work to do.” “What about at night? Do you have a night shift that patrols all that equipment?” “Patrols at night? Well, no, we have a staff on-site of course, but they don’t patrol.” “We could do that for you. We can both handle a gun and throw a punch,” Jack said, as a smirk crossed his face. “Actually had some practice today as a matter of fact.” “So I see… Look. I’m sure you boys would rather have some construction jobs. Come back in say, four months, and we will be building housing for fellows just like you. We will need bunkhouses for all the workers we’ll employ here. As it is now, tents are the only option for sleeping quarters, really not optimal, and sadly no convenient facilities,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ll bet you know how much money you’re losing in supplies daily, and I’ll bet most of that happens at night.” “You really don’t quit, do you?” Jack smiled. “No, sir, not easily.” “As a matter of fact I do have an estimate of that number, and it is significantly more than the measly amount I’d pay you to patrol at night.” He stood, then walked in front of the desk and leaned against it, crossing his arms. “I’ll offer you both a job. But I warn you, it doesn’t pay much. You’ll work at night and have trouble sleeping in your tents during the day with all the commotion going on around here. The only perk is food, and it’s not that great either. I recommend you come back in four months.” He stood again and turned his back to walk behind his

desk. Jack glanced at Harry who nodded his agreement. “Sir, you have a deal. We can start tonight after our evening meal.” He raised his eyebrows and shook his head. “All right. Good thing you’re too young to know just how bad an arrangement you’ve entered into. Just remember I warned you. Now head up to the front and tell them that I’ve hired you both as nighttime security. They’ll get your paperwork started.” “Sir, what will we be paid per hour?” “Twenty-five cents.”

Chapter Two A little over an hour later, the paperwork done, the duo found themselves dragging a tent, while carrying myriad needed supplies, to an uncertain destination a half mile into the desert. Jack paused and referred to the makeshift map for about the fifth time in the last quarter hour. Harry wiped his forehead, then spoke up from behind. “I’m thinking maybe this wasn’t the best idea. We’re lost.” “Hell… You wanna look at it? He drew it so fast… I can’t make much of it.” “Hand it over, and I’ll take a look.” “And let’s take a load off. All this crap is heavy,” Jack said, loosening straps from his shoulder. He squinted into the sun. “We need to make camp, even if it isn’t exactly the spot pinpointed on the map. The sun’s gonna set soon. I’m starving, hot and tired. And I don’t want to be pitching a tent in the dark.” Harry’s mouth curved into a slow, sarcastic smile. “You complain a lot, ya know? This was your idea, remember?” Jack brushed his hand under his nose. “Yeah… I know.” “From what I can make out, and the distance we’ve come, we’re close. Let’s go ahead and stop, get the camp set up and eat.” “Good. Something we can agree on,” Jack grumbled. “You start a fire. I’ll put up the tent. Then we’ll eat.” Jack nodded. “Fine.” He shuffled his feet as he went in search of tinder for the fire. Scattered twigs and brush soon filled his arms, and, as he turned toward their campsite, he felt a sudden vibration flow through his body. Jack scanned the horizon, looking for signs of an airplane, and anticipated the loud noise it would make as it rumbled through the sky. But it didn’t come. He bent low, dropped his bundle and spread his hands on the ground, then waited for an unknown disruption that didn’t come. He shook his head. Spotting Harry in the distance with the tent almost up, Jack gathered the bits of wood and headed back. Harry glanced up as Jack approached. “What took you so long? I’m done.”

Jack ignored the question. “Hey, did you feel that?” “Feel what?” “Not sure exactly. Maybe an earthquake or tremor of some kind? I felt something vibrate through me.” Harry chuckled and inclined his head. “I think hunger’s gotten the better of you, or maybe the sun. Get the fire started so we can make dinner. Earthquake, huh? Interesting the stuff you come up with.” Jack dropped his bundle for the second time. “There was…something,” he stammered. He reached for the flint he kept in his pocket, grabbed a nearby stone and set to work building a fire. A short time later, small flames licked at his ankles. He added more tinder and adjusted the bigger branches at the base in preparation for the iron skillet he would lay atop the stones already in place. Instantly his mind flashed back to visions of Sam laughing from across a roaring fire, showing off yet another winning hand of Black Jack. Jack plopped on the ground and chewed on a twig as he threw more bits of wood on the blaze, his mind on another time and place. The sun fell low on the horizon. “You look a million miles away.” Jack blinked, his eyes stinging from the smoke billowing from the fire. “Yeah, I guess I was.” Harry stirred the rice and adjusted the small pot containing brewing coffee. Jack breathed in the mixture of aromas from across the fire. “Coffee smells good.” “No thanks to you,” Harry added. “Hey, I got the fire going, and I’ll take the first patrol tonight.” “Big of you.” Jack smiled. “I know. Isn’t it?” “I recognize that look,” Harry said as he scooped out a steaming plate of rice and handed it to Jack. “Thanks,” he said as he accepted the plate. “What look?” “I didn’t want to tell you this on the train ’cause I didn’t know you that well, and it was plain the loss was still so raw.”

Jack shifted uneasily on the ground, then shoveled rice in his mouth. Harry filled his plate and poured himself some coffee. He raised the pot in question. “Want some?” Jack shrugged. “Yeah. Sure.” Harry filled another cup and handed it to Jack, then retrieved his own and settled next to his friend, balancing his own plate in his lap. “Earlier, when you had that faraway look, you were thinking of Sam, right?” Jack averted his eyes and buried his face in his cup, taking a long drink. “I know because I went through the same thing when my ma died. Actually, I sat in my room for days at a time with that same look on my face. Even though he was hurting too, my pa tried to talk to me, but he wasn’t very good at it. We were both lost in our memories and sadness—both stuck. Seeing you, it brings it all back. I feel like I’m staring into a looking glass.” The creases in Harry’s forehead deepened. “It took a while, but I finally decided to leave, so we could both deal with the loss on our own. He didn’t want me to see his pain. I didn’t know how to grieve. It was best. I promised to get work, while deciding on the service. He told me to come home to talk to him again before I made my decision.” Harry paused. His eyes glistened with unshed tears. “Even now it’s hard. But the hurt, it changes as you live with it, at least it did with me. Not less really, just more bearable. I know now that she’ll always be with me, whether I can see her or not. It will be the same with Sam eventually.” Jack sniffed. “How did it happen?” “The docs weren’t sure. Said it was like something took the life from inside her. Day by day we watched her wither away.” Harry took a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh. In the firelight Jack could see the broad lines of pain etched on Harry’s face. “When she couldn’t leave her bed, I’d read to her. Pa would sleep in the chair by her bed, night after night. One morning she just didn’t wake up. I walked in, and Pa shook his head. She was gone.” Jack was quiet, then bowed his head slowly before looking up. “I’m sorry, Harry.”

Harry wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “I know you are. But I’m not telling you this for your pity. I just want you to know you’re not alone. You see, lots of people are in pain. You, me, my dad and many others. It’s okay to be sad. It lets you know you’re alive—that’s what my pa always says, and I believe him. I don’t want to ever forget her, so I find a place for the hurt in my heart. Sounds stupid I know…” “No, it doesn’t at all,” Jack interrupted, wiping tears of his own from his cheek. “Thanks, man,” Jack said as he reached for Harry’s hand in the semidarkness. Harry leaned in for a quick embrace, then stepped back. “Now get your stuff together. Your turn for patrol. I’m holding you to it. Finish your coffee. You’ll need it. Wake me predawn, and I’ll take over.” Jack loaded Sam’s pistol and placed it in the holster at his side. He put on his jacket and threw his pack over his shoulder. The fire still smoldered. Smoke billowed in tall white tails while he kicked and stomped at the remaining embers until they went out. “See you in a few hours,” Jack said as he headed out. “Wait. You forgot this—the map.” “Yep. I’ll need that for sure.” Jack smiled. He felt as if a weight had been lightened. “See you soon.” Harry made his way back to the tent. Suddenly the stakes anchoring the tent vibrated and popped up from the ground. The small temporary structure swayed. A loud hum broke the silence of the night, and a tremor coursed through the ground. The two turned in unison toward the noise. Jack quickly covered the distance back to the wobbling tent. “You do hear that now, right?” “Don’t be an idiot. Of course I hear it. Where the hell is my gun?” Harry grabbed his own bag from the falling structure before it collapsed and drew his weapon. A bright light penetrated the darkness in the distance as the hum transformed into a roaring din. Jack’s mouth dropped when the monstrosity flew from its hiding place, passed the outlying mountain and made itself known. The ball of flying light flew on an

intercept course, straight for them. “What is that?” Jack yelled. “Who the hell cares? Run for cover.” Jack pulled out his pistol, took aim and pulled the trigger at the fast-moving object. “What are you doing?” Harry screamed. “Run, you stupid idiot.” A long path of light advanced toward them both, narrow at its origin, widening as the path got farther from the moving vessel. Feet planted firmly, as if glued to the dirt beneath him, Jack fired two more bullets in quick succession, hitting and bouncing off the flying ship with an audible clang. The craft kept coming. Jack holstered the weapon and turned to follow Harry, just as the fiery light caught up with them both, transfixing them. He caught Harry’s gaze, a look of stunned horror, as Jack fought the force that held him. Within a few seconds Jack knew it was a futile effort. He could still move his eyes, even though not his head. He’d lost sight of Harry; then Jack knew no more. *** Cold. My eyes hurt. My head hurts. God, I feel like shit. Where am I? Slowly the fragmented pieces fell back into place. Bright lights…the noise. Jack blinked, his eyes watering at the sudden onslaught of light. He shivered violently. Only half conscious he used his hands to pull himself to a seated position, then leaned against the wall, closing his eyes again, exhausted with the effort. In and out, he felt the warmth of his breath. He opened his eyes tentatively once more and pulled the jacket tighter around him. Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead despite the ongoing shivering. He drew his legs in close to his chest and took his first full look at his surroundings. He wasn’t the only one here. Men were strewn about the floor. Some moaned; some cried. Others just silently lay there. Harry. Where is Harry? The last few seconds before this—whatever this was—he remembered the glimpse of terror on Harry’s face. Jack fell to all fours to make his way around the room in search of Harry. Immediately he realized this was a bad idea. Nausea overcame him. Quicker than he believed himself able, he hurled toward a container along the wall and vomited

the contents of his stomach. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and slid down the wall, content for the moment not to move. A small window slid open along the wall, then shut again. He heard voices. He held his breath, anticipating some information that could help him ascertain what was going on. “One of them’s awake. Doesn’t look like he handled the hyperspace jump well.” “Holy Mother,” the man said in a tone thick with disgust. “Let’s move him now. You know how this goes. Once one gets going, they all start.” Dazed, Jack watched as a doorway appeared in the wall, and two men entered. He was outraged. He opened his mouth to speak. Why were they holding him? But his tongue felt too thick for this mouth, and only incoherent mumbles came out. The first man grabbed one of Jack’s arms; the second man took the other arm, and they dragged him along the floor. Before they made it to the threshold, Jack retched again, splaying vomit all over the floor and the men’s boots as well. “Hells. Hurry and get him outta here before he lets loose again. Send someone to clean this up after you drop him off. I’ll check on the others. They should be waking up by now. Can’t have the hopes of our generation resting on a bunch of dead guys. We’ve come too far to get them here. They need to survive for the next several weeks at least.” The man chuckled. “The hopes of our generation, huh? Looks to me like some puking baby.” He paused at the door and wiped the slime from his boot on the nearest sleeping body. As his head hung to his chest, Jack felt his body being dragged from the room. A welcome rush of air hit his face, and he breathed in deeply. Another set of hands joined the first, and he was placed on a gurney and rolled away. He passed in and out of consciousness as he traveled through the corridors, his short trip ending in another room with lights even brighter than the first. “Here, doc. This one needs something. Keeps puking. I need to get back. He won’t give you any trouble—can barely raise his head. You okay with him for now?” “Sure. We’ll be fine.” “I may bring you more. We have about twenty of them this trip. Some are

probably DOA.” The doctor inclined his head to his visitor. “Soldier, you do your job and let me do mine. We’re well prepared for whatever the subjects’ needs are.” The soldier cleared his throat as he watched the doctor measure a dosage of medication, then prick his patient. “I, uh, just have a feeling this one will be a fighter.” “All the better. That’s just what we need. He’ll rest comfortably for a while after the medication I’ve given him, assuming he doesn’t go into massive organ failure from the jump. Humans have such weak bodies.” “Indeed. I’ll leave you to your work.” “Good, it will give me a little time to get to know Jack…as it were.” *** Jack came to in a coughing fit. Machines whirred and hummed continuously by his side. The lights were subdued this time, and the queasy feeling had almost completely subsided. An attempt to stand sent off multiple alarms. Two attendants quickly reattached needles and equipment but said nothing. “Hey, you—where am I?” Jack peered from his bed to the others surrounding him. Each one was full. How many are there? It hurt his head to think. But then a wave of calmness rushed over him. He sighed as his body relaxed. “Jack, how are you? You look much better than you did when they brought you in.” Jack turned his attention toward the voice. “Who are you, and why are you drugging me? And how do you know my name?” The man smirked. And the condescending laugh that followed wasn’t lost on Jack, even in his subdued state. “I’ve been instructed to tell you very little. In the morning you’ll be placed back with the others, where you’ll receive more information. For now, my job is to get you stable.” Jack focused to form words. “What can you tell me?” The man in the white lab coat pulled up a chair. “Let’s start with my name. I’m Dr. Tuduly. I’m responsible for your care while you’re here. As far as where you are…” He placed his hand under his chin as if in deep thought. “Let’s just say, for now, far from your home. You’ve been brought here on a most desperate medical

mission. You and others like you will be tested for possible antibodies to assist in our gene research against a deadly disease. You see, we need a vaccine to protect our people.” Jack squirmed uneasily in his cot. “Disease? What disease? I haven’t heard about a new deadly disease.” Dr. Tuduly stood and pushed the chair away. “You will soon. And tomorrow or the next day, you’ll be ready to proceed with testing. I feel your fear, Jack. Let me assure you. Most likely everything will be fine, and things will be back to normal for you soon. However, if you are the match we’re seeking, I’ll tell you now that things will never be the same.” Jack’s heart raced. He didn’t know where to begin. “What do you mean you fefeel my fear?” “Yes, and it’s getting stronger,” he said as he turned to the equipment and made a quick adjustment. “There. That should help. Sleep for now. More to come.” *** Whisterly tried to distract herself from news of the detainees’ arrival. Even with her advanced skills, closing herself off from the constant barrage of telepathic traffic proved difficult. She could do nothing for them—yet. However, the compound was abuzz with theories and gossip related to the humans’ misfortunes. She resolved to keep a low profile until tomorrow, when she was scheduled to address the small band of travelers. They were indeed prisoners, as they’d been taken against their will, but she preferred to think of them as temporary detainees since they would be sent back to their native planet should they prove useless to their quest. Reports of premature deaths of some passengers were most likely true. It was often the case with hyperspace travel. Some didn’t make it. Others were sick for days or even weeks. Eventually they would pull through—or not. She would do her part, per her bidding to the council to allow her intercession on their behalf. It was a small comfort and the least the council could do for the voyagers’ short visit to Remeon. Most of them, if not all, would be of no use to the cause. Initial testing would exclude a large portion. After that decisive step, detailed medical procedures would

be called for, encompassing an uncertain time frame. All on the council wished for some glimmer of hope as a result of these tests. So far, the probes into these lifeforms had proven to be a waste of resources. Her parents would be here at any moment: Joint Council Leaders Dugan and Trista. An imminent discussion needed to take place. She rolled her eyes. Whisterly guessed the content of the meeting; she didn’t need telepathy. As she waited, the council’s most recent decisions rose to the forefront of her mind. More and more Remeonites were succumbing daily to Paliases Reglasus, or PR 251, the disease plaguing their society. To fight it required a drastic decision, but one the scientists were certain would work. The costs would be enormous, but, if life could be preserved while a cure was researched, it would be a win-win scenario. It’s absolutely fascinating. In spite of herself, Whisterly suppressed a smile. Her parents had vehemently disagreed on this point. Resources would be depleted following this path to its ultimate fruition. It was a fact—resources that could perhaps be put directly into finding the cure. The current modeling phase, so far, had already saved many lives. Now these Remeonites hovered between life and death, suspended, as they waited for a cure, their bodies too sick to be maintained without constant support. But it was the second phase of this plan that most concerned a few on the council—the holographic projections going about the business of life in their stead. Whisterly felt the presence of her mother and father approaching. She steeled her nerves, inhaled and exhaled slowly, then stood to meet them. “Come in, please.” “Oh, hello, dear. You look absolutely breathtaking today.” Her mother leaned in for a peck on the cheek. “I, of course, must agree,” her father added. Whisterly smiled. “Thank you, Father. Please, sit.” “I’m sure you’ve ascertained the reason behind our visit,” her father began. “I have.” Whisterly shared a glare with her parents that defied her years. “And my position hasn’t changed on the subject.” Trista cleared her throat. “Dear, we’re here to help you understand”—she paused, glancing quickly at Dugan—“the reason for our decision. We haven’t come

to it lightly. It’s for the good of the people.” Whisterly raised her eyebrows. “Indeed. What have you done, Mother? Are you saying I have no choice in the matter?” “We’ve tried reason,” her father interjected. “The truth is, you haven’t reached full adult age. It isn’t completely your decision.” His daughter gasped. Dugan reached for Whisterly’s hand. Whisterly slid her hands into her lap. Her father continued. “It doesn’t have to be this way. You understand, I know you do, for the good of the people, there must be an heir, his blood origin from our line, one free from this dreadful disease. Any day you could fall ill. It’s just a numbers game. None of us are immune. Which leads us to the other reason for our visit.” Dugan sighed deeply, then clasped his hands with Trista’s. “Your mother and I are showing initial signs of infection. We must prepare.” Whisterly’s breath caught in her throat. She crossed the short distance to them, knelt on the floor and placed her head in her hands. “No,” she whispered. “It can’t be.” “Rise, child. It has been confirmed. We likely have time yet.” His gaze met his daughter’s. “Time to meet our grandchild and the successor to the council leadership. But the need is urgent. And these procedures could take time. Even with medical intervention, which our teams are quite good at, often, as you know, first attempts are not successful.” “Would you not consider the life-extending technology that is being discussed?” Whisterly asked, her eyes pleading. “We’re so close. You don’t have to die if you will acquiesce before your situation is dire.” Dugan locked gazes with his wife. “No. We’ve decided, when it’s our time, it’s our time. Resources should be funneled into research and help for the living, not on maintaining the facade of life for those who are mostly gone.” His voice broke. “You know our stance on this. Just because it’s us now doesn’t change things.” “Doesn’t it?” Whisterly asked, her voice barely audible. “Absolutely not. But it does give us time to put things in order. The first step being a disease-free heir.” Dugan paused, appearing to weigh his next words

carefully. “Some data supports that mixing our bloodlines with the humans might be a way to produce disease-free offspring, as well as a cure for those of us who are sick.” “I’ve read those studies as well. It is an interesting theory but one not yet proven with validated results,” Whisterly added. “Maybe for your second offspring then. For now, the seed of your betrothed will be the first option, and he is still well.” Defeated, Whisterly’s shoulders slumped. “I assume I’m scheduled for the procedure?” Dugan nodded. “You’ll be monitored for the next eight weeks, to determine and then regulate your natural cycle. The medical staff will adapt your current daily medication to align with the impending pregnancy needs that your body will require before the implantation occurs, mostly hormonal regulation. Next, within the optimal initial twelve-week time frame, assuming all goes well, you’ll be impregnated. Nothing will be left to chance, as should be the case with matters of this magnitude.” “It seems you’ve thought of everything,” Whisterly whispered. “You don’t know how lucky you are to not deal with the natural swings in cycle that come with womanhood,” Trista assured her daughter. “As a young lady I had to deal with those. It was a huge step forward for our society when we stopped letting our hormones dictate our lives. Thank goodness for our medication. We were no better than animals when we let base instinct rule over us.” “We are stronger for it,” Dugan added. “Don’t worry, my child. It will all be very clinical in nature, no forced physical union, not a conception left up to chance. The DNA structures for you and Damond have been analyzed, and the resulting offspring will be strong and healthy, if you conceive before either of you contracts the virus, and that’s the plan. “Then the marriage, when it’s time, will be strengthened by your alliance through the council, with a blood heir already determined. Partners, if you will. It’s the best way. Efficient. A reasonable joining, so to speak. There’s time for true love later, dear. I know you still dream of such things.” Trista locked gazes with her husband. “We both desire that for you. But, for now, for the good of the people,

this is best.” Whisterly eyed them both and shrugged. “Perhaps.” Trista smiled. “Keep in mind we’ve all pledged to be servants of the people. Your sacrifice will bring great things for all.” Dugan turned to his wife. “Dear, let us go so Whisterly can be alone with her thoughts for a time. We’ve shared a substantial amount of information. She may need some processing time.” “You’ve completely devastated me you mean.” “Give it time, dear,” Trista said, as she enveloped her daughter in a hug. “Remember to think rationally. You’re exceptionally good at that. It’s one of the reasons you’ll make a wonderful governing council chair. After you remove emotion from the equation, I’ll bet you’ll agree that the decisions we’ve made are in the best interests for all of us.” That would be a bet you’d lose. Whisterly followed her parents to the door, then in silence watched them leave. Shocked from the decisions made on her behalf, she leaned against the automatic door as her mind raced. What am I going to do? I can’t imagine a future with his child. Whisterly had secretly wished for years that her betrothed would die from the disease before they could unite. Apparently due to this recent turn of events, the child would come before the mating. She shivered in revulsion. Damond was more than two times her age but was a wise member of the council. When her father had informed the group of his decision to prearrange his daughter’s marriage years ago, Damond had proposed himself as the perfect match. Even though she barely knew him, with his long, steady and sedate history with the council, he had won favor with her parents. It had seemed so far in the future at the time. Now impending dread filled her. How could it be? I will have his child. Pacing the room for the next thirty minutes brought her no answers. But she would not give in this easily to this baby nonsense. And her parents must be convinced to at least consider other options. A loud buzz interrupted her thoughts. She was at once annoyed with herself that she had not sensed the presence at her door and also relieved now, knowing who waited there.

“Thank the gods!” *** “Come in, Mila, please.” Mila bowed imperceptibly as she entered the room. The door slid closed behind her. “I sensed your struggle. That’s why I’m here.” “Oh, Mila, whatever am I to do?” Whisterly implored Mila with her gaze, and she crossed the short distance. Mila and Whisterly sat side by side. Whisterly shrugged as hot tears slid slowly down her cheeks. In frustration she hastily wiped them away. “I don’t want this. Not yet anyway.” “But you’ve always known this was coming. It’s just sooner than you expected. Once you’ve adjusted to this new time line, it will be all right. You’ll see.” Whisterly reached out her hands to her maid and closed her eyes. Their two consciousnesses merged as one, they communed. Soon the hurt and anxiety dissipated. Whisterly breathed deeply and suffused herself with the calm demeanor of her friend and maid. This time in their mutual exchange Mila took the burden of Whisterly’s ill thoughts, but it wasn’t always so. Whisterly’s eyes opened, and she released the breath she’d been holding. “Better?” Mila asked. “Much. What would I do without you?” “You would be fine, as you always are. Stray thoughts distract from clarity. That’s where I come in.” Whisterly marveled at the young woman before her. “Don’t underestimate your power. We both know your telepathic skill almost surpasses my own. It’s why we were matched. That and, of course, our childhood friendship.” It was one thing she was grateful to her parents for. Abandoned at birth, Mila had been brought into Whisterly’s household soon after she was born. They were practically sisters, although the class difference made that impossible. Being assigned the status of servant meant Mila didn’t control her own fate, but Whisterly made sure her friend was always well cared for. Mila’s sleek black hair fell from behind her shoulder, covering her face as she slumped slightly.

“What’s the matter? Did the exchange cause you pain?” Mila raised her head, and Whisterly saw tears glistening in her eyes. “No, it’s not that at all.” “Tell me,” Whisterly urged. Mila scooted closer to her mistress, then whispered, “I’m ashamed—I wish it were me. I want to carry a child, have a child and nurture him.” Whisterly nodded. “I know. It will happen someday for you. I’m sure of it. But you and I know I must do this, for the good of our people. My bloodline must continue. You’ve just helped me to see that more clearly than my parents ever could. Now I need to accept it and take steps to move forward.” Mila hung her head again, then knelt at Whisterly’s feet. “You don’t have to say it. I know my place. I’m not good enough. But know that, if there were a way, I’d stand in your stead. I’m still disease free.” Whisterly focused on her friend. Mila was hurting now. Whisterly felt it and wanted to abate the hurt, but its source ran deep, and she believed even a child wouldn’t fill the void. She shielded her own thoughts deftly, expertly, while sensing Mila’s subconscious reaching for her own. This could never be. It would have to be me. “Rise. I would never ask another to sacrifice herself for me in this manner. Your selflessness knows no bounds, but the edict has been ingrained in me since I was a young girl. It just became all too real so quickly. Part of my responsibility is to continue the bloodline. And however grotesque the thought of mating with that man…at least I will not need to be intimate with him to make this so.” Momentarily imagining the vileness of the ancient physical act of lovemaking filled her with revulsion, and she gagged. Most babies on Remeon were conceived in test tubes these days. Scientists didn’t want to take chances in replicating the virus by hapless procreation. As such, these urges had been controlled through medication as long as Whisterly could remember. Thank the gods. What a disgusting degradation the union with Damond would be. Disease-free offspring were paramount in the fight to save the people of Remeon. Also, natural conception was rare since the sex act itself was considered barbarian and rarely resulted in a successful pregnancy. As the civilization had

evolved from generation to generation, the physical act of love had transformed to a conscious immersion into the soul of one’s partner. This form of telepathy was thought to be the most profound and ultimate act of love, one that Whisterly hoped to experience—someday. Mila met Whisterly’s gaze and sensed only her unease, nothing more. “Understood, Mistress. Are you quite all right? I can’t get a full reading on you.” Whisterly’s cheeks reddened, and she felt herself flush imagining a future lover —one who she desired to share her life with. Where did that come from? She was quite unprepared for the sensation. “Uh, yes. I’m fine. Just privately thinking about how drastically my life is about to change.” “Oh, I see. I’m here for you in whatever capacity you need. Always.” Whisterly immediately dropped the mental wall she had constructed for a few moments of total privacy and enveloped Mila in a hug. She felt her maid gasp, drew back and saw her tears. “I hope you will let me help with this new child. This new being will be our leadership of the future. In some small way, I desire to be a contributing part to the whole, if you’ll let me.” “Mila, why would you think I’d have it any other way? You are one of the few people I trust completely in this whole compound. I’ll need all the support I can get, and you’ll be at the top of the list.” “I’d be honored. I’m grateful for your trust, Mistress.” Whisterly smiled for the first time in over a day. “I hear pregnancy hormones can be quite retched. Please don’t leave me, no matter how awful I become.” “You have my word, Mistress. When will you begin the, uh, process?” “My first appointment will be tomorrow. A baseline check, medication adjustment and time line creation.” A buzz, followed by a projection on the wall, interrupted her words. A flashing red light highlighted her tardiness for her next appointment. “You are late, Mistress.” “Indeed, I am.” “Shall I accompany you?” “Too see the human detainees? Of course you may. This initial incarceration

period is often quite uncomfortable for them. I’d like to do whatever I can to make it more bearable. After all, they didn’t ask to come here, and most will be leaving us very soon.” “I will come along then. It’s a group of twenty young men, is it not? You may need assistance.” Whisterly nodded. “Either way I’d be happy for the company. Let’s go, shall we?” *** Start-Up, wake up. Now! Jack thrashed his head from side to side as if fighting some unseen nemesis. His hand grabbed suddenly for the chain that hung from his neck. “It’s okay. I’m not here to hurt you. But you need to wake up. The doctors say you could use some solid food,” Whisterly said softly. “Leave it to Jack,” Harry said as he shrugged, “the one guy in the room who can steal the show, even after puking all over the place and sleeping the whole time.” Whisterly gave Harry a sideways glare. “Your friend here has been seriously ill from the hyperspace jump. Do you not care? I guess not since you seem to have come through the experience unscathed.” “Of course I care. But the rest of us here just want to know what’s going on. We were told we’d have some answers today, and that guy—who is my best friend, by the way—is snoozing our time away. And your buddies here with the guns have been pretty tight-lipped about everything. What the hell is a hyperspace jump anyway?” The humans formed a semicircle around Jack, who was the only man on a gurney, and approached Mila and Whisterly, who were accompanied by three soldiers. The soldiers then cocked their weapons and pushed back the restless group threatening Whisterly and Mila. Whisterly nodded. “I’ll answer your questions. It’s the least I can do. Be patient for just a bit longer. He’s coming around.” Jack’s voice broke through as a hoarse whisper, “Sam? Is that you? Sam?” “Are you Sam? You there, the one who said you were his friend,” Whisterly asked.

Harry shook his head. “Can’t say that I am, but, if he thinks Sam is here, he’s pretty far gone.” “Let him through,” Whisterly said to the nearest soldier. “It’ll help to see a familiar face first. Maybe he’s a little disoriented still from the sedation.” *** Harry arrived at his side just as Jack opened his eyes. But his gaze was turned toward the woman standing by his bed, and he was transfixed. “Who are you?” Jack asked, as he extended a shaky hand toward her. “Are you real? Am I dead?” Jack blinked. “God, you’re beautiful.” She smiled, and Jack felt as if his body were warming from the inside. He heard murmurs of speech beside him but couldn’t pull his focus away from the vision before him. Her long silver hair fell straight down her shoulders. And her eyes were a haunting deep gray. He blinked again; then she did the same. With one more swoop of her lashes, she would penetrate his heart. He was sure of it. Harry grabbed Jack’s arm, demanding his attention. “Jack? Are you all right? You called out for Sam.” Jack’s gaze drifted back to the woman. “Did I?” “Yes, I’m real, just like you. My name is Whisterly. And you’re very much alive. Can you sit up?” Whisterly asked. “Now that you’re awake, I need to talk to the group.” Before Jack could answer, Whisterly had anchored one of his elbows and pushed him to an upright position. “Is this okay?” she asked. Jack mumbled a yes as Whisterly brushed away strands of hair from his face and peered into his eyes. He held his breath as the sound of his racing heartbeat echoed loudly in his ears. When he couldn’t stand it any longer, he breathed in deeply. Her hair had fallen on the side of his face, and he still felt the imprint on his cheek where the soft strands had been, even when she pulled away. Her gaze mesmerized him, and, just like a deer caught by surprise, he couldn’t move. But there was something else… What was it? Summer, that was it. Sunshine and summertime back home—that was what her hair smelled like. Whisterly took in his facade from a step back. “You still look a little pale. But

your basic vitals are good,” she said, glancing at the monitor by his side. “I’ll get started.” Whisterly moved to the front of the small band of men, and Harry spoke again beside him. “She is something, huh?” “Yeah. She is that…What can you tell me, about where we are?” Jack asked Harry. Harry scoffed. “I can’t tell you shit. So now that you’re awake, shut the hell up so we can hear the pretty woman speak up there. Got it?” “Got it,” Jack grumbled. “Everyone, let’s get started. I’m Whisterly, heir to the council leadership. For now, until you leave this planet, that is, you all are my responsibility. This is Mila, my assistant. I have quite a bit of information to convey. Most of it will be unsettling, so I suggest you get comfortable and listen up. First, you’ll notice the soldiers in the room. Should you become aggressive in any way, they will subdue you by any means necessary. Unfortunately this is a precaution we must take. Second, yes, you are being detained against your will. Third, let me confirm that you are no longer on Earth but on a planet called Remeon.” The subtle murmurings that existed between the men before now escalated to a steady buzz, and shouting broke out from the more boisterous of the group in the back. “I, for one, want to hear the rest of what she has to say,” Jack shouted, surprising even himself with his forcefulness of tone. “So shut your face so the lady can continue.” Whisterly met Jack’s gaze. He found he couldn’t look away, nor did he want to. “Jack, thank you.” She continued as she faced the rest of the group. “We will get this over as soon as possible. You all were brought here through hyperspace, and soon most of you will be sent back. We are desperate. We’ve exhausted resources on our planet, so we are scouring our galaxy, and others, to find those individuals who may have the needed antibodies to fight the war against a disease called PR 251 haunting our civilization for many generations.

“Our research has shown humans offer hope in this battle, and our initial scans of you in particular have shown something in your genetic makeup that has alerted our scientists that your specific genetic profile may prove useful to us. In addition, the human skeletal structure and body systems are compatible with our own increasing the odds for success in testing the cure we seek.” Whisterly paused, cleared her throat and continued. “Several of your number did not survive the jump, and, for that, we are sorry. For those of you left, the remainder of your stay will most likely be short-lived. Then your memory of this event will be wiped, and you’ll be transported back to your home planet.” The group sat in a stunned silence. Whisterly took the opportunity to continue in advance of the barrage of questions she knew would eventually come. “I’ll share a few basics that will help you acclimate during your short stay on Remeon. We possess a universal translator. It’s how we are easily able to understand each other and to communicate back and forth. We accommodate all known languages. “Next, we are a telepathic people. It is our primary mode of communication. While we also use vocal communication, we switch back and forth between the two effortlessly and continuously. As strangers to our planet, needless to say, it will be difficult for you to follow. But you will find you are endowed with this ability simply by virtue of being on Remeon. I’ll offer you some pointers at a later time, but, as you’ll see if you test this on your neighbor, you can determine another’s thoughts with ease.” Whisterly raised her hand as the onslaught of questions began. “Stop. Let me finish. I’ll allow a few questions at the end.” With nothing more than a glance and nod from Whisterly, the guards spread throughout the small group, focusing their attention on the most vocal people in the gathering. Harry inclined his head toward Jack. Looks like they’re ready to shoot to kill. Agreed, Harry. We need to keep our noses clean. Wait, did Harry say that or think it? And I just responded likewise. This is way cool. Incongruent to the mood in the room, the two exchanged another look, then broke out in laughter, attracting attention. “Now, shh. We need to listen,” Harry chastised.

Jack tuned back into Whisterly’s voice. “For your protection you need to know virtually everyone on this planet can and will read your thoughts. No exchange will be private, and you don’t have the discipline to hide the information flow. Mila and I will teach you a few simple techniques, but they will be no match for the lifetime of skill obtained in this area by any Remeonites that you’ll meet. “Again we are segregating you for your protection. And, for now, I have provided an umbrella of coverage to temporarily shield this intrusion. Once you leave this room, that protection no longer applies. You’ll be an easy target. Should you feel an intrusion and attempt to fight it, depending on your level of innate skill, you may die immediately or shortly after the attack. You are no match for anyone on this planet. With no training, you cannot stop someone from obtaining your thoughts, so don’t try. It will only result in an excruciating death as your cerebral cortex explodes from the inside.” The room again became quiet, making it easy to hear the audible gasps coming from the men. Whisterly thought she’d made her point but paused for an added effect to drive it home. “Your weakness is exacerbated here on Remeon. Don’t fight us. You’ll lose every time. Now, lastly, we each have a ‘true name’ by which we can be commanded and known intimately. As humans, you may have this as well. My guess is humans have not advanced as a society fully enough to determine an individual’s ‘true name’ identity. Eventually you or your descendants will discover this ability. For now, you are exposed to all because, in the absence of a ‘true name,’ your given name is both. “To be sure you understand the weight of my words…you cannot protect yourself. You’re at our mercy, which is why I’m extending protection to you. Accept it, follow the rules, and you’ll be back to your sedate life in no time. Again I humbly apologize for placing you in this position. There is no other way to develop the cure we need other than off-world testing. If there were any other way…” A commotion in the back of the room disturbed the hush that had fallen over the room. A man pushed his way to the front of the group. “You there. Steve, isn’t it?” Whisterly asked. “Stop immediately. You’re placing

yourself in danger.” Whisterly’s countenance changed as her focus turned to the man, and he immediately collapsed into a ball, cradling his head and whimpering softly. No weapons were needed. But high-powered rifles were turned on the outsider just as well. “Perfect example,” Whisterly continued. “So let me be blunt. Your feeble brains are no match for ours. You will not survive any sustained attack of this nature. This man probably won’t live through the next day, but he made his own choice.” The door opened, and two men clad all in white entered and placed the man, who was now convulsing violently, on a stretcher and carried him out. Three additional guards arrived, appointing themselves at strategic intervals within the room. Steady conversation began again between the men as Mila and Whisterly conferred; then Whisterly spoke. “Mila will take any questions today for a short time followed by a brief introduction to the art of telepathy. And I will see you tomorrow for a basic telepathy lesson.” Out of the corner of his eye, Jack glimpsed the tail end of Whisterly’s robe as it floated through the door as if held up by some unseen force. Its sparkling blue radiance seared a place in his memory but not more so than the perfection of the form it held within. *** Leaving Mila, just after the session with the detainees, Whisterly hurried back to her quarters for a short time before her scheduled appointment with the medical staff. She was unnerved and rattled. She needed complete privacy to allow her telepathic instincts to take over inwardly to pinpoint the source, although she already had a pretty good idea. What arresting blue eyes he had for a human. Whisterly carefully constructed a barricade around her thoughts, then sank into the nearest chair. He’s only a weak human… Is that the truth, or what I’ve been taught to think? Whisterly contemplated the countless other refugees from Earth and other planets who had undergone this same process and had failed to advance the cause. None had impacted her in this manner. Several had openly expressed their interest in her in an awkward romantic

attempt to win her heart. She found each of these men repugnant in innumerable ways, their manners archaic and primitive. Surely the Remeonite way was better. True love wasn’t a necessity, after all. With medical intervention a child could result without the physical intimacy that the human race still promulgated. A cold shiver traveled down her spine as she thought of the forced closeness that this specific type of intimacy required, the type resulting in a child. Damond popped into her thoughts. He was steady, but the truth is, she had never attempted anything more than a surface relationship with the man. Disgust rose within her when she allowed thoughts of mating to flow through her consciousness. Restless, she stood and walked the length of her chambers, then turned and walked back, pacing. I’ll make a horrible mother. At least I’ll have Mila to help me raise the thing. Suddenly the vision of Damond transformed to the ill human with the mesmerizing eyes, Jack. Whisterly gasped. What’s wrong me? As she walked past her nightstand, she grabbed her bottle of medication. It had been part of her daily regimen for years. She turned the small container over in her hands and fought the urge to open it. This must be the culprit. At her doctor’s advice, today had been the second day off her treatments. My hormones must be in total flux. Her attention returned to Jack. He had been ill, recuperating, but really not weak, if she were honest with herself. Behind the initial veil of bodily frailty, in her brief moment of physical closeness with him, she had felt his strength. She hadn’t realized it at the time, but it was there, and something else…a strong bond of love for some being was present. It was indwelt, like an internal beacon. Fascinating. Quite without intention through her own introspection, Whisterly had beckoned Jack, and she now felt his clumsy attempt at telepathic communication with her. She allowed his initial inquisitive step, then one step more and found she didn’t want to push him away. Instead, where before she was cold, even heartless, she entertained an odd desire for knowledge of this unusual human. Whisterly constructed a wall then. For now, this is as far as you go, Jack the wanderer. A communication path existed between them now. Most likely Jack didn’t even realize what he and she had done, and this passageway Whisterly had allowed to be forged could be utilized anytime, for as long as she wished it to be so. Whisterly sighed and finally returned to her chair.

The sensation she perceived was different. She couldn’t pinpoint it at first; then it came to her. Comfort. She hadn’t allowed herself that feeling in such a long time. It washed over her now. Carefree days were something of her past, and she knew would be rare in her future. She closed her eyes and settled again on her chair and now, at peace, slept. A buzzing sound intruded on Whisterly’s newfound serenity, and her eyes opened to the red sign flashing above her doorway. Her appointment time blazed before her, but she wasn’t yet late. She marveled. Unless she were ill, Whisterly didn’t sleep during the day. As she sat at her dressing table, she ran a comb through her hair, then inwardly smiled at her mirrored image before her. Even though it wouldn’t remain, for now the peace from within that she had found after her new bond with Jack still continued. Remarkable. She scooted back from the table, alerted her guards and headed out the door for her appointment. Minutes later she rolled her eyes as she lay prone in front of the doctor. Fabulous. Just get it over with. After the examination, Whisterly waited in the doctor’s office, idly clicking her fingernails on the desk. The invasion of her body had just ended, and she felt completely exposed. She had never endured an examination quite like this one. Dr. Tuduly had informed her that, when a child was on the way, these types of visits would be routine. “Well, well, well,” he said as he entered the room and closed the door. “Yes?” “You are still healthy and disease free, which we needed to confirm. And all seems in working order. You’ll find that the new medication you’ll be taking may make you feel…moody…quite out of the ordinary for you, but we must let your body prepare to do what it was meant to do, have a baby. These hormonal fluctuations are a normal part of this process.” Whisterly averted her eyes. “I see. Will I be fit to work?” The doctor chuckled. “Why of course. You’ll learn to deal with this small inconvenience, I assure you.” “My father had mentioned that I’d be monitored for the first eight weeks of the intended twelve weeks to conceive. Is that still the time frame you anticipate?”

“Typically, yes,” he said, then pushed back his chair and projected a document on the wall. “Look at stage one—monitoring and testing. For most women we must regulate their cycle for eight weeks. Not so for you. I believe we can attempt implantation in only two. The timing of your appointment today is perfect. In the next two weeks your new regimen of medication will prepare your body, and you’ll come back two days after the procedure for a pregnancy test.” “Only two days? You can tell after only two days?” The doctor nodded his head. “We can test the day after, but we schedule the appointment after two. The test is easy to complete. In fact, with the number of these procedures we run, these days the kit is prepackaged. If you prefer, I can give you one or two of them to take to your quarters, and you can perform the test yourself if you’d like. Or come in to see me. Makes no difference really.” Whisterly shifted in her seat. “Maybe I’ll give it a try. Can you give them to me now, and I’ll decide later?” “Sure, sure. As I said, makes no difference. It’s just for your peace of mind. And it gives you time to fully consider the results.” “Hmm.” The idea of grasping what little control she could appealed to her. “I’ll take a few of them then.” The doctor returned his attention to the projection on the wall. “Your next appointment you’ll be right here in your cycle.” The pointer showed the detailed diagram of the inner-workings of her body. “Primed for pregnancy and ready for implantation…” “Please turn that off.” Whisterly cleared her throat. “Could you send me information that I might read, so I can be mentally prepared for all this? This was planned for much later, years later in fact. I need to understand, as much as possible, what I’m about to undertake.” The doctor’s mouth transformed into a practiced smile. “Sure. I completely understand. I’ll send it right away, and you can read it at your convenience.” “Many thanks. And now I’ll take my leave.” “Mistress?” “Yes, Doctor.” “You are embarking on the most important work of your existence. The

creation of new life. The heir to our council. The assurance of your bloodline. Nothing is more important.” Whisterly gazed at him solemnly. “You don’t need to remind me of my duty, Doctor. It’s been ingrained in me since birth.” He stood to escort her to the door. “I’ll see you in a few weeks then.” Only two weeks… Her life was about to change forever. She heaved a heavy sigh, paused and forcefully filled her lungs with fresh air. She pulled at the clothing surrounding her neck and quickly loosened several buttons; then Whisterly turned her back on the man and left the office. *** The doors to the council chamber closed with a resounding thud as the ancient wooden structures groaned in protest. The members milled around in small groups of two or three, animatedly discussing the issues, some gyrating wildly, but with little to no speech articulated. Whisterly bowed courteously to her parents, then took the third seat, her father in the first, and her mother in the second. Dugan nodded to the guards, and his wife, signaling the start of the meeting, began speaking aloud as was the custom in all formal meetings. “Let us come to order. We have much to discuss. Everyone find their seats.” Within moments the verbal conversations ceased. Nine sets of eyes turned their gazes forward as they waited with bated breath for the agenda to begin. “Garrick, we’ll start with your report regarding the ongoing studies of integrating holographic life into society,” Dugan began. “However, I will make a brief statement initially, on behalf of my wife and joint chair leader, and myself.” Garrick, who had stood to address the gathering, nodded his head in deference and returned to his seat. “As you are all aware, the past ten years have been devoted to an in-depth study of holographic life-forms and specifically how we could use these forms to complement our daily lives. As more and more of our number fall ill, and we have fewer and fewer live births, our numbers have declined. We are now at a critical juncture as more and more become incapacitated by the sickness, and, as our people are unable to work over time, critical jobs go uncompleted. “As a result we have delved into the study of holograms that can carry on the

work for those who cannot.” Dugan paused and reached for his wife’s hand. “Our resources have been unequally allocated toward this endeavor. Many crucial areas suffer—paramount among them— the research for a cure. We must decide in the coming weeks where our riches lie. We must agree on a path going forward. Commitment to holographic technology cannot be maintained at its current levels without continuing to delay a vaccine and a cure for our dying people.” Dugan gazed into the eyes of his wife. “Many of you are unaware that Trista and I were recently diagnosed.” Murmured conversations broke out through the crowd, and Trista raised her hand as she spoke. “Silence.” Dugan acknowledged his wife and continued. “We are not surprised. We knew our day would come. And, while we can still both function satisfactorily at this time, the doctors believe the mutating strands of this disease cause a much faster, stronger progression than in years past. We do not ask for sympathy. Only one thing could possibly help us now—a cure. “Today, due to the resources diverted toward our holographic dream, the cure is still years into the future. My joint chair leader and I will be leading the vote against continuing to pour our precious capital and resources toward this effort. Sadly it’s too late for us. But there is hope for a new future.” Dugan paused momentarily, meeting the gazes of the council members head-on. “Garrick, you may now speak.” Whisterly felt the telepathic communication rise among the group. She maintained a mental link with each member to monitor the continuing conversations. Never had she heard her parents come out so forcefully against the direction of the council. Presented directly with their own imminent mortality maybe changed their thought processes. Whisterly could not support their about-face, however. The council had been steadily moving in this direction for over a decade. In Whisterly’s opinion the benefits far outweighed the costs. If they were to maintain a society, the business of life must continue, else they would eventually crumble and fall like the ancient ruins of the past. She glanced sideways at her parents. They appeared frail, more so than she could

ever remember. How could she have missed this? A few days ago, when they came to visit Whisterly with their news, she had only focused on the changes in her own life—the upheaval a baby so soon would bring. She was slowly beginning to understand there were key elements of wisdom in this decision. A successor was needed. She would be the vessel. Time—she needed more time to find another way. There had to be an alternative. But time wasn’t necessarily her friend. She had no way of knowing how long she would remain healthy. A successful pregnancy and delivery depended all upon the mother. She already knew this to be true. Their declining numbers continually pointed to this fact. Garrick stood to address the council. “As the first to speak after such an announcement, let me offer my sympathy to you both, but, at the same time, your diagnosis doesn’t necessitate a death sentence. Your lives may continue on as we seek the cure. We are so close to making holographic life a reality within our society.” Garrick’s voice rose as he continued to speak. “We’ve talked about these beings before in this forum, including the fact that they eat, sleep, work and appear just like those whose lives they represent. It is quite remarkable really. So much so that I’ve taken the liberty of bringing one of these beings with me today. So look around to your left, then your right. One of your number is a holographic being. Can you guess which one? “They can speak perfectly. These beings breathe, communicate telepathically, eat, rejuvenate, sweat—hells, they can even perform the archaic sexual rituals, should it be necessary or desired. The most important factor, however, is the ability to reason, interact and work, in order to maintain the proper functioning of our society. As our numbers fall and people remain in the infirmary, they can soon be fully replaced by one of these highly functioning beings. I, for one, am completely sold.” A steady murmur of conversation grew among the attendees as they moved among themselves, shaking hands and thumping one another on the shoulder, as if the holographic being would keel over when confronted. Telepathic activity soared. Whisterly homed in on several key contributors. Garrick stood in the midst of

the chaos, his lips curled into a smile, seemingly enjoying every moment. It appeared he had accomplished his objective. If the council couldn’t tell the difference, these beings could most likely easily be integrated into their society, the first test. Next, their functioning ability would be key. “Come to order at once,” Dugan shouted over the growing din. “Who gave permission for this stunt?” Garrick raised his eyebrows and outstretched his arms to the group. “Had I informed the council of my actions, there would have been no effect. Clearly my demonstration is proof of that and brings forth fuel for more thought.” Still standing, he nodded in affirmation to the group. “Agreed?” The tone, pitch and frequency of the conversations accelerated once again. “Sit down, Garrick. And, for the record, you should always inform your council chairs of anything…out of the ordinary that you plan to introduce during a meeting. You, however, knew exactly what you were doing.” Garrick stifled a laugh, yet obediently sat as directed. The attendees continued to peer around the room and to reach out to one another telepathically, the holographic being still as yet unidentified. Dugan continued. “Send your updated data to the members, Garrick, and we will vote, once and for all, to choose a course, if you will, that will guide us and the generations to come. Trista and I have already evaluated this information, and I implore you to take the time until our next meeting to fully consider the ramifications of the decisions that we will make. Your children, your children’s children will suffer the consequences should we choose unwisely.” Dugan’s voice wavered as he continued, and a hush fell over the small gathering. “Make no mistake, history will return to this time and hold us accountable for our actions. Evaluate wisely. It is our future demise or rise at stake.” “As you wish,” Garrick said, breaking the silence. “I’ll send it out this afternoon.” Dugan nodded absentmindedly, then turned to his daughter. “Whisterly will now report on the new detainees and the status of the testing underway.” Whisterly acknowledged her father and stood to address the group, all the while keeping the telepathic link to each intact.

“I just received notification before coming into this meeting that unfortunately our initial testing has revealed only two in the group who will be held for additional testing. The rest will be sent back to their home world as soon as their memory banks can be wiped, most likely within the next few days. The remaining two will undergo weeks, even months of evaluation as their results are compiled and more tests are run.” Dugan retreated within his own thoughts as Whisterly continued her explanation. Another bad omen. She had briefly informed her parents before stepping into the meeting. At least a sliver of hope remained among the two humans. While the scarcity of resources continued to rise, there would be fewer of these missions in the future. So be it. In her opinion, her parents’ lack of vision had failed the people. They may all pay the ultimate price. “Father, have you anything further for the council?” The stillness of the room settled expectantly as all eyes focused on Dugan. Whisterly shot her father a gentle shock through their mental connection. Whisterly, how long have I been lost in my own thoughts? Not long Father. “No, thank you, Whisterly. We are adjourned.” Dugan pushed back his chair and, without a word, not even to Trista, left the chamber, followed closely by his two guards. For more information about Remeon’s Quest

ABOUT THE BOOK A group of teenagers with superhero powers must battle against a race of lizards ravaging the galaxy in book one of this new young adult science fiction/fantasy series. When war is rekindled on planet Rhybannon, sixteen-year-old Ezmer is forced from his home. Now he and his group of newly acquired friends are on the run, caught up in an age-old war with the Daigatons. When they find eight magical necklaces that once belonged to great warriors who protected the universe, they soon discover that the necklaces are more than they appear. Will this new team of heroes be able to use their newfound powers to end the war and save their universe?

Prologue At the end of the first war, no one expected a second would soon follow. It was such a violent eruption of evil there wasn’t a single soul that could stop it. The impending darkness spread throughout the universe like wildfire in a dry forest, and the devastating wave essentially destroyed all that came close. The ever-growing evil began on planet Daigaton. The Daigatons themselves are bloodthirsty killing machines that look like an enormous, hard-scaled Komodo dragon standing on its hind legs with long, extremely sharp claws and hand complexions. They have rather long arms and legs and are very agile. Their full length, including their tails, is nearly twelve to fifteen feet long. The universe seemed defeated, but eight Warriors arose to save the galaxy. Each had their own special powers and abilities. Together, they were able to save each planet, one by one. As for the Daigatons yet living after many battles, they were imprisoned on their home planet and guarded by these eight Warriors. The Warriors, guarding the Daigatons for many years, tried to come to a unified decision on what they should do with their prisoners. When it became clear they couldn’t come to an agreement on the Daigatons’ fate, the Warriors decided to rest for as long as they needed in their necklace enchantments, which each resembled something of themselves. They traveled to a planet of many colors and mysteries and created a cave with tunnels and entry points to hide, leaving the Daigatons imprisoned on their planet. The Daigatons, now unguarded, were somehow freed from their prisons. Their numbers were few, and it took a long time to build up their new bloodthirsty army to its original number so they could dominate the galaxy once again. The entire galaxy believed they were in captivity, so the Daigatons went on unchallenged. When they were ready, they struck quick and hard. The war erupted again, and no one could stop it; all that tried were killed. The Warriors alone could put an end to the Daigatons’ rise of power, but they could not release themselves from their enchantments. Instead, eight others, of the Warriors’ choosing, could receive the Warriors’ powers and obtain their secrets.

The war went on until, finally, one man brought the many different races of the universe together to fight for their freedom. They prepared for battle as they approached Daigaton from all angles, determined to defeat them at any expense. After they landed and departed from their ships, they marched out to face the Daigatons for the final battle. The battle waged on forever, seemingly at a standstill, with neither side getting the upper hand. It wasn’t until the Daigatons’ leader, the worst of them all with a thirst for war that couldn’t be matched, fought that things took a turn for the worse. Walking with his humongous double-sided blade, he killed with a single blow, looking in their eyes as they died. The leader of the other races finally came forward to fight the leader of the Daigatons, and they fought with all their might as the horrific battle continued around them. As time passed agonizingly slow, no hits were traded between them, but the two leaders tiredly fought on. Then, finally, the man slammed the Daigatons’ leader’s sword out of his hands before lifting that sword and slicing along the leader’s monstrous face, causing the Daigaton to fall to the ground. The remaining Daigatons knew their leader had been struck down and were frightened. They turned tail and fled immediately. The man and his people may have won their freedom, but so many of his people had died that they still lost. He returned to his home planet a broken man, not knowing the Daigaton leader would return to wreak havoc once more. Twenty years have passed, and we begin the journey with me, Ezmer Jouzmon. I recently turned fifteen years old, and I have a giant imagination for adventure. With it, I end up meeting people of all sorts, some who are very nice and some who are among the worst villains in the universe. Of course, I’m talking about the Daigatons. These Alieazoids, as some have come to call them, seem to have no living soul, just an empty case. The Alieazoids, led by the worst of their kind, Vile, the most feared monstrosity, have been taking over planets throughout the galaxy once again, seemingly quicker than before. Despite their efforts to protect themselves, most planets have been conquered. In this age, there have been advances in technology for many things: medicine, space travel, communications and the like, but little in the areas of weaponry or

armor. Guns are not common in the universe, and, although some exist in quite a variety, they’re not even heard of in some places and are difficult to come by. Most planets’ weapons consist of what you would refer to as medieval: swords, spears, bows and arrows, and other such weapons are used. Metal armor is worn, and shields are used for protection against these weapons. There was no need to advance weapons in the universe after the Treaty of the Stars was declared, in which after the first war, every planet in the galaxy signed for universal peace. Since peace was tenuous, however, all agreed not to allow the advancements of arms. That agreement may have been their downfall in the battles against the Alieazoids. Also, in this age, the galaxy has become a land where magic spells and other sorceries are used. What you would consider to be mystical creatures live among everyone in their everyday life. Creatures such as fairies, unicorns, goblins, dwarves, elves, and many others live among us in the galaxy. My home planet is called Rhybannon. The Rhybainions have a greenish plant texture to their skin, pointed ears, and silver angel wings that sparkle in the light. I live there with my parents on our farm. In places such as this, people wear tunics and dresses or work clothing. It’s harvest time on Rhybannon, and that’s where my story begins.

Chapter One I’d been sitting in my room for a long while now. With my art pad in my lap, I was working on another piece of landscape art. The walls of my room were covered with plenty more, some from years before. If you looked through all my work, you would see that I’d improved over the many days of practice. The compliments people had given me on them, especially since I was just fifteen, were incredible. But here I was, my own worst critic, saying that they were nowhere near what they could be. “Son!” my father yelled. “Help me with the harvest!” That’s my dad, Zyne. He can get a little grumpy, but he’s a pretty cool guy over all. If you imagine a burly, heavyset man with a bit of a gut, that would be my dad. I put my art pad away and exited my room. “Why?” I complained, while I stumbled out of our underground house. It was a nice residence that was dug out from underneath a huge tree. “I don’t like doing it. Besides, I’m only fifteen; I should be going out and having fun with my friends. I don’t think I can do much more than that.” I wouldn’t consider myself a weakling, but I’m nothing close to what my dad is, more than what someone would call skin and bones. “Yes, you can,” he replied. “But only if you get off your lazy ass!” “Fine, I’m coming,” I said, groaning. I made my way out to the field where my father was. Grabbing one of the gardening tools, I began to help him. This was always the worst part of my day. I think my dad only made me help him because he knew that it annoyed me, a lot. After working for a couple of hours, I wanted to get my mind off the vegetation. “Dad, have you ever thought of leaving this planet to go somewhere else?” I asked him as I threw some of the harvested goods into the wagon. “Of course, I’ve thought of it, son,” he told me. “But if we left here, where would we go, and what would we do? There’s nothing out there except trouble. War and death are all that awaits anyone that leaves. Besides, all our friends and family live here, so there’s no reason for us to leave.” “Well, have you ever left the planet before?” I asked him, throwing another load

of harvested goods into the hover wagon. It was an old piece of equipment, but it made hauling the vegetation easier than having a beast pull it for us. He stopped working for a moment and looked over at me. “I have only left the planet once, and it wasn’t exactly the best time ever,” he told me as he wiped the sweat from his brow. “Oh, really? What happened?” I was just dying to know. It could have been the highlight of my day. “Dinner’s ready, you two!” we heard my mother, Mai, shout from the house. She’s nice; she has never thrown a fit about anything, from what I know. I would give her the title “pleasantly nice,” and her face always showed it. “Never mind now, son. It’s time to eat,” my dad said as he walked to the house. We went into the kitchen, and right away we could smell the fantastic aroma of a home-cooked meal. The stump table in the center of the room was set with food and ready for us to eat. As I sat down, I looked at all my mother’s crafts around the room, along with the elegant flowers that she would bring in. She brought the main course to the table, and we began to chow down. As dinner progressed, I wasn’t eating like I usually did, and my mother noticed this. “So, Ezmer, how was your day?” she asked, trying to get a conversation started. “Boring as usual,” I replied. “It seems as if nothing ever happens around here except farming, eating, and sleeping. I want to do more than that.” “You have your artwork, don’t you?” she reminded me. “That second-rate stuff?” “You’re always your worst critic.” “My artwork’s all the same thing, just like my life.” I started to break off into fantasy, like I always did. “I want to go on adventures and become a hero. I could have the time of my life saving people. The universe needs a hero; that hero could be me. I would be the best sword wielder ever, and I would charge into battle with thousands at my back fighting for me. I could be what the galaxy needs.” I paused for a moment and broke out of my little daydream. “Yeah, like that would ever happen. Wonder what that’d be like.” There was a quick silence between my parents. “What?” I asked them. There I went again, me and my big imagination. My parents looked at each other. “Honey,” my dad said, “do you think he’s old

enough to know the story?” “I think he is,” she answered. “What are you two talking about?” I asked, curious. “You’ll find out tomorrow,” my dad answered. “Just finish eating your dinner and get ready for bed. I’ll have to get something to show you when I tell the story. You’ll have to wait until then.” When we were done eating, I had to clean up the table. My parents went out to finish the day’s harvest. Left to myself, I kept wondering what they meant by “Do you think he is old enough?” And what story were they talking about? I was just too eager to wait until tomorrow to find out. With my luck, it would just be some sort of farming tale. But what if it wasn’t? What if this could change my life? That would be quite the story. I let my thoughts run wild as I placed the dishes in the sink. Then all of a sudden, I heard a loud blasting outside. I quickly looked out the door; my parents were being shot at by a gun from above. It was one of the more advanced guns, topof-the-line quality. Before this, I had heard about guns. This was my first interaction with them, and it was terrifying. I quickly ducked down underneath the stairs inside of the house before I was seen. The firing stopped. I cautiously peeked outside to see what was going on, and someone came down in what appeared to be some state of levitation. He was a huge, buff, well-built alien of some sort. But he was ugly and had a disgusting grayish-green color to his scales and a large distortion on his face. His eyes also had a nasty bloodred glow that would horrify anyone. As he came down, my father demanded, “Who are you, and what the hell do you think you are doing?!” “Don’t you recognize me?” he asked with a tone of death that was spine-chilling. “It’s your old pal, Vile. It’s time for you to die, and I’ll be the one to kill you.” He pulled out an enormous double-barreled gun, and with one shot, he killed them both! He landed and walked into my house; I remained hidden and did my best to remain quiet. He began to search through everything, constantly yelling, “Where is

it?!” I kept wondering what he was looking for. We, honestly, didn’t have too many things of value. He tore through and trashed everything in the entire house, even breaking the stump table with a swing of his tail. He couldn’t find what he was looking for and began to leave. Furiously, he made his way to the door. In the entranceway, he stopped and pulled out his gun, placing a red attachment of some kind on the side of it. He raised the gun above his head, pulled the trigger, and a burst of flame came out and spread over the entirety of the room. He was setting fire to my house! He finally walked out the door, muttered something that sounded like, “Hafth,” and hovered away. I knew that I’d have to wait awhile before I could come out of hiding. The flames closed in around me. I didn’t want to die, not like this. When it got too hot to bear, I fled from the inferno. By the time I came out from underneath the stairs, it was too late to put the fire out, and it was way too late to save my parents. I had no clue why that Vile guy would want to kill them; they’d never done anything to anyone, as far as I knew. I didn’t know what I could have done to help them and stood over them for a moment in a petrified position. I knelt beside them and gave a little shove to see if they would get up, but they just laid there, blood pouring onto the ground. I knew that I should do something. Feeling helpless and a little sick, I took them both and placed them against the burning house. Biting my lower lip, I backed away, turned, and left in tears. I couldn’t stay there. What if Vile came back? But I also couldn’t just live out in the middle of the woods by myself; I wouldn’t have the skills to do that. I had to think of where I needed to go now and quickly tried to think of friends and family that I could live with for the time being. Wherever I did go, I would have to get there in a hurry. Then it hit me that one of my dad’s best friends, Endokia Markman, lived the closest, about thirty miles from my house. I set off, trying to remember the path to his house because it had been a while since I’d been there last. I remembered the general direction but not the exact path. The thickness of the forest made it impossible for me to just fly over and spot his house; I was forced

to walk. I headed off down the path in that direction, but sure enough, not long after I left, I became lost just as I expected I might. I had no idea of where I was or where to go. The trees were so dense that I couldn’t even see back to where my burning house might potentially be. It soon became dark, and I decided that I would make camp and continue the next morning. I had a really hard time falling asleep that night. Too many thoughts were running through my head. I kept thinking of that Vile character. The “why” and “who” and “what” all revolved around in my head that night. It was cold and dark. I used my wings as cover for warmth. The trees were so thick that only traces of light shone through to the forest floor. The faint amount of wind that made it into the thicket whistled, and creatures stirred in the night. I attempted to ignore the noise, but the more I tried, the louder it seemed to become. I kept telling myself that it was all a bad dream that I’d wake up from sometime soon. I covered myself even more to hide from it all. I didn’t ever want to be found by the animals that lived here. I started to shiver, and that’s when I noticed that I’d been crying for who knows how long. When I finally went to sleep that night, I had a horrible nightmare that Vile and I faced off one-on-one in some kind of broken-down, rusty, old factory. He got the better of me and knocked me out. As I woke up, still in that horrific dream, I was being tortured, and he kept asking me where something was. I couldn’t understand what he kept asking. Even though it was a dream, it seemed so real, and at some points, I could even feel the pain. It was beyond terrifying. It had become a reality of its own. *** I awoke on the third day of my departure wondering which direction I was going to try today. At this point, even I would say that I was completely lost and hadn’t the slightest sense of what to do. Unraveling my wings for a morning stretch, I took off down a pathway of the Tethered Forest, hoping that this one would lead me in the right direction. I began to get the suspicious feeling that someone was following me, and I flew upward in the best open area I could find to see if I could spot anything. I wasn’t

high by any means, but it was a better vantage point. I stopped in midflight, looking around, and I saw these two glowing, white figures in the forest. I turned around to follow them before I heard a subtle noise in the brush behind me. I stopped again for a moment. Suddenly, I was slammed to the ground from behind. I rolled over and looked up to see a wild eagle. The eagles on Rhybannon are huge, about ten feet tall with extra-sharp claws on their feet. Some of the larger eagles even have claws that grow out from their wings, more vicious than any carnivore claws. I was completely dumbfounded and had no idea what I was going to do as it slammed on the ground directly in front of me. It stood as high as it could, spread its wings, and let out an enormous screech. There was something wrong with it. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was definitely something abnormal about its behavior. Turning tail, I flew as fast as I could away from it, but it came after me with a hateful intent. I flew deeper into the Tethered Forest, hoping to escape from it. I was sweeping through the smallest areas between branches trying to get away, but the eagle smashed the branches into twigs. This was way out of character for an eagle; they would never destroy what could possibly be their home. The overaggressive eagle got closer and closer as it tried to hit me with its claws. It got close enough, took a swipe, and slashed my left arm, wing and back. I screamed at the top of my lungs as I squeezed the cut on my arm to stop the bleeding. I kept flying on, pouring blood down the path. The immense eagle hit the side of a tree, which bought me some time. By pure luck, I spotted a hole in a tree and immediately hid inside. After the eagle had passed and I could no longer hear its cries, I flew to the ground and began walking back to my shelter. It hurt too much to fly. I tore off my sleeve to examine the cut. There was a huge gash on my left arm, about halfway around on the outer side, and I could feel that a good bit was taken out of my wing and part of my back. I also felt my blue blood trickling at a tremendous rate down my skin. Taking my sleeve, I wrapped it over the cut and tied it as tight as I could to stop the bleeding. I walked and walked, exhausted, sweat slowly trickling down my face,

barely able to move through the thick forest. I became too tired and had to rest against a tree for a few moments. Ripping some of the larger leaves from the smaller plants, I covered the gash on my back the best that I could. My breath became more even as I slowly passed out in the crevice of the trunk. I laid there, feeling as if I was going to die. I fell into a thick slumber. I awakened later that day by an awkward wind, dazed and in excruciating pain. I, nevertheless, was able to slowly get up. My wounds were healed somewhat. Not enough that they didn’t need tending to, but enough that the bleeding had almost come to a complete stop. I headed to my shelter. When I got there, I examined my cuts and tried to clean them with some water and a cloth, just hoping that they would get better. I placed the wet cloth on my wing to help with the cuts that I couldn’t see on my backside. But they were healed, like I had thought, although they still hurt and needed to be cleaned. This led me to wonder “What healed me? What were those figures?” The thoughts lingered with me as I scratched another path off my imaginary list of future routes. *** It had been seven difficult days since I had left my home. The water and food rations were getting very low. I was down to a few sips of rainwater, two fish, and some fruit. I grabbed the fishing rod that I had made from wood and a woven clothes string. I headed down to Aquwer Lake hoping to catch “the big one” for a meal. I began to walk along a trail, and as I spotted it, it glimmered in the sun’s light with calm, inviting waters. As I walked closer, I heard a voice say, “Well, hi, Ezmer. I didn’t expect to see you today.” I looked around. There was this head bobbing out of the water. It was Angelina Lizkin, the princess of the Aquwers’ underwater kingdom. Aquwers have different male and female complexions and have a humanoid torso and marine-like tails with long, flat tentacles coming out of them. The males have long, flat fins that come out of their arms and back, and the females have one pair of large, retractable fins on their arms, as well as two dorsal fins of a larger size lined up on their backs. Some type of fin is also at the same place an ear would normally be. Both males and females have bluish-green scales covering half their body, and the other half is covered in pure

white skin. They are supposedly the fastest water creatures on the planet, maybe the universe. “Hi Angelina,” I greeted. “How’re you today?” “I’m good,” she replied. “Just out for a while.” “Won’t the king get mad?” I asked as I threw my line out. “Not likely. He doesn’t even know I’m out.” “Angelina, don’t you remember how mad he was last time?” “He wasn’t mad that I was out. He was mad because I was talking to you. Daddy is like that sometimes.” “Why’s that?” I questioned as my line began to tug. “He believes that we are superior to you Land Fliers, as he calls you.” “That’s ridiculous,” I said, pulling my line in. “I’m no more important than anyone else.” I had almost pulled my line completely in when Angelina’s father, the king himself, jumped up out of the water and knocked me over. “What do you think you’re doing with my daughter?!” he demanded. “I uh…I…I…uh,” I stuttered. Angelina swam over. “It’s nothing, daddy. We were just talking,” she explained. “How many times have I told you not to talk to the Land Fliers?” “I lost count,” she told him. “Don’t you get smart with me, young lady,” he snapped. “Now you swim on back home.” “Fine,” she complained, going under. “As for you,” he said, pointing at me. “I never want to see you with my daughter ever again. Got it?” “Yes, sir,” I answered, nodding my head. “Good,” he replied. “Now leave and never come back.” I left as he dove back into the water to go back to his kingdom. “What a jerk,” I said to myself. “He thinks he’s correct right away. He didn’t even want to hear my side of the story.” I kept talking to myself about how rude he was as I walked down the path. Suddenly, there was this familiar, loud screeching sound. The eagle whipped out onto the path and began to charge at me. Dropping my fishing gear, I turned

around and bolted down the path back toward the lake. I took off over it, hoping to get away this time. Yet, over the deep drop of the lake, the eagle was lingering just above me. It plummeted down upon my back and knocked me into the water. I slowly slipped away from life as I sank deeper and deeper. I gradually lost the feeling of my body as I drifted away. Suddenly, I felt arms wrap around me, lifting me toward the surface. When we broke free, I was still unconscious and half-alive, being pushed to the shore. Once we made it, I was still unable to get up or move and simply laid there. At that point, I just wanted to let go, but I couldn’t. It was like my mind wouldn’t let me do anything except lay there. “Ezmer,” a voice began. “Ezmer, get up…get up, Ezmer. Oh, I’ve got to be able to do something.” At that moment, I felt a slight breeze blow over me, similar to that awkward wind from before. I began to violently cough and cough. I rolled over to my side, still coughing, and I finally hacked up a load of water as it flew out of my mouth and ran out of my nose. I wondered what had happened. I looked around to discover Angelina next to me, halfway up the shore. She looked at me with a smile as her tail flopped up and down on the sand. I could tell something wasn’t right as her scales began to flake gradually. Aquwers can’t last long outside of water. Her eyes were gently closing, and her smile became a cold, flat line underneath her nose. She seemed to fall asleep as she slowly slumped over. I forced myself up under my own strength, walked to her, put my arms underneath her rough, dried out, scaled body, and carried her to the deeper water. I simply dropped her in and waited, wobbling to and fro as the waves crashed into my chest. Not long after, Angelina came up in front of me, and a small grin crossed her face. “Thanks,” she said shyly. I just looked straight at her with a stunned face. “You’re…welcome,” I bluntly said as I turned and began to walk toward the shore. The waves hit my wings and back, and every time they did, the sorer I became. I finally made it to the shore. I could see those two glowing figures, but I was too exhausted to identify or even go after them. As I collapsed to my knees, then onto my beaten and battered body, the side of my face kissed the sand, and I

rested there for hours until I regained my strength. After what seemed like four or five hours, I got up off the warm sand and walked down the trail. I picked up my fishing gear and went for my shelter. I set my gear down and began to make a fire. After about ten minutes, I had a fire lit and burning strong. I picked up the smaller fish, stuck a stick through it, set it over the fire, grabbed one of the fruits and began to eat. As I ate, I started to wonder if I would make it out of the forest, if I would be able to eat good food again, and if I would sleep in a bed with fluffy pillows, warm, soft blankets, and a cozy mattress. I missed waking up with the remembrance of a dream that would stay with me and put a smile on my face even in the worst circumstances. I began to believe that I would never have that experience ever again. I ate the fish, and then went to bed early, crying myself to sleep. That night, the nightmare of Vile and me sparring came to me once again. He was the cause of all this. I swore that I would get my revenge on him. I was quite sure that it would be a long time coming. *** Two weeks had passed since Vile had destroyed my life. I decided to go off and search for Endokia’s house again. I wasn’t sure if I would find it, but today felt different. I took some time to pack food, and then I headed down to the lake to say good-bye to Angelina. I cautiously moved to the water, hoping I wouldn’t be seen by her father. “Angelina? Angelina, are you there?” I whispered. Just then, bubbles came up to the surface of the lake, and after them came Angelina, flying up out of the water before she dove back in. She had her head just over the top as she swam over. “What do you want, Ezmer?” she questioned kindly. “I’m going to search for Endokia’s house again. I think I might find it this time, so I’m going to say good-bye because I might not be coming back; so good-bye.” “Good-bye,” she calmly replied. As I walked away, she shouted out, “Hey, Ezmer! Wait! Do you think if you ever left the planet, that when you came back, you could tell me if Aquwers are truly the fastest water creatures in the universe?” she asked shyly. “I promise,” I answered. “I promise whatever happens, I will come back and tell

you if you truly are the fastest water creatures in the universe. That is, if I leave the planet.” “Thanks, Ezmer.” She smiled. “That really means a lot to me. I guess that I’ll see you around sometime.” “Well, you’re welcome. I’ll see you around sometime as well. Good-bye.” I finished the conversation and turned away, heading back down the trail feeling hopeful; I was going to find Endokia’s house. I found myself heading through one of the thicker parts of the forest with the low, damp tree branches and the tall, rough, scratchy grass. It seemed as if I couldn’t see five feet in front of me. One minute, I was swatting at bugs in the air, and the next, I was flicking annoying ticks and parasites off my arms and legs. I looked up to see if I could fly over the treetops to get a better view, but it was nearly impossible to even see the sky. I kept walking for about ten more minutes, and then I began to smell the nasty aroma of old, scorched wood that seemed to be at the end of the forest where the light was gleaming through. I had no idea what to expect until I stepped onto the black, smoldering ashes. I was so lost that I ended up at what was left of my house. I could hardly stand there as my eyes slowly began to water up at the sight of it, destroyed and burned to the last tip of the roots that were buried deep beneath the ground. I saw the embedded skeletal remains of my loving parents, and at that moment, I fell to my battered and bruised knees. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I burst into tears that rolled down my cheeks, my nose, my chin and slid into my mouth as chills flowed through my entire swollen body. “Why?!” I cried. “Why couldn’t I have gone with them? Why should I live? I want them back. Why can’t…why can’t I go back to that day, with the smell of sweet, brisk wind in my nose? I would have helped my dad with the harvest more often or my mom with the cooking. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry that I didn’t help either of you. I want to go back to help you. I’m so sorry!” I managed to say all this inbetween the coughing and snorting of my shivering, runny nose. My body was completely exhausted. It took quite a while to get myself together. When I did, I stood up sniffling and slowly walked in the direction that I thought, yet again, was the way to Endokia’s

house. I walked back into the forest, tired and exhausted. My body was telling me that I needed to rest. I quickly found a place to lie down and take a break. I took a deep breath as my eyes remained closed, and the day marched on without me. I was mere moments away from falling asleep when I suddenly heard a gun cock. I quickly opened my eyes to see where it came from. It was too late; I’d been shot!

Chapter Two When I finally opened my eyes, I couldn’t see anything except tainted black everywhere. I blinked a few times to clear my senses and nothing became visible. It remained dark. “Oh, good, you’re awake,” a voice said. “I thought you were an Alieazoid, sorry. Can never be too careful. I’m Endokia, and you are…?” “Ezmer, my name is Ezmer. I can’t see,” I said, shocking both of us. “Oh my word, are you all right?” he questioned. “Yeah, I think so,” I replied. “Well, if I’d known who you were, I wouldn’t have shot you. Besides, the gun is only supposed to temporarily paralyze.” “How’d you come by a gun? They’re very rare.” “I got it when I was off the planet years ago,” he told me, then quickly changed the subject. “Well, I, uh, made you some food, so eat up.” He handed me a bowl with some type of soup in it. I sniffed; it had a horrible aroma. “What is it?” I asked. “It’s canto soup made from the bark of the layered canto tree.” It smelled nasty, but at this point, I was starving, so I just hoped it tasted better than it smelled. I took a small sip. It didn’t taste that bad, so I began to chow down. “It’s good,” I complimented him, between sips. “Thank you,” Endokia said. “So, Ezmer was it? That makes you Zyne’s and Mai’s child. Do you know what happened to your house?” he asked me as I heard him walking around. I took a deep breath before I put my head down and said, “Some alien came hovering down with a power; I can’t tell you what power. He was the ugliest thing I’d ever seen, with dirty and torn clothes, wearing some smashed-up armor. He had a distorted face and a long tail to go with his scaly body. He announced his name as Vile and then killed my parents. When he showed up, I hid in the house. He came barging in, destroying everything, yelling ‘Where is it?’ over and over. He

apparently didn’t find what he was looking for and left, but before he did, he set the house on fire. I stayed where I was as long as I could so he wouldn’t spot me. I left the remains of my home to look for you, and I was lost for two weeks. During that time, I took a break, but I decided to look for you again and accidentally came across my house once more. I spent some time there before I set out again. Then you shot me, and here I am,” I said, finally finished with my story. “Wow,” he began. “That’s amazing. You lasted two weeks on your own. That’s good for someone your age.” “All right,” I interrupted. “Enough of the insults. I just want to know how you got a gun.” “I got it on one of the adventures with your dad,” he explained. “Adventures? What adventures?” I questioned. “You mean he didn’t tell you?” “Tell me what?” “Well, first of all, you said Vile was looking for something, correct?” “Well, yes,” I answered. “But what’s that have to do with anything?” “I believe I know what he was looking for,” he told me. “Just stay there; I’ll be right back.” I heard him walk off, open something, and begin to move things around, making clunking and crackling noises. “Ah, here it is,” I heard him say. “Your father wanted you to have this. Be very careful with it.” “What is it?” I asked him as I felt it. There was a long handle attached to a long, flat metal object. The edges were sharp, and it was surprisingly light. “It was your father’s sword,” he answered. “He named it Cleanser.” That’s silly, I thought. “Why’s that?” I asked aloud. “Because it can cleanse away evil and cure the injured and ill, but only those of his bloodline can use it. No one else knows how, not even me.” “I don’t know how to use it, and my dad no longer can,” I pointed out. “So, what wouldVile want with it if he can’t use it either?” “There is something very important I should tell you,” he began. “See, before you were born, your father was on an adventure, a quest if you would. He was one of the few that took a stand against Vile and his Alieazoid army, and I was his first follower among what was later a much larger group. Your father inherited the

sword from his father, and, in a way, it became part of him. He learned how to use it as he went, and, with Cleanser, he scarred Vile’s face during a great battle. Many of your father’s followers died during this fight, however. Your mother, one of them, came back to Rhybannon with your father. He settled down with her, ended his heroic adventures, and gave the sword to me. I was told to keep it safe in case Vile’s evil Alieazoids arose again. That’s why I was at what was your home; I came to see if your father wanted the sword back.” “Wow,” I said, excited. “That’s amazing! Why didn’t he just go off with my mother and have adventures with her?” “He felt he needed to settle down anyway,” he said, stuttering. “Well, I believe it is time for you to begin your training.” “Training? What are you talking about?” I asked. “If something happened to him, your father asked me to train and look after you. He made a special request for major conflict fight training. Since you’re blind right now, you’ll have to learn how to navigate without running into or tripping over anything. You’ll have to learn how to live with your disability, which, hopefully, won’t last that long. Your father wanted you to learn all this because he had a feeling the evil would rise again. He told me to hold on to the sword and remember everything he taught me.” *** My training started out simple but got progressively harder. At first, I needed to simply familiarize myself with his house and identify each room as I walked in. Later, I had to identify his ship in a similar fashion, which, from what I could tell, was decently sized. After that, I navigated my way around the forests surrounding his home, each trail and every shed. Finally, I started to practice my attack and defensive skills, which had to be the best of them all with its own levels of difficulty. I began with basic weapon handling tactics for the sword and practiced attacking wooden dummies. I had to cut them with Cleanser in a certain amount of time, and more were added as my timing improved. I also needed to be able to defend myself. To help me do so, Endokia chose decent sized stones and threw them at me. Listening closely to Endokia’s

movements, I used Cleanser to knock them away; fast footwork—along with rolls and tumbles—to evade the stone’s path was a necessity. At first, I took quite a few rocks to the face, but after a few days, I was able to detect them a lot better. Finally, I moved on to physical combat training with Endokia and learned simple steps and movements with sticks before transitioning to the sword. Next up was slow motion conflict before I was ready for full speed fighting at last, which, unfortunately, took a while. I could always tell that Endokia was holding back during our fights. Most of the time, I attacked, and he defended. I knew if I fought a true enemy, I’d be the one less likely to win. *** About two months of training, fighting, and long exercises had passed, and I felt buff and wished I could see myself. Endokia and I had both originally expected my eyesight to have returned by now. I went out on one of my morning runs throughout the forest around Endokia’s property, and while I did so, he would time me. I used Cleanser to cut through various objects such as small trees and rotten logs. I began to wonder, “What if I never see again? Is that possible?” Not having my sight would make it extremely difficult to take down Vile. Eyesight or not, I wanted to be the one to take him down. This would be my chance to be the hero I always wanted to be. Lost in my thoughts, I wasn’t paying attention to my trial run. I began to imagine myself home again, spending time with my parents hiking or flying on our family nights. I was locked away in those memories, wishing that those moments would come back, when I suddenly collided with something. I dropped to the ground, and Cleanser flew out of my hand. “Are you all right?” I heard a sweet, comforting voice ask. “Yeah, I’m all right. Can you help me find my sword?” I asked, rolling over and feeling around. “Only if you help me find my flute.” I easily determined it was a girl, maybe older than me. “It is a silver bello flute that can extend.” “I won’t be able to do that,” I replied, still feeling around. “Well, why not?” she complained. “I’m helping you; you could at least help me.” “Why don’t you look closely at my eyes?”

I heard her get closer to observe. “What? I don’t see any…oh my gosh! You’re blind! I mean, sure I’ll help you find your sword.” “Thanks,” I replied glumly. “Uh, my name is Kendra Klaymore,” she said. “What’s yours?” “My name’s Ezmer Jouzmon,” I stated clearly. “Ezmer, huh? Not a bad name. Well, here’s your sword,” she said, handing Cleanser to me. I nodded my head to say thanks. “Umm, can I come with you?” Kendra asked sweetly. “Sure,” I answered. “Just follow me.” “I don’t mean to be rude, but how do you know where you’re going, being blind and all?” she questioned. “I know this track quite well. Oh shoot, we have to hurry. I’m being timed. This is a trial run to help me navigate through obstacles.” I sprinted away from Kendra to get back to Endokia’s house and arrived before she did, jumping out of the forest. “Your time was slower,” Endokia announced. “I kind of figured,” I said, coughing as I gasped for air. “I ran into someone I think you’d like to meet.” As I finished, Kendra came running out of the forest. “I lost you for a second there, Ezmer,” she said. “Oh, hello there. You must be the one timing him. I’m Kendra. And you are?” “I’m Endokia,” he answered. “Kendra, do you mind if I talk to Ezmer for a moment?” “No,” she replied, looking around. Endokia grabbed my arm and took me off to the side. “What do you think you’re doing!” he whispered angrily. “You have no idea who she is. She could be some sort of spy for Vile.” “Oh, I get it; you’re jealous. So she’s really that hot?” “Ezmer!” he growled, grabbing me once again. “I’m not kidding. Can you tell if she’s a spy?” Now it was my chance to turn the tables on him. “Can you tell if she’s a spy?” I rudely reversed the question. “Don’t get smart with me, Ezmer!” he said, still whispering. “Remember, I’m the

teacher, and you’re the student!” “Yeah, but you have to teach me no matter what. Remember, you promised my father.” “Excuse me,” Kendra interrupted. “I couldn’t help but overhear you two arguing about me. I’m not a spy for whoever it is you mentioned, and my run-in with Ezmer was fate.” That she chose “fate” over any other word interested me. “I don’t think you’re a spy, Kendra,” I told her. I completely believed her. Endokia bellowed, “Well, I’m not convinced yet.” “Well, I can’t help that,” Kendra proclaimed. “But I can assure you I’m not a spy.” We stood in silence for quite a while. The sound of the rising wind caught our attention. It began to blow stronger until, suddenly, there was an extremely loud roar. A ship hovered above us and began shooting. It was Vile! We ran and avoided the gunfire as we headed toward Endokia’s ship. I felt a hand grab mine. It was too small to be Endokia, and Kendra held it as she aided my way. We made it onto the ramp as it was closing, and I heard guns blasting and engines roaring as we took off. I wished I could’ve seen what was happening; it all sounded so awesome and yet so frightening at the same time. *** We advanced into the cold, still space as we fled from Vile. There seemed to be no escape as the lasers from his ship zipped by us, disappearing into the distance. Kendra and I sat in the cockpit passenger seats as Endokia worked the controls of his ship. A laser hit us, and the ship shook rapidly, making everything uncomfortable. Endokia managed to stabilize the ship and continue. “Don’t you have any weapons on this hunk of junk?” I wailed to Endokia. “I really wish I did,” he shouted back. “What about anything to build a weapon?” “I have materials to manufacture small explosives,” he replied. “Go check in the stockroom.” “I don’t know how to put a bomb together.” “Kendra, go with him,” he ordered, swerving his ship a few more times. “The

materials are all stacked together. Grab them and bring them here.” Kendra and I ran into the stockroom and grabbed anything that could be used to make any type of explosive. We brought all the materials up to the bridge and laid them out for Endokia to build our explosives. Kapow! We were shot once more, and the ship shook again. “Take over the controls!” Endokia ordered. “I don’t know how to fly a ship,” I said, freaking out at him. “I can do it,” Kendra volunteered, jumping in the captain’s chair. Endokia went to the bomb supplies while I sat there feeling worthless as the ship’s shield took another hit. I wished I’d found a seat before Kendra took the helm, beginning to tumble around as she swooped and dived to avoid the oncoming projectiles. “Careful with my ship!” Endokia commanded. “I got this under control. Just finish what you’re doing,” she barked back. Endokia completed four explosives, but we still needed a way to jettison them from the ship. “Take these down quickly to the landing gear compartment and put them in. Get back up here as fast as you can,” he commanded, taking over his chair once again. Kendra and I gathered the bombs and proceeded to the rear landing compartments. We opened the cover guards, placed the makeshift explosives, and headed back to the cockpit. “What’s your plan?” I asked when we returned. “Strap yourself in. I’m lowering the landing gear.” “Are you crazy?” “Just trust me,” he told me. Kendra and I buckled up and held on tight. When Endokia lowered and raised the landing gear, I could hear warning sounds as the explosives whizzed out. He checked his radar and saw them moving toward Vile’s ship, which zipped past the first three before the fourth clipped one of his wings and exploded. Vile’s ship backed off slowly and then disappeared from our radar. “He’s gone,” Endokia said, taking a deep breath. I let out a sigh of relief and fell back into my seat. “That was some skilled flying,” Endokia complimented Kendra. “It was nothing.” “I wouldn’t say that. I take it you have some experience with space vessels?” “More or less. I’d rather not talk about it.” Kendra left the bridge, and we

weren’t too far behind. We decided to have something to eat, so Endokia went to the kitchen to whip up a meal, and Kendra and I went to the bedrooms to rest. I laid on my bed, examining my father’s sword with my hands. I wanted to determine the markings that were etched into both sides and found they were two different designs altogether on each side of the handle; I just couldn’t tell what they looked like. I heard a flute’s beautiful tooting from Kendra’s room. I stood up, put my sword back in its sheath, set it down, and walked quietly toward her room down the hall. As I got closer, the music seemed to get even better. The whimsical rhythm made me want to sway. I stood outside the door for a moment before slowly pushing it open. Yet again, I wished for my sight. Being blind, to put it bluntly, was a real downer. Kendra finished. “That sounded amazing,” I complimented her. “Ezmer, I’m in my underwear here!” Kendra cried. “I can’t see that,” I reminded her, walking in and closing the door. “It’s still rude.” “I can leave if you want,” I offered. “It’s fine, just let me get something on.” I heard her shuffle through her clothes and put them on. I walked in farther and sat on the opposite side of the bed. “So, umm, how’d you learn to play like that?” I asked, trying not to make the situation more awkward. “My mother taught me whenI was little,” she replied. “I would always listen to her play, so, finally, she bought me a bello flute of my own to play with her.” Kendra went silent for a moment. I needed more talking; the silence between us was going to drive me up a wall. Since we were on the topic of family, I asked, “What about your dad? Did he enjoy your music?” Kendra sighed. “I never knew my father. My mother told me he died in a great battle of some kind before I was born.” “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, feeling a connection as my heart wept for her. The topic of death sat heavily on my mind because of the recent murder of my parents. The two of us were linked by a loss, and if she felt anything like I did about it, she’d join me in my quest for revenge.

“Not as sorry as I am,” Kendra spoke once more. “My mother hardly spoke of it. Any time I asked her about it, she would do her best to avoid the subject. Eventually, I quit asking about him. All she told me is that he died, along with many others that’d tried to restore the universe.” “Oh my goodness,” I whispered to myself. “What?” Kendra questioned. “Well, Kendra,” I began. “I think your father may have been in the rebellion against Vile and his armies, along with my father. All of them had a chance to go back to their own lives but chose to fight for what was right instead.” The two of us were quiet again. I wanted to keep the conversation going, but before I could say anything, Kendra got up and walked around to my side of the bed. Sitting down next to me, she placed her hand on my shoulder, edged closer, and asked in a struggling whisper what I believed was a hard question to answer, “What is the right thing, Ezmer?” I sat there, thinking. The right thing is more a matter of opinion. Vile is fighting for what he thinks is right and so are we. I felt put on the spot and feared if I didn’t respond soon, this conversation would create an emptiness we would struggle to overcome when we talked to each other again. I finally came up with an answer and spoke, improving and molding my words along the way, “The right thing is to fight for our loved ones, to vanquish the enemy, to save the goodness that’s left in our galaxy and universe, and, finally, to take back what is rightfully ours and to keep it that way for everyone else now and in the future.” Kendra placed her hand on my cheek and turned my head toward hers. I felt the warmth of her face on mine as we leaned closer together. “That, Ezmer Jouzmon,” she muttered slowly and quietly, “is exactly what the right thing should be.” As our lips closed in even further, I felt mine tremble, and my heart raced faster with anticipation. We were just a moment away from connecting when Endokia shouted, “Ezmer, Kendra, time to eat!” We calmly backed away from each other. “Ahem, I guess we’d better go eat then,” Kendra suggested. “Yeah, I think you’re right,” I said as we stood up. We walked out of Kendra’s room and went into the kitchen—or more appropriately the cargo hold. It wasn’t

much, but I’d scoped it out before and found a table, some chairs and a stove with a cooling component for food. Both of us sat at the table and waited for Endokia’s food. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was that we were eating, but I could tell it was some sort of meat and maybe a vegetable with a sweet drink. I didn’t really care because it all tasted delicious. During our meal, I thought about how that would’ve been my first kiss, and I missed it because of dinner. I hadn’t even seen Kendra yet, and I was already in love with her. I guess it’s true that love is blind, but I began to wonder why she would want to kiss me. I found myself to be more average than attractive. I knew she was feeling down about something. Did that make me her comfort? The shoulder she needed to cry on? I’d never been that guy before. Should I have given her a pat on the back and said everything would be all right or was the kiss the right way to go? We were still eating when Endokia said hesitantly, “I, uh…ahem, I’m sorry I accused you of being a spy, Kendra. I just jumped to conclusions.” “It’s all right,” she replied. “I understand that some people are overprotective of others and themselves.” After Kendra spoke the silence resumed, and only the ticking of our forks and the slurping of our drinks could be heard. I could tell that Endokia’s apology embarrassed him, but Kendra felt better because of it. Ultimately, I was glad it was over with because, kiss or not, I liked the company of this girl. It was different, and I liked different. After we finished eating, Endokia cleared the table, and it became silent once again. I’d pondered multiple thoughts since the meal had begun, and one stuck out at the moment. I asked aloud, “What are we going to do now?” “What do you mean?” Endokia questioned. “We’re going to go to bed.” “No, no. I mean, where are we going to go from here?” I stated more clearly. “We have to go somewhere to hide from Vile.” “That’s a good point,” Endokia said thoughtfully. We were on the run now. Vile wanted Cleanser for some reason, and there was no way we’d let him get it. “Let’s discuss this. Maybe we should go to Monjovy, the planet of the fairies,” he suggested. “They’re mean and nasty little creatures. I think we should go to Jovic, the water

planet,” Kendra insisted. “There’s very little land. Think about it,” Endokia argued. The bickering continued while each of us gave our opinions and didn’t stop until I suggested to go to Shadow Zero. “Excuse me?” Endokia asked in confusion. “Shadow Zero,” I exclaimed. “It just came to me.” “Are you crazy? Can you hear yourself, Ezmer?” he questioned. “That entire planet is nothing except complete darkness with no functionality, little vegetation, and some explorers even wonder how it still supports life with its moderated, unchanging conditions.” “Exactly,” I said proudly. “I’m not following you,” he remarked. “Don’t you see? With all that darkness, we can build an underground hideout that Vile and his armies will never find; it’s perfect.” “How will that work out?” Kendra asked. “It’ll be too dark to see what we’re doing, so how can we build a shelter?” “Well, we can stock up on lamps,” I suggested. “No need,” Endokia proclaimed. “I’ve got a lot of lamps stocked in the back if they weren’t sucked out with the explosives. And the lights on the ship can help us as well.” “All right then, let’s head for Shadow Zero,” I stated proudly.

Chapter Three The trip to Shadow Zero was rather dull and uneventful, just the way we preferred it. We didn’t have to deal with Vile attacking us again, and we had enough time to gather the lamps and digging materials from the back to get ready for the work ahead. We arrived days later and took the night to rest before we began construction on our hideout. During the night, I had some difficulty sleeping. That horrible nightmare I had while lost in the Tethered Forest invaded my dreams again, but it was different this time. I had Cleanser and I was locked in combat with Vile, who took me out rather quickly. When he struck me dead in the nightmare, I awoke to the sound of weird ticks and clacks in the ship. I didn’t feel like searching for the cause since I wouldn’t have been able to see what it was anyway. We started working on our hideout right after breakfast during what we considered to be morning. It was difficult to determine the time since the planet remained dark. Luckily, we had enough lamps to cover the working area. I couldn’t help because of my blindness, unfortunately, and Endokia and Kendra worked around the lamps while I sat on the stairs attached to the lowering ramp of the ship. I really would have liked to contribute, especially since the hideout was my idea, but if I wandered off in the wrong direction and neither of them noticed, I could be lost forever in the darkness. It had been about four weeks since Endokia shot me, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I would ever see again. As I sat there, I heard footsteps heading in my direction. I listened closely to the light pitch of shifting noises on the ground, determining it was Kendra. I guess I’d adapted to being blind, but I preferred my eyesight. “Hi Kendra,” I said, surprising her. “How’d you know it was me?” she questioned. “I have my ways,” I answered. She sat down next to me to take a break. “That’s hard work,” she complained. “If you think that’s hard, you wouldn’t have lasted on our farm. Every day you had to work in the fields from morning to night, only breaking for lunch. When

you were done, your entire body hurt; you could hardly walk back to the house.” “I’m glad I didn’t have to do that,” she replied. She took something out of her bag, and I heard the beautiful sound of her flute. The melody she played was a song that let me picture images in my head. It sounded like springtime music to me, and I saw an open grass plain with an abundance of wildflowers in my head, which was similar to my artwork. I tried to picture Kendra in that image, seeing her as a Rhybainion teenager with long, golden-blonde hair and beautiful sky blue eyes. The image was gorgeous, but I figured I could be wrong about that assumption. Kendra was still playing as Endokia walked by to begin dinner. It was hard to believe we’d been here for close to an entire day. By the sounds of how hard the two of them had been working, I’d say they had a good, productive day. Kendra finished playing and put her flute away. “That was beautiful,” I complimented her. “You said that your mother taught you to play your flute?” “Yes, my mother taught me to play the flute long ago,” she said with a sad look on her face. “What’s wrong, Kendra?” I questioned. “If you don’t mind me asking, you seem to be upset about something.” She took a deep breath and began to explain, “When I ran into you, Ezmer, I was running because someone had just killed my mother.” She started to sniffle. “I was too frightened and didn’t know what to do, so I just ran.” Now she began to cry. “My parents were killed as well,” I told her, caught up in the moment and tearing up myself. Kendra sobbed a little more, and I wrapped my arms around her before she did the same. We both struggled with the memories of our parents’ deaths. As we hugged each other, we seemed to regain control over our emotions. We eventually let go and sat up. Feeling a little awkward, I spoke up, “I went to Endokia hoping he would help me. He did and gave me my father’s sword.” I went on to say, “So, you play the flute very well. You must’ve started really young.” “Yes, I got it from my mother when I was about four or five years old,” she

replied. “I’m nineteen now. What about you, Ezmer? How old are you?” “I’m sixteen,” I muttered slowly. Yet again, it was a moment where I wished I could see everything, especially Kendra. What I would have given for that. Even though she’s three years older than me, I felt a connection between us, a warm feeling whenever she was around. The kind you get around a good friend, or anyone who sticks with you no matter what. I wanted to say something, but I just couldn’t think of anything. I could hear Kendra sniffling a little. We sat there for a few minutes, not knowing what to say to each other. I kept trying to come up with the right words and had no luck. Suddenly, I smelled a terrific aroma coming from within the ship. “Why don’t we go help Endokia in the kitchen?” I asked Kendra. “Sure,” she answered. We got up and went to the cargo hold. We entered the kitchen with the sweet smell of Endokia’s cooking in the air. Kendra and I set the table, and as we did, I could tell that she kept glancing at me because she would pause from time to time before stumbling around the chairs. Dinner was served, and no one said a thing. Endokia was too stubborn, Kendra was too shy, and I couldn’t think of anything to say. Dinner remained long and uncomfortable. We finished our dinner, cleaned up the table, and got ready for bed. There was nothing for us to do, so we went right to sleep. I had a hard time sleeping again that night, dreaming of my fight with Vile once more. I could tell he wanted my sword, but this time it was different. Instead of fighting me, he was threatening to kill Kendra. I wondered why Endokia wasn’t in my dream but Kendra was. Vile had her wrapped in chains and tied to a long steel rod. Kendra hung above a huge metal bucket full of some kind of acid, and he lowered her slowly to it. I gave my sword to him to free her, and once he grabbed it, Cleanser turned darker than night itself. He did not keep his promise. Instead of freeing her, he lowered her directly into the acid. I charged him, and he lifted my sword and pierced my gut. As I bled out, Vile slowly pulled the sword out, causing agonizing pain. I fell to my knees. He placed Cleanser on my shoulder and swung back; I looked up at his face, seeing his evil sneer. The sword swung, and as soon as

it hit my neck, everything went black. I awoke abruptly, breathing heavily. After realizing it was only a dream, I rolled over and sat on the side of the bed. My stomach hurt, and I felt nauseous. I stood up, nearly falling over, and made my way toward the bathroom. My eyes had a misty, watery feel to them; it was a weird sensation. I kept walking, bumping into who knows what. I made it to the bathroom and flipped on the light, hoping to guide myself around a little better. The light came on, and I could see everything! The toilet, the shower, the towels, I could see it all. I looked in the mirror, seeing my reflection and something else clearly. The two glowing figures from the Tethered Forest were standing outside the door, but when I turned around, they were gone. I looked out the door, but the figures were nowhere to be seen. I shrugged it off. This is great, I thought. I should tell Kendra and Endokia I can see again. As I went to their rooms, however, I decided I should surprise them in the morning instead. Thinking of a way to do so, I went back to bed. The next morning at breakfast, I asked Endokia if he would make me some toast. After living with someone for a long period, you learn what they can and can’t cook, and toast is one of the things he can’t manage. He loses track of time and burns the bread to a crisp. It’s odd how he makes wonderful meals but messes up something as simple as that. “How’s the toast coming along?” I questioned, giggling. “Just fine,” Endokia remarked nervously. “Is everything all right?” I giggled yet again. “Oh, yeah. I, uh…can’t find the cinnamon.” “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yeah, yep everything’s fine,” he replied. I noticed Kendra eyeing me. She even winced at me a couple times. I avoided eye contact as much as possible, so I didn’t ruin the surprise. Endokia walked over with the toast on a plate and set it in front of me. I hadn’t taken one peek at him all morning. “There you are—goldenbrown toast,” he complimented himself. I looked down at it, looked up at him, leaned back in the chair, and boasted,

“You’ve got to be kidding me. That has to be the blackest toast I have ever seen.” Endokia stared blankly at me. “What do you mean?” he questioned. “You wouldn’t be able to see the toast, you’re—” He paused for a moment. “Ezmer, are you saying you can see again?” I looked up and exclaimed, “You better believe it.” “Wow, that’s terrific,” Kendra said, smiling at me. “And you know what the best thing is?” I asked her. “I can finally see you now, but you’re not as beautiful as I imagined. You’re even better.” I stopped for a moment to take a good look at her, amazed at how similar the picture in my head was to the real thing. She had long, golden-blonde hair, sky blue eyes, and a small midsection. Her breasts, which I didn’t want to concentrate too much on because I thought it was rude, were a good size for her age. Overall, she was gorgeous, with the brightest smile and some of the most sparkling wings I’ve ever seen. She wore clothes fit for a barmaid, but they looked like they could’ve been formerly part of an elegant dress. “Well, enough of this,” Endokia remarked. “Let’s have some breakfast.” With that, I took a good look at him as well. He was a middle-aged man with some goodsized muscles, short brown hair, and brown eyes. His grayish-silver wings looked well used. On his left hand, he wore a black leather glove, and his entire left arm was smaller than his right. I had a feeling I shouldn’t ask about it, so I didn’t. After breakfast, we went outside to work on the hideout. I looked forward to finally contributing; however, I found it much harder than anticipated. As we dug deeper into the ground, our struggle grew. If we would’ve had a giant boring machine, everything would’ve been a lot easier, but we didn’t. Outside of the sound of shovels scraping dirt, we remained silent. I knew we would accomplish our goal and live here in solitude, which made me wonder if there was anyone else that had done the same thing. Could there be others here hiding from the rest of the galaxy, minding their own business? It was possible, but we certainly wouldn’t be. After the hideout was finished, we could easily travel back and forth to other planets for supplies and remain under the radar. Until then, we’d be here, working ourselves to the bone. I desperately wanted to go after Vile as soon as possible, but I was quite sure he would find us before we found him. Since he badly wanted Cleanser, he’d

be constantly knocking at our door. We dug for what seemed like hours before I couldn’t take the quiet anymore and finally spoke up, “Does anyone know a good song to keep us occupied?” “I have one,” Endokia stated. “Kendra, could you play a slow, smooth melody on your flute?” he asked her. Kendra went to the ramp, pulled her flute out of her bag, thought about what she was going to perform and then began to play. Endokia swayed his head back and forth to match his song with the tune of the flute. He began to sing with a mid-pitched, sensitive, and sweet voice that didn’t seem to fit his personality. Am I what you’ve been looking for In this time of peril? Times have become hard and I’ve become your guardian angel I will spread my wings and fly For you and only you Oh-whoa-oh I don’t want this anymore My heart has been torn right through yeah-oh-yeah I’ve been screaming all these years And been shedding all these tears I will bleed all my life Cut apart by your deceitful knife I make you laugh You make me cry So I am through And I say “good-bye” Break my heart one more time If there’s any pieces left to find Oh-whoa-oh In this life all I have ever tried Is to leave everything of you behind yeah-oh-yeah I’ve been screaming all these years And been shedding all these tears

I will bleed all my life Cut apart by your deceitful knife If we meet again tonight I’ll let you know that I’m right I am no longer polite So, I’m waiting for this last fight I’ve been screaming all these years And been shedding all these tears I will bleed all my life Cut apart by your deceitful knife His voice faded slowly. I could feel a sense of anger, sadness and coldness inside me, and I didn’t know why. One single tear slid down my face, and my feelings caused it to fall off my chin and drop. Kendra put her flute back in its case. She seemed watery-eyed herself. I looked at Endokia, and even with his back turned, I could tell he was continually wiping his eyes. I wanted to ask how he came up with that great song, but I could tell it was not the appropriate time. We dug forcefully in silence some more and then went in for lunch. It continued to remain quiet at the table. I wanted to say something to stop the uncomfortable silence, but I also wanted it to make sense and have relevance. Suddenly, it came to me. I turned to Endokia and asked, “Hey, Endokia, what do you think about giving Kendra some combat training? She’s caught up in this battle with us, so she’ll have to know how to defend herself.” He sat back in his chair and looked at me, then at Kendra. He leaned forward, dragged his hands down his face before putting them on his head, scratched and thought for a moment. He looked up and said, “I suppose so, but I need to know what weapon she favors, and we need to finish the hideout before any more training can take place. Now finish eating. Kendra, when you decide what weapon you want, tell me,” he finished. *** Three days later, we had some of the hideout completed. There were stairs

leading downward to a hallway, two rooms that were going to be bedrooms, and that was it. The ground was so difficult to dig in that at some points I just wanted to quit. The day Kendra chose her weapon was unforgettable and one of the highlights of the entire adventure. Kendra approached Endokia in the ship that morning and told him, “I would like a bow.” Endokia looked at her with confusion. “A bow?” he questioned her. “My weapon of choice,” she replied. “I would like a bow, if that’s possible.” “It’s possible, but I would have to get it on the planet of Belsar, the nearest planet with a trading market, so it will take about four days.” “I can wait,” she replied with a smile. “I’ll get it,” he said. “As long as you two can look after things here.” “I think we can handle it,” I chimed in. “All right then, help me get ready,” he insisted.

Chapter Four To help get everything ready, we took some food out of the ship, along with one of the beds. I grabbed Cleanser, Kendra took her flute, and we both took another set of clothes. We put emergency items in the hideout along with a tracking device to make sure Endokia could find us when he came back. We quickly doublechecked to see if we needed anything else, but we were fine. Endokia got his ship ready and took off while Kendra and I walked into the hideout. She went to the bedroom with her flute, and I took Cleanser to the supply room. I was sitting quietly with my own thoughts when I had my first true look at my sword. Cleanser was huge, lightweight and made from alkilide steel—a very rare and supposedly indestructible metal. It had an interesting curve at the end that caused the sharp tip of the blade to point back in the direction of the handle. The handle had a magnificent grip with an interesting red crystal at the bottom. There were two different symbols—one on each side—as I had thought, and I had no clue what they were. They were on a part of the handle that extended up from the bottom of the blade. Like the symbols, the handle was different on both sides; on one it stuck out further and seemed hollow. I examined it closer and found something coming out of it that had a place where fingers could grip it. Tugging on it, I pulled out a small, handheld blade that was like a smaller version of Cleanser without the curve at the end. I wished for my father. He would’ve told me what to do in this crazy, unpredictable situation. “Dad,” I spoke quietly, “you could have—no—you should have told me. I would’ve handled that you were a hero.” I thought for a moment. “Maybe you felt you couldn’t and simply wanted me to be safe, but you could have taught me to fight and help you. We could have shared great times together…Dad.” It was hard to take it all in. I thought back to the day my parents were killed and remembered they were going to tell me something the next day. My mind theorized I would’ve learned all these hero and adventure stories, and then he would’ve started my training. He did tell Endokia to teach me if anything happened to him.

Realizing Kendra had been playing her flute the entire time, I set Cleanser down and picked up a shovel to continue working on the hideout. My clunking and scraping must’ve quickly reached Kendra’s ears because she came out of her room with a shovel to help me shortly after I started. She walked up beside me and gave me a dazzling smile. I turned my head and looked at her incredibly beautiful face, returning an embarrassed smile of my own. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Even though I can hold my own, I wouldn’t call myself handsome, and I still had years to go before I was considered a grown up. I was never one of the popular kids on Rhybannon and had to put up with kids making fun of me. It was unbelievably painful to put up with every day, and they did it because I was different. I never had the same interest in or knowledge of parties and expensive “toys” that they chattered about all day, so they me left me out of their conversations. I liked simple things, and I loved to draw. I drew bright and joyful things that others made fun of and told me were queer. Of course, it would take a real artist to notice an artistic ability in the first place. I just wanted to get away from it all, and it is great getting a second chance with people. I am grateful to Kendra for that second chance. At that moment, Kendra let out a tremendous scream and dropped her shovel. I threw mine to the ground and stepped over to her. “What’s wrong?” I questioned. “Oh, my hand slipped, and I cut it on one of the bolts holding the shovel and handle together.” There was a gash across the palm of her right hand. “Here,” I said, pulling a feather from my left wing, feeling a sting from the eagle’s cut that I, up until now, had forgotten about. “Hold this tight on the cut while I get the emergency kit,” I told her as I ran to retrieve it, quickly grabbing it and running back. I set the kit down, opened it up, and searched for something that would heal the cut. I found a wound retrace compound which is a clear gel that covers and heals the cut but doesn’t eliminate pain or any scarring; it’s often used for quick fix in situations like this one. I was about to use it before Kendra refused, instead insisting on the gauze and bandage tape. I took the feather off the cut, cleaned it up, placed a thick amount of gauze on it, and began to string it on

with the bandage tape. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Kendra looking at me with a smile. “There,” I said, ripping the end of the bandage tape, placing it on the back side of her hand and holding it there. “All done.” I finished up, placing the tape back into the kit. “Thanks,” she said, placing her other hand on top of mine. I slowly lifted my eyes to her face, seeing her smile of happiness, and we stared at each other. My heart began to race in nervousness, and I trembled with excitement. We moved closer to one another, and when our lips were close, we both closed our eyes slowly. I couldn’t believe I was about to kiss this incredibly beautiful girl. When our lips finally connected, a wonderful feeling traveled throughout my entire body causing my wings to open uncontrollably. It was much more than I would have expected from a kiss, and I felt happy; it seemed as if Kendra and I were the only ones in the universe. Nothing else mattered in that wonderful moment. As our lips parted slowly, my eyes opened and flickered back to Kendra’s beautiful face. “Wow,” I whispered. “That was incredible.” “Did you like that?” she questioned with a grin. “My first kiss,” I told her honestly. “What about you, did you like it as much?” “That was my first kiss as well,” she replied. “You’re kidding,” I said in surprise. “Not at all. I’m not as sought after as you might think.” I had thought by looking at her she was the kind to have hundreds of boyfriends, but you can’t judge someone by their ‘outside,’ by their looks. “Come on,” she said, standing up. I got up and followed her to the bedroom. We sat on the bed and talked a little more about ourselves and why we were so unpopular. Kendra just didn’t fit in and had interests in things that most of the other kids didn’t. She and her mother preferred to live naturally and used less technology like those in the older ages of Rhybannon, which was why she would not accept the wound retracer. Some other planets lived that way, with less technology and more sorcery, so I didn’t find it that odd. While the kids played with high-tech gadgets, she played her flute or helped her mother around their house.

“I suppose that I’m unpopular because I’m too kind,” I began. “I’m the nice, shy person who takes all the hard blows and acts like it doesn’t affect me. I guess you could call me a training dummy because of all the hits I take.” Once you become a “loser” in everyone’s eyes, it’s hard to overcome that and come out a winner. We sat quietly for a few moments before Kendra spoke up, “That’s why I like you, Ezmer. You’re a nice guy, unlike some of the perverts I’ve met who only want me for my looks. That is why I think our meeting was no accident.” “What do you mean?” I asked her. Kendra stared blankly at nothing for a moment before she looked over at me and asked, “Do you believe in fate, Ezmer?” Man, she keeps asking all these really hard questions. I considered it for some time before I gave her what I thought was a stupid answer, “I guess so.” “No, no guessing,” she replied. “It is a yes or no answer.” I thought about it again for a while before I realized what I believed and responded, “Yes, Kendra, I believe in fate. After all, I met you, didn’t I?” She smiled subtly at me and said, “Then fate will help us throughout our journey. Fate, along with destiny, will help us win this war of freedom for the universe.” All this talk of fate and destiny was kind of cool. “I love it when you talk like that,” I blurted out without thinking. “You do, do ya? Well then, you’ll like this as well,” she finished before she leaned in slowly toward me, and I followed her lead. We were a moment away from kissing again when a loud crash came from the other room. I jumped off the bed and ran to the doorway, but a small creature with big, bulgy red hair ran past before I got there. I stepped outside the door, spotted the creature exiting our hideout and ran to catch up. Once outside, I looked around, but the small creature was nowhere to be seen. Kendra ran up beside me. “What do you think that was?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I replied. “But whatever it was will probably return,” I finished, turning back to the hideout.

Later that evening we quietly ate supper on our tiny box table on the floor in the farthest room from the hideout entrance. I wondered about the little creature, and I combed my memories to remember what it looked like. It had a humanoid-like figure no bigger than four feet and long, slightly floppy, pointed ears much longer than ours that came out from under its bulgy, red hair. It wore dark-green clothing and had torn, black shoes, and I also saw it held something like a hard, thick rope in its hand when it ran by. Whatever it was, it was curious about us, and it would be coming back. Maybe my notion others could be living here without anyone else knowing was right. I hoped we’d get along if he came back again. “Do you hear that?” Kendra questioned. I took a moment to listen and heard a dripping sound. “The sound of water comforts me,” she said, sighing with pleasure. Water? The sound of water? That’s when I noticed it running into the hideout. “Look!” I shouted, pointing it out to her. Curious, we ran outside and saw nothing but darkness. But something felt wrong as the wind picked up. Wind and water? Shadow Zero is almost a dead planet. These occurrences of nature can’t be happening, especially not at this rate. The wind picked up even more. “Something isn’t right here,” I stated before a full bluster nearly knocked us over. Turning around, facing into the wind, we still couldn’t see anything. Suddenly a tiny light, a little ball of flame, appeared. It grew quickly in size as we stared in confusion, and the blazing ball of fire propelled its way to us immediately. I managed to jump out of the way in time, but Kendra wasn’t as fortunate. Her left wing caught fire at the tips and spread as she fell to the ground in pain, screaming and wailing in tremendous agony. I froze; I didn’t know what to do. Before I had time to react, Kendra was hit by a burst of water which threw her aside, put out the fire and knocked her out cold. I drew my sword, waited and noticed a fireball appear out of the corner of my eye. I waited for it to come my way, and once it was on a crash course with my head, I quickly jumped into the sky, causing the fireball to whiz on by. As I flew, a huge blast of water put the fire out, and I watched closely for other fireballs to come at me as steam and smoke rose into the sky. Even though they attacked one

after another like little bursts of lightning, they were easily seen against the pitch black, small and simple to avoid. I swooped down, trying to determine the source of the chaos, and was struck by a tremendous gust of wind that spun me out of control and knocked Cleanser out of my hand. I plummeted, unable to reestablish my level of balance, and slammed hard into the ground. The wind was knocked out of me, and I felt as if I would die. Anyone who’s had this happen to them would understand how freaked out I was. I could barely move, and I couldn’t catch my breath. The smoke cleared, and a small, shaded figure began to move toward me. I tried to see what it was, but I couldn’t. As it came closer, I coughed, trying to breathe. I wanted to find Cleanser, but my eyes were fuzzy from my rough landing. I didn’t want to go down without a fight. Small feet halted by my side. I looked up, still unable to make out anything clearly. “This is for all the pain you caused me,” said an extremely angry voice. “Whoa! Stop! What?! What’d I do?” I questioned. “You know what you did,” it answered. “And what’s that?” I said, demanding an answer. “You came here with an army of reptile-like creatures, destroyed everything and killed everyone. Now it’s your turn to die!” it insisted. “Hold on a second! Look at me; do I look like a reptile-like alien to you?” The thing lit a flame on its finger and examined me. As it did so, I did the same. It was a small man with fiery red hair and water-colored blue eyes that really grabbed my attention. His body was a pale, windy color, and he had long, floppy, pointed ears with a pink-tipped nose. At his side was an old, black whip. “Hmm. . . I guess not,” he said, putting the fire on his finger out. “If you’re not one of the reptiles, then why are you here?” he asked. “We came here to hide from Vile; the one you’ve mistaken us for,” I answered him. “I’m truly sorry,” he replied. “Let’s see if your friend is all right.” I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten about Kendra. We made our way over to her but couldn’t tell how badly she was injured. When I lifted her, she let out an enormous cry of pain, making sounds I didn’t know she was capable of. She took quick, deep

breaths through her teeth, and I carried her quickly to the hideout bedroom and slowly put her down to check out her injuries. Kendra’s left wing and arm were extremely burned and seemed separate from her body. She laid in a curled position, her body shaking and shivering like she was possessed. It was horrifying. Her breathing became more frantic, and I started to panic, not knowing what to do. My only similar experience to this was when our stable caught fire and some animals didn’t get out in time. Unfortunately for us, I knew this wouldn’t be the last time we would get injured on our adventure. The little, mysterious guy pulled a jar filled to the rim with a green substance out of his pocket, looked at it, and climbed up onto the bed. “What are you doing?” I asked him, concerned. He opened the jar and put it up to Kendra’s lips. “It is an antidote that heals burns,” he said, pouring it into her mouth. After a few sips, her breathing gradually went back to normal, and she fell asleep. “What’s your name?” I questioned him. He pulled the jar away from Kendra, closed it, and put it back in his pocket. “My name is Woran Laymack,” he replied. I took Woran into the other room, and we sat on the ground to talk about what happened to us. I went first and told him everything I could remember. When he spoke, I learned Vile had attacked his planet some time before we arrived. Woran told me about a lot of villages and people that lived on Shadow Zero. They apparently wanted to remain secret and stay out of the universe’s affairs. I felt they might be hiding something. These people had technology that kept their homes warm and allowed them to restrict their lights’ illumination to a certain distance so they couldn’t be seen from space. Woran mentioned they were guarding something, but he didn’t know what it was. I figured it was something Vile wanted but couldn’t find, which seemed to be a trend with him. I asked Woran about his whip, and he told me as far as he knew he’d had it ever since he was born. Woran also told me he had great friends and family before Vile came with his destructive army. “I don’t know how I survived,” he said. “I remember fighting the reptiles, but I slammed the back of my head on something and fell to the ground. I was out cold.”

“Well, I guess the Alieazoids figured you were dead and didn’t bother to attack you again,” I said to him, taking a guess at what might have happened. “I suppose so,” he replied. “I’ll never forget them though. When I woke up, all the bodies were gone. At first, I thought that I was dreaming, but there was blood all over the ground. That’s when I knew that it wasn’t a dream.” He took a slow, deep breath and murmured, “Frizzy.” I looked at him in confusion and asked bluntly, “What?” He lifted his head up to look at me and answered, “Frizzy—that’s what everyone used to call me.” It had to be because of the hair. It’s just so out there. My mind pondered the issue of the missing bodies. What use would Vile and the Alieazoids have for them? Some sick décor, I bet. Kendra appeared around the corner with a blanket wrapped around her. “Kendra!” I exclaimed, rushing to her. “Are you all right?” I asked. “Do you feel better?” I looked at her left wing and arm. The burns were almost fully healed and back to normal. That was some effective potion. “I’m fine. It doesn’t even hurt anymore,” she told me. She looked past me and questioned, “Who is that?” Woran stood up and walked toward us. “Kendra, this is Woran, and Woran, this is Kendra. His friends call him Frizzy,” I introduced them, hoping to make Woran feel a little more comfortable with us. Woran extended his hand to her. “Hello,” he said. Kendra looked at him in puzzlement before looking at me and back at him. Woran pulled his hand back. “I’m sorry for hurting you,” he told her. She continued to stare and asked with a little anger entering her tone, “That was you attacking us?” “Yes,” he replied. From Kendra’s facial expression, I wasn’t sure if she wanted to smack him or kill him, but instead, she just went back to questioning. “How could you have done that?” “I have my own special powers,” he told her. “I can conquer and control wind, water, and fire. How does that suit you sweetheart?”

This time, Kendra did smack him hard, and it sounded like a crack of a wooden board. “Don’t call me sweetheart ever again,” she told him. “Yes, ma’am,” he said with a smirk while he rubbed his cheek. I looked over at Kendra and couldn’t help but chuckle. Hopefully, I’d never get on her bad side. When we finally got settled in, I realized I’d left Cleanser somewhere outside the hideout. I had to find my sword even if it took me forever. Kendra and I used lanterns, and Frizzy used his power with fire to scout the area where our little fiasco took place. We kept the entrance to our hideout in sight since it never left mine during the fight. We finally saw a faint glow that intensified and realized it was coming from Cleanser. We gathered at my sword, and I picked it up from the ground. I could feel its energy flowing from the handle into my body before it coursed back out and went through the blade. “What’s it doing?” Kendra asked in wonder. I was more intrigued by the sensation from the sword than her question. When I moved Cleanser from side to side, it became evident it got brighter the closer it got to Kendra. I was nervous about the whole situation and concerned about the relation of Kendra’s proximity to Cleanser. I quickly sheathed it, and we returned to the hideout. *** The next day, we all worked on our hideout. Kendra was fully healed with no burn marks and able to fully exert herself. Woran’s powers were a great help in crafting the halls. His water and wind abilities eroded the rock like nothing else could, causing it to break and fall to the ground. He also used his fire powers to heat the rock till it was red-hot, and when he blasted the rock with water, it would instantly crack and crumble to the ground. Kendra and I gathered the broken rocks and took them outside, but we had a hard time keeping up with Woran. I suppose I shouldn’t be complaining; I mean, this sure beat the alternative. At one point, just before we were going to take a break to eat, Woran, without thinking, blasted a massive amount of water at the back end of the hideout, and the walls in that area began to collapse. We all ran outside as quickly as we could, and I turned around to watch a cloud of dust from the clamoring of falling rocks make

its way out the entrance. Woran had begun to cast gusts of wind to clear the smoke when I shouted, “Don’t do that! We don’t want the hideout to collapse any more than it already has.” We stood there waiting for the dust to settle and cautiously made our way back inside when it cleared. We surveyed the end of the hideout where a pile of rocks stacked to the ceiling was visible. Luckily, it hadn’t broken through to the surface. “Nice job, Woran,” I said with a hint of sarcasm. “Yep, all part of my plan,” he said, snickering. If his attitude continued like this, I knew I would get sick of him rather quickly. Kendra looked over at us in disappointment and said, “You know we have to clean this up.” I looked back and suggested, “Well, let’s get something to eat first; I can’t work on an empty stomach.” We went back to the first room to get a bite to eat. For the first few minutes, it remained silent, and only the clanging of the bent, old utensils against the deformed, dull tin plates could be heard. My mind wandered as I stared at the three separated candles that burned at the center of the box. I wondered how Endokia would react to Woran. It hit me. If we knew more about him, Endokia wouldn’t react so negatively toward him when he got back. With that realization, I lifted my head, faced Woran, and asked, “Could you tell us a little more about yourself, Woran?” “Well, actually, no,” he stuttered. “Why not?” I questioned him, swallowing the food in my mouth. “I…I can’t,” he said, looking down at his plate of food. It seemed as if he was concentrating very hard on something. “Why can’t you?” I questioned again. He cringed and replied, “That’s just it. I can’t…I can’t remember. I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to recall more about the others. When I slammed my head, I must have lost some of my memory,” he said, shocking us. “Well, this is great,” I replied sarcastically. “Maybe you could tell us what you can remember then,” I suggested. “I can remember a few things,” he began. “I know for a fact I’m not originally

from Shadow Zero.” I knew that revelation would become a huge problem. Woran searched through his little, green robe and pulled a photograph out of his pocket, handing it to me. “That’s what the Zeronions looked like,” he told us as I examined it. The Zeronions wore dark green cloaks that covered their entire bodies. The hoods left their faces in shadow as well, and only dark-blue, glimmering eyes could be seen, which wasn’t helpful at all. “I also have this,” he stated as I handed the photo to Kendra. “This is a sheet of paper that has some interesting markings on it.” He handed it to me, and I examined it thoroughly. The markings were clear, but I had never seen them before. “I have no idea what they mean,” he told us. “I’ve had that since I’ve been here.” I handed the sheet of paper to Kendra as she gave Woran back his photo. “Is there anything else you can remember?” Kendra asked him. He thought for a moment and replied, “The elders talked about the day I arrived here in a ship-pod with no markings or clues of a resident planet. I came here when I was three or four, and my memories of home are very fuzzy. Now that I am sixteen, I hope to make my way back there, but I don’t know where home is.” No one said anything for a little while. I finally spoke up, “We should finish eating and then clean up that cave-in before Endokia comes back.” “Endokia?” Woran questioned. “Yeah, he’s a friend of ours,” I told him. “He left to get something, and he should be back sometime today.” “All right,” Woran said, and we finished eating. Afterwards, we went back to work on the hideout. It took us hours to clear out the mess, and Endokia still hadn’t returned. I told Woran to ease up on his powers, but I think every time I turned my back, he went harder than necessary. Once all the rubble was finally removed, we took it easy and avoided doing anything that could cause another cave-in. We separated outward to start making a couple more rooms. At one point in the digging, I began to get a little frustrated with an area of the wall; my shovel wouldn’t penetrate it. “Frizzy!” I called him over. “Why don’t you see if you can blast this wall away?”

He looked at it, took a step back, and put his hands back to his right side, beginning to form a ball of wind as I moved away. It was no bigger than his fists, and when it hit the wall, it was almost like nothing had happened. Woran took another step back and made a bigger, swirling sphere of wind, about the size of my head. He hurled it at the wall, and it didn’t do much more damage than the smaller ball of wind. This time, he began a whirlwind with his hands, and I walked over, grabbed his arm and said, “Try to keep it small. We don’t want another cave-in.” He listened and forced the whirlwind at the wall. It started to work, albeit slowly. Finally, he began to cast water into the whirlwind, which, in a way, drilled through the wall. Woran held it there for a while. After he stopped, and the subtle dust cleared, there was a dim light shining through the hole. “What’s that?” Kendra asked. Woran looked over at her and replied, “A light, duh.” She glared at him. “What?” he asked innocently while he shrugged his shoulders. “It appears that there’s something on the other side of the wall,” I answered, trying to see if I could make out anything through the tiny hole. “Well, let’s find out,” Woran suggested. Just then, we heard the roar of a ship outside. Exiting the hideout, we saw it was Endokia. Kendra and I stood together, and Woran hid behind us. The ship landed, and the ramp lowered. We made our way over and Woran stayed behind Kendra and me. Endokia made his way down the ramp. “Hey there,” he called out. “Did you miss me?” We looked at each other. “No, not really,” we replied. He held out a fine, rather dull, silver bow, along with a quiver filled with arrows. “Here you are, Kendra,” he said. “Your weapon of choice.” “Thank you,” she said, nodding her head. She took the bow in her hands and admired it. Sadly, the bow looked as if it had been neglected by its previous owner, though it was still skillfully crafted and rather large, maybe four feet long. I looked at Endokia and asked, “What took you so long? I thought you would’ve been back much sooner.”

“I was delayed,” he replied. “Let’s talk about it inside.” I stopped him and said, “Before we do, we have someone that we’d like you to meet.” I turned to Woran as he stuck his head out from behind Kendra’s left wing and gave a goofy little wave. Endokia looked at him. “Ezmer, let’s talk. Now,” he demanded, turning toward his ship. I followed him, knowing he would blow his top the moment I set foot past the ramp. Sure enough, once we got on board, he shouted at the top of his lungs, “What the hell is the matter with you? You can’t just go out and bring someone along! Do I need to go over the spy issue again?” “Slow down!” I shouted back. “I have reason to believe that he’s not a spy. There may be a few questions about him, actually a lot of questions, but there is no reason we shouldn’t trust Woran.” Endokia and I continued to argue, not noticing Kendra and Woran had made their way onto the ship. While I clamored on about what I knew about him, Woran stumbled to the floor. The rolled sheet of paper covered with weird markings fell out of his clothes and toppled over to us. Endokia bent over and grabbed it. Unrolling the sheet, he questioned, “What’s this?” He stopped our argument to examine it. After a moment, he relaxed, and his eyes widened. “I recognize this writing,” he stated. “What was your name again?” he asked Woran. Woran got up off the floor and answered, “My name is Woran, but my friends call me Frizzy.” “Well, Frizzy,” Endokia began, “after looking at both you and this paper, I know where you come from. We are your new friends, and we will help you.” “You do? How?” I questioned him. “That doesn’t matter right now,” he told me. “So, you accused him of being a spy before you knew either way? You didn’t even give him a second glance.” “Can’t be too careful,” he interjected. I rolled my eyes and ignored him. “Frizzy, how’d you get on this planet?” “I don’t know,” Woran replied. “I don’t even know where I come from. Could

you tell me, please?” “You come from the planet Element. You are what is known as a Triman.” “Could you please take me there?” Woran begged. Endokia thought for a moment and said, “I suppose we could, but we’ll need to load up first.” I stood there shaking my head in disbelief. Endokia had changed his mind so quickly; it just seemed so out of character. “Well, what are you all waiting for? Let’s get moving,” he demanded.

Chapter Five We loaded up what we needed for our little journey. Woran brought his whip. Kendra brought her flute and her new bow, and I brought Cleanser which no longer glowed like it had before. It was something of a mystery, but I was more concerned with Endokia’s latest decision. When we were all ready, we set off to help Woran discover who he was and what he was doing on Shadow Zero in the first place. Along the way, there were some questions I really needed to ask Endokia. I made my way to the bridge to talk with him. “Endokia…I, uh, was wondering if I could have a word with you.” “Well, sure, Ezmer,” he replied. “Come sit down and tell me what’s on your mind.” “I’d like to know some things,” I told him. “Such as?” “Well, first of all, I would like to know why you took almost five days to come back to us at the hideout from Belsar. Why so long?” “I ran into some of Vile’s Alieazoids outside the Belsar Market and had to lay low for a while before I could leave. I spent the night on the streets and left the next morning.” “Okay, that answers that question,” I remarked. “But what about Element? How do you know so much about it?” He turned his face away, rubbed his scruffy chin, and was silent for a moment. He turned back and replied, “On one of the toughest journeys ever taken with your father, we ended up on Element for some time.” “Why’s that?” I asked him. “That’s a story for another time,” he answered hesitantly. I knew even if I asked him, he wouldn’t tell me just yet, so I got up and left. I made my way to the fuselage to keep myself occupied. I entered to find Kendra playing her flute for Woran, and I sat down next to him and listened to her beautiful music. I closed my eyes, and another picture

began to form in my head. I saw fields full of flowers going on for miles and a glimmering stream that sparkled in the light. Clear skies, birds and butterflies seemed to dance along with the petals that flowed in the breeze. It wasn’t too different from some of the landscape artwork I’ve drawn before. I imagined this as the future for all of us. It would be pure, clean, and carefree. A place where there would be no war, no Daigatons, and no Vile; I’d make sure of that. Kendra finished playing her flute, and I opened my eyes. I stared off at nothing, still in thought. “Ezmer, what’s the matter?” Kendra asked. “You seem to be worried about something.” “It’s just…Endokia,” I began. “Something seems to be bothering him. When I ask him about Element, he just avoids the subject. I don’t want to force it out of him, but I would really like to know.” “I think you should leave him alone,” Woran suggested. “If he isn’t telling you now, he must have his reasons.” “I guess so,” I said, still curious. Endokia walked into the room with enthusiasm and asked, “Who’s ready for some training?” We just stared at him with I-don’t-want-to looks on our faces. We had been working on the hideout and were tired. “Let’s head on down to the training room,” he insisted, walking off. We reluctantly followed him. It’s not like there was anything better to do. We entered as Endokia flipped on the lights. The training room was well organized. The weights were on the left, fighting materials were on the right, a few mats were in the middle for freehand combat practice, and a shooting range was in the back with targets and punching bags. “We will begin with fighting techniques,” Endokia instructed, making his way to the mats. “For our first lesson, we’re not going to use weapons or powers—just hand-tohand combat.” “Why? You’re not good with weapons or something?” Woran questioned him. “Oh no, I’m very good with any type of weapon, mainly any type of ax,” he told us. “But it is very important to learn fighting techniques before weapons. Each one of you will fight me, and I’ll help you with what you’re doing wrong. Ezmer, you

will go first.” I made my way onto the mat. I’m so screwed. I don’t even know how to use Cleanser that well, and he expects me to know how to fight. Even though he trained me back on Rhybannon, I was blind at the time. I knew I was nowhere near ready to fight him. “Do what you want,” he told me. “Attack me any way you please.” I thought I should do something quick and effective. I considered a quick run and punch to the gut followed by a swift swipe to the legs. That would do the trick. I charged him, threw the punch, and he grabbed my arm. He whipped it behind my back, swiped my legs, and I did a front flip, crashing onto my back. “No patience,” Endokia bellowed. “Charging won’t intimidate anyone that is worth intimidating. Know your opponent better, and then make your move. Sometimes thinking too long about it will cause more problems than solutions. Do what comes naturally. Frizzy, you’re next.” I stood up and walked off as Woran walked in. I stood next to Kendra, waiting to watch Woran get pulverized. “Attack me,” Endokia told him. Woran circled him, slowly getting closer. He began to attack, punching and kicking, and Endokia parried his every move. Woran went for a jump kick to Endokia’s gut, and just like that, Endokia grabbed his leg and threw Woran down on his side. “Good,” he said. “You have the right moves. Just try to convince your opponent that you will attack them somewhere else; in other words: fake out and then make your move. If you constantly attack, your enemy will know exactly where to block every time; constant attacks lead to a pattern, which isn’t good for a number of reasons. Work with your size. Yes, you must get closer, but you’re also a smaller target. Make that work to your advantage. Kendra, it’s your turn.” Woran wobbled off, and Kendra nervously made her way onto the mat. “Attack me,” Endokia told her. “Don’t worry; I’ll go easy on you.” Kendra clenched her fist and made her way to him. She began kicking, and Endokia blocked her. She had great footwork, but that wouldn’t be enough. She went to kick Endokia’s head, but he grabbed her leg. He pushed back, and she fell on her butt.

“Way too much kicking,” he stated. “Add some punches; have more variety in your attacks. We might have a lot to work on with you.” Kendra got up and walked over to Woran and me. “This wasn’t too bad for the first day,” he told us. “You’ll learn how to become good fighters through my training. You three must put in a good effort and train on your own time as well. That shouldn’t be a problem, since it will take about two weeks to get to Element. You may do what you want for now; fight with each other, use the fighting equipment, or lift weights. I have some things to attend to.” He turned to the door, but just before he made his way out, he turned around and said, “Absolutely no fighting with weapons until I tell you.” And then off he went. We stood there staring at each other in a daze like idiots. Woran looked over at me and asked, “What do you want to do?” “I think that I’m going to practice on my bow skills with the targets over there,” Kendra said, grabbing her bow and quiver full of arrows. I looked over at Woran. “Maybe the two of us should fight on the mats,” I told him. “Why, so you can get your butt kicked again?” he mocked me. “Give me a break. This was my first time in hand-to-hand combat.” “Pppfff, yeah, I’d say that too, if I was outlasted by a girl.” “You wanna go?” I nudged him. “Bring it,” he dared. It felt a little silly when I stared him in the eyes because I was close to at least three feet taller than him. I bent over and picked up my sword. Kendra quickly grabbed my arm. “Ezmer, Endokia said no weapons. You’ll get in big trouble,” she warned me. “Only if he finds out, which he won’t,” I told her. “Let’s go, Woran.” He grabbed his whip, and we stepped onto the mat. Kendra walked off to the far right, back beyond the mats, and lined herself up with the targets that were on the opposite side. Woran and I stood impatiently, facing each other from opposite ends. “Prepare to lose, Woran,” I told him. “Enough with the small talk. Let’s get it on,” he demanded. I charged him, swiping at him with Cleanser, and our fight began. He jumped

up, pushed off my head with his hand, did a front flip, and landed behind me. I didn’t expect someone so small to jump so high. I quickly turned to see his whip coming at me. I parried with my sword and leapt at him. I swung, and he quickly ducked and rolled out of the way. I landed on my knees and tumbled over to one foot. Woran’s whip came at me once again, and I blocked his ill attempt. The whip wrapped around my sword and attached itself, and Woran pulled at it hard. I fell face-first onto the mat before I pushed myself up and tugged back. He let go of his whip, and I fell backward, throwing Cleanser and his whip behind me. I rolled myself further backward, pushed off the floor, and landed on my feet. Woran was in the air, approaching me. He faked a left and kicked me in the gut with his right. I took a step back, swiped at his legs, and he fell to the ground. “Well done, you two,” Endokia spoke out, clapping his hands. “Frizzy, nice fake out. Ezmer, better patience. Keep it up, guys.” Woran and I looked at each other, then at Kendra, who had just shot her last arrow. Endokia walked over to the target. “Kendra, impressive. Have you used a bow before?” he asked her. “Nope, never,” she told him. “This is my first time.” Woran and I got up and peeked at the target. All the arrows were within the center four rings, and those rings were small with about a six-inch diameter. “Keep up the good work,” Endokia complimented her and left the room. Kendra walked over to the target and pulled out her arrows. “You two are lucky you didn’t get caught with your weapons,” she said, dumping her arrows in her quiver. The target sealed itself up. “What about you?” I questioned her. “That’s some fancy archery skills there.” “This can’t be your first time with a bow,” Woran insisted. “I’d swear it on my mother’s life,” she told us, walking away. Woran began to boast, “You’re so lucky that Endokia came in when he did. I so could have had you.” “Yeah right,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I was kicking your butt!” “I was just messing with you, letting you think that you could beat me, so I

could smash your confidence when I won,” he explained. I shook my head as we left the room. *** Over the next two weeks, our days were filled with training. It was over this time that Endokia finally allowed us to use our weapons in combat. Of course, we had to fight him and his axe first. Each of us gave our best effort in our attempt to beat him. I thought our three different approaches to fighting with our weapons was interesting, and I realized each weapon had its own flow and ability. When I used Cleanser, I would attack with power, and Woran used his whip to attack with precision. What was truly interesting was how Kendra used her bow. The design allowed her to hold it on the top and bottom of the handle and use it more like a staff. This tactic proved to be quite effective against all of us. When we later moved on to free-for-all combat, our fighting methods improved. At the end of the two weeks, we finally approached Element. I peered out the window as we drew in closer. The planet had an array of colors with an interesting sparkle that came from the trees. There were long stretches of these sparkling trees, along with endless plains of rainbow grass. I noticed glorious waters with captivating shores. Never could I have pictured a planet so colorful, a place so serene. “Wow,” Kendra said in amazement. “That is a beautiful sight.” And it was, unlike anything I had ever seen before. I had never been anywhere beside my home planet Rhybannon and Shadow Zero, and I guessed it was probably the same for Kendra. Woran himself was finally on his home planet. What an experience it was for all of us. As we flew in to land, we noticed some of Element’s creatures. There were little, pink ones that looked like rabbits, except they didn’t have any legs, so they bounced around like fuzzy, puff balls. There were also scruffy, blue owls, large, purple hedgehog-like creatures, and giant, yellow crabs. The creatures scattered as we landed and lowered the ramp. We exited the ship to the planet’s warmth. Walking on the ground and breathing in the fresh air elicited—except for Endokia—feelings of peace. His face

subtly showed his sadness and grief. Endokia began to bark out orders, “Ezmer, you and Kendra fly up and see if you can find anything. Woran and I will look around down here.” Kendra and I took our escape into the sky. It was kind of like heaven: quiet, peaceful, and calm. I also had an angel at my side. The two of us went quite far above the treetops, examining the planet for any signs of inhabitants who could help us in any way. We looked around for some time and didn’t see anyone. I turned to Kendra and asked, “Do you see anything?” “No,” she replied, “nothing except trees for many miles.” I looked at her as we flew. The thought of her liking someone like me with my personality—a sensitive artist—just blew my mind away. My disbelief had nothing to do with my looks. I felt that I was somewhat attractive and wasn’t unconfident about that fact. While I was looking at her, I noticed a dark, faded image some distance behind her. A bright, red flash appeared by it. I barely had time to wonder what it was because a second later, I heard a blast; Kendra turned to look, and that was when I just knew. “Kendra! Look out!” I shouted as I flew toward her, but it was too late. She had been shot through her right wing and shoulder. Thousands of thoughts shot through my mind, but one stood out: Vile. I raced toward Kendra as she plummeted to the planet. I caught her in my arms and quickly looked for the ship, but I couldn’t find it. Suddenly, I heard a voice say, “Over here, quick!” I spotted someone that looked a lot like Woran standing between two trees with symbols. I made my way to him, and he led me on a path between them to a tiny, invisible hideout masked by some sort of cloaking device. I rushed in, and Endokia and Woran were already inside, frightened. The little man quickly took me to a room with small operating tables in it, along with a lot of medicine and medical tools spread out on the countertops. I laid Kendra down on one of the tables, and her limbs dangled over the edges. Her left wing was limp and open, lying off the side of the table to the floor, but her right wing was bent in a strange, disgusting way. I just stood there, holding her hand,

hoping that she wouldn’t die. Suddenly, a little doctor came barging in with some of his assistants who shoved me out of the room and slammed the door in my face. Once again, I just stood there outside the door with tears running down my cheeks, a deep throbbing pain in my chest. The pain turned to hatred, and my tears practically evaporated into steam. My eyes were bloodshot, and my face went a deep, sea blue with my burning frustration. I drew Cleanser and marched toward the exit, preparing to kill. Endokia ran up to me and clenched my arm. “Where do you think you’re going?” he questioned. “I’m going to end this now,” I shouted, sending shivers down his spine. “You can’t do that.” “Just watch me,” I said, ripping my arm away. “You can’t stop me.” “I’m going to try.” “Save your effort.” “I’m going to waste it on you anyway. Now sit your ass down,” he demanded, shoving me into a tiny chair, causing it to tip over and throw me to the floor. “I have to tell you something, so you better shut up and listen.” He began to tell me about a young woman he had met a little while before he and my father left Rhybannon on their mission to stop Vile. Her name was Keli, and Endokia said, “She was the most beautiful girl,” over and over in his story. “On one of our journeys, we came here in search of a hidden secret, supposedly a great power of some sort, and we never found it,” he told me. “All the Alieazoids were after us as we tried to make our escape. One of the Triman led us to one of these invisible hideouts. Everyone made it, except Keli. I felt just like you, but I had no one to stop me. I rushed out of the hideout to see if she was still all right and fought my way through the Alieazoids single-handedly. I was battered, bruised, and broken when I was done and passed out from exhaustion. When they took me in, I needed major surgery to survive.” He pulled up his sleeve and took off the leather glove on his left arm to reveal a fully functional, mechanical arm. I couldn’t help but stare at it. “You should be thanking me,” he insisted as he put his glove back on and walked off.

I sat there in disbelief and waited for news about Kendra. It had been at least an hour since we first arrived on Element. So much for the beauty and serenity of the planet; everything was darker and dismal. It was surreal Kendra’s blood had stained my clothing and that I was wiping her blood off my arms. Just the sight of it made me sick. Woran came up to me and sat down. “So, what do you think the symbols on the piece of paper I have mean?” he asked, trying to get my mind off Kendra. “I think it could be your real name. It could also be a place, or even a name of something else,” I muttered. “You really think so?” he questioned. “Why not?” I answered. I wondered about what Endokia had just told me. He was excited by the writing when he first saw it, and perhaps it had something to do with that hidden secret. The two of us continued to theorize about what the markings might mean, and after an hour or so, the little doctor came out of the room. I got up and made my way to him. “Hello, Ezmer?” he began. “I’m Dr. Mertan and—” “And she’s doing better,” Woran interrupted. “Yes,” he said in amazement. “How’d you know?” “You said his name. Endokia, Ezmer, and I have been out here the entire time and wouldn’t have been able to give you our names. Kendra is the only one that could have told you.” “Exactly,” he answered. “You may see her now.” We walked into the room to see Kendra lying down on four operating tables. It was funny that a girl of Kendra’s size was about four times the size of a Triman. I think that’s mainly because of her massive wings. “Well, I bet you feel larger than life,” I joked, attempting to brighten the heartpounding moment. Kendra’s arm was in a brace, and her wing was wrapped closed and held tight to her back. “I’m just happy to be alive,” she commented. “And I have you to thank for that.” We smiled at each other. “But I don’t want any of this equipment on me,” she argued. “Could we please take this off?” “I’d prefer you keep it on,” the doctor insisted.

I turned to her. “Please do what the doctor says. Just this once, use what we have.” Very quietly she answered, “Okay.” At that point, I wanted to tell her how I felt about her, but I was too shy. It occurred to me from now on our lives would be lived as if every moment was our last. I slowly leaned in with a big grin on my face. Our lips connected softly. My mind cleared of every thought, and I felt cheerful. Nothing else mattered. I gradually pulled away and smiled. That kiss was just as good as saying I love you. “Yuck,” Woran said, moaning. “Do you mind?” “No,” I said, chuckling. “Do you?” He growled. “I think there are better things to do right now,” he responded, pulling the piece of paper out of his pocket. “What’s that?” Dr. Mertan questioned, sliding on his bifocals. “It’s a piece of paper I’ve had forever. Can you tell us what it means?” The Doc took a good look at it. His eyes began to widen, and he became frightened. “It says ‘The Hidden Cave,’” he stuttered. “Well, what’s wrong with that?” I remarked. “You seem scared. It doesn’t sound that scary to me.” “It is a forbidden cave to us,” he began. “All that have entered have never returned. All except for me, the only one that made it out alive. I am very fortunate to be here today, for within the cave dwells a mighty dragon, along with smaller replicas of itself. The entire cave is dark without a speck of light. Twenty-seven of us went in, and only I came out. I can only remember a horrible roaring and a lot of screaming. I suggest you do not go in there.” “But we must!” Woran interrupted. “I have to find out why I was on Shadow Zero. If this cave can help me out in any way, I would be forever grateful.” “Fine, enter at your own risk, but remember you were warned.” “All right, guys, let’s go,” Woran demanded. “Whoa,” I interrupted. “I’m not going anywhere without Kendra.” Looking down, I noticed she had fallen asleep and probably missed the entire conversation. “Yeah, and I have to stay with Ezmer,” Endokia replied. “After all, it’s my duty

to protect him until his training is done.” “Besides, if we wait for Kendra to heal, we will have time to stock up on supplies,” I insisted. “I guess so,” Woran said, moaning. “But we leave as soon as she gets better.” While we packed, the nice Trimen decided to help us out by giving us backpacks —which seemed more like fanny packs since they were so small—food, and lanterns for our little expedition. Woran joined me. “Do you think Dr. Mertan is telling the truth?” he asked. “That there really is a dragon inside the cave?” “It seems a little odd,” I stated, “he’s the only one to live through that experience. Besides, why would a dragon be on a planet such as this? From what I know, dragons prefer to live in a place that has one dominant element or power, instead of one with a variety. And if there are smaller versions of itself in the cave, how come he didn’t get hurt by those? If the rest had been eaten, he could have easily gotten lost inside the cave and eaten himself. There are quite a few things about his story that don’t make sense.” That night, once again, I had the dream with Vile, but this time, Woran was involved. He and I fought Vile as Kendra gradually descended toward the acid. Endokia wasn’t there fighting along with us again, and I wondered why. Woran used all his powers and his whip, and I attacked with Cleanser. Woran tried to sneak behind Vile and attack, but Vile slammed him with his tail, and he crashed into the wall. I charged Vile violently, but he deflected my attack and finally pierced my gut. I fell to my knees and then onto my side. The dream felt strange and too real, and I was worried it was showing me what would happen when I finally did face Vile. But it was only a dream. Who’s to say it would truly happen? I awoke that morning, surprised to find Kendra sitting next to me with a smile on her face, still wrapped in her bandages. “Well, morning, beautiful,” I complimented her. “How was your night?” “I’ve had better,” she said, shrugging. “You look a lot better without all of that blood on you.” “I feel better. That blood made me nauseous,” she mentioned. “Are we ready to go to The Hidden Cave?”

I sat up and asked, “So the Doc told you, did he?” “Yep. After you left the room, and I woke up, the doctor said, ‘Your friends are crazy if they think they’re going to The Hidden Cave,’” she told me. “I still think his story isn’t true.” “That’s what I thought, too.” “I’m glad you agree,” she said, leaning in slowly. “You’re welcome,” I said. Our lips connected once again, and that fantastic sensation came inside me once more. Woran woke up slowly and saw us. Griping he said, “Every time I look at you two, you’re kissing. Now, would you cut that out!” “Why?” Kendra asked. “Does it bother you?” “Yes,” he complained. “Well, just don’t watch,” I told him. We kissed again quickly, and then I sat up. We started to discuss The Hidden Cave and what the doctor could possibly be hiding, coming up with everything from a secret hideout to massive riches he found down there. We talked until Endokia woke up. When he did, we had something to eat, and then we bothered the Doc for directions to The Hidden Cave. He replied, “If I can’t stop you, I may as well help you.” He gave us a map and some rope. We waited for Kendra to get better. I had to convince her to take the medicine the doctor suggested would heal her wounds faster, and I questioned her when we were alone. “Why won’t you accept the medication? You’ve seen it does more good than anything else.” “I suppose that it has to do with my mother,” she answered, seemingly feeling sensitive about the topic. “What do you mean?” “I’ve been against it for a long time.” “Against using technology?” “The opposite, actually. I was always jealous of other people having better things than me. I wanted some of that stuff for myself.” “So, you did things your mother didn’t want you to.” Kendra nodded. “I used to sneak out and dip my hand in the forbidden, you

could say. I found it exciting. Everything about it was exciting.” “Is that how you learned to fly a spacecraft?” I questioned, remembering how she handled the controls of Endokia’s ship when Vile chased us away from Rhybannon. “I had my fair share of flights before that one. Now that my mother is gone, I feel I should honor her wishes more.” I finally got to see another side to her I hadn’t before. In contrast, she had almost nothing else to learn about me. Man, my life before—farm work and drawing—had been boring and dull. The medicine helped a great deal; Kendra was better by the end of the day and was able to take off her bandages. She still couldn’t fly or use her right arm to its fullest, but she insisted she would be fine. Apparently, word of the four of us got around. Before we left, we were told we had a visitor. An old, gypsy woman waited to see us in the operating room. She was dressed in garb that flowed in swirls of purple, and even though she was old, there was a detectable agelessness in her face. Once we entered, she examined us. Standing up, she walked slowly around us all without a word. When she seemed satisfied, she sat back down. “Zale er hza zaotubc ^ftoka,” she said. The language was softly spoken, crackling sounds emitting from her throat. “Pardon?” I questioned. “Hza tacab^k us ritruttak.” We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and shook our heads. The gypsy leaned closer to us and whispered, “Warriors.” “If you say so, lady,” Woran agreed rudely. For more information about The Uncovering

ABOUT THE BOOK Kyle Ross has been having the same dream on repeat, for a month now. A dream of war, between the light and the underworld. A dream of blood. A dream of death. Last night, the dream came to an end. Finally, his mind can be at ease and he can focus on what’s important in his life; school, girls and his upcoming birthday. That is until more ominous and vivid dreams plague him, and he is casted into the hidden world of darkness. Now things are going crazy. A demonic messenger of war has appeared in the city, stirring up trouble. Kyle’s family secrets are being thrusted in his face, and he, like the world, may be more than what he seems. Will Kyle be torn apart by the rising darkness or will he be able to find himself and save those he loves from the impending storm.

Chapter One As the brilliant light of the sun vanishes behind the distant horizon, the world around me falls to darkness and I fall along with it. Deeper and deeper I fall, unable to see myself as I am shrouded in a cloak of blood, and blinded by the most primal of feelings: fear. My descent comes to a halt and finally I see again. But as I look upon myself, I am disgusted at what I see. There is nothing left, just a misshapen form of what I used to be. No longer the innocent child radiating hope, but a messenger of death. A wraith. A shadow. *** I awake gasping, gripping my pillow and drenched in sweat. With a deep breath, I roll over onto my back and stare into the infinite darkness of the room. My mind continues to run wild with the images of that God-forsaken dream. Every night the same thing. As I wipe the sleep from my eyes, a knock on the door disrupts the solace I find in the silence of my room. “General Kross?” He knocks even louder. “General Kross, sir.” I push away the silken sheets and sit upon the side of my bed, looking towards the hard pinewood door that he’s standing behind. “It’s Shadow to you, human. Now, why do you disturb me?” “Fo-forgive me sir, you have been summoned by Lord Beal. You are to report to the war room for a mission briefing, immediately…sir?” I rake back the black and grey hair from out of my face. “I get it. Now leave me.” “S-sorry sir, but I am to escort you to the meeting; direct orders,” he says shakily. The fear in his voice is well placed. Talking back to a general could get you killed. With a sigh, I stand and stretch. “Pyros,” I say, filling the word with energy. A lone flame flickers to life in the darkness. Then, all at once, flames burst into existence atop the other candles spread throughout my quarters. The room itself is decently big and furnished with an all cedar décor. Way better than the dirt box I was in when I first got here. I make my way to the dresser across the room. Atop a small table in the middle of the room is a commemorative vase, depicting the General who preceded me. I

push the vase from the table. The sound of it shattering is like music. At the dresser, I gaze into the mirror that hangs from the wall above it, my reddish-brown eyes, tired with bags underneath due to lack of sleep; my face, worn and old. I feel as old as I look. The scars on my bronze skin from battles past cast shadows in the light. I touch one just left of my heart and hear screams. My attention is brought back to the mirror. Behind me I see the vase back on the table in one piece. At least I get to break it again. I don a fine black shirt and pants made from the fur of an iron blasé, a wolf like creature that resides in the underworld. It is as soft as the finest silks some humans wear, but so strong that it can act like light armor. Fully dressed, I open the door and step out. I see the human messing with his wool tunic, but when he notices me he stands at attention, stiff as a board. “At ease.” At my order he relaxes, giving a sigh of relief. “Now let’s go.” We walk down the stone corridor. Busts of kings sit in coves along the wall. These men were known as great rulers of the known world that led their people out of the darkness New Birth had to offer. If humans already had such rulers in the world, why were so many of them willing to help us in our efforts to conquer it? “What’s on your mind, General Shadow?” The human asks, looking back at me. “Tell me, why do you serve the army?” I ask, looking at one of the busts. “I serve because I feel that the world is filled with the filth of the light,” he explains, his tone serious. “Why do you think that demon rule will be any different than that of the human kings of the past?” “The kings of old were just stupid humans following the influence of the light, answering to their every beck and call; puppets on the strings of faith and belief. Killing all those who were deemed sinners, even if they were truly innocent. But demons…demons know of the darkness and all that the universe has to offer. With their knowledge we, the fallen, can finally reach salvation.” There is such conviction, such belief in his words. I would have believed him, had I not heard those exact words from the mouth of another, the High General of the demon army, our lord and master, Beal. He had said that same speech to the humans when

we first appeared before their ancestors so long ago. His influence over them is astonishing. The things he can make them do with just a whisper… We reach the end of the corridor. Stone steps lead up to a wooden door, which he opens. “After you, sir.” I step past him and through the doorway. After a second of shielding my eyes from the brilliant light of the sun, they finally adjust and I see the headquarters of the demon army here on New Birth. The city of Sodom. It’s busy like normal. Soldiers, humans and demons alike attend to their daily duties, be it cleaning or even babysitting the children that play in the streets. As nice of a scene as it is to see the children play, there is a bitter sadness to it. All that reside here are those who have been cast aside and shunned by the world- and the light. Deeper into the city we walk until we reach a small, broken building at the city’s core. I enter and the human stops at the threshold. “Sir, may I ask, why is it that demons visit this place so often? There’s nothing here.” “Leave.” “By your command,” he says with a bow and leaves. It surprises me how much the human mind cannot comprehend, and how they so blatantly lie to themselves. At this rate, they will never be able to see the world that they live in for what it truly is. I look throughout the room. It’s filled with garbage: sheets, broken tables and chairs. But what I seek is beyond all that. I seek the truths concealed behind the veil. As I approach the back wall, a small door shimmers into being, pulsing with an intense energy that would have surely driven the human mad. A sigil in the shape of a serpent appears in the center of the door. Only those with the same sigil engraved onto their very souls may enter. I place my right hand on door. “Before you I stand, key in hand. I command you…open.” The sigil on the door roars to life with a green light. Its form appears on the length of my arm, and shines with the same glow. It dies out and the door vanishes like smoke in the wind, leaving a frame that holds a void. As I enter, I exit an identical doorway. A single guard in black robes stands waiting, her sword drawn. Her eyes grow wide when she notices me. “General Shadow, we’ve been

expecting you,” she says, sheathing her blade. I nod and keep moving. Beal hates to be kept waiting. The catacombs: miles upon miles of stone and mud walls, overflowing with the bones of humans that have died in this city. In this time of war, it is a perfect place for the general’s war room. I come upon large double doors made of blackened pine and knock. “Enter,” a voice orders. They open on their own. As I walk through, the light of the sun blinds me, shining through the enchanted ceiling. The grey stone walls are covered in bookcases, chains, unlit torches and what I think is dried blood; this place was once a dungeon, used as a torture room of some kind. In the middle of the room is a circular table with five chairs around it, and at its head sits General Beal looking at a three-dimensional map of the land ruled by us. “You summoned me?” I ask, shutting the doors. He looks from the map to me. His pale white skin glows with an ethereal luster. The smile that spreads across his face rivals that of the sunshine that fills the room. I hate it, how beautiful he is. “Ah yes, General Kross…I mean Shadow. How are you this fine morning?” I cross my arms and lean against the table, “I was doing fine before your little wake up call.” He chuckles like a kid that played a prank. “Please forgive me, but I am of need of your services for a mission.” The three empty chairs stick out so much without the others in them. “Where are the others?” “Resting,” he says, never taking his eyes off of the map. “Right.” Perks of being the lowest ranking of the generals, whenever a mission comes along, I am the first to be called; there have been hundreds so far. “So what are the details of this mission?” He moves a strand of his long raven black hair from out of his face and waves his hand over the map. A white point appears on the terrain. “Our scouts have informed me that there is a troop of the light’s soldiers moving around the western territory and we can’t have that, now can we?” He looks up from the map at me, “So, I want you to search them out and when you find them…”

“Kill them.” “Precisely.” I turn to leave, but stop in my tracks, looking at one of the chairs with a crest of the full moon on it. “Is there a problem?” I look back to him. “Why send me? Why not send Bane? Being a wolf demon gives him a better advantage in tracking this troop.” He sets his square jaw and glares at me with his crimson eyes. “Do not question my decisions, boy. You were chosen to be general by Ra-Terin and, though I respect his decision, you must still prove yourself to me. If you return alive, then maybe I’ll recognize you as a General.” If you return alive… I’ve heard the same thing now for three dytics - two hundred and forty human year - and every time I return he still treats me the same, like fodder. “When do I leave?” “Immediately,” he says, waving me on. “Oh and Kross,” he says as I reach the door, “do not fail me.” I leave, shutting the doors behind me. With a couple of deep breaths my anger dulls. He sure can work my nerves. Outside of the catacombs I make my way through the streets towards the western entrance. I stop to look up at the sky and exhale. I stomp the ground; I’m sure cracking it. He really knows just how to get under my skin. I hear footsteps approach. A young warrior from my battalion stands before me. Breathing hard, he fixes his tunic and wipes the sweat from his dark skin. He and his friend make it their mission to pester me at least once a day. They can be bit irritating, but their daily annoyance is truly welcome today. “General Shadow, sir, may I have a word?” he asks, saluting. “I’m on my way to start a mission, so walk and talk.” We walk for a minute before he takes a deep breath. His deep brown eyes steel as he opens his mouth. “Sir, I wanted to ask a favor of you.” “And this favor would be?” “Well I’ve met this girl since I’ve been a part of your battalion and we’ve fallen madly in love with one another,” he explains, unable to the wipe the grin from his face, “and we were wondering if you would wed us?” he asks, his voice rising. “To marry is a human tradition. Is she a Hellspawn?”

“No sir. She is a pure blood like us, but she was born and raised among the humans,” he says rubbing his shaven scalp. “Why choose me, why not Dusk, Masani or even Beal? They’re all higher ranking generals than I.” “Permission to speak freely, sir?” he asks, looking around. I grant him permission with a nod. “Well, sir you see there is something about you.” I chuckle. “Elaborate.” Nervous about the words about to come out of his mouth, he moves closer. “Well, no disrespect to the other generals, but they are monsters.” This is true. “But you sir… you just don’t give off that feeling. It is as if you are lost in the darkness of this war, like many of us. It’s for this reason that I and many others respect you and are willing to follow you no matter what.” He starts to fidget as if trying to find the words for something. “Is there more?” “Sir, I have a feeling it will be you that will bring an end to this war.” We make it to the gate. Two sentries push open the doors. “I’m grateful for the praise and flattery, but you are wrong about me. Like the others, I too am a monster,” I explain, looking at my hands, the screams loud in the back of my mind. “I’ve slain thousands.” His face grows grim, clearly knowing of my exploits. “And it’s not I who will decide the end to this war, but soldiers like yourself and your children…” “We can argue all day about this, sir, but I digress. Will you marry us?” He asks once again, annoyance riddling his voice. This boy’s persistent. “Like I said, to marry is a human tradition and We. Are. Not. Human.” I say sternly. He shifts his gaze downward, defeated. I put my hand on his shoulder, making him jump slightly. “But I never really cared about tradition or rules. It would be my honor to wed you two when I return, if I return.” I say with a smile. His eyes light up with excitement. “Th-thank you sir. Oh, you just made us the happiest couple in the world!” “Go on and tell your wife.” He salutes me and then runs off. “Oh and tell Kir to try not and get himself

killed. Those black ops girls are no joke. I should know- I trained some of them.� As he runs off, the slight joy I feel fades. I look out past the barren plains that surround Sodom. I inhale the dry air, the words of my young friend replaying in my head. He is right about one thing: I am lost deep within a darkness that I will never escape and this mission is just going to drive me even deeper, still.

Chapter Two Days have passed, as I walk the mountains of sand and rock. The desert winds push and pull the weeds as the sun beats down on the dry and broken land. By the Father, I’m thirsty. I begin to see patches of green grass, and the light smell of water. A few hours pass. Trees that stand on trunks over one hundred feet high start to appear. I look up to see the sun shining through the trees’ evergreen needles. The birds sing a joyous song as they soar through the air, weaving in and out of the branches. I’ve not heard a bird’s song in months. I almost forgot how wonderful it made the day seem. Shame I’ll probably have to shed blood on such a day. Further into the forest I come across a lot of footprints in semi-dried mud, leading deeper in. I kneel-down and smell the air just above the tracks. The lingering smell of human and metal. From what I can tell there are at least eight of them. Due to the shallowness of these prints they are carrying light armor and supplies. As dry as the prints are, it’s obvious that it hasn’t been too long since they came through this area. I’m sure it would only take me half a day to reach them, but to go in headfirst wouldn’t be wise. What can I do? Something rustles in the trees above me. A rodent of some kind jumps from one branch to another. If I stay high in the tree and get the drop on them, they wouldn’t know what hit them until it was too late. I focus my thoughts and energy on myself. Strength surges throughout my being. My skin starts to crawl as a black mist, my energy appears around me, covering me from head to toe. It partially solidifies, becoming hard and metallic. I look at my hand. My energy still radiating as a black mist. My armor hasn’t been complete in years, but it’ll do. With one jump, I take off to the sky soaring through the air and land on a solid branch. Jumping from tree to tree I head in the same direction as the footprints. I hope the forest stays this thick or else I’ll be on the ground anyway. An hour later I find them. That was fast. Their tracks in the mud were more recent than I thought. I didn’t take into consideration the heat of the day. They all walk in a clump together, their crude white and brass armor glistening in the

sunlight. Four of them are young; baby faced, bright eyed and nervous, with their hands on the hilts of their blades. They’ve never seen real battle. The rest are veterans; battle hardened with little to no openings. They may be a problem. Silently I move feet ahead of them and wait. I close my eyes to meditate. With every breath I push myself into the farthest, deepest reaches of my mind and soul; far from reality, far from the lingering screams I constantly hear. Something warm trickles down and off the face of my armor. I pay it no mind, for the soldiers are now under me and in my range of attack. I jump from the branch and descend onto them, focusing my energy into my hands. The dark energy manifests around them, shifting and churning until it hardens into huge claws, resonating with a violent power. The drop of the liquid from my armor hits the leading soldier on the face. He stops, wiping his cheek. A crimson substance stains the tips of his fingers. “Blood?” His face fills with confusion as he examines it. He looks up; his eyes grow wide as they lock onto me. Landing in front of him, I bring down my left claw with the force of my descent. It slashes him through his breastplate and shoulder like butter: breaking bone, ripping flesh and muscle alike. There is surprise, fear, and pain on his face as he falls backwards to the ground. “A Demon!” the closest warrior screams. They all draw their swords. I rise from the ground, cracking my knuckles with the slightest twitch, as blood drips from my claw. “I am sorry to inform you, but your mission has just been terminated and you along with it.” In anger for their fallen comrade, two of the remaining seven soldiers charge me. In the last moment of their approach they lunge forward, set to strike. I feel a nauseating hum of power radiating from their blades as they draw near. These are no mundane weapons. Swiftly I parry their attacks, pushing them to either side of me, and draw them in closer than I’m sure they intended. With great force I seize their necks, crushing their tracheas. Releasing their weapons they drop to their knees and begin fighting my grasp, all the while trying to breathe. Another young soldier readies himself to come at me. An older soldier with the skin color of clay steps forward, grabbing the kid’s shoulder. “Where do you think you’re going?” the old man’s strong voice rasps out.

“Commander, I’m going to help my brothers,” the young soldier says, removing the commander’s grip from his shoulder. The commander’s light brown eyes dart from the two in my grasp to me. “Son, they’re already dead. All rushing in will do is lower our numbers.” The young soldier takes a deep breath calming himself. “Good, now prepare…” Without warning the young soldier breaks rank, screaming his head off. In a mad dash he races towards me, his blade glowing white. I lift the dead bodies and toss them at the approaching warrior. He ducks under the first body and, using his sword, deflects the last body up and out of his way. With a few steps forward I now stand in front of him. Frantic, he tries to swing, but I take hold of his hands, keeping them and his blade over his head. I drive my claw past his armor and into his diaphragm. Blood runs down my arm as he gasps, trying to take a breath. I rip my claw from him and he collapses, choking. “He warned you,” I say, stepping over him. I approach the remaining four. They prepare themselves, getting into a two-by-two formation. “On my mark,” orders the commander. I run towards them. “Now!” he screams, as I enter their range. The leading two warriors dash at me, slashing at my abdomen. Energy swirls around my legs and feet as I place my right foot in between their blades, stopping them cold. The commander and his subordinate follow up, thrusting their swords in my face, cutting past my armor and into my cheek. The energy around my legs solidifies, forming armored greaves with a blade running up the shin, protecting my legs as I push off the stilled blades. I flip backwards and retreat to a safe distance. While I regain my composure, they push forward in the same formation. Always coming in twos, slashing and or piercing from high to low. All in attempt to keep me off balanced. Dodging the more deadly attacks I begin to see through their movements. I can predict exactly when, where, and how strong their attacks would come and be. Planting myself, I prepare to retaliate. “Hold,” the commander orders, pulling back his sword. He has a good eye. They all stop, breathing hard. “I swear I hit him,” says one of the soldiers, looking at his blade for blood. “Aye. I know I took his arm, but he’s still whole.”

“Be on your guard. This is no ordinary demon. He is using an ancient demon art called Nigi. I don’t know much, but I do know that he is more dangerous than we can fathom,” the commander explains. His subordinates all look a little freaked out, but I’m genuinely surprised. To know even that, this old man must be knowledgeable of obscure demon history but it’s not going save him or his men. With the sun beaming through the trees behind them, the soldiers’ shadows stretch just shy of me. I take a step forward onto their collective shadows, which causes them to ready themselves. I focus my energy into and through their shadows. They begin to move and shift, coming to life. “Come forth,” I command from under my breath. From the shadows under their feet, red eyes appear. Serpents, the color of coal, slither close to the four soldiers, poised to strike. “Why does he just stare at us so intently?” one of the soldiers asks. The commander eyes me, the worry lines on his face so prominent, no doubt pondering my next move. All of a sudden his face fills with surprise and urgency. “Move!” he screams. The commander turns, dragging his blade across the ground and through a snake. Instantly the other snakes strike, wrapping around and constricting their respective soldier. The commander quickly rolls away. Channeling energy into my claws and legs, I dash in the middle of the three immobilized soldiers. I spin, releasing the energy from the tips of my claws. Like blades, it slices through them leaving no trace of a cut. I stop holding my stance and their heads hit the ground, followed by their bodies. I turn to see the commander horror-stricken. “Movements unseen by the naked eye, a user of Nigi and a controller of darkness itself. I’ve only heard of one in the whole demon army able to achieve such feats…the fifth ranking general, Shadow.” His hands begin to tremble as I step towards him. Instinctively he stands up and prepares for the worst. From behind his fear he manages a smile, “But I must say I thought you would be a lot better; I dispatched your serpent with ease.” I shift my head to the side. “You just dispatched one.” The soldier’s expression turns from a smug smile to surprise and pain as he falls to his knees grabbing his chest. He falls over, blood pouring from his mouth. “How?” he asks.

“There is darkness and shadow everywhere. Even under your armor.” I walk closer to him and from under his breastplate hear the hiss of multiple serpents constricting around his ribs, breaking them. “So tell me, how should I kill you?” With his head bowed he starts to laugh hysterically, even with all of his ribs broken. “What’s so funny?” He coughs uncontrollably as he stands tall. “Your time on this plane has come to an end,” he says falling forward. I catch him by the throat and lift him in the air. His pulse slows with every beat of his heart. “Oh really, and whom will be my end human, you?” Like a tsunami, a massive surge of energy envelops the area, making my armor and skin crawl. From the densest part of the forest, three soldiers on horseback appear, shining. How did I not notice them until now? They stop about ten feet away. The gleaming white and gold armor of the light they wear pulsates with the same nauseating energy. The markings on their banners: three star like crosses encompassed by a white flame. They are of a high ranking, lieutenants I believe. They dismount, all the while looking at the dead. The commander places his hand on my shoulder. “They will be your...demise...Shadow,” he says with that smug smile. His body falls limp in my grasp. Their full attention turns to me as the soldier’s body hits the ground. The power radiating from them is so stiflingly intense. They must actually be angelic warriors, unlike the others before them. There is no way that a human could wield this much power without being driven insane. “Ready your blades, the general Shadow stands before us,” the head soldier orders, his voice light and muffled by his mask. They draw their swords, readying themselves for an attack. The two lieutenants on either side of the leading warrior start to move at an angle to my left and right, until they surround me. I’ve seen this formation before. First they surround me. Next they charge me one after another, trying to keep me confused and off-balance. Last, during the confusion, one of them will land the final blow, driving the blade right into my heart. They stand there for a second. Their breathing and nerves are calm. Something is off. The two moving on my left and right never take their eyes from their leader. If they were going to move they would have done it. They have a

plan and he’s the one to give the signal. Energy wells up within me causing the horses fidget anxiously. I dash towards the lieutenant on my left, ready to rip out his heart. “NOW!” he shouts. The one I’m moving towards and the one next to her kneel, plunging their blades deep into the ground. Their swords begin to glow with an intense light. The light shoots up into the sky. The wave of light and energy coming from them makes me stop in my tracks. Every shred of darkness in the area vanishes except for my armor. A barrier of light appears behind me, between the two swords. I turn around to see the head standing there, sword ready to do the same. I take off towards him. So, their plan is to trap me and at this rate it was going to work. A foot away from the head warrior the other barrier walls begin to form, closing me in. In reach of him I swing my right claw, aiming for his throat, but at that same moment he kneels, dodging and plunging his sword into the ground. I follow up my miss with an upward swipe. He leans back, dodging me once again. Light explodes from the sword, knocking me back and completing the barrier. My vision clears as I look out at my captor. Deep black eyes look at me from behind long black, curly hair. A woman? She stands moving her hair from in front of her face. The others stand, removing their helmets. All three of them are women. “Gotcha,” she says with a cocky smile. I punch the barrier in front of her, expelling a massive blast of energy. She steps back, still with that smile. “We did it!” shouts the lighter skinned and thicker of the lieutenants to my back right, as she jumps up and down in excitement. “So, Ricilia, what do we do now?” asks the other lieutenant at my back left, her green eyes and mild tan skin vibrant in the light. “We do what we were sent here to do…destroy a demon,” the head lieutenant says, never taking her eyes off of me. The green-eyed lieutenant moves up, ruffling her short, straight hair. Her narrow face is full of worry as she stares at me. “How would we destroy him anyway? The barrier normally kills them instantly, but it’s still standing like nothing’s happening.” “The only way to kill a being of pure darkness, is with the pure light of heaven.

Paulina, Arianna, back to your positions.” Doing as ordered, they all kneel before their swords. They begin to chant in sync with one another in a language that I’ve never heard before. They begin to glow as the words take hold. Energy surges from them and pours into the barrier, intensifying. Making it so that I can’t see outside. The trees above me seem to move, opening to a darkened sky. The clouds above swirl as lighting builds within them. There’s a flash and a piercing light overtakes me. The weight of it on my armor drives me to my knees. “What is this?” I scream, fighting to get back up to my feet. They continue chanting and the light intensifies. My strength quickly fades and I fall back down to one knee. “Demon,” says a voice riddled with arrogance. I look up and from out of the light a man with dark skin and hair like fire, wearing armor similar to the lieutenants, appears. A red cape trimmed with gold hangs over his shoulder as he steps up to me. He draws his sword, its blade a gleaming silver, and places it to my throat. White fire slowly engulfs the blade, painfully burning away at my armor. “I am Ira, Angel of Judgment and your executioner,” he explains, spreading the pure white wings protruding from the back of his armor. I grab the still-burning blade with my claw, changing the white flame black. With all my dwindling strength, I force myself to stand. Bit by bit my armor falls to the ground, turning into white smoke at my feet. I look this angel of judgment straight in his golden-red eyes, which are filled with surprise, and smile. “I am the fifth ranking general of the Demon army, Shadow.” Ira tries to step back, but I keep hold of his blade. “What are you waiting for? Try and kill me. If you can.” His rugged features harden with rage. He rips his sword from my grasp and readies himself, getting into a stance. I feel his energy slam into me. His intent is clear: to strike me down where I stand. My armor and claws are nonexistent now. There’s nothing I can really do against him, except accept my fate. Ira rushes me, screaming. My eyes begin to burn as the white of the barrier is tinged with red. Something wet runs down my face. The tip of his blade halts inches above my heart. “What’s the meaning of...” he stops speaking and takes in his wings, surprise and confusion on face. “Sir?” A hand of golden light comes into focus, holding onto the hilt of Ira’s blade.

“Tears of blood,” the being of pure light says in a wispy tone. Ira relaxes, taking notice of the tears. He looks at me with disdain. “You are not what you appear to be.” The being steps closer to me. “He may be of some use to us.” This thing is nothing like Ira. His light is tainted by anger and rage - emotions I know far too well. This thing’s power is pure and soothing. My hands tremble as I fight this calming feeling, but the closer it gets to me the harder it is. “What are you going to do to it, sir?” Ira asks standing there, his sword still poised to attack. Now right in front me, the being lightly touches my forehead. Calm washes over me as my body completely relaxes and melts to mush. A connection forms between us, and I feel it begin to delve deep into me: into my mind, body and soul. “Purge,” it says lightly. With a great flash, everything goes white. I’m floating now, in this endless void of white. The smell of blood and dirt are all but gone, replaced by rain and wildflowers. “Kross,” the beings voice radiates from all around me. “You meditate before every battle, so that your mind is not affected by the deaths of your victims. But your body and soul have shown me the truth. They tell me that you are one of a few demons with a light in your heart, but something has forced you into the darkness.” “You know nothing of me,” I say, still unable to move. “I know that you’re hiding from yourself. I know that you are aged beyond your years because of it.” I start to laugh, “This is the real me. I’ve always been a monster, a taker of lives, and I have enjoyed every moment of it!” I scream. My eyes start to burn and I see red again. The being appears in front of me, still shrouded in the golden light. It takes hold of my neck with a vice grip. “Do not lie to me, little demon,” it says, putting energy behind each word. My body shuts down. It all just stops: my breathing, my heart, everything. What is this thing? It pulls me closer. “I have existed for eons. I have seen true pain and suffering, for I have been the cause of them. Your bloody tears reveal to me the anguish that you endure. Even now, as we speak.” It wipes the tears from my face and releases me.

My heart and lungs are the first to resume and I gasp for air. Fear starts to creep up into my throat. “What are you about to do to me?” I ask shakily. It chuckles. “I’m going to help you. Help you rise from your own darkness, your mind, body and soul reborn anew. But first, you must face the death and fear that you have brought upon this world. So, let us begin.” The golden light surrounding the being intensifies, enveloping me and the whole void. Then it all goes black.

Chapter Three I open my eyes to find myself standing in the middle of a burning village. I recognize this place. This is the last mission I had. I was to destroy a human village within our territory which supposedly had been housing the light’s army. I and a few of my men tore through the village until there was only one hut left. I turn around and behind me is the hut. My stomach starts to churn as I look at it. With one step forward the world around me turns into the inside. The light of the blaze outside shines through the window, casting twisted shadows along the floor and walls. A woman scrambles from the other room, dragging her child behind her. Quickly she places things in front of the door and finds a spot just behind me to await their fate. The door flies open, knocking her makeshift barricade all over the place. Here I come walking in. The darkness of my incomplete armor shifts rapidly in the light of the fires. Blood drips from my claws. “Please, why are you doing this?” “Your village has been accused of housing the light, and by decree of Beal you are to be destroyed.” “No, we are loyal.” “Yes, I see that.” He takes a step towards us. I consider his eyes. There’s no life in them. No surprise. Red tears start to fall from his eyes. “But my orders are clear. There are to be no survivors.” She clutches her child. “You monster. Your soul will forever rot in hell.” The energy within his claws pulsate. “I know.” I step forward. “Don’t do this.” He swings his claws and it goes right through me. He starts to breathe heavily. I remember how it felt, watching the life leave their eyes. It hurt. I awake screaming from the memory in immense pain. I’m not in the village or in the vast void of white anymore, but back inside the barrier before the being and Ira. Ira looks at me in confusion and shock. “In all of my years I have never seen a purging so brutal.”

I fall to all fours coughing, unable to catch my breath. The ground is soaked in blood. I look at my chest. There are two giant gashes across it, all the way down to my bone. “What have you done to me?” “I have done nothing. The wounds upon your chest are self-inflicted. The effects of pushing yourself away and going against your true nature.” “You know nothing of my true nature.” “Oh really? I watched you stand for that woman and child and try to stop that which has already happened. What monster has such regrets?” “You know nothing!” I scream, snapping my head up and releasing a wave of energy at the being. A wing appears in front of it, taking the brunt of my energy. The wing whips around and Ira steps forward, putting his sword back to my neck. “How dare you, filthy creature.” This time he makes sure to draw blood. The being lightly places its hand on Ira’s blade, moving it away. “Stay your blade, Ira.” It kneels to my level and gently caresses my forehead. “I’ll just have to dig deeper.” It palms my head. A tsunami of memories flood my mind. Screams and blood ring loud in my ears as the images speed by. I come to laying in the puddle. I can’t feel my body, only the pain. I start to laugh. The pain is maddening. “He mocks us!” Ira screams angrily. With a calm movement, the being lifts its arm in front of him. “Calm yourself, Ira,” it says sternly, weaving power into each word; its annoyance is prevalent. “He is merely on the brink of his mind.” It turns back to me, its hand still on my head. “Do you see it yet, Kross?” “All I see is blood,” I look up at Ira and smile, “and your pet’s head on a platter.” Ira’s grip on his sword tightens as he flutters his wings. The being turns, looking at Ira and calming him instantly. “Still you try to change what has happened and still you hide. One more time.” The being kneels next to me and places its hand into the pool of blood. A strand of blood rises in front of me. It strikes me, burrowing into my skull. More pain and power washes over me. I open my eyes to this green haired, crimson skinned demon sitting on the floor across from me: my friend, Tanis. He rubs one of the

many symbols etched into his skin. “Hey Kross. You ready for this?” he asks. This? Oh no. The selection. “Wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.” “Very true.” He ruffles his hair and chuckles. “You know, in all of the years that we’ve fought together in this war, just now I realize that I’ve never asked: are you for the war or against it?” “I’ve lost countless friends and my whole family to this war. I’ve been against it since the day I was born. Tanis laughs. “Yeah, I had that feeling. Then why fight in the army, why go for the position of General?” “For a seat of power. Where I have enough influence to do something, or at least try.” Tanis stands, putting his hand on my shoulder. He looks me in the eye with his one orange eye - which wasn’t even his, but the beast that took his eyes in the first place. He smiles. “I like that dream. I’ve never had anything to really fight for besides my life, which you have saved countless times.” His eye color flickers blue for a split second before turning orange again. What was that? “But I’ll fight for you and that dream of yours. I’ll do my best to help it come true, but promise me something, Kross.” “What is it?” The smile leaves his face and sadness creeps in, but his eye is focused. “Promise me that no matter what happens today, you fight to make that dream a reality.” The doors to the arena open. “I promise. Now let’s do this.” He and I walk to the center of the Black Coliseum, soon joined by the other eight participants. A decrepit old man sits in the booth, overseeing the whole arena. He steps out, scratching his white beard, his old green eyes looking over us. General Ra-Terin. A demon among demons, older than Beal and way more ruthless. “Welcome, young ones. You all have been recognized as potential candidates to take my place as general. Young, powerful demons that have made names for yourself within this great army, but there are so many of you that I cannot decide. So I’ll let your skills do the choosing…now begin.” All the big names are here. Sline, the drake slayer and Treva of the molten fumes, to name a few. All of them were great, but Tanis and I were on a whole other level. Within minutes, Tanis with his beast summoning and I with my

energy manipulation tear through the competition until it’s just the two of us. Our fight feels like an eternity, attacking and countering one another. Parrying me, he finds an opening and pins me against the wall. “Good one,” I say, holding his hand. “Thanks, I didn’t think I was getting past your guard. It would seem that you’ve gotten a little rusty in your leave of duty,” he says, breathing hard. “Good, good. Now prove to me that you would do anything for this position, for your lord,” says the general, his old booming voice echoing throughout the Coliseum. “Kill him.” Tanis, kill me? He wouldn’t. We are like brothers, through thick and thin. I feel his body grow more tense. His eye grows cold, losing all emotion. He exhales, “Sorry Kross, but your dream ends here.” A symbol on his arm starts to glow. The skin on his arm splits and tears open revealing the claw of a beast underneath. He tries to thrust the claw into my chest, but I push it up out of the way. I escape his grasp, moving to a more open part of the arena. As he makes his way towards me more symbols on his body begin to shine. Monsters begin to pour from him and towards me. For five long minutes we fight with our lives on the line. Tanis is a tactical genius. He has beasts for every occasion, but summoning like this takes too much stamina, which I have an abundance of. I kill the last of his creatures and look over to him. He’s so worn out that he can barely keep himself up. With a deep breath, he starts to chant. Here it comes: his trump card. He opens the socket of the missing eye. Black ichor begins to stream down his face. As it hits the ground with a hiss, flames erupt from it. Quickly they spread across the arena, surrounding me. From behind me there’s a roar. Quickly I turn and the fire changes shape until it looks like a dragon. It rises above me, smoke billowing from its mouth. Tanis’s most powerful creature: the black flame dragon. I rush forward. Everything gets hazy. The heat waves fade and my vision clears. I stand over the dead dragon, soaked in sweat, completely exhausted. I jump off its body, barely hanging on to consciousness. From out of the smoke Tanis rushes at me in a blur of speed. His body is now a medley of monster parts: his chimera form. He lunges at me for a

last-chance killing blow. I try to move but my body won’t respond. I can’t dodge it. I’m going to die. ‘Promise me, that no matter what happens today you fight to make that dream a reality.’ As Tanis gets in my face everything goes black. I come to out of breath. There’s blood everywhere, all over the ground, on my claws and me. I look down to see my friend’s lifeless body. “Wh…what happened?” In a cloud of darkness the general appears next to me. “Right before your friend was about to take your life, you vanished. From that point gashes began to appear on his body, one after the other, spilling blood everywhere until he lay dying. That’s when you reappeared with a dead look upon your face. What a glorious sight. I haven’t seen such a display of artful killing since the days of the ancients. I love it.” Not again. “What have I done?” He lays his hand on my shoulder, laughing. “You have just proven to me that you are worthy of being called General.” I scream. I’m pulled back to the real world, my scream muffled by the blood in my mouth. An overwhelming sadness wells up from the depths of my very soul. I can’t help but cry. The red haze seems to melt away. “I’m sorry… I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.” Ira just looks in amazement at me. “His tears are no longer blood. He has been purged.” “Kross,” The being says lifting up my head. I look at it as my eyes burn from the tears. The light surrounding it melts away to a beautiful, fair-skinned woman with silver hair and imperial golden eyes, smiling at me. “Can you see my form?” I nod, still crying. “Your eyes are no longer clouded by the pain of your soul.” “But I still hurt so much…Tanis. I killed him.” “He did fall by your hands, but for a cause greater than himself. He chose that fate for your dream. For the end of the war. You know this to be true.” She kneels back down next to me and caresses my face. “Now, I ask you. For your friend’s sacrifice are you ready to keep the promise that you made to your friend long ago?” I strain to get up but cough up blood instead, staining her golden robes. “Yes.” The smile that spread across her face was like watching the sun rise. “I am pleased to hear that.” She stands, turning towards Ira. She looks in three directions, shakes her head and sighs. “These three warriors. They are the offspring of angels

and men; Nephilim. They are unsanctioned, and young, but they have the power equal to that of a garrison soldier. They will aid you. Come Ira, our work here is done.” “Wait,” I order, barely able to stay awake. “Tell me, are you God?” “Yes and no,” she says, her back still to me. “My name is Anima. I am that in which the humans worship as God, but I am just a servant to the one greater than everything. Farewell Kross, may we meet again.” In a flash of light she vanishes and all that’s left is Ira and me. He laughs. “To think that you, Shadow, the wraith himself would be cleansed so easily,” he says, walking up to me. He grabs me by the neck and lifts me off the ground. “You’re lucky. If it were up to me you and your kind would be wiped from existence.” “Luckily, it’s not.” I say weakly. He drops me. I land like a pile of rocks. “May we never meet again. If we do, I will end you.” With a flap of his wings he vanishes and so, too, does the barrier. The girls continue to kneel. I shut my eyes, trying to bear this pain. “Is he dead?” asks the one called Arianna. Her voice is light with a bit of bass, kind of pretty. “I hope so,” the head lieutenant states as she stands. She extracts her sword from the ground. Cautiously, she starts moving towards me. Her every step in the grass is light, but I can feel her energy drawing near. The spot on my face where Anima had placed her hand begins to burn, reacting to the lieutenant’s energy. Like wildfire the feeling spreads throughout my being. The pain I feel intensifies as my body starts to twist and bend back into place. “He’s healing?” “What’s going on? he shouldn’t be healing, he should be dead!” exclaims the one called Paulina. “Why aren’t you dead?” Relief takes hold of me. I open eyes to see the leader’s blade at my neck. The pure energy it gives off makes my skin crawl. “Answer me,” she demands, shoving her blade closer to my throat. Slowly my strength returns as my muscles reconnect. I sit up. Instantly she pulls back to swing blade. I still can’t move, so I brace myself. Her blade vanishes, turning to smoke before it can touch me. She looks at the hilt of her blade in awe. I

look at her and she quickly jumps back into a defensive stance with a bladeless hilt. Shakily I stand, wiping away the caked-on blood. The Nephilim look upon me in utter shock. “Was he always that young?” asks Paulina. “He’s actually kind of handsome,” says Arianna. “Hold your tongue, Arianna,” orders the head lieutenant. Her blade returns and she readies herself again. The tension in the air is thick between these three and me. Slicking back my blood-dampened hair, and the girls flinch a little readying themselves. With a slight smile I bow. “Please allow me to introduce myself; my name is Damien Kross, fifth general of the demon army, whom you know as Shadow. The mission assigned to me by the head general Beal was to kill the light army’s recon team that had been snooping around the demon territory,” I explain. “We too are part of that recon team, so why don’t you kill us now?” asks Paulina, her sword at the ready. “To kill you three wouldn’t be of any use to me.” I try to step forward, but slip on the blood-stained grass. Arianna chuckles as I almost fall, but the head lieutenant just sets a cold gaze upon me. “While in the barrier I heard you talking over our chanting; to whom were you talking?” “I was talking to the Angel of Judgment, Ira, and his superior, Anima.” At the mention of Anima’s name they proceed to move their hand from head to abdomen then from left shoulder to right; signum crucis. “It was she who purged me, revealing to me my true mission in this.” Arianna smiles at my words, brightening her narrow face. “Oh, and what would this mission be?” “For the sake of everyone - human, angel, and demon alike - I must put a stop this war.” Their leader’s features harden further as her eyes narrow. “Lies, all lies!” she screams, sprinting towards me. Her sword flares to life by the blinding white flame. I concentrate on the black haze floating just above the ground. My armor. The smoke rushes past the charging Nephilim and engulfs me. Her blazing sword

appears next to me, just missing my face. I take a hold of it. The smoke starts to condense around me. My sight returns and her face is filled with surprise as I hold her still-shining blade in my claw. “I don’t want to hurt you.” I release her weapon. She jumps back and tries to retaliate. With one step forward I’m in her guard. Placing a hand on her breastplate, I push her away from me. She flies back about ten feet into a tree. I didn’t mean to push her that hard. “Ricilia!” her two comrades scream, running past me to her side. She pushes them away, bracing herself on the tree. She is clearly shaken. I’m guessing no one has ever deflected her so easily. Then again, I’ve never felt stronger. “Please forgive me. Like I said before, I mean you no harm.” They just stare at me intensely - trying to judge my intentions, no doubt. My claws vanish as I kneel. “I mean you no harm.” Arianna lowers her guard slightly. “Why are you doing this?” “In this life, we are given only one chance, but by the graces of Anima I have been given a second and I’m not going to waste it.” After a second, Arianna sheaths her sword. “I believe his words to be true.” “Arianna!” the others exclaim. “He knows of Anima. No demon knows of her existence or has ever seen her and lived. That should be enough proof his word is true,” she explains, walking towards me. She kneels before me looking me in the eye, “A demon’s armor is an extension of themselves. It is said you can tell what kind of being they are by their make. But I like to pay closer attention to the eyes of the armor, for they are truly the windows to the soul. Yours were as red as the blood that sits upon the ground, but now they are as blue as the sky above - a true sign of your newly found purity. I will help in your mission in anyway I can,” she says with a smile, touching the face of my armor. At her touch my helm vanishes. Her hand is soft and comforting like Anima’s. Tears run down my face. “Arianna, you are a saint. Thank you.” “I am a woman of God before I am a warrior.” Paulina sheaths her blade. “I can’t hold my sword to him any longer.” “Paulina,” their leader Ricilia, says surprised. “Don’t give me that, Ricilia; I know you felt the truth behind his words and see

it in his tears. Kross, I too will help.” She looks back to Ricilia, giving her a nod of compliance. Ricilia scoffs. “So be it,” she says reluctantly. “So, tell us Kross, do you have a plan to end this war?” Arianna asks. Now that everything is said and done I have no clue of what I’m going to do. I have only been a General for a short time and Beal still didn’t care much for me. So using my rank isn’t an option. “What to do, what to do?” Then it hits me. An orb of energy forms within my hand and a small 3-D map appears over it: the layout of the demon territory. Five points appear on the map. They surround me, eyeing the map. “What are these?” Ricilia asks. “Strategically placed outposts that protect the central headquarters from harm.” “Okay, why do we care?” I look at her, then to the others, and notice flaws all over the place: in the way they move, the way they stand and hold their blades. They’ve never been formally trained, but they’re all I’ve got. “We’re going to destroy them. Get rid of the armor and we can easily take the heart.” “Good idea, but what of the Generals?” Paulina asks. “Yes, what if they are sent to apprehend us?” Ricilia asks with a snarky tone. “We stop them,” Arianna says with enthusiasm. “I like you. But believe me - be you human, angel, or nephilim, you are nowhere near the power of a general.” “We bested you.” Ricilia says smugly. “Here’s the thing about don’t know if it’s good or bad until you have some perspective,” I explain, pointing to the dent had I put in her armor. She scoffs and looks back to the map. “Once you destroy the first outpost Beal will most likely send me to apprehend you. From there on the four of us will target the other posts.” “And what if the other generals are sent?” “That is a problem. Even with the four of us we would have a problem defeating just Bane alone.” “I know of a way,” Paulina interjects. We all turn to her, eager to hear. “Well, there is tale of a dark sorcerer in the far west that knows a way of binding beings of

light and darkness.” “Another troublesome human that will become useful.” They all look at me. I clear my throat. “Good, and while you find them I will prepare.” “How?” Ricilia asks. “I’m not sure yet.” “So with that said, you really expect us to believe in you? Who’s to say that you won’t just tell Beal of our location and plans, dooming us?” “Do you have a choice?” She just looks at me with a sour expression. “Well then, to show that I am worthy of your trust I shall give the three of you something very precious to me.” I place my hand on my chest. From deep within my soul stirs, moving to my hand. “Here, take these,” I say out of breath. I open my hand to reveal three jewels glowing brilliantly. “What are they?” asks Paulina. “Pieces of my very soul.” Ricilia looks at the jewels with slight disgust. “What?” Arianna’s eyes grow wide with surprise. “Soul drops?” Confusion riddles Ricilia’s face. “Soul drops?” Taking the jewels from my hand they examine them. Parcila holds the jewel up to her eye. “I have heard of these; for a being of light and of darkness to give a Soul drop to another means that person pledges complete devotion to the receiver. Not many get to see them.” “Now that you have my word, my soul, and the plan, I shall be taking my leave of you,” I say with a bow. “When we destroy the first outpost how will we contact you?” Arianna asks. “Like I said, I’ll be the first sent out and as long as you have those I’ll be able to find you. Understood?” They nod in agreement. “Good, til our next meeting.” I take off past them at a high rate of speed, higher than I have ever run before. I make it to the edge of the forest in only an hour flat. Days pass, and I finally make it back to the city. As I walk through the gate all the soldiers look at me funny. I make my way to the catacombs and report to Beal. “Lord Beal, my mission is complete,” I say, kneeling. “And you are?”

I look at him and stand. “Do you not recognize me, Beal? It’s only been a week.” Beal looks at me inquisitively. Then realization and surprise find their way into his face. “Kross? Rise.” I do as I’m told. “Is there a problem, my lord?” He stands from the table, walks over and around me. “You’ve changed. I sense more power within you and you look much younger. What happened to bring about this change?” “My enemies didn’t escape me, body nor soul.” Amusement touches his eyes. “You surprise me. I didn’t think you had it in you. How was it?” I smile. “Enlightening.” He smiles and pats me on the back. “I see. Well then, I think I can finally welcome you to the rank of general. You’re dismissed and enjoy yourself, you’ve earned it.” With a bow I leave him, exit the catacombs, and wander the city streets. Near the barracks I run into my young friend from earlier. Noticing my change his mouth hangs open. “Sir what happ… how was the mission?” “Crazy. I have a favor to ask you.” “Anything sir.” “Gather all those that you know who are loyal to me and only me.” “Yes, sir.” He turns to leave. I grab his shoulder, stopping him. He looks at me in confusion, while I smile. “After your wedding, of course.” He nods and heads off. After the pleasantries are over and done with, it’s down to business.

Chapter Four Six human years go by and nothing. No alarms, no whispers, nothing. I fear the worst. If those three have died then this whole thing will have been for naught. All right, try not to worry, just focus on fulfilling my duties as a General. It’s the first day of the week. The day where the five of us generals walk the streets of the city to show face and our unity to the people. The pale-skinned Bane walks next to Beal, acting as a hulking bodyguard. He tries to smile instead of his normal scowl, but you can clearly see how difficult it is for him. His jaw is clenched hard as he constantly runs his hands through his spiky blond hair. He fixes the white and gold skirt-like garb humans from the ancient city of Egypt call a shendyt. “I hate this.” He says with a sigh. I nearly trip as the beautiful Masini hangs onto my arm like I belong to her. She makes sure to show off her perfect olive-toned skin and long wavy black hair that smells of incense and myrrh. Her fascination with me since my change has become bothersome. I haven’t had a real moment of peace in a while thanks to her constant badgering and questioning. Do I like torture? Could she have me? I try to take my arm away from her but she tightens her grip and looks at me with a pout. “You’re not going anywhere.” I turn around to see Dusk lagging behind. A group of kids surround him, tugging at the sleeves of his tunic. He stops to play and sing songs with them. A smile spreads across his thin face. A little girl hands him a flower. He takes it and puts it in his hair. “Thank you, child.” His eyes have huge bags under them like he has never slept a day in his life. Beal walks ahead of us all, proud and smug, not a care in the world as his silk shirt glistens in the sunlight. Looking back at me, he smiles that perfect smile with his arms spread wide. “We are here for you, my people. We are here for the world.” The people lining the street cheer. What he’s really saying is, ‘You are all, mine. New Birth is all mine.’ I shake my head at the thought. I’ve grown sick of being a part of this cohort of monsters. If the Nephilim really are dead then I’ll have to make my move soon.

From the crowd, one of the human messengers approaches and kneels before us. “Lord Beal, I have news.” “Explain.” The messenger stands and whispers into Beal’s ear. His demeanor slightly changes, growing more tense. “Understood. Leave.” The messenger bows and leaves. “Shadow.” I pry my arm away from Masini and walk next to Beal. “Yes?” “It would seem that one of the outposts has been destroyed. As you know, they are a crucial part of our power in this area. I want you to track down and kill those who would dare oppose us. Understood?” He looks at me, his eye shining red, seething with rage. It takes everything I have not smile. “I’ll leave right away,” I say with a slight bow. Masini tries to grab me again as I walk by her, but I dodge her and hurry away. On the way out of the city I run into my young friend and his buddy Kir, both my newly appointed lieutenants. “Alright you two, you know what to do.” “Sir,” they both say with serious faces. “Relax. Try not to be too stiff while I’m gone. Make sure you smile.” They start to laugh. “That’s it. Farewell.” I leave the city and everything else in their hands. *** A whole week has passed and I still haven’t found the Nephilim. Trying to pinpoint the soul drops has been difficult. I’m sure the holy energy that they resonate with is affecting my connection. I just have to keep looking. I wander deep into a black forest to the south, far beyond the demon territory. There’s barely any light here, even with it being the middle of the day. Out the corner of my eye I see something flicker in the distance. A fire? I doubt any normal humans would venture this deep into these woods. All the Fae and monsters here would make a snack out of them. I make my way towards it. With every step the air grows thick with the power of the light and my soul. They sit around a fire resting, I assume. As I enter the light of the flames, flashes of light blink to life from under their armor. The moment they notice it, they jump up, drawing their burning swords. I put my hands up. “Whoa, whoa, it’s just me. Lower your weapons.” Ricilia lowers her blade slightly with a smile. “Took you long enough.”

“It took me a whole week to find you. It took you six years to find one mage and destroy the outpost,” I say, walking past her. Ariana sits back down, sheathing her blade. “They were pretty elusive. Had to track them across three countries.” “Did you get the spell?” Paulina draws a piece of parchment from a satchel and tosses it to me. The smell of blood and rotted human flesh hits my nose. I hold it away from me. “Yeah it reeks, but it’s the real deal.” I sit at the fire. “Well I’m happy that things worked out and that you’re here safe. Now it’s time to bring our plan to full swing.” Four human years pass so fast and the plan progresses nicely. We destroy the outposts and, using the spell, bind the generals sent to apprehend us. Man, their faces when they saw me with the girls... priceless. There was a minor hiccup with Dusk, but it was handled. Now to our main target, Sodom. The winds whip the sand around as I walk the desert towards the western gate of Sodom. Dragging behind me are three cloaked prisoners. As we come into view one of the sentries readies himself. “Halt, who goes there?” “It’s me.” I say as the face of my armor melts away. “General Shadow? You’re alive; we feared the worst. Who are they?” he asks, looking behind me. I pull the three cloaked people forward by the chains around their neck and wrists fashioned from my own energy. “Prisoners to be interrogated by lord Beal.” “Of course. Open the gate!” The gates open and the four of us walk into a huge mess. The entire base and city is in disarray. Morale is down and fear runs rampant. The light armies are nearing and the generals are nowhere to be found. Everyone prepares for the eminent battle, barely noticing us. I see Lieutenant Kir. Smiling, he nods, vanishing in a crowd. “Let’s move.” There is normally protocol for taking in prisoners, but in all this mayhem I just walk them through the front door. We make it through the hidden door and through the catacombs. “You ready? This will be our only chance.” From under their cloaks they nod. “All right.”

I open the black doors and enter with the girls close behind. “Lord Beal, I have returned bearing gifts.” Beal looks at me in disbelief. He looks horrible. His hair is frizzy, his eyes bloodshot like he hasn’t slept since I left. “Shadow, you’re alive? After four human years of no word, I was sure you had met your demise to the light. Where have you been?” “Completing my mission, sir. Tracking down those destroying the outposts. I am sorry to say that I caught up to them much too late.” “Yes, very much so. And these three are?” I yank them forward. “The ones responsible.” He stands from the table and walks towards us. He stops in front of the girls and removes their hoods one at a time, carefully examining their faces. He grabs Arianna’s face and moves it from side to side. “They are human?” “Nephilim, my Lord.” “You’re telling me that these three half breeds destroyed my outposts and defeated my generals?” “I know it seems far-fetched, but they have the ability and power of a high ranking being of light. I had not the experience to deal with such complications.” He lets her go and looks at me, then smiles and walks away. “No, you wouldn’t would you, but then again you wouldn’t have to with these three.” “Sir?” “Oh stop this charade, Kross. I know you’ve been helping these three,” he says, turning towards us. Well there went the element of surprise. I let go of my link and their shackles disappear. “How did he know?” Paulina asks. “Your eyes betray you, Nephilim. Especially hers.” He points to Arianna. “I don’t see fear, but trust in the ones you’re with. Including him. Also, how could my lowest ranking subordinate take down three of the light, where my second, third, and fourth failed?” Good reasoning. “How could you Kross; how could you betray your own people?” “We’ve been fighting for eons; not only against the light, but also amongst ourselves. My whole family has died fighting and thousands more among the three

races. This endless war must come to an end,” I say getting into a fighting stance. The girls follow my lead, drawing their swords. “Oh, and you think that you are going to stop me?” He snaps his fingers. Normally that would summon about thirty elite guards, but nothing or no one appears. He glares at us. “What is this?” Good work you two. “I don’t think I’m going to stop you, but I know we are.” I dash towards Beal, claws at the ready. He looks at me with a slight smile and positions himself with one hand forward. I swing my left claw and he blocks it, taking hold of it with his right hand. I follow up aiming my right claw for his stomach, but he grabs it with his left. We’re at a standstill. “You have grown stronger since the first time I saw you fight. I dare say even stronger than Masini.” He starts to push me back with no effort. “But even at this level you are no match for me.” Arianna and Ricilia appear on either side of us, their swords poised high, burning with holy fire. They slash down, aiming for Beal’s arms. Letting go of me, he pulls back far enough to catch their blazing blades with his bare hands. “Is this all you have? Pitiful.” I deliver a front kick to his stomach, pushing him back a little. Paulina jumps over me, her sword ablaze, and slashes down. It hits his shoulder, erupting in a torrent of white fire. He lets go of the others and they retreat next to me. He starts laughing, as the flames grow stronger. “I am truly impressed. Not since the beginning of this war has anybody laid a hand upon me.” The room starts to tremble as his power slowly rises. “And never will it happen again.” His red eyes gleam through the white fire. A burst of energy disrupts the flames. He stands there, smoldering but unfazed. Before we can think to prepare ourselves, Beal appears in front of Paulina as if he had always been there. He backhands her, sending across her the room. She slams into the wall, where chains come to life and begin to wrap around her neck and wrists. He looks over his shoulder to us, narrowing his eyes. He appears in front of Arianna, ready to drive his right hand into her chest. With a quick step towards her I reach under his hand and parry it to the side of her. Without even looking at

me he takes me by the neck with his left hand and lifts me off the ground with ease. Arianna steps back out of his range. He and I lock eyes, and I can feel myself being dragged into him. His malice and anger rage on like a storm, bent on destroying everything in its path. Ricilia starts to rush in. Quickly I pull myself out of the gaze. With a burst of energy, I blast her and Arianna back. They didn’t notice, but his hand was on the hilt of the sword that sat on his hip, which he never wears: the demonic long blade he used in the ancient wars, Ender. With one swing from that they would cease to exist. They get the message and go check on Paulina. As he watches them leave I try and kick him in the face but he catches my leg. He starts to laugh. Keeping hold of my leg he flings me around, slamming me into the floor and then into the table. He throws me into the wall right next to the girls. I try to move but I can’t put weight onto my left arm. Arianna lifts me up. “Kross. Are you okay?” I grab my shoulder. With a loud pop, I force it back into the socket. “Yeah I’m fine. Now I see why he’s so feared. He’s not even using all his strength. He was just going to draw his sword out of sheer anger for hitting him.” “Kross, this is going nowhere fast,” Ricilia says, helping me up. “It’s now or never.” As they remove the chains from Paulina, I look to Beal. He runs his fingers through his hair and smiles at me. He’s just toying with us. “Okay, go.” The three of them walk towards him. He cocks his head to the side in amusement as they stand before him. Ricilia releases the clasp on her cloak and the others follow. They slide off, revealing their gleaming white and gold angelic armor. “Beal. By decree of the Garrison and on the behalf of mankind, we order you to cease this madness or else,” Ricilia announces, power filling her every word. Beal smiles. “Or else what, Nephilim?” In a flash of light their helmets appear. They draw their swords, the blades ablaze with the white flame. Beal chuckles. “We’ve been through this already. Your little flames cannot harm me.” The room grows hot and thick with their energy. The flames grow more intense, turning into what looks like solid light. My skin starts to crawl. I’ve never

seen this before. Beal’s smile turns into an annoyed scowl. “Or else, we put you down.” Her words resonate with so much power that it’s kind of frightening. They run towards him and start their bout. I kneel and begin to concentrate, focusing my energy. Sigils appear on my right hand in a circle. I picture the words of the spell the girls acquired from the black sorcerer. “Potestatibus, da mihihanc vim signaesse animi, corporisetanimae. (Powers that be, give me the strength to seal this being, mind, body and soul.)” I chant, focusing on the words and the power they hold. My right hand starts to glow and a pentagram of light appears over it. Ready. “Flash tact!” I yell, running towards the battle. They stop their barrage, which confuses Beal. Ricilia jumps forward, slashing down. He draws Ender. A feeling of dread, and dark energy fills the room as he raises the golden blade high in the air. It is quickly stifled as he blocks her. Arianna and Paulina instantly swing their swords, connecting with Ricilia’s. The colliding energies create such an immense light that it engulfs everything. I can’t see in this white void, but I can sense the three pieces of my soul and the immense darkness near them. Moving faster than I could imagine, I float by the drops and up to the darkness. I slam my hand right into the middle of the mass. The light vanishes and Beal stands there, stricken by surprise, as my fingers drive deeper into his abdomen. The girls jump back. “Signo! (Seal!)” The pentagram slams into him. He screams, knocking us all back with his power. He regains his composure. Blood pours from his mouth as he snarls, “I will kill you all.” He takes a step forward, preparing to swing Ender. A five-point star appears where my fingers had hit him. A wave of energy resonates throughout his body, stopping him where he stands. Beal starts to tremble. The color from his eyes drains, turning gray. He drops his blade as he falls to his knees. “What sorcery is this?” He coughs up blood and it begins to pour from his nose, eyes and ears. I try to stand but fall to my knees. The spell saps all the strength from the caster. It’ll kill a human, but even as a demon I barely have enough energy to keep me conscious. “The same sorcery I used on the others, Beal.” Waves of energy pulse off of him now as he trembles, trying to fight it. Black

tendrils erupt from the star, lashing out everywhere. They turn on Beal, wrapping around his arms and legs. He falls completely to the ground, struggling as they creep up his body. Beal looks at us, the rage in his eyes so clear. “This is not over, Shadow! I will return, and when I do this world and everything in it will be mine,” he screams, straining against the spell. As the tendrils completely cover him from head to toe, there’s a violent burst of energy. Quickly they begin to constrict and compress him. His bones crunch under the force, while blood gushes from between the cracks, draining him of every drop of his life essence. The air grows hot now as the tendrils glow red hot, still compressing his form. After a moment, Beal stops shrinking. The heat subsides as the glow dims, and all that is left is a statuette of black gold, with a glowing star on the abdomen. I stare at it. The star on the statuette dims now, signifying the completion of the spell. Arianna screams with joy, making me jump. “We did it!” Their helmets disappear and swords revert back to normal. “Is it really over?” Paulina asks. Ricilia looks at me as I continue to watch the statuette. After a second I meet her gaze with a smile. “It’s over.” They all huddle around me and jump in celebration. “I can’t believe we did it. We stopped the war. Hell, we stopped the generals.” Ricilia’s face grows grim and fill with shock. “We beat Beal. Oh my God, we beat Beal!” “What do we do now?” Paulina asks. Ricilia starts going over what is to be done, now that the generals are gone. Their defeat will cause the whole of the demon army to be in disarray. I’m sure Anima and her angry lackey will be here soon. Ricilia continues. I find myself staring at the statuette. I can’t believe it worked against Beal so easily. Bane and Masini were a hassle and it nearly killed me, and the girls trying to contain Dusk. I mean, he is the son of… the star on the statuette shines bright red and I hear Beal’s scream in the back of my mind. “You all will die!” A massive amount of destructive energy discharges from the statuette, aiming at us. Quickly I push the girls back out of the way and run to intercept the wave. My

claws appear and I slam against the wall of energy. Almost instantly my claws begin to chip away. I feel the girls move up behind me and the energy changes, becoming volatile. “Stay back!” The wall explodes. Everything goes silent and dark. I snap awake in so much pain. There are hands are on me, peeling me off the ground and flipping me onto my back. “Oh my God,” Arianna says, turning away. “That bad, huh?” I ask, barely able to breathe. “Don’t talk,” orders Paulina. “It’ll be okay.” “Don’t lie to me.” “No, no, no!” Arianna cries, fumbling through her armor and looking for something. She pulls out the soul drop I gave her. “Give me yours,” she demands of the others. Without hesitation they give them to her. “Here, these should make you better.” When she holds them over my heart the drops begin to glow. At their zenith, wisps of white smoke reach out and take hold of my very soul, alleviating some of my pain. “It’s working!” she screams joyously. The light from the drops begins to flicker. Like ink onto parchment, darkness spreads through them. As they completely turn black, my pain returns tenfold, making me convulse. Arianna jumps back at my sudden jolt. “No…no,” she sobs. She holds them closer, lightly touching my exposed heart. The wisps fade and the luster of the soul drops dull, becoming hard and rough like stone. She brings them in close and they turn to ash in her hands. Tears stream down her face. “Why? “If only we had seen it coming,” Ricilia says, fighting back tears. I place my hand on Arianna’s cheek and she takes it. “My friends, this was inevitable. As a general, I have done horrible things and this is my retribution.” Arianna continues to cry as I hold her cheek. “Do not cry, my saint, for it is thanks to you that I can die here a righteous being. I regret nothing and neither should you. All I ask is that you keep your promise.” “We shall,” the three of them say in unison. “Good.” The three of them stand over me, drawing their swords. Holding the hilts with both hands, they start to chant. It’s the same chant they said when they sealed me. I still don’t know what they are saying, but this time I just listen. My eyes sting as they begin to well up with tears. The words are so beautiful. “Thank you.”

With every passing moment, their praying grows further and further away. My sight begins to fade as the world around me grows darker. For years I had been taking lives, spreading death, and now I finally get to witness it myself…what poetic justice. It’s silent, warm and inviting; so this is death. I snap awake, sitting up in my bed, gasping for air and drenched in sweat. I look around the dark room until my eye falls to the red LED lighting of my alarm clock. Three thirty-three in the morning. “Holy hell, what a dream.”

Chapter Five An hour passes. I finally manage to dry off, calm myself, and lay back down. I close my eyes. Seconds later, well hours really, my alarm blares to life. I hit it hard, stopping the alarm before it can get going. I sit up on the side of my bed rubbing my face, then my chest. For a month now I’ve been having this dream, but never has it been so real. I can still feel the air on my exposed heart. The alarm goes off again, bringing me out of the thought. I shake my head. “Right, right. Time to get ready for school,” I say with a sigh. “At least there’s only three days left till summer vacation and my birthday.” I get up from my bed and stretch. I make my way through the maze of dirty clothes on my floor until I get to my door and take the handle. For a second I look at the lock on it, and the letters ‘S and P’ etched above it. With a deep breath, I unlock it and head out into hall towards the bathroom. Opening the door, I jump when I see Kross staring at me. Quickly turning on the lights, I see only my reflection in the mirror. “Man, that dream must have really gotten to me, but we do kind of look alike. His hair is way longer and he’s way more muscular. I pretty flabby.” I say looking into the mirror. “Kyle! Kyle Ross, it’s time for breakfast!” my aunt yells from the bottom of the stairs. “I’ll be down in a minute!” I wash up, put on some sneakers, shorts and a t-shirt, then make my way downstairs. I take a big whiff. The smell of my aunt’s signature Monday breakfast just caresses my nose: waffles, bacon, toast, eggs and freshly cut fruit. At the kitchen door I’m met by a kiss to the cheek by a sixty-seven, five-foot five woman, my aunt, Serena. “Morning sweetie. Come on and eat up before it gets cold.” I sit at the table and she sits my plate in front of me. She fixes her bonnet and white robe with the flower print and sits across from me. I can’t help but admire her as she sips on her tea. My aunt is such a wonderful person, and the only family I have left. “Serena. Have I told you how much I love and appreciate you?” Her deep brown eyes begin to mist up.

Quickly she gets up and rushes around the table to me. Tenderly, she wraps her arms around me. “I love you too, sweetheart. So much.” She pulls back and looks at me with a big smile. It turns to confusion as she cocks her head to the side. “Your eyes look heavy. Did you sleep okay?” “Not really. I had the craziest dream. It was so intense that it woke me up.” “What was it about?” “This guy named….” “Named?” “Well that’s weird. I just said it in the bathroom. I don’t remember, but I was this guy fighting in a war. At the end, three others and I beat this badass general. I died though. Then I woke up at three thirty-three this morning,” I explain, cutting into my waffle. “You finished watching that war movie last night, didn’t you?” I think about it for a second. “Actually, I did. It was really good.” The alarm I have set on my phone goes off. “Time to head out before I miss the bus.” “Have a nice day sweetie.” She kisses me on the cheek. I get up from the table, grab my book-bag, and head out the door. A block and a half away, there’s a girl already waiting as I walk up. She’s wearing jean shorts and a tight red tee shirt that accents her chocolate skin and the red weave in her hair. She turns towards me with a smile. “Good morning, Kyle.” “Morning, Rica,” I say through a yawn. She walks up next to me and bumps me. “You seem tired; you sleep ok?” “Barely. You wanna fight about it?” She steps up to me with all of her five-foot-five fury. Her thick body and pretty face harden, showing her temper. She glares at me with her nearly black eyes. “You need to change your tone.” It’s fun getting her all worked up; she’s cute when she angry. In all seriousness, though, when you get her mad you should watch out. I stand up tall, towering two inches over her while trying to keep a serious face. A second passes as we stare at one another. I snicker, causing her to laugh as well. “I’m fine. I had a late night and I ate a little too much.” “That’s right, it is Monday. I would have been over. So what happened last

night?” I tell her the same thing I told my aunt. “That sounds familiar. Did you watch that new TV war movie last night?” “Yeah. Serena said the same thing.” “You enjoy it? I sure did.” We talk about the movie and the weekend as we wait. Within minutes the bus rolls up. There are already a few kids on it, but one catches my eye through the window. We get on and make our way up the aisle where a girl sitting in the middle row is fast asleep, her head against the window. Her tan skin kind of shines in the morning sun, along with her gelled dark brown hair that she has in a ponytail. Drool drips from her mouth and onto her small blue tee shirt and khaki shorts. I sit next to her, while Rica sits in the seat in front of us. “Airca Cove. The sandman’s favorite. She is always sleeping.” Rica says, staring at her. “Tell me about it. She’s only seventeen, but she sleeps like a ninety-year-old lady.” Airca and I have known one another since preschool. If I haven’t learned anything about her yet, I’ve learned that the girl loves to sleep. “Airca, time to wake up,” I whisper into her ear. She just swats me away. “I think it’s time for her wake up call.” I start to run my finger along her slender face. “You know, every time you do that and every time she hits you. She hasn’t missed once.” Rica points out, leaning back out of Airca’s range. “Today might be different.” Her face twitches. Suddenly she jumps up swinging her arms my way. I dodge her left hand. “See today is different.” Her right hand drops in my lap pretty hard, sending pain throughout my entire body and causing me to curl up. “You were right, today was different. She didn’t hit you in the face this time,” she says, fighting back a laugh. Airca stretches out of her sleep, cracking her neck. “Good morning, Kyle.” I lift my hand and squeak in response, as I’m slouched over holding myself. She places her hand on my back. “Did I hit you? I’m so sorry.” “He deserved it. Teaches him not to mess with someone while they sleep,” I hear Rica say.

I sit up, trying to stretch it out. “Shut up.” The bus stops. Another load of students get on and among them is another one of my friends, Miss Quartz, or just Page. She’s a little lighter skinned than Airca, has a small Afro and is, as she calls herself, voluptuous. She sits in the seat across the aisle from Airca and mine, fixing her distressed Capri jeans and white muscle shirt. “I see Kyle already woke up Airca.” “Yeah, yeah,” I say, breathing slowly. Airca grabs my face and examines me with her pretty hazel eyes. “Did you sleep at all last night? Because you don’t look so good.” “I had a really intense dream last night. It woke me up and I couldn’t really go back to sleep.” Page sets her green eyes on me, a mischievous smile on her face. “Was it a sex dream?” “No. It was about a war and-” “And like that you lost me,” she interjects. “I remember this dream I had a while ago. Kyle came to me and told me that he liked Airca and wanted to ask her out. And that night I had this freaky dream about the two of them...wait a minute. That first part wasn’t a dream,” she looks at me and I glare at her. “Oops.” I’ve known Page since ninth grade as well and by now I should know not to tell her anything, as much as she likes to gossip. I turn and look at Airca. Her eyes are wide and her face red. We quickly turn away from one another and sit silently. Why, Page, why did you have to throw me into the fire like that? We suffer through twenty minutes of awkward silence until the bus comes to a complete stop. Hallelujah. As I get up to leave the bus Airca grabs my shirt, stopping me. Page and Rica leave giving thumbs ups. We’re the last ones off the bus. We walk to the bus entrance of the school, but before we get to the door she pulls me aside. She looks me straight in the eyes with a small smirk on her. “Kyle, do you really like me?” I exhale. Come on man you’ve practiced this... courage! “I do. Well, I have for the longest time now. I just didn’t know if I should say anything. But while we’re on the subject: would you like to go out on a date with me?” Her face goes blank; I recognize her thinking face. This is what usually happens

when she’s really considering something. After about a second she comes back to the real world. Her thin body trembles with slight nervousness. “Umm, I’m not sure. Do you mind if I have a few days to think about it?” “Of course. Take all the time you need.” “Thanks.” She kisses me on the cheek. “I won’t keep you waiting long.” She heads on into the school. My heart stops pounding as relief overtakes me. Man I’m glad that’s over, but I wonder what she’ll say. I kind of want to know now. Cool it man, you’ve known this girl since preschool and it’s taken you till the end of your junior year of High school to ask her out. You can wait a few more days. What’s the worst that can happen? The bell rings, and I hurry into the school. Walking into my first class of the day late earns me the craziest glare from the teacher, like I’ve been late all year. She calls me to the front and someone points out that I’d been sitting in gum…good day so far. I sit back down and my eyes get so heavy. She can be boring at times but man. While reading the paper she gave us the words begin to swirl. I look around and see that I’m in a vast void of white. The chair falls out from under me and the desk flies away. I think I’m falling, but I’m not sure. That is, until the sky appears above me. I close eyes, bracing for impact. Instead of an awe-inspiring splat, my feet softly touch ground. What in the hell? I open my eyes. Dirty water puddles on the ground around me. Trash on either side of me lines the side of the red brick buildings I’m between. An alley? I look up to see the Gate Way building, the tallest building in Roc city. Downtown? A man wearing baggy jeans, a grey jacket, and a fitted hat walks out of the alley past me, like I don’t exist. He stands at the mouth of the alley. “Hey. Hey man, where am I?” I ask. He doesn’t answer; he doesn’t even flinch. He just keeps bobbing up and down, looking out to the street. I walk up next to him. His blue eyes dart back and forth, looking at the people as they pass by. I wave my hand in front of his face. He still doesn’t react. He chews at his lips, tapping his foot. “Come on. I need to unload my stash.” I think this guy’s a drug dealer. He fiddles with his strawberry blond goatee. His thin face is filled with worry. I wonder what he’s so worked up about? A chill goes up

my spine, making my stomach do flips. Slowly I turn around and look out into the crowd. A man towering over everyone stands there looking up at the buildings. His robes are covered in dirt. His skin translucent, with black spots slowly burning into his flesh as the sun hits it. It looks like he just crawled out of a grave. Everyone walks by him like he isn’t there. Like a ghost. “Yes,” the dealer says. With a smirk, he steps out of the alley and in front of the robed man. “Hey there. You new to the city?” “Yes,” the man says. His voice is hoarse, like he hadn’t used it in forever. “Cool, cool. How do you like it so far?” “So many people, so loud. I find it vexing.” “I see. Sounds to me like you need something to take the edge off.” The man shifts his head to the side, looking at the dealer with clouded eyes, in slight confusion. “You can see me?” “Of course I can see you, clear day like this. Who couldn’t see a big guy like you?” The robed man smiles. His teeth are rotted and black. The dealer kind of steps back, but keeps his composure. Reaching into his pocket he withdraws five little bags, filled with purple crystals. “Anyways, I got something that may help take that edge off. If you down.” The robed man shifts his head down at the bag then back to the dealer. “Sure.” “Cool, follow me.” The dealer leads the man back to the alley. I move out of the way before they run into me. As the robed man passes me that nauseous feeling worsens. I fall back into some trash cans, making all the noise possible. They stop and look back at me. “What was that?” The dealer asks, reaching to his back. The robed guy looks right at me. The dead look on his face and the gross feeling I keep getting from him doesn’t help my stomach in the slightest. “It was nothing. So, you were saying something about taking the edge off?” “Oh yeah. How many would you like? They’re fifty a pop.” The robed man rubs his bald head. “May I?” he asks holding out his skeletonthin hand. As the dealer reaches out to give him one of the bags, the robed man grabs his wrist and peers into his eyes. “I want no drug from you boy, but your body will do just fine.” The dealer yanks away his hand and steps back. “Hey man, watch it. Did you

just say that you want my body? Dude, what drugs are you on?” The robed man lifts the hand that he grabbed the dealer with. All of his fingers are bent in every direction, broken. He smiles, “I am on no drug. I just want your body.” In a blur of movement the robed man moves forward, taking the dealer by the collar of his shirt and lifting him off the ground. The dealer reaches in the back of his pants, drawing a gun. I step back against a wall as the nose of the gun flashes. The dealer lands on his feet while the robed man falls to the ground, with some disgusting crunching noises. Fixing himself, the dealer waves his gun around, “Yeah…that’s what you get… for messin’ with me, you freak!” He says breathless, spitting on the man. Laughter radiates from the robed man. His body parts, broken in odd angles, begin to snap back in place with sickening cracks. The dealer backs up, confusion dancing on his face. “Fool! Human weapons cannot harm me!” The robed man crawls towards the dealer with unnatural speed. Before he can think about pointing his gun, he is already pinned against the wall next to me. I feel myself starting to shake as my heart races a mile a minute. I look to the dealer who is freaking out, struggling. My eye moves from the dealer to the robed man’s face. Half of it is missing. Thick brown sludge oozes from the blacken muscles. He smiles that disgusting smile. Like a mouse trying to frantically escape from the claws of a cat, the dealer struggles to break free. “What the hell are you, man?” With a sly grin on his face the robed man proclaims, “I am but a messenger. War is coming and I have been summoned to prepare New Birth for its true masters; you shall be my vessel.” The messenger’s body starts to convulse. His eyes roll back, revealing a milky yellow substance. His head snaps back and a large bulge moves from his chest and up his throat, stretching the skin to the point that small tears begin to appear. A thick, oily substance drips out of them onto the robes. His head snaps forward and he projectile vomits a thick brown sludge all over the terrified dealer. I quickly move away from them as it splatters everywhere, filling the air with a rotting smell. As if it were alive, the sludge slides down the wall and starts entering the dealer’s

eyes, nose and mouth. He flails, trying to spit the sludge out and fight for a breath. Both the Messenger and the dealer stop moving. After a second they both fall to the ground. The Messengers body crumples into a pile of decay. The yellow substance - pus, I think - pools on the ground around it. It’s quiet now. What the hell did I just see? Slowly I walk to the dealer to check on him. He’s slumped on the ground up against the wall. The brown sludge is dripping from his mouth, ears, and nose. I put my hand in front of his face. There’s no breath. I think he’s dead. He snaps back, violently gasping. His eyes open wide, with fear and panic. I jump away from him and nearly scream, but catch myself. His veins bulge and pulse as he strains against himself. Blood pours from every orifice as his eyes slowly roll back. He stops moving; frozen in agony. The dealer exhales and his body relaxes. His breathing becomes normal and his eyes roll back around, with specks of white within them. A low gargled laugh comes from him as he stands and stretches. “Yes, this body shall do nicely.” I step back into a puddle of water. He looks in my direction. Slowly he walks up to me and looks me right in the eyes. He just lingers, waiting for me to make another sound. A car horn catches his attention and I quickly move out from in front him. “To work then.” He walks out of the alley and vanishes in a crowd of people. After a long second I remember how to breathe. This is madness. I don’t understand. This all must be a dream, right? Hands softly grab my arms from behind me. “Are you ready?” Someone whispers into my ear. I turn around and am blinded by a white light. “For what is to come,” the voice finishes as I am engulfed in light. I wake up gasping, the smell of rot still in my nose. I roll over and puke onto the floor. My heart races a mile a minute as I think about what I just saw in the alley. “The hell was that?” The high-pitched peal of the school bell brings me out of the thought and I notice all the different kinds of medical charts and supplies lying around. “Where am I?” “The nurse’s office.” I look up to see Rica standing in the doorway, her face twisted in disgust. “You fell asleep during first period and when the teacher tried to wake you, you wouldn’t.” She walks in, taking off her pink and silver book-bag, and

sits in the chair next to the bed I’m in. She makes sure to scoot away from my mess. I wipe my mouth on the sheet covering me and sit up. “Why are you here then? Is it lunch?” She chuckles, and pulls out her cell phone. The screen turns on and the clock reads two o’clock. “Boy, school is about to end. You’ve been asleep most of the day.” “Wow, really?” I didn’t think last night had such an effect on me. “Why am I still here then? You would think the school would’ve called an ambulance and I would be at the hospital.” “They did. Called your aunt too, but she said to cancel the ambulance and let you sleep it off.” “I tell her all the time that’s not how things work.” “But the school never really argues with her. They treat her like she owns the place. Besides, you know how your aunt gets. When she wants something to happen, it happens.” I lay back on the bed. “True. What are you doing here?” “Free period. So I came to check on you. Page and Airca just left.” She gets up and places her forehead to mine. As mean as she can be she’s really nurturing. Especially with those that are close to her. “No fever,” she says leaning back. “What’s going on with you?” “I don’t know. I thought I just didn’t sleep well.” She sits back in the chair. “Not at all if you ask me. So, make sure you do when you get home.” The bell rings. She gathers up her bag, leans in and gives me a kiss on the cheek. “You gonna be okay? I think your aunt should be here soon. Want me to wait with you?” “No, I’m okay. Don’t want you to miss the bus.” “Okay. Call me later.” “Okay,” I say waving. She shuts the door. I lean back into the pillow, close my eyes and try to remember the dream. It’s all just a blur now. A dank wet alley, a drug dealer and the smell of rot. No other details really stick out beyond that. Wait, there was something else. There was a light and a voice. It was so familiar. A few minutes later the door flies open; Aunt Serena comes bursting in from

the doorway leading to the office, frantically looking for me. “He’s in the holding room over there,” the nurse says, a little freaked out. Serena appears in the doorway, all done up in a grey business pants suit. “Oh, my baby.” She rushes to my side, grabbing my face. “Are you ok? I would have come sooner but I was in a meeting and then traffic.” I take her hand. “Aunty I’m fine. Can we you we just go home?” She smiles. “I’ll grab your things.” She helps me up and we make our way out of the school. Her little red sedan sits in the fire lane in front of the school. She does this all the time. The meter maids don’t even bother to ticket her anymore. They know that they’d get chewed out something fierce. I plop into the car. She gets in, starts the car, and we take off for home. Traffic isn’t bad even for rush hour. It only takes fifteen minutes for us to get through the city, onto the freeway, and back to our suburb. After passing all the newer houses we finally pull into the driveway of my aunt’s house. It’s older than this whole neighborhood but at same time three times nicer than the newer houses. Quickly she gets out and rushes around to my door. “Kyle, you have to take it easy for a while,” she says, opening the door. I slid out of the car, feeling groggy and light headed. Serena takes me under the arm, pretty much lifting me. “I know.” She drags me to the big solid pine wood door of her house and opens it. As I pass through the doorway my eyes grow heavy, like I’ve been fighting sleep for the past couple of months. My bed’s calling to me. She lets me loose on the stairs. “I’m going to catch up on some sleep.” “Go on.” Serena slaps me on the butt and I make my way up the stairs. Half way up, my world starts spinning. I try to grab the rail but miss. Crap. I start to fall backwards. Hands press on my back, catching me. “Careful, Kyle.” I look back over my shoulder to my aunt. I grab onto the railing and pull myself the rest of the way up the stairs. How did she get up the stairs so fast? I know she’s as fit as a track runner my age, but that was just weird. Now up the stairs, I start to sway again. Clinging onto the wall I quickly get to my room. On the way to the bed my clothes just seem to melt away from my body. I face plant into my cool pillow and I’m out like a light.

For more information about Light of Darkness

ABOUT THE BOOK Desperate to get away from a home where she no longer feels wanted, twelveyear-old Emma Higsby is elated when she wins a scholarship to the prestigious Dinswood Academy boarding school. Emma quickly falls in love with the renovated castle nestled in the heart of the mountains. But when rumors surface that her new school is having financial problems and may have to close, she begins to search for a way to save her new home. When she discovers a riddle of buried treasure left by the eccentric school’s founder, Lord Dinswood, she and her friends must use their courage and intelligence to solve each clue. But someone else is searching for the treasure as well. Emma and her friends will have to race against time and discover the secret of Dinswood first!

Prologue 1710 AD Mediterranean Sea

Darius Bartholomew Dinswood stood on the deck of his ship the Raven and looked out to where the sea met the sky. The crimson sun was just beginning to dip below the horizon, bathing his face in its amber glow. As he watched it sink lower and lower, he remembered back to the day when he had first come aboard the ship in the hopes of getting a job. His parents had died when he was twelve, and as he’d had no close relatives, he had been placed in an orphanage. Life in the orphanage had been a nightmare, and he had run away at the first opportunity. The owner of the Raven at the time, Bartholomew Hart, must have seen something in the dirty, malnourished boy that approached him that day, because he had given him a job as his cabin boy. Hart had liked the fact that Darius’s middle name was Bartholomew and had called him Bartie from the very first. The crew had used the name as well, and thus it was that no one knew Darius’s full name except the captain. Hart had been a rough taskmaster in the beginning, but even so, Darius had flourished. He proved himself to be an apt pupil and quickly learned everything there was to know about sailing. Noticing how smart the boy was and how eager he was to learn, Hart took it upon himself to teach Darius how to handle a sword. With his strength and natural quickness, Darius showed himself to be quite skillful in that as well. Hart began to feel pride in Darius’s accomplishments, and as the years passed, began to look upon him as a son. When Darius had first come aboard the ship, Hart had been the owner of a trading company, but he quickly tired of having his goods stolen from him on the open seas by pirates. It was after one particularly nasty battle with pirates that Hart decided to exact a little revenge by becoming a privateer. He requested and was given a Letter of Marque from Queen Elizabeth. The letter gave him written

authority to seize goods from ships of other countries with the understanding that whatever was taken belonged to England. As was often the case with privateers, after seeing how profitable piracy was, Hart decided to go into the business for himself. Hart began attacking ships regardless of their country of origin—making himself a true pirate and earning for himself the nickname Bart the Blackheart. He was very successful, and after ten years of terrorizing the seas, he had amassed a great fortune. During this time, Darius had grown into a fine young man, standing just over six feet, two inches tall, with a lean, well-muscled body, bronzed by his years in the sun. His skill with a sword and his prowess in battle were second only to the captain. Darius was then twenty-two, and as most young men, considered himself and the crew of the Raven to be invincible. Then one day in an attack against a Spanish vessel, Hart was mortally wounded. Thinking that the captain was already dead, Darius took over command and led the crew to victory. When the battle was over, Darius hurried over to the man he’d come to view as a father and knelt beside him. He was surprised to see that Hart was still alive. Upon seeing Darius, Hart began to struggle to speak. Darius leaned close in an effort to hear what he was trying to say. The captain surprised him again when he reached up and grabbed Darius by the neck, pulling him even closer so that Darius’s ear was only an inch away from his mouth. In a whisper, Hart told him where he had hidden his fortune. Then summoning the last of his strength, he shouted to the crew that “Bartie” was to be the new captain and owner of the Raven. As soon as he’d spoken the words, a satisfied look had settled upon his weathered features, and Bartholomew Hart had breathed his last breath. In honor of their fallen captain, and because the crew knew him as Bartie, they passed the name Bart the Blackheart on to Darius. Thus it was that Bart the Blackheart continued to raid ships for ten more years. Although he shared the name, Darius did not have the black heart of his former captain. Men were killed only if a ship chose to resist, and then, only in the course of battle. Fortunately, by the time Darius inherited the Raven, its reputation had grown to the point that most ships surrendered when they saw it approaching, and a battle was unnecessary. Darius purposely avoided ships that might be carrying

women or children, and in the event that women or children were encountered, Darius made every effort to ensure that they remained unharmed. He had no way of knowing that there would be no distinction in the history books between the true Blackheart and the Blackheart that was Darius Dinswood. As the sun dipped beneath the surface of the water, Darius sighed wearily. He was tired of the pirate life. With the fortune left to him by Bartholomew Hart and the treasure he had accumulated for himself over the past ten years, he had enough wealth to last several lifetimes. He didn’t want to end up like his predecessor and die alone with no wife or children to mourn his passing. Now, at the age of thirtytwo, he felt it was time he married and settled down. Darius knew from experience that with his brown eyes, long dark hair, and chiseled features, women considered him handsome. With a confidence born of arrogance rather than conceit, he was certain that he could find a woman that would marry him; but he didn’t want just any woman. He wanted a respectable, genteel woman—a real lady. He realized that the only way to attract such a woman was to become respectable himself. He would start by cutting his hair and purchasing some new clothes. Then he would find a lady, preferably a titled lady, and court her. He might even invent a title for himself; Lord Darius Dinswood had a nice ring to it. Fortunately, no one knew his real name, so he could use whatever name he wished, and he had enough money to at least give the appearance of being someone of noble birth. Once married, he would take his bride and sail to a new country. There he would build her a magnificent mansion, or better yet, he thought with a smile, a castle.

Chapter One Emma Higsby sat forward in her seat, eagerly awaiting her first glimpse of Dinswood Academy, the most prestigious boarding school in the country. Generally, only the very rich attended Dinswood, but recently, the board of directors of the school, in a fit of conscience, had decided to award full scholarships to the five seventh graders who scored the highest on the school’s entrance exam. Emma had studied for months prior to the exam and had miraculously earned the highest score among those that took it. She couldn’t believe her good fortune. Dinswood Academy was famous for its high academic standards. Not only was it the best school academically, but it was situated in the heart of the mountains, where the scenery was said to be breathtaking. In the winter months, the school was inaccessible to the outside. The school’s virtual isolation, although unattractive to some, was the very thing that appealed to Emma the most. Emma had lost her mother to cancer at the tender age of five. Her father had remarried a year later, and unfortunately, Emma and her stepmother had never really connected. Vera wasn’t mean to Emma in the physical sense, but her complete and total indifference over the years had left an emptiness in Emma’s heart and a growing desire to get away from a home where she no longer felt wanted. The arrival of her twin half-brothers four years ago had only compounded the problem. Her father doted on Vera and the boys, and if he noticed anything lacking in Emma’s upbringing, he never commented on it or made any attempts to correct it. It had been her need to get away that had driven her to work so hard to get into Dinswood. She had received notification that she had been accepted to Dinswood a month ago. So eager was she to embark on her new adventure that Emma would have packed her bags that very second, but unfortunately, the new term didn’t begin until September first. The time until the start of the first term had seemed to drag by at a snail’s pace. As far as Emma was concerned, that month of August would go on record as being the longest of her life. Her family had expressed neither joy at her acceptance to Dinswood nor any

great sadness that she would be away from home for the next nine months. The news had been greeted with the same indifference that Emma had grown accustomed to. Her father had, however, helped make the travel arrangements that would convey Emma to her new home. Emma had just been treated to her first airplane ride. She didn’t know how her father had been able to afford the fare, but she was too excited about going to Dinswood to care. The bus in which she was riding had been sent to the airport by the school to pick up the arriving students. Emma was glad that she had gotten a seat by herself so that she could absorb the scenery in solitude. There would be time enough to meet people when she was settled in at the school. Emma had read the brochure the school had sent with her acceptance letter. Dinswood Academy had, in years past, been a castle complete with towers and a parapet with battlements for defense in times of siege. Of course, the castle had been renovated extensively over the last half century. At his death, Lord Percival Dinswood had donated the buildings and grounds to the state to be used as a school. Lord Dinswood had left specific instructions on the renovations that were to be carried out in order to create the finest school in the country. There were parts of the castle, however, that he had requested remain unchanged. Looking at the pictures in the brochure, Emma was sure that Lord Percival Dinswood would have been pleased with the result. The bus had been climbing in a twisting fashion for the last hour and a half; Emma thought they must be getting close now. Just then the bus rounded a bend, and the castle came into view. The pictures in the brochure hadn’t done it justice. Emma felt as if she just stepped backward in time to the seventeenth century. A magnificent three-story, gray stone structure complete with towers stood in the center of beautifully landscaped and immaculate grounds. Well-tended shrubs lined the drive leading up to the castle, and directly across from the main entrance was a huge, circular stone fountain. Water shot upward from the middle of the fountain and sparkled in a rainbow of colors as the afternoon sun shone through the mist. A multitude of flowers in every color had been planted all around the base of the fountain and stone benches encircled it. Large oak and maple trees dotted the front lawn, and many of them had benches or swings underneath them.

Although she couldn’t see them from her vantage point, Emma knew that two wings had been added to the main structure that served as dormitories. The east wing, Bingham Hall, was the boys’ dormitory, and the west wing, Brimley Hall, was the girls’. The main part of the building contained a large, two-story library, a lounge with a fireplace, a ballroom where music, band, and PE classes were held, the dining hall, and the kitchen. The classrooms and staff residences were located on the second and third floors of the main building. The entire structure was surrounded by Fangorley Forest, and to the west, a stream flowed down the side of the mountain. At this time of year, the stream would be relatively small, but in the spring, as the winter snows melted, it would swell with swiftly moving, crystal clear and extremely cold water. All of these things Emma had read in the brochure, but she couldn’t wait to explore and see them all first hand. The next thing Emma knew, the bus was coming to a stop in front of the school, and she could see stone steps leading up to a terrace and massive oak doors. The bus driver instructed Emma and her fellow classmates to disembark and informed them that their baggage would be deposited in their dorm rooms for them. Today was a day of orientation for all of the first-year students; the rest of the student body would be arriving tomorrow. Dinswood Academy taught students from the seventh to the twelfth grades. The board of directors felt that children needed to be at least twelve-years-old before they would be mature enough to live away from home for an extended period of time. Emma would be turning thirteen November twelfth and knew that she would be among the oldest in her class. The first-year students were herded through the oak doors and into a large central hall where they were met by the dean of the school. Dean Harwood was a rather handsome man of medium height with dark hair that was beginning to gray at the temples. He was not at all what Emma had expected the dean to look like. She had pictured a short man with a stocky build and thinning brown hair. Dean Harwood stood on the stairs leading up to the second floor in order to be seen by all the students. The commotion in the great hall subsided as Dean Harwood cleared his throat, a signal that he was preparing to speak, and the students had better pay attention. “Welcome to Dinswood Academy,” Dean Harwood began. “You are very

fortunate to be attending the most prestigious school in the country. I need not remind you that Dinswood sets high academic standards. You will find that our curriculum is challenging, and our instructors are among the finest in the world. You will be meeting them shortly in the dining hall. Of course, with a school of this caliber, certain rules and regulations are a necessity. You will be informed of the rules and regulations by your dorm advisors later today. Please be aware that failure to comply with these rules may result in your expulsion from Dinswood. I encourage you to work hard and take advantage of all Dinswood has to offer. At this time, our history teacher, Miss Priscilla Grimstock, will take you on a tour of the facility and acquaint you with meal times and dorm curfews. If I can assist you in any way, please make an appointment with my secretary. Again, welcome, and now I leave you in the capable hands of Miss Grimstock.” Miss Grimstock was a tall, thin, hawkish-looking woman that rather reminded Emma of a witch—all that was lacking was the pointy hat and a broomstick. She wore a navy blue suit and low heels and had her reddish-brown hair drawn back from her face and tightly coiled in a bun. “Students, if you will please follow me.” Miss Grimstock gave a grand sweep of her hand and set off down a side hall, walking in a dignified, if not somewhat stiff manner. Her tone was just as dignified as she pointed out the first room on the right down the east hall. “This is the dining hall. Breakfast is served buffet style from seven to seven forty-five in the morning. Lunch is served at noon and supper is served at six o’clock in the evening. The kitchen is next to the dining room, but it is off limits to anyone other than the kitchen staff. Classes begin promptly at 8:00 a.m. Please be on time to all of your classes, as your tardiness will result in a detention.” This last was met by muffled moans from the students. Ignoring the moans, Miss Grimstock continued on, “Classes resume at one o’clock and will conclude at three each afternoon, except, of course, on Saturday and Sunday. If you will follow me please…” and off she went again. The dean’s and administrative offices were on the north side of the east hall. These were pointed out to the students in a perfunctory fashion, and the group was informed that usually the only students that saw the inside of Dean Harwood’s office were those who had committed serious infractions.

The tour continued on in this manner for another thirty minutes. The ballroom was the last room off the east hall. Emma had never seen a room so large. It had a beautiful marble floor and huge windows all along the north side. French doors led onto the terrace, and Emma found herself imagining what it would have been like to attend a ball in this room a century ago. She imagined waltzing around the room in the arms of a handsome young man and then being swept out onto the terrace for a bit of stargazing. Emma was pulled from her reverie by the groans of those around her and wondered what she had missed. She didn’t have to wait long to find out as Miss Grimstock continued on as if there had been no interruption, “We here at Dinswood feel that ballroom dancing is the only civilized form of dancing, and so, of course, you will be instructed in the waltz, et cetera. This is the only time the boys and girls will have physical education together in order that you might have a proper partner.” Then with another wide sweep of her hand, she continued down to the end of the east hall, where a set of swinging double doors led into the boys’ dormitory. They didn’t enter the boys’ dormitory but were told that both boys and girls were supposed to be in their rooms by nine o’clock, and that lights out would be at ten o’clock. “You are not to leave your rooms after ten o’clock. If you are caught out and about after ten, it could result in your expulsion from Dinswood,” Miss Grimstock informed them in a haughty tone. “Many of Lord Dinswood’s valuables remain in house and so we have in our employ several security guards. The grounds and building are regularly patrolled, so if you choose to ignore this rule, you will be caught. In addition, at no time may the boys enter the girls’ dorm or vice versa. Are there any questions?” As there were no questions, Miss Grimstock led them in the direction of the main entrance and then down the west hall. Emma fell in love with the lounge. It was an enormous room that ran almost the entire length of the west hall on the north side. The room boasted a large fireplace and comfortable-looking couches and chairs arranged in little groups. According to Miss Grimstock, it was a cozy room in which to read or play chess after supper. “This was Lord Dinswood’s favorite room in the castle,” she told them with what could be interpreted as a smile, but which looked more like a grimace on her

birdlike face. “He loved to play chess in here. In fact, he always kept a chess board set up on the table you see there in front of the fireplace.” Some of the students snickered at the mention of reading and chess, but Miss Grimstock once again ignored them and continued on with the tour. If Emma loved the lounge, the library had to be a close second. It had two stories with an old-fashioned, wrought iron spiral staircase leading up to the book stacks on the second level. Emma couldn’t begin to estimate the number of books housed here, and she found herself looking forward to browsing among the endless bookshelves. The library also boasted a fireplace with some overstuffed armchairs set in a semicircle in front of it. Emma could see herself curled up in one of the armchairs enjoying a good book. She hoped she’d have time to read, considering the high academic standards Dean Harwood had been talking about. Miss Grimstock’s voice droned on as she pointed to a section of the library containing long, wooden tables with lamps for research and study and another section of the library that contained computers. “The computers are to be used solely for word processing; computer games are strictly forbidden here at Dinswood Academy. We feel your time is better employed on more mentally challenging activities. You will not have internet access, nor do we have any television sets.” The groans from the students were too loud to ignore this time. One student even objected out loud. “No TV? You’ve got to be kidding!” Miss Grimstock’s beady eyes searched out the offender and gave him a piercing look. “And what is your name young man?” Clearly embarrassed now, the young man stammered, “S-S-Sebastian CConners.” Sebastian, a plump boy with red hair and freckles, shifted his weight and stared fixedly at the floor. “Well, Mr. Conners, as I was saying, there are no televisions at Dinswood. Sitting mindlessly in front of a television screen for hours on end is a waste of our most valuable asset. I’m speaking of time, Mr. Conners, time that could be used for reading or a hobby such as woodworking or knitting.” Miss Grimstock’s look now encompassed the entire group. “Each semester you will be given a list of hobbies from which to choose, and you will receive the instruction necessary to pursue these hobbies. Does anyone else have a complaint or question?”

The rest of the group had the good sense to remain quiet, and so Miss Grimstock led them back into the hall and pointed to the doors leading to the girls’ dormitory. As with the boys’ dormitory, they did not go in, but instead were taken back to the main entrance hall. “The classrooms are on the second floor. We have a well-equipped science laboratory, and we are proud to announce that the greenhouse has finally been completed and can be found behind the main building. You will now have the opportunity to take classes in horticulture.” At this point, Miss Grimstock paused as if expecting some kind of excited response from the students, but when none was forthcoming, she simply pursed her lips and continued on. “The staff residences are on the third floor and are strictly off-limits to students.” This last statement was emphasized with a warning frown from Miss Grimstock. “And now I will turn you over to your dorm advisors.” Dorm advisors were actually older students who had demonstrated sufficient responsibility and intelligence to be entrusted with a group of new recruits. Emma’s dorm advisor was a senior girl named Deborah. Deborah was a tall, rather plain girl with long brown hair, who obviously didn’t believe in wasting a lot of time in conversation. She showed each of the girls to their rooms and told them they would have just enough time to unpack before supper. Then she left them to fend for themselves until supper. The dorm rooms could more accurately be described as suites with each suite capable of housing four students. Every student was provided with a twin bed, a nightstand, a dresser, and a closet. Each suite also included a nicely sized, relatively modern bathroom. As Emma entered what was to be her new home for the next nine months, she saw that her luggage had already been deposited next to her bed, as had that of her roommates. Emma was embarrassed to see that her suitemates had quite a bit more luggage than her one tattered suitcase. The other girls had trunks, in addition to numerous suitcases and assorted bags. One of the girls looked pointedly at Emma’s meager possessions and stuck her nose in the air. Emma’s discomfort increased as she watched the reactions of the other two girls with whom she would be sharing a room. Well, I certainly don’t see what the big deal is, Emma thought to herself. Really, how much clothing do you need to go to a school where the students have to wear uniforms? The more she thought about it, the

angrier she got. She was about to say something she knew she’d regret later when she was forestalled by the sudden reappearance of Deborah. “I forgot to tell you that after dinner we will meet together to discuss school policies and regulations. I will answer any questions that you might have at that time.” At that, Deborah spun around and hastened from the room. “Does anyone else think that girl is a little peculiar?” The question was asked of no one in particular by the short blonde girl who had first noticed Emma’s lack of baggage. “By the way, my name is Clarice Danvers.” This comment prompted the others to give their names. A skinny, red-haired girl identified herself as Martha Merriweather, and a pretty, brown-haired girl with bright blue eyes told them her name was Susie Penneman. Then it was Emma’s turn; all of the attention was now focused on her. Emma swallowed nervously and managed to say in a fairly steady tone, “Hi, my name is Emma Higsby. It’s a pleasure to meet all of you.” Emma gave them what she hoped was her friendliest smile and was greatly relieved to see each of them smile back, even Clarice. Now that the awkward first introductions were over, the girls began to converse as if they’d known each other for years, instead of a few short minutes. The conversation flowed freely as the girls unpacked, with Clarice doing most of the talking. Having less to unpack than the other girls, Emma finished first and then sat on her bed and watched the others. Their wardrobes were nothing short of spectacular. It was obvious that these girls came from very rich families. Seeing her own glamorous clothes reminded Clarice about the uniforms the students were required to wear. “Can you believe those awful uniforms they’re making us wear?” Clarice began with disgust. Susie and Martha were quick to agree. “Yeah, they’re so plain. Last year I went to school at Norton and they had really neat uniforms, but these look like prison clothes or something.” This was from Susie as she pulled yet another beautiful pant outfit from her trunk. Emma was beginning to feel a little out of place. She thought the black, kneelength, pleated skirt, white blouse, and red and green plaid vest that comprised Dinswood’s girls’ uniform was kind of cute. Sensing Emma’s discomfort, Martha quickly changed the subject by pointing

out that it was almost time for supper. “Gosh, look at the time. We’d better get down to the dining hall.” She continued on in a fair imitation of Miss Grimstock, “Remember students, tardiness will not be tolerated.” Susie and Clarice giggled, and Emma knew in that moment that she and Martha were going to be the best of friends.

Chapter Two Emma sat in the dining hall listening to the hum of conversation around her while she tried to choke down her breakfast. Her stomach was fluttering in a combination of nervousness and excitement. Classes at Dinswood began today and Emma knew that in order to keep her scholarship for next year, she had to maintain a high grade point average this year. Dinswood was known for its high academic standards, and Emma just hoped she was up to the challenge. Martha sat next to her and appeared to be just as nervous. The weekend had passed much too quickly. Emma and the other first-year students had arrived at the school on Friday. At supper that evening, they had been introduced to the staff. Emma knew it would take a while to remember all the teachers’ names. Back in their dorm room after the meal, Deborah had given them their schedules and gone over a few more rules with them. Emma had been disappointed to learn that Fangorley Forest was off limits to the students unless accompanied by one of the staff. She had been looking forward to exploring the woods around Dinswood, and now it didn’t look like that would be possible. Deborah had explained that it was dangerous because there were bears and other wild animals in the forest. Having grown up in a city, Emma hadn’t considered the inherent danger in tramping around a natural forest. The rest of the student body had begun to arrive in spurts on Saturday. Sunday had been a day of settling in. In the morning, Emma had attended chapel with Martha. The chapel stood down a path a short distance to the east of the school. It was right on the edge of Fangorley Forest but was set back far enough that she had been unable to see it when she had first arrived on Friday. Deborah had told them about the chapel and that services were held on Sunday mornings at eight o’clock. The minister, Reverend James Palmer, was the husband of Judy Palmer, the school’s foreign language teacher. Emma had enjoyed the service. Reverend Palmer was a soft-spoken man of medium build and height. He had thinning, sandycolored hair and wore wire-rimmed spectacles. He had given the impression of being a kind and compassionate man. During the service, he had informed the

students that he also served as the school’s counselor and that he would be available to speak with them whenever they had a problem. Emma had left the chapel feeling more at ease than she had since arriving at Dinswood. She and Martha had spent the rest of the day exploring the grounds and looking around the new greenhouse. It had been a beautiful September day with ample sunshine and only a slight cool mountain breeze. Emma was recalled to the present by Martha’s sudden exclamation. “Isn’t he gorgeous!” Martha was looking toward the end of the long table where all the first-year students sat. “Which one do you mean?” Emma asked. “Do I have to tell you?” Martha asked with amazement. “I’m talking about the tall, dark-haired boy on the end.” “Oh. Yeah, he’s really cute, but don’t you think we’d better get to class?” Emma asked, looking at her watch and deliberately changing the subject. She doubted any of the rich boys here would be interested in her, and anyway, she needed to concentrate on her studies. “Well okay,” Martha said, finally prying her eyes away. “But I’m going to find out who he is,” she vowed as they left the dining hall. Emma had been pleased to learn that she and Martha had the same schedules. All the first-year students took the same classes but not necessarily at the same time. Martha’s schedule matched up with Emma’s perfectly. Their first class was English with Mrs. Abigail Perkins. After explaining her grading system and classroom rules, Mrs. Perkins, a short, plump woman with curly brown hair, informed them that they would be reading many of the classics this year, starting with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The groans from the class were audible, not because they knew anything about the book, but just reading in general was enough to elicit this response from most twelve-year-olds. “Have you seen that book? It’s enormous!” someone close to Emma said in a loud whisper. Emma looked around for the source of the comment and discovered that once again it was Sebastian Conners, the red-haired, freckled-face boy who had raised the ire of Miss Grimstock during Friday’s tour. Sebastian got no response from anyone around him; they were all too afraid to comment, but Emma

was sure most of the class agreed with him. Their next class was mathematics with Mr. Richard Godfrey. Mr. Godfrey, a tall, stern-looking man with light brown hair and black-rimmed glasses, wasted no time but promptly passed out books and gave them an assignment. Emma fully expected a comment from Sebastian, who seemed to have the same schedule as she and Martha, but for once he was silent. When, out of curiosity, Emma turned to look at him, she almost laughed out loud. He was sitting there in what appeared to be shock. Emma deduced that Sebastian’s previous school must not have been as challenging as this one was sure to be. Art class was next on their schedules. They would only have art every other day as it rotated with PE class. Emma was glad, because she had never been very good at art and knew this would be a class in which she would struggle. Martha, however, had no such trepidation. “I can’t wait to meet the art teacher. He’s supposed to be really good, and I just love to paint and draw!” Martha said excitedly as they finally located the art room. “He’d better be good if I’m going to pass,” Emma said, and when Martha laughed, she added, “I’m not kidding; I’m really not very artistic.” Mr. Henri Dubois at least looked the part of an art master, complete with a goatee and a mustache that curled up on the ends. He was a little difficult to understand, as he spoke with a French accent, but he certainly knew his stuff if the paintings hanging on the classroom walls were examples of his work. Their last class before lunch was science with Miss Louisa Jennings. Science had always been Emma’s favorite subject. The science room had lab tables with sinks and gas valves. They sat on stools at the lab tables as Miss Jennings explained that this year they would be using a general science textbook that covered topics from each of the major fields of science. Emma liked Miss Jennings immediately. She was a pretty young woman of medium height with light brown hair that just reached her shoulders and bright green eyes. It wasn’t Miss Jennings’s appearance, however, that earned Emma’s approval; it was her enthusiasm. As Miss Jennings spoke, it was obvious that she had a passion for science. After science, Emma and Martha headed downstairs to the dining hall for lunch. Martha was just expressing her disappointment at not having any classes

with the cute boy they’d seen at breakfast, when Clarice and Susie came in and sat on the bench next to her. Wherever Clarice went, Susie was not far behind. It was obvious Susie thought Clarice was the best thing since sliced bread, and Emma was reminded of a little puppy following its master around. Clarice seemed to take it for granted that Susie was right behind her, and having heard Martha’s comment, she asked, “Who are you talking about?” “A cute boy. We don’t know his name yet, but we’ll point him out to you when he comes in,” Martha answered. They didn’t have to wait long as he came in with Sebastian Conners just a moment later. “There he is,” Martha said excitedly. “He’s the tall dark-haired boy with the freckled-face boy who can’t keep his mouth shut.” “Oh, that’s Douglas Harwood,” Clarice said in a bored tone. “Harwood, you mean as in Dean Harwood?” Emma asked. “The very same,” Clarice said. “Douglas Harwood is Dean Harwood’s son.” Martha was rendered speechless on several counts. First of all, Clarice did not seem at all impressed by the good looks of Douglas Harwood. Second, she had not even been aware that Dean Harwood was married and had a son. Third, how did Clarice know all this? Martha chose to address the second issue first. “I didn’t know Dean Harwood was married.” “He’s not anymore. He’s divorced,” Clarice said. “How do you know all this?” Martha asked in amazement. “My father is on the board of directors and knows everything about this school,” Clarice replied in a superior tone. “Don’t you think he’s gorgeous?” Martha asked. “Oh, he’s okay I guess, but his family has no money. His father works here for heaven’s sake.” Clarice said. “Could you be any more of a snob?” Martha asked in disgust. “Mother told me the only people worth knowing are people like us,” Clarice replied as if reciting a mantra. “By people like us you mean rich people,” Emma said, beginning to get angry. Sensing her friend’s rising temper, Martha intervened.

“Clarice, my father told me that having money was just a matter of good fortune and that what really matters is how you treat others. He also says having money doesn’t give you the right to be rude.” “Yes, but your family isn’t as rich as mine,” Clarice said calmly. Now it was Martha’s turn to get mad. In an attempt to head off what could prove to be an extended and heated argument, Emma put her hands up in mock surrender and said, “Okay Clarice, you win the Richest Person Here Award. Can we get back to the subject of Douglas Harwood? Where is his mother?” Susie, who had been listening quietly up to this point, blurted out, “Oh, she’s remarried and lives somewhere in Europe.” Then, at a disapproving look from Clarice, she continued more slowly, “Douglas never sees her. She and her new husband have children of their own now, and I guess she’s too busy with them to worry much about Douglas.” As Emma listened she began to feel a kinship with Douglas Harwood. Although his mother was still alive, she might as well be dead as far as her son was concerned. Emma watched him at the end of the table as he laughed at something Sebastian was saying. He seemed to be just like any other boy, but Emma knew somewhere deep inside him there must be a deep sense of loss. After Susie’s outburst, no more was said about Dean Harwood or his son; but later that day Emma discovered that Doug was in her history class. He came walking in just before the bell, and by her indrawn breath, Emma knew that Martha had seen him as well. There had been no time for conversation, as immediately after the bell Miss Grimstock had begun her lecture and had stopped only long enough to give them an assignment. They were supposed to read the first two chapters in their books. Emma was beginning to feel a little overwhelmed. They had homework in almost every class, and it was only the first day. When Miss Grimstock had given them their assignment, Emma had sneaked a peak at the ever-present Sebastian to see his reaction. Once again, she’d wanted to laugh out loud. He’d already been in hot water with Grimstock on Friday, so he probably hadn’t wanted to risk making her mad again. He had looked like a redfaced blowfish as he’d struggled with the effort to remain silent. Classes ended at three o’clock and then they had a half-hour break before

having to report for training in their chosen hobbies. Emma was actually looking forward to her hobby class. She had always wanted to learn to crochet and thought it would be a good way to relax after the stress of regular classes. Martha had chosen knitting for her hobby, so this was one time when they wouldn’t be together. Emma was happy to see that Miss Jennings was her teacher. Including Emma, there were ten girls in the class. Miss Jennings gave each girl a skein of yarn and a crochet hook. She then showed them how to chain, and by the time they left class at four o’clock, they could do a few simple stitches. Miss Jennings told them they would learn how to make a simple afghan and then they could go on to more difficult projects if they chose to take crocheting again next semester. They would, however, have to purchase the yarn for their projects themselves. “I don’t know if anyone’s told you yet,” Miss Jennings began. “But one Saturday a month, as long as the weather holds, the school buses take students down to the town of Windland for the day to do some shopping. There are all kinds of shops there, so you can get pretty much anything you need, including yarn. Once winter gets here, though, the roads can get pretty treacherous, and all trips to town are canceled.” “When will we be going this month?” one girl asked excitedly. “I’m afraid it won’t be for a couple of weeks. We’ll just practice with the yarn I gave you until then,” Miss Jennings said. “At least you’ll have plenty of time to decide what colors you want your afghans to be.” Emma didn’t have a lot of money for shopping, but her father had given her enough to purchase any personal items she might need. She would just have to use some of that money to buy her yarn. Looking around the room, Emma realized she was probably the only one that had to worry about buying the yarn for the afghan. She didn’t feel sorry for herself, though, because she knew money wasn’t everything. It couldn’t bring back her mother.

Chapter Three Over the next two weeks, Emma’s days fell into a routine. Monday through Friday she attended regular classes, then hobby class, and then usually she would sit in the lounge for a while practicing her crocheting. Then she would have supper in the dining hall, and in the evenings, she would study in the library. Martha was almost always with her, and oddly enough, considering her superiority complex, so was Clarice. Of course, it was a given that Susie would be tagging along as well, and thus, the four suitemates were usually together. Emma had puzzled over Clarice’s willingness to associate with girls that were, at least in terms of wealth, beneath her, but she had come to realize that Clarice had no other friends. Considering her haughty attitude, Emma could understand why that would be the case. Saturdays were spent outdoors roaming around the grounds and sitting in the swings that hung from the massive oak trees gracing the front lawn. The weather would only be nice a little while longer, and Emma wanted to take advantage of the warm days while they lasted. Dinswood Academy was located at a high enough elevation that winter would come earlier and last longer than in most other places. On Sundays, they would all go to chapel in the morning and then spend the afternoon doing homework. *** Finally, the day arrived when some of the students would get to go down to the town of Windland to do some shopping. Emma had been looking forward to this day since she had first heard about it from Miss Jennings. Actually, buses went down to Windland every Saturday, but as the school couldn’t take the entire student body at once, the trips were taken by class. A kind of lottery system was used to determine the order in which the class or classes would go. This Saturday was the seventh graders turn to make the journey. The eighth graders had gone last week. Next Saturday would be the ninth and tenth graders’ turn and then the eleventh and twelfth graders would go. The upper grades had fewer students, and so they could be transported together. Emma and Martha stood on the front steps eagerly waiting for the buses to

come. As she looked around, Emma saw that there was a pretty large group assembled, including Clarice and Susie. It looked like most of the seventh grade had decided to go to Windland today. Some of the dorm advisors and teachers were also going in order to supervise. Deborah, whom they hadn’t seen since their arrival at Dinswood, was anxiously taking roll to make sure all of her little flock was present and accounted for. Emma was glad to see that Miss Jennings and Rev. and Mrs. Palmer were the teachers that would be going with them. The only thing that could possibly ruin the trip was the weather. Emma had awakened that morning to the rumble of thunder, and although the sky continued to look dark and threatening, it had yet to rain. Just then, another rumble of thunder sounded. Martha, who was standing close beside Emma, said, “If those buses don’t hurry up, we’re all going to get very wet.” Emma barely heard her, though. Her attention was focused on the teachers that were going to town with them. They had huddled together and were deep in conversation. Clarice had also noticed and asked, “What’s that all about?” From close behind them, a male voice answered, “They’re deciding if we should still go.” They all turned as one to locate the owner of the voice. Behind them stood a short, skinny boy with curly brown hair and black-rimmed glasses, which he kept pushing up on his nose. Uncomfortable under their scrutiny, he identified himself. “Reginald Wentworth’s the name,” and when they all continued to stare at him, he continued on hesitantly, “but everyone calls me Reggie.” Emma was the first to find her voice and asked the question they’d all wanted to ask: “Why should the trip be canceled just because of a little rain?” In a tone that suggested he was explaining something to a two-year-old, Reggie said, “Didn’t you notice the low-water bridges we went over on the way up here?” Although he was answering Emma, he continued to look at Clarice. Well, it looks like Clarice has found herself an admirer, Emma thought to herself. She was immediately brought back to the conversation at hand by an elbow in the ribs from Martha. “Ah—yes, I did notice, Reggie,” Emma said slowly, putting special emphasis on

his name, “but what exactly is a low-water bridge?” Pushing his glasses up, he launched into his explanation with relish. “Well, a low-water bridge is basically just a concrete road connecting two sides of a small stream with a pipe of fairly large diameter, called a culvert, underneath it. A lowwater bridge is fine to cross as long as the water flow isn’t too great. However, in cases of quick or extended rain or runoff from melting snow, the water flow can exceed the capacity of the underlying culvert and the water begins to flow over the bridge. When that happens, it is no longer safe to cross, because the swiftly moving water can exert enough force to carry a car, or in our case a bus, completely away.” At this point Martha jumped in. “In other words, if it rains a lot while we’re in town, we won’t be able to get back up to the school. We could get stuck in town.” “Precisely,” Reggie said, nodding his approval. Just then, the buses pulled up. Emma looked over at the group of teachers to see what they had decided. She knew everyone was going to be terribly disappointed if they didn’t get to go. Emma heaved a sigh of relief when the teachers began herding the students onto the buses. Clarice, however, was worrying over what Reggie had said and turning to look at him she asked, “Do you think it’s okay for us to go?” Reggie was pleased on several counts. First, Clarice obviously respected his intelligence enough to ask him his opinion. Second, this was the first time Clarice had spoken to him. Blushing with pleasure, he said, “Sure it’s okay. We might not be able to return to school for a while, but we shouldn’t have any trouble on the way down. Windland is only thirty minutes away, and we only have to cross one low-water bridge to get there. I estimate that the one we’ll have to cross is only fifteen minutes away, so even if it starts pouring now, we’ll be across the bridge before it could overtop.” “Well, that’s good,” Clarice said with a sigh of relief. Then her eyes widened as something occurred to her. “You said your name was Wentworth, right?” “Right,” Reggie said. “Are you related to the Wentworths that own the department store chain?” Clarice asked. “My dad is Jonathon Reginald Wentworth, founder and owner of Wentworth’s

department stores,” Reggie said proudly. “Wow, I just love shopping at Wentworth’s. They’ve got absolutely everything!” Clarice all but gushed. She’s finally found someone rich enough for her, Emma thought to herself. When Clarice had introduced herself to her suitemates that first day, the name Danvers hadn’t rung a bell. Later, Emma had found out that Clarice’s father, Samuel Danvers, was the founder of Danvers Communications. The company was involved in virtually all forms of communication from computers to cell phones, and Samuel Danvers was reputed to be a billionaire. How ironic that he would send his daughter to a school that didn’t allow its students to use computers except in the most basic sense. Clarice and Reggie continued to converse as they boarded the bus, and Reggie even managed to wrangle the seat next to Clarice away from Susie. Emma sat in front of Clarice near the window, and Martha sat on the aisle next to her. The minute Martha sat down, she began looking around. It didn’t take a genius to figure out who she was looking for. Emma decided to put Martha out of her misery. “If you’re looking for Doug, he’s sitting in the very back with Sebastian.” Martha reminded Emma of an owl as she craned her neck in an attempt to locate Doug. “I don’t see him,” Martha said, rubbing her neck. “Trust me, he’s there. I saw him get on ahead of us,” Emma said. Clarice, who had obviously been listening to them, said a little too loudly, “I don’t think it’s right that he gets to go to Dinswood just because his father is the dean.” Martha was just about to tell Clarice what she thought of her when Reggie jumped in, “Actually, Doug took the exam and won one of the scholarships.” Clarice gave him a withering look; but unabashed, Reggie dug a deeper hole for himself by adding, “Your dad’s on the board, Clarice, I’m surprised you didn’t know that.” With all the disdain Clarice could muster, she said, “He probably cheated!” Martha was halfway out of her seat on her way to give Clarice a nice thump on

the head, when, once again, Reggie intervened. “Oh, I don’t think so. It’s impossible to cheat on that test. It’s administered by an impartial panel and sent off to be scored.” If looks could kill, Clarice would have been guilty of murder. Reggie appeared to be completely unaware that he’d said anything wrong. That boy’s got more smarts than sense, Emma thought, and couldn’t help grinning when Clarice, in a huff, turned toward the window and refused to say another word to her new admirer. “She’ll get over it,” Martha whispered to Emma. Then with a grin she added, “After all, he’s about the only one that really likes her, except Susie.” Emma laughed and nodded in agreement then settled back to watch the scenery. The rest of the trip to Windland was without incident. The rain continued to hold off, and as Reggie had predicted, they crossed the low-water bridge with no problem. Soon the town of Windland came into view. The town consisted of a main street with shops of every description on either side. Sidewalks lined the street, which was wide enough that cars could park diagonally on both sides. The bus was approaching the town from the east; in the distance on the west side, a small cluster of houses could be seen. Emma also noticed a two-story log structure that sat off by itself on the northwest side of town. She later learned that it was a motel designed in the manner of a resort lodge with a vaulted ceiling and central fireplace in a spacious main room. The town was tiny compared to the city Emma had grown up in, but as she and Martha soon discovered, it had everything a person could possibly need. As the students got off the buses, they were told by their dorm advisors to be back on board by four thirty. They needed to be back at Dinswood Academy in time for supper at six. As it was now only eleven o’clock, the students would have plenty of time to shop. Emma and Martha decided to take care of the yarn for their hobby projects first. As they walked down the sidewalk, they passed a candy shop, a salon, a restaurant, and a small bookstore before coming to a general store that promised on its sign to have everything. “Let’s give that a test,” Martha said skeptically after reading the sign.

When they entered the store, they saw row upon row of shelves packed full of everything from garden shears to nail polish. After wandering around the store marveling at the diversity of items displayed, they managed to locate the fabric and crafts section. The store had yarn in every possible color. The only difficulty was going to be deciding what colors to choose for their projects. Both girls had decided to make their projects Christmas gifts. Martha had decided to knit a sweater for her father, and Emma had decided to make an afghan for her father and stepmother. Martha selected a dark green yarn and Emma chose a cream-colored yarn. Once they’d made their purchases, they decided to get some lunch at the restaurant they’d seen, but when they entered, they saw that every table was taken. “I guess everyone else had the same idea,” Emma said. “There’s got to be somewhere else to eat in this town.” “We just found out there’s a restaurant in the motel down the road,” said a voice behind them. The girls turned around and were surprised to see none other than Douglas Harwood. “We were going to give it a try if you want to come along.” The “we” referred to Doug and his faithful sidekick Sebastian Conners who, at that moment, was standing on tiptoe in an effort to see the girls over Doug’s right shoulder. Martha seemed to be having difficulty finding her voice, so it was up to Emma to reply. Sensing that Martha would be okay with eating lunch with Douglas Harwood, she nodded and said as nonchalantly as she could manage, “Yeah, that’d be great. I wanted to get a look inside that place anyway.” “Yeah, me too,” Doug said. “The man we were talking to told us it was more like a lodge with a fireplace and a high-beamed ceiling and everything. I thought it sounded kind of cool.” “I thought it looked like a lodge when I first saw it,” Emma said as they left the restaurant and headed down the street. As they walked, it was left up to Emma and Doug to carry on the conversation as Martha had yet to recover her voice, and Sebastian, at least for the moment, didn’t seem to have anything to say. “You guys are in my history class, aren’t you?” Doug asked. “Yeah. We’ve got old Miss Grimstock every day fifth hour,” Emma replied with a grimace.

“We’ve started calling her Grim for short,” Sebastian said with a mischievous grin. “I like that,” said Emma laughing. “You just better hope you never accidentally call her that to her face.” “I almost did once!” Sebastian said in mock horror. “She doesn’t like me as it is. Just imagine how it’d be if I called her Grim.” “The name suits her,” Martha said, finally joining the conversation. “That woman never smiles. She’s always so stern looking.” “Maybe it’s from too many years of the school’s food,” Doug said grinning, and they all laughed. Just then, the wind picked up and Emma felt a drop on her arm. The clouds that had been threatening rain all day were about to make good on their threat. “We’d better make a run for it,” Doug said, beginning to jog. The other three did the same, but they’d only taken a few steps before it began to pour. Fortunately, they didn’t have too much farther to go before reaching the motel. As they ducked into the motel entrance, they were wet but not soaked through. The motel lobby opened into an enormous room with a dining area and kitchen on one side and a large, circular fireplace surrounded by comfortable-looking chairs and couches on the other side. High wooden beams crisscrossed overhead, and Emma could see numerous ceiling fans interspersed throughout the lounge area. The dining area was filled with round tables capable of seating five people. As in the restaurant, it was crowded, but there were still some tables available. Doug led them over to the nearest empty table, and they all sat down. From where she sat, Emma could see that the fireplace in the lounge had a healthy blaze going, and she wished she was sitting closer so she could feel its warmth. Seeing the direction of her gaze, Doug asked, “Do you guys want to dry off by the fire before we eat?” “I’m afraid we’ll lose our table,” Emma said, thinking how considerate that was of Doug to ask. “But thanks for asking.” “No problem,” Doug said. The waitress came over then and soon they were hungrily diving into hamburgers and fries. They talked easily throughout the meal. Martha, after her initial shyness, talked more than anyone, asking the boys all kinds of questions.

Eventually, the talk turned to the hobbies they all had chosen. It turned out that Sebastian had chosen cooking and Doug had chosen woodcarving. “I really like to play chess, although I’m not very good at it,” Doug said. “I’d like to make my own chess board and carve all the pieces.” “I think someday I’d like to be a chef,” Sebastian said. “They’re going to teach us how to make normal things like cookies and stuff and then we’ll learn how to make fancier dishes.” “Now we know who to go to if we’re ever hungry,” Martha said, and then went on to ask, “Do you guys miss watching television or playing video games?” Sebastian quickly answered this question. “You know, when we first got here, I thought it was going to be awful with no TV, but the truth is I’ve been too busy to miss it.” They all nodded in agreement. “Maybe that’s one of the things they wanted to teach us,” Doug said. “I don’t know about you guys, but I really like it at Dinswood. It’s really cool that it used to be a castle,” Emma said. “Yeah. The trouble is, I overheard my dad talking on the phone the other day, and it sounded like Dinswood Academy is having some kind of financial problems,” Doug said worriedly. “You’re kidding!” Martha exclaimed. “How can that be with all the rich kids that go to Dinswood? I know my dad pays a bundle for me to go here.” “Well, old Lord Dinswood left just enough money for the original renovations, nothing for upkeep or additions like the new greenhouse. The school has had to borrow money, and enrollment is down. A lot of kids don’t want to go to Dinswood because of its strict rules and high standards.” “How bad is it?” Martha asked. “I don’t know for sure, but Dad sounded really worried,” Doug answered. “I’m just starting to feel at home here. I’d hate it if Dinswood had to close its doors!” Sebastian said with feeling. “Me too,” the others said in unison. “Maybe they could sell some of Lord Dinswood’s valuables. Grimstock said some of his things were kept at the school. Why can’t they sell some of those?” Emma asked.

“That’s just it. The old guy was kind of loony and left specific instructions, one of which was that his personal possessions were not to be taken from the castle,” Doug said. “That’s kind of odd. Don’t you think? What’s so special about his stuff that it can’t be moved or sold?” Emma asked curiously. “He must have left something the school could sell,” Martha commented. “We need to find a catalog of all of Lord Dinswood’s things. Why don’t we look in the school library when we get back—if we ever get back.” “What do you mean if we ever get back?” Doug asked. Martha explained what they had learned from Reggie just that morning. “If it keeps raining like this, the buses won’t be able to cross that low-water bridge. That means we’ll have to stay in town.” “Stay where?” Sebastian asked. “Well, this is the town’s only motel, so I guess we’d stay here,” Martha answered. Emma hoped that didn’t happen. She couldn’t afford to waste her money renting a room for the night in a motel. Worriedly, she looked out the dining room windows and saw that it continued to pour. Just then a flash of lightning split the sky, followed by a loud crash of thunder. The lights in the dining room flickered on and off briefly before brightening once again. “It’s almost like Lord Dinswood is trying to tell us something,” Sebastian said trying to scare the girls. Emma felt goose bumps rising up on her arms. Although she knew he’d meant it as a joke, she had the strange feeling that Sebastian was right.

Chapter Four They sat in the motel dining room a while longer watching the deluge taking place outside. The lightning and thunder continued, but the lights didn’t flicker again, much to everyone’s relief. No one spoke as each was lost in his or her own thoughts. They were all puzzling over the curious stipulations in Lord Dinswood’s will. Even if he had been a little crazy, there had to be a logical explanation. Suddenly, Doug broke the silence. “Well, I don’t want to sit here all day. Anyone else willing to brave the rain?” “Why don’t we make a run for the bookstore?” Emma suggested. “Martha and I passed one on the way to the general store, and I was thinking they might have some books on local places of interest. You know, like for tourists.” “You mean they might have something on Dinswood Castle,” Doug said nodding in dawning comprehension. “Great idea!” Sebastian exclaimed, and then looking out the window added, “I think the rain’s starting to let up a little, so now would be a good time to make a run for it.” Without any further discussion they paid their bill and headed for the door with Emma in the lead. Emma was just reaching out to pull the door open when it was pushed forcefully from the other side. Clarice, followed closely by Susie and Reggie, came barreling through it, nearly knocking Emma over in her haste. “Oh gosh, I’m sorry,” Clarice said breathlessly, and then when she saw who it was she’d nearly mowed down, she said, “Where have you guys been? We’ve been looking all over for you!” Emma and Martha exchanged knowing looks. They had decided to ditch Clarice and her entourage when they got off the bus. It wasn’t that they didn’t like Clarice, at least, not exactly. It was just that she could be very bossy sometimes, and she definitely liked having everything her way. Emma and Martha had simply wanted to shop without Clarice dictating their every move. Now here she was—a force to be reckoned with. It was going to be a challenge ditching her a second time.

However, Reggie took care of it for them. “Clarice is hungry and worn out from shopping, so we’re going to have something to eat and rest a while. Where are you guys going?” “Oh, well, we’ve already eaten, and so we’re headed out to do some more shopping,” Emma said hastily. And before Clarice could contradict Reggie, they were out the door and hurrying down the street toward the bookstore. “Whew, that was close!” Martha exclaimed, a little out of breath as they all but ran down the sidewalk. It was still raining but not as hard as it had been earlier. “She must have decided to forgive Reggie,” Emma observed. “Either that or he’s just as persistent as she is,” Martha said. “I bet she’s mad at him again,” Sebastian panted as he tried to keep up with the others. “That guy doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.” Emma had to smile. She wanted to tell Sebastian that he had the same problem, but she was unsure about how he would take that particular observation. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, she kept her thoughts to herself. They entered the bookstore just as another flash of lightning lit the sky. The rain began again in earnest; the wind blowing with such force that it rattled the large window in the front of the store. “Looks like you kids made it just in time,” said a rather grizzled old man behind the counter. “Radio says there are more storms on the way, and they’ve put out flash flood warnings.” After pausing to peer at them over his glasses, he continued, “Well, enough about the weather. How can I help you?” The man, who had short-cropped white hair and a white mustache, continued to look at them with rheumy blue eyes. Realizing that the others weren’t going to reply, Emma said, “We were wondering if you had any books on Dinswood Castle.” “Now that’s odd. Not too many folks are interested in the history of that old castle. Most just come in here to buy magazines or the latest novels. You’re the second person in as many weeks to ask me about Dinswood Castle.” “Do you have anything that would help us, sir?” Doug asked. “Sure do. I’ve got a couple of tourist-type pamphlets and then I’ve got a book written by Lord Dinswood himself. It wasn’t a real big seller, but I keep a few

copies on hand because he was a local fellow. Which would you like?” “We’ll take both,” Martha said quickly, and seeing the questioning looks of the others, she added, “I’ll buy them. Just consider it my contribution to the cause.” The man continued to eye them speculatively for a little longer and then, in no particular hurry, he got up from his stool behind the counter and wandered to the very back corner of the store. “Come along and see what I’ve got first. Then you can decide for sure what you want,” he called behind him. Dutifully, they followed. It was already relatively dark in the store because of the rain outside, but it was downright creepy in the back corner of the store where the lighting didn’t quite reach. In the dimness, the old man stooped down and removed a dusty book from the bottom shelf. Blowing the dust off of the cover, he handed it to Emma. The book had a black cover with the title emblazoned in gold lettering across the front. The title was ordinary enough: The History of Dinswood Castle. Emma opened the book and let out a gasp of surprise. “This book is signed by Lord Dinswood!” “Yep, the old guy insisted on signing every copy,” the old man said. “What’s this underneath his signature? It looks like a reference to a Bible verse,” Emma said. The verse Lord Dinswood had indicated was Matthew 7:7. “He put that in every book,” the old man replied. “I looked it up one time, and it’s the verse that says something about seeking and finding.” “Seeking and finding what?” Sebastian asked. “Dunno. The old guy went a little crazy in his latter days. He stayed in that castle and never went out. He wasn’t seen by anybody but his servants the last twenty-five years of his life.” The old man straightened up and led them to a magazine rack containing tourist information. “These are the pamphlets I was telling you about. I don’t know if they’ll have what you’re looking for, but you’re welcome to look through them. I’ll be back up at the counter when you’re ready to check out.” With that, the old man eyed them once again and then proceeded to the counter at the front of the store in a slow shuffle. “What do you suppose Lord Dinswood meant by putting that verse in all his books?” Martha asked. “It must be important if he was so obsessed about putting it in every single copy of his book.”

Doug, who had been silent up to this point, said slowly as if he was working through a difficult riddle, “It must mean that Dinswood left something worth finding. We just need to figure out what that is.” Martha had been flipping through the pamphlets while Doug was speaking. “Well, there’s nothing in these we can use,” she said, sighing in frustration. “Let’s just buy the book and get out of here. That old guy is really creepy.” “You’ve got that right,” Sebastian agreed. With perfect timing, another flash of lightning and a loud crash of thunder punctuated Sebastian’s statement. Startled, they stared wide-eyed at each other, and then without saying another word, they hurried to the front of the store as fast as dignity would allow. Martha paid for the book at the counter while the others waited by the door ready to make their escape. It was pouring outside, but at least the wind had died down a little. “Where do you want to go now?” Doug asked. “We’ve still got a couple of hours before we’re due back on the bus.” “I don’t care where we go. I just want to get out of here,” Martha said, being careful to keep her voice low. “Let’s go by the candy store,” Sebastian suggested. “We can get some goodies and then maybe go back to the motel and sit in the lounge by the fire.” “Good idea,” Martha said. “That’ll give us a chance to look through this book.” With a last glance back at the old man at the counter, they headed outside, heedless of the rain. Splashing in the water on the sidewalks as they ran, they made their way to the candy store. Martha kept the book safe and dry under her jacket. Stepping into the candy store was like stepping into heaven. The store had every kind of candy imaginable. Some of the candies were purchased by the bag and had to be scooped out of big bins by the store employees. The prepackaged candies were displayed on racks set strategically around the store. Zigzagging their way between the racks, they made their way to the big glass bins set in the main counter. “There are too many choices. I can’t decide what I want,” Sebastian moaned as he looked around. “Well, are you in the mood for chocolate, or licorice, or some kind of hard

candy?” Emma asked, trying to be helpful. “Yes to all,” Sebastian answered, licking his lips in anticipation. “We’ll be here all day at this rate,” Martha complained. “How about if we each buy something different and then we can share,” Doug suggested. “Another good idea,” Martha said, smiling brightly at Doug who didn’t seem to notice. After wandering around the store for another half hour, they each finally decided on what they were going to get. Martha chose some cherry flavored licorice bites; Doug chose a box of chocolate peanut clusters; Emma chose a bag of saltwater taffy of every flavor; and Sebastian finally decided on a large bag of gumdrops. With their purchases tucked safely under their jackets, they headed back out into the rain and toward the motel. *** Sitting comfortably in a little circle by the fire in the motel lounge and munching on candy, Martha handed Lord Dinswood’s book to Emma. “You do the honors, Emma. After all, it was your idea.” Taking a deep breath, Emma opened the book and once again looked at Lord Dinswood’s signature. The strokes were sweeping and bold. “It doesn’t look like the signature of a crazy man,” she said looking more closely. “This Bible reference is still a mystery though. We’ll have to look it up when we get back to school.” Emma turned to the first chapter and began reading silently. After several minutes, she looked up in surprise and whispered, “Pirates.” “What?” the others asked in unison. “They were pirates! Dinswood’s ancestors were pirates. That’s how his family got the money for the castle. Ever heard of Bart the Blackheart?” When the others nodded their assent, Emma continued, “Well, he was one of Lord Dinswood’s ancestors.” Bart the Blackheart was one of the most notorious pirates to ever sail the seven seas! By the time ships spotted the crossbones and skull of Blackheart’s flag, they were as good as caught. He was one of the richest pirates in history, amassing vast hoards of gold and gemstones during his reign of terror. Emma noticed that all of

this was reported in Lord Dinswood’s book with an attitude of pride. No mention was made of the countless number of people slain by Blackheart in his raids. “You’d think a person would be embarrassed to be the descendant of pirates, but this guy seems to be proud of it,” Doug said. “Well, everyone we’ve talked to said that Lord Dinswood went a little crazy when he got old. Maybe that was when he wrote this book,” Sebastian said. “I don’t understand something,” Martha broke in. “If his family was so rich, what happened to all the money? I know Lord Dinswood left the castle and a huge endowment to the school, but if his ancestors were as successful at pirating as this book says they were, there’s a lot more loot somewhere.” “Seek and ye shall find,” Sebastian said, repeating what the old man in the bookstore had told them. “I bet he’s hidden the rest of the treasure and this is a clue.” “What kind of clue is that?” Martha argued. “It doesn’t tell us anything. It doesn’t tell us where to look or even if there is any treasure.” “I think we’re getting way ahead of ourselves,” Emma said. “We need to get back to the school library and see what we can find. Remember, Miss Grimstock told us that a lot of the books were a part of Lord Dinswood’s personal library. Maybe we’ll find the answer there.” They continued to look through Lord Dinswood’s book until it was time to board the buses for the trip back to the academy. The remainder of the book described the castle and its furnishings in great detail. Lord Dinswood also gave information about each of the castle’s occupants through the years. At the end of the book, Emma found an artist’s rendition of what the original structure looked like. The picture showed the castle surrounded by a moat and a high outer wall, complete with a drawbridge. Several other smaller stone structures were located within the wall. There was a structure close to the castle that would have been the kitchen, and there were stables and quarters for the servants and soldiers. “The book talks about the furnishings, but we have no way of knowing what’s still in the castle,” Emma said, sighing in frustration. “We could ask Grim,” Sebastian suggested. “I’m afraid it might make her suspicious,” Emma said, and Doug nodded in

agreement. “We need to keep this just between the four of us. We can’t trust anyone else. My dad wouldn’t be too happy if he knew I’d overheard his phone conversation, and he’d sure be mad if he knew I’d told you guys.” Everyone agreed, and as it was nearly time to leave, they gathered up their purchases, and made their way to where the buses were parked. The rain had stopped for the moment, but the sky still looked dark and threatening. The buses had been parked in the motel parking lot, as it was the largest parking lot in town, so they didn’t have far to go. As they got closer, they could see that most of their classmates were already on board, including Clarice and Susie. When they boarded the bus, they took the same seats they’d had on the way down to Windland. Deborah sighed in relief when she saw Emma and Martha. It was her job to make sure everyone on her list got back to Dinswood. Checking their names off on the clipboard she was carrying, Deborah glared at them in obvious displeasure before retreating to her own seat. When all the students were on the bus, Miss Jennings, who had been sitting in the front, stood up and addressed the group. “We’ve just gotten word from Dean Harwood that we’re going to have to stay in Windland for the night and make the trip back to Dinswood in the morning.” Ignoring the groans of the students, she explained why. “We’ve already had a lot of rain and there’s more on the way. Flash flood warnings have been issued for tonight. If we get up to that low-water bridge and there’s water over it, we can’t cross, and there’s no place to turn the buses around. We’d be stuck up there, so Dean Harwood thought it would be best if we stayed here.” “Where are we going to stay?” asked someone in the back of the bus. “The motel has agreed to let us sort of camp out in their lounge,” Miss Jennings answered. “They’ll give everyone a pillow and blanket, and we’ll sleep as comfortably as we can in the chairs and on the floor.” The groans began in earnest at the prospect of a night spent sleeping on the floor. Miss Jennings gave them a sympathetic look but firmly began herding them off the bus and toward the motel. “The school is going to pay for your evening meal in the motel dining room.

You’ll need to be back here by six,” she told them as they filed past her. “After supper, no one is to leave the motel until it’s time to get back on the buses in the morning. We want to keep everyone together.” Sebastian couldn’t keep quiet any longer. “What are we gonna do until it’s time to go to bed?” he complained. “We’ll think of something, Sebastian,” Miss Jennings said smiling. “Just leave it to us teachers.” Sebastian didn’t look convinced, but he didn’t say any more and dutifully followed Doug off the bus. There was no escaping Clarice and Susie this time, or Reggie for that matter, as he continued to follow Clarice wherever she went. The three of them would stick to Emma and Martha like glue from that point on. Emma knew there’d be no further opportunity to discuss Lord Dinswood that evening.

Chapter Five It had stopped raining for the time being, so Emma suggested that they explore the town of Windland more fully. Emma was glad to see Doug and Sebastian intended to come along, even though Clarice, Susie, and Reggie were now a part of the group. “I’ve already seen all I want to see of this little town,” Clarice complained. “Honestly, the shopping here is terrible.” “This isn’t New York, Clarice,” Martha said. “What did you expect? We were just supposed to be getting any personal things we needed, not a new wardrobe. Besides, I saw how many packages you brought on the bus. It looks like you still found plenty to buy.” It was true. Clarice had gotten on the bus with a burden of packages that would have made even the most avid shopper proud. Reggie and Susie had been likewise laden down with packages, most of which also belonged to Clarice. When asked what was in all those bags, Clarice had simply said they were things she needed for school. Fortunately, they were not burdened with purchases now, because they had been told they could leave everything on the buses. “I didn’t buy all that much,” Clarice said defensively. “Normally, when mom and I go shopping the limo is crammed full of boxes and bags.” By unspoken mutual consent, the rest of the group decided to let the issue of Clarice’s excessive shopping habits die. Sebastian changed the subject by asking, “Well, where do you want to go? We’ve got a little over an hour to kill, and I hate to say it, but Clarice is right. There’s not much of this town left to see.” “Let’s just start walking and maybe we’ll…” Doug broke off in midsentence to stare at something at the end of the block on the opposite side of the street. “What is it, Doug?” Emma asked, looking in the same direction in an effort to see what had caught his attention. “I just thought I saw Mr. Hodges come out of that building down there and go down that alley.” “That’s ridiculous,” Clarice said. “What would Mr. Hodges be doing here?”

“That’s exactly what I was wondering,” Doug said, still looking down the street. Mr. Hodges was the school librarian. He reminded Emma of Count Dracula because he had coal black hair that he combed straight back off his forehead to reveal a prominent widow’s peak. He had a long, pointed nose and dark, almost black eyes. He hardly ever spoke to the students except to chastise them. Emma knew he hadn’t come to Windland on either of the two school buses and could not imagine why he would be here; if it was him Doug had seen. “Let’s go see if we can find him,” Sebastian suggested. Doug needed no further prompting as he was already headed in the direction he’d seen the man. By the time Sebastian had finished speaking, Doug had broken into a full run. Driven by a sense of urgency he didn’t quite understand, Doug ran as fast as his long legs would carry him to the alley he’d seen the man turn down. Sebastian, unable to keep up with Doug, was left behind. When Doug got to the alley, there was no one in sight. The man couldn’t have gotten far, Doug reasoned. Slowing to a walk, he cautiously made his way down the alley. The alley opened into a smaller side street. Doug could see an insurance office directly across the street from the alley. Moving as quietly as he could, Doug tried to listen for the sounds of someone running, but all was silent, except for the squishing sounds of his own tennis shoes. Reaching the end of the alley, Doug prepared to look around the corner, when suddenly, blinding pain exploded inside his skull, and all went black. *** Anxiously, Emma watched Doug and Sebastian run down the street. Looking at Martha, she said, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this. I think we’d better follow them to make sure nothing happens to them.” “I think you’re right. There’s something odd going on here,” Martha replied. As Emma and Martha headed down the street in a jog, they could hear Clarice commenting on how undignified it was to race down a city street and how it almost certainly would cause excessive perspiration on the part of the runner. It was obvious from her comments that Clarice did not intend to follow them. This was verified when half way down the street Emma looked back and saw Clarice, Susie, and Reggie still standing where they had left them. Emma’s heart almost

stopped when they got to the alley. At the end of the alley, she could see Doug lying on the ground, unmoving, with Sebastian leaning over him anxiously calling his name. Fearing the worst, Emma broke into a full run with Martha close behind her. In a few short seconds, they were standing beside Sebastian and Doug. Doug was pale, but to Emma’s immense relief, she could see his chest moving as he breathed. Panting from exertion, Emma knelt beside Doug and without looking up, asked Sebastian what had happened. “I don’t know,” Sebastian answered worriedly. “I got here just before you did.” Just then Doug let out a moan and opened his eyes; his right hand automatically going to the large bump on the back of his head. He looked around and was gradually able to focus on the worried faces of his friends. Still gingerly touching the back of his head, Doug started to get up. “Whoa there, buddy,” Sebastian said as he put a restraining hand on Doug. “You’d better stay put until we’re sure you’re okay.” “Can you tell us what happened?” Martha asked, her concern evident. “I was just coming around the corner of the alley when someone hit me on the back of the head,” Doug said, wincing in pain. “Did you see who it was?” Emma asked. “No, I didn’t get a look at him. The last thing I remember is coming to the end of the alley.” “We’d better get you to a doctor and call the police,” Emma said. “You kids need some help?” asked a voice behind them. They had been so concerned about Doug that they had been oblivious to their surroundings. Startled, they quickly glanced around to see the old man from the bookstore standing in the alley. Doug would have declined any help. After all, they didn’t know whom to trust, but before he could say anything, Martha had blurted out, “He got hit on the back of the head.” The old man considered them all for a moment and then knelt down saying, “Well then, let’s see how bad the damage is.” Before Doug could do anything to prevent it, the old man was gently probing the back of Doug’s skull with his fingers. His touch was surprisingly gentle, and Doug felt himself relaxing a little under the old man’s examination. “You’ve got a pretty good goose egg back there.

Are you experiencing any vision problems or nausea?” When Doug shook his head no, the old man bent closer to look at the pupils of Doug’s eyes. “Follow my finger with your eyes.” Doug did as he was instructed. “Your pupils are normal, and you don’t seem to have any signs of a concussion,” the old man said, satisfied with the results of his brief exam. “Shouldn’t he see a doctor?” Martha asked. “We don’t have a doctor in town,” the old man replied. “We have to go down to Benton if we need medical treatment. I would recommend you see the nurse when you get back to school.” “But we won’t be going back to school until tomorrow morning,” Martha said. The old man considered that for a moment and then said, “Well, I’ve had some experience with this kind of thing, and I can tell you that other than a pretty good headache, your friend’s gonna be okay.” Looking around at their worried faces, the old man could see they still weren’t convinced. “Why don’t you come back to the store with me and I’ll fix you all some hot chocolate; that way I can keep an eye on your friend a while longer.” They all looked around at each other. Not knowing what else to do, they nodded in agreement. With Sebastian and Emma each taking an arm, they helped Doug to his feet and followed the old man back to the bookstore. Emma fretted all the way there. Were they doing the right thing? Could they trust this creepy old man? There was something odd about him. The way he looked at them all the time with that expression like he was weighing them in his mind; testing them almost. Surely, he wouldn’t try anything with the four of them together. What about going to the police; were there any police in this town? Emma hadn’t seen any police cars or a police station. Doug was right. At this point, they couldn’t trust anyone. If Mr. Hodges was the one who attacked Doug, there could be other teachers involved. But involved in what? The questions were endless. Emma began to get a headache herself. When they arrived at the bookstore, the old man took out a set of keys to unlock the door. “You kids were lucky I happened along. I generally close the store at five this time of year. I was just on my way home and happened to look down that alley. Do you have any idea who hit you?” he asked, looking at Doug. “I didn’t see anyone. Before I could look around the corner, the lights went

out,” Doug explained. “Shouldn’t we call the police?” Martha asked. “Don’t have any police in town. There’s never been a need. The town’s small and generally pretty quiet. Hasn’t been a crime around here in as long as I can remember. Most folks around here leave their keys in their cars and wouldn’t think of locking their doors at night. I could call the county sheriff if you want me to.” “No, that won’t be necessary,” Doug said hastily, giving the others a look that said not to argue. None of them did, but Emma would have liked to. They were getting into something dangerous here. “Well, there’s probably not much the sheriff could do anyway. After all, you didn’t get a look at the guy,” the old man said as he stepped behind the counter. “I’ll have you all some hot chocolate in a jiffy. I got a little fridge and a stove in the back room here, so I can fix something to eat without having to leave the store. I’m not a big coffee drinker, so when I crave something hot to drink, I fix me up a cup of hot chocolate. Make yourselves at home, and I’ll be back in a jiffy.” The old man waved a hand indicating a small wooden table with four chairs that sat in the corner by the large front window. Before he disappeared through the door behind the counter, he turned to say, “By the way, my name’s Cal Thrabek.” They could hear Cal rummaging around in the back room for the next few minutes. With nothing else to do, they decided to accept his invitation to make themselves at home and sat down at the little round table. True to his word, within minutes Cal came out carrying a tray loaded with five steaming mugs and a plate of chocolate chip cookies. At their surprised expressions he explained, “Don’t get too excited; these cookies aren’t homemade. I’ve got a sweet tooth, so I always keep goodies on hand.” After handing them their mugs and placing the plate of cookies on the table, Cal grabbed his stool from behind the counter and brought it over to where they were sitting. When he saw that they had yet to sample the hot chocolate he said, “Drink up! I make a pretty good cup of cocoa if I say so myself.” Then he took a sip from his own cup and grabbed a cookie off the plate. Sebastian needed no further encouragement and helped himself to a cookie. The others only hesitated a moment longer and then began to sip from their mugs. Cal was right; the hot chocolate was delicious. After they’d enjoyed the treats for a

few minutes, Cal cleared his throat and asked the question they’d all been dreading. “Now you kids want to tell me who’d be trying to hurt you and why?” They were all silent for a minute as they looked at one another trying to decide just how much to tell Cal and whether or not he could be trusted. Doug finally broke the silence. “We don’t really know. I thought I saw someone I knew go down that alley, so I tried to follow him. You know the rest.” Cal considered them for a moment, and seeing that he would get no more from them on that particular subject, he decided to let it go for the moment. It was obvious they were frightened and didn’t know whom to trust. He was, after all, a virtual stranger to them. Well, at least I can rectify that, he thought to himself. “You kids go to Dinswood Academy, right?” When they nodded in the affirmative, he asked, “How do you like it?” It was as if a dam had broken as they all started talking at once. This was a topic they felt comfortable discussing, and one thing was very clear—these kids really liked Dinswood. As he listened, Cal noticed that none of the comments were negative, and he sensed that these kids would defend their school against any threat. Considering the academy’s strictness, high standards, and somewhat unusual approach, it was surprising. Cal knew that the majority of the students at Dinswood came from rich families, but these kids did not appear to be haughty or spoiled. As they talked with Cal, Emma began to relax. He seemed like a nice man, despite the creepy impression he had given them earlier. She noticed that he was keeping a close eye on Doug, and even asked him from time to time if he was doing okay. Other than a slight headache, Doug said he was doing okay. They talked for a while longer about Dinswood Academy, and then Cal asked them why they were still in Windland. When they explained about the low-water bridge, he nodded his head and said, “Yeah, I should have figured, what with all this rain and more on the way.” Just then Emma happened to glance down at her watch. “Gosh, it’s almost six. We’d better be heading back to the motel,” she said with genuine disappointment. As they were getting up to leave, Cal said, “Well it’s been a pleasure visiting with you kids. Keep an eye on your friend here tonight. It might be a good idea to wake

him up once or twice just in case.” Then looking at Doug, he said, “If you notice any other symptoms, you be sure and tell your teachers.” Doug said that he would. Then they all thanked Cal for his help and for the hot chocolate and cookies. They were just making their way out the door when Cal called after them. “You kids be careful,” and as the door closed behind them, he said, “You may not be the only ones seeking.” They stood on the sidewalk just outside the bookstore and looked at each other in surprise. “Just exactly what did he mean by that?” Sebastian asked. “Do you think he knows about the treasure?” “We don’t even know about the treasure,” Martha said emphasizing the “we.” “After what happened to Doug, I don’t know what to think. We won’t be able to get any answers until we can see what’s in the school library,” Emma said frowning. A rumble of thunder reminded them that they should be heading back to the motel. The sky looked dark and threatening once again. “We’d better hurry up, or we’re going to get wet,” Martha said, picking up her pace. “Wet again, you mean,” Sebastian added as he, too, began to pick up his pace. Emma cast a worried glance at Doug, but he didn’t seem to be having any problems. He happened to see her look and gave her a reassuring smile. They made it to the motel just before the heavens opened up and it began to pour. “I wish it would stop raining,” Sebastian complained. “I wanna get back to school so we can search the school library. What are we gonna do here until bedtime anyway? It’s gonna be so boring!” “Miss Jennings said that she and the Palmers would have something for us to do,” Emma said, starting to get tired of Sebastian’s complaining. When they entered the motel, most of their classmates were already seated in the dining area. Clarice, Susie, and Reggie were motioning for Martha and Emma to come sit at their table. As there were only two chairs left at the table, it was obvious that the invitation did not include Doug or Sebastian. Seeing Emma’s look of indecision, Doug said, “It’s okay. You and Martha go sit with Clarice. Phil and Tom, the guys we room with, have saved us a spot. Besides, I don’t think I could stand listening to Clarice through an entire meal.”

Emma watched for a moment as Doug and Sebastian made their way to a table on the other side of the dining room, and then followed Martha to Clarice’s table. Clarice was just full of questions about what had happened to them after Doug had run off. Martha and Emma were careful not to mention Doug’s bump on the head or their subsequent rescue by Cal. They merely told her that they hadn’t been able to find the man after he’d gone down the alley. As to whether or not it had actually been Mr. Hodges, they couldn’t say for sure one way or the other. Clarice seemed to be satisfied with their answers, but Reggie didn’t look convinced. Although he never questioned them directly, Emma was sure he would share his suspicions with Clarice later when she and Martha weren’t around. *** The motel served them a delicious meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, hot rolls, and apple cobbler for dessert. Emma discovered she was hungry even after the hot chocolate and cookies Cal had given them and dug into her food with gusto. It had been quite an eventful day, and it wasn’t over yet. After the meal, Miss Jennings and Rev. and Mrs. Palmer divided those who wanted to play into two groups, and a hilarious game of charades ensued. After charades, the students were once again divided into teams for a game similar to Jeopardy. Miss Jennings and Mrs. Palmer had spent some time before dinner coming up with challenging questions on a variety of topics. At the end of the game, Emma’s team was tied with Doug’s team. Emma had answered most of the questions for her team, and Doug had done the same for his. The teachers decided to ask one last tiebreaker question. It turned out to be a question about a famous painting. Art was definitely not Emma’s best subject. Hopefully one of her teammates knew something about art, but when Emma looked around, they all just shrugged their shoulders. Martha, however, was on Doug’s team, and art was her favorite subject. She was bound to know the answer. Sure enough, Martha answered the question correctly and Doug’s team won. A bit of good-natured bragging and ribbing followed. Emma knew Doug and Martha wouldn’t let her live her team’s defeat down anytime soon. By the time the game ended it was nine o’clock. Miss Jennings told everyone to start getting ready for bed. Mrs. Palmer had gone down to the general store before

supper and purchased toothbrushes for everyone, along with several tubes of toothpaste. A few at a time, they used the restrooms just off the lounge area to wash their faces and brush their teeth before bed. When they were finished washing up, they were each given a pillow and a blanket and instructed to find a spot to lie down. The boys were to sleep on one side of the lounge and the girls on the other. Emma hoped Sebastian would remember to check on Doug during the night. He seemed just fine, but it wasn’t worth taking any chances. Martha had been strangely quiet since the game had ended. Emma found out why as they stood washing their faces in the restroom. “I think Doug likes you,” Martha said, looking at Emma’s reflection in the mirror. Surprised, Emma didn’t reply immediately. When she thought about it, she and Doug did have a lot in common. That must be why they got along so well. He didn’t like her in the boy-girl sense of liking, Emma reasoned. He was just being nice. She told all of these things to Martha, but in her heart of hearts she hoped Martha was right. Emma took a moment to study her reflection in the mirror. She wasn’t a raving beauty, but her dad had once told her she was pretty. It seemed like ages ago when he’d said that, but she hoped it was still true. She’d always considered her eyes her best feature. They were large and bright green with a fringe of long, dark lashes. She had a smooth, clear complexion with just a smattering of freckles on the bridge of her nose. Her long, honey-colored hair hung down her back in two long braids, which was how she normally wore it. When the braids were undone, it hung down to her waist. All of this was considered without conceit because Emma knew that along with the good was an equal measure of bad. For example, Emma had always felt that her face was too round and her mouth a little too wide. At least her teeth were nice and straight, so she’d been spared the bother of braces. Standing about five feet, four inches tall, she was a little too skinny. Suddenly sensing Martha’s questioning look, Emma ended her self-assessment and hastily brushed her teeth. Heading back out into the lounge, they found a couple of places to lie down on the floor by the fireplace. After everyone had settled down, all the lights were turned off. The logs in the fireplace had burned down to just a few glowing embers, giving off a little light but not enough to disturb the would-be sleepers.

It was a long night for Emma, as too many thoughts kept whirling through her head. Was the man they’d seen Mr. Hodges? If so, what was he doing in town, and why didn’t he want anyone to know? Was there a treasure? And if her thoughts weren’t enough to keep her awake, she had the intermittent rumble of thunder and flash of lightning to contend with. Once during the night, she looked over to where Doug was sleeping but couldn’t make out his features in the dimness. For the hundredth time that day, she hoped he was okay and that Sebastian was checking on him like he was supposed to. Eventually, the storms passed over, and she was able to get to sleep. When she awakened, sunlight was streaming through the large front windows, and everyone was just beginning to stir. In the next hour, blankets and pillows were folded and put away, and everyone was fed a quick breakfast consisting of juice and donuts. As it was Sunday morning, Reverend Palmer gathered all the students around him and led them in a brief devotional. After closing in prayer, he was about to dismiss them to the buses, when a familiar voice asked, “Reverend Palmer, would you please recite Matthew 7:7 for us?” Without looking, Emma knew it was Sebastian who had asked the question. She had to give him points for his cleverness. The four of them had been eager to find out what that particular verse said. It was obvious from his expression that Reverend Palmer was puzzled by the request, but after a moment’s hesitation, he quoted Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” For more information about The Secret of Dinswood

ABOUT THE BOOK Johnny Hunter is a Cheyenne boy growing up on a Montana Reservation in the 1970s. An eighth grader at the local Catholic school, he dreams of winning a college basketball scholarship. But trouble begins when his grandfather, Gray Man, insists Johnny be raised with traditional tribal beliefs. Now Johnny must find the best path in the modern world for himself and his family, without losing himself or his heritage in the process.

Chapter One Johnny Hunter would never forget that cold day in early November when he learned the truth about the secret ceremonies. He had often heard the tribal elders speak of these ceremonial dances, usually in whispers. The old men used strangesounding words like Maheo and Vosta, words that held a magical appeal for the fourteen-year-old Cheyenne. Once he had asked his father about the secret ceremonies. “That’s just a bunch of bull,” his father told him, a hint of anger in his voice. “The only secret dancin’ going on around here is in the minds of those crazy old men. You forget about Cheyenne dancin’ and magic and work on gettin’ good grades and playing basketball. I don’t want to hear you talkin’ about it anymore.” He hadn’t asked his father again. When dealing with Billy Hunter, it was best not to rock the boat. That day had been much like any other on the Cheyenne reservation for Johnny. After classes at St. Andrew Indian School, he had practiced basketball with the eighth grade team, the Chiefs. Like every day after practice, he rode home over rough roads on the ancient yellow school bus, sitting next to his best friend, Richard Amos, as they drove past the other boys’ homes. The homes were much like his: small, made out of concrete blocks or wood, and in a desperate need of paint. Some had broken windows covered with plywood or a sheet of plastic. Most had broken-down cars or pickup trucks rusting away in their yards. The bus stopped by his house and he climbed down the steps, carrying his backpack on one shoulder. He waved goodbye to his friends on the bus, watching it pull away. As he walked up the driveway to his home, taking large strides with his long legs, he heard shouting coming from inside the faded whitewashed concrete block house. The voices belonged to his father and grandfather, and they were arguing again. Johnny laid his backpack on the ground, found his basketball under the bushes near the gravel driveway, and wiped off the mud on his faded jeans. He dribbled the leather ball on the packed dirt under the basket rim. There wasn’t a net on the

hoop and the backboard was warped from the rain, but it worked fine for the young Cheyenne. He faked to one side, jumped in the air, and flipped the basketball cleanly through the rim. Johnny chased after the ball, the wind whipping cold against his neck, lifting his long black hair off his shoulders. He pulled up the collar of his sheepskin jacket and blew on his hands for warmth as he picked up the smooth leather ball. Looking up at the Montana sky with his deep black eyes, he saw dark, heavy clouds, which would probably bring the first real snow of the season to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Johnny felt cold and wanted to go into his house, but he could hear the argument still going on inside. He would wait. Dribbling with his left hand, he bounced the ball into his right hand, fell back, and fired toward the rim; the basketball again dropped through the hoop. As he grabbed the ball, the front door flew open and his grandfather stomped out. Gray Man was over seventy years old, but still as strong as most Cheyenne half his age. He slammed the door shut behind him. Just as quickly, the wooden door flew open and Johnny’s father, Billy “Walking Bear” Hunter, stepped outside into the frigid evening air. He was wearing jeans and a faded yellow T-shirt. His black hair was cut short in a flattop. He held the remains of a pint whiskey bottle in his hands. Johnny ran to step between them. Although he was only fourteen, Johnny, at just under six feet tall, was already taller than his father. This time he thought they might actually come to blows. “Don’t hit him, Dad!” Johnny shouted. “Get out of the way,” his father said. Billy’s voice sounded harsh, rough. “I ain’t goin’ to hit the old buzzard. He’s just got to me today with his bull crap about the old days. I’m sick of hearing it.” Gray Man stepped forward until just six inches separated the two. He raised his hand and brushed back his long, gray hair. “You act like there were never days when our people lived free and wild on these plains. Before the white man came, we were a great…” “Before the white man,” Billy interrupted. “Hell, that’s ancient history. It’s the 1970s, not the 1870s. All we got is now, today, and that means dealing with the white man.” Billy took a drink from the bottle and wiped his mouth on his arm. “If we don’t believe in our ancestors, we’ll end up just like the whites,” Gray

Man said. His dark eyes burned. He was a big man with a full face and a large nose surrounded by leather-like skin. “The white people have money and fancy houses, but they are not happy.” “I’d like to be unhappy like they are,” Billy said. “Things ain’t like they used to be and there ain’t no way to stop the wind from blowin’. We’ve got to act like the whites to make it in the world today.” “You are wrong,” the old man said, his voice deep and firm. “The Cheyenne can control their own destiny. The Great Spirit has always helped us in the past, and he will help us to survive as a proud people in the future. “This boy,” Gray Man continued, pointing to Johnny, “this boy is the future of the Cheyenne. He must be taught the ancient ways and beliefs.” Billy stuck his finger in Gray Man’s chest. “You better never teach my son that ancient mumbo-jumbo. He’s goin’ to make good in the white world. If he gets good grades and works hard enough on his basketball, he’ll win a scholarship and get away from this damn reservation forever.” “Dad, please,” Johnny said, pulling his father’s arm. “Don’t yell anymore. It just makes you madder.” But it was Gray Man who stepped back. “Johnny may leave here, Billy, and make a lot of money in the white world, but he won’t be happy. Money is a white man’s invention, and the Cheyenne don’t need it. All a Cheyenne needs is the land to be happy.” Gray Man turned and marched around the low house to the stable. He entered the small, wood building, quickly led a brown mare out of her stall, and climbed on the horse’s back. Without a saddle, his long legs hung nearly to the ground. Kneeing the mare, Wakah, in the sides, he raced past Johnny and Billy. “Aiee! Hahu!” he shouted. “I am Cheyenne!” In spite of himself, Johnny smiled. It upset him when his father argued with Gray Man, but he couldn’t help admiring the old man for sticking to his guns. Gray Man would not change. “What’re you smiling at?” his father asked, his voice raspy. Johnny felt the hair on the back of his neck pop up. “Nothing, Dad, just smiling.” He looked at the ground.

“Don’t you be taking that old man’s side. He’s all wet about the Cheyenne ways, and you stay out of his way when he’s talking about the old days. Ya hear me?” “Sure, I hear you.” His voice cracked as he spoke. The cabin door opened. “Johnny, come in now. Supper’s getting cold,” his mother said. She stood in the doorway, holding it halfway open. “What about me?” Billy asked. “Is my supper ready?” Mrs. Hunter glared at her husband and disappeared inside, hastily pulling the door shut behind her. Johnny picked up his backpack and followed his father into the house, which was warm and smelled of rabbit stew and whiskey. Billy sat down at the plain wooden table, lit only by a single light bulb hanging above them. He poured another drink into his tin cup and slid the bourbon bottle under his chair. Billy was heavyset, his once-hard stomach now hanging over his belt. His face was pockmarked, distinguished by a hawk-like nose. He had never been a handsome man, but the years and whiskey were making him old before his time. His short black hair was speckled with gray. Johnny hung his coat on a hook above the cot that served as his bed. The room was small and crowded by the fact that Gray Man slept on another bunk. Gray Man had lived there since his wife, Johnny’s grandmother, died while Johnny was still a small boy. There was a single chest of drawers and a small desk with a lamp where he did his homework. He walked back to the kitchen, washed his hands in the sink, and sat down. Mrs. Hunter picked up the steaming black kettle with a gingham rag and set it down on the table. “There,” she said, glaring at Billy, “serve yourself.” She returned to the wood burning stove and stuffed small branches into it. When it was filled, she banged the iron door shut. “Come on, Minatare, don’t stay mad at me. Come and eat. I didn’t start the fight with the old man tonight.” When Minatare did not answer, Billy swallowed the rest of his whiskey. “Go on, Hunter. Go talk to her. She’ll listen to you.” Whenever his father called him Hunter, the boy knew it was a serious favor he asked. Although his grandfather always called him Hunter, his father usually stuck

with his Christian name of Johnny. “Can I get you some firewood, Mom?” Johnny asked her. “No, I don’t need any more just now. Sit down and eat your supper before it gets cold,” she said. Her eyes looked very tired to him. She was not yet forty, but she looked much older; her skin wrinkled from too many hours gardening in the sun, and her hair was streaked with white. She washed a few dishes in the sink. “I can’t eat when you two are mad at each other,” he said. She dried her hands and patted his face. “You’re a good boy, Johnny. Why don’t you go after your grandfather and I’ll keep supper warm for the both of you? By the time you return, we’ll have made up.” Johnny smiled. “Sure, Mom. I haven’t had a chance to ride my pony all week.” The boy slid on his sheepskin jacket and wrapped a blue scarf around his neck. He hugged his mother and said, “So long, Dad.” Without looking up from the table, his father waved. As Johnny went out the door, he saw his father reach below his chair and pull out the whiskey bottle. It made him feel sad. As he walked to the small corral, Johnny’s horse greeted him with a mighty trot. Thunder was a mustang, small in size but a beautiful brown and white pinto. The horse stretched his neck over the fence rail and nuzzled his face in the boy’s chest. “Hey, Thunder, you glad to see me? Come on, get out of there. We’ve got to go find grandfather again.” Johnny stroked the horse’s face and rubbed his ears. Billy’s horse, Little Girl, raised her ears and pushed against the stall rail. “Sorry, Girl. Not this time. I know dad doesn’t ride you much anymore. I’ll try to take you out sometime later this week.” He patted her head. Johnny opened the door, slipped the old leather reins over Thunder’s head, and climbed on the horse’s bare back. The pony danced to one side and then galloped through the gate and down the driveway toward the Badgers’ place. Gray Man usually went there to talk to his friend, Logan, whenever he was angry or upset. The Badgers, both well into their eighties, were a childless couple who lived about a mile from the Hunters in a wooden one-room house that was built by Logan Badger for his bride long ago. They eked out a meager living by raising a small garden, some chickens, and by trapping muskrats in the reservation streams.

Johnny’s family often shared their food with them. Mrs. Badger was in the yard, feeding her chickens when Johnny rode in. She was wearing a faded red scarf, a black coat, and a pair of black rubber boots. “Hello, Johnny,” she waved to him. She tossed another handful of corn on the ground where several white chickens pecked away. “Would you come in for some mint tea? You look cold sitting up there.” “Not today, Mrs. Badger. I have to find my grandfather and bring him home. Is he with Logan?” “Sure is. They rode off together into Spirit Canyon to do the old dances.” She pointed a bony finger toward the canyon. Johnny sat on his horse and watched the old woman. Surely she was kidding him. “C’mon, Mrs. Badger, no one does the old dances except when the tourists come in the summer.” She grinned a nearly toothless grin. “I’ve said all that I wish to say. What you believe is your business. It’s getting cold out here. Are you sure you won’t come in for tea?” She pulled her big wool coat tighter around her thin neck. “Can’t do it. And I’m really not cold. I gotta go find Gray Man and get him home for supper.” “Okay, maybe next time.” She smiled again, her face wrinkled deeply but her eyes bright. “When you reach the canyon, go in quietly. You may just get a big surprise.” She walked across the porch into the shack, pulling the old door closed behind her. An orange cat tried to get in with her, but she pushed it out with her foot. Johnny leaned forward and rubbed his horse’s neck. “What do you think Mrs. Badger is trying to tell us?” he asked. “Do you think she really knows something?” He gently tapped the mustang with his knees. “C’mon, Thunder, we better get to Spirit Canyon quickly. It’ll be dark soon and then we might never find those two old men.”

Chapter Two Many years ago, when the Cheyenne were still free to roam wherever they wanted, a large rockslide had blocked the natural entrance to Spirit Canyon. The only way into the hidden canyon was a twisting, narrow trail that was barely wide enough for a man on a horse. The trail cut its way through many layers of rock as the colors changed from a dull gray to a dark red near the bottom of the valley. A river long ago had worn the canyon walls deep and smooth, and the Cheyenne had come to this sacred place for many winters to fast and worship their gods. Johnny let Thunder find his way along the trail, a trail they had been on before. He felt uneasy whenever he rode into Spirit Canyon, even in broad daylight. There were so many bends and twists on the path that it was impossible to see ten yards ahead, and the wind howled constantly as it whipped through the pines. “I’ll be glad when we get there,” he said to his horse. “This place is creepy. Gray Man always says that the wind carries the voices of all the murdered Cheyenne, calling for revenge against the white man.” They came round a huge boulder into the bottom of the canyon. Under the sheer wall on the east side, Johnny saw smoke and light from a big fire. He heard drums and singing, but the rocks formed a natural wall in a half circle from the cliffs and prevented him from seeing his grandfather. “Maybe Mrs. Badger knows what she’s talking about,” he whispered to Thunder. He slid easily off the pinto horse and dropped the reins. “You stay here while I sneak over there and see what’s going on.” The horse wandered off and began cropping the brown grass. Johnny crouched down and ran across the field to the rocks, quickly climbing over the cold boulders. He crawled to the top and stopped. His eyes opened wide when he looked below him. Dancing in a great circle around a roaring fire were over fifty Cheyenne, most of them dressed in fringed sheepskin shirts. Their faces were painted red and white, and everyone wore feathers or beads. Three drummers pounded the primitive beat while they chanted the ancient songs of the Cheyenne. The fire leapt higher and

higher as the dancers swirled around in the circle, waving hatchets and spears to Maheo. There were faces that were familiar to Johnny, yet they looked different in paint and feathers. He didn’t understand the meaning of the dance, but the drum beating and the chanting filled him with a strange feeling that united him with the Cheyenne dancers. It was as if he had always been a part of these ceremonies. His people danced as they had for a thousand years. The drums pounded faster, building speed like a racing locomotive, until they suddenly stopped. The dancers sat down as if they had received a silent command from their leader. Gray Man stood alone by the fire. The old man wore a white buffalo robe and a fur hat with two great buffalo horns sticking out on both sides. He spread his hands to the night sky. “Thank you, Maheo, for bringing all these Cheyenne people to our campfire on this cold night,” he called out in a loud chant, his voice echoing down the canyon. “Our numbers grow with the passing of each moon. The young people are coming more and more. I am old, a son of yesterday, but these young ones are our future. They are the sons of tomorrow. Someday they will be the leaders of the tribe. We pray to you, Maheo, the Great Spirit, and to the people in the Star Country to guide us through these difficult times.” Gray Man dropped his arms to his side. Logan Badger slowly walked through the crowd. In spite of the cold, Logan was not wearing a shirt as he approached Gray Man. “Are you ready?” “Yes, Logan, bring the child to me,” Gray Man said. Logan waved his hand to the back of the crowd and two Cheyenne men, wearing their hair in braids, strode forward, carrying a small girl with black hair on a stretcher. Her brother walked next to the litter, holding the girl’s hand. Setting the stretcher beside the fire, the two braves retreated into the crowd. Johnny watched as his grandfather stood over the girl. “What the heck’s going on?” he wondered, trying to see the girl’s face from the rocks. “What is her name?” Gray Man asked the boy. “Susan,” the boy said, quietly. “No, her Cheyenne name.” “Naka.”

“Ah, Naka, the she-bear, a good name. How long has she been sick?” Gray Man placed his wrinkled hands on the girl’s forehead. “For about two months, Gray Man. She got sick on her seventh birthday back in September, and she hasn’t been well since then. She can’t eat and she’s real weak, but the agency doctor says he can’t find anything wrong with her. Mom’s worrying herself sick, too.” The boy’s eyes were misty, wet with tears. “Do your parents know you have brought her to me?” Gray Man asked. “Mom does,” the boy said, his voice cracking slightly. “Dad says your medicine is a bunch of crap, but Mom got my uncles to bring us here anyway.” Gray Man patted the youth’s head with his large hands. “Go and sit with your uncles. I will do what I can to heal Naka.” Kneeling next to the girl, Gray Man dipped his fingers into two small clay pots. Then, as he painted a red and yellow stripe down the girl’s face, he began chanting words that Johnny had never heard before. Jeez, Johnny thought, Grandfather’s a medicine man. All this time living with him and I never knew it. Gray Man stood over the girl and covered her with the white buffalo robe. He picked up a small drum decorated with large white and brown feathers. He started pounding on the drum while he slowly danced in a circle around the stretcher. Moving near the center, the medicine chief threw sand-like powder into the fire, which flared up in a large fireball that lit the sides of the canyon. Gray Man then picked up a turtle shell rattle and knelt down again. Shaking the rattle over the sick child, he shouted to the stars. “Mistah, be gone! Leave this little one and go back to the depths of the earth that is your home. By the power of Vosta, the sacred white buffalo, I command you to leave the girl.” The three drummers started pounding the big drums again, and Gray Man jumped up and resumed his dancing. He slowly circled the sick girl, chanting to each of the four directions. When he faced east again, he threw more powder into the fire, and once more, it flashed brightly against the canyon walls. As the drumbeat slowed down, Gray Man started to stagger. The old man stepped backward and fell to the ground. His body grew stiff, jerking slightly as his eyes

rolled back in his head, only the whites visible. The drums stopped but no one moved to help him. “Grandfather!” Johnny shouted, standing up on the rocks. “What’s wrong?” He slid down the boulders and landed on his feet on the ground, quickly running through the crowd. He felt the blood rising in his face. “What’s the matter with everybody?” Johnny yelled. “Somebody help him. He’s had a heart attack or something worse.” None of the Cheyenne moved. Johnny pushed through the crowd and bent over Gray Man. “Grandfather, can you hear me? It’s Hunter.” He felt a strong hand on his shoulder, pulling him away. “Don’t worry. He is okay,” Logan whispered to him in a hoarse voice. He held Johnny close to him. “Gray Man is in the spirit world now, but he is fine. He will return to us quickly.” As soon as Logan stopped speaking, Gray Man suddenly sat upright, spread his arms, and fell back on the dirt. Rolling over on his stomach, his breathing relaxed and he open his eyes. The old man struggled to his feet. His face showed no surprise when he saw Johnny. He looked past him for the sick girl’s brother. “Come,” Gray Man called, waving to the boy, “your sister is well. In my vision, I saw the evil monster Mistah chased from her body by the sacred buffalo Vosta. She is no longer sick.” The crowd, which had been watching Gray Man intently, turned to the litter. A buzz of excited voices raced through the Cheyenne. The girl sat up and looked around, her dark eyes opened wide. She pulled her blanket over her shoulders and smiled at her brother. “It’s okay, Naka,” he said. “We brought you here so that the medicine of Gray Man would cure you.” She smiled weakly and brushed her tangled black hair from her eyes. “I—I’m so hungry. Is there anything to eat?” The Cheyenne crowd laughed and closed in around Gray Man, shaking his hand and patting him on the back. Johnny’s grandfather clasped their arms and laughed with them. “Enough of this,” he shouted, raising his hand. “Let’s dance to show Maheo how grateful we are for his blessings.”

The drums started again, and the Cheyenne began dancing, shouting, and whooping as they shuffled around the fire. Johnny watched the girl, her brother, and their uncles walk through the dancers toward the canyon entrance, knowing he had seen her cured but still not believing his eyes. Gray Man put his hand on Hunter’s shoulder. “What are you doing here?” “Mom sent me after you for supper,” he said, “but I can see you wouldn’t have come home anyway. Do you come here a lot?” “Often enough,” Gray Man said. “Will you tell your father what you saw? He will be very angry.” “Angry ain’t the word for it. If he found out I stayed and watched this dance, he’d pound my tail good for me. No, I don’t think I’ll tell him. Besides, he wouldn’t believe you cured a sick girl anyway.” “Do you believe I cured her?” Gray Man asked. As he spoke, the gray in his eyes reflected the blazing fire. Johnny was not sure if the fire was merely a reflection. “I believe it, I guess, but I sure don’t understand it. How can shaking a rattle and singing a song make someone well? It doesn’t make sense.” Gray Man frowned at him. “It makes sense to these Cheyenne.” He waved his arm across the dancers. “The spirit world cured her because these people believe in our old way of life. Perhaps someday you too will believe.” “I’d like to. You sure have sold all these people on your medicine.” “It would make my heart soar if my only grandson believed in me and the ancient Cheyenne ways. But it grows late. You had better go home now, Little Hunter, and tell your parents that you couldn’t find me.” Johnny brushed the hair back out of his eyes and crossed his arms in front of him. “I’ll go if you want me to, but what I’d really like to do is try dancing a little bit. Is that okay?” he asked. He was already bouncing his feet to the drumbeat. “I won’t stay long.” Gray Man’s eyes shone through the deep wrinkles on his face as he broke into a grin that covered his entire face. “Go dance, Hunter,” he said, placing both hands on his grandson’s shoulders, “and may the bones of our fathers fill your heart with Cheyenne spirit from the past.” Johnny ran into the dancing circle and let the beat of the drums flow into him.

Feeling strange at first, he soon forgot about everything but the drums and chants, and he danced around the fire. He found himself next to another young Cheyenne whose hair was braided with two eagle feathers. The boy’s face was painted orange. “Good to see you here, Johnny,” the boy finally said in a voice that sounded familiar. Johnny looked closer at him. “I don’t believe my eyes,” he shouted. “It’s Richard Amos!”

Chapter Three The next morning Johnny woke up with a smile, remembering the night before when he danced the old dances with his grandfather and, especially, saw Richard Amos. He couldn’t believe that so many of the Northern Cheyenne came to the ceremony to chant the old songs and dance to them. He could still feel the excitement of that unbelievable night. He did feel a little regret for telling his parents he didn’t find Gray Man. Minatare had been worried because he was gone for a long time. Billy Hunter had fallen asleep long before his return. Johnny always slept in on Saturday mornings, so he rolled over and pulled the blanket over his shoulders, hoping to fall back to sleep. But the bright glare shining through his window made it hard to sleep. He finally crawled out of bed and opened the shade. A winter wonderland greeted him. A heavy snow had fallen during night. The sun reflected off the whiteness of the snow, and ice covered the window. He drew a smiling face on the windows, the warmth of his fingers melting the ice. He dressed quickly, used the bathroom, and walked into the kitchen. “Good morning, Mom.” He sat down at the table. “Dad still sleeping?” Minatare shook her head, frowning. “Yeah, he fell asleep watching the TV and was barely able to get up and go to bed.” She took a pause. “He finished that bottle of whiskey.” She placed a steaming bowl of oatmeal and a cold glass of milk on the table in front of Johnny. “Thanks, Mom. Dad’s drinking worries me. It’s bad enough when he drinks here, but when he drives home from Rosie’s Bar, it scares me even more.” “I know,” she said. “I’ve asked him hundreds of times to stop going off the reservation to drink at the bar, but he just gets mad at me. So I quit asking.” Minatare poured hot water over a tea bag and sat down next to Johnny. She squeezed his hand. “What are you up to today?” Johnny ate a spoonful of oatmeal before answering. “Sled riding. I’m going to get Richard and Bobbie to go. Richard’s got an old truck inner tube and a Flexible Flyer sled. It should be a great day for some fun in the snow.”

“Where you going?” “Old Man’s Hill. It’s a long, fast ride to the bottom. That truck tube will be fun and throw us all over the place.” “Isn’t there another name for that hill?” Johnny smiled. “Yeah, Mom, it’s called Dead Man’s Hill.” Minatare wrinkled her brow. “You be extra careful. There’s a big basketball game next week, and you won’t be able to play if you’re hurt.” “Don’t worry, Mom,” He stood up, kissed her on the top of her head, and then placed his bowl and glass in the sink. Johnny dressed quickly, pulling on two pair of pants and his goulashes, snapping closed the metal clasps. He put on his sheepskin jacket and pulled a cap down over his ears and walked out of his room to his mother, who was at the sink washing dishes. “Bye, Mom.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be careful.” She turned and hugged him. “Don’t do anything foolish.” The cold air welcomed him as he opened the cabin door; the bright sun hit the snow and made him squint. He entered the horse shed. Using a pitchfork, he threw hay into the horses’ stalls. While Thunder ate, Johnny brushed his horse’s long winter coat. Horsehair flew everywhere, the sunshine coming in through the windows making them shine and flutter as he finished brushing. “You ready, boy?” Thunder pushed his head over the gate and snorted as Johnny pulled the bridle off a nail. He slid it easily over the horse’s head and into his mouth. Opening the creaking gate, he walked Thunder out of the shed and mounted him without a saddle. Leaning down so his face was next to Thunder’s ear, he whispered, “C’mon Thunder, let’s go have some fun.” Thunder trotted briskly down the snow-covered driveway and automatically turned up the road toward the Amos house. Despite the cold, Johnny loved every minute of the short trip to Richard’s. Richard opened the front door and waved. “I thought you might be coming.

While I get more clothes on, why don’t you get our horse and hook her up to the old hay wagon. We’ll need it to carry the inner tube and sled. I filled it with air last week, hoping for a big snow.” His breath clouded up as he spoke. “Can do, “Johnny answered. The gray horse, named Maggie, had pulled the wagon many times, and Johnny quickly got reins on her. In a few minutes, Richard came out and they threw the truck inner tube and sled in the wagon bed. “Let’s go get Bobbie. I called him and he said he’ll go.” “Great!” Johnny shouted. “He can ride in the wagon with you. I’m riding Thunder. Does Bobbie know about the Cheyenne dancing going on?” “He’s never been there and none of his family comes. I hear his father is like your dad. Pretty much walk the white man’s road.” “Okay. I guess it’s best not to say anything about last night.” “I agree,” Richard said. He climbed in the wagon and drove down the driveway to the road. Mrs. Amos stood in the front door, a shawl wrapped around her shoulders. “You boys be careful,” she hollered as they rode past her. Richard waved to his mother, and the two young Cheyenne headed slowly toward Bobbie’s house. After picking up Bobbie, they made their way on the snow-covered road until they reached Dead Man’s Hill. It loomed above them, and they were happy to see no one else there. Johnny slid off Thunder’s back and tied him to the rusted wagon wheels with a long rope so he could find grass under the snow. “Let’s go,” Richard shouted, and they began the long, difficult climb to the hilltop. Johnny and Bobbie carried the inner tube and Richard drug the sled behind him. Huffing and puffing by the time they got to the top, they sat down on the tube and rested. The hill was a good hundred yards long and would get faster the more times they slid down it. The sled kept sinking in the new snow, so they all climbed onto the inner tube, pushed it to get it started, and quickly raced down the hill. The cold wind whipped their faces red, but Johnny and his friends laughed all the way down. They bounced wildly as the tube picked up speed and, on a big rise, Richard got tossed off. The two remaining boys laughed even harder, and the truck tube came to a rest near their wagon. Richard stood up, ran down the hill, and fell in the snow next to

them. Snow covered him from head to toe. “That was great!” he shouted. “Let’s go again!” They dragged the tube slowly up the hill until they reached the top, where they collapsed in the snow. They were breathing hard and clapping their hands together for warmth. Bobbie climbed onto the inner tube, followed by Richard, and Johnny pushed them until it started to slide on its own. Johnny jumped on, pulling on Richard and wrapping his arms around his friends as they sped to the hill’s bottom once again. When the inner tube slowed and finally stopped, they fell off into the snow, still laughing and shouting. By the third time down the hill the snow was packed tightly, and they had to dive off before it crashed into the wagon. Soon they were able to use the sled. They took turns riding it and they raced against the giant tube. The two boys on the inner tube always won. The winter sun rose higher in the sky, and they took a longer time before climbing the hill for another ride. “I’m getting hungry,” Bobbie said. “And I’m getting cold,” Richard shouted through his gloves. “One more time?” Johnny said. “Then we can go home. Do you think your mom will have soup waiting for us, Richard?” “Without a doubt.” Slowly, they trudged up the hill and sat and rested for a few minutes. “Let’s all go in the tube,” Bobbie said. “It’ll be faster and we can pull the sled behind us.” The three Cheyenne boys once again flew down the hill, faster than ever, and they yelled and hooted all the way. As the tube neared the wagon, they were going much too fast to stop without hitting it. “Jump!” Johnny shouted and they rolled off the tube into the snow. They watched as the inner tube slammed into the wagon and stopped. The sled continued on a wild ride and almost hit Thunder, who scrambled to get out of the way. It finally stopped about twenty feet later, coming to rest against a small mound. “Wow!” Richard shouted. “That was the most fun yet.” Still laughing, Bobbie and Richard walked toward the wagon, and Johnny ploughed his way through the

deep snow to Thunder. “You okay, boy?” He patted his horse on the neck and mane and reached to grab the long rope. His eye caught sight of something sticking out of the small mound next to Thunder. A frozen hand, black and withered, stuck out of the snow. Johnny walked over to the arm and knelt down. He brushed the snow away to reveal a plaid shirt and a handmade bead bracelet. He trembled. “Richard! Bobbie!” he shouted. “Come over here quick.” The two boys looked at each other, shrugging their shoulders. “What is it?” Bobbie shouted. “Just get over here! You guys got to see this.” Richard and Bobbie ran as quickly as they could through the heavy snow. Johnny stopped them short of the frozen hand by spreading his arms to block them. When they stopped, he pointed to the arm sticking out of the snow. “Holy shit!” Richard shouted. “What is that?” “It’s an arm, you idiot.” “I know. I know. It’s just unbelievable.” Johnny walked around to the other side of the snow mound. He brushed more snow off the arm. “What do you think we should do?” Both his friends looked at each other, shaking their heads and shrugging their shoulders. “I don’t know,” Richard said. “We have to call the BIA, I guess.” “I know that, but do we just let him lie there? Maybe the coyotes will find the body and start eating him.” All three of them slowly walked around the arm, bending down to get a closer look. “What do you think happened to him?” Bobbie asked. Johnny thought about the question for a minute. “I don’t know, but I’m guessing whiskey is involved. He probably got so drunk he fell down and went to sleep. Then he froze to death last night.” Johnny looked at Richard, who had tears in his eyes. “Sorry, Richard.” “It’s okay. It just reminded me of my dad. He died from alcohol poisoning when I was four. I don’t really remember him much.” “I wonder who he was,” Bobbie said, bringing the attention back to the body.

“My guess is a guy they called Moody. He slept in the church sometimes, and he was drunk every time I saw him. Father Shannon used to give him food for doing some work around the school and church. Mostly just cleanup work.” “I know who you mean,” Richard said. “He asked me and mom for money some Sundays. Poor as we are, she always gave him what little change she had.” “So, what do we do now?” Bobbie asked. “We can’t leave him here, now that we think we know who it is. I say we put him in the wagon and take him to the BIA. I don’t want his body to be out here in the cold any longer,” Richard said. “But we could get in trouble with the BIA if we move the body,” Bobbie retorted. “They might get mad at us for messing with a body.” “I don’t care,” Richard said. “I’ll dig him out alone if you don’t want to help. What do you think, Johnny?” “I don’t want to leave him here either. Like I said, animals might start chewing on his arm. C’mon, Bobbie, it will be like an adventure in a book.” Bobbie smiled. “Well, it is kind of exciting—like we’re on a big adventure. Okay, let’s dig him up.” Using their gloved hands, the three Cheyenne boys began digging through the soft snow. In a few minutes, the top half of the body was visible. The dead man wore faded jeans, cowboy boots, and the plaid shirt Johnny had seen earlier. He wore a tattered scarf, and around his head was an old beaded headband. His right hand gripped an empty whiskey bottle. They stopped to rest, their breath hanging in the air like little clouds. Beads of perspiration formed on their foreheads. “Is it Moody?” Johnny asked. “It’s kind of hard to tell. His face is all black and his mouth is frozen open, but I’m pretty sure it’s him. That’s how he always dressed. I never saw him with a coat on. It might be all he had to wear.” Richard tried to close Moody’s mouth but it was immobile. “I think it’s him for sure.” He stood up. “I’ll go get the wagon.” “Wait,” Johnny said. “Look at him lying there in the snow. What does that remind you of? Think about our history classes.”

The two boys walked around the body a few times, trying to see what Johnny saw. “I don’t know,” Bobbie said. “He looks like a dead Indian.” “What about the massacre at Wounded Knee?” Johnny asked. “He looks like the picture of the Lakota, Big Foot, frozen in place. His one arm sticks up, and if he had that scarf on his head, it would look exactly like Wounded Knee.” “You’re right,” Richard said. “I didn’t see it until you pointed it out.” Bobbie nodded his head in agreement. “It’s too bad we don’t have a camera. It makes me feel sad, not just for Moody but for everyone who died at Wounded Knee” They stood silently for a couple of minutes, not sure what to do next. Finally Richard spoke: “I’m still in favor of not leaving him here any longer and taking him to the BIA.” “Me too,” Johnny said. “Go get the wagon.” Richard walked to the hay wagon, climbed up the wheel, and sat on the wooden seat. He tugged on the reins to turn Maggie around, and they quickly reached the body, where he climbed down. “I hope we don’t break off an arm or leg when we pick him up. Let’s be careful,” Johnny said. He put his hands under Moody’s head while Richard and Bobbie lifted his body. “Even frozen, he doesn’t weigh much,” Bobbie said. They walked slowly through the snow, like pallbearers at a funeral. When they reached the wagon Johnny climbed in the back, still holding Moody’s head. Gently, they slid the body onto the wagon bed. Richard pulled an old horse blanket from under the seat and covered the stiff body. “I’ll ride back here,” Johnny said, “to make sure he doesn’t fall out.” He climbed down from the wagon, grabbed Thunder’s reins, and tied the horse to the back of the wagon. He then sat down in the back. “We can get the truck tube and sled on the way back from the BIA.” Bobbie and Richard climbed up on the wagon’s seat and Richard gently shook the reins. Maggie pulled them back onto the snow-covered road, and they slowly headed to the Northern Cheyenne Bureau of Indian Affairs office. An hour later, they rode into Lame Deer and the parking lot of the BIA offices.

It had been slow going on the unplowed roads and they were all freezing. The wagon came to a stop in front of the office door. Bobbie and Richard jumped down and ran toward the building. “C’mon, Johnny, let’s get inside and warm up,” Richard said. “I’m about frozen to death.” “You guys go ahead. I’ll stay here with Moody.” He wrapped his arms around himself. In a few minutes, the door opened and BIA police officer Joe Eagleclaw walked quickly to the wagon, followed by the two boys. He stood just under six feet tall, and wore a long, black pony tail that hung out of his police hat. Stocky but muscular, he filled out the dark blue police uniform. “Hey Johnny,” he said. “Jump out of there and let me get a good look at the body.” “We think it’s a guy called Moody,” Johnny said. “He had a whiskey bottle frozen in his hand. It fell out on the way here.” He stomped his feet on the ground for warmth when he got off the wagon. Officer Eagleclaw climbed onto the wagon bed and knelt down next to the body. He lifted the horse blanket and slid it to the side. “Yep, that’s Moody Johnson, all right. He’s been an overnight guest many times in our jail cell. He had a bad problem with whiskey. We often picked him up drunk and let him sleep it off in one of our cells.” He looked closely at the body. “No signs of violence that I can see. We’ll get an autopsy and that will tell us how he died. “Where’d you find him?” “At the bottom of Dead Man’s Hill. We were sled riding.” “I used to sled ride myself there when I was a kid.” He turned to face Johnny. “Okay, for now, go into my office and get warm while I take some pictures. I’ll be in shortly, and I’ll call the coroner to come get the body. Then you can tell me everything that happened and why you didn’t leave the body where you found it.” He smiled at the three boys. “Can I have one of the pictures after this is all done? He reminds me of Big Foot the way he’s frozen there.” Joe Eagleclaw looked at Johnny, shaking his head. “Who’s Big Foot? I don’t know any Cheyenne or Crow with that name and I know most everyone on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.”

“He’s not a Cheyenne,” Johnny answered. “Big Foot was a Lakota and he was killed at Wounded Knee a long time ago. If you look up the battle of Wounded Knee, the picture of Big Foot is in the history books and you’ll see what I mean.” “I will,” Joe answered. “I think it’s great that you know so much about our Native American history. Now, get inside and warm up. Your friends are already in there. I’ll be done here in a few minutes.” Johnny walked into the BIA building and then into the police department’s office. The aroma of coffee greeted him as he entered the room. He was disappointed when he saw the empty coffee carafe. The other boys sat in the warm office, drinking the last of the coffee from the police officer’s coffee maker. “You didn’t save me any coffee?” Bobbie jumped up out of his chair. “Sorry,” he said as he finished his coffee. “C’mon, we’ll make some more. It brews a pot of coffee in a couple of minutes.” “Good, “Johnny said, “I could sure use some hot coffee.” He looked at the strange coffee maker. “What is this thing? I’ve never seen anything like it.” “It’s a Mr. Coffee,” Bobbie said. “I’ve seen it on television. My mom wants one.” “Then come help me. How’s it work?” “You put the coffee in a filter in here and pour water in the top. It does the rest.” He moved his hands around the white coffee maker to show Johnny how it was done. “That sounds pretty easy. See if you can find a can of coffee Richard, and I’ll get some fresh water.” Richard found an open can of Folgers in a cabinet and new filters, too. He put a clean filter in the maker and then poured in some ground coffee. “Think that’s enough?” “I think so,” Bobbie said. “What do you think, Johnny?” Johnny returned from the hall with a pot of fresh water. He looked into the filter. “Just about perfect, I’d say.” He poured in the water and flicked on the switch. In a minute, the water started boiling and began to drip into the filter. Soon, hot brown liquid flowed into the carafe, filling the room with the aroma of coffee. They all smiled at their success. In a few minutes, they were all drinking the best

coffee they had ever had. Johnny took his mug of coffee and sat in the policeman’s chair. He sipped at the hot java and sank deeper into the chair. He felt the warmth slowly return to his body. “Much better,” he said. “It does taste pretty good.” “Do you think we’re in big trouble?” Richard asked. “Joe didn’t seem too mad at us for moving the body.” “I guess we’ll soon find out.” The office door opened and Officer Eagleclaw walked into the room. He smiled at the boys drinking his coffee. He found a mug, blew out the dust, and filled it, once again emptying the carafe. “That’s good coffee,” he said. “Who figured out how to use my new Mr. Coffee?” “We all did,” Richard said. “Well, make another pot while I call the coroner.” He shooed Johnny out of his chair and sat down, sinking into the brown leather. By the time the police officer hung up the black phone, a new batch of coffee started dripping into the carafe. He refilled his mug and sat down. “The coroner will be here in fifteen minutes or so. “Now, tell me everything that happened this morning.” He took a small pad out of his uniform pocket and made notes as the boys relayed the events that took place on Dead Man’s Hill. When they finished a somewhat disjointed description of the morning on the hill, Eagleclaw again smiled at them. He took his time reading his notes and put down the pad. “Okay, boys. You painted a pretty good picture. You did most everything right but I do have a few questions. Number one is of course, why did you move the body? It would have been much better to leave it where you found it.” They looked at each other until Richard tapped Johnny on his shoulder. “You tell him, Johnny.” Johnny nervously cleared his throat before he spoke. “Well, Richard and me worried that a coyote or bear or something would start eating his arm. And, if there was a bunch of coyotes, they might drag Moody off into the trees and he might never be found. “Besides, even though he was dead, it seemed cruel to leave him out there frozen

in the snow.” The policeman picked up his pad and made a few more notes. “Those are good reasons,” he said. “But, if Moody had been murdered, you boys would be guilty of destroying a crime scene. It would have been better to leave him there and one of you come get me or have your mom call me. “But, I’m sure Moody just froze to death and the autopsy will show that’s the case.” Once again he smiled at them. “So, I don’t think you boys are in big trouble. I think after the judge rules on the death, he just might want to remind you that leaving a potential crime scene alone is the right thing to do. As long as it’s an accidental death, we won’t have to get the Feds involved.” Their attention was diverted to the window as the coroner arrived in his old, black hearse. It had a red light on the top that was mostly used for funerals. Eagleclaw went out and talked to the coroner. After a few minutes they slid Moody’s body onto a stretcher and carried it to the hearse, where they slid it in the back and shut the doors. After further discussion between the two men, the coroner drove away, heading toward the morgue. The police officer returned to the office and put on his hooded winter coat. “Okay, boys, let’s drive out to Dead Man’s Hill and you can show me exactly where you found Moody. I need to take some pictures at the scene. You can take your horses around back where we keep ours and give them some hay.” After moving the two horses and tying them up, they dropped hay in front of them and raced around the building toward the black and white patrol car. Eagleclaw sat inside the big Ford sedan, talking on the radio. “Shotgun,” Bobbie hollered as he opened the front door of the car. Eagleclaw held his arm to block him. “In the back, Bobbie. Nobody rides in the front seat except another cop. Get in the back. There’s plenty of room for the three of you.” The boys crammed onto the rear seat, and after some pushing and shoving, settled in for the ride. “Just another part of our adventure,” Johnny said. “Now we get to ride in a police car. What a day!” All three were grinning as the cruiser headed back on the road to Dead Man’s Hill. “Officer Eagleclaw, can you turn on the siren and lights?”

The police officer smiled and shook his head.

Chapter Four On Monday, Johnny, Richard, and Bobbie were the talk of the school. Finding a body in the snow had the whole school buzzing with excitement. At lunch, many students gathered around their table, firing questions, hoping to hear every detail. It felt great to be the center of attention and a bit like heroes. Father Shannon finally broke up the group, telling them to finish lunch before the bell rang. A week flew by at school with the three boys feeling like movie stars. They were the center of attention during recess and even at basketball practice. Johnny grew weary of talking about Moody and their adventures at the BIA building. He was glad when school ended on Friday. He had a normal weekend at home, never mentioning the dance at Spirit Canyon. Billy Hunter didn’t seem to drink as much nowadays, and it felt peaceful, like he hoped everyday with his parents would be. Monday came quickly, and classes seemed to take longer than ever, with each teacher trying unsuccessfully to keep the students’ attention on the subject matter. Besides the excitement caused by the Dead Man’s Hill adventure, Johnny and the basketball team started to think more and more about that day’s game. After school, they were scheduled to play off the reservation in Custer County against a white team from Miles City. It was Johnny’s first game for the eighth grade team that would be played away from the reservation. When the bell rang at 2:30, Johnny stuffed his books in his locker, grabbed his team duffle bag, and joined the boys on the team rushing down the hallway. He burst through the school’s double doors into the gravel parking lot. “Come on,” Johnny shouted as he ran past Richard Amos. “Last one on the bus has to kiss Mary Buffalo Calf.” “I’d rather die first,” Richard answered, laughing as he quickly caught up with Johnny. They raced to the bus and banged into the opened door. Johnny tripped over the first step and Richard fell on him. “Look at this,” Michael Taos shouted to the other players. “Someone left a gym mat on the steps.” He dove on top of Johnny and Richard and the entire team

piled on after him. Laughing and bouncing, the boys on top squeezed down on the pile of arms and legs. “Help!” Johnny shouted. “I can’t breathe. Get off you creeps, or somebody will pay when I get out of here.” “You really got us scared,” Johnny heard one of the boys say, laughing. Then he heard another voice. “Okay, boys, break it up.” Johnny recognized the voice of Coach Adam Goodheart. He breathed easier as his teammates slowly climbed off him. Richard pulled him to his feet. “You okay, Johnny?” “Yeah, Coach, I’m fine.” The coach, a tall Cheyenne who stood well over 6 feet, with a straight nose and bronze skin, stood on the first step of the bus. He wore blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a tan sport coat. His lips curled in a smile. “You guys save some energy for Miles City. You’ll need it before the game is over.” The eight boys sheepishly walked past their coach onto the bus. Johnny and Richard sat next to each other on a seat that was cracked, the stuffing long since pulled out. The bus engine, cranking over slowly, started on the third try, and they headed north on the highway toward Miles City. They drove past the health clinic and the BIA office and soon were passing homes and fields, where an occasional horse or cow would be grazing on the winter grass. It was cold on the bus, and the windows steamed up from their breath. After an hour’s drive, they pulled into the paved parking lot behind Miles City Junior High, a modern school, built with red brick and tinted glass windows. The parking lot was full of late model cars and pickups. The Cheyenne boys fell silent when the bus parked next to the gym. Coach Goodheart, who was also the bus driver, stood in the aisle, facing his team. “You kids may hear some things you won’t like today,” he said, pausing to let his words sink in. “Just remember you’re here to play basketball and that you represent St. Andrew. Make Father McGlothlin proud of you. Now, hustle into the locker room and get dressed in a hurry. I’ll be waiting on the gym floor for you.” He pulled the handle that opened the folding doors and stepped outside.

Johnny ran with his teammates through the parking lot and down the brightly lit stairs into the locker room. “Whew, look at this place,” Johnny said to Richard. “It makes St. Andrew look like a dump.” “It doesn’t even smell like a locker room,” Richard said, sniffing the air. The dressing room was carpeted, each locker deep and wide with hangers, and the benches were padded with foam. At the end of the benches a shower room sparkled in the light. Against a bright blue wall stood a wooden trophy case filled with gold and silver trophies and ribbons. “Never seen anything like it,” Richard said. Johnny undressed quickly, hanging his coat on a hook and tossing his jeans and sweatshirt in a pile on the bottom of a locker. His stomach was churning as he pulled on his shorts and slipped the gold and dark blue jersey, number fourteen, over his head. No matter how many times he dressed in his uniform, a feeling of pride filled his heart whenever he put it on. Pulling up his knee-high socks, he tied the laces of his high top converse gym shoes. Looking in a mirror above a row of sparkling sinks, he flipped the hair from his eyes and followed Richard Amos down the hall toward the gym. The entrance to the auditorium was a narrow tunnel that was built under the stands. Johnny ran out of the tunnel and across the freshly waxed basketball court to Coach Goodheart. The crowd noise was already loud and his heart thumped wildly. “Here, Johnny,” Goodheart said, flipping him a ball. “Get the bunny line started.” As he dribbled across the floor, he looked at the Miles City Mustangs. There were fifteen of them, several over six feet tall. The Miles City team was wearing pale blue uniforms with white letters, and Johnny watched the team flawlessly work its way through a figure eight weave. Tough game, Johnny thought. Going to be mighty tough. Starting from the mid-court line, he dribbled to the basket and banked in an easy layup. A teammate grabbed the rebound and flipped it to the next St. Andrew Chief. Johnny waited for his turn, hustled in for the rebound and tossed the ball to the next boy.

Three times through the bunny line and he started to loosen up. On the next shot, he passed under the glass backboard and laid in a reverse layup. As he joined the bunny line near mid-court, a blond boy yelled at him from the stands. “Good shot, Redskin. I didn’t think you Injuns was good at anything but sleepin’ and drinkin’ firewater!” The fans around the youth started hooting and laughing. Johnny stared at the boy, his face burning. “Relax, Johnny,” Richard whispered. “Remember, coach said to stay cool.” Richard gently punched him on the shoulder. Johnny nodded his head in agreement. It was his turn to rebound, so he ran toward the basket. The gymnasium rapidly filled to its capacity of three hundred noisy fans. Everywhere Johnny looked there were Miles City banners and pom-poms. A dozen girls wearing short blue skirts and white tops with the letter H sewed on the back led the crowd in cheers for the Mustangs. Johnny smiled when he saw the small group of parents and students from St. Andrew enter and take their seats behind the Chiefs’ bench. Father McGlothlin, the younger of the two priests who ran the school and Catholic Church on the reservation, waved to the team. Johnny liked the young priest, although he couldn’t say the same for the pastor, Father Shannon. The four cheerleaders from St. Andrew ran onto the floor waving their arms, dancing together, and pleading for their fans to cheer on the Chiefs. The girls were wearing jeans and T-shirts with the word Chiefs printed in dark blue across their backs. Watching the cheerleaders was like watching a silent movie—their lips moved but their voices could not be heard over the roar of the Miles City fans. Johnny snuck a peak at Sarah Pretty Feather, the tallest of the cheerleaders, and a girl he always wanted to talk to but never did. A fan by the Chiefs stood up and yelled, “Get those squaws off the floor and get this old game started.” Johnny felt the blood rush to his face. He tried to force the taunts from the crowd out of his mind by concentrating on the coach’s pre-game instructions. Finally, the whistle blew and the teams lined up for the center jump, as the noise in the gym grew as loud as the roar of a locomotive. The referee tossed the basketball

in the air. The center from Miles City stood three inches taller than the Chiefs’ center, Michael Taos, and he easily tipped the ball to a guard who dribbled to the basket and immediately banked the ball. Miles City scored the next time they had the ball and then the teams traded baskets for the rest of the first half. The Chiefs were quick and were getting good shots, but the taller Miles City players dominated the rebounding. Twice, when Johnny shot, he was hit hard with an elbow and knocked to the floor. He felt both times should have resulted in free throws but the referee did not call a foul. “What do you need before you’ll call a foul?” he shouted at the ref. “He almost murdered me.” “Button up,” the referee said, “or I’ll give you a technical.” Johnny glared at the referee as the buzzer sounded, ending the first half. Goodheart sat the team on the bench at halftime and knelt on the floor, drawing plays with white chalk on the small blackboard. He talked to them as he drew arrows to show where they should run in each play. “You guys know these plays as well as I do,” he said. “Just work them like we did in practice. Johnny, keep alert for a steal. That guard likes to throw it to your side to start their plays.” “Okay,” Johnny mumbled, looking down at the floor. “What’s the matter? You look like you lost your best friend.” “Jeez, Coach, every time I shoot, those Miles City guys foul the crap out of me.” He threw a towel on the floor. “Just stay cool,” Goodheart said. “This is Miles City’s home court and the refs aren’t going to upset all these people. Play your best game and everything will be all right.” He patted Johnny on the head, messing his hair with his fingers. The buzzer sounded, announcing the start of the third quarter. “Let’s say a Hail Mary,” the coach said. The boys gathered in a circle and put their hands on the coach’s and prayed. “I’m praying to Maheo, too,” Richard whispered to Johnny. “No use taking any chances.”

The referee blew the whistle twice to hurry the St. Andrew team back on the floor. The center jump again went to the taller Miles City center, and the Mustangs worked the ball cautiously through the third quarter, trying to protect their lead. The Miles City crowd was wild, shouting and yelling for their team. Play grew rougher. An elbow flew under the boards and Mike Taos fell on the floor, bleeding from a cut over his eye. The third quarter ended with Mike slowly getting up and staggering to the Chief’s bench. “You okay?” Goodheart asked the injured boy. He put his arm on Mike’s shoulder and set him down on the bench. “Yeah, fine, Coach. Don’t take me out. I’ll be okay.” Goodheart wiped the blood from the cut off the boy’s eye with a towel and spread a Band-Aid over it. When he was finished, he leaned in near the Chief’s bench. “All right, boys, let’s play tough!” Goodheart yelled over the roaring crowd. “We’re only down 32 to 28. Go for the ball and take your good shot. We can still beat ’em.” The Mustangs grabbed the tip at the start of the fourth quarter and missed an easy jump shot. The ball bounced to Richard Amos, who flipped it down court to Johnny. With a Miles City player leaning on his back, Johnny dribbled under the basket and laid in a reverse bunny. “Do that again, Geronimo,” the boy covering him said, “and I’ll give you an elbow in that red face of yours.” “Wow,” Johnny said, “you really got me worried.” As the crowd screamed for the Mustangs, the minutes ticked away. Miles City passed the ball near mid-court, keeping it away from the Chiefs’ press. St. Andrew was trailing by two points when, with thirty seconds left on the clock, a bounce pass came near Johnny. He reached out, flicked the ball toward his basket, and took off after it. When he neared the basket, he left the floor as a Miles City player climbed on his shoulder. The boy reached over him, knocked the ball down, and the two of them crashed onto the stage behind the backboard. Johnny rolled on the floor. He held his head and staggered to his feet. “Got to make the foul shots,” he mumbled. He walked onto the floor, but the

players were running toward the other end. No foul had been called. Johnny raced after the referee. “He fouled me! He fouled me!” Johnny shouted at him. “Play ball,” the referee said. He tried to ignore Johnny and watched the action under the basket. “Play ball, you jackass. He knocked me down, damn near killed me, and all you can say is play ball.” The referee blew his whistle. “Technical. Bad language.” He made his hands into a T and walked over to the scoring table. The Miles City fans were screaming and waving their arms over their heads. The noise grew louder and louder. Johnny spread his hands in disbelief. “No foul!” he shouted again. He walked toward the bench and then turned and ran toward the Miles City team. The player that had knocked him down walked up to meet him. “Too bad, Geronimo. I told you not to try and show up a white boy.” Johnny swung his right hand from his hip at the boy, hitting him in the nose. As the Miles City player fell to the gym floor, Johnny dove on top of him, punching wildly at his face. The boy covered his bloody nose to avoid the punches raining down on him. Johnny’s teeth were clenched as he aimed blow after blow at the Miles City player. “How’s that feel, white boy?” he shouted. Two Miles City players jumped on him. He felt a sharp pain in his chest, but he swung back, hitting blindly at his opponents. They rolled on the floor until Johnny felt a hand on his neck. “Stop it, Johnny. It’s over,” Goodheart told him. “Stop it, dammit.” “Get him out of here, Coach. He’s done for today.” It was the referee, holding onto a Miles City player. Johnny relaxed and let Goodheart drag him away from the Miles City players. He pulled himself up until he stood next to the bench. “Okay, Coach, okay. I’m cool now. I won’t go after them anymore.” “You feeling okay?” the coach asked. “That’s a pretty nasty looking eye you got there. Is it cut?” “Naw, I don’t think so,” Johnny said, putting his fingers above his left eye. “It’s just tender.”

“I’ll take a good look at it when the game’s over. Go on down to the locker room and wait for us. The ref threw you out of the game for fighting. Go on, we’ll be down in a minute.” “Okay, Coach,” Johnny said as he walked into the tunnel. The Miles City fans booed him loudly. He waited a few seconds and snuck back to the entrance. Standing against the wall, he watched as the teams lined up for the technical free throw. The player he had punched was sitting on the bench with his head between his knees, trying to stop his nose from bleeding. A smile crept across Johnny’s face. He had landed a good punch. The game clock showed 10 seconds as the Miles City guard sank the foul shot. Miles City brought the ball inbounds and passed the ball away from the frantic St. Andrew press. The crowd counted down the final five seconds until the buzzer sounded the end of the game and the fans poured onto the floor, clapping and shouting. Shaking his head, Johnny ran down to the locker room and sat on the bench until his teammates came in through the doorway. “He had it coming!” Mike Taos shouted. “Good punch, Johnny.” Mike patted him on the back. “Yeah, you showed that white boy,” Richard told him. “I don’t blame you.” Johnny tried to smile at them, but his eyes were misty, lifeless. “What’s the matter, Johnny?” It was the coach. “I lost my head and we lost the game. That’s what’s the matter.” Goodheart sat down next to him, putting his arm around the boy. “I feel bad about us losing, too, just like I feel bad about a lot of things. I feel bad that the ref wouldn’t call the fouls when that boy nearly killed you at the end of the game. But nobody’s blaming you for the loss today. Sometimes a man must do what he has to do or he isn’t a man. Basketball is only a game, and we’ll win more games before the seasons over. Not all the refs or players are like the Miles City team. “Go on, get your shower and we’ll head back home before it gets too dark.” “Sure, Coach.” Johnny picked a towel out of his gym bag. “Should I have hit him?” he asked, just before entering the shower stall. Adam Goodheart looked at him, scratched his cheek, and walked out the door

toward the bus without answering the question.

Chapter Five When Johnny climbed down the bus steps at his driveway, he was glad to see his father’s pickup truck was not parked by the house. His father would be very angry when he heard about the fight, and Johnny preferred postponing that scene as long as possible. He entered the house where his mother was setting his supper on the table. She smiled at him and brushed her hair back off her shoulders. She was wearing it in long black braids. “Did you win?” she asked, ladling beans and wild rice into a bowl. “No,” he said. “We lost by a couple of points right at the end of the game.” “Oh, that’s too bad,” she said. She walked over to him, set the bowl down, and combed his hair with her fingers. “And how did you do? Did you score a lot of baskets?” “I did okay, I guess,” he said softly. He wasn’t going to get into a discussion of the fight with his mom. She would learn about it soon enough. “What happened to your eye?” she asked. Her large fingers gently touched the swollen area just above his right eye. “Some guy bumped me with an elbow,” Johnny said, pulling his head away. “It’s nothing, really.” She shook her head in disbelief. “Some elbow. Are you sure that’s all there was to it?” “Yeah, Mom. C’mon, let’s eat. I’m starved.” “Okay, but go wash up first. I’ll make you a nice big sandwich to go with your beans and rice while you’re cleaning your hands.” She hugged him for a second and then walked to the refrigerator, wiping her hands on her apron. Twenty minutes later, Johnny pushed his chair back from the table. “I’m going to feed Thunder,” he said, “and I think I’ll brush him down, too.” He stood up and put his bowl and glass into the sink. “No homework?” “No, Mom, because of the game today.”

She smiled. “Okay, but don’t stay out there too long. It’s getting cold. Maybe there’s something good on TV later tonight and we can all watch it.” After putting on his coat, Johnny walked across the yard into the small wooden shed that served as the horse barn. Using the pitchfork, he tossed hay to the Hunters’ three horses. Thunder was the youngest horse; the other two belonged to Gray Man and his father. They were both old, both mares, and Johnny had loved and cared for them since he was four years old. As he brushed Thunder, he heard the 1963 Ford pickup turn into the driveway and spit gravel as it drove up the hill to the house. It was Johnny’s father and he was driving too fast. Johnny busily stroked the pony’s back. He heard the truck door slam shut, and in a minute, his father shoved the stable door open and stomped over to him. Johnny could smell whiskey. “So, Mr. Tough Guy, you got in a fight today! What the hell are you tryin’ to prove?” his father yelled. “I lost my temper, Dad. This white kid kept fouling me and I lost my temper so I popped him.” “Dammit, no white school’s goin’ to give a scholarship to you if you hit white boys. You’ll get a reputation as a troublemaker!” Billy Hunter screamed. “They don’t want our people playin’ anyway. You’ll give them the excuse they need to keep you out of their colleges.” Johnny did not answer. He kept brushing his pony while his father walked back and forth between the stalls. Rubbing the brush over the horse calmed him. “Tell me again,” his father said, wringing his hands, “why did you hit the Miles City boy?” Johnny looked at his father. “Because he had it coming.” His father smashed his hand against the wooden stall. “You just don’t go around hittin’ white people because they have it coming. The white man controls our food, our money, our schools, and they can make it damn hard on a Cheyenne that crosses them. You better learn to hold your temper or you’ll end up with no college and no job.” “But a white kid is no better than me. If he pushes me, I’ll push back!” Johnny shouted, throwing his brush in the water pail.

“Listen, Johnny, maybe you ain’t gettin’ my message. You will not fight with white boys, and if I have to, I’ll take this leather belt of mine to you until you obey me. Now, are you done fightin’ with whites?” “I won’t start the fights, but I won’t back off if they push me.” Johnny’s heart was racing. He had never talked back to his father like that. Billy Hunter pulled the two-inch wide belt from his jeans. He took the large silver buckle off and stuck it in his pocket. “Bend over the rail. I’m going to teach you some obedience.” Johnny leaned over the stall fence, still not believing that his father would actually whip him. His father hadn’t spanked him since he was a small boy. Bracing himself, he waited for the sting of the leather belt. The seconds ticked by. Johnny waited. He felt the sweat beading on his face as he clung tightly to the rail. He heard the belt whoosh through the air and felt the pain shoot up his back as the leather smacked against his jeans. His eyes grew moist, but he didn’t cry out. He waited for the next blow. Then he heard crying and, slowly, Johnny turned around. His father sat on a bale of hay, his face buried in his big hands. Billy Walking Bear Hunter was crying, his body shaking with the tears. Johnny walked across the dimly lit shed and sat next to him. His father raised his head and wiped his red eyes on the sleeve of his denim jacket. Taking a red and black bandana from his pocket, Billy blew his nose. “I’m sorry, Johnny,” he said. “I shouldn’t have hit you, but you made me so damn mad I couldn’t see straight. “I’m just tryin’ to help you get along in the white man’s world. You don’t know how hard it is out there for a red man. I’ve seen things, had experiences that you haven’t dreamed of. I don’t want you to end up like me with no real friends, except a whiskey bottle. Hell, the only reason I got a job is because Father Shannon at the school helped me out. Can’t you see I want a better life for you and that’s got to be off the reservation? “You got to work on your grades and practice basketball, and then maybe Coach Goodheart can get you a scholarship when you finish high school. But you have to keep your nose clean to even have a chance at winnin’ a scholarship. That’s why I

got so mad tonight when I heard about the fight.” “Sure, Dad, sure. I know you want me to do well, and I’ll try to stay out of fights. But you got to promise me that you will stay out of Rosie’s Saloon,” Johnny said, patting his father on the back. His father grinned at him with tobacco-stained teeth. “Sure. I don’t need Rosie’s. I just go in there to see my drinking buddies.” Johnny helped his father to his feet. Billy staggered slightly, leaned against the fence, and pulled on his belt. “Go on in the house, Dad. Mom’s holding supper for you. I’m going to finish brushing down Thunder and then I’ll be in.” “Okay, it’s cold out here anyway. Don’t say anything to your mom about this, okay?” “Not a word,” Johnny said. He watched his father walk cautiously through the barn and out the door. Johnny rubbed his behind; the sting of the belt had mostly faded. Finding the grooming brush, he resumed the careful stroking of Thunder. He was humming when he suddenly knew he was not alone. His heart pounding, Johnny spun around. “Oh, Grandfather, you nearly scared the pants off me. How long have you been here?” “Long enough to see my son-in-law crying like an old woman. This is what the white man has done to him,” Gray Man said. Johnny said nothing. He did not want to take sides between Gray Man and his father. “What your father has told you is wrong, Hunter. There is nothing for you in the white man’s world except alcohol and death. The whites have been killing our people for three hundred years and now they use whiskey to do it. Come to our dances, learn our ways, and you will see how great the Cheyenne are. We must build our own future for ourselves. Our land is rich with coal and we can be a free people again. Think on my words. There is no hope for men like Billy Hunter. The hope of our tribe rests with the young people like you and Richard Amos.” Gray Man’s eyes flicked with fire as he pounded his hands together. He reached around his neck and removed a necklace made of grizzly bear claws. “Wear this, Hunter. It was a gift to me from my grandfather, a warrior who rode

with Roman Nose on the plains of Kansas. It has much magic for its owner.” “Thank you,” Johnny said. He slipped the necklace over his head. It felt heavy. The giant claws were yellow and must have come from a huge bear. “I’ve always liked this necklace.” “It looks like it belongs on you,” Gray Man said. “Will you come again to our dance?” Johnny stroked his pony. “I guess so. Dad sure wouldn’t like it, but I thought it was really cool. Maybe I’ll come to one more and wear this necklace so everybody will think I’m a big brave.” “Good,” Gray Man said. “I’ll let you know when the next ceremony takes place.” The old man turned and disappeared through the door. Johnny resumed brushing Thunder, but his stomach began churning. “What should I do, Thunder? I don’t want to disobey dad, but when Gray Man talks to me about warriors and braves, it really makes me feel great. I want to learn all about the Cheyenne, but Dad gets mad so easily. Man, this is really getting to be a mess.” The pony neighed in response. Johnny put down the brush and grabbed the old pitchfork; he tossed another load of hay into the stalls, filling the shed with the pungent odor of wet straw. Thunder and the other horses immediately began eating it, making crunching noises as they chewed. For more information about Johnny Hunter

ABOUT THE BOOK One girl holds the key to an ancient pact that could destroy the world... When sixteen-year-old Amber Noble’s dreams begin to weave into her reality, she turns to the mysterious Connor for help. His links to the supernatural world uncover a chilling truth about her hometown and a pact that must be re-paid with blood. As her father alienates her, and the Guardians take her best friend, her true destiny unfolds, and she begins a quest that will see her past collide with her present. Drawn deeper into the world of witchcraft and faeries, it is only at the end of her journey that she realises how much she could lose.

Prologue Her lungs threatened to burst as she ran, but she pushed herself to keep moving regardless of the pain in her joints. How could she have been so foolish? The signs had been there. The crippling headaches had forewarned her of what was to come but she hadn’t heeded the warnings and now she was running for her life. The old church loomed before her, a humongous sandstone building that, under the light of dawn, appeared to be bleeding from the concrete that sealed the large blocks of stone. The gothic spire soared into the sky, its ornate carvings disfigured by the wind and rain that had hounded it for centuries. If she could make it to the doors she could bind the lock, and cast a spell to prevent anyone getting out. She had sworn to protect the town which slept around her, its inhabitants safe in their beds. Her own husband and daughter slept soundly, oblivious to her mission. Her frantic mind calmed as she thought briefly of her daughter. At just six years old she could hold her own against any classroom bully, bright as any scholar and yet she showed no sign of inheriting her family’s power. She was a little girl, special in her own unique way but she was no prophecy child. They had been wrong. Now, as she ran for her life, she feared she may never set eyes on her sweet child again. The gravel path crunched underfoot as she hurried along to the gaping mouth of the church entrance. Solid oak doors, highly decorated with concentric circles, stood before her, their iron handles caked in rust from centuries of neglect. The church, once the thriving centre of Hills Heath’s community until the disappearances began centuries ago, was now a derelict monstrosity, a haunted mausoleum that the local authority were too afraid to rip down. She skidded to a halt, dropping to her knees and pulling her heavy coat collar around her neck, protecting herself from the chill of the early morning air. She tried to relax her posture as she cast the protective circle, her heart pounding in her chest as she hurriedly traced the shape in the dirt. Her fingers crackled as blue fire

caressed her hands, spreading along each digit until flames danced in her upturned palms. Pushing her power out, she raised it from the earth, letting it rush through her in a torrent until a lightning bolt escaped and arched towards the wooden doors. Using all her concentration she carved the spell into the wood, splinters of oak breaking off as the blue fire cut deep. Looping the flame in a crescent, she chanted under her breath, drawing her power from the nature surrounding her. She had to prevent them from setting foot in her town. In her world. Time stood still as she heard them approach from behind. The world spun as she realised she was too late and they were already here. The protection spell collapsed as her face smashed into the heavy wooden doors. She tasted blood and wiped her mouth with her sleeve. Shaking her head to try to clear her vision, she stood, sweeping her arms around her, an athame nestled in the palm of her hand. The dawn mist swirled through the churchyard, cloaking the gravestones. A large shape stepped out from the smog; a tall, muscular man dressed head to foot in black with a golden phoenix emblazoned across his armoured breastplate. His hooded cape was drawn up over his head, disguising all but the hard set of his jaw. From beneath the swathes of black fabric a deep rumbling laugh reverberated across the churchyard. ‘I have need of you, witch.’ He spat the words at her as he stepped closer, his hand resting on the hilt of the sword hidden from view beneath his cape. She glared at the huge man. With her dagger raised between them she stood tall with her chin held high. ‘My name is Myanna.’ His laugh held no warmth as it echoed in the eerie silence, her blood pounded in her ears, and the tiny hairs on her arms stood erect. ‘I don’t deal in pleasantries.’ He snapped his fingers and two men approached, similarly dressed save for a smaller red phoenix on their armour. They circled either side of her, cutting off her escape routes. She backed away until her shoulders touched the oak doors. Still clutching her athame and holding it at arm’s length she fumbled with her free hand to find the iron handle behind her. There was only one way out. She would have to go through the church. Planting her feet squarely on the compacted gravel she flung her dagger at the

man to the left, striking him in the shoulder as she swung open the wooden door, smashing it into the advancing man on her right. She pivoted on her left foot and slipped through the door, pulling it closed behind her, whispering a sealing spell to slow them down. The inside of the door charred and smoked as the magic took hold. The interior of the church smelt musty, the years of decay permeating the walls and floors. She was in the nave, an enormous room with vaulted ceilings and rows of wooden pews that faced a raised stone altar. Strings of cobwebs laced across the seats leading to the platform. No-one had stepped foot in there in over two centuries – no-one human anyway. She hurried past the baptistery, once the centre for all the town’s christenings, but the font had long since dried up. She searched along the back wall, running her hands across the stone looking for another exit. An opening in the darkest corner of the church led to a wrought-iron staircase. The stairwell was cloaked in darkness and descended further than her eyes could see. She faltered briefly, unsure if stepping onto the first rung would lead her into more trouble or point her to an escape route. The heavy front doors of the church smashed open and the men stormed through the entrance with a bloodcurdling cry. Her time was up. She placed her foot on the first rung and took a step down, then another‌

Chapter One Ten Years Later.

The rasping sound of a match head on stone echoed through the graveyard. The flame spluttered briefly before igniting. As it met with the wick, the black candle burst into life and cast an unearthly green glow across the ground. The hunched figure scratched whirling patterns on the wet soil with a small chicken bone while pouring hot wax into the grooves. The liquid trickled slowly along the trench until the ancient symbol was alight with green fire. As the rain began to fall and the sky grumbled, heavy with storm clouds, the figure began to chant. The symbol shone in the gloom, changing from a ghostly green colour to blood red, blazing like a branding iron against the hide of a dark beast. The thunderclouds rumbled and drowned out the fierce crack of the earth as the ground began to open. A humourless smile spread across the figure’s anaemic face as the soil around the candle trembled. Clots of earth erupted in clumps like macabre molehills and the flames danced in the wind. A sound to the right forced the intruder to squat lower to the ground and nestle between the tombstones to avoid discovery or have the dark magic that seeped into the earth before them halted. A young couple ran hand in hand through the open church gate from the town square and bolted through the graveyard to the shelter of the trees. Still laughing from the thrill of her breathless sprint the young girl wrapped her arms around her companion’s neck. ‘That was fun,’ she giggled, giving him a coy smile as she pressed her body in close to his. The boy’s grin spread across his glistening face and he bent forward to kiss her. As their lips met, the ground around them shook. ‘Blimey, Dan, you’re a really good kisser.’ He laughed. ‘That wasn’t me.’ He moved away slightly, holding her shoulders as

he looked down at their feet. ‘It came from underneath us.’ The ground shook again and mounds of dirt spewed forth as if something was pushing up from below. A flash of lightning momentarily lit up the sky. The earth stirred again, large clots of mud were tossed as high as the gravestones, the topsoil flung to the sky as the earth cracked open and a grotesque creature broke through the surface. The young girl screamed and stumbled against the tree trunk as her companion stood protectively in front of her. The creature clawed its way from the ground never taking its black eyes off the figures. Long talons with grimy fingernails grabbed at tree roots as it pulled itself from the ground. The demon was immense. It stood tall and stretched its muscled arms wide revelling in its freedom. It towered over them, its waxy grey skin laced with black veins, its thick neck ending in a horned head with deep set eyes that shone as black as obsidian, jagged teeth filled its mouth and its breath was putrid as it leant down to snarl at the young couple. Dark spots covered its scalp and a row of scars ran from its nose and up across its forehead to meet with the two grey horns. The girl sobbed. ‘What is it?’ Snarling at them, the creature then licked its dirt-covered lips. Skulking forward it swiped a long arm and sent the girl skidding across the ground to crash head first into a headstone. Blood oozed from a deep gash on her forehead and she screamed hysterically, holding her dirty hands to her head. The boy faced the creature, anger powering his actions. ‘Leave her alone!’ he screamed. The creature laughed and, moving faster than the boy could see, leapt through the air to hunch over the hysterical girl like a feral dog over its dinner. In one fluid movement it ripped off her head and tossed it to the ground. The colour drained from the boy’s face as he staggered backwards, a wave of nausea washing over him. He vomited over one of the gravestones then scrambled into a run. He ran blindly, hot tears stinging his eyes. He tripped over tree roots and rocks but never looked back. The overhanging branches of the churchyard’s trees clawed at his face as he tore through the night, a heavy weight of grief and panic lodged in his heart.

He could hear the creature gaining on him, its foul odour permeating the night air. Ahead of him was the gravel path which led to the town square and civilisation. His legs were screaming with pain as he pushed himself to go faster. With the church gate in sight he crashed to the ground in a cloud of wet gravel, the creature’s razor sharp talons wrapped around his ankle. He kicked out with his free leg as he was pulled along the path, clutching at tree roots and tufts of grass, writhing to break the bond, but the creature was much stronger. A lone figure stepped out from the treeline to stand in the demon’s path. The man was dressed head to foot in black: black trousers and heavy boots that were strapped up to his knees with leather cord, and a long cape covered an armoured breastplate with a picture of a red bird at the centre. The hood of the cape was drawn up over the man’s head obscuring his identity. In his hands he held two curved swords which he lifted slowly and pointed at the demon. The creature snarled and easily tossed the boy to the side as it faced its new opponent. With a bloodthirsty roar the monster threw itself at the man, its talons slashing wildly as it tried to slice him in half, but he was too fast. He sideswiped the creature and hacked down with his right sword catching its left flank. Green ooze poured from the open wound and the creature howled into the night. The man circled in front and thrust his sword up into the creature’s belly, simultaneously slicing its throat with his other weapon. The huge lumbering creature fell silent and crashed to the ground. Its skin began to burn and sizzle and within minutes the immense fiend had been reduced to ash, washed away by the heavy downpour which continued to pound the earth. The boy watched as the mysterious hooded figure surveyed his surroundings while he cleaned his blades on the hem of his cape, his face still hidden under his black hood. He tried to stand but his shaking limbs wouldn’t work, instead he dragged himself over to the churchyard wall and leant against the cold, wet stones, fighting to stabilise his breathing as he wiped the fresh blood from the cuts on his hands down his trouser leg. The man slotted his swords back into their sheaths and strode over to where the

boy was sitting, half on the ground and half propped against the wall. ‘Thank you,’ Dan said, his voice muffled as he wiped the vomit from his mouth with the back of his hand. The figure swivelled his head to look out once again across the graveyard. Someone was there but before he could react or call for help the man crouched down beside him, bringing his face within inches of his own. He pulled out a pencil-thin dagger, the blade not much wider than a needle. The handle was made of a translucent material filled with a murky purple liquid. Without warning the man dropped his hood. His shaved head was covered with an ornate tattoo which wound over his scalp and trailed down his neck. His features were chiselled and hard. Deep, ruby red eyes looked back at Dan, glowing in the darkness like pools of fire. He took hold of the blade in his right hand and placed it over the boy’s chest. ‘No, wait!’ The man studied Dan for a long moment then plunged the blade into the boy’s heart. As it reached the hilt, the murky substance that had filled the handle drained into his body and the hot liquid seeped into his bloodstream. Before Dan blacked out he saw the great oak doors of the old church loom up ahead of him. The church that had been derelict for years. As he drifted into unconsciousness he wondered if he would ever see those oak doors again. *** Amber Noble tucked her brown curly hair behind her ears and folded her coat tightly across her chest, protecting her from the night air. It was threatening to rain as she hurried along the deserted street, eager to get home and out of the cold. She checked her watch, ten thirty; she was in so much trouble. ‘Get a job,’ her dad had told her, ‘I’m not having you sitting around all summer getting under Patricia’s feet.’ As if she would want to get under Patricia’s feet. Her loathsome stepmother had lined her up with a desk job at the local beauty spa; Amber shuddered at the thought: an entire summer wasted with that woman and her plastic, peroxide friends. She sourced her own job as soon as possible but even that had caused a massive argument. Her dad hadn’t spoken to her for two days, much to Patricia’s

delight. Working at the local coffee shop apparently wasn’t good enough for Alan Noble’s daughter, but then these days nothing she did was ever going to be good enough for her father. The sleepy eyes of the shop windows ended and Amber cut across the town square in the direction of the old abandoned church. Its dark, grey bulk was an ugly blemish on a quaint English town. As she hurried past, she glanced at the stone archway framing the oak doors, which yawned like a mouth from the house of horrors at the funfair. The similarity had always unnerved Amber and the recurring nightmares of her mother being sucked through those church doors into a flaming inferno still haunted her ten years after her mother had walked out on them. The sky rumbled as it began to rain. Pulling her coat tighter, Amber skirted around the grey walls. The spire of the old building glistened in the downpour and was briefly illuminated in a flash of lightning. It gleamed a dull red in the night sky, like the bloody end of a sword. The walls towered above her as she splashed through the puddles. At the crossroads of Orchard Street and Station Avenue, she turned right heading out of town. The graveyard walls fell away to waist height and Amber could see across the black headstones to the rear of the church. As another flash lit up the sky Amber saw a figure run behind the stones, a fleeting vision of black and silver. She slowed her pace. Squinting into the gloom she watched for signs of movement. A flash of silver caught her eye and she concentrated hard on the space between the headless angel and the oak tree that dominated the cemetery. There was someone out there, dressed in black with a hoodie pulled over their face. Crackheads. As she pushed away from the wall, a sudden scream filled the air. She grabbed for the stone and scanned the cemetery for the hoodie addict to emerge again, worried he had lured an unwilling victim to his crack den. A low howl filled the air as if a dog were being neutered. The hoodie passed

across her line of sight again and Amber saw that what she had assumed was a wayward teen was a heavily muscled man. The heavy ‘hoodie’ was in fact a long black cape covering black trousers, heavy boots and an armoured breastplate with a picture of a red bird at the centre. As if the man sensed an audience he swivelled his gaze at her. Blood red eyes peered out from the gaping hole beneath his hood and she felt his fierce stare drilling into her. She gasped as the figure lifted up two curved blades. Bile rose up in her throat as she spied thick liquid ooze down the silver. The man whirled the swords in his hands and wiped the mess on the hem of his cape. Amber’s legs were shaking as she backed away from the church wall. The hooded man continued to watch her, his red eyes following her like a kestrel watches its next kill. She lurched backwards, covering her mouth with a trembling hand, as the mysterious stranger hunched down over something lying at his feet. She set off running, tripping over her own shoes in the rush to get away. She didn’t dare look back, only concentrating on getting home in one piece. *** Patricia twitched the curtains briefly as she paced the living room. Ten o’clock the girl was supposed to be home and still no sign. The street was in darkness and the excessive rainfall caused tiny rivers to flow along the kerb and bubble up in the grates. The thunder rumbled as Patricia finally spotted a drenched figure running down the street. She pursed her lips and crept out into the hallway. The door to the office stood open and Alan Noble was busy at the computer as she draped her arms around his neck and planted a kiss on his cheek. ‘You work too hard,’ she purred. ‘If only that daughter of yours appreciated what you do and had the decency to be home when she promised. My poor lamb, you must be so worried.’ Alan glanced at his wristwatch, ‘It’s nearly eleven, Pat. Isn’t she home yet?’ ‘Not yet, sweetie, but I’m sure she’ll have a wonderful excuse this time.’ The front door crashed open and Amber burst into the hallway, dripping wet from head to toe. Her long dark curls hung limply around her face.

‘Dad!’ ‘Have you seen the time, young lady?’ he boomed, cutting her off mid-sentence and standing up from his desk. ‘This is the third time you’ve been late this week, Amber. That coffee shop woman is taking advantage.’ Amber tried again to speak, but her dad was clearly on one of his rants. There was no hope of getting a word in when he was like this. She looked past her father’s shoulder and spotted Patricia perched on the side of the desk. Her perfectly groomed hair was scooped into a flamboyant updo; she wore a pink Juicy Couture tracksuit with matching manicure and pedicure and was smirking. Bitch. Amber realised she had been played; her dad would only break off from his work to notice her absence if he was interrupted. ‘…and if you think you are going to keep working at that coffee shop then you’re mistaken.’ Her dad carried on with his ranting but Amber snapped to attention as he finished his sentence. ‘I love that job, Dad, I’m not going to quit.’ She crossed her arms in a defiant gesture, the same pose she had used since she was six years old and he had told her she was getting a new mummy. ‘It’s late, sweetie pie, why don’t we all sleep on it?’ Patricia wound her arms around her dad’s waist and rested her head on his shoulder, ‘I’m sure Amber will see sense in the morning.’ The cold stare she gave Amber made her shiver more than her rain-soaked clothing. Amber headed for the stairs. ‘I’m going for a shower.’ She ran up them two at a time before her dad could start another argument. *** Slamming her bedroom door she slumped back against it, the memory of what she had just witnessed at the graveyard still sharp in her mind. Her heart hammered in her chest as she visualised the man with the red eyes, the screaming and howling. The events were horrific enough but what worried Amber more was the fact that she had seen this scene before. The dreams that invaded her mind every night were getting intense. They weren’t a muddle of images anymore, they were short visions that she couldn’t escape from. Only when the nightmare

came to its gruesome end could she wake up, but this was the first time she had seen her vision happen in reality. She felt sickened and yet she realised that, strange though it seemed, the run-in with her dad had upset her more than the horror she had just witnessed at the churchyard. They were arguing more and more lately. She couldn’t do anything right. Patricia was always at her dad’s side exploiting the ill feelings between them. They had been so close before her mum left; a happy family who did happy family things like picnics and day trips. Then one day everything changed and she was gone. No note, no sign – she just vanished early one morning. The police were sympathetic and searched for a few weeks, but with no leads there was nothing they could do but abandon the case. She’d left everything behind: clothes, shoes, make-up and all the sentimental stuff like family photos, trinkets and jewellery. It was as if she’d wanted to cut Amber and Alan out of her life. Her dad met Patricia soon after and moved her in straightaway with no discussion or family conference. She had gone through the house like a tornado, throwing out anything that had belonged to her mum. *** Amber wriggled out of her wet jeans and T-shirt and padded down the hall to the bathroom. It felt good to stand under the hot stream of water. She scrubbed her skin as hard as she could manage, trying to wipe away the memory of what she’d witnessed, but every time she closed her eyes the image of the red-eyed man appeared. She was exhausted when she finally collapsed into bed. This was her sanctuary; Patricia had re-vamped the entire house so it now resembled one of those minimalistic show homes from glossy magazines. The carpets, walls and furniture were all white, and Amber was petrified to sit anywhere in her own home. Her bedroom, however, remained untouched; after yet another blazing row, her dad had agreed that Amber was old enough to decorate her own room. She hadn’t changed a thing. She kept the tatty pastel wallpaper with the tiny pink rosebuds, the pink curtains and even the threadbare pink rug on the floor. Her mum chose those things and she wasn’t ready to get rid of anything from a happier once upon a

time. Her stuffed animals crowded together on top of her free-standing wardrobe, keeping a silent vigil, and her exam schedule from last term was still taped to the door. To the right of her bed was a small alcove with a built-in desk her dad made when she was five. The shelves which filled the wall space were full of books and picture frames – the only photographs of her mother in the house. As Amber lay in bed she could see the moon through her window. Her eyes were beginning to droop when a movement outside the glass made her heart freeze. She slowly leant over and turned off the lamp, plunging the small room into darkness. She waited for her eyes to adjust to the gloom and carefully edged over to the window, peeking around the curtain to see outside. A shadow loomed up against the glass and Amber jumped, clasping her hand to her mouth to stop from screaming and waking her dad. Her heart hammered in her chest as the shadowy figure knocked sharply on the windowpane. Since when do mysterious red-eyed men knock? Tearing back the curtains she unlocked the window and swung it wide open. ‘About time, it’s freezing out there. English summers aren’t what they used to be.’ Tom threw his leg over the ledge and hopped through into Amber’s room. His blond hair was plastered to his head by the rain instead of in its usual perfectly coiffed spiky ensemble. He kicked off his trainers, discarded his coat and curled up on the bed like a cat waiting to be tickled. ‘Hey, cutie,’ he smiled up at Amber, ‘thought I’d pop round for the gossip, heard you shouting halfway down the street and figured you may need a shoulder to cry on.’ Amber laughed and snuggled up beside him on her bed. She and Tom had been best friends forever, their mums were in the same maternity ward, they went to the same schools and they had lived next door to each other all their lives. They were inseparable – something else Patricia disapproved of and consequently, so did her dad. ‘What happened this time?’ ‘I was late…again.’

‘Plastic Patsy wouldn’t have liked that then.’ He mimicked Patricia filing her nails with a sour expression and Amber laughed. ‘She didn’t. The bitch must have spurred Dad on again and as usual he went off like Mount Vesuvius.’ ‘So how come you were late? Up to no good?’ He winked and Amber felt her cheeks flush even though she was totally innocent of any debauchery. ‘I wish… That would have been less traumatic than what happened to me tonight.’ She filled him in on the strange red-eyed man and the sounds from the cemetery, her fears that she may have witnessed a murder and that no-one would believe her story of visions merging with reality. All the talk of strangely dressed soldier men with swishing swords sounded like a bedtime horror story. ‘It’s weird talking about it now, it doesn’t feel real.’ ‘It sounds pretty damn real to me.’ Tom shivered involuntarily and grabbing the throw from the end of the bed, he covered both of them and cuddled Amber close. ‘Don’t worry, cutie, we can check it out tomorrow in the daylight and if there’s anything strange up there we’ll report it. Probably best to mention it to your boss too so she doesn’t keep you late again.’ ‘Thanks, Tom.’ She rested her head against his chest, her eyes growing heavy as Tom held her in his arms. He was like a big brother, guardian angel and surrogate mother all rolled into one, and as she drifted off to sleep she couldn’t imagine life without him. *** The old oak doors of the church creaked open, and she could make out the fiery pit beyond. Clinging to the ancient headstones she fought against the force that was trying to pull her in. She saw her mother walk in the direction of the doors. She smiled at Amber but her smile faded and then she was screaming. A hooded figure appeared at the doors and pulled her through, tossing her body into the flames. The scene shifted and all Amber could see was a line of young men, all a similar age to her. The hooded man pulled them inside the doors as they cried out in terror. There were hundreds of them, boys lined up one after the other, chained by their feet and hands. Some wore jeans and T-shirts while others wore outfits straight out of her history books. The

hooded figure tossed them into the fiery pit with ease. As he shifted, his hood fell back to reveal a tattooed scalp. He snapped open his eyes and stared straight at Amber. She screamed.

Chapter Two The previous night’s heavy downpour had been replaced with bright sunshine, and the air smelt fresh and earthy as Amber and Tom retraced her steps down the road to town. Her shift didn’t start until ten but with her dad still giving her disapproving looks and Patricia bending and stretching with her yoga instructor, Amber had made a quick getaway, grabbing Tom on the way. Amber regaled Tom with her unusual dream as they made their way along Station Avenue, the tall poplar trees stretching upward like roadside centurions marking their path. They planned to grab a coffee and a breakfast roll before Amber started work, and Tom hinted at the need for an in-depth discussion about possible brain diseases she may have developed. Amber laughed and dug him in the ribs, but they were silenced by the scene that unfolded as they approached the cemetery. The church grounds were teeming with police, a row of white tents had been set up along the gravel path and the whole area had been cordoned off with police tape. Men in masks and white jumpsuits were walking at a snail’s pace through the gravestones, their eyes fixed on the ground below them. ‘Move along, please,’ an officer ordered them. Tom nodded his head in the direction of the church. ‘What’s going on?’ Even though they both had their suspicions, he couldn’t help but ask. ‘Nothing to worry about, just a disturbance, move along.’ Amber laced her fingers through Tom’s and he squeezed tightly to reassure her. There was quite a crowd gathered by the front of the church; every town resident appeared to have turned up to find out what had occurred under their noses. Tom positioned himself right at the front, as close to the action as possible, and started chatting to a couple of girls from their school. Amber watched the group of men in white jumpsuits as they huddled close to the spot where she had seen the mysterious hooded man the previous night. ‘This is evil of an epic nature.’ He pulled on her arm and looked around him wildly as he steered her away from the crowds. ‘They’ve found Kelly Timpson’s body in the cemetery...’

Amber was stunned for a moment; she didn’t know what she had expected but it certainly wasn’t the body of a girl who shared her maths textbook on a daily basis. ‘That can’t be right,’ she started to say, but Tom cut her off with a flourish of his hands to add, ‘…without her head!’ Amber felt that all too familiar wave of nausea rise again; she crumpled to the pavement without a care for any passer-by and stuck her head between her knees. Tom crouched next to her and rubbed her back affectionately. ‘Sorry, cutie, there really wasn’t a delicate way to break that kind of news.’ He raised his eyebrows and smiled as Amber struggled with the urge to vomit all over the town square. ‘Just a shock,’ she murmured, wrapping her arms around herself. The other girls made their way over to where Tom and Amber were sitting; they looked gaunt, and Amber recognised them as Kelly’s best friends. She nodded her head at them in a sign of greeting and sympathy. To her surprise they settled down on the floor next to them. ‘So Tom’s filled you in then?’ Cassie, the thin blonde one spoke first. ‘It’s so awful, Kelly was so excited about the summer holidays. She and Danny were heading off to travel but now he’s missing and she’s…she’s…’ The sobbing started again and Cassie collapsed into her friend’s arms. A cold trickle of fear rolled down Amber’s spine. Kelly was dead and her sixteen-year-old boyfriend was missing. Her vision of the line of teenage boys being tossed into the flames resurfaced briefly. ‘The whole town’s on lockdown,’ Tom told them. ‘All the shops are closing and the police are telling everyone to stay in their homes until they catch who did this.’ ‘Maybe we should do as they say then.’ Amber stood and dusted down her jeans. Her hands were shaking and the pressure that had built up in her head was threatening to knock her off balance. ‘We need to get out of here.’ She grabbed Tom’s wrist. ‘Now!’ They exchanged condolences with Kelly’s friends once again and moved off down the high street. The hairs on the back of Amber’s neck prickled and she felt the eerie sensation of being watched. She glanced over at the cemetery, half

expecting to see the creepy red-eyed guy waving at her from behind the tombstones; instead she spotted Patricia through the crowds. As their eyes met, Patricia gave a little wave. Amber jerked her head in acknowledgment, ‘We have to move,’ she said, keeping her voice low and pulling Tom along after her. *** The high street was full of people standing in small huddles gossiping about the ‘accident’ at the cemetery. Many of the shops had already closed, more out of the morbid curiosity of their owners than as a mark of respect. Even the coffee shop was deserted. ‘Guess I have a day off,’ Amber muttered under her breath as they stood outside the empty shop. ‘There is one place we could go, somewhere we may find an answer to why you dreamt about the church the night Kelly died.’ Tom’s expression was sheepish as he inclined his head and nodded to the small alleyway adjacent to the coffee shop. ‘You’re kidding, right?’ He gave her a sly smile and grabbed her hand. ‘It’s a magic shop, cutie, and they may just know something about your red-eyed friend.’ He pulled her down the short alley until they stood in front of a well-worn wooden door. It looked very much like the type of building you drew as a child, with a green front door in the centre and two picture windows on either side. The windows were cluttered with merchandise; candles of all shapes, sizes and colours were stacked to the left surrounded by books on mythology, folklore and magic spells. The right-hand window display was a little more mainstream with hand lotions, soaps and practical gifts. A tiny bell chimed as Tom opened the door and they stepped inside. ‘Welcome,’ a musical voice wafted down from the mezzanine floor. Amber glanced up and saw the store’s owner leaning over the railing. India Saks was probably one of the most enchanting women Amber had ever seen. She always wore elaborate gowns, evidently indulging an air for the dramatic dress-up witch look. Although Amber had seen her around town they had never spoken. She and Tom had a silent understanding that he wouldn’t tell her about

his interest in Wicca so that she couldn’t offend him by calling it hocus pocus. When India floated down the tiny wooden staircase she looked like a royal princess arriving at a dance, her jet black hair hanging loose and tumbling around her shoulders. She wore a fitted purple dress which swished along the floor as she walked; it laced up down the front like a corset, with a low-cut neckline to show off her creamy skin. Her arms were covered in long black fingerless gloves; she tinkled as she walked due to the number of silver bangles on her wrists. A black choker necklace with a huge blue stone in the centre completed the look. ‘Good morning, Tom, nice to see you as always.’ Tom smiled and gave Amber a gentle shove in the back. She scowled at him before summoning all her strength to introduce herself without laughing. ‘Hello, Miss Saks, I’m Amber Noble. Tom has told me so much about you.’ India smiled and rested a delicate hand on Amber’s shoulder, motioning for them to sit on the green sofa which nestled under the staircase, surrounded by huge volumes of the books she sold. ‘A non-believer seeking help, today has been full of surprises. You’re okay, my dear, I won’t bite…or turn you into a frog.’ Tom laughed out loud as Amber’s skin flushed, but India’s gentle smile showed her she wasn’t about to be judged. A lesson that Amber accepted graciously. ‘After I finished work last night, I saw something…something weird in the old cemetery.’ Amber gave a dry cough then carried on. ‘I saw a hooded man with curved swords and red eyes. When we walked past this morning the whole area was crawling with police.’ ‘What do you know of the history of Hills Heath?’ Amber was confused by the change of direction India’s question had taken. ‘Only what we were taught in school. The town was founded in 1277 by a priest and grew over the decades due to its close proximity to the river and rail…’ India cut her off mid-sentence. ‘Not the school’s version, I mean the true version.’ She stood and sauntered over to the bookshelves at the rear of the shop. They covered the entire back wall, apart from one doorway which Amber assumed led to a storeroom. She scoured the top shelf and pulled out a thick, leather-bound book

before joining Amber on the sofa. The front of the book had a picture of a red bird at the centre and Amber pressed her hand to her mouth as she recognised the image. ‘That bird…I saw it last night on the red-eyed man’s armour.’ India nodded and ran her fingers across the cover. ‘It’s a phoenix. They represent renewal and resurrection.’ ‘It didn’t look like this guy was resurrecting anyone, I think he murdered someone, I heard a scream and I saw something on the ground. It was so dark and it was raining, but I know what I saw and seeing the police this morning…well, the news is a classmate of ours has been killed.’ India’s face was expressionless as she listened. ‘How old was the boy who died?’ ‘It wasn’t a boy, her name was Kelly.’ India shook her head. ‘You must be mistaken.’ ‘There’s no mistake, it was a girl who died, but her boyfriend is missing.’ India opened the book and flicked through a few pages until she found what she was looking for, then she held the page out for Amber. ‘Is this hooded figure what you saw?’ A colour picture dominated the page; a tall man dressed head to foot in black armour, a long cape flowing down his back and a hood drawn up over his head. His face was stern and twisted into a grotesque snarl and his eyes were red balls of fire. You couldn’t make out his feet as he was standing amongst bright orange and red flames which weren’t burning him but instead looked to be a part of him. His curved swords were on show under the cape and he held a strange black shield with tiny green flames dancing along its surface. ‘Yes, that’s the guy but he wasn’t so…flame boy, last night.’ Tom peered over her shoulder at the picture. ‘Who is he?’ ‘They are called the Guardians of the Dead, an army of soldiers who keep the demons below ground in their cells.’ ‘Whoa!’ Amber held up her hand. ‘Demons?’ India smiled and relaxed back against the sofa, ‘Tom was right to bring you here today. I know you mock what I do, Amber, but there are forces surrounding us that a normal human couldn’t ever comprehend.’

Amber blushed and looked at her feet. ‘I didn’t mean to offend, I just don’t believe in other forces…or demons for that matter.’ ‘How do you explain what you saw last night then?’ She crossed her arms across her chest. ‘Red contact lenses and a fancy dress outfit!’ ‘Perfect, so if you’re right, then why are you here?’ Amber looked from India to Tom and back again. It hadn’t been her idea to come to the magic shop in the first place, but Tom believed that this woman could help and so she needed to be honest. ‘I’m here because I think I saw what happened last night…before it happened. I have dreams that are so realistic they frighten me, but they’ve never come true, until now.’ India smiled and traced a perfectly manicured fingernail along the picture of the phoenix. ‘Magic does exist, Amber, and if this can be true then the possibility of other creatures such as demons, also exists.’ Amber scanned the small store; glass cabinets ran along the far wall, full to overflowing with jars and glass bottles of every shape and colour imaginable. In front of the window was a mahogany table displaying huge chunks of crystals, shells and charms. Another cabinet beside the staircase housed hundreds of crystal tumble stones in every possible colour. From the railings of the mezzanine floor hung dreamcatchers in all sizes, some made with feathers and others with crystals. Hand carved wands and spell books were displayed in the glass counter below the old-fashioned till. ‘No offence, Miss Saks, but love spells and protection trinkets are just for the weak-minded, it’s all hocus pocus.’ India rolled her eyes and with a quick snap of her wrist she sent the book she had been holding floating up to the ceiling. A quick turn of her fingers and the book returned to its spot on the shelf. Amber swore and jumped up, stepping away from India. Her eyes flashed between the woman and the bookshelf as her mind whirled trying to comprehend what she had just seen. The door at the back of the store flew open and a dark-haired boy stepped

through, his thick brown hair falling across his eyes as he struggled with the box he was carrying. The muscles on his arms flexed as he jostled his way through the doorway. Amber hopped back another step. ‘Hey, Tom.’ He looked across at Amber and smiled. ‘You brought a friend, what fetches you guys to my domain?’ Amber’s head was reeling: floating books, Guardians of the Dead and demons. She didn’t know if she had the strength to act naturally in front of anyone else right now, especially someone so gorgeous. Her inability to string a sentence together in the presence of boys (Tom excluded) had always hindered her when it came to getting a boyfriend. Tom quickly introduced them. ‘Connor, this is Amber. Amber, this is Connor, India’s nephew.’ They shook hands and Connor’s warm smile put her at ease. She studied him as India and Tom filled him in on Amber’s sighting last night and on the police activity at the cemetery. His navy T-shirt hugged his torso and pulled tight across his stomach where he had hooked his thumbs into the pockets of his jeans. He didn’t look much older than she was but he didn’t go to their school. She would have remembered seeing him around the halls. His hair curled up slightly at the nape of his neck and she made every effort to stop herself from reaching out to see if it was as soft as it looked. ‘Guardians.’ His gravelly voice pulled her out of her daydreams as he made a statement rather than pose a question. ‘I’m afraid so,’ India answered, as she searched the bookshelves again and pulled out a couple of thick volumes. Everything was moving in slow motion for Amber as she watched the three of them move around the store. He didn’t even flinch when he found out about the red-eyed guy, she thought. India began to pile book after book on the tiny coffee table: mythology, demonology, spells and potions. Thirty seconds ago Amber had been a fairly normal sixteen-year-old with a neurotic dad and a malevolent stepmother, now she was struggling to hold herself together in the aftermath of being told everything she believed was untrue, magic did exist and she was in the presence of a bona fide

witch. The sound of India’s musical voice tore her from her thoughts. ‘You must promise me, boys, stay away from the church.’ Tom and Connor nodded in unison then returned their attention to the growing mountain of books on the coffee table. Amber shook her head. Stay away from the church? ‘Why?’ She looked at the boys’ trusting faces and directed her question to India. ‘Why do they have to stay away from the church?’ India levelled her eyes at Amber. ‘You may need to sit down for this…’ She gestured for Amber to join her on the sofa. ‘The Guardians live in another realm to our own, in a land called Phelan. They stole these lands from demons, brutally massacring thousands of them. The demons tried to flee Phelan and during the thirteenth century they began to enter our human realm. An ancient order of witches made a pact many hundreds of years ago with the Guardian general that his soldiers could use our land to imprison the demons and guard against them escaping or roaming free. The demons they didn’t kill were imprisoned and the prisons lie directly beneath your feet – in the earth.’ Amber instinctively looked down and shifted her feet from side to side as if the floor had suddenly heated up. ‘Don’t worry,’ Connor chuckled. ‘They’re in the cemetery ground, not here.’ India went on. ‘The gateway to Phelan lies deep within the earth, along with the prison cells. It’s the Guardians’ job to make sure the demons don’t get out and to kill the ones who try to escape. The Guardians are deadly fighters so none of these creatures have ever escaped during my lifetime.’ She flipped open one of the books she had in her hands and showed Amber a set of drawings. The picture showed the town’s old church surrounded by human-looking gravestones, but as her eyes travelled down the page she saw that beneath the foundations lay a stone prison, a deep cylindrical vault cut into the rock. A spiral staircase ran through the centre, directly under the church, and descended deep into the earth’s core until it ended at a wall of flames. India pointed at the flaming gateway. ‘This is the door to Phelan. Only Guardians can pass through the wall of fire as their general holds the only gateway

key.’ Amber’s head began to swim; all this talk of demons and Guardians on an empty stomach wasn’t good. India seemed not to notice her distress, or chose to ignore it, and continued, ‘The pact has held for centuries, the Guardians keep the demons under control and this town remains oblivious to what goes on beneath its feet. However, there is a catch. The general of the Guardians requested a payment for keeping our realm demon-free.’ ‘Payment?’ ‘Yes…to recruit members for their army they require a sacrifice.’ Amber felt drained as the words began to sink in. ‘Recruit members for their army,’ she repeated very slowly, not really wanting to hear the rest of India’s history lesson. ‘I’m afraid so. The Guardian general was forged in the heart of a volcano by very dark magic thousands of years ago. He built his stronghold at the top of the Black Mountains and amassed his army from scratch using his blood magic and host bodies.’ Amber began to feel agitated. ‘The Guardians take human hosts from our realm, and using this blood magic they undergo a transition to become Guardians themselves, losing any human memories and becoming demon fighting machines.’ Her limbs became heavy and numb, and a wave of nausea and dizziness washed over her. Yes, that’s one history lesson I could have lived without, she thought as the blackness enveloped her. When she opened her eyes she found herself cradled in Connor’s arms. His face hovered over hers, and his handsome features were scrunched up as he frowned in concern. His dark brown hair tumbled into his eyes, and Amber had to fight the impulse to smooth it back with her hand. ‘She’s awake,’ he shouted out, looking behind her towards the door. India appeared, carrying a wet towel and a mug of something steaming. She knelt down beside her, and Connor gently lifted her up. Holding the hot liquid to her lips she instructed her to take a sip.

‘Ugh.’ Amber wrinkled her nose and pulled away. ‘That’s gross.’ Connor laughed and released his grip on her, much to her disappointment. ‘She’ll live.’ He sat back on the floor, wrapping his muscled arms around his knees. ‘By the goddess, Amber, you gave me such a fright.’ India looked flushed; her milky skin was tinged red and beads of sweat shone on her forehead. ‘I’m sorry, I guess all that talk of demons finished me off.’ Despite the sour taste, Amber took another sip of the hot liquid, her mind still swimming. She cleared her throat, ‘I get that the Guardians recruit people to boost their ranks, and then they all fight the demons, but what I don’t understand is what it has to do with Tom and Connor staying away from the church.’ ‘Hills Heath’s derelict old church holds the gateway to Phelan, it’s the picture from the book. The payment made from the town to the Guardians has stood for hundreds of years. It’s a pact and a bargain made with the town’s founder, Father Ashby, and upheld by generations of witches’ covens. Only one witch refused the payment and she vanished and was never seen again. The Guardians stop demons entering the human realm in exchange for three human sacrifices – sixteen-yearold boys.’ Amber was stunned and snapped her head round to look at Connor. He shrugged his shoulders and gave her a crooked smile. His arm muscles were tense under his sleeves. As he sat hugging his knees to his chest, his brown eyes watched her reaction, and she thought she saw admiration there. ‘It’s a lot to take in,’ he said, still gazing into her eyes. ‘I have to say I’m impressed that you only fainted – I puked all over the shop when Indi first told me.’ India clicked her tongue as she obviously remembered the moment he was referring to; she gathered her long skirts and stood up, clearing the disgusting cup of God-knows-what as she went. He stretched his arm out towards Amber and for a brief moment she thought he was going to hold her hand. Instead he showed her a tan-coloured rope wristband.

‘It’s a protection talisman,’ he told her, twirling it around for her to see. ‘Indi made it for me when I first moved here after my parents were killed, and after she told me the town’s secret. I never take it off; it’s a bit like mosquito repellent.’ Amber laughed. ‘It’s beautiful.’ It was really pretty and not out of place on a boy’s wrist. The thin rope wound around a row of haematite crystals and when Connor lifted it to her face she could smell bergamot. ‘I’ll make one for you and Tom after we close.’ ‘Why do I need one?’ Amber looked confused. ‘If they only take boys.’ ‘You’ve actually seen a Guardian, Amber, I’m afraid I don’t know if that puts you in any danger so I’d rather you had some sort of protection, even if it’s only a warning alarm that alerts you to otherworldly creatures.’ ‘Okay,’ she mumbled, slightly alarmed at the thought of getting close enough to otherworldly creatures to activate such a thing. ‘We must stay vigilant,’ India was saying. ‘You all must stay as far away from the church grounds as possible. If the Guardians are recruiting then that’s the only soil they can walk on in our realm.’

Chapter Three Connor was sprawled on the floor with his back to the storeroom door, a heavy book between his outstretched legs; he was studying a graphic picture of torture à la Guardian when Amber seated herself next to him. ‘That’s disgusting,’ she said, leaning across him to look at the full colour picture. It showed a young boy, his face twisted in fear, pinned to the floor by one of the leather-clad Guardians. He was crouched over the boy’s body pressing a thin blade through his heart. ‘That’s the Guardian ritual,’ Connor said, lifting the book up to give Amber a better look. He raised his knees and brushed his thigh against hers. Amber felt her face grow hotter. She allowed her long curls to hang forward, masking her reaction as Connor pointed at the weapon used to pierce the heart. ‘It’s a special Guardian tool,’ he said, his voice quiet as he traced a finger across the picture. ‘The handle holds a deadly blood magic and when the thin blade is stuck into the heart, the liquid pumps through the victim rendering him paralysed and usually unconscious – one easy package ready for transportation to Phelan.’ Amber flinched and inhaled sharply to settle her churning stomach, a sure sign she was heading for another fainting fit or was likely to vomit in Connor’s lap. He flipped the page of the book to show a series of pictures depicting the transformation process to become a Guardian. ‘Once they arrive in Phelan their human blood is drained away and Guardian blood is pumped in, stripping away all their human memories. The ceremony involves many magic rituals but we have no records of those.’ ‘So that’s what happens to the boys from our town?’ ‘If the Guardians take them, then yes.’ He smiled ruefully as he lifted his gaze to look at her. His eyes were liquid pools of chocolate, and as she lost herself in the rugged beauty of his face she felt a sense of calm wash over her. She wondered what it would feel like to kiss him. Connor’s soft voice dragged her from her thoughts as he continued, ‘they probably won’t remember any of it: the pain or the transformation. As far as I can gather, the blood magic makes it possible for the

recruit to travel through the gateway before they are fully transformed, and they are most likely unconscious.’ ‘I’ve been thinking,’ India interrupted. ‘Beheading a victim is not a characteristic of the Guardians. They only take a recruit if there are no witnesses. I’ve heard of Guardians being disturbed halfway through a ritual and disappearing in a cloud of fog, leaving the recruit half-dead, but they never behead people, and they never target females.’ She reached for another dusty book and added it to the growing pile on the small coffee table. ‘The same old legends keep coming up,’ she said, pulling a large volume onto her lap, ‘Guardians recruit three boys. The incident with your friend sounds like the work of a cold-blooded human killer, unless we can find proof to the contrary.’ They grew silent as they all pored over the books on Guardians and demons, looking for headless rituals. Amber and Tom worked through the town history books – the alternative history that neither of them had been taught in school. Amber’s head began to swim again, and she was just about to suggest a coffee break when Tom leapt from his seat clutching a tattered velvet book. ‘Dragovax demon!’ He was practically hopping up and down as he waved the book over his head. India took it from him and studied the open page. ‘Well there’s our proof.’ They all gathered closer to get a better look. A picture of a huge creature filled the page; it was dark grey with thick black veins running just under its skin. Amber’s gaze strayed to the long fingers with razor-sharp talons on the end of its long muscled arms. ‘The Dragovax are native to Phelan, these are the demons that are killed and imprisoned by the Guardians. This confirms it, neither a Guardian nor human killed your friend, the Dragovax did.’ ‘But the town pact was put in place so that Guardians prevented the demons from wandering our streets.’ ‘Yes, yes that’s true. I’ve never read of a demon ever getting past the Guardian defences, unless…’ ‘Unless what?’

‘We know the Guardians are recruiting, we believe they have their first young man. This means they are distracted. It’s possible that a necromancer is using this to their advantage.’ ‘A necro-what?’ It was Tom who asked the question much to Amber’s relief. She was having difficulty holding it together with the little she did know, without adding any more supernatural beings into the mix. India picked up a red paperback and handed it to Tom. ‘Necromancers are evil practitioners who work with very black magic. They perform dark rituals of suffering, but they also have the ability to animate the dead and create undead servants.’ Tom’s eyes grew wide as he turned the pages of the book. ‘The demons aren’t dead though, they are only imprisoned.’ Amber had remembered that much from her earlier evil history lesson. India nodded. ‘True, but the passage from Phelan to the cells puts the demons in a comatose state similar to a human death. The necromancers have discovered that their unique skills can raise these demons. They just have to get past the Guardians, which has never been possible in the past. If a Dragovax escaped then its natural instinct would have been to kill first and ask questions later.’ India pressed her fingertips against her temples as she spoke. ‘But the only way this creature could escape is with the help of a necromancer.’ Connor picked up where India left off. ‘It looks like the Guardian was hunting for a new recruit and came across the demon after he had beheaded your friend, which means the boyfriend became recruit number one.’ India shrugged her delicate shoulders. ‘As awful as this situation is, we don’t think there will be any more deaths by decapitation. It looks like the demon’s release was only fleeting.’ Amber pinched the bridge of her nose. ‘So the demon escaped, it killed Kelly and the Guardian killed the demon and then took Dan off to Guardian world. Is that everything?’ ‘Pretty much.’ Connor shifted his position to face Amber. ‘The only drawback is that the Guardians recruit three at a time and as far as we know, your friend Dan is only recruit number one. There will be two more disappearances before we can

sleep easy.’ There was a loud bang on the shop door which made everyone jump. India opened the door and, after a brief exchange, she let the visitor enter. ‘Dad!’ Amber walked in front of the demonology books before her father could see them. ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘I was going to ask you the same question, young lady.’ He ran his fingers through his hair, nervously glancing around the shop, eyeing up the small group. ‘I’ve been looking everywhere for you, I was worried and the coffee shop was closed.’ Amber felt a sudden pang of guilt over their recent arguments. Her dad looked so tired and she hadn’t made it easy on him. There were dark circles beneath his eyes and his hair looked slightly greyer than it had the previous week. He fumbled with his car keys and shifted from one foot to the other. He looked uncomfortable in their company, which was unusual as he had always been such a people person. She wanted her old dad back, not the pathetic man that stood in front of them. ‘India invited us to stay here after…after the trouble at the cemetery.’ She pointed over to India who nodded her head in greeting. Her father’s tight lips attempted a smile but he gave up and met Amber’s gaze with a vacant expression, his eyes sweeping around the shop and over her friends. ‘I’m waving a white flag,’ he said raising his hand to mimic the action. ‘I want us to have a family dinner tonight.’ Amber was always apprehensive when her dad suggested a family dinner. They rarely sat together anymore, and she always made up some excuse to be out at mealtimes. Making small talk with Patricia wasn’t her idea of a good time. ‘Tom can come too,’ her dad continued, looking briefly in Tom’s direction. ‘It was Patricia’s idea. She said you two would be upset after what happened to your school friend and we should talk about it.’ Alarm bells were ringing in Amber’s head, but before she could graciously decline, Tom was shaking her dad’s hand. ‘Great, Mr N, we’ll be there at seven.’ Her dad backed away quietly, anxiously glancing around the store until he made it to the door. He mumbled a thank you to India and left. Amber turned around slowly. ‘What the hell was that?’

‘Oh come on, cutie, you know I can’t resist food let alone the opportunity to wind up Plastic Patsy, it’ll be fun…honest.’ She rolled her eyes and threw up her arms in a gesture of defeat then noticed the peculiar look that India was giving her. ‘What is it?’ ‘Your dad…’ She fiddled with her necklace as she spoke. ‘What does he do for a living?’ ‘He’s in sales and marketing.’ India’s brow furrowed as she exchanged a strange look with Connor, who remained unreadable. After the longest pause he smiled. ‘He seems great.’ She nodded and wondered if they had picked up on the whole neurotic-dadbad-daughter vibe. She vowed to try a little bit harder to get along with him. *** When they walked through the door of Amber’s house that evening, they were hit with an amazing array of sounds and smells. Coldplay filled the house, the beats pumping out of the stereo in the living room, and the whole house smelt of home-made pizza and garlic dough balls. ‘Ten out of ten for presentation,’ Tom whispered, as he dug Amber in the ribs. Patricia appeared in the kitchen doorway, her bleached blonde hair piled high in a ponytail making her look like a schoolgirl at sports day. She wore her trademark Juicy Couture tracksuit and a pair of white leather Chanel trainers. ‘Just in time.’ She smiled at the pair and ushered them through to the dining room. Amber had never seen so much food; the table cloth – white of course – was covered with three varieties of pizza, an array of salads and vegetable kebabs. Her dad sat at the head of the table with a satisfied smile on his face. She thought how much brighter he looked compared to earlier that day. ‘This looks great, Mr N.’ Tom grabbed a chair and reached for a plate. ‘Patsy, this must have taken you all day.’ Patricia visibly convulsed. ‘It’s Patricia,’ she snapped, ‘and yes it took me all day, but I’m sure you both appreciate the hard work.’ Her face relaxed and her tone softened as she handed out the plates. ‘We just wanted to make sure you were okay

after such a shock.’ They ate in relative silence for a while, Amber finally feeling guilty enough to make a comment. ‘This is lovely, thank you.’ Patricia beamed and with a tiny wave of her perfectly manicured hand she said, ‘Oh it was nothing.’ Slowly the conversation began to flow, and before Amber knew it she was telling her dad all about the body at the cemetery. Alan spoke between mouthfuls. ‘It’s such a dreadful shame, her parents must be heartbroken, is there any news on the boyfriend?’ Amber and Tom exchanged looks, but she shook her head. Now wasn’t the time to tell her dad about Hills Heath’s alternative history. ‘It’s not looking good for him. The police think that it could have been a lovers’ tiff.’ ‘I’m sure he’ll turn up soon enough,’ Patricia said as she began to clear the empty plates. ‘Boys that age are always getting themselves into trouble.’ She winked at Tom and he recoiled. ‘He probably didn’t have such a beautiful charm bracelet to protect him.’ She ran her finger along Tom’s forearm, stopping at the talisman India had made for him. ‘So pretty.’ ‘Thanks, it was a gift from India Saks.’ ‘Aaah, a special gift indeed if the resident witch made it for you.’ Patricia chuckled as she weaved around the table clearing dishes. ‘Not that we believe in that rubbish in this house, eh, Amber?’ Amber shook her head. ‘Life would be so dull if we all believed in the same things.’ She brushed her fingers along her own talisman as she tucked it under the sleeve of her shirt. She certainly wasn’t about to confide in this woman that her beliefs had been tested today. The conversation steered to schooldays and they began to reminisce about Kelly and Dan’s school life as Patricia tidied up around them. ‘Can I smell apple crumble?’ Tom shouted through the open door. A voice drifted back from the kitchen, ‘Yes, I heard it was your favourite.’ Tom grinned and jumped up from the table to follow the delicious smell of baked apples and cinnamon emanating from the kitchen and permeating the entire house.

As her dad cleared his voice to speak, Tom burst through the door. ‘Just popping to the shop. Pats…Patricia has run out of custard and you know how I am with my puddings.’ He laughed, but Amber frowned at him. ‘The shop’s right by the church, it probably isn’t the safest place to go.’ She looked pointedly at Tom but he dismissed her with a wave. ‘Patricia said it’s probably THE safest place to be with all the police around. I’ll be fine, cutie, I’ve got my protection.’ He wiggled the talisman India had made for him at Amber, then pushed it under his jumper. ‘Don’t eat all the crumble before I get back.’ With that he bolted out of the front door and into the night. Amber did worry though. She couldn’t help it. India’s warning repeated over and over in her head. ‘Stay away from the church.’ She hadn’t thought the police made it any safer, maybe because it was an otherworldly creature they were dealing with and not a lovers’ quarrel. She was pretty sure the police department didn’t have a crack team of demon hunters on staff. Her dad broke her concentration as he shuffled in his seat. ‘How are you enjoying your summer so far?’ Amber looked over at her dad incredulously. The summer holidays had only just started and he knew that she had chosen to take as many shifts at the coffee shop as she could. Did he not realise it was so she didn’t have to stay in the house with them? She wondered again when they had drifted so far apart; she missed him. She missed his smile and his funny stories and she missed hearing him laugh. He seemed to be besotted with Patricia but over the past ten years she hadn’t seen him relax or laugh. He was like a robot in denims and a flannel shirt. Her phone vibrated in her pocket, allowing her a reprieve from answering her dad’s question. [No custard at shop, feeling a bit under the weather so going home.T.] Using this as her cue to leave, she excused herself from the table and went to bed; it had been a draining day both physically and emotionally. She replied to Tom’s message telling him she’d call round in the morning, then she crawled under the covers and drifted straight off into an uneasy sleep. ***

The red-eyed Guardian stood outside her house, watching the door with his curved blades drawn, each one dripping with blood. The front door of the house opened, and Tom walked down the path to the street. She was shouting from the window and banging on the glass with her fists, but as Tom turned to look back at her the Guardian thrust his blade into Tom’s stomach and grinned up at Amber as her best friend crumpled in a heap at his feet.

Chapter Four When Amber crawled out of bed she felt like her head was full of cotton wool. The dreams she was having were getting more and more realistic, and it was draining her energy. Her eyes were swollen and puffy, and she realised she had been crying in her sleep. Grabbing her phone, she sent Tom a quick message to see if he was feeling better, then jumped in the shower. Once she was ready, she managed to escape the house unseen. She had uncharacteristically enjoyed herself last night, but she wasn’t ready for full-on family bonding over breakfast too. *** Tom’s house was all quiet when she rang the bell. His parents weren’t hands-on with his upbringing and had left him to fend for himself since he was about eight. It was no surprise to find them out so early in the morning. What was surprising was that Tom didn’t seem to be home either. As a typical sixteen-year-old he could always be counted on to lounge in bed until well past lunch. She sent another message telling him to meet her at the magic shop when he dragged himself out of bed. *** India was dressed in a long green velvet dress when she opened the door for Amber, her long hair was braided down her back and interwoven with green ribbon, and Amber thought she looked like an extra from a Robin Hood movie. Her smile didn’t reach her eyes though, and she had faint bruises showing a lack of sleep. Connor was stretched out on the floor, surrounded by books and parchments; he gave Amber a warm smile as she set her rucksack down beside him. ‘Have you guys been to bed at all?’ Connor was still in his dark jeans and navy T-shirt from the previous day, his dark hair was slightly unkempt in a sexy kind of way, and he had a faraway look in his eyes that told Amber he could nod off at any moment.

‘Nah,’ he said, rolling over onto his back. ‘Sleep is for the weak, and this warrior is primed and ready for action.’ He yawned and stretched his arms above his head. ‘Warrior!’ Amber laughed loudly. ‘If you don’t mind me saying, you certainly don’t look ready for action, you look ready for bed!’ Connor winked. ‘Is that an invitation?’ Amber’s cheeks turned crimson as he laughed and pulled himself up to a sitting position. She flopped down next to him, ignoring the heat running through her veins, and reached for a book. ‘How was the family dinner?’ ‘Better than expected. Tom wasn’t feeling so great though, so he went home early, but I haven’t heard from him today.’ She felt the atmosphere change around her and glanced up to catch India looking pointedly at Connor with an unreadable expression. ‘What is it? That’s the second time in two days you’ve both looked like that when I’ve mentioned anything to do with my family, and it’s freaking me out.’ ‘Sorry, Amber, I didn’t mean to worry you, it’s nothing honestly. I just sensed… great sorrow from your dad yesterday.’ Amber was shocked. She’d never associated sorrow with her dad, and he had always just got on with things in his matter-of-fact way. Miserable, moody and argumentative yes, but not sad. ‘How old is your dad?’ ‘He’s forty-two.’ ‘Where’s your mum?’ ‘She walked out on us when I was six. Why?’ ‘Just curious.’ India fiddled with the hem of her velvet dress. ‘If I didn’t know better, Indi, I’d say you were crushing on my dad.’ She laughed out loud and was relieved that they both joined in, the oppressive atmosphere lifting slightly. ‘Well, he is hot,’ said India, winking at Amber as she stood. ‘Ugh, that’s just wrong, old people romance is never a fun topic.’ She and Connor laughed as India made a mock-insulted noise at being referred to as old. The little bell chimed as the shop door swung open. A stout figure stood framed

in the doorway, her auburn hair hanging in an uncombed mass of curls. Her face was rounded with a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. Amber recognised her and stood up to dust off her jeans. ‘Hi, Mrs Cassidy, how are you?’ Mrs Cassidy had twins in Amber’s year at school, although they were much thinner versions of their parents. ‘Have you seen Carl?’ She walked further into the shop and Amber noticed she’d been crying. Her face was red and blotchy, and she clutched a small handkerchief in her plump fingers. ‘He went out with Cleo last night and they got separated. Cleo looked everywhere but couldn’t find him so she came home on her own. Carl still hasn’t come home.’ She rushed over her words as they fell as fast as her tears. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t seem to stop crying, silly old fool, eh? It’s just not like Carl to leave Cleo on her own and vanish like this.’ Amber wrapped an arm around her ample shoulders and steered her towards the open front door. ‘I haven’t seen him, Mrs Cassidy, but if I do I will get him to call home straightaway. I’ll ask around and see if anyone else has spotted him. He’ll show up soon.’ Mrs Cassidy looked up at Amber through watery eyes and smiled. She nodded her thanks and walked off down the street, stopping the first person she came across, obviously asking them the same questions. Amber’s eyes were shining with unshed tears when she slowly turned to face India and Connor; they both shook their heads. ‘Please step forward, recruit number two,’ Connor said, his voice barely audible. ‘This is too hard,’ Amber shouted. ‘These are people I know, India, not just unknown faces that I read about in the newspaper.’ India wrapped her arms around Amber’s shoulders and hugged her tightly. ‘I know it’s difficult to accept, but this pact has held for hundreds of years, it’s in place to keep the rest of the human realm safe. If the Guardians didn’t take their quota, then the demons could roam free and it would be a slaughter.’ Amber broke down on India’s shoulder. ‘I know, I do understand but I don’t have to like it. These are my friends that are being taken, isn’t there another way?’

India sighed deeply. ‘I wish there was. As the coven leader it falls to me to ensure the pact is honoured as my ancestors did before me, but when Connor’s parents died and he came to live with me, I began to question the pact myself. Connor is sixteen and can be targeted by the Guardians that I am supposed to assist…’ Amber pulled away. ‘What do you mean…assist?’ India’s eyes clouded over, and she looked at the floor, a cloak of shame hanging over her head. ‘The Guardians can turn up at any time to claim their recruits. Once they make their presence known…I am instructed to cast a spell over the town which would draw out these young men.’ ‘Why the hell didn’t you tell me that?’ Connor stood up abruptly. ‘That spell would have affected me this year.’ India nodded. ‘I know…that’s why I didn’t cast the spell.’ Connor and Amber looked at each other, confusion etched on both their faces. How was it possible that India’s role as coven leader was to work with these barbarians? ‘If you didn’t cast the spell then how are they recruiting these boys?’ ‘I honestly don’t know. I think your friend Dan was a simple accident, but now this boy Carl has disappeared…I don’t know how they are being drawn out and guided to the churchyard, but I know for a fact it isn’t by my hand.’ Connor ran his hands through his hair as he paced up and down the shop. ‘They have two recruits already, they can’t both have been accidents. Nobody goes near that church if they can help it, especially now, after the headless body incident.’ ‘Could someone else be drawing out the boys?’ India leant down and grabbing a small book from the coffee table, flicked through it until she found the page she wanted. The colour drained from her face. ‘Necromancers have a similar ability. They can draw out a demon or an undead spirit, so it’s possible that they would be able to use a similar spell to the one I should have worked on the town.’ Connor halted his pacing. ‘Why would a necromancer want to help the Guardians? They’re only interested in raising the demons for their own…oh!’ ‘Oh…oh what?’ Amber watched as Connor’s expression hardened.

‘Once the Guardians have their three recruits, they leave and return to Phelan. They have to perform the ceremony to transform the boys’ blood, and if they are busy in Phelan…’ ‘…then they aren’t guarding the demons,’ India finished. Amber had to warn Tom. He needed to know how important it was to stay away from the church. She was annoyed that he hadn’t been in touch. ‘Why don’t we drop you home and we can tell him together?’ India snatched up her car keys and made for the door. Connor followed her out into the bright sunshine and climbed into India’s battered old Volkswagen Beetle. *** They set off down the high street, and Amber noticed the small clusters of neighbours milling around outside their front doors. Through the open window she could hear each little faction discussing the macabre goings-on at the cemetery. Amber knew that India was right about the slaughter if the demons roamed free, but seeing her local community in such a panic made her feel unsettled. Ten minutes later they pulled up outside Amber’s terraced house and stepped out. Connor uncurled himself from the back seat and hovered at the end of the path leading to Tom’s house next door, like he was her own personal bodyguard. Tom’s mum answered the door, her floaty kaftan flapping in the light breeze. ‘Hey, Amber, how are you?’ ‘Hi, Mrs Southwark, is Tom in?’ She shook her head. ‘Sorry, honey, I thought he was with you. Said he was having dinner with you last night so I figured he’d stayed over. I haven’t seen him all day.’ A deep chill spread through Amber. Starting at the base of her neck the trickle of icy fear flowed down the length of her spine and radiated outward down her limbs until her bones felt frozen. She bunched her hands into tight fists to stop herself from crying as she thanked Tom’s mum with a forced smile, ‘No problem, catch you later.’ Connor was at her side before the front door had even closed, his arm wrapped tightly around her shoulders. Amber was too shocked to even care, and when she got back to the car she felt numb.

‘He’s not home, it doesn’t mean anything bad has happened,’ India tried to comfort her. ‘He’s a sensible lad, Amber, and he knows the secrets of Hills Heath, he will be careful.’ ‘He wasn’t careful though…’ she snapped, ‘…he went past the cemetery last night to run an errand for Patricia, and I haven’t seen him since then.’ India tensed and a soft cry escaped her lips. Amber followed her line of sight and felt the scream rise up in her throat. Lying in the gutter, almost hidden from sight, was Tom’s talisman. Connor scooped it up and showed the girls. The crystals were covered in dirt from the gutter and the chain was broken. India studied the chain, wiping the grime away with her thumb. ‘This was broken using magic,’ she said. ‘See here?’ She held the links on her outstretched palm and pointed at the break. The metal was scorched as if it had been held over a Bunsen burner for too long, and the link had been ripped in two. ‘The Guardians?’ Amber asked weakly. ‘No, they don’t have this kind of magic. Their powers are concentrated for physical prowess and brute strength, not this.’ ‘Necromancer!’ ‘Yes, it would appear so. It’s the only explanation. If the Guardians have Tom, then he didn’t walk willingly into their open arms; another magical force drove him there.’ ‘Without his talisman, he didn’t stand a chance, did he?’ Amber turned the charm bracelet over and over in her hands. India folded her arms around her in a tight hug, ‘I can do a locator spell at the shop, and we will find a way to get him back. Connor and I will work the spell and you can come by later after you’ve rested. Don’t lose hope just yet, Amber.’ As she watched them drive away, she pulled her phone out of her pocket and sent a single message [I will find you]. *** Patricia watched her stepdaughter and her friends as they gathered together at the roadside. She couldn’t make out their words, but it was painfully obvious to

anyone watching that Amber was distressed. They had found something on the street, and this had been the cause of the upset. Although she couldn’t see the object from her concealed spot behind the lounge curtains, she knew exactly what it was. The three friends hugged and the velvet-clad woman with her young companion drove away. Patricia watched as Amber pulled out her phone and began pressing the keypad. She pushed her own manicured hand deep into her pocket and closed her fingers around the object in there, her lips curling up in a cruel snarl as the object vibrated. She lifted it out and looked at the tiny screen. It read [I will find you]. Patricia twitched the curtains back again to watch Amber as she made her way up to the house. ‘I very much doubt that, sweetie,’ she hissed, before burying the stolen phone back in her pocket and silently moving through to the kitchen. *** India stared at the three faces displayed on her Skype screen, each box showing three very different women. Hettie was a feisty red-headed witch from the Yorkshire Dales, choosing to teach her meditation classes to the smaller villages rather than promote her healing gifts in the city; her green eyes matched her aura. Softly spoken Lydia practised homeopathy from her tiny cottage in the Welsh hills where she preferred to surround herself with cats rather than people. The third was Fay, a tough witch from the Emerald Isle, who ran a cattle farm with her five brothers. They were the closest of friends and they were coven sisters. It was India who was chosen to move to Hills Heath as the head of the coven. Her parents had been adamant that she take on the responsibility that the High Coven offered. There had been strange circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the town’s former representative, whispers that her predecessor had tried to break the town’s bond with the Guardians. The head of the High Coven had assured her the Guardian pact remained intact, and she would be perfectly safe so long as she cooperated with the general. Her own coven had wanted to relocate with her, solidarity in numbers, but she had promised them she would call upon them if she needed their help.

When her brother and sister-in-law had been killed, the task of raising her nephew had fallen to her too. Moving from Hills Heath had not been an option, so she raised the boy to understand his heritage and helped him to integrate into a life of witchcraft. She taught him the true history of the town and trained him to fight, as her father had done with her. Now, the time had come to call upon her sisters for help. ‘What if it can’t be done?’ Hettie’s face filled the screen as she leant up close to the webcam. ‘It’s not like this situation hasn’t arisen before, and look what happened there.’ ‘There have been hundreds of disappearances, India. The payment to the Guardians must be honoured, why must we meddle in this one?’ ‘It’s very unorthodox,’ said Fay. India looked at the faces of her coven sisters. They were right. These rituals were ageless, but the coven had remained detached…until now. ‘I understand your concerns, and believe me when I say I have lost sleep over this situation, but I can feel a great force brewing in the town.’ A heavy silence descended as each of the witches processed the information. Hettie spoke first. ‘This girl, Amber, is she a witch?’ ‘No, but her father is definitely of magical origin, although she doesn’t seem to be aware of it.’ ‘Who was her mother?’ ‘I don’t know, she left when Amber was just six, walked out on the family and never contacted either Amber or her father again.’ ‘So she could have been a witch and found it necessary to flee Hills Heath?’ ‘I guess so; it’s hard for Amber to talk about, so I haven’t pressed the matter.’ Fay leant in closer to her webcam, ‘I think it may be time to ask Amber Noble just what she does know about her family.’ India nodded; she had known this would be a possibility ever since Amber’s father had called in to the shop that day. His aura had been a dull turquoise, and she had seen the trail of magical energy rolling off him in waves, but it had also been laced with black and grey flashes, as if he wasn’t really alive but a walking, talking ghost.

*** ‘So you’re going to teach me how to do spells?’ Amber was mildly amused. Although she was now totally convinced that magic did exist, she couldn’t quite help remaining isolated from it. ‘I’m doing a locator spell to find Tom, and I thought it advisable to teach you a simple protection spell,’ India sighed, ‘and if you could take this a little more seriously I would appreciate it.’ ‘Sorry, Indi, it’s just…well I feel like I should be out there, searching for Tom instead of learning party tricks…’ She trailed off as she saw the shadows roll across India’s face. Sweeping her arms wide and levelling her palms flat, India closed her eyes and muttered something under her breath. Two balls of blue fire appeared, each one crackling with magical energy, hovering above her hands. The lights in the shop flickered, then went out, and through the shop window Amber could see the sky growing darker as storm clouds filled the air. Clapping her hands above her head India began chanting loudly. Outside, the winds picked up and it began to rain heavily. Amber watched in utter astonishment as the residents of Hills Heath began running for cover. As quickly as it had arrived, the storm vanished, leaving the sun to shine and the shoppers to return tentatively to the streets. India slumped slightly as she disconnected from the spell and looked directly at Amber. ‘Point taken,’ she mumbled as India smiled and prepared the space for their first lesson. ‘Are you going to teach me how to do that?’ ‘No, manipulating the elements isn’t normally how one would start to learn the craft.’ She opened an old velvet book, and Amber marvelled at the handwritten notes and drawings. Brightly coloured feathers were sticking out of the pages like fluffy bookmarks. ‘This is my Book of Shadows,’ she explained. ‘It’s where I record everything about my incantations, potions and talismans.’

The cover of the book was a deep purple, and each of the creamy yellow pages was etched in gold. Every page had been filled with words, pictures, pressed flowers and herbs. Amber was awestruck. As she thumbed through the pages, the book fell open on one particular spell and her attention was drawn to the title. Destiny. ‘What’s this one?’ ‘When a witch comes into her powers she doesn’t know how to use them, she needs to be taught and guided by her mentor or mother.’ Amber frowned, but India carried on. ‘If no such mentor exists, this spell can point the new witch in the right direction.’ ‘So it’s like careers advice for the supernatural?’ India laughed. ‘A little, we each have different strengths and powers. Finding our right path is very important.’ ‘Don’t you just point and shoot with your blue fire fingers?’ India snorted. ‘It’s a little bit more technical than that. I realised I was a witch when I turned ten; my father was a witch and taught me how to feel my power in the palm of my hands. One day we were sitting around a campfire toasting marshmallows when a spark leapt from the flames and set his trouser leg alight. He was hopping around like crazy, and I just “felt” what I had to do. I guess I did point and shoot because I concentrated on the element of fire and it went out…his flaming trousers and the campfire!’ She chuckled at the memory and continued, ‘My dad was so pleased with me and we realised then that my talent was elemental magic, like the fae but not so powerful.’ Amber shook her head. ‘The what?’ ‘The fae,’ she repeated. ‘Faeries.’ ‘You have got to be kidding me!’ Amber rose suddenly to her feet and paced back and forth, then stopped to gawk open-mouthed at India. ‘Just so we’re on the same page, we have Guardians from another dimension, demons who behead people, witches who mess with the weather, and now you want me to believe that the faeries at the bottom of my garden are real!’ ‘From now on, Amber, it might be easier for you to believe that everything of myth and legend is real, and then it may not keep coming as such a shock.’ India

shrugged her tiny shoulders. ‘Just a thought.’ ‘Oh great…so what, the postman’s a werewolf, my teachers are vampires and old Mr Parkinson from the bakery is a goblin?’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Amber. Mr Parkinson is an orc, and it’s so obvious when you study the shape of his head.’ Amber threw her hands in the air and started to pace again. This was too much to handle. She hadn’t finished processing the fact that magic was real, and still they kept delivering fresh surprises. Faeries, orcs, demons and witches were all living in her town. The town she had called home and the same town that for hundreds of years had been a bloodbath of gigantic proportions. ‘Maybe we should take a break?’ She was halfway to the door when Connor burst through with a bag of cream cakes and a tray of hot chocolate. The sight of all that whipped cream almost drained her of her anxieties – almost. ‘Hey, what’s up?’ Connor glanced between India and Amber, sensing the atmosphere wasn’t quite right. ‘Oh, the usual,’ Amber began, ‘just having my first lesson about witches and their unique powers and how tough they can be but not as tough as, oh I don’t know, faeries!’ Connor glanced at India and gave a nod of his head. He watched Amber continue with her mini meltdown, then he placed the drinks and cakes on the counter and stroked his hand across Amber’s cheek. She felt all the anger and confusion drain out of her and a sense of immense peace wash through her. Her shoulders sagged and the tightness in her chest lifted. As she stared up into Connor’s big brown eyes she felt very sleepy all of a sudden. Just when she thought she may nod off in his arms, she saw his eyes change colour. The deep chocolate brown gave way to a bright purple, and she could see her own reflection bathed in this new colour. ‘Your eyes…’ she sighed. Connor nodded and his lips curled in a gentle smile. ‘I’m half fae,’ he said in a hushed tone. The air in the room seemed to whoosh out all at once and suddenly there was

only Amber and Connor, and she was very aware he was touching her, the heat from his hand pressing against her face, and a stronger heat pooling deep in her gut. She raised her hand and caressed his face, her eyes never leaving his. She was falling into them, pools of liquid purple, full of warmth and … ‘Okay, Connor, that’s enough.’ India’s voice was sharp as it cut through the air, releasing Amber. ‘What the hell was that?’ She recoiled when she realised she was still stroking his face, embarrassed by such an intimate touch. Connor didn’t seem to mind and only dropped his hand when she moved beyond his reach. ‘I have the ability to calm feelings and lessen physical pain,’ he said, pulling a large slice of Victoria sponge cake from the paper bag. ‘My brother, Connor’s father, was a witch but his mother was fae. This union was, and still is, fairly uncommon as the resulting child can suffer from torn personalities. In Connor’s case his parents brought him up to cherish both sides of his lineage: the fae wisdom and the witch power. I have been working with him to hone his skills and manage his abilities.’ Amber watched Connor as he expertly polished off his second slice of cake before scooping a mound of cream from the top of his hot chocolate. ‘I thought only girls were faeries, you know, like Tinkerbell?’ Connor laughed loudly. ‘I’m also part witch, so I leave my little green dress and fairy wings in my wardrobe on weekdays,’ he teased. ‘Funny!’ ‘It’s taken Connor a long time to master his dual identity,’ India said. ‘He has had to train tirelessly and study the legends and heritage of both cultures.’ ‘Can you do spells like Indi?’ Amber was now intrigued, her initial shock and fear wavering. ‘I can only tap into my fae magic to calm someone’s emotions or relieve their pain, but Indi’s trying to help me find my witch power. I can fight with swords though which is pretty cool. My dad was a brave warrior and he was a champion with his sword and staff.’ Amber noticed how his eyes twinkled when he spoke about his father, the

admiration clearly evident. ‘You miss them.’ It was a statement rather than a question and Connor nodded. ‘I was only young when they were killed, but I still remember them. My father would practise his martial arts every day after work, and my mother worked as a counsellor at the local school; the kids loved her. I guess I inherited her skills for calming hysterical students.’ He winked at her and she suddenly felt very shy, remembering the feel of his hands on her face. ‘The purple faerie eyes do kinda give the game away though,’ he added, as he offered the bag of cakes up for her. Amber laughed and retrieved a jam doughnut, trying to avoid spilling jam down herself as she pondered her own heritage. ‘Would your destiny spell work on me, Indi?’ India shook her head. ‘You’re human so it wouldn’t do anything but fizz and pop.’ Connor looked pointedly at his aunt. ‘Maybe we could try it for her, you never know, her dad may be a shape-shifter or something.’ Amber laughed. ‘I wish he could be; my dad is Mr-oh-so-boring. Patricia on the other hand is definitely a coyote or something.’ There was nervous laughter from India and Connor but she dismissed it. Her dislike for Patricia was obviously a private joke that only Tom understood. ‘It won’t do any harm,’ India said, as she reviewed the spell. ‘You probably won’t even feel a tingle, but we can try.’ *** When the hot chocolate and cakes had gone, Amber nestled herself inside the circle of salt that India said would protect her against bad energies. She was instructed to sit cross-legged, with her palms resting in her lap, facing up and her eyes closed. ‘Breathe in deeply, in and out, and keep that steady rhythm as we do the spell.’ As she sat breathing deeply and trying not to giggle, she began to think about her own family. Her dad worked so hard to provide for her and Patricia, but over the past ten years he had become more and more detached from her. She loved him so much, but when he looked at her it was as if he didn’t really see her. It made her

heart break a little more every day. She could picture her mum clearly. Her brown hair was cropped at the nape of her neck and her long fringe swept across her forehead with a single strip of silver hair, about an inch wide, that she tucked behind her ear. She had always joked that having kids had turned her grey, but Amber had loved how unique it made her mum. Her hazel eyes held a flicker of blue and they had sparkled whenever the two of them had talked. Amber had never understood what drove her mum away. Her dad never mentioned it, and he had wallowed in self-pity for a few weeks before meeting Patricia. Moving on for him had been much easier than it had for her; she missed her mum so much that her heart ached. As her mind whirled through the memories of her mum, she could feel a strange pulsating in her hands and feet. She was shuffling slightly on the spot, thinking her limbs must be going to sleep, when she was suddenly engulfed in a heavy windstorm, every inch of her skin tingled, and she felt her long hair whipping around her face. She screwed her eyes tightly shut, her heart racing as she was battered by the winds surrounding her. ‘Humans don’t feel a thing.’ That’s what India had said. She no longer felt the wooden floor beneath her; instead she felt an odd weightlessness. Her head was thumping and the vibration strumming through her body was intense. Her mouth was so dry, as if she hadn’t had a drink for a month. Just when she was ready to shout for India to stop, the winds ceased and she could feel the floor beneath her legs. She was shaking from head to foot, her eyes still closed and her breath coming in short, sharp gasps. Very slowly she flexed her fingers and opened her eyes. Connor and India were crouched on the floor behind the counter. The shop looked like a tornado had passed through it, and as she looked around her she noticed the circle of salt, her protection, had been scattered. With wobbly legs Amber stood up and looked again at the salt. The circle was gone, and instead the unmistakable shape of an eye stared back at her. ‘I’m going to take a stab in the dark here and say I’m not human.’ Her friends shook their heads.

‘Well that’s just terrific,’ she mumbled. *** It didn’t take long to straighten out the shop; they worked in silence as they reassembled the wands, collected the tumble stones and picked up the many books. Finally Amber couldn’t take the silence anymore. ‘Is anyone going to tell me what happened?’ India took a deep breath, holding on tightly to the counter. ‘As a human, that destiny spell should not have even fizzed or popped.’ She glanced around the shop briefly. ‘As you can see, there was more than a little fizz!’ ‘It felt like I was floating, and my whole body was tingling.’ ‘Did you see any pictures or hear voices in your head?’ Connor spoke for the first time, without looking up from his sweeping brush. ‘Not really, I was thinking about my mum, and I could see her face really clearly in my mind. I saw her eyes, clothes and that quirky silver strand in her hair.’ They both stopped what they were doing to stare at her in amazement. India reached below the counter and pulled out a tiny compact from her bag. She handed it to Amber and nodded for her to take a look. Lifting the small mirror in front of her she looked at the face that peered back. Her features were the same, but her eyes looked different; the deep chocolate brown had a small fleck of white in the centre that glowed like a light bulb. The mirror couldn’t fit all of her image so she moved it slightly and stopped as she caught sight of her reflection. The long dark waves still framed her face, but to the left was an inch wide strip of pure silver hair. She reached out to touch it, winding the strand around her index finger as she tried to swallow down the despair she felt clawing its way up her throat. ‘I look like my mum,’ she whispered, her voice breaking in a sob. India gave her a tight hug and ushered her to the sofa. ‘Who was your mother?’ ‘I don’t know, I don’t remember much.’ She pulled at the silver tendril. ‘I was only six when she left and Dad didn’t tell me anything. I remember what she looked like, her smell and her smile, but that’s pretty much it.’ Connor knelt in front of her and ran a hand over her hair; she instantly felt a sense of calm descend over her. He kept his hand cupped around her cheek, and

she nestled against him, relishing the feeling. ‘You are rocking some major power,’ he said softly. ‘It might be time to get your dad to fill you in on your family history.’ She let out a soft whimper and nodded; maybe the time had come to rebond with her dad.

Chapter Five The house was empty when she got home; a note on the counter informed her that her dad had taken Patricia out for dinner and that there was leftover casserole in the fridge for her. Amber opted for an apple instead and flopped down on the nearest chair to contemplate the day. She wasn’t human. How did you start to process that kind of a bombshell? Connor had been really sweet, and once he had used his funky fae powers on her she had felt more like her old self and less like the quivering wreck she had been after the spell. Her looks, on the other hand, were far from normal. The strip of silver in her hair fell across her eyes, and she twirled it around her finger absent-mindedly. Had her mum been a witch? That was the only explanation India could come up with. She was going to have to ask her dad but where did she start? ‘Hey, Dad, pass the salt, and by the way was Mum a witch before she dumped you and walked out? Maybe not. Her phone vibrated and jolted her back from her daydreams [Cemetery,now!T] Amber leapt from the chair and stared at the small screen for what seemed like an age; she’d been sending messages to Tom every hour and not heard a word, which had deepened her suspicions that he had been taken by the Guardians, but now here he was, alive and well. Her thoughts were jumbled as she worked through every scenario for his lack of contact. If he wasn’t dead or dying, then she was going to kill him herself for putting her through so much trauma. She tucked her phone in her pocket and sprinted for the front door. *** It was dark as she hurried along the deserted street; ever since the beheading incident, the residents of Hills Heath had been hiding behind locked doors. She sent a quick message to tell Connor that Tom hadn’t been taken by the Guardians and had got in touch and quickened her pace. She had missed Tom so much; they had been inseparable since they were small children, and he understood her like no-one else could. They needed each other to

survive the gaping hole that their respective parents had left, and as she ran towards the cemetery wall, she realised that she didn’t work without him. The police tents had been removed from the churchyard, and it was back to being the usual creepy old graveyard she knew and loathed. His message hadn’t told her specifically where to meet so she clambered over the lichen-covered wall and crouched low to avoid being spotted from the town square. Her eyes adjusted to the gloom and she could make out the grimy headstones surrounding her. Her breathing was heavy as she wound her way through the graves. Most of the stones were crumbling from age and neglect, names and dates weathered to an illegible smear, and the whole place smelt of damp earth and death. A movement in her peripheral vision caused her to freeze to the spot; she could feel the sweat trickling down her back as she shielded herself behind a large grey angel with its hands outstretched to the heavens. Her heart was hammering inside her ribcage as she waited for Tom to show himself. A deep feeling of foreboding crept over her, and she mentally kicked herself for rushing into this situation without giving it any rational thought. A sound close behind caused her blood to turn to ice; she could feel cold breath on her neck. She slowly turned to face whoever, or whatever, was standing there. The man was tall, much taller than Amber. His hooded cape covered his head and face, his breastplate was in her line of sight and the red phoenix emblazoned across the armour sent a ripple of shock through her whole body. Its bright red features matched the red eyes she could make out beneath the hood. ‘I know what you are,’ she said, her voice quavering. ‘I know that you are taking my friends.’ To her surprise the man chuckled, a deep throaty sound that was bereft of any humour. He reached out and trailed his gloved finger down the side of her face, lifting her chin with his index finger so she couldn’t look away. ‘Amber Noble,’ he said, causing Amber to squirm under his touch. How did this creature from another realm know her name? He let go of her and grasped either side of his hood. With a flourish he tore back

the cloth to reveal his face. ‘Dan!’ she backed away, horrified at the sight of him. The boy she had once known was no longer a boy; his muscles had developed to reveal arms as thick as tree trunks, his solid neck met with a hard mass of chest and he looked like he had been pumped full of steroids. His head was shaved and a deep purple tattoo snaked up his neck and across his scalp, the swirls of ink moving with him as if alive, and the ink running freely beneath the skin, swirling and shifting. His blood red eyes watched her stumble over rocks and tree roots in a feeble attempt to get away. His top lip curled up in a snarl and he moved forward with unusually stealthy grace for such a huge bulk. Amber was trying hard not to scream. Attracting attention could land some innocent boy in a whole heap of Guardian trouble if they attempted a rescue. ‘You killed Kelly,’ she cried as she scrambled along the dirt. The thing that was Dan chuckled again. ‘Not me…a demon, he was punished.’ ‘The Dragovax?’ ‘Clever girl.’ He stopped moving briefly and cocked his head to one side. ‘Your friends are here to save you, little eye, but none of you can save him.’ Amber looked behind her to where Dan was pointing and let out a tumultuous cry. Tom lay on the ground, covered in blood from a gash to his head. His arms were limp by his sides and his glassy eyes were fixed on the night sky. Protruding from his chest was a thin dagger, buried up to its hilt in his heart. Amber could see his chest rising and falling as he struggled to breathe. ‘No!’ she screamed. Dan grabbed the back of her hair and, wrenching her off the floor, tossed her to the side where she collided with a dirty stone tablet which cracked in two as she hit it. Her face smashed into the dirt and she spat the blood from her mouth. Her arm was on fire and when she tried to move it she yelled out in pain. She watched helplessly as Dan scooped up her best friend and made his way to the church doors. She called out to Tom, but he was unconscious, his body limp in Dan’s arms. Dan looked deep into Amber’s eyes and snarled, ‘We have our three – payment has been made. Until we meet again, little eye.’ And then they were gone.

She could hear Connor shouting her name, and she tried to answer between her sobs, but her grief overwhelmed her and she pressed her forehead against the dirt, closing her eyes and letting the darkness take her. *** Amber felt like she had been asleep forever. Her body ached in places she didn’t know existed, but she felt a strange sense of calm. Her memories were a jumble of pictures, flames, red eyes…TOM. Her eyes snapped open and she saw Connor sitting by her side holding her hand and stroking her hair. ‘Stop it,’ she snapped at him. He winced as the sting of her words hit him. Amber felt guilt drive through her. ‘I’m sorry, Connor, but I need to feel.’ Her voice was a low whisper. ‘If I don’t deal with my grief it will eat away at me.’ ‘I understand,’ he said, leaning over her. ‘I don’t want to take your emotions away, I’m trying to remove your physical pain.’ He took his hands away from her, and for a minute she tried to register his words. Then the agony descended, twisting through her limbs. She winced as the searing pain shot up from her toes and seeped into every bone and every muscle. She groaned. ‘You’ve broken your arm, two ribs and bruised your ankle.’ India’s voice was soft as she approached the sofa that was now a makeshift bed. ‘We didn’t want to take you home.’ She smiled at Amber but it didn’t reach her eyes, ‘I wasn’t sure how your dad would react.’ Amber swallowed down the scream that was threatening to surface and shook her head, stopping abruptly as even that movement caused her pain. ‘I haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet.’ She coughed as she spoke and cringed at the hurt it caused. ‘Please let me help you,’ urged Connor. Amber nodded and felt the intense pain subside as he began stroking his fingers across her forehead. ‘What happened?’ Amber went over the night’s events in her mind, ‘Tom sent me a message telling me to get to the cemetery. I didn’t think, I just ran.’

*** Tears rolled down her cheeks and Connor smoothed them away with a tender touch. ‘And was he there?’ ‘Yes,’ she nodded. ‘I saw him, he was broken and the Guar…Dan!’ She suddenly remembered. ‘The Guardian was Dan, but not the Dan I went to school with, he was all muscles and inky tattoo and freaky red eyes. He called me little eye and then he took Tom. He stabbed him and then he took him.’ Her whole body shook as she cried, clinging to Connor as she let all her pent-up grief out. She eventually cried herself to sleep cocooned in Connor’s arms. *** She could see Tom walking down the church path. He was with her mum and they were laughing. She tried to reach them but the flames wrapped around her ankles like chains. She tried calling to them but she choked on the dry heat. They turned together and looked in her direction, their expressions blank. As she shouted out they hissed at her and then walked into the wall of flames beyond the church door. She called for them to stop. The scene shifted and she was in a garden filled with sweet-scented flowers and fruit trees. A boy stood beneath one of the trees, his long white hair glistening in the sun and his deep purple eyes twinkled as he smiled at her. She felt her heart swell as she gazed at him, his features as familiar to her as her own. She tried to cry out as a figure appeared behind him, a hooded figure with red eyes, and as the man plunged a dagger into the boy’s back, she screamed. Her eyes flew open and she took a moment to get her bearings. The shop was in darkness, and someone had covered her with a blanket as she slept. Connor was nowhere to be seen, so without his faerie magic, her aches and pains had returned, although they weren’t as bad as they had been earlier. She swung her legs off the sofa and steadied herself into a sitting position. Her head was spinning like she’d just stepped off the carousel at the funfair. Give it a minute, she told herself as she dug her fingernails into the soft fabric. India was fast asleep on the floor by the storeroom, wrapped in a woollen cloak and clutching her Book of Shadows. Amber shifted on the seat, careful not to wake her. She looked at her left arm which was covered in bruises of every colour imaginable. India had said it was

broken, but Amber could move it without too much pain. She lifted her leg and wiggled her ankle; she couldn’t see any bruising or swelling there either. A voice in the darkness startled her. ‘You’ve healed yourself.’ Connor moved out of the shadows and came to sit beside her. He held yet another dusty, leather-bound book. The front cover was intricately carved to look like an eye. Amber recognised the shape from the pattern of salt from their earlier destiny spell. Had that really only happened that morning? It felt like an eternity ago. ‘Dan…the Guardian called me little eye,’ she told Connor as he flicked through the pages. He stopped when he reached a detailed drawing that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a history textbook. There were four figures swathed in white robes. Scrolls overflowed at their feet and tumbled off the golden cloud they were sitting on. With pleading eyes, a sea of faces looked up at these figures. The images of these tormented humans were surrounded by pictures of drought, famine and death. ‘Oracles,’ Connor said. ‘They were channels for prophecies from the gods, the authority in ancient times.’ ‘Why does everyone look so sad?’ ‘Legend has it that the oracles grew tired of people demanding their sight for profit and gain, and they fled to the four corners of the earth, leaving the world to fend for itself without a clue of what was going to happen.’ ‘What happened to them?’ ‘No-one knows, it was believed that they continued to live as humans and helped only those who showed themselves to be worthy of the sight. They integrated into human society, they married and had children.’ ‘And you think I could be a descendent of the oracles?’ ‘I know it sounds crazy, but it does make sense. You have freaky dreams, you are blatantly not human, and your broken bones have miraculously healed.’ He snapped the book shut and handed it to Amber. ‘Bedtime reading perhaps.’ She traced her finger along the outline of the eye on the front cover. ‘An oracle.’ She spoke softly as she repeated the word. ‘If that’s true then why didn’t I see what was going to happen to Dan and Kelly, or Tom?’

‘Your powers have been cursed.’ India’s voice surprised them both as she uncurled herself from the makeshift bed she had created. ‘Who would curse me?’ ‘I’m not sure yet, I’m going to contact my coven and see what we can find out.’ ‘If I can heal myself, does that mean you’ve uncursed me?’ India shook her head and in the soft light of dawn she looked older than Amber had ever seen her. ‘I think that whatever was binding your powers broke when we did the destiny spell, but I also think it runs deeper. I’m not sure that the entire curse on you has been lifted, and Amber…I think the curse extends to your father too.’ ‘My dad? Why would you think that?’ ‘When I met him the other day I sensed a great magic in him, but it was grounded, like his soul has been stolen. I think both of you have been cursed and that it may have something to do with your mother leaving.’ Amber’s head began to spin as she thought about the enormity of the situation. Her mum may have been in trouble and had to flee. Maybe she cursed them so they didn’t follow her. Maybe whoever cursed them had killed her mum when she tried to stop them. ‘You have a great amount of power inside you, Amber. Part of the curse still binds you, so your full powers are not free.’ ‘And just what are my full powers?’ Connor tapped the book in her hand. ‘Time to get your study head on, it’s all in the textbook and there will be a test on Monday.’ Despite herself Amber chuckled and nudged his shoulder. ‘Thank you, both of you.’ She smiled at India. ‘I don’t know what I’d do without you guys.’ ‘We’ve got your back.’ Connor winked and moved off through the storeroom door. India began to tidy up the blankets then followed Connor, leaving Amber alone with her thoughts. Amber looked down at the oracle book in her hand. All the answers lay in these pages, Connor had said. She was about to learn the truth, maybe find out why her mum had vanished. Steeling herself, she opened the first page.

For more information about Guardians of the Dead

Learn more about all of the great authors and books featured in this sampler as well as other great teen fiction titles available from BHC Press. Shelley Wilson N.J. Simmonds J.W. Garrett Evan D. Heuker Lonnie Davidson Ellen Alexander Richard L. DuMont Visit BHC Press for information on all current and upcoming titles

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