After discovering that all she fights for is a lie, a young commander joins her arch nemesis to defeat her king and save the three realms.
Cahya is a commander in the army of Refulgent. Her mission is to defend Hikari, the Light Realm and defeat the Soul Smite army of Kurai, the Dark Realm. Yet, Cahya has a secret, and her world unravels on a chance meeting with the King of Kurai where she discovers she may have helped fracture the realms.
Releasing today, June 24th!
Find and Follow
Most villains meet a likely doom by the end of their book… most villains are not Enders.
With the power of the codex, the Wanderer sends most of the Golden
Recluse into their books and Laney must rush to save them from their own writing. With William, she crosses the page into a horror novel filled with bloodthirsty birds, a romance paperback where, to their dismay, they become the main characters, and a children’s picture book that’s not as innocent as it seems. With each second that passes, the threat of the Wanderer’s pen threatens to end the Weavers.
With everything at stake, Laney realizes that she’s part of something bigger, and it all comes down to a choice that the Wanderer has always wanted her to make:
Will she save the man she loves, or the family she’s only just discovered?
The Final Chapter of The Weaver Trilogy!
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Find and Follow
The Governor climbed out of his crystal casket and crashed to the floor. “What was in that stupid plum?
“Seven years of poison.” Victoria met his mahogany eyes as he silently mouthed the word seven. “It was an emergency.”
–Gotham on Pause by Anne Marie Andrus
Find this story and more
A horror anthology with 27 stories from 16 authors…
The Box Under the Bed Book 4
The conclusion of The Monster in the Lake…
The Monster in the Lake
Thal punched through the last inches of limestone with his clenched hand, then watched as the first trickle of water from the river outside poured down the small tunnel and into the pool he had carved at the bottom of his new hollow in Amka’s cave. He raked smooth the perimeter of the final length of tunnel with his fingers as the water started filling the basin. Then he stood back to admire his work. He had worked for the last few days on this new addition: a chest-deep pool that channeled water in from the river outside, and drained to the same river some distance downstream once it was full. The pool would provide a place where he could bathe that was not out in the open; and, more importantly, it would give him back a connection to the water. He had been missing that since leaving his underwater home; but then, he would give up everything, if it meant being with Amka.
As if he’d called her with his very thoughts, he heard her approaching some distance away. He was expecting her much later in the evening; the sun was still high in the sky, and she would’ve assumed him to be sleeping. He’d gotten up earlier to work on his bath, but Amka didn’t know that.
Then, as he focused on the sounds that announced her approach, he distinguished her breathing was quick, her heart agitated. And it wasn’t just from running.
Amka was scared.
He ran out, eyes shut to avoid the glare, ignoring the pain in his hands, face and other exposed skin not covered by his scale armor that immediately reacted to the harsh sunlight. The sun didn’t light his skin on fire, but it nearly felt like it. His eyes were the most sensitive to sunlight and suffered the most damage; with enough exposure they could get destroyed completely to the point that he would be fully blind. Luckily, they would eventually heal. So he was counting on his body surviving the sunburn as he ran outside sun toward Amka, eyes closed, guided by her scent and the sound of her heart. He reached her in no time and wrapped his arms around her.
“What’s wrong?” he whispered urgently. He tried to open his eyes to see her, but the ruthless glare made it impossible.
“Thal! What are you doing out in the sun? I’m fine—go back inside immediately!”
Relieved to hear she was alright, and realizing he had completely overreacted, he lifted her off the floor and ran back to the cave. Once safe inside his skin started to heal, and he opened his eyes and finally managed to look at her. Her face had that subtly darker color that he knew came from the blood that flushed her cheeks; her heart still beat rapidly as though she was afraid. But her thoughts were a rush of excitement, not fear. She was thinking of him, and simultaneously thrilled and nervous for—
“A child?” he asked in a whisper, shocked.
“I-I think so,” she replied breathlessly. “I wasn’t sure, but my mother knows the signs, and she’s convinced.”
“Wait—your mother?” Thal said, not recovering his voice. “She knows?”
“Come inside,” Amka said, tugging his hand and pulling him further down the passage. “I’ll tell you what she said.”
As they walked deeper into the cave to his new home, Amka detailed her conversation with her mother, Mayna. Her mother had noticed the changes in Amka before Amka herself had; Mayna attempted to get her daughter to reveal with whom she had mated; but Amka, not wanting to risk the village learning of Thal’s existence, had denied there was anyone in her life. Mayna had then assumed that Torren had raped Amka and that’s why Amka had killed him, and now Amka was carrying Torren’s child.
“And I didn’t deny or care to correct her because, well, I don’t really need anyone asking me questions about you. So let them assume what they may,” she concluded.
How was it even possible?
Thal’s people were similar to humans in some ways, but they were two very different species. Would the child drink blood? How could there even be a child? According to his mother children among them were very rare. His people lived much longer lives, but didn’t reproduce as quickly as the humans did.
“Thal?” Amka asked nervously.
He realized he’d been rendered speechless by the news and hadn’t answered her, and her thoughts had turned fearful about his reaction. He quickly embraced her. “Amka, these are amazing news. You don’t know how happy I am. My people—the unk-ga—we don’t often have children. Your people, the sihg-zhe—sun-dwellers, that’s what it means—have the advantage, being able to reproduce so well by comparison. Babies and children are sacred in our history. That’s why my mother escaped at the first sign of trouble, because she was carrying me.”
“Well, my people’s child-carrying abilities are at your disposal,” Amka joked. “We will see what a half-unckga, half-sig… um, half-sun-dweller looks like.” Then with the cutest little frown, she asked, “What does the name of your people mean?”
Thal smiled. “Unk-ga means ‘the children of the gods’ … which should be ironic, since we have so little children. But that’s the name the sun dwellers called us, when our people all lived together, hundreds of years ago.”
Amka raised an eyebrow playfully. “Children of the gods, eh? And here we sun dwellers were calling you merely blood-drinkers.” She laughed. “But I can see why my ancestors would call you that. You’re so strong and fast, you heal so quickly, your blood heals us, and you say your people live such long lives. If we do have this baby, I hope she or he has your abilities.”
“I hope she can walk in the sun, and carry children of her own, if she’s a girl.”
“Carry children?” She crossed her arms over her belly protectively and turned away from Thal, with a teasing scowl. “Let her be born first, and live a long life before having to worry about having children.”
Thal embraced Amka from behind, placing his chin on her shoulder and his hands over hers. “Of course. I only meant that she’d be able.” Then he quickly added, because he saw in her mind that she was about to laugh and say she’d been joking, which he already knew anyway, “But Amka … are you worried about having this child?” He voiced his fear out loud. That Amka would be scared of having a little half-monster baby.
She freed one arm and brought a hand up to his check, tenderly cradling his face. “Never. This child is a blessing, Thal.”
“It is. I can’t imagine being happier than I am right now. I love you so much, Amka.”
“And I you.” Then she thought of something. “How long do children of the gods gestate?”
Thal laughed. “Real children of the gods, I have no clue; but my people gestate for a year, according to my mother.”
“We only carry babies for nine months. Let’s see what this one decides to do.”
Eight months later Amka no longer cared about what the baby decided to do. She wanted that baby out. Thal felt simultaneously guilty and amused by Amka’s wavering thoughts.
“Thal, you’re doing it again.” Amka’s attempt at a reproaching tone was canceled out by the mirth in her manner.
“Oh, I’m sorry, my love,” he said as he brought his head up from the water, pulling away from her belly. He’d been entranced yet again listening to the baby’s thoughts, his head underwater pressed against her skin, as she rested lazily in the cave pool after making love for the second time that afternoon. (Amka had requested a second time. She was really demanding in that department lately).
“What’s there that could be possibly so interesting, anyway?” she asked.
“I don’t know why I find it so fascinating; there’s hardly anything to hear. But just now I believe the baby was thinking about his or her leg.”
“Her leg? Aww,” Amka crooned, rubbing her bulging belly. “Is she wondering what is that thing that she keeps kicking me with?”
The baby didn’t have real, definite thoughts, but there was something there, flickers of feelings about his or her little home. It was mesmerizing to Thal, trying to decipher what those little thoughts meant, and he often spaced out with his ear pressed against Amka’s belly. So much so that he forgot to reply to Amka. Again.
“Well, I should be going,” Amka said after another minute, standing up in the pool. “These walks have become more and more tiring … even though I don’t do the actual walking myself.”
Thal always carried her on his back to and from the cave and her village, using an underground tunnel he’d completed months ago. Recently, he knew, even though she never complained out loud, she would become uncomfortable when he ran too fast; but on the other hand, if he walked at human pace it would kill one precious hour of the little time they had together. So he’d found an in-between pace where he walked fast but slowed down when she he could tell she needed a break.
He would’ve preferred for her to stay with him, of course. But Amka was convinced that she needed to live with her people a while longer, as long as she could manage the travel, so he had carved this underground tunnel connecting their secret cave and her hunter’s hut.
“I know what’s on your mind, Thal,” she said later, as he carried her down the tunnel in silence. “I just don’t know how to do it—how to tell my mother that I have to leave. I wish I didn’t have to. I wish I could tell her the truth. I want to tell her the truth; I want to raise the baby with my family. But I don’t know how.”
“I know, Amka.”
Of course he knew. He knew her dreams and her fears. He knew how much she loved him and how much she wanted to be with him, but he also knew how much she loved her family and how much she feared the thought of leaving them. She wanted to raise her baby with them, especially with her mother. She also felt bound to the village by her hunter duty; she didn’t want to leave her people to fend for themselves, not while the four young hunters she was training weren’t ready to take over her role. They weren’t good at hunting on their own just yet, and Amka (well, Thal) was currently providing meat for the entire village. Amka felt she would be abandoning them, if she left the village for good. Her oldest sibling was only twelve years old. She couldn’t just leave her family and her people on their own.
But Thal also knew that Amka had given their situation much thought, and that deep down she knew her only choice was to leave her village, eventually. She was just putting off the inevitable. It was a hard choice, he knew, so he never pressed her. And he couldn’t object to her wish to remain in her village for as long as she could because he knew his experience was wildly different than hers. He didn’t have a family he would miss. He wouldn’t—couldn’t—make a decision for her because he wouldn’t know what it was like, leaving family.
And there weren’t really any other options. Thal couldn’t possibly live in the village with her. Even if her family embraced an outsider with pale skin and pale eyes—assuming they never found out that he was a blood-drinking monster—Thal couldn’t live in a human village, or near one, if the humans knew about him. There was always a risk of the wrong type of human finding out what he was. Despite his strength and speed, he was too vulnerable; he was useless in the sun, and there were far too many more of them. His people had made that mistake before, attempting to live with humans, and had ultimately paid with their lives. Every one of them. Including his mother.
Still quiet, saddened by their uncertain future, Thal reached the circular stone door that marked the entrance to the basement he’d dug under Amka’s hut. After confirming there was no one around he set her down and rolled open the door. It was meant to be a deception; a heavy stone wheel hiding within a rectangular frame that resembled a doorway, one which a human intruder would find almost impossible to open unless they knew where to look. There was a locking pin out of sight near the base of the wheel; when removed, the door would easily roll to its hidden pocket in the wall. When in place, the wheel couldn’t move, and the doorway appeared to be a solid stone rectangle. It was just one of Thal’s many projects he’d worked on while Amka slept.
He helped her through and then pulled her up through her trapdoor to the hut’s floor.
“Thank you,” she said, without letting go of him. She pressed her cheek against his chest. “And please don’t be sad. We’ll figure it out. If I have to go, I’ll go. No matter what, we’ll be together, the three of us. I love you more than them, you know.”
He tightened his arms around her. “I know. And I love you—which is why I stand with you, whatever you decide, whatever you need.”
“Whatever I need?” She stood on her toes and leaned in even closer, and whispered in his ear seductively. “Well … we forgot to do something in the cave today.”
“We did not forget,” he corrected her, pulling her back. His eyes traveled to her neck, where her vein was bulging with all the extra blood she carried. He bent down slowly and brought his parted lips to her neck, then gently nipped her skin with the tip of his fangs, as she held her breath. “We … just don’t do that, now.” He kissed her neck instead and pulled away from her, with some effort.
“Thal,” she complained, breathing again. “It just feels so good. You don’t know how good it feels; no one’s ever done that to you.”
Thal laughed. From her thoughts when he drank her blood, he did have an idea. It was as good for her as it was for him. Just thinking about it made his fangs ache, and had his blood rushing to the most responsive parts of his body. “I want to—so much—but you and the baby need all of your blood.” He had stopped drinking Amka’s blood only recently, one day when he’d seen her a little too pale after drinking from her. He’d felt so guilty ever since.
“Come on. It’s been one week. I won’t ask for another week, I promise. I’ll just ask for regular lovemaking.” Slowly she reached down between their bodies and placed her hand over his bulge.
He forgot why he was resisting her. He only sort of remembered he shouldn’t give in. “Amka,” he chided.
“Thal,” she replied in the same tone. Then, very gently, she squeezed.
Whatever semblance of restraint he had up until then disappeared. He scooped her up and placed her down on the tangle of blankets she kept in her spare hut. He removed his and her clothes from the waist down in the same swoop, knelt in front of her, and in the next second he was inside her, pushing into her, while she dug her nails into the back of his thighs. Amka, Amka, Amka, he cried her name in his mind with each thrust, her own exhilarated thoughts answering him, her building passion fueling his. Her ragged breaths became panting moans as they neared that glorious peak together; then Thal bent over her and sank his fangs into her neck, her galloping heart pumping her delicious blood into his mouth, taking over his senses until nothing existed but Amka and the eruption of pleasure that she was experiencing. And together they came undone, their thoughts a jumble of ecstasy and bliss.
“Ahh …” Amka sighed contentedly beneath him.
Regaining some sense, he managed to stop drinking her blood and quickly healed her wound. “Oh, Amka,” was all he said, still holding her close.
“You said whatever I need, Thal,” Amka reminded him, her eyes closed, a genuine smile plastered all over her face. “And all I need is you …”
How could he deny her anything that made her so happy? He lay down next to her and kissed her cheek.
“Rest a while. I’m going hunting for you; I’ll be back soon.”
Thal did the business quickly, hunting in the woods nearby where he could still feel Amka sleeping. After dropping off the animal outside her home, Thal went back to her hunter’s hut and gently woke her up.
“Let me walk you home,” he offered as she stretched away her short nap.
“Nah, thank you. I’ll be fine,” she said, declining his help. She always did. She liked walking through the village on her way back. When he walked her home they had to take a path on the outskirts of the village.
And that was the path he took, alone, following her home as he always did. The walk from her hunter’s hut to her family’s hut wasn’t long, but still he always lingered near to make sure she made it home safe. Tonight she was greeted by a disapproving Mayna. Clearly he wasn’t the only one who worried about Amka.
“It’s late,” Mayna said, and Thal could easily picture her disapproving scowl.
“I’m alright, Mother,” Amka attempted to pacify her mother as she came in. But as it had been these past few weeks, it didn’t work.
“You are less than a month away from giving birth, yet you insist on going hunting. Stop that. Medda is old enough; he and his sister can take over for you. They and the other young hunters will have to, anyway, for several moons after the baby is here.”
“I can hunt elk in my sleep, Mother,” Amka joked with an inward nod to Thal, knowing he was listening. “I had no trouble at all bringing in this guy outside. And I mean no trouble. At all.”
Thal laughed silently from the copse of trees behind Amka’s hut where he presently sat.
“It’s still too much work for you,” Mayna insisted. “I don’t like how flushed you are. Your hair is a mess; your clothes aren’t even tied correctly. Come, I’ll prepare a rosemary bath for you before supper.”
Amka’s thoughts shifted to the reason why her clothes weren’t tied correctly and Thal suffered the entire length of her bath, wishing he was there with her. He suffered, but he loved it. He could stay hours on end just listening to Amka interact with her family, at supper, at story-telling, or even at bedtime when they got ready to lie down for the night. And he often did, now that his cave and tunnel were mostly complete and he had not much to do.
Tonight after their supper Amka chose for her siblings a story about the unk-ga, referring to Thal’s people as “children of the gods” instead of as “blood-drinkers”. In the story, the unk-ga and the humans lived in harmony. The children were fascinated by the beautiful creature Amka described.
Thal smiled. She was doing her part to change their perception of his people. He only wished it was enough.
But his smile disappeared as Amka’s father uttered words that sent a terrible chill to his heart.
“Amka, don’t romanticize those blood-drinking demons,” the man said with disdain. “You may believe these are only stories, but these monsters are real. It’s time you knew that. And you all need to be scared of them, not worship them.”
“Father,” Amka said reproachfully.
“Don’t scare the children, Tahik,” Mayna scolded her mate. “There’s no need. They’re just stories.”
“I’m just telling them the truth, so that they don’t get confused with the idealized creature from Amka’s story. Children … the demons are real. Your birth mother was killed by one of them. A blood-drinking monster.”
Everyone gasped and uttered exclamations of surprise and disbelief. Amka said, “What? No, she wasn’t. Their mother was killed by a rival clan in that ill-fated expansion campaign, along with my birth father and my brothers. Right, Mother?”
“Tahik, we don’t know that for sure,” Mayna said. “We weren’t there.”
“But Malkon was, and he told me what really happened,” Amka’s father insisted. “It wasn’t the northern clan as everyone believes. It was one of those demons. Only one of them, and she killed, what, about twenty of ours? Malkon saw her with his own eyes. Pale and ghastly. He said they found her buried in the earth but when they dug her out she was alive—she was a demon! So they killed her … or so they thought. Malkon said he only survived because he was hunting for the party when she woke up. He came back to find everyone dead and the demon missing; he knew right away what had happened. But the few others who came back from that expedition never knew; they never saw her, they were further south when it happened. Malkon was the only one who knew, and he kept it a secret.”
The children erupted with follow-up questions to satisfy their wild curiosity, but Amka was frozen. Outside, Thal was frozen. Mayna spoke over the children’s questions.
“Tahik, you first told me this story when Malkon died and Amka believed that she had seen a scaly monster over his body. But she never found it. I tell you now what I told you then. I can’t believe this version of the story. Malkon, my own brother, wouldn’t have lied to me.”
“But he did,” Tahik said. “He lied because he was the only hunter we had left and he didn’t want to admit that a single woman had killed our best hunters in a single blow. But he confessed to me months later, after you and I had coupled and he had become my brother. He said it once, and we never spoke of it again.”
“I just don’t know …” Mayna said.
“It can’t be,” Amka whispered.
But Thal, alone in the dark, knew without a doubt that Tahik was telling the truth.
When Thal turned ten years old, his sweet mother Yamhi decided that they needed to relocate. She had seen the trend of the animal population decreasing, and she had also noticed a slight change in the temperatures of the lake. But she wouldn’t leave blindly with her son; she had to find the perfect location first. And, more importantly, she wanted to find their people. She wanted Thal to have company other than her. Throughout his life she had gone outside for short expeditions looking for any other unk-ga, perhaps any survivors of the raid that had forced her to leave her home, but had always come back at daybreak, exhausted and empty-handed. Thal promised her that he didn’t need any other company, but she had persisted.
So on that last excursion Yamhi promised her son that she would come back within two nights. And she did. But she came back wounded, and died within the day. With labored breaths she told him that she had journeyed north, searching, listening, until the sun came up. She had dug a hole to sleep in for the day where she thought she’d be safe from the sun, but hadn’t counted on humans finding her. These humans had been exploring on their own, looking to expand their domain, when they came across the newly-turned earth and discovered her. They’d immediately thrown their fishing net on her and attacked her—with no motivation other than the fact that she looked different—and nearly killed her. She had escaped by pretending to be dead so they would stop assaulting her. They were bringing her body to their village, she understood from their thoughts, and, thinking she was dead, removed the fishing net so they could fish. Once free she had remained there motionless, her skin badly sunburned, her deep wounds barely healing … listening to their thoughts, waiting for the right moment. And it had finally come, when the ones on watch were distracted. One by one she managed to kill the whole lot of them. She sustained more wounds, but eventually escaped and managed to return to young Thal. Unfortunately her wounds were too great and she didn’t survive.
Now Thal knew why Amka’s uncle, the man named Malkon, had attacked him unprovoked. He had recognized what Thal was; he had known the unk-ga weren’t just tales of old. He had come across one before and likely thought of Thal’s people as a threat. But if he knew of the unk-ga’s strength and speed, it didn’t make sense that he’d attack Thal on his own that night, unless he really thought he had a chance while Thal was distracted with the elk. Or maybe the survivor guilt he had possibly carried these past ten years had made him act recklessly. Whatever the reason, it made more sense that he attacked Thal believing Thal was a blood-drinking monster than attacking an unarmed boy for no reason other than for hunting an elk. Amka had always thought of him as a kind-hearted person.
Thal’s heart was heavy. The fact that Amka’s people had been the ones that killed his mother hurt more than he could bear at the moment. Maybe it was just bad timing; Thal had recently considered living among these people to make Amka happy, despite his mother’s constant warnings against living among the sihg-zhe … only to find that his mother had been right, and that the sihg-zhe could never be trusted.
Or maybe it was just bound to hurt, no matter what, learning who his mother’s killers were.
“Thal? Thal, are you there?” Amka murmured from her cot. Please, if you’re there, I need to talk to you.
But he couldn’t.
He would, eventually, but he needed time tonight. With sadness in his heart, Thal retreated to the safety of his solitude.
But when he opened his eyes the next evening, it was still early afternoon, and something was horribly wrong. Amka’s pain had woken him. He ran to her in his tunnel, faster than he ever had before, and came out at the base of her hunter’s hut. He stopped to consider the best way to reach her—burn his way through the town? Or burn longer but take the safer path in the outskirts of the village? (Why didn’t he ever connect his underground tunnel to her family’s hut?)
But Amka, as if she knew Thal was listening, suddenly projected her thoughts to him, somehow so clearly that he could hear them in the hut where he stood. I’m okay, I’m okay, she grunted. I’m—okay—the baby’s—early—coming—NOW!
He heard her final long, driving scream. A moment later Thal heard the baby’s first cry.
He sank to the floor.
A boy, he saw in somebody’s mind. He froze for a moment, for an eternity—then he heard Amka’s cry again—but this was a gentle sob, a combination of relief and joy—and he realized he could move, because she was okay. Then he stood again and stepped to the doorway. He steeled himself, and pushed the heavy drape aside, daring to look at the sun.
Pain shot through his head as his eyes burned and then attempted to heal, but he memorized the position of the sun in the sky to mark the minute of his son’s entry into this world.
“Oh, Thal … he’s perfect,” Amka said, the face of their son cradled in her mind by a blanket of devotion.
“Thal?” repeated Mayna.
“Thakal,” Amka replied to her mother. “His name is Thakal.”
Then she whispered for Thal’s ears only, “I’m so sorry … about your mother.”
Of course she had figured out that the woman in her father’s story last night was Thal’s mother, even though Thal had never told her how Yahmi died. Amka was just that perceptive.
It doesn’t matter, he thought to himself. Nothing else mattered now except Amka and Thakal.
Then he fell back, excitement and fear consuming him.
On the eve of Thakal’s hundredth day on this world, Thal made the biggest mistake of his entire life.
Amka had remained living with her family while the baby was newly born; Thal visited and held him at night, allowing Amka to rest while he did so. He was entranced by the little person in his arms and spent most of his waking hours with him. He’d carved another branch of his underground tunnel leading to the woods behind Amka’s family’s hut to be as close to her and Thakal as possible.
And while spending so much time in the vicinity of Amka’s people, he had learned some terrifying things that he chose not to share with her. He should have, but he didn’t.
He just didn’t want to trouble her. Her heart was already so full of worry—love, primarily, but also constant worry. She worried over every little thing about the new life in her arms, and Thal didn’t want to add more trouble to the list. And anyway, he felt it ultimately didn’t matter because Amka was leaving the village soon. On Thakal’s hundredth day, she meant to present him to the village for the first and last time. She would announce that she was moving away. It had taken a toll on Thal, not being able to live next to his son, and Amka was finally ready to leave.
But the villagers, unbeknownst to Amka, had an ongoing favorite gossip—the mystery of the child that had been born to the village huntress. Of special annoyance to Thal were the parents of that dead cretin Torren, who were convinced that Thakal was their grandchild, for they believed the rumor that Torren had forced himself on Amka on the night of his and Aruk’s death. Torren’s mother had tried to see Thakal every day since she heard he was born, but Mayna would not let her in.
On that day, while waiting patiently for his turn—waiting for Amka’s family to finish supper and go to bed so Amka could come out with Thakal—Thal heard two villagers gossiping. He usually ignored them, but Amka’s name caught his attention: two women were discussing that Mayna had been acting strangely, keeping well-meaning townsfolk away from Amka, as if Amka were some great deity that would not grant audience to the regular folk. It was unfair to Torren’s mother, they said, not allowing her to even meet her grandson. Mayna would not even wash clothes at the river with the rest of the women anymore; she was evasive and guarded when asked about Amka and the baby. And they had seen Mayna packing clothes and food—they concluded that Mayna and Amka were planning to leave the village, and that they were hiding something—something related to the baby—from everyone.
The distrust in their voices and the even uglier thoughts that accompanied their spoken words had Thal’s blood boiling with rage. But he couldn’t do anything about it, he thought, so he tried to let it go.
Had Thal mentioned his concerns to Amka, maybe things would have turned out differently.
Thal woke to her soul-splitting scream.
It was very early in the day but he was instantly awake, instantly afraid. The fear clouded his mind and didn’t let him see past his immediate need to run to her aid—if he had, he would’ve taken an additional minute to dress in his scales which would protect him somewhat from the sun that he knew, based on his internal clock, was still high up in the sky. But she was his greatest weakness—he couldn’t stop to think, to plot, to come up with a feasible strategy. She was in danger so he just acted. He ran in her direction, outside toward the lake.
The sun burned his skin, but he ran. And in the few minutes that it took him to reach her, even before his eyes registered the patch of red that stained the water where she’d been so violently assaulted, the darkest part of him already knew he was too late to save her, and that he would kill everyone in sight.
They didn’t know he existed, so the monster part of him delighted in seeing the fear in the thoughts of that first man who carried the spear that still dripped Amka’s blood. Torren’s father. As he killed them, all eight of them, the ones that fought and the ones that ran, he was able to piece together from their final thoughts what they had done, led by the savages that had spawned Torren.
Torren’s mother had shown up at Amka’s hut demanding to see the baby, but Mayna had again refused, yelling that the child was not Torren’s but an outsider’s. Incensed at this, the woman had shoved Mayna aside and barged inside to take the infant by force … only to learn there was no baby, but a pale demon thing at Amka’s bloody breast. It was drinking his mother’s milk and her blood.
“Abomination!” she had cried.
This despicable woman then ran to her mate, a creature even more awful than her, and the two of them had quickly gathered a small mob to come in and take the small monster, ready to kill anyone who stood in the way. They had to keep their village safe, the man yelled, and several more agreed. Among the mob were the parents of the other hunter, Aruk.
They returned to Amka’s home and found the hut empty. Amka had fled, but they followed her trail to the lake, where they found her already rowing the boat out into the water. But two of the aggressors jumped in and swam after her, taking her oars, and overcoming her who wouldn’t give up her son. They dragged her down into the water but she fought them, yelling and cursing, until the accursed man stabbed her and she stopped struggling.
They were now all dead.
Thal had been heavily injured by several men he couldn’t see while attempting in vain to revive Amka at some point after killing Torren’s father. And now, after the fight was over, he didn’t care to inspect his wounds because he was still half out of it, coming down from the blinding rage that had taken over him. He was in denial as he approached the water again, turning his back on the bloody shore. The sun, his damaged eyes, and the glare of the water made it impossible to see, but she knew exactly where she was, her body floating serenely in the lake.
As he picked her up again he detected Thakal’s scent and his mind seemed to restart. Thakal was here, with Amka. He thrashed his way to the boat, looking for any signs of his son, but the boat had capsized, and Thakal was nowhere to be found. His scent was gone as well. Desperate, he felt around, and dove underwater, but his senses didn’t tell him where Thakal’s tiny body could be.
“I’m sorry, Amka. I’m sorry, Thakal,” he cried in his native language. “I have failed you.”
He couldn’t open his eyes. He wasn’t sure he had any. He had lost most of his blood so he knew he wouldn’t heal now. He was dying, and he didn’t have the strength to look for his son’s body. But he had Amka’s. With his last bit of strength he swam out to the middle of the lake holding what remained of the girl he loved. He embraced her, and then he died, sinking to the bottom of the lake together.
Across the lake, the woman skipped down the rocky shore to where the shape was squirming. She wouldn’t have believed it was alive, but she had heard its cries.
“I’m coming, Thakal,” Mayna said, her eyes brimming with tears. “Your grandma is coming, and we’re going far, far away.”
Catch up on The Monster in the Lake….
The Monster in the Lake
The vast lake was nestled in the valley between three mountains and the rocky plain where Amka’s ancestors had first settled. As the lake level had risen over the last hundred years or so, her people had relocated farther up into the plain, but still close enough to the lake that Amka had practically grown in its clear waters. She had always thought she knew this lake so well, and yet, she had never even imagined that an underwater cave existed at the base of the mountain across from her shore. Thal had claimed he’d lived there all his life. Amka tried to picture the underwater cave as she stared at the lake but she couldn’t. It was almost impossible to believe.
“Oh, it’s there,” a voice said behind her. “I could show it to you, if you’d like.”
Startled, but thrilled to hear him, Amka turned to see Thal walking toward her with an easy smile, dripping wet. She ran to him, embracing him despite his soaked condition. She felt she’d waited all day for the sun to begin its descent, and she had been finally on her way to the mountain cave to meet him. There was still some daylight left but she had wanted to be early at the cave. She’d only stopped to admire the lake and ponder its secrets.
“Hi,” she said in his arms, looking up at him. Then she sort of froze.
Out in the open, with some light left, she could see him clearly for the first time. And she couldn’t look away, mesmerized, seeing how handsome he truly was. She’d thought he was beautiful before, but in the light she could genuinely appreciate his beauty. He had cut and brushed his hair. His eyes were a clear green; his pupils were contracted and his eyelids slightly narrowed at the moment, possibly because of the evening light. And his skin—when she first met him she’d been shocked by how ghastly pale he was, yet now she saw only beauty in the alabaster-like texture of his skin. It looked almost as though it had a green tinge to it.
He bought up a hand to her cheek. While she was busy admiring him he’d been doing the same.
“You’re so beautiful, Amka. I never thought I’d feel this way toward a sun dweller. Your skin …” he brushed her cheek lightly with his thumb, “… it glows in the light.” He bent down and kissed her cheek.
Amka felt heat rise to her face where he touched her. Her gaze shifted down as she voiced one of her doubts. “There are plenty of girls like me. You’ve just never seen any others.” He had told her that he’d been raised by his mother, alone; he was twenty years old and had never met anyone else.
He shook his head. “Last night I saw other village girls, and none came close to you.”
At the mention of other village girls Amka felt a little prick of jealousy in her chest. “You did?”
“Yes. While everyone was busy discussing the events of last night, I watched from your hunter’s hut.”
After her confrontation with Torren and Aruk, she’d gone back to brief her parents and the village elders on what had occurred, while Thal had stayed nearby in her late uncle’s hut. There had been immediate commotion in the village; surprise, disbelief, and also some anger mixed with shame from the attackers’ families, who then took the bodies away for burial. Amka’s parents had defended her, praised her fighting skills (she was embarrassed, well aware that she didn’t deserve the praise), and everyone sort of agreed that Torren and Aruk had gotten what they deserved. It was not unheard of to have fatal disputes amongst people, but everyone saw the injustice of two against one. Everyone commended Amka’s skills and shrugged off Torren and Aruk’s deaths as unimportant. Yes, they had been training to be hunters and the village needed hunters, but the village didn’t need fools, and they had been fools for going after Amka.
Then after a few hours everyone had gone back to their homes, and Amka had returned to her uncle’s hut with the pretense of getting her weapons. Thal healed her cut, they kissed again and then they parted ways. She went home to her parents and he went back to his underwater cave.
“I was curious, so I listened during the commotion. I noticed two other village girls and couldn’t help comparing them to you,” Thal explained now. “They didn’t come close to matching your wits or your intelligence. Or your beauty.”
Amka smiled. She knew which two girls he must’ve seen. They were younger than her and solely interested in boys. Amka was sure they’d been heartbroken about Torren and Aruk. Come to think of it, they probably didn’t like Amka so much now, for taking the two boys from them.
Thal laughed. “Yes, they weren’t happy. They had ugly thoughts. So you see,” he said, kissing her lips briefly, “there is no one like you.”
His laugh and kiss made her want to kiss him again. Their last kiss in her uncle’s hut had left her wanting more… and now she thought of other things to do with him, as new feelings surfaced in her body which she longed to explore. She looked around. There was no one nearby but she wanted to go somewhere where she could be truly alone with him.
“Amka,” Thal said now, his voice low and intense, evidently knowing exactly what was on her mind, and probably having some of those same ideas. “Do you want to see my home?”
His mysterious underwater home? “Yes, I’d love to, but …” She looked again toward the lake, trying to imagine a way in for a human like her. The lake was deep. It seemed impossible. “How?”
“I can swim very fast. I’ll take you out there”—he pointed towards the lake—“then you take a deep breath and I’ll convey you underwater.”
Thrilled, Amka smiled. “Okay. Let’s do it,” she said, trusting him completely. She had seen firsthand his strength and speed.
He grabbed her hand and they walked to the water together. As they went deeper and the water reached her torso, she trembled, but not just from the cold. When the water was up to her neck Thal pulled her close. His eyes were almost shining, reflecting the water around them. She clung to him. She wanted to be with him now.
“Soon,” he said, as moved her to his back. Then he swam to the middle of the lake while she held on to him with her arms around his neck. She enjoyed touching him a little too much.
“This is it,” he said, as he stopped in some nondescript spot in the middle of the lake. He pointed to the mountain in front of them. “The base of that mountain is below. Ready?”
The deep blue beneath her was daunting, but she refused to be scared. “I’m ready.”
She took a deep breath and covered her nose and mouth with one hand. Thal didn’t miss a beat. She felt a rush of movement around her, and the pressure of the water increasing as he pulled her down, down, down. She tried to keep her eyes open but after a few seconds she couldn’t see anything anyway, so she closed them. Her lungs were just starting to protest the lack of air when Thal shifted course; a second later they surfaced in a pool in complete darkness.
“Wow!” Amka cried as she took a deep breath.
“Are you okay?” Thal asked, worried, while holding her.
“Yes,” she said, just as she started to notice that she was really cold.
“Sorry—I didn’t think of that! Let me light a fire and get you to warm up.” He carried her out of the water and placed her on what felt like smooth stone while she tried to lessen his worry by assuring him she was alright. But he still sounded nervous when he announced he’d be right back.
And he was—Amka didn’t have a chance to even guess what her surroundings would be like based on the echo of their voices, when a light appeared from deeper in the cave and Thal came back, holding a torch. Then he lit a fire in a pit a little further inside the cave, and Amka gasped in awe.
The cave didn’t look like her mountain cave at all. The walls were arched, perfectly polished, except where decorated with etched patterns. She walked up to the nearest wall to touch it. It was rock, but it was impossibly smooth.
“My mother did most of the work. She came across this cave while pregnant with me, fleeing from a raid. Once she made it her home, she began working on it, and she never stopped. All my life I remember she was always weaving, making blankets out of pondweed, or carving and shaping the cave walls.”
Thal had mentioned the raid before. Was that only yesterday when they had talked for hours in that cave? Now, after seeing his strength and speed in person, it was hard to imagine a group of mere humans had been able to kill an entire family of blood-drinkers. Thal had simply said the humans’ greater numbers and advantage in the day had been underestimated by his people, and his people had paid the price twenty years ago, right before Thal was born. Thal’s mother had escaped the raid, pregnant, and travelled north to these colder lands where the snow blanketed the ground year round and humans were less in numbers. She had found the cave next to the small lake and turned it into a home for her and her baby. But several years later the entrance to the cave had been covered in water as the snows melted and the lake level rose. Amka’s people called that year the Great Spring, when the lake level rose suddenly and they had had to relocate uphill where they currently lived.
“To find this place and create this home, alone, she must have been an amazing woman,” Amka said. “You can tell she was really dedicated.”
“She was,” Thal said with somber reverence. Then he laughed. “But also, there wasn’t a whole lot to do down here, after I was grown and she’d taught me to hunt, and the old history of my people.” Then he grabbed Amka’s hand and pulled her deeper into the cave, holding the torch before him. “Come, I’ll get you some dry clothes and show you the rest of the cave.”
“How far does it go?” she asked.
“Not far.” He pointed to a large open area off to the right of the main hallway. “We shared this area back here for sleeping for the longest time, until I carved another room for myself. My mother slept here and kept her stuff here.” He let go of Amka’s hand and rummaged inside a pondweed basket. Then he handed her some folded garment.
“You can have this, to change out of your wet clothes. It was my mother’s.”
“Thank you. It’s so soft.” She ran her hand over the material. It was made out of a hide she didn’t recognize.
“It’s a winter seal skin,” Thal explained. “They used to grow as long as me and twice as heavy, and in great numbers. But they have now mostly gone, and the ones left are much smaller.”
Then he pointed to a hollowed out section of rock across from his late mother’s sleeping area. Its opening had a large reed blanket over it that was presently draped off to the side, and she could see inside. The room wasn’t large but it was twice as high as Amka was tall, taller than the rest of the cave. It had a large cot in the center that appeared to be stuffed with muskgrass and covered in a blanket made out of the same hide as her dress.
“This is where I sleep. You can change in here,” Thal offered. “I’ll hang your clothes by the fire pit.”
She took off her wet leggings, breechcloth and tunic, and handed them to Thal, while she unfolded the dress and examined it, trying to determine how to put it on.
“Wait,” he said.
She looked up to find him looking at her in a way that made parts of her body flush with heat. Being naked was very normal for her, but Thal’s expression made her suddenly self-conscious.
“Yes?” she breathed.
But he was just standing there holding her clothes, staring at her with an expression of wonderment. He blinked and appeared to be trying to speak. “Amka, you’re … I mean, I’ve never seen … I mean …” he mumbled.
Adoration rushed through her. This boy who could do all the things he could do … he couldn’t form a sentence as he stared at her. She took a step toward him until she was right in front of him, and placed a hand on his chest.
“Your clothes are wet, too.”
His breathing was ragged. “Yes.”
“You’d better change out of them, too.”
And he did, then they stared at each other for a second before succumbing to the desires that had possessed them.
The air was different in the underwater cave. After spending a few hours with Thal, well into the night (not that she could tell how late it was, since she couldn’t see where the moon was in the sky … but she guessed it was well into the night), she felt she could use some fresh air. It obviously didn’t bother Thal, who had lived his whole life in this cave; but then, he didn’t need to breathe as much as Amka did. He took breaths, Amka noticed, but when he’d swum out to the center of the lake with Amka on his back, his head had been underwater most of the time. He must not need as much air as she did. The underwater cave air was fine for him, but not for her. She felt she needed to go back to the surface.
Thal stopped mid-sentence and turned to examine her. He had been answering her latest question—were there any other exits out of this cave besides the underwater entrance? (No, but at some point he had considered creating one by digging his way back into the mountain and then up)—when her thoughts about fresh air had made her take a deep breath.
“Amka, we need to go up right now.”
She shook her head a little, to dismiss his worry. “I’m fine. I was just thinking that I could use a little bit of fresh air.”
But he had already gotten out of bed, and started putting on clothes. They had been lying next to each other on his bed, talking about anything and everything, naked and content. Yet now Thal was distraught and afraid as he picked up her clothes from the floor.
“I’m so sorry I didn’t notice before. Your breathing is different now—you’re taking longer breaths and taking them more often. You’re drowning down here. Your body is telling you that you need fresh air, so we’re going up—now, please.”
Drowning? She thought he was exaggerating, but she found it endearing, so she let him scoop her out of the bed and carry her to the pool at the entrance to the cave. She could’ve walked, but she loved being carried by his deceivingly strong arms. She loved …
As she dressed in her still damp clothes, she watched him pace the cave floor, worrying over her. But she couldn’t share his concern; she was feeling something else altogether.
She loved him. Or maybe she just loved being with him like this. Or maybe it wasn’t love, just something like it. After all, she didn’t really know what love was supposed to be like. But this was definitely something, something she’d never felt toward anyone before. Yes, she had only really met Thal the day before, but she knew she wanted him to be her mate for the rest of her life.
He stopped his frantic pacing and stared at her, stunned for a moment, then his expression was replaced by a look of sincere reverence. As she finished tying the knot on her leggings, he closed the distance between them and put his arms around her. His eyes, which she knew were green, glowed almost orange reflecting the light of the fire with an intensity she had never seen before.
“I love you, Amka,” he said, his voice full of emotion. Then he brought his lips down to hers.
She readily welcomed the kiss. She tightened her arms around his lower back, pressing against him. She could tell he was hesitant, that he wanted to end the kiss so he could take her out of the cave, but she also felt his need, his love and his devotion. And she wanted to give him more. So she slowly traveled her lips to his cheek and down his jaw, and finally down his neckline, offering her neck to him.
This time he didn’t fight her.
The bite stung but she didn’t feel any pain. Somehow it felt even better than it had the previous day, the first time she had given him blood back in the cave. She felt a great pleasure, her senses full of him, and a moan escaped her lips. Thal, Thal, I love you. I want to stay here forever.
But he pulled back too quickly, healed the bite marks, and again scooped her up in his arms.
“Thank you for that,” he said, bringing his forehead down to hers briefly. Then he kissed her quickly. “It’s time. Ready?”
The ride back seemed quicker than the way in. She surfaced in Thal’s arms and took a deep breath in the darkness of the night. A chilly wind felt abrasive on her cheeks, surprising her.
“Amka, are you alright?”
“Yes. I’m alright.” Amka smiled as she shivered. He had asked the same question when she surfaced in the cave, but it seemed that now he was even more worried.
The night was cold and she was wet. It was about a half an hour to swim to shore and walk back to her village. She was pondering where she could keep a stash of dry clothes near the shore for future visits, when Thal interrupted her planning.
“I don’t like that you’re cold. I’ll carry you to the village. I’ll run and be there quickly.”
She had barely assented when he began to swim faster than she had seen any living creature swim. She held on tightly to his back, and as they reached the shore in no time, he didn’t stop and only ran faster. They reached Amka’s uncle’s hut at the edge of the village before she could even decide whether the ride had been thrilling or terrifying.
“It is too dangerous to take you to my home,” Thal said as he started a fire while Amka removed her wet clothes for the second time that night. “But I want to see you every night, so I’d rather visit you instead. I want you in my life, Amka.”
“I want you, as well. I don’t mind the danger.”
“But I do.” He paced around the room and found a blanket to cover her in, then wrung her clothes out while she warmed up. As he worked, he added, “I think I’ll dig out a room in the cave where you first trapped me, so I have a place to stay above. Does anyone else know about that cave?”
“No one but me,” she replied, thrilled. “And I would love that.”
That cave was farther than Thal’s underwater home but Amka saw the advantage of having a place where she could meet him whenever she wanted. There was no way she could go to the lake cave by herself.
“I’ve never spent a night above water,” he said, “but I don’t want to spend another night away from you.”
“What’s his name?”
Amka looked up sharply at her mother’s question. Mayna had been quietly working on her pottery as Amka folded her clothes, but now those shrewd eyes trained on her daughter.
“Whose name?” Amka asked, feigning confusion.
Mayna sighed, but her lips were turned up slightly, as if amused at Amka’s poor performance. “Amka, you can be honest with me. I can tell there’s something going on with you; a mother knows when her daughter’s heart is happy. And I know it’s not just that Torren and Aruk are gone.”
Amka laughed, wishing she could tell her mother the truth. But the truth was out of the question. Her people were not fond of outsiders, let alone blood-drinking monster ones. She settled for an evasive truth. “Life is much better without those two, I do have to admit. The youngsters’ training is going well. I never knew how much Torren was holding them back.”
Several weeks had passed since Torren and Aruk’s deaths. Amka, as the village hunter, was in charge of protecting the village and hunting animals for food. Prior to taking over this role, when her uncle had been alive, she had been training the younger hunters; this role had then gone to Torren, as the second oldest. (Apparently he hadn’t liked this role and had decided to challenge her). Now with Torren gone she was back to training the younger kids on top of her usual hunting duties. It would’ve been too much for one person, but she had Thal. Unbeknownst to everyone, Thal had been the one feeding the entire village these past few weeks. In her spare time during the day Amka trained the young hunters, who were happy to confess they didn’t miss that one chaotic month they’d had Torren as trainer.
Mayna simply replied, “Hmm,” and continued working on her pottery.
Amka knew her mother suspected something, and she felt it was wrong to pretend to deceive her. So she added, “I really don’t like any of the village boys.”
A look Amka couldn’t decipher crossed her mother’s face. It was gone as quickly as it came, though. “I see,” Mayna sighed. “There’s not a whole lot to choose from here, I’m afraid.”
There were four younger hunters training with her, of which only two of them were boys, and the oldest of them was fifteen years old. There really was not much for her to choose. The village population had been decimated some ten years before, when most of the hunters and older boys had died in an expansion campaign gone wrong, clashing with another clan. The few survivors had come back weary and with no intention of ever engaging in war again; they chose the peaceful life, farming the land and taking care of the youngsters who were the future of their people. Amka had lost her father and older brothers; her mother had then coupled with Tahik, who had lost his mate in the same conflict and needed a mother for his two young children. Amka’s uncle had been the only experienced hunter left and had taken on the role of village hunter. A role which was now Amka’s.
“This morning your father and I had talked of traveling south to our neighboring clan three day’s ride from here, to find a mate for you,” her mother finished, with a curious, probing look, as if trying to gauge Amka’s reaction at the news.
“That’s not necessary, Mother. I’m not interested.”
“And there’s no one else?”
Amka gritted her teeth. “There’s nobody here,” she insisted.
Her mother’s features twisted painfully, as if in anticipation of dreadful news. “Then … the child … is Torren’s?”
To Be Continued…
Find & Follow
Need to Catch up on Monster in the Lake?
The danger in New Orleans grows as Orlagh, Queen of the Seelie Fae, strikes out again. Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Josephine Touchet, must get together with her friends and family, to bring together the vampires, faeries, and witches to end this threat once and for all.
Prophetic dreams of death and destruction, caused by her unborn daughter, Solomon Cille, plague JoJo’s sleep, warning her of trouble to come. The trouble must be stopped before JoJo’s nightmares are made real. Solomon Cille is young, but a heavy burden hangs on her head.
The Seelie Queen chose her to host a parasitic faery within her body, a blood elemental that feeds off of Solomon’s essence and urges her to go to war against her city, but things don’t go as Orlagh plans. Solomon is not brought down by the invasive fae sharing her body. In fact, a different sort of magick happens, they become friends, and Solomon’s power grows.
With the help of her family and control over a unique type of magick, Solomon prepares to face the Seelie Queen head on, to save her city and protect her love…
Read Solomon Cille now!
Book 2 of The Weaver Trilogy…
Most protagonists are heroes confined to the pages of a book . . . most heroes are not Watchers.
When Laney sends William home to be healed by his father, she thinks she will never see him again. After all, his home is in colonial Massachusetts in the story she wrote last year. But when William’s words and actions mysteriously begin to appear on her page, she wonders if she’s lost all control over her characters and their stories.
William will fight through the war around him, again and again, to reach the woman he loves, going against her desire to keep him safe. With the Gate Keeper on William’s side of the page working for The Wanderer, a woman determined to eradicate the Weavers, he must find a way to keep head-strong Laney out of the book, even if it means working with his archenemy, Jonas Webb.
Catch up with The Weaver!
Follow Author Heather Kindt!
by Christian Terry
The morning was hot and bright. The six started marching as soon as they had packed their camp. It wasn’t long before the group had come across the three-fingered statue. The image they had seen on the map earlier did not do it justice. It stood majestically over them. At over ten feet tall, it loomed with clinging jungle vines draped around it. The group took a moment to gawk at the sight then, shortly afterwards, became aware of their surroundings. The missing men that had been sent this way before them, there were no signs of them having been this far. No footprints or any type of trails were left behind, leaving the six of them baffled. Suddenly something caught Mike’s eye: what the stone statue was pointing at. Hidden behind large hedges and vines in the distance was a gravelly road, and beyond it was a long stretch of silver, half the width of a football field but just as long. Large trees were lined up on both sides with outstretched limbs hovering over the shiny strip of land.
“What is that?” Mike asked as he delicately set his backpack near the base of the statue before he tiptoed toward the chrome ground. Mike crossed the grass and stood at the edge of the metal strip, staring down at his own reflection. He tentatively stepped out. Whatever metal this was, it didn’t make a sound as Mike’s size sixteen shoes walked across it. A small obelisk stood just on the outer right side of the silver strip. It was shaped like a pyramid with a small red jewel on its apex. It couldn’t be the fire emerald could it? Mike decided that it would probably be a good idea to leave it alone for the time being. No one leaves things as valuable as that out in the open, he thought to himself. After ignoring the obvious bait, he walked the entire length of the silver walkway. That’s when the trouble started. As he neared the end of the walkway, a chill ran through his body, and he could see his breath escape his mouth. He looked down at his arm. The “X” was glowing. Death? He looked around furiously for what could possibly kill him. What he saw was the rest of the group. As the group marched toward him, he noticed Louis fidgeting with the stone obelisk, struggling to take the jewel off of its top.
“Lou!” Mike barked, but before Louis could react, the obelisk shifted backward, and the ground began to tremble. The shaking left them all fighting for footing. There was a loud screech. The silver strip was disappearing underneath them! It resembled a mouth as it opened, swallowing Ariel, Piggy, Brackar, and Mercury into its murky abyss.
Adarha ran toward Mike as the ground beneath her feet yawned open. She jumped toward him, clutching what little of the path was left. “Help, please!” she cried.
Full of determination, Mike ran toward her and slid, barely grabbing her arm before she let go. “Gotcha!” Mike shouted.
He was hanging over the edge, but the ground kept retracting. He scrambled backward, but not fast enough. He fell.
Find and Follow
A snippet from The Binding…
…by Victoria Clapton
My short walk to Jackson Square had a surreal, rapturous feel to it, heightened by a lone musician, sitting on a darkened stoop, playing an empyrean melody that transcended passersby into a higher realm of awareness. As my first full day here in New Orleans began to wind down, I was beginning to understand that this wonderfully overwhelming energy of always “going with the easy flow” was not only tangible but also never-ending.
So far, I had yet to look out onto the street and find it empty. People were constantly moving about. With the daylight long-faded, the artists and musicians had mostly packed up their belongings, instrument cases, and easels, leaving behind the empty spaces they had occupied by day open for evening tarot readers to set up folding card tables which they would cover in scraps of velvet and satin and glowing candles as they waited for curious tourists to inquire about their future.
I took a moment to gaze up at the brightly-lit stained glass windows of St. Louis Cathedral. The various colors sparkled brightly over the night, serving as a bright beacon of hope for the city. This magnificent display of Catholicism stood erect only twenty feet away from the myriad of card readers, and in some unexplainable way, they seemed to fit well beside each other.
Following a whim, I passed several nice restaurants and boutiques as I made my way to the crosswalk where I could safely cross Decatur Street and climb up the levee to Artillery Park. From the street, I could not see the river that I knew to be close, but I had a hunch that I would be able to see it once I’d climbed all the stairs to the top.
My hunch was dead on. The views from the park were nothing less than stunning. In fact, this was the perfect spot to see Jackson Square and the cathedral in all of its magnificent glory.
And when I turned in the opposite direction, I was instantly filled with delight. Before me was the Mississippi River. I turned in a semi-circle, not sure which view I should marvel at first, until I realized I could walk down the other side of the levee and actually go to the riverfront.
A British family standing near me taking pictures was about to do just that, and I overheard them call the walkway that ran beside the river “the Moonwalk”. Not wanting to intrude upon their space, I waited for them to walk down before I headed in the same direction.
For as long as I could remember, I have been drawn to water. It has a calming effect on my mind when my its workings feel electric, and it was here at the waterside where lights were found dancing off the water ripples that I finally sat down on an empty park bench and let go of the first-arrival urge to rush around New Orleans.
City lights cast prism rainbows upon the water while soft white lights from the bridge and a slowly passing riverboat cast an older, more orange tinge upon the tiny waves. The combined illuminations decorated the waters of the Mississippi.
Lost inside my head, in my own creative world, allowing only a polite nod or smile, I mostly ignored the few people that walked by while I daydreamed about what might happen next. So far, my spur-of-the-moment decision to uproot my life had been a fortuitous adventure. Smooth and exciting, I had high hopes for the future days ahead. That is…until I was approached by a pair of strangers.
“What is a pretty thing like you doing out here all alone? How about some company, sweet thing?”
I looked up from the haze of my lazy river dream to see a man and a woman dressed in the popular Victorian Steampunk fashion that I admired but had never really had the money to try.
“I am enjoying some peace by the river.” This was my reply, for I did not wish for company. I hated to seem rude, so I didn’t say whether the two could join me or not.
As if in a choreographed dance, the two of them moved fluidly around opposite sides of me, taking up the remaining room on both ends of the bench. They were uncomfortably too close for strangers, and I felt trapped.
While I tried to figure out what sort of situation I was in, I took in their appearance much closer. The man and the woman were unnaturally good-looking and flawless, in a creepy way that seemed inhuman. Both were shorter than me. The female had brown doe-like eyes and doll-like ringlet hair that should, but didn’t, make her seem innocent rather than sinister. The accompanying gentleman had a lighter chestnut colored hair that he wore at shoulder length, and his eyes were light in color, possibly green. Their angular appearance was so model-perfect, so similar to one another that they could have been either siblings or perhaps, twin flame lovers.
Not enjoying their sudden invasion to my space, I moved, in an attempt to rise from the bench.
“Where are you going, pretty thing? We were just about to get to know one another.” The woman declared possessively.
“Zyl, this one smells like…” The man’s voice sounded slightly worried, but his concern bothered the woman little.
Cutting him off, she focused on me, “Now, what brings you to our city?”
As she spoke, she brushed her fingers through my hair, and I had to keep myself from shivering. These were the type of night walkers that Aloysius had warned me to avoid while out in the ancient streets. I was not frightened as I perhaps should have been at being cornered by two freakish strangers, but I instinctively knew I should get away from them as fast as possible.
Both of the creeps leaned in closer to me, the woman moving to re-position my hair. My hand knocked hers out of the way as I tried to stand up again. This time, they both grabbed an arm, holding me down as the female draped her arm around my shoulders. This was not good. I needed to get away from these nuts.
“Zylphia Lynum and Ambrose Northgood, I believe you are needed elsewhere.” A strong voice, filled with distaste, emanated from the shadows behind the bench where we sat, and I recognized it immediately.
Again my body betrayed me. The two moved away from me instantly, disappearing into the night without a word, and I should have left too. Yet, I remained sitting there, frozen, not by fear, but by the same deep yearning that had brought me blindly to New Orleans.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said as he stepped into the light where I could see him.
I desperately wanted to give a snarky come back but was immediately taken aback as I found myself speechlessly gaping at Demien instead. He was standing there beneath the lamplight in a stunning greatcoat, as if he’d just stepped out of a Jane Austen novel. It was a humid night. He should have been sweating in that coat, but he seemed comfortable. Goddess in heaven and hell, he was gorgeous.
Silence wrapped around us as he gracefully sat down beside me, making no noise at all except for the rustle of a white paper bag he carried in one hand. In his other hand, he carried a cup. Both Aloysius and Josephine had warned me to stay away from this man, but I was pretty sure he’d just gotten me out of a dangerous predicament. Plus, curiosity and questions overwhelmed me.
“You know those two creeps?” It wasn’t the best question. Obviously, he did know them.
“Why are you out here alone at night?” he snapped. His sheer disapproval was emphasized with his last three words.
…because this is a free country. I am a grown woman. It’s none of your business.
I thought all of those things and worse, but did not say any of them.
“Zylphia and Ambrose are…they won’t bother you again. You are fortunate that I saw you walking to the riverside alone. If you intend to stay in this city, and I suggest you don’t, you must learn caution and common sense. If you want to see the city at night, take one of the Touchets along for protection.”
My mouth was wide open in disbelief. I could feel the night air on my teeth. I knew I looked foolish. The tone of his voice had shifted from anger to great concern. I didn’t understand.
“It’s beautiful,” I mumbled. All of my years of arguing with my father and brothers should have aided in dealing intelligently with this over-opinionated man beside me, but no…I, once again, had said something stupid.
“Yes, this city is a unique place,” he concurred.
“Especially at night. At least I think so. I’ve only viewed a small section since I moved here two days ago. Tonight was my first venture out.”
“And you attracted their attention…” Beneath the street lamps his face showed no emotion, yet I sensed confliction within him. “Here.”
“What’s this?” I wondered as I took the bag without a thought.
“Beignets and a cup of café au lait. You passed right by Café Du Monde and didn’t stop.”
“You were watching me?” True, my friends had warned me to stay away from him, but I thought their warnings came from his being a total malcontent, not because he was a stalker.
“A friend owns a bar down the street. I saw you pass by, noticed you were alone, and assumed that since you were being foolish, you would need my help.”
He’d insulted me again.
“Where do you get off? That’s the second time you’ve insulted me. You don’t even know me.” I couldn’t believe his audacity. I also couldn’t believe how much his opinion hurt me. I didn’t even know him. Why should I care if he liked me or not? I’d spent my life living with people who didn’t like me.
“You’d be well on your way to dead had I not been waiting on you to do something ill-advised. No one would have batted an eye. Locals are well-acquainted with your type. You come here in search of good times and a flirt with the supernatural, but you have no idea what really waits lurking in the shadows. You get yourself in trouble, and then we have to clean up the mess. Eat your beignets before they cool off.”
“Dead? What are…?”
“Eat and drink a little of that coffee.”
“I don’t want…”
“Sybella Rose,” he said my name as if it were painful to pronounce, as if those two words were much more than just my name.
He knew my name…probably from the same source that I learned his.
“Demien…” I hesitated because his facial expression twitched when I spoke his name. He seemed to be struggling with something. “Look, you are right. I don’t know what I am doing, but here is where I am meant to be. It’s the only place I can be.”
Before finishing what I had to say, I pulled out one of the beignets covered with powdered sugar from the bag and took a bite, failing to keep the messy white sugar from getting on everything.
Oh hell, I was going to die of overwhelming delectable-ness of food in this town. Not wasting time on words, I held up the bag to Demien to offer him one of the fluffy little pillows of awesomeness. He declined as he pulled napkins out from a jacket pocket and waited for me to finish off the doughy square.
When I came up for air, I asked. “What were they?”
“What? Not who or why…”
“No, what?” I insisted. As a great consumer of fiction novels, I am aware of all manner of creatures that go bump in the night. “There are two kinds of beauty. One, like the kind Aloysius and Josephine carry, is physically appealing, but their real attractiveness comes from their soul. They are both true individuals.”
“And the other kind?” He sounded like he didn’t want to hear the answer.
“Well, like those two who were just here, their beauty is distracting, nasty, sneaky, oily…wrong.”
A low deep rumbling sound erupted from Mr. Cranky himself. I looked over to see that Demien was laughing.
“WHAT they are doesn’t matter. You probably wouldn’t believe it if you knew, and even if you did believe it, knowing the truth never benefits the person who knows. They almost always end up dead or worse.”
I detected bitter truth in his words and wondered what made him such a pessimistic entity. “Okay, so illuminate me on this. I have supposedly walked into a situation I am not equipped to handle, but I’m not allowed to learn the truth so that I may be better informed so that I may be safe because the truth is also danger. Demien, what do you propose I do? And do NOT say leave the city!”
I carefully closed the paper bag, sealing in the freshness, so that I could eat the other two beignets later and sipped on my café au lait as I waited on him to speak.
“Learn what you can from Josephine, anything and everything she might teach you. Eat at least one meal a day from Aloysius’ kitchen. And wear this always. Never take it off.”
He was removing an oval amulet from his neck, a black stone embellished with a faded silver fleur-de-lis. As he placed the necklace around my neck, careful not to entangle it with my hair, his eyes caught mine. I leaned in closer to him. I could not help it. I needed to be nearer to him. My fingers reached up, desperate to touch the lines of his face. I wanted to kiss him.
Demien moved to the far side of the bench fluidly, like the scary two had moved, and quickly.
“Sybella Rose, stop. I am more dangerous to you than those two ever could be. Do as I said, all that I said. And don’t seek me out. This amulet will deter others like me from harming you. It will not, however, protect you from me.”
He was gone before I could reply, and I was left with an intense yearning to yell at him again. I looked all around me in every direction. After all of that, I didn’t believe for a second that he had disappeared completely, leaving me, once more, alone in the big bad dark. But he was nowhere in sight. When I stood up, I realized I was gripping his amulet. Again, I felt a sense of wrongness within me. I should be scared, but I was not. Instead, irritation and suspicion filled me.
. . .