From the creators of the #1 bestselling horror anthology Nightmareland, the follow up to the #1 bestseller Dark Visions, and the #1 bestseller The Box Under The Bed comes a new collection for your darker tastes:
Spellbound – a horror anthology with 27 stories from 16 authors
* A young man is given a family heirloom at his mother’s funeral, but her protection can’t save him from himself.
* A sailing ship takes a journey to the new world and discovers horrors along the way.
* A young girl seeks a connection with her parents but learns she isn’t magical enough.
* And many more!
Spellbound will take you into the shadowy world of the eerie and macabre, with heart stopping stories from:
USA Today bestselling author Dan Alatorre (The Gamma Sequence)
award-winning bestselling author Roberta Eaton Cheadle (Through The Nethergate)
award-winning bestselling author Ellen Best
award-winning bestselling author Alana Turner
award-winning bestselling author Christine Valentor
award-winning bestselling author Nick Vossen (The Eldritch Twins)
award-winning bestselling author Anne Marie Andrus (Monsters & Angels)
award-winning bestselling author Adele Marie Park
award-winning bestselling author MD Walker
award-winning bestselling author Dabney Farmer
award-winning bestselling author M J Mallon (The Curse of Time, book 1: Bloodstone)
award-winning bestselling author Ernesto San Giacomo
award-winning bestselling author Betty Valentine (A Twist Of Starlight)
award-winning bestselling author Geoff LePard (The Harry Spittle Sagas)
award-winning bestselling author Frank Parker
award-winning bestselling author Joanne R Larner (Richard Liveth Yet)
Perfect for Halloween or any time, these stories will make you think twice before borrowing a book, giving away jewelry, looking into a mirror, or going out on a moonlit night.
CONSIDER YOURSELF WARNED!
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 Monster in the Lake
by Johi Jenkins
He didn’t kill me, Amka thought for the hundredth time that afternoon. She sat cross-legged on the floor eating supper with her family, but her mind was back in the cave. He could have killed me, but he didn’t.
The monster had grabbed her arm, easily, yet he had let her go when she pulled back. She had known he was deceivingly strong, and very quick; yet she had let her guard down. He could’ve killed her, but he hadn’t. At the very least he had a conscience. He wasn’t a vicious demon.
And also for the hundredth time, she looked at her forearm and wrist where he had touched her. The rich color of her skin had looked so sharply contrasted in his pale, grayish hand. He had looked so … so frail.
He could be dead by now, she thought as she ate a piece of bread. The thought was upsetting.
She was worried about him!
She stood and excused herself. “Mother, Father, I must go prepare for the hunt.”
Her mother smiled. “Amka, you looked worried all supper. Do not fear. You are the best huntress we have. You will find this creature, and kill it.”
Amka felt blood rush to her cheeks and looked down. She tried to keep her voice from betraying her. “Thank you, Mother.”
She walked to her late uncle’s hut. It was the farthest hut from the village; he had used it as a sentry post. He’d had no wife and no children, so when he died Amka had taken over it. She still lived with her parents, but often stayed here, especially of late as she had been hunting the monster.
The monster …
The sun was still up. About six hours had passed since she had left him tied up and bleeding in the cave. He might be dead already, she thought again. The notion gnawed painfully at her insides. She tried to shake away the unwelcome commiseration as she prepared her tools and hunting gear. She needed to focus and bring food to her family today. She shouldn’t care for a murderer.
And yet she found herself leaving the village away from her usual hunting grounds, her feet taking her along the lake toward the secret cave, walking at first, then running. By the time she reached the entrance to the cave her heart was about to burst, and she finally slowed down. I just need to know what became of him, she told herself as she walked the passage to the spot where she had last seen him. She would be cautious. But her heart raced on. She couldn’t tell if the apprehension she felt was the dread of facing a blood-drinking monster again, or the idea of finding him dead.
The answer was obvious as her heart swelled with relief upon seeing him sitting up against the wall of the cave. He was now deeper in the shadows, away from the light coming down the opening above, but her eyes had adjusted to the dark and she could see him. His wrists were still tied and he looked worse than he did the last time she had seen him. Except … the expression on his face. She didn’t understand it. There should have been concern for his own wellbeing, or anger at her, or distrust at the very least. After all, she was to blame for his current predicament.
But his face, trained on hers, was lit with something like … happiness?
“Hello,” she said awkwardly, standing about ten feet from where he sat.
“Hello,” he repeated.
She smiled despite the circumstances. He had repeated the greeting in her language. Then she remembered she had resolved to be cautious, and immediately dropped the smile. She cleared her throat.
“Um, I came back to help you. I feel … sorry … for doing this to you. So I will bring you an elk for you to … drink.”
He just looked at her, curious or confused, she couldn’t tell.
“How much … blood do you need? A big elk”— she motioned wide with her hands—“or something small, like a goat?” She brought her hands closer together.
He shook his head. “No kill … animals.”
“What! Why not? You drank from all those animals before, didn’t you?”
“You …” he shook his head and said a word in his language, while feigning an angry face, “before. I feel … sorry.”
I was angry before when I called him out on killing the animals, and he’s sorry, so he doesn’t want me to kill an animal for him? Was that what he was saying? She was shocked. In the short time that had passed he’d somehow picked up enough words to communicate with her.
“I didn’t understand then,” she explained. “That you needed blood, I mean. You need to eat what you need to eat. So I’ll hunt something for you.”
“No kill,” he said again.
“I can’t just persuade an elk to come here willingly!” she cried, exasperated—and at that moment a new thought occurred to her. A dangerous one. “Wait. Would you have to … kill … the elk, if I bring one in here alive?”
“No kill. Drink … a little bit.” He held his thumb and first finger close together, as he had earlier that day.
Here goes, she thought. “Then … I can help.” So much for being cautious. She ignored her inner voice of reason and grabbed her blade from its sheath in her boot. She pointed the tip at her wrist; the same spot he had bit on his own wrist hours before. “Take a little bit.”
Shocked, he shook his head. “No.”
“It’s fine, I won’t die,” she insisted.
He shook his head again, and lowered his head, looking away from her. But not before she caught a glimpse of something—hunger.
Although he resisted, she could see the need in his eyes, in his demeanor. And she felt responsible for it, for weakening him. So she ignored him and brought the tip of the blade to her flesh. She took a second to take a breath, steeling herself.
But the blade disappeared from her hand.
“No,” he said again, and was suddenly standing next to her, his restraints snapped without effort. He held the blade in one hand in the air above her, the other hand around the wrist she had intended to cut.
What … what just happened?
Even earlier, the first time he’d grabbed her hand, he hadn’t been in this close proximity to her. Now his body was mere inches from hers, and her free hand rested on his chest pressed between their bodies. The scales on his clothing were a thing to behold; but she couldn’t spend the time examining them as she would’ve wanted, because her whole attention was engaged elsewhere. On him. On the feel of his fingers around her wrist. And his face, his eyes. The irises were a clear, green color she’d never seen in a person before.
Amka’s heart beat erratically. His closeness forced her to acknowledge the feelings she’d been feeling all day, but that she hadn’t had the courage to admit to herself.
That she was attracted to a monster.
Thal had meant to push her away. He had underestimated his hunger before and killed a man; he wouldn’t let that happen again. He was famished now, and weak; an immense threat to the girl. He didn’t know if he could be able to stop after a little bit, as she was offering.
But when he held her wrist and felt her warmth so close to him, and her hand on his chest, it was much, much harder to resist her. He might have fought the attraction he felt, though, except that as he looked into her dark brown eyes he saw her thoughts were aligned with his.
Against his better judgment he released her wrist and dropped her blade onto the cave floor, then brought his arms around her. One hand at her lower back pulled her body against his, and the other one traveled to the roots of her fierce black hair, gently turning her head to expose her neck.
He lowered his face to her soft skin. Then he bit her.
“Ah,” her little whimper escaped her lips.
Her blood touched his tongue and his life wholly shifted before him. His arms tightened around her, pulling her even closer. The person he thought he was, and everything he’d ever thought he wanted, all disappeared; he wanted nothing except this girl and her sweet blood, and her supple body in his arms. Her mind opened to him, and he felt her great pleasure past the brief shock of the bite. Her mind was full of him. Her face lifted to the cave ceiling.
If this is dying, I don’t mind so much.
Her thought sobered him up and broke through his stupor. He forced his head up. It was over too soon.
“Why did you stop?” she asked in a daze. He understood the meaning of her words exactly.
“I … good,” he said, testing the words. In his own language he added, “Thank you,” and stepped back to give her some air.
But he saw her neck was still bleeding. Tentatively, he reached a hand up to her neck where he had bit her. He could heal her, but he felt he ought to ask her first.
“May I touch?” he asked in his language.
She didn’t understand the words, but she grasped the meaning well enough. She nodded.
So he brought his finger to one of his fangs and bit, and a bright red drop of blood appeared as she watched with wide eyes. He spread his blood over the two small puncture marks, and heard her surprised thoughts as her wound healed and the pain receded.
She touched her neck. “It’s all healed,” she said, rubbing her fingers over her smooth skin. “No pain. No wound. How did you do that?”
“My blood healed,” he said, extending the finger he had bit, showing her there was no wound there anymore, either. Then he lifted the hem of his now tattered garment and showed her his side where her spears had pierced his skin. “No pain. No wound.”
He heard both her gasp and her internal exclamation of surprise upon seeing him fully healed. And then her silent regard: He is so beautiful.
As his mind automatically added the words to his growing list of her vocabulary, he was thrilled to discover that particular one—beautiful. Excitement over learning the word—and the context in which she had thought it—made him smile.
“You heal so quickly,” she said in awe.
“You feed me. I healed.”
But her pride in helping him turned to guilt in the next instant, as the family person she called Uncle appeared in her mind. Thal had seen this thought before. He stepped back from her and looked down, ashamed.
“I’m sorry for … uncle,” he said.
He felt her surprise. For the first time, she wondered if he could read her thoughts. It was a strange thought to her, the idea of hearing thoughts. Thal realized humans didn’t have this ability. But she didn’t ask him about it—yet. Instead, she thought of her uncle again. She had cared for him deeply.
“Why did you kill him?” The night of her uncle’s death, a month ago, flashed before her eyes. She contrasted what she’d then called the monster with the monster before her now. She didn’t think of him as a crazed animal anymore; she looked for an explanation in her mind. She remembered he had run away limping when she had approached. She wondered if he’d been hurt, then.
He nodded at her unspoken question. He bent and grabbed her blade from the floor where he’d dropped it. “I killed elk. Uncle …” Thal mimicked tiptoeing.
Snuck up on him, her mind provided, understanding him.
“… and then he … hunt me,” he finished, and he mimicked stabbing his back. He didn’t have a word for stabbed yet.
Realization hit her. There had been a dead elk next to her uncle’s body, she remembered. And that explained the monster’s limping—her uncle must have stabbed him. “Oh,” she said.
“I hungry,” he recounted sadly. “I drank from uncle. I take … not a little bit.”
It had been an accident. Thal had been raised with a healthy fear of humans, the sun dwellers. After leaving his underwater cave he’d hunted animals easily enough, but he’d been careless. He’d left the carcasses for the wild animals to feed—it didn’t occur to him that humans might find them and wonder who or what was behind the animal killings. When the man attacked him, he had defended himself, and drawn blood. Blinded by hunger, and perhaps fear, Thal drank until the man stopped struggling. Only when he heard shouts behind him did he remember that engaging with humans was something he should avoid at all costs.
He’d fled and retreated to his underwater cave, and only returned to the surface when he strictly needed to, once a week when he was hungry; and even then, he’d hunted far from the village. But he didn’t realize someone had been hunting him.
“I’m sorry that I hurt you, too,” the girl said, and he could see she was remembering their first encounter two nights before; how she had attacked him while he’d been looking down at her, distracted. She was embarrassed that she had attacked him without provocation, as her uncle had done.
And yet Thal didn’t blame her. He understood now that it was her duty; she’d thought she was protecting her people from a monster. When he’d heard the footsteps behind him as he had tried to free the little goat, he’d realized another human was trying to kill him, but he hadn’t expected it to be a girl. He’d been mesmerized by her beauty. As a true hunter, she had used his weakness against him and stabbed him. He’d run away, but instead of staying out of sight he’d come back like a fool the next night, hoping to see her again.
Instead he’d almost met his doom.
“But you … came back to help me,” he pointed out. “And you … feed me.”
He heard the embarrassment in her thoughts again and saw her blood rush to her cheeks. Her skin color was so warm and exquisite; he yearned to touch her again.
“I had to,” she said, and in her mind she added, I wanted to.
“Wanted to?” he repeated.
She looked at him curiously. How does he know what I’m thinking? “Can you hear … what I’m thinking?”
“Yes,” he said. “I can hear.”
Impossible, she thought, in denial. But then she thought of several times he’d answered an unspoken question. “How?”
“I just do,” he said in his language, shrugging, as he had no explanation either in her language or his. Hearing thoughts was as natural to his people as hearing sounds, or speaking.
He is so different, she thought. What an odd creature. Her eyes traveled over him. His height, his long arms—then they fell on his wrists. Specifically, on what was left of the ropes that adorned his wrists.
“You broke my restraints so easily,” she pointed out. “But why didn’t you, earlier? You could have gotten free anytime. You could’ve walked out of here anytime.”
He shook his head. “No walked out. Night creature,” he attempted to explain, pointing at the light coming from the opening above. He was weak and the sun was still out. But he could have broken her restraints. He didn’t though, because they were hers. He looked down at his wrists with affection. “You restraints me,” he answered.
I restrained him, her mind understood his faulty use of her language. “I only tied you up because I thought you were dangerous. I’m sorry.”
“No sorry. I’m not dangerous to you.”
Again she looked at him in awe. “How are you learning my language so quickly?”
He didn’t know how to answer that exactly. He could hear the thoughts that accompanied the words she said, so he very easily grasped the meaning of each word or group of words. And he remembered every word that she said. “I learn quickly.”
“Well, then,” she said, sitting down on the cave floor, “now that we can talk, tell me who you are. And … your name. My name is Amka.” She placed a hand on her chest, pointing at herself.
“Amka,” he repeated, instantly loving the sound of her name. He sat down across from her, then pointed at himself. “Thal.”
“Thal,” she repeated.
They both smiled.
Amka had grown up hearing tales of blood-drinking demons that some remotely ancestral tribe had encountered ages ago. Children told the stories to scare their younger siblings; they were supposed to be just that: children’s tales. But after talking to Thal for several hours, engrossed in the history of his people, Amka realized the stories were likely based on real events that had been downgraded to fiction over the last hundred years. The more he talked the more she wanted her time with him to never end; but unfortunately the sun had other ideas. She kept glancing at the opening above them, getting sadder by the minute, until Thal noticed.
His thought-hearing ability was quite handy for their communication, she noted, but it had its disadvantages. Such as then, when he heard that little voice she had been ignoring for the last hour telling her she had to go back to take care of her hunting duties. She’d come back empty-handed two days in a row, and the village jerks would be sure to point it out if she didn’t bring something today. And for that she needed daylight. Which was quickly retreating.
“You have to go back home,” Thal surmised, in his newly-learned language of hers. He only had a tinge of an accent. “Don’t be sad. I’ll come back tomorrow and meet you again. And as for today, don’t worry. I can help you catch anything you need.”
“Oh, that’s … thank you,” she accepted his offers, trying to hide the excitement from her voice at the thought of seeing him again the next day.
So very reluctantly they left the cave together. If the amount of light left bothered him, he didn’t show it. He brought down a boar for her easily enough, an animal she rarely hunted because they were huge and their tusks were dangerous. Thal even carried it for her. They continued their talk until the path they walked along the lake turned inland toward her village. There they stopped to part ways. He had to go back to his underwater cave, he’d told her, and he couldn’t very well walk her to the village. People would faint.
Very carefully he slung the boar over her shoulders, and as he stepped closer to her the excitement and awe that had filled her most of the afternoon talking to him, and later witnessing his hunting skills, quickly dissipated. Gloom crept in again over their impending separation, despite his assurance that he would come back. What if he didn’t?
“As soon as the sun sets,” he promised, “I’ll be in the cave.”
“I would like that … very much,” she admitted.
She didn’t know how to part with him, because she’d never needed to part with a guy she liked; and also because most of her physical faculties were presently occupied holding the boar steady over her shoulders.
“Until tomorrow, then,” she said.
“Until tomorrow.” He was smiling as he turned and walked into the water.
Amka smiled too as she watched him dip underwater with a final wave at her. Then she walked the rest of the way home with the smile plastered on her face. She barely felt the weight of the animal slung over her shoulders. She went straight to her house, getting cocky when passing villagers commended her for a kill that wasn’t hers, but that no one knew it wasn’t. She dropped it off outside her hut on her father’s stone slab. Her mother and father always dressed her kills and took care of the other nasty details.
After freshening up she returned to her late uncle’s hut to return and clean all her hunting gear. She dropped off her weapons, then grabbed a water basket and walked to the well. Her mind full of Thal, she didn’t notice Aruk casually leaning against a nearby tree until he spoke. The sun had gone down already and it was getting dark very quickly, but she still kicked herself for not seeing him there as she approached.
“That monster looked quite like a pig,” he said. “I thought it was supposed to be a giant fish?”
Amka had no intention of letting the little dung ruin her mood. “You’re more than welcome to join me in the hunt one day, if you and your pal Torren want to learn how it’s done.” She couldn’t help the biting sarcasm in her voice.
“I don’t think so,” he said slowly.
Her body immediately shifted into defensive mode. Aruk’s tone had changed—her mind took note of several details all at once: his body language, his stance, the size of the tree he was next to, which could hide a number of threats to her. And something else, perhaps most significant of all: Aruk was never one to initiate a provocation. That was always—
She whipped around almost too late. She ducked, avoiding being nearly skewered by Torren’s spear. She kicked out at him as she ducked, but only managed to push him away a few feet. And piss him off.
“What the hell?” she asked them, needing an explanation. They were jerks, yeah, but she never expected Torren to attack her. And with a freaking spear! And yet she saw Aruk had grabbed his own spear as well.
So this was how it was going to be. Two armed against one unarmed. Attacking her from behind, too. Cowards.
“Good evening, huntress Amka,” Torren said. His voice was malicious and full of hatred. “I hope your day has been pleasant so far. It won’t be so pleasant now, I fear.”
Again she wanted to kick herself. This level of dislike coming from Torren must have been brewing in him for a while now, and yet she had never noticed. She always took his taunts as just harmless jealousy. Clearly there was something bigger going on. How had she missed the signs?
“Why?” she asked him, circling around him, placing both of them in her line of sight.
“The hunter must be the strongest,” Torren said simply. “And you’re not the strongest.”
Amka cursed silently. She should’ve known. She was older than him by a few years, and throughout their childhood she’d always been bigger and faster than him. He was still young, around seventeen, but in the last few years he’d caught up with her in size and was now taller. She was still faster and a better hunter, though. Or so she had thought.
They charged. Aruk circled around her, trying to flank her, while Torren thrust with his spear, over and over again. She danced out of the way, while simultaneously analyzing their moves and looking for an opportunity to grab either of their spears; but after not even a minute of this, Aruk, so impatient, decided to just barrel toward her. She side-stepped at the last second and managed to land an elbow to his temple … but the distraction was all Torren needed, and he rushed at her again; this time, the spear caught her arm as she wasn’t as fast to side-step the charge. The cut stung but it wasn’t deep. Yet, it was enough to incite them further. And worse: break her confidence.
She stumbled back, and as they both looked at her savagely, she knew she would not be able to dodge their next charge. Anger filled her heart as she was forced to accept her imminent fate.
But a strange new sound broke through the darkness. It was like the sound of waves crashing against the shore, or wind howling through a narrow crevice. In an instant Amka’s anger vanished and she smiled. The two sadists in front of her didn’t even have a chance to see the blur that came barreling toward them from behind, but she did.
Thal crashed against Aruk, and the vile young hunter went flying into a tree with a sickening crack that no human could ever survive. Amka cringed at the sight of him, at the same time that she heard a whimper. She turned to the sound—and saw Thal had grabbed Torren by the neck, and had forced him down on his knees, choking him.
She had the pleasure of seeing Torren’s eyes filled with a savage fear. “See … he’s real,” she couldn’t help but say.
Thal looked into her eyes, and into her mind and her darkest thoughts, probably, because he nodded almost imperceptibly right before he turned back to the whining Torren in his hand. He squeezed, and Torren’s neck snapped with a satisfying crunch. Then he let go, and her enemy’s body crumpled to the ground.
Amka ran to Thal, and he pulled her into a tight hug. The confrontation and the terror of what had just happened finally caught up with her, and she shook and gasped, clinging to her savior. She had never felt so vulnerable as she had moments before Thal had appeared; and now in his arms she felt the safest she’d ever felt, despite learning that he could crush her into pulp if he so desired. His speed and strength had taken her by surprise.
After another moment she calmed down. Then she realized she was … wet? She pulled back, puzzled, and noticed Thal was wearing a tunic that was plastered to his chest and dripping with water.
“I came directly from my home,” he explained, still holding her. “I felt something was wrong, almost as if I could hear your thoughts from far away.”
“They jumped me. And it took me by surprise. I feel so … stupid.”
“Don’t,” he said, and brought her close to him again. “You’re clever. You trapped me. You could’ve killed me. They were just … cheaters.”
Cheaters. Anger flashed again in her mind. She looked down at Torren. They got what they deserved. And yet, they hadn’t. Aside from a quick moment of fear, they had died too quickly. They deserved worse.
“Drink him,” she offered, nodding at Torren. She knew Thal hadn’t drunk nearly as much from her as he could have. He had to be hungry still. And there Torren was, perfectly good food about to go to waste.
Thal looked hesitant, but he did a little shrug, agreeing with her. He finally let go of her and took a step back. “You’re right. No need to waste.”
He grabbed the body liked it weighed nothing, and sliced the neck open with a fingernail. “So it will look like it was a spear,” he explained, before he covered the cut with his mouth, drinking deeply.
Amka didn’t flinch.
When he was done, he dropped the body to the floor again, then turned to the well behind him and cleaned his lips and mouth with water, as if washing away something distasteful.
“Was his blood as revolting as he was?” she asked.
Thal laughed, returning to her. “No. It was alright. But I had your blood, and that was heavenly, so I’m ruined forever to the bland blood of others.”
She smiled, his laughter and his compliment improving her mood infinitely. She couldn’t resist him anymore. So she reached up and kissed him.
She felt his momentary surprise, then his immediate response. His arms went around her again, and he kissed her back. Slowly, but deeply.
Oh wow, she thought. This is better than I imagined.
She had to wake her parents, the elders, and maybe a villager or two to explain what had occurred with Torren and Aruk. But it could wait a bit. As Thal’s lips moved over hers so sweetly, everything else could wait. She was content to just drift in the surge of feeling that engulfed her.
To Be Continued. . .
Find & Follow
Need to Catch Up?
And Then There Was Fog…
Anne Marie Andrus
Wisps of fog lurked and lingered around the tangled roots of swamp trees as if begging to be drawn up and into the hearts of those ancient sentinels before cruel sun banished them for another day. Polly balanced a stack of empty buckets under her chin and paused in the barn door to watch the last dance of legendary mist. Another sweltering day had dawned in Louisiana and it was only April. All of us are hiding inside until evening.
With the sound of happy horses munching on oats and barley, Polly rolled giant screen doors across the entrance—the biggest improvement she’d made since inheriting the farm and a necessary decision if she wanted to stay in business. The heat was bearable when standing still. Hordes of biting flies were not. Though some of the horses in her care were for pleasure riding, many more draped garlands of blue ribbons across their stall fronts. Hurricane Becky, the imposing chocolate bay mare in the corner stall, had the most and she was due to move to New Jersey over the summer so her young rider could train for the Junior Olympics.
Crescent Bend Farm was growing a reputation as a show barn, ultra-competitive without any snobby attitude. Every stall had a personalized sign proclaiming the name of the superstar who lived there. Each was the pride and joy of a local family who scrimped and saved to fulfill their child’s dream of owning a horse and taking lessons from Henri—trainer by day, jazz musician in the big city by night.
It’s Tuesday morning, Henri should be here by now. Polly glanced outside but the gravel lot was empty. After pouring a steaming cup of coffee, she settled onto a bale of hay, perfectly positioned for a view of the peaceful pastures and winding driveway to Rural Route One. The first taste of chicory on her tongue was interrupted by the jangly ring of a phone. She lifted the lime green receiver from its perch and tucked it between her shoulder and ear. “Crescent Bend?”
“Miss Polly!” A voice on the other end chirped. “Don’t you see me flailing my arms out by the gate? I’ve been makin’ a grand commotion for the last hour.”
Polly leaned to the right and saw Henri waving his old black hat in the distance. “I do now. Did you break down?”
“There’s something out here you need to see.”
“Fence busted again?” Polly stopped mid-sip. “Is this your cell phone—are you hurt?”
“No and no. Just—come right quick.” The line went dead.
Polly dashed out into the brutal sun intending to sprint the length of the driveway but changed her mind, hopping into her old pick-up instead. The bald tires spit pebbles as she gunned it toward the main road. Two minutes later she tumbled out of the truck to find Henri leaning on a crooked post, popping sunflower seeds in his mouth. “What was so earth shattering that you couldn’t tell me over the phone?”
Henri nodded to the shade of an old tree “Someone left a package.”
Polly turned and froze. Tied to the branch of an oak was a trembling grey horse with mud caked up all four legs and streaked across its belly. “A stray?”
“Just a filly.” Henri stood straight and handed Polly a brown container. “This here’s the package. I nearly missed that baby horse in the fog.”
Inside the soggy box, Polly found bags of cheap feed, a soft bridle with a rubber bit, a crumpled twenty-dollar bill and an envelope stuffed with papers. “Some nut just left her here, like dumping an infant on the hospital steps?”
“Seems so. At least they tied her up in the shade.”
“Just when you think you’ve seen it all—we’ll take her down to the barn and I’ll call the police.”
“I tried already—to walk her down I mean.” Henri shook his head. “She seemed to like my voice but when I got close, she nearly pulled the tree down trying to run.”
Polly frowned. Something is off. All horses love Henri. “I might have carrots…” She retreated to her truck and came back with one lonely orange stick. Slow and gentle steps carried Polly around the oak until she could see ribs poking through the filly’s grey coat. When the carrot snapped in half, two ears pricked in her direction. She and the horse took a step toward each other and then another. She held the carrot out and a velvety muzzle plucked it off her flat hand like a princess lifting a fine china cup.
“Good girl.” Polly placed a hand on the horse’s damp neck and waited for her to stop trembling before stroking her nose. “Easy there, let’s get you somewhere cooler.” She slowly untied a worn lead from the branch and started in the direction of the driveway. The horse followed but froze when Henri moved closer.
“Why don’t you drive my truck back and I’ll walk her?” Polly offered the second half of the carrot. It disappeared in an instant.
“Take your time.” Henri picked up the brown box and stuffed the envelope in his pocket. “I’ll get a stall ready.” As Henri turned away, the filly followed him with her eyes and craned her neck to track his progress, inching to the end of the driveway and watching him back the truck all the way to the barn as if she didn’t want to let him out of her sight.
“He’s one of the good ones.” Polly began the long trek. “No need to be afraid.”
The horse walked deliberately, as if she was in awe of the pastures and the buildings ahead, stopping to grab mouthfuls of grass, gaze into the distance and work the courage up to take a few more steps. On the hard ground she was taller than Polly thought at first. No shoes, but her hooves look healthy and trimmed. At the barn door, the horse’s eyes flew open and she stopped short, her spindly legs nearly tangled in panic.
“Whoa, whoa.” Polly backed away and let her regain balance. “Easy, baby.”
“That might have been my fault.” Henri retreated into the tack room. “Try again, third stall on the left.”
Polly coaxed and nudged the filly but even though she seemed as if she yearned to go inside, they never made it past the barn’s threshold. “This isn’t happening. She’s working herself into a lather.”
“I have an idea.” Henri peeked around the door and tapped his forehead. “What about the little open-sided barn close to your house? I know we haven’t used it since…” He unzipped his leather vest, tossed it on a hook and reached around the wall to fill a bucket with fresh water.
“Since we lost Daisy—Grandfather’s last horse.” Polly stared off at the old red structure shaded by a grove of oaks and hanging moss. A snapshot from a fading fairytale. She took two steps in that direction and was yanked back by the filly who submerged her face in Henri’s water bucket and drained half of it before coming up for air. “Good Lord.”
The horse turned to Henri with different eyes and batted long dark lashes. She plunged her nose back into the bucket and took a daintier sip. Tension visibly drained from her muscles as if he had waved a magic water wand and she had fallen head over heels in love.
“Looks like you made a friend.” Polly chuckled.
“Sweet Baby Girl.” Henri stroked her charcoal mane. “You’ll never go thirsty again.”
With Polly on one side and Henri on the other, Baby Girl walked with bolder steps and happily slipped through the gate of the shaded pasture. Polly took her for a quick tour of the perimeter and unclicked the lead from her halter. The horse walked directly under the slanted shelter as if she’d lived there for years, but spun around to make sure the exit was wide open.
Henri shook his head. “Still jittery, like she’s been trapped inside somewhere.”
“I remember a lot of boards that need to be fixed before we leave her alone here.”
Henri flipped over an old trough and began filling it with a hose from the house. He called over his shoulder. “Already done.”
Polly peeked through the fence at freshly painted walls and an expertly patched roof. “I thought we decided to knock this whole thing down?”
“I fixed it up instead.” Henri leaned on the rail next to her and watched Baby Girl sniff around her new surroundings. “Thought it might come in handy someday.”
“Sounds like something Grandfather would say.” Polly smiled wistfully as the filly pricked her delicate ears at a bird’s nest in the corner of the barn. “I don’t even want to imagine what happened to this poor thing.”
“Let her settle and I’ll mix some real feed with whatever was in that brown box.”
“Take it slow. Four small meals a day for now.”
Henri pulled the envelope from his pocket and handed it to Polly. “I thought you were calling the police?”
Find & Follow
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 nurse is the Lord’s fiercest angel.”
—Sorcha Alden, New York 1935
–Still true, New Jersey 2020
Chapter 1 of Hunted on Predator Planet…
Tracked on Predator Planet
I roared at the white-furred pazathel-nax that snapped at my boots. For some kathe reason, the devil dog picked me out as the weakest in the pack. What a load of kathe. I could kill any of my brethren in a couple of tiks. Even Naraxthel. Ha. Especially Naraxthel, now that he was smitten with that useless soft female. It was better he had left us when he did, otherwise the devil dogs would be disemboweling the both of them.
“Run ahead!” I shouted to the three hunters. “Pull them away! I’ve got this mutt!”
I watched them draw the rest of the pack away, Raxkarax feigning a lame leg. I swung my raxtheza but missed the dog’s gray-white head. I parried its muzzle with my double blade, and soon its blood sprayed upon the groundcover. Two more swipes with my blades, and the dog lay dead, its entrails steaming in the rain-swept air. I double-checked my sight-capture was working. The Ikma Scabmal Kama loved to see death and mayhem.
A huge crack of lightning split the air, and I heard a sizzle in my earpiece. I watched in awe as a giant tree fell across the trail, shuddering the ground with its enormous weight.
I looked through sheets of rain, to the trail my brethren had followed, but they were gone. I heard distant shouting. Wary the devil dogs would sneak around and flank me, I cleaned my blades and jogged off the trail, finding a lesser used game path to head in their general direction.
A snarling log hit me in the shoulder and knocked against my helmet. I fell to the ground with a curse and felt the teeth of a lone devil dog worry my elbow joint. I growled and unsheathed my short sword, stabbing it in the belly. I silenced its high-pitched whine for good. I stood and aimed a disgusted kick at the huge blood-spattered corpse. More curses followed when I slipped in the mud of the trail, almost falling on my ass. I heaved great breaths from exertion, feeling heat from my anger flush my skin from my arm pits to my neck. I scowled and frowned, waiting for more pazathel-nax to lunge at me from the ikfal. Crouching in wait, I held my blades ready.
Rain poured over my armor, washing the blood and gore from its seams, as well as powering the cells. A fuzzy static pierced my earpiece. I cocked my head. “Hello? Raxkarax?” More static. “Natheka? Raxthezana?”
Kathe. That dog jostled my comm when he pounced on me. The sight-capture feed blew out as well. Once the rain stopped, I would remove my helmet and try to fix the delicate technology. For now, I was isolated.
Out of communication range.
Last seen being attacked by the vicious pazathel-nax.
My breaths increased; my heart raced. The tendons in my neck tightened.
I could not have planned this any better if I had spent ten cycles arranging it. A gust of breath escaped my lungs. If I was dead to Theraxl, I was free. I only paused a second to leave my prized blade sunk into the body of the dog. No living Iktheka would leave his raxtheza.
I spun on the trail and tore off in a different direction. Careful to step on springy undergrowth instead of black mud, I chose to hide my trail sign.
I ran for several zatiks, sometimes leaping to grab hold of a low branch and swing myself forward a veltik. The farther I ran west, the freer I felt.
No more sight-captures for the Ikma. No more nights in the Ikma’s pungent lair, filling her baser needs while my promise of posterity withered and died. No more lengthy feasts in the dining halls, pretending to be humored by others’ stories or females’ batting eyes.
On Ikthe, I was Iktheka alone, beholden to no one save my goddesses.
Holy Goddesses, I thank you for the gift presented to me. May I use it to give you glory.
My armor felt lighter. I felt a sensation like cool air lift from my belly and burst forth out of my mouth. A laugh.
Shaking my head at my foolishness, I ran on, headed for the private glade I sometimes escaped to for precious moments of solitude. I liked it because it was defensible on three sides. Protected by a defile of rocks on one side, a gulch on the other, and flanked by a stream on the third, it was perfect. It had access to the bounty of the forest on the north side. I smiled. I would be there in three days’ time, and then I could scheme how I might live out my days as an exile on Certain Death.
I stopped for short meals of speared jokal over small fires. I built them under the heaviest canopy, that the smoke filtering through the leaves became invisible. I obscured my footprints, choosing rocks and treefalls to walk upon, or reversing my walk, in places where prints were inevitable. Leaping and jumping, climbing trees or crawling through bowers, my trail sign was untraceable. Once the heavy rains descended, I would be but a memory of a dream to my fellow hunters.
I slept in the vee of the red tower trees and killed the animals that threatened to kill me first. On the morning of the third day, I smiled at the Sister Suns. Soon I would settle a camp. I would dry meat and use my hands to build a semi-permanent shelter.
I lowered myself from the tree, pulling a jeweled talathel out and twisting its jaws until they popped. I threw it to the ground for the jokapazathel and loped the remaining veltik to my glade.
I slowed to a walk, unhurried for the first time since my adolescence. I reported to no one now, save the Holy Goddesses.
Using my gloved hands to part the foliage, I came upon my glade through the deep woods. Already I heard the babbling waters of the stream where large glisten-fish swam upstream. They made a delicious soup. My mouth watered at the thought.
My eyes caught a movement, and I stilled.
I switched to my heat-vision and cursed soundly.
Holy Goddesses, do you now play a joke on your servant Hivelt? Do mine eyes see another soft traveler in truth? Do you play with Hivelt?
I zoomed in on the figure. There, in front of a small ship, stood a person of Yasheza Mahavelt’s race. I watched in disbelief as they gathered sticks and twigs and placed them in a huge pile at the back of their ship. They had been collecting for days, it would seem.
My eyes widened as I scanned the site, switching back to my natural vision. A drying rack had strips of meat and pelts draped over it. The traveler built a cairn of rocks at four corners of the glade. Another large boulder sat against the rock outcropping, a concave center collecting rainwater.
My breaths came in short bursts. My heart seemed to slow with time. I blinked, willing the sight to change. It didn’t. The soft traveler’s industry belied Yasheza’s race. Perhaps this was another race? Naraxthel’s Yasheza ran from him and hid. She took baths. This one—this one worked.
I watched for several jotiks, checking my camouflage settings obsessively. When she left her site to approach the tree line, I faded further back into the ikfal. What was she approaching so carefully? Flailing movement at ground level caught my eye. Ah. This traveler set traps.
The mahavelt’s suit was identical to Esra’s. I retreated into the ikfal an extra step but waited to see the face. If it was a female, I would turn and run, if it was—
They turned to look at me, but I knew I made no sound, my armor at maximum stealth settings. My camouflage obscured me. But she—I could see her face.
Luminous silver eyes, like the scales of the glisten-fish, saw through me and pierced the empty place where my heart was not. They shone out of a darker skin tone than Yasheza Mahavelt’s. The contrast was striking.
Her brows turned down as if she could detect my presence, and her mouth frowned. Her eyes narrowed, and she dropped her wood, taking steps toward me.
Run, Hivelt. Run and hide.
My face grew hot and I clenched my fists. My heart hammered in its heart-home, and I took a great draught of air. The little industrious trespasser built a homestead in my glade.
I reached for my raxtheza, and my hand came away empty.
She took one more step, then cocked her head. I watched her lips move as if she spoke, but I heard nothing. She turned away and resumed checking her snare.
My heart returned to its usual pace, and I relaxed my hands at my side.
By all appearances, this female intended to stay. But I would observe for a few days until I decided if she deserved the raxfathe and death.
Naraxthel spoke of corruption in Theraxl ways, and the Ikma Scabmal Kama revealed it to be so, but that didn’t mean the raxfathe didn’t have its place in the order of things. Especially when an uninvited interloper took up residence in my place of solitude and serenity.
I snarled and snapped my teeth, remnants of the pazathel-nax fight hounding my thoughts. I watched her progress along the tree line, and my eyes tracked a path to a spot in front of me. There! A clever snare utilizing a sapling sat within a long stride from me. A dead jokapazathel hung limp. Seeing she was preoccupied with her load, I cut the rodent loose and kept it for myself. A tribute.
Death and fury would be my companions tonight. I retreated further into the ikfal and climbed a tree.
The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for a good man to do nothing~Edmund Burke
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