“You did what?” Rogue asks as I habitually bite my chapped lips. The question seems rough, but not as bad as being slapped. If Zach weren’t opposed to hitting his servants, I know that would have been the case.
“I didn’t mean to let it happen. It just kind of… did.”
I try explaining the situation while Rogue finishes washing the dishes. I express why I had declined Zach’s offer; I need to keep my distance for a while.
“Cassie, you can’t do that. You know exactly what will happen if any of the women coming to the house find out about this.”
I nod my head. The peculiar understanding of a 21-year-old career-servant. In my first home, the grandson caught me crying – I missed my Mother Ester and my friends. He began using it against me. One servant fell in love with her master, and female suitors throughout the home made her life hell, all because she was love-struck. The men are rough, but the women know how we tick. We are one and the same, most of us.
“Why are there so many women around here?” I ask Rogue, wanting to clear my mind of the situation.
“Old man Addison told his son to find a woman to start a life with–” Just then, Rogue is interrupted by John.
“Now Zach doesn’t think his father knows his son well enough to find him the perfect woman.” I nod my head while John continues. “And besides, most women here flirt with Zach but at the end of the night, come to Rogue to satisfy their needs.”
I only reply with a light smile and eye-roll. Rogue is a typical blonde haired, blue eyed man. His eyes are the only captivating part of his body; they can trap you, kill you on the spot.
“Too bad I like guys more than ladies,” is Rogue’s only quick-witted reply.
I have learned that Rogue got his nickname because of his tendency to sleep with any man when given the offer. Rogue is a known rebel among the servants. I feel empathy towards him – he had fallen in love but was given to another household before he could say anything.
“So, what is this I hear about Cassie being mad at Zach?” John asks.
“It was an accident, okay? I didn’t mean for it to happen.” I pick my nails with purpose, thinking more about my knowledge of Rogue.
Rogue is only 27, but far more serious than John who is in his late 30s. John is a trouble maker and takes the role of an annoying older brother. He has black hair, cut and spiked to imitate a younger look. We can all tell his age by his lavender eyes, the way they are dulled by years of experience.
“Don’t worry Cass. I’m just throwing shots ‘cause I’m bored,” he reassures me before he jumps onto the counter, lightly bumping my left shoulder. I smile kindly, returning the favor.
“Cassie, can I see you for a second?” I hear Zach calling me from the adjacent room. I follow his voice and find him, arms crossed, leaning against an antique mahogany table.
“Yes, sir?” He looks at me as he did when we met, pacing around me.
“I have a dinner to go to, and I need a date. The women my father handpicked know nothing of me or what I do, but you do.” He gives me a sincere chuckle and looks directly into my eyes. “You know far more than an average servant, let alone a 21-year-old servant.” I nod my head, understanding my knowledge comes from reading and experience.
Zach’s family owned a photography business that he ran away from to pursue the New York dream. He travels the world now. He never had a necessity to learn about the family business, but he took it on as a hobby. Zach knows everything to know about photography.
“What’s your favorite color, Cassie?”
Confused as to why this is important, I only answer with, “Midnight blue, sir.”
He nods his head, still pacing.
“Do you know now to dance?”
Mother Ester had taught all the girls, but it has been so long since I have even been asked to dance. “I haven’t for some time, sir.”
“Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you once a night for the next few days to improve your skills.”
Hiding my emotions from Zach is difficult, particularly with the beads of sweat streaming down my cheeks, leaving a trail of anxiety. The company at the dinner would much rather see me be beaten than join their high-class society.
“Do you understand, Cassie?” Zach still has his arms crossed.
“I understand, sir.” I continue to count the wooden floor tiles, biting my cheek.
“Good, I’ll see you tomorrow morning then. Good night.”
I watch as he walks up the grand staircase to his room. Concentrating on Zach’s posture as he strides, I am startled by a pair of arms hugging my shoulders.
“Don’t worry kid, everything will be fine. Most of the dinners Zach goes to are only five hours long. He usually only stays for two of them, just long enough to eat and talk and show he is alive,” John says, with his arms still around me.
I return the hug, an impulsive decision only because of my need for the affection, but pull away quickly.
“Good night, John.” I walk upstairs to my room.
Passing Zach’s room to get to my own, I can hear him arguing with someone. I just bite my lip and keep up the pace, fighting the urge to spy. I strip off my dress, put on my pajamas, and lay in bed. Laying down, looking at the stateliness of my room, I think about how this week will be different. I must fake every feeling to get through this dinner, being in his world for only a few hours. The thought of being in his world shakes me to my core. Being in a world where people only care for themselves seems so cold and empty.
Life at Mr. Addison’s is conventional. Having been here for almost a month now, I am learning the daily goings-on of the house. For the past week, I have looked through the kitchen and noted everything I will get today on my trip to the market. Zach only eats organic foods, and they have to be farmed within a 300-mile radius of our home. The intricacies of his diet do not bother me; I think of it as exciting. I always loved going to the marketplace with Mother Ester, whenever she decided to take children with her. My treks to buy groceries remind me of those times.
Zach had told me, “My servants always have the best,” as his tailor measured my chest a few weeks ago. I leave the house on my way to the marketplace in my new purple knee-high sundress, with a sweetheart neckline. I feel so out of place, almost like I do not own it. The more I ponder, the more I realize I don’t.
Getting to know my fellow servants over these few weeks has been interesting. Philip, the butler, has worked at the Addison residence the longest, a few years before Zach was born. Rouge oversees cleaning the dishes and washing clothes for the residents. John is the mastermind behind the upkeep of the home, and he organizes everything Zach plans. Philip mentioned once that there were only male servants, which is nothing particularly unusual. It seems the late Mr. Logan Addison slept with the female servants when his wife was attending business elsewhere. Mrs. Malinda Addison never minded his infidelity; rather she minded his choice location, in the room to the left of Zach’s.
Philip spoke of Mrs. Addison’s hospitality, how she extended it to anyone who strolled into her castle. His voice trailed off while an unmistakable gleam shined in his brown pupils. He articulated more with his eyes than I have ever heard from any mouth. He would marry her if he could.
John pulls out an old bike to take to the market. I enjoy bikes far more than any stuffy car. With the beautiful weather and three-mile journey, the fresh air will be lovely. List gripped between my fingers, I leave eagerly for the market. Shopping combines relaxation and work. I always see people I grew up with, peculiar only because of the distance.
The smell of fresh bread and strawberry tarts replace the unmistakable stench of the roadside when I arrive at the marketplace. Walking around, looking at the fish and fruits and deciding on their quality, I can’t shake my mind from those strawberry tarts. I think I’ll buy some before I leave. I find myself surrounded by the separated booths of small businesses and bored, single women with riches to spare. Regardless of the disproportion in wealth, I’ve never noticed a difference in taste.
I keep to myself, showing my status as a servant. Mama Ester told me that you should never show any human emotion – wealthy owners know each other, and it’s dangerous if you upset the wrong person.
I’m unenthusiastic about going back to the Addison home after my charming day at the market. The open space is a breathtaking contrast to the jail cell feel of a home.
After setting the bike in the storage unit, I carry the groceries into the door closest to the kitchen. The bags are heavy, but I don’t mind labor; I’m used to it. Usually, when my hair gets into my face or I slam my head into the door frame, I just keep walking.
Walking into the house, I hear laughing from the sitting room. I know quickly it is Zach’s, in harmony with the laughter of a woman. I fear that I will not be working for a bachelor much longer. At 25, he is probably enjoying his evening with a woman he will marry and have too many children with. Then he will bombard the home with more servants like me. I’ll continue to hide in this lonely castle, or perhaps he will sell me before that happens. Don’t feel, don’t react, and don’t get attached to the stories told to me as a young servant. I sigh lightly and put my groceries in cabinets, remembering this mantra.
I’ve never experienced an attachment to anyone, except Mother Ester. You will always be attached to the woman who raised you. I know Zach is trying to make this a home for me, but this is not my home. My life is not a fairy tale. So lost in my thoughts, I hadn’t noticed Zach standing next to me. He startles me when he says, “So, when did you get back?”
Looking over to him and placing a tomato on the counter, I reply, “A few minutes ago, sir. Not too long though.”
He nods his head and takes a seat on the counter, next to my groceries. He looks like a teenager waiting for advice from his mother.
In the unexpected silence, I continue to put away the food, his eyes following me as I travel along the spacious kitchen.
“You seem too comfortable doing this?” he says, breaking the silence with his curiosity.
I’m guessing by the sound of his voice he is confused why someone my age could be so comfortable shopping for a stranger, particularly after receiving nothing in return.
I retort with, “Well, I should. I’ve been doing this since I turned 15.” I don’t bother to look at his face; I already know it is one of absolute shock.
“But you were just a kid then, you couldn’t have possibly enjoyed your work?” Zach says.
I sigh and finish putting away the last of the groceries. One as affluent as Zach could never understand what I went through, just to end up someone’s servant. Taking this into consideration, I turn to Zach and say, “Look, I recognize you don’t understand. With no mom or dad to care for me, I was never a child. My life doesn’t seem perfect, because it’s not.” I place the grocery bags in a crate to be washed and used for the next market run.
“Please excuse me, Mr. Addison. I have much work to do,” I say to him and walk quickly to my room.
I collapse on my bed, realizing I had broken one of the rules.
She has a personal, destructive beauty, one not many can fall for. He is the only one to see it. With her red eyes and ebony wings, Aria holds Lucifer’s heart. Her love for the devil is only outweighed by the corruption inside her.
Lucifer ignores it, for a time. He understands she wants the same sensation he felt when he fell from grace. Only until she became his personal Pandora’s box did he take notice. Heartbreak, disease, famine, death. Aria has control of them, and much worse.
“My love, you must stop this,” Lucifer tenderly whispers, grasping her by the biceps with pleading eyes.
Aria growls and shoves him away. “You don’t tell me what to do!” Eyes like rubies in sunlight, her anger stems from his need to control her.
Lucifer knows he can fix her, but only by using the hope lying at the bottom of the box. He grabs her arm with a jerk and takes her to her fallen meadow. Lucifer holds Aria close until their skin seems like it will fuse together.
He speaks the only words that will free Aria. “I free you from my hold and the hold of God.”
Aria is left limp in his embrace, eyes fluttered shut. All that is left of her wings is a handful of feathers at his feet. A blush returns to her cheeks, and her slate-colored nails are replaced with clean, uncolored ones. Aria’s hair turns to a light chestnut as Lucifer holds her in his lap. She is mortal, human. He strokes her cheek as her eyes open, revealing two eyes of sea green. The only words to have broken the devil were her first mortal words of freedom.
She never meant for anything to happen, for anyone to get hurt. Freedom was all she searched for, but she traded one master for another.
Aria’s usual dusty pink feathers are now laced with black coal. Her nails, once a familiar bright red, are stained with a dull, senseless gray. Her heart is beating for the evil that has taken over her body instead of for the compassion and honesty that used to devour her.
“My dear Aria, you should have listened to Gabriel when he warned you of the fall,” Lucifer whispers deviously as Aria changes from the angel of love to something… else.
As Aria sees Lucifer’s smirk, her vibrant green eyes turn to a fiery red, her bright blond hair to tresses of dark curls. Lucifer kneels and holds her head in his rough hands.
“My beautiful girl, you’ve come back for me, haven’t you?” Lucifer says with certainty.
Aria replies with a grin so devious her canines appear. “Of course my love, who would not want such a man at their side?”
Pulling her close to his body, he strokes her changed, pale cheek. He remembers the softness of her skin, even though it had been a millennium. Staring into Aria’s eyes for only a second before making up his mind, Lucifer takes his prize back down to hell with him. His first love has finally returned.
The demons inside her would never rest, forever cursing their love. The second time, no one would be safe from the fires of hell.
Sleep is a luxury to me, as it is frequently interrupted. As expected, Philip wakes me. Following him down the majestic wooden staircase, I see Mr. Addison waiting, tapping his foot on the beige carpet.
“What time did I fall asleep?” I ask Philip, trying to conjure a definite sense of time.
“Around nine,” he replies with certainty.
The large grandfather clock beside Mr. Addison reads 11:54. Judging by the lack of sun from the stained-glass windows overhead, I guess it’s nighttime. I suddenly remember why I could fall asleep. I grew bored, as I am not familiar with having nothing to attend. I take the valuable time to rest, physically and mentally.
The man waiting in his dining room appears no older than I. His dark hair looks to have never grown past his chin. His five o’clock shadow leaves me struggling to guess his age.
“Mr. Addison, this is Miss Richards, your new servant,” Philip introduces me, and Mr. Addison turns slightly, showing me his entire face.
I stare into his rainforest-green eyes and notice a scar sitting over his left eye.
“Ah, yes. Thank you, Philip, you can retire for the night.” Mr. Addison smiles.
Philip bows his head, walks to the back of the house, leaving Mr. Addison and me with only ourselves. As I try to avoid Mr. Addison’s gaze, I notice a flower pattern running along the room, stopping at each doorframe.
“My mother’s idea,” Mr. Addison noted. I blush because he notices my avoidance.
Mr. Addison must remember his mother by the framework; he stares at it reverently. “She adored flowers and convinced my father to have them all over. The only thing more dear to her heart were her children,” he says.
I nod my head slowly and clench my clasped hands.
“Please sit, Miss Richards,” he says while pointing to the chair behind me.
With a light chuckle, he grabs the plates nearest to him and walks toward me. “You are the first servant to have been close to my age since my parents were here,” he tells me as I watch for the subtle signs of permission to speak.
My eyes grow large as I notice him setting a full plate in front of him and me. I can’t help but salivate as I wait to be invited to eat.
“Hopefully you won’t find me a bad employer. I haven’t noticed any gossip from my servants,” he says playfully.
I nod my head in response and play with the hem of my shirt.
“Oh right… um, you may do as you please, Miss Richards. It’s only when there are others around that I will ask you to act appropriately,” he says matter-of-factly, like a schoolboy attempting to be the head-of-the-house.
I feel safer now, having been shown kindness, and I start to eat some of the food. For almost twenty minutes, we eat in silence, I having no desire to talk and he appreciating my company. I catch him sizing me up, playing guessing games with my history. I imagine him asking if I had been abused before and that’s why I do not speak. The less complex answer is I have nothing to say.
“I have one rule, Miss Richards,” he says, wiping his mouth with a cloth napkin. “Call me Zach, never Mr. Addison.”
I nod slightly, taking in the one rule. Zach sighs casually, sitting back to look me over. I see no point in looking back so I finish my meal. I eat until I can’t anymore; this is the largest meal I’ve eaten in the last year! My last home was beautiful until the master’s son took over, treating me like the servant I am. He refused me food but always stood behind his parent’s rule: never beat a female servant.
“Tell me something about you, Miss Richards,” Zach requests. He supports his chin with calmly fisted hands, resting his elbows on the marble table.
Tell me something about you….I haven’t the slightest clue of what to say. Nothing about myself could be as interesting as the man in front of me.
Playing copycat, I reply, “I like being called Cassie.”
He nods respectfully. “Okay, Cassie, what do I need to know about you?” Zach says, trying to dig deeper.
“I’m allergic to lemon juice and bees,” I say as I remember Mother Ester telling me that notifying owners of allergies is always a good idea if you have nothing else to mention.
He says, “Good thing I hate lemon juice and my gardener keeps bees away from the roses after spring.” He chuckles lightly.
“I also like to read.”
He leans forward, straightening his posture. “Maybe one night a week you can sit with me in my study and read before we go to bed,” he says with a smile.
My grin seems to overpower his as I reply, “I would like that, Mr. Zach.”
He pats my hand lightly and says, “Rogue will get these things for us, but I’ve had a long day. I assume you have too.” He stands and sets the dishes neatly atop one another.
He’s right. Leaving North Carolina that early in the morning after having served my previous home’s party, arriving at my new place, and meeting my master has drained me.
“Yes, Zach, you’re right,” I murmur and stand up, pushing my chair in.
“Good night Cassandra.”
I bow, returning the good night, and retire to my bedroom. I decide Mr. Addison is a sweet, gentle man. However, as a veteran servant, I know first impressions can be deceiving.
“Remember, Cassie, don’t say anything out of line and keep your head up or you may just be pushed down.” I listened to Mother Esther as she packed up my new clothes in my suitcase. I don’t remember ever doing anything on my own until I turned thirteen and was taught how to serve the wealthy. I was sent to my first house at fifteen. They were a nice, old couple. They needed help with little things. They treated me well, somewhat like a daughter. Mother Esther told me this was not so unusual with older couples.
“Now tell me the five rules.”
I took a deep breath and messed with my heart locket. “One: Never talk back or when not spoken to. Two: always smile but never laugh; make yourself look gentle. Three: Always be prepared for anything, even if it’s a beating. Four: Do not allow the men to touch you like you’re a pay girl, not until twenty-one. And five is um…”
I nodded my head.
These are rules I’ve had to follow for the last seven years. I’m once again being sent to a new home in New York. Rule four will no longer apply and I will not be safe from men with wandering hands and lustful eyes. I must serve every need of my new ‘owner’ and tend to his every wish.
Watching as a tree goes by my car window, I remember reading about the trees constantly being cut down to make room for new housing. Most of the deforestation was for people who didn’t have homes. Everyone has a home now, but not everyone is free. I, like many others, must serve the wealthy and elegant. I eat two meals a day, if not less. We all evolve and adjust to survive.
Most servants are girls and are met with disrespect. The few boys who end up with a job like mine are treated as nothing but trash. We are treated this way because we are orphans, unloved and unwanted. Either our parents were rich people who didn’t want a child, or we were a mistake between two lonely servants, forbidden. I’ve learned the only children raised wealthy are those who have one or more affluent parents wanting a child. Otherwise, you end up… like me.
We were taught no differently than wealthy kids, with only a few extra things to learn. About twenty percent of servant girls end up as wives to the men that ‘own’ them, so it’s not that bad.
“Miss Richards, we’re here.” The driver speaks as I look up at the towering house. Climbing out of the car to grab my bag from the trunk, the driver removes my hand and says, “Allow me, miss.” I nod and admire the area around the house. Mr. Addison seems to enjoy all types of roses; I don’t think I’ve seen so many in one place. I grab my backpack and start walking, pulling my suitcase behind me.
Zachary Addison’s would be my third home in the last seven years, although he is my first young bachelor. As I shake, I remember to keep my head up and my feelings locked away, as always. I walk up to the door and ring the bell. The outside gives an impression that the home could hold a hundred or more people, all at once.
The door opens slowly. Eyes wide, I look at a man probably in his late 50’s. He has graying hair but gentle eyes. It’s normal for butlers to open doors when I arrive at new places.
“Miss Richards, I presume?”
Nodding my head, I step in when he moves out of the way. The enunciation of his vowels gave away his accent, almost Yorkshire-like. He is a foreigner, and that relaxes me. “Mr. Addison is away on business until later this evening, but he has requested for you to have dinner with him when he returns.”
“Of course,” I reply.
This is usual. Employers want to look over their new servants, confirm they are healthy and fit.
“May I know your name?” I direct my attention towards the butler.
The three servants of the home talk to each other. We all find ways to talk, release our anger, or help hide each other’s sadness. Showing either emotion is not okay.
“I am Philip, Miss. Now let me show you to your room.”
I follow him up the staircase, trailing my suitcase behind me. The house was clearly made for many servants or a big family. From what I see and hear, there are only three male servants; two were cleaning the house. “Now, you will be the cook and waitress when Mr. Addison has parties. How old are you?” Phillip inquires.
“I’m twenty-one,” I look away, careful to use only my eyes.
His eyes speak more than his mouth ever could. I will have more work than he mentioned if Mr. Addison wants to have his needs fulfilled. He opens a door but doesn’t step inside. The room looks designed for a wealthy daughter, not a servant. “This will be your room till Mr. Addison says otherwise.”
I nod, place my suitcase on the silk sheets, and look around the room.
With cream carpets and little designs running along the floor, up the wall to the edge of the ceiling, I feel out of place. One window sits opposite of the bed, to the right of the door. Looking back to ask Philip where Mr. Addison’s room is, I see I am all alone.
Closing the door, I sit on a small seat at the end of the bed. “New home, different rules.” Gripping my heart locket a little tighter, I close my eyes and breathe. I will be safe as I always am. I will not fall or break. I will not be human.
The eyes were sunken into the head of the blue-tinted body, which smelled of a familiar decomposition, similar to that dead cat she’d been forced to dissect in science class. Death was a new sensation for Charlotte, her first time experiencing it on this mild spring day. Remembering her parents discussing a missing man from their small town, Charlotte deduced she had found him. What a triumphant victory. Her feet stumbled as she ran away, but not before she had taken special notice of the decaying corpse that lay still. About a mile away – or five in the eyes of a child – was the closest road and she followed it home. Only able to conjure a light sleep, Charlotte dreamed of the deterioration she had left behind.
Creeping carefully down a path laced with hemlock, Charlotte walked along the steps she’d taken during the day. Diverging from the road, she traced an unbeaten deer path to the end of a row of trees. She knew where to go from the circling buzzards. Near a secreted lake where cattails grew like wildflowers, the body lay stagnant. The water revealed the carefully hidden body, partially submerged. Now he was more recognizable than before; he looked almost alive.
“How is this possible?” she whispered to herself in horror.
Remembering what her science teacher had told her about death and the decomposition cycle, how decomposition was a quick and unforgiving process, she began her cycle of curiosity.
She leaned in. Getting a closer look at the corpse beneath her seemed to dull her interest, but it didn’t quite satisfy it. She noted his missing shirt, swollen belly, blue tint that seemed less blue than before. She found a nearby stick. After poking his chest, she was unsure what to do next. He didn’t budge. Charlotte wanted to touch him, to feel how cold he was. She leaned in once more, now with a more devious intent. Curiosity took over her mind and body as she placed her delicate finger on the corpse’s shoulder.
Charlotte’s hand touched the shoulder of the dead man, and she was jolted awake by the shock of his reaction. She jumped out of bed, ran to her window to see what time it was. She noticed it was light outside; her parents must be at work. She grabbed a light jacket and slammed her feet into her lighted sketchers. The door crashed shut.
Charlotte knew her path. Led only by fear, excitement, curiosity, and hungry birds, she flew down along the hemlock trees and trampled the deer trail. She disturbed the lake with her feet, unable to slow her erratic pace. She looked at the body and was immediately relieved that it was all a dream. The man lay there, as blue as when she’d left him eight house ago, perhaps more.
For good measure, Charlotte had to recreate her nightmare. She leaned in, took a stick and poked his chest. Nothing moved but the water supporting the body. Looking at the unnatural hue of his face, the question crept into her mind. Do all corpses decompose this quickly? A proper girl would have pushed the thought far from her mind, but Charlotte allowed herself to dwell on the idea for several minutes before continuing with her endeavor. She reached her hand towards his shoulder. Noticing every crevice the decomposition had left on the body, she was careful not to deviate from last night’s dream.
She didn’t have time to process what his skin felt like until a blue-black, half decomposed hand appeared, grabbing hers.
Marigold took a deep, steadying breath, closed her eyes, and pictured Comfort. She held the image of being at ease and soothed in her mind: wrapped in warm blankets on cold winter nights, settling into the soft curves of a caring lover amidst the steady sound of rain pattering on the window pane, watching fireflies from her porch in evening twilight while cicadas sang, the smell of freshly poured tea mixing with old spices and herbs in her mother’s kitchen and workshop. Some memories were much, much older than others, but they were still fresh in her mind even all these decades later.
Opening her eyes, Marigold observed her tea bags, prepared and almost ready to be set out for sale. Inside the handcrafted bags she’d mixed Chamomile and Skullcap herbs, spiced with her own blend of seasonings and marketed as a heavy duty stress reliever. Now Marigold set to adding the final and most secret ingredient. Memories held firmly in her mind, she took a small pen loaded with a dark, non-toxic ink. With a steady and practiced hand, Marigold drew the sigil for Communication on each bag. With her memories clear and present at the forefront of her mind while she wrote, the message was clear. A small taste of power glowed from the sygills, shining in the early morning light for a glorious moment before fading into the background hum of everyday magic.
Marigold placed the pen back in its carefully crafted and well-loved case on her kitchen table and allowed herself a moment to lean back in her chair and regather herself.
“A simple spell like that wearing me out…” she said to herself. “Aging is certainly no task for the weak.” Marigold smiled.
The peace of early morning reflection was nudged away by the soft and quietly insistent chime of Marigold’s smartphone. Glancing over to the counter where her phone charged overnight, Marigold caught sight of the time on her hanging wall clock. It was a well-crafted wooden piece, a gift from an old friend. The handsome face informed her eyes what the phone had informed her ears; it was half past seven and time to open her store front.
Marigold stood and gathered her things from the small wooden table. The kitchen around her was still, lit a warm yellow by sunlight peeking in through the eastern facing window. A brass tea kettle sat cooling on the stovetop from her breakfast cup, shining bright against the dull practicality of the old stove. Her sink was much more modern, shiny and chrome from when Marigold had been forced to replace the original the space had been built with. A vital pipe had finally rusted beyond the point of no return.
Her Council had been baffled by her choice to replace it the old fashioned way, she remembered. ‘Marigold, a simple sygill for Remembering and the pipe will be good as new! Why bother with hiring a plumber and tearing out the whole sink?’ Marigold remembered what she’d placated them with – something about the landlord knowing the pipe had been troubling her and the problem suddenly vanishing would have cast eyes where they shouldn’t be, easily understood and entirely logical caution for the sake of cover.
Marigold’s actual reason was significantly more complicated and close to her heart. If she’d been forced to put into words, Marigold might describe it as the same reason she had purchased a smartphone and tried to keep on top of how it worked. A desire to have common ground, perhaps.
But that was entirely too melancholy a train of thought for such a fine, bright morning. Placing the box of tea carefully under one arm and her phone in her apron pocket, Marigold left her kitchen and walked through the tight, light green hallway of the flat. Past her tiny bedroom and the cozy sitting room were the steep stairs to her shop below, which Marigold descended with practiced ease even at her age. Once at the bottom, Marigold reached up with her right hand and felt for the sygill precisely carved into the doorframe. The feeling of Protection and Alarm at the Ready still rang in her mind as strong as ever. No ne’er-do-well was getting in without Marigold’s knowledge and swift retribution.
Marigold opened the door. Her shop greeted her nose first, tea leaves and herbs from the world over mixing into an intoxicating aroma entirely unique to her space. Marigold Tea House was the official name, though most of her customers couldn’t help tacking a possessive ‘s’ onto it. Marigold’s Tea House really wasn’t that different at the end of the day, so she rarely bothered correcting it. She smiled as her eyes swept over the space, cleaned and prepped for facing another day of thirsty customers.
Unfortunately, Marigold’s gaze caught onto her most hated enemy. How she despised it, how she loathed it, how even the look of the thing threatened to sour her mood. It crouched on her countertop like a giant cockroach. Marigold frowned at the offending black menace while laying out the basket of tea bags.
“Now,” she calmly said to the pest. “Are you going to be cooperative this morning, or are we going to have issues?”
The cash register said nothing. Marigold wasn’t expecting it to; it was only a cash register. She calmly and steadily marched to her spot behind the counter and confidently keyed in the sequence for opening the store. The register paused for a moment, thinking over Marigold’s simple request as though it was a monumental task.
Beep Beep! The register chirped. Marigold sighed through her nose and looked at the display with a slow curl of dread.
Err//Op Not Valid
“Ah. This again. I admit it has been a long while since your opening volley has been the literal opening.” Marigold keyed in the sequence again, more slowly this time and carefully ensuring that each button press was inputted correctly.
Err//Op Not Valid
“What pray tell is not valid about the sequence that has opened your drawer for customers every single day for the past 35 years?!” Marigold tried again, more forcefully that necessary.
Err//Op Not Valid
“Technical support isn’t taking my morning calls anymore, you beast. I am going to enter this code one final time, and if you do not cooperate I swear on all the sygils known and not that I will end you. Most likely with a baseball bat.”
The register mulled things over for a while, and though Marigold knew it could not have actually heard or understood anything she said, it was very satisfying to see it finally accept her code. The cash drawer popped open with a merry ching! Battle won but war far from over, Marigold quickly counted the cash and noted the sum in the books. As she removed the various piles of bills, sygils were revealed. Smooth Workings and Sensitivity and Clean were the most obvious ones, but countless attempts at enacting her will on the stubborn machine were visible if you knew how to look for them. Marigold hardly remembered what problem she had initially been trying to fix after all this time, and she had a sneaking suspicion her continued attempts were only making it worse.
“One of these days,” Marigold muttered to herself, “one of these days I will finally grow sick enough to replace you entirely, and what a fine day that will be!”
The cash register said nothing, but Marigold knew the fiend was being smug again.
The night was always the loneliest time for Tredan. He remembered years ago a time when he never felt this way. Was it a decade? Two? After so long, keeping track had lost its importance, and wandering the world had become Tredan’s only occupation.
His new life had begun at the end of the war, when the Havat empire invasion had put Tredan’s homelands under their control. The war had lasted less than a year and the soldiers Tredan had fought alongside had either been killed or enslaved. All of them except Tredan, for he had seen the defeat coming and at the last charge abandoned his post.
Fleeing to the woods he looked back to see fires breaking out atop the castle walls. Tredan ran until the screams of his people were finally silenced, then until the guilt was finally outweighted by exhaustion. After days of running, he was lost deep in the forest of Balisk. He searched aimlessly for a road, or even a hunting trail. It had been a month–at least it felt like a month–before Tredan found other people.
He took refuge with the village’s blacksmith for a time until he had earned enough to travel on. He left that place in the dead of night; too many knew of his old platoon, the Black Wolves, and their many exploits in the ever declining defense of their country. They had tried–by the gods, they had tried–year after year to stem the invasion.
Failure still gripped Tredan no matter how much he drank and no matter how far he ran. And now, years later in the midst of unfamiliar forests, he gripped himself tight by the fire. He was shaking from the strain as the faces of his comrades raged at him from the flames.
He was still wandering the next day aimlessly walking a trail to an unknown destination. It had been so long since he had seen a village. He had no food, no water, and only his old sword at his belt. His thoughts of nourishment fled as he left the forest’s edge, looking out at the old ruins of a castle, its remains scorched and overgrown with vegetation.
This was his home. The place he had fought so hard to defend and run for so long to forget. Walking the grounds again depleted him of emotion. This place had not even been worth rebuilding. He attempted to fill the ruined halls the memories he still had. Tredan fell to all fours weeping at his cowardice, until the growls of an animal pulled him back. The largest wolf he had ever seen looked down at him with from a roof top. Eyes as yellow as the harvest moon, and mid-night black fur bristling at Tredan’s intrusion. The falling sun masked the beast’s movement as Tredan drew his blade for the last time.
Aleine was running harder than she had ever thought possible, sucking in the warm air and exhaling with a hiss as she bolted across the open water. The water walk technique which was so embedded in her body over the past decade was taxing to her magic. She spun around on one of her steps and balanced as she froze more of the area. Feeling the heat rise up her scaled skirt and over her bare legs, the flush of warmth soothed the ache in her muscles.
She scanned the dense foliage for any sign of movement, keeping her eyes moving while she pulled her bow from her shoulders. She felt the worn grip of her recurve bow with a light metal spine in the wood. It was almost older than she was, but strong enough to handle the magically aided draw that she put on it.
Nocking an arrow, she caught the scent of burned flesh tinging the air and a moment later her prey burst forth from the tree line. Aleine had lured the Toridea towards the village so they wouldn’t have to carry it far. Now was her shot–the beast had taken a few arrows already, it was angry, and its acidic saliva ran like a river all its own. The great reptile outweighed three grown men and was able to glide through water silently when it wasn’t enraged.
This one was, however; its gills flared and eyes widened as it stared down towards Aleine. She drew her arrow back, the comforting sound of the strain filling her ear over the thrashing of the charging beast. In the span of a heartbeat, as the Toridea’s front feet reached the height of its step, she released the arrow.
The long thin head whistled as it sped through the space between prey and hunter. After years under the best marksman in the village, Aleine’s aim was nearly as good. In a spray of blood and saliva the beast fell into a forward roll from its interrupted momentum. With a second arrow loosed into the under belly the beast was fished, its few remaining breaths labored and wheezy.
“Good shot,” Hafwen called to her from the shore line, as a smirk cracked her stony face. She had raised and mentored Aleine for nearly two decades, all for the trials she would face tomorrow on her twentieth birthday.
The large wooden doors to the village opened and a group of men walked out nodding politely to Hafwen. As they approached Aleine, who was slushing through the river towards the shore, a few patted her shoulder and gave passing praise. Aleine looked over to Hafwen who was shaking her head and pointing to her kill. After all this time she hounded Aleine to keep up her basics, and now wanted her to retrieve her arrows.
As she lowered her head and turned to her task, one of the younger men was still beside her.
“Care for a lift?” his voice cracked a little making Aleine smile as she accepted. He hoisted her upon one shoulder and continued to the kill. The men in the Misten’s tribes where large mountains of honed muscle, their natural strength letting them maintain the villages. The men generally stayed at the village as defense and also building and repairing building, a task made much easier by their ability to work in chest-deep water.
With the day’s hunt done, Aleine returned through the gates of the Aquar Equian tribe’s Village, where the preparations for Aleine’s trials were already under way.
Hafwen paced on the deck in the mid-day sun absently playing with the braid in her hair. She had been hunting in the forest when the messenger from Celestaon had summoned her. She had never actually spoken to the eldest of the village; few did, but fewer still were summoned personally.
Now anxiety was setting in after spending all morning waiting for the elder on her porch. Hafwen had trained to function without sleep, but four days was pushing it. She watched all the people breaking for a meal and heading towards the communal house. The smell of seasoned meat had been filling the air and taunting her for the past couple of hours.
A couple of builders passed close to the deck and glanced up at Hafwen with broad smiles and flexing arms. She smiled back as best her weary mind would allow. They continued on, leaving Hafwen to fall on the railing of the porch and repeatedly tapping it with her forehead in frustration.
“You will injure that pretty face child,” a gentle voice cooed to Hafwen, sending her into a surprised attack pose that she almost landed.
The full chested laugh of woman over a hundred years old was a wheezy, chirping sound. It was almost as embarrassing to Hafwen as the barely stable footing she found.
“Elder Celestaon!” Hafwen said hurriedly once her mind was at ease again.
“Come in child. I am sure you could use some rest.” The old woman waved a hand as she opened the door to her home.
The threshold of the Celestaon’s home was like a portal to some other world. The smells of a thousand herbs and the cool air that caressed her skin was in sharp contrast to the world outside. Misten was a marsh drenched nearly all year long, where everything your senses perceived came with an overtone of wet. The Elder sat in a chair covered with the furs of half a dozen beasts and stared at Hafwen.
“My child, I will come to the point.” The old woman’s eyes had a fierceness to them that stunned Hafwen. “I have asked your Constelari all about you in the days since you were sent hunting. They tell me you are solitary; that you spend your days training, and have honed yourself into one of our finest hunters. You are also a devote woman wise beyond your elders.”
“Thank you.” Hafwen’s words came out meek, as she thought, why was Celestaon praising her?
Celestaon wasn’t smiling though. “What I am about to ask you will be more difficult than any beast you’ve faced. You have been given a Starlen, starting today.”
Hafwen was speechless. Given a Starlen—the tribe’s term for young member. They were never given like this; she had thought to take on a Starlen in a few years—everyone did eventually, as it was a responsibility to the tribe. Taking in a child to raise them, watch them, and eventually welcome them into your own Constelari.
The soft footfalls of the Celestaon’s handmaiden pulled Hafwen from her thoughts of imposed responsibility. The small girl carried a squirming blanket over to Hafwen who reached for the child with trembling hands. Pulling the child up to her chest caused the blanket to fall, slightly exposing the baby to the humid air of the cabin.
Hafwen stared at the markings on the child and in disbelief stared down her own loose shirt to her markings. She cast a glance to the elder, the highest authority in the Aquar Eques tribe. Celestaon laced her fingers, resting her wrinkled chin in them, and said, “her name is Aleine, and she is going to have a very trying life. We must do what we can while she is with us.”
In hurried movements the Celestaon grabbed up the baby as the other elders pushed her a path through the crowd. The moment of wondering bought her time to escape the questioning and get to her home. The still early morning chill hung in the air and after a night of preforming the illumination the Celestaon was weary. Down the wooden steps she hurried to the watery lands, and, as she reached the edge of the steps, she prepared to run across the waterway.
As her bare foot was about to strike the surface she reached out with her Reach and pushed the heat out from the surface and below. A process so second nature it took little thought at her age. The slabs of frozen water contrasted to her warmed skin but each step of contact was so brief most were barely noticed.
Behind her she heard the uproar of her tribe members. This was unheard of, but she couldn’t let them see the child’s mark. The tribe has no place for anomalies—every member must fit. This needed thought, and she feared the direction of impulsive Constalari leaders.
Celestaon’s home was close now, a place few would invade out of the respect her role demanded. The simple clay home was built on to a large wooden platform upon stilts to save it from the harsh change in tides and the natural swamp conditions. She finally reached the set of steps to her home and turned to see a couple of elders escorting the parents by canoe. She pushed through the door and into her home, the scent of herbs welcoming her. The gentle stirrings of her guest pulled her from relaxing, and she began absentmindedly rocking the child.
Celestaon sat at a table as the door opened and in shuffled the parents and the elder for the Merchant Constalri. Outside the arguing of the clan trailed in behind them.
“What is going on?” the mother asked worry etched in her words and the on father’s face.
Celestaon simply looked between them and their child, “She doesn’t have any markings for our clans.”
The parents starred uncomprehending how this could happen to their child. “What does this mean?” the father asked, wrapping his arm around his wife.
The other elder had the same quizzical look; she had never heard of such a thing before. She stepped over to Celestaon’s chair and looked down at the now awake child. They had named her Aleine, and she was squirming with her eyes darting around unable to focus on any one thing.
“We will have to convene the other Elders to ultimately decide,” Celestaon’s words still held a muted tone, “but her mark is troubling.”
Celestaon unwrapped the child showing them the markings that formed a faint eight pointed star. No more than a fingers length in diameter but clear as day. Every clan member from the seven tribes of Misten went through the Illumination produced a few spots that helped place them in one of the seven trades. Everyone had a place; a purpose, and this bound them to their fellow tribe members. Aleine had nothing like the rest and her place could not be determined with such a showing. To followers of the seven celestial chiefs she may as well not be of the Misten clans.
“We will most likely have to exile this child; she will be cast into the other lands of Savea.”
Celestaon knew the child’s odds. Misten was one of the southern most countries. To wonder the wilds alone was the end of all but the most experienced mages, and they must give her up to the wayward nature of fate.
August 21st, 1931.
I am writing this brief prologue as an insight into my thoughts today versus those of my time at the estate of Professor Bjorn Heimdall’s mysterious acquaintance. It was at his request that I had made the journey from my position here in Maryland to meet with him. Under all other circumstances, our relation to each other would have been cut down to that one particular visit of his. It was a miracle then that I met with him after the conference at the Barnett College in 1923. I had never been more excited to have met someone who shared my interest in the less appreciated ideas pitched around the proverbial campfire.
Heimdall and I shared a particular fondness for ancient civilizations. Though not by any means the only ones, we two were among the quiet minority of those who fancied the idea of entire time periods left forgotten, and that the age of our world was even greater than any representative of science could have guessed. We had our reasoning for such things, but I would rather not recount them here so openly. I would urge all who read my pages to reconsider at once before you damn yourself to a fate no soul should experience.
Perhaps though, you have that very thirst for adventure I once had. I can only hope the rest of my journal serves well to dissuade you from potentially catching your death.
– Doctor Louis Hampton, Archaeology Department at Century University.
November 6th, 1927
Today, I had been welcomed. I was quite surprised to learn that we would stay the night in Lord Aldragar Covington’s castle, as Heimdall knew him as a friend and supporter of his research. The place itself was far more impressive on the exterior than any manor house I’d seen, but being here in the flesh only helped. I find myself with the help of a guide who had insisted upon hurrying back to catch up with an issue regarding his family at home.
I had run into Heimdall a short distance from the place and we embraced each other for a moment, before taking to a carriage afforded by our gracious host. We had been informed that Lord Aldragar was attending to personal matters and would not return for some time. We were treated to hot meals and the roar of a fireplace as the two of us made haste to catch up with each other’s latest exploits. I had asked Heimdall of Lord Aldragar and how they had come to know each other.
Heimdall’s explanation had caught me off guard: He himself once told me that our own encounter was a miracle, and it helped that we had similar interests. His description of how he came to know our benevolent host seemed unlike him, as he stated he was drawn to the man’s eccentric nature and enthusiasm for seemingly hopeless pursuits. Still, I should be open to see the other fellow who held favor with the Professor. He insisted on moving his discussion to other topics though, and I obliged him. He spoke a great deal on society after the fall of near utopian Atlantis. This night, he seemed particularly focused on his studies into the metal called Orichalcum. It was rumored to have been only second in worth to gold among the Atlanteans and had occult basis as being capable of amplifying an energy—such as electricity many times over. Aldragar had funded Heimdall in the hopes of finding some of this metal, or any other artifacts. He offered me his energy when speaking on his discovery. It was odd then that he would suddenly halt and forget what had happened next.
“I will retire early.” he said, his voice gone monotone.
“From our business or for the night?” I mused, trying to get a chuckle. I had no such luck, as he departed without banter. When I took to my chamber, I found it almost as cold as the outside and took to the heavy blankets, cocooning myself in the hopes that I could be transferred to a new room once Lord Aldragar had returned.
November 7th, 1927
My first encounter with Lord Aldragar was perhaps the most offensive I’ve had with anyone in my entire life. I can accept theory, but he seemed to challenge me at every turn. I could not help but gaze into his eyes, whose brown shade seemed rusty red to my eye. Heimdall did not speak much for me, offering more of his vigor for Aldragar. It seemed insulting that he would go to such lengths to make a fool out of me. I had the remainder of my breakfast and left immediately after. No more did I want to see Bjorn’s greying beard scratched, or the ghoulish countenance of Lord Aldragar.
I should note that I can’t find much by way of more recent conveniences here in the castle. Aldragar said that the castle was a harder place to renovate. Still, he’d promised it was remote enough for us to do our business without prying eyes or fears. To my surprise I was not granted a new room, and left with the chilly one. Rather than argue with my host, I sought to examine some of the possessions he had here. I had quite enough of Aldragar for the time being.
None of Aldragar’s more recent acquisitions were housed here, so it was all antique. The place was mostly filled with heirlooms. I recognized some prominently displayed 11th century pieces, such as armor and weaponry. They were well preserved, and the veteran in me could not help but take up a sword. During the Great War, I had fought in the U.S. 3rd Cavalry Regiment. I once again knew the feel of a saber as I inspected a half open case and found a remarkable silver blade. I took the moment to test it, and found myself enamored with how it handled. My intermission had been interrupted by Aldragar however, who offered a hiss and attempted to take the blade from me. He recoiled in pain however, having attempted to grasp the blade itself.
“Doctor Hampton! Away from my collection!” he’d barked at me. Lord Aldragar looked to be in pain, perhaps having cut himself on the blade. He accepted no excuse, and hurried me out with a malicious glare. I eventually saw him once again as I passed through the halls, unseen as I saw him take raw meat into his hands. He slurped them into his mouth and mashed them with his teeth. The most striking aspect though were that in the blink of an eye, I could have sworn his canines were on par with the tusks of a boar. His snide features seemed more grotesque with each savage bite, and I had to force myself to look away.
I did not dare to run, but I still had to slip away before he could catch me. If he knew I stood as witness to his actions then my life would be forfeit.
The still night’s chill pushed them into the embrace of their tribal elders. Arrayed in all corners of the large log building where the bodies of old crones had filled the area’s space that was not filled with the smoke of incense and pipes. The loving couple stared at the still bundle they carried; their eyes glazed with the thoughts of what fate would hold. As they handed the bundle to the eldest of the tribe a small gurgled coo caught the ear of all present. The moment following the outburst hung in the air as everyone waited for it to pass into silence and mumbles once more. Cloaked in robes of reed and scales six woman circled a small pedestal at the center. Then with the silence of stars the elder placed the bundled child on the stone marker as she joined the circle.
To begin the child must be asleep and secure in its infant mind that all was well. The eldest of the tribe a bony woman who had forsaken her name long ago for the title of Celestaon, as our speaker to the stars. She unwrapped the babe smooth in her motion as she did with all children ready for their Illumination. She spoke the names of the Seven Celestial Chiefs those great beings that held the dark at bay. The elder invoked their attention to look upon the new member of their tribe with grace.
The parents kneeling in anxiety as their hopes for their child were not their own now. Both the man and woman had been deemed merchants to trade with other clans and even the people beyond the land of Misten. Their fate much like their child’s was set with this very ritual so many years ago.
Finally, the prayers ended and chants began as the Eldest placed her hand upon the chest of the baby. She felt its warmth and the flutter of its heart beneath her wrinkled palm. With the subtlest of senses, she focused her magic’s reach upon the center of the child’s chest.
From within the babe gently at first came her own raw magic, liquid and glittering in its form. So benign in nature but leaving its mark none the less, the stain all mages bore for pushing their magic out into the world. The raw magic was trickling slowly out and the marks subtle blemishes at first began darkening.
A set would appear before the child awoke and ended the ritual. This would tell them the child was almost out of its magic as the body would fight the pull as only it could.
The cries of the child brought every one’s attention to the end of the ceremony. Waiting for the Celestaon to announce where the new member of their tribe would belong. The leaders of each Constalri shouldered their way to the center ready to embrace the child should she belong. After the crones huddled around the child they called for the Star-chart to find the closest match to the speckles of stain the magic would have left. As the lingering anticipation grew no answer came, all were left guessing.
*** This is a short story that will be published in this years Exit 109. The arts and literary magazine will be up for grabs at The Octopus Garden Premier on April 18 at Heth Plaza from 4:00-6:00pm! Come see us and grab your own copy to read this short story and view many other pieces! ***
Bethany clicked “Send” and her message posted to the forum. She had been sending messages back and forth with Matt for a little less than three months now. When she had first been contacted by Matt’s screen name, “USNavalstud”, she figured that he was some loser. She had him pegged as a sad, bored, married man in his early thirties who resented his family, career, and life; and, for the most, she was right. He was a frightened little man who only flirted with a sexual identity online.
He was fun to flirt with. They would chat about risque subject matters; various sexual scenarios they dreamed of, fantasies which he never dared share with his wife. One night, she snapped a photo of herself in just her bra and panties; he fell silent for a few minutes, and then asked if she wanted a picture of him in return. Playing the part of a good tease, she said that she could wait as she had to go to bed.
Bethany had not been lying on that account, she was a freshman in the local community college and she had Intro to Statistics at 8am. She knew that Matt would be practically chewing on his keyboard until he could send her a picture of what would most likely be his erect penis. He would have to wait. After Intro to Statistics, Bethany was meeting her best friend and partner in crime, Emma, for lunch and a study date. After which, she had Composition at 2pm and then US History at 4pm.
Emma gabbed at her about the new Hollywood Undead album on iTunes around mouthfuls of a flat-bread salad wrap. Bethany couldn’t help but think about Matt. She had all but figured out exactly how she would seduce, and then have, this new guy. Emma had to throw a ring of sliced onion at her to get her attention.
“You’re playing with fire,” Emma said, “Meeting guys for sex on the Internet? Are you stupid or just tired of life on this planet?”
“Whatever. They’re all alike – they think with their dicks.” Bethany waved off Emma’s chiding by pointing out that in the past two years she had become quite the man eater. It was true. From her first encounter at 16 to her recent foray into BDSM; men were but playthings to her and they all thought with their dicks. She always came out satisfied, glutted, and repleted. Only one had ever escaped her, Jason; a 36 year old welder. Jason was an odd one. Aside from having a strange obsession about salt in his food, he had a knack for avoiding messy situations and a kind of luck that was just uncanny.
“Ever see that movie, ‘Strange Land?’” asked Emma around a half-chewed mouthful of what seemed to be chicken salad. “Where Dee Snyder plays a psycho and meets girls online and then tortures them?”
Bethany laughed. “No one is going to want to torture me when they see tits like this.” She grabbed her bosoms and squeezed for emphasis. “Besides, all of that stuff about serial killers online is urban legend.”
“So, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy and New Orleans John were all legend? Try reading a book sometime.”
Before she was able to offer up any more on the subject, she was cut off loudly by Bethany. “Tits!” Not only was she squeezing her breasts, but now she had hopped up and was trying to hit Emma in the head with them. Emma did her best to glower as she almost lost the last of her salad but quickly gave in and laughed with her best friend.
He looked at the pegboard on the wall of his workshop. Refusing to become a creature of habit, he perused the selection before him. One must not grow stagnant and remain with the same instrument for too long, after all. Systematically he went over every tool which hung before him. After several long moments, he selected the three-pound sledge hammer, lifted it from its pegs on the board and placed it into a brown leather duffel bag.
Bethany had been driving for over three hours now and was beginning to merge onto I-40 W when the psychic i-Pod began playing “Still Remains” by The Stone Temple Pilots. This was her most recent “favorite” song, having discovered it about two months ago on the local classic rock radio station. She adjusted the volume slightly inside of her white Escort and began to sing along with Scott Weiland. She hoped that she and Matt would be able to make love while this song played.
Slightly annoyed that Emma had bowed out of acting as safety net and travel companion, Bethany cracked open a Red Bull with one hand and sipped tentatively. As the song ended, she grunted her disapproval in her choice of energy drinks. “This lone wolf shit is for the birds. How any guy does it is beyond me.” Emma’s alleged excuse for bailing on her this weekend was studying. More likely that Emma was jonesing for some Black Ops and the PlayStation Network was hosting a double experience point weekend.
Bethany refused to allow the lack of Emma to turn the weekend into a total wash. However, if Matt was a no show or even worse — a sissy, a troll, ten years older than his pictures suggested or some gimp – she would simply excuse herself outside of his hotel room because she forgot her bag of toys in the car. Then, she would run like hell.
Of course, once freed of the undesirable, she had a weekend to kill in Nashville. Jason had once mentioned a place called Jack’s World Famous Barbecue. With a guy like Jason, this place was most likely worth checking out. Saturday would be leisurely sightseeing. If she was in no rush to come home early on Sunday, the Titans were hosting the Carolina Panthers.
First things first, she decided; don’t put the cart before the horse. She would first find out if she was getting laid tonight. Then, she would have a bite to eat.
It was just slightly past 8 when she finally arrived at the hotel. The sun had fully set, and the sounds of a Nashville night were beginning to stir. Even before she set foot out of her white Escort, she had made up her mind that she loved this city. She sent a text to Emma letting her know that she had arrived. Three minutes later, with no answer from Emma, Bethany checked her makeup in the rear view, grabbed her overnight bag and got out of the car.
After the final set of texts with Matt confirming the room number, Bethany knocked on door 214. As she watched the shadows move across the small peep hole, she immediately snapped herself into something that most would consider to be good posture. The door slowly opened, revealing a tall man with short cropped brown hair, large brown eyes, and a spattering of freckles. He was of an average build wearing a green and black rugby polo and khakis. He smiled shyly at her. If this was indeed “Matt”, then he was even more of a loser than she had imagined.
Awkward, she noticed a slight twinge in her stomach. Not butterflies or the anticipation of a new lover’s first kiss. Something different.
“Why do these guys always look better in their pictures,” she wondered to herself. “Matt?” she said, giving a beaming smile.
He smiled a little more widely. “Yeah…”
“Oh. My. God! It is so good to meet you!” She hopped up and threw her arms around his neck, kissing him on the cheek.
A whiff of the fragrance he was wearing made her frown slightly against his neck. It was light, not too overpowering, Notes of sugar, vanilla and something fruity.
She drew back and looked up at him, fluttering her eyelashes and then breathlessly whispered “Are you going to invite me in, baby?”
He blushed despite himself and smiled. It was quite genuine, and she was suddenly glad for her smoldering display. He stepped back and to the left and allowed her to come inside. As he was closing the door, he slipped the “Do Not Disturb” sign onto the outer handle.
She sat down on the edge of the bed, crossing her legs at the knees and smiled at him. He regarded her briefly and looked down at his lap in which his hands were folded. “How was your drive?”
Bethany was now beginning to lose her patience and decided to take the bull by the horns right there and then. She slipped off her sandals, and stood up, stretching as she did so.
“Well, I have been on the road for the better part of six hours…” she began as she pulled her top off over her head and dropped it on the floor. She reached behind herself, unclasping her bra and sliding it off of her shoulders and down her arms allowing her breasts to spill out. “… and I am all sorts of tense”. She walked slowly towards him and without waiting for any nod of approval, sat down in his lap and kissed him fully on the mouth. “Do you know where a girl like me can relieve some tension?”
It was not long at all before he had her tied to the bed. In fact, Bethany could have sworn that Matt broke some sort of speed record for getting a woman’s hands secured to a headboard. Her hands had been tied with nylon cord that went around the back of the headboard and hung across the bed knobs which adorned the corners. Her legs were spread eagle by means of nylon cord around her ankles which ran down and between the mattress and box springs. He had allowed her a few moments to get her panties off before he tied her in place, but aside from removing his shirt, he remained dressed. He had placed a brown leather duffel bag on the dresser and was rummaging through it, probably for toys.
Growing slightly bored, she closed her eyes and concentrated on the sultriest voice she could muster. “Come on baby, get out of those pants and show me what you have for me.” She became aware of his heavy breathing and that he must be standing near her now. She smiled, opened her eyes and looked up at him.
Over his head was a sort of sack, a pillowcase perhaps . . . his eyes shining at her through two holes which had been encircled by black streaks of what was perhaps shoe polish. A horizontal line which must have been there to represent a mouth was several inches below the eyes. The sack was off white, dirty with sweat stains, dark smears and fingerprints of sienna, onyx, and viscera. She also became very aware of the large hammer which he held in his right hand over his head.
She had enough time to blurt out a rather surprised “Oh shit,”. Then the hammer plummeted towards her face.
He washed himself in the shower. The cold water sprayed over his body, and he felt calm. Lathering, rinsing, and repeating would have to wait until he got home. He did not want to leave them too much evidence, after all. As for the body, he would be taking it with him and disposing of it somewhere far away from this hotel.
He turned off the shower, stepped out and toweled himself dry. He began to dress and smugly looked at his reflection in the mirror. It was at that moment that he noticed something was terribly wrong. The mirror also held the bed in its reflection. The bed, with its gore-soaked pillow and stains; the nylon cords were still looped around the bed knobs and across the mattress. However, there was no girl. The girl, whose face was obliterated, smashed into nothingness, was not on the bed where he left her.
He took four deliberate, bold strides out of the bathroom and into the main room, stopping just before the foot of the bed. That was when something heavy, most likely his hammer, struck him in the back of the head.
He first became aware of the pain in his head and neck. Not only from the blow which had incapacitated him, but also in which the way he was sitting. He was tied to the bed, but in an upright position with his back against the headboard. He then became aware of the dryness in his mouth as well as the particular aroma of the gag in his mouth. Viewing himself in the mirror which was on the wall, it appeared that whoever had restrained him had used the girl’s panties to fashion a makeshift gag. His eyes then settled on the woman sitting in the chair by the door. Only the nude lower half of her body was visible in the low light of the room.
“A gentleman would make sure that a lady was satisfied before he finished up, you know. . . .” This was the girl’s voice, but the woman in the chair could not be her. Her legs were much longer, more muscular, and had not been shaved in weeks. The hands and forearms which rested upon the arm rests were far more rugged than the girl’s, but that was her voice, soft, sweet and mocking. The person in the chair leaned forward, her breasts considerably shrunken against the muscles of her chest and two rows of nipples running down her abdomen. “And to top it off, you just had to cum in my eye, didn’t you?” The face looking at him was hamburger. “That stings worse than anything, you know.” The face, pulling itself together resembled Bethany’s, but it was flattened, hairy, and fierce. She stood up out of the chair and walked- padded- towards the bed. What should be a five-foot-one girl was now a hunched-over Amazon of nearly eight feet. “Is this what guys like you are into?” Her voice was becoming deep, raspy, and guttural; almost as if she were beginning to growl her words rather than speak them. “I mean, is hurting a little girl what it takes to make you happy?” Her ears, pointed and broad, began to poke out of the mane of hair that was completely covering her face. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth for a long moment. “You’ve really cramped my plans for the weekend.” She looked at him one more time and then her blue eyes faded to complete black. “On the plus side, though. . .” The werewolf began to salivate. ”I won’t need to call out for dinner tonight.”
Even if the villagers had gasped, Jarren had not heard them as he made his way through the clinging brush and headed deeper into the Pines. He let no fear show on his face as he left, and had no fear on it now, for he let his anger at anything and everything overwhelm him and take control. Fear would come later. He needed to get as far away from those human monsters as possible before dying horribly by the claws and teeth of some wild one.
Jarren never slowed, walking aimlessly and allowing an emotional blindness to push common sense from his mind. He lost track of time, and after a while realization that he was lost sank in and now he faced a danger even his frantic planning had not foreseen. How was he to return now? Even if he got a kill, how would he haul the game to the village before the following morn? Where was the village? He would have cursed himself for his foolishness, but that blind drive had been the stopping factor preventing him using the bow and bringing the chief down like an animal.
It was then that he noticed how numb his legs were, that his feet felt like they were being pricked with tiny white-hot needles, and how his toes seemed to have a dead feeling that for some reason Jarren felt outweighed the other discomforts. He removed his doe-hide boots, seeing his feet swelled and toes an unhealthy bluish hue.
Jarren flexed his fingers, and discovered them through disuse as blue as his toes. Cold sweat ran down his eyes and cooled his chest as he looked around at where he had stopped. Just like at the edge of the forest, the massive pine trees seemed to have no limit. Trunk after thick trunk fractured his view of surroundings, their appearance so similar that Jarren had to rub his eyes to keep from thinking he was seeing double.
It was now that fear began to take hold, its icy fingers turning the young man’s head this way at that at noises that weren’t there and making things that flitted within the corner of his eyes. Once again he felt more helpless than an infant, for even they had someone to look out for them. All he had was the neglecting villagers and a chief who brings uneasiness to every place he goes.
Maybe it was better like this, came a doubting voice in Jarren’s head, none of them wanted you back at the village, so what better thing to happen than for you to disappear in the Pines? Why not just sit here and let your next life bring comforts stolen from you in this one? Why not—
He didn’t mean to shout, but the voice in his head made him more uneasy than he had ever felt in his life. He didn’t want to believe a word of it; wanted only to be left in peace at the cabin and live his pathetic little life. But no . . . that was not how it worked. Not now and not ever. The way of life that had governed his people demanded that every male on his fifteenth birthday be put through this rite of passage, be abandoned in the Pine Forest to collect meat and bring it back to the village for others to feed upon. Traditionally none of the first kill is fed to the hunter, for he must learn that his life will demand many sacrifices for the welfare of the village, and therefore must go without when necessary to feed those who could not provide for themselves.
These thoughts burned his mind like a fire, throwing bitterness into the stewpot and taking a turn with the ladle. The young man had to control himself, though. He had to. Jarren forced himself to lean against one of the massive pines and collect his thoughts and emotions. The day had only begun, and he could not have been walking for more than an hour. Why, then was it so dark? So eerie?
It was like nothing Jarren had ever felt before; something that crept into his subconscious and lurked like a sentient being. There was no noise, and so every breath the young man took seemed amplified out of proportion. Every adjustment his foot made in the dead, dried pine needles boomed through his thoughts. Every sound was a wolf with gleaming fangs, a bear with knives for claws.
But if there was no noise, were the fuel for his nightmares imaginary as well? It did not seem like any life could be supported here. Even deer breathe, and Jarren was sure that such a noise would break the Pine’s stillness as fully as his own beating heart. His muscles were tensed, but Jarren had still seen nothing to worry over. The longbow in his hand was strung already, and the young man did not even notice that his nervous hand had brought one precious arrow onto the string.
That is, not until he saw a shadow dart between two trees and an arrow, his own arrow, soaring swiftly from his hands and disappearing into the gloom. The realization that he had just lost one of his five arrows had not yet entered his mind before Jarren caught himself continuing to stare hard after the fleeting shade. He stood frozen for a few moments, not daring to believe that what he had seen was real. It had to be his imagination. There was no other way.
Do you hear me, Jarren? You didn’t see him. He wasn’t there!
Yet even so the young man could not help but drift his hand to the dirk resting upon his light hide belt.