Jie crouched behind a rock. He peered into the darkness. Watching the magnificent creature before him. His heart beat faster as it came closer. The boy tried to calm himself down. But it was almost impossible.
The darkness in the cave was oppressive. He was already having trouble breathing, and the hot, heavy air made it even more difficult. Jie wanted to stand up and stretch. But that was out of the question right now unless he wanted to be seen.
The scaly creature moved silently across the rocky surface. Choosing its path carefully. It never made a sound. Jie wondered how such a large, bulky creature could move so quietly through the darkness over the broken surface.
Jie gripped the staff in his hand more tightly. He waited silently as the beast moved steadily toward him. He was amazed that up until now, the animal had made no sound at all.
In a large chamber like this, the slightest scrape of a rock would have echoed loudly, breaking the thick silence that permeated the air.
Jie slowed even his breathing. Afraid that the faintest sniffle might alert the scaly creature to this presence. The beast stopped and craned its neck forward. It lowered its back and stretched out its large, leathery wings.
The immense range awed the young human watching it. Jie could barely believe what he was seeing. He wanted to reach out and touch them. To actually feel the leathery scales for himself.
The fabled beast was so close. Just a few steps away from him.
Jie knew that it was searching for him. He could sense it straining in the darkness. Trying to figure out what was going on.
He gripped the staff in his hands more tightly. It was the only thing that kept him from being discovered. Or so he thought.
“Step forward. I have been waiting for you. Why do you hide behind a rock like a frog?” the great beast hissed.
Jie’s heart skipped a beat. He lowered his head and tried to make himself smaller. Wondering if he had heard correctly. Did it really know he was here? Or was it talking to someone else?
No one else answered. The silence in the air thickened.
The only part of the creature that Jie could still see was its tail sticking out from behind the rock that he was crouched behind.
The tail swayed slowly from side to side.
Jie raised his head a little. Following the rough outline of the creature’s back and wings. He couldn’t quite tell if it was looking in his direction. He half-hoped that someone else had followed him in here.
Maybe the monster was referring to another person. And yet it was here, just on the other side of the rock that he had chosen to hide behind. It would be too much of a coincidence.
Still, the creature waited on the other side of the boulder that stood between them.
“Are you talking to me?” Jie whispered softly.
“Of course, silly. Who else would I be talking to in here? It’s not like a get many visitors down here.”
Jie stood slowly to his feet. He grasped the staff more tightly and held it out in front of himself for protection. He couldn’t help but notice that the glow from the tip of his staff matched the bluish-white glow in the dragon’s eyes.
A low, throaty rumble came from the creature’s chest. Almost as if the beast were laughing at him. Jie felt slightly miffed and frowned.
“Did you really think you could control me with that thing?” the dragon asked.
Jie shrugged. His face burned with shame. The question made him feel stupid. However, in his defense, the old man that told Jie about the staff had made it sound like this was a powerful magical item that could control magical creatures like dragons.
“Dragons are too powerful to be controlled by such puny devices,” the beast rumbled. “We control everything and everyone around us.”
Jie didn’t like the arrogance in its tone of voice. He wanted to do something to put the creature in its place. But, he didn’t feel comfortable correcting a giant monster in a dark cave. So, Jie kept his mouth shut. He simply bowed his head and apologized.
“Come, Jie. I brought you here for a reason.”
The man jerked his head back upright. How did the creature know his name? And why had it brought him here?
Jie followed the dragon back across the rocks until they came to an abyss. A great, dark chasm that yawned out into the blackness. He couldn’t see where it ended or how deep it went. He looked over at the dragon beside him that was now leaning back on its haunches.
“You have done well, little one.”
The words irked Jie to no end. He was getting fed up with this dumb dragon and its patronizing lines.
“What have I done well?”
“Completing the missions that I assigned you.”
Jie looked at him blankly. His mind whirling. Trying to process the information.
“What, silly human. Did you really think that staff would control me? I had you bring it because I needed it. I need it. We need it.”
Suddenly, everything fell into place and began to come together for him. The old man that told him about the staff. Everything Jie had been through to find it. This creature here had orchestrated it all.
Now, Jie only had one burning question.
The dragon turned and smiled in a dragon kind of way.
“This is only the beginning. There is so much yet to come.”
Jie hated these stupid responses to his questions that never provided any real answers. He wanted to throw the silly staff over the edge of the abyss and walk away. But he really did want to know. And he had already invested so much time into getting here.
Meeting the dragon who had orchestrated it all, seemed to be a nice reward for his effort. So, he decided to play along.
Jie sat down and threw his legs over the edge of the chasm. He let them swing there over the darkness.
As much as he didn’t like some of the events, it wasn’t so bad Jie figured. Meeting a dragon was a nice reward for his effort. Even if he didn’t like the dragon’s personality.
“It’s okay. I don’t like you much either,” the dragon said.
Jie blushed in the darkness. No one had told him that dragons’ could read minds. He swung his legs nervously over the abyss and tried to keep a blank mind. But it wasn’t working very well. A million thoughts flitted through his head.
“Relax, human. Enjoy the moment. Soon, you will know more than you wished you did.”
Jie wondered what that meant. But realized that like all of his adventures thus far, he would just have to take it one step at a time and wait for all the pieces of the puzzle to fall together.
Spartak floated slowly over the ruined buildings of the city below him. He drifted in the direction of the giant monster. Careful not to make any sudden movements that might set the creature off. He tried to keep his nerves under control.
The man knew that he could fly off quickly in retreat if needed at any second, which was a relief and temptation at the same time. He desperately wished he could. Every fiber of self-preservation in his body screamed for him to get to safety before it was too late.
But Spartak knew that was out of the question for now. The fate of the human race depended on him and how he handled himself now.
The great, hairy beast continued to forage through the rubble below. Searching for its next victim to eat. BowelTeeth was what the news reporters had named it when it first appeared because of the innumerous fangs that protruded from its mouth and covered its enormous underbelly.
Although most people were pretty sure that those weren’t real teeth on the outside of its body, no one had actually gotten close enough to confirm what those things were. He just hoped that they weren’t eggs that the monster was carrying around until they hatched.
Spartak could hear the screams of those who hadn’t managed to get out of the building before it was knocked down by the horrid creature. He tried not to look down at the tragic sight below him.
His instincts as a former firefighter to try to rescue someone was intense. However, there was nothing he could do to save them by going down to their rescue. He needed to keep his focus on the task at hand. Killing this monster.
BowelTeeth suddenly stopped foraging for food and shifted its attention in Spartak’s direction. Twelve pairs of eyes turned to gaze at the strange sight of a human floating towards it.
Spartak slowed his forward momentum. The creature had stopped foraging for humans in the wreckage below. Its eyes focused on the human before it. The man came to a complete stop. He floated silently in the air. Unsure of what to do.
The giant monster lifted up one of its long, scrawny legs and poked a tendril out in his direction. As it moved toward him, Spartak backed away as quickly as he could. The man swung the massive weapon in his arms toward the creature’s leg.
Spartak continued to wait though. He managed to keep his nerves still enough to keep from pulling the trigger. The leg stopped before it actually touched Spartak. It held its leg still as if waiting for him to do respond or do something. Almost as if it were testing him.
The human finally reached out a hand. He pulled off his glove and stretched it toward the hairy tip of its leg. The stiff bristles wavered in the air. Pulsing and wafting gently, even though there was no wind. Almost as if it were analyzing him.
He waited quietly to see how it would react. Never moving the barrel of the gun away from it. Spartak kept the gun pointed at it the entire time.
Finally, the floating tendril moved forward a few inches. Then it stopped as if waiting for him to take the next step. Spartak waited quietly. He didn’t pull away. But he didn’t move forward either.
BowelTeeth pushed its tendril forward another half inch. The hairy bristles continued to pulse and wave in a back and forth pattern as if it were sniffing him. It moved forward a bit more with each pass until Spartak felt them tickling lightly across his palm.
Spartak pointed the gun a few feet up the leg. Just in case it did try something and he had to shoot, Spartak didn’t want to shoot himself accidentally. He was ready to blow off its leg and then turn the plasma blaster up into its face.
Dr. Garen had given him the weapon earlier that day. Spartak had never seen anything like. But Dr. Garen had assured him that it would blow the creature apart if needed. All Spartak had to do was get close enough to do some real damage.
Spartak figured this was close enough to do whatever damage Dr. Garen intended. But he still couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. He felt a strange sort of bond to the monster. A sense of camaraderie and kinship. He continued to wait to see what the beast would do.
The human waited silently for the monster to make the next move. He was ready for it. But in the end, BowelTooth drew its long, wriggly tendril back away from him. Then the monster turned and began to walk away in the direction it had come from.
Spartak followed it as it made its way back to the hole from where it had come from. Then it wriggled its way back in and disappeared from sight.
Dr. Garen and General Rouben were not happy when he returned to the base. They demanded to know why he hadn’t taken a shot at the creature, but Spartak just shrugged his shoulders. He couldn’t explain it.
He knew there was more to this than met the eye. There were things going on that he was not yet classified to know about. Like how they had given him the ability to float. Or where they had gotten the plasma gun with the strange symbols all over it.
But for now, he didn’t care. He had done what they sent him out to do. Stop the carnage and destruction. The monster had left the city for now. And the most important thing to Spartak was that he was still alive.
Mamuka surveyed what was left of the city around him. He scanned the area from side to side. Looking for any sign of movement, but saw nothing. He listened for any sounds but heard nothing. Only the continuous whistle and low moans of the wind blowing around him.
He clicked his tongue and flicked the horse’s reigns. The large, grey mare lurched forward with a quick start. But Mamuka knew that her pace wouldn’t last long. The beast would quickly slow down, and he would have to flick the reigns again and kick her in the sides to keep her going.
The horse wound through a yard and followed a broken fence up between two burnt-out houses. Smoke still wafted from the larger home to their left. Mamuka continued to scan the area. Watching for any sign of movement. But there was nothing.
They rounded the house and came out behind two other houses. Strangely enough, one of the houses farther on had not caught fire. Mamuka pulled back on the reins and brought the horse to a stop.
Seeing an unburned house like this in the city was a first. Every other home that they had passed since coming into the town had either already burnt to the ground or was still burning.
The man wanted to take off his gas mask to take a closer look but resisted the urge. He knew the stench would be unbearable. Mamuka had waited as long as he could before putting it on, but they had been almost five miles away when he could no longer take it.
None of his colleagues had been able to make it as close as he had, even with their gas masks on. He knew they were weak, but he didn’t despise them. Let them wait another day for the wretched fires and smoke to die down before they came in with their equipment.
Mamuka refused to wait. He knew time was of essence. They needed to get in as soon as possible if they wanted to find clues that would lead to the source of the burning cities. This had been the fifth in the past month.
Fires like this had started sporadically just over a year ago. Initially, they only took out a few houses. But as time went on, they began to burn stronger and longer. Now, the flames were taking out entire cities with populations of 50,000 people at a time.
The strangest part of it all was that none of the inhabitants were ever found. Not so much as a single corpse had ever been found. It was almost as if the entire population had been abducted before the town got leveled by fire.
He swung the barrel of the gun down in the direction of the house and dug his heels into the horse’s side for it to move forward. But the creature refused to budge. Mamuka flicked the reins harder, urging the beast with another click of the tongue.
Mamuka sighed in exasperation and swung his leg over the saddle to get to the ground. This had happened once before. Two cities back. Mamuka had tried everything he knew to get the horse to move forward to now avail.
The brute beast was as stubborn as a mule. He knew it would do no good to insist now though. He wondered what it was that the horse was so terrified of.
The man felt no fear himself. Only a strange sense of curiosity. He really wanted to know what it was that caused entire cities to burn down and huge populations to go missing.
The news reporters had been calling them Apocalypse Fires ever since the beginning because of the horrible smell of sulfur. Sharp, coking, and this particular variation left a bitter taste in the back of one’s throat.
Mamuka looped the reins around a bush so the mare wouldn’t wander off until he got back. Then he strode around the house, looking for any sign of life. The house was closed up tight as a drum.
After circling it warily a few times, he finally made his way up to the front door. Mamuka tested the knob and was surprised that it opened easily. The man had almost gone straight for kicking the door in since he had expected it to be locked.
He pushed his way inside, pointing the gun in front of him. Mamuka went through each of the rooms one by one but found nothing. Strange that this house hadn’t burned along with the others.
It reminded him of the first burning cities he had visited. There had often been unburned houses. But each time, larger and larger percentages of the towns had burned. After a while, the cities all burned completely.
This was the first time in months that he had found an unburned house. Mamuka felt excited. Maybe they would find something in the house that could give them a clue as to what was causing these cities to catch fire.
He went back outside to get the equipment in his saddlebags. But to his surprise, the horse was no longer there. Strange, since Mamuka had taken the time to tie it up.
The man walked around the house looking for it. But it was gone. Mamuka kicked at a rock furiously. Stupid horse. He never should have brought it in the first place. The only reason he had brought her was because his regular ride had gotten ill. Mamuka had to leave it behind and ride this lazy animal he was now on.
He looked for tracks to see if he could tell what direction it had gone in, but the only horse tracks he saw were those he had made riding in. And there weren’t any fresh tracks leading back out that same way.
Suddenly, he became aware of something different. They weren’t horse tracks, but something else had been walking around out here since the time he had left his horse.
Mamuka’s eyes followed the direction that it had moved in or come from. He wasn’t sure yet, which it was. His eyes sensed a movement in the shadows of the bushes beside the burning house that they had come past earlier.
He looked closer and saw the outline of a crouching figure. Mamuka began running toward it as silently as he could. It moved away from the bushes and around the side of the house.
When Mamuka came around the side of the house, he saw the creature loping across the far end of the yard. Since the homes had burned down here, It didn’t have anywhere yet to hide. The man broke into a dead run and began gaining on it.
It ran funny. He noticed that it moved like an ape bent over on all fours, but at the same time, hopped a bit like a frog before disappearing behind a small bush.
He came panting around from behind the shrubs only to see nothing there. As if the ground had opened up its mouth and swallowed the thing up.
Mamuka walked slowly now, looking for its tracks. He trailed along, looking for signs of broken leaves or bent grass. The led him onward a few feet and disappeared into a hole that seemed too small for the animal to have vanished into.
Two beady eyes glared up at him. Mamuka took a step backward and swung his gun up and around to his side.
The creature leaped up and out at him. The gun went off in his hands. It was pure instinct. His fingers pulling the trigger smoothly and fluid motion.
The creature fell to the ground at his feet. Gasping for air. Looking up at him in surprise and shock. It reached out a finger to his boot and poked at them gently before breathing its last. Its eyes closed, and its head lolled to the side.
“Doggone it, you foul creature. What did you do with my horse?”
But it was too late. This thing, whatever it was, would no longer tell anyone its secrets.
“Hercule?” Jeannine asked tentatively.
The short, petite woman blinked and shook her head. Her breathing quickened. She felt her heart palpitate. Jeannine brushed her reddish-brown hair back from her face.
The huge man took a step closer in her direction. She could feel a wave of heat emanating from him. She stepped back and squinted for a better look because she couldn’t put her glasses on under the helmet. Jeannine was pretty sure that this was Hercule though. It looked like him, at least.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
The man took another step closer. Close enough for her to see the whites of his eyes. But there was something wrong with him. His entire eyeball was white. He had no pupil. No iris.
“Hercule?” she whispered. Her voice quivering. “What did they do to you? Where have you been these past six months?”
The man cocked his head to the side and looked at her for a long moment through hollow eyes. There was no glimpse of recognition in his face.
“It’s me, Hercule. Don’t you remember us? I came here to find out what happened to you. I thought you had,” she paused. Her voice lowering to a whisper before completing her phrase. “I thought you had died.”
Jeannine reached out her right hand and touched his arm gently. The tattered sleeve of his uniform flaked and drifted to the ground like ashes crumbling from paper.
She gasped and pulled back in horror. The flesh on his arms lay shredded on open layers. A glowing orange and yellow tattoo with three half-circles surrounded by a larger red one etched into his flesh.
Jeannine gasped and stepped back in horror. Her hand covering her mouth. Her eyes flickering back and forth from the tattooed symbol on his arm to his white eyes. And then back again to the strange formation of curves and circles.
“What does that mean, Hercule?” she asked when he glanced down toward his shoulder.
The man shrugged. He looked back up at her. It gave her a strange feeling to be looking into his eyes. It was like she knew him, and at the same time like she was looking into the eyes of a total stranger.
And she didn’t even know if he could see her really. The weird blank look on his face. The completely white eyeballs. Like the eyes of a blind man, she had seen once in India.
Yet, she knew Hercule, or whoever this was, could see her. Or at least sense her. She raised her arm out to the side to test him. His white eyeballs looked out toward her outstretched hand and then back again.
“You do see me,” she said. “But you don’t recognize me. Do you, Hercule? You don’t recognize your Sweet Baby?”
She caught what seemed to be a flicker of recognition in his pale, white eyes. He cocked his head to the side. Just like he always did while pondering a new idea or which course of action to take.
“Hercule is no longer here,” he said bluntly. “You are mistaken. You should leave.”
“No, that’s not true. I don’t believe it. I know you, Hercule. I would recognize you anywhere.”
Jeannine reached out a hand to touch him, but he twisted away from her and held out his hands.
“Do not touch me. It would not be good for you. You should leave. Now!”
“No, I won’t leave you. Now that I’ve found you, I will stay with you if I must. But I won’t leave you.”
She took a step closer, but he reached out a hand to block her.
“Stop. Don’t come any closer. You are too close already. You will be contaminated. Then it will be too late.”
“Contaminated with what, Hercule?”
“Do not call me that. Hercule is no more. I am only a weapon that was created to unleash destruction. But I do not wish you harm. You were special to the one you call Hercule. I can sense your bond.”
“Who are you? And what have you done to my Hercule?”
“I have done nothing to him. I am only a copy of the one you call Hercule. Others created me to be a weapon. It is not my will, yet I have no choice.”
“What happened to Hercule?” Jeannine asked.
She felt her voice quaver at the end even though she tried not to let it show. The man had once loved simply shrugged.
“I remember him vaguely. Remember being him. Retain some of his memories. But they faded long ago. Memories they tried to scrub from my mind. But I still feel them. I feel you in my bones. But that is all it is. Only a memory. You were special. You must leave before it is too late. I can no longer protect you.”
“Protect me from what, Hercule?” she pleaded.
“From fire and from death. The destruction that is to come. This is the apocalypse. And I am only one of many. I am only the beginning.”
The man Jeannine had once known as Hercule turned and walked away. She looked down and noticed that her hands looked strange. There was something off about them. She turned her palms face up.
The skin around her arms and hands seemed loose. Like it was coming off of her flesh. Her arms beginning to tear and shred like Hercule’s arms had been.
Jeannine looked over at him. He didn’t look back at her. She couldn’t see his mouth or jawline through the helmet, but the eyes and forehead were the same as the man she had once loved.
She had no idea what had happened to him, but it was enough that she was here with him in the end. The last six months without him had been miserable.
Jeannine took a step forward and smiled at him. He still didn’t look over at her. The sound of an intercom crackled.
“Test subjects 239,” a voice said. “Proceed.”
Jeannine saw flames building up around them. Explosions and fireballs erupting violently. This wasn’t at all what she had expected. How had she ended up here? Was she a clone too?
She shook the thoughts away and stepped forward. Closer to Hercule. She reached out and took his hand. Slipped her fingers between his. He didn’t pull away.
Hercule turned to look at her. She saw the reflection of her face growing brighter with rising flames. Her eyes stared back at her from the reflection. Pure white. Just like Hercule. She smiled at him and squeezed his hand once more before they were both completely engulfed by the flames.
Nina laughed and hooted raucously along with the frenzied crowd as the flames licked up higher and higher over. She raised her pitchfork and let out a long, loud whoop. A burst of hot, dry wind cycloned out from the flames and whipped her long, blond hair into her mouth just as she caught her breath. Nina choked and bent over to cough them out.
She looked up to see Vitek laughing at her. Another gust of wind blew sparks and smoke into his face, cutting his laughter short. Now it was Nina’s turn to laugh, although she was careful to turn away from the blazing flames and protect her face with her arms.
“She who laughs last laughs best,” Nina giggled.
Vitek scowled at her with an adorable pout that let her know he wasn’t really angry at her. She knew he wouldn’t be able to fake being mad at her for long. He was too easy going.
Nina scrunched up her face and shuffled toward him slowly with her arms outstretched. Imitating the foul creatures that they had come out to burn up and eliminate.
Her new boyfriend backed away from and pushed her arms to the side.
“C’mon, Nina. That’s not funny. You shouldn’t even be joking around like that. Someone might see you like that and run you through with a pitchfork.”
She just giggled again and turned to watch the flames blazing higher and cackling louder. Nina thought she could hear a faint scream coming from inside the hut over the snapping of burning wood.
“I’m sorry about your auntie, poor thing,” Nina murmured in a more serious tone.
Vitek shrugged. “She’s gone, but at least we got the whole nest of them, so they won’t be back to bother anyone else.”
Nina shivered at the callousness in his voice. She wondered if he would have done the same had she been chosen to be the sacrificial victim to lead them to the Shuffler nest. She looked up to study his face. He didn’t look back at her but continued to watch the flames intently.
“Where do you think they came from?” she finally asked quietly.
At first, she didn’t think he had heard her. But then Vitek finally shrugged his shoulders.
“The same place from which all evil comes. Out of the darkness.”
Nina mulled that thought over for a second. It seemed like such a trite phrase. It was what her people always said about evil, but she had never given it much thought before. At least not until the recent outbreak that led to them searching for this nest of evil that had corrupted three members of her town. People she knew. Friends and relatives swallowed up by it.
She was sad to know that they were inside the burning hut. Going up in flames. But at the same time, it was a relief to know that they would no longer be able to harm anyone else she knew and loved.
Nina thought of her parents. Thought of her twelve younger brothers and sisters. Her grandparents. Uncles and aunts and cousins. All would be able to sleep better and safer at night now that they had purged the forest of this contamination.
“That was a brilliant plan you came up with,” Vitek said.
He stepped closer and wrapped his arm around her shoulder. Nina shrugged as she leaned into his comforting embrace.
“Anyone could have come up with that idea. Everyone knew it needed to be done. Nobody wanted to actually say it out loud though.”
Vitek shook his head. “Not anyone. Most of us were in shock and couldn’t think straight after the horrors we witnessed first with Theodor and then with Apolena. You kept your wits about you and thought straight when no one else could.”
Nina blushed and buried her face against his chest so he wouldn’t see. Although it felt good to hear him say those words, it felt wrong to enjoy this moment like this.
She had long had a crush on Vitek and had spoken to him once or twice before. But using a situation like this to finally catch his attention over the last few days felt wrong.
“I should be getting back to the village to check up on my siblings,” Nina finally said when she finally pulled away from him.
Vitek pouted at first. She waited for him to smile. It didn’t take long.
Nina turned to walk back down the trail toward her home.
“Wait,” Vitek said. “You shouldn’t be walking home alone in the dark.”
The young woman smiled at the concern in his voice, but took a few more steps to wait for it to leave before turning to say, “Why not? There is nothing to be afraid of now that we set the evil on fire.”
But Vitek was gone. He was no longer standing there behind her.
“Vitek!” she called out.
She took a few steps forward. Looking around.
“Where are you, Vitek. This isn’t funny.”
There was nothing. Only the sound of crackling flames. Suddenly it hit her that none of the other villagers who had joined their expedition were around either.
“Bonifac! Silvie! Where are you?” she cried into the darkness.
Nina circled the burning house. Most of it had burned up already. The weakened structure was caving in on itself.
“Sarlota! Where did you go? Libor. This isn’t funny, you all.” Nina shrieked shrilly into the chill night air wafting in off the forest surrounding the burning home.
The dying flames were no longer strong enough to push back the cold, night air. She shivered and backed away from the hut. Pressing deeper into the darkness. Hoping that somehow it would hide her from whatever was out there.
Nina knew it was silly though. Especially if what she had said was true. Evil came from the darkness. Running into the night would not save her.
She stood there. Torn between running deeper into the darkness down the path to her home, or staying close to the light of the flames.
Nina knew that it was pointless to stay here. The flames were dying slowly, and the little light that remained would soon disappear along with them. Even the more robust fires of a little bit ago hadn’t been enough to keep her friends from disappearing.
She turned away from the dying flames. Waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Scanning the edges of the forest for any sign of movement. She backed closer to the warmth of the fire. It wouldn’t last long, but for now, it felt safer than running into the darkness.
Nina had seen her friends that had been turned into mindless, shuffling monsters burst into flames. So, anything out there trying to get her wouldn’t want to get close to the burning hut.
She heard burning wood snapping in the fire. A stream of sparks shot up into the starry night to her right. Nina looked up to watch the sparks blending in with the stars before dimming as they wafted up into the night air.
When she turned, Nina was utterly unprepared for the skeletal form standing in the midst of the flames and fire. She stumbled backward.
A ring of fire surrounded its head. Flames licking off of its bones, but without consuming it. As if somehow, it produced the fire from within itself. The skeleton’s sockets glowed brightly as it stood there. As if watching her to see how she would react to its presence.
“No,” Nina whispered to herself. Shaking her head. “Evil comes from the darkness. Not from the light and not from the flames.
The small, light form floated in front of my eyes. Silently hovering. It was too close to focus on. I squinted for a better look. A butterfly? A dragonfly? I couldn’t quite make out what it was. I scanned through all the words I knew, but couldn’t come up with anything to describe this strange form.
I pulled my head back to give my eyes room to focus. I gasped. Pulled my hand up over my mouth and giggled. It looked like a small woman. With wings. What was this strange thing?
“Hello! Who are you? Or better yet, what are you?” I asked.
The small creature tweeted brightly and floated in closer to my face again. She went out of focus. She tweeted a few more times.
“I’m sorry. I don’t understand what you are saying. Are you trying to tell me something?” I continued pulling my head back to get her back into focus. She wasn’t much more than an inch away.
I held up a finger to push her back. She buzzed right around and flew back in closer. Tweeting wildly now. She was starting to get irritating. She sounded like a mosquito. I wanted to squash her like one too.
“Hey, back off. You’re too close. I can’t see you correctly.”
I put my whole hand up in front of my face and pushed her back. She was light. Like a feather. Floating around before me.
She came back around, but this time she floated past my eyes to the side of my head. It felt like she was blowing down my ear. It tickled. Like when your nose tickles, and you want to sneeze. Only I couldn’t sneeze through my ear, of course. I just shook my head and tried to get her out.
Suddenly, her tweeting stopped and became words that I could understand.
“Hello, Montana. I’m Cedarmist.”
I felt the flutter of breeze again in my ear as she flitted her way out. I shook my head again. Rubbed my ear and wiggled my jaw around to get the itchy feeling out.
Cedarmist floated back around the side of my head and into view.
“Uh, you talk,” I said.
I could have slapped myself. That was a goofy thing to say. It was impolite and probably offended her.
“Of course, I can talk,” she replied. “You’re the one that couldn’t talk with me before. I had to make you understand me.”
I frowned at that. She wasn’t making sense.
“What do you mean?” I asked bluntly. “I’ve always talked.”
Cedarmist giggled, “No, you haven’t. I just created you.”
“Yes, I have,” I retorted. “I’ve spoken all my life.”
The little ball of light in front of me shimmered and shined.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” she asked.”Do you have any memories before this?”
I paused and cocked my head to the side. I tried to remember something before just now. Anything at all. But no memories came.
I couldn’t remember who I was. Or where I was. Or what had happened before this.
I started to breathe heavily. I felt like walls were closing in on me.
“What’s going on?” I demanded angrily, trying to control the panic that started to well up inside of me.
“I just told you. I created you. This is your beginning.”
“My beginning,” I heard myself mumble.
I looked down at my hands. They were hard. Plastic-like. But the tips of my fingers were soft. I could feel my hard forearms as I ran my fingers up them.
The dark seams where my joints should have been seemed strange. Like they didn’t belong to me. They looked like something that belonged on a robot.
Robot. That was a word I had been searching for. But this was weird. I wasn’t a robot. I was a human.
“What happened to my body?” I demanded.
She shrugged. “This is your body. I gave you this body.”
“What are you?” I asked.
“What do you think, silly?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t remember a word that describes you.”
“What?” Cedarmist gasped as if the very idea that I didn’t know what she was offended her. But I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely offended or just being ironic.
I shook my head.
“Oh, c’mon. I’m a fairy, silly. I created you with a mix of my magic and my technical know-how.”
The word fairy didn’t ring a bell. But I did understand the word robot. I knew how they were created. And I knew they weren’t created by strange creatures that floated around glowing in the dark.
“I know what a robot is, fairy,” I growled. “And I know robots aren’t created by fairies because they are built in factories.”
Cedarmist rolled her eyes and flicked her tiny wrist. “That’s just semantics, little lady. But, yes. For whatever it’s worth, I didn’t create you. However, I did find you in this junkyard. And I did bring you back to life.”
“But I’m not a robot.” I shrieked.
“Well, you sure look like one to me,” Cedarmist said with a fake pout to act like she was offended.
“Why did you do this too me?”
“Because I wanted to create something great. Together we are going to take over the world.” she gloated.
I rolled my eyes.
“Whatever,” I said with a puff. “Like you could take over the world,”
She scowled and waved her fingers. Suddenly, I couldn’t move. I started to panic and tried to wiggle my way out. But nothing happened. I was frozen.
“That’s not magic. That’s just something you programmed into my system.”
“Ha! Then you admit that you are run by a program. Therefore you are a robot.”
“Fine, I’ll play along. I’m a robot, and you created me. Now can you let me go?” Please.” I scowled back at her while continuing to try to move.
“Not till you apologize,” she said.
“For what?” I replied in exasperation.
“For not believing me,” she said with a flick of her tiny head of hair.
“Fine, I believe you are a fairy. I believe I am a robot. I believe you created me. I’ll believe whatever else you tell me. Now, can you let me go.”
Cedarmist waved her fingers, and I could move again. It felt so good. Like a relief from something terrible.
“So, what? Now, I’m your slave. If I don’t do what you want, you’ll freeze me.”
“Oh, no, honey. I don’t want to freeze you. I want us to be friends. I want you to help us.”
“And what are we going to be doing?” I asked warily.
“I told you already. We are going to take over the world. I’m going to create an army of robots. Together we are going to rule the world. I’m gonna teach all those other fairies that I’m not to be trifled with. And I’m going to teach those humans who didn’t believe in me.”
“You’re crazy, fairy.”
“Oops! Tut tut! Don’t say a thing like that. Shhhh! Or I’ll have to freeze you again.”
And she did for a brief second. Cedarmist wiggled her fingers to pause me for a minute just to show me she could. Then wiggled them again to let me go.
“Fine. I’ll do what you want. What choice do I have?”
“Oh, you have a choice. You can choose not to help me and stay frozen if you want,” she said with a big, fake smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
I wanted to reach out and slap her but immediately felt my body locking up again.
“It’s okay, sweetie. You’ll learn fast. You’re a fast learner. Much faster than the others,” she whispered almost sadly.
I looked around the vast junkyard. I didn’t see any other robots. I didn’t see any other humans. We were in the middle of an overgrown junkyard that looked like it had been abandoned over a hundred years ago.
“Come,” she said, leading me across the grass almost against my will. “Let me introduce you to the others.”
I stood there under the dark sky, lit only by the stars. There was a large hole in the ground. I looked like an old cave entrance. At first, I thought stars were floating up from the ground. But then as they came closer, I could see they were other little fairies just like Cedarmist.
They all floated up and around me. Oohing and ahhing. I wanted to punch them. Slap them. Squash them all. But couldn’t lift a finger. I stood there in silence as they flitted around me. But I swore I would find a way to break their spell over me even if it killed me.
Magic or programming, whatever this was, I wanted to be free from it. I just needed to bide my time. Figure out what they had done to me. And then find a way to stop them.
“So. How are we going to take over the world?” I asked as innocently as I could.
Dong moved quickly across the frozen tundra. He paused in front of a giant chasm that lay open before him in the icy wasteland. He paused for a moment to scan the landscape. Looking for the easiest and quickest way to get to his destination.
He panted heavily as he traced a pathway across the ice with his eyes. Then raised his weary eyes to look up at the massive iceberg before him. Dong let out a small sigh of relief. At least he could finally see his destination.
A large iceberg, solidly frozen into the tundra. Auseon, his final destination. The red ring glowing through the icy mountain let Dong know that he had finally arrived. He had seen it in his visions. it had been described to him those who guided him along the way.
And now, Dong was finally here.
The man had spent all this time sailing the known seas and crossing one continent after another to find this Ice-Crowned Pinnacle. A few more miles across the cold expanse before him was a delight. Dong was pleased to finally be here on the icecap. To finally be close to accomplishing his mission.
Dong continued his quick pace to circle around the large crevice to the right. Then cut across to the left to circle around another icy chasm.
Only a little bit more, and he could destroy this cursed item once and for all. Then everyone in Auseon would be free. And he would be hailed their hero. Well, almost everyone.
Sure, there would be those who didn’t agree with what he was doing, but that was to be expected of those ignorant fools. Dong just didn’t get why they couldn’t see things the way he did.
Dong paused to catch his breath again. The air up here was much thinner than most other places he had been too. It cut through his nostrils and felt like razor blades were slashing into his lungs with each chilled breath.
He huddled behind a large, rocky outcropping that stuck out of the ice. Trying to block out the wind. Dong wrapped his scarf more tightly around his face. Trying to make it stretch farther so he could wrap another layer over his nose.
The man shifted the weight on his back. It wasn’t very heavy any longer. He had eaten most of his supplies. The last game he had seen to hunt had been three days earlier. Dong was running low on food.
But none of that mattered. He planned on being at the base of that iceberg before nightfall. Camp there if he had to. Then find his way inside first thing in the morning.
He readjusted the straps on his backpack and tugged on them to make sure it was still secure. The last thing he needed was to have it fall off if he had to make a run for the Ice-crowned Pinnacle.
Dong hoped it wouldn’t come to that. But who knew what could be waiting for him out there under the ice. He was sure that this place wouldn’t be left unattended. He gave one final pull on the straps.
The only item that really weighed anything was Greathelm, the Haxstine Crown. Or as he and his fearless team called it, the Malignant Casque of the Beast. It had to be destroyed once and for all before evil, corrupt people got there hands on it again, as they had before.
The man began moving again. Willing himself to push on through the wind and cold. His body screamed with agony at each step. He wanted to stop and rest for the night. But he could sense that it wasn’t safe here.
Dong had already survived so many attacks and escaped so many close calls, that he felt he had developed a sixth sense that let him know when something was about to go down.
And he felt it now.
There was evil out here on the ice. A dark, foreboding feeling that things would only get worse before he reached the glowing, red ring.
The red ring. That single thought spurred him on. He had to get there today. Before nightfall. No telling what kind of terrible, nocturnal creatures roamed these frozen lands.
If something happened to him out here, there would be no one left to destroy the Greathelm, the Haxstine Crown. It would lie out here in the frozen tundra for someone else to find and wield.
Someone else could use it to command the dragons. Someone else could use it to control people’s minds. And then, they would rule over the people and do whatever their heart desired. And then this whole trip would have been in vain.
Why not simply put it on himself and command a dragon to come take him to the Haxtine Castle where it was safe and warm? Why not control the people to crown him king?
He would make just as good a ruler as anyone else. Maybe even better. He was strong. He could control his desires and keep them in check so that his heart didn’t grow corrupt as others had. Instead of destroying Greathelm and letting all that power go to waste, he could harness it for good.
Wouldn’t that be a much better objective then destroying it in the frozen fires of Auseon?
The insidious thoughts wound their way through his mind. Dong tried to fight them off. Up until now, he hadn’t ever entertained these kinds of ideas. But here, so close to accomplishing his mission, it seemed so futile.
The more he fought the idea, the stronger it became. The more powerfully the images of him ruling as king became.
Dong fell to his knees. He unstrapped the backpack and pulled it around. Pulling out Greathelm and rubbing it gently.
The man tried to remember why he was supposed to destroy something so powerful and wonderful. Why would he destroy the very thing that would allow him to help his people?
Maybe thee was a reason that the dragons and men had forged an alliance through the creation of Greathelm. Surely, they knew something he didn’t. Something that his peers bent on destroying it didn’t.
And all he had to do was slip it on his own head. Summon a dragon of his own. And achieve everything he ever desired.
Dong shoved Greathelm back into the bag and screamed at himself for not remaining faithful to his mission. But it seemed so bleak and futile now. Nothing would be obtained by the destruction of Greathelm he reasoned with himself. Men would go back to fighting among themselves for power.
This way, everyone knew who the rightful king was.
And who better to be the rightful king than himself.
Why not try it on? What could it hurt? He was right here near the Ice-Crowned Pinnacle. If he didn’t like it, he could still destroy it.
Dong slipped Greathelm out of the backpack. He placed it on his head. And suddenly everything made perfect sense.
He had the Haxtine Crown. He deserved it. He deserved to rule. He deserved to command the dragons. He deserved to control the people.
Almost as if on cue, a giant, white, snow dragon climbed out from the crevice and knelt before him as if inviting him onto its back.
Dong climbed on and let it take to the Haxtine Castle. For the briefest moment, he wondered why it had been there. Had it been there all along?
But he quickly pushed those thoughts aside to plan how he would make his grand entrance into the palace. Dong wanted to gloat over his enemies and those who doubted for a second in life that he would amount to much.
Dong had command of the dragons. Dong had control of the people. Dong could do whatever he wanted. Nevermind that he had abandoned his mission.
Dong was king.
“What!?” Kaltrina exclaimed. “What are you talking about. That’s not true. I don’t believe it.”
The tall, willowy girl with silvery-white hair glared at the Brothebit lying lazily on the branch in front of her.
The large, cat-like creature glared back.
“Are you calling me a liar, child?”
Its eyes flared bright yellow with irritation, and the Brothebit pulled back its lips in a snarl, revealing its large, sharp fangs.
“I am a Brothebit. Just like you. I just haven’t fully developed my tail and fangs and fur yet.”
The giant, white feline sighed with exasperation. Realizing that arguing with this girl was futile, she turned away from her.
The Brothebit lay on the large branch quietly, but her tail continued to twitch in irritation. She could sense the girl’s eyes boring into the back of her head.
The child was stubborn, ferocious, and explosive. All qualities that the Brothebit admired. She had instilled them in this young girl since the day Shinx had found her.
“But you told me that I was a Brothebit. You told me that one day, I would be as powerful as you.”
“I hoped that one day it would be so, child. And I raised you as such. But it is not to be.”
“What are you talking about? What am I? Who am I?”
The Brothebit sighed. Rolled over. Glared at the Katrina.
“You are human. Mostly human anyway.”
“What? No!” the girl screeched furiously. “I am not human. We hate humans. We hunt humans. We kill humans.”
“And yet, that is what you are, child. Mostly human. There is no denying it. You will never be full Brothebit like me. It is time that we part ways. You must go your human way. I must go my Brothebit way. I must return to my kind. I cannot take you with me.”
“Why are you doing this to me,” the girl screamed angrily, trying to hold back the tears. “I thought you loved me. I thought you were my mother.”
“All children eventually leave their mother and father and head out on their own. It is time for you to do the same. Be on your way. Find your own kind. Live your life with them.”
“Please, don’t do this to me,” Katrina pleaded. “Let me go with you. I will be good. I will do whatever you say.”
“It’s not about you being good or not. If you return with me to my kind, they will slaughter you. The Brothebit hate you and your kind.”
Katrina slammed her lance furiously against the branch she was standing on. She wanted to ram it through the Brothebit’s ribs, deep into her heart. Again and again.
The girl held back the hot tears that threatened to well up in her eyes at the feelings of betrayal and hurt that throbbed with every heartbeat.
She took a long, slow, deep breath that shuddered her whole body at the end.
“Why did you lie to me?” she finally managed to ask quietly. “Why lead me on all this time, if you knew I couldn’t go back with you?”
The Brothebit growled bitterly. A deep, throaty rasp that rattled Katrina’s bones.
“I wanted a cub, but never bore young. There was a human. He earned our trust. A good human. He offered to help. Our king told me not to listen to him. But my desire for my own grew and intensified. I went to him and accepted his help.”
Katrina had never heard this story before. She sat down on the large, rough branch beside Shinx to listen to the feline’s tale.
“The man said he was a research scientist who studied the things that make us Brothebit who we are. He called them genes. He said he could make medicine to help me bear young. But in the end, he betrayed me. Or I think he did.”
“What do you mean?” Katrina asked.
“He disappeared. Other scientists took his place. Put me in a cage. Did many hurtful things. The poked and prodded me. In the end, they created you in something they called a test tube. They said that you were a mix of races.”
The Brothebit paused to look off into the distance. Katrina watched the feline closely. Observed her fighting her emotions. She waited for the Shinx to continue.
“At first, I hated you. I hated what the scientist researchers had done. They acted as if you were my child. Even though you looked like them. I was horrified. I felt sickened. Disgusted.”
Katrina waited until Shinx got her emotions under control once again.
“Then, they began to do terrible things to you as they had done to me. They poked and prodded you. I realized that it wasn’t your fault for being there. If anyone’s fault, it was mine. I felt pity for you. Maybe even something akin to motherly love. And I had to save you. Get you away from them.”
“How?” Katrina asked.
“It was easy. I went with them willingly, thinking they were going to help me. They underestimated my Brothebit strength. They had created the place to contain a human. It was easy to tear through their defenses.”
“So, why did you bring me and raise me?”
“Call it motherly instinct. You were the closest thing to a cub that I had ever had. I cared for you and raised you as my own. I hoped that over time, you would become more like me. Grow fur. Grow a tail. Grow fangs. But instead, you only became more human.” the Brothebit snarled.
“So, I’m human, and you hate me. That is why you want to abandon me.” Katrina stated bitterly.
“No, child. I don’t hate you. I care for you deeply. I swore I would raise you as my own. You make me proud. But it is the way of nature. It is time for you to return to your kind. As it is for me to return to mine.”
“But what will I do without you?” Katrina wailed.
“You will return and learn the ways of humans. You will live with your kind. They will accept you. They will love you. Only don’t tell them where you came from. Make a new story for yourself. Humans are gullible. They will believe you. You will fit right in. I have taught you well.”
“No, I won’t go. I refuse to go. I will stay here.” Katrina shouted vehemently.
“Fine, child. You may do as you like. But you will be alone here once I leave. I will remain with you three days. Then I will go. It will be better for you to return to your kind, so you are not alone. I will show you where they come from. I will show you the place you came from.”
Katrina begged and pleaded with Shinx, but it was no use. The Brothebit refused to negotiate on the terms of her leaving.
The girl stood up and looked off into the distance. A slew of emotions flooded her body. Anger at the lies and betrayal. Rage at her soon abandonment. Fear of her unknown future. And even a twinge of nervous excitement at discovering her roots.
Katrina had always known that she wasn’t like Shinx, but she didn’t know why. At least until now. Everything made sense now.
It had seemed weird to compare how much more she looked like the humans Shinx killed then the Brothebit herself. And now she knew why.
The girl looked back at Shinx, still lying on the branch. Sulking over her decision. Katrina knew it had to be hard for her. And yet, she understood that the Brothebit was only trying to do the right thing by her. And she appreciated that.
Katrina was grateful for the years of care and sacrifice the creature had made for her. She decided to spend time and enjoy these last three days with the only mother she had ever known. And, if possible, Katrina would return again to see her once more. And maybe even make things right once she understood what happened herself.
Nigel stood in the middle of the staircase, looking up at his nemesis staggering around on the balcony. A sense of satisfaction flooded his body and overwhelmed him. He wanted to gloat over the fact that he had finally put a bullet in his rival.
After all these years of hunting him down. Chasing him across continents. Over borders into hostile territory. Through city after city. Nigel finally had his showdown.
No matter that Nigel would most likely be dead himself within a matter of minutes. But the fact that he had finally accomplished his ultimate objective in life was enough for him. He could finally die happy and rest in peace.
He stood silent and still. His long, brown trenchcoat wafting up around him from the heat of the blazing fire below. Holding the gun at his side. Ready to fire a second time if needed. Not that Nigel thought he needed to.
Nigel had been training and practicing every day for the past seven years. He was sure of his shot. He was confident that Yuri would soon keel over and roll down the steps at his feet.
Then he would kick Yuri’s body over the edge of the stairs into the flames below. Then the fire would continue to consume the stairs and the house around him. And he would perish together with his nemesis here in this blazing inferno.
It was a fitting end to his journey. After seven years of being consumed by his lust and desire for revenge, it was the right way to go. His body consumed by the flames just as his life had been consumed by this single-hearted obsession.
Nigel didn’t mind dying like this. There were far worse ways to go. Growing old. Becoming a decrepit old man who could barely feed himself. Wasting away slowly. Or worse, getting into an accident and becoming paralyzed. No longer able to hunt down his enemy.
His very worst fear, though, had been of dying without having gotten his revenge. Nigel had lost count of the times he had woken up in a cold sweat. Dreaming of dying while his nemesis still lived. Stood over Nigel. Mocking Nigel as he slowly died.
But all of that was past now. Yuri would soon be dead. And even though he would die too, Nigel could rest in the assurance that he had his revenge.
The wooden stairway crackled and snarled below him. Nigel could feel the steps snapping in the heat under his feet. The heat blazed up hotter and higher around him. But still, Nigel waited for Yuri to drop dead at his feet.
He wanted to raise the weapon and fire off another shot. Nail Yuri right between the eyes. Watch the light fade from his eyes before falling into the flames. But at the same time, Nigel didn’t want to put Yuri out of his misery. Let him suffer every last second possible.
But Yuri didn’t fall over. After yelling angrily and stomping around, he bent over as if catching his breath. Nigel didn’t understand it. How could Yuri not be dead? He started to raise his gun.
Before he could fire off another shot, though, the stairwell under his feet began to cave in. Gravity took over, and Nigel’s body began to drop into the flames below.
“No!” he screamed in rage as he fell into the fiery inferno below. Nigel fired wildly into the darkness above. Hoping that one of his bullets would find its mark. Hoping to see Yuri’s body falling over the edge to join him as fuel for the flames.
But none of that happened. And Nigel screamed as long and as loud as he could. Not so much from the pain of the burns, as the despair of not watching Yuri die before he did.
And then the darkness overcame him.
When Nigel came to, he felt like he had been run over by a semi. Literally. He had heard the expression and mocked it. Thinking that others were exaggerating their pain. But that was precisely how he described it to the nurse hovering over him.
Her nametag said, Julia. She gave him something that made him feel better almost immediately. Then let him rest.
When he came to the second time, Nigel asked where he was and how he came to be here.
“Moss Forest Psychiatric Hospital,” she said. “A friend brought you into the General hospital two weeks earlier. You came to after about three days. Screaming that you were going to kill the man who murdered your family. So, they transferred you over here.”
“Yuri Vasyl Holub,” Nigel muttered softly.
Fear flickered in the woman’s eyes. “Yuri is the name of the man who brought you in. I don’t think you want to kill him,” she murmured.
“Yes, I do!” he growled. “My name is Nigel Berry Boatwright. And I shall have my vengeance on Yuri Vasyl Holub before I die.”
The nurse brushed a brown lock of hair that had slipped forward back behind her ear. She glanced over to the side. Then back at Nigel.
“Tell that to Mr. Holub because he is sitting right there.”
Nigel tried to turn his head, but couldn’t because of all the bandages wrapped around his neck and upper body. He could see a form in his peripheral vision.
“That you, Yuri?”
“Yes, Nigel, my old enemy.”
“Why did you pull me from those flames?”
“I couldn’t let you die, Nigel. How long have we been at this?”
“Yes, seven years. What would I do without you? My life would have lost its purpose. I haven’t yet found redemption for my sins. I must find it before the chase ends.”
Yuri stood up and walked over to Nigel’s side. He placed a gun on Nigel’s belly. Pressed Nigel’s hand over the weapon.
“You must get well. The chase must go on. My life has no meaning without you trying to kill me for the terrible things I have done. I realized that when I saw you fall into the flames. I had to save you.”
Nigel looked at him in confusion. He picked up the gun and checked the magazine. It was loaded. He pointed the pistol and pointed it at Yuri.
“Go ahead. The hunt must go on.”
Nigel shook his head. “I can’t shoot you now. You just saved my life. Even if I did, you would survive. How did you survive the last shot? How did you survive the flames? There isn’t a scratch on you.”
“Hush. Get well. When you get out, come search for me again. Hunt me. Chase me down. When we meet again, you may learn why everything happened the way that it did.”
“But…” Nigel asked.
“No, buts,” Yuri interrupted, slipping a syringe into his IV and squirting it into the clear fluid. “Get well soon. Then we shall continue this conversation. Then we shall continue the hunt.”
Darkness once again overcame Nigel. Only this time, there was no pain. Only sweet relief. This time he didn’t dream of Yuri. He dreamt of home. Of his wife. Of his son. Of his daughter. Of his family that had once been snatched so cruelly away.
His name was Nigel Berry Boatwright, and he would have his revenge. Maybe not this time around. But next, he would find Yuri and make sure he got what he had coming to him.
“Look, mommy! Look.” Carla heard a young child shouting in the distance.
Carla sighed and tried to focus on her Calculus 2 homework. She slouched down lower in her on the picnic table bench. Her brow furrowed deep with frustration.
“Come here, honey,” the mother yelled, her voice tinged with anxiety.
Carla growled and covered her ears with her hands to try to block out the noise. She had come to the park for peace and quiet. To get away from her obnoxious roommate.
She had thought that boarding with someone from the same country as herself would be a good thing. But two weeks into her stay, Carla already regretted it. She was already looking for another place to move to.
Carla had had enough of the girl’s endless drama. Her roommate created mountains out of molehills. Even though she had always been a homebody, lately, Carla preferred to be anywhere except at home. Which was how she ended up here in the park.
Enough was enough. Carla was going to find a new place and move. Even if she lost her security deposit or had to pay extra for breaking her lease early.
The young woman pulled a scrunchie off her ponytail. Shook her thick, black hair. Pulled her sweater sleeves up farther over her palms. Then ran her long, slender fingers through her dark locks.
It wasn’t cold, but the late afternoon temperature as the sun prepared to set was colder than she was used to back home in the southern hemisphere at this time of year.
She took a deep breath and shook her shoulders to psych herself up for one final push to get this homework finished up.
The sweet, strong scent of the French Lilacs that surrounded her assailed her nostrils. It gave her a heady rush and brought a smile to her face. She paused for a moment to relish the smell.
She tried to take advantage of the moment to remind herself that she should just breathe and enjoy the moment. But the sound of the young girl’s shrill voice broke her train of thought and shattered her reprieve.
“What is it, mommy? What is it?”
“Vitoria May! Come here right now.” the mother shouted, almost hysterically.
She grabbed her open backpack and shoved her books and paper inside with an irritated growl. Carla looked up toward the girl with a scowl. The young woman hoped the girl would look at her and see just how annoyed she was.
The innocent child stood in the middle of a grassy knoll, pointing up into the sky. Her mother was scrambling to gather up a few food and drink items scattered on a checkered red and white blanket for their afternoon picnic.
The frightened woman threw them into a dark brown, hand-woven basket and threw the blanket over her shoulder. She grabbed the child’s hand and began to pull her along.
But the girl never turned back around toward her mother. She continued to look back over into the sky behind Carla. Still pointing up into the air. It was a strange scene. Almost as if the child had been frozen in place, and the mother was simply dragging a statue through the grass.
Carla glanced up in the general direction the child was pointing, but couldn’t see anything through the branches of the tree overhead. When she glanced back, she could no longer see the young girl, but the mother had turned to drag the child with both hands.
After they disappeared from view, Carla noticed the brown basket still sitting in the grass where the mother must have tossed it aside to take care of the kid.
Carla shook her head. Kids these days. They were entitled little brats that wouldn’t obey their parents. And parents had no backbone to keep their kids in line. Giving them whatever they wanted.
The young woman swore to herself that if she ever had kids that she would make sure they obeyed her. She wouldn’t put up with screaming little brats throwing fits in the middle of a restaurant or supermarket.
Since the screaming girl had left, Carla sat back down with a sigh of relief. Leaving now wasn’t the right thing to do. She still had to solve these last few equations. After that, she would grab a bite to eat and continue her search for a new place to stay.
Carla unzipped her pink backpack to pull out her Calculus book and purple notebook again but became aware of a strange vibration in her core.
It was hard to describe, but the closest she could come to an explanation was that it felt like the time she had her hair buzzed over the summer.
It had been sweltering that year. So, before the fourth of July marathon, she had gone in to have back and sides of her head shaved. And right now, she felt like her hairstylist was pressing the buzzer firmly into the base of her skull.
Carla shook her head and stood up to walk out from under the tree toward the grassy knoll. She wanted to see what was going on for herself.
As she came up to the top and could see down the hill, Carla stopped in surprise. The mother was still standing there, holding the little girl’s hand. The child was still standing there, pointing up into the sky. Her mouth frozen open. Both frozen in their tracks.
Carla could see other people scattered on the hill below. All seemingly frozen in their tracks as well. Some looking up into the sky over her head. Others appeared oblivious to the strange events around them.
But no one moved. Everyone frozen in place. And only she was able to move around and observe them.
Carla turned slowly in the direction that the child was pointing but then paused. Wondering if some strange Medusa-like object in the sky froze everyone who looked in its direction.
She backed up quickly under the tree. Sidling up behind the tree trunk. Peeking carefully around the tree and between the branches. Gasping at the sight in front of her.
The sprawling city lay before her. Majestic as always. But above the skyscrapers and buildings, she saw giant, round orb floating in the sky above the clouds. It looked like a giant, black yo-yo with neon-green circles.
The sight absorbed all of her attention at first, and she failed to notice the smaller ships hovering around it. But when she finally did see them, Carla wondered how she could have missed them. There were hundreds of them. All waiting silently as if for a command.
After a few minutes, the smaller ships began to move out in all directions over the city. Each moving slowly and purposefully to fulfill its orders. Some were coming in her direction.
Carla scooped her books back into her backpack and slid it onto her shoulders. Then swiftly climbed up the trunk of the large tree in front of her. Clambering her way into branches. Hoping that the foliage would keep her hidden from their sight.
When she found a stable branch to perch on, Carla hugged the tree with one arm and reached into her pocket for her phone with the other. Her hands shook, and fingers trembled as she took pictures and filmed the scene in front of her.
Two of the ships floated almost silently past her hiding place. The only thing she heard was a slight whirring that seemed to be in sync with the buzzing at the base of her neck, which seemed to be coming from the giant, black ball floating over the center of the city.
One ship hovered over the child and her mother. The other floated on past to a boy who had been preparing to throw a football. His arm still frozen midair with his fingers wrapped around the rough, brown leather.
Carla watched in horror as a glowing, neon-green, tractor beam lit up the child and pulled her limp body up into the ship. Her finger still pointing into the sky the entire time. The other ship did the same with the boy below. His arm still frozen in place, and his fingers holding the ball the entire time.
She shivered as she flipped the phone back toward the other ship. It slipped in her fingers and tumbled from her hand. Carla tried to snatch it but wasn’t fast enough. Her fingertips brushed against the phone, knocking it out farther away from the base of the tree into the grass and bushes below.
Carla gasped as the ship turned in her direction. It’s light shining toward the place her phone had fallen. She placed her hand over her mouth and held her breath. Trying to hold back hot tears and loud screams that threatened to overwhelm her.
The beam of light scanned the ground under the tree. It lit up two large, city rats that had raced toward the sound of the falling phone, hoping for a treat. They sniffed the phone. Discovering nothing edible, they immediately scrambled into the bushes and away from the light.
The green light moved away from the tree. The ships floated silently back to the giant, black ball of what Carla assumed was their mother ship.
Then green lights faded. The buzzing at the base of her skull fell silent. People began moving around on the hill below.
But the giant, black ship still overshadowed the city. It wasn’t so much that she could see the ship, but that she could see stars shining around it and couldn’t see the stars shining behind.
The mother looked around in confusion for a moment but then began picking up the items that had fallen out of her picnic basket as if nothing had happened.
Carla glanced back at the sky. The ship had begun to shimmer softly. Now she could see the stars behind it again. Dully at first. Then more brightly. As if the vessel were disappearing or else cloaking itself from view.
Then it was gone completely. The stars shined brightly across the sky. Clouds floated silently over the city. Life went on as usual. People continued milling around as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Like they weren’t even aware that a giant, black orb had appeared over their city and hauled off with members of their society.
She waited. Making sure the orb was really gone before climbing out of the tree. Wondering when the mother was going to realize that her child was gone. But the woman finished putting everything in her basket. Then turned and walked toward the car without looking around for her daughter.
Carla scrambled and slid back down the trunk of the tree. Trying not to scrape herself up any worse than she already had. The young woman brushed herself off, picked up her phone, and raced after the woman.
“Wait! Ma’am! Excuse me. Hey! Wait.” Carla yelled as she ran down the hill.
Her arms flailed wildly. Her hair flying around her face. The woman looked frightened when she turned to see Carla racing in her direction. She pulled out a can of pepper spray and pointed it in Carla’s face.
Carla held up her hands in front of her face and bent over to catch her breath.
“What do you want?” the woman demanded angrily, trying to mask the fear in her voice.
“What about your daughter? Aren’t you going to wait for her?” Carla asked.
“What are you talking about, lady? Are you nuts? I don’t have a daughter,” the woman replied.
“Victoria. Victoria May. The girl that was just here with you.” Carla said, still gasping for air.
“I don’t know anybody named Victoria May.”
“Nobody? Never?” Carla said. Her voice trembling. Trying to hold back the tears that threatened to flood her eyes.
“May was my Grandmother’s name. But I don’t know anyone named Victoria,” the woman said emphatically, backing away toward the car. The can of pepper spray still pointed in Carla’s direction.
Carla turned on the phone and opened her photo album. She played the video of the woman and girl in the distance. She showed the woman the tractor beam pulling the girl up.
The woman shook her head emphatically. “That does look like me, but I’ve never seen that kid before.”
Then she relaxed and put down the can of pepper spray. She started to laugh and look around.
“Wait a minute. This is one of those prank video things. Isn’t it. Where are the hidden cameras.”
She looked back at Carla expectantly. The woman waited for the punch line. But Carla couldn’t hold back the tears. The woman cocked her head to the side. Opened her car door and tossed in the picnic basket.
“You need some help, girl. This isn’t funny,” the woman said.
Then she jumped into her car. Backed up quickly. And sped off into the night. Carla took a picture of the license plate in case she needed to track the woman down later.
She climbed back up the hill. Picked up her backpack. Sat down at the picnic table. Her homework long forgotten. Her search for a new apartment pushed aside. No longer hungry.
Waiting. Watching the sky for any shimmer or sign of a strange ship. Waiting long into the night. Wondering what had just happened. Wondering what was going on.