Tag Archives: young adult

Beautiful Day Book Giveaway! 

BOOK GIVEAWAY TIME!!!! 

Guys! I’m having a flash giveaway because today is just so beautiful!! To enter for a chance to win one of TWO signed paperbacks, head on over to my Facebook page and like the post! Winners will be chosen Sunday 5/7. Oh! And get a triple entry for sharing!

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(Good luck!!)

The Eternity Duet – Chpt. 1

The Eternity Duet_72dpi

Prologue: The Eternity Vessel

All living things, it is said, are contained within a vessel. Made of material beyond man’s comprehension, the Eternity Vessel rests suspended in the blackness of time. Therein, the world is kept lingered between two powerful, terrible sources: Azure and Bloőd.

At the top, Azure, filled with cunning and bide. At the bottom, Bloőd, of ardor and haste.

Two powers to hold a sphere.

The world rests;

The powers turn.

The world turns;

The powers rest. 

The time for bequeathment approaches.

Chapter I: Awyer

The castle town of Eldrade has not been invaded for nearly a thousand years. Protected by powerful barrier enchants, its people live in near seclusion, awaiting nothing; for they have long forgotten the balance of enchantments. They have long forgotten the consequences of their stolen color.

One such resident, a sphinx-eyed boy, sits sifting grain in a most unassuming storehouse at the western docks. A modest boy in a modest task, there is nothing so remarkable about him.

But all of that will change.

All of it is already beginning to change.

Not yet seventeen, the boy’s Amethyst has yet to emerge, but seventeen is fast approaching, and the inherited power has already begun to writhe in his veins. On this day, it courses through his wrists, turning them a deep, flushed purple.

“It grows stronger,” the boy observes while staring at his own changing flesh. And he is not glad. He is bothered. For seventeen’s emergence of power means a great deal for the boy. Soon, very soon, he will be made to cast. Like his father. Like his grandfather. After seventeen, he will be made only to cast, and his grain-sifting days will forever be over.

That is the penance of those living with stolen color.

“Awyer!”

I call to that boy in the midst of his sifting, and he looks up to see me standing upon the storehouse’s topmost catwalk. Unbeknownst to him, I have been spying. On his sifting. On his brooding. I take the opportunity to use an Amethyst enchant of my own.

“Here I come, Awyer!”

And I do come. Featherlike, I come floating through the levels of the storehouse and land into the pile of grain halfway sifted. It catches me softly and spills in overflow. Awyer shakes his head. A boy of few words and even fewer expressions. But I know him well enough to know what he is thinking; I know him better than anyone, for I alone remember the consequences of the stolen color. I alone remember the balance of enchantments. And I alone can see into Awyer’s future.

Not that I will ever tell him so.

“Grim.” Awyer says my name with perturbation. “Move.”

But the pile of grain is soft and welcoming, and although I have knowingly disrupted his work, I will not be moving just yet. “Join me, Awyer,” I issue. “Take a break.”

I am responded by a headshake.

Within the storehouse, the air is mugged and still. Our words are dropped by the muting piles of grain all around. I must work all the harder to make my wants clear.

“Your brow is heavy, Awyer,” I prod at him. “Join me. Divulge your worries.”

Awyer gives it some thought. His brooding brow broods a little deeper before making a decision. He leans into the side of grain.

A satisfactory outcome.

Were the pile outside, it would shimmer golden in the sunlight. The gold of the land. The treasure of the earth. But within the storehouse, the shining is muted to dull tan. “Now then, Awyer.” I slide into place next to him. “Tell me what plagues you.”

Awyer stares into the ceiling. His features are dark, his hair and his brows and his lashes; all but his eyes, which are golden and slanted and look more like an animal’s than any person’s. That is only fitting. Sphinx blood runs thick in Awyer’s veins – a gift passed down from his mother’s father.

Awyer takes his time answering, as he usually does. “It is not anything new, Grim,” he admits once allowing a helping of seconds to pass. “It is . . .” He bares his rightmost wrist. Purple-hued, the veins beneath twist and curl. I put a finger to it. The Amethyst is warmer today than yesterday; soon Awyer’s time will come. I put an ear to it, and a rushing sound only I can hear tells me of what will be.

Awyer stands atop a pillar, encompassed in a funnel of Amethyst smoke. Soundless, the air around him rises, pushing the cloud higher and higher until there is nothing less than a direct line to the heavens.

The future flashes at the front of my mind, hazed like a dream yet certain as death. Awyer’s destiny: A little more of it is revealed to me each day.

Lo, it is my destiny to read his.

“It grows stronger,” Awyer says again upon inspecting his painted flesh. “And it aches.” The storehouse’s catwalks pervert the few beams of light allowed to exist therein. One perverted ray spreads across the whole of Awyer’s face. Illumination does not suit him.

Then again, I may merely be predisposed to things dark in nature.

“I have a new task for you, Awyer, if it interests,” I say.

But to the request, my ward, wholly content with sifting long into the evening hours, shakes his head and continues to stare.

That will not do.

“The fountains are overrun by Pates, and it will take someone of great craft to convince them to move,” I tempt.

Awyer narrows his already narrow eyes.

“Something to say?” I inquire.

“You play with me, Grim.”

And to some extent, that is truth. I do play with him. I know as well as he that there is not an ounce of craft within his person. A sphinx born without guile. A boy born without wile. My ward is the ultimate paradox.

No matter. That is where I come in.

With an invisible giggle, I float to the door of the storehouse. “Come along, Awyer! To the fount!”

The outside air clears away the muggedness of the storehouse, cool and crisp and clean – enchanted to be so. The overhead sky tints a lavender color, and no one of Eldrade knows that skies should not be so. Blue skies and warm air, those things exist only beyond Eldrade’s barrier, forgotten by Awyer and his neighbors; forgotten by everyone but me.

Eldrade bustles. Its buildings of polished stone rise, neatly cutting through the horizon, texturizing the skyline. Carved and curled statues of the Great Ones, nameless avian protectors of Eldrade, guard the entrances to every inhabited tower – all of them tinted with Amethyst, all of them enchanted.

High overhead, amidst the smooth building tops, Eldradeans float to and fro on umbrella-adorned platforms – the premier transportation of an enchanted city. Though the flats have been spelled to keep along predetermined paths marked by threadlike lines of light, that does not stop the Amethyst-empowered youth from finding ways to make them stray.

Awyer, no ordinary youth, has no taste for mischief. It is I who will spell ours astray.

“After you, Awyer.” At the loading docks, I prod him onto a rickety looking flat. The ricketier, the better, as any hoodlum knows. Those are the ones whose enchants have worn enough for modification.

Awyer steps on with reluctance. Outspoken or not, there is no question he dislikes being bossed by me. Alas, if I do not pressure him, his destiny will never come to fruition.

That funnel of Amethyst smoke, it is up to me to get him there.

“Up to no good again,” the man at the docks assumes. He looks at Awyer with disfavor. My poor ward must take the brunt of consequence when it comes to our mischief. After all, to everyone but Awyer, I am nothing more than a shadow. “At least you’ve got your naefaerie with you,” says the man, whose arms blare full Amethyst. “Keep him on the right path, Mistress.” This he commissions to the space just to the right of me. The man cannot read the sun. He knows not where I stand in relation to my shadow, though it is all he has as a reference. He cannot see me. He cannot hear me. I do not fully exist.

“If you knew,” Awyer responds.

Yes, if the man knew. Just as any naefaerie’s job is to guide their ward along the path that is right and good, it should be my job to guide Awyer’s conscience. Should. Not in our case. I am a naefaerie of . . . uncommon descent.

But that we shall save for later.

Everything about our situation is erroneous. Awyer the cunningless sphinx and his mischievous naefaerie. We will let the Eldradeans think what they like.

“Going up!” The man taps the umbrella with his finger, and the lift takes off into the air along the string of silver guiding light.

We are in ascent.

“Do you tire of it?” Our ride is not more than a few stories up, when comes a rare conversational piece from the few-worded boy.

“Tire of what?” I say.

Awyer nods to the man who is quickly shrinking as our umbrella moves farther and farther away from him, the docks, and the ground.

Ah, that.

“Being invisible?” I say.

Awyer nods.

Truthfully, all that matters is that HE can see me, but to say something to that extent would be . . . compromising, so all I answer him is, “Not particularly.”

Awyer settles his eyes on the silvery skin of my invisible face. He says nothing. He is in thought? Yes. About our pact? Yes. His hand finds its way to his right shoulder. The tattoo beneath his tunic is our proof. Like a cracked, imperfect shard of obsidian crystal, the spelled shape rests against his skin, binding him to me, allowing him to see and hear me, and allowing me a glimpse into his fated future.

With that tattooed shard, our destinies are tied.

Air pours past as we glide into the air and hover across the tops of the towering architecture – stone structures cut and set neatly without wear from wind or rain or age. Our destination is meant to be the Grand Grimoire Library at the center of Eldrade’s hilly non-residences. Our business, however, is not there.

I call upon an Amethyst enchant to steer our course. “To the fountains!” Not only to them, but to the high top of them, where the Pates have been illegally gathering.

Excitement catches me.

Awyer, on the other hand, is disinterested in the task. He kicks his feet over the edge of the platform and stares with unaffected eyes over the metropolis that is his home. The invisible barrier surrounding the Amethyst City stretches into the distance. Awyer cannot see it, but even he can feel it. They all can. And although they have forgotten the balance of enchantments, there is one thing all Eldradeans know to be true: Once one leaves through the protective barrier, it is impossible to find his or her way back. That fact looms around the outskirts of the city, warning any who get too close.

Willingly kept within one land for nearly a thousand years.

Perhaps Awyer and his neighbors deserve what is coming.

It is not my place to warn them.

This I know.

. . . And yet, when I look at Awyer . . .

No, I cannot think to that extent. It is too compromising.

“How?” says Awyer.

No elaboration necessary. I understand what he is asking. “How are we to convince the Pates to leave the fountains?” I say. “Simple. We will trick them.”

How?

He will see. There is not need to waste words on the inevitable.

Awyer does not press. He rests his chin on his hand and his elbow on his thigh. My stooped ward. How he has grown in the days since our pact. When I found him, he was only a boy. Now he is tall. And strong. And lean. Seventeen is fast approaching.

The umbrella has shifted course. It whizzes sideways, along an unused path without silver guideline. When we near our true destination, it begins to slow. Awyer lifts his feet in anticipation. Just in time. The platform skims along the top of one fountain’s jutting water.

We have arrived: Fountain Terrace – a place harboring seventy fountains of varying size, power, and build. Housed on multilevel tiers, the enchanted water reaches a massive diameter for no purpose other than to beautify Eldrade.

And beautify it does. Glimmering water hops from fount to fount, spraying offshooting mist into the air, which in turn catches the sun and glistens. The whole of the place sparkles, mimicking a waterfall’s crashing domain.

Sadly, the beauty is dirtied by a presence. The Pates collect atop the topmost fount, conspiring to absorb the natural power found within the skipping water. They know not that their methods are akin to those used by necromancers beyond the walls of Eldrade, for they know not of the existence of necromancers at all.

But they will. And soon.

The water skips. The Pates conspire. What they wish for is petty sorcery, indeed. They are the riffraff of the kingdom, content with bullying the lesser residents and causing piddly acts of disarray. Comprised predominantly of failed Amethyst users, the Pates are gnats; and the rulers of Eldrade have long sought to banish them from the otherwise peaceful city. Alas, the enchanted barrier is a double-edged sword: Just as anyone who leaves cannot find his or her way back to the Amethyst City, so too cannot any one inhabitant be forced to leave. Through any means. And so the Pates, who have caused no offense worthy of being locked in the underground prisons, as far as the street officials are concerned, are left free to wander and disrupt the flow of daily life. Were they successful in their attempts to draw power from the water, a viable threat they would become; for this reason alone, they are not to gather in yonder fount.

But gather they do, and a menace it is. Awyer will rid them with my craft, and his reputation will rise.

“It is time, my fief.”

The stooped boy steps from the lift and stretches. His eyes gleam yellow. It is fortunate that he looks the part, even if far from it. Encompassed in mist, Awyer approaches the Pates.

Ten of them today accumulate – eight of no consequence; two obviously occupied by wit. Those are the two we will focus our convictions on. Gull those and the rest will follow. I hide my shadow within Awyer’s shadow. Unless they are looking intentionally, I will not be seen. There are certain advantages to being nonmaterial.

Upon Awyer’s intrusion, one of the wit-occupied gnats, a woman of wide stature and thick chin, steps forth. The others shuffle to conceal their tools – bone and beak and powdered crystal – and, in a fully conspicuous manner, huddle to wall off the targeted fount.

“Why are you here, O crafty one?” the woman speaks.

Awyer squints at her assumption, but remains widely disinterested in the task. His mouth is bored, his posture uncommitted.

“Now, now, Awyer,” I scold. “No one will take you seriously if you slouch.”

He rolls his eyes. He does not delight when I act like a mother. Lately, it bothers him more. He gives a sigh and brings a hand to the back of his neck. Reluctant to the core, my ward is.

But reluctant or not, when I whisper into his ear, he dutifully repeats:

“A wealth of knowledge is held in its crown. It spreads with wings; it sits on down. Name it not, you may not stay. Win the guess, keep ire at bay.”

The woman glances at the other gnat of wit. “A riddle?” she says.

Aye, what else from a sphinx?

Awyer nods and presents his hand. “A riddle of gold,” he expounds.

Of gold. This is a blessing cast upon the sphinxes. With the riddle’s true answer spoken into Awyer’s mind, a sanctified deal may be struck with the Pates. He may not go back on his word. He may not house two answers, though many may exist. Of gold: It is meant to keep us honest.

An unspoken exchange transpires between the woman and her comrade, and when it is finished, “Very well,” she says and takes Awyer’s hand. But the deal cannot happen just yet, as Awyer does not yet know the answer to his own riddle. The moment I tell it into his ear, a light of gold reacts within their clasp. Their hands glow. The pact is formed.

Upon releasing the woman’s hand, Awyer’s continues to glow; and it will until the riddle is solved. So, too, does the woman’s as she retreats into the fold of her fellow riffraff.

“Well done, Awyer. You are quite crafty.”

Awyer scoffs at my praise, and then he looks to the lavender sky. Clouds move in. Not because they have broken through the barrier somehow, but because the sky has been enchanted to show variety. Even rain may come.

The Pates are huddled. Awyer waits. He brings his glowing hand to his face and his eyes shine in reflection.

In time, the Pates let out an: “Aha!” because they think they have found their answer. They have not. I have observed their so-called wit. I have predicted their guess. And it will be wrong.

The thick-chinned woman approaches.

“Have you an answer?” Awyer asks, aloof.

“We have,” she says. “It is one of the Greats of Eldrade. A phoenix. It holds a wealth of knowledge within its crown; spreads its wings; sits upon a bottom of feathery down. The answer is a phoenix.”

With the answer given, the Pates are smug.

I am far, far smugger.

“Incorrect,” I say via Awyer, and the woman’s smugness falls. “The answer is the Grand Grimoire Library. Its wings stretch – north and south and east and west; it sits upon a hill without trees – a down; and a wealth of knowledge is stored in its shelved crown. Therefore, the library is the correct answer.”

The gold of the Pate woman’s hand dims, while the light of Awyer’s grows. She scowls at her comrades, though there is naught she can do. The deed is done, the riddle solved, and the Pates have no choice but to retreat. The deal is such that even if they wished to go back on their word, the blessing of the sphinxes would not allow them. A riddle of gold’s outcome is undeniable. Their riffraffed feet begin to walk on their own. In a line, the Pates do go, and a zipping hummer appears in the place they once were. A tiny bird of teal and scarlet, the hummer flits about the scene, sweeping the air and collecting information. It is building a report to bring to the elders.

Yes, Awyer’s reputation will surely grow.

“A phoenix could have worked too, Grim,” says Awyer gruffly as he hops upon the umbrellaed platform.

“But that was predictable. The greatest riddles have three layers. I knew they would not be able to see past the first, which is why I told you the second.”

“And what of the third?” he asks.

The third involves things beyond Eldrade’s border. I say nothing. Awyer folds his arms and looks at me slyly.

Our flat begins a sloped descent, through the misty offspray and away from Fountain Terrace. Awyer’s arms remain crossed. Not only has he been in a mood all day, our rapport has not been in the best standing as of late. Things between us have been wrong. Tense. And seventeen’s emergence of power is not all to blame. The truth of the matter is that it has been a while since we last . . . diverted. In Awyer’s younger days, diversion was all we did.

For beings in our situation, diversion is everything.

“Here I go, Awyer!”

Without additional explanation, I hop to the top of the umbrella and give it a kick. Awyer perks as, once more, our flat changes course.

I command the lift go up, and it rises straight into the sky. Though the barrier’s warning looms overhead, we press on. We will not break it, but we will come close. Pressing the limits in this way is an act most exhilarating. Awyer does not necessarily feel the same.

I take care to tiptoe around the umbrella’s edge. “Look into the distance, my fief, and tell me what you see,” I say.

Using the umbrella’s handle for grounding, Awyer stands and scans the horizon. The expanse beyond Eldrade’s barrier is blurred – enchanted to be so – but if Awyer will use just a whit of the Amethyst writhing about in his veins, he may be able to see a hint of clarity. “There, Awyer.” I point to a particular peak through the dense lavender of the upper sky. “Press at the center of your eyes with your mind, and you will see it,” I tell him.

Awyer’s animal-like irises become intent.

“Can you discern what lies beyond?” I ask.

“It is foggy.”

“Stare into the blur and push it away. Only then will your vision clear.” Awyer gives it more concentration, but still he cannot see. “Focus, Awyer. Enough Amethyst writhes in you to perform a spell so small.”

Belittling the issue works. “A . . . mountain?” he guesses.

Yes, a mountain. But more importantly, a story. A story he must hear. I make my voice to be ominous:

“For on that mount, two witch sisters lived, collecting unlucky animals that wandered into their lair. Theirs was a nest of things unholy, and the witch sisters, called by their underlings ‘Hamira’ and ‘Gorma’, were known throughout the land for their acts of treachery. Most treacherous was their lust for enchants.

“Only three powers were ever meant to exist within moral reality, Amethyst being the daughter of the other two; but the witch sisters, they pulled from a fourth magick, a darker magick – an accumulation of the evil thoughts thought but never carried through; and the secrets kept in shame, never to be shared.

“Aye, secrets and malice, those were the things that fueled the witches, and it was no small sin that it was so; for unused malice is sent to a place beyond the Eternity Vessel – a blackness no man or god has ever seen, and a place no mortal should ever touch. But touch it they did, and corrupt they became, and from that day forth hoarded forbidden magicks alone within their shrine. While the other powers of the world spun, their control over the darkness grew. An unbalance into the balance. A wrinkle into the fold.

“Ages passed. Stars faded. And what became of the witch sisters? They yet reside on the mount, rotting in spite, and their power continues to grow. Any who encounter them be wise: The peak is named Ensecré, for a witch will always trade a spell . . . for a secret.”

Awyer gazes into the hazy skyline as I finish my tale. I have offered him just a little of the knowledge he should not know. “Two powers that birthed Amethyst?” he inquires. “Grim, explain. Excluding storytales, Amethyst IS the only power.”

I cannot say any more. All I can give him is a nod. Small and deceitful, the nod makes Awyer frown.

In due time.

In time near.

But not now.

I float from the umbrella’s top and to the platform itself. Next to Awyer I settle. Together we kick our legs over the side of the flat. Over the whole of the polished stone city. Over the Pates and the street officials and the elders and the casters. My ward and I sit in silence.

“You cannot tell me.” Awyer does not ask, merely states.

“I cannot,” I respond.

Awyer gives a sign and stares down at his own changing flesh. “It grows stronger.”

I put a hand to his wrist, finishing: “And it aches.”

He nods. “Mm.”

“Not for long, Awyer.”

The silvery skin of my arm rests against the healthy tan of his. The longer parts of his hair, dark as untilled under-earth, toss in the enchanted breeze. Mine rest, for I do not exist enough to be kissed by the wind. My hair is short and shifts in color during the hours, from palest white to deepest onyx. I could will it longer, but there is no point in that. There would be no one to see it but Awyer, and if I were to do so, he might think I had for his sake. And that would be . . . compromising.

Ever compromising are the things I should not imagine.

“You can lean here, Grim.” Awyer pats his tattoo-marked shoulder.

“You know I do not tire, Awyer.”

“I do know,” he says. “I offered because you looked like you wanted to.”

Compromising.

It is compromising.

Both that I wanted to.

And that he could see it.

We cannot have that.

I float to my toes and return to the top of the umbrella. “Time to go home, my sphinx.”

“I am more man than sphinx,” he says.

“You are more boy than man.”

But as I watch his hair toss about behind his neck, I realize the differentiation is becoming as blurred as the enchanted horizon. Boy, sphinx, man, ward – of those things I am not certain, though there is one thing I am.

Awyer is mine. He will be mine until the day that he dies. Awyer’s destiny: A little more of it is revealed to me each day.

That is how I know something is brewing, even before the first blast of red smoke hits Grand Grimoire Library and shakes the enchanted city of Eldrade.

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Atto’s Tale – Free Sample

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Chapter 5: An Unleashed Desire

“I think we would have been better off in the barn,” I conclude after doing a sweep of the farmhouse’s interior.

No matter how rundown the structure may look from the outside, inside is far, far worse.

Around the den, the remains of a couch have been strewn, as though an angry raccoon – or several – have taken out their small-clawed aggressions on it. Musty odor drifts up from the floorboards and in through the walls – a reminder never to take for granted the much feebler smells of the antiques found in Jerry’s Canned Heat Emporium. Overhead, fallen beams allude that it might not be a wise decision to venture to the second floor, lest we come crashing through the rotted wood and end up splintered and torn.

All in all, the place is trashed.

Ardette turns up his nose at a floor littered with fragments of waste and debris. “Yes, these accommodations are somewhat lacking. Especially considering the lavish motels you usually pick.”

“Very funny.” I kick at a tuft of couch fluff with my toe. “Sorry, Ardetto. Looks like we’ll be tracking mud into your precious vehicle after all.”

Ardette, never one for dirty things, wrinkles his nose in repugnance. “Ugh. I suppose running water and clean towels were too much to hope for,” he says.

“Way too much,” I agree. I pick a cleared spot of floor to stand in and do a final inspection of the accommodation that never was. “I wonder how someone could just leave an entire farm out here to rot away, anyway.”

Ardette has a theory.

“If I HAD to guess,” he says, attitude ripe, “I’d say it has something to do with the pooled power in yonder pond. Unusual things have been known to transpire at places of strong character. This being one of those places, the former inhabitants may have left for any number of reasons. A haunting perhaps.”

“Haunting?!” I take a reverse step into the corner.

“No, no.” Ardette fans the air. “Not a real one, mind you. I simply meant that condensed areas have the ability to twist nature and lead to paranoia.”

“And now I want to leave more than ever,” I say. “Let’s GO.”

But before I am able to make way for the door, Ardette catches me around the waist. From behind, his arm breaks across my abdomen. I’m pulled against him. “A moment, pit,” he says into my ear, low and soft. “I’ll be savoring this feeling.”

My pulse kicks. “F-feeling?”

“Mmhmm.” He takes the moment he demanded. In the meantime, I manage to say a single aching thing,

“Ardette.”

The thing comes out hushed. Standing motionless against his strong frame, the silence of the farmhouse has just hit me for the first time. It is the stillest sort of silence – a silence that makes me inexorably aware of myself and lends my ears the ability to hear a range of noises they wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. Breathing. Pulsing. The ruffling of a sleeve. I’d hear it if some distant floorboard creaked. Actually, I’d be glad for a distraction like that. But not a thing within the shambled farmhouse stirs, and so there’s nothing to hear but the own thudding of my chest.

My pores are pricked. My skin notices every bit of invisible air against it, but something much more obvious is Ardette’s arm remaining across my stomach. Inevitably, the enticement of it becomes me. My fingertips drift to his forearm’s warm skin. I connect with the hairs of his arm; the muscle beneath. Then I slide my hand until it meets his. Trembling, I hold him as he holds me.

“This reminds me of the place we met in our second life,” he says into my ear, voice keeping lower than low.

The second first time we met. I don’t even need to search my mind; the memory floats to the top on its own.

“The Osterflit keeper’s house,” I breathe.

I feel him nod behind me.

Yes, the humble abode of the deceased Osterflit keeper. Looking around with new eyes, I realize there is some similarity between this place and there. An abandoned residence in the middle of a forgotten field. An empty house. But places like this hold their own personality, too. In the absence of actual life, the structure takes on its own.

That feeling is the same here as it was there.

That time we met.

How annoying I found him then. Haughty and gaudy and persistent, and with an intolerable knack for reading my thoughts. But then there was a princely sort of charm about him too – something that made me want to see beyond his fronts.

He hasn’t changed. Not even the slightest, little . . .

Well, he no longer has horns, I guess.

The surrealism of it hits me.

This is what he meant about taking a moment. A moment for stepping out of the present and gathering what’s happened. A moment to absorb.

We really get to be together? After everything, we get another chance? A third chance.

How are we that lucky?!

Overcome, I spin to face my princely Daem. He doesn’t anticipate the action, and it reflects on his face. Taking him aback is a thing of scarcity. A thing I adore. Before he can say something snide, I wrap my arms around his neck in a hug. A non-sexual, non-nerve-arousing hug. I need him to hold me.

He does. He returns the gesture. Without cynicism. Without defense.

My cheek becomes pressed against his chest as he holds me in adoration. There is comfort. Safeness. I love him. I love him so much.

~

“My, my, having an overthinking again, are we? You know, my pit, if you aren’t careful, you’ll begin to develop unsightly worry lines right here.” Ardette flicks me in the forehead.

“Huh?!”

I’ve been caught in my head again.

Shoot!

The fault belongs with the coupe. Its sleepy rumbling, responsible for retreating me into my thoughts, is to blame.

Stupid fancy car.

The driver’s side window is cracked to allow a small amount of spring crispness into the air previously filled with only our exchanged breath. I use it to come to my senses. Guess invigoration has its usefulness after all.

“Do share what was so interesting in there;” Ardette lazes, glancing at me from the corner of his eye, “what was consuming your entire attention.”

I rub the spot he flicked and grumble, “Nothing really. It’s not like I was really worried about anything.”

Ardette drums the wheel. “What then, were you allowing to mull about in that distracted little skull of yours?”

Such a minor thing that if I answer, he’s going to sneer. But knowing him, he’ll imagine something worse than the truth if I don’t.

“Just that . . .” I start, guardedly. “I was kind of surprised our force ended up being wave.”

“Oh? And why is that?”

“Well, . . . eh-heh . . .” I prepare myself for insult. “First there was wind, and then fire, so . . .”

I’ll let him finish.

“You expected earth?” he says dry as toast. “As in Earth, Wind and . . . Tell me you aren’t serious! As though the forces of the world would follow twentieth century music trends!”

“Well!”

He puts a hand to his temple, shakes his head, and lets out a condescending, “EGH.” And then, “Really, pit? Really?

So he says, but the side of his mouth shows signs of amusement.

The amusement only puts me grumpy. I slump into the seat and stare out the window in a pout. It was a perfectly reasonable thought, as far as I’m concerned.

“You’re too much,” Ardette coos.

We continue to drive through most of the day, stopping only for gas. The pit-stop is also a prime opportunity to clean up, so before anything else, we make use of the station’s dingy bathroom, which has one of those pull-down cloth towels on a reel that appears to have been last changed . . . NEVER. We aren’t picky. Our muddiness has long turned into a caked layer. Though a change of clothes makes things slightly better, the small sink doesn’t allow for an adequate hair washing. After several neck-craned attempts, I give up, slopping my hair into an oversized bun atop my head.

Ardette has better luck. He exits the bathroom looking fresh and neat. And shaved?

“You really don’t like messy things, do you?” I size him up sourly. But sourness is hard to maintain when he looks so desirable.

He begins a saunter down the station’s aisles.

“Care for a bite, my pit? Perhaps a . . .” He frowns upon inspection of the rotating hotdogs in the station’s deli. “Never mind. I won’t allow you to eat that. Go find whatever else you’d like. We’ll stop at the first decent-looking establishment we come across for a real meal.”

A hotdog would have been fine for me, and for a second I think about grabbing one just to spite him – until I notice that the dogs have an unhealthy green tint about them. Not happening. I trot away to find something else.

Ardette is waiting at the counter with a bag of jerky when I return.

Like that’s so much better than a hotdog! Well, whatever. I plop my pickings onto the countertop. Ardette takes time to study them before tossing a bill at the cashier.

“A jar of peanut butter and a bag of potato chips?” he says with disapproval.

“Yeah! Have you ever tried it? You dip the chips in the peanut butter. But regular chips won’t work. These are kettle chips.” I pat the bag proudly.

“Uh-huh.” He chews his cheek, unconvinced.

“You’ll see.”

“I highly doubt that.”

. . .

Ten minutes later, I sit satisfyingly plopping peanut-butter-dipped chips into Ardette’s mouth.

And I’m smug.

“They aren’t anything special,” he sniffs.

That hasn’t stopped him from eating a dozen or more. “All right, then,” I say. “You indulged me. If you don’t like them, I’ll eat the rest–”

“I didn’t say they were bad. Another,” he orders.

I cock a brow at him.

He rolls his eyes. “If you please.”

I shove a particularly large one mounded with peanut butter into his face. He takes it with an unprepared crunch! Excess peanut butter dribbles down the corner of his mouth. He wipes it away with his finger and then, more invested than necessary, licks it off.

Oh please. Like I’d be affected by something like that. Yet I’m forced to look away.

It’s Ardette’s turn to be smug. “Next time you do that,” he says, “you’ll be the one licking it off for me.”

My neck rises in temperature. Stupid! There is great frustration in my body’s reaction to him.

“I’m the only one who could put up with your foulness, you know,” I tell him.

His response is quiet: “I am aware.”

Because I expected something snappier from him, I steal a look to make sure I haven’t gone too far, but instead of displaying offense, he looks oddly sentimental. “You’re the only one I’d want to,” he says, eyes still on the road.

I love his foulness.

We drive tranquilly an hour more before we reach a town. A small, backwoodsy sort of town, but a town nonetheless. A real town? Holy tomato sandwich! Haven’t seen one of those in a while.

By this time, the sky is dark. As we drove, the sun crashed into the horizon, painting the dash in ochre, but now that night has fallen, only midnight blue cloaks the distance, dotted with sparse light from the town. Without the threat of Sowpa’s ‘dark forces’ finding us, we haven’t a reason NOT to turn in at a decent time tonight. A real meal and a full night’s sleep. Sounds appealing.

Ardette pulls into the first food-serving ‘establishment’ he sees, a bar called Freaky Frankie’s. Freaky Frankie’s? Reminds me of the gas station dogs.

While I picture the undesirable, ill-hued things, Ardette takes care to park his beloved ride several spaces away from the rest of the bar lot vehicles, in a corner clear of streetlight.

“What’s that they say about paranoia?” I mutter.

“I rarely find it beneficial to follow advice from unnamed groups of people,” he says. He comes around the side of the car to open my door for me, then loops his arm through mine and escorts me into Frankie’s.

Inside, warm air welcomes us, infused with the smell of plastic seat cushions and lit by vintage baroque pendant lights that Jerry of Jerry’s Canned Heat Emporium would surely covet. Their dim glow shines over each booth and above a worn pool table stashed near the back wall.

At the other end, a lone cowboy sings out-of-tune to a decade-old song. Something sappy about a missing wife and dog.

Gag. I really don’t like that stuff.

Lined along the bar are a few men and a woman who clearly thinks her iron-curled bangs make her quite the catch. All of them talk too loudly and laugh too enthusiastically for what is mostly likely a conversation lacking in nature. Yet they laugh and talk and laugh. All except for a man at the end, who remains silent and stares into a half-full beer as though the amber within holds the secret to happiness. For him, maybe it does.

Ardette strides through the room, inspecting booth tables as he goes, until finally finding one he deems worthy of our company. He gestures that I should take one side before scooting into the other.

I’m fairly certain the sign upfront said to wait to be seated, but Ardette isn’t the type to wait for something trivial like that. It’s probably better this way, anyway. He would only have caused the hostess grief for picking out a table with a smudge on it or something.

A few minutes later the bar’s one waitress – a relation of Frankie’s more than likely – holds a pad of paper before her nearsighted eyes and asks if we’d like to try the special – a type of trout, apparently.

“We’ll pass,” Ardette says, turning his nose up at the thought of fish from this rundown of a place. Instead, he orders a Reuben and whiskey. I order a burger and cola. And when we are finished, the waitress tucks the paper pad into her busty shirt and waddles away. I am left alone with Ardette beneath the dusky glow of vintage light, in a squeaky seat, while the pleasant sounds of drunken laughter and off-tune country and glass clinking surround us.

Ardette leans into the booth, arm over the back of the seat, and watches me. He says nothing; just watches.

It’s stuffy in here.

I avert my eyes into the happy hour menu.

It’s really stuffy in here.

And for some reason, I can’t think of a single thing to say. Not. A. Thing. Even though there’s so much to say, so many things to ask, so much to find out about him – the past lives he’s had, his experiences in this current one – I can’t bring myself to say anything. I can’t find even one word.

I venture to look at him again, and he’s still watching me, mouth entertained.

My stomach does a twist and my eyes again flee – this time to the shoddy pool table.

Why is it so stuffy in here!?

“Tut. Tut,” comes a coo from across the table. “Suppose it says something to our chemistry that I am able to make you nervous after all of this time.”

So that’s it; I’m nervous. Leave it to him to discern it before me. But wait. I’m nervous? Out of the blue? I wasn’t nervous in the car. But I’m definitely nervous now. I can feel my pulse in my neck. For what? It’s not like we’re about to share a bed again. And we’ve spent a lot of time like this the last couple of days. In close proximity. Not to mention, shared so many . . .

I bite my lip.

Thinking about kissing him makes it worse. To heck with that!

I look at him again and lie, “I’m not nervous.” But my neck knows the truth. It flares in heat.

“That so?” says Ardette. Eyes agleam, he leans forward, rests his elbows on the table, and begins to rub a thumb along his chin. “Well, that’s good. I worried you might be all giddy –” His eyes almost appear to flash red – “Considering it’s our first date.”

First date. First date? First date?!

Those last two words slither into the air and circle my head in a wrapping motion, forcing it to begin thinking. Over-thinking, to be more specific.

Our first date. Our first date ever. Just the two of us. Alone. Where other people can see us and assume we’re together. My pulse accelerates in my neck, so much so that it blocks my throat from opening. If I’m not careful I just might pass out.

  1. No matter what, I can’t let that happen. Because it would be awful.

Because Ardette would only gloat over making me swoon.

I fumble for something smart to say, and just when I worry my tongue has somehow fallen out and is flopping around on the floor, my salvation comes in the form of the busty waitress returning with cola and not only one but two whiskies.

She sets them on the table and wobbles away.

I eye the whisky suspiciously. Why’d she bring two? Ardette gestures at the happy hour menu. “Two-for-ones. Didn’t you notice?” He slides the second drink at me. “Drink up.”

“But I can’t–”

“Oh, Aura. The rules of this world are senseless. And besides, your soul is much older than the required age. Drink. It’ll help you get over your nerves.”

Guess that’s true.

In the hopes that it’ll allow me the courage to look Ardette in the eye, I bring the glass to my mouth and tip it back, but cannot hide the foul taste from my tongue. My mouth wrinkles in repulsion.

Ardette sniggers. “Here–” He reaches for my cola and begins guzzling it down.

“Hey!”

And when it is half gone, he pours the whiskey into the remaining cola, and gives the glass a shake. “Try that,” he says.

Mixed, the second drink is much better than the first, although the aftertaste is still nasty. I resort to drinking down the whole thing before I can taste it. Glug. Glug. AH.

I set the glass onto the table and wipe my mouth with the back of my hand.

All of this Ardette watches with traces of alarm, and when I am through, he injects, “Well, well. That was an interesting choice, my pit.”

I understand what he means after the waitress returns with our food. Something about the way her nearsighted eyes squint seems much funnier this time around. Oh. So whiskey is strong as far as alcoholic drinks go. So I downed the beverage too quickly on a stomach filled only shallowly with kettle chips and peanut butter. So it’s already beginning to affect me.

Smiling evilly, Ardette orders another for himself, and consequently, one for me.

The burger is thick and feels like a rock falling into the liquid of my stomach. A satisfying plop comes at the end of each swallow. Mmm. Turning brave from the liquor, I catch Ardette’s eye and smile like I’m remembering a joke. But there is no joke. Just a slight jumbling of my mind. Ardette returns the smile with one more puckish and shakes his head.

“Feeling better, are we?” he asks.

The second round of whiskey comes, and this time I don’t feel the need to mix it with anything but burger. Bite. Sip. Bite. Sip. First date jitters cast aside, I’m finally able to converse normally.

“SO Ardetto.” I set down my glass and toss a fry leisurely into my mouth. “What’s your major, anyway?”

“Biomedical Engineering.”

“Whoa, really?”

I wait for him to reveal that it’s a joke. He doesn’t.

“Yes, really,” he says disgruntledly.

“You’re kind of a nerd, then?”

“I’m KIND of trying to make sure we have an enriched life this time around.” He picks a piece of lint from his collar and eyes it with disgust.

But going to college for something like that takes preparation. Even before he found me, he was already planning things like our future? Plotting out the way our life would be together? Losing no faith that this time would be our time at last?

A bit of those jitters return. I take another sip from the glass. “I can’t imagine you sitting through a lecture, no matter how I try,” I tell him.

“And I can’t imagine you, the great savior of the world, waiting around that hoarder warehouse without any direction nor thoughts of your future.”

Harsh. “I don’t know. I just always felt like I was waiting for something,” I tell him. “I don’t even know what. Just something.” But the moment the confession comes, I sheepishly understand. “Or someone,” I add. It is as much an admission to myself as it is to him.

It’s Ardette’s turn to preoccupy himself with his food.

By now, my second glass of whiskey is nearly gone. So is my burger. The sad sounds of that unfortunate soul’s country continue to resound in the air. It’s horrid. Isn’t there someone else who’ll step up and take a turn?

I finish off the whiskey and allow it to sink in. It begins to creep around my body, somewhere between my stomach and my ribs.

Fiddling with his unused fork, Ardette is saying something about the way he thought I’d become a social worker or something. I’m not paying attention. I decide it’s my turn to speak.

“Ardetto . . .” I purr across the table when the warmth of the liquor is at its peak.

Ardette again settles into the plastic cushion and tosses an arm across the back of the seat. “Yes, my pit? Feeling warm, are we?”

“Were you a frat boy?” I ask with a giggle. “Because it seems like you’d be a frat boy.”

At this, his countenance stiffens. “Ugh. Of course not. Don’t lump me in with those moronic types.”

I giggle at him some more. The waitress returns to take our plates. “Another?” She nods toward my empty glass.

“I don’t think–” Ardette starts.

But I beat him to it. “Do you have anything that doesn’t taste so awful?” I blurt.

Looking unenthused, the waitress proceeds to ramble off something with two types of juices in it.

“Perfect!”

“It isn’t part of two-for-ones,” she warns.

“That isn’t a problem,” Ardette says dryly. He wants no part of something so fruity. As the curvy woman leaves, he turns his attention on me. “Fixing to become sloshed, are you? Well, I can’t say I’m not interested to see you drunk, my pit – as I recall, I’ve been responsible for your intoxication once or twice before – but I hope for your sake you don’t become . . . unruly.”

But while he’s lecturing, I am transfixed on his mouth. Why is it always such a focal point? Magnetic, almost. Soft. Warm. I chew my own in remembrance of his taste. Ardette swallows. “And for my sake, I hope you do,” he says, staring at my moving lips. Then he shakes his head and stares off across the bar in an attempt to remain cool. “I’ve a feeling this night will be another test of my morality. Fantastic.”

The third drink is indeed much better tasting. Fizzy and sweet and with only traces of bitterness.

“Ardettoes . . .”

“Aurelia?”

I scoot into the wall. “Come sit by me?”

By his reaction, it is just the sort of request he was hoping for. The dragon in him looks at me through his lashes with dark pleasure. “Gladly.” Like a silent thief, he slips around the table and into my seat, and loses no time bringing an arm around my shoulder and pulling me into his side.

My heart gives a kick, but is quickly stifled by the warm dizziness skulking through me. It feels good to be right up next to him. I allow myself to melt against him. My cheek falls against his chest; my fingers rest upon his solid abdomen. His free hand he uses to pull at a curl of his hair. His other he grazes along the top of my arm, near the shoulder.

It sends a shiver through my neck.

He feeds off of the effect, whispering, “Can I have some of you?”

It is an inquiry I’ve heard from him before, in a lifetime long ago. My response is a kiss to his neck. And then another that is deeper than it ought to be in a public setting.

“My, my, cherry pit,” he says. “You should feel fortunate that I’m an honorable man.”

“Hah!” I giggle into his neck.

He pushes his mouth into my hair, which is still holding a small amount of dried mud, and breathes.

His grazing hand on my arm moves down the side of my ribs. My body gives another shiver. “We should leave, Aura,” Ardette speaks against my hair. “We really must.”

I nod. It’s all right if we leave. Because it’ll mean I’ll have survived our first date. Ardette flags the waitress for the bill, and while he’s settling things, I realize that the room has gone silent. The depressed cowboy has returned to the bar, taking seat next to the downtrodden man staring into his glass.

An impulse, fueled by the liquor in my veins, overcomes me.

“Excuse me, Ardettoes.” I prod my dragon out of the seat. He obeys only because he’s amused by my sudden stricken determination, and before he can stop me, I have moved halfway across the room to the place where the microphone waits.

. . .

“You weren’t lying. You really can’t sing at all, can you?”

We drive through town in search of an elusive bed and breakfast mentioned by the nearsighted waitress.

“Oh, it wasn’t that bad, was it?” I say, words admittedly a little slurred.

“About as bad as a cat taking a bath,” is Ardette’s reply.

“Mean!”

“Would you prefer dishonesty?”

“No . . .” In truth, I am already fully aware of what a terrible singer I am.

Ardette sniggers. “You up there belting out your heart for Frank’s most devoted patrons.” His lips purse. “At least you looked adorable doing it.”

Whatever. I’m warm, and happy, and sleepy. Too sleepy to care that I’ve just made an ‘adorable’ fool of myself.

Fifteen minutes later, we find the bed and breakfast. A large white house, Victorian style, sits amidst a night-blanketed yard complete with neat fence and rolling garden. “How quaint,” Ardette notes in a drone. Yes, he’s being sarcastic, but the word adequately describes the place perfectly. A quaint, quaint getaway at the edge of a small, small town.

The wheels make a crunching against the dirt of the lot as we turn into a space. I like that crunch. Cruuuunch.

Noises are much more pleasant than normal at the moment. Like my ears can feel them more than hear them. There’s something magical about the way their tonal quality hits me. And while I’m lost in sound-induced pleasantness, Ardette is shrewdly examining our surroundings through the windows, checking for any hiding fiends that may be waiting.

He notices the anomaly first.

Of course he does – because I’m not suited for shrewdness just now. Each time I move my head, whatever was previously in view grows a tail. The picture through my eyeholes repeatedly blurs until my mind catches up with my eyes.

“Is that a sword?” I hear the shrewd boy mutter. When I turn to look at him, he’s stretching his neck to see out the dash, squinting at a sign above us – the bed and breakfast’s sign. He squints a moment more before –

“You have got to be kidding me!”

– in a lightning move, he turns vicious.

Now, inexplicably fuming, he unbuckles himself and storms from the car. Confused, I fumble for the handle, but per usual, he reaches it first. “Tell me, if you’d be so kind, how we always manage to find ourselves in the least desirable of places!” he spits at me upon opening the door.

“What? Atto?” I’m too discombobulated to be much help.

He notices my perplexed expression. “Apologies, Aura. Don’t worry about it.” Head shaking angrily, he helps me from the car, then moves to the trunk to collect our bags.

I don’t get it. I don’t get it at all! I strain my eyes to see the sign, but it’s too dark, and my focus is too off. He said he’d seen a sword up there? A bed and breakfast with a sword on its sign?

“And for another thing,” he mutters vilely into the trunk, “how is it that a town of such puny population maintains a bed and breakfast specifically catering to Dungeons and Dragons?! It’s hardly a lucrative notion!”

Dungeons and Dragons? As in that roleplaying game?

“Personally, I like dragons,” I tell him earnestly because it is the first thought that comes to my mind.

“Hah. Hah. A comedian you’ve become, have you? Come on, drunken pit.” With that, Ardette grabs hold of my wrist and pulls me with him up the walk into the world’s first D&D B&B.

Inside is a bizarre sight indeed. I know so, even in my current state. In what I can only imagine is the collaboration between a senile woman and her whimsical grandson, the interior is filled with crocheted doilies, floral patterns, and pointless bric-a-bracs . . . as well as cases and cases of tiny monster figures, and bookshelves lined with rulebooks. At one time this was unquestionably just a regular bed and breakfast. I can tell. The rest of this fantasy stuff was added later – an afterthought resulting in pure mishmash.

But if I want to learn the reasoning behind such madness, I can’t. The person working is neither the senile woman nor her grandson, but a pretty girl with dark eyeliner. I determine – without much good reason – that she knows nothing; and so while Ardette goes to speak with her, I begin to browse the foyer.

Ceramic cat figurine . . . Sack full of polyhedral dice . . . Painting of a little girl in a sunhat . . . Box labeled ‘Dungeon Masters Only’ . . . Just-for-show tea set . . . Little plastic elf toy? To that, I scoff.

Everyone knows all elves have green hair.

“Aurelia, I’ve gotten us a room upstairs.” Ardette calls to fetch me just as I’m glaring at the yellow-haired elf. “Their roleplay, or what have you, starts at ten if you’d like to join.”

I wonder how much of a roleplay can be had, considering there were only two other cars in the lot, one of which probably belongs to the eye-lined girl.

To answer my unspoken question, Ardette continues, “Apparently many enthusiasts live around here. They don’t rent a room, per se, merely come for the game.”

“So that’s how they manage to stay in business.”

He nods. “Let’s get to our room before they begin arriving, shall we? I’ve a feeling they won’t be our kind of people.”

Realistically, though, they’re probably exactly our kind of people. Regardless, I haven’t the energy to argue with him now.

Fearing my own sluggishness, I try to step lightly up the stairs. This only results in overcompensation, and I end up prancing like a pompous horse. Ardette walks behind in case I become unsteady. Oh dear. I’m a hindrance.

The door to our room comes, but I pass it.

“This way, my pit.”

I backtrack.

Ardette pushes through the door and tosses our bags onto a wicker chair in the corner. “I made sure to get us a room with a bathroom en suite. You, stinky pit, may wash first.”

But not before taking in the room’s incredible ambiance. An oak dresser, topped with framed pictures of people from the 80s. A white hat placed on the wall like art. A pale comforter atop a four-poster bed. This bed, at least, looks much more inviting than the buggy, and again, appears NOT to rotate.

“This is a grandma’s room,” I say assuredly.

“Yes, yes. Now into the bathroom with you.”

Ardette scoops my things from the wicker chair and tosses them in after me. I let my clothes fall into a pile on the bathmat and then step into the shower, which has a bottom so cold that it forces me to stand on my tiptoes until the water has washed over the whole of it.

Mmm. Soapy. Bubbly. This shower is longer than my everyday showers. Mainly because I’m staring at the way the water falls over my hands as though it’s incredibly complex science. My fingers fumble. They’re lazy. Yet somehow, I manage to get every last speck of mud from my hair. I manage to haphazardly shave my legs. I manage to turn the faucet and dress in a towel. Just like I do at home, I walk from the bathroom, to the bedroom, with a towel wrapped around my middle, clamped to my body by my armpits.

Only . . .

This isn’t home.

And there’s a hungry dragon waiting in the other room.

When he sees me, he says nothing, though it looks as though he’d very much like to say more than nothing. Jaw tight, he stares at my exposed collarbone a handful of seconds, breathing only through his nose, before swallowing and shoving past me into the bathroom. Once there, he closes the door with more energy than necessary. I wouldn’t say it’s a full slam, though.

“GET DRESSED.” His words come through the door.

Followed, a minute later, by my bag, which I left lying on the tiled floor. Taking Ardette’s side, it comes flying out at me without restraint.

The second time Ardette closes the door, it’s a full slam.

Whoops.

Realizing my mistake, I hurry to dress, comb out my hair, and hop onto the lumpy bed. Lumpy or not, this one is much safer than the last. Far fewer kinky things happen in a B&B than in a pioneer’s fantasy suite, I assume. Then again, if this is a roleplay themed place . . .

I shake the idea away and listen to the hum of shower coming from underneath the bathroom door. Since when do showers sound so . . . inviting? My intoxicated mind begins to drift.

He’s in there. Completely naked. Separated by just a door. One door. I doubt it even has a lock.

Ardette. Ardetto. Ardettttoooesss.

At this very moment, water is falling over his chest and back and shoulders. His hair is wetly plastered to his head. He’s wiping the water from his eyes and rubbing at his face. Chin. Jaw. Neck. All trickled with sliding drops of wetness. The space between us is filled with magnetic particles that fight to pull me to him.

I bring a hand to my mouth and press into the plush of my bottom lip. I am not fearful like I was last night. That feeling is still back with freaky Frankie. Now, I feel only the desires previously clouded by my nerves and thoughts and anxieties.

I want him.

I want to feel his mouth against mine, tasting me as I taste him. I want him to throw my body onto the pale comforter. To force my hands and bite my lip. I want to wrap my legs around his waist and become tied up with him, tousled in the sheets.

I want to be lost in him. Consumed with nothing but him. Forever and ever and ever.

The water stops, and I hear him begin to dress. I find myself sitting on the edge of the bed, gripping the mattress.

Eventually, the door to the bathroom opens. The navy sweatpants are back, framed by a cloud of steam from the shower. At the sight of my dragon, my chest takes in an uneven breath that it forgets to release.

Ardette begins a smug strut into the room. “Why, my pit, what a surprise. I thought you’d be out cold.” He shifts to wryness. “That, or cowering in a corner, wrestling with your conflicted yearnings.”

There’s no confliction. Ardette’s chest is exposed. His stomach, too, down past the navel. Desire. I feel nothing but desire for him.

From here, everything happens fast. I feel as though I’m floating behind a body that has begun spontaneously acting on its own as it hops from the bed and rushes the unassuming twenty-something. Before I know it, my mouth is thrown on his; my fingers are ensnarled in his wet hair.

Ardette attempts to say something through the kiss, but gives up after the third word, and begins kissing me back. Passionately. Deeply. Slowly. In the middle of the grandma’s room, our mouths move together.

We were made for this.

As pictured, he lifts me from the ground effortlessly, but doesn’t toss me onto the bed; instead, he takes me to the edge of it, sets me down and continues to move his mouth with mine. With intention. I clutch at his back and wrap my legs around him and pull his body over mine. He obliges by crawling onto me.

I want him. Hundreds of years I’ve waited to have him. If I don’t have him now, I won’t be able to live.

His hands find the bottom edge of my cotton shirt and begin to slide it up my waist. This starts a sinful feeling low in my stomach. But it isn’t a bad thing. It’s indulgent. Gluttonous. Meanwhile, I, too, am pulling at the waistband of his pants, fighting with my sloppy fingers to be productive.

He pulls away from my hungry mouth long enough to pant and say, “All mine.” Then he moves to my neck and wets it with his mouth. I let out a cry, soft, as his hand finds my chest.

“I love you so much more than anything,” I say. But because of the alcohol lingering within me, the words are slow to come out. They’re too slow. Too lagging. And they ruin everything.

When he hears them, Ardette stops. He leaves his hand on my chest a moment longer, caressing me gently with his thumb, before sliding it away. He does not lift himself from my body.

“You, my pit, are drunk,” he says into the bed over my shoulder. “And I, my pit, need to leave.”

Leave? N . . . No! That’s the last thing I want!

“What are you . . .” I bumble. “Why?

“Because I love you.”

“Then stay.”

But in flash, Ardette is off of me. He finds a shirt, throws it on, and leaves out the door, while I remain grabbing at the place he just was – the place his warmth has yet to leave.

“Go to bed, Aura.”

That is the last thing I hear from him for the night, followed by the brisk stomping of a frustrated man’s footsteps.

I am angry and confused and tired. Mostly tired.

Before I know it, I’ve fallen asleep.

~

The night is spotted with dreams.

When they end, and when earliest dawn light is streaming through a checkered curtain over the room’s sole window, I wake. I’m curled into a ball, and I can feel no warmth coming from any other body in the bed.

That’s because there isn’t another body in the bed.

Ardette’s sleeping form is limp in a chair. Not the wicker one, but a plump paisley armchair in the opposite corner. His neck is cranked to the side unnaturally, and a wad of shirt is stuffed between his ear and shoulder as a makeshift pillow.

I blink at him. Why is he there?

I can’t begin sorting through the events of last night just yet. I have to go to the bathroom before anything else. I give my knees a final hug before deciding to rise, and find that my leg has a lovely long patch of hair running up the center. My slapdash shave job from last night left me with a mohawk. How ladylike.

I trot to the bathroom to relieve myself, in the meantime, giving a quick dry swipe up the center of my leg with the razor. I half-brush my teeth and do a quick run through my hair with the brush on the counter for good measure.

All right. Now halfway decent, I return into the room. Some part of my routine was loud enough to wake Ardette. Shoot. Even though I was so quiet! He sits in the chair, bags under his eyes and frowning adamantly at me.

“Well, I was up all night lost in a cursed forest,” he says.

The absurdity of it gets to me first.

“You were playing that game?”

“You’ll be pleased to know I am well on my way to becoming a level two Cleric.”

“Cleric?” I say. “Out of everything?”

“I was trying to maintain integrity while knowing you were up here, vulnerable and willing.”

I don’t entirely understand. The events from last night are still hazy.

Rising from the chair, Ardette goes on, “You, my cherry pit, are the cruelest type of woman.”

Sounds like a clue, but I don’t quite grasp it.

Peeling back the covers on his side of the bed, Ardette persists, “I waited until I thought it safe to return. Until I was certain the beast within you had calmed.”

“Beast . . .?” It comes waffling back to me. Ungainly and ruthless. OH! Last night I was unruly. Just as Ardette feared.

“Oh Creator!” I cup my mouth to contain the gasp that wishes to exit. “I was all over you.”

“Yes, you were. And I you. And it was one of the most enjoyable moments of my present life. Now then–” He hops into bed. “Allow me a few hours of gropeless sleep, would you?”

I stand frozen in the bathroom doorway.

“Now, now, Aurelia. You can’t tell me you aren’t still tired. Wouldn’t want our angel to have a hangover, would we? The forces would be so disappointed.”

At his invitation, I walk timidly across the cold floor and crawl into bed beside him. Because I’m suffering of guilt, I lie facing away from him. His breathing is already turning heavy. I hear it coming out of him deeply. He’s exhausted.

“Sorry about that,” I say quietly. “I should have controlled myself better.”

He doesn’t respond, so I add, “You know, you probably could have . . . I mean, I really love you so much, and I really wanted to . . .”

“I would never, like that,” he says, perturbed. “Not if you wouldn’t even remember it.” His tone drastically changes to something passionate. “I want you to remember every last movement.”

I am quiet.

Ardette’s breathing becomes even.

“Thanks,” I whisper, feeling even guiltier.

And then I roll over to face him.

His dark eyes are closed; his face tired. He doesn’t look innocent, as some boys may, resting like that. He doesn’t look like a puppy or any other young animal. He looks like a sleeping lion. A proud, dangerous dragon, always.

And he isn’t all the way asleep yet.

The dragon, reaches for me and pulls me to him like a gathering of blanket. I kiss his cheek to show my remorse, and together we sleep again.

Each time, it feels more natural than the last.

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The World Remains – Chpt. 1

WorldReamins

Chapter 1: Forbidden Fruit of Knowledge

Dear G–

‘The Ring of Perfection: It is a story I’ve heard a thousand times; one I’ve told hundreds. Something like clay planted beneath our city, it shifts with the shifting views of those who keep it. It evolves from year to year, from retelling to retelling, but never strays far from its root.

Do I belong?

I used to think so.

Until I found out what I really was.

That first day was a lonely day indeed . . .’

On an afternoon stained with rainwater, I walked to class.

Half-heartedly, begrudgingly, I walked to the concrete schoolhouse at the center of a field. On days more vibrant, the walk was enjoyable, but amidst the slop of messy, clinging blades, even the scent of rain provided little enjoyment.

The previous night had been a celebration, and I was still tired from that. I’d come out of slumber undercooked, and I was paying the price.

If the walk were any indication, the day would surely drag.

Damn.

There it was. A rigid building whose sign simply read: Schoolhouse.

‘It wouldn’t be until much later that I’d even come to realize how generic it was to call something ‘Schoolhouse,’ ‘Clinic,’ or ‘Market.’ Within our fairytale, we were children playing house. There was a lack of authenticity to anything and everything we were.

But all of that would change.

It was already beginning to change . . .’

There was no activity around Schoolhouse’s door. My classmates were already inside. It was my own fault. Because I’d woken up too early to go where I wasn’t supposed to, and stayed later than I should have.

But it was worth it!

So I sucked up whatever crankiness I had and pulled the door’s handle. I heard it immediately. That holy tale. That cherished story.

Cherished? Blegh.

Teacher Dole had been at it for a while, it seemed. His voice had already transitioned from dry to croaky.

“Consider this, students,” he was saying. “Never has there been an economic or scientific need for assimilation. Assimilation is simply a phenomenon that happened on its own. If you think about in that respect, it is something quite astonishi–”

Reeeek! The classroom door’s noisy spring betrayed me.

Shoot! I’d been hoping to duck in unnoticed.

“AHEM. Nice of you to join us, Student Ashlin,” said Dole.

Those gritted teeth were for me? How sweet. I gave the young teacher a tip of the head; then shuffled to the backside of the classroom and settled into my chair, chin down and eyes betraying. Dole shook his head because he knew where I’d been. He didn’t reprimand me, though. He just carried on,

“Earlier generations pushed away from the inevitable; but with scientific advancement, came an opening of minds. At last, people came to an understanding: Everyone was equal.”

I searched through my pack for a notebook. It was pointless, though. I already knew this lecture.

Everyone was equal.

I was equal to the three other students in my class.

I was equal to all ninety people remaining in the world.

“Integration,” said Teacher Dole. “It is a holy path. Can anyone tell me why?”

Cat-faced Lale raised her hand. No surprise there. When it came to the classroom, the little snob was always first to speak and last to leave. The good teacher loved that most about her.

“Yes, Student Lale?” he said, and smiled – in my humble opinion – much wider than he should have.

Lale returned the smile. “Integration is holy because with integration, perfection was attained,” she recited. “From one race we came and to one race we became. The circle completes with us.” She drew a circle with her finger to prove her point. “In that way, history made the Ring of Perfection.”

I yawned and peered through the window that was still dripping with remnants of storm. I’d just gotten there, and I was already bored. That was because I’d heard this tale daily. Humans had once been different. Distinguishable. A multi-ethnic painting of flesh across the face of the earth. But that had been way back when, in a time that no longer mattered.

Now things were . . .

“Very good, Student Lale,” said Teacher Dole, pulling at his collar. Her know-it-all butt-ins always made him hot. “Every generation evolves closer and closer into one true race. The perfect race. That means that, as one of the youngest remaining generations, you are the holiest of humanity.”

Lale nodded hungrily. I rolled my eyes. Holiest, shmoliest. It was no fun being the holiest of the remaining humans if it meant there were only a handful of us left.

The ‘Ring of Perfection’ was a bunch of crap.

The truth was the world was dying, we were the only ones left, and that holiness spiel was just a lie to make us feel better.

But Teacher Dole didn’t think so. “It is true,” he continued, “that convergence into one perfect race is the natural flow of evolution. Any that argue are foolish.”

Lale smiled to herself. I heaved a sigh and scribbled into my notebook. To an outsider, I looked obedient, like a student keeping good record of her studies. But an outsider would be fooled in the worst way. I wasn’t taking notes at all. I was writing a letter. To a secret person that was waiting for me on the outskirts of the commune. I’d meet him after class. Just as I always did. Just as I’d done before. I tried not to let my thoughts roam too freely, though, because knowing that he was waiting for me made the moist classroom even more unbearable.

“As you know, students, the last of you has passed their twelfth year. With Student Kinamo’s turning, the youngest of your class has reached adulthood. You are all aware of this, correct?” said Teacher Dole.

Aware? Of course we were aware! Not only had Kinamo been flaunting it for days, we’d been forced to attend a gaudy celebration complete with fireworks and sugared water the night before. My turning hadn’t been anything like that. It had been simple. But then, Kinamo was anything but simple. He was obnoxious. As flashy as the fireworks he’d demanded.

The boy in question was beaming because he was the center of attention again. Lale tried to catch my eye. She, too, was aware of Kinamo’s garish nature, and she wanted to exchange in some sort of camaraderie, I guess. But I was still angry with her for her actions the previous night – the actions that had exiled my secret person from the festivities – so I let her eyes linger and fall, uncaught. She hurried to find the eyes of the only other girl in our class: Bess. Bess would oblige. Bess was a girl hell-bent on people pleasing.

“Now then,” said the teacher. “With the turning of the last of you, the time has come for me to introduce you to . . .” He cleared his throat. “Something new.”

I looked up. That was different. Teacher Dole was ahead of schedule. Usually, the holiness pitch would’ve gone another ten minutes or more. Whatever. ‘New’ probably just meant an introduction to trigonometrics or something. I continued to scribble the secret note.

But there were others in the class that found the sermon at least a little interesting.

Lale had released Bess’ gaze, and was staring intently at Teacher Dole.

The wind outside sent a splatter of old raindrops against the window. Dole frowned at the interruption before picking up where he’d left off.

“Now, you’ve all been told time and again that the races, which were born as one, split during an era of separation before converging into one mixed race. You’ve also learned that we are of that remaining race. That we are the ‘Remnants’ of humanity.” Teacher Dole paused. “What I must tell you now is that you’ve been misled.”

“Misled?” mouthed Lale. The little snob was quickly losing the flush in her cheeks. Again she searched the room for a gaze of camaraderie. She wouldn’t find it in me, though. I was staring at Teacher Dole.

The way he was chewing his lip . . .

What the heck!?

“We will now watch a video,” he said. “And it will be,” – The stiff man stopped to think carefully about how he would deliver the next line – “hard to stomach, but I assure you, it is a video all of our people must watch at one point or another.”

Kinamo grabbed the front of his desk and used it to pull himself forward. “Truly?” he yelped. “Hard to stomach? What is it? Things that are dead?! Things that have rotted?!”

“Don’t look so excited, Student Kinamo.” Teacher Dole’s expression was foul, as it usually was when addressing the brassy boy.

Kinamo’s nose flared.

Dole walked to the wall and input something into the numbered pad there. “Upon watching this footage,” he said, “you shall become full adults.” He took another moment to fiddle with the command pad and then, “Students Lale, Bess, Kinamo, and Ashlin, it is with a lamenting heart that I now feed you the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Eat it and awaken!”

‘The forbidden fruit. A fruit forcibly eaten. A fruit that, once tasted, could never be forgotten.’

I hadn’t anticipated anything like this. I’d expected a brief retelling of the Ring of Perfection, followed by an hour of arithmetic, followed by tea. But today was special. Or better, it was cursed.

With wide eyes, I watched the projected image that appeared on the wall. The room let out a collective gasp.

The video! It was–!

I’d never seen anything like it, so it took a moment for me to react, and even when I did, I said nothing. I just shook and squinted and made a strange burping noise at the back of my throat.

“W-who?” stuttered Lale.

“Hell!” yelled Kinamo.

Bess, too, was muttering something. Hers, though, was more of a sob.

The others were the same. They couldn’t understand it either. For there, upon the wall, was the image of thousands and thousands of people. People that looked nothing like us. People that were different.

What was wrong with them?!

I was fair-skinned. Blonde. Blue-eyed. So, too, were the others in the class. The last ninety humans were that way. But the people on the video? That massive, massive group of people? They were . . . abnormal. Their hair was dark; their skin bronzed.

“Who?” Lale said again, now white as a ghoul. “Who are they?”

“What you see before you,” said Dole, gesturing to the wall, “is the TRUE integrated race of humanity.”

Not knowing what else to do, I stared at the screen and rubbed my temple. If these golden people were ‘true,’ then what were we? False?

Hah!

But never once had our teacher jested. Never once had he played. “This is true integrated race,” he said once more.

Kinamo was first to show his disquiet.

“True race?!” He jumped to his feet. “Impossible! There are so many! And WE are the only ones left! WE are the end of the circle! And . . . how did they get that way?! Look at their skin! And their hair!”

Dole held up his hands. “Breathe, students. Breathe.”

It was too much. So I did as he said. I took in a breath. And then another. And it felt good. Gradually, my racing heartbeat slowed to an acceptable pace. Gradually, Kinamo returned to his seat.

“What is this?” I held my chest and inhaled the air that felt thicker than normal.

“It is not your imagination,” said Dole. “The room has been infused with tranquilizer to help you cope. These reveals have been known to be . . . shocking.”

Shocking.

“Breathe, remain calm, and listen,” said Dole.

That sort of thing was getting easier the more breaths I took.

There was silence until, “I get it,” squeaked Bess. “This video is from the time of separation! This is from the twentieth century or something!”

Oh. That made sense. Good one, Bess! Of course it was ancient documentation of the time before true integration.

My thirteen-year-old worldview was restored!

But only until–

“This footage was taken last year.”

–Teacher Dole forcibly pushed more fruit into our mouths.

“W-what!?” cried Lale. Her head was wobbly upon her thin, lanky neck. She brought it into her hands before it could fall on its own.

Meanwhile, Kinamo landed a lazy fist on the table. He probably would have stood, had it not been for the infused air of the classroom.

“We are not the circle of assimilation’s end,” said Teacher Dole. “They are. They are evolution’s endpoint. Not us.”

He meant to tell us that the people in the video were the ultimate mixed race? But that made no sense! What about US?

It didn’t matter ‘about us,’ apparently.

“A very long time ago,” he said, “when the races first started to cross, some believed that the nations would grow to be more and more different, genetically; that only a small portion of the population would blend, and that humanity as a whole would evolve apart. However, that wasn’t the case.” He motioned to the video of strangers. “As technology advanced, and travel and integration became easier and easier, the opposite was true. Over centuries, the races converged. And it was an awesome thing. The pinnacle of equality. An erasing of hatred. The road to unity and understanding.”

I squeezed the edges of my desk. We knew all of this. We KNEW that humanity had converged and died until all that remained was us. We knew it. WE were the Remnants, so why was Teacher Dole still rambling? And why did I feel like falling over?

“The powers that be were fearful,” he went on. “Fearful of losing the roots of humanity. So from all corners of the world, small portions of the population were removed and put into small communities, segregated into family lines that would breed only with one another. Gray-eyed people here, deep-skinned people there, all manner of nationalities were plucked and sequestered away to their own communes.”

“Hold up!” Kinamo’s eyes bulged. “You do not mean–!”

Teacher Dole nodded. “All to preserve the ancient races. And what is more . . .” He paused and locked eyes with each of us before continuing: “You and I belong to one of those sects.”

The forbidden fruit made its way down my gullet and into my belly.

Kinamo tried to reject it: “But Teach–”

Dole cut him off. “For countless generations our ancestors have been secluded from the rest of the world as an act of preservation. In that sense we are NOT Remnants. To the rest of the world, we are Purités.”

Purités?!” yelped Kinamo.

Whatever that meant.

Dole nodded again. “I understand that this is painful and unfathomable, but it is time for you to grow up. Consider this the last step to your coming of age.”

“But there are so many of them! How can that many people exist?!” Kinamo was gaping at the tan-skinned mass. The tranquilizer was wearing from him, judging by his gusto.

“Ah, yes,” said Dole. “Another thing. As you can see, the population today is not ninety, and it is even more than the crowd in this video. It is, in fact, ten billion or so.”

“TEN BILL–” started Kinamo.

“SILENCE, STUDENT KINAMO!” Teacher Dole had had enough. He threw an open palm at the wall of projected bodies. “You must move past a childhood of fairytales and become aware of the real world! You’ve had your turn to be sheltered! Many of you will be married soon, so it is imperative that you understand! It is up to YOU to keep our race alive!”

“Why?” blubbed Lale. “If we aren’t holy, if we aren’t the circle’s end, then why?! What’s our purpose?!”

“Why?” repeated Dole. He tapped his chin. “Because we are a living archive of what once was. We are rare. We are special.”

But as I watched the masses of same-skinned, same-haired people mingling on the screen before me, I realized:

More than anything, we were caged.

‘I wasn’t a Remnant. I was a Purité. I was alone. But at the same time, not alone. I belonged, but I also didn’t belong. I was apart from humanity. But I was a part of something intimate. I was a paradox.

At that time, I didn’t know anything. And to be honest, I still don’t know much of anything. I didn’t know what to do, so I did then what I do now. I went to him. To the one person I could count on.’

“Olté!”

The fields at the back of the schoolhouse were wet. The air still misted, though the largest of the drops no longer fell. The shorts I wore went down only to my knees, so the lower parts of my legs were instantly wet from the blades of grass that sopped and clung.

Olté’s place was away from the rest of the village. That was fine. I had to get away. The walls of my worldview were crumbling, so I had to get far, far away. As far as I could. Miles of wilderness surrounded us. I could’ve kept running forever, it seemed. But I had to stop. I had to grab Olté on the way. I had to whisk him along.

There was his home. Brick. Stout. With a lovely bed of lilacs beneath the front window. Olté was one for green things. He always had been. But because he wasn’t allowed in the main market, his planting tendencies were fueled by seeds I’d smuggled for him or ones he’d gathered in the forest.

“Olté!”

I didn’t knock. I barged right through. Olté didn’t offer any sort of welcome.

“Criminy, Ashlin! I’m indecent!”

“Ack! You are!?” I prepared to turn away, but let my eyes linger because I was curious. Olté was clad in jeans and a garden-stained t-shirt. He wasn’t indecent at all!

“You are not,” I said. “And besides, it doesn’t matter. I have something incredible to tell you!”

“Calm down, spazoid!” He pointed to his closed right eye. “I AM indecent! So just hold on a sec and let me get my patch!”

“Oh.” That was what he’d meant. I fanned at him. “Go on. But hurry, would you?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said.

I continued to watch, hoping for a glimpse of the iris behind his right lid, but he turned his back to me, so I studied that instead. His hair matched mine. So did his skin. Maybe after seeing the shocking true state of the world, staring at his similarity would bring me comfort. But it didn’t. Yes, I was comforted, but it wasn’t the similarity of our features that did it. It was his presence. It was him. My secret person. My charming outcast.

“There.” He finished knotting the patch’s belt at the back of his head and turned to me, right eye now decently covered. “What’s the big deal, Ash?” He rubbed his forehead and scowled. “I COULD have been naked, you know.”

“Psh. Naked schmaked. That doesn’t matter at all,” I said.

“What do you mean it doesn’t matter?! Of course it matt–”

“Nope! Me seeing you naked would be a small shock in comparison to what Teacher Dole told us today!” I threw out my hands. “Just wait ‘til you hear!”

“Hold on, hold on. Have a seat.” He gestured to the only chair in the cottage. “Let me get my notebook.”

I blinked at him. Notebook? Oh, right! He thought I was going to show him arithmetic or something. Well, I couldn’t really blame him for that. It was our daily routine after all; me sneaking over to pass along what I’d learned at school. For years I’d been stealing knowledge from the classroom, and for years I’d been secretly giving it to the one person that wasn’t allowed in. To the boy that didn’t count.

“Olté.”

I said his name quietly because I needed to feel it on my lips – to reaffirm that he existed.

He heard it anyway. “Hm?” He was shuffling through the stand at the side of his bed.

Nothing. “It’s nothing.”

But it was something.

I was thinking about IT again – the tally.

There was a giant stone abacus beneath the steel clock in the courtyard behind city hall. Reachable only by the town’s tallest ladder, the mechanical thing was a tally to show how many of us remained. A symbol to show just how small and ‘sanctified’ we were. Cracked and wind-worn, the abacus counted ninety, just as it had said since the death of Grandpa Archer and the birth of Baby Archilade. We had an uncanny way of compensating for death with new life. Thus, the number never long fluctuated from ninety. Ninety remnants – or rather, ninety Purités – were all that remained within our commune.

At least, according to that stupid tally.

But even before the forbidden fruit, I’d known for some time now that the tally was a lie. The count, held so precious to us ‘sanctified’ Purités, was a deceit. Nothing more. Nothing less. There weren’t ninety of us remaining, at all.

There were ninety-ONE.

But number ninety-one didn’t exist. Not really. Olté was only three years my senior, so he should’ve been included in my generation. He should’ve been among us that were holy. But he wasn’t. He was taboo.

“What? Why aren’t you sitting?” asked the uncounted one, notebook prepped and ready in his hand.

“Oh.” I shook my head to clear my thoughts. “I was thinking about you.”

“Eh?” He raised a suggestive brow.

“Never mind.”

“You’re being weird today,” he said. “Then again, I guess you’re a little weird every day.”

I shook my head to shake it away. There were more important things right now: Namely, the reason I’d come sprinting over here in the first place! “Oh right!” I spurted. “Listen to this! So today in class we watched a video, and you’ll never BELIEVE what was . . .” But I stopped because he’d cracked a smile. “Uh, Olté?”

“So that’s what this is about?” he said quietly. “A video?” He laughed.

I stared at him dumbly and said, “Yeah, a video, but why are you grinning at me like that?”

“Finally.” He threw his head backward and let out another laugh, this one more animated than the first.

I gaped at him. “Finally?”

“Yup,” said Olté. “Finally.”

The way he was just standing there, all grinning like an idiot . . .

It set me off.

“WHAT THE HECK DO YOU MEAN FINALLY!?” I narrowed my eyes and waited for an answer, positive that none he could give would be sufficient enough to calm my coming wrath.

Olté didn’t fear the wrath at all. He tossed the notebook to the bed, came to me, and set a hand atop my head. “Ash,” he said, grinning. “I’ve been waiting for you to grow up for a long time. You know that?”

I pushed him away. “What? You don’t mean to tell me . . .”

He nodded.

“You KNEW? About the video? About all of those golden people?”

He nodded again.

“Unbelievable!” After everything I’d shared with him! After all of the rules I’d broken for him! After–

“Cool it, Ashy,” he said. He placed the hand I’d refused onto my shoulder and squeezed. “Didn’t you guys go over the ‘Melojim’ dealie?”

“Meloheeem?” That sounded vaguely familiar. Yes, Teacher Dole had said something about that at one point today, but I couldn’t exactly remember . . .

“Let me guess,” said Olté. “You were off in your own little world after seeing that video.” He tipped his head in consideration. “No, on second thought, you were probably panicking, right?”

True story.

Not that I’d admit it.

“Let me see your notes from today,” he said with an amused sigh.

“What? No!”

He folded his arms. “Why not?”

Because I was pretty sure there was at least one doodle of him in there.

He cracked another smile. “Fine. If you won’t show me, at least flip through there yourself. Even when you space out in class, your notes are always spot on, right? So check there. Look for something called the Melojim.”

I narrowed my eyes at him suspiciously.

“Just look.”

“Grrr. Fine. But I’m still mad at you,” I said.

“I know. I know.”

I was mad. I was very, very mad.

Until I wasn’t. It didn’t take long for me to locate the term he was talking about. He was right. I frequently zoned out, yet my notes were always perfect. Guess my brain was good at autopilot.

I read aloud the first bullet under the word ‘Melojim’:

“If any from the non-turned generations learn the true nature of the Purités, bla bla bla, they shall be put to death at public execution for acts of treason against the . . . WHAT?!”

Olté nodded.

“That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?” I scanned the paper again, just to be sure.

Olté shrugged. “Not when you consider how important it is for them to maintain the structure of things. The state of your people is so fragile. The whole thing could so easily break . . .” He stared absently, like he very much would have liked to be the catalyst for something like that.

“OUR people, Olté. They’re yours too, you know.”

He glowered.

“Anyways, if it’s such a secret, how do you even know about it?” I asked.

“They told me. When I turned twelve. Don’t know why they didn’t do it sooner. I mean, they could’ve killed me for treason if they had.”

I hated when he talked that way. “Shut up.”

He grinned.

Stupid Olté. He wasn’t making things better. “Gah!” I said. “Even with that Melo-schmello thingy, you still could have told me! It’s not like they’d ever find out, right?”

“NO. WAY. You’d have let it slip for sure. AND gotten yourself killed. Like I’d risk that.” He shook his head. “I’m just glad you came here right away today. It would be so like you to do something irrational.”

“Irrational?”

“You know, like run to the children and blurt out everything. Then it would be ‘goodbye’ to the holiest of holy babes.” He drew his thumb along his throat. “Croak.”

I let out a crabby grumble. He wasn’t giving me much credit. After all, I’d kept our meetings secret for how long? Well . . . ‘secret’ was sort of an exaggeration. The two other people in the commune that knew just pretended not to notice because it made them uncomfortable.

I chewed my lip. He was studying me.

“So . . . you aren’t really mad at me, are you?” he said.

“Hmph!” I turned up my nose. I felt like being bratty. Mainly because I’d feel stupid and self-conscious otherwise.

“Come on, Ash,” coaxed Olté. “You know you’re in the wrong here.”

It was true. He’d done the right thing. But I wouldn’t let him know that.

“Fine,” I said, sulking. “Even though you’re awful, I’ll forgive you . . . IF you let me see it.”

“It?”

“You know.” I pointed.

“Forget it!” He brought both hands to his eyepatch.

But those were my terms. His right eye – I wanted to see it more than anything. That was the reason for everything – his exile; why he wasn’t counted as one of us; the reason we had to sneak our friendship.

“Then I’m leaving and you won’t be seeing me again for at least a week!” I said.

“Okay,” he said, saluting. “See ya!”

I snarled and marched to the door. He said nothing until I put a hand on the knob. At that point, he let out a grumble. “Wait.”

I smiled to myself and turned slowly back to him. “Yes?”

He frowned.

“YES?” I said again.

“Fine.”

I blinked. It had worked? Really? My face lit up. Awesome! I’d only gotten to see his forbidden eye once before, and that had been an accident. Another of my intrusive bargings.

“Wonderful,” I said, more than pleased with myself.

Olté groaned. “Why, Ash? Why that? It’s gross.”

“It’s NOT gross. It’s . . .”

But, sighing, he didn’t wait for me to find a word for the patched thing. He walked to the edge of his bed, took a seat, and patted the space next to him. I vehemently plopped down.

“Easy, spazoid!”

“I can’t help it.”

“You get worked up about the strangest things.”

He was stalling. I urged him along.

“WELL?”

“Fine. Fine,” he said. And, slower than I’d have liked, he brought his hands to the back of his head and began to undo the tie. A moment later, the patch fell onto his lap, but his right eye remained closed.

“Open it,” I ordered.

He rolled his left eye, but he was only half-convincing. He was . . . nervous? That was stupid. He was stupid.

“Tch. It’s not like I’ll think less of you or anything,” I said.

“I know. But anyone else would. You’re broken.”

It hurt a little, though I tried not to let it show. “Or maybe the rest of them are broken,” I said. “Maybe we’re the only two that aren’t.”

“Heh.” He liked that. And, cautiously, he allowed his lid to rise.

I gasped.

It wasn’t a bad gasp, but Olté flinched anyway, so I brought my hand to his cheek and pulled his face closer so that I could take in all the secrets of his right eye. I bored mine deeply into his and reached for the forbidden tones hidden there. His left eye was blue. Like mine. Like everyone’s. But his right eye? His right eye was–

“Olté! It’s–!”

“An abomination,” he mumbled. He dropped it to the safety of the floor.

“No!” I seized his other cheek so that he’d look at me. The taboo iris was green. Bright green and flecked with pieces of amber. “No,” I said again. I shook my head. “It isn’t anything like that, Olté. It’s . . . so beautiful.”

The word hit him like energy and made both eyes widen. At that time, I didn’t understand why. I just continued to study the intricacy of his right eye more deeply than ever. But he was staring at me for a different reason.

“Ash?” He gulped.

“Hm?”

“Hurry and grow up a little bit more, would you?” he whispered.

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Seconds: The Shared Soul Chronicles – Chpt. 1

Prologue

Running faster wouldn’t help her. Attempting to fight it off wouldn’t either. Her best bet was to find a place to hide. Amidst the dirt-stained dumpsters and filthy sewage grates, she’d find shelter. But the demon had returned. It was at the back of her neck, and it wasn’t wasting time on subtleties. It was ready to devour her. But perhaps that was what she deserved. Perhaps that was her fate. For the things she’d done, the demon had found her; and because of her inability to remain rooted to the ground below, she had no choice but to let it.

“I’m sorry, Ryon. I’m sorry that I held too tightly to her. I’m sorry that I wouldn’t let you rest.”

Those words escaped the young-lipped girl as the shadowed creature finally took hold of the soft groove of flesh.

Chapter 1: The Mech Princess

Stifling. Or something.

That was the way the young girl felt. From the very first day, she’d felt that way.

They called her Tide.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

The Sunday after the king’s daughter turned eighteen, a heavy fog invaded her kingdom.

“Stifling.”

It wasn’t the first time a wave of whiteness had come to the city. Actually, it was the complete opposite. The king’s daughter had woken to the frost-like illusions of fog-masked windows many times before. It was something she was used to. It was something she welcomed, for each encounter brought the same sensation: wistfulness at seeing a world buried in haze.

“Or something.”

That was the way it was for the young girl. More often than not, the mornings spent in her skyscraping palace were accompanied by the rolling steam-clouds of progress, and that was just fine by her. For the girl named Tide, it was all just as well –

Until the third Sunday of her turning month.

That morning there was something different about the fog. Something unfamiliar. Something dark. A certain foreignness crowded the sky.

The king’s daughter closed her eyes.

It was important that she find a name for it. A word to describe the foreign thing’s nature. If she could just think of something simple and clear to call the change, it would help make the fog seem less ominous.

But it wasn’t that easy. No matter how hard she tried, ‘simple and clear’ wouldn’t come to her. Ambiguities were all she could reach.

An anonymous aura seasoned with despair? Maybe. Maybe that was close.

It wasn’t perfect, but it would have to do.

What the young girl didn’t know – what she couldn’t have known – was that the ‘aura’ wasn’t an aura at all. It was a presence, a slithering presence that had already slipped into her veins. There it would stay, undetected, until the end.

“Stifling,” muttered the mouth that was Tide’s. “Or something.”

Either way, she finished wringing out her hair with olive eyes transfixed on the window.

When the longest strands were at least partially dry, the girl named Tide threw on a pink stocking cap and trotted to the kitchen. Upon the counter sat a note. Tucking the last of her escaping bangs into the bottom of her cap, she read the note and sighed.

“Of course you have an early morning, Dad. Is it even necessary to leave these notes anymore?”

But Tide had long come to realize that those notes weren’t for her sake. They were for his. Her father’s. Nero Yondo, so-called ‘King’ of the mechanized Midwest.

“Back by dusk?” Tide crumpled the note. “That’s vague enough. Thanks, Dad.”

The king was a good father, but a present father he was not. Morning meetings aside, much of Nero’s time had been occupied since the federal government’s buyout of his latest invention. It was an inevitable takeover that had ensued as soon as the drill-like contraption’s true usefulness had come to light, turning Nero from inventor to businessman in a matter of weeks. Absence was his call sign. Nero knew this, and the notes were his penance.

Tide left her apartment with a piece of toast in her mouth and a yellow envelope under her arm. The city was sleepy. The people were dreary. All of them were weighed upon, at least in part, by the fog.

“Or something?” the young mouth said again.

Tide fanned at the air around her face. It didn’t help. The fog hurried to fill the space left behind.

Through the whiteness it was impossible to tell that the city beyond the girl’s high-towered window was a world of cogs and cranks and turn-gears. A world of rust-coated metal walls and dirty blackrock pavement. A patchwork of old metals no longer otherwise necessary since the dawning of the age of inventors and the discovery of Bororore – the miracle fuelstone – some hundred years earlier.

That ore was responsible for the shimmering effect of the street’s tallest buildings.

Had the fog surrendered for but a moment, a person visiting the city might have been welcomed by the sign etched in copper: St. Laran: Mechanical Capital of the Midwest; and although the sign and self-named capital were hidden on that Sunday, the grinding, clanking, steaming sounds that accompanied the city’s many contraptions continued to clamor, unstifled and uncontained.

Tide’s mouth moved again: “Something.”

“Something?” responded a voice that wasn’t hers.

It wasn’t hers, but she knew it well. She’d heard it a thousand times or more.

“Y?” said Tide. “Is that you?”

The king’s daughter was answered by a shrouded snigger.

Wynona, Tide’s neighbor, had – at a young age – discarded the rest of her name, settling instead on a simplified ‘Y’. That was something the boyish girl’s mother had long disapproved of, stating that no respectable person went by a one-lettered name, to which Y often responded that many a respectable gang leader had. Comments like those turned Y’s mother pale, even if becoming a gang leader was far from Y’s nature.

“Well, it could be me,” said the person who was indeed Y. “Or it could be some creep.”

“Hmmm.” Tide’s eyes focused on the squat orange-haired girl through the fog. “That sounds about right. You are the stalker type, after all.”

“Rude!” said Y. “Why? Just because I followed that professor around? That was only for like a week, you know. Very charming of you to bring up the mortifying moments of my past, Tide Yondo. What better way to start the day than to be reminded of my greatest hits? Thanks for that.”

Y smiled, but it was through gritted teeth, for she was an imperfect, prideful being who often felt the sting of offense at even the most playful of comments. Mornings were the worst. They meant that lunch, the force capable of calming Y’s touchy nature, was still a long ways off. Y would be cranky until then.

Tide knew that. She knew it better than most. Still, for no reason at all, she continued to press the cantankerous girl:

“You’ve always been like that,” said Tide. “I wonder why.”

Excuse me? Like what? What are you getting at?”

“Uh . . .” But Tide didn’t know what to say; the comment had escaped her lips absentmindedly, and in the absence of a better answer, she offered a shrug that was hollow and uncommitted. It concerned Y enough to look past her rudeness.

“Dude,” said Y, poking the spacy girl’s arm. “What’s wrong with you today? You’re acting funny.”

Tide took a moment and then, “It’s the weather . . . or something.”

“Again with the ‘somethings’? You mean the fogginess?”

Tide nodded. “The fogginess, or . . .?”

“Or something, right?”

“Right,” said Tide.

“Weirdo.”

Feeling very much like a weirdo, the king’s daughter shook away the lingering feelings of haze and realized that she and Y had been walking through the market district near her home. They were on course for nothing, as far as Tide knew, but Y’s footsteps were determined. Much more determined, at least, than Tide’s lagging own.

“Where are we going, again?” asked Tide.

“Huh?” said Y. “Seriously?” She eyed her friend with concern. “You really ARE off today, aren’t you? Thus, I’ll have to answer your question with a question of my own! Why, dearest Tide, are you drifting along beside me with that envelope?”

“Envel–?”

But as soon as Tide’s eyes found the yellow envelope stowed beneath her arm, she remembered just what she and Y had agreed to the night before. The reason Y had been waiting outside of her palace. The reason Tide’s breakfast had consisted of a single piece of hurriedly prepared toast.

Tide smacked herself on the forehead. “Omigod!”

“Idiot.” But Y shrugged it off. She wasn’t the sort of person to question awkward behavior – or anything for that matter – more than necessary. Essentially, she didn’t pry. Maybe she was that good of a companion; maybe she just didn’t care. Either way, she said only,

“Are you prepared?”

Tide was prepared. She was very prepared, but she didn’t feel like it.

“N–”

“Ah, ah, ah!” Y cut her off. “Before you answer that way, I want you to think about it VERY carefully. Think about the hours and hours of precious could-have-been-lounging time spent climbing at the outskirts. Think about the weeks of allowance spent on strategy books. Think about the sheer awesomeness of the contents of that envelope. Now, I ask you again. Are you prepared, Tide Yondo?”

With that, Tide couldn’t keep from grinning. The fog wanted to turn her eyes downcast, but all of Y’s words had been truth. She understood; she let them in; and when she answered, – “Hell yes!” – she was sincere.

“Aha! See? That’s more like it!” Y said. Under her breath she added, “You’d better be.”

Tide frowned. “What was that?”

But instead of elaborating, Y stopped abruptly next to a bedraggled recyclables merchant who happened to be peddling in an unauthorized patch between two much more legitimate-looking carts.

“Uh, okaaaay?” Tide studied the shoddy salesman warily. “Fun pit stop. Need to buy a cog, or–?”

“Look!” blurted Y. She pointed with her pinky to the space beyond the cart.

Tide followed the gesture. She didn’t see any cause for alarm, though. “What? Why are you so excited all of a sudden?”

“That guy!” sang Y. “That guy right there!”

Tide found him. She found the guy, but still no cause for alarm. “What about him?”

“He’s–! He’s–!” continued Y breathlessly.

“What? He’s what?” Tide was getting anxious. She hurried to look for any infirmities the boy might have. “What’s wrong with him!?”

“He’s, you know!” said Y. “He’s really cute!”

Tide dropped her jaw. And then she groaned. The boy was cute, but that was beside the point. “Seriously, Y? You had me thinking it was some escaped convict or something! You’re so high strung tod–”

“Oh! Wait! Look away!” said Y.

“Eh?!” Tide squinted. “What now?”

“False alarm.” Y lowered her voice. “It’s one of those. It’s a ‘Second’.”

The envelope was still snuggly upon Tide’s person; the fog was thinning; and in the aftermath of Y’s proclamation, there was unsettled silence.

While the disappointed girl’s eyes darted away from the ‘false alarm’, Tide’s stayed, disobediently transfixed on the cute boy who was a Second. Now that she looked closer, she realized that Y was right. He was one of them. There was no mistaking it. His neck, just below his ear, was branded by a scarlet tattoo. A swirled, nonsense design carried by all of them. All of those who weren’t real. All of those who’d never been born. Never been created. Never been named.

“They creep me out,” said Y. She busied herself with the unauthorized merchant’s wares.

But the boy didn’t creep Tide out. He made her curious. Protected in her apartment tower, she hadn’t had as much interaction with those beings as the rest of her peers had. The sight of the boy didn’t make her uneasy. It sucked her in. Pulled her eyes away from the fog. Kept her feet from moving forward. Without that tattoo, he would have seemed normal. He would have been like any other resident of St. Laran. He would have been . . .

“He’s just a boy,” Tide said without really meaning to.

Y was silent for a moment before letting out a grunt that was wholly unflattering. “Just a boy!?” she cried. “Are you crazy!? IT isn’t a boy! IT isn’t anything like a boy!”

“Calm down. What I meant is he LOOKS like a real–”

“NO, Tide. IT isn’t a ‘he’. IT is an unnatural thing spawned from some sorry sucker’s depression. IT shouldn’t be outside on its own. IT shouldn’t even exist. And IT definitely shouldn’t be thought of as a person. So don’t. It’s weird.”

In too little time, Y was worked up – more worked up than she needed to be – but even so, Tide wasn’t listening. She was still looking at the Second, who was sitting alone against a poster-clad wall, chin in his hand and knees to his chest. The corners of his mouth were down, as though he were making no attempt at feigning happiness or covering up his despondent state of being.

Depressing maybe, but not creepy.

Tide was sheltered. She was sheltered to an extreme, but like her father, she’d been born with a hidden conviction. She didn’t mind appearing naïve. Not around Y, at least. Confidence and inquiry were the keys to success, or so Nero often said.

“What I don’t get,” said Tide, ignoring Y’s outburst and continuing to size up the boy, “is where their skin and everything comes from. I mean, Seconds are known as ‘ones who aren’t born’, but obviously they’re born, right? They’ve got to be. At least in some sense. Right, Y?”

“Born?” Y was already calm again. She turned over a bracelet made from an old skeleton key. “Mmm, not quite. They just use the chemicals in the air to materialize themselves.”

“The chemicals?”

“Particles. Pollutants. What have you. Each of them is a materialization of a real person’s negative emotions. Despair and regret bottled in a suit of flesh. Gross, right? But here’s the thing I find MOST creepy. They look completely different from the people to whom their emotions belong. It’s like they design their physical images themselves. Don’t you think it’s at least a little disturbing?”

Tide thought about it. “No, but it is crazy. Like an extreme case of split personality disorder.”

“More than crazy,” agreed Y. She shuddered. “I’d better not ever spawn one of those things. I’d better not ever become a ‘Main’. If I do, kill us both.”

Tide ignored the morbid comment. She wasn’t in the mood. “So, let me get this straight,” she said dully. “You hate Seconds, yet you know all about them? That seems a little suspicious.”

The gears merchant, who’d been picking at something on his arm, let out a crusty laugh.

That’s because,” said Y, baring her teeth. “I had to take a class on them last quarter for my social credit. Not like it was my choice.” She glared at the eavesdropping merchant. Then she turned to Tide. “Besides, I don’t really know that much more than your average commoner. It’s just that YOU know much less.” It was payback time. Y turned sly. “You know, being a ‘princess’ and all.”

There it was.

Tide stiffened.

Y sniggered.

The gears merchant picked.

Tide let out a groan. She’d expected it to come up at some point, but in lieu of that Sunday’s other preoccupations, she’d been hoping it would somehow slip Y’s mind. “Do me a favor and NEVER call me that again, would you?” she said

Tide knew exactly what Y was referring to. Last week’s paper. The Laran’s Post. They’d had the nerve to mention her. And they’d done it with such swag, too. Nero Yondo’s Daughter: Mechanical Princess Tide. Tide cringed. It was mortifying. It was so, so mortifying! And to think her father’s lawyer had actually congratulated her on the atrocity.

“It’s just so dumb!” growled Tide. “Dad makes one stupid invention, and suddenly I’m viewed as an heiress by everyone in St. Laran. Like: Surprise, I got you this company.” She made an ugly frown. “And now there’s no escaping it.”

Y’s slyness was at full force. “Well, you are an heiress. It only makes sense that you’d be viewed that way.”

“Not that I’ve agreed to anything like that! I don’t WANT to take over his company. And why he’d even want me to is beyond me. I don’t know anything about Mekanix or Bororore or business or–”

“Hmph.” Y set the bracelet down with a clank, and sighed. “Want to know what I think? I think that YOU should be grateful for having something like that just handed to you, spoiled princess. The rest of us have to grovel and scratch our ways to the top.”

The fog had dissipated, and the yellow envelope was starting to slip out from under Tide’s arm, but Tide didn’t notice. She’d been fuming. Embarrassed. Frustrated. And in the midst of those emotions, her eyes had returned to the sad boy. The boy marked by red.

She allowed herself to be distracted by the oddity that was his presence.

“Scratch your way to the top of what, Y?” she said half-heartedly. “You’re going into landscape artistry. It’s not exactly a cutthroat field.”

“Landscape sculpture! It’s totally different!”

“Right,” murmured Tide. “I always forget how much you hate painting. How is playing with clay better, again?”

Y’s expression turned dry. “How can you not know this? Working with your hands to mold something is a lot more creative than simply picking up a brush and wibbling it around on a piece of paper. I mean, even my four-year-old cousin can–”

But Tide still wasn’t paying attention. Y noticed, and she let out a groan.

“Tide! Honestly, pull your eyeballs away. What the hell is wrong with you?”

Tide didn’t know the answer to that. There was no fog to muddle her up. It was all her. She was letting herself be muddled.

“He looks content,” mumbled Tide. “Even though he’s sad, somehow it’s like he enjoys being sad. Does that make sense?”

“Ish! I told you, IT’S CREEPY. Something made from the unsteady emotions of a person? Something that makes flesh from smog in the air? They’re probably just accumulations of the dead skin cells that fall off our scalps in the middle of the night.”

The yellow envelope fell to the ground, and it broke Tide’s Second-induced spell. She wrinkled her nose. “Eew. Bad image, Y.”

“What? It’s true . . . probably.”

“My, my. With so much knowledge stored inside your skull, it’s a wonder your grades aren’t better. Not that I can really blame your professors for giving you low marks once they realize you you’ve been following them around in your free time.”

It was still before lunchtime. Tide’s playful backlash was a little too sarcastic for Y’s fragile pride.

“Geh! C-come on, already,” said Y, scowling. “Forget about your gawking. We’re going to be late.”

It was at that moment that the young princess realized that they were, indeed, in danger of being late. She dropped to her knees and scrambled to retrieve the envelope that had floated just out of reach. Its contents remained intact.

Y shot the key bracelet another thoughtful look of appraisal, the recyclables merchant shot Y a disapproving frown at her ultimate dismissal of his wares, and Tide shot one last inquisitive glance at the boy who was a Second.

The Second took no notice of any of these things. He closed his eyes and let himself be dead to the world.

Not creepy. Tide was certain of that, even if she wasn’t certain of much else.

The two friends hurried to make up for lost time. They left the Second and merchant the way they’d been. They left them both and continued on their journey. Tide walked with a determination equal to Y’s as together they carried on through the market district.

But there was something wrong with Tide now. Wrong, Y might’ve said, though Tide herself would have viewed it the anomaly as ‘different’ had she even been aware of the sensation. Different. Changed. Awakened. The fog had left its mark on her.

Now as they traversed the dingy, metaled city, Tide’s eyes were locked on one color: RED. Blood red. That color continually found the eyes that were Tide’s – each time upon a neck that had never been born. The stained red of Seconds caught her eye. Whereas she’d found them unnoticeable on all days preceding that Sunday, she now spotted them with vigor. Her eyes snapped from Second to Second, and she realized for the first time that there were many among them.

Seconds were everywhere.

“Yeah, there are lots of them now, aren’t there?” Y read her thoughts.

“Wha–? Er– yeah. There are. When did that happen?”

“Dude, you are so sheltered.”

Y left it at that. Caring not, or perhaps being a good friend, Y said nothing more on the subject.

Without speaking, they carried on. They knew the path well. They’d traveled it repeatedly on their training trips out of the city. Tide held the yellow envelope tightly – fearing another hapless drop – until, in the space somewhere between a secondhand clothing store and an imported organics shop, they reached their destination.

“Well,” said Y. “We’re here.”

They were. Before them stood the Weighted Dome. A colossal architectural beast out of place in St. Laran. A sphere constructed solely from metals of old. The only one of its kind. It was where dirt-nosed scrap climbers turned in their marks, where reckless adolescents found their partners, and where people of any social standing could stand to make a few bucks. In short, it was a place Nero’s lawyer had forbidden the young princess from ever entering.

But it didn’t matter because Tide wasn’t just an heiress. On that Sunday, she was a climber; and as a climber, she’d cast aside her father’s order in order to gain her rights as huntress.

Scrap huntress Tide would soon be born.

Somewhere, in a different part of the city, a boy with blue-ish hair was chewing the end of his glasses. For some reason, he felt strange. Stranger than normal, anyway. The fog surrounding the princess hadn’t reached him, yet he could sense a shift in things. The scales, which had remained quiet for the last two years, were starting to tip.

The boy frowned.

In his lap sat a box made from the remnants of old license plates. With a lifeless hand, he patted it. The tiny lock that held the box shut was securely in place; the key hidden somewhere the box wouldn’t be able to find on its own.

For now, it was safe.

Soon, though, the time would come when the box would need to be opened. The boy’s soul was wearing thin. The boy knew it. And so did a dark, lurking thing that was watching him. The boy felt its breath on his neck.

He shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

The dark presence laughed.

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The Death and Romancing of Marley Craw – Chpt. 1

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Chapter 1: Not Dead

All of this – this whole entire thing – is my cousin’s fault.

Blame him if you need someone to blame.

If that pompous little pimple hadn’t forgotten to pick me up from work, I wouldn’t have ended up down this torn-up, run-down, smells-like-dirty-foot alley in the first place.

Forgetful little scab.

Little.

Little is relative, really. Milo’s actually two years older than me. The only nineteen-year-old still waiting for a growth spurt. A spurt, I’m guessing, that’ll never come. Scrawny limbs to match a scrawny brain, too many nights cooped up in the basement playing DotA, not enough nutrients – if you ask me, excessive hermitude’s to blame.

Blame.

There’s that word again.

Blame. Blame. Fault.

Maybe this isn’t Milo’s fault, after all . . .

Okay, if it isn’t Milo’s fault, then the fault definitely falls on Howard – Howie ‘The Mix’ O’Neil – who wouldn’t let me leave work until I’d listened to his most recent masterpiece. The whole. Damn. Thing. Now there’s a good chunk of time I’ll never get back.

Speaking of which, masterpiece is relative, too. Layering one pop song on top of another isn’t any great feat when all the songs already sound the same.

Growl and hiss. If Howard hadn’t kept me, there’s no telling how things might’ve ended up differently.

There’s no telling.

Okay, so maybe this wasn’t Howard’s fault, either.

I’m a reasonable girl. Downright down-to-earth if you ask me. The only person I can really blame this on is myself. At any point in my seventeen years of existence I could have taken a self-defense class or two. I could have beefed up my arms a bit. Instead, I’m just wimpy old me, without the pipes to defend myself.

Not that I didn’t try.

I kicked at him, sure. Kicked him right in his downtown, too. It didn’t do much good, though. Before I knew what was happening, that creep was on top of me, and then . . .

And then what?

There was screaming. My screaming. But it was muffled by some nasty-tasting piece of fabric. A sock or a glove or a wad of towel. And then . . .

Well, I don’t really want to think about that.

And now, here I am, lying behind the old movie theater, with my arms tied over my head and a trickle of red leaking from my side.

Gross.

One thing is certain: I’m not dead.

Well, not yet anyway.

But the trickle of red is quickly starting to pool and my head feels light – like that one time I locked my knees in marching band. That time, I went down like a zebra on the Sahara. . . . Wait, do zebras live in the Sahara, even? Meh. Geography isn’t really my strong point.

Or would that be zoology?

Above me, the sun hides behind a foggy sky. I can still see its shape, but it’s smogged over by cloud. People don’t die this way. Not in the daytime anyway. This whole thing would be much more predictable if it were the dead of night. Yeah, I can see it now: Defenseless girl walks along a shady alley with nothing but a flickering streetlight overhead. Briskly, she scurries, stealing glances over her shoulder, when–

BABAM! A rapist strikes.

Rapist.

Let’s change the subject, shall we?

Sigh. I wonder what’s going to happen to me now. I can’t foresee anyone walking by, and when I try to move, the trickle of red turns into a stream. So what, I’m just supposed to lie here and wait for THE END? Well, that’s just great! I’ve got things to do. I can’t be bothered with something like dying. Carmen and I were supposed to go to Robbie’s cabin this weekend, and then I was FINALLY going to let Noah Carmichael – who’s a little weird and has this unhealthy obsession with all things Russian but all-in-all’s pretty cute, I guess – kiss me!

Guess THAT won’t be happening.

Stupid Milo. Stupid Howard. Stupid rapist. 

Rapist.

Can’t say I’m fond of the word. But what else would you call him? Criminal? Jerkwad? Murderer would work too, I guess. And pervert.

Oooh! Got it! Pedophile. I won’t be eighteen till next month, after all.

Groan. None of those words make it any better. This is by far the worst, worst, worst way to go. Whoever finds me is in for a treat. Hello world, take a look at my . . . well, all of me.

Everything’s getting fuzzier. Colder. Distanter. Distanter? More distant, I mean. Eh, who am I kidding? I’m not so great with grammar, either.

Fuzzy. Cold. Distant. Numb. Drifty. Red.

No, I’m definitely not dead.

But I’m almost dead.

. . .

. . . . . .

. . . . . . . . .

“Marley?”

Through the fuzz, a voice says my name, but I can’t answer it. My mouth stopped working some time ago. So did my lungs.

“Marley Craw, right?” the voice says again.

Shoot! It’s a guy’s voice. Well, that’s humiliating. It means I’ve been seen – all of me’s been seen.

Don’t look. Please don’t look. I’m not normally this . . . exposed.

There’s the click of a pen, followed by the sound of scribbling. “Marley Craw,” says the voice. “Female. Human. Seventeen. Red hair . . .” The scribbling turns vigorous as the unknown person scratches out what he’s just written. “Fake red hair. Naturally a brunette.”

Well, he doesn’t need to say it like that! So sue me, I like dye.

“Green eyes. Wound to the abdomen. Scrapes on the arms and wrists. Discoloring on neck. Bruises at the inner thigh. But what really did her in is that gash on the back of the head.”

Gash.

Oh, excuse me; I didn’t realize I had a gash.

The scribbling carries on. “Morality is at a six. Charity is at a four. Seems like she’s right on the fence. Believes in God, but not particularly devout, so she doesn’t get a free ride.” The scribbling stops. “Marley Craw, can you hear me? Would you say you have love for your fellow man?”

That depends which fellow man.

I can’t say my answer, but he seems to hear it anyway.

“Heh.” The pen clicks. “All right, I’m going to assign you two different reapers, Marley Craw. We do that sometimes, when a soul isn’t leaning particularly one way or another. Two weeks should be enough to determine where you’re going. If we were under old law, you’d go straight to purgatory. Lucky for you, that place was closed up some two-thousand years ago. Expect your reapers later today. Here’s my card if you have any questions.”

Through the haziness, something flutters down from the sky and lands on my numb stomach.

“Beck Lemmings. That’s me. And beneath that’s my number. . . . Well, I expect you can’t see it right now, but take a look once you’re up, okay? Okay. All done here. Goodbye, Marley Craw.”

He’s . . . leaving? But I need help!

There’s nothing else. Not a single clickety pen click.

Fine then! Leave me here! See if I care!

Ugh.

Smell you later, Beck.

Reapers and purgatory and God. Who knows what the hell that was about? The guy could have at least helped me up. Or called an ambulance.

. . .

. . . . . .

. . . . . . . . .

Brrr. I’m cold.

So super insanely cold.

No . . . wait.

I’m not cold. I’m hot. I’m so hot that it feels cold! It feels like I just ran into a sauna after a dip in an icy lake! I did that one time, you know. It was at summer camp and . . . oh, what does it matter?

I’m deathly cold. I’m deathly hot.

And then I’m just fine, and I find I’m standing over the naked body of a dead girl with dyed red hair.

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Sil in a Dark World – Chpt. 1

brindiful-72dpi-1500x2000 good

Chapter 1: A Daem’s Lament

Sil says I have a problem with authority.

I say Sil’s a twit.

Technically, I have a problem with certain authorities. But it isn’t my fault. Being the prince of the underworld comes with a smidgeon of baggage.

Authority, on the other hand, would disagree. He’d say I deserve whatever trouble I’ve encountered. He’d say it’s my comeuppance. My comeuppance? What a farse. I deserve nothing but the utmost respect. The utmost honor. A treatment first class in nature. A plush pillow beneath my royal –

“ARE YOU ALMOST DONE IN THERE, YOU LITTLE DEMON? Because some of us mortals have morning practice, you know! You better get outta there and let me brush my teeth or SO HELP ME!”

That charming voice belongs to Sil. She’s in love with me. She just doesn’t know it yet.

“For the last time,” I tell her, “I’m not a demon. I’m a daem. The two races are unequivocally different.”

“Whatevs,” she says through the squalid bathroom door, “I don’t care if you’re an elf or an imp or a fairy; your time’s up! I swear you’re worse than any woman!”

“Shut up, Sil.”

Yet Sil persists. “No matter how many times you mess up your hair it won’t make a difference! We all know you spend an hour to get it looking like you don’t give a hoot!”

I smile to myself. Not because I enjoy the insult, but because Sil is leaning against the door. I can sense it. And not based on sound or vision or experience, either. It’s simple, really. I can smell her. She smells like mint. A crisp, addictive scent. Delicious.

Very quietly, so as not to arouse her suspicion, I put my hand to the knob. The knob is different than the one on Sil’s bedroom door. They’re all different. Sil’s house is a ramshackle mess of mismatched doorknobs and unmade beds and uncompleted sets of things.

I reach to the sink and cover the sound of the turning knob with running water. Sil won’t see it coming. For her disrespect, she’ll be punished.

I let the knob click tiny-like. And then I pull. But what I want to occur doesn’t. Sil anticipates what I’m up to. She grounds her feet and pushes the door from the other side with all her girlish strength – and for a girl, she’s quite strong. The door barrels into me and I stumble backwards.

It doesn’t stop there. The tile of her bathroom floor is slippery. I fall on my ass.

Wonderful. Really suave on my part.

Sil doesn’t laugh. She simply looks smug. Why can’t she be more charming or civil or submissive? She’s that way with other people. But with me, she’s nothing but crass and imbecilic.

“Sorry,” she says. “Demonic trickery doesn’t work on me. Guess it’s not that hard to outsmart the powers of evil.”

“I am not a DEMON!”

This time the insinuation makes me angry. Angry enough that I want to grab whatever sharp thing I can find in her clutter of a room and stab her through her soft middle. But as mortals may die from something like that, I resist the urge.

Sil walks past blasé and begins to brush her teeth. And what flavor does the delightful girl use? Not mint. Not even bubblegum. Grape. Revolting. Who uses grape toothpaste? “Are you just going to sit there, demon boy?” she says with a mouthful of lathered spit.

“Attractive Sil. Really attractive.”

She spits and wipes her chin on the back of her hand. Vulgar. Of all the plum mortal women, why does it have to be her? Why is she the one to whom I’m shackled? For another month I’ll be forced with her twaddle. Piss.

She takes the dryer from the counter. A large piece of the cord’s plastic is missing, giving way to the wires beneath. I don’t think it’s very safe, but I say nothing. Maybe if I’m lucky she’ll electrocute herself.

When Sil turns on the contraption, however, any ill wishes I have for her are blown away with the heated blast of air as it moves past her neck, for it pushes the scent of mint directly into my face. I greedily take in a breath of the stuff. Intoxicating. The scent of her is better than anything.

I can’t help myself. I move to the space behind where she stands.

“What do you want, lurkey?” she says. She sees me in the mirror, though I don’t know how – The damn thing is smudged and dirty enough to blur any images shown.

“We only have a month left, Sil,” I tell her. “Don’t you think we should . . .?”

“What?” She switches the dryer off. “What do you want now? Can’t a girl get ready in peace, without a creepy demon lingering around?”

No matter how hard it may be, I ignore her insults. Were our situation different, I’d have offed her long ago. “Do you want to try again?” I say through teeth that are even tighter than my fists.

She stiffens. Good. I’ve made her nervous. At least I have a little power left. And her response to the proposition is a stammer. “N-no.”

Not very convincing. I’ll bet she wants to try again. All she needs is a soupçon of persuasion. “Come on, Sil. You know the deal. One month, so –” I take her wrist and hold it against the cracked counter, then lean into her, bringing my mouth close to the back of her neck. She shivers.

“So,” I say again. “Why don’t we try? Right here. Right now.”

But Sil is a stubborn girl. She sidles from my grasp.

“So that’s it then?” I ask her, dismayed and maddening.

“I don’t know what you expect to happen. This whole thing is unbelievable. Nothing’s going to change even if we do try again. Sorry, demon boy, but your horns are gone for good.”

She strikes a nerve.

My horns. I feel my hair where they used to be. Their absence is something I’m not yet entirely used to. Sometimes I forget and end up scratching at nothing. Those small pointed things, they’re what this all about. This situation. If I want to regain them I’ll have to follow the rules of the deal.

Sil walks to her bedroom and leaves a trail of mint. Watching her makes me reconsider. It’s more than just my horns, isn’t it? They’re important, true, but it’s also about authority. It’s about THE authority. The big one.

Authority says that I don’t know about altruism. Authority says that if I want to become a ruler I must first experience something sacrificial. And the greatest sacrifice, I’m told, has something to do with love. For that reason the high authority, my adoring father, King of Dhiant, has seen to it that I’m exiled to this place, to the world of mortals, and pegged me with the least affectionate girl imaginable.

Affectionate or not, I must make her love me by the end of the month. No, that’s not all. WE have to ‘fall’ for each other by the end of the month. Whatever that means. The only thing I know for certain is that if I don’t follow the rules of the deal, I’ll lose everything.

A penchant for deals. I suppose we have something in common with the demons after all.

Sil is putting on a sweatshirt. It’s the same one she wore yesterday. I shake my head and begin to dig through the mire that is her bedroom floor until I find a blue one I haven’t seen her wear before. “Here,” I tell her. “This smells decent enough.”

Sil checks just to be sure. Finding no offense, she shrugs and changes into it. How she can live that way is beyond me. But then again, I live that way too now, don’t I? There’s no helping it.

“Ready, little demon?” She picks up a plaid rucksack formerly strewn over the back of a chair.

Little? Hardly. SHE is the little one. With a small frame and a small mouth. A black ponytail that swings when she walks. Skin that is tan. Arms that are toned. She’s average. Beneath the interior lights anyway. And she remains as such all the way to the front door, whose knob is as different as all the other ones – a brass bobbin.

But when we reach the outside, Miss Average undergoes a transformation. Today is sunny. And because it is sunny, we are about to experience the magic of the mortal world at its best. The sun hits Sil the way it always does and her eyes become a transfixing sunlit blue. Electric, crystalline blue. A quality that redeems. Under the influence of the sun, Sil is . . .

Sexy. Really, really sexy.

“What?” The sexy girl wipes at the corner of her mouth. “Toothpaste?”

I shake my head and try not to stare. I can’t let her know what I’m thinking. It’ll only give her an advantage.

We begin to walk. The air is cool. By afternoon, the earth of the ground will warm, but for now, it’s cool. It isn’t unpleasant, though. It’s just different. It’s always hot in Dhiant. Unless it snows. Only then is it tepid. This world is different. With a sky that’s changing and a horizon that’s clear, this world itself isn’t better or worse than Dhiant. Just different. It’s the mortals that make it unbearable.

We continue to walk, and as we round a corner, the sun shifts to our backs. Sil reverts to normal. The magic is lost, though the mint smell remains.

Were I to kill her, I’d leave her body in the sun where it would glow forever. But in the mortal world, dead things stay dead, and killing her would have adverse effects. What other way is there to preserve her beauty but death?

It’s thoughts like those that remind me of the morbidity of my nature.

We walk along the potholed road. Uneven. Rough. It makes scraping noises beneath Sil’s shoes. She drags her feet. She always does unless pursuing some end she sees significant.

Other than the noise of her laziness, it’s quiet between us.

“What do you think of me, Sil?”

I don’t know why I want to know. Suppose I’m bored. Or maybe the fact that time continues to move has put me on edge. Maybe I’m worried that we won’t make it before the end of the month.

“Hah?” Her tone is skeptical. “What do you mean?”

“Isn’t it obvious? What do I look like to you?”

“Besides a demon?”

“Demons are vile, Sil. I told you, I’m a daem.” But I won’t let her distract me from the question. “What do you see when you look at me?” I ask.

She doesn’t give it any thought. “A pale, sun-deprived transfer student?” she says. “Someone who cares about his appearance way too much?”

“The only reason you say that is because you don’t care at all.” Groan. “I mean specific physical traits, Sil.”

She squints at me. “Hm. You don’t quite match. Your hair’s like a bar of chocolate, but your eyes are black like those gross black jelly beans. I dunno.”

Candy references? Of course she’d use something like that. But that isn’t what I meant. I want to know if she’s starting to feel attracted to me, but it doesn’t seem that way. Frustrating.

I sigh. “My eyes are actually red, Sil.”

“Look black to me.”

Mortals.

We reach the school before most others. Sil’s morning practice makes it so that we have to. The school is an old school, in the way that the town is an old town. Count’s Fieldbo. It was the scene of a great battle during the Samel Reign. Not that any of the Earth dwellers are aware of it. The school is the shape of a box, five stories high on a corner lot. In a town as small as Count’s Fieldbo, all students are housed together. Two classes of each level. We belong on the top floor. They call us ‘juniors’.

The title is insulting. There’s nothing junior about me. Sil on the other hand . . .

“See you inside.” Unusually cordial, Sil waves to me and trots to the fields across the street from the school. Conditioning drills with her volleyball team. The reason for her toned arms and small frame.

There she goes. My ticket to the glories entitled me. More importantly, my ticket home. She jogs across First Main without a second thought.

On impulse, I call after her. “Sil! Stop!”

She stops in the middle of the street but is in no danger. The road is clear.

I meet her where she stands. “Before you go, Sil, we’re going to try again. Just one more time.”

Her mouth begins to stammer once more. “N-no, demon. I told you it won’t change anything.”

But I grab her around the wrist. She will try again. Right now.

I tuck some loose hair behind her ear and bring my lips close to her lobe. “Do it,” I whisper. My mouth is close enough to her ear to feel the warmth, the aura, surrounding her body. The minty smell is strongest when I’m within that field of her energy.

“I have practice,” she says meekly. She’s shaking a little. I can feel it in the palm of my hand. Her eyes have found a place to hide in a bush beyond my shoulder. I won’t let them run. I spin her body to face her towards the sun. Magic happens. Her dim eyes brighten. A dark islanded pupil surrounded by a sea of blue ice.

I’m caught off guard. I swallow it down. It’s just a reflex. That’s all. Not like it’s anything deeper than that.

In the middle of the road we stand, in a town that’s near dead. She and I stand and wait for something to happen. A sign of affection from either of us.

“Try it,” I say. “I won’t let you go until you do.”

She could very well pull away, but she doesn’t. I don’t know why. I never know what she’s thinking. “Fine,” she says. “But not here.”

“Then where?”

She is annoyed. “I dunno! How about . . .” She looks to the fields. “Over there?”

It seems like as fine a place as any, so I agree. Dropping her hand, I let her lead the way. The first field is masked by a line of trees that have yellowed leaves, and a stout brick building. Sil moves through the trees and to the other side of the structure. So that’s it. She wants to make sure none of her teammates see.

Stupid. It would do her reputation some good for them to see her alone with a guy!

Sil stops beside the building and scans the surrounding area before dropping her bag. “Okay,” she mumbles. “But we have to make this quick, demon boy. I can’t be late again.”

Always in a hurry. But that’s to be expected. With so little time on their hands, mortals have no choice but to rush.

“What do I have to do again?” she says, looking to the ground.

Timid girl. She knows what she has to do, yet she asks every time. I smirk to myself. She stalls because she is nervous. That’s acceptable. I can work with nervous.

I take her shoulder and gently push her against the wall of the brick building. Scowling, she resists, but it isn’t because she plans to weasel away again. She’s merely letting me know she won’t willingly become submissive.

We are shaded at the moment, but even if I can’t see her sexy eyes, it’s enough if she does her part. I hold her to the wall and capture her gaze. The rules say we have to maintain eye contact. “Okay, Sil,” I say. “Go ahead.”

Her scowl deepens. “You’re the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” she says.

“Likewise. Now do it.”

With her hand still trembling, she grabs the bottom of my shirt. Her fingers are in a clutch. Her teeth are clenched. Her brow is cross. Then she slowly releases the grip of death and slides her hand beneath my shirt, upwards along my abdomen and to my chest.

“Ah! Hands of ice!” I can’t hold back. Her touch is frigid.

For the first time Sil’s scowl falls. “Heh. Heh. Heh.” She laughs like an old man. Her eyes become satisfied slits. “Mmm. Nice and warm,” she says, and cruelly flattens her full cold palm against the center of my lungs.

“J-just get it over with, would you!? And buy yourself some blasted mittens!”

“Why?” She shrugs. “I already have several pairs.”

Right. Probably buried in that slop of a house. I roll my eyes. “I’ll help you look when we get home.”

“Home?” Sil shows surprise. “You’re calling it that now?”

Oh. It was a slip of the tongue. “Never mind. Just say what needs to be said already. Hell, I thought you were worried about being late.”

“Oh yeah,” she mutters absently.

Oh yeah she says. What a birdbrain.

Her hand is still chilled on my chest, but it’s warming. She’s borrowing some of my heat. When it reaches a degree warm enough, she begins to recite the lines,

“Blood and smoke. Soul and shadow. Heart and void. I . . .” She falters.

“Come on, Sil. Finish it.”

“But it’s so cheesy!”

“Don’t look at me. I didn’t make the rules.”

Her mouth turns pouting. “It’s also embarrassing, you know. Why don’t you have to say anything, demon boy?”

“Because my part comes after yours, and only if yours works.” I remove the hand holding her to the wall and use it to tip her chin upwards. “Don’t look away,” I tell her. “It won’t work if you look away.”

“It won’t work period,” she grumbles.

“Positive thoughts, Sil. Positive thoughts.”

“If I say it and it doesn’t work, you’ll let me go, right?”

“For the time being.”

With hand against the skin of my chest, she clears her throat and begins anew, “Blood and smoke. Soul and shadow. Heart and void. I . . . I . . .” She cringes. “L . . . love you . . .”

She stops there.

But that isn’t the end. My name. She has to say my name for it to work. I raise a brow expectantly.

“. . . Wayst,” she finishes, voice small.

There it is. Wayst. My name is Wayst.

Pushing against the hand on my chest, I bring my body to hers, my face to hers, and wait for the signal to begin my part. Our energies are mixed. Our scents are mixed. But the signal doesn’t come. Damn it all, it doesn’t come.

“Ugh! Piss!” I force her hand harder against my chest. “Why won’t it work?!”

She shoves me away. “Hm. I dunno. Maybe because it’s a big walloping LIE?”

Or maybe she isn’t doing it correctly. She isn’t trying hard enough. “Stupid human,” I growl. “Why can’t you just be cooperative?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means why can’t you just admit that you love me?”

“Because I don’t! Obviously!”

I reach for my nonexistent horns. “Well, why the hell not?”

“Seriously?!” She looks at me as though I’m dense. “You’re kinda stupid. Have you ever even been in love?”

I don’t get it.

“I’ve loved plenty of women, Sil. I’m good at it. I don’t get why you won’t let me love you.”

“Look, demon boy. I don’t know how things are in Hell or wherever, but loving someone and ur, having . . . making love with someone are two completely different things.”

So she keeps saying.

“That makes NO sense,” I tell her. “And I’m not from Hell. I’m from Dhiant.”

But Sil isn’t listening. With a stern forehead she takes up her rucksack. “I don’t have time for this, demon. I’m already way late. WHY I let you talk me into this remains a mystery.”

While I stand and fume, she turns on heel and trots away to the fields. Damned spry thing. Like a brawny little rabbit. It pisses me off. I bang my head against the brick of the stout building and slide into a slumping position. Two weeks I’ve been in this place, and no progress has been made. Nothing has changed.

Well, one thing has changed.

The trees are dying for the year. I can see them from where I slump, yellowing, separating the fields from the street. I’ve even seen some around Sil’s house that are painted cranberry and amber. And the mortals find them beautiful. Even they see the appeal of watching something wither. I can appreciate that outlook. After all, I’ve contemplated killing Sil many times before.

I wonder if I’ll kill her before the month is through.

><

“There you are, demon boy. I was beginning to think you’d returned to Hell.” I find Sil waiting for me at the door to the classroom. “Suppose it was foolish to think I’d be so lucky, though,” she adds.

Ugh. Her hair is all sweaty. What was the point of fixing it? There’s nothing to be done but to wrinkle my nose at her. Taking the hint, she lifts her arm and blatantly sniffs her pit. “What? Do I stink?”

“No, you still smell like . . .” Mint. But that’s my little secret, so I correct with, “You smell decent. You just look sort of rank, that’s all.”

“Meh. No biggie.”

The bell rings and we take our seats. I’m in the back corner, near the window. Sil’s on the opposite side of the room. She sits with two of the girls from her team. Both are tall. One is fat. Porked up on cow’s milk, no doubt. Mortals drink so much damned milk. Sucking the juice out of creature with horns seems a bit barbaric to me. Then again, I’ve always been a sympathizer for things with horns.

I watch the two girls interact with Sil. Sil is bright and cheerful and strange. The side of her personality she never shares with me. Watching her is entertaining, but it’s also dangerous. Sil’s ‘appropriate behavior’ receptors are broken. I’ve only been here for two weeks and I already know they are. In the midst of interacting with others, she usually begins to dance or coo or sing or squawk, and I have to look away.

What a humiliating person.

Today, though, Sil isn’t too bad. She’s reacting something from her earlier practice with a conduct that’s milder than usual. Ah. I speak too soon. At the peak of the story she puffs out her cheeks, places her hands above her head, and begins wiggling her fingers, resembling some sort of bloated moose. Her friends burst out laughing. The fat girl can’t contain what I can only assume is brimming jolliness, so she doubles forward and slaps her knee.

Sil has a way with people. People that aren’t me.

“Staring at Sil again, are you?”

The copper-haired tick behind me has taken an unusual interest in my relationship with Sil. I don’t know his name. I’ve made it a point not to become acquainted with any of them. I say nothing. The teacher’s started going over the week’s mod schedule. Those of us taking Chemistry are to report to senior classroom two.

“Come on, Tran,” the tick coaxes. “Share your findings, man.”

Tran. Because I’ve made it a point not to socialize, the natives have coined me with the name ‘Tran’. Short for transfer student. Oh, the cleverness of humans.

I put an elbow over the back of my chair and convey my displeasure at being bothered. “What findings?” I say.

“We all know you’re staying with her. What’s she like at home? The same way she is here?”

“For the most part.” I’m not sure what he’s getting at, but my small patience is shriveling into something nonexistent. “What’s your point?”

“You’re part of an exchange program, right?” the tick persists. “And ever since you got here, you’re always staring at her. Have you two . . .?”

“What?” My dryness is at full force.

“Are you gonna try to crack her?”

“Her skull?” I say the first thing that comes to mind.

“What? Dude! No.”

Oops. I’ve said something inhumane. Luckily, the tick takes it as a jest.

“Eh-heh.” He laughs uneasily. “Anyway, Sil’s the most oblivious girl in Count’s. Poor Keek’s been her best friend for years, and even he says it’s hopeless. I was thinking you with your suave, out-of-towner charm you might be able to woo her or something. Is that your endgame?”

Hm. Surprisingly accurate for a tick.

I’m finished speaking with him, though, so I stop there and turn to face front. The teacher’s written some undistinguishable scrawl on the whiteboard. I pretend to copy it into a notebook.

“Psst.” But before I know it, the tick is at it again.

“What?” I hiss, not amused.

“Best of luck to you, man. Never once has Sil Tenor shown any interest in guys or chicks. If you figure out her fancy, be sure to share the wealth. I’ll make sure it doesn’t go unrewarded.”

But there is no reward he can offer that I’d have even the slightest interest in, so I don’t give him an answer one way or the other.

The teacher’s tosh continues to fill the whiteboard. Everything remains the way it was. Out of boredom I let my eyes travel to Sil. She looks to be paying attention, but I know better. I’ve seen her notebooks. Nothing but doodles and the like. She’s probably busy scribbling a deformed version of the instructor complete with bulbous neck growth or billowing shoulder pads or both.

Disobedient girl.

But while I’m right about my mark’s disobedience, it turns out I’ve misjudged her intent. When she looks up from her notebook, pencil in hand, she doesn’t look to Señior Tosh for artistic stimulus. Instead, the person her dimmed eyes drift to is . . .

Wait, is she drawing me?

What the –?

To make matters worse, the twit flashes an evil smile before returning to her work.

I don’t know why, but it’s imperative that I see that doodle.

I might end up killing her before the month is through.

But not before I see that doodle.

And not before we try again.

We’ll try again and again, and only then might I kill her.

Get the rest of the story here: https://www.amazon.com/

Also available on Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, iTunes, etc.