Fata Morgana- Mirage -An entirely new adventure

Coming January 2015- A stand-alone, novel about life, death and coming-of-age.

Alonehall1

What makes up a life?

Is it how you live it, what you do in the middle, or how you leave it behind?
Stacie, sixteen going on forever, never got a chance to find out. Her life, much like her childhood, would be cut short by a monster named Crowley.  That’s where I come in- though sixty years too late. I loved Stacie from the start, from the very beginning, from the moment I first laid eyes on her. I just never got a chance to see what might have been. Like Stacie’s life… Crowley got there first.

Then again, what dies may not always stay dead.

If I had to do it all over again I would have never let her go, I would have never left her behind. If I had it all to do over again I would have killed Crowley, saved the girl and lived happily ever after.

Dying is the easy part; it’s the living that’s always been hard.

Kaelynn’s Story

For those who have waited, be it known that Book 2.5 of  Valerian has been completed and will soon be published.  Note, this story picks up at the point where Kaelynn is beneath the museum with Sir Henson, and ends with her waking up on the flight back to the States… for those of you who do not know what this means, go buy Book One as soon as you can…

To all my loyal fans… enjoy.

Steve

Kaelynn’s Story

Chapter 1

 

When: Thirteen years ago… almost to the day.

Where: British Museum of Antiquities and Arts

Circumstances: Prior to Kaelynn’s flight back towards the states…

     For a moment it was all she could do not to break out in hysterical laughter. “Something’s definitely wrong,” she repeated, looking down at the three paintings before her. As if on cue there came another thump, this one seeming much closer than the last. Again, it was followed by a general dimming of the lights overhead. “That can’t be good.” she observed. Just like the insanity of the paintings before her- like this entire situation!
At the same time Henson’s eyes widened, his hand going to his throat, as if fear needed a physical expression. “We need to get out of here!” he said, hysterics in his voice. In his rush to get around her he clipped her knee, stumbled and fell, clipboard and pen flying from his hands. Before she could say anything, or even help him up, the door to the room burst wide open; darkness engulfed the both of them like a tidal wave.
Instant chaos and pandemonium, muffled shouts and scrambling about- most of it by her. In one corner of the room something large toppled and fell, obviously knocked over by whatever accompanied the darkness. The sound of its breaking echoed throughout the chamber like rolling thunder on a summer’s eve. Without warning, wings, claws and beaks seemed to fill all the space around her, and with them scratching and pecking and jabbing at her arms, hands and face. She raised a hand to protect her eyes the best she could, the other she kept tightly gripped on Hilliard’s book.
Henson had been right all along; they did need to get out of here.
Funny, in the midst of all the chaos and scrambling, bird attacks and darkness, she thought she’d freeze, that or play the helpless female in a hack and slash flick, however, and with some effort, she did neither- freeze or scream helplessly, instead she managed to crawl towards the direction of the door, even as the ‘presence’ and sound of many bodies began to surround her, fill all the remaining space.
The room felt overcrowded. She felt overcrowded, like her brain was about to explode-
With luck she was able to exit the room and enter the just-as-dark, but much emptier feeling, hallway.
Blinded, eyes wrapped in darkness, she managed to stumble her way down the hall, back towards the elevators, (or so she hoped) before catching her foot and tripping over something on the floor. She fell down so quickly and unexpectedly, that she made little effort to catch herself. As a result, sudden and intense pain lanced up from her knees where they cracked against the floor. She cried out, but the sound of her voice was drowned out by the larger struggle going on within the room she’d just exited.
For a moment she just lay there feeling helpless. She considered crying out to Henson; beg for his assistance and rescue… only to draw up short. Since the darkness had washed over her, she hadn’t heard a peep from him, either by design or by accident. Which should tell me something, she realized. That maybe I should keep my big mouth shut for the time being. Perhaps the darkness would work to her advantage as well as her adversaries.
Biting her lip, she managed to painfully crawl her way back to her feet, using the wall to steady herself. A couple deep breathes and then… sudden muffled cries from somewhere behind her caused her to turn- they sounded a lot like Henson’s.
More muffled cries… then no time to even scream as a roughened hand closes about her face, choking off her airway and causing her head to snap back. Instantly violence fills the air, someone stands beside her, blows are struck; someone violently stumbles against her- what feels like a body, and then more blows.
The entire time she struggles to break free from the hands that hold her. As her breath begins to burn in her chest and her eyes water, someone begins to pull at the book in her arms, threatening to rip it free. Desperate, she strikes out and connects. There comes the sound of someone falling, at the same time the hand leaves her face.
She is free.
Strangely, in the midst of all this a sudden memory crashes in, a childhood dream, a vision perhaps, of a time when giants strove to save her from the wretchedness of a night and all she could do was cry out and scream for her mother and father to save her.
In the end, and far beyond her dream, her mother had succeeded- but at such a price.
As the memory began to fade a blinding series of flares cut the darkness before her, like sparks from a grinder. Off balance, she topples forward, as the floor is torn out from beneath her. Losing her balance entirely, she falls to her knees in a spray of what feels to be sand.
What she sees when she opens her eyes is by far worse than even her worst nightmares.
***
She’s no longer in the hallway, or even beneath the museum- she’s been cast into purgatory instead.
This can’t be happening. This can’t be real…
The skies, (as in two) that vault overhead make no sense. They reminded her of two gigantic wheels tipped up on their rims. As such, they appeared to be grinding, one against the other, like two gigantic dinner plates slapped back-to-back. In that space where they met in eternal battle, where one wore against the other, madness and fire literally rained, white-hot meteor-like streaks of fire trailing all the way down into darkness and night. The wheels were like two sides of the same coin, one side wearing darkness as pitch black as night; the other, the side she was on, radiated bright, as in brilliant, all-illuminating light.
Once again, a singular thought rang through her mind that this can’t be happening. This can’t be real…
But it was real- all too real.
In the distance, off to her right, sprawled a featureless plain, flat as a pancake and desert in scope, an endless burning vista of no-man’s land. Its vastness radiated a heat that was stifling in its degree and furnace hot. While behind her it was the exact opposite. An unhealthy jungle of darkest green, massive and sprawling, it seemed to consume the border between desert wasteland and deep foliage.
A forest as primitive and primeval as any she’d ever seen or heard of. The fact that it reminded her of the Siberian wilderness, a taiga some 1.5 million square miles in size, did not escape her.
A murky haze seemed to grip this darkened land, and beyond the haze, more distant still, were what appeared to be mountains, an entire range of needle-sharp broken rock, stabbing up from the earth as if in defiance of the very sky. On the sides of those mountains were a series of dark, forbidden, keeps. (The structures she could see, even at this distance, were gigantic and frightening, horrendous in size and proportion- like some nightmarish scene from a 1930’s black and white horror flick.)
Once again, where on God’s green earth, was she? And more importantly, was there even a God to hear her cry out?
This can’t be happening. This can’t be real. Please God, I just want to go home!
“Mr. Henson?” Her words fell from her lips to flat at her feet. It is as if the very air itself were void of life. She might as well be screaming into a vacuum.
“Mr. Henson…” she tried again.
Same result… silence.
A sudden thought occurred to her then, even as that old enemy, fear, began to wrap its cold, bony fingers around the base of her spine. What if I am all alone…? What if Henson never even made it out of the museum?
What if…?
A quick look around only confirmed her fears. She was alone, absolutely alone.
Obviously, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
If only Toto were here…
Out in the open, she felt vulnerable. She needed cover, shelter, anything safe- in other words, the cool, darkened, confines of the nearby forest…?
Upon entering the woods- only as far as the furthest outstretched limb- she tried to relax. But the woods made it hard. The nearest tree, its trunk twisted and gnarled, laid complete darkness, an eerie sort of night that seemed to absorb her very being and thoughts.
Its depth both beckoned and repulsed- a siren’s song of seduction… deception.
Only then did she realize that she had been weeping the entire time, tears were running down her cheeks and leaving salty trails on her lips and tongue.
It was obvious, as she took stock of her situation that she was either stark-raving mad- as in losing her freaking mind, or that she had been knocked unconscious beneath the museum during the struggle, and was hallucinating.
There was a third possibility as well, one that she hated to even contemplate- that she was dead, as in ‘dead as a doornail’.
It was one of the three.
(There was possibly one other one as well- were she was trapped in the darkened hallways beneath the museum, unable to move, get away, or even realize reality, one that had her imagining all of this- a truly inescapable hell.)
So pick your poison, Mrs. Contestant… chose your fate. Which one will it be, Door number One and insanity, Door number Two, tripping on LSD or Door number Three, being dead.
She had to start somewhere, so she pinched herself on the leg- Ouch!
One answer down- she obviously wasn’t asleep or dreaming this happening. (She also realized that maybe next time she shouldn’t pinch herself so hard, either.)
Next, she placed two fingers just beneath her chin-.. .. ..
Yep, that’s a definite heartbeat, so she obviously wasn’t dead. (Which was a good thing…?)
Then again, if she were dead she could just be imagining a heartbeat… which left stark-raving mad, and who in their right mind could answer that question since all the crazy people in the world think they’re the only ones ‘not’ crazy; or… as crazy as it sounded, she really was here- as ‘in this place for real.’
It sure as heck felt real, from the blistering heat in front of her to the cool, shivery, shade behind.
A line from Dante’s Inferno rose unbidden to her mind:
“Midway upon the journey of our life,
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straight foreward pathway had been lost.”
Great. The last thing she needed was to be comparing this place to Dante’s Inferno…
From beneath the trees she took a good long look around, hoping to spot anything at all that might tell her where she was or how she could possibly get out of this ‘place’, only to see nothing really obvious, nothing that is, except for the aforementioned vistas of blistering heat and sun, or choking forests of darkness and gloom. The sands before her, stretching all the way to the horizon, had been bleached bone-white by the sun. Within them nothing stirred, nothing even moved, other than the eternal watery-haze drifting just along the surface. (Once again, they reminded her of the Great Salt Flats in Utah. Her parents had taken her and her brother there, on their last family vacation, in what seemed a lifetime ago.) Just like their real-life counterparts, these too seemed barren and sterile, as well as endless.
The forest behind her, on the other hand, was just the opposite. From within its confines, cool breezes tugged at her hair and clothing, bringing the sickeningly sweet aroma of jasmine and rose. Beneath these were even deeper scents, darker somehow, like shadows cast at mid-night, of cinnamon, cumin, and curry.
There was something else as well, more than just a scent or a breeze, something that lurked just beyond her reach, nearly hidden by the darkness of the trees- something indicating primeval.
The dampness permeating the air left tiny drops of dew behind, coating her clothing, forearms and face. As a result, she began to shiver. (Whether from terror or from the cold, she could not tell.)
As noted before, the trunks’ of the nearby trees where thick, dark and gnarled, twisted as if suffering from paralyzing arthritis. While clumps of pale, clammy, lichen clung to their sides, and/or waved in the breeze from branches.
The leaves each tree bore were green, thick and heavy, easily the size of her palm, some bigger still, and seemed to wave at her in some sort of silent sinister language. (She might have imagined that last part.) While beneath her feet, the soil lay rich dark and dank, bringing to mind images of spilt and dried blood.
For some reason, at that moment, her mind leapt to a game she used to play as a child, a game she too still taught groups of school-children who would visit her museum.
It was a game her father liked to call Survival.
The premise of the game was simple enough- you were one of the lucky (or not so lucky, depending on how you looked upon it) survivors, of a plane crash. The object of the game was to gather up various supplies, in order of importance, while waiting to be rescued. Gameplay consisted of each child being given a sheet listing approximately twenty to twenty-five items, from flashlights to matchbooks, blankets to compass. The idea was to list those items in order of importance, starting with the most important and ending with the least important, that would be necessary for survival. One wrong decision and you die a gruesome, horrible death! (Pretty morbid game, if you think about it.)
On your mark, get set, go…
This time though, it was for real. This wasn’t a game. She really was stranded. Her only problem this time, being that she had no real supplies to begin with, other than Hilliard’s book and a few odds and ends she managed to grab in her mad rush from the hotel.
Oh, and there was also, no real hope of a rescue, either. Other than that, though…
Feeling her mind start to wander, she resisted the urge to run even further into the woods; (something in her gut said no.) instead, she began focusing on the moment, and what may, or may not have, taken place to bring her here in the first.
(Personally, she was beginning to feel a whole lot like Alice, just fallen down the rabbit hole.)
The last thing she clearly remembered was being in one of the rooms beneath the British Museum of Arts, with its curator, Mr. Henson. At the time they had been looking at some of Hilliard’s more ‘questionable’ paintings; paintings that showed Theo, Phillip and a few others, including herself, dressed in 16th Century garb and posing like Royalty. The thing was they’d never, ever posed for such pictures, not even in spoof or for fun. Secondly, and more importantly, she hadn’t been alive during the 16th Century. She’d been born in the late 70’s, as in nineteen hundred and seventy-four- a good four hundred years after the supposed paintings had been created to begin with!
Deep breaths, Kael… take deep breaths. Just close your eyes and get your shit together…
This she did.
Regardless, of how she felt, or even how impossible her current situation might appear to be, one thing remained- she absolutely needed to figure it all out, and get herself back to reality- as in her vision of it. (She hoped that when she opened her eyes, that she’d be back in the labyrinth of hallways beneath the British Museum, along with a certain Mr. Henson, and that all this craziness going on, the hallucinations, this world and such, would turn out to be nothing more than some god-awful nightmare.)
With this singular thought (and hope) in mind, she slowly opened her eyes to what lay before her… 

Chapter 2

The trees remained; the plains and the heat remained, the madness in the skies remained. The book in her arms remained, as well as the sickeningly sweet gag of roses. The madness in her head remained, much like the pain in her knee where she had fallen during her escape from beneath the museum.
In fact, nothing whatsoever had changed around her, what she saw, what she smelled, how she felt… not one iota- other than the fact that a large furry creature was kneeling in front of her, now, studying her with a look of deep concern in its eyes. A figure with horns on its head and cloven hooves for feet-
It couldn’t be, but by gosh it sure seemed to be-
“Boo,” said Puck.

Puck

Chapter 3

After an indeterminate amount of time she finally came to, not that she’d been asleep or knocked unconscious, mind you. No, and that was part of the problem; she’d been awake the entire time. On top of all that, she was intimately, and painfully, aware of all her surroundings as well.
No way. No way in hell that what I’m seeing can possibly be. This has to be madness- pure and simple. And now I’m face to face with a mythological creature- an honest to goodness satyr.
I am so screwed…
All she could remember from before, right after opening her eyes while getting her shit together, was running- of clasping Hilliard’s book tightly against her chest and running for all she was worth- anything to escape the madness dancing and frolicking before her.
Trees and branches had flashed by in streaks, their skeletal-like fingers reaching out, clawing at her in an attempt to slow her down, scratching at her face, ripping at her tee-shirt, leaving behind streaks of muted green lichen and red sap.
Like sacrificial blood being spilt…
Still she ran.
She ran until the very air burned in her lungs like molten lead, and spots filled her eyes, till it felt like her heart was threatening to rip free from the confines of her chest.
She ran and she continued to run, sobbing and screaming like a mad-woman, eyes and face hideously wide. She ran until her legs finally gave out and folded up, causing her to fall and tumble head over heels, down a long and ridiculously soft, hillside covered in a carpet of fallen pine needles and soft fragrant grasses.
How long she lay there at the bottom, sprawled without a care to the open sky, she knew not. Only that the running and the madness surely had to end.

Slowly… ever so slowly, her senses returned. But they were brittle, brittle in a way she’d never known before, as if ‘Fragile- Handle with care’ had been stamped on her forehead, somehow.
Only then did she realize just how thin the line between sanity and madness really was- a simple ‘realization’ away.
At the moment she lay in a shallow vale between two green-carpeted mounds that rose lazily to either side. Beside her was a small stream filled with brilliance, chuckling merrily on its way, seemingly without a care in the world. Hilliard’s book was a mess, its pages lay scattered about her, and the hillside she’d rolled down, like fallen leaves that had been caught by an errant breeze. Still, it didn’t matter, none of it.
All she knew for sure was that she, as in Kaelynn, had to get away, as far away from this place and that creature, as possible. Her body could follow or stay, either way, she was going.
For a moment longer she just lay there, feeling the breath enter and leave, her heart slowing to a crawl, the sensation of blood coursing through her limbs surprisingly refreshing.
No matter what, she was alive. She just needed to remind herself of that.
She could taste blood; its coppery bitterness filled her mouth, muted her senses. (She must have bitten her tongue sometime during her flight, that or on the long tumble down the hillside-)
“Peace be unto you childe, peace for but a moment longer, I pray.”
The voice fills her ears like sweet music, lyrical and stilted. It effect like a drug. In that moment the coppery taste in her mouth is replaced by the sweet tang of honey. She could almost feel the course wildness of an autumn wind whipping through her hair, stirring her very soul.
Turning her head, she finds herself staring into the deepest, darkest brown, almost black, eyes she’d ever seen. Wreathing the irises were small speckles of gold. As such, the eyes are set within a broad kind face, a face that was brown, like a wrinkled apples skin.
A ragged goatee of chestnut reflects the wild mane crowning the man’s head. It also covered his strong muscular arms, forearms, and back, completely masking the man’s legs- legs ending in cloven hooves of palest white and walnut brown.
The figure- as she struggled to push herself up off the turf and into a seated position -is at least six feet, if not more, tall.
The ‘satyr’ withdraws then, without a word spoken, and begins to crisscross the hillside, gathering up the fallen documents of Hilliard’s book. Some of the pages he leaves behind, no rhyme or reason that she could see, others he shuffles in his broad hands like playing cards, rearranging them back into the split leather binding that is Hilliard’s book.
“Tut, tut,” the figure scolds, “mustn’t let the wily wind have its way now shall we? No. And quite the tumble you took back there little missus, all the way down the hillside, from crown to stream. Goodness, but you ran to and fro. It was all poor Puck could do, just to keep up.” Gathering up the remaining sheaves, he then proceeded to approach, stopping this time, about an arm’s length away and kneeling to better meet her eyes. Before him, he held the now re-assembled book. “I fear you may have dropped these, yes indeed.”
The book wavered before her, demanding that she either take it, and the creature holding it, at its word and worth, or turn her back on the both of them altogether.
Decisions… decisions…
Running her fingers through her damp and tangled hair, she reached out and slowly accepted the offered burden. “Thank you,” is all she can say, and even that consumes pretty much all of her remaining energy. This creature has no idea what he is asking of me, what I have to give up. To accept this ‘gift’ from him is to believe he is offering, and to believe he is offering is to believe he exists, which means that I am truly and hopelessly trapped here in this place.
“If I may ask, “Where am I…? What is this place? Am I in danger?”
A dull twilight seems to fill the space around them, as the ‘bigger’ grinding skies vaulting overhead, continue to silently bleed fire.
“You are safe for the moment.” the creature replies.
“And this place…?”
“Absentia…?” The word comes out of his mouth as a hoarse whisper, like a millstone tied about his neck.
The word reminds her of the meaning of a word- burden. “Absentia…” The word felt strange on her tongue, like she’s eaten something upsetting or spoiled.
“Discordant…,” explained Puck, “both a dark and light place?”
“Still, it is a place. Can you be more specific?” She couldn’t tell if he was being evasive on purpose or by accident. Either way, a point of reference would do wonders for her right about now.
“Then I suggest Realm of the Fallow King… Attendant Lord of Anguish and Rage in the Desert of Sovereignty, a Shadow of Shannon…” As he spoke he began to shrug his massively hairy shoulders.
Like anything he said made any sense… Maybe his answer was like one of those joke bombs- you know the kind, ‘two guys walk into a bar, the third guy ducks…’
“And you?” She queried, giving up on the first question and moving on to the next, “What are you exactly?” I know what you appear to be, but that can’t be… satyrs don’t really exist.
At her words a giant crease line cut the creature’s broad forehead, underscoring dark curls of mane. It was obvious she had hurt his feelings. “Why… Puck, of course,” he answered, as if there could be no other explanation. At the same time he stood and executed a curtsy with exaggerated flourish. Finished, he straightened up, crooked grin on his lips. “Now that you know my name, I would ask the same of you- And whom might you be, my dear?” he asked with devilish delight, at the same time extending his hand.
That’s just what I need, a big, naked, hairy suitor come a-calling.
Starting to answer, she stops. Something didn’t seem right. (Obviously) And some little voice inside her head seemed to be whispering ‘not to trust this creature’ fawning so favorably before her.
Not for the last time did she listen to it.
“Call me Elizabeth,” she replied, using her mother’s middle name. “Likewise, I too am honored to make your acquaintance.”
At her answer Puck’s grin turned upside down, displeasure radiating from his eyes. “Ah, Elizabeth is it…” a short pause as he measured her up and down. “If I might say so, you don’t look like an Elisheva.” (He replied, using the olde English pronunciation for Elizabeth.) Another measured and mischievous grin crosses his features, “Yet we shall see. Yes indeed, we shall. Lies before truth, yet truth finds a way.” At which point he stood back up to his full height, his face turned towards the hilltop on the other side of the stream. He seemed to be sniffing, rearing his head back and snorting the air, “They’re close,” he said, turning to face her.
“They who…?” She is suddenly very much afraid, and she has all right to be, even if she didn’t know why, exactly. First, if this was all a dream, then this was not your average every-day, dream, of that she was only too aware. And she wasn’t asleep and she wasn’t unconscious either, no witch’s apple had crossed these lips lately. Her heart and mind told her that this place was real, all too real, which made it that much more dangerous.
Besides, who in their right mind would dream up such a place, such madness, to begin with?
Like everything else as of late, she needed to have faith, faith that somehow, someway, this would all make sense someday. (Only it wasn’t someday, it was now.)
Secondly, if what she was experiencing was indeed real, (which it appeared to be the longer she was here) she needed to be aware of any and all consequences that might apply in the situation. She couldn’t help but think of the mythical figure of Persephone, who had been tricked into eating a pomegranate kernel because of her ignorance, a result that doomed her for an eternity in Purgatory.
The last thing she wanted was to be a ‘‘Persephone.’
At the moment she was pretty much clueless when it came to the rules around here, but that didn’t give her an excuse to ignore any of the warning signs that her gut was sending to her brain, either. She needed to take this place seriously. There would be time later, hopefully, for logic and understanding.
In the meantime, like the satyr before her, she could sense something wicked was this way coming, the scent of its arrival ‘seemingly’ imminent. Electrified ozone filled the air, as if before a sudden storm.
“The Fallow King and his entourage have arrived,” Puck responded, stamping with his left hoof and digging at the earth. It was only then that she noticed he had an ancient, cracked, horn of what appeared to be ivory looped around his neck and slung across his back. Three bands of what appeared to be crudely fashioned gold were wrapped around the bone-white instrument. They seemed to be the only things holding the horn together.
“So, what do we do now?” she asked, jerking her eyes off the instrument and back to the creatures face.
Puck considered her question for but a moment, then, “A calling hound indeed, leads them here,” he said, “and young Miss Elisheva is placed into danger. Hide her away, I say, lead the Fallow King astray.” At this point he reached out toward her with a beckoning hand.
After a moment’s hesitation she took it.
“Allow me to carry you and there is still time,” he said. “Depend upon your own and all will be lost.” With this last part he looked straight at Hilliard’s book.
Immediately she could feel her ‘hackles’ rise. Are you kidding me? You expect me to just jump into your arms- ignoring everything my gut keeps telling me to be cautious, to take things slowly –and to put myself entirely in your hands?
A moment’s hesitation to make up her mind, weigh all her options, juggle all the pros and cons, then… heck yeah! “Let’s go,” she said.
After all, what did she really have to lose, besides her remaining sanity?
***
At first she couldn’t see them, even from their current vantage point- hidden amongst the darker clumps of trees surrounding and enfolding the vale. What at first appeared to be a shifting mist began to roll in over the nearest hilltop, the one leading down into their valley, vale and stream.
It wasn’t until Puck whispered into her ear how to look at them, that she could see them at all.
“Don’t stare directly at them,” he whispered, “or you won’t be able to discern them. You have to look off to one side, almost like you’re trying ‘not’ to see them. Use just the corner of your eye.”
And he was right; as soon as she averted her eyes off to one side, she could see them- well, sort of see them. (The beings that were cresting the hill-top, reminded her of one of those stereographic 3D pictures, the kind where you have to stare at a certain point for so long, causing a three-dimensional image, once hidden amongst all the shapes, to suddenly leap off the page and appear right in front of you.) Only what crested the hill-top before them was no image or picture, but all too real.
The only way she could, in all actuality, describe ‘them’, and there were a lot of ‘them’ was like this-
‘Not all at once, but ‘slinking’ over the hill-top in pairs till more than twelve but less than two score, appeared-
‘They’ came on panthers.
No… horses.
No, rather they were large hounds made up of shadow, vapor and mist, with eyes of red and mouths filled with razor sharp teeth- Whatever ‘they’ were, these creatures that served as ‘their’ mounts, seemed more vapor, less form, than anything else, and their shapes kept forming, reforming and changing continuously beneath them- flowing like smoke through water.
Again, these were just the ‘mount’s ‘they’ rode upon. You’d think that would be madness enough, but you would be wrong.
As for the ‘men’ themselves, the riders, they seemed human enough at first –but monstrously huge, with every square inch of their bodies encased in brilliant armors of bronze, copper and gold. Dark slits alone, marked the locations where their eyes, nose and mouths should be.
In their hands, each rider gripped a long slender pole from which ragged, diaphanous banners waved. The colors of these banners was the same as the morning sky moments before a violent thunderstorm, a canvas of swirling light and dark hues, of violet, purple, reds and blues. (Common sense told her that the banners they carried must surely become entangled in the tree limbs as they rode beneath them. Then again, common sense should have reminded you that these men and their mounts couldn’t exist to begin with. Much like this very place she currently found herself residing in.)
So much for common sense-
The ‘riders’ were easily seven feet tall, with large, naked broadswords strapped across their backs. The toes of their boots were wickedly pointed and all wore spurs on their heels. They rode their mounts, such as they were, without signs of saddle, tack or harness.
How they maintained themselves astride was beyond her.
At their lead was a giant figure, and the mount he rode upon was larger still.
“Is that him,” she asked, “the Fallow-?”
Puck hissed and clapped his hand quickly across her lips. Beaming seriousness, he leaned in until their noses actually touched. (Being this close to him, she was reminded of nature’s woodland smells, wood smoke, dry leaves, and fresh turned soil.)
“Do not let his name cross your lips,” he hissed. “He can sense those who speak his name. He can hear such utterances from across a hundred leagues. You may very well call forth our doom if you do so,” he finished.
She barely managed to swallow the rest of her words, before tearing her eyes off Puck’s face and back towards the menacing figure crowning the hilltop.
She had come so close to exposing them…
The entire time, Puck maintained his grip upon her forearm, he did let go of her face, however. Everything in his huddled stance alerted her to the fact that more than just mere discovery awaited them if they were somehow discovered.
Rolling over the hilltop, the mist continued to grow and swell, roiling and twisting along the ground, making its way ever nearer to the location where they currently lay hidden.
The Fallow Ki– was dressed in every way like his men, except for his face, which was left uncovered. Here his pallor was pale and white, the face of a corpse, his eyes two pools of incredible darkness. In place of a crown, he wore a simple band of gold, which encircled his head and matted his colorless hair against his brow. As she remarked upon his mannerisms, the Fallow Ki—suddenly stood tall as if hearing something.
He was now looking directly at the spot they were hiding.
In his gaze she could feel her skin crawl. The entire time she found herself holding her breath, afraid to even breathe least that alone give them away, expose their position.
Had they been found out? Was it only a matter of time before he had them?
Fear gripper her mind like an iron fist, squeezing at her brain. She was suddenly hot and cold at the same time, her palms sweaty-
After an immeasurable amount of time, the Fallow Ki—, much to her relief, sat back down, apparently content at finding nothing.
At least nothing he was ready to reveal.
From far way came the mournful howl of a lone wolf echoing. Besides the chuckling stream, it was the only other sound in the forest that she could hear- other than her own heartbeat, which sounded thunderous.
Back on the hilltop, the mounts beneath those assembled, continued to stream and flow like smoke rolling through water. They neither snorted nor pawed, but they did shake their heads up and down as if agreeing with their masters, that there was nothing unforetold amiss. At least nothing they wished to reveal openly.
Then, with not a single word spoken, the vanguard simply withdrew, flowing back up over the hilltop and quickly pulling away, out of sight-
Back into the eternal moonlight and the darkest of night!
Once again, they were alone, just the two of them, one crazy impossible satyr and one completely lost Twentieth Century girl.
Funny how realizing that didn’t make her feel any better.
To her eye, it was now so much darker than before. Only then did it occur to her that the light had also been taken from them, for you see, each rider, as they rode, along with their banners, also carried a pair of pale, moonlight-white lanterns hanging from poles, the light of their passing cutting the eternal night and turning it into a gloomy sort of day.
With their passing, now that ‘day’ was gone.
Suddenly, all she could do was weep, her shoulders jerking with each and every terrified, pent-up, sob. She had no idea why she was crying, exactly, only that she felt suddenly so very, very sad, alone and scared. While she wept, Puck remained quiet, stoically by her side.
When she finally finished he simply said that ‘they needed to go,’ his hand resting lightly upon hers. His touch seemed to calm her fears, reminding her of who she was, even though she didn’t have a clue as to ‘where’ she was, or why she was even here.
Glancing off to one side, and from the corner of one eye, she realized that the contingent on the hilltop had finally, and with finality, moved beyond them. Only tendrils of dark vapor remained, stealing along the ground like blind serpents, withering and twisting.
“It seems they seek bigger prey,” her host explained.
And what could that be? She wondered. (At the same time, her thoughts were enough to give her the chills.) In the end, she decided she really didn’t want to know.
“Perhaps we should take advantage of our good fortune and move on.” He added.
On this she wholeheartedly agreed.

Chapter 4

She wondered if she looked as much the drowned rat as she felt.
It had been raining solid; as in sheets, for the past eight and a half hours, ever since they narrowly escaped the clutches of the Fallow King and his monstrous entourage. Since that time a cold spirit had descended upon her, invading her bones, her very soul, making her shiver and shake, causing her teeth to chatter. She still had no idea where she was, or how she was ever going to return home. All she knew for sure is that she wanted to feel Theo’s arms around her one more time, and to feel the sun on her face and the breeze on her skin… to walk the streets of Manhattan, to watch movies in Central Park-
If she ever found herself there again, at home or in his arms, she promised she’d never let either go.
Puck, meanwhile, appeared to be immune to the cold, as well as the leaden downpour of spirit. Like water off a ducks back, the furry man-creature would stop from time to time to shake himself dry, always without warning and always unexpectedly, like a dog coming in from out of the rain. The first time this occurred, he’d simply stopped walking. Curious as to his behavior, she’d followed suit, keeping close, fearful that perhaps the Fallow King had found them after all. Instead, beginning with his head and working his way down, a strange sort of quiver seemed to erupt throughout his body, showering her, and everything around them, with a nasty smelling mist that reminded her of wet dog and butt. All she knew for sure is that it was utterly gross, by anybody’s standards.
Throughout it all, Puck just grinned from ear to hairy ear.
“Where are you taking me?” The one question she would ask him each and every time he stopped to shake himself. And each and every time his grin and silence would be her only answer.
So they would continuously move on, mile after seemingly endless mile of darkened and dreary landscape, through massive stands of trees and wide dales of waist high grass with edges as sharp as broken glass. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before drudgery and exhaustion set in, as the landscape to either side continued to slide further and further into miry darkness mixed with fog, an effect obscuring everything around her, including any landmarks she might see. (No longer could the burning wastes be seen or even imagined. Her whole world had gone drearily out of focus and light.) She was literally the blind being led by the blind, or so it seemed anyway. It was as if the satyr had no place to be or go, and that he was simply wandering and taking his sweet time getting there. It was all she could do just to keep up with him while maintaining her grip on Hilliard’s book.
“How much further?” she again asked for the umpteenth time, her breathe ragged. There for a while he had carried her on his back, piggy-back style, to give her legs and feet a break. This made everything seem a whole lot easier, but then, after what seemed like even more endless miles- he had set her back down. Now she was on her own again.
As if they had been playing a game of Statues, Puck froze in mid-motion, his head turning to stare at her. “In Absentia, time is not measured in words like ‘further’ or ‘far’, neither is it measured in miles, feet, nor inches. Distance simply is. The space between places and things is only as far as the imagination makes them.” Then, with a look of seriousness, he added, “We will arrive at our destination when enough time has passed for us to reach our destination.”
This was an explanation he seemed totally pleased with. Altogether though, it meant absolutely nothing, just a bunch of nonsense, and this is what she told him. His reply was to shrug, and then it was Statues all over again.
An eternity later, they stopped again. (And she still had no clue as to the when or the why of their stoppage, only that they did- thank God!) Once again, it seemed like they had been running, moving, walking, for forever, which is why she decided she’d rather die right where she was, than move even one more inch.
They were currently on a road. It wasn’t much of a road, more like a half-cleared hunters trail winding its way ever deeper into the trees, but it was a road nonetheless. On either side of this road darkness seemed to hold sway, seeping from beneath the trees like spilled ink flowing over paper, slowly creeping in and stealing what remained of the day, at least what passed for day around here.
“We’re stopping?” she asked.
“We are,” Puck replied.
At this point she collapsed to the ground, her legs feeling like rubber bands beneath her, her chest heaving for oxygen.
“You need to stay here. I’ll find us some shelter,” the satyr volunteered.
Needless to say, she waved him on.
As soon as the creature vanished into the woods she began fumbling in her jeans pockets for her cell phone. (Why hadn’t she thought of this before now?) Setting the book down, she began waving her phone around, trying to find a signal.
Zero bars, no signal…
And what did she expect? It’s not like they were anywhere even real anymore. Besides that, she hadn’t seen a cell tower in like, since her arrival.
For some reason this struck her as funny. Talk about your 20th Century dependence… here I am trying to locate the nearest phone tower so I can call home… I really am going insane.
Thumbing her phone off, (no use in running her battery down unnecessarily… you never know.) she began to take stock of what she did have with her, realizing that rushing around in the middle of the night and following some crazy Englishman out of her hotel room and down to the museum, had taken her quite by surprise. As a result, she was all kinds of unprepared for journey through Wonderland.
Currently she was wearing her favorite flannel sweater and NOTW tee-shirt; (she had to laugh at the irony of it all.) Both were completely soaked by this time, and smelling like wet dog, as were her jeans. (Thank God she had decided to wear her tennis-shoes and not her flip-flops.) She had her phone, now off, the keycard to her hotel room (room 323), a handful of soggy bills- about two hundred American dollars- and her trusty MasterCard.
Other than these, she was pretty much on her own. (She’d left her purse in Henson’s car. As for her luggage and the rest of her belongings, it was all still safely in her hotel room.… Oh well, she’d always wanted an excuse to re-wardrobe. Now she had one.)
If only she made it back to civilization-
A sudden crunch from behind her caused her to spin around, eyes wide-
It was Puck. The satyr was lugging an armful of busted-up branches and limbs, which, once he arrived; he began fashioning into a frame of sorts, like a doorframe standing up in the middle of the muddy road, in the rain. Only there was no door for it to frame.
Clearing her throat, “Ummm, excuse me?”
No answer… which didn’t surprise her in the least, as silence seemed to be the creature’s best suit. So she waited. After all, what else was there to do?
Whistling the entire time he worked, Puck continued to wind and fit the branches in and amongst each other and themselves, till at last, when he was finally done, he stepped back- It was exactly a door’s threshold that he had formed, an empty threshold.
“If only we had a building to put around it,” she mused, sounding wistful, “then we’d be getting somewhere.” Why this creature decided to build such a contraption now, and what it was for exactly, was beyond her.
As if on cue the creature stuck up his index finger, “Ah-ha,” he said, a broad smile cracking his craggy face. “I have an idea. Can you draw a door?” he asked, gazing upon her.
She could only imagine the look on her face as she answered him, “You want me, to draw a door?” she asked.
“Yes, a door.”
“What kind of door?” She plied her question with as much sarcasm as she could possibly muster.
He smiled a sad little smile, “The kind you draw in the dirt,” he said.
A satyr’s version of sarcasm no doubt.
 
She actually gave it some thought before answering. “Yes I can. Why?”
“Are we really going to play this game?” he asked.
She didn’t know if he was ‘tsk-tsking’ her or what. With some resignation she continued, “Yes I can,” she answered, “draw you a door if you want me to.”
“That’s just it. It’s not a matter of me wanting; it’s a matter of you willing.” he replied.
Seriously! Huffing a deep breath, she stuck her finger in the muddy trail beside her and began to draw a small rectangle the size of a shoebox, with a small round handle on one side, and what could have been hinges on the other. “Satisfied,” she said, slinging some sarcasm and mud of her own around, “ta-da, a door.”
There’s a way you look at small children who are undoubtedly slow, realizing they may never figure a thing out for themselves, but showing eternal patience with them the entire time. That’s the way Puck was looking at her now.
“We can’t possibly squeeze ourselves through that,” he said, “unless you have Jinn on call. You’ve drawn it too small.”
“A ‘what’ on call?” she asked. What in the world was a Jinn? Was he meaning a genie? In the next breath, however, “You never specified a specific size did you? You just asked me if I could draw a door… so I drew you a door.”
Again, with that look in his eyes.
“Fine- you want a door, I’ll draw you a door.” Getting to her feet she grabbed up a broken stick and began sketching lines in the mud. This time it was a door big enough even Puck could go through it.
“Are you satisfied,” she asked, tossing the stick to one side in disgust.
“As a matter of fact, yes,” Puck said, with a grin stretching from ear to ear. In that instant he jumped up, reached down and made to grab at either side of her ‘drawn in the mud, door.’
“Again… seriously?” she said. She was about to say more when he ‘raised’ her drawn in the mud door, out of the mud, shook it vigorously to clear it of any fallen and trampled leaves- picked off a footprint she had accidentally left behind while drawing it, and began to approach his threshold.
“You’ve got to be freaking kidding me,” she began, even as the creature situated her ‘door’ between the upright sticks of his fabricated threshold. A moment later he was stepping back to admire his and hers, handiwork.
Her eyes were drawn first, to the rectangle of mud hanging in the air between some sticks, then the similar shaped hole in the road from where she had drawn it- back to the ‘door’ and then to the creature.
“How?” she began, at a total loss for words.
Looking pleased, Puck gestured her forward. “After you,” he said, reaching out and opening the door. A rectangle of warm light lay just beyond the opening. It looked like the entrance to a room, a library as a matter of fact.
“Are you kidding me?” she asked.
“I think not,” he said, still gesturing.
“But how…?” A sinister look then entered her eyes, “Could you have done such a thing all along,” she asked. Puck averted his eyes, but not before she could see the amusement and answer shining there.
“You son of a-
“Ah-ah,” the satyr said, wagging his broad finger at her, “language. There are children about.”
“Children… where?” she shouted. She could feel the heat swirling up deep within her chest. Her head began to feel like it might explode. “We ran all this way… all the while with you spouting some crap about distance and time and ‘further’ and then you build this… this thing. Are you kidding me?”
The problem was he didn’t look like he was kidding.
Picking up Hilliard’s book, she crushed it to her chest. “Do what you want,” she said, “But I’m not going anywhere near that thing. And there’s nothing you can say or do that will ever make me change my mind.” Enough was enough. In her mind it was time to make a stand, show this ‘creature’ lounging before her, who the boss really was around here.
“Children…” Puck said, the smile fading from his eyes. In that moment he was looking beyond and behind her.
“You keep saying that,” she began, “children. But there are no children here, just us and the mud and the rain, (my hairs never going to recover) and this crap and the dark and this crazy freaking place. I don’t even know where I am or how I’m ever going to find my way back home, or to Theo. I’ve lost my home, all my belongings… my cell-phone refuses to work… and I’m supposed to be documenting the 16th Century with Henson.” She was about to continue on ranting and raving when a deep, rattling, growl sounded from somewhere close behind her, breaking her concentration.
She turned to find two very large, very dark and very angry, wolves crouching just behind her, glaring at her and Puck, through menacing red eyes.
“Children,” Puck matter-of-factly repeated. This time though, all the humor was gone from his voice.
Could her life get any crazier? “Help,” she said.
In that instant the wolves, no further than twenty or so feet back, leapt forwards, fangs barred, hackles up and ears back.
Never had she seen such a frightening display of raw animal power in her life. It was all she could do NOT to freeze in place. Screaming bloody murder she ran towards Puck and his ‘magical’ door of mud. “If this doesn’t work…” she threatened, even as he entered first and pulled her in after. Whatever else she was going to say was swallowed up by the fearful yelp she let out as the doorway of mud and woven tree limbs collapsed in a heap behind her just as the two of them leapt through.
From somewhere in the distance- the sound of rolling thunder and the frustrated whines and barks of wolves fighting. In the next instant she was all elbows and knees, sprawled across the floor, her feet tangled up in a bright reddish-brown rug. Soft, candle-like light filled the room.
***
“Wait, wait, wait… that can’t be right,” whispered Festus, teeth chattering. It took all his strength, but he managed to grasp Kaelynn’s wrist. He lightly squeezed it. At the moment the fever that had been raging within him ever since they’d rescued him from Cinder and the entryway, was eating him alive.
“What can’t be right, honey?” questioned Kaelynn, wiping sweat from the boys brow with a damp rag. In the darkness of the boy’s old room, in the silence of his parent’s ‘empty’ house, his face looked pale and scared. His lips were cracked. His right eye was almost swollen shut, and a deep purple bruise marked his right cheek. All together, the boy was lucky to be alive.
(Now, if only they could break his fever.)
Outside the house, amidst the fallen gloom, all of winter’s fury howled unmercifully.
“You can’t really make a door out of sticks and mud,” the boy croaked. His tongue felt swollen, so did his lips. Occasionally Kaelynn would dribble a few drops of water between them to quench the boys thirst.
In response, Kaelynn smiled. “Well, it seems in this instance you can and we did.” she said. Before the boy could answer, however, her son Phillip entered the room.
“What do you think?” he questioned, his emerald eyes brimming with concern. Behind him, further in the room, Henson paced like a caged animal; the Englishman’s eyes constantly going outside, beyond the window, into the fury of the storm. It was true; Ash had managed to get them out of the Valerian house safely. However, surviving a Montana blizzard during the dead of night with supernatural hunters on the prowl, might prove to be another thing altogether.
“I’m not sure,” Kaelynn replied, pressing the back of her hand to the Festus’s brow. “He’s still burning up with fever. Whatever hold Cinder has on him, is slowly but surely trying to kill him.” This last part she whispered so quietly that only her oldest son, Phillip, could hear. This was a good thing, considering that her two younger children were always within earshot it seemed. (Ash was as good as attached to the boy’s hip. And where Ash was, Eli was sure to be.)
Phillip nodded, “Then just keep on doing what you’re doing,” he said, reaching out and ruffling the boy’s hair, “regaling the boy with tales from before. Regardless of what it appears, we’re actually working on a plan to get all of us out of here, aren’t we Henson?”
At his question, the Englishman stilled his prowl long enough to nod, only to then resume.
Phillip continued, “Henson thinks it best that we wait till in the morning, after the sun comes up. He figures Cinder and his boys are much less likely to be hanging around during the daylight hours trying to find us. To some degree, I agree. However…”
“If anyone knows Cinder, its Henson,” Kaelynn interjected. After all, Henson was the one that spent the most time with the man and not by choice either. “I say we trust his instincts on this.”
Phillip nodded his mind and thoughts a million miles away. “At least you’re doing a good job of keeping him calm,” he added, indicating how she’d been taking care of Festus since they’d rescued him.
“I’m just trying to keep him awake,” she said. “At least until we break this fever. I’ve already maxed him out on pain relievers.” She was about to continue, when her daughter, who had just entered the room, grabbed her by the arm and began pulling at her attention. “What is it, baby?” she asked.
“Is Festus going to be all right, mama?” asked Ash, her eyes filling up. Ever since arriving at the boy’s home, the only thing her daughter kept closer than the boy was her sketch-book. Her daughter seemed content to hold the boys hand every chance she got. From the end of the bed, her twin brother Eli looked just as concerned.
“He’s going to be fine, guys, just fine.” And yet, despite her best efforts, tears still managed to leak from her daughter’s eyes. She wiped them away while doing her best to control her own.
“Is there something more I can do, momma?” Ash asked.
“You can keep on doing what you’ve been doing all along,” Kaelynn said, “holding his hand. You’re doing a lot just by being here.” Ash’s smile was so slight it was almost invisible. “Eli,” she added, “you need to help Henson and your brother plan our escape. Can you do that?”
Eli nodded, relief washing across his face. He had never been one to endure waiting well, she acknowledged.
She waited until Eli had joined Phillip and the Englishman, and Ash was setting on the floor next to Festus’s bed, before closing her own eyes and saying a little prayer for the boy in her arms. Even beneath the blankets, his little body felt like a furnace burning on high. She only hoped he could hang long enough, so she could get him some real help.
Now I know how you must have felt, my love. She was thinking back to a time when Theo had carried another boy home, to their apartment in New York City. That boy had turned out to be Phillip. It had been right after the two of them had been attacked in some alleyway down by the river.
She can remember being so pissed off at the time, not so much now, however.
In her mind, the memory seemed like it had occurred almost a hundred years ago. Perhaps it had, she thought.
Since that time, and the horrible days that followed, all the way until that huge battle in Central Park, her life had become one giant blur, most of the times happy, (her getting Theo back, their subsequent marriage, her ‘adopting’ Phillip, and then the ‘twins’ birth) other times bad, (the death of Aaron and Lycan, everyone deciding to leave New York, forsaking her home and career) to times of terrible change, (Theo losing his ‘real’ wife and daughter, Catherine and Katrina, Phillip losing both his mom and his sister, the permanent banishment from their home, and the complete loss of a land called Nostalgia).
She shook her head trying to reset the memories’, trying her best to stay positive. “I sure wish your momma was here,” she said, looking down into the boy’s glassy, fever-ridden, eyes. “She’d know what to do far better than I.”
The last time she’d seen his mother, Maggie, she’d been standing next to Theo going toe to toe with the guardians of the catacombs beneath the Fallow King’s keep.
“You take care of my boy,” shouted Maggie. “Promise me you’ll take care of him and keep him safe until we get back.”
She had indicated she would.
In that moment the darkness at the far end of the hall seemed to pulse, to move as it were, and intrude upon them, seeping from the corners and the crevices, wherever stone made ninety-degree angles.
Theo, still bleeding heavily from a head wound, was leaning into the only door left, separating them from the darkness in the hall. (He had put up one heck of a fight as they were being taken from their home and brought here to this place- so had Festus’s parents.) Currently, he was doing his best to keep back the night. Thank goodness Festus’s father had joined him. Working together they had managed to wedge the door shut, but for how long, that was the question. After all, it was only a matter of time before the darkness would win out.
They were in ‘his’ domain now.
As if on cue, the darkness at the end of the hallway became complete, utterly black and eternally deep. Now it was only a matter of time before the fortress and its guardians claimed them whole, sealing them beneath the slow grinding corridors of Fallows Keep.
There is a saying, old and true-‘Time may grind slowly, but the stones beneath Fallows Keep grind slower still.’
She now knew what that meant.
“I promise,” she shouted, all too aware of the tears coursing down her and Maggie’s cheeks. “I’ll take good care of him, as if he were my own.”
And still the obsidian walls of the dungeons around them continued to turn.
In that instant, as Theo managed to open a way home before her, she took one last glance at the trio remaining behind, her beloved Theo, Maggie and Carter, Festus’s father. ‘True love always requires sacrifice,’ she thought.
As the darkness at the end of the hall finally broke, despair washed over her. Like a tidal wave, bodies of infestation, the living and the dead, began to pour forth like the plague, driven by the Fallow King himself. As one, they headed towards the only door left standing along the hall, the one Theo and Carter were currently hiding behind-
And then it was too late to look back any longer, as the window of opportunity before her began to fade.
‘All I have to do is get away, even halfway means escape.’ (The idea of what this opportunity would cost them, all of them, was almost more than she could bear. She knew well that the veil before her, the one separating this world from her own, had been torn asunder by Theo’s death and rebirth on that fateful night in New York City, all those many years ago. Since that time, not only had they lost Nostalgia, and their only way back, but a little of themselves as well.
‘So much lost, so little gained…’ she thought. Pathways may still exist, but first she had to get away.
The next thing she knew, she was being pulled from without a wall by her children at the top of some stairs.
As the vision slowly faded, and the realities of the bitter cold night settled back in, Kaelynn took one last opportunity to brush back the boy’s hair. “One thing about good old Maggie, she sure can put up a fight when she has too… especially when she’s defending all that she loves.”

 

 

***

 

Website of Indie Author Steve Muse

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