Aurora’s Demise (Lorelai Epilogue)

Aurora was the high priestess for the Church of the Makers. When one of her most prized priestesses went missing, she pursued those who liberated her. But things didn’t go as planned, and now she must face the consequences.

This story takes place just after the short story Lorelai, if you haven’t read that already, I highly recommend doing so first, though this story can likely be understood without it.

A rock in the road jolted Aurora, the High Priestess of her temple, awake. She attempted jumping to her feet, stopped by ropes binding her wrists to the floor. The fibers rubbed painfully against her skin as she attempted to pull free. She gave up and looked around. Immediately, her eyes locked with those of an Umbrai – a descendant of the Dark Makers – sitting opposite.

Everything about her betrayed this ancestry, a daughter of the Southern Continent: her dark skin, yellow eyes, and dark, curly hair – representing the Chaos that the Dark Makers so wished the world would fall into – that she had braided back into rows like the crops of the field. Her name was Amari if Aurora had heard correctly.

Beside her sat an Aratha, a man of the wild. He looked much like the one who’d come into her temple several days prior. That one was a Paladin of the Crimson Cord, a perversion of the Church’s traditions. This one bore no such mark. On his neck, however, was a nearly invisible tattoo, just darker than his skin, that almost looked like it moved, swirling like fire. He was a Keeper of the Flame – a druidic enforcer. It suddenly felt very warm as Aurora felt her heart leap in her chest. She knew no fear of these paladins and their wards until this very moment, as she looked upon the one likely to be her executioner.

No one else sat in the cart with them.

“Where is she?” Aurora demanded, once again looking to the Demonborn. She’d followed them into the Hartal Wilds to retrieve one of her priestesses – Lorelai.

“Dead,” Amari replied, “you killed her.”

Aurora tried to swallow, fighting back the urge to vomit. With each moment, the fear within her grew. “No, that can’t be.”

Amari sat forward, resting her elbows on her knees. Her face twisted in a scowl. “You could have just let her go. She’d still be alive if you had.”

“No, she can’t be dead.” Words seemed to simply flow from Aurora’s mouth. She didn’t think about what she was saying, only the consequences. “She can’t be dead. She had not yet been with child.”

Amari narrowed her eyes at Aurora, the High Priestess of the Temple of Liberport. “You don’t even care about her, just her ability to bear children. What, was she just ‘prime stock’ to you?”

Aurora shook her head as she continued, “I care for her far more than myself.” For a moment, her fear wavered. “She is of the line of the firstborn daughters of Ynara, the women of utmost respect among the Church, which our temple was trusted to protect. If she is dead, then there is much suffering to come; the force which keeps the Dark Makers at bay is waning. The world will fall into Chaos; the Balance will be no more.”

Amari wasn’t listening. “What good is it that you keep her body alive if you kill her soul in the process?”

“What good is it if she lives a good life if it dooms the rest of us in the process? What is one life lived in turmoil for the good of the world?” Aurora spat. “She needed to have a child, and we did everything in our power to make that happen! You killed her when you took her away!” Her fear returned as soon as she looked at the Keeper once more. It would have been better if she’d died in the raid than be captured. Keepers were not known to let those they execute die easily.

“Hers was not a life of turmoil!” Amari screamed. The Keeper placed a hand on her shoulder. “Hers was a life of torment and sorrow!” Amari’s face contorted, on the verge of tears. “Her death was better than her life,” she whispered.

“She can’t be dead.” Aurora’s own voice sounded distant to her.

“Let the Fires of Truth bear witness,” the Keeper muttered, “the last of the Line of Ynara has passed into the realm of the Shadows. The last of the Line of Ynara has breathed her last. And yet one lives on.”

Aurora’s mouth became very dry as she struggled to breathe. They blamed her for Lorelai’s death. The Keeper was going to exorcise her. Even if they didn’t, the suffering that would come was comparable to the death she was now going to face. She tried to wrap her arms around herself. To comfort herself. To know that she could still feel. The binds digging into her wrists worked to bring her back to reality.

“’Woe to all the land, for the last Daughter of the Maker has passed,’” Aurora quoted from her studies of the visions of the Prophet, “’The Balance shall be no more, and the Dark shall inherit the world.’”

The Keeper, Tupu, was familiar with a similar prophecy told by the Sabulosians and the Druids. “Woe to all the land, for the One who Binds the Chaos is slain. The Balance shall be no more, and the Shadows shall inherit the land.” A translation error, he thought. According to the Druids, ‘the One Who Binds the Chaos’ was no daughter of the Makers, but the World Guardian – leader of the Druids since the Balance began. How much of the Great Teachings have they twisted within their own minds to meet their own ends? How many of them truly believe the lies they spew is truth?

Aurora looked to Amari. “This must make you happy.”

Amari jumped forward from her seat and struck Aurora across the face. “It makes me no happier that the Balance should fall than it does you.” She took Aurora’s chin in her hand, forcing her to look her in the eyes. “But I believe the Balance did not hang on the life of one girl. That girl, however, was far more precious to me than to you.”

Amari shoved Aurora’s face away. “I guess it would be a mercy for you to die – if you are right.”

Aurora sneered as she glanced at Tupu momentarily before focusing back on Amari. To postpone death for a time – there was but one way.

“You cannot kill me,” she said. She did everything she could to hide her trembling. To ensure that they could not know her fear. “Your oath forbids it. You must keep me alive and attempt to turn me from my ways.” She sat up in a show of feigned dignity. A spectacle of righteousness.

Amari took on a venomous smile. She had thought of having mercy. She had been considering it. “That may be true. But his oath requires it.” She nodded to the Keeper before returning to her seat. To attempt manipulating her; that was the tipping point that swung the scales out of her favor.

Aurora’s breathing became quick and shallow as the Keeper began to breathe deeply. Within moments, tongues of flame leapt from his nostrils. He stood and knelt before her, rubbing his hands together. His palms became red, like iron fresh from the furnace as he let a breath from his mouth. A single bout of flame leapt forth.

Aurora squeaked, cowering in fear. She struggled once more against her bonds, splinters of twine digging into her skin.

The Keeper put his hands on her arms; her skin began to boil. She let out a scream and he pressed his lips to hers, a hot breath filling her lungs. Her cries turned to gurgles, and her gurgles to silence as her lungs filled with flame.

She should have been dead within seconds. But the Keeper wouldn’t let her soul go that easily.

Amari looked away from the spectacle just as Aurora’s eyes caught fire. Tiny jets of flame leapt from her pores.

She did not like what Tupu did for them. The violent, gruesome ways that he enacted justice. She thought for a moment: Should I have offered mercy? Should I have followed my oath to do everything in my power to preserve life? “I shall do all that is within my power, that none more blood shall be shed,” the oath went. Her eyes flashed back to the flaming spectacle for a moment. It was a wonder that neither Tupu nor the cart burned. But what justice would there be if she was allowed to live? What justice would there be for those she’s wronged? For what she did to all those under her? For what she did to my dear Lorelai? For what she did to my beloved Delilah?

Delilah once stood against the justice of Tupu. “What good does it do to slay evil? Do we not, by making the evil good, remove the evil? If we make the evil good, and they are truly good, then how much more can they do for us, to bring about more justice? Killing the evil is not justice. Transforming it, that is true justice. I say to you, Keeper, spare this one.

Amari chuckled nervously as a tear rolled down her cheek. Her argument had no effect on Tupu. The sound of the High Priestess burning alive became distant. What would Delilah say now as the one she hated, the one who tormented her, who took her daughter away, tormented her daughter, and caused her daughter to die, burned in the Fire of Justice? Would she say the same?

The crackle of flame stopped.

Amari looked over to Tupu, a pile of ash before him.

He muttered a prayer under his breath, then turned toward her and nodded.

She looked to the pile of ash, hoping Lorelai would climb from it and into her arms. She never did. Amari closed her eyes and wept. There is no justice. No such thing.

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Lorelai

Lorelai is a young priestess for the Church of the Makers, raised to ‘uphold the Pillar of Life’. Someone has come to offer her a way out, but can they stand up to the Church?

The following contains themes of sexual assault. While nothing is explicitly described, the situations may cause distress for some readers. Please proceed with that in mind.

Lorelai stood in the temple courtyard, watching as patrons passed by. She hoped none of them would eye her. The temple never gave the girls much to work with, and Lorelai struggled to cover whatever dignity she might have left – if there was any at all. A young man’s gaze met her eyes, and she forced a smile. He looked away, quickly setting his attention on one of the older priestesses. If she were lucky, no one would be drawn to her too long. No one would ask for her.

She still remembered the first time she was required to ‘fulfill her duty’ to the Makers. She would never forget her thirteenth birthday, as her cries of pain were blatantly ignored.

The previous night, another priestess had visited her – Delilah. She always snuck Lorelai extra food, and always bought her a gift for her birthday. She had a secret stash hidden under her bed so that the other priestesses couldn’t find it. That night was the last time Lorelai saw Delilah. She told her what was going to happen; Delilah told her that the High Priestess was going to make Lorelai perform her first ‘upholding of the Pillar of Life’.

Delilah had told her to focus on the wall. To choose one spot on the wall and stare at it, and to remember her voice. To think of all the gifts she’d been given and the life she wanted to have, instead of the life she did have. And to remember the last words Delilah ever said to her: “I love you.”

The next day, Delilah was gone. The higher priestesses claimed she’d disappeared into the night. Others said that the priestesses did away with her and dumped her in the city sewers to be eaten by rats. Then, as the sun began to set, the High Priestess, who claimed to be Lorelai’s mother, came into her room with a man she’d never seen before.

He was tall, and had fair skin, and a silver circlet sat upon his head – the symbol of priesthood. Lorelai was told to take off her clothes and lie down on the bed. She complied, reluctantly. As the priest climbed onto her, she struggled. It was then her mother held her down, pinning her on her stomach so she couldn’t fight. For a brief moment, her face was smashed into the mattress and she struggled to breathe. Hands wrapped around her as she let out a silent scream, muffled by the cushion. Finally, her face was free. She took in a deep breath and stared at the wall.

Slowly, she retreated inside herself. Imagined that Delilah was her mother. That she lived away from the temple – in the countryside, maybe. That she had an older brother, who defended her from those who would do her harm. That she had a father who loved her and cherished her. She’d never met her father, and she was fairly convinced she’d never met her real mother.

Slowly, she retreated deeper and deeper inside herself until she couldn’t think. She couldn’t hear. She couldn’t see. The only thing she could feel was her vocal cords wearing out as she let out scream after unanswered scream. She thought she heard a laugh – her “mother’s” laugh. By the time she returned to her body, she was alone again, lying in a puddle of filth and tears on her bed.

The courtyard suddenly became silent as Lorelai returned to the present. People around the courtyard sneered at the entryway. She looked over to see a man, dressed in tattered armor, and covered in muck. He had a scar down the side of his face, and a disheveled beard matted with mud – or worse. It was a disgusting sight, were it not for a single feature. Around his left shoulder was a braided cord, made of strands of bold crimson.

She looked to the High Priestess, who was scanning the courtyard to see how her subordinates would react. There would be trouble if Lorelai approached him, but she needed to leave this place, and a Paladin of the Crimson Cord was just the person to help her do that.

Lorelai began approaching him, only to be cut off by her supposed mother.

“My name is High Priestess Aurora. Is there anything I can help you with, Crimson?” she asked. “Have you perhaps decided to uphold the Pillar of Life our way?”

The Paladin’s eyes locked with Lorelai’s before returning to Aurora’s. “How much?”

“Twenty Jades.”

He nodded to Lorelai. “I’ll take that one.”

“Tsk,” Aurora shook her head, “unfortunately, that one’s a favorite of certain patrons of ours, so it’s going to cost extra. One hundred Jades.”

Aurora and the Paladin locked eyes for what felt like an eternity. Paladins helped people without pay – they depended on the generosity of strangers and, as such, were usually poor. Aurora knew this.

The Paladin took in a deep breath before letting out a quick huff. Lorelai couldn’t believe her eyes – a small bout of fire leapt from the man’s nostrils.

Aurora recoiled, her eyes wide as she reached up to cover her mouth in shock. Within the same second, her evident fear turned to determination and hatred. “Leave this place, heathen,” she said, “or I will remove you permanently.” Her hand came to rest on the hilt of the sword attached to her waist.

The Paladin smirked as his own hand settled on the handle of his mace. “Very well.”

Lorelai’s face became downcast as the Paladin turned to leave. He stole a glance at her one last time before stepping out the entryway. At that exact moment, a man approached the High Priestess.

“How much for that one?” He pointed at Lorelai.

Normally, she would upscale the price. But Lorelai had heard the previous exchange. She had attempted to rebel against Aurora. She needed to know her place. “Ten Jades.”

***

Lorelai entered her room and locked the door behind her. She fell against it and buried her head in her hands. She felt dirty. Ashamed. Dejected. She clawed at every part of herself, hoping to feel something as she began to weep. Tears rolled down her cheeks, soaking into her dress – if it could even be called that.

She heard movement but didn’t bother to look up until she felt a hand on her shoulder. She lifted her head and opened her eyes – it was hard to see through her tears. She felt a hand on her face – a woman’s hand – its thumb wiping away her tears. She blinked a few times as everything came into focus. “Delilah?”

Once she could see, she knew that the woman before her now was not Delilah. In fact, if the woman before her now were found by the Church on temple property, she’d be killed immediately.

“Fear not, little one,” the woman said as Lorelai wiped away her own tears.

The woman stood before her, taller than most men she’d seen. Her skin was almost as dark as the night sky, and her eyes were like gold. She was of the Umbrai, people of the Southern Continent descended from demons – according to the Church.

She pulled the edge of her cloak to the side, revealing her shoulder, and the crimson cord tied around it. “I have come by request of my compatriot. I have come to take you away from this place – if you so choose.”

Lorelai sniffled.

“Would you like to come with me?”

Lorelai brought her knees to her chest, hugging them for support. She stared at the floor.

“What is your name, little one?”

Lorelai lifted her head to look at the woman. She looked at her eyes for only a moment before dropping her gaze to the woman’s feet. “Lorelai.”

“Would you like to come with me, Lorelai? And leave this place?”

Lorelai sniffled. She swallowed as she felt a lump in her throat. “No.”

The woman raised a brow and crouched down, leveling herself with Lorelai. “Why not?”

“It doesn’t matter if I leave. They’ll find me and bring me back here. They don’t let anyone leave.”

The woman reached out her hand, caressing Lorelai’s cheek before lifting her head. Lorelai looked her in the eye once again. She saw empathy – understanding. “My name is Amari. I would like to help you, Lorelai. But I can only do that if you are willing to help yourself.”

Lorelai pulled her face from Amari’s hand. “I told you, they’ll come for me.”

Amari stood once more, her hand resting on the mace tied to her waist. “I, too, will come for you, Lorelai. I will come every night to visit you. We can protect you.”

Lorelai shook her head.

Amari’s face fluttered with a pained smile for a moment before she closed her eyes in solemn silence. Lorelai buried her head in her arms. In a few moments, she heard Amari’s cloak swoosh. When she next looked up, she was gone.

***

For the next four days, Lorelai’s life continued as it always had. For the next four nights, Amari came to her room and offered to take her away from the temple. She would join the Crimsons at their camp and become one of their traveling companions. Perhaps one day she, too, would become a Crimson – that was their cycle: to amass traveling companions until a group of three set out on their own, donning a new set of Crimson Cords. For the next four nights, she said no.

On the fifth night, she entered into her room and looked around, holding back tears. There was no one there. No Amari, nor anyone else for that matter. She let her clothing fall to the floor and wandered to the wash basin along the wall to begin cleaning herself once more. She’d already cleaned several times that day, but no matter how much she washed, no matter how hard she scrubbed, she felt she could never be free of the sickening filth.

She began to weep, letting her tears drip down into the basin. As the sobs racked her body, she stopped washing and held her hand over her mouth to muffle her cries. She couldn’t let anyone hear. She shuddered as she took in a deep breath and looked up. Placed in the windowsill was a piece of paper.

She wiped the tears from her face as she crept across the room. On top of the paper was a locket. She picked it up and studied the outside – it was covered in an ornate design – before reading the paper.

Lorelai,

I think the Church suspects trouble. It appears they have increased the guard. I had trouble escaping last night but made it away unharmed. My compatriot has sent this note with a bird, along with a gift, a comfort, I hope, that you will be safe. Know that I loved your mother. She was my dearest friend, and not a day goes by that I do not miss her. I only hope that one day we shall meet again, and, perhaps, on that day, you will be with me. I cannot risk returning this night unless I know that you will be by my side when I leave. If you are willing, tie a piece of bright fabric to your curtain rod before the sky darkens. Once I can see the stars in the sky, I will come for you. Please, Lorelai. Do not make me lose this last piece of her in vain. Come with me.

Amari

Lorelai looked closely at the locket in her hand. She flicked it open to see a tiny painting inside. A painting of the one person who’d ever loved her: Delilah.

She let out a single sob as she stared at the painting. She hadn’t seen her face in over two years. She’d escaped the Church. Maybe she was still alive. Maybe she could see her again.

Lorelai looked back to the letter. Amari called Delilah her mother. The life she wanted wasn’t so far out of reach. She could still have it.

For the first time that she could remember, she smiled.

She looked out the window, scanning the outside. The horizon was orange. The sky wasn’t dark yet.

She ran to her dresser and pulled out the brightest piece of clothing she could find – a large, square piece of bright red fabric. She ripped off the corner and scrambled over to her window, tying it to the curtain rod.

She scanned the horizon once more. On a far-off rooftop, a dark figure crouched. It was hard to tell from so far away, but Lorelai was sure that it was Amari, watching her.

Lorelai returned to the dresser and rifled through it as she searched for clothing suitable for outside the temple. As a Daughter of the Church, born into the temple’s service, she was meant to live there her whole life, rarely, if ever, seeing the outside world. There were a few exceptions, such as when a patron made a particularly sizable donation and preferred to use the temple’s services inside their own home. But that was rare, and they were often transported in a palanquin, so their clothes mattered not. Eventually, she found something she thought seemed appropriate. At the very least, it completely covered her legs and torso and was secured by silk cords rather than carefully placed pins.

Once she was dressed, she sat on her bed and waited.

***

As the orange of the sky turned to purple, the dark figure on the rooftop disappeared onto the street below. Nearly a quarter of an hour later, a shadow flew through her window, lightly tumbling across the floor. Golden eyes looked up at Lorelai.

Amari smiled as she dropped a pack from her shoulder and fished out a wad of clothing. “I believe these will be more comfortable.”

Lorelai unraveled the clothing to find a pair of black trousers, a linen shirt, and a burlap cloak. Amari then pulled a black bodice and a pair of boots from her pack as well, handing them to the girl.

Amari began putting the gifts from under Lorelai’s bed in the now empty pack as Lorelai changed clothes.

“I suspect we won’t be able to leave through the window I came in, so we’ll likely need to go through the hallway.” After finishing with the gifts, she pulled a thin, wooden rod from her other pack and pulled a dart off her belt, pushing it into one end. “We’ll need to move quickly and quietly to avoid attention. As long as you stay behind me and follow closely, we should be safe.”

Lorelai had just tied her trousers when Amari crept over to the door, pressing her ear against it. After listening for a moment, she looked to Lorelai. “Let me know when you’re ready.”

Lorelai quickly slipped on her boots and threw her cloak around her. Once she tied it off, she nodded and made her way across the room.

Amari smiled as she pulled Lorelai’s hood up over her head before listening to the door once more. She held her finger to her mouth and slowly pushed the door open, peeking through the crack. Seeing no one, she opened the door about halfway and peered around the side. The hallway was empty.

She motioned for Lorelai to follow and began making her way to the southern staircase, where there was a door that led out into an alleyway. As they reached the top of the stairs, Amari heard voices down below – men’s voices. Guards, probably.

She looked down between the flights in order to see who was down below. She saw no one.

She started down the stairs as quietly as she could, motioning for Lorelai to stay back. She reached the bottom of the upper flight and leaned over just enough to see the landing below. Two guards, one wearing a helmet, the other holding his under his arm.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to calm her mind. As soon she opened them, the blowgun she was carrying pressed against her lips, leveled with the helmetless guard’s neck. As soon as the dart was loosed, she slipped her mace from her belt and lunged forward.

The helmeted guard’s head turned just a moment too soon. As Amari lunged, he slipped his sword from its sheath, barely blocking the blow. The other guard hit the floor as Amari brought her mace back. The conscious guard tried to jump back, but lost his footing, and his face slammed right into Amari’s uppercut.

Her eyes widened in horror as she dropped the mace to catch him. She lowered him to the ground before rolling him onto his side. His face was covered in blood.

She placed her hand on his heart. “If you shall breathe your last this day, may the Unknowable know you, that you may not fade away in death, but find new life. So let it be said, so let it be done.”

After praying over the guard, she called out in a rasp whisper, “Little one!”

Lorelai’s head peaked over the side of the stairs. Amari motioned for her to follow once more.

As Lorelai reached the bottom of the stairs, she cocked her head at the two men lying on the floor. “Are they dead?”

“No, just asleep. I hope. Come along.”

The pair rushed out the door and into the alleyway before making their way to the next street over. They weaved through the mess of roads that made up the city until finally reaching the Green Gate – so named because it led into the Hartal Wilds. Amari held Lorelai back and watched closely, waiting for one of the guards to be visible under the torchlight.

“Damn.”

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s not the guard I know, he won’t let us through without identifying ourselves – probably won’t let us through at all if he finds out the truth.”

“Can’t you just… knock them out, like you did with the guards in the temple?”

“No, that would only cause more problems. Here.”

Amari turned Lorelai to face her and pulled a small, folded cloth from her belt. Lorelai wasn’t sure what she expected to see in the pouch, but it certainly wasn’t a handful of mud. Amari dipped her hands in the mud and wiped it on Lorelai’s face.

“You priestesses keep yourselves too clean to pass as commoners. If you’re even a little dirty, they shouldn’t even consider the possibility.”

Amari led her to the gate and stood before the guard. “I’d like to leave.”

“Only those on official business are allowed out after dark.”

Lorelai recognized the voice. As she heard it, she realized she recognized his stature, too. She’d never looked him in the eye, but she’d heard him. Felt him. She lowered her head as her body began to scream. For her to run. For her to hide. She knew he was going to recognize her.

Amari wrapped her arm around Lorelai and rubbed her shoulder. “I’m taking this girl to her mother, by order of Captain Ren.”

“Captain Ren, eh? Let me see her.”

Lorelai and Amari’s jaws clenched in unison as Amari pulled back Lorelai’s hood. For the first time, Lorelai looked up at the guard, into his cold, uncaring eyes.

“What business does the Captain have with a girl like this?”

Amari shrugged as she forced herself to breathe. Hopefully, the guard wouldn’t notice.

The guard sighed. “Very well. Go ahead.”

Lorelai threw her hood back over her head and the pair made their way into the district of Aurora. As soon as they turned a corner, Amari scooped Lorelai into her arms and carried her like a sack of potatoes as she broke into a sprint.

“Why are you running?” Lorelai cried as the constant up and down motion forced the air in and out of her lungs.

“Because a bluff can only work for so long. He’s going to try to get the order verified, and when it comes back I was lying, we’re going to want to be long gone.”

Soon enough, they had passed the last darkened house in the wall-less district. Even then, Amari didn’t stop running as they passed between fields of farmland for several miles.

As they finally reached the tree line, she stopped and set Lorelai down.

“We should be fine to walk from here,” she panted. “Our camp isn’t too far from here.”

She stood to catch her breath for a moment before taking Lorelai’s hand and pushing through the undergrowth.

***

The moon sat directly overhead as they reached the Crimsons’ camp. Tents littered the ground, centered around a small stream that flowed through the clearing. A few dark figures wandered about; their hands rested on weapons affixed to their hips as they watched the pair approach.

Amari whistled a short tune and one of the figures nodded before they all returned to their patrolling.

“Are they all Crimsons?” Lorelai asked.

Amari shook her head. “There are only three of us which bear that burden. The rest are our wards, whom we’ve saved and who now save us – though they may become Crimsons one day, like your mother.”

“Where is she?”

Amari tightened her lips. “I wish I knew.”

She pulled a tent flap aside and gestured for Lorelai to crawl inside. Once the girl settled onto the sleeping mat, Amari climbed in and sat down on the other side. Lorelai fell asleep almost immediately.

“Rest now, child,” Amari whispered, “You’re safe.”

***

Lorelai awoke the next morning as the sun peaked through the gap between the tent flaps. Amari was nowhere to be seen, but she could hear talking outside. She waited and listened. Amari’s voice was among them.

She took a deep breath and focused on the fact that she was free now. She could do whatever she wanted as long as she never went back to the city. She could go anywhere, be anyone. But what did that mean for her?

The life she just left behind was all she ever knew. She was born into the Church, raised in it. She wanted out, but she didn’t know what she’d be going in to. She bit her lip as she thought about it for a moment before shaking the thought from her mind. Then, she climbed from the tent.

Standing outside were four people, three of which had Crimson Cords tied around their shoulders. One was Amari. Another was the man who had visited the temple the morning before Lorelai and Amari met. The last two were a man who looked much like the other, and a woman who Lorelai didn’t recognize at all, who had red hair and warrior braids on the left side of her head.

“Good morning, little one,” Amari said as she smiled. Her eyes looked more green than gold in the sunlight.

“I would like to introduce you to my compatriots. This is Salazar” – she pointed to the man who visited the temple – “and his brother, Tupu. And this” – she pointed at the woman – “is Alianna.”

“It is good to finally meet you, Lorelai,” Salazar said. Tupu and Alianna simply bowed their heads.

“Tupu is one of our wards,” Amari continued, “He and his brother were rescued by the Crimson unit we formed from. Salazar decided to become a Crimson. Tupu decided to travel with us after training with the druids to become a Keeper of the Flame – a lawman of sorts.”

Tupu chuckled. “That is one way to put it. Why do you not be honest with the child, it is not as if she has never seen nor heard of the ways of the world.”

Alianna pursed her lips, suppressing the slight smile spreading across her face.

Amari shot Tupu a pensive gaze. “Because I do not like what you do for us.”

Tupu smiled at Amari before looking down to Lorelai. “I am their executioner. Crimsons must preserve life, you see. That is their purpose. Mine is to enact justice. Mine is to exact retribution. To strike down evil where it stands, without regard for the petty ‘Pillars’ that the Crimsons and Church so foolishly revere.”

Amari’s eyebrows rose for a moment. “Yes.”

Lorelai thought back to the day in the courtyard when she first saw Salazar. “You breathe fire.”

Salazar’s eyes shot to his companions.

Alianna raised a brow and frowned as Amari recoiled slightly.

“You did what?” Amari snapped.

“I was trying to intimidate the High Priestess. It’s not like anyone else saw me.”

“You cannot be that reckless,” Amari continued, “They could have killed you.”

“How does he breathe fire?” Lorelai interjected.

Tupu and Salazar both took a deep breath at the same time. Tupu got his words out first.

“It is a learned skill. To move in natural harmony with the elements is something one must begin training as soon as they can talk, otherwise, there is no hope of achieving it. My brother and I were lucky enough to have been trained in it before our home was destroyed by the Church.”

“They are both elementalists,” Amari added, “capable of bending the will of the elements to theirs.”

Lorelai nodded.

“Would you like breakfast, Lorelai?” Salazar asked after a brief moment of silence. “I’m sure you’re hungry.”

Lorelai smiled. “That would be nice.”

***

The camp was quiet that night as Alianna patrolled its borders. They had sent a small contingent to town to gather supplies during the day before leaving the domain of the city tomorrow. Soon, they would be free of this branch of the Church and likely never have to deal with them again.

As she neared the edge of the clearing, something moved in the underbrush. A twig snapped. A flash of steel.

Lorelai woke up to the sound of a shrill scream. Within a second, Amari had sprung from their tent, her mace at the ready. Over a dozen wards were up and battle ready in a moment’s notice, with more soon to follow.

The flash of fire ripped through the sky as torches held high lit from a single spark, sent forth from Salazar’s fingertip. In a moment, the entire camp and much of the surrounding forest was perfectly visible. The Crimsons and their people were prepared for the sudden flash. The Church’s justiciars were not.

The camp flew into motion as the justiciars shielded their eyes. Maces whistled through the air, slamming into the justiciars’ helmets and knocking them out cold.

Those who weren’t immediately felled by the camp’s first counterstrike soon regained their composure as the real fight began.

Lorelai scrambled out of her tent to a maelstrom of blades and clubs. She ducked and weaved, avoiding the many weapons swinging about as she searched for Amari.

As a stray blade swung in her direction, she jumped backward, only to be knocked to the ground by someone slamming into her back. She felt an arm wrap around her waist before being hoisted into the air and onto someone’s shoulder. A justiciar had grabbed her.

She flailed wildly, trying to escape his grip. Before she knew what was going on, she was on the ground again, an arrow through the eye of her captor. She had no idea where it had come from.

She looked around once more and finally spotted Amari. She began running toward her. Amari’s gaze broke from the woman she was fighting for only a second as she shook her head at Lorelai. She only barely managed to block her assailant’s next blow.

Lorelai took a step backward as she watched before recognizing the sword of Amari’s opponent – High Priestess Aurora.

She ran back toward the tent, trying to ignore the fighting going on around her.

Someone tackled her to the ground. She began kicking and screaming as her attacker pinned her to the ground. She was slapped. She opened her eyes to see the familiar face of Alianna crouched over her, a massive gash across her face, from one side of her forehead to the opposite corner of her jaw.

Alianna threw down her mace and grabbed Lorelai’s hand, leading her into the woods without a word.

Lorelai protested, “But we need to help!”

Alianna shot her a piercing gaze as she dragged her to the tree line.

Lorelai knew the reality. She couldn’t fight, she couldn’t help. All she could do was run and hide until the battle was over. They neared the tree line as Alianna knocked weapons away with her shield, shoving several justiciars to the ground.

The Church’s focus began to shift as more and more opposition came against them. If Alianna got away with Lorelai, the Church would lose what they came here for. Arrows whizzed past Lorelai’s head. Alianna only barely managed to duck under them.

Lorelai could see the edge of the clearing. She was going to make it out.

She let out a cry as a stray arrow pierced through her back. She looked down. Its tip was sticking out of her chest.

The justiciars shouted as Alianna pulled Lorelai behind a tree to protect her. They’d gotten out just a moment too late.

Aurora and Amari’s attention wavered for a moment as they both looked in the direction of Lorelai’s cry. Amari used that moment of distraction to get the upper hand, knocking her opponent on the back of the head.

The justiciar’s ran, abandoning the clearing. Tupu slapped shackles on the High Priestesses wrists as Amari ran to Lorelai’s aid.

Her head rested in Alianna’s lap.

“Amari,” she choked. She let out a few coughs, splattering blood across her face.

“I’m here, little one.”

“I’m… free.”

Amari sobbed and forced a smile. “Yes.”

She took in a deep breath, shuddering all the while.

“My dear Lorelai. Your days have been filled with turmoil. Your life has been one of sorrow. I only knew you for a short time, but I love you as my daughter. I hope that this is not the day you breathe your last. But if it is, I pray that the Unknowable may know you. That it may wrap you up in its wings and rescue you from the Field of Ash. That you will not fade away in the cold embrace of death, but that you may be brought into the domain of the Unknowable, renewed with life. That you may have the life you always wanted. And that you may find peace.”

Lorelai smiled as she shook. She could hardly breathe.

“So let it be said,” Amari prayed, “so let it be done.”

Tupu stepped up next to them. “Would you like for me to ease her passing?”

Amari smile faded as tears rolled down her face. She let out a sob and cried aloud. Alianna placed her hand on Amari’s shoulder and she pressed her cheek against it.

She struggled to nod her head as she lifted Lorelai from her lap.

Tupu sat down beside her, crossing his legs as he pulled Lorelai close to him. “I am sorry, child, that you could not have experienced more of the good in this world. May you pass into the realm of the Shadows, and may they make you their queen.”

He began circling his hands slightly in the air as his hair stood on end. A blue spark flashed in his eyes as he placed his hands on either side of Lorelai’s head. She flinched as electricity shot through her mind. Then, she was gone.

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Jonathan Kinkaid

Jonathan Kinkaid woke up in a darkened room; his room. The wary light of the dawn crept through his window and lightly graced the wall above him as he stirred. He felt his pajamas against his skin and the silky sheets that enveloped him on his hands. The springs beneath him poked into his back uncomfortably. He swung his arms in an attempt to throw his blanket off him. It took a few more tries before he succeeded.

He sat up and looked around. He sat on his wooden twin-size bed, hand-carved for his dad by his dad’s grandfather – his great-grandfather. Beside that stood a bed-side table with a glow-in-the-dark alarm clock, its arms pointing to 6:01. Jon committed the time to memory. There was an alligator skin glasses case. He opened it to find his red-framed glasses, a massive scratch on the right-side lens. It happened during PE if he recalled correctly. He put on the glasses and looked around the room once more.

Across the room was his dresser. Next to it was a large wooden chest. His old toybox. He got up and walked over to his dresser and opened the drawer second from the top. Shirts. One stood out in particular – a shirt he’d gotten at science camp. It was in pristine condition; there wasn’t a tear or stain on it. He liked that shirt.

He returned to his bed. His Batman sheets. They were a gift from grandma. Jon always liked Batman. His commitment not to kill. His technical prowess and use of gadgets. Jon liked technology since he was a kid. Woke up before the sun to get on the computer as early as the age of two.

Jon let out a huff as he gave his room one more scan. His Halloween costume hung on the wall. A Batman costume he made himself from construction paper and scraps of fabric. He’d hung it on his wall for a whole year. He’d always wished he could afford a real Batman costume. Or even just better materials. Beneath it was a plastic crate – his comic book collection.

After checking the time – 6:05 – he went to his closet and started looking through the shirts. Almost all of them were smalls. A few mediums. One extra-large that his great-grandmother got him: a Hawaiian shirt. She was old and senile, so it was understandable.

He peaked out his window at the house across the street. It was a yellow brick house with slate grey shingles and pretty, white curtains. There were three cars in the driveway: Mr. Garland’s grey convertible, Mrs. Garland’s cobalt blue minivan, and Sally Garland’s tan four-door. She’d gotten it as a present for her sixteenth birthday. Despite being used, it was in perfect condition. The bumper wasn’t dented. The doors were all placed as they should be. Not a scratch on it.

Jon had always had a crush on Sally. She was pretty. Had wavy, black hair that cascaded over her shoulders, bringing out her pale face. Bright blue eyes. Dimples that pressed deep into her cheeks when she smiled. She was five years older than him, though. For a while, it seemed like she thought it was cute that he had a crush on her. Eventually that faded. Him noticing that her body was pretty nice, too, didn’t help the matter.

Jon looked up at the multi-colored fan affixed to his ceiling. He reached up to pull the cord that would turn it on. It was just out of reach. He could reach the cord that would turn on the lights, though. But neither one would do anything as long as the switch on the wall was in the ‘off’ position.

He sat down on the floor and felt the shag carpet with his fingers. He evaluated himself. He’d gotten used to doing it every morning. Being conscious of his own mental state. To his surprise, he didn’t feel depressed. He didn’t feel hopeless. Didn’t feel like his life didn’t matter. Didn’t feel like dying. In fact, he felt kind of happy. He hadn’t felt that good in years.

He took in a deep breath. He smelled the dust. He smelled the house – that smell you grow so accustomed to after living somewhere a long time you don’t even notice it. He smelled dog potty-training pads.

Sophie.

His family’s Spanador. They’d gotten her the summer after he finished fifth grade. She had brown fur, and big, droopy ears that were too big for her head.

He sat on the floor a while, thinking about the last thing he remembered before waking up in his bed. He certainly hadn’t gone to sleep there, but the details were a little hazy. He was in a car. Going somewhere. By the time he gave up trying to remember, he looked to his alarm clock again. The hands were close to 7:00 now.

He couldn’t remember what time he’d set the alarm for. Probably 7:00. Either way, time seemed to be moving at a normal rate in a linear fashion. He probably wasn’t dreaming. He waited a few minutes and, sure enough, his alarm went off right at 7:00.

He stood up off the floor and turned off the alarm. He opened the door and made his way into the hallway. The shag carpet continued under his bare feet. As he stepped into the hallway, Sophie jumped up from where she was laying down outside his parents’ bedroom door. Her entire rear-end shook from her wagging her tail as she waddled happily to Jon’s feet.

He bent down to pet her. Felt her soft fur on his palm as she excitedly licked his wrist. He felt her floppy ears as he looked into her big, black eyes. He smiled as a tear rolled down his cheek. “Love you, Soph.” After petting her for a few more moments, he looked at the hall around him.

His door was covered in various decorations, most notably: a Batman logo, a radioactive symbol, and a big, red and yellow ‘Keep Out!’ sign. His sister’s door, the next room over, had a glittery butterfly, a rainbow sitting on some clouds, and the head of a unicorn, along with a sheet of pink construction paper with her name, Kimberly, written in crayons of various colors. She’d made the sign with her name on it in kindergarten.

Jon had resented her for a long time. She was born four years after him and seemed to just take away all the attention their parents had previously given him. It wasn’t until they got older that he grew to like her. But by then it was too late. The damage had already been done.

He opened her bedroom door as quietly as he could. The first thing he saw was her pink wall, then the toys scattered across the floor, her bed, with Disney princess sheets that her bright blond hair stuck out of. Maybe she had a nightmare and pulled them up for cover. Or she saw the monster in her closet again.

Jon took in a deep breath and let out a sigh as a smile crept across his face. He closed the door with a soft click. He didn’t want to wake her.

Across the hall from her room was the bathroom. It had a wooden door with a brass knob and a lock. He went inside, closing the door behind him and flipping the light-switch. He shielded his eyes as the light turned on. After giving it a moment, he looked around. The shower curtain with the big sunfish on it. Bath towels with each of his family-member’s names embroidered on them in their favorite colors. His was red, Kim’s was pink, and his parents were green and orange. There were also hand towels with his parent’s initials embroidered on them in gold. The toilet seat was cushioned, with rainbows and unicorns covering it.

Jon looked in the mirror. He blinked a few times before studying his face.

He definitely needed a haircut. He pulled some of his chestnut locks down, and they could nearly touch his cheek if he tried really hard. His hair used to be blond, and in a few years, it would be even darker. He could still see his strong jawline, his dimpled chin, his cheekbones. He felt his cheeks. Perfectly smooth. As a preteen’s face should be. No zits or moles. His ears weren’t pierced. His nose was straight and unbroken. His teeth were just beginning to yellow. If he started brushing now, they’d probably still be white a few years down the line.

He unbuttoned his pajama shirt. Not a single ounce of muscle or fat on him. If he sucked in his gut, he could easily see his ribcage. He didn’t have any surgical scars. Didn’t have any chest or belly hair.

He looked down his pants. Small and hairless.

He pulled up the pant legs. His pencil-thin legs were hairless, too.

He sat, studying himself for a while before he heard movement in the next room over – his parents’ bedroom. He began buttoning up his pajamas and rushed over to the toilet to pee.

“Hi, Sophie,” he heard from the hallway – his mother’s voice – just before a rapping on the bathroom door.

“Just a second,” Jon said as the stream hit the wall of the toilet. His voice was high-pitched. He sounded like a girl.

“Okay!” his mom replied. She sounded happy. He hadn’t heard her sound that way in a while. Not since his dad cheated on her a few years back.

He finished and flushed the toilet before washing his hands. When he opened the door, his mom was smiling.

“What’s gotten into you, washing your hands like a gentleman?”

She had a kind face. Slightly puffy cheeks, with eyes always squinted in a smile, and perfectly white teeth. Her wavy, dark-brown hair was cut just off her shoulders. He was used to seeing it go halfway down her back. She wore a fluffy, white bathrobe, with her and his dad’s first initials embroidered in black on the one side. His dad had a matching black one, with white lettering.

Jon shrugged. Now was as good a time as any to figure out, “Do you know what day it is?”

His mother paused in thought for a moment before smiling excitedly. “It’s my little man’s birthday!”

Jon forced a smile, as cheesy as he could, before stepping out of the bathroom. He made his way down the hall and descended the stairs to the first floor. He made his way to the calendar in the living room. Fourteenth of August 2008. He was eleven years old today. “Jonny’s Birthday” was written in bold, red marker.

His birthday party was going to be at a local kids’ arcade. They served pizza, and you could win tickets for prizes. His best friend, Alan, was going to be there. Jon missed Alan. Jacquie and Dez, too. No one else was going to be there, though. No one else really cared about Jon’s birthday. And Jon didn’t care that they didn’t care. He used to. But not anymore.

He walked into the kitchen and made himself a bowl of cereal: sugary goodness that he hadn’t had in a while. He’d been trying to cut down on his sugar intake recently. But he figured today was as good a day as any to treat himself. He was going to have cake later, anyway. Why not pile on the poor decisions?

He sat down at one of the tall chairs on the side of the island opposite the sink. It had a nice, marble top – uncracked and unblemished. He scooped up a massive bite of cereal.

He expected it to taste amazing. For the first bite to be the best he’d ever taken. He hadn’t had it in so long. But, when he put the spoon in his mouth, he felt nothing. It was just like eating anything else.

Jon sighed as he tried to focus on the night before.

The last thing he remembered was being in the car. Maybe on the way home?

As he tried to remember, his mom came into the kitchen. She had put on sweatpants, and an old t-shirt from college – that’s where she and his dad met. She started making coffee – something she drank every morning but told Jon to stay far away from. He elected to ignore that advice.

After pressing the button to start the coffee maker, she walked over to the cabinet.

“Are you excited?”

Jon forced another smile – not as cheesy this time. “Yep!”

She pulled out a mug – her favorite mug – it was white, with pink and red hearts all over it. His dad got it for her for Valentine’s Day 2007. It was basically a bowl. “What are you most excited about?”

Jon pursed his lips and chewed as he thought about the question. “I think seeing my friends.”

His mom grinned widely as she poured the coffee into her mug. “You see them almost every day, and you’re still excited to see them. That’s true friendship right there; hold onto that, it doesn’t come easy.”

Jon’s smile fluttered for a moment. “I will.”

He ate in silence for a bit while his mom mixed some cream and sugar in before sitting down next to him. “What do you think you’re going to get?”

Presents. Jon liked presents. He wasn’t sure when the last time he got any was. Probably Christmas. He finished chewing his bite of cereal before answering, “Well, what I’d really like is an Xbox. But I know that’s not gonna happen. And an iPod would be nice, but I know that’s not gonna happen, either. So, probably… Fable III, some socks, some shirts, a $20 Walmart gift card, a $20 bill, and… a new Nerf gun.”

His mom gave a faint smile and shrugged slightly as she took a sip from her mug. “Good guesses.”

Jon chuckled. He finished eating before taking his bowl to the sink and rinsing it out. If he was right, the dishwasher should have been run the night before. He looked to his mom. “Are the dishes in the dishwasher clean.”

She smiled. “Yes, they are.”

He set his rinsed bowl and spoon in the sink and dried his hands before opening the dishwasher. It was almost empty – they ran it just about every night. He started taking dishes out of it and putting them away.

His mom’s face twisted into a mixture of happiness and confusion as she took another sip of liquid energy. “What’s gotten into you?”

As he shut the cabinet, he turned to look at her. “What do you mean?”

“It’s like you just turned into a young man overnight. You wash your hands, you don’t talk with your mouth full, you put the dishes away.” She gave him a teasing smile. “What did you do to my son?”

Jon froze for a moment before shrugging. “Maybe I just feel like being a better person.”

His mom shrugged and took another sip from her mug. “Well, I’m not complaining.”

After putting his bowl in the dishwasher, Jon made his way back upstairs to get dressed. He put on a pair of basketball shorts and his science camp t-shirt before sitting on his bed and staring out the window. He looked at the beautiful blue sky, where white clouds drifted across the atmosphere. It didn’t look like it, but it was going to rain. Not that that affected any of their plans.

He looked at his alarm clock again. Almost 8:00. Three more hours to burn until his birthday party.

He went back downstairs and to his desk. He pulled out the drawer that had all his games – some of which his dad gave to him from when he was in college. He looked through them all before deciding on one to play. It felt like forever since he’d played. He expected to be a bit rusty but seemed to do even better than he remembered. For three hours, he let the world move around him, without a single care. He missed that feeling. The only thing that broke him out of his zone was his dad’s voice.

“Time to go, Sport. Put your shoes on.”

Jon closed the game and got ready to leave. His sister grinned widely at him. He smiled back.

The family made their way out to the car and drove to the arcade. His friends were already there waiting.

Alan stood several inches taller than everyone else – probably because he was older than everyone else. He’d been held back in second grade, when he met Jon and they became best friends. The last time Jon had seen him, his hair was pretty long, almost as long as Jon’s was now. Now, he had a buzz cut. He had a scar on his right cheek from when he tried to shave like his dad.

Jacqueline – or Jacquie as everyone else called her – was the shortest of the bunch, with bright blond, French-braided hair that reached almost to her waist. She always wore flannel and jeans, even in the middle of the summer, with cowgirl boots. Everyone at school thought she was weird, but Jon liked her.

Dez – not Desmond, just Dez – was a larger kid. Jon got in more than a couple fights with kids bullying Dez. For his weight and his dark skin.

Jon held back tears as he looked at his friends. He smiled, nay, grinned, as he held out his arms. “Group hug!” he yelled.

They all ran forward and embraced. They saw each other all the time. But they never got tired of each other.

As Jon clung to them, he couldn’t hold back. Tears slowly rolled down his cheeks. He felt them leave his face as they soaked into Alan’s shirt. “I love you guys.”

“We love you, too,” Dez and Jacquie said. Alan was a little less comfortable with throwing that word around. Up until he woke up that morning, Jon was, too.

As he continued holding them, he felt his sister wrap her arms around him. He dropped a hand to pat her back before breaking the embrace. He sniffled and wiped his tears away with his arm. “We go inside?”

The group went inside, and each kid got a cup-full of tokens to use on the games. Jon and Alan went straight to the Skee-Ball alleys, and Jacquie and Dez followed them.

They played through a game, in which Alan swept the floor with Jon. He always used to win because Jon would always end up rolling the ball a little to the left of where he was aiming. He didn’t realize until later that he should aim just to the right of where he wanted the ball to go. Now was later.

“Bet you all the tickets you just won I can beat you.”

Alan eyed Jon skeptically. “You hustlin’ me?”

Jon shrugged and reached out a hand. “You know how much I suck.”

Alan narrowed his eyes as he hesitantly shook on it. “Deal.”

If even half his hits were hundreds, he could beat Alan easy – Alan always aimed for the fifties.

He threw his first ball. 100 points. Second ball. 100 points. Third ball. 100 points. Two more and he’d win. But he’d already proven to himself he could do it. What more point was there? He started aiming for forty.

At the last ball, their scores were 450-350 with Jon in the lead. Only then did Alan take his eye off the goal. He aimed for the hundred. He hit it.

Jon smiled at Alan before lazily tossing the ball. Zero. They were tied up.

“You could have beat me.”

Jon shrugged. “In Japan, it’s considered dishonorable to win.”

Alan shrugged before putting his palms together and bowing at the waist. Jon did the same. He missed the weird little interactions he had with his friends.

They played a few more random arcade games before Jon’s mom found them and announced it was time to eat. After eating, it was time for Jon to open his presents. First was a card from Jacquie with a $20 Walmart gift card in it:

To the friend who makes me laugh when I want to cry

And turns my frowns upside-down

I hope you have a happy, happy day

As you put on your birthday crown

Happy birthday!

Jacquie

As Jon finished reading it, he looked over to Jacquie, giddy with excitement.

“Happy birthday!” she yelled as she threw her arms around him.

He hugged her back before moving on to his next present, a sloppily wrapped box with “To: Jonny/From: Dez” written on it in Sharpie.

Jon ripped through the wrapping paper to find a flimsy cardboard box. Inside were two graphic tees, with characters from one of Jon’s favorite games. He couldn’t control himself as he smiled wide.

“I got you a large,” Dez said, “that way you can’t outgrow ‘em.”

If only that were true.

Alan got Jon a card, too, with a $20 bill inside it, along with a Nerf revolver.

Finally, Jon came to the last box – the one from his parents. It was the wrong size to be Fable III or socks. It almost fit in the palm of his hand. He carefully peeled away the wrapping paper. He had been asking for an iPod since first grade. Now he finally had one.

He thought about trying to get it set up now, but he knew he couldn’t really do that until he got home. Besides, his friends were more important to him now. They played arcade games for another couple hours before eating cake and then heading home.

Jon had dinner with his family – his mother made his favorite, her home-cooked lasagna – before sitting on the couch, trying to decide what to do for the rest of the night. His iPod sat, still in the box, on his desk.

He stared at it for several minutes before looking at his sister. She was playing with Barbies in the living room floor.

“Hey, Kimmy,” he said as he crawled onto the floor across from her, “introduce me to your friend.”

Kimmy’s face lit up. He never realized how happy he’d be to see her smile like that. She squealed excitedly as she talked for several minutes about her Barbie – Beatrice was her name. She was a doctor. That’s what Kimmy wanted to be when she grew up.

First, she wanted to be a knee doctor. Then a brain surgeon. Then a psychiatrist. Then, she died.

***

Jon stared at the ceiling of his bedroom as he tried to fall asleep. He still couldn’t remember what happened the night before. But one thing was clear: this was no dream. He was no longer in his early twenties. He went to bed last night and woke up with a second chance. Maybe everything before was a dream. He’d be starting sixth grade in less than a week, and if history repeated itself, he’d be rolling down the hill of self-loathing in a month or two. He’d one day wake up, with all his loved ones gone or dead.

But that didn’t have to happen.

He could change the past because the past was now his future. It always had been.

For the past four years, he’d been afraid that he was going to die alone after drinking himself to sleep. That his body would be discovered weeks after rigor mortis set in and maggots had started feasting on his corpse. But it didn’t have to be that way. It never had to be that way. It would be an uphill battle no matter what, but he always could have been a better man. He would be a better man and make their lives better. That’s what he decided. Now he just needed to act on it.

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Raphael

An orphan wanders through the woods to find a new home. This is a chapter from my upcoming novel, Devilspawn.

Caleb was given specific directions. He was told to follow the signs. To follow the road to Abba’s house. There, he would always be provided for. There, he would never want.

He was told he shouldn’t make the journey alone. Everyone else was too afraid. Too afraid of what lurked in the woods. Of leaving behind the only place they ever knew. So, he traveled alone, from the village of orphans he’d grown up in.

He followed all the signs, followed Michael’s directions perfectly. Until he reached a fork where there was no sign – at least none that he could see.

It was dark, the faint glow of the stars unable to peak through the forest’s canopy. Up to this point, every sign – with the exception of the first few – had pointed down a road that was clearly far less traveled, with the difference becoming less discernible with each fork. Here, both roads looked equally traveled – as if only a single set of feet had traveled each one several times over. Caleb could discern no other difference.

Caleb wasn’t sure how, but he knew he was close. He’d reach Abba’s house soon. So, he kept going, even if he couldn’t see where. He trusted that Abba would guide him.

Soon, he was set upon by one of the Fallen; its red, glowing eyes jumping out from behind a thick tree. Its bladed tail sliced through Caleb’s back, and he cried out as he fell to the ground. It threw a bag over his head and bound his hands and legs before carrying him off the path. He didn’t know how far.

“Abba, save me,” Caleb whimpered.

He was alone now – his kidnapper, Nivael, having just slipped into the next room.

Caleb could hear him talking to someone, although he didn’t know who. The Satan – who works to lead Abba’s children astray? Another of the Fallen, like Nivael? Another orphan, like Caleb?

He didn’t know and at this point it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he continued to call out Abba’s name. That’s what Michael told him. “Call on Abba’s name, and He will send help.”

So, he repeated again, “Abba, I’m sorry. I took a wrong turn. Please, save me. I know You’re far away, but, please, hear my cry. Save me, Abba.”

Caleb heard a chuckle from the door. Nivael.

“You really think He cares about you? You think that with all the children He’s adopted – millions upon millions – he really cares about you?”

Nivael chuckled before calling into the other room. “Hey, this kid thinks he matters!”

He turned back to Caleb.

“You’re just some random kid who forgot the directions laid out for you. I did better than you did. At least when I went the wrong way, it was my choice.”

Caleb stopped his pleading for just a moment. He looked at Nivael as tears streamed down his face. “You think you’re better than me, just because you chose this? Because you chose to reject Abba’s love?”

Nivael let out a scornful laugh, his eyes darting to the side before focusing back on Caleb. “I didn’t reject Abba’s love. I accepted freedom. I listened to the words of the Satan, and, you know what, he made a lot more sense than Abba. To be able to wander through the woods as I please. To not be locked up inside Abba’s house, only to leave so that I can go ‘guide’ and ‘protect’ other orphans. No. I don’t want that.”

Caleb squinted at Nivael and sniffled. “Are you left wanting?”

Nivael scowled.

Caleb shook his head. “Abba, save me,” he whispered again.

“What was that?”

“Abba, save me,” Caleb repeated, louder this time. He began repeating it over and over again, slowly increasing in volume.

Nivael shook his head.

Eventually, Caleb’s words turned into screaming.

His screams repeated for many hours, until his throat became scratchy and his voice weak. But, no matter how much it hurt him, he had to keep crying out. He needed help. He needed Abba.

Just as he could scream no longer, the door leading outside swung open. The room flooded with light as a new figure entered. A servant of Abba, given the power of shining light, even in the darkest of places. The figure pointed at Nivael, who froze in place. “You shall not have this one.”

Caleb tried to call his name, but he could only manage to mouth it. “Zedekiah.”

Nivael broke from his trance and sneered at Zedekiah. “You think you can save him? You think you can defy the will of the Satan? He was the highest of Abba’s servants! You are feeble and weak compared to him!”

Nivael lunged at Zedekiah. His mane looked like a blaze of fire as he reached out his claws at the figure of light.

Zedekiah reached out His hand.

Nivael flew across the room. His bones shattered as he slammed into the wall and slumped to the floor.

Caleb could hear someone stumbling in the next room. A door swung open and he heard heavy footfalls running from the building. The sound slowly faded.

Zedekiah approached Nivael’s corpse. He strained to draw breath. “Yes. I can save him. And I do defy the Satan. I regret that you chose this name for yourself. I give you one last chance. Choose Abba.”

With all the strength he could muster, Nivael spat in Zedekiah’s face.

Zedekiah placed His hand on Nivael’s forehead, and he drew his last breath. “Goodbye, child.”

As Zedekiah turned to face him, Caleb shuffled around on the floor.

“Abba sent me,” Zedekiah said, bending down to untie Caleb’s bindings. “He was eagerly awaiting your cries for help, and He heard them. It is by your faith – your unwillingness to give up – that you are saved. Abba’s house cannot be reached without that”

Caleb sat up as he rubbed his wrists with his hands.

Zedekiah smiled at him – at least, Caleb thought He did. It was difficult to see His face. “You shall have the name that should have been Nivael’s.”

Zedekiah placed His hand on Caleb’s forehead.

Caleb felt a burning sensation. But it was comforting.

When Zedekiah moved His hand, Caleb’s new name was written there. He didn’t need to see it to know what it was. He knew it in his heart.

“What does it mean?”

Zedekiah stood up, taking Caleb into his arms before walking out the door. “God heals.”

Sunny

A dedicated guardian protects a child from the creatures of the night.

For all intents and purposes, Sunny was alone in the night. His charge was asleep, and there was a certain eerie stillness. The silence echoed in Sunny’s ears as he sat staring off into the black, waiting for whatever dangers awaited him. His charge stirred – a little girl. She held tight to Sunny as she snuggled closer, nuzzling Sunny’s face. No matter what dangers Sunny faced only one thing mattered – protecting his charge.

Not a single sound met Sunny’s ears, save for the occasional cough from another room. But the coughs came from nothing dangerous. No, if something dangerous were to show itself this night, it would give no warning. It would simply appear, whether it was under his charge’s bed, through the windows that led out into the night, or behind the door in the corner.

Darkness lurked in every hidden place, peaking out as it hid from the light. It lived in the hidden places to torment Sunny’s charge as it became new every night and brought new horrors with it.

Many would have been afraid as they waited, restless and alone in the silent dark. But Sunny was not afraid. He was never afraid. Everything that sought to hurt his charge, he destroyed. Everything that entered the room that shouldn’t, he defeated. No future night would ever be any different.

The door on the far wall opened; light rushed into the room, making the darkness flee. A face peaked through the crack between the door and the wall. It smiled at Sunny and his charge, then receded, taking the light with it as the door clicked shut.

Sunny waited for hours that night in silence and solitude. Waiting for something to come after his charge.

From the dark of the corner door crept a shadow, moving like a faint wisp as it appeared in the room. Its eyes glowed red in the dark, staring at Sunny’s charge. It stood tall, its dark figure towering so high that it had to hunch over to fit in the room. Its horns reached high above its head, and a tail whipped around behind it. It clopped its hooved feet on the ground as its gaze met Sunny, carefully pulling himself from the arms of his charge so as to not awaken her.

The dark figure recoiled as its eyes locked with Sunny’s – black beads that glistened from the lamp outside the bedroom window. Sunny stood tall on his charge’s bed and waddled toward the dark figure.

The figure let out a chuckle. “What is this that stands in my way? A puny thing, with no beating heart of courage nor breath of life to sustain it? With no mind for wisdom, nor muscle for strength? No soul in which to fear?”

Sunny stared into the figure’s fiendish eyes. “You will not harm this girl.”

The figure had no mouth, but it frowned nonetheless. “And how do you expect to keep that promise?”

Sunny stood, motionless. He didn’t say a word. He just stared into the figure’s eyes, and refused to look away.

The figure stared back. He’d have moved forward had Sunny not been there.
But Sunny was there.

The figure stood up as tall as it could with such a low ceiling. “I will have that girl.”

Sunny stared back.

“I will take her.”

Sunny didn’t move.

“She will be mine.”

Sunny stayed silent.

The figure squinted at Sunny as it stayed standing at a distance. It couldn’t reason that such a diminutive thing could pose it any danger. But it wanted to be sure.

“Who are you, oh tiny guardian?”

“My name is Sunny.”

The figure crossed its arms. “Well, that is a peculiar name.”

“What is yours?”

The figure raised an eyebrow. It’d never been asked such a question before. “Well, I suppose I can be called Darkness.”

“Darkness,” Sunny repeated. “I’d say that’s a more peculiar name than Sunny, wouldn’t you agree?”

Darkness recoiled. “Well, I would say so, too, were it not for the fact I had to make up the name on the spot. Where did Sunny come from?”

“It is the name given to me by my charge – the girl.”

Darkness looked to the girl. “So, you did not name yourself?”

“No.”

“Well,” Darkness began, “what sort of creature are you that you should be subject to the name that others give you rather than your own?”

“I am no creature, sir,” Sunny replied. “I am but a guardian. This girl is my life. Should she be harmed, I am nothing. What creature are you that you should harm a girl?”

Darkness was silent for several moments. “A creature which must feed. That must feed on fear, on nightmares, on a human’s natural inclination to hate that which they do not know in worry that it may bring them harm. What would they fear if there was nothing to harm them? Thus, I must, in order that I may feed myself.”

“So, you would harm her to save yourself?” Sunny asked.

“Yes,” Darkness answered.

Sunny would have smiled if he had a mouth. “Well, I protect her to save myself, I suppose.”

“So,” Darkness said, “it seems that one of must die.”

“You could leave,” Sunny replied.

Darkness let out a faint whistle – perhaps its own form of a laugh. “I’m afraid you must die, little Sunny.”

“You are afraid, aren’t you?” Sunny would’ve smiled if he could – not because he enjoyed Darkness’s fear, but the irony of it.

Darkness lurched forward with excellent speed, lunging over Sunny’s head. Or so it thought.

Just before its claws sunk into the girl’s skin, it felt a pain in its abdomen.

It looked down.

Sunny had claws of his own.

White strands like lightning surged forth from the little guardian’s hands and crept through Darkness’ veins.

It felt itself burning from the inside out.

It launched across the room with incredible speed, slamming into the wall. As it pulled itself up off the ground, Sunny jumped from the bed.

It tried to run around him. It tried to trick Sunny by ducking back and running the other way. It tried leaping through the air to pass over his head. But, no matter what it tried, it couldn’t escape.

Sunny reached out like lightning once more, grabbing Darkness once again and throwing it against the ceiling.

It came down with a crash and Sunny’s charge stirred.

Without standing, Darkness launched itself from the ground and toward the bed, only for Sunny to grab its foot, swinging it high over his head before slamming it back into the floor.

Darkness rolled around in a daze as Sunny waddled over to its stunned figure.

“You were right to fear me.”

Sunny placed his hand on Darkness’s forehead, and the light began to seep through its veins once more.

It burned.

It ached.

Darkness opened its mouth to scream, but there was no sound.

It had silenced the screams of so many before – children with no guardians – as it crept into their mind while they laid awake. As it taught them to fear the dark, to fear those around them, to fear the world.

It had taught so many to fear before, yet it had never learned fear itself.

Through the window, Darkness learned fear.

The sky was orange as the sun sat just below the horizon.

It had waited too long. It had taken too much time talking to the little guardian that now held it in place. It should have left the moment it saw Sunny. It tried to retreat, back to the door in the corner of the room. But it couldn’t.

Sunny held it in place.

“You would cause my death?” it asked, its voice trembling as it became filled evermore with the fear it sought to wreak upon others.

“I would. If it saves my charge.” Sunny looked down at Darkness. He would have felt pity if he’d seen its face in any other circumstance. Instead, he felt triumph. “Would you like to say anything more before you die?”

Darkness stared at the horizon as its death came closer and closer. “Please, spare me.”

Sunny cocked his head. “If I were not here and my charge asked you for the same mercy, would you offer it? Or would you ignore her and take her mind, regardless of what she wanted?”

Darkness began to weep, its tears like crystal in the orange glow of a new dawn. “I can change, I swear it. Please, spare me.”

Sunny gave it the same emotionless stare he gave everything. “No.”

As Sunny spoke the word, the sun peaked over the horizon.

Darkness let out a terrible screech, though it didn’t bother Sunny and certainly didn’t wake his charge – in fact, it seemed to make her smile.

Light leapt through the window and slammed into the wall. Darkness recoiled at the rays shining above it. They climbed down to touch its form, Darkness turning into a shadow with every inch they traveled. Its figure slowly disappeared as it writhed in pain and tried ever harder to find an escape. But there was none.

Sunny was once again alone. He stood, staring at where Darkness had been. He felt no pity for it, no remorse. Neither did he feel joy or happiness at its death. It was only a means to the end of protecting his charge.

He climbed into the bed and looked at the horizon to watch the sun crawl ever further into view. He liked watching the sunrise.

Then the girl stirred.

Sunny walked back over to where she lay, carefully crawling into her arms so as to not wake her. He nuzzled up to her face and gave her one last hug. He never knew which hug would be his last. He never knew when she would stop needing him. But for now she did.

As her eyes opened, he felt his thoughts leave him. He regretted that he could never speak to her. That’s the one thing he did regret. For as long as she was awake, he was nothing more than a teddy bear.