Maxwell Novacek and the Shepherd of Ruin

Exorcist Maxwell Novacek is sent to investigate Petunia, a girl suspected to be possessed by demons.

The sun was high in the sky as I pulled into the parking lot of the orphanage. I stepped from my car, looked down as I adjusted my cassock one last time. It was my first time on official church business—investigating a troubled girl in the area. The headmaster thought it to be a possession, but my bishop claimed otherwise.

“There are no spirits to possess,” he said. “It is simply an archaic understanding of the tricks of the mind.” He had sent me, not to truly investigate the girl, but to simply give the headmaster peace of mind. Given the proper care, the girl could become an upstanding citizen.”

I stepped through the glass front door into the waiting room, where several couples sat, waiting to be interviewed. A lone man sat by himself, reading a newspaper, wearing a pair of blue coveralls and a baseball cap. I thought nothing of him at the time.

Sitting at the curved desk opposite the entryway was an older woman looking down at a computer screen. As I stepped in, she glanced up, put on her glasses. She smiled, before taking her glasses back off and returning her attention to the computer.

I could feel the eyes of the couples around me drawn to my unusual dress as I walked across the room. I wished I could have worn street clothes, but, alas, official church business. The receptionist looked up at me as I reached the desk.

“Father Novacek?”

I took a deep breath through my nose. “That I am,” I said, letting the breath out slowly, felt the stress ease away.

“One moment please.” She picked up the dial-less phone beside her. “Father Novacek is here to see you.” She gestured to a nearby seat. “Mr. Kay will be with you shortly.”

I took a seat, stared into space for a moment. I fished my wallet out of my brief case, a polaroid out of my wallet. My family. The family I’d lost. One was taken from me by God Himself, the other I took away by my own shortcomings. Alive, but gone from me.

I bit my lip as I thought about their laughter. As I thought about who I would be if they were still around. Of the things I threw away when I answered the call. I shut my eyes tight as I thought of everything I’d thought I knew.

For a moment, I forgot how many eyes were on me.

“Father Novacek?”

A man stood before me in a sweater vest and horn-rimmed glasses, hints of grey in his curly, dark brown hair.

I stuffed the polaroid back into my wallet, my wallet back into my briefcase, stood. I shook his hand. It was clammy and he was clearly shaken.

“Rodger Kay. Would you like to speak in my office?”

“Of course.”

I followed him down the hall. The office was cozy: had cream-colored walls, a mahogany desk, plush chairs, a few pictures on a shelf behind him—wife and kids by the look of it.

Mr. Kay took a seat, began poring over an open folder on his desk. Let out a heavy sigh.

“Petunia ‘Petty’ Trinidad; ten years old. Mother died in a car accident when she was five and her father mysteriously died of asphyxiation soon after; grandparents were already deceased, no other relatives wanted her. She’s been here for the past five years—except the few times when she was adopted.” He paused, clicked his tongue as he continued reading the file. “She’s always well-behaved, gets along great with the staff—except one time, but…” He trailed off, shook his head.

“What happened the one time?”

“Father Novacek, please understand, we do very thorough background checks on all our workers, and the caretaker has been fired.”

My face began to feel quite warm and I felt a bead of sweat roll down the back of my neck. “What happened?”

“We, um…” He coughed. “We’re not sure—exactly. A commotion drew the attention of several staff, and they found the caretaker in Petty’s room. Petunia had the caretaker in a choke hold, just kept saying, ‘the pain will go away eventually, you taught me that,’ over and over. The front of her shirt had been ripped open. When we spoke to the caretaker later, he said he thought she was at lunch with the other children—had gone to replace her bedding and she’d attacked him from behind.

“That was nearly two years ago now and we’ve taken measures to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

I nodded in understanding as I listened to the man. “So why have you asked for me?”

Mr. Kay let out a huff. “I mentioned she’s been adopted a few times—keeps being sent back here.”

I nodded. “It’s odd, yes.”

“She hasn’t just been sent back—she’s left a trail of bodies in her wake. Everyone who adopts her dies. The mothers usually die some violent death—car accident, mugging gone wrong, whatever.” He stared into space as he spoke. “The fathers usually die soon after from something like an allergy, or carbon monoxide poisoning, sinus infection. Sometimes the mother dies by her own hand after the father, but both parents always end up dead.

“The only exception was a woman who found her husband’s body, brought Petunia back here the next morning. She seemed scared.” Mr. Kay began rubbing his hands together nervously. “She just kept saying she felt like she couldn’t care for Petty on her own. Still alive as far as I’m aware.”

I shrugged, leaned forward. “So, you think a demon is possessing Petunia, causing these deaths.”

He shook his head. “I know she’s behind these deaths. I just can’t understand how.”

“Would you mind if I speak with her?”

“Of course.”

He led me through a couple hallways into the dormitory.

It was a nice dormitory as far as group homes go. Each child had their own private room, with carpeted floors, a full-size mattress on a box spring, a nightstand, a wardrobe, and a desk.

When we entered the door of her room, Petunia was sitting on the floor at the foot of her bed, holding a barbie in her hand. The skin was faded over most of it, and certain portions were clearly burnt, the plastic black and melted. She was moving the arms up and down, watching them. It was like she was studying it—trying to determine what made it tick.

Almost as soon as Mr. Kay opened the door, she jumped, both her hands quickly falling to the floor as she tossed the barbie under her bed. Her eyes darted back and forth between us, eventually landed on me. She squinted at me, cocked her head. Looked back to Mr. Kay, smiled. “Good morning Mr. Kay.”

“Good morning, Petunia. This is Father Novacek, he’s with the Church. Do you mind if he asks you a few questions?”

“About what?”

Her words sounded curious, but there was a hint of hostility in her tone. She stared at me, one eye squinted in malice, the other upturned and cheerful.

Mr. Kay hesitated. “Your families.”

Petunia frowned—insincerely. “I have no family.” I found it hard to believe she was only ten years old.

Mr. Kay’s lips tightened uncomfortably as he let out a sigh. He held out his hand, gesturing I could enter before him. I stepped into the room, crouched down.

“Petunia, Mr. Kay thinks you might be in some trouble, and I’m here to help you out. Would you let me help you?”

Petunia furrowed her brow as she scooted away, pressing her back against the bed. “I didn’t ask for help.”

“Do you need help?” I asked. An odd sort of question, I’m aware, but one I thought pertinent to the situation—especially depending on whether she answered the question asked, or another.

Her jaw tightened. No answer.

“Why haven’t you asked for help?”

She pursed her lips as she pressed herself harder against the bed frame. “I don’t like asking for help.”

I nodded. “Mm.”

Her eyes fluttered to Mr. Kay angrily before returning to me.

I sat on the floor, crossed my legs. I relaxed. “You started living here five years ago, is that correct?”

She looked down at the floor beside her, crossed her arms.

“What was life like before living here? Did you like your life before?”

She kept her head turned away as she looked at me through the corner of her eye. I had never seen such hatred in such a young face.

“I have a daughter, you know.” I shrugged. “It’s a little odd for a priest to have a daughter, I know, but I do. She was a little younger than I think you are now when she lost her mother—my wife.”

She looked away again, turned her head further. It reminded me of my Mary, the last time I’d visited her. She wouldn’t even look me in the eye; her hatred for me because I knew I couldn’t raise her combined with her teenage angst made the anger she felt too much to bear. This little girl had the same anger, the same rage, filling her, but in a body six years younger.

“Please look at me, Petunia.”

She bit her bottom lip, looked at me out of the corner of her eye once more before pushing herself up off the floor and onto her bed. I watched as she shuffled her way across the mattress until her back was pressed to the wall. She glared at Mr. Kay.

I stood up, let out a sigh. “Would you mind if I read something for you?”

She scowled at me.

I carried my briefcase over to the desk, opened it, produced a Bible. I sat at the foot end of the bed and flipped it open—Mark 10.

“And they brought young children to him,” I read.

Petunia let out a huff.

“That he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them. But when Jesus saw–“

“Stop!” she said. She hadn’t screamed, hadn’t yelled, only slightly raised her voice. She stared right at me; the corners of her lips turned in the subtlest smile as terror emblazoned her eyes. “My parents deserved to die. All of them.”

I shut the Bible, looked to Mr. Kay; he seemed more surprised than I. I looked back to Petunia, frowned.

“What makes you say that?”

She scowled at me. She glanced down at the bed, frowned. She appeared confused—like she didn’t know where she was. Her eyes landed back on me; realization dawned on her. “Leave me alone.”

“Petunia, I can’t–“

“Leave me alone!” Her scream echoed off the walls of the small room.

I took in a sharp breath through my nose. “Okay.”

I stood up, returned the Bible to its place in my briefcase. I started toward the door, nodded to Mr. Kay—who quickly stepped out of the way—and shut it behind me.

“Would you happen to have an address or phone number for the surviving mother on file?”

***

It was nearly a two-hour drive to Longmont, the gated community where Lorraine Pembridge, the only surviving mother of Petunia, lived. A buzzer sounded as the guard let me through the gate into the neighborhood. Within a minute, I was pulling into a large, U-shaped driveway in front of a rather large house. Nearly a dozen trucks were parked on the street outside.

A woman, perhaps a little older than myself, answered the door.

I nodded in greeting. “The Lord be with you.”

She squinted at me. “And also with you. Can I help you?”

I smiled, though I knew it didn’t reach my eyes. “I’m looking for Lorraine Pembridge, is she in?”

The woman stepped back, gestured for me to enter the house.

There was a large entry hall, complete with a marble floor, a double staircase leading to a balcony up above, and a large fireplace on the far wall. A construction crew was busy surveying the house.

“My apologies,” she said as she led me through one of the many doors that lined the hall, into a sitting room. “I’m trying to get an estimate on the value of the house to see if it’s worth selling and moving somewhere smaller.” She let out a quiet sigh as she gestured for me to take a seat on the plush couch. “Given that it’s only me now. Can I get you anything? Perhaps some water, or tea?”

“I’ll take some water, thank you.”

I was alone as she left to fetch the water. This room had a hardwood floor, another fireplace (which had a painting of Lorraine and a man that I assumed to be her late husband), and several well-cushioned sofas. Large windows looked out into the sprawling yard out behind the house, and along the same wall was a liquor cabinet, with many kinds of drinking glasses, but no bottles.

“Here you are,” Lorraine said as she set a coaster and glass of water on the end table beside me. She sat in the sofa across from me. “Why is it you were looking for me?”

I took a quick sip of water. “You adopted a little girl named Petunia around six months ago, is that correct?”

Lorraine’s face hardened. “My husband and I did, yes.”

“I wanted to ask you some questions about her.”

Lorraine leaned back into her seat, crossed her arms. “Why?”

“Because I believe this may be a matter of importance to the Church. Every parent that has adopted Petunia has died soon after the adoption—except you.”

Lorraine’s jaw slacked as her brows flared.

“All the mothers died violent deaths and all the fathers died of breathing difficulties soon after. Why didn’t you?”

Her brow knit together as she stared at the floor in thought for a moment. She appeared to be making a decision. “I– I didn’t tell anyone before, but I nearly died that day—the day I found my husband, my car stalled on the tracks just down the highway. It was foggy, so I didn’t realize a train was coming—someone busted the window and pulled me out just before the train crushed my car.”

I craned my head. “Do you know who saved you?”

She looked to the ceiling in thought, shook her head slowly. “He was bald. I think he was a mechanic. That’s all I remember. He offered me a ride home, and I was going to refuse, but there was a woman there with him. She said her name was Ariel, I think. Oh! The man was named Ambrose. I didn’t recognize either of them, haven’t seen them since.”

I nodded as I took a mental note. “Do you mind if I ask you more… uncomfortable questions?”

Lorraine bit her bottom lip. “I suppose not.”

“What happened when you returned home?”

She shook her head, shrugged. “Everything seemed fine—at first.

“I was coming back from a luncheon with many of the other women in the community but had made a detour to the grocery store. Bob worked from home most days, so he was home with Petunia the whole time. Usually, if I was out and he was still home, I would come back, announce that I was home, and he would run to greet me.”

She had a hint of a smile.

“He would sweep me up into his arms, kiss me, and tell me how much he loved me. But, on that day, all I could hear was a faint grunting noise, coming from the upstairs bathroom. I ran up to see what was going on, he–”

She choked on her words.

“Bob was lying on the floor. His face was… blue. Pe– the girl– was kneeling over him, beating her hands against his chest. Tears were streaming down her face, but… I swear, she was smiling. Just kept saying, over and over, ‘Quit complaining. The pain will go away eventually, you taught me that.’ She finally stopped and looked at me. I was frozen, I couldn’t– I just watched, I don’t think I even cried, I just… She looked at me, started repeating the same thing, ‘The pain will go away eventually, you taught me that. Suffering is just a part of life, you taught me that.’

“I took her back to the orphanage the next day. The coroner said that he died of drowning—maybe he was getting a drink of water and it went down the wrong pipe, but… Why is the church involved? Do you think she’s possessed or something?”

I took in a deep breath. “I’m sorry you had to relive that.” I wiped my hands on my cassock. “My superior doesn’t think there’s anything wrong, that she’s just troubled, but… the more I learn about her, the more I think Mr. Kay might be right. That she is, indeed, possessed.”

Lorraine let out a sob, rubbed her forehead.

I took a deep breath, let out a sigh. I didn’t want to abandon this woman, but in order to help I needed to be elsewhere. The church my bishop resided over was nearby; then it occurred to me I didn’t need to go there. “Do you have a phone I could use?”

She nodded, stood, and gestured for me to follow. Tears had begun welling in her eyes, though she tried her hardest to suppress them.

I rang the bishop and exchanged pleasantries as Lorraine left. Afterward, I lowered my voice so that the contractor couldn’t hear.

“I need permission to exorcise the girl.”

I was met with silence at first. “No.”

“No?”

“No, I do not grant permission. Have you conducted your proper investigations?”

“Not all of them, but I have reason to believe the girl is in some way in the domain of the devil—if she is not possessed, there are certainly demons attached to her.”

“I told you before, there is no such thing as possession.”

“And you call yourself a bishop?” My voice rose, attracting the attention of the contractor for a moment.

“You call yourself a bishop?” I repeated, this time a whisper.

“The Pope calls me a bishop,” he growled. “I am a man of God, and you will do as I say. Complete all the necessary investigation, pronounce her in fit spiritual health, and call it done.”

“Why did you ask for me?”

Silence.

“Why did you request I be placed in your diocese?”

“I did no such thing. Someone else decided it was necessary, I don’t know why, I don’t care why. But you are under my authority and you will behave as such.”

I took in a deep breath, closed my eyes, bowed my head, and pinched my nose. “The Lord be with you.”

I replaced the phone on the receiver before he could respond.

***

I prayed throughout most of my drive back to the orphanage. I thought about what Lorraine had said, compared to what Mr. Kay had said. What Petunia had said: “You taught me that.” Had she really been speaking to those around her? Had she been speaking to whatever spirit afflicted her? Had she just been speaking to her deceased parents?

Those in the waiting room had completely rotated out, not a single face was the same, not even the receptionist—except one. The lone man, sitting with his newspaper, remained in the corner of the waiting room.

I looked to the receptionist, now a younger woman who wore a cheery, never-ending smile. I walked over to the lone man.

As I sat beside him, he continued staring at his newspaper. His eyes didn’t move.

“What’s happening in the world these days?”

He cleared his throat before speaking with a low voice. I had to lean closer to hear him.

“A little girl’s future is in the hands of two men—one says there is nothing wrong with her, the other knows there is but is under the authority of the first.”

I didn’t know what to say. I sat and stared at the man. My eyes wandered down to the name tag on his coveralls: Ambrose.

“Have you been following this girl?”

“My employer told me to.” He turned the page of the newspaper. “I don’t ask questions—do you?”

I pursed my lips in thought. Was he saying I should, or saying I shouldn’t? He seemed to be indicating I should defy my superior, yet he was saying that he wouldn’t defy his.

He closed and reopened the newspaper to the same page.

I stood, walked to the front desk. “I’m Father Novacek, here to see Mr. Kay.”

She spoke over the phone on the desk before asking me to take a seat. How much more of Petunia’s life had Ambrose been there for, watching as people died? And how did he seem to know more about what was going on than I did? And what was going on with her? Some of her behaviors mimicked that of demonic possession, but was it in the power of a demon to manipulate things such that people would somehow die around the girl for seemingly unrelated reasons?

I didn’t have much time to contemplate these questions: Mr. Kay soon approached me, asking me back into his office once more.

He stood behind his desk, waiting for me to sit. I did not.

“My… superior,” I said, “would like for me to proclaim that this is no demonic possession and that the deaths related to this girl are mere coincidence and nothing more.”

Mr. Kay momentarily slumped.

“I do not, however, agree with my superior.” I cleared my throat as I prepared to—as far as I was aware—defy the will of God Himself. “I believe that an exorcism is necessary and, while Church law dictates that I can do no such thing without my bishop’s permission, I believe God wills that this be done. If not, then my soul shall surely burn in Hell.

“Take me to her.”

I once again entered her room. She sat on her bed, staring out the window. She remained still as I entered the room.

“I have other business to attend to,” Mr. Kay said, leaving me alone with her. I felt a certain unease at his words. He shut the door behind him.

I placed my briefcase on her desk, pulled out her chair, sat down.

She continued to stare out the window, a blank expression on her face.

“Petunia,” I said.

For the first time since I entered the room she blinked. Her arm moved, and I saw that she was spinning a steak knife in her hand. Her bottom lip trembled.

“Petunia,” I repeated. Where had she gotten the knife from?

She gripped her blanket with her free hand as her jaw tightened. I saw a certain resolve swirl in her eye.

“Petunia, I want to help you,” I said. “Will you let me help you?”

She looked at me, her face still directed toward the window. Her eyes held resolve, her brow, fear. “I don’t want to die.” Her voice trembled. She stopped spinning the knife, gripping it tightly. “I don’t want to die,” she repeated. It pained me to hear those sort of words from someone so young.

“I’m not going to hurt you.”

“I killed them, didn’t I?” Not a question of curiosity but of affirmation—an admission of guilt. “They died because of me. He told me they deserved it.” She shut her eyes tight, shook her head. “But I’m the one who deserves it.”

“We all deserve death,” I said, “We all deserve to suffer. But we don’t have to.”

She opened her eyes, stared straight at me. A wicked smile spread across her face. “You deserve death?”

I took in a deep breath, unsure what to expect. “Yes.” I hadn’t noticed her flip the knife in her hand so the blade was opposite her thumb.

She lunged at me, sliced the air.

I ducked, picked her up, and threw her over me. I spun in shock as she crashed into the ground, but she was just as quickly back on her feet. As she lunged again, I stepped out of the way, grabbed her arm. She had immense strength for such a child.

I twisted, hard, and she cried out in pain, dropped the knife on the ground. I threw her by the arm, she landed on the bed. As I picked up the knife, she scurried across the mattress; I held the knife high in the air, out of her reach. She jumped for it, landed on her rear—began to sob.

“Please!” she cried, “Kill me!”

My brow furrowed as I stared down in pity.

Kill me!” she shrieked.

I watched as her labored breath seethed through her teeth.

“Please,” I repeated, “let me help you.”

Her face softened.

I set down the knife on the desk and began reaching for her, slowly.

She leapt for the blade, plunged it into her chest.

I cried out as I grabbed her, lifted her in my arms.

She sputtered; smatterings of blood came forth from her mouth. “Let me die,” she croaked.

I shook my head as I cradled her in one arm, grabbed my suitcase with the other and ripped the door open. I sprinted through the halls, into the waiting room.

Ambrose was gone.

“Receptionist! Drive me!”

She looked in shock, scrambled out from behind her desk.

I handed her the briefcase. “The key is in the outer pocket. Quickly!”

I laid Petunia in the back seat, sat beside her as the receptionist climbed in the front.

She tried pulling the knife out.

I only barely managed to stop her, held the knife in place, pressed against the wound to stem the blood flow. It would likely be her death, but I needed to try.

It felt like hours as we rushed to the hospital. The receptionist and I barreled through the front door. I lost track of my surroundings. Next I knew, she was in surgery. I remember waiting. Praying.

The receptionist sat with me—Alexa, I learned her name was—she was far more shocked, more disoriented than I was.

Finally, the doctor emerged. We both stood in unison. I didn’t hear a word he said, except the final few: “But she’ll live.”

I let out a breath, almost a laugh, and my eyes began to tear. We were taken back to her room. She was still asleep—and restrained.

I sat beside her. I had known her for only a little time, but she reminded me so much of my Mary. I couldn’t bare to see her die.

The receptionist left before Petunia awoke several hours later. It was dark outside.

She looked at me, still in a daze. Her eyes focused and she pulled against the leather straps that bound her to the bed; her face twisted in rage and sorrow.

“Rest.”

She snarled at me before leaning back into the pillow.

“You said ‘he’ told you they deserved it. Who is ‘he’?”

She clenched her jaw, looked out the window.

“Petunia, can you hold this for me?” I held up a golden cross.

She looked at it, snarled, turned her hand over to accept it. She didn’t react as I placed the cross in her hand.

“You’re not possessed,” I muttered. “At least not in the traditional sense. I need you to tell me who ‘he’ is? Who has been telling you these people deserve to die?”

She clenched her jaw, started scanning the room.

A certain weight bore down on my mind. “Who toils among us, afflicting this girl’s soul? In the name of Christ Jesus, son of Mary, I command you, make yourself known to me.”

A sudden breeze brushed the back of my neck. I turned; Ambrose stood behind me, arms crossed as he leaned against the wall.

Petunia’s eyes widened as she jerked against her bonds. I’d seen what I thought was fear in her eyes before, but I realized now what I’d seen was most aptly described as disdain. As she looked upon the man who’d saved her adoptive mother, I truly saw fear in her eyes. Tears began to well as she opened her mouth to scream, but her voice caught in her throat.

“Do not be afraid,” Ambrose said, almost dismissively, as he walked toward the hospital bed. “I do not come to harm, but to heal.”

Petunia shook her head. “No.” Her voice was raspy, strained. “No.”

“Because this man has stepped out in faith so that you can be healed, so shall it be.” He reached for her.

I nearly leapt from my chair to tackle him to the ground, but as I attempted to stand, it was as if several sets of arms were grabbing me from behind, pinning me to the chair.

He placed his palm on her forehead; her eyes rolled back. She started screaming—only for a moment—before convulsing. Her mouth began to foam. It seemed she was choking on her own saliva.

I tried reaching out to stop him once more, but a hand grabbed mine. A woman’s voice said, “This is how it must be.”

I watched in terror. I pleaded for her to be spared as the heart monitor beeped faster and faster.

Finally, she stopped. She laid there, her eyes opened, still rolled back. Her mouth hung open, her chest still—she drew no breath. The monitor wailed—no nurse arrived.

“Please,” I prayed.

Ambrose kept his hand on her forehead. “Awaken.”

She lurched forward, breathed. The rhythmic beep began again.

She breathed heavily, looked at me. She looked even younger now. Her eyes held a certain innocence I had not seen there before.

Ambrose nodded, vanished—the woman with him. I sat alone with Petunia once more—perhaps for the first time.

She looked to me and wept. I leaned over, held her. Still, no nurse arrived.

As she took in a shuddered breath and began to breath again, I sat back up.

“Who told you they deserved to die?”

Petunia gulped nervously. She scanned the room in fear and wonder, returned her gaze to me. As she spoke, her voice sounded younger. For the first time since I met her, she truly sounded like a child, yet her words echoed with an air of morbidity. “Father Colbert.”

My bishop.

***

I found myself in the study of the church Colbert resided over, poring over the guest book. The sun was beneath the horizon now, and the only light came from the dimly shining sconces that lined the wall.

I read through those that signed the book, looking for those that had turned up dead. Excepting Petunia’s birth parents, everyone was somewhere in at least one of the guest books. I set the last book I looked through on the table beside me and stared into the empty air. Did he believe in demons after all? Did he consort with demons after all? Did someone know this and that’s why they sent me here, to a diocese that didn’t want me?

“Father Novacek?” a voice called.

I looked up. Brother Simon stood in the doorway. I raised my eyebrows in recognition.

“Father Colbert will see you now.”

I strode across the room, my jaw clenched in anger and confusion. How could the church– how could God allow someone so vile to be so high in the hierarchy– to be in the priesthood at all?

I entered his office and slowly lowered myself into the plush seat across from his desk.

“Father Novacek,” his deep voice muttered, with more than a hint of disdain.

“Father Colbert,” I replied similarly.

He tapped the desk impatiently as he rubbed his forehead in annoyance. “Did you do as you were asked?”

“No.”

“Then why have you come back here?”

“What do you know of the girl I was sent to investigate?”

Colbert rolled his eyes. “She’s troubled. People die when they care for her—a matter of mere coincidence, I’m certain.”

“She attempted to kill herself today.”

He began examining his fingernails. “Understandable for one who has seen so much death.”

“Something was influencing her. I believe it to be gone now.”

Colbert’s jaw subtly tightened as he glanced up at empty space for a mere moment. He cleared his throat. “Then you can report that the girl is clean.”

“She said she knew you. Mentioned you by name, said that you had some influence on her. I wasn’t aware that you’d ever met the girl.”

Colbert wet his lips, began straightening the pens on his desk. “I haven’t.”

“Are you aware that all the deceased’s names appear in your guest books?”

He took in a deep breath, looked to me. His lips pursed and he clicked his tongue. He smiled. “I was aware that all the deceased were members of my parish, yes.”

“Would you happen to have taken their confessions?”

Colbert almost looked impressed. “Perhaps.”

“You’ve been consorting with demons.”

Colbert took in a deep breath, rolled his eyes again. “Whatever was– is, most certainly– inside that girl is no demon, but an angel of justice.”

“I believe I have seen an angel today, and whatever was inside her was most certainly not.”

“The men she throttled deserved to die, Novacek. They wanted to do… unspeakable things. They admitted it to me themselves. Petunia– whatever was inside her– drew in the sort. It only killed after they acted upon it, and the wives died for knowing and doing nothing.”

“You sent them to her, didn’t you? Encouraged them to adopt? You’ve been consorting with demons, Colbert, to dole out justice that belongs to God.”

“You think God will enact the necessary justice? Those men came into confession, earned their penance. Their forgiveness was not justice, it was outrageous, and I– I chose to do something about it, while God let them rest in their temptation.”

“You believe yourself to be above God.”

Colbert laughed. “The Church is God.”

I shook my head and stood. “If this is your god, then I want no part in it. It is not the place of the church to sort the wheat from the weed, but to nourish all, that they may be brought out of their temptation, not die in it. I’ll be submitting a request for repositioning tomorrow.”

“Good,” Colbert sneered. “I’ll make sure it’s granted.”

I made my way back to the hospital, to Petunia’s room. Lorraine was standing in the hall.

“Father Novacek,” she greeted me as I approached.

“Miss Pembridge,” I replied, “what are you doing here?”

“I– There was an error when I returned her to the home. Apparently, the paperwork was lost—I’m still her mother.”

“She’s better now,” I assured her. “Whatever was afflicting her has gone.”

She nodded. “That’s good.”

I took in a deep breath, looked through the door. Petunia was still restrained, though she appeared to be asleep. “Did you know your husband was abusing her?”

She looked at me in surprise. Her eyes darted back and forth between mine before dropping, wide in shock. She didn’t know. Her hand slowly reached up to her mouth. “It all makes…” She looked back to me, swallowed nervously. Her eyes dropped back to the floor. “I should have.”

“It’s okay.” I crossed my arms, looked to the girl once more. “Something tells me your paperwork was lost for a reason. Something tells me you alone survived for a reason. Look after her and keep her safe.”

***

As I walked out of the hospital, Ambrose stood on the sidewalk across the street, a woman beside him. They were both dressed in street clothes. Barely visible in the dark was an inverted black cross tattooed on his forearm.

“You knew everything, and yet you did nothing,” I said. “Why?”

“It is not our place to know the times that the Father has set in place, only to facilitate them. You have shown promise this day, Maxwell Novacek. I hope to see you again.”

“I’m afraid I can’t quite say the same.”

Ambrose nodded, the woman put her hand on his shoulder, and they vanished.

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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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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.