by Josephine Leonard, Contributing Writer
Twelve men paraded through thick foliage at the edge of Lutetia. Their togas concealed under black cloaks. The year was 425 B.C., 456 years before Christ would feel the pain of crucifixion and 2339 years before Hitler would begin WWI. Grass crackled. Twigs snapped under the weight of the men as they took their places. Behind the altar was a single man, his robe twice as thick as those who stood before him. “In the darkness we rise.” Caine announced.
The fire flared as if trying to char the very gates of heaven. On this, All Hollows Eve, Caine would make his presence known. He would no longer stand in the background. From this point forward, his will would be done. God could meet him on his own terms.
The twelve figures stood forming a half-circle, arms open. Caine gazed down at his Childe.
Isa inhaled and opened her eyes. She was outside. Why? She looked up at Caine and tried to lift her wrist. The limb stopped short. Isa turned her head. She was tied to an altar. “Caine.”
Caine never meant to catch her gaze, still he found himself staring into her eyes. He had spent countless nights caressing her pale slender form and enjoying her human warmth. Had things been different, he might have untied her. However, tonight she would be the blood of life, the mother of a new beginning.
Caine felt her terror through their shared link. It was a foreign emotion. Not once had he felt fear from her, not even on their first meeting. Caine had thought her incapable of it.
It was a cool morning as Caine nudged his horse into a slow gallop along the western road – full moon lighting his path. He had perhaps two hours of nightfall left and a coach to catch. Normally, he would have fed by now. Days ago. It was his Childe’s fault. Kyle’s constant questions and need for explanation was a nuisance. He didn’t like Jaq. Jaq didn’t deserve to be turned. “Pain in the ass.”
Caine shook off the thoughts. The coach was just ahead. He would feed, then deal with his Childe. Caine breathed the scent of damp air, ripe berries, and… What was this? A maiden? Pulling his horse up short, he caught sight of a dark haired peasant. She was perhaps 100 paces into the field.
Caine rode close enough for his horse to huff into her dark hair before she turned her head.
“Can I help you?” She asked, gaze flipping between Caine and his horse.
“Yes.” Caine said. “I was with the carriage.”
“They passed a few moments ago. The road doesn’t fork until you reach Durocortorum. You could still catch them.”
“Thank you.” Caine said before regarding her half full basket. “Picking berries so early?”
She looked at his curiously before answering. “Breakfast.” She replied and motioned towards the stately dwelling atop the closest hill.
“I see…” He replied with a smile. “Do you get many visitors?”
Caine made a thoughtful sound. “Slave?”
“No.” She said.
He extended his hand and grasped hers briefly. “Caine.” He offered as an introduction.
“Camille.” She said as she glanced at his hand.
“Cool morning.” He leaned down and brought her hand to his mouth before kissing the back of it. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”
Their conversation lasted a few more minutes before Caine kicked his horse into a gallop. He found the coach about a millarium down the road. Startling the horses was the easy part. When they went wild, Caine leapt from his horse onto the coach and grabbed the door handle. He yanked it open to find two startled male passengers. Pushing his way inside, he easily disarmed the daggers from their hands and tossed them out of the rampaging coach. Seconds later Caine’s fangs impacted his first victim’s throat. He moaned when the first pulse of blood filled his mouth. He was starving. With one hand he held his current victim in place. Caine’s other hand wrapped around the throat of the second man half suffocating him. Moments later, the first man was dead. Caine turned towards his next victim as his tongue lashed out across his fangs to catch the blood that threatened to drip. Half a second later, his embedded his fangs into the panicked male’s throat. Caine could taste the man’s panic, and it drove him to sink his fangs deeper into his neck.
Caine pulled up with a slight groan once the second man was dead. They never lasted long enough, but Caine felt better. He could feel his skin returning to its former suppleness. His veins no longer ached. Pushing the door open, he leapt from the coach and watched as the horses jerked it chaotically down the dirt road. The passengers were dead, and the driver had his hands full trying to stop the panicked stallions.
Caine chuckled darkly as his horse trotted alongside him and stopped allowing him to mount. He was home by the fifth hour and traversing the large stone and mud estate looking for Kyle. Caine found his childe in the sitting room on the west side of the house looking over a clay tablet with a stylus in his hand. “Kyle.” He greeted.
“Welcome back, Sire.” Kyle responded looking up.
“How was your evening?”
“Decent.” He responded. “I expected you back over an hour ago.”
“I was delayed. I found a woman alongside the road picking berries.”
Kyle laughed. “You stopped to talk to a peasant?”
Caine’s gaze narrowed briefly. “Not just any peasant. A female that will help us perpetuate the darkness.”
“You aren’t serious.”
“I am quite serious.” Caine responded. “I plan to talk to her further tomorrow night. I am certain that she is the woman that the scrolls mention.”
“Just like Jaq is the dark male mentioned in the scrolls. It’s all ridiculous.”
“Just wait, Childe. There are going to be changes and Jaq and Camille will help me propagate them. We will rise again.”
Caine spent the next two months visiting her during the early evening hours while she harvested berries. He learned that her family made wine and bread and sold it at the market in the village square. From that point on Caine had made a point to buy vast amounts of their products. He had even sent his ghouled servant to speak with her father. The resulting deal was an increase in wine production.
Caine then took the barrels of wine and mixed them with blood before allowing them to distill for another month. It was in this way that he now had enough blood-wine stored in his cellar to last three lifetimes.
It was late Dumannios when Caine finally asked Camille to come with him. At first, she refused stating that her family needed her to help them with their expanding business. Undaunted, Caine continued his persuasion and by the end of the cold-time, she lived with him.
It was during this time that Caine began to reread the ancient scrolls and tablets that documented his change and the realms of heaven and hell. He hoped to find forgotten passages that would explain how she would help him in his dark quest. However, after extensive meditation and research into the darkness, Caine realized that it would not be her fate to reside by his side. No, Camille would have a far darker fate at his cold hands.
At that point, Caine had closed the debautcherous parchment and tossed it to the floor, one hand moving to massage his aching temples. He vowed that the beautiful and sweet tempered woman would have no knowledge of her fate. Part of him had wanted to make sure that she didn’t try to escape. The other part simply wanted to spare her from the horrible knowledge for as long as possible…
Smirking darkly at his remembrance, Caine continued. He had to continue. The darkness would rise again. No matter how much he wanted Camille by his side, it was not to be. He resisted the urge to sigh. “There is a heaven, and there is a HELL! And since there is a Hell, I call upon the dark gods; Chaos, Apep, Osirus, and Set, to grant us Life Everlasting!” He roared, his final words punctuated by the sound of his ceremonial dagger plunging into the woman’s chest, spilling forth her vital fluid. Her pained scream was silenced a moment later when he sank his fangs into her pulseless neck, making the last of her final death a painless, sweet ecstasy.
One man out of the 13 watched the tableau before him with wide, open eyes as the woman’s life was stolen from her. Jaq’s smile was calm and calculating as he remembered the young fledgling from two nights ago. She had mesmerized him with her innocent beauty as he had watched her bathe at the stream close to their home. She had taken the change well from what he understood. Caine had been talking about it the night he had done it, and Jaq had absorbed every word. He knew he would be next. He had been groomed for this day every day for the last ten years, and in that moment when he watched her in the stream; he had become taken with her. Unwittingly, he had made his presence known. The snap of a twig betrayed his location and his thoughts.
However, instead of becoming startled and covering herself, she beckoned him closer. Jaq surprised himself with his response when he stepped forward and accepted her offer. Her arms had been cold against his skin; a combination of her pulseless body and the cold water, but that hadn’t stopped them from enjoying each other’s company. They had even made plans to meet again. Jaq was determined for form an eternal alliance with her.
It was later that night, early morning, when Caine had told him of his plans for the woman. Inwardly, Jaq had been shocked and enraged. Outwardly, he remained calm and neutral as if Caine’s way were the only way. However, in his mind treasonous plans began forming; plans that would affect him for eternity if he were caught. Of course, if he were caught, he would die. It was that simple. If Caine got word of his plans, his fate would be sealed in blood.
Coming out of his dark thoughts, Jaq chuckled quietly at the scene. Not everything was as it appeared. The woman was dead; or rather, a woman was dead. In the next moment, Jaq was jolted fully into the here and now when two men grabbed him by the arms and pulled him forward. Glancing around chaotically for half a second, he finally regained his composure as they lead him towards the altar.
“Stoke the FIRE!” Caine roared into the night, as his next victim was lead towards him.
The remaining men and women continued chanting in rhythmic voices that seemed to cause the air to ripple with their verbal pulse. Walking around the altar flanked by the two men holding him, the man with long straight black hair smiled darkly. Jaq’s expression was cold and contemplative as if he knew more than he should have, and perhaps he did. This was the day when he would walk amongst the ranks of the elite and the terrible.
In the background, the fire raged, snapping and crackling loudly as a few of the damp twigs sizzled and exploded. The resulting shadows cast long lines across the clearing furthering the contrast between the light and the dark.
Another man, stood within the half circle watching the dark mass lead by his Sire. Kyle Blackwell’s gaze was leery as he watched Jaq pulled from amongst the ranks. This did not fill Kyle with a sense of relief as it did the others. In fact, he was quite dismayed and perhaps the only one in the group of 13 to dislike the happenings. He did not trust Jaq Dark. The man’s eyes were too black and cold for a human’s. It was as if the warm pulse of his blood never touched his eyes, and that made Kyle nervous. He inhaled. He had been looking for ways to dethrone the man for the past fifty years, but Caine held him up on an infinite pedestal. Jaq was to become the next great warrior. Kyle disagreed, but his words fell on deaf ears. Caine would not listen. Jaq would be his new childe. That also infuriated Kyle. Jaq would forever be 100 years younger, but forever placed ahead.
Jaq stood before Caine contemplating the dark and darker shadows as his mentor stepped forward. He didn’t even have time to gasp at the pierce of sharp canines into his neck before he was overwhelmed with the ebb and flow of his own blood, his life, pulsing into the elder vampire.
Caine pulled Jaq into a tight embrace, sucking hard at his neck, pulling the mortal life from his veins. However, instead of hearing a pained scream from his momentary victim, he was rewarded with low pleasured moans. It proved to Caine that the man he had chosen was not afraid of his fate and embraced it with open arms.
As the man fell from Caine’s arms, he recited the call of the ancients while kneeling down and slitting his wrist with the same dagger that had taken the life from the woman on his altar. Placing his wrist to the dying man’s mouth, he urged him to drink, to taste the new being offered to him.
Behind the two dark figures, the flames flared darkly. The paler shades of blue turning black as the white flares of heat slowly shifted to shades of blood red. Overhead, a red drop seemed to smear and coat across the moon turning its white face maroon as the man began to drink from the slowly bleeding wrist; his moans of ecstasy drowned out by the steady chanting.
Suddenly, the man choked and jerked backwards pulling away from the oozing wrist. Collapsed on the ground, he writhed gasping for air that didn’t fill his lungs nor make the pain go away. His once pounding heart fluttered in the rhythm of death. It was then that the realization of what was happening caused a flood of panic. He screamed and clenched his rolling stomach as he attempted to hold onto a life that was forever gone.
Unbeknownst to both men, the entire field began to rumble and roar as if a giant earthquake were about to split open the very ground beneath them. The blackest of the shadows began to ooze forth from the flames. It seemed to consume the alter, grass and blood red haze as it grew in length and width.
Standing, Caine’s eyes went wide as he caught a glimpse of the raging fire and growing darkness. Stepping back quickly, he stumbled away from the onslaught of living darkness. As it closed upon the man, Caine heard his followers chanting calling upon that darkness, voices becoming a frenzy of harsh sounds and chaotic syllables.
Seconds later, the darkness consumed the spasming male. Not even Caine could see through the inky blackness. It was as if a jellyfish had simply sprayed the entire area around his new childe. Even his screams of agony could no longer be heard, and Caine stood back with his now silent followers gawking at the scene.
Time seemed to pass slowly. Slow enough to cause Caine to wonder what was happening within that impenetrable darkness. Caine moved to step into the inky black mess just as a hand fell upon his shoulder. It was Kyle. “Wait.” Kyle ordered and motioned towards the mess.
Just as Caine turned his gaze towards the solid black wall, the shadows began to dissipate as if they had only been a thick fog. Left in the wake was his new Childe gasping for air and kneeling on his knees as if he had been looking up at something. His childe’s eyes, however, were wild and still focused on the lessening flames of the fire. Caine had the strangest feeling that something had gone wrong during the ritual, but he was hard pressed as to what. The woman’s blood had tasted different, but he had attributed that to the ‘change’.
Eventually, Caine walked over to his Childe and offered his hand while speaking the last few words that would close the ceremony. “Rise, my Childe.” He couldn’t help but notice the man’s gold and shadow rimmed eyes as he helped him to his feet. It gave Caine a slight pause, before he spoke again in soothing tones. “It has now begun.”
Steadying his Childe by the arm, Caine lead him in front of his followers to the waiting horses that would take them home. Jaq mounted his black horse with ease as he smiled darkly. He knew the trip home would be uneventful as they traversed the countryside. In fact, their path would take them by Camille’s old home, but she wasn’t there. Jaq knew that for a fact. In fact, Jaq would see her soon; resting upon his bed, waiting for him to return, changed. This was just the beginning…
Josephine Leonard has spent more than a decade studying the bible, and she was a Roman Catholic for much of her young life. She believes that everyone should read the bible at least once. It's an extremely interesting book. It's got some very good oral history, and it has some good life lessons. It's also the basis for many different religions. A few religions that use the bible are, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Baptists, the Amish and many non-denominational churches preach from the bible.
Aside from Roman Catholicism, Josephine Leonard has also studied the occult from satanism to witchcraft and the Wiccan Mysteries. Some of her favorite books are The Dark Sacrament, The Visitation by Frank Peretti, The Book of Enoch and Servants of Satan. She even has a copy of the Satanic bible (terribly written) and The Satanic Rituals (extremely horribly written). She isn't necessarily a follower of one religion, but rather chooses to study them all and pull certain beliefs and moral values from all of the above.
Check out books from Josephine Leonard:
"Enlightened: When Nightmares Become Reality" is a novel by Richard A. Rowell. It is a mix of sci-fi, fantasy, and psychological thriller. Chapter Three introduces an odd blue-haired, blue-eyed girl named Callista, and Ezri helps out a good friend in Tika.
Thumper was just minding his own business, taking a sip from the water cooler. He was a bit unnerved to get an uninvited tap on the shoulder.
"Excuse me, Mr. Bunny," said a sing-songy female voice.
Thumper turned around and suddenly he became unnerved in a different way. A pair of impossibly big and bright eyes was staring at him.
"Uh, yes, miss?" Thumper asked.
"Do you happen to know where the Office of Ezri Kerren is?" the blue eyes asked.
"Thanks, bunny!" the stranger thanked him. She finally backed away. The girl was beautiful, but very strange. She started to rush down the hall. Why was she in such an awful hurry? Thumper thought.
"Now wouldn't be a good time!" Thumper squeaked. Wait, Thumper thought, does she even understand me?
"There's no time to waste!" the girl shouted.
Apparently, she did.
When the girl got to the office door, she knocked. The only answer was a wail. The girl opened the door slowly, which apparently was not locked. Ezri did have an open-door policy, after all. But this seemed an inappropriate time for a solicitation.
"Excuse me, Miss Ezri Kerren?" the girl asked Ezri, who was still in a heap on the floor.
Thumper hopped in. "I tried to tell her, Ezri."
Ezri wiped her face and got up. "It is OK, Thumper. I need a distraction."
The visitor couldn't have been taller than five foot. She was remarkably beautiful, decked out in a sea-green and dark blue outfit that went well with her impossibly big and bright blue eyes and navy blue hair. Her hair was done in a fancy updo. She looked like a princess from another world.
Ezri was partly correct.
"My name's Callista," the girl said, holding out her hand in friendship. Ezri took it gently. "But you can call me Callie." She giggled.
"How may I help you, Callie?" Ezri asked, taking a seat at her desk. She didn't want to feel imposing.
Callie sat in one of the comfy guest chairs and crossed her impossibly long legs. Her proportions seemed to defy reality.
Or maybe Ezri's eyes really were going.
Or this girl was just really weird.
"I heard what happened." Callie explained. "So tragic."
"Yes, it is," Ezri said, clearing her throat. "I am afraid I have little time before I go down to the Town Hall to discuss compensation for the families of the victims in the bombing."
"That's not why I'm here, though," Callie said. "I am missing something."
"You need to file a claim?"
"Yeah, I guess you could call it that."
Thumper shot Ezri a nervous glance. He didn't like where this was going.
"What is it that you lost?"
"Well, it sounds silly," Callie laughed, but then became quite serious, looking Ezri dead in the eye. "I lost my Sword."
Ezri deadpanned. "Your what?"
"My Soul Sword, Symponia. She's missing."
"I see," Ezri said with disbelief, twirling a lock of her hair. Was this girl just wasting her time?
"You don't believe me."
"I am not a private detective," Ezri clarified.
"I know," Callista said. "You're an attorney, and you're the most trusted person in town. I did my research."
"I would not know where to start looking for a soul sword," Ezri admitted.
"Did you speak with the police?" asked Thumper.
"Yes, Mr. Thumper," Callie said with a condescending air. "They said I was wasting their time. They were too busy investigating. Not sure what was left to investigate."
"I am sorry. I cannot help you right now," Ezri said. "If you will excuse me." She got up and towered over Callie, who didn't appear the least bit intimidated.
"Well, if you change your mind," Callie giggled and handed Thumper a small silver disc. Ezri shook her head and looked up at the ceiling, as if to say, why now?
When she looked back, there was a light blue mist where Callista had been. The door was wide open and Thumper was just staring down the hall.
"That was different," Thumper observed.
"Yeah, it was," Ezri grumbled. "Let's go see Tika."
Tika turned the red summons envelope over and over in her hands. It was a letter saying that she was being called to the state capital of Unita for placement in a temporary home. It was some three or four hours away even by car.
But she wasn't interested in anyone taking her to the capital. She didn't want to leave her hometown and bounce between home to home until someone decided to want her.
She was only fourteen. She had already lost both her parents in a fiery car crash. Now someone had blown up her last remaining family out of anger over an unpaid hospital bill. Yeah, it was a sad story, and very unfair. But what was more unfair was that her loving aunt and brother were gone.
And now she was "damaged goods." That what she overheard people saying, even one of the social workers who tried to talk to her.
Right now, Tika wished she had the amazing beautiful hawk-like body she had in her dreams. She could blow all of them away and be left alone.
And the breeze was strong and favoring her intended direction, which was out to the country. So it was not the most laborious flight, had she had the wings to do so.
To not respond to a summons was a crime. But she wouldn't let anyone take her. To her, going to juvenile detention would have been no different to her. Where she ended up now would be of little consequence to her. As it was, her nightmares were taking over her mind and spirit.
At least she could ponder out her remaining days while being fed and cared for in a penal colony, she figured. Although, the penalties for ignoring summons were rarely so severe. Tika was getting way ahead of herself.
She was still puzzling over the summons when she finally saw someone she actually wanted to see. It was her Aunt Jenna's best friend Ezri. She had practically been her big sister when she was very young.
Whatever this was about, she was happy to see Ezri. It had been too long. Ezri was such a powerful attorney, and way too busy for life anymore it seem.
"Tika, it is good to see you!" Ezri said, meeting with Tika on her front steps.
"They're taking the house," Tika said blankly.
"Why is that?" Ezri wondered.
"Social workers won't stop talking to me. They said my aunt and brother had to pay their debts or something. So they are taking the house." She handed Ezri the summons.
"You are not going to Unita," Ezri assured her. "I will personally make sure of that."
"How are you, Ezri?" Tika asked.
Ezri sighed, a tear falling from her eye, “You and I both have lost someone dear to us. I will make sure that I can take care of you.”
"I'd really like that," Tika said. Then a dark look came over her face. "The dreams are getting worse."
"I am sure," Ezri agreed.
"So what are you doing over on this side of Petro?" Tika asked.
"Seeing you, actually." Ezri explained. "I want to take you to the Town Hall with me. I have business there. While there, I will make sure that I can keep you here in Petro temporarily. If you do have to go to the Capital, I will vouch for you. You can always stay with me. Damn the state."
"That's why I love attorneys," Tika laughed.
"Ah-ha, I am no magician but I know the law. Your aunt and brother had plenty of life insurance. It will be sorted out. I will buy the house if necessary."
"I don't really want to talk about this right now," Tika groaned., twiddling her thumbs.
"I am not letting the state take advantage of a young girl who just lost everything."
"I am not a young girl," Tika protested.
"No, but you are below the age of consent. That is all they care about."
"They took the car. I saw them tow it from the hospital."
"I will get it back," Ezri promised.
"Why are you being so extra nice?" Tika seemed annoyed. "You don't have to do that."
"That is why. Because I do not have to, but I can." Ezri explained. She could afford it all. After all, they were assets. Her father always taught her to appreciate assets, even old cars. Ezri was going to be sure that when Tika turned fifteen she would get the car, and at sixteen, the house. That was her aunt's will.
But Tika didn't want her life being planned out right now. She had bigger problems.
"You want to hear something funny?" Ezri asked her, changing the subject.
"Sure," Tika said with a shrug.
"This strange girl with blue hair came to me looking to see if I could help her find a Soul Sword. Is that not odd?"
Tika didn't seem amused. She was fascinated. "A Soul Sword?"
"Yes, it was very strange. The police thought she was crazy. She probably is, but someone does not simply come to me for nothing."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"I figured you could use something else to think about."
"Symponia," Tika blurted out. She had no idea why that word came off her tongue.
Ezri couldn't believe her ears. "How did you know?"
"I don't know," Tika admitted. "One of my dreams there was a blue-haired girl with a sword she called that."
"We definitely need to talk about this later," Ezri told her.
"OK," Tika sighed. "Not like it will change anything."
Ezri rubbed her chin. "It might. Let us say hi to Thumper in the car and get down to the Town Hall. I am already late for the meeting with the hospital people."
Tika nodded and they went to the car. It was going to be a long afternoon, Tika knew.
It would be an even longer night.
"Enlightened: When Nightmares Become Reality" is a novel by Richard A. Rowell. It is a mix of sci-fi, fantasy, and psychological thriller. Chapter Two introduces Ezri Kerren and her talking hare, Thumper.
She couldn’t believe what she was reading. Ezri adjusted her reading glasses on her nose to get a better look at the memo she held in front of her. She cursed her poor eyesight, but she made out enough of the words to understand something tragic had happened.
“Hospital bombing,” she read aloud, “Out of nowhere, someone came into the hospital lobby and set off a suicide bomb. Killed fourteen, injured dozens more.” She paused as she read the next words.
“Past due bill. They were taking his house, he said.” she read herself aloud. “How did this even happen?”
There was a light knock on her office door, which was open a crack. It creaked open.
It was her pet hare, who stuck his nose in between the crack. He looked concerned.
"Oh, Thumper,” Ezri said with a frustrated sigh, “Please come in.”
Thumper, as he was called, had been Ezri’s pet since she had been a little girl. Even now, he came to work with her at the Great Forks Insurance Agency. She represented many high-profile clients, including many politicians.
Ezri Kerren was known for her great capacity for compassion and kindly wisdom. She was also well-known for her love of animals. Ezri was always kind and gentle with them and treated them like members of their families.
She also could talk to them.
“You seem upset, Missus Ezri,” Thumper said, his big black eyes full of concern. He adjusted his dark brown waistcoat, as if something were wrong with it.
“I know you can’t read Thumper,” Ezri said sadly, “But I seem to be struggling with my eyes lately. I swear that this says that the hospital where Jenna works was bombed. I hope she wasn't killed.”
“Bombed?” Thumper asked. He understood the meaning of the word, but seemingly not the context, “What do you mean?”
“Collections!” she cried out suddenly, “Who would bomb a hospital over a bill?”
“May I speak freely, Missus?” Thumper asked.
The tall, heavyset Ezri sighed and groaned for a moment before nodding her approval to Thumper.
“In your great compassion, is it not possible to understand the great stresses that the financial burdens of those who must take on great debt to cure their ills must endure?”
“We are all victims of terrible healthcare policy!” Ezri said, looking out the great window of her office. “I feel compassion for every life that is lost, including those who cowardly take their own lives and others with them.”
"To be angry solves nothing," Thumper observed.
"Apparently, this man lost his house, his car, and his wife walked out on him with his kids. Collections took everything for his overdue hospital bill. He could have come to me! I would have helped him pro bono!"
“Yet you do not seem to sympathize with his situation.”
“Sympathy is not the problem here,” Ezri said, slowly turning around and not meeting Thumper’s curious gaze. “The problem is that the media is turning him into a martyr. No regard for the innocent lives that a crazy person took!” She picked up the paper again, then tossed it down.
Thumper reached into his waistcoat pocket. “Missus, I almost forgot. I have something to give you.” He handed Ezri a red envelope.
Now Ezri looked directly into Thumper’s gaze, “A summons?”
“I might say so,” Thumper said, backing up a bit, feeling intimidated.
She opened the summons and was glad to see that it was easier for her to read, typed in bold black text. Ezri wasn’t glad for long, though, as it confirmed her fears.
“The hospital has summoned me to file claims for damages... to their facility and family compensations.” Ezri said.
“May I come?” Thumper asked, tapping his foot excitedly.
Ezri wanted to chuckle, but it didn’t seem the proper time, “I don’t see why not.”
“What else does it say?” Thumper asked. “If you don’t mind my asking.”
Ezri began to choke up with tears, “Confirms what the report said,” she said breathlessly, “And it has the names of those injured or killed for compensation to their families. Including…” She burst into tears and fell to her knees with a loud thump.
“Missus!” Thumper cried, hugging Ezri to console her as he had done so often as a child. Every emotion hit Ezri hard. Thumper realized she’d lost not only her father, but someone else dear to her.
“Poor Jenna! And Andre… too young…” she managed to say.
“Andre? Andre Gerry? Jenna's nephew who works at the Stop N Go?”
Ezri nodded emphatically.
“They were good people. Especially Jenna,” Thumper said with a sigh, patting Ezri on the back. “Your best friend.”
"I need to call Tika,” Ezri said, choking up but able to speak again. Her dark green eyes were red with tears that were still falling down her cheeks. She tossed the summons aside carelessly. "Andre and Jenna were the only family she had left.”
"What will happen to her now?"
Ezri threw her long black mane over her shoulder and began to brush it with her long black fingernails. It was an old nervous habit of hers. “If her brother and aunt are gone, Tika will end up in the System. I cannot let that happen.”
“She would have no choice, though,” Thumper said. “Right?”
“In her condition, I may need to seek an injunction.”
“What do you mean?”
“Tika must be a wreck right now. She does not need to deal with bureaucracy deciding who will watch over her.”
“She must think only of death,” Thumper said.
“And in her youth, she was such a happy child,” Ezri said. “Now she is so troubled. This will not help.”
“I'm sure you can help her,” Thumper said.
“Yes, but this summons. I have to deal with healing a lot fo wounds. I am not sure I can handle it. Not with Tika involved.”
Thumper stood still for a moment pondering Ezri’s words, “You are strong, Ezri. I love you and know you can do this.”
“I do not know how to break this to Erik and the boys,” Ezri said.
“You can take me,” Thumper said with a smile. "I'll stand by you."
“I couldn’t ask you to do that,” Ezri said, beginning to choke up again.. "This is something I have to do myself."
“I mean... Tika… She needs to learn how to… live again…” Ezri finally collapsed in a heap on the ground.
As much of a giant as Ezri was, Thumper knew, when she got like this, it was best to let her cry herself out. “I’ll make arrangements,” Thumper said.
Thumper hopped out of the room, closing the door tightly behind him. Ezri’s wails were quite audible even down the hall as Thumper made his way to the nearby water cooler.
This was going to be a long day.
It was about to get even longer – and stranger.
"Enlightened: When Nightmares Become Reality" is a novel by Richard A. Rowell. It is a mix of sci-fi, fantasy, and psychological thriller. Chapter One deals with the protagonist, Tika Gerry, who is dealing with a couple nightmares of differing kinds.
The nightmares had returned.
This is only a dream, Tika told herself.
But it all felt too real. In her vivid dream, Tika’s eyes scanned the desolation of what once had been a vast landscape of greens and golds. They were once open fields full of buzzing life and thriving plants.
She could feel the dust and ashes under her feet. But they weren't her feet. She looked down and saw she instead had talons, which dug into the scorched earth.
It was as if she were at the scene of the aftermath of a terrible battle. Somehow, she felt responsible for it. And as bad as things looked, it seemed she was on the winning side.
But if this is what victory in war really looked like, Tika wanted no part of it. If her own allies had been the "good guys," what good people sensibly could launch an assault like this? She couldn't help but feel overwhelming remorse for the life that had been so swiftly and violently snuffed out!
Tika had something else about her strange dream body. She felt her powerful wings fluttering in the intense, dusty breeze. They felt like both a blessing and a curse.
In previous nightmares, those very wings had delivered powerful downbursts which cause major devastation on other battlefields. Those downbursts were combined with firestorms her allies provided for her to spread with those graceful wings of silver, gold, and bronze.
Usually, Tika's feathers would shimmer in both daylight and sunlight. But the sky was so full of the smoke and soot from the scorching of the assault. Those same feathers looked drab as the dust and other dark particles coated them as she walked through the desolate fields.
This was the ugliest scene yet. And she had no idea what these battles even meant or how they came about.
Suddenly, a friendly soldier came up beside her, but he showed only half of his face to her. “This is the greatest victory the Enlightened will ever know,” he said.
Enlightened? Who could be Enlightened and unleash such intense and inhumane fury? And how could she play such a grand role in it?
Tika stopped and cocked her head to see the other side of his face. The flesh had been melted away, revealing bone and charred muscle. Still, this soldier smiled an ugly, half-melted smile. The shock of the sight made her turn away almost instantly.
In shock, she tried to run through the fields. But she lost her footing, as the ground was so soft from the scorching. She tried to take off into the air with a running start, but her wings felt so stiff and sore from the labor from the assault. She dove head-first into the dust instead of the sky. It didn’t help that her wings were so coated with dust and ash, either.
As she lay there, helpless, shadows began to envelop her as she began to be surrounded by ghastly figures. She managed to look up and her gaze happened to catch one of them in the eye. Their eyes were cold and dead. They were all mostly skeletal, with some still having beating hearts visible to the eye. Flesh covered only parts of their bodies.
Even stranger, some of these creatures clearly once had full fur coats. But now they had skins of patchy burnt fur and charred hide. Others were missing limbs and still were crawling towards her at an alarming pace.
Some of them were shrieking. Others cried out in agony. Some made terrible noises, and some had bones that clattered as they moved. It was as a heart-wrenching scene to hear as to see. As soon as a bunch of them went to touch her and try to start pulling her apart, she awoke.
And Tika was relieved. The nightmare was over. At least, for now,
She felt her shoulders where those wings had once been. All she felt was her soft black hair and bony shoulders.
Good, Tika told herself, I'm just a girl again.
But with these recurring dreams, Tika almost wished that an army of skeletal remains truly had in fact pulled her apart. She felt such powerful sadness and regret. She wished that she had been left to die on that field. Her sanity had already died there.
It was so more than just a dream. Why did she keep assuming such a strange form?
The desolation stuck with Tika as she tried to "rise and shine" and get on with her day. The smell of burnt flesh and ashes remained in her nose as she slowly got dressed. She was so exhausted even after a full night's sleep.
She looked in the mirror. Her hazel eyes looked so tired. Her usually copper-toned skin looked pale. She felt ill looking at herself, even though she was a pretty girl.
Tika didn't feel pretty at all. Not after all she had been seeing, night after night. The nightmares had left for about a week. Now, these horrible scenes were realer than ever.
It suddenly dawned on her that in every one of these nightmares, she had helped commit great atrocities against living things. Somehow, every night she was capable of even greater violence. Those damned wings, once things of beauty, had been turned into a deadly weapon.
Were these actually things of fact? Was she recalling a past life on a world a galaxy away, long since turned to dust?
She hoped not.
But whatever the case, Tika needed help.
It was Saturday, fortunately. At least she didn't have to get ready for anything special.
But she felt so cold, even though it was a fair spring day outside. The sun was bright outside. Still, she dressed herself rather warmly. For a time, she laid back on her bed, pondering. She was safe and warm in her own home. But she didn't feel so safe.
Strange thoughts were now going through her head. They would get revenge, all of those poor souls. They kept haunting her.
Fortunately, her brother would be back soon from his night shift. Both of her parents were gone. She lived with her aunt, along with her brother. Her aunt worked the night shift, too, and Saturday was a double shift.
So, at least, she would know someone was around. Tika really didn't want to be alone right now.
She alighted to the to the first floor and went out the front door of her simple, but pleasant looking home in the town of Petro. It was awfully quiet. It was the weekend, but she knew by where the sun was in the sky that it was at least ten o'clock.
By this time, kids would be playing, at least. But everything was silent in her part of the neighborhood. She walked along, wanting to see for herself just how quiet things actually were.
Then, she thought about taking flight. But, of course, she had no wings.
It wasn’t until she reached the nearby town square that she realized that something was truly wrong.
It seemed the whole town was gathered around the fountain. They were almost dead silent. They seemed to be in mourning for something.
Tika rushed in, yelling, “Coming through!” Many of her neighbors recognized her voice and parted a way to the fountain. At the fountain, there was a post. Years back, when the Country had been involved in the Holy Wars of the Back East, there would be a list of names of local folks who had been killed in action or missing in action.
But those wars had been long over. And no one she knew was in any war right now.
Yet, there was a list. People were looking at it, and sobbing.
When she got to look at it, people looked at her sadly. They looked sorry.
Tika looked at the list quizzically for a moment, without actually reading the names, as if its very presence there was an oddity to her.
“What is this list?” Tika asked one of her neighbors. "What happened?
"You didn't hear?" the neighbor responded. He sniffled. “You may want to look at the top names. I'm so sorry, Tika.” He then walked away, looking down at the ground in mourning.
Tika now read over the names. A lot of them looked very familiar to her. Many of them that she had gone to camp with in her youth. Some of them had fought in the wars, but all had returned. But she didn’t believe the top names. She read the list over three times completely before it finally sunk in what had happened.
Tears began to well out of her eyes and she collapsed to the ground.
"Someone BOMBED the Hospital?" Tika fell to the ground sobbing.
Several of the townsfolk walked over to comfort her. But as they did, she collapsed.
But in her mind, she spread her wings and shot into the air with such force that the posted paper flew off the post. Much of the water in the fountain splashed a great many of those around it.
In her dazed daydream, Tika circled the town in the air several times before finally landing in a great tree on the outskirts of the village. She buried her head in her chest, her beak sealed tight.
The once proud Native girl now had not only lost her sanity after the horrible campaign that she had helped to complete. Now she had lost her brother and her aunt, her only remaining family, as well.
Now, an even worse nightmare had become reality.
And it was worse than she'd ever imagined.
"Seven Pitch" is a sports fantasy set in the CRONOKAI Universe. Here is the first full chapter.
Catch the other parts here.
Learn more about Seven Pitch here.
My name is Samantha Spence, and I am an aspiring sportswriter. It has become my honor to tell a story very near and dear to me. Not only is this a story of my life passion of sport, but a turning point in our world’s history.
We Felona are proud creatures who take our heritage seriously. Long ago, we were subservient to a cruel humanoid master race called the Archontes. As their favorite felines, they forced us to fight for sport and serve as prized possessions. But this couldn't last forever.
A mighty rebellion occurred and we annihilated our cruel lords. But then, no one could decide what direction our new society should go. Our people split into thirteen different factions called Prides. There was a lot of bloody fighting between us. It seemed no one would ever get along.
But yet, there was hope. One thing all Felona agreed on was our serious dedication to family and honor. But we needed something that would tie us all together. It’s why we take our favorite pastime, a quaint little sport called Seven-Pitch.
Or as the elite call it, P7TCH.
It evolved over many years from the ballgames that the ancient Archontes used to play. At some point long ago, some genius got the idea to hit a ball with a wooden stick and devise a track to run around. Later, it would become the method of scoring points. Many others thought this was a cool idea and it took off.
Later on, some self-proclaimed marketing genius dubbed the game “Seven-Pitch.” This name came from the rule that a “count” included four possible “balls” and three possible “strikes.” It made sense, and it stuck.
Long after the Archontes were completely destroyed, kittens would still play Seven-Pitch. It was an artifact of our miserable past. But perhaps, there was wisdom in our children still playing this game.
It then occurred to our clever founding queens that we could turn our in-bred ferocity and competitiveness towards a more constructive goal. Seven-Pitch would become our global game.
As kittens, Seven-Pitch is anyone’s game. But once you come of age in our world, like it was in the early day of free Felona society, it’s a Queen’s game. A lot of things in life are a Queen’s game for Felona. Only twice in our recorded history have we had a King rule over us. Neither of those times did things go well.
Our Warrior Princesses have been keeping the peace even before the Thirteen Prides united. Most of our greatest heroes were mollies and queens. So it's not unusual for girls from the Service to have long Seven-Pitch careers afterwards. They are huge role models to all young Felona.
The tomcats have always loved the Seven-Pitch girls. They often the prettiest and strongest eligible bachelorettes around. Also, most of them earn unsightly amounts of income due to their innumerable endorsement deals and considerable cuts from ticket and merchandise sales
So it stood to reason, why should Seven-Pitch be played by anything other than All-World female athletes? Well, traditions are meant to be broken, it would seem.
And this is where our story begins:
A young tomcat by the name of Tora Sheridan would change Seven-Pitch forever. I am fortunate enough to have known his story from the very beginning.
Tora made a promise to me when we were very young:
“Sammy, one day, I will be the greatest Seven-Pitch hurler there has ever been!” the sweet Tigris kitten told me.
I remember not taking him very seriously at the time. I'm sure I just nodded my head.
“Mom and Dad told me I’ll get there one day!” he announced.
Of course, I knew better. I heard his parents arguing one time before he got home over that very notion. But the Sheridans were good enough to know better than to crush their only kitten’s dream.
Evaine Sheridan had been a Seven-Pitch hurler in her youth. Actually, she’d been an incredible one. Sadly, she had hurt her arm pretty badly in a rather gruesome accident.
While she mostly recovered, her arm strength never came back. She joined the Warrior Princess Corps due to pressure from her parents. When she came out of the service, her old high school sweetheart, Cain, was still around to marry her.
Cain was little more than a sales clerk for, interestingly enough, sports equipment. Of course, most of what he sold was Seven-Pitch related. The game was his passion, and he sold more Seven-Pitch equipment to kittens and amateurs than perhaps anyone ever has in the history of our world. He also fancied himself a sportswriter. Although he never made a living at it, he was published occasionally. In fact, Cain himself was the one who dared me to become a sportswriter.
So, of course, with parents like that, it was hard to turn a little tomcat down.
“It’s just a game,” Cain would tell Evaine in that sweetly accented voice of his. She would heartily disagree, of course.
“They don’t let tommies play seven-pitch. That’s just the way it is. He’d be crushed out there. And you know it.”
Yet, the day would come at seven years old to join his first team, and the coach would let him on – to be the glorified bat boy.
But, oh, would he end up proving them wrong… And a little encouragement didn’t hurt.
To be fair, I never thought much of Seven-Pitch until I was a teenager. It was then that I learned of the exploits of Clair Sureclaw, the greatest “southpaw” who ever lived. She was not only an amazing hurler, but an even more amazing Felona. She was a Warrior Princess in my eyes, even though she never spent a day in the Queen’s service.
It seemed strange to me at first, having a hero that just played a silly game where she threw a ball and opposing mollies tried to hit it squarely and hard enough to get on the track.
Tora didn't just admire her, though. He pretty much wanted to be her. But that wouldn't be obvious for some time.
Being eight years younger than me, Tora adopted me as his “big sister” when he was very little. Our moms were really good friends. If mine was still around, they would still be today.
It took me a while to warm to the silly sport of Seven-Pitch. Of course, it’s been immensely popular for generations. But in those early years, I didn’t want to have anything to do with anything popular.
“But everyone loves seven-pitch,” Tora told me. “And right here in our hometown, we have the greatest hurler of all-time, Clair!”
I really couldn’t argue with him. I knew nothing about the sport, then, but just seeing all of his memorabilia of her - posters, cards, everything - it was not hard to see why he loved her so much. Clair has always been gorgeous - a lovely golden ocelot with thick long black hair and piercing green eyes. She was a born athlete and built like a super-model, and had more charisma than any sports personality since.
“I watch every one of her games,” Tora said. “And every one of her interviews.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. I was only thirteen myself then, and figured this was just another one of those phases little tomcats go through. Every boy I knew was going through a Seven-Pitch phase at one time or another. The girls were beautiful and strong and often single. It was easy for tommies to dream of marrying one, or several, of them.
But having had the “benefit” of experience, I’d seen what happens between five and thirteen. Most boys moved onto more sensible things like hunting, fishing, and other useful, productive activities.
Let the hard-working princesses do the playing, his mom would always say. He was certainly more than happy to watch.
Once he turned five, all he ever talked about was Seven-Pitch. That’s why I learned so much. But it wasn’t until I actually seriously began to watch the game that I became particularly intrigued by it. Clair was so fearless, so dominant, and so competitive. She was only in her sixth season at that point and her best years were still ahead of her.
It took me awhile, but eventually, after Cain’s suggestion that I pursue sports writing as a career, I got Tora to finally convince me to pursue it. His feeling was that I should be a sportswriter so I could always interview Clair. He said it would be the best job in the world outside of actually playing Seven-Pitch. Still, I thought he was crazy. But I decided to humor both he and his dad. I didn’t see the harm in it.
Then one day, there would be a rather simple meeting that changed both his and my own lives forever. Clair Sureclaw was at a local restaurant doing some charity event. The Sheridans were going and invited me along.
Evaine always adored me. I suppose I was the daughter she never had. I was never an athlete, though. So, I’m glad she never pressured me to become a hurler, or any sort of player at all. I would’ve been lousy anyway.
The place was packed. We stood in line for hours because Tora refused to leave until he got Clair’s autograph.
“But, son,” his father said, “Don’t you already have her autograph?”
“But I didn’t see her sign it!” he protested.
I actually nodded. It was hard not to agree with that logic. Especially once we got up to the table where Clair and her publicists were sitting.
On television, Clair was intimidating, nearly two meters tall and built very strongly. She had a presence on the mound like no one else. But in person, while pretty as ever, she looked more like an ordinary Felona girl than a superstar. Her smile was soft and pleasant, and genuine in a way you rarely see with celebrities of her ilk.
And I never expected her to call on me first.
“What’s your name, hon?” the famous hurler asked. Her voice was so kind and gentle, not at all that of the Clair we knew best shouting and cursing at players out on the field.
I suddenly felt incredibly nervous. “Sam, Samantha, Spence.”
“Well, Sam, Samantha, Spence,” she smiled. “Which do you prefer?”
“Clair! Sign my pitch!” Tora screamed holding his Seven-Pitch ball proudly above his head. His parents scolded him. Clair looked at him blankly, then looked to me again,
“Your brother?” she asked with amusement.
“No, ma’am,” I said with a little bow.
“Ma’am?” Clair asked. She then giggled like a schoolgirl, “Oh, Sam, please call me Clair.” She turned back to Tora, “Who should I sign it to?”
“Uhh,” Tora froze.
“Tora,” I said with a smile, “Tora Sheridan.”
Clair then looked past us at Tora’s mother. She laughed. “This one yours, Evaine?”
"Yes, Clair. That’s right.”
“Wait,” I asked Evaine, “You know each other?”
“She helped me get my start,” Clair said with a big smile. “Without Evaine, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
I was floored by this. One of her publicists, a male coon smiled broadly, too. “You can quote her on that!” he said with enthusiastic thumbs-up.
Clair gently removed the pitch from Tora’s trembling hands and signed it: “With Love to Tora, Clair. <3”
That was how she usually signed everything, I learned later. I then realized I hadn’t brought anything to sign. But apparently Clair read my mind. From under the table, she produced a pitch. But when she signed this pitch, it was different.
“To Sam, Samantha Spence, with love and hopes for your dreams - Clair <3”
I couldn’t believe she actually wrote that much. The people behind us were getting impatient. But Clair seemed unfazed as she handed it to me after writing all of that.
“You have a bright future, hon,” Clair told me. I could tell she had more to say, but her publicist gave her the look that told her the line needed to keep moving. “Now run along!” she said with a few gentle flicks of her throwing paw. Her smile grew only wider and she kept that enthusiasm for the next in line.
From that day on, Clair Sureclaw became my favorite person in the world.
“You know, Tora,” I started to say. But his mom cut me off.
“That was disrespectful what you did back there!” Evaine hissed at Tora.
Cain tried to cut in, but Evaine glared at him.
“She’s a lot nicer than I expected,” I said to them all.
“She’s too kind,” Evaine said with a huff. “Rude children shouldn’t be rewarded.”
“But mom, I was nervous!” he protested.
Evaine went to scold him further, but I stopped her in her tracks. “She knows he’s just a kid. She cut him some slack.”
“Well, she shouldn’t have!” Evaine growled and quickened her pace.
“What’s eating her?” I asked Cain.
“Long story,” Cain said, crossing his arms. “Let’s just say she taught Clair everything she knew about the Pitch.”
"She’s jealous?” Tora asked.
I always knew that kid was too smart for his own good. But Cain responded to his son quite truthfully,
“Yes. If your mother hadn’t hurt her arm so badly, she might have become just what Clair has. But now, we’ll never know, I guess.” Cain shrugged.
While he didn’t outwardly show it, I could hear the sadness for his wife in his voice as he continued. “Her dreams were crushed the day Clair took the hill in her first ever pro start and threw that perfect game. Clair even hit the game-winning round-tripper.”
I could totally picture that and it made me sad, too. Evaine Sheridan watched the little girl she’d coached become the greatest name in Seven-Pitch history.
“I’m gonna make her dream come true,” Tora said. “I’m gonna be a hurler when I grow up. Just like Clair.”
His dad and I looked at one another. We just shrugged. But we should’ve been scared.
"Seven Pitch" is a sports fantasy set in the CRONOKAI Universe. Here is the prologue.
Catch the other parts here.
Learn more about Seven Pitch here.
One hundred ticks.
The number “100” lit up the entire massive center-field scoreboard. It was the speed of the pitch thrown by superstar hurler, Clair Sureclaw.
The striker watched as the fast pitch passed her by into the mitt of the receiver behind her to her left.
“STEER-IKE!” the referee called.
Perturbed, the striker looked back at the referee with a dirty look. She said nothing, though. She turned her eyes back to Clair, who was about to deliver another pitch.
Before the striker could truly prepare for the next pitch, another pitch whizzed by her. “STEER-IKE!” the referee called again.
Ninety nine ticks. The number “99” lit up on the scoreboard. The crowd roared at this information.
The striker grunted. She had this next one sized up for sure.
She leveled her bat. This time, she'd be ready.
Clair went into her hurling motion and delivered another pitch. But this time, it would not light up the scoreboard in the same way.
The striker swung hard. There was a loud crack. But it was not the crack that the striker had hoped for.
The pitch came inside towards her, connecting with the thinner part of the bat barrel. The bat snapped. Fortunately, the fat piece broke off, barely splintering. The pitch was thrown with such precision that it perfectly broke the bat in half.
And behind the striker, the receiver caught the deflected pitch. The receiver tagged the striker, and the referee announced. “You're OUT!”
The striker sighed and picked up the broken bat piece. She looked at Clair, who was smirking at her.
“I'll get you someday, Sureclaw,” the striker muttered.
“Sure you will,” Clair said under her own breath, amused by her opponent's defeat.
Clair shouldn't have been so confident. She didn't know who she was dealing with just yet.
She stared at the words on the screen and instantly was mesmerized. So many words had flashed across it so many times. This was Mary's daily routine - wake up, stretch, use the bathroom, and log on. What was so different this time? He wanted to meet. So did she, but should they? And on Halloween of all times? She brushed it out of her mind for a second (or tried to) just as she was brushing her long, silky black tresses over her shoulder.
Moving on to the next piece of reading material, words of his previous notes and comments came back to mind. The way they were so articulately expressed - such emotion in such a short amount of words. As a lifetime lover of words, she appreciated the way Mark was able to express so much with so little space. It wasn't an e-book or even a famed college professor's report she had read those words from. They were responses (sometimes funny, sometimes intelligent, sometimes sweet) to a political blog on the internet. The blog was hers and this had been going on for a few years now.
Mark read another entry from his favorite political blog - and then another sweet message from the author. Something seemed to be calling him to action. His mind couldn't yet comprehend what that action might be, but he just had this feeling that couldn't be placed. He decided to type up his thoughts and click send. He wondered if that was the right move.
"Ah, hell get a grip, man. She ain't lookin' for you. Have you looked in the mirror lately? Do you seriously think she'd be interested in some random older stranger who reads her blog? Seems kinda creepy. You might be a nice guy and you may have had some interesting word exchanges, but she don't really know you. OK, now stop talking yourself and get back to work." Eager for her answer, he hit the refresh button to see if she had responded back yet.
Mary looked forward to Mark's comments and also his own writeups. They both did this for a living. He had this way of making her think and seemed to really get what she was saying. He asked the perfect questions to complement her writing. She had taken up reading his blog as well. Even more than enjoying his writing and comments, she felt connected to him. The feelings were different to her at first, but whenever he didn't leave a comment, she was disappointed he wasn't there.
Mark felt there was something more between him and Mary besides the writing commonality. He just hoped it wasn't a mistake to hit send. In his mind, he knew it probably wasn't the smartest thing though, since they had both gone through a divorce recently. He felt more for her than just someone to fall back on during tough times.
As Mary stood at the airport terminal awaiting Mark's arrival, she began to feel uneasy. Would he be as open to meeting her if he knew who (or what) she was? She made the mistake of revealing that to her now ex-husband, and boy, was that a mistake.
"Oh, woman up and take a chance! The grass just might be greener this time," she told herself.
Just then, Mark started walking toward her. She instantly knew it was him from the feeling she got inside. His arms wrapped around her in an embrace and she returned the gesture. The connection seemed magical somehow, but neither of them could place it.
Since it was late and there wasn't much else open but the airport in Mary's small town, they opted for a moonlit walk near the creek. Mary was thinking this could be a good or bad move, depending on a few things. Stopping to glance at the beautiful silent waters, they made eye contact and brushed each other's lips. Unable to stop, they sat in the green grass, encircling.
As they intertwined, they failed to notice the changes taking place. It was almost sunrise - no wait, the light was coming from above and it wasn't the sun. It was time for the celebration of the 'spirits'. Silly the impression people always got of spirits - damned people who had passed on? Ghosts? Hardly. They were from elsewhere, true. But the elsewhere was not a place of the dead, but of the living - just not those born entirely of the race on this planet.
"Great, now he's going to know my secret, whether I want him to or not," thought Mary.
But that thought quickly faded when she noticed the tell-tale light green skin tone now apparent on Mark as well.
by Jeanne Frost, Contributing Writer
Jacks expertly steered the ship through the red murky passageway, trying not to think of the importance of this mission. He chose it, of course. How could he not? The survival of the entire universe as he knew it depended on this trip's success. Rake knew it too. That's why he voiced no objections when Jacks volunteered.
It wasn't the perfect scenario, but Jacks was the most qualified man for the job, despite his emotional attachments. In fact he was the top choice for any of these missions. Still, his spotter, Jesse, would be hard pressed to keep him focused this time. It was going to be a long one.
Jacks loved his job. He was an unsung hero at best. Not a household name in any sense of the word. He was certainly celebrated and respected among his colleagues. In the outside world, this job wasn't much for celebrity status. That was OK with Jacks. He wasn't exactly a people person. He was quite content with being the man behind the scenes who made a difference.
Jesse, on the other hand, made up for Jacks in that department big time. The girl loved the spotlight. She was made for it. So, while Jacks handled the grim details of the job, Jesse handled the PR. Jacks was the captain without a shadow of a doubt. But Jesse? She was the shining star that guaranteed the funding for these missions.
They didn't just work well together, they looked the part too. Jacks was the epitome of tall, dark and handsome. Jesse, his blonde bombshell counterpart was a head turner and then some. They weren't a couple. They were simply an unstoppable crew. Brains, beauty and skill all rolled up in a neat little package of “Get this done right and get it done now.”
Which is exactly what they needed to do today. Get it done. Get out. Get back to normal. Or at least get back to something that resembled life as it once was.
“Dammit Jesse, already?”
Jacks light-footed it to the center platform for the spin. It was a great invention, the rotatory. It enabled those on board to remain stable while the ship spun, churning the paddles just enough to break up smaller invaders into tiny harmless bits. It was literally a lifesaver. Before that, well, you don't want to know what happened to some of the past crew members. Centrifugal force was nothing to be played with. Jacks rode it out with the best of them, back in the beginning. He was grateful he'd never have to do it again.
Large crews simply weren't needed now. All crews consisted of two members. After all, the mortality rate didn't necessitate back up any more. It was a charmed life in comparison to the early days of exploration.
Before the manned ships, they used remotes for these missions. Of course, they didn't call them missions then, since sending a crew in was not a possibility.
With the advent of the converter, as everyone called it, all that changed. They could, as the saying goes, “boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before.” It was an epic invention. Jacks was in on some of the very first trials. He never talked about it much. Mistakes were made. Friends were lost. Bugs were ironed out at their expense. In the end though, many more lives were saved than lost.
As for Jesse, she came on board just after the rotatory came into play. Lucky girl.
“Substantial invader, dead ahead!”
“Stop the rotatory now!”
Hitting a monster invader while rotating was a death sentence for all. The force would send them careening into the wall, causing irreparable damage. The ship would be compromised. The mission would be a bust. The ship's inhabitants, in this case, Jacks and Jesse, would be written off as dead. Recovery was not an option.
They had scuba gear, of course. It was standard equipment. Still, having it available was more of a politically correct gesture than a safety measure. They were on their own if they had to use it. Completely on their own.
These larger invaders required a different method of removal. Basically, they were popped like balloons using the ship's forward projectile, a pointed blade that could mince a man to shreds if he got in it's path. Luckily, that's one type of casualty that these missions had never seen. That's because, barring emergency, the crew stayed aboard the ship, safely supported by filtered oxygen at all times.
Now that the rotatory was switched off, Jacks maneuvered the ship toward the invader. It was a big one, alright. Jacks sighed. He had no idea the problem was this extensive. To encounter one of these early in the mission.... And those small ones too.... Likely there were bigger masses down the line.
“OK, steady, steady....now!”
Jacks punched the control at just the right moment, guided by Jesse's sense of timing and eye for detail. The girl was amazing. Seconds later, there was one less invader to worry about.
“One bogey down, Rake, one monster down.”
“Roger that, Jacks. Roger that.”
Funny how the lingo hadn't changed right along with the technology.
Jacks wiped a bead away that was threatening his vision. At least it wasn't a tear. He couldn't afford tears right now. Too much was at stake. More than even he cared to gamble on. Jacks loved taking chances. Thrill followed by triumph was the adrenaline combination that kept him going. But Jacks was determined to make this a no thrills, all triumph mission. People were counting on him. People he loved. Letting them down was not an option.
While they hovered over the remains of the giant mass, letting the paddles break it up into harmless bits, Jacks and Jesse took a breather. Watching them share a sandwich from the cooler, you might mistake this for an ordinary day.
Even afterwards, when they encountered and struck down 5 or 6 more comparably large masses, there was an air of routine about the place. High above in the control room, eager eyes became detached. This team was so good at what they did, monitoring them was barely necessary.
Then, they turned the final corner.
The walls were covered with small bogeys. Popping them was a delicate process to say the least. One wrong jab could perforate the wall, effectively and tragically ending the entire mission. To make matters worse, the rotatory had to be on the whole time. Jacks had to run the controls remotely from the platform. And there was more.
The walls had to be scraped this run. There was no getting around it. Leaving them like they were would provide a sort of breeding ground for more monstrous bogeys. So, they scraped and popped and scraped and popped some more. It was grueling work that required their utmost level of concentration. Jacks had just cleared the final patch when Jesse's voice came through.
Slowly, he came out of a focused fog to see the massive bogey heading straight for the ship. It must have been hiding in the corridor. He had seen this happen once before. It was urgent that he act now. Yet, there he stood, stuck in slow motion, watching his life flash before him. It was over. There was no time to do anything. No time to switch off the rotatory. No time to dodge the collision. In his emotional state, his mind gloomily predicted the outcome in advance. All was lost.
It was Jesse that saved them.
“Jacks, we can do this. Cutting engines now. Grab the controls. And one, two, punch it!”
Jacks blindly complied just in time to see the biggest bogey in history splatter all around the ship. Jesse switched the rotatory back on and broke it up in no time.
Soon they were dancing about, celebrating madly. They were at the end of the route. Mission accomplished. It was over. And then, it wasn't.
The oxygen needle was dropping. The filter had been clogged by the splattering bogey.
“It's a fruitless endeavor. You've said it yourself, many times, Jesse.”
“We have a chance. You like taking chances, remember? Well, this is a chance we have to take. We literally have no choice. The ship is out of oxygen. We're out of time. It's suit up or die, Jacks. This girl wants to live! If you won't do it for yourself, do it for your Dad. He's counting on you!”
That did it.
“We're suiting up, Rake!”
There was a concerned gasp before a more hopeful tone took over.
“See you on the flip side.”
He really was a corn ball.
Suits on, the pair ejected themselves from the ship. They had to turn it manually and go back the way they came. They would use the hand-holds and become human propellers. Leaving the vessel in the tunnel would be a fatal mistake. Fatal was not the word Jacks wanted used to describe this mission.
Once they got around the corner, Jacks and Jesse spied the exit. It was a murky view, but it was there, alright. They headed straight for it, taking it slow, so as not to collide with the fragile wall. They had just enough air to make it.
Then, Jesse's breather tube sprung a leak. The intake of fluid would have killed her instantly. Luckily, Jacks spotted the bubble forming. He covered the hole quite effectively with his hand. Unfortunately, that left him with only one hand to both hold onto and steer the ship. Not good. They would have to pick up speed, regardless of the risk.
The pair paddled furiously and silently toward their goal. Speaking meant using oxygen they couldn't spare. They both knew their chances of reaching it without damaging the wall were slim. No one had ever survived a mission after exiting a ship before. Theirs was a procedure that had worked before in theory only. So, never.
Jesse's eyes suddenly glazed over. They had missed another hidden bogey. At least it was a small one. Jacks signaled for Jesse to hold onto the ship with her left hand only. He placed her right hand gently over the hole.
Jacks turned to face the bogey on his own. Once again, there was a procedure. It had simply never been tested in the field. Attached to the suits was a tool designed to break up bogeys in this situation. Jacks switched it on, swam to meet the stray bogey and got down to business. It was over and done with more quickly than expected.
He swam back to the ship, thanking the unknown inventor of the portable bogey shredder or whatever they called it. At this point, names were the least of his worries. He had to close the gap between himself and the ship. Jesse was tiring.
He latched on and covered the leak just in time. She was having trouble holding on. He clipped her to the ship's tow line and paddled like hell for the exit.
They made it with only seconds to spare. Seconds that Jacks could hear ticking in his head. Now, he grabbed Jesse. They slid down the exit ramp, behind the ship, pulling off their spent oxygen masks as they went. Liquid splattered all over the glass surface they landed on. Blue gloved hands lifted them into the converter.
They awoke slightly dazed, to find themselves returned to their normal size. It may have been routine, but shrinking down to microscopic size for an assignment was always risky. Several crew members had been lost in the rejuvenation stage.
“Where is he?”
“I'll take you to him, Jacks. He's fine, by the way. He made it through with flying colors, thanks to you.”
“I'm afraid all the thanks goes to my partner this time. She saved my butt in there.”
“Hey, you saved mine too, mister. Give yourself some credit.”
Together, they walked into the recovery room where Jacks' world, in the form of his understandably grateful Dad and very teary eyed Mom awaited.