False Dawn #1: “Graduation”
Short Story Edition
Devin Leigh Michaels
I should be thinking about the squealing mass of crimson flesh, dangling in the middle of the overturned bar with his ankles tied together above his head. I should be thinking about how Lance is way too comfortable with that blade and the pudgy man’s skin.
“All right, Biker Mouse from Mars,” Lance baits, “let’s try this again.”
I probably should be thinking about Casia and how she tries to hide her repulsion, even fear of the whole affair, though she has and probably will see worse before this is done.
“Lance, perhaps he’d be more apt to answer if he didn’t have a knife in his face,” she spats. Lance narrows his eyes. “That’s your opinion.”
Yet I keep thinking about the red gown I should be wearing and the matching cap with a tassel that reads “Class of 2009.” I think of Topher, my best friend, and how he would be doing a speech since he always was a “goodie-two-shoes” and he’d wrapped teachers around his pinkie since he started nursery school. I think how his mom made the best cakes. That, of course, makes me think of my mom and how she couldn’t cook cereal let alone sweets. I think how she did the best she could being a young mother and having to raise both me and my uncle Connor.
I think of all the lies and questions my mom never answered and all the pictures of my first years I never saw until after I found out the truth.
And that’s when I’m redirected to the present.
I think of the man hanging upside in the rundown bar that we—Lance, Casia, and me—helped to clear.
A reincarnated squire, a were-phoenix, and me—Ral Dawson.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. What’s so special about me?
“Look, Mr. I’m-So-Scared-I-Peed-My-Pants, you know you want to tell us, and I know you want to tell us,” Lance soothes with a dangerous tone.
Nothing really but more on me later.
Lance—a whole five years or fifteen lifetimes older than me, depending on how you look at it—rolls his dagger about his thumb and catches it once more. “Do us a favor and just tell us. Then I’ll cut you down, and we can all make it home in time to watch 24.”
“I was hoping to catch Burn Notice,” Casia adds.
Lance’s ragged jet black hair peeks out from under his Southpole hat, but it doesn’t hide his dark eyes, which lighten just a smidge as they focus on Casia. “You’re hot enough, dame.”
“Don’t call me that.”
Our captive—let’s call him “Becky”—looks almost on the verge of panic. His eyes widen as they ricochet from Lance to Casia and back again, never really seeing me. I pretty much stay out of the interrogations. Lance does a good job of being the bad cop. His tanned skin and dark, stormy eyes give him an advantage he doesn’t even realize. When you’re looking at him, you might as well be looking into the Marana Trench. There’s just no end in sight, and part of me believes it has to do with his past, like the tattoos on his arms of snakes and wolves and hippogriffs and dragons, the Kappa, the Lamia and even hell hounds. I wouldn’t ask about them if I were you, and most of the time, he keeps them hidden under a sweatshirt. Now, he only has to push up his sleeves to show them, and already, Becky begins to whimper for help.
And Casia—with her sweet, sea-blue eyes; her pristine skin, whichs shifts to every color imaginable; and long, plaited crimson hair—does an awesome good cop. Of course, you have to get over her freaky appearance. The peasant top and tighter than tight jeans warms any straight male, but the quarterstaff with the crystal ball of contained blue fire cools better than ice cream.
Lucky for us, she can change her appearance when we’re in public to be just left or right of normal, depending on how you look at her.
As for me, again, I’m just the normal one of the lot—muddy, dirt hair that falls into my jade eyes—something Mom always hated—jeans, Green Day T-shirt—oh, and a gnarly lavaliere around my neck that looks like a sun with the rays of dragon claws. Keeps me out of danger for the most part.
Oh, and did I mention my mom and Uncle Connor are immortal?
“I—I don’t know anything!” the man weeps. “S—Seriously…I was just paid to transport them.”
Them, being Mom and Uncle Connor.
“Where?” Lance demands, his muscles tensed, his voice anything but relenting.
The man’s sweat plunges from his forehead like tears.
Lance swipes with the dagger; blood dribbles faster to the floor than Becky’s sweat.
“Sir, my friend here is so messy, and I do hate having to clean up after him,” Casia eases, bending down to be eye-level with the man. “Please tell us what we want to know.”
“Oh, let’s just quarter him already. Or eighth him. Or maybe even sixteenth him.”
Casia blinks. “Sixteenth him?”
Lance shrugs. “What? If I’m going to cut him up, why stop my fun at four?”
By this time, I’m usually holding back the bile from my mouth—of course I had to go with the double bacon burger for this interrogation—but I push the hot saliva away for now and look out the fogged window of the bar. Huh. No cops yet. I would have thought someone would have called them by now…
“L—Look, all the guy paid me to do was drive the van from Newark to Baltimore, all right? That’s it! I don’t know anything else!” His face looks like it’s about ready to explode.
Lance doesn’t care. He takes out his cestus and pulls it over his right wrist. So much better than today’s brass knuckles.
Glancing back at the group, I quickly look away as the howls of pain recommence. I’m not Lance who has a resolve so hard it’s steel. I’m not Casia, who grew up in the void of Skadioa. I was a normal eighth-grade kid, living a normal teenage life—or so I thought—until six months ago, and damnit, I want a piece of Topher’s mom’s cake. Is that so much to ask?
(The pleas for Lance to stop don’t register.)
No cops. In fact, the bar, hidden in the nook of an L-shaped motel off of I-95, should have gotten some attention by now, by someone. I mean, how can a large, fire-breathing bird not get any attention? And so close to Washington, D.C., you’d think they’d called the National Guard, maybe the Marines…
I look back at my friends and Becky. His eyes are slowly fading in and out, the darkness in his as bleak as Lance’s.
“Something’s wrong,” I murmur before I realize I’ve said anything.
Lance does. “Say what?”
I snap the chain off from around my neck, and from the sun and rays grow my sword—Maiden’s Glory, or so Casia has called it. I pretty much call it “Worst Case Scenario.” Did I say it keeps me out of trouble? I mean, it gets me out of trouble.
Casia pounds her staff against the floor, and her eyes glow an almost venomous fire. A wave of power washes over me and blows the hair from my eyes before disappearing through the walls. The neon motel sign flickers for a mere second. Yeah, first time it happened to me, totally freaked me out.
“There are no signs of any Skadoian Warriors in a mile radius,” she proclaims, her eyes normal again or as normal as they ever really got.
I point at Becky. “Look at him.”
A glance by Lance, then a shrug. “Yeah, so wha—oh, shit.”
Yeah, that about says it all.
Casia launches forward, her hands already ablaze on her staff. She holds them just under the man’s head, but the blackness flees from Becky’s eyes and swallows her fire.
The fire of a phoenix isn’t something easily eaten.
The blackness of Becky’s eyes slowly coils about Casia’s hands, and she yelps as she staggers away, shaking her hands to rid herself of the darkness.
I take a step in front of her, my sword raised like it could actually cut that ooze. Then, I realize our mistake.
The Skadoian Warriors—they don’t use people. They own people. This guy, the one who took Mom and Connor, must have had an implant put in him—or maybe just some of their evil. I dunno, and at the moment, I really don’t care.
The shivering and fear dissipate as quickly as they came. Becky’s face smoothes over with the touch of death as all but the blackness remains of life. A mass slowly comes to settle on the floor, then rises like Dracula or perhaps a servant from a kneeling position. When its transformation completes, he’s meatier than a warrior’s apprentice, The Ashlings. Most of them are my age, a little older, a little younger. Some are even little kids, but this guy’s a full-blown Skadoian Warrior.
Yeah, you really don’t want to meet one of those. Ever. Even if he is nothing more than a muscular figure of black ooze.
His black cloak wraps around his pulsing biceps like a biker’s leather jacket. His cargo pants bunch at his combat boots, and the long sword and blaster instills fear, despite their lack of substance.
“Children,” the warrior snorts. Or at least I think he did. It’s hard to tell when they’re like this.
I take a half-step back, not just because of his towering frame but because of the dead body hanging behind him, just swinging back and forth. If that’s what the warriors do to their henchmen, then what’re they doing now to my mom and Connor?
I take a full step forward, ignoring Casia’s hiss, “Ral!”
“What have you done with my family?”
The warrior spares me a micro-second glance, the darkness in his eyes enough to mar my soul. His beard twitches with mild amusement. “And who, knave, might you be?”
“Dude!” Lance. “Don’t tell—”
The warrior casts me a dark glower, darker than usual in this state. Either he hates the name “Ral,” which to be honest with you, wouldn’t be the first time, or my mom and uncle did something not so cool. No matter what, he decides to prove he needs anger management classes.
Remember what I said about not wanting to ever meet these guys? There’s a reason for that.
I jump back, and before I can even process the impeding attack, Casia is holding out her hand for me to take.
I pull away. “NO!”
But Lance pitches forward. “YES!”
His hand seizes my bicep a second before the warrior’s.
Everyone knows about phoenixes—how they undergo a cycle of rebirth and fire and whatnot. They physically burn in their ashes. Well, were-phoenixes can transport themselves—and a select few—with their power. To do so, though—
Casia’s fire swallows us whole.
—you physically have to burn alive.
The pain is unbearable, unbelievable, indescribable. I cry, but the agony endures. I writhe, but there is no escape. Nothing stops the agony as my entire body disintegrates to ash.
My knees suddenly slam into something hard, and my hands slap the wet pavement just outside the bar. This time I fail to hold in my lunch, and trust me—it tasted better the first time.
My stomach contracts long after I’ve run out of former meals, and once more, I’m reminded of how great it is to have Lance on our side. A strong arm wraps around my torso and lugs me to my feet. Even as I’m still grasping for life and hitting the flames that have long since disappeared, he’s dragging me through the parking lot of the motel.
Lance tells me time and time again, “After living and dying fifteen times, you get used to it.”
It doesn’t help the vertigo, the blurriness, and the extreme detachment of just being part of the world again and yet not. All your senses are hyped like you’re on Speed—not that I would know, but…
My ankle! Something’s got my—
A hard tug rips me from Lance’s protective custody; the force slams me to the pavement and steals my breath. My fingers scrap along the ground like a cat’s claws against a brick wall, and I see why Lance lost hold of me. An unconscious Casia over his shoulder—the power to transport us, even this short distance, knocks her out—prevents him from saving me.
Still, he throws out a hand. “RAL!”
The same force around my ankle seizes my neck, my arms, my waist, and before I scream, everything goes black.
How long I was out—if I was out—I have no freakin’ idea. All I know is the world is nothing but blackness. Creepy and…
“Dawson…” a silky, ghost voice calls.
Tentacles from the black ground stretch up from underneath me and coil about my legs.
Despite my tugging and straining and whining, they manage to tighten and creep to my elbows.
Yeah, these restraints aren’t going to let me go, but I want this, right? I want to speak with someone who knows what happened to Mom and Uncle Connor, and if this voice-in-the-dark knows my last name, then it has to know my family.
The boots before my knees match the ground to the point where I can’t distinguish the two. The tight pants are almost as dark, but silver stripes up the sides give me some point of reference. On the waist of her pants is a blue torch with a unicorn horn as its handle. Her dark trench coat falls to her calves, and the dark undershirt blends into the shadows. Azure hair angles about her angelic face, though a bitter scowl twists what might have been a comforting sight.
It’s like being stuck in the Pine Barrens with the New Jersey Devil.
“Dawson.” She dips her head in reverence. Uh…okay. “I am Lasantra.”
Nothing fazes this lady. “A knave, a runt, and yet…you have managed to evade my warriors and still keep my attention.”
“Hey, what can I tell you? I’m just special.”
“You are an annoyance, a gnat. Nothing more.” The lady bends down to be eye-to-eye with me, and normally, her eerie blue eyes would have had me screaming in night-terrors. But when you spend thirty-one with a were-phoenix, you learn to deal with uncomfortable glowers.
“I should let the warriors feed and be done with you.”
“Oh, is it like being burned alive? Fun. Bring it.”
Please don’t bring it.
Her hand cupping my chin feels like death’s own touch—cold, painful, and unrelenting.
“You have…determination, resilience, light. The latter we must crush but the rest we might use.”
I try not to think of why she speaks of herself in a plural form.
The coldness seeps from her hand to my chin like it’s the epicenter of my body. The sensation spreads over my face and down my shoulders. N—No. Not like this. Not before I find my mom and Uncle Con—
“AH!” Lasantra’s hand jerks back as if burnt, and it just might have been.
Warmth slowly crawls up my shoulders and reclaims my body, even as Lasantra scowls.
“You and your allies have strength, as little as it might be, but it will not last you long—as it did not last your family.”
Mom? Connor? “What have you done with them?”
The fire follows the tentacles upon my legs and arms, loosening their hold upon me.
“Where’re my mom and uncle?”
Lasantra regains her composure, standing and looking down at me like I’m nothing more than a child in trouble for throwing spitballs. From a pocket in her jacket, she pulls a peach and tosses it to me. With the tentacles burned off my arms, I catch it easier than I would a baseball.
“Congratulations, Dawson. You and your friends have graduated to my priorities list. You are low on that list, but you are there nonetheless.”
“Is that an achievement? Do I get my name printed in the newspaper?”
Lasantra’s head shifts to the side; her malevolent eyes narrow with scrutiny. Her dark lips twitch into a deadly smirk. “You will be a challenge to break, one I will enjoy.”
The fire upon the last tentacle flares hungrily to consume me, and when the pain gives away once more, I’m coughing up dry heaves on the pavement, the cool surface welcome against my clammy cheek.
Shaking hands pat my shoulders and coax me onto my back; groaning, I comply, though I’m not quite sure how I do it. Staring down at me with twin gazes of worry are Casia and Lance.
Lance shrugs guilty and grabs my forearm. “Later. Right now, let’s get enough distance between us and this place until I feel safe again.”
I groan still, even once I’m on my feet. “I didn’t know space travel was possible.”
“A peach?” Casia points to the round fruit in the back cup holder. “I’m partial to nectarines myself, but…”
We stopped at an all-night McDonald’s not too far before dawn on the Tennessee state line. Lance still didn’t feel comfortable, so we—mainly he—decided to keep driving in our beat-up Blazer. I claimed the backseat to stretch my legs while he drives—he always drives—and Casia munches on her French fries from the passenger seat.
Lance bites off half of a Big Mac. I still don’t know how he does it, the freak of nature. “Maybe it means something about forbidden fruit. I mean, The Bible did say—”
“That was an unknown fruit,” I reply, swirling a fry in sweet and sour sauce. “No, this is directed toward my uncle. Connor used to eat peaches at the time. Seriously. He’d pop them in between the cigarettes he tried to hide from Mom. He even served vodka ones at the bar he owned. This is Lasantra’s way of telling me she has him and Mom.”
“Well, it’s a good thing she focused most of her attention on you, so I could burn through the shadows.” Casia steals my fry. “Else she might have made you one of them.”
“Yeah, but then maybe I could have—”
Lance drops his burger, which I’m sure slops his lap. “Shit!”
The car jerks, my seat belt cutting off my air supply; Casia grabs the handlebar on her door. “LANCE!”
“All right, all right. Look, you’d’ve been nothing more than a servant. Like your mom and Connor are probably now. That wouldn’t have helped anyone.”
Finally, I grab my pocket knife and cut into the fruit. “Maybe, maybe not. All I know is, I’ve gotta find them somehow, and this way—”
“Connor’s a damn strong sonovabitch. So’s your ma. We’ll find them.”
I keep forgetting Lance has known my uncle since his eighth—or was it sixth?—life. It’s weird to think I’ve known Connor all my life—fourteen years—and here Lance probably has known him for more than four hundred.
“We’ll find them and every other victim of the warriors,” Casia adds.
I sigh and finally eat one of my fries. “Yeah, I guess, but all this—it doesn’t make it any easier.”
“And it won’t get any easier,” Lance mumbles. “Life hasn’t been easy. Just be happy you only have one, and then you’ll be out.”
“Which reminds me.” Casia digs into the glove compartment and hands a small box to me. “Happy graduation, Ral.”
No way. She couldn’t—and neither would Lance have—but as I raise my shocked eyes, sure enough, both have stupid grins upon their faces.
I cut the cupcake into thirds and eat my piece with the peach. No doubt, Topher’s mom makes a better cake, but y’know what? For some reason, this one tastes sweeter. We might be on a journey to save my family, but somehow, in the last six months, I’ve formed another one with a reincarnated squire and a were-phoenix.
And let’s be honest. We’ve all graduated from normalcy.
CONTINUED IN FLASE DAWN the comic monthly