False Dawn #3: “Consequence of Love”
Part Two of Three: Necessity
Short Story Edition
Devin Leigh Michaels
The Platinum Forest is forbidden.
As it is, danger tempts none. The harmless shadows give no fear. Even the river basin, sliced by the sacred Brook of High Point, creates an oasis for the animals blessed by the light and for those foolish enough to enter.
Death exudes from the serenity that has survived more than a thousand years, and no one is stupid enough in Zenith’s Rise to commit suicide.
He hesitates. And prays. And cries a little, though he will never tell Sabella that. The young, freckled teen will tell her how he dashed through the first trees like they were hurdles in a relay. He will tell her how he followed signs the best trackers would not have been able to see.
Of course, he will leave out how he abruptly skidded to a halt, his boot heels burrowing into the soft mud just before Brook of High Point that tears through the Platinum Forest.
He will be honest and tell her how he never expected to find his target. He thought he would actually die in the forest like all those who ventured before him.
Instead, as he gazes down upon the golden river at the bottom of the chasm, he sees a hearty man wading half-naked in the water, his shoulders built for a hard laborer with the scars to match the profession. He sees a set jaw and haunted gray eyes. He sees dark blonde hair and a heartless expression upon the tough face.
He sees his salvation.
Creeping down the incline, Griff misses a rock foot-hold and tumbles the rest of the way, skidding dirty and hurting to the man’s feet, as he now stands on the bank of the river.
Griff meets the man’s eyes, which are more demanding than his tone. “Are you stupid, knave?”
Griff nods. He will leave this out of his story as well. “Y—Yes, sir, but I had to come.”
“Lady Adeline and her brother Connor have been found.”
Thing to note: Skadoian Warriors suck.
At least I think so when one of ‘em blows up my computer at a Paper Clip’s Photocopy Place while I’m talking to an oracle, and—wow, that’s a sentence I never thought I’d say.
Lance slowly crawls off me and takes a defensive position in front. He’s already formed his sword in his hand and swings it about his thumb. I’m just happy I didn’t try to stand or I’d be one head short. That is my dilemma in life—staying alive among Immortals.
Heat overtakes me, and even without turning, I know flames swallow Casia’s body. Her sea-blue eyes glow venomously like she’s about ready to cook her food, and her staff’s in front of her ready to start the appetizer like a fork.
I should know. She gets that same look when I eat her last French fry.
It’s times like these I wish there were still monsters in my closet. They weren’t half as scary as Casia, Lance, and the Skadoian Warrior.
“Surrender and death will be—”
And I have no freakin’ idea what else the warrior said. Customers scream bloody murder like they’re being sliced open and their insides are spilling all over the place. The smart ones rush toward the exits. The stupid ones stay to see who will win, and the managers decide not to interfere.
Lance levels his sword. “Wow, you come up with that all by yourself or has that been said for centuries?”
“We wish you no harm,” Casia promises.
“Pity I can’t say the same to you.” The warrior lets an arrow fly, which Lance cuts through with his sword. He lunges forward, meeting the warrior’s sword. Yeah, one-on-one, he’d get his ass kicked, but one doesn’t survive thousands of years without some combat training and a little insurance.
“RAL!” Casia shrills. “MOVE!”
She doesn’t have to tell me twice. As I flip up and back, wings grow from the fire about Casia’s body, and she flies forward. I don’t know how old Lance or Casia truly are and I don’t know how long they’ve been working together, but damn if they don’t have each other’s back.
Lance takes a fraction of a step back just to make the warrior think he’s disengaged. The warrior swipes, only to be met by Casia’s staff. He screams as the fire swirls from her staff to his blade and then to his hands.
See, Skadioan Warriors are most powerful at night. They feed from the shadows to create their own. That’s why we like to travel and work during the daytime. We’re relatively safe.
The warrior puts his hand out to the tiny darkness cast by a copier, gathering its power. A toss, and the darkness burns away the fire from Casia’s staff. The momentary shock lends the warrior time to recover and kick, sending Casia tumbling over the counter. Pulling a device from his pocket, he clicks an activator and chucks it toward her.
Oh, no you don’t.
My sword’s in my hand before I can even think, and I hit the device with better precision than Tiger Woods using a golf club. It bounces along an aisle of paper before exploding.
The entire store rocks from the blast, and the warrior uses the advantage to backhand Lance across the face.
“You are to be spared, Cursed. Do not take that as a blessing.”
Cursed? Okay, I need Cliff Notes.
I want to scream at Lance to get up, but the warrior doesn’t give a second glance. I get his entire attention.
“You have outlived your worth, boy.”
Wow, and just a few days ago, Lasantra was saying I was on her list. Apparently, it wasn’t her Contacts.
I raise my blade, but let’s be honest. Me? Warrior? Ever hear of David and Goliath?
“Your people started this,” I grate, my teeth clenching so hard I’m surprised I can get anything out. “We never wanted a war.”
“It began long before you and I were impressed.” There is no pleasure upon his face, no feral want of bloodshed. “But the battle is at an end. That much is certain.”
No kidding. “I don’t want to fight. All I want is my mom and uncle released.”
“They are the guards,” he assures. “They are necessary collateral damage.”
Mom and Connor can’t be killed, but they can be hurt. Uncle Connor has been hurt. I know that, and I have to stop it. I have to find them, and if I have to fight Goliath to do so, then I will.
The sight of Connor chained and beaten and just the thought of what could be happening to Mom grows a white fire in my stomach, and I forget my fear.
“This is necessary!”
I lunge to swipe, but my sword never even scratches his arm. A blaze of fire soars past me and smashes into the warrior’s face. As he staggers backwards, Lance meets him with his own kick to the stomach before the warrior retaliates with a swipe. Even as blood wells in a small cut on Lance’s bicep, I know the fight’s over.
Lance dives forward to wrap his arms about the warrior’s waist, and they crash over a copier and land hard. The warrior’s own sword skims across the tiles, but Lance already has the man in a headlock. I cover my ears, but nothing bottoms out my stomach and sends shivers of death like the crack that shatters the cone of silence that has enveloped the building. The warrior becomes one with his kin, his body disintegrating into the black mass, very much like the other time we fought him, and it seeks the shadows wherever they might be.
The battle’s over, and I try to remind myself that the warrior wanted to kill us. It was him or us.
I can’t move. Lance killed this man. I know Lance kills. I’ve seen him come back bloody and beaten from battles, but I’ve never actually seen him do it before.
And I was part of it.
A soft, tender hand cups my chin as my cheeks become wet.
“Ral, we don’t have time for this. The authorities will be here shortly.” Casia. She’s sad but not sorry.
That’s more than Lance. He doesn’t show any emotion as he stands and studies the warrior’s weapon. In his opposite hand is his own sword, shrunk down to his keychain. With the back of his hand, he scraps the blood from his mouth and arm.
I still can’t move. How could he have done that? How could he ever—
Lance says nothing as he grabs my arm and forcefully tugs. I don’t really remember anything else until we’re in the Blazer and the tires squeal with speed.
In the parking lot, the Paper Clips’ customers huddle, some distraught, some unresponsive, some sobbing. One woman stands out in the middle of the crowd with icy, almost blue hair and a long, trench coat over her black dress. A smug smile perks upon her lips, and she retreats into the shadows.
“Excuse me? Are you the lead detective?”
Standing in the No Man’s Land of Paper Clips, the older man with a graying temples and a worn face turns from his conversation with a raised eye. “I’m in a middle of an investigation, Miss.”
“Actually, you’re in the middle of our investigation, Detective,” the younger woman proclaims.
One wouldn’t have thought so. Though the woman dresses in a black power suit without a tie and an open white undershirt, she pulls back her honey hair to show intelligent, gray eyes. Her smile grants her the appearance of a cheerleader as does her gum chewing. In fact, she pops a bubble just to unnerve the older man. When the detective jumps, she flips open her wallet and shows her badge.
The man behind her looks like a nerd on steroids. Wire glasses frame his eyes, and an elitist attitude tones his rigid movements. His dark skin is impeccable as is his body with the muscles to compete in decathlon and win.
“Special Agent Holly Skylar,” the woman introduces herself before thumbing to the man behind her. “Special Agent Darnell Towne. Are these the people who did this?”
Towne pulls out two pictures—one of Lance and one of Casia—and hands them to the detective.
The detective’s jaw sets, and he sucks in a quick breath. “Yeah. Buncha kids—teenagers.”
“How about this boy?” Towne flicks a third picture from his pocket, a school portrait of Ral. “Was he with them?”
The detective nods. “We have a surveillance tape of the event and a computer that was mostly destroyed during the attack. Would you like to see them?”
Towne and Skylar meet intense gazes, and Towne nods once. “Yes, we would.”
“You killed that man! You just—”
From behind the wheel, Lance rolls his eyes and looks in the rearview mirror to meet mine. He still has no shred of remorse. “I had to. It was either him or us, and I wasn’t going to let it be us.”
“It was still a stupid thing to do,” Casia interjects from the passenger seat.
“It’s the only thing I know how to do.”
“Really? Is that why you died at the age of thirteen in your last life?”
“Is that the reason you spent more than fifty years as a captive of the Skadoian Warriors?”
Parents fight, and it sucks every time they do. At the moment, I don’t really care. All I can think about is that warrior.
“How could you?” I demand. “How could you just—”
“Ral, honey. Let me deal with this,” Casia adds with a pat and looks out at the rolling green. “That’s not the point, Lance. Ral—he’s new at this. You can’t just expect him to—”
“—to survive? To fight for his own life? Well, if he can’t, then maybe he shouldn’t be here.”
My eyes dart to Lance. He—He can’t mean that.
“You’re right, Lance,” Casia snaps. “Let’s get his soul as tainted as yours and mine. Yes, let’s send him off to purgatory to be judged and damned for eternity.”
A fist slams the steering wheel. “Damnit, Casia! He’s ready, or he’s gone. He hesitates in the field, then we’ll all be gone and who will find Addy? Or Connor? We have no time to hold the kid’s hand.”
“You don’t have to hold my—”
“Oh, please. Don’t kid yourself, Lance. You and I both know what this is about.”
Lance glances at her from the driver’s seat, not taking his eyes off the road completely. “Oh? Mind letting me in on it?”
“You can lie to yourself and say you’re training Ral to fight for his own benefit, but it’s really for you, isn’t it? You’ve all but adopted a Perishable, and you’re afraid he’ll become just another victim of your curse.”
The Blazer jerks to the right, and I slam face first into the back of Casia’s seat. Before I even check all the merchandise, Lance’s out the door and stalking down the shoulder of the back road. Nothing’s around except trees and maybe the occasional deer and groundhog.
“Lance!” Casia shouts, fighting with her door before finally falling out the Blazer. “Lance, come on! It doesn’t mean it will happen again. It doesn’t mean he’s the one!”
He doesn’t turn around. He doesn’t acknowledge her existence, and Casia—the one who hardly raises her voice—curses under her breath. She storms back to the SUV before ripping open the door and falling into the seat. Her head sinks to her hands, and we sit in silence for only a moment.
“What curse?” I ask.
Casia just moans.
Leaning over the desk in the cramped office, Agent Skylar shakes her head at the sight that meets her and her partner. Her face remains neutral, however, as she watches the three teenagers fight the warrior before the eldest teenager finally ended the all-out battle.
She straightens her back and meets her partner’s gaze. They say nothing to each other. They don’t need to. As Skylar burns a copy of the video onto a disc, Agent Towne’s gaze pins the detective and the Paper Clips’ manager to their seats.
“You will destroy these files, claim a few drunken customers destroyed your photocopy place, and you will forget you ever saw the three children on the tape and us.”
“But—” the detective disputes.
Towne silences the older man with an otherworldly glare. “You will not object, Detective. I’d hate to have to tell someone to forget you.”
Popping another gum bubble, Skylar holds up the DVD and smiles at her partner. Towne fixes his jacket better upon his shoulders and nods once to the men in the seats. “Good day, gentlemen.”
Skylar salutes on her way out, and they are gone.
Dusk draws a dark landscape just as Lance thanks the driver of the pick-up truck and finishes the short journey on foot. The gravel and stones crunch under his boots; his hands curl into fists in his pockets. As he comes to the rickety fence surrounding the small, forgotten graveyard, he steps over the vines claiming the land and navigates the decrepit stones until he finds the forsaken one.
He bends down to be eyelevel; his fingers dance across the wording “Catherine Johnson, 1843-1862.”
“Hey, Cat,” he whispers, “good to see you, girl.”
A snap of a twig. The swish of tall grass. “And this maiden she lived with no other thought/Than to love and be loved by me.”
Lance shoots to his feet and whirls, his sword now occupying his hand. Before him stands an older man in his late twenties with a cocky smile and spiked, brown hair. His jeans are bummed to the curve of his butt while his T-shirt reads, “I know I’m not, but what about you?”
“Edgar Allan Poe, in case you are wondering,” the man explains.
“Annabel Lee. I know my rabid dead poets.” Lance’s eyes narrow. “Tony?”
“Lance Evans, your name precedes you.”
Rolling his eyes, Lance shrinks his sword and shuts his jacket. “I’d ask how you knew I’d be here, but I think that’s moot.”
“Much is with a Starweaver,” the older man affirms and comes forward to snatch Lance’s wrist. The younger man doesn’t even flinch as the well-manicured fingers brush across his palm. “I see a long lifetime, longer than most but as short as others.”
“No kidding. I could have told you—”
“Shh!” Tony slaps Lance across the face before returning to the reading, his brow wrinkled. “You are not traveling alone—a girl and a boy. Ca—Ca—Casey and Leigh?”
Barely holding in his anger, Lance grumbles, “Casia and Ral.”
“It’s not an exact science. You—You’ll be crossing over soon, attempting to find that which is lost, but at the same time, you fear that which has been gained.”
“Crossing over?” Lance repeats. “Like dying? That’s really nothing—”
Tony’s face blanches. His eyes grow three sizes, and he drops Lance’s hand. “The war—The war has begun.”
“The war? Tony, I know prophets are supposed to be melodramatic, but that’s not what Casia and Ral and I—”
“No!” The man beseeches to the stars before seizing the wrist once more.
Tony run his fingers through the curves of Lance’s palm. “You do not understand. You are new to the battle, but the lines have long been drawn.” He raises his surprisingly calm eyes and smiles benevolently. “You will meet the Black Prince before you see the Light.”
Living and dying fifteen times makes you understand death. That doesn’t mean one is comfortable with it. “What are you—”
A single blast shatters the relative silence of nature, and blood splatters across Lance’s face and chest. Tony’s knees buckles. “Crossing…” he heaves as the light fades from his eyes. “Cross-over…”
Lance glares over Tony’s blown-out chest and curses.
Dark tentacles skim over the tall blades of grass, one coming up to caress Lance’s cheek. He refuses to shun away as the rest of the shadows swirl to form a beautiful mass of darkness with long boots and a hostile smile.
“Lasantra. Long time, no see. I enjoyed every minute of it.”
“Then they’re the last minutes you will enjoy in this lifetime.”
TO BE CONTINUED…