False Dawn #4: “Consequence of Love”
Part Three of Three: Let There Be
Short Story Edition
Devin Leigh Michaels
Dusk engulfs Lance sooner than he would have liked, i.e. never. Held firmly by Lasantra’s, he waits impatiently. The bonds tighten to cut off his circulation, and his sweat shirt tears to reveal his tattoos.
“Maldita sea. Tabarnak. Brengsek. Blei. Fan,” he mutters before finally calling out. “Hey, I’d like a little service here.”
Lasantra appears bored as she sits upon Catherine’s stone, her legs crossed regally. “Petulant child.”
“Oh, flattery? What’s the occasion?”
The female Skodian Warrior hardly pays him attention as she forms a nail file from the shadows and tends to her fingernails. “Be quiet, or I’ll simply kill you.”
Lance blinks. “Why don’t you? I’m just so adorable?”
“My lord wants you alive.”
“Wanted: Alive? Do I complete his Bingo Board of Immortals?”
Lasantra swept her hand, and a tentacle slaps over Lance’s mouth. “You are the board.”
Most kids are scared of the dark because they don’t know the secrets it hides. Casia’s scared because she knows those secrets and wishes she didn’t. That’s the reason she decreed a dusk curfew for the group and Lance accepted it.
It’s the reason why Casia’s freaking out that it’s almost dusk.
Lance left almost four hours ago, abandoning Casia and me on the side of the road. He even took his car keys, so Casia had to hotwire the Blazer. I didn’t know she could do that kind of stuff—illegal activities seem more like Lance’s thing—but she said when you live more than two hundred years, one tends to learn a thing or two.
We park the car in a batch of trees off of I-81 where no cops can see us, and I take a seat by the edge of a small river. After taking up her normal appearance, i.e. her multicolored skin, Casia paces back and forth, continuously looking at her cell phone.
“You still haven’t answered my question.”
Growling under her breath, Casia brushes her crimson hair out of her otherworldly eyes and shakes a hand. “Don’t fight with me, too, okay? I can only take on one of you at a time.”
“Casia, you said he was worried. What would Lance have to worry about? He’s lived fifteen—”
“And you think that’s a good thing?” she stops dead in her pacing, and a part of me fears she will simply burn me alive.
Yeah, never good.
“Ral, you went on this mission to save your mom and uncle, right?”
“Imagine having families and friends you will never see again. It’s the reason Addy has only had one child and why she probably will never have another.” She falls to the bank of the river next to me, the cell phone trapped in her palm. Tears well in her eyes. “You think you understand, but you never will. And that’s a good thing. But don’t expect Lance not to do everything in his power to prevent the inexorable loss.”
“So that gives us the right to take the lives of others?”
“When they’re trying to take the ones we love from us, especially when our time with them is so short to begin with—yeah. It does.”
“So you’re so elite that rules such as Commandments and federal law don’t matter?”
“When all you see and endure is death and loss, it’s all you know.”
“That doesn’t make it right.”
Casia sighs and ruffles her loose hair. “Right and wrong aren’t as cut and dry as black and white.”
I can’t believe I’m hearing this. “They should be.”
Casia stands. “Say that after you’ve lived a few millennia.”
“Sorry. Didn’t realize I was speaking to a higher life form.”
“Look!” Casia whirls around, her finger out and pointed directly at my nose. “We do things our ways because they work. Because they’ve kept us alive for hundreds of years as they kept you alive for the last six months. You don’t like them? Fine.
“We didn’t need to bring you on this search, but Lance and I did because Addy and Connor are your family, which makes you part of our family. We want to protect you from the Skadoian Warriors and the Reincarnated, and the ones who have a vendetta against your mom and uncle. But we don’t have to.”
Casia’s cell phone beeps with each button she presses. “We, even more than you, know how precious life is and how easily it can be taken away. That’s the reason we make the ultimate sacrifice. We’re not afraid to, not if it will save your life. And we always will because you are precious to us. That, Ral, will always be right.” Casia waves a dismissive hand and puts the cell phone to her ear. “Now go to sleep. I have to shoot myself in the—Hey, Donnellie…”
In a small cramped office, Agent Holly Skylar sits on the corner of the Director’s desk while Agent Towne stands behind her, his arms crossed. Their boss, an older man with a bald head and grandfatherly eyes watches the video of a nineteen-year-old juvenile delinquent kill a man more than twice his age on the computer. A girl just a little younger than the delinquent comes into view as does a barely teenage boy who freezes at the scene, traumatized by the murder.
Once the video stops, the boss leans back in his seat until it creaks in resistance. “You sure about this?”
Towne hardly moves; his voice is tight. “Fingerprints of both Sterling and LaCroux match those found at the crime scene in Hackensack, New Jersey. The boy’s appearance matches that of Dawson’s son, Raleigh.”
The Director stares at the computer screen. “You think the boy’s along for the ride?”
“He saved LaCroux’s life, and their computer files seem to indicate he’s working with them,” Skylar adds. “Not to mention numerous others—a Harvard undergraduate; a Georgetown professor; a Pigeon Forge palm reader; emails to people in Chicago, Montreal, San Diego, Vegas—”
“Their topics range,” Towne interjects, “but they revolve around the disappearance of the Dawsons and a group of people called Sojourners.”
The Director lets out a deep sigh and reaches a bottle of liquor in his draw. He spikes his coffee cup and takes a long sip. “Clean it up. Quietly. A manhunt will bring too much attention to the project.”
Skylar takes the cup. “A new recruit, Director?”
“And perhaps a returning few.”
A poorly kept graveyard surrounded by a cornfield in at dusk; Lasantra sitting upon a stone, looking thoroughly bored as she holds out her nails to see; Lance laying upon his side struggling with the black tentacles restraining him.
I’m starting to hate dreaming—or scrying—or whatever the hell this is.
Crouching behind a stone, Lasantra seems not to notice me as she tends to her nails with a black, shadow-like file. Lance mumbles through the gag in his mouth, and Lasantra sighs dramatically but doesn’t stray from her meticulous work.
“Stop complaining, Evans. Once the last remaining shards of light disappear from the horizon, my lord will come, and he will deal with you.” She pushes her nails out to examine them. “I so do hate babysitting.”
Her crossed boots use a—oh, God—a dead body as a hassock. His chest is blown out from what appears to be a single blast of power or a lance made of shadows.
Lance’s mumbles halt, and I look to see his stormy eyes focused on me, wide and pleading. To do what, I’m not sure. So I inch along the weathered and crumbling gravestones. The grass rustles under my sneakers, and Lasantra’s head perks up at the sound. I stop moving, hoping she takes me to be a chupacabra. I’m close enough to Lance to touch him—except my fingers slip through his shoulder.
Something touches me, though. A little tap on the shoulder. I slowly crane my neck, even as Lance’s whines start with a renewed fervor. A tentacle hovers just before my shoulder, Lasantra standing just beyond it. She lets out an exasperated exhale.
“A two-for-one deal.”
As the tentacle lunges at me, fire roars from the ground, and I push into a sitting position, sweat leaking from my brow and sticking my T-shirt and shorts to my trembling body. Manacles squeeze my biceps until I struggle like Lance, but the frightened yet firm voice breaks through the haze that has engulfed me.
“Ral! Ral, it’s okay! It’s okay!”
My wild eyes find her calming presence, tucked in the back seat of the Blazer with me, her hands holding me close to her. She detaches one hand to run it through my bangs and free my eyes.
“Ral, please. Tell me what you saw.”
Once my trembling stops enough for my tongue to work, I mumble through the rapidly darkening sky to tell her the shadows that might linger around us. By the time I finish, she’s in the front seat, jumpstarting the Blazer once more.
“Catherine. God, I should have known.” The Blazer zooms out of the small cove where we’d parked and screeches along the road, burning the pavement in its wake. “You’d think after two hundred and thirty years, I’d get a clue!”
I barely keep it all together, clutching to the handle above the back window. “What are you talking about?”
“Lance fell in love with a girl during the Civil War—Cat Johnson. She died during the Battle of Shiloh after taking a bullet meant for him. When I spoke about the Curse, he must have thought of her and went to her grave.”
“What Curse?” I demand for what seems like the hundredth time as I crawl over the elbow rest to sit shotgun. I work on my jeans. “What is going on?”
Casia purses her lips; her eyes burn with the intensity of the sun’s light. “Now’s the time you make your decision, Ral. How far are you willing to follow this through?”
“I’m going to find my mom and Connor, Casia.”
“No, not them. Us. Lance and me. What you experienced at Paper Clips was just the beginning. No doubt you will see worse, and it will be the end of your innocence. Or even… Those around Lance seem to have a short lifespan.” As I zip up my pants, she flashes me a worried glance. “And if you meet Lasantra’s lord, there will be no end to your misery. He will hunt you until he kills you.”
“And Lance? Mom and Connor? The warriors have—”
“Addy and Connor will be safe. The Skadoian Warrior told you that, and he had no reason to lie. Lance?” Casia blows up her own bangs. “He’s already dead.”
Her gentle, hot hand caresses my cheek. A soft, sad smile envelopes her face. “I made my decision long ago, but that does not have to be your decision.”
The Blazer’s tires squeal when they become unbalanced on a turn, but I hardly notice. Even when the wheels thump against the ground, I simply stare out the windshield, seeing the path of forest before me, its creeping shadows closing in.
I look over at Casia, her bright skin ablaze in the darkening sky.
She’s the only light within it.
As the sun sinks below the horizon, Lasantra stands, a smile of triumph upon her dark face. “Your futile fight has ended, boy.” Crouching next to Lance, she snatches his chin and raises it, so their eyes meet. “Tell me. After all these years for it to end so tragically, was your resistance truly worth it?”
The answer comes from behind Lasantra, and before she stands, a fury of flames launch toward her. Lasantra crosses her arms, forming a shield of shadows in front of her. Casia’s fires die upon the resistance, and the flames burn off to the Were-Phoenix’s hands until Casia stands in human form, her specter in her hands. She’s ready to battle to the death.
“Surrender, hatchling,” Lasantra purrs. “You know you cannot win.”
“Burn alive, Lasantra,” Casia leers. “We do not surrender.”
“Then you will die.”
My flaming sword tears through Lasantra’s side from behind. “You first.”
I tug it out quickly, the shadows already slithering to Lasantra’s aid. The tentacles uncoiled from Lance’s body and gathered about Lasantra’s wound, which weeps black ooze.
“Petulant children…” she whispered.
Lance accepts my hand and gains his feet. “I still take that as a compliment.”
I’ve learned not to turn around when Casia sounds worried, but Lance’s frightened eyes urge me to peek over my shoulder.
Yeah, I really shouldn’t have.
At the opening of the graveyard shifts a mass of shadows, and it gathers from the stones, the trees, anywhere darkness looms, even Lasantra. In a wisp of smoke, she dissipates.
“CASIA!” Lance screams as the shadows shift into a human structure. “LET THERE BE LIGHT!”
Casia nods once, and flame wings spurt from her back. She takes flight and only stops once she reaches the tops of the trees. Fire consumes her body, and she morphs into a bird of fire. Her feathers are crimson, her beak long and sharp, and her eyes still the calm sea-blue they always are, but she is not concrete. The body is no longer made of flesh and blood but fire.
She looks magnificent.
I only get one really good look at her before Lance’s hands clamp over my eyes, and he forces me to the ground, his arms wrapping around mine.
“You can’t look,” he utters. “It’ll blind you.”
“But what about the warrior?”
“That’s not a warrior.” Then, he gasps. “Bergener?”
I buck, trying to see what he sees, but all he does is hold me tighter as a light brighter than the sun itself lightens the area. Even through my closed eyelids, the light burns my eyes, and I retreat to Lance’s shoulder for darkness.
When the light finally dies down, Lance loosens his hold upon me. He smiles, kind and true and a little sad, as he pats me on my shoulder. “Thanks, Page.”
I smirk. “I should at least be a squire by now.”
Casia lands next to us, and she slaps Lance across the back of his head. “You are such a dumb ass.”
Missing is the shadow figure—which Lance later tells me was Lasantra’s boss. Oh, and she’s gone, too. All that’s left is that dead body, which none of us want to deal with.
“Leave ‘im,” Lance orders. “The authorities will handle Tony.”
“Tony?” Casia asks.
“I’ll explain later.”
“Yeah,” I add, “you have a lot of that to do.”
Daylight breaks before Agents Skylar and Towne stand over the dead body of Tony Hiller, the forensic team already at work.
Skylar shakes her head and drops her sunglasses to the bridge of her nose. “Looks like the clean-up’s already started.”
Towne follows the trail of blood to a certain gravestone. “Catherine Johnson. Pretty name. Died pretty young, too.”
Skylar places her hands on the stone and closes her eyes. “Let’s see what Miss Johnson has to say.”
The morning is usually my favorite time of the day. The night is filled with fears and nightmares and monsters, and all of them are real. They feed from the power of shadows and the uncertainty of the unknown, but the sun burns away those fears and shows us the truth.
Of course, sometimes we don’t want to know.
“There are three types of Immortals,” Lance begins after a sigh. He scratches his palms together as his elbows rest upon his knees, his butt using the stepping lip of the Blazer as a seat. I sit in the soft grass just before the shore of a calm lake like a student listening to a teacher.
“The Sojourners are what most people think of,” Lance continues. “They’re ‘true’ immortals. Doesn’t matter if their shot, beheaded, drowned—They survive. That’s what Addy and Connor are.
“Then there are the Reincarnated. Some believe they have a mission and have yet to finish it. Others just think they’ve been enchanted or whatnot, but they’re the ones who live out a life, die, and come back again.
“Then there are the Cursed.” His eyes avert from the yellow and blue sky, and I think, for a second, he’s crying. But he’s not. He’s just barely holding it together. “Those people have been hexed or spelled or enchanted for a certain reason, usually punishment. They can be the Sojourners and just be here forever, living out their Curse, or they can be like the Reincarnated and live and die and live again.
“I’m the latter.”
His eyes drop and don’t meet mine as I cut a peach and eat quietly. I wait, knowing he will continue, and eventually, he does.
“In my first life, I made mistakes. Let luck and chance guide me. People were hurt. Killed. Those who survived believed it would be best if I knew the pain they had suffered. They had a mage put a Curse on me to lose those I love the most in each lifetime I live.
“Cat was one such victim of the Curse.”
I swallow hard. “And you believe I could be one of them?”
“With your mom and Connor, I didn’t need to worry. Nothing can kill them, even this Curse. While Casia isn’t immortal, she’s damn near close.”
“But I’m not.”
“But you’re not.”
The sun brightens the morning sky and begins to dry the dew on the grass around me. I finally stand and toss the peach pit into the blades before pulling off my necklace. Maiden’s Glory forms in my left hand, and I offer Lance my right.
“Well, then, I guess we have training to do.”
Lance stares at the hand for a long time before he clasps my wrist. We head out to the small patch of grass, our swords. “So, that was the Skadoian King?”
Our swords cling. “And you know him?”
A grunt. “Pray you never do.”
“Then how are we going to save Mom and Connor then?”
“By avoiding him and praying he doesn’t find us.”
I block his swipe. “Then who will stop him if we can’t?”
Lance’s gaze diverts toward the sun for a moment but not long enough for me to catch him off guard.
The gray stones sit quietly among the serenity of the morning before each block of stone, one by one, shimmers gold. The radiance is so bright that it seems almost unnatural, and then—in a flash of silver—a man appears in the very center of the rock structure. Wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and a light over jacket, he looks like a tourist, and even his sun-kissed complexion gives him the impression of a back-packer.
He straightens his jacket and turns his back on the sun, instead opting for the night sky.