If you’d like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am or that I royally suck, feel free at: XenaNut@hotmail.com. If you have suggestions or corrections, please don’t bother as that’s the job of my publisher’s editor.
Come visit me at: www.officialaspfilms.com or my publisher at: www.pdpublishing.com
(Personal note: I’m finally back from shooting, and LORD am I tired! Sorry it took me so long, folks, but you can see that I was writing while in FL. I hope you enjoy.)
Margot Crowley bent over the newly-made bed, the smell of fresh linens filling the small bedroom that belonged to her daughter. Lovingly she smoothed out the comforter. Braxton kept her bed a simple affair, no throw pillows, no stuffed animals filling the space, as she’d done as a child. Margot had realized over the months she’d stayed in her daughter’s home and bedroom that she didn’t know the girl anymore, and she was angry at herself for allowing such a gulf. Certainly, Braxton had grown up, but Margot hadn’t even realized just exactly what her daughter was even studying in school.
Lydia, Carrie, Jared and Alicia had filled her in on Braxton’s life- what she liked, her favorite music and authors. What she did with her time. Margot, who had wanted children since she, herself had been a child, had done what she swore she would never do, what her mother had done to her, and that was to let a man come between her and her child. Even if that man was her husband and the child’s own father.
Margot walked over to the used armchair sitting under the window and took hold of the small, quilted throw that she’d made for Braxton during Margot’s many hours at the hospital, or sitting in this very house. The patches were filled with the girl’s favorite colors, and what Margot had learned were her favorite things: music, cats, rainbows and history. Mrs. Crowley lovingly spread the folded throat on the end of the bed, caressing it’s soft material.
The gold of her simple wedding band caught the sunlight filtering in through the window next to the bed. Margot stared at the ring for a moment, lowering herself to the chair. The gold held the dull, tarnished characteristics of old, low-rate gold. Fletcher had promised her for years to replace the ring with something sturdy and durable, but it had never happened.
Staring off into the past, she thought about the years she’d spent with the man who now she felt she barely knew. Then again, she had realized long ago that perhaps she never had. She’d met him in high school, right before he had dropped out, convincing her to do the same. That was the first of a lifetime of mistakes. They’d married against the warnings of her parents. She’d been young and desperate for love, which she had foolishly thought Fletcher could give her. How wrong she’d been.
When Braxton had come alone, Margot had been overjoyed; finally, something that belonged to her and would love her unconditionally. But, like everything else he touched, Fletcher had ruined that precious purity. Margot had lost track of the times she’d tried to run with her daughter, get them both away from evil. She’d lost track of the times she’d failed her daughter.
Margot brought up a hand, the same that felt so heavy with the weight of Fletcher’s ring on it, swiping at a tear. She looked over at Braxton’s bed, unable to picture her daughter in it, instead only seeing the cold, narrow one at the hospital. She had to make it up to Braxton. She had to make things right. She just prayed to a God that was not Fletcher’s unforgiving, cruel god, that Braxton’s life and happiness be spared. She deserved so much more than the life she’d been thrust into twenty-one years ago.
Margot’s thoughts were interrupted by a soft knock on the door. “Come in!” she called. Alicia opened the door and swept into the room. The lovely Hispanic girl flopped down on the bed, as she had done so many times. She’d all but adopted Margot as her own mother over the many weeks they’d spent talking. “Well, good morning,” Margot smiled, truly happy to see the girl. She wondered why Braxton hadn’t told her about how wonderful her roommates were. All of them seemed to care for her daughter very much.
“Mornin’, Margot.” Alicia sat up, running a hand through her long, dark hair. Chocolate brown eyes looked at the older woman. She lost the coin toss in telling the older woman the news. Margot Crowley had become a respected, and dearly loved member of the house. All of them turned to her for advice or just to talk, especially since only Lydia’s parents were in town. The rest of them were transplants from somewhere else. “You’ve got a visitor. If you want, we’ll happily tell him you fell off a cliff, or something.”
Brows drawing, Margot studied the girl. “Fletcher?” At Alicia’s nod, Margot felt her stomach drop off that cliff the pretty girl had just mentioned. “No. I better talk to him. Did he say what he wanted?”
“Yeah,” Alicia said, pushing up off the bed, extending a hand to the older woman, helping her unnecessarily to her feet. “To take you home.”
Fletcher Crowley sat on the threadbare couch, unable to keep the look of contempt off his lined face, far too old for his forty-three years, as his gaze swept across the living room. The girl who had answered the door sat nearby, straddling the scarred wooden piano bench next to the upright, her gaze never leaving him as she absently drank from a coffee mug.
“You sure you don’t want any?” Carrie asked, reaching up to brush hair out of her eyes, raising her mug. She tried to hide the shiver as Braxton’s dad’s eyes landed on her. She’d never seen such a cold, reptilian stare before. Well, not that wasn’t coming from a lizard, that is.
“I’m sure. Thank you,” he said. “I don’t intend to stay long enough for the trouble.”
Carrie shrugged, pushing off the bench, and heading toward the kitchen for more of the hot brew. “Suit yourself.”
Left alone, Fletcher took in more of the details of the strangely shaped room. The bay window poking out front of the large old Victorian was the main focus of the room, a heavily-pillowed bench seat filling the space. A book, opened face down, lay on one of the brightly colored pillows. The furniture was old and tattered, and smelled faintly of some sort of deodorizing spray and spilled coffee. Mismatched bookcases were filled with an array of various reading materials, some flopped over on their sides from quick returns to the shelves.
Fletcher’s attention was caught by footsteps that squeaked on the staircase out in the hall. He stood, grabbing his hat in his hands, waiting. Within a few moments Margot appeared, followed by that Latino behind her.
“Fletcher,” Margot said, almost sounding surprised to see him. “What are you doing here?”
“You’ve had enough of this nonsense, Margot. It’s time you came home,” he said, already turning to head for the front door, more than sure his wife would follow.
“I’m not going,” Margot said, unable to keep the somewhat stubborn hue from her voice. She was glad to feel Alicia’s warm, comforting presence behind her as nerves began to eat at her stomach. She watched as he turned, his jaw muscles already working. Shoot. He’s angry.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think I heard you correctly,” Fletcher said, voice deceivingly calm.
Margot swallowed, not even realizing she’d taken a small step back toward Alicia. “I said I’m not going. Braxton still needs me.” She was proud of herself, as her voice held none of the fear that she felt. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Carrie step into the doorway of the room, her gaze daring Fletcher to do or say anything.
“That girl doesn’t need you. She’s in a coma, for Satan’s sake!” Fletcher bellowed, his patience all and truly gone. He wasn’t about to tell her that the girl had awoken the night before, no matter how brief.
“That’s why I have to stay. She needs me. If she wakes up, she’ll need me.”
Fletcher took a menacing step toward his wife, finished with this foolishness. “You come home with me now, Margot, where you belong. I’m sure these… females, can take care of her,” he spat, no longer unable to hide his disdain for the long, shaggy hair or whorish clothing the wetback wore, or the oversized men’s clothes the quiet one wore. They weren’t women. Not in God’s eyes, anyway.
“No,” Margot said, her anger outweighing her fear. How dare he speak that way about her new friends? “I’m staying. At least until Braxton is better.” She took a deep breath. “Then I’ll come home.”
Fletcher looked from his wife to the two other women that were butting into his life, his rights as Margot’s husband. He opened his mouth, about to tell Margot she’d best march up those stairs and gather her things before he gathered them for her when the front door opened. Jared stepped through, his curious blue gaze bouncing off everyone before it hardened as he spotted Braxton’s father.
Knowing he was no match for the younger man, Fletcher squared his shoulders, turning back to Margot. “You’ve got another week. She awakens, she doesn’t awaken, you’re coming home as my wife should.” With those parting words, he marched past everyone, including Jared, trotting down the porch stairs to his car.
The air in the house was heavy, everyone listening to the slamming of a car door then the roar as an engine came to life. Finally Jared glanced at Margot. “Gosh, he’s friendly today.”
Carrie burst into laughter, followed swiftly by Alicia, who wrapped a comforting, protective arm around Margot’s shoulders. “Come on,” the younger woman said. “Let’s go get some breakfast.”
Braxton squinted against the driving snow, her arms wrapped around her body. A million tiny daggers pelted her face and bare hands. Her clothing was soaked through, and she couldn’t stop her shivering.
“We can’t do this much longer!” Asima yelled from just ahead of her. The guide was leading Black Jack, as it was too dangerous to ride in the nearly blinding blizzard. Braxton nodded in agreement, her lashes so heavy with snow they felt heavy.
Asima knew they were getting hit with both barrels as she looked around, desperately trying to see something through the storm. For the past several days they’d been traveling alongside the endless cemetery, so she knew they were getting close. Suddenly she stopped, the hair on the back of her neck standing on end. Squinting through the snow, she saw a dark figure rushing at her from the left, another from the right.
Pulling her sword, Asima met the first blow, a heavy crack of steel against steel muffled in the blanket of storm. The Averill were strong as they attacked without thought. Asima tried to yell for Braxton to run and hide, but her words were eaten up by the wind. All she could do was hope for the best as she deflected another blow, her empty hand reaching to grab the dagger from the hilt of her belt. With a wild, blind arch through the air, she was lucky, hearing a cry of pain as the deadly sharp tip tore into clammy flesh.
Braxton heard the battle before she saw it, jumping back in fear. Her own instincts kicked in, and suddenly she found herself with her very own opponent. “Oh god,” she whispered, hand growing sweaty around the grip of her blade. She held it out in front of her, not sure what to do. Asima had been showing her moves, but she’d only used them in sparring with the brunette, or against the defenseless trunk of a tree!
She saw the figure approach, his blade already swinging, intending to slice her throat. She sensed it more than saw it, jumping back and raising her blade. The solid contact with his jarred her entire body. She recovered quickly out of pure desperation and survival. She lashed out with a well-placed foot, watching in satisfaction as the Averill stumbled backwards, his back coming into contact with Black Jack, who whinnied in annoyance and surprise. The Averill quickly ran back toward Braxton, the paleness of his face like that of the snow. His eyes were dark and angry, wisps of dead, straw-like hair falling over a thick brow.
Baring his teeth, the Averill’s tongue slid out from between pale lips. “You will fall,” he hissed.
“Not today,” Braxton growled back, anger steeling her spine and putting her on the defensive rather than the offensive. She swung her blade, everything Asima had taught her coming to her in a vivid image of rage and sheer will. Soon she had him moving back, both hands on his blade to try and ward off the fiery attack. Finally she had him up against something solid, which neither of them could see. Likely a tree.
Jaw muscles working, much as she’d seen Asima’s do, Braxton drew her blade back and sank it deeply into the Averill’s body. He made no sound as he was run through. His eyes closed, and slowly his body disintegrated, turning into dust with a long, loud sigh, which quickly mixed with the driving snow, leaving Braxton alone, her blade tip stuck into the trunk. She was filled with a strange mixture of emotions: pride, dread and regret. She’d never so much as killed a spider before. Now, staring at her blade, she knew she’d just killed a… thing. Not men, not animals, but something in between. Either way, the Averill was dead.
“Braxton! Watch out!”
The blonde barely heard Asima’s cry, instinctually ducking, an axe finding the air where her head had been moments before. As she watched, from her place on the ground, the sound of something whipping through the air caught her attention, as well as a word, flipping end of end, embedding itself into the chest of the Averill standing above her, his axe poised to strike once again.
The body slumped against the tree, Asima’s blade falling next to Braxton as the Averill’s body once more melted into dust, which swirled around for a moment, before slipping away in the storm.
Asima was only able to let go of her breath when she saw Braxton, frightened, but alright, sprawled on the ground. She dropped down next to her, exhausted. She could barely see the blonde’s face through the storm. “Are you alright?” she yelled to be heard. At Braxton’s nod, Asima got to her feet, helping Braxton to hers. They each grabbed their swords, and made their way back toward Black Jack, whose huge, black body was easily visible.
They managed to find a cave, though both were exhausted and chilled to the bone, the warmth of adrenaline from the attack long faded away. Braxton tried to get her fingers to work as she got their camp ready, Asima cursing softly under her breath as her third attempt to start a fire failed. She was trembling too badly. Finally the spark was enough and a small, but growing fire lit the dark space. They’d been lucky enough to find a grouping of caves, making their camp deeper in the larger cave, housing Black Jack in the outer, more shallow one, which kept him sheltered from the raging storm.
“It’s s-s-ss-so cold,” Braxton chattered.
“I n-n-know. C-come on-n-n. Out of those.” Asima indicated the blonde’s wet clothing, the guide stripping out of her own. She set her and Braxton’s swords across small gaps in the stone- point on one end, pummel on the other, clothing draped across the blades to dry.
Naked, Braxton moved over to the fire, her nipples painfully hard from the cold storm they’d just escaped. Asima set out one of their bedrolls, then called for Braxton to join her. “Come here.” Asima lay on her side, leaving the space closest to the fire for Braxton, holding up the other bedroll, which had been placed over her as a blanket, in invitation. “S-share body heat.”
Braxton scurried to the bedroll, shivering violently as she settled on her side, facing the fire, which felt wonderful against her face. She was swiftly tucked in, gasping as Asima’s frigid front pressed against her back. “You’ve got a f-f-freezing stomach!” she cried.
Asima grinned. “Your butt-t-t is, too.”
They lay together for long moments, each relishing the feel of warmth unthawing their bodies, as well as the comfort of their growing camaraderie. The blonde stared into the flames, becoming cognizant of where their bodies were touching, and how safe she felt. Asima’s hand rested against her stomach, the fingers splayed out, almost protective.
“You did really well today, Braxton,” Asima said quietly, once she’d warmed up enough to finish a sentence without stuttering over it. “I’m proud of you.”
Braxton grinned from ear to ear, the praise meaning so much to her. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, you know? I don’t know. I guess I just let my anger overcome my fear.”
“That’s good. It will be harder with Markus. Understand that. He’ll pull any trick out of his hat that he has to.”
Braxton was quiet for a long moment, thinking about the House of Shadows. “I know,” she said softly. Then, “Those were Averill, right?”
“Yes.” Asima raised her head, resting her chin on Braxton’s blanket-covered shoulder. She looked down into the blonde’s profile. “Not living. Not dead. Forever caught in a world of limbo. Their bodies off rotting somewhere, souls trapped here.”
“What about those from today?”
Asima shrugged. “I really don’t know. Maybe they were liberated. Maybe they were damned. I don’t know.” She closed her eyes, inhaling the fragrance that was Braxton: so alive, so real. She held the blonde a little closer, wanting to revel in the life before her for as long as she could. She smiled as Braxton’s hand rested atop her own, which rested more snugly on Braxton’s belly. “It’ll be over soon,” Asima said softly, the breath across Braxton’s ear making her shiver slightly.
“I’ll be leaving then, won’t I?” Braxton asked, her body warming quickly. She became hyperaware of Asima pressed to her back. She felt Asima’s nod.
“Will I go to that other place? The place in my dreams?” Another nod.
“I was there again, Asima,” Braxton admitted, her gaze locked onto the flames. The warmth she’d been feeling was eclipsed by a cold chill that ran through her. “I think Markus followed me, or was waiting for me there.” Her whisper was a tremor of fear.
Asima sighed sadly, holding Braxton closer. She knew the truth, but dared not speak it. Braxton would find her truth soon enough. “You’re safe now, Braxton.”
Braxton rolled over to her back, looking up at Asima. She smiled at the soft expression on the normally stoic guide’s face. Her blue eyes were filled with affection and pride, the brilliant color turned silver in the firelight. Braxton couldn’t take her eyes off the beautiful brunette’s face, taking in every plane and sculpted feature, brought to acute shadow by the flames.
Asima was surprised as Braxton’s hand reached up, cool fingertips tracing her brows and cheekbones, then her jaw. She stayed where she was, holding her head up in the palm of her hand. She studied Braxton’s face, which she had so many times during their journey. She would miss the blonde terribly, but knew that Braxton didn’t belong there. With her. She needed to get back to her world. At least Asima knew she could watch over her once she left.
“Who are you?” Braxton whispered, the cold forgotten as she turned to her other side, facing Asima. Their bodies were mere inches apart. She could feel the heat radiating off the other woman’s skin.
“I am your guide,” Asima said simply. “Your conscience. Your eyes and ears.” She smiled, running her own fingers over Braxton’s face. “I’m whatever you need me to be.”
Slowly Braxton’s fingers worked their way toward the back of Asima’s neck, gently guiding her down. She felt no shame, no guilt, no surprise, as their lips brushed. Asima lowered her body, resting her weight on an elbow as they gently explored the other’s mouth, unhurried, uncomplicated. They drew comfort from each other as the kiss steadily deepened.
Asima had the feeling this would be their last night together. Whether Braxton realized it or not, she was incredibly strong, and was ready for Markus. Her mind and soul were that of a survivor.
Braxton broke the kiss, pulling Asima on top of her, and holding her tight. “Hold me tonight, Asima. Please, just hold me,” she begged.
Asima gathered the smaller woman to her, holding her for all she was worth.
Margot sat at the bedside of her daughter, the calendar telling her she had only two more days before Fletcher would come back to collect her. She didn’t know how she was going to fend him off if Braxton didn’t wake up.
The older woman had stopped at the cafeteria on her way up to her daughter’s room, and she set out her breakfast- pancakes, sausage and scrambled eggs- on Braxton’s tray, preparing her food when a nurse stepped in to check the younger woman’s vitals.
“How was she last night?” Margot asked, pouring a liberal amount of syrup on her flapjacks.
“Good,” the nurse said, scribbling in Braxton’s chart before turning to Margot. “She was running a little hot for awhile- mild fever, maybe. Other than that, I think she’s in good health.” She looked down at her patient, sighing sadly. “All except she’s not awake, I suppose.”
“She will,” Margot said confidently, sipping from her coffee.
Asima waited until Braxton hopped down from Black Jack, then sent the stallion on is way with a smack to the flank. She knew the beast could be no help to them today. She flexed her fingers, subconsciously getting them ready for the battle she knew was coming.
The cemetery gate had finally come into view, and Asima led them that way. The wrought iron was ornate, though sent a chill down Braxton’s spine. She kept her hand close to the hilt of her blade, almost like a gunslinger ready for a showdown. She supposed that’s exactly what she was ready for.
The air was cold and heavy, Asima and Braxton’s breaths coming in hot puffs of air. The sky was gray, clouds swirling menacingly. Though Braxton had come to realize that she had control of much of what happened in this strange land, she had no control in Markus’ domain. That thought scared the hell out of her.
The gate squeaked as Asima pushed it open, the sound seeming ear-splitting in the stillness of the cold day. They glanced at each other, both taking deep breaths. “Are you ready for this?” Asima asked quietly. At Braxton’s nod, they proceeded. There was a part of her that wished that perhaps the blonde wasn’t ready for this, that maybe she’d give them a few more days together, a few more days for Asima to teach her, train her, try and save her life. No matter what happened today, she knew it was their last day together.
Braxton, for her part, wasn’t sure what was coming. She felt her palms beginning to sweat with every step they took inside the cemetery. She felt she was being watched at every turn, her gaze scouring her surrounds. Cemeteries creeped her out under the best of circumstances, let alone this one.
A heavy, cold fog shimmered three feet above the ground, making clear sight difficult for long distances. Asima could just barely make out the stone structure before them, a crypt, that she knew led into Markus’ realm.
“Call him to you,” Asima said, the barely audible sound of her pulling her blade filled the space between she and Braxton.
“What?” Braxton asked, near panic in her voice. She met the stern blue gave before her.
“Call him. If you’re ready to do this, call him.” She could not look away from the blonde’s wide, green eyes.
“And if I’m not ready?” Braxton asked softly.
“Then we turn around right now and try again when you are.” She held her tongue, her heart wanting her to try and convince Braxton that she wasn’t ready, when she knew in fact that she was.
There wasn’t much time to contemplate when they heard the first sounds: a small, low groan, that seemed to come from the very earth they stood upon. They looked at each other, then around them.
“Call him,” Asima said again, her fingers flexing around her blade.
Nodding, Braxton took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and raised her own blade to the heavens. “Markus! You bastard! You want me, come get me!”
Asima glanced at the blonde like she’d lost her mind, torn between laughing at her antics, and cursing her anger. Who knew what would come to them now. They didn’t have to wait long.
The low groan from the groan became a bit of a steady beat, like a faraway drum, though after a moment, it was obvious the sound was a steady chant of voices. Lots of voices.
“Oh god,” Braxton whispered, her fear beginning to go from a cold trickle to an all out frigid wave pressing upon her shoulders and heart.
“Stay calm,” Asima said, looking around, trying her best to keep her own calm, even as she reached out and lightly touched Braxton’s arm for a moment. “Whoa!” she exclaimed, stumbling back as the ground began to tremble and shake, the stones around them clattering as the stones themselves knocked against their bases. Asima managed to hold onto her blade in her surprise, never seeing anything like this before. He must really want her.
Braxton took several steps back, her eyes like saucers as she tried to find visual purchase of something- anything. The fog around them seemed to grow more dense, visibility next to nothing. “Asima?” she called out, losing sight of her friend, even though she knew the woman had been standing no more than a foot away.
“I’m here,” Asima called out of the whiteout. “Stay calm. Just stay focused!”
“Calm and focused,” Braxton muttered incredulously, her grip on her blade becoming a death grip. The heft of the sword felt so simple and useless to her sweaty palm. She felt a fear grip her like she’d never known, and for the first time, truly wondered what it was like to lose not only her soul, but her mind.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she garnered her will and her courage, and focused them on the situation, and the rising panic within her. I cannot die this way. I cannot lose myself to him. She felt anger rising, an anger that voiced itself against the unfairness of the situation. The unfairness of what may happen. She didn’t want to die. She didn’t want to stay here forever. She would not allow him to take her.
Her lip twitched, wanting to pull up into a sneer as her resolve and strength gathered into a tight ball of determination. “Fucker,” she growled.
Asima watched in shock as the clouds above parted, and a streak of golden light penetrated through the storm, setting the fog around them aglow. She blinked rapidly, her eyes trying to adjust to the light. The door in the crypt burst open, and Averill ran out, blades bouncing the light streaming down. They cried out as they were blinded, raising a hand to ward off the intense rays.
Asima shook off the momentary effects of the light, realizing that there seemed to be a path straight ahead for her and Braxton, bright, but not blinding. It was their chance. With a loud battle cry, she ran into the fray, cutting down one Averill after another, most too surprised to even attempt to fight back.
Braxton saw her chance, making sure one last time that her guide was okay, then slipped past the small army of Markus’ men. She entered into the crypt, surprised to see that it wasn’t what it seemed. Beyond the stone arch that was the entrance, Smooth, stone stairs led down into a dark abyss. Lit torches led the way, casting eerie shadows on the chilled walls and Braxton’s skin. She kept her eyes open, the cries and clashing of swords behind her fading into strange echoes.
She stopped, listening, holding her breath. She heard a loud, booming voice, barking out orders, then the scuff of boots as they were apparently carried out. Braxton held her breath, praying that no more Averill would be coming up her way.
Continuing down the staircase, she followed the winding path, down into the belly of Markus’ domain. She knew that if anyone came her way, she was dead; the staircase walls were smooth, no nooks or niches. There was nowhere to hide, nowhere to go. Her fingers flexed once again on the grip of her blade, both hands holding on for dear life. Braxton’s heart was pounding in her chest, the blood plowing through her body almost painfully fast.
She was both relieved and panicked when the stairs came to an end, leading to a dark hallway, filled with both closed and open doors. No torches marked her path. Booted foot on the last step, Braxton glanced over her shoulder, looking longingly at one of the torches, but knowing that it would give her away within moments. Or did she want to be found?
No time to stop and make a decision, she proceeded without, walking headlong into the darkness, her courage as her guide.
Asima was nearly panting from the exertion, her body already sore and tired from the small battle she’d just won. She found herself alone, the dead Averill having scattered off into the fog. She swiped her hand across her forehead, wiping away the sweat that glued her hair to her head, before it could run off into her eyes. A few cuts on her face stung, and she realized she had one on her arm as well. Ignoring the stinging pain, she ran headlong into the crypt, after Braxton.
Braxton gasped, holding her breath as she ducked into an open door, a small group of Averill running down the hall, where she’d just been. Once they passed, she took a moment to look around the room in which she hid.
The space was small, lit by a small night light nestled in the corner. The bed was a twin, covered in a comforter painted by bright colors and the smiling face of a popular cartoon character. A single pillow lay at the head, a fresh imprint in the soft density from a small head. Red footy pajamas were draped across the back of a chair that was situated in front of a small desk where loose crayons and closed coloring books were stacked. Above the desk was a window, the curtains closed, also depicting the cartoon character. The walls were decorated in wall paper covered with clouds and small, colorful airplanes. A boy’s room. A shelf mounted above the bed held teddy bears and a few children’s Golden books.
Braxton walked over to the window, reaching out to grab one side of the curtains, gently pulling it back. She gasped: beyond was night, the moon shining down on a solitary headstone planted in a grassy hill. The words:
JUNE 15, 1963- JULY 12, 1969
Braxton felt tears sting the backs of her eyes, blinking at the stone and it’s implications. She quickly stepped back from the window, holding her emotions inside as she reached the door. Peeking out into the hall, she saw that it was once again deserted.
Brushing a hand across her eyes, she hurried out into the corridor, her steps soft and quiet. She glanced into a few of the other open doors: a man’s study, filled with wood and leather. A fire roared in the fireplace, round, aged spectacles resting on an open ledger. The room looked as though the occupant had stepped out for a moment. The closed curtained window, always the window. Braxton passed a chef’s kitchen, the holding cell of a modern-day prisoner, the inmate’s orange jumpsuit folded neatly for him on the bench running along the back of the small space. A woman’s dressing room, the countertops filled with bottles of perfumes, lotions and skin creams. A satin gown hung on a hook mounted in the wall, eternally waiting for its mistress to reclaim it.
Braxton felt sick, hurrying down the rest of the long hall, but stopping short at the door on the end, which was barely ajar. She pushed the door the rest of the way, stepping across the threshold. She recognized her backpack lying on the unmade bed. Her car keys dangled from the key chain attached to one of the zippered pockets. Her text books were stacked neatly on the old, scarred desk she’d picked up at a garage sale the summer before. A folded newspaper lie on the seat of the armchair in the corner.
Braxton’s heart began to beat faster as she picked up the periodical. The top story, in big, bold lettering, read a headline that made her heart stop altogether:
LOCAL STUDENT KILLED IN TRAGIC CAR ACCIDENT: BRAXTON CROWLEY SUCCUMBS TO COMA
Vision suddenly blurred as she stared at her own face, grinning back at her from a snapshot taken at the beginning of the last semester. She threw the paper back to the chair, her watery gaze drawn to the window near the chair. With dread pounding through her head, she walked over to it, her fingers slowly twisting open the mini blinds. Where once she would have been looking down on the street below, with the Wilcox’s obnoxious beagle, Beatty, she now looked at another solitary hill, a headstone it’s lone decoration.
JUNE 28, 1986- …
She couldn’t breathe, could barely move as she stared at the stone, still unfinished. She tried to take solace in that fact, but it was cold and unfeeling, taking her heart in a stony grip.
Taking a deep breath, Braxton allowed her blood to start to run hot again, fresh determination filling her. Squaring her shoulders, she took hold of the newspaper again, ripping it in two.
Asima stopped, a hand reaching out to brace herself for a moment as the world around her seemed to tremble violently for a brief moment. Her gaze was wide and all-encompassing as she took in the corridor around her. The hall she was headed down seemed to be unending, the doors dotting the stone surface were barred over, the bolts rusted and uncared for. She ignored them as she continued on.
Braxton listened, pressing her back against the wall at the blind turn in the corridor. She could see torchlight shadows dancing on a wall just beyond, voices heard. There were only two voices, but one she could tell belonged to Markus.
“She’s within the domain,” a quiet, leathery voice said.
“I know that, fool. Her guide is in here, as well. Find them. Bring the girl to me alive. Kill the other one.”
Markus watched as his Averill clicked his boot heels in respect, then hurried out of the room. The blonde man was surrounded by the finest of all material things: marble floors, finely crafted stone fireplace, ablaze to keep out the chill. The throne in which he sat was gilded with gold and jewels, captured over many millennia. He leaned over one wide arm, chin resting in his open palm. A booted toe tapped a staccato rhythm on the floor of the dais. Brown eyes took in the giant chandelier overhead, the ceiling far too high for the piece of art to do much in illumination. Scattered torches helped to brighten the mammoth room.
He could feel the slight zing in his veins, knowing that the time was near, getting closer with each step of Braxton’s boots. Soon he’d have her in his clutches, her strength of will making him grow even more powerful and his kingdom more grand. He could almost feel the moment when he’d feed from her., taking all that was the essence of Braxton Crowley, leaving the soggy remains in a marked grave, with all the others.
Markus almost felt giddy as he pushed up from his magnificent chair, which nearly two grown men could sit side by side in. His footfalls thudded dully on the highly polished floor, his hands tucked behind his back. He waited. He hated waiting.
Braxton held until she heard Markus send his warrior off, then silently made her way into one of the most beautiful rooms she’d ever seen. Her eyes took in the splendor, mouth hanging open slightly. She quickly recovered when she saw the pacing man standing before the immense fireplace. She watched him for a moment, instantly recognizing both the man from the stream the day she had been bathing, as well as the specter from the House of Shadows. He looked exactly the same, though somehow he seemed larger, more intimidating.
She felt her grip become sweaty once again on the grip of her blade, a cold chill of fear gathering under her arms and between her breasts. Gathering her courage and deep breath, Braxton decided to get it over with.
“I want to go home,” she said, her voice quiet, yet demanding.
Markus whirled, deeply happy to see the woman standing across the large room from him. He smiled warmly, though his dark eyes remained cold. “You are home, my dear.”
“No. No, I’m not.” Braxton shook her head, fighting against the urge to flee. She could feel herself trembling, and was angry at herself for it.
Markus, hands still casually clasped behind his back, began to stroll toward Braxton. “Why do you wish to leave my realm?” he asked, indicating the room around him with a wave of an arm. “You don’t have to leave, Braxton. You must know this?” he said, stopping within twenty feet of the petit blonde. “This world is what you make of it.” He studied her gaze, reading her- the bravery, the determination. The fear. “Asima has lied to you, you know,” he continued conversationally, turning his back on Braxton, strolling toward a beautiful tapestry that hung near the fireplace.
“No, she didn’t. You’re evil, Markus, and I want to go home.” Braxton stood her ground, not sure what she was supposed to do. She wasn’t aware that Markus could read that uncertainty.
“What do you have waiting for you back home, Braxton? Hmm?” he turned to look at the still-silent woman. “Your best friend turned his back on you. Tired of the fact that you’ll never love him, he left you when you needed him most.” Markus fought the urge to smile when he saw the flicker of pain pass through the brilliant green eyes. “He left you crying and alone on a dark, country road, Braxton. What kind of friend does that?”
Braxton felt the ache of truth grip her heart. She shook her head, not willing to allow Markus to get to her so badly. “No,” she said, though her voice sounded less than convincing to her own ears. “That’s not how it happened. He was just angry at me.”
“Indeed? Angry enough to turn his back on his best friend when she needed him most?” Markus tsked, shaking his head sadly. “That doesn’t sound like any kind of friend I’d want to have.” He walked over to Braxton again, noting that her grip tightened on her blade. “Braxton, is that really necessary?’ he asked, nodding toward the sword. “I’m unarmed,” he said, lifting his arms to show her. “I just want to talk to you. I like you. I’d really like you to reconsider staying here. With me.”
Braxton shook her head. “No. Not a chance.”
“I would never turn my back on you. I would never damn you to a hell that your own father created for you.” He stepped forward, gently pushing aside the blade Braxton raised toward him. He looked down into uncertain eyes. “I’d never use my love for you as a weapon. A condition.”
Braxton blinked away sudden tears, hearing the words that she’d prayed she’d hear from her father, but never had. She shook her head, her mind screaming at her heart to stop listening.
“Braxton, here you would be accepted and belong. No matter what.” He smiled, kind and nurturing. “You could even be free to love and care for whom you wanted. Asima, perhaps?”
Braxton again shook her head. “No. I heard you tell your thug to kill her.”
For an instant Markus panicked, but never let it show or be heard in his voice. “Of course I did. But in an instant,” he snapped his fingers for emphasis, “that order can be taken back. No harm will come to your friend, and in fact, she’ll be brought here to see you.”
Braxton nearly lowered her blade, wanting so much to believe what she was being told. She wanted to feel safe and to belong. For a moment, she wondered if just maybe that place was here, with him. Then her thoughts headed back to her life- Jared, Carrie and her other roommates. She thought of her professors from the past semester. Her dreams for the future. She shook her head. “No. I want to graduate.”
Markus felt anger fill him, thick and dark. Time for talking was over. Before the blonde could blink, he had her around the throat, her booted feet kicking uselessly at the air beneath them as she was raised. Her sword clattered to the marble floor as her hands grabbed uselessly at the strong one that held her. She could not breathe, lungs burning with every attempt.
“You don’t have a choice, Braxton,” he growled, eyes growing beady and even darker. Cold. “This is where it ends for you.”
Braxton felt a moment of pure terror as her life force was squeezed from her body. Her vision began to shadow at the edges, the veins in her head throbbing from lack of oxygen. She tried to cry out in pain as Markus’ grip tightened even more, dark determination on his face, twisting it into the monster that lurked inside the closet. The boogieman who crawled out from under the bed, haunting her dreams. The face turned into that of her father.
Braxton gasped at the grinning man. Her terror turned into rage, a foot lashing out, striking him squarely in the knee. Markus cried out, nearly dropping her as the leg buckled. His grip was loosened just enough to afford Braxton a much-needed breath of air. She reached back with one hand, bringing it forward with every ounce of strength she possessed, landing a hit to Markus’ temple. He howled, shaking his head in a daze as he dropped her.
Braxton fell to the floor, gasping as she fell to her knees. She quickly rolled out of the way as the monster before her lunged at her, quickly recovering from the blow. Getting to her feet several feet away, Braxton faced him. Her head begged her to flee, to run and find a place to hide, knowing that sooner or later her father’s fury would end. Until next time, anyway. Somehow she managed to fight the urge, knowing that this time there would be no reprieve.
Asima heard the attack coming from behind her. She whirled on the group of three Averill, raising her blade with one hand even as she snatched a throwing dagger from her belt, landing it squarely in the stomach of one of her attackers. He went down with a deep breath and blowing dust. The warrior who met the brunette’s blow lashed out with a solid kick to her thigh, making her stagger for a moment, but she continued to hold him off. The third Averill moved to her other side, slashing at her arm with a short sword.
Asima cried out, a thin ribbon of blood soaking through the sleeve of her shirt. She sent the first man flying with a roundhouse kick, turning her attention back to the man who had cut her. She punched him in the jaw, his pale head reeling back even as he prepared a second strike. She met it, but nearly fell to her knees when he used his free hand to punch her in the arm, right in the freshly-made wound.
“Bastard,” she hissed, bringing her blade around, slicing his throat. He gasped, grasping the wound before he, too, was gone. Angry, Asima turned back to the first man, only to watch him run down the corridor. Allowing her anger to get the best of her, Asima gave chase. Their footfalls pounded down the stone, echoing off the cold walls.
Braxton watched in morbid fascination as the man she’d known as Markus fully disappeared, and Fletcher Crowley emerged, replete with bible in hand. A new type of fear spread through Braxton, her breath catching as her gaze was glued to him. “No,” she whispered, scooting away from him, the marble floor beneath her cold and unyielding, like the man who’s hands were nearly on her. She felt the swift backhand across her face, knocking her head to the side, the slap of the large hand leaving a red mark on her flesh.
“I told you you were unholy,” Fletcher growled, following like a fat cat ready to pounce as Braxton backed away even more. She shook her head violently, hair whipping her stung cheek, unable to take her eyes off Fletcher’s. She’d rather face a hundred Markus’ than one Fletcher Crowley. “You think you can run from me, little girl,” he said, voice deceivingly soft. “A fool. You always were. A fool to think you were loved. A fool to think I wanted a damn thing to do with you. A fool to think that the spawn of Satan was good enough for my house.”
Braxton was crying now, her father’s familiar words still painfully chiseled into the tender flesh of her soul. “No,” she said, voice weak. “I’m not bad. I’m not evil.” She shook her head to emphasize her point. “I’m not.”
Asima burst into the room, skidding to a halt when her two prey were nowhere to be found, instead she saw Braxton cowering on the floor, a tall, gaunt man standing over her.
“That’s not Markus,” she murmured, hurrying further into the large room. She watched as the man raised his hand, which she thought he’d intended to hit the blonde with, but realized he held something in the long, cold fingers.
“Thou shalt find Hell a peaceful place!” Fletcher yelled, holding his bible aloft like a shield.
“No! Daddy, please, stop,” Braxton cried, curling her body around itself like a small child.
“Braxton!” Asima yelled, growling in frustration as she saw the two Averill she’d been chasing run toward her. She fended off their blows only half-heartedly as she watched the blonde. “That’s not your father! Fight it! Fight him!” Asima’s last word ended in a grunt as she blocked a particularly hard blow, which nearly took her to her knees.
Braxton heard the words, and felt the logic behind them, but the little girl in her felt the shame and guilt of a child who had no idea why she’d been cursed and branded a traitor by her own father. “I’m sorry, Daddy,” she whispered, praying that maybe if she were genuine enough, submissive enough, he’d go away.
She cried out in surprise and pain as she was picked up by her shirt, feet off the ground. She looked into the hard, cold eyes of her father, the smell of cheap whiskey hitting her in the face with every breath. “It’s time to pay,” he said, shaking her for good measure. One of his hands found her throat, the fingers like steel jaws, slowly closing her windpipe. Braxton gasped for air, her feet kicking uselessly.
Asima looked on, feeling helpless as she watched the blonde be tortured by her own worst fears. “Fight it,” she begged. In that moment, Braxton’s gaze met her own, and held. Asima tried to send everything in that gaze: encouragement, friendship and compassion. She grinned when she saw the fire returning to Braxton’s eyes.
Braxton suddenly realized that if she let this bastard beat her down again, this time she would not be getting up. The look in Asima’s eyes broke Braxton’s heart. They had gone through so much together in their time in this hell, and Braxton didn’t want it all to be for naught.
Turning her inner rage into a shield and weapon, Braxton grabbed Fletcher Crowley’s collar, holding him still as she snapped her head forward, nailing him on the bridge of his nose with her forehead. Seeing stars, he staggered backward, loosing his grip on her. Braxton hit the floor, boots in a wide stance to keep her balance. She saw the blood running out of her father’s nose as he looked up at her, stunned. She grinned, feral as a satisfaction rushed through her. It was time for the bastard to pay!
Braxton swung around, using the momentum to reach out and kick the man in the gut, nearly making him lose his footing with the blow. She reached back her arm, intending to drive her fist into his jaw, but her and was caught, the man in front of her looking down at her with death in his eyes. She was shocked when a swirl of brown flickered for a moment, as though Markus were looking back at her for the briefest of moments before Fletcher was fully back in place.
He squeezed the fist in his larger hand, the bones in Braxton’s fingers smashed together painfully. She held her breath so she wouldn’t cry out as her hand was bent backwards, her wrist popping. She worried the next time it popped, it would be because it was broken. She had to do something, and it had to be fast. Bringing up a knee, she made solid contact with his groin. Fletcher grunted, but didn’t fully let go. Using her other hand, Braxton grabbed the bible Fletcher had in his hand and imagined it going up in a ball of flame, hotter than all the pain her father had caused her for her first twenty years on Earth.
Asima dispatched another Averill, her glance moving to Braxton as he fell to dust at her feet. Blue eyes widened in shock when she saw a softball-sized ball of fire balanced in the blonde’s palm, the glow etching her features in dancing shadow.
“I damn you to hell, you son of a bitch,” Braxton said, every painful moment she’d suffered from her father all rolled into that ball of hatred. Before he even had a chance to speak, Braxton sent the ball flying the short distance towards his face, the fire instantly consuming him.
Fletcher screamed as he stumbled back, hands covering his face, which was swiftly melting between his fingers, falling to the marble floor in sickeningly wet plops.
Braxton watched in morbid fascination, not sure what was happening, or what would happen next. Surely she hadn’t killed him that easily. Sure enough, within a few moments the screams stopped, the remainder of Fletcher’s face falling to the floor. His hands clawed at his clothing, sending the shredded material to the floor, only for a new set of clothing to be underneath. Braxton knew that clothing, and felt her breath catch.
Markus stared back at her, the remnants of Braxton’s father’s face hanging from his chin. He quickly reached up, pulling the skin away like unwanted Halloween mask. “You bitch,” he hissed, a fire of his own burning in the depths of his eyes. “No more games. It’s time to die.”
“I agree,” Braxton said, her voice strong and filled with determination. She reached her hand out, fingers stretched, and with the flicker of a thought, her sword, which had long since been swept out of her reach, was back in hand. She grinned at its heft, swinging the blade experimentally through the air with a whoosh.
Markus grinned, his own blade appearing seemingly out of thin air. He swung it around once, then began to circle Braxton like a tiger playing with it’s food before pouncing. Braxton turned in a small circle, following his every move. She watched his eyes, just as Asima had taught her, and was easily able to tell when he was about to attack. She met his lunge with her own parry. The fight was on.
Markus’ moves were fast and concise, doing everything he could to tire the girl out, if not press any slight advantage. He was stunned at just how good she was. When Fletcher Crowley hadn’t been able to bring Braxton to her knees as he thought she would, Markus had become concerned for a very brief moment. Now, he knew he’d have to use pure brute strength to get her where he wanted her.
Braxton panicked slightly as she realized Markus had turned up the heat, and she was being backed up toward a wall. She knew she had to do something quick or he would have her. Tensing up every muscle and fiber in her being, she gritted her teeth, then plowed headlong into him.
Markus hit the floor with a resounding thud, his head bouncing off the floor. Within moments he had a hellcat straddling him, pounding her fists into his chest and face. Markus tried to grab Braxton’s hands, but she ripped them away, landing a few choice hits in the process.
Braxton had never felt such a desire to hurt and kill in all her life. Rather than being disturbed by it, she embraced it, pummeling the blonde man beneath her. She allowed every single moment of hurt and rage to form each blow.
“You will not win, you bastard!” she cried at the top of her lungs. Markus tried to hide his face, head turning from side to side, head pounding against the floor. Braxton’s fury took on whole new levels as Markus’ face melted back into Fletcher Crowley, the cold eyes glaring just before melting into Margot’s own eyes, looking up at her daughter, pleading for her to stop. Braxton didn’t. “You never tried to save me!” she screamed, her palm coming into contact with the older woman’s face with a fierce slap. “You never stopped him!” Margot disappeared just long enough for Markus to return, though he had Fletcher’s eyes.
Asima watched in awe as Braxton literally beat the hell out of her tormentor. Markus cowed beneath her rage. The Averill had also stopped, seeming as intrigued as the guide. She held her breath as she watched the blonde grab her sword from the floor where it lay next to Markus’ shoulder, and with a cry of victory, planted it deep in Markus’ chest.
Markus screamed, an inhuman sound, as the deadly steel slipped easily into his body, the tip ticking against the marble beneath him. Braxton stared down at him, face splattered with the blood from her mauled fists and what was left of Markus’ face, teeth bared, eyes wild. She watched in wonder as Markus stared up at her, his eyes returning to his own brown ones. His screaming stopped, a slow, almost peaceful smile spread across his features before his eyes rolled up into his head, and he let out a long, final breath.
Asima jumped, blade at the ready at the sound all around her. One by one, the attacking Averill blew across the floor, their dust remains grainy against the polished marble. Alone, she turned back to Braxton, who was also alone. Only Markus’ sword remained.
Braxton, stunned and hurting, held her blade in place, her mind telling her she could still feel the solidness of Markus’ body around it, though she knew she was staring at nothing. Startled by a touch to her shoulder, she looked up, right into the exhausted face of her guide.
“It’s over, Braxton,” Asima said softly, reaching a hand down to help the blonde to her feet. Once standing, Braxton let out her long-held breath, allowing her sword to fall to the floor with an echoing clang.
“It’s over,” she echoed, forehead falling to rest against Asima’s chest. She felt an arm wrap around her, a chin rest on top of her head.
“Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
Braxton felt numb during the entire trek back to where she’d started. The small cabin came into view, a light burning at the window. She rode behind Asima on Black Jack’s back, neither saying a word since leaving the cemetery. She had so many questions, yet could not wrap her mind around what had happened that night, or what she’d done. Perhaps she’d ask Asima those questions tomorrow, in the light of day.
“Come on, Braxton,” Asima said, stopping the black beast in front of the house and dismounting, reaching up to help her charge. Braxton nearly slid off the horse, exhausted and her spirit cold. Asima held her close, running her hands through blonde hair. “Are you okay?”
Braxton nodded after a moment, trying to decide if she truly were okay. Asima seemed to be satisfied with her response, as the hug came to an end, and Braxton’s hand was taken in a larger one. They walked toward the house in silence, Asima ushering Braxton toward the closed door that seemed to lead to nowhere. She stopped them, turning Braxton to face her, hands on the blonde’s shoulders.
“I know you have questions and concerns, but I also know you’re exhausted. Sleep tonight, Braxton.” She gave the blonde a warm smile. “Everything will make sense in the morning.” Asima pushed the door open, revealing a small, yet sensible bedroom. The furniture was made of rough cut, sturdy wood, simple yet beautiful in its simplicity. Braxton had never seen anything look so inviting in all her life.
She looked up at Asima before stepping inside. “Will you lay down with me? You must be just as exhausted as I am.”
Asima nodded, placing a gentle kiss on Braxton’s forehead. “Yes, but I have some things I need to do first. Go on,” she said, indicating the room with a wave of her hand.
Braxton took a step, but stopped, glancing at her guide from over her shoulder. “You won’t be gone long, right?”
Asima smiled, her voice soft, “I’ll always be there, Braxton. Never far away.”
Satisfied, Braxton turned and fully entered the bedroom. She heard the door close behind her, but was too tired to care. Stripping off her sweaty, blood-encrusted clothing, she slipped under the covers, her body screaming in agony as the muscles relaxed. The stiffness disappeared, leaving peaceful comfort in it’s wake. Braxton closed her eyes, allowing the darkness to take her away.
There was a soft beeping, continuous and soothing. Next there was a strange smell, medicinal and sterile. Braxton’s nostrils twitched, her brows drawing in seeming concentration as her brain tried to focus on the smell and sound. She felt herself pulled from a great, heavy darkness, a small bit of fear making the fingers on her right hand flex, fingers feeling smooth cotton beneath their tips. She tried to open her eyes, but it felt as though glue had been swept onto her lids, making them heavy and slightly gummy. Finally, after a moment struggle, she was able to break the seal, blinking slowly as a small circle of green light came into focus.
Braxton realized she was looking at a machine of some sort, the green light beginning to clear until she saw that it was shaped like a heart. Her heart. Beep, beep, beep…
Turning her head away from it, Braxton looked down the length of her body, seeing the outline of her legs and feet underneath a thin blanket. Her arms were at her side, one hand with an IV sticking out of it. It was uncomfortable. She was cold.
Opening her mouth, she tried to speak, but nothing but a painful croak came out. Her lips hurt, dry and cracked. Slowly her tongue slipped out, wetting them, though it did little good as her mouth was dry, her throat parched. She tried a few more times before a small sound slipped out.
“Hello?” she said weakly. The door to her room was open, light spilling in a rectangle just inside the room. She saw people walking by, nurses mostly, dressed in their colorful scrubs. “Hello?” she said again, her voice a bit stronger. “Can someone help me? Please?”