Sweat drenched my body, forcing me awake. I threw the light blanket to the floor and rolled over. Heat kept me from falling back to sleep. A toxic smell like burning plastic pierced my sinuses. I sat up in bed and noticed a faint orange glow beneath my door. I slid out of bed and jumped across my room. Brian slept contorted in a ball in my recliner. I shook him, but he didn’t stir. I grabbed his wrist and threw him to the floor.
Brian groaned, “The hell, man?”
“The place is on fire?” I said.
“Fucking yes. Get outside.”
Brian scrambled to his feet and slipped out of my bedroom window. I pulled my magic hoodie on and tied my sword’s scabbard on above the waistband of my boxers. I locked the chronometer in place on my wrist. The doorknob felt warm to the touch, but I opened the door to the hall anyway. Heat and smoke blasted my face. Crouched, I pulled my hoodie over my nose and duck-walked to my uncle’s room.
The door slammed against the adjacent wall with a splintering crack. Despite the noise, my uncle lay motionless in bed. I ripped his blanket off. In the dim orange glow, I learned David’s torso served as the canvas for a mosaic of tattoos.
“David!” I shouted, but he didn’t respond. I shook my uncle’s shoulder and yelled, “Leroy David Clemens!”
David wrapped his fingers around my wrist like a vice. He reached under his pillow and drew a massive revolver. David leveled the barrel at my face before recognition spread through his eyes. “Why in the good goddamn are you waking me up?” David asked.
“The,” I stammered, “house is — Why the fuck do you have a gun under your pillow?”
David lowered the gun. “What’s burning?” he asked.
“The goddamn house,” I said. “C’mon.”
I ran from the room with David on my heels. Flames crawled along every surface in the small house. I drew Grasscutter and launched a burst of wind down the hall. The fires flickered out, and then roared back to life. David pulled me back toward his bedroom by my hood, but the ceiling collapsed. Burning lumber slammed to the floor and threw a cloud of bright red embers into the air. Panicked, I unleashed waves of energy from my sword, tearing a hole through the inferno into the night air.
David showed no alarm at the supernatural display. He pushed me out of the hole I’d made in the wall. I slipped in the mud as he climbed out behind me. I stood and faced a mob of yellow-eyed men. One of the bald men had his gnarled, liver-spotted fingers laced in Brian’s hair with a knife pressed to my friend’s throat. A woman stood at the center of the men. Red eyes glowed in her skull. Clumps of dirt covered her black tunic and her thin, blonde hair. At her feet lay Roscoe, my uncle’s Australian Shepherd. Blood matted the dog’s fur.
David leveled his pistol at the skeletal woman. “They killed my mother fucking dog,” he said.
Thunder erupted in my ears. A mist of dust sprayed from the woman’s shoulder when the bullet tore through her. The next round ripped through the center of her chest. I blinked. The woman stood in front of David with his pistol in her hands. The skeletal woman bent the barrel like soft clay and tossed the gun aside. She placed a hand on David’s shoulder and stomped on the side of his leg. The limb bent inward at the upper thigh with a snap. David caved and growled like a wounded animal.
The woman practically teleported to my side. The smell of piss and dirt overwhelmed me. She punched me in the gut, and I dropped to one knee.
“I am the vampire queen,” she said through a mouth of mangled fangs. “I have come to avenge the murder of my brother.”
A mix of red, purple, and black lights swam around the edges of my vision as I struggled to breathe. I looked between Brian and David. Fear blocked me from looking up at the vampire. I couldn’t drive the thought of Ashley dying from my mind. This beast’s brother killed Ashley. Now, I would die as well. I was no match for a vampire in a fair fight, let alone against a whole mob. I slammed my hand on the chronometer and flung myself through time.
The timestream spit me out three feet in the air. I tumbled through the red clay mud on impact. The time machine had launched me to the last place I’d left. I walked between the bushes and the house and tapped on Ashley’s window.
My old friend pushed her head out as she slid the window open. “Didn’t you just leave?” Ashley asked.
“That was like a month ago for me,” I said. “Can I come in?”
Ashley rolled her eyes and left her bedroom. Awkwardly, I crawled through the window. Ashley came back and tossed me a pair of sweatpants. I caught the clothes but stared at her with one eyebrow cocked higher than the other. “You’re in just boxers,” Ashley said. “Put those pants on.”
Right. I slid into the oversized pants and tied them at my navel to keep them in place. I sat next to Ashley on her bed. “I could use some advice,” I said.
“Do you know anything about a vampire queen?”
“The civilized vampires currently have a king,” Ashley said. “I’m sure he has many consorts, but they don’t really recognize marriages. I guess he could’ve died between now and whenever you came from, but he’s like four hundred; so I doubt it.”
Vampire monarchy? Every time I started to think I knew anything about the paranormal, I learned something new.
“Well, I was attacked by a group of people and a female vetoli claiming to be the vampire queen.”
“Are you okay?” Ashley asked as she tugged at my hoodie to inspect me for wounds.
“I’m fine.” I pushed her away. “My house is on fire though. I just don’t know how I’m going to save Brian or David from them.”
“You can’t fight a vetoli.”
“No shit. Last time, we — I trained for months, and people still died. Aren’t they weak to anything?”
“Sunlight and silver,” Ashley said, “but mature vetoli will be powerful sorcerers able to shapeshift, become invisible, and move faster than a human eye can process.”
“But I’ve got to fight her, or she’ll kill me and my family. You really can’t help? No secret weapon in the Stacks or at least a book?”
“No, my advice is to run.”
“Thanks anyway,” I said as I opened the window.
“Wait,” Ashley said. She stood next to me and placed her hand on mine. “You know you have to stop doing this.”
“Coming back to see me. Merlyn said traveling in your own timeline is extremely dangerous. World-ending dangerous.”
“Merlyn also said the timeline will correct itself so long as whatever you change isn’t huge. And also that you can’t change anything because of causation or some shit. None of it makes sense.”
“My death wasn’t your fault,” Ashley said before I could continue ranting. “Or won’t be. Whatever.”
“How did you know?” I asked.
“I’m in the top twenty most powerful wizards of all time. Divination is easy. People that don’t even know magic is real can do divination.”
I hugged Ashley. “I’m sorry.”
“It wasn’t your fault. I will be fully aware of what’s happening before it happens. I won’t change anything because I’m responsible enough to not attempt to drastically alter the course of history. Apparently unlike you.”
“You’re oddly calm with dying.”
“It’s just death. There’s a whole new adventure beyond this plane. So, seriously, stop fucking around in your own timeline. Meeting yourself could collapse all of Time.”
“No Cleti handshakes, got it.”
I dropped from the window and set out walking through the woods. Ashley and Merlyn’s belief that time was an inflexible construct brought on philosophical questions I couldn’t begin to answer. Ashley was wrong about my responsibility for her death, but her acceptance helped me let go of my guilt, at least for the moment. In the trees behind her house, I accepted that I would never see Ashley Skelten again.
Despite my unburdened conscience, my family was still in danger. A wizard couldn’t help me, but maybe a faerie could. The red tube Aragnis had given me rested in my hoodie pocket. Creatures of the spirit world absolutely could not be trusted. Faeries twisted everything into a sick game where they always came out ahead. I would need to be clever to match one of the Fae. Whispering her name, I snapped the idol in half to summon Aragnis. I expected a magical light show or a portal to open in the air before me. Nothing happened when I broke the wooden rod. I wanted to cry, but tears wouldn’t flow.
Then I heard the singing. Laughter bellowed from the depths of my stomach. The faerie sang a language I didn’t understand. The melody pierced into my bones. Images of golden sunrise and morning dew leaped into my mind. Without thought, I sprinted. The compass in my mind pulled me. My miseries, my pains, my worries bled away. The song spoke to me of the impossible and the inevitable. Thorns and branches tore at me as I ran, but I felt no pain as the pleasure of the song swelled and overflowed within me. I ran. The silence between the unknowable words held the universe and screamed the unthinkable. Driven by her voice, by the fountain of joy in her melody, I ran to Aragnis.
I burst through a line of lilac trees into a clearing of white grass. The singing stopped, and I dropped to my knees. Awareness and confusion rushed through my mind. My lungs burned with every choked wheeze. Sweat soaked my hoodie. Somehow I’d lost my sweat pants while running. Cuts and rashes covered my thighs and shins. Twigs, leaves, and other debris entangled my curly hair. How long had I been running?
At the center of the circle of lilacs, moonlight bathed Aragnis in an eerie glow. A tight, violet bun had replaced her raven curls since our last encounter. Those hungry, emerald eyes sized me up as nothing more than prey. The silk layers of her black and white dress swayed like colorless flames as Aragnis stalked toward me.
“My, my,” Aragnis said. She knelt before me and hooked a claw-like fingernail under my chin. “It’s been centuries. I knew you were special for a duine, but would never have guessed you’d be immortal. I’d given up on you, dearie.”
“Well, I had to be pretty desperate to seek out one of the Fae,” I said.
“I’m so happy you finally saw beyond that poor opinion. What do you want, handsome?”
“I need to be stronger,” I said, “to be faster. I have to be a better fighter. Can you make me stronger?”
“I can give you something to make you stronger,” Aragnis said.
“What’s your price?”
“Why would I ask a price?”
Aragnis flashed her razor-toothed smile. “I want you,” she said. “As a pet.”
“For how long?”
“For a time.”
“When this candle is no more,” Aragnis said and produced a red candle as long as my open palm, “our bargain will be settled.”
I extended my hand toward Aragnis.
“Dearie, you know I don’t close my deals that way,” she said as she leaned forward and kissed me.
Aragnis pulled away from our kiss. Music drifted from her parted lips. The faerie danced as she stepped away from me. Her voice invigorated my soul. Aragnis flashed a deadly smirk and ran from the moonlit clearing. I sprinted through the lilacs to follow her.
Confusion set in as I woke. I opened my eyes, and the room spun around me. Closing my eyes failed to block out enough light, but covering my face with my arm did the trick. My mouth felt, tasted, and smelled like swamp mud on a hot day. Pain and stiffness radiated across my back from my ribs to my hips. A sea of fur blankets and the softest pillows constricted my limbs as I tried to roll onto my hands and knees. With considerable effort, I climbed to my feet and opened my eyes without vomiting. My nakedness didn’t surprise me as vague snapshots of sleeping with Aranis filled the forefront of my memory.
A massive fireplace and a single door sat at opposite ends of the circular room. I stumbled through the door into a small meadow. A layer of powdery snow topped the purple grass and brightened the sunlight to a painful level. Shamelessly, I knelt outside the cottage and ate fistfuls of snow. Despite my lack of clothing, I curled up in the snowy grass. I begged my head and body to stop aching.
I drifted in and out of consciousness, waking between blips of darkness to chew on snow or change positions. Sometime later, something thrashed against my side, I shielded my eyes and looked up at Aragnis. “Where am I?” I asked.
“My demesne in the Fae,” Aragnis said. “It’s good you’re out of bed.”
“How long have I been here?”
“I’m not sure,” Aragnis said. She dropped a bundle on my chest. “Get dressed. We need to go.”
“To make you stronger.”
The bundle Aragnis had dumped in my lap contained a set of clothes. I squeezed into a pair of blue tights and boots. The matching blue and white tunic hung nearly to my knees, but I tied it off with a belt. I slipped my hoodie over the tunic and strapped Grasscutter to the belt. “I look ridiculous,” I said to Aragnis when I finished dressing.
“You would stand out less if you’d leave behind your sweater and that godly weapon,” she said.
“Not comfortable here without them.”
Aragnis grunted but said nothing else. I followed the faerie around the cottage. A golden carriage waited next to a stream. Beasts the size of large horses stood hitched to the carriage. The dog-like creatures had slick, oily black fur with patches of soft white on their underbellies and surrounding their sapphire eyes. Fins protruded from the backs of the animals’ forelegs and their spines. Their thick tails ended in another broad fin. Every few seconds icy mist burst from holes in the monsters’ foreheads.
A shirtless, muscular body that ended at the shoulders opened the carriage door for Aragnis. The headless man dipped his barrel chest in a small bow as I passed. I stepped into the carriage and sat next to Aragnis. As the carriage lurched forward, the faerie began to hum. The calm sound soothed my pains. Soon, I drifted to sleep despite the bumpy ride.
Aragnis tugged on my clothes to wake me. I stumbled out of the carriage to the mossy earth. “Are we here?” I asked.
Aragnis pressed her fingers to my lips. “No,” she whispered. “We’re leaving Winter’s lands. To reach the Falls of Naught, we must pass through the Faelyn Woods. Stay close to me and be silent.”
I did as Aragnis instructed. I followed as she stalked through the dense forest. Eyes of various colors watched us from the shadows, but none of the creatures interacted with Aragnis or me. Aragnis looked on edge. She walked in a crouch. Her head darted in different directions, constantly scanning our surroundings. Discomfort crept up my spine as I observed the faerie’s behavior. I tried to make myself seem as small as possible and tiptoed through the trees with both hands on my sword.
Aragnis shoved her palm into my chest to stop me. “Stay here,” she said.
The faerie knelt next to a tree. She spoke into a gnarled root for several seconds, seemingly arguing with the tree. After a few moments, a hedgehog the size of a labrador slunk from the hole beneath the tree. The hedgehog glared suspiciously in my direction. Aragnis waved me over. “I’m going to have my friend here help me find something,” Aragnis said. “She doesn’t trust you. You’ll have to wait here, dearie.” Aragnis kissed my cheek. “Do not leave. Do not disturb the forest.”
I watched Aragnis and the giant hedgehog disappear deeper into the Faelyn Wood. Apparently, touching the trees didn’t disturb the forest. I sat on the twisted roots of the hedgehog’s tree with no obvious consequence. As I started to nod off, someone shouted, “Oy! Lad!”
I rolled off the tree branch and drew Grasscutter. A man that appeared to be nothing more than a bearded head with stubby limbs stepped away from me. “The man lifted his arms over his curly blonde hair. “No need for that now, son,” the head said. His breath reeked of alcohol.
“What do you want?” I asked. “I’ll punt your little ass across the forest if you try to mess with me.”
“Lot’s of fight in you,” the head said. “That’s good. You’ll need that. I’ve come to warn you, boy.”
“Yeah. I seen you walking with Aragnis. No good there. That one’s a black widow.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” I said.
“Of course. A strong lad like yourself? Of course, you will.” The man reached under his beard and tossed a piece of silver on the ground between us. “Just take that branch and find the standing stone to get back to your world. That witch will never let you leave. You’ll have to trick her.”
I picked up the bit of silver. Despite its color, the twisted rod was actually a length of wood cut from a small branch. When I looked up, the tiny man was gone. A few yards away, Aragnis approached with the giant hedgehog. The faerie carried a basket of herbs and flowers in her arms. I stashed the silver branch in my hoodie pocket. The hedgehog humphed as it pushed past me into its den. Aragnis beckoned for me to follow her.
The rest of our cautious journey through the Faelyn Woods proved uneventful. We exited the forest to a field of golden wheat. A tree the size of a several-story building stood at the center of the field, but Aragnis gave the old oak a wide berth as we circled around the edge of the field. Beyond the giant tree, a river cut through the field. Aragnis led me along the bank to a waterfall.
Aragnis sat upon a boulder near the waterfall and crushed her basket of herbs with a mortar and pestle. I asked multiple times what she was doing, but the faerie dismissed my inquiry. While Aragnis worked, IK threw rocks into the river. I played with the bit of silver wood but ensured Aragnis never saw the twig. Whether or not the tiny man was right about her, I knew better than to trust one of the Fae.
When she finished, Aragnis approached me with a bowl of yellow-green paste. I dropped the stone I was playing with and met her gaze. She ordered me to follow her. We walked behind the waterfall into a deep cavern. A paradox existed comfortably i8n the cave. Dizziness hit me as my mind adjusted to the contradictory information. Light and dark both filled the cave at once. A sun and full moon slowly circled the rocky ceiling. Thunderstorms erupted in spots while snowstorms blazed in others. Trees from numerous biomes grew inside the cavern. Grass, sand, rocks, and even lava covered the center of the cave. A stone slab rose from the center of the pond. The slab was the only point unaffected by the turbulent nature of the cave.
“Remove your clothes,” Aragnis said.
I stripped and stood naked before the faerie. With a crude brush, Aragnis painted an intricate pattern across my body. From a star of interlocking diamonds on my chest, lines and dots crept across my skin to swirling rings at my shoulders, wrists, hips, and ankles. She covered my back with more designs.
Aragnis positioned me on the stone slab at the center of the cave. With a sack that looked like unspun cotton, she gathered things from around the impossible environment. Aragnis snatched a handful of darkness and a beam of sunlight from the air and stuffed them in her sack. Stones, storm clouds, grass, and ice all went into the bag. Aragnis caught a lightning bolt and a small tornado for her bag. Aragnis filled the rest of the bag with water and tied it closed. With a snap of her fingers, Aragnis set the sack on fire. The flames churned with different colors as Aragnis kneaded the mass with her fingers. Aragnis molded the burning mixture of impossible ingredients into a writhing sheet of darkness.
The faerie draped the sheet of whirling smoke over my shoulders. She weaved the black mist around my body until only my hands, head, and feet remained exposed. With small needles driven into my flesh, Aragnis pinned the cloud of blackness to the points where she’d painted circles on my skin. Each prick drew a sharp wince from my lips. She teased me for being weak. “I don’t care how strong you are, being stabbed hurts,” I said.
Aragnis whispered something in her ancient, melodic language. The painted lines across my skin glowed yellow through the shadow cloak. The pins holding the cloak in place burrowed into my flesh. The shadow cloak billowed and crawled into the circles at my joints. The lines on my skin turned to a violent, electric red. My body hummed with vibrations. The muscles of my arms and legs slowly contracted in response to the magic. Pain ripped through me as my body snapped into a fetal ball. Tonic spasms came in waves while my knees and arms constricted my breathing.
“What did you do?” I choked.
“You have to relax,” Aragnis said. “Fighting against the rashvon will only make it restrain you more.”
“What is this?”
“This will make you stronger, but first you must accept it. Be at peace. Breathe.”
Calming myself, I drew breaths through my nose deep into my belly. I focused on every breath pulling away the tension from my limbs as I exhaled. My heart pounded in my chest, but I willed the muscle to slow its pace. As I brought my breathing and heart rate under control, the magic loosened.
Moving felt sluggish as I stretched from the fetal position. The cloak and lines had disappeared, but the magic buzzed below the surface of my skin. “What the hell was that?” I asked, stalking toward Aragnis.
The faerie’s gaze betrayed no fear as I towered over her. Aragnis laughed at me. “A rashvon cloak will make you stronger,” she said. “A bit of your power and strength fuel it. At first, it will make you weaker until you adapt to its presence. You will feel sick and struggle to sleep. In time, your body will accommodate the cloak’s presence and it will help you gain strength more easily.”
“This isn’t what I wanted,” I said. “I need to be stronger now.”
“That isn’t what you asked for,” Aragnis said. “You wanted a way to make you stronger. This does just that.”
Though angry, I didn’t argue with Aragnis. She had fulfilled the word of our deal. I suspected she intentionally failed to meet the spirit of my request. We stalked in silence through the Faelyn Woods back to her cottage. Upon our return, Aragnis aggressively took her reward for upholding our deal.
After the aggressive sexual encounter, I slept dreamlessly for what felt like forever. Dull electricity buzzed in my hands and feet. I remembered the rashvon. Willing myself to relax, the magic cloak receded in response. My joints strained against invisible resistance as if moving through a sea of cobwebs. Stiffly, I walked outside and relieved myself in the nearby stream. Unperturbed, I knelt down and drank several handfuls of icy water.
Walking back to the cottage, a wolf larger than a horse sat in the snow. The monster bared its teeth but did not attack. With caution, I stepped several yards to my right to strafe around the giant wolf. The wolf blocked my escape. The wolf shifted onto its feet and stepped toward me. “Do not run, man-cub,” the wolf said, its voice forming on the snowy wind. “I have come to challenge you.”
“I refuse your challenge,” I said.
“You have no choice.”
The wolf leaped at me. I tried to fire an energy ball at the beast but found myself unable. The power in me dwelled out of reach, buried by the rashvon cloak. The giant wolf slammed into me like a Buick with claws. My back drove into the frozen earth and air ripped from my lungs.
“Fight back, qimmiuraq,” the wolf said.
The wolf opened its jaws. Thick saliva dripped onto my face. I grabbed the wolf’s jaws and strained against the beast. Fangs cut into my fingers. Blood coated my hands and the wolf’s gums. The monster’s maw opened wider than my head. I smelled iron and rotten fish on the beast’s breath.
Suddenly, the wolf drew back on its hind legs. It slammed its front paws into my chest. Pain filled my entire body. Black and white flashed across my vision before everything went dark.
Panic burned in my chest. Frigid water surrounded me. I fought my way to the surface. Bursting through, I sucked down air. Ice and snow bit into the skin under my nails as I clawed my way out of the pool. The ice burned my naked flesh as I curled into a panting ball next to the water’s edge.
“Oh good,” Aragnis said, “You’re awake.”
“What,” I said, shivering, “what happened to me? Where’s that wolf?”
“Don’t worry about that. Just follow me.”
Doing as commanded, I walked in the snow behind Aragnis. We crossed a bridge over the rushing stream. Climbing a hill, I could see the cottage nestled in the wintery valley below. Another pool rested at the hill’s peak. Steam rose in sheets off the water’s surface.
“Get in,” Aragnis said.
“Not until you tell me what the fuck is going on.”
With disturbing ease, the faerie shoved me into the steaming pool. Hot water rushed over me. I trashed in the boiling pool, but couldn’t find the surface. Then, the shock of the heat subsided, and I relaxed. Tension bled from my body, replaced by soothing warmth. I climbed from the pool, energized. I had to do something. Anything. I couldn’t be still. It was like the boiling water had seeped beneath my skin and screamed to be free.
The wolf rose from a nearby snowbank. I dropped into a crouch as the wolf snarled. I called upon my power, and this time it responded. Energy flowed against the rashvon’s barrier into my left palm, and I launched it at the giant wolf. The blast struck the wolf’s shoulder. The beast flattened its ears against its head and growled deeper.
“Amarok,” Aragnis said to the wolf, “be easy. I want him broken, not dead.”
The wolf fell upon me. It wrapped its jaws around my torso and flung me through the air. I slid through the snow and left a trail of blood. I leaped to my feet and rushed Aragnis. If she controlled the wolf, I would kill her first. I threw a punch. The wolf’s massive tail coiled around my forearm and pulled me away from Aragnis. I dug my heels into the snowy earth. I fired ineffective blasts at the wolf while dragging myself backward inch-by-inch. The wolf tugged harder. Something snapped in my forearm. I screamed and tumbled across the ground.
I stared up at the wolf looming over me. It pressed a paw over my chest. Ribs cracked. The wolf forced its claws into me. Amarok lifted me into the air and slammed me to the ground. Everything went black.
Freezing water woke me. I pulled myself from the pool and stared at Aragnis. “What are you doing to me?” I asked.
“Exactly what you asked,” Aragnis said. “Training accelerates your connection to the rashvon. Both you and the magic grow stronger with each fight against Amarok.”
“Am I dying every time I fight the wolf?”
“Amarok doesn’t kill. I can’t bring you back to life. Near death, maybe, but not back from death. Amarok hurts you. This pool heals your wounds. The hot spring gives you energy.”
“And all of this is making me stronger?”
“Both you and the cloak.”
I nodded and walked to the hot spring to fight Amarok. For three days, the wolf and I sparred. Each fight lasted longer than the one before it, and my attacks on Amarok grew more effective each cycle. On the third night, Aragnis stopped our training to use me for herself, promising I could resume wrestling the demonic wolf the next morning. I never saw Amarok again.
Upon waking, I found myself alone in the cottage. Bodily function drove me from bed. As I approached the door, hushed voices carried from outside. Morning needs forgotten, I crouched and peeked through the cracked door.
Aragnis rested on her knees with her head down. My mischievous lover had never looked so pitiful and diminutive before the faerie that loomed over her. Nothing could describe the beauty or grandeur of this new faerie. Her black mane fell in tight ringlets over her milky skin and crystalline dress. Reddish black eyes accented the faerie’s angular features. She wore an icy crown of gemstones and silver roses. Every word she spoke made my heart flutter.
“Your pet still leaves,” the faerie said.
“Yes, my queen,” Aragnis responded, never looking up.
“Impressive. Lying with you tends to kill mortals. The boy has also bested Amarok?”
“Not bested, my queen, but he fights well.”
“He grows stronger each day?”
“Yes, my queen.”
“I want him.”
“But my queen!” Aragnis shouted, raising her head from the ground. “My deal with the boy—”
“Virmentaela,” the queen said. Aragnis collapsed, shuddering in pain. “Once strong enough to best the northern wolf, bring the boy to me. Whatever deal you’ve made with him shall transfer to me.”
“As you wish, Queen Aerchada.”
I backed into the cottage while the faeries continued speaking. I dressed and pried open a window. Before leaving, I arranged cushions and blankets to look like I was still asleep. I crawled out of the window and ran barefoot through the snow. I tried to jump into the time stream, but the chronometer failed to activate in the Netherworld.
Biting screams pierced the quiet forest. My distraction had bought little time. I focused my internal compass on a way stone. The magic pulled at my mind, and I sprinted in response. The orange glow of fire lit the forest behind me. Aragnis shrieked threats of torture and death. I ran faster. As I burst through the tree line, I saw a stone monolith at the center of a clearing. Grasping the silver branch, I prayed to every deity I could name. I rammed my shoulder into the way stone and stumbled across rocky ground. The chronometer whirred back to life. I activated the device before Aragnis could follow me through the Veil.
I appeared in my own basement several months before the vampire attack. Fear no longer paralyzed me, but I didn’t feel prepared to fight the vampire. My time with Merlyn and misadventures in the Fae forced me to admit the vampire outclassed me by several tiers. I had a plan though. First, I needed to make a few stops in preparation.
All my plans had been set into motion within a few hours. I dialed the chronometer to the moment after I escaped the vampire queen. I drew Grasscutter and poured energy into the blade. Anxiety shook my body as I ignited the chronometer.
The time stream launched me into the air. Electric blue flames trailed from me like a violent comet. I landed a few yards east of the vampire’s thralls and unleashed a maelstrom of energy and wind from the sword. The wave tore through the group and sent them tumbling across the yard. Brian gathered himself faster than the thralls. He snatched the black-handled dagger that had been at his throat moments before. My friend crouched like a hungry animal and brandished the blade.
The vampire queen cocked her head in my direction but betrayed no surprise. She blinked out of existence again. I flung Grasscutter in front of me. The vampire appeared just out of reach with the sword buried in her shoulder. I pulled two wooden stakes from my hoodie pocket and drove them into the vampire’s chest. Her black eyes bore into mine. She grabbed me by the throat and lifted me off the ground. My airway closed. My plan to decapitate her with Grasscutter disappeared, replaced by panic racking my body. I tore my sword from the vampire and cut off her arm. The vampire queen’s grip on my trachea tightened. I clawed at her fingers. The vampire’s papery flesh crumbled in my hands. I backed away from the vampire. She flicked her remaining hand and a ring of fire sprang up around us. She prowled with calm, slow steps in my direction.
Lights erupted above my house. Bluish beams centered on the vampire. Her skin cracked and burned into blackened dust. People in black combat gear rappelled into the yard and fell into formation surrounding the vampire queen and me. A man dropped from above and landed half-kneeling between her and me. He drew a massive gun from under his flowing, black trench coat. The man leveled his hand cannon at the vampire queen. With the sound of thunder, the vampire’s head burst into a cloud of ash.
The soldiers quickly put out the flames and collected the vampire’s remains. They bound and blindfolded the thralls. Angular, stylized helicopters landed in my uncle’s yard. The soldiers carted their captives into the aircraft.
The man in the trenchcoat turned to face me with his weapon resting across the back of his shoulders. His speckled grey eyes matched his close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair.
“Leonard?” I asked.
“Mr. Clemens, I presume,” he said in a warm tone.
I jammed my finger in Leonard’s face. “You’re late. You were supposed to arrive two minutes ago.”
“We arrived at the time you instructed.”
“Not by my watch. I almost died.”
“Honestly, this would’ve been easier for the Organization if you had.”
“I’m sure,” I said. “So now what?”
“Everything has been arranged for you to leave and come with us. Legally, you’re moving to a private school on scholarship. Your uncle will have his medical and housing expenses covered. Once we’ve administered an amnesiac to your friend, we can leave.”
Leonard raised an eyebrow. “That was the agreement. We help you. You and your time machine join the Organization.”
“You never said anything about erasing anyone’s memory. I damn sure didn’t agree to it.”
“Only of the last twenty-four hours.”
“Which would achieve nothing since he’s known about the time machine and my abilities for almost a year. Just leave his and my uncle’s brains alone.”
“Fine,” Leonard said. “We’ll leave him be. You have forty-eight hours to get your life in order. I’ll be back for you then.”
Leonard stepped into one of the aircraft on my lawn. As it lifted into the air without a sound, Leonard shouted, “Welcome to the Organization, Mr. Clemens.”