Between Wild and Ruin
After walking through dense stands of pine trees, I follow the remnants of what may have been a trail toward the top of the mountain. Higher up, the pines and junipers dappling the mountainside grow taller, but there aren’t as many. As they thin, small gusts of wind whistle through the forest, echoing through the trees. Otherwise, the forest is completely silent.
Closer to the top of the mountain, the rocky ground levels off and the land spreads across a plateau below the mountain’s peak. Unlike the forest, the plateau is more like a jungle, marked by thick hanging moss and clusters of tall, unidentifiable conifers. Trees stand like sentries several rows deep. Beyond them, fallen logs lie scattered among overgrown shrubs and boulders in circular bands like rings on a tree. I walk through it all, making my way past thick brush into a clearing.
Fresh sap and damp earth assault my nose. Under bright sunlight, large, rough-cut slabs of glittery rock blanket the otherwise bare field. Some lie stacked on top of each other like the crumbling remains of a building. Awestruck, I circle the structure, running my fingers over what looks like a ruin.
“Incredible, isn’t it?”
A voice behind me sends my heart racing toward my throat. I jump, whipping around to find a young man leaning casually against a pine near the clearing’s perimeter, looking off to his left as though listening for something.
Even in the shade, his face glows. He smiles, showing off teeth that gleam like snowflakes between perfect lips. Hair as dark as Liddy’s French roast coffee falls around his face in unruly waves. His features are angular but refined, and his high, rounded cheeks soften the striking juxtaposition.
I blink, then blink again. Ruby. I rub my eyes. You’re hallucinating. But he’s still there, staring at me.
While I gawk, he pushes himself off the tree. “Not many people make it up here.” He smiles broadly.
A soft, purple-hued halo circles his golden irises, catching fire in the sunlight. They settle on me, and my heart stops, completely paralyzed by his faultless storybook features.
I exhale, trying to swallow inconspicuously. “It’s definitely a hike.”
“Who are you?”
“Who am I?” I sputter. “Who are you?”
“Leo.” He grins.
“Ruby.” My name rolls off his tongue with a smooth “R” and a musical lilt. Somehow, he even manages to make it sound appealing. “First time up?”
“Yes. We just moved to La Luna.”
“La Luna,” he repeats. “Welcome.”
“Thanks,” I mumble. Earth to Ruby, I mentally smack myself. Since when has any boy made you senseless?
“You okay?” He smiles like he knows I’m not. Like he knows whyI’m not. “Do you want to sit down? The altitude can be a bitch if you’re not used to it.”
“No. I mean, yes, I’m fine. No, I don’t want to sit down. You just really startled me. You should announce yourself next time.”
“Next time you sneak up on somebody.”
Leo raises a perfect dark eyebrow. “But then it wouldn’t be sneaking, would it?”
My cheeks flush, and I suddenly want to drop through a hole in the ground. I choke out, “Ummm,” and something incoherent and then stare at my toes like they hold the keys to my future.
“You look about as lost as I feel.”
Turning to her right, Carita saw a man leaning against a wall. Had he been here all night? How had she not noticed him sooner? She would have stepped on Azrael’s foot for one second of this man’s time.
He was everything Ruby had made it clear she didn’t want: pale, blond, and blessed with the unmistakable build of a warrior. If his clothes hadn’t made that clear, the casual strength that rippled out from him would have given it away.
This wasn’t the kind of man who got lost. His words were those of a predator stalking prey. Soft spoken to make her want to lower her guard. Each word meant to draw her in. Like a hunter readying his bow to make a kill.
Yet instead of being repulsed by this thought, Carita tilted her chin, met his gaze, and walked over to join him. He was probably more comfortable with a bow or axe in his hand than a glass of wine. Finding someone else who seemed as out of place here as she felt was refreshing.
“I’m never lost.” She took his hand in hers before he had time to respond and shook it firmly. “I just hadn’t decided where I wanted to go yet. Carita of Bel Auryn. Nice to meet you.”
“I am Lucian of Green’s Hallow, but you can call me Luc.” He brought Carita’s hand to his mouth and brushed a kiss against her knuckles. “I’d begun to think I’d have to seek you out, rather than letting you find me. I didn’t travel all this way to be told to go home.”
Carita barely heard a thing he said. The skin of her hand seemed to pulse where his lips had been. It was like every fibre of her being had rushed to that spot, trying to get through an invisible door she hadn’t known was there. She had never been drawn to a man before. If she was going to react like this when someone kissed her, she would have to be careful. It appeared lips could be used as a weapon.
When she realized he was talking about not wanting to go home empty handed, Carita stared at the stupid silk slippers covering her feet. What was she doing thinking he might be here for anything less than to win the Goddess?
“If your goal is to win Ruby, I’d be doing you a kindness telling you to leave.” Carita almost groaned when the words left her mouth. Could that have come out any worse? “I mean… You don’t have the look of the men I’ve noticed her picking. And you have the same name as the man she’s spent weeks telling me how much she hates. According to her, Lucian may mean light in our tongue, but she would change it to devil if she could.”
“So, you’re afraid of a name?” he asked, his eyes sparkling with mischief.
“I’m not afraid of anything.” Carita tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear. “I just think this whole thing is silly and I’d hate to be responsible for you wasting your time. If I give you a flower, I can promise Ruby will start plotting how to get rid of you the moment she hears your name.”
“But we are still having this conversation because…?” Lucian fixed her with a look that made it clear he expected an answer.
“Ruby has asked me to find someone for myself as well.” Heat started in Carita’s cheeks, then washed over her completely as she spoke. “I’m sure that’s not what you have in mind, and that’s fine. But maybe if we work to make it look like I’m why you’re here, Ruby will see that you’re not like the man she told me about.”
Lucian arched a brow at her. “You would do that for me? Why?”
“You seem like a decent man and I have one blossom left to hand out.” Carita held the flower out to him, waiting to see if he would take it. When he didn’t she feared she, rather than it, would wilt. “You want the truth, don’t you?”
“As opposed to a lie?” Something dangerous sparked in Lucian’s eyes for a moment and Carita took a step back. Ridiculous. She could take him down with ease if she wasn’t wearing these silly clothes. “That would be appreciated.”
Pirate’s Curse: Division 1
Don’t breathe, Catheryn thought. If you breathe, you’re dead.
From her place in the closet, she could see the flicker of torchlight as the pirates ran back and forth through the house. The vampire pirates. The most dangerous creatures she knew of. They needed human blood to live. Her blood. The blood of her fellow slaves.
But what were they doing here? In the Hoodoo House? She was supposed to be safe here. The Hoodoo Queen was a powerful woman. Surely she could fight them off. All Catheryn had to do was be quiet. Be still. Don’t breathe.
Catheryn clenched and flexed her fingers. There were no weapons in the closet. If someone found her, she would have no way to defend herself. She looked at her hands and willed them to do…something. Anything.
This closet was her safe place. A small nook under the stairs she often visited when she wanted to be alone, to collect her thoughts. To practice her budding magic. She had already been hiding in the closet before the pirates arrived. Though this time, she hadn’t been planning on coming out.
Because this time, she hadn’t hidden away to work on her magic.
She’d hidden because she’d screwed up.
The God Queen
The screams drew Rei’s attention. She stood at the steps of the boarded-up temple when the first one pierced the quiet of their small town. It came from the restaurant on the other side of the square.
She dashed down the stairs and onto the street, jumping inadvertently in front of a hover car whose driver honked and yelled. She didn’t listen as she rushed past the long-dead fountain, now filled with sand and earth. Gravel crunched beneath her feet as she approached the ever-growing crowd. Not a cloud dotted the clear blue sky, the sun beat down on them mercilessly, and the smell of sweat and dirt filled Rei’s nose. She pushed her small frame to the front to get a clear view, heart hammering in her chest. He had been threatening this for months, yet Rei prayed he wouldn’t actually go through with it, but disappointment pooled in her belly as her fear was confirmed.
“Drops of Jupiter,” someone muttered. “Why couldn’t the cleric give him a quick death? That poison takes too long.”
The boy lay writhing on the ground, blood running from his nose and ears, sand caking his dark hair. Rei turned to leave, blood pounding in her ears, but the crowd was now too thick around her and she couldn’t move.
“He prayed to false gods,” her neighbor, an elderly woman, said under her breath. “The cleric said this would be the fate of those who won’t worship the One True God.”
Ever since Earth voted to remain a part of the Dominion, the other gods were outlawed, despite the fact the holy city lay only a few hundred kilometers away from where Rei stood.
She fought to breathe as her heart raced. She never intended to convert, and the threat of not doing so had become too real.
The victim’s scream brought Rei’s eyes back to him. Folks said the poison fried the nerves, giving the victim the sensation of being electrocuted as the poison opened all the blood vessels in the head and caused blood to leak out of the nose and ears.
The cleric overseeing the execution sat in one of the outdoor tables of the restaurant, his dark eyes hard. His full lips turned down in a sneer at the poor soul in agony before him. It was a contrast to the cheerful, blue- and white-checkered umbrellas and table covers.
Rei’s stomach turned in knots. “Drops of Jupiter is a horrible way to die,” she whispered.
Eventually his writhing stopped, and the boy’s eyes stared at the heavens while his mouth opened in a silent scream.
“Let this be a lesson for those who still follow that blasphemous religion,” the cleric said. “The rest of you have until the end of the week to join the correct religion, or else.” He combed his fingers through sleek blonde hair before leaving. The crowd parted as he walked past, until he caught Rei watching him. She averted her gaze, kicking herself for attracting his attention.
She peered at her watch, trying to appear bored as the cleric approached her. The holographic hands reminded her she was running late, but she never ran from a fight. She pulled her dark hair up in a knot as she began to perspire. Her lips pressed together until there was nothing more than a line after the crowd dispersed and left the boy’s body on the ground.
“I hope you’re satisfied,” the cleric said. “His death is on your hands.”
Rei’s nails bit into her palm at the accusation. She wasn’t the one who decided which religion was the correct one and who should die for it. “Mine?” she growled.
“Yes, you and the others who so heinously turn your backs on the One True God.”
“Why are you so threatened by a boy who believes in many gods instead of one?” she asked, finally meeting his gaze.
“I am not threatened. The One True God wills it. The Dominion wills it.”
Rei’s legs grew weak, but she refused to back down as they locked eyes.
“And what of the will of the god queen?” she asked, standing a little straighter.
The cleric cackled. “She doesn’t exist and neither do those other false idols.”
“I believe she does.”
“You believe wrong.”
She rolled her eyes. They had been going back and forth like this for months. At first, Rei wanted to leave him be. She may not have agreed with his religion, but she respected his right to worship as he saw fit. But once he started trying to force his religion by boarding up the temple, bringing in Dominion soldiers to rough up locals who were caught worshiping during holy days, smashing the ceramic statues of the gods around town—including the one her brother bought for her—it became personal.
“I know you’re one of the reasons why many won’t follow the One True God.” His voice was dangerously low. “The people see you not converting, and they think they don’t have to either.”
“They shouldn’t have to.”
He crept closer to her, the smell of his cologne choking Rei. “You will convert. Even if I have to tie you down and perform the rite myself.”
Rei chuckled. “Tie me down? Kinky. Your threats don’t scare me. Try harder.” She spun on her heels and walked away, gritting her teeth. It took all of her willpower to not punch him in the throat.
“Remember you have a week,” he called. “A week until I make you the next example.”
She continued through the alley that opened to the two main roads intersecting at the center of town. She walked along the wall of the basilica of the One True God, where someone had decorated the outside with graffiti. The bright greens and blues contrasted against the pale earth-colored bricks.
Once she was sure the cleric hadn’t followed her, the adrenaline rushed from her legs and she leaned against the wall for support. Her heart pounded in her chest. She shouldn’t have allowed him to get so close.
“I wish someone would tie him down,” she muttered as she cut across the intersection, and one of the hover cars honked as she passed. She needed to get to the bar. It didn’t matter what the cleric threatened; he would never set foot in her place of business. She was safe there.
The cleric came into town shortly after the most recent elections and constantly flexed his powers, knowing he had the full weight of Dominion support behind him. She never bothered learning his name—that would have required humanizing him, and she wanted to do no such thing. Both religions had lived peacefully in the town of Ballarat for years. Rei didn’t understand why that had to change now. That wasn’t true. She knew it was a question of control. It was what the Dominion did best.
Rei wondered if she should go ahead and convert. The action would be hollow since she knew the gods existed. She knew they would return to save the star cluster—one had already been reborn.
She shook her head. If she gave into that monster’s demands, her influence would turn away more people from the gods. The idea fueled her anger and drove her to want to take action. No one should choose a religion based on what she did, anyway. People should believe what they wished.
Finish What You Started
“But I have a special deal with the dean.” Ty scooted up on the chair and leaned his elbows on the faded oak of her desk. “See, I play ball, and since I’m having to take this class during the season, I can’t always get my assignments in on time. Sometimes I’m on the road—”
“They don’t have Wi-Fi in your hotels?”
“You have your laptop or access to a computer when you’re on the road?”
“Most of the time, but—”
“So you had the same opportunity to get this turned in on time that all my other students did, especially since you aren’t carrying a full load on top of working as some students in my classes do.”
He sat back in his chair and scowled. “Well, I do work. Baseball is a full-time job. It’s more than a full-time job, to be perfectly honest, when you factor in workouts, practices, games, interviews, team meetings, and all the other crap that goes along with it.”
“With one class. That’s doable for all the rest of my students, Mr. Johansen, so I expect it to be doable for you as well, special arrangements or not. I think the dean would agree with me on that.”
Harper pushed the essay back toward him and rolled her chair up closer to her desk. She should have done a little jig of victory, but instead she felt a little tinge of…guilt? No, not that. He’d been late on his assignment, and playing ball was no excuse. It was never an excuse for shirking responsibilities. If you wanted something enough, you went all out for it. If her father had taught her nothing else in his miserable life, what little of it he’d actually spent with her, he’d taught her that.
Things She’s Seen
I walked in the mist between worlds,
a ghost among the dead,
--Journal of Emily Adams
Slush splattered the police cruiser’s windows. Em focused on the schwup-shuwupp of the windshield wipers and tried not to think about the stench of vomit coming from the seat beside her.
Her stomach cramped. She folded forward. The floor. She needed to hit the floor this time. But the target was a narrow space, and the wooziness in her head and the handcuffs biting into her wrists made it impossible for her to lean far enough forward.
Relax. Breathe deep, she told herself. Sit still. Stay quiet.
She swallowed the taste of bile and turned slowly toward the side window, swiveling only her shoulders so the seat wouldn’t squeak and the handcuffs wouldn’t rattle. Beyond the slush-coated glass, motels flickered into view, darkness returning as they passed. An inn materialized. A life- size statue of a horse. Old-fashioned streetlights glimmered in the haze. Wet snow. Empty streets…
Her head bobbed, eyes closing. Her thoughts wavered toward oblivion. How much had she drunk, anyway? A bottle. Two. Wine. Vodka. Gin. She remembered them all. She remembered. A concert. They were going to one. Or everyone else had. No money. No ticket. Tired. Cold. A stretch limousine. Unlocked. She needed to lie down. Sleep for a minute. She’d be gone before the owners returned. The limousine’s overhead light flashed on. Someone screamed. Security. Police. She didn’t remember having drugs on her. No needles. Never needles. The cop had asked her about that.
Her forehead thumped the window, snapping her back to her senses. Slush and haze. Slush and haze. The rhythm of the windshield wipers. The world dipping and reeling--
A voice touched her ear. You stand at a crossroads, my child.
She jolted fully awake, her sixth sense screaming for her to look out the window.
In the haze, a ghost stood on the sidewalk at the entrance to a city park. Congress Park, the sign said. An older woman. Modern. Not someone from the distant past. Statuesque. Stylish coat. Boots. A cashmere scarf flowing out from around her neck. Her gray hair piled on top of her head, defiantly exposed to the elements.
The ghost of a witch.
Em knew that’s what the woman was with profound clarity, a lucidness that defied her drunken state. A lucidness that was as strong as Em’s gift for seeing and speaking with the dead.
The witch’s gaze locked onto Em’s—and across the distance she offered Em a choice to either be accepted or refused. In that frozen moment there were no second chances. This was it. She could stay on the road she was traveling or take a new one. No promise the new road would be easy—it wouldn’t be. But what Em chose to do would make all the difference.
Not just for her, but for the ghost on the sidewalk and for others as well, the living and the dead.
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