“I know you, but I have never spoken to you. Familiar as my own face staring back at me. How can that be?”
With a notebook resting in my lap, the fountain pen’s nib scratches on the lined page. It pauses in my hand, waiting for more words to come. Deeper. It digs into the paper, and blue-ink bleeds away like frost icing over a window. The pen quivers in my hand, begging for continuation. But I lift it away. Letting it balance in my palm, my thumb runs over the gold engraving.
To my son, Tyler M. Ravier. May you write of many adventures, with and apart from me, as you discover your own story. Your loving father, Lance O. Ravier.
Like winding a watch, I turn the pen over and over. Struggling to win this battle against tears, my chest aches. Then words come, and forceful blue strokes prick the page.
“Happiness is vanquished and love is lost. Sadness arises, before hatred turns to anguish. Fear is near, when reflection confirms it. But resolve can mend?” I shake my head. “Total nonsense!”
Ripping the page out, I crumple it. Out, it is thrown into the murky lake. Fury turns to the pen. In my crushing grasp, it almost snaps in half. My hand lifts. I’m about to throw the pen. But my breath catches, and pain surges down my throat.
Something stops me. Fear? Guilt? Anguish? I do not know.
My hold loosens. When I flop into the long, flattened grass near shore, and watch the paper sink into the lake’s darkness, my chest is freed of tension. My eyes close. A smile tugs at the corners of my mouth.
I whisper to the forest, “Tyler Malik Ravier. Fourteen and fatherless.”
Blue-ink traces into my palm lines. The pen tip doesn’t lift, until I’m finished. Now etched in blue, the ‘M’ on my right palm tells the story of what my name should have been. Malik. It’s the name Mother wanted for me. In the end, Dad’s choice won out.
“Not a family name,” I state. “Not an Iraqi name. Not a catchy name. Just. Plain. Tyler.”
Crawling to the edge of the lake, I thrust my hands below the cold water’s surface to grate my nails over the pen marks. Then beckoning is the mocking reflection, asking me. Again. To search for any trace of him. No pale skin, or copper-brown eyes. No platinum-blond waves. No evidence that I am my father’s son. Only proof that Amira is my mother. Same black waves. Emerald eyes. And dark olive skin.
I smack the water, and the reflection distorts.
“Gone a year. Dead a year,” I seethe. “Why does it still hurt like it happened today?”
Sunrays of noon, on the calm lake waters, often bring me comfort. But this day is shaded by despondency. By a deep yearning to join the discarded poem on the bottom of Mirror Lake.
Time still goes on.
Never-ending, like the rhythm of a breath and the heartbeat.
The only constants—the companions—unable to leave.
Even in death, they may follow.
Still too much of a coward to test the lake’s current, I ease up from the damp knoll.
Birds sing the chorus.
Squirrels chatter the song.
Adding to the companions.
Each step. Each turn. Every slope takes me closer to home. But farther from where I want to go. Eyes shut tight, my mind strains to remember his sharp features. One in particular: his contagious smile. Now a feeble reflection of what it was.
If only he were here.
We would still fish at Mirror Lake, after he got home from a trip.
We would still escape life’s monotony, with fantastical stories imagined together.
And he would still sneak me out to the movies, with friends, on a school night.
Lance Ravier was one of those dads my friends laughed with and teased like he was one of them. All who met him, couldn’t help but love his kind yet teasing nature.
“I would give anything,” I whisper, “to see his face. Hear his laugh. Feel his embrace. Just one last time.”
Save for the forest creatures, no one replies.
Hot tears trickle down, again, making me feel the sting of sorrow. At that moment, my foot catches on something. I’m sent sprawling to the ground. Glancing back, I see my offender. A broken tree now lying across the beaten path I take every day. Sweeping my fingers over deep claw marks in the bark of this tree, then its pliable leaves and branches, my gaze travels down its twelve-foot length.
How’d this get here? I wonder. Could be some Galloway stable hands playing a prank. Trying to distract me this day. Of all days.
“Or,” I whisper, “is it something else?”
Chills bite at the back of my neck, propelling me into fleeting glances of the area.
Or drag marks.
The broken tree seems to have been dropped on the path, by an invisible hand.
“They swept away their tracks.” I shrug. “That must be it.”
From behind, a branch snaps. My breaths quicken. Then the forest plunges into silence.
I call out, “Who’s there?”
When the forest song restarts, my shoulders relax. Continuing my steps, I rant on, “Mom’s worried about me. Still thinks I need a shrink. But why? I’m not depressed. Just angry. My clothes? All black. Sometimes a white shirt to change it up. It is a new me. Devoid of color.”
A kamikaze sparrow almost smacks my head, right then, attempting to get its fill of the gnat swarm ahead.
Swatting at the little pests, I pass their valley and begin again, “I don’t need the shrinks. I need him. Did he have to go the Middle East that day? It was supposed to be a business trip. Instead, it was a bombing. It could have been anything, but telling people my dad died in a terrorist attack is different. It’s foreign and unreal, until it happens to you.”
Breaching my agony is the jabbering of a woodpecker on a tree. Through the thickness of the trees, his red speckling peers out. Grinning at his jackhammer head, onward I go. Drifting farther from my destination, I move closer to where he would want me to be.
Home? The barn? With people? Anywhere but alone.
With chores done, I wipe sweat off my face and grip the warm barn latch. That’s when one of the horses protests my escape, with pawing at the gate. Down the cobblestone walkway is my dad’s red Shire, hanging his head over his stall gate.
I amble back to stroke him, and hair flies off in clouds. “Need a good brush down, don’t you?”
Ginger Snap’s nose pushes me away, just enough to nibble on my pockets.
Grinning, I pat his neck. “No treats today, Snap.”
After gathering brushes, currycomb, and a step stool from a nearby cabinet, I toss them into his stall. In I go, closing the gate behind, and up perk his ears. With currycomb in hand, the grooming commences. Scratching his cheeks first, my fingers run up behind Ginger Snap’s ears, as my dad’s used to do. Then each stroke of the stiff-bristled brush sends plumes of Snap’s reddish-brown coat behind us in streams.
“Be glad I convinced Mother to keep you. While you’re not worth much to anyone, you’re everything to me. First Dad’s. Now mine. I’m not too bad, am I?”
A deep groan escapes him, and I laugh. “I’ll take that as, ‘you’re not the same.’ What about your conversations with her? The sobbing on your shoulder. Confessions of loneliness to you. The pain she sees in my eyes every day. How scared she is that we’ll never find the same happiness again.”
Done with the brush, I fling it away. It smacks the half-wall separating the stalls and scares the neighboring horse. But I just shrug. “What do you think, Snap? Will it ever stop hurting?” I glance into his content brown eyes, before ruffling his mane and continuing the grooming in silence.
Latching the barn for the day, I cross the expanse of twenty-two steps from barn door to back door. When I reach for the kitchen knob, I spot it: the coarse coat of Ginger Snap all over me. Brushing off what will release its hold, I crack the door open.
With no sight of Mother, I stroll into the newly beach-themed kitchen. Its soft whites, beiges, teals, and blues pop in contrast to the dark walnut floor. The best part of it all? The painting of a windmill on a coastline, now hanging on the wall by the dining table.
She finally hung it up.
It was a birthday gift for her. That, and money to renovate the kitchen. They had planned the kitchen revamp, for the end of last summer. Two months after he died. Took her almost a year to go through with the renovation. She couldn’t bear to do the work without him, so she saved more and paid someone else to do it.
Through the archway, but before the hallway and living room, I stand at the bottom of the steps. Thirteen steps. Every other one’s a member of the silent seven. The rest? The squeaking six. Up the worn metal rail, my hand travels. The coolness of it soothes my callused, clammy palms. But on goes the count of steps.
The number fascination started a year ago. This day. The very day he died. Within months, it twisted to an obsession. A distraction from the thoughts. From the truth. I will never see him again. Only frozen images and archaic videos will keep him in focus.
Still, I count the steps to the first door on the right, even though I know there are seven strides to the bathroom beside my bedroom. Greeting me are its stark-white walls. Bleached of emotion. Who needs color for their dwellings? Mine are now as they should be. White bathroom. Black bedroom. A calm blankness. Void of happiness.
Shedding the filthy clothes. Climbing into the stall shower. I set the stream to lukewarm. Water splashes on my face, as I hold my breath, depriving my lungs of air until they ache. A long, controlled breath severs their cries for relief, though it does nothing for the pain in my heart.
Images of aftermath. Footage of bombings. They torment the canvas of my mind. Toppled buildings. Disfigured cars. Dust refusing to settle. Fire with endless fuel.
There were bodies, too, but the news never showed them. Never showed him.
Teeth clenched and anger rising up, I’m powerless to stop myself. The handle twists to steaming hot. My head ducks out of the way. Scorching water hits my back like angry hornets. Still, the spray’s sting is a fraction of the stabbing pain in my heart. Too stubborn to free my back of the Hot hornets of water, I press my hands to a cool shower wall and then ball them into fists.
When tears flow down my cheeks, I know the ritual isn’t enough.
One-two. Three-four. The handle turns all the way, until only the exterior sting paints across my thoughts. The tears stop. Replacing the shaking breath is a half-smile. In that moment, I have my victory. The battle won, the handle jerks to icy cold. Shivering and frozen inside, I scrub down.
Five-six. Towel round waist, I open the squealing door to the favored vision of my bedroom. On the matte-black walls are pieces of his collection: the blueprints of ships, fighter jets, and submarines.
Seven-eight. The door closes silently. My focus goes to what the rising sun touches every morning: his hand-drawn blueprints of gardens, homes, and skyscrapers watching over my desk.
Nine-ten. My hands search two black dresser-drawers for the usual choice: white tank, up top, paired with black, down below. The boxer-briefs and cargo pants. They’re about all I wear, these days. Same everything. Contrasting, yet colorless.
Eleven-twelve. The drawers glide shut. The clothes slide on.
Tapping on the scuffed dresser top, I speak two words: “Thirteen. Done.”
Darting to the mirror, my gaze lingers on the three-inch black hair atop my head. Another cause for dissatisfaction. Iraqi surfer-waves staring back at me. Every day, I hate them a little more. Every day, their owner bores me to an endless pit I cannot escape.
“Will it ever end?” My voice cracks. “Will you fade away? Will you die a second death? The death of my memories?”
A pocketknife, resting among the clutter on my dresser, begs to lop the hair off. To free me of it. But then … my stomach grumbles, and I flick the knife away. Again, a distraction saves the broken boy for another day.
Two-one. The bottom step squeaks.
The same time each day, like clockwork, Mother’s knife hacks into a cutting board. Then that knife scrapes food into an oiled pan and it sizzles. Sometimes, though, it spits and provokes a frustrated growl from Mother. Today is one of those times.
Smiling, I put off the inevitable and turn the corner to take eight steps to my dad’s study. Gracing its tall ceiling are wooden beams. Wrapping its walls are walnut panels blending down with the floor planks. For most, the deep colors might be too dark. Yet, for me, they briefly bind the bleeding heart.
Three steps, to cross over the big, scrolled rug he brought home from India. Then seven, to the blue-and-green curtains half-shielding the bay window behind his desk. Into his large chair, I sink down and grip the armrests. By the door is a grandfather clock, on one side. Then a built-in desk, on the other. Covering the walls are paintings of exotic birds. But what study would be complete without bookcases suffocating two walls? Shelves filled to the edges, they tell of his obsession: knowledge.
Grasping the picture from his desk, the copper gaze of a smiling woman mocks me. On her lap is a grinning boy with hair matching her sandy-blonde locks. “Aunt Miriam and Cousin Alec,” I proclaim. “Never met them. Probably never will.”
The photo shows them celebrating my cousin’s fifth birthday. They’re in costumes for some Renaissance faire in England. Or so my dad told me.
“Even missed the funeral, Aunt Miriam.” I scoff. “Although, you made every excuse imaginable for not being there. Guess you two were never close?”
Just then, the study door creeps open, and Mother pokes her head in. Forcing a smile, she announces, “Dinner’s ready.”
Tonight’s a table full of his favorites: Teriyaki noodle stir-fry. Spring rolls. Crab Rangoon. Finished by candied ginger.
As I scoop food onto my plate, Mother avoids looking at me. After stacking several letters next to my water glass, she takes her seat and fills her plate, saying, “Presumably, birthday cards.”
One is from my only living grandparent. The mother of my mother. Haven’t met her, either. Then some are from distant friends. But no birthday would be complete, without Aunt Miriam’s pathetic excuse of a card.
At last, I get to the one from the twins: Jed and Jaxson Craven. Thicker than most, their card sets off the suspicion radar. I pull it out to reveal one of Jaxson’s graffiti-type drawings with the words, What you want most for your birthday … on the front.
When I peel it open, Jed’s boisterous voice begins the twin-rant.
“To hear our voices, while we’re on vacation!”
“And forty dollars!” yells Jaxson, from the card.
“About that,” protests Jed—every ‘about that’ is followed by Jed’s finger lifting to make a point—“I tried convincing Jaxson that we should give you twenty and pocket the other half. See if you notice it’s different from other years.”
“I told him you’re too smart for that,” states Jaxson.
Jed continues, “Why our parents insist we give twenty a piece to our friends for their birthdays is beyond me. When Jaxson and I want a new video game for our birthday, they give us twenty, one twenty. That’s not enough for a new game. Obviously, our parents favor our friends more than they do us.”
“Not true,” corrects Jaxson.
“We’ll debate that later. Happy birthday, Ty-Ty! Hope it’s a good one.”
“Jed, stop calling him that. You know how he hates it. Anyway! Love ya, bro.”
“Dude, that’s gay!”
Although I can’t see Jaxson’s face, I know he’s rolling his eyes at Jed.
Cringing, I slam the card closed, musing, Should’ve opened that in my room.
“Those boys are crazy,” states Mother.
“They can be.”
For several minutes, we eat our dinner in silence. Then Mother fiddles with her napkin, seeming unconcerned with eating.
Twirling more noodles on my fork, I ask, “Something bothering you?”
She smooths her napkin out. “Are you sure you don’t want anything for your birthday? I remember what you said last year, about not wanting to celebrate it anymore, but there’s something I’ve been aching to give you.”
Telling me more than her words are her green eyes. Hopeful, anxious, and excited wrapped into one.
Reluctantly, I nod. “I’d be all right with that.”
“Wonderful! Be right back.” Before I can change my mind, she races out of the kitchen.
While I wait, I search for Aunt Miriam’s card. But not for long, as hers is the smallest yet again. I tear the envelope open, to a black note card with green scrollwork. Edged in silver are white stickers spelling out Happy Birthday.
I startle at the hundred-dollar bill tucked inside and … words. More words than the usual, impersonal ‘Happy Birthday. Love, Aunt Miriam.’ My gaze skims over the pen strokes.
Happy birthday, Tyler. I am sorry we have never met, these past fourteen years. One of these days, I will find my way to London, Kentucky, to visit you and your beautiful mother. Until we meet. May it be sooner, rather than later.
Love, Aunt Miriam
Something unknown tugs at me. Is it excitement? Or longing? Frustration? Who can know? Sliding the card back into the mangled envelope, a persistent thought refuses to be quiet. I know you, but I have never spoken to you. Familiar as my own face staring back at me. How can that be?
I whisper, “What does my poem have to do with anything?”
Anticipating my reaction, Mother’s expressionless and folding her hands to stillness on the table. I call this action her Chess-Bluff.
Resting on the card pile is a petite silver-wrapped box with a black bow on top. The wrapping tears. The black box’s lid lifts. Then the room spins a moment. Nestled inside, it ticks the rhythm of time: his black-and-gold divers’ watch.
“I thought he was wearing it when he …” Trailing off, I lift it out and run my fingers over the watch-face crystal.
“It was being repaired,” replies Mother. “He wanted it like new, before giving it to you.”
On my right wrist, it clinches just as Mother’s Chess-Bluff breaks into bliss.
“Thank you.” I grin.
She eases her chair out, saying, “I wish it could be more.”
Agony to my soul, her broken smile makes mine fade, as I reassure, “It’s more than enough.”
I didn’t believe him, when Dad said seeing loved ones in pain is sometimes worse than your own pain. No effort to defy or crush her could be made. Not by me. I often wanted to scream at her to leave me alone, but thoughts never became actions. All I did was hide myself away or fight the urge to hold her and share her pain. Some days, though, I couldn’t share the pain. It was too much to bear.
I know she needs one, but I resent them—hugs.
“Still a bit big.” I shrug.
She tightens a hand on my arm, saying, “You’ll grow into it.”
Standing almost eye-to-eye with her, I wrap my arms around her waist and pull her close. Resting my chin on her shoulder, I whisper, “Couldn’t have had a better gift.”
She pulls away, letting that Chess-Bluff spark return. “I’ll have a better one, next year.”
I tap the watch-face. “What could top this?”
“Wait and see.”
“Or snoop and find?” I tease.
“You do and I’ll hire someone to take a belt to your backside.”
“She makes threats again? I’ve missed that all year.”
“Tyler Malik Ravier! Go to your room.”
I grin. “What? No help with dishes?”
“And get more of your teenage sass? I’ll do it myself. Be gone with you.” She waves me away. “Do something fun. Mother’s orders.”
Five steps to the kitchen archway, then ten to the front door, and many more to where my heart longs to go. Mirror Lake. To swim there again? To almost drown? To test the divers’ watch? So many options.
Like a mind reader, Mother points the accusing finger. “By fun, I don’t mean sleeping out at Mirror Lake again.”
I sigh out, “Yes, ma’am.”
“One more thing, Tyler?”
I turn around to her mutter of, “Put a shirt on.”
Tugging at the tank top hem, I defend, “This is a shirt.”
“If you’re a gangster.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Groaning, I charge up the thirteen and into my room.
Again. The defiance evades me, as I yank a button-down on and flop to my bed in disgust with myself. I inspect the divers’ watch. As soon as it’s set to the current time, my eyes fight to stay open. Like a drug, sleep calls to me. Calls for me to think of him. So much for fun.
A tortured screech in my head jolts me awake. Except for moonlight casting a faint glow through the blind slats, the room’s blanketed in blackness. Pressing the watch’s light button, I see the time. 11:33 PM.
Faint in the distance is a distressed horse’s screech, as I peer through the slats and strain to spot anything amiss. Nothing seems out of place, though my breaths are ragged. Then—beyond the barn—a white creature flashes by the forest edge. At the sight of it, my chest stings. Three breaths and five heartbeats later, a green glow floats in pursuit of the large creature. Waiting for the light to fade into the forest, I open my blinds to unlatch the window. A cool breeze caresses my face, as I listen.
It shrieks once more, from deeper within the forest, and I sigh. “Again. I must disobey, because this is too interesting to pass up.”
Snatching my flashlight off the nightstand, I slip it into my pocket and then fight with the tangled laces of my military boots. When they refuse cooperation, I commit blasphemy in Mother’s eyes by tying them in knots and tucking their ends away. The screen of defiance pops out, and thought becomes action as I pass over the windowsill.
“Deep breath,” I whisper. “You do this all the time. It’s no different tonight.”
In response, the sudden crackling in the forest tells me otherwise.
Slinking to the roof’s edge, I grip it and ease down with shaky arms. When I let go, something crunches. Now mangled beneath my boots, Mother’s freshly planted flowers condemn me. “No way to hide that and my disobedience.” I wince. “But I’ll promise an appeasing Shrink-Visit.”
From the house, lights stretch to the barn. But no farther. During my weave between the night-cloaked trees, I click on the flashlight. After minutes of running, I stop and realize that I know this forest. Out goes the light, before I slip it away to listen and let blackness replace sight.
Save for my unsteady breath, all is ordinary.
Hums of crickets.
Swarms of gnats.
Shattering the ordinary, an eerie light shines from Mirror Lake’s direction. Creeping toward it, until about fifteen-feet away, I peek from behind an old oak tree. The bright light reflects off the tranquil moonlit water, to illuminate a cloaked figure standing at the shore. One palm glowing, the figure touches something hidden from view, and sparks fly like welding-spatter.
A horse cries out in pain.
That’s when fury burns, calling me act. Yet thoughts mock me: What are you going to do, Tyler? No weapon. No training. Dad never taught you. Never got the chance.
I’m defeated, crouching down, while the horse’s screams torment me. Desperate to do something, I face the light again. But a twig snaps beneath my hand. Holding my breath, I grimace. The welding stops.
The figure’s attention jerks to look in my direction. As the light dims to glimmering, the figure looks back to the horse. Whipping a long cloak off his shoulders, he lets it fall over the horse like a feather drifting on the breeze. Moonlight touches his face as he whirls around, and his glowing, citrine-yellow eyes look into me.
I swear that’s when my heart, literally, stops.
Even hidden by nightfall, he knows I’m here.
Afraid they are my last, thoughts race. Will I see him, when I die? Will Mom’s heart break to disrepair? If I’m going to die, I want it to be on my terms. Not some stranger’s. Certainly not by some welding beast with citrine eyes.
Confidence ruling his every move, the man saunters toward me with a sadistic smile on his face. Seeming to relish my fear, he jeers out one word: “Afraid?”
Panic pushes me up into a sprint. I dare not glance back. Mid-run, my wrist is caught in an icy grasp. My legs buckle, unable to find a foothold. I’m left at his mercy, when his long and slender fingers catch my other wrist.
Braving a look up at him, moonlight paints across his straight nose and high cheekbones. His almond-shaped eyes of blue are intent on me. Instead of menacing, however, they’re eyes of a victim petrified of a captor. Yet I’m the one held captive.
Blue eyes? Not yellow. Two men. One’s sadistic. The other one’s terrified. When his grasp tightens on my wrists, I muse, Maybe not so terrified, after all. As I struggle to break free, the youthful one creases his forehead. In concern? Or confusion? What would he have to be confused about?
“Please,” he begs. “I don’t wish to hurt you.”
I shout, “Then let go!”
He releases me. “Apologies for scaring you, Tyler Ravier, but we couldn’t let you get away. You see—”
“How do you know my name, and what are you?” My heart pounds faster. I take a step back.
Swallowing hard, he replies, “You were described by your father, LanSoren—”
“My dad? Lance. You know him? You spoke to him. When?”
“The day he died …” The youth trails off.
Nausea consuming me, I ask, “Then he is dead?”
The youth slides his white hood off, revealing his sandy-blond hair of medium-length. It falls across his face, when he bows his head in sorrow. “I’m afraid so. We tried healing him, on Muraine. But whatever wounded him here wasn’t human. Meaning, someone from Muraine was after him.”
Thoroughly confused, I manage to say only one word: “Muraine?”
“It’s the planet your father and I are from,” he clarifies, while straightening his long, tailored coat. “The land of Paragon. Paragonians. Listen, Tyler. We can’t stay much longer. Thought to bring you the young horse LanSoren raised. Unfortunately, she ran away from us and got tangled in a … fence? I think that’s what you call it.”
The youth traces a forefinger from behind one of his ears. Then along his sharp jaw line, as my dad had always done when trying to remember something. “We caught up with her here. She’s mostly healed now.”
I glance to the white horse behind.
The sadistic eyes of citrine-yellow stare back.
“Who’s he?” I ask.
“Ryco.” The youth beams. “Second of The King’s Guard. My Guard, actually. Still getting used to—”
“You’re a king?” I ask.
Grinning like a serial killer, Ryco states, “King Talok of Paragon.”
In reaction to either the title or grin, Talok just grinds his teeth and fiddles with four black-and-white buttons of one coat sleeve.
I ask the sadist, “You were healing her?”
Ryco, his brown hair cut in military style, nods his head once. Then he splays out all five nimble fingers, to reposition one of his three-fingered white gloves.
What’s he going to do, I wonder, wring my neck with his magical healing-hands, then bring me back to life? That’s what a sadist would do.
A gnat swarm picks that moment to engulf Ryco, as I brave the question, “What’s with the archer’s gloves?”
Swatting at the swarm, Ryco narrows his eyes at me. “The Son of LanSoren knows archery?”
He shakes his head. “A little is not enough.”
“Enough to what?”
“Come to Muraine.” He smirks.
“Did I say I want to go?”
“Your face did.”
Definition of Ryco: arrogance made into flesh and bone.
Shrugging, I ask, “What does the Second of the Guard do, exactly? Wield a bow and arrow. Heal random creatures. Make assumptions. Did I miss anything?”
In response, the citrine glow ends. Dressed in a black version of Talok’s coat, Ryco grips his opposite wrist. Aside from the somewhat exposed skin of his face and hands, he now almost fades into the night.
Talok pulls at his coat’s high collar. “The Second of the Guard leads the offense. While the First of the Guard holds defense.”
Right then, the resting horse softly glows to illuminate the thin cloak covering her body and wings.
Catching Talok’s anticipating look, I ask, “You’re not giving me a winged-horse, are you?”
“Told you he wouldn’t be interested,” states Ryco.
“Is that what I said?” I hiss.
“I admit,” interrupts Talok, “I was hoping you would take care of her for a while.” Pausing to unbutton his coat’s center front, he continues, “Right now, she’s not safe from Zymarc, King of Vitiosyns.”
“We’re working on a cloaking spell—”
“With Jasper of the Greyvons,” Talok interrupts, finishing for Ryco.
I look away, as questions fill my mind.
Talok sighs. “I wish we could stay longer and answer your questions, but we must be going soon.”
How can he read me like an open book? There’s something strange about him. The more he talks, the more I begin to trust him. But I never do that. With anyone.
Squirming in the awkward silence, Talok exclaims, “Almost forgot! You’ll be needing this.”
Out of his inside coat pocket, Talok grabs and relinquishes to me an eight-point star. Like glitter in glass, the dark-iridescent metal glimmers. Over the center-symbol on the circular part, I run my thumb. That’s when pain surges into the fingers of my right hand. I toss the star away. Its points are now curved like claws.
Rubbing my five little injuries, I ask, “What is that?” To myself, I think, It’s a possessed ninja-star. Yes, absolutely. That is what it is.
Coughing once, Talok replies, “Your father said you’d need it, to find one of his journals and other belongings scattered around the area.”
“Some of the items are in your house and barn,” states Ryco.
Talok continues, “He tried saying where the others are, but—”
“He was unable to finish,” Ryco cuts in to say. “In the end, confusion consumed him.”
“How did he die?”
“We don’t know.” Talok’s eyes dull, the way hers do whenever she’s reminded of him.
In this moment, mine only burn with the battle. If he didn’t die in an attack, how did he die? I must know. If only to distract myself.
Talok sucks in a breath. “Let me show you how the possessed ninja-star works.”
I flinch. “Can you…?”
“What?” Talok glances from me to Ryco.
“Nothing.” I clamp my mouth shut. Read minds? What if he can? Freaky! Could Dad read my mind? Can Mother? That would explain SO much! Maybe this isn’t real. How to be certain?
Talok swallows hard. “You all right, Tyler?”
Nerves calming, I state, “You were going to … show me something?”
“Right!” Talok beams. “But first, give me a moment.”
He holds out his hand. Swirling between his palm and the star is a whitish-blue mist. Up, the star rotates to meet his right palm. Grasping it, Talok presses the center-symbol. The curved points straighten to their original form. When he turns the center-circle clockwise, the eight star points clink away. Staying suspended in the air, all points have different shapes on their opposite ends.
Talok states, “Between the journals and other belongings, LanSoren said there are thirteen items.” Focusing on the star pieces, Talok raises his left hand up to it and spreads his fingers wide. Closing his fingertips together, he forms a fist.
Still suspended, the star pieces revolve then snap together with a loud, Pop!
Hesitating, I ask, “How am I supposed to do that? Or find the locations? You’re sure he didn’t have instructions?”
Stepping toward me, Talok offers the star. “He said they’re related to favorite places of yours or his.”
“You’re forgetting, King Talok, about that last poem of his. If you can call it a poem.”
“Right!” Talok nods. “It was something like, ‘When one mills in the woods of despairion and dusk, one never acknowledges the ever-present fading light of the sun-eclipse, as it dances and races across the still mirror lake.’ Does that mean anything to you?”
“Only the Mirror Lake reference. He and I spent a lot of time here. Called it Mirror Lake because of how its surface is perfectly still, when reflecting the rising and setting sun’s light. But I don’t understand the rest of it. You’re sure he said despairion? It wasn’t despairing or despair?”
“It was despairion.” Ryco smirks.
Talok adds, “It was the only word he was adamant we understand and convey.”
Ryco, ignoring the swarm of gnats and somehow managing not to swallow a mouthful, states, “As I said before, confusion consumed him.”
Not noticing the cloud of gnats migrating his way, Talok starts to say, “I’m sorry we cannot—” Stopping short, he spews out a mouthful of the little pests.
Composed, perhaps even bored, Ryco flicks his right fingers like a guitarist plucking strings, and the swarm’s engulfed in the flames flooding from his fingertips. Dissipating from Ryco’s casting glove is smoke, as he rubs his palms together.
Staring at Ryco, Talok starts forming words. Instead of addressing Ryco, however, he shifts to me. “Will you be all right?”
Peeling my eyes away from the sadistic pyromaniac, I think a moment. Do I want to accomplish something on my own? For me? For Dad? Or do I just want to prove myself to this sadist? But why would I? He is nothing to me.
“I’ll be fine,” I reply. “Anything else, besides taking care of this horse-thing?”
“Just that.” Ryco cracks his knuckles. “Think you can handle her?”
“She’s only one horse.”
“A dragon-horse, who can use magic,” corrects Ryco.
“She can’t be that bad.”
“That’s what they all say.”
Talok fiddles more with his coat buttons, saying, “If you want, I can send someone to check on you and Awngeleik.”
“That’s her name?” I ask. “Awngeleik. Did my dad name her?”
Talok peeks back at the sadist. In the middle of a yawn, Ryco shakes his head. After Talok mutters something under his breath, Ryco’s citrine eyes shift to neon and alert. Then Talok replies, “I’m not sure, actually. It’s always been her name.”
I ask, “He couldn’t go with something simple like Angelic or Angel?”
“He hated the word Angelic.” Talok rubs his neck. “Always said it was too cheerful.”
“He would say something like that.”
“What do you say?” Talok looks down to the top of his black high-boots. “Will you take care of Awngeleik?”
Feigning confidence, I reply, “Sure.”
“Wonderful!” Talok exclaims. “I’ll send someone to help you—”
I cut him off with, “I’ll be fine. My dad died. Remember? I don’t think it can get much worse than that.”
“Don’t be too sure,” states Ryco.
Holding my head high like the sadist, I clasp my hands behind my back. When my grip tightens over the watchband, it pinches in. The pain is real. Is this too? If so, he lied to me my whole life. Would he do that?
Talok smiles a tense grin, but my breath stops at the sight of his perfect teeth and slight vampire fangs.
“Something wrong?” Talok’s face turns grim.
“Your teeth …” I hesitate. “Are you some sort of vampire-magician?”
Ryco’s citrine orbs dance with mockery. “The little boy is afraid of your pointy teeth, Talok.”
“Oh, that!” Talok perks up. “I inherited the trait from my White Sorsryn ancestors. It’s useless for us, now. Sorsryns don’t prefer to fight with their fangs anymore.”
Ryco adds, “I suppose it can still intimidate one’s enemies, though.”
Seeming lost in thought, Talok just chews on his lower lip.
Ryco continues, “You should see the Death Sorsryns. All their teeth are jagged as spikes. One prick from those teeth, or their poisonous nails. Dead within minutes. Sometimes seconds.”
“Ryco, enough,” whispers Talok.
“I’m only telling him of the world LanSoren never bothered to share with him. Honestly! Shouldn’t he know more about it, before he decides he’s going to look after the beautiful menace all on his own?”
“Ryco, you are out of line!” Talok’s gaze strikes into Ryco’s. “You will never imply LanSoren acted selfishly toward his son again! Do you understand?”
With each spoken word from Talok, Ryco winces and sinks farther to the ground. “Forgiveness, my king. I meant no insult to LanSoren. Only that Tyler, his son, is not prepared for this task as he should be. If it pleases you and Tyler, send someone in two weeks’ time to check on him and Awngeleik. We would hate for anything to go wrong.”
Talok circles to me, his gaze softening. “How does that sound, Tyler?”
Afraid of upsetting them more, I comply with, “That’s fine.”
Standing to glare at me is Ryco, stating, “We should get Awngeleik to safety.”
After replying, “The barn next to my house will be fine,” I hold Ryco’s gaze, and muse, Interesting, how your king so easily prefers me to you. I can’t imagine why. With your charm and winning personality.
Talok glances to me, then Ryco. “Yes, Ryco, interesting. Is it not?”
Terrified that I spoke aloud, I ask, “What’s interesting?”
Talok shakes his head. “Nothing.”
“One more question. Any chance you can fix my mom’s flowers I crushed while sneaking out here?”
Talok simpers. “That should be easy for you, Ryco. Seeing as how you have no difficulties practicing magic here on Earth.”
Talok flashes a patronizing grin.
Ryco’s face merely sinks to boredom.
“My Second of the Guard. Take us to the barn, please.”
“Of course, my king,” replies Ryco, with a wry smile.
He snaps the fingers of his left hand. Surrounding objects blur beyond recognition, akin to suddenly spiraling in the air. Nausea eats at me. My body shakes, then begins to burn. All subsequent sensations overload my mind, until …
Lights out, Tyler.