The Realms first defense against the Nightlins are called Watchers.
Taut, heavy chains held the prisoner’s arms and legs, weighing him to the ground. Blood had pooled underneath him and soaked into what remained of his tattered clothes. The years he had been shut in the darkened room had melded together. His bloodshot eyes could not remember the last time they had seen the sun.
A figure stopped in front of the closed door. Its shadow eclipsed the soft light seeping through the cracks. A key inserted into the lock disrupted the silence. As the door labored to open, pale light spilled across the dirt floor, but it stopped short of the man as if the tendrils of light were teasing him. An ink-black creature stepped through the doorway, blotting out the light as the door closed. The creature made no sound as it made its way toward the prisoner.
“Are you ready?” whispered the raspy voice. The words tangled and barely understood. Its breath pushed out on a wheeze, as it brushed against the man’s face—the air foul, like the acrid smell of burning flesh. Poking the gaunt prisoner’s chest with its long nails, the creature sliced through the prisoner’s paper-thin skin. Despite the excruciating pain, the prisoner made no sound. His mind had left him long ago. His body only remained. His vacant eyes never acknowledged the creature before him.
“I will take that to be a yes.” The creature rose. It flicked its wrist, the chains fell away, and the prisoner crumpled to the ground. A dry, scaly hand wrapped around the man’s wrist, and the creature dragged him out of the room.
I was a grown-ass woman, and yet, here I was being carted around, like a baby, because some dick head doctor said I might be a danger to others and/or myself. Blackouts kept knocking me out. We hadn’t been able to figure out what was happening, so I had been relegated to the passenger seat for now.
Mariah jammed out next to me as she drove us to college. Her tiny 2005 Chevy Cavalier smelled like lasagna and had rust rings on everything. I cracked the window to let in some fresh air. I had known Mariah since high school, but we didn’t become friends until we realized we were going to the same college. Then we clung to each other like life rafts, so we wouldn’t have to fend for ourselves.
The moment my ass hit the seat, she launched into everything that happened to her over the summer. I tried to listen to her stories. I nodded my head or said the expected, “Oh really,” when I was supposed to, but my mind kept going back to the crazy dreams I’d been having lately.
Anytime, my eyes closed, I caught glimpses of honey gold eyes and pale skin. Sometimes, I swear the smell of evergreens and earth filled my room. Even now, with me being sleepy, if my eyes closed, I might be able to hear strange noises or get a whiff of trees. A couple of mornings, I thought I had seen dirt under my fingernails.
“Sloane! Earth to Sloane!” Mariah practically yelled.
I turned, “Yeah? Sorry.”
She shook her head. Her red curls beat her face. “Sloane, you’re always in another world.” She smirked.
She rounded the corner and drove into the college’s parking lot. I tumbled out, practically dragging my bag behind me. The sun’s warm rays nearly blinded me. Mariah seemed to leap out of the car. The amount of energy she had really astounded me sometimes.
As we strode down the sidewalk to class, Mariah asked, “Hey, isn’t your birthday tomorrow?”
“What? Oh, yeah, it is.” It’s just another dull day for me.
“Oh, come on, Sloane. Eighteen is kind of a big number,” she said.
I replied, “Yeah, but all I can do is vote. It’s not like I can buy alcohol yet.”
Mariah laughed. “Girl, who cares! That’s why we have my older brother!”
I rolled my eyes. I wasn't a party girl. We snuck into a club once, and that was a disaster. I took a tumble, completely sober, thanks to my borrowed high heels and landed face-first into some guy’s crotch at the bar. My barely-there dress left my granny panty covered ass up in the air in view for everyone. Without a word, I grabbed Mariah and left. That marked the end of my party days.
We climbed the steep stairs leading us to our class. My heart thumped faster with every step, and sweat beaded on my upper lip. The stairs definitely counted as my weekly exercise. Upon opening the building’s door, we were greeted with a welcomed cold blast of air conditioning.
The building had a long hall in the center, with rooms attached to either side. Towering pine trees outside at the opposite ends of the hall seemed to wave through the windows. It was as though they deliberately made the building that way to punish us, showing us the outdoors moments before locking us away.
Obviously distracted, Mariah yanked me through our classroom door.
"Hurry up." She whispered fiercely.
Our teacher nodded at us as we passed. We scurried toward the back. A guy, with dark hair, green eyes, and glasses, sat in the second to last chair. He looked up as I walked toward him.
He smiled. “Hey.”
I stumbled for a response, as my foot caught on the leg of the desk, and I nearly fell into the seat next to him. Pain shot through my arm and leg in the process. Heat crawled up my neck, about to stain my cheeks. I smiled briefly, looking away and pretended to study the room.
Our classroom was your standard boring room: beige walls, green chalkboard and dry erase board, and forty desks facing the front. A teacher several years ago had placed signs above the boards that read: ‘Reading is fun!’ ‘Explore the world through a book.’ Or my personal favorite, ‘It’s cool to be a bookworm,’ with a book open and a worm eating through the pages. Why did someone think those were for college students?
The teacher stood from behind his desk. “Afternoon, everyone. Please turn to page twenty-five. We are starting in the 1800s, covering Europe and the Industrial Revolution.” He flicked off the lights and powered up the projector, opening up the first PowerPoint slide.
I took my book out and flipped to the appropriate page, skimming the words, and studying the pictures. A war scene depicted across the page in bright colors. My light brown hair fell across my face as I leaned my head against my fist. It was practically bone meeting bone. I lacked all baby fat and curves for that matter. People always made fun of me for being too skinny. My body didn’t want to hang onto fat at all, no matter what I ate. As I rubbed my knuckles against my skin, I couldn’t help but be annoyed. My poor skin always had blemishes. I had given up hope on my facade a while ago. After scanning over my pale arm, I peeked back over at the cute guy.
His attention fixed on the teacher at the front of the class, but he glanced at me and smiled again. I smiled back a little steadier. Pretty sure my entire face burned red. It seemed guys rarely took an interest in me, and when they did, I reverted into a thirteen-year-old girl.
The teacher’s voice droned on. As I turned my attention back to my book, the colors dissolved, and a tugging sensation pounded behind my eyes. Crap.
“No. Not now. Please, not now.” I said through clenched teeth. I massaged my temples, which sometimes helped, but not today. Tingling started at my toes and traveled up my legs. I was on fire. Sweat ran in rivulets down my neck and back. My heart pounded in my ears and pulsated behind my eyes.
I had to get out of this room. Why did this keep happening?
Mariah arched a brow, as I tried to stand. I took a step toward the back door and swayed. My legs became mush, and I melted into the floor.
The people around me moved toward me. Their voices sounded far away.
Mariah’s worried face appeared above me. Her mouth was saying my name. She frantically looked around and shouted. I tried not to panic but my heart pounded as if it would burst from my chest. The smell of Cedars rushed into the room. Iciness settled over my bones.
Everything closed in. The shape of the windows, doors, and even the hideous tile flooring became indistinct, as everything melted together in a gray blob. Mariah’s face melted before my eyes. The lights above me were bright. Pain hammered at my skull. I laid my head on the floor and gave in to the darkness, hoping to see my dream world again.
A tanned leathery face gazed into mine. His fireman’s helmet sat precariously on his head.
I blinked a few times. Oh no. Why me? I closed my eyes again.
“Miss?” The fireman asked.
I cracked my eyes open. Embarrassment filled me to the brim. One of these days I’d be a normal girl.
I let out a big sigh and took in my surroundings. The classroom had pretty much vacated except for three other firemen and my teacher. Mariah stood in the farthest corner. I sat up.
“I’m alright. Nothing’s wrong.” My head swam for a moment. Fuck.
The fireman studied me, “Did you take any drugs or anything?”
I jumped, “What? No. I would never.” Oh my gosh is that what they think?
He looked me over, then leaned in slightly and dropped his voice, “Are you pregnant?”
“What?!” I scurried up off the floor, banging into the desks around me. My face heated and I took several steps back. “No, god no.” I shook my head to solidify my point. My stomach churned like it would empty everything in the floor.
He held his hands up and backed away, “Sorry, I have to ask. Some women pass out when they’re expecting.”
Oh my god. I was going to die from embarrassment. My heart was in my throat again.
He nodded, “Do you want to go to the hospital?”
I shook my head again rubbing my arms. Trying to comfort myself. “No, I’m fine. This happens sometimes.”
He nodded again, his eyes measuring me then turned to speak to our teacher.
Mariah rushed to me, “Are you okay?” Mariah’s eyes filled with concern as she held my bag out to me.
The tension eased. I nodded.
“I’m okay. I hope we figure this out soon.”
She searched my eyes then nodded. “I’ll take you home.”
We gathered up our things, and I thanked the firemen and my teacher. They asked one more time if I wanted to go to the hospital, but I assured them I was okay. The embarrassment of that moment would haunt me for days.
As Mariah and I walked to her car she asked, “Sloane, you’re okay right? You aren’t sick or anything?”
“I’m fine, just a migraine. Nothing to worry about.” I smiled reassuringly at her. I squinted because the sun hurt my blue eyes so much. I dug in my bag, grabbing my dollar sunglasses. Cheap, but they worked fine. Hastily, I yanked on my jacket to block the sun from scorching my pale skin.
Her eyes studied me; she didn’t quite believe me. Mariah didn’t say anything, but I could feel her mind going a mile a minute.
“You know you can tell me anything, right?”
“Yeah, I know.” I smiled slightly but focused my eyes back to the sidewalk. “Listen, don’t worry. I just need some aspirin.”
She studied me for a moment then nodded.
We piled back into her car and Mariah pulled onto the road heading to my house. She cranked the radio up. I rolled the window all the way down. The warm air whipped through my hair, I hung my arm out the window and moved my hand up and down to the rhythm of the music.
I felt normal again.
She pulled into my driveway and stopped with the car still running.
Mariah turned to me, “Are we still doing something for your birthday tomorrow?”
I took a deep breath, “Sure.”
She shook her head, “One day we will get you excited about it.” I only smiled slightly in answer.
“We’ve got History again and Biology tomorrow, don’t forget. I’ll be by to pick you up at one-thirty. Maybe we can eat after class?”
“You promise you’re okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine.” I rolled my eyes at her. “Have a good night.”
I climbed out, shutting the car door behind me. Mariah waved as she drove away. I was going to have to tell her more of what had been happening soon. After today, I knew she wouldn’t take such lame excuses much longer. Even I knew how lame they were.
It was almost supper time. When I opened the front door, it smelled like my mom had actually cooked. Oh no.
“Look what the cat dragged in!” She yelled. Her long, black hair was a mess, and she had some unknown substance on her shirt. That’s my mom for you. She gave me a tight hug, as I came in the door. I love my mom, but she’s a little too much sometimes, but I think that’s how moms are supposed to be, suffocating so you’ll want to leave home faster.
My mom was a little more petite than me with delicate features. Her dad’s Asian ancestry dominated her features more than her German mother’s. I didn’t inherit any of mom’s beautiful Asian characteristics. Some friends called her a fairy. All she needed were the wings.
“Hi, Mom,” I felt like a giant as I hugged her. “What are you making?”
“Some baked chicken with potatoes, and corn, then a surprise for dessert.” Her large, brown almond-shaped eyes sparkled with excitement.
“Oh, well, that sounds great.” If only, she was known for her cooking. I gave her my best smile while secretly wishing for pizza.
She had the table all set and started laying food out. I sat at the table and watched as she flitted back and forth. Our house was pretty small. It was an older house built in the seventies. It looked like the house never left the seventies with all of its wood paneling everywhere. We only needed shag carpeting to make it complete. Although, if someone came along and wanted to update our house, I wouldn’t stop them.
After a few minutes, she sat in front of me. She intently watched as I filled my plate and picked up my fork. The peas were probably the safest, so I tentatively skewered a few and raised them to my mouth. They weren’t bad, a little salty for me, but overall, not bad.
“Very good mom,” I cleaned each pea off my plate.
Mom let out a sigh of relief. I prodded the somewhat charred chicken, trying not to show my distaste.
“So, how was your first day back?”
“Oh, you know the usual. People being awkward. Our teacher actually made us take out our books, and he lectured.” I really didn’t want to tell her about another episode.
“What? No one lectures on the first day! I'm not even that cruel to my students.”
“Mom. Kindergartners don’t count as students.” I rolled my eyes.
“Rude.” She eyed me, “Did you learn anything? See any cute boys? Any Leo’s walking around?” she wiggled her eyebrows.
“Mom, of course, I didn’t learn anything, and I definitely didn’t see any cute boys.” Anytime I say anything about a guy, she goes off about love and relationships, so I’ve learned not to say anything about the opposite sex.
“Honey, you’re so smart and cute. You should have some love-struck fool following you around.” She patted my arm.
“Mom,” I said through slightly gritted teeth. I wanted to go off about not being as beautiful as her, also no one likes being called cute, but I didn’t feel like having that conversation. So, I took a breath. I inwardly sighed and outwardly smiled, “Zero Leos today. No Brads or Chrises either.”
“Chris?” She perked up.
“Yes, mom, Chris Hemsworth? You know, the Aussie? Played Thor, God of Thunder, muscles everywhere.” My eyes closed. I may have sighed audibly.
“Well, I’m sure he’s no Harrison Ford.” A rare sad smile crossed her face. Ugh, I’m such a fucking idiot. I took her mind off of me but made her think of him… I rolled my eyes and took my plate to the sink. “So, dessert?”
Shaking herself out of her memories, she jumped up, “Ohh, it’s exciting. Hang on, hang on.” She hurried to the fridge. “I saw this at the store, and I just had to get it. Doesn’t it look great?” Her eyes widened with excitement.
She held out a plastic container of what looked like, at one point, had been a chocolate cake.
The cake kind of sat up straight, but the icing had run down the sides and coated the container. It looked tasty.
“Wow! Mom, that does look good.”
She smiled sheepishly and shrugged a shoulder, “It was on sale. That’s why it looks like this.”
I chuckled, “You’ve always said, a messy cake is better.”
She brightened more and popped off the plastic lid. Grabbing a knife, she cut out a generous piece and flopped it onto a plate and handed it to me.
“You know my birthday is tomorrow, right?” I said jokingly.
“You know me, always a reason to get more cake. Besides, I know the cake is the only thing you’ve ever liked about your birthday.”
Why did this make me feel guilty? She tried so hard. I owed her the truth.
She cut a piece for herself and licked the knife before putting the lid back.
I glanced at my mom, "Sooo, I had a small episode today."
She dropped her fork, "Shoot. I was afraid something like that happened. You let me talk about guys without rolling your eyes. Sloane, it's been weeks since your last one." She shook her head. "What were you doing?"
"I was in class." I studied her expression. A weight settled around her.
“Oh, Sloane, I’m sorry.” She patted my arm.
I pushed the icing around on my plate, “It’s okay. It wasn’t too bad.”
She frowned, "I wish we could figure this out. There doesn't seem to be any triggers. I hoped they had stopped." She pointed her fork at me, "I still think those doctors are idiots. I don't think they checked everything or took us seriously."
I shrugged, "I'm kind of okay with not going to more doctors. Besides, it's not like we can afford it."
"Sloane, you matter way more than money. I'll save up some more, and we will find the right doc."
"Alright, I guess. I'm just tired of getting poked so much and no answers."
She nodded, "I know." She squeezed my arm.
My now empty plate beckoned me, and I licked it clean.
Mom laughed. "Go relax and rest up. I've got more surprises tomorrow." She winked and started cleaning off the table.
Pictures of me and my mom that were never straight and hung in old, weathered frames, decorated the narrow hallway to my room. The diminishing light from the sunset cast abstract shadows across the walls and floors. Once in my room, the setting sun peeked through the trees.
Three walls in my room were painted a warm amber-gold so, when the sun shined in, my room glowed. The one white wall had two equally spaced windows with my bed centered in between. It’s my golden sanctuary. I’m usually a neat freak except when I enter my room.
I went to my computer and punched it on. My TV didn't have the internet and watching shows on my phone sucks, so the trusty old computer won. Stacks of paper littered the area. Finally, my computer made that wondrous welcome sound, and I sat in front of the screen, ready to watch some Lord of the Rings. Ready to dream of Legolas. Mmmm.
I’m so pathetic.
Hours drifted by; it was almost midnight by the time Gandalf the Grey appeared. I turned the computer off. I dragged myself into the bathroom to brush my teeth and wash my face.
My heavy eyes were stale from staring at the computer screen for so long. I glanced at mom’s closed door and padded softly back into my room, climbing under the dark blue sheets. I snuggled deeper under the covers, in search of warmth. The mattress molded to my body, the thick comforter encasing the warmth close to me. The arms of sleep tugged me deeper into rest until a popping noise sounded beside my ear.
My eyes cracked open. I cautiously sat up and studied the room. What had caused the noise? Trepidation set in, as the air around me became still and suffocating. The clock in the hall chimed midnight. Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding.
I waited for the final chime, but it never came.
The walls of my room began to vibrate and blur. I clutched the sheets to my chest, as I frantically tried to figure out what was happening. What the heck?
“Mom?” I called out, hoping she would rescue me.
I had to be dreaming. Each wall crumbled before my eyes, opening to the night. As everything evaporated into thin air, the stars grew brighter. The moon grew bigger. I swear I could have touched it.
My bed was gone. My house had vanished. I sat on a patch of dried ground; large trees surrounded me in every direction. They towered over me, maybe fifty-feet tall and ten-feet wide. I was in the middle of a dense forest, wearing my sleep shorts, an old Nike t-shirt, no bra, and no shoes.
Fuck. Shit. What the hell?? What happened?
My legs shook. I pushed my hair back and succeeded in getting dirt on my face and in my hair. I remained on the ground, listening for any sound. I picked up wood chips and some dead leaves. They felt real, so I couldn’t be dreaming... right? I could even smell the wet earth, and hear nothing but silence. The darkness surrounding me seemed to absorb the moonlight as if this world was a black hole. Don’t animals make noises at night? I stood; thankful, my legs held me. I stepped forward, stopped, and listened again. Nope, nothing. Okay… I took another step.
“This cannot be happening. Hello?” My voice sounded weird in this strange place. I pinched my arm and raked my nails down both arms. I accomplished making red lines on my arms. Yeah, that didn’t help. I stopped and leaned over, placing my hands on my knees, trying to breathe. A panic attack was on the way. I squeezed my eyes shut.
“NO, no, no, no. I’m dreaming. This is a dream.”
Taking a deep breath, I pushed forward, every now and then, stopping to nurse my feet because of twigs and sharp rocks. My poor feet were going to be shredded by the time I found someone or, by the time something found me or, maybe, I would wake up and not have to worry about it. I really hoped for the latter.
The eerie stillness of the night made my anxiety double. The moon looked like a large, round light bulb. It was easily three times larger than normal. It guided me through the tall, tall trees making my progress much easier. The trees and earth surrounding me drank in the moonlight. Hours drifted by as I roamed. Why did this place feel oddly familiar?
The wind picked up, rustling the leaves and branches. A bird called out, and something hit my head. Claws scraped my scalp. I screamed and ran. I dove behind a tree and crouched against the base. Birds of every shape and small animals were running from something in pure terror.
The wind blew harder. The branches creaked and swayed, but I couldn’t feel the wind on my skin. I looked upward, trying to focus my eyes. They pieced together what I saw, but I hoped they were wrong. Large animals raced through the treetops, leaping from limb to limb or flying through the foliage. What I assumed were birds were bigger than any bird I had ever laid eyes upon – they almost appeared to be… dragons?
Are you freaking kidding me? No more J.R.R Tolkien before bed!
My dream had just changed into a freaking nightmare. Shit. This has to be my dream.
My eyes transfixed on the birds above me. The body of the bird was thicker than a full-grown man with a wingspan even greater. A long-tail trailed behind it. Its razor-sharp claws clenched together, gleaming in the moonlight. I stayed rooted by that tree for a long time after the dragons or whatever the hell that was had left. I couldn’t make up my mind if I should follow them or go in the opposite direction. Blood ran from my head, a surface scratch, but man, it hurt.
In case the dragons came back (my mind boggled at the thought of real dragons), I picked my way through the forest, trying to keep to the direction of the moon, the giant trees loomed over me as I walked in their shadows. I had gone maybe a mile when I heard music playing. Was that Bon Jovi? The notes of “Livin’ on a Prayer” drifted through the forest. This might be my best dream yet. My heart leapt with joy, and I picked up my pace, as fast as my hurt feet would let me, toward the noise.
A pinprick of light began to be distinguishable through the trees, and the music grew louder. I hid behind a tree and peered out at the scene before me.
There were indeed people who were dancing and laughing. A bonfire was in the middle of a group of people. They all had varying tints of white skin, porcelain, and almost translucent compared to mine, that seemed to glow from within. They were throwing things into the fire, making it climb higher into the night sky and crackle. Sparks flew and scattered with the breeze.
“What are you doing out here alone?”