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Tributaries: Current Issue: Fall 2021

Online creative writing journal publishing DSC student creative output - from poetry and stories, comics, illustrations, drawings, photographs, paintings, songs and videos

Visual Arts

"Mountains and Sky" by Kaily Peel

"Solo Winter Tree" by Grace Neff

"Fae" by Ragavati Kandiah

"Comedy and Tragedy" by Brandon Roberts

"Mountain Lookout" by Kaily Peel

Winding Down" by Ashley Teague

"A Memory I Can't Forget" by Debbie Paniagua Lopez

"Bell Tower and Setting Sun" by Margelen Sumner

"Garou" by Brandon Roberts

"Lake and Trees" by Kaily Peel

TOC for Written Work

Table of Contents


Poetry


"Jack and the Giant Sheer Shock" by Ragavati Kandiah

"Tar" by Gregory Chase Starkey

"A Winter's Tryst" by Denise Shahan

"Walking the Assembly Line" by Taylor Rodgers

"Highway Orphan for Sale" by Jonathan Fleming

 


Fiction


"Amil" by Afrodita Aguilar - First Place Winner: Spooky Story Contest Fall 2021

"Checkmate" by Benjamin Mceuen - Second Place Winner: Spooky Story Contest Fall 2021

"Lake Lanier" by Leah Lloyd - Third Place Winner: Spooky Story Contest Fall 2021

"Deer Hunting" by Taylor Rodgers

"Bump in the Road" by Gregory Chase Starkey

"All the Lonely People" by Rachel Moffett

"Angel's Choir" by Ragavati Kandiah

"Out the Window" by Taylor Rodgers

"Raised by Wolves" by Gregory Chase Starkey

"Howling into the Wind" by Gregory Chase Starkey

"59 Kellerhals Lane" by Kelly Edmondson

"Shade's Revenge" by Brittany Spiess

 

Poetry

"Jack and the Giant Sheer Shock"

Ragavati Kandiah


 

He was humongous

Chunky, fair.

With freckled face

And bright red hair.

The fairies danced to make him happy.

They brought him milk.

They changed his nappy.

Since his sweet new mother’s gone...

His father tried to raise their son.

He’d wipe his tears but hid his own.

The fairies helped him keep his home.

As the days pressed further on,

They found a “gift” of Mother's song.

The harp was left upon the stair.

The likeness, striking; painful, clear.

The strumming, soft…. hypnotic…

Wrong.

It made them nauseous,

Mother's song.

It played at dusk; a sound too sweet.

It swept them swiftly off to sleep.

On seventh strum, they fell off deep.

He’d always, always, see her there,

Her soft wide eyes, her loving stare.

Her big warm arms were open wide,

So, in his dreams, he'd run to hide.

Until a wicked, wicked little man,

One cold dark night

He snuck inside.

This foolish man was on a mission.

His greedy heart, his crass ambition.

Esurient, narrow, most crooked vision.

Had he just took his fill and left...

Had he just beat the sun instead...

The giant could have kept his head.

But with the dawn, the strumming stopped

And from his bed, he quickly hopped.

His feet, they pounded on the floor.

His nose had smelled his kind before.

“Fe fi fo fum!” he smelled the danger.

He screamed the words to scare the stranger.

He chased him just one step too many,

He slipped and fell… his death came swiftly.

At once the man was filled with glee.

The gold was his, so rich he’d be!

But that is when he heard the sound

That changed his life right upside down.

A coo so sweet, so soft but LOUD!

A baby giant on the cloud?

So that is how it came to be

That Jack would bring his family

Up on the cloud where none could see

He brought them there, his wife and daughters

And struggle though they often did

To care for a tot, for them so big

As all the while the fae laid back

Unsure if they could trust in Jack

His wife and girls may catch a glimpse

A tiny flash of light, or wing

A shadow, or a flickering glimmery thing.

Jack’s wife was named Persephone

She clearly loved that giant baby

But she had reoccurring nightmares

That cursed harp, it made her crazy!

One morning came, just after dawn

Persephone arose engrossed in rage

Still in a dreamlike foggy haze-

She struck the harp, it cracked wide open

At once undone, the spell was broken

A light came cracking through the gold

It swirled and whistled, it whirred and twirled

The baby’s mother stood, tears in her eyes

No longer trapped in gold she now despised

She’d watched her husband’s end unfold

While trapped and wrapped in cursed gold

Yet she saw Jack’s kindness too

He could have taken all and ran

Instead, he’d gathered up his clan

To raise the child with love, their only clear-cut plan

So naturally her fondness grew

They made him giggle, and brought him joy

Their family only loved her boy

So, she did not scream the words,

“Fe fi fo fum!”

Nor did she try to make them run

She thanked the family, held her son tight

They’d laughed and cried near through the night

When they finally parted ways, it was as friends

And so it was.... And so it is...

-THE END

 

"Tar"

Gregory Chase Stuckey

 

When I see you

I feel my words

Burn in my throat,

Fall from my mouth,

Like cigarette ash.

And the tar in my lungs

Makes it difficult

To breathe.

You pass by like

Wisps of smoke:

Your burning scent,

Laced with chems that trigger

Your compulsive consumption,

Calls to me.

Outside in a hurricane

Just for a puff.

The cherry of your lips,

Your slender pale frame.

I will scissor off your filter,

Take you to my mouth,

Inhale your toxins,

Burn you to ash.

Yet you will persist within me

As tar.

"A Winter's Tryst" 

Denise Shahan

 


Spidery barren branches against a gray winter sky

Contrasted with an object that catches my eye.

The brilliantly red cardinal, perched on high,

Beckons to his lady who awaits nearby.

 

The majesty and beauty I simply cannot deny,

As I hear his bold chirp and her timid reply.

She threads her way upward, almost to the sky,

Meeting her mate there, as though she’s quite shy.

 

Her beauty is more veiled as she draws ever nigh,

Thwarting the intruder who yet dares to spy.

Timid meets bold when they flutter and sigh.

And, as I get closer, they both simply…..fly!

"Walking the Assembly Line"

Taylor Rodgers


She threw away her old cherry lipstick:

This advertised plum is now her new pick.

And safety scissors have taken her braids.

The roots are poisoned; they fell in the raid.

Mirrors tell more years than reality.

She’s shed off the old, now who will she be?

 

What did she lose when she thought she had gained?

She sits when she’s told and says she’s not trained.

Her ears invite wanderers, give them home,

and feed the lost so that herself may roam.

She is here; yet tell me, where has she gone?

Guised as freedom, it was just a free bond.

 

And still, her longing is to burn the frame,

to be different by being the same.

Manufactured is now the new homemade.

Just cut off the tags so they can be played.

While deceit persists, the strings will not fray.

Polish the shell for the blemish to stay.

"Highway Orphan for Sale:

Love and Acceptance OBO"

Jonathan Fleming


I’ve lived my life high off of the fumes left by the families that drove away. Left delusional by the lie that I wasn’t worth their time. Exhausted after all hope combusted when the spark of division met all their excuses to leave that were fueled by fear. So now I’m trying to define my value within the absence of the relationships that I formerly believed validated my existence.

What is my worth when no on wants who I am?

Am I worth the time it will take to uncover the jewel hidden within the depths of this broken man? Is there anyone willing to plumb into the dark caverns of my soul to find a glimmer of holy hope to sustain this heart that lacks the strength to keep beating? Or will I live forever within this season of leaving? Left believing that I am inherently deserving of being an orphan.

Fiction

"Amil"

Afrodita Aguilar

First Place Winner of the 2021 Spooky Story Contest

 

The wooden cabin creaks in the cold swirling wind, the sound of wood aching from old bones becomes familiar. Amil has lived here all her life. The snow is here year-round, at least three feet tall, encircled the cabin. Surrounding the cabin is the dark and dense taiga where no light entered, and no light escaped. It was three in the morning, and the wind stirred in musical tones more frequently than ever. Amil hugged her bear hide and peered into the burning firewood, “Is it time?” She searched for an answer in the glowing logs.

 

“Is it time?” this time, asking out loud. No response. Amil had lived here with her parents, both from old native tribes that had vanished under mysterious circumstances. Her mother, father, and she were what remained of the Inuit tribe living in this area. The next cabin was five miles away and remained vacant. When Amil was ten years old, her father and mother traveled to the next cabin for resources; she was too small and afraid to hunt for herself. They had left her to fend the cabin on her own.

 

“We are running out of water, and the lake is frozen. We must travel to the next cabin and gather what resources remain there,” Amil’s father had told her, but she still insisted that they remain with her. It was two in the afternoon when they headed out, and Amil had waited by the window watching the sunset from the cabin. She sensed something was wrong that day. The night was dark out here, the dense dark that makes it difficult to tell if your eyes are closed or open, and they had yet to return. The wind had the same musical sound it has now. The cabin creaked and moaned as if mourning a loss. Amil wanted to go out and search for them. She had wanted to find them unharmed in the cabin. But the dense woods would make it impossible to see anything at night.

 

She stayed awake that night until the morning sun brought the glimmering beauty of snow. Her parents had still not returned. There was an old story she heard from her mother when she was young. “The forest is alive, and once every few years, it gets very hungry.” She had dismissed this story as an old folktale that parents told their children to keep them away from the forest. But since the disappearance of the tribe and now her parents, she had reconsidered this theory.

 

She looked into the glowing fire, “Is it time? Is the forest hungry again?”. The wind swirled musically, and the old cabin ached. “How long has it been since the tribe disappeared? Her parents vanished five years ago, but when did the tribe vanish?” She was too young to remember, and the topic was too taboo to talk about after the occurrence.

 

Amil stood and looked out the cabin’s small window and saw the dense darkness of the forest. Suddenly the wind stopped, and the cabin didn’t creak. It was quiet, the deafening quiet. She only heard her shallow breaths, but even that was becoming hard to hear as if the quiet had its own overpowering noise.

 

Amil

 

She heard a distant, haunting voice call her name. From the forest? She listened hard and listened to a small, faint voice yell out her name. Amil shook her head as if shaking out trapped water in her ears.

 

“I must be hearing things; this isn’t real.” But she kept hearing it. Was it the wind? Was it the cabin? Had she stayed up too long and now was hearing voices she had hoped to hear for the last five years? Solitude can make a person go mad, but Amil believed she was past this.

 

She grabbed her ax and peered again into the darkness, so dark she could have had her eyes closed.

 

Amil, Amil, Amil

 

She was afraid at first, but anger began to creep into her thoughts. Anger for losing her parents, anger for being alone, and anger for whatever took her tribe. She took the ax and opened the door carefully. The night remained quiet; the wind had stopped. She crept slowly out not to stir the darkness.

 

Amil, Amil, Amil

 

The voice was coming from within the woods. It was distant but familiar. The night was piercing cold, and she felt the bite of it on her face. She walked carefully and heard only the soft crush of snow under her feet. Her black eyes reflected the blackness of the forest. She glared towards it.

 

“I am strong. I am not afraid”. Amil crept slowly towards the opening of the woods, its immense gaping darkness staring back at her. She felt strong. She felt the anger brewing in her blood and pounding against her temples.

 

Blindly, into the darkness she went, gripping her ax with both hands.

 

Amil, Amil, Amil

 

She heard it more clear now, “I do not imagine this, I hear it, it’s there!” she soothed herself and twisted her grip as if tightening the ax into her arm. She looked back towards the opening and saw the faint gray glow from the stars and moon against the snow.

 

“Every few years, the forest is hungry, and it needs to feed. The forest is alive” Her mother’s words echoed in her ears. She had walked for about half an hour, and the opening was only a speck in the darkness, resembling a star.

 

AMIL!

 

She heard her name ring in her ear. She turned quickly and swung her ax, the weight of it staggering her gait. She yelled out, and suddenly the woods became loud. The yells and cries filled her ears as she frantically swung the ax around. She searched for the star and found its faint glow. A wave of relief overcame her as she began to run back towards the opening, the star becoming larger and brighter. The yells and cries flooded her ears, and she couldn’t tell if she was yelling or if it were the noises. Her eyes remained transfixed on the light.

 

Suddenly, it vanished, as if the forest had closed its mouth, and a blanket of darkness fell upon her.

 

The cabin creaked and moaned as if mourning, but no one was around to hear its cries. The taiga is dark and dense, with no light coming in or out, and sometimes the forest is hungry.

"Checkmate"

Benjamin Mceuen

Second Place Winner of the 2021 Spooky Story Contest

 

Riley clenched his teeth together hard, his breathing slowing from the rapid pace of hyperventilation to slow and controlled gasps, like his dad had showed him that afternoon. He lay on his back on the top bunk, his face several inches from the ceiling as he struggled to control his breathing, his terrified heart beating like a jackhammer. At the foot of his bed, right outside of his peripherals a figure moved, slinking slowly against the wall, a patch of black shadow ethereal to all of the posters and framed pictures it passed over. It had been a week since this had begun happening, it would go from wall to wall, slowly inching closer to the bunk bed before jetting off to the opposite corner of the room, only to start the journey all over again. Once the bunk bed had made Riley feel safe, like a king in a castle of sheets and aluminum. Now his fortress has been besieged, not by a burglar or a robber, something he could at least wrap his head around, but a spectre that made even his parents confused when he described the creature to them.

 

“I can’t do it again, I can’t bother them again while they’re sleeping” Riley quietly murmured to himself, staring blindly at the ceiling, his focus fixed on the black mass still shifting in the corner. Like an inching caterpillar’s legs, he slowly moved his arms underneath the covers, gripping tightly the wind-up flashlight his dad had left him, slowly moving it out from under the covers until he gripped it just beneath his chin. He swallowed loudly, wincing at the noise as he kept his eyes glued to the ceiling. In his peripheral he saw the black mass begin to creep, from the opposite end of the room toward the wall to his right. Riley risked a glance over to the figure, keeping all but his eyes completely still. He could make out a long arm slowly leading the way for the figure, coming dangerously close to the wall at the head of Riley’s bed.

 

All of the hot sweat that had pooled on Riley’s skin suddenly turned ice cold, his breathing began to quicken, gritting his teeth once more he shot both his hands in the direction of the figure, pressing the ON button with his thumb while frantically winding the lever on the other side of the flashlight with his left hand, causing a strong but flickering beam of light to engulf the shadow. Before Riley could even blink it had already slid behind a dresser, completely out of sight.

 

“Now it was mad” Riley thought. Without thinking he slid out of his bed, sprinted toward the bathroom, and slammed the door behind him, winding the flashlight at any possible moment to give sporadic flashes of light. Riley stopped winding for a moment, allowing the darkness to engulf him momentarily as he flipped the light switch. The darkness was not abated, Riley flipped the switch several more times, but to no avail. The momentary panic about the loss of power was itself lost in Riley’s subsequent rush to begin winding the flashlight again. As the first few flickers of light sputtered out, Riley saw long, thin fingers suddenly dart back under the door to his room. Terrified, he felt his feet grow heavy as he stood in place, covering the bottom half of the door with a flickering orange glow. Riley heard a creak and jumped, shining the light toward the upper half of the door, where once again a slender hand suddenly shot back into his room. Beginning to understand, he walked backwards and sat on the edge of the bathtub, continuing to wind the flashlight as it bathed the entire midsection of the door. Riley stepped back further, now standing in the tub as he watched more and more of the door begin to be covered in light, until he was standing on the edge of the tub, in the corner of the bathroom itself. His heels on cold tile with his toes dipping down into the tub, he stood winding his flashlight, finally covering the entire door frame with its flickering glow.

 

Riley allowed himself a faint smile, satisfied with his sense of survival. This was cut short by the sudden twinge of pain that shot through him from a tendon in his left hand. A pit formed in Riiley’s stomach as he took stock of the situation. His room’s door led directly to the backyard, with a completely separated bathroom, nobody could hear him. He had just been sent to bed an hour ago, nobody would be checking on him for probably another 8 hours, and the sun won’t be up for anot-. Riley’s eyes widened as he looked around frantically, indeed it was true, there weren’t even windows. Everything went quiet within Riley’s mind, the only sounds remaining being the rhythmic drip of water and the rough grinding of the cogs within his flashlight as he continued to wind, too petrified to acknowledge the conclusion he k knew he had already come to.

 

"Lake Lanier"

Leah Lloyd

THIRD PLACE WINNER OF THE 2021 SPOOKY STORY CONTEST


It was a slow Monday afternoon in-between college classes when Hailey Crainey’s phone buzzed with a new text message in a group chat with her friends.

 

Emerald: Girls’ day on the lake this Saturday? My dad is letting me use the boat.

 

That Saturday would be the last of August, which was still perfect summer weather in the state of Georgia. Hailey had spent most of her summer indoors and studying between her three summer classes, so she was pleased to have one last chance to enjoy the southern sun.

 

Maria Martinez was the first in the friend group to respond, followed by Sarah Lancaster, and finally Hailey herself. Each of them was excited to coordinate the day and give the summer a proper send-off. It didn’t take long before the group chat filled with pictures of outfit options and a running list of song suggestions for the day’s dedicated Spotify playlist. Emerald Jenkins spent nearly every waking hour of the week beaming with pride after her dad finally trusted her enough to take the boat out alone. She had spent nearly five years pleading.

 

It was an early 6 A.M. at the boat ramp to meet Emerald’s father that Saturday. While he trusted her to drive the boat on the water, backing it in and unhitching it from the truck was a different story. Judge Jenkins successfully lowered the Sundancer, tastefully named Court’s Adjourned, into the lake. After a firm goodbye wave from the truck’s window, he left the four college freshmen floating in his rearview mirror.

 

The sun’s morning rays had not yet touched the sky, and the white fog on the water concealed the shore across the lake. Hailey noticed there was an unseasonal chill out on the boat that she hadn’t noticed prior when Judge Jenkins was helping them unload.

 

As Emerald slowly advanced into the deep waters, Sarah turned back to the boat ramp one last time and noticed a woman in a blue dress with her back against the lake and arms folded in front of her, looking into the woods across the ramp. Sarah found relief in the sight of another person outside of their group, as the lake before sunrise was a bit eerie.

 

The dense fog robbed the group of the ability to see any other vessels floating in the water; the only sounds they could hear came from their boat. The lake was still. It was as if the rest of the world outside of their visibility ceased to exist.

 

“I’m going to take my rare opportunity and parade around the lake for a while. There’s plenty of room in the cabin for you guys to nap, at least until it warms up out here,” Emerald said.

 

Before Hailey could jump on the chance, Maria suggested something else.

 

“I think we’re all already up for the day. This atmosphere is perfect for telling scary stories,” Maria said with a smirk.

 

“We’re on a yacht wearing bikinis and sipping wine coolers. How is that perfect for—” Hailey began to protest.

 

“But this yacht is on Lake Lanier, which makes all the difference,” Maria insisted.

 

“Wait, what’s wrong with this lake?” Sarah asked, looking around to her friends.

 

“I forgot you’re not from around here, Sarah.” Maria patted the grey vinyl seats on either side of her, inviting her friends to have a seat. “Lake Lanier is the largest lake in Georgia and is wildly popular, bringing in millions of visitors each year. It hasn’t always been summertime fun in the sun, though.

 

“Lake Lanier is a manmade lake that was created for flood control of the Chattahoochee River. Unfortunately, the land was already claimed. Families who had lived on and farmed the land for generations were bought out, and the town of Oscarville was drowned,” Maria said.

 

“Wow, a manmade lake… terrifying,” Emerald chimed in. The echoing laughter from the three could be heard from the shoreline.

 

“It’s more unsettling when you consider the buildings left abandoned, the piles of debris dancing in every wave,” Maria paused to consider her next sentence. “You didn’t stop to think about what happened to the town’s dead, did you?”

 

A great splash on Lanier’s surface interrupted her story. Sarah froze. Hailey and Maria’s eyes locked on each other’s. Emerald slowed the boat to a stop.

 

“What was that?” Sarah whispered.

 

“C’mon guys, I bet it was just a fish,” Emerald said.

 

“Could’ve been a lot of things. A fish, a begrudged spirit looking for its next victim…” Maria said.

 

“That’s a little far-fetched, don’t you think?” Hailey accused.

 

“Too bad I’ve been telling nothing but the truth.” Maria snapped. “Go ahead, Google it! There are unmarked graves sitting at the bottom of this lake. Not to mention how disturbing and relocating the graves that were marked probably angered the spirits at rest. Last time I checked, over 200 people have died by drowning or some freak accident since the nineties. Lake Lanier is one of the most dangerous lakes in the country.”

 

“Actually,” Emerald spoke up. “I do remember one of my dad’s friends telling us a story about the lady of the lake when I was younger.”

 

“Have you ever seen her?” Maria asked with excitement in her voice.

 

“I haven’t, but apparently all my dad’s boating friends have. Story is she and her friend died in a car accident that ran off the bridge. She was found about a year and a half later, but the car, along with her friend, weren’t found for some time later. People say she haunts the lake since the accident; a lady in a blue dress and no hands.”

 

Sarah’s face became warm and her eyes welled with tears. She strained to keep herself together, but Hailey noticed something was bothering her. She opened her mouth to say something, but the blaring horn of a passing Bayliner prevented her.

 

The sun, shining strongly in the sky, had warmed the air, and chased away the morning’s fog. Several families on boats were in the water, enjoying the cloudless day. As the day went on, the four friends forgot the lake’s questionable past and made the most of their last true summer day.

 

It was nearing the end of the afternoon, when Judge Jenkins would return and the boat would be retired until next season, when Hailey decided to take a final dip in the lake to cool off. Sarah decided to join her, while the other two girls stayed onboard.

 

Hailey went for a cannonball, a sizeable splash erupting after her. She was about a foot away from breaking the surface for air when an immense weight around her ankle burdened her.

 

Frantically, her eyes scanned for anything that was weighing her down, but there was no branch, no fishing line, no hand to cause her descent into the murky waters below. She snapped her head back towards the surface and saw Sarah’s legs casually kicking above, waiting on Hailey to ascend from the water. Shoveling water with her arms as fast as she could, Hailey screamed for help as she sank lower and lower. The bubbles from her last breath swirled and frolicked until they burst upon air.

"Deer Hunting"

Taylor Rodgers

 

 

The dogs ran, and the hunters yelled, but the deer gave chase. Their antlers were held like rifles; they had had enough.

"Bump in the Road"

Gregory Chase Starkey


 

Rain pelts persistently against the fogging windscreen of Jessie’s Versa as it haphazardly hurdles down the empty and increasingly flooding highway. The droplets stream across the length of the sedan, mirroring the mascara running underneath its driver’s swollen eye. The car bounces over a pothole. From the front seat, Jessie hears something heavy launch into the roof of the trunk. She turns up the busted radio that Chris, unsurprisingly, never got around to fixing. Chris never did get around to much of anything unless he got to the bottom of a bottle first. And, even then, it wasn’t handiwork that he’d get around to. She shook herself. She had thought enough about him, and, as soon as this was over, the sooner she’d never have to think about him again. Another bump from the trunk. The stained shovel in the back seat clatters to the floorboard. Jessie cranks the static-spewing radio to its maximum volume. The white noise mingles with the timpani of rain and drowns out all other sound. Peace, finally. She almost didn’t notice the light on her dash letting her know the trunk had opened. She slams the breaks. In the rear-view mirror, she sees him weakly lift himself from the pavement. “Now he decides to get of his ass.” She gets out and grabs the shovel again.

"All the Lonely People"

Rachel Moffett


 

"CHARGE!"

The two armies ran at each other, each determined to be the victors, each convinced that they were on the right side of the war. I sit on the back of my horse at the back of my army, waiting. A raven flies across the sky and over the battlefield, illuminated by the rising sun. I grasp the handle of my sword. Time slows.

‘Will you let me in my child?’ He asks me.

I shake my head, no. To invite a god, even your father, into your body to imbue you with strength and power is dangerous at best, fatal at worst. I cannot afford to make reckless decisions while I am the head of a nation, the first queen without a king, the first queen engaged to a princess. I will be the one to bring change to my country. I already am. All I have to do is survive and end this war, and I can finally marry the love of my life.

Let me in and I can help you fulfill your destiny. Victory will be yours. Hades doesn't have many champions - or daughters for that matter, and, while he may have good intentions, I will not risk it, and he knows that.

"I'm sorry, father. I cannot accept that risk. It's too dangerous, and I have the battle to fight and win."

Time speeds back up. The armies crash into each other as they meet and for a moment they are at a standstill, neither side taking any ground.

I nudge my horse, and we begin to gallop towards the battle. I unsheathe my sword and urge my horse faster. He carries us swiftly towards the front line, and I swing my sword in great arches, killing all of the enemies before me, clearing a path for my army to advance, and giving us an advantage. Their bodies fall mutilated where they stood against me. For a second, just a second, my heart weeps for the death and destruction that is occurring, that must occur. This could have all been avoided if only King Dariusem hadn't started attacking our border after I announced my betrothal to Princess Evelynnel, wreaking havoc on my villages and killing my people.

With each swing of my sword, I kill more and more enemy soldiers, people. The battlefield is not the place to feel remorse or compassion, so I stuff my feelings back deep into my chest and charge forward again with renewed conviction, a battle cry flying from my lips.

I hear a thud.My horse cries and shudders, then falls. I roll on the ground, winded, unable to get air into my lungs. A young soldier tries to stab me with his sword, but I roll to the left just in time to dodge his thrust. I kick his ankle, causing him to fall, before wiping out my dagger from the back of my tunic and stabbing him. I find my sword a few feet from where I fell, and I grasp the handle once again and stand.

Blood covers my skin and my armor. My long black braided hair with the customary victory bells swaying in the breeze. My soldiers surround me and push back the enemy, protecting me and giving me space to breathe and recover. I turn to survey the battle. We're winning, I smirk. Soon I'll be able to marry my warrior princess bride, and we'll repair the damage this war has cost us and begin a new era of peace. I turn to find her. Where is she?

I find her looking fierce and swinging her ax with the might of Hercules, a full-blown smile fills my face as we lock eyes with one another in a lull in the battle.

An arrow pierces her stomach, and I look on in horror as she gasps and falls, grasping at her wound.

"NO!" I yell. "TO THE PRINCESS, RALLY TO THE PRINCESS!!!" I command as I begin to make my way towards her fallen body. The body of my partner, my future queen and co-ruler, my love. A thousand thoughts, worries, and memories fill my head as I run towards her, killing an audacious enemy soldier who thought to use my despair to his advantage.

I collapse to my knees by her side. "Evelynnel? Evelynnel, you're going to be alright. It's going to be okay. Please, please open your eyes and look at me. It's going to be okay." My soldiers have caught up to us and are surrounding us, rallying the others to our position to keep us safe.

Her eyelids flutter open weakly as my hands cover her wound with the arrow still in it to the best of my abilities, blood soaking my hand and the ground beneath us. "Please, I need you. You're going to be okay. You just have to keep your eyes on me. Everything is going to be okay."

She coughs, and blood comes down the corner of her mouth. Her eyes are teary and glazed over in pain, "I'm sorry my love," she says, "I don't think it's going to be okay this time. I think my fight is over."

"No, no, no, no. What are you talking about? Your fight isn't over! In just ten days’ time you're going to be crowned queen of Imbuical, and we're going to say our vows. We're going to dance the most beautiful dance and blow all of our nobles away with how graceful we look. We're going to change our nation, bring peace, trade, and prosperity. You aren't going anywhere my love. You're going to be by my side till the end. You promised me." I plead, tears starting to cascade down my face as my baby lies there in pain.

She offers me a gentle smile through her pain, and my heart breaks. A sob escapes me and I stroke her hair. "I'm sorry. I think you're going to have to do it on your own. I never wanted to leave you. I'm so sorry. I love you." Her eyes gloss over, and it takes me a minute to recognize that her chest no longer fills or empties with breath. Her eyes no longer move.

Anguish surges through my veins, and I look up into the heavens and wail. The raven lands next to her and looks at me - Let me in my child, avenge your love, I will hold her safely in my arms until you join us.

With one last look at her face, I silently accept Hades' offer and open myself to him. Unimaginable strength and power course through me all at once, and I pick up the sword that I had dropped and Evelynnel's ax, and I rise.

I approach the front line of the battle once more, and, this time, when I face my enemy, it's not determination or courage that I see. I see fear. I see my reflection in the eyes of a man right before I kill him. In his eyes, I see that I am glowing. An orange tint surrounds my body and reflects off of my armor as I pick up speed and begin to swing in earnest.

I stand, out of breath and feeling slightly nauseous and weak as I come back into awareness of my body. I take a moment to breathe, and then I begin to look around. There are bodies strewn everywhere, no enemies remain, and King Dariusem lies before me, bloody and dead. I take Evelyneel's ax and decapitate him, following the customs of his people to ensure that he will never find peace in the afterlife. As the daughter and champion of Hades, I will make it so he reaches Hell's gates.

I fall to my knees and cry. I cry for my love who I will never again feel the warmth of, I cry for my people who have paid such a terrible price in the lives of their sons for this war, I cry for the killing and destruction that I have caused today, but, most of all, I cry for the pain of watching the one I love the most die right in front of me and being helpless to stop it.

I shakily stand back to my feet and start to walk, looking around and trying to find her body.

"My queen." A soldier grabs my arm. Startled, I turn and almost swing before I recognize his face. It's Swinterbel, my most loyal guard and a dear friend.

"We moved her body to a safer location, come." He guides me to the body of my beloved and when we arrive I kneel down once again by her and run my fingers through her blond hair.

"I'm so sorry that I failed to keep you safe," I whisper to her, though I know she cannot hear my words from beyond the grave.

Father? I reach out to the fading entity in my body

Yes, my daughter?

Let me give my life in exchange for hers. Bring her back, and take me instead. Please.

Hades sighs. As you wish.

As my body falls and my eyes start to close, I see hers start to open, and I feel her catch my body with a heartbreaking cry. Then, I finally come face to face with my father.

"Hello, father."

Hello, daughter. We have much work to do.

_________________

The music filled the ballroom, and the joy of the attendants was evident on all their smiling faces. I sigh. Not even an atmosphere as jolly as this one can lift my spirits. It's been three years since my lover and my queen died giving up her life for mine so that I might live. She couldn't bear to live in a world that I was not a part of, neither can I, but I can't throw away her sacrifice like that. Someone has to lead the people she left behind. She entrusted that task to me and now I serve in her stead.

My handmaiden, my best friend, comes up beside me in the entrance to the ballroom. "It's hard to enjoy this when she's still gone isn't it?" She asks me quietly while she looks over the crowded room of laughing, dancing courtiers.

"Yes," I whisper.

She lays a hand supportively on my arm, "Do you need anything my queen?"

"I miss the days when it was just 'my Princess'." I put my hand over the one she has on my arm and turn to look her in the eyes. "Thank you for standing with me through all of this, for allowing me to mourn, for counseling me when I felt stuck, trapped by the conniving enterprises of my ministers. I know it hasn't been easy loving me when you know I'm still mourning another love. I just wanted to let you know that I think I'm ready to return your affections if it's not too late."

Her eyes widened in surprise, "I loved her too your majesty, and it will never be too late,

I'm just surprised. What's changed?"

I nod at her words and look again at the crowd, "I think it's time to move on. I can't mourn her this deeply for the rest of my life, I can't keep feeling guilty or shying away whenever I have feelings for someone that isn't her, for you. I'm not cheating on her because she is dead. And, I am so tired of denying my feelings and shoving them down. I'm tired of being alone. I want to explore what my heart has long felt for you." I look back at her and take both of her hands into my own, holding them in between us for everyone to see.

"Thank you for being patient. You might still have to be patient with me, but I think I'm ready. I wish to announce my desire to court you tonight at the ball if you would let me." I offer her a small smile, filled with unspoken feelings, though hesitant.

She returns my smile and squeezes my hands, "I would be honored." She hesitates, "but what about my job? It would be inappropriate for me to be a part of the castle's staff while we pursue a romantic relationship."

I smile and chuckle, "Don't worry about that darling, I'm sure we can find you something else to do. Besides, you'll be getting a much better room." I wink at her, and we separate from each other slightly.

Finally moving from the entrance to the ballroom, I begin to make my way to the podium where my throne has been set up. My guards escort me there, two in front and two behind, hands on their weapons. After I died and then Queen Avel died to save me, the royal guard took it as a personal failure and smear on their reputation as elite warriors.

They increased security and training and are a constant pain in my ass. Better a pain in my ass than dead though, I suppose.  My almost former handmaid is closely behind me so that the guards must protect her as well. I will not allow another person that I love to die, not again, never again.

As I step onto the dais, the music cuts and the dancing stops as everyone turns their attention to me for the customary speech.

I clear my throat. "Thank you all for attending the annual autumnal ball. I am honored that you have all chosen to celebrate the harvest with us. All of our provinces have reported an approximate 16% increase in production this year as the weather has been most fortuitous. Thank you all for continuing to be devout in your worship of Hades and Persephone, our patron god and goddess as we honor the sacrifice of Queen Avel. May she rest in peace."

The room erupts in claps and cheering, and I allow it for a moment with a smile before raising my hand for silence so I can continue my speech. "Now, however, is the time for new beginnings. The time to move on." The crowd begins to look slightly confused. "With that being said, I would like to announce my intention to court Belitiem, my former handmaiden and my dearest friend, who has stayed by my side for many years. I think that she will make an amazing queen when that time comes."

I shift my weight and angle my body towards her to offer her my hand and bring her forward. She takes my outstretched hand and steps forward so that she stands beside me. "Once again, thank you for attending, and I hope that you enjoy the rest of this evening." I nod at the musicians, and the music resumes, some people pulling to the side to talk and clearing the dance floor for those who wished to resume dancing.

I look into Belitiem's eyes, "May I have this dance, my Lady?"

Belitiem's eyes light up with excitement, "Of course!"

I smile and gently pull her to the dance floor. This would have been the song I would have danced to on my wedding day.

We twirl and move with practiced ease and grace, and, when the song is over, we stare into each other's eyes, panting to catch our breath, smiles lingering on our faces. In this moment, I forget about the pain of loss, the devastation of the war, the responsibilities on my shoulders, and, for the first time in a long time, just for a moment, I am happy.

And then everything falls to shit.

Gasps fill the hall, and I turn to find the source of the disturbance, just for the weight of it all to hit me. My healing heart is torn anew. How? How is she here? How is she alive? She died! She gave up her life for mine!

There stood former Queen Avel, my first love, and my biggest heartbreak. Shadows twirl around her as she walks forward. Her black cape and leather armor wrapped around her, making her look fierce and vengeful.

"How are you here, Avel? You died. What is happening?" I speak to her, bewildered and hurt. If she was alive somehow all this time and she never came back to me, then what does that mean?

My father steps forward, "Avel?"

Avel doesn't reply, but, in a flurry of movements almost too fast for the human eye, she twirls to face my father and releases a dagger that finds its mark in his throat. His body slumps to the ground, and, to me, time moves slowly as I watch him fall in slow motion, horror and confusion building in my chest.

"FATHER!" My brother yells and rushes to his corpse now strewn on my palace floor. He looks up at Avel with hate-filled eyes, "How could you? You were like a daughter to him. He loved you."

As my brother stands, Avel moves again, and, before I can even process it, my brother lies dead next to my father, a dagger in his chest.

My guards stream forward, desperate to take Avel into custody or to kill her should that fail.

I just looked at her, hand covering my mouth in disbelief. I watched, each second the hole in my heart growing bigger, the pressure in my chest mounting to new heights as each dagger Avel threw found its mark in each of my royal guards.

Belitiem grasps my other arm. "We need to leave your majesty, we need to get you to safety."

I look at her, tears in both of our eyes, confusion, and horror written plainly on our faces, and I hesitate.

My first and truest love stands only thirty feet from me, and my soul aches to reach out and know her, to embrace once more, but I watched, helpless, as she murdered my father, brother, and guards in cold blood.

Before I can make my decision, Avel spins once more, this time towards me. "Avel, please!" I plead, "Stop this! Remember who you are."

Avel seems to hesitate for a second too, but then her hand is reaching into her cloak, and I am on the floor.

I run my hands over my chest checking for wounds, but I don't find any, and I'm not in any pain. Confused, I roll over and raise my head to see what is going on, and my heart breaks once again this night at the sight that greets me.

Belitiem lays in my place, a dagger through her eye, dead.

A scream finally rips its way out of my throat, and I crawl to her and cradle her body in my arms.

"No, no, no, no, no, no," I whisper, tears pouring out of my eyes and a sob building in my chest.

"HOW COULD YOU!!" I turn my head to confront Avel, only to see the last of her shadows disappear. She is gone.

She is gone, both of my loves are gone. One I thought dead, back but murderous and callous, the other love just budding, taken from me, dead in my arms.

I stand up and grasp the sword of closest dead guard and raise it. Blood covers the front of my dress, and there is a fire in my eyes. "Lock down the castle. No one enters or leaves until I command it. Everyone go to your rooms. The festivities are over, and the investigation will begin in the morning."

The courtiers scurry around me, eager to get out of the room where people were murdered by their former queen right in front of them. They look confused, lost. In them, I see myself.

I had loved Avel with all that I am, all of my being, and even after all this time and everything that has occurred tonight, I still do. I can't help it. But, this crime cannot go unpunished. My thoughts spiral into a confusing mess of questions. I sink to my knees as the last noble leaves the ballroom, and I cry.

"Angel's Choir"

Ragavati Kandiah


 

Huldah, in fact, during that very moment, was holding a mother in her arms and assuring her that she could and would be having a baby soon. Mary protested as nearly every woman before her. She was DONE! She did not want a baby anymore after all, she insisted. “Never mind. I don't want to do this. I'm not doing it!” Huldah knew she was close. She felt Mary’s body trembling and saw the wild and powerful look in her eye. Huldah wiped the sweat from her brow and held a cold washcloth to Mary’s forehead. She sang her the old songs her grandmother had sang to her. The two women moaned together.

 

Huldah’s arms were tired and ached from holding Mary up, but she would never had dared to show it. With the next pain, the young woman dropped to her knees, and Huldah rubbed the low of her back with the ball of her hand. “OOOOH."

 

One of her little ones looked frightened. It seemed like not long before she was welcoming that one into the world. “Get your mamma a cup of water, love.” She knew that putting scared little ones to work usually made them feel a little better. She got Mary’s husband Shane to help prop her up in between her pains. She encouraged him to stay because it seemed like Mary was getting close. Unlike many midwives, she thought it was (usually) better for the husband to stay, unless they were super squeamish, or obnoxious, of course.

 

Mary didn't push for long, not like last time. Her labor, however, was much longer, and the pain in her back was incredible. Huldah had Mary’s oldest daughter keep the water hot for compresses, and she encouraged her to stay on her hands and knees and rock with the pains. She held the compresses on as the baby crowned. The baby was coming almost too quick, so Huldah got Mary to lie on her side. With that shift, and thanks to her compresses, she did not tear. It was always a personal victory when she could keep a mother from tearing. When Huldah’s first child was born the midwife did not make it in time, and she knew how bad a tear could knock you down from her own personal and agonizing experience. It had taken her longer than a month before she could walk normally again after her first son was born. The injury made everything harder, even bonding.

 

Mary and Shane’s baby was fast in coming once the pushing started, but his cord was wrapped around his neck three times, and, though she was able to slip it off fairly easily, he was bluish and weak, and Huldah saw the panic in the Mary’s eyes, a panic she tried not to share in. She rubbed the baby all over his body. “Come on baby.” She mumbled and prayed silently as her hands went to work on his too limp body. The silence was too long, and it was deafening. Shane was trying not to cry, but failing at it. He sat down, and you could see him praying under his breath and through his tears. Mary asked about her baby weakly; Huldah’s heart sank. She did not like the look of him, but she wasn’t one to give up easily. She answered Mary with a forced smile and nod. Huldah took her mouth and put it over baby’s mouth and nose and lightly sucked in a salty slime. She rubbed him and flipped him again and again. She held her composure and tried to look strong and confident, though her stomach felt like it was doing flips inside of her.

 

Then, Huldah heard the softest gurgling. “Come on baby!” she whispered in his ear. His eyes opened wide for a moment, and then came a soft gurgled cry. She sucked more slime out, spitting it into her handkerchief. His cry grew louder, and his coloring started to flush pink. She breathed a deep sigh and placed him gently on his mother’s chest. At last, he cried clear, loud and strong. It was like an angel’s choir, both tremendous and beautiful. Then, with his father’s still shaking hand on his back he settled down.

 

He was baby number five, and the first son in the busy family. Huldah tied a piece of yarn around his cord. A few short minutes later, Mary pushed out an abnormally large but healthy-looking placenta. She was so wrapped up in gratitude for her baby’s every breath that she seemed to be hardly bothered by its delivery. Her bleeding was pretty minimal, and Huldah felt pretty confident that they were through the worst of it now. She would stay with the family an extra day or two just to make sure that he continued to thrive, but she finally allowed herself to earnestly get caught up in the wave of excitement for the littlest man of the house.

 

Truthfully, after the last three births she attended, Huldah needed this win. Sometimes, the best you got was a living mother and child. On the darkest days, you could lose either, and, although she'd only experienced it twice in thirty-three years, God forbid, you could lose both. Midwifery had its terrors, but she quickly shook those thoughts from her head. Instead, she decided to soak in every ounce of the family’s sweet relief.

 

Huldah cleaned everything up and made sure the baby was latching well and mamma had eaten before she fell asleep on her mat next to them on the floor. She had odd dreams that she could not quite remember, but she woke up sweating and in a bit of a panic. That was entirely too normal for her. The kids were already up, though they clumsily tiptoed around the cabin’s squeaky floor trying to be respectful. Mary was tending her little nursling like he had been a part of the family all along. Shane was chopping firewood just outside, and he did so with a deep and jovial whistle.

 

Huldah did a quick check on mamma and baby, who still had not been named, and she made Mary a pot of tea. She would always bring a pinch of this and that from her garden to make into a tea after a birth. She had found several herbs that seemed to boost to a mother’s strength and help with the milk. But no two tea batches were ever the same, the same way no two mothers were. Huldah thought that making medicine was as much about using intuition as it was knowing about the medicine plants that grew around her. Her grandmother had taught her about the medicine plants, and she had taught her own grandchildren in turn.

 

She also cooked up a mess of eggs she had brought from her small farm. Huldah liked to bring eggs to a birth whenever she could. She had some hens that laid beautiful eggs that were deep brown, and, in a strange way those eggs made her feel proud. Mostly, she was proud to be able to share them. She cooked up a big scramble quickly for herself and the family. The baby was strong, the night’s panic had faded, replaced with the light of the morning and the giggles and adoring squeals of the four big sisters welcoming their new brother to the world.

 

Huldah nodded in and out in the rocking chair in the living room. She was a bit anxious to get home as she struggled to get comfortable in the hard wooden chair, but her body commanded that she rest. It was a short walk up the winding dirt road from Mary and Shane’s little cabin, which made her visits pleasant and easy. It was nice to be able to walk to a birth instead of having to bother her son to tack up the horse for her. He would always try to convince her that she was getting too old to ride, but she figured she would be too old when she was dead. She did have a hard time getting up and down these days, though she would never admit it. Huldah felt blessed that her son and his wife had moved in after her husband had died. Minor annoyances aside, they made living on the farm far less lonely, and much more manageable. Issaac had stepped right into his father’s shoes on the farm without batting an eye. Nevertheless, she still didn’t like to ask for much help.

 

Huldah’s son Issaac was her youngest. He was kind and strong, but busy with his new wife Elena. Elena was often sickly and rather demanding of his time. Elena was in the beginning of her first pregnancy. Her exhaustion, mood swings and nausea tended to bring out the worst of her. But Elena was strikingly beautiful, compassionate and quick witted. Most importantly, she loved Issaac wholeheartedly. Huldah would excuse next to anything simply because of the way Elena looked at her son.

 

Issaac had tried to convince Huldah to slow down and let the new doctor in the village take over caring for the mothers, but Huldah never considered it an option. She simply went where she was needed. Issaac didn’t seem to fully understand that the villagers were too poor to afford the doctor, and he would not trade or barter with them like Huldah would. It had never made sense to her to let a mother suffer, or a baby die just because the family was poor, and, that’s just what that new doctor would do. Huldah had nothing but contempt for his kind. She was concerned about what would happen when she could no longer continue.

 

Shane was grateful to Huldah in so many ways. He was certain that his son was doomed, and it was miraculous to him the way she had saved him. He had gone about his morning with an extra bounce in his step. He chopped the wood for the fire, fed the family’s dinner scraps to the pigs, and checked on his sheep that morning. He picked out his strongest lamb, with the best wool to offer to Huldah. When their last daughter Leela had been born, he didn’t have two coins to rub together, let alone a fat little ewe. Huldah never once balked. Instead, she showed up and worked her magic, just as she always had. She was dependable, kind and deeply loved in their village. When she woke, Shane walked Huldah home to help bring the lamb that he offered with great pride. They had named the baby while she slept. They would call him Peter, after Huldah’s beloved husband.

"Out the Window"

Taylor Rodgers


 

Miriam stood in front of her bedroom window, her feet planted firmly on the hardwood floors, which, despite Miriam's trim figure, sunk in where she stood ­– farther than it did in other areas of the house. Her knobby hands roosted with attentive stiffness on the handle of her walker like a bird on its branch. It was a bright, sunny afternoon, and Miriam was inside. She was waiting for someone.

 

Out of her peripheral vision, she saw a figure rush into sight. Miriam shuffled forward, departing from the rut on the floor. Her breath caught in her throat. Every alarm system within her seemed to turn on. Reaching one shaky hand up from her walker, she grasped the bridge of her bifocals and shoved them farther up her nose until her eyelashes brushed against the lenses. Could it be?

 

As quickly as they turned on, her internal sirens shut off. It was a muscular and blonde-haired man. He took no notice of her and jogged past her window. She had seen him before, of course, just as she had seen the next visitor: a red-haired young girl who was struggling to ride her bike. She had memorized everyone in the neighborhood. All she was missing were their names.

 

Hours passed, and so did several other faces; none of them belonged to the people Miriam was awaiting. Accepting momentary defeat, Miriam lowered her gaze to the side table on her right. Leaning against a dingy lamp on the table and caked in a suffocating pool of dust were two photographs. Miriam, leaving one hand clutched on her walker, picked up the first. It was black-and-white and contained the hazy image of a man. Miriam used her thumb to rub off the old fingerprints and dust, but she only smeared the image further. It didn't matter; Miriam already had the picture locked in her mind, fresh as if she had taken it that day. Still holding on to the photograph, Miriam closed her eyes.

 

As soon as her eyelids shut, she was a six-year-old girl in the fifties. She was sitting on the passenger side of a pickup truck and leaning against the door as if hoping it would tumble off and let her out. She was not kept in by the door's lock, which didn’t work, but by her sympathy for her mother, whose nervous gaze constantly shifted from Miriam to the letters crammed into the sun visor over Miriam’s head. Grandpa had fallen ill, and Miriam and her mother had to go to the city to be with him while Miriam’s father stayed behind at the farmhouse. There were too many chores to be done for him not to stay there.

 

Miriam, peering attentively out of the truck’s dirt-speckled window, was looking at the farmhouse now. It was beautiful, a heavenly construction of aged wood and stone. On the house's porch was her father, waving like mad. He was relatively short, fit but not muscular, and still had all of the thousands of rusty-red strands from his youth. Since Miriam had grown up off the dirt road with just her family for company, he was the only equivalent she had to a best friend.

 

Now she was leaving him. Despite the pain and sadness she felt, she could not help but laugh at the goofy grin on his face as he waved her goodbye. Dragging out her camera from the floorboard, she snapped a shot of him before her mother drove away. She didn't really need it. She already knew what her father looked like and always would, but there was a comfort in having it.

 

Opening her eyes, Miriam stood still for a moment and cleared her throat. She set the picture back down on the table, and her fingers brushed against the other photo, which she picked up next. It was newer than the other by a few months. The subject of this photograph was much younger than the man. After taking off her bifocals, which were beginning to slide down her nose, Miriam closed her eyes again.

 

She was back to being six years old, although she was now bordering on seven. She was in a city, a loud and unwanted place, in a room residing somewhere within one of the many towering buildings; she did not care which. She had left the soft grass and cool breezes officially behind, and she now stood upon a scratchy red carpet in front of an air conditioning unit that kept the room no cooler than eighty-five degrees. In front of her was the window. She leaned on the sill and gazed longingly at the busy streets and blinking lights that gave her a headache. She knew it was useless to think that her father was out there. He was still behind at the farmhouse, doing the jobs they had so often done together. However, she could not help picturing that the taxi car she saw stopped at the traffic light was her father returning to her. Perhaps he had put the farmhouse under the care of some relative and moved here, too. Maybe he was actually in the building right across from her, trying desperately to find his wife and daughter so that he could surprise them with his presence.

 

Miriam's mother was in a nearby room with Grandpa. With each hacking cough from his lungs, her mother faintly echoed it back. Although Miriam’s mother was always with him, he was not getting better. So, with nobody to hang out with, Miriam was left by her window to wait for her father.

 

As she stood there, slightly on her tiptoes and close enough to the window that her breath lightly blurred the scene, two people appeared before her, rising above the street on suspended scaffolding. Miriam hurriedly wiped the patch of condensation with her fist for a better look. There was a man, tall, thin, and stringy, with his cleaning gear on and a squeegee in his hand. Miriam had seen the window cleaners before, but this one had brought with him what Miriam could only assume was his daughter. She had long black hair that the wind whisked into her face as she picked absentmindedly at the hem of her pink dress, apparently as bored as Miriam was. Miriam waved at her, and the girl waved back before clasping her hands together as if in prayer. Curious, Miriam copied her, and the girl brought her right hand forward until it just touched the windowpane. Miriam, catching on, reached forward, and the girl drew back her hand and did the same with her left hand. They were playing pattycake.

 

When it looked as if the girl's father had almost finished, Miriam held up her finger and mouthed, "Wait there!" Sprinting into the room where her mother was, Miriam quickly grabbed the camera. She was careful not to spoil her happiness by gazing at her mother and grandfather's tired eyes. She ran back into the room, and, just before the girl's father moved up to the next window, she pointed her camera at the girl and pressed the button on top.

 

Miriam opened her eyes once more. The pictures were taking a toll on her. A tear slid down her cheek, dispersing through the wrinkles to create small rivers on her anguished face. She set the photo down and rested her hand on her walker. The girl had shown up a few more times, but she had stopped coming after her last visit. That day, Miriam and the girl had been playing another round of pattycake. During the game, the girl's father had finished cleaning the window and moved on up. Desperate to continue, the girl had laid down on her stomach on the scaffolding and stretched her arms downward. Miriam had stood up as tall as she could, but it had been no use; the scaffolding had continued to rise higher and higher. With only her legs on the platform, the girl had tried to move an inch further and tumbled off. She had spiraled through the air like a maple seed. Dropping on his knees, the girl's father had tried to save her, but he had lacked the strength. The girl had vanished, lost to the streets below.

 

The tears were flowing heavily now, but so were the memories. After the girl had gone, Miriam had been left with her mother and grandfather. Grandpa had still not improved, and Miriam’s mother had caught his illness. There was no returning to the farmhouse. Her mother and grandfather had put up a good fight while tried to fend off the inevitable, but they had passed after twelve years. Then eighteen, Miriam had returned to the farmhouse to find it up for sale, her father gone. There had been no one to ask about the matter except the barn cats.

 

Miriam did not live in the city anymore; she had moved to the suburbs. She had her own house. She had a window, her companion for sixty-one years. She had the small groove in the floor. One day, she might have her friend and father back.

 

Miriam put back on her bifocals and looked out the window. The sun was going down, and the afternoon was turning into evening. The path lights on the sidewalk's edge flicked on. By their light, Miriam saw more people walking by her window. One was a friendly-looking older man, who reached his hand upward to scratch his rusty hair. Holding onto his other hand was a small girl, striding along beside him in a pink dress. Uprooting herself, Miriam ran as fast as her walker would allow her. By the time she reached the outdoors, the man and girl had covered a considerable distance, but Miriam would not let this stop her. She ran forward, yelling for their attention. Puzzled and slightly scared, the pair paused their walk. Miriam dashed over and stopped in front of them.

 

Miriam adjusted the bifocals on her nose once more, and her heart sunk. These people were not her father and the girl. Their noses were wrong, and their heights were centimeters off. The hair on the man was too red, and the girl's locks were too long. Despite the fact that her eye had always been trained to the window, she had never seen these people before.

 

Wanting desperately to turn back around, to go back to her bedroom once more, Miriam kept herself there. She had called out to them, and they were waiting for her next words. Taking a deep breath, she asked, “Are you new here?”

 

The older man nodded his confirmation. "My grandson just moved me and my wife in today. The name's George Smith." The little girl tugged on George's hand. "And this is Genesis, my grandson’s daughter.”

 

Miriam had to force herself to stay there. She did not want to talk, but she felt that she must continue. Entirely out of her comfort zone, she said, “Well, I’m Miriam.” She paused for a moment. What next?

 

“I would love to have your family over for supper tonight. Welcome you to the neighborhood.” She certainly did not, but it was what her mouth said to make up for her actions.

 

“Of course.”

 

Miriam chose a time and pointed out her house, and the group parted ways. As she walked back home, Miriam looked up at the outer wall of her bedroom. How strange it was to be on the opposite side of the window, to be the one looking in.

 

The meal that night was lovely, although certainly not because of Miriam’s poor cooking. Miriam enjoyed herself immensely, and the dinner seemed to end far too soon. Before the Smiths left, Miriam grabbed her old, barely-functioning camera, which had sat untouched in her closet, and took one more picture with it.

 

After Miriam did the dishes and wiped off the table, she walked into her bedroom. The picture from that night was in her hand. She went over to the side table, bent down, and laid the photo down amongst the others. On it was George, his red hair turned gray by the camera, along with his wife, Eleanor, and little Genesis. As Miriam straightened herself, she turned involuntarily to the window; it begged for her attention like a spoiled dog. Maybe her father and the girl were out there, and maybe they were not, but she knew where the Smiths were. They had given her their address and phone number before they walked out the door. Who knew how many others were out there waiting to be met and not just seen. Mind made up, Miriam moved her veiny hand forward, grabbed the old, lacey curtains, and shut them tight.

"Raised by Wolves"

Gregory Chase Starkey


Once, many years ago, I was a ten-year-old werewolf. So was Tori. I first met her at the bus stop on the morning of our first day of sixth grade. In the short-sleeved dress and tights Momma had picked out for my first day, I was shivering, partly from the nervousness of starting a new school and partly from the morning cold. We had only moved to town from Florida a week before, and Mom still hadn’t grown accustomed to how chilly the early mornings can get here.

 

“Here,” someone said excitedly.

 

I looked in the direction the voice came from and saw a tall, red-haired girl with bright green eyes offering her jacket to me. The sun had started to rise; its light peaking between the trees behind her in thin slats made her short, messy, pixie-like hair glow like a halo around her smiling face and highlighted a small twig that was sticking out of it.

 

“W-won’t you be cold?” I said.

 

“Wolves don’t get cold,” She said, smiling widely, “I’m Tori.”

 

“Ansley,” I replied, a little confused, “What did y-“

 

Before I could ask what she meant by that, the school bus pulled up. She grabbed me by the arm and yanked me into the seat next to her as the handful of other kids from our apartments sleepily found their way to their own spots.  While everyone else seemed to still be wiping away the sleep from their eyes, Tori’s were wide and bright and alert, as if she had already been up for hours.

 

“Do you know about the woods over the hill behind the apartments?” she suddenly asked.

 

“Uh… No. I haven’t really gotten out of the house since we moved in –“

 

“Oh, they’re fantastic!” she roared, “I go every day after school. And, at night,” her boisterous voice lowered to a whisper as if she were giving away some dark secret, “I go there to change into my wolf-form.”

 

“Your wolf… form?” I asked, even more confused.

 

“Yeah,” she said, “I’m a werewolf, you know.”

 

Tori told me how her mom worked overnights at the carpet mill and how on nights when the sky was clear and the moon shone brightly, she would crawl out of her bedroom window, climb the hill behind the building and transform into a wolf to explore the forest.

 

“The woods get bigger at night,” she continued ecstatically, “and more enchanted. There’s a waterfall that empties into this big pool that’s perfect for swimming, and the fallen trees are great for climbing and playing on! I’ll take you up there after school today! It’s not as cool as at night, but I know you’ll still love it!”

 

Her words struck me as more of a statement of purpose than a genuine question, and I couldn’t think of an excuse not to go so, I said, “Sure.”

 

After school, Tori took me up the hill to the forest. I was overwhelmed. I had never seen so many trees in one place. Florida didn’t have much in the way of woods, and nothing that compared to this. The dense canopy and undergrowth seemed to shake with life and shaded mystery.

 

“C’mon!” called Tori. She had dropped her bookbag at the tree line and was already sprinting headlong into the forest. Not wanting to be left behind, I quickly followed suit. Soon, we were vaulting over fallen trees and chasing each other through thick underbrush. Occasionally, Tori would let loose a guttural, primal howl that shook the leaves loose from the branches, rebounded from bark to bark, and stirred the wind to carry it across the wilderness until it seemed the whole woods were howling with her. It was magic. She was magic.

 

I came home with torn stockings and mud-caked mary-janes. Momma was furious, but I couldn’t care less.

 

“Whaddaya think you’re doing?! Trackin’ mud into the new house?! And, look at the tights I just bought! Comin’ in here like some wild child! Do you think you were raised by wolves?”

 

“No ma’am,” I said to her, my head down, hiding the grin I couldn’t manage to wipe off.

 

 “But I want to be,” I said to myself.

"Howling into the Wind"

Gregory Chase Starkey


 

It had already been a year since Tori told me of her nighttime transformations. A year of woodland exploration, torn stockings, muddy shoes, and lectures from Mama about not acting ladylike. It took a month of ruined shoes before mom finally broke down and bought me some boots and another half a year of brushing tangles and twigs out of my hair before she let me get it cut short.

 

“I’m about tired of that heathen child filling your head with nonsense. What happened to my little Ansley that would let me dress her up and braid her hair? Everyday you look more like that hooligan than the proper little girl I raised you to be.”

 

“I’m almost twelve, Mom. I’m not a little girl anymore.” I said as I was lacing up my boots.

 

“Jeez! Don’t I know it. You’re more wolf than girl nowadays!” She called out to me through the already closing front door. Her words made me smile. If only she knew. I hadn’t told Mama about Tori’s transformations. She already thought that Tori had an “unhealthy influence” on me, and I didn’t need to give Mama any more reason to hate her than she already had.

 

The truth is, though, Tori was having an effect on me and not just in how I dressed. When I was with her, I felt alive. I felt like I was me. Not what Mama wanted me to be, but what I wanted. I had begun dreaming about her most nights.  In my dreams, I would see her slink from her bedroom window and climb the hill on all fours. At the top, she would remove her night dress and walk naked into the forest. I would follow her inside in secret. I would find her in the clearing where we often rested in between our bouts of play, see the moonlight shimmering silver against her bare, pale, dirt-covered, sweat-glistened skin, and watch as she threw her head back in that wind-calling howl that she showed me that first magical afternoon. When she would finish, the transformation would be complete and where she once stood there would be a magnificent, red-maned she-wolf. Then, she’d turn and look at me with her huge green glowing eyes as if she always knew I was there. As if she were waiting for me. She would take a step toward me. Then, I would wake up drenched in sweat and with a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach.

 

As I topped the hill behind the complex that led to our woods, I saw Tori already waiting for me at the tree line.

 

“Took ya long enough.”

 

“Sorry, dealing with mom. You know how it is.”

 

“Sure,” she said with a shrug. Tori’s mom worked nights at the mill and would sleep through most of the day. Tori told me she didn’t mind though because it meant that she could go out on her wolf-nights without any trouble.

 

“Ready to go?” She asked.

 

Later, after we had exhausted ourselves, we laid in our clearing side-by-side and watched the evening sunlight filter through the leaves as the moon began an early summer ascent. Tori had just finished telling me about her latest wolf-night swimming in the waterfall pool that only revealed itself to wolves. The ever-present twig stuck in her hair buoyed in her red waves with every ecstatic declaration she gave.

 

“Can I become a wolf?” The twig stopped.

 

She raised an eyebrow, “You really want to?”

 

I sat up. “Yes. Whatever it takes.”

 

Tori stayed laid out on the ground, her eyes closed and her hands behind her head. “Whatever it takes, huh? It’s really easy, actually. I just have to bite you.”

 

“Bite me?” My heart jumped.

 

“Hard.”

 

“How hard?”

 

“Well…” she thought for a moment. “It’s not really a science but hard enough to draw blood.”

 

“Blood?”

 

“Scared?”

 

“No! But…  why do I have to bleed?”

 

“It’s got to get into your system somehow. That’s just how it’s done. I won’t bite too hard.”

 

I sat in thought for a moment. “Promise?”

 

She opened her sage green eyes. Eyes the color of forest, speckled with brown like the leaf-caked floor she was raising herself up from. She brought her face close to mine and looked directly into my eyes. “I promise.”

 

There was a silence. Our eyes never broke from each other’s. “Alright. My arm then.” I said as I raised my sleeve.

 

I could feel Tori’s breath warm against my bare arm. I felt a cold sweat drip from the back of my neck. Tori must have sensed this and paused for a moment. I swallowed and returned a determined, if nervous, nod. Tori’s mouth stretched open. I saw a glint of her canine before it sank into the soft flesh in front of my elbow pocket. Her jaw clamped down. There was a terrible pain: a sharp pinch until at last the skin gave way then white heat as I began to feel a definite drip of wet trail itself down my arm. Tori pulled away, satisfied. I saw a bead of red drip from the corner of her cocky smile. As it trailed its way down to her chin, her expression changed: dropping with the blood.

 

“You’re so pale.” She began to get fuzzy. The trees spun.

 

“Are you alright?” I looked down to my arm. red trickling down my now alabaster skin. I watched a droplet suspended in air. 

 

“Ansley!” I heard Tori as if she were from a distance. The droplet hit the ground. So did I.

 

Then. Darkness.

 

I came to on the living room couch in the apartment. A red-spotted cloth bandage was haphazardly wrapped around my forearm.  I heard screaming coming from outside.

 

“Don’t you dare talk to my daughter like that!”

 

Still a bit fuzzy, I walked out the front door that led to the breezeway between the suites. My mother’s shrill screech reverberated off the brick walls and cracked doors as curious neighbors poked their heads out to listen in on the latest spectacle. On the sidewalk in front of the apartment, my mother, in full curlers and muumuu, was screaming at another equally furious woman I had never seen before. She wore a blue jumpsuit and work boots; behind her was a very concerned looking Tori. I caught her eye, but she quickly looked away. 

 

“Just because you’ve raised your daughter to be an animal doesn’t give her the right to make mine one.”

 

“What did you just call her?”

 

“A beast. Ansley is on that couch, paler-than-death, covered in muck, with a bleeding bite wound after your daughter drug her out of those god-forsaken woods she keeps draggin’ her into, makin’ her do god-knows-what inside of. I’ve had it up to here with it. You keep your rabid daughter away from mine, or I’ll make sure the police know about this assault.”

 

“Assault?! They were playing in the woods! Accidents happen!”

 

“Accident? There’s blood on her chin. What accident? That little freak tried to take a chunk out of my baby.”

 

“Momma! No, please, it wasn’t Tori’s f-“

 

“Get in the house, Ansley.”

 

“But Mo-“

 

“GET IN THE GOD-DAMNED HOUSE!”

 

I ran back inside: crying, furious, embarrassed. I threw myself into my bed and under the covers. A few minutes later, I heard the front door slam and shake the building. Shortly after, my bedroom door flew open.

 

“Lemme see your arm.” She grabbed it and unwrapped the bandages. The bleeding had stopped; there was a crimson crescent across my forearm. Momma kept hold of my arm. Staring at what would become a permanent scar.

 

“If that girl so much as breathes on you, I will have the cops over here so fast her butchy mother’s head’ll spin. I better not ever catch you talking to that girl or even think about going out into those woods again.”

 

“But, Momma-“

 

“No buts. She has filled your head with all kinds of nonsense for the last year and now you get brought home unconscious and bloody? Not in my house. When you get home from school tomorrow, you’re to come in, do your homework, your chores watch some tv for crissake. D’you understand?”

          

 I yanked away my arm and wordlessly turned and threw the blanket over my head. She sighed.

 

“What has gotten into you?” I heard the door close. Outside the window, the moon had risen high. Tomorrow would be a full moon.

 

That morning, the bus was full of whispers. The walls between the apartments were thin, and words had a way of filtering through from suite to suite, family to family. Our moms’ words had blown holes through them. 

 

Away from mom’s sight, I took my usual seat next to Tori. She shifted to the side to let me in but kept her head down and towards the window. I didn’t know what to say. I’m not sure how long I was out or how long momma railed into her before her mother saw. I wish I could have defended her. I wish I wouldn’t have fainted. God, how embarrassing. Wolves don’t just faint at the sight of blood. Maybe I just wasn’t as wolf-like as my mother thought. As I wanted to be. I just couldn’t figure out how to start. Before I knew it, we were already at school, and kids began to file off. Tori stood up and sidled by me. She handed me a piece of folded paper and kept walking.

 

In homeroom, I unfolded the note:

Dear Ans,

I’m so sorry I made you pass out. I understand if you never want to see me again after that, or if I’ve made your mom hate you because of me. I really didn’t mean to hurt you that bad. But, if you can forgive me and you still want to be a wolf, we have one last chance before your mom makes us stay away forever. It’s the full moon. Meet me at our spot, tonight. If you’re not there, I’ll get the message.

Love,

Tori

 

The rest of the day was like a daydream. Tori still thought I could be a wolf. My mother be damned. I would be a wolf. I would sneak out my window like I had seen Tori do so many times in my sleep. Nothing she could do could stop me.

 

Near the end of my last class, I was called to the front office. When I got there, my mother was waiting for me.

 

“I’m taking you to your grandmother’s for the weekend.”

 

“What?’

 

“I don’t wanna hear it, miss. You haven’t seen her in ages, and you need to get away from the house and from whatever evil hold that little heathen has on you. Now, be a good little girl and get in the car. Now.”

 

Defeated. I walked to the back of the car. Momma lit a cigarette and cranked it.

 

“This’ll be fun. You’ll forget all about her, and we can get back to how things used to be. We’ll stop and get some new dresses on the way. Can’t bring you to Grandma Jo’s in those tattered things. She’d die.”

 

The weekend passed. Grandma Jo had more than her fair share of things to say about my new look. I couldn’t care less; I was worried about Tori. I hoped she would understand if I explained things to her on Monday at school. Maybe we could sneak out the next full moon. Try again. I’m sure she’d understand. She always understood.

 

When we got home Sunday night, there were police cruisers in the parking lot. At the top of the hill before the woods, I could barely make out the silhouettes of officers shining flashlights into the treeline. Another officer was talking to Tori’s mom. She wasn’t in her jumpsuit. Her hair was a mess, and her makeup had been smeared down her cheeks in streaks.

 

“Go to the house, Ansley.” Mom got out of the car and started walking toward Tori’s before an officer called her aside and began to question her. I started towards them when mom looked sternly at me, pointed toward the apartment and said “House.”

 

Twenty minutes later, I was sitting on the couch, starring out the window toward the hilltop. Mom came in the front door.

 

“We need to talk, honey.”

 

Apparently, Tori’s mom had come home from work Saturday morning and went straight to bed. When she woke up that afternoon, she went to go grab some laundry from Tori’s bedroom and saw her window open with no sign of her nightclothes and Tori’s clothes she had laid out for Saturday morning still folded on the bed where she had left them. She called the police who found tracks leading into the forest from her window. After, I had gone inside, one of the officers came up with a small torn silk nightie in his hand. Her mother confirmed it was hers. It had been nearly two days. They say it doesn’t look good.

 

“I’m so sorry, honey.”

 

Time stopped and sped up simultaneously. I looked out toward the moon and saw it wane. After a week of dedicated search, the police called it off. The woods went back far and deep. The official presumption was that she had fallen into some underground basin.  The limestone under the soil of the mountains was porous and the ground could sometimes give way to large underground caverns and aquifers. Campers went missing regularly enough; it was probable some underdressed girl would likewise fall into one on a dark night. After the moon had waxed again, there was a memorial service. Another cycle later, there was a moving van outside Tori’s house. In another, there would be one in front of ours. Seemingly innumerable, infinite moons later, I was 25.

 

I’d been working for the FWS for a few years after getting my Eco degree. I was a researcher who conducted environmental impact studies: industrial pollution, soil erosion from developments, that sort of thing. Trained specialists were slim and so I traveled from job to job as I was needed, conducting a test then moving on. I had gotten used to constantly moving as a kid, so the travel suited me just fine. Never really set down any roots anyway.

 

I had been sent on assignment back down to the old town. The town where I first discovered my love of the forest. I was analyzing factory runoff from the carpet mill’s dye house that was affecting local water table pH-levels after a recent flood from one of the mountain rivers. After a day of sampling groundwater wells, I was driving back to my hotel for the night. I noticed the old apartment complex. Behind the rooftops, I could see the canopy of the woods. Above the jagged, pointed tops of ash and the rounded heights of the walnuts, the moon shone full, bright, beckoning. I was overcome with a sudden urge to stop. To go one last time to those magical woods. To weave through its labyrinth of fallen trees. To roll once more down the sudden drops that would snatch your foot and drag you downward if you weren’t sure of where they were. To hear her howl again. I shook myself.

 

Before I realized, I had pulled into the lot, gotten out of my car, and walked to the base of the hillside. I could see my breath and pulled my leather jacket tighter around me as I began the trek up the hill. The moon refused to fall below the canopy, guiding me to the forest’s edge. I stopped at the line, gazing into the mist shrouded woods. Breathing deep, I stepped through the threshold.

 

I trod our old trails, grown over with weed and tanglevine, felled trees where rot gave way to life, obscured and hidden, but a wolf remembers her paths. My legs found the old ways under the forest fog when my eyes could not. After what could have been a lifetime, I found our grove. Silver moonbeams pierced the canopy. The fog glowed and shimmered in the light and night dew. There in the center, where I was once bitten, the ground had given way. A small stream had formed from the flood and was steadily draining in sparkling droplets into the infinite black abyss below. I stood at its lip and wondered if something like this was what took Tori. Swallowed by the earth, consumed by the forest. Suddenly overcome, I threw my head to the moon. From deep inside me something was building. Rolling in my stomach. Fighting its way up. Shaking and rattling up my throat and out of my maw. A howl to reach the moon. Long, mournful, like a possessing spirit exorcised. A howl that buckled my knees. As it left me, I began to cry, my legs gave way, and I fell to my knees. I stayed there, silently weeping in a silent forest. It was as if the howl took all the sound I had in me and the forest had in it and released it in one go, leaving a vacuum of silence and stillness.

 

Then, the wind began to blow, softly but steadily increasing. The mist began to shift and spread. It formed a wave of vapor and leaves that washed over my crumpled mass in a baptism of sound. A howl. A howl that called the wind and shook the trees. That lingered in the air and bobbed in the gale like a twig caught in a girl’s hair. My arm began to tingle. I ripped off my jacket and it fell into the chasm. I traced the silver crescent on my forearm with my finger. The howl ceased. The wind died down. Slowly, after a time, I picked myself up from the forest floor, took one last look at our clearing, the waterfall, the moon, turned and headed back to my car. It wasn’t until I had left the tree line and was making my way down the hill that I noticed my jacket was missing. I shrugged. After all, wolves don’t get cold.

"59 Kellerhals Lane"

Kelly Edmondson


 

 59 Kellerhals Lane was a euphoric place for many children in the early 2000s; however, I never experienced it, seeing as I grew up in Perry Hall, Maryland. Winner’s Circle closed in the winter of 2020. Many of my friends in college mourned its loss and the closing of a beloved childhood establishment. I met Lisa while walking in my Fort Oglethorpe neighborhood. We hit it off immediately.

 

 

Lisa loved exploring abandoned buildings and had a strong interest in local history. After the news of Winner’s Circle’s closing, I asked Lisa about exploring the abandoned building. When she declined, I was surprised; all we had talked about was her love for history and abandoned buildings, as well as her nostalgic ties to the beloved childhood arcade. She constantly reminisced about her love for the laser tag obstacle course. She and her brother had spent many hours playing against each other.

 

 

“I didn’t know you had a brother?” She had never talked about him before.

 

 

“Yeah, Red,” she hesitated, “he died in an accident.”

 

 

“Oh, wow, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bring it up I just-”

 

 

“No, really, it’s okay,” she said. “You didn’t know.”

 

 

After that, I dropped the conversation entirely until February of 2021, the anniversary of the death of the beloved childhood entertainment center. I realize I shouldn’t have brought it back up, but something so intriguing about 59 Kellerhals, so I asked Lisa about exploring the building.

 

 

“Sure,” she said without any hesitation.

 

 

I called Lisa the night of February 14th, 2021, to ensure she was ready to go. Since it was Valentine’s Day, I thought it would be the perfect first date for us, seeing as we had been slowly growing closer. We met outside of the old Winner’s Circle at 10:00 pm.

 

 

The frigid air was biting at my face while I awaited Lisa’s arrival. I heard a jingling from around the corner and hunkered down behind an air conditioning unit, waiting to be discovered by a security guard.

 

 

“Max?” Lisa called out.

 

 

I emerged from behind the unit, “where did you get those?” The keys shone in the beams of the streetlight.

 

 

“Secret,” she smirked. Lisa inserted the key and let us into the building. “

 

 

Wow, I cannot believe it’s all still here,” I whispered. I walked past Whack-A-Mole and onto the prize counter.

 

 

 “I always wanted the huge SpongeBob plush,” Lisa laughed.

 

 

“I smell smoke. Where is it coming from?” I asked.

 

 

“Probably remnants from the fire,” Lisa stated matter-of-factly.

 

 

“Fire?”

 

 

“Yeah, that’s why they shut this place down,” retorted Lisa.

 

 

“Couldn’t they have just repaired the damage?”

 

 

“Well, they wanted to,” replied Lisa, “but five children died in the laser tag maze. It has so many twists and turns the kids couldn’t find their way out in time.”

 

 

I stared at her dumbly.

 

 

“They all died of smoke inhalation. Red was one of them.” It all clicked at that moment, Lisa’s obsession with local history and her reluctance to come to Winner’s Circle again.

 

 

“Lisa,” I gaped, “I should have never brought you here.”

 

 

“No. I wanted to come with you.”

 

 

I stared at her, trying to read her expression, when something caught my eye. The coin-push machine was still full of gold tokens and plastic chips, many of which were on the edge. “If only it were still working,” I laughed and turned to look at Lisa, who was no longer behind me. A slight panic filled my body when I noticed she was gone.

The laser tag room. She must have gone to find where her brother last was. I jogged to the back of the building, where the words Laser Tag Arena shone in neon spray paint. I cautiously walked down the narrow hallway. Laser tag guns and vests slid past me as I pushed past them.

 

 

“Lisa? Lisa, where are you?” I called out. The narrow hallway opened into a giant room of obstacle courses and raised walkways. “Lisa?” I called out again. The smell of the old smoke burned my nose. I turned around to walk back out when I heard a giggle from the overhead walkway. “Lisa, come on, let’s go check out the old bumper cars.” “Lisa?” I decided to march up the ramp that led to the top level when I heard footsteps to my left. Walking over to where I heard the sound, I noticed an arched entryway. I walked through and to my relief, I found Lisa on the other side. “Lisa, what have you been doing? I’ve been calling your name forever.”

 

 

“Come here,” she responded and ducked behind another corner. Walking around the wall, I could see Lisa with a young boy at her side.

 

 

“Lisa? Who-” I was cut off by four other children, of roughly the same age as the boy, stepping out into view. At that moment, the smell of smoke became overwhelming. I dropped to the floor and started coughing. “Lisa, let’s go, please.”

 

 

“Max, stay with me,” Lisa begged.

 

 

“What do you mean stay with you? You’ll die in this smoke. Let’s go.” I was caught off guard by the wide grin that was now on her face.

 

 

“Max,” she laughed, “You can’t die when you aren’t even alive.” I stared at her now expressionless face. I got up and began to back away when she charged at me. I fell back onto one of the makeshift walls; suddenly, my body dropped all the way to the lower floor.

 

 

I woke up in a hospital room surrounded by my family, who had reported me missing three hours ago. A neighbor had told the police she had seen a young man walking into the abandoned building alone at 10:00 pm that night. The doctors said I was lucky to have survived the fall with minimal injuries. I just think I was fortunate to have escaped 59 Kellerhals alive at all.

"Shade's Revenge"

Brittany Spiess


 

Chapter 1 Late Nights

        

Callie Night frowned as she looked at her laptop screen. It was hooked up to the camera system, ten security cameras all set to night vision, and she was focused on a strange orb that had appeared on Camera 7. Camera 7 was positioned at the end of Hall 300; it captured the whole of the hall. Callie paused the image and rewound the footage until she found what she was looking for. A small glowing orb the size of a quarter could be seen floating back and forth for several moments before coming towards the camera and suddenly disappearing. The experienced investigator studied the footage for several minutes, making sure she wasn’t mistaking a bug for paranormal activity. Even though she knew it was her target, she also recorded the temperature in the area around the time of the orb’s appearance, it was barely above freezing. She noted, with a hint of annoyance, that the orb appeared to be dancing in front of the camera as if to taunt her.

Callie nodded in satisfaction about the paranormal activity then grabbed her portable camera, a flashlight, and her Shades. “You better show yourself this time,” she muttered under her breath as she fast walked towards 300 Hall. She had been investigating this location for nearly five hours, and she was extremely tired and irritated because her not- so- human target hadn’t yet manifested. If the spirit didn’t reveal its corporeal self soon, she would be forced to leave the location to further possible spiritual attacks. And if the young Hunter was right, this spirit was a highly dangerous one that could inflict serious harm on the living, and she refused to let it wander free. “Come on,” Callie muttered irritably as she panned the camera around to film behind her, “do something already. You know you want to.” The experienced Hunter had been taught to rely on both her hearing and touch when she was shrouded in darkness. Callie and her twin sister, Kathy, had been raised by parents who believed in the supernatural and had made a living by capturing the more aggressive spirits that tortured the living and educating the public on paranormal events.

Joshua and Sandra Night had begun investigating paranormal activity while in college and eventually designed their own technology and techniques for hunting the restless dead. Night Hunting became a popular company that trained young adults to catch the supernatural and recognize an undead presence in any building or area. Joshua and Sandra Night had trained many people of all ages during their twenty- three years of business, they’d also been called to many locations for a clean out and been invited to explain the concept of hunting on late night talk shows. Callie and her twin had been groomed into this life at a young age, growing up watching their parents and uncle battle what many believed to be nothing more than campfire stories.

After a tragedy struck the Night family, Night Hunting was shut down and Kathy and the uncle began to break away from both paranormal technology and hunting altogether. Except for Callie, she had continued to accept calls and e-mails from homeowners and business managers desperate for a clear out. She had single handedly helped hundreds of thousands of people remove ghosts from their properties, risking her life to take out the roaming, stubborn dead. Her twin had once been by her side on the hunts, but she too gave up the life for something more “normal”.

Callie snorted as she remembered the conversation with her sister about the decision. “Ghost hunting was a life our parents chose for us; we didn’t get a say in it. I’m going to do something normal, something that involves living people. For once I’m going to do something for me. If you go, you go alone. I’m not going to chase after these fairytales and tall stories any longer.” Although she didn’t feel as safe going alone, Callie refused to give up on the life that her parents had impressed upon her. She knew her twin had given up Hunting because of their parents’ death, it had traumatized and scared her to the point where she wouldn’t even talk about ghosts. Luckily, her uncle had been willing to give her advice as she traveled around answering calls of the distressed living who were haunted by the dead. The old man was too crippled by arthritis to truly Hunt, but he had impressed his knowledge upon his eager, young pupil up until his death from a stroke at 67.

There it was! A human shaped shadow darted past her left shoulder so quickly that she’d almost missed it, but her eyes had learned to discover the darker shadows in the all-consuming blackness of night. She hurried back down the hall and headed to her makeshift base camp in the security room. Callie exchanged her night vision camera for a pair of Shades; she attached her Shades to her vest then felt in her back pocket for the backup pair that she always had handy. It had been years since she’d handled a case without her Shades, and she’d almost died because of it.

Shades were a pair of sunglasses infused with a gem or jewel which had been forged in equal parts alchemy and science. While wearing them, the user could spot traces of paranormal activity or track a spirit even while it was invisible. Callie’s parents had taken the process one step further by making it possible to also predict a paranormal attack before it happened. Callie had a private business with a partner who specialized in not only creating Shades, but also certain types of weapons also infused with gems. The pair had learned that only four types of gems were pure enough and stable enough to meet their expectations: ruby, sapphire, emerald, and topaz. The young Hunter and her partner had fused the four gems into the blade of four throwing knives, which she had also brought with her to this Hunt. Each gem was able to vanquish one type of spirit, and in certain combinations it could deal with a stronger, more rare type of ghost. Thankfully, Callie was positive her opponent was a common one, although she had taken the other three Shades and knives as precaution. 

The principal of the middle school had begged her to help make the school safe again for her staff and students. Everyone was terrified of a dark entity that haunted the halls and many students and teachers were considering leaving the establishment. Worried teachers reported seeing dark shadows dart past their classroom doors, students were pushed or scratched by invisible forces, and books simultaneously burst into flame in the library at night. Although most of these recorded attacks and other mysterious events had occurred during the day, the Night hunter had decided she would try to capture the ghost at night. It was common knowledge that the supernatural became more active and visible at nighttime, researchers believed that daylight weakened their ethereal forms which was why daytime attacks were less violent and frequent. One fact all Hunters agreed on was that spirits drew their power from people or electrical fields, mainly camera and flashlight batteries.

Callie had known from the instant she heard about these violent occurrences that the school was dealing with an Aggressor, a violent ghost that was difficult to catch and banish alone. She would need to take extra precautions to destroy it without hurting herself or damaging the school. From extensive research at the town library, Callie was able to determine that the Aggressor in this school was a former gangster from the 1930’s. Charlie Froth had been betrayed by his gang and buried alive under a concrete foundation, the very foundation that the current middle school had been built on in the 1980’s. Apparently, he was still pissed about the betrayal and possibly believed that the teachers and students were somehow behind his untimely death. Night considered the idea that he thought it was still the 1930s and hadn’t truly realized he was dead, although she wasn’t going to bet on that theory. Aggressors were just as mean and violent as they had been in life, and most of them were very much aware of the time as well as their surroundings.

People who died violent or unexplained deaths made up most of the spirits that roamed today, a third of those were children under the age of twelve. A small percentage turned violent while a far greater number were simply lost souls that didn’t know they were dead or had unfinished business in the mortal world. Callie knew she wouldn’t be able to reason with Charlie like she could others. He didn’t want to find the Light, or the afterlife as many people called it, he just wanted to make life miserable for the living. She reached Hall 300 and checked the security camera set up in a corner, the battery was dead even though it had been changed out less than an hour ago. He’s here, she concluded. Charlie was preparing to change from his Shadow form to the more violent Aggressor.

The Hunter removed her Green Shades from their pouch and slipped them over her sea blue eyes. She carried four different Shades in four different colors, one color to banish and destroy one species of ghost. Red was for Aggressors, the ghosts that were extremely violent and aggressive towards the living. Today’s generation call them demons. Blue was for Poltergeists, the ones who threw objects or moved them around. Poltergeists are the most common type of spirit that Hunters are asked to vanquish.

Yellow was for Echoes, the spirits that generally appeared only as sound waves. The sounds usually involved crying, phrases, or echoes of pain that reflected the last moments of a life taken. And these technically weren’t ghosts so much as the last sound memory of a tortured spirit. Green was the Shadows, the nonviolent spirits that appeared as a shadow figure or a translucent person. These were the most common type of ghost encountered by people, and the spirits were usually left alone since they were simply shadow memories.

Shades had kept Callie alive during her many investigations because they had been infused with the power of Paranormal Gems (gems that had been modified by magic and science to help fight the supernatural): ruby, emerald, topaz, and opal. Callie would have felt better solving this case with the assistance of another experienced investigator, but Kathy hadn’t done investigations in seven years and there was no one close enough to the middle school to help Callie.

Even if there was, she probably would refuse their help or give them a minor task that involved watching the security cameras from a locked room. Not every Hunter had access to Shades or Paranormal Gems, and not everyone lucky enough to get their hands on a Gem or Shade knew how to use the tools of their trade properly and effectively. Creating the tools was a complicated, long process that required pure gems and a skilled scientist who also specialized in magic. They sold Gems and Shades from home and often charged ridiculous prices.

Callie, however, was willing to pay the high prices to keep up Hunting and for protection. She had Hunted with her mom and dad; they had started training her from a young age and allowed her to watch them work. Kathy had preferred to stay home with their aging uncle, paging through old books and looking up newspaper articles on the Internet. The twins, ironically, had rarely gone on Hunts together with their parents. Often the Hunter couple would bring one child at a time to their investigations, for safety they always said.

Hunter blood ran strong and pure in her father’s bloodline. Many ancestors had been Hunting the supernatural and paranormal as far back as the 1500’s. Hunter was the term used for paranormal researchers and defenders who attempted to send ghosts to the other side, they dedicated their lives to helping the dead understand their situation and find peace. A limited percentage of Hunters have what is known as “Fifth Sense.” Fifth Sense can give users enhanced hearing or sight, speed or strength, telepathy, or even the ability to heal minor wounds.

Joshua and Sandra had had Fifth Sense abilities, and so did their daughters, the children supposedly had stronger abilities than their parents which had begun to develop when they were eight years old. The parents had been able to heal minor wounds, increase their speed and strength, and communicate by telepathy. Callie could temporarily become invulnerable to injury, for three minutes, and had enhanced hearing and touch. Kathy had enhanced smell and psychic abilities that allowed her to see into the future for a few brief moments, allowing for a better chance of dodging attacks. The Night family was famous in Hunting circles for their many Hunts and their Fifth Sense abilities, a family of many accomplishments.

The twins had developed reputations of their own, which, arguably, surpassed even that of Joshua and Sandra. At age ten, Callie vanquished a Poltergeist and saved Kathy from being crushed to death by an air conditioner unit. At eleven, she had helped Uncle Fran stop a vicious Aggressor after her father was thrown down a flight of stairs. At thirteen, she and Kathy had almost leveled a factory while tracking down a group of Aggressors who had been murdered by their boss during a worker riot. At nineteen she forged her own Paranormal Gem and used it successfully to subdue a Shadow. Unfortunately, she had never been able to recreate the mixture again and now relied on a personal inventor who specialized in Shades and Paranormal Gems.

“Charlie,” Callie taunted, “come out and play with me. I’ve heard so many stories of your deeds and honestly; I don’t believe any of them. I think you’re a weakling and a coward hiding in the darkness. Show me your true power.” She waited several minutes, watching for changes in the temperature and the area around her. Nothing, Charlie wasn’t near her. Either he was hiding, or he was waiting for an opportunity to attack her. But Callie wouldn’t fall for his games, she’d been hunting far too long to be outdone by a gangster. She walked around the hall for several minutes, scanning the darkness in Green then checking with Red. The Hunter was quite sure he had not yet become an Aggressor, but she still felt safer checking the area with both colors.

She immediately saw traces of Charlie on the lockers to her left, but the traces were several hours old. “Get your ass out here and man up.” Callie began her second tactic: aggression and intimidation. Again, she alternated between Green and Red as she walked up and down the hall. Her well trained ears were open for abnormal sounds, anything that would indicate Charlie’s transformation. It grew colder, she could see her breath and goose bumps were forming on her arms. All in preparation, it seemed, for Charlie’s arrival.

There was a slight breeze ruffling her mouse brown hair, which was strange because all the doors and windows were locked and the power to the school had been shut off before her arrival. Callie immediately armed herself with a dagger made of Rubies and stood with her legs apart, back straight, arms spread out at her sides and head cocked slightly. “You’ve got a lot of nerve talking smack to me,” a disembodied voice echoed around her as the temperature continued to plummet. Callie grinned, “I tend to do that to all cowardly gangsters when they hurt people, especially children.

“So why don’t you show yourself and face me?” Her breath came out in a white mist. Her Shades began tracking a black mist forming just a few inches in front of her, Charlie was beginning to manifest. After a few moments, the mist took the shape of a translucent young man wearing dress pants and shirt, which were covered in blood and dirt. The right side of his face was decaying, and the blackened flesh of his cheek was peeling away from an entrance wound roughly the size of a dime.

“I heard you got betrayed by your own gang,” she said, egging on the anger, “looking for a little revenge?” Charlie furrowed his eyes, “I got revenge on them long ago. Now, I’m just looking to scare a couple of kids.” Now the hunter knew for sure that Charlie was aware of his surroundings as well as the time. A small percentage of the dead were convinced that time had halted after their passing while others didn’t even realize they were dead.

Night took a small step back and positioned her dagger at a slight angle, “well unfortunately for you that won’t last long. I’ve been called out to destroy you so the teachers and students of this establishment can get on with their lives. So, unless you decided to go the Light in peace…” Charlie’s eyes darkened with bitter anger, “peace? I was murdered by my own guys for crying out loud. I wasn’t given a proper burial and they never sent the lowlife thugs to jail! Those bastards got off scotch free while I was forgotten and left to rot, buried under a concrete foundation. Hell, no I’m not going peacefully!!” Callie frowned then shrugged, “guess that leaves me no choice.”

She placed one foot back and threw the dagger at Charlie’s head, she dropped into a crouch and watched the dagger flip end over end. The gangster gave her a cocky grin right before disappearing, mere seconds before the enhanced Rubies hit his transparent face. The dagger hit the ground and slid across the floor. “I hate when they do that,” she said to herself as she got to her feet and began looking around with her Shades. Frost was forming on the walls and the floor; her breath came out as a fog and the hair on her arms was standing up. “Come out and fight you coward,” she called out. Without warning, a fire extinguisher was ripped off the wall and hurled towards her.

Although Callie’s enhanced speed normally helped her dodge physical attacks, the edge of the hose had caught her just under the rib cage on the left side. She gasped in pain and curled up into a ball until the wave of pain passed and her vision cleared, the fire extinguisher rolled to a halt against the lockers. “Damn,” the Hunter muttered angrily, “I should’ve seen that coming.”

Thankfully, her Fifth Sense abilities would mean she would leave the school with large bruises instead of broken ribs. She knew that she would have not been able to dodge the fire extinguisher without the use of her Fifth Sense. Slowly and carefully, Callie got to her feet, a hand pressed against her side. She readjusted her Shades then scanned her surroundings for signs of another attack, but there was no sign of the Aggressor. She cautiously treaded down the hall and, wincing slightly, she knelt to pick up the dagger she had thrown. The Hunter was happy and relieved to see that the Gems had not taken any damage and so she clutched it tightly in her left hand, the long blade pointed out threateningly.

“Come out here you coward,” Callie shouted as she stood in the center of the hall, “is that the best you got? Throw an item and run? You’re so pathetic. No wonder your gang betrayed you!” A disembodied laugh echoed behind her, and she spun around with the dagger ready. Charlie was near a set of lockers, just a few inches away from the fire extinguisher he had just hurled at her. She braced herself for another attack. With a small grin, the Aggressor made a circling motion with his hands until a small whirlwind began to form and grow before him. He continued to manipulate the creation until it stood at almost three feet tall, then he pointed at the Hunter, and it quickly began charging towards her. It ripped off several door handles and the posters from the wall, it could easily tear the Hunter into ribbons if she couldn’t dodge it.

Callie called forth her Fifth Sense and fell into a crouch with her toes pointed forward and her knees slightly bent. Timing it perfectly, she launched herself into a jump and corkscrew spin that propelled her over the whirlwind. She used the flat of her palms to hit the floor and handstand back into a standing position. The whirlwind dissipated several feet behind her, dropping discarded paper and broken turn locks onto the floor. Charlie gave out a yell of anger and charged her, his hands outstretched and small balls of energy forming at his fingertips. The Hunter used her enhanced speed to race forward, the Ruby dagger once again ready for use in her hand.

But before ghost and human made contact, Night halted in her approach and threw the dagger and a smaller Ruby she had been hiding in her hand. This time, the dagger and gem were aimed at his chest and stomach.

“If a man died from a bullet wound to the chest, throw the Gem or Shades at his chest. Paranormal Gems are more effective if they touch the Focal Point. But if for some reason you cannot hit that Focal Point or if they did not die from a discernible wound, aim for the chest. The heart is the weak spot of every spirit, even in death they need that organ to retain their spiritual form and ability to mess with the living.”

The advice of her father, essential words that echoed in Callie’s head as she watched the Rubies fly towards their intended target. Bull’s-eye! The science and magic infused Rubies began to spark and fizzle as they attached to the Aggressor’s transparent form. Red cracks began to form all over the spirit as he writhed in pain and anger. Callie watched the ghost as he cried out once then quickly disintegrated into a small pile of ash and dust that fell onto the tiled floor, her Ruby dagger and the extra gem also fell to the floor giving off one last spark before growing dark. Since they were magically infused, they hadn’t turned into dust as well.

She waited several moments before strutting forward, a glass vial in her hand. She picked up the dagger and gem, checking them for any damage then returned them to their proper pockets and sheaths at her hip. The Hunter then carefully and cautiously scooped up the ash and dust into the glass vial, closing it off with a Ruby stopper that would ensure Charlie’s essence could not revive itself or harm another living person.

Night retrieved her camera from her belt and gave the screen a huge winning smile. “That was a rather dramatic and successful hunt. It took longer than I expected but thankfully it has ended without fail. I’m going to drop off this guy with some friends then head home and get some sleep. I hope you all enjoyed this video and remember to subscribe to the website if you haven’t already! And remember, if you see something that you think is paranormal, don’t be afraid to contact me or a local Hunter.”

        

She shut off the camera then took a shuddering deep breath and collapsed against the wall, her hand once again finding her bruised side. Callie had overused her Fifth Sense, using four of her six abilities at once. It was far more than she ever had or could use, and it was taking all her regular strength to avoid passing out. The bruise at her side was now throbbing intolerably and a headache was beginning to form at her temples. She sat there for several minutes before taking a deep breath and pulling a walkie talkie from off her belt then pressing the button.

“Come in Officer Redding. This is Callie Night speaking.” “Officer Redding here. Everything ok in there?” Callie unplugged the camera filming Hall 3 and tucked it under her arm, “I’m going to pack up my gear and meet you at the front door.” “10-4, I’ll see you in forty minutes?” “Roger that.” Callie Night took her cameras to an office and began the painstakingly long process of packing her ghost hunting gear. She started by shutting down the EVPs, audio microphones, light sensors, motion sensor cameras, and the monitor. She then took an oiled cloth and ran it over the Ruby blade before placing it into an ornate wooden box.

        

The hunter placed her cameras into their respective cases, which she placed into two large black duffel bags. Her sides were sore as she lifted the heavily equipment, but she did her best to ignore it as she did one last walk around the school and grabbed her equipment. Satisfied, Callie grabbed her duffel bags and headed out, satisfied about another concluded Hunt, the students and staff could breathe a sigh of relief. She met Officer Redding in the empty parking lot next to her dark blue Sedan. “Make sure Lacy and Jason get this,” Callie said as she handed him the vial containing Charlie’s essence, “they’re opening a paranormal museum to educate the public on supernatural matters. They should show up within half an hour to retrieve it.”

“No worries, ma’am,” he said with a grin as he took the vail from her, “this little sucker will be safe with me until your friends show up. Be careful getting home.” The Hunter wished him the same then sped off in her car, eager to get home and sleep in her warm bed. She was glad to have defeated the Aggressor and was satisfied with the knowledge that Officer Redding would hand over the precious vial to her Hunter friends.

But this was not to be. Lacy and Jason would never receive the vial promised to them by Callie.

Ten minutes after the young Hunter left the school, a tall man wearing a black cloak appeared out of the shadows. He seemed to stand at about six feet tall and kept his hood up, shrouding his face in even darker shadows. Officer Redding knew this man, he’d been sent by this strange man to collect the vial he now held in his hand. “Did you get what I asked for,” the man’s low voice asked. Redding handed him the vial with a nod, “she didn’t suspect a thing. Gave it to me willingly.” The man snorted, “The Night twins are gullible and weak. Too trusting, that will make it easier for me to deal with them personally when the time comes.”

Officer Redding’s eyes glowed a strange amber color as he shrugged, “whatever ya say man. So, where’s the money you promised me?” The hooded stranger handed the compelled officer a wad of hundred-dollar bills then held his hands behind his back as Redding counted the cash carefully. He frowned then looked up, “there’s only $800, you said- “

        

The cloaked man pulled out a silenced handgun and shot Officer Redding four times in the chest in quick succession. The cop hit the ground face first, without making a sound. “You did indeed bring the item I requested, but I have been alive far too long and trust no one with my plans. Your death was a necessity in my plan.” He removed his hood and stared down at the body with bright red eyes. “I’ve always preferred doing things myself.”

        

With those words, he turned around and disappeared into the shadows from where he’d walked. Officer Redding would be found the next morning with four bullet wounds to the chest and cash in his hand. The fourth body left by the stranger in the hood. Soon, more bodies would follow.

Chapter 2 Meeting the Legends

“Arthur, get up! The museum will be open in an hour and I refuse to let you keep us from such an honor.” Arthur Parry groaned as he rubbed his eyes and pulled the blanket back from his head. His mother was very eager to show her three teenage children a museum that had just opened a week earlier. However, Martha Parry had yet to realize that her children had little to no interest in art or music; they preferred their laptops and iPod. “Hurry up, Arthur! I made breakfast!” Arthur groaned again as he forced himself out of bed then grabbed his glasses from the nightstand. He pulled on a grey sweatshirt over his pajamas then headed downstairs before his mother could yell again.

        

In the kitchen, Martha was waiting impatiently to flip the pancakes while his older brother and sister sat at the table with their phones out. He sat beside Roger who hadn’t seemed to notice his brother’s arrival. Maddie, on other hand, waved at him before returning to her phone which had buzzed. Arthur sighed, Maddie had been on her phone constantly since she and her boyfriend had gotten back together over a week ago. Again. Arthur couldn’t understand why she kept taking him back, especially when he had cheated on her for a friend. Roger, on the other hand, was texting his buddies on the football team; he was planning to become class president his senior year in high school.

        

All in all, this was a typical Saturday morning for the Parry family. The only thing missing was Edward Parry yelling at the TV in the other room. Arthur’s father had succumbed to brain cancer two years ago and it seemed the family was still reeling from the loss. Martha had tried to make the house less melancholy by packing away her husband’s things into the backroom upstairs, but it had made her children miss him even more. She’d also begun this obsession with art, which meant everybody in the family had to join her trips to whatever museums she wanted to visit. “Hurry up and finish breakfast, we have to be there in ten minutes.” Martha turned off the stove and hurried upstairs to change her shoes and fix her hair.

        

Arthur took one look at the blackened pancakes on his plate and decided that he wasn’t particularly hungry. His brother caught his eye and nodded; their mom had once again failed to cook a meal that they could eat without getting sick. He dumped the cremated pancakes into the trash then headed to the bathroom to brush his hair and wash his face. Afterwards, he went to his room and checked his laptop.

Yes! A new video had been posted. Callie Night, a famous paranormal investigator, had created a website where fans could watch videos of her ghost hunts and video chat with her. Last night, she’d gone to a middle school to vanquish a gangster ghost. Arthur hadn’t had time to watch it because his mom had made him watch a romantic comedy with her and Maddie.

        

He loved Callie’s long brown hair, her mischievous green eyes, and her love of the paranormal. He knew she’d been Hunting since she was a little kid and had started off by watching her uncle and her father. For five years, she and her twin, Kathy, had done their own Hunts after their parents died. But after a while, Kathy had officially announced in a blog that she was no longer joining Callie on Hunts and had chosen instead to get a job involving computers. Arthur wasn’t completely sure why Kathy had decided to give up the life, but he assumed she was traumatized by the death of her parents.

        

Arthur, along with her other ten thousand fans, hoped the twin would rejoin her sister one day. He watched five minutes of the new video before logging off and joining his mother downstairs, she tapped her foot impatiently while his brother and sister took their precious time getting ready. His phone buzzed in his pocket, and he checked it, Gary had sent him a text. Hey freak. At the museum yet? Arthur smirked, his best friend knew his mom was obsessed with museums and often tried to help him avoid the tours by planning last minute excursions to soccer games or parties with older teens. No, he typed, Maddie and Greg are doing all they can to convince her to leave them behind.

        

Do you think she will? Arthur glanced sideways at his mom; she was checking her watch and juggling the car keys. Maybe. Gary: Well, get this. I heard the Night twins are planning to move. Arthur’s eyes widened in surprise: wow really? I thought they were keeping the house because it belonged to their uncle. Gary: the house is falling apart, and Kathy is tired of thousands of dollars to keep it in one piece. Callie’s compulsive spending habits aren’t making things easier. So, she and Callie agreed it was time to move. “If you don’t get down here in five minutes, I’m leaving you behind,” Martha hollered.

        

“And I’m so hurt to hear you say that” Greg replied sarcastically. “And I’ll change the Wi-Fi password,” she added as she began heading out to the car. Maddie’s head popped out of the bathroom, her eyes wide with disbelief. “She’s not serious, is she?” Her voice squeaked as she watched their mother walk outside. Arthur shrugged; their mother hadn’t messed with the Wi- Fi before since her job was mostly done online. He texted Gary: where are they moving to? Gary: they’re not telling anyone where they’re moving until they get there. Don’t want to get mobbed at the airport when they arrive, I guess.

        

Arthur pocketed his phone and climbed into the car; he hoped they were moving to Bristow, but he seriously doubted it. Knowing the Night twins, they’d most likely move to a town with a lot of haunted buildings and a decent history to document on their websites. The only thing this town had were art conventions and jazz concerts at local bars. Bristow was not an ideal home for active supernatural hunters like the twins. It was too boring for the likes of Callie and Kathy.

                                 

Callie woke up around eleven the next day after a night of little sleep and long hours spent documenting Charlie’s capture for her record books and her blogging website. She’d been having continuous nightmares the past two weeks, she only seemed to be able to gain about four hours of sleep before she woke up panting and sweating. Everything was on fire, and she was falling into oblivion, her clothes were torn, and her arms were scratched. Arms blackened with rot and decay tried to tear at her skin as she fell further and further.

It was unbearably hot, and her vision was blurred by tears. A deep, evil laugh echoed in her ears, a sound that sent a wave of fear through her entire body. What woke the Hunter was a pair of amber eyes watching as she suddenly landed in a pool of hot magma.

In addition to the nightmare, she was utterly exhausted from Hunting Charlie at the school. Callie hadn’t gotten home until almost midnight and didn’t go to sleep until almost 2, because she’d spent two hours fortifying the house against paranormal disturbances. A paranoid precaution she insisted on doing every night, their family had made way too many paranormal enemies to relax.

        

Night sighed as she threw back the blanket and forced herself to get out of bed before fatigue took her again. She grunted slightly as her bruised ribs complained with every step, Charlie’s energy field had barely brushed her sides, yet it had been enough to leave large bruises. Even with her enhanced vulnerability on, there would be bruises which would take at least a week to heal. Her regular strength would also be weakened for several days, she’d stored most of it up just to conclude the Hunt for Charlie.

Fifth Sense involved storing up energy for several hours and then releasing it in controlled bursts. The downside was that you could only access the enhanced ability for several minutes before weakness and exhaustion overtook you. Callie had almost passed out with fatigue before making it home, and even then, she had had to splash cold water on her face to make it up the stairs to her bedroom. In truth, she had overexerted her Fifth Sense, storing up way too much energy just to contain Charlie’s essence.

If Kathy hadn’t turned into such a coward, I wouldn’t have had to overexert myself, Callie thought irritably to herself. She’d been thinking a lot about her struggles and how much easier the Hunts would’ve gone if Kathy had been by her side. Before the old frustration could boil over, she focused on covering her bruised body with an oversized green sweater then treaded down the hall towards the kitchen. Cardboard boxes and trash bags lined the hall, waiting to be picked up and loaded into the moving van waiting in the driveway or into the overflowing dumpster near the garage door.

It felt strange to look around the house of her childhood and teenage years and not see the familiar Gothic style furniture she’d found comforting, or the grimly colorful paintings in their aging wooden frames. Her uncle had owned the house for thirty years when he suddenly died of a heart attack in his sleep, he’d left the house to the twins in his will as well as a generous sum of money to tie them over for at least three years.

Until recently they’d managed to keep the house in one piece, but now the work put into it was barely making a dent. Kathy had found several wooden beams inside the walls were rotted and needed replacing; but it would cost almost twenty thousand to repair the damage.

Even though Callie had plenty of investigations to keep her occupied and entertained, they didn’t pay very much. Kathy’s stay- at- home job repairing computers and cameras wasn’t enough to stay in the old family home. The twins had decided weeks ago that it was time to move on; their new house would be smaller and less haunted by memories of painful events. Callie had insisted that they pick a house without any history of suicides, murders, or satanic worship. She didn’t want to live in a house that was supposedly still inhabited by dead owners.

        

Ironically, Kathy hadn’t pressed the issue and found a two-story home settled in a quiet neighborhood in a town just big enough to hold enough paranormal history to occupy Callie for several years. Callie hoped that this meant her twin was thinking of hunting again; she planned to push her to decide while they were on the four-hour flight. She found her sister sitting in the dining room with a plate of untouched buttered toast in front of her; a large print newspaper hid her face. Kathy’s eyesight had become somewhat poor since she’d given up hunting, years spent reading in poorly lit buildings had forced her to wear glasses.

Callie noticed that the newspaper wasn’t a New York edition; it was a Missouri print dated the previous Wednesday. She poured herself a cup of coffee then sat opposite her sister; she gave the front page headlines a side glance then looked away, pretending not to be interested. Three More Teenagers Found Mutilated!! Police have no suspects, no evidence, and no new leads. When will this reign of terror end?

        

“Brutal isn’t it,” Kathy commented without setting down the newspaper. She knew her twin would notice the front page because that’s how they had gotten most of their cases. “Yea, how long were they missing?” Callie fiddled with her coffee mug as she watched her sister’s hands. “Three months”, came the reply. “How many others have been found like this?” “Seven, all were missing for three months. Torsos had pentagrams carved into them and 666 written in blood on the hands. Signs of torture, prolonged suffering, and defensive wounds. No suspects, no witnesses, no motive.”

Callie’s blood ran cold as she read the ages of the girls in Kathy’s newspaper; they’d been 16 and 15. “Cult suspected?” “That’s the most popular theory. The other is that it’s a serial killer who worships Satan. They are fairly sure it’s a local who knows the area fairly well.” Callie looked down as she asked, “why do you have this newspaper? You said you were done Hunting.” There was no response from her twin, so she risked a glance. Kathy’s hands were trembling slightly, and her skin had seemed to have paled. Callie watched five boxes get carried out to the moving van before Kathy seemed to find her voice again.

Kathy lowered the newspaper and Callie was surprised to see tears forming in her green eyes. She removed her glasses and wiped them off on her shirt. “Mom and dad were investigating a series of murders just like these before they died. The only difference is that these newer victims are teenagers; the ones they investigated were children between the ages of 7 and 11. Mom’s journal states that the kids were never found, and they didn’t catch the killer. Uncle Fran tried to take up the investigation, but he never got new leads and the parents of the kids started to accuse him of using the kids deaths as an excuse to prove ghosts existed.”

Callie knew where she was going with this, “you think it’s the same entity that got mom and dad killed.” Kathy put her glasses back on and gave her a sister a cold stare, “I don’t think. I know. It’s the same MO; the same number of deaths, the same injuries. Whatever killed our parents is trying to lure us to our deaths and I want to know why.” Callie frowned, “‘killed our parents’? You said it was destroyed before they died. You said they were killed from the shockwave of their Shades combined.” She sat back and stiffened slightly, waiting to see how her twin would react.

Kathy didn’t talk about their parents very often due to the trauma she had suffered being a witness to their deaths, so her twin decided to take advantage of the situation before she shut down again. Kathy surprised her twin by replying sadly, “the Shades didn’t hurt it, didn’t even stun it for a few seconds. I saw them use every Shade and Gem they had in their pockets, and they just bounced off him or through him. It was like throwing small pebbles at a wall of cinderblock.

“They even threw the Shades at the creature, desperate to chase it off. It didn’t help, the Shades exploded as soon as they touched it, turned into a pile of ash.” Callie winced in shock; she’d never heard of a ghost that was immune to Shades.

Although specific Shades worked on specific types of ghosts, it was still possible to use different gems for an entity. But she had never heard of Shades being useless on a spirit. “What was it,” Callie’s voice was quiet. She really didn’t want to know what had killed their parents, but the Hunter in her was curious. Kathy took the book from her lap, opened it to a certain page, and gestured her sister to move closer to look at a specific page. Callie, reluctantly, leaned forward saw a disturbing image of a tall black figure with red eyes. Small horns grew out of its head, and black wings protruded from its back. The figure was smiling eerily as it lashed out at a group of men with inhuman claws.

        

“What the hell is that” Callie asked as her twin closed the book, a chill ran down her spine. “A Shadow Angel. More commonly referred to as demons. They serve the Devil as personal assassins and whatever else he wants them to do in the mortal world. They’re basically fallen angels who do the Devil’s dirty work. They aren’t very well known because almost every record of them has been destroyed or lost throughout the years, people said they were horrifying to look at and anyone who ran into one and pissed him off was a dead man walking.

“Going back in time, Shadow Angels were worshipped as avengers of death by the Germanic tribes. Human sacrifices and alters of gold were built to please them. They believed that pleasing the creatures would ensure their success in wars against their enemies. The Roman Empire showed up to claim the territory, and the Shadow Angels were banned from temples and public squares, deemed an insult to the Roman Empire and their own gods. Statues of Mars and Saturn replaced them, and the Shadow Angels themselves disappeared from memory.”
 

 “So, what exactly does a Shadow Angel do,” Callie took a sip of her lukewarm coffee, her hand was trembling slightly. Her twin wiped off her glasses on her shirt before responding, a habit she had before assuming her historian roots. Kathy had been the researcher back when their parents were still alive and hunting; she had helped them narrow down their searches and given tips on defeating their unnatural enemies. “Shadow Angels come to Earth and sacrifice human beings to the Devil, supposedly, the murders fuel his power and make him stronger. History says that sacrificing thirteen people in one year will allow the Devil to appear on Earth and take over. Experts on Satanism believe that this is how the world will end and nobody can stop it.”

        

A shiver ran down Callie’s spine as her mind conjured up images of a world consumed by fire and horrific deaths. “How do you defeat a Shadow Angel?” Kathy shrugged, “you don’t.” Callie gasped in shock, “what? What do you mean you don’t? There was to be SOME way.” “There is nothing in these books that say how to defeat them. These books only exist because smugglers hid them before they could be destroyed. Shadow Angels haven’t been seen in over twenty years. The last sighting was by our parents.” “Until now,” Callie reminded her twin. “Until now,” her twin agreed. “That’s where our new house is located isn’t it?” “Yes,” Kathy admitted. No wonder she’d been so eager to move in a short amount of time, she wanted revenge.

“Does this mean you’re Hunting again,” Callie asked without looking at her twin. Kathy folded up the newspaper and set it inside a small handbag beside her chair. “I guess, but it’s only to avenge our parents. After I kill their killer, it’s back to normal living.” Callie grinned, “That’s what you said after we almost leveled that factory down in Mexico.” Her twin grimaced, “don’t remind me. Took me a month to remove those ectoplasm splotches from my clothes, I can still smell it sometimes.” She left the dining room to finish packing, Callie stayed behind to help the movers load the TV into their van. “So where are you guys moving,” one of the movers asked. Callie smiled, “Missouri. Little town known as Bristow.”

         Twenty minutes later, the twins were locking the front door and saying goodbye to the house they’d lived in their whole lives. The moving van loaded their things onto a cargo plane while the Night twins sat in first class on a luxury airplane. They spent the flight looking over murder cases in other states, searching for similarities to the Bristow killings. So far, three other states had had similar cases that were unsolved. They were twenty years old. “These occurred around the same time mom and dad was solving the cases in New York,” Kathy said. “So, what, this Shadow Angel committed crimes in different states? Come on, there’s eighteen people on this list and all of them were within weeks of each other.”

        

“There isn’t just one Shadow Angel,” Kathy replied, “There are sixteen confirmed, although some Hunters believer there could be as many as forty.” Callie’s jaw dropped, “sixteen?” Her twin nodded, “that’s what the books say. Only about one or two are on Earth at any given time, the rest stay in Hell to protect the Devil and watch over the damned. Supposedly, they can disguise themselves as animals or other people.” Callie sighed in exasperation, “How are we supposed to fight something that can change its shape? Unless we find a way to use our Shades to track this Angel, we’re at a disadvantage.” Kathy closed her laptop, “I know. There’s a guy in Arkansas trying to invent Shades that allow us to find Shadow Angels if they take on a human form. But he said it’s difficult because he must find the right light source to see them, and he doesn’t know which gem would work with that light wave without damaging our eyesight. He’ll deliver some test Shades and make improvements based on our reports, hopefully at least one of the pairs will work.”

        

Callie smiled internally; she knew which inventor her sister was talking about. Several years back, they had met a guy out in Arizona that Kathy immediately fell in love with. Although her twin had given up Hunting, she knew from reading her texts that the two were still in contact. “How is he making the Shades? Dad says the essence of the ghost must be infused in the Shades so they can pinpoint the target accurately.

That was the downside of Shades, only one type of gem could be infused into the device. Two gems would cause the Shades to malfunction and give off bad readings, rendering them useless. “He ran into a Shadow Angel when he was younger and managed to snag some essence just before it disappeared.” Callie set her laptop at her feet, “just curious, what stone is he testing on the Shades?”  Kathy gave her a smile that chilled her to the bone. “Black opal. The new style these days.”

        

Hunter couple Lacy and Jason watched as paramedics loaded a body into the back of an ambulance. The body of Officer Redding had been found in a pool of blood by a teacher on her way to work, she informed the police who in turn called Lacy and Jason. “Let me guess, four gunshots to the chest and a wad of cash in his right hand,” Jason asked grimly. Lacy nodded, “another supposed drug related murder. Cops believe this was done by gangs.” “Except there were no drugs and the victim had no history of drug use.”

The couple had been investigating a series of strange murders that had gotten stranger as the body count rose. Two years ago, a homeless man had been found with almost a thousand dollars in cash in his hand. He’d been shot four times in the chest; no suspect was found, and the murder was left unsolved. The second victim was found three miles from the first victim, four shots to the chest, cash in hand. She had been a florist with a young daughter. The third victim, a college student, was found three miles from the second with four shots to the chest and cash in hand. Now, here was Officer Redding, exactly three miles away from the third victim, cash in hand, four gunshots to the chest.

“What the hell is going on here? Is the killer involved with a cult, or is he just obsessed with the number three? This isn’t random and it isn’t a copycat. But why? What’s the motive? Why these victims?” Jason shook his head and looked away from the puddle of blood. Lacy shrugged, “I think it’s paranormal.” Her husband turned around and looked at her in confusion, “what makes you say that?”

She turned and pointed at a security camera mounted on a light pole, “that camera is pointing directly at the spot where Officer Redding’s body was found. Police checked the footage and found out it had malfunctioned around the time Redding was murdered. The other locations also had security cameras nearby, all of them malfunctioned or were turned off at the time of the murders.”

Jason’s eyes widened in shock, “where’s the vial?”

        

“I checked Redding’s pockets before the paramedics got to the body, there was no vial. Whoever killed him was after that vial. The money indicates he was bribed to betray Callie, but he was killed to make sure he couldn’t change his mind.” Jason snapped his fingers as he made yet another connection between the victims, “Callie was Hunting an Aggressor around the time the other murders happened. She’d promised to give us vials during the second and third murders as well, but we never got them, and she didn’t know what happened.” Lacy nodded in remembrance, “but what does this mean? Who would want those vials and why?”

Jason began pacing as he considered the reason, none of them good. Then, he paused as he realized exactly why the victims had died, “whoever is collecting these vials. He’s only collecting Aggressors. He’s building an army of ghosts, against Callie.” The couple looked at each other in mutual understanding. “We have to warn Callie and Kathy immediately, whoever is stealing these vials might be after them. None of the other hunters have lost vials of essence, these attacks are personal.”

        

Arthur was almost jumping with joy as he and Gary drove to the airport, they’d found out some exciting news and were hoping to get in on the action. Twenty minutes into the museum tour, Gary had discovered that Callie and Kathy Night were moving to Bristow that day. Parry had fled the building and hopped into his friend’s beaten down Mustang. “Are you absolutely positive they said Bristow,” Arthur asked for the tenth time in an hour. The rebellious teen rolled his eyes, “yes I’m sure she said Bristow. I watched the video four times before I came and got you.” Callie had posted a vlog on her website and told her fans where she and her twin were moving. “Did they say why they were moving to Bristow,” Arthur asked.

        

Fleek shook his head, “they just said the house was becoming too much of a hassle to fix up and keep clean so they’re finding a smaller place. Ghost hunting doesn’t earn enough to keep a two hundred-thousand-dollar house up and running.” This shocked Parry, with all the sightings he’d thought Callie and Kathy had it made. “Didn’t they get a small fortune from their uncle when he died? I heard he was a huge investor and made them the main beneficiary in his will.” Frank Night, the twins’ uncle, had died of a heart attack five years ago and left everything to his nieces including the house. “They ended up spending it all on the house and extra hunting gear, most of it was getting old or in disrepair.”

Arthur shook his head in disbelief, “that’s a waste of time and money.” Gary snapped his fingers, “exactly why the twins moved.” “So why did they move,” Arthur asked. His friend groaned, “I just told you numbskull.” “I meant to Bristow. Why did they move to Bristow?” Gary opened his mouth to reply then shut it again. “Bristow isn’t a very well-known town and as far as I know the paranormal stories and legends around here are less than ten. What is here for them? They’ll be bored out of their minds by the end of the week.”

Gary didn’t respond. He had no idea why they were coming to this town. At least not an idea he would tell Arthur. In the back of his mind, he knew exactly why the Night twins were coming to Bristow. It wasn’t because they wanted to settle down, they were on the Hunt for something big. Something that would have a major impact on his life and several others close to him.

As the twins expected, a mob of fans were awaiting their arrival at the airport. Security had to cut a path through the crowd so they could get their luggage on the carousel. Callie distracted the fans by giving out autographs and posing for pictures while Kathy grabbed the bags, the active Hunter had always enjoyed talking to believers of the supernatural and giving advice to those who considered a career as a Hunter. When asked why they’d moved to Briston, Callie simply said “a change of scenery was in order”. She gave no indication that she had info on the missing teens from the newspaper or the murders.

The Night twins followed closely behind security, smiling, and waving at their fan clubs as they headed to a rental car. Their cars were being transported to Briston, but it would be another few days before they arrived. For now, the twins wanted to start moving into their new home and getting the rooms furnished so they wouldn’t have to sleep on the floor. As they exited the airport Callie nudged Kathy with her shoulder. “The kid who started our online fan club was in the crowd. I think his name is Arthur.” “How old is he,” Kathy asked curiously as they got into the backseat of an Explorer. “Probably a high school freshman or sophomore. Too young for my tastes.”

Her twin snorted, “Too young? He’s only 5 years younger than us. You keep forgetting we’re fresh out of school ourselves.” Callie shrugged noncommittally; she was picky about boyfriends and preferred guys a lot closer to her age. “When is our Internet getting turned on at the house,” Kathy changed the subject, “I want to do some more research on those disappearances and murders. I have this gut feeling there are more that haven’t been connected.” Her twin shrugged, “the cable guy said it would take about two weeks to set up a box and another few days to get us online. Just go to the library or coffee shop, they have free WIFI.” “I can’t, whatever is killing and making these people disappear lives in this town. There’s no doubt they have human spies around the area. I’ve got a fairly good feeling that one is a teacher at Arthur’s school.”

Callie raised an eyebrow, “we’re not enrolling at the school?” Kathy shook her head, “No, we’re not. Too many people know we’re moving here, and I wouldn’t be surprised if several residents are working for the Shadow Angels. But I am very curious about Arthur. One of my contacts alerted me to him, said he’s radiating energy that indicates Fifth Sense abilities that haven’t been awakened yet. My contact said the energy field is so strong that he believes Arthur just might be able to sense the presence of Aggressors. Or Shadow Angels.”

Now she had her twin’s attention. Although most Hunters had Fifth Sense, they usually only had two or three. The few abilities they had could only be activated for several minutes at a time and never together, only one could be turned on. Callie’s heightened senses were connected so they usually came on together, but that was normal for someone with heightened sight, touch, and hearing. If Kathy’s contact was right, however, Arthur could possibly use all his Fifth Sense abilities at once.

“My informant is convinced that Arthur also has what some Hunters call Celestial Glimpse,” Kathy continued, “Supposedly, he can see all forms of ghosts without the assistance of Shades. If he does have Celestial Glimpse, he may be able to tell if a Shadow Angel is disguised as a human or animal.”

Callie was now very curious and eager to meet this kid; Celestial Glimpse was an exceedingly rare gift in Hunters and not many of them even knew they had it. The Sight allowed them to spot certain types of ghosts without Shades and predict their attacks. No one knew how people managed to harness Celestial Glimpse or when it was first discovered, but it was a talent that Hunters were envious of and often spent long hours researching the rare gift.

One of the downsides to Hunting is that the process used to create Shades was difficult, expensive and took several weeks to complete. Shades were created with a mixture of science, magic, alchemy, Paranormal Gems, and the added Essence of a spirit. A regular pair of sunglasses would be infused with a Paranormal Gem and then anointed with spells and chemicals to complete the process. It was extremely dangerous to create Shades, if a mixed percentage was off by even a small fraction the resulting alchemy and chemistry mixture could explode. Callie had once attempted to create her own pair, but only one creation was successful, and another attempt had almost killed her. She now had a friend who made her Shades for her, as well as weapons infused with Paranormal Gems.

“So how do we convince him to help us,” Callie asked, “if he still lives with his parents, he may not come work with us willingly. His parents may not even let him leave the state with us for lockdowns.” Kathy had to agree reluctantly, most of the active Hunters today were still in school and parents didn’t always approve of their profession.

The Hunters were also sworn to a certain degree of secrecy involving recruitment and dealing with ghosts. Certain people attempted to create ghost armies, mainly Aggressors, or use ghost energy to create weapons for the highest bidder with an army. Hunters had made a pact to help all spirits cross over from the mortal world, and those who did not pass on were treated as human beings during scientific studies. Essence could be used because it was not actually part of the spirit, it was leftover physical energy that the spirit had absorbed from the Earth in order to maintain their presence.

 “We’ll deal with that problem when we come across it,” Kathy decided finally, “for now let’s focus on getting settled in our new house. The plane with all our furniture arrived ten minutes before we did, the movers should be waiting at the house now.” Callie stretched her arms over her head and yawned, “I hope so. I was hoping to sleep in a warm bed tonight.” Kathy smiled at the little joke they had shared since childhood.

Arthur couldn’t believe what had just happened, he’d shook the hand of Callie Night and was happy to be leaving the airport with a piece of paper signed by both twins, reluctantly on Kathy’s part. As soon as he got home, he’d framed it and hung it above his computer proudly. Kathy and Callie loomed over him, wearing matching white dresses, and wearing different colored Shades. “Nice to know that this family cares more about complete strangers than its own flesh and blood.” Arthur jumped and turned to see his mother standing in his bedroom doorway, her arms were crossed, and she did not look happy. He had bailed on the museum trip twenty minutes in and had forgotten to tell her that he wouldn’t be able to come back in time to finish the tour.

“No, it’s ok. I get,” she cut him off when he opened his mouth to explain, “you’d rather spend your life pursuing campfire stories and fairytales. You’re fourteen, Arthur. It’s time to leave Neverland and come back to the real world and grow up. Otherwise, you’ll be living in a crappy apartment with a low paying job you hate and no way out because you spent too long in a fantasy world. Your father indulged in your little ghost stories, but he too refused to accept the truths of the real world and wouldn’t tell you how things really are. You’re grown up now, almost an adult. Start acting like it.”

Mrs. Parry closed the door behind her, leaving Arthur feeling guilty and slightly angry at his mother. She didn’t believe in ghosts or other supernatural tales; she thought his obsession was childish and stupid. His siblings didn’t support him either, they often pounded on his bedroom door at night and would whisper random phrases just to watch him freak out. His dad had supported his curiosity by buying him a mini ghost hunting kit and a journal to write about his adventures. Before the chemotherapy, the pair would go into the woods at night, flashlights on, and would pretend to hunt ghosts.

Arthur still missed his dad and wished he were still alive so he could feel not so lonely. He would prove them all wrong one day, he decided, he would become a Hunter and show his skeptic family that unexplainable things did indeed lurk in the shadows. The dead wasn’t all friendly and nice, there was evil that still sought to destroy that which it could never have again.

He sat at his computer and logged onto Callie Night’s website, seeing if she had posted anything new since announcing her arrival at the airport with Kathy. She had. It was a fifteen-minute video addressed to her supporters living in or around Bristow. Arthur clicked the video link; Callie’s slender face filled the screen immediately. “Hey guys what’s up its Callie here with Kathy.” The camera swiveled around and focused on a girl who looked almost exactly like Callie, she was pointedly ignoring her twin by hiding her face behind a newspaper.

The camera swiveled back to Callie. “We just landed in Bristow and about to exit the plane. Can’t wait to meet all our fans and the future Hunters of the world. Yes, I will be signing autographs and taking pictures with fans this time, I know a lot of you were wondering if we would. Let’s go say hi to our new neighbors.” The camera was attached to Callie’s headset and began moving down the aisle of a passenger plane; Arthur could hear the engines being shut off and the door unlocking.

Parry had to turn down the sound when Callie opened the door and was almost instantly engulfed in a frenzied crowd of fans. They were screaming, calling her name, waving around scraps of paper and pens, and holding up signs welcoming Kathy and Callie to Bristow. “This is crazy you guys!! I can barely hear myself over the crowd of supporters,” Callie had to scream to be heard. Kathy came up beside her and waved to the crowd, an easy grin on her face. “Let’s go,” Kathy said as she threw a bag over her shoulder and the newspaper into a trashcan. Kathy had never enjoyed being in the spotlight even while she was actively Hunting, now she spent a lot of her energy avoiding the crowds and Callie’s Internet fanbase.

They headed down the walkway, occasionally stopping to take pictures with fans or to sign scraps of paper pushed towards them. Rather, it was Callie signing autographs and rushing to catch up with her uninterested twin. Arthur saw himself near the end of the walkway and was disappointed and confused. Next to him, Gary was hardly glancing at the Night twins. In fact, Gary’s attention wasn’t even on the Night sisters; he was looking past them at the passenger plane. He also had a phone in his hand; he was obviously in the middle of a phone call. Arthur squinted; Gary looked almost agitated as he talked rapidly.

Arthur wondered why he hadn’t noticed this while they were at the airport. He watched Callie’s hand accept the painting from Arthur and sign her name in the far-left corner; she drew a little heart above the “I”. The twins hurried past the crowd and began jogging towards the exit, piling into a black Honda waiting for them in the parking lot. Callie removed the headset and faced the camera towards her again, her cheeks were pink and sweat beaded her forehead. “Well,” she said breathlessly, “we survived. I’ll admit I was kind of surprised by how many people showed up. I didn’t think there were that many fans in a town this small, don’t judge a book by its cover I guess.”

Kathy chuckled in agreement, “this town might be more fun than we thought.” “Well, that’s all for now guys,” Callie concluded, “We made it safely to Bristow and surprised our fans. I’ll see you guys tomorrow, same time. We start moving furniture as soon as we wake up. Good night.” The video ended with a black screen and a Three Days Grace track playing in the background. Arthur let it play as he tried to determine where the Night twins were now planning to live. The website still showed their old location in California, which means they were either not ready to go public or they wanted more privacy this time. He checked her blog, but it was pretty much the same as the video, thanking their fans for the support and being eager to come to Bristow.

He frowned; there was a new post on her Facebook page, Night Investigations. It was an ad: “One Night Only, Guest Investigator. Join the Night twins for a late-night investigation!” All he had to do was fill out the page and submit, one lucky winner would get to go on a ghost hunt with Callie Night herself. Arthur rubbed his eyes, it was real. He had an actual chance to be with Callie and maybe even her sister, although that was highly unlikely.

“Ah, what the hell,” he muttered as he began filling out the info. Within ten minutes he had filled it out, and then he submitted the page. Bling! It was a text from Gary. “Did you fill out the form?” Parry grinned, “you should know me by now. Did you?” He powered down his computer and began getting ready for bed, pulling on pajamas, and setting out an outfit for tomorrow. Bling! “No.” Arthur frowned as he responded, “no? What do you mean no? Why didn’t you?” This was unlike Gary; he’d been talking about his lifelong dream to go on a ghost hunt with Callie Night. Bling! “I’ll see you at school Monday; had to cancel my plans tomorrow. Ttyl.”

Arthur wondered if Gary had gotten into another fight with his parents. He was failing all his classes and his parents were livid. They had gotten five letters in the past two months saying that if he didn’t try harder, he would have to be held back a year or attend summer school. He was getting into fights and pulling pranks on the teachers more frequently than ever. Arthur’s friend had acted very strangely this year, ever since Callie and Kathy had announced they were moving. He shrugged this off as he climbed into bed and pulled the sheets up to his chin; all of it was probably just a coincidence.

Gary looked around nervously, making sure he was alone in this parking lot. His ears heard only tree branches rustling and crickets chirping in the field of weeds. Satisfied he was alone; he crouched down and pulled a pocketknife from his jacket pocket. In one swift move he made a cut across his palm, allowing the blood to pool for a few seconds before smearing the blood across a chalk drawn symbol at his feet.

He switched the knife to his other hand then slit his palm with the edge, again smearing blood across the symbol. The symbol looked like a pentagram, except for the lines crisscrossing in a diamond formation in the center. Satisfied, Gary tied a strip of cloth around both his hands then returned his knife to his pocket.

It had been several years since he had drawn this symbol and longer still since he had talked to what it summoned. He knew it would be very unhappy he hadn’t kept in constant contact, but it wasn’t his fault and was sure he would be quickly forgiven once he shared the info he had learned. Several minutes passed then the wind suddenly died, the crickets were silent, everything seemed to come to a standstill. “It’s time,” Gary muttered to himself as he took several steps back from the ancient symbol. A bright light manifested, and then a whirlwind formed above the symbol as the blood began to form a miniature copy of the chalk symbol.

A dark figure appeared, wearing a long black cloak and a hood. Its wings were black as the night and outfitted at the ends with razor sharp talons. This was a Shadow Angel, the most feared creatures of legend and faithful servants of the Devil himself. “Aster, you have picked a bad time to summon me. Things are off balanced, and Master has us all on high alert.” Gary – Aster- stepped forward, “forgive me but I thought you would like to hear some interesting information to take back home with you. Information regarding Callie and Kathy Night.”

The Angel removed his hood to reveal a grey toned face with black pupils and sharp teeth. “Please, share. But try to make it quick, Lucifer has called a meeting tonight of all the Shadow Angels and I can’t be late.”

Aster grinned, “The Night twins are here in Bristow. They’re investigating the murders that our brothers committed. They’re preparing a war against us, against our Master.” Mandeus paled slightly, a mortal had never dared boldly face them. Even more shocking was that it was the very mortals that Master was seeking. “Where does this information come from,” Mandeus said with a tone of suspicion. All the Shadow Angels knew that Aster had been banished from Hell after his failure to kill the Night twins so many years ago. He had been tasked with killing them after a reliable witch informed Lucifer that the twins would be the cause of his downfall. Unfortunately, he had failed and instead of the twins he had killed their parents. As a result, Aster was turned into a mortal and stripped of his powers; he didn’t even have his immortality.

Aster pulled out his phone and showed Mandeus the video he had recorded at the airport, the Shadow Angel witnessed Callie and Kathy greeting their fans with grins. “All I ask is that you give Master my formal request to return to Hell and be remade as a Shadow Angel. I have learned the error of my ways and wish to redeem myself. Mandeus snorted then turned his back on the fallen Angel, “Master has told us all that you were forever cursed to live life as a mortal. You lost your chance to redeem yourself and therefore my answer is no.” Aster growled, “you owe me this much. I also heard that the twins seek a weapon that could kill all Shadow Angels and make them immune to Hell’s fires. They seek their parents.”

Mandeus snarled as he faced Aster again, “fine. I shall take your request to Lucifer but let this be known. If you fail, if you cannot bring the Night twins to Master, you will suffer greatly.” With these words he snapped his fingers and disappeared, with his leave the sounds of the mortal world returned. Aster sighed then grinned as he headed towards his car. He was going to be a Shadow Angel once again. “Make no mistake, twins,” he mumbled, “I will kill you myself. I will become a High Shadow Angel again.”

Chapter 3 The Winner

Callie and Kathy were awake by 5 the following morning, eager to furnish their new house and make it less foreign. They had gone to bed shortly after midnight, spending most of their time setting up their beds, hanging up clothes in their closets and stocking the kitchen with food. They still had a lot left to do, but for now it was good enough. At breakfast, they checked their Facebook, scrolling through all the eager fans’ submitted profiles. They saw Arthur Parry’s name at the very top of the list, he had been one of the first twenty people to enter his name. The twins glanced at one another; they’re plan had worked. Now they had to tell him where to meet them and what time, they would worry about telling him of his powers another day.

Around 10 a.m. they finished unloading the moving van that had arrived shortly after 8:30 a.m., it was loaded with living room and dining room furniture that they had decided to take from their uncle’s house. The twins quickly unloaded the van with the help of 3 movers as well as a neighbor who had been a little too eager to meet them. It took 2 hours to position everything, and then they took an hour off for lunch. Their neighbor, a middle-aged woman named Yen Seuen, made a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies. While eating lunch, Callie emailed Arthur to inform him he had won the entry contest. She told him to meet Kathy and herself at the Wayside Gas Station at 11:30 this Wednesday. After a second thought she told him to bring a flashlight and be ready to answer questions about hunting. Kathy peered over her shoulder, rereading Callie’s prize winner e-mail and correcting her grammar before sending it.

“My grammar isn’t that bad,” Callie said with her arms crossed. Kathy’s mouth lifted into a smirk as she turned away from the laptop and replied, “who told ya that? Your ex- boyfriend?” Her twin rolled her eyes, “please don’t bring that up again.” Kathy removed her glasses and chuckled low in her throat. Callie chuckled quietly as she returned to continue unpacking the boxes in her room. Her bed had been set up facing the door next to a small nightstand while her dresser sat against the right wall next to a white bookshelf, its drawers laid out on the floor waiting for clothes to be placed in them.

Twelve cardboard boxes and a purple suitcase sat at the center of the room, clothes scattered in random piles destined for drawers, hangers, or donation. Callie’s shoulders slumped as her eyes took in the mess, she wouldn’t be sleeping much that night. She placed her books on the shelves first, set her alarm clock and lamp on the nightstand, put sheets on her bed, then pulled out the wired hangers she would need.

Callie’s weakness was clothes, she had a serious impulse spending problem and was probably part of the reason why the twins had been unable to keep up with repairs for the house. She rolled her eyes as she emptied one box and began to sort the clothes into separate piles on the floor. Kathy had always been more mature than her, and it gave her airs. She acted like she was the older sister rather than a twin, constantly criticizing Callie as though she was a small child.

It was one of the things Callie hated about her twin, one of the many reasons she had considered moving out and living on her own. But why hadn’t she? She wasn’t entirely sure, but now she could think about that while she cleaned up and made the room her own.

Arthur Parry was bursting with joy after checking his e-mails, Callie and Kathy Night had declared him the winner of the guest hunter competition. He was to meet them at Wayside Gas this Wednesday and to be prepared for a hunt. Unfortunately, he’d have to sneak out of the house to meet them. His mother was still mad at him for bailing on the museum trip and refused to take him anywhere involving ghost hunting. Gary couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer his calls and texts asking for a ride. His behavior was becoming even more bizarre to Arthur; he hadn’t been the same since the twins’ arrival.

Determined to remain joyful, he put this out of his head and began packing a bag for Wednesday. He pulled out his used knapsack then grabbed his notebook, pencil, flashlight, and his lucky ruby. He knew from watching the Night’s videos that gems were required to destroy ghosts, the ruby had been a gift from his grandmother. Granny Lily had been the only family member on his dad’s side whom his mother would talk to; their marriage had caused tension between the families. Arthur’s aunt, his dad’s older sister, blamed Martha for her husband’s illness. Parry clutched the ruby close to his body as headed downstairs to face his mother, she’d been yelling for the past fifteen minutes for him to come to the living room.

He took the steps one by one, still happy and planning out what he would say to Callie and Kathy. When he reached the bottom, Martha was waiting for him along with Maddie and Roger. They were dressed as if ready to go to another museum; Arthur barely managed to stifle an exasperated sigh. “Museum or art studio,” he asked as he pocketed the ruby. “Neither” Roger says blankly. His younger brother raised an eyebrow, “then why are you dressed up as if you’re going to one?” His mother narrowed her eyes, “we’re going to a funeral. All four of us.” Her youngest son frowned in confusion, “who’s?” “Officer Steve Redding,” Maddie replied, “the guy who used to work at our middle school.”

Arthur was shocked; everybody in school had loved Officer Redding with his easy smile and kind nature. He used to give away police badge stickers to them on the last day of school. “Steve’s dead,” he asked in disbelief, “how? What happen?” Martha checked her watch, “he was murdered now stop asking all these questions. It’s unnatural for someone your age to ask stuff like this, now get in the car before we’re late to the funeral.”

The family piled into the car and drove in complete silence, everyone wondering how this could have happened to a cop who was friends with virtually everyone; they hadn’t had an officer murdered in nearly fifty years. Murder itself made up five percent of the crimes committed in Bristow, the town was relatively quiet and not very violent. It was a town where people could live in peace and raise a family or retire. To Arthur, this whole situation seemed very wrong.

Who would want to murder Officer Redding? And why? It had to have been someone from a different town or city. Maybe it was someone from Steve’s previous police jurisdiction; he had relocated here from New York almost fifteen years ago. The young boy shook his head, that didn’t seem logical. Then again, nothing else did these days. He had tried to call Gary early that morning only to discover the number had been disconnected, even his e-mail address had been deleted.

Arthur was once again struck by the fact that Gary had been acting strangely ever since Callie and Kathy made moved to Bristow. There was something going on that Gary didn’t want him to know, but Arthur was determined to figure out what it was.

First Hope Church’s parking lot was packed with cars. Tons of friends, family and Bristow residents had come to pay their respects. The Parry family was forced to park across the street and walk to the viewing. On the way, they passed Steve Redding’s widow and his three young children. The young woman was sitting on the curb with her head in her hands; her kids sat in silence as she cried.

Martha went to comfort the grieving mother and told her teenagers to find a pew and save her a spot. She also asked that they escort the Redding kids to their grandmother who was waiting inside. Roger and Maddie escorted them inside while Arthur hung back. He skirted between the cars until he found the old playground where his mother used to take him when he was younger.

The metal swing set was rusted and old; the slide had collapsed from neglect and age. It’s as if the playground is reflecting the town’s reaction to the passing of Steve Redding. Arthur sat on the swing, allowing it to slowly sway back and forth. He collected his thoughts, still wrapping his brain around the fact that Officer Redding was killed. Something about it made him think the family man was involved in something that he shouldn’t have been. “Aren’t you a little too old to be playing on a playground?”

The voice startled him, and he glanced up in surprise. Standing a few feet away, clad in matching black dresses and heels were the Night twins. Callie’s dress was knee length, and her hair were knotted in a braid over her shoulder. Kathy’s dress was full length, and her dark hair was curled down her back.

“I used to come here all the time as a kid,” he confessed, “when my dad was healthier. He would push me on the swing and mom would help me up the ladder to the slide. Every now and then Officer Redding would come by sometimes with his own kids; we used to clamber around on the monkey bars until it was time to leave.” He wasn’t sure why he was telling them this, but it feels right. “Our parents never took us to a playground,” Callie replied sadly, “they were too busy hunting and training others to take us out. I couldn’t tell you if we even went a movie theater or an amusement park. We got used to it overtime, but I just wish we’d had the chance to live a normal childhood and have fun.”

Parry was too upset to feel sorry for the young hunters. “You must be Arthur Parry,” Kathy jumped in, “we saw you at the airport.” That got the boy’s attention, “you saw me?” Kathy nodded, “we’ve also read your comments on our videos and blogs when they come up. I’m impressed with your knowledge of the paranormal, to be honest.” Parry blushed slightly, “I read a lot of paranormal adventures and watch other hunters online. I even managed to get my hands on one of the old instruction handbooks your parents used to hand out to their students.”

Callie’s eyes widened in disbelief, “really? How did you get it?” “My friend found it for me,” Arthur shrugged, “I didn’t ask how he got it. He’s always stealing one thing or another. I used to ask him how he got half the stuff he gave me, but he would only say that he found it or picked it up somewhere. My mom keeps telling me I should stop hanging out with him because he’s not a good guy, but I don’t have any other friends.” The twins shared a look that he didn’t see, he had looked back at the church as he once again wondered why Gary wasn’t responding to his texts or phone calls or emails.

The Night twins had requested all the textbooks be returned to their home before they moved, a former student had attempted to copy the text and they had decided to remove it from the public to prevent their family Hunting secrets from being shared with too many people. That student had been removed from Night Hunting classes after his classmates began noticing strange behavior and an abnormal obsession with Hell and Shadow Angels.

Shortly after his dismissal, he had been found in his house with a bullet wound to the head and a pentagram on the floor. The textbook was never recovered, and police had never closed the case. They couldn’t determine if it was a suicide or a murder.

“Well,” Callie said after an awkward moment of silence, “I think you already know why we’re really here.” The boy nodded, “you’re on a Hunt. A big one.” Callie nodded, “we decided to do the hunt earlier than expected. Too many strange occurrences and coincidences have popped up in the last few months. All of them link back to Bristow. We’re here to figure out what is going on and why.” “Is Officer Redding’s death why you’re here,” Arthur asked, “do you think that his murder is somehow connected to all the links you found?” Kathy looked at him impressed, “you catch on fast. Yes, we do believe there was some dark paranormal involvement in his death, and we want to know what and why. From what we’ve heard, this cop was a relatively good guy and had no shady history or enemies.

“People on both sides of the law respected him, yet this happened and in a very violent manner. That and his location, which we know isn’t where he normally went, indicate that there are most definitely paranormal disturbances involved.” “We also believe he was involved in Sneering. The area where his body was found is notorious for the activity,” Callie continued. Arthur frowned, “Sneering?”

“Street term for stealing paranormal objects in the black market,” Callie explained patiently, “some people believe that the spirit energy can be useful in weapon making or other items. It’s a complicated and long process that is equal parts science and paranormality, and the smallest error could be deadly. Normally, Hunters help ghosts move to the Other Side or cope with their situation until they find peace on their own terms. Sneering involves selling the souls to paranormal weapon dealers, or in some cases, black magic sorcerers.”

Arthur jumped in surprise, “black magic? That stuff is real?” Although Parry had always believed in the supernatural, he had only thought of it in good terms. He only saw good Hunters, lost spirits wandering around, magic meant to bring balance to the natural world. But black magic? That was a concept he’d only seen on TV and read in books. “As real as you and me,” Kathy said grimly, “we think that Officer Redding was involved in a Sneering ring and was killed before he could rat out his partners. Thanks to our underground connections, we now know exactly where the soul he tried to sell is located and who has it.

“Our plan is to reclaim the soul then track down the other Sneers and find out how many other souls they’ve obtained and for what purpose.” Arthur looked down at his feet and images of Officer Redding lying in his coffin, his wife and children mourning his loss, flashed through his mind. Redding had been there when his father was dying from cancer and had even helped raise money so the family could deal with the medical debt after his death.

The officer held a special place in his heart and the idea that someone wanted to kill such a nice guy made Arthur’s blood boil. He jumped off the swing and looked at the twins with a fiery determination in his eyes. “I want in. If you have a plan to catch whoever did this, I want to help.” Kathy narrowed her eyes, “you sure? It’ll be dangerous and risky.

“We’d have to sneak into a well-guarded Sneering operation to get more details, and they don’t like Hunters at all. They’ll go out fighting if it comes down to that.” “Are you sure you want to go through with this,” Callie asked, “it would be problematic and devastating if you were to get hurt or killed. Your mother would be heartbroken. And there would be too many questions if it became known that you had snuck out to hang out with us at night.” Arthur nodded once, “I’m sure.” The twins shared another look and Parry made a mental note of it so that he could prepare himself for their responses.

“Alright, you can come with us,” Kathy said almost reluctantly, “but you’ll have to make an excuse for coming with us. If anything happens, you weren’t with us. We’ve gotten lawsuits and backfire for allowing fans to go Hunting with us and we refuse to take the blame anymore.” “Also, I’d recommend going in the church before anyone notices you’re gone.” Callie said as she looked towards the church, “it looks like your mom sent your brother to go find you.”

Arthur followed her gaze and saw Roger walking around the parking lot, clearly searching for him. “Can you meet me after school sometime this week,” Arthur asked the Night twins, “I could tell my mom I’m going to a friend’s house to study and work on a class project. That’ll buy me at least 3 hours of time.” Callie turned to Kathy who was checking her phone. “Make sure to tell your mom when you get home or before you leave for school tomorrow,” Kathy ordered him without looking up from her phone, “once you get in the car, we’re not stopping or turning back. So, you better be sure this is what you want to do, we don’t want another wannabe Hunter dying on us.” “I won’t die,” Arthur said as he began heading to the parking lot, “I promise.”

Arthur sprinted towards Roger, unable to keep the grin off his face. He was going to help Callie and Kathy, his lifelong dream of going on a Hunt with the famous Night Twins was coming true. It would be dangerous, but he had to know why Officer Redding had been killed. Roger saw him coming and frowned, “where were you? Mom’s been worried. You didn’t tell anyone where you were going.” Arthur paused to catch his breath then told the half-truth, “I didn’t know if I could look at Officer Redding in his coffin anymore without crying so I decided to sit on the swing and think. I still can’t believe he’s gone.”

Roger’s face softened, seeing the true sorrow in his baby brother’s face. He placed a hand on Arthur’s shoulder, “I know buddy. I can’t either. Redding was the nicest cop in town, and everyone loved him, or so I thought. If he was murdered, I’m betting it’s someone from another area he worked at. He used to be a prison warden and those guys usually hold grudges against anyone who doesn’t bend to their will.” Arthur made a note of that, maybe Callie and Kathy could use this information in their investigation.

“Come on, let’s go back inside,” Roger interrupted his thoughts, “we’re meeting Redding’s wife and kids at BBQ Sam’s for lunch.” The siblings headed inside the building and allowed the doors to close slowly behind them.

Back at the swing set, the twins were arguing about Arthur coming with them to the Sneering operation. “He’s only fifteen,” Kathy said irritably, “He’s still in school and doesn’t even know how to defend himself. I can’t believe you told him yes.” Callie groaned at the tone in her voice, “You don’t need to remind me, Kat. I only said yes because he was so eager to help. He’s also the only one in this town who would believe us if we said that Officer Redding’s death had a close connection with the paranormal.” Kathy paced back and forth, wringing her hands, and muttering under her breath. “You should’ve told him the truth,” she said finally. Callie removed her glasses and wiped them off on her dress.

A close friend and informant had told them of reported sightings and attacks in a nearby town that could possibly be related to Shadow Angels. Although they aren’t entirely sure how to handle the problem, it’s their only chance to see one in person and analyze the enemy. Kat stopped pacing, “okay, say we do pick this kid up and take him along. Do we tell him the truth or make him stay in the car? We could tell him that we realized the Sneers had more muscle and firepower than we originally thought. Either way, I don’t think it’s safe for him to get involved. We’ve already gotten one eager fan killed; I don’t want another death on our hands.”

Her twin flinched at the painful memory and unconsciously wrapped her arms around herself, as if to hide from the fatal mistake that still haunted her. Years ago, a nice girl who loved her videos had asked if she could come with the twins on a Hunt. Kathy had reluctantly agreed to let her come along and had even given her a pair of Shades, in case of emergency. The girl was told to stay in the control room and watch the cameras while Kathy and Callie explored the building. At one point, the entity they were chasing, an Aggressor, had located the defenseless girl.

Neither twin had thought about the possibility of her being in any danger, so she was left in the room without a Gem or Shades to protect her, an error that cost them dearly. The spirit possessed her and compelled the girl to chase after the twins to kill them. Once they realized what had happened, they searched for the fan before she could hurt herself or them. But it was too late, the Aggressor lost total control of the fan, allowing her to gain control of her own movements once again. When she realized what had happened, the girl threw herself out a third story window and died on the pavement waiting below. The only good thing that had come out of the Hunt was that the Aggressor’s Essence had shattered to pieces when the poor girl died.

Callie shrugged away the memory and said, “I don’t think it’ll make much of a difference if we tell him or not. He’s a fan who thinks Hunting is the best thing in the world, especially when his role models are doing a Hunt in the town where he lives. We can’t tell him to wait in the car because odds are, he’d just follow us anyways to try and prove he’s capable of Hunting with us. There’s something different about him, maybe it’s the Celestial Sight he has. I’ve done some research and there are no records of someone being able to see all spirits including Shadow Angels. In fact, I could only find seven people who were confirmed as having Celestial Sight dating back to 1857.”

 “Do you think he knows he has Celestial Sight,” Kathy asked curiously. Her twin shrugged, “I don’t know. He’s watched our show and knows that you can’t normally see specters without Shades, but that doesn’t mean much. Some cases of Celestial Sight were not about seeing; two of them couldn’t see them but could sense their presence. Arthur may be one those people who can only sense the energy.” Kathy snorted, “That could mean nothing. Almost every Hunter can sense the energy of ghosts if it’s powerful enough or close enough.”

Callie sighed, “I’m not saying he has it or doesn’t. I’m just saying there’s something different about him. His paranormal energy levels are extraordinarily strong and pure. Even you should have noticed that.” Paranormal energy was what Hunters called Sixth Sense, the ability to sense an unnatural presence or power that wasn’t human. Hunters were trained to harness this skill in dark places and areas where Shades were useless.

The twins talked a little longer than headed back to their car to plan for the trip with Arthur. Although they didn’t know it, but they had been watched by someone hiding in the woods. Someone who was planning to ambush them at their location and bring himself back to his former glory. All he needed to do was capture the Night twins, and then his master would realize he could lead the Shadow Angels.

Chapter 4 The Secret Hunting Trip

Arthur usually kept an online blog to talk about his day, but since his mom tended to read through his stuff while he was at school, he decided not to. He was bursting with excitement about the trip with Callie and Kathy and just felt the urge to tell someone about this stroke of luck was going to explode. The twins had sent him a letter late last night reminding him not to tell anyone where he was going and to come up with a good excuse for the trip.

They also asked him to put two flashlights, extra batteries, walkie talkies, and a small handheld video camera with night vision in his spare book bag. They were still in the process of moving in so they couldn’t say exactly when they were going to pick him up from school; he had to be ready at a last-minute notice. He wondered if he would be given Shades or Paranormal Gems for a Shape of Banishment, the key term for shapes made from jewel dust used to send spirits to the other side.

Arthur was still pleasantly shocked that they had decided to let him tag along for the Hunt. Although he had a feeling he wouldn’t get to help much, it would still be an honor to hang out with Callie and Kathy Night. He was so excited that he had even raided his mother’s jewelry box in search of gems to use as weapons. All he could find was a small ruby ring and a pair of emerald earrings. When his mom caught him with the jewelry, he explained that they were asked to bring some gems to school so they could test for authenticity. She, surprisingly, allowed him to take the ring and earrings and had even insisted he take a topaz necklace that had been a gift to her from Arthur’s father.

 “Arthur stop daydreaming and get down here,” his mom called from the bottom of the stairs, “you’re going to miss the bus.” He grabbed both the bookbags then rushed down to meet his mother. “What’s with the second bag,” she asked. He said, “Gym clothes and my running shoes.” She shrugged as she opened the door for him, she didn’t know that he didn’t have a gym class. He rushed to the bus stop and was standing there less than ten seconds before his bus came.

Normally, he didn’t take the bus to and from school. He used to ride with Gary all the time, but Gary hadn’t been seen at school in a few weeks and rumors were beginning to spread that he had been expelled after getting into a fight. Although he didn’t show it, the rumors concerned Arthur. He hadn’t heard from Gary recently, in fact, Gary had apparently been avoiding contact with everyone including his family. Either way, he wasn’t coming by anytime soon. He sat near the back with Zack from third period. Zack seemed pleasantly surprised to see him as he set his bag in the floor and scooted next to the window. “Hey, Arthur. Haven’t seen you on the bus in a while. Did Gary quit hanging out with you?” Arthur turned to him in surprise, “does everyone know Gary hasn’t shown up?” Zack nodded, “nobody likes him, but this small town pays attention when someone disappears. And, besides, you forget that he lives two doors down from me.”

Arthur had forgotten about that; Zack was how he had found out that Gary’s parents were abusive alcoholics to their only son. “So, have you seen him at all,” Parry asked as they stopped to pick up a brother and sister. Zack shook his head, “I see his mom all the time, she leaves for work around the time the bus picks me up. I don’t think they even know he’s gone, not that they ever cared. His car is gone too so everyone believes they kicked him out or that he ran away.” They changed the subject to Call of Duty and then exchanged phone numbers since Arthur had; Zack promised to let him know if Gary showed up again. Arthur doubted it, Gary had been talking for months about how he planned to leave his parents’ house and move as far away as he could.

When they got to school, people looked scared as they whispered hurriedly in their social groups. “What’s going on,” Arthur asked Zack. Zack shrugged as they traversed the halls, “let’s go ask someone.” They stopped a junior in the lunchroom and asked what was up. He gave them a weird look, “are you kidding me? You don’t know?” Arthur raised an eyebrow, “know what?” “You know the case of all the missing teenagers? Three disappear at a time and show up dead months later?”

The boys nodded sadly; the news had dubbed it the “Cult Kills” because all the victims had been found with pentagrams carved into their stomachs and palms. Every cult and cult fanatic had been interrogated or investigated as a suspect, but all of them were cleared and the case was unsolved. Arthur personally didn’t believe the killings were related to cults, but he hadn’t told anybody about his suspicions that it was a non- human involvement. “Well, these two brothers went late night fishing at William’s Pond by Stutter Park. They fell down an embankment and found three girls who went missing two months ago. Those girls went to our school.” Arthur’s heart went into his throat, and he paled slightly, “who were they?”

The kid shrugged, “some cheerleaders or something. Popular kids is what I heard. I never liked those kinds of people, but no one deserves to die like they did.” He walked a few feet away then paused and turned back, “almost forgot to mention. Bristow is under curfew because of it. Everyone is to be inside by 9 p.m. Rumors are school is going to be letting out at 2 until the killer is caught.” Arthur cursed himself quietly; it was going to be even harder for him to sneak out with Callie and Kathy now. If there was a curfew and an early school day, his mother would most definitely make him ride with her instead of taking the bus.

He wondered if the girls knew what was going on and decided to call them, Callie had put her phone number in the last e-mail. He dialed the number and ducked into a bathroom so he could hear. “Hey, you’ve reached the number of Callie Night. I’m not here now so leave a message and I’ll try to get back to you as soon as possible. Stay spooky!” Of course, it was a voicemail, they were probably busy gathering everything they needed for a Hunt.

“Callie, it’s Arthur,” he started off the voice message, “there’s been three more murders, so the whole town is under curfew. They’re convinced there’s a serial killer in town, so everyone must be indoors by 9 p.m. and schools are letting out at 2. It’s going to be even harder for me to sneak out if ya’ll still plan to do the investigation this week. Get back to me if you can figure out a way to do it.”

He ended the message and headed to class before the late bell rang. He, like everyone else, was nervous and talking about the girls who had been murdered. By fourth period, he had found out two of the girls were soccer players and the third girl was a member of band, a flute player. Arthur hadn’t known them personally but felt bad for what their families now had to come to terms with. By sixth period, nobody was concerned with learning or studying. Everyone was discussing the girls and how awful it was about what had happened. Several kids said their parents were talking about moving because they worried their kids would be the next victim. Arthur wondered if his mom would try to do the same thing then pushed the thought from his mind.

His mom had just been promoted in her new job and had mentioned numerous times in the past that this would be the last and final house they lived in. Arthur could remember living in eight different houses in the last ten years, each one of varying sizes and conditions. At the time, his father had brought in much of the income while his mom struggled to find a decent paying job and go to college for her Chemistry degree. A rock settled deep in the pit of Arthur’s stomach, his brother and sister had been happier back then. They had been eager to take him outside to play tag or hide and seek while their parents argued about everything from the kids to their careers. Edward Parry was diagnosed with a deadly skin cancer when Arthur was twelve, it had been a bad time for the family.

Edward had also been the only family member who had no issues with his youngest son’s obsession with the paranormal, one year he had bought Arthur a miniature ghost hunting kit for Christmas, a kit the boy still had in his closet. “Don’t worry dad,” Arthur said under his breath, “I’ll make you proud. I’ll help Callie and Kathy figure out who killed Officer Redding.”

Callie and Kathy had been in the process of packing their bags for the Hunt when they’d heard Arthur’s voicemail about the three new deaths. They were starting to regret telling Arthur he could tag along, and they considered whether they should call him back and say he can’t. “This might be our only chance to figure out if he really has the abilities that he is rumored to have,” Callie said reasonably, “he might be the only chance we have to beat the Shadow Angels when they try to finish their blood ritual.”

Kathy removed her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose; she knew her twin was right. But… “He’s just a boy, he has a family and he’s still in school. This isn’t anything like what he sees on TV, Arthur could die doing this.” “We were much younger than him when we started Hunting,” Callie argued, “we were in elementary school when we started. And I thought we agreed that he wouldn’t technically be Hunting, just observing as we do a Hunt. He hangs back with the camera and studies what we do.”

“I still can’t believe you put up that ad on the Internet to start with. What if he hadn’t decided to fill out a form?” “There’s no way he wouldn’t,” Callie said with a snap, “he watches my videos all the time and reads my blogs. He wouldn’t dare miss an opportunity to meet a celebrity in person.” Her twin stopped pinching her nose, put her glasses back on, and glared at her. “So, this isn’t about analyzing his talents, is it? You only decided to put up that ad for the fame. To ‘prove’ you’re a hotshot celebrity with a massive fanbase.”

Callie flared her nostrils angrily as she stared at her twin in disbelief, Kathy knew damn well she was Hunting to keep the memory of their parents alive. She had grown up learning the trade and she was determined to continue the practice, for the money, the thrill, and to honor their parents. Callie knew it was pointless to argue so she just rocked back and forth on her heels to allow the slowly burning anger dissipate before it exploded. Kathy watched her sister sulk and took the time to steady her breath and blink away tears that had started to form. Even ten years later, she was still deeply traumatized by the death of their parents. She could still see the helpless fear in their eyes, hear the horrified screams as they died, smell the sickening combination of sulfur and ash that rose from the Shadow Angel when he flew off into the night.

With a will of steel and determination, Kathy gave Callie such a dark look that her twin stepped back and moved her arms closer to her body as if to defend herself. “You have no idea how much I want revenge. You didn’t see them die. You didn’t hear them scream, knowing that you couldn’t save them or do anything. How the hell could you possibly understand anything! All you care about is your stupid fanbase and the publicity on the Internet. You only care about yourself!” With these words, Kathy stormed off to her room and slammed the door behind her.

Callie was too shocked by the sudden outburst to pursue, too stunned by the accusations thrown in her face. She forced herself to pull out her Shades from her pocket and make sure they were clean and fully charged. She had been at home helping her uncle reorganize the library when Kathy returned home in the company of a policeman. The cop had told them that the young parents had been sitting with Kathy on a hill when a random bolt of lightning struck the pair and killed them instantly.

Kathy had been far enough away that she did not suffer their fate. After he left the house, Kathy and her uncle went into the library, shut the door, and discussed what had really happened to her parents. Callie, meanwhile, had sat in the living room crying and screaming in disbelief. Their parents couldn’t be dead, they just couldn’t. The true story had left their uncle with an icy resolve and ultimate quest for revenge, a quest that had resulted in his death. He had, quite literally, worked himself to death over the investigation.

Above Callie, Kathy was sitting on her bed sobbing. Kathy had never truly gotten over their parents’ death and it bothered her that she hadn’t been strong enough to protect them. At the same time, she was angry with them. Before they had left, she had told them of a nightmare she had had of their deaths, murdered a by a tall black figure with wings. Hunters were somewhat connected to the metaphysical and spiritual, so dreams were not uncommon. Joshua and Sandra had always taken their dreams and visions seriously and used them as further proof not to go on a Hunt or to bring extra gear. But this time, the Nights had told her this Hunt was important and they had to go whether they liked it or not.

Kathy had gone with them to try and protect them, only to watch them die a horrible death. She wasn’t even entirely sure what had killed them, she had a vague memory of them screaming and black dust or ashes rising into the air just before they disappeared. Kathy wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and began to pace around the room, deep in thought. What was the Hunt Joshua and Sandra Night had insisted they couldn’t pass up? Had they been purposely lured there? If so, why did the Shadow Angel want to kill him? Was he working alone or was he taking orders from a higher power? Kathy wiped off her glasses on her sleeve then pushed them onto the bridge of her nose. There were too many unknowns in the death of Joshua and Sandra, too many coincidences that had occurred before and after their deaths.

It was beginning to give her a bad feeling. Something big was coming and she and Callie were going to be caught up in it. Kathy sighed as she came to a reluctant conclusion. If her theory was right, Arthur Parry might be the only one standing between the Shadow Angels and outright disaster in the mortal world. She used the back of her hand to wipe away the tears from her cheeks just as Callie burst into her room looking perplexed. Kathy looked up surprised and raised an eyebrow. “You need to read this article. Now.” Callie gave her twin her phone then leaned up against the wall and placed her face in her hands. Kathy pushed her glasses further up her nose and looked down at the phone in her hand, the emboldened words emitted a gasp from her.

Missing Teens Found Dead Behind Church.” Kathy glanced up at her twin for further explanation, fear and guilt settled in the pit of her stomach. “Three girls went missing two weeks ago, they were hanging out at a gas station. Their car was found abandoned in the parking lot with the girls’ belongings still inside. A garbage collector found the bodies dumped behind a church this morning. Cause of death is attributed to a sharp object being used to slit their throats. And there are symbols on the bodies, which leads police to believe this is the work of a cult or some serial killer who worships Satan.” Kathy closed her eyes and released a slow breath. “We need to find Arthur. The Shadow Angels are preparing for something big and whatever they’re doing is almost complete. We’re running out of time.” “I just got a voicemail from Arthur”, her voice sounded grim, “the town is being placed under curfew and all students are to immediately go home after school. They must ask permission from authorities if they wish to go anywhere. And they have to be accompanied by an adult.”

“Shit,” Kathy said quietly. “What do we do now,” Callie asked, “if Arthur can’t leave that means we won’t be able to raid that warehouse. “What do you mean we can’t do it,” Kathy asked, her eyes narrowed, “we don’t need him. I’d prefer if he didn’t come along so we have one less person to worry about if things went from bad to worse. I don’t know why you thought bringing him along and lying to his mom was a good idea.” Callie shook her head and looked away from her twin, she’d already explained multiple times why they should bring Arthur, but it seemed Kathy hadn’t paid attention as usual. Kathy was like their mother, bossy, demanding, mature and altogether impossible to reason with. She was set in her own ways and believed she was not only smarter than everybody but also the ultimate authority. “How are we supposed to see what he’s capable of if we don’t take him with us,” Callie said quietly.

Kathy placed a pair of Shades in a sunglasses case and then rolled her eyes exasperatedly, she was not in the mood to argue with her stubborn twin. Pulling out her phone, she texted Arthur and told him that he wouldn’t be accompanying them to the Snatchers warehouse. “Do we have everything ready,” she asked as she put her phone in her back pocket. Callie nodded and they loaded the equipment into the backseat of their car. Using the GPS, they started their journey to the warehouse, noting all the police cars and unmarked cars that were patrolling the streets. “It won’t be easy sneaking into that warehouse,” Kathy noted sourly, “we’ll have to worry about alerting the lookouts. I’ve seen at least three on the side door and one or two at the front when I scoped the place yesterday.” “We’ve had worse odds before and gotten in and out just fine,” Callie said with a dismissive shrug.” Her twin rolled her eyes, she had always been dismissive of danger and had more than once gotten them both in trouble.

They reached the warehouse just an hour before sunset and parked half a mile from the area. Kathy retrieved a drone from the backseat, attached a camera to the stand, then used her controller to set it into the sky. It was high enough that the lookouts wouldn’t see it in the fading daylight, but low enough that the twins would be able to get a better idea of the warehouse. Callie kept watching the streets for onlookers while Kathy adjusted some of the settings for a better view. “There we go,” she said satisfied. On the laptop they could see live footage of the warehouse, it was surrounded by a high chain- link fence and a gate that could only be opened from inside the building by a switch in the control room. “I see four guys outside, they’ve got weapons. They split off in two pairs and patrol the sides then go back in through that side door on the left.” Callie made a careful study of their guns, small automatic handguns that she would bet were infused with illegally obtained Paranormal Gems. “How often is the watch traded,” she asked as she scanned the empty street again.

“Not very often so they’re either too arrogant to keep the place locked down or they don’t have enough guys to keep a constant lookout. From what I saw when I came yesterday, I’d say they only have a handful of men running this operation.” “Alright we know their schedule and their number, let’s go,” Callie said impatiently. Kathy called back the drone with a nod. Secretly she was hoping busting the Sneering operation would make her twin forget about her inviting Arthur to join them. Once the drone was placed back in the car, the Night twins grabbed their bags and walked at a brisk but calm pace into the fading sunlight.

Arthur peeked around the corner, readjusting his glasses as he noticed the car pull into the parking lot of a gas station. He fidgeted nervously with his bookbag strap, knowing what he was risking by coming out here after his mom had told him no. He had to impress the Night twins or he’d becoming home to a lifetime of punishment. The drone buzzed at it climbed high into the sky, he ducked low to the ground so he wouldn’t be spotted.

He wasn’t sure why he was hiding from Callie and Kathy, but he refused to stand again until the drone had disappeared from view. Shortly after the argument with his mom, he had gone to his room, packed his bag with some hunting essentials, then climbed out his window to the yard. Arthur had convinced his mysteriously absent friend to drop him off at the downtown bookstore, the boy hadn’t said a word as he picked him up or dropped him off. Arthur watched the twins head into a back alley leading to the warehouse and waited a count of thirty before following the same path.

The twins slid under the fence as quietly as they could, it wasn’t an easy feat with their backpacks, or the weapons strapped to their belt loops. They even froze for a moment or two before continuing forward, no one had been alerted. “Ahead,” Kathy whispered, pointing ahead. Callie caught sight of the gun barrel as the lookout ducked out of sight to smoke a cigarette. “I don’t think his companion is with him.” “He’s not one of the usual lookouts, he might just be coming outside for a smoke.” Callie nodded in agreement as she produced a syringe from a small pouch attached to her hip. It was filled with a mild sedative designed to knock out a target for three hours, long enough for the twins to accomplish their mission without a fight. “Does he have a vial on him,” Kathy asked as they dragged the man out of sight from the road. Callie checked his pockets and shook her head, if their Sneers had already successfully produced Essence powered weapons, the men weren’t equipped with them. “So, they either haven’t accomplished their goal or haven’t made enough to supply the crew.”

Kathy crouched by the door the man had come from and placed a small metal half- circle against the door. Into her ear she placed an earbud which had been connected wirelessly to the magnetic speaker. She could hear buzzsaws and chemical pots bubbling inside, distinct chatter from the men inside. She shook her head after listening for several long moments, she couldn’t hear the familiar screams of an Essence released from its vial. “If my research is right, this building has been occupied almost two weeks,” she mused quietly, “these Sneers are either new to the Essence business or their working with some more powerful Spirits like an Aggressor.” Callie nodded in agreement, secretly she was worried that this group of Sneers were experimenting with more aggressive ghost energies. “I brought Shades and throwing knives just in case,” Callie revealed the hilt of a ruby infused knife at her belt as proof. Kathy lifted her jeans to show a strap attached to her lower leg, four knives were sheathed safely around the strap.

“Just because I gave up Hunting doesn’t mean I’m stupid enough to bust a Sneering operation without Gems.” Callie snorted quietly as a memory struck her, but she chose not to mention it as her twin opened the door ever so slowly.

Arthur tried to cross the street at a brisk pace while also not looking suspicious. He hoped the backpack would make people think he was taking a shortcut from school. The warehouse seemed quiet, but he knew the Night twins wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t occupied. As he crouch walked down the side alley, he found an unconscious man tucked under a pile of dying brush. A needle mark in his neck told Arthur that Callie and Kathy had come this way only minutes ago. The boy tripped over a branch and gritted his teeth at the snap echoing around him. Thankfully, neither the twins nor the occupants of the warehouse had heard him.

        

But the branch also told him that his weight was too obvious, he had to ditch the backpack. The bag had been a gift from his father, so Arthur felt uncomfortable leaving it anywhere. But he didn’t want to be a burden to the twins so with a heavy heart he stashed it under a dead bush several feet away from the unconscious man. Reaching into the biggest pocket, he retrieved his flashlight and a small marble bag that felt heavy in his palm. Before leaving the house, Arthur had raided his mother’s and sister’s room for jewelry containing the gems Callie had mentioned many times on her website. It had taken some sneaking and reoccurring trips before he found some jewelry which contained pure jewels which, Arthur hoped and prayed, would protect him from any spirit attacks.

The boy reached the door at the back of the building, finding it open barely a hair. The twins were inside now, Arthur had to be extra careful.

Once inside the building, the twins allowed the door to close behind them. The warehouse itself had been built with two floors which went underground. Below their feet, the twins saw a chemistry lab being used by a dozen men in labcoats. Microscopes, Bunsen burners, chemical flasks, and jars of unidentified material was scattered across a row of tables which had been set up in a hurry. To the left of the lab, Callie could see at least ten crates filled with guns of differing sizes, makes and models. Upon closer inspection she saw painted symbols on the crates: red meaning they had been failed experiments, blue to indicate further tests were needed, and green meaning the weapons were successfully infused with the Essence of a deceased human being. In the back of the warehouse, Kathy saw a row of targets and two men testing guns spread out on another table. They would pick up a gun, label it on the clipboard, fire off a few rounds, then indicate their findings on the clipboard.

        

“This is bad, these guys aren’t amateurs,” Kathy said under her breath, “they must be continuing their work from another place.” “Yeah, and it looks like they have at least three boxes of guns they’ve successfully fused with Essence. Most of the guns look like pistols and revolvers, but I see a few semi-automatic weapons and a sniper rifle.” Upon closer look at the workers, the twins started to recognize faces and deduced they had broken off from other Sneering operations to start a new group. Although the Hunters had a website to identify Sneers, many of the operatives were never caught because law enforcement didn’t believe Sneering was serious enough to get jail time.

“Ok what do we do now,” Callie asked her twin. “I don’t want to take them head- on, most of them look armed,” Kathy replied as her eyes watched the crowd, “even if the guns aren’t Essence fused, I’d rather not get involved in a gun fight. We have fifteen minutes before a patrol is sent outside and if that happens, we lose our window of opportunity.” Callie also watched the crowd; she had become familiar with the way Kathy’s mind worked when she was forming a plan. She gritted her teeth as another rifle was added to the green box. “According to my blueprints, this warehouse was built with a sprinkler system and a foam system that automatically activate if there’s smoke or carbon monoxide. If I can locate the box, I can produce enough smoke to trigger the fire suppression system. In the confusion we’ll sneak down, grab some of the successful weapons, grab the Essence off their tables, then get out before the fire department shows up.”

“Where’s the Essence,” Callie asked with a frown. Her twin smiled faintly as she pointed to a table where four men gathered with a clipboard. On the table was a milk carton box filled with at least twenty vials which, even from their vantage point, were visibly glowing a bluish- white. The color of an Essence. “Do you want me to trigger the fire suppression or do you,” Callie asked as she readjusted the sheath with her knives in it. Kathy unbuckled a pouch from her belt and produced a lighter and a handful of paper. “I’ll go start the fire, while I head over there you need to find a place to jump down when the sprinklers and foam go off. If you have any more of those needles they’ll come in handy. Don’t fight anybody unless you have to.”

The twins nodded and split off to their tasks. Secretly, Callie was overjoyed that her twin was once again doing the job of a Hunter again. She made many friends in the community, but her twin had always been her best partner. She had hoped her Internet blog would make Kathy miss the work and convince her to come back, but after several months she had decided to use it to educate the general public on Hunting. Callie found the ladder and sunk to her knees; she could still watch the Seers, but the railway had been built with a chain-link fence, so she was out of view unless she stood up. Glancing over, she could see Kathy just approaching the fire suppression box with her lighter and paper. As if on cue, the twin glanced over at Callie and nodded her head slightly.

They weren’t identical twins, but the two always had a way of sensing each other’s emotions and glances without uttering a word. With a flick of her thumb, Kathy lit the lighter, touched it to the paper, then laid the small flame under the fire suppression box. Still staying low, she hurried away just as the alarm began to blare and the sprinklers turned on. The Seers all cried out in surprise, Callie’s Fifth Sense allowed her to detect Spanish and some German in the voices. She waited for a count of ten before slipping down the ladder and headed for the vials. If she didn’t hurry, the Sneers would pack up the Essence and be gone to another location. She wanted to check on her twin but the mass of men in panic kept her focus on the vials. Not too far now. The blue- white glow was so close, and she hadn’t had to use her needles.

Her path was blocked by two men running blindly in the falling water. She ducked behind a water cooler, holding her breath. Callie pulled a needle from her belt and gripped it in her left hand, all she needed was to puncture a vein or an artery for the sedative to take full effect. She rose to her knees, inching forward until the toe of her boot was in the walkway. “Schnapp dir die Fläschchen,” her enhanced hearing made the voice sound like it was just behind her. The German was on the other side of the water cooler. They were running out of time, she thrust the needle back into her belt and quickly darted into the next walkway over. Again, the Night twin dove into a crouch and felt her body sink as a familiar two- tone whistle echoed over her head.

Kathy had gotten to the vials; it was time to leave. Callie rose from her crouch and dashed for the ladder ahead. The Sneers didn’t notice the twins as they slipped out the door, they had come in. The girls sunk to the ground, breathing heavily but happy to have made it out undetected. “That was easier than I thought it would be,” Callie said in- between breaths. Her twin wheezed, “easy for you. I had to take out three men before I got to the vials.” “Well, we got what we came for. Time to go.” The Night twins headed down the alleyway and froze when a man walked from the other side of the building and saw them. “Was tun Sie hier?” The man demanded in German. The twins said nothing. He pulled a gun from his belt and pointed it at them, taking a step closer. “Wer bist du? Wer hat dich gesch-” The man suddenly fell face forward and the girls could hear him groan slightly into the dirt.

Behind the fallen man, stood Arthur holding a baseball bat. “Oh man, that was a close one,” he said with a shaky smile. Before Kathy could demand why he was there, she heard a fire truck roaring down the street. As one, the trio dove into the bushes and waited until the firetruck had parked before racing across the street and clambering into Kathy’s car. They watched a second truck pull up to the warehouse and Kathy calmly pulled into the street, driving away from the warehouse.

Unbeknownst to the twins and the boy, a dark figure had been observing them from the deepest shadows of the bushes. The fallen man lay only inches from his feet, and he kicked the man’s arm away, disgusted, as he went to the parking lot. As he’d predicted, the twins had located the Sneers and come for the Essence without being spotted. Many of his kind would be outraged that the girls had managed to get away with thirty vials of Essence. But this creature refused to allow himself emotion over the loss of weak spirits. He produced a vial from the pocket of his jeans and held it at eye level. Unlike the Essence in the vials that the twins had, this vial gave off a black- white glow. He smiled darkly and once again disappeared into the shadows, his plan was coming together perfectly.

Chapter 5   Worse Than Being Grounded

Arthur had been hoping his role models would at least thank him for saving them from being shot. Instead, they sat in the front seat in complete silence and wouldn’t even look at him. Shamefaced, he laid the bat in the floorboards and shrugged his jacket sleeves over his hands. He couldn’t help, however, looking in awe when they finally arrived at the new home of the Night twins.

Arthur knew their old home had been a luxurious manor so seeing a two- story home located in a quiet neighborhood was quite a surprise for him. They pulled into the garage and Arthur could see folded up moving boxes tucked into a corner and some garden tools near the door to the house. Kathy removed the key from the ignition and suddenly leaned back to glare at the boy angrily. “What the hell did you think you were doing back there? Do you know how dangerous that was? Those men had guns. You could’ve been shot. Did you even think of that before showing up?” Arthur looked down at his hands and tried to curl them into fists to keep them from shaking. This is not how he thought his first Hunt with the Night twins would turn out.

He hadn’t known the men were armed; he didn’t even know for sure why the twins had wanted to raid the warehouse. He’d assumed they were cleansing the building of a spirit. But saying any of this wouldn’t soothe Kathy’s rage so he sat in silence, refusing to meet her eyes or even Callie’s. Kathy rounded on her sister, “you shouldn’t have told him he could tag along. You knew the Sneers would have guns.” Callie shrugged, “you said yes when we mentioned going the first time. You can’t say anything. Now do you plan on yelling at the boy all day or do you actually want to see what’s in the vials?”

Kathy growled deep in her throat before slamming the car door open and retrieving the vials which had been sitting at her feet. Arthur could hear a faint hissing from the vials before Kathy pushed the door closed with her hip. “I’m sorry,” Arthur whispered in a shaky voice, “I’m so sorry.” Callie gave him a pitiful look before reaching down to remove the needles and knives from their sheaths. “If anyone here needs to apologize, it’s me. I should’ve told you about why we were going to the warehouse. It’s not wise for a non- Hunter like yourself to be caught anywhere near a Sneering operation. I’m just glad you didn’t get caught by those men or killed.” Arthur was only slightly comforted by Callie’s soft tone, but he still feared Kathy’s rage. “What are Sneers exactly?”

“So, you know how when Hunters go after a ghost, they fuse their Essence into chemically built vials?” The boy nodded. “Well, several hundred years ago, a group of people non associated with the Hunters discovered that Essence could greatly increase the power of weapons. If you use chemistry, alchemy, and some good luck you can ingrain the Essence into an everyday pistol and make it ten times more powerful. It’s a risky process, a lot of wannabe Sneers usually get themselves killed because of wrong chemical mixtures or the Essence they’re working with somehow escapes and kills them.

“Hunters tried to discourage using Essence in the weapons industry, but they do it anyways. Sneers, like the ones you just saw, illegally commission warehouses and turn them into chemistry labs for their operations. The guns they manage to fuse with Essence they sell on the black market for high prices.” Arthur glanced up and was taken back by the anger in Callie’s eyes. He was even more shocked by the idea of a human being’s energy being used to create guns. “Come on, let’s go into the house. You must be hungry.” Callie waited until the boy got out of the car before patting him on the back and leading the way into the house. The door opened into the living room where a grey couch and TV sat askew on a rug. A potted plant by the window made it seem empty, which made Arthur remember that it had only been two days since the twins had moved here.

On the dining room table, Kathy had separated the vials and was examining one under a microscope. Her knives and Shades lay discarded on the kitchen counter, and suddenly Arthur slapped his forehead with a groan. Callie turned back to the boy with a raised eyebrow, “what’s wrong?” “I forgot to grab my bookbag, I left it under a bush before following you two.” Kathy snorted as she adjusted a setting on the microscope. “Don’t worry, I can drive you back tomorrow and we can go look for it. What did you put inside?” “A flashlight, small first aid kit, a box of matches, and some jewelry I took from my mom and sisters.” At this comment, Kathy glanced up and narrowed her eyes at Arthur, “why did you steal jewelry?”

Arthur scratched the back of his head, embarrassed, “I thought the jewels would be useful if I got attacked by a ghost.” Callie chuckled as she grabbed an apple from a bowl and soaked it in cold water. “Unless your gems were chemically alchemically enhanced by a specialist, they won’t help you against a spirit. But I’m glad to know that you didn’t come armed with a crucifix, I still have trouble convincing people that those things are useless.” “They are,” Arthur asked, surprised. Kathy pushed aside the microscope and nodded, “Hunting involves knowledge of science and especially chemistry. We don’t know the process of becoming a ghost, but we do know their structure is chemical based. Now say you’re dealing with an Aggressor in your house, it catches your books on fire and scratches your back. The Aggressor isn’t sent from Heaven, so a crucifix won’t get rid of the problem. If anything, it’ll piss it off more.”

“That is why Hunters started to experiment with Paranormal Gems. It took a lot of failed experiments and millions of dollars of funding, but eventually they learned of a way to fight ghosts. Rubies, emeralds, topaz, and sapphire in their purest forms are chemically interactive with the makeup of ghosts. Unfortunately, a pure gem on its own only weakens a spirit, it doesn’t get rid of it. So, once we found out which gems were reactive with spirit energy, we managed to enhance their effects with chemical experiments and some alchemy.” “Wait you actually use alchemy,” Arthur asked, skeptical, “isn’t alchemy the stuff that can turn rocks into gold and make you immortal?” “That’s the stuff of urban legends and fantasy,” Kathy said with a shrug, “if anything alchemy is just another form of chemistry that is so advanced that only a few have actually mastered it.”

“Exactly,” Callie said, “so like I was saying, these pure gems were fused with chemistry formulas and alchemical experiments until they found one which actually vanquished spirits. Once these Paranormal Gems were created, it was also discovered that they could be fused with weapons to fight ghosts, so you wouldn’t have to throw a ruby at a ghost. The most common weapon Hunters use with Paranormal Gems are throwing weapons, they retain the mixtures easier and in a fight they’re easy to weld. Although, I have heard of a few Hunters in the Middle East who use crossbows and dart guns. But I’m getting off topic, we also have moments where sometimes it’s not necessary to vanquish a ghost.

“Sometimes, we allow spirits to remain on Earth so we can study them or simply because they are harmless. After weapons were created, a young couple aspiring to be expert Hunters came up with the idea of fusing Paranormal Gems with sunglasses.” Arthur perked his head up, “your parents invented Shades?” Callie nodded with pride, “they had alchemy friends who helped with the project until they could make the Shades useful. With this invention we can observe their movements, see traces of their presence, and predict attacks. After Night Hunting was shut down, the notes that explain how to create Shades was released to other Hunters so they could continue their research.” Arthur could only stare in awe, it was exciting to soak up this new information from his role models. “What are you going to do with those,” Parry asked, pointing to the vials on the table.

Kathy replaced the vial with another one before responding, “I’m going to identify what type of spirits these are then request a Hunting team to transport them to a secure location tomorrow. We can’t allow the Sneers to get their hands on these again.” “I know you haven’t examined all of them but for the most part what were they experimenting with,” Callie asked her twin. “Poltergeists and Aggressors. How they obtained them I don’t know but I’m willing to bet a Hunter sold them discreetly after capturing them. This batch are particularly aggressive.” Arthur frowned as Callie nodded in understanding, “how can you tell they’re aggressive? It’s just Essence in a vial.”

Kathy looked up from the microscope with a knowing grin, “come over here and take a closer look through the microscope.” It seemed the Night twin had forgiven Arthur his earlier mistake, he inwardly sighed in relief as he sat beside her and placed his eye on the viewer. He could see the blue- white Essence swirling around in the vial, making random shapes and patterns in the confined space. “I’m not following,” he said after studying the mixture for several moments. Kathy leaned over his shoulder and readjusted a setting, causing the Essence to come into deeper focus. “Do you see the small flecks of yellow and black? This vial contains a Poltergeist, you can tell because of the yellow coloring. All Essence is naturally blue- white, but the other colors are what Hunters look for. Poltergeists can only be dealt with using topaz-”

“Which is yellow, the same color as the Essence,” Arthur pulled away from the microscope excitedly. Kathy pointed her pen at him, “now you’re starting to understand. Yes, yellow like the topaz we use in our Poltergeist Hunts. Now black coloring indicates aggressiveness and level of energy. Although we don’t know the backstory of this spirit, the dark black coloring indicates they were difficult to capture and were decently powerful enough to cause some trouble.” “What does the Essence of an Aggressor look like,” Arthur asked curiously. Kathy retrieved the first vial and invited him to look at the Essence again. Now that he knew what to look for, he could see dark red mixed in with the blue and large globules of black. “Rubies are used to handle Aggressors,” Arthur said aloud, “the red is very dark, so they’ve been ghosts for quite a long time. The black is super dark and huge, so the Aggressor was very violent and dangerous.”

Kathy nodded in obvious delight, “you catch on quick. Yes, this Aggressor has been around for quite a while. You aren’t experienced enough to tell yet, but the amount of foreign color and how dark it is can give us an estimate of how long the spirit has been around. This guy has at least ten years under his belt, maybe fifteen.” “What about the purple,” Parry asked. Kathy and Callie both frowned, they had never seen purple in an Essence. “Purple,” Kathy repeated, not really believing him, “you saw purple?” “Yeah, it’s really small but I can see some purple in the middle of that black globule.” Kathy quickly turned the microscope towards herself and peeked through the view finder. She adjusted the settings again as she studied the black globules that Arthur had mentioned and was shocked to see a lilac purple discreetly swirling in the black mass.

Callie also looked, and the twins shared a look of shock. “You’ve never seen purple before,” Arthur asked as the twins checked three other Aggressor Essence. “This is the only one that’s purple,” Kathy said as she grabbed the vial Arthur had found purple in. Parry slid out of his chair as the twins both reexamined the purple specks. “What does purple mean?” Kathy sat back in her chair and removed her glasses, tapping the arms against her chin in pondering silence. Arthur was tired so he had to pinch his arm to keep from snapping at the Night sisters. “Tell him, Kathy,” Callie said as she jotted down notes on the clipboard. “Tell me what,” the boy said with a raised eyebrow. “Purple is a rare color in Essence studies,” Kathy said slowly and carefully, “only about ten Hunters have seen it within the past 50 years. Our parents weren’t one of them.” “Ok I’d already guessed purple was rare based on your facial expressions. What does purple mean though?”

Kathy put her glasses back on as she stood, Arthur could see her hands were shaking. She watched his eyes for a moment before saying, “you just saw one the Essence of a Shadow Angel.” Arthur was unfamiliar with the term, but the name caused his stomach to twist into knots unpleasantly. “A Shadow Angel,” Kathy continued, “is a demon from the deepest pits of Hell. They’re also known as the Devil’s Inner Circle, because they take direct orders and serve Satan. This spirit is one that is so rare to find that it’s almost become an urban legend among Hunters. Our research tells us that there’s only 15 in existence and the lack of sightings tells us that they aren’t sent to the surface very often.

“Shadow Angels are recorded in history has having been worshipped as gods of death, bringers of death, or angels of death. Sacrifices were made to them in mass, to appease their appetite for suffering and harness their energy against their enemies. It is said that if the Shadow Angels weren’t happy with the sacrifice, they would come to Earth, and each kill a single person as punishment. Entire communities were wiped out by these creatures and older books depict some pretty graphic stuff.” Kathy handed Arthur a picture and he swallowed hard before looking down at the drawing. A tall, slim creature clothed in black and having black wings was shown swooping down. The men below the creature were terrified and had pitchforks raised high as if to ward off the creature or fight it. At their feet lay the body of a man who had been ripped apart and ravaged by long claws.

Arthur studied the picture for several moments before placing it back into Kathy’s hand. She took care to fold the paper into a small square before placing it into the pocket of her jeans. “Shadow Angels were seen as a bad omen, anyone who saw the creature was said to have died days later at the hands of the creature. One being on Earth is rare enough, but all 15 always brought about bloodshed and destruction. These appearances were often occurring after multiple people disappeared or were murdered, bad bouts of weather, and strange symbols appearing in the sky.” Arthur gasped as she spoke, “are you saying all those high school murders are an indication that these creatures are rising?” “That’s exactly what we’re saying,” Callie jumped in, “and if the historic accounts are correct, they require 15 deaths to come to Earth. There are ten murders so far, they only need 5 more for their plan to work. But what is their plan? Who are they after? We don’t know what they’re going to do. And….” “And” Arthur prodded. “We don’t know how to stop them,” Kathy said, looking down at the floor. Parry rocked back on his heels in shock, “you don’t know how to fight them? What do you mean?”

“Paranormal Gems are ineffective against Shadow Angels. If you were to throw a ruby enhanced knife at the thing it would either bounce off or disintegrate when it touched their skin. You can’t use the Shades to spot them when they’re invisible and they won’t help you predict an attack. I’ve been studying Shadow Angels for three years and nothing has brought me closer to finding their weakness.” Something about the tone in Kathy’s voice, the way her voice hardened as she talked about the knives disintegrating caused Arthur to come into clarity. He’d always heard rumors about why their parents died, he’d always found articles theorizing on what ultimately killed the most well- known Hunters of this time. Now, Arthur knew what had befallen Sandra and Joshua all those years ago.

“The Shadow Angels killed your parents,” he said quietly. Kathy shifted on her feet uncomfortably, Callie closed her eyes in pain. “It was supposed to be like any other Hunt,” Kathy said with a quiver in her voice, “someone had told them that an Aggressor was attacking people in an open field. The area had been used in the 1980’s as a dumping ground for the Mafia so they thought it’d be easy to handle. They knew it was an Aggressor, but the wind was strong and cold that day, so they insisted on bringing all their Shades and infused weapons.

“I had only dealt with an Aggressor once before, so they decided to let me tag along. When we got there, we set up the equipment like we always did. But something was different, the atmosphere felt tighter and more oppressive. They told me to step back as they investigated the disturbance, and suddenly the sky split open, and a blackened creature started floating down. It landed right in front of them, and it spread its wings wide, the feathers were flying everywhere, and you could smell death. Dad asked who it was and what it wanted. It only grinned, it had unnaturally sharp teeth and a forked tongue. It raised a clawed hand and pointed a finger at dad. Before mom could react, it snapped its fingers and a puff of dark smoke enveloped dad. When the smoke disappeared, a pile of ash was all that remained where he had stood.

“Mom lost it, she screamed and cried as she sunk to her knees and touched the ashes. It laughed at us while we cried and asked why it killed him. He never said a word, only raised a hand and pointed a finger at mom. She threw a knife at him; I think it was embedded with a ruby. The tip touched his arm and just exploded into a pile of ash. She threw a topaz knife; it did the same thing. He laughed at her, laughed at her failure. He snapped his fingers, and she went out the same way dad did. I couldn’t do anything; all I could do was stare at the piles of ashes. It smiled at me and suddenly got enveloped in white smoke and disappeared.”

When she finished, Kathy sunk into a chair and buried her face in her hands. Arthur hadn’t known that she had been there when her parents died, but now that he did, he started to understand why she had quit Hunting. “What else are they capable of doing,” he asked slowly. “They’re shapeshifters. During the Salem Witch Trials they were commonly seen in the form of a black dog. When Jack the Ripper terrorized England, a few witnesses said they saw a man who was unnaturally tall and skinny. Like other spirits, they can manipulate the temperature to be hotter or colder, but the temperature doesn’t constantly change unless they force it to. If they make direct eye contact, they can freeze you in place or compel you to do things for them.”

“What all can they turn into,” Arthur asked, an idea was forming in his mind. “The most common form is a man with black hair, dressed in all black, skinny, and very tall. Older accounts say they have flecks of red in their eyes and their teeth are discolored. They smell of death or musk.” “Oh my God,” Parry said with a shock. He sunk onto the couch and felt his intestines tighten into knots. “What’s wrong,” Callie asked as she sunk to her knees in front of him. Kathy also came to sit on the couch. “My friend, Gary, he has black hair and always wears black. He’s tall and skinny. He smells like something rotting, I used to joke with him about it all the time. He said his parents were neglectful and abusive, so the house was a mess. His teeth look like fangs, last year he dressed up as a vampire for Halloween.” “Was he with you at the airport when we arrived,” Callie asked. Arthur nodded, “he didn’t stay for very long. He said he had some important stuff to do so we left early. I rewatched your footage on your blog, he wasn’t even watching you two. He was on his phone the whole time, I don’t know who he was talking to and he wouldn’t tell me.”

“Goddammit,” Kathy said coldly. “What does this mean,” Arthur said, “why did he want me to find you? Why has he been hanging out with me?” “I don’t know,” Callie said with a shrug, “but these are questions for another time. It’s almost midnight and I’m tired. We have a long day tomorrow; I say we go to bed.” “But my mom doesn’t know I’m with you two, she’ll be worried if I don’t come home.” “Call her and tell her where you are, you can sleep in the guest bedroom, the sheets are already on the bed. We might have a spare toothbrush in the bathroom, we don’t have pajamas for you though.” Arthur groaned; he knew what his mom would say when she learned where he was.

While Callie helped Arthur settle into the guest bedroom, Kathy disappeared into her own room and used the silence to think. She had been planning to take Arthur home after raiding the Sneering operation, but his information made it too dangerous for him to go home. Neither Callie nor Kathy had seen the purple specks in the Essence. Purple was an indicator of a Shadow Angel, but only those with the Celestial Glimpse could see the purple flecks. So, Kathy had been right about Arthur, he could see the Shadow Angels in their natural form, transformed, and as Essence. But what good was his vision if they couldn’t fight the creatures? It didn’t do anything, but Kathy was beginning to wonder if maybe a Paranormal Gem did exist that could work.

Traditionally, there had been four Paranormal Gems used by Hunters. But over the years there had been speculation and rumor that maybe other gems could be used, obsidian was one of them. Amethyst was the other. Although Kathy had cut off all contact with anyone working with the paranormal world, she still had a list of old alchemists who were skilled in making Paranormal Gems. Maybe it was time to talk to an old friend and get an opinion on amethyst. A knock on the door interrupted her thoughts and she quickly shrugged her arm through the sleeve of her pajama shirt. Callie pushed the door open and waited for a head nod from her twin before entering.

“Arthur is settled downstairs; he called his mom while I was leaving, and I could hear her yelling. When he goes home, he’ll be in big trouble.” Kathy shook her head, “I told him not to come with us.” “Well, he’s here now, so we can only move forward from here. So does he have the Celestial Glimpse?” “Yes, the purple specks are something only someone of his talent can see. I don’t think he realizes just how rare his gift is which is why I didn’t tell him we couldn’t see it.”

“So, what are we going to do about it?” “I don’t know, Cal,” Kathy said with a sigh, “there’s too much we don’t know. First and foremost, we must find a way to fight these creatures while there’s only one here. I’m planning to call an alchemist tomorrow about amethyst, maybe the purple specks are the clue to finding a Paranormal Gem that doesn’t explode on impact.” Callie tried not to let her jaw drop, “I never thought I’d hear you talk about alchemy or gems again.” “Yeah, well with these Shadow Angels planning chaos I can’t stay on the sidelines anymore. Besides, you can’t take this on by yourself. You need me.” Her twin scoffed, “I need you? I’ve been doing Hunts by myself for the past three years. I’ve been doing fine without you by my side.” She was truly glad Kathy was coming back to Hunts, but she still couldn’t entirely forgive her for refusing to so much as help her research a spirit or location.

Kathy ignored the comment, “I have a plan on approaching the Shadow Angels. But quite honestly, I don’t know what to do about Arthur. His gift could be useful to us, but we don’t have the time or the resources to train him. Even if we did train him, we’re running out of time and my research tells me we have maybe two months before those creatures come to Earth.” Callie sighed irritably, “but we have to do something. We need to teach him something, so he stands somewhat of a chance.” “I know,” Kathy said, “that’s why I’m giving you this.” She held out a piece of paper which Callie accepted with a frown. On the paper was an address, it was located less than thirty minutes from the house. “What’s this for?” “It’s a Hunter training ground. The place is equipped to represent a real haunting with scenarios you’d expect from certain types of spirits. Arthur can go there and train in secret.”

“You want me to train him,” Callie paled slightly. She saw the girl jumping from the window, blood pooled on the concrete. “You’re the only one who can,” Kathy said, her shoulders sank, “I’m too out of practice. Besides, I’m meeting up with a friend tomorrow to see if they can tell me anything useful about Celestial Glimpse.”