In the space between unconscious and awake there is only silence.
Rigo’s heartbeat echoed in that silence. He heard the breath enter his lungs and leave. Soon there was a strange distorted ricochet before the sound of children laughing entered the vortex and before his vision returned to him.
In the time it took for him to take a breath, all his senses were back on line, the heavy scent of the flowers, the sounds of running water and laughter. He was in a garden, pink trees everywhere, a small lake and a concrete path circling it. There were couples walking around the lake hand in hand, some on cell phones, kids playing, a man sitting on a bench working with a tablet. He recalled the sound of children laughing that he’d heard just before re-entering time and space.
He didn’t have time to sort out the disorientation before a loud crack split the air. In that break he saw the first roahn-ami appear, and knew why he’d been called to the area.
A human shaped figure, so black in color it would suck out the light of whatever was near it. Its ears were pointed like a cat. Its eyes, they weren’t eyes. They were two egg shaped pockets of white light that allowed it to find its target. They had wings and could fly, but most often, now for instance, their wings were tucked into sleeves in their backs, completely out of view. They could still levitate above most humans, hanging in the air above them like death.
The sweet scent that always accompanied them rivaled the florals. Rigo had come to hate that scent to the point it sickened him. The roahn-ami had only one purpose, to steal the souls of anything it could, and drag those souls to the darkness.
He scanned the area and found the roahn-ami’s target at the same time the demon locked on.
He had no idea what she’d done to elicit such a powerful enemy, but it was his job to make certain the roahn-ami did not succeed. She wore jeans and a yellow tee and had her long blonde hair pulled back in a band at the base of her neck. She was bent over a pale purple rose and completely oblivious to her pending danger.
He began to run, only taking a few steps before the lion buried deep within him came roaring to the surface. Two human feet hitting the pavement turned into four paws. He felt the power surge, the wind rushing through his long black mane. Everything he was became fiercely primal as he charged towards the beast and its intended prey.
He arrived at her the same time as the roahn-ami. She stood now, staring into nothingness. She didn’t notice his presence running towards her, nor the shape behind her. That told him all he needed to know.
She was already in the darkness.
Trapped between two worlds, the battle for her soul would be won or lost by a demon and a shifter.
The roahn-ami were incredibly agile, feminine in their movements, and able to achieve speeds the eye could not follow. This one used its power to pull the girl’s soul from her body. Standing behind her, its hands directed the energy through her body, out her back, and into one of the containers it wore on its belt, the only article of clothing worn by the roahn-ami.
Rigo pushed harder to reach the girl.
Only a few more leaps of his muscles and he’d reach her, but she was alreadyfalling limp. He roared as he pushed himself to his breaking point to reach her, but the soul was nearly completely gone. He felt the shiver of energy pass through him, the shift in energy on the planet that happened anytime a soul left or arrived.
Hayden slipped through the vortex and tried to force herself awake faster than was happening naturally. She sensed the danger deep within herself and knew she needed to be awake and aware fast.
Her first view was of a park-like space. Then she smelled the roahn-ami and saw Rigo’s transformation as he charged at a woman on the far end of the lake from where she stood. She watched as his human arms and legs became powerful cat-like limbs, as his long blond hair became a long black mane. He was beautiful in either form, and formidable. But as his lion, he emitted power and magic his human-like form would never have.
She had maybe three seconds to make a decision and to follow suit. She viewed the scene, saw terrified families and a group of teens, all with their camera phones catching the action. She prayed the containment crew was already on their way. When she saw the second target, a young woman with long black hair, wearing a traditional Asian-styled gown, Hayden began to run, quickly morphing into her sleek puma, the pads of her feet hitting the concrete, grabbing, and propelling her forward at a great speed. It dulled her claws, but only marginally. She roared a warning to the beast as she bore down on it.
She prayed Rigo was safe and her decision to save the other girl didn’t harm her friend and ally. Theirs was a sacred duty, and it wasn’t to one another. There was only one reason she would have been summoned here. These women had to be from the Marrow, and all she knew for sure, was she had to save this one.
Rigo lunged at the creature. His claws, tipped with magic for just this purpose, ripped into the vaporish flesh of the dark entity, tearing at it. Most would think the deep red that appeared against the black was blood, but these creatures didn’t bleed. They oozed toxins, a last defense against anything that may attack it. A human who came in contact with the substance would be dead in thirty seconds. There would be no way to save them.
He slashed again as the creature wrapped its arm around the limp woman’s waist, but he only managed to tear the soft cotton fabric of the woman’s simple shirt. She was stunningly beautiful. Her blonde hair was so pale it was nearly white and blended with her skin seamlessly. Her pale pink lips were parted softly as she hung limp in the beast’s arms.
This was the kind of beauty that seemed supernatural. He wondered for a fragment if she were an angel, but he knew better. Angels didn’t have souls for the roahn-ami to take.
He roared, lunging one last time, making contact again, this time with a tendon and ankle as the demon and the girl vanished into foul smelling vapor.
He drew a deep breath and roared in agony for failing her.
As he turned, he saw Hayden shift into her puma, chasing yet another of the dark winged ones across the lake.
He shook off the failure as the realization dawned that another woman was in danger. He moved through the gardens, across the lawn and the paved walkway with grace and power, quickly catching up to Hayden’s puma. As they both reached the creature, it was as if time slowed. A distortion of some sort surrounded them. It was like being in a dream and not being able to control your movements. He tried to lunge for the creature, but it was as if something held on to his ankle and yanked him back to the ground.
He could see the woman’s soul being stretched out of her body, sucked into the roahn-ami’s canister.
Hayden seemed as though she were encased in glass. She roared in pain and frustration as the soul slipped further away.
This was hell unlike he’d ever known it. To have all the power of the lion, all the magic endowed him, and not be able to do a damn thing.
He’d never known a roahn-ami to cast magic, so what was this?
As he moved slowly through the time distortion, he watched the girl, clearly caught in the same anomaly. The time distortion seemed to affect the roahn-ami’s technique, because unlike the victims he’d witnessed before, this girl wasn’t in a trance. She turned, drew a sword from the folds of her skirt, and slashed the roahn-ami’s hand that was pulling her soul. The hand fell to the ground and the soul snapped back to its owner. When it did, the time distortion melted and they were able to move again.
In the next second, Hayden pounced on the creature. Rigo took a risk and shifted back into human form, grabbing for the skull-shaped metal canisters hanging from a belt around its waist. He wrapped his hand around the leather straps and pulled hard, wresting them away just as the monster vaporized beneath the claws of his friend.
With his other arm, he grabbed for the girl who was in mid-collapse from the ordeal. As she fell into his arm, she dropped a jewel encrusted blade to the ground. He caught her just in time to soften the fall as her unconscious body fell into the grass beside the blade.
He grabbed for his cell and punched in three numbers.
“I need containment and restoration in Tanzania. Immediately.”
Though he knew the watchers would have already alerted the containment crew, he was feeling helpless and defeated from the loss of the first woman. Somehow, shouting out orders at a faceless voice over his cell phone made him feel better.
Hayden transformed back to her Latina form and knelt beside him.
“Did you call it in?”
“Yeah, but I’m sure the watchers got to it before I did.” He turned to look at her. The scene in the background was already shifting from screaming and running, to calm and oblivious once more.
“What the hell was this? I’ve never known the roahn-ami to attack humans that weren’t extraordinarily inebriated.” He was pissed, feeling useless.
Hayden tucked long black strands of hair behind her ear before gently reaching out for the woman lying in Rigo’s arms.
“She’s not human, Rigo.” She lightly brushed back the hair from the face of the woman he was holding. She was very young with porcelain skin, almond eyes and perfectly shaped lips. “This is Fa Zhen, one of the Royal Seven.” Her tone held the appropriate awe.
He looked down at the dainty woman. In the moments he’d been able to observe her, she had appeared delicate and demure… until she pulled out the sword.
“How can you be sure?”
She laughed and moved a tiny bit closer.
“Because I’m serahn. It’s the responsibility of my people to protect the royals, the same as it’s your people’s responsibility to protect the sacred seven. I’d know her anywhere.” She inhaled deeply. “I can smell her.”
“That’s your cat senses still online.” He tried to play it down because he knew, if this were true, if the roahn-ami had come after the royals, war was on the horizon,
“So what?” She answered defensively. “This is Fa Zhen. I don’t know who the other woman was, but if the roahn-ami are after the royal seven…”
“All hell is about to break lose.” His mind reeled with what this could possibly mean, for himself, for his people, for the human realm.
“Well, yeah, that, but someone had to have sent those creatures, Rigo. They don’t act on their own and the only ones who’d care about the seven…”
“Is someone from the Dark Marrow.” He spoke over her as his mind kept even pace with hers.
“Meaning there’s a breach in the wall?” For the first time she seemed confused.
He thought about that for a long moment. The wall between realms was his brother’s charge. He’d admit Wraithe hadn’t been himself for the past fifty years or so, but he couldn’t imagine something like a breach in the wall had gotten past him.
“Not necessarily. The roahn-ami can transcend realms, they move through the gates same as any other creature. They could be taking orders from anyone. And even if they are taking orders from someone in the Dark Marrow, that doesn’t mean the border between realms has been breached.”
There had to be some other answer than that. He looked up and saw the containment team was briskly finishing their work, wiping memories and removing any paranormal trace left in the area.
“We need to get her back to Elethiya. Then we need to call a meeting of my people and yours.” Rigo slipped into taking charge. They needed answers and they wouldn’t be getting them lolling about in the grass.
“What about the other woman they took, and…” She looked down at the soul skulls lying beside his knees. “What about those?”
She shuddered slightly.
“I’ll take them with me. I think I know someone who may be able to free any wronged souls inside.” He hoped.
“They won’t have bodies!” She lunged backwards away from him.
“What do you want me to do, give the souls to the demons?” That was the only other choice he was aware of, and while some of the demons may have done right by whoever was in those jars, he didn’t trust them enough to chance it.
She chewed on her lip, looking unnerved.
“No. I guess not.”
“Rodrigo, we have ninety percent containment. Do you need transport?”
Rigo looked up to see a woman dressed in black leather, whose long black hair was slicked back into a tight, high ponytail. She seemed calm and professional and she used his given name, which almost no one did. He didn’t have any recollection of her. But with how the containment crew worked, that was to be expected. It was most likely that he’d met her on dozens of occasions and there was simply no memory of it.
He grabbed the leather straps of the skulls and scooped Zhen off the ground into his arms. Hayden stood beside him. There was only one thing they could do at this point, one place to go.
“We need to get to one of the portals. We need to get back to Elethiya.”
* * * *
The moon lit the wet pavement beneath Wraith’s feet as he strode the fairytale lane where sweet houses and old fashioned stores lined either side. He inhaled deeply of all the scents that made up the early morning darkness and took comfort in being alone in the place he loved more than any other. There were sounds in the distance, night workers, cleaning and testing, painting and pruning. The scent of the pavement, scrubbed clean by the night crew, and freshly watered shrubbery danced together, while in the background he could smell the bakery preparing treats for the day ahead.
He walked down the abandoned Fairy Book Lane that was designed to look like small town America in another time, only with a twist. This town existed in a time when princesses lived simple lives and magic rested around every corner. His theme park was so like another just on the other side of the forest, that most would never know it had been designed long before Walt dreamed of building in Florida. It wouldn’t matter to most people that his park had come from a vision, an angel that appeared to him one night while Walt was still building in California. All he would ever be in the world of theme parks was a lesser imitation of the great Kingdom of Walt.
That, he could live with, what he couldn’t live with was that Walt thought it. That Walt, in his dying days, thought Wraith had betrayed their friendship. That mattered… and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to fix it.
His heart was weighed down with guilt, all the memories swimming around him until he could drown in them. There were many nights he wished he could just simply slip below the surface of it all and never arise again.
His morose thinking left him alone when he suddenly felt the pull on his right hand. The sensation was the same as that night, the night of the vision. It all began with the very clear sense that someone was tugging on his hand, yet there had been no one in the room but him.
He closed his eyes for a moment and accepted the brush of the memory, the sense that the angelic creature who’d given him that vision was there, touching him now. He always assumed the repeating memory mixed with the sensation was meant to be a comfort, and he took its warmth that way. But his heart was broken, and there was no healing it.
He walked towards the Bavarian style castle. Set on a hill, it rose up out of the ground before him. In his mind, it had been an architectural feat to so perfectly replicate that castle from the vision.
He looked again to the centerpiece of his kingdom and wondered, for not the first time, about its appearance. The angel had been so clear in her descriptions that he saw it in his mind as she spoke. How he’d ever been able to describe it to the architect so that it had turned out exactly right, though, he’d never know. He would never tell another soul, but every time he saw its half curse appearance, the tentacles and vines growing on just one side while the other side looked like a child’s dream, he welled up just a bit with pride, and thought that was what Walt felt all the time.
The castle was an architectural masterpiece. The sight of it spoke to the deepest parts of himself and felt like a reminder, or perhaps a warning. If only the angel had told him more.
The whole park was the realization of the vision she gave him that night… and the best kept secret in Orlando, but he liked it that way. It served his dark secret.
His heart lay heavy in his chest over the memory of so long ago. It was his nightly ritual to remember. Self-inflicted torture, he supposed. He would walk the empty streets of the park, breathe in its magic, and torment himself with the memories of the friend who died thinking he’d betrayed him.
It was a memory that still seemed as fresh as five minutes ago. It was the look in Walt’s eyes when it became clear that Wraithe really wasn’t selling Walt the land he wanted.
“If only I could have explained. If you’d only known. I never wanted to take your theme parks, Walt. I needed this to protect the falls, my people, your people.”
“Wraithe.” A firm voice sounded behind him that he recognized instantly, Thornton Wolf.
He turned to look at his friend, even as a chill ran down his spine. There were only so many reasons anyone would disturb him in this place, at this time of day, and none of them were good.
“What is it?”
Thornton’s dark eyes held a deep level of concern, even as his body language spoke of calm control. The man dressed in a dark suit, his long black hair pulled into a band at the base of his neck, all combining to make him look like someone assigned to presidential detail, or possibly an assassin.
“Your brother is on his way here through the portals with Hayden and one of the royal seven, Fa Zhen.”
He heard words that made a sentence, but made no sense. His mind tried to put those pieces together, but nothing about that should have been.
“How is that possible? Why would they do such a thing?”
Aside from the risk they’d be exposed to from using the portals, bringing another of the royal seven to Elethiya breaks the treaty. He honestly didn’t know what set off more alarms, that they were using the portals, or that they were bringing a royal to Elethiya.
“I have no other information than that, and that they’ve requested a summit with the high council of immortals, and shifters.” Thornton held steady, showing no emotion.
There was a clawing in Wraith’s immortal soul that a human would have described as dread.
“Have you put out the call?” He asked, though he already knew the answer would be yes.
“I have.” Thornton nodded. “Everyone should be here within the hour. I waited to the last minute to disturb you. Everything is arranged. We just need your presence.”
Thornton’s darker skin and dark eyes, with the slight slant on either end would mark him as Asian in most circles, but truly within their kind, there was no race. The only thing that divided the immortals was whether they chose the light or the dark.
“I’ll be there.” He drew a breath as he made his decision. “Thornton, have Bala and Luxe attend.”
Thornton looked at him strangely. “Are you certain?”
“It seems to me it concerns them.”
Thornton’s phone made of a series of tones. He reached for it and answered immediately.
Wraithe took the time to look around his beloved park, once again thinking of his dear friend, torturing himself with the memories, knowing he’d handled everything so poorly at the end. It was a regret he’d have a very long time to live with.
“Wraithe.” Thornton looked visibly paled.
He was compelled to put his hand out, to steady Thornton on his feet.
What more could there possibly be?
“At best count, four of the royal seven have been taken by the roahn-ami from all over the planet. One is unaccounted for. One is here, the other is on her way here.”
He took a minute to let the chill settle to the depths of his being, and stared back up at his castle before stating three words he prayed he never would.
“It has begun.”
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