I was riding a black horse. The sky was ink gray and threatened to rain. The landscape was charcoal.
The horse galloped with all his might. I tried to redirect him, tried to slow him down, and even tried to throw myself off. We were headed somewhere off. Somewhere bad.
“No!” I shouted as I gripped the reins, “I have control! I’m me!”
The horse glanced at me over his shoulder, his eyes large, black pits. I recoiled at the sight.
The horse’s hooves met wet and sticky mud. It made the gray earth turn milky black beneath us. Then the ground turned red and the horse sank deeper until the red liquid came up to his knees. The red splashed, until it covered his undercarriage and splattered all over us. The sticky red covered my clothes, arms, hands, and even sprayed my hair.
A scream came from my right side. I looked to a black horse, like mine, but with a mane, tail, and eyes of white-hot fire. It nostrils and mouth huffed streams of smoke as it ran. On his back, however, was a headless rider donned in heavy armor. The armor had deep gashes from battle and an old crest on the breastplate that meant nothing to me.
The fiery horse opened its jaws, its throat distending, like a snake eating a large rodent, but in reverse. A human skull rolled forth from the horse’s mouth. It was carved from a geode, the surface smooth and polished. The gemstone was harsh black with stripes of white. Two, small, white flames lit its eyes and it opened its rough, crystalline mouth. Static filled my ears as a voice filtered through wiry feedback declared:
The choice is always yours.
Wheels turn that you cannot see.
Blood will spill. Life will be lost.
You must not run away.
When the skull finished, it gasped a chalk-dust breath and screamed. I covered my ears in vain and squeezed my eyes shut. I opened them in time to see a white light engulf us.
A whimper escaped me as I woke. I lay curled in a tight ball, still inside my sleeping bag. I noticed a big, gray owl preening his feathers for the end of his day, perched on the loft railing. He carefully ran his beak over his wing feathers and rubbed his beak in the natural oil under his armpit. There was something mesmerizing about his work, so calm and natural.
Then the realization of my escape hit me, as if the roof collapsed on me, and I buried my face into my backpack-pillow as if it would soften the blow. It helped a little. I was grateful I had the back of it facing up, but the zippers left marks on my arm underneath it.
I sat up and rubbed my face with my hands. The dream came back like a stalking cat. The horse, the skull, and the red – no, blood. What did it mean? It told me I always had a choice.
Like in the Ceremony, as Dr. Wulf said. Like Dr. Graham did. My parents who chose their life that got them arrested.
In everything, I had a choice. I needed to hold onto that – no one would make me feel helpless again. Even if I was trapped, like in the institute, I could still control myself and my body.
My body told me it was hungry with a loud grumble and I curled up from hunger pains. I brushed hay out of my hair as I opened my backpack. I found the granola bars and pulled out one sheet of granola, forcing myself to leave the other inside the wrapper. There were twelve packets with two, flat, dry bars of granola inside. That left me twenty-four meals – well, twenty-three. I returned the unused to the box and searched for the canteen.
The owl glided to me from his perch and whispered, “The humans should wake soon, princess. The city east of here may still have refuge for you. But it is far.”
“What kind of refuge?” I asked.
“There are some places considered historical landmarks by cities. Some of these will offer you sanctuary. I cannot say much more, as my memory has been failing me of late.” He glanced his head down at the last sentence.
“Its alright. I know how you feel,” I reassured him. He gave me a quizzical look by cocking his head to one side – or, rather, turning it completely sideways – and squinting his eyes. I smiled and he fluffed himself before adding, “At any rate, your companion is outside. He felt,” he paused to sneer, “unsafe.”
“Did he say something?” I asked.
“He is an intolerable cur,” growled the owl before fluffing his feathers and flapping his wings with disdain. “I’d be careful if I were you, young princess.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Intolerable cur?” called out the rabbit from the top of the stairs. He looked more lively than before, his coat more pristine and his ears perked up. “I’ll have you know I was scouting about for routes. I found a city that’s not far, its west of here.”
I smiled to the owl and said, “Thank you, owl, for your kindness.” I picked up my backpack and followed the rabbit down the stairs. To Rabbit, I said, “We need to beat the early-risers.”
The Rabbit looked at the cats bounding to us and hopped behind my legs. The gray cat stood on her haunches at my feet and mewed, “Princess, princess!”
I leaned down to pet her on the soft head and asked, “What is it you two?”
The black tom sat and explained, “I spoke with my brother about your friend, Tweety. He’s a royal guard, you see. The Champion is away on a mission somewhere to watch a mage. It must be important.”
“Thank you, guys. You didn’t have to go to such lengths for me.”
“It’s nothing. We were bored,” explained the black cat with smirk and a flick of his tail.
The gray cat stretched her fore-paws up my charcoal gray jeans and asked, “Are you leaving, princess? What else can we look for you?”
I frowned and thought maybe I had some sort of address hidden in my backpack or a card to help me know where I came from. I plopped the bag down and began to dig through the other pockets.
My throat caught when I saw the image of a younger me with a dragon, a wolf, and two adults, and all of us smiling. I flipped over to the back and found cursive handwriting that read, “Lyric, Patience, Drake, Dianda, and Lightning at Lake Tiber” with a date. The adults were my parents.
I blinked away my shock, inhaled before I started to cry again, and showed the cats the picture. The black cat’s eyes widened while the grey one squinted her eyes and sniffed the photo.
“My brother worked with the female there,” said the black cat. “She’s a Valkyrie spy – top of her kind and he owes her a one of his lives. The Sovereign will want answers, too. I’ll let him know you are searching for her – hopefully we can finds something.” He turned away to slip behind an invisible curtain, disappearing into thin air.
The gray cat said, “I know some cats who know some cats – someone is bound to know something.”
“Thank you,” I said with a smile. The cat nodded to me and disappeared as well.
I paused a moment to look at the picture. Everyone looked so happy. I tried to comprehend my feelings as I stared. These people were my parents, yet it didn’t connect with the blurs in my mind. I felt longing, but a longing to understand who they were and confusion. Frustration.
On top of all that, numbness. I stared at a group of people who were completely other to me. Like someone you might see in a magazine and speculate what the picture is about, who the people are, and what world they live in.
“Princess,” said the owl as he perched on a stall door near the exit, “we need to leave.”
“Yeah,” I answered and put the photo back into the pocket. I pushed the emotions into the closet in my mind. I pulled out the compass and the flashlight.
Outside, though the moon was still out, it hung low in the sky. It was hard to see, so I trekked carefully up the graveled driveway. The owl flew the perimeter before landing on the arch leading out, which had the words “Our Farm” hanging on it. I turned on the flashlight and saw Rabbit bounding westward. I pointed the compass east.
“Where are you going?” he asked. “We’re going west.”
“No, I’m going east. There’s a city a ways from here, but I think it would be best if we went that way.”
“Did that owl tell you about it?”
“Yes. Besides, if we go to the nearest place, they’d expect it. We have to be careful.” I glanced down at him and found him next to my feet. He was grumbling to himself. I lowered the backpack and opened it. “You can stay in my backpack until we get to a safe place.”
He groaned and climbed in as he said, “You’re ridiculous. But I see your point.”
I swung the backpack onto my back and kept my flashlight pointing at the ground in front of me. I saw the sign that read “Franklinville” and noted it said I had fifteen miles to go. I dug my heels in for the long trek.
~ ~ ~
His hand hovered over the doorknob. He only had to open it. He employed his breathing techniques Thrustra taught him as his heart beat fast and heavy. There was no real emotion behind his freezing up like this. At the most he felt numb, blank, and confused as to why he was physically unable to open the door. He swallowed, his throat caught on a breath.
Open. The. Door.
August recoiled and resigned to trying again tomorrow.
The door led to his nursemaid’s room. She died three weeks ago, due to pneumonia. Any day now, Thustra would have it cleaned out and August wanted to snag a few mementos. If he could only make himself go inside.
The halls of the mansion felt empty. There was no sound of his nurse humming to herself. None of her laughter when she watched the cats play in the herb garden out back. No more of her stories in the evenings after dinnertime of kings, prophets, and knights. No more of her morning hugs to start the day or her warm smiles. All that was left was an echo of memory and his boots on the polished wood.
August dragged his heels as he entered the foyer leading to Thustra’s office. It had a few chairs for waiting along the wall with a coffee table in between and a large desk where Thustra’s secretary sat. She had red hair and quick eyes that saw everything. She irritated August more than anything and he did his best to avoid her. She had the phone to her ear at the moment while pretending to read a horror-slasher novel.
As he approached the door into the office, he tried to think of an excuse for his extended absence. He had to stay on Thustra’s good side if he wanted to go to the University of Arcane-Science Fair next week.
When he opened the door, he found the doctor talking intently into his phone. “ … certain? No. Leave her alone. She will likely lead us to more of her kind. We need to give her the right push. No. I’m sending Delta-K and her unit.” Thustra smirked to himself and something about it made August’s blood run cold. “Report this evening. Keep out of sight.”
Thustra hung up, preoccupied with his notes. August tiptoed to his post at the wall behind the doctor. The walls were forest-green with dark brown trim. The window next to August’s post took up most of the wall, so he had to stand in front of the shelf packed with books on magic, science, and philosophy. There was a shelf opposite with similar books, but some were psychology texts as well. August wasn’t allowed to read them and the spines looked like gibberish half the time to him, anyway. He found the lessons Thustra assigned to him on Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, Socrates, and other dead people boring, too.
The desk had a glass top to protect the mahogany underneath. On top were files, a pen holder, and a computer monitor for managing his schedule. There were plush, winged chairs facing the desk, though August never saw more than one occupant at a time.
Thustra announced as he checked his fountain pin’s cartage, “Seems we will have the remnants of the Riders in our custody sooner than expected.”
“Yes sir,” August agreed automatically. He never understood Thustra’s hatred for the Riders. According to August’s nursemaid’s stories, the Riders wanted to help others. She told him tales of when Riders went into battle, saving civilians and helping soldiers in dire need. They fought creatures the normal eye couldn’t see. They even guided the lost to their homes.
Wasn’t that what Thustra wanted? To help others and make the world happy? He built the Department of Arcane-Sciences to do exactly that.
For twenty years or so, he worked hard to integrate magic into everyday life so everyone would be equal. He finally convinced companies to manufacture light and spark talismans with limiters on lifespan to sell to the public. So far, only the rich and businesses could afford talismans, but it was catching on quick. He formed the police section of mages, the magi for doctors, and the warlocks who acted as a higher military force. Then there was his project to introduce Dragon Knights into the US military.
Not only that, but world leaders would seek out Thustra for his advice on starting up their own Arcane-Science division of their government. August hadn’t been there for all of it, but he had seen plenty to know the man was making a difference.
If only Riders and Thustra would work together, maybe they could reach more people and make the world truly happy.
Maybe his nursemaid would still be alive. August put his hands behind his back and made himself stop thinking about that. He had no evidence. There was no sense in accusing the doctor. Yet every bone in his body told him he was right.
If only he had the courage to say something.
The door burst open, making Thustra’s pen stray across the paper and fling ink on the floor. The doctor scowled at the fountain pen as he set aside his notes and greeted, “Ragnarok.”
August felt a chill sweep the room as the tall, suited man strode in. The man had a permanent expression on his thin, sharp face, one that told the world he knew what you were thinking before you thought it. It was also an expression that said he would rather cut you to pieces than listen to what you had to say. His footsteps were light, but purposeful. His eyes were every shade of red and one eye was outlined in scars carved by century old battles.
Dark Commander Ragnarok held a thick leather tome in the crook of his arm. Thustra glanced and straightened when he saw the tome. The doctor almost looked like he was going to jump out of his seat when it was placed in front of him.
“Your turn, Zoro Thustra,” Ragnarok purred as he looked down his nose at Thustra.
“So you were able to achieve the spell?”
The Dark Commander frowned and rolled his wrist, “More or less. My Lost Tongue is more rusty than I realized. But I believe it will work. I’m certain any spell or magic-craft you seek is inside that tome.” He paused. “I’m certain you need me to translate every little bit for you?”
“Yes, I do,” whispered Thrusta as he stroked the leather cover. There were chunks missing, likely where jewels and talismans once set, and the leather flaked around the edges. There was one gem in the center – a large, oval opal that glittered with all the colors of the rainbow. It made August feel dizzy looking at it. The corners were feathered. Moreover, the grimoire was larger than any August had ever seen. Thustra’s hands had to stretch to hold it by the sides. “You’re the only one who still remembers the Lost Tongue.”
“Well, you’ll have to wait for a bit. I have business to attend to.” He smirked, as if Thustra was to get some joke. When the doctor was preoccupied trying to open the book, the dragon man rolled his eyes and clicked his tongue. “Ugh, you’re no fun.”
“How do you open this?” Thustra asked. “Is there a password?”
Ragnarok cocked his head to one side and said, “It opened for me just fine. Talk to it and it should open.”
Thustra placed the book face up on the desk and sighed. He said slowly, “Grimiore of Cern, please, open.”
The book remained still.
“Grimiore of Cern, open.”
August glanced between them. Ragnarok lost his superior composure, now adopting a curious expression. The dragon barked something in another language and the book still stayed still. Both men looked at one another and the Dark Commander noticed August. He nodded to the young man and ordered with a nod, “You try it, August Cross.”
August glanced at his mentor for confirmation and the man nodded. August stepped up and took the heavy grimoire. A surge of power pulsed up his arm and he felt watched. As if someone outside the room watched them. He instinctively glance about and found only the three of them in the room.
He turned his attention to the tome and said to the cover, “Open, please.” August felt the hesitation from the book. “My teacher needs your help. He wants to make the world better. Please.” Embarrassment swept over him and he cut a look at the two men. He still sensed the book hesitating.
Images hit him of his mentor’s apathetic expression at his nursemaid’s funeral. It was only him and the doctor who were allowed to go. Everyone in her family believed she died, since Thustra couldn’t risk her communicating to the outside world. To him, her death was little more than an inconvenience. August knew this, since it was he who insisted on a proper funeral for her.
His hands began to sweat.
Why lie to yourself, a voice whispered somewhere in the back of his mind. Why lie to me? You know he doesn’t care about you. Not as a person. Why stay here? Locked with a man who tore away the only person who cared for you? When you can search for the answers you desire.
His eyes were drawn to the paper Thustra had made notes on. Look for the girl. She’ll lead you to answers. You know this in your heart of hearts staying here will drive you to a fate worse than death.
As if satisfied, the book hovered out of his grip and burst open. The pages smelled of old musk, rust, and stone. It flipped to a segment on Riders – which August somehow understood. The words melted into English before his eyes. His jaw dropped as he balked, trying to understand what happened.
Thustra stood and snatched the book from the air, which flipped to a different page in time for him to not see the entry. August rubbed his eyes to free them of whatever was in them.
“English?” Thustra asked and squinted. “The book changed its language to English.”
Ragnarok blanched for a second before his expression shifted to angry. “I can’t believe it. It made me waste time on Old Tongue when I could have simply asked it to read in English?”
August stopped paying attention, his eyes locked on the paper. This was his chance. The book was right – he hated it here. Now that his nursemaid died, he had no reason to stay. He had to find an alternative to Thustra’s way of life. He didn’t want to follow the great philosophers of the past. They didn’t care about the present – they were dead.
He remembered his nursemaid’s smiles and stories. His gut twisted. Thustra’s apathetic face, as if August’s pain was simply an arbitrary piece to whatever puzzle he had in his head. August crossed his arms to calm himself.
“August,” said Thustra as the book lowered to the desk. “I’m going to the lab. You’re free for the noon. Don’t wait up for me at dinner.” He put the tome into his leather satchel and strode to his hat rack as he joined Ragnarok at the exit.
The door slammed shut, leaving August with his thoughts. Thustra would likely send someone to look for him. He was his greatest asset, after all. Thustra wouldn’t dare loose his precious research. Yet his anger boiled all the more. A tool. That was all August was to Thustra. He shouldn’t have put his research into something that had free will. Didn’t August have as much free will as the dead people he read about?
He glanced at the books next to him and bit his bottom lip. Should he really do this? It was sudden and childish. He remembered the girl at the institute. Lyric W-something, wasn’t it? He remembered the first name because of how odd it sounded.
She’ll lead you to answers.
August picked up the paper with the tips of his glove to avoid disturbing the other papers. He skimmed over the cursive and saw the location – Franklinville. He recognized the name, but it could have been any one of the cities they visited for seminars and conventions. He clicked the computer on and looked up the city’s tourism website to find images to jog his memory. It was a city in Maine.
He left the office and the secretary called out, “Oh, Mr. Cross.” He stopped his determined stride and shuffled over to her. “Dr. Thustra wanted me to let you know that he has a meeting scheduled in two weeks with the project directors. He’s already at the lab, as well.” She gave him a serviceable smile.
August returned the gesture, though she couldn’t see all of his face, as he said, “Thank you, Miss Samantha.”
That seemed to hit a cord with the secretary and she said, “I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Cross. I know I never got around to saying it. I get the feeling Thustra never wanted me to say anything about … her passing.”
August turned his head to nod his acceptance and said, “Thanks.” He forgot his nurse would call her Miss Samantha. He strode down the hall, his heart sore. He needed to pack and then he would be set to go.