If you’d like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am or that I royally suck, feel free at: XenaNut@hotmail.com. If you have suggestions or corrections, please don’t bother as that’s the job of my publisher’s editor.
Come visit me at: www.officialaspfilms.com or my publisher at: www.pdpublishing.com
(Personal Note: I apologize in advance for delays in posting over the next couple weeks. I’m heading out to another film set next week, and will be busy with business. I’ll post as often as I can between now and then, as well as during the 5 days I’ll be gone.)
The mirror revealed a man of impossibly handsome features- skin was clear and smooth, looking more like that of a marble statue than a man. His brown eyes were sharp, yet welcoming. A small smile lifted one corner of perfect lips, full and slightly blushed. He ran his hands over the smoothed back locks of blonde hair that were tied in a low ponytail with a bit of leather.
With long strides, he crossed the room to where his sword lay on a trunk. His billowing silk shirt was cut to fit his form around the chest and shoulders. Tight, brown leather covered his long legs, ending in highly polished knee boots. Clipping his weapon into place, he glanced in the mirror once more, taking in the whole picture. Leaning forward, his brows drew, creasing the perfection of his skin with a small crease.
“Wrong,” he murmured, staring into the depths of his own eyes. The brown began to shimmer, then a deep blue swept in like the tide over the shore, leaving their oceanic hue behind. Standing back, he once again studied the entire package. Satisfied, he swept out of the chamber.
Dark blonde brows drew, again, as Braxton tried once more. She muttered to herself as still no spark appeared. The fire ring, built by Asima, was still dark and cold, much like the morning. “Damn,” she muttered for the fifth time as yet another piece of the rock flaked off. Setting the small chunk aside, she was about to strike again when she was grabbed by the arm and roughly hauled to her feet.
Startled, Braxton took in an angry Asima. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t waste all my flint,” the brunette growled, taking the stone from Braxton’s hands. Within moments she had a nice, warming fire blazing.
Embarrassed and angry at being manhandled yet again, Braxton sat on the opposite side of the fire as her companion, who had a rabbit roasting over the flames. Looking down at her hands, still covered in dust from her activities, she muttered, “You don’t have to be so mean to me, Asima. I’m not stupid, nor am I a child.”
“No?” Asima said, voice devoid of any emotion, including apology. “Then why are you so defenseless? Why can’t you start a fire? Why do I have to continue to save you?”
The only reason Braxton didn’t break down into tears was because there was no malice in Asima’s words, just simple question. She looked into the flames, grateful for their warmth. “I don’t have an answer for you, Asima,” she said, unable to meet the other woman’s intense gaze.
“How do you feel about what happened yesterday?” Asima leaned over, turning the meat so the other side could have equal treatment.
“You mean, other than scare the hell out of me?”
For a moment, Asima gave the slightest of smiles, which, Braxton realized, made her absolutely beautiful. “Yes. Other than scaring the hell out of you.”
Braxton brought her legs up, wrapping her arms around her shins and rested her chin on her knees. “I don’t know. Yes, scary, but utterly confusing. I feel like something is so very wrong, Asima. I don’t know, can’t explain it.” She shook her head to emphasize her confusion. “I don’t belong here.”
Asima’s eyes brightened perceptively. “Then where do you belong?”
“That, I don’t know.” She stared up into the sky, beginning to flame with color as a new day dawned. “Not here, though.” She glanced at the woman sitting across from her. “How long have you been a guide?”
Asima studied Braxton for a long moment, that usual smirk on her face, as though she were sharing in some sort of joke Braxton would never understand. “Awhile, now. Long enough to know you need to eat, and here,” she tossed a freshly filled water skin. “Drink. Afterwards I want to take you somewhere.”
The day’s travels were far easier and less adventurous than the day before. Black Jack kept them at a swift, yet safe speed. Braxton took the time to explore visually where they rode and she held on tight to Asima. The valleys and shallow streams they plowed through flew by in a beautiful, colorful blur. The sun overhead seemed to follow them, a guiding light through alien territory.
Finally, at midday, Asima slowed their mount and hopped off, Braxton following closely behind, as the brunette led the horse. They’d stopped at the foot of what looked as though had once been a mighty city. Stone pillars and columns stood tall, through fractured from their holdings as the buildings they’d once adorned or supported had crumbled to the ground. Large chunks of rock and marble littered the ground in a path of obstacle. The ruins of a few buildings could be discerned, one wall standing proudly while the others had long ago crumbled to rubble.
“Where are we?” Braxton whispered, fearing that if she spoke too loudly, she might wake the dead of the once-beautiful place.
“This used to be a capital city,” Asima began to explain, her voice just as soft, blue eyes constantly scanning. “Many years ago it fell when Markus marched his army in, intent on destroying and conquering all.”
“Who’s Markus?” Braxton carefully picked over a low wall that still held its shape for the most part, save for a ‘v’ of missing stones. Asima urged Black Jack to jump through the gap.
“Keeper of the Souls.”
Braxton felt a chill run through her as she glanced up into the skies. It seemed to her that once they’d crossed the border into the ancient city, the air had grown colder, the skies darker and her eyes wider. “Who is that?” she asked at length, not sure she wanted the answer.
Asima was silent for a moment as they crested a hill in the old city, finally looking down upon a valley. “Creator and keeper of this,” the guide said softly, indicating what lay below.
Braxton blinked a few times, unsure of what she was looking at. It almost looked like a constant stream of tiny, white structures, but from the distance of the top of the hill, she wasn’t entirely sure of what. “I don’t understand,” she whispered, glancing at Asima for help.
“Come on. Be quiet and very careful. Do not leave my side.”
They made a steady path down the rocky hillside, Braxton helped up more than once as her feet skidded out from underneath her. As they neared, Braxton’s breath caught. She realized that what lay before her were in fact endless rows of small, white structures, but what those small, white structures were, were headstones.
Asima watched the blonde carefully as realization hit her. The green eyes were filled with shock, fear, and a profound sorrow. “Come on,” she urged gently, leading them toward the speared wrought iron fence that served as a barrier to the graveyard.
Black Jack was left tied to the fence as Asima and Braxton made their way toward the gate, which hung partially open on seemingly rotted hinges. There was no grass covering the space between the stones. No flowers in brass vases, nor flags commemorating a job well done. The stones all looked the same, spaced precisely six feet apart, from head to next stone, each grave marker a foot away from its neighbor.
“This is where the souls end up that Markus keeps,” Asima explained, indicating their surroundings. “This becomes the eternal home of those who give up. Who give in. To him. Caught between a world of living and dead.”
“Is this Hell?” Braxton asked softly, reaching up to brush an errant tear from her cheek.
“Worse than Hell. At least Hell is a destination. This is purgatory with a catch- forever tortured by Markus, or turned into the Averill, and doomed to forever hunt the lost.”
“Why did you bring me here?” Braxton asked thickly, eyes scanning some of the names and dates on the stones: 1341; 1963; 907; 2004….
“Because this is where Markus wants you. He will fight until he wins, Braxton.”
Stunned, the blonde gaped at Asima. “Do I have to… fight him?” At Asima’s nod, she turned and looked out over the cemetery once more. “How am I supposed to do that?” Her laugh was rueful. “I can’t even get a fire started, let alone fight some maniac.”
“That’s why I’m here. I can’t fight him for you, nor can I interfere.” She reached out, gently taking Braxton’s hand to get her attention. When the sorrowful green eyes met hers, she smiled softly. “But I can teach you. I can guide you. You just have got to believe in yourself for this to work.” She shook her head to emphasize her next point, “No one else can save you, Braxton. Only you.”
Braxton felt nauseous, her arms crossing protectively in front of herself. “I don’t know if I can do this, Asima,” she whispered.
“You have to, Braxton.” Asima looked around, feeling uneasy, as she always did in this place. “Come on. We need to go. We’ll talk more.”
Jared tugged the apron loose from around slim hips, , allowing the thick material to fold over his arms. He headed toward the kitchens to clock out and get his keys and sunglasses, glad a long day at the deli was over. He noticed a familiar face standing in line as he passed. Stopping, he grinned.
“Hey,” he said, hazel eyes of the nurse twinkling as she grinned back.
“Hi. Done for the day?” Karen James asked.
“Yeah,” he lifted his apron foe emphasis. “Thank god.” Taking in the pretty nurse with laughing eyes and disheveled dark curls, he spoke on impulse, “You got any plans right now? Other than lunch, obviously.”
Karen returned the blonde man’s easy smile and shook her head. “Nope. Just lunch. Care to join me? Or are you ready to break free form a day of prison?”
Jared chuckled. “Nah, I’ll join you. Be right back.”
Fifteen minutes later Jared and Karen were situated at a wrought iron table placed on the back patio of the deli, a colorful umbrella shielding them from the intense rays of the early May sun.
“So how are you doing?” Karen asked softly, sipping from her diet Coke. She eyed the handsome man, concern in her eyes. She could see the sadness in his blue eyes.
Jared sighed and shrugged, staring off into the distance, only seeing his friend’s smiling face, which he’d do anything to see again. “It’s been three of the most difficult weeks of my life, I’ll tell ya that. I’m glad she’s more stable now, but…” his voice trailed off as he met her gaze.
“You know, I love my job, but I have to say, watching the family and friends suffer is one of the most difficult things I have to deal with. Give me the blood and the gore any day, but please not the grief.”
“I bet.” Jared watched as his companion chewed thoughtfully on her sandwich. “How long have you been a nurse?”
Karen swallowed the bit of food and wiped her mouth with a cheap, paper napkin. “Six years.”
“You still like it?”
“Love it. I honesty can’t imagine doing anything else.” Karen was quiet for a moment, sipping from her drink before asking the question that had nagged at her for the past three weeks. She’d seen how the man sitting across from her had suffered, watching Braxton’s lifeless body day in and day out. She hadn’t noticed a ring on either of their fingers, but he was still attentive and always there. “Have you and Braxton been together long?” she asked carefully.
Jared was surprised by the question, and it took him a moment to register just what Karen was asking. “Oh!” he laughed, sipping from the bottled water he’d brought out onto the patio with them. “We’re not. We’ve been best friends just about since we were zygotes.”
Karen burst into laughter at the image, and she had to admit relief. “Oh. That’s a long time.”
Jared grinned, nodding. He quickly sobered. “She’s the most important person in my life. It’s killing me to see her like this. Brax deserves more than this.” He glanced over at the pretty nurse. “Do you think she’ll make it, Karen?”
The nurse was quiet for a moment, contemplating the best way to answer. Professionally they’re taught to never give false hope or predictions, but looking into his tortured blue eyes, and digging from her own core beliefs, she smiled, reaching over and placing a hand over one of his. “You know, Jared, I believe strongly in the power of faith, and I don’t mean in any sort of religious way. I mean faith in the universe, faith in the human mind and spirit. I think that if Braxton wants this bad enough, she’ll come through this, and you’ll get your best friend back.” She smiled. “After all, she’s got you to come back to, so why wouldn’t she?”
Jared looked away as he blushed slightly. He was hit on by women a lot, but for some reason, he felt Karen actually meant what she said. He turned to her. “Thanks.”
Karen cleared her throat, feeling slightly embarrassed at the blurted comment. “Her more superficial wounds are healing nicely, at least. I don’t think the scarring will be too bad.”
“She’ll be relieved. Um,” he said, picking at the label on the bottle. “Do you think she’ll be able to start her senior year in August?”
Karen studied the younger man for a moment, chewing on the inside of her cheek. “I don’t know, Jared. A lot depends on Braxton. If she can pull through this by then.”
Margot Crowley sat in the uncomfortable chair, grateful for the extra pillow a kindly nurse had given her, on which she now sat. She stared at her daughter’s face, their fingers intertwined. The stitches all along Braxton’s face had been removed weeks ago, the bandage on her head now limited to a small bit of gauze over the actual wounds. The golden strands of her daughter’s hair were short and spiky in some places. Just that morning Margot had helped a nurse give Braxton a bath.
She leaned over, kissing her little girl’s fingers before releasing them and sitting back in a more comfortable position in the chair. It had been just shy of a month since the phone call in the middle of the night from Braxton’s little friend, Jared. Though it had been the most horrible moment of her life - not knowing if her only child were alive or dead, and that she was hundreds of miles away – but Margot had been so grateful to Jared for his thoughtfulness. He’d always been such a gentle soul, and for a man, yet!
Those thoughts drifted to Fletcher. He’d spent no more than fifteen minutes at his daughter’s bedside, spent mostly in prayer, before he’d left. It was the only time Margot had ever fought with him, gone against his wishes. He’d claimed that the accident and Braxton’s current state was the Lord’s work, and it was punishment for the girl not listening to her parents and her God, and instead running of to a godless city for an education that a good wife and mother would never need or use.
He’d tried valiantly to get Margot to go back home with him, but Margot had flat refused, and would not listen to any arguments to the contrary. She was not leaving her daughter, no matter what. In her darkest moments Margot wondered if she’d done the right thing. For the past twenty-two years, she’d done everything Fletcher Crowley had asked her to do without question without word. That was the job of a dutiful wife, so taught her own mother. But then, in the next minute, she’d look at Braxton’s lifeless form, her expressionless face – like a little angel – and she’d know she’d done the right thing.
“What are you dreaming about, little one?” she whispered to her unresponsive daughter, reaching out to gently stroke Braxton’s pale arm. “What skies are you flying in right now?” Her question was interrupted by a cheerful, yet respectful voice, from the open doorway of Braxton’s room.
Margot turned to see an elderly man standing straight, his black trousers and short-sleeved button up shirt finely pressed. His white Roman collar stood out in stark contrast. His bespectacled eyes twinkled with a welcome smile. “Would you like to pray with me, ma’am?” he asked kindly.
Margot smiled in return, knowing that Catholic prayer just wouldn’t do. She shook her head. “No thank you, Father.” The priest nodded in understanding and was about to continue on down the hall when Margot called him back. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course you can, child.” He maintained a polite distance, stepping just inside the door.
“Do you think God punishes us for sins that we may not know we’ve committed?”
The priest looked from Margot’s tormented eyes to the lifeless body of the girl behind her, then back to the older woman. His smile was genuine and comforting. “No, child, I do not. I believe God tests us, but I don’t believe He ever punishes us.”
Margot smiled, feeling strangely relieved. “Thank you, Father.”
“I’ll pray for guidance for you,” the priest said, then with a slight bow, hurried on his way.
“Guidance,” Margot murmured, turning back to her daughter with a sigh. “Guidance would be good.”
“Okay, that sucked,” Braxton muttered, lowering the bow. She sighed with frustration as she watched Asima jog over to the target, collecting all the arrows that littered the ground in front of, beside, and in back of, the target: a tree.
Amused, Asima walked back to her, holding out the deadly bouquet to the blonde. “Keep trying. You need to focus.”
Braxton accepted the arrows, grumbling good-naturedly, “Shouldn’t I be at home enjoying my summer vacation from classes, or something?” Before she could nock another arrow, her shoulders were taken in a vice-like grip. Startled, she found herself looking into two very intense eyes.
“Is that true?” Asima demanded. Her hands moved to cup either side of the blonde’s face, her touch gentling. “Is it, Braxton?”
At first frightened by Asima’s intense reaction, she realized what the guide was asking. She searched her brain, trying desperately to get a picture of exactly why she had said that. What do I do? Who am I? Summer vacation…. She shook her head, moving away from Asima, who’s hands fell back to her sides. “I just don’t know,” she whispered, wanting to cry. She felt as though the information were right on the tip of her brain, but just out of reach. “Damn it!”
“Hey,” Asima said, placing a gentle hand on Braxton’s shoulder. “It’s a start. Okay?” She waited until troubled green eyes met her own. “Braxton, the only way Markus can get to you, can attack you is if you give up. But, as long as you can retain some sort of link, he can’t touch you.”
“Then how am I supposed to fight him?”
Asima’s grin was nothing shy of predatory. “Because you go to him. You attack on your own terms, and you win your soul back.” With surprisingly compassionate fingers, the brunette reached out and brushed a few strands of hair out of Braxton’s face. “You’ll be ready.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you’ve got me,” Asima said simply, making Braxton smile. “Now, come on. Let’s try again.” She handed the blonde an arrow then moved out of the way.
Braxton reached out a foot, testing the temperature of the water with a toe. It was cold, but not exactly heart-stopping. She pulled the shirt over her head, shaking her hair free. It was a beautiful day, the sky sunny with plump, white clouds floating. The stream cut through a valley of rolling hills and dotted wooded areas. She pushed the itchy pants down her legs, tossing them to the small clothing pile next to her boots.
Naked, Braxton grabbed the bar of soap she’d found in one of the saddle bags, inhaling the flowery scent before stepping into the water. She waded out until the water reached just below her breasts, the deepest point of the water. It took a moment for her body to adjust to the cool depths, but then she sighed in contentment, the coolness marvelous against heated skin.
The morning had been spent practicing with Asima’s bow. Braxton was proud of herself as she’d managed to nail a bulls-eye twice, though she was still positive it was pure luck on her part. Even so, the approving smile she’d gotten from Asima had been a nice reward. So often it seemed she irritated or flat out made Asima mad, that to finally make her proud, filled the blonde with exhilaration.
As she began to wash herself, she thought back over her time with Asima, which she couldn’t put a daily amount to. Sometimes her memory would allow her to remember nights shared across the campfire, other times one day just seemed to roll into the next. But always, the one constant and steady force was Asima, both comforting and frightening at the same time. Braxton thought about all that she’d learned, the cemetery, the apparent monster who wished to have his newest victim in her. How was she to fight this? How was she to fight a force that she, herself didn’t entirely understand?
Her heart told her this wasn’t a battle of muscle or strength, or even of steel or arrows. This was something that went far deeper, far more profound. Even with this understanding and instinct, Braxton had no idea what her weapon was. Asima constantly questioned her, needing to know what Braxton could remember. Could remember of what? What was she supposed to tell her guide? Asima had been so excited at Braxton’s slip earlier. Summer vacation. What information did Asima so aggressively seek? Where was Braxton supposed to find the answers?
Dunking her head beneath the surface of the clear waters, Braxton surfaced, spitting water out of her mouth and wiping her eyes. Running her hands over smoothed blonde hair, she nearly jumped out of her skin when she saw a man watching her. Lowering herself so the water came just to beneath her chin, she studied him.
Blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, he was dressed simply. No weapons hung from his hip, other than the fishing pole he held in his hands. She was certain he had not been there when she’d entered the stream. He glanced at her, blue eyes widening in surprise.
“Oh!” he said, quickly tugging his line out of the water. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you there.” He seemed truly embarrassed as he began to pack up his equipment.
“It’s alright,” Braxton said, head slightly cocked to the side as she studied him. He seemed so familiar to her. A comforting familiarity. “Any luck?”
He glanced at her, seeming confused for a moment before he glanced at his pole, chuckling softly. “Too soon to tell,” he replied. He made a move to leave, then stopped, turning back to her. “I’ve not seen you before,” he said conversationally. “Are you new?” He nodded at her clothing piled on the opposite bank. “Your clothing doesn’t ring a bell of any of the villagers I know.”
Braxton smiled, a bit unsure. How was she supposed to know if she were new? She didn’t even know who she was! “Oh, uh, well, I’m just traveling through,” she answered with a small smile.
“Ah.” He gave her a brilliant smile. “My name’s Tom. What’s yours?”
Braxton opened her mouth to speak when she was cut off by a cold voice on the bank behind her. “Be moving on, pilgrim.”
Turning, Braxton saw a steel-eyed Asima aiming that cold stare onto the uninvited guest. “Asima,” Braxton said quietly, shocked at how rude her guide was being.
“Move,” Asima said, voice lowering, her hand resting on the grip of her blade.
Tom said nothing, though he met Asima’s gaze steadily, the smallest bit of a smirk quirking his lips. “I’ll just be on my way, then,” he said slowly.
“You do that.” Asima’s gaze didn’t leave him until he’d disappeared into a nearby wood, then she turned angry eyes to Braxton. “What the hell were you doing?”
“Bathing, obviously,” Braxton said, returning the anger, lifting her hands to indicate the stream around her. She watched as Asima waded into the water, fully clothed, getting close enough to snag her by the arm and tug her out of the water. Braxton tried to get away from her, but Asima’s grip was unyielding. “Let go of me!” she yelled, yanking roughly to pull her arm free. Asima looked at her, stunned, finally having the grace to look away as Braxton stood naked on the bank.
Braxton was furious by the demand. She took a menacing step toward the taller woman. “If you lay your hands on me one more time like that, I’m going to practice my fighting techniques on you. I’m not a fucking animal, nor am I your slave. I didn’t come here to have you treat me like my father does. Do you understand?”
Asima could only stare, stunned. She didn’t comment on what was obviously another piece of Braxton’s life, knowing now was not the time. Contrite, she nodded. “Please get dressed, Braxton. It’s not safe for you right now. That man, the fisherman, was Markus. He’s trying to get information.” Asima’s words were spoken softly, almost shy. She turned and headed back toward their camp, where she’d been napping when she woke to find the blonde gone.
Braxton stared after her, shocked at her own behavior, and even more shocked that it actually had the desired affect. Never in her life, that she could recall anyway, had she done that. Pride filled her, making her stand a bit straighter and taller as she gathered her clothing, pulling them on. She suddenly had an image of cold, hate-filled eyes, and knew instinctively they belonged to her father. She shivered at the thought.
When Braxton arrived back at camp, she found Asima reclining next to the fire, her head resting on Black Jack’s saddle. She stared up into the late afternoon sky. One hand rested on her stomach, the other under her head. Braxton stood five feet away, studying her companion. She noticed not for the first time that Asima’s face was beautiful, her features strong yet elegant at the same time. Her body, though tall and lean, could be quite intimidating. That constant frown was on her face, as though the weight of the world were on Asima’s shoulders.
“Hey,” Braxton said softly, setting the still-wet soap on a rock to dry before putting it back into the saddlebag. Asima glanced her way.
“Hi.” The brunette studied Braxton for a moment, her eyes traveling over her face and damp hair. “You know, you have really pretty hair,” she said softly. “Been meaning to tell you that.” Braxton could only stare, her shock clearly read by Asima’s amused grin. “Yes, I can be nice sometimes, too.” Asima turned her gaze back to the skies.
“I suspected as much.” Braxton took a long swig from the water skin, settling it back near their packs, knowing that her guide would decline. She’d never seen the darker woman eat or drink anything. She wasn’t entirely convinced that she even slept at night.
“Is your father mean to you?” Asima asked at length, her gaze still occupied by the slow, lazy clouds.
Braxton paused in her brush stroke, thinking. “I have no memories, but yes, I feel he was. Is. Was. I don’t know.” She continued to brush the tangles from her hair. “If that man was Markus, why didn’t he strike?”
“Because you’re still too strong.” Asima met Braxton’s confused gaze. “As I explained earlier, you haven’t given up. You still believe.”
“In what?” Braxton asked, nearly exasperated by Asima’s cryptic answers.
Asima gave her a brilliant smile. “Why, yourself, of course. You know in your gut you don’t belong here. Your soul is trying to reclaim itself, Braxton. But be warned: he will try and wear you down. Understand?”
Braxton nodded slowly. “I think so.”
“What did he say to you today?”
“He asked if I was local. Also my name.”
Asima nearly jumped off the ground, coming to squat beside Braxton, startling the brush right out of the blonde’s hand. “You didn’t tell him, did you?” she hissed.
“No. That’s when you told him to book it.”
Asima’s eyes closed as a heavy sigh of relief eased out between her lips. She sat back on her haunches, staring into the flames. Nodding to herself, as though she’d made some sort of connection or decision, she smiled at Braxton. “Good. That’s real, real good.”
Return to the Academy