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Copyright © 1999, 2007, 2016 Rae Lori
Updated text and cover art Copyright © 2016 Rae Lori
A RavenFire Books Production
For information on the cover illustration and design, contact Rachel@Raelori.com
Cover art by RavenFire Media
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages for review purposes.
This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, any place, events or occurrences, is purely coincidental. The characters and story lines are created from the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Cim-merian: adj. Very dark or gloomy. In Greek mythology, one of a mythical people described by Homer [in the Odyssey] as inhabiting a land of perpetual darkness.
It was a war that never should have happened. In the biggest cover-up the Northern Hemisphere has ever seen, political agencies were overturned and replaced by commerce and science experiments. Instead of liberty, technology and currency were saluted and celebrated. With the rise of the new century, arms dealing became the biggest export.
Until humans became weapons themselves...
1981 - The bright hot desert sun baked the sandy ground. An old Ford pulled up to the house in the sparse desert community. Its rapidly rotating tires kicked up flakes of dirt as it roared ahead and screeched to a halt in front of an old southwestern style stucco home of green and white.
A tall, middle-aged man stepped from the driver’s seat and headed for the front door where a young, beautiful, short raven-haired woman stood with her hands resting on her hips. Raina's bronze-tinted, heart-shaped face darkened with a frown once she saw his expression.
Ronald?” she asked softly.
Shane Blackheart shook his head. “Gone. Shortly after Alesha died, he took off, never to be seen again. No phone call, no word. Nothing.”
“Do you have any idea where he may be?”
Shane ran a rough hand over his sleek long black hair. That was a loaded question. Their brother had always lived in his own world, listening to no one and nothing but his own instinct. There was no reason he'd open up to any of them now of all times.“No sign of him or where he may be. I called the company and contacted his colleagues. I even checked all flights heading to and from Egypt. I figured he might have tried to bury Alesha in her home country. No dice anywhere. It’s as if he disappeared off the face of the Earth.”
He turned back toward the car. “It’s all right,” he called to the little girl inside. “You can come on out now.”
The passenger door opened. A small leg appeared and then another before a young girl of about five stepped out.
“Don’t forget to close the door,” Shane called after his niece.
“I can’t believe he just left her,” Raina said low enough for Raven not to hear.
“Ronald has always been...not quite all there. Alesha's death must have finished him completely.”
“That’s no reason for him to leave his daughter behind while he runs off to who knows where.”
“He's always been irrational and inattentive, Raina. You remember. Mom and Pop tried everything short of going to those head doctors and I don't want to subject him to any of that scrutiny. Logic and numbers seemed to be the only language he understand. Human interaction has been an issue of struggle since he was a child.”
Raina nodded. “Yeah, I know. I was there when he got pushed around by those boys.”
Shane opened his mouth to respond until he saw the surprised look in his younger sister’s eyes. He followed her gaze to look over his shoulder. Little Raven stood frozen watching the two of them. Did she hear everything?
Tears streamed down her cheeks and she held her clutched hands down in front of her. How could Ronald leave his only blood behind?
For all of his life, Shane watched over his brother’s well-being. Ronald’s indifference for human interactivity grew as he got older, soon casting him deeper into his own thoughts and ‘inner life’. It nearly tore Shane apart when his brother asked to take Raven into his care.
I can only pray he survives out there on his own,” Raina said softly. She took slow steps down from the small porch, cautiously approaching Raven as one would a skittish animal. She placed a warm smile on her lips and leaned down. “Hello, Raven. I’m your aunt, Raina. You’ll be staying with me for the time being.” Raina reached down and gave the little girl a kiss on her cheek. “Why don’t you go inside and ask your Uncle Joe to get you something to eat, hmm?”
“All right.” Raven walked up the stairs and to the front screen door where Raina’s husband waited with stuffed animals in each arm. He smiled and his face lit up as he lifted the animals and made one dance in the air for Raven.
Raina turned back to her brother and stuffed her hands in her pockets. Her thin shoulders rose in a shrug.“So, what about you?” she said.
Shane's face lightened up a little in a smile. “I figure I’d try and find him. Maybe he went back to Egypt to honor Alesha.”
“You...are going all the way to Egypt?”
Shane shook his head. “I'll wait and see. He’ll make it back home...eventually.” He rubbed his sweaty hands on his hips over the bright, newly washed pair of jeans. “’Sides, I have a job waiting for me back in the outskirts of California near Arizona. A friend of mine got me a position driving buses. It’s not much, but it’ll keep me going.”
“Then we’ll take it from there. Maybe I can put my engineering degree to use once my PH.D course is done.”
Raina shook her head. “You’re too smart to be driving buses, big brother. You should be out trying to find a cure for diseases or something.”
“Yeah, well. I didn’t want to say anything, but I may be working at an up and coming corporation.”
He shrugged. “Technical consulting on some big secret project. I don’t know the details yet, but I’m hoping to learn more and maybe work my way up.”
Shane chuckled. “Wouldn’t be a big secret if it didn’t.” He smiled, turned on his heels to start back to the car. As he opened the driver’s door, he took one last look at his sister. “Tell Joe I said hi and to keep reaching for the stars.”
“You take care, too, Shane. And if you see Ronald, tell him his family is waiting for him.”
Shane nodded. “Will do.”
The car door slammed, echoing across the open desert. The car engine turned over with a roar. Raina watched the vehicle pull out of the open dirt road that served as their driveway. With a heavy feeling of sadness in her heart, she returned to the house, eager to see her niece Raven.
Raven watched the open driveway through the thin screen door long after the car pulled away. Images of her father flashed in her mind accompanied by her mother’s voice, sweet smile and comforting expression. She always felt safe when mommy looked at her like that. Now she was gone. Then Daddy followed soon after. Now her Uncle Shane was gone. She didn't feel the same emptiness at their absence like she did whenever she thought of her mommy. Daddy was still somewhere out there. He would come back for her and tell her everything would be all right. Her Uncle Shane would be back soon, too. She just had to wait and be a good little girl.
Raven looked up at her aunt as she pulled the screen door open and stepped inside. The tall woman leaned forward, resting her hands on her knees as she gazed at her.
“Where's my Uncle Shane?”
Raina frowned and looked up over at Joe before turning back to Raven. “You're going to be staying with us for a little while.”
“Where's my daddy?”
Raina looked away for a moment, licking her lips as she stood upright and fiddled with her hands. “He's away, Raven.”
“I...I don't know where.”
Raven looked ahead. Her Uncle Shane had to come back for her. He had to! He wouldn't just leave!
She pushed past Raina and forced the screen door open as she ran. The crunchy gravel beneath her feet was loud like the crackling fireworks her father once took her to in the middle of summer.
Raina called her name behind her, but Raven couldn't stop. She had to run. She had to find her father. She had to find Shane! Someone who would want her and look after her. Someone who would tell her what happened to her mommy.
Then darkness grew all around them. Raven skitted slowly to a halt as she looked up at the sun’s rays just as the shadow of the moon blocked the big bright star in an eclipse.
The sound of gravel echoed behind her just before Raven felt her aunt's hands cover her eyes. An arm wrapped around her waist.
Raina swung Raven around to face her as she looked into her eyes. “Can you see me, sweetie? Can you see okay?”
Raven stared ahead, the question ringing in her head until it fell into the background of her mind, merging with the voices of her mother, father, and her uncle Shane...
Arizona - 1999
Raven Blackheart gazed out at the city streets passing by. Dark brown mountains decorated the horizon behind the rows of southwestern-style houses with cactus, stone, and succulents coloring the front lawns. It was clear, sunny day. One of many in the desert landscape. The summer always brought bring record heat in the triple digits. Hot, aching heat that felt like the city was just one giant oven. Thankfully, the high temps were subsiding as autumn was just around the corner.
She sat back and placed her feet on the railing. For a moment, she thought the driver looked at her a bit weird when she boarded. He reminded her of her Uncle Shane she saw only a few times when she was little. It couldn't have been him. He disappeared just like her father did shortly before.
Raven shook it off. He probably just had one of those faces. Shifting in her seat, she closed her eyes and got comfortable. The art store was a bit of a distance. The comforting hum of the bus's engine roared and vibrated beneath her. Perhaps she could sneak in some shut eye before arriving. Before rushing out the door that morning, she barely had enough time to wake up, shower and eat anything more than a dry piece of toast. The hours seemed like minutes lately. She barely had enough time to work, do homework and attend classes much less spend any quality time with Jack. Now she needed to get some art supplies to finish this last project.
She was quickly regretting taking extra classes over the summer. The only advantage was it would help her graduate sooner rather than later. She just had to get through these last few months.
Just hold on...
Moments passed as her thoughts continued until...
The bus halted to a stop with a loud exhale and whine of the engine.
Raven opened her eyes and looked around. She was the only one left on the bus. The bright sunny day had been replaced by the dark, cool night. How long had she been sleeping?
She jumped to her feet and leaned over the opposite side to look out the window. Empty darkness colored the open dirt road. Where was she?
“End of the line.”
Raven looked over at the driver. He wasn't the same man from before. This man was pale with a wider build, a puffy round face and looked in his late forties. The other driver had long, black hair tied back in a ponytail with a bronze complexion and s strong jaw. “This can’t be Kennon Road.”
“Actually, we passed it a few stops back. We’ll be starting up again in thirty minutes if you want to wait.”
Jack would be worried about her. She had to find a payphone or something nearby to call and let him know where she was. Maybe there was one out there. “I may do that. I'm going to go look for a payphone first. I'll be back.”
A long empty industrial street sat before her outside with a few parked cars left in the vacant lot. Just on the other side was a large building that sat a ways back from the street. Just ahead she spotted a sea of lights signaling the district of stores up ahead. Perhaps the walk would be good for her instead of waiting around. If the bus didn't start up for another half hour, she'd already get a head start back to the city.
Might as well make use of her time. She'd keep an eye out for a payphone along the way.
Raven hitched up her pack over her shoulder and started down the road.
The crunching of her shoes was the only sound she heard besides the unseen convention of crickets that surrounded her. She gazed around at the beauty of the dark mountains caressing the black star-lit sky. She occupied her mind with thoughts of things she had to do once she got home. Jack would probably be sitting in the living room waiting for her with worry on his handsome face.
Just as she tried to guess what his first words to her when she arrived, an ear piercing scream erupted from one of the buildings in the back. What the–.
She looked around the dark area but saw no one and nothing. Not even a speck of light from the darkened office rooms. Where did that come from?
Raven quickened her steps to pass the building when another scream echoed into the night. This time, it was accompanied by a chorus of glasses crashing from the top floor. A large, dark form fell from the upper part of the building, landing with a thud somewhere nearby. Her heartbeat raced, pounding like drums within her chest as she started to run.
Voices broke through the air, and streams of white flashlight beams pierced the darkness to her right. She pumped as much energy into her legs as she could, willing herself to leave the strange happenings behind her.
“Someone’s over there!” someone screamed nearby. “Get that thing under control!”
Loud heavy breathing. The thud of what sounded like paws echoed under the voices. Something was coming toward her. Faster, Raven! Faster!
She had to get out of here.
Raven pumped energy into her legs and ran toward the city ahead that seemed too far out of her reach. Footsteps thumped on the ground as if someone – or something – jumped and landed behind her. A heavy weight pushed her to the ground, knocking the wind from her. Raven struggled to focus and tried with all her strength to push back against her unseen attacker. A sharp pain in her neck made her cry out, sending a crippling chill throughout her entire body. A rush of hot breath slammed against the back of her neck before she was slammed back into the ground. Losing consciousness, she heard the heavy breathing above her as the voices grew louder...
Raven’s eyes shot open. She flinched at the blinding sunlight streaming through her bedroom window.
Daylight! Was she dreaming?
Her arms felt like two tons of weights as she lifted them. Gazing around, she tried to rub the soreness from her limbs. Warm oak furniture matched each piece from the large dresser that held their television set, her small corner desk and the end table next to the bed. A stack of familiar art books and science fiction books to read were piled up next to the cone shaped lamp. This was her bedroom all right. How did she get here?
Sitting up, she threw back the sheets and looked down. Her dark skin was clear of any scratches or marks. That can't be. The memory of being pushed hard against the ground was too vivid to be a dream.
The shrill scream of the phone broke into her thoughts. The thud of footsteps sounded across the carpeted floor from one end of the area to the other.
“Hello?” The deep, muffled voice came from the kitchen.
Raven peeked into the hall. “Jack, is that you?”
Relief spread over her as he peeked in and smiled at her. Just the person she needed to see. The sight of his warm smile and sparkling hazel eyes immediately calmed her.
“You're awake,” he whispered.
“What happened last night?”
He held up a hand and lifted the phone to his lips. “Uh huh. I'm here.”
The faint chorus of the news theme song erupted from the living room TV.
“Blood clots and blood disorders affect more than five million people in the US alone. For a cleaner system, try Delanin, the leading non-prescription medication that targets blood cells for a cleaner flow through the entire body. Consult your doctor if any side effects or allergic reactions occur. Brought to you by Dridan. Making a better future, today.”
Raven idly rubbed her tired shoulder. “Cleaner blood flow?” She shook her head. “They’ll make a pill for anything these days.”
Once she got her feet, Raven stifled a groan. Every part of her body felt as if she had just run a day long marathon. She took steady steps toward the doorway where Jack stepped away, speaking softly into the phone. By the time she got to the hallway, he hung up and looked at her.
“How you feeling?”
“It's a cliché, but in this instance, it's the only fitting description. Like a truck ran over me a few times.”
Jack chuckled and wrapped his arm around her. “I'm just glad they found you in time. They thought you might have suffered from heat stroke or something.”
Raven froze. “They?”
“Police officers. They brought you here this morning. Good thing you kept your emergency contact info in your backpack like I suggested.”
“Yeah, it's in the living room in front of the TV. Why?”
“I need it to–” Sharp pain spiked in the middle of her forehead, causing her to wince. “Ow.”
“Come on, you. Back to bed for some rest. Doctor's orders.”
He turned her around and led her back to the bedroom.
Raven wanted to protest, but she had to admit, lying down felt kind of nice. She was grateful for the soft pile of sheets and mattress that seemed to call her name. “Last night was warm, but nothing intense. It definitely wasn't hot enough to cause heat stroke.”
Jack reached over to help her sit and lift her feet on the bed. “I’m just glad you’re okay, and they found you when they did. Something could have happened out there. If I had just gone with you like I insisted...”
Raven leaned forward, cradling her forehead. “I didn't think it would take that long.”
“Well...” He reached over and pulled the sheets over her. “At least you're home and safe now. I'll fix you some breakfast.”
Once he left, Raven leaned back and stared up at the ceiling ahead. What happened last night? She knew what she saw and felt. It wasn't any type of heat stroke, that's for sure. She closed her eyes, replaying the sound of the screams over and over in her mind. The heavy breathing like an animal mixed in with the memory. The crashing of glass and voices. They were real.
She breathed softly. There had to be an explanation for all of this. And she'd get to the bottom of it all.
Moments later, the sound of pots and pans led to the smells of bacon, fluffy eggs, hot toast.
Ignoring the rush of blood escaping her brain, Raven swung her feet over the side of the bed and stood up. This time, she didn't feel like her body was screaming for rest. Maybe she could check out the condition of her backpack. That would at least give her some answers as if she was going to crazy or not.
As she turned the corner passed the kitchen, her stomach grumbled. Traitor.
“That better be a big tall, hairy monster with an ax roaming out there because I distinctly remember telling Raven Blackheart to rest while I brought her food.”
Raven bit her lip and leaned backward to peer into the kitchen. “I was just curious about something and wanted to check it out.”
Jack wiped his hands on the kitchen towel before throwing it over his shoulder. “What's that?”
“My backpack would have marks on it.”
She started to the living room to her backpack. Yanking it up, she looked down at the front of it. Nothing. No scratch marks or any signs of a struggle.
Wait a minute. Her heart nearly stopped when she saw the dark green thread sewn along the sides of the pockets. She ran her fingers over the thin thread to make sure her eyes weren’t playing tricks on her. To anyone else, the thread would be invisible, but Raven knew her backpack. The thread was a slightly lighter shade than the rest of the material.
“Someone patched this up,” she said softly.
“What?” Jack stepped over to lean in, analyzing the backpack. “You sure?”
“Yeah, right here. I don't remember that thread being there.”
“Rave – ”
“I know it sounds crazy, but I'm sure of it Jack.” She turned to him, feeling every nerve in her body tense.
Jack shook his head. “Who would go through all that trouble and why?”
“That's the million dollar question right there.”
Jack looked at her with a pensive wrinkle in his forehead. Then he laughed. “Come on, Rave. This is crazy.”
“I know it sounds crazy.” She tossed the backpack onto the easy chair nearby. “Believe me, I do. I feel like my mind is trying to tell me something, but I don't know what. I can’t shake this feeling, Jack. Something is wrong.”
“Listen.” Jack gently kissed her forehead and rubbed her arms. “Come, and eat breakfast. We’ll sit and relax for a while, and then you can tell me what happened. Tell me whatever you remembered. After that, maybe we can take the same route there and retrace your steps to see if we can find anything. Sound good?”
Raven nodded. “I knew there was a reason I loved you.”
“Why? Because I always cave to your demands when you bat those pretty eyes and give me that cute pout?”
Raven gave him light slap on his arm. “I’m serious.”
“All right. Come on. I'm starving.” He grabbed her hand and led her back to the kitchen where two breakfast plates waited for them. Jack started toward one of the chairs before he snapped his fingers as if to remember something. “Before we do, I almost forgot to ask you something.”
Raven frowned as she looked at him. “Right. I'll go get my white dress and we can do this now.” Shaking her head, she started forward but stopped again when she saw the serious look on his face. “You're not joking?”
Jack shook his head. “I was worried when I didn't hear from you last night. I thought the worst and I couldn't stand the idea of losing you. So I want to make this official while we're young and just starting our lives out. Marry me.”
For the first time in a long time, Raven didn't know what to say. They had been seeing each other for a few years now and never had any set plans on what they would do besides their chosen careers after graduating. Her life had always been colored with question marks, especially where her family and dating was concerned. No one ever hung around long enough for her to connect with them and Jack was the first man she ever wanted to stay around longer than “just for a while.”
Jack finally broke into a smile. “No response? Color me surprised. Raven Blackheart is at a loss for words. ”
Jack held up a finger. “You’re right. I’m screwing this up already.”
He reached over to the nearest plate to pluck a piece of bacon from the pile. Then he descended down to his knees in front of her.
“One knee...” Raven whispered, trying not to smile.
Jack looked down. “Oh! Right.” He quickly hopped up on one knee and cleared his throat before taking her hand.
“Raven Blackheart. The first time I saw you in class, I had to convince you that I wasn’t entirely crazy.”
He laughed and shook her hand. “Hey, I'm making a speech here.”
Raven cleared her throat and sat up straight. “Sorry. Continue.”
Jack took a moment to exhale softly before continuing. “Anyway, I really liked you and wanted to get to know you. We’ve been together through some hard times and I can't see my life without you in it. I love you, Raven. Breaking through those walls you put up hasn’t been easy, but I’m patient. I just want to be there for you and I want you to be my wife. I don’t have much, but I do have my word and my heart.” He looked down at the half-eaten bacon in his free hand and raised it. “And bacon.”
Raven couldn’t help giggling. “Food is the way to your heart, Jack. Not mine.”
“Yeah well, I don’t have a ring yet.” He wrapped the bacon strip around her finger. “Figured we could go shopping or something. Pick one out of a catalog or...”
She pulled his face to hers and planted a soft kiss on his lips. “You are insane, you know that? Only you would give me an engagement ring made of bacon.”
Jack snorted. “I wanted to leave an impression.”
“Oh, you’ve already done that.” She kissed him again, holding him close as he stood. As strange as the past few hours have been, this felt safe and comforting when she needed it most.
“So, is that a yes?” he asked, once the kiss broke.
She nestled the bacon strip around her fingers and held it up. “What do you think?”
He kissed her again before slipping his arm around her. “Come on. Let's eat before the food gets cold. Then we can go back to that street to figure out what's going on.”
Raven popped the bacon in her mouth and immediately started munching on it. Her stomach groaned in protest for more of the salty strips of meat. Nice, warm and a little under cooked just as she liked. The hot meal – now probably warm – would be a nice distraction before finding out what happened. Something normal and safe before the storm.
After breakfast, Raven insisted they take the bus on the same route she remembered. She knew it was a long shot, but the same bus driver that reminded her of her Uncle wasn't even around. The other one from last night's shift wasn't either. Once the bus parked before the Kennon Road stop, Raven stepped down to the curb with Jack right behind her.
The dark road ahead was now brightly lit, showcasing all of the large industrial buildings around them. More cars were in the lot this time. From what she could tell, all of the office windows were intact with no sign of anything crashing through them.
“What is it?”
Jack slipped his arm around her shoulders. She leaned into him. “It feels different here,” she said, gazing around.
“What do you remember?”
“Lights...like flashlights. Voices and yelling. I thought I saw something fall from the window over there after I heard a crash. I tried to run but something or someone that breathed heavily caught up with me and pushed me to the ground.”
“No one else was around?”
She shook her head. “Just whoever was yelling and following me.”
Jack squinted as he looked around the area. “I don't have any explanation for any of this.”
“I know the feeling.”
“I'd say we ask around, but I don't even know who to approach or if they'd think we were both losing it.”
Raven shrugged and brushed a hand over her forehead. “Well, at least we'd both be in the loony bin.”
He laughed. “That's for sure. Come on.” He slipped his hand over hers and intermingled their fingers. “I may not have an answer for any of this, but I know exactly how to get your mind off it. How about we skip Davies's class and bum around?”
“Sounds good to me.”
The humidity from the fresh rain was still suspended in the air hours later. Raven was thankful the clouds moved in later that morning and hung around all day. It matched the dark mood that hung in the back of her mind. Questions still lingered, but she tried hard to push them away. As the day went on and night fell upon them, she promised herself to push it away for good. Now was not the time to entertain endless thoughts of that night. Thoughts that would lead to nowhere. She wanted to celebrate her engagement to Jack and start their life anew with nothing to cloud their future.
“You know,” Jack said, after taking a drink from the bottle of beer in his hand. “Even in this dim light...you, my love, exude a glow.”
She smiled. “Did you really mean what you asked earlier?”
“Yes, I did. And I’m glad you brought that up because I was hoping it would get your mind off things.”
Raven felt a slight shiver as she rubbed her arms. “I was hoping we can plan it together. Nothing fancy or outrageous, but small and cozy. We can even get married on the beach and I’ll be happy.”
“Just you and me?” he asked, lifting an eyebrow.
“And the preacher or whatever.”
“Sounds good to me.” He kissed her and then whooped out loud into the air. Spinning her around, he laughed wildly. “My baby and I are getting married!” He yelled when a scattered chorus of ‘congratulations’ echoed into the air. “Y2K, baby. It’s our year. Our decade to make things right. I want you right there by my side, Raven.”
It sounded perfect. As she peered up at him, he gazed deep into her eyes and caressed her cheek. “For the longest time, I’ve felt alone, Jack. Then you came. After I lost my family, I thought I'd be alone until I died. I don’t want to be alone anymore.”
“Neither do I. We’re much stronger together than apart, Rave. My dad up and bailed when I was a kid, too. All he left was a trust in my name and a wad of cash to my mom. I thought I didn’t need him much less anybody. Then I saw you, and I knew there couldn’t be anyone else in my life.”
She reveled in the feel of his lips on hers, the loving way he held her as they shared that moment. This was only the beginning for them. They would both have a new life in the new millennium. No matter the media frenzy about the year 2K being the end of everything, it would be the end of their old life and the beginning of their new one...together.
Raven spotted an alleyway on the other side of the street. She grinned and steered them toward somewhere more private.
“Come on!” she said grabbing his hand and leading him across the way. Puddles on the ground splashed under their feet as they went deeper into the city streets, leaving the town center behind.
Raven slowed to a halt as she spotted the big black letters on the current newspaper behind the street bin. The headline was bold and clear as day: THE END IS NEAR.
Jack’s voice fell into the background of her mind as she leaned in to read the article.
“The end is near!”
Raven turned at the sound of the voice behind them.
A man wearing a dark robe stood nearby, enveloped in the darkness of night. He emphasized his words with outstretched hands as his eyes gazed upward. “First our skies were polluted by industrialized devices created to rob us of our currency and turn us into working machines. But that was only the beginning. They will take over. War is brewing.”
His long, brown trench coat flapped in a soft breeze. Raven strained to see the man more clearly, but a strange, dark mist covered his face. Clouds of fog encompassed him, making him appear more like a silhouette with a voice than a man.
He peered down at Raven. Even though she couldn’t see him, she felt his gaze boring right into her. His next words sent a chill throughout her body.
“We have a new beginning coming, man,” Jack said, holding her to him. “A future we’ll make for ourselves. Come on, Rave.”
Jack led her away, heading across the street to get away from the man. “They'll let any crazy Joe roam the streets these days. He didn’t freak you out, did he?”
“No,” Raven smiled despite still feeling shaky. “He just caught me off guard.”
“Here. Drink some of this.” He handed her the green bottle of lukewarm beer which she took. The sharp, bitter taste wafted on her tongue before she forced it down with a cough.
“Whoa, slow down,” Jack said. “It’s not going anywhere.” He took the bottle and threw back a swig.
The sound of their footsteps seemed to carry and echo twice over behind them. Raven didn't want to look back, hoping she just imagined it. Fear and paranoia. That had to be it.
She looked over at Jack and noticed he had the same nervous gaze she felt on her own face. His arm tightened around her shoulder before he whipped around on his heels.
Nothing. Nothing sat behind them except for the night air and empty street.
Jack looked over at her before laughing and pulling her to him. “Now, I'm going crazy.” He kissed the top of her head. “Come on. I think I've had enough celebration tonight.”
Raven opened her mouth to respond as they turned to continue walking. She froze once she saw the two tall men staring a few feet ahead of them. The one on the right appeared in his early twenties, built with lean muscle. Ethereally pale and blonde. He wore a tattered pullover over dirty jeans and stood as if he owned the world and everyone else should feel privileged to share his space. The other was lankier, also in his early twenties, with darker hair and the same ethereal complexion. He also wore tattered clothes, a sweater barely pulled over a torn shirt and old jeans. Both men watched them like predators sizing up their prey.
“Going somewhere, friend?” the blond one said looking at Jack.
Jack immediately stepped to the side, pushing Raven behind him. He held onto her hand as he tried to make his way around them. “We're just passing through, man. Don't mind us.”
The blond smiled wide, revealing a pair of prominent fangs on either side of his four front teeth. Raven felt the breath immediately leave her. What the—
The blond man's hand snaked out in an instant, snapping around Jack's neck.
Raven felt Jack push her to the side to get her away from harm.
The large blond man hauled Jack over his head. “Ha! Look at this, E! I’m barely lifting him and I can’t even feel his weight. Amazing. I can definitely get used to this!”
Raven scrambled to her feet and rushed toward Jack. She had to do something to stop these monsters. “Let him go!”
The dark-haired man appeared in front of her in the blink of an eye, stopping her halfway.
“Ah, ah. Where do you think you're going?”
Before she could react, she felt the rush of wind next to her just as thin, strong arms clamped around her torso, crushing her body against the man behind her. She forced the bile down and struggled with all her might to get out of his grip. This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening.
“Leave her alone!” Jack struggled to yell against the man's grip. He winced once the man tightened his hold on him.
“I could snap his neck right now if I wanted,” the blonde man said with a smile. “He feels like nothing in my hand.”
“Do it!” the dark haired man yelled.
“No!” Raven struggled against the man holding her but it was useless. It was like fighting a set of steel grips on her arms. “Please.”
The blond man frowned. “Well, since you asked nicely.” He dropped Jack down, lifting his knee as he did. Jack bowled over from the impact to his stomach, coughing as he struggled to gain his footing.
Raven flinched. She blinked to keep the tears from welling up in her eyes. Her stomach roiled as she sensed death’s hands closing in on them. She hadn’t felt this way since the death of her father and mother.
She had to think of a way out of here. Jack's life and hers depended on it. Maybe there was a weapon or something around here to help her break free. Then she'd get Jack loose so they could run and get help. Someone had to be nearby. They just had to be.
The thought disappeared once she felt the man behind her grip her hair and yank her backward. “You’re not thinking of trying anything are you, sweetheart?” His heaving breath was hot and rank testing the contents of her stomach.
“It’s not your fault,” the blond one said. He slowly circled around Jack who stumbled to the ground, coughing and cradling his stomach. “You are nothing more than casualties. Second on the food chain.” He grabbed a handful of Jack's dirty blond hair and pulled him back. “Believe me, you’ll thank us when this is all over.”
The dark-haired man holding her laughed and looked down at her. “Now it’s your turn to watch someone close to you die.”
Raven fought to turn to Jack. The glint of a knife caught her eye. Jagged breaths filled the air. It took her a moment to realize it was her breath echoing in her mind. She struggled to break free from the vice grip that held her, but it was no use. He was too strong.
“No!” After she realized Jack had spoken the words, he jumped to his feet and dove forward, tackling the blond man to the ground. He jumped to his feet and started toward her.
Relief sluiced through her for but a moment with the hope of their escape in arm's reach. She reached out to him, almost feeling the familiar strength of his hands around hers. Then his eyes widened with a sharp gasp escaping his lips.
Jack stopped, his body arching backward before he coughed up blood and fell forward. Behind him stood the blond man holding a bloody knife in his hand.
“Jack...” The tears she had been fighting made their way to the surface, spilling onto her warm cheeks. “Why are you doing this? We’ve done nothing to you!”
“You’re human,” the blond man said nonchalantly. “You exist.” He raised the knife and went to Jack, still struggling to his feet.
The darkness surrounding them seemed to grow darker as the night crept upon them. Silence filled the air. Their movements slowed as if she were watching the scene underwater. Dread, cold as ice, fell like a lump down Raven's throat. She saw the glint of the knife, and the pale hand grabbing a fist full of Jack's hair again.
This wasn't real.
This wasn't real.
The man’s arm reached back before swinging forward, plunging the weapon right into Jack’s stomach.
Time stopped in the busy city. No cars drove by. No footsteps or voices broke the silence that fell over them.
“No.” The word was merely a whisper and, despite hearing the sound of her own voice, it still felt like a dream. Raven gathered all of the air into her lungs and screamed as loud as she could. “No!”
Jack’s body stiffened then fell limp like a puppet released from its owner’s hold. His once lively, beautiful hazel eyes, rolled to the back of his head before he fell to the ground.
Raven snapped her eyes close, refusing to process the images. No. No. No. Jack isn’t dead. He isn’t dead. I’m in my bedroom. In my bed. I’m going to wake up tomorrow, and this would all be a horrible nightmare. A stupid, silly nightmare just like last night. Jack will come into my room any minute now and tell me everything will be okay. He will listen to his news and cook our breakfast. He will be right there with his arms ready to comfort me...
Once she opened her eyes, she saw the blond man leaning down to Jack, pulling him up by the hair as he leaned down to his neck.
“You get away from him!” Raven tried with all her strength to break from the dark haired man’s hold but still he held her through the fits, laughing as if she were a child amusing him. The more she struggled, the harder he laughed.
Then, when he had enough, he reached down and pulled her up.
“Let me go!”
“You want release?” the dark haired man said. “We can offer that. It's better now you go with your boyfriend before they take us all out in the end.”
His words were enigmatic but she didn't care to decipher them.