The smell of sweet flowers blowing in from the window gave way to iron-filled blood. Days that were once filled with the aroma of oil pastels and acrylics were now filled with odorless visuals of paints dripping down the canvas of his life, turning blues and yellows of happier times into blacks and gray shades of this one. No matter how many times his fingers moved in the thick textures of these oil pastel paints, he couldn’t produce a beautiful image. When he drew back his paint-covered hands to see the work, he found that the colors were crusted, dried blood.
Turning to run from the canvas, he tripped over a blank one, falling downward into darkness, suddenly finding himself swimming in an ocean of black. Like the teacup of Imogene’s childhood, the blackness lived and stretched over him, pulling down his arm, then another part threw itself over another area of his body, tugging more of him into the blackness until he was just a face. Dante’s screams changed into a stifled muttering, causing ripples in the liquid engulfing him, dragging him underneath the surface.
“Wake up, Dante! You’re having a nightmare again!” Ascham shook Dante by the shoulder. Still wrapped up in the dream, Dante fought back some, suddenly opening his eyes, fists clenched, ready to throw a punch. He wasn’t on the canvas any longer, he no longer drowned in the darkness, and his reality was once again filled will the stress of coping with the traumas he endured.
His fists unclenched as he clung to Ascham’s shirt, silently pleading for comfort as he buried his face into his partner’s neck, his cries muffled. Ascham’s brows came together in concern as his arms wrapped around his tortured loved one. “I’m here… I’m here.” He felt like his words would never be enough comfort. Why would they? The world was falling apart with rifts opening doorways for escapees, darkness slowly crawling across the globe. What does one even say to make something like that better?
As Ascham hugged the sobbing Dante in one part of the world, Hannibal sat outside a doorway in another, his knees to his chest and his arms wrapped around them, listening to the sounds of a possessed Bishop throwing things around just on the other side of the heavy door. As the clear sky outside allowed light to come through, no cloud cover to protect him, and the window in the adjacent wall allowing the danger to creep closer and closer to the tips of his bare feet, he was stuck, couldn’t move…did not want to move.
Even if Briar wasn’t with him, he wanted to be with her. Even if Briar didn’t know he was there, he knew he was. Maybe he could tell his Briar one day that he had been there for her through it all. He turned his face away from the light to protect his eyes as the sounds of a broken bedpost bashed against the door, cracking, and then the screams of Briar with Cuca’s voice.
“Let me out, blood drinker!” Briar’s fists pounded against the door, teeth angrily grinding.
Dante’s nightmare wasn’t too far from the truth. The canvas was bright, beautiful colors that had been changed, depicting scenes from the past that were now present representations. People coming into being only to ultimately die. The way things stirred and swirled around him like an uncontrollable wind, just like the way the paints of his dream moved. The way they wrapped and pulled on him, the very same as how Vampiric blood moved through a body. It represented evil moving. Blood… It was all blood now. Even for Hannibal, a Vampire, the amounts were distasteful.
Hannibal listened to the possessed Briar destroy the room, Ghost found an escape from Neverwas in the fighting rings of Jackal Ridge, also known as The City of the Werewolves. In the basement rings outside the tribal meeting hall, groups of Dire Werewolves and those who could change gathered to place their bets, drink, fight, and socialize. This was where dominance was won, and where Ghost was a legend within his society. Friendly matches ended with tired bodies embracing, but the uglier matches ended with blood or death, depending on the situation. Ghost now beat bodies in Human and Werewolf form to forget. Fighting was something he had known all his life, and those from The Tribe were no different.
“Come on! Kill him!” a voice yelled to encourage Ghost’s rival, a younger male with more energy and more to prove, but as Ghost bounced back and forth on his toes, he was a hard target for the young wolf to hit, dodging blow after blow before growling and hitting the male’s cheekbone with his dirty, bloody, bandaged right fist in a quick dart forward. His hair pulled back out of his face, clung to him, drenched in sweat.
Just one more blow. He can’t handle much more, Ghost thought, observing the tiredness of the pup. His eye swollen almost closed, a cut across his lip and another near his ear, Ghost had given the younger one all the chances he could before crushing him with a hit to the jawbone, breaking teeth. The male’s teeth shot toward the crowd, who cheered behind the metal cage keeping them from the fighters within.
Isaiah watched, learning from Ghost, studying him. His stillness among the animated crowd made him stand out. Arms crossed over his chest, head tilted down, his eyes moved as Ghost hugged his opponent to him in a friendly manner, then patted the male’s head.
“You’re all right. Walk it off. You okay?” The young male nodded and smiled, the cuts to his cheek and jaw making the smile crooked. Covered in blood, Ghost walked toward Isaiah. “Learning?”
Isaiah nodded. “Yeah.”
“Good, good. Glad to see you out,” Ghost said, unwrapping his fist as he walked through the cage’s gate to the right, Isaiah at his side. “You’ll mourn yourself to death. Come. Let me buy you a drink.”
Ghost worried for his friend, who seemed to deteriorate after they had come back from the Mythical Realm. He patted Isaiah’s shoulder as they walked through the crowd of spectators already excited about the next two fighters. One fighter, upon entering the cage, transformed into a large dark-colored Dire Wolf, while the other continued dancing around the outside of the cage in his Human form.
“Two beers,” Ghost said as they stopped at the bar counter. The bartender nodded, gathering up the ice-cold bottles and popping them open with a bottle opener attached to the top of the bar.
“I shouldn’t have left her behind…,” Isaiah said against the open rim of the beer bottle before taking a swig. “I’ll never forgive myself for leaving her. We were so happy.”
“You and I both know the pull to be in the pack is strong. She knew what you were and how things worked. You also know, just as well as I do, that there is a lot going on in the world. You may still see her again, you may not. You never know. There’s no reason to beat yourself up over her death.” Ghost stuffed his damaged hand into his pocket, pulling out a few dollars and pushing them toward the awaiting bartender. “Keep the change.” He brought his attention back to his sorrowful friend. “Neverwas was a crazy time. A lot happened. There was so much going on, no one really knew anything that was going on.” He shook his head sadly, thinking back on that battlefield, the creatures he had encountered over there.
Turning around, bottle in his left hand, Ghost leaned back against the bar, watching the bobbing heads of the two fighters in the cage. He waited, allowing time for Isaiah to speak. When he didn’t, Ghost spoke up. “Have you talked to Margot?”
“Nothing can be done. She’s leaving. After she heard the news, she collapsed. She blames herself.” Isaiah paused a moment, looking toward Ghost. “She’s determined. There’s nothing Anya can do.”
As the two Dire Werewolves spoke in The City of the Werewolves, Anya tugged on Margot’s elbow, pulling her into a hug outside of the Alabaman Bishop home. “Please don’t go, my old friend.” Anya’s black eyeliner ran as tears streamed down her modestly make-up face. “Please.”
Margot knew Anya wasn’t one to beg, and it tore at her insides to see an old friend so upset and hurt by something she was doing, but she simply couldn’t move beyond what had happened. “Anya, I cannot stay around anymore. I thought I was doing the right thing by raising Imogene alongside the family, the truth, magic, but it was all wrong. I should’ve never let her know the truth. I should’ve kept her in rehab when her gifts began kicking in.”
Unable to understand the words Margot uttered, Anya withdrew, looking for answers in the woman’s eyes. “If you’d not been upfront and honest with her, she would have thought of her gifts as a mental illness. Have you forgotten how many truly gifted people throughout the world have been condemned to asylums because the world doesn’t understand the differences between those gifted and those tormented?”
Margot’s fingers gripped the handles of the suitcase in her right hand, her left holding another. “Imogene did consider her gift her torment, and it got her killed.”
Enraged, Anya stepped away from Margot, allowing her arms to fall at her sides as her head shook in disbelief. “What you’re saying is true insanity. Look what Dante is going through. He had absolutely no idea what was going on until Hannibal threw him into the deep end. Now he’s completely broken. If it weren’t for Ascham helping him, the poor man would have all but fallen apart from the truth accosting all his senses, overwhelming him on a level neither man nor woman should ever go through.” She pushed her hand through her hair as she stared at Margot’s pale face, still searching for an answer as to why Margot, a woman she’d never seen run from anything, now seemingly couldn’t wait to do just that. “The worse has already happened. What are you so afraid of?”
“A terrible thing has happened, but the worse is yet to come. Evil, real evil, is coming, and we’re all going to die.” Margot’s eyes welled with tears as she began to cry with quiet dignity. “You have always been…” She hesitated to finish the sentence, but as Anya took a defensive stance, Margot released a breath, “absolutely insane. For a long time, I thought you loved and cared for your family, that you wanted to walk the good path, the right path. I always saw you as a pillar, you and Sophia both, but now… You’re so afraid of doing anything, you’re throwing family members into the danger before the flames can reach you.”
“Whoa… Whoa… Are you serious right now?” Anya’s left hand gripped into a fist at her hip as her right hand pointed at Margot. “You’re the one who’s always pushed, people. How many times have I had to clean up your messes? How many times did Imogene run to me when she was growing up because you had to make her study that bit longer? How many times did I call you to come get Imogene in the middle of the night after she had run all the way here from your house? Huh? How dare you accuse me of not taking care of my family and using them as some sort of shield! How many birds did I send out looking for our grandmother? How much did I work with the dark deities to make deals to protect the family? Could you talk to Eshu? Could you talk to the Morningstar?”
Anya waited, giving Margot time to respond, but as words failed the woman, Anya continued. “I didn’t run to another realm like my sister. I stayed.” Anya stomped her foot on the wooden porch. “I stayed when everyone else ran away. I was here when they all came whimpering back in need of this or that. Even you came to me once upon a time, confused and scared. I was there like a mother to you!”
Margot’s mouth opened, surprised, each word Anya spoke cutting her deeply. What does one say when confronted with truths and painful history? Anya had been there for a family who always seemed to abandon her. Margot was now ready to do the same. Turning to walk away, she paused, looking back at Anya. Margot’s lips parted as if she had some final words, something that would set Anya straight, but nothing came out. She shook her head as she walked to her car, stuffing her luggage into the back seat.
Getting behind the wheel, she stared at Anya. She had one arm around her waist, the other to her bottom lip, frightened, but standing firm. Margot started the car, put it in gear, and drove the circle around the driveway before heading down the road and out of view.
As soon as Anya was sure Margot couldn’t see her in the rearview mirror, she collapsed to her knees, crying, her hands covering her face as her body shook with every powerful cry outward.