I’ve been writing a lot before I start into the images. After reading a few good blogs about tips into starting a graphic novel I realized that I can’t let my eagerness jump ahead too far. The fun part is writing, but so is the drawing, the planning, the… “Ooh… How should this scene look?!” Which can easily and quickly be replaced with “Oh my god, what am I doing? This is going to take forever… How am I ever going to accomplish this??!”

Nope, that doesn’t keep the creative gears spinning, and I have enough trouble with that as it is some days. I decided to just write… and keep writing. And because I am used to writing in regular novel style, I am doing that… All the while keeping in mind what will stay and what will most likely be removed for a more visual based medium. Doing it this way seems to help me focus on the story itself. I see the characters move and talk in my mind as though a movie is playing out. It’s that movie that I can then pause and examine later, to find which still images make the best visual impact to keep the story moving smoothly, but even more importantly, clearly.

Above is a drawing I started when my writing brain wouldn’t cooperate. When completed it will be a mansion built in the 1920s, the architecture is a strange mix of art nouveau and gothic design.

I would really like some feedback on the story so far.

The novel is called…

THE SEVENTH ROOM

The plot is as follows: A girl, just out of art college, has held a fascination with an old mansion she once saw in a documentary. Built in the early 1920s, and located in a cold, secluded forest North of Two Harbors, Minnesota (that’s up along the North Shore about 30 miles from Duluth, MN) the Brandstone Mansion has been filled with mystery and tragedy its entire existence. She doesn’t believe in the superstition that has always surrounded the place. She just wants to photograph it. The biggest mystery, which she doesn’t take too seriously because it happened 75 years ago, is about the youngest son of the Iron Range tycoon who had built the place. Michael Brandstone, the IV, was forced to go back there in 1943 to face his father’s legacy. He went in and never came out. Afterwards, about every 10 years, give or take, young women have gone missing near the mansion, but most of the disappearances, and even those found dead in the area, were dismissed as either drug overdoses, careless partying in a dangerous area, and even a possible serial killer.

Once there, Brianna Leah Mason hears strange noises, like that of machinery, and the lights come on in a place that was supposed to have been abandoned. This wakes her up in the middle of the night. She goes to investigate and finds a hallway with several doorways lined up on both sides. She goes through one of the doors and finds a strange looking orb made of light. She reaches out her hand and ends up in free fall. Before she can get her bearings she is attacked by creatures that aren’t human, they look like demons. Out of the darkness, a man comes and helps her to fight them off. She passes out and wakes up later in a small building that she assumes is a garage. After believing she has been kidnapped, they have a conversation, and she realizes who he is, recognizing him from a photograph. Eventually, he tells her to go back to sleep. She is having a hard time accepting the real truth at this point.

Some of the fun give and take of the two characters is the fact that he is from the 1940s, she is from our present day. She also likes to reference popular culture, so lines or scenes from familiar movies and TV often come up… and of course, he won’t know what the heck she is talking about. I have included the next two chapters below. I hope you enjoy it!

Read on to find out what happens!

Note: This is a story for a mature audience. Nothing in the following section is too graphic, though there is some language.


It took me a long time to fall asleep again, my head was spinning with the wild story he had just told me. I kept telling myself that it didn’t matter, because I was still asleep. Sleeping peacefully in that beautiful house; having the strangest dream I’d ever had, yes… but soon I would wake up and then I could get back to my life.

I opened my eyes to gray hazy light. I moved my right arm, expecting to feel the cool satin sheets. The chain jingled and my arm was halted. I jumped and tried to sit up when pain shot through my body, especially my leg. I squeezed my eyes shut and let out a tight cry. When the pain subsided I opened my eyes and jumped again with another startled cry at the figure sitting only a foot away from me.

I caught my breath and blinked at the person sitting stone still, watching me with large brown eyes; her skin as dark as coffee, her hair brushed out in a shortened afro style. Her lips were full and pouty, while the slight crease in her brow accented her searing look. She didn’t blink as I sat up; her eyes only followed me. We were assessing each other, but I was definitely the only one feeling intimidated. Her clothing was simple; brown sueded pants and a vest that bared her muscular arms. Her hands appeared to loosely rest in her lap, until I noticed the tight grip on what lay across her thighs. A sword; honest to god, she had a sword. It was curved, almost like a Samurai sword.

I couldn’t help but smile at the sight of her, and her brow creased further. I shook my head and closed my eyes as I gave in to the giggles that were swelling in my chest. The woman didn’t say anything, she just stared at me, clearly becoming agitated or confused by whatever I was laughing at.

“Now I know I’m dreaming… Except, you should have long dread-lock style braids… And that sword is wrong… the handle should be white,” I laughed. “So when is Rick and Carl going to show up? I really don’t want to run into anymore of those Zombies…”

“Her name is Vehda… She’s my… guardian, I guess you could say,” Michael stepped out from the other room. “And… you better show a little respect, she knows how to use that weapon better than anyone.”

I regarded the woman who still hadn’t said a word. By her cold stare she was clearly offended by my inability to take her seriously. “But… I’m just dreaming… aren’t I?” I suddenly noticed he was without a shirt as he moved closer; his black pants were low on his waist accentuating the shape of his abdomen and I had to force myself to keep my gaze fixed on his face. “Everything you said last night… I either dreamt it, or I’m still dreaming now, in which case… none of it matters anyway.” I held up my chained wrist, “I’m obviously still your prisoner, so I’ll laugh if I want to.”

“You can ease off now, Vehda, she’s harmless.”

His sudden closeness made me nervous and I backed into the corner as much as I could, pulling the blanket over my chest even more. He crouched to my level, reached across my stomach, and grabbed my wrist in a firm but gentle grip.

I was holding my breath marveling at the ability of my subconscious mind to imagine such detail as I stared at the muscles of his back and shoulders; the nuanced colors in his hair, even his masculine scent. He was unlocking the cuffs around my wrist and ankle before he met my gaze and I had to force myself to swallow.

“Thank you,” I murmured. “Can I go home now?”

“I’m sorry… Everything I told you last night is entirely true… I can’t stop you; but… no one has made it out alive without the key and…” he looked away. “I suggest you try to heed my advice. Some of the others… they wouldn’t have been my first choice, but they were here, and so we had to make do. You… well, you aren’t a drug addict at least, and you seem to have some brains in that pretty little head…” he shrugged and forced a smile. “Just… don’t give me a reason to see you get hurt anymore. I really don’t like watching young women die.”

“Die? Am I in danger or is that a threat?” If it was the latter, then his sympathy was feigned, and I could say without argument that he was clearly a psychopath.

“Yes… you are. And no, I’m not threatening you.”

“She is…” I didn’t look at the woman he had called Vehda, but I could feel her angry eyes glaring at me.

He glanced at her. “Maybe, but… she has good reason to be protective of me…” He reached to offer me a hand up.

I moved too fast and inhaled sharply. He pulled me onto my feet as though I weighed nothing. I grabbed my blanket before it fell past my hips almost exposing my boy-shorts underwear.

“Good reflexes… that’s a plus in this place… especially this room. But why on earth did you choose door number one first?” His eyes were still on my chest, eyeing me as though inspecting something he might buy.

“Maybe because the key that was left in the middle of the room had a big number one written on it… and the light above the door had turned on. I didn’t choose anything…” I pulled the blanket up higher as I tried to regain my unsteady balance. I could barely stand on my left leg.

“Left there you say?” His eyes finally met mine again.

I nodded simply. He seemed puzzled, until he leaned back and started inspecting my rear-end.

“Do you mind?”

“No… Supposedly you’re my prisoner, so technically that means I get to do whatever I want.” He looked at Vehda, who was also checking me out. “I think you’re right…”

“Right about what?” I asked.

“Her breasts are much bigger than yours, her hips, too…” he said to Vehda as though I wasn’t standing right there. “We’ll have to make do as usual. She can wear one of mine…”

“One of your what?” My consternation darted between them both.

Vehda’s hooded gaze finally turned into a slight, if not, suggestive, smirk.

“One of my shirts. I’ll have to find one, but Vehda’s extra pair of pants and boots will probably work until we get you some new ones.”

“Oh, that’s fine, we can just pop down to the local Target on the way to the next hideout… What are you talking about? I have clothes back at the house… Now if you would just take me back there…”

Michael shook his head. “You still don’t believe me do you?”

“Of course not… because I came to my senses while I was lying on the hard floor not sleeping.”

“Yes… I agree…” He was looking at Vehda and nodding.

“Agree?” I asked. This conversation was not making any sense.

“Right… I’ll keep an eye on her…”

“What are you talking about?” The frustration was building in my voice.

“We were talking about the fact that you might have some coping issues once we step outside,” Michael actually answered me this time.

We… were talking?”

“Yes, Vehda and I… There is a lot you don’t understand. I get that… Just… hold it together, all right? This will only take a few days, and then you can decide what to do next.”

I stared at him, at a loss for words. His expression was sympathetic again, yet everything else made absolutely no sense to me. Maybe that was for the better as I reminded myself that I was his prisoner and it was probably best if I kept my mouth shut.

There was a low chirping sound outside. Everyone froze to listen. It was quickly followed by a series of sharper clicking sounds that were much closer and on the opposite side of the building. I recognized it instantly and my heart leaped into my throat.

“What was that?” I croaked.

“Shit, the shield is dissolving… I was afraid of that. The rain is washing it away…” Michael explained as he rushed into the other room and came out with a leather bag. “Here put these on, and hurry. We don’t have much time…” As he tossed the bag to me, I dropped the blanket in my haste to catch it and almost fell over. I also caught his quick smile as he disappeared again.

Inside the bag was a long leather coat that looked almost medieval in its design, a pair of snug black pants that laced up the front instead of buttoned, and a pair of calf-high boots that I instantly liked. All of it looked handmade. The shirt was more of a sleeveless leather vest; it definitely looked to be too small as I realized why they had both been concerned about the size of my chest. I left that in the bag and pulled the coat closed over the tank top that I was already wearing. It was a struggle to get everything on over my bandaged ankle, but I moved as quickly as I could. The odd sound, like angry insects chittering outside, was enough motivation to stay quiet and not ask anymore questions—though I had a million swirling in my mind all at once, each trying to be forcefully brushed aside by my inability to believe that this was really happening.

Michael came out of the other room fully clothed in the same vest he had been wearing last night, along with a sueded black leather long coat, and a pack slung over his shoulder. Vehda was grabbing another pack from the corner of the room, and she had not sheathed her sword. The click of something mechanical pulled my attention back to him and I blanched at the sight of what else he was carrying.

“Is… Is that a crossbow?”

“Yeah… Like it?” He grinned.

I had no words as he grabbed my arm and guided me toward the darkened room. It was a bedroom, complete with a real bed and a mattress.

“Hey, you had a real bed in here?”

“Shh now… or they’ll hear us,” he whispered.

I sent him a look.

“That’s my bed… and besides, how would it look if I had you tied to a bed? I’d like to think I’m a gentleman.”

I shook my head and decided to let it go. I wasn’t about to argue with my own imagination.

He pushed a curtain away from an already opened window and peeked outside. “I don’t see them yet. Stay close now. There’s a ledge here. We have to jump down and get to the horses underneath the building.” He was quiet a moment before he nodded once to Vehda. “Good idea, I’ll cover you.”

Vehda was the first to climb out of the window. I heard a light whoosh sound, like something sliding across a canvas tarp.

“Okay, you’re next. Vehda will help you with the landing.”

I peeked out the window and was met with a thick fog; it was also still raining. The ledge was several feet below me with an awning that angled down and to the right, offering a sort of slide to the ground. I sat on the casement and swung my legs over the side. Michael, expecting I wasn’t adept at such things, grabbed my arms and lowered me to the ledge. I was begrudgingly grateful, though, as my ankle still refused to bear my weight. I slid down the canvas awning, which was soaking wet, and landed hard on my rear end in the mulch-like dirt. With my leg hurting, and now my tailbone, I looked up at Vehda and found her leaning against a doorway, arms crossed and smiling in satisfaction.

“I thought you were supposed to help me.”

She shook her head and went inside. Something told me she didn’t like me very much. I got to my feet and followed her. Two horses were already saddled and munching happily on something in the trough. Another whoosh and Michael was joining us.

“What are we running from exactly? Police?” I was still wanting to believe my earlier assessment that I had been kidnapped and was now their prisoner, but certain contradictions were gnawing at my mind.

“You’ve already met them…” He stepped up into the saddle of his horse, a large, black stallion that might be a Friesian, and turned to reach a hand down to me.

I blinked at him, wishing all of this would start to make sense—something other than what had happened last night—and took his hand. He pulled me up into the saddle in front of him; the heat of his large body pressed against my back.

“Hold on…” he breathed in my ear. He made a quiet sound and the horses were moving.

As soon as we cleared the stable, a howling shriek of a scream echoed behind us. Two more responded and Michael spurred us into a full gallop. I grabbed the pommel tightly, wishing there were stirrups to put my feet into.

We ascended out of a valley and the fog dissipated, giving me a full view of the surrounding landscape. I tried to clear my blurring, tearing eyes. Being wet and cold, the pain in my legs, even the fresh bruising of my tailbone… all of it was forgotten as I saw the land stretched out before me for the first time. To call it shock wouldn’t even come close as the last remnants of doubt, which I still clung to in the hopes that this was only a dream, fell away.

“It’s real? This is real?” I said it out loud, though no one could hear me in our mad flight away from the nightmare that was chasing us. There was no way I could have imagined such a place, the smells, the details, the colors—or lack there of. The land was dead, as far as the eye could see. The ground was like bits of charcoal and burnt paper. The trees were just as I had seen them last night, stark white skeletons reaching for an uncaring sky. They were everywhere, with no green at all. No animals, no birds, no flowers, not even a blade of grass. The sky was a perpetual gray, the atmosphere cold and damp. I could see the breath of the horses as we continued onward. There was nothing out here, nothing but us, and those… things that had attacked me last night.

Oh god… this can’t be real… this can’t be. My chest tightened as the scene played out last night again and again. Those… creatures were after us… they were after me. We will find you again, my dear, it had said, while the other had tried to take a bite out of my leg. What do they want? Do they want to eat me? It didn’t make sense, and Michael had never explained what they were.

Michael… he was my only chance. He had saved me last night, and he was saving me again now. But he didn’t want to know my name, because he didn’t want to care. And he didn’t want to care because all the others before me had failed. I was in danger… I was going to fail next, and then I was going to die too. I couldn’t swallow back the panic that was trying to overtake rational thought. I wanted to scream and cry and wake myself up, yet a part of me understood that screaming would not help me right now, it would probably get all of us killed.

A deep chill seeped through me as I began to sweat, I was shaking and I couldn’t breathe, my chest constricted painfully, and my teeth were chattering. I held on as tightly as I could, but my vision was starting to fade. I was about to pass out. No, I cannot… if I do, I would become nothing but a burden to them… maybe he would leave me here. He was already on the verge of giving up. In fact, he did think I was a burden, he almost didn’t come out to find me last night… he had said as much already. I concentrated on the way forward, on staying alive, on staying sane… I had to stay alert and awake. I had to be ready to run, or fight—I knew how to fight; at least in theory.

The world continued to rush by me in a blur. The minutes turned into hours and I couldn’t hear the horrifying sounds, of whatever those things were, behind us anymore. I was on the verge of panic again, maybe because my mind kept wandering back to the realization that I was trapped here, just like Michael. He had been stuck here for seventy-five years. What about my friends… my job… my new apartment? What about my mother? Oh god…

“Stop here…”

I heard his voice; it sounded far away, though my ear was right against his chest—a nice warm chest, I noted, soft yet firm. His heart was beating strong inside. How is he still so young? “This can’t be happening… This can’t be happening…” I muttered the phrase over and over. It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember why.

“Hey… Can you hear me?”

“This isn’t happening… oh, god… this can’t be happening,” I stared at my shaking hands. I had been holding on so tightly that the leather seam from the pommel had left a dent in my palms.

“Uh oh… It’s sinking in…” I heard him say. My back was cold as his warmth disappeared. Suddenly his face was below mine. “Hey… I know. It’s a lot to wrap your head around. Believe me… it took me a while too. But I’m here to help you, all right?”

My eyes moved to him. “No you aren’t… you wanted to leave me there last night. You want nothing to do with me… I’m nothing but a burden to you. She hates me, too.” I gestured with my head toward Vehda.

He sighed and looked away, “I forgot how annoying that part of it can be.”

“What part of me is so annoying to you?”

“No, not you, the part about not being able to lie. But you’re right, I don’t want anything to do with you, don’t take it personally. It’s this place. I don’t want anything to do with any of it anymore. I’m tired… and I’ve had this conversation more times than I can count.”

“You said twenty-three.”

He pressed his lips together. “No, more than that actually. Those were the ones who died here… trying to help me, which doesn’t include the ones who tried to get back right away or even the ones I couldn’t reach in time before… something else got them. All total, it’s more like thirty-five.”

“And you are already counting me as twenty-four out of thirty-six, I understand. I’m a number, a statistic… and the odds are against me.”

He didn’t answer. He didn’t even shake his head, it was a simple fact of his life, which I was now caught up in. I nodded, more to confirm the truth to myself.

“Like I said, don’t take it personally. If you want someone to blame, blame my father.”

When I didn’t answer, he reached for my hands, about to help me down. “Shit, you’re ice cold. Come here…” I couldn’t move, either I was frozen or numb, I wasn’t sure which. His arms came around me and then I was sliding off the horse. I squeezed my eyes shut as the pain came back, even worse than before. He set me down and then helped my hobbling form to a fallen tree nearby.

He was looking at me with some concern, but I feared it was more with frustration—I must have appeared so weak. I was shivering, and the lump in my throat proved that I might be about to lose it—Right, coping issues when we step outside. I closed my eyes but the tears came anyway.

“Well, that’s not so bad. I can handle crying… You could be screaming for your…” he looked up at Vehda. “What did the last one call it?”

Vehda didn’t answer.

“Right… cell phone and eye tunes—whatever the hell that is. She had lost it big time. I think she was raving mad, screaming all this gibberish about nets and flicks and high five or… something,” Michael said, completely serious.

The absurdity of what he had just said reminded me not of where he was from, but when. I laughed when I realized what he was actually talking about.

“Okay, she’s laughing now. Either that’s a good sign or you’re about to start screaming gibberish too…”

“No… Not high five… Wi-fi,” I smiled. “She was missing our technology. The world has come a long way since you were there last…”

“Oh, right. I only get bits and pieces, about every ten years… give…”

“Give or take… right. Did the last girl mention if she had a brother named Byron?”

“She did actually. How do you know that?”

“I met him in town. He said I shouldn’t go to that house… so did the gas station attendant. They both said that bad things happen there… I didn’t listen. I should have listened…” I stared at the charred ground. “He was still searching for her. Do you know what happened to her?” I knew I shouldn’t ask, it would only cement the fact that I was going to be the next victim of this twisted fate.

“She… tried to get the key. She wasn’t the right one. So instead of staying, she tried to get back without it… I don’t know what happened to her, but… it’s never pretty,” he sat down next to me, and I could feel his body heat again. I was so cold, and tired, and hungry. I just wanted to curl up against him and pass out. He must have sensed this because he touched my forehead as though checking if I had a fever. I felt as though I might.

“You’re too warm. I should look at that leg.” He knelt before me and picked up my foot. He was gentle as he slid the boot off. I watched him in a strange haze, as though having this man, this stranger, touch my foot was completely normal. He started to unwrap the cloth bandage. As he got to the end, I noticed the dried blood, and this pulled me back.

“Why did it bite me? You said venom… Can I die from it?”

“No, there are sometimes reactions to it. I’ve only witnessed it a couple of times. One became violent, but that might have been the drug she was on. Chaining you last night… it was just a precaution. Ooh…” he had pulled the bandage away and was examining the four obvious puncture wounds. “This one is a little deeper than I thought. They aren’t infected as I feared. I cleaned them up as best as I could… but you never know in this place.”

“What were those things, and why did it bite me?”

He began to rewrap my leg. “Those are the Nightwatchers. They hunt for a very specific prey, but not for food. They can sense when someone comes through a doorway, just like I can. And since human women are what they need most, they try to get to her before I do. They are allied to my father and can jump between all seven rooms… or worlds, rather. They knew I was coming, and since they can’t kill or hurt me, they bit your leg so they can track you. They use the venom to do this.”

“Track me? They can still find me?”

He nodded as he slid the boot back onto my leg. “And they can move between worlds, just like we can. They will continue to hunt you until the venom wears off.”

“Why do they need human women?”

Michael and Vehda both shared a look before he turned back to me. “You’d be better off not knowing right now. I’ll just say, my father is using the Watchers to build an army, and they need a very specific type of donor that will help them do this.”

“What does he need an army for?” My heart was slowly sinking further. There was more to all of this, a lot more.

“World domination… along with living forever… like I said, he has megalomaniac issues…”

I stared at him, he was real… this was real. There was no way I could have imagined all of this so clearly; this story, the environment, the pain in my leg, and especially him. His facial features and the way he was watching me so closely; or the color of his eyes, which were an amazing shade of blue with tiny green flecks that made me think of the one time I had seen the ocean; the creases of his fingers as he took my hands in his to warm them.

He was trapped here, and so was I. Free me… the voice had said before I stepped through the door—his voice.

I swallowed hard. Real concern was in those blue eyes, though he was so tired of the constant failure that he didn’t want to feel it anymore, he didn’t want to feel hope or anything else anymore. Yet he couldn’t help it, because it was not in his nature to stop caring.

I pulled my hands away and nodded. I looked away because I could feel myself slipping into despair, following the same grief and loss that was reflected in his eyes, a pain that he had been forced to accept too many times. If I let myself go there too, I would not come back.

His concern drifted to resolve. He was already certain that this too would end in failure. He needed some kind of hope… I needed some kind of hope. But hope didn’t come from some outside force… it came from within.

He was looking at the ground, and I realized he was trying to come to grips with the fact that I might say no; that I might storm away and disappear to either die or join his father, or make whatever hopeless decision countless others had already made.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He nodded and didn’t look at me. He was holding the stock of his crossbow against the ground and his grip tightened, I could almost feel his heart wrenching disappointment.

“No… I mean, I’m sorry this happened to you, Michael.” I put my hand on his shoulder to draw him back and he shuddered slightly from my touch. “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through… or how long you’ve had to hold on and endure all of this, all because of your father.”

He looked at me with surprise. Had no one ever said such a thing to him?

“Tell me more about this key so we can try and get you home…” I added.

“Thank you…” he whispered with so much sincerity that I was left breathless.

I nodded. I couldn’t say anything more, I could hardly breathe knowing the decision I had just made. I was afraid of what all of this could mean, and of where I could end up, of never getting home again and always being in danger. Neither of us had been given a choice… Yet, when has anyone ever truly had a choice in anything, whether big or small? This was just one of those big events that ended up shaping who we are. It is about how we endure, it is about surviving, no matter the circumstances. And now it was my turn, and I needed to take the next step forward… it was the one choice that I was still in control of. Michael knew this too, it was why he was still alive, and why he hadn’t given up.

***

Michael glanced at Vehda suddenly and nodded. “I feel them too…” Turning back to me he straightened. “Come, it isn’t safe here. I’ll tell you on the way.”

I had so many questions, yet as I stood my body protested sharply, especially certain areas I wasn’t accustomed to feeling. “Ugh, I didn’t know riding a horse was so painful…”

Michael smiled. “You’ll get used to it.” He mounted and then reached a hand down, helping me up into the saddle.

I had to admit, sitting so close to him was something I definitely could get used to, but the feeling was quickly replaced by fear. The sound of the Nightwatchers echoed in the distance.

He kicked our mount into a gallop and we were moving quickly away from the small respite. The wind whistled in my ears, the staccato huff… huff… huff of the horses as they continued to prove that their stamina was something to behold was a constant that could have easily lulled me to sleep… if I wasn’t so uncomfortable.

“We’ll lose them up ahead,” Michael suddenly called beside me. “They won’t follow us into the void…”

The void? “Well that sounds promising…” I called back.

Before I could hear his response, several shadows emerged from behind. I could feel the wind as they flew past only feet above our heads. They landed in the dry charcoal like dirt, a swirl of dust rose from their collective turbulence. The horses reared to a stop and I almost fell off.

“Stay behind me. If I say run, get on the horse and don’t look back…”

“I thought you said they won’t kill you.” Several were forming a menacing line as we dismounted—we could go no further.

“They could always change their minds. Their deal with my father is tenuous at best. They are an impatient lot.”

The Nightwatchers were just as demon-like in the dim daylight as they had been in darkness. There were seven in all, and each held a spear-like weapon. Their skin, paper thin over corded muscle and rough bone, was mottled gray and sickly, yet I had already felt their strength, they were anything but frail. Large black eyes reflected the wisps of fog that drifted around us. With slits for a nose and a mouth that was beak shaped, I couldn’t tell if they were reptile, bird, or amphibian. They were not of our world and I wondered what sort of rabbit hole I had fallen into.

The largest among them came forward as Vehda and Michael stood in front of me in guarded defense. The leader moved toward us and his wings fluttered as though in agitation. Like vitreous cellophane with dark veins running through it, their wings were the significantly agile design of a dragonfly. They were almost twice the size of a human, even a taller one like Michael. Vehda had only an inch or two over me. How could we possibly fight them?

“Give the host to me, and you will leave unscathed,” the large one demanded. His voice was low and rough, like he had gravel and smoke in his throat.

“How long do you think you can keep taking them and getting away with it?” Michael shot back. “My father needs the crystals too in order to fulfill his plan.”

“He only needs the one. Your prospects have proven to be nothing but mindless failures. They were made for only one purpose, just like the other you prefer to drag along with you.” He leered at Vehda, who stood defiant and unmoving. I was certain by her look, that she would die before she let them touch her. “We allow you your pet, but these others…” he shook his head and smiled at me in a most unnerving way. “They belong to us.”

What the fuck do they want with me?

Michael stood his ground. The moment turned into long tense seconds and I feared he was seriously thinking about handing me over to them.

Finally he shook his head, “No, she’s staying with us.”

“So be it…”

It was a flurry of sudden motion by everyone at once. One creature went down in that instant, a crossbow bolt in its chest. The leader moved so fast that he was on Michael in seconds. Vehda dove to protect him, but another creature blocked her attack. I was worried about Michael, until I realized that he was also armed with a short blade. The pair moved in similar fashion against our enemies, thrusts and parries and blocks in an elegant, but deadly dance.

Vehda quickly dispatched her attacker. Michael spun as another moved in from his left. The leader backed out of the fray. He was letting his guards do what he assumed would be easy work. I watched, anxious and wanting to help, but afraid to get in the way; I suddenly noticed that one was missing.

The leader looked my way just as I realized the sudden danger. Long, gray arms grabbed me from behind. I heard the sudden buzz of wings and felt a weightless shift as my feet were lifted from the ground. The horse was spooked and I grabbed the stirrup close to my hand before I could be pulled upward. The creature could not bear the weight of a horse. As he lost his balance his grip loosened and I spun with a well aimed elbow to his ribs; he stumbled backward a step. Ignoring the pain in my leg, I spun again and kicked him in the abdomen. He bent over with a grunt of pain and I thrust a palm into what I assumed was his nose. His head went back with a snap and he fell to the ground, dropping his staff.

Michael cried out and I looked over my shoulder. He was on the ground, rolling to get to his hands and knees. The creature standing above him kicked him hard in the stomach. When the impact threw Michael onto his back, the creature straddled him, its staff already moving swiftly; supporting his own blade with two hands, Michael just managed to block the blow aimed for his head.

Vehda was on the ground, scrambling to reach her sword; she was too far away to help him. I grabbed the staff from the fallen creature beside me and rushed forward. The creature had now dropped to its knees over Michael, pinning him to the ground; it spun its staff, hitting the blade from underneath and forcing it out of Michael’s hands. I didn’t slow down; closing in, I swung as hard as I could and aimed for its jaw. It saw me at the last second before impact. Blood sprayed as his head snapped back; it fell limply to the ground. Before I could realize what I had done, movement caught my vision and I swung left in time to block another incoming staff. I moved the way I had been taught. The sound of each hit as I attacked and dodged was a familiar ring in the cold air. I looked for an opening, but each thrust was met with a powerful block that was much stronger and heavier than I was used to. I just managed to duck as the weapon sailed over my head. I used the chance and charged forward; with my staff in front of me, I rammed him directly in the gut with all of my weight. Their stature was tall and lean, their center of balance was high. He took a step back to catch himself, and I swung low, catching him behind the legs. He went down hard onto his back. I thrust the tapered end of the weapon toward his face and stopped it only an inch away. All sound had faded as the thrill of the fight swirled with the energy that had controlled my actions. I had to kill it. This was not a tournament, this was real… life or death. Me or him…

“Hold,” the leader shouted. The last creatures still standing, backed off.

I did not give in to the command, afraid it was only a distraction. I remained where I was, breathing heavy as the fiery charge of fear and anger pounded through my veins. The creature beneath me was bleeding. I was in control.

“For once… you have shown some real potential… We will let you have your toy. You can play your game with her for now, but… she will fail like all the rest. And when she does, she will belong to us.”

I risked a glance up and saw the leader smiling in satisfaction—like a cat on the verge of getting something it really wanted; that something was me. Vehda was pulling herself to her feet, a fresh cut on her lip, two dead creatures in her wake. Michael had pulled himself out from under the creature I had hit but he remained on the ground, holding his stomach. I lifted the staff away from the one below me and stepped away. It got up, if a bit slowly, and joined the others.

“We will… keep in touch,” the leader said before they were taking to the air once more.

I went to help Michael up. He was staring at me, perplexed, as he stood—he couldn’t straighten all the way.

“Are you all right?” I asked. Without thinking I reached to look under his shirt.

He pulled away as though I might bite. “I’ll be fine,” he said quietly. “Why didn’t you say you could do that?”

“You never asked,” I stated flatly. When that didn’t seem to assuage his skepticism I shrugged. “I was into Martial Arts when I was in school. It’s been a while, but I guess it’s sort of like riding a bike.”

He nodded slightly. “Right…”

I threw the staff on the ground.

“You should keep that.”

“No, it’s not really my thing. Too heavy anyway.”

Vehda was joining us. She was also staring at me as though I had just sprouted wings.

“Why are you both so surprised?” I asked.

“None of the others have ever done anything like that before. You’re… different.”

“Oh… Is that a good thing?”

Michael glanced at Vehda, and then his confusion became a smile. “Yes, it could be. At least I hope so.”

He bent to grab his crossbow and blade, trying to hide his wince, but I still heard his sharp gasp.

“Are you sure you are all right? You were hit pretty hard…”

“Not the first time, I’ll survive. Let’s get to the void, and then we’ll have a talk.”

“Does this mean you want to know my name?” I asked, hopeful.

“No…” he shook his head with all seriousness.

I frowned, but he ignored my dark look and headed back to the horses.

After another two hours of painful—at least for me—travel, we stopped in an area that reminded me of a great desert, only instead of sand, it was charcoal as far as the eye could see. Even the dead trees had disappeared. At least they had been something that resembled life. We stopped next to… nothing, and began setting up a makeshift camp. My stomach growled angrily and I prayed there was food among their few supplies. The sky was still overcast, I had no idea what time of day it was.

Michael finished with the horses and then dropped his saddle on the ground, followed by a roll of canvas.

“That’s our bed; after tonight, that old mattress will start to look pretty good,” he was still all seriousness.

Our bed?” I gave him a look, assuming he was joking.

“Yes, it gets cold out here at night. The fire won’t be nearly enough…” At my look he raised his brow. “I’m sorry… I don’t like this any more than you do, but it’s all we have. Like I said, you shouldn’t have picked this room first…”

I really wanted to argue the fact that I hadn’t chosen anything, but since I was the one who had freely chosen to open the door and step in no matter how the key had gotten there, how could I? Instead I watched Vehda work to start a fire, trying to ignore the threat of the imminent awkward still to come at the thought of sharing a blanket with him, since I was starting to enjoy his company a little too much. My body was reacting ahead of my brain at such a prospect. What the hell is wrong with me? He already said he wants nothing to do with me… I’m just hungry and losing my mind. I decided to unroll the canvas, hoping he couldn’t detect my sudden blush. Maybe there was something to him thinking I was just a damsel in distress; not what I wanted to be, but stories like that always had a happy ending. I rolled my eyes at myself. Yeah… right, like the damsel falling for her hero was a fresh concept. Besides, this is reality, as strange as it is turning out to be.

I sat heavily and stifled a gasp. If I had actual saddle-sores, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Vehda was watching me, she smirked again, before shaking her head.

“How long have you been stuck here, Vehda?” I asked. They had both painted a picture of me that was completely wrong. It was time to fix that.

Instead of answering me, her dark eyes moved to Michael, who was still digging around in his bag.

“Well, can you blame me? I had to leave in a hurry…” he said with a sigh.

I looked between one and the other, trying to understand what he was talking about, since no one but me had said anything.

After a moment of her quiet staring at him, she shook her head in disgust and sat down against her saddle.

“I know, I usually do, but… I hadn’t been there recently and I didn’t have any ready,” Michael added. He finally gave up digging in his pack, and sat down slowly. His ribs were obviously still sore, but that was the only thing that was obvious.

“No, I wasn’t brooding… Not really, I was… thinking,” he continued, eyeing her back with just as much perturbation.

“Michael? Who are you talking to?” I asked gently, my eyes had widened considerably, and I was more than a little worried. “And please don’t tell me an invisible friend is sitting next to you, because I’ve had about all I can take of ‘unbelievable’ and ‘crazy’ shit that, until twenty-four hours ago, was not fucking possible.”

He turned to me slightly aghast. “Watch your language. An attractive woman shouldn’t talk like that.”

My mouth dropped. “Excuse me?”

He pressed his lips in a thin line. “I don’t like that kind of language, it’s… lowbrow.”

“Ha… As if not wanting to know a girl’s name before you tie her to a bed isn’t?”

His eyes widened this time, and there was a slight reddening to his cheeks.

“I was more surprised that you said I was attractive,” I couldn’t help but smile as I realized I had caught him off guard.

“I… Well… It’s just a figure of speech,” he amended, but his gaze managed to drift over my form before he quickly looked away. His glance landed on Vehda, and I realized I might be pushing it. I didn’t know how close their relationship was.

“Sorry… I didn’t mean to imply anything,” I said, looking to Vehda quickly. “I just get punchy when I’m hungry.”

“No, it’s quite all right,” he smiled. “So do I… believe me.” He ran a hand through his hair and pulled a knee up, rubbing a palm on it distractedly. By his sudden nervous energy that he was displaying I wondered if we had hit a touchy subject.

“You never answered my question…” I decided to get back to the issue.

“There are a lot of questions, I understand. I’ll get to them all. As for Vehda… She’s from here… Well, not from here specifically, but one of the other rooms. She’s not from our world,” he began.

I couldn’t help but be surprised as I suddenly saw her in a new light. “And where is here… exactly?” I looked up at the sky, the thick clouds obscured the chance to see anything other than what I would have expected to see.

“That’s really still unanswered. I have found that none of these places are on Earth, but whether we are in other times, other dimensions…”

“Alternate Earths?”

“Alternate Earths… I cannot say. There is no way to know this. But they all have certain similarities to our world. The same oxygen to hydrogen ratio for instance, the breathable air, the ability to create carbon based life forms… most of which have proven to be very much like us. Except for our dear friends, the Nightwatchers, everyone I have met have been human-like in their qualities, save for a few slight differences. Even much of the wildlife and fauna are similar,” he gestured to the horses. “How this came to be, I have no idea. The odds are nearly impossible, I would think. But then again, who are we to know what others God has created. If we are truly in his image, who’s to say that he didn’t make more?”

I was skeptical about man’s anthropomorphizing intentions into God’s creativity, though I still held a certain philosophy into his existence. The fact that I was where I was and that we were even having this conversation only proved that we were not necessarily his first or his best.

“For instance, Vehda has a unique ability to send me her thoughts. I hear her voice in my head… sometimes too much,” he sent her a mischievous glance when she appeared to take offense to his opinion. “She can also hear my thoughts… or at least, when I am specifically talking to her—she can’t read my mind anymore than you can, thank god.”

“Why can’t she talk to me that way?” I was impressed with the idea, but maybe I needed some proof that such a thing was really possible—as though inter-dimensional travel wasn’t suddenly a thing, why not ESP?

“She could if she wanted to. She uh… What?” He suddenly interrupted himself. He shook his head after a beat. “I’m not telling her that…”

“Not telling me what?” I asked.

“Fine, have it your way. She only talks to those she deems worthy… her words, not mine. Sorry…” his cheeks reddened again.

“No, I get it… I’m a third wheel in your little club, and your afraid another woman is just going to rock the boat that you are floating here. I’m not one to judge… at least, not as much as you seem to be.” My tailbone was still sore, and now I understood why.

They were both staring at me in surprise.

“What? Did I just start bleeding out of my ears? I’ve seen enough office politics and women’s in-fighting to know how it works. Apparently it’s the same in every alternative universe…”

“You have it wrong about us though. She’s my friend and guardian, nothing more. There is no boat to rock, as you say,” Michael clarified. “Her culture is a lot more complicated than office politics. You must prove yourself to be a friend and ally. You want to hear her actual voice, then you have to be the one she has chosen to love. Once a mate has chosen her, then she speaks to him, and only to him. No one else.”

I was taken aback, yet I was starting to understand the symbolic nature and weight of having a voice and using it. “I was too hasty in my assumption. Accept my apology, Vehda. I have a lot to learn… and a stomach that needs settling.”

Vehda did not smile, but she nodded once.

“She accepts your apology,” Michael said for her.

“Maybe I should think more before I use my own voice,” I said more humbly.

Vehda did smile this time, and Michael seemed to relax a little more. I realized he was watching me.

“What?”

“You are taking this surprisingly well.”

“Do I have a choice? I’d rather be… calm and clear-headed, than freaked out and crying uncontrollably,” I said. “Do we have anything to eat? I haven’t eaten in I don’t know how long…”

“That’s what we were arguing about earlier. I didn’t grab the right can of rations,” he pulled out three small metal plates that were covered. “All we have are some noodles in a vegetable broth. No meat and potatoes I’m afraid.”

I grabbed one from his hand. “Please tell me we don’t need a microwave.” I was peeling off the cover, and what smelled like chicken noodle soup drifted over my senses. “Oh god that smells so good,” I groaned. I was about to start eating it cold when he took it back from me.

“Uh… You’ll want to cook that first…” His eyes were wide again as he watched me, as though something about my actions had bothered him.

I nodded, and he put all three plates next to the fire. Darkness was approaching, and as I watched the broth start to simmer, my eyes grew heavy.

“Why do you answer her out loud all the time if you can think your thoughts back to her?” I asked in order to stay awake.

“I don’t know, it makes more sense to me I guess. Feels more… familiar or normal,” he shrugged. “Maybe as a way to keep my own thoughts to myself, and sort out what I want her to hear and what I don’t.”

“Has she ever spoken to you out loud? With her voice?” I wondered what kind of a relationship they really had. He had said they were just friends…

Vehda regarded me, her eyes narrowed a bit.

“No,” he shook his head. “I wouldn’t want her to anyway. It means too much to her… and I’m… I’m not her type.” They looked at each other across the fire, and somehow I knew that they were sharing a silent understanding; no actual words or secret messages were passing between them this time.

“And who is your type, Michael?” I asked before I had really thought it through, yet I didn’t want to take it back, because… I needed to know.

He was watching me now, with a long look that drifted over me as he gauged whether or not he should answer, yet his gaze held a hint of longing, maybe remorse or regret. I held my breath because seeing his pain, his sadness, come to the surface in those eyes so succinctly, brought a terrible lump to my throat.

“I had a type once… long ago. She’s… gone now,” he shook his head and looked away. “It was a different time then. The world was in the middle of a war. Anyway, things here aren’t what you are used to. So… don’t get your hopes up. Remember that… Who my type is remains to be seen, if she even exists at all. Besides, what I want doesn’t matter anymore. Hasn’t for… a terribly long time.” He closed his eyes for a moment and took a long slow breath. “Eat your dinner, and then I’ll tell you what we need to do next.”

I stared at him, for some reason my stomach had clenched dramatically. I felt so much heartache and longing for this man. I was certain, in that moment, that it had to be me. I needed to be the one who could help him. Not just for his sake, but for mine.

“I… need to help you, Michael,” I breathed, hardly able to make my voice work.

His brow creased as he regarded me with some amusement. “You need to eat first…”

***

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