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  • Christine Almstrom

Blood Moon Eclipse


My name is Acacia Llewtrah. Like every woman in my family, I was born under a "Blood Moon" eclipse. I was born with a secret that has been guarded since the beginning of mankind. A secret that could be my destiny...or my destruction.

This is my story...

Chapter 1 - Sacrifice

___________________________________

Salem, Massachusetts

January 22nd, 1693 3:58 a.m.

It was the silence they noticed first - an unnatural quiet so still it wretched them from peaceful

slumber to kindle fear in their hearts like aged tinder.

But the silence was only a precursor to the terror that followed. Their superstitious minds,

overfed from birth on guild-laden theocracy, were held captive by a siren's song that seduced

them from their beds to stare in horror at the sight before them.

An unholy moon hung in the pre-dawn darkness like a glaring blood-stained eye. Had not

Sarah Goode promised as curse upon those that sent her to the gallows? Was this her vengeance

from the grave or...something else altogether?

Hovering at the edge of the village, the man - if you could call him a man - stood cloaked in

long robes of darkness. Black, fathomless eyes watching...waiting. His presence obscured by the

prophetic event overhead. But Willow Hartwell saw him.

She had been aware of his presence when the rats, lured by her weakened condition and the

scent of the blood that oozed from her raw and chafed ankles, bit and clawed at her flesh.

She felt him outside the bars as the guard drifted off to an ale-laced sleep and she was finally

able to conjure enough magic to whisper the ancient words, releasing the manacles that bound

her in the filthy, foul-smelling cellar hole that served as her prison.

The Shadowman - deliverer and destroyer in one. He came for her now.

She ran a thin, cold hand over the swell of her belly and waited anxiously until the life within

responded. The last of the Hartwells.

Yes, Willow thought, determined. The child would come this night as all Hartwells before

her...under the light of the Blood Moon eclipse .

#

Chapter 2 - Birthday

_________________________________________

Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Present Day, April 4th, 12:10 a.m.

It isn't so much that I know the day will end in disaster but a matter of events I've come to expect over a lifetime...like when you miss the bus it will pour halfway to school or the only seat left to the movie you've been dying to see is behind the tallest man on the planet. I hate birthdays, or at least mine. It's a curse.

The hulking yellow body of the school bus crests the hill and stops in front of the elegant brick colonial of Iris Wickham, my foster mother -- a place I've called home for the last three months. A record for me. But it's all over now. My bags are probably packed and waiting by the door; the short gray transport bus already en route to haul me back to the youth detention center...or worse.

With a heavy heart, I hoist the safety-pinned, olive-green pack onto my shoulder and start down the aisle, kicking the boy with the bushy eyebrows and hateful eyes before he can trip me one more time and throwing a glare at a third-grader with blond braids who's sticking out her tongue. She shrinks back in her seat with a terrified look while I exit the usual gauntlet of jeers and taunting. It doesn't even bother me now. I stare at my blackened, soot-stained fingertips and tug the sleeves of my oversized sweatshirt down like it'll hide my guilt but there's no use putting it off. Iris probably already knows. She knows everything I try to hide.

My fate is sealed; the ending more than familiar. Foolishly, I'd duped myself into believing things would be different this time; I'd be different but who was I kidding? Nobody wants an orphaned teenager with a history of burnt pajamas, scorched sheets, and the ability to burn with a touch.

I'd kept that last part secret...until now.

The look of horror on Ben Eaton's face is still etched in my mind along with the smell of his burning flesh and singed hair. I don't even care how it happened but I can't ever let it again. And I can't go back to the youth center. I just can't. I'll wait until tonight when Iris falls asleep and I'll slip out; hop a bus, disappear forever -- just another messed up kid that couldn't be saved.

Tentatively, I touch my swollen lower lip. It's still sore but I swipe a hand angrily across it anyway, trying to erase the taste of his mouth. The last thing I remember before waking up on the floor of the empty boys' locker room was a burning sensation in the center of my chest and the sound of Ben's screams in my ears. For the rest of the day I hid in the theatre club's room under the wardrobe rack for last season's production of The Crucible, waiting for last bell. When it finally rang, I made my way to the lockers quickly like nothing was wrong. But it was a lie.

Hushed rumors and whispered concerns made their way to my ears. Did you hear about Ben Eaton? Oh my, God they said the boiler in the locker room exploded! No, I heard it was the shower. They took him to the hospital...his chest was practically melted...a freak accident...

They got the 'freak' part right minus one key element: I was the freak and, as much as I didn't want to admit it even to myself, this wasn't the first time. When I finally made it through the crowd to my locker, I found it decorated in 'Riviera Red' lipstick -- preferred hue of Jessica Seymour, head cheerleader and blond bane of my existence -- with her favorite name for me. Today wasn't the first time her boyfriend had tried to shove his tongue where it wasn't welcome but I can guarantee it will be the last. I think he finally got the message. Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I tend to stand out.

Overall my looks are average. I'm slender and petite although I camouflage it under an androgynous wardrobe of dark, bulky layers. My eyes, a shade of gray almost too light for the dark lashes and brows that frame them, are my favorite feature and though I can't remember her on a conscious level, I know it's a trait I inherited from my mother. It's not my eyes that draw the most attention though but the flaming-red mane that refuses to stay hidden under my slouchy gray, newsboy beanie. I tuck an escaped strand back under and sigh. The little black stray I found a month ago, waits patiently on the stoop.

"Here goes nothin', Kitty, " I say to her.

"Acacia," Iris's melodic voice sings as I open the door surprised to find the foyer devoid of any signs of my impending departure. "I'm in the kitchen." I let my pack fall to the floor as a scent I only vaguely remember envelopes my senses. It sits on a glass pedestal in the center of the black granite island decorated with roses and trailing green ivy against a dark chocolate frosted background. Sixteen white candles glow merrily among the words "Happy Birthday, Acacia.' It's the most beautiful cake I've ever seen. It's a few moments before I even realize someone is standing behind me.

"For me?" I ask, stunned. She laughs.

"Of course. It's not every day you turn sixteen. Now make a wish."

I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I wish I was someone else.

#

I'm too stuffed on take-out lobster and birthday cake to protest when Iris hands me yet another present. She's already given me a professional drafting pencil (artistic ability being a trait I must share with someone in my gene-pool), a hand-painted turquoise silk scarf and silver hoop earrings. Along with a gemstone ring -- a rare black fire agate that was my mother's -- they're now my most-prized possessions.

"Iris," I shake my head. "This is already more than I could've ever expected." She waves a hand dismissively at me as I open the small wooden box and stare at her, dumbfounded. Plane tickets...to Greece.

"It's lovely in the summer," she says. "If you'd like to go."

I wipe at the tears that blur my vision and nod, unable to speak. No one has ever done anything like this for me before. This is the best birthday I can remember. This is the only birthday I can remember.

"There's one more thing I have to give you," she says, standing to set our plates in the sink. "Join me in the library when you're ready."

"Iris," I sniff, not wanting to spoil the moment but I can't put it off either. I look down at the bundle of shiny black fur asleep in my lap. I don't want to leave but I don't want to hurt anyone again...especially not her. "There's something I need to tell you...something that happened today."

"Yes," she says with a solemn nod. "I have been informed of the incident involving the Eaton boy and the situation has been contained." Contained, I wonder. What does that mean? "It means," she continues, answering my unspoken question. "He will wake with no memory of anything beyond a ruptured hot water pipe so I hope you will reconsider your plans. Running will not stop what has already been set into motion."

Without another word, she turns and leaves the room taking my breath with her. Iris is seated at one of the two white leather sofas that flank a glass-and-iron coffee table when I enter the room. I've only been in here a handful of times but each one is just as humbling as the first. The cat sits in the doorway just outside the room like she understands the sanctity of its contents.

The room is a literary shrine. Aside from a large bay window in the center, each wall is covered, floor to ceiling, with rows upon rows of priceless first edition books. Each section, divided by historical era and identified with an engraved pewter placard, is housed on enamel-coated metal shelves behind UV-coated sliding glass doors to protect them from the damaging effects of sunlight and dust. The temperature in the room is set at a constant 65 degrees Fahrenheit with a relative humidity level between 40 to 55% to thwart the formation of mold or mildew. A sliding library ladder rests at either corner of the two outer walls to assist with retrieval from the higher shelves.

The ghosts of Shakespeare, Milton, Hardy, Dickens, Hawthorne and countless other legends keep vigil as I take my seat opposite Iris.

A strange, tingling anticipation fills me as she reaches inside her shoulder bag and slips out a weathered, brown leather book bound with silver straps. The design in the hand-tooled cover is detailed with a Celtic-style tree; its limbs and roots intricately braided while a small symbol lies nestled in its roots. My eyes widen as I recognize the beautiful book I caught a peek of shortly after I came to live with Iris. The symbol I see now is a letter ‘H.’

“Yes,” Iris says, again confirming my unspoken thoughts as she slides the volume across the glass to rest in front of me. “You’ve seen it before. It found its way to me several years ago; I’ve been holding it until I could find its rightful owner. That person is you. It was…your mother’s.”

“I-I don’t understand,” I say. “Did you know my mother?”

“Not exactly, but I knew of her. The journal has been safely in my possession for the past sixteen years. Do you remember the first time you were in this room?” she changes the subject, standing and walking to the shelves.

“Yes,” I nod, glancing from the book to her and wondering where she’s going with this. “You showed me your collection…physick books: pre-medical remedies and recipes from the early settlers.”

“Ah, but they are so much more than that,” she chuckles. “They were also a compilation of potions, pearls of wisdom and…spells.”

“Spells?”

“Books of Shadows,” Iris says. “To be more accurate.”

“As in, hidden in the shadows for fear of being accused of practicing witchcraft?”

Iris nods, clearly impressed with the knowledge I’ve acquired from B-rated horror flicks and an affinity for fantasy literature.

“But there must be hundreds of them,” I say, looking over the room.

“A fascination of mine,” she explains, waving me over to the center of her collection.

Sliding the door open, she taps her nails on the base of a heavy-looking metal pedestal on its own shelf. The book resting in its embrace is as thick as a bible with a design on its cover identical to my mother’s. The only difference, other than its enormous size, is the letter ‘W’ nestled among the twisted roots.

“This one,” she says reverently, slipping on a pair of white cotton gloves from a drawer beneath the shelf. “Has been in my family for generations.” A set of ornate silver closures secures the binding like a locked treasure.

“What do these words mean?” I ask, indicating the elaborate inscription below the braided roots of the tree.

“Revelabit cervus occultis,” she translates, carrying the book to the table. “The heart will reveal all secrets.” My mother’s book bears the same inscription. “The contents are legible only to the possessor.” She hands me a pair of gloves and I slip them on. “You may open it but I warn you…It’s unlike any book you’ve ever seen.”

The air feels strangely charged. The metal of my ring grows noticeably warm against my skin as I try the clasp.

“You’ll need the key, dear,” Iris says, slipping off a glove to slide the ring from her finger. She holds it out to me. I take it, noticing for the first time its similarity to my own. “The ring is the key.”

She leans forward, seeing she’s lost me completely, and takes the ring from me to insert it into the circular depression on one of the clasps. With a soft turn to the right, the latch springs open with a soft click. She repeats the action with the second clasp.

It’s a second or two before I know what to say.

“Why do you have a book that looks like my mother’s?”

“We are from…similar families; distant relations. Each family bears a book and a ring that opens it. Each book opens only to the corresponding ring.”

“I don’t understand,” I say.

“You will, dear. Open the book.”

I do as instructed, gently thumbing through the heavy parchment pages with their elaborate illustrations and elegant but illegible script. The room fills with the sound of a hundred voices whispering in unison and the words move.

I jerk my head up with a start; the room instantly quiet. Just the pipes, I tell myself. It’s an old house but there’s an impish glint in Iris’s violet eyes. Glancing back at the words, the characters swirl and shift on the page again and I hear the voices. With a squeal, I drop the priceless book where it lands with a heavy thud on the table.

“Oh!” I blurt, looking to Iris. “I’m so sorry. The words, they…moved.” Did that come out as crazy as it sounded in my head?

“No harm done,” she smiles. “I told you, only the possessor can read the entries.” I scowl at her, confused but she doesn’t explain further. Instead, she slides the smaller book toward me but keeps her hand on it. “What happened today…at school,” she begins. “Has happened before. Hasn’t it?”

I snap my head up, staring at her with wide eyes. How could she possibly know that? I’ve never told anyone.

“It wasn’t your fault,” she soothes.

“Iris,” I whisper. “There’s something wrong with me. I…burned that boy…with my hands.” She lifts my hand gently and shakes her head. “I don’t even know how it happened but I don’t want to hurt anyone else. I didn’t mean to hurt him, not at first, but then he grabbed me and pulled me into the locker room. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. I tried to fight him. I punched him in the nose when he wouldn’t let go.”

I’m spilling everything but I can’t seem to stop.

“I started to walk away but that’s when he grabbed me by the hair and shoved me on the floor. He hit me in the side of the head and kissed me hard. My vision got blurry and my chest started to burn and…he was screaming.” I choke on a sob and Iris touches my face.

“Oh, sweetie,” she says, wiping away the first tear I’ve shed in years. “This isn’t how it should be. You should have been prepared long before this; told the truth about who you really are and what you can do but…you were lost. It’s not even my place to do so now but I fear it must to be done. It will only get more dangerous the longer we wait. You will get more dangerous.”

“Dangerous?” I ask.

“Most of those like you don’t come into their abilities until around their sixteenth year but you are an anomaly – far more powerful than we expected,” Iris moves around the coffee table to sit beside me. “You have been showing signs of high cerebral capacity for years. It’s all right there in your files.”

“Those like me?” I ask. “High cerebral what? Iris, what are you saying? Am I sick?”

“No, dear,” she smiles, taking both my hands in hers. “On the contrary, you were born with an amazing gift. A gift that most can only dream of. Acacia, you’re a w--”

A sharp, loud knock at the front door startles us both. Even the cat seems jumpy. Iris looks to me in explanation but I shake my head.

“Who could be calling at this hour?” she asks, rhetorically glancing at her watch while I check the time on my phone. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

She steps from the room, pulling the hidden sliding doors closed behind her but something is off. The waver in her steadfast calm, composed demeanor gives her away as she greets our late-night visitor. Something is definitely off.

Using the drawn doors as cover, I strain to hear who Iris is talking to but I can’t hear the conversation and I don’t recognize the voice beyond that it is male. Her voice is a tightly-clipped, hoarse whisper that triggers a suspicious vibe. Even the cat can feel it. Her tail is flicking back in forth in irritation and she’s growling low.

I open my phone and punch 9-1-1 on the keypad; my finger hovering over the dial button.

“I’m sorry,” she says to the unseen caller. “You have the wrong address. There’s no one by that name here.”

I hear the door shut and the sound of the chain latch sliding into place, followed by the deadbolt. I click the phone off and leap over the back of the couch just as Iris re-enters the room.

“Who was that?” I ask, pretending to inspect the journal’s cover from my seat. When she doesn’t answer, I open my mouth to repeat the question. Suddenly she seems more pale than usual. “Iris, are you okay?”

“Hmm? Oh, yes. Just someone looking for the Reed residence. Must be lost,” she replies with a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. “I’m just…tired. That’s all. It’s been a very long day and I still have so much to tell you. I’m not sure where to begin.”

“How ‘bout in the morning?” I suggest, not sure I’m ready to pick up where she was going. My cerebral capacity is at its limits for the day along with my sanity. “You look exhausted. It must have taken you forever to make that cake.”

“It was worth every minute to see your face,” she says. “Maybe you’re right. We’ll finish this in the morning over scones with clotted cream.”

“What about school?” I ask.

“What about it?” she retorts. “You have an appointment…with me. I think what I have to tell you is more pressing.” She points to the ring I’m subconsciously twisting on its chain. “That one will open your mother’s book. It’s why she left it for you. The ring is the key.”

I stand and grab the journal, heading for the stairs. That’s what I’m afraid of. But maybe I shouldn’t be. Maybe my luck is finally changing and birthdays will be something I’ll actually look forward to in the future. Maybe its time to stop running and trust someone.

I realize now, I trust Iris.

I turn around and catch her in an unexpected hug.

“Thank you,” I whisper. “For today, for this, for…everything.” We stand there for a moment before I release her and start up the stairs once more before I start to cry. “Iris, I…love you.”

Her eyes widen and she inhales sharply.

“You’re welcome,” she smiles, her eyes suddenly wet at the corners, too. “Happy Birthday, Acacia. I love you, too.”

#

Chapter 2 - Birthday

I stagger to the base of the massive black oak and hang onto it like it's the last shred of salvation left in the world. Tears blur my vision and a familiar ache blooms in my chest for the lost embrace of a woman I can barely remember...mother?

A movement catches my attention in the darkness of the forest and suddenly I focus on a face that is a perfect likeness to my own. Even the eyes are the same shifting shade of gray as mine. The twisting shadows continue their game of deception and when I blink, she is gone, the world washed again muted in a palette of dull contrasts from a winter storm.

The only thing that matters right now is reaching the stone cottage before they find me...before He finds me.

A pinprick of light appears suddenly on the tree that holds me and I turn to see the first hint of sunlight on the horizon.

With the last of my strength, I push away from the tree and tug on the thin cotton shift that has solidified to my legs. It comes loose with a brittle crack and a sudden flush of warmth down my stiff, frozen legs. I gasp in horror at my distended, bulging belly and stagger backward revealing the white snow at my bare, purplish feet as it blooms into a dark and spreading crimson.

Blinding pain rips through my body, stealing my breath before I can scream. My legs seem frozen to the ground. I grab at my thighs trying to wrench them free but another round of agony floods my senses, obliterating all other thoughts. I struggle to stay upright and the pain gradually subsides but my balance is off and I nearly fall again.

Oh my, God! I panic staring at a body that can't possibly be mine.

Another wave of pain is building. Something moves in the woods behind me; a soft, plodding sound in the new snow. Instinctively, I duck under the nearest snow-laden branch fumbling frantically for something I can use as a weapon. My fingers curl around a broken branch just as the next spasm hits. I slam my teeth into it to keep from crying out, revealing my location.

The tramping is coming closer. I make myself as small as possible in my makeshift cover but the sound stops and a warm snuffling breath is in my hair. My imagination conjures the image of a moose or a bear but my eyes widen in amazement at the sight of the magnificent creature before me. He bows his head, inviting me to take hold of his mane and instantly we are transported through the trees and beyond the forest's edge, across a sun-dappled clearing and standing before a small stone cottage. My feet touch the ground and the beast nudges me gently.

I step forward, reaching for the handle but the door opens before I touch it and He extends his hand...

A loud bang rattles the window. Slowly I open my eyes in a state of dreamy confusion.

"Stupid dream," I mutter propping myself up on my elbows as the remnants of yet another twisted nightmare retreats into my subconscious. With a reassuring pat, I run a hand over my stomach before massaging away the headache that is trying to form in my temples. Angry red numbers glare at me from the alarm clock on my nightstand illuminating the early hour.

I flop back on the mattress and stare up at the ceiling. Ten minutes after midnight; same as always.

The dull ache lingers in my head. I switch on my bedside lamp and reach for the long silver chain that holds my ring from the nightstand along with my new pencil. Slipping my mother's journal from under my pillow, I insert my ring into the clasp and unlock it. I flip through the pages of her sketches; the only insight I have into her life and decide to add one of my own before the image of the stone cottage fades away. When I'm done, I shove everything back under my pillow and flip the light off. For once, I muse happily, it wasn't a dream about fire.

I should have known better.

Dreams are a mystery. As silent as shadows that scurry from the light of a new day, melting seamlessly into the ether without a second thought. But every now and again there is that one that lingers in the recesses of the mind staking a claim; refusing to evaporate into obscurity.

One that acts to define who we are.

Fire is that one for me.

For as long as I can remember, my nights have been haunted by a succession of blazing nightmares. In some, I'm in a room with hundreds of flickering candles. They surround me, searing my exposed flesh with their darting little tongues while suspicious eyes leer from hollow faces and merciless hands bruise my body. In others, I'm tied to a post watching as a scarred hand touches a torch to the bone-dry kindling that encircles. Bodiless voices chant my name cruelly: Acacia. Acacia. Acacia.

The onset of my nightly exodus into terror started as a toddler with a book and a boy.

The book was about cats...different breeds, distinctive traits and historical facts. One story, in particular, was the most memorable.

In the picture a young girl, holding her beloved pet in her arms, bore a striking resemblance to my own right down to her flaming red hair. Both were bound to a stake condemned for witchcraft. I shake my head at the purring bundle at my feet. Appropriate, I think.

The boy, a bored twelve-year old with mean eyes and a penchant for torturing small animals, was the son of my first foster parents. After catching my horrified reaction, he thought it would be fun to act it out for real. Around and around the garage with a lighter he taunted that he'd tie me up, too and burn 'the little witch.'

He finally cornered me and lit the hem of my dress with a look of depraved pleasure. I shrieked and smacked the flames from my legs. With a whoosh of heat, they leaped onto him. His mother returned from grocery shopping in time to find her son severely burned and me hiding in my closet. Despite my innocence, I returned to the foster center to await a new family while my current one cared for their real child.

Regardless, that singular incident was the doorway that opened a steady stream of nightmares for me and the lack of sleep for whatever foster home-of-the-month was lucky enough to come along for the ride. The smoldering remains from whatever book I'd fallen asleep holding or scorched pajamas has greeted my mornings ever since along with a swift ride back to the youth center to await my next willing victims, I mean, foster family.

The content of my dreams changes nightly except for one element: the presence of a tall, faceless figure cloaked in the shadows.

He wears them like a mantle of darkness. Since the night my parents died, he has been the one constant in my life. He never speaks; just hangs silently in the background - watching...waiting. The scent of damp earth, smoke and the sharp tang of fire clings to him as tightly as the gloom that obscures his features.

When the dawn finally comes and I'm able to pull myself free of my sweat-drenched sheets, I have the unnerving feeling that he's still in the room with me...just beyond the reach of the light. The verdict is still out on his true nature so it is with an odd mix of fear and comfort that I'm left to keep my company throughout the day making me distant and edgy around other people.

Making friends is so much easier when everyone already thinks you're a freak. Good thing I like being alone. A healthy dose of sarcasm doesn't hurt either.

On the rare occasion, my dreams of fire are less ominous and sometimes the Shadowman, as I've christened my silent companion, seems sad - like he needs to tell me something but can't find the words.

Another bang. Right under my room this time. I sit up and swing my legs over the side of the bed. Hello, people! Trying to sleep here. Opening the door to my attic bedroom, I descend the steep stairs to investigate.

The living room is filled with rich earthy smells: wood crackling in the fireplace, roasting meat and...spiced cider? A woman looks up, handing me a mug filled with the hot brew before returning to her chair and picking up a drawing journal. Mother? The man beside her adds another log on the fire and pats my head affectionately. Father?

Confused, I take a seat on the stone hearth. Fragrant tendrils of steam curl around my face as I bring the mug to my mouth. A small black bundle of fur crawls into my lap and curls into a happy, purring ball. The soft scritch-scratching of my mother's pencil against the paper picks up a comforting rhythm with the quiet night sounds of our little house while the smooth stone of her ring flashes in the fire's glow.

I tip the mug back but clutch at my throat as the heat registers. The scalding liquid burns my tongue and throat. My eyes burn, too.

Without warning, the heavy oak-and-iron door is flung open on its hinges and a rolling gray haze pours into the room filling it with bone-chilling malevolence.

"Mom?! Dad?!" I gasp, wiping at my itching eyes.

The odor of sulfur touches my nostrils and I cover my mouth to filter the acrid fumes. The eerie mist flows over the motionless lump on the floor that is my father. When it parts, he is gone. It finds the unconscious form of my mother, lying a few feet from him next and she, too vanishes. A high-pitched scream pierces the corners of the night and it's a few seconds before I recognize my own voice.

I back away quickly from the twisting cloud, toward the open door but a figure in the corner of the room stops me.

"Hello?" I ask cautiously. Panic rises in my chest; the returning throb of a headache pricks at my temples. "Is someone there?"

They move toward me, mimicking my actions. I take another step forward and realize it's my own reflection in the surface of an antique standing mirror.

The carved frame resembles twisting branches of a tree and delicate ivy vines. Its beauty beckons to me and I feel a strong pull to touch it. I run my fingers over the ivory unicorn at its base and the inscription above its spiraling horn. 'Revelabit cervus occultis.'

A swirling mist undulates inside the glass until another image emerges from the shadows to take my reflection's place. Or does it?

It's me, but...not me. The right side of my face is covered with a network of fine scars and my clothing looks like something from a book about Pilgrims with long skirts of heavy cloth and a long-sleeved woolen jacket. My hair is dull; knotted with hay and leaves and I'm filthy with dirt and...blood.

In confusion I look down at myself to find I'm still wearing the black tank and pin-striped pajama bottoms I wore to bed. My reflection turns and points a bruised hand to a large stone fireplace behind her.

"Willow?" a voice calls, making me jump. "Willow, where art thou?!"

An old woman stands in the door frame. Her clothing is of the same era as the 'me' in the mirror with a high-collared blouse and long layers of skirts. A square of white cloth covers most of her silver hair.

"Who are you?" I ask but she evaporates into the air like wisps of steam before she can answer. What is going on?! I turn back to the mirror.

The smoke is growing thicker making it hard to see and even harder to breathe. I have to find the door but the reflection in the mirror stops me. My skin is more pale than usual with a cold, blue quality. My eyes seem too big for my face and there are dark circles in the sunken skin under them. Reflexively, I reach up touching my face but my reflection's hands remain at her side.

The overwhelming urge to touch the glass surface calls again and I surrender to it, instantly inviting an electric current through my body that sends me reeling with stunned surprise.

"Bourne through the fire. The ring is the key," the reflection whispers and points again to the fireplace in her background.

A dark figure rises up behind her and I open my mouth to warn her but the scream stays frozen in my throat as the Shadowman envelopes her in the folds of his cloak, leaving only her haunting words to hang in the air as they disappear.

"He comes for ye...the man in black. He is coming...soon."

Pain coils itself around my skull and my throat constricts. I can't breath. I can't--!"

I take a deep breath as the pressure is released but I am momentarily immobilized by the blurred boundaries between lucidity and the dream world. Panic spurs my body alert and I grab my bedside alarm, confused to find the time still ten minutes past midnight. Iris is standing at the window.

"Iris?" I gasp. "I'm sorry if I woke you up. I had a nightmare. Iris?"

Something is wrong. My bedroom is wrong. Too warm. Too thick. Too...bright.

The full moon that hangs visible through my single window seems unnaturally close and there's a hot, familiar scent filling the air. Realization slaps me hard in the face.

"Oh God, Iris! The house is on fire!"

I grab her hand, surprised at the coolness of her skin, and pull us both to the floor where the air is slightly less polluted. I find my ring where it's fallen and slip the chain that holds it over my neck.

Reaching under my bed, I snag the faded, olive-green pack that holds my worldly wealth: a scrap of fabric from my baby blanket, a small rag doll that smells like the ocean and a ring clip of library cards from every town I've lived in. I sweep my birthday presents from the foot of my bed and feel under my pillow for my drawing journal but it's not there.

Crawling to the dresser, I begin wrenching drawers out. Nothing. Frantically, I grab what I can and stuff it into my pack along with everything from the dresser top. Firm hands push me toward the window.

"Iris, I can't find my journal." Below us I hear the sound of shattering glass and stomping. "Iris! It's the fire department. Help! We're up here!" I yell. Was that the banging I'd heard earlier? How much time has passed? My head is thick and foggy.

"It's not the fire department," Iris says, continuing to push me toward the window. A furious roar sounds from her library followed by a booming crash that shakes the house. "You need to get out...now!"

"No!" I break away. "It's too far...we'll break our necks. Where's Kitty? I have to find her!" I scramble for the handle of the door before she can stop me.

A ring of fire flares up, encircling the wooden casing and blocking the exit to the stairs with a wall of blinding heat. Something moves inside the inferno. A solid darkness that parts the flames and begins to ascend the staircase. Hypnotized by the dancing tongues of fire around the dark entity, I slowly rise to my feet.

A trick of the light? The smoke and lack of visibility mixed with fear and adrenaline? No. It was there. I squint into the firestorm and his head snaps up. My eyes focus into the void where his eyes should be.

The Shadowman.

The faceless, benign image from my nightmares twists and contorts into something else...something warped and perverse. The heat on my face is unbearable as I watch him climb the stairs in a determined stride toward me but I can't move.

A voice inside me screams, Run! But where? Ahead lies the anguish of a burning hell and something that, somehow, has stepped from my nightmares. Behind me, a window that leads to a three-story drop. Is the hedge of roses thick enough to break my fall...or just my neck?

Fear roots me to the spot like a tree in the path of a swiftly-moving forest fire. The surreal scene of the lumbering creature plays out before my eyes while the voice in my head shrieks hysterically.

He raises a gleaming ax and utters in a deep rasping voice, "I'm coming for you."

He comes for ye...the man in black. He is coming...soon.

Okay, that works.

His threat provides the motivation I need to break my paralysis. Hands fisted at my sides, I take a defensive crouch back and slip into the black, metal-studded motorcycle boots beside the discarded dresser drawers.

The scorching current of air hits my body full force at the same time the creature brings the ax through the blazing door frame. I'd scream if I still had breath left in me but since I don't, I settle for the next best thing - I bring my foot up as hard as I can, kicking the creature between the legs. I'm actually surprised when he sinks to his knees holding himself like any ordinary male would in the same situation.

The force of the creature's fall causes the weakened wood beneath him and I scramble to my feet just as a huge section of the floor opens up. I claw desperately at the edge of the gaping hole struggling to get a foothhold when another CRACK splits the supporting beam. The sudden structural shift shakes the foundation and I lose my grip.

His hand shoots out, grabbing my wrist. The pain is incredible as he dangles me above the hungry flames for what feels like an eternity. What is he waiting for? I wonder. Why doesn't he just drop me and be done with it?

The nightmares were a warning and I didn't take them seriously. The image in the mirror surfaces in my mind again. 'Born through the fire,' she had said. What does that mean? My brain grasps at alternative meanings. Born can also mean endure, tolerate or carry on.

Suddenly I feel my body being lifted. The creature has given me enough leverage to pull myself free and I take it. Without my weight pulling him down, he's also able to gain some ground but not before the hole widens and gravity plunges him to the burning level below. With a painful sting, his flailing hand snags the chain from my neck.

A cool hand shoots out from the darkness of the room and grabs my arm in time to pull me away from the edge as the floor completely dissolves under my feet. I almost jump out of my skin.

Iris moves to the window, unlocking the casing to swing it open. Despite the moon's bright glow, she looks drained of color. Her hair is singed at the edges but her familiar smile is reassuring all the same.

"Okay," I say through chattering teeth. "You win. The window it is." I throw my pack out and watch it land with a sickening thud on the ground before I snatch up a corner of the sheets and tear them from the bed. They don't reach all the way to the ground but, tied to the bed frame, they'll lessen the distance to one we might actually be able to walk away from.

I hand the free end of the sheet to Iris, making sure the bed is as close to the window as possible. She shakes her head and tries to give it back to me.

"You need to go now," she says moving back.

"Iris, I'll climb down as soon as you're on the ground," I insist.

"There's no time to argue. Go! I'll be with you...I'll always be with you." Her words are almost too soft to hear as she presses something warm and metallic into my hand.

"My ring!?" I start, confused. "How?!"

I felt the creature rip it from me. I shudder to think I almost lost it. Iris points to the window. Quickly, I slip the chain over my head and squeeze the little ring that dangles from it.

"Wear it always," Iris says. "The ring is the key. Now go!"

God, she could be so stubborn! But she's right. There's no time to stand here arguing.

The room is a wall of smoke, the flames creeping closer while the creature screams from the floor below. How soon will it take him to get back up here?

I put my hands up in defeat, grab the windowsill and swing my legs over. The strobe of red and white emergency lights flickers from the front of the house .

"Hey!" I yell but the sound comes out strangled. "Iris, there's a fire engine right out front...if I can just get their attention--" I feel a firm hand on my thigh.

"You have to go...now. Look," she points. "She's waiting for you."

Sure enough, the little black stray cat that showed up a few weeks ago watches impatiently from the ground. I give the sheet a final tug and Iris a wary smile before carefully shifting my weight and rolling onto my lower stomach. With my boot, I probe the brick-and-ivy facade of the house to find a solid foothold before repelling into the thick night. A few feet from the bottom of the second story I hear the unmistakable sound of tearing fabric. I jerk my head up to the attic window.

Iris gives me a sad smile before turning to the tall, faceless cloaked figure standing beside her. No longer the flame-faced monster from before, he extends his open hand to her like a gentleman escorting his beloved. She nods and takes his hand before stepping back, allowing him to wrap the black cape around them both as they disappear into the plume of black smoke that billows through the window.

He comes for ye...the man in black. He is coming...soon.

"Noooo!!!" I scream but my voice is silenced as the sheet tears away completely from the stray nail it has caught itself on and I fall into the waiting arms of the thorn-encrusted rose bushes below.

#

That's all for now, fans but I'll be back. Thanks for reading!

#YAFiction #fantasy #magicalrealism #supernatural

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