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Lurking Shadows (Completed edition)
Author's note: This piece reflects that it's up to us to shape our own future. That nothing is set in stone. Every step we take leads us to a future of our own choosing. If you're unhappy, then it's up to you to change the path you walk down.
Ephesians 6:12 - For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high [places].
The smallest of decisions can change the course of your life in one moment, that if you had to look back at all the decisions you’ve ever made immediately you would recognize that one choice. The part of Boston that we live in is so ingrained in the Slums there is an ambiance of poverty surrounding the place. Our house was not much of a house at all, but rather a rundown shack. It leaked whenever it rained, the gaps whistled when the wind blew, and the heat made it unbearable in the summer without air conditioning.
Underneath this house though is a cellar, left over from the house that previously was built on the lot. In this cellar I live out my days as a prisoner within my own family, complete with a cell and occasionally shackles. Every day I am treated no better than a slave as I wake up before the light of dawn to cook breakfast for my family, spend the day laundering their clothes with harsh soap, cleaning the house that is practically stained with filth. Watching as my older sister Margaret has the opportunity to go to school and learn while I am left in the cellar to grow ignorant.
Late at night when father is asleep I will creep up to her room and she will show me the strange symbols in her books. Language has never been a barrier for me, even though I have never officially attended school, Margaret had been the best teacher I could have asked for. Over the years I have found that after hearing a tongue only once I am able to speak it fluently. Likewise the written language comes naturally to me. Though the rest of my family has their harsh Boston accents in which “are” comes out sounding more like “ah”, Margaret tells me my voice is soft like the chiming of bells, foreign, and like one she has never heard before.
During the day my sister had to pretend to abhor my existence, which on a base level hurts me, but I know if not for her carefully practiced façade our bond of sisterhood would be severed by our father. My father says I am inherently evil because I am the offspring of a demon. I am his daughter though, I see his eyes reflected in my face on a looking glass, though they harbour different emotions. The hate and revilement I see in his eyes whenever he looks at me, I cower before him whenever he is near, because my father is a spiteful man who has not hesitated to strike me before. A father is all Margaret and I share biologically, during the incident with my mother, father was still married to a woman equally as bitter as he (if not more so). She despised my presence and made sure I knew I was not welcome in her household. Every time she looks at me is a reminder of the unfaithfulness of my father, and the sin he committed against their marriage.
Honestly, if she hates that he cheated on her I don’t understand why she doesn’t annul their marriage. As a family of strict Catholics, divorce was out of the question, but in light of past proceedings I think it is only fair to say that he was not fully committed to their marriage. Maybe it is for the good of her children that she remains, as I’ve mentioned before my father is a malicious man, and would no doubt hunt them down just to prove a point. As bad as my stepmother is I don’t wish for either her or my half siblings to be on the receiving end of his anger.
Luke is the newest member of our family, at age thirteen he now attends middle school at level eight, while Margaret two years my elder attends the local community college and studies business in the hopes of dragging herself out of the slums. Today I had managed to escape the house by saying we needed groceries. I desperately yearned for fresh air and the opportunity to see anything but the inside of this house. Grudgingly stepmother allowed, handing me fifteen dollars and demanding that I return with every receipt for her examination, as if I would try to steal from her. Tourists lingered in the streets and the bars were noisy as people got ready to celebrate the countdown to midnight and the new year.
In the background lurked the city’s low-lives; pickpockets and street gangs hoping to steal their next meal ticket. They lingered in the alleyways like vultures just waiting to swoop down on their unsuspecting prey. I used to be one of them, was proud to be one of them until father found out and put a stop to it. It was the only way I felt free when I got the chance to leave the house, even if it was just a small rebellion. Not that I was a bad kid, but I knew stepmother would never let me have my own money, especially to spend on something so frivolous. So I didn’t see anything wrong with pinching a pastry or apple, after all it was the holidays.
Reaching behind a vendor’s back I was just about to grab a fake gold necklace that I could probably sell to some tourist for twenty bucks when I heard a scuffle nearby. Normally I wouldn’t pay any mind to their problems, until from the corner of my eye I saw a boy only a little older than me with tousled brown hair and cobalt blue eyes trying to run away. Abandoning the necklace, I followed behind them as discreetly as possible, watching to see what would happen. Bones and the rest of his gang had the boy cornered in the dead end of an alley. The lack of wear on his clothes and brand names displayed so casually let them know he had money, and Bones wasn’t one to give up when it came to cash. Drawing a knife from his cargo pants Bones waved it menacingly in front of the boy’s face.
“Does the little brat carry his allowance on him?” Bones asked pressing the tip of the blade into the boy’s skin. “Give us what you have and maybe we’ll let you leave this exchange still breathing.”
Those blue eyes scanned the alley in growing alarm as Bones used the dagger to slice open his cheek. That was when I decided I’d seen enough. Even if the boy gave up his money Bones would most likely keep the boy for ransom, it was what I would have done when I was in charge. Grabbing a handful of rocks I hurled them expertly one at a time at the older boys’ heads. The last one was the size of an egg and I had saved it especially for Bones, when it hit him in the forehead and drew blood he immediately turned towards me with a murderous glare.
The boy stood there frozen, I gestured for him to make a break for it while he had a chance. I used to run with Bones’s gang and had even climbed up the ladder to the top before I was forced to leave. A part of me knew they still harbored a grudge for me abandoning them, even though I had been smart enough not to take any of their money. In the slums everyone knew who you were and where you lived, angering the wrong person could result in getting your whole family killed. There was no such thing as privacy, neighbors you had known your whole life were just as likely to rat you out to a gang just as much as a stranger.
The boy still hadn’t moved, exasperated I ran off hoping they would be dumb enough to follow me for the sake of their male pride. Sure enough Bones cursed and sprinted towards me. If the gang lost respect for him then they would try and usurp him or skimp on tribute, from there it all went downhill. Even though I was small and lithe I couldn’t outrun Bones for long, and quickly took to the fire escape, and from there to the rooftops where I had the advantage. Leaping from building to building, avoiding the angry women that cursed me for knocking down their pots and washing lines, I ran until the rooftops ended and I was left standing at the precipice of the building. Bones was fast approaching, and taking one last leap of faith I jumped off the building onto the back of a garbage truck that was just beginning to pull away from the curb.
My ankle throbbed where I had landed on it wrong, experience in combat had taught me to roll when jumping off something, but I couldn’t risk rolling off the side of the truck. The men driving the truck didn’t even notice when I climbed down the back and limped off toward the park. Looking up I saw Bones and his gang glaring down at me from their perch on the edge of the rooftop. I went into the forest to sit down on the bench and examine my ankle. It was swollen, my high tops were stuck and I knew trying to get them off would only make my ankle worse. Luckily I was a fast healer, and if I wrapped it and iced it tonight I should be fine by tomorrow at the latest.
Walking through the forest as night fell I remembered the excuse I had used on stepmother to get out of the house and groaned inwardly. I wondered if she would realize if I came home empty-handed, but considering her remark about the receipts I doubted she would let me off that easily. I had just decided I would go to the convenience store on the kiddy corner near our house then and get some simple things, when a strange man pulled up to my side and attempted to start up a conversation with me.
“You’re being followed,” he mumbled almost incoherently.
I raised an eyebrow at the strange gentleman. “By you?” I asked already questioning his sanity. “Please stop following me, I’m not in the mood to deal with stalkers tonight.”
“Technically I’m not following you, I’m following the road,” he began in some backwards diction. “And secondly, after much wrangling with my conscience (and by “wrangling” I mean ignoring and by “much” I mean about ten seconds) I decided that a pretty girl like you deserved to be saved by a noble young man like myself.”
“That’s an arguable assumption,” I said calmly on the outside though I was already scanning the area with trained eyes for enemies or attackers. “I assure you that I am quite capable of taking care of myself.”
He sighed dramatically and looked over at me with wicked green eyes. “In an argument, a woman always has the last word. Anything a man says after that is just the beginning of a new argument,” he smiled broadly revealing rows of perfect white teeth, “Samuel Rivaon, and don’t worry I’ll be watching.”
Samuel dropped back and disappeared into the gloom of the night, after a couple minutes I chanced a look over my shoulder and saw him trailing me by a couple feet. I rolled my eyes in exasperation, but rather than allowing him the privilege of seeing me frustrated I chose to ignore his paranoid actions. After a while I began to develop this feeling of claustrophobia, like the woods had begun to close in on me. It wasn’t until a thin branch whipped my cheek, leaving a stinging red mark, that I realized it had been the trees following me all along.
Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Why don’t I ever listen when people talk to me? It’s not that I have an attitude problem, people have a problem with my attitude, and that’s not my problem. I guess I should really start paying more attention to what people say. Another branch began to encircle my waist in an iron grip; I struggled to no avail, as the branch began winding itself tighter and tighter until I could barely breathe. Just as I was about to pass out, a fire spontaneously erupted along the nearby trunks, destroying the evil creatures? The flame got closer and closer to me until the flames were no farther than a foot away, then I was released as the creatures fled.
“Nasty little buggers aren’t they?” said Samuel as he sauntered over to my side. “We had better leave before they come back with more.”
He offered me his arm as I stood there gasping, still desperately trying to regain my breath. I don’t know if it was from lack of oxygen or poor judgment, but for some reason I decided to trust him and took his arm willingly. My ankle protested even more now after our sprint through the park and my hair had fallen out of its ponytail to hang in my face. Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer and sat down on the grass to catch my breath and give my ankle a break. By now night had fallen, and I wondered bemusedly if stepmother had even noticed my prolonged absence. I wished I could stay out here forever, but I knew that even her ignorance didn’t last that long and I was dying to tell Margaret about my day.
“Are you ok miss….”Samuel asked politely.
I gave him a thin smile that I doubted he could see in the dim light. “Josephine Aburn, and I’ll be fine, just a sprained ankle no big deal.”
“You sound like you’ve had worse,” he frowned and I could tell he was digging for information.
“Look Samuel I appreciate your help but I really must be getting home now,” I rose and winced with pain when I put weight down on my injured ankle.
“Are you some sort of trouble magnet Miss Aburn?” he questioned wryly.
I frowned at his tone. “Not particularly, why do you ask?”
“Because we’ve known each other all of twenty minutes and twice now you’ve gotten yourself into a fight.” He turned and with a gesture of his hand illuminated the area around us so that I could see Bones’ gang trying to sneak up on us.
“Well now that you mention it, you’d be surprised how often strange things happen around me.” I cursed my luck, thinking I had managed to shake them, I should have known better. “Look Samuel I appreciate what you’ve done for me so far, but this isn’t a joke anymore, these guys will slit your throat given the chance.”
Samuel smirked and looked down at me.
Samuel put my arm around his broad shoulder and ended up half carrying half dragging me home. The lights were on inside and though I tried earnestly to convince Samuel that it was fine if he left me out front and that he’d already done enough the hard look on his face silenced my protests and he knocked twice on the door. I sat in a plastic chair that sat outside and buried my face in my hands wondering how I could explain this to father, who by now was no doubt home from work and well into a bottle. Samuel was a decent fellow and I didn’t want him to see my family, especially my father, and wonder why he’d ever bothered with the likes of Josephine Aburn. The door opened and my inebriated father stepped out fixing me a scathing glare before realizing I had company.
“Where the hell have you been girl,” he slurred as he stumbled through the doorway. “Claudine said you stepped out hours ago.”
I practically shrunk in on myself, not for the first time wishing I was invisible. “Sorry Father, I hurt myself and Mr. Rivaon was kind enough to escort me home.”
“More likely you were sleeping with him and decided to try and steal some of my hard earned money while you were at it,” his voice grew in volume as he drew closer.
“No I swear! It was an accident Father, it wont happen again,” I was hysterical knowing what was coming if I couldn’t calm him down.
His fist struck me on the side of my face and I felt a corresponding pain immediately in my jaw. Blinking back the tears knowing it would only infuriate him more I crouched poised and ready for the receiving end of another blow. When one didn’t come I turned and was surprised to see Samuel standing over the inert body of my father. A tear escaped and rolled down my cheek, wordlessly Samuel handed me a handkerchief and went inside to speak with my stepmother. He emerged only moments later radiating anger and came over to me and kneeled down at my side.
“Will please you come with me Josephine?” Samuel had kind eyes I realized, it was in their very depths. “Will you let me take you away from this place?”
Turning my head to the side in shame I replied, “You don’t understand what you’re asking, I can’t let you do that to yourself.”
He smirked at my words, “You mean because you’re not human?” At my shocked expression he chuckled. “Believe me I’ve met worse and I doubt it’s something you chose unlike others.
“You know what I am? And yet you don’t fear me?” I questioned, uncertain of his answer.
“Yes Josephine,” he admitted. “I know what you are, but I want to get to know who you are. Because when I look at you I don’t see someone that’s half demon, I see a girl who just needs a friend.”
"I see a manipulator, tonight seems like it followed your plans too closely."
“I loke to think of myself as more of an outcome engineer.So will you come with me Josephine Aburn?” He tried to flash me an innocent little grin, but I was by no means swayed. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from him in this short time is that he is inordinately manipulative. Everything he does has a purpose to it. In other words that “innocent little grin” is far from innocent. What it really means is that he has something planned.
However none of this compared to the repercussions I would face here when my father awoke. “You’re not kidding, are you? Because if you are than this is a terrible joke.”
“That would be a cruel joke indeed, t hang the promise of something better
in front of your face and then take it away.” He shook his head slowly. “No I’m not kidding, but I’m not going to lie to you either. My life is just as complicated as yours.”
“I don’t care, I don’t have a lot of options left. Your’s seems like the best one I’ve got,” I blatantly told him. “And I won’t lie to you either, trouble seems to follow me wherever I go.”
1 John 4:18 - There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.
The dark alley was thickly lined with shadows, which seemed to ooze from the surrounding aged brick walls. A malevolent presence filled the air with a foreshadowing of the events soon to unfold, leaving those who happened to pass by with a cold chill that sneaked down the back of their necks. Most paid no heed to this feeling other than walking a tad bit quicker past, yet I alone pause to look into the depths of the seemingly black abyss. I am used to darkness, for it has haunted me since birth and something in that alley called to me. Call it intuition, but whenever I felt that someone needed my help I felt compelled to go. A cold clammy hand trailed its fingers down my back, but I have learned that to show fear was to give the Lurker power.
After that night in Boston I found that a creature started following me everywhere I went. For those of you who don’t know the Lurker, they can become the biggest pain (and this is speaking from experience). It’s big, it’s constantly breathing over your shoulder, you can’t pull off its hood, and you can’t see its face. If you talk to it, it doesn’t reply. If you tell it to go away, it comes closer. It never leaves you alone. To sum the Lurker up; it’s hulky, overbearing, and makes you feel very uncomfortable.
Don’t get me wrong, the Lurker isn’t evil or anything from what I can tell. It’s just…there…all the time. Watching you... except you can’t watch back. To tell the truth it’s been my only constant companion since I left Boston, I couldn’t expect Samuel to babysit me day in and out. For one thing it always listens to what I have to say, almost like a living, breathing diary. Name one human that can keep all your secrets and never judge you for them. Coming up with a blank? I don’t blame you, I’m just lucky that way I guess.
Lurker is the only animate being that I don’t feel the need to lie to. I love to lie, for some reason it gives me this sadistic pleasure and makes me feel great, probably the result of some emotional scarring from my childhood. People hesitate to trust me, and in doing this they show me how truly weak they are. The one thing I truly hate is weakness, so I feel no guilt when I destroy their reluctantly given trust. The mind is a powerful weapon, you can turn it in on itself, torture it until nothing but madness remains. I feel joy at being able to so easily torture their feeble minds. I felt so different before I learned what I really was, like an outsider always loving to see people grieve. A demon: a heartless, merciless demon, or at least half. I left my family, who I had lied to my whole life, and who never truly loved me as their child.
Remember when I said darkness haunts me, well I wasn’t exaggerating. Strange creatures tend to pop up when I’m around. Something supernatural lingers in the shadows of this alley, and I am determined to find out what it is. I step into the comfort of the shadows and vaguely notice the disapproval that practically radiates off Lurker.
“I’ll be fine,” I assured it, “It's not as if anything bad ever happens.”
As I say this I step further into the alley, towards the source of the scraping and grinding. The sounds of an injured animal reached my ear and I grasped towards it like the idiot I am. Immediately I am flung backwards by an unseen force. My head hit the unforgiving stone wall and an answering headache began in the back of my skull.
Grudgingly I arose to glare at the creature which had come out of its hiding spot. The Guardians were ancient spirits of the forest, created before the time of man to govern nature, they were very powerful but weakened over the years. This one took the shape of a giant bear that towered over me at ten feet tall, when it reared up upon its hind legs, it dwarfed me at fifteen feet. Its teeth were larger than a normal bear’s too, the fangs extending into long, piercing tusks. The eyes, which at first contained never ending black pools of rage, turned to a bright red that matched the distinct markings on its fur. A twinkle of wisdom shone in their bottomless depths, showing that it was capable of reason and emotion. At the moment though pride and cruelty were all that was being expressed the claws were retractable, but now were twice the size of my hand. Its tail was brushy and roughly the length of a wolf’s, but with much longer fur.
It roared a cry that belonged only to the wild beasts of this world, its mouth opening to a truly ungodly width, allowing it to fit up to three human head inside at a time and its bite strength enough to completely crush all three said heads in one bite. Drool oozed out of its maw dripping onto the dirt below with an acidic sizzle as it ate into the ground.
“Having trouble there Josephine?” a lilting British accent right behind me caused me to jump in surprise and then the person had the audacity to put their arm around mine!
I gritted my teeth to bite back a rude response. “Nothing I can’t handle Samuel. Did you forget when I mentioned that kick to the groin you’ll be receiving if you touched me again?”
He chuckled at my response. “A good listener is usually thinking about something else while the other person is talking. So if you need to talk I will pretend to listen”
“Any part of you that touches me you’re not getting back. The fact that I haven‘t maimed you horribly is celebration enough,” I all but growled in frustration.
Samuel looked back at me with an all too mischievous glance, “Sure. Sure. That’s a great idea! I was just going to recommend throwing ourselves off the nearest cliff and saving this thing the trouble of killing us, but you’re on spot with that one!”
Samuel Rivaon, I soon discovered after arriving in England, was a young businessman who had inherited his family’s fortune at a very young age, dabbling in dark magic, specifically necromancy. He has very high ambitions in politics, none of which are gained by honest means, and he is not one to let people cross him. His favorite method of battling was of intrigues and social destruction, but when needed, he was quite capable of deploying his dark magic as well.
“Fine,” I reluctantly agreed to his help, “What do you suggest I do?”
“Josephine, you have about as much tact as a lumberjack swinging an axe in a china shop. Optimism means you lack information. I’m so well informed that I’m highly aware of the probability that this beast will kill the both us,” he responded.
“You know Samuel, I really dislike you. Honestly, it keeps me up at night,” I replied after realizing he would be no help at all in this situation.
Hesitantly I stepped forward and slowly approached the beast with my hands held up above my head. I looked deep into its seething red eyes, projecting dominance until the beast returned to standing on four legs. It walked towards me with a lumbering gait, its hot breath reeking of disease, but I neither showed nor felt fear. To fear was weakness, weakness was death, and death is not an option. I knelt beside the beast and examined its side which held a long, deep gash that oozed thick black ichor. I gingerly touched the wound and was met with a deep snarl; I glared at the beast from over my shoulder.
“If you don’t wish to die than be patient,” I spoke calmly so as not to frighten it, “I know you can talk so it would be nice to know your name.”
“Barthonel, Guardian of Epping forest,” The voice was gruff and deep, as if it hadn’t been used for a long time. “Why are you helping me human?”
“Maybe because I’m not human,” I said gazing at him, straight into those ancient eyes.
“Human, mortal, both die before their time,” a forlorn emotion entered his eyes. “Much in the same way my beautiful forest was taken before its time.”
I nodded and continued with my work, which was using a sewing needle that I carried in my purse to stitch the skin together and control the bleeding. I truly empathized with the forgotten creatures that were part of this world, almost as if they were a part of me. My skirts lay around me in a pool of cyan, getting dirty and torn like the nuisances they were. If not for what people would say about me I wouldn’t even try so hard to look nice, because to be honest I really don’t care what they think. In my opinion you shouldn’t have to feel like you’re playing dress up for the people around you. Ripping a piece of string from the torn edge, I threaded it through the needle and began to stitch up the wound.
“What happened to the girl who didn’t care what other people thought of her? Who wore jeans because it was too hard to fight in a skirt?” Samuel asked looking at my torn skirt.
I looked up at him the tall bastard and slightly shook my head, “She grew up and realized the world is a cruel place, that dresses made her stand out less, and that you can’t solve life’s problems by fighting every jerk who comes along.”
Samuel stood guard at the alley’s entrance, stark black against the light of the setting sun. To this day I remember when we first met in Boston on one of the rare occasions when I managed to escape from my home. It wasn’t until later that I discovered what they were. Ailoij, tall, black figures indistinguishable from trees. They travel in large packs and are often mistaken for woods, pushing themselves slowly along with their roots as they stalk their choice prey. Often they pull unwary travelers to their graves, and they would have been the death of me if not for his aid. Taking a midnight stroll through the park, I had not realized that there was anything was out of the ordinary until Samuel saved me from a rather nasty turn of events. A grunt of pain brought me back from my daydreaming. I looked down at my work; the wound was as treated as much as I could manage in this situation.
“Thank you,” Barthonel said, “You may call on me to help you in return.”
Barthonel disappeared into the fog without another word, only his lumbering gait betraying the injury to his side. Samuel coughed, pretending to clear his throat; obligingly I turned to hear what he had to say. Grinning practically from ear to ear he said simply,
“You’re not dead, happy twentieth birthday!”
I rolled my eyes at his typical nonsense, but replied, “Thanks.”
“Congratulations,” Samuel said before starting off back towards the manor. “Matron said to tell you she arranged for the personal shopper to come by later and not to be late getting home from school.”
“This is what I get for being friends with you,” I said to no one in particular as we walked along the dimly lit streets of London. “Serves me right I suppose.”
Lurker nodded sagely as if agreeing with my offhanded comment. My life is boring now, not that I’m complaining, I am a bartender/waitress struggling to pay my own way through college. I always barely make the payment for my student loans, because I refuse to let Samuel pay for my education. At home I love to wear jeans except for when I wear sweats, and no matter how many times he asks I refuse to be Samuel’s arm-candy for his social schedule. Unlike Samuel I don't do anything interesting or talk to important people, I am not the kind of person that earns a stalker and yet, there he was trailing behind me about twenty feet back. Lurker tends to remind me of all the things I regret, which is quite a lot actually, except I don’t think I have the time to write it all down. Ask me tomorrow and the answer has been changed to “impossible”. At one point I realized that people can stay in your heart but not in your life. I want to think positive, yet judging from past experiences it probably won’t make a difference. I over analyze situations, because I’m scared of what will happen if I’m not prepared for it (reason why I don’t like surprises much either).
I guess it is true that money can buy anything, certainly didn’t stop Samuel from buying my way into the local community college. I was a junior in college, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that most of the students there just worked to get the grades; memorizing the material instead of actually applying themselves and learning the material. They didn’t appreciate what they’d been given, and I knew far too well what it felt like to be kept ignorant. Once free from the oppressive influence of my father I strived towards accomplishing in a few months what took others years. I’m glad Margaret had given me a somewhat rudimentary education at least, otherwise I seriously doubt it could have been done.
Today was my twentieth birthday, and my English literature class surprised me with cake and ice cream. We had taken semester finals only a few days before, so Professor Lillibridge was kind enough to let us celebrate before we went on break. At the ripe old age of sixty she was one of my favorite instructors, as she explained how writing was an essential part of everyday life. Personally, writing has always been my escape, and when I was younger I would make up stories in my head to make the time pass quicker as I went about my daily tasks. The concept of people celebrating such a frivolous occasion is still foreign to me, but I enjoyed the festivities and appreciated their efforts. After the bell rang for class to be dismissed, Professor Lillibridge pulled me aside and asked if she could have a word with me in private.
“Josephine I know about your…circumstances revolving you lack of previous education,” she began nervously biting her bottom lip. “But you are a brilliant writer and I hope that you realize that you have bright future ahead of you.”
I smiled warmly at the elderly woman. “Thank you Professor Lillibridge, for teaching me so much these past two years.”
When I was dismissed I went outside to meet Samuel under the oak tree, as we did every day before walking home. The weather was a lot colder now that the winter solstice was approaching.
“Will you do me a favor?” Samuel asked when I arrived late.
“Now why would I do that?” I looked at him coyly from under my eyelashes.
Snowflakes began to drift down and we quickened our pace. “Because you love me with a burning passion.”
I glared at him and replied indignantly, “I most certainly do not, and there is no need to be so crude, when you say things like that I don’t even know if I like you!”
“Okay I’ll admit that much,” he relented, “But you do like me marginally better than everyone else.”
“The key word being marginally,” I mumbled under my breath. “What do you need?”
Samuel blushed and stammered for a minute before clearing his throat and starting over. “I’m going to bring my friend Marlene over for dinner at the mansion, and I wanted to make sure you wouldn’t mind not being there that night.”
I glared at the ground and wrapped my jacket closer around my small frame to keep from saying something nasty. Why was he embarrassed to have me around?
“Ok, I’ll just go out with Charlotte or something that night,” I said with false cheer. “Not like I don’t have my own friends or anything.”
He let out a breath he probably didn’t realize he’d been holding in and the rest of our walk was spent in silence. Before I realized how far we had walked, the Rivaon estate lay before us, vast and grand in its entirety. On the banks of the Ravensbourne River, Samuel's mansion was built in the early 1800's. A little snow and rain had already half-frozen the river. In a week's time it would be true winter at the estate, something a half demon like me who was born to despise the cold, dreaded with every fiber of my being. A lone maple tree stood sentinel over the elegant Victorian home.
We snuck around to the back of the house in a futile effort at escaping Matron’s inspection. Walking through the snow had left us soaked to the bone, and Matron hated when we left puddles on the hardwood floor. He opened the back gate to the backyard which screeched as if in conflict with our plan. Most of the servants were loyal to Matron first and Samuel second, choosing to ignore me completely despite my constant effort to befriend them. A lone oak grew near the back porch, silent and sentinel over the property for many years. Its branches had grown thin and brittle over time; no leaves budded or showed despite the careful maintenance of the groundskeeper. This place though, which had at first seemed so strange and foreign to me, was now the closest thing to home I could ever hope to find. For through its halls walk friends who know of my own oddities and accept me not in spite of them, but rather because of them. They are the few that have realized my gifts have become a part of me, a part that can never be ignored, and will never be changed.
Samuel brought me here two years ago, only two months after my eighteenth birthday. Due to my demonic nature and lineage, one can deduce that my father had relations with a demon, and I refuse to forgive him for keeping that from me and making me feel like a monster my whole life. Now I know why they treated me so horribly, but to lead me to believe that it was because of something I’d done was inexcusable. They had already tried to turn my older half-sister Margaret against me before I had even begun to talk; a fact that troubled me every day as I painfully withstood her stony silence, considering when night fell she was my closest confidant. When my brother was born, I was never allowed to touch or hold him, for my parents feared that the taint of my curse would spread to him, their only son. And so I came to be regarded as an interloper amongst my own family, treated little better than a stranger and tolerated even less. It is no wonder that when Samuel offered me an escape, I took it without much thought or consideration. Also, I hope that this insight into my early life allows you, the reader, to understand my hardships and trials as this story unfolds.
He coveteth greedily all the day long: but the righteous giveth and spareth not.
“What do you think you’re doing out here lollygagging like a pair of street brats,” she chastised.
Out of nowhere Matron stood in the doorway, took one glance at our disheveled appearances and ordered the servants to draw me a bath immediately, saying I was covered in all manner of dirt, filth, and drivel that could be found in this fair city.
"Lloyd is coming for Josephine's birthday dinner, and I expect both of you to mind your manners."
"I'm more concerned about minding my wallet," Samuel muttered under his breath.
Matron gave him a stern look, but didn’t scold him over it. Lloyd was Samuel's cousin, and only came around when he was asking for money to support his gambling problems.There was no doubt in my mind that he was only here because he’d found himself swimming in debt and expected Samuel to pay the price of his addiction. I did as she bid me though and returned to my plush bedroom where a girl with light ash brown hair and matching eyes filled the gold-footed, marble tub with steaming hot, lily scented water. She looked at me out of the corner of her eye and rushed to finish her task so she could scurry out. The girl must be new, or maybe I’d just never seen her before. Her hair reached to her waist, it hung in her face, and hid her from my scrutiny. When she finally left I sank into the comforting heat with a sigh of contentment as all the tension in my muscles from running to and fro all day long, slowly vanished in a cloud of steam. Scraping away the layer of muck on my skin with a bar of soap that had been set aside for me, I was left feeling genuinely refreshed.
It wasn’t until all the heat had left the water that I grudgingly got out and went to my wardrobe to put on a nice frock for dinner (to avoid Matron scolding me for lacking effort) and brush my thick, lustrous black hair. The dress was a simple black, with red lining and accents that complimented my fair complexion and made my glacial blue eyes stand out nicely (at least according to the seamstress that fitted it for me).
Darkness had fallen, and so the candles that lined the walls had promptly been lit. Their flickering flames danced like gypsies and cast equally mysterious shadows. A hellhound trotted faithfully at my side, obedient only to me and vicious as any creature from his realm. Vitium was the embodiment of earthly sin, feasting on the pain and suffering of humans. Humans as a whole are overtly weak and emotional, prone to partaking in things they know will only hasten them towards their graves.
See, to supernatural beings such as myself, emotions are tangible things that can be taken at the will of a stronger being, which is why I try to keep mine under careful lock and key. If it were my wish, I could permanently abandon those emotions that make me human, and live the life of a full-blooded demon. Such drastic actions though merit likewise reason on my part, and would have serious consequences for those around me as I became bereft of any mercy or empathy. Vitium growled as we entered the extravagant dining room, where Samuel sat at the head of a long mahogany table and Lloyd just to his left, leaving the seat on his right for me. Vitium and Lloyd mixed as well as oil and water, and needless to say had never gotten along very well. I didn’t care for him much myself, but he was some of the only family Samuel had left. He always had an oily appearance about him, with his slick-backed hair and ugly suit, I never trusted him. On occasion I thought I had caught sight of him at the supernatural club that I worked at, which only served to make me more suspicious of how he paid for his gambling. Lloyd knew of my dislike for him and his habits, which made it all the more absurd that he was here just to celebrate my birthday.
“Why do you always insist on bringing that mutt to dinner Josephine,” Lloyd asked with obvious distaste, sweat beading on his forehead.
Vitium licked his chops and I could see how much he wished to leap over and take a large bite out of the boy. I scratched him behind the ear just the way he liked it to get him to calm down. His sleek ruby fur was broken on top by thick spines that were projected from his vertebrae, and extended to the tip of his tail which mirrored that of a scorpion’s. Ram’s horns protruded from the front of his thick skull. Those parts of him which most resembled the anatomy of a dog veered more towards the appearance of a Great Dane, what with his muscular frame and colorings, though his strength and speed outmatched even the best of dogs. To the eyes of most humans he appeared to be a normal dog with dark reddish brown fur and eyes a rich amber color. He is very protective and standoffish, but loyal to those who gain his trust, similar to me in that way.
“Because unlike you he has manners and some level of sanity,” I replied good-naturedly. “Plus it’s my birthday so I’ll do as I please.”
The corner of Samuel’s lip twitched in amusement and Lloyd glared at the hellhound as I took my seat opposite to him.. “I’m not crazy, just an eccentric rich man that enjoys keeping company with himself.”
“Eccentric rich man? More like broke gambler if you ask me,” I snarkily replied.
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat when I brought up his unfavorable pastime, “That’s all in the past, I‘m trying to change, I just need money to pay off these casino sharks.”
"That is actually a good excuse," I replied with mock enthusiasm, "I'm surprised it came from your mind."
He opened his mouth to no doubt deliver some attempt at a witty remark, but just then Matron walked in, and like a mother of two bickering children silenced us with a glance. Though nearing fifty, she still cut an imposing figure, a woman who could end an argument before one had even begun.
"Fighting again I see," she observed wearily, "One day you two will realize that this only shows what callow youths you all are."
"Let's be reasonable about this!" I protested, "We all know the one reason he’s here is to leech off of Samuel."
"I told you that’s all in the past now, and I fully intend to pay off my debt to my dear cousin," he explained to us, though his shifty eyes told a different story. “Tonight I am here solely to celebrate Josephine’s twentieth birthday.”
Matron looked upon our display with such displeasure that even Vitium threatened to slink away. I was thoroughly abashed, but Samuel who was used to Matron’s lectures, did naught but continue on until she threatened to prepare pickled eggs with breakfast (the only food Samuel adamantly refuses to eat). That shut him up right and proper, his jaw snapping shut with an all too audible click. Of course this silence lasted no longer than roughly three minutes, at which point we moved onto other, less disruptive topics.
Servants came into the room bearing silver trays laden with tonight’s meal: game hen marinated in oil and red wine vinegar; and stuffed with garlic, julienne peppers, tomatoes, and onions. Along with of course cherries, strawberries, and raspberries, all soaked in brandy, my favorites. A separate plate was put down for Vitium, a raw steak, which he all but devoured upon sight. The rest of us however, ate in a more civil manner, and with much smaller bites under Matron’s careful supervision. She had begun drilling manners and etiquette into my brain immediately upon my unexpected arrival. I can only imagine what her reaction would have been if I showed up in street clothes as I prefer to. As it was she just about fainted from shock when she first caught me wearing them about the house, and then went on to lecture me about the impropriety of it all and how if I didn’t want to be ridiculed by the other ladies I had better learn fast how to dress myself accordingly.
Later as Lloyd was putting his coat on to leave I pulled him aside. “Don’t think for a second I believe you’re little act. Stay away from Samuel you low life.”
After that Lloyd was quicker to leave than normal, and Samuel was not blind to it. “What did you say to him exactly?”
Samuel looked at me speculatively and I raised my hands. “Honest, I didn’t say a word.”
“Mhm.” It was obvious Samuel didn’t believe me. He once told me he always knew when I was lying, that I had a tell, but I had yet to figure out what gave me away.
“Let me just say this though, you’re cousin is a little weasel,” I spat, my anger filled to the brim.
He just shrugged noncommittally. “Family is family, and mine seems to be in short supply these days.”
“That’s where you’re wrong Samuel. Blood may make you related, but only loyalty makes you family. You have more family than you think.”
Though he didn’t acknowledge my statement, he did linger for a moment in the doorway. And as he was leaving I thought I caught sight of a faint smile on his lips.
After our rather uneventful dinner, Vitium and I retired to the study where I practiced my studies by night; learning that which had been kept from me as a child. My parents never told me school was an option, so I could only depend on what I had learned from Margaret. I particularly enjoyed reading through the libraries many wonderful works regarding religion, because I had never met another person of my distinct background. I always wondered if there were others like myself out there, and if so how many? Maybe I'm truly one of a kind, it could be a possibility. The Bronte Sisters and Victor Hugo are my two other favorites though.
Libraries in general seem so magical to me though, more so than any supernatural phenomena I’ve witnessed. The magic is as ancient as time, because once words are written down they are immortal, both in ink and in the memory of the people who have read them. It can be a portal to a different world, be it one of romance, or mystery, or history. You could live a thousand different lives while never leaving the comfort of your home, and yet each life has a distinct pattern of events. If it were possible I’d lock myself in a library for the rest of my life and just experience every one of these lives, because most of them are better than my own. But its not possible. I can’t just lock myself away from the real world. However just for a few hours I can escape the smothering grip of reality.
As the night drew long past the midnight hour, I fell asleep on a rocking chair in the study as I am prone to do on evenings such as this one. A book rested on my chest, forgotten in the lull of sleep, it rose and fell steadily as I breathed in and out. To an observer I might appear calm at rest, but in my dreams I was filled with terror. I found myself surrounded by flames, trapped in a burning building. I start to run, trying desperately to escape the flames. Occasionally, my clothes catch on fire, but I push forward, knowing the exit has got to be somewhere. I find a door, just in time; my body is covered in flame by now. I force it open; only find that outside the burning building, only more fire awaits me. The whole world seems to be in flames. Amidst this inferno a man stands steadily, staring at me as I burn. I scream for help and he says nothing to me except: “The child born of heaven and hell will rise to conquer her enemy. The empire of the heavens is invaded by the denizens of the underworld. The duchess of lies will court the baron of deceit. A time of death and sorrow will follow a young woman in her journey for knowledge.”
I awoke with a start finding my surroundings unchanged, and thankfully, not on fire. Vitium lay beside my rocking chair, snoring heavily, but his ears constantly tuned for even a hint of danger.The wind howled outside the library window, blowing speckles of raindrops against the glass panes. It was comforting that at least the weather cared about how I was feeling. The rain pouring down seemed as understanding as a “there, there” and a pat on my back. A scream reverberated through the halls, shrieking as shrill as any banshee. Vitium sprang to his feet in an instant a menacing, feral growl began in the back of his throat and grew gradually louder. There was the sound of footsteps outside the door as the other inhabitants of the manor woke from their own slumber. The study doors flew open and Matron stood there, her face wan and pale from fright. She stepped towards me and enveloped me in a warm embrace that smelled faintly of vanilla.
“Go downstairs,” she told me shakily, “But be prepared for a grave scene.”
Numbly I did as she told me, momentarily removed from the grasp of fear, though trepidation and a nervous anticipation waged its own war inside me, gnawing at the edges of my mind. Servants sat in chairs, shock a distinct feature as they stood still and watched me go by. Warily I inhaled deeply through my nose, breathing in the emotions that filled this intense atmosphere: disgust, fear, pity, and above all self-preservation. The last one puzzled me, why did the servants fear for their lives within the safety of the estate, which was protected by the best of both magical and human means to deter all manner of intruders. Even Lurker was physically incapable of crossing the manor’s threshold, unless for some reason Samuel might choose to lift the barriers, but to remove the layers of spells took much time and hard work on Samuel’s part.
We had finally reached the entry hall, where the remnants of the servants’ emotions lingered and caused my stomach to churn as if I might be sick. I looked through the doorway, and watched as something like horror and sadness mingled together and came out among a sudden torrent of tears. Without thinking twice, I ran over and threw myself next to where the body now lay, and where my sister had been perhaps just a short while ago. That person was gone; now, all that remained was a motionless corpse.
I cried as I had never done before, I’ve never been so deep inside my emotions that it felt as if I were drowning in them, I just wanted to shut them off. My tears were lost in the slow drizzle that always clung to London’s sky. Was all the wealth and knowledge I had been promised and gained really worth the death of a family member, the only one who had ever bothered to get to know me? Guilt came over me in floods, and all my haunting childhood memories began to creep into my thoughts. What had once been a beautiful, smiling girl with golden blonde hair, suntanned skin, and freckles, was suddenly a ghost, lying cold and broken in front of me.
A biting wind came up as the rain worsened, it seemed to take away every doubt and fear that filled my mind, and I could fly away with it to someplace far, far away where death was a foreign idea. The bitter cold stung my already tear-stained face and the thin dress I wore did little to bring me warmth. Yet I was oddly relaxed, void of anything all my emotions had been taken away in that moment of deprivation, so I savored instead of sorrow this wonderful lack of feeling.
“Josephine!” a voice called from inside the house, and compelled me to turn to face them. All relaxation and thoughts of calm peace left in a second as I saw the face that belonged to the voice.
“I might have known it would be you to interrupt me in my time of grief,” I said in an oddly monotone voice. The way the rain seemed to pelt down onto the dead body reminded me of angel tears. As the rain hit the body, the blood slowly ebbed out and pooled in long slick trails on the already damp earth.
Samuel sighed and came to sit next to me, draping his coat across my thin shoulders. “I came to comfort you-”
“What for?” I laughed cynically, “Taking me away from me family?”
“I never forced you to leave,” he replied indignantly. Judging from the hurt look in his eyes my comment had wounded him. “If there was something I could do you know I would.”
Realization dawned on me. “Use your magic,” I automatically demanded. “Bring her back to life!”
“Look at her Josephine,” he spoke gravely. I looked down at her mutilated remains, not processing grief in the numbness that was my soul. “She wouldn’t be your sister, she’d be a monster.”
“Don’t say that word! Not about Margaret…” another lone tear fell from my eye to caress my cheek. “I’m the real monster.”
Inside though I knew he spoke the truth. “Oh well then, I suppose I’ll just have to kill you and be on my way.”
He stood and opened his arms wide, even handed me the dagger he always carried on his person. I clasped my fingers around the worn wooden handle, but just as I was about to throw it down in revulsion, he took hold of my hand and brought the dagger tip to his chest. Pressing it deeper towards his heart without even a grimace of pain, without even a bead of sweat upon his brow. A crimson stain blossomed on Samuel’s pristine white sleeping shirt, spreading slowly until I yelled for him to stop. His dark brown curly locks lay plastered to his head from the rain, which ran down his face in little rivulets.
“Why? I’d rather die than watch you turn into the one thing you always abominated,” he spoke calmly as if nothing were wrong.
My knees buckled and I fell to the ground, and Samuel knelt beside me. He was my rock, silent but comforting, and that was exactly what I needed. I wasn’t quiet anymore, inside or out. The storm still raged on, the wind blew the droplets of water hard against the side of the house, almost making it appear like a waterfall was streaming from the clouds. Each drop of water that collided with my skin stung, but it was oddly refreshing to feel the cool sensation of water against my hot face. I closed my eyes and listened to the tragic symphony the storm composed. The sound of the wind rustling the leaves that lay on the ground, the sounds of thunder clapping loudly above me, the rain pinking against the surfaces it collided with—it was a disaster that distracted me from what was happening.
On the other hand, I knew exactly where I was because there was a dead girl in the middle of everything. I was going to have to walk past her corpse on my way back inside, and I was going to have to look her in the face as I did, because to do anything else would be too…cold. She deserved better than that. I didn’t really want to be here. I approached her and crouched by her side for one last time. She looked different already: faded, wilted as I approached Margaret and knelt at her side. Surely that wasn’t a normal part of the process of human decay, but then again, there wasn’t anything normal about her death either, so that made sense. A short, dry laugh cut through the air around us as I realized the humor of that thought. Nothing about any of this should make sense, and yet…it did. . .
"I’m sorry this happened,” I mumbled. It felt weird, but I needed to do it. “I’m sorry this happened to you.”
I studied her soft face, her smooth hair, and her delicate hands. Anything and everything accept the gaping bloody hole in her chest where a heart should have been. If I spent too much time looking at that, I was going to lose it again.
“I’m sorry you died. I’m sorry I couldn’t help.” A servant started sobbing, but then was cut off, as though everyone realized that they were interrupting something important. “And I’m sorry that I never got a chance to truly love you as a sister should.
As I stood up I looked down at my hands and wished I saw blood on them - the real thing: all red, and thick, and warm, and sticky and forever in the way I knew would never wash off. I wished I could be scarred like that rather than by merely knowing that he had ripped her heart from her chest without actual proof of her connection to me. I wished I had the kind power that would make him sick every time he smelt copper and saw red. The kind of proof that would leave her outside as dead as the darkness I now saw reflected in her once happy eyes. Instead I was left knowing that he had hurt me along with her. He had ripped what remained of my own broken heart out along with hers. I wished I could take it back. Just a few minutes to undo what was now, and forever, done.
Ephesians 1:21 - Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come:
The doorbell rang and I heard the murmur of voices outside my door before Matron came in and started turning on lights and opening the drapes. A woman stood awkwardly in the doorway, presumably the seamstress judging by the trunks the servants had begun to carry in. I was not in the mood to pretend to be happy, and I knew Matron would not allow me to sulk if there was company, so I tried to pretend I was asleep and hoped they would just go away.
“You don’t fool me Josephine Aburn,” Matron scolded. “I know full well you’re awake and we’re not leaving until you let the seamstress take your measurements.”
I groaned and reluctantly got out of bed. ”Come right in! Thanks for ignoring the closed door and do not disturb sign; I only put it up out of boredom.”
“Don’t you take that tone with me, you’re not too big for me to bend you over my knee,” Matron threatened, and knowing her she fully intended to carry it out if need be.
Rather than take the time to argue with her I acted like a robot, raising my arms when I was told, turning this way and that, pretending to like something with ooh’s and aah’s. Matron could do what she wanted, and I would do what she told, but that still didn’t mean I had to enjoy it. When it was over and the seamstress left Matron ordered the servant to bring up drinks and sat down next to me on the edge of my bed. She gave me a hug, not because I asked for one, but because after years of raising Samuel she knew when someone needed a hug.
“Dear, maybe you should go home for a little while,” Matron rubbed my back in circles. “Tell your family what’s happened, I’m sure they’ve had no news.”
At first I refused, imagining too many horrible outcomes of visiting home. What if they never let me leave again. Eventually Matron told Samuel, and he said that it was about time we arranged a visit and even agreed to accompany me. And so we made the preparations for the trip, Samuel bought us two plane tickets and made reservations at a nice hotel in Boston. We left as soon as possible, and the whole trip over I spent my time worrying over how my family would react to seeing me again.
It has been two weeks since Margaret’s death and still my heart bleeds for the loss of my sister. Sorrow is a bitter drink that never ends; I have had my fair share of sorrow in these past few days. Today though marks a dark day indeed. My parents and I have not spoken in nigh over two years, now; our reunion will be over my sister's funeral arrangements. I worry that things will have not changed, and my family will scorn their estranged daughter. I never thought I would have the strength to visit this place again, the beaten down grey house has not changed in the time of my absence. It still holds a certain air of destitution. For a moment I felt eerily trapped between the past and the present, the memories tearing me apart from the inside out into little pieces without any mercy. Maybe I shouldn’t have come back; the wound was still too fresh, too painful. My father loathed my very existence; one memory is burned forever in even the recesses of my mind.
All I saw as I was thrown into the dark, damp basement was the shadow of a tall, threatening man who towered over me. I yelped and whimpered, partly in fear and partly in pain. I had lost so much blood that I was close to blacking out, I was covered in bruises and cuts and blood that was starting to harden. I whimpered more as I felt the cold stone floor against my skin and felt the sting of dirt in my open wounds.
“Now bloody stay in there… you deserve to rot in here you low life” the man spat at her before the heavy iron door was shut with a loud bang that seemed to echo through the cellar.
There were footsteps leading away from me before there was complete silence, it was almost an eerie, ominous silence. I desperately looked around the dungeon I was trapped in. It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust to the dark. Finally I could see the outlines of cold black stones, the walls were stained with splattered blood and there were chains dangling from the ceiling, walls and floor. As I continued to look around the room I let out a muffled scream as I saw what remained of her earlier punishments. I immediately backed away from it, cowering in the corner of the dungeon… my blood had dried up in all corners of the homemade cell, it almost looked as though it was a torture chamber made from my worst nightmares.
I shuddered at the vile memory that caused bile to rise in my throat. In the days of my childhood innocence –short as they may be- my father’s inherent lack of sobriety, the arguing of my parents late into the night, the physical and psychological abuse that was imposed on me daily, all left scars that show more that any mark or blemish upon one’s skin. I wear my scars proudly, for they show that I have weathered through the worst and come out alive. Thinking back on this, I had hoped to set out for myself and never return to these people that call themselves family. Bruises and scars transcend the physical violence normally associated with them, as I remember the many times I spent doctoring a new wound. These people forever changed the way I think and feel, changing me from a helpless child into a strong independent woman, but it is still challenging for me to form lasting bonds of trust or friendship.
No two people think alike, such as the timeless contrast of right or wrong, bad or good, night or day. Some say there are shades of darkness, that no one is truly “white”, pure, but in the end how you live and die affect your ultimate spiritual resting place whether it is heaven or hell. Personally, I believe there is no option for me other than Hell, due to something that wasn’t even my choice: my birth. Still though, who truly wants to live a life without happiness or joy of any kind, for that is the kind of life a demon lives. I want to be someone who inspires the good in people, but how can I do that when my very nature is the very epitome of evil?
This place held so many memories, some bad and some… nope all bad. There was no turning back now though. Warily I knocked on the door, prepared for the confrontation that was soon due to erupt. A bedraggled woman with stringy blonde hair held up in a wrap, carrying a babe upon her hip, opened the door. A musty odor drifted out from the house, as if its inhabitants had not bathed in many weeks.
"Can I help you?" The woman asked impatiently as the child she was carrying furrowed its brow and threatened to cry.
I wouldn't have recognized this tired, worn down woman as my stepmother if not for a scar on her arm from one of my father's drunken stupors. "It's me Claudine. Aren't you going to invite us in?"
We being Samuel and I, she called for my half-brother Luke. He was only thirteen when I left, but in two years he has grown into a handsome young man.
"Where is Father, out drinking again?" I asked nonchalantly.
Claudine's features twisted into a grimace of hate. "Dead, not that it's any business of yours devil child."
I composed my face into a mask of indifference. "Good to know the world is rid of another useless lay about.”
She raised her free hand to slap me, but was stopped by none other than Luke, who met her glare with his own steely gray blue eyes. “Go inside Mother, I’ll deal with our guests.”
With a grunt of displeasure Mother left, and with her went the smell of filth that had been aggressing our senses. Luke straitened his faded green vest, which had seen better days and was threadbare in some spots. His eyes were that of our father’s line, but in every other way he resembled my monster of a stepmother. We stood there staring at each other for a time until Samuel interrupted.
“Samuel Rivaon,” he said with an outstretched hand, “Pleased to make your acquaintance…”
“Luke Aburn,” he replied with relative pleasantness before turning to me again with a guarded expression his voice was tight and unfamiliar, it had a cold edge that no one other than I would understand. “Understand this Josephine, Margaret is missing and mother is not in the best of moods at the moment. Maybe wait a couple days for a reunion; I’m sure Margaret would want to see you anyway. It’s been awhile.”
My head fell and a curtain of raven hair that shrouded him from my vision as I was momentarily come over by melancholy. “Only two years.”
“Two years isn’t a short amount of time Josephine,” he growled. Samuel apparently could tell this wasn’t going to be the nicest conversation and decided it would be a good decision to move away from the powerful half demon and her tall, angry brother.
“Margaret’s dead Luke, her heart cut out,” I finally admitted to the boy that towered over me, “They dropped her on my doorstep in the middle of the night.”
“This isn’t the time to be making up stories Josephine; Margaret’s disappearance is a serious matter. Her baby and husband are here, what if he heard you say such things?” I had never heard his voice tremble before; the emotion was beyond description. My heart lifted up into my throat, unable to say anything. I knew we would come to this point someday, but I hadn't expected it this soon.
I scowled at him indignantly. “I would not make fun of such things lightly brother, you would do well to heed my words.”
Momentarily belief shone in his eyes before being replaced by resolute skepticism. Angrily I turned on my heel, grabbing Samuel’s arm and dragging him behind me as well, leaving Luke sputtering apologies behind us. The midday sun beat down heavily on us, and after a few minutes of walking I slowed down and glanced around at our surroundings, which were bleak at best. The fishing wharves stank of the sea, a smell which although typically very pleasant, was in this case vile. An ocean breeze wafted up and the answering tinkling of wind chimes caught my attention. The shop of a fortune teller sat, seemingly abandoned. From the docks sailors looked at our nice clothes and began to close in on us as if we were prey. Lurker pointer towards the shop with the edge of a cloak, Samuel followed my gaze and both of us rushed to reach the safety of the shop before we were overcome. Quickly we opened the door and Lurker remained outside. Protection spells? In a cheap fortune telling shop?
The inside of the shop was draped in billowing silks, the shelves lined with jars of the oddest specimens that caused shivers to run down my spine. We walked through a small hallway that seemed to press in on us from both sides. Though not one to spook easily, I took hold of Samuel’s arm and kept close to his side, he looked down at me with a boyish grin and I gave him a look that said: don’t get any ideas. Voices drifted to our ears, one heavily accented.
“Mordecai,” a woman said edgily as if sensing our arrival, “I understand why someone of your background would be frustrated being stuck here, but there is nothing I can do right now. Also, I believe I have customers that just arrived.”
I didn’t understand why she put so much emphasis on the word “customers”, but I was without time to puzzle over it as we rounded the corner and entered a dark room lighted only by a candle that sat upon a round, ornate table. The woman had ebony skin that glowed in the candlelight; a large, colorful skirt billowed around her and jingled from the fake coins sewn around the edges. She tended to sashay rather than simply walk. A chunis was wrapped around her head and shoulders, thick kurdi adorned her ankles, and henna stained the palms of her hands. She was entrancing in an exotic way and radiated power. The man she had been talking to stood in the corner, but shadows masked his features and obscured him from our vision.
Samuel stepped forward. “Forgive the intrusion ma’am my friend and I were searching for safety from some ruffians outside.”
“It’s no problem at all sir,” she replied with a genuine smile, “Would you still like your fortunes read though?”
At this question I spoke up for the both of us. “That would be wonderful ma’am if it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all. My name is Amina; please have a seat so that we may proceed.” We sat and Amina spun around to look at me. “Which medium would you like to use?”
For a warlock, Samuel seemed very sceptical of a fortune teller. “What are our options?”
“The Fates are not very open, but to those with the Gift, there are many ways of divining the future. I could read your palms, tarot cards, astrology, crystal ball. It’s up to you.”
“Well I could use a good cup of tea, I’m British after all.” Samuel’s words practically dripped with sarcasm. Either Amina didn’t notice or in her profession she was used to a certain degree of scepticism.
Purposefully she went about the room, disappearing into the back for a little bit to put the kettle on the stove to boil.
“You’re being rude,” I chastised.
Samuel shrugged as though he was unconcerned either way. “Most of these people are either fakes or have hardly any magic. What’s the worst case scenario? Some quack is a little upset by some stuck up kid.”
I would have kept after him about it, but Amina came back with an old copper tea kettle and a jar of tea leaves. She poured Samuel a cup, and offered me one. Normally I didn’t drink tea, it was too bitter for me. I preferred coffee with a ton of sugar and creamer in it, but since I’d just lectured Samuel on manners I accepted. I tried to keep from grimacing at the awful taste, apparently Amina didn’t skimp on the leaves. This wasn’t the weak breakfast tea I was used too, but strong and with a coppery tang left over from the kettle. Samuel looked over at me from the brim of his cup and winked.
“Do you have any milk or sugar?” I asked as nicely as I could.
“The tea has to be drunk by itself or it interferes with the divination process,” Amina informed me.
Grimacing a little, I quieted and managed to finish the cup. Definitely not one of the more pleasant aspects of my day, but better than having to tell my family about my sister. Unlike me, Samuel preferred to enjoy his cup of tea, taking long leisurely sips. Finally he finished also, and set down his empty cup on the table, looking like the cat that got the cream.
After examining Samuel’s cup carefully, she gave us her prediction. “There is a large clump of leaves near the handle, which could either mean the trouble is caused by your own making, or the trouble is not your fault.”
“We’ve already had our fair share of trouble for the day,” Samuel replied. “Did you find anything else?”
Despite what he had said about “quacks”, I got the feeling that Samuel was testing her. “There is a trap ahead, it is unclear whether you will escape or not. There will be quarrels that lead to enmity. You must think before you act, and at the end of it all, if you make the right choices there will only be a slight chance of success. Throughout it you will want to give up, but if you do all will be lost.”
“Well I must say, normally fortune tellers all spout different forms of: good luck, happiness, ect.”
No matter he said, amina seemed immune to his sly digs, and picked up my cup instead. “Your friend’s leaves are all muddled, I can’t read them.”
She grasped my hand suddenly and forcefully, so I looked down at hers. A tiny black heart was tattooed on the side of her ring finger, along with lace around her wrist, –my gaze drifted upward to look at the rest of her tattoos- an infinite symbol on her palm, the tree of life on the inside of her arm, an hourglass on her collarbone, and a tiny crescent moon behind her right earlobe. These were the ones I could see, and though on any other person they might seem unconventional they seemed to fit her personality, making them truly a part of her. Her pupils became enlarged as her grip on my hand tightened into a viselike hold, I gasped as a vision overcame me and I was plunged into a dream of sorts.
I was hanging from a rope. The rope extends infinitely upward and I know that hell lies below me, though I can't see in either direction due to darkness and thick fog. Desperate to get away from demons that circle me like I’m some wounded animal, I climb up the rope as best I can, but eventually the soles of my feet wear away and my palms become slippery with blood from the frayed edges of the rope that rub and burn my skin. After one final effort at hauling myself up, I feel myself slipping and scream in despair sets in and I fall to hell and the vicious demons that wait for me…
“You are a living, breathing impossibility. Heaven and Hell fight for power within you, in the blood that courses through your veins.”
“What a wonderful surprise,” says the man in the corner as he removes himself from the shadows which seem reluctant to release him.
His hair is black as pitch, and his eyes a fathomless abyss as they threaten to hold me captive in their sinful gaze. The man called Mordecai intrigues me, from him I feel a sort of kinship, as if we’re connected for some reason. He smiles at me; his teeth seem more pointed than normal. This gesture of his, which should have set me at ease, confirmed my suspicions, that Mordecai was a demon and that he piqued my curiosity. I quickly buried these feelings before they betrayed me, after all I had spent the past two weeks burying my emotions just to get by. What was one more? He reminded me of Vitium, at ease in the darkness and sinister in an oddly acceptable way for me.
“A little far from home aren’t you?” I asked in an appearance of calm, shaking hands betraying my innate nervousness.
“I could say the same about you, pretty little thing that you are,” he teased in a way that set me on edge as I analyzed his words for any underlying meaning.
He stepped closer to me until we were uncomfortably close and loomed over me in an overbearing fashion that made me straighten my back and glower at him. In my mind I called out to Vitium, who when not by my side tended to go off to feed or cause trouble as was his nature. He appeared at once to protect me, sensing the dangerous presence of Mordecai. At the arrival of Vitium, Mordecai stepped back and gave me more room. I stood so as not to allow him to think his tactics had intimidated me.
“Handsome hellhound you’ve got there Josephine,” Mordecai commented while looking at me with his wicked eyes. “Not a lot like him left in this world.”
“Who are you?”
“Well since you eavesdropped on our conversation you already know who I am,” he replied at once. “A better question might be who are you?”
“Josephine Aburn,” I allowed unenthusiastically, sensing that even this small bit of information gave him power over me.
“Did you know there’s a bloodreaper waiting outside the door Amina?” Mordecai said while gravitating toward her side. “Wouldn’t want it getting past your defenses would you?”
She stood at once in a flurry of motion as she rose amongst her colorful skirts like a blooming flower. With every movement came grace as if she were dancing. Amina moved back towards the front of the shop and we followed behind her rather than remain sitting awkwardly in her reading chamber. The front door was quickly thrown open to reveal Lurker standing outside patiently, waiting for me.
“You mean that?” I asked while gesturing in Lurker’s direction, confused by both the situation and why Amina seemed so frightened.
“That’s laughable darling,” Mordecai said with a sneer. “They appear as black, hooded figures with glowing red eyes. The sleeves of their cloaks glide on the ground, concealing their six-inch steel-like claws. They hunt anyone and everything, and killing is like a drug to them. When they hunt, they will corner one person or animal to overwhelm it with numbers. then they slice it open, so much that it's more wound than flesh, and spill it's blood out until it's white and dry as marble. Next, they snap every bone in their prey's body and suck out the marrow. And when there's hardly anything left but skin, then they kill it.”
Lurker stood there motionless as if it hung onto Mordecai’s every word same as the rest of us. I looked at it, comparing it to Mordecai’s detailed description. To me though, what he said seemed false, as though what he was really doing was warning the Lurker, telling it to go away.
“Why hasn’t he ever hurt me then?” I questioned stubbornly, “”I’ve been seeing him for years now.”
Mordecai gave me a searching glance before replying. “You’re half demon. It was probably scared to attack you in case you were too strong.”
“Even when I was unaware of my powers?” I asked dubiously not convinced much by his reasoning even if it was true where he came from.
Amina stepped between us to act as mediator. “It doesn’t matter why or why not Josephine hasn’t been attacked. The fact of the matter is that this creature is too dangerous to leave alive.”
“I don’t even see what everyone’s talking about,” Samuel mumbled almost incoherently under his breath. Even with his magic, Lurker had always remained invisible to him, and Samuel had conducted many spells to try to uncover him. After all, the thought that something could transcend his magic was inconceivable to him.
Everyone stared at me like I was some sort of anomaly. “Do you have a death wish?” Mordecai asked irritably. “Because if so I assure you there are better ways to go and I‘ve experienced most of the more gruesome ones.”
I glared at the demon standing before me. “I think there’s something we’re missing and I’m not going to give Lurker a death sentence until there’s proof it will hurt me.”
Mordecai threw up his arms in exasperation at my words. “Of course, she named it!”
For a moment we stood there and did nothing, even those who claimed they knew what was under the cloak were too frightened to lift the hood.
“Mistress Amina! Mistress Amina! People came out of the basement!” called a young girl with plain brown hair that sprung out in every which way from her braid, which was in a disarray all its own.
Amina sighed as if preparing herself for a battle. “Yes Rew what is it?” she looked back at us and explained, “My apprentice.”
The girl looked a little uncertain about relaying her news out in the open, from her I sensed that she was eager to please Amina and didn’t want to make more mistakes. She chewed on her bottom lip in nervousness; Amina was enduring though and did not pressure her, proving that she was a fine mentor for Rew.
“Why don’t we continue this conversation inside?” Amina allowed in Rew’s continued silence. “My shield will keep it from following us and I doubt that after twenty years the creature is going to end its hunt.”
We returned to the main chamber where Amina’s guests sat patiently waiting for her to return. A young man and two women, each couldn’t be more different to the one next to them. The woman on the left was a woman with flinty eyes and various scars. She kept her hair short and dressed lightly save perhaps for a fine silver chain mail over her chest. To her left was a spry young lad with unkempt brown curly hair and dark blue eyes, he seemed shy but definitely not a pushover. I narrowed my eyes when I looked at him, something about him seemed familiar, I just couldn’t put my finger on it. The last woman was a gypsy dressed gaudily in bright colored clothes and lots of jewelry, and carrying a strange box. The last was obviously the oldest of the group, but the first woman seemed to be the unspoken leader what with her hard nature.
The woman with the box stood with as much grace as Amina and grasped forearms with her. “It is good to see you again my friend.”
“Always a pleasure to see how well you have worn through the ages Wren,” Amina replied with a grin. “What brings you and your companions to London on such short notice? It’s not like you to act in this way without planning or much consideration.”
Wren laughed at this, “Dear Amina you give me too much credit. I am still a gypsy at heart, nothing I do is with deep pondering, and I simply follow my emotions as I always have.”
“Let us skip through the pleasantries and get to the heart of the matter Wren,” said the flinty voice of the woman in the corner. “This place reeks of demons and I believe we should make haste and be on our way as soon as possible, I don‘t like leaving Thomas in charge of the Order.”
The smile slipped off of Wren’s face as she looked around with a panicked air before turning to Amina. “What Thalia says is true my friend, this is not a meeting for small talk, the news we bring is…troubling.”
“Because we haven’t had enough of that recently,” I said with biting sarcasm. “Why don’t we just get it over with so we can all leave?”
Wren eyed me suspiciously perhaps questioning my presence. “This is not my story to share,” she nods toward the quiet boy. “Jeremiah would you care to explain?”
Jeremiah rose hastily, nearly knocking over the table at which he was seated, he absentmindedly ran a hand through his disorderly hair and took a deep breath as if steeling himself to stand before us. He looked up and our eyes met, causing a blush to flourish on his freckled cheeks. Personally I found his clumsiness endearing, not stupid. I checked myself, first I found a demon attractive and now this human boy, perhaps my emotions were not as buried as I would have liked to believe. Then the boy pushes aside the hair that was covering his face, and I nervously glance away before we make eye contact. When he finally looks up to address the group he sounds more confident and self-assured.
“We were in Cornwall, dropping off some merchandise. Thalia and Wren were setting up camp in the woods, so I decided to go exploring.” He began.
While I continued to listen to his account of where they found it and what happened, I try to avoid looking him straight in the eye. However, I was not unaware of the heat of his gaze on my face, so I turned my back on him and walked to the back of the room. I hate myself for being so weak, and so I try to tune back into the conversation.
“In the middle of the forest sat this box. I opened it, and inside was a heart and a curse. A curse laid down especially for a Josephine Aburn.”
I stared at him coolly not letting my inner turmoil show past an impassive façade that I used so often to create an illusion of distance. “What did this curse say?”
“The child born of heaven and hell will rise to conquer her enemy. The empire of the heavens is invaded by the denizens of the underworld. The duchess of lies will court the baron of deceit. A time of death and sorrow will follow a young woman in her journey for knowledge.” Jeremiah recited word for word that which the man had said in my dream the night of Margaret’s death.
“Thank you Jeremiah,” I say while placing a hand on his shaking frame. For a boy he was unnaturally shy and flinched from my touch, “I appreciate you bringing me this news.”
“That’s all you have to say?” Mordecai questions slightly amused and befuddled at the same time.
I shrug with indifference. “What more is there to say? Obviously this person has a vendetta against me and will attempt to exact some sort of attack. The only thing I can do is prepare myself and hope that luck is on my side.”
“Are you ready to go Josephine?” Samuel asks, offering me his arm –ever the gentleman-, I take it with a smile as we depart from the company of Amina’s shop.
When we got outside I expected to see Lurker waiting for me, but it was gone. Oddly this hurt me, but all things considered there was a good chance it was stalking me for the opportunity to kill me so… I got over that notion pretty fast.
Back at the hotel we took turns with the shower and then climbed into our separate beds. I closed my eyes and wondered if maybe Mordecai was right. He was after all a full-blooded demon and probably knew more about it than I did. That was the last thought in my mind as I drifted off into peaceful nothingness.