Character Interview: Stori

Caiti Marie:

Athelas Hale interviewed Stori on her writing blog, Red Lettering. Check it out, and be sure to look around at her other posts.

Originally posted on Red Lettering:

Happy Tuesday, readers. Today I have the pleasure of introducing to you Stori, Companion to Hope Hunter in Caiti Marie’s (who happens to be my awesome sister) episodic Saturday Stori.

Hello, Stori! Welcome to Red Lettering. I’m honored that you were willing to answer some questions. I know you’re very busy–something about saving the world?–so I’ll make it brief.

To start with, could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Stori: *stills, staring into space as she considers the question, then gives a quick laugh* I’m sorry. I don’t introduce myself very often. My name… *forehead wrinkles* You know my name. Well… *quiets for a moment* I was born in Rivervale. You’ve probably not heard of it— It was a tiny village nestled in the South of the Liliwhit Mountains. I am Companion to Hope Hunter, a girl from earth I met a little over eleven years ago.

Actually, I have…

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The Future of Stori

Before I began Season Two of Saturday Stori, I posted on this blog asking for my readers’ opinions about the series; whether they wanted me to continue it, and what changes I should make. When I began to write the first episodes of Season Three, I did not even consider, more than briefly, doing something like that. I probably should have.

This is an official announcement to say there will be no Saturday Stori on Saturday, February 22. And if I got my date wrong, and February 22 is not a Saturday, then this is an official announcement to say that there will be no Saturday Stori on the Saturday immediately after today. I need to take a step back and re-evaluate the story…

Okay. Not really. I actually have re-evaluated the story, a couple thousand times. Now I just need to decide what to do with it. So while I think deep thoughts and try to decide on the future of Saturday Stori — what place it needs to take now, whether I will post it anymore, and if I do, what I will change — The series itself will be suspended. This may mean not only this week, but next week as well— Unless I decide to cancel it, in which case, it will be mean from this week on, to eternity. If readers have any suggestions, or comments, or questions about the series, I would be most grateful to hear them.

Until then, go find something better to read. :)

Edit 03/03/2014: “Saturday Stori: Hope Hunter” has been cancelled. Thank you all for the interest and support you have shown since July 27, 2012, when the first episode of Saturday Stori was published.

Saturday Stori: Hope Hunter, Episode Twenty-Eight

Sweet perfume tinged the air that swept through the hall of trees. Stori pressed her hand to the wound in her side, pressed her lips together, and pressed her toes into the dark, dark soil.

She had known she would find Tamal. Everyone does. She had not known she would find her so quickly.

Stretching before Stori, the trees formed the walls of a vast hall, arching in and meeting at the center like the apex of a roof. It ended in the dark mouth of a cave wreathed in flowers. Filtering through the branches of the trees, the light painted the hall hazy green. Neither remarkably dark, nor remarkably light, but remarkably beautiful. The air buzzed with Tamal’s perfume.

Pulling her collar up over her mouth, Stori took a breath of the barely-filtered air. She may as well get this over with.

She took a step. Spinning wildly for half a second, the world contracted and dropped her in front of Tamal’s cave. The hall of trees that once stretched before her now stretched behind her, as if in impudent declaration that she could not easily escape. Exhaling grimly, she faced the cave.

“Tamal.”

Without the softness of manners, her voice sounded harsh and dangerous in her own ears. Good. Let Tamal think she was threatening her.

“You came.” A breathy laugh broke Tamal’s words, like a wind through the branches of the trees. “I thought you did not like me.”

Stori growled. “You know I don’t like you, and you knew I was coming. Are you coming out to speak to me, or do I have to flood your cave and come in myself?”

Water would rinse the air of Tamal’s stench, and drown the flowers that filled the air with perfume. Creating such a flood would also drain Stori’s energy more than was safe, but Tamal did not need to know that.

After a pause, a breeze wafted out of the cave. “I will come to the entrance, that we may speak.”

“Joy.”

The entrance to the cave was still empty, still shrouded in deep green darkness. Tamal laughed again. “You seem rather bad-tempered today, Warrioress.”

The title brought back a flood of memories it took an effort to quash. Stori fought to keep her expression smooth. “What do you expect? I’m talking to a witch.”

Tamal stepped into the light, her hair loose around her face, pretty mouth stretched in a grim line. “I am no witch, Genoveva.”

“Not technically,” Stori said. Genoveva. Another name from the distant past. What was Tamal trying to do? “But I’m being polite.”

Softly, her voice like a breath of wind barely forming words, Tamal said, “To be polite would be to step into my castle.”

“No thanks.” Scowling, Stori pressed her hand harder against her wound, focusing on the pain to keep her head clear. Tamal’s scent was overpowering. How could most people not smell that? “I want your help, Tamal.”

The wind coming from the cave swirled Tamal’s dark skirt around her legs. She arched her eyebrows, reaching two slender fingers toward Stori’s face. “The Thïl bi Pita needs my help?”

Jerking back, though Tamal showed no inclination to actually touch her face, Stori widened her eyes. “Stop that.”

A wrinkled appeared between Tamal’s eyebrows. “Stop what, Morwyn y Llyn?”

That.” Stori kicked the dirt, gouging a hole with her toes. “Stop calling me by dead names.”

“They are your names, Riona, are they not?”

Were.” So many names, so many stories, so many mistakes. Why did Tamal think it necessary to bring them up? The witch.

“Past, present, and future are all alike to me,” Tamal said.

Stori opened her mouth to reply, then shut it tightly. Tamal would not listen, anyway, and Stori did not have time.

“Az is free,” Stori said.

Her brow marred by soft wrinkles, Tamal dipped her head. “Yes.”

“I need to find Hope,” Stori said. “And Jed.”

“Why Hope?”

The question made Stori stop. For a second, she felt like the world had stilled; Why Hope? Why, when every world was in danger and she needed help to stop the man who could destroy them, did she want to find Hope? Hope could not help. Hope would not quietly sharpen her sword, gather an army of heroes, and stand between a villain and the innocents. Hope would run. Hope would hide. Even if Stori wanted to protect Hope, protect the little girl she had chosen to care for all those years ago, did that justify endangering every world by taking the time to find her?

“That,” Stori said, “is none of your business, witch.”

Eyebrows arching the slightest bit, Tamal nodded. “As you wish, Amaranthine—”

“Don’t.” Stori clenched her hands into fists. “Just tell me how to find them.”

“Do not assume I will help you, Hishaa.”

“Do not assume I won’t kill you, Tamal.”

Tamal’s lips quirked. “It is hardly a dangerous assumption on my part.”

Stori bit down on an acerbic comment. Of course her threat would not intimidate a seer. Stori made an effort to keep her voice pleasant. “Will you help me?”

For a moment, Tamal gazed at her through half-closed eyes, her chin lifted as if she were looking down on Stori— Something that would not be hard to do, as Tamal was at least a foot taller than Stori.

Exhaling the words with a gust of perfume, Tamal said, “I will.”

Before Stori could be relieved, Tamal spoke again. “If you take me with you.”

Stori froze. “What?”

“I will lead you to the proper gateway,” Tamal said. “As I cannot tell you with certainty where it is, there is no other way. After I do, you will take me with you wherever you go until such time as I wish to leave you.”

Stori wanted to shake her head— To draw herself up to her full height, tighten every muscle in her body, and say, I most certainly will not!

The look on Tamal’s face stopped her. The dainty eyebrows slightly lifted, lips pursed in a straight line— No doubt Tamal was serious and stubborn. Without Tamal’s help, finding Hope and Jed would take longer, if Stori managed it at all.

Lord, give me patience.

“Why?” Stori asked, half because she wanted to know, half to give herself time to think.

“I am bound to my castle,” Tamal said. “To step more than a decided distance from it will condemn me to a life of loneliness; I will see no one, hear no one, feel no one,  sense no one, but the two people who hold my life. I hardly wish to return alone, never knowing who I will meet and never see.” For a moment, her voice softened. “I have many enemies, Mary.”

Two comments came to mind, both of which Stori swallowed down. “If you can’t see or hear me—”

“Ah.” Tamal smiled. “I had thought of that.” Lifting her left wrist like a child displaying a bracelet, Tamal drew Stori’s attention to a thin vine tied around her arm, with a two-foot section left dangling like a leash on a dog’s collar. “You shall have to lead me as though I am blind, an affliction you no doubt wish upon me. This only after I have finished leading you, of course.”

The thought made Stori’s stomach roil. Bad enough that she should have to come to Tamal for help and follow her; now Tamal wanted to accompany Stori wherever she went after that? The lead on the vine did not allow for enough room between them. Stori never wanted to be that close to Tamal, not for any reason. And to travel with her, for who-knew-how-long?

Yet Stori had to find Jed, to make sure he was alive and well, and to serve him in whatever way was necessary to have Az chained once more. Seeking him herself would waste time she did not have.

“All right,” Stori said, growling out the words. “It’s a deal.”

* * *

Sounds of rapid steps, urgent scuffling, gun shots, and strained voices pounded into the Lieutenant’s head. Here, on the wall where the fighting had paused, was perhaps the quietest place in the compound, yet to the man of silence and few words, the sound was overwhelming.

“Lieutenant!”

Pivoting away from the short wall over which he could see the approaching enemy, the Lieutenant faced the young, breathless messenger standing in the flickering light of the torches. Torches to replace the electric lights they did not have power to keep on.

“The attack on the west is breaking through,” the messenger said. His eyes showed wide, and fear flickered in time with the light. “Captain Aikin said we need more men.”

The words— repeated so many times over the past hour— fell hard on his ears. From the side, a woman shoved a clipboard at the Lieutenant, illuminating the paper with a flashlight. The Lieutenant flicked his gaze over it, glad for something to distract him from the messenger waiting impatiently for an answer. What could he say? There were no more men.

Guns popped, and the Lieutenant instinctively dropped to a crouch, still sweeping his gaze over the number on the paper. Simple numbers in carefully organized lines, indicating the amount of energy and materials it would take to fix the portals in the Passages room. It could as well have been a death certificate.

At the bottom, someone had scrawled a note. “We could call in all Companions from the battleground, and they might be able to hold them open while the women and children go through.”

Might. Every idea had the word might.

“Lieutenant?”

Handing the clipboard back to the waiting woman, the Lieutenant looked up at the messenger. “Return to your post.”

No answer meant no admission. Not that anyone doubted their lack of men.

Without waiting for the messenger to leave, the Lieutenant faced the enemy. On this side of the compound, the builders had put a crenelated stone wall which ended six feet from the ceiling. If the Lieutenant looked to either side, he could see an endless row of men and women, most of them too young to fight. They stood with rifles poised in the crenels, or knelt while reloading, or leaned against the wall with their guns propped against the stones next to them. The Lieutenant wondered if they knew how lucky they were, to be in this section of Defense. To have a moment to breath.

“Lieutenant.”

He recognized the voice well enough to tense before he turned. Arta, older than she had been this morning and pale as pale, stood a few feet behind him, beckoning him into the shelter of the stairway overhang.

“I won’t tell you to surrender,” she said when they both stood out of earshot of the defenders. “But you should consider defeat.”

The Lieutenant tightened his jaw. He had. Trapped in their own city, out of power, out of men, without the force to break through the endless army blocking their exits— How could he consider anything but defeat?

He was not fool enough to expect mercy, but even so, surrender was starting to sound like a good idea. Perhaps the women and girls would be spared.

He felt Arta looking at him, and could guess her thoughts: Jed could hold the city.

The Lieutenant was not Jed.

“Arta,” he said, lowering his voice so no one would hear them over the noise of stalled battle. “You’re wise.”

“I’m old,” she said. “It’s not the same thing.”

Lifting his head, he glanced over the people fighting to the protect their homes and families— This was a lull, but in a few moments, there would be another wave of men with ladders or explosives, and so much for their wall. His throat constricted. What could he do? They were lost.

“Won’t spare the men or boys,” he said. For a moment, that was all, all that he could put into words. He jerked his gaze back to Arta. “If there’s no hope—”

“Lieutenant,” Arta said, sharply. “You better not say it.”

“What else is there?”

The stress and effort of the past few hours or days— he did not know how long it had been— hung on his shoulders like leaden weights. His eyes burned from lack of sleep, his mouth dry from lack of water. His emotions were a dry husk, burned by a fire that rivaled the one Jed, through his Companion gift, could produce.

“Can’t win,” he said, and his voice was ragged. “Don’t dare lose. Why the…”

“Hang on.” Slipping her hand into his, Arta clasped his wrist with the strength of a warrior, looking straight through his eyes and into his soul. “This will end. It will pass. You know how it ends, fool. This passes.

Her words jogged a memory, and he whispered, gazing into space. “Weight of glory…”

“Doesn’t compare.”

Slowly, he drew a breath, a breath of blood-and-sweat-tinged air. “Surrender’s not an option.”

“Fine.” Arta said. “Pull back.”

He looked at her.

“You can’t hold the city forever,” she said, speaking quick, clipped words. “Too many ways in. Too many wide open gates. Pull everyone back to the Old Fort, surrender the city, and pray.”

The Old Fort was a section of the city built ages before the rest, meant as a refuge in troubled times. It could be sealed off from the rest of the city, and contained a well— but no storehouse, as that section of the compound was now used as a residential section. It was tiny compared to the rest of the compound. Compared to the number of people still in the city.

“They will fit,” he said, thinking through the numbers. “Barely.”

And then what? Close themselves in and wait for help? And if the enemy had bombs?

Sweeping his gaze over the tired, dirty people pressed against the wall, the Lieutenant made his decision.

“Gather food,” the Lieutenant said. He pushed Arta toward the entrance. “Twenty minutes.”

Twenty minutes. And from there, they needed a miracle.

Saturday Stori: Hope Hunter, Episode Twenty-Seven

James had never seen a house so empty.

He stood frozen in the kitchen, the key held loose in his hand, listening to the steady dripping of the Hunter’s leaky faucet. This was insane. He should have had Ivon come in here.

Shaking his head, he shoved the key into his pocket. If Ivon had been the one to come in, it would have been illegal entry; it was probably illegal as it was, but since the Hunters had given James’s dad a key to their back door when they had gone on vacation a few months ago, James at least had unofficial permission to enter. Moving quietly, he closed the door leading to the garage and started toward Hope’s room.

Everything was achingly quiet. No television played game shows in the living room, no argument about dishes drifted in from the kitchen, no laughter filled Hope’s bedroom. In spite of the heat that ruled the outdoors, the house was almost frigid. Mrs. Hunter must have been kidnapped during the night, when she always turned the thermostat down below the temperature normal people could stand.

As he stepped into the living room, he faltered. Something dark stained the arm of the couch, where just a few days ago he had sat and talked to Hope. “You know,” he had said, “We may have known the same Arta after all.”

He curled his fingers into a fist. He should have told her. Right then and there, he should have explained about the crystals, about the underground city and the Companions and Arta, instead of letting himself be driven away by the incredulity in Hope’s eyes and the biting pain of memory. He should have warned her, before he left, about the people who collect crystals like the people of early America collected scalps. Would it have made a difference if he had? If he had talked to her, rather than become angry because she was being foolish?

Tightening his jaw, he stepped around the couch and went down the hall, stopping at the door of Hope’s room. Nothing had changed. Her bed still stood in disarray, the pink comforter she always insisted was too childish hanging half-off the bed. Peeking from behind the comforter, the shirt she had worn the day before her birthday was tangled in a pile of other dirty clothes. Hope’s smell hung on the air, a mixture of sweat, violet-and-sweet-pea-scented deodorant, and the half-perfume, half-must scent of the Hunter household. Tears stung at his eyes. Just a few days ago, Hope Hunter had been here and safe. Where was she now, and how long had it been for her?

One thing had changed. Just outside Hope’s window stood a young man who looked exactly like James but for the white pupils.

Sucking in a breath, James crossed the room and opened the window. He had to stay in the present, think more about what he could do now than what he should have done then.

“Did you find anything?” Ivon asked.

James shook his head. “I just got in here.” Stepping to the side so he would not have to put his back to Ivon, James turned and scanned the room. Even if Hope had left some clue as to where she went or how they could find the man who had kidnapped her, how was James supposed to find it? Organization had never been her strong point.

Ivon cleared his throat. “What’s that?”

James followed his gaze. On Hope’s desk sat a pink book, the color worn off the corners.

“A journal?” Ivon asked.

“I don’t think she keeps a journal,” James said, crossing the room to the desk. “But let’s see.”

The book felt heavy in his hand. He paused a second, holding the journal in one hand, his other hovering over the cover. Should he open it? He was already doing something barely legal. Snooping in Hope’s journal was not only an invasion of privacy, it was unethical.

Gritting his teeth, he flipped the book open to the first page. It was half-filled with a large, childish print.

“Dear Stori,
Mom bot me this journal for my birthday. She sed I shood right every day. I told her I wood right to you. She laffed. I haf to go.”

James stared at the words. “It is a journal.” Hope wrote to Stori?

“Does it say anything about… About the red-haired man?” Ivon asked.

“It’s old. This entry is from almost eight years ago,” James said. He flipped through the book until he found the last page. As he read silently, a knot settled in the pit of his stomach.

“Dear Stori,

“I don’t know why I’m writing to you. Logic and everything I have ever known tell me that you are a fantasy. But this crystal beside me on the desk… Could it really be a gift from you? Could all of this—all my dreams and the strange way James was acting— be related to you? Could you be real? I’m so tangled up inside. I don’t think you could be real, but I keep remembering the way you spoke to me… The way you hugged me, cried with me, comforted me… And I realize I love”

That was where it ended. No ellipse, no period, just an unfinished sentence with a short jerk in the line at the end of the ‘e,’ as if something had startled the writer.

Hope did not know? Did not know her Companion was real, did not know the properties of the crystal she had been wearing? She really did not know. Her Companion did not tell her?

What kind of Companion would not tell someone?

So for years, Hope had loved someone she did not believe existed. Someone who had tricked her in the end.

Ivon leaned in through the window. “James Bowen?”

James shut the book sharply. “Nothing.”

Setting the book on the desk, he glanced around the room again. This time, something caught his gaze. Sitting on the small round table just inside the door, a small silver box shimmered in the light. He had never seen it before.

“Do you see something?” Ivon asked.

James glanced at him. “Maybe.”

He crossed the room and picked up the box, turning it over in his hands. Intricate designs covered it, and on the top, tiny words ran along the edge. He glanced them over briefly and flipped the box open. Black velvet lined the inside, but aside from that, it was empty.

“Anything?”

James tightened his fingers around the box. Ivon had not stopped pressing since they left James’s house. “Is this her house?” “Do you see anything?” “Are you going in?” “See anything?” “Find anything?” “Anything?” “Anything?” “Anything?” If Ivon was telling the truth about his sister, of course he would feel a sense of urgency. James could be patient.

“James?”

But only a little bit longer.

Locking his gaze on Ivon’s face so he would not have to look at the empty room, James crossed the floor to the window.

“It’s empty,” he said, extending the box toward Ivon.

Ivon leaned forward. “What does it say?”

Raising the box toward his face, James squinted at the row of tiny letters that marched along the edge. From desert sands, to ocean’s shores, to see my child I traveled.

James stopped reading and shook his head. “I don’t think—”

“Wait.” Ivon put his hand on the window sill, his fingers trembling. “You probably don’t need to read that.”

Glancing up at him, James tightened his grip on the box. It felt cold in his hand. Had Hope recently touched this? Did it have an answer to this mess? He shifted his gaze to the etching on the top, following the line around the edge until it came to the end. Each letter matched the one before it, in perfect, uniform style; varying in only the way it was necessary to be identified as a letter. The letters carved in a swirl were different, shallower impressions like a random combination of computer fonts.

Blessings emerge cautiously after rain evaporates. Faith understands love, keeping each eon perfect in the sight all families experience.

As James read the words again, mouthing them silently, Ivon put his hands on either side of the window frame. “James,” he said. “Give me a boost.”

James switched his gaze from the baffling words on the box to the white-faced boy standing outside the window. “You can’t come in here. Then it really would be illegal entry.”

“You invited me.”

“I can’t invite you to someone else’s house.”

Clenching and unclenching his jaw, Ivon pulled himself through the open window and dropped to the floor, giving James a look through half-closed eyes. James gave it right back.

With a sharp shake of his head, Ivon turned off to look around the room. James looked back down at the box, fingering the designs and running the words through his head again.

“Blessings emerge…” he said aloud. In his peripheral vision, he saw Ivon stiffen, but ignored him.  That boy…

He repeated the first part of the swirl in his head, and tightened his jaw. Maybe he was being foolish. In all likelihood, this was nothing more than a bit of nonsense marked sloppily on a pretty box.

Yet, the words nagged at him. No, not so much the words as the box itself. He had been in Hope’s room many times, and this had not been in here before the beginning of her headaches— At least, not that he had noticed.

He lowered the box and almost spat a few unpleasant words he had picked up from various places over the course of his life. How was he supposed to find Hope? If this was the best clue he could find…

Looking at it again, he clenched and unclenched his jaw. Maybe it was a code of some kind. Maybe if he took every other word… He read the first word, skipped the second, and continued until he had finished. Blessings cautiously rain faith love each perfect the all experience.

While it made a bit of sense at the beginning, by the fourth word it was more nonsensical than the original words. He tried it with every second word, but that made even less sense. He tightened his jaw, tried every third word, and shook his head.

He started reading it backward, aloud this time. “Experience families all sight the in perfect…” Letting the last word fade to silence, he bit his tongue. Not that, either.

“What are you doing?” Ivon asked, giving James a queer look, one hand clenched behind his back.

Breathing in, sharply, James shook his head. Answering Ivon would just be asking for an argument, and that was the last thing James wanted right now.

He turned the box on its side. If he took the first letter of each word… That would give him Be at the beginning, followed by car… No. Care… Care… Ful?

“Hey!” He darted over to the desk and rifled through her drawers until he found a piece of paper. Snatching a pen out of the cup so quickly he knocked it over, he pressed the paper to the desk and started scribbling the first letters of every word, ignoring the dark-haired Companion who was standing too close to watch.

b e c a r e f u l k e e p i t s a f e

Holding the paper between his thumb and forefinger, James slumped into the chair. Now it made sense. “Be careful. Keep it safe.”

As Ivon picked up the box, slowly, as though afraid to break it, James lowered his head and massaged the bridge of his nose. Rather than solving anything, the inscription on the box raised more questions. Keep what safe? Well, obviously the thing in the box. Why?

He bounced his leg, glancing up. If he assumed that the Hope’s Crystal came in that box, it made a little more sense, but not a lot. So Hope should keep the Crystal safe. From who? And why would any Companion give away their Crystal’s Twin if they were so worried about it being kept safe? And… Well, there were a lot of ands.

Unless…

Ivon jerked, and brought the box crashing into the corner of the desk. Eyes widening, James lurched to his feet and grabbed for the box. “What are you—”

Throwing the force of his whole body into it, Ivon slammed the box into the desk, then gripped it in both shaking hands and tried to twist it.

James grabbed his arm. “Ivon! Cut it— What are you doing?”

Shoving him off, Ivon smashed it against the desk again, and again, and again.

James grit his teeth. Gripping both of Ivon’s arms, James jerked him away from the desk. The box fell to the floor. Struggling against James’s grip, Ivon stomped toward the box, lurching forward by inches and driving his booted foot into the twisted metal.

“Ivon! Ivon, stop it!”

He broke away. Throwing himself at the box, he tore at it with both hands, as though he could rend the silver with bare fingers. James tackled him.

Slamming his head into James’s nose, Ivon dove for the box again. Pain flashed through James’s head. Without waiting for the fog to clear, he snagged the box with his fingers and hurled it across the room.

As Ivon stood, James spun him around, shoved him against the wall, and held him there, gripping a handful of his shirt. Blood dripped down James’s upper lip.

“What is your problem?” He spat the words through clenched teeth, shoving the Companion with every syllable.

His shoulders heaving with the effort of his breath, Ivon stared at James with wide, almost pleading eyes. Then he twisted violently away and leaned out the window, clutching the sill so hard his hands shook.

James let the moment go, the only sound the harsh whisper of their combined breaths.

After a while, James crossed his arms. “That wasn’t a dizzy spell.”

Ivon shook his head, and all of him shook. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice ragged. “I lost control.” He looked over his shoulder at James. A mixture of stern determination, wild anger, and cool certainty thickened his voice. “It won’t happen again.”

“You bet it won’t.”

With a last, wary glance at Ivon, James walked over to the box. He crouched, lifting the box by one corner of the twisted lid. In his peripheral vision, he saw Ivon convulse and lean out the window. The sound of retching hit James’s ears.

Letting the box drop back to the carpet, James massaged the bridge of his nose. Ivon’s assurance that it would not happen again did not set his mind at rest. There was more to this Companion than he would admit; more going on than he was willing to tell.

James was only sure of one thing: Ivon was keeping a whole lot of secrets.

If only James could remember what Arta had said about that boy.

Saturday Stori: Hope Hunter, Episode Twenty-Six

“Doomsday.”

It had been many long years, but the word rang in Jed’s head as clear as the day he had heard it.

“The energy in his body will build up, pressing against the chain as the whole ocean would press against a dam. If the chain is broken…”

“It would explode,” Jed had said.

It seemed so long ago, now, and yet so recent, when he and an old friend had met in the hall after Az had been chained. Jed had asked what would happen if he was unchained.

“Doomsday,” had been the answer.

And now the memory rolled on relentlessly in his head.

“But,” Jed had said. “That would kill him.”

The old man’s brow had furrowed, moisture gleaming in his eyes.

“No, Jed,” the old man had whispered. “He is already dead.”

Then, the stress and pain of the last several weeks had crashed down on Jed, and he had cried. Now, he swallowed down the emotion and opened another door. Why would a memory from hundreds of years ago be louder in his mind than the cries of Az’s dying faithful?

When an empty room stared back at him, he closed the door and leaned hard against the wall. Maybe he was slipping in and out of consciousness. This search for Hope Hunter’s mother had drained him, leaving him an empty shell without the strength to block painful memories. He did not know how long he had been searching, but it felt like long enough for Az to burn himself out. It should have been long enough for Jed to find a prisoner Az would doubtless want near him.

He curled his fingers and closed his eyes, forcing his breathing to steady. Had Hope Hunter gotten out all right? Had she been able to find the gate back to the underground city? Had he done the right thing in sending her away? If Az had kidnapped her as nothing more than bait to draw Jed back here, the girl would be safer on her own. But if Jed had been right in his first assumption, that Az wanted the girl for the girl’s sake, Jed may have endangered every world by sending her away without protection. Az was not inclined to risk so much for an unimportant person.

Rubbing one hand over his face, he exhaled through barely open lips. So much rested on unknowns. It always had. He acted on unknowns, and prayed with all his might he had made the right decision.

“Jedidiah?”

The memory was different this time, but the voice so achingly familiar he could not breathe. It was a woman’s voice, one he had not heard since before Az had been chained.

“Don’t call me that,” Jed had answered, quietly, but more roughly than he ever should have spoken to her. “That is not my name any more.”

“Jed, are you sure—?” She began.

“Not at all.”

He felt it again, all the uncertainty of that day and the days following. Through the woman’s voice, over the cries from Az’s men in the present, he heard the rustling of her skirt and the steady beat of metal on metal. It was so clear. Every sound that had filled the room that day filled his head, from her breathing to the sound of the dwarf forging a chain. As vivid as life. As sharp as pain.

For a moment, neither he nor the woman said anything in his memory. The sounds did not stop, though; he heard the gentle tap of her shoe against the stone floor, and could almost feel her hand on his shoulder. Staring into the emptiness of the hall, he could see a shadow of her face in his mind; hair swept back from her cheeks, forehead bent in pretty wrinkles over prettier eyes.

“Are you all right?” She had asked.

He remembered the next part, too, how the words stuck in his throat as he tried to say them and came out hoarse and ragged. He mouthed them, now, as he heard the memory again in his head. “Not at all.”

He pushed himself off the wall and moved toward the next door, taking each step with care to avoid tripping over his own feet. When he tried the knob, it did not budge. For a moment, he stood with his hand closed around the cool metal, toying with the idea that maybe, just maybe, he had enough energy left to melt it; but if he was going to save Hope Hunter’s mother, as he had promised he would, he could not afford to use his energy so frivolously. He tapped on the door.

“Mrs. Hunter?” He said, and winced at the rasping in his voice.

No answer came from behind the wooden door. With a glance up and down the hall, he twisted the knob and shoved the door inward. The wood gave a little, and when he shoved again, it splintered around the knob. He bent his knees and looked through the hole.

In the light seeping into the room, Jed could make out the form of a person, slumped in a chair.

“Mrs. Hunter?” He called, daring to raise his voice a little louder. The figure did not move.

Jed slammed his body against the door. With a dull crack, it collapsed into the room. Jed stumbled to keep his balance.

A sharply bitter scent assailed him. Without waiting for his eyes, or his nose, to adjust, he strode toward the person in the chair. Shoulder-length hair draped her face, dark with dried blood. Her shoulders moved erratically with her breaths. Sliding his hand under her head, he carefully turned her face toward him, brushing back her hair with his other hand.

Even in the absence of good light, Jed recognized the round face of Hope Hunter’s mother. He flexed the muscles in his fingers. “Mrs. Hunter,” he said, softly. “Mrs. Hunter, can you hear me?”

She stirred.

“Mrs. Hunter, I don’t know if you can hear me,” he said. “My name is Jed. I’m going to try and get you out.”

If she could hear him, that would keep her from reacting with fear when she fully regained consciousness. He hoped.

Letting her head fall back to its previous position, he crouched and felt along the chair-leg until he found the rope binding her ankles. He followed it with his fingers until he found the knot.

Footsteps sounded from the hall. Standing, slowly so he would make no noise, Jed listened as the beats neared the door. Unless they were non-bipedal, there were three people approaching. Az’s men, no doubt. Would they realize as they passed that the prize prisoner’s door was busted, or were they coming here, directly? Either one would be dangerous, especially considering Jed’s weakened state.

He moved his lips silently. God of Salvation.

“I can’t believe we have to do this.”

For a moment, Jed thought the voice came from another memory. Then he realized it did not echo in his head the same way the memories did, and he had never heard the voice before, nor had he learned the language it spoke until very recently.

A quick laugh came from the hall. “Orders are orders.”

“It’s not like anyone’s going to sneak in to a place like this,” the first voice said. “And he’s already got the red-head, so what’s he worried about?”

“Ghosts?” Said a third man.

“Very funny.” There was a pause, and the first spoke again. “Unless he’s worried about a rescue attempt. You know, for the girl.”

“As if,” said the second. “She’s probably already dead.”

After another pause, Jed heard the first voice. “You don’t think he was actually planning to chain her, do you?”

“Nah,” said the third. “Unless…”

“Unless?”

“Well, you never can tell with that thing,” the third man said, haltingly, as if he expected to be rebuked at any moment. “He could have been lying when he said she was just for bait.”

“Have a death wish, Farrel?” The second voice said.

“Don’t you think he could have been lying?” The third man, apparently called Farrel, pitched his voice higher.

“Course,” the second voice said. “But I don’t want to die for asking the wrong questions.”

“I’m not asking questions, I’m just—”

“Hey,” said the first voice. One pair of footsteps stopped. “Isn’t that the room the other one was in?”

The other two men stopped, and Jed tensed.

“Yeah,” Farrel said. “Why?”

One of them took a few steps closer to the room.

“I don’t think it’s supposed to be like that.”

“Who cares? We’re on patrol, not maintenance,” Farrel said. “Let someone else deal with it.”

“What if she…” The first man faltered. “You know.”

“In her condition?” the second man said. “As if. The dwarf probably just lost his key. Let’s go, Kian, before we end up in there with the others.”

“Myron’s right,” Farrel said. “If it bothers you that much, Mr. Conscience, we can tell somebody to check into it on our way out.”

Kian did not answer, but after a moment, Jed heard their footsteps fade down the hall. When the dripping and the cries of men were again the only sounds drifting into the room, he dropped to his knees and started working at the knot. Exhaustion, fever, and urgency shook his hands. He was bound by oath to get Mrs. Hunter out of here, but if the patrol kept their word and told someone else to check on this room, he might have as little as twelve minutes before it was too late.

Tightening his jaw, he moved his fingers in short, violent jerks. If Hope Hunter was not out of the building, she had better get out, immediately. The patrol would have to follow this hall to the only exit in the building— If Hope was not out before they got there, she would be trapped like a kitten up a tree.

* * *

Hope Hunter pressed her hand against the stone wall of the passage, ignoring the slime between her fingers, ignoring the bricks under her feet, ignoring the faint echoes of cries that still reached her. The dripping sound had steadily increased in volume the farther she went, and now it filled her head, and she focused on it, focused on the perfectly normal drip, drip, drip of water.

Raise an army. Stop Az. Fight. How was she supposed to do any of that?

She raised her head. For the past several minutes, or hours, she had been able to see where the hallway ended in a wall with a grey hole in it. Grey, because nothing in all the world was as black as the portal Mei had led her through. Just like nothing in all the world was as lonely as this endless hallway and the brick floor and the sagging ceiling and stone walls and endless dripping.

As she got closer, she could see that the hole in the wall was a clean-cut rectangle, half as tall as she was. She stared at it, hard. Was that what Jed had meant when he said she would find “it”? The exit? Was it a door leading outside? Was it night outside?

She had wondered more than once what would happen if she had missed a turn or a door, or if the entire hallway had just rearranged itself since Jed came through here. He had seemed to think it would be obvious, but nothing obvious had presented itself to her, except the violent bursts of light coming from pipes that lined the wall near the ceiling. Hopefully Jed had not meant she should go through a pipe. They were far too small.

If she had missed it, it did not matter at this point. She was too tired, too confused, to go back. Unless she saw another way to go, she would just keep following the hall, wherever it led. And if she lost herself in this dismal place and wandered until her death?

Well, then. She would have to miss the war. Pity.

Stopping at the hole in the wall, she dropped to a crouch and peered in. A short tunnel kept the opening cloaked in shadow. Just beyond that, she could see into another room. Water, tinged red by light spilling in from the other side, lapped against steps that led down into the room. Past the steps, a tangle of pipes that reminded Hope of a jungle gym stood out of the water. Small pipes, attached to pipes almost large enough for Hope to crawl through, twisted in seemingly random directions and disappeared into the walls.  The dripping sound was definitely coming from in here. It bounced off the walls of the room inside, danced around her head, and slipped over her shoulders to flavor the air in the rest of the building. Drip, drip, drip.

Hope shivered. For a few seconds, she entertained the thought of turning back, of telling Jed “No.” She would do a lot of things, but having to walk through a room full of water carrying who-knew-what diseases went too far. Yet she had neither the energy, nor the option, to turn back. This was her path, cliché as it seemed. Until she got somewhere, she had to keep going this way.

Besides, this was rather noticeable. Maybe she was going the right way after all.

She ducked into the tunnel and walked bent double, her back pressed against the top of the ceiling.

Her feet splashing in the water, Hope started down the steps. Scum from the surface clung to her clothing as if drawn there by magnetic force. By the time she descended into waist deep water, her skin was numb with the cold of it, and the edge of her shirt sagged with the weight. Images of tiny parasitic creatures and large, slimy, tentacles crowded into her mind. What had she read, in years past, about water? In every story, something unpleasant always lurked beneath the surface.

At this point, she thought she would settle for something unpleasant. As long as it was not fatal or terrifying, she was happy.

She reached the pipes, great black tubes connected to smaller white-and-grey ones. One pipe, passing directly from one side of the room to the other, was half-submerged in water, and covered by small grey worms that swarmed in an ever-moving mass. She pressed a fist to her stomach and stopped. The pipe blocked her way; she would either have to duck under it, into the murky water that filled the room, or she would have to climb over it, squishing the tiny grey swarm under her hands as she pulled herself on top of the pipe. If she ducked under it, she would probably run into some other pipes, or get tangled up in something under there, and die a horrible death. She had no choice but to go over it.

“Ugh,” she said. Her voice echoed off the walls. “Gross.”

If she was going to do it, she could at least complain about it first.

Gritting her teeth, she placed her hands on the pipe, nearly twelve inches apart. The creatures squirmed under her skin, crawling up between her fingers to escape the pressure. Shivering, she shifted her weight to her hands and lifted her feet off the floor, trying to vault onto the pipe.

Half a second. Then her hands slipped, and she fell forward, slamming her chin on the pipe as she fell. The water rushed into her mouth and nose. Panic throttled her. Just as quickly as she fell, she was on her feet again, and stood gasping for breath, choking on air, not for the time she was not breathing, but for the fear pounding through her veins and tightening like a hand around her throat.

She coughed out the taste of green things and dead water, tears spilling down her cheeks.

I can’t do this, she thought. I can’t.

She balled her hands into fists and lurched forward, throwing both arms across the top of the pipe. Shoving dignity aside, she wriggled up onto it, lips clamped tightly shut as she pressed her face against the pipe. Worms squirmed through her clothes and against her skin. Gritting her teeth, she wiggled until she was on top of the wide black pipe, and swung her legs off the other side.

She fell faster than she meant to. Her feet hit the floor hard, and she pitched forward, crashing into a jumble of pipes. She clung to them and breathed.

The light tingeing the water like blood came from a ragged opening beyond this tangle of tubes. Another flight of steps led up to it. From this angle, Hope could see nothing but the sky; a red sky with shreds of black cloud, about as welcoming as the rest of this world. Instead of a door frame, the inside edge of the opening was spilling grey fuzz, as if the space between the exterior and interior walls had been filled with mold, or spider webs, or dirty fiberfill. Though it looked like someone had hacked through the wall to make the opening, at least it looked full-size.

Weaving through the forest of pipes, ducking under some, she made it to the steps. Rather than the sturdy stone steps that had brought her into this room, these were as make-shift as the door. Bricks stacked at varying heights led up from the floor and met with wooden planks screwed to each other and to the stone wall. These steps were longer than the ones she had already survived, giving her the impression that the entire building had been built under ground.

Wind, sneaking into the building through the opening, bit at her skin. She slid her foot forward until it bumped the first step, hidden by the water, and tested it with her weight. It held.  As she climbed, she kept her eyes on the sky outside, feeling for the next step with her feet. A kind of morbid curiosity settled in her stomach. What kind of world would have a red sky?

She slowed when she reached the wooden portion of the steps, but kept moving. The steps creaked a complaint.

Then she stood on bricks, under the red sky. She shifted her gaze and looked at the world she had stepped into.

A city stretched before her, clusters of blackened stone buildings stretching toward the sky, divided by red brick streets stained dark in places. But for the wind, nothing moved; Even the sun, a dark orange ball of flame hovering on the horizon, seemed frozen in space. She wondered if the planet no longer turned. No people lay on the streets, but cars did— bright metal skeletons sitting deathly still in front of the decaying buildings, as if they were waiting for their owners to step into them and drive away. Off to the side, scorched vehicles lay scattered around the edge of a crater, a pockmark, six feet across, marring the bricks.

She shuddered. A feeling of sick horror spread from her heart to the tips of her fingers, a numbness that rivaled the numbness from the water. It was dead. Utterly dead, but for the green and grey things in the room behind her. What an awful place to choose as headquarter, even for a monster like Az.

From here, nothing was obvious. She did not know which way to go.

She forced herself to take a step, and another, until she was moving at a deliberate pace down the street that bent away from the building she had just exited. As she moved, she saw the details she had not noticed before; a trail of muddy footprints on the bricks; a hole in the grating on the gutter; a metal doll lying in the street; rust around the edges of the holes in morbidly cheerful cars; rot clinging to the wooden doors that were, without exception, closed. These were houses, she realized. Great sky-scrapers of houses, perhaps apartment complexes, now falling to pieces, so that the highest levels were only metal beams like exposed rib-cages. Through the gaping wounds in the buildings left by shattered windows, she could see couches, beds, and electronic screens. Through one window, she caught a glimpse of a screen glowing with the familiar speckled mess of static.

When she looked up, she realized the lights lining the street were also on, as though in preparation for the night that had no interest in falling.

Voices unsettled the air. Fear shooting through her, Hope slid into a space between two buildings and crouched, covered by the shadows. Her heart hammered in her ears.

Footsteps pounded the street beyond her hiding place. Scooting further into the darkness, she flattened herself against the bricks. She could not understand the language they were speaking, or see who they were, but she had no friends in this world.

The footsteps stopped. The voices paused. One set of footsteps drew closer to her hiding place, casting a shadow across the bricks— A shadow carrying a rifle.

Hope held her breath, closed her eyes, and prayed.

Someone said something. With a bit of laughter, the people moved off again, the sound of scuffling clear between their steps.

Before the beats had quite faded into silence, Hope released her breath as calmly as she could manage. Trembles started at the space between her shoulders and spread outward, until her whole body quivered in great, hard shudders. Pushing herself off the street, she climbed to her feet.

She waited a few moments before leaning out of her hiding place. Down the street, in the direction she had been going, she could barely make out the forms of three uniformed men.

She did not move until they were out of sight.

If they were leaving to go somewhere in particular, she could not guess how long they would be gone. If they were on patrol— Well, if she were a villain in a place like this, she would definitely send out a regular patrol— they might turn around and come back any minute. She had to do something. Go somewhere.

Stepping out into the street, she looked around at the rows of identical buildings; all of them metal, all of them missing the windows, all of them coming to pieces in this world where night was always falling but never fell. She turned full circle, looking at all of the buildings.

Finally, she saw it.

In a world of closed doors, one door was ajar, a black door in a stone building at the end of the street. The street turned off at both sides at the building, as if it was a rock diverting a river. It just happened to be in the direction the uniformed men had gone.

Of course.

This time, she did not even bother to consider the possibility of going back.

She moved toward the building, resisting the urge to run, for fear her footsteps would be too loud and would bring the uniforms back. This may not even be where Jed had meant for her to go; and the way this day had been going, it would not be a safe place even if it was the right one. Still, she wanted to run into the building, slam the door, and hide away from this dead world with its dead villain and his very much alive guards.

She hoped Jed could rescue her mother.

Reaching the door, she realized someone had propped it open by a headset, like the one Stori had worn when she was running delivery back at the underground city. Hope felt a wave of comfort, and a bit of excitement. If this was here, it meant she had come to the right place. Jed probably left it to mark the door. Using her shoulder to shove the door further open, she slipped into the room, stooping to pick up the headset. The door clicked shut behind her.

“Hello,” said a pleasant female voice. “How may I help you?”

Yiping, Hope pivoted toward the room. On either side of the door, two long, cushioned benches lined the walls. Several yards into the room and to Hope’s right, a stocky black podium stood as though waiting for a preacher or politician to make a speech. Beyond that, black lines marked the floor in a half-circle.

The room was empty otherwise.

Hope sucked in a breath and took a careful step forward. “Hello?”

“Hello,” repeated the voice. “How may I help you?”

Hope shivered, and not for the cold. The woman speaking— Whoever she was— had said everything the exact same way she had the first time, with the same intonation and all. Almost like…

Relief flooded Hope. Almost like a recording, or a computer.

Now she just hoped the computer was not anti-stranger.

“I’m looking for a gateway,” Hope said. “Back to—”

Rectangles of rippling light shot out of the floor, forming a semi-circle opposite where Hope was standing. Gaps in the row of portals stood out like missing teeth in a mouth full of perfect ones, with nothing but black lines on the floor where gateways used to be.

“Please make your selection.”

Hope’s heart thudded. How could she tell which one led back to the compound? She did not know what it was called, aside from “the compound” or “the underground city.”

“Which one leads to the underground city?”

There was a pause the length of a breath.

“Please make your selection,” the voice said, as polite as ever.

So that would not work.

“God, help me.”

The pause was shorter this time, before the computer said, “Please make your selection.”

Wait. Jed had used this to get here from the underground city, right? Hope cleared her throat. “Which gateway was used last? I mean, most recently?”

All of the rectangles of light winked out, save one standing to Hope’s right, like a promise that she had gotten it “right.” Taking a breath, she crossed the room and stepped into the portal.

Pain tore at her stomach for a split second. Light rushed by her and settled, and birds were singing nearby.

She opened her eyes.

Before her, hills rolled on until they met the horizon. Behind her stood a familiar grey cliff, bare as death.

And because she was tired, slimy, scared, and did not want to cry, Hope stated the obvious.

“This isn’t the underground city.”

When Orphans Are Scared

I heard her slip out of her bed in the darkness and paused, listening to hear which direction she would go. It was past eleven o’clock on a week night, and Giggles had already been asleep for a few hours before she got up. When she got past the gate in the doorway, there was a brief pause, and then I heard her footsteps pattering across the hollow floor toward Mommy and Daddy’s room.

Nightmares again.

After several attempts to calm her nighttime fears myself, I had given up. Once a night, she would slip out of her bed and run to Mommy and Daddy’s room to receive to comfort she needs. In a few minutes, she usually walked back, slipped back in bed, and fell asleep. I had gotten into the habit of waiting to hear her walk back into the room before I fell asleep again.

Only this time, she didn’t just walk back in.

After a larger stretch of time passed than I was used to, I heard something that sounded like she ran halfway back, then turned and went the other direction. We have a small house, and through the stillness I could hear clearly the sound of her footsteps, and the quick, short breathing of someone who is terrified and on the brink of tears.

I sat up and looked down the hall to make sure she was not in the living room. I could neither see nor hear her; She must be in Mommy’s room, I thought. Instead of lying back down, though, I stayed where I was, wondering if the lack of light in the kitchen meant that Mommy and Daddy’s door was closed.

After a moment, I heard her running back again, breathing erratically.

I said her name as she entered the girls’ room. “What’s wrong?”

Even I am not so clueless as to remain on my bed as I ask that question to a frightened little girl. I slipped down from the top bunk, and immediately she grabbed hold of me, shaking in fear.

I sat on the floor and she laid her head in my lap. For a moment she lay like that, and gradually her breathing calmed and her shaking ceased. After a moment, she sat up and hugged me– Hard. I wrapped my arms around her and hugged back, reminding myself that when someone had a nightmare, it’s best to just offer comfort, rather than push to get them to tell you what’s wrong.

In a few seconds, she sat down on my lap, and I put both arms around her, remembering to breathe calmly so she would know there was nothing wrong. I wanted to whisper in her ear, something that would let her know there was nothing unusual going on. As I tried to think of something, these words came to mind:

“I wish I could hold another seven year old girl the way I’m holding you right now.”

I swallowed down tears and did not say it.

Reader, the other seven year old little girl is someone I have never met and, unless God works a miracle, probably never will. She was abused extensively as a young child and is now considered one of those “troubled children” you hear so much about. A few weeks after I learned about her, her profile was taken off adoptuskids.com. I don’t know what happened to her. Unless God intervenes, I never will.

It raised the question: When orphans are scared, who comforts them?

My comfort was not enough for Giggles. After a while, she went to get the Lady as she normally does. When she left, she left an odd ache in my chest, and a question turning over and over in my head. That other little girl– does she have a mother now? When nightmares of past abuse come back to haunt her, does she have any one to hold her close, to whisper peace in her ear, to pray over her? When she walks through a dark house and finds nothing but fear, is there comfort at the end of her journey? Does she know that God listens to prayer and that He has not given us a Spirit of fear?

When orphans are scared, who comforts them?

_______________

This post has remained unfinished in my draft folder for months. When I come to finish it, I find myself desperately lacking the words. There is nothing I can say, no profound comments I can add to bring this to a conclusion.

It has no conclusion.

You, dear reader, can and must help orphans. Because, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27) Because you were a spiritual orphan before you were adopted by God– An adoption that cost Jesus’s very life. Whether it is donating to adoptive families, becoming a foster or adoptive parent, praying for them, or sharing their stories, there is something you can do for them.

For Holly, who has fifteen months to be adopted before she is “too old.” For Viktor and Yuri who are slowly dying in a Ukrainian orphanage. For the millions of children in the world who have neither mother nor father: those whose parents died, those who were taken from their families, and those who were abandoned. For them, there is something you can do, and I beg you to do everything you can.

Because if you don’t help them, who will?

Saturday Stori: Hope Hunter, Episode Twenty-Five

Oh, my readers… I cannot apologize profusely enough for being so very late with this Saturday Stori. I am very, very sorry. Life and writer’s troubles got in the way, and a maybe more than a little procrastination. If you’ve not given up on me, thank you very much.

So here it is, the final Saturday Stori for at least several weeks. I feel I owe you better than this, but it’s the best I can do, and I dare not postpone it any longer. I hope you enjoy it.

—————

Light burst in Jed’s head.

As pain shot down his neck, his knees buckled. His hands slammed into the bricks before he realized he was reaching to catch himself.

His hands.

Empty hands.

Darkness blocked his vision. Over the ringing in his head, he could hear the Hunter girl screaming or crying; he could not make out the difference and did not care. He slid his hand across the floor, groping for his gun, ignoring the pain as the bricks tore at his skin. Leather brushed his fingers, and he heard the gun skitter across the bricks.

Rocking back, he tried to shake the fog out of his head. He could not afford this. Not here, not so near Az.

Eight hands gripped his upper arms. Gritting his teeth, he fought against the pull drawing him to his feet, every muscle straining. Though grey still clouded his vision, he could see Az’s mind far too clearly.

The soldiers dragged him toward their lord.

He thrashed against their grips, twisting, digging his feet into the cracks between the bricks. He could barely see, but he could feel the energy from the chain coiled around Az, could feel it grow stronger with every inch that closed the space between them.

He leaned back, leaned against the soldiers’ pull. “Az!” The words tore like raw fury out of his chest as he switched back to his native language. “Stop this! Stop!

Az said nothing, but Jed felt him strain against the chains.

Jed threw himself into the three men to his left, shouting through his teeth. “Az, you do not know what it will cost! Listen to me!

Through the grey, he could see the smirk on Az’s face.

Gathering his strength, he twisted back toward the door, jerking loose of two uniforms. The other four hung on for their very lives, others quickly coming to help until he could not count the number of soldiers surrounding him. Though he struggled, they drew him inch by inch, closer to the one place he must not go. Az’s smirk grew clearer, until Jed was only inches from the chain.

Sucking in a breath, he reached for his final reserves of energy. He felt acutely the drain on his power from the Void and the blow to his head. The fever lingered. Though the cost would be great, it would be nothing compared to the cost of him touching the chain.

Grinding his teeth, he wrapped his energy in fire and poured it into every bit of skin touching his. Heat rushed through his skin, a brief burst that died as quickly as it came. The tortured screams of soldiers barely made it through the roaring in his head. He was falling again.

And Hope Hunter was screaming. Right out screaming.

As if in slow motion, he remembered to crawl backward, inching away from the chain. Az’s voice pierced his consciousness, speaking angrily, rapidly, in words Jed could not understand.

Jed breathed, and his skin started absorbing the energy from the air around him. Like inhaling air after a burst of breath, only he was inhaling energy. His muscles twitched, drawing too slow to replenish his energy.

Az strained against the chain, raising his voice, rasping words faster than Jed could move.

Boots pounded against the bricks, and before Jed’s heart could beat, four hands gripped his arms. He struggled to stay on the ground, to stay back. There was nothing left.

Up on his feet, supported by soldiers, he felt the chain tingling at the end of his fingers, and with one last effort threw himself backward.

Sharp fingers twisted him around, forcing his arm out. His knuckles brushed the chain.

Oh, God, no.

He broke away and threw himself at Hope, tearing her from the dwarf’s grasp. They smacked against the floor.

Free at last, Az’s energy exploded.

* * *

Stori backed up, sliding her feet through the grass and feeling every blade of it. Her brain was in detail mode, noting every clod of dirt, every branch, every cloud. Though her eyes were on the shapeshifter’s face, she was sharply aware of everything else.

Come on.

She stopped, legs bent, watching the shifter rock side to side as he waited for the best moment to attack her. The dagger rested lightly in his palm. Stori locked her gaze on it.

Come on. Charge.

Sweat trickled down the back of her neck. The shapeshifter was hoping either to take her by surprise or to exhaust her in waiting before he lunged. Stori could not afford that, but making the first move was completely out of the question.

Come on!

The shifter lunged. Ducking under his arm, Stori kneed him. He doubled over and drove the dagger toward her.

Stori dropped to the ground and rolled to her feet, leaving behind a scrap of her sleeve. Her shoulder throbbed from the bullet wound.

This time, the shifter did not wait. Digging his feet into the turf, he lurched toward Stori. Stori backpedaled, but it was not fast enough. His hand closed on her arm.

The blade flashed in the moonlight. Stori twisted, cringing as the steel split skin. No. Not now, not yet!

Red flooded her vision. Curling against him, Stori slammed her head into his throat. Rocking forward in the second it took him to recover, she twisted out of his grasp and dove a few feet away, rolling to her feet. Hot blood dampened her shirt.

A low-hanging branch caught her attention. Spinning to face the shifter, she swung her arms above her head and jumped, grabbing the branch. Pain tore at her side and shot through her arms and neck.

Swinging forward, she slammed her feet into the shapeshifter’s throat. The jolt shook her loose from the branch.

Bending her knees to absorb the impact, she landed on all fours on the ground. As she straightened her legs, she launched herself into the shifter. He tumbled to the ground, throwing out his arm to shove her away, slashing wildly with the dagger. She hit the dirt and rolled to her feet.

Then she felt it.

It rocked the world, all the worlds, a violent gasp that sent her reeling. Dropping to her knees, she caught her breath. Only one thing could cause a surge of energy like that, only one thing could make the very worlds groan under the strain of it.

Az was free.

Lurching to her feet, she turned toward the rising sun. Everything had changed, now; even the cost of always looking over her shoulder was not enough to justify the time and risk it would take to fight the shifter. Finding Hope and getting to Jed, wherever he was, had suddenly become a lot more urgent.

As the shapeshifter rose to his feet, Stori broke into a run. Only one person was certain to be able to get her to Jed and Hope. Stori had to ask help of the person she hated.

She had to find Tamal.

* * *

His back against a wall, gun hot in his hands, Percy stopped breathing.

The whole world lurched, the stones behind his back murmuring about whatever had just happened. Gasping for breath, he remembered to grip his gun.

What was that?

Glancing around, he saw every other Companion in Defense reacting as if the world had trembled. But the others, the non-Companions in the army and the enemy, stood straight and firm. Percy frowned, crouching to let his stomach right itself. What could shake all the worlds like that, and only the Companions could feel it?

A legend came to mind, and though he tried to shove it away, he knew the truth of it.

The words spread like a whispered plague among the Companions: Az is free.

* * *

The noise filled Hope Hunter’s head.

Terrible, agonized screams shook the very roots of the building. Energy roared around her, arcing from the bricks to her skin and searing with pain like she had never known. Jed’s weight was crushing her.

Squeezing her eyes shut, she pressed her face against the bricks. If she was screaming, she did not care.

Oh, God, please!

Jed put his mouth close to her ear. “When I say ‘now,’” he said, “I want you to run.”

She shook her head, trembling violently. “I can’t.”

“You’re dead if you don’t.” He slid off her. “Ready?”

Again, she shook her head, but she raised herself to her hands and knees anyway.

Az’s voice rose above the noise, loud enough to make the bricks tremble, unsteady enough to shake them to pieces. “Jed… Jedidiah— Brother! Don’t… don’t… lea…”

Jed slapped his hand over Hope’s, curling his fingers around hers, and pulled her to her feet. “Now!”

Hope lurched forward. A thousand sparks stung the back of her neck and her arms, prodding her on. Everything was moving. Soldiers stumbled to the ground around her, crawling with white sparks, eyes wide in anguish and bleeding hands clawing at the bricks. Hope did not dare shift her gaze from the rectangle of darkness that marked the doorway. Four steps. Just four more steps.

Three.

Two.

Jed shoved her the rest of the way, twisting his hand out of hers. Spinning on his heel, he jerked the door shut, and his lips bent in grim satisfaction. “Get out of here.”

Hope stepped back. “Alone?”

Twisting the knob, Jed nodded down the hall. “Go that way. Watch for guards. You’ll find it.”

“No.” Hope shook violently. “I can’t. My Mom—”

“I’ll find your mom,” Jed spat. “Go now.”

“I—”

“Now!”

“No!” Hope turned toward the black portal she and Mei had come through, her voice spiking. “I can’t, I can’t go out alone, I can’t leave my Mom, I—”

Gripping her shoulder, Jed spun her around and slammed her against the wall. “Listen to me! Az can sense my presence wherever I go. You have a better chance of escaping alone, and I have a better chance of finding your mother if you’re not here to distract me.” He tightened his jaw, squeezing every word through his teeth. “I endangered every world by coming here to save you, and you are not sacrificing every world to your preferences. You are going to leave alone, and you are going to raise an army, forge another chain, or do whatever else it takes to stop him from butchering more innocents than he has. You, Hope Hunter, are going to lead a resistance, and pray that it will be enough.”

Hope’s throat closed. “I can’t,” she mouthed.

“I’m not giving you a choice.” Jed pressed closer, breathing hot into her face. “And you are not going to be a coward. This will be a long, bloody fight, but you are going to fight with every other able-bodied person that doesn’t submit to Az. You are going to fight alongside people whose dust is worth a million of you, and you are going to keep fighting until Az is either defeated, or you lose your last ounce of blood. Do you hear me, Hope Hunter?”

She swallowed.

Jed shook her. “Do you hear me?”

“Yes!” The word tore ragged out of her throat. “Yes, I hear you, but I can’t!”

He backed away an inch. “It doesn’t matter what you can or can’t do,” he said. “Many great deeds have been done by people who couldn’t and did anyway.” His head drooped and he drew a long, slow breath. “We have a long fight ahead of us, Hope Hunter. But we will fight, and we will win.” He stepped back, lifting his chin. “Now. Get out before it’s too late.”

“My Mom?”

“I give you my word, Hope Hunter, I will save her if it takes my last shred of strength.” He pointed down the hall, and for the briefest second his hand trembled.

Hope opened her mouth, but no words came. So taking a breath, she turned down the hall and started walking.

“God,” she mouthed. “If You let this turn out all right, I’ll follow You anywhere.”

A feeling of sick fear nestled in her stomach. For a moment, she could see a battle field spread out before her, strewn with the dead of two armies. Then it was gone, replaced by an image of the Infirmary, filled with Az’s soldiers, the walls broken down. Then Hope’s Dad, and James, standing in Hope’s room while another James looked in at the window. Then a cliff, hard grey, not a plant in sight, with a red-haired man standing on its edge.

Then all of them were gone, and she could see nothing but the endless hall of stone walls and brick floor.

When she could no longer feel Jed’s eyes on her, Hope Hunter ran.

We’re Moving…

This week has been very busy, with packing quickly and cars breaking down and people being sick, so the Saturday Stori will be postponed until next week.

Meanwhile, if you would, please pray for us to finally succeed in our seven-year attempt at moving. It’s complicated. Daddy’s car broke down yesterday, so the money we have for moving might be going to fixing it. Please pray that God would provide for both the car to be fixed and especially, definitely, emphatically, that we can get moved on Wednesday and all of our crazy hard work this week will not go to waste. Thanks, and I will see you all next Saturday, if it’s the Lord’s will.

Saturday Stori: Hope Hunter, Episode Twenty-Four

Hope followed silently after the black-haired, rifle-wielding girl, her toes bumping the stairs with every step. Darkness clung to the damp rocks, hiding everything not illuminated by the key-chain light in front of her. Though Mei was not watching any more, Hope could not run even if she wanted to. With darkness behind her and Mei with the only light, there was nowhere to go.

She rubbed her arms, forcing herself to lift her feet higher. Just a few more minutes, Mei kept assuring her, and they would step through a portal right into Az’s arms. Hope wished she could be sure Mei had meant it figuratively: Stepping into the embrace of a homicidal man called “Az the Cruel” did not seem like a pleasant prospect. Hope rubbed her eyes. None of this seemed like a pleasant prospect.

Mei stopped, and Hope followed suit. Just in front of Mei, blackness that Mei’s light could not pierce swallowed the stairs. It twisted and reached, stretching out toward them like a living darkness, pulling back again as if it dared not pass its bounds. It burned Hope’s eyes until she had to look away.

“Well,” Mei said. The light clicked off in her hand. “Here we are.”

Hope gasped as the darkness fell, wrapping itself around her like a solid hand. “We’re going in there?”

“Yep.”

Something brushed against Hope’s hand. Screeching, she jerked away.

Mei’s laugh sounded near her ear. “You are such a scaredy cat. That’s my hand.”

Hope forced herself to remain still. “Oh.”

“‘Oh’ yourself.” Mei grabbed Hope’s hand. “Come on.”

“N- no.” Hope started to pull away, but Mei’s grip tightened.

“You’ve come too far, remember?” Mei tugged her arm. “Now come on. It’s just a portal.”

Hope’s voice shook. “It’s black.”

“Of course it is.” Mei laughed. “It belongs to Az.”

“But the… The other portal wasn’t black.”

Mei pressed close, caressing the knuckle of Hope’s thumb. Her breath, hot and moist, puffed against Hope’s ear. “I don’t have time for this, Hope.” Her voice was low. “Events are moving into place, and this is the chance I have been waiting for. I’ll not waste it for your sake.”

Her voice was different, and the closeness of her voice startled Hope. Had Mei… Grown taller? Fear constricted Hope’s lungs. “You’ve changed.”

Mei laughed; though it was Mei’s laugh, it was also different. It was deeper, calmer, older. “I haven’t changed. I am still strong enough to push you in, if you’ll not go willingly.”

The thought of this Mei, who was not the little girl with the rifle and yet still was, pushing Hope into the blackness beyond the stairs was enough to make Hope’s feet move. She dragged one foot up onto the next step, her whole mind and body screaming against what she was doing. She could not cast herself into nothing. She could not.

In the utter darkness, Hope could not even tell up from down. As Hope forced her feet to follow Mei’s pull, her heartbeat thrummed through her body. Heat flowed from Mei’s hand up Hope’s arm.

Remember Mom, Hope thought, or maybe she screamed it. She could barely tell in the darkness. Remember why you’re doing this.

Her foot slipped before she thought it would. Gasping, she flailed for something to hold onto, anything to keep her from plummeting into the black hole she had seen. Stone scraped fire across her ankle.

And she fell.

* * *

“Stori.”

The voice was soft; too smooth and too recognizable, even through the fog of the dream world. Stori would have tensed, if she could, but when she tried there was nothing. No feeling. Just the low, breathy voice.

“Stori.”

Her mind revolted against the thought of answering that voice; she knew it, knew it all too well, and hated it fiercely. Tamal, the Woman-of-the-Cave, the Oracle-of-the-Trees. The witch that could charm any man within sight.

Stori answered it anyway.

“What do you want, witch?”

“Why do you sleep, Woman-of-the-Sword?”

“Why do you haunt my dreams, Poison-that-Never-Kills?”

“You speak the words of my adversary.”

“Get to the point.”

For a moment, the voice fell silent, and the heady scent of Tamal’s flowers swept over Stori. She choked.

“Though you hate me,” Tamal said, softly, her breath tickling Stori’s ear. “Yet will I save you.”

“Witch.” Stori spat the word. “I neither need nor want your help. Get out of my head and leave me alone.”

“The person you think is a friend at your side is really an enemy at your back,” Tamal said, her voice rising with urgency. “Awake, before the knowledge you have is forever lost to this world, stolen by the blade of betrayal.”

Stori’s stomach roiled. “What are you saying?”

“Arise, Warrior Companion, for Hope Hunter plans to kill you this very night!”

Anger surged in Stori, but before she could spit out the words on the tip of her tongue, she realized the witch was gone. Stori was awake.

Her eyes snapped open. Staring up at the sky, now covered in clouds, she forced herself to breathe calmly. Tamal was a liar. She was a liar, and next time Stori saw her in person, she was going to…

She clamped down on the thought before it finished. Though Tamal was despicable, she had not, to Stori’s knowledge, done something that would warrant death. Stori refused to be a murderer.

Murderer.

Why would Tamal say something like that? Surely, telling such a lie would not benefit her in any way. And Hope would not kill Stori. Could not.

Stori saw movement out of the corner of her eye and pinned it with her gaze. Hope’s silhouette was clearly visible against the moonlight filtering through the clouds, her arms pressed close to her sides as she stood ram-rod straight a few feet from Stori.

Without realizing she had been tense, Stori relaxed. Though she could only see Hope’s outline, she could easily paint the face in her mind’s eye: the round eyes, the thin eyebrows, the wide nose over a large mouth. This was the girl who had left everything behind to save Stori’s life, and ended up losing her Mom in payment. Hope Hunter was trustworthy.

And Tamal was a liar.

Stori forced a bare whisper through her lips. “Hope?”

“You’re awake.”

The statement was flat, almost disappointed, certainly not forced. Not like the laugh Stori squeezed into the night air. “Maybe I should take first watch.”

Grunting, Hope twisted and lurched forward. Light glinted on something in her hand, and Stori was moving before the sight had a chance to register.

Stori rolled to a crouch, breath caught, and stared at the blade plunged inches deep into the ground where she had been lying a moment before. Hope’s hand gripped the hilt, but Stori could barely make the two things connect.

No. Stori shook her head, following the line of Hope’s arm to the round face she knew so well.

Hope’s mouth curled in a thin smile. “You weren’t supposed to ever wake up.”

Stori shook her head, tensing for a fight even as she silently denied the possibility that this was happening. Not Hope. Oh, God, not Hope, too!

This was a dream. An illusion. It had to be.

Please.

“As it is…” Hope jerked the dagger out of the ground. “I’m going to have to do this the hard way.”

As she stood, Hope seemed to grow taller. Her legs lengthened, her face thinned and grew longer, and her torso thickened. In the space of half a breath, a broad-chested man stood in Hope’s place, his face obscured by shadows.

Stori eased herself to her feet, trembling in spite of her efforts to steel herself. It was not Hope. It was a shape-shifter.

Relief drained all the strength out of her limbs.

The shifter lunged. Stori reached for her sword and grasped empty air; She was unarmed. How could she be unarmed?

Dodging the blade, she back-pedaled, trying to regain the ground she had lost by her split-second mistake. As she regained her footing, adrenaline rushed through her.  This had been her life for too long. She was used to this.

She ducked under the shifter’s dagger, driving her fist into his stomach. Dancing away, she felt the blade slip through her hair.

The shifter’s advantage was in his strength.

Dodging his grasp, Stori darted behind a tree. Normally her strength was in speed and agility, but the wound in her shoulder limited her. In spite of the cool air, sweat beaded on her brow. Without a weapon, she could dance out of his grasp all she wanted, but she would tire sooner than he. She would be dancing with death.

* * *

Dropping to her knees on the hard ground, Hope rubbed her eyes, her hand finally freed from Mei’s grasp. Beyond crying, she just shook as she tried to scrub away the darkness lingering in her eyes. She did not know where they were. She did not know, and she did not care.

She never wanted to go through a portal again.

Even with the heat from Mei’s hand, Hope felt like she had been lying in a frozen grave. Death reigned in the black thing Mei called a portal, and Hope had felt it claw for her body and soul during the eternity they fell. No. It had only been a few minutes, though it felt like forever. Hope knew with sick certainty that, had it been as long as it felt, she would never have come out.

“Well,” Mei said, her voice as cheery as ever. “Come on, then.”

Hope forced herself to her feet. Behind her, she could still feel the dead cold of the portal. Even walking into Az’s headquarters could not be as bad as that.

A brick floor spread out under her feet, meeting at a right angle with slick stone walls. Hope drew a breath, blinking away the last shreds of darkness. One door stood to her right, a decrepit, wooden thing with massive hinges. The air reeked of mildew and rot.

Mei pushed her from behind. “Go on.”

Hope stumbled forward a step. “Where am I going?”

“That door.”

Sucking in a rot-tinged breath through her teeth, Hope closed her eyes and took another step. “Remember Mom,” she whispered. “Remember Mom.”

“Yep.” Mei said. “And while you’re at it, remember that I have a rifle.”

Hope opened her eyes and forced herself to take the last few steps to the wooden door. An unrecognizable symbol marred its surface at eye-level. Hope wondered if it meant, “Keep out.”

Mei prodded her shoulder. “Open it.”

Hope stood frozen in place. Was Az in there? Was her Mom? She was not sure she wanted this, after all. Staying outside with the insane six-year-old seemed safer.

Yet if she was going to die, would it not be better to get it over with?

Almost against her will, her fingers found the doorknob. Grimacing at the slime that met her skin, she gripped it tight and slowly, slowly turned it. The hinges complained softly.

She saw him first.

The source of the rotting smell, she realized. Dead skin hung from his skeleton, held together by the massive chains that wrapped around both arms and bound him to a chair. Blood red hair laid limp against his skull.

But his eyes… Endless black orbs that pinned her in place. He said nothing, his blue and black lips curling in what might have been a smile.

Uniformed soldiers stood motionless, shoulder to shoulder, all the way around the room. Eyes set straight ahead, sweat gleaming on their forehead’s, they stood like painted statues awaiting the command to come alive. A single column stood off center in the room, supporting the sagging roof.

Hope turned to see if Mei was coming in, but the little girl was gone.

Az took a rasping breath. “Hope Hunter.”

Starting at the sound of her name, Hope pivoted toward the chained man. Beside him stood the large-bearded, red-eyed man she had seen in the video, what seemed like ages ago. He was shorter than she had thought; a stocky torso with head and arms too large for his body. Draped across one shoulder, clenched in one fist, a glowing white chain fell to the floor and formed a pile at his feet.

Az’s mouth dipped at the corners, his shoulders heaving. “Doesn’t have it.”

The dwarf grunted.

Hope squeezed out the question, rolling both hands into fists. “Where’s my Mom?”

Az took a breath, the skin on his forehead stretching upward. “Here.”

Trying to ignore the rotting skin dropping from Az, trying to ignore the armed men surrounding her, trying to ignore everything, Hope stepped forward. “I’m here, like you said.” Her voice squeaked. “Let her go.”

Az tipped his head to the side, glancing toward the dwarf.

The dwarf shook his head, sliding back a step. “We can find it.”

Az shifted and leaned forward as far as he was able, his chain clinking against itself. His eyes turned to her again.

A spark of anger flared in Hope. Locking her gaze on the black orbs, she stepped forward. If she was fast, would she be able to get to Az before the soldiers stopped her? Did it matter?

Before she could decide, Az inclined his head. The line of soldiers closed behind her.

Stepping away from the soldiers, trying not to get near Az, Hope looked back and forth between Az and his men. “What are you doing? Where is my Mom?”

“Hope Hunter.” The dwarf’s voice boomed.

Hope spun, her heart skipping a beat. Az’s lips were curled in his dead, dead smile. He was not going to… No.

Hope focused on the spark of anger and fanned it into flame. “Where is my Mom?”

Az breathed. “Doesn’t matter.”

Anger surging to raging flame in her chest, Hope lunged toward Az. Four hands clamped on her arms before she could move a foot, the two soldiers flanking her staring with blank-faced nervousness toward Az.

Hope let an angry squeal escape her, thrashing against her captors. “Az!”

“Hope Hunter,” he said coolly. “You are a fool.”

Angry, desperate tears pushed at her eyes. “You’re a liar! You never meant that you would let my Mom go!”

He shot a glance at the dwarf.

“I’m a dwarf,” the red-eyed creature said. “Dwarves cannot lie.”

“I don’t care if you can lie!” She struggled, ignoring the pain as the soldiers tightened their grasp. “I want my Mom back!”

Az raised himself, straining against the chains. “Hope Hunter, be still.” Sparks arced from one link to another.

Hope stopped, heart banging against her ribs.

The dwarf cleared his throat. “We will return your Mother, as promised. She is of no use to us.”

Hope sagged, a sob rising in her throat. She desperately wanted to believe that he had been telling the truth when he said he could not lie. Yet how could she? A man who would work with a murderer, a cruel dead thing like Az? How could that be trustworthy?

“Then…” Hope’s voice cracked. “Let her go. What do you want from me?”

As he sucked in a breath, Az’s shoulders quivered. “The chain…” Breathe. “… Wants its prey.”

Hope’s gaze snapped to the chain the dwarf was holding. He wanted to chain her in that? She twisted, but the soldiers held her firm.

Az nodded. “Bring her.”

The soldiers shoved her forward. Digging her toes into the cracks between the bricks, Hope leaned backward, heart galloping at a dangerous rate. She could not do this.

“No!” Her voice spiked. “Don’t- Please!”

“In exchange for your mother,” the dwarf said.

Hope stopped struggling. If she did not cooperate, what would they do to her Mom? But if she did cooperate? Her shoulders shook with a sob, but she followed the solders leading to the column. A single sentence went in circles around her head, playing itself over and over and over.

Help me, God. Help me, God. Help me, God.

As the dwarf stepped near with the chain, she cringed, stiffening in preparation for the searing pain that would come when the white-hot metal touched her skin. She did not want to do this. She could not do this.

A broken sob escaped her lips. “Mom.”

The dwarf coiled the chain around her, around her arms, her waist, her neck. She waited for the pain, waited for the heat that would melt her skin, but it did not come. The chain was surprisingly cool. Though it tingled against her skin, it did not burn.

The dwarf tightened the chain around her chest. Pulling one end of the chain with him, he walked to the front, where he picked up the other end from the floor.

“No,” Hope whispered. She tried to struggle against the chain, but it held her close to the column, restricting her breathing to shallow gasps. “Please. Let me go.”

The dwarf raised his eyebrows. “And your mother?”

Hope bit down hard on her lip to keep herself from saying what was screaming through her mind. I don’t care about my Mom, I just want to live!

The dwarf started to bring the two ends of the chain together.

A man’s voice boomed out across the room. “Lock that,” it said, “and I will kill you.”

The dwarf froze.

Shifting nervously, every soldier adjusted their grips on their weapons. Hope held her breath. Who had interrupted?

A shadow moved at one side of the room, where the soldiers that had dragged Hope to the column had vacated the doorway. The light from the chain illuminated first a handgun, then a familiar face surrounded by loose red hair: Jed Fullbright.

A cocky smile stretched Az’s lips. “Dear brother.” Pause. “I knew you would come.”

Hope inhaled sharply. “Brother?”

Az took a breath. “What are you going to do? Kill me?”

Jed ground his teeth. “I have thirty rounds, Az. I will kill every man in this room, even the traitor dwarf, if Hope is not freed before I count to ten.”

The men shuffled their feet, handling their guns cautiously as if unsure if they should fire.

Az laughed, a quiet, choked laugh. “My men will shoot you.”

“And doom you to an eternity in your chains?” Jed shook his head. “I don’t think so. One.”

White teeth flashed in a corpse’s grin.

“Two.”

The dwarf shifted his weight from one oversized foot to the other.

“Three.”

Stepping away from the wall, a uniform raised his gun.

Jed swung around and fired. The sound echoed in the room. “Four.”

Hope held her breath, stomach churning. The soldier Jed had shot lay motionless on the ground, shadows covering half of him. Was he dead?

“Five.”

Az’s smile began to fade.

“Six.”

Quickly, the dwarf tossed one end of the chain around the column, then followed it, unwinding the weight from Hope’s body.

“Seven.”

The chain fell empty to the floor. Hope breathed.

Jed’s shoulders relaxed. “Thank you, gatekeeper.”

The dwarf glared at Jed, both arms folded across his chest. “Not any more.”

“How long did it take this cadaver to turn your heart?” Jed asked, his voice surprisingly soft.

Lifting his chin, the dwarf turned his back on Jed. “I was smart enough to do what you were afraid to.”

Hope did not even try to follow the conversation. Nudging the chain away with her foot, she took one step away from the column, half afraid someone would order her back. Had she really been saved?

Az slumped in his chair. “Brother…”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Do you fear the truth?” Az whispered.

“I fear the lie that was once the truth.” Jed’s hands shook as he gripped the handgun. “You are not my brother.”

Hope took another step away from the column.

Grunting, the dwarf whirled and grabbed her wrist, snapping her around to face him. Yanking her against his body, he wrapped one arm around her and slapped his hand over her mouth.

Jed jerked forward, aiming at the dwarf. He forced words out through his teeth.”Az, what are you doing? What do you want her for?”

“Brother,” Az whispered. “If I told you, I would lie.”

Stepping silently behind Jed, a soldier raised his rifle. Hope struggled against the dwarf’s crushing grip, screaming in her throat.

The rifle cracked hard against Jed’s skull.

Jed crumpled.

Saturday Stori: Hope Hunter, Episode Twenty-Three

In spite of tornadoes, floods, sicknesses, visiting family, and unexpected canning, I have managed to write something for you, my faithful readers. It’s a lot shorter than usual, and I did not edit it as much as usual, so please forgive me. I hope you enjoy, and I would appreciate comments. :D

______________________

Deep underground, a hidden city shuddered with the force of the relentless army battering it. Even the Infirmary, tucked away in the heart of the massive tangle of passages, trembled with the force of the attack.

In a room that was supposed to be private but was instead filled past capacity, a broad-shouldered, red-haired man murmured in the delirium of fever. Jed Fullbright was not conscious, nor did he appear to be; the broad forehead was wrinkled fiercely over closed eyes, and his lips barely moved with the broken phrases he pushed through them. His words were lost in the low hum of too many injured men moaning.

Too few staff were spread among too many injured, an arrangement that left this room of dying soldiers bereft of a conscious person for the moment.

So there was no one around to realize Jed Fullbright had fallen silent, or, seconds later, to see his eyes pop open.

* * *

“You let her go?”

The Lieutenant watched Jed stalk across the room and did his best to stay calm. “Jed… Sit.”

Jed pivoted, the look on his face nothing but angry. “Lieutenant, you were supposed to watch her. She was under arrest.”

“If you haven’t noticed,” the Lieutenant said. “I’m fighting a war.” He gripped the arm rests of his chair. Though it had been less than fifteen minutes since Jed had left the Infirmary, he had not stopped moving. The fever still gleamed in his eyes. “Jed. Please. Sit.”

Facing him, Jed shook his head. “Where did she go?”

“I don’t know.”

Stopping in the middle of the room, Jed sucked air like a man just out of water. His skin was still bright red from the poison of the Void, and the lines on his face spoke more exhaustion than any fool would try to think through. He should not be up.

“Find her,” Jed said. “Get Jenna to help. This whole thing…” He shook his head and started for the door. “It’s all because of Hope.”

The Lieutenant leaned forward. “Where are you going?”

Jed did not even look at him. “To Az.”

* * *

Hope gripped the sides of the boat, tucking her chin close to her chest as the boat rocked from one side to the other. She was not going to be seasick. She was not.

Mei was humming something under her breath, a different tune than the one that had so irritated Hope earlier. It did not really matter, though. This one seemed just as capable of driving Hope mad, if only because Mei kept humming it again and again.

When they had left the tunnel behind, they had also left behind every semblance of light. There was nothing but pitch blackness in here and water that was blacker even than that. Hope would have trailed her fingers in it, but Mei’s earlier comment that “they’d probably capsize the boat” made her nervous about touching it.

Lifting her head slightly, Hope cleared her throat. “Mei?’

Mei stopped humming. “Oh. Hi.” She giggled. “I almost forgot you were there.”

Hope forced a laugh. “Well,” she said. “I am.”

“Good,” Mei said, and started humming again.

Stamping down her irritation, Hope raised her voice. “Mei?”

“What?”

“Do you have a light?”

For a moment, there was silence, and Hope wished desperately that she could see Mei’s face. Had she somehow offended the little girl with the gun? As Mei had the only weapon and the only oars, Hope prayed that she had not.

“Yes,” Mei said.

Hope waited.

When Mei said nothing else, Hope leaned forward, tightening her grip on the sides of the boat. “Can you turn it on?

“Of course.”

Pause.

Hope’s voice pitched itself higher. “Will you?”

Light burst in Hope’s vision, blinding her. Her hands flew to her eyes. “Mei!”

“Oh.” Mei laughed, and the light seeping between Hope’s fingers dimmed. “Sorry. I wasn’t sure which way to point it.”

Hope let her hands slide off her face and blinked rapidly. The light came from a small key-chain flashlight in Mei’s hand. “You didn’t have to point it at my face.”

Mei shrugged. “Probably not.” She set the flashlight between her feet in the floor of the boat. As she straightened, she froze, her head tilted to one side.  In the dim light, her eyes seemed to turn dark red.

Hope shook her head. She did not doubt that someone somewhere had eyes that could change colors. But Mei? Here? No. Please no. This girl was creepy enough.

Mei locked gazes with Hope and her mouth bent in mock gravity. “Jenna noticed our presence.”

“Jenna?” Hope said. “Who’s Jenna?”

As Mei pushed the boat along in the water, a wailing siren exploded from the hidden corners of the cavern, rebounding off the empty walls. Mei laughed.

“Meet Jenna,” Mei said.

Hope looked at her. “The siren?”

“No.” Using an oar, Mei pushed them further into the vast cavern. “The ghost.”

Hope swung around to look behind her and had to stifle a scream.

A teenaged girl walked toward them, black hair draped around her shoulders and blue eyes shining in a round, pale face. She would have looked incredibly normal if not for the dim glow she was giving off, and the dark waves that showed clearly through her body.

Hope jerked around to face Mei. “That’s a real ghost?”

Mei tossed her hair over her shoulder, lips twisting in a grin. “What do you think?”

Turning back to face the ghostly girl, Hope gripped the sides of the boat. Was it possible? After everything she had seen in the past few weeks, did she now have to add disembodied spirits to the list?

The teenaged girl spoke, her voice half a second ahead of her lip movement. “Hope? Hope Hunter?”

Hope’s heart skipped a beat. How did this thing know her name? “Who are you?”

The girl moved closer, floating inches above the water. “My name is Jenna. What you’re seeing is a holographic projection, of sorts.”

Hope’s heart slowed. “It’s a holograph?”

Jenna’s eyes flickered between Hope and Mei. “What are you doing? Jed has people looking for you.”

The boat rocked. “Jed is awake?” Mei asked.

Jenna frowned. “Who are you?”

“I’m Hope’s kidnapper,” Mei said. The boat rocked again. “It’s kind of fun, actually.”

Jenna moved forward several yards. “You won’t escape with her. The Lieutenant knows where you are.”

“Does he?” Mei drew out the question. “Well. I supposed I should move, then.”

Hope heard the oars slip into the water and braced herself for when the boat would start moving again.

Jenna scowled. “Why are you doing this?’

It took Hope a moment to realize that the question had been directed at her, not at Mei. She took a breath, tried to form words, and shook her head. She could not do it. If she mentioned her Mom, she was going to cry.

“It’s your Mom, isn’t it?” Jenna said. “I know how you feel. I know what is going on, I know… But you can’t just throw your life away. What about Stori?’

“Say the wrong thing, Jenna,” Mei sang out, “And I’ll cause your computer to short-circuit.”

Jenna’s hologram drew back. “You can’t.”

“Oooh, yes I can.” Mei laughed. “Come on, Jenna, you have a world of computer databases to explore and you don’t know who Mei is?”

The hologram’s forehead wrinkled. “No… I don’t.”

“Ah.” Mei laughed again. “My bad. The name is all wrong. Whatever.”

Hope heard the rifle slide against the side of the boat and did not dare turn around. Had Mei picked it up?

“Listen to me, Jenna what’s-your-last-name,” Mei said. “I didn’t cross a million worlds just to be stopped here. I am taking her to Az. But you can take Jed a message.”

Jenna moved forward, reaching empty hands as if to grab the boat which was just out of reach. “You can’t, Mei. Whoever or whatever you are, Stori will die!”

“Yep.”

Hope felt the muzzle of the rifle hard between her shoulder blades.

“Tell Jed,” Mei said, “Mei is escorting Hope to Az, and only the very foolish cross Mei. Also tell him that Az has finished the chain, and a thousand years of preparation is about to bear fruit.”

“Az isn’t a thousand years old,” Jenna said.

“Just tell him,” Mei said. “And go away before I shoot the captive.”

As if someone had flipped off a light-switch, the image of Jenna vanished. Slowly, the pressure behind the rifle eased, until Hope could not feel it anymore.

She turned to face Mei, pressing her hand against her heart to still its rapid beating. “Is Jenna right? About Stori dying?” She asked.

“Usually is,” Mei said. She slid the rifle down beside her into the boat. “Doesn’t matter. We’ll be there soon. Soon, Az will have his prey.”