• T.R. Slauf

Hidden Realm: Chapter 1, Nightmares

Pride and Prejudice Astronomy 101 How to Train Your Dog The Martian Chronicles Pulling the books from the return bin at the front of the library, Esther read each of the titles carefully. It was a slow Monday morning and she was looking for inspiration. This was Esther’s favorite part of her job; she was surrounded by endless opportunities to become anything she desired without having to commit to being any one thing. Some days she was a philosopher or an astronomer, learning all she could about the world around her. Other days she was a soldier, staging a rebellion against a tyrannical government, or she was a scholar finding clues in ancient artifacts racing against time to save the world. But on her favorite days she was an adventurer on an unexpected journey to far off lands full of magick. With the return bin emptied Esther stood up, straightening her blue pencil skirt. Despite it not being the dress code, she always wore skirts and heels to work. Having never thought herself a great beauty, Esther decided long ago she could at least dress pretty. Her facial features were unusually sharp for a Chinese and Taiwanese girl, so she kept her hair long and wore it down to cover her insecurities. Esther pushed the cart of books to the front desk, where she began the monotonous task of scanning the books into the system. She took comfort in the boring familiarity of the task, allowing her mind to wander everywhere and nowhere in particular. This was another thing Esther relished; her job and her life held a sense of boring predictability that gave her peace of mind. “Hey ya!” Begrudgingly, Esther looked up from her daydream. The UPS man was beaming down at her. Joe was conventionally handsome and painfully ordinary. Esther didn’t think he’d ever had an original thought in his life. “I’ve got a package for ya, just need your John Hancock right here.” Joe handed Esther the clipboard, flashing her a smile. Esther forced a smile; it was a smile she wore often in public and it never reached her eyes. “How you doing today? Working hard or hardly working?” Joe laughed. “I’m fine.” Esther said, handing back the clipboard and taking the brown box in return. Joe nodded and left, waving his hand in a mock salute. Esther took the box into the back room for the library manager, Debbie. Esther didn’t know why, but Debbie loved to open boxes. Esther wasn’t about to deprive her of that joy. Stifling a yawn, Esther returned to scanning and sorting books. She hadn’t slept well the previous night, or any night the week before. As a child Esther always had vivid nightmares, and would wake screaming and covered in a cold sweat. When she was eight, her family moved from the remote country town in the woods to the small city she still lived in, and the dreams inexplicably stopped. Twenty-one years later the nightmares returned worse than before. A cold shiver ran down Esther’s spine at the foggy memory of monsters looming beyond her sight. “Esther,” Debbie rushed to where Esther sat sorting books, “the new shipment of first editions just arrived! I want you to work on one of the copies. Oh, you do read German, don’t you, dear?” “Fluently, why?” “Because this book isn’t in English. Oh, just come along and I’ll show you.” Eager for something new to read, Esther followed a chatting Debbie into the maze of back rooms. Esther’s manager was a portly woman who always wore pink and smiled far too much. Esther didn’t understand how someone could always be so happy. Debbie led Esther to a small room with excellent lighting and a small central table that was to be her workspace for the duration of the project. She pulled her long raven hair into a horribly crooked ponytail. With a defeated sigh, Esther pulled her hair out of its lopsided pony and braided it back instead. Donning her gloves, Esther set to work unpacking the carefully wrapped book. To her delight she saw the title read Kinder- und Hausmӓrchen: Children’s and Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Esther adored the original fairytales; she preferred the grittiness of the original stories over the silly cartoon adaptations. Esther thoroughly appraised and cared for the book, delighted to read some of the tales. “Esther?” Debbie said, knocking on her door. “My goodness, are you still back here? It’s already past 4:30, you know we close early on Mondays. I admire your work ethic but I didn’t mean for you to finish the book tonight, you silly goose.” “Is it that late already?” Easther asked thoughtfully. “I guess I got caught up in my work.” “You always do. Now hurry and get your things. I’m locking up soon.” Esther quickly and carefully put the book away. She rushed off to grab her bag, then met Debbie at the front door. Walking to her car, Esther waved goodbye. Esther’s apartment was close enough she could walk if she wanted, but with the return of her nightmares and sleepless nights she decided to save time and drive. In a daze, Esther parked her car and walked into the apartment building and up to the third floor. Eyelids heavy, Esther swayed dangerously close to toppling over and falling back down the stairs. “Esther! Oh good, I thought that was you.” Marv burst from her apartment, making Esther jump. “Good evening, Marv. How are you?” Esther said, yawing. “Ugh, listen to you, always so formal. You gotta loosen up, girl; live a little!” Marv nonchalantly followed Esther into her apartment, a practice Esther was accustomed to by now. Through no will of her own, Marv became the closest thing Esther had to a best friend. Marv stubbornly forced her friendship onto Esther, and Esther hadn’t cared enough to tell her to leave. “I live plenty, although not by your standards,” Esther quipped. “There you go again, girl, you’re killn’ me! You know you got some serious sass underneath all those sweaters.” Marv laughed at her own joke. “I told you, I wear sweaters because it’s cold in the library.” “It’s cold because you’re 5’1” and under a hundred pounds.” Marv rolled her eyes. Esther cursed under her breath. It was true, she was very petite and sometimes mistaken for a child in public—something she hated. “I didn’t come over here to talk to you about your attitude or your sweaters. I’m meeting my new girl at the club tonight, and I want you to come with us, have some fun.” “New girl? What happened to, what was his name, Steve?” Esther changed the subject. “Eh, I dropped him, he was too Alpha-male-y for my taste.” Esther laughed to herself. Marv always had a string of boys and girls in her life, inevitably finding something wrong with each after a few weeks. “Hey, don’t laugh, this girl could be the one!” “Oh really? You said the same thing about Mr. Alpha-male Steve not three weeks ago. I think you subconsciously sabotage all of your relationships, some before they even start.” “Oh come on, don’t start with me. Besides, Ms. Librarian, when was the last time you gave anyone a chance?” “Hmm… I think I flirted with the mailman the other day.” “You’re killin’ me, Esther. We gotta get you out of that library and out to meet some real people—some men.” “I meet plenty of men. I just don’t pursue any of them because I’m simply not interested in dating.” “You mean none of them match the overly masculine characters from those misogynistic books you love.” Esther sighed heavily. Marv was not entirely wrong. Literature gave Esther a high standard for men, but she grew tired of Marv’s constant political baiting. Esther was convinced if given the chance, Marv could find something to argue about with Mother Theresa. “Jane Austen wrote her books as satire, meant to mock the romance novels intended for the women of her time. She was a revolutionary, and a witty one at that.” “Ugh. Fine, but still come out with me tonight. Maybe we can find you a real guy to play with.” “I appreciate the invitation and your concern, Marv.” Esther rubbed her brow; she was getting a headache. “I’m really tired tonight, like I’m about to fall over. Raincheck?” “Yeah sure, I knew it was a long shot anyway. Have a good night, Esther. I’ll catch ya tomorrow.” “Have fun and be safe.” “For sure. Don’t wait up for me, doll.” Marv winked, closing the door behind her. Esther didn’t know what she would do without her; for all her downfalls Marv was still a good friend. Esther pulled off her shoes and went further into the apartment. It was small, sparsely furnished, and stale. “Viktor?” Esther called out. She didn’t know why, but Viktor always hid when Marv came over. “Meow.” Viktor came running from his hiding spot to greet Esther, his grey tail held aloft in the air, his ears alert. Esther rescued Viktor from a dumpster during a lightning storm when he was a kitten. In Esther’s opinion, it was the most heroic act she thought she’d done, or would ever do, in her life. “Hello, Viktor.” Esther knelt to the floor, scratching his ears. Viktor purred in appreciation. “How was your day? Did you escape and terrorize the neighborhood dogs again?” Esther laughed at the memory. “Meow.” Esther proceeded to tell Viktor about her day while she fed him; he was the best listener she knew. “We got a new shipment of first editions in today, and they’re letting me do one all by myself. So that was exciting, and to make it even better the book is a Brothers Grimm and—” “Meow!” “Yes, the Brothers Grimm are one of my favorites, too.” “Meow.” “And I get to appraise a first edition. But I must have gotten carried away in all my excitement, and somehow lost track of time and ended up in the back room for hours without even realizing it.” Esther stifled a yawn. “Meow!” “Oh Viktor, please don’t be like that. I’m not feeling very well and I’m too tired to play with you right now.” “Meow.” “When you finish your supper, you’re welcome to join me in bed.” Esther was too tired to care about eating her own dinner. Despite the early hour, she left the kitchen and went to get ready for bed. On any other night she would have stayed up, cooking herself dinner and playing with Viktor, but tonight she was struggling to keep her eyes open. No sooner Esther lay her head down than she was asleep. A few minutes later Viktor came and joined her on the bed. He stared at her sleeping form, just as he’d done on the night Esther’s nightmares returned and every night since. *** The air was thick with grey fog and the sky was darkening with the setting sun. Esther was surrounded by twisted trees whose leaves dropped long ago. The ground was cracking where roots twisted away from the trunks, desperate for water that wasn’t there. Esther heard a noise; something was moving in the distance. A cold chill ran over her, and her hair stood on end. The stale air stood still around her. She wasn’t alone. Unnerved, Esther stood alone with nothing but cold fog swirling around her. She was exposed. Making her way through the low branches and raised roots, Esther tried not to fall or make any noise. A sinking feeling formed in the pit of her stomach; someone, or something was stalking her. Panic crept through her; the forest of twisted trees never seemed to end. Her chest felt tight, and her breath came in shallow gasps as she ran blindly into the maze of trees. No longer being careful Esther bounded through the trees, crashing and snapping branches as she went. Her hands shook; she was desperate to be free of the never-ending darkness of trees and fog swallowing her whole. Esther’s foot caught on a root, and she fell hard to the ground. She pulled herself up, holding on to a branch to regain her footing. “Is it you, then? Have you finally arrived?” Esther turned to see a hooded man come out of the fog. When he saw her, he stopped short. “Based on your strange manner of dress, it must be you.” Esther now realized she was wearing her outfit from work that day, which she thought was very inappropriate for her present surroundings. The man was talking just above a whisper, in a thick accent that reminded Esther of a Scotsman. His manner was gruff and he carried a crossbow in his left hand, among other weapons strapped to his belts. He came closer to Esther, but she couldn’t see his face beneath his hood. “Oh, it’s about bloody time, lass. We’ve been in bad straits here for a while, awaitin’ your arrival. I’m mighty glad you’re here now.” The man rushed to greet her. Esther jumped back. “Excuse me, but who-who are you? And who exactly do you think I am?” Esther asked. “You mean you don’t know?” “Know? Know what?” “No, this isn’t right. Bollocks, that must be why it took you so long to get here. All right lass, listen to me. You’re in danger. I want to help you, but you’ve got to listen to me.” “Listen to you? I just-I just met you,” Esther said, raising her voice. “No lass, please be quiet. I’m not here to hurt ya. Believe me, I’m the least of your worries in this forest. The wolves are lookin’ for you, and if you don’t know who you are that makes you vulnerable. Let me help you out of the forest.” The man stretched out a hand to Esther. “Don’t-don’t touch me! Get away from me!” Esther yelled, slapping the man’s hand away. She started to run again. “No, don’t!” The man started running after her. Her heart pounding and lungs burning, Esther dodged roots and branches. She changed direction without reason, becoming helplessly lost in her attempt to lose the man. With her palms clammy and limbs shaking Esther leaned against a tree, desperate to catch her breath. She opened her eyes to look around herself. Satisfied she was alone Esther left the tree, trying to regain her bearings. Determined to get herself out of the forest. Esther’s blood ran cold, realizing there was something behind her. Hot, warm breath was on her neck. Slowly, she turned around. She looked up into a pair of horrible, glowing red eyes and a bloodied muzzle. Esther’s bone-chilling scream echoed through the dead trees. *** Esther jolted upright in her bed, heart racing. Her night shirt clinging to her clammy skin, her face slick with sweat. Viktor sat up, watching her compose herself. “Just a dream, it was just a dream,” Esther said, rubbing her sweat-slick face. She’d woke with a headache. “Meow.” “I think I’ve been reading too many fantasy books, Viktor.” Esther reached forward, scratching Viktor’s ears. “Maybe I should try some non-fiction today, clear out the subconscious.” Esther stretched and looked at her clock. It was 6:30 AM; she slept for over twelve hours. Getting up from bed and monotonously going through her morning routine, Esther thought nothing more of her dream. She took care to give Viktor extra attention between bites of her breakfast and when she was getting washed up. With her head aching, Esther drove to work again. She spent most of the morning cataloguing and sorting books. In preparation to continue working on the Brothers Grimm, she tied her raven hair back into a braid and took several pain pills with a sports drink. The time she spent with the book passed uneventfully like the day before, but today Esther was able to read more of the stories. “Esther?” Debbie knocked on the door. “It’s late. If you keep working this hard I’m going to have to give you my job. How’s it going with the book?” “It’s coming along well, but I think this edition may be a pre-first edition.” “What do you mean, dear?” “Well, the date in the book says May 1810, but I know the first publication of the fairytales was in December 1812. Also, some of the details in the stories are different from the commonly accepted versions. For instance, instead of the birds scratching out the ugly stepsisters’ eyes, Cinderella removes them with her bare hands. And if you look here, there are handwritten notes in the margins made from two different handwritings.” Debbie looked at the notes Esther was pointing to. “My gosh, you’re right. Are you thinking this was a sample book from the publisher before the final release?” “It’s possible,” Esther said, “Oh, that’s so exciting!” Debbie clapped her stubby hands together, “But something about this book is odd. For one thing, there seem to be English translations in the back of the book. Why would German authors have English translations in their manuscript? And there are some notes here that don’t make sense; it’s almost like they’re talking about real events.” “Oh, you know how authors get so wrapped up in their work!” Debbie waved her hand dismissively. “Good work, Esther. Now go home and enjoy your evening. You’re young, you work too hard.” Esther packed up the book, took off her gloves, and looked at her watch. She’d spent six hours in the back room with the book, but it only felt like moments. Esther wondered what was happening, how was she losing so many hours of her day without realizing it? Why was it taking this long for her to complete the book? Esther was still contemplating the book when she got home. She vowed to finish her work tomorrow and put it all behind her. Walking into the apartment building, Esther saw Marv checking her mail. “Good evening, Marv. How was last night?” “Hey girl, last night was so much fun I didn’t even come home! How ‘bout you? Did the librarian have herself a one-woman party?” “No, I was boring last night; I was in bed before six. I think I’ll be doing the same tonight. I woke up with a terrible headache and I’m still tired.” “Ah, you probably got sick from all the damned kids at the library. You don’t have a fever, do you?” Marv slapped her hand against Esther’s forehead. “No. And I’m not sure I have cold, not yet.” “All right, but take care of yourself; if you need it take a day off. Believe it or not, the library will survive without you for one day. Okay?” “Yes, of course.” “I’m gonna head out for a bit. Call me if you need anything, ya hear?” “Thank you, Marv.” Esther waved goodbye, climbing the stairs to her apartment. Viktor eagerly greeted Esther at the door. Meowing, he danced in small circles before coming up to rub her legs. “Well hello, Viktor. How was your day?” Viktor followed Esther into the kitchen, still rubbing against her legs. “I hope you had a better day than I did. For some reason it’s taking me forever to finish working on that book. Every time I sit down with it, it’s almost like time warps.” “Meow.” “Well, it doesn’t help I have a headache and I still feel tired and worn out. I feel old, Viktor. What’s a girl to do?” “Meow.” “Maybe I am getting a cold… That would explain why my workdays have been weird. I hope you stay healthy, Viktor; that would be a nightmare. Speaking of, I hope I don’t have another one tonight. Have you been having nightmares, too, Viktor? I suppose you can’t tell me if you had.” Esther pulled items out of her pantry and rummaged through her fridge while she talked. “What shall we dine on tonight, Viktor? It looks like I have the makings for Tabbouleh, but I also have leftover pasta that needs to be eaten. What do you think, Viktor? Do you feel like cooking tonight? No, me neither.” Esther pulled out the pasta, scooped it into a bowl, and put it in the microwave. “Shall we see what we have in the Fancy Feast department? Ah-ha, you have the choice of ocean whitefish or shredded turkey. Which do you want, darling?” Esther held the two cans down to Viktor; he sniffed each one then rubbed against the shredded turkey. “Poultry, a wise choice.” Sitting down to eat, Esther began to feel how tired she really was. Lazily finishing her food, her eyelids started drooping. Esther forced herself to clean her dishes before getting ready for bed. Half dressed, Esther fell asleep atop her covers. Viktor came and stood over her, watching her sleeping face for several minutes before lying down himself. *** Esther was distraught to find herself in the familiar forest of dead trees. This time the sky wasn’t as dark and the fog not as thick. She was again wearing the skirt and heels she wore to work. Irritated, Esther thought her dreams could at least let her wear hiking boots if they were going to leave her stranded in the woods. Esther wandered the woods without seeing a single living creature. All was quiet around her, too quiet, and she grew uneasy. Esther tried to walk in a direction where the trees gave the illusion of thinning, determined to find her own way out. She turned to look over her shoulder, afraid she would run into the hooded man again or, worse yet, the foul creature from last night. Stumbling around a large tree in her path, Esther found herself face-to-face with several of the monsters with glowing red eyes like the night before. They were almost eight feet tall if they stood fully upright, with long arms and legs ending in slender hand-like claws. Their ribs and spines showed through their taut and dirty skin, which was covered in patches of matted fur. Below their glowing red eyes, were snouts full of yellowed fangs that reeked of death. Esther’s voice caught in her throat, staring wide-eyed in horror. There were four of them crowded around a once-living body, of what species Esther could not tell. A fifth one stood three feet in front of her, fresh gore matting its muzzle. Esther was paralyzed with fear. The monster stood there, looking her in the eyes, thinking. Snarling, it reached out to grab her. An arrow pierced its head, splattering blood onto Esther’s face, its lifeless form falling at her feet. Looking up from the kill Esther saw the hooded man. Crossbow in hand, he engaged the other creatures. Walking around them, he fired his weapon. His second and third arrows landed true, killing instantly. Of the two creatures remaining one leapt at the man, grabbing his neck and pulling him in close. Snarling in his face it ripped the crossbow from his hands, throwing it aside. The man pulled a dagger from his belt, slamming it into the creature’s shoulder. The monster howled in pain. The man slammed his fist into the monster’s elbow, causing the creature to drop him to the ground. Staggering to his feet the man stepped back, drawing a broadsword. The creatures flanked him, snarling, waiting for the kill shot to open. The man held his weapon firmly, unwavering in the face of danger. The uninjured creature was the first to pounce, snarling, claws raised for the throat. In one smooth motion the man shifted his feet, swinging his arms, bringing the blade across the creature’s body. Slicing it from hip to shoulder it howled in pain, clutching its bleeding torso. The man advanced on the second creature, his dagger still protruding from its shoulder. Esther couldn’t help but marvel at how the man danced with the monsters before him. In a few fluid movements the man cut the second monster in half at the waist. He rounded on the other. The creature hunched forward, flexing its claws and baring its fangs. The man ran at it, swinging his blade across its neck, the severed head rolling onto his boot. Kicking the severed head away from him, he gathered and cleaned his weapons. “Nice to see you again, lass.” The man’s voice broke Esther from her trance, and she realized she was staring at him with her mouth hanging open. “Will you please follow me this time, so I don’t have to keep runnin’ around here tryin’ to find ya again? It’s a lot harder than it looks, what with you disappearin’ and all.” He stood in front of Esther, hood drawn low over his face. Esther felt this was her cue to say something, to thank him for saving her. She tried to talk but she couldn’t force herself to open her mouth, let alone form words. “My name is Oisin, and I’m a Huntsman. It’s my job to kill the wolves and keep them from terrorizin’ the villages.” He handed Esther a cloth to clean the blood from her face. She extended a shaking hand. “Still not sure you trust me, eh?” Oisin sighed. “Well, I’m supposed to take ya to Grey Keep, that’s where myself and the other Huntsman live. I’m supposed to take you there and keep ya safe.” “W-Why do you want to take me to this grey fortress or whatever? And why do you want to keep me safe?” “Grey Keep, lass. And because you’re the Realm Walker, why else? Now come along, it’s a long walk.” “What did you just call me? A Realm Walker?” “You really don’t know, do you? Then, are ya only comin’ here by accident? Have you not got anyone from your family you can ask?” “My father is all that’s left. But I certainly do not remember hearing the term ‘Realm Walker’ at family dinners. Now if you please, this is all just a dream and I need to wake up now. So, thank you for saving me, it was nice to meet you. Goodbye.” Esther made to leave; remembering she still held Oisin’s cloth, she turned back, holding it out to him. “No, lass. You keep it.” Esther started walking away again. “Well, lass, if you really think this is a dream, then tell me what’s the harm in you humorin’ me and comin’ to Grey Keep?” Oisin caught up, walking alongside her. Esther eyed the hooded man skeptically. “Fine.” “Great. It’s this way.” Oisin steered Esther in a different direction. “Esther. My name is Esther.” “Oisin the Huntsman. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Esther,” Oisin said, making a formal bow, then continued walking. They walked in silence, Oisin stopping occasionally to look ahead. He redirected them around and away from groups of the creatures. “What are they, those things?” Esther whispered. “Wolves. Ain’t you ever seen a wolf before, lass?” “Wolves? I’ve never seen a wolf that looked like that before! They’re over seven feet tall, and they have hands, with claw-finger things.” “Not sure what you’re used to, but those are wolves,” Oisin stated mater-of-factly. “The wolves I know of walk on four legs, have a fluffy tail, and they only stand maybe hip height on a human.” “Well, that’s not frightenin’ at all. Sounds like a wee little thing. No wonder you stood there lookin’ a fright.” “As long as we don’t have to fight flying monkeys next, I think I’ll be fine.” “Flyin’ what?” “It’s from… never mind.” Oisin saw a small group of wolves close to them, and had Esther hide behind a tree. She held her breath, afraid to make any noise. Oisin signaled for Esther to stay still, cautiously walking around the tree, raising his crossbow. A wolf jumped from behind a neighboring tree, knocking Oisin to the ground. Another wolf ran straight at Esther, its teeth inches from her face. *** Esther woke screaming, her heart racing, covered in sweat. She looked at Viktor. He was sitting at the end of the bed, watching her. She reached out a hand to him, and he gladly walked over to her. Esther found comfort in her fingers tangled in the familiar, soft grey fur, his purrs tickling her fingertips. When he was satisfied with the amount of attention he received, Viktor went back to sleep at the foot of the bed. It was still early and Esther’s head was pounding, her limbs shaking. She thought a bath would help sooth her ailments. Drawing a tub of warm water, she added her favorite Epsom salts. The scent of the eucalyptus bath salts surrounded her, calming her nerves. Sinking into the tub she let out a sigh of relief, letting the warm water engulf her. Her taut muscles slowly relaxed, and she willed her mind to stay quiet. Despite her best efforts, Esther’s thoughts drifted to her dreams. She pondered her conversation with the man, Oisin. What could he have meant, calling her a Realm Walker and telling her to ask her family about it? Why were those terrible monsters called wolves, and why were they after her? Try as she might, Esther could not stop thinking about the mysterious hooded man from her dreams. He was frightfully strong and skilled at combat, yet he seemed kind. But could she trust his kindness? Esther wondered why he kept his hood drawn; perhaps it was to protect his face, or to hide it. Perhaps he was no man at all. Regardless of her opinion of him, she left him in a compromising situation. She wondered if he would survive. “Oh, you silly foolish girl! Of course he’ll live! He’s nothing more than a figment of your imagination; if your imagination lives, he lives,” Esther chided herself. The more Esther thought of her dream, the more her head hurt. The pain became so intense that she curled in on herself, holding her head in her hands and yelling. In the back of her mind Esther thought she heard the distant echo of blades, snarling, and someone calling her name. Esther concluded she was ill; it was the only logical explanation for her head hurting so much and her dreams being so vivid. Leaving her bath she wrapped herself in a robe, made a pot of tea, and called Debbie. She left a message, explaining she was ill and hoped to return to work tomorrow. Esther sat on the couch, sipping tea and nibbling toast, Viktor at her side. The pain in her head all but ruined her appetite, but she knew taking pain pills on an empty stomach was a bad idea. When the medicine did nothing to ease her misery, Esther resorted to lying on the couch with an ice pack on her forehead. She struggled drowning out her thoughts, only making the pain worse. She turned on the television, keeping it quiet. There was a marathon playing on one of the stations; it was a romantic drama Esther hated, with actors she couldn’t stand. Esther despised most romance stories. It seemed to her the plots were flat and the characters were vapid and selfish. Rather than simply talking to one another they let their pride get in the way, causing ridiculous misunderstandings. Esther thought perhaps this attitude was why dating was so unappealing to her. With several episodes passed and her ice melted, Esther’s pain did not ebb. She wondered if fresh air and spicy food would do her well. A wonderful Thai restaurant around the block reminded Esther of her mother’s home cooking; it always brought her comfort when she was ill. Forcing herself from the couch, Esther dressed in her most comfortable jeans and a hoodie. She usually took care in how she presented herself at work, but on sick days she really didn’t care. Putting her hair in a ratty bun and dropping her pain pills into her purse, Esther left her apartment. Once outside she tried to concentrate on her breathing, willing the fresh air to clear her head. The restaurant was nestled in a small strip on Front Street, with other small shops and restaurants. Walking mechanically Esther stared at her shoes, not paying attention to the people around her. Esther passed a New Age bookstore complete with crystal balls and tarot cards. The owner was outside, saying goodbye to a customer. She stopped short when she saw Esther. “You there. Girl.” Esther looked up from her shoes, the store owner blocking her path. Deep wrinkles ran across her face, framing her mouth and crowning her forehead. Her small frame shriveled from age was lost inside the countless colorful shawls hanging from her shoulders, while bright blue scarves were haphazardly tied into her wiry grey hair. She spoke with a thick Russian accent. “Can I help you?” Esther tried to be polite, but she disliked psychics more than she disliked small talk with strangers. “I think it is I who can help you, child. My name is Nikita.” “Excuse me?” “Tell me, are you plagued with headaches made worse by your dreams?” “Sorry, but I really—” “You know nothing of the powers you possess, nor of the danger you are in. Please come inside, let me help you.” “N-no, I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I-I need to leave now.” “Wait, please! Before you leave, take my card.” Nikita put her card in Esther’s purse without giving her the chance to refuse. “The time will come when you will seek answers.” Without another word Esther ran off, ducking into the safe familiarity of the Thai restaurant. She went up to the counter, ordered a jungle curry, hot, with tofu soup, and sat down in a daze. Her interaction with Nikita was making her uneasy. Overwhelmed with the urge to be back in her apartment with Viktor, Esther went up to the counter and asked for her order to go. Leaving the restaurant with her dinner, Esther saw Nikita outside her shop with another customer. Esther hesitated in the doorway, then crossed the street before walking away. Her head pounding and palms sweating, Esther felt eyes on her while she walked. Once home, Esther fed Viktor his dinner and sat on the couch with her food. Normally she held a strict ‘no meals on the couch’ policy, but today she hastily abandoned it. She took more pain pills and started on her curry, hoping it would have the desired effect. Her curry half-eaten and a double dose of pills in her churning stomach, Esther’s pain was becoming blinding. Stumbling into the kitchen she took a shot of sake, then another. Pulling another icepack from the freezer, she slogged back to the couch. With a fresh icepack on her head, Esther tried to drown out her thoughts and will away the pain. Her mind stubbornly wandered back to her dreams and the conversation with the psychic. Her pain intensified. Esther never held much stock in anyone claiming to have supernatural abilities, yet she couldn’t help but wonder about the woman she met. It was odd enough to have such vivid dreams, but someone outside of her dreams repeating the same words was enough to make her question everything she knew. Surely this was an elaborate joke her mind was playing on her. Esther thought having a headache for weeks at a time was clearly inhibiting her cognition. Angry with herself, Esther forced the thoughts from her mind and pulled a blanket over her head. After a few fitful minutes, Esther was asleep. *** Finding herself in the forest of dead trees, Esther whined with annoyance. Fog hung heavy in the dark air, and thick grey clouds masked the moon and stars. “Damn it!” Esther yelled, slamming her fist into the closest tree trunk. “Is that you, lass?” Oisin’s voice pierced the darkness. “Oisin, where are you?” “Behind you.” Esther stumbled through the darkness until she found Oisin leaning against a tree, his hood drawn closer to his face. Kneeling in front of him, she was thankful this time she was wearing jeans in her dream. “Are you hurt? What happened?” “They knocked me down and you disappeared again. You know, you’ve a nasty habit of doin’ that every time the wolves get close.” Sitting up, Oisin involuntarily winced. “You disappearin’ caught ‘em off guard and gave me a fightin’ chance to get back on my feet. After I disposed of the lot, I figured I’d wait here for ya. Here you are. You seem to always reappear close to where you disappeared from, so that's at least helpful.” Oisin made to get to his feet, when Esther noticed his sleeve was torn and bloody. “You hurt your arm,” Esther said. “Don't fret, it's just a scratch.” There was a large gash in the middle of his forearm caked in blood. “Oisin, this looks bad; do you have anything I can clean or tie it off with?” Esther looked around in vain; she had nothing on her and Oisin seemed to only carry weapons. “Really lass, don’t bother. I’ve had worse.” Oisin stood up, slinging his crossbow over his shoulder with his good arm. “Come along now, we’ve a long way to go yet.” Walking in silence, they stayed close together; it was necessary, given the limited visibility. Oisin dutifully led Esther through the maze of dead trees. Using the shadows and fog to their advantage, they remained hidden from the wolves. “Just over there is the clearing; we’ll be out of the wood in no time,” Oisin said. “After that the walk to the keep is about half a day’s walk, but there’s a road. You’ve almost made it, lass.” “Thank you.” “For what?” “For helping me; for saving me.” “It’s my job to keep you safe, lass, and keep you safe is what I’ll do.” Oisin’s words were low. Esther thought she imagined it but the man sounded distracted, sad. It wasn’t long before they reached the clearing. Esther took in her new surroundings with zealous curiosity. Gently rolling hills fell away into the darkness, a beaten dirt road twisting between them, disappearing into the horizon. Stepping away from the throng of dead trees, Oisin let out an audible sigh of relief. It was lighter in the clearing, allowing Esther to get a better look at the hooded man. His clothing reminded her of something from 'Robin Hood'; a long sleeved brown tunic, a green hood casting his face in shadow. His hands were callused and gnarled from years of hard living; Esther wondered if his face matched them. He carried a broadsword on his left hip, a quiver of arrows on his right, crossbow slung across his shoulder. He was not a remarkably tall or broad man but he was stout, with sturdy footing. Esther’s head just reached the top of his shoulders. Walking towards the road, they heard rustling behind them. Esther froze, turning to face the trees. Oisin put his arm in front of her, guiding her behind him. Raising his crossbow, Oisin watched them. Esther’s muscles seized; she forgot how to move. Seven wolves emerged from the fog, walking into the clearing, surrounding them. A howl filled the night air, ear-piercing and menacing; it rang in Esther’s ears. The wolves ran at them. Oisin fired his crossbow, and one wolf fell to its death. Before he had time to reload, they were on him. Tossing the crossbow aside, he pulled out his broadsword. Esther stumbled backwards. Five wolves surrounded Oisin. Leaping, snarling and biting, they taunted him at arm’s length. Esther felt a cold chill run up her spine. She was isolated, defenseless. The sixth wolf stalked her hungrily. No matter how her head screamed she was in danger, her feet remained frozen to the ground. “Run!” Oisin called out. “Esther, run!” Breaking from her trance Esther turned, running to the road. She foolishly thought if only she could make it to the road, she could outrun the monster chasing her. It reached out, grabbing her ankle. Esther fell hard to the ground. Quickly, she rolled onto her back, pressing her arms into the monster’s chest. Suffocating her with its warm hot breath the wolf snapped its teeth inches from her face, drool dripping from its foul muzzle. Tensing her entire body, Esther pushed her arms up into the wolf. She had enough space to pull her knees up to her chest and kicked repeatedly, stunning the creature long enough to crawl out from underneath it. The wolf snarled; rather than causing any real damage, she simply provoked it. The wolf grabbed at her, its claws running deep cuts down her leg. Esther cried out in pain. The wolf gained a firm grip on her injured leg, dragging her back. She clawed at the ground, kicking and thrashing to get away. “Esther!”


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