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  • Writer's pictureT.R. Slauf

Hidden Realm: Chapter 2, Truths & Heartbreaks


Heart pounding in her ears, Esther awoke kicking and screaming. Waiting for her heart rate to stabilize, she gained her bearings; she’d fallen asleep on the couch in her clothing, her half-eaten curry still on the coffee table. Viktor sat on the coffee table next to the curry, watching her.

“Viktor, these nightmares are going to be the death of me!”

Esther exclaimed. Her dream left her tired and strung out. Forcing herself from the couch, she went into her bedroom.

Looking at the alarm clock she saw it was early, hours before the sun would rise.

Not wanting to be idle, she decided to take care of her clothing from the day before.

Her skirt and blouse were uncharacteristically strewn across the floor. Brushing off her skirt, she noticed a soft bulge in the pocket. She pulled out a small cloth with dried blood smeared across it, the same cloth Oisin had given her.

“No … there must … there must be some explanation for this.” Esther dropped the cloth and the skirt back on to the floor. She paced the small, stale apartment, trying to reason a logical explanation. Her head began throbbing.

Her headache worsening by the second, Esther gave up pacing. Going into the bathroom, she turned on the shower. Letting the water run, hot steam filled the small room while she removed her clothes. “Impossible,” Esther whispered, running her fingers over her right leg.

Three long cuts ran from her knee to her ankle; they were shallow, and covered in clotted blood. Her ankle was swollen and badly bruised. Thoroughly disturbed, Esther jumped under the hot stream of water.

Clutching her sides she pulled in on herself, letting the warm water run over her. She stared at her blood running from her leg; swirling in the water, it disappeared down the drain.

“What the hell is going on?” Esther whispered to herself. Her chest tightened, and her breath came in shallow gasps. Waves of emotion rocked her small frame.

She looked down at her leg. The injuries were real; surely even a madwoman could not have made those up. Questions filled her mind faster than she could fathom. Staying under the steady stream of water, she thought about everything that happened and what her next move should be.

After she washed, dried, and dressed, Esther took care of Viktor. Giving him a tight hug and kissing him on the head, she set him down and found herself some breakfast. She didn’t feel much like eating, but she knew she would regret it later if she didn’t.

Esther picked up Viktor, scratching his ears while she held him. “I’m going out for the day. I should be back before dinner; if I’m not, I’ll call Marv to come feed you.” Pulling him close, she relished the soft hum of his purrs against her chest.

Regretfully, she set Viktor down. “Have a good day; I’ll be back later. I love you.”

Meow.

Esther grabbed her bag and left the apartment. She got into her car and started the long drive to the retirement center where her father lived.

Esther’s parents were third- and fourth-generation Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants. Her mother was a nurse and her father a banker. They settled down late in life, already in their late forties when Esther came along. Her mother died from a heart attack when she was only seventeen. Although she missed her terribly, she never felt bitter about being left alone with her father.

Her father moved himself into a retirement facility as soon as Esther finished college and established a place of her own. She tried for months to talk him into staying with her, but he was insistent. He didn’t want to be a burden on her young life, and he had been lonely since her mother passed.

Esther pulled her car into the parking lot of Willow Tree Retirement Home. With a heavy heart, she signed herself into the guest book: Visitor: Esther Wan Resident: James Li Wan Rooms were scattered with walkers, residents sat at tables talking, playing games, and reading books. It was after lunch, and she had an idea of where to find him.

“Esther!” her father’s voice came from across the room. He was sitting at a table, playing cards. She ran over to greet him, stooping to hug him in his chair. “Hello, Father.”

“Ah, my dear, it’s good to see you, but why are you here? Shouldn’t you be out enjoying your youth?” This was a comment Esther received often from her father, from Debbie, and from Marv. The only problem was she hadn’t the slightest idea how she was supposed to be enjoying her youth.

“I came to see you, and the most handsome men I know,” Esther said, turning to the table of men her father was playing cards with. “Nice to see you all again. I trust you’ve all been staying out of trouble?”

“Oh, not since old John here tried to steal the pudding,” Bart said

“I woulda made it out, too, if only this damned thing hadn’t shorted out on me,” John said, hitting his fist on his electric scooter. “Besides, who you calling old?”

“What was that? You talking smack about me in front of the pretty lady?” Bart asked. Esther laughed.

“Oh, be quiet, you two! I’m sure Esther didn’t come all this way to listen to a bunch of old coots arguing,” Leroy scolded them.

“Actually, I was wondering if I could steal my father away for a little bit,” Esther said.

“Ah, take him, he’s losing anyway,” John said with a wave of his twisted hand.

“I am not! You only want me gone cuz I’m kicking your ass.” Her father laughed.

Esther helped her father up from his chair, steadying his walker. They walked a short distance to a couch against the side wall. Her father was unsteady on his feet and had an electric scooter he used for long trips. But he was just stubborn enough to insist on walking everywhere he could.

The two of them sat and talked, catching up on each other’s lives since the last time she visited. After several minutes of idle chatter, Esther’s mind began to fog with her questions.

“What’s on your mind, dear?” her father asked. “I can tell there’s something bothering you.”

“It seems silly, but I’ve been having some strange dreams lately and they brought up some questions.” Esther chose her words carefully.

“What kind of dreams are they?”

Esther thought for a moment before answering; she didn’t want to lie, but she also didn’t want to tell him the whole truth. “Dreams about wolves.”

“Ah, I see.” Her father’s face was stricken with sadness.

“This doesn’t surprise you, does it?”

“Well, no, it doesn’t, but I rather wished this day had never come.”

“What do you mean?”

“Esther, you mustn’t be angry with your mother and me; we did what we thought was best for you. What the doctors told us to do.” The old man took in several shallow, shaking breaths. “Your mother and I were childless for most of our marriage. We always wanted a family, but it somehow never happened for us and we made our peace with that. Then you came along.

“The hospital your mother used to work at in Harrington … it was the closest one to the woods, all the other hospitals were several towns over. When the rangers found injured hikers, they took them there. In the summer months there was a steady stream of them; injured, hungry, dirty, and disoriented, it made no difference to her. One day the Rangers brought in a little girl and your mother’s heart broke. The girl was no more than five. She was found alone, covered in mud and blood; blood that wasn’t hers.

“The Rangers said the girl’s parents died while on a hike, said it looked like they were attacked by wild animals. Odd thing about it all, though, the most dangerous animal in those woods was wolves. The wolves out there normally don’t attack humans unless they’re rabid, or desperate …

“The doctors tried to ask the little girl what happened, but the poor thing was in shock. She woke up with amnesia; doctors said it was her mind’s way of protecting itself from the trauma. It’s always best for the lost memories to come back on their own if they ever come back.”

Esther stared at her father; his eyes grew red and brimmed with tears held back for years. Her head was spinning, and she struggled to focus on the room around her.

“You know, your mother’s favorite Bible story was Esther, the unlikely queen who saved her people.” Her trance was broken. She searched her father’s face, creased with worry and age.

“We were scared for you, we wanted you to forget the trauma you’d endured at such an early age. We wanted to give you a happy life.”

“You did what was best,” Esther’s voice quivered, and she looked without seeing. She was adopted; her birth parents died a bloody death she witnessed but could not remember. Nonetheless, she was raised in a happy home and was loved deeply.

“You raised me as your daughter, and you will always be my parents.”

“Oh, my dear, you have no idea how good it is to hear you say that.”

Esther squeezed her father’s knotted hands.

“I’ve been dreading this day for years, and now I think I can finally find some peace.”

“You had nothing to worry about,” Esther reassured her father, looking deep into his cataract-filled eyes. “Did I—did I have any injuries when I was found?”

“You were dehydrated, bordering on hypothermia. Oh, and your ankle was scratched and swollen. They think you might have fallen.”

“I see.” Esther’s head was spinning.

She sat beside her father, holding his hand, trying to ground herself. She didn’t want to let go of him, the last thing in her life that made any sense. The longer she stewed in her thoughts, the more uneasy she became. Becoming restless with anxiety Esther needed to move, to get up, to leave, to go somewhere. Anywhere.

“Well, Father, I think I have kept you from your card game long enough. Who knows what those boys have gotten into while you were gone.”

Masking her emotions, she helped her father back to his table of friends.

Esther hugged him tight, whispering in his ear, “Thank you—thank you for everything.”

“You running off already, Esther?” Leroy asked.

“I’m sure a young lady like you has a hot date waiting for her back home. I don’t blame her for leaving us old farts here,” Bart said.

“She’s not leaving us, she’s leaving you!” John said.

“All right you three, I’ll see you later. Take care of my father for me while I’m gone,” she said. After waving their goodbyes, she rushed out to her car. Slamming the key into the ignition, she sped away.

During the long drive back home, she contemplated her newfound life history. She thought about growing up in Harrington and how her nightmares stopped when they moved away. But mostly she thought about her parents; her mother’s homemade Mapo Tofu, and Tam Kha Gai, the stories she listened to every night as a child. She thought about how her father changed when her mother died. How they both changed.

Before she knew it she found herself driving down Front Street, the small shops slowly passing her by. Nikita was outside, clad in bright blue scarves and multi-colored shawls. She bid farewell to a customer and was returning to the incense-filled den that was her shop.

Esther jerked the steering wheel and slammed on the brakes, making a hard and fast decision to pull over. She parked her car then marched into Nikita’s shop.

Dusty scarves were draped over lamps, making it hard to see, and Esther’s eyes stung from the smoke. “Hello, child, back so soon?” Nikita asked. She was shuffling a deck of large, tattered blue cards, sitting at a small, round table beyond the shelves of books and crystals on display.

“You told me you could give me answers. I need them,” Esther choked out through the incense. “How did you know about my parents? How did you know about my dreams?”

“Sit down, child.” Nikita gestured to the chair across from her.

Esther clumsily sat down, twisting her long raven hair tight between her trembling fingers.

“I know many things, child, and you are in possession of a great power the likes of which is disappearing from this earth. Being ignorant to that power and what hunts you is lethal. I can give you the answers you desire, but I warn you … you will never be able to turn back from this moment. You can never unknow what you will learn, and you can never run from what you must do.”

Nikita’s words hung heavy in the smoky air. Sitting on the dusty cushion, surrounded by crystals and totems, Esther felt horribly out of place. She began to second-guess herself. White-hot pain seared her leg, and her doubts were cut short.

“Do it,” Esther whispered.

Nikita drew cards from her deck, arranging them in the shape of a diamond. She turned over the Chariot card. “You are a traveler between this realm and the others.”

Next came the Death card. “You were hunted as a child because of this.”

The card of the Hanged Man was next. “Your true parents sacrificed themselves to save you and your gifts.”

The Lovers card. “You have met the one who shall be your protector.”

The Knight of Swords was turned over. “For the task before you is dangerous.”

Nikita flipped the Five of Cups. “Many sacrifices will be made.”

The card of the Devil. “Evil will tempt you.”

She then turned over the card of the Empress. “You must unite an army to fight it.”

The Wheel of Fortune was next. “Your person will be forever altered by this journey.”

The penultimate card was the card of the Sun. “But you will be triumphant.”

And finally the card of the Enchantress. “Because only you can complete this task.”

Nikita looked up from the table of cards. “Will you accept your responsibility, honor your parents’ sacrifices, and become the Realm Walker you were meant to be?”

“But how—how do I do that?” Esther asked.

“How have you done it before?”

“If I knew that I wouldn’t be asking.”

“Think, child! You know more than you think you do.”

“Every time it’s happened, I was asleep.”

“What had you done before you slept?”

“I was at work. With the book.”

“Ah. What book?”

“An original Brothers Grimm with handwritten notes in it.”

“The Grimmwa.”

“A Grimmwa? You mean like a spell book?”

“Yes, the spell book of the original Walkers.”

“Wait, are you saying the Grimm Brothers were Walkers?”

“Yes. Child. That is what the stories are about. The other place to which you must travel.”

“But how can I stay there? I can’t even control it.”

“That is because you were not traveling there in mind and body. You must consciously travel there; body, mind, and spirit as one.”

“But if I was only traveling there subconsciously how was I able to feel or touch anything? How did I get hurt?”

“If something is happening in your mind, does that mean it isn’t real?” Nikita challenged. “The mind is a powerful thing, my child.”

Esther was taken aback; she never thought of it like that before. She almost started to believe Nikita’s words. “That still doesn’t explain how my birth parents’ deaths are related to this. Why do I have the same injuries now that I had when they died?”

“The evil that hunts you is growing stronger by the day, but it is still learning. Testing its magick. When that happens, mistakes can be made. Last night, the evil tried to follow you here to this realm so it could attack you without your protector. But they haven’t mastered the spell yet.

“Instead of following you home, it split itself. One form in its home realm, the other in this realm’s past—in your past. You were attacked in your dreams and as a child in the woods; your parents fought it off to protect you. When your protector killed it in its home realm, it ceased to exist in this realm.

“The evil is getting closer to mastering the spell, to being able to cross realms as you do so easily. When that happens you will never be safe again, none of us will. You must go there now, body and spirit, to finish what has been started.”

“How?” Esther asked before she could stop herself.

“I know a spell that will aid you, but I need time to prepare it and it must be done between days.”

“Between days? You mean midnight?”

“Yes, child; what else would it mean?”

“Fair enough.” Esther shifted in her seat, twisting her hair. “When could you have the spell ready?”

“This midnight if you so wish, but you must know: Once the spell is cast, I will be unable to aid in your return. You must stay there until your task is complete.” Nikita paused, watching Esther. “If you wish to travel this midnight, I will need your decision in no less than one hour.”

“Okay.” Esther stood, hurrying for the door. Nikita escorted her outside, as she did with every customer.

Walking to her car, Esther thought about everything Nikita said. The skeptic in her was growing steadily weaker against her desperate desire for answers. For a brief moment, she allowed herself to ponder the possibilities; herself on a grand adventure in a magical land. She wondered about not returning to her life, but did she truly have a life to return to?

Her thoughts were cut short by the loud mechanical sound of her cell phone ringing in her purse. Annoyed with herself, Esther dug the phone out and answered it.

“Hello?”

“Hello, this is Wendy from the Willow Tree Retirement Home. Am I speaking with a Ms. Esther Wan, daughter of Mr. James Li Wan?”

“Yes, this is she.”

“Esther, I’m afraid I have some bad news. Your father had a heart attack. As I’m sure you’re aware, Mr. Wan had a legal DNR in place. Esther, honey, I’m sorry, but your father has passed.”

“But I—but I just—I just saw him a few hours ago,” Esther’s voice wavered and her hands shook; she didn’t want to believe what she was hearing.

“I know you did. This happened soon after you left. I am sorry to have to ask you this, but did your father have his funeral plans set out with his lawyer?”

“Yes,” Esther said through the tears burning her eyes and the sobs wracking her small frame. “Yes, all of that information is with his lawyer. Thank you for calling me. Do not expect me at the funeral.” Esther hung up her phone and threw it into traffic. The plastic frame cracked and the glass screen shattered on the asphalt.

Esther stood on the sidewalk, tears blurring her vision, watching car after car pass over her phone, scattering the pieces, further solidifying her decision. Wiping the tears from her cheeks, she turned and marched back into Nikita’s shop.

Barging through the door, chimes tinkled and bells rang. Nikita sat casually at the round table, shuffling her cards, not looking up to greet Esther.

“I agree,” Esther said, her voice giving way. “Tonight. What do you need from me?”

“Oh, not much.” Nikita continued to shuffle her cards. “You will need the Grimm book, what you love most in the world, and I suggest you pack yourself a bag.”

“When should I be here?”

“Forty minutes before midnight. I’ll leave the door unlocked.”

Esther nodded, making a mental list of what she needed, and left the shop. She walked back to her car in a daze, not noticing the people she walked by or bumped into, or the vendors beckoning her inside. Esther didn’t notice the rest of the world was still turning while hers came crashing down around her. Retreating to the safety of her car, the floodgates she was so desperately trying to keep closed cracked. Esther didn’t know how long she sat in her car crying, nor did she care. Ignoring the time passing her by, the throbbing pain in her head, and the hollow hunger in her stomach, she cried.

Her eyes were swollen and red, throat hoarse. Esther tried to pull herself together. She needed a plan. Twisting her hair through her fingers she concentrated on the list Nikita gave her: The Grimm book; it would have to wait until after the library closed. That which she loved most in this world; her emotions were too raw for it. Pack a bag.

Jamming the key into the ignition, she sped off to the pharmacy.

Grabbing a cart, Esther raided the first-aid aisle, taking every pint of rubbing alcohol, disinfecting wipes, and antibiotic ointment off the shelf. She read that during the pre-twenty-first-century wars over half the wounded died from infections; she was damned if that was going to happen on her watch. Going further into the aisle she added gauze pads, medical tape, and ace bandages to her cart.

Esther steered her cart into the personal hygiene section, grabbing several bars of soap, shampoo, conditioner, a hair comb, and hair ties. She paused, staring at the display of silicone menstrual cups. She’d never felt the need to use one before. She did, however, know several of her coworkers loved theirs. Without another thought, she grabbed two of them.

She wheeled her full cart up to the register and began unloading, not noticing the odd look the cashier was giving her.

“What are you planning on, treating an army or somethin’?” the young man asked her. He was a teenager with a pimply face, who looked like he wanted to be anywhere else.

“Or something,” Esther said.

“In that case, you missed the suture packs.”

“Oh, where are those?” Esther asked, ignoring the boy’s sarcasm.

“Uh. They’re, um, over in Aisle nine, top of the right shelf on the end.” The boy pointed dubiously. She ran to aisle nine. Grabbing three of the kits she noticed each had one needle, forceps, and a limited amount of string. Esther shot to the dental section and grabbed four boxes of original dental string. She saw once on television that dental floss could be used in place of sutures in an emergency. Satisfied, she went back to the cash register and finished checking out.

Filling her trunk with overflowing bags of medical supplies, she realized she needed a better way to carry it all. She packed up her car and drove to the closest sporting goods store.

The last time she had been to this store, Marv had gotten the great idea that they were going to become outdoorswomen. They’d each bought hiking boots, socks, and small day packs. When the two of them got lost in a thunderstorm on their first hike, they never went back.

“Hello, I need a durable pack I can take on a long trip. It needs to hold a fair amount without being too bulky,” Esther blurted to the first unoccupied salesperson she saw.

“Sure thing, Miss. The packs are over here.” The saleslady took her across the store, into high shelves filled with endless rows of packs. “So, where are you going on your trip?”

“The woods, I think,” Esther replied dryly.

“Okay, then … What types of conditions does the bag need to withstand?”

“It would be nice if it could survive maulings,” Esther said bluntly, no longer caring for the suffocating social norms.

“Okay, so bear country. Well over here we have our tear-proof bags. They are more expensive, but they’re known for their durability.”

Esther poked through the bags, looking for one that was large enough but also inconspicuous. Her search was interrupted by more polite small talk from the sales associate, “I remember one time, my girlfriends and I went backpacking in Colorado. Oh, it was so lovely, but of course, they were amateurs and didn’t come as prepared as they should have. We ended up having to cut our trip short but, oh, well, it was fun while it lasted. I took this pack.” She pointed to a large red bag with a metal frame. “How many days do you need to be able to carry?”

“All of them.” Esther found a bag she liked. It was larger than a backpack without being as big as a full-sized pack. Made from a heavy canvas it had a simple top flap with straps, no plastic buckles, and few zippers. She assumed the place she was going was less advanced in their bag-making. Esther paused as another thought occurred to her. “Where are your machetes?”

“Oh, well, those are on the other side of the store in the hunting section.”

“Perfect, thank you.” Esther grabbed the pack she wanted and marched across the store.

Every time Esther entered her dreams, she was unarmed and defenseless. She disliked the idea of relying on others to protect her, and she refused to remain vulnerable.

Inspecting the display of knives Esther searched for something sturdy, yet simple enough to blend in. She decided a full-sized machete was much too large for her, so she settled on a smaller blade with a plain, cherrywood handle and a belt carrier. Esther purchased her items, left the store, and drove home, pleased with her plunder.

She carried her purchases up to the third floor and dumped them onto her apartment floor. She sorted the items by priority, puzzling over the most efficient way to pack it all. Meanwhile, Viktor sat on the coffee table, watching her intently.

Packing the medicine and soap, she left little room for much else. Figuring her clothing was too conspicuous, she only packed her good socks and underwear. Staring at her full pack, Esther was pleased with herself.

Looking up from her handiwork, she scanned her apartment. It was quaint and modest; she had a small television and two bookcases. Other than her sparse furnishings, there was little evidence anyone lived there at all. In her years there she’d hung no pictures on the walls or placed knick-knacks and decorative pillows to fill the empty spaces, and no coats or scarves were thrown over chairs. A cool sinking feeling crept over her. She never made this place or any other her home; in all her years she’d never really lived.

Shaking the chill from her body, Esther went into her bedroom and dug through her closet. Retrieving her long-forgotten hiking boots from the back corner, she brushed the dust from them and unknotted the laces. She dressed in her best-fitting jeans, a tank top, and a gray sweater. Brushing out her long raven hair, she pulled it into a crooked ponytail. Fighting to straighten it, she eventually gave up and braided it back instead.

Sitting on the floor, she laced up her boots. Viktor came padding over to her. Meowing, he rubbed against her arm.

“What I love most,” Esther whispered. “Viktor, darling! I think you’re coming with me.” Esther picked up the cat. Pulling him into a tight hug, she kissed his head. His soft purrs vibrating through her chest gave her the stability she craved.

Reluctantly setting the feline down, she went into the kitchen to get Viktor’s dinner. “I hope you’re ready for an adventure.”

Meow.

“Good, because I’m not so sure I am … I guess that doesn’t matter now. I don’t have anything left here for me, not anymore.”

Meow.

“I’m so happy you’re coming with me, Viktor; I would have missed you so much.”

In all the commotion Esther hadn’t considered what to do with Viktor when she left. She realized she didn’t plan what she was going to do with anything when she left. She seriously started to consider just leaving without saying a word to anyone. Who was there even for her to tell? And what would she say?

After several minutes’ deliberation, Esther decided it was foolish and unnecessary to vanish. She wrote Marv a note, saying she was leaving town and didn’t expect to return. She tucked the note into an envelope along with her keys, leaving what little she had to her only friend.

Esther put a reluctant Viktor into his cat crate. He meowed and growled like death was approaching. She told him to stop being so dramatic.

She fastened her knife onto her belt and heaved the heavy pack onto her shoulders. Passing her hall mirror she paused, gaping at her reflection. The disconnect she always felt with her reflection was magnified by her unusual accessories. Shaking it off, she picked up Viktor and left the apartment. She left the note by Marv’s door and descended the stairs, pausing to look back. The halls were empty; what was supposed to feel welcoming felt suffocating. She didn’t know when or how, but over the years her comforts had become her prison.

Stepping out into the night Esther paused, taking in a deep breath, allowing the crisp air to engulf her. She began the short walk to the library, enjoying the solace of the peaceful night enveloping her. At night she didn’t feel the need to wear her mask—the smile that never reached her eyes. It was the only time she felt comfortable enough to just be, looking up to the skies as she walked instead of at her shoes.

Reaching the library, Esther walked around to the back. Setting Viktor and her pack down beside a bush, she pushed a picnic table under a window. The break room had a small vertical window, too small for most people to fit through, but Esther wasn’t most people.

She picked up a rock and threw it through the window. A loud shattering rang in her ears. Somewhere inside she heard an alarm sounding, flashes of red lights illuminated the laminate floors.

She climbed the picnic table and wiggled her way through the window. She ran through the halls to the workroom where the book was being kept. Luckily Debbie hadn’t moved it during Esther’s sick days.

Book in hand, she darted back out the window. Sirens echoed through the still night. Shoving the book into her pack, she grabbed Viktor and ran into the shadows.

The walk from the library to Front Street was long, but there was little traffic. She made it to the shop just before eleven-thirty. Without hesitation, Esther entered the shop.

A wall of incense assaulted her senses; eyes blurring, she saw the dusty shop was lit entirely by large candles covering every flat surface. Nikita stood over the small, round table; the cloth was removed, revealing intricate geometric carvings in the tabletop. Scattered throughout the carvings were crystals, bones, and small candles, and in the center of it all sat a large brass bowl.

“You’re late,” Nikita said without looking up from her mortar and pestle.

“Sorry.” Esther rushed to the table.

“Have you got what I asked?”

“Yes, here’s the book.” Esther brandished the Grimm book. “And this is Viktor—that which I love most in the world.”

Nikita’s mouth pinched into a hard line.

Viktor yowled inside his carrier.

“Come, stand beside the table, and put the book beside the bowl.” Nikita continued to grind herbs, oils, and various unknowns Esther didn’t want to ask about. She muttered in another language; low and rhythmic, her voice filled the eerie silence of the small room. She smeared the paste of herbs into symbols on the cover of the Grimmwa.

Esther’s limbs began to shake; the pack felt impossibly heavy on her back, pulling her to the ground. Her vision blurred, and her head pounded. She tried to focus on the movement of Nikita’s hands; she wanted to know what Nikita was drawing on the book. She had the feeling she’d seen it somewhere before.

“You must do exactly as I say, child, or the rebound of the spell will be catastrophic.” Nikita handed her a small silver dagger.

The cool metal touched Esther’s sweating palm. She didn’t have time to question her decision before Nikita was chanting again, reciting verses in Latin.

The pain in Esther’s head became ferocious, the candles burning impossibly bright. Doubling over, Esther cried out at the sudden influx.

“Sacrifices of the traveler are to be paid in blood.” Nikita pointed to the dagger in Esther’s trembling hand. “First, the blood of the traveler!” Nikita called out, the candlelight burning white hot. “Cut your hand over the bowl.”

Blindly, Esther cut across her left palm; the pain in her head so great, it masked the sting of the blade. The contents of the bowl started glowing with white light.

“Grab your cat,” Nikita instructed.

Reaching for the carrier, Esther made to set the dagger down.

“Do not put the dagger down!” Nikita shrieked. “You need to hold him, child, and stand closer to the bowl.”

Unable to think about anything other than the pain in her head, Esther did as she was told. Holding a quaking Viktor tight against her chest, she smeared blood from her hand across his gray fur.

“Second, the sacrifice of that which the traveler loves most.” The candles burned red, hungry for blood.

“What?” Sharp realization hit Esther; icy cold tingles crawled up her spine, clearing the pain from her head.

“Spill Viktor’s blood into the bowl.”

“Wha—what? You never said—I can’t!” Esther cried, the pain in her head returning with a vengeance. “You can and you must! If the spell is not completed it will rebound! Everything within five miles will be destroyed; in this world and the next.”

The bowl glowed brighter, reaching out to her, and the candlelight burned stronger, threatening to burn down the building.

Esther tried to focus on Nikita’s words, to process what she was hearing. The pain in her head became white-hot, searing across her forehead and down her neck. Her vision became nothing but white light. She was vaguely aware of someone screaming in agony—her screaming.

“A sacrifice must be made! Do it now or you will kill us all!”

Knees buckling and stomach churning, Esther tried to resist the pain, to refuse the sacrifice. The harder she fought the worse the pain became. Her screams filled the room, echoing down the block. A small trickle of blood ran from her nose and her right eye.

Esther didn’t remember making a conscious decision in that moment. Her hands shaking, palms sweating, she gripped the cold hard metal of the dagger. Whether the dagger moved her hand forward or her hand moved the dagger forward, she couldn’t tell.

The sharp point pierced silken fur and soft flesh. Warm, thick blood flowed freely over her hands, dripping onto her boots. The blade plunged in further, stopping the beating heart of that which she loved most in the world.


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