Time is relative for a knight of time

Historian’s Message - part 1

Keeper of Records

We are all of us unique, born with innate talents given to us through means beyond our control. To some, this is simply genetics, while others find comfort in putting their faith in a higher power. Regardless of your beliefs, the irrefutable fact remains that as human beings we are far more different than we are alike. The explanation for this lies slightly beyond our reach along with the answers to many of life’s questions – just past reality, in something greater and more mysterious. Faith.

Faith is a tricky thing. It incites both the best and worst actions of mankind, and in our eternal quest to solve life’s mysteries we often find ourselves looking inward, tapping our own faith and determination in order to persevere and preserve ourselves. This is the story of one family’s faith in its ability to preserve not just itself…but mankind as a whole.

This is a story about a boy; a boy who grows into a man beyond legend.

This is the story of Father Time and the world he called home – Earth.

I am the Historian, keeper of Earth’s recorded history. I keep only the important things, such as the tales recorded within these pages. I’ve kept them hidden away for many years, waiting for the right opportunity to tell the world the truth of humanity’s journey into the light, waiting for the right opportunity to reveal mankind’s true past, present, and future. They reveal a story, a ‘Tale of Time’ if you will.

What is the Tale of Time you ask? It is the story of human development from ditch-digging Neanderthal to modern man, the unabridged, absolute, and unequivocal truth of mankind’s trials and tribulations on planet Earth. Most of you have some idea of this tale, known to you as our planet’s history. Fiction is fiction, reality is reality, and there is no gray area between black and white. Rules many billions of people live by, die by, and find meaning in.

Yet not all is as it seems…

A secret is known to a select few individuals on Earth, one that, if revealed, could rock the very core of human belief and give credence to those skeptical enough to believe in conspiracies. The widely held idea that aliens exist and walk among us is a half-truth, for what we perceive to be ‘aliens’ from another planet are actually human beings like us… from another dimension.

Outside of our world exists a place where time has no meaning, and the illusion that time represents is given the form of a stream of white water jettisoning into the never-ending tide of tomorrow. The gateways to this paradise lie all over Earth, and have existed there since the dawn of creation. This Promised Land has gone by many names, El Dorado, Atlantis…but for those who call it home, it is simply known as Eden.

To think of time is to think of a river, flowing one way with a current that takes everything and everyone with it into a new horizon. While the future is not yet written, the past acts as the river's banks, buffering and guiding the flow of events onward. Time travel is only possible by tapping into this, diverting its momentum, and becoming one with the natural balance of the universe. Some fight it; some encourage it, yet they all accept it as the natural progression of things happening in their own time, free will aside. To understand the reasoning of these ‘aliens,’ or as they prefer to be called ‘Travelers of Light,’ one need look no further than our own past. Human ingenuity has set a precedent for conceiving and implementing such innovations such as the wheel, democracy and the Internet. Mankind has bettered itself by recognizing what it needed to successfully accomplish its immediate goals. In learning from the past, we learn from our mistakes. In order to truly know the past, we must first look within ourselves, for therein lies the joy, sorrow, anger, and imagination that has inspired the human condition.

Human beings are defined by 46 chromosomes that dictate the patterns of our DNA and make us who we are. The Travelers of Light, while human beings, possess two extra pairs of chromosomes; a grouping of which results in extra genes and extraordinary abilities that defy our common perception of reality. A dangerous prospect, given that they are not confined to Eden. The Travelers of Light exist among their fellow man as individuals born with distinctly different traits. These traits can be as simple as being double jointed, but for others it is a more complex and perilous gift – like speaking to the beasts of the field or hearing voices that claim to be the Almighty. Some, three or four throughout known history, have even been able to control the very fabric of time and space that gives context to our existence.

Then there are the personal milestones in all of our lives; moments when the planets seem to align and your destiny is set before you, just waiting for you to walk down its’ illuminated path. These moments of clarity are rare, but inevitable. Without them life would be a constant drive into the abyss without proper direction.

Some call these moments fate; others call them coincidence.

I now have the great pleasure of informing you that these moments are neither simply happenstance, nor just scripts to be followed. Life as we know it is actually a mixture of both. Now you might be asking yourself, how can this be? How can these seemingly opposite ideas co-exist and explain the great mysteries of the universe? The answer lies within each of us.

Human beings are said to exist in their Almighty Maker’s image. This allows them to use their natural abilities to enrich their lives. Thumbs allowed us to advance past primitive dwellings, logic allowed us to survive the tribulations of nature, and our five senses gave us a better understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. These same senses are the key to unlocking our individual destinies. Because most humans are content in the knowledge that we possess only five senses, we no longer explore the possibility of further senses… further abilities.

When one displays these abilities in an otherwise normal setting on Earth, an elite group of Travelers of Light, The Knights of Time, are called in to safely extract the gifted individual from the time stream. In addition, the Knights also stand steadfast against those who might attempt to warp and manipulate the time stream for their own personal gain. The Knights serve all mankind, and are ready at a moment’s notice to lay down their lives to protect the time stream from harm.

The empathic Marcus L. Turtledove , the sworn Protector of Eden, leads the Knights of Time. His valor is only matched by his wisdom, a trait displayed early in his career by drafting Scott Wright: the only known natural born time traveler in the last two millennia. Together with his fellow Knights, Scott uses his abilities to help his team travel through time to defend the helpless and preserve history at all costs.

But our story does not begin here. No. Just as with life, our story begins with the death of one star and the birth of another.

It is with great pleasure that I present to you the tale of “A Knight of Time”–


Chapter 1:The Face of Evil

August 24, 1812 - Washington D.C

The White House – 9:43PM EST

“If you don’t leave now, you will die.”

The statement was devoid of compassion or consideration for its target, for at that moment the speaker was addressing an audience he was totally unaccustomed to. Few indeed dared to speak so bluntly to Dolley Madison, the First Lady of the United States of America, much less a common enlisted man.

Dolley Madison, a confident and headstrong woman before her time, had been acting as caretaker of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for over a decade. Her tireless efforts to preserve the grounds and its most precious treasures had taken her to the ends of the Earth in pursuit of the finest extravagances, all in the name of keeping up appearances for her husband and leader of the United States, President James Madison.

A woman of conviction, patriotism, and tireless dedication to her home, Dolley wished above all else that her fellow countrymen would follow her example and devote their lives to the service of their nation. Before her husband James had accepted the great honor and responsibility that came with the title of president, that burden had fallen upon the capable shoulders of the Madison’s good family friend, Thomas Jefferson. As Jefferson was a widower, James had lent his wife to the charitable cause of maintaining a feminine presence around the nation’s highest office. Though Dolley’s husband had lent his wife somewhat begrudgingly, his generosity had met with great reward, as James took over the office of the Presidency some years later.

Now everyone had left, save for her and her African handmaiden, Hannah, who had been with Mrs. Madison since the girl was no more than five years old. A maternal bond had been created, overcoming the traditional roles and stereotypes of the time, and Dolley had very much come to think of the girl as one of her own children. Aside from Hannah, the slaves had been the first to flee and it was not long after that the regiment of guards her husband had left behind to protect her had followed suit. They had abandoned their posts when their country, and First Lady, needed them most. Soon, all that had been left was the single conscripted man whose parting words had run down Dolley’s spine like ice, leaving her speechless as he too made his escape.

A sad, hollow feeling sat in the pit of Dolley’s stomach as she took stock of all she was about to lose to the British Army, eyes settling on the painted portrait of George Washington, commissioned the day he had taken office as the first President of the United States. Resolutely, she stepped forward and used all her strength to pry the portrait off of the wall, placing it under her arm and turning back to Hannah. A sudden volley of cannon fire poured through the dining room windows that filled the space between Dolley and Hannah, knocking both of the women off of their feet. Though neither was hurt, the shock of finding themselves in the middle of a combat zone was enough to finally convince the First Lady to abandon the residence.

“Take my hand, quickly!” Hannah shouted to Dolley, reaching for her.  The frightened First Lady clung desperately to the lifeline the girl offered, and the two of them began to flee.

Fire quickly engulfed the limestone building that locals had come to call the White House, forcing the frantic women out the large front doors and into the wide-open marshland beyond the carefully manicured grounds. The night air hit Dolley’s skin with a damp unevenness that made every hair on the back of her neck stand on end. Looking over to Hannah, she saw her own terrified expression mirrored on the young girl’s face, watching as the girl gazed out into the darkness of the tree line. There, in the light of the blazing White House, stood a man so still the trees themselves surpassed him for movement.

The dark figure walked towards them, seemingly impervious to the chaos that surrounded the nation’s capital, the shadows and light from the inferno behind them dancing across him. As he neared, they saw that he was an older man with bits of silver streaking through the black mass of hair sitting atop his slim and polished frame.  He was dressed in a dark crimson sweater vest over a pressed long-sleeved button down shirt, and what looked to be crisp and freshly tailored pantaloons.

“Good evening, Lady Madison,” said the man, pausing for a moment to bow to her before continuing in their direction. His face was expressionless, eyes mimicking the darkness of the night around him. The man was not especially scary looking, especially in his elegant dressings. Still, there was an aura to him that spoke to the survival instincts within the two women, evoking impressions of jackals – sharp teeth, claws, and minds.

“Wh-who calls?” Mrs. Madison asked, her throat dry as a bone. Without realizing it, her left hand had begun fidgeting nervously behind her- a bad habit she had managed to hold on to since she was a child and a quiet insult to years of etiquette training. Despite her terror, Dolley was unexpectedly struck with the comical image of the tugging winds sweeping his thin frame off and away into the night. Of course, her capacity for rational thought was not what it usually was at that moment, evidenced by the fact that Hannah had been the one to insist that they flee the blaze now consuming her home.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” the man said, pulling Dolley from her reverie and now standing within twenty feet of them. “My name is Edward Vilthe. I am an associate of your husband.”

Fear and mistrust clutched at Dolley Madison’s heart as she listened to the man’s voice. Desperately she searched his eyes, looking for a soul, some flicker of humanity she could relate to but instead she found only black darkness. Surely just a trick of the light, she thought, stunned. She struggled to compose herself, and unconsciously her fidgeting hand found Hannah’s, lending her the strength to speak once more.

“What business have you here?” Dolley demanded, her grip on Hannah’s hand becoming tighter each moment. “Can you not see that there is a war going on, sir?”

“My dear lady, I need but a moment of your time;” The man said, his face splitting into a hideous grin.“Just a moment of your time, and, at the risk of sounding tediously cliché, your souls!”

Dolley looked on in horror as his eyes rolled back into his head, going from black to the brightest yellow. Tilting his head slightly, he raised his hand toward them. Without warning a bolt of lightning leapt from the madman’s palm, straight toward the spot where the two terrified women were standing. With a swift jerk, Hannah grabbed her mistress’ arm, knocking them both sideways and narrowly out of harm’s way.

Laughter filled the air as another bolt of blue lightning shot over their heads, hitting the limestone foundation of the giant house, leaving a large black stain.Scrambling to their feet, Dolley and Hannah turned and ran. Heading into the surrounding forest, neither woman ever let go of the other’s hand.

“Run if you like!”Vilthe shouted maniacally after the two women.

As they fled, there was no doubt in their minds that they were still running for their lives. Only now the number of threats had changed.

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Looking down upon the fledgling Washington DC of 1812 , one could have seen the British troops gathered in large groups near the harbor. With their ships resting brazenly in the American docks and their commanding officers ordering them to march on, the British regulars focused intently on reclaiming the helpless American capitol for His Majesty King George III. Their orders were simple enough; invade from the East at the Chesapeake and burn everything to the ground. Even after crossing the marshlands and pillaging the villages dotting the countryside between the bay and the patriot's capitol, the redcoats were untouched by fatigue, so inspired were they to finish the job their grandfathers had started decades before during the American Revolution.

Less than half a mile away, in a field speckled with tall grass and vegetable patches, Dolley was struck suddenly with a memory from her early childhood. She had been known as Dolley Payne, a nickname earned from her many misadventures running around the schoolyard. But those days were gone now – more presently replaced with a different kind of running.

This moment of reflection cost her footing on the uneven terrain, causing a hard fall on the wet ground beneath her. Luckily, Hannah was there to encourage her.

“Come on, Miss,” Hannah said, staring back behind them into the darkness, now barely visible by the glow of the burning capital. “We got to keep movin’.”

Spirits flagging, Dolley suddenly spied lights in the distance. Small, bright white orbs seemed to be hovering at eye level just over a hedge nearly a quarter of a mile away. Dolley smiled as she took the lead, pulling Hannah towards what she dearly hoped was safety.

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The sky weighed dark and unforgiving, its folds and creases of steely cover resting comfortably on the shoulders of those who knew the secrets of bending the night to their will. The sorrow that blanketed the swampland known as Washington D.C. called out to its victims in a high-pitched howl that reverberated through the hearts and minds under her watch. It was a sound that touched places where voices were never meant to reach.

A natural energy foretold the coming storm. An overcast sky gave way to two bolts of lightning that plummeted through the Washington skyline and streaked over the swamplands like shooting stars. Upon a nearly two-hundred-foot-tall overlook that sat behind a tall, ivy-choked limestone curve in the rock, two figures landed unnoticed - one man, one woman. The rock curve stood as a barrier between the overhang and the steep drop off overlooking the presidential residence, sheltering those behind it in a veil of secrecy. A few drops of rain fell from the clouds looming high above the city, traveling the immeasurable distance between the heavens and the Earth in mere moments to land on the coat of a man who already felt as if he was carrying the world upon his shoulders.

This Earth seemed no less cruel than any other to him as he took stock of his surroundings. Winds swept across his long, chiseled face, forcing him to squint beneath his wispy brown hair. He wore black from head to toe and attached to his belt was a long, Bowie-style hunting knife that had been given to him by his father a lifetime ago, a simple weapon for a complicated man. A black leather jacket was the one variation to his uniform that he refused to part with, half because it had been his late wife’s favorite, and half because he thought it made him look more dangerous. Though he appeared disheveled, he carried an air of masculine elegance, not unlike the gladiators of ancient Rome. His name was Scott Wright, and he was senior member of the Knights of Time.

Scott had been a member of the team for two decades, training diligently under the renowned leader of the Knights of Time, Marcus L. Turtledove. A daring sort, Scott thought nothing of risking everything, even his life, on a single chance to exact revenge and end a long-standing rivalry. His piercing gray eyes looked up at the sky, searching for something unspoken, something that could only be granted from the heavens themselves.  Walking over toward the ledge that overlooked the White House, he saw no sign of the fire he knew was sure to come.

What he did see, however, was an odd, white bolt of lightning that extended well beyond its normal life span. Before his eyes the aberrant streak darted sideways and grew exponentially before bending onto itself and forming a wide, swirling, white opening. It lasted only seconds before reversing its cycle, and disappearing completely, replaced by a massive rumble of thunder that rocked the entire city in its wake.

Though the act of nature would appear random to the untrained eye, any individual equipped with the knowledge of Eden and the Travelers of Light would easily identify the source as the brunette teen standing upon the hillside next to Scott. The young woman to his right was a picture of grace and perfection. Her long brunette hair rested gently on her strong yet delicate shoulders. She wore the same black team uniform as her companion, with her boots coming up to her knees over pants Scott suspected were purposefully a size too small. Her silhouette glowed in the moonlight and made her instantly identifiable, even through the alcoholic haze that rocked his mind to momentary serenity. As Scott looked at the young woman out of the corner of his eye he thought, not for the first time, that she personified everything he wanted his own son to avoid.

Sephanie reminded him so much of his late wife, Taylor. Scott had known her since she was only nine years old, and he held a special place for her in his heart. The poor girl had been an orphan he had found in the basement of an abandoned barn. She was his treasure– this girl who became a woman before his very eyes. They had been working together now for years, forming a sort of father-daughter relationship. Watching her from the shadows, the Earth’s foremost time traveler stood in a quiet awe. Moments ticked away as Scott sat locked in his reverie, the sounds of the second hand mocking his existence with every beat. Sweat formed a band around his hairline as he took another swig from his flask and slid it effortlessly back into his coat pocket.

Time travelers like Scott were extremely rare. Because of this, he never had too much in the way of formal education beyond the basic requirements at The Academy of Light where he had learned how to hone and control his abilities. He recalled the months he spent studying under his tutor, a cognitive time traveler by the name of Captain Bradford Nareau. A rough, older man, Captain Nareau never shied away from beating a point into his students, an approach Scott had refused to implement with his own pupil, Sephanie.

Sephanie stood silently at Scott’s side, both of her feet rooted to the ground, her back straight as an arrow, her mind focused on her task. She looked like any normal teenage girl lost in thought, provided that phrase could be applied to anyone with glowing white eyes.

“Soon as old lady Madison gets here we ride, got it, Natch’?”Scott said to Sephanie, careful to keep his hands from wandering into his pockets. Even in her current state this small gesture did not go unnoticed by the girl. Scott watched her eyes move as he spoke to her. A small cascade of white rippled through Sephanie’s eyes once, twice, three times; each sweep removing more and more of the corneas that opened a gateway into her mortal soul. She was more than that now, more than flesh and blood, more than any of the soldiers consumed by their battle plans below could ever have guessed. She was what her team name had implied; she was Mother Nature incarnate.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Sephanie said, with only the barest movement of her lips. She rose above him now as she floated in perfect suspended animation nearly two feet off the ground. “Alcohol isn’t going to help. If anything it just makes things worse. You know that.”

“I…I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Scott mumbled, now too frazzled to resist the instinct to stuff his left hand into his pocket to nervously touch the smooth, cold surface of his flask.

Crash

Their awkward moment was interrupted by the sounds of trumpet song, cannon fire, and the lightning Sephanie had summoned only moments before.

Peering over the ledge of the overhang, Scott saw two figures emerge from the White House, now fully engulfed in flames. Scott’s heart skipped a beat as he watched a third person emerge from the shadows in front of them and unleash a blinding bolt of blue electricity, narrowly missing the two panicked figures. After two years of searching, Scott had found him, and would finally have his revenge.

“You’re up kiddo!” Scott shouted back to Sephanie, his voice finding nothing but thin air. She was gone, off to coax Mother Nature into action. Scott glanced at his watch. It was ten minutes till ten, and history was running right on schedule.

With his privacy momentarily secured, the weary Knight walked briskly to a nearby tree, and opened the dark green sack tucked away beside it. Retrieving the M16 rifle he had brought for the occasion, Scott hesitated for a moment. This weapon broke every rule in the book. Then again, so did murder.

Crash

Scott reached for his flask again, this time draining it of its remaining contents. Staring down the empty canister, Scott returned it to his coat pocket and prepared to intercept the three figures running towards him. A quick glance at his surroundings confirmed that his traps were ready, should he need them. All that was left to do was wait.

Crash

The sounds of British war drums echoing in his ears, Scott watched the madness unfolding below him.  Without thinking, he again brought the flask to his lips, expecting another sweet, momentary escape from reality. When none came he remembered that it was empty, drained.

“Damn!” Scott cursed, knowing full well that it was his own fault for indulging too much early on. Turning it over in his sweaty palm, Scott eyed it with disdain. It was an odd trinket, given to him by an old friend what felt like lifetimes ago. He slid it, not into his right front pocket like before, but his left, pulling out a photograph in its stead.

It was a faded portrait of a teenage boy, around sixteen years old. He had Scott’s big brown eyes and his mother’s unruly blonde hair. It was a picture of his son, Rolland- a child that no one, not Sephanie, nor even his commanding officer Marcus L. Turtledove, knew existed.

While both Taylor and Scott had believed unfailingly in the knightly creed and swore allegiance to Eden, they had each yearned to raise a family away from the extraordinary influences of life there. It was for these reasons that they chose to give birth to and raise their son in the present time stream on Earth, their belief being that if Rolland had no knowledge of Eden he would not be subject to any of the limitations imposed by his homeland or any of the bureaucracy that came with being a Traveler of Light. After Taylor’s murder two months ago, however, Scott had done little else but plot against and pursue his wife’s killer. Small things like taking care of himself, his family, or even contacting his son faded under the white-hot blaze of his desire for vengeance. With the silencing of one heartbeat Scott had become a tangled mess of revenge and regret, crying out for an outlet for his frustrations. His near madness and his time traveling abilities made for a deadly combination, and just the one he felt he would need to bring Vilthe, his wife’s murderer, to justice.

Centuries of worry and strife weighed heavily upon his forty-five-year-old frame. Perhaps if he had not been otherwise preoccupied by his own thoughts and distracted from his duties, he would have heard the cries for help echoing through the forest. Instead, his anger gripped him like a vice, growing tighter and tighter while blocking out the outside world.

Hear them he eventually did, softly at first and then more clearly as he left the safety of the overhang and approached the outlying part of the woods. The trees grew tall, weaving their branches into one another and blocking out what little light the moon could have provided. The voices certainly seemed female, but Scott refused to rule out some sort of trick. He had seen enough in his day to suspect even the most innocent creatures. Unsheathing the hunting knife that hung from his belt, Scott walked toward the forest entrance with silent apprehension, his drunken mind unable to recall who was scheduled to arrive first, Madison or Vilthe. Preferring to be safe, rather than sorry, and with a total disregard for any fear a nearly nine-inch-long, three-inch-wide curved piece of steel could instill in an otherwise defenseless person, he positioned himself closer to the edge of the woods.  

Luckily, Scott saw Hannah first, followed closely by Dolley, an unreadable reaction washing over her as she saw Scott standing before them, knife in hand.

“Who goes there?” Dolley asked, swinging her lantern wildly into the unyielding dark.

“A friend, my lady,” came the response, accompanied by a cough. Scott lowered his knife and holstered it at his side before stepping forward into the light from their lamp. “But one can never be too careful, eh?”

Dolley and Hannah both squinted as he came into view. With his seemingly calm demeanor, this man seemed to personify the assistance the two women most desired.

“You have to help us, please,” Dolley pleaded, swinging around again to verify they were not being followed.

“Bad man behind us. He shot lightning from his hands,” Hannah explained, terror filling her already strained face and causing her eyes to water.

Realizing at once that the girl must be referring to Vilthe, Scott walked past them, preparing to retrace their path.

“Well hot damn, right on schedule,” Scott murmured drunkenly.

“What?” Dolley asked, holding up her lantern a little higher to examine Scott’s face carefully.

“Never mind. Here’s what I need you to do -- run as fast as you can that way until you come to an older guy. He will remind you of your granddad, real nice fella’. He’ll protect you until your husband comes. Got it?” Scott said, pointing southeast.

Though neither of the women was exactly sure what he was talking about, they both nodded their heads and began running in the direction Scott had indicated.

“Thank you!” Dolley shouted back at him as Scott reached for his flask one last time, remembering it was empty as soon as he touched it.

Frustrated, Scott took the flask out of his pocket and threw it to the ground, along with the remaining contents of his pockets – his wallet, a box of matches, and the single photograph of his son. He then unsheathed the hunting knife at his side and planted his feet, standing ready against the forest. For a few minutes, everything else faded away, leaving Scott alone with the darkness. It was a nice metaphor for his life he thought; impatiently wishing to begin the endgame and get past the pain in his chest had felt ever since his wife’s death. He had no delusions of grandeur in winning against Vilthe. This was most likely a suicide mission, even if he succeeded. He would risk it all for this one shot, one try at revenge. The wait was not long.

Some small sound pulled Scott from his reverie. There in the shadows stood a deceptively unimpressive five feet, five inches of evil, a man known without exaggeration as a reaper of souls and bringer of chaos. Though Vilthe saw Scott, he paid him little attention until they were within a few feet of one another.

“My stars… it’s a genuine oddity,” Vilthe said, smiling kindly, referring to Scott being born a natural time traveler.

“Vilthe,” Scott said curtly, gripping the handle of his knife a little tighter.

Scott had dreamt of this moment all of his adult life, but never more so than in the past two months, ever since the day that Vilthe had taken his bride, his wife, the mother of his child out of this world and changed his life forever. That day, Scott had sworn he would make the madman pay.

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At the base of the overlook stood the doe-eyed teenager who controlled the elements of nature, Sephanie Kelly.

Both hands rose to the sky as Sephanie closed her eyes and breathed deeply for a long moment, careful to concentrate on exactly what it was she wanted the atmosphere to do down to the very finest detail. Like a maestro conducting a symphony, her hands moved with a rehearsed ease and precision as they danced through the night air, each flick of the wrist winding itself further and further into the gravity surrounding it. While Sephanie stood rooted to the spot, her surroundings began to take on a very different tone. The line of advancing British troops was halted by winds strong enough to stop the dragging of their cannons and encourage the spooking of their horses. Then it whirled and spiraled in a circular motion, creating a cone that tied the river to the clouds above, spawning a massive tornado the likes of which the swamplands of Washington DC had never seen before and would never see again.

With a counter clockwise flick of her wrist, Sephanie sent the twister across the Potomac, collecting more water to fuel the cyclone’s rage before directing it due west, straight for the White House. Along with it came a raging thunderstorm, blowing stinging rains directly at the invading British forces, halting any advancement by the brave souls still attempting to fight on against Mother Nature.

Within a matter of minutes the entire city of Washington had been drenched by Sephanie’s wrath, and the British momentum had been effectively reversed, bringing their invasion to a grinding halt. Their retreat and return to their ships was a gratifying sight and one that cost not a single life.

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As they headed west against the British advancement, Dolley and Hannah both agreed that they were happy to have met the stranger who had directed them away from the lightning-shooting madman, but they also agreed that they would feel safer if he had stayed with them instead. This sentiment was only exaggerated by the freak rainstorm and strong winds that they experienced, turning most of their planned trail to mud and slowing their progress significantly.

Reaching the end of a wheat field, the two women came to a flat clearing near a water crossing that Dolley recognized as the Potomac River. Standing in front of the wooden boardwalk that stood between them and the docks was an older man with a graying beard, wily blue eyes, and a gentle smile, just as the stranger had said.

“Madam First Lady?” inquired the kindly looking man, holding his hands up high over his head to show he was unarmed.  

“Who calls?” Dolley asked, with her free hand discreetly making its way behind her to Hannah’s.

“My name is Marcus Turtledove and I am here to help you,” the stranger said to Dolley, taking another step toward her but never breaking eye contact.

There was something in his voice that gave her a sense of trustworthiness and understanding, indeed reminding her of her own grandfather. It was strange, but she thought that if anyone would believe her that a man shooting lightning out of his hands was chasing after them, this man would.

“Thank goodness,” Dolley said, reaching out to greet the stranger in a formal way before proceeding further. She was a lady after all. “Dolley Madison, First Lady of these United States.”

“A pleasure,” Turtledove returned, bowing his head as he took her hand. Then turning to Hannah he said, “And you are?”

The shock of Turtledove, a white man, directly addressing Hannah rocked both of the women a bit, but it quickly became apparent that the conversation could not go on without Hannah introducing herself.

“My name is Hannah, sir.” The girl said, still cowering behind Mrs. Madison.

“Very nice to meet you, Hannah,” Turtledove said, extending his hand to her. To Dolley’s great surprise, Hannah let go of her hand and accepted his greeting without hesitation.

This affirmation of the man’s character from her most loyal servant gave her reason to smile for the first time in hours, and provided a sense of renewed hope for their survival.

“Now then, have you seen any of my people?” Turtledove asked them, drawing a look of dread from the two women.

“Yes, a man of yours,” Hannah said, with mild trepidation. “He was going to fight the man who was chasing us, the one called Vilthe.”

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Vilthe wasted little time as he lunged toward Scott, left palm forward to send a bolt of blue lightning hurling towards his adversary. Prepared for this, Scott moved into position to release the first of his traps, and Vilthe’s attack missed him by feet, not inches.

From Vilthe’s left came three arrows. He dropped to his knees and avoided them all easily, but their purpose was for a distraction as Scott gained the upper hand and launched an attack from the air. Poised to stab his opponent through the heart, Scott came down on him from above. With uncanny strength and speed, Vilthe reached for a nearby log and brought it up between them, deflecting the knife.

Without warning, Scott was gone, leaving Vilthe off balance from the log’s momentum. As he struggled to get out of the mud and regain his bearings, Scott reappeared, landing a solid kick squarely to the prone man’s jaw, sending him sprawling back into the mire. Bruised but not defeated, Vilthe reached for the M16 lying nearby. Seemingly unaware of its true function, he used it to brace himself as he got unsteadily to his feet, vulnerable for only a second. Only a second to Vilthe, but something decidedly more to a man with the ability to bend time to his will.

Before he had even a moment to recover, Scott appeared again, grabbing his arm and twisting it behind him, driving his full weight into Vilthe’s back. There was a sickening pop as he pulled the smaller man’s arm from its socket, and with a brutal grin he used the man’s injured arm to whirl him back around. This was his moment, and he wanted to witness the same agony on Vilthe’s face that he saw on Taylor’s every time he closed his eyes. Blow after blow rained down on the older man, driving him mercilessly back down to the sludgy ground, gasping for air.

 

Then there was silence.

 

The pain began in Vilthe’s left hand, a mild annoyance that quickly grew into a searing agony spreading through every one of his fingers. Frantically wiping the mud from his eyes with his sleeve, he stared at his hands, seeing only blood. He scrambled to wipe it off, revealing small, precise cuts bisecting the webbing between each digit. As he stared at his hands in horror and disbelief the pain jumped to his left ear like a spark between wires. Then to his right ear. The backs of his knees, and inside of both of elbows. His eyelids. The cuts were not deep, just enough to set every nerve ending possible torturously ablaze across carefully practiced points on the man’s body. Scott looked down at Vilthe, his face unreadable, and saw countless hours of obsessive plans of revenge brought to reality. All but one final stroke, meant to be deep, clean, and precise, across Vilthe’s jugular.

 

Fantasies are dangerous things, and if you let them take you, they will try to keep you. Scott savored the moment, and it was a moment too long. The paradigm shifted, and his fate came crashing back down upon him.

 

“Sugan ditto titikmadr!” Vilthe screamed, his eyes blazing with a sick yellow fire. With a flick of his functioning arm he sent Scott flying through the air and into a nearby tree with devastating percussive force, sending splinters flying. His limp form fell unceremoniously onto a small pile of rocks and broken tree limbs below.

 

Winded and more than a little broken, the Knight of Time willed himself to his knees. A few drops of blood fell across his vision. This is it then, he thought, making his way laboriously to his feet. Finding his balance, he snapped his fingers and slapped his left palm to his right hand- a comforting and familiar gesture that allowed him to wrap the moment around himself like a blanket.  With his strength waning, it occurred to him that it might be the last time he ever did, and he most likely couldn’t hold it for long.  His hands moved under his coat to the small of his back, each hand retrieving its own dagger. He forced his breathing to steady. And then, he let the moment go.

 

Scott Wright faced Edward Vilthe then, as the man he truly was. Gone from his face was any trace of the grief-stricken madness that had driven him here, leaving behind a steely determination that was entirely his own.

 

“How is this possible?!” Vilthe bellowed as he climbed to his feet, his fury palpable.  He lunged wildly at Scott like something from a nightmare, covered in his own blood. At the last second Scott dropped into a crouch, bringing both daggers from behind his back and driving them up into Vilthe’s abdomen as his body bowed, arching over Scott. With his daggers buried deep, he ducked forward, bracing his wrists against Vilthe’s shoulders, and used the villains own momentum to throw the man over him.  Rising, Scott turned to face his opponent.

“Who are you?” Vilthe asked quietly, coughing blood onto the damp leaves.

“You don’t recognize me?” Scott asked with a mild annoyance. “You killed my father, and my wife, and you have the nerve to forget?”

“You would be surprised at how often people such things to me,” Vilthe said as he rose, the hilts of the twin daggers protruding obscenely from his sides. Without warning he leapt, his good arm outstretched, claw-like fingers reaching for Scott’s throat.  Scott deflected the attack instinctively, crossing both arms in front of his face. With both arms occupied, all he could do was watch as Vilthe drove a glistening crimson blade up under his ribcage with his other hand, the bones in his dislocated shoulder protruding at impossible angles.

“You took everything from me,” Scott whispered, forcing Vilthe to the ground with him as he fell to his knees. “Is it true that every time you kill someone, you take a piece of their soul?”

Vilthe laughed, an ugly, grating sound.

“You believe you can get her back, don’t you?” he cackled, his own blood dripping from the corners of his mouth. Vilthe shoved him onto his back. Seconds after the weapon left his hand, Scott watched in horror as the blade reduced to so much black liquid in the moonlight, the majority remaining in his own body.

Confused and heartbroken, Scott attempted to collect his thoughts. He could feel his body shutting down, unable to even process the amount of damage it had taken. He missed Taylor, and he missed their life together. He missed his son. Even in his own mind, he couldn’t seem to find any words of comfort.

Vilthe stood over him, something moving in his upturned palms.  Seconds passed like eons, and Scott came to realize that the cuts he’d inflicted were bubbling over-- fountains of blood from each tiny wound. The viscous liquid rose with a life of its own, and Scott’s stomach heaved as he realized the extent to which he had been violated.

“Come… I tire of these games,” Vilthe said, now holding two blades, wicked in every sense of the word. Choking on bile and blood, Scott could only watch as he was impaled through the meat of his body, just below each collar bone, literally speared to the ground by his enemy.

Vilthe released the blades, and the blood he’d driven into Scott collapsed, washing over him, back over his shoulders, down either side of his chest.

Long, slender middle fingers inched their way to either side of Scott’s cranium, Vilthe’s face filling his vision, which had mercifully begun to fade around the edges. Jets of red light shot into Scott’s temples, ricocheting off. A momentary oddity flashed in the periphery of Vilthe’s awareness, but when he turned nothing was there.  

“First, I take the soul,” Vilthe said, resting the palm of his hand in the middle of Scott’s forehead. Curving his hand, he began to pull out a thin stream of white light. The grayish green of Scott’s eyes faded to white, and then nothing as his eyes vanished into his head. On the heels of the stream of white light came another, this one turquoise. Finally Vilthe began to wrench the eternal spark of life itself from Scott’s lifeless body – his soul.

Peeking out from between Scott’s eye sockets, it spiraled and twirled above its previous host for a few seconds before reluctantly hovering slowly toward Vilthe.

Resembling a light bulb being screwed into a lamp, the inside of Scott’s head flashed red, blue, and green as Vilthe extracted his soul, the very essence of what made him a father, husband, teammate, and master of time and space.

“I may even take your visage…” Vilthe said, tracing his hand over Scott’s ruined chest for a moment. Using his razor sharp nails, he dug deep into the time traveler’s flesh, up through the fatal wound he’d inflicted only minutes before. He reached elbow deep into Scott’s chest and with the utmost joy, he wrenched out Scott’s heart to wave in front of his lifeless eyes.

“I like to do this part last. Looks like I’ve broken your heart twice now” Vilthe said, cackling. He bit into the slowly dying organ spitefully, bursting it like an overly ripe piece of fruit.

Suddenly the lights stopped, leaving nothing but darkness around them both. Holes marked either side of Scott’s head, his forehead, and his chest and left him resembling something like a jack-o-lantern after All Hallows Eve.

“Now let us see what your little tricks can do, shall we?” Vilthe said, dropping Scott’s body carelessly to the ground. With a wave of his arm the scene before him jumped sixty seconds into the past. He watched himself finish off Scott Wright. With another wave of his arm he returned himself to the present, smiling mercilessly.

“This shall do…” Vilthe said to himself, his eyes dancing with pleasure. He turned to the discarded shell on the ground beside him -- all that was left of the most formidable human Vilthe had faced in centuries. “Thank you for –“

Vilthe stopped short as something strange caught his eye. Scattered on the ground was what looked to be the contents of the dead man’s pockets, but what captured Vilthe’s attention was a small photograph, jumping frenetically in the wind and attempting to escape from beneath a worn leather wallet.  As he scooped it up carelessly, it tore, half of it whisked away by the wind.  Vilthe looked down at the remaining half of Scott’s picture of Rolland.

“He looks a lot like you” Vilthe murmured thoughtfully.

“…Retreating! The British are retreating!” The shouts echoed through the air like nails on a chalkboard inside of Vilthe’s ears, and a rustling nearby told him that it was time to go.

----------------------------------

It seemed that just a few moments ago the idea of heading back toward the decimated White House would have been absurd, but now, at Turtledove’s insistence, Dolley found herself doing just that. Turtledove had accompanied the two weary women as they walked roughly half a mile back toward the site where a kind stranger, now identified as Scott Wright, one of Turtledove’s men, had directed them to safety.

Though the two women traveled in silence, Hannah continued to cling to Dolley’s hand. As they made their way through the early dawn twilight they happened upon Sephanie who, with her eyes returned to their normal shade of green, they found to be quite a charming young lady. After brief introductions they continued their journey back to the overlook.

The sight was not for the faint of heart.

As her eyes wandered uncomprehendingly over the carnage before her, it occurred to Dolley that a place that had seemed if not safe, then at least normal as they’d fled for their lives in the dark of night, had been transformed into a nightmare by the light of day. She felt that the last few hours had destroyed everything she knew of the world. It was too much. Clinging to Hannah’s arm, Dolley found just enough strength to support herself and the painting of George Washington that she had dragged along all evening.

Sephanie made a small, strangled sound, her eyes coming to rest on what could only be a human body. She didn’t have to see its face to know who – and what – she would find.  A hole gaped at her from the side of the skull she could see. Vilthe’s involvement couldn’t have been clearer if he’d left a calling card.

“Oh Scott…” Sephanie said. Turtledove stopped her as she moved a few steps toward what was left of her friend.

“Don’t” Turtledove said softly, moving in front of her to crouch down beside Scott’s corpse. Turtledove gently untangled his teammate’s limbs and laid him on his back, crossing his arms over his chest. He clasped the dead man’s hand in solidarity, closing his eyes for a moment. As he opened them again, a small movement from a nearby tree caught his attention.  Carefully replacing Scott’s hand, he rose to retrieve one half of a photograph, tangled amongst the roots.

Turtledove was quiet for a moment as he examined the half of Rolland’s face in his hand. He saw Scott, and he saw Taylor. He saw a fresh tear across a 16 year old secret. What he did not see was the other half.

“I think we have a situation” Turtledove said aloud, his voice full of an authority rarely heard outside of addressing the Council of Light.

Before anyone could reply, the ground beneath them began to shake, the sounds of horses and a carriage master added to the din. Before long lantern lights could be seen through the morning fog, and a carriage could be seen coming toward them. The carriage was as extravagant as it was large, and must have gone through incredible lengths to reach the overlook. Four heavily armed men poured out before it even had time to roll to a stop. The horses looked exhausted and the driver haggard, yet it took only a matter of moments for the short, well dressed man inside to step out and search for his wife, his face a picture of panic and concern.

“Dolley, Dolley!” President James Madison called, gloved hand to his mouth.

“I’m here James” Dolley said, rushing over to his side, dragging Hannah along with her. Their embrace brought both of them such great comfort that Dolley temporarily forgot that Hannah still clung to her left hand.

A curious thing Hannah was indeed, Turtledove thought as he watched the slave girl untangle herself from the presidential couple and retrieve the previously discarded painting of George Washington from the ground below.

“Mr. President,” Turtledove said, bowing his head and shaking the president’s proffered hand firmly. “It is truly an honor, sir.”

“Thank you for saving my wife, Mister…?” President Madison trailed off.

“Turtledove, sir. Marcus Turtledove” Turtledove said grinning broadly and attempting to not loom over the unexpectedly short commander-in-chief.

“Well Mr. Turtledove, I thank you again. I am truly sorry if there was any… trouble” President Madison continued, motioning to Scott’s corpse still lying in the mud.

All of them, from the President of the United States to the lowly carriage driver stared at Scott’s lifeless form for a moment, though none of them particularly knew why.

A sudden rustling from the trees heralded the arrival of a large, well-built African man, his manner of dress similar to Turtledove’s and Scott’s. He emerged from the foliage aloof and unarmed, but the four soldiers surrounding Mr. and Mrs. Madison quickly drew their weapons regardless.

“That’s Victor. He’s one of ours.” Turtledove explained. Madison set his guards at ease, leaving the newcomer to advance further into the camp and closer to Scott’s body.

“Oh no,” Victor said, crouching beside his friend’s body. The holes in his forehead, eye sockets, and sides of his head left no doubt that he had suffered greatly before he died.

Taking off his shirt, Victor laid it on the ground and wrapped Scott’s body in it with room to spare. With a teary look to Turtledove, he signaled his readiness to leave. Sephanie’s eyes filled with tears, and a light rain began to fall.

“You’ll be going then?” Dolley asked Turtledove, the loss of their comrade moving her to tears as well.

“Yes, it’s time that we returned home. Time that we returned Scott to his…” Turtledove stopped, seemingly at a loss for words.

“Well, we will be on our way then as well,” President Madison said gently, motioning for his wife and servant.

“I’m afraid, Mr. President, that I must insist on the girl coming with us,” Turtledove said respectfully, turning his attention to Hannah and taking both the President and First Lady by surprise.

“Why ever must she go with you?” Dolley exclaimed, recent events having worn her nerves to shreds.

“Hannah, you can stop protecting her now. She’s safe. Her husband is right here, as are his guards,” Turtledove turned to the young woman, his voice calm and soothing.

Abruptly Hannah turned her face to the sky. Raising her hand, she began tracing counter clockwise circles in the air, around and around. At first nothing happened, causing the carriage driver to snicker. His gloating was short-lived, however, when a thin, barely visible pink bubble began to appear around Dolley, growing more defined every second.

“What is it?” President Madison asked, holding his guards at bay.

“Protection projection would be my best guess, but I just met the girl.”Turtledove spoke matter-of-factly, making both his own confidence and President Madison’s ignorance plain. Though the president recognized the older man’s words, he could assign no contextual meaning to them nor could he ask for clarification, the societal norm requiring that the President appear omnipotent in public.

“She is responsible for my wife’s safety?” President Madison asked Turtledove, looking from him to the slave girl and attempting to piece together what little information he had to account for what was happening.

“Oh yes, no doubt she saved her life at least once this evening,” Turtledove said, looking over at Hannah with a smile.

The soft, pink bubble raised itself off of Dolley’s head and wafted above the crowd, floating high into the air. Every one of them looked on in amazement.

“Then it is you to whom I owe my gratitude, Hannah,” President Madison said, wholly overwhelmed. He placed his hand on the young slave girl’s shoulder, of an equal height to his own. “You may do as you wish.”

As one, those present turned to Hannah, gazing at her in wonder. For the President and First Lady it was one more surreal experience in the strangest night of their lives.

“If I go with you, will I be helpin’ people like you do?” Hannah asked Turtledove, her voice a little braver.

“You will,” Turtledove said, smiling down at her. “This I promise you.”

“Then I’ll go,” Hannah said with a nod, looking him in the eyes.

Mrs. Madison, perhaps realizing that her surrogate daughter would be leaving her, decided to further buck the societal norms regarding interactions with slaves and began clapping for Hannah, the woman who had saved her life. Soon President Madison, Turtledove, the carriage driver, Sephanie, Victor, and finally the guards joined in their praise for the young girl’s bravery.  For the first time in her life, Hannah felt like she was something more than just a slave.

With more in her eyes than she could ever hope to put into words, Hannah handed Dolley the portrait of George Washington that had seemed so terribly important only hours before.

“Thank you, my dear,” Dolley smiled at Hannah moments before a bright white light appeared in the sky and she, along with the rest of Mrs. Madison’s extraordinary new allies disappeared from their lives forever.


Chapter 2: A Knight’s Tale

Woodland Hills, California – Present Day

5:34AM

It had been an unusually quiet Friday night, especially for football season. The breeze from the Santa Ana winds filled the air with a quiet chill that blanketed the entire valley with an eerie sense of calm. From the outset, it appeared that not a soul was around to marvel in this event, this break in the hustle and bustle that was an integral part of life a stone’s throw away from Los Angeles. However, this isolation was an illusion. Someone was watching. Someone who relished in the lack of excitement. Someone on patrol.

Lt. David Rowley was a twelve-year veteran of the Woodland Hills police department. He owed his two promotions to his knack for always being in the ‘right place at the right time.’ Tonight, he believed, was no exception. A strange, uneasy feeling had settled into the pit of his stomach the moment he had clocked in at midnight and had remained there stubbornly.

“One more sweep through town couldn’t hurt,” Rowley said to himself, taking another sip of his lukewarm coffee.  Though he was not usually one to talk to himself, his partner, Deputy Dunn, had taken the night off for his sister’s wedding. The quiet scared Rowley a bit, reminding him of home. The local entrance sign reading ‘Woodland Hills, California’ sat covered in toilet paper and streamers from the evening before, when Woodland Hills High School had won its first playoff game in nearly ten years. With a relatively low crime rate in the city, it was this kind of vandalism that had caused Officer Rowley to be dispatched as the extra officer on duty that night.

He now sat comfortably behind the wheel of the department’s newest Dodge Charger, a vain purchase justified to the affluent city council with the excuse that ‘bad guys drive really fast’. Whatever the hell that meant. Pulling into the high school parking lot, Rowley noticed two things. First, that the vehicle illegally parked overnight on public property had a person in it, second that the person was unconscious. Nothing made Rowley more uncomfortable than waking up sleeping perps, regardless of the circumstances. As he put the cruiser into park, he readied himself by unbuttoning the holster for his stun gun, leaving the weapon accessible at a moment’s notice.

Rowley exited the Charger and approached the other vehicle cautiously. Using standard protocol he inspected the vehicle, keeping one hand on his flashlight, and the other firmly on his nightstick. He was always careful, and tonight was no exception. Usually Rowley would simply call a tow truck to come and get the irresponsibly parked vehicle, but the figure inside was a bit of a complication. Taking the nightstick from his belt, Rowley tapped on the glass, holding the light steady on the boy’s eyes. Inside he could see what appeared to be an older teenage male, probably old enough to be graduating high school He was passed out, his head resting between the window and the headrest of the beat-up, old El Dorado.

“Strange”, Rowley thought to himself, “the boy looks almost like he’s glowing.” Indeed, it did appear that the boy was bathed in a white glow, visible only by the darkness of the night.

Rowley again tapped the end of his nightstick against the glass, this time with more ferocity and vigor. The noise was deafening, yet the boy would not wake up. Officer Rowley continued to pound on the glass, until the boy inside finally began to stir. His eyes opened, seeing the officer through tiny slits before turning his head away and continuing to sleep.

‘Good, not a suicide,’ Rowley thought to himself, remembering a particularly difficult time early in his career in Los Angeles. Dismissing the long-suppressed thought, he pounded on the glass again.

Inside the vehicle, the teenager moved slightly, though still unconscious. Rowley suspected that he was indeed a local high school student, probably passed out drunk from the night before. His eyes opened slightly as he raised his hand to shield them from the officer’s maglight.

“Good morning, sir,” Rowley said, with a pronounced display of pleasantry. “Mind rolling down your window?”

The teenager inside did as he was told, and rolled down the El Dorado’s window. It was obvious by the lad’s disposition that he had not expected to wake up in such a manner.

“Identification please,” Officer Rowley demanded, keeping the business end of his flashlight pointed toward the boy’s hands. Rowley’s free hand was cemented firmly on his sidearm, a precaution he had learned to take ages ago when out alone on patrol.

The blonde teenager looked dazed for a moment before reaching for an old brown wallet lying on the dashboard. He was broad shouldered but slim, and good looking with a strong chin. Rowley moved closer to the window. With his keen, hound-dog like sense of smell he could sniff out a drug runner in seconds flat. Sadly, neither his instincts nor his nose gave him any cause for concern. A shame really, since his monthly quota was nearly due.

“It seems to be in the glove compartment. Do you mind?” the wavy haired blonde teenager asked cautiously after shuffling through the contents of his wallet. Obviously he had been warned by an officer before to proceed with a respectful apprehension.

In a post Patriot Act world, the boy’s last statement sounded like probable cause to Officer Rowley, causing him to shine his flashlight into the back seat of the young man’s Cadillac El Dorado, looking for any excuse to search the teenager's vehicle for possible narcotics, weapons, or other illegal goods. What he saw in the back seat had nothing to do with the illicit drug subculture, however. Instead, he saw signs that the boy had been living out of his car. He could clearly make out crates of food, laundry, and toiletries scattered amongst newspapers, blankets, and various sorts of trash. Looking further back he saw textbooks featuring such words as ‘Biology’ and ‘Trigonometry’.

Rowley had seen this before. Back when he worked in Los Angeles. Back before he got the sweet gig in the suburbs. There was a time in his career where he might have let this kid go about his day, letting him off with just a friendly reminder to watch his back. But it was the end of the month, and he did have a quota to meet. In this town, he would take what he could get.

“Is this your vehicle, Mr..?” Officer Rowley asked the young man sitting behind the wheel, his composure coming back to him.

“Wright, Scott Wright,” said the teenager. Opening up the glove compartment slowly, the young man who called himself Scott Wright pulled out a California driver’s license and a piece of paper. He next handed them to Rowley, who disappeared behind the El Dorado and surveyed the top of the trunk and rear light with a raised brow before returning to the driver’s side window. The teenager, who called himself Scott Wright, was not the real Scott Wright. The real Scott Wright had, unbeknownst to Officer Rowley, been missing for some time now. Nearly twenty months to be exact. The young man sitting in Scott Wright’s 1979 Cadillac El Dorado hardtop convertible was none other than his only son – Rolland Alan Wright.

“Well Mr. Wright, may I ask what you’re doing here at 4:30 in the morning?” Rowley looked Rolland dead in the eye, unable to find any sign of dishonesty.

“Just very early for class,” Rolland said to the officer, giving a half smile.

“Please wait in the vehicle, sir,” Officer Rowley said to Rolland before walking back to his vehicle and climbing inside.

Watching the portly police officer struggle to get back into his cruiser from his rear view mirror, Rolland Wright knew that his long journey had come to an end. What began nearly two years ago with the death of his mother and disappearance of his father that resulted in him being evicted from his childhood home, would finally end with him being arrested for sleeping in the high school parking lot.

Pushing a few strands of his wavy blonde hair away from his eyes, Rolland contemplated the idea of making a run for it. He’d have to change his license plates again, but it was worth it to stay out of jail. Worth it to not be humiliated. Worth it to not to have to wait for parents who would never come to bail him out.

Rolland snapped and clasped his hands nervously together, a bad habit he had picked up from his father years ago. He did it again and again, creating a clicking noise as he braced himself to the most reckless thing he could imagine. Checking the rearview mirror again, the bright lights of the police car looked almost like they were moving in slow motion with their seemingly endless flashing of blue and red. A cold rush of excitement washed over Rolland as he allowed his instincts to take over. Closing his eyes, Rolland turned the keys in the ignition and gripped the leather steering wheel cover until his knuckles turned white. He knew that things were about to either get much better, or much worse.

Putting the car into gear, he opened his eyes and pushed the gas pedal flush to the floor, and sped out of the parking lot. His heart pounded as he moved the driver’s side mirror to check behind him, but the road was empty.

“Good,” he said, reassuring himself. Rolland had long since given up on the idea of NOT talking to himself. After all, these days he kept very little company. He snapped his fingers and hands together again in an attempt to relieve some of the tension, the knot in his stomach refusing to relent. Deciding that 4:30 in the morning was as good of a time to start the day as any, Rolland set course for the only store in town open twenty four hours - the Sack & Save grocery store. As he drove, Rolland could not help but ponder the circumstances that had brought him to this point. As he pulled up to the stop light at the intersection of Pecan and 2nd Street, suppressed memories of life before homelessness pushed their way to the surface.

He had been living out of his car for almost two years, though even the El Dorado was not Rolland’s. It legally belonged to his missing, presumably inebriated, father. The Wright’s busy working schedules (both Taylor’s and Scott’s) demanded a lot from their family when Rolland was young. While he was never exactly sure what his parents did, he knew that they worked for the federal government. His mother had never been what one would consider the typical mom, but with her gentle touch and warm embrace, she had been there to guide Rolland through the early days of his childhood. Throughout much of elementary school he would come home to find her waiting there for him, usually with an after school snack and a genuine interest in his day.

That was before September 11, 2001.

After the terrorist attacks, time became a commodity, and the Wrights began to spend more time at work and less time with their son. By the age of nine, Rolland came home from school to be greeted by an empty house. Because of his forced solitude, Rolland developed an active fantasy life, and dove enthusiastically into books and movies – primarily of the historical and adventurous variety. This process continued through most of his childhood and early teen years, his marks in school remaining moderately high. Since he had no behavioral problems, his parent’s complete lack of involvement in his life went quite unnoticed by public school faculty. Most individuals would look upon Rolland’s arrangement as neglectful at best, but in an age where most parents were as versatile as a public pantomime, his were missing in action.

Rolland looked back at that golden era of his life and missed sleeping indoors the most; a rather harsh realization when considering the fact that both of Rolland’s parents were still alive at the time. Back before he carried a large knife around for protection.  Pulling into the Sack’ & Save grocery parking lot, Rolland put the car in park and popped the reclining lever on his seat. Looking up at the grey, fuzzy ceiling above him, Rolland was reminded of the snow that covered Beaver Creek, Colorado the night his mother died.

Two years ago, Scott had surprised his family over the holiday break with a skiing trip to Colorado. Having never gone skiing before, Rolland took the good-natured gesture by his father in stride and agreed to make the best out of their time together. The skiing itself had proven to be easy enough and Rolland mastered it on the first day. He had looked forward to reporting his accomplishment to his mother, but he would never get that chance.

Two holes had graced either side of her otherwise beautiful, albeit pale, face. Her chest cavity had been ripped in two, a large chunk missing from the left side. They had taken her heart.

Scott Wright was beyond devastated by his wife’s death. That night Rolland, still in shock from discovering his mother’s body, attempted to approach his father after they gave their statements to the police. Scott would have none of him. Instead, he sent the boy away, never breathing another word to him until the day he disappeared. A curt “Be right back,” and Scott was gone, never to be seen again.

Rolland took the keys out of the ignition, retrieved his toothbrush, deodorant and soap, and got out of the car. He locked the door behind him, leaving the memories of his past inside. Upon entering the Sack & Save grocery store, Rolland immediately came face to face with Charlie, the lovable greeter who worked there in the mornings. The two of them shared a special relationship. Charlie was one of the only individuals privy to Rolland’s living arrangements. This breach in secrecy was due to necessity, as Rolland had to remind himself every morning when passed by Charlie on the way to use the facilities.

“Good morning, Charlie,” Rolland said, extending his hand and greeting Charlie with the enthusiasm of someone who’d had far more caffeine.

“Mornin’, Rolland,” Charlie said meekly, giving a kind hearted smile to the homeless teenager he had taken pity on in exchange for a dinner companion once a week. He, like Rolland, was lonely, but for completely different reasons. Unlike Officer Rowley however, Charlie the greeter had no monthly quota to meet, and cut Rolland a break on using the bathroom every morning. “You’re early.”

“Got caught sleeping up at the high school,” Rolland said, walking past him and entering the restroom.

“Oh, that’s not good,” Charlie said, feigning mild interest as he went back to watching the door. He liked Rolland, but not enough to bail the lad out of jail.

--------------------------------------

Twenty minutes later Rolland emerged from the men’s restroom looking polished, groomed, and clean as someone in his situation could. Slipping his toothbrush into his back pocket, Rolland thanked Charlie again and wished him a good day as he walked through the automatic doors. A quick glance at the clock told him it was nearly 6:30AM, giving Rolland less than an hour to drive to school, find a parking space, and get to class if he wanted to be on time. He put the car in gear and headed for the school.

More memories of how he had gotten to this point bombarded him as he drove. It was strange knowing that all was lost. There was no more angst… no more uncertainty.  Suicide was an option, sure, but not any more so now than it had been nearly two years ago. Besides… it’s not like it was going anywhere. There it could sit, like an obedient little dog, waiting for its master to make a decision. No… if Rolland was going out then he planned on taking out all the enemies he had made first. It wasn’t in Rolland’s nature to go about making enemies, mind you; it’s just that life on the streets has a certain way of hardening people. It wasn’t as if Rolland’s life living in the backseat of an old Cadillac had dissuaded him from living it to the fullest. On the contrary, as it was his general impression that only those who had nothing left to lose were truly alive.

He yearned to make a change but that yearning was bogged down by the everyday worries of the world. He saw it all on the streets; the suffering, the inhumanity, the horrible conditions for children. The children… there were dozens of them. Dozens upon dozens, travelling with their poor, homeless families visiting the camps other vagabond travelers had already established around the greater Los Angeles area. Rolland had seen them all. On the weekends he would drive to them, get the lay of the land, and crash for the evening. During the night he would keep tabs on all the comings and goings. He would learn who it was best to avoid and whose eye you should catch if you wanted a free meal. The types were the same everywhere he went, and one by one he picked them off of the map that Charlie the greeter had given him.

Slab City was the name given to the worst Rolland had come across since moving into his car. Known as the ‘last free place in America,’ the old decommissioned Navy Seals training camp was now host to hundreds, if not thousands, of souls living on the fringes of society. It was a far drive, one hundred and fifty miles southeast of Los Angeles. There was no electricity or law enforcement, only an abundance of victims and people down on their luck.

But they were still people.

They were human, all of them, and Americans to boot. Why then were they allowed to go on with their lives like they were second-rate citizens? Why wasn’t the government doing something?

Rolland posed such questions to his American History teacher, Joseph Paladino, that day at school. Mr. Paladino was a strict but good-natured man in his own way. At first glance, one could assume correctly that he had a military background. Not content with ‘getting more done before noon than most people get done all day’, he went into public education as a means of serving his community, a decision he had come to regret after interacting with most of the students. Joseph’s training and keen sense of observation told him at the beginning of the school year that something about the young Mr. Wright was a little off. Perhaps it was the boy’s odd sense of curiosity about specific details about history. Or maybe it was the long periods of time when the boy wouldn’t say anything at all, no matter how hard he attempted to provoke him. To Joseph, it was like the Wright boy was living a double life. But that would be impossible for a seventeen year old. Surely the boy’s parents would be keeping at least some amount of supervision over him.

“Big government is bad for free enterprise,” he told the boy, almost mimicking the voice of Bill O’Reilly as he rapped his pen on the desk with his free hand.

Mr. Paladino was pleased to have an audience for his ramblings, even if he sensed an alternative motive behind the boy’s sudden interest in national politics. He wasn’t surprised when he saw Rolland’s eyes drift toward the doorway after a minute or two. He was obviously avoiding someone. Thinking he would find a young girl, Paladino faked a cough and stole a quick glance at the door. To Joseph’s surprise however, it was a not girl standing there, but a tall, very skinny, Brazilian teenager with black, greasy hair and a rather unpleasant expression, attempting to open a locker. His name was Richard, and he was Rolland’s only remaining friend.

Richard, Rick, Rich, (and sometimes the ‘Brazilian Bronco’ whenever they spray-painted buildings) had met Rolland in elementary school, sharing a passion for toy cars and battling little girls. For nearly ten years they had run together, discovering girls, automobiles, and the inevitable downsides of friendship. Without a word, Rolland stood up from his desk, the cheap wooden door creaking as he shut it hard behind him. Upon later reflection, it occurred to Rolland that perhaps the noise he had heard was not the door, but his teacher’s indignation. At that moment however, he didn’t care. All Rolland cared about was talking to his friend Rick and securing a place to sleep that evening.

“Hey man, I just wanted to make sure that we were cool,” Rolland said with a somewhat genuine tone to his voice. “Not sure why your mom threw me out of your house last night, but…”

“She threw you out because it was like the 50th time you’ve slept over without her permission,” said Richard, attempting the combination to his locker again.

“Yeah, but it’s not like it’s a big deal, right? I mean I’m not hurting anyone and…” Rolland said, but was interrupted again by his visibly upset friend.

“What’s wrong with you man? Can’t you see that you aren’t wanted at my house? I mean, geez,” Rick said while stuffing his backpack with binders and textbooks.

“You don’t have to be a dick about it, Rick,” Rolland said, thinking to himself that he sounded a bit like Doctor Seuss for adults.

“And you’re lame, dude,” Richard said, closing his locker and shouldering his bag. “Nobody likes a mooch.”

“Dude, I let you copy off of me on the trig test last week. I got you that job at the grocery store.  You kind of owe me,” Rolland said, laying down the gauntlet.

“I don’t owe you anything, Rolland,” Richard said, stuffing the rest of his books into his tan knapsack. “Look how many friends you have. There’s a reason for that.”

“Alright…” Rolland said, pulling on the strap of his own backpack a bit, making the shoulder strap it was connected to tighter. “Well then what about…”

But it was too late. Richard was half way down the hall and by the time Rolland realized it, he was out of sight. The sad part was that Richard didn’t know how right he was. There was a reason, a perfectly valid reason, why Rolland was using his friend’s houses as a hotel and going through acquaintances like disposable napkins. He had no other choice. Sure, the guilt of losing Richard as a friend was sad to Rolland, but so was being woken up by yet another police officer at four in the morning. His belief in humanity was dwindling along with the number of places he could sleep indoors. It was a scary thought for the teenager and one that he wasn’t quite ready to accept. So, swallowing everything except for his pride, Rolland took what titles his former friends gave him.

The prospect of being that ‘rude’ guy was still better to Rolland than being that ‘homeless’ guy – a title he wasn’t ready to accept at the age of seventeen. Deciding to skip out on the rest of his classes, Rolland put the combination lock into his pocket and walked out of Woodland Hills High. He found his El Dorado waiting for him, right where he had left her.

---------------------------------------

Deciding to find some moderately priced entertainment for the afternoon, Rolland drove down the road to the local Books Half Price, finding a parking spot near the middle with relative ease. He put the car into park, and felt around the backseat until he found his brown bomber jacket pulling the journal he had kept for the past twenty months out from under it. It wasn’t that Rolland fancied himself a writer -- quite the contrary. More often than not, when he brought his pen to paper the words of greater and more famous men sprang to life instead of his own. He picked up the Pilot pen that sat next to the journal.

Securing his father’s old hunting knife, a somewhat chipped and jaded relic with a strange symbol of an hour glass overlaid on the infinity symbol, Rolland prepared to leave the comfort of the Cadillac. The knife had been given to him by his old man on his thirteenth birthday, which now lived in a well-placed pizza box in the back seat.  Shifting gears, Rolland decided to set the tone of his day in a literary sense, letting the ordeal with Richard play itself out on paper. Putting the pen to the notepad, he wrote down the first quote that came to mind.

“Perhaps the art of life is the art of avoiding pain.”

Thinking it a bit too melodramatic, Rolland shut the spiral notebook and got out of the El. It being only ten o’clock in the morning, there still weren’t many people out and about. the mid-morning sun was bright, and barely hid behind the brick structure he faced. A quick glance directly into its glowing magnificence and the inside of his eyelids glowed for a long moment. It wasn’t until Rolland pried his eyes back open that he saw her. A beautiful, almost angelic woman elegantly marched toward him dressed in white, her flowing brunette hair cascading down her slender shoulders. She glided past him, turning to smile at him as she passed by. Rolland’s heart stopped as he watched the hourglass figure walk away. The sun was too bright, causing him to blink.

‘Who was that?’ Rolland said to himself aloud. ‘I have to know!’

Running back to the parking lot to find the pretty girl in white proved to be futile. Rolland turned around, glad to be free of the sun’s blinding rays. The brunette beauty was long gone now; along with Rolland’s first and only smile of the day.

Still dazed from his encounter with the woman, Rolland turned his attention back to the bookstore. Walking back to the front of the store, he noticed the bins of clearance priced books. I. Rolland picked through them looking for his favorite authors. With no Michener, King, or Crighton to be found, the best he could come up with was what looked like an old library copy of a Robert Stone novel. No sooner had Rolland flipped the book than he was interrupted by what appeared to be a police officer.

“You. What’s your name?” the officer asked gruffly, grabbing the teenager’s wrist and twisting it painfully.

“Salt-Tina. It’s Yiddish,” Rolland said sarcastically, as he attempted to break free of the officer's grip.

“Let go of me!” Rolland shouted as he kicked the standing cart of bargain books into the officer’s hip, sending the man toppling over.  The momentary distraction allowed Rolland to free himself from the officer’s grip and he took several steps backward. Turning to run, Rolland didn’t make it far before his feet were pulled out from under him, and he fell face first onto the pavement.

“Got you now little bass-turd.” The officer laughed, revealing a mouth full of cracked and decaying teeth.

The officer drew his firearm and aimed it squarely at Rolland, as he lay defenseless on the sidewalk. His nose was bleeding and throbbing profusely, a slow stream of blood trickling onto his shirt and the sidewalk below.

“Please, stop.” Rolland pleaded. “I haven’t done anything!”

“Quiet you,” The officer said, cocking the gun clinched between his stumpy fingers. “Dey told me all bout you, dey did. Won’t be trickin’ me wit your… ew…”

From out of nowhere what looked like a flaming baseball flew at the police officer, hitting him squarely in the chest, sending him flying backward into the side of the building.

“Are you alright?” said a deep, booming voice from above Rolland, who looked over to see a very large, very dark African gentleman offering him his hand.

“Thanks,” Rolland said, accepting the man’s gesture, and climbing to his feet. “Uh, not to be rude, but who the hell are you?”

“I am Victor. My friends also call me Flint. I’m here to help you,” he replied, letting go of Rolland’s arm.

“Thanks, I guess. Uh, why do they call you Flint exactly?” Rolland asked, looking at the man’s large arms, each covered in cracked, scaly dark skin.

“Because of this…” Victor said, taking a knee and placing his fist on the cement. He then ran it in a quick, striking motion across the pavement, and small bits of flame quickly spread over his skin, completely engulfing his arm.

“Don’t worry, I’m alright,” Victor said, smiling at Rolland as he stood up and shook his arm, expelling the flames. “Are there any more, or was it just him?”

Before Rolland could reply, a long electric-blue whip lashed around the cart full of books next to them, flinging it onto its side. At the other end of the whip stood a very tall red-headed woman, smiling at them wickedly.

“The boy is mine!” she shouted, as she readied her electric whip for another attack, sprinting toward them.

In the blink of an eye, the whip slapped against the ground and whizzed back through the air at them with such a force that Rolland barely had time to consider dodging. To his surprise, Victor stood there defiantly as debris from her fury flew all around them. Raising one arm above his head, Victor caught the glowing, electric whip as it cracked and coiled itself against his charcoal skin.

“Nice try.” Victor said, using the whip to pull the red headed woman to him and throwing both woman and weapon aside. He turned his attention back to Rolland. “Come on, follow me.”

Together they ran past the carts of clearance books and over the two would-be assailants, through the double doors that led to the air-conditioned safety within the bookstore. Oddly, no one inside the store seemed to take any notice at what was going on outside, nor had anyone tried to leave.

“Come on, we’ll sneak out the back,” Victor said, attracting the same attention any six-foot-five inch muscular black man running through the store naturally would.

They had barely crossed half of the distance to the emergency exit when a man wearing a bowler hat and necktie walked in through the side door wielding a machine gun, firing at anything that moved. Right behind him was the officer that had first stopped Rolland, opening fire as well.

“Watch out for the…” Victor shouted to Rolland, but was cut off as a giant, catlike paw the size of a Volkswagen came crashing through the front window, taking a swipe at Victor and knocking him to the floor, unconscious.

Whatever creature owned the paw was large, with a strange bellowing roar; a noise that drowned out the screams of panic that echoed out throughout the bookstore. Though he did not know why, Rolland knew that the beast was there for him alone. He also knew that he had to get out of the store and lure the beast away from the innocent patrons inside. Rolland had no idea what being shot might feel like and had he not turned toward the exit of the Books Half Price at that moment, he might have found out firsthand as a blaze of bullets rained down upon the spot where Rolland’s heel had been a breath earlier.

The shooter was a tall man, dressed in a crisp black military uniform, complete with shiny boots, honors, and bars of rank. Rolland also spotted something unusual on his uniform. Something that Rolland could just make out as he spun around to take cover from the deluge spewing from the automatic weapon aimed at him.

There was a band on the man’s right arm branded with a large X. Only it wasn’t an X.

Then, as quickly as the gunfire had started, it stopped, leaving a startling silence in its wake.

“Give up now, kinder,” The man said, removing the empty clip from his weapon and reaching for a new one. “Zhere is no need to get hurt.”

Confused, afraid, and out of ideas, Rolland hunched over, his back leaning against two fallen bookshelves filled with National Geographic magazines from the 1980s. Stretching nervously, Rolland wracked his brain in search of another plan.

Rolland never heard footsteps, only the labored breathing of the trained gunman who stood a mere three feet away, the barrel of his Type 81 assault rifle pointed directly at the side of the teenage boy’s head.

“Howdy,” Rolland said nervously, his throat dry and his palms sweaty.

His assailant sneered, and Rolland took a closer look at the man’s uniform. The nametag on the man’s left breast read ‘HESS’ in big white letters, and the X on his sleeve was not an X at all, but a swastika, the insignia of facist Nazi Germany.

“Kind of insensitive of you to sport that armband, don’t you think?” Rolland said nervously, as he put more and more weight into the slow backward retreat he was mulling over.

“You got far’therzen I zhought you would,” The man in black known as Hess said, not moving another muscle in his body. “But here you ztop.”

“Thanks – I guess?” Rolland replied, staring at Hess and his Type 81, which still held steady, seemingly eager to finish its assignment.

Without warning, the sun suddenly peeked through the side window of the bookstore, temporarily blinding Hess, and giving Rolland the seconds he needed to make a break for it.

Avoiding the man’s blind fire, Rolland dragged Victor by his hands across the tile floor to the far side of the wall where a group of people, the store's cashier and about ten patrons, were cowering. Rolland reached them just as a fresh wave of bullets was shot in their direction.

Hess was on the move.

“Is everyone alright?” Rolland asked the huddled masses all at once. There were about a dozen of them all together, four children, five women, and three men. All of them looked terrified, angry, and confused.

“What the hell is going on out there?” one of the men asked, stepping forward and peeking his head out from around the corner. Bullets came within millimeters of the man’s nose as Rolland pulled him back behind the shelf.

“Stay here and watch him!” Rolland shouted as he dropped Victor’s arms and ran from the group, drawing the gunman’s fire upon himself as he went.

It wasn’t more than a few steps before Rolland ran into the red-headed woman again, apparently recovered from their altercation in front of the store.

“Going somewhere, doll face?” the crazed woman asked, cracking her blue whip in midair and sending a bolt of electricity through its coarse wiring. Rolland jumped behind another overturned bookshelf and the redheaded woman miscalculated Rolland’s position, catching her whip on something he couldn’t see.  Utilizing this distraction, Rolland crawled away and ran towards a group of people who had gathered in the ‘Arts’ section. Seeing them unharmed gave him a jolt of hope and a second wind as he ran to them.

“I’m going to get help,” Rolland told them, scanning their faces for any sign of smoke inhalation. He looked down at Victor, who still lay on the ground motionless, the two scratch marks deep across his chest and bubbling oddly through his white t-shirt.

“Please hurry,” said an older, Hispanic woman who had two little boys sitting behind her.

With a rush of adrenaline, Rolland nervously clasped his hands together and made a mad dash for the emergency exit. Heart pounding in his chest, he sped through the storm of bullets the two mad gunmen rained down on him.

Opening the door, Rolland immediately knew something was wrong. It was pretty obvious, since there was an immense shadow looming over him and blocking out the sun. He looked up, craning his neck to see the most grotesque, misshapen thing he had ever laid eyes upon. Purple veins stood taller than him, and his eyes followed them over the hunched shoulders to the front of the beast. The horned creature towered over Rolland, with a long, curved tail that easily doubled the creature’s size. Its head was shaped like a flattened football, with two massive, ten-foot-long tusks protruding from either side of a mouth filled with razor sharp teeth.. Two large, copper colored eyes sat on opposite sides of the beast’s head, blinding it to Rolland’s immediate presence.

“At the door – get um!’” shouted the man wearing the tattered uniform as he ran toward Rolland and the open emergency exit. The beast stirred at the sound, and as it shifted, it saw Rolland.

The man reached the door just in time to take the full brunt of the fireball the beast spewed at the source of the noise, completely engulfing him in flames.

Running back into the bookstore, the flaming man hurled himself into bookcases left and right, flailing his arms frantically. The redhead suddenly lost all interest in Rolland and ran to her friend's side, beating at the flames on his neck and shoulders. Unfortunately for her the sum of her efforts was the spreading of the fire to a nearby pile of books, along the carpeted floor, and finally to the store's interior walls surrounding them. To Rolland’s amazement, there were no police, nor any sign of rescue workers to assist the injured. The surroundings of the Books Half Price appeared perfectly normal, as if it were still a typical morning in the sleepy little town of Woodland Hills; that is, besides the ninety foot tall monster that was trying to kill him.

Skidding to a stop as he maneuvered around the side of the Books Half Price, Rolland made impressive time, keeping at least twenty-five feet in front of the beast. Making it to the parking lot, Rolland pulled at the lanyard in his pocket and grabbed his car key, lunging for the lock before he was even to the car door. He turned the rickety old lock left, and got inside of the car with a practiced ease.

Digging around the backseat, Rolland found what he was looking for. There, inside the old pizza box, was the twelve inch long bowie knife that Scott had given to him on his thirteenth birthday. He grabbed it and wheeled around just in time to see the beast bearing down on him.

Both massive ivory tusks pierced the roof of the El Dorado, pushing themselves past the upholstery and clear through to the undercarriage, lifting the car off of the ground. Rolland jumped out, tucked into a ball, and rolled away as the El Dorado stuck to the monster’s tusks, agitating the creature and making it paw at the large chunk of metal with its front paws.

“Dick!” Rolland hollered at the beast as it tore through the only home he had come to know for the past two years. Unsheathing the knife, he ran as fast as he could to the beast’s massive webbed paw. Rolland raised his father’s knife over his head, and brought it down into the creatures flesh with reckless abandonment. It landed square and deep into the middle of the limb, sinking clear to the handle, and making it impossible for the beast to dislodge the knife. The fanged beast thrashed and snarled, enraged by the vehicle lodged in its mouth and the knife lodged in its paw. It let out a loud growl before breathing another fiery breath and popping out of existence as quickly as it had arrived, leaving only a trail of chaos and destruction behind.

With the creature gone, Rolland turned and tried to find a way back into the bookstore to help the dozen or so individuals still trapped inside. He looked over at the double glass doors and saw smoke slowly billowing out from underneath. Cupping his hand, Rolland leaned as close as possible to the glass without touching it to peer inside. He saw flames everywhere, and he feared that he might be too late to save anyone, much less everyone.

“Think, Wright!” Rolland shouted to himself, again clasping his hands nervously together, a mirror of his father’s nervous gesture. Scott had called it his ‘key to success’, but Rolland merely thought of it as stress relief for middle-aged alcoholic. Still, he did it, again and again, snapping his fingers, clasping his hand to his palm, over and over.

That’s when it caught his eye. There, through the glass, Rolland could see a soft, yet incredibly bright white orb of light hovering just on the other side of the door. It was comforting, and called to him with a purity that he hadn’t felt since he was young.

“What?” Rolland asked himself out loud as he walked over to the door and leaned in to the door handle before jumping back. But to his surprise it was not red hot like before, but cool to the touch, allowing him to get a closer look at the treasure within.

Looking into the swirling bright light of the orb, Rolland was filled with the confidence that he needed to not only find a way into the building, but to save all of the people inside as well. Somehow he knew he would be safe doing it, though he couldn’t have explained why.

Still skeptical on touching the hot panes of the glass doors, Rolland looked around and found a nearby rock he could use to shatter the glass door’s lower pane. He stepped inside and came face to face with the shining white orb.

It was beautiful..

All around Rolland the flames still raged, but softly, slowly. It was almost as if someone had pressed the slow motion button on the entire world, allowing Rolland to control the action.

Thankful for the blessing, Rolland followed the white orb through different patches of floor and around flaming shelves through what would otherwise surely have been a mad dash to find his way in a house of death. Eventually the orb led him back to Victor and the ‘Arts Section’ crowd before disappearing entirely.

“Spooky,” Rolland said, a band of sweat forming on his forehead from the heat of the fire surrounding him. Time was of the essence, and he intended to make the most of it. Deciding to take the children first, Rolland threw one of the little boys over his shoulder and picked up the other, turning to find the white orb seemingly waiting to guide them back outside.

Though the orb had a set course, Rolland did get a chance to look around at the surreal scene before him. Only one body – the fake cop who initially attacked him outside of the bookstore was plain to see, adding credence to his theory that the redheaded woman and the man in the Nazi uniform had found a way to escape.

Victor was the last to be pulled from the burning bookstore, as he took the longest to drag out. Stopping only long enough to check on each patron's vital signs, Rolland continued dragging Victor past them, out across the bookstore's parking lot where the upside down shell of his Cadillac El Dorado lay, flames still burning slowly as she melted away to nothing more than steel. He dragged Victor up the small hill behind the bookstore and away from prying eyes. It proved to be quite a task, but as they arrived at the top, Rolland was grateful he had chosen to get away from the scene as fast as possible. He turned around to examine the building from which he and a dozen other people had only barely escaped certain death because of a strange glowing ball. The thought was still strange, even after living through it.

With the problem of escaping the bookstore out of the way, Rolland was at a loss as to what to do next. With nothing but the singed clothes on his back, an unconscious man named Victor at his side, and a serious fear that he might be going crazy, all Rolland really wanted to do was go home.

Home…

The beast that attacked him in front of the store had not only destroyed his only means of transport, but had taken his home as well. Rolland had always had his trusty Cadillac to fall back on, and a meaningless, destructive void now filled his heart in her absence. How strange it was to become so attached to an inanimate object, but then again, if there had been only one lesson he had learned over the course of the last twenty- one months, it was that getting attached to things now only lead to being separated from them later on.

Loss… it is inevitable.

Silently, Rolland bowed his head and said a little prayer of remembrance for his fallen shelter.