It’s happening again. This time, in public. Water clogs my mouth and nose. I kick my feet and stroke upward with my head tipped up, desperate for air, but it’s no use. Everything around me is dark, and I’m convulsing. Dying.
I’ve been drowning for weeks.
The dreams come while I’m wide awake and nowhere near water. The current dream releases me, and I cough, clearing my lungs from the imaginary liquid as the nightmare fades.
Sitting up, I frown and climb back onto the bench in front of my local gym. Grass sticks to my sweaty yoga pants, and I idly brush it away while doing a quick scan of the area.
One of the women from my self-defense class stands several feet away, gawking at me. I flip my hair saucily and pretend her Krav Maga instructor didn’t just have what undoubtedly looked like a nervous breakdown.
I run a hand through my tangled black hair and focus on breathing. Oxygen always tastes better after one of my weirdo daymares. As the woman gives up staring and hurries to her car, I chase my shots of oxygen with a few sips of water.
Above me, the stars twinkle like little sparkly eyes, laughing down at me for my dramatic display. Like the damn stars don’t have anything better to do than gawk at my awkwardness. . .
“Hey, partner,” a familiar voice says just as a body drops onto the empty space beside me.
“Hey, Finn.” Partner means partner in crime. However, Finn is typically getting me out of trouble rather than helping me get into it.
I offer a weak smile and note the way his cheeks are still flushed from playing my “victim” in our recent class.
“You okay?” he asks, studying me closely.
“Yeah, totally fine. Why?”
“You fell off the bench,” Finn says, and I groan.
“You saw that?”
“El, everyone in the parking lot and half the lobby saw it.” His voice is gentle but also full of laughter. Finn’s been my friend long enough to know I’m a puzzle.
“Whatever, I just tripped.”
“You were sitting down.”
“That’s a thing. Tripping out of a chair,” I say, but Finn shakes his head.
“At least you didn’t break something. The water cooler still hasn’t been replaced since you knocked it over last week.”
I wince at the reminder, deeply relieved that Finn finds it amusing now instead of weird. A simple drink of water had turned into a full-on daymare, and I’d somehow drop-kicked the cooler, flooding the break room with five gallons of water. By the time I’d come to my senses, Finn had pinned me to the wall. Apparently, I’d been calling him a demon and trying to claw his eyes out.
Although Finn had been worried at the time, he’d covered for me with our manager. Blamed it on the equipment being faulty and even broke the water tower stand to prove it.
“You did good tonight,” Finn says, rotating his ankle. “That last takedown left me sore.”
“Really?” I ask, not sure whether to believe him but relieved for the change of subject.
“Really. You’re getting stronger.”
His brown eyes sparkle with something. Pride? Whatever it is, I don’t miss the toned arm that dangles from the bench behind me or attractive slant of his brows or the way his hair spikes kind of crazily now that he’s worked out. Finn’s not hard to look at, but for the year we’ve been friends, there’s been nothing romantic between us. And I’ve watched with fascination while he steers clear of the women who try for romance. I’m not sure why.
Finn is a lone wolf.
Then again, so am I.
“Seriously, though,” he says, and his expression turns intense. “Are you okay?”
“I . . .” The drowning is still fresh enough that the fear makes me scowl. I’m an excellent swimmer with no past water traumas, so I’m pretty certain my brain is officially broken.
However, my mother’s mental health wasn’t exactly the most stable. And just like that, the thought of her sends a pang through my chest. Today’s been hard enough, but I already know tomorrow will be much worse.
A car pulls to a stop at the curb.
“Elidi!” Aunt Aerina calls, sounding urgent. She’s always in a hurry.
“I’m fine,” I assure Finn. “See you later.” I jump up and hurry over to the Prius.
“How’d it go, sunshine?” Aerina asks, turning down her music.
Aerina has always called me sunshine. Just like Mom did.
In answer to her question, I wince, and Aerina cringes.
“That good, huh?”
“Class went great. Finn said he’s actually sore from the last takedown demonstration I did.”
“That’s great. So what’s—”
“I had the nightmare again. Or daymare. Or whatever it is.” I blow out a breath.
Her smile falls.
“Oh.” She signals then pulls the Prius away from the curb and heads for home. “I was really hoping that increasing your workouts would help center you,” she says quietly.
“I think they’re making it worse. Like my physical exhaustion is making me crazy or something. Or maybe it’s genetic.”
Aerina cuts me a look, and I know we’re descending into a very familiar argument.
“Knowing how to defend yourself is crucial information.”
“That’s not what I—”
“And your genetics have zero insanity,” she snaps.
Damn. I’ve struck a nerve.
“Your family tree is full of strong women, physically and mentally,” she goes on.
“What about my dad?” I ask.
“What about him?”
“You don’t know who he is, so we don’t know what I got from his side of the gene pool.” I shrug. “Maybe he’s a psycho with delusions, and I’m just taking after him.”
“Your father is not a psycho,” she says firmly.
So firmly that she sounds . . . certain.
“Aerina, what do you know about him?”
She blinks, her gaze fastened firmly on the road ahead. “Nothing.”
Her foot pushes heavier on the gas, and I try not to let my nerves show as she navigates the Prius along the winding roads outside our tiny town of Bridgeport, Washington. Instead of the skyscrapers and smog of L.A., what lies ahead are miles and miles of the Olympic National Forest and clean, clear oxygen and our fixer-upper farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.
Mom would have hated it.
“Your shtick is getting old,” I say when the silence stretches and the road straightens again.
“I don’t have a shtick.”
I roll my eyes. “Please. Since Mom died, you’ve done nothing but boss me around. Where we live, where I work—”
“Your work is good for you. L.A. wasn’t safe anymore.”
“Right. Muggers and carjackers,” I say, repeating the tired story she keeps trying to feed me about my mother’s mysterious death. “All you do is try to convince me of the danger we’re in. Maybe that’s why I’m having hallucinations of my own death.”
“Don’t be a smartass.”
I know Aerina’s losing her patience. Guilt pricks at me as I realize I’m not the only one in pain today. This is a hard week for us both.
I sigh. “I’m sorry. I just feel like I’m losing it, and I miss her.”
Aerina’s golden blonde hair and pink cheeks are gorgeous as ever, but it’s a sad beauty now.
“I miss her too,” she says quietly. “But don’t give up, Elidi. Your birthday is coming.”
I frown. “What does my birthday have to do with crazy daydreams about dying?” Instead of offering me an answer, she focuses on the road. Whatever. Aerina’s always saying cryptic things to me about my daymares, and it’s only gotten worse since Mom died.
She pulls into the driveway and cuts the engine, plunging the yard and porch into inky darkness.
Neither of us moves. I hate the dark.
Aerina turns and reaches for my hand.
“Elidi, we need to talk. There are some things you need to know about who you really are.”
“What do you mean? Like about Mom?” I ask.
Aerina nods. “That’s part of it. But there’s more, and I think it’s time you know the truth. Come inside. I’ll make some tea.” She climbs out and adds, “We’re going to need it” under her breath.
I step outside, and the chilly air lifts goose bumps along my arms. The loose leaves whisper against each other in the wind, and I have to force myself to reach back into the car for my gym bag rather than scurry after Aerina.
By the time I sling my bag over my shoulder and slam the car door shut, Aerina’s already inside, and I’m alone.
“Be cool,” I whisper to myself. “It’s just the dark.” I scan the pockets of shadows that line our yard. There is a border of trees out there, but right now, I can’t even make out their silhouette.
“Just the night. There’s nothing here that can—”
A pair of glowing red eyes materializes on my left, and I freeze. My throat closes, robbing me of the ability to scream.
The disembodied eyes begin to float closer. Just when I’m ready to admit the whole thing’s some weird, wild creation of my own nightmarish imagination, a snout appears underneath the eyes. The thin lips attached to the end of it open, and an inhuman scream splits the air.
From deep within the forest, a howl goes up. It’s nearly lost to the deafening screech coming from the creature.
The red-eyed monster floats closer, allowing me a look at its enormous four-legged body. It looks like some kind of giant horse that breathes steam from its nostrils. My panic turns to desperation. My training kicks in. Self-defense is all about being the first to act.
My legs lurch forward, and then I’m running up the porch steps and into the house. The screen door bangs loudly against the frame.
“Aerina!” I’m terrified the monster will follow me inside. My feet don’t stop moving. I run toward the kitchen and stop short of plowing into her.
Aerina’s eyes are wide and panicked. “What is it?”
“Something . . . outside.” I’m starting to shake, and the thing outside lets out another deafening scream. I cringe.
“What is it?”
She frowns, vaguely worried, but otherwise she looks unaware of the screeching monster in our front yard. How can she not hear that?
“Can’t you hear it?” I ask.
“I don’t hear anything. What does it sound like?”
“Like a freaking migraine waiting to happen.”
“What did you see?” she demands.
“I saw glowing eyes, and then—”
Another scream rents the air, this time closer. Inside.
Aerina’s eyes bulge, and she drops the kettle I hadn’t noticed. Good. She can hear it now.
“Upstairs,” she snaps. “Quickly.”
I’m already running and take the steps two at a time with Aerina urging me to go faster from behind. My toe catches on the top stair, and I stumble upward. Aerina barely manages to keep from falling on top of me.
With my forehead throbbing where it smacked the floor, a wave of dizziness washes over me, and my vision blurs.
Below, the screaming continues.
“How the hell did they find us?” Aerina mutters. She sounds more worried than I’ve ever heard her before—aside from the night Mom died.
“What?” I ask, but my words are lost in the wailing that now shakes the pictures on the walls.
Aerina jumps up and yanks me to my feet.
I scramble onto the landing.
“In here!” Aerina holds the door to her bedroom open, and I dash inside.
Her antique dresser, opposite the neatly made bed, holds a collection of crystals that form a circle.
Aerina points to the arrangement.
“Take the prism,” she says. “Don’t let go of it.”
She flips up the rug in the center of the floor, exposing a strange chalk-etched symbol on the hardwood.
I grab the crystal from the center of the arrangement, and she shoves me into the center of the floor art.
“Don’t move,” she orders me, running back to the door.
Something crashes downstairs.
I squeeze the bluish crystal in my hands, and Aerina steps into the hall. Her normally blue eyes are nearly gray and wide with panic.
“Elidi, I mean it. Stay inside the protection rune. No matter what you hear.” Her voice wobbles, and she looks afraid.
Aerina is never afraid.
Panic spears through me, sending my stomach roiling. What the hell is a protection rune? I look down at the drawing at my feet. When I look up, Aerina is closing the door.
“Wait! What are you doing?”
“I love you, Elidi. Hemera loved you, too. I know you’ll make us proud. You’re the light. The sunshine. Remember that.”
“What are you talking about? We need to call the police. Get in here before that thing—”
She slams the door, sealing me in and her out.
I leave the circle and grab at the knob, but it’s so hot it burns me. I jerk back in surprised pain. How the hell had it gotten so hot?
From the other side, the beast’s scream turns to a high-pitched keening. The sound shakes the glass in the window until I’m afraid it’ll shatter.
Aerina shouts something that I can’t make out. The floors and walls begin to shake now too. Photo frames rattle then fall, shattering at my feet. I back away from the door and stumble back inside the chalk circle.
Outside, thunder rolls, and lightning splits the darkness, and my gaze flies to the window to my left.
In the glow of the lightning bolt, I see something run from the woods. A wolf a size unlike any I’ve ever seen. So large, it cannot possibly be real. As if it can sense me, or maybe sense my disbelief, it suddenly looks up, and our eyes meet.
Then the light vanishes, and the wolf is gone.
In the hallway, the screaming reaches a crescendo. Aerina is yelling words in another language, and more thunder rumbles the sky.
I run to the door and bang on it with my fists, too scared to go for the knob again but desperate to save my aunt. The scream reaches a pitch I didn’t think possible, and behind me, the window finally shatters.
The shrieking presses into me, eating at my sanity. I fall to my knees, covering my ears. I feel my grip on sanity slipping.
The sensation of water surrounds me. I gasp and clutch at my throat, forgetting the crystal. The prism falls from my hand and hits the floor.
Everything goes quiet—including Aerina.
My nightmare recedes, and as my vision clears, I straighten and inhale deeply.
My eyes swing from the jagged glass of the broken window to the closed bedroom door. I bite my lip until the taste of blood coats my tongue.
In the wake of the chaos, the stillness is just as terrifying.
Barely breathing, I touch a tentative finger to the brass knob. Then two. It’s cool to the touch. I wrap my burned palm around the knob and twist.
The door creaks open, and something heavy thuds to the floor. I scramble backward, startled.
Through the cracked opening, I see a rectangular, gray stone. A red stain coats the side, and my breath catches as I realize what it is.
My heart thunders in my chest.
Before I can dissolve into a puddle of fear, I swing the door wide and scoop up the stone. It’s wet and sticky in my hand.
I do a quick scan of the hallway, but it’s empty.
“Aerina?” I whisper.
Tiptoeing to the top of the stairs, I peer down to the first floor. The lights are off, but the moonlight from the windows offers just enough light for me to make out the empty living room.
“Aerina?” I say again.
My legs wobble all the way down the stairs and through the living room. I find the kitchen empty too.
The back door bangs open, and I race through the dining room in time to see a flash of golden hair before it disappears into the night.
I race to the open doorway only to stop short when a red-eyed beast steps into view. It looms way too close and is coming at me way too fast.
I scramble backward and bump into something behind me. My free hand touches heaving fur, and I jerk away with nowhere to run.
The red-eyed monster’s gaze shifts from me to whatever’s pressing in behind me.
The stone in my hand grows warm then hot.
“Elidi, don’t open—” Aerina’s voice stabs through the silence then cuts short.
I peer around the beast’s shoulders in time to see a hand appear out of thin air. It wraps around Aerina’s wrist and yanks hard. She loses her balance and begins to fall, but she doesn’t make it to the ground before she’s swallowed up into some sort of black hole.
The grass where she stood is blackened and smoking, but Aerina is gone.
The beast before me screeches, squeezing into the doorway.
Panic claws at me, and my mind screams for me to run. I turn and trip, having forgotten the furry presence. My face connects with the floor, and the beast shrieks. When I roll over and open my eyes, a large wolf stares down at me.
The wolf shoves me with its nose, and I scramble up, stumbling toward the living room. Behind me, the beast in the doorway bellows in frustration and wiggles against the creaking wood.
The front door bangs open, revealing a second red-eyed creature.
I jump backward, and the stone falls out of my hand. The edge of it catches on the coffee table, and the rectangular stone springs open, becoming a box.
From inside, something dark leaps out straight at me. Before it can land, the wolf leaps, knocking me sideways. My head hits the floor, and everything swirls above me. Something lands on my shoulder with enough force that I scream. I look down and see a dark liquid swirling toward my chest. My skin burns as the liquid burrows through it and inside me. I curl against the wolf, clutching my stomach as the burning grows hotter, spreading over my hip.
The beast at the front retreats to get a running start at the door. The force of its momentum sends it crashing through the narrow doorframe.
The wolf scrambles off me and sinks its teeth into the monster’s front leg. The horse-beast screams so loudly I clutch my ears and close my eyes. However, the worst of the agony emanates from the burning in my chest. Whatever that stone contained, it feels like it’s poisoning me from the inside.
Then, suddenly, everything stops.
The screaming dies. The pain recedes.
When I open my eyes, the red-eyed monsters are gone, and my living room is destroyed.
I lift my head, and something moves near the front door.
The wolf I’d spied from the window earlier. And, it is as huge as I’d imagined it and with thick fur the color of vanilla cream.
Our eyes meet, and the wolf stares unwaveringly back at me.
In that small space lies every single possible future my life contains. I see stars and suns and moons—and death. Lots and lots of death. But I also see love. The kind that moves mountains and melts, well, panties. The kind I’d always thought only existed in movies.
It’s the damnedest, craziest, wildest moment of my entire life. Including any of the psycho daymares that have knocked me off park benches.
Warm breath hits my face thanks to its half-open mouth, and I blink through my tears, certain I’m seeing some sort of panic-induced illusion.
“Am I dead? Because this is crazy, and I think it makes way more sense that I’m dead and you’re . . . an angel?” I cock my head because that doesn’t quite make sense either.
The beast’s eyes widen, and I could swear it quirks a brow at me.
Outside, the rushing of the wind turns into what sounds like the beating of wings. The wolf’s eyes narrow as it glances at the open door. Before I can ask any more questions about my entry into the afterlife, a voice rings out in my head.
If you want to avoid the same fate as your aunt, we have to go. Now.
I shriek and scramble backward into the corner underneath the bar counter that separates the living room from the kitchen. A stool topples over next to me, crashing loudly between us, and the wolf huffs.
Its eyes lock onto mine. I know you hear me. Listen, we have to go. They’re almost here.
Outside, the sound of wings grows louder, and I realize whoever “they” are, the voice in my head is right. They’re getting closer. And after the craziness I’ve witnessed so far, dead or not, I don’t want to be here to meet them. But I’m also not going to go anywhere with a giant, telepathic wolf.
“Stay back,” I yell, but my words are nearly lost over the sound of what can only be hoofbeats. On my roof.
The pain in my chest returns with a pang, and I notice for the first time that the wolf has a matching black spot on his own chest. What the hell was in that stone?
The wolf huffs with impatience and starts walking toward me.
This time, rather than retreat, I bolt. Or I try to.
I straighten too quickly, and the top of my already-bruised head hits the underside of the bar—hard. Pain shoots from the top of my head straight down to my toes. The world spins then tilts, and I lean way too hard to the right.
I go down swinging. My fist brushes along thick fur, and the last thing I see before I’m dragged under is a flash of white light shooting out from my own hand.
© 2018 Goddess Ascending by Heather Hildenbrand
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written consent of the publisher.