Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Birthing Tree-Prologue-Chapter 11

Prologue-In the Beginning

Somewhere in mid-Missouri

Have you ever had that uncanny experience of staring into the eyes of a stranger and then realizing that stranger is you?  Outside the wind played tag with the raindrops; I just stood in front of the mirror staring at my reflection. I had this queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach; once again questioning my decision, It wasn't an impulsive decision; I'd pondered it for months and dreamed about it for years. It wasn't that I hated my life. It's just that for the longest time I'd had this sensation that something was amiss. Something lurked just beyond my peripheral vision, waiting for me to wander away from the comfortable. Something beckoned and yet a strange sense of dread bubbled up.

Shaking my head I threw two suitcases and a duffle bag into the back seat and climbed into the car.  The tank was full but I checked the gas gauge out of habit and pulled onto interstate 70 headed west. No one had waved goodbye as I backed out of the driveway. I'd planned it that way, reasoning that part of this suffocating feeling was the result of small town life. Now there was nothing but the road under my tires and a foggy mist clinging to my car.

The youngest in a family of six, I'd lived in the middle of nowhere most of my life. Annie Noel McGee, baby of the family. I grew up dirt poor on a small farm where life was anything but mundane. I used to tell people I grew up on a haunted farm but after years of skepticism, I gave up trying to explain it all. In truth, there wasn't really any good explanation. I tried to write about it once....

 "We lived in a different world back then. It was hard. Dirt roads, corn fields, and bikes. The life I lived was all I knew and I never questioned that it might be anything but ordinary. Looking back I realize that it was anything but.

We weren't exactly dirt poor but we didn't have much money either. But that didn't take us away from ordinary. There were plenty of families with the same situation. No, if anything, looking back...that just made us common. I'm not going to the time I hated that and I felt like an outsider....more from the thoughts inside my head than from anything else.

No, the thing that moved us past ordinary was not something material....a lack of money, the old farmhouse, or run down cars. The thing that I never really realized until much later was that the odd series of events that unfolded, off and on, throughout my childhood were not ordinary events everyone experiences.

I can remember being as young as 8 or 9 and hearing the front door open, footsteps, the dog barking and jumping on someone or something...that just...well it just wasn't there. Or at least none of us could catch a glimpse of it, if we dared venture into the livingroom and click on a light. My father tried many, many times to figure out exactly what entered. Though he NEVER talked about least not in front of me. I'm not sure if he ever really discussed it with anyone. Only mother felt strong or sure enough to question the oddness of our almost weekly visitor."

In and of itself, perhaps that doesn't move us into the realm of odd.... there was more, much more but those are tales for another time. Unknown to me some of those happenings on the farm laid a pretty strong foundation that was about to be put to the test.

I sang along to Bobby McGee and listened to the tires whine on the pavement.

Somewhere in South Dakota

An empty soda can, thrown carelessly into the alley rattles as the brisk, cold wind carries it deeper into the darkness. The breeze caresses his skin as he huddles in the far corner, wedged between a dumpster and the brick wall of an abandoned building. Awaken by the sound of the can, his eyes stare hungrily into the silky night. Something stirs inside him but he can't quite latch onto it. Instead it shifts and changes shape, leaving him with a vague feeling he has never experienced before. He has no name for it but it is fear.

He has no concept of time either. He just is and has always been. The essence of his being, something pondered through the ages, something whispered about but never spoken aloud. Believers and disbelievers alike, can't quite grasp the nature of his existence. If God is the great I Am...then he is the great I Was....

He shifts slightly on the pavement, stretching his legs. He feels no pain really but the cold damp air does make his legs stiff. He has been here for hours. Alone. He wasn't always in this town. He has been in other places, at other times. Big cities with lanes of traffic, restaurant smells drifting down the alleys and people who lived in the darkness like him. Well, not just like him, as in reality he is alone. He has stayed for a time in tiny towns but avoiding notice is next to impossible in the rural settings. He hasn't been in this town long but long enough to pick up some notice. He wonders if it's time to move on. He doesn't belong here. He doesn't belong anywhere.

The darkness wraps itself around him like a blanket and he hunches down once more. He is waiting here, in this small nondescript town for something but he knows not what. He is hungry but for tonight that hunger must be ignored. He closes his eyes and drifts into himself.

Chapter One-Into the Night

Somewhere on the road....

That first day the miles rushed by, powered by my euphoria and the feel of the open road. The road hummed under the car. Kansas City isn't my favorite place to drive but then neither is St Louis. When I hit Kansas City I had to make a decision. Do I continue west through the flat countryside of Kansas heading toward Colorado or do I head north or perhaps veer south? Suddenly I find my little car trapped by a semi and a van so the decision is made for me. Being in the wrong lane forced me to merge onto I-435 north toward Des Moines. Even I rolled my eyes. Des Moines? Then I saw I-29 North and I thought why not veer a little more west. South Dakota sounded a lot more promising than Iowa. I-29 it was but even so it was going to be a few hours before I crossed into South Dakota. I turned up the music till it shook the car, sang along to Dark Lady, and smiled to myself.  For the first time since I had hit I-70 that morning, I felt like maybe everything was going to be ok.

Even with a few stops for gas, drinks, and bathroom breaks the miles melted under my tires. I liked the music and the solitude. It kept that queasy feeling from creeping back inside me. I glanced into the back seat where my gaze fell on the stuffed duffle bag carelessly slung on top of the suitcases. Inside it were dozens of oracle card decks, playing cards, and one or two tarot decks for good measure.

People are always curious about my enthusiasm for card readings. The fascination goes way back to my mother who read with a regular deck of playing cards, weaving in some tarot meanings, as well as, the old gypsy methods. It bothered me some that I can't recall all the gypsy meanings for the cards and now with the internet the web is overflowing with experts. Most beg, borrow, or steal the card meanings and if you read all that's out there your head with be filled with more nonsense then knowledge.

My mother was most likely a psychic in a time before being psychic was vogue and it was just thought of as  plain "weird." It amazed me how her instincts seemed to be sound and reliable. The principles she lived by were strong and simple. For example, Ouija boards were a definite no. Now all the supposed "experts" on such things are "warning" against their use. My mother had warned me, all of us really, about them before the main stream media got in on the popularity of the paranormal.

That one principle alone has saved me some grief but even though I didn't know it at this point, Ouija boards aren't the only doorways into this world.  Mother had a strong belief in God and so do I. Reading the cards doesn't mean I don't. In my mind the one does not exclude the other. The cards are about reflecting, gaining insights into the self and developing intuition. Do they "predict" the future?  I don't know. Perhaps they're just a conduit to our own power. We all have intuition, whether we acknowledge it or not. 

I had thrown the cards in to entertain myself and as a possible source of money if my savings didn't last as long as I hoped. In all honestly, I wasn't even sure how long I'd be a gypsy, traveling here and there.  I read for people sometimes and a good reading can generate enough cash for a meal. I'd discovered over the years though that people really don't want a honest reading. In truth, they only want the "good parts.".  I'd learned to "mine" the reading for helpful, positive tidbits, even when the seven of spades  or the nine of spades showed up. No one really wants to know that the seven means "trouble, trouble, and more trouble" or in the case of the nine that whatever it is you are wishing for is going to be denied. Those are real deal breakers. Yeah, I suppose it's a tad dishonest.  It's not something I'm particularly proud of which is why I seldom read for others.

Lost in my thoughts about the cards, I almost missed the exit off  I-29 where I hoped to stop and spend the night in a Super Eight. It was at that moment  I noticed the ravens. Like dark messengers, two of them were flying diagonally across the sky headed straight for me. It almost seemed intentional. In the fading light I was surprised I could see them so clearly.

Ravens don't scare me the way they do some people. The raven is quite famously, known as an omen of death but since they are carrion feeders, people watching them would naturally began to associate them with death.  As messengers of death they are supposed to have predicted the deaths of Plato and Tiberius. The raven is also a bird of prophecy and protector of seers.

I tend to lean toward Native American beliefs which see the raven as symbolic of metamorphosis, the bearer of magic and the bringer of messages from the universe. This keeper of secrets can bring us answers to things we are unwilling to face as they expose us to the truth. Nestled in the midnight wings of the raven these messages only come to those worthy of them.

It's what made me pause and wonder, somewhat startled, when the larger of the two dropped a small object directly onto my windshield. I pulled to the side of the exit ramp and scooped it into my hand. I looked at it closely. It was woven of twine with a single red glass bead attached to it. Thinking it was probably one of those woven bracelets that had broken and found its way into the raven's beak, I stuffed it into my pocket, anxious to get checked in, eat, and crash for the night.

The motel set about a mile from the highway. Isolated, the lone building anywhere in sight. The brick fa├žade was faded and the door screeched when I opened it. The lady at the front counter turned toward me with sorrowful eyes and a wrinkled mouth pulled down in a perpetual frown. Her face was weathered, the skin dry and leathery.

"What cha need?" she sputtered over her lite cigarette.

"A nonsmoking room" I thought but I just nodded hello and asked for a single.

After taking my cash and handing me the keys she turned back to the magazine open on the counter. I noticed it was a National Enquirer. Rolling my eyes, I headed out to room 145. If I'd known then what I know now, I'd have been a little less quick to judge. From what I know now most of those crazy stories in the Enquirer might be true.

As I glanced around at the "nothingness"  surrounding the motel, I asked myself again just what in the hell I was doing here. Have you ever watched Close Encounters?  You know the movie where all the people end up getting drawn to some random place and then finding out it's a spaceship calling them. It was sort of like that, but not quite. A little less concrete, a little less obvious, but something was pulling me west. Where exactly, I still wasn't sure.

The room smelled of cigarettes and beer. I striped the bedspread off and staying on top of the sheets I propped myself up on the pillow. The curtains were threadbare, faded yellow daisies danced across the surface, but there wasn't much sun left to keep out. I'd drove until dusk and my legs were stiff from being cramped up for so long. I reminded myself that there wasn't a hurry to get to wherever it was I was going. Tomorrow I'd stop a little sooner.

My stomach growled reminding me that the bag of chips and water I'd picked up about two o'clock wasn't going to last forever. I didn't remember seeing any food places so I made do with a couple of bags of chips and a candy bar from the rusted vending machine outside my room.

Hours later I woke up, sweating, with my heart pounding. My parched throat hurt. I guess I'd been dreaming but what ever was chasing me in my dreams was shadowy and illusive. It reminded me of my childhood and the lane, and whatever lurked just on the other side of the bushes that lined the edges of the driveway.  Trying to exorcise the childhood demons I had written about it once.....

Gravel roads and days that stretched endlessly before me, filled with boredom and empty hours. Oh there was always plenty of work to do but the young don't seek work....they seek adventure. They crave to grow up and it makes me smile to think that growing up is an adventure in itself.

The empty days of summer were both a blessing and a curse. For in the dead of night, in the summer, when the body is not exhausted from a day of school, the goblins come out to play. Many might be tempted to dismiss my memories as nothing more than childhood foolishness but the truth is you didn't have to be a child to experience it.

The short lane that twisted into our front yard jutted off a longer, lonely gravel road but over time the lane came to be just a little creepier. During the longer summer evenings it was easy to wander off for a walk but suddenly with heart pounding realize that the sky was darkening much quicker than expected. Hurrying down the lane on trembling legs I caught my breath as behind the bushes to the right of the lane I could sense, almost feel something. Some unknown entity lurking just a few feet away but invisible behind the shield of briar bushes.

I paused, just briefly, turning eyes into the dimness surrounding the bushes. I took a step and felt the creature on the other side take a step also. It matched me step for step down the lane that only a few hours ago felt short. Now the rough gravel and puddles presented a challenge to my stumbling feet. I tried to pretend nothing was there but I walked faster. I looked ahead with dread because about a hundred yards before the end of the lane spilled into my yard the bushes ended.

Head down I rushed into the coming dusk. Quite unexpectedly my brother started up the lane on his bike. I wanted to shout a warning but my mouth was dry and the trapped words couldn't escape me. We met, my brother and I, just at the end of the bushes and as I turned to look into the field behind those bushes, the wind picked up and blew the tall weeds and grass, gusting as if a storm approached. Yet nothing lurked there that the human eye could see. The sense of a presence evaporated as dew in the morning sun.

Imagination? I fear not, for those bushes came to represent a gauntlet of sorts. As in "running the gauntlet". Not a form of military punishment but a challenge, an endurance test, a symbol of our ability to brave the odd and often present entities that lurked about the fields and woods surrounding the haunted farm.

Now years later I lay in bed with that same sense of dread. Fear that paralyzes, taking away my voice. I search the deep recesses of my mind looking for what it is about the dream that has brought back this lingering childhood fright. Flittering across my mind, a tantalizing clue, but I can't seem to grasp hold of it for longer than a second and it drifts away before I can really form it into a thought. I turn in the bed so I face the door, another childhood habit and try to drift back to sleep.

In South Dakota

Detective Kane Jasper, rubs his face with his hand. He is bleary eyed, hungry, and just plain tired. He pushes the folders in front of him to the side, sighs, and gets up to stretch. Deciding to grab a Coke from the machine, he only allows himself a minute before returning to his desk. He's been a detective for about three years and never in those three years had he encountered anything like what he just reviewed in the files. In fact, he'd only been involved in one homicide investigation, and that was an open and shut case of some drunk out on highway 44 using his shotgun to settle a road rage incident. It didn't take long for him to know that this case wouldn't be so simple.

Kane is just two years shy of 40 and maybe that fact coupled with this case made him painfully aware of his mortality. Forty wasn't old by any means but ole man Stark dropped over dead from an aneurysm just two months back and his own father had died at fifty one from a heart attack. He shakes his head trying to brush away the random thoughts that aren't going to help him solve this case.

It is puzzling. Three deaths, three different causes of death and two of them could be attributed to an accident or natural causes. Could be, that is, if it weren't for the small glass black bead found under the tongue of each one. When Ezra died the coroner had simply dismissed the bead as an irony; finding it located as a nitroglycerin tablet might be found in the mouth of a coronary victim. Next came Emma and the torn throat was no accident. Again the same small black bead. Kane remembers the call.

"Kane this is Doc Butler. You got a minute?"  Without waiting for an answer he summoned him to his office. That's when the puzzle really began and what it all meant he had no idea.

Tonight it's late. He's alone in the office area, the dispatcher in a different room, ready, in the off chance a call comes in to route an officer to some God forsaken location. It doesn't happen often but the last three has everyone on high alert. Gulping down some Coke he opens the top folder.

Ezra Jacobs, 41, deceased. Cause of death: Unknown. Well technically the cause of death was that his heart simply stopped beating but without a previous history of heart disease, his file had been added to the pile. Linking it to the other two was the single black bead found under his tongue.

Sighing he opens the second file. Emma Hope, 23, deceased. Cause of death: Exsanguination  There were multiple tears in the area of her throat. Both jugular veins and carotid arteries were severed. He sits staring at the picture. She is so pretty and vibrant in this predeath photo, with sparkling green eyes and blond hair cut short in a bob. In the death scene photos her hair is so coated with blood that it appears almost black.

As he opens the third file he prepares himself mentally. His breath catches and he feels himself spiraling into some darkness that threatens to suffocate him. Grief? Despair? Evil? He leans back in his chair for a moment and looks up at the ceiling. Finally he looks at the file again. Staring up at him is the sweetest little girl you could ever imagine. With ebony hair in curls around her face and dark eyes, she smiles at the camera. In the crime scene photos her eyes are vacant, staring. Ester Renee Smith, age 10, deceased. Cause of death: Blunt force trauma to the head.

He stops and does something, he hasn't done in a long time. He prays.

In the darkness....

Night has fallen again, wrapping it's silky arms around him. Cradling his head and calming him, brushing his skin tenderly like a mother to an infant. His belly is full, sated and it eases the growing feeling inside him that he should take flight. To be gone from this place where he has lingered for too long already. His primal instincts urge him to leave but something, some unknown challenge beckons him to stay.

He has grown tired of the alley ways, with their smells of unwashed people, greasy food and garbage. He is tucked inside a drain pipe just outside the city park. The stillness of the night embraces him and his breathing is steady and deep. The night does his bidding but tonight he lingers in the pipe. He cocks his head to one side, listening. All he can hear is his own breathing. It is, as if, there is something out there, just outside the realm of his reach, hurtling toward him with unknown consequences. In all his years, and there are many, he has not had quite this same sensation. He wonders about it but not too much because wonder isn't really something he wastes time on. To exist is all that really matters to him, over the years, he has come to know that simply his presence here on this earth is an achievement, worthy of recognition, but he seldom receives such.

He crawls to the end of the pipe and looks at his hands in the moonlight. The gnarled fingers with sharp talons, ripple with muscles. They serve him well. They are also one of his features that prevent him from venturing out in the daylight. Any efforts to explain them away as a deformity would be met with raised eyebrows. The nails have darkened with blood and appear almost black.  He doesn't feel regret at being exiled to the night. Darkness suits him better anyway.

He pauses, not sure whether to venture out into the ebony world of the night or to stay cocooned in the pipe, resting, waiting, rejuvenating in preparation. He tilts his head to one side. Where had that come from?  He doesn't "prepare" for anything. He just is and always has been. He exists and that is enough. Or is it? He feels quite odd, something stirring inside him that he doesn't quite understand. He growls softly to himself, unsettled. Then he crawls back inside the pipe and rolls into a ball, sinking into dark oblivion.

Chapter Two-Searching in the Dark

About 35 years ago in Lawrence Kansas

Detective Stephen Crane was frustrated. He had two open homicides neither of which contained much in the way of forensic evidence and the report from the Regional Forensic Center in Sedgwick County had just failed to identify the unknown hair. The hair, the black bead and a single thread of twine that was next to the body of the first victim were all he had to go on.

He lived the case, breathed it and never got close to solving it. Through the years every time the case came up, he got goose bumps when he remembered standing in the dark alley about three days after the discovery of the first body. He thought he would suffocate from the overwhelming presence he could sense but not see. The lingering stench in the alley was more than just garbage. It was cloying and clung to him. Each time he could feel the panic welling up inside him and his natural instinct was to run. Run from what?  He never could quite figure it out.

Eventually the case went cold and the files lived in a cardboard box under his desk. Twice a year, on the anniversaries of each death, he pulled the files out, dusted them off and went through every single page contained in the reports. One year he even entered the information about the hair in to the new- fangled DNA national data base.

About 22 years ago in St Louis Missouri

All they had was the head. Detective Karen Woodruff, tried to keep her supper down as she gazed at the head. It was nestled in some flowers next to a restaurant on the Loop. It looked so peaceful there among the flowers, like some exotic garden ornament. Down the street the sign for Blueberry Hill flickered in the night, a surreal beckon of gaiety in contrast to the horror of the flowerbed.

The CSI team was combing the flowers, paths, and nearby trash cans. Karen just stared, transfixed by the head. The hair was a black and silky, clean and shiny, the eyes stared vacantly up at her but the mouth seemed peculiar. Bending down she parted the lips with her gloved fingers and watched as a single black bead rolled out of the mouth, coming to rest beside her shoe.
About 17 years ago in Benton Illinois

Two people were missing from Benton. That just doesn't happen in a town like Benton. Oh there might be domestic disputes, kids with alcohol and some shoplifting but missing people? No. That didn't happen here. The Chief of Police, Raymond Jackson and one of his officers, Kevin St. John were talking about it over lunch at La Fiesta.  Scooping a big forkful of Cancun Chicken into his mouth, Ray chewed noisily before speaking.

"Any ideas?" he asked between bites.

"Well there was an awful lot of blood along the road where Susan was last seen but wouldn't you think there would be something more?  I don't know...hit by a car?"  Kevin's response was more question than answer. He shook his head back and forth while speaking.

"None of it makes sense to me. Susan and old Elroy didn't even know each other. Did you ever find out where he was that last day?" the Chief admitted.

"Well someone saw him picking up cans along the road with that long handled stick he carries around. You know the one with the nail in the end of it. He was, oh about to the bridge over near the Williams place." Kevin had pulled a small notebook out of his shirt pocket and was looking at it as he spoke.

"What?  POOF, he just up and disappears. Nothing?" Ray just looked at him without really expecting an answer.

It would be weeks before both bodies were discovered tucked up under the bridge next to the Williams' place. By then the insects and rats had done so much damage that there wasn't much to "discover". No one noticed the two black beads that had rolled down the concrete embankment and rested at the edge of the muddy water.

About 7 years ago in Des Moines Iowa

Iowa's state capitol and the most populace city in the state, Des Moines was named for the Des Moines River. The French, "des Moines" translates literally to either "from the monks" or "of the monks" It didn't matter the city's name or meaning as it was the same pretty much everywhere for homeless people. Living from day to day, Charlie sometimes had a bed to lie his head on and sometimes not. On the "not" nights he'd hunker down next to an empty warehouse over on East Washington Street. It was on a "not" night that he vanished as easily as pencil markings under an eraser

Sometimes missing persons are people that no one misses at all. It's a sad but true fact in the world today. Families and friends are few and far between when hard luck comes knocking, especially when that hard luck is a person's own fault. So when Charlie Gussman ceased to exist, no one noticed. The sewer drain became his grave and his decaying body still lies there.

About 3 years ago in St. Cloud, Minnesota

Detective Craig Bell was looking at the map considering Interstate 94 and its possible connection to his current case. Three murders, all along the interstate had the city on edge and the mayor on his back.  Sighing he rubbed his face with his hands. Something kept tantalizing him, just outside his consciousness. Something he had seen or heard, lingered there in his mind, tucked away but inaccessible.

He opened the files and there in the notes he saw the pictures of the black, glass like beads. At least they looked like glass but it turned out they were made of black onyx. He remembered his wife's talking about crystals and the "powers" they contained. So he typed a text and asked about black onyx just on a lark. He didn't have to wait long for a response.

"Onyx is used to banish grief, enhance self-control, and stimulate wise decision making. It promotes the recognition of personal strength, as well as, being a powerful stone for protection and defensive magic. Hence, black onyx makes a powerful charm both for self-mastery and self-protection."

It seemed plausible that some superstition with black onyx had played a role in the placement of the beads in the mouths of the victims yet it didn't seem to make a difference in the investigation. Try as he might he could never connect the onyx beads to anyone. Eventually the case went cold.

South Dakota

Kane stood on the corner of Voshell and Kimberlin, staring down the alley. This was where Ezra's body had been discovered, in the predawn hours of a Sunday about four months ago. The trash truck had already loaded the contents of the dumpster into the back of the truck before they noticed his feet protruding from under some cardboard. Any evidence in the dumpster was impossible to recover. It really wouldn't have mattered because no suspicion fell on his death until Emma was killed about 6 weeks later.

The door to the coffee shop opened and Trish stuck her head out.

"Care for a cup of coffee, Detective?"  She accentuated the e so much that it came out deeeetective. He glanced her way, shrugged and said  "Sure." 

Trish had been after Detective Kane for well over a year but nothing she seemed to offer provided him with enough incentive to make a move. He really wasn't interested in relationships. Work consumed most of his life and always had. Prior to making detective he was in a patrol car and routinely took after hours and holidays so the patrolmen with families didn't have to. He found relationships tedious preferring to keep his own hours and think his own thoughts.

Trish smiled at him as she poured the coffee. He smiled back. He might not be interested but he wasn't one to be downright rude. When he took the steaming mug from her hand she asked, "Any luck on Emma's case yet?"

Shaking his head he sighed. Town folk were starting to get a tad impatient. People felt bad about Ezra but they accepted it as a coronary and moved on. Emma was a hard hit to the community but it was Ester that everyone really grieved for. The vibrant 10 year old, sang in the church children's choir and twisted anyone she met around her little finger. Her voice was like an angel, clear, sweet, and innocent. It was the innocence that provoked the anger in people. To kill innocence was a sin in this day and time. The world at large might be pretty jaded but here in Sutter people still believed in the happily ever after. Although they had tried to downplay her death as an accident, people here weren't stupid here either. It just didn't seem likely and they knew it.

Sitting the coffee on the worn countertop Kane opened the file folder with Ezra's information. He had been wanting to ask Trish if Ezra frequented the coffee shop and if he was a regular. It might not make a lot of sense to ask since Ezra most likely died in the wee hours of the morning. But it was still an unknown. Unknowns bothered Kane. They dangled out there, deserving answers.

"Trish, did Ezra have a routine? Did he come here in the early mornings for coffee?" 

"Well, now I can't say as it was routine, like not every day or nothing but when he did come in, it was as soon as I opened up." 

The coffee shop opened at 5:00 so that meant Ezra was more than likely headed in for some coffee when he was murdered. There it was that word: "murdered". He hadn't said it out loud and he was glad. Not many people knew that Ezra's death was connected to the other two and he wanted to keep it that way. Trish gave him a funny look and picked up the towel to wipe some spilled coffee off the counter.

"Now Kane Jasper, is there something I be needing to know?" she spluttered at him.

He paused before answering. Confidentiality was important but people were even more so and he couldn't be sure if Trish was safe or if the killer still lurked in the alley way next to the shop.

"Trish I want you to be safe. Be careful when you open this here shop in the dark every morning. Better yet, get your papa to come on in with you. Two is always better than one. You two hear even the slightest sound or see anything, you call dispatch, you hear now?"

Trish nodded and ducked her head, secretly pleased at his concern. She wondered just for a moment about telling him about the poor homeless man that had slept in the alley for a few nights. But he seemed weak and harmless enough and old Ezra's heart and just given out.

This was one of the times that Kane was glad that the news in Sutter didn't cater to TV crews or mobs of reporters. He knew though that it could at any point explode into a media circus. Sooner or later, three deaths are going to attract attention from larger media outlets. The only glue holding them back at this point was the fact that few people knew that all three were being considered homicides. No one other than Doc Butler, the Chief, himself and a couple deputies knew about the black beads.

He wondered, not for the first time, if it was a mistake to keep this low key. Perhaps the best course of action was to inform the public. That way people could be on high alert instead of wandering around Sutter without a care in the world. He knew if something else happened they would be second guessing the decision to keep this as quiet as possible.

He pulled alongside the road and gazed into the field where Emma's body had been found. The breeze blew the grass slightly causing a rippling effect. It looked calm, peaceful, not dangerous or sinister. He pictured her running across the field in fright, her pursuer at her heels. Her car had been at the edge of the road, in much the same way his was. Something had cause her to stop and bolt across the field. She didn't get far.

Last stop was the water tower. The tower itself was a eye sore, rusted and creaky, but still it drew the kids, mostly teenagers though, no one as young as Ester. They liked to climb the rungs as they dared each other to climb higher and higher. Laughing in the face of their mortality, often times fueled by alcohol. Honestly, Kane was surprised there hadn't been a tragedy before now. However Ester's death was far from an accident. For an accident itself didn't explain the small black bead, nestled under her tongue.

Now he was just sitting in his truck staring at the street. He felt paralyzed. There was no place else to go. No stones to turn over, no witnesses to question, no lab reports to read. It felt as if there were things he should remember but he didn't.

He pulled out his leather journal and started writing. Some detectives use small notebooks or steno pads, but Kane like to use a leather journal.  It became bulky over time as he taped in notes, articles that might relate to the case, or other items of interest. That meant that each new case had a new leather journal. He could picture them lined up on the book shelf of his home office. Each deep brown leather journal represented hours of work, notes and questions.  They predated his detective days because even as a patrolman any time a case captured his interest he started a notebook.

Since he hadn't started this one until after Emma's death he had opted for a larger version of his typical journal. Even at that point he seemed to realize that this was going to be a bigger case than any he had puzzled over before. With Ester's death his premonition was validated. Sometimes they reminded him of a writer's journal, filled with random thoughts and ideas, some of them floating about without any real shape or form. He knew that sometimes life offered up stories that would rival any author's wildest imagination. He knew this case was one of those. And he wondered, not for the first time, if some serial killer was playing out the plot of a novel.

Coroner's Office

Doc Butler looked at the lab report again. He knew nothing was going to change by looking at it umpteen times but he was puzzled. He figured the lab had made a mistake the first time. They had identified unknown hair on two of the victims. Unknown hair? Not unknown as in "we don't know who it belongs to" but unknown as in "we don't know WHAT it belongs to." Big difference. He had made them redo the labs, same result. Now not too many years back he wouldn't have been surprised but forensics had come a long way. They could determine what roll of tape a piece came from, what rug the fiber originated in, and all manner of things. This time however, they had no idea of the origin of the hair. All they could say for certain was that it was not human. It made no sense and he grimaced in frustration.

South Dakota Forensic Lab (Sioux Falls, South Dakota)

"We got a match."

Sarah's heart raced. They had been trying to determine the origin of the hair for weeks. Now they had a match.

"What is it?" she asked barely containing her excitement.

"Oh it's not THAT kind of match."  Jess explained. "What I mean is I ran it through the national data base and there are over 65 hits"

Sixty five open homicide cases where the trace evidence contained one or more of the unidentified hairs. Some of them dated back 50 years. The furthest east was St. Louis and the furthest west was Sutter but there were literally dozens and dozens in between. All across the country, even as they were speaking, techs were looking at the data their search had produced. Dusty files were being opened and the primaries on the ancient cases were being hunted down.

In reality, none of that mattered because they'd never get far enough into any investigation to solve this mystery. Who could blame them? It was outside their realm of possibilities. You can think outside the box all you want but in life some boxes are just too tightly closed to reveal the truth. Open them at your own risk for the darkness they contain is ancient.  The real truth was not even a speck on their radar. And unlike that dark world hidden from humanity... the truth mattered here but only if you could "see" it.

In the darkness of the pipe.....

He was curled in a ball at the center of the drain pipe. It was dark here and damp. He liked it. It reminded him of the old days, of the old ways. He could venture out into the light now, after hundreds of years of adjustment, it didn't burn his skin and pain his eyes like it had in the beginning. But he still preferred the dark. Often he thought of them, as he was doing now. Sometimes when he lay dormant for the day, he counted them. He remembered all of them, and there were many.

He remembered them all and yet over the years, he had come to realize that there were some that were not his. He couldn't be sure. No not certain, but he thought there were some that belonged to others. It made him yearn for those he had shared the darkness with, for his own kind. Not out of fondness but out of a sense of the familiar . He never encountered any of them but he knew they existed here in this land of light and heat and sun. This world filled with unfamiliar smells, the air full of thoughts and fears, a world of strange beings.  He has been in this world to which he does not belong for an eternity but to him it is but a moment.  The others came here seeking him, time mattered not in the dark places, even after all these years there was a score to settle, a punishment to bear, and it made him cringe with the pain of forgotten thoughts. While he had not known fear before he could feel pain, like a sleek knife slicing into him.

Chapter Three-The Corn Palace

Mitchell, South Dakota

I'd started noticing these billboards about a tourist trap called the Corn Palace. It seemed its claim to fame is that everything there is made of corn. I thought, "what the heck."  Driving to wherever in the hell I was headed to was tiresome so I took a short detour over to Mitchell. I wondered if Mitchell's only claim to fame was the Corn Palace or if I'd find a decent place to spend the night and some food that didn't taste like cardboard.

The palace place was actually pretty amazing. Words really can't describe this giant structure created from corn. It's construction is Moorish revival architecture and each year the outside displays change. Giant murals created from corn, as well as, the palace itself. I paused by this huge "corn cob" statue to snap a selfie. I wasn't even sure why I had brought my phone as I kept it turned off about 90% of the time.  It didn't seem wise to cloud my head with conversations. I knew I was seeking something and needed all of my concentration to get there.

Stepping inside I paused every few feet to look at the photos from years past, each one a corn masterpiece. I found it amazing that people could get so creative with corn when I can barely be creative with crayons. It took a couple hours to wander around the place and then I headed back outside into the brilliant South Dakota sunshine. The street was dotted with quaint little stores and on the corner I came upon a tea shop. Although I was trying to be conservative with my funds, I ventured inside. As soon as I opened the door the smells enthralled me. The aroma of fresh teas wafted through the shop.

I stopped over by the Yogi tea display, my favorite brand. I internally debated the benefits of each. With a box of Soothing Caramel Bedtime in my hand, I read the claims that it supports a good night's sleep. Bone tired at the end of the day I still tossed and turned and dreamed crazy dreams. Hmmmm. Then my eyes fell on the Honey Lavender Stress Relief and smiled to myself when I read, "helps calm and ease tension."  Decisions, decisions. There was a sign by the display announcing a buy one get one free sale so I tossed them both into the little plastic basket I had picked up by the shop door. 

When I drew close to the checkout counter there was a shelf of mugs.  One in particular caught my eye. It was a sky blue color and featured a dragonfly soaring through the air. I consider the dragonfly one of my totem animals along with the raven. Fox has taught me a few lessons too, mostly about keeping my mouth shut and observing. Of the three though, dragonfly is my personal ally. I picked up the mug and placed it gently into the plastic basket. When dragonfly shows up it's time to take notice.

The dragonfly totem carries the wisdom of transformation and is about adaptability. It is connected to the symbolism of change and light. When it shows up in your life you must pay special attention to the light.  If possible surround yourself with it. It reminds us that when our deeper thoughts come to the surface we must pay attention. There are lessons to be learned and these thoughts are in part responsible for what we bring forth in the world around us.

I carefully counted out my change to pay with the exact amount and nodding goodbye to the cashier I headed to my car. I was already thinking about the tea and how nice a soothing cup would be in the evening. Perhaps with the tea I might manage a dreamless night or at least one with happier dreams.

I'd asked at the Corn Palace about places to eat. Marlin's Family Restaurant was mentioned by several people so I entered it into my cars GPS and with my mouth watering I started following the route displayed. Pulling into the parking lot of the restaurant I noticed it was fairly busy, which is a good sign as far as eating places go.

An hour later, stuffed with meatloaf and mashed potatoes, smiling, I headed to Thunderbird Lodge. Thunderbird featured cheap rates and a free buffet breakfast so I was hoping it would more than make up for my tea splurge.  It didn't take long to check in and I hopped in the shower immediately. Washing the South Dakota dust from my skin and lathering on the generic body wash the lodge provided felt like heaven. The water was so hot it stung my skin but I stayed under it till it turned cold. I pulled my damp hair back into a pony tail and lathered Cool Amazon Rain shea butter on my parched sunburnt skin.

Wrapped in a towel, I looked, not for the first time at the red bead attached to the twine. It was clear and pretty. In fact it seemed like a good quality bead and I wondered why it was attached to a cheapo piece of twine. The beads were crisp and cool in my palm but seemed to warm slightly at my touch. Twirling the twine between my fingers I wondered again about the ravens. Like I said earlier they don't frighten me. My heart didn't beat with fear about an impending death, although looking back perhaps it should have. They just felt like a puzzle piece, a snippet that didn't fit right now but still belonged to the bigger picture. My head started to hurt from trying to out this maze I found myself in.
I slipped on some shorts with a tee shirt and crawled into bed. The sheets were silky smooth and felt luxurious against my skin. My body was weary but my mind kept spinning in ever increasing spirals. Touching first on one thought and then on another. There was no longer that restless uneasiness that I had been feeling over the past year. It had been replaced with something else. It was a feeling I had experienced before. A sensation of something hurdling at me in the darkness, just outside the realm of consciousness, shifting as I shift, stopping when I stop, matching me step for step. This new reality I was living was undefined, almost shapeless and I didn't quite know my place in it. Like an awkward new student I searched for my seat.  Once in my quest to understand it, I had hypothesized that it was another me in another dimension and that when we got too close to each other this vague uneasiness ensued. If it wasn't another me I was dancing with then I wasn't sure what it might be.

As I lay in the dark room, headlights would occasionally bounce off the curtains and illuminate the room briefly. I didn't even bother turning on the TV, unlike some people, the flickering TV kept me awake. I'm not sure how long I lay there curled in a ball, cocooned in the clean sheets.

I had just started to drift off to sleep when I felt myself suffocating. A shadowy shape seemed to hover right above my face, stopping the air from reaching me and pressing me into the bed. It's not the first time I've had such an experience in a motel room. It's claustrophobic and I started to panic. I tried to talk myself out of the sensation; calming myself and thinking of other things but in the end I had to get up. I sat shaking in the chair at the desk and sipped the tea I had made to calm my nerves. I've no idea of what it means but I remember the other times it has happened to me, two other occasions, both times in motel rooms. Sometimes I wondered if it was the lost spirit of someone who died in the room and now they are stuck searching for contact with the world they had once known.

It was a long time before I climbed back into bed. When I finally drifted off to sleep I entered the twisted, chaotic world of dreams that were half memories and half fantasy. Waking up in the late morning hours, I rubbed my gritty eyes and thought about the dreams filled with strange creatures and forgotten truths. The dreams were drudged up from the dark depths of my memories because they contained the Devil Dogs. Yeah, the farm again.

A few years back, I had started hearing and reading about chupacabras and they reminded me of the Devil Dogs that roamed the pasture at the back of the farm, near what we called the silent woods. Mom thought they were attracted to the dump. Back in those days we didn't have trash pick up, you just found a gully or ravine on your property and used it to eliminate as much trash as you could. Now chupacabras are all the rage as far as myths and legends and "sightings" go but back then they were just plain scary. The Hell Hounds or the Devil Dogs, whichever you prefer to call them, roamed that pastures and the hill sides and ridges back toward the bluff road that was to the north of the farm.

I'd made the connection to chupacabras once when I was watching TV.  It got me seriously thinking about these strange hounds that roamed the farm from the silent woods all the way back to the bluff road. They were hunted by many but shot by none.  We first assumed they were a pack of wild half starved dogs that had formed a pack for survival. We thought that until we noticed how they seemed to be able to move without being seen, appearing first on one hillside and then on another. My mother started carrying her pistol with her whenever she walked down to the dump or in the woods around our home.

According to the TV show, the first reported sightings of the creatures were in 1995. We encountered them on the farm well before '95. The episode reminded me of the Hounds of Hell and made me curious as to their origins. We described them as jackal like so they do not necessarily sound like the hairless, dry roughed skinned Chupacabra...but it just makes me think...if there are creatures out there roaming that are either a "new animal" or a deformed animal that reproduces in kind then maybe the Hounds of Hell were a freak of nature rather than supernatural....ummm.... although it hardly explained how they could disappear from one hill side to appear on another...or how they so swiftly avoided bullets .None the less the world holds many unexplained things...whether of this world or another.

In my dreams, first I hunted the Hounds of Hell and then they hunted me, in a never ending cycle of pursuit and escape.  The dream was so vivid, when I closed my eyes I could see their red gleaming eyes watching me.  Those eyes reminded me of the red bead and I looked for it.  It wasn't in my tangled sheets. Panic started to well up inside me and I frantically tore at the blankets, coming up empty.  Slipping out of bed, something brushed against my bare foot. Looking down, the red bead rested against my foot. Quickly I snatched it up and looked at it again. It was pretty but ordinary really but getting dressed  I tucked it into the pocket of my jeans.

Long Ago

The sun blazed high in the sky over South Dakota, in this land called "mako sica" or "land bad."  by the Lakota. The rugged terrain, lack of water, and extreme temperatures made life difficult here. In every direction the soft sedimentary rock had eroded in the dry climate forming a magnificent display of sharp spires, gullies, and ridges. It went on for miles in all directions.

She sat on the rust colored boulder and spun the twine between her wrinkled finger tips. It was strong and worthy, plucked from the garments of a mighty warrior. She wondered, as she so often did, about the times ahead, the years that flowed through her dreams were blurry and broken, with few details to place them into any real order. She knew there would come a time when this would be needed. When this simple act of hers would provide power to those who needed it. It would not be in her lifetime but many moons from now, this she knew. She would be long forgotten and the world a strange and different place.

There is an old Dakota saying, "we will forever be known by the tracks we leave behind us."  She would be, both known and unknown, by her tracks, for no one would know her name or her role but she cared not. She did not seek glory or even wisdom, because in truth this task scared her a bit. This vision, while full of light, attracted the darkness somehow and even now she felt it swirling around her. In her vision quest she had watched herself weaving the twine into a broad sturdy bracelet with the three red beads nestled among the coarse twine.

The quest had been many winters ago, in a time when she was young and strong, feeling the power of her youth. She had welcomed the task, drawing energy from the knowledge that she would play a part in this great story. She had called upon Raven many times, seeking to clarify the vision, for what the eyes see is not always the truth. She wondered if Raven denied her the clarity because she was not a male. Yet she doubted that because Raven had come to her many times about other things. 

Spring turned into summer and fall and winter followed over and over again. The days, while numbered, are seldom counted by the young and even though she grew in years, her spirit remained unchanged. The kaleidoscope of years blurred together and Raven, nor nothing else for that matter, came to guide her on this path. She started to believe that it had been her own thoughts rather than a clear vision. She doubted herself.

The years of her life had slipped by so quietly that she hardly noticed. She had all but forgotten the vision until the dreams reminded her. The dreams were troubling. In them, a blood moon, high in the sky cast little light upon the earth, strange voices called out in fear, and something else, some force that snagged and ripped the soul, indulged in a desperate feeding. It was with urgency she wanted to complete this task, to be done with it, as she feared her days were drawing near the end. Each day it took all of her strength to overcome the weakness that grew inside her. She smiled to herself because she now had the twine and was waiting for the beads. She did not know how they might come into her possession but she felt certain that they would. And soon, very soon.

She had thought previously about weaving a medicine bag, like those the warriors wore to protect them in battle but in the vision she had clearly seen a bracelet. So even though her fingers were gnarled and aching, she was determined to replicate it. Although the word was foreign to her she knew it would become an amulet. An object to be worn to magically bestow power and protection to the wearer. Power and protection were things she did know about, for in the long cold winter months she chanted to Mother Earth to sustain them and she called to Father Sun to warm the earth again. Now as she waited the warm sun wrapped its arms around her in an ancient embrace.

200 Miles to the East

The church was small, with hard uncomfortable pews, as only old church pews can be. Designed most likely to keep the sinners awake during services, a chore they did quite well because who could sleep on such an uncomfortable surface.  Shifting to ease the strain on ones back or to awaken a numb behind, served to keep churchgoers awake, even if they were not listening. Outside the two ravens circled the tree to the left of the church, climbing higher and higher in spirals until they were two tiny specks of black in the blueness of the sky.

Inside the sanctuary, the old priest stood beside the baptismal font and watched his quivering hands reach into the water to pick up the beads. They had lay nestled there at the bottom of the water for as many years as he could remember. Over the years, as he had added more holy water, he had watched them shift and dance across the bottom but he had left them there. Had not even considered removing them. He wondered about how they had come to be here, in this old church of hewn logs and dirt floors, they seemed too beautiful to belong.

He had traveled here from Boston many years ago. It had been a long and treacherous trip but he was young then, full of ideas about saving the world one soul at a time. Originally he had planned to stay but a short time, spreading the word of God and bringing comfort to those in this dreary and bleak part of the country. However, it seemed he had stayed a lifetime among the rough people of the west, where death came early to so many. God had blessed him with a long life but he knew his days were growing short. He knew somehow that the beads were important but how so or what he was to do with them he couldn't fathom.

The new church was about a half a mile away. It was two stories tall and the steeple was even higher, a beckon in the distance for travelers. Now this one, the old church that he had first come to serve, was to be destroyed. Destroyed?  Even though it had served its usefulness, it seemed almost barbaric to tear it down. Yet the time was near for just that to happen which is why he stood now with his hand dipped into the water retrieving the three red beads that he had spent a lifetime wondering about.

Chapter Four-The Birthing

So Long Ago.....

He crawled into the crevice on his stomach, the dampness of the earth clinging to him, and something else, a smell of rotting decaying flesh filled his nostrils. He didn't stop, he couldn't. Those who sought him are near, he can almost smell their sweat as they search for him. He pushed back as far as he could against the rock wall. The tunnel was narrow but this crevice even more so. He felt his breath catch in his throat as he heard their footsteps in the tunnel, close, so close.

There was no sky here in the inner bowels of the earth. Just earth and stone and light from the thousands of flickering candles encased in the crevices along the tunnel walls. He alone bore the brunt of their anger, he alone would pay the price for the mistake. In truth, it wasn't his mistake but that of another. It made no difference for truth did not exist here, only power and cunning and strength. One cannot change the nature of things and those who claimed the power, preferred the deceivers. Honor was always bestowed upon the Tale Weavers, glory given to those that followed in the footsteps of the Father of Deceit.

It hadn't always been this way. There was a time in the beginning when power was earned not bargained, bought, and stolen. The years, the ways of the soulless, and the misuse of their powers had changed everything, Things that are done, cannot be undone even here is the darkness. Hundreds of years previously their world had started to implode, to collapse almost upon itself. There was much inner fighting, bickering and bloodshed. Powers roared out of control, decisions were made. The decisions included the forbidding of certain arts from being practiced. The Sealing occurred at that time. No one talked about The Sealing, it was forbidden.

Many, many years before The Sealing there was The Beginning. In The Beginning there was darkness, a cocoon of safety, floating in the silky warmth of the earth.  Then the light brought forth life yet there were still those that craved the darkness, those over which the web of evil could not be broken. He was there then. He existed, had always existed, almost since the beginning of time. He who some called "Ha-ne-go-ate-geh",  or Evil Minded. Others called him other things, other names, yet none truly knew him. His essence defied their knowing.  All of that was to change now. He would be no more.

Inside himself, at his core, he roared in frustration and he hungered for the forbidden powers. The tentacles of those desires, slipped silently throughout his being, comforting him with their seductive ways. He longed to unleash the truth of his being, his authentic self, the transformation would bring about the undoing of all things known to The Others. In truth his powers were greater than any knew, having been forgotten through the years, none knew that he was, had always been, one of The Founders.  People had not forgotten The Founders, only that he was one, the last one of his kind.

None of that mattered now as he lay like a trapped animal deep inside the wall of the tunnel. He had no choice but to hide yet his escape seemed unlikely. He pushed back so far into the crevice that he felt the earth move, crumbling in around him, he thought of death, of suffocation, being buried alive. He had existed almost since the beginning of time so these thoughts seemed foreign to him, though he knew of others who had ceased to exist. His hand scraped against a tree root as more dirt shifted and covered him with a thin layer of musky silt. He wondered if the dirt was falling onto the tunnel floor. If so it was only a matter of moments before they found him. His eyes had been clamped shut against the cascading earth but now he opened them.

Above him, about four hundred feet up, inside the tree roots he saw a strange flickering. Calling to him, it caressed his turbulent mind and calmed him. It was different somehow from the candle light he knew so well. Brighter than a thousand candles, it shimmered above him. He grabbed a root and begin to climb. As he climbed he had to pause and claw at the dirt around the thick roots. Slithering along, making himself as small as possible, he inched his way upward.

For some reason the earth clung to the roots, not falling down the narrow chute into the crevice and the tunnel itself. This saved him, for if The Others had found the damp, dark dirt on the floor they would have sent the ones that crawl on their bellies after him. Once they had fallen upon him they would have drug him shrieking back into the darkness of the world he had always known. He climbed toward the distant light not once stopping to ponder what it might be. To exist was all that mattered and if propelling himself into the earth offered the chance to exist then that is what he would do.

Soon he came to the end of the roots, and where he found himself was puzzling. He was inside a vertical tunnel but the sides weren't stone. They were rough and woody and scratched at him. They reminded him of roots but what root is so large in size as to be almost a tunnel. He felt with his hands and the rough bark of the inside of the tree crumbled in his hands. Where he had touched was an opening. He scraped with his claw like hands and soon he could see the light. He closed his eyes. It hurt as it streamed into his hiding place. Paying no mind, he pushed out through the slit in the tree and stepped into another world, foreign to him, full of green leaves and trees and grass under his feet instead of a stone path.

He didn't think about where he was. His only goal was to exist, to escape, and so with his eyes squeezed shut he ran, using his searching senses which were weakened from disuse he weaved in between the trees. He felt the tangled vines and bushes, grabbing him, scratching his legs but he ignored them in his flight. They were nothing in comparison to those that looked for him. Existence was a primal urge. Nothing else mattered.

He has no conscious memory of how long he ran. He ran until his powerful legs ached and his body was covered in a thick layer of sweat. He ran until his lungs hurt and his eyes streamed tears down his face. Not from sadness but from the brilliance of the light that he could feel on his closed lids.. He ran until he could run no more. Then he collapsed under a fallen tree where the dead branches and dried leaves shaded him from the brilliant light. Before doing so though, he looked up. He saw the source of the light, a ball of fire hanging in the sky.

That Night....

He woke up to the blessed darkness of night. The fire ball was gone, replaced by a pale ball in the sky that shimmered and beckoned and appeared harmless. Peering out from under the tumble of branches, he listened to the rustling night sounds, crickets, small animals, insects. They produced a melody that he had never heard before. He wondered at their existence and if the darkness had created them as it had he.

He knew with certainty that his existence would create ripples in this brave new world. Nothing else could happen when two worlds collide, overlapping each other, a world of darkness and one of light, each struggle to become the dominate force. It had happened in The Beginning, oh but on a much grander scale. This was but a speck in comparison but over time his existence would become know, and when that time arrived he would be hunted. Worlds do not take kindly to invasion, even if the invader had no other choice.

He existed. That was all that mattered. His ancient instincts told him that in this new place, this new world there was no other like him. In this place the rules must be learned. He cared nothing for rules but one must know what they are in order to exist. If he was to be, if he hoped to exist at all for very long then knowing the rules that governed this place was paramount. That was his first self-directive, know the rules.

As the days go by....

This world collided with his senses, confused his thoughts and tore into him with its painful brilliance. He ached for the darkness. He craved to be once more inside the damp earth, cradled in the arms of the world he had always known. In the first few days he felt drawn back into the earth, he thought of climbing back into the birthing tree and making his way into the deep tunnels of his own domain. Yet he knew that there was no place for him there now. It was done. One cannot crawl back into the womb after being born.

There was a hunger inside him like none he had felt before. He hunted the strange prey in the woods but it did little to sooth him. The essence of their beings was so little in comparison to all he had known before. Slowly over the matter of a few months, the creatures fled the woods, skittering here and there, anywhere but near him. They could smell him, his odor pungent in their noses. Even the birds took flight and left. He was reduced to digging for grubs, which quite frankly were more familiar to him than the other creatures of the woods. Over time he moved on, away from the tree which had birthed him into this world. His scent still clung to the shrubs, trees and grass, saturating the area with its musky aroma, carried on the breeze it repelled the other creatures and they still avoided the area long after he had departed.

He was alone, always alone. That is when he started practicing the forbidden arts of his world. It gave him comfort to master the old ways. As his talents grew, he soon realized that his power in this world was mighty compared to what The Law allowed in the old. He didn't belong here but he existed and that was all that mattered.

The Others

It took months for the others to discover his hiding place and emerge just as he had, scorched by the light, confused and yet mesmerized.  The first to emerge was Mitche-hant, the name given to him by the people of this world when they encountered him as creator of the water famine. It simply means "evil one." It is a fitting name for one so heartless.  Many thought he died when the yellow birch fell on him but it isn't so. He simply returned to the darkness from which he had originally sprung. All of this occurred before The Sealing but he still exists and he is the first to come looking for him, the one who has escaped.

Mitche-hant, is not alone. Baykok climbs from the gaping hole in the tree with his thin translucent skin stretched tightly over bones. Two red glowing eyes are buried in his skeleton head. His shrill cries echo through the woods but there are no creatures here to flee from him because they have left the woods long ago when the birthing first occurred.  The two, an unlikely pair, have come into this world again to find the wayward one, the one who must be punished. Thinking about it makes them swell with a greedy hunger. They seek but do not find.

Many would seek him through the years. Most came for their own glory but some because they were pulled by the lure of this world. There was something about the energy of the light that danced through them and called to them. It is not they that made the choice so many years ago, to stay in the darkness. It was before their time and so they are confused by this yearning.

They end up roaring in frustration for by traveling so far he has confused their searching senses and eluded their thoughts. He is more cunning than they thought and while hating him they also regard him with a great respect. He becomes the Great Mystery that is spoken about in the darkness around the fires that burn for eternity in the bowels of earth. He, who escaped, becomes a tale that is unlike any other, both hated and reveled.

All sorts came forth, seeking him, winged ones and those on four legs , those that slither on the leaf covered ground and those that walk on two legs, those that are higher in power and those that are lower. They all clamor to find him for their own self advancement.

Most stay only for a short time, returning to the region of darkness, slithering down through the tree. Some stay longer, tentatively moving farther and farther from the tree in ever increasing circles. As they move outward they realize their power here is strong, it shimmers in waves off them, glistening with the promise of the forgotten ways.  In the end, they scatter across the face of the land, many regret it, others do not.

Much time has passed since he emerged from the womb of darkness and into the world of light, years upon years, but even today there are those that come forth to seek him.  What happened to him is the Great Mystery, shrouded in secrecy and whispered in dark corners.

Present Time: Along the way:

I suppose that traveling alone does strange things to the mind because I found myself thinking about family, and history, and all the wonderful stories my mom had told me. I replayed some of them over and over again in my head as if in the repeating I would somehow discover some hidden message. People don't value family history much anymore because with the onset of the internet we are connected not just to our families but to the world. A few months ago I was reading an article about having a strong sense of intergenerational self. How this realization that we are part of something bigger is beneficial. So here I was feeling "lost" in this world; on some kind of mission I didn't even understand and I was building a family narrative.

I'd bought a journal at the Corn Palace and started writing in it whenever I had a few minutes. I felt this overwhelming urge to cram as much of my family history onto paper as I could. It made no sense. I wasted no time filling pages and pages of the journal with every thought, every detail I could remember from my childhood, my family, anything and everything. I doodled strange pictures and symbols, coloring them with a set of cheap markers that bled through the paper. It was exhausting and it made my head throb but I did it anyway.  One of the stories was about my grandmother....and it flowed from my pen onto the paper.....

A Grandmother's Story:

Some stories are macabre, but surely not those that grandmothers tell.  Yes some of the events that unfolded years ago on that small patch of ground were macabre but not all. No, not all, by any means. Some were simply "interesting." This one was both.

One such encounter was the story of the stone. It is a story that goes back even further in time; in the days when my mother was a young girl. It transpired not on the farm itself but in some adjacent woods that were about five miles from the Silent Woods themselves. Five miles as a crow flies. It was in those woods, covered in brambles, the ground hidden from the light of day by the dense branches hanging overhead, that my grandmother discovered the stone.

Grandmother enjoyed the solitude of the woods on most days but today she looked over her shoulder and felt that she was not alone. She had the oddest sensation that eyes followed her as she walked through the woods on this beautiful spring day. She was aware that the evening was disappearing and that night was fast approaching. She thought that she did not want to find herself in these woods at days end.  Perhaps that is why she diverged from the paths she normally walked and found herself in an unfamiliar part of the forest. It was there she came upon the stone.

The stone was large and flat and smooth. Nestled there is the green moss of the spring woods it glistened and beckoned. "What a perfect stone for the flower bed." must have been what my grandmother thought as she gazed upon it. It was smoother than one would expect, in the deep woods, far from the river to the north. Again she had the oddest sensation of eyes peering at her from behind the trees. She shrugged it off and once again contemplated the large stone. It seemed to call to her.

With hands on hips she stood towering over it. It looked heavy and it was slightly buried in the damp soil, but grandmother was not one to be daunted by the need for muscle. Hard work was no stranger to her and so she stooped without a second thought and tugged at the stone. It did not break away from the ground easily but when it did, she gasped and stepped back quickly, covering her ears with her hands.

As she lifted the stone, the distant sounds of screaming voices reached her ears. Voices, she described later, that were like those one would imagine in the bowels of hell; with shrieking, and moaning, and gnashing of teeth. Cries of agony, begging for release echoed from the depths of the earth. They ripped into her soul and her mind reeled from their assault. The force is so strong and real that she quivers in telling the story.

In the woods that day, she shoved the stone securely back in place with shaking hands and moved quickly through the damp darkness of the woods. She was disoriented and deeply sad for some reason. She repeated the Lord's prayer as she walked briskly toward home. Evening was approaching and she wished even less to find herself in these woods at night then she had earlier.

Chapter Five-Sutter

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park in South Dakota is probably one of the most unique experiences anyone might encounter. This was on my mind as I drove through the majestic landscape. Little did I know that unique experiences awaited me and not in the breath taking beautiful way the Badlands did.

The rugged beauty of this land draws tourist from around the world, and this day was no exception. People were stopping along the roadside to gaze out into the vast landscape of cliffs, boulders, ridges and peaks. This area is a rich bed of fossils as at one time ancient mammals roamed freely. The park is now 244,000 acres of protected land where bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and black footed ferrets dwell. Oh, and rattlesnakes. Yeah snakes.

Interstate 90 is north of the park but I had chosen to drive highway 240, otherwise know as the Badlands Loop Road, which weaves your car through breath taking views and features convenient stopping spots along the way. That's where I was right at the moment, pulled along side the road, gazing in wonder at the reddish hillsides. Some tourists had started climbing atop a large formation and I caught my breath as a shoe slipped and the young man slid backwards a bit. Fearless as only young men can be, he laughed and started climbing again. I hate heights. Even climbing a little ways up would have me shaking.

I kept searching the hillsides for sheep or some other form of wildlife but in the vastness of the land it was hard to make out anything. Then I noticed some dark shadows swirling about on top of one of the mesas. Frowning, I squinted trying to make out the shapes or forms. Sheep? No they seemed taller somehow, although height was hard to judge from this distance. There were several of them and they swayed and moved almost in a uniformed manner. There was a rhythm to the movements, almost dance like. Shaking my head, I looked again, trying to focus harder but they had evaporated into the air, and no matter how I searched I couldn't seem to bring the shadowy figures back into eyesight. I shivered as the air was growing cooler as day faded into evening.

Sutter, South Dakota

It was a little before eight when I pulled into Sutter and it had me wishing I had not lingered so long in the Badlands, It's difficult enough finding a decent, cheap place to eat or sleep along major highways but I had left those behind long ago and finding a place in a town this size was like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

It wasn't difficult maneuvering the empty streets. Empty streets at eight o'clock didn't bode well for any "night life" in Sutter South Dakota. Smiling to myself I realized I had just traded a small town in the mid-west for an even smaller town in the north-west. I saw a Budweiser sign lite up ahead and pulled over to the side of the street. The Owl, looked like the only hopping place in town, but at this point I wasn't picky and bar food sounded just fine to me.

Inside the bar was crowded, with wooden benches along the booths. People stopped talking and looked as I walked in. Surely they had tourists at times, I thought. I can't be that out of place here. It didn't take long for them to become engrossed in whatever had occupied their thoughts prior to my arrival and I slid almost unnoticed into a corner booth. Corner booths are my favorites, with my back to the wall, facing the door. They had always been my preferred seating. I said "almost unnoticed" because the guy at the bar still had his eyes on me. I wasn't beautiful but I wasn't ugly either so I was used to a few stares but I couldn't figure out exactly what his interest was. He didn't nod, smile, or send over a drink so I just ordered a burger and fries along with a Budlight and settled into my little corner.

I felt ravenous and chomped on the burger with delight, dipping the long crispy fries into ketchup and shoving them into my mouth licking the ketchup off my fingers. Suddenly a hand holding a napkin appeared in front of my face. Looking up I saw it was the guy from the bar, offering me a napkin out of courtesy or disgust, I wasn't sure. He wasn't bad, as far as rugged older men go. His hair was still dark and his green eyes bore into me. He slid onto the bench opposite me without asking permission.

"Kane Jasper" he said offering me his hand. I wiped the ketchup from my fingertips and took his proffered hand.

"Annie McGee." I said never taking my eyes from his.

He waited and I waited too, for what I wasn't exactly sure.

"You just passing through or spending the night?" he asked and I raised my eyebrows at his boldness.

I had no intention of telling him my business and even in a room full of strangers I didn't fear him. So I used a trick I had learned long ago and answered the question with a question.

"Why do you care?" I spat out with a little more venemancy then I actually felt.

He tilted his head back and laughed, which then served to really tick me off. I glared at him then ignored him, shoving a few more fries into my mouth while paying a bit more attention to the ketchup. He sat there just watching me eat.

"There's some rooms to rent above the coffee shop over on Voshell" he said as he wrote down a number on the back of a napkin. "Call Trish and tell her I sent you over. It's late for Sutter but she will meet you there and open up."

With that he slid out of the bench, nodded to me, and disappeared out a side door. I stared at the closed door for a long time, wondering who he was. The number was a little smudged on the napkin but not being sure whether I had a choice or not. I stuffed it into my purse and went back to the cheeseburger and fries.

I looked around The Owl and found about what I'd expect, groupings of three or four people talking while casually sipping a beer, after all this isn't wine country. I'd catch a snippet of conversation every now and then but it was the tone of one conversation that caught my attention. It was sober and serious.

"It wasn't an accident, I'm telling you. Why would she be on the water tower?" the man in the dark blue shirt spoke a little too loudly, those around him paused their own conversations to listen. They didn't even try to hide it, just stared wide eyed at him and waited for more.

"She never went there. I mean she was TEN....not fifteen. Besides that her mamma says she was scared of heights." his voice caught in his throat and he took a swig of beer, as if to wash down the emotion.

The others didn't respond, whether because they agreed with him or because they had nothing to add, wasn't clear. Just then the barmaid brought me my check and glancing at the time, I settled up and headed out into the growing darkness.

After driving around a few random streets I realized there wasn't much here in Sutter. I doubted I'd stay long. I felt restless and bloated from eating too much greasy food so I parked the car under a street light and decided to walk around the block before giving Trish a call about that room. I needed some exercise after too many hours on the road and it would probably make me sleep a whole lot better.

I'd just turned the corner, down the street from my car, when I felt it. That uncanny sense of something in the darkness following me. I brushed it aside as a stray cat or maybe even a possum. I kept walking but suddenly felt a little more vulnerable than I should have in a tiny town like this. Hearing some rustling behind me and I picked up my pace. Whatever was back there picked up it's pace too. The corner seemed a long way off but I couldn't turn back toward my car as whatever was in the darkness lay between me and it. There was a street light at the corner and I planned on trying to get a glimpse of whoever was following me. I wasn't sure I wanted to.

The corner glistened like a beckon and I had an uncanny flashback to the lane, remembering how I had focused on the end of the bushes with both dread and curiosity. Some unknown emotion welled up inside me, filling me with a sense of fear that threatened to overwhelm me. I shook it off. Letting past emotions cloud my mental state wouldn't help just now, when I needed all my energy and wits to escape whatever trailed me in the pending darkness.

Finally at the corner I swung around abruptly and that's when I caught sight of the bulky hunched shape charging toward me. I gasped and spun around, running. I ran but so did he and he seemed a whole lot more used to running than I did. I thought about screaming, but decided not to waste precious air as there were no lights on the small side street. I didn't look back but I knew he was gaining on me,

I felt something brush the back of my shirt, the sharp claw sliced neatly through the thin fabric and an icy chill coursed through me. Hearing the ragged breathing I doubled my effort and managed to pull away. I felt disgust and nausea. I wasn't really in shape. I'm not a runner and I suddenly felt surprised at my burst of speed.

I turned a corner sharply and ducked into a doorway of a tall, brick building. I pushed into the crevice at the top of the steps and hoped I had gotten far enough ahead of him that he hadn't seen my disappearing act. My heart was beating so hard I felt sure he could hear it. I saw him in shadow, pause, appearing to listen. I tried to make myself as small as possible, he cocked his head and took two tentative steps in my direction. He sniffed the air and I shivered.

Pushing back even further I thought he appeared beast like, seeking my scent and as if hearing my thoughts he peered intently through the darkness right at me. I pushed back, felt the door give, opening, I scrambled into the foyer and gently pushed the door. I couldn't get it shut for fear of making noise and attracting his attention. I paused for a second, focusing on breathing then put my eye up to the tiny opening and looked out.

He stood at the bottom of the steps, closer than he had been previously, The sound of his steps had not reached my listening ears. He was bulky, with massive arms that hung loosely by his side. He was still, gazing at the door. When he raised his hand, holding it palm forward toward the door, I could see fingernails that were long and sharp. Sharper than any I had seen on a person before. No wonder they had sliced through my shirt as surely as a razor blade. He sniffed the air again, turning his head first to the left and then to the right. I felt certain he knew I was inside the door. Trying to calm my breathing, I waited. He took one more step toward the door and then looked up into the dark sky. Unexpectedly, he turned and loped off.

I pushed the door shut and stood up looking for a latch or lock, hand quivering. Running my hands up and down the door frame, panic welled up inside me when I realized the door didn't lock. The strong wooden door was thick but did it really offer protection without a lock? Right now I wanted a strong deadbolt, maybe two but instead there was just bare wood. I felt the urge to get away, to put some distance between me and the evil that lurked outside in the darkness of the night. Moving from the foyer as quietly as possible, deciding it would be safer deeper inside the structure.

The floor sloped slightly forward and there were benches on both sides of the carpeted aisle. There were large windows on either side of the room but in the vast blackness of the room I couldn't see much. I looked forward and picked up the outline of some plants, the white flowers on them shone in the otherwise ebony landscape. Peace Lilies. At the front of the room, on the rear wall, hung a large rustic cross. It was then I realized where I was. I had taken refuge inside a church.

I sat in a pew toward the front of the church and tried to calm myself. With shaking hands I touched my back where his nail had sliced through the fabric. It was clear that I had escaped by only a tiny margin. The lump in my throat made it difficult to swallow. My parched mouth, as dry as the Badlands, almost hurt. I shivered. One misstep, one stumble and I would have been in his clutches, most likely ripped to shreds. Was he a rapist? A killer? What had made him pause? Some sound on the street? Why had he left when he was so close to me?

I had felt his breath on me and his eyes had bore into me through the darkness. He knew where I was. I sat and listened, trying to sense whether anyone else might have made their way inside the church. Had he had come in through another door, hoping to catch me unaware? I heard nothing but silence. It was almost as if he wouldn't or couldn't come inside. I shook my head.

"You've been watching too many damn movies." I thought,

Then I felt the book on the pew beside me, I picked it up. It the dim light the title was obscured yet I knew what it was. Not a hymnal left carelessly on the pew but a Bible. I opened it and felt the air move when the pages fall open between my fingers. It felt warm to my touch and my heart felt lighter. I couldn't see to read the pages but I stroked them as they slid between my fingers.

As the first rays of sun filtered in through the stain glass windows, I pulled myself up from my spot under the pews. I had robbed a couple of pews of their cushions and rabbited under the pews in a den of sorts. I hadn't thought I'd be able to sleep but I had finally cascaded into the first dreamless slumber I had experienced in weeks. My body ached from the night spent curled in a ball so I sat in the pew for a long time before leaving. It was risky because someone might show up at any time.

The more I thought about my story, the crazier it sounded. I wondered if I had just gotten spooked by some homeless or mentally ill man, letting my imagination make more of it then was really the case. Regardless, I looked both ways before sliding out the narrowly opened front door and starting down the street in hopes of locating my car. I had zigged and zagged so much that I wasn't exactly sure where I had left it.
Across the street I noticed a small shop with a large cross engraved on the window. It glistened and something in my mind nudged me toward it. As I stood there, a hand flipped the sign in the window from closed to open. It seemed like an omen so I headed across the street and into the shop.

It was the kind of shop you might find anywhere, crammed with books, statues of saints and ornate crosses. The lady behind the counter was wrinkled with age but her blue eyes sparkled knowingly. She smiled at me as I glanced around.

"We just got in some lovely jewelry." she said pointing toward a display case in the back of the shop.

Nodding my thanks, I wandered toward the back. There I found what I had been hoping to find. Crosses. All kinds of crosses; gold ones, silver ones, plain ones, ornate ones; glistening on chains. A rustic looking one caught my eye. It was a burnt bronze cross of medium size, rugged looking and hanging from a leather rawhide necklace rather than a fancy chain. It seemed old even though I figured it was just a reproduction of some earlier work.

The lady had wandered back to the display and quietly opened it up. She handed me the cross that had caught my fancy. It felt heavy and warm in my hand. I liked the rustic texture of the metal in my palm. Rubbing it with my fingers, it seemed even warmer and reassuring somehow.

"I'll take it" I said surprising myself more than the lady. I hadn't even asked the price or glanced at the tag. In the end, it didn't matter. It was pricey but not out of my price league so I left the shop with it around my neck rather than wrapped in plastic in a bag. I felt better for no other reason than the warmth of it nestled next to my skin.

I smiled as I finished walking back to the car. I know objects, themselves, don't protect us from evil. "Or do they?" I shook my head. Where had that come from? In my mind, or at least up to this point, I had always accepted the cross not as protection itself but as an outward symbol of God, the one providing the protection.

I frowned for a minute. Last night, the church had saved me; not perhaps the structure itself but what then? The man's beliefs about the church? Or perhaps, after all, he had simply lost track of me and thinking the church locked had given up.

I slipped into my car planning to head out of town but ended up at a local coffee shop instead....

Chapter Six-Whispers and Secrets

The Coffee Shop

I decided to drive around Sutter for a bit before heading out. Something about this little town peaked my interest. It called to me like a voice in the distance yet I wasn't sure I wanted to answer.  There in a large tree at the corner of the first street I came to, I saw them. The ravens, two of them, black and glistening in the morning sun. Omens of death or carriers of mysterious messages?

I had every intention of leaving town as soon as possible. The combination of small town dullness and crazy stalker/killer made my stomach queasy and I wanted out. Small shops with aged brick fronts and cracked sidewalks lined the street. Quaint, that was the word to describe it. A little oasis of the past, as if time had stopped here and with it all the modern changes to architecture. Like a page out of the past, Sutter was forgotten and hidden from the larger world. Little did I know that what was hiding here was even older than the history of Sutter. Ancient and timeless.

I shook my head to clear it of thoughts, but even with the beauty of the morning other thoughts, darker thoughts, intruded and increased my anxiety about last night. A big fat slug, I sat behind the steering wheel watching as I drifted past the shops. I needed coffee and bad, I thought. Then low and behold, the corner coffee shop appeared. In the glistening sunlight it appeared magical and majestic, but then that was just my burning desire for java messing with my head.

The street with the coffee shop was lined with vehicles, cars, trucks, even a motorcycle or two. Almost at the end of the street I pulled into a parking space next to a black sedan, The license plate identified it as a sheriff's department vehicle. Wondering why in the world, they'd pick black in this god forsaken land of heat and dust, I headed up the street. Glancing behind myself several times, I tried to shake the memory of last night but it lingered, along with an eerie feeling of dread.

While I had never been chased by a crazy killer before, there was something about last night that felt vaguely familiar. Something resonated and I searched for connections but they simply teased along the edges of my mind. I reached my hand into my pocket and rubbed the red bead bracelet between my fingertips. With my other hand I touched the cross around my neck. Both for some reason gave me small comfort.

It startled me when a small bell jingled as the door to the shop opened. Two weathered old men stepped out into the morning light and I watched as they headed down the street. As they passed I caught a snippet of conversation.  "I've lived here 60 years and now I'm carrying a gun."  Goosebumps played across my skin even in the brilliant sunlight.

A single droplet of fear bubbled up inside me again. I shook my head trying to dislodge it. Something wasn't right in this town and I needed to find out what. Inside the shop, disappointed to see that the corner table wasn't available I took a seat at the counter. I itched with nervousness as I didn't like having my back to the door. Shifting on the stool I let my eyes roam around the room. Then I saw him, at the end of the counter, the man from The Owl. He was sipping a cup of steaming coffee and letting his eyes wandering around the room, just like me. Our eyes met and held for a brief moment, then the waitress was asking for my order.

The waitress darted from one person to the next, wearing a name tag that said Trish, she seemed efficient and weary. Sitting my coffee down she paused for a minute to ask if I was new in town. I nodded yes while taking my first sip. "Well, if you plan on staying a bit. I have rooms for rent above the shop here. We don't have any real motel here in Sutter. I can show you a room after the rush hour of you want."  I found myself nodding yes and wondered what was drawing me to stay in this dusty place that offered little in entertainment.

"About time." the man next to me said. His gnarled finger pointed to a headline in the paper he had spread out in front of him. Reading it my heart clenched with fear again. It was not particularly eloquent but the simple words sizzled in my mind. Murders in Sutter. "What do you mean?" I asked. The words caught in my throat and I had this swirling sensation as if I was trapped in a kaleidoscope inside some crazy fun house.

He paused and looked at me with green eyes filled with sadness. "Everyone's been saying we got ourselves a psycho yet this is the first time the story has made the front page."  I didn't even answer. I just sat there with wide eyes and jumbled thoughts. He slid the paper toward me, taking it with trembling hands I started to read.

The article was short and simple. It outlined three recent deaths in Sutter, questioning whether all three were murders. Challenging the "official" story out there and calling for a full investigation. I looked at the names. Ezra Jacobs, Emma Hope and Ester Smith. Emma's death was the most brutal but it some ways the 10 year olds death seemed the most senseless. No one could argue that Emma's death was an accident it was the other two that everyone was whispering about. This article was just about to make that whisper a shout.

Trish poured me another cup and whispered that even though Detective Kane was "mighty nice" people were getting fed up with the lack of progress in the investigation. Looking up I noticed the guy at then end of the counter staring at me. I let my eyes fall back to the paper but my cheeks burned from his gaze. Lost in thought I jumped when the deep voice next to me said, "Don't believe everything you read."  Somehow without my notice he had slid onto the stool next to me. It was then I remembered his name from last night, Kane. Was he the Detective Kane she was talking about?

I looked into his eyes and it was then I realized I had to tell him, the significance of last night vibrated inside me, my pursuer, had he been a killer?  I just couldn't get the words to come out so I just sat there looking at him like some idiot. He said, "I hear you never made it here last night. I thought you had gone you are. Did you sleep in your car?"  He continued to gaze at me and I swallowed before pushing the words from my dry mouth.

"No, in the church."  I whispered. He raised his eyebrows and then like I was in a trance my story came tumbling out. He didn't interrupt me with questions. He didn't even seem to breath. I realized that this might be the only real lead he had and he was mesmerized by everything I said. I could feel him analyzing my words when I got to the part about the church. I didn't voice what I thought, that the man couldn't come into the church but somehow he sensed my belief and he seemed to consider it, which surprised me.

"I'd like to go somewhere else, somewhere more private and go over this again." he told me as he motioned for Trish. He paid the bill for both of us which caused Trish to look at me oddly, then he asked her for the keys to one of the sleeping rooms upstairs, which caused that look to turn to a glare but she handed them to him without comment. And then he was telling her I'd check in later in the day.

We went through a door and up some narrow steps to a tiny hallway above the shop. The steps creaked as we climbed and I wondered if this was even a good idea. It was going to slow me down, keep me here in this tiny dot of a town for longer than I had planned.

The door he unlocked opened onto a spacious room. It was filled with sunlight and it reassured me. In one corner a tiny kitchenette offered the comforts of home, in front of the window two arm chairs awaited, and a large bed took up most of the other space. I longed to sink into it's comfort as I hadn't slept much last night.

He led the way to the chairs and we settled in. I was nervous being alone in this room with him especially as his eyes seemed to linger a bit too long on that bed. For what seemed like forever we just sat looking at each other.

"Ok let's go over this one more time" he said. "Start from when you left The Owl."

I started with the idea that I had decided not to stay overnight, leaving out the part that the napkin he had given me had been tucked safely away. I hadn't planned to stay, that was true, but I hadn't firmly left either, had I? Instead, my head still filled with my encounter with him, I had decided to take a stroll along dark and empty streets. Even to my ears that sounded just plain dumb but to his credit he didn't even arch an eyebrow when I started talking about it.

He stopped me a couple times to ask questions, mostly about the location and my description of the man. There! I hadn't called him a creature. Yet in my soul I knew that whatever he had been, he was not just an ordinary man. Call it intuition or call it superstition, either way I knew there was a whole lot more "creature" to him then there was man. I found myself wishing I had brought along some of my books, books that told ancient tales of forgotten monsters, and things that still walk the earth today, invisible to man who choses to look the other way rather than confront what they cannot understand.

I'm not saying I believe everything I've ever read, but sometimes nestled deep inside the pages of the ancient tales, I'd happen upon something that seemed familiar, sort of like an old forgotten friend, yet hidden in the depths of the volumes there were no friends.

Long Ago in South Dakota

On top of the mesa the sun seemed even hotter, with sweat streaming down his face the old priest longed to wipe the dust from his face. It was impossible though with his hands tied behind his back. The rope cut into his old skin and yet he barely felt the pain. He snuck a peek at the three braves that towered over them and asked God for a swift death.

Yesterday he had wandered along the creek, enjoying the sunny morning, he rolled the beads between his fingers as he rambled along. Being lost in thought about the beads, he never noticed the subtle noises in the woods that might have alerted him to the fact that he was being followed. It had happened quickly and efficiently. He was old and they were young, full of the strength that only youth provides, so it had been so easy for them to whisk him away and now he found himself here on this mesa. "What do they want?" he wondered because he offered little in the way of value.

Now one of them untied his hand but immediately wrapped the rope around his waist binding him to the stake that was driven deep into the clay dirt. He wasted no time in using his clenched fists to wipe the sweat and dust from his eyes.  His eyes stung from the salty sweat and with blurred eyes he looked across the mesa top and what he saw made him wonder again, "why am I here?"  The braves danced around him and chanted words he could not understand. They swayed in rhythm to a drum beaten by an ancient man seated in the dirt.

The vision he had seen earlier moved closer to him and lifted a hand. "Was it an angel come to save him?"  He had often wondered if angels were young and beautiful. This one was not. Her face was wrinkled like old leather and she shuffled with age as she moved toward him. With her hand up she silenced the men. "surely it must be an angel because seldom did the redskins listen to a woman." But listen they did when she spoke to them in their native tongue. They looked from her to the man and then one by one they stepped away from him and she drew nearer.

He noticed that despite her age her eyes were clear and crisp. They looked deep into him, seeking something, and he knew not what. Her face, like a dried apple was kindly and he felt no fear of her. For long minutes they locked eyes then she held out her hand to him and he found his own hand reaching toward her. He opened his fist above her palm and let the three red beads slid into her outstretched hand.  In that moment, the two played out something that had been devised long ago, before either had even existed. As was spoken in ancient times, here on this day came into being, that two unlikely souls would cross paths, bringing with them the source of both destruction and salvation.

She looked at the beads and then at him. Her face softened and her eyes took on a distant look as if she was seeing something far beyond the realm of this world. She spoke again to the men and he felt his heart lurch as they rushed toward him. But instead of the sharp swiftness of their knives he felt their hands untie him and he slid exhausted to the ground. They offered him water and he sipped greedily at it, relishing the coolness of it in his throat. Then he felt at peace and he rested.

The Room Above the Shop

I'd finish the tale and I felt my cheeks burning, realizing how foolish I sounded. But it had been real, the terror, the strangeness of the creature, ok man, I needed to stop using that word, "creature" or he was going to cart me off to a mental ward. He just sat staring at me and that made my cheeks burn even more.

Finally he spoke to me, "Fear can makes us imagine things, or at least put more importance to them than is warranted," His voice was husky. My heart sunk. He didn't believe me. But then he continued. "The thing is your description of this guy matches what Trish finally got around to telling me earlier this morning."  I barely breathed but he didn't elaborate.

He thanked me as he left and even though the bed called my name I sat in the chair for a long time before moving. I had done most of the talking but I sensed both acceptance and wariness as I talked. Of course, as far as he knew I could be a mentally unstable woman. On the other hand, perhaps I had been pursued by a killer, human in his mind but undecided in my own. That's what happens when you have a childhood like mine. The barrier between what's possible and what's not becomes blurred. Assaulted by the unknown and unexplainable over and over again I knew that things existed in this world that others couldn't even fathom.  It's something I don't speak of very often. I worried that this situation might be the rare occasion when I must.

Soon I found I couldn't resist the bed any longer and crawling into it I sank into the softness. I drifted to sleep immediately but even in sleep I could not escape. Yellow eyes. In my dreams they followed me everywhere. The dreams were disjointed and unconnected. They flowed through me like a memory yet were nothing I had any recollection of. I felt part of the dream and at the same time a strange sense of watching it unfold washed over me.

I found myself walking in the twilight in woods that were both strange and familiar. I felt small and young and alone. Walking in the woods in my long white nightgown. I twitched with nervousness and noticed my feet were bare.  Yet my bare feet were strong and sure on this tangled path I traveled.  I moved forward silently as if drawn to a strange source of power that I both desired and loathed.

The woods were eerily silent and I looked into the deepening darkness ahead of me. Where was I going I wondered. My heart was beating fast as I took step after step, forward into the unknown. The cool night air caressed my skin, touching me like a lover might, sensuous and alluring. I felt my stomach roll as it played across my skin.

The yellow eyes were there. They were everywhere. Glistening in the air around me. Behind trees, under shrubs, in the tangled overgrown weeds of the forgotten trail. They seemed coordinated, as if following my every move. Menacing. I shivered at the sudden cold, my breath fogging the air in front of my face. It didn't obscure what I saw ahead, there in the woods. With ice cold hands I covered my face and screamed.

I awoke with a start and it took me a moment to realize where I was. Here in a sun filled room in South Dakota.  The bright sun of afternoon streamed through the light curtains but even the warmth of the sunshine couldn't chase away the cold the dream had left with me.

Chapter Seven- Ezra's Story

Four Months Ago.....

The day started out just like any other day. He sat on the side of the bed, trying to open his eyes and get moving. Last night was still a haze of too much beer and fried food. He had settled in a corner booth at the Owl and tried to drink his troubles away. At 41, he was alone again and it ate at him like a hungry wolf on a moon lite night. His wife of 19 years had suffered a long and painful battle with cancer and she had been gone three years now. At times it felt like yesterday and at other times it seemed a lifetime ago. Like something that had happened to another person, in another time.

His hands, rough from work and the dry air pulled his socks on clumsily. While lacing his work boots he decided he would stop for coffee before heading to Lanceton to pick up some parts for the old truck, Jeb Janes wanted repaired. Here in South Dakota people kept everything as long as it worked or even when it didn't. You never knew when you might need a part and someone in possession of any old clunker might offer the perfect solution to the problem.

Work was the last thing on his mind today, on the anniversary of his wife's death, but what else was there to do really. Sit alone in an empty house and nurse a hang over? That appealed to him even less than work. He had loved Cheryl, his high school sweetheart, since he was 15. He had never been happier than when she had agreed to marry him. The most joyous days of his life had been with her but now that joy seemed a distant echo of another time. It vibrated inside him with the emptiness.

He wanted to cry but his dry eyes refused. Sorrow had stolen all of his tears long ago. Now his eyes just burned and itched with pain, reminding him of the spiraling descent of grief.  He had often asked himself why. Why had she been called away from him?  Others lived long lives, others that in his mind deserved less years than his precious Cheryl. His mind told him that it wasn't a choice man got to make but anger at the injustice still lingered. His heart was frozen and he didn't think it would ever thaw.  He shook his head. Sitting here dwelling on it all would change nothing. He had done it enough times to realize it was fruitless. It didn't bring her back and it didn't erase the pain.

In the hallway outside his bedroom door, he stopped for a minute and gazed at the two photos there. Their wedding photo, eyes filled with love and hope and another, a snapshot of her in the back yard, with the wind playing through her hair. She had complained when he had snapped that photo saying she "wasn't ready" but he loved it. It resonated of her playful personality and captured the essence of her spirit. He pulled his eyes away from her lovely face and left the house.

It was still dark. He liked early mornings, with fewer people to bother him and there was just something about the wee morning hours that called to him. He sensed Cheryl's hand on his shoulder, warm and reassuring. He felt a tiny burst of renewed energy and he started his truck, pulled onto the street and headed to the coffee shop.

Once there, he sat in the truck for a few minutes looking down the dark street. The lights inside the shop glistened while darkness engulfed the rest of street.  He knew he was too early. The shop wasn't open yet and so that hot coffee and a pecan cinnamon roll would just have to wait. It was as he sat silent and patient that he heard the first sound. It was tentative. He cocked his head to one side and listened. Scratching. Like a weak dog's paws against the brick side of the building.

He rolled his window down and waited. There it was again. Goosebumps appeared on his arm. He loved dogs and now he worried that one was injured or dying. Just as the thought appeared in his mind, he heard a low guttural whimper. The hair on the back of his neck stood up. The whimper softened. The sound emitted from the dark alleyway that ran along the side of the coffee shop.

He could hear the animal breathing. Short, soft gasps, spaced between the whimpers and scratching. He felt certain the animal was in the throes of death. It sounded so weak. He opened the truck door and stood on the sidewalk peering down the alley.  Taking several steps in the direction of the animal and he heard it sigh softly. His mouth was suddenly dry.

He moved quietly so as not to startle the dog. Scanning the dark ground in front of him all he saw were old newspapers and a broken bottle. The pavement was rough and his feet crunched on the broken fragments under his feet. Then he saw it. The black hunched shape huddled in the corner behind the dumpster. It was a large dog and he paused before proceeding cautiously forward.

About five feet from it, he froze when it rose and charged toward him. It was then he realized his mistake.  This was not dog. Sharp fingers clawed at him and he stumbled backwards. Scrambling to regain his footing he slipped again. He crawled backwards trying to put as much distance between himself and this abomination as possible. With pounding heart he realized all his effort was of little use as he looked up the creature stood over him.

He stared into the deep yellow eyes, feeling as helpless as he had felt beside his wife's death bed. His finger tips stung from clawing at the road, his breathing accelerated and he felt his heart lurching inside his chest. Mucous hung from the creatures open mouth and salvia dropped like rain. The teeth, pointed spikes, glistened in crazy whiteness against the dark sky.  The long tongue slithered from its gaping mouth and darted about, snake like, tasting the air.

He wanted to scream yet his dry mouth uttered nothing. Just as the creature started to bend toward him, he glanced over it's shoulder and there in the darkness a faint light flickered, he thought of Cheryl and her warm embrace. The distant light grew stronger and he felt a sudden peace drift over him. It was at that moment that his heart stopped beating and the creature roared in frustration at the lost soul. Ezra's essence was gone, slipping from this world to the next without warning.

The Evil Minded One tore at his skin, slobbering in frustration. He towered over the body that had contained Ezra's soul and knew that it was lost. He looked over his shoulder, curious, if that's possible in a creature of his age, as old as time itself. What had the man been staring at over his shoulder?  He saw nothing of significance. Just the black sky with a few strands of the dawn caressing the blackness.

Over the years, he had lost the essence of some. Souls that fled his reach before he placed the tiny black bead inside their empty vessel. But none as swiftly and easily as this one had. It confused him. He was growing weak and this was a much needed boost, which he was now denied. He growled deep in his throat. It angered him.

His eyes searched the darkness of the alley for any morsel, although rat or mouse would do little to sate his appetite, it mattered not as there were none. Dawn was coloring the sky a rosy pink now and primal instinct told him to move. Get away from the shell of the man that others called Ezra. He loped out the other end of the alley and into the shrubs that lined the back street.

Inside the coffee shop Trish looked at the front window and saw Ezra's truck, with dread she glanced at the calendar and realized what day it was. This played out every year, a love story with a sad ending. She felt sorry for him. Many a men with wandering eye, tormented their wives for a lifetime but a man with a loyal true heart lost his love so early. Knowing he would be nursing a hangover this morning, she made another pot of coffee, extra strong and placed it on the back warmer.

It hadn't taken long for someone to spot Ezra's body, feet sticking out behind the dumpster. The police, the ambulance and then the coroner all visited the alley. Each dismissed the slightly musky smell that invaded their nostrils as they worked over the body. It was pungent and unlike other death scene smells. They couldn't have identified it even if they had taken a moment to note it.

As they worked their thoughts were on Ezra and his wife. All remembered the harrowing days of the cancer, each knew the heartbreaking ending. Now it seemed the story was complete and Ezra at last was reunited with his precious Cheryl. A few in town shed tears for what might have been but overall they all believed it was in some ways for the best.  Ezra had been incomplete. restless, and distraught feeling little joy in this life. Perhaps he had found his peace at last.

In the meantime, the beast, with empty belly, rested under the dense shrubs, anger and loss resonating inside it. In the days to come after the lost soul; he would play out the moment in his mind, puzzled by the unknown, something of which he seldom encountered. What had the man been looking at over his shoulder and how had he slipped so effortlessly from this world to the unknown?  Most kicked, thrashed about and fought vigorously to stay here in this mundane world of light. How had the soul drifted away so easily? He had existed always and knew much, mostly of darkness, and of need, but this was something new to him and it made him feel slightly weaker.

There was a strange feeling in the pit of his belly, knotted and hard. He remembered the days before his birthing into this world. The heated anger, the desire for revenge, the misplaced blame. This new feeling reminded him of the time he spent hiding in the crevices of the under world. Yet he wasn't in hiding now. He ruled this world, although few knew it. He didn't need validation but he did need to feed.

He waited, in the darkness of the shrubs and knew that he would need to wait some days before another hunt. He had discovered over the years that too many kills in a short period of time brought about scrutnity. People "looking" into the darkness, people wanting to discover him. Prying eyes. Yet as he rested, with empty belly, he plotted his next hunt. He had a trick. He had used it before and he would use it again. It always worked. On the dark deserted roads of the countryside he would find easy prey.

On the morning of Ezra's death, Kane Jasper had woken up in a sweat, heart pounding. He ran a hand through his hair and looked at the clock. The time glowed in the eerily luminous green, 4:52. Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed he sat there, trying to capture whatever had woken him so early. He searched his mind for the dream. Had there been one? Wearily he rubbed his face and thought about Ezra at the Owl last night. He had wanted to speak to him but as he walked toward him there was a strange buzzing sensation, like a TV that had went off channel and whined with static. No one else had seemed to notice as he looked around puzzled. By the time he turned back toward Ezra, he had slipped out the side door and was gone.

So deep in thought was he that it took him a few minutes to hear the tapping sound. Alert, he cocked his head to one side and listened. The tapping was soft but soon became louder, insistent and close. He reached for his pistol on the nightstand and slipped the clip in. Standing barefoot, with only pajama bottoms on, listening, he moved toward the window, It was covered with heavy dark curtains to keep out the hot sun, but it was 4:52 with ebony blackness on the other side. Tentatively he reached for the curtain and slowly pulled it back. Startled he let it fall and jumped back. He almost fired before his mind sorted out what he had saw on the other side of the glass. Laughter bubbled inside him but something else too. Fear? Curiosity? It was a strange and eery sight. Two ravens perched on his window sill pecking at the glass. It was still dark for heaven sakes, strange behavior for birds and even stranger in the predawn hours. As he turned to get dressed, he wondered if it was what had woken him.

South Dakota Long Ago

She couldn't believe she now possessed the beads. The day had started out as any other with a trip to the river. She had watched as the warriors jumped the man that walked there. They had climbed the mesa with the old man and she wondered why he was dressed all in black. The color of darkness, not necessarily the color of evil...blackness is nothing but the night and the night is blessed rest from the blazing sun.  She had watched, it was hot and she did not want to follow but she had. Standing in the blazing sun something had forced her forward.

She was not afraid. She spoke to the braves. She knew them and they knew her. She knew this was a man's world, or so they thought, she smiled now remembering. There were so many things that the young did not understand. But she was old, and as tradition dictated they would listen.

Her eye sight was not as keen as it used to be but she could tell he clenched something in his fist.  Instinctively, she put her had out and he had dropped the beads gently into her out stretched palm. She knew then that he was important. This man from another world than hers; one of land ownership and guns. Who could own the land? Mother Earth was not a pair of moccasins. They had given him water, taken him back along the river and set him free. Although his role here in this story had come to an end, she did not want this man, this man in particular to have his life ended at the hands of the Lakota braves.

Now she set on the dusty rug inside her home and rolled the beads between her fingers. She thought it odd as they felt both cool and hot at the same time. She was glad she had waited for the beads and not "forced" the bracelet into existence with some other beads. These were the right beads, of this she was certain. As she rolled them between her fingers she could feel the energy. She knew they would be strong against that which many could not see.

She had dreamed last night of the world to come. A world where people forgot the old ways and ignored the signs sent to them. Living each day oblivious to what went on around them. Explaining away things, ignoring others and simply living like the prairie dogs, in their burrows, startling at any small sound of possible danger yet at the same time laughing away the notion of danger. Creeping back out of their dens into the blazing light and forgetting, forgetting that danger does exist, that evil does exist and that it always has since the beginning of time.

It made her sad but at the same time she knew it all served a purpose. It protected those that cannot see from knowing the truth. For the truth was not an easy thing to accept. She knew some who saw the truth in their visions and went quite mad from it. She avoided the madness because she knew her role and she planned to play it well. Then she would rest.

Even now at night her soul escaped her worn out, fragile body and floating across the land. Seeing many things. When it had first happened she had been frightened. She was not prepared to die. She felt attached to this life. She loved the feel of the sun, the rough dirt under her feet, laughter and the smiles of the children. Then as it happened again and again, she started to look forward to the freedom, as if she was escaping, soaring high above this world she loved and seeing, but even more so, knowing, so many more things than she ever had before. All of the puzzle pieces slipped easily into place without the cumbersome hold of her body.

She was ready now. Once the bracelet was completed, she would hide it among the rocks under the brilliant sun of South Dakota. She sensed that soon after that task was completed she would leave her body for the final time. She wasn't sure what would happen next but she didn't fear it. She was however, curious. Would she float forever as a guardian over the earth? Where would she be when she no longer returned to her body each dawn? 

Shaking away her questions, she sat on the dusty rug and let her heart fill with love, touching the blanket next to her that her grandmother had woven long ago. She rolled the beads over and over and over again as she chanted protection chants and asked the Great Spirit to immerse himself in her creation, to bless this task she had been sent to do. She felt no doubt but instead a calm resolve settled over her. She picked up the bracelet and started to weave the beads firmly in place.

Chapter Eight-Seeking the Seer

After being here in Sutter three days now, I knew no purpose for lingering but I seemed strangely attached to this town. On a couple of days I  had wandered some of the streets and saw little that would normally interest me. As I walked, somewhere just beneath the surface of consciousness, a strange stirring surfaced, almost a yearning, and it frightened me. It was unlike anything else I had ever encountered, a distant voice calling.

Right now I was sprawled on the bed in the little room above the coffee shop, aimlessly paging through a magazine. It was an old magazine and my eyes barely glanced at the pages. I had slept lightly last night but the dreams had invaded my slumber none the less. Crazy disjointed dreams. In one an old woman had reached out with a bracelet that looked quiet similar to the one I had found, except that it contained three glistening red beads instead of one. Her wrinkled face was gentle and her dark eyes were wise yet while I was drawn to her out stretched hand I was also frightened.

I stretched across the bed to the night stand and picked up the bracelet. It seemed ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. I could clearly see that it was meant to contain more than one bead. Three perhaps. A shiver danced across my spine and I inhaled deeply. How was I connected to this town, to the spiraling death toll, and the old woman in the dream?

I found myself staring at the sun streaming through the window. Dust danced in the bright rays as they fell across the floor of the room. The roughness of the floor caught them in an embrace and then they slowly settled into the grooves of the coarse flooring. Suddenly I couldn't stand the confines of the room and had the urge to revisit the church where I had taken refuge that first night.

I practically burst out the door into the late morning sunshine. I paused for a moment to catch my bearings. I knew that the church was to the left but I wasn't exactly sure of the street, even though Kane had taken me there and asked me to walk through all the details of that night. It was in doing so that I remembered a detail that I had forgotten at first, or perhaps just chose to ignore.

As I had lingered, breathlessly just inside the door of the church, crouched and waiting, the air had suddenly shifted in texture, thicker, suddenly charged with electricity. With this new texture came a smell, faint and pungent at the same time. A smell that caressed the corners of my mind, teasing at memory but unidentifiable. I didn't tell Kane. It seemed so pointless and unbelievable. It wasn't really a detail that would help him find the killer. Perhaps it was simply imagination, adrenal had pumped through me and I had experienced a profound uncanny awareness of the fragile nature of life.

As I walked along the street, I thought of Kane, his rugged good looks and his gentle nature. He was consumed in his pursuit of this evil that had paid a visit to his town. It was so foreign to him yet he didn't stumble in the investigation. There was just too little to go on. I couldn't deny that I found myself attracted to him. It was a de'javu sort of feeling, like a past lover had come back into my life. The past two days I had made it a point to be in the coffee shop early in the morning when he stopped by for his morning java jolt. While he glanced my way frequently, he didn't take the opportunity to sit at my table but rather chose a stool at the counter. He sit brooding over his first cup and then ordered a second to go. He nodded to me as he left and I had felt strangely deflated as he walked out the door.

Suddenly I found myself in front of the church with no conscious memory of the streets I had taken to get there. It was an ordinary church. As I paused on the front steps, the lingering pungent smell of my first visit wafted in the air.  I shook away the imagination conjured in my head..  But still, it drifted through my mind, both strange and familiar.

The front door of the church opened and I realized my odd behavior had attracted some attention. On the top step, a priest stood, gazing down at me with a questioning look. He extended his hand as he spoke, "Can I help you? Would you like to come inside?"

I found myself wordlessly climbing toward him. We entered the quiet dim foyer and as the door clicked shut behind me, I felt terror clawing at my insides. He evidently knew me and my story, perhaps from Kane?  I found myself seated in the front pew with him as he listened to a second retelling of that first night. He smiled when I spoke of feeling that the church had saved me from something dark and evil. He frowned when I included the part about the charged air and the odd smell. I'm not sure why I told him that. I had not told Kane for fear of sounding foolish but there was something so comforting about the priest.

He tilted his head to one side and asked that I close my eyes and try to describe the air and the smell. My voice sounded strange to my ears.

"The air was heavier somehow, like it was charged with electricity, sort of like the air before a severe thunderstorm but even more so, unlike any storm I've ever know. I almost felt like I could scoop the air into my hand and hold it. The smell, the smell, I can't identify it....pungent, like burnt air?  Like the ashes from a raging fire. For some reason, a crematorium comes to mind...."

I shivered as I opened my eyes and shook myself back into the present but when I looked at the Father I didn't feel reassurance, instead I sensed a horror in him. He shook his head to as if deny whatever thoughts were cascading through his mind. He looked into my eyes, wondering, and as he did so I stared back into his eyes and caught a glimpse of some unspoken fear.

"I know this might seem a bit strange but I suggest we make a visit to a woman I know. I've known her all my life and I think she may be interested to hear this tale. In fact, she may have a story to tell us that will bear upon our situation. I'll get in touch with her and set something up. Hmmm...I want Kane with us. He needs to hear this too; though he will be filled with doubt."

As I was walking back to the coffee shop I had time to ponder the priests words and felt intrigued. He appeared to have some ideas about the killer and he doubted Kane would consider them. I took a deep breath and realized that I felt a sense of calm that was surreal under the circumstances. I'd always been like that...taking action felt good, doing something after all was always better than doing nothing. I didn't believe that destiny chose us but that we chose destiny. Although I didn't know it at the time, this belief would be challenged, perhaps even discarded in the coming days.

It was late the next morning when the knock on my door startled me out of my daydream and I ran a reckless hand through my hair as I opened the door. I had paced for hours around the small room the previous afternoon, the room getting smaller by the minute and my impatience growing larger with each step. Tossing and turning I had made it through the night, waking frequently, wondering when we were going to go see Father Tamono's friend. The answer stood outside my door.

Kane practically pushed his way inside the room and his dark scowl and angry eyes raked over me.
"Exactly what did you tell Father that you some how neglected to tell me?" he snarled.

I reached out to touch his shoulder but he pulled away. I felt lost and betrayed by his moodiness. This wasn't about me after all and he was acting like a spoiled child. It was true I hadn't told him of the air and the smell but I was convinced that once I did he would look at me in disbelief, perhaps even ridicule my memory.

I sat down on the edge of the bed but he remained standing, towering over me. "I had forgotten it, " I started out hesitantly and then realized that any dishonesty would be revealed to him through some unnatural sensory perception that he seemed to possess, so I began again.

"Ok, I didn't really forget it but it seemed so foolish and I figured it was just me, my imagination, fueled by my own fear. I told Father Tamono exactly what I went over with you, except for the part about the air."

He still stood scowling above me but now he dropped onto the bed  beside me and prompted me to continue. Evidently Father Tamono hadn't told him what I said, so what had alerted him to the fact that there was a tiny sliver more?

"When I was inside the church the air seemed to change as the beast, aww man whatever he is, stood outside."

I felt the tension ease from his body as he sat there silent and waiting.

"The air was like heavy, charged with an energy that I can't explain. There was a smell, odd yet familiar, like ... ".ashes" or something just burned."

He didn't say anything. He didn't scoff, he didn't laugh, believing or not believing it, he just sat there beside me. As strange as it seemed under the circumstances I drew a strange comfort from his closeness. When he spoke, his words startled me. "Let's go, we are picking up Father Tamono at the church in 20 minutes."  Then without another word he got up and walked out the door, leaving it open behind him.

An hour later I found myself in the pick up between the two of them, bouncing along a dusty gravel road, so far from town I wasn't sure I'd be able to find my way back if I had to. I looked out at the landscape, Dirt and shrubs and red rock. It scrolled by in an endless panoramic view, each section the same and yet different. Obviously this "friend" lived "off the grid." as people say now days. As I listened to the brief exchange between the two men, I could sense their deep love of this woman and a bubble of jealousy formed inside me.

I could tell by their actions that they were well known to each other. Now that comfortable silence that exists between two people that have traveled a lot of life's path together cradled them. As I was looking out the window for the hundredth time, across the seemingly endless landscape, I spotted two ravens, a few hundred yards from the road, flying diagonally beside us as if their destination was the same as ours. I turned to say something to Kane but then decided I didn't need to sound any crazier than I already did, so I kept silent. When I turned back around I noticed Father Tamono was looking at me with his alert dark eyes. He gave no indication that he had observed the birds but something about his gaze sent a shiver up my spine.

Another full hour later we pulled off the main road, dust billowed behind as we bumped along the  narrow, rutted lane. Around a sharp corner at the end of the lane a smallish house came into view. It was rugged and simple, yet along the railing of the small front porch, carefully tended plants grew in multicolored pots, a braided rug welcomed visitors. She wasn't expecting us, Father Tamonos said she didn't have a phone. I didn't use my phone that much but I couldn't imagine being this cut off from civilization. I was puzzled as we just sat in the truck, with the windows up it quickly grew hot and sticky inside the cab.

Just when I thought I couldn't bear the heat a second longer, the door of the house opened and an ancient woman stepped out onto the porch, shielding her eyes from the sun she gazed at us, then waved her hand in greeting. Only then did we exit and walk toward the house. It was evident that she knew Kane and Father Tamono well, but her eyes pieced me as if seeking answers to a questions yet unspoken.  

Leading us into the house, she fluffed a few pillows on the overstuffed chairs and eased herself down while extending her hand and indicating the sofa and the other chair were for us. Her hair, once was black but now it was almost completely grey, pulled back in a bun on the back of her head, which she smoothed with wrinkled hands. She was of Native American descent, that was obvious. We spent the first few minutes with pleasantries as she "caught up" with Kane and Father Tamono. Soon after that though she turned herself toward me and said,

"So she's the one?" I felt an odd tingling resonating throughout my body and I shivered dispite the hot day. I felt Kane stiffen on the coach next to me and Father Tamono leaned forward in his chair.

"Let's start at the beginning." he said. I felt like I was caught in the middle of a story that had started well before my arrival and was already reaching it's climax. But before the woman had a word to say he explained a little about the three of them and how they came to know each other.

"When Kane and I were younger,  Shappa watched over us during the long summer months when our parents worked. Sometimes in town but many weeks we spent here with her, digging in the dirt, setting traps for rabbits, and cooling off in a stream just south of here.  Shappa is a great story collector and through the years she told us many stories, handed down to her. Some still cover us like a warm blanket on a frigid night but others are lost in the dark recesses of our minds, better hidden away there because to bring them into the light is too frightening. It is for just such a tale that I brought you to hear."

Kane shifted restlessly beside me. Shappa shifted her dark alert eyes toward him, pinning him with her gaze.

"Oh yea who shrug away the sica in the legends, have come to see the ending none the less."
she said in a surprisingly gentle voice. He settled in to the sofa and I did the same. We all three waited for her to begin.

"This is a story handed down through the years. It came to me from my own mother and as I have no children I had no one to pass it to. I gave it to the boys. It is a story of the end of times, of darkness and light, of the ignorance of modern man, clinging only to logic and science, the threat to mankind is ignored and the world we know is ravaged and gutted, left empty. Kane, in his mind, does not accept there is sica, evil as you speak in your tongue, but Tamono, even though he prays to Great Spirit under a different name, he accepts evil, for without the darkness where is the light?"

No one else spoke, in fact I wasn't sure the two men were even breathing and I felt like my own breathing was suspended, waiting.  It sounded like a tale for the movies, but at the same time I was drawn to it. Expectant.

"Long ago, at a time when life was changing here. Yet a time when the old ways were still practiced, still honored and still believed. It was my grandmother who lived the story, as she played out the destiny of her vision, well my grandmother with so many "greats" before her name that I have lost count. It was very long ago.

In those days the men of our tribe were the ones who sought the vision quests, not the women, but sometimes the vision quests were the ones that did the seeking, finding just the right person to reveal their message to. My unci was a vibrant woman, and wise beyond most of what Mitakuye oyas'in, all my relatives, could comprehend. Back in those days "being different" wasn't as much of a stigma as it is now. No one thought a person crazy if they spoke of voices and visions and soaring outside their bodies during the blackest of nights. Even the waphive wichasha or what you call a medicine man respected her, perhaps feared her also.

From the beginning, in the days when her hair was dark and her skin was smooth, she had a vision of a great ozuye or war. This war would bring much destruction and the world would lay black and desolate. She also saw the Tho'ka , the enemy, the evil one, that would begin this descent. But as the years passed and nothing from the vision came into being, she begin to believe that this world she had dreamed, nay not dreamed, but walked into would not come to pass.

Then the dreams begin. It was in the dreams that she first saw the bracelet."

A sudden buzzing vibrated inside my head, like electricity flowing through a line with a short. It tingled along the synapses of my mind and then disappeared as suddenly as it had started. I must have reacted in some small unbeknownst way because I felt Kane tense beside me and Father Tamono was looking at me with his dark brooding eyes. I shook my head, didn't say a word and leaned forward to hear the tale Shappa was weaving, as clearly as the tapestries that hung on her walls.

"In these dreams she watched her old withered hands weave a bracelet, a bracelet of strong, rough threads. she knew from her wrinkled hands that this was yet to come. She knew not when or how she would weave this bracelet but she felt a power vibrate through the dream world that she found herself in and a great sense of calm settled over her.

The dreams did not come often but as she grew in years they became more frequent until they were happening almost every night. Also as the years passed she was visited often by the ravens, so often in fact, that people started calling her, "kagi taka huku", Raven Mother. Her body grew frail and she suddenly felt quite anxious to complete this task set out before her.  She had taken the threads from a warriors clothing but she knew not where to find the three beads"

Again the buzzing shot through me and I jerked forward slightly like a marionette on wobbly strings.
My mouth was dry and I struggled to swallow but still I remained silent.

"Then one day she noticed some braves parading a white man dressed in black along the creek and into the hot morning sun. She felt drawn to follow them and as they stood on the mesa she noticed his clenched fist. Without knowing why she raised her hand to stop the braves taunts and she walked quietly forward, extending her hand to this man dressed in the colors of the night. Without a word he dropped three perfect glistening ruby red beads into her outstretched palm."

I gasped as I felt the tingling, like a kalediscope exploding inside my head. Kane jumped up and brought me water and Father Tamono put his hand on my back, eyes wary but also filled with concern. Both of the men looked at me with questioning eyes, but Shappa simply glanced my way, unperturbed by my outburst.

"So she had the beads and she had the thread for the twine. It only took her a short while to weave the bracelet and hide it beneath some rough rocks in the red dust of the land. That night she floated away with the Great Spirit. When she made footprints on this earth it was unclear what meaning the bracelet had in the vision. The role of the bracelet was hidden from her, visible only in the misty memories of her dreams. She only knew that it was needed or the world would cease to be"

She fell silent and we all just sit in silence. I was confused. How did this tale help us find the murderer. Why did the men think my story of the beast that chased me led to this old woman?  A mismatched puzzle with pieces from different scenes assaulted my thinking but no matter how much I tried to squeeze the pieces together they just didn't fit.

"Shappa you left out some." Kane chastened her. "Is your memory failing you?" He teased.

She rocked in her chair, quiet and reflective, then she spoke. "Oh yes, that brings us to the reason for your visit today." She turned to me, "Tell me about the night the Evil One chased you into the church."

And so again I found myself reliving the night and it soon became clear that with each retelling my senses were more alert, more "in tune" with the events that unfolded .  When I came to the part about the thickness of the air and the cloying smell of burnt flesh, it shocked me that I described it as such. Yet it didn't seem to shock Shappa. She simply nodded and sat back in her chair.

"It is as it was foretold." she said and closed her eyes. We sat in silence for a long time then Father Tamono took up the tale.

"You see we think it was my great great great, or maybe like Shappa said, too many greats to count, uncle that is the priest in the tale. I did some ancestor research and confirmed that I did have an uncle who was a priest, coming to minster in the rugged west territories before eventually disappearing. So as strange as it seems, all these years later, Shappa and I are linked in this vision." 

He said this in almost an apologetic tone, as if even he could scarcely believe that he so easily slipped into believing this far fetched ancient story. I sat silent. Then Kane spoke,

"Shappa forgot to speak of the air and the smell. As the story goes, the Evil One charges the air somehow, maybe at times, subtly, in such microscopic ways as to not even be perceived consciously. There's a smell spoke of too, a smell of brunt flesh."

It was beginning to make a bit more sense, not that I believed any of it. As I've said before, I'm open to many things others scoff at but this tale was stretching even my tolerance for the strange and disturbing. Yet on another level I felt a tiny drop of dread, forming like a bubble inside me. If you don't believe, there's nothing to dread, so why was that bubble lodged inside me?

No one else spoke, they just waited for me. It was so quiet I could hear the distant cawing of some ravens, the wind brushing the walls and the incessant ticking of an old mantle clock. Remembered moments swirled in and out of my mind, jerky, images in an ancient slide show. I reached into my pocket with a clenched hand. When I brought it out, I extended my arm toward Shappa, opening my fist. Nestled on the surface of my palm was a woven twine bracelet, not three red beads, only one. The cawing of the ravens grew distant as we all just stared at it.

Chapter Nine-Legends, Folklore and Truth

Shappa had insisted we have something to eat and so we settled in for a brief period of time, sipping tea and nibbling, not mentioning the strange events we had come to discuss, letting go of the call of the story. After a few hours we had climbed back into the dusty truck, bone tired and unsure of what to do. No one spoke on the trip back into town, there was little to say, how does one fight ancient monsters?

Surprisingly I slept soundly, dreamless and calm but when the morning sun streaked my room with it's amber glow, I lay silently with my mind twisting and turning. I'm a girl of action, however none of us had a plan or even the tiny inkling of a plan. This story was woven of folklore, bits and pieces of remembered dreams, embellished and perhaps colored over time. I wanted to dismiss it and move back into reality yet at the same time the tiny pieces fit together snuggly. I needed answers, well if not answers, at least more information which is why I threw back the covers, letting my feet hit the floor, and with grainy eyes I headed to the bathroom. I stood briefly, staring at myself in the mirror and had the most uncanny feeling that a stranger was looking back at me. This trip was about finding me, myself, not becoming entangled in this strange saga.

However, a couple hours later, I had located the small town library and sat on the steps waiting for it to open. It was a shiny new building in a town full of decrepit brick buildings. With concrete steps and two small statues on either side of the walkway, a tribute to both the past and the future of Sutter. My eyes drifted along the buildings on the other side of the narrow street, counting the windows, observing the thick wooden doors, letting my mind consider the duality of Sutter, a town caught in the web of the past, with a calling for the future.

I didn't have to wait long, a small women scurried along the sidewalk, her head down as if she wasn't quite ready to meet the bright sunlight of the morning. Her hair was wispy, slightly gray, her face almost hidden from sight was still clearly not old and wizen yet she seemed weary. She came up the steps slowly, almost dejected, pausing as if surprised to find me sitting quietly. With just a brief nod in my direction she headed to the door and I guess I imagined that she stood up just a bit taller after our encounter. I watched as she slid a key card through the slot on the door, green lights blinked and she pulled the door open. Amazed I followed her into the entry way of the building. 

The inside of the library was dim, the windows high up on the walls were in need of a good cleaning and only allowed in about half of the sunlight. I thought that perhaps she preferred it that way. She didn't look like the sort that revealed basking in the sun. She also didn't appear to be a welcoming sort either.

It was only once we were further inside, close to the circulation desk, that she spoke and it was crisp, short and not so sweet, as if she didn't want to be bothered.  "May I help you?"

I keep it brief also, not a morning person myself, I like few words before 10:00. "Section on Native American folklore?"

She nodded towards the back of the dim room, "On the back wall to the left." Then she turned without any further inquiries and disappeared into the small office behind the main desk. I could see her through the window gingerly placing her purse in the bottom drawer of a file cabinet. She turned, looking at me intently, our eyes locked, something silent passed between us, electric and defining, but I couldn't quite grasp it or the meaning of it before she ducked her head again and pretended to move some papers around on the desk.

I lingered there briefly, considering, only for a few seconds though, as I was already lost in thought, wondering what types of stories I would find hidden in the pages of books, some real, some imagined and perhaps some a combination of both. I didn't really expect to find answers, nothings ever that easy, but perhaps by examining the past I might find a clue to the present. I wasn't completely buying the tale Shappa had woven but I couldn't really dismiss it either. There were too many tantalizing portions that whetted the appetite and gave rise to even a deeper hunger.

The plush clean carpet padded my footsteps and left it eerily silent as I moved deeper into the dim corner of the library. I wondered if the library was brand new or if few feet tread here. The internet had overtaken the era of the printed word but with such spotty connections in Sutter perhaps it still served a role that just didn't show up on the thick carpet or in the librarian's voice.

The section was larger than I had anticipated, but there were no shiny new volumes nestled on the shelves, these were old books, they had sat on the shelf undisturbed for a long time, not feeling the air of circulation, not taking a ride on the re-shelving cart, faded covers and yellowed pages that were a bit brittle made it clear few came here seeking answers. I ran my finger along the spines of the top row and pulled out a couple volumes that seemed promising. I moved to the second and third shelves doing the same. At the last moment I selected a slender green book that was pushed back on the shelf, almost out of view behind two thicker books.

Sitting at the tiny round table, I flipped through the first volume. Words caught my eye, here and there. visions, foretelling, spirits of the dead. None of these even seemed remotely linked to the story Shappa had told. Was it never spoken about freely? Did no one ever mention a creature sent to destroy mankind? I had been through almost every book I had pulled from the shelf until a faded green volume caused me to linger longer than the others.

It was thin volume, Creatures of Native American Folklore, barely 70 pages. I flipped the pages, reading snippets here and there, stories of creation, redemption, and evil. Every few pages were pen and pencil sketches, depicting the creatures of the stories. Stories told around the campfires while snuggled inside the warm rugs woven with loving hands. I smiled, reminded of the boogie man stories prevalent throughout childhood. "Don't look under the bed" stories meant to remind children to stay put once they had settled down for the night.

Most of the creatures combine both animal and human features. None looked like my memories of the one who had stalked me. I turned another page and froze. There staring at me from the yellowed page was a man like creature, short and stout, talons protruded from his finger tips. At his feet were small, round black grains of sand.

There was but a short paragraph telling of the evil minded one. Twin brother of the Great Spirit, bringer of life and his brother, the polar opposite, destroyer of worlds. I paused for a minute pondering the picture, the grains of sand were larger, so maybe, rocks on the ground by his feet? Something nagged at my mind, tempting me to follow the trail but I brushed it away anxious to find out more about this creature, destroyer of worlds.

After two more hours all I had to show for my efforts was frustration. Sure I'd read about plenty of other monsters. Winyan Nupa, or two faced seemed promising at first. This monster, according to legend, looks very human like except for it has a second face on the back of its head. I considered him because of his human like characteristics. He murders, mutilates and kidnaps, so not your average monster, true. But no where did it mention destroying world. I jotted the name in my small notebook anyway.

In the pages, I found other names to consider, although none particularly resonated with me. The Iroquois spoke of the twin gods, one born good and the other evil. The story caused a twinge in the dark recesses of my brain and so I added it to the list of possibilities.

In the story the twins represent good and evil. In short the good twin was born normally while the bad erupted from the mothers womb, killing her and bringing all sorts of destructive things into the world. However, as so often is the case, good triumphs over evil and the good brother prevails, imprisoning the evil minded one underground. So it's not like he could exactly be here in the world wrecking havoc.

The only real reference to Destroyer of Worlds, pertained to the Trickster, and he was an illusive mythological character at best. Sometimes one beast, sometimes another, sometimes malicious and at other times helpful. He is a god, yet he is not. He is of this world and yet not of this world, he lives inside and outside of time so the law of our world do not often apply to him. Through his destruction he points out flaws in the world, and he breaks the rules of god and nature.

My head ached, I pulled out my phone to check the time and realized not only had I skipped breakfast but I'd also missed lunch. I carefully placed the books back on the shelf, although I doubted anyone would really notice and slipped the notebook into my bag.  The sun slanted through the high windows, causing the dust to be visible as it danced through the air. It was then I felt her eyes on me. The librarian was gazing quite unabashed directly at me, seemed to be puzzling over something, and then ducked her head as I headed toward her. My hand was on the door knob to leave when I heard her words, louder than they should have been in the deathly quiet of the library.

"Have you seen him?"

I turned and looked her way, wondering if my mind was playing tricks on me. She seemed to be looking down at the circulation desk, unaware of my departure.

"Excuse me?" I croaked, taking a few steps toward her. "Were you talking to me?"

She looked up and our eyes met again with a sharp electric connection. My head hurt again, a sharp pain shot though it. I gritted my teeth, waiting for it to pass, and then I waited for her response.

"Have you seen him? The Evil Minded One?"

I let my hand drop from the door knob and stood looking across the vast room at her. Small and weary, almost gray, she stood with challenging eyes directed at me. How in the world did she know I had been concentrating on that, its not a particularly common turn of words, not a phrase that would be used daily or even weekly. Suddenly the pain shot through my head again, this time it brought me to my knees and just before I passed out, I saw her small bird-like figure dart across the room to gently ease me onto the floor.

The first thing I was aware of was the cool wetness on my forehead but gradually my mind climbed from the depths it had been banished to and I opened my eyes, slightly out of focus. She had placed a small throw pillow under my head and was sitting quietly next to me. I started to sit up but she admonished me.

"No, no, please just rest for a bit."  It wasn't her hand on my shoulder but her quivering voice that forced me back down. I took a deep breath and just lay quietly looking at the ceiling.  I was startled to hear her voice again.

"You are the one." she said and a shiver ran through me as I considered whether she was a bit unhinged.  It was then I slid my phone out of my pocket and with trembling fingers punched in Kane's number. He answered on the first rang. I slipped back into the darkness after asking him to come to the library. I wasn't sure he heard me, my voice a mere whisper, but as the phone slid from my hand I felt her hand gently catch it. Somewhere in the distant darkness I heard murmured words.

The next time I opened my eyes, I was looking into Kane's concerned eyes. The dark probing eyes almost consumed me and I wasn't sure if my difficulty in swallowing was from my fainting spell or from losing myself in them.

His hand felt hot against my cool arm as he helped me sit up. The librarian was hovering over by the circulation desk, a frightened bird, waiting to be told what to do. Kane frowned and then almost smiled, as if he was confused and didn't know exactly what to think of me at the moment. I felt shaky so I leaned back against him, when I felt his hard, warm chest, I thought perhaps I shouldn't have. Tingling coursed through me and I was pretty sure it wasn't from my dizzy spell. Just when I was thinking I'd stay here forever, he pulled away.

It was then I noticed the librarian, who I would later learn was named Dottie was nervously standing nearby. I had been so engrossed in my thoughts about Kane that I hadn't even heard her little bird feet.

"What did you mean? "I am the one." I managed to croak out while disengaging myself.

Her eyes darted to Kane and then back to me. He frowned but nodded at her.

"The bearer of the beads." she said as if it was obvious, which it most certainly wasn't. Then she continued, "the one that bears the beads is challenged to over turn the Evil Minded Ones grip on this world."

It sounded so ridiculous that I almost laughed but then I felt a tightness in my chest,  a tight cold fist squeezing my heart, an invisible grip that cause my mind to swirl again.

Kane's voice brought me back to the present as he asked her what she knew of  Native American Legends, to which she was quite quick to inform him that her dissertation had involved all manner of legend, but focused primarily of the duality of good and evil.

"We need Father Tamono" was his only response and then he was gone and I was left sitting on the cold hard floor gazing after him. After a few minutes, I let Dottie lead me into her cramped office behind the circulation desk. As if by silent agreement, we just sat without speaking.

It wasn't a long wait. The two men walked into the library, flipped the sign to closed and came directly to the office. With very little prodding, Dottie started to tell the story of the Evil Minded One.

"The Evil Minded One is the opposite of the Creator or Great Spirit. Some stories say they were brothers, others even twins. The stories morphed through the years and it is hard to tell where and when the oral versions were changed. Very little was written about him. The Creator yes, but the Destroyer, no.

The Evil Minded One was said to be banished to the under world but there are versions of the legend that suggest, he will return to walk among us. He is a collector of souls. He will wreck havoc on the world and because we do not see he will rob the world of its vitality."

Father Tamono interrupted: "It is a classic tale of good and evil much as what we have in any religion."

Dottie nodded and continued,  "It is true the dual nature of good and evil is played out often in the myths, legends and stories of most cultures. In a sense this is about becoming and unbecoming. Good is about "becoming" or climbing higher in our spiritual awareness and fulfilling our destiny while evil is about deconstructing or "unbecoming". Slowly chipping away at individuals until only their most primitive and base instincts remain."

"How does he do what he does?" asked Kane "Is killing his victims enough or is there more?"

"That is where the beads come in" she continued, after a quick, almost fearful glance my direction.
The souls are collected with black onyx beads." As soon as she said it, I felt Kane jerk and lean forward, he didn't speak so she continued. "According to the legends, he has to place the bead inside the mouth to collect the soul, however there is only a short amount of time to do so. Wait too long and the soul slips away from the body, too quickly and the stronger essence created in the final moments of life is lost. Also according to legend, there is a chosen one or actually ones, different times, different places, who can defeat him with a different set of beads. Rubies, small and glistening, filled with power from holy water."

Once again I felt my hand slip into my pocket and bring out the braided bracelet with the single red bead. It felt at home in the palm of my hand, arm out stretched. Dottie gasped and this time, it was she who crumpled to the floor.

Chapter Ten-The Old Woman and the Collector of Souls

A long time ago in South Dakota....

The Old Woman

The old woman wandered along the dusty road, although truthfully it was more path than road, the sun burned her back, throat parched, she noticed a small pool of water just to the right. Hovering over the murky water she wondered whether it was safe to drink but at the moment she was so thirsty that she really didn't even care. Die of thirst or die from poisoned water. Dead is dead she thought. Kneeling she cupped her hand and brought the warm, almost hot, liquid to her mouth. She swallowed it gratefully and closed her eyes briefly. It was when she opened them that she noticed the small piece of twine sticking out from under the large flat rock to the left of the puddle.

Frowning she tugged at it. It was stuck fast. Using her fingers as shovels she clawed at the dirt around the edge of the rock. When that seemed fruitless she pried at the rock itself. It gave way with a sucking sound like some ancient creature partaking of a fresh kill and shivers went up her spine. She shook her head, for she had imagined screams and gnashing teeth and even in the blazing sun she felt a sudden chill.

With the rock up it was much easier to dig at the twine. She didn't even know why she bothered to, just a tiny bit of rotten twine. She felt a slight shadow fall across the ground in front of her and startled she looked up. Circling in the sky above her she could see two ebony ravens. Flying together in ever widening circles. As she watched their flight, she tugged at the twine and with a pop it broke loose from the ground. She gasped.

It wasn't just a piece of twine. It was a bracelet, with lovely red beads. Three of them woven quite tightly into the design and even caked with dirt they glistened in the sunshine. She turned it over into the palm of her hand, listening to the cawing of the ravens. The beads felt strangely warm against her skin but oddly comforting.

She had felt lost and alone for these past six months, the death of her husband had rattled her. She had not expected to lose him and most certainly not in a wolf attack. As was the custom, she had insisted on seeing his lifeless body, only afterward realizing that she would be haunted by the image of his ragged ripped throat.  The wolves had been busy in the cold winter months. The village had lost three others besides her Robert. There were superstitious whispers that had continued into the summer. Whispers of evil, the stench of a creature, and some even set guards at the doors to their homes. She didn't believe in this nonsense and yet she woke often during the night, filled with dread and foreboding. Drenched in sweat she stared into the darkness at night and felt a presence. Not something she recognized but rather something she could not identify.

She had even tossed the stones into the circle a few times, like her grandmother had taught her, but they only proved to worry her more. Falling in patterns that warned of chaos, disorder, and perhaps even death. She hadn't tossed the stones in ages until this had all started. She wasn't as versed in them as grandmother had been, she ached from missing her grandmother, gone twenty years now.

She cleaned the bracelet as best she could with her dry and wrinkled hands and wandered back to the road. The ravens flew high above her as she trudged toward home. She put her hand in her pocket to feel the bracelet and her fingers tingled at the touch. It was a long trip to the cabin and when she was almost there, a tingling sensation began, the hairs standing up on the back of her neck. She jerked to the left but the small band of trees prevented her from seeing clearly. Did something lurk there?  Was she being followed? She shook her head at her own nonsense yet quickened her pace. Once inside the cabin she dropped the rough wooden board in place to bar the door.

The cabin was suffocating, only a tiny amount of air drifted in though the tiny windows and even with that the hot summer air created few breezes. She opted to eat left over meat and beans from yesterday without bothering to heat them. She dreaded adding any more heat to the hot July mix. She sat down in the large overstuffed chair that she had bartered for some five years ago, It was a sight with lumpy stuffing and faded fabric but it was the most comfortable chair she had ever had the pleasure to sit in. She missed Robert and floated through most days without a real sense of direction. She closed her eyes briefly and drifted into the nightmare.

She found herself along the road just as she had been earlier, except it was closer to dusk and the night noises surrounded her. She shivered, for the evening air felt alive with something. An essence, that coated the impending darkness with a cloying smell, like burnt flesh. It clung to her and her feet moved faster without any thought of doing so.

The trees to the left, swayed and rustled although she felt no caress of a breeze on her skin. She felt instead like a thousand ants were crawling across her skin. She peered into the dim landscape under the trees, unknowing that eyes stared back. Old eyes, ancient eyes, they were hunting, they were challenging.

Finding herself mesmerized by the sensations that pulsed in the air, she reached into her pocket and pulled out the bracelet. The three red beads gleamed, filled with a light that radiated from inside the beads themselves. At first she was confused and looked around for a fire or other source that might be reflected in the beads. Finding none she twirled the beads with her fingers and watched the light dancing inside them.  In doing so, one of the beads broke loose from the woven twine and she clasped it between her fingers to keep it from dropping to the ground.

She had become so enchanted with the dancing light of the beads that she had forgotten her fear of the trees. She gasped as she turned toward the tree line. Standing near the edge of the road was a form, dark and foreboding. Manlike but yet with arms that hung much longer than they should and a humped back accentuated the effect even more. She started to speak but stopped as he raised his head. Eyes, yellow and inhuman, peered at her and he took a step in her direction.

When she should have been quite terrified, she suddenly became calm. Reassuring feelings rushed through her and she stuffed the bracelet into her pocket while keeping the single bead in hand. He came at her swiftly and like a bubble floating through a summer sky she instantly knew that he meant to have her, have her soul, and only then did she tremble in fear. The light inside the red bead glistened even brighter.

His talon fingers grasped at her and she fought back. Scratched and bleeding she shoved at him. In his hand he held a black bead which he kept shoving at her face. She thought at first he meant to blind her with it but then he pushed it between her lips. The red bead hummed with light and she shoved it at him. He glared at it for a moment but did not relent. She spit the bead out and he hesitated. She tried to force the red bead into his mouth but encountered yellowed, broken teeth. She tried again but he slashed at her with his fingers and blood flowed forth from her neck.

She felt weak and slid to the ground. He roared, searching the ground, and she realized he was looking for his black bead. She almost smiled, knowing he wouldn't find it for she could feel the hardness of it underneath her shoulder, hidden from sight. His image slipped from her eyesight as the ground turned red with blood around her but she could hear his roar of frustration as she passed from this realm to the next. He clawed at the ground in anger. The small red bead rolled from her fingers into the dry grass beside the road.

Shaking, she awoke covered in sweat. Waves of the dream vibrated through her, crashing on the shore of her soul, threatening to capsize her mind. It had felt so real and she knew the dark sensations of the dream were meant as a warning. While she had never had a vision, her grandmother had, they were almost never good, instead warning of trials and tribulations. Forerunners of life changing moments crystallized into visions they were messages of what was to come.

She looked at the bracelet, laying innocently on the table beside the chair, and wished for a moment that she had never dug it out of the crusted dirt. She scoffed at her foolish thoughts. Ignoring something didn't change it.  It simply made you less prepared. None the less, before she tucked herself into bed for the night, she barred not only the door but the small windows, going to bed in the suffocating heat of the cabin.

She slept dreamless through the darkest hours of the night and felt calmer upon arising. She was a strong woman, alone in this life now, but none the less very capable of handling what life chose to throw at her. Had she known that three days hence the dream would become reality she would not have been as cheerful as she sat down to breakfast.

The Collector of Souls 

Tired and hungry, he rested his head against the moss covered stump, he felt a strange stirring inside, a yearning, perhaps for the old ways. But the ways were different here in this time, in this world, full of light and burning heat. He felt at times like he stood too close to a blazing fire and although he had grown accustom to it, he never truly accepted it. It felt foreign, and confusing, and it leaked into his mind causing anguish.

He was a collector, a collector of souls and he didn't even know the word. Soul. To him it was simply an essence that he craved, that he needed to exist. Exist was the primary goal and he achieved in by feeding, feeding on the essence of these creatures. Be it rabbit, wolf, or human he could use it, but consuming the human essence was a powerful elixir, one that could sustain him for many days, unlike the smaller species.

When he had first arrived here in the world of light, he had consumed things randomly, frequently missing the tender morsel of the human soul, like a fine wine, most fragrant and luscious at its peak. With practice he had fine tuned the process using the old ways, specialized the process to the level of being able to bottle up the luscious essence and preserve it for future use. His only frustration was that he seldom had the option of retrieving the onyx bead, too often he was so famished that he gobbled the essence rather than allow the bead to leach it from the vessel that contained it.

He seldom thought, he mostly just acted from primal need and allowed his rage to flow from him at times. He had become an outcast in a world he did not want and could not understand. But today he had sensed her again as she walked along the dirt road and it filled him, pulsed through him, caused him to ache. Who she was mattered not, the longing to gorge on her soul was so intense he had almost acted today, even as the sun still hung in the sky. The urge to destroy her coursed through him, tingling and tantalizing.

It felt different somehow from his normal hunger. It gnawed at him in desperation and he shivered in the heat of the day. He shivered?  Although he seldom thought, rather acted only from a need, this shivering caught him off guard. He didn't shiver. This was an anomaly. It pulsed through him. He tilted his head to one side and studied the landscape around him. Perhaps it would be best to move on. He had fed here for months now and the humans were talking, superstitious and guarded. Each new kill drew more attention than the last. It was the height of summer now and starving wolves would no longer explain the kills. He felt the urge to move on and yet the woman...she drew him, seduced him with her essence and in the end he stayed.

Three Days Hence

She was at the well, two buckets in hand, gathering twice what she normally did on a trip here because she so dreaded these woods she used to love. They shimmered with dark shadows and sounds that teased just outside her hearing. She wondered if they sighed a warning. For some reason, she felt compelled to keep the bracelet with her always. She had not seen it glow as it had in the vision but she did not doubt that it could. She knew there were stranger things of this world than one might ever encounter in their own lifetime.  She glanced skyward and sure enough there were the two ravens. They seemed to follow her and had since the discovery of the bracelet. She was sure it meant something but she had no inkling of what it might be,

She thought often of the dream, nightmare really, with a foreboding sense of destiny. She had played it through in her mind so many times. She thought about ways to change the outcome, to somehow avoid the beast or at least outsmart him. Perhaps a little more force might slip the strange red bead inside his mouth?  Should she even fight or should she run when the encounter occurred?  She no longer questioned whether it would happen, only when. Was the dream destiny or a warning?

Carefully balancing the buckets she trudged toward the cabin, thankful that today was overcast and a bit cooler. She only walked for a short time, before sitting the buckets on the ground and reaching into her apron pocket for the bracelet. It felt strangely warm and sure enough when she looked at it she imagined a small glow of red light inside each bead, She smiled at her foolishness, shaking her head, but when she looked again the light inside the beads seemed stronger, blazing in the center of each bead.

Quickly she looked around her but noticed nothing amiss. However when she looked again the beads were even brighter, filled with flame and pulsing with energy. Her heart thumped in her chest and she was filled with a calm sense of purpose. The time had come, the waiting was over. Her hands did not shake as rolled the bracelet between her fingertips and one bead broke loose from the twine. She kept it in her hand and slipped the others into her pocket.

She tried to imagine the creature's defeat, knowing that thoughts were energy and thus attempting to harness them to her benefit.  She had read her grandmother's diary again yesterday and in it were written words that at first had seemed odd, disjointed, perhaps the ramblings of an old mind. Now though they seemed to speak to her and while killing this evil was important, she knew that guarding her own soul was paramount. They were not mutually exclusive, she knew, kill the beast and save her soul, but at the same time if she failed to overcome him, she knew the greatest calling was to save her soul, It would weaken him and perhaps give another the chance.

It was then she noticed the dark figure emerge from the tree line. A strange smell filled the air, burnt meat and ashes. He was exactly as in her vision, long dangling arms, distorted head, talons, long and black. He stood for a moment, surprised to find her ready and aware of him, not taken off guard as was usually the case. They each turned slight so they faced each other squarely. Then he charged. She was but an old woman. She really had no chance.

And so the events unfolded according to the dream. And in the end he roared in frustration because he had lost the soul and his hunger was great. She lay in the pool of blood with the black bead digging into her shoulder blade. When her soul slipped peacefully from the vessel of her body, she was amazed she could smile at the irony of it all. The red bead was lost as surely as the black one, kicked into the tangled grass by their struggle. Then suddenly she could see in the misty remnants of this life, the two ravens descending and sitting pecking at her apron pocket, It was then she remembered the other two beads and realized not all was lost. It would be another, not she, that ended it and she sighed as she let go.

Chapter Eleven-Emma's Story

Three Months Ago.....

Emma almost skipped out of the small shop, happy with her purchases and feeling energized by thoughts of her night .  She shaded her eyes with one hand and shifted the load of the shopping bag in her right hand. Her blonde hair glistened in the spring sunshine, she smiled to herself and thought about how losing those ten pounds had made the new black dress cling in just the right places. A cool breeze picked up, making a piece of paper skitter across the sidewalk in front of her. She pulled her light black sweater tighter and headed to her car.

It was an early spring day in Sutter and more people were out than had been during the frigid days of winter. The snow had melted but the yards and roads were still muddy, soggy with the memories of inches and inches of fluffy white. Emma was anxious for the evenings festivities. Eric had invited herself and a dozen others to partake in a chili cook off and the thought of spicy chili and cold beer made her mouth water. It also didn't hurt that Eric was pretty spicy himself, blushing at the thought.

She sometimes regretted not going away to college, most did, just to escape this lonely dusty town.At the time though she couldn't even stand the thought of another book, another lecture or another assignment.  At the time she had told everyone that she was simply taking a year off before heading to a university. But one year turned into two and then three and after that it just didn't seem worth pursuing. So here she was with a dead end, meaningless job with her brightest prospect a silly chili cook off. She sighed and shrugged off her sober thoughts and allowed the joy of her purchases to lift her spirits.

Later that night......

Her mind on Eric and imagining what he might think of the skimpy black dress filled her mind." Would he think it too much for a casual night in at his ranch?"  She worried that she was over dressed as she maneuvered the muddy gravel road that led to his land. Land in South Dakota was like gold, the more you owned the more you were worth and Eric was worth plenty.

Glancing up at the night sky, her heart lightened as she watched the wispy clouds, the sparkling glitter of a thousand stars cascading across the landscape of the heavens. The moon peeking from behind a cloud mesmerized. The moon held a strange fascination for her and suddenly a vision of her dancing naked under a full moon swept through her mind causing her to blush and smile. She was so absorbed in the beauty of the night that she took her eyes from the road for too long.

She was jarred from her thoughts by the huge pothole in the rough road. It jarred her back to reality with a sudden jolt. Her car hit it and bounced across the road, while she gripped the wheel, struggling to keep her car on the narrow road. The night sky was clear, the trees dark images against the skyline, branches reaching in all directions. In a bizarre kaleidoscope, tree branches, stars and dark night clouds shifted before her eyes. Her heart lurched but slowly the spinning world came to a stop. Once she had the car slowed down a bit she took another moment to appreciate the beauty of the clouds drifting across the dark night sky, dotted with stars. It felt exhilarating. She drove much much slower but she still wasn't prepared for what happened next.

When she turned the sharp corner, about a mile from Eric's ranch she reflectively slammed on her brakes. Her car lurched to a stop and she was thankful for the earlier pot hole that had slowed her down,, a faster speed might have propelled her forward into a collision with the figure .Just ahead of her was a large dark shape in the middle of the road. At first she thought it might be a cow hit and left by some careless driver and she mutter obscenities at the action. Rubbing her face with both hands she cursed repeatedly, knowing it did little good. if she was getting to the chili cook off she would need to take action. She sat in the warm car and pondered her options.

The moon cast light on the object. It was dark and massive. The placement, dead center in the road, made it impossible to maneuver the car around it. She stared at the bundle in the road. She was confused by its shape and mass. It was familiar and yet not. Something niggled her mind and she strained to capture and sort through the thought. It escaped her, so instead she turned her mind to more practical matters. She looked down at the black dress, regretting her choice now. It wouldn't be easy to drag a carcass across the muddy road and into the ditch, without ending up covered in mud. If she was even strong enough to do so.

Grimacing she opened the door and stepped out into the cool night air.  Gingerly she walked across the gravel in her cute black pumps. She was paying more attention to her shoes than the body in the road or she might have noticed it shift slightly, no longer flat on the road but rather almost on all fours, hunched down, waiting, like a cat, ready to pounce. She did sniff the air slightly as the stench of his body reached her nostrils. She turned her head slightly at the burnt smell wondering about this scent that was foreign. It clung in the back of her throat causing her to gag.

Too late she noticed its movement and so startled was she to see it up and moving that she lost precious moments before responding.  It lopped towards her with a menacing purpose while she stood frozen in horror. It moved swiftly, on two feet, long arms swaying as it moved. In horror she managed to swing around and head for the car, the mud sucking at her feet. The drivers door stood open and she lunged at it. She could feel its breath on the back of her neck and its stench filled her nostrils.

She had grasped for the steering wheel and pulled her self into the drivers seat, when she felt the hand clench her ankle, like a cast iron shackle it encircled her leg, strong and biting. She cried out into the night. It pulled her from the car, thoughts of her muddy black dress never even entered her mind, this was a struggle for her life and she clawed at the ground, squirming and kicking. She managed to get loose and lurched to her feet, running toward the open fields on the right side of the road.

Her pumps slid in the mud on the road and slowed her down as she crossed the small ditch beside the roadway. She briefly considered kicking them off but realized her tender feet in the tangled brush would fare no better. She didn't look behind her but she could almost feel his breath on her, she knew he was that close. The night that before she had thought so pretty and peaceful now resonated with terror. She scrambled up the embankment into the field as he grasped for her but she managed to slip away and hunched down behind some tangled vines. Tears stung her eyes and her blond hair shone in the darkness. It was like a beckon leading him to her no matter which way she turned.

She searched the darkness for him and watched as he lifted his head and sniffed the air, scenting her, he turned in her direction and she flinched as she imagined his eyes glistening with anticipation. He huffed, smelled again, and charged toward her hiding place. She reacted quickly, slipping into a row of tall grass, trying to evade his  hunt.

He stopped, silent and listening, picking up her scent and the slight sound of her rasping breathe. He stalked her, through the weeds and grass and undergrowth. She sniffled and he heard. She moved and it twitched across his senses. She became disoriented and unsure where the road and car waited. Wandering in circles, tiring until at last she just sat and waited. He found her there, covered in leaves and he clawed at her throat in anger for she had expended his energy with this senseless search. in his rage he consumed her soul in gasping gulps, swallowing the essence, even while pushing the black bead into her slack mouth.

Afterwards he curled next to her lifeless body, full, content for the moment, filled with the rich savory taste of her. The smell of her blood cloying in his nostrils, luscious and full bodied like a fine wine. She seeped into him and he felt for the first time almost one with this strange world. It was a gift she had given him, this view of the beauty in this night. Still tingling in her essence, he had absorbed it and now felt oddly at peace. it felt foreign and out of place. If he could have worried, he would have worried mightily at this human failing he had somehow contacted like a dark disease.For all its beauty, it would become a weakness that eroded his savage nature.

The next morning

The late night party goers, filled with too much beer and too little chili had crashed at Eric's ranch until the first, groggy headed and blurry eyed had climbed into jeeps and pick ups and headed out into the bright morning sun. In the mile before discovering Emma's car they had complained of headaches and sore necks. Later they would realize just how meaningless small aches can be when compared to the ravages of the beast's work.

First they were puzzled by her car, mid road, door open,  speculating what had happened. One slid behind the wheel and turned the key. The engine immediately roared to life, so shaking their heads they started calling her name. What had made her stop here, in the middle of a lonely road and where was she now?

After wandering in circles on the road for a few minutes they noticed the slippery footprints and indentations in the mud and the broken weeds along the ditch. Peering into the tall grass they discovered nothing. It was then that Jeff, pulled his phone out and checking for reception, punched in the number and called for help.

The two deputies that responded took less than 15 minutes to discover her body, noting the trampled grass still damp with blood, they knew this was no accident. One of them called it in while the other heaved his insides out in some bushes next to the crime scene. It took Kane less than fifteen minutes to arrive and he recoiled in horror and grief at the brutal carnage that used to be a beautiful, local girl.

The moments hung suspended, time ticked by silently and he just stood there, unable to move, unable to act, until one of the deputies shook his arm and asked him if he was ok. What a dumb question, of course he was not ok and perhaps never would be again. The world as he had known it came to a screeching halt that day. A shiver danced up his spine and it wasn't the crisp spring morning that brought it on to the dance floor. A burning smell lingered and he wiped his nose hoping to erase it. The coroner arrived and he stepped back unable to watch as the routine examination of the dead began. Later the discovery of the small black bead would set the course for future events, for the unfolding of the investigation in a small Dakota town, rich with history and visited by ancient evil.


No comments:

Post a Comment