Blood-encrusted iron shackles tethered Gabriel to the stone dais, digging into his bare skin, grinding to the bone. Fighting starvation and sleep deprivation, he hunched over, swaying back and forth, hovering between nightmare and reality. Sweat gleamed off his shirtless body as the jailer stirred the white-hot coals in the small fire pit next to him. He accepted what he’d done the same way he accepted his punishment—without regret. It was judgment day and one man served as judge and jury.
The torch flames flickered against the stone walls like a serpent's tongue. Councilman Haywood shuffled across the medieval courtroom floor clutching a rolled piece of parchment in his meaty hand. Once the councilman read Gabriel's sentence out loud, his fate would be sealed.
“This is an unfortunate event.” The councilman’s baritone voice echoed off the walls. “Not since the fall of the Ancients have we been betrayed in such a manner, and not by one brother, but two.” He turned and addressed Gabriel, who straightened his posture and glowered at the councilman.
“Your carelessness has put not only your own people at risk. The fate of the world is now in jeopardy.” The portly man paced back and forth before the inquisitive crowd. “But because of your family's reputation, I have decided to give you a chance to redeem yourself.”
A thick wood-planked door swung open and banged against the cavern wall. A tall and husky man with salt and pepper hair stormed into the room, his sword bouncing off his leg.
“Why is Gabriel not properly represented?” he demanded.
“Jesper Turner, you have no authority within these walls.” The councilman sneered, taking pleasure in reminding Jesper of that fact.
Jesper paused for a second. “You’re right, but the elf queen does.” He showed no sign of wanting to debate with the pig-headed man. He turned and strode back toward the door.
The councilman cursed under his breath. “I was about to offer him a deal.” Jesper waited, staring over his shoulder with narrowed eyes. “We are offering him the chance to fulfill his original duty. To track down and eliminate the Elemental girl known as Jade.”
“What do you mean eliminate?” Jesper asked.
“To kill her.”
“Absolutely not. I will not do it.” The muscles in Gabriel’s chest tensed. These were the first words he had spoken since his unjustified arrest eight days before.
Jesper motioned for Gabriel to remain silent. “Why does the Council wish to kill an innocent girl?”
“Because we have never been more at risk. If Draven finds her first…” The councilman shook his head. “Besides, how would she be any different from the other hundred creatures he has brutally slain this past year? He has proven himself to be Elyndia’s most talented assassin. It’s a shame to let that talent go to waste.”
“Because they were demon beasts, and he did nothing but send them back to the void. We are talking about a young girl.”
“A young girl who holds the fate of our world in her hands. And let me remind you of something. You both made a sacred vow to protect this land at all costs. Want to or not, you have to admit this girl is a threat. And let us not forget why we are here. Gabriel’s carelessness allowed the escape of the one and only person who knew how to find her.”
Gabriel held his head high in defiance. “Given the opportunity, I would do it again.”
Jesper approached Gabriel. They leaned in close to each other and spoke in hushed tones. The councilman took in a deep breath through his nose, scrutinizing them. “Gabriel accepts these terms. He will track down and find this Elemental girl and eliminate her as a threat.”
The councilman nodded his head in agreement and stowed the parchment with Gabriel’s sentence in the side pocket of his silk robe. “I have something for you, Gabriel…something to act as a reminder.” The councilman motioned to the husky guards standing nearby. Two of them grabbed Jesper, one on each arm, holding him as he wrestled against them. The look on his face was a combination of anger and fear for his young friend. Two other guards forced Gabriel to his knees and laid his muscular arm across a short, dingy wooden table. The jailer passed the councilman a partially charred leather glove. He pulled it onto his hand and retrieved the poker out of the fire. Except it wasn’t a poker, it was a brand. Councilman Haywood let the searing hot metal hover over Gabriel’s bare flesh. The screams in Gabriel's head were deafening, though no sound escaped his lips.
Six months later
Jade was an expert at ignoring everything and everyone around her—except when there was a demon hovering in the doorway. It was supposed to be the time of her life, but so far junior year had sucked. Day after day she spent her lunch in the school library, sitting at the same table in the back corner. The farther away she was from everybody else, the better. It was the easiest place to escape the scrutinizing stares and smart remarks she received from the wonderful students she was supposed to consider her peers. Jade’s clammy hands gripped the armrests on her chair until her fingers turned white, her chest frozen mid-breath while other students moved around the room with careless ease.
Why don’t they see him? He’s right there. She moved only her eyes and scanned the room. If anyone else acknowledged it, she would know she was not as crazy as everyone accused. She just needed one other person to see him. Just one. The demon stood upright like a human, hunched over with a slight hump on its back. She didn’t worry about fighting back tears; those had dried up a long time ago.
She’d been seeing the creatures of the shadows for years. That was what she called them anyway—for that seemed to be their favorite place to slink out of. After one glimpse of that hideous monstrosity, the memories of every creature Jade had ever seen flooded her mind, some so grotesque and evil that she figured them to be the direct offspring of the devil himself. Everyone told her they were figments of her overactive imagination, something created in her head because it was easier to be afraid of a supernatural beast than it was to face the fear of being alone. Subconsciously she rubbed the faded scars on her forearm hidden beneath her fuchsia-colored long-sleeved t-shirt. She got them when a clawed beast took a swipe at her a couple years ago. The doctors were convinced she was cutting herself, and after a while, it was just easier to let them think that. It wasn’t long after that Jade learned if she acted like she couldn’t see the evil heathens, they would leave her alone. The demons couldn’t tell who could see them and who couldn’t.
After watching it for what felt like an eternity, she saw Sadie Baker strut through the doorway, followed by her boyfriend Seth. For half a second, Jade wasn’t sure what surprised her more: the demon or that Sadie even knew where the library was. She breezed past the demon as if he weren’t there, because to her he wasn’t.
Sadie caught the demon’s attention, and he watched as she sauntered across the room. His face was partially hidden beneath his draped hood, but Jade could see it was barely more than a skeleton. His cheeks were sunk in, his skin was practically white, and his eyes were nothing more than solid black orbs. He slithered from side to side like a serpent as he glided across the tile floor, following her as the tattered shreds of his charcoal gray cloak rippled behind him. Mr. and Mrs. Perfect plopped down one table over from Jade and dropped their backpacks on the floor. Sadie wore Seth’s class ring on a chain around her neck, and she played with it often to make sure everyone could see it. She loosely held the ring in her fingers and slid it back and forth along the delicate silver link chain. The demon homed in on the ring, his head swaying to and fro like a cobra, saliva dripping from his mouth.
Jade wished the demon would get bored and move on, but something about the ring had him mesmerized. More than anything, she just wanted to grab her things and pretend none of it was happening. Despite the fact that Sadie was cold-hearted, thought she was better than everyone else, and had made Jade’s life a living hell every school day for the last five years, Jade didn’t want her to suffer the unholy wrath a demon could inflict on a person.
Cautiously, Jade stood. The demon hissed, exposing blackened, jagged teeth, and reached out with gnarled hands toward the unsuspecting Sadie. Jade rushed over and grabbed the ring out of Sadie’s hand. She yanked down hard on the chain, breaking it free from Sadie’s neck.
“What the hell?” Sadie screeched, rubbing the back of her neck.
The demon jerked his head and lunged for the ring. Jade threw it across the room. Clinking across the tile, the ring slid in front of the window and down into a grated vent in the floor, the chain trailing behind it. The demon gave chase and hovered over the ring’s resting place. Before dematerializing into vapor, he faced Jade, a sadistic smile spreading across his pale face.
Seth jumped to his feet. “You’re going to pay for that, Rosenberg, you freak!”
“You were a freak when we were kids and you’re a bigger freak now,” Sadie chimed in.
Jade didn’t look back as she ran out the library doors. Thunder boomed overhead and rain splashed off her face as she sprinted away from the school. She darted down a narrow alley between two red brick buildings, seeking refuge. Panting, she leaned back against a wall, the word freak echoing in her mind.
Jade wanted to walk the long way home from school, but the blustery conditions outside took a turn for the worse. Before going in, she momentarily lingered outside her grandfather’s two-story building that rested at the edge of town. She peered through the window to see if the coast was clear. The room appeared empty and she slipped inside.
“Did you have an early dismissal today?” Maggie popped up from behind the shop counter, barely tall enough to peek over the cash register.
“Something like that.” The wind caught the door and Jade pushed it shut with both hands.
“The school called. Is there anything you want to tell me about?” Maggie asked.
“Not really.” Jade tried to casually brush it off and headed directly to a set of stairs, avoiding eye contact.
“They want your grandfather to come in for a meeting. I don’t think they’re going to give you many more chances.” Clipping her salt-and-pepper hair up in a loose bun, Maggie smiled and stopped to give Jade a quick kiss on the cheek as she shuffled into the back storage room of the artifacts and antiquities shop. It was just off the main street in town, and a cozy apartment sat above the shop where the three of them lived. Jade loved Maggie. She was her grandfather’s assistant and the closest thing she had to an actual grandmother.
“You look like a drowned rat,” she said.
“At least I look better than I feel.” Jade gave her best impression of a smile.
“Is that you, Jade? Why don’t you help your old grandfather for a quick minute?” Walter yelled from the basement. Jade wondered how he could hear her walk in from two rooms away but be completely oblivious to her presence while sitting together at the same dinner table.
Weaving around cluttered stands and displays packed with everything from a vintage cast iron model airplane to a mummified cat encased in glass, Jade prolonged her walk to the stairs that led down to the cramped basement. She took a deep breath and descended. When she reached the landing, Walter shoved his latest project into her arms as he rushed by, barely slowing for half a second.
“This day just keeps getting better and better.” Jade stared at the human skull she cradled in her palms.
“You act as if that’s the first skull you’ve ever seen,” Walter said, not even looking back from his workbench.
“I wish it was. But no—" Jade paused, noticing Walter’s latest shipment. She walked over and, with one hand, flipped back the corner of the canvas tarp. “Wow, Walter, this looks like it could be used as some sort of medieval torture device.”
“Good eye, dear, because that’s exactly what it is.”
“Of course it is.” Jade was lightheaded and could feel the heat rising in her cheeks. Trying to remind herself she was not actually trapped in the basement, she breathed slow, even breaths to help prevent herself from hyperventilating. The room is not getting smaller and the walls are not closing in on me. The pathway to her escape lay but a few steps away, but it might as well have been a million. Even if she could escape this claustrophobic hell, her freedom was only an illusion. The demons from her past were good at sucking her back in. “Next time I say I want to start helping out more, this isn’t what I have in mind. I love you and all, but this little shop of horrors isn’t for me.” Clutching the skull in her hand, she crept across the wood-planked floor, attempting a silent escape. She glanced back over her shoulder to check if the coast was clear.
“Jade, careful where you’re going!” She saw a look of horror in Walter’s eyes as he flung his arms out, hitting a tray of chisels and cleaning tools. They crashed to the floor, clanging against each other.
She caught the toe of her sneaker on a curled up edge of the Oriental rug. She stumbled forward, fumbling the skull at her fingertips like a football player trying to recover the ball. Inches before running headfirst into a table holding a dozen other priceless artifacts, she regained control. If she had a tail it would have been tucked between her legs. With ginger steps, Walter approached her and retrieved the skull. He exhaled in relief when she released it from her grasp.
“You are right. I think it’s best if we keep you hidden away.” He set the skull a safe distance away from Jade and tinkered with a few tools on his workbench before turning back to face her.
“What’s more hidden away than a dark basement?”
“Not much really. A dark cave, maybe?" Walter smirked. "Don’t forget, I love you more than anything. You’re my favorite granddaughter,” Walter said. He rubbed his fingers through the white hairs of his perfectly manicured beard.
“I’m your only granddaughter.”
“That’s beside the point.” Walter gave her a quick kiss on the cheek and shooed her away.
Before he changed his mind, Jade ran up the stairs to finally get out of her wet clothes. But unfortunately for her, Maggie stopped her.
“Since you’re already wet, would you drag those empty crates out? It’s getting really full in the back room.” Maggie tilted her head to the side. Jade could never resist her.
Lights flickered and booming thunder rattled the glass-paned windows. The chain creaked in protest as Jade pulled hand over hand, rolling up the metal service door that led to the dead end alley behind the building. The dumpster had been emptied recently, but its permanent stench wafted across the way. Jade pushed the short stack of crates to the wall farthest away from her in an effort to conceal the new tag from the world’s worst graffiti artist. Halfway to their new resting place, Jade was halted when she pushed the stack into a broken pallet and the top crate slipped off and crashed to the ground.
“Shoot.” She bent down, grabbing at the clumps of spilled straw. She had just gotten a handful when the wind caught it and carried it out of reach. Her long black hair whipped her face and tangled in the wind. Wisps of straw littered the alley and clung to the wet concrete. A dark object drifted into Jade’s peripheral vision. It was the cloaked demon from the library, hovering overhead. It floated down in front of her, blocking her off from the shop door—the only exit in the dead end alley. With a spike of adrenaline she rushed toward the demon to jet back inside, caught her foot on a broken pallet, and fell to the ground, skidding on her hands and knees. Jade winced as small pieces of dirt and gravel became embedded in her palms.
“Kavalto reneverta,” an unseen person yelled down the alley.
The demon jerked his head to look behind him and disappeared in a blur around the corner of the building. Jade was afraid to follow and afraid to run away. Just as she started to stand, a figure emerged from around the corner. It was the town’s homeless guy. In a town the size of Lakamas, a person could refer to him as the homeless guy because he was the only one.
He strolled up and extended his hand to Jade. She tilted her head and stared before leaning around him to see if the demon was coming back for another round. Nothing. He reached down to help her up and the sleeve of his battered trench coat slid back enough to reveal a leather cuff with an intricate, circular-shaped symbol carved into it. Jade vaguely remembered seeing it somewhere but could not place it in her mind.
“Thanks…I guess.” She didn’t want to, but she grabbed his grubby hand. He pulled her to her feet close to his chest. He held her there, not letting go. Surprisingly his hands were warm and strong. At eye level with his chin, Jade shuffled back and tugged herself free. Looking up and past the grime on his face, her eyes locked with his. She could see they were crystal blue. This was the closest she’d ever been to him—he was like a stray cat that you only saw every now and then, and you could never get close enough to catch. Jade blinked and shook her head in an effort to break free from the trance. “Did you…I mean…what just happened?” If this guy had seen that thing, she had to know.
“I got it from here,” Theron said, walking up, unfazed by the torrential downpour of rain. “You can go now.” Theron was not usually condescending, but he spoke loudly and slowly as if it would help the man understand him better.
Water dripped off the homeless man’s shaggy bangs and rolled down his face. He hesitated for a minute, looking like he wanted to say something, but he turned around without saying a word and rounded the corner, leaving Jade alone with Theron.
“You didn’t have to be rude to him. He was only being helpful.” Jade brushed the debris from her hands and looked down to see if she had ripped her jeans. She only had two good pairs and these were her favorite.
Theron dashed into the shop and grabbed the clear plastic umbrella from the stand just inside the door. He held it over Jade even though she was already soaked. “The guy’s a total whackjob. I think he is stalking you, you know. I’ve seen him outside your place for the last few months. He just stares at your building all the time like he’s waiting for something.”
“He is waiting for something. I think Maggie sneaks him food.” Jade took the umbrella from Theron, walked to the edge of the alley, and looked both ways down the street.
“She does not,” Theron scoffed in disbelief.
“Sure she does. Why not? I mean, look.” Jade pointed down the tree-lined street where he walked past several people rushing along the sidewalk in the rain. The homeless man crossed his arms and hunkered into his coat, trying to block the wind. “Look, not one person even acknowledges him. It’s as if he’s invisible.”
“He might as well be.” Theron unwrapped a piece of gum and popped it in his mouth.
Jade tried to ignore Theron’s irritating comments which meant she ignored half of anything he ever said. “That’s what’s wrong with all you small town people. You’re so close-minded.” Jade playfully elbowed him in the ribs.
“Is that so, Little Miss World Traveler?” Theron smirked. Jade rolled her eyes.
“Did you notice his bracelet?” For some reason, Jade couldn’t get the image of the symbol out of her head.
“He probably stole it.”
Jade closed the umbrella and flung it into his gut. “Well, you might as well come in.”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
Before going in, Theron helped push the remaining crates over to the wall next to the dumpster. When finished, the two of them jogged in and shook the rain off. With no warning, the room was engulfed in darkness as the lights went out. A scream pierced their ears. Maggie.