Dark City

Kaleigha looked up at the far off skyline of Center City as she turned onto her block. Grey clouds slithered between the twinkling towers obscuring their well lit helipads and bright rooftop lounges.  She felt a bit of satisfaction knowing the weather ruined their revelries.

“They’ll only build higher,” a hushed, crackling voice interrupted her thoughts.

Kaleigha took off running.  She didn’t need to turn around to know that no one was physically there.

“Lee Lee!”  Her mother cried as she barged into her house and slammed the door shut.  The living room was lit only by the flicker of the old flat screen mounted over the sealed fireplace. Her mother sat on the couch cuddled up with her latest love, Mr. Jim.  Her mother’s voice dripped with concern, but her eyes shot darts.“What’s wrong?”

“My phone is dying,”  Kaleigha gave Mr. Jim a brief nod before sprinting up the stairs to the room she shared with her aunt, Amina.

“Hey, twin!” Amina greeted her and took a drag off her joint. They were the same age and, despite their mothers’ denials, looked far too much alike not to have the same father.  “They after you again?”

“Yeah,”  she said and flopped on their bed.  She handed her phone to Amina who plugged it into the charging station on the nightstand. “I didn’t even feel it coming this time.”

“Come to Allah,”  Amina said, flicking the end of her hijab over her shoulder. “Shatan can’t…”

Amina was interrupted by their phones ringing.  It was the same tinkling ring and the same six digit telephone number.  Amina grabbed both phones and stared at them.

“You were saying?”

“How can they call two phones from one number?”  Amina’s voice was slow and dreamy from the weed.

“They’re ghosts,”  Kaleigha buried her face in her pillow.  “They got it like that.”

Kaleigha crept through the dark house to the kitchen.  She needed some coffee to stay awake. If she closed her eyes now, the ghosts awaited on the other side of sleep to seize her. She couldn’t bear another night like that.

Their phones continued to ring every fifteen minutes despite being turned off. Amina hid them between the mattresses and fell asleep, but Kaleigha could still hear them.

“Whatcha lookin for, big legs?” Mr. Jim sat at the dining room table, fully dressed.  The light from his phone’s screen lit his face from below, making him look grotesque and other worldly. She suddenly felt very self conscious and stupid for creeping around without her house robe.

“Ain’t no ghosts in here,” the man laughed as his phone emitted the familiar ring.

“I’m just making a pot of coffee,” Kaleigha resisted the urge to grab his phone and fling it across the room.  She hurried into the kitchen and flicked on the lights

“What happens when you answer it?” Mr. Jim asked, still chuckling.

“Just the sound of rushing air,” she answered and rifled through the cabinets for filters.

“Are you certain?” the voice coming from the dining room was no longer Mr. Jim’s.  It was soft and crackling.

Kaleigha let out a cry and bolted from the kitchen.  Mr. Jim was still seated, but the phone was up to his ear.  She raced up the stairs and took refuge in her room.

“Amina!” she hissed. “Amina, wake up!”

“Wha?” Amina sat upright and stared straight ahead. “Lee Lee?”

“Get up, girl!” Kaleigha pressed her ear to the door. “They in the house!”

 

“Oh no! Oh no! Oh no!” Kaleigha whimpered as Mr. Jim’s heavy footfalls moved up the stairs.  She pressed her weight against the old door and tried to come up with a plan.

“Amina!”  she called again, but her aunt was asleep.

“Your fate is ours to create,”  the voice was just on the on the other side of the door.  This was just like the nightmares she suffered.  The ruse, the chase, then the torture.

“No, I can’t,”  Kaleigha felt queasy when she thought about how this could play out in real life.  She put her ear to the door and listened. A vision of Mr. Jim standing just left of the door. There was just enough room for her to slip by and get to her mother’s room.

“Ok, let’s go,” Kaleigha steeled herself then opened the door.  She stayed low and scurried down the hall. Her mother’s bedroom door was in reach when his arms closed around her torso.

“You are ours,” the soft voice tickled her ear sending chills over her body.

She let out a soul-rending scream and tried to twist free.

“What the hell is going on?”  Her mother emerged from the bedroom, baseball bat in hand, poised to strike.

“Mama!” Kaleigha reached for the woman as Mr. Jim dropped her.

“I- I- I don’t know,” Mr.Jim’s voice was normal and the man seemed truly confused. “She was in the kitchen.”

“GET OUT!” the woman screeched.

Mr. Jim backed away and disappeared down the stairs.

They listened as the front door slammed shut and Mr. Jim sped away in his truck.

“What happened?” Amina stood in the door of their bedroom sounding sober. “Are you alright?”

“He was trying… trying…” Kaleigha stopped talking.  What could she say that wouldn’t make her sound stone cold crazy?

“Trying to what?”  her mother was mad. The woman looked back and forth between the two of them then said. “GET OUT!”

“What?” Kaleigha got to her feet and stared in disbelief. “But mama, I…”

“Nope.  I won’t go through this mess again!”  the woman raised the bat.

“Now, Helen,”  Amina stepped into the hall to stand by Kaleigha. “I don’t think…”

“You can go with her, Amina!”

Amina lowered her head

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” her mother retreated to her room. “And don’t take a damn thing I bought you!”

Kaleigha followed Amina back to their room and looked around.

“Well that don’t leave much,” She sighed and threw up her hands.

“Here,” Amina said and pulled one of her khimars from the closet. She handed the garment to Kaleigha and got back in the bed.

“It’s a little tight,” Kaleigha said, smoothing the dress down over her body.

“That won’t matter where you are going,” Amina said and frowned at her phone.

“You think the salvation army will take me this late?”  Kaleigha moved around the room tossing a few things into reusable grocery bag.

“You’re not going to a nasty shelter,” Amina scowled at her.  “Someone from my masjid will be here shortly.”

The backseat of the Chrysler sedan was warm and deep.  Kaleigha struggled to stay awake as the woman, Talifah, carried on a polite conversation. She perked up when the woman asked her about prescriptions.

“Excuse me?” Kaleigha turned toward the woman.

“I’m sorry,” Talifah bowed her head.  The jeweled pin holding her hijab in place glittered in light from the street lamps. “I do not mean to offend, but Sister Amina mentioned you had hallucinations.”

“Hallucinations?” Kaleigha turned to the woman.  Talifah nodded and stole a glance.

Kaleigha understood why Amina passed on the warning, but she felt betrayed all the same.  Before she could answer, the driver slammed on the breaks.

“What’s wrong, Sayeed?”  The woman opened the partition and spoke to the driver.

“There are people in the street,” he answered.  Kaleigha looked out the window.  They were in a part of a city that was not familiar to her.  The people impeding their progress were dressed in black and clustered in front of the car.

Kaleigha gave a cry of terror as a soft, scratchy voice filled the car.

“Release her,”  the voice said.

“It is ok sister,” Sayeed assured her.  “This car is covered by Allah. We will not be harmed.”

“She is ours,” the voice held an unspoken threat.

“You must renounce Shatan,” Talifah’s plea was quiet and urgent. “Come to Allah and you will no longer suffer.”

“You can’t save me,” Kaleigha thought back to the Amina’s phone.  She swung the door open and escaped into the darkness.

Kaleigh hiked up the hem of the khimar and dashed  between two row houses.  The footsteps of her pursuers hounded her through an empty lot and into the alley beyond.  She sprinted down the alley hoping it emptied onto a familiar street.

Fortunately it did.

Unfortunately, it was the deserted streets near the power station.  She crossed the street seeking haven in the halo of light around the power station.

Kaleigha slammed into the chain-link fence and shook it in frustration.

“I ain’t scared of you!”  she shouted, turning to face the shadowy figures. They milled nervously around the mouth of the alley.  Only one was bold enough to step into the light. He was tall and slender, with silver hair that complimented his impeccably tailored grey suit.

Kaleigha shoved her hand in the khimar’s pocket as if she was holding.  The man paused and smiled.

“‘Kaleigha,”  he said.  His voice was nothing like the soft, crackling voices from earlier.  “It has been years since I was relegated to street pursuits, but for you I left my tower to move once again amidst the people.   Do not trample my pride by making this difficult.”

“I don’t know you and I don’t owe you,”  Kaleigha squinted into the shadows behind the man, trying to gauge the number of attackers.

“You don’t remember me,”  the man let out a rich, warm laugh as if they were acquaintances at a cookout. The warmth was short lived.  “Otherwise you would know that you owe me your life.”

Kaleigha’s street senses bristled against such an obvious con.

“Ok, mister,” She stepped toward him. “I’ve had just about enough of your shit.”

“Now, now,” the man chided. “Is that any way for a daughter to talk to her father?”

The world around Kaleigha went silent. She did not hear the fence as is gave beneath her weight.  She did not hear the solitary car that cruised down the street. She could not hear her own breathing.The man’s head fell back, but the laughter spilling out did not reach her ears.

She slumped to the ground and tried to fight the odd sensation welling up inside of her.

“No need for dramatics,” a soft crackling voice found its way through the silence. “Your fate has always been with us.  It was only a matter of time before we came to claim you.”

The shadows shuffled forward and pulled her to her feet.  She meekly allowed them to guide her to the man who claimed to be her father.  He placed a hand over her heart and her ears popped.

“What did you do to me?” she asked as her hearing returned. “What happened?”

“You are very strong,” he said.  A bemused look crossed his handsome face. “You have bound yourself away from the memories of me.  It takes a great deal of skill and training for most people to do that. You did it all on your own.”

“Is that good?” she asked.

“No,” he frowned . “This is going to be very hard for you.”

“What will be hard?” She cast an uneasy glance at the figures propping her up.  She pulled away from them and stepped closer to the man.

“Kaleigha, you must accept your fate,” he said firmly.  A sighing chorus of agreement rose up from the shadows huddled around them.

“What fate?” she asked, annoyed at the cryptic statement.

“You were born to serve this city,” her father said after a long pause.  There was something more, but he did not continue.  Kaleigha looked at the man’s fine attire and, for the first time in many years, grew hopeful.  Was her father one of the elites that strutted around Center City? Had he come to whisk her back to his tower?

“Are you an elite?” she ventured. He raised an eyebrow.

“No,”  he said, “I too serve this city.”

“What do you do?”  Kaleigha tried to hide the disappointment in her voice.

“I will answer all of your questions,”  he said, eyeing a police patrol car that slowed to as it passed.  He reached out his hand. “But this is not the place.  Agree to your fate and all will be revealed.”

“I will come with you,” she said, taking her hand. “But agree to nothing until I know the whole story.  The shadows around them twittered excitedly.

“Good enough,’  her father said and led her away.

The ride into Center City was short and silent.  The shadowy figures did not join them in the car, but reappeared in the parking garage where they joined the long elevator ride to the upper floors.

“I will have a meal laid out for you,” the man asked as their entourage swept into a sumptuously appointed penthouse.”Refresh yourself and I will meet you in my study. “

Kaleigha stood in the middle of the foyer and watched him disappear behind a set of ornate doors. She looked around the penthouse in awe. The immense luxury made her feel small.

“This way, please,” a small woman with rounded shoulders appeared out of nowhere and gestured for her to follow.  They made their way down a glittering hallway.  The lacquered walls were illuminated by artistic glass chandeliers. The woman stood at attention before a red door. “This is your room.”

Kaleigha opened the door and stepped into a room as rich as the rest of the penthouse.

“Thank you,” she turned back to the door, but the woman was gone.

Half an hour later, showered and dressed, she crept back into the hallway. She followed the sound of hushed voices to small study off the dining room.

Her father and three other well dressed people hunched over an old, leather-bound ledger.  They spoke to each other in excited whispers. The shadows, hovering in tight knots in the corners of the room, grew agitated at her presence.

“Kaleigha,” the man straightened up and opened his arms. “Our savior.”

Kaleigha wasn’t sure what to say so she kept silent.

“Come,” her father said and led them over to a glass table. He pulled out a chair and patted the back.  Kaleigha felt clumsy as she tried to sit in the spindly chair.  She held her breath, trying to balance her weight.   This was an environment for manners and grace.  Despite the beautiful garment she had on, Kaleigha did not match this place.

The small maid reappeared.  She served them tea and hor d’oeuvres from a rolling cart then disappeared again.   Kaleigha picked at the strange looking food, but stopped when she saw the others were not eating.

“Your mother was a very special person,” Her father said after taking a sip of tea.  “Good southern stock.  Rural roots. And an unbroken connection to the old lands. Gifted.’

He looked at the others who nodded.  The women gave her wide smiles.  Kaleigh got excited again.  Maybe her mother was from Center City, but chose a humble life in the neighborhoods.  She returned the smiles.

“That is why I chose her to be your mother,” the man stood and walked over to the wall of windows.  The pink glow of dawn filled the eastern sky, while the moon and it’s dark shroud still lingered in the west.

I could get used to this, Kaleigha thought.  She shook herself out of her fantasy and focused on her father.  He was staring at her as were the others.

“What?” she asked, embarrassed by their attention.

“Will you give yourself to this city?”  He asked.  His voice was neutral, but there was a strange light in his eyes.  The others leaned as if she had something very important to say.

“You want me to join your secret group?”  she asked.

“No,”  he said, stepping closer. “That won’t be necessary.”

“What position will I serve?”  She narrowed her eyes at him.  Something was not right.  “What would I do?”

“You will be our lamb,” he grinned.  “All you have to do is die.”

Kaleigha froze.  Her mind processed the words, but it searched for any other meaning than actual death.

“Do you accept?” her father narrowed his eyes at her. The others watched her, small smiles plastered to their faces and hands hidden beneath the table.

“How is that serving the city?”  she asked.  She feared any answer other than yes, might bring about her immediate demise.

“Your bloodline is such that depending on how you die, your spirit will remain on earth,” Her father sighed, annoyed.

“How does that help the city?” Kaleigha asked,  she kept her voice modulated, allowing only a hint of curiosity to flutter in.  She had to play these people just like she would any of the small time gangsters in the neighborhood.  Despite their obvious wealth and the opulent surroundings, these people were nothing but bullies.

“What does that matter?”  her father barked.  “It is your fate! It is your duty! And it will be done!”

He stormed out of the room shouting curses. The people at the table looked terrified. Kaleigha derived great satisfaction from the scene.  Clearly they had never been challenged before.

“Are you going to tell me?” she asked those around her.

The other man, who looked as if he might faint, jarred the table as he jumped to his feet. He nodded to the women, then gave Kaleigha a fearful glance before leaving the room.

“Is my father in charge?”  She asked, hoping the women would be more forthcoming. “Is that why you all are so afraid of him?”

“Of him?”  the woman closest to her let out a sound that was part laughter and part sob.  They all stared at the air in front of the woman’s mouth as if the sound would materialize before them. The woman clapped a hand over her mouth and looked down.  Her tears leaked silently onto the table.

“No, my dear.  We are not afraid of Felder,”  the other woman said, her voice shaking.  She pulled her hands from her lap, revealing a golden orb that pulsed and writhed like a living thing.  “We are afraid of you.”

Kaleigha stared at the object, hypnotized by the rhythmic movements. The woman touched the orb and looked at Kaleigha.  A deep silence, like the one she experienced on the street with her father, filled her head.  She frowned and the silence fell away.

“Never,”  the woman whispered, her voice filled with awe.  She removed her hand and looked at the crying woman.  It was too much for the crier, who fled the room in hysterics.

“What is that?”  Kaleigha leaned forward to get a better look.

“It’s a relic we use to control others in your position,”  the woman gave the orb a disgusted look.  “To make them amenable to the situation.”

“Uh-huh,”  Kaleigha sat back in her chair and raised her eyebrows at the woman.

“Clearly,” the woman stood, “It is useless against you.”

“So, now what?”  Kaleigha stood, too.  She looked around to be sure that no one else was in the room. There was no telling what these people might try.

“Now?” the woman laughed, bitter and cold. “Now we stare at the remains of our plans and hope something better unfolds.” The woman turned toward the door.

“Wait!”  Kaleigha moved toward her and the woman cringed. “I-I want to know.  How would my death help the city?”

The woman sized Kaleigh up before answering.  Her gaze felt like a physical touch, making Kaleigha wonder what other powers the woman held.

“The world around you is an illusion,” the woman said finally. “Not us or the city. Beyond that.  The rest of the state, the country, the rest of the planet.  All of it is a full scale illusion maintained by us, The Union.”

“The Union?”  it was Kaleigha’s turn to draw back. The Union, once a respected entity in this working class city, betrayed its own members by siding with the elite which plunged the city into poverty.  Only the scabs, like Mr. Jim, had any hope of living out their days in some semblance of comfort. The rest would get by, hand to mouth, relying on the paltry handouts from the elite. “Those rat bastards!”

Kaleigha forgot all about playing cool and unleashed a torrent of expletives. The woman cowered before her, crying.  Kaleigha began to black out from the nuclear rage welling up inside of her.  The only thing stopping her from having a full meltdown was the sudden smell of burning flesh.  The smell assaulted her nose causing her to choke on her own words.

“Miss!” the small maid appeared beside Kaleigha holding a wet towel. “Miss please!”

Kaleigha shook her head and brought her vision back into focus.  What was left of the woman lay in a smoldering heap on the glossy floor. The maid crouched down and draped the towel over the body.

“What happened?” Kaleigha asked even she knew that somehow she’d caused the woman to burn.  The maid looked up at her in askance, before turning back to the body and whispering.

Kaleigha cursed again, then sprinted for the elevator.  

Kaleigha slid to a stop in front of the polished elevator doors.  There were no buttons, only a pad intended for key cards.  She screamed in frustration and slapped the doors with her palms.   Suddenly she felt a presence behind her.  She peered into the shiny doors and recognized the legion of shadows that followed her father around.

“Leave me alone!”  she spun around to face them.  The kept a respectful distance, but muttered and shifted so much that it made her nervous.  She waited for an opening then gave in to the urge to get out of the foyer.

Kaleigha had just cleared the living room before her father emerged from the study roaring.

“Get back here!” he shouted and gave chase. Their footfalls echoed violently against the walls.   She made it to her room just as the shadows caught up with her.  They fluttered about, trying to distract her, but retreated as her father approached.

“Get the hell away from me!,”Kaleigha yelled as she slammed the door in his face. She threw herself against the door and fumbled for the non-existent lock, but her father didn’t even bother to try the door.

“Miss?”  the voice was at her elbow.

Kaleigha screamed at the top of her lungs and threw a punch.  The blow glanced off the short woman’s temple and should have sent her crumpling to the ground.

“You are almost free,” the maid said, dancing a bit to regain her balance.  “If the Labor Leader dies, you must take her place.”

“She still alive?” Kaleigha frowned. The maid nodded.

“Finish it,” the woman said and pulled a knife from her uniform’s pocket.

Kaleigha snatched the knife from the maid and tested its’ heft.  It was thin and lightweight and she doubted it could do the job. The handle was decorated like a set of silverware, but the shape did not look like anything in fancy set Mr. Jim had given her mother. She caressed the blade and lost a thin layer of skin.

“This will do,” Kaleigha said, impressed by its’ sharpness.

The maid nodded again and opened the door. Kaleigha tensed, prepared for a confrontation, but the hallway was empty.  She followed the maid back to the study.  The woman announced her presence, giving Kaleigha just enough time to tuck away the knife. She thought for a moment of how quickly life changed.  One moment she was just trying to keep the ghosts away and now she was intent on making a new ghost.

“Come in,” her father’s voice was weary.

The burnt Labor Leader reclined on a grey chase with her father and the other man perched on either end.  The crier was nowhere in sight.  Her eyes were blistered shut and the room still smelled of burnt flesh.

“I’m sorry for hurting her,” Kaleigha walked toward them. “I didn’t mean to hurt her.”

The other man remained aloof, but her father smiled.

“You are a very beautiful mistake,”  his voice was warm, but she heard the death sentence in his voice.  She pulled out the narrow knife and took a step toward the burnt woman.

She opened her mouth to speak, but the words stuck in her throat as a cold, thin blade pierced her neck.

Liquid warmth filled Kaleigha’s throat.  She was terrified, but there was no time to panic.   Kaleigha slashed wildly at her attacker.  It was the woman who fled the room, except her neat clothes were now splattered in blood.   A sharp cry let her know she hit her mark.  Kaleigha lunged and struck again, trying to hold in the cough that threatened to spray her blood everywhere.

“Grab her!” her father’s voice slammed into her thoughts.  She tried to run, but tripped over the body at her feet.  She slammed against the floor, spilling blood onto the glossy tiles.   The men locked onto each arm and jerked her to her feet.  A ripping sound filled Kaleigha’s ears as the lights dimmed.

Suddenly, Kaleigha was on the floor looking up at her body as it hung, limp and bloodied, between the two men.

“Shit! Not like this!” her father was enraged, but the

other man gawked. They dropped her body and retreated to the burned woman’s side.  She cringed as her face hit the ground with a wet smack.  The hole in her neck continued to leak blood on the pretty floor.  Kaleigh felt some satisfaction knowing she’d messed up their neat little lives.  She looked down at herself.  She still looked solid, but her skin had a metallic pall.

“Contain her!”  Her father ordered.

“Stupid, bitch,” the tiny maid appeared and hissed at Kaleigha. “Don’t just sit there! Fl-” The maid’s next words were lost as her father’s shadows swarmed them.

Kaleigha scuttled away from her father’s minions, but they surrounded her. She shook her head to clear her sight, but the details did not change.  Instead of indistinguishable shadows, she could see faces on the dark figures.  And worse, she could hear their voices.

“It’s alright,” one of the shadows said. The figure had a woman’s face and its voice was kind and sweet.  “We won’t harm you.”

“Get the fuck away from me!”  Kaleigha felt her new form harden at the figure’s words.   “I’m dead! How can anything be the fuck alright?”

“Be at ease,” another figure, a handsome man who looked a lot like her father, rubbed her shoulders.  “This is your fate.”

“No!” Kaleigha shrugged him off and pushed through their ranks. “I don’t want this fate.  I don’t want to be dead.”

She stumbled out into the living room and looked back. The burned woman and the other man wore looks of pure terror.  Her father and the tiny maid stared at her like stray dogs gazing at a thick, juicy steak.

“Kaleigha,” her father’s broke with sadness.  “Please.  Please come to me.  Come sit with this foolish old man. “

“Don’t Bullshit me,” Kaleigha backed away.  She eyeballed the shadow people and wondered if she could get to her room.  “You just murdered me! And now…now.”  She looked at her new form and tried to put her loss into words.

“I am so very sorry, my beautiful daughter.  I have watched over you all these years,” her father’s eyes were wet with tears.  “I wanted to reach out.  I wanted to explain, but there are rules.  I coul-“

“Flee!”  The maid screamed, interrupting his pleas. “Flee to Fairmount. They can’t get you there.”

Kaleigha ignored the shadows’ protests and bolted for the elevator.

Kaleigha knew something was wrong the minute she stepped outside. It was dark again.  Kaleigha looked up, searching for the newly risen sun, but found only empty sky. Not clouds.  Not the few stars that normally outshone the city lights.  Nothing.  The people on the sidewalk did not seem to notice.  Some even wore sunglasses.  They hurried along in on their morning routines in complete darkness as if nothing was amiss.

Kaleigha oriented herself.  An entrance to the massive Fairmount park was a short hike away.  Kaleigha entered the stream of pedestrians, unnoticed. She sped along putting as much distance between her and the penthouse as she could. In no time, she was standing before the entrance to the park.  Like the rest of the entrances, it was gated and locked.  The park was off limits to everyone, even the highest of the elites.  This gate was made of intricate ironwork and provided a glimpse of the thick greenery beyond. There was one guard, seated in a tiny gatehouse, playing on his cell phone and sipping on coffee.  This could be the entrance to one of the fabled estates of the on the other side of the river.

Kaleigha sniffed.  This was the least intimidating of any entrance she had seen.  The guards in her neighborhood were armed to the teeth and patrolled in front of thick walls crowned by razor wire.  Here it might be possible to slip past the distracted guard and squeeze between the fancy scrolls of the gate.

Kaleigha’s thoughts were interrupted by a woman’s voice.

“What the hell was that?”  the woman squealed as she and her companion walked right through Kaleigha.

“Probably some toxic gas leaking out of Fairmount,” the companion said, looking back in disgust.

Kaleigha smiled and charged the gate.

Kaleigha zipped through the barrier with ease, but she was not prepared for what awaited her on the other side. The legends of what lurked behind the walls of the park were varied.  Some said it was a toxic waste dump.  Others said it hid a prison for those who spoke out against the elites. There was even story that the park was a playground for the elite of the elites.

They were all wrong.

“Kaleigha!”  A small group of people stood just beyond the gate. They were illuminated by tiny golden lights suspended in the trees overhead.  Young and old, living…and those like Kaleigha whose skin had a metallic sheen.  A young man rushed forward, a blue cloak in his hands.

“I am so sorry this happened to you,”  he said, swirling the cloak around her shoulders. Kaleigha felt a sudden burst of joy as the cloak settled on her shoulders.

“What…wait…how?” Kaleigha pawed at the cloak, but her questions fell beneath the happiness rolling over her.

“Be at ease, sister,” the young man smiled at her.  She studied his face.  He looked a lot like the man who claimed to her father.

“We are all of the blood here,” the man said as he gestured to the group.  She looked at them again.  Some looked like her father, some looked like the labor leaders in the penthouse.  Still others looked like the maid.

“You must have so many questions,” he squeezed her hand, adding one more question to her list. “Come to the village and we will explain everything.”

Kaleigha looked back at the gate.  There was a guard on this side, too. Her skin was metallic and she wore a cloak similar to the one on Kaleigha’s shoulders.

“Don’t worry,” the guard smiled encouragingly.  “You are safe.”

Kaleigha smiled back and let the young man lead her away.

The group wound its’ way through the trees along paths that glowed from within.  Her escort hummed happily and threw her several smiles. Despite the cloak’s affects, Kaleigha felt a growing sense of unease.  She looked back, trying to spot the towers of Center City, but the sky above the treeline was empty.  By the time they made it to the village, the joy was completely gone.  The village was a sprinkle of low, modern buildings clustered around a colonial era mansion.

“How is this possible?” Kaleigha looked around in suspiciously.  The village did not boast the same level of wealth as the penthouse, but the people here were well fed and seemed to have the luxury of time.

“Welcome to your new home,”  the young man said warmly.  “The elders would like to meet you.”

“No,” Kaleigha shook her head.  This place had the same feel as the penthouse. “I don’t want to go inside.  I just came to get away from the Union.”

“Union made?”  a woman emerged from the mansion and blocked their access to the stairs.  “Is she as useless as the rest of you?”

“Hardly,”  the young man gave Kaleigha a sad look.  “She’s stronger than the village born.”

“Then she cannot stay,” the woman knit her brow with concern.

“The elders will decide her fate,”  the man said firmly.

“Oh, hell no!”  Kaleigha snatched her hand away and threw off the cape. “I won’t go fall for that fate shit again.”

Kaleigha turned and dashed into the woods.

Kaleigha didn’t get far.  The pretty lights that lit up the trees descended on her like tiny, golden bees.

“Get off me!” she shouted as she swatted at them. The swarm drove her back to the village.  Before she knew it, the cloak was back around her neck and she was being hauled into one of the smaller houses.  The tiny lights retreated back to their roost.

“There will be none of this!” the young man shouted as he slung her onto a big cushy couch.  She bounced to her feet and planted a kick squarely in his stomach.  He doubled over with a grunt of pain, giving Kaleigha the chance to run for the door.

“You can’t fight your way out of this one, murderer,” the woman from the stairs blocked her exit.  She held a pair of handcuffs that glowed like the lights in the trees.  Kaleigha swung on the woman.  The woman fought back, but her fists did not register any pain with Kaleigha.

Kaleigha was surprised to hear a delighted growl pass her lips as she rained blows down on the woman.  This ghost shit had its’ advantages.  The woman tried to protect herself while blindly clawing the air with an open cuff.

This was Kaleigha’s chance to escape, but something wild and murderous welled up inside of her. She wanted nothing more than to see the woman’s blood fan out around her dying body.

“Kaleigha, stop!” the man shouted, but it was too late.

Kaleigha looked down at her handiwork and smiled.  It felt so good to see the woman dead!  Part of her buzzed with delight.  Another part, powerful and ecstatic, wanted to kill again.   She turned to the man.

“No,” the man stuttered, backing away. “Come out of it, Kaleigha.  Don’t ruin this.”

Kaleigha laughed at him. She could smell his fear.  It was sour and puny, just like his frame. She lunged at the man.

“Help!” he cried as he fled. “Someone, please! Help me!”

No help came.  Soon the man was on the floor, face frozen in terror, floating in a pool of blood.

“Now you’ve done it.”

Kaleigha turned to see the ghost of the woman standing over her body.

“Kasim was the last living descendant of your father’s blood,”  the woman folded her arms over her chest and glared at Kaleigha. “Your father will be very pleased.”

The mention of her father silenced the buzz and halted her urge to kill.

“It’s not her fault,” the risen Kasim came forward to stand by Kaleigha. “The rage is… was a flaw in our bloodline.  That is why there is…were so few of us.”

“You’re right,”  the woman looked disgusted.  “This is your fault. We should have clamp her in chains the moment she entered the park.”

“She is my sister,” Kasim said.  “She is hope, not a prisoner.”

“Not anymore,” the woman said. “We’re both dead and no closer to our goal than we were ten years ago.”

They stood in silence for a moment.

“Well there is no point in trying to hide this,” Kasim sighed. “Go get us capes then we can come up with a plan.”

“Oh no,” the woman laughed. “You aren’t going to disappear into darkness and leave me to expl…”

“You’re right,” Kasim said and flicked his fingers.

The woman’s form pixelated into a thousand tiny golden lights that flitted out the door and settled in the nearest tree.

“Death is what we do, Kaleigha.” Kasim looked at her. The kindness was gone from his face. It was replaced by something hard and uncompromising.  “That is our talent. It is passed on in the blood.”

“You killed your friend for me?” Kaleigha stared at him in suspiciously.

“You are different,” he smiled at her.  “You are more worried about my loyalties than your well being.”

“My well being might depend on the strength of your loyalty,”  Kaleigha snapped.  “If you killed your own friend…”  Kaleigha shrugged and let the rest of the statement hang.

“This isn’t the hood,”  he sneered disdainfully.  “We are vital parts of something that breaks through the limits of basic loyalties.”

“You killed her for whatever cause you all support?” Kaleigha felt the push for death, the blood rage, well up inside of her again.

“Yes, it is far greater than any single life or death.”

“What is it?” she asked.

“We must go,” Kasim did not answer. Instead he got under the cape and guided her to the door. “As you saw, even ghosts can be killed.”

They stepped outside to the stares of entire village.  Some of the living wept openly, but no one moved to stop them.  A few of the dead followed them into the forest, begging them to rethink their flight, but eventually they turned back.

“Is that it?”  Kaleigh asked, eyeing the lights above them.

“There is one more following us,” he said looking over his shoulder. “A spy, but he is our brother and won’t harm us.”

“How many siblings do we have?” Kaleigha frowned.

“Over the years, many,”  Kasim shook his head. “But father killed most of us. The dead are more susceptible to blood rage.  Those who kill too many too soon, become like the mindless shadows that follow our father around.  I was the last living descendant.”  The man paused and pursed his lips.

“I’m sorry,”  Kaleigha offered.

“That’s ok,” he wrapped an arm around her waist. “It has opened new opportunities for the greater good.”

“What is this great plan?”  Kaleigha asked.

“You aren’t ready to hear that,” a man’s voice emerged from the underbrush, interrupting their conversation.

“Keep walking,” Kasim said.  “I will tell you when we are safe.”

“I have a feeling I will never be safe again,” Kaleigha felt sad.  She missed her old life, but the rowhouse seemed like a daydream.

“You were never safe,” the voice said.  “You only delayed your fate.”

Kaleigha came to a halt at the word ‘fate.’

“Show yourself, Kahrim,” Kasim’s voice was amused.  “You’ve said the magic word.”

The cloaked individual who emerged from the trees could have been her twin. He was older and heavy, but he moved through the underbrush without a sound.  Although he was dead, his skin did not have the same metallic sheen.  He appeared to be coated with a sooty dusting.

“Greetings, sister,”  Kahrim said.  “I am sorry our meeting is tinged with sadness.”

“Hello,” Kaleigha said. She was suddenly very uncomfortable.

“We met once,” he said, giving her a faint smile. “When you were very young.”

“I don’t remember you,” She frowned and took a step away.  The man’s presence was oppressive.

“The voices led me to your school,” he continued. “They told me to bring you to the park. You kicked and screamed, but we were two blocks away before anyone stopped me. They took you back to class and I continued on to become what stands before you.”

He studied her, waiting for a reaction to his tale.  Instead she blurted out:  “Why don’t you shine?”

Kasim tensed.

“I could not control my lust to kill,”  He smiled as if the memories were fresh and beautiful.  Kaleigha felt the buzz rise in the back of her head.

“We must not get distracted,” Kasim’s voice was quiet, but it held a fearful note.

“Return to the village,”  Kahrim said.  “The woods beyond the wards are no place for two novice ghosts.”

“No,” Kasim shook his head. “They will bind us for our crimes.”

“You are the last of father’s children,” Kahrim said. “Binding you would be foolish.”

“The still have you,” Kasim said and pulled Kaleigha beyond the golden lights.

Kasim shrugged off the cape as soon as they were beyond the tiny lights.

“We are safe now,” he said as he folded the cape and shoved it under a bush. “No one will dare follow.”

“Shouldn’t we keep that?’  Kaleigha asked, eyeing the darkness before them.

“No, this will only hinder us out here,” He replied. He stood still for a moment, and then he  smiled.  “Can you feel it?’

“Yes,”  Kaleigha frowned.  There was something out there. No, here.  No.  Kaleigha could not tell where, but the presence was powerful and it filled her with dread.

“It won’t hurt us,” Kasim said, but he seemed unsure.

“What is it?” Kaleigha asked, inching back toward the lights.

Kasim dropped his arms and turned to study her.  He was silent a long while and for a moment, Kaleigha forgot her fear of the presence.

“How much do you know?” He asked, finally.  His shoulders slumped in resignation.

“Do you really have to ask?” she pursed her lips and tried to suppress the anger welling up inside of her.

“Right,” he shook his head a turned back to the forest. After a moment of silence he said, “The story cannot be told directly.  You must ask the right questions.”

“Why the fuck can’t the story be told directly?”  She snapped.  The unending darkness set her nerves on edge.  She was tired of the mysteries and the half-truths.  “How am I supposed to know what questions to even ask?”

”I would tell you that if you are who we are all afraid you are, then you will ask the right questions.”  Kasim sounded amused. “However, I am afraid that if you are who we think you are, I will end up a pretty light in the trees.”

He threw her a small smile and walked into the dark wood.

Kaleigha glanced back at the illuminated forest before plunging into the darkness with Kasim.  This was not like the city streets, where the buildings’ interior lights spilled through doors and windows offering some relief.  The darkness here was whole and complete.  There was no moon and no stars.  Nothing.   Yet she sensed a path.

“Why can’t the story be told straight?”  she whispered.  There were no other sounds in the forest, but a slight rustle as they physically passed through shrubs and  low hanging branches.

“Why are you whispering?”  he asked in an exaggerated whisper.

“Whatever is in the woods…” Her voice trailed off and she became even more miffed that she didn’t know a thing about what was going on.

“We are ghosts!”  he shouted. “This is our domain and we travel without fear.  We answer only to call of our own kind.”

“What!” Kaleigha exclaimed. She looked about wildly, but saw nothing but solid black.

“These woods are a refuge of sorts for those who did not moved on and could not be pressed into service.”

“Stop,” Kaleigh commanded as she came to a halt.

“What is wrong?”  he asked.

“I will not go another step until you tell me what is going on,” Kaleigha stomped her foot, but it merely passed, without a sound, through the ground.

“I told you,”  Kasim sighed. “The story…”

“Yeah, yeah,” she interrupted. “The story cannot be told straight.  I don’t give a flying fuck. Start talking or I’m going back to the city.”

“Kaleigha,” Kasim begged. “Ask me questions.”

“The story or I walk,”  she said.

“The story can’t be told straight because it is not a story,”  Kasim sighed, finally answering her first question.

“Go on,”  She said.

“Questions.”  Kasim chided.

Kaleigh choked on her rage.

“Let’s be calm,” Kasim’s voice wavered in fear. “I am bound by rules…”

“DAMN THE RULES! I DIED FOR THIS SHIT!” Kaleigha’s rage manifested in bright jets of crimson flames that erupted from her extremities and lit up the forest like daytime.

“Stop, please,” Kasim fell to his knees and whimpered like a child. “You don’t understand.”

She looked at the fire in awe. It roared into the blackness above and blasted through the nearby trees.

“No! No! No!”  Kasim cried and stretched out his hands.  “Stop her! It can’t end like this.”

She looked beyond his fingertips and saw silhouettes lurking on the edge of the light.

The brightness grew as the branches overhead burst into flames.  The silhouettes shrank away from the flames.  Only one, Kahrim, did not shy away from the light.

“Sister,” he said.  His deep, soothing voice washed over her. “This is not the way.”

“I want to know what is going on,” Kaleigha sputtered. “Everyone keeps trying to be slick.  I just want the truth.”

“If you cannot handle what you see before you,” he said, holding her in a steady gaze. “The full truth will destroy you.”

Kaleigha closed her eyes and tried to calm herself.  She took a few deep breaths and the jets winked out.

“That’s a start,” Kahrim nodded slowly. The flaming trees lit up his grave face. “but it is not enough to prove to me that you can handle the story.”

“Stories are lies,” Kaleigha smiled at him.  “And liars are the worst of all.  You will tell me the story or I will destroy everything between here and the gate to the city.”

Kahrim and Kasim exchanged looks.

“Do it!”  a voice emerged from the darkness beyond the flickering light. “Please.  Destroy it all so that we can be at peace.”

“Come here,” Kaleigha asked, but no one stepped forward. She called again, but got no answer.  “Come and I promise I will destroy it.  I’ll destroy the city, too!”

“No!” Kasim and Kahrim exclaimed at the same time.

“Tell me!”  Kaleigha closed her eyes and tried to make the fire build up in herself again. “Tell me or I will go nuclear on you!”

“You already know,” Kasim said. “Concentrate on remembering instead of all this destruction.”

“Death is our one true talent, brother” Kaleigha smirked. “I remember you said that.”

“There was a war long ago, we think,” Kahrim whispered. “Or an accident.”

“Go on,” Kaleigha encouraged as his voice tapered off.

“It changed the rules,” he said.

“Of?”  Kaleigha was growing impatient.  Kahrim’s slow pace made her wary.  She looked around, but nothing was sneaking up on her.

“Everything.”  He said. “The living did not die in the eternal darkness and those who died did not stay dead.”

Kaleigha sighed and waited for Kahrim to continue.

“That’s it,”  he said, eyeing her. “That is the story told straight.”

She giggled.

“Be calm,” Kasim got to his feet.  The fires around them were dying out and he seemed less impressive in the failing light. “You don’t understand the process.”

“Just end it!” the voice came from the woods again. “Release us, please.”

“What is that about?” Kaleigha asked as she peered into the darkening forest for the source of the voice.

“Finally,” Kasim gave a weak laugh.  “A question.”

“The inhabitants of this forest bear the greatest burden in the new order of things,” Kahrim answered without hesitation.  “The village is a small refuge for the dead and undead alike, but there is a fixed number of inhabitants.”

“So there is more to this lie?”  Kaleigha scoffed.

“We are not lying!” Kahrim exclaimed, clearly frustrated by her disbelief.

“So how did that part get left out of your ‘straight story?’” Kaleigha raised her eyebrows.

“You did not ask that,”  Kahrim growled.

“I didn’t ask that?”  Kaleigha shouted. “I don’t know a damn thing about what is going on!  How would I know to ask that?”

“You are you!” Kahrim shouted. “You are supposed to know what to ask.  The answers do not exist until you ask!”

“This is not the way, fam,” Kasim got between them. “We must sit peacefully and reorder our minds.”

“You and this hippy shit,” Kaleigha ducked around her brothers and moved toward the figures shifting in the shadows. “Where are you?”

“Where are you?”  Kaleigha called again as she left the reach of the flames and stepped into the undamaged forest.  The light of the fire lit her way. Grey tendrils of smoke spiraled around the thick trunks and hung like curtains from the lower branches.

“I’m here,” The heckler stood tall in Kaleigha’s presence as the other ghosts cowered in the shrubbery. It was a woman, short and plump, who did not gleam in the firelight.

“What is this fuckery?” Kaleigha stopped short of the woman and squinted. The woman’s features were distorted by the dust smudging her skin and by the flicker of the dying flames.  “Who are you?”

“My name is Ilma,” the woman smiled and curtsied.  “and I am the memory of all that came before.”

“She is a lying old woman,” Kasim suddenly appeared beside her. He was no longer the peaceable hippie from moments before.  This Kasim bristled with anger.

“Show respect, Kasim,” Kahrim growled as he took stalked over to Kaleigha. “She has yet to be wrong.”

“She doesn’t fit the pattern.  She is stooty, yet we don’t know who she’s killed. She can tell the story without questions.  And worse, she is not bound by the call!” Kasim said, never taking his eyes off Ilma. “She is a trick, planted by the living elites and she cannot be trusted.”

“No, we are a trick planted by the elites,” Kahrim said. “We can…”

“Shut the fuck up!” Kaleigha screeched.  She gave her brothers icy glares before turning her attention back to the woman.  “Ilma, please tell me this damn story.”

Ilma looked pleased.  She smiled to herself and squared her shoulders before she began.

“In my time, there was a great schism between science and magic.  It started out peaceful enough, with intellectual debates and public demonstrations.  Soon enough, the demonstrations became protests, the protests turned into bloody conflicts and those intellectual debates escalated into a very real and deadly war.”

“And we are the last of humanity,” Kasim interrupted, as if he had heard it all before.

“One more word,” Kaleigha threatened, “And I will send you into the trees.”

Kasim looked to Kahrim for help, but the man stayed focused on Ilma.

“No,” Ilma continued, “As long as this dark city exists, I know that others are still out there.  The war in my time ground to a halt as one side successfully countered the other.  A small group of rebels from both sides decided to create a third option.  A way of science and magic to merge.  We called it Fadian.”

Kaleigha shifted.  The word stirred something up inside of her. It was something between urgency and fear.  She looked around, but her brothers seemed unmoved.

“No one took us seriously with our medieval garb and complex handshakes, but that was what we hoped.  In secret labs and chambers all over the world, we carried out a meticulously planned and carefully orchestrated series of experiments.  The hope was to create something using the principles of science and magic. You and the dark city are the result of experiment 1776 conducted by the Liberty Hall Fadian in Philadelphia.”

Kasim huffed and paced, but looked at Kaleigha instead of speaking.

“We aren’t human?” Kahrim whispered. His framed sagged so much that he looked deflated.

“No,” Ilma shook her head. “That is why you become as such when you die.”

“What about you?”  Kaleigha thought of the word ‘fadian’ again and felt the strange emotions run through her. “You are still human.”

“Yes,” she said carefully. “I am a scientist. The fadian taught me just enough magic to be of use to the experiment.”

“How?” Kaleigha felt increasingly detached from the group  in the forest.  She saw flashes of other scenes when she closed her eyes.  She saw the woman, dressed in the comical medieval garb reclining on a hospital bed.  The bed was etched with strange markings and twinkling crystals of many colors hung from the ceiling.

“I was the volunteer,” Ilma said proudly. “You are my creation. My children. Well, my great-great- grandchildren.”

“Where are we?” Kahrim asked, looking up at the empty sky. “In a lab dish? Or in a witch’s looking glass.”

“You  are in my mind, Kahrim.” she said gently.  “The pretty village was my task. A combination of old and new structures with a small population. It was perfect! The Liberty Fadian was the first to succeed in creating a new thing.”

The siblings were silent, so Ilma continued.

“We had to be sure it was real, so I came in to visit.  On the third visit, I could not get back and now I remain.”

“How did you get stuck here?” Kahrim asked, sounding as breathless as Kaleigha felt.

“An accident.”

Kasim put his hands to his ears and roared.

“Be gone!” Ilma barked. “Go into the lights.”

“No!” Kaleigha and Kahrim shouted at the same time.

“I cannot continue,” Ilma sounded perturbed. “The knowledge will destroy him.”

“You don’t seem bothered by this,” Kahrim observed.  He moved over to Kasim and folded the sobbing man into his cloak. “I will take him back to the village.  Stay here and learn what you can.”

Kaleigha did not object.  She was a step away from breaking down herself.

“Good,” Ilma came closer and lowered her voice. “It no longer matters how I got trapped here, we must get out.”

Kaleigha nodded in agreement.

“ Take my hands and close your eyes,” Ilma ordered.

Kaleigha closed her eyes and could see Ilma on the bed again.  The woman’s skin was brown, not sooty and her hair rested in a large, white pouf atop her head.  Ilma’s frame was thinner and the clothing seemed far too big.   Kaleigha paid closer attention to the room.  Everything else lay under a thick layer of dust.  Half the overhead lights were blown out and the papers were curled with age.

Kaleigha opened her eyes and let out a cry. She was back in the forest.

“Shh, shhh,”  Ilma cooed.  “That was very good.  You are evolved past anything in this city.”

“Why do I feel so strange when you say the word F- fa-fai,” but Kaleigha could not get the word out.

“Fadian,” Ilma said. The word sent a jolt through Kaleigha. “Because that is what you are.”

“I thought that was your rebel group?”  Kaleigha asked.

“What better name for our group than our goal” Ilma gave her a strained smile.

“What am I?” Kaleigha asked.

“What thoughts come to mind at the sound of your name?” Ilma asked as if the visions should have been sunlight and flowering fields.

Kaleigha shook her head to empty her mind of streets running red with blood and the smoldering ruins of the towers.

“Ilma,” Kaleigha whimpered,  “Finish the story.”

“Oh my dear,” Ilma smiled, “The story is never over.  It is always creating new parts of itself.  The park, the city, the foolish class drama, they are all part of the story.”

“Why did you want to destroy it?” Kaleigha tried to pull away from the woman, but somehow Ilma had a tight grip.

“It was a test dearheart,”  Ilma folded their hands together.  “To be sure you were not something powerful, but unruly like your father.”

“My father said he was in service to the city,”  Kaleigha felt a sudden surge of strength. “He wanted me to die to keep the city safe.”

“He knew you were Fadian and wanted to control you,” she said.  “To take away your shine and make you one of his minions.”

“And what will you do?”  Kaleigha steadied her voice. “What is the purpose of Fadian.”

“You are what we planed to achieve.  You are the perfect blend of science and magic!” Ilma exclaimed.  “You will bring an end the war!”

Kaleigha looked in the direction of the village, hoping for a glimpse of Kahrim. The dying fire gave just enough light to illuminate the forlorn ghosts lurking around them. None of the figures was Kahrim.

“Would you like to hear about the war?”  Ilma asked.

Kaleigha shook her head and back away from Ilma.

“Of course not,” Ilma smiled at her.  “I imagine it is all in your head anyway.”

“I don’t believe you,”  Kaleigha said.  She did believe Ilma, but her instincts told her to stall for time.  “You are just an old ghost seeking attention.”

“You are not like Kasim,” Ilma’s smile did not waiver.  “You do not mean those words. You can sense the world beyond, Fadian.  Glimpsed it when you blink.  Remember it when your mind is too quiet.”

Kaleigha took a step back.  The mention of Fadian made her feel dizzy and strange.  She did not feel safe here in the darkness with Ilma.  Partially because the woman was right, partially because she dreaded her fate.  She searched again for Kahrim, but the dimness revealed nothing.

“It is time to leave this dream, Fadian,” Ilma whispered, sending a tremor through Kaleigha’s being.  “I know you can feel the pull of the world that needs you.”

“This is the world that needs me,” Kaleigha moved back in the direction of the village.  “The poor grovel in the shadow of the rich and the labor leaders have betrayed us.”

“That is just a thought with fangs,” Ilma said following her.  “A dream I had that grew legs and walked away from me.”

“And what happens to your dreams once you wake?” Kaleigha asked. The bright boundary of the village was just up ahead.  She stopped and waited for Ilma to catch up.

“It will all dissipate.”

Kaleigha turned away from Ilma and moved into the bright light of the village trees.  Something inside of her urged her back to the old house in the middle of the settlement.

“There has to be another way,” Kaleigha stopped at the boundary, searching for the cloak Kasim left in the bushes. “Why would you destroy the city when there could be more Fa-fad… More like me in the city?”

“Possibly,” Ilma said, stopping just beyond the reach of the lit trees. “But i am a scientist”

“So what?”  Kaleigha asked.  She was annoyed that she could not find the cloak. “Wouldn’t you want to find more results from your experiment?”

“Not quite,”  Ilma shifted. “An experiment is not judged by the number of results from a single try.”  The woman gave Kaleigha a pleading look before continuing.

“As successful experiment is one that can be repeated with predictable results on multiple tries.”

Kaleigha gave her a blank look.

“You are everything we hoped for, but I have to produce more.”

“So you will sweep this world clean and create a new one?”

Ilma nodded.

“And what becomes of me?”

“Because you are Fadian, you will transition to the real world,”  Ilma opened her mouth to say more, but closed it again.

“What?” Kaleigha felt the sudden urge to hit the Ilma.  When the woman didn’t answer she shouted. “WHAT!”

“You will be tested,” Ilma said softly. “to your limits.”

“No,” Kaleigha was no longer interested in anything to do with being Fadian. “You’re a smart person, find a better way.”

Kaleigha threw Ilma a sad look before crossing the village boundary and allowing the tiny lights to whisk her away.

Kaleigha landed with a violent gust atop a long wooden table.

“What the hell?” The oldest man Kaleigha had ever seen slammed his hand on the polished wood and glared up at her.  He sat at the head of the table flanked by four women who looked nearly as old as he did.

“I’m sorry,” Kaleigha said,  hopping down from the table. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“Murderer!”  one of the women pointed a withered finger at her. “You killed my granddaughter. Twice!”

“I didn’t mean to,” Kaleigha said.  Her memory of the incident was hazy, but she felt a pang of regret. “I lost control.”

“Kaleigha?” Kahrim’s voice boomed from somewhere beyond the room. “Where are you? KALEIGHA!”

His voice brought fear to the faces of those at the table.

“In here!”  Kaleigha answered, keeping an eye on the others. “Kahrim can you hear me?”

“Kaleigha!” Kahrim stormed into the room. “Don’t you harm her!”

“She cannot stay,” The old man said firmly.  “She is a danger to us all.”

“Stand down, Hailmon,” Kahrim commanded. “There is something far worse coming for us. She may be the only thing keeping us safe.”

“Nonsense!” Hailman declared, bounding to his feet. Kaleigha was surprised by his liveliness.  “She must go back to the city and take her place by her father’s side.  She is his minion and we will not harbor her here.”

“I’m not a minion!”  Kaleigha said. “I ran here to get away from him.”

“I told them what she… “ Kahrim’s voice shook with emotion. He shook his head and cleared his throat. “About the old ghost in the woods.  Tell them the rest.”

“Who are they?”  Kaleigha asked.

“The village council.”

Kaleigha looked at the cold faces of the council and was happy that she was already dead.

“These are our elders and they can’t hurt you,” Kahrim said, seeming to reading her mind. “They have sworn to use their vast wisdom to protect the village. We are going to listen to you and we will decide from there what to do.”

“Kahrim,”  Halimon said through tight lips. “We have indulged your crass behavior because you kept your brother safe.  But in light of his current condition, your presence is no longer welcomed.  You are forthwith banished from the village.”

Kahrim let out a howl of laughter.

This offended the elders who got to their feet and moved toward the siblings.

“Don’t be foolish,” Kahrim cut his laughter and became threatening.  “She is exactly what we have feared all these years and I cannot control her.”

“Just like you couldn’t stop her from killing Kasim!” Hailmon sneered.

Kahrim took a deep breath and Kaleigha could feel the blood rage rise up in him.  It made her heart flutter with excitement.

“Kaleigha,” he rasped. “Share with the elders the words of the old ghost.”

The elders looked shaken as they took their seats.  Kaleigha stood by Kahrim as she recounted the tale. When she was done, the women were openly weeping. Kaleigha looked at Kahrim for help.

“What do you know of this?” he asked.  He was clearly unnerved by the elders’ reaction.

“Come,” Hailmon said and led them out of the room. They went up to the attic where, under the watch of three burly guards, he revealed a hidden room behind a blank wall.

The walls of the room were covered in markings and overhead  glittered with crystals suspended by strings.  In the center was a bed surrounded by slats. It looked more like a crib than a cage.  Hailmon ushered them over to the crib.

“What is this?”  Kaleigha looked into the bed even though she  immediately recognized the contents.

“The Sleeper,” Hailmon answered. “She is the linchpin of our fragile world.”

Kahrim emitted a choking noise as he leaned over the crib.

“This is the crucible,” Hailmon spread his arms. “We elders sprang forth from this woman fully formed. First Karen, then Danesha and Delaine, then Alya and lastly, yours truly.”

Kaleigha thought of the five modern buildings surrounding the mansion and nodded. The old and the new. Magic and science.

“That’s her!” Kahrim was wild eyed. “That’s Ilma!”

“Shh!” the elders said in unison, except Danesha who stood silently in the shadows of the room. “You must never jar her awake.”

“Why?” Kaleigha asked.

“That was mother’s wish,” Hailmon said. “She warned of great peril should she be woken the wrong way. We have honored her wishes and watch over her.”

“As she watched over us,” the woman named Delaine smiled.

“But she warned us of you, Fadian,” Karen’s voice was cold. “She did not want you in the village.”

“I imagine she doesn’t want to look at her children’s faces as they are being wiped off the face of the earth,” Kaleigha quipped.

“She wanted to be here when you came,” Hailmon said, smoothly. “If this is the ghost you saw in the woods, then we must guide her back here.”

“Yes,” Kahrim agreed. “We will bring her back to the crucible, back to her body.”

“Kasim’s life depends on it,” Karen said suddenly. The other elders looked her, confused.

“To make up for your crimes,” Karen continued. You, Kahrim, have murdered numbers untold and your sister killed my grand daughter. Kasim ran away with a fugitive. These are all crimes punishable by true death.”

“Every murder committed was in defense of this village,” Kahrim said. “Many of them at the council’s command.

The elders looked at one another then nodded at Hailmon.

“Take a cloak and bring back our mother,” Hailmon said. “Or all three of you will join the lights in the trees.”

Kaleigha opened her mouth to protest, Kahrim silenced her with a stern look

“As you wish, elders,” Kahrim gave a slight bow and dragged kaleigha from the room.  He put a finger to his lips as they rushed through the empty halls.

“Where is Kisam?”  Kaleigha asked. “He should come with us.”

“He would be of little use, Kaleigha,” Kahrim looked at his feet as if embarrassed.

“Why?”   A tingle of the blood rage welled up in her. “What happened to him?”

“He is resting,” Kahrim evaded her questions. “He will be better once the mother…the Sleeper…Ilma is back in her body.”

“You don’t believe that,” she studied his profile.

“Of course I do,” he smiled.  “The other option is unthinkable.

“Here,” he said as they stopped before a line of hooks that held a number of embroidered cloaks.  Kaleigh picked a sparkling blue one that turned out to be a short cape.

“It suits you, baby sister,” Kahrim smiled and tied the ends into a pretty bow.

“Thank you,” she said and some of the impatience flowed out of her.

“Let’s go,” he said, slipping out the backdoor. “I have an odd feeling that time is short.”

“How will we find her,” She asked as they plunged into the woods at a jog.

“The dead are connected,” he answered, guiding them away from their previous path.  “We can call to one another and we are compelled to answer.”

“Kasim said Ilma did not answer the call,” Kaleigha squinted at her brother.

“The call has no hold over her,” he agreed. “But I think this time she will answer.”

Kahrim stepped into the darkness beyond the village and stopped.

“What is it?” Kaleigha asked. She peered into the forest beyond, but saw nothing amiss.

“I don’t want to take you too far into the woods,”  he said, slowly.  We don’t know the effect the call will have on you.”

“Right,”  she nodded, thinking of the sky high flames from earlier. “Maybe we should just look for her the old fashioned way?”

“We don’t, I mean, I don’t feel we have that kind of time,” Kahrim frowned. “I’m not sure why.” He finished.

“It can’t be any worse that me setting a stand of trees on fire,” Kaleigha smiled. “I think.”

“Here goes,”  he said and turned back to the dark  forest. Kahrim lifted his arms high and looked up into the black sky.

“Oh,” Kaleigha gasped as a deep rumbling filled her ears.  The noise grew until it became a trembling in her being.  She looked down at her body to see the lines of her body shake and blur.  She closed her eyes against the sight only to be greeted by the vision of Kahrim standing in forest at the center of a metallic web with a million strings.  All of the strings vibrated fiercely except two.  One was a rich green and the other shimmered like a fiery opal.  Kaleigha knew instinctively that the mildly undulating strings belonged to her and Ilma.

“Stop!” Ilma’s voice rang out in the darkness.

Kaleigha’s eyes flew open.  The woman stood in the shadows glaring at them.

“The elders,” Kahrim dropped to one knee, his voice trembling, “Your children ask that you return to them.”

“Never,” Ilma spat. “They will not trap me in that shoddy crucible.”

“They long to see you face again,” Kahrim looked to Kaleigha for help.

“You will have my protection,” Kaleigha offered.  “As Fadian.”

Ilma let out a thin trill of laughter that far more frightening than anything she’d said thus far.

“Your descendants will rejoice to see you so happy,” Kahrim got to his feet and stepped within the border of the village.

“The only offer I will accept is Fadian’s return to the real world,” Ilma said and melted  back into the forest.

Kaleigha and Kahrim journeyed back to the village in silence.  There was nothing left to say.  Without Ilma their mission was a failure.

“What will the elders say?” Kaleigha gave Kahrim a sidelong look.

“Let me worry about that.,” He said gruffly.

“Really?”  Kaleigha stopped short and stared at him.  Kahrim did not acknowledge her at all.  He stalked through the darkness with swift, certain steps.

“Kahrim!” She jogged after him, catching him at the border of the village.  “What are they going to do to us? To Kasim?”

He waited until she was beneath the lit trees to snatch off her cape. The tiny lights descended from their perch and engulfed her.

“Fuck!” she exclaimed and before the work was out her mouth she was back in the old house. This time the elders were in the living room, gathered around a tea table.

“What happened?” Hailmon sat up in his chair.

“Where is Kahrim?” Alya asked, worried.

“She refused,” Kahrim came into the room and tossed Kaleigha her cloak.

“Because of her?” Karen stood and glared at Kaleigha.

“That’s it!” Kaleigha threw the cloak around her shoulders and got in Karen’s face. “You old cunts are the main reason she wants to kill everyone.”

“Kaleigha!”  Alya and Kahrim cried, scandalized.

“You dare!” Karen drew herself up to her full height and pulled out a shard of green crystal.

“Stop her! Stop her! She’ll ruin everything!” Delaine screeched and backed into a corner.

Hailmon looked from Karen to Kaleigha unsure of who he was supposed to stop.

“Both of you stand down!” Kahrim stood between them.

“Move boy!” Karen ordered, pointing the crystal over his shoulder.

“Do it!” Kaleigha lunged past her brother and grabbed the woman’s hair.  “I will fuck you up!”

The crystal fell to the ground as Kahrim pried her off Karen.

A great commotion from outside interrupted their argument. Karim and the elders rushed into the foyer. Kaleigha scooped up Karen’s shard and hid it in her cloak before joining the others.

“No!” Kahrim cocked his head to the side. “He wouldn’t dare invade.”

“What is it?” Kaleigha asked. The elders looked bewildered.  “What’s wrong?”

“It is him,” Alya spoke up for the first time since the argument started.  “I would know the stench of his blood anywhere.”

“Hailmon?” Kahrim looked to the elder,  his face torn between rage and fear. “What is your command?”

“Avenge your mother,” Alya said before Hailmon could speak. “ End him so that we may live as before.”

“Gran,” Kahrim whispered.

“She died for you,”  Alya sneered, “Don’t waste her sacrifice.”

Kahrim nodded and turned to Kaleigha.

“Go back to the crucible,” he grabbed shoulders and spun her toward the stairs.  “The guards will protect you.”

“No, wait!” she grabbed for him, but he was already gone.

“Come, girl,” Hailmon called. The elders were already at the top of the stairs. “We will…”

“No, he is your father, too.” Karen spat.   Alya raised a finger to Karen and disputed her words.

“My father!”  Kaleigha exclaimed.  Pure terror filled her being and she turned from the stairs to the door. Karen and Alya’s bickering faded as Kaleigha struggled with the locks on the door.

The invasion was the stuff of nightmares.  Legions of her father’s shadowy ghosts filled the village. Their rasping howls filled the air as they lunged and clawed at the living villagers. The four Labor Leaders strode through the dark army trying, with little success,to keep order.  Kahrim stood on the porch shouting commands and rallying the dead to his side.

“Halt!” Kahrim shouted.  His voice was tight with fear. “Do not come any closer.”

“Son,”  their father emerged from the writhing mass and came to the bottom of the stairs.

“I said stop,” Kahrim and the dead closed ranks in front of Kaleigha.

“This can be very simple,”  the man cracked a warm smile.

“You are not permitted to be here,” Kaharim said.

“Give us what we came for and we will leave,” Felder’s voice took a threatening tone.

“Nothing here belongs to you,” Kahrim said, giving Kaleigha a worried look.

“True, son, but I plan to take it,” Felder sighed.  “I am here for the Sleeper.”

Kahrim was thunderstruck.

“Yes,” Felder signaled the labor leaders. “We know of the sleeper.”

“You can’t take her,” Kahrim left the porch to face his father, “There is more to the story.”

“We know of Ilma and her mission,”  Felder looked past Kahrim to Kaleigha. “It is our job to monitor the situation.  It is our service to the city.”

“Ilma won’t come into the village,” Kahrim stepped into his father’s line of vision.

“Of course she won’t” Felder scoffed, “It would be her death.”

“What?” Kahrim asked, confused.

“The true death,” Felder pointed at the trees.

Kahrim was silent.

“That’s right, son,” Felder nodded. “Those old bats know, too.”

Kahrim looked back at Kaleigha.

“You still have no right to be here,” Kaleigha said, pushing her way through the line of ghosts.

“Not even a day under their rule and you’ve already succumbed to the blood rage,” Felder looked her up and down.  “No need to worry, I’m sure they will have plenty more missions to slake your thirst.”

“Leave,’ Kaleigha ordered. “No harm will come to the city from Ilma.”

“I have never feared Ilma,” rage flickered across Felder’s face. “She has no power over me.”

“Then why are you here?” Kaleigha asked. “Why do you want to take the sleeper?”

“To keep the city safe,” Felder returned to his usual charming self. “I have spent my life in  service of the city.”

“She has been here all this time,” Kahrim spoke up. “What’s different now?’

“Now?” the rage returned to Felder’s face. “Now there is a Fadian.”

Kaleigha and Kahrim exchanged shocked looks.

“She’s in the attic!” Felder called and two of the Labor Leaders moved forward, each backed by a legion of ghosts.

“Stop!” Kaleigha shouted.  The Labor Leaders paused.  Kaleigha closed her eyes and tried to summon the jets of flame.

“You don’t know what Fadian means,” Felder put a hand on her shoulder, breaking her concentration. “Not yet.”

“If she isn’t a threat,” Kahrim pulled Kaleigha away from Felder. “Then why come here? Why break the peace?”

“Forward!”  Felder thundered prompting the legions to rush the house. Kahrim bellowed orders to the village dead as he attacked the invaders. The dead swarmed each other in a fascinating swirl of black and bronze. Beautiful clouds of tiny lights spurted into the air wherever Kahrim struck.  They swirled and drifted into the trees overhead.

“One day, daughter,” Felder whispered, grabbing her arm. “You will understand your powers and you will thank me for removing this temptation from you.”

“Temptation?”  Kaleigha tried to pull out of his grip. “You cause more problems with your twisted words than the elders and Ilma put together.”

Felder stared into her eyes, then let her go and walked away from the battle. She had the odd urge to chase after him, but she forced herself to stay put as he entered one of the modern houses.

“Kaleigha!” Kahrim shouted adjusting her focus. He was fending of one of the Labor Leaders while strangling the other. “Get to the attic!”

Her eyes swept the lawn for a way through the battle from her position.  Instead of an escape, she found Kasim standing on the porch.

Kasim gawked at the battle, clearly not able to comprehend the scene before him.

“Kasim!” Kaleigha moved into the fighting mass, trying to get his attention.   He zoomed in on her just in time to see one of Felder’s legion tackle her.

“Get off me!” she screamed, swinging with all her might.  Kaleigha learned quickly that this was no hood fight.  The other ghost, a slender man with a long beard, ignored her fists. Instead, he dug his hands into her stomach and squeezed.  Kaleigha felt the effects immediately. Glittering lights filled her vision and her body became light as air.

“Resist!” someone shouted. “Kaleigha, fight back!”   It might have been Kahrim or even Felder, but it didn’t matter.  All she wanted was to float up into the warm sea of sparkles.

“Beautiful,” she sighed and stopped struggling against the ghost.

“I got her!” the ghost declared, triumphant. “I got the Fadian!”

Someone shouted her name and she tried to answer.  To tell them how beautiful the lights were, but instead she was slammed by a wave of blood rage.

“Get away from her!” Kasim’s voice swept the euphoria from her brain. His anger radiated across the village bringing the battle to a halt.  Kasim roared and Felder’s legions dissipated into a bright swirl of tiny lights.  The Labor Leaders retreated to the far side of the village.

Kaleigha stumbled to her feet and lurched toward Kasim.

“Hailmon!”  Felder emerged from the house dragging a young woman by the hair.

The woman in Felder’s grip shrieked and struggled against her captor.

“Hailmon!” Felder yelled again. He threw her to the ground and motioned to the nearest Labor Leader.  The man looked uneasy, but followed Felder’s order to detain the woman.

“You coward!” Kaleigha frowned at Felder.

“You’ve gone too far this time, father,” Kahrim said.  His voice was level and his face grave.

“Not even close,” Felder laughed.  “Go get the old man, so we can get this trade over with.”

“Kaleigha, come with me,” Kahrim said. “Kasim, stay put. Annihilate anyone that steps in this direction.”

“Kahrim?” Kasim grabbed his brother’s arm, eyes wide with fear.

“Anything,” Kahrim nodded and pried Kasim off his arm.

“Who is that woman?” Kaleigha asked once they were on the second floor.  To her surprise, the first floor of the mansion was packed with living villagers.  They crowded around the front windows gaping at the aftermath of the battle and bemoaning the fate of the woman. The villagers gave Kaleigha and Kahrim berth.

“Hailmon’s second blood,” Kahrim answered, using village parlance.  “Maya is his granddaughter to be exact.”

“Will our father kill her?” Kaleigha asked as they started up the attic stairs.

“Death is easy,”  Kahrim shook his head.  “He will take her back to the city and…and…and give Hailmon a great grandchild.”

“That fucker,” Kaleigha said. “What can’t we just have Kasim blast him to bits?”

“If it were up to me, we would,” Kahrim sighed. “But I am not an elder, so we operate according to the rules our father ignores.”

Kaleigha and Kahrim entered the crucible to five terrified faces.

“What is going on out there?” Ayla asked.

“Something is wrong,” Hailmon gasped,  breathless. “I can feel it.”

“He has leverage,” Kahrim said carefully. “And would like to negotiate with you.”

“Leverage!”  Kaleigha threw up her hands. “Maya isn’t leverage.  She is being held hostage by a terrorist. We can’t let him win.”

“Hold your tongue, girl,” Karen said.

“We can take him!”  Kaleigha shouted. “Kasim took out his goons.  It’s just Felder and those four labor leaders.”

“Get her out of here!”  Hailmon ordered.

“NO!” Kaleigha ducked the guards.

“Come with me, Kaleigha” Danesha said suddenly and vacated her spot in the corner.  Everyone froze as she left the crucible.

“Go,” Kahrim whispered.  There was awe in his voice.

Kaleigha cast a dirty look at the room then sprinted off behind Danesha. She caught up with the woman just as she reached the first floor.

“Bring me Kasim,” Danesha ordered as she swept through the foyer and down the hall. Immediately the villagers sprung into action.  Kaleigha followed the elder into the kitchen and watched in amazement as she slid an entire wall of the kitchen away to reveal a wide wooden staircase.

“Danesha!” Kasim smiled as he walked into the kitchen. He hugged the woman and peeked down the staircase.

“What are we doing?” Kaleigha asked.

“You and Kasim will go into park, exit by the northern gate, and carry out  your plan,” Danesha said.  “I would go with you, but Ilma would kill me the moment I stepped foot out of the village.”

“What about Maya?”  Kaleigha asked, thinking of her father’s plan.

“Move quickly and you can save her.”

The tunnels were wide and well lit.  Kasim led the way over clean, finished floors.  Each turn was a sharp right angle and every ten feet there was a doorway to a room.

“What are these for?” Kaleigha asked as she eyed another furnished room.

“I don’t know,” Kasim shrugged.  “They’ve always been here.”

“The village didn’t build these?”  Kaleigha fought the urge to venture into one of the rooms.  They all appeared to be the same:  Two couches facing each other on either side of a radiator.  Some rooms had a coffee table between the couches, others had what appeared to be doublesided music stands.

“No one comes down here?” Kaleigha pressed.

“Not really,”  Kasim said. “Mostly to move between the houses in bad weather.”

“Or to get to the main house during an attack,”  Kaleigha muttered.

Kasim gave her a strange look, but did not respond.

They walked in silence until they reached the edge of the village.  Just like above, the tunnel beyond the boundary was pitch black.

“We can continue underground,” Kasim sounded doubtful. “Or we can try our luck in the forest above.”

“Danesha said to take the tunnels,” Kaleigha reminded him. “Brother, is there something down there we should be worried about?”

“I don’t know,” Kasim frowned. “Probably not, but we have always been cautioned against using that part of the tunnels.   In fact…”

“What?”  She asked after several seconds of silence. “What is it?”

“You’re right,” Kasim nodded after a moment. “Danesha would not lead us wrong.”

“What are you afraid of?” Kaleigha squinted at him.

“We’ll find out soon enough,”  he sighed and walked into the darkness.

Kaleigha felt the impending danger the moment they stepped into the darkened section of the tunnel. The air around them became thick and the atmosphere grew tense.  Kaleigha felt a quiver of fear. The contrast was physical, too. The tunnel walls were closer and debris covered the floor.

“Something is down here with us,” Kasim’s disembodied voice floated to her through the darkness.

“I can’t see anything,” she said as a small trickle of panic slithered down her spine. “Do you hear something?”

“I feel them,”  Kasim sounded distracted.  “On the walls.”

“The walls?” Kaleigha looked to either side, but saw nothing. She reached out for the nearest wall and instead of plaster, she felt a face. “What the fuck!”

“Don’t touch them,” Kasim warned.  “And keep moving.”

“No, stop,” Kaleigha said,  “I want to see them.”

“Do you have a light?”  he asked.

“I’m Fadian, right?”  Kaleigha put her hands out before her.

“Right.”

“Felder and Ilma made it seem like I have powers,” She focused on recapturing the feeling of jets of flame shooting from her body. “Maybe I can shed some light.”

“Alright,” Kasim was calm. “Try not to burn the place down.”

“Never going to live that down am I?”  she sighed.

“Nope.”

Kaleigha gasped as the flames flared up from her palms.

“Shit,” Kasim uttered, but he was not staring at the fire.

“What bullshit is this?”  Kaleigha fought the urge to laugh.  Ghosts, gagged and bound in tight shrouds, hung on the tunnel walls.

Kaleigha swung her hand closer to one of the hanging figures.  She and Kasim jumped when the ghost’s eyes flew open. The eyes were flat and unseeing, but the the mouth worked incessantly.

“Take the gag off,” Kaleigha jerked her chin at Kasim.

He stared at the ghost for a moment before shaking his head.

“We should get going,” Kasim said, stepping back. “There’s nothing here for us.”

“I said take the gag off!  I want to know what it’s trying to say.” Kaleigha was irked by his resistance.

“It will only scream,’ Kasim turned and continued into the tunnel. “We must travel undetected if we hope to succeed.”

“That’s it?”  Kaleigha laughed.  “You just gonna make some cryptic statement and walk away?”

“We are not like you,”  Kasim said, his voice growing faint. “We are not from the city and definitely not Fadian. You must accept that.”

“You’re a bunch of pussies that sit around until someone brings the shit to your door?” Kaleigha thought of his sudden appearance at the battle. “That’s what you mean?’

“No,”  Kasim reemerged from the darkness.  “The village is a haven. It is a place of serenity where we keep the peace.”

“At all costs,” Kaleigha countered. His face grew angry and she added.  “According to Felder.”

“The elders never gave life to such thoughts until Kahrim came to the village.  He broke the peace.  You city kin are born restless! You don’t want to do what’s best for everyone.  IT’S ALL ABOUT YOU!”

“Watch yourself,” Kaleigha warned.  She felt the blood rage radiating off of  him, but remained unbothered.  In fact, she felt calmer than she had since she left her mother’s house. “We can’t complete our mission if we turn on each other.”

“Right,”  Kasim backed down.  “Whatever you say.”

“Don’t be salty just ‘cause I’m right,” She smirked, “Now take this gag off.”

“Seriously?” Kasim’s eyes grew wide. “They aren’t part of our mission.”

“Ah!” she said triumphantly. “ You do know who they are!”

“I know the rumor,”  he frowned at the figures. “The whispers around the fire.  The extra guard after the …”

“After the what?”  she prompted.  “What are they?”

“They are the village dead,”  he said after a moment of consideration. “Nothing more.”

“Except they aren’t,” Kaleigha shook her head. “They look more like prisoners to me.”

“Not everyone makes the transition from living to dead  in grace and peace,” Kasim pressed his lips closed, reluctant to say more.

“So if you fuck up, you spend the rest of eternity bound and gagged in the dark?”

Kasim nodded.

“So much for serenity,”  She sighed.  “We city kin may be violent and angry, but at least we aren’t hypocrites.”

“We have to get going if we’re going to save Maya,” Kasim pointed to the conjured flames.  “Put that out.  We don’t want to agitate them.”

“They are bound,” she reminded him as she willed out the fire in one hand. “And it looks like the same stuff the cloaks are made of.”

Kasim grunted an answer and walked off.

Kaleigha sneered at him before removing the gag from ghost’s mouth.

Kaleigha held her breath, waiting for the ghost’s response.

“Thank you,” the man said.  “Thank you so much.”

“Kaleigha no!”  Kasim came back. “Don’t do that!”

“Funny,” Kaleigha cocked her head to the side, “I don’t hear any screaming. Do you?”

“I-I-I don’t know, but we should leave it alone,”  Kasim looked terrified.  “Let’s go, please!  Maya needs us.”

“And we need backup!”  Kaleigha said, suddenly struck by the idea that she may be going to her true death. If Felder knew the truth about what was in the park, then the guards at the gate near her mother’s house were armed with weapons that could keep people out and ghosts in.

“Anything you need, Fadian,” the ghost said eagerly. “We…well some of us will help you.”

“These dead cannot be trusted,” Kasim pulled at her arm. “They are not right in the mind.  They cannot…”

“Shut up!”  Kaleigha said. “I want to hear what he has to say.”

“Fadian,” the ghost smiled.  “We have waited so long for you.”

“You already know about Fadian?” Kaleigha was disappointed.  “Whose side are you on?”

“I am Karen’s first blood,”  the man said. “I was put here when Ilma first went to sleep.”

“Put here or murdered?”  Kaleigha asked, certain she knew the answer.

“It no longer matters,”  the man shook his head. “I cannot change the past, but I would like to help save our future.”

“It matters to me, the Fadian,”  Kaleigha said, “I must know.”

“They have trapped you,” the ghost said, his voice was sorrowful.  “You still think with the mind of a living thing. You are Fadian.  You must transcend your old being and be our savior.”

“Let me guess,”  Kaleigha rolled her eyes. “You can teach me.”

“Cut me down and I will show you how.”

“Who are you?” Kasim asked, getting between Kaleigha and the ghost.

“I am Egoly, the first Fadian.”

Kaleigha let out a peal of laughter that bounced off the cave walls and rippled down the tunnel.

“Have I said something amusing?” Egoly asked, offended.

“No,” Kasim shook his head frantically, “This isn’t funny at all.”

Kaleigha kept laughing.  Their expressions tickled her even more.

“We have to get going,”  Kasim reached for her, but the Egoly shook his head ‘no.’

“She’s still in shock,” He said. For some reason, this angered Kaleigha.

“Don’t,” she said as the last of her laughter echoed in far reaches of the tunnel.  “Don’t play the kindly elder with me.”

Egoly  studied her.

“We must go,” Kasim bounced on the balls of his feet. ‘These were not our orders.”

Kaleigha looked at him and wondered what his orders actually were.

“Please,” He pled, his eyes desperate.

Kaleigha cut her eyes and turned to Egoly.

“So please,” she sniggered, “Tell me how there can be more than one Fadian.”

“Easily,” Egoly shrugged as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.  “It’s no different from having a short or a tall person be born.  Or better still, selectively breeding to get a certain hair texture or eye color.”

“So why are you here  and not out converting science to magic and whatever?” She asked.

“Because we could not be controlled,” he said shifting his eyes to the ghost beside him.

“We?”  Kasim shifted away from the ghosts.

“Yes,” Egoly nodded.  “All the ghosts lashed onto these walls were…no are Fadian.”

Kaleigha chuckled and looked at her feet.  She wondered if she gave in to the blood rage and sent Egoly to a true death if the elders would be angry.

“Your lies are why you are trapped down here!” Kasim shouted, but his voice shook.

“We are trapped here,” Egoly said, “In this living tomb simply because we are who we were meant to be.”

“You are the promised Fadian so they trapped you here?” Kaleigha was certain this conversation was going to end in a fit of shared blood rage.  Kasim was right, they should have pressed on.

“They have filled your head and heart with this idea of you being a savior.”

“And we are not?” Kaleigha gave Kasim the ‘I’m sorry’ face. He answered with a blistering look.

“We are, but that is a distraction,” Egoly’s face was animated.  “They tell us that so we don’t see that they are controlling us.”

“Who?” Kaleigha grew curious.

“Science…or magic,” Egoly frowned.  “It depends on where you are born. But either way, the moment you start doing your job, fulfilling your destiny, facing your fate..and such, they kill and bind you.”

“Are you science or magic?”  Kaleigha asked.  She wasn’t interested in the answer, she just needed a  few moments to process what he was telling her.

“Magic, as are all Fadian who are village born,”  Egoly answered.  “You city kin are subject to science.”

“Wait.  How do you know I’m from the city?”  His assessment derailed her thoughts.

“Fadian,” he said calmly. “can see everything.”

Kaleigha squinted at the man. Nothing of note jumped out at her.

“I don’t see anything on you that says Fadian.”

“Right now you are still separated from your true powers,” Egoly wiggled in his bonds. “You are still distracted by the idea of being a savior.”

Kaleigha shifted away from Egoly.  She was seconds from losing her temper and being that close to his face was not helping.

“Separated?”  She thought back over the past… Kaleigha laughed. It was always dark and she was dead. There was no way of telling what time it was or how long she had been in the village. She did know that Ilma, Felder, the elders and even Kasim had indicated that she had powers greater than she knew.

“Yes,” Egoly nodded eagerly.  “All you have to do is realize you have them and you will be fully Fadian.”

“Like fire,” she said, looking down at that neat flame dancing in her hand.

“And wind, water, and of course the world we exist in.”

“What of the outside world?” Kaleigha asked.

“The world beyond dreaming?” Egoly said wistfully. “That is what we call it.”

“We?”

“The other Fadian.” He nodded toward the dark tunnel.  “No, we are nothing more than ghosts there.  That which binds us here prevents us from using our powers there.”

“What is the point? Why breed something then stop it for serving its purpose?”

“The war that gave purpose to this world has contaminated it.” Egoly looked sad. “Those who created us, those who would control us…They don’t want us to save the world or unite magic and science,  they want to use us as weapons.”

Kaleigh wished she could say she was shocked.  She wanted to feel deceived. But in truth, she’d felt something was amiss all along.  Perhaps it was the fact that she had grown up in the harsh neighborhoods that festered in the shadows of the towers or that she was still stung by her mother’s betrayal.

“So they are sending me to my death?”  She nailed Kasim with an accusatory look.

“Yes, that’s right,” Egoly said, “You are never meant to make it to the northern gate.  They prepared your sling before you even made it to the village.  You will be hung up to waste away at the end of a long line of Fadian.”

“Kaleigha, my sister,” Kasim said, backing away.  “I don’t fully understand what is going on.”

“You’re a good actor,”  Kaleigha scoffed. “That whole shtick in the woods with Ilma was worth an award.”

“Ilma!” Egoly had a far off look on his face.  “The Sleeper.”

“Whose side is she on?”  Kaleigha asked.

“Her own,” Egoly said, his voice even.  Kaleigha could not tell if he was happy or sad about this.

“Is she a friend to the Fadian?”  Kaleigha tried another method. “Will she help us or use us?”

“The Fadian have no friends or allies,”  Egoly said. “We only have each other.”

“What is she fighting for?” The seeds of a plan began to sprout in Kaleigha’s head.

“Ilma is trying to escape,”  Egoly answered.  “She is trapped here, in her own mind, by the experiment.”

Kaleigha closed her eyes and sighed.  She finally felt she was closing in on  the missing piece in the infuriating game between Ilma, the elders, and her father.

“Right,” she nodded, thinking back to an earlier conversation. “By her own thoughts”

“Exactly,” Egoly was excited. “She did not center herself before she entered her mind.  Although she was very clear on her intent, she was not neutral on the subject. When she got here her divided thoughts mucked up the experiment.”

“How did she end up in the crucible?’  Kaleigha asked.

“She underestimated the strength of magic,” Egoly shook his head.  “ The elders bound her as soon as there were enough of them to overpower her. In retaliation, she built the city up around village in an attempt to contain magic.  But the city grew too strong and she was banished back here.”

“Don’t listen to him,”  Kasim stepped between them.  “There are many false things in this world and maybe there is no right, but it is better to ally yourself with those who need you, than to follow and unknown player.”

Kaleigha studied his face.  There was bewilderment and despair in his eyes.  The cheerful guy that greeted her at the gate was gone.

“I’m sorry, brother,” Kaleigha said suddenly.  With one wave of her hand he succumbed to the true death and his form dissolved into a million tiny lights.”You deserve peace.”

Kasim’s lights fluttered frantically around the tunnel, spreading their light and waking the other ghosts.

“A true talent,” Egoly whispered, watching the lights ping off the walls.  She could barely hear him over the murmurings of the other Fadian.

“Let’s get you down,” She said as she unknotted the lashings on his sling.  The knots were dusty and nearly fused into solid balls.  She was tempted to ask how long he’d been hanging there, but she doubted he knew.

He floated gently to the floor and gave her a wide smile.

“What is your plan?”  he asked.

“Take me,” Kaleigha choked on the cutesy name. “To the world beyond dreaming.”

Kaleigha expected Egoly to be overjoyed at her decision.  Instead, he stared at her, face blank.

“I want to go to the world beyond dreaming,” She said again.  A sudden urge to dart down the tunnel into the unknown pressed upon her.  She danced around, eyeing the way they’d come. “What is it?  What is wrong?”

Egoly shuddered then smiled.  “I was checking the world beyond dreaming  for you,” he answered.  “It is not a good time for you to come and go.”

“Egoly,” She said, as calmly as she could.  “I won’t work with someone I can’t trust.  If you feel like you need to lie to me, then there is no point in going forward with our alliance.”

She closed her eyes and waited.  The rage was getting harder and harder to drive back.  Maybe if she didn’t see the thing that infuriated her, she wouldn’t explode.

Egoly shook a few more times before going completely silent.

“Egoly?”  she said. After a few moments she opened her eyes. “Egoly!”

The ghost remained unresponsive.  His eyes were open, but unseeing and the rest of his figure was limp.

Suddenly, voices sounded from finished end of the tunnel.  Kaleigha snapped her hand shut, extinguishing the flame.  She pressed herself against the walls in hopes of remaining undetected.

“Egoly,” she whispered once more.

The voices were becoming more distinct and figures filled in the entrance to the unfinished tunnel.  Kaleigha reached out for Egoly. As she figured, her hand passed right through the ghost. What she did not count on was the strong magnetic pull that sucked her right into Egoly’s being.

Kaleigha resisted the force pulling at her and for a moment, she was successful.  Back in the tunnel, the voices closed in on her location.  She turned to confront them, but before she could open her mouth, she fell to the force.

Kaleigha whizzed toward the world beyond dreaming through star-studded darkness, limbs flailing and shrieking for help.

“Kaleigha,” Egoly’s voice interrupted her artless travel with calming guidance.  “Close your mouth and concentrate. You’ll streak through space forever if you don’t choose a destination.”

“I want the world beyond dreaming!”  Kaleigha screamed.  She did not feel safe in the seemingly empty vastness between the worlds.  Something more than darkness lurked between the bright points of light.  “I want the world beyond dreaming!”

“Picture it,” Egoly cooed. “Ilma gave you a glimpse of her laboratory. Hold that in your mind’s eye.”

Kaleigha wanted to close her eyes and fill her mind with the image of Ilma asleep beneath the dangling crystals, but her senses would not allow it.

“You can do this,” Egoly prompted.  A hint of urgency crept into his voice. “You are Fadian.  All you have to do is accept your power to be powerful.”

“I’m going back,” Kaleigha said and willed herself to a complete stop. She listened intently, but all she heard was the ethereal whistling of the stars as they moved through space.

“Home,”  Kaleigha whispered as she closed her eyes to picture the city of  sparkling towers rising out of the darkened neighborhoods.

It was a terrible mistake.

Slowly, the stars slipped away.  By the time she realized a thing, dark and morphing, was surrounding her, it was too late.

Kaleigh shivered. The vast expanse of space quivered and contracted around her.

“Egoly?” she whispered.

The Fadian did not answer.

A creeping knowledge ate away at the solidarity she felt with her fellow Fadian. The world was full of those who betrayed others for the simple thrill of seeing others fall.

 

“They are all false,” the thing squeezed her. “You too are false. You would betray others if you could.”

“No,” Kaleigh shut her eyes. “That is not me.”

“Only because you are poor and stupid,” it countered. “If you hadn’t been denied your birthright, you’d be as cruel as any of the others. If you had even an ounce of worth, you would have lorded it over the people beneath you.”

The words sapped the fight out of Kaleigha and she hung, limp and defeated, in its grasp.

“But you are useless,” the thing’s voice was melodic, now. It almost sounded giddy as it lapped up her despair. “You don’t even have a life to lose

Kaleigha thought of her last night at home.  She remembered her mother’s warm hugs and the hyterical laughs she shared with her young aunt.  An intense longing overcame her fear of the thing around her.  

“If only I could have seen them,”  she whispered and closed her eyes.  “One last time.”

 

“Lee-Lee La La,”  a sweet sing-song  voice reached her through darkness. “ Yo mama want you.”

The chorus of childish giggles made her eyes snap open.  

She stood at the top of her old block back in the city.  Only it wasn’t the block of old.  The sagging row houses were now  neat and tidy, the gutted streets were all smooth and free of trash,  and the thin waifs that haunted the stoops were carefree cherubs playfully vying for her attention.

“What is this?” She whispered as she searched the street for her mother. Her mother stood on their stoop, plump and smiling, waving at her.  

“Kaleigha!” she called, the setting sun gleamed off the towers that rose above the neighborhood and bathed her in a warm halo. “There’s someone here to see you!”

“The sun!” Kaleigha hissed as she marched down the block.  Cars well beyond the income bracket of the neighborhood lined the street, but the one parked in front of her home was particularly posh.  A uniformed driver paced along the length of the shiny SUV and jumped to attention as she passed by.  She recognized the man as the driver from the masjid, Sayeed.

Kaleigha looked up at the twilight sky before steeling herself to enter the house.  

“There’s my baby girl!”  her father sat in a cushy recliner by the polished, functioning fireplace.

“Felder!”  Kaleigha blurted.  She stared at the man in horror as a wave of anger passed over his face.

“Lee Lee, don’t be so fresh,” her mother distracted her for a moment.  When she looked back at her father, he was smiling again.  “We have company.”

Kaleigha followed her mother’s gesture and nearly fainted.

“Good evening, young lady,” the well dressed man stood up to shake her hand. “I am Egoly.”

“I know who you are!” Kaleigha was on the verge of hysteria. “What do you want from me?”

“Oh it is so wonderful!” Her mother fluttered around excitedly. “Here sit down.  You’ll never believe.”

“No!” Kaleigha shook off her mother and backed toward the door.

“Now Kaleigha,” Felder sat up and frowned, “I know you’re excited, but that is no reason to forget your manners.”

“What the hell is going on!”  Kaleigha gripped her sides with trembling hands.

“We’re going to the Village!” an excited voice piped from the top of the stairs.    

Kaleigha sagged against the door.  Her older brother, Kahrim, stood on the upper landing beside little boy.  

“Ma,” Kahrim smiled, “Kasim can’t seem to find his favorite set of pajamas.  Can you come help him look?”

“Yes,” their mother took the hint, flitted up the stairs and led the child away. “I think I know just where they are.”

The moment her mother’s voice trailed down the hall, the facade of calm breaks.  All  three men rushed Kaleigha, babbling excitedly in hushed whispers.

“I can’t listen to all three of you at once!” She growled.  The lights flickered eliciting cringes from all present.

“You did it!” Egoly gushed after a moment of silence.  A bright smile spread across his face as Kahrim folded her into a crushing bear hug.  

“Oh, yes, excellent work,” Felder’s voice was brittle with barely contained rage, “You’ve pulled me from the towers back to this bullshit neighborhood.”

“What happened?”  Kaleigh ignored her father.  

“I’m not sure,” Kahrim shook his head, “One moment I was in the park, the next moment I was upstairs eavesdropping on Egoly’s conversation with your mom and Felder.”

“I was in a whole other dimension,” Egoly said, his eyes brimmed with tears. “I blink and found myself in the back seat of the SUV.  The driver did not seem to think anything was amiss when I asked where I was.  He told me the name of the neighborhood and went about his duties after we pulled up to this house.”

“What’s this whole story about the village?” Kahrim asked suspiciously as he finally pulled away from Kaleigha.

“There was an attache on the seat beside me,” Egoly shrugged, “The letters of acceptance for you, Kasim, and Kaleigha were the only documents in there.”

“Accepted to a school?”  Kaleigha frowned. She hadn’t even finished high school and she didn’t know any college that took little kids.

“I don’t know,”  Egoly’s wonderment was not diminished by this mystery.  

“I don’t think mother does either,” Kaleigha’s frown deepened. “She’s too calm.”

“Let’s just play along and see what happens,” Egoly patted her shoulder. “We should be ok as long as we stick together.”

“Kaleigha,”  her mother was back at the top of the stairs. A hopeful look graced her face. “Can I help you pack?”

“Yes, Ma,” Kaleigha smiled as she sprinted up the stairs.  She followed her mother to the middle bedroom.  She was not surprised to see it was decorated with a cheery yellow color and dotted with pops of silver and pink.  
“Where’s Amina?”  She asked looking for evidence of her aunt.

“Who is that?” her mother asked, a shadow falling over her pleasant face.

“No one,” Kaleigha shivered as a chill rolled down her spine. “Nevermind.”

An hour later, their suitcases were in the back of the SUV and they stood in somber silence in the livingroom.

“Mommie is so proud of you all,” their mother repeated for the hundredth time, dabbing her wet eyes. Felder comforted her with a weak, one armed hug.  

Kaleigha was relieved that her mother was too happy to manage a full cry, but she was ready for this goodbye to be over.  

“Honey,” Felder said sweetly, “I think I should accompany the children to the village, just in case there is any paperwork to sign.”

“It that allowed?” She looked at Egoly.

“Only on the  first day,” Egoly’s tone was grave.

“Then, yes,” her mother nodded, “I’ll feel better knowing you’re there to see it.”

“I won’t let them stay if there is even one thing out of place,” Felder kissed her cheek and waved them all outside.  

“Good-bye, my children,”  her mother said, despair creeping into her voice. “I hope to see you all again.”

“That was painful,”  Kahrim let out a forced breath after they piled into the SUV.   Egoly and Felder sat in the middle row, while the siblings crowded into the third row.

“Are you ok, little guy?” Egoly asked, turning to Kasim.  The child nodded and grabbed his sister’s’ hand.

“I can’t wait to get to the village!”  Kasim exclaimed.  There wasn’t the slightest hint of sadness in his voice.  “I’m the youngest person ever chosen to train in service to the city.”

The phrase sent another chill down Kaleigha’s back.  She gave Felder a dark look.

“How do you hope to serve your city?”  Felder turned and beamed at the boy.

“As a walinzi,” Kasim’s chest puffed up with pride.  

The adults looked at each other blankly.  

“A walinzi?”  Egoly raised his brows and acted impressed. “Why?”

“To keep out the evil overlords of course,”  Kasim said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.  

“You must be very brave,” Egoly said encouragingly, “Those overlords are very brutal.”

“We drove them out once,” Kasim said, “And we will keep them out. They will never reach their queen as long as I live.”

Another minute of tense silence settled over the group. A feeling of dread crept up Kaleigha’s gut and into her chest.  

“And the Labor Leaders?” Fleder asked, suddenly.

“Labor is Liberty and Liberty is Life, so strive for a Life of Labor!” the boy chanted in response.

Kharim and Kaleigha gaped.  The slogan was part of the indoctrination from their childhood. The old one.  It was the means by which the wealthy convinced the poor to willingly work themselves from the cradle to the grave.

“Very good,” Felder gave a sly smile, pleased with this confirmation.

Egoly frowned, but remained silent. The dread in Kaleigha’s chest grew with every word out of Kasim’s mouth.   

“Have you ever met a Labor Leader?” Felder pushed for more information.

“Har, Har, dad,” Kasim made a silly face and crossed his arms over his chest.  “I was just at your office last week!”

“Sure, sure,”  Felder winked conspiratorially and the kid. “Anything you say.”

“You work on the top floor at Central Square Tower!” Kasim insisted. “You’re the chairman, Ms. Tolvan is your alternate, Mr. and Mrs. Golick are your stewards and…and… Mr. Valentine is your secretary.”

“You have a good memory!”  Felder laughed and the dread in Kaleigha’s chest evolved into full blown fear.  The brightness of this current city had not erased the memories of what happened in the penthouse.  

“I wonder will Kaleigha come visit me again,” Felder asked, reading the fear on  her face.

“No,” Kasim squeezed Kaleigha’s hand, “But Kharim will.”

“I will?”  Kharim snorted.

“Yeah!” Kasim scoffed, “You have to learn your job!”

“I wish I could visit dad,” Kaleigha said into the stunned silence.  She hoped it came across as a threat.

“You won’t have time,”  Kasim worked his brow as if to calculate the possibility.  

“I think I can slip away for a bit,” Kaleigha looked at Felder pointedly.  “Just long enough so that no one will notice.”

“No, you’ll be too busy keeping the city alive,” the child squeezed her hand again and gave her a pitying look.  

“R-ri-right,” Kaleigha stuttered, blown away but Kasim’s response.

“Don’t worry,” her little brother gave her a wide, admiring smile, “If the elders name you Fadian, you are already worthy.  Isn’t that right, Mr. Egoly?”

“We’re here!” Kharim hissed, cutting off Egoly’s response.

Kasim cheered, bouncing in the seat.

Kaleigha and her brothers shamelessly pressed their faces to the vehicle window.  This was the same fancy gate Kaleigha used to enter the village earlier.  As before, there were no markings to indicate what lay beyond the filigreed entrance.  Only one tiny guardhouse stood between the city and the magical madness of the village.  She wondered if the gate in their neighborhood was still manned with armed soldiers.

The guard waved the SUV through with an officious nod.  The dark woods still gleamed with the tiny lights of the souls who suffered true death.  She shot a guilty glance at Kasim, then Egoly.  

The man gave her a tight smile.

“Well, this looks familiar,” Kharim whispered as the SUV cleared the woods and pulled into the village.  Nothing appeared any different.  The same modern bungalows huddled in the presence of the hulking colonial mansion.  

People milled about the village green. A few curious souls glanced their way, but no one made any fuss at their presence.  

“We have arrived, sir,” Syeed announced as he brought the SUV to a halt in front of the mansion.

“Do you think they know?” Kaleigha asked as she spied the elders gathered on the porch. Their faces were placid and glowing.

“Don’t be stupid,” Felder spat, “If we know, they know.”

“I’m going to have to go with Felder on this one,” Egoly said, gently. “They are far wiser and more experienced than we are.”

“Let me do the talking, “ Felder said as Syeed opened the doors for them.

“Ready, little buddy?” Kharim avoided the exchange and focused on Kasim.  The child nodded eagerly.

“Kaleigha and Kharim!” Hailmon spread his arms in welcome, “So good of you to join us!”

“My name is Kasim!”  The boy pushed forward to stand by his father.  “I’m here to join you, too!”

“Kasim?” The elders glared at Kaleigha, the mask of friendliness dissolving into hostility.  

“Yup,” Kaleigha sighed, “they know.”

“Come up to the Crucible at once!” Hailmon demanded, dropping all pretense.  

“What’s wrong?”  Kasim asked looking up at Kharim.

“Listen,” Egoly said, dropping to one knee.  “Why don’t you go explore the village so you can help your sister and brother get around later.”

“Ok!” the boy squealed and took off into the night.

“Shall we?”  Egoly offered his crooked arm to Kaleigha.

“Let’s do this,” She took his arm and marched, head high, up the stairs and into the house.   

They followed Hailmon and Karen through the house along with Karim, Felder and the three other elders.  Their footfalls are swallowed by the unnatural  silence of the mansion.  Kaleigha strained to hear any sign of life beyond their group and came up empty.

The doors to the Crucible were unguarded, but the entry was fortified by thick barred doors.  Kharim rushed forward to help Hailmon lift the bar.

“Thank you, son,” the elder sighed, flustered by the exertion.  
“I hope you’re happy,” Karen snapped and flung the doors open.

Egoly pulled Kaleigha close as they step into the room.  

The crucible was no longer a dim, cozy bedroom with a peaceful sleeper at its center.

Ilma sat on a throne of dark, glittering rock beneath the glare of hundreds of LED lamps.  

“Release me you bitch!” Ilma screeched when Kaleigha came into view.  
“Careful,” Egoly pulled her back a few steps, his entire body trembling with fear.  She gave him a worried look.

“She cannot harm you,” Hailmon said.  “Even we cannot unseal her bonds.”
Kaleigha squinted at the woman to see that she was bound at the neck, wrists, and ankles to her crude throne.

“NO!” Kaleigha roared, involuntarily,  when Ilma demanded to be released again.

Ilma’s screams filled Kaleigha’s mind with a strange sensation.  Those around her touched their heads as if they could feel the weird thing in their heads, too.

“Oh!” Kaleigha gasped when the feeling pried open the lobes of her brain.

“Remembering are we?” Ilma hissed and struggled against  her bonds.

“Yeah,” Kaleigha sobbed, as the jumbled images of the  huge fight that led to Ilma’s captivity flooded her brain. “What is this?”

“It is what you’ve done!”  Ilma screamed.  

Kaleigha looked around the room for help comprehending the images and Ilma’s words.  

The elders stared her in awe, silent for once.  

“You are a true Fadian,” Egoly let go of her arm and bowed.  A thread of fear laced his respectful tone.

Kharim bounced on the balls of his feet, grinning.  

“But that never actually happened!” Felder muttered darkly and began to pace the room.  

“Clearly it did,” Ilma sneered and shook her wrists.  “How else do you explain this?”

“You..you were going to kill us,”  Kaleigha squeezed her eyes shut as more memories jumped into her mind.  “I had to stop you.  I was the only one who could stop you.”

“It must be done,” Ilma’s voice softened.  “We are needed back in my world.”

“We,” Kharim asked, no longer smiling.

“Me, Kaleigha, Egoly, and the rest of the Fadian,” Ilma sighed as if she’d told this story countless times. “The war…”

“Shut up, woman!”  Felder stopped pacing and turned on Kaleigha.  “Change it back, Kaleigha.  NOW!”

A stunned silence filled the room. Even Ilma stopped struggling on her throne.

Kaleigha searched her father’s face for a sign that he was up to some new charade.  Something to get them out of the village and away from the Elders, but there was none.  

“Change it back,” Felder repeated, enunciating each word as if she was hard of hearing. His handsome face was neutral, but there was enough rage in his being to burn the city had he been granted the powers of the Fadian.

“I can’t,” Kaleigha answered honestly.  She felt a twinge of shame being unable to explain how she managed to reform the city.  She soothed herself with the memory of the clean, safe streets and the plump children.

“Ah,” Felder’s tone became predatory and he wet his lips. “You don’t want to go back to being poor again.”

“Kaleigha,” Egoly stepped between the fox and his prey.  “You must think of the greater good.”

Kaleigha squinted at him.

Of course, she thought.  He had the most to lose.  Poor was bad, but it was still on the right side of the dirt.    Besides, she had not forgotten how he abandoned her in the starways.

“The greater good lies beyond this dream,” Ilma spoke up when Kaleigha did not answer.  Her voice was firm and determined. “You must…”

“That can’t happen,” Hailmon interjected. “We will not allow it.”

“Not that we can do much,” Karen snarled at Ilma, “As long as we hold you here, the overlords will try to conquer the city.”

“Who are these overlords?”  Kahrim asked, shifting closer to Kaleigha.

The elders exchanged looks, but kept silent.

Suddenly, a low chuckle unspooled itself from the depths of Felder’s gut. The man tried to speak, but the chuckle spun itself into a maniacal laugh that smothered his words.

“Who is it?” Kharim asked again, exasperated by the Felder’s erratic behavior.

“The same people that kept the old city in poverty and disrepair,” Felder managed to gasp out  between laughs. He gave Kaleigha a condescending look before the laughter retook him.  

Kaleigha’s face burned with shame.  The city was hardly safer this way.

“What are the other Fadian doing about this?” Egoly demanded, turning from Kaleigha to the elders.  

The elders remained quiet and unreadable.  

“Tell them,”  Ilma smiled, looking very much like a queen. “Let them in on the illustrious duties of the city’s greatest servants.”

“Oh no,” Kaleigha said when no one answered, “They’re dead!”

“Not quite,” Ilma smirked.  She was enjoying herself. “But I am sure they wish they were.”

“It’s better that we show you,” Hailmon stepped forward  suddenly to usher them out of the crucible.

“I’ll take your word for it,” Egoly side-stepped the elder and threw his hands up defensively.  

“Egoly,” Delaine moaned. She looked as if she might faint.  

“Leave us!” Kaleigha said suddenly, not wanting this new string of drama to distract her. “All of you except, Egoly.”

Kaleigha tensed, expecting a huge fight, but everyone gave in with no resistance.

“What are you going to do?” Karen asked under her breath as she passed.

“My job,” Kaleigha smiled, sweetly.  

The party shuffled out of the room casting cold glances at the throne. Kaleigha  realized they expected her to put Ilma down. To return her to her previous role as the Sleeper.  Kaleigha considered it for moment, but could not see the advantage.  She did not speak until the bar closed down over the crucible door.

“Ilma,”  she said, looking directly into the woman’s eyes.  Ilma gave her faint smile and returned the gaze.  Kaleigha tried not to flinch as scenes of violence at the city’s borders  inserted themselves into her memories.  

Egoly politely cleared his throat, dragging Kaleigha back to the present task.

“My father,” Kaleigha started, but her voice hitched on the word ‘father.’  She took a deep, cleansing breath, looked at Egoly, and started over. “Felder seems to think I have ruined the order of the city.”

Kaleigha paused. She felt Egoly stiffen in anticipation of the answer.

Ilma did not react on any level.  Even her energy was undisturbed.  

Kaleigha remained silent until  Ilma raises an eyebrow.

“But who is to say that driving out the overlords and setting the city right is not the original state of the city?”

Ilma’s face hardened, but she did not speak.

“You’ll have to answer that,” Kaleigha sighed, already tired of this battle, “If you want to be free.”

Egoly uttered a small cry, but remained in position.

“It doesn’t matter,” Ilma averted her eyes.

“You keep saying that,” Kaleigha laughed aloud.  “As if our friends and family mean nothing to us.  As if we would be ok with whatever you have planned for them.”

“You’ll be without them soon enough,” Ilma said, “You’ll have to cope the best you can.”

“I doubt that,” Egoly scoffed and smiled at Kaleigha, “We are wasting time with this one.”

“Nah,” Kaleigha studied the woman, “There’s something more that she’s not revealing.”

“What will you give me if I tell you?”  Ilma teased. “Surely not my freedom?”

“According to you, it doesn’t matter,” Kaleigha shrugged.

“It doesn’t,” Ilma matched her shrug and tone.

“So talk,” Kaleigha challenged her, “Convince the greatest Fadians, the alpha and the omega, to follow you into the world beyond dreaming.”

Anger boiled up in Ilma’s eyes.

“This is useless,” Egoly shifted nervously from one foot to the other.

“You know,” Ilma looked the man up and down, “Don’t you?”

“Of course I do,” Egoly whispered.  “I’ve been to the world beyond dreaming countless times.”

“You know of the war?” Ilma asked, curiosity overtaking her anger. “What is going on?”

“It goes as it has always gone,” Egoly was evasive.

Ilma considered his answer before speaking again.

“And this one?” she jerked her chin at Kaleigha. “Where does she really stand?”

“Ah, no,” Egoly grave Kaleigha a faint smile. “We ran into…”

“I turned back,” Kaleigha interrupted, not wanting to share her failure with Ilma.  There was a chance the thing in the darkness might be another one of Ilma’s creations. It did not make sense to alert the enemy of a possible minon.  

They stood in strained silence, each watching the other.

“So what are you two hiding from the rest of us?” Kaleigha finally broke the silence.

“Despite her vitality in this form,” Egoly sighed, “Ilma’s body is wasting away in the world beyond dreaming. She has grown old.”

“Your efforts are in vain,” She smiled. “Soon I will die and all of this will fade.”

“That isn’t entirely true,” Egoly shook his head.

“Right,” Ilma nodded, “The Fadian are strong enough to transition back to the real world and complete their real job.”
“We are strong enough to hold the city!” Egoly exclaimed.

“What is this new found spirit, Egoly,” Ilma mused, cocking her head to the side. “ You used to be my eyes and ears in both worlds. Now you want to get rid of me.”

Ilma pouted.  It was horrific thing to see under the glare of the bright lights.

“I thought I was helping,” Egoly squirmed uncomfortably. “But now I see that path cannot be followed.”

“No,” Ilma gave him a sly smile. “ You see and pretty woman who is powerful and of your ilk.  And now you…”

“Don’t trivialize this,’ Egoly huffed.  He stole a quick glance at Kaleigha.

“What?”  Ilma feigned innocence. “Is one separate from the other?”

“I suppose not,” Egoly backed down, “But you no longer have the right to judge us.

Kahleigha was so fixated on the fact Egoly spied for Ilma that it took a moment for Kaleigha to realize they were talking about her.

“I’m standing right here,” she interrupted, waving her arm.

“Sorry, Kaleigha,” Egoly reached for her hand, but she snatched it away.  Pain welled up in his eyes and he looked away shamefaced.

“As much as I love to watch a good break up,” Kaleigha said, eyeing the the chamber door, “We need to keep this city whole.”

“Right,” Egoly regained his composure  and turned back to Ilma.  “As I was saying, you can go back to the world beyond dreaming.  The Fadian are strong enough to hold the city.”

“For how long?” Kaleigha asked, no longer trusting  her fellow Fadian.

“Until the overlords break through?” Ilma shrugged.

“Take them with you,” Egoly countered, still hopeful.

“They aren’t Fadian,” Ilam shook her head in disgust, “The will never survive the journey.”

“I will help you transition them,” Egoly was animated. “I’ve done it a hundred times.”

“With who?” Kaleigha and Ilma asked at the same time.

“Well I- I,” Egoly faltered , “I’d rather not say.”

“You will say,” Kaleigha moved toward him.

“Oh, alright, ok!” Egoly gave in, “They wanted to get away from the city.  They don’t want to be found.  Ever!”

Egoly looked back and forth between the two women.

“Talk or else,” Kaleigha threatened.  She suddenly empathized with Felder. People were too unstable to be left to their own devices.  The thought made her furious and she lashed out a Egoly.

“How many did you lose in the starways? Or did you leave them there on purpose?  At least they were out of the city.”

“So that’s your plan?” Ilma rolled her eyes. “Leave me in the space between worlds so I’m suspended for eternity?”

“Do better,” Kaleigha spat and strode over to the throne. She touched the sparkling rock, hoping to remember it’s significance.  

Her brain quivered as the memory constructed itself.  This rock, like Ilma, was from the world beyond dreaming. It was “real” and acted as a fixed point for the dreamscape of Ilma’s mind. The rock tethered her to the city and kept the former Sleeper from waking in her own world.  Kahleigha looked around, gaining understanding of the chamber’s set up.  The bright lights kept Ilma  awake and prevented her from slipping into her dream form.  The rock had not come with Ilma, it was brought to the city by Egoly in the days before Kaleigha abducted the woman and trapped in the chamber.  

“I told you I’d done it before,” Egoly muttered and the memory took hold in his mind.  “I would do it again for the city.”

“For love?” Ilma taunted him with a cruel smile.

“Shut the fuck up!” Kaleigha said and closed her eyes.  She wondered if the new memories eventually shoved the old ones out of her brain?  Would she someday forget her old life?  “I think we need the other Fadian.”

“That might be unwise,” Ilma said, giving Egoly a pointed look.  

“Where are they?” Kaleigha asked, picturing a room of people in deep meditation.

“Right where you left them,” Ilma strained to see Kaleigha’s face.  “Deep in the tunnels beneath this village.”

“What!” Kaleigha stepped around to the front of the throne.  “I know I didn’t fuck that up!”

“What do you know?”Ilma growled.  “You are like every other Fadian. Power without discipline or direction.  You need me.  If only to help you focus.  What were you before me Egoly? An overgrown child so wild and mad that your own mother, your own flesh and blood, bound you and left you in the darkness to rot.”

Kahleigha watched Egoly as he quivered at Ilma’s words.  She blinked to clear her vision, certain that man would melt into puddle right before her eyes.

“The city would fall long before the overlords ever cracked the gates,” Ilma continued her poison speech. “Assuming you didn’t kill each other first.”

Kahleigha hated to agree with Ilma, but the woman was right.  There was no way she could replicate the change that remodeled the city, not even to improve the lot of her fellow Fadian. Not to mention, the change only came about because Egoly may have possibly been trying to end her.

“WE CAN HOLD THIS CITY!” Egoly bellowed as if willing it to be so.

“Or so I led you to believe,” Ilma smirked. “I needed you to do my bidding.”

“No,” Egoly shook his head, “You showed me how.”

“I showed you what you needed to see in order to fulfill your duties,” Ilma turned her focus to Kaleigha. “What must I show you to bring you to my side?  Hmmmm?”

“We are not your toys, Ilma,” Egoly said, his voice wavering as he uttered her name.

“I literally created you,” Ilma laughed, “That thing within you that makes you struggle and fight?  You got that from me. And just like any gift, it comes with strings.  I will use your own strength against you and you will beg me to command you.”

“Let’s go,” Kaleigha pulled at Egoly’s arm.  Dread and longing rose up in her gut.  Ilma was right, they were too vulnerable here. “She’s trying to get us hyped up.”

“Well she’s succeeded,” Egoly clenched his fists. “We should put her back to sleep!”  “No,”Kaleigha looked around at the bright lights. “She’ll be free to roam around, like before,  in her dream form.  Just like you did.”

“We have to do something, Kaleigha,” Egoly softened suddenly. “We can’t let her terrorize us forever.”

Kaleigha studied Egoly.  The longing ate at him, too.  He wanted nothing more than to return to Ilma’s world and…and what? The war was an abstract concept to Kaleigha.  Nothing came to mind beyond what others told her.  The harder he fought, the easier it was for Ilma to trip him up.  To draw him in and use him to end the city.  

“The first thing we can do is get out of here,” she said realizing Ilma could use her in the same way. “If we lose our shit and flip the city again, it might not be good for us.”

“Don’t try to fight it,” Ilma screamed, unhinged. “This city is over and done. This is my mind and I will it so!  I will it!”

Kaleigha and Egoly gaped at Ilma.  

“But none of this will matter shortly,” Ilma concluded, regaining her composure. “My body will die in the world beyond dreaming and all  you know and love will fade.”

“You don’t seem very broken up about that,” Kaleigha recovered first and eyed them both.  She could not shake the feeling they were hiding something from her.

“Of course not,” Ilma retorted. “This has been nothing but a failure from the first iteration up until now.”

“But all that hard work,” Kaleigha shook her head. “The ideals, the war, the hope. A lifetime of work, good work, work that produced the desired results, all washed away when your body dies.  And you’re completely unbothered by it. How?”

“I’ve made peace with my failure,” Ilma gave a haughty sniff. “It’s not like I can change anything.”

“Nah,” Kaleigha screwed her face up, “You’re too driven to let go so quickly.  You’re at peace because you’re getting exactly what you want.”

“Whatever are you talking about, stupid girl?” Ilma tittered.

Kaleigha considered Ilma for a moment further, then turned around and strode to the chamber doors.

“Kaleigha?’ Egoly reached for her as she swept past him. “Where are you going?”

She resisted the urge to punch him in the face and instead concentrated on getting out of the room.  

Knocking would do no good.  The thick, layered wood was  designed so that no sound could get through.  Kaleigha noted the markings on the door for later research.

She turned her thoughts to Kharim, picturing his face and hair.  His white smile and the determined set of his handsome features.  

“Brother,” She whispered, resting her forehead on the wood. “Release me from the crucible.”

A breathless minute passed where Kaleigha felt stupid for trying to reach him.  Then the scrape of the heavy bar vibrated against her skin.  She stepped back just in time to avoid getting slammed by doors as they flew open.

“Are you alright?” Kharim stormed into the crucible, his brow knitted in concern.

“Yes,”  Kaleigha assured him.

“Where are you going, stupid girl,” Ilma asked.  She no longer sounded amused.  

“We have to get out of the village,” Kaleigha whispered to Kharim.

“This one too?” Kharim tilted his head toward Egoly.

“Yes”  Kaleigha waved Egoly towards them.  

“What is the plan,” Egoly asked, joining them near the door. “How are we going to handle this?”

“Follow me,” Kaleigha moved out into the hallway.  Egoly opened his mouth to protest, but she silenced him with a hard look.   

“GET BACK HERE!” Ilma screeched.

“Quick,” Kaleigha gestured toward the wooden bar as she pulled on one of the heavy doors “She’ll give us away.”

“YOU ARE NOTHING WITHOUT ME!”

“What are we doing?” Egoly whispered closing the other door. Ilma’s threats cut off mid sentence.  

“I don’t trust you enough to tell you,” Kaleigha watched Kahrim slide the bar into place.

“Let’s go,” Karim pushed Egoly ahead of them.  

“Wha- Where is everyone?” Egoly stumbled down the empty hall.  

“They are in the conference room with Felder and Kasim,” Kharim whispered.

“Shit!” Kaleigha said under her breath.  
“We can call them from the truck,” Kahrim offered, giving a Egoly a suspicious glance.  

“Good,”  Kaleigha felt relieved, until they arrived at the top of the stairs.

“Where are you all hurrying off to?” Felder stood on the landing, cellphone to his ear.

“We have to go,” Kaleigha put a firm hand in the center of his back and guided to him the stairs.

“And Kasim?” Felder asked, offering no resistance. “Leaving him behind again?”

Felder threw Egoly a knowing look.

“Shut the fuck up and get in the car,” Kharim covered their dash across the yard to the waiting car.  The driver scurried to open the doors for them.

“Never mind, Syeed,” Felder waved the man away.  He jumped into the middle seat with Kharim hot on his heels.  Kaleigha and Egoly dove into the backseat. “Get us out of here!”

Syeed gunned the engine and launched them out of the driveway onto the road out of the park.

“We’re headed your way,” Felder said, phone still up to his ear. “Minus the little one.”

“Hang that damn phone up, Felder,” Kaleigha ordered.

Felder gave the caller a hasty goodbye and put the phone away. He looked impressed.

“I may have chosen the wrong successor,” He smiled at her.

“Mind your words,” she replied, looking at Egoly. “Not all ears can be trusted.”

“You don’t understand,” Egoly’s shoulders slumped.

“Shut up!” She cut her eyes at him.

“What happened in there?” Kahrim frowned.

“Nothing,” Kaleigha answered.  “We got nowhere with her.”

“So why the fast exit?” He was unconvinced.

“It was a trap,” Felder answered for her. She wondered what happened in the conference room with the Elders. Khaleigha gave him a questioning look, but he stopped her from further inquiry with warning eyes.  

There was a moment of silence where they all looked to her for an explanation.

“Tell your driver to take us to the frontlines,” she said instead.

“The frontlines!” Felder exclaimed. “I don’t think so.”

“Why not?” Kharim asked.

“It’s too dangerous,” Felder was incredulous.

“Fine,” Kaleigha pushed, “Tell us how to get there and we’ll go ourselves.”

“Still too dangerous,” Felder shot an evil look at Egoly. “Especially if you don’t trust him.”

“She fooled-” Egoly started.

“Do not speak again,” Kaleigha growled without looking away from her father.

Felder smirked.

“How do we get to the frontlines?” Kharim shifted in his seat and broke their stare-off. “We can leave Egoly with you and-”

“No,” Kaleigha shook her head.  “We should all stay together.”

“You’re right,” Felder turned to the driver and whispered in the man’s ear.

“Yes, sir,” the man answered.

“The two of you get down,” Felder motioned for them to slide to the floor.  Kahleigha and Egoly obeyed.  

“Roll up the dividers,” Kaleigha heard Felder say. “Seal them off.” A faint hum emanated from the seat in front of her and when it stopped, a thick silence enfolded the compartment.

“I’m sorry,” Egoly said, reaching for her hand.

“Shh!” she hissed, but allowed him to slide his fingers between hers.  

The SUV slowed, then rolled to a stop at the gate of the park.  She couldn’t hear any distinguishable words, but her father’s voice sounded warm yet commanding.  After a brief silence, the door to the cargo hold of the SUV popped open.  The guard’s muffled voice bounced off the rear divider a moment before his head appeared, forehead pressed against the glass.  His eyes roved, unfocused, over their hiding place.  Unable to see anything through  the thick tint, he disappeared.

A short while later, they pulled onto the city street.

“I will follow you,” Egoly said simply and lightly kissed the back of her hand.

“I think we can sit up now,” Kaleigha reached up and tapped the glass lightly.  

“All clear,” Kharim said as the dividers rolled down. He reached across the seat to help Kaleigha up, but Egoly beat him to it.

“Thank you,” she said, trying to subtly extract her hand, but the man would not let go.  

“Have any of you gotten memories of the frontlines?” Felder whispered, eyeing their hands.

No one had any insight. Khaleigha closed her eyes and thought of the invading overlords, but her brain suffered no pangs of expansion.

“Well,” Felder said, “Here goes nothing.”

He turned to Syeed and order the man to take them to the frontlines.

“The northern encampment?” Syeed eyed him through the rear view mirror.

“Check the scanners to see if it is safe, first,” Felder said confidently, as if he had any clue what the northern reaches were. Syeed picked up the radio from his console and called in a series of numbers.   The voice on the other side responded with more codes.

“The northern reaches suffered heavy bombardment this morning,” Syeed reported.  “They are not secure enough to host you at this time, but if your business is urgent, I can call up the Union’s regiment for extra security.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Felder said casually, “I just wanted to show the kids a little excitement before they get sequestered away.”

“The Lady’s Champion still holds the Salkon bridge,” Syeed offered.  “He will not attack unarmed civilians, but he is good for a show.”

“The Salkon bridge it is,” Felder smiled.  

“That was easy enough,” Egoly whispered. He was answered by three dirty looks.

“Does that mean the Western half of the city is under the overlords’ control?” Kaleigha asked

“Sounds like it,” Kharim agreed.

“No,” Felder shook his head, “If half of the city was overrun, then we’d have come to some agreement with the overlords.  They’d already be in control.”

They waited for him to expand on this theory, but he did nothing more than give them a cryptic look.  Khaleigha made note to get Felder away from Egoly and find out what he knew.

“So what is this Champion?”  Kharim asked.  

“A lone wolf or some such,” Felder put two fingers on his temple and squeezed his eyes shut.  The memory took a moment to insert itself and left him with watering eyes. “A berserker,” Felder said, haltingly. “He’s fought his way this far into the city alone.  Ah!  He was one of ours, a Fadian who abandoned the city for Ilma.”

“How was he able to get so far with a one man campaign?” Kaleigha asked.  She squeezed Egoly’s hand at the sound of Ilma’s name and received a strong squeeze in return.

“He knows the secret ways of the city,” Felder dabbed his eyes with tissue he fished out of the console beside Syeed.  “Allowing him to hold the bridge actually stopped his march to the village.”

“Here we are,” Syeed announced, driving the car down a steep, winding road to the ancient stone bridge that spanned the Salkon river.  There were two more bridges upstream that were wide and modern, but this particular bridge was cherished by the historians.  

“Here we go kids,” Felder said as the SUV stopped ten feet from the bridge.  

They hopped out, uncertain at first.  The encampment was small and tidy with a single row of tents down the middle of the street and a solitary tank blocking the bridge.  Soldiers in dark fatigues milled about and threw casula salutes at Felder as their group approached the tank.  

“Chairman Felder!” a youngish man with bright blond hair hailed them from the entrance to the tent nearest the bridge.

“Captain Mantua,” Felder dabbed his eyes.

Khaleigha cringed as memory about the Captain bubbled up in her brain.  A fight, with her father in their livingroom.  

He’ll make a great husband.

Khaleigha shook her head again and reached for Egoly’s hand.  She did not need to remember the rest to know that Captain Mantua had to be a complete asshole to hold Felder’s favor.

“Hosting one of your fosters?” Mantua asked, giving Egoly the once over.

“Egoly is a Fadian,” Felder smirked, “who needs a lesson in loyalty.”

Kaleigha felt the moment her father’s words changed the atmosphere of the camp from welcoming to rage.  The ripple radiated from Captain Mantua to the other officers in the tent and out to the camp.  

She held her breath as all eyes bored into Egoly.

“He is the alpha,” Felder continued, “bound by his own mother for his treachery. And now he’s played my daughter’s soft heart for release.”

This spurred the captain into action. He grabbed Kaleigha’s arm and wrenched them apart.

“Let go of me!” Kaleigha struggled against his iron grip.

“It’s alright,” He assured her.  His voice was smooth  and condescending. “I’ll work this out for you and keep you safe.”

“No,” she lunged away from him, half angry and half shocked by the flood of intimate memories his simple words unleashed.

“Kaleigha!” Egoly cried as he fell beneath the blows of several soldiers.  The soldiers wore armor and endeavored to bind him with several lengths of cord.  

“Let him go!” Kaleigha roared.  The cords meant something, but the memories struggled to surface in chaos engulfing her mind.  The edges of her vision went white and her focus narrowed on Egoly.  

“Careful, girl,” Felder warned as the ground beneath them rumbled. The motion derailed her power, leaving her to stare helplessly at Egoly’s capture.  

“No, my love,” Mantua whispered, his breath ghosting against her ear. “Not for this one. He is not worth it.”

Kaleigha allowed herself to be pulled into his embrace as she dragged her soul back from a brink she wasn’t aware existed before now.

“We’ll be fine,” Mautua cooed, caressing her back and planting kisses on the top of her head. “This will all pass.”

“Please, Kaleigha,” Egoly drew her attention again.

She wanted to respond, but Mantua’s grip tightened around her, warning her to keep silent.  

Egoly moaned as the soldiers hefted him upright.  He was bound in what looked like a high tech version of the wall sling that imprisoned him in the tunnels beneath the village.

“Where are they taking him?” Kaleigha asked.  The soldiers hauled him away with practiced efficiency.  

“Where he belongs,” Mantua’s answer was dismissive and she realized he was communicating something over her head to Felder.  

“Good work men,” Felder boomed when he noticed Kaleigha’s attention.  

“Thank you, sir,” they barked in response.

“What is the progress on this knight errant?” Kharim asked, breaking his silence.

“It goes as it has for months,” Mantua sighed.  He spun neatly on his heel toward the Salkon bridge and offered his arm to Kaleigha.  She looped her arm around his with no hesitation and followed him to the entrance to the bridge.

The Salkon bridge was a wide, sturdy bridge made of hand chiseled blocks of an iridescent  feldspar once common in the area. The structure hung between two bluffs to accommodate the turbulent flooding that plagued the river before the era of organized water departments.  

“As you can see,’ Mantua gestured to a small encampment erected in the middle of the bridge. “we cannot starve him out as long as he can fish and draw water from the river.  Although I cannot say how he is keeping that poor horse alive.”

“Have you tried sneaking up on him when he sleeps?”  Felder asked, smiling.

Mantua let out a small laugh and squeezed Kaleigha’s hand.

“We know our Fadians don’t need sleep,”  he answered, giving her a lustful look. She averted her eyes and searched the bridge for the knight.   

“When was the last time you slept,” Mantua whispered.  His face was composed into a mask of concern, but the lust remained in his eyes.

“Not since the last time I was in your bed,” she sighed and grimaced at the memories rising into her consciousness.  

Mantua closed his eyes and shivered.  

“Say yes,” he opened his eyes, “and you can sleep every night…”

Kharim cleared his throat.  

Mantua straightened his stance and signaled to one of the soldiers blocking the bridge.

The woman saluted then stepped onto the span.

“Herman Lucine!”  she boomed and waved a small orange flag. “The city recognizes your authority and dominion of the Salkon bridge. Come forth.”

She repeated herself, waving the flag in an angular formation.  Kaleigha tensed, expecting an attack. The horse jangled its bridle in the silence.  

“Again,” Mantua pushed Kaleigha back and gestured to someone in the camp behind them.  

The soldier hailed the knight again. Her voice masked the stealthy surge of soldiers to the edge of the bridge. Kaleigha watched Mantua unholster his gun as she joined her father in his slow retreat from the bridge.  

“Can you feel him?” Felder whispered.

“Feel him?” Kaleigha mouthed, then felt dumb as the knowledge jumped into her head.   Of course Fadians could feel each other’s presence. “Nothing.”

“Are you sure,” Felder asked, quickening his pace.

“What is it?” Kahrim asked, eyeing Felder. He scrambled up the hill to catch up. “What’s wrong?”

“I didn’t get this far in life on my good looks,” Felder took one last look at the scene before striding towards the SUV.

“Wait,” Kaleigha turned to the river and closed her eyes.

“No, Kaleigha,” Felder’s voice was stern. “It’s too late for all that.”

“What are you talk-,” Karim’s  confusion melted into a terrified bark as Herman Lucine rolled his great heft over the edge of the bluff and landed at their feet.

The man was spectacular.  Wild eyes and tumbling brown locks that glinted with gold in the setting sun.  His long arms and sturdy legs were encased in molded armor that shifted and blended into the surroundings like a living thing.  All of this was undermined by bulbous stomach that spilled over his belt and bounced against his thighs.

The knight rose to his full height with a roar that drew everyone’s attention.

“Stupid bitch,” He growled and reached over Karim’s shoulder to pluck Kaleigha off her feet. “You ruined everything!”

“Let me go!” Kaleigha screamed. “Help! Help!”

“Help!” Kharim shouted as he threw his weight into the knight’s legs.

The giant had the decency to slow down, but only to deliver a vicious kick to Karim’s ribs. The man went still without as much as a gasp.  

“Hold your fire!” Felder ordered from the safety of the SUV.  “Hold your fire!”

The soldiers hesitated, looking to Mantua for guidance.

“Aim for the legs!” Kaleigha shriek as her captor hopped off the bluff.

It was short drop.  Herman half climbed half swung them part of the way down the viney face of the bluff and into cave.  

“Shut up,” Herman flung her to the ground, knocking the wind out of her lungs and effectively shutting her mouth.

Overhead, Felder and Kharim called for her.

“Alpha team search the river!” Mantua bellowed.  “Strikeforce five, storm the bridge!”

“That was stupid,” Kaleigha stumbled to her feet. “They won’t stop until they find us.”

“I’ve tunneled under their noses for months,” Herman grinned. “They don’t have the eyes to find Fadian.”

“They still have Fadian,” Kaleigha countered, her thoughts turning to Egoly.  Perhaps he could feel her distress. “He will find us in no time.”

“Egoly?” Herman looked up as if he could see through the rocks.  “How do you think I made it this far into the city?”

“Right,” Kaleigha gave a defeated sigh. “Ilma’s puppet.”

“Bah!” Herman pushed her deeper into the cave. “Her prince!  Her savior! Her champion.”

“I thought you were her champion,” Kaleigha hesitated.  The cave curved to the left and sloped up into complete darkness.

“Use your power!” Herman gave her an irritated whack on her  shoulder. He waited for her eyes to adjust then bullied her along.  “I have not done as much as he has for our queen. “

“She’s not my queen,” Kaleigha huffed, the steep climb making her winded.  

“You are truly stupid,” Herman said, “And ungrateful, too.”

Kaleigha did not respond.  The tunnel leveled out and split in two. Faint shouting echoed from the branch on the right, while the one on the left held a richer darkness.

“Let me guess,” Kaleigha veered to the left.

“So you catch on quick?”  Herman mused and followed her into the left tunnel. “Maybe you can be taught the truth.”

“And what is that?” Kaleigha asked.

“Ilma is out mother,” Herman said. “We must follow her lead without question.”

Kaleigha was silent.

“Do you understand, Kaleigha?” Herman asked, his voice sincere. “We have to stick together or we will lose everything.”

“Where are we going?” Kaleigha sighed. “Are you going to kill me?”

“Open your mind,” Herman said, “The answer is there for the taking.”

“Ow!” Kaleigha said as she slammed into a wall. Her efforts to find the ‘answer’ derailed her focus and she lost her ability to see in the dark.

“Haha!” Herman’s laugh echoed through the cave.  “You can’t chew gum and walk at the same time?”

Kaleigha made a frustrated noise as a picture of Ilma chained to her throne filled her mind.  

“Relax,” Herman reached out for her, “Try to see the big picture.”

“Stop!’  she swatted him away, “I’m not going to help her.”

“You seem to think you still have a choice in this,” Herman growled.

“I think it’s funny that you want me to feel I don’t,” Kaleigha matched his tone.

They stared at each other in stony silence until the shouts of Mantua’s troops grew closer.

“They are in the caves,”  Herman stated the obvious. “What choice are you going to make?”

“Let’s get this over with,” Kaleigha turned and moved forward into the darkness.  She feared the loss of life if the soldiers cornered Herman within these confines.

“Good choice,” Herman seemed surprised, but did not comment further.  

Kaleigha picked up the pace, pushing herself even as her thighs burned in protest to the uphill jaunt. Eventually the incline evened out and dipped into the Center City basin before stopping abruptly.

“Are we beneath the mansion?” She asked, looking up at the ceiling.

“Yes,”  Herman whispered. “We are parallel to a tunnel that comes up in the kitchen.”

“Near the bound Fadian,”  she nodded, remembering the last time she was there.

“You’re familiar?” Herman pushed past her and placed a hand on wall. “Good!  That will make this easier.’

The dirt and rock parted like a curtain  and Kaleigha came face to face with a modern version of the doom the village fadian suffered.

The rough hewn tunnel and leather lashings were gone.  The new fadian containment area was sterile and lab like.  Each fadian slept in a clear chamber attached to the smooth tile walls and every chamber hooked up to a computer whose monitor showed a constant stream of what appeared to be biometric feedback.

“Well, I fucked this up,” Kaleigha said as she stepped into the lab.  

“Not really,” Herman said, sealing off the tunnel.  “This isn’t optimal, but it is cleaner and we know more  about ourselves than before.”

Herman walked confidently over to a chamber that held a beautiful woman and typed something on the screen embedded in the glass.  The chamber emitted a low hum and the lights within changed color from white to a warm gold.   The woman twitched in her bonds as if fighting to remain asleep.  The monitor’s feedback stream displayed  erratic jumps in her vitals triggering a chirping noise.

“Be calm, my love,” Herman pressed his forehead  and palms to the glass. “I have returned.”

“Herman!” The woman’s eyes flew open and the monitor went white from the spikes in activity.  The chirping warning became a full alarm, casing Herman and the woman to spring into action.  

“Just like we practiced!” Herman smiled as he wrenched open the chamber and stripped away her bounds and the medical attachments.  The woman stumbled out of her chamber and they set about freeing the next two Fadian.

Kaleigha watched in awe as the Fadian worked in a growing unit to quickly free each other.  

“Ninety seconds!” Herman pumped his fists in the air. “Our best time yet!”

“The last time ever,” one of the Fadian corrected.  He stepped forward, arms extended to embrace Kaleigha. “Our savior!”

“Not now,” Herman pushed past them to the door of the lab.  “We have to push forward before they catch us on the stairs.”

Kaleigha let them sweep her out of the lab,  through the basement living quarters, and back up the stairs into the empty kitchen of the village Mansion.  

“It’s too quiet,” someone whispered.  

“Keep going,” Herman urged. “We prepared for this.”

They moved in short, coordinated advances through the mansion, meeting no resistance at all.  

They rounded the corner into the corridor where Ilma was imprisoned and found it empty as well.

“It’s clear,” a grey-haired woman said, relaxing her stance.  

“Are you sure?” Herman asked, blocking her thoughtless advance.

“Yes,” She squinted. “I see nothing.”

“What about these rooms on either side?” Herman asked.

“No,” the woman shook her head. “The place is empty.”

“That can’t be,” Herman checked behind them then returned to the front of the line. He gave Kaleigha an unreadable look then stated. “We proceed with the same caution.”

The Fadian continued their advance down the hall without any incident. They stood in front at the door of the crucible, expecting something to happen. Kaleigha was almost disappointed when the door failed to explode and no one came storming down to attack them.

At Herman’s signal, four people came forward, removed the wooden bar, and opened the heavy doors.  

The elders were waiting for them.

“Be careful my children,” Ilma called. “My firstborn are treacherous.”

A quiet chorus of ‘mother’ rippled through the Fadian pouring into the room.  

Kaleigha tried to linger in the hall, but she found herself jostled to the front.  

“Ah!” Ilma chuckled, “Ms. Omega. I see you have changed your mind.”

“I’m a hostage,” Kaleigha gave Herman a dirty look.

Herman growled at her and stepped forward to face the elders.

“Step aside,” he said calmly.

“No.” Hailmon said, simply and joined hands with the rest of the elders to form a line in front of Ilma.

Kaleigha thought she saw the air between the two groups shimmer and vibrate, but the distortion was gone in a few moments.  

“Easy Fadian,” Danesha murmured.   Kaleigha wasn’t sure if she was speaking to her or the group as a whole.

“If you do not step aside,” Hermon warned. “We will push you aside.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Hailmon said, sounding genuinely sad. “this is all over.  It is only a matter of endings.”

His words called forth anxiety in Kaleigha. Her pulse hummed like a taunt guitar string.

“You can go peacefully,” Herman’s voice softened and the space before him sparked in pretty clusters.  “Like slipping into sleep.”

“Don’t show them any mercy!” Ilma screamed. “They are worthless.  They are not real.  None of this is real.  Only you my Fadian.”

The Fadian’s front line wavered as her words drew bolts of energy out of thin air.  

“What is happening?” Some one asked.  The question went unanswered.  

“Are we?” Kaleigha stepped forward, placing herself between the Fadian and the Elders. “Either we are all just your dreams or it is possible for everyone to survive.”

Ilma let out an airy trill of laughter.

The sound was unnerving and people on both sides shifted nervously.

“You show your hand too soon,” Ilma said once she recovered.  

But Kaleigha had confidence in the pictures forming in her head.  

“The only way to destroy the city is if we give in to her predictions of misery and destroy it ourselves,” Kaleigha paced the narrow aisle formed by their division, her voice growing stronger. “Of all the shifting powers and sliding loyalties, your urge to destroy… no have US destroy this world is the only constant.”

“You’re just making that up,” Ilma laughed again.  “You know everyone will believe you becuase you’re little Miss Omega who changed everything.”

A low grumble of discontent rippled across the two groups indicating Ilma’s words were true.

“It’s true,” Kaleigha swayed on her feet, overcome by the realization of the level of influence she had over those gathered in the crucible. These were the most powerful people in the city and they wanted, no, needed her to show them the way.  An intoxicating surge of power roiled through her veins.  She took a steadying breath and continued. “She can’t actually control us.  If she could, this whole place would be gone by now.”

The elders whispered quiet and quick along their line. Kaleigha paused, to give them time to respond, but they remained quiet.

“And she definitely would not be held prisoner,” She added as an afterthought.

For a long moment, no  one spoke or moved.   Herman and Hailmon looked at each other as if seeing their ‘enemy’  clearly for the first time.  

A small whisper of ‘victory’ echoed in Kaleigha’s consciousness.

“Then I choose this,” Herman’s love stepped forward and the moment was broken.  “I choose to make war against the elders, I choose to dismantle this city, and I choose to follow Mother across the dark void into the world beyond dreaming. “

Both sides erupted into shouts.

“So close Omega,” Ilma said just loud enough to be heard above the din.

“Forward,” Herman roared. He gave Ilma a demented smile. “And show no mercy!”

Kaleigha turned to protect Danesha from the fadian and was blown over by a blast of energy from the elders.

“What the hell?” a fadian asked.  

Another wave of energy surged forward and blasted the fadian into the hall. Kaleigha tumbled head first into the pile of people blocking the door.  

“Shut the door!” Hermon screamed as another wall of energy surged toward them.  “Shut the damn door!”

They didn’t move fast enough.

The energy flung them into the air where they slammed against the ceiling landed against the far wall.  A bolt of pain shot down Kaleigha’s left side as she tried to stand.  She let out a groan.

“Of course they have powers,” a woman with a bloody, twisted leg laughed hysterically.  “Of course they do!”

“It’s ok, Nyram,” another woman comforted her. “Don’t focus on the pain.”
Nyram devolved into sobs and muttering.  

Kaleigha quietly agreed with her as she checked herself for cuts and bruises.  It now made sense how the elders had subdued Ilma as the Sleeper in the previous iteration of the city.  

“We have to get out of here,” Kaleigha took a step forward and gasped in pain.  “Ilma will be fine.”

“Heal yourself, first,” Herman said. “If you can”

“Too late,” Kaleigha shook her head and slid to the floor.

“Fadian!” Captain Mantua and his men stood at the top of the stairs, weapons drawn, blocking their escape.

“Not this bastard again,” Herman growled charged forward.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” Herman’s sweetheart followed him to the mid-point between the Fadian and the stairs.  

“You have no business here, soldier,” Herman’s voice was calm. “The village is expressly demilitarized.”

“Our business is to keep the city safe,” Mantua was tense and ready to spring.  “Come quietly and you can return to the lab.”

Kaleigha groaned and closed her eyes.  This was going to go very wrong and leave most of them dead. She wondered if they’d return as metallic ghosts as she had before.

“Kaleigha?”  Mantua called.  “Are you down there?”

She gave a weak wave in response.  

“Release her,” Mantua’s voice wavered.  When Herman did not move, Mantua resorted to threats.  “If she is harmed, you will regret every moment of your miserable life.”

“I did not hurt her,” A hard edge worked its way into Herman’s voice.  “We underestimated our task.”

“Bring her to me,” Mantua lowered his weapon.  “I grant safe passage to the one who brings her to me.”

When no one rushed to take the offer, Herman laughed.

“You are a soldier,” Herman scoffed, “You are only good for taking orders. You don’t understand what is at stake here.  Your offer is no good.”

Mantua frowned.

“Retreat soldier,” Herman continued.  “You have no right to be here.”

“We were granted special permission to enter the village by Labor Leader Felder to retrieve his daughter, Kaleigha,” Mantua raised his gun and began his advance.  

“He has no authority to grant such powers,” Herman and his companion held their ground.

“Stand down,” Mantua continued to advance. “Let us retrieve her.”

Herman looked back at Kaleigha.

“Help me up,” she asked the woman still comforting Nyram.

“No,” the woman shook her head. “We need you.”

“For what!” Kaleigha exclaimed. “You all seem to have practised this without me.”

“It’s part of a larger plan,” the woman said. “One that included rescuing you.”

“We did not anticipate the elders’ powers,” Nyram added, still stuck on their defeat. “How did we miss that?”

Kaleigha bit back a sarcastic remark and focused instead on using the wall to get to her feet.

“I’m coming,” she called to Mantua. “Hold on.”

Mantua came to a halt, but did not lower his weapon.

“You can’t leave,” The woman reached out to stop her advance. “We need you.”

“No,  Balae,” Herman said. “Let her come forth.”

Kaleigha whimpered as the pain dogged her every slow step.  Some Fadian whispered pleas for her to stop as she made her way down the hall. Others hurled insults and threats.  She ignored them all and focused on getting to Mantua.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” Kaleigha whispered as she limped between Herman and his sweetheart.

The woman huffed in amusement.  

“I mean it,” Kaleigha rounded on the woman.  She tried to stand upright despite the pain running down her side. “This isn’t the battle that needs to be fought.  Ilma is the only enemy.”

“So powerful,” the woman whispered, studying Kaleigha’s face. “But so stupid.”

“Kaleigha,” Mantua signaled for his men to cover him then closed the space between him and Kaleigha. “Come on.  It’s just-”

Without breaking her gaze, the woman reached over Kaleigha’s shoulder and grabbed the muzzle of Mantua’s weapon.

“NO!” Kaleigha swung her fist into the woman’s jaw and immediately collapsed onto the floor.  

Herman roared somewhere above her just before the stomach-churning slap of meaty fist on face echoed in the hall. Seconds later, Mantua landed in a heap atop Kaleigha. His limp body protected her from the firestorm that launched down the hall at the Fadian.

“Stop!” Kaleigha screamed covering her ears. “Don’t fire!”

But it was too late.

Herman’s body crashed with a loud thud next to Kaleigha.  His blank eyes were all the more eerie for the smile frozen on his face.  

The woman collapsed gracefully and her hand reached out to take Herman’s.  She smirked Kaleigha and, as her eyes fluttered shut, said, “Soon.”

As the last shots hit their mark, Kaleigha rolled Mantua off of her and looked down the hall.

Earthly bodies lay strewn about while the metallic ghost versions of the Fadian stood proud.  

“Every possibility was planned for,” Herman smiled and offered his hand. “Join us.”

Kaleigha screamed in frustration and beat her fists on the ground.

“Wh- wha?” Mantua stirred beside her.

The Fadia lost interest in the soldiers and without further word return to the door of the crucible.

“Captain Mantua!”  his lieutenant rushed to assist the fallen man.  The troop surged forward, weapons at the ready and  set up a perimeter around Kaleigha and Mantua.  A soldier with a medical badge helped Mantua into a sitting position and inspected the blooming red fist print on his face.  

“Status report,” Mantua winced at the sound of his own voice.

“The Fadian are- have -” The lieutenant was at a lost for words. “They aren’t dead, sir.” He said finally gesturing to the group gathered down the hall.

“I have to stop them,” Kaleigha got to her feet.

“Kalie-ow!” Mantua cringed as the medic pierced his cheek with a needle.

“We should fall back,”  the lieutenant blocked Kaleigha’s advance.

“Yes,” Mantua agreed, getting to his feet.  “Radio ahead and have them move our captive.”

“Yes, sir!” The lieutenant pulled out something that looked like a sleek phone and began speaking a series of numbers.  

“Fall back, men!” Mantua ordered.

As they turned to leave, a bright glow emerged from the crucible. It sparked and crackled as it consumed the gathered Fadian and set fire to the wooden walls of the mansion.

Kaleigha watched the golden glow barrel down the hallway.  

“No!” Mantua cried, trying to shielded her from the blast.  Their eyes met for a moment before the flesh melted off his face and he disappeared into the light.

Kaleigha watched the skin fall from her body and the metallic ghost emerge only to melt into a thousand tiny lights that melded into the energy burst.

As her last thoughts dissolved into nothing, Kaleigha grit her teeth and pushed back against everything.  The Elders, Ilma, Herman, Felder, and this strange version of the city that was more dangerous than the poorer one that came before.  All of it weighed on her, pushing her down, grinding out her will, and forcing her into something she did not want to be a part of.  

She would push back and beat them all.  

“KALEIGHA!” Egoly’s voice rang out over the roar of destruction.

“Don’t try to stop me!” She answered, though she did not know exactly what he might be trying to stop.  

The fire winked out and a moment later the world went black.

“LET IT BURN!” he called, closer but still out of sight.  

Fingers reached out to grab her arm, but she shook them off.  

She used the darkness to focus on breaking the power of her enemies.  The fools who had no problem enslaving or destroying the city for personal gain.

Egoly hovered just outside of her senses.  His gasps and whimpers only fueled her determination to perfect the situation.

Kaleigha did not let up once she felt the others retreat.  She pressed on, sucking in their fear and transmuting it to power. Soon the darkness held nothing but her anger and Egoly’s quiet sobs.

“What have you done?” He whispered after a long stretch of silence.  

Kaleigha inhaled and tried to calm herself.  This next part was tricky.  Anything she held in her consciousness would throw off this fragile process. She drew one last breath then pressed out against the whole universe.  

Egoly cried out as the world shifted around them.

Kaleigha groped for his hand and held her breath when light began to dawn around them.

Grey slowly replaced the black. It, in turn, became a rich purple that  rolled through a spectrum of cool blues then  burst into wild pinks, shimmering oranges, and striking reds.

“Where are we?” Egoly asked, breathless with wonder.

They stood before floor to ceiling windows staring at a view of the city that Kaleigha recognized immediately.

“Felder’s penthouse,” she flatly.  Her brain lurched and she knew immediately that was not true.

“We live here?”  A smile spread across Egoly’s face and he turned from the window to survey the room.  “Th-this is so nice!”

“No it isn’t,” Kaleigha squinted down at the city, trying to discern the quality of life.  Egoly looked wounded, so she amended herself. “Not until we know for sure that the city is safe.”

“We’re safe,” Egoly said after a moment.  “We’re in the towers and not down in the village. So why does it matter?”

“Why indeed,” Felder boomed as entered the room on the heels of the same maid who tried to save Kaleigha.

“Where is Ilma?” Kaleigha whispered, throwing a look at the maid as she bustled around the kitchen.

“Who cares?” Felder gave Egoly a friendly hug. “The Fadian rule the city.”

She braced herself for the flood of information his words triggered.  

“Dictators?” She frowned.

“Oligarchs,” Egoly corrected, grinning from ear to ear.

“You have chosen wisely, daughter,” Felder embraced her and rested his chin on her forehead. “You have served your city in a way  we never dreamed.”

“You- the Labor Leaders,” Kaleigha struggled to articulate the idea. “I-I had to die to serve the city. Remember?”

Felder sighed and squeezed her tight before holding her out before him.

“We are not Fadian. Our wisdom was limited to what had already come before.  There was no way to predict your powers or that the death was…”

“What’s the catch?” Kaleigha pulled away looked around for something to bring forth the whole story of this new iteration.

“Let’s not have this discussion here,” Felder eyed the maid who betrayed him before.  “Syeed is outside.  We will take a ride to the village and get the rest of the information.”

Kaleigha wanted to object, but the village was key to the whole unraveling of the city and the base of Ilma’s hold on their existence.

“Fine,” She conceded and gestured for Felder to lead the way.

“Great!” Felder rubbed her arm and shot one last baleful look the maid before walking to the elevator.  

It was hard to tell from the streets of downtown whether or not the rest of the city was impoverished.  Kaleigha eyed the early morning pedestrians looking for signs of financial strain or struggle and found none.  She settled into the back of the SUV and stared out the window for the short ride to the village.  

“There’s not guard,” Egoly frowned and the empty space where the gatehouse had been.
“And no gate,”  Kaleigha whispered.  

“This could be good,” Felder nodded.  “Nothing to protect.”

“Is that what you called yourself doing?” Egoly asked.

“The crucible is the key,” Felder said, confirming Kaleigha’s theory. “That is the stopper in the tub.  If it falls, the city swirls down the drain to oblivion.”

“How poetic,” Egoly huffed.

They rode in silence until they broke through the trees to find nothing.  

“What the hell,” Egoly sat forward.

Felder let out a gleeful chuckle that made the hair on Kaleigha’s neck stand up.  Felder knew more than he’d let on and in true fashion was using it to his advantage.  

Kaleigha studied the scene for the trap.  

A group moved through yoga combinations in the space where the mansion once stood.   Early morning exercisers  walked, ran, and biked along paths that replaced  the modern houses.  One of them remained standing, but it was labeled a rest area.  

Syeed maneuvered the SUV into a parking space near the building.  

“There!” Egoly, who seemed to share her suspicions, pointed while they waited for Syeed to open their doors.  The elders sat, inconspicuous, around a cluster of  umbrellaed cafe tables. They looked completely innocent people having a chat except for the death looks they gave the SUV.

“This could get ugly, “ Felder said. “Perhaps I should go out first and..”

“No way!” Kaleigha nearly bowled Syeed over in her haste to exit the car.

Felder launched out of the car and their efforts to beat the other to the elders while not drawing the attention of the rest of the park was nearly comical.  

“You vicious wench!” Hailmon hissed as youth won over wisdom and Kaleigha made it to the table first.

She immediately regretted her victory.

“I guess we’re just gonna ignore the part where you guys nearly fried me to a crisp with your little sunshine death ray?”  Kaleigha sneered.  Her patience with the Elders was already spent. Felder gave her an appreciative look, but kept silent.

“Where’s Ilma?”  Egoly caught up to them, panting slightly.  

There was a beat of silence before Danesha pointed to the yoga group.

“There may be an entrance to the tunnels where that class in exercising.” she said.

“What makes you think that?” Egoly asked, looking back over his shoulder.

The elders did not answer.  

Felder chuckled again and shook his head.

“WHAT!”  Kaleigha snapped. “What clever little trick have you played to put us in your palms?  Hmmm?  Spill it!”

“Oh ho, daughter,” Felder laughed outright.  Then in a scathing whisper, “That crown too heavy already?”

“I don’t have a crown,” Kaleigha said firmly, refusing to take the bait.  She heard several disparaging noises from the Elders and Egoly took her hand.  Kaleigha looked around, but only Felder met her gaze.

“I have never been prouder of you,” Felder gave her a wide grin and a wink.  “I happily serve the best interest of the city as I always have.”  

Kaleigha sighed. The memories of her rise to power bobbled to the top of her consciousness.  It was not a pretty picture.  

“Syeed,” Kaleigha called, “Take our illustrious elders home.”

Syeed nodded and moved to assist them in getting out of there chairs.

“You can’t send us back home like some runaway puppy,” Hailmon spit.

“Apparently I already have,” Kaleigha enjoyed the man’s defeated stance and his eventual capitulation.  

“I’ll be back soon, sir,” Syeed said once they were packed away in the SUV.

“Take as much time as you need,” Felder gave a casual salute and dismissed Syeed.

“Care to let us in on the joke,” Egoly asked once the vehicle pulled away.  

Felder pulled out a seat and offered it to Kaleigha.  

“Thanks,” she sat and studied the terrain.  

Felder sat and pulled out his phone.  He typed a few things then sat the device face down on the table. After a moment of staring at his daughter, he gestured for Egoly to sit with them.

Egoly refused and started to pace the length of the rest area.

“I have secret death squads,” Kaleigha breathed when Egoly reached the far end of his trail.  The realization left her shaky.

“Well,” Felder watched her, “Death only comes to those who resist.”

“Did Ilma resist?” She cringed as a vision of the burning village grew in her mind.

They grew silent as Egoly passed them again.

“Only you know that answer,” Felder smirked. “You went on that mission alone and dared us, on pain of true death, to follow  you.  We stayed up the whole night waiting for you to return.”

Kaleigha turned back to the yoga group.  They were exchanging final bows and packing up.  

“Under the mansion?”

“Possibly,” Felder said. “I had the entrances caved in and sealed after the raid.”

“All of them?”  She asked, growing increasingly uncomfortable with the concept.

“The ones we know about,” Felder gave her a questioning look.

“Good,” She nodded.  “They’ll never be used to entomb another Fadian ever again.”

“What does the rest of the city look like?” Egoly suddenly stopped his pacing. “Are the people living well?”

“Let’s find out,” Felder pointed up.  A pale blue helicopter circled the clearing then descended on the former site of the mansion.

A figure emerged standing proud against the draft from the whirling blades.

“Is that Manuta?” Kaleigha gaped.

“Captain Mantua,” Egoly corrected, his tone bitter. “Head of our household security and your personal body guard.”

“Now, now, Egoly. It is Kaleigha’s right to entertain herself at her discretion,” Felder chided. “Just as it is her right to choose who stands beside her.”

Egoly glared at the fair haired man striding toward them.

“Remember your place,” Felder’s face darkened, “and be grateful for your luck.”

“Chairwoman Felder,” Mantua stopped directly in front of her and gave a sharp salute.  

“At ease Captain,” She heard herself purr. A repulsive heat boiled up her body forcing her to take a step back. She reached for Egoly’s hand and for a brief moment, it seemed he would reject her.  A quiet cough from Felder prompted Egoly to behave.

“We’d like a tour of the city,” Kaleigha stated, slightly breathless.

“As you wish,” Mantua saluted again.  “Follow me.”

Kaleigha stopped herself from smiling as they trailed behind him to the helicopter.  She averted her eyes from his tempting rear view and focused on the helicopter.  

It was her favorite shade of blue and bore a seal that she suddenly recognized as her coat of arms.  
“Chairwoman for life?” Kaleigha glanced at Felder.  “How did you let that happen?”

Felder gave a dark chuckle and looked proud of himself.  “I encouraged it.”

“You mean you implanted the idea in my head and manipulated me into carrying it out?” Kaleigha whispered.

“Forever grateful,” Felder seemed amused.

“You wanted to kill me,”  She hissed under her breath as Mantua opened the door of the helicopter.

“You’re still mad about that?” Felder let out a hearty laugh.

“Madame,” Mantua helped her up the stairs.

“Thank you,” she said, breathless again as his touch sent electricity through her body.  She sat next to the door and watched Felder herd Egoly into the narrow jump seat across from her.  

“Strap in,” Mantua knelt beside her, carefully fitting her into the harness.  His fingertips brushed over her waist and breast causing Kaleigha’s heart to flutter.

“There,” he murmured finally breaking character and giving her a smoldering look. “Safe and sound.”

“Thank you,” she felt her mouth fall open when Mantua pressed his muscled torso against her knees.

After a tense pause, Felder cleared his throat.

Mantua quickly passed out headsets and secured himself in the seat next to the pilot.

“Sentry loop,” his voice came through the earphones.  

The pilot nodded, guiding the aircraft off the ground.  Once they cleared the trees, the pilot swung them out over the Salkon river heading north.  

Kaleigha immediately noticed something wrong.  

Only one bridge, Herman’s former stronghold, spanned the river.  Two sets of pylons standing in the river were the remaining proof that the other two bridges ever stood.  Gone, too, was the expressway that ran parallel with the Salkon. In its place was a wide greenbelt dotted with colorful flower beds.

“You had it dismantled,” Egoly’s voice in the headset stopped her gawking. They both puzzled at the new memories.

Felder remained amused.

“Wise choice, madame,” Mantua nodded.  “Helps contain the chaos and enforced the order.”

“Order?” Egoly mouthed.
The word filled Kaleigha with dread.   

Then she saw it.  Mile upon mile of greenery where the city beyond the towers once sprawled.

“What the hell!” Egoly exclaimed a little too loudly.

“Everything ok?” Mantua turned to Kaleigha who gave him a weak smile.