:..:+:..:CHAPTER ONE:..:+:..:
The Abandoned Shop

The sun was steadily fading away behind the patchy grey clouds, bathing the town in soft sepia tones. The tall old clock tower which centred the town square chimed and echoed the new hour. The last few shops were turning off their lights and locking their doors. Susan Bryar emerged from the closed sandwich bar, having finished her Tuesday afternoon shift cleaning the kitchen and throwing away the leftover stock. It was not exactly a job to die for, but it paid the bills. Just.

Susan's sandals made a tapping sound against the pavement as she weaved her way through the puzzle of towering buildings. Soon she came across the sheltered pathway which would take her to even more shops, then the ramshackle townhouses near the riverbank. She huddled herself further into her jersey as she walked, beginning to feel the bitter chill as the sun's light began to falter. On the road she surfaced on the street lamps already began to submit a subtle glow. Susan's eyes skimmed the neat rows of shops. The stores at this end of town were much smaller and older than the ones in the town centre.

Susan found her attention resting on a tiny walkway that sat nestled between two little stores. She had noticed it the day before, but today she felt like indulging her curiosity. The shady walkway seemed to call out to her, wanting her to trek down its narrow path. Flicking a piece of her honey coloured hair out of her face, she took a few steps towards it. A sudden gust of wind sent dust swirling around her and rustled the blossoming trees behind her. She ducked into the walkway, sheltering herself from the wind. What she found on the other side was a small mass of barren land surrounded by trees and a footpath which probably lead down to the river. It wasn't much. But, when she turned around she noticed the small brick building which had been hiding behind her. It was covered in thick silver cobwebs and its windows were boarded up with planks of wood. The flickering light which clung to its overhang crackled and fizzled out. A black metal sign stuck out from its wall, the gold printing on it was worn, and what was left appeared to be in a different language.

Some strange force was at work, drawing her in towards the old shop. Something far stronger than mere curiosity. Susan was intrigued. The beauty of its precise brickwork down to the intricate patterns inscribed on the black, metal doorknob. Every detail gleamed with the builder's caring attention. She tried to peer through the gaps between the rotting planks, but all she could see was darkness.

The air grew thick with moisture, forming droplets which gently thudded on the dusty pavement. She pulled away from the window and found herself grabbing at the doorknob; its rigid edges seemed to burn her hand. She turned it and could feel the old door almost give up, but the locking mechanism clicked into action, sealing her out in the rain. She returned to the window, trying desperately to see something in the pitch black. She blinked out of her blurry gaze to see the faded outline of something inside. She blinked again and once again saw nothing but darkness. The rain grew heavier, soaking through her clothing so they clung uncomfortably to her bare skin.

It took all of Susan's effort to tear herself away from the abandoned shop. It was beginning to get dark and the rain wasn't stopping. But, as she took a step backwards she lost her footing and fell to the ground, her knees scraping violently against the concrete footpath. No one was around. The rainwater carried a trickle of her blood down the gutter. She tried to push herself up with her hands, but she slipped and fell back down again, her raw knees grinding and mixing more scarlet blood into the rain.

Susan looked up at the abandoned shop which loomed over her with a cold, intense presence. She lay on the concrete feeling weak and drained, unable to get herself back up. Her vision began to deteriorate. She couldn't scream for help. She felt numb all over. One little fall had brought her to the very edge of her existence. Unable to move. Unable to breathe. The starless sky looked down on her feeble body curled in a heap on the footpath, her matted blonde hair dipped in the gutter.

An old man appeared in front of the unconscious girl. He wore a dark grey suit and a bowler hat. He was short and stout; the wrinkles on the dark skin of his face were deep with age. His fingers curled around his wooden cane. "My, my, what do we have here?" he stroked his wispy white beard and tapped her body with his cane. "Claude! I think you might be interested in this!" he shouted, but his soft voice couldn't warrant a reply. He tapped Susan again.

"Remarkable," he crouched over her to inspect the bleeding grazes on her knees and down her legs. He placed his hands against her wounds and gently pressed, as if absorbing the pain away from her. Removing his hands, he let the weakening rain wash away the last of the blood. He stood over Susan for just a little longer, waiting for her eyes to open. And they did. She awoke coughing and spluttering.

The old man was nowhere to be seen.

Susan's head ached. She could have sworn that someone had just been there, but the area was dark and empty. She got off the ground feeling dazed. She wanted to stay and look at the shop a little longer, but her conscience fought with her desire, telling her to go home and rest. She wearily turned around and never taking her eye off her step, she began the walk home. She wouldn't allow herself to look back.

The old man stood at the window, another man beside him. The younger man rubbed his chin as he watched Susan turn and retreat down the walkway. "How long until…"

"She'll be ready by tomorrow. No doubt about it."

"Good. Excellent," the younger man smiled contently. He had thick, dark brown hair and emerald eyes. He wore a white shirt, a tatty grey cardigan and black trousers held up by dark brown suspenders. He exchanged a knowing glance with the old man. "This is an auspicious occasion, Edgar. This could be it."

Edgar watched the rain fall solemnly against the footpath. "When shall we inform the others?"

"They need not know in a hurry."

"I see," Edgar's weary brown eyes scanned the candlelit room.

"There will be time for discussion on Thursday."

"Alright. Sounds like a plan," Edgar looked at the man apprehensively, "I should get going… Until Thursday…" he removed his coat from the coat rack and set his sight on the door, but the other man grabbed him before he could make a move.

"Wait! This will be the start of a new era Ed. Has it not sunk in yet? We should celebrate!"

"It just… seems too simple, I guess. To wait for so long… when it finally comes you just don't know what to think. You're right. The reality of it hasn't sunk in yet," Edgar smiled.

"Let me walk with you."

"But it's raining-"

The younger man gestured towards the window, signaling that the rain had ceased. A crooked smile crept onto his face.

"Alright then."

The two men left the wood scented room, the younger man closing the door behind them. The night had already settled in, the long line of street lamps lit up the darkening path.

"It's a fine night for it. The rain has stopped. The sky is clearing-"

"Tell me Claude… how long will it be before…"

"Well it depends. I'm not counting on it taking any less than a year."

"And what if she won't cooperate?"

"She will. I'll make sure of it," Claude's leather shoes patted through the murky puddles, gently splashing his trousers. "I've waited so long for this. I'm not going to let her slip through my fingers."

Edgar nodded. His cane clacked against the pavement with each step he took.

Eventually they arrived at the steep bank which fell to a shallow river and rose up again closer towards the faint lights from the suburbs. Claude looked down into the dark currents of velvet water flowing through the river carrying pieces of driftwood and litter to the sea. The brightness of the full moon caused each ripple to sparkle and glitter.

"Let's sit down for a moment," Claude cleared himself a space in the long wet grass, Edgar did the same. "It's funny. I come here so often, but tonight… the moon has never shone this brightly…"

"Maybe it's an omen. We're just another step closer to our goal," Edgar pulled a pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket. He took one out and lit it, bringing it to his lips with relief. He puffed it, sending clouds of thick smoke swirling over the river.

They sat there for a while, soaking in the deeply calm atmosphere.

"You'll have to tell me how it goes," Edgar watched Claude throw a stone into the river.

"I'll tell you, and the rest of the Book Club everything. Don't get ahead of yourself. Until Thursday alright?"

Edgar nodded as the two scrambled up from their spot on the riverbank, their trousers dirty from the mud. They took the moonlit pathway through the evergreen trees, their shadows dancing behind them.

Susan fumbled in her pocket for her key as she shivered on the porch outside her flat. The rain had died down to a light drizzle but the air was still tinged with late winter coolness.

She could barely get the key in the keyhole with her shaking hand. Finally it went in and she stumbled inside. She flicked on the light switch and the heater at the end of the hallway. It wasn't much warmer inside than it was out.

She stopped in the bathroom to splash warm water on her face and dry herself with a towel. She looked at her worn face in the mirror. She simply couldn't comprehend why her normally physically strong nature had deteriorated like that all of a sudden, just like she couldn't understand why she held such a deep attraction to that old, abandoned shop on the edge of town.

She lifted her skirt above her knees and found that the scrapes and bruises had already faded to a barely visible state. She shook her head with disbelief and returned her gaze to the mirror where she stared at her reflection. The colour was beginning to return to her face. She thought that the best thing for her to do was to go straight to bed. It was still quite early and she hadn't had any dinner, but her muscles ached and her mind seemed to be shutting down. She clambered down the hallway in a daze and found herself in her bedroom. The peeling wallpaper on the walls and the rough wooden floorboards were the least bit comforting, but it was all she had. She changed into her pyjamas and climbed into the bumpy single bed. She tried to hold her eyes open for a moment, but they dropped, heavy with exhaustion. The onset of sleep was immediate.

The dark ceiling above her began to twist and warp into a deep purple sky, lit up with thousands of tiny scattered stars. She was no longer lying on her bed but standing upright, barefoot on a hard, clay ground. Ahead of her was a girl with short black hair, sitting with her back to her, her legs dangling freely over the edge of the cliff. She could not see the girl's face, yet she could clearly remember her snow-white skin and two eyes that were as grey as fog. The girl was a recurring figure in her dreams, and so was the pearl coloured castle which stood in the distance. The girl hummed a hauntingly beautiful tune which echoed down the valley below her, each note so clear and resolute. Susan's heart jumped. This was the first time she had been able to hear. Before that moment, the dreams had always been soundless. And it wasn't just that, Susan noticed that all her senses seemed to be in tact. She could smell the fresh earth and taste the dewy night air. The dream was not a blurry haze; she could see every detail around her crystal clear, as if it were real.

Quick footsteps sounded behind her as a woman with long hazelnut coloured hair ran from the castle carrying a cane basket stacked with bottles of oils and creams. She ran right past Susan as if she were as translucent as a ghost.

"Naomi! I've been looking all over the palace for you!" the woman called.

The black haired girl sighed and flopped over on her back, her legs still dangling precariously. "Mara, if I wanted you here I would've told you where I was going." The neutral tone of her voice gave no clue as to her disposition.

"But Miss, your brother insists…"

"Does he just… Tell him that I insist on having some time alone. I like it here."

Mara sat down next to Naomi. The edge of the cliff crumbled slightly beneath her.

Susan watched, still and silent. She had also seen Mara in her dreams before. She was nearly always beside Naomi.

"Miss… I… at least let me massage you. By the time you decide to go back it might be a bit too late for all the usual bedtime rituals."

Naomi sat back up and clapped her hands free of dried up dirt. "Very well then."

Mara took the basket off her lap and placed it down on the ground. She removed a transparent rose-red bottle from it and poured its liquid contents onto her hand. Mara began to work the oil into the flawless skin of Naomi's back. She pushed the thin straps of Naomi's airy white dress down so they hung loosely around her shoulders to reveal a larger area of skin which she tenderly massaged. Her hands began to slow to a stop as she felt Naomi's body ease and relax. "There. Are you feeling any better?"

"Mmm," Naomi mumbled.

"Do you want anything else?"

"Well actually…" Naomi's voice hushed, "I want to ask you something."

"Anything at all Miss."

"I've heard people talking… whispering…"

Mara's interest perked.

"What can you tell me about the atikra?"

"I have not heard of such a thing. Maybe you should ask your brother?"

"Brother won't tell me anything."

"I see," Mara looked down to the village which rested in the valley, "it's not something worth looking into- if your brother does not want you to know."

Naomi sighed and yawned.

"Are you sure you don't want to go back now?"

Naomi grumbled. "I suppose I have to. If it's what brother wants."

Mara helped her up off the ground, then picked up her basket. The two walked together back to the castle. Susan wanted to follow them, but her feet wouldn't allow her to move from her position. Everything began to blur. She was losing her freewill until the dream was no longer lucid. It slipped away from her into blankness.

The rest of the night Susan slept soundly and dreamless.

One month of planning for my second story and voila! This story is nothing to do with the one I planned! Anyway, I've had great fun writing this, I aim for something that isn't generic fantasy but something cliché-free that has a mixture of nearly every genre. Updates will be about once a week (every two weeks at the least)