(Elf Gate Series: Volume 1)
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Cover art by Rich Falla
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Dedicated to all the friends who inspired my imagination and encouraged me to do this.
Chapter 1: The Hunt
Blood … The essence of life itself trickled down the elf's cheek from the open wound beneath his eye as he pulled two daggers from beneath his cloak.
"No! Virodil! We must run!" Krystabella cried, her golden hair whipping wildly in the wind that fanned the blazing forest behind them.
Aija turned the page of her paperback novel.
She could hear someone walking along the path approaching the stone steps where she sat. So, without looking up, she shifted to one side to allow the visitor entrance to the old bed and breakfast inn behind her.
The last evening rays of the short winter sun were being eclipsed by fog and gathering clouds. The light beneath the iron lamppost wasn't bright enough for reading, but she squinted at the words to stay focused.
The wizard threw his head back and laughed. "That's right, Virodil! Run along now, for there is nothing you can do to salvage what has happened here."
"I would rather die than see you drag my family's honor through the mud!"
"Then die you shall." The wizard laughed again as bolts of magic charged between his fingertips.
"Excuse me," someone spoke.
Aija looked up. The visitor had paused, standing next to her on the steps, rather than passing.
Medium-length, shaggy, brown hair framed the young man's fair-skinned face beneath a plain, navy blue hoodie under a denim jacket. She couldn't tell if his eyes were gray or blue, but they seemed to be the exact same color as the jacket.
"Is this ..." He was holding a handwritten map, which he immediately rolled into one hand. Checking the sign that swayed gently above the door, he fidgeted with the necklace he wore—a black leather strap sporting a silver dragon's foot with a quartz crystal in its talons. "Is this the Cottage Inn?"
"That's what it says." Boredom tainted her tone, but she offered a faint smile to avoid sounding impolite.
Pulling his hood lower about his ears, he nodded with a mild embarrassment. "Yes, of course it does. Are you from around here, by any chance?"
"I live here."
"Here? At the inn? Do they accept long-term boarders?"
"My parents own the place." Feeling a rain drop on her nose, she lifted her chin to the sky then closed her book, but stubbornly kept a finger between the pages. "Checking in?"
"Actually, I was looking for an old abbey in the town of Winderbury. Would you happen to know of anything like that around here?"
"Unfortunately, you're already looking at it." She gave an obligatory gesture to the stone wall behind her.
He seemed to think she misunderstood his question at first, but backing away from the front steps, he took a good look at the old manor.
The wall beneath the ivy was hand-crafted. The windows on the lower level and center of the second floor were steeply arched in Gothic tradition. The rest of the building, however, didn't match the architectural style of the ground level front, as if many renovations had been done over time.
"But I thought … I didn't realize it was still in use."
"The original thirteenth century abbey was converted into a private estate after Henry the VIII took land away from the churches and gave it to local lords." She rattled off the building's history in a colorless, memorized manner. "Later, it was converted into a boarding house, then turned back into a private manor during the Victorian Age. Around the 1920's, it was renovated into several modern flats. Then my dad renovated one more time to run it as an inn."
Another raindrop pelted her just below the eye. Sighing with disgust, she tore a scrap of paper from the corner of her notebook to tuck between the pages in lieu of her finger. Then, she reluctantly tucked the book into her bag.
"That's why the architecture is so mixed up." Standing, she pulled her book bag onto her shoulder. "I'm Aija." She held out a hand.
"Gáraketh." He smiled and hesitantly returned the gesture. "I don't suppose you know anything of the people who once lived in the abbey?"
"Well, I know they're probably dead by now," she answered with a light shrug. "But I only know the rest of it because that's what my parents tell visitors checking in."
"Then, I don't suppose you came across any antiques from that period? Any relics or … books?"
"Nothing left behind that I know of."
"I suppose not." He sighed. "Well, it's a lovely place, anyway … peaceful and quiet."
Aija snorted. "It's always looked more like a haunted house to me. I was nine when we moved here, and the entire first year I refused to sleep upstairs because I was convinced it had a ghost."
His curiosity was aroused. "Ghost?"
"It took me a long time to make peace with this monster, but … I guess it's home now." She gave an indifferent shrug.
"Did you actually see a ghost?"
She answered the earnest question with a sheepish smile. "Most people stop listening once I say that. But, no."
He seemed pleased at her easy mannerisms. "I see. Well, I thank you for the information, but I really should be going now. Perhaps, we will meet again some day." He gave a small, polite bow.
Aija was amused at the formal gesture. "You're sure you don't want a room? I was kidding about the ghost."
Gáraketh laughed lightly and shook his head. "No, but thank you. You've been most helpful … Aija."
Aija turned away from him to look down the lane. "If you want to know more about the inn's history, you should probably talk to my dad. He's the one that's been in contact with the historical society, and ..."
When she turned back to face him again, he was gone.
Leaning around the hydrangea bushes, she tried to see if he was heading toward the woods. "Mr. … Gáraketh?" Sighing at his abrupt exit, Aija sat back down on the front steps.
The sprinkles were getting heavier, so she couldn't pull her book back out. But with nothing else to do while waiting for her ride to the library, time slowed to a painful crawl.
Dusk seemed a little darker. The fog seemed a little thicker, and the cold bit a little deeper, until even her faux-fur-and-suede coat no longer seemed sufficient. Was something rustling in the trees? She turned, but the lamp light revealed nothing beyond the flagstone path and bushes.
"Mirk?" She hoped her Irish wolf-hound would trot from the undergrowth and sit dutifully—protectively—at her side. When he failed to answer, her debate about whether to go back inside or continue waiting on the front steps was won by the numbness she was beginning to feel in her toes. At least, that's what she told herself.
Aija flipped her mohair scarf over her shoulder and picked up her backpack, ready to go inside, when a car turned off of the main road into the private lane and came across the small stone bridge toward the manor. The headlights in the fog obscured color and shape, but the rumble of the muffler sounded familiar. When the old Volkswagen finally stopped in front of her, the shadowy driver leaned to the passenger side and unlocked the door.
"A little late, yeah?" Aija mildly scolded as she slid into the vinyl seat. Vinyl was an unfriendly material regardless of season, but at this temperature the old car's upholstery begged to crack even more than it already had.
"In American English 'half-past' probably means 'give or take fifteen minutes', but in real English 'half-past' means just that. Honestly, you've been living in this country how long now and you still haven't learned to be punctual yet?" After closing her door, she force-fastened her misbehaving seat belt.
Kim rubbed her hands together and tried to increase the heater's output, but all she got in return was more cold air. "Is that a complaint? I could let you walk, you know. In American English, that means, 'Get your butt out of my car if you're going to complain.' It's not my fault this dinosaur wouldn't start. It hates cold weather."
Aija pulled down the visor mirror. "Then let's not tell it the forecast is calling for snow." Her short, sand-blond mop was damp from the sprinkles, but at least it didn't have frost in it yet. Giving up on her bad hair day, she flipped the visor back into place.
"This rain and fog have been hanging around for at least a week now," her friend complained. "Snow would be a welcome change."
As the car followed the lane back over the little bridge toward the main road, Aija looked for Gáraketh walking along the shoulder, but he was nowhere in sight. "I just met the strangest man. I thought he was checking about a room for the night, but he started asking me questions about the abbey."
"Maybe he was from the historical society?"
"No, I've met their type before … all full of dates and names ... wagging their fingers about renovating priceless landmarks. He was nothing like that. He was nice—odd, but nice."
"Odd in a creepy way? Or odd in a funny way?"
"Odd in an odd way. I don't think he's from here."
"Where's he from?"
"Don't know, but he had a lovely northern-ish accent."
"Oh. You mean he was odd in a 'lovely' way."
Aija could barely see the outline of her friend's beige-brown, curly hair, much less her face, but she could tell by Kim's tone she was amused. "Alright, yes, he was easy on the eyes," she reluctantly conceded. "But one minute he was standing right beside me, and the next minute he was gone. Did you see anyone walking down the lane as you came in?"
"No. I can barely see the road in this pea soup."
Aija folded her arms and ran the encounter through her mind once more, trying to remember the details. "What kind of books and things would he expect to find in an old abbey after all these years?"
"Bibles." Kim glanced at her friend's flat expression. "Okay, very old Bibles."
Aija gave a light laugh and lifted her gaze to the side of the road that stretched before them. "I'm serious. Didn't other kinds of books end up in monasteries during the Dark Ages as a means of protecting them from invaders, or—look out!"
Something had darted from the trees into the street.
Kim slammed on the brakes, sending the car into a spin as something large collided with the windscreen and was thrown off the other side. In a panic, she swerved to the shoulder, shifted into park, and popped open the door. "Oh my god! Oh my god, I've hit someone!"
"Wait!" Aija grabbed her arm. "That thing was pretty big. If it's injured, but not dead, it might hurt you."
"It was a man, wasn't it? What if it was that guy you met?"
"Human eyes don't shine like that. It had to be some kind of animal. A deer?"
"Deer don't run on two legs."
"Well, what else could it be?"
At a loss for an answer, both girls looked at the shattered front window, then looked through the rear to see if a body was lying in the road. The street was empty.
"Okay, I'm staying calm," Kim coached herself, though her hands were trembling on the steering wheel. "But I can't just drive away knowing I hit someone."
Aija understood her friend's worry. "Alright, but we go together and take protection … just in case."
Kim could agree with that. Leaning across Aija, she pulled the flashlight from the glove box, then turned off the engine. Pulling her keys from the ignition, she squeezed them between her knuckles like spikes.
Aija looked for something to use as a weapon, but the only thing handy was her backpack.
Kim paused with doubt as soon as she saw Aija get out of the car and heft the bag above her shoulder. "What are you going to do with that?"
"Bean him over the head with it," Aija answered with a slightly indignant frown. "It's heavy, okay? And it's all I have … unless you want me to poke his eyes out with a pencil … which I'd rather not because that would be disgusting."
Kim exited the car, leaving the headlights on, and turned the flashlight toward the ground as they walked back to where the accident occurred. There was still no body.
"Well, whatever it was, it's gone," Aija stated the obvious.
"He knows what my car looks like. He could have me arrested for hit and run … if he survives." Kim shook her head in disbelief as they walked to the front of the car. The windscreen was totaled, but a dark red, five-fingered hand print was smeared on the dented hood. That ended the debate about human or animal easily enough.
As they stared at it in silence, each afraid to say what the other was thinking, the print began to dissolve in the rain. Kim found her voice first. "I gotta call an ambulance."
As her friend returned to her driver's seat and dialed emergency services, Aija walked to the other side of the road. Seeing nothing unusual, she was about to turn back, when she heard an unmistakable grunt of pain from the bottom of the steep ditch. "Kim! He's over here!"
Nothing more than a silhouette against the fog, a man on the ground struggled to catch his breath and stand, but he was clutching a hand to his wounded thigh.
"Are you okay?" she hesitantly called. "My friend's trying to ring help." But as she climbed down to meet him, he ran deeper into the ravine. "Wait! Stop! You'll just make it worse!"
Puzzled by his response and the fact that he was even able to run like that after being hit by a car, Aija followed. The paramedics would not be able to find him if he fell unconscious in the thicket after dark.
"You there!" an unexpected voice shouted when she reached the bottom.
Adrenaline jolted through her body. Turning around, she saw four men skidding down the rocks and roots of the ravine to catch up to her. Dressed in heavy boots and wool jackets or parkas, they carried ropes, nets, and other rugged gear. They looked well-prepared for a search and rescue hike, but without the brightly colored safety vests.
"Did someone just run through here?" the man in the lead demanded. He looked like he might have been in his lower forties, had a light beard scruff, and wore a dark knit cap like two of his other companions. As they drew closer, Aija could see that they also had rifles strapped to their backs.
Was this the emergency response team so soon? It looked as if they had been running hard to get here quickly from somewhere nearby. Aija pointed in the direction the injured man went. "We didn't mean to hit him. He came out of nowhere and ran right into the road."
A large man with a long, blond ponytail and a beer gut crouched and studied a broken branch with a blood smear on some leaves. "Cole."
The leader nodded with approval. "Hendricks, David, you go left. Jordie and I will flank to the right."
Turning back to Aija, he nodded. "Thanks. You've been a big help … but you should go home now."
It was unsettling the way he dismissed her before running after their new lead. It felt more like a condescending threat. Come to think of it, they didn't look properly dressed to be an official emergency team, after all. Aija reluctantly turned and started back up the ravine toward the road until the chilling sound of rifle fire echoed in the distance.
"Aija!" Kim slid and skidded down the ditch. "An ambulance is on the way!"
"On the way? Then who are those people?"
Breathless, Kim stopped beside her friend. "No idea. I thought you knew them."
"I heard guns. Did you hear guns?"
"They might be police."
"Not dressed like that. And constables don't carry guns here—not unless they're special forces." Aija felt the blood drain from her face. "Those men were hunting the other one … and we just helped them."
Kim winced. "Don't be ridiculous. Let's get back to the car."
"What if I'm right? We put them on his trail."
"They have guns. We have a flashlight and a bag of books. What are we supposed to do? Enlighten them?"
Aija lifted her eyes to the sky, then scanned the ground. The light shower had turned into a mix of rain and snow, but the snow was sticking. Reaching into her coat pocket, she pulled out her phone. "If we had pictures, we could report it."
"No! Aija, you are not going after them," Kim scolded.
"If anything comes of it, this kind of evidence might protect us … and him. I'll keep my distance. Just wait by the car and send the emergency team down as soon as they arrive." Camera ready, Aija ran further into the forest after the hunters, following their tracks in the snow.
"Aija! If they see you, they'll come after us, too!"
She knew Kim was right, but guilt outweighed her fear.
There were no hiking trails here, so bramble switches and thorns bit into her hands and face as she hurried through the dusk, attempting to track the hunting party. Fully flocked evergreens and fog limited her line of sight; but footprints were visible in the small accumulation, and the sounds of a fight in progress further down the ravine were unmistakable.
Aija was desperate to reach the scuffle before another shot could be fired, but as she drew close enough to see what was happening, she reminded herself to be quiet and hid behind a nearby bush. The chase appeared to be over.
On the ground, two of the hunters lay dead—their torsos nearly severed in half. One lone gunman had his rifle aimed at their prey, who was now trapped on the ground under a large, heavy net. As shocking as that was, however, it's what was happening behind them that commanded her attention.
The ghostly symbol of a large, black tree framed within a circle hung in the midst of a small stone henge. The black tree held no distinguishable top or bottom as it rotated end over end. Beneath it, the stones bore red, glowing runes. The tree dissolved into a gray mist with a density greater than the fog, yet it remained within the boundary of the stone circle.
Fear began to overpower the courage that had propelled her here, but Aija drew a steady breath and lifted her phone to take pictures of the man under the net and the hunters who had trapped him there. Flipping the phone shut, she tucked it back into her pocket and debated whether to flee or linger. If she lingered, she might overhear some kind of explanation.
Her decision was made for her when a sharp pain exploded against the back of her skull and knocked her to the ground. On her stomach on the spongy, damp undergrowth, she lifted her chin to look at her assailant, but ended up staring into the barrel of a rifle.