"I thought you said we were going somewhere special," she said.
"I told you," He looked at her with eyes full of love and devotion, like she had never seen before, as they glistened in the sunlight, "I want you to see for yourself."
He had been dragging me along for miles. I didn't mind. I kept my eyes lowered to the ground and kicked up the dead brown leaves and the dirt at my heels, getting mud all over the buckles of my knee high boots. I was sure we would have been there by now.
"You haven't said anything this whole time, we've been walking for hours, and--" He quickly threw his arm out in front of me. I stopped cold. "What?" His eyes widened and he nodded with two raised eyebrows. I looked ahead.
I saw a wide plain of black ash over a large hill, smoldering with smoke that reached up into the thundering sky. The storm clouds darkened the fresh green grass beneath the rolling fog which curled from the distance to our feet. No birds sang. No trees swayed. The sun didn't dare show it's face. We, ourselves, barely breathed as we gazed into the blackened horizon with wide eyes.
"You see what I mean?" He said. I saw him look at me out of the corner of my eye, but I was so swept up in what I was seeing that I didn't say a word.
"Sterling?" He said.
I grabbed his hand and pulled him forward. We weren't going to leave until I saw for myself what this was. It wasn't just the awe of the black rubble and thick smoke reaching into the clouds. From the moment I took his hand, every foot I planted into the ground made me feel more and more like I had been here before. I didn't like it at all. I think it showed in my face when he finally caught up to me after I had pulled him the whole way there.
"What's wrong?" He said. He touched my cheek, gently. I wanted to smile, I really did. I liked him, too. But my thoughts were so pre-occupied with what we were seeing, and what I was feeling, that it didn't matter right now.
"I-I don't know," I said, squinting my eyebrows up at the sky.
I heard a low growling in the distance. I looked back behind me and my eyes danced over the woods behind us. It grew louder. I said, "Do you hear that?"
He nodded, slowly.
My heart picked up, my breaths grew deeper and faster as the low growling got louder and closer. I realized it wasn't coming from behind us or even in front of us. It was coming from the ground. In only the time it took me to catch on, the ground began quivering beneath our feet. I tried to keep my balance as it shook harder. The dirt made small explosions at our feet and we fell to the ground. I dug the dirt into my nails with two hands. I buried my face, waiting for it to be over.
I slowly looked up at Meadow, who stared at the sky, awestruck. I slowly passed my glance from him to the thundering skies above us. Lightning clashed with the black towers of a castle, standing where the rubble was moments before. The red vertical stained glass windows flashed with blinding white in the storm. Rain poured down hard from the torrential skies, bringing full veils of water flooding over the wide porticos and shingled roof. It was more than just a storm. The black clouds were a life of their own, loudly sobbing on us with pity. It felt sorry for us being here, that I had to come here.
It wasn't hard to see why. I have, in fact, been here before. Fourteen years ago during the worst moment of my then-short life. This was where my mother was nearly killed right before my eyes. This was the place she died trying to save when we thought we were leaving it in safety, victory. It's just a living, now breathing, nightmare. I wasn't going to wake up from it. Tears rolled down my cheeks, mixing with the rain and the mud that splashed on my face as I kept it lowered to the ground. My mouth fell open, sighing.
All those nightmares I had for years were flooding back to me at once. The night where I could have saved her life but I stood by and did nothing, and she let me. She acted like it was okay because I was so young. Like I was as helpless as she was, though I wasn't the one being trapped. They were the longest minutes she would ever stare at me, and I would stare at her, in my life. They were the worst, too.
The rain grew softer and quieter as I watched it splatter on my knuckles which still sank into the mud. I sniffled and looked back at Meadow, who quickly looked away as soon as I caught him staring. I kept my eyes on him, blinking against the tears and trickling rain, as he stared at the ground with heavy breaths.
"What?" I said. "Why don't you want to look at me?"
"I wanted to ask what's wrong. But..." He stopped, and took in a small gulp of air, "It just seemed like a stupid question." He scoffed, shaking his head.
I chose not to say anything. There was a number of things I could have told him. I could have told him this was where my mother was nearly killed. I could have said that we never should have came here. I could have asked if this happened before, since he said he comes here so much. I could have raised my voice louder with every question, growing hungrier for answers. But he's been through enough. I also think he's a little afraid of me, for as much as it's clear that he likes me a lot.
He gulped softly again and slowly stood up. I don't think he wanted to stay in the mud much longer. He didn't want to look more vulnerable than he already does.
Instead of doing what anyone else might have done and gazed up at the clearer view of the castle, he walked over to me and stretched out his hand. My mind went back to the first time he did that, moments ago. The first time was to pull me into him, so I would trust him, but the second time is to keep me safe from harm now that he had me. I was already inside him and now he was going to take care of me. I saw it all in his eyes as he looked down at me like a guardian angel who came to tell me everything was alright.
I stretched out my hand and grabbed it, softly squeezing it. He pulled me up and sighed. As I looked up into his eyes, I was able to smile and he placed a hand on my lower back as he guided me closer. The wind felt warmer between us than around us. I tucked my head under his chin and kept my eyes to the ground. I listened to his hot breaths in my ear.
This moment wasn't about the castle to him. It wasn't about anything but me and wanting to keep me safe and warm. I wanted to be close to him because anything else around us wouldn't bring me happiness. For a few moments at a time, his warmth took the place of the flashes in my head, playing the nightmares where I stood by and never did anythng different. I stayed helpless because I was helpless. I was only young, after all.
"It's okay," He whispered.
I smiled widely. When he said it, I wasn't thinking only about right now. I was thinking of my whole life as if he already knew about all of it. Everything I ever knew was okay when he said it, softly. If only he wasn't wrong.
The wind suddenly picked up and blew violently. I dug my face into Meadow's black leather jacket as he held me closer. The wind blew harder and mixed with the fast and hot breath meadow blew into the back of my neck as he sunk his face into it.
He looked up and slowly pulled away, watching something in the distant horizon behind me. "What?" I said. I turned around and looked at the rolling pitch black clouds coming at us, like crashing oceans plundering forward in the sky.
The air grew frostier. My bones and muscles felt weaker, almost numb. I fell back against Meadow and he grabbed my shoulders as we fell into the mud. Everything became darker and blurrier as the dark billows charged forward and faster, like wild black horses. I could barely move anymore by the time I hit the ground. I was completely paralyzed. My spirit gave way, fading inside my body as I gave it up.
"Is this death?" I said.
"What?" Meadow said, shaking me. I think I just terrified him. To go as far as to use to the word 'death' is not something he would take lightly. His eyes were wide with fear as he stared down at me. "What's happening?" He said, shaking me some more.
"Sorry," I said, weakly, "I'm sure I'm just--"
"Not dying," a man's voice said, suddenly.
Meadow slowly lifted my head so I could see the black silhouette, marred by near blindness, that stood among the black clouds.
"There's hundreds of them," He gasped.
"Oh," I said, weakly. It's not one figure in a black cloud like I thought. It's hundreds of figures that are made of them.
"It'll wear off, the blindness," the voice said. "By the way, my name is Leviticus." He drew closer to me, raising the hairs on my skin with frost. I bit my lip, softly, on the inside. It was the last of anything I could do to express a little fear. To let myself feel any physical emotion.
"What do you want?" Meadow demanded.
I wished I could look up at Meadow and ask him to stop talking. He was getting bolder with every step Leviticus took towards us. We don't know what he could do to us. If he tries to do anything more than raise his voice, we could die.
"My business...is with her," He said, charismatically.
"I don't think so," He growled through clenched teeth. "You're going to go through me before you lay one finger on her."
"Enough," Leviticus said. Somehow the single utterance, declaring in a single syllable that consequences will be come if he says another word, was enough to humble him.
"Sterling," He said. "First of all, it is a pleasure. Terrible we couldn't meet under better circumstances. Yet, I think any other way just wouldn't make sense."
He kneeled over me, flicking at me with ice cold tentacles that stretched out of the black clouds that surrounded him. My skin grew colder from numbness, into light pain. I wanted to scream but my voice was paralyzed.
"You're weak, kitten. You're not going to last much longer so here's what I'm gonna tell you," He said, softly, "We don't want you. We don't like you. This castle is ours so don't get in our way."
"Are you going to kill her?" Meadow said. The words made me sick to my stomach. He said it so simply, so plainly. I couldn't look up at him with scared eyes, fearing for my life. I could only keep them shaking silently in his lap as I breathed thick louds of cold air.
"My business isn't with you," He said.
He drew closer to me and this time I felt his sharp breath shoot in my ear. I breathed deeply, fearfully waiting for him to speak.
"Kitten," He said, sharply, "I never should have sent Brian to get the job done. Your Mom got rid of him real easy. Unfortunatrly, I'm afraid your luck isn't so great. If you think what she went through was bad, just wait."
"You know me," I said, softly. My lips parted, allowing me to speak as if they were under his full control. He wanted me to talk.
"Kitten," He cooed, again, "I am where all your nightmares come from. I know all of your worst fears and your worst dreams. If you mess with me, I'll make them all real. What you feel right now is nothing compared to---"
A bright light flashed between us and he shrieked back in fear, throwing his arms over his face. Almost immediately, I could move again. My head shot up, almost hitting Meadow in the face as he fell backward to protect himself from the blast of light. I embraced it until it quickly faded away.
I watched with clear eyes as the black clouds, that I could now clearly see filled with endless black bodies, rolling back as quickly as they came. I felt strangely peaceful. At the same time, I wanted to break down and cry. All I could think about was my sainted mother.
Meadow stroked my back, gently. I ignored it and sucked in my breath, fighting back the tears. I was at a point between the joy of being saved, by something, and the fear of what was coming next...just like my mother must have felt when she knew she was going to die.
"What's going on? Who were those guys?" He asked. He didn't demand it of me. Instead, he said it softly, wanting to know so he can be prepared to keep me save me next time.
I didn't answer him. I simply stared into the horizon, lit by a new sunrise and glowing gloriously over the golden meadows that went on into it like sparkling embers. I took in a deep breath.
I looked back, halfway, keeping my eyes lowered to the ground. "Those people sent the man who killed my parents," I said. It was a single sentence, quickly and softly spoken, and enough to say all I wanted about it to him and nothing else. Tears slowly came down my cheeks as I curled my lips, trying to hold them back.
I tightened my chest and quickly rose. I tried not to look at him. I don't want to see him looking back at me, like he wanted to let me know everything was safe and alright. A false sense of security is the last thing I needed now.
He gently outstretched his hand to grab mine and I stormed off, leaving him far behind. He called off to me with every quickened step, but I pretended not to listen. Anything he wanted with me, even if it seemed like it was for the best, wasn't going to help. We can't cover the past, the pain, and we can't pretend like either of them aren't awaiting us in the future.