A Christmas Void, Chapter 12- The Bay Area Bugle

What a rush! I couldn’t believe we almost… well, it’s hard to say. The tension could’ve been the anticipation of a tender kiss, or maybe the burning passion would’ve led to something more! Either way, I was dying to find out! I clocked out quickly and practically skipped to my locker. He was set to clock in, but I didn’t want our conversation to end! I figured maybe I could follow him as he dealt with go-backs, or maybe we could have snuck off to the fitting room to make my dream into a reality! Even if all I did was listen to him talk at the register, I’d have felt thrilled! I didn’t want to deal with customers though, so I took my name tag off before I entered the sales floor. I hadn’t even gotten past the customer service desk when a familiar female’s voice screeched, “Santa Monica!”

It took me a moment to realize she meant me. Gryla stormed over to me, and my knees buckled a little. I silently prayed that she didn’t know what just happened between Isaac and me because I really feared we’d end up in a fist fight. A part of me would have loved to slap the smirk off of her face, but I didn’t think Isaac would be too pleased if I hurt his fiancee. Plus, the fact still remained that she was my dad’s boss’s daughter, and I couldn’t risk that for anything! Gryla bellowed, “Where’s Tiffany?”

“Tiffany?” I couldn’t think of a lie quick enough. Mara, who was handling returns again, stared at me in utter confusion. Now, I DID NOT want to explain anything about my life to her or any of the other clowns at Millstone’s, so I improvised, “Oh, Tiffany! I’ll help you find her!” I grabbed Gryla’s arm and led her away from the area.

I decided to take her to the area the least occupied by employees or customers, the shoe department. It literally looked like a child had tipped over a board game in a fit of rage, so I knew we were safe. Gryla made a face as if she just smelled a very foul odor. “It’s still like that?”

“Welcome to my nightmare!” I wasn’t totally joking, but she had no idea why. “Okay, so what’s going on?”
She fumed, “That guy, Brennan, walked towards the bathroom and said he saw Tiffany run out of it! Then Cecil came out of the bathroom with my fiance saying he caught a girl ‘cleaning the stall’ he was in! She was trying to seduce my man!”

“That jezebel!” I had to put my hand over my mouth to hide the giggles.

Luckily, she interpreted my gesture as shock. “Right? Clearly she doesn’t know who I am!”

“But you know who she is!”

“That’s right!”

“Nothing gets past you!”

“No, it won’t!”

“She can’t get away with this!”

“She won’t!”

I had to stop. Even though I found this highly amusing, it would probably go on forever if I didn’t cut it off. “Well, this was the last place I saw her. Maybe she left for the day.”

I really thought she would sigh and give up, but she surprised me by saying, “She thinks she got away with it, oh no! I have a lot to shop for before the wedding, so I’ll be here EVERY DAY! No one messes with my things!”

Things? Is that how she viewed Isaac? The perfect addition to her collection of fine things? I found it hard to believe that she was the one who comforted Isaac through the most devastating part of his life! I suggested, “Well, Tiffany works in this department, so I would keep checking here!”

“Oh, I will!” she declared. As I started to walk away, Gryla told me, “Thanks, Santa Monica! You’re a good friend!”

I stopped square in my tracks. Her words stung and left an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach. That stupid girl considered me a friend? I started to feel guilty about my intentions to betray her. I could see how Isaac must feel. Here she’s been his friend for twenty years, and he was considering betraying her! His guilt must have been insurmountable! I smiled kindly at Gryla and headed out. Before I left, I saw Isaac, who waved bashfully as he stood behind the register, and I wondered if he felt worse about our moment in the men’s room or that Gryla was getting embarrassingly territorial. Nonetheless, seeing Isaac again got my heart pumping! It seemed illogical, but pursuing Isaac really felt like the right thing to do!

That was no easy feat! For the next week, Isaac and I practically had the same shifts, but as long as he got scheduled for work, Gryla got a shopping cart and patrolled the store like a lioness on the hunt. The supervisors decided to let her do it because she would buy expensive things by the end of it. Isaac definitely got embarrassed and steered clear of her when she was on the prowl. He chatted with me a lot, and we got to know each really well. The more I got to know him, the more I liked him! We even made each other confess our biggest faults, and even though some of his answers surprised me (like he’s afraid of killer whales, really!), I still loved him. I swore he felt the same way about me, but I still had no concrete proof. He didn’t do anything romantic with her around. Even when he walked me home, she trailed behind us. Once, she was yelling at someone on her phone, so he stole a quick hug. It felt so nice, and even though we weren’t officially a couple, being together made me happy enough!

One evening, after I got home from work, I sat on the couch and took off my boots. I was in a particularly good mood because Isaac brushed my hand while we walked, and right when I was reliving the moment, Ruth called. “Helllloooo!” I practically sung. “What’s up?”

“I had a problem that I wanted to talk to you about, but forget that for a moment! I know that tone!” Ruth responded with keen interest. “You met a guy, didn’t you?”

I shifted uncomfortably. I hadn’t told anyone how strong my feelings were for Isaac, and I still hesitated because it still sounded terrible. Knowing Ruth, she wouldn’t give up until I made a full confession, so I reluctantly admitted, “Oh, no, there’s nothing new. I’ve just been spending more time with that engaged guy…”

“Did you sleep with him?” she asked with the excitement of hearing juicy gossip.

“No, we haven’t even kissed!” I explained, “But, oh Ruth! The more time we spend together, the stronger my feelings get! As crazy as it sounds, I think he likes me back! If it weren’t for his fiancee, we’d be an item, I just know it!”

“Speaking of the fiancee, isn’t getting married soon?”

“In two weeks.” My heart sunk every time I thought about it. I ardently told her, “They don’t belong together! She wants to marry him to have a trophy husband, and he wants to marry her out of an emotional debt. They’re not in love!”

“And you are?” Ruth played the devil’s advocate, “Are you sure he feels the same way? Maybe he just likes the attention you give him. I mean, after you’re married, it’s nice to know you’re still wanted. My ex certainly thought that, but he went too far and cheated. Are you sure it isn’t just lust?”

“Or it could just be cold feet,” I brought up tearfully. “I know sometimes when people are nervous, they subconsciously do things to sabotage the moment. But Ruth, if you saw us together, you would know it too! He loves me, and there’s still time for him to call call off the wedding!” I paused and ruefully said, “But if I’m wrong, I could jeopardize Dad’s career. She’s his boss’s daughter.”

Ruth concluded, “If you guys have feelings for each other, you gotta talk about it. If you don’t tell him how you feel, he could walk down the aisle thinking that you don’t feel the same way!”

“I can’t do that!” I objected. “If I’m wrong, and he doesn’t love me, that spiteful witch could punish me by getting my dad fired. Plus, I would be super embarrassed! In a small town like this, everyone would know! How can I risk that?”

“If you really love him, he’s worth the risk!” Ruth exclaimed.

She was right. I couldn’t just keep living in limbo like this. I could have lost everything if I let things keep going at this pace! I sighed, “I’ll do it!”

“Yay!” she rejoiced. “So, since that’s settled, I have a problem too. There’s this guy at work who started before I did who’s competing with me for the next promotion. So, how can I-?”

“Hold on!” I didn’t want to interrupt her, especially since she was always so good about listening to my problems, but my phone was vibrating in my ear. “I think I got another call.” I peeked at the caller ID and saw the call was coming from a 415 area code. “Someone from San Francisco?”

“Answer it! I can wait,” Ruth stated.

I put her on hold and picked up the call, “Hello?”

“Is this Tiffany Clark?” His voice was strong but oddly almost lyrical.

“Yes it is.” My curiosity got stirred. Who could possibly call me from San Francisco? I didn’t know anyone from the Bay Area, although I loved it there! It had so many restaurants, events, and just so many other fun things to do there! Not to mention so many great photo opps from their skyscrapers, parks, waterfronts, and et cetera. This guy sounded a little older but very nice, and I loved the idea of associating with someone from San Francisco, so I was inclined to listen. “Whom may I ask is calling?”

The man coolly introduced himself, “This is Nicholaus Bell, chief editor from the Bay Area Bugle.” I nearly peed my pants when I heard that! With all of the drama in my chaotic love life, I forgot that I submitted my portfolio to a few newspapers last week, as Isaac suggested, but I hadn’t heard from anyone of them until right then. The Bay Area Bugle is one of the most famous newspapers in the country, so I never thought I’d hear from them. Well, maybe a rejection letter. It put me into a daze that a company that could offer me my dream career actually called me, and my whole body tingled with the possibilities that this call could bring!

Nicholaus Bell went on, “I’m calling regarding the portfolio you submitted. Your photos from Colorado are impressive! What really got my attention though is when I searched your name, I came across this article about your charity work. It really got to me! I don’t like seeing little kids suffer from heartbreak, especially around Christmas! Skilled photographers are a dime a dozen, but it’s rare to see one with a heart as big as yours! I was looking to hire a photo journalist with a soul, and I think I found one! Normally, there’s a whole interview process, but, quite frankly, I don’t need to see anymore! As far as I’m concerned, you’ve got the job!”

I almost fainted when I heard that! I dreamed to hear those words since I was a kid, and it didn’t seem real that it was actually happening at that moment! I actually had to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming! It was the first time that I felt like crying from happiness! I was so grateful that I followed Isaac’s advice and put myself out there! Speaking of Isaac, I realized that a job offer in another city would mean leaving Dasher Lake. Up until recently, that wouldn’t have been an issue, I tried to escape this place for over a decade, but Isaac gave me a joy that I never felt before. I didn’t know if I could leave him behind! It seemed like the right thing to do, but my heart pulled me back. If Isaac did love me, I would break his heart by leaving. If I did that to him, he could get so distraught that Gryla would figure out he fell for someone else and would kick him out. He wouldn’t have anywhere to go. Well, obviously, he could come with me to San Francisco, but I had no idea if he would even want to leave Dasher Lake. He talked about going on adventures, but he didn’t have the same desire to leave this town as I did. But, if I was wrong, I could be passing up my dream job only to end up in this horrible city all alone! I felt so much pressure, and I didn’t know what to tell Nicholaus Bell!

Fortunately, he had no intention of making me decide right then. “Don’t freak out! I know it’s the holidays, so I wont take you away from your family right now. I sent the formal offer to your email, so look it over. If there’s anything you want to renegotiate about it, give me a call. This is my personal cell phone, so if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask! I’ll check in with you in about a week to set you up for your first day. How does that sound?”

I felt so much relief knowing I had some time to figure it all out. I would have to have an awkward conversation with Isaac, but regardless of his answer, I would know what to do. If he still wanted to marry Gryla, I would have no restraints about taking the job and leaving Dasher Lake. If he did want to be with me, I could turn down the job offer before I got in too deep. I told the editor, “Thank you so much!”

“You’re welcome! Merry Christmas!” he chimed.

The subject of Christmas still bristled me a little, but I still chirped, “Merry Christmas!” for the sake of friendliness to a potential new boss. When I ended the call, I accidentally hung up on Ruth. I would call her back in a moment when I absorbed it all. Never in my life did I ever think I would even consider turning down a photography job, but I never thought I would feel the same kind of desire for something, or someone, else. I didn’t know what to root for, my dream job or my dream guy!

Advertisements

A Christmas Void, Chapter 7- Guilty Pleasures

Come on, pick up!” I rushed straight home after work. My head was spinning and not because of weariness this time! Well, maybe I did feel a little tired, but other than that, I didn’t know how to feel, which is why I needed my best friend’s help. I was freaking out, and I really hoped Ruth could sense my mood and be there when I needed her. Finn certainly did as he watched me pace across my living room. Finally, with the background noise of a small crowd and Christmas music, Ruth finally picked up her phone. “Tiffany? I figured you were sleeping right now after-!”

“I can’t sleep!” I interrupted her. I wanted to spill my guts, but I didn’t know where to begin.

Ruth told me, “Hang on, it’s hard to hear. Let me go somewhere quiet.” Perfect timing, I ndeed to get my story straight. After what seemed like forever, she came back on. “Okay, I can hear you now.”

“Oh, are you in your car?” I hadn’t planned on asking her that. Now, I just felt so nervous and delayed telling her the truth.

“No, I went into a calendar store because there’s hardly anyone here. Why? Should I go somewhere more private? Is this your one phone call?” Ruth kidded.

For a brief moment, I forgot why I called and laughed. The moment left as quickly as it came. Ruth expected answers, so it was time to ‘fess up. I boldly revealed, “I’m a terrible person!”

“What’d you do? Slap that smirk off your supervisor?” Ruth half joked.

I took a deep breath and began, “Okay, so Millstone’s had me train this new guy at work…”

“On Black Friday? Are they crazy?” she reacted.

“Yes, but that’s not the point of this,” I went on, “Ruth, he’s gorgeous! He’s cover of a romance novel gorgeous! He also turned out to be a blast to work with! He’s laid back and really smart. Well, he’s an English teacher, so I guess he would have to be right? Anyways, he’s hilarious too. All of the supervisors who drive me crazy were just source for his material. It was the best day at Millstone’s yet! Actually, it was one of the best days I’ve ever had!”

“Why do you sound so guilty for an amazing day with an attractive man?” she probed.

This was the heart wrenching part had to get off my chest. “He’s engaged! They’re getting married on Christmas Eve, so…”

“So, it’s over?” Ruth thought for a moment and remarked, “No, you said you were a terrible person, so there’s more.” She gasped, “Did you sleep with him?”

“No!” I exclaimed. “But, maybe it’s just my imagination, but I felt sparks. I mean, I haven’t really slept much in the last couple of days, so my judgment could be totally off. Maybe he’s just a flirty guy…”

“I doubt it,” Ruth countered. “He works with kids, so he wouldn’t be in the habit of flirting, I hope not anyways! Did you see him flirt with other girls?”

I had to think back. “Actually, no. Every girl in the place flirted with him, but he brushed them off.”

“But he didn’t brush you off, did he?” I could sense she had a wry smile as she said that.

“Well, he couldn’t ignore me, I was training him.” I had a moment of doubt about my analysis. Perhaps he was just making the work situation more friendly.

“Oh, come on!” she cried out. “You said there was sparks! I want details!”

“Well, he made me laugh. Not just because he’s a jokester. Like, every time something annoying or tedious came along, he made a funny observation on it. It was like he wanted to cheer me up.”

“So, he paid a lot of attention to you?”

“Oh yeah! At first, I thought he was just being the model student, but when I put him on the register, he couldn’t remember a thing!” I paused while Ruth let out a laugh. “At lunch, he actually locked his eyes with mine when I talked. He was so glued to my story he almost missed his fiancee’s call! He asked me a lot of questions too.”

“Sounds like you caught his interest!” Ruth observed.

I added, “It was more than just interest! He smiled a lot. Not just a false works smile either. And I swear, he got close to me on purpose. I know that there isn’t much room at the registers, but he got closer than he needed to. And I could feel this heat, like it was bouncing off his aura. I mean, you know how you know when an object is gonna shock you, you feel its-”

“Electricity?” Ruth practically squealed with delight. “You felt sparks alright!”

“But that’s the bad part!” I blurted. Pangs of guilt swept ove me after hearing her confirm what I suspected. “He’s getting married! I’m supposed to fight him off. What kind of creep goes after other women when he has someone waiting for him at home? Oh, he’s not a bad person, I am! I knew he was taken, but I didn’t fight back! God, Ruth, I flirted back! I haven’t had a lot of people show me kindness since I got here, so, at first, I thought I was just desperate for positive attention, but it’s more than that! He’s passionate about his career, he’s good with kids, he does volunteer work with a cause he cares about, his personality is sexy too! I’ve got a huge crush on someone else’s man, and if I keep speninding time with him, I’m scared I’ll become a homewrecker! Honestly, if I had the opportunity, I don’t think I could resist the urge!” Finally, it was out there in the universe. It sat there like I released a dark cloud from within me, and even thought it still lingered above my head, I felt a lot better.

“Okay, first of all, breathe!” Ruth advised. “Second, you didn’t act on those urges. Everyone has their guilty pleasures. If you’re worried about ripping off all his clothes at the registers, then by all means avoid him, but if it were me, I would just roll with it. You can’t help who you’re attracted to, so don’t get so ashamed from feelings you can’t control. It’s not like anything can happen in the middle of the store, so just hang out with him and enjoy it. As long as you don’t go outside work with him, nothing bad will happen. You got some eye candy, let yourself have some fun!”

I laughed, and her advice made me feel a little less guilty about being attracted to an engaged man. “He’s too good of a guy to cheat on his fiancee, so what am I so worried about? Besides, I really don’t know for sure if he likes me like that. I mean, if he wanted to cheat on her, he has a lot of beautiful girls to pick from, why would he pick me?”
“Oh come on! You’re just as capable of conjuring up someone’s mistress fantasies!” Ruth assured me, and I laughed again.

From behind her, I heard a man shout, “Hey lady! This ain’t a phone booth! Buy something or get out!”
“Gotta go! Get some rest, okay?” she instructed as she rushed out of the store.

Now that this weight had lifted off my shoulders, I suddenly remembered how tired I felt. “Thanks Ruth!”

After she said goodbye, I sat on my couch processing all of this. Attractions don’t make you a bad person, just actions! I was so worried about committing a huge sin in the name of sisterhood, but I figured Ruth was right, what could happen in the store? It felt good to have a plan for this situation. I didn’t need to fight my feelings, I could just enjoy the fantasy! Besides, I didn’t even know if it would be a problem because I didn’t actually know if he felt the same way about me. There may be nothing to worry about…right?

I laid down on the couch and stared at the roof as if the popcorn ceiling would provide some insight. It all seemed so simple when Ruth explained it, and the logical part of my brain was satisfied, but, in the back of my stomach, something was gnawing at me. I couldn’t figure out why! I wracked my brain trying to decipher this feeling, what was it? Why did my gut twist up like that? That’s when it hit me- a gut feeling. I thought our discussion resolved my issue, but something told me it wasn’t over yet. Reason couldn’t find a solid notion as to why it wouldn’t be more than flirtation, and I kept telling me gut that it was just crush that would eventually lose its steam. Nothing more than that would happen… right?

I didn’t realize I had fallen asleep until I felt Finn crawl onto my stomach. “Oh, hi Finn! Let’s go take a nap in the bedroom.” Finn wouldn’t budge. “Oh fine, you win! I won’t make you get up. I will…” I didn’t even finish my sentence because I fell asleep again!

Suddenly, Claudia woke me up by yelling, “Tiffany! What are you doing?” I lifted my head off the register. I thought I was at home, had I really fallen asleep on the job? It shocked me for a moment, but then it kind of made sense and didn’t surprise me at all. “Wipe your drool off the machine and go help Isaac clean the fitting room!”

I noticed that the store was closed, so it made even more sense that I was tired. I figured that everyone was cleaning up so they could go home, and it seemed strange that they paired me up with him. The fitting room must have gotten pretty bad if they thought two people needed to clean it, so I suddenly felt guilty for falling asleep instead of helping Isaac. I yawned, stretched a bit, and I went to go look for him.

I found him in the intimates department changing a light bulb in one of the stalls. He turned around, grinned, and greeted me with, “Oh, hey! How many Millstone’s employees does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

I giggled, and then I noticed he was using a cushioned bench instead of a ladder. He stood on his tiptoes, and that prompted me to say, “You shouldn’t be doing it like this! It’s a total safety hazard!”

“It’s not that high up, it’ll be fine!” he assured me as he kept working.

I stood below him and reiterated, “No, really, you could fall!” I stood below him to keep him balanced and really hoped that he stayed safe.

“I’m not going to fall!” Immediately after he said that, he lost his balance! He tumbled towards me, which pushed me against the wall. The wall stopped us both in motion, but Isaac didn’t tear himself away from me. Instead, he stroked my cheek and cooed, “Well, I guess I fell after all!” Our eyes locked onto each other, and our bodies pressed against one another. He wanted me, there was no denying it! He leaned in to kiss me, and when his lips were just inches away, I turned my head away. That wasn’t easy, every impulse in my body wanted this to happen! Maybe he was forgetting about his fiancee, but I couldn’t forget he had one. I hoped so anyways. “This is wrong!” I said what I was thinking but not how I felt…

He brusquely asked me, “Then why does it feel so right?” He gently pushed my chin so I met his gaze. His eyes screamed passion, and that’s when I realized in my heart that this was more than just a crush. Feelings deeper than that flooded my body. Even if this didn’t happen tonight, the feeling wouldn’t go away, so what was the point of resisting? He leaned in close…

I bolted up from my coach, sending Finn flying across the living room! Finn gave me a reproachable glare, and I told him, “Sorry! I had a bad dream! Actually, it was very good! Naughty dreams go along with the territory, right?” I got off the couch and put on my pajamas. It was now a normal bedtime, so I decided to turn in for the night to maintain somewhat of a normal schedule. Finn watched me as I brushed my teeth, and he looked as though he were trying to figure me out. “I don’t feel guilty! It was just a dream! All part of the fun, right? Just a fantasy, pure and simple. It’s not like it’ll ever happen! I mean, what are the odds of us being alone in a tight space like that?”

As I spit out my toothpaste, it suddenly dawned on me that it wasn’t so far fetched for us to be alone in a fitting room like that. There were closets out there too. And when we clean up at the end of the night, we all spread out, so we could easily find ourselves alone! “Oh no! It’s not impossible!” I mulled it over for a moment, and I concluded, “You know what, it’s okay! I just have to avoid being alone with him like that. Piece of cake, right?” I stared at Finn as if he would actually reassure me that everything would end up all right. I put down my toothbrush and groaned. I just had a feeling that this situation was about to get a lot more complicated!

Dreams in Makawee, Chapter 17

Quick, hide behind the door!” Nick whispered. Stacy didn’t understand why, but she knew he must have had a good reason for having her do it, so she complied. “Take this too!” He handed her his guitar as he picked up his notebook and pretended to study notes.

Seconds later, an old security guard came in and surveyed the scene. “What are you doing?”

“Who? Me?” Nick feigned confusion. “I’m just studying feedback that I got from my team.”

“Who else is here?” the security guard questioned.

“No one,” Nick fibbed. “Oh, you probably hard me on the phone with one of my colleagues. I don’t wanna give away too much about her personal issues, but she’s going through a lot right now.”

Thankfully, the security guard seemed to have bought that explanation. “Well, don’t work too hard now!”

“I won’t!” Nick waved as the security guard left the room. Nick acting like he had to go over his paperwork until the security guard roamed out of earshot. When it seemed as though the coast was clear, Nick got up and double checked down hallway both ways before he motioned for Stacy to follow him. “Come on!”

They quickly and quietly tiptoed down the hallway, and as soon as they exited the building, they exhaled in relief. Stacy’s heart had raced from worry of getting caught, but now that they were safe, her curiosity demanded to understand the situation that had just passed. “What just happened?”

Nick explained, “The boss has random security checks throughout the month to make sure no one misuses the facility. Don’t worry, he rarely comes around, so we’ll be fine.”

“Maybe we should figure out another place to practice, just in case,” Stacy suggested.

“Yeah, we should figure it out soon,” Nick agreed. “He usually only comes around once or twice a month, so we have some time. Maybe by the time he comes around again, I’ll be out booking some gigs!”

“I’ll start looking for a venue for you to perform at too,” Stacy assured him. As they walked to the truck, Stacy told him, “Sorry I didn’t get to tell you much about my story.”

“Actually, your reaction said a lot.” Nick smiled sympathetically, and Stacy returned one back.

On Wednesday, Stacy had the day off from work, so she went back to the library and borrowed the Nashville phone book. She sat down at a table and took her notebook and pen out of her purse just as she did last time, but this time, she opened up the phone book to the record label section. She felt pleased to have found a number of places that she could apply to. She came across one that she recognized as a client of Hadeon’s, and the memory it brought up repulsed her, so, at first, she skipped that one. After a moment, she remembered how nice the man who owned the recording studio had been to her and all of the exciting stories he had about working there, so she decided to include it on her list. She wasn’t sure if she would actually apply there or not, but she felt too guilty not to at least consider it.

When she came home, she saw that her parents were doing the dishes, so she offered, “Can I help?”

“Sure, I could use a break!” Frank handed her a towel and zipped out of the room.

Barbara rolled her eyes and shook her head but didn’t say anything to him. As she handed Stacy a dish to dry, Stacy conversed, “How was your day?”

“It was going fine until the principal put me in charge of the end of the school year show!” Barbara grumped. “It’s so hard coordinating the different grades! And they wanna find an entertainer for the older students. I don’t know what they like!”

“I know a singer who could use a gig…” Stacy brought up.

“Really?” Barbara chirped. “Let me know as soon as possible if he can do it!”

“I’ll let you know as soon as I know!” Stacy promised.

Before she left for her next shift, Stacy stuffed a dozen envelopes with her resume. She went through the list she made the other day and addressed each envelope except for the one. She hesitated on the recording studio that Hadeon had as a client. She figured with her ex-husband taking care of their marketing needs that they wouldn’t have any interest in hiring her in that capacity. She qualified for a secretary or administrative position, but then she worried that she might run into Hadeon on occasion, which would create such an awkward atmosphere! Not to mention potentially danger if he decided to pick a fight with her again! She wondered if there would even have been a favorable opinion of her anymore, especially if her ex-husband revealed his slant on the incident to them. She decided to skip it and only stamped sealed the envelopes of the other leads she found.

At work, Stacy passed by the cash register and saw Gloria talking to a woman with her preteen daughter. After a second glance, she realized she recognized the woman at the register. “Lola?”

“Stacy?” Lola acted incredulously. They shouted excitedly and gave each other a hug.

Gloria inquired, “You guys know each other?”

Lola told her, “Yeah, Mom, we went to high school together!”

“What a small world!” Gloria remarked.

Lola addressed Stacy, “What are you doing here? Last I heard you were married to a successful business man and living fabulously in Nashville!”

“Oh, I left him,” Stacy confessed. “He was a jerk and I’d rather be alone and broke than stay married to him!”

Stacy expected Lola to react sympathetically, but she actually had a look of longing in her eyes. She made sure her daughter didn’t hear her when she said, “You’re so lucky! I wish I could leave!” As she spoke, Stacy noticed a gnarly scratch on Lola’s arm. “It’s hard when a kid is involved. I gotta do what’s best for her. I couldn’t risk her living on the street.” As Lola spoke, Stacy discovered a number of other nicks and bruises throughout her body, and her heart sunk as she realized what that probably meant. “Even if I got a job at a store or something, I wouldn’t make enough to support her. And since my father’s gone now, we took Mom in too. Where would she go?”

Gloria exclaimed, “I told you, don’t worry about me! We’ll figure something out…”

The two of them suddenly grew silent and painted smiles on their faces. Stacy found that odd until she saw a man in a nice suit walk in their direction. She saw an Emporia badge and figured out that he must have been an executive of some sort. He stood in front of her and pompously introduced himself, “Drake Tanith, regional manager. You must be new.”

“Yes,” she responded while trying to hide her nervousness. “I’m Stacy, a recovery agent.”

“Welcome, Stacy!” He turned towards Lola, who greeted him with a kiss. “Darling, I don’t see any clothes. You said Elaine needed clothes!”

“Sorry!” Lola practically trembled as she apologized. “I got caught up talking and-!”

He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her close to him. “Go wait in the car!” He pushed her away rather forcibly. Lola scrambled to get her purse and dashed out of the store. Gloria returned to helping a customer as if none of this bothered her as Drake met up with Pat and began talking about numbers.

Stacy stood in shock of what she just witnessed. She and Lola had such similar lives in high school, but she felt Lola had always been a little ahead of her and she actually envied her. Lola outranked her on the student council and got better grades too. She always attracted the cuter boyfriends and even got into a better college. It was heartbreaking to see how much Lola had been defeated by this man! She wondered how her life had taken such a drastic turn, and she realized that domestic violence could happen to anybody! Suddenly, it occurred to her that this abusive man was now her boss! Once again, she found herself working in the same environment she had just escaped from, and it was simply unacceptable! She marched up to Pat and Drake, threw her badge on the ground, cried out, “I quit!” and stormed out without saying another word!

She had felt so much fury throughout her way home, but that soon turned into panic. She now had no way to pay for her divorce, which she feared could hand her an expensive bill at any moment. She became wrapt with worry, and she knew she knew she had to find another job immediately! When she got inside her house, she saw her list of music industry places to apply to in Nashville and remembered that she hadn’t applied to that last one. She still had a burning rage for violent men, and she felt so furious that she got an ardent motivation to attempt to steal Hadeon’s client and addressed her last envelope to that company!

Dreams in Makawee, Chapter 9

Nick’s good looks may have made her nervous, but when it came to marketing, she felt significantly more confident. Hadeon may have been a terrible husband, but he had a genius for his craft. The one good thing about him getting overly obsessed with his job was that he dragged her along for everything, so she learned a lot. She took out a notebook and pen from her purse and already wrote down some notes. ‘You said you had a band in high school. What kind of songs did you do?”

Nick recalled, “We wanted to be the next Rolling Stones, but our songs were a little more age appropriate. We wrote one called ‘Homework Rebellion,’ for example.” Nick laughed at his memories. “Teachers hated us, but the other students thought we were bad asses!” Nick grinned at the nostalgia that came to him right then.

Stacy grinned too, and then she observed, “So, you guys wrote your own music! How much of that did you personally contribute?”

Nick told her, “It was a group effort, but our best stuff came from me and Charlie. He was our drummer and my best friend. We worked on our music a lot more than our schoolwork!” He smiled fondly as he reminisced, but he soon started to frown. “I wish we paid more attention in school! Maybe if we had, we could’ve gotten accepted into college and Charlie would have avoided the draft…” He could tell Stacy wanted to follow up about that, so he elaborated, “After high school, Charlie and I both wanted to move to the city where we could get discovered, but we were both broke. We both took up jobs here at Gilmar’s, and we got through the awful work days by dreaming about what our lives would be like once we made it big. We kept the band going for a while, but eventually, with all of our different work schedules, the band drifted apart, so it was just me and him still working on our music. Charlie and I always thought we would form a band and get famous before we got considered for the draft, but, obviously, that didn’t happen. Charlie got drafted and sent to ‘Nam. I begged them to draft me too, I wanted out of this town so bad! In our letters, we still dreamt about making it big when he got back. But then, one day, Charlie’s mom called me and told me… Charlie wasn’t coming back!” He got choked up at this point, but after a moment, he lamented, “I wish we hadn’t focused on silly dreams so much! If we had a back up plan, maybe Charlie wouldn’t have…”

“It’s not your fault!” Stacy reached across and pat his shoulders comfortingly. “The draft went on ’til seventy-three, so Charlie could have gotten drafted after graduation.”

“That’s true,” Nick acknowledged.

“My mom always said everything happens for a reason,” Stacy narrated. “My ex-husband ran to Canada after high school. He claims he was a conscientious objector, but truthfully, he was just being a coward. But if he didn’t chicken out, he wouldn’t have blown away his trust fund, which forced him to move into his uncle’s garage in Nashville. He started his business there, and ten years later, it’s one of the most successful businesses around! Maybe Charlie had to go to Vietnam ’cause they needed a hero.”

“He was a hero!” Nick remarked. “I still wish he didn’t go! I miss him!” He paused and added, “Do you love him?”

“Charlie?” Stacy puzzled.

“NO,” Nick clarified, “I mean, do you still love your ex-husband?”

“Oh! No.” Stacy searched inwardly to verify her initial reaction. “After what he did, there’s no going back.” She could tell he wanted to ask what he did, so she revealed, “He hit me!”

“No!” It took a while for Nick to absorb this, and when he did, his fists tensed up. “That bastard!” His expression softened when he turned back to Stacy. “How often did he do that?”

“That was the first time. Honestly, in more than five years, he’s never done that!” she told him. “I left ’cause if he did it once, he’ll do it again and I’m not gonna walk on eggshells for the rest of my life just to make sure I don’t make him do it again!”

You don’t make him do it again?” Nick cried out. “You aren’t responsible for his actions! Even if you pissed him off, that’s not an excuse! Unless a woman holds a gun to his f’ing head, there’s no excuse to hit a woman! Ever!”

This visibly moved Stacy. She had her hand on her heart, and she was near tears. His logic flowed with her initial view on the matter, but that manager as well as her own doubts on the situation made her question this. She often wondered if it had been her fault or if she had been wrong in same way on the matter, but Nick was completely right, nothing she had done deserved his abuse! She felt heartened that she had an ally who backed her up on this. “I had an interview at Stereo Hut the other day, and the manager made it seem like it was all my fault!”

Nick immediately commented, “Well, we’re never shopping there again!” Stacy gave him an appreciative smile, and Nick emphasized, “I mean it! I’m not gonna go into a business that thinks that you had a perfectly happy marriage and, for no reason, you decided to destroy it and run away from paradise!”

“It’s true! That was exactly how he acted!” Stacy laughed in the ridiculousness of the topic. “Our marriage wasn’t paradise, thing were getting bad for a while. I thought eventually we’d work through our issues, but I don’t think he thought anything was wrong. I felt miserable for a long time, so eventually, if he hadn’t hit me, I would’ve had enough. At some point, you gotta consider your own needs ’cause your happiness matters!”

“Yeah…” Nick hesitantly agreed.

“Your happiness matters too,” Stacy reminded him.

Nick sighed, “This is different! This is a huge risk!”

“No, it’s not!” Stacy respectfully disagreed. “You’re playing music. If you make it big, you’ll be really happy. If you don’t, you’ll still enjoy the process. It’s not like you’re enrolling in the police academy like my dad did. He risks his life every time he goes on patrol, but he does it ’cause it’s what he loves. If he picked safety, he would be completely depressed his whole life! Imagine him going from graduation to retirement like that! His work is dangerous, but he’s lived his life without regret. The only thing you need to worry about is living your life with regret!”

“Okay, so I’m nos happy working in the factory,” Nick confessed. “But I do have a family to worry about. This isn’t fun for me, but they’re taken care of. What if this music thing ends up hurting them?”

Stacy almost pointed out that it seemed unlikely that this could hurt his family, but then she realized, “Wait a second, this is about Charlie, isn’t it? Last time you set out on this path, you lost someone important to you. You’re pursuing this ‘normal’ life ’cause you’re worried if you take a chance again, you’ll lose someone else!”

Nick mulled it over and came to the conclusion, “Yeah, I guess it’s true. I mean, that’s part of the reason anyways. I spent most of my adult life trying to squash the urge to sing and play to an audience, but I can’t help myself, it always resurfaces. Like earlier in the month, we went to visit her grandparents and I snuck away ’cause I saw a recording studio nearby. I had a great time, but it was selfish. Janet had to take time off work right near tax day ’cause her grandfather’s dying and it was his birthday. I should’ve been there for her more! I mean, her grandfather did throw me out, but still…”

“He threw you out?” Stacy responded. “What do you think you were supposed to do? Just wait outside for hours?”

“She ended up not staying that long,” he remarked. “She went looking for me and couldn’t find me. She talked her grandfather into letting me come back, but when I disappeared, that blew it. I shouldn’t have ran off, but I didn’t think he’d invite me back, the guy hates my guts! I went for a walk to blow off some steam, and I saw the recording studio there, and it was just calling me! I thought that after spending all my time helping other people, I deserved to see it! I work all day, spend all night with her, and help my dad on the weekends, I never get to do anything for myself! So I thought, here’s my chance! It felt great! Well, until she found me and we fought.”

“That’s the argument I had with my husband before we split!” Stacy related. “I was late for something I had to do for this big party, and I was wrong for doing so, but if I got to do what I wanted to do more often, that wouldn’t have happened. I didn’t regret what I did, and I guess he felt like I should live only to please him. I was tired of living like that.”

“You have a point,” Nick admitted. “I may have went about it the wrong way, but it wouldn’t have happened if I just made a little more time for what I love. Music isn’t gonna leave me no matter how hard I try! My family may not understand it, but if I don’t do it and keep spending my life trying to make everyone else happy except for me, I’m gonna lose it! I gotta do this! I keep worrying about something happening to them, but what if I don’t and something happens to me? I hope nothing happens to them, of course, but I’m committed to this!”

“Good!” Stacy nodded in approval.

Nick took a deep breath and released. “Wow, this conversation got real deep!”

“That’s ’cause we’re talking about music, and, for you, that’s your heart and soul!” Stacy affirmed. “I mean, I’m no shrink, but I hope you’re comfortable opening up to me. It’s gonna help me help you develop really meaningful lyrics and melodies. It’s not gonna make your pain go away, but it’ll help it become something beautiful. Like, losing your best friend, that’s a great topic for a song!”

“I did make a song about it,” Nick disclosed. “I took a song we wrote in high school, ‘Pay Attention,’ and I slowed down the tempo, changed it into a ballad, and made it about Charlie. Instead of making fun of teachers, I talked about how we get so distracted in our own lives that we don’t savor the time we have with people who matter most to us. If you don’t pay attention, you could miss out and you may not ever get another chance! Back then, I didn’t know how else to react to his death other than music. I was still in the habit from when he was alive.”

“That song sounds amazing!” Stacy exclaimed, and then she requested, “Can I hear it?”

“That was so long ago!” Nick reacted. “What makes you think I even remember it?”

Stacy gave him a playfully reproachful look. “You heard the song ‘Run to You’ once, and not only did you remember every word but you taught the music to that band! You have an amazing memory! So, let’s hear it!”

Nick relented, “Okay, okay, I’ll do it!” Stacy waited with mounting anticipation as he mentally prepared himself to sing…

The Shadow Path, Chapter 18

Aidan fell limp, and suddenly everything became like a slow moving dream for her. She rolled over to free herself, and upon doing so, she immediately checked on him. He was still breathing, but it was very labored. “No!” Yasmina wailed desperately.

She heard Daeva cackling behind her, and the idea that she relished not only Aidan’s suffering but the torment it caused her incensed Yasmina. Her soul lit up with an ire that she had never felt before, and she let it be known with a furious howl! As she got up, she saw Daeva back up, and Yasmina refused to accept any attempts of escape. As she stepped towards her, she whipped her wand in a circle, creating a high ring of fire! Daeva leered, “You fool! Now no one can help you!”

Yasmina could care less about this fact. “You’re not going anywhere! This ends now!”

Daeva laughed derisively at her. “Oh, did you love him?”

“I still do! He’s not dead yet!” Yasmina ignored her mocking laughter as she growled, “But I also love this country! I’m not going to let you break me and do this all over again to other people! No more tricks! No one to hide behind! Let’s finish this!”

“So be it!” Daeva raised her wand and aimed for Yasmina, who easily dodged it as she fired one back. Daeva used her wand to produce a spell to shield herself. In Yasmina’s rancor, she fiercely tried to curse Daeva from all different angles, but Daeva swat them away as easily as she would swat away a cumbersome insect. Yasmina paused for a moment to wait for Daeva to let her guard down, and Daeva used this moment to shoot more spells at her. Yasmina didn’t know how to do a shield, so she evaded by moving around as fast as she could. They became more and more difficult to dodge, and between this and the energy it took to produce spells, Yasmina began to grow tired, something Daeva was quick to notice. “What’s the matter? You getting tired? Let me finish you so you can join Aidan in the afterlife!”

Yasmina’s rage got renewed by that insult, and she shot a spell that Daeva narrowly avoided. They continued firing back and forth at each other, but as Yasmina continued to survive, Daeva’s spellwork became more and more complicated. One curse came at her from two different directions, which caught her off guard, making her lose her footing. She fell forward, causing her wand to fall from her hand! She tried to grasp it, but Daeva shot another spell at her, so she had to roll out of the way. The spell hit her leg, sending pain throughout her body and making her cry out in anguish. Daeva cackled, “So much for love! You lost your soulmate and your country when you lost your wand! You actually thought you could beat me? You, with such a pure heart, aren’t capable of the spell-work that I am! As angry as you are with me, in your heart, you could never use your magic for malice, can you?”

Yasmina wanted to deny her claim, but inwardly, she reluctantly realized that Daeva had a point. “I don’t enjoy having to kill you, but I-!”

“That’s where we’re different!” Daeva exclaimed. “You care more about other people than yourself! That’s your weakness! I knew eventually if one of your comrades fell that eventually you’d corner me. But unlike you, I put myself first! I will turn Caragsona into a paradise for my kind to live in, and you’re standing in the way of progress. It’s very selfish of you to do this to your own people! Even if you don’t value your own pathetic life, you should think about the lives of your fellow magi!”

“We can all live in harmony!” Yasmina weakly shouted. “It doesn’t have to be us versus them! Nice try, but I’m not going to surrender to you! Never!”

Daeva scoffed, “You don’t have a wand! You’re finished!” She raised her wand, and Yasmina couldn’t think of magic dark enough to kill her on the spot. Daeva arrogantly sked her, “Any last words?”

The fire grew higher behind Daeva as she spoke, and it suddenly clicked for Yasmina. Through her blinding pain, she stood up to face her, who seemed amused by this display. She steeled herself before she boldly told her, “I don’t need a wand to do magic, and I don’t need dark intentions to get rid of you!” Daeva looked confused as Yasmina summoned magic to her fingertips. Yasmina could see panic hit Daeva’s eyes as she realized it was too late. Yasmina sent all of her energy out and pushed Daeva hard, sending her flying into the fire! She watched just to make sure that Daeva didn’t escape. Daeva’s shadow writhed, and she let out a blood-curling scream. Soon, the shadow disappeared, and the room got quiet. She was gone!

Yasmina put out the fire as soon as she was sure the whole ordeal was over, but she did not celebrate yet. She could hardly move her leg, but she hobbled over to Aidan as fast as she could. Everyone watched as she fell next to him, all of them with grim looks on their faces. He did not move a muscle, so she put an ear to his chest to see if she could hear him breathe. Ardeshir noted, “Yasmina, you’re hurt!”

Yasmina didn’t want to deal with her injury at such a crucial moment. “It’s nothing! A healing potion will fix this right away!” That statement gave her an idea. “Wait, the healing potion!” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a vial of potion, and then she opened Aidan’s mouth and started pouring it in. “This will fix him up, and he’ll be okay!” She said it out loud, but she really had to convince herself of this. She poured all of it in just to make sure, and she waited. No one else seemed very optimistic, but she ignored them and encouraged him, “Come on, Aidan! You got to wake up and take the throne, just like we talked about!” Nothing happened, and a lump rose up in her throat. “Please! Aidan!” When he still did nothing, she felt her soul rip into pieces! She couldn’t accept he was gone, but her logic gave her no other choice. She collapsed onto his chest and burst into tears.

No one else moved except to wipe away tears off of their cheeks. Yasmina hardly noticed them though, nothing else mattered then! She had survived the battle, but she felt as though a huge part of her died right then. She felt as though she were falling down a dark spiral, the pain drowned her. Just when she thought she couldn’t go on, her heart nearly jumped out of her chest when she heard a very raspy voice rale, “Did you mean it?”

Everyone’s attention got transfixed by this, no one dared to believe it. Yasmina peered at Aidan, and even though he hadn’t moved, she spoke to him, “Did I mean what?”

To everyone’s astonishment, they saw Aidan’s lips move! “In the fire, you told Daeva that you loved me. Did you mean it?”

Yasmina’s whole body trembled, but she somehow she felt too shocked to move. She compelled herself to answer, “Of course I did!” She then stuttered, “Did you…do you…also…?”

Aidan opened his eyes and affirmed, “I’d die for you!”

Through tears of utter relief and joy, Yasmina cried, “Please don’t!” She wrapped her arms around him, and they kissed passionately! Yasmina’s body felt as though she was filled with a warm light, and she never wanted this bliss to end! Eventually, they took a breath, and Yasmina could see in his eyes that he felt exactly as she did. She smiled wider than she had ever had in her life, and he used his thumbs to wipe the happy tears off of her face. Yasmina joked, “Kadera left this out of her prediction!”

Aidan laughed, and Jakan and Ardeshir helped them both up. Yasmina forgot about her leg and almost fell, but Aidan caught her. Ardeshir interjected, “I don’t mean to spoil the moment, but can we get out of this ghoulish castle?”

Yasmina and Aidan’s attention swayed back to the room they were in, and they saw that not only were Ardeshir, Jakan, and the thieves watching, but a few of the hooded figures had survived. Jakan inquired, “What should we do with them, your majesty?”

Aidan suggested, “Why don’t you ask your future queen?”

Yasmina’s heart could still hardly believe she was fortunate enough to have her love reciprocated, but it never occurred to her that this lonely, peasant witch could ever become anything more than that, so the title of queen was hard to fathom! It overwhelmed her, but when she saw that everyone had turned to her for answers, she couldn’t ignore that. They had accepted this notion, so she felt it her duty to make a decision. “Well, you’ll all get knighted soon, so take them to the dungeons of Rogamaith! Let’s all go home!” Everyone cheered as they mounted their brooms. Yasmina and Aidan kissed again before doing the same.

King Kahlil called for the kingdom to gather, and he broke the news that Prince Aidan had not perished as once thought, a fact for which the whole kingdom rejoiced. Jakan and his former thieves all watched the process in knights’ armor. Ardeshir had gotten dubbed a royal advisor, and he introduced Yasmina to everyone, explaining how she was a hero to the kingdom and that she and Aidan had fallen in love. He performed a wedding ceremony, and then King Kahlil recognized them formally as Prince Aidan and Princess Yasmina. A couple of days later, in a solemn ritual in the throne room, they were coronated as king and queen! They took over Caragsona before too much damage got done, and though a lot of work needed to be done, their message of unification spread to magi and mortals alike, which began a new era of peaceful rebuilding. The first project- revamipng the Shadow Path tino the Alliance Access!

The End

The Shadow Path, Chapter 17

Yasmina’s heart pounded from the exhilaration of soaring above the kingdom! She admonished herself for not embracing her magi nature sooner because this experience gave her an amazing sense of freedom. The moment only got heightened by the fact that Aidan had his arms around her waist! For a while, she savored the bliss of it all, but as a dark castle came into view, the reality of the situation began to loom in- they were about to face a powerful evil!

The closer they got to Duanolc, the more her nerves twisted inside of her. It almost seemed insane that they were going to fight Daeva after seeing how Kadera could take on seven people at once! Yasmina could see why Jakan had objected to idea originally! And yet, he willingly chose to accompany them as they began the battle. She felt more emboldened by this fact as well as the difficult magic she performed that day, but with all that could go wrong with this feat, she couldn’t help but feel a vast amount of dread from what they were about to do!

As they got closer to the castle, they moved to the cover of the trees on the Shadow Path to avoid detection. They moved slowly and paid close attention to their surroundings, fully expecting to awaken a booby-trap. Yasmina began to ignore her nerves in order to concentrate on what they needed to do. She knew that they could hardly walk into the front door! Even if they got through the locks, she felt certain Daeva would have an ambush waiting for them if they tried such an obvious method to get into Duanolc. Aidan had explained why Rogamaith had many different entrances, so she figured Daeva’s castle would have a similar set up. They would have to find a back entrance to get inside.

They heard a noise ahead of them, so they quickly brandished their wands, anticipating a fight. To their relief, they found that the culprit was a bird landing on a branch! Yasmina laughed from both relief and from noting that a bird had scared them for a second time. Ardeshir stared at it with great interest, os Aidan reminded him, “You’re not a cat anymore.”

“Right!” Ardeshir remembered, which made them all chuckle.

Suddenly, they heard distant chatter in the distance, so they landed their brooms and hid behind some trees. They saw a line of people wearing black cloaks with hoods over their heads marching towards Duanolc. Jakan whispered, “Daeva is building an army!” Normally, Yasmina would have felt that getting outnumbered would greatly diminish their chance at victory, but instead, it gave her an idea.

They crept closer and noticed a few people lagging at the end, and Yasmina felt grateful for this stroke of luck. Silently, Yasmina, Jakan, and even Ardeshir used their magic to knock out four cloaked people. Yasmina felt proud of Ardeshir for performing his first spell in a hundred years, but they couldn’t risk the noise that their voices would create, so she stayed quiet. They quickly dragged the stunned bodies into the bushes and joined the group as fast as they could.

As soon as the cloaked people entered Duanolc, Daeva made them all line up before her. Daeva coldly addressed them, “Four of you are traitors!” A few of the hooded figures whispered from a mix of surprise and curiosity. Daeva went on, “I called upon my loyal magi to assist me in battle, and yet you were so careless that you failed to notice a few of your own that got left behind!” The hooded figures shifted guiltily as she loudly berated them all, “Didn’t I emphasize that the fate of our land was at stake? Do you think I would call you here if it wasn’t of the utmost imporance? Why then wouldn’t you take every precaution to ensure our victory? Do you realize what you’ve done? I hired you to guard every entrance so that no one could enter, but I had to scrap that plan because I can’t trust any of you! The enemy is here!” No one’s face could be seen, but the fear of the hooded figures was palpable. Daeva concluded, “Your presence is not a total waste of time though or else I would kill you all right now! Our enemies are fools who are heavily outnumbered! I urge these moles to show themselves immediately!” No one moved. “You can’t hide forever! You came to face me, so show your faces! Do you want to do this the hard way? Cowards!”

“We’re not the cowards!” Yasmina vehemently shouted. The other hooded figures gasped as Yasmina, Aidan, Ardeshir, and Jakan took off their hoods. Yasmina stepped towards Daeva and enspeeched, “You hired a small army to take on a few people! You’re scared! The idea of magi rising against you is scary enough, but what you truly fear is dealing with an adversary on your own! You’re hoping that these guys kill us before you have to lay a finger on your wand! And do you know why? You have an addiction to control! You like to take the reins only when you know what to expect, and you have no idea what I’m capable of! I don’t know what I’m capable of either, but the difference is that I embrace this fact! I don’t know everything that will happen today, but I can tell you one thing that will definitely occur- you’ll get more scared and whether or not I survive, your regime won’t!”

“Enough!” Daeva screamed almost hysterically. She regained her exposure and responded, “I’m glad you admit that you know you could die tonight because your story will end when your life does!” She turned to the hooded figures and commanded, “Kill them!”

The hooded figures scattered across the room and began firing spells at them from all different directions. Yasmina stood where she was while Aidan, Ardeshir, and Jakan rolled in three different directions. Ardeshir went to the left, Jakan went to the right, and Aidan went behind the battle lines, shuffling to each side giving the three magi a heads up when they were getting blindsided by unexpected attacks. Yasmina found this extremely helpful because dodging multiple hexes was already difficult enough! After a while, she realized that simply avoiding the curses wouldn’t be enough. From the corner of her eye, she saw Ardeshir develop a rhythm of sidestepping a spell and then firing one of his own, so she adopted that tactic as well. She found it effective! She confidently battled on.

When only a few hooded figures were left, Daeva’s two witch assistants flew into the room on broomsticks and not only were they singing their spells loud enough to echo throughout the space, but their colorful magic clouded much of their vision! The three magi found a new rhythm to fight, but it just got harder! Plus, they couldn’t hear Aidan’s warnings unless he was almost next to them. Yasmina could only trust that the others’ survival instincts would keep them alive as they battled on.

Yasmina lost track of time, however, after a while, with the few hooded figures that had survived, she thought by now they should have been defeated, but she kept seeing pop up. She couldn’t understand why at first, and eventually it dawned on her that a second wave of them had arrived! She tried not to let it affect her, but she wondered just how many of them were set to arrive. Her adrenaline sustained her, but she could feel her body get drained of energy, and if she felt that way, the others must feel it too. It felt endless, but she kept reminding herself that her fears were lying to her and she must press on!

Suddenly, the windows burst open with glass flying like raindrops, and half a dozen broomsticks zoomed in! To Yasmina’s relief, it was the rest of Jakan’s thieves! They swarmed in with the same battle cry Jakan made when he confronted Kadera and immediately saw what they needed to do. A couple of them fought Daeva’s aides in the air while the rest of them joined the three magi on the ground. Yasmina’s heart fluttered, and even though she couldn’t see most of them, she had a feeling this would do the trick!

The room slowly began to empty, and Yasmina realized that most of the hooded figures were gone! Daeva’s assistants were still singing their spells and erupting the room in smokey chaos. Yasmina turned her attention to them and tried to find them in the haze. When she did see one or both go by, she shot a spell out at them. Either she kept missing her targets or they had some kind of spell to shield themselves against attacks. She refused to give up though! Once these two were gone, there would be no one left but Daeva. She knew Daeva could probably fight her entire team at once, but with the intense skills they displayed in this foray, she felt more confident than ever that they would achieve victory!

Suddenly, Yasmina thought she heard Aidan calling her name, but with all of the noise happening, she didn’t know for sure. The aides flew by shooting spells at her, and she managed to dodge them and fire back. Aidan’s voice got closer, and this time she clearly heard him shout, “Daeva! She’s right here!” Yasmina’s blood went cold, but she could not look for her because the assistants were now targeting her specifically. She kept fighting them but kept an eye out for any attacks by Daeva. Just as the others came to help her and she was ready to seek out Daeva, all of a sudden, Aidan pounced on her! As she got knocked to the ground, she saw Aidan absorbed a spell!

The Shadow Path, Chapter 16

Dorian looked just as surprised to see the three of them as they were upon his entrance. For a moment, they all seemed to have gotten on the same level, but after that spell, Dorian shook off the sentiments and returned to his usual swagger. “Are you here to kill me?”

“You seem awfully smug for someone who’s outnumbered!” Aidan shrewdly observed.

“You can’t kill me!” Dorian said factually. “What a pity! You came all this way for nothing!”

“We didn’t choose to come here,” Yasmina corrected him, “You brought us here! We weren’t going to waste our time with a puppet- we’re after the puppet-master!”

Dorian seethed, “How dare you! As king, it’s my duty to form partnerships that provide me with the necessary means to secure my power! Only a fool would turn down such an alliance!”

Aidan vehementally differed, “Only a fool would sell his soul to serve his own selfish needs! Uprooting century long alliances and sending your country to the brinks of war, and for what? You won’t have power if there’s no one left in the kingdom! After combat, you won’t have much of a country left to rule!”

“Mortals will die, that’s what they do!” Dorian replied dismissively. “The strong will survive, that’s nature!”

Yasmina pointed out, “You’re mortal! If Daeva is successful and does eradicate the mortals, what use will she have you?”

Dorian didn’t seem worried about this possibility. “We have a deal.”

Ardeshir interjected, “She took your essence, didn’t she?” Yasmina couldn’t tell if the stunned look on Dorian’s face stemmed from the fact a cat had spoken to him or by the substance of what he just brought up. In any case, Dorian didn’t answer, so Ardeshir pressed further, “She put it in an obscure object, didn’t she?”

Dorian truly appeared scared at this point, but before he could recover from this blow, Yasmina, Aidan, and Ardeshir suddenly got enveloped by rope! From inside the bureau, Kadera emerged! “Oh! It is you!” Kadera leered delightfully. “Well, we’ll make this quick then!”

As she raised her wand, Yasmina knew she couldn’t fight back, so her instincts prompted her to keep Kadera talking. “You were wrong about me!”

Those words clearly stung Kadera. She lowered her wand and argued, “My predictions are never wrong! You are a witch and you lived a life of loneliness. I knew you would reject the archetype, so you wouldn’t fit in with mortals or magi. I was right!”

Yasmina shot back, “I rejected the narrative that all witches are evil beings bent on destruction, something you probably created to suppress the the good magi out there who have the potential to challenge you! The truth caught up though, it always does! You think I’m the only one who would rise up against your regime? You may kill me, but there will be others!”

“You are no soothsayer!” Kadera spat.

“No, I’m not,” Yasmina acknowledged. “But a person doesn’t need fortune telling abilities to figure that out! Besides, you’re forgetting something. You made two predictions that turned out to bear some degree of truth, but that day in Neodrach, you made three predictions. The third was that I would try to kill the king. You were wrong about that!”

“You were trying to kill Master Daeva, which is essentially the same thing!” Kadera reasoned.

“But it’s not!” Yasmina emphasized this bottom line. “I had the intention but I never had the chance. You were wrong!”

“Enough!” Kadera snapped. “Nice try, but I’m not going to let you go just to make a prediction right! I should’ve killed you a long time ago! You can die knowing your purpose in life was truly pointless! You lose! Goodbye!”

She raised her wand again, but before she could strike, it suddenly got shot out of her hand! An almost joyful battle cry came from the door, and Jakan burst in! His fellow thieves came from all different directions. Kadera summoned her powers through her fingers and took aim at Jakan, but the thieves shot back at her before she could. Although Kadera was outnumbered seven to one, she could still take them all once. A few got knicks, but none of the thieves were seriously hurt. They did start to grow frustrated at their attempts to harm her getting repeatedly thwarted!

During the foray, one of the thieves untied Aidan, Ardeshir, and Yasmina. Aidan immediately drew his sword and fought off Dorian. Yasmina ran towards Kadera, but she couldnt’ take her eyes off of Aidan and Dorian. She detected something off about Dorian’s fighting skills, but she couldn’t figure out why her instincts had prompted her to think that. He seemed to have a formidable aptitude to do battle, but he didn’t move much. He acted as though he was cornered even though he had plenty of opportunity to move from that spot. His stance suggested he was guarding something, but the only thing that stood behind him was the painting…

Suddenly, it clicked for her, and she knew what she had to do! She had never done magic this advance, but every fiber of her being told her that she could do it. She concentrated each cell of her body on exactly what she wanted to happen, and she felt her magic build more and more. When she felt it mount to a peak, she knew it reached the time to release. Without thinking about it, she shouted, “Switch!”

The whole room stopped as everyone watched her powerful spell shoot out in three different directions. First, it went to the painting, next to Ardeshir, and finally to Dorian. With a final blast of light, the hex had finished by blasting a hole in Dorian’s painting! They heard Dorian’s voice cry out, “No!” It didn’t come from Dorian’s body, it came from the cat!

Dorian’s body voiced Ardeshir’s words, “No way!”

With Kadera fully distracted, Jakan aimed his wand and quickly shot a spell her way! She fell to the floor, barely able to move or breathe! Yasmina strutted over to her and gloated, “Dorian’s essence lived in the painting. That’s how Daeva controlled him! She won’t be able to do that anymore! And I highly doubt that Caragsona will willingly let themselves get ruled by a cat! Dorian will have to find a new puppet! And by the way, I still haven’t tried to kill the king! You lose! Goodbye!”

“You bested me, but you’ll never win against Daeva!” With that last thought, Kadera took one last breath and moved no more!

Yasmina and the others celebrated, but Dorian interrupted them, “You fools! I’m still king! This is still my kingdom and you’re all still criminals!”

“That’s exactly why we came!” Jakan told him. “You sentenced us to death, so we figured if we’re doomed anyways, we might as well go out with a bang! That way we’d at least die as heroes! Turns out we don’t have to! Good luck trying to rule the kingdom as a cat!”

Dorian growled, “Cat or not, I am king!” He went into the hall and found some nearby chamber maids. “I hereby order you to-!” The chamber maids screamed, grabbed broom from their carts, and chased after him.

Everyone in Dorian’s chamber had a hearty laugh at this, but that instance gave them an idea. They saw two broomsticks left, and Jakan remarked, “That’s okay. We can pair up, and the rest of you can find more and join us.”

“Who am I riding with?” Yasmina inquired.

Jakan replied, “You and I will have to be the head riders.” Yasmina began to object, but Jakan over-ruled her, “Aidan needs to come, and your friend here…”

“This is amazing!” Ardeshir raved as he examined his hand clutching a broomstick. “I haven’t been able to hold anything in a hundred years! Remarkable!”

“…he probably shouldn’t be left alone,” Jakan finished. “Plus, people may assume he’s the improper king and…well, he’s safer leaving the castle immediately!” Yasmina still seemed worried, so Jakan went on, “If we go by foot, we won’t get there for a couple of days. Do you want my crew to get to the battle before you?” Yasmina hadn’t thought of that, and this notion was totally unacceptable to her! Jakan continued, “That’s what I thought! Look, if you can do an essence-switching spell, you definitely have the power to fly a broomstick!”

Yasmina knew he was completely right, and she felt heartened by his encouragement. “Okay, I’m ready!”

“I’m not!” Ardeshir ran over to Kadera and stole her wand. “Okay, let’s go!”

“We can take off from the balcony,” Aidan suggested.

Jakan agreed, “Let’s go!”

They ran towards the front of the castle, but before they could get to the balcony, they were greeted by some knights. “Sire, what are you doing?”

In his most regal voice possible, Ardeshir commanded, “Stand aside!”

The knights were clearly puzzled by his voice, but they did as they were told. Ardeshir, Jakan, Aidan, and Yasmina ran to a large, stone balcony that overlooked the entire kingdom. The view was breathtaking, and for a moment, Yasmina forgot about where she was and why. “Wow!”

“This is where my parents addressed the kingdom,” Aidan said wistfully. “Although, as a kid, I had more fun watching the townspeople enter over the drawbridge!”

Yasmina peeked over the edge to see the drawbridge and nearly had a heart attack! She saw King Kahlil standing before the castle with an army of his knights behind him! Ardeshir also peeked over, and Kahlil addressed him, “King Dorian, for the horrendous crimes you’ve committed against your own-!”

“Woah, woah, woah!” Ardeshir responded. “I’m not Dorian!”

Aidan ran to the edge and desperately shouted, “Please don’t wage war on my kingdom!”

Kahlil’ jaw dropped. “Prince Aidan? I thought you were dead!”

“I’ve been alive this whole time!” Aidan informed him. “But I don’t have time to explain. I have to go to battle to save the soul of my kingdom, but if I don’t come back, watch over Caragsona for me, okay?”

Kahlil looked utterly confused, but he agreed, “Upon my honor!”

Jakan had already mounted his broomstick, and Ardeshir fell in place behind him. Aidan got onto the back of her broom and encouraged her, “You can do this!”

Yasmina mounted the broom and reminded herself, “You have to believe you can do this!” She concentrated hard just as she did with the essence-switching spell, and soon she felt the magic leave her fingertips and enter the broom. Before she knew it, they were up in the air and zooming towards Duanolc!