DiscoveryDeath, a cold-hearted demon Derrik Spencer knew all too well. Alone in his room, Derrik sat at the end of his king-sized bed, his legs hung over its edge and his bare feet firmly planted on the worn wooden floor. His hands trembled as he held a Glock 17 pistol firmly under his chin. He applied pressure to the pistol’s trigger, but not enough to set it off. The last moments from the hospital delivery room flashed in his mind: His wife, Jenna, screamed, the doctors scrambled, and then an alarm blared from the heart monitor. Jenna turned ghostly white, and her body hemorrhaged. And the blood. He shuddered. Why had there been so much of it? He fought to stay close to Jenna, but several nurses grabbed him and pulled him backward, out of the room. Within a few minutes, he’d lost Jenna and his unborn daughter. Noel. The perfect life evaporated before him, and he could do nothing to stop it. How had everything gone to hell in such short order? Derrik held his breath and cringed as he squeezed the trigger harder. The pistol clicked but didn’t fire. He cursed aloud as he exhaled and released the trigger. He didn’t give a damn if the neighbors heard him. Besides, they’d hear the blast from the pistol when he squeezed the trigger again. But would any of them care? Why should they? If the roles were reversed, he wouldn’t rise from his chair or even blink. He took quick, shallow breaths and dug deep within himself to summon more courage, but his efforts only deepened his sorrow. He pounded his temple with his palm. “Squeeze harder, damn you!” His ragged voice sounded foreign in his ears. His finger twitched and then moved, letting up on the trigger. He sighed and lowered the pistol. “Coward.” Moonlight glinted off the pistol’s stainless steel slide and sent light rays dancing along the ridges of peeling paint and plaster on the far wall. They caught his attention and drew his gaze. His eyes blurred with tears and stung with anger, but his vision gained clarity as he focused on a single patch of worn plaster highlighted by the light. The plaster’s heart-shaped form piqued his interest, and he laid the gun on the bed. Still, the light remained on that single spot. His pulse rose, and his heart thundered in his chest as he rose from the bed. Beads of sweat lined his brow like crown jewels, and a chill prickled his skin. It’s a trick of light. Nothing more. Nothing lay hidden within the gashed plaster, but still he couldn’t break his gaze upon it. He struggled to move forward, his legs far heavier than he remembered as the floor grabbed onto his feet like quicksand. He forced a single step forward and drew ragged breaths like a runner after completing a marathon. He managed another step, but how many more could he take? His heart ached with every thunderous beat. The wall pulled away and he cried out—not from pain, but a deep, unbridled desire to unlock its secret. He lunged forward, driven by desperation, and the wall met the side of his face with unexpected force. He grunted and pulled back, stunned. Derrik stared at the floor. Tiny triangles of paint and plaster littered it. He stepped back and brushed his cheek with the back of his hand. He cringed as hundreds of needles pricked his face. He looked down at his hand and frowned at the crimson streak smeared across it. Several shards of plaster clung to the sticky blood. He shook his head, wrung his hands, and refocused his gaze on the wall. The hole. The heart-shaped hole. Blood—his blood—outlined the two-inch hole with quickly browning streaks. His fingers trembled as he reached toward the hole, but he stopped short. Death’s cold breath blew on his nape and left his hairs on end. You’ll see me soon enough. Derrik rolled his shoulders and pushed his fear away. He touched the wall just beyond the glowing, heart-shaped hole and caressed the rough plaster with his thumb. The plaster tugged and snagged his skin, and he pressed harder as his thumb reached the outer edge of the hole. He stopped and leaned close, but he couldn’t make out anything within it. His pulse accelerated as he raised his other hand to the wall. He pressed both thumbs inside the hole, hooked them into its sharp edges, exhaled deeply, and pulled out to the sides. His vision shook, and his neck tightened as he poured every ounce of his strength into widening the hole. With a final grunt, thick chunks of plaster broke away from both sides of the hole. Derrik thrust his fist in the air. “Yes!” He grinned smugly and stared at the enlarged hole. Several moments passed before his mind alerted him to the fact that the hole’s shape remained unchanged. He gasped and blinked several times, certain his mind screwed with him, but the hole—several inches wider—held its heart-shaped form. He traced the hole with a bloody thumb. How is that possible? He closed his eyes and blew into the hole. Fine dust and flakes of plaster showered his face. He coughed and wiped the dust from his eyelids. He blinked away remnants of dust and then peered into the hole once again. Several inches in, something glowed. He strained his eyes to see more clearly, but everything remained fuzzy. A deep desire to know the source of the glowing light overtook him once more. Derrik exhaled and tore at the wall with abandon, caring nothing about his lacerated fingers and cracked nails. Blood coated the hole and ran down the wall as he dug deeper. His fingers grew numb with pain, but then they touched something smooth. A jolt of energy raced through his hands, up his arms, and down his torso. He cried out, jerked his hands away from the wall, staggered backward, and collapsed onto the bed. His hands tingled as though asleep, his vision darkened, and the ratty old ceiling fan spun over his head, along with the rest of the room. Nausea gurgled in his stomach, and the bitter taste of bile rose in his throat and stung the back of his tongue. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. “Get it together, Derrik.” After a few minutes, the nausea passed. He sat up and flexed his hands, but the tingling remained in his fingertips. He stared at the wall. At the glowing heart-shaped hole. It taunted him. Beckoned him. Demanded his attention. “What the hell… are you?” The question sounded foolish in his ears, and his cheeks burned with confirmation, but it didn’t change the fact that he must find out. Derrik shook his head. I’m talking to a hole in the wall. Those same words echoed in his mind a thousandfold, a sentiment Jenna had often expressed when they’d argue. A fleeting smile crossed his lips. He crossed his arms and frowned. What had happened? Perhaps he’d touched an exposed wire in the wall? It explained the shock he’d received, but not the glow. And how about the hole’s shape? What explanation could he muster for it? Or the smooth object he’d felt inside. Nothing. He stood, walked over to the wall, and pushed air through his nostrils like a bull. “You’ve pulled me away from my appointment with Death. Don’t make me regret it.” He reached into the hole with his finger and thumb and grasped the smooth object. Energy flowed into his finger and thumb, up the back of his hand, and spread through his entire body, but it didn’t jolt him as it had the first time. He exhaled and carefully extracted his finger and thumb from the hole, keeping constant pressure on either side of the smooth object. As the object cleared the hole, a golden chain snaked behind it, drooped, and then dropped from the edge of the hole. Derrik held out his other hand. The golden chain coiled into his open palm as he gently lowered the object he grasped. He placed the object in his palm and moved his other hand to the side. A golden, heart-shaped locket—no more than an inch wide or tall, and hardly an eighth-inch thick—rested in his palm. A translucent, red jewel about the size of his pinkie nail adorned the locket’s center, and its shape resembled that of an ancient keyhole—a bulbous top attached to a narrow rectangle. Moonlight refracted on the jewel. Derrik raised his palm and examined it further. He closed his other hand around it, leaving a hole between his thumb and curled finger. He leaned over, peered into the opening, and gasped. The light comes from within the locket! His fingers trembled as he turned the locket over in his palm. Its smooth back held no secrets, and its edges had no creases or grooves with which he could pry it open. He turned the locket back over and lifted it up to his left eye, but only saw a prism of light through the jewel. He lowered his hand, squeezed it tight around the locket, and groaned. I must know your secret. Derrik took the golden chain attached to the locket, lifted it over his head, and pulled it down around his neck. He stared at the Glock lying on the bed next to him and shook his head. “You’ll have to wait a bit longer, Death. I know you won’t stray far.” The flow of energy within him increased tenfold, and the entire room quaked. Plaster fell from the walls. The wood floors jostled and bounced like kernels of popping corn. The rickety ceiling fan swung on its base. The windows rattled, cracked, and shattered. Derrik grabbed fistfuls of sheets and clung to the shifting bed. Light filled the room and intensified until it blinded him even with his eyes closed. A sound—one of which he could only describe as a choir of angels—filled the room, and then an unknown force lifted him off the bed and suspended him in the air. Derrik exhaled, but then he couldn’t draw another breath. His lungs raged with fire, and he knew that the energy flowing through him would rip him apart at any moment, atom by atom. Fear gripped him, and he found himself begging for his life, an irony that left him ashamed of what he’d almost done. Bit by bit, particles of himself pulled away like sand sifting through an hourglass—fingers, toes, ears, nose, hands, feet. All separated from him, but his awareness of them remained. He forced his eyes open, glared into the light, and watched particles of himself flow into the locket’s keyhole-shaped jewel. The locket multiplied a thousandfold as it drew near his eyes. No, wait! He realized the locket hadn’t multiplied in number. Instead, his eyes had separated at a sub-atomic level. And I see through them all. As each piece of his eye flowed into the locket, darkness swept in and snuffed out the light. One locket remained, and then the last of him flowed into its jewel. He glanced back. The locket fell to the floor, and then the light faded completely.
ArrivalDerrik’s head pounded something fierce, and the light stung his eyes when he tried to open them. Had he gone out drinking? He couldn’t recall, but he knew the symptoms of a hangover quite well. A bender for sure. What the hell did I do last night? Shards of memories from the previous night returned. His bed. A slowly spinning ceiling fan. A gun. No, his gun. He’d held it under his chin, safety off and his finger on the trigger. He remembered nothing beyond that point. Did I pull the trigger? He had, and he vaguely recalled the gun misfiring. But had he pulled the trigger again? Am I dead? He moved to sit up, but searing pain ripped through his right shoulder—to the bone—and all the way down to his fingertips. He grunted, gritted his teeth, and settled back down. Definitely not dead. Maybe he’d managed to shoot himself in the arm somehow. It explained the pain in his shoulder perfectly. Derrik slowly opened his eyes and fought the urge to clamp them shut again. His headache raged, and his vision drifted between darkness and light as he willed himself to remain conscious. After a few minutes, the episode passed, and his vision cleared. Dark clouds circled above him like carrion birds, marring an otherwise clear, greyish-blue sky. Derrik frowned. How did I get outside? He laid there for several more minutes as his senses acclimated and processed everything around him. Birds chirped and sang in the distance, and blades of grass squeaked as their stalks rubbed together. A warm breeze fluffed his hair and brought with it the savory aroma of freshly baked bread. Bread? Hunger pangs erupted in his stomach. When had he eaten last? “He’s right over there, just beyond the tree line.” Derrik tensed. A woman’s voice. Her thick accent smooshed her words together, and he couldn’t place her strange dialect. Derrik turned his head in the direction where the voice had come from. “Help me,” he said, but the words lumped in his parched throat and manifested as a graveled groan. “And he’s still alive? Or did you kill him?” A second person. Though deeper than the first woman’s voice, Derrik couldn’t tell if it came from another woman or a younger man, but he assumed the person to be a younger man. “I didn’t take the time to look at the man because I knew there wasn’t anything I could do for him if he still lived. So, I went straight to your house to retrieve you.” The young man said nothing, or at least Derrik didn’t hear him reply. “Ugh! Don’t eye me like that, Drisdan,” said the woman. “I know what you’re thinking. Don’t you dare blame me for this. I fired the shot well before the man appeared. He stepped right into its trajectory. I didn’t even have time to warn him. This isn’t my fault!” “Please calm down, Ilia,” said Drisdan. “There’s no need for you to be defensive in this matter. Nobody’s accusing you of any wrongdoing, especially not me. I simply asked a question, nothing more.” “A question,” huffed Ilia. “It certainly sounded like more than that.” “Perhaps, but I assure you that it wasn’t,” said Drisdan. “Now, show me this man before he’s had the opportunity to die on us.” The tall silver grass parted, and two figures, dressed in tan and brown bathrobes with hoods, came into view. Derrik tried sitting up, but fiery pain erupted in his right shoulder and forced him back down. His vision darkened. He tried making a fist, but his arm and hand failed to respond. He strained to push each word through gritted teeth. “What did. You do. To me?” The woman pushed her hood back, revealing long strands of golden brown curls. Her violet eyes, vibrant and kind but piercing, took Derrik’s breath away. Her pale, flawless complexion radiated light, and her full lips, soft pink in color, puckered in the middle. Her narrow jawline rose to meet perfectly shaped ears—not too pointed or rounded. An angel of light. Derrik blinked several times. “Am I dead?” The woman’s wry smile surprised Derrik. “You’re not dead, and you did this to yourself.” “Wizard’s fire,” said Drisdan. Derrik’s breath caught, and his eyes grew wide. When had the young man removed his hood and settled on the ground next to him? “D-did you s-s-say wizard’s fire?” stuttered Derrik, his brain still scrambling to rectify the young man’s words. Drisdan cocked his head, gave Derrik a once-over, and frowned. “You’re not from around here, are you?” Derrik grimaced as the pain spiked again. “Chicago. South Side.” Drisdan looked up at Ilia, and she shrugged. “Never mind that for now. We’ll get into it later. Right now I need to concentrate on saving your arm and your life before the wizard’s fire consumes you.” Derrik forced air from his nostrils and glared at Drisdan. “You keep saying wizard’s fire like it’s something that exists outside of D&D games. I’m not an idiot. Speak plainly. What the hell is wrong with my arm?” Drisdan placed his hand on Derrik’s forearm and smiled. “I can speak no more plainly than I already have.” “I’ll show him.” Ilia moved to Derrik’s other side and pulled her sleeves back. Her slender hands attached to thin but muscled forearms. Several tattoos lined the insides of her wrists. Ilia turned her palms slightly up, as though she held a large bowl of water between them. She lifted her gaze skyward and whispered a few words Derrik didn’t understand. Immediately, orangish-red and yellow flames formed between her hands, twisting and undulating as they formed into a ball. The scent of lemons and oranges permeated the air. Derrik gasped and pressed himself into the ground. “How are you doing that?” “Enough,” said Drisdan. Ilia rolled her eyes. She pushed her palms together, and the ball of fire winked out. “We call it mezhik. Have you never seen it before?” Mezhik… Pure adrenaline flowed through Derrik’s veins as his heart pumped with blistering speed. He sat up, and his arm raged with fire, but he fought through the pain. He glared at Drisdan. “Where the hell am I?” Drisdan cleared his throat. “Arian Valley.” Derrik wrinkled his nose and shook his head. “Never heard of it.” Drisdan looked to Ilia. “Did you do something to his memory as well?” Ilia scowled. “Again with the accusations.” She tapped her chin with one of her long, slender fingers. “Maybe he really isn’t from here. He did appear out of nowhere. But how would he wield mezhik when he doesn’t even know what it is?” Derrik grimaced and laid back again. He squinted at the sky as small droplets of rain began pelting his face. One hit him in the eye and doubled his vision for several moments, and then the memories flooded his mind. The locket! “I think I kn—” “There’s no time right now. You’ll die if we don’t hurry.” Drisdan reached toward Ilia. “Hand me the salve, place the stick in his mouth, and whatever you do, don’t let him spit it out.” Ilia nodded, handed Drisdan a small glass jar filled with a yellow substance, and moved around and knelt above Derrik’s head. She pulled a stick about a foot long and two inches in diameter out of the folds of her robes. “Open your mouth as wide as you can.” Derrik swallowed hard, thought about arguing with her, but the pain in his shoulder flared again so he complied. Ilia shoved the stick in his mouth and held both ends, pinning him to the ground. “Bite down,” she said. Derrik did. The wood tasted bitter against his tongue. Ilia nodded to Drisdan. Drisdan scooped out some of the yellow substance—it looked to be a paste—from the jar with two of his fingers and rubbed them together. “This will hurt more than anything you’ve ever felt before. Scream if you like, but the pain will most likely render you unconscious. Better that than dead, though.” How do I know this won’t kill me? Drisdan smiled, his teeth a bit crooked in the front and yellowed a tinge. In a strange way they complimented his tanned skin and freckled cheeks. “Ready? Blink once for yes, twice for no.” Do I have a choice? Derrik blinked twice. Drisdan snorted a laugh, grabbed Derrik’s forearm with his free hand, and shoved his slathered fingers into the wound. Derrik screamed until he couldn’t breathe, and then the darkness swallowed him.
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