UNDER THE RAVENS WATCH  - SAMPLE CHAPTERS

THE MEETING

Roscommon Ireland,  2070

 

LET’S BE CLEAR ABOUT ONE THING. I didn't ask for this. I didn’t ask to be a member of The Raven's Watch. There wasn't a sign-up sheet or a meet and greet where I stepped forward and said, “Hey, pick me, pick me!” 

No, I didn't volunteer - I was chosen. 

That's what these mysterious Ravens do - they chose their human halves. And as I was about to learn, once chosen, there was no going back. I've pretty much pinpointed this ‘selection’ as the exact moment the world I knew ceased to exist, and we entered a new world, a world where ravens talked, and wraiths hunted us. 

We'd arrived at the countryside estate courtesy of the slowest horse in all of Galway. As we stepped from the car, the massive black raven peering down at us from the second floor terrace caught our attention. Wings outstretched, he was as beautiful as he was terrifying. Mesmerized, my little sister, Charlotte couldn't take her eyes off him. She crept towards the raven with slow, tentative steps, and he followed her every move, shuffling on his perch and croaking as she inched closer. Suddenly, he leaped from the terrace and on powerful wingbeats, soared into the sky. 

As he disappeared over the manor, the large wooden doors groaned, and a heavy-set man stepped out to meet us. He was gruff, and quite a bit taller than me and I was doing my best to stretch to five-foot-eleven. A dusty, green jacket and gray t-shirt did little to conceal his massive shoulders. At least twice as wide as mine, he looked more linebacker than a caretaker.

“Hello, Halsteads.” He stepped toward me, hand outstretched. “I'm Prosper.”

There was something calming about this big guy. Though he was intimidating, his eyes seemed to radiate kindness. 

“Henry,” I replied, as my hand found his. I turned to my little sister, pulling a strand of her curly, blond hair from her face and tucking it behind her ear. “This is Charlotte.” She smiled but quickly slid in behind me.

 “Come in.” He picked up our bags. “Let me show you around.”

Charlotte gave me the look; it was the one she gave me when she was nervous and needed reassurance everything was going to be okay. It was the same one she gave me as the cart pulled away from our home. The city had become so dangerous that our parents decided the time for us to move had arrived, and we were whisked away to the Roscommon countryside ahead of them.

I smiled and put my arm around her shoulders as we followed Prosper inside. He took us on a tour of the old Victorian estate. Heavy wooden I-beams ran from one end of the manor to the other. Large stone fireplaces and rounded archways disappeared into the knotted oak floors. 

All I kept thinking was that this was going to be a perfect place to live. It had everything. Except for power, of course. But that wasn't surprising since nobody had that. It was weird--one minute we'd had it, and the next, it was gone. Just like that. Poof. Almost as though someone had simply flipped the world's power switch to off. 

The silence that follows the disappearance of the sounds we take for granted is creepy. It's crazy to think how in a city of half-a-million, we could have such quiet, but more often than not, the only noise to be heard was my own shallow breathing. No honking horns or heavy machinery. No televisions or cell phones. No music. Nothing. Nothing but the sound of human interaction. And with the way people had begun to treat each other, that was the last thing I wanted to hear.

A set of white French doors led us down two sets of stone steps to a gravel walkway. Narrow evergreens and small round planters with purple flowers lined both sides, the concrete path. In front of us, a tall tree with burgundy leaves stood out amongst its green companions. Past that, for as far as the eye could see, were open fields and forests.

“Why don't you guys get acquainted with the place? I'll fix us some supper.” Prosper patted my shoulder and headed back through the doors, leaving Charlotte and me to ourselves.

“So what do you think?” I asked. 

“Beautiful,” she replied, but the sullen expression on her face said more than her words let on. 

“You okay?” Her arms crossed her chest and were pressed tightly against her sides. “You miss Mom and Dad, huh?” Her thumbs fidgeted with one another, and she nodded. I put my arm around her and pulled her into my side. “I do too, but it won't be long before they're here. They had some stuff they needed to take care of back home.”

“Okay.” Her gaze fell. “I just wish they were here now.” 

“I know.” The flowers surrounding the estate should've cheered her up. The colors were the most brilliant shades of blues, reds and yellows. Their fragrant scents swirled around us. “Mom's going to freak when she sees these gardens.”

Charlotte stared off into the distance. “Do you think we could go have a look at them?

“Of course,” I replied, hoping their beauty and the fresh country air might lighten her mood. We followed the path until the gravel disappeared. Wandering through the various flower beds, Charlotte's fingers caressed the indigo hydrangeas and she paused briefly to take in the sweet aroma of the passionate Elderflower. As we left the gardens and stepped onto the grass, Charlotte grabbed hold of my hand. The fire red sun began to slip beneath the horizon leaving sky in a haze of orange and purple. 

We sat under the massive branches of the burgundy-leaved tree, our backs resting on its wide trunk, and as we took in the impressiveness of the manor, Charlotte pulled at the long fescue. “What's going to happen to us?”

People often underestimate her. They think she's this young, naïve little girl, but she's not. She's smart. Like really smart. Maybe it's because she's tinier than your average nine-year-old, but beneath her curly blond hair and crystal blue eyes is a brilliant mind.

Early on, she wrote the school test for giftedness, where she scored in the ninety-eighth percentile, which I guess is rare. And she's mature way beyond her years. With my parent working long hours, I'd often come home late after football practice and find her sitting at the kitchen table doing her homework. Giving her some made up answer that might make her feel better was not an option here. She’d see the lie coming.

“To be honest, I'm not sure. We'll just have to wait and see how it all works out.”

The world had already lost most of its fossil fuels. Looking back, we should've listened to the early warnings: the ozone scare, global warming, and the rising population, but we didn't. Once the natural resources became scarce and things stopped working, people finally stood up and took notice, but by then it was too late. No fuel meant no heat and no gas. No gas meant no cars, and it's amazing how local your world becomes when you can't drive anywhere.

With so many people crammed together in one place, many without the means to sterilize food and water, a disease they called the Madness was born. The speed at which an infection spreads through a city is frightening- in a “God, I hope this sickness doesn't take me” kind of way. It certainly didn’t take long for the city to turn on itself. 

Happy to rest beneath the ruby tree in peace, the arrival of the large raven we'd seen on the roof earlier broke the silence. He settled on the grass in front of us, and seemingly unaffected by our presence, tucked his wings into his body and hopped towards Charlotte. With his head bobbing up and down, he was croaked a steady rhythmic pattern. She leaned forward on all fours and slowly reached for him.

“Uh, Char? What are you doing?”

“It's okay. He's friendly,” she replied, and as usual, it seemed as though she was right. Not that I should be surprised, she's always had a special way with birds.

As her hand brushed his wing, the majestic raven held still, even seeming to rise to meet her gentle touch. Something happened when they interacted. Something comfortable, magical and familiar, it was like they'd known each other forever. When she slid forward and scooped him into her arms, he didn't even squirm. Eyebrows raised; I shook my head, “Wow, he must like you.” 

She leaned back against the tree, cradling the raven. He nestled into her chest, cooing softly. “Yes, he does, but he likes you more.”

I smiled awkwardly and chuckled. I thought perhaps she was trying to be cute, but she wasn't laughing at all. In fact, her face was void of any emotion. “Uh...What?” I asked, the playful smirk fading from my face. 

“He's yours Henry. His name is Hardey.” 

She spoke so matter-of-factly that I was beginning to worry something was wrong with her. Had the trauma of leaving our home and parents back in the city made her a little...crazy? 

“What's that, again?” ”

He said he's come for you,” she replied.

“Wait. Did you say he said?”

“Yes, he can talk you know,” which for some reason wasn't a surprise to her, but of course to me this whole thing seemed ridiculous. “He wants you,” she said, and handed the raven to me. 

“Um...Okay?” I held out my trembling hands, and as she passed him to me, he quickly shuffled up my arm, stopping a little before my elbow.

At first, I was a little nervous, but then something happened. As I stared into his eyes, a fog began to swirl inside the black abyss, and a calm washed over me. His eyes transformed, turning from midnight black to the same hazel green as mine. Lost in the moment, I couldn't move. I hardly even noticed his razor-sharp talons digging into my arm, piercing my skin. Though the pain traveled through my body like a lightning strike on a weather vane, I didn't even flinch. Blood trickled down my forearm, pooling on the under-side, yet my eyes remained fixated on his. 

The raven moved first, breaking the trance. Standing tall, wings outstretched, he unleashed a scream so loud and terrifying that I tumbled backward. He leaped into the air, twisting and twirling before settling on the roof. On my arm, he'd left four diamond shaped puncture wounds, one from each of his talons.

“He's claimed you, Henry,” said Charlotte. “You're joined, forever.”

“What?” I whispered in disbelief. “What do you mean?”

“He said you are a Raven now - whatever that means - and that we've been summoned.”

“Summoned? Where? By who?”

“I don't know,” was her reply.

“Oh, this is crazy,” I said, looking at my forearm. The whole thing was surreal. No way this just happened. I must be dreaming. 

The door of the manor creaked open, and as Prosper hollered for us to come in for dinner, I quickly pulled down my sleeve to cover the marks on my arm. I quickly grabbed Charlotte's hand, “Don't say anything to him, okay?” Her hand wrapped around mine, and she looked up at me then nodded. The last thing we needed was the only adult in our lives to think we were insane.

The flicker of the flame-lit chandelier hanging above the dining room table danced across the portraits hung on the room's burgundy walls. While he readied our meal, we took our seats and Charlotte sat across from me.

The door swung open, and Prosper emerged, holding a tray with three plates. Turning toward us, each one was piled high with creamy mashed potatoes, a glistening steak and steaming green and orange vegetables. “Here you go.” The plates clunked against the wooden table as he set them in front of us, “Bon Appetite.”

He took his place at the head of the table, and as we ate in silence, he seemed to sense something was up, but thankfully, he didn't ask any questions.

“I understand how tough the uncertainty of everything is for you guys, being away from your parents and all, but they believed this was best for you.” 

“But they'll be here soon, right?” I asked.

He swallowed a scoop of mashed potatoes and nodded, waiting until his mouth was empty before answering. “Right.”

The clinking cutlery carried the conversation for most of the meal.  My arm was throbbing, and the puncture wounds had started to bleed through my shirt. I took a napkin from the table and placed it over my forearm and tried to divert his attention. ”So what happens once my parents get here? Are you going to stay with us?”

“No, I'm just here until they arrive, and then I'm taking off.”

“Where are you going?”

“Empire City.”

“What's there?” 

He turned and stared out the dining room window, seemingly searching for the right words. “They say the Emperor has found a way to conserve the resources and keep society running as we've always known it.” 

“How did he do that?” I ask, but the more obvious question should've been, and why aren't we going again?

Prosper's gaze dropped, and he pushed the potatoes around his plate. His nervousness made me wonder if he was hiding something. 

“I don't know, but I'd sure like to find out.” he replied. 

“So, are we going too?” Charlotte asked, not about to let the opportunity pass a second time. 

“Well, that'll be up to your folks to decide. Personally, I'd keep you here.” The tone of his voice had an edge to it. “I'm not sure Empire City is a place for kids.” He returned to his food, seeming to want nothing more to do with this conversation, so I didn't press him any further. Whatever our parents decided would be good enough for me. 

When we'd finished eating and cleared the table, Charlotte and I wandered into the large study where a roaring fire warmed our cheeks and lit the room. Each wall was covered by bookcases full of old books. As I walked past the rows and rows of blue and red spined encyclopedias, I found what I was looking for and pulled the yellowed paperback from the shelf. It was an old copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S Lewis. After we had lost video games, books were the best way to pass the time and escape reality. I hate to admit, but maybe my teachers were right - you could read for enjoyment. Who knew?

I fanned the pages, and the musty smell brought back so many memories. I remembered the nights I'd curl up in my closet with a pillow, blanket, and flashlight and read it over and over again. I would dream that my closet opened to a world of kings, queens and talking animals. My fingers traced the four circular blood stains on my sleeve and I shook my head. Maybe my wish has been granted after all. 

Charlotte was sitting cross-legged on the white sofa facing the fire. She had wrapped her arms around a pink floral cushion and was resting her head on it. “Remember this book?” I asked. She looked up and smiled. “Yes! You read it so much that the words started to rub off the page.” She laughed. 

“Did you bring that beat up, old copy of Anne of Green Gables with you?” I teased. It was her favorite book, a gift from our mother. 

“Of course,” she replied with a snort, “Duh, I don't go anywhere without Anne!”

I chuckled, “Oh, I know.” 

I tucked the book back on the shelf and wandered to the window behind the love seat. In comparison to home, the country was dark - like, really dark. Though the city had lost its electricity some time ago, an ember glow always seemed to emanate from it's center. Out here, the light of the full moon covered the estate in a cool blue blanket. I could barely make out the silhouette of the treetops against the star lit sky. ”Hey, Char?”

“Yes?”

“That raven didn't really talk to you did he? You were kidding right?”

“No Henry, I wasn't kidding.” She turned and faced me. “For real, he did. I could hear his voice in my head.”

I leaned against the window frame, staring into the darkness outside and tried to wrap my head around what she was saying. It was too...weird. I was about to ask what the voice sounded like when a flash of light coming from the forest beyond the grounds caught my eye. It flickered a few times before disappearing. My eyes narrowed. It seemed to be moving through the trees. Charlotte, who was now kneeling on the sofa, her elbows resting on the top of the backside, must have seen the worry on my face, “What is it?” she asked.

 

“Don't know. Something's out there.”

She stepped around the couch and stood beside me. Three separate flickering lights, one after another, raced through the trees like a fishing lure weaving it way through the water. A low grumbling sound rattled the windowpane. With furrowed brow, I leaned in, listening. The noise was reminiscent of the rhythmic pounding horses made when they were galloping, but it couldn't be horses, could it? I mean, where would they come from? We were out in the middle of nowhere. Regardless, something was closing in.

All of the sudden, the heavy wooden door flew open, crashing into the wall behind it. Prosper stood in the doorway, chest heaving, eyes wide. Everything about him screamed panic.

“We've got to go,” he said, his voice trembling.

            Charlotte turned to me and I quickly scooped her up. She wrapped her arms and legs around me.

“This way,” said Prosper, holding the door open. As I passed by him, the fear in his eyes startled me. Something had him spooked.

“What's going on?” I asked.

“I don't know how, but they've found us. We need to get you guys out of here.”

“Found us? Who?”

“I don't have time to explain. Just follow me.” He handed us our backpacks and led us through the kitchen into a large walk-in pantry. Once we were in, he closed the door behind us and flipped the deadbolt. Charlotte's arms squeezed my neck a little tighter, and I could feel her trembling. “We're okay,” I said, trying to reassure her, even though I wasn’t sure we were myself.

The sound of crashing glass and shrill, high-pitched screams coming from the other side of the door sent shivers all over my body. They sounded like death. Like someone was dying an awful, painful death. Another scream followed. And another. Whatever it was had just entered the house.

            Prosper moved quickly, pulling cereal boxes and pasta cans from the shelves at a hurried pace. My gaze never left the space between the bottom of the door and the tiled floor. Charlotte shuddered and squeezed tighter. Her tiny body trembled against mine. “Hold it together,” I whispered.

A dark shadow crossed by the doorway and I reached out and tapped Prosper's shoulder. Sweat glistened from his forehead, and when our eyes met, I knew we were in trouble. I pointed to the floor as the shadow crossed the threshold. We watched in silence as another followed close behind. I suspected there were three of them in the house.

We stood in the pantry, frozen in place, breaths held. My eyes darted back and forth, but I was more focused on their sounds. What I wanted to hear, or hoped to hear, was them leaving the house. Maybe they’d think we weren't home, give up, and leave. Prosper tossed the final boxes to the floor and then pulled the wire racks from the wall, fasteners and all. Tiny screws skidded across the tiles. Placing his hands shoulder width apart, he leaned forward and pushed with all his might.

At first I didn't understand what he was doing, but then the wall began to move, inching backward. As it scraped against the ground, I feared the loud noise would draw the attention of the predators outside. I stared at the floor, praying the shadows wouldn't return.

And they didn't. But what we saw, was even more frightening.

A flickering orange glow emanated from beneath the door. Smoke began to seep into the tiny room. Fire. They'd lit the place up.

“Prosper!” I called. He stopped pushing and turned towards me, only then noticing the smoke filling the tiny room.

“Oh, no...” he said, “Quick. Help me!” I put Charlotte down and joined him on the wall. Pushing together, the stone slab slid back and clicked into place with a loud thud. High-pitched screeches rang out, and the pantry door started to shake. They’d found us. The door creaked and groaned as they threw themselves at it.

On either side of the marble slab an entrance had emerged. “Go!” yelled Prosper. “This tunnel will take you beneath the estate and out into the forest. Get as far away as you can.”

            “Wait, where are we going to go?”

“I'm sorry, Henry. I don't know how they knew you were here. Those things are wraiths, and if they get a hold of you guys, we're all done for.”

“What about our parents?”

Another loud thump on the door and I heard the sound of screws rattling on the ground.

“I...I don't know,” he said. “But you have to go, please. Through the tunnel.”

Charlotte entered first, and I followed on her tail. Prosper trailed behind, and as we got to the other side, I helped him push the wall back into place. But no sooner did we start to push, then the pantry door gave way and three wraiths crashed to the floor.

 

“Hurry!” he yelled.

I leaned in once more, and as the wall slid forward, I peeked around the other side. Dark robed figures, their faces hidden beneath a deep hoods filled the pantry. They looked like bats trapped in a small room, running from one side to the other. I jumped back as one of them got to its feet and charged at us. It stretched forward, its spiny hand reaching for the ever-shrinking gap. I pulled back in fear as three fingers hooked around the thick stone, right before my eyes. Small jagged teeth ran all the way up the back of its hand, and instead of fingers it had long, razor sharp claws.

“Keep pushing!” yelled Prosper.

I refocused, struggling to find solid footing. As the wall clicked into place, the sickening sound of bones being crushed between two massive slabs of stone turned my stomach. The wraith shrieked as its hand disintegrated, and one of its curved claws dropped to the sandy ground below me. I quickly bent down and picked up the souvenir, tucking it into my pocket.

Now closed, Prosper leaned back and straightened his legs to brace the door. “You need to go,” he said between breaths.

“Aren't you coming?” I asked. “You can't hold them by yourself.”

“It's okay; they won't have enough time to move the wall. With the place on fire, they'll die before they can get to me. Fire is their weakness, they burn like paper.”

“Where do we go?” I asked.

“Into the forest. I'll catch up with you.”

“Alright,” I said breathless, reluctant to leave him, “and thank you...for everything.”

We started to head down the path, but Prosper called us back. “If something happens, and we don't meet again, you have to make for Empire City, but don’t...” His words were cut short by loud screeching cries. Pounding on the other side of the massive stone, the wraiths were panicking. The wall started to slide forward. Around the edges, a fiery orange glow began to appear. His feet started to slip as he struggled to hold the wraiths back. “Just... just be careful. Trust no one.” With dogged determination, his boots dug into the ground, slowing the wraith’s progress. Out from either side, long bony arms began to reach around the massive slab, trying to grab at him.

“Henry, please...” Charlotte begged.

“Are you sure you're going to be okay?” I asked Prosper.

“I'll be fine, now go!”

The fire had entered the pantry and within seconds, the wraiths would be consumed in flames, so we turned and ran. The tunnel was made of stones piled one on top of another with mud and mortar. Small torches lit our way and within a few minutes, we burst through a tiny grass covered opening, spilling into the darkness behind the house. With Charlotte now in my arms, we bolted for the forest, just as Prosper told us to. When we'd broken the tree line and traveled into a tangled mess of twisting trees, I finally stopped running. We ducked down and turned back towards the Manor. Clouds of gray smoke and vicious bright orange flames billowed from every crack and crevice.

As we huddled together in the bushes beneath the tree and watched the estate burn, I got the awful feeling that we were never going to see our parents again.

CHAPTER ONE

A crackling fire echoes through the crisp night air and the loud pop of an ember nearly stops my heart. Bouncing around like a rolling die before settling in front of me, the battle of the thriving orange glow and its defiance to turn to ghostly white ash captivates me. It pulsates a moment before giving in, its life extinguished.

I settle down into my sleeping bag around the warm fire, and Charlotte shuffles in next to me in hers. Her tiny body trembles as she wraps her arms around my waist and nestles her head into my chest. “You'll wake me if they come, right?”

“Of course, but they're not coming tonight.” I say.

“You sure?” she asks.

I sigh. In all honesty, I wouldn't be surprised if they came for us again. It’s been about six months since we ran into the woods, leaving a burning manor behind us. At least, that's my best guess; six months that we've been on our own out here, surviving in the wilderness, and running from wraiths. We’ve had our share of narrow escapes with these creatures. Prosper was supposed to meet up with us, but we've yet to see him again. We even went back days later but found nothing but a smoldering pile of rubble. The tunnels were crumpled and charred, leaving no trace of him or the wraiths. He gave us clear directions - get to Empire City - so I have to assume he will head there too. Maybe, if we're lucky, we'll find our parents as well.

“Why don't we read a little of your book?” I say, trying to change the subject.

Charlotte reaches into the bottom of her sleeping bag and pulls out her tattered old copy of Anne of Green Gables. Reading together is our nighttime ritual, the little piece of home we carry with us. Each night before bed, our mother would slip into Charlotte's room, cuddle up under the covers, and read to her. More often than not, she would choose Anne - her favorite story. Sometimes, I'd lean against the door, and listen to my mother's soothing voice recount Anne's many adventures. In many ways, Charlotte is a lot like her - each possessing a wild imagination and a big heart. She sees the goodness in people and in the world, which is amazing considering kindness is in such short supply. Her refusal to give into despair and to believe in something better - despite our experiences - is what makes her special.

Already turned to the ragged page we've read a thousand times, she passes Anne to me. “Read me this part, Henry, it's my favorite. I love when Anne smacks Gilbert!” She laughs. Seeing her smile warms my heart as so few things make her giggle anymore. And since it's my favorite part too, I begin. The story is soothing, for both of us, and within minutes, Charlotte drifts off to sleep. I tuck the book away and kiss her goodnight.

The night air is quiet, save for a gentle wind weaving its way through the swaying trees. Hardey peers down on us, his claws open and close; strangling the crooked branch he sits perched upon. He's a majestic creature. Beautiful, yet deadly. He was waiting for us the night we arrived in the forest, and helped us find a place to hide. Charlotte keeps talking to him, and I'm even beginning to learn his mannerisms. I'm not sure we'd have survived this long without him,. Under his watchful eye, I bid him good night with a nod and a wink. Sleep is hard to come by, and as I slip in and out of consciousness, a noise in the distance startles me.

Something is stirring.

I sit up, searching, trying to find the sound through the darkness. Hardey's chest rises and he croaks nervously. The thick undergrowth and full trees should've provided us with protection, concealed us from view, but the moon is unusually bright tonight.

Something is coming.

“Charlotte, get up,” I whisper, shaking her awake. Keeping her out of harm's way is my responsibility, and making camp here might have been a huge mistake - the kind of mistake that gets you a date with a wraith. My temples pulsate in time, matching the quickened beat of my heart. The rustling leaves under foot confirms my fears; we’re in danger. A cold shiver climbs my spine. I hear Hardey before I see him, his loud screeching, a warning call for us to get moving.

“Run!” I growl through gritted teeth. Scrambling to our feet, Charlotte knows what to do. She takes off like a rabbit evading a predator, dodging trees and fallen branches with effortless grace. I follow closely on her heels, but as fast as we are, they're faster - gaining on us with each step.

“Keep going. Find a place to hide, I'll slow them down!”

“No, I'm staying with you!”

“Charlotte, please!”

Frightened and panicked, I pray it's not a horde of wraiths. They exist in the space between the living and the dead, one part human, one part ghost, all parts terrifying. I hunch over to catch my breath and squint through the darkness, but I can't see anything. As I search for the lighter tucked in my jacket pocket, a rock strikes my head and I fall to the ground. Blood trickles down my cheek.

My legs are slow to respond, and before I can escape, I'm hoisted up by my coat. I close my eyes, waiting to feel their toxic breath on my face, have my ears numbed by their screeching cries of victory and feel their bony, skinless fingers puncture my skin. But none of these things happen. I open my eyes and realize these aren't wraiths at all, but instead two common thieves.

Blurred vision and a pounding headache make it difficult for me to think. One of the men searches my pockets, while the other stands behind me, pinning my arms behind my back. Black ash and dirt cover their weathered faces. The putrid smell of rotten food and vomit fill the air, and I gag as last night's dinner rises in my throat. The toothless one in front of me finds my lighter.

“I'll take that.” He puts it in his pocket and continues to search, adding my compass to his collection as well. In a second, he’s going to find my knife, and if that happens, Charlotte and I are in big trouble. With my head still throbbing, I'm begin to re-focus. The man behind me shifts a little to adjust his grip, and it's all I need.

I drop to the ground, and my hands slip through his greasy fingers. Landing with a thump, I immediately drive my leg forward, making sure to connect with the toothless man's kneecap. The sound of his bones shattering is masked by screams of agony as he crumples to the forest floor. I'm about to crawl away when a huge arm coils around my neck. I struggle to get free, but it's no use. He's too strong. As he falls backward into a sitting position, his grip tightens, like a massive boa squeezing the life from its prey.

He's trying to kill me - he is killing me.

High in the tree in front of me, Hardey bounces from branch to branch. With a ferocious leap from his perch, hos powerful wing launch him toward my captor. The man flails at the attacking raven, and his grip weakens enough for me to take a gulp of air.

My eyes are spotting, and I'm lightheaded. Still caged by his arm, I dig at my pant leg, fumbling for the knife tucked into the top of my sock. The man continues to squeeze with all his might. Grasping the handle weakly, I position the knife in my hand and with every ounce of energy I can muster, I thrust it downward. When the serrated blade lodges itself in his thigh, he screams and shoves me forward. I scramble on all fours, trying to get as far away from him as I can.

My neck is swollen, and I'm coughing and sputtering. As the man holds his leg, moaning and cursing, I'm momentarily forgotten.

But not by everyone.

Small hands wrap themselves around my arm and pull me up. “I thought I told you to go.”

“So you could leave me to die out here alone? No way.”

Hardey shrieks again, and I spin around to find the man back on his feet. With a growl, he lunges towards me. Like a bolt of black lightning, our raven swoops down over my head and strikes, digging his talons into the man's face. Screams fill the forest and seizing the opportunity, I drop and sweep his legs out from under him. Not about to let him get the upper hand again, I pounce on him, launching my attack. My first blow connects with his cheekbone with a sickening crunch, the impact sending waves of pain through my hand and arm. I grimace, but the pain is nothing compared to that of losing Charlotte. Fueled by anger and fear, each strike escalates in ferocity. When I finally stop swinging, the man lay unconscious, might even be dead, though I'm not about to wait and find out.

My sister catches up with me as I hover over him, my chest heaving. Blood spatters on the ground as I shake the pain from my swollen knuckles. Tiny hands wrap around my arm, and we hurry over to the toothless man. His leg twists in a way our body never intended, and he's still writhing on the ground. Charlotte stands back as I open his jacket and retrieve my things.

“Please...please, don't leave me here, they'll get me,” he begs.

I walk away in silence, leaving him in the hands of fate. Not that I have a choice. Out here, you do what you must to survive, and we can't afford to show kindness to those who seek to hurt us.

Charlotte and I return to our camp to recover our belongings. Even though finding a safe place at this hour is a dangerous proposition, we can't stay here. The trees around us creak and groan, and as a light fog descends upon us, I get an awful sense that this night of terror is just beginning. I kneel to pack my bag and Hardey flutters down beside me.

I stroke his back. “Looks like I owe you - again.”

He makes a sound somewhere between the rolling purr of a kitten and the creaky groan of an old door. “He says that's three,” says Charlotte while she works away, stuffing our meager belongings into her bag. We don't have much. Some basic eating utensils and camping supplies, some extra clothes, but as she packs, I'm reminded of how amazing she is. No matter how awful the night is, Charlotte never complains. God, I hate our life.

“I'm sorry,” I say.

With a half-hearted smile, she continues packing. I wish I could say this was the first time she has had to watch me hurt someone. I wish I could say this nine-year-old girl has never had to cheat death, to feel pangs of hunger, or be forced to sit by idly while her brother fights for their lives. But I can't. Charlotte has experienced more violence than most people will ever, or should ever, experience in a lifetime. Violent attacks are part of our reality now; people are becoming more and more selfish as resources diminish. We try to avoid confrontations as best we can, keeping hidden as much as possible. It's safest in the woods - you aren't so easily spotted. Eventually, though, you have to come out into the open, and that's when things are especially dangerous.

I throw some dirt on the fire, and we walk away, leaving the smoldering remains of another narrow escape behind us. The weak glow from the moon provides little light, but I like the cover it provides. This way we can travel in stealth, keeping low and treading softly. Hardey stays close by, flying along in front, cawing every so often to remind us that he is a part of us now.

Charlotte hasn't spoken since we left camp, and I glance over at her as we trudge through the muddy earth. Her cheeks shake with each uneven step. Her gaze is expressionless. “You okay?”

“I'm okay.”

“What are you thinking about?”

“Mom and Dad.”

“What about them?”

“Do you think they're looking for us?”

“I'm sure they are. They know we're headed to Empire City. I'd even bet they'll be waiting for us when we get there.” It sounds good when I say it, and I hope she's buying it.

We don't travel too far before the flickering orange glow of a fire penetrates through the trees. Charlotte hides behind me as we step down into a shallow trench next to a wide oak tree. While we're always cautious, and trust no one, there are people like us out here - decent people trying to survive. We've been fortunate enough to meet some. We couldn't have survived as we have without the kindness of others, which we've always tried to return. Unfortunately, with every attack, becomes more and more difficult.

Charlotte slows and grabs my coat. “Friendlies?”

“I don't know yet.”

'Friendlies' is a word our mom created to describe the people we could trust. Every time I hear it, I'm torn between nostalgia and grief.

The fire is from a small camp where two women and two men sit, eating and sharing conversation. A gruff looking man puts his arm around one and kisses her cheek, gently. She turns and smiles at him. They pass food amongst the group, each person taking their share, something in my gut tells me they're good people.

“Wait here, alright?”

Her eyes widen, “Wait? Where are you going?”

“Just stay here.”

“No Henry, can't we just go? Please, let's just go.”

“It's alright. If I think they're friendlies, I'll signal you over. But don't come until I call for you.” Frowning, she lowers her head. “Okay?” I repeat.

Charlotte nods, knowing my mind is made up.

“Stay hidden, but be aware of your surroundings. Keep your eyes on me.” The adults laugh loudly, drawing my attention. I turn to face her. “And if things don't go well?”

“Then I climb a tree and wait for you.”

“Exactly. Run as fast as you can. I'll come and find--”

When I hear the screeching cry, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I know the sound all too well. It's them. Wraiths. Charlotte grabs hold of me, trembling. We duck down, hiding in the trench beneath the tree, paralyzed.

“Henry, let's go, please,” she begs, her voice quivering.

One of the women screams as the wraiths descend upon their camp. Now is our chance. We should run right now while they're distracted. I peek over the top of the trench to make sure we're clear, but immediately wish I hadn't. The scene is horrifying. Caught off guard, the people scramble to defend themselves. A man and woman lie on the ground writhing. Black hooded robes twist and twirl, slicing the air as three wraiths swing their piercing claws and vicious metal scythes at the terrified campers.

Charlotte tugs on my coat again, and I turn, looking into her terror filled eyes. I know we should run, but for some reason, I just can't tear myself away. Something is drawing me in. It's that moment before the runaway train hops the track. It is about to happen, and you have a choice - continue to be a bystander, or do something about it.

Metal scythes wielded by vicious wraiths collide with the feeble splintered logs the man uses to defend himself. With one hand, he manages to grasp a burning log from the fire and throws it towards his attackers. The log finds its mark and fire immediately overwhelms the wraith. Its cries of pain pierce the night air and within seconds, it disappears, a cloud of dust and ash scatters through the trees.

The remaining two advance on him, forcing him from the fire, denying him access to his only chance of survival. The woman hides behind a tree, frozen in fear. They ignore her, almost as if she doesn't exist; instead, focusing solely on the man fighting for his life. Loose branches are no match for a scythe and with every wraith strike, the men's only defense weakens. He will not survive. So, I decide to do something stupid.

“Do not move.” Before Charlotte can even protest, I'm sprinting toward the melee. The woman, who only a moment ago shared a kiss, looks up and sees me coming. With terror etched across her face, our eyes meet seconds before I break through the tree line. Undetected, I fly into the camp like a banshee, slowing just enough to grab the unlit end of a log from the fire.

A fallen trunk becomes a springboard, and I leap into the air. Raising the log above my head with both hands, I drive the flaming torch into one wraith's back. It's cries draw the others attention, and it turns towards me. I spin around and thrust the fiery end into its black hood. Squeals of terror and pain unite as the fire devours their midnight robes. In an instant, both wraiths disappear - vanished. Two piles of black ash are all that remain.

My chest heaves as the man leans back on his hands, staring up at me. In the heat of the moment, I hadn't noticed it, but now the throbbing pain in my hands is intense. Charred pink flesh and pus-filled blisters cover my fingers. The woman emerges from behind the tree and rushes to the injured people on the ground. Their eyes are solid white. Black lines are traveling through their transparent skin like a water snake slithers through the reeds. It continues to race up their arms and into their necks at a hurried pace.

“Stand back!” shouts the man.

I stumble back as he raises a gleaming metallic pistol, and points it towards the men on the ground. Without hesitation, he fires two shots into each of them. I can't believe what I've just seen. My muscles freeze.

The woman cries out, “No, Isaac, please no!”

“We have to,” he says. “Move, Dana.”

While the blackness crawls through the fallen woman's veins, covering her body, the gun ignites and two more shots find their mark. I fall backward, tripping over a boulder lining the camp. As the echoes of gunshots fade into the distance, silence is momentarily returned. Although, as the man stands over me and raises the pistol, I fear it's about to be shattered once more.