UNDER THE RAVENS WATCH - SAMPLE CHAPTERS
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?”
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?”
“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.