CHAPTER FOUR: ELVES AND MONSTERS
Ciaran picked up his duffle with one hand while reaching for Twig with the other. She had been lolling on his bed on her back, exposing her belly for petting. He’d indulged her in between packing. But she immediately came to him when he twitched his fingers at her, hopping across the comforter and into his hand. He picked her up and draped her over his shoulders – her favorite place to be. She chittered happily in his ear. He kissed her head. She pushed her nose against his throat and warmth filled him. He wasn’t alone as long as she was with him.
“So do we have everything we need for our trip, Twig?” he asked her.
She chittered again as he scanned the room to see if he had missed anything. His eyes immediately alighted upon his katana – one that Aiko had gifted him several years ago – which was resting on its stand. There was a niggling sensation in his chest and he flexed his free hand as he imagined holding it. The blade was ancient, one from Aiko’s family, and yet it had always felt like an extension of his arm. He hesitated only a second before he grabbed it.
“While I don’t think I’m going to need to cut down our enemies, Twig, maybe it would be good to practice some katas outside the cabin. What do you think?”
The tip of her fluffy tail waggled causing him to laugh.
“Are we going to miss it here?” he asked her. His throat felt tight.
This bedroom had been his since he was a boy. Long gone were the pictures of sailboats on the walls and the colored blocks on the floor. It had long since been transformed into an adult man’s room. It was now deep blue with accents of icy white. His bedroom and ensuite bath were places he could navigate with his eyes closed. The comfortable king-sized bed with plump comforter and tons of pillows, the 60-inch television on the wall opposite the bed, the game consoles, the climbing areas for Twig and all her toys - he’d packed her favorites in his duffle - were all part of a place that had been his sanctuary.
Next time I’m here … if there is a next time … I might too sick to enjoy it.
He shook himself. He couldn’t think this way. If he only had a little time left, he had to spend it in the moment like Aiko had taught him to. Besides, he was simply going to the cabin to gather himself before he revealed to Aiko and his father the truth of his prognosis. Then … then he would make other plans beyond that. The cabin was a vacation.
“We’re going to have a good time, Twig. We’ll be back.”
His mouth was dry and his eyes were wet. A deep weariness had settled into his bones and he wondered if it was wise for him to travel at night to the cabin. Maybe after a night’s rest, it would be better. But no, he felt he had to leave. It had to be tonight. It was essential it was tonight. He wasn’t one to question these feelings. He’d learned to trust him. They’d come, for instance, when one of his students, Tali Miller, had told him about this boy from school that was always following her after class. He’d had one of these feelings once class had ended and followed her home. He’d been there just in time to stop her from getting attacked. Tonight was that same thud of anticipation though he didn’t know how or why he’d be having one of his “feelings”. The cabin was empty. There would be few, if any, people on the roads. But it was there nonetheless.
Maybe it’s just because I’m afraid I’ll break down and tell Dad before I’m ready. Who knows? I just have to go.
Twig nosed him almost frantically, sensing his pain and wanting to cure it and comfort him. He buried his face in her tail for a moment. The soft fur absorbed the two tears that squeezed out of his eyes before he could stop them. It was pointless to cry and feel sorry for himself. Once he got to the cabin he would let himself have one big breakdown, where he just let himself stew in the knowledge that his death was sooner than most people’s. But then he would pick himself fully up again and live whatever time he had left the best way he knew how.
Everyone dies. There aren’t any real immortals.
He gathered himself and finished his sweep of the room. Satisfied now that he had all he needed and that he would return, Ciaran headed out of his bedroom and headed to the first floor of the two-storey apartment. He silently padded down the spiral staircase.
Outside of his bedroom, the apartment was rather cold and utilitarian. Black stone and lots of chrome with abstract art and floor to ceiling windows that looked out at the massive skyscrapers that surrounded their building like sentinels. He felt no great attachment to it perhaps because of this. Even though he hadn’t been in the cabin in over a decade, he would feel more at home there than here, despite what had happened there.
The moment Ciaran set foot on the first floor, he felt his father’s presence before he saw him. Egan was seated at the long black marble table. His sleek Apple laptop was out, there was a tablet also by his side and his iPhone was at hand. His father was looking the tablet and then typing on his laptop, taking notes on whatever he was reading. His well-tailored suit jacket was slung over the back of the chair, his blue silk tie was coiled on the table like a vibrant serpent, and his shirt sleeves were rolled up to his elbows.
Ciaran petted Twig’s head to stop her from making any greeting to his father. He wanted to just look at Egan without his father being aware he was doing so. Their relationship was so fraught with difficulties that it was hard to simply look at him without the feelings overwhelming him. But he wanted to now, because the end was so near.
His father had the lean body of an athlete. He still played squash every morning before he went to his law office to work. He had the same dark hair as Ciaran, but there was a distinguished touch of frost at his temples now. His handsome face was more rugged than Ciaran’s who had taken more after his mother’s glass-cut, delicate features.
Egan’s face was more often found in an expression of intense thought rather than laughter or smiles. To his father, the law was the ultimate good. It was the one thing – if wielded effectively by clever advocates like himself – that could bring justice for people great or small. There were setbacks and there were disappointments, but at its core, the law was something that had the potential to change the world even more so than armies.
It was clear to Ciaran from the fact that his father was still working at 9 p.m. after he’d put in a full day at the office, that he likely wouldn’t want to be disturbed.
But I should tell him I’m going. I can’t just send him a text. Not this time anyways.
Ciaran though lingered by the foot of stairs, silently regarding the man he loved so dearly and yet hated at the same time. Egan had made it clear that loving Ciaran wasn’t as important as avoiding the pain of Ciaran leaving him.
And now that day is here and I can’t tell him anymore that I’m dying than I could tell Aiko. But this is more about me than him. I don’t wish to bring the pain of telling him on myself right now. I need time to accept this myself.
Though his father was brilliant at reading other people – he could tell before a person was going to lie to him – he never noticed Ciaran’s emotions. Or he pretended not to. So lying to his father wouldn’t be hard to get away with. Ciaran finally cleared his throat to get his father’s attention.
“What is it, Ciaran?” his father asked without stopping what he was doing or even glancing around. Not actually meeting that hawk-like face would make all of this easier.
“I’m taking off for awhile,” Ciaran answered him. This part was neutral. His father wouldn’t care that he was going away. They were like two ships passing in the night at the best of times. Twig moved her tail against his neck to keep him calm. “Not sure how long, but I’ll text you –”
“Where are you going?” His father interrupted. His movements had slowed slightly at the keyboard. Was his father hearing something in his voice that was causing him some slight alarm or, at least, curiosity?
Why does he have to do this now? Any other time and he would just grunt and say ‘have a nice time’. So why is he asking questions?
This was especially fraught because this was the trickier part for him to answer. The cabin was a sore subject. It was where things had really ended between them.
Because I saw a monster in the woods and he didn’t believe me.
He wetted his lips and answered, “The cabin. Thought I would –”
“Why are you going there?” His father abandoned his work and swung around to face him. His incisive blue eyes pinned Ciaran in place.
Ciaran tried not to react like a guilty little boy. There was no reason for him to do so. “Because I want to get away from the city.”
That was true. He just wasn’t saying why he wanted to get away.
A frown tugged on his father’s lips. “Don’t you have classes to teach for Aiko?”
“I’m taking a vacation that she okayed,” he tried not to sound aggravated. “I wouldn’t leave Aiko in the lurch, Dad. Give me some credit.”
His father waved a well-formed hand through the air. On his left wrist he was wearing one of the heavy, silver watches he favored. It reminded Ciaran about how little time he had left. The movement of the arms shearing off a second of his life at a time.
“Why are you leaving late at night, Ciaran? Why do you have to go this moment and not in the morning?” His father’s expression was bland, but these questions were full of landmines.
“Because I want to maximize my time off --”
“You said you weren’t sure when you were coming back,” his father reminded him.
Heat bloomed in his cheeks and Twig moved her front paws restlessly against his shoulder. She knew he was in trouble, too.
“I don’t know the exact day I’m coming back, but I can’t take that much time off. It wouldn’t be fair to Aiko,” he corrected. “You’ve had the caretakers still going out to the cabin, right? So it should be in good shape?”
“Yes, the Gallifreys have taken good care of it for you. It is … yours. I would have sold the place long ago otherwise,” his father said.
Of course, you would have. Anything to erase Mom and me from your life. Out with the old and in with the new.
Silence fell with his father regarding him in that attorney way of his. Ciaran shifted from foot to foot, but then he stopped the nervous movement and gave his father one of Aiko’s patented mild looks.
“Well, I’ll be going --”
“Why are you going to the cabin?” his father asked again.
“I want to be alone,” he answered.
“Are you two, Dad? Seriously, asking ‘why’ again and again is --”
“You haven’t wanted to go back there for thirteen years, Ciaran, and considering the -- the incident, I can’t imagine why you would want to return there. Yet here you are leaving late at night to go there and you won’t tell me why,” his father answered, again mildly, even though every word sliced.
Twig tightened her body around his throat as if to protect him. His mind flashed back to the “incident”: a massive black horse rearing back and a figure in black armor with a flaming sword. This monster had seen him walking in the woods and charged at him, sword held high. The smell of sulfur had risen from the creature in a miasma.
He hadn’t run though. Even when his stomach had dropped into his feet and his heart rose up into his throat. He’d stood his ground. But he didn’t want to think about that now. He couldn’t let his mind go down that dark road. The “incident” had been more real than anything else had ever felt in his life. But it hadn’t been real. It couldn’t have been. His father had been convinced that the disease was progressing because of this hallucination.
Because Mom saw one, too, the year before she died.
He swallowed, but finally said, “I know monsters aren’t real.”
And he did. The monster in his body was far more deadly than whatever it was that he had seen in the woods. Despite the terror that moment held, he still wanted desperately to go back there now. It felt like he was meant to.
“You’ve said that for years, but I still … think maybe you still do,” his father admitted.
And that was the most honest thing his father had said to him in years. He blinked, but finally got out, “If you’re right and I haven’t stopped believing in monsters in thirteen years then I’m never going to stop, am I?”
“I suppose not.”
“I’m an adult, Dad.” He felt like he was a kid just saying that. Twig nosed him to give him courage. “If I thought monsters were real, I would hardly go back to the cabin. I’m want to go there just to … get away. I -- I loved it there. Our last trip together was special to me. I’d like to relive that, honestly.”
He hadn’t meant to add that last bit. It was true, but that wasn’t why he was going. And it almost seemed like an offer for Egan to join him. Would his father ask if he wanted him to come on this trip? He didn’t. Or maybe he did. Maybe he wanted his father to care enough to be there with him at this hard time. But that wasn’t going to happen. He saw his father closing down. His father turned from him then, shoulders tense, and immediately started back working.
“You’re an adult. You can do what you want,” his father responded curtly. “If you want to go to the cabin, you can go. I have work to do.”
And even if you didn’t, you still wouldn’t go with me again.
“Right.” Ciaran’s mouth felt filled with ashes. Twig buried her head against his throat. “Then I’ll just be leaving.”
Why did I ever hope? Why did I ever think he would care?
He headed towards the door, feeling as numb as when he got the prognosis that afternoon. Just as he was about to close the door behind him, his father spoke again.
“Call me when you get there. I want to know you’re safe.” His father’s head was half turned towards him. “Will you do that?”
A small flitter of hope raised from the ashes. Ciaran cleared his tight throat. “Yeah, sure, Dad.”
“Good.” His father started typing again.
He closed the door and took the elevator down to the building’s underground garage. His father drove a sleek silver Mercedes sedan while he often drove the dark green Range Rover. The Range Rover would handle the back country roads far easier than the sedan so he was going to take that. He pressed the unlock button on the key and the lights flashed on the Range Rover. He tossed his duffle into the front passenger seat and placed the katana reverently on top of it. Twig uncurled from around his neck and and leaped into the car. She immediately went to her customary perch which was on top of the dash so she could look out of the windscreen.
“It’s a night ride, Twig, over the river and through the woods.” He grinned at her. Now that he was moving - doing something - he felt better. He always felt better in action.
He pulled out of the garage and was soon on the highway, sliding through the night like a katana through silk. The cabin was two hours north of the city. The drive was peaceful. The roads mostly empty once he left the city’s limits. Soon, the forest surrounded them, seeming to embrace the car. Twig was lying down on the dash, her head on her paws, staring at the night sky above them.
“It’s just us out here, Twig. Haven’t seen anyone in miles. Not even back in town.”
The town he was talking about was named Forest Falls and only had a few thousand people. The main street was only four cross streets with a local market, a convenience store, a drugstore, a family restaurant and a used bookstore on the high street. It was the nearest town to the cabin and the one where he and his father had spent a lot of their time during that fateful trip.
His father had even suggested - for one fey moment - that he would love for them to live there full time. He could become a local attorney. He wouldn’t need much clientele because he’d already made a fortune. It would just be to help those around them. A quiet life where Ciaran could play in the woods and perhaps grow stronger and healthier while his father could ease into the slower pace of a country practitioner. But that had not been how things had gone. Not after the incident.
“Forest Falls looked the same as the last time we were there, didn’t it? That trip with Dad, I haunted that bookstore. I read every fantasy and scifi book they had. Mr. Donovan always found more for me though. I wonder if he still is running it. We’ll have to see. And the diner? Best pancakes ever. You’d like the bacon. Maybe you tasted some? When you were living here? If you haven’t, then we’ll have to give you some.”
Twig’s ears twitched and her eyes were alight with interest. Red foxes normally only lived twelve years in captivity but it had been thirteen since he’d found her in the woods here. She seemed as young and vibrant as back then. He hoped that whatever the averages that she would more than just outlive him, but have many good years after that.
Or maybe we’ll be going together.
He shook himself. They were only about ten minutes away from the cabin. He’d texted the Gallifreys to let them know he’d be coming. Mrs. Gallifrey had excitedly let him know that she would put fresh sheets on the beds. He’d told her not to worry about it, because it was late and he would be fine even on a bare mattress. But she’d insisted on it.
Wouldn’t feel like home without fresh sheets, would it? she’d texted.
Home. Would it feel that way after all these years? The cabin had been in his mother’s family for ages. It had started out as a very simply one story, two room structure, but it had been built upon by every generation. Now it was an almost sprawling wood cabin with two floors and five bedrooms. His mother had worked on a back porch. He was the only one in the family who had never added onto it.
And likely never will. More depressive thoughts. Got to cut that out.
It was then that he saw the blue light off to his right in the woods. It was an electric blue so vibrant and unnatural that he thought it must be man-made. Though what would anyone be doing out in the middle of the woods with a light like that?
Almost immediately though he realized that it wasn’t an electric light. His lips parted in a slight gasp as he realized that the light came from what could only be described as a portal. An opening into somewhere else. It was only fifty feet away when he’d first seen it. Now he was nearly opposite it. He removed his foot from the gas and was about to slow down when a man on a white horse charged out of it right in front of the Range Rover.
Ciaran slammed on the brakes and cranked the wheel to avoid the man and horse. The horse reared, its nostrils flaring in fear, it's eye rolling back in terror. The man’s head was turned towards him, too. For one brief instant, their gazes met. Time seemed to stop. The man’s hood had fallen back exposing long white hair that fell in waves over his shoulders. Startling and improbably purple eyes with pupils that somehow seemed much to large stared back at him. He was so beautiful that it almost hurt to look at him.
And all Ciaran could think was, I’m going to kill him. The most beautiful person I’ve even seen and I’m going to destroy him.
Ciaran braced for impact, but none came. The SUV spun around until he was facing the complete opposite direction he had been going. Twig let out a pained squeak as he saw her pressed against the front of the windscreen. His heart lurched, but there was nothing he could do. Finally, the SUV came to a rest, rocking back and forth. The smell of burnt rubber was in his nose. He was stunned for a moment before he turned to Twig. He reached for her and she immediately hopped up his arm and encircled his throat, nattering anxiously.
“I’m sorry, Twig. I’m so sorry. Are you all right?”
She chirped in what he thought of as an assent. His father would have scoffed at how much he anthropomorphized Twig. But he knew she understood what he was asking and was answering him. No matter what his father said.
“I think that man needs our help though,” he went on.
If he’s not dead. If I haven’t killed him.
His heart was still in his throat, but he managed to slam the gear shift into park and jump from the vehicle.
“Hello?! Hello?! Is anybody out there? Are you hurt?” he called.
His legs felt rubbery beneath him as he looked for the horse and rider. His eyes scanned the darkness. Both were white as snow so they should stand out in the darkness. And they did. The man was lying on his side, face turned away from Ciaran. The horse was pawing the earth beside him in evident distress.
“Oh, my God!”
Twig gave out a chattering sound and immediately leaped from his neck and onto the ground. She raced towards the prone white figure just on the side of the road. The red fox had never done anything like this before. Twig was nuzzling the fallen man’s face and sending out frantic squeaks.
Ciaran raced over to the man’s side and sank down on his haunches. His hands hovered over the long white hair, so long and beautiful that it didn’t even look real that cascaded down the man’s back. He couldn’t resist brushing his fingers along it as he gently grasped the man’s shoulder and turned him over.
That impression of beauty he’d had before when seeing the man’s face through the windscreen was increased one hundredfold. Delicate, but deeply masculine features. Thick, long lashes lying against cheeks silky and perfect. But it wasn’t the beauty that truly robbed him almost of the entire ability to think.
It was his ears.
They were pointed and stuck up through that glorious hair.
Elf ears. They’re Elven … They must be fake. They’ve got to be fake.
His right hand lifted and his fingers touched that nearest pointed ear. Soft, warm flesh.
He jerked his hand back and that was when he saw those purple eyes were open. Looking at Ciaran.
“Are you …” Ciaran began but whatever he was going to say was lost as there was the clop of hooves and not from the horse that anxiously stood beside them.
Ciaran jerked his head towards the portal. That was when he saw them. The black riders on black horses with swords made of fire.
Monsters. Monsters are real.