CHAPTER ONE - ORPHANED
“Once upon a time there were two great Elven kings,” Ethan’s mother began the story as she always began it. But her voice was hardly above a whisper and her lips, normally pink, had a bluish cast. She looked so small and wizened that even her beaten down twin bed in their one-room apartment seemed to threaten to swallow her up.
“Mom, don’t talk, okay? Save your strength to get well.” Ethan tried to coax another ice chip into her mouth. The cup shook slightly in his hand and the spoon rattled against the cup’s side. The ice chip went flying onto the old, wooden floor. He was trembling.
Leticia Bottom, one of their landlords, took the cup and spoon from his hand. Leticia with her long-nosed face, tangled hair and jutting chin almost looked kind today. Those deep set black eyes of her told him what he didn’t want to know. His mother was dying in a flea-ridden apartment that was as close to a cardboard box on the street as possible. Gray paint peeled off the walls, like an aging mental institution that some people thought his mother deserved to be in. And now she would die in it.
“It’ll be over soon,” she whispered and pressed her long-fingered hands on his slender shoulders. Then she pulled back to the door of the apartment where her sister, Hettie, looked on with pursed lips.
“I don’t want …” her to die ... to be left alone … I’m only thirteen …
His mother let out a great hacking cough that shook the bed and creaked the floorboards underneath. Ethan’s chest ached in sympathy. That year he had watched her always-slender frame become gaunt and now skeletal. It was as if she was being eaten away from the inside out.
I don’t want her to go on like this. Tears burned behind Ethan’s eyes like twin stars.
He fisted his hands in his lap to stop them from shaking and forced himself to look at her again without crying. Her eyes, once a brilliant shade of emerald, were now silvery like the color of storm clouds and seemed to gleam in the dim room like polished silver coins.
“I – I have to tell you it. So you’ll remember—so you’ll be safe,” she gasped out.
Safe? We’ve been running my whole life until we made it to Winter Haven last year. And now you’re dying and leaving me alone with the Bottoms. Safe? How is this safe?
Not that the Bottoms were scary. They were just two odd old women with hunched backs that collected and sold junk to a variety of sketchy characters. They were also slumlords, owning the run-down apartment building where he and his mother stayed and where he would stay alone after her death.
“I have to tell you … so you’ll remember,” she breathed out again.
“I remember the story just fine, Mom. You’ve told it to me every day.” He dabbed her feverish brow. Her skin was the color of gray skies.
Why does she have to tell the story again? She’s dying and yet she has to tell it!
One of her hands grasped his with surprising strength for a dying woman. His heart hurt as he saw more evidence of how wasted she had become. Her arm was hardly larger than the width of her bones. Her hand looked more like a claw.
A monster’s claw. Sometimes when I look at her face, I’m afraid. But that’s crazy. She’s my mother not some terrible creature that lives in the shadows.
“It’s not a story, Ethan. It’s your life.”
“A fairytale is my life?” Perhaps she meant one of the original Grimm fairytales.
“This ‘fairytale’ is real, honey. More real than anything you see,” she whispered and pulled him closer. He was ashamed at how he almost did not wish to be nearer. Her breath smelled of dying leaves. “Your eyes can lie to you. Your eyes will lie to you.”
This was part of the reason his mother had always been considered “different”. Some called her a little “off”, “eccentric” or even “crazy”, but Ethan thought of her as “imaginative” and “special” on her good days. On her bad ones, he tried not to think anything at all. Though whatever she was called, it had meant she couldn’t keep any kind of job so they lived always in poverty. There were too many days to count where he had been hungry, tired and bone-cold.
But she pressed gold coins into Hettie’s hands this morning. Mom made her and Leticia swear to let me stay here as long as I wanted and to keep silent about who I really am. They’d almost seemed … afraid of her. But they did swear and they seemed to mean it. He looked over at Hettie. The coins she still held made a clicking sound as she slid one under the other. Where did Mom get the gold? We could have used the money from those before now.
“The Bottoms will make sure that you can stay here, Ethan,” his mother rasped out. She’d said this over a dozen times already. “No one will take you away. The Bottoms will claim to be your aunts for school and such. But you won’t volunteer information to anyone. You will keep your head down. Remember our rules?”
“I remember, Mom.”
“Say them out loud, Ethan. There is power in words.”
He nodded. “Trust no one. Ask for nothing. Answer even less.”
“Good boy. You’ll be safe within the city that Alric’s grace holds sway over.” Her thin lips lifted in a smile as if even saying his name held magic. “But remember! If you ever leave Winter Haven, you’ll be exposed to my father’s servants! And that must not happen. He is evil, Ethan. He is the Fallen.”
His grandfather, her father, was the villain of the fairytale she told him and his servants supposedly haunted their steps. He was who they were fleeing from. What he would do to Ethan if he ever found the boy was vague, but she was terrified of it and that alone made Ethan believe that her father was a bad man. Not for the reasons she said about magic and monsters, but more banal evil. There was plenty of that in the world.
‘Alric’ was Alric Koenig, the richest man in all of wealthy Winter Haven, who didn’t know Ethan and his mother from Adam and Eve. But Alric figured hugely in his mother’s fairytale. Ethan had only seen Alric once from afar. Alric was leaving a restaurant and about to step into a limousine. The door was held open for him by his driver who hardly fit the part with his thick beard and wild eyes, but he had been absurdly gentle with Alric, like he was a treasure. Ethan had stared with wonder at the wealthy man. His long black hair sailed back from his beautiful sculpted face like a silk flag in the wind. His skin was the color of snow. And his eyes were like clear lakes that glimmered under a summer sun. Ethan's exposure to Alric had only been for half a minute before his mother whisked him away, but Ethan played that scene over and over in his head ever since. His heart would beat wildly every time and his young sex ached in a way he didn't understand fully yet.
Her bony hand brushed over the top of Ethan’s. “What I tell you, this fairytale, is your past and your future. It is what you need to know to survive and change your fate.” She took in another breath that seemed to rattle her entire frail frame. “Let me tell it to you one more time. Just once more.”
“You’re going to be around for a long time, Mom, and you’ll have a chance to tell me it again as often as you want.”
“Ethan.” Her thin, dry lips tugged into a fond, sad smile.
“Mom, you’re going to be fine.” He wouldn’t look at her. Wouldn’t see the darkness of death coming in her eyes.
“My beloved son, I wish I could tell you I would give anything to be with you, but …” Another rattling cough. “But I wouldn’t be me anymore if I did. I’d be a monster again.”
Another part of her “specialness” was that she believed that it wasn’t some disease eating her alive, but that it was a failure to feed. She told him that she could absorb other people’s energy simply with a touch. Like a vampire taking human life force rather than blood. But she believed that doing so was wrong.
“I won’t steal lives anymore to continue my own. Not even a little bit of their essence,” she had explained to him when he had first noticed the terrible wracking cough and her frailness.
“We need to get you to a doctor,” he had cried. “You’re sick, Mom! But you can get well!”
“No doctors, Ethan. They would look at me and know I wasn’t human. They must never know that I am an Elf – was an Elf. I am Fell, but my heart is Elven.”
“There are no such things as Elves or Fell or the Fallen, Mom! You’re just sick … just sick! We can get you medicine! We can get you help!”
She had shaken her head and no matter how he pleaded, she had replied, “They cannot help me, my son. I choose this fate. I was able to break away from my father and enter Winter Haven only because I stopped harming others and found some of my Elven grace again in that. For a short while. Long enough for you to grow up.”
But he was only thirteen. Not grown up though he felt ancient at times. Being a kid had never really been allowed. Not when his mentally ill mother needed him to navigate the world most of the time.
Her hands convulsed over his, dragging him back to the present. “I need to tell you it, Ethan. Please … please …”
“You can tell me the story, Mom,” Ethan said dully. These might be his last words to him. But if it made her happy to do so then he needed to let her have her way.
She gave him a faint smile. Her eyelids fluttered shut and her breathing was low and slow. He thought that perhaps she had fallen asleep, but then she began to speak, “Once upon a time there were two great Elven kings. King Alric and his sister Nyssandra ruled justly over their people. They were greatly beloved and the Sky Realm thrived under their careful stewardship.”
“I’m sure that Alric Koenig would be thrilled to know you think he’s really an Elven king, Mom,” Ethan couldn’t help saying. Alric was a brilliant businessman, but a king? Ethan always supposed his mother’s stories to be allegories in some way. Alric was a rich, powerful man who held sway over a lot of people’s lives. Well, that was being a ‘king’ in some sense.
And he's beautiful enough to be an Elf.
Her chapped lips tugged into a smile. “Koenig means ‘king’ in German. It is his little joke, I think.”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Now King Eranthian, your grandfather, ruled his people with an iron hand. He was not loved. He was feared. He believed that he should have stewardship of the Sky Realm not the upstart, Alric. But the Realm had not chosen him.”
“How can a Realm choose someone?” Ethan asked the same question he always did so she could tell the next part. Sometimes he felt this story really was part of a spell that kept his mother calm and quiet. Maybe this time it would grant her more life.
“The Realm is a living being, Ethan. The trees, grass, rock and water are all connected. And they chose Alric, granting him power that Eranthian could only dream of. But your grandfather is a great Mage and he determined to wrest control from Alric.” His mother began to violently cough. Her thin body lifted up from the hospital bed with every, hacking explosive cough.
Ethan bit back a gasp of pain and horror when he saw fresh blood spatter the sheets and coat her blue lips red. “It’s okay, Mom. It’s okay. Just breathe. Breathe.”
He petted her trembling shoulder with one hand while he wiped the blood away with the damp towel. Her breathing sounded thick with phlegm.
It’s blood. She’s drowning in blood.
Her body sagged against the bed and her eyes looked sunken into her head. The shuddering coughing had ended, but it had drained her. He thought she might be asleep.
But she might never wake up.
He twisted around to look at the Bottoms. “Doctor – let’s get a doctor!”
Both women with the beady black eyes just stared back at him. He was reminded of two fat birds sitting on a line watching something on the ground far away. Leticia’s long finger trembled by her chest while Hettie simply clicked the coins. They would be no help.
“N-no d-doctors!” his mother wheezed out.
“Mom, no more talking. Please. Please!”
She swallowed. “N—no, this is important. More important than anything. No doctors. And I must … t—tell. Let me tell it. Let me tell!”
“Okay, Mom, okay.” Ethan wiped tears away from his eyes. He was causing her more pain by trying to keep her quiet.
“Your grandfather,” she breathed heavily. “He--he found a spell he believed would override the Realm’s decision and bring dominion … d--dominion over all to him,” she stopped and her breath rattled in her throat. “He – he--”
Her hands fluttered up by her throat and there was a gurgling sound. She coughed and another bright gush of blood spilled out from between her lips. Ethan frantically wiped it up. He and his mother had been on their own forever. They moved from place to place and he had learned for fend for himself and often for her.
She’s dying. Dying.
“I can tell the rest of it, Mom. Will that be all right? If you hear me tell it then you’ll know I remember,” he begged.
She nodded as she couldn’t speak. He sopped up more blood that welled up between her lips.
“So Eranthian,” Ethan couldn’t call this man his ‘grandfather’, “cast a spell, a great and terrible spell as had never been seen before. But it didn’t work. Not the way Eranthian had thought it would. It changed him and all his people. To seek to overturn the Realm’s decision was to go against Eranthian’s very Elven nature. And so the spell turned on him. It changed his and his people’s nature from grace to a fell curse.”
His mother nodded with the last part. “Y-yes. From l-life to d-death.”
“They became known as the Fell and Eranthian was the Fallen. In order to survive, they drained the life force of all around them. But their favored food were Elves, Alric’s people.”
Tears began to stream out of her eyes. “W-we turned on them. Our hunger … was insatiable.”
“And so the War began,” Ethan whispered. “Alric and Nyssandra fought bravely, but little could kill the Fell, but one brush of Fell fingers on Elven skin and the Elf was doomed.”
In his mind, he imagined beautiful Elves falling like leaves onto a dying forest floor as black-clad figures flitted from body to body, covering the Elves’ mouths with their own and draining them of all life. Leaving behind only gray husks. Sort of like his mother looked now.
Ethan closed his eyes and more tears fell. How long before she stopped breathing? Even now there seemed to be pauses between each breath. Her hand squeezed his. That was the signal to keep going.
“Their people decimated, Alric and Nyssandra realized that all life was in danger from the Fell. Not just their people. So Nyssandra – a great Mage herself – cast a spell, too. But this one worked as intended,” Ethan told the story exactly as his mother always had even as he watched the rise and fall of her chest diminish. “Nyssandra imprisoned the Fell in the Sky Realm and locked the Realm in an amulet. At the last moment, the Fallen grasped her arm and withered it.”
Ethan thought this part of his mother’s story was quite clever as Nyssandra’s left arm in real life was said to have been terribly injured and she constantly hid it with long sleeves and gloves. His mother’s explanation of how it had happened made it a brave sacrifice instead of an awful accident.
“She and Alric, the last of the Sky Elves, had to live among mortals, guarding the amulet from those that would unleash the Fell again from their prison. Even now, no evil can come into Winter Haven where they hold sway.” His voice fell silent. That was the end of the story.
It was so quiet now. Ethan realized that his eyes were shut. If he opened them, would she be dead?
“There’s more that I never told you,” her voice was like the lowest whisper. “The most important parts that I – I hid from you, Ethan.”
Ethan’s eyes opened. Her eyes gleamed like silver coins. Her face was as gray as dust. Her lips were so blue they looked almost black. She didn’t look like his mother at all. Part of him shuddered. But he wouldn’t move away from her even as his flesh seemed to crawl from her nearness. It was as if she drew the warmth right out of him. “There’s more?”
She nodded. “Your grandfather – the Fallen – performed one final spell before he was locked away in the Realm.” She reached up and caressed Ethan’s cheek. His skin tingled where she touched him and then went icy cold as if he’d held an ice cube against it. “Through the darkest of magics, he – he created a life. And he gave me a reason to live. You, my beloved son. You rekindled in me love and life and memories of goodness. For you, I had to change my fate.”
“I don’t understand.” Ethan felt a deep uneasiness as he looked into her eyes that seemed to glow with a strange cold light.
“The only way that the Sky Realm can be re-opened and the Fell released is for an Elf of Alric’s bloodline to break Nyssandra’s spell. Neither Nyssandra nor Alric will do this and all the other Elves of their line are either dead or lost to the ages even in the unlikely event one of them would assist the Fell. So …” She licked her dry lips and her tongue left a trail of red across her lower lip. “So the Fallen needed to make an heir. You, Ethan. By magic, he made me pregnant with you.”
“Me? I’m … heir to what?”
“Alric’s heir … Alric’s son.”
“What?” He couldn’t be hearing her right. She’d never spoken about his father. He had assumed he’d been the result of a one-night stand. Could she have somehow been with Alric Koenig? No, he knew that was not the case. He just knew it wasn’t so.
It can't be! I don't want it to be. He -- he -- I feel -- when I look at him I feel -- God! He just can't be!
Her lips, black as pitch stretched so wide that they looked like they might split. “You -- you are Alric Koenig’s son."
"NO!" The word burst out of him with such angry clarity that the world seemed to go silent.
His mother's now completely silver eyes opened in shock. "You -- you are."
Ethan felt some slender hope inside of him be crushed. He'd seen Alric Koenig only once though he'd heard his name every day, but somewhere in his heart he'd hoped that the wealthy man would become something to him, something tender, something beloved in the future. In a future he hadn't allowed himself to fully imagine. Ethan had thought that it would be fitting if his mother's story had linked them all along so that when Ethan grew up and was old enough to draw Alric's romantic attention it would seem like fate.
But if he's my father then that can never be ...
His mother's nails raked along his arm and he let out a sharp cry of pain. Her face was almost unrecognizable now. "You mustn’t – mustn’t tell Alric. You must never - never tell him that you're his son."
"Why?" Ethan asked even as he was thinking he would never speak a word of this madness to anyone let alone to Alric Koenig.
His mother's body shook as she forced the words out, "He – he will k--kill you.”
“Kill me? Mom, what are you saying?” Panic burst through Ethan’s chest, but he stamped it down. This must be one last shred of his mother’s paranoid fantasies. Alric Koenig was not his father. Alric Koenig would never want to kill him. Alric Koenig would probably never want to be his lover either. Ethan was nothing to this man. He was nothing to anyone.
She gripped his hand so tightly that all the blood was squeezed out of it. “You can overcome your fate, Ethan, just as I … I … overcame … mine …” There was a terrible rattle. One last tremor. A shudder and then her body just sank into the bed. Empty.
“Mom?” Tears blurred his vision. “Mom?”
He knew she was gone. What was on the bed didn’t look human. He couldn’t believe it had once been his mother. He laid himself across her, holding her pale, feathery body in his arms and sobbed.
“Don’t you worry about the body, Ethan. We’ll make sure it’s taken care of,” Leticia said.
Ethan wasn’t sure he wanted to know what she meant. He doubted that they would take his mother’s body to a funeral home. The money she’d given Hettie wasn’t enough for that and the room. The Bottoms walked out into the hall and left him alone. He wasn’t sure how long he remained like that. But his sobs had become just dry rattles and his body felt scrapped clean of grief. He was empty, too. He rose up on tottering legs and stood there in the simple one-room apartment.
I’m alone. I’m totally and utterly alone.
He swiped a hand across his red, swollen eyes. He heard the Bottoms’ whispered voices from out in the hall. It sounded like they were arguing. About him. A thread of terror wound its way through his chest. Were they about to kick him out on the street? But he shoved that down. He’d make them keep that promise to his mother or he’d take that gold back in two seconds flat. A flare of anger lit up in his chest. Anger always made him brave. It made him strong. Determined to find out what they were saying about him, he crept silently to the open door.
“We can’t keep Ethan here!” Leticia hissed. “Didn’t you hear what she said? If he finds out that we’ve been doing--”
“We swore,” Hettie’s two-pack a day smoker’s voice interrupted.
“Only because you had to have that cursed gold!” Leticia cried.
“Be quiet! What’s done is done,” Hettie growled.
What’s done is done? What is done?
“Our abilities won’t keep him shielded forever. Not when Ethan grows into – well, into what he’s going to become,” Leticia whined. “He’ll sense Ethan and he’ll come and it’ll be all over for us!”
Who is ‘he’? Alric? They don’t believe my mother’s stories, do they? Oh, great.
“Bah, Leticia! He looks the other way often, because we’re useful to him.”
“But a – a – oh, Ethan, dearie, there you are!” Leticia looked at him with bright, bird-like eyes. He’d stepped on one of the creaking boards and caught her attention.
“Yeah, I’m here.” He stared at both women.
Hettie’s black eyes narrowed. She pointed one of her long bony fingers against his chest. “The gold is enough for the room, but nothing else. If you want food, clothing, electricity, what have you, you will need to work for it.”
Leticia made a fluttery sound. “Now, Hettie, the boy has just lost his mother! We don’t need to talk about that just yet, do we?”
“Just tell me,” Ethan said.
Hettie nodded in approval, an odd birdlike movement. She gestured to the run down building. “You’ll help us keep this place up. That’s what you’ll do. And we’ll give you the money you need. It won’t be generous, but it will be enough.”
He could work. He could be useful. He’d have a room, food and clothing. It would be enough. It was something he could hold onto. Ethan whispered, "I accept."