I stand very still. My breath sounds deafening to my ears, my heartbeat uneven and lonely. The warmth of the wall presses into my shoulderblades as I flatten myself against it, trying to become as small and insignificant as possible. To bring attention to myself is to ask for punishment or torture, or death. Taking another deep breath I count to five and peek around the corner.
The room is empty. Well, unoccupied by the living. A small space, about the size of a broom closet. There is a single, round window. No glass, but a film covers it, like stagnant water that has been allowed to sit in a tin bucket. On the floor, a layer of slick blood seeps into the cracks of the marble. A massive mastiff nibbles at the remains of someone. Someone like me. Unfortunate enough to have been brought to this place. Even more unfortunate to never leave it. I’ve witnessed what The Darkness-That-Hunts does to us. His “pets” as he labels us. He harvests us like chattel. He tortures us to nourish our souls, to make us twisted, scared creatures until we are ripe for the plucking and then he allows us the pleasure of dying. Only, it is not death he grants us. He permits his demented subjects the honor of butchering our bodies while he watches. He then collects our souls, placing them in a basalt gem that dangles about his neck.
In death, we are granted no peace. Our torment continues in his crystal and he uses it to draw power. Power he uses to control, to one day move beyond his realm and into ours. To a place where the souls are unlimited and his power approaches that of godhood.
Even now, I hear them. The moans of the tortured. This place is designed in some areas to magnify their cries like speakers tucked in a wall to play music. In other areas, the groans and screams and pleas of the Damned are muted to a haunting echo. Like here.
I do not take my eyes off the mastiff. I can see her master’s brand on her forehead. Two colons next to a square missing its left side, and a line drawn beneath it. Aterian. Servers of The Darkness-That-Hunts. Through the window beyond her unfurls the garden. A place of beauty--or so The Darkness-That-Hunts has told me. Deadly plants, as black and twisted as his legion, slither over the bodies of embalmed humans and animals, their poses artistic and almost peaceful if not for their faces that are frozen in agony.
Cobblestone walkways skirt fountains of quartz, their water no more than wisps of vapor erupting from the mouths of hydras and manticores. The grass, though I can’t see it from here, is sickly. Gray-green in most places, it is littered with pebble-sized bones.
He goes there to relax. To think. The echoes of the tortured are like a soft wind there. When he is there, no one is to bother him and he pays attention to nothing. If I’m to escape, it is now while he visits his “Art.”
There is only one who can help me. He will pay a hefty price for aiding me, but if I can make it to his prison deep inside the bowels of the Onyx . . . The mastiff pays me no mind as I sneak past her and further down the corridor. Walls, dingy and the color of bones, crowd me. They curve upwards, jutting out of the stone floor like the ribcage of a dragon. They meet at the center of the ceiling to form a jagged spine.
Very little light here. The things that reside in Ater don’t need it to see--in fact, light blinds them. A useful weapon if I knew how to harvest it. I creep down a flight of shallow steps, one hand against the spongy, warm wall. My eyes have long adjusted to the faint glimmer from sconces of muted gray fire. I slip past many tunnels, most leading nowhere, but I know a secret way. She helped me find it. Gjinna. She is one of the few who can disobey The Darkness-That-Hunts’ compulsion. For a time.
If I can get out.
I jerk awake, a scream lodged in my dry throat. Slipping through cracks in the barricade that seals away my other memories, random images race towards me with the eagerness of children. Some are snippets of horror not quite past, others of my life before Ater. Most remain enshrouded in fog.
My head is killing me, as are my calf and neck. I still have no true idea what’s happened to me, but now I have a name: Ater. And I now know to look for the mark, The Darkness-That-Hunts’ brand.
“Sorry ‘bout that. Just needed to get my arm free to open the panel.”
Startled, I tilt my head back to look at the boy carrying me. Kamiron. His name is Kamiron.
Kamiron studies me warily. “You really should think about seeing a nurse. You’re pale.”
My eyes roam over his body, searching for the brand of The Darkness-That-Hunts. I check Kamiron’s forehead and then his neck. I remember that The Darkness-That-Hunts sometimes marks his servants on their necks. Frustration roils inside me. How is it I remember that but not other things, not important things? Like what really happened? Or how I ended up in a demented realm called Ater--assuming I was truly there and not trapped in a night terror that simply felt real.
One thing at a time, Shari. The memories will come. Safety first, right? Now, does he have the brand?
I take a deep breath and beat back the burgeoning panic. Kamiron’s golden skin gleams at me in the light of a dangling iron lantern. I find no brand marring him and I allow myself to relax in his arms.
With a resigned sigh he slides open a Japanese-style panel door and slips inside a cabin marked “Firestarter.” The floor is tiled, a beige color with flecks of red and orange. A warm neutral color coats walls decorated with abstract art and a calendar of camp activities. Pushpins nail several photos to a bulletin board. Teens engage in various activities--sports, archery, swimming. Their smiling faces juxtapose with the grimaces of horror that flicker in the recesses of my mind like phantasms.
“Everyone should still be at dinner so we won’t be disturbed,” Kamiron takes a sharp right instead of following the hallway. We enter an orderly room. Kamiron flips the switch and the fluorescents flicker on, making me squint. A pair of twin-sized beds and two cedar chests sits below a shelf of anime statuettes and framed pictures. Most of the photos look to be of Kamiron, though younger, maybe six years old. In one he stands between a striking Japanese woman wearing a beautiful kimono, and a white man in a U.S. military uniform.
“My parents,” he shares, following my gaze. “When we used to live in Japan.” Tenderly, Kamiron sets me on one of the chests. He shuffles to a cedar cabinet that hovers above a compact desk.
“When I’m here, I like to keep around memories of home. I used to have a bunkmate but he--moved,” Kamiron stumbles over the word as he rifles through the cabinet for a First Aid kit. By the way he shies from the subject I take it his bunkmate didn’t choose to leave. Whatever happened, it couldn’t have been good, but before I can ask, Kamiron finds the kit and drags over a chair.
Kamiron dunks a cotton swab in antiseptic and tilts back my head to inspect the teeth marks circling my throat. At least the bleeding’s stopped, though I am sure I look like hell. To his credit, his expression remains open and polite though the skin around his beautiful eyes tightens. “So what did this? Some kind of animal?”
The antiseptic stings and I suck in a hissing breath. Kamiron apologizes, but doesn’t stop.
“Dogs.” From Hell. “I was attacked after I left the lake.”
“Lake Andy? The one we were near?”
I try to nod, but his firm grip doesn’t let me.
“Andy’s off limits. No one’s been there in fifty years.” Kamiron straightens and reaches for another swab before he returns to cleaning my wound. “How’d you even get there?”
My teeth dig into my bottom lip.
“You’ll think I’m crazy.”
Kamiron’s sudden snort puzzles me. Like he finds it ironic that I’d think he of all people would find me crazy. “Go ahead. I swear not to think you’re crazy--even if you really are.” A brief smile touches his lips before he returns to his task.
My eyes shut. I don’t know what to do or whom to trust, but I know I need all the help I can get. And the best way for me to remember what’s happened is to talk through it with someone else. Evaluate the incidents logically, even when they sound crazy.
That’s what my psychologist taught me.
Mama, of course, would just say that I need to call on Jesus to “cast out the crazy.” Like I’ve been possessed by a demon. Maybe I have.
“I’m from Atlanta.” I picture our small brick house, the peeling black paint of the old shutters and the large Southern wrap-around porch with wicker rocking chairs that creak when you sit on them. The strained faces of my parents hovering just beyond the screen door. “How near are we? I figure we must be north of downtown. Sandy Springs, maybe? We can’t be as far as Alpharetta, I know.”
Kamiron hesitates, swab in hand and studies me. He then shakes his head. “I don’t know where those places are, but you’re in North Carolina, Shari.”
I lurch back. “Y-You can’t be serious!”
“We’re about twenty miles east of Perchton. This is Camp Genki--we call it Camp Gen.”
My mind threatens to shatter under the shock. There is no possible way I could have slept walked all the way to North Carolina. Batting aside Kamiron’s hands, I cover my face and my chest heaves. My dream earlier--sneaking away from a mastiff in a terrible place with curved walls . . . Ater. It wasn’t a dream, was it? But if Ater is real then what--
“What’s Ater?” Warm fingers curl around my wrists, nearly drowning them as Kamiron tugs my hands down. “Shari? No, don’t cry, please? We’ll get you back to Atlanta. The important thing is that you’re safe now, ok?”
I wipe at my tears with shaking hands. “There is no safety for me.”
“Someone’s after you? Hunter?” Kamiron’s voice goes flat and hard, like ice. One glance assures me his anger isn’t targeted at me.
“The Darkness-That-Hunts,” I correct. “He sent those dogs after me.”
Kamiron’s takes in the teeth marks littering neck and the blood staining the collar of my filthy shirt. “Why?”
“I escaped.” The admission tastes rank.
“Were you abducted?”
A memory sparks. Yes. I was afraid to go to sleep. I was certain a monster, one I’d later learn to call “The Darkness-That-Hunts,” was going to abduct me through my dreams. An absurd notion and yet I’m here, in a summer camp in North Carolina. It must have happened.
I try not to think of the alternative. Of the fact that I am just so crazy I can no longer parse reality from fiction.
I steady myself with a deep breath that causes my lungs to tighten and burn. Where do I begin? How can I make sense of this to myself much less to Kamiron? Talk it through, Shari. It doesn’t matter what he thinks. It’s about you dealing with the effects of the trauma you’ve hidden from yourself.
“Ever since I was a girl I could sense things.”
“Things I couldn’t explain.”
He nods as if he understands. I watch him toss a bloodied swab into a trash bin. The blood seems too bright against the blue plastic liner. He removes a large, rectangular Band-Aid from the First Aid kit and positions it along my neck.
“I was never to talk to anyone about it, and my parents didn’t want me taking ‘crazy people medication,’” I say, imitating Mama’s aggravated tone. “But I could sense it in dreams that were too vivid to be ordinary dreams. I kept dreaming of someone looking for me. A monster with golden eyes, horizontal pupils like a goat, and a black crystal dangling from his neck. I didn’t have the dreams often at first, but as the months passed--”
“They got more intense.”
I tilt my head at him but he avoids my gaze. “How’d you know?”
The chair screeches as he scoots back and lifts my right leg, propping it along his knee. “I’m gonna take a look at your leg now, okay?”
Despite the gentleness with which he rolls up my ruined jeans, my eyes roll into the back of my head as pain assaults me. Wheezing, I look at the chunk of my calf that the dog has mauled. Lumps of ripped flesh, brown, pink, and white. The stink makes my nose curl, and the blood . . .
Kamiron golden skin turns white and again he doesn’t look at me but I know he wants to immediately drag me to the nurse. Instead he takes the antiseptic and squirts it over my leg. Though the cold liquid burns, the relief that soon follows makes me nearly purr.
It takes me a second to realize he’s answering my earlier question. “Fits what?”
“Nothing. So your dreams--you’ve been dealing with them a long time?”
I close my eyes, trying to sort through the sordid images. “Those dreams I’d only been having for a few months, but I’ve always been able to sense things. If something isn’t right, and especially if something bad is going to happen, I seem to know beforehand. It’s like a little voice in my head, whispering and guiding me. That’s how I knew that night that somehow The Darkness-That-Hunts would finally get me.”
I see myself climbing into bed, my movements laden with reluctance as I pull up my blanket. My mother sucks her teeth. The yellow light from the hallway tangles in her braided hair as she closes the door.
“I have night terrors. Sometimes I sleepwalk and I wake up screaming in some strange place.” My tongue darts out over my dry, cracked lips and I feel naked and exposed in front of a total stranger. But this is for me, not him.
I watch Kamiron unroll some gauze and start wrapping it around my calf, looping the thin material again and again. It is almost hypnotic, watching him work.
“My parents didn’t believe me when I told them about the dreams, or the things I sensed. They said to stop acting out. My knowing things--who’s calling, a family member who just died--were works of the Devil. I wasn’t to talk about it. If I didn’t talk about it, it would stop existing.”
Kamiron gives my knee a sympathetic pat. “That never works.”
I snort. That’s for damn sure. “When I next woke, I thought I was in Hell.”
I’m barely aware of my trembling or the hot tears that squeeze from my eyes and dribble down my dirty cheeks. All I hear are moans. I remember waking not in my bed but dangling inside a cage ten feet from the ground. A creature hanging upside down in front of me, bat-like wings folded about it like a cloak. Horns erupting between the fetid flesh of its elbows--
“Are you sure it wasn’t just another night terror?”
I place my head in my hands. Other memories slither across my skull like asps but when I try to focus on any particular one, they burst into cloying smoke. “Logically, it can’t be real, but it feels too . . . too horrible to be a simple night terror. The things I remember, when I remember . . . I can’t have made it up. It has to be real, this other dimension. Ater. There were even others like me trapped there, people alive, among those long dead.”
I’m babbling and I force myself to quiet. I scrutinize Kamiron’s face, but his expression is a carefully crafted mask. Silence sits between us only occasionally stirred by him dropping bloody rags into the trashcan. He’s moved on from my calf to the other assorted cuts and bruises that mar my arms.
“They’re not as bad as they looks, your other injuries,” he states, voice even and neutral. “If you won’t see the nurse, then maybe . . .” he hesitates, studying me. “I have a friend, he can help you--don’t,” he says quickly when I tense, “Worry. He won’t breathe a word, I swear.”
My head throbs. I feel like there is an essential task I must complete but as usual, I can’t recall what it is. And I haven’t even mentioned the note I found, but--
The front panel slides open with an audible swoosh.
Terror cuts through me like a katana. The Darkness-That-Hunts’ found me.
“Oy, Chameleon, a bunch of us are gonna head over to--oh, shit.”
Another boy skids to a halt in the doorway, his mouth dropping. Kamiron leaps to his feet and blocks the blonde’s view of me.
“Who’s that and
what the hell happened to her?”
“Look, just . . . get Zakk, alright? And be quiet about it. Zakk and only Zakk. She’s a bit confused and I don’t want too much excitement.”
I peek around Kamiron to better study Dace. He is short with thin lips and sharp, impish features swallowed by wireframe glasses. His blue eyes roam over me in naked interest.
Dace snorts, dragging a hand through his lanky, chin length hair and backs out the room. “Keep your panties on, Princess. I shall retrieve Zakk now, if it pleases your ladyship.” With a click of his heels and an exaggerated bow, Dace exits.
I raise an eyebrow. “‘Chameleon?’”
Kamiron huffs, shaking his head in resigned exasperation. “Nickname Dace came up with--a play off my name. Kamiron, Chameleon. I know--it’s stupid and I hate it, but if I say that, it’ll just encourage him more.” Kamiron returns the First Aid kit to the cabinet before continuing, “Don’t worry. Dace is a pretty good guy--when he isn’t being an ass. Unfortunately, that’s most the time.”
The corner of my mouth twitches at the affection and good-natured teasing in his tone. It’s hard to be tense around Kamiron with his disarming smile and genuine good nature. By the time Kamiron hunts down a cup of water, painkillers, and a snack to stave off the worst of the hunger (“Saltines are all we got at the moment, sorry”), Dace returns with two others. Frightened, I cower behind Kamiron’s shoulders as he growls at his friend.
“I told you only Zakk--”
“And that’s all I told, Buttercup,” Dace snaps. “’Case you forgot, Hamilton lives here, too.”
A tall, thin boy with impossibly long black hair and sun-kissed skin breaks from the group and starts towards me. His movements are graceful and fluid, like the Chattahoochee River in summer. He stops in front of me as I sit on the chest, wide-eyed, a saltine cracker dangling between my teeth. Squatting, he splays a hand across his chest.
“My name is Zakkarias. Has Kamiron told you about me?” I nod and he smiles encouragingly though the smile fails to reach his hazel eyes. “Good. Don’t be alarmed. I want you to lay on the bed and I’ll have a look at you, okay?”
As he speaks, I search his body for the sigil of The Darkness-That-Hunts, but find no visible brands. Zakk guides me to the bed. I’m worried about making it dirty, but Kamiron assures me it’s alright.
“Shari, while Zakk does that, I’m going to go see if I can get you something clean to wear. I won’t be gone long, I promise.”
I want to force Kamiron not to leave me with these strangers, but I remind myself to be strong, and most of all, calm. No need to go into a wild panic.
“Ham, Dace, Z,” Kamiron gives them each a meaningful glance. “Don’t bombard her with questions.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Dace waves a hand, shooing Kamiron off. The door to the cabin slides shut as he leaves. I watch Kamiron’s friends warily. Hamilton excuses himself to shower. Dace pulls up a chair and watches as Zakk hovers beside me, palms stretched over my body. His eyes flutter closed and his brows furrow in concentration.
“Kinda weird, him doin’ that, huh?”
Puzzled, I glance at Dace as he reclines in his seat. “What is he doing?”
“It’s kind of hard to explain. Did Kam tell you about Gen at all? I mean, this”--Dace makes exaggerated air quotes--“‘Camp?’”
“N-no, not really.”
“I think,” interrupts Zakk before Dace can continue, “he did it intentionally.” Dace snorts but falls silent.
The tall boy shifts, his hands wavering just inches above my calf and neck. I suddenly feel deliciously warm and am glad the painkillers are dulling the pain. In fact, I feel more comfortable now than I have in . . . well, forever. The pulsating heat is intoxicating and my problems don’t seem so insurmountable anymore.
Zakk’s arms drift to his sides. “You’ll be just fine in a day or two.” The edge of the bed dips with his slight weight. “So are you from here?”
“Atlanta. I don’t exactly remember how I got here, but I think it’s a bit extreme that you guys have a policy to shoot trespassers--did you that? What kind of a camp is this? Your parents must be pretty rich if security’ll just off a girl for getting lost.”
Also: why am I suddenly talking so much?
Zakk and Dace cut eyes at each other and something about their secretive expressions alarms me. “What’s going on? Is there something wrong with this place?”
“No.” The mattress wobbles as Zakk quickly shakes his head. “There’s nothing wrong--”
“If you don’t consider being locked up with a bunch of freaks ‘wrong,’” Dace quips, thumping his fingers on the soles of his dingy tennis shoes in an erratic rhythm.
“Ignore him.” Despite his calm tone, Zakk shoots Dace a withering look. “It’s just different here, that’s all. Perhaps we’d better wait for Kam.”
“Is he your . . . leader?”
Dace purses his lips. “Guess you could say that. He’s responsible for us in Firestarter.”
The panel slides open and I’m relieved to see Kamiron. He flashes a sheepish, lopsided grin. “They weren’t too bad, were they?”
“No,” I assure him, “but they wouldn’t tell me what is different about this place.”
Kamiron hesitates in the doorway and then sighs, shaking his head. “I couldn’t find Sandra or Mel so I haven’t got any girl clothes. Instead, you’re welcome to wear one of my shirts.” He strides over to one of the cedar dressers and pulls out a green shirt with the word “Unlimited” written across it in bold white font. “It’s a bit big for you but decent to sleep in.”
He hands me the shirt and shoos everyone out. “Once you’re done changing, we’ll talk. I’ll answer your questions and hopefully you’ll answer more of mine.”
The boys leave. For a fleeting moment, I glance out the window at the darkness. The window’s big enough for me to escape through but . . .
“No,” I concede, “better to stay here, at least for the night.”