Stefan woke up in the middle of the woods. He had slept overnight on the powdery snow underneath a very large tree. His head was groggy and full of fog at first. He lay for a moment listening to the busy sounds of the creatures of the forest as they were already in the midst of doing their morning chores. Birds were gossiping in their bird language and collecting twigs to add to their nests. Frogs were erupting with song to greet the morning. The sun was creeping desperately to rise above the horizon through the clouds that hung low over the mountain town in Romania. There was about an hour left of night before the day would officially begin. His joints hurt from the stiffness of the cold he had been lying in. He looked at his body long enough to notice that a blanket of white snow had covered him as he slept. He looked a bit further down – past his feet – to witness the carcass of the deer he had mangled lying still under a blanket of snow just like his.
“That’s right. I ate a deer. Raw.” he mumbled as he let his head thump back down onto the cold ground. He moved his tongue around in his mouth to wipe away the film of disgust from his teeth. Normally the taste of blood would be revolting, but this time it was pleasing. He thought about that for a moment.
I remember, there was a lady on the ground. He thought for a minute more but then stopped. He couldn’t remember much after that. It all seemed a blur from the moment he went to assist her to just now when he woke up. The middle part of the encounter had just simply been erased from his memory. Where did that lady go? Why didn’t she help me? Or, at the very least, take me to sleep somewhere where it would have been warmer? Stefan knew the lady on the ground was a stranger to these parts. He had been born in Bilbor and hadn’t stepped a foot out of its borders in his entire existence. He knew everyone who called these Carpathian Mountains home. He had never laid eyes on this woman until last night and today he can’t get her out of his mind.
Footsteps. Just beyond the row of ancient trees to his left. He could hear the crunching of snow and ice very distinctively. It was as if the owner of those footsteps was directly at his side and quite possibly weighed a buck ten. He looked up at the large branch jutting out of the tree beside him. Normally he would have to climb the tree a dozen feet or so to reach the lowest branches of the trees in this forest. He could do it and has done it a number of times to escape wild boars that threatened to strip him of his childhood and his life if he didn’t get his ass up the tree in an expedient fashion. He knew how to climb these trees. He was a master at it. He looked up at the hanging branch once more while maneuvering to a squatting position on the snow-covered ground below. The footsteps were cautiously crunching in the snow. He heard them loud and clear. If he thought before that it was his imagination, it certainly wasn’t his imagination now. There was definitely someone out here with him among these trees. He looked up at the branch once more and then lifted from his squatted position to land fifteen feet above on the branch he had been hastily studying. He was fascinated with his most recent feat. Whoa! What in the hell? He thought as he tried to balance himself on the icy branch.
The sound of the footsteps got closer and closer until they were finally in his general vicinity. While remaining in a squat and perched position, Stefan tried to turn around on the icy-slick tree branch to identify the owner of those footsteps. He saw no one, but he could smell them. Through the drying deer blood permeating his sinuses he could smell the scent of someone who desperately needed to bathe. He had smelled that very same scent on his own skin after hours of working on his family’s farm in the warm sun during the summer months. It was the aroma of dirt and sweat that had been marinating, and then simmering, hours upon hours on skin at 98.6 degrees or higher.
He heard a cough. Not a loud cough, just one to draw attention.
Then a steady stream of liquid being poured against the trunk of the very tree he found himself in. He jumped from branch to branch, higher and higher to get to the other side of the large tree to lay eyes on the noises until he was directly above the young girl who worked at the only Inn in the village. He knew her name was Victoria. He also knew that Victoria was a loner. She rarely stepped out of the Inn after the Innkeeper, Danae, took her in as her very own when Victoria’s parents had died of pneumonia a few years back. Victoria’s parents were regulars at the Inn since it housed only one of the two available pubs within miles of these mountains. Stefan was too young to get into the pub, but when you live in a village as small as Bilbor, you tend to get to know everything about everybody whether you liked it or not.
From this angle high up in the tree branches, Stefan got the first chance to actually lay eyes on Victoria. She wasn’t exactly the most beautiful creature, but she wasn’t hideous either. She was young. Not yet an adult. He sniffed the air above her. The scent of dirt, sweat and possible decay wasn’t coming from her. It was coming from the large garbage bag she was dragging behind her in the snow. She had stopped by the big tree to take a welcomed piss during her night walk through the woods.
With a dark bag.
The smell of death was permeating from it.
It was at that very instance, while he was mulling over why the smell of death would be emanating from the bag below, he was slowly being covered in a dark mist; some sort of fog. He’d seen a white fog plenty of times in his young life, but never a dark one. And he could hear whispers. They weren’t coming from Victoria below; they were coming from the air. He couldn’t tell what the chorus of whispers was saying. It was in a language unknown to him. It was more of a “wishhhh washhhh swishhhh”. It was the most tranquil and mesmerizing sound he had ever heard. The concert of voices had put him into a trance as he perched among the trees….
….the dark, moonlit family of trees swayed to and fro in a winter dance as the steady breeze from the North blew its snowy kisses among the Carpathian Mountain. Victoria, just below him at the large tree trunk, was backing away from the tree Stefan was occupying. The black bag behind her was pulling her away from the tree following the drag line that very same bag had indented in the snow moments earlier. It wasn’t but a second sooner that Victoria was out of sight and Stefan found himself on the ground; fascinated with the blood he had found on his hands and his clothes. He watched as the deer that he had previously, and recklessly, ripped open was mending itself. Stefan watched as his hands put the deer’s heart back into the animal’s chest cavity and the wound mended itself. The deer then blinked her eyes twice before shuffling up to all fours to run away from Stefan, except the deer was running backward. The forest stretched out in front of him leaving virgin snow laid out before him. Moments later he was crouched next to the beautiful woman he had found lying on the cold ground with nothing on but a black, sheer nightgown. He stared into her lavender eyes. She didn’t have to say anything to him vocally; her eyes said everything. They were saying his life was about to change…
“The grinding of the gears within the clock
measure time for all to see.
The sound of the tick and the tock
Do not judge discriminately.
Tick tock goes the strands of time.
Tick tock entrances the mind.
Tick tock as events begin to climb.
You are reborn, Epoch of mine.”
The last sentence she had eye-whispered to him earlier, “You are reborn, Epoch of mine,” was echoing in his memory as he was pulled out of his trance by the sounds of Victoria finishing up her semi-private bathroom break below him. He watched her as she gripped the edge of the black bag and began dragging it through the snow deeper into the woods. His hunger for her was itching to be fed. Even though he was on a tree branch a good fifteen feet above her, he could hear her beating heart. He could smell the scent of her urine melting the snow at the trunk of the tree. The steady thump thump of the blood flowing through her veins was enticing. He stood up on the branch and spread black wings he never even realized he possessed until just now. He posed ready to pounce on the unsuspecting prey below when his entire mind was rattled within his skull by the vociferous command, “You will stop!”
It would seem that Victoria had heard this very loud command as well. She had stopped dead in her tracks to look up to the dark skies above her. Suddenly, the woods were swarming with bats. Not just one or two, but thousands of them. Victoria knelt on the snowy ground to avoid contact with the creatures. Stefan had frequented these woods often enough through his life to know that a few bats occupied this forest. He had never realized that so many of them had accumulated and at the exact moment he had heard the command to stop. The bats swarmed the clearing to the left of the tree where Stefan was perched and just behind where Victoria had been kneeling. The shrill sounds they were making was ear-piercing. Their rather large wings were creating enough wind force that the snow on the ground was being disturbed and flittered in every direction. The bats circled…all of them. Around and around they went, the first few dozen hitting the ground in a very audible thump as they connected with the formerly snow-covered earth. The remaining bats flew around and around landing on top of each other to form a pile of bats that eventually formed a human shape; the shape of a woman. It was the same woman he had tried to rescue earlier. How was this even possible? He had concluded, right then and there, that he must be asleep and this was all a dream because bats turning into a woman was just not feasible. It doesn’t make sense!
Victoria had turned around from where she was kneeling only to acknowledge that she seemed to know who this woman was. None of this spectacle was fazing her at all. She actually looked like she’s seen this show a few times and it had been an every day occurrence for her. The woman said something to Victoria in a language Stefan did not understand. Victoria had nodded her head in acknowledgement. The woman then turned to face in Stefan’s direction. She didn’t walk, her legs did not move. She, instead, glided to the tree where Stefan had been perched. He didn’t take his eyes off her, he didn’t even blink. There was a short moment where he even forgot to breathe. Then he lost her. She was standing at the base of the tree below him only to find her way instantaneously beside him on the tree branch. The sight of her directly beside him had startled him enough to flap his wings to balance himself on the icy branch.
“You will never cause harm to those in my care,” she seemed to whisper. The black fog was beginning to rise again. It wasn’t very long, maybe seconds instead of minutes, when the two of them standing on the hefty tree branch were standing in the midst of the black smoke. Except it wasn’t smoke; he could breathe without any difficulty. And he could clearly see her in the blackness. It wasn’t like he was in a fog; it was more like he was in a bubble. He was being shielded or blanketed. It was almost like he was playing a game of forts with his brothers and the smoke was the blankets and sheets. The woman’s lips were moving, but her words weren’t in sync with what her lips were doing.
“There will be many lessons learned with opportunity to absorb them. For now it is imperative for you to understand that you do not engage those in my keep or my care. Victoria, the young lady below, is mine to do with as I please. It currently pleases me to keep her among the living,” said Sokara’s words, but not her lips. They were doing another dance altogether.
“I’m not sure what came over me, exactly. I’ve never even dreamed of killing a person before tonight. Who are you and what did you…” he began.
“I will have silence!” Sokara demanded. The fog surrounding them responded with whispers, “You will speak only when permitted. You will now listen and obey,” she said.
Stefan didn’t know who this lady was and why she was yelling at him, but he was a man and he wasn’t going to stand here and be insulted like this. No one in his twenty years of life had ever talked to him like she was. He spread his wings in preparation to lift off the branch to find more secure footing on the ground when Sokara spread her wings behind her. She had anticipated that her new recruit would perhaps find issue with her demands. The male ones always had trouble with her being in charge. She, once again, had to display her dominance. She was getting used to this game.
She reached up and grabbed hold of Stefan’s right wing in mid flap. She flapped her wings a few times to lift herself from the branch with Stefan being lifted below her. With one swoop she flung Stefan to the ground. He seemed to have forgotten he had wings. He landed with a considerable thud. The snow wasn’t thick on the forest floor. He had broken his nose. The snow beneath his face was turning a crimson red where the blood was leaking out of his nostrils. Sokara floated to the ground to stand next to him. She knelt to one knee, grabbed hold of his wing once more and ripped the appendage from his scapula. This not only resulted in more blood, but screams of agony from Stefan.
“Men always pretend to be the most brave and fearless until they begin to cry. That is when they turn into their true fetal form,” she said nonchalantly as she ripped his other wing from his shoulders blades.
Stefan wriggled in immense pain as blood gushed from his shoulder blades where his wings used to be just moments before.
“On Gijar, I’ve always had a problem with the Gemin and their wings. Wings are a privilege. It’s a sign of noble birth. The population became careless with their gift of flight through the ages. I could not control this disregarded blessing for the number of wings far exceeded my reach. But here…here on this planet…I can control the blatant disrespect for my position. I may offer you immortality with my virus, I may offer you power you’ve never imagined, I may even offer you the ability to obtain dreams you’ve yet to conjure. But I refuse you the gift of flight unless you’ve earned it.”
As she was spitting these words out vehemently she was ripping Stefan’s shirt open down the back with her sharp claws.
“Besides,” she continued amid Stefan’s screams of anguish, “wings are commonplace among the Gemin. Not so common here on Terra. I can’t have you walking among the masses with wings blatantly displayed on your back. I propose an alternate solution,” and with that she placed the claw from her forefinger on his back and pierced his skin. More screams from Stefan until the pain was so unbearable that he passed out on the bloody snow. Sokara looked at Victoria who had been sitting silently by all this time and said, “I thought he’d never shut up.” Victoria only gave her Queen a nervous smile as Sokara continued.
Smoke rose from Stefan’s back as Sokara used her claw to draw out a pair of wings that covered the entire upper portion of his back. “And now I have control of his flight. He will have the ability to fly only if I allow it,” she said to no one in particular. She stood up next to Stefan’s unconscious body, turned her head slightly and commanded to Victoria, “Cover his wounds with the fallen powder. The cold will expedite the healing process. Then replaced his tattered clothes. I will see him after I’ve rejuvenated. The sun is about to rise. I am heading back to the Inn. I will meet with you there before I go under.”
Victoria said nothing. Sokara then melted to the ground into a pile of bats that had lifted from the ground up into the trees and then into the night sky with sqealing and flaps of hundreds of wings. Victoria had waited until the sound of the bats became faint before she rose from her kneeling position to tend to Stefan. As she was packing handfuls of cold snow on Stefan’s back, she had noticed the cuts that Sokara had branded into his back were almost healed already. The cold snow had woken Stefan out of his unconsciousness. He muttered and grunted at the cold snow being placed on his warm back.
“Ok, so are you going to tell me who that woman was?” he asked Victoria while he remained face down on the cold ground.
“That, my new friend, is someone you really don’t want to mess with,” said Victoria as she handed him his torn shirt.
He looked at his shirt, turned it a few times in his hands to figure out where the front of the blouse was and where the back used to be. “No shit. I sort of figured that. But who is she?” he asked again.
“That woman is the reason you live and the reason you die. She has infected you with a virus that will forever change you. There are many adventures waiting for you. You have been given a gift. I suggest you don’t abuse it.” This was Victoria’s answer.
“You call this a gift, do you?” he asked. “I’m beginning to think I was cursed.”
He stood up, put on his shirt and overcoat, swung his wool scarf around his neck, cracked his bloody nose back into place and then began to ask Victoria another question when she interrupted, “You must find shelter soon. You have about an 20 minutes before daylight breaks. The sun is no longer your friend. If you would like to experience an act even harsher than what you just went through with Sokara, let the sun find you when it rises.”
“Are you talking about THE Sun? The bright star in the sky? That Sun?” Stefan was beginning to wonder if maybe the reason why Victoria kept to herself was because she was a little bit on the strange side. How could the sun possibly hurt him? He works on a farm every day in the sun when there is sun in this gloomy mountain village.
“Be outside when the sun rises. You will no longer question my advice when you do.” That was all Victoria said on the subject. She rose from the ground, grabbed her bag and then trudged through the woods with the bag behind her leaving Stefan alone with the trees once more.
“What a night!” he said as he faced toward Bilbor and home to his bed to wake up from this nightmare.