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Devil's Yoke

By Emilea Jones All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Fantasy

Chapter One

And so those vengeful crones, who had once called the village their home, cut a tear through the Eather, and from within a scourge emerged. Now in that town there lay a curse, like the devil's own yoke it cruelly bound the land. Creatures of terrible might and measure came forth, accompanied by all manner of evil beings. Imps, demons, goblins and spirits walked among the God fearing people of Sorrow's Town. 

For nigh on ten years they suffered, hidden from the world of men. Then, one winter's night, a band of children visited the Witches in their mountain stronghold. They pleaded for mercy for their loved ones from the onslaught of heartless magic and those vile women took them in, for the night was bitterly cold. As they slept, the Witches found that they pitied the babes and instilled in them a bevy of powers from within the Eather. Before the children could wake, the three fled evermore from their birthplace. With this act, they freed the children and the town from their suffering, but they created for themselves an eternal enemy against the dark and twisted enchantments of all their kind.

One hundred tales of Devil's Path
Jacob Silva, 1853

There was no real escape from the Rift. There was no running from the Ring. No hiding from the pull of the Eather. It owned her, it had its black stamp branded somewhere on the flesh of her heart, and there was nothing she could do about it.

This onslaught of morbid thoughts played over and over again in Max Barrow's head as she rested it against the back wall in Sebastian Toh's World Mythology class. It was June first, nearly three o'clock, and the sun shone down prettily through the floor to ceiling windows at the rear of the room. Most of the students in room H348 had pushed their desks up against those nine foot tall windows to make a spacious clearing at the front of the class. 

It was the final day they would be gathered in this particular classroom and the mood of the room was restless and eager. They were out of high school, but they weren't immune to the familiar longing for that stretch of summer just ahead. Now that they were college students it had essentially gotten stronger. Even at a prestigious, ivy league school like Halton, the students longed for their freedom; freedom from exams and essays and group projects. Max had craved that freedom herself, until last week, and had felt the same longing. Now the only thing she could feel was a heavy, suffocating dread.

For months, she and her roommate Sophie had meticulously planned out their Panama City vacation. It had gotten her through the unforgiving New York City winter and through her rigorous study schedule heading into finals week. It had been the proverbial carrot as she trudged along, her heavy textbooks slung over her back. There had always been the reward, and it had effectively gotten her through one of the toughest parts of the year. That stress was now very familiar to Max. She was a junior at Halton University, she was on the Dean's List and she  had relied almost entirely on scholarships, student loans and waiting tables to fund her time at the university. Stress was her lifelong companion and they worked pretty well together; and one thing was clear there would be no money from home. There never had been. 

Neither her father or her sister had wanted her to come to the city in the first place. Now they were pulling her back. She'd pack up her car in the morning and instead of driving to La Guardia, as she had originally planned, she would have to head north through the city to I-87 and up into the Catskills. After more than two years of avoiding it like the plague, she couldn't escape the inevitable anymore. Max Barrow would be returning to Devil's Yoke and spending the entire summer there. The reality of her situation only grew more daunting as the hours past and it was driving her to distraction.

She barely registered that right beside her, Hannah Ashland was dribbling a line of red colored corn syrup on Lee Bryce's mouth in preparation for their presentation. Up at the front, the first group had begun theirs and she hadn't even noticed. Lee smiled absentmindedly over at Max, his plastic fangs colored crimson with the fraudulent blood they'd cooked up the night before. Max was staring right at him but her eyes didn't seem to be actually seeing anything. Lee swapped a concerned look with his impromptu makeup artist and saw her face contort with disdain. Hannah, who's perfect GPA relied on an A in Professor Toh's class, suffered her own twinge of unease. She blew a lock of long, strawberry blonde hair out of her face and pursed her lips.

This whole project had been Max's idea. Her own concept had been scrapped when their group had voted unanimously to go ahead with Max's theme instead of Hannah's idea to do a comparative study of the Greek and Roman pantheons. They had all been duped into thinking that"mythical archetypes" would be the best plan to get them an A. Of course, they had all decided this only because they could rely on Max's grasp of the theme to get them through it. None of them had done very well on that particular section of the book and now their fearless leader was acting like a total space cadet. She had been for the past week, the prime work time for their final project.

Well  Hannah thought venomously it would serve them right for throwing me to the wayside. 

She continued applying makeup to various members of their group as they huddled in their little circle of adjoining desks. They'd pushed them together in a semi-circle in the far right corner of the room. All of the other groups had done the same, trying their best to keep their make-ups and props a secret from the rest of the class.

They had all been tasked, almost two months before, with picking one of the twenty chapter themes they had studied that semester and adopting it for their final project. There were three groups, each consisting of ten to eleven students. World Mythology had been a relatively enjoyable class all year and the final project had been pretty straightforward. Professor Toh had been perfectly clear; they could do whatever they wanted, as long as they captured the theme of the chapter they chose. A slideshow, a skit, debates, speeches; nothing was off limits. The mythical archetypes chapter had been one of the more tedious sections of their book, everyone agreed, but Max had been adamant. She told them they could have some fun with it, and she'd aced all the quizzes and tests on the chapter. She had been sure of herself, and they had put their faith in her confidence. They would pick three of the major archetypes to examine, and would show their shared qualities in many cultures around the world.

Theirs was the last group to go. The first had covered one of the last chapters in the book. They had chosen American urban legends. Stories like 'Bloody Mary', 'Humans can lick too' and 'The killer in the backseat' we're being played out in extraordinarily gory detail on a blue tarp at the front of the class. All were familiar tales and the group was able to make the horrifying stories somewhat comical. They had plenty of fake blood of their own, and the presentation was enjoyable all around. It was a hit with their fellow students and even Professor Toh clapped and laughed along with his class as it came to a close. Max hadn't even paid attention. She'd heard her fellow group mates oohing awing and cheering with the rest of the class, but she hadn't joined in.

Instead, she'd been busy staring up at the ceiling and then down at the floor, her small notecards sitting forgotten in a pile on her desk. She began to tap her foot nervously against the desk in front of her as the first group finished cleaning up their props and their tarp. Every few moments she would glance out through the mammoth windows at the sun as it dropped lower and lower in the afternoon sky. The humanities building faced the western section of the campus and if you squinted you could see the Hudson twinkling just beyond the parks and trails between Riverside drive and the Henry Hudson Parkway. More immediately she could admire the modern design of the newly reconstructed Student Union and the centuries old elegance of the Halton Bursar's office. It had once been the personal home of the Dean, back in the nineteenth century, but had become an administrative building in the late seventies. Its beige bricks were covered with thick ivy, as all the older campus sites were, and its dark blue slate roof boasted four imposing chimney stacks. The stars and stripes flapped in the warm breeze along with the New York state flag and a banner depicting the grey Halton Hawk on a cobalt blue backdrop. That picture was a familiar sight. She'd plastered Halton University banners all around her room as a young girl, and the majestic Hawk had been the centerpiece of many of them. The thought of that room, her girlhood home, gripped her and made her clam up with a stomach churning anxiety.

She could feel Hannah's eyes boring into the back of her skull and it annoyed her, not that Hannah cared whether she annoyed anyone. The first time they'd ever spoken, in sophomore year, she had tried to give Max tips on hair care after a particularly nasty dye job had left her chestnut brown hair closer to orange than the intended honey blonde. Hannah had chided Max for using bleach without the help of a professional and her condescending tone had led to a particularly nasty argument in the middle of an anthropology lecture. Since then, she'd reveled in pushing Max's buttons and Max had given back just as good as she got, nine times out of ten. She wasn't alone in her dislike either. Hannah annoyed half the class with her know-it-all attitude and her resting bitch face. Max sighed and rubbed her temples for a moment, trying to keep it together. She didn't have the strength to go toe to toe with Hannah, not today. She looked up at the front of the room where the first group had already finished and packed up their props.

The second group was getting ready behind a dusty old velvet curtain that Toh had borrowed from one of the Performing Arts professors. Hannah was getting more agitated by the minute, and the whole group could feel it.

She crossed her arms and gritted her teeth. They didn't have time for Max's stage fright, or whatever it was that had her classmate all coiled and tense. She didn't understand. Why hadn't they just gone with her idea? She wouldn't have flipped her lid at the last minute, she would have stayed composed long enough to lead them to a passing grade. But no! They'd gone with Max. The only thing that would soothe the sting of her losing her perfect GPA would be when her group realized how idiotic they had been for snubbing her completely stable and practical idea. She was ready and willing to point those facts out to them. A well placed "I told you so"could serve as a cathartic vindication, she knew that well enough. Hannah daydreamed about telling them off as she finished the last touches on Lee's makeup; trying not to mourn the grades her idea would have earned them.

Meanwhile, Max had noticed a few in togas in the mix as the second group jostled behind the curtain to prepare for their presentation. She could tell Hannah was getting antsy; she was circling like a shark, keenly aware of Max's distress. But Max would get the last laugh. It seemed that Hannah's idea, the one the group had rejected after Max had put her own two cents in, would have been a duplicate. The second group had decided on the very same concept, the chapter Professor Toh had mentioned was the most used in his class in final presentations. It was an easy one for sure, most of them had been familiar with Greek and Roman myths before they'd even stepped foot in World Mythology class, but it was such an overdone concept. What kind of grade would they have gotten if they'd heeded Hannah's advice? Being the second to use the Greco-Roman shtick would have been humiliating and Toh already looked less than excited as the presentation began.

The rest of Max and Hannah's group had now noticed the familiar Gods and Goddesses emerging from behind the curtain as well, and were all taking big sighs of relief as they continued with their final preparations. Some of them had backed Hannah, claiming that her idea had sounded better. Now those few seemed happy they'd been overruled. But Hannah was still staring at Max, her eyes narrow, fixing her with a sharp stare. She hadn't noticed yet.

"Maxine I have to ask," She gave a brittle, phony smile "Are you sure you're good to narrate? I'm sure I can manage if you're too nervous..."

Her voice vexed Max to no end, and why the hell did she insist on calling her Maxine? She knew that it set her off, that was why. Maxine felt her helplessness shift to anger as the simpering girl leaned in towards her, reaching for the cue cards. Max snatched them before she could reach very far, and nodded towards the front of the room. Over her dead body! Hannah been battling the idea the whole way and swearing up and down they would barely scrape together a C plus with Max's presentation. Well, she was in for a big surprise.

"No, I'm not nervous. Just noticing how fast Nathan's doing quick changes behind that screen. Hopefully you'll be able to keep up a good pace too."

Hannah's head whipped towards the front of the room. Her smile fell and her cheeks grew red as she realized it was her original idea the second group had adopted for their own presentation. As the realization that not only would they have been labeled copy-cats if they'd listened to Hannah, they would have been labeled boring copy-cats, set in Max began to smile. When she caught sight of her nemesis's shocked face she felt she'd won a small battle today at least. She began looking through her cue cards, bolstered by Hannah's obvious ire. The rest of the group shot her amused looks behind the prim girl's back. They knew Hannah's aversion came from her own puffed up sense of pride and her anger at not being chosen to lead the presentation. She hated not being acknowledged as the brightest mind in her group. That's what she liked, that's what she was used to.

So now, Max's job looked easier and easier. Even if they crashed and burned, at least they wouldn't look like idiots in makeshift togas; lackluster idiots at that. They all felt a bit calmer as the second group finished up and Professor Toh called for them to head down to the front of the room. The Greek and Roman gods slumped back into their desks; clearly wishing their presentation had went over better. They had covered the subject well enough, but Toh appreciated creativity and he liked when students challenged themselves and their project would probably earn them B minuses at best, knowing Toh. He wasn't a tough grader by any means, so she didn't feel too bad. Max shook off her anxieties and the thoughts of the upcoming exile that she'd harbored for the past week as her group piled in behind the borrowed curtain. She smiled at Professor Toh, who was now leaning forward expectantly. He'd been excited ever since he'd learned they were going to be using this particular chapter for their project. He'd never (he alleged) in all his years as a Professor at Halton University, seen a group take on the Mythical Archetypes section of the book. He would have no idea that the chapter material had been right up Max's ally, as familiar to her as an old bed time story. 

"All over the world," Max began in a grave voice "For thousands of years, humans have invented myths and legends to explain the inexplicable. They've spun stories to entertain, to inspire, and to warn. In this class, we've learned about many of them and how even across continents they've endured and thrived for thousands of years."

She heard hurried rustles from behind the heavy, maroon swath of velvet. She took a deep breath and slowed down a little, trying to give them a few more moments to get ready.

"For our project, we've decided to tackle mythological archetypes. For a definition we've gone with Carl Jung on this one. Don't worry, it'll only take a minute. I understand how much you might want me to keep this part short and sweet."

A few laughs echoed from around the room. She smiled, taking a small step back. Soon the curtain would open. The rest of her group waited for their cue.

"An archetype is a collectively inherited, unconscious idea, pattern of thought, or image. It is universally present in individual psyches. This means that even physical distances and cultural differences have no bearing on these beliefs because they originate up here." She gestured to her head and tapped her temple three times "They are inherent; they are stamped in our minds as sure as they were with our ancestors, and their ancestors. These beliefs in the supernatural, in otherworldly powers and legends share similar themes all around the world. How else can we explain the similarities between so many different peoples in so many different eras and across massive geographical distances? Well, to make it a little easier, we've got a few visual aides to help us out."

The curtain opened slightly and Lee Bryce stepped out. He was decked out in a black tuxedo, with a red cape, plastic fangs and slicked back hair; he was the first of their vampire examples. Behind him, Tyson Keller appeared. He was wearing a bald cap with pointy little ears and his skin had been painted to imitate rotten cheese. He was bent and stooped with a shapeless, black cloak draped around him. His claw like fingers and curled yellow nails reached out toward the students as he hissed like some rabid animal. He bared his own set of corn syrup stained fangs.

After him Olivia Green and Jason Porter stepped out, hand in hand. Olivia wore a wavy, brown wig while Jason's hair was ridiculously spiked and styled. He was dressed in an expensive wool turtle neck and both of them were caked in white power, with blood red contacts in their eyes.

"We'll start out with legendary creatures. For our example we chose the vampire. There are others, of course; werewolves, mermaids and dragons to name only a few, but we chose this particular one because it's so familiar to so many. We've all heard of the creatures. We all know about the supposed aversion to sunlight and crucifixes and the stakes to the heart. They can transform into bats or wolves and aren't big fans of garlic. Most of our modern ideas about vampires come from Bram Stoker, a British playwright who cemented these archetypes in his nineteenth century best seller, but his is not the end all be all of vampire legends."

She motioned away from Lee and towards Tyson.

"This is Count Orlock, the lead villain in a German film based on Stoker's famous tale. It presents a more terrifying picture of the creature, referred to as a 'bird of death' His appearance much more terrifying than the dashing, debonair image of a seductive, Victorian era vampire."

"For centuries the term vampire wasn't even used in Europe, or any other region that subscribed to the myth of the blood-sucking, life-draining, creature. Nonetheless, the fear of the undead has plagued the human consciousness for millennia. They may not have always been Vampires, or Wampirs or Nosferatu, but they have always been feared by humans. The Persians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Hebrews, and even the Greeks and the Romans had their own tales of creatures that fed on the life blood of humans. Several Asian, South American, Native American and African cultures subscribed to the belief as well. Aboriginal tribes in Australia even have tales of vampire creatures that hide in trees and attack unsuspecting travelers, sucking out all their blood. The description of the vampire's appearance and behavior differ from culture to culture, but they all share the similar qualities that they are undead and they feast on human flesh and blood. They are the hunter and we are the prey. "

She stepped in front of Olivia and Jason, waving a hand in front of them like some game show host.

"Vampires haven't lost their allure in present cultures either. Literature, film, television, and even music are saturated by versions of this legendary creature, this mythological archetype. Their qualities may be changed, their mythos rearranged, but in the end it all comes back to those pivotal human fears. Fear of the night, fear of death and fear of losing our spot at the top of the food chain."

That was the cue. The vampires all started heading back behind the curtain for the next phase of the project.

"The vampire, like so many other mythical beings, shares it similarities between several different cultures all over the world. The connections cannot be denied, and we have to understand that these mythical ideas stick with us, based on our common fears and fantasies. Let's face it, as a species we have incredibly vivid imaginations."

Max took a deep breath. If only these people knew how true the words she spun really were. If only they understood that these things, these fears they all shared, were really based in fact. These nightmares she claimed humans had cooked up in their over-active imaginations were as real as the wood tops on the desks they were currently sitting at. They were as dangerous and deadly as all these legends purported, maybe even more so.

She should know. How many of these deadly creatures had she studied growing up? How many specimens had she seen in science class? How many tales of these fantastical creatures had she pored over in the school library? Her education had been different than anyone in this class. While they looked at World Mythology as just another elective, to Max it had been a way of life. She had seen a Revenant corpse with her own eyes when she was only fifteen. It had boasted long, graceful limbs and small raised protuberances where leathery, black, wings could burst forth, right beneath its shoulder blades. They had long pointy ears that allowed them to locate their prey in complete darkness along with their telltale protruding canines. In the sun their skin grew transparent enough that they could become nearly invisible; it did not harm them as most vampire folktales suggested. The Earth's sun gave Revenants more strength and it was what triggered their bloodlust, according to the accepted lore.

The razor-sharp teeth, according to her old teachers, could be hidden inside the creature's jaw. That explained why one of their town's librarians, Ibial, never showed his fangs. Behind his benevolent smile, he hid two rows of shark like, spiky teeth that could gnash through steel if he wanted them to. He was just as long limbed and graceful as the specimen she had seen splayed out in her science class and he had the same long, pointy ears, but he was one of the most gentle and caring beings Max had ever met.

The dead Revenant had not been like Ibial, it had been poised to strike when some men in her town had subdued and killed it. Its grey tinged skin had been darkened by the blood of some animal it had devoured before it had stumbled out of the forest and down a residential street. It starved creature had been looking for different prey, human prey. The school had kept the corpse in its grisly menagerie for nearly thirty years, and the creature had not deteriorated one bit. She imagined it was still in its sealed glass case in the winding catacombs beneath Daniel Vorrows High School along with countless other specimens. The creatures beneath that old school were things that the students at Halton had only seen in nightmares and on the big screen.

It was down there, just waiting for her return. They all waited, all those things that went bump in the night, all these "archetypes"she was describing to her classmates and a million more hovered just beyond that invisible, shimmering veil. They came from within the Rift, from Eatherside, their home world. If the town's wisdom was to be believed, these beings amassed at the edge of the Eather, just waiting to tear their way through and decimate the Earth. Places liked Devil's Yoke were the last bastions against the evil on the other side of that ethereal boundary. They believed God had chosen them, placed that burden on their shoulders to protect the world from the nefarious creatures that hid in the middle of their ancient forest.

She nearly froze up as the thoughts welled up in her mind and felt discomfort begin to creep back, but she pushed on. It was going well so far. She could dwell on these thoughts later, when she'd gotten an A and had shown Hannah Ashland what was what.

"So, now that we understand the legendary creature archetype it's time to move onto mythological objects!"

Max raised her voice a little to give emphasis. Behind her, she could hear her group hurriedly preparing. Max flipped to her next note card and turned back to the class.

"Just as various civilizations share similar tales of supernatural creatures and beings, they also share similar tales of legendary objects. From weapons, jewelry and clothing to books, treasures and relics the tales of these sacred objects explain that they are all imbibed with magic and power beyond the human scope. They have all been used in tales and legends for as long as man has used his hands to make tools. These objects all have their own mystical purpose and are utilized by various protagonists or villains to save or destroy; to free or conquer. They are channels for magic that humans themselves cannot possess. They are gifts from various gods, demons, spirits and creatures, found in times of dire need or handed down throughout generations."

Now the curtains opened again. Another member of their group, Malcolm Dillard, walked out from behind it. The medieval armor they'd made for him shone in the florescent lighting, spray-painted the brightest silver they could find. He held a hulking plastic sword in his right hand and a plastic shield, plastered with a red dragon, in his left. Beside him Olivia had changed from her vampire costume into her Lady of the Lake costume. She stood in a dark blue gown, with a gauze veil over her face, trying her best to appear ancient and serene.

After them, Lee came back out. Dressed in the garb of a Roman centurion, he carried a long spear, tipped with more of the fake blood. He stood tall, his arms stuffed with cloth to imitate bulging muscles.

Next, Jason returned. This time, he was shirtless and wearing only a loin cloth. His skin all had a visible bluish tint to it and he'd donned a wig of long, black hair. Hannah had expertly strung a necklace of little plastic skulls around his neck, and plastic snakes at his ankles and wrists. He held a huge bow and aimed it at the crowd. He let one of the foam arrows fly and cries of laughter erupted from their classmates. He winked at Jennifer Orson, who had caught the arrow and dramatically held it to her heart. Max couldn't help smiling at the display.

After Jason's performance, Rebecca Turner made her first group debut, stepping through the curtain in her own elaborate getup. She wore makeshift armor, spray painted gold, over a gauzy white dress. She had donned a long blonde wig and underneath her long, flowing, dress, half-stilts gave her the appearance of intimidating height. Around her waist rested an intricate metal girdle Tyson Keller had made out of scrap from old scrap from the nursing school. Max thought, maybe, it had been an old discarded bedpan, but he'd fixed it up real fancy. Rebecca brandished a sword and shield as well, and bent down in a ferocious stance as best she could. It was kind of hard on the stilts, but she did beautifully.

"We all know Excalibur." She gestured towards Olivia and Malcolm."Gifted to King Arthur by the mysterious Lady of the Lake, his magical sword was said to have been invincible. Many such swords exist in mythology all over the world. Kings brandished them, alongside demi-Gods and heroes of all shapes and sizes."

She stepped towards Lee, who straightened his posture to a rigid stance.

"The Spear of Destiny was said to have pierced Christ's side by a Roman soldier, to ensure he was truly dead. Other tales of legendary spears include St. George's Ascalon; Odin's magic Gugnir and Amenonuhoko. The last was a 'heavenly spear' from Japanese mythology, said to have created the world."

Professor Toh looked pleased now. They'd all done extensive research and Hannah's costumes were flawless. She felt a little twinge of pride as she passed Jason.

"Here we have Shiva, a Hindu Deity. He carries his magical bow, Pinaka. Other mythological figures carried mythical bows as well. Hercules was one, Cupid was another and Tristan of Arthurian legend is also an example. These objects are another case of vastly different cultures sharing very similar archetypes."

She went on to explain Rebecca's costume, the Girdle of Hippolyta. She compared it to the magical girdle of Thor and the fertility girdle of Ishtar in ancient Babylon. After that, the second part of the presentation was finished and her group hustled back behind the curtain. This last bit would be their Pièce de résistance. They had all worked tirelessly to paint the backdrops for the last segment of their project and it worked perfectly as a finale.

Now, as she prepared for the end, she couldn't deny how arrogant she'd been, picking this project. This was fate, laughing right in her face. She'd put this idea together when the thought of Devil's Yoke had been pushed back to the furthest reaches of her mind. When she'd come up with this, she had no clue that the day after they presented their project she would be making the two hour drive back up into the mountains, back to her childhood home. If she had, she would have gladly gone with Hannah's tired pantheon idea. She took a deep breath and continued, there was only a little bit left to go and it didn't help to dwell on it now. She could be as smug as she wanted, but she'd come up with the idea and if it happened to hit too close to home, well Max only had herself to blame. So she sucked it up and continued with her spiel.

"Just like the mythical creatures we discussed, magical objects have deep ties to the human consciousness. The weapons are used to defend the innocent and to attack enemies and rivals; the clothing was said to be worn by the powerful and the divine. All these objects were infected by the supernatural or by the unknown. Their similar stories are shared by several different cultures all over the world, used over and over again in myths, legends and tall tales."

She moved to the middle of the curtain now, ready for the big finish. Behind her she heard no rustling. Everything would be in place, she hoped.

"Now, we've gone over the creatures. We've gone over the objects and we've gone over all the similarities. Next, we must discuss the common concept of parallel universes."

The curtain rose again and behind her there was a hand painted picture of a yellow, brick laid road resting on an easel. It was winding toward a magnificent city carved from sparkling emeralds. In the foreground, a young, dark-haired girl in a blue gingham dress and two symmetrical braids clutched her little terrier to her chest. You couldn't see her face, but she stared wistfully down the road at her eventual destination. 

After a moment Hannah replaced the picture. In its place, she set down another. The first thing you noticed were the flowers. They were all different colors and types but they all shared similar animated faces. They had big eyes, some were smiling, and some were looking disdainful. In the background, on one of the branches of a leafy, green, tree, a grinning cat sprawled. He was purple and his striped tail hung down over the head of a petite blond girl, her eyes wide with wonder. Beyond the strange garden, a rotund caterpillar sat in the midst of a blooming flower smoking from a hookah pipe. 

Next a portrait of a snowy landscape was propped up on the easel. It showcased a forest of snow dusted evergreens with a lamp post standing lonely in the middle; its golden light shining dimly in the winter gloom. Walking away from the lamp post and into the background, a hoofed faun with pointy ears and coarse brown fur balanced an armful of parcels as he disappeared into the blowing snow. His red scarf hung haphazardly over his left shoulder, a bright spot of color in the winter landscape.

The final picture showed a giant tree, standing tall and ancient in the middle of a lush forest. A door was carved in the thick bark and it was thrown wide open. Inside little, glowing fairies flew above the heads of a handful of boys, dressed in tattered clothes with dirt smeared on their young faces. Above them, one dressed in forest green was poised to fly through the door and out into the starry night sky. In the far left corner they had painted a black lagoon. On its still water, a menacing pirate ship was docked and an unseen man with a hook for a hand waited to do battle with the boy who would never grow up.

Max felt a burst of pride as the crowd exclaimed about the fanciful paintings. They'd all spent hours and hours, helping each other with each painstaking detail. After a moment, the curtain fell again over the final picture and Max flipped to her very last liner card.

"We've all read about them in books and seen them in the movies. These fanciful worlds of wonder and magic can be accessed through mystical portals and unexplainable routes. They aren't limited to modern fiction either. Olympus, Asgard, The Underworld, Tir Na Nog, Atlantis, Avalon and so many other worlds are all examples of universes neighboring ours. They can be traveled by fearsome creatures and by human souls once they have passed on. These places of power can be found in cultures and religions all over the world. It is a common human belief that we are not alone, but instead of looking to the stars and the unknown reaches of space, ancient cultures looked to magical universes. They are lands carved out by our imaginations, the fruit of our nightmares and out most magical dreams."

Now her group began to emerge, stripped of all their makeup and costumes. They stood together in a line, all beaming, even Hannah. Max felt her joy tinged with that same biting worry. Talk of parallel universes had seemed a poetic aside only a few weeks ago, now ,however, all this talk had opened up a pit in her stomach and even as her classmates applauded around her she felt a heavy weight on her shoulders, and her mind was whirling. 

"Well, that was a wonderful display!" Toh said, standing and clapping as they finished "You've touched on the themes of the chapter effectively and creatively! Congratulations!"

Hannah looked like her eyes were going to pop out of her head, but she stayed quiet. She turned to Max, who was helping to gather up their materials, as if she wanted to speak, but Max wasn't in the mood. All she wanted was to get to her next class. This whole project had rocked her to the core, and she'd had enough of that this past week to last her a lifetime. The rest of the class had begun to gather their own belongings and Toh was filling out the group grading sheets. He'd release them in about five minutes. For some, it was their last class of the semester. Others had a few finals to take before summer break started. Most who had other classes to attend looked crestfallen, but Max was glad. She'd have a welcome buffer, something to keep her mind occupied so she could stop dreading her trip back to Devil's Yoke. Well, in theory, but she had a feeling she'd be obsessing about this until the moment she pulled into her father's driveway and there was really no way out of this whole mess.

After the group had cleaned up their mess, Max headed back to her desk and began shoving her own things into her satchel. She watched as friends said their goodbyes and after a few minutes the students slowly started filing out of the class. Professor Toh gave them all fond goodbyes and congratulated them on an excellent school year. Max smiled as she passed his desk. He put both of his hands on the top of the wooden surface and stared up at her. His long dark hair was tied in a ponytail at the nape of his neck, contrasting sharply with the receding hairline that showed the beginnings of a shiny, bald scalp. He wore his old fashioned, thin-framed glasses halfway down his nose, as always. Max had loved Sebastian Toh's class. This particular subject matter had rubbed her a little raw, it had hit a little too close to home, but the whole year he'd entertained them with his witty quips and his outlandish stories. He'd encouraged their imaginations and had facilitated a thoroughly entertaining class.

"Fabulous Maxine, that was absolutely inspired."

She cringed. She'd never be able to get him to just call her Max. It had been an epic struggle, just to get him to stop calling her Mildred, but as much as it irked her she couldn't hold it against him. He was a kind man, and a good teacher.

"Thank you Professor. We all worked really hard."

He smiled and pulled his glasses from his face. They were the last two left in the room.

"The subject matter is usually considered dull by most students, but you seemed to tackle it with gusto. Its moments like this that make me feel as if I'm doing my job the way it is supposed to be done. I really must thank you."

His sharp, little, black eyes were fixed on her, looking almost curious. He cocked his head to the side, as if he wanted to ask her a question, but he didn't. That knot of dread was in her stomach again, and despite his sweet words, Max felt strange. She looked up at the clock. 

"Well, thanks for a great year Professor Toh. I really-"

He was shaking his head, a winsome smile replacing his probing gaze.

"You've been a pleasure to have in class Maxine. I hope to see you in one of my courses next year. There's always more myths and magic to be had!"

She didn't say it, but Max couldn't help but think she'd get her fair share of myth and magic over the summer. Come September she'd be more inclined to take an advanced Chemistry class than to deal with more creatures and tall tales. No, she'd probably never grace another of Toh's classes. The thought brought a mingled sensation of sadness and relief. She liked him, but her goal was always to keep her mind as far from Devil's Yoke as possible, and now that she gotten the class out of the way she didn't plan on taking any more like it. She nodded without really answering and headed towards the exit.

"Have a good summer dear! Stay out of trouble!"

She closed her eyes as she passed through the door. She really couldn't promise anything. Not where she was going.

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