Marked (Book One of the Marked Saga)

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The Bear and The Girl

Cold air blew into the coffee shop as people came and went. Grace furiously scribbled at her sketchpad, ignoring the rest of the world as music blared in her ears from her headphones.

Ever since the party, Grace had been having strange dreams. She’d awake in the middle of the night, sweat making her sheets and hair stick to her skin. Images flashed across her mind, too fast for her to process in one night. There were two wolves, one white, one black. There was a bear, and the Japanese man from the party. Beck was there as well, his lifeless eyes staring at her as blood gushed from his torn throat. And even worse, there were dark, winged shapes that flitted between her nightmares. She’d hear their cackling laughs, very much like a hyena’s.

Grace refused to talk to anyone about her nightmares, even Beck. Instead, she released her emotions the best way she knew how, through her art.

She sensed as people would occasionally gather around her, gzing over her shoulder as she sketched. She didn’t care, because she barely noticed them. All she wanted was to get the nightmares out of her head, to put it on paper.

Grace didn’t feel comfortable in her own room, so she spent her free time at the local coffee shop, Wolf Valley Hideout. It was a cozy, quaint shop, with an assortment of tables, comfy chairs, and small couches and loveseats scattered randomly. A Christmas tree stood in the center, fake presents surrounding its base. Dangling colored Christmas lights dangled around the front counter, and holiday music played softly through the overhead speakers. But she wanted to listen to Adam Lambert, so her headphones were plugged into her ears.

The scent of spice and leather tickled her nose, and then Grace jumped when the other chair at her table moved. Seconds later, someone had sat in it.

It was him. The guy from the party. He grinned as he sat down, and Grace narrowed her eyes. He was wearing jeans, boots, and a black, long sleeved shirt, the sleeves shoved up to his elbows. She stared at his muscled forearms for a moment before returning her gaze to his face. His hair was a little long, the dark brown strands falling appealingly over his eyes.

“Hi,” he said, brushing his hair back with his fingers. He smiled, his teeth a dazzling white. “I’m Basil.”

“Grace…” she said, hesitantly.

Basil raised a brow. “You don’t sound sure,” he said.

“Sorry,” she murmured. “Just… you don’t go to Wolf Valley High.” Wolf Valley was a small town in the mountains of Washington, by the Idaho-Washington border near the panhandle. There was barely enough high schoolers in the valley and surrounding areas to even have a high school, while the elementary and middle schoolers were all crammed together in a small building by the post office.

He laughed, ducking his head. “No, I don’t,” he said.

“Why are you here, then?” she demanded. What the hell? She thought to herself. Why am I being so rude?

“I have family here,” Basil said. “I graduated a couple of years ago, and I stop by to visit when I can.”

“Oh,” was all she could say.

“Now, as to why I’m here, with you, well…” He leaned forward, resting his arms on the table as he said, “I wanted to see if you were okay. Things were crazy at the party, and I didn’t have a chance to talk to you after everything happened.”

“How’d you find me here?” Grace asked.

“I just walked around,” he said. “It’s a small town, and I have a very good memory. Are you okay?” he asked.

She nodded, but before she realized what was happening her head was shaking back and forth. “No,” she said. “No, I’m not okay. I can’t get that image out of my head, of that freshman laying dead on the ground.” She looked up at him and said, “His name was James Evans. He was only fifteen, and he took his own life.”

Basil nodded, his eyes staying on her face. She continued, saying, “My parents and sister died three years ago, in a car accident. I know I should be over it by now, but I can still see their bodies laying all over the road…”

Basil shook his head. “No,” he said. “You don’t have to be over their deaths. You can take as long as you need to grieve them. There’s no time limit to grief.”

Grace scoffed. “Try telling that to the shrink my aunt keeps taking me into the city to see every week.”

He laughed. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said with a grin.

She smirked. Then, for a few minutes, they just sat there, staring at each other. Normally, Grace would have been uncomfortable with a stranger staring at her, of studying her every feature. But strangely, she felt at ease. Basil had an old sense of calm and peace to him, in the way he sat easily in the chair, in the way he was gazing at her. His eyes seemed more amber than brown today, and Grace thought, not for the first time, that she would love to spend hours sketching his every feature. She may even want to find her paints and create a portrait.

“What do you have there?” he asked suddenly.

Grace blinked and glanced down to her sketchpad. “Oh,” she stammered, “uh, just something I’ve been working on.”

Basil held his hand out, and she handed her sketchpad over to him. He frowned, and for the first time in her life, Grace was afraid someone didn’t like her art. It was everything to Grace, her art and her music. Growing up, her sister had been more involved in sports, especially her martial arts. Grace had been the more artistic of the two, having taken music and drawing lessons for as long as she could remember. Not once had it ever crossed her mind that someone wouldn’t like her art.

To her relief, Basil grinned and handed the sketchpad back to her. “That’s really good,” he said. “It looks so real.”

She grinned. “Thanks.” She gazed down at the picture, a small frown pulling at the corner of her lips. It was a sketch of a grizzly bear, standing on rocks as the rapids flowed around it. The bear had its neck stretched out, one leg reaching towards the fish leaping through the water.

The door leading into the Hideout opened. The wind outside roared as a blast of cold air spread into the coffee shop. He never took his eyes off her, but Grace frowned when she saw Basil tense up. His eyes hardened, and the irises seemed to darken.

Two men in their twenties had entered the Hideout. They were both dressed nicely, in designer jeans and sweaters. They wore long, black coats, and as they looked for an empty seat, they took off their gloves and shook the snow from their hair. One of the men—a blonde with green eyes—let his eyes fall on Grace and Basil, and the two empty chairs at their table. He tapped his partner on his shoulder, and they began making their way over.

“Put your headphones back in,” Basil said to Grace in a low voice. “Turn your music back on, and keep your eyes and head down. Don’t listen to anything they say.”

“Why?” Grace asked, watching as the men came closer. Their eyes seemed to glow unnaturally, and she had the sense that though they didn’t look it, they were very dangerous. Her body tensed, and she felt her heart rate pick up erratically.

“Let’s just say that they’re not good guys,” Basil muttered. He gave her a pleading look and said, “Please, Grace. You don’t need to hear what they say.”

“Then I’ll just go,” Grace said, keeping her voice low as the men came closer.

Basil shook his head. “No,” he said. “They won’t let you. Just do as I say, please.”

She met his gaze, refusing to give in. But once she saw the panic and earnest in his eyes, she nodded and plugged her headphones in. She flipped to a new page in her sketchbook, but she didn’t turn her music back on. Whatever was going on, she didn’t want to be left out. She needed to know what was happening.

The empty chairs on her left and right moved, and she saw the men draping their coats over the backs. Then they sat, resting their clasped hands on the table before them. One of the men, the one with brown hair, had a strange ring on his left index finger. It had rose vines twisting around to hold a rose-shaped ruby, inlaid in a black metal. Grace pulled out a pencil and began sketching it, giving the appearance of an oblivious girl. She held her sketchpad so that neither of the strangers could see what she was drawing. She had a feeling that if they knew, things would not turn out well for her.

“Hello, Mejhan,” the blonde said.

“Clark,” Basil growled through gritted teeth. “Ivan.”

The blonde, Clark, made a tsking sound and said, “Now, Basil, where are your manners? Surely we taught you better than that.”

Basil scoffed. “I didn’t have to follow any of your rules and laws for a long time. So go to Hell.”

Ivan clenched his fists. He muttered something in a language Grace had never heard before, and a dark look crossed Basil’s face. Clark held a hand up to calm him companion, and then Grace lowered her eyes when he turned to look at her.

“Well, she’s a pretty one, isn’t she,” Clark said. “She one of your new recruits?”

“No,” Basil replied. “She’s just a human girl. She has nothing to do with this.”

“Then why have you taken an interest in her?” Clark asked.

“There was an incident regarding a demon a few days ago,” Basil answered. “She saw the victim fall off a roof, and watched as the landing killed him. I came here to make sure she was okay.”

“Well? And is she?”

Basil nodded, his eyes never leaving her. Her eyes were wide, and she was now confused. Demon? There were no such things as demons, were there? They couldn’t be real. But then again, she thought that she had seen her sister on the roof of the mansion that night. Maybe she wasn’t going crazy after all.

“She’s fine,” Basil said.

Clark nodded. “Good. Now, when are you going to resolve the issue of the demon? It’s still in the area, and there’s been word of a Kuren lurking on the outskirts of the valley. You know what will happen if it ever manages to slip past the wards and come into the valley.”

Basil dipped his head. “Ansaldo and Malcolm are creating a strategy as we speak,” he said. “We’ll be rid of the demon by the end of the week.”

“Good,” Clark said. “Make sure you do that.” Then, to his companion he said, “Come, Ivan. We must be on our way. We have a Kuren to deal with.”

They gathered their coats and gloves, and then left. Basil stayed rigid as they walked by, his chest heaving in barely controlled rage. After they had left the Hideout, Basil sighed and gave Grace a weary look. “I told you to put your music on,” he said.

She blinked and took her headphones out. “How did you know?”

He shook his head. “You don’t want to know.”

She narrowed her eyes, and then she let the floodgates open, allowing her many questions to flow forth. “What the hell was that all about? Demon? Kuren? Mejhan? What’s going on?”

“You don’t want to know,” Basil repeated.

“No, I do want to know,” she said. “Something’s going on, and I want to know. Now.”

“Grace.” Basil leaned towards her, and once he was sure he had her full attention he said, “I want you to seriously think about this. I want you to consider the fact that if you learn everything, things will never be the same. You do not want to be dragged into this, I assure you.”

Grace leaned back in her seat, crossing her arms over her chest. “Tell me.”

He sighed. “Fine,” he said. “But not right now. Meet me here in a week, at this same time. I want you to think, long and hard, if you want the truth. If you come, I’ll tell you. But if you don’t, I will understand completely. Deal?”

She wanted to say no. She wanted to kick, punch, scream, curse, do everything she could to have him tell her right then and there. But she saw the look in his eyes, saw the exhaustion written on his face. Suddenly, he looked to be much older than his early twenties.

“Okay,” she finally gave in. “Deal.”

He nodded. “Thank you,” he said. He stood and she did as well. She didn’t want him to go. Basil may have been keeping secrets, but she felt calm with him. Her headaches had subsided somewhat, and she didn’t think about the crippling grief and hopelessness that seemed to follow her wherever she went.

Basil held out his hand, and Grace placed her own hand on top of his. He pressed his lips to the back of her hand and said, “It was a pleasure meeting you, Grace. I look forward to our next meeting.” He grinned, and then he turned and walked away, out and through the front door of the Hideout. Grace blinked, and when he left, he took all of the warmth from the world with him.

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