Warmth and light beat against my closed eyelids and while the sensation is foreign, it’s reassuring. In Ater, light is scarce and never warm. But you escaped, I assure myself and a content smile curls my lips.
Or was allowed to escape.
I jerk upright, a startled gasp wedged in my throat at the unbidden consideration. My hammering heart slowly calms while my eyes to adjust to the unfamiliarity of my surroundings.
Though empty, the room still carries the airy, electric ambience of life. Vitality thrums through the messy beds, the discarded clothes that form a carpet on the tile floor, and the cheap plastic frames that outline a series of photographs: Dace peering through a gargantuan telescope at some kind of astronomy lab, his impish features serious and contemplative; Zakk, wet hair plastered across his forehead, grinning as he clutches a surfboard under his armpit while colossal, turquoise waves break against a beach behind him. No pictures near Hamilton’s deserted bed, but I notice a paperback resting on his trunk, its title in Spanish.
Careful of my injured leg, I slip out of the sheets and arch my back, listening to the joints of my spine crack. At that moment, Kamiron slides back the shoji screen and peeks in. His expression brightens when he spots me.
“Was wondering when you’d wake. You looked so peaceful we didn’t have the heart to disturb you.” His gaze runs over me, lingering on the red-tinged bandages around my neck and calf. “Looks like those needs changing. How do you feel?”
It’s different to see Kamiron in the morning--or is that late afternoon? The rays of the sun that scurry past the blinds’ thick wooden slats are too deep a gold to be morning. Kamiron slides shut the screen behind him. Dressed in khaki shorts and a print shirt of a generic cityscape, his easygoing nature exudes compassion and confidence. It’s no wonder I’ve taken an instant liking to him.
“I feel okay. My leg’s stiff, but . . .” I trail off, remembering Hamilton’s help from last night. “Where’s Hamilton?”
Kamiron perches on the edge of Dace’s bed and studies me shrewdly.
“No, it’s not like that,” I rush, embarrassment coloring my cheeks. “I just ask because--”
“He’s hot and chicks love him?” Kam’s smile turns wry.
“No, that’s not . . . I mean, of course he’s attractive, but--”
Kamiron holds up a hand, grey eyes mischievous. “You just like his Latin flair, sí?”
He bursts out laughing, and I can’t help but smile at his exuberance. “Ham had his exam today.”
“Exam?” I squeak in horror. “But I kept him up all night!” The words are out of my mouth before I can take them back. Kam’s renewed laughter bounces across the empty beds. Mortified, I shield my face with my fingers. “That came out wrong. I just meant he didn’t say anything about--nothing happened.”
Gradually Kamiron’s laughter dies down to a bemused chuckle. “Relax, Shari, I get it. Our exams aren’t something we prepare for. They’re to study the progression of our abilities. A bunch of scientists, researchers and scary dudes in suites gather in an observation room--”
The screen slides open and Zakk, a damp towel draped about his slim waist, pads inside. His hair drips down his back in a wet mop. “I see my patient is awake,” he comments, gliding over to his bed and tossing his dirty clothes into the hamper near his cedar chest. I avert my eyes, biting the inside of my cheek when he drops his towel. At my expression, Kamiron grins.
“Z, man, you remember Shari is a girl, right?”
Zakk pauses, arm caught in the sleeve of a faded auburn T-shirt. Out the corner of my eye, I watch him glance down. “I’m wearing boxers . . .” He hurriedly throws on his shirt and there is a rustle as he slides into a pair of worn jeans. “Sorry, Shari. Habit.”
“One he gets from his hippie parents,” Kamiron adds. Zakk makes a rude gesture. Ignoring him, Kamiron crosses his legs, right ankle resting against his left knee. “So, Shari, do you feel up to going outside with us?”
“I-I don’t know.” I try to control the alarm in my voice. Being around strangers . . . what if they find out I don’t belong here? Or worse, The Darkness-That-Hunts sends his giant dogs after me again?
Stop, girl, I scold, you need to behave as normal as possible.
Zakk shoves his friend. “What this ill-mannered simpleton means to say is that we’d like for you to attend a bonfire with us instead of hanging out here alone and undoubtedly bored.” For a moment, Zakk falls quiet and studies me with a critical eye. Before I can feel even more uncomfortable, he gives a disapproving shake of his head and sighs. “Ugh, Kam. You fail at applying bandages.”
Kamiron raises his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Not quite my area of expertise, y’know? But if for some reason you need a pair of keys to float in mid-air, I’m your guy.”
“I’ll keep that in mind the next time my hippie parents have their annual séance.”
Their playful jokes loosen the tension braiding through me. Maybe attending this bonfire won’t be so bad if they’re with me. Dragging up a chair, Zakk gently unwraps the layers of gauze. I barely even wince.
“You’re healing nicely. Your injuries actually look weeks old, not hours.” Surprise colors Zakk’s voice but he simply shrugs. “Must have been more superficial than we first thought. I think it’s okay to take a shower first. When you’re out, I’ll rebandage you.”
“But I don’t have any clothes.”
“Left ’em in my room. Hold on.” Kamiron jogs out and soon returns with a plastic grocery bag. Inside I find a pair of black sweat pants, socks, a pink T-shirt and a black hoodie.
“I know it’s not exactly fashionable,” Kamiron admits sheepishly, “but it should be about your size and baggy enough to cover your bandages without attracting too much attention.”
Astonished at his foresight, I take the bag and nod. “How’d you get these?”
“Melissa.” He shoos me away before I can ask any further questions. “Later. Bathroom’s down the hall to the right.”
The bathroom is bigger than anything I’m used to back home. There are three stalls with toilets and four showers hidden behind frosted glass. No windows, but bright fluorescent lights flicker on when I hit the switch. The bare tiles chill the soles of my feet as I walk up to the mirror and dump my plastic bag on the sink.
My reflection stares back at me, looking lost and forlorn. My dark eyes are huge and like a frightened hamster, skittering to and fro. I lean closer, examining myself. Inspecting bags and dark circles. There are a few welts on my face that appear old, healing. I barely notice the teeth marks that line my throat like a macabre necklace. They are little more than ruby pockmarks now. My bangs drag across my forehead in lifeless and dull curls.
“I’m desperately in need of a relaxer,” I sigh, imagining my mom’s horror at my tightly coiled hair going so long without being chemically straightened. In short, I look like hell.
On impulse, I sniff my armpits.
Ugh. I smell like hell, too. I can’t believe Hamilton could stand being so close to me.
I slip out of Kamiron’s shirt. Discolorations, welts and bruises mar my body. I don’t remember most of them but the haunting images . . . I shudder and, favoring my stiff leg, hurry to one of the stalls and turn the chrome knob. Hot water splashes against cream-colored tiles and circles the drain. Humidity swells across the bathroom. I rifle through the plastic bag from Melissa. She’s thought of everything--shampoo, conditioner, lotion, towel, a loofah, and bath gel that smells like rosehips and chamomile.
“I’ll have to hug her for this.” Taking the bath products, I step into the shower and let the hot water caress my battered, dry skin. When was the last time I did this? I can’t remember.
Big surprise there.
The water that beats against my head and loosens my muscles is like a mantra, hypnotizing me to the brink of consciousness. Another memory uncoils and rears before me.
Heavy eyebrows that show only the slightest hint of gray frame tangerine eyes that bore into mine. He leans back and the bones and feathers braided into his sandy hair rustle with the movement. His russet beard drapes down his chest in a hundred small plaits. Leather fastenings and gray cords drape his powerful body like a cloak. An elegant cobalt sash wraps around his narrow waist and I notice an emblem stitched into the fabric. Black. Ugly. The Darkness-That-Hunts’ insignia.
For a moment I stare stupidly, struggling to recall the man’s name. The memory-haze parts for a split second and--
Divine. A druid.
His joints pop and I realize he’s sitting, we’re sitting, on uncomfortable mats of rotted straw. The room is small with crooked roots dangling from a domed ceiling of earth. Leather-bound books sit on shelves of wood and bone, and scrolls sprout from clay basins. Dominating the dirt floor lays a frayed rug with arcane symbols woven into a bizarre pattern along its rim. Looking at the symbols makes me nauseous, so I lift my eyes back to the druid.
“Where am I?”
He nods, as if I’ve answered a previous question. “You must do something, Shari.” His accent is heavy, Gallic. It sounds like settling soil and forgotten burial rites.
“I can resist his compulsion--but only for a time. You have to free us, all of us, from him.”
“I just want to go home.” My voice is small and weak.
“You will never be free until you find the way to destroy him. To do this, you must locate the others. There are three.”
“But where do I look? How will I know them?” More questions buzz on my tongue but Divine shakes his head.
“No time. I can help you escape, but your window is brief.” His eyes flutter closed as if in pain. His muscular arms tighten, rippling across his tattooed flesh before loosening. “For now he tends his garden, but he will seek you out soon. I hope to get you away before then. Once you get back to your realm, there will be one who can channel me. Seek that one. I will let you know what to do afterwards.” I watch as he jots something down on a page ripped from one of his books.
“When you cross, your memories will scatter, but they will return in time. You must find the others. Know this, Shari, if you flee, you will be hunted. He will use all his means to retrieve you, and then we will all be doomed. Trust no one.”
He presses the paper into my hand and yanks me to my feet. Like a pair of ghosts, we sneak towards--
“Shari--you okay in there?”
The memory shatters at the sound of Zakk’s voice. The water jetting out of the showerhead is lukewarm at best but the air is cloying.
“F-fine--almost done!” I hastily wash myself as my mind processes the memory. A druid named Divine. Yes, I recall that last conversation now. I remember him sending me here with a purpose, one that confirms my unspoken suspicion: No matter where I try to run, The Darkness-That-Hunts will pursue me. I cannot go home, not yet. In order to be free, I must find the others, these “three.” The druid’s “medium” is crucial to that end, but how am I to avoid The Darkness-That-Hunts long enough to find this medium? And what exactly is The Darkness-That-Hunts? Where did he come from?
More questions and no answers. But I have a lead. Divine. The note he left me is the key.
Once out of the shower and dressed, I find that Kamiron’s gone. Zakk motions for me to sit on his bed and starts to clean my neck with antiseptic. His movements are quick and precise, his long fingers dexterous.
“Are your parents really hippies?”
Zakk chuckles. It’s a lovely sound. “Kam thinks anyone born in California must be a hippie.” He shakes his hair out of his eyes. I notice he’s pulled his hair back into a neat braid. “My parents are Yurok Indians, a tribe in northern California, though we don’t live on the rez anymore.”
Stunned, I scrutinize his features again. The proud cheekbones, sun-kissed skin with hints of copper, thick hair long and bone straight. In the light, his hazel eyes look more gold-brown than they had last night, but no less gentle. Zakk notices my startled silence with a wry smile. “Did you think I tanned?”
Sheepish, I glance at my feet.
He laughs and nods to my own dark complexion. “It’s as much a ‘natural tan’ as yours. If you want, I can wear a feather headdress and do a war dance--if you’ll wear your hair in a ’fro, maybe make some sassy comments?”
His play of stereotypes eases my embarrassment, and I roll my eyes with a good-natured chuckle. “I’ll even sing in a few Negro spirituals, free of charge.”
“I’m sure you have a lovely voice, Shari,” Zakk replies seriously, but I can sense his sudden distraction. The pads of his fingers trace the faded bite marks in fascination. “Won’t need to rebandage this one.” He glances up at me before continuing his examination with the professionalism of any experienced doctor. “You really have such a remarkable capacity to heal. I wonder why.”
I force myself to be still beneath Zakk’s curiosity but it makes me uncomfortable.
“Forgive me. I didn’t mean to spook you.”
“Am I that obvious?”
“I read auras, Shari. I feel its subtle changes. Your aura is quite powerful,” he admits, “although most of it seems to be centered in fear.”
I take a deep, unsteady breath as Zakk rifles through the First Aid kit in search of a new roll of gauze. “Do you think I’m crazy?” I blurt out.
Pausing, Zakk peers at me. It’s impossible to read his expression.
“Roll up your sweats, please,” he says at last.
I do as he asks. The smell is ten times better. Already most the skin has knitted itself back together, and looks closer to a severe contusion than the mass of bloody, shredded flesh that it was last night.
“I believe you believe what you say is true. I believe horrible things happened to you.” Zakk balances my heel on his knee and cleans my calf. “But I’ve never heard of a place called Ater, much less a Hunter of supernatural origin.”
I swallow hard and look away.
Cool fingers tap my knee as Zakk gives me a sympathetic pat. He starts redressing my injury. “That’s not to say your story is completely insane or that what you’ve said doesn’t exist. This place”--he tightens the gauze around my calf. The instant of pain is dull and removed--“redefines weird. Even before Gen, this location’s been a mecca for the paranormal.”
“Are you familiar with ley lines?” After seeing me shake my head, he continues. “Ley lines are like ribbons of energy. People who are sensitive to psychic phenomena--people like us, yourself included--are drawn to it. Camp Genki’s administrators chose this property because of the intersection of ley lines, and because--”
The breezy echo of laughter drifts through the window. “Must be them,” Zakk murmurs, his gaze checking my bandage. Satisfied with his work, he rolls down my pant leg and rises.
“Them?” Anxiety swells but instantly, a warm cocoon envelops me, settling my nerves. Zakk winks in a way that lets me know it’s him.
“Friends. We’re all going to go to the bonfire together. Got your shoes on? Good. Do you remember what happened to you?”
His question catches me off guard as we head out of the bedroom and towards the front porch.
“I-I remember parts, like what I told you guys last night--”
He pauses. “In case anyone asks, you’re new. Unfortunately, your luggage with all your things was lost by the airline--infuriating when that happens, isn’t it?”
“And me spending the night in a boys’ cabin?”
“As far as anyone knows, you just got here this afternoon and had to spend time in the infirmary to make sure everything’s up to date. That part’s routine for any new arrival.” Zakk extends an elbow to me, and I link my arm in his. “Being the proper gentleman that I am, I’ve volunteered to show you around for the evening and get you acquainted with some people.”
“You work at the infirmary?”
“It’s a suitable place for someone with my abilities, wouldn’t you agree, my lady?”
I tilt my head at Zakk and don my best Southern accent. “Why yes, sir, I do reckon I agree.”
We step out onto the small porch. I spot Kamiron picking his way down a gravel trail. On his left saunters a tall, lithe strawberry-blond girl while on his right treads a short, slightly chubby brunette. Other teenagers amble along the trail that winds through a cluster of cabins identical to Firestarter, but none join Kamiron and the two girls.
“Who are they?”
With a grace I envy, Zakk hops off the porch and turns to help me descend the steps. My calf stings, but the discomfort is minimal. “The curly-haired one is Melissa, the one who gave you the clothes.” He nods to the redhead. “That’s Sandra, the leader of Starjungle--the cabin you’ll go to tonight. She’s Kam’s girlfriend.”
To my surprise, my heart falls. Of course someone as attractive as Kamiron is bound to have a girlfriend.
We shuffle up to meet them and I try my best to look casual and not finger the scars around my neck. I don’t want to think about how I came here, or the people I’m supposed to find. For once I just want to--
“Relax,” Zakk whispers and a heat steals into my gut, untying the icy knots that rest there. I watch Kamiron whisper to the redhead while I shyly approach.
“You must be Shari,” notes Melissa, sticking out her hand. I barely shake it, not wanting her to notice my suddenly sweaty palms.
“Thanks for the clothes, Melissa.”
“Mel.” She gazes at her black hoodie and sweats. “Fits you decent enough.”
The redhead extends her hand. “Sandra--Kamiron’s girlfriend.”
The aggressive tone in her voice, buried beneath layers of sugary sweetness, makes the hairs on my neck prickle. My eyes jump to hers. She raises her eyebrows, her blue left eye and green right eye staring at me in curiosity.
Reluctantly, I take her hand. The second my palm touches hers I hear screams that coat my veins in hoarfrost. A flash and she is platinum blond. Beneath her snarls an army of undead, their decaying flesh void of all color, their eyes the blue-white of oblivion. At her side looms a figure, his hair the shade of nightfall, cold golden eyes--
The vision fizzles as quickly as it appears. I snatch my hand from hers as my eyes trail over her throat. Her flame colored hair, dark as rusted blood, blocks any visual I could have had of a brand. She feels familiar and yet . . .
“A bit skittish, isn’t she?”
“Sandra . . .” Kamiron’s tone, softly reprimanding, yanks me back to reality. Zakk’s hand presses against my lower back, guiding me along the gravel trail that claws up a steep hill. Warmth soothes me and I smile at him, grateful.
Sandra, Kamiron, and Mel take the lead. I follow alongside Zakk, trying to take in my surroundings and failing miserably. The tree line shoulders out the setting sun and twilight settles thick and lazy over the camp. Campers about my age surround us, their faces unremarkable in the dark, their chatter riding along the warm gusts of mountain air. They pour out of cabins like ants and migrate north with singular purpose.
“How’re you holding up?”
“All these people are like you?”
“Gifted? Yeah.” Zakk’s hazel eyes look amber in the darkness.
“What does this bonfire do?”
Zakk nods to some people he knows before answering. “It’s a social gathering for our age group. It allows us to, you know, feel normal.”
Giggling, Sandra ruffles Kamiron’s messy hair before she tangles her arm around his and kisses his cheek. Again, I see her, only she’s different. Her eyes are still mismatched, but her hair is the shade of saffron. She dresses like a warrior in mail and leather. Artic blue tinges her pasty skin and blood drips from her stiletto-sharp nails.
“Exactly what can she do?”
Zakk’s gaze trails over to Sandra and his lips tighten. “She’s a vampire.”
At first I think he’s joking, but when he doesn’t say anything further, horror fills me. “She drinks blood?”
Zakk laughs. “Forgive me. I should have said she’s a psychic vampire. Basically, instead of drinking blood, she drinks people’s energy. She taps into it and gets a quick pick-me-up.”
I shudder. “Does she do that to you?”
His expression darkens. “She’d better not.”
We follow Kamiron to a wide concrete avenue that weaves through log-cabin style buildings. An East Asian ambiance influences the campgrounds. Tōrō, stone lanterns that squat low to the ground, outline the pathway in soft light. Every now and again I find inscriptions of wisdom or insight chiseled onto serpentine plaques. Statues made of iron, bronze, and limestone form cranes, nine-tailed foxes, and koi, which hide in Camp Genki’s cultivated meadows. This place doesn’t seem like the stereotypical “summer camp” with hiking, swimming and crafts. Instead Camp Genki feels methodic, fabricated. Like one of those celebrity rehab centers that masquerade as vacation retreats.
Then again, I’ve never been to a camp for psychic kids or even knew that such a place existed. Until now, it had always seemed like something out of a science fiction novel.
I spot dusky smoke curling into the sky long before we reach the bonfire. The aroma of earth, flame and roasting marshmallows saturates my nose. Above, stars glimmer like chips of quartz in an indigo sky. The quarter moon’s diluted glow tangles in the canopy of leaves, and only a few moonbeams manage to trickle down to the ground in sporadic, silver patches.
There was no moon in Ater. The memory feels like gossamer strands of hair against my cheek and I shake it away. You aren’t in Ater anymore, Shari. Focus on that.
Red spruce and pine trees part as we enter a round, level field. In the center, a giant fire growls inside a sunken brick pit and competes with the buzzing cacophony of whispers and laughs that reverberate throughout the night. Groups of teenagers huddle around the bonfire in a semicircle, stretching out on beach blankets, worn logs and fold-out plastic chairs. Their smiling, carefree faces are ignorant of the danger that stalks the night and I squirm. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen so many people in one area, at least not while they’re still alive. I feel like an interloper who has crashed an exclusive party.
Excusing us, Kamiron takes my elbow and steers me away from the others.
“So Sandra wants to sit with our friends.” His tongue darts out over his lower lip. “You can join us, but . . .”
At his hesitation, my heart flops. Can I blame him? Who’d want to sit with a crazy like me, anyway?
I dip my chin in a terse nod. “I’ll manage, don’t worry.” I tug my elbow from his grasp and look away so he can’t see my disappointment.
“It’s cool, amigo. Z and I will keep her company.”
Startled, I turn to find Hamilton strolling towards us, looking as stunning as ever in wrinkled jeans and a polo shirt with the collar popped. He studiously ignores the appreciative glances of every girl within a twenty-foot radius and halts beside me, close enough that our arms almost touch. My heart makes a funny thumping sound and heat flares against my cheeks. Relief ripples across Kamiron’s features and he claps Hamilton on the shoulder before beating a hasty retreat. “I owe you, man!” he calls over his shoulder.
“Am I that bad to be around?” I mutter darkly.
Hamilton snorts and guides me to a log Zakk has commandeered for us. “Don’t take it personally. Kam’s just whipped.”
I purse my lips.
“Sandra keeps a pretty tight leash on him. She’s the jealous type--doesn’t like him around other girls.”
I glance across the clearing as Kamiron and Sandra settle in with their faction. “She’s beautiful. I don’t see why she would be jealous of anyone.”
“You can’t read her mind?”
“No, thank God.”
Despite myself, I snicker. “I take it you don’t like her much.”
We plop down beside Zakk who passes us a couple s’mores before resuming his conversation with Melissa. Hamilton lowers his voice so that only I can hear.
“She’s nice--a little too nice for me, yanno?” His peculiar violet eyes turn to the crackling flames. “It’s hard to place, but she just seems fake.”
I grunt in agreement and take a bite of my s’more. Chocolate-marshmallowy goodness melts in my mouth and I nearly purr. I’ve had next to nothing to eat all day. “Sorry I kept you up last night. I didn’t realize you had an exam.”
“Our examinations aren’t really a big deal.”
“What did you have to do?”
Hamilton doesn’t answer. Instead his head inclines and a hush settles over the campers. I look up to find Dace slouched in front of the flames. He shakes his shaggy blonde hair out of his eyes and his square lenses refract the firelight, obscuring his blue irises.
“How’s it goin’?” His voice filters through the night, casual and playful. He struts around the fire pit, the picture of easy confidence. “Another bonfire, another night of ghost stories, and I’ve got an oldie but goodie for you fine ladies and gents: The Legend of Andhakar Lake.”
I tilt back my head. Something about that name strikes a dark cord, like cobwebs brushing against my neck, but I push the feeling aside. “Sounds like these bonfires happen regularly.”
Hamilton stretches his long legs. “Every month.”
“Month? Exactly how long do you guys stay at Camp Genki?”
To my left, Zakk grimaces. “The entire summer. Some stay for less, but they’re usually the ones with minor abilities.”
“Or los niños,” Hamilton adds. “Most us older kids are stuck here the full term.”
“You make it seem like you’re doing prison time.”
Hamilton’s expression turns bitter. “We kinda are, chica.”
Dace disappears behind a curtain of flame though I can still hear his disembodied voice. “So does he do this often?”
Zakk’s mouth twitches. “Dace loves attention.”
“And I’m sure you’ve noticed he likes to talk,” Hamilton snorts.
“--Already know what makes Camp Gen so special,” Dace smirks, “Aside from weirdoes like us, that is.”
Heads bob in agreement and it strikes me: Camp Genki is these people’s only refuge, their only medium for exploring their unique gifts. I now understand Hamilton’s bitterness. To spend summer after summer being studied like a lab animal only to go home and be an outcast . . . I rub my arms, grateful for my hoodie despite the warm night. I’m all too familiar with what it’s like for people who are different.
“But it’s Gen’s location that’s prime real estate. It’s optimal for paranormal activity and while that makes our freakish abilities a bit stronger, it also links this place to several bizarre tragedies.” Dace paces in front of the bonfire methodically. “Perchton and the wildlife preserve border our camp, but something else surrounds us: Five of the oldest graveyards in the county. During the colonial days, towns were planned and measured along a grid so it’s no surprise that the distance between Perchton’s five cemeteries are equal.
“But here’s the odd thing: if you drew a line linking each cemetery’s location, you’d form a perfect five-pointed star. Factor in the old railroad tracks and you have yourself a pentagram--with Camp Genki in the middle and Lake Andy at the exact center.”
Lake Andy, the fenced off, derelict place where I found myself, is the exact center of a pentagram? Chills curl up my spine at the thought.
“Perchton’s a hotbed of paranormal activity and Camp Genki seems it’s mecca, but Gen wasn’t always here. What about the period before, when this camp was called Camp Andy? And why is it, decades later, Lake Andy remains off-limits?”
Firewood pops and belches firefly embers into the night. Moonlight breaks over the tips of the red spruce and soaks the clearing in ethereal silver.
“Back then, Camp Andy was just an ordinary summer camp with ordinary campers--or so it seemed until the night when a boy drowned in Lake Andy. According to his friends, the boy was lured to the lake.”
Dace stops pacing and his gaze roams over his audience until they land on me. A brief, acknowledging smirk twists the corner of his mouth. “Lured by a creature with golden eyes and hair the color of twilight. A creature that constantly appeared in the boy’s dreams. A creature the boy called ‘Andhakar.’”
My breath catches. Andhakar. Uneasiness settles low in my stomach, souring the remains of my s’more. A headache starts to throb dull and slow behind my left temple.
That name . . .
Part of the viscous haze that clings to my memories dissolves, revealing rectangular pupils and golden eyes that blink at me while I cower, shackled to the clawed feet of an iron throne.
I swipe a hand down my face to banish the disturbing image.
Once more Dace disappears behind a curtain of fire, but his voice continues to haunt the night. “The native people of this region, the Cherokee, had stories about this area. Whispers that it’s cursed. They said that Andhakar, a golden-eyed entity who wore the form of a man but was from another realm, haunted these lands. He could cross into our world at spots where the bridge between our realm and his was its strongest--spots like Lake Andy.”
Dace reappears, rounding the curve of a dense cloud of smoke. He clasps his hands behind his back. “Of course, at that time the lake wasn’t called Lake Andy. The Cherokee referred to it as Lake Andhakar, named after the malicious creature that stalked its banks. The tribespeople tried countless rituals to cleanse their home of Andhakar’s taint, but nothing worked. Even though Andhakar only seemed to venture forth one night every few weeks, each time he visited tribespeople died or simply vanished.”
Despite the heat pouring off the bonfire, I feel colder and colder as Dace’s ghost story progresses.
“Finally the elders intervened. Realizing this supernatural menace was one their warriors could not fight and was particularly resistant to their cleansing rituals, the elders turned to four of their best shamans. Delving into the spirit world, the shamans performed a binding ritual that sealed Andhakar within his realm and ultimately saved their tribe.”
Dace’s voice turns wistful as if lost in a trance. “But nothing lasts forever, does it?”
Hamilton rests a hand on my knee. I can sense his concern and I offer a placating smile but avoid looking at him.
“While the shamans’ spell couldn’t be broken, there was one caveat: the chains binding Andhakar to his realm are weakest when the moon is dark. If a willing sacrifice is offered to Lake Andhakar the seal will crack and allow Andhakar to once more walk our plane.”
A sick serpent wiggles into my belly and coils there. The boy that drowned. His death must have been during a new moon and it allowed for The Darkness-That-Hunts to cross.
I glance around at the horde of trees, expecting to find Andhakar and his legion skulking towards us. All I notice are campers whispering and munching on snacks while they listen to Dace. A movement across the clearing captures my attention and I catch Sandra watching me. When she realizes I see her, she flashes a smile and her green eye winks.
The dull crunch of bone beneath a sharp heel. A narrowed green eye. A woman rasping, drawing her last, blood-filled breath--
Hamilton’s fingernails dig into my knee and I bite my lip, fighting back the images. Last thing I need is to have a psychotic break in such a public place.
“For decades, the shamans’ spell protected Earth from Andhakar--until the white man showed up. Colonists chased most the Cherokee out of their lands. Settlers dismissed the lake’s history as the mere ‘myths of a savage.’ They founded Perchton, and decided to build a summer retreat for the children of wealthy families. Shooing away talk of cursed lands and supernatural creatures, Lake Andhakar was quickly Americanized to Lake Andy and became the centerpiece of the prosperous camp.
“But with the advent of the boy’s drowning, Camp Andy saw a spike in unexplained deaths and disappearances. Rumors of occult practices, demonology, and hauntings brought bad press to the affluent retreat. Most parents pulled their children out but even away from the camp, these kids continued to vanish.”
For a moment, Dace falls silent and watches as the fire chews on wedges of charred wood. No one whispers now, and all eyes follow Dace’s every movement, hypnotized by the story he weaves.
“Finally, four friends devised a plan. They suspected the myth surrounding Lake Andy was more than an ancient legend and, like the four shamans before them, the friends uncovered a way into Andhakar’s realm. They left to stop him.” Again, Dace’s gaze captures mine. “They never returned.”
I don’t know whether it’s the tangle of firelight and shadow across his features, but for a split second a ghostly vestige with bronze features superimposes Dace’s face. The spectral presence examines me with disinterest but once I blink, it vanishes.
Dace removes his glasses, scrubs the smudges from the lenses with the edge of his shirt and replaces them. “However neither did Andhakar. Many believe the four companions destroyed him. Others say they continue to fight to this day.” Dace lowers his voice, as if letting us in on a shocking conspiracy. “A few even believe that Andhakar won and currently bides his time, building an army to overrun our world.”
Silence saturates the clearing, heavy and hot. I jump when a log snaps in half and belches a cloud of smoke and heat into the air.
“What’s officially known is that Camp Andy was abandoned ’til the parapsychology lab at Duke University got wind of its psychic significance and started the little operation you and me see today. As for the Legend of Andhakar Lake . . .” Dace sighs and shrugs.
“Maybe it really is just a myth, a scary yarn to spin in front of campfires. But ask yourself this: if it’s just a story, why does Lake Andy remain off-limits to this day? Is it just because Genki’s administration is overly paranoid, or is it possible that maybe--just maybe--the Legend of Andhakar Lake is true? Maybe the truth they don’t want us to know is that Andhakar’s out there beyond the fog of Lake Andy, watching us and waiting. Biding his time.”
Silence stretches for three heartbeats before applause, hoots, and whistles roar louder than the fire. Dace takes a theatrical bow, his features gleaming with pride.
And surprisingly blurry.
Zakk shouts my name repeatedly but his voice sounds faint and slow and cavernous. I’m vaguely aware of the pressure from Hamilton’s arms as they encircle me, trying to anchor me to reality, but I’m already weightless, floating up and up. Heaving mist engulfs me. It feels like foam and bubbles. Somewhere far away, my body is spasming, but my attention is on the mist. It parts, revealing a hazy gateway to my fragmented memories. Before I can protest, I’m sinking through.