The Princess and the Key, Chapter One: A Stray Feather
: ABRAHAM :
The Princess and the Key
Chapter One: A Stray Feather
We are all just stray fathers,
Floating on the wind,
Which one of us will fall first?
Alex was in darkness. She had been for the past few weeks. Every night, as she slept, clouds rolled in. They suffocated her, pressured her, and crushed her underneath. No matter how hard she pushed she couldn’t lift the sky.
While lying flat against the ground she would hear it—the Voice. It shook the foundations of the world with each mighty word. Sometimes it sounded like a sledge hammer cracking stone. Other times it sounded like the gentle movements of the sea. Always, it was larger than life.
It told her the same thing night after night. “A storm is coming, and you are at its center. Trust not false friends and false lovers. Trust not illusions of peace. There is an enemy in your midst, and only you can stop them.”
It was prophetic, she knew, but hollow. Every morning she woke with her skin clammy and her heart banging hard against her ribs, and she couldn’t remember a thing except for the shadows and the weight of it all.
Her roommate woke her this day. Alex could hardly hear her over the roll of thunder that was the voice. She didn’t wake until Ellen shook her. Then, she shot up right into the ceiling and then fell back down, cringing and clutching her head.
“Alex! Are you okay?”
“I’m so sorry, I was just trying…”
“What do you want?”
“Well, I was just thinking you might want to go to class.”
“When does class start?”
“Oh…” Ellen looked back at the alarm clock. “About five minutes ago.”
Alex rolled from the bed and landed lithely on the ground before becoming a whirlwind of motion. Ellen watched in shock as Alex stripped her clothes, threw on what both girls hoped were clean clothes, grabbed an old banana from the top of the mini-fridge and then rushed out the door with a brief and hurried, “Thanks.”
Ellen shook her head but smiled. This was their routine now. Alex always slept in. Ellen always woke her, or she at least tried to. Her success rate wasn’t flattering. They were paired off as roommates earlier that year and over that time built up something of a friendship, with Ellen being clearly more invested. Still, Ellen liked Alex.
She grabbed the clothes Alex left on the floor and threw them into the dirty clothes. Then, she grabbed a towel and her shower caddy. Today was her day off from classes, and while she did have some errands to run, she wanted to take the day at a leisurely pace and enjoy it.
After her shower Ellen put on a plain t-shirt, a pink jacket, grey sweat pants, and her favorite yellow tennis shoes and then left the dorms. She took headphones and a music player with her and sifted through her music until she found something that suited her mood.
It was sunny out, early spring, and the sky was clear and blue. The chill of winter faded slowly and struggled into mid-morning. Once a week, Ellen walked to the local grocery store. She could drive, but she enjoyed the exercise and found this to be her form of meditation. It was a private joy, and the ritual of it was comforting.
The air warmed as she walked, and by arrival she had stripped her jacket and wrapped it firmly about her waist. The school she and Alex went to was a small community college of little notoriety. The town, while small, hardly seemed to notice its presence. They kept the campus tucked discreetly in the corner where the students living there couldn’t get into too much trouble.
The dormitories were isolated even from that. It was a small building in the shape of a T and housed both men and women, though they were kept to separate halls. There were few spaces. Members of their official teams—the Ostriches and Lady Ostriches—got the first spots. Everyone else had to get lucky.
After doing some light shopping, Ellen made her return with a single bag in hand. Outside of the shopping mart there was a steep hill leading up to an open field. Her return journey would take her through a small apartment complex and then across a soccer field that the school rented out to a local micro-soccer league. The sun was out now, shining bright and warm, and Ellen smiled and embraced it.
She didn’t know what the day would bring, but she was excited to find out.
: The Princess and the Key :
Meanwhile, on campus, Alex just reached the library. The H. James Library, built in 1987, was a small, square building that housed a rather unimpressive assortment of texts and a few old computers. Large windows granted a view of the library’s interior. The rest of the building was made of up student advisors and classrooms.
She sprinted across the brick walk way and into the glossy interior. The halls were empty, a bad sign indicating how tardy she was. In the foyer she had to stop to catch her breath and rest her legs. They felt like jelly from the short jog over.
The class started at eleven in the morning. Alex woke at eleven o’ five—a mistake she was repeated with increasing frequency. She had considered dropping the class but feared how her parents would react. Getting an education didn’t mean much to her, but it meant the world to them, and she didn’t want to keep disappointing them.
After regaining her breath, she started running again, hoping to arrive early enough to find her teacher’s good graces.
: The Princess and the Key :
Miles away, in the heart of the town, Van sat alone in a darkened room. He stared at the large, oak desk in front of him. Though he couldn’t see them, worn books and scattered pages were spread out before him. He started his mornings this way, and he ended his nights this way.
This was his daily routine, his meditation. His life was so full of experience that everything felt like it was on constant repeat. He clearly recalled the loss of his childhood home, the death of his family and his sister, the disappearance of his wife, and each morning he remembered them all over again. It always led him to the same conclusion, and the same questions.
“How ethical would it be for me to use Isaac?”
Van’s son, Isaac, was undoubtedly strong of mind and body. He took after Van in many ways. They shared the same hair, the same youthful face, the same lean figure, the same quick mind. The only difference was in the darkness of Isaac’s skin and the color of his eyes—both legacies of his missing mother.
Isaac was something of a prodigy, as Van was proud to admit. He started training almost from birth and excelled. In only a few short years he could hear the Voice. Not long after that he could understand it, comprehend it, and eventually came to harness it. In time, Van expected Isaac’s brilliance to surpass even his own.
What Van needed was a pawn, though, not a prodigy. Regardless, he needed a legacy as even more, and Isaac was the best option. The only thing keeping Van were his lingering regrets, and even those could not sustain him for long. Soon, he would follow his family into the void.
He put his glasses on and turned on the lamp. Shortly after, the door to his private office opened and light spilled in. Van winced and looked at his son, who stood in the doorway like a picture of days long past.
“What,” Van grunted while sifting through his papers and putting them into neat piles on the desk.
“I feel something,” Isaac said. He paused to search for the right words. “Something’s wrong, something that doesn’t belong here.”
Van nodded. He moved stiffly, far too stiffly for someone of his age. He scooped up a large, old book and licked his finger before flipping it open to a specific page. “Isaac, have you heard the myth of the Princess and the Key?”
“What,” Isaac asked. He stepped into the room proper and said, “No.”
Isaac smiled humorlessly. “Then I have quite the story for you. You see, once upon a time there was a palace that floated through the sky. It was a place known to connect the hearts of the people with the heart of God…”
: The Princess and the Key :
The incline of the hill was always sharper than she remembered and partway up she started to feel a burn. Her breathing increased, sweat built up across her flesh and, as usual, she came to regret an early morning shower before her walk, but she figured another shower couldn’t hurt.
She kept walking, forcing one step after another and using her music to distract her from her shortening breath. At the top of the hill she came to a stop before a long, winding road that led to the back of the grocery store for deliveries. There were no cars, so she hurried across and started her trek through the empty field ahead.
On the way she met a thicket of spindly, black winter-worn trees. A gentle breeze rattled the branches and made the rising grass around it sway. Ellen entered the thicket without a thought and was nearly through when she came to a stop. In her peripheral she spotted something—something large, black, and hiding in the bushes.
Her first instinct was to stop and run, but when it didn’t react to her, she decided to hurry on by and hope it wasn’t dangerous. She was out of thicket and halfway to the duplexes when her curiosity got the better of it. Whatever it was, it didn’t react to her at all. So, she returned to examine it, the mystery having hooked her like the poor little fish she was.
Looking straight at it she found its details became more defined, and once she stood over it she saw that it wasn’t a creature at all. It was a small child, a girl to be precise. Ellen couldn’t tell how old she was, just that she was very, very small. Her hair, dark like a crow’s feather, was long enough to be wrapped around her like a cocoon, and her skin, while caked with dirt, was pale as a moon light.
Ellen kneeled down and poked the girl, who didn’t respond. Then, Ellen rolled her carefully onto her back and made sure she was breathing. She was, thankfully, but that left Ellen with a decision to make.
She looked around anxiously, as if she were to be scolded, and then scooped the girl up in her arms. She was even smaller than she looked, Ellen found, and lighter, too. Ellen stood and turned, and she took the girl with her back to the dorm.
: The Princess and the Key :
Things had changed since Riis was last here. There were streets now, and cars, blaring their horns at one another and at her. She passed by without a care, ignoring them as they screeched to a halt before her. She didn’t fear them
She moved like a wolf, her tall, wiry frame being lithe. Her hair was short and her face long and looking more boyish than feminine. She carried herself like a soldier though or at least someone who has seen death. She seemed assured, and her eyes were crazed.
People stared as she passed by, but she looked past them and through them. She just kept walking and wore a thin, vicious smile. It was like a gash cut across her face. From all the way across town she could feel them, and they were all that mattered. Everyone else was white noise, insects surrounding and offending her.
The air was acrid and greasy and the buildings taller and sturdier than she remembered. The people were weak and soft. They weren’t deserving of life. Even those of merit were untrained and untested. They bore potential and little else to speak of.
She wanted more and searched the crevices and caverns of the city. She called out to people’s souls and listened to them. In the dark recesses she found two more. One was a wealth of knowledge and power—the one she had been warned about. The other was weaker and younger, but he was skilled in his own right.
They made her hungry for violence and death, but they still weren’t right.
She searched longer and deeper, and after what felt like an eternity found it. It was small and shaken, and it was very lonely and confused, but it shined brightly in the darkness. It was somewhere far off, but it was there, and it was not alone.
Riis turned toward the school, her hands in her pockets, and her heart set on blood.
: The Princess and the Key :
And living in the castle was a Princess. It was her duty to watch over the people and communicate their wants, their needs, to God. In a way, she spoke to the earth and translated their words for the heavens to hear.
: The Princess and the Key :
Alex sat in the back. She always sat in the back. The students in the front drew too much attention. Her goal was to avoid attention as much as possible.
When she first started college, the semester before, she was a decent student. She arrived at classes in a timely manner, and she put forth minimal effort. That was enough. Even though she didn’t excel, she survived. Few asked for more out of her, and she liked it that way.
Her second semester started very much the same but took a sharp turn early on. She was never much of a mathematician, nor a scientist or historian, and she had no illusions of that. School was for her parents. Her focus was and would remain elsewhere.
Of all of her classes, Alex assumed philosophy would be the easiest. Then she started missing days, and that quickly caught up with her. The teacher, a handsome middle-aged man with a thick head of hair and kind eyes, grew tired of her games early on. Her late arrival that day was not met with understanding but with growing ire.
Alex sat in the library and waited for the webpage to load. She was slumped in her chair, her dark hair draped over her face like blinders, and her arms over her chest. Everything about her kept the world at bay.
She had one chance to pass the class: an essay. Her teacher told her that he felt like she didn’t have direction, that she didn’t know who she was or what she wanted. He was right, but what he didn’t know was that it didn’t matter to Alex. So, when he assigned her an essay about the meaning of life, she wouldn’t contemplate these things. She would just do the research and turn something in because she had to pass. She had to keep her parent’s from worrying.
The computer didn’t load. No matter how long she waited it simply didn’t move. Growing tired of it, she finally decided to grab a couple of books and do it the old fashion way. She left the library with her arms full and walked straight into another student. He stood solid, as if she were a light breeze. She landed hard on her rump and let the books tumble to the ground around her.
“Oh, I’m sorry, wasn’t paying attention,” he said. His voice was smooth and attractive, and his face was just the same. He had a boyish charm and bright green eyes, and when he smiled it felt like a sunrise.
Alex normally wasn’t one to fawn over cute boys but staring up at him she couldn’t help but blush. “No, it’s my fault,” she said while getting to her knees. She gathered her things with his help. Their hands met and a small shock ran through her fingers, running up her smile and forming a small smile on her face. She hid it behind her hair and avoided eye contact.
No one made her feel this way. No one pulled her into the present and made her feel real, but this boy wasn’t like anyone. He had a strange air about him, something that aroused and intrigued her. She couldn’t explain it, but he felt different from the world around him. He felt special.
They stood in silence until Alex said, “I couldn’t see over my books.” It all came out in one word.
He laughed in a way that was both polite but sincere. “I understand. I was kind of lost in my own world, too. So, no hard feelings,” he said. Then he moved past her, almost as if in slow motion. She was awed by the fluidity of his movements. In fact, she was completely mesmerized.
He turned and gave her a small wave. “It was nice meeting you, and keep an eye out, yeah?” Then he turned and left.
Alex watched him go, clutching her books to her breast. Then, she shook her head and pushed those strange feelings down. There was something odd about that boy, and she didn’t like how much she liked it.
The return to the dorms was made in a cloud of irritated confusion. Her life was already in ruins, with dreams plaguing her every night and an essay making matters worse. She didn’t have time to consider a charming stranger with bright eyes and a brighter smile.
A smile that reminded her of her dreams, she realized. Somehow, thinking about him conjured up forgotten things. Her dreams came back to her in greater detail. There was more to them than darkness, than pressure. There was a Voice thick as lumber that rattled her bones.
That is where her thoughts were when she entered the dorms, and they distracted her as she passed through the lobby. Her room was the first door to the right in the girl’s hall, and it was what drew her from her reverie. Specifically, it was a note pinned to the door. It was from an old friend who wanted to talk.
Alex sighed and pocketed the note. It was just one more trouble for her already chaotic life. She balanced her books in one hand and wriggled the door open, and she just could only just close it before the books came tumbling down. She bit back a curse.
Ellen was there to greet her, dressed in a t-shirt and sweats, with her curly blond hair tied back into a ponytail. There was also a tiny girl behind her with long, long black hair and skin so pale it could have been pigmented by light. Ellen was trying to shove the little girl under the bed.
Alex tried to speak but words failed her. All she managed was, “What—I—Who—Ellen?”
Ellen stopped and turned. She had adopted the not-so-innocent look of a child with her hand in the cookie jar. “She’s my…Cousin? Yeah, she’s my cousin!” Ellen looked at the little girl, who had lost interest in hiding and took to digging through their dressers. “And her name is…”
“Abraham,” the girl said. Her voice was as small as she was, but her smile was huge. She found a pair of socks and held them stretched between her tiny hands. “Means father of many.” She ran her large, brown eyes over her find and then turned her smile on them.
Alex look between them and settled her gaze on Ellen, and she crossed her arms. “Your cousin? Abraham.”
Ellen nodded, emphatically, and gave the girl a hug. The girl, to her credit, abandoned the socks and returned the embrace heartily. “Yes, my cousin Abraham. We’re tight. Real tight. Tight as two peas in a pod, I tell you. Two peas in a pod that been tied up in string really, really tightly. You know, we’re more like siblings. Or twins. We’re inseparable.”
Alex shook her head. “And you were trying to hide her under our bunk bed because?”
Ellen smiled uneasily. “Because I…Well, it’s a funny story.”
A knock at the door and Alex glanced back. When she returned her attention to them Abraham had somehow vaulted onto the bottom bunk, which stood almost as tall as her. She had the socks in her hands again and was turning them inside out.
Alex grumbled, and she looked through the peep hole. A tiny blonde with a pixie-cut stood waiting in the hall, one hand on her hip and chewing the nails on her other hand. It was Carolyne, the friend who needed to talk.
Sighing, Alex took the time to gather her books and stack them on her desk. Then, she fixed Ellen with a glare. “We’ll finish this later,” she said, and she slipped out into the hall.