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The sound of Derek’s beating heart, the evening breeze, and the crackling fire faded at that moment, when the eyes of this hideous beast did the last thing Derek ever wanted: its eyes met his own. This story ties directly to book two in my ongoing novel series: "The Circle of the Lycans".

Thriller / Fantasy
Age Rating:


“IS SOMEONE THERE!?” Derek’s voice echoed throughout the evening silence. The oak leaves above bristled in the wind, oblivious to the young man’s cries below. His limped form hobbled over to one of the nearby trees and caught it to keep from collapsing. He rested a shoulder against it, drinking gulps and gulps of air as beads of sweat ran down his cheeks and into his eyes. He closed his eyes, wiped them, and tried to calm himself, but his stubborn lungs refused and demanded more oxygen.

He placed a hand over his abdomen and winced as lighting shot through his side. It took all his strength to stay put and keep from falling over. After the pain softened from a burning sensation to a bearable throb, he gazed down at his side. He lifted his hand to see a large, wet, red stain bleeding through his t-shirt, growing wider and wider.

“Damn it,” he mumbled, clamping the wound again as another wave of pain crashed through. He raised his head towards the distance where the other mountains and the rest of the forest below sat peacefully. The few rays of the dying sun leaked over the mountain peaks, turning the sky a violent orange that grew fainter at each passing second. Already he could see the ivory of the crescent moon begin to shine above.

Derek’s eyes found the wooden shack he’d seen right after he crashed; right after he’d woken up to the searing pain in his right leg and the waves of it in his side.

He cupped his mouth with his free hand. “HEY!!!” he hollered. “IS ANYONE THERE!?”

His voiced carried through the night as he waited for a reply, yet only a breeze and his hopeless echoes answered back. Damn it! he thought. Somebody answer! He pushed off the tree and hobbled towards the shack. “PLEASE!!!” he yelled. “I’VE BEEN IN AN ACCIDENT!”

He moved at a semi-quick pace, eager to reach the shack, but not eager enough to cause another massive spasm of pain, if he could help it. He trudged forward, with sudden gasps every time a new wave raced through his body, but still he moved.

The evening grew darker as he neared the shack. When he was half a football field’s length away, the last rays of dusk sank over the horizon, and the moon and stars took its place.

I can make it. Just one foot after the other. One foot after the other. One foot–another sudden gasp of pain–after the other. Just a few yards left. But each yard felt like a mile; three, like five.

When he reached the porch, he fell against the wooden door, gasping.

You did it. A grim smile came to his lips. After taking another breath, he banged a fist against the dark door that stank of pine.

“Please,” he struggled to say, “open up. I’m hurt. I’m hurt real bad. Please!”

Without waiting for an answer, he felt for the doorknob and turned it. The door swung inward with a resentful creak. Derek almost fell forward with it, but managed to catch the frame with his shoulder, keeping him in place.

“Wuh?” he gasped as he was greeted by an empty, dusty, lonesome interior. What little light that streamed through the two windows flanking the door revealed a small wooden table with four chairs blanketed in dust, a single light bulb with a chain and a fan above, a narrow hallway across from where he stood that led to three or four rooms–or so he guessed, it was too dark to tell–a small fireplace to his left with an iron stove next to it and a cobwebbed counter with a sink and few cabinets.

Oh, no. His head sank with a groan. The freaking place is abandoned!?

What the hell was he supposed to do now? Pain jabbed his side. A warm and moist feeling began to seep between his clamped fingers.

“Right,” he grunted. He closed the door behind him and limped forward down the hall, hoping to find a bathroom. If he was lucky, there might be an old first aid kit lying around. He dragged a hand along the left wall until he felt the cold touch of brass beneath his palm–the first door. He clasped the handle and pushed it open. Inside he saw a small bedroom but didn’t pause to take anything else in aside from the bed. He moved on. His entire focus was on a way to stop the bleeding and pain; a bed wouldn’t help. His eyes had adjusted to the dark when he reached the next door. He pushed it opened. He saw nothing at first–just a dark void and a set of steps leading downwards.

“Oh, hell no,” he grunted, slamming the door shut. He moved onto the next one, this time on the opposite wall. He pushed it open. He let out a huge sigh of relief when he saw a tiled floor, a porcelain bathtub and toilet, and a small counter with a mirror cabinet above it.

He wasted no time limping over to the cabinet. He flung it open, half-expecting to see nothing but dust and cobwebs, but, to his surprise, it was clean. A few glass bottles containing strange dark liquids, that he didn’t even try to guess the names of, lined the shelf along with some tweezers, and–he smiled as he reached out for it–an old bandage roll.

Just what the doctor ordered. He sat on top of the toilet lid which, oddly enough, looked like it’d been cleaned yesterday. He pulled up his white shirt and wrapped the bandage around his abdomen. He gritted his teeth as he wrapped one layer, two layers, three layers, four layers…

When he no longer saw crimson soaking through, he stopped, and tore off the end from the roll.

“Thank you,” he whispered. He leaned his head back with a sigh, closing his eyes. His side still hurt like hell, and he knew he’d have to undo it to clean the wound later–assuming he ever found water–but at least he didn’t have to worry about bleeding out anytime soon. He drew in another long breath before sitting up and opening his eyes. He still had another problem to deal with: getting home.

He got up and limped back to the kitchen, then to one of the windows. He wiped the dust off the panel and peered out. While the landscape wasn’t as bright with a full moon, he could still make out the trees and mountains. His lips curled into a frown when he spotted the steep slope he’d fallen from. He wondered how he’d ever get back up there given his condition, and whether his bicycle had somehow survived the fall. He doubted it.

His eyes focused on the windowpane itself where he saw his battered reflection gazing back. Red lines and scratches peppered his cheeks and forehead, a thin layer of dirt and dust coated his lips (had to love old houses for that), his short dark hair was disheveled and scraggily. He grimaced when he saw a few twigs sticking out of it, which he combed out with his hand. The darkness of the night made his irises look black instead of almond. Least they aren’t bloodshot, he thought. In short, he looked like crap.

He closed his eyes and lowered his head with a sigh. “What am I going to do?” he whispered.

Before he could think of an answer, he heard a small thud, and the familiar clank of a latch.

“Huh?” he grunted. He spun around. The hallway was dark, all its doors closed. Wait, closed? Funny. He could’ve sworn he’d left the door to the bathroom open.

He took a step towards the hall, then paused, and listened. After several seconds of silence passed, he relaxed and chuckled. It’s an old house. It’s got drafts, you idiot.

He smiled to himself, then looked up towards the small hanging light. He reached up and gave the chain a small tug.


The bulb remained dark.

“Hmm,” he grumbled. “No surprise there.”


Derek’s eyes flew back to the hallway to see the cellar door ajar.

What the hell? He stared at the open doorway. How had that opened?

He limped over to the edge of the doorframe and peered around it. A dark empty abyss sat on the other side.

“Okay,” he murmured, then closed the door. “That’s creepy.”


“What the–!?” He jumped, then spun around. The door to the bathroom hung inwards, light spilling out of its doorway.

Derek blinked a few times, trying to process what he beheld. He took a hesitant step towards the door then peeked in.

His jaw fell.

“No way,” he gasped.

His mind had to be playing tricks on him. The bathroom light was on, the cupboard closed, the mirror clean, and the tub looked like it’d been made yesterday, only now it had a rack with curtains surrounding it. The only thing that hadn’t changed was the toilet, which still looked freakishly clean.

Derek stepped inside not believing his eyes. “What the heck is this?” he murmured.


Derek jumped as the door slammed behind him.

“Hey!” he shouted, spinning around. He threw open the door.

“Stop doing that you piece of–!” the words died in his throat. His eyes grew wide. He stepped into the hallway, looking left then right then left again. The hall was–somehow–bright. Lit. Clean. He could see each individual door, along with three other doors he’d missed seeing at the end of the hall, due to the dark. Above him, several lights, he’d not known were there, burned, illuminating the night.

“Wuh-buharura-huh?” was all that came from Derek’s mouth. Before he could begin to comprehend what had happened, his ears picked up the sound of crackling. His eyes flicked towards the front entrance where an orange light danced and washed the brown walls. A warmness slithered into the hallway.

Again, what the hell is going on? He edged to the mouth of the hall where the kitchen sat.

When he reached the corner, he poked his head in. His arms turned rigid. The kitchen counter, the table, the chairs, and the stove were spotless. Flames roared in the fireplace, chasing away the cool mountainous air and filling the room with a gleeful warmth.

For several minutes, Derek stood at the hallway corner at a loss for words.

A hysterical laugh left his lips. “Okay, heh-heh,” he said. “I’M OUT!”

He rushed to the front door, grabbed the knob, and yanked it open.

Only, it didn’t.

“What!?” he cried. He tried again. “Open!”

He grabbed the knob with both hands and yanked. The door didn’t budge, not even a centimeter.

“Oh, hell no! I ain’t doing Cabin in the Woods! Open!” he demanded.


For what felt like the millionth time, Derek spun around.

His stomach felt queasy when he saw the sound’s source: the door at the very end of the hallway slowly swung open.

“Oh, God,” he begged, backing into the door. “Please-please-please-please no Redrum shit.”

Beads of sweat rolled down his forehead as his eyes stayed fixed on the open door. His hands twitched, and his heart began to pound.


A vein twitched on his forehead as the minutes dragged by.

The hall remained empty.

After another few seconds of nothingness, Derek took a reluctant breath and opened his mouth.

“Uh…h-hello?” he sputtered. “Is-is someone there?”

The fireplace continued to crackle and pop like Rice Krispies as he waited for an answer.

“W-well, look,” he began again, “if someone is there, please come out. Because I am hurt, and I cannot handle this right now. And if this is some sort of joke you’re pulling, you suck at living, cause, again, I’m hurt, and I need to get to a freaking hospital, and you’ve done nothing!”

Anger began to take the place of fear. He took a step forward. “So, if there is someone there, come out…NOW!” he yelled.

When no one did, his fear melted into resentment and Derek paced forward.

“I’ve had a shitty day,” he said, the anger clear in his voice, “and the last thing I need is to come and find some sick joker at some rickety old shack,” he stepped into the doorway, “too high off his own laughs to–” the words died in his throat.

In the twenty-five years of his life, Derek had rarely ever been stunned or awed by anything to make him mute, yet today had been nothing but one surprise after another. What he saw now took the cake.

He stepped into another bedroom, similar to the one he’d seen earlier. Like the other rooms, it too was pristine. A burgundy bed with clean diamond pattern sheets sat in the center of the room, flanked by two windows. A mahogany dresser sat snug in the back corner, lustrous in the light, along with a vanity and a mirror.

But Derek’s attention blew past all of it. Of their own accord, his legs carried him to the window. The sound of laughter and roaring of flames filled his ears as he pressed a hand against the glass and leaned closer.

“This can’t be real, this can’t be real… This. Cannot. Be. Real,” he mumbled over and over to himself.

The thick veil of trees surrounding the shack–or cabin rather, now that he realized it was much larger than he’d thought–was absent. In its place, about twenty yards away from the window, sat a glade and a clear view of the distant mountains encircling a green valley below. In the glade’s center burned a towering bonfire. The flames twirled, danced, and licked at the night sky so high that it looked like it could touch the stars. Yet it was the strange structure surrounding it that got him–tall gray stone pillars decorated with symbols unlike any he’d ever seen. Underneath these stones sat the hunched forms of several men and women of all ages.

He saw an old man–mid-sixties maybe–wearing a dark three-pieced suit, that probably was worth more than Derek’s car, sitting on the grass next to a much younger woman in her early twenties. She wore a torn tank-top, ripped blue-jeans, had jet black hair along with lip and ear piercings; she could’ve come from a punk concert for all Derek knew. Even weirder, next to her sat a guy who couldn’t’ve been more than sixteen, wearing a red polo-shirt and tan slacks, that, if Derek had to guess, was the uniform from some fast-food joint, which was impossible since the nearest fast-food joint happened to be 45 miles–two towns–away, and the nearest said town was 20 miles away. These were only some of the people he could make out, there were a dozen more or so in the crowd, and none of them looked like they belonged in the woods.

None of it made sense.


“Whoa!” Derek yelped and almost toppled over as the ground quivered beneath his feet. He grabbed the windowsill to steady himself.

“The hell was that?!” he exclaimed.


His head whipped back up to window and he felt himself go cold.

“The hell’s that?” he gasped.

The laughter and chatting of the group died down. Outside the firelight, shadows the size of semi-trucks edged around the curious group. Branches snapped, trees shook, and the ground trembled every time one moved. Before Derek could make out what they were, one of them–the largest–stepped into the light.

Derek’s heart stopped beating. “Holy–!” he cried, falling back from the window. “THAT’S DEFINITELEY NOT REAL!” he shouted, scrambling away. But his eyes and ears said differently.

It had to be about two stories high, this…this thing. Its entire body was the color of coal, glistening orange in the firelight. It walked on four monstrous sized legs that ended with five talons so large that it could encase an entire van if it wanted to. A slick, long black tail and two folded leathery wings protruded from its back and, despite how far away it was, Derek could see the monster’s eyes, clear as day: ruby irises and slit pupils glowing with an inward, ever-burning fire. Its head was the size of Derek, if not bigger–he sure as hell didn’t want to get close enough to be certain. Its face was sharp, angular, long like a reptile. Several white incisors perfect for grinding and tearing up meat protruded from its jaws.

Derek recognized this creature from several movies he’d seen, books he’d read, and talks he’d heard from young dreamers and role-players alike, yet he refused to believe it. He refused to name it. Because it couldn’t be real. It didn’t exist. He knew it didn’t. So what in the hell was he seeing? What the hell was going on? This couldn’t be–

“Hhrrrrruuuuhhhhuuuuuummmmm,” rumbled the beast, interrupting Derek’s thoughts.

His attention went back to the monster outside, who–thankfully–hadn’t seen him yet. It swung its long head from side to side, eyeing each person around the campfire. Then it swung back and rose to full height on its back haunches, making it at least over three stories tall.

Derek heard a small frightened squeak that made him jump, only to realize seconds later it’d been him.

Neither the monster (again, thankfully) nor the crowd, heard. It continued to gaze at the strange gathering below it. Its nostrils flared, and two puffs of smoke rose from them. Then, opening its mouth, it made the strangest, most unexpected sound Derek ever thought he’d hear come from it.

“Tonight,” a deep, rumbling voice came from its throat, “ends with a new beginning.”

Derek’s jaw fell, while the crowd eyed the monster, listening, waiting to hear what was next.

“Tonight,” it began again, “ends my search.” It paused, eyeing everyone. “Tonight, at long last, I have found a host.”

Derek couldn’t understand who was more surprised at that moment: the strange crowd that gasped and exchanged looks with one another, or himself by the fact that this thing could even speak. (He was 90% sure it was him.)

Another large rumble came from the beast’s chest, silencing the bemused crowd. It studied its audience, before it spoke once more.

“I know many of you doubted that I would ever choose to walk, to live, to even breathe the same air as man, but,” its jaws parted, revealing a large carnivorous grin, “I’ve known this day would come since our fall. And now, it has.”

“Bullshit!” one of the viewers, a young man, likely in his mid-twenties, shouted, getting to his feet. “You’ve spent more than the last three eras desolate and away from civilization, unlike the rest of us,” he gestured a hand at the other listeners. “So why should we believe you now?”

Derek felt the air around him grow tense. The audience felt it too. All whispers stopped and the large shadows outside the fire paused in anticipation. He waited for the monster to bawl in anger and snap the man in two with its jaws, but again, it surprised him and instead spoke.

In a cool voice, it said, “I understand your doubt, Nar’ric,” he turned to the crowd, “I understand all of your doubts. But time,” it shook its massive head, “is not a constant and neither is my search–was–my search.” It turned back to Nar’ic. “My search has only taken this long because I needed to be certain I’d chosen a worthy one.” Its eyes narrowed; another puff of smoke rose from its nostrils. “Unlike yours, Nar’ric,” it said in disgust.

Nar’ric’s fists clenched, and for a second, Derek thought he would do the suicidal thing and lash out at the monster, but instead, he took a deep breath and relaxed, opening his palms. “Well, as opinionated as you are in your choices and decisions, elder one,” he mocked, “despite my ‘unworthy’ choice of a host, it still stands that I and everyone else here–everyone but you–have more experience in the world of man than you have or ever will.”

“That may be true,” replied the beast, “but it also stands that I am far, far older than you are and have seen far more than you will ever.” Derek saw the monster’s talons dig into the ground as it spoke. “So unless this is an informal challenge and not some cruel mockery from a young whelp who’s forgotten his place,” it leaned towards Nar’ric with a growl, “I suggest you sit.”

Nar’ric stood a moment longer, staring into the eyes of the beast without fear, before sitting back down with a defiant grunt.

“But if you’ve finally chosen a host,” one of the others, a teenage girl, spoke, “where is it now?”

The beast glared at Nar’ric a second longer before sitting back in place. He looked at the girl and grinned. “I’m glad you asked. It’s in a safe place. It’s not ready for me to take yet, but don’t worry. It soon will be. But first,”

The sound of Derek’s beating heart, the evening breeze, and the crackling fire faded at that moment, when the eyes of this hideous beast did the last thing Derek ever wanted: its eyes met his own.

Its lips parted, revealing a nasty grin as it spoke, “Hello boy.”

“Oh shit!” Derek shrieked. He twisted around, scrambling to get to his feet and out the bedroom. He ignored the pain that shot through his leg when he crashed into the hallway and slammed the door behind him. He needed to hide–No! Screw that!–He needed to get away to anywhere but this God-forsaken place.

He hobbled for the front entrance, as fear and adrenaline overrode the pain. When he reached the door, he swung it open and ran out into the night.

He grounded to a halt. What in God’s name?

White flakes floated down from the sky all around him, covering the trees and the forest floor like a blanket of snow. Derek took a step forward grasping to understand what was happening. It wasn’t cold, quite the opposite in fact, it was warm, so it couldn’t’ve been snow. What was it?

A few flakes sprinkled down onto his hand. He stared at one of them, grabbed a flake with his other hand and rubbed it between his index finger and thumb, forming a gray smudge that stunk of smoke and flame.

“Oh...” he whispered. Ash. As if his realization was a cue to some sick stage act, Derek raised his head in time to see the tips of the horizon glow red and orange and the sound of a constant thunder fill his ears. He’d lived in the mountains long enough to know what that meant. Forest fire, damn it! Can this get any worse?

He about-faced, ready to run. “Oh shit!” the words ran out of his mouth, as he almost fell forward.

The large bonfire he’d seen earlier crackled and spat in front of him. The towering stone pillars surrounded him, looking down at him. Derek eyes darted to the edge of the fire’s light, searching for the massive shapes he’d seen earlier. But he saw nothing.

He still had no clue what was happening, but he didn’t plan to stick around to find out. He took a tentative step backwards, and, trying his best to keep his voice from cracking, said with his best brave face, “Look, I don’t know what you are or what you want or what any of this is, but please! Just leave me alone!”

He took another few steps back. “I’ve done nothing!” he finished, still searching the shadows for the beast.

He took another step backwards. His shoulder blade bumped into something rough and solid. Derek felt the blood drain from his face when he heard a slow, heavy rumble come from above. He tried not to shake as he turned with leaden steps, praying to whatever was out there that it was a pillar, a tree, a boulder–anything that wasn’t what he thought it was.

He realized that his prayers fell on deaf ears when he beheld an onyx, scaly leg the size of several tree trunks. His eyes shot down at the beast’s gray talons, four times Derek’s size, as they pushed into the ground one by one, snapping branches and rocks alike in half.

Oh, God no, he thought as his eyes followed the towering leg up to the massive body, to the large angular head, to its jaws, and then to its rubied eyes.

Part of Derek had still refused to believe any of this was real, but when he gazed into the eyes of that beast and perceived the focus, the mirth, and hunger in its slit pupils, he believed; and the words he’d refused to admit from the beginning tumbled out of his dry mouth:

“It’s a freakin’ dragon.”

The dragon tilted its head to the side, its eyes full of amusement. It leaned towards Derek, until its head was less than a foot above his. Derek didn’t even flinch, too petrified to move. His heart raced at an unreal pace, turning from an occasional: thump-thump-thump-thump into one continuous tttttttttttthhhhhhhhhhhhuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuummmmmmmmmmmpppppppppppp.

The dragon’s jaws parted into a grin as it studied him. It let out a small rumble then flared its nostrils as it blew a small puff of smoke into Derek’s face. Derek eyes stung and watered and he stumbled back in a coughing fit, but he didn’t dare take his eyes off the dragon.

When the fit had passed, another rumble came from the beast’s gullet. “Frightened?” it asked, its voice so deep that Derek thought he’d go deaf should it roar.

He opened his mouth to reply that he’d crossed the county line of frightened and was well down the road to terrified, but all that came out of his mouth was a small croak.

“I…I…I…” his voice crackled.

“You, you, you…what?” it echoed, its ivory grin growing larger, another rumble coming from its chest, which Derek realized a second later was a chuckle.

He swallowed and tried his best to not sound scared as he replied. “I-I just want to go home.” He held up his hands, chest level in surrender and began inching away. “I didn’t mean to come here and-and interrupt this-this,” he glanced at the stone circle and fire, “gathering you were having with your friends.”

He tossed a quick look back for the cabin and spotted it just a few yards outside the edge of the circle. “So please,” he turned back to the still grinning dragon, “just let me go.”

The dragon, which had been sitting on its hind legs this entire time, rose and took a single step forward, shaking the ground beneath. “If you’re hoping to escape back to that puny excuse of a shelter,” it shifted its entire stance forward, “you should run.”

Before the words could register, the beast darted forward, faster than an arrow at Derek. He felt like he’d fallen down the side of the mountain again as the dragon’s head plowed into him, sending him sailing through the air.

He screamed as his back plunged into ground and tumbled over. Pain shot through his spine, side, and leg all at once. Tears poured from his eyes as he tried to sit up. The dragon stood several yards away, eyes fixed upon him. A giddy rumble came from its stomach as it stalked forward, closer to its prey.

The sight of a hungry colossus coming for him spurred Derek into action. Adrenaline overrode his pain as he stumbled to his feet and sprinted for the cabin. Thanks to a stroke of luck, he’d landed about five yards away from it.

He felt the ground quake, and a deafening roar filled his ears as the dragon picked up its speed. Derek’s hands clamped to his ears as he rounded the front of the cabin and shouldered his way through the front door. Once inside, he did a three-sixty, slamming the door with one hand, then resumed his flight down the hall.

He knew that this wooden house wouldn’t save him and that there was only one place he could go. He grabbed the knob of the door leading to the cellar just as there was another roar from the front. He glanced over to see the dragon just outside the front window arch back and spread its jaws to reveal an amber glow from its throat.

“Oh shit!” Derek yelled, throwing open the door and diving forward. Glass shattered and wood splintered behind him as an inferno blasted through the kitchen and into the hallway. Derek felt the intense heat upon his back for a brief second before hitting the stairwell.

“Ah! DAMN IT!!!” he screamed as his shoulder rammed into the wood. He glanced back upstairs at the doorway. Flames roared past the door, washing the room with a violent crimson.


The door slammed shut.

The room plunged into darkness.

The silence felt deafening to Derek. He hadn’t dared move since he fallen, and the only thing he perceived was the rhythmic sound of his labored breathing.

Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

Nothing else filled the soundless void. The upstairs had gone silent. No roar of the raging inferno that almost turned him into a pile of ashes, no rumbles from the dark dragon’s footsteps. Just his own mesmerizing breaths.

The musky scent of damp cedar filled his nostrils every time he drew in a gulp of the cool air. He’d felt like someone who’d taken a tumble down the mountainside when he’d first arrived, now he felt like fresh roadkill–his side hurt like hell, his leg hated him, and now his aching shoulder blades despised him. Yet, he had not moved.

You can’t stay like this forever, an inner voice said to him. If you stay here, you’ll die from thirst, your injuries, or from the monster should it find a way down here.

“Yeah, but if I go upstairs,” he murmured, “it’ll kill me.”

Fine, so if you can’t go upwards, what direction does that leave you with?

Derek’s hand slid across the rough surface of the cedar to the edge of the platform. He knew without seeing that it marked the beginning of another set of stairs.


He took in a breath through his nose then tried to get to his feet. He had to place a hand on the wall to steady himself. He ignored his leg’s protest as it sent spasms of pain his way, but after a few tries, he managed to stand up.

He turned, trailing his hand along the wall like a blind man until it grasped the corner. This better lead somewhere, he thought, then took a cautious step down the stairwell.

He wished he hadn’t left his cell phone at home. A flashlight would’ve been reeaallly handy right about then; plus, he would’ve been able to dial 911 after the crash and avoided all of this all together! He sighed. His freaking luck.

When he reached the final precipice and stepped onto the smooth solid floor, he took a moment to assess his surroundings.

Well, here I am, and would ya look at that: Nothing! The room was a lightless void.

“Well, thanks a lot, voice of reason,” he spat, banging his fist against the wall. “Now what do I do?”

“You don’t want to say goodbye to him?” a voice asked.

Derek grew still, and despite the darkness, found himself blinking.

“He’s not going to make it through the night,” the voice spoke once more.

Derek’s eyes scanned the darkness, trying his best to locate the source. He saw nothing but shadow and had no idea who or what was speaking.

He bit his lips, then opened his mouth to call out, but slammed it shut. No, he thought. After what he’d seen so far, talking wasn’t a wise move. He took another breath instead and waited for the voice to return. He didn’t have to wait long.

“Please,” the pleading voice begged within the darkness, “Derek, just talk to him.”

A silent gasp came from Derek’s lips at the mention of his name. That voice… he recognized it.

“Mom?” he whispered.

Light spilled into the room from around a corner in the back. Derek took a couple steps towards it to see that it was the start of a corridor.

“Please,” the voice drifted from it.

That did it for Derek. Despite all evidence, despite every instinct that yelled to him: This is impossible. Derek rushed to corner and peered in.

It was narrow, about three feet in diameter, just wide enough for him to fit. At the end of the strange tunnel sat an oaken door. Light leaked beneath its dark frame.

Derek gazed at it. He knew going to it was probably a bad idea–a terrible one in fact–but that was his mom’s voice he’d heard. He had to know. He entered the corridor and approached the door. Once he reached it, he took a long hesitant breath, grabbed the knob, and pushed.

A blinding white light rushed over him, forcing Derek to throw up an arm to shield his eyes. The sudden sweet yet bitter fruity scent of anesthesia filled his nostrils. A rhythmic, familiar chime he’d heard in movies and once before on a day he cared not to remember rang every few seconds.


His eyes adjusted, and he lowered his arm.

No… he took an involuntary step back, his eyes growing wide. No, not this place. Not again.

The hairs of his arms stood on end. A drop of sweat ran down his forehead, leaving a coldness in its wake. He wished beyond anything that he’d stayed put in that dark room.

In front of him, right before his eyes, stood his mother, his sister, his uncle, and below them, lying in a hospital bed, his father.

“No,” he whispered, wishing that this nightmare would just end. He remembered seeing this; he remembered all of this: his mother with her almond eyes–the eyes he’d inherited–glistening with fresh tears. Her head sagging, unable to accept the cold reality she had to face. His uncle with his arm around his mother’s shoulder, doing his best to comfort her, but refusing to look at the dying man below him–his brother.

Derek knew without looking who stood at the right of the bed, he could see the image in his mind as if he just lived it, but he couldn’t help but look again. His sister stood by her father’s bedside, her crimson hair in a ponytail, her eyes moist, but refusing to give. Her father’s hand was sandwiched between her own. She’d been the strongest out of all of them that day, and–Derek knew secretly–the one who cared the most.

Derek didn’t want to, but his eyes looked down at the shriveled man in bed anyway. He shuddered. He could’ve done well without this sight or memory: a gasping, shivering 44-year-old man who looked like he’d aged another 40. His cheeks had sunk in, his forehead was a rolling plain of wrinkles. The cancer had been cruel, beginning in his leg, then crawling up through the bloodstream into the lungs and heart. For four months this man had fought the good fight, but in the end, like so many before him, he’d lost.

Derek tore his eyes away, unable to watch any longer.

“Why am I here?” Derek asked, his voice no louder than a whisper. He gazed back at his father’s bed. “Why am I seeing this?”

“Why won’t he come see him?” his sister’s voice interrupted.

Derek’s eyes snapped to his sister’s narrowed ones. She watched the door leading to main hall on the other side of the room like she was ready to break it. Derek felt something like an anvil fall into the depths of stomach as he recalled who stood on the other side of that door and had only come in to see the dying man once.

“I don’t know, honey,” his mother, Kelly, said in a hushed voice. Her lips quivered as she spoke and tried her hardest to hold back the tears. “I think your brother just doesn’t want to remember seeing him like this.” Her solemn eyes lowered to her husband.

“Bullshit!” his sister snapped. Her nostrils flared as she glared at her mother.

Kelly gasped at her daughter. “Daniella! How could you say–”

“Because it’s Derek,” her eyes darkened and voice lowered, “and he hates dad.”

Before either her mother or her stunned uncle could say or do anything, she stormed around the bed past the two and out the door.

Derek went to follow her, but after three steps, stopped. He didn’t dare take a fourth. He remembered the conversation that happened beyond that door. He didn’t plan to relive that memory; it was better it remained closed.

Still, the anger, the sadness, the pain, the regret, he could still feel that slip through the cracks. His sister had been right after all. He turned to look back at the dying man.

He did hate his father.

Derek watched the man’s chest rise and fall in tune with the heart monitor. A sad sort of music composed of each breath, raspier than the last, and each pulse, slower than the previous that would eventually fade into a steady, continuous beep once it reached its final note.

Derek’s lips opened. He wanted to apologize, to apologize for everything; most of all, to forgive him. But no words left his mouth. No long soliloquy of forgiveness.

“No,” Derek said, after a long minute had passed. “I didn’t do it then. I won’t do it now.”

He looked at his uncle and mother one last time, then backed away. He turned to the door he’d come in and reached for the knob.

“Der-Der-ek-k-k?” a hoarse voice croaked behind him.

Derek’s hand went slack and fell back to his side. No. No, no, no. He can’t be. Not now.

Derek turned to look upon the speaker. His father’s gray eyes were open, unfocused, agonized. “W-where’s D-Derek?” he asked.

Kelly knelt beside her husband and grabbed his hand.

“He…,” she swallowed, “he had to step out for a moment, Rob,” she lied.

Rob drew in a long breath. “N-n-nnn-o,” he mumbled, his head quaking.

Derek could only stare. He didn’t remember this. What was he seeing?

Rob struggled to turn his head towards his wife. “I-I-I need to-to talk t-to him,” he wheezed, water building up within his eyes.

“Shhh, shhh,” Kelly, patted his hand. “It’s alright, Rob. He’ll…he’ll be here soon.”

Derek snorted. She wasn’t fooling anyone, and everyone knew it.

His father shook his quivering head. “I-I-I need…n-ne-need to warn him.”

Derek perked up at that. Say, what now? He walked to the edge of the bed.

“What are you talking about?” he demanded, forgetting for a moment that no one could hear him.

His mother looked just as perplexed, arching her head back in surprise. “Warn him?” she echoed. “Warn him of what, Rob?”

Rob’s gaze drifted towards the ceiling, staring at something only he could to see. “I s-should’ve t-told him,” he whispered. A single tear rolled down his cheek.

“Told me what?” Derek demanded. He grabbed the edge of the bed and leaned in. “Told me what!?”

“Th-the mou-mou-mount-…,” Rob’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. He collapsed into the pillow.

“No!” Derek hollered, shaking the bed. “Wake up you, bastard!! Wake up! The what!?’”

His father’s eyes remained closed. His chest had resumed its rise and fall with the music of the heart monitor.

“Damn it!” Derek slammed a fist against the edge of the bed. His cheeks burned and he grinded his teeth. He looked back at the sleeping form of his father. He’d had a second chance to hear his father’s final message to him, a message he hadn’t known existed and yet, again, he’d missed it. If only he’d been awake a little longer.

“What was he talking about, Steve?” his mother asked, bringing Derek back to the present. He looked to see her giving her brother-in-law a questioning gaze.

Steve appeared equally baffled. He glanced between Kelly and his brother once then twice before he said, “I-I don’t know.” He shook his head. “It sounded like he was about to say, ‘the mount’ or ‘mountain’ but I’m not certain what that means.”

Kelly’s eyes lingered on Steve’s for a few seconds, then moved past her shoulder at the door. She bit her lips. “Maybe we shouldn’t mention this to Derek,” she said, turning back to Steve. “It probably wouldn’t make any sense to him either. I mean, he lives in the mountains, but I don’t see how it has to do with anything.” She shrugged.

Steve nodded his head. “Okay,” he conceded. “I’ll trust your judgement on that.”

“Excuse me?” Derek started, glancing back and forth between the two of them. “I don’t trust that judgement. Hell, if he had something to say to me, I’d’ve wanted to know about it.” He looked down at his father and sighed. At least now he knew why no one had ever mentioned this to him before.

He eyed the green line of the heart monitor, watching it pulse every few seconds. He hadn’t been there to see his dad take his last breath and he didn’t plan to see it now.

He turned and went out the way he came.

“Oh, hell no!” he groaned when he stepped onto a white tiled floor. Instead of the dark corridor, several doors with patient names and numbers lined a tan wall in front of him while doctors and nurses passed by from left to right, and right to left, chatting and carrying on with their daily tasks as patients and visitors shuffled by with their familiar stench of depression, regret, anger, and false hope. Very few of them carried a smile of relief.

The veins bulged in his hands as Derek squeezed his fists. He hated hospitals. He hated the emotions they stank of. Worse, he hated what had happened to him in one of them and what was happening yet again right across from where he stood. In front of him stood a familiar person with her crimson hair in a ponytail, her forehead furrowed, her fists clenched, and eyes ablaze with fire as she glared at a complacent young man next to her. The young man, who paid her no mind, leaned against the wall beside a patient door with his arms crossed and his head tilted at the floor. His hair was short, dark. His eyes were the color of almond. He wore a dark windbreaker, jeans, and didn’t have a single care in the world for what the girl next to him said.

“Derek!” his sister yelled at the young man. “Are you evening listening to me!?”

“Nope,” both the past and present Derek said together at once.

The girl’s red cheeks turned a shade darker than her crimson hair. Derek was certain his sister was going dock his past-self, but just like it had happened the year before, her anger faded. His sister took a deep breath and relaxed. Her fists unclenched.

“Derek,” she began again, her voice quiet yet stern, “I know you’ve had your differences with him–with all of us–but the least you can do is go in and say goodbye to the man who raised you.”

Derek’s past-self snorted. “Raised?” he echoed. “Do you mean as in, ‘raised me to be out of his life?’”


“No!” his past-self stood straight and jabbed a finger at his sister. “That man never, ever cared for me.” He lowered his finger. His eyes dark. “He barely said a word to me, barely cared about what I said, what I did, or that I even had a life.”

“That’s not true, Derek.”

“Yes, it is true. You know it. I know it.” He pointed at his father’s room. “They know it. The only reason I’m here is because you and mom insisted I’d be here to see him before he went to wherever it is asshole fathers like him go when they die.” He spread his arms apart. “So here I am.”

“To be here so you could say goodbye to him,” his sister corrected. She could hardly keep a steady voice. Her eyes were florescent, full of water, yet not a single drop fell.

“Well all right then.” Derek’s past-self let his arms drop then turned towards the door. “Bye!” he said with a small wave then turned back to Daniella. “Happy?”

His sister’s jaw fell. “How could you–” she began.

“‘Do that?’” Derek’s past-self laughed. “Oh, as easily as doing this,” he raised his right hand and lifted the middle finger at the door. He smiled at his sister for brief second, then lowered his hand. “Now that I’ve said goodbye,” he said, straightening his jacket, “I’m going.”

The old Derek brushed past her and walked to the end of the hallway. He bumped into a young man in a gray hoodie just as he rounded the corner. The old Derek didn’t bother to give an apology. He walked out and never looked back.

Derek’s eyes trailed after his former self until he was gone out of sister’s and mother’s lives forever. The dam of tears Daniella had carried since the moment their father had arrived finally gave way. Rivers fell from her eyes.

Derek lowered his head and closed his eyes. A small shard of pain stabbed his heart. He knew he should’ve treated her better that day, but even then, after everything he’d seen, his thoughts on his father had not changed. And he didn’t at all regret his choice. The only thing he did regret was having to witness it all over again.

He took a sharp breath then glared up at the celling. “Hey!” he yelled. “I don’t know what the hell any of this is or why it’s happening, but what are you expecting to get from me? Huh!?” He took a step forward and spread his arms out in defiance. “Guilt trip me through memory lane? Shed tears? Beg forgiveness for what I did? Well guess what!” He jabbed a finger at the celling. “I don’t freaking care! I don’t regret any of this! In fact, I never have! Why do you think I live in the freaking mountains? It’s to get away from these people!”

He lowered his hand and waited for an answer.

“Excuse me,” a solemn voice spoke up, dragging Derek’s attention back to the scene in front of him. The man in the hood his past-self had bumped stood behind his sister.

Daniella took a moment to wipe the tears away with her arm before turning around to face the stranger. “Y-yes?” she said, trying to regain her composure.

The stranger kept his head tilted so only his mouth was visible. His lips were expressionless. “Is this Robert Erin’s room?” he asked.

Derek’s sister nodded. “Yes, it is.”

The stranger smiled. “Thank you,” he said with a small nod. He stepped around her and reached for the door. He paused at the sound of a small sniffle. He looked back to see Daniella’s gaze on the corner her brother had departed. Her tears had returned.

The stranger watched her for a moment. He glanced at the door, then back to the weeping girl. He raised his head towards the celling with a sigh, then turned to Daniella.

“Hey,” he said. Daniella turned. The stranger stepped forward. “I know how hard it is to lose someone–especially family.” He glanced back at Rob’s door. “I know there’s little that can be said to ease the pain and the emptiness left behind when they’re gone,” he turned back to her, “or to douse that burning question whether we could’ve done something to prevent it, no matter how impossible it would’ve been, but I promise you,” he put a gentle hand on her shoulder and lowered himself enough, so she could see his eyes, “the pain will fade. And there’s nothing,” he shook his head, “anyone could’ve done to stop it from happening.” He stood and lowered his hand. “Cherish your memories of him and don’t let the sorrow left behind rule your life.”

Daniella’s mouth opened, stunned. “I…” she closed her mouth and cleared her throat. “No, I-I-I’ve accepted what’s happened to my father.” She sniffed. “I’ll miss him and all that, but that’s not why I’m crying.”

The stranger’s lips curled into a grim smile. “I wasn’t talking about your father, ’Ella,” he said. Before Derek’s sister could say anything, the stranger turned and pushed through the door, leaving a wide-eyed Daniella behind.

Derek hadn’t realized his mouth had fallen open until after his tongue began to dry. He closed it and swallowed. He took a step towards his sister, wracked with guilt. “Daniella, I... I…No!” he yelled, stomping his good foot down. “No! I am not doing this!” He glared up at the celling. “I don’t know what this is, or who that guy was supposed to be, but I AM DONE WITH IT!”

He did a 180 and tried the door again. When he pulled, it didn’t budge. “No,” he grunted, and grabbed the handle with both hands. “You’re opening. To-day.” He put a foot against the wall and pushed his body away from the door as he pulled.


“That’s it,” he said through his gritted teeth. “Open!”


Derek fell back as the door flew open. He yelped as the back of his head hit the floor.

“Uh-aaccck,” he groaned. He rubbed the back of his head and looked back at the door. He stopped mid-rub, surprised. Instead of the wooden door he gone through earlier, there was a swinging, rickety, wooden trap door with a small set of stairs beneath it. Stranger yet, the hallway had morphed into a dark cellar.

“Oh, more wonderful magic tricks,” Derek grunted then pushed himself to his feet.

He mounted the stairs and grabbing the edge of the opening, pulled himself halfway out into a familiar, ash-falling world. “Ah, great,” he murmured. This place again.

Derek scanned around and noted the smoldering wooden cabin several yards away to his left. Flames jetted out of the front two windows. The roof had already collapsed and smoked billowed into the night sky.

“Ohhhhhh boy,” Derek whispered, glad he’d managed to make it out of that. “Wait, if the cabin’s there, and on fire, then where’s–”

“The dragon?” a deep voice rumbled in amusement.

Derek sucked in a gulp of air. Uh, oh. He let go of the edge to drop back into the cellar, but before his shoulders fell past the opening, a massive shape slammed down and engulfed him.

“Naawwaahhh–mmhh!!” Derek made a muffled scream as the beast’s talons lifted him out of the hole. He tried his best to kick, bite, and punch to get free, but the beast’s claws only tightened with every movement. When he realized it was no use, he stopped. He knew he’d lost. Now he was about to become the monster’s dinner.

Just as fast as the darkness had come, the orange glare of the fiery night returned.

“Ahh!” Derek yelped as he landed on the ash covered forest floor a yard below him. He sat up to see the onyx monster’s head less than a foot from his body; its rubied eyes so close that Derek could see his own terrified reflection in them.

“Oooooohhhhhh shit,” Derek whimpered, doing his best not to tremble.

The dark dragon’s lips spread into a large toothy grin. Its jaws opened wide revealing the red abyss Derek knew he was headed. He clamped his eyes shut and waited for the inevitable.

“Did you enjoy your past?” the dragon rumbled.

Derek cracked a single eye open to see the dragon watching him, its jaws closed.

“Well?” the dragon spoke again when he didn’t answer.

Derek opened his eyes and swallowed. “I uh…uh…you’re-you’re not going to eat me?”

A loud, hard rumble came from the beast’s throat as it dug one of its talons into the earth. “I asked you a question,” it said, an impatient gleam in its eyes.

Derek slowly nodded his head, getting the message. He cleared his throat. “N-no. Not-not really.”

A small plume of smoke drifted up from its nostrils. “Goooooddddd,” the dragon rumbled.

“Good?” Derek echoed. “Wait a sec, so all of that,” he gestured at the trap door behind the dragon, “everything I saw–all of that was you?”

A long deep rumble came from the beast’s chest, that Derek knew by now was it snickering. “Of course, it was,” it said with its massive meat-tearing grin. “All of this,” it lifted its head and gazed at the night sky, its orange horizon, then at the ablaze cabin, “was me.”

“B-but I don’t-I don’t understand! How could you possibly do that!? You’re a dragon! You’re not supposed to do that! Hell–you’re not even supposed to talk! Let alone exist!”

The dragon’s eyes widened in anger. It slammed its massive claws into the ground, shaking the entire forest and Derek with it. He fell onto his back with a cry. Before he could recover, the beast pressed its nose against his face, pinning him in place. Scalding hot air washed over his cheeks and eyes, making them water.


“No! No! No!” Derek cried. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! You’re right! I don’t know! I don’t know anything! Just please! Don’t!” he begged.

The dragon’s breath washed over Derek’s head: once, twice, thrice.

“Forgive me,” the dragon rumbled. The pressure against Derek’s head lifted as the dragon drew its head back. Derek pushed himself up into a sitting position.

“I forget your kind’s ignorance in this era,” the beast rumbled. A small puff of smoke rose from its nostrils. “I should have expected no less with you. Besides, the last thing I’d wish to do is harm you, Derek.”

Derek’s blood ran cold at the mention of his name. “You know my…” Derek trailed off then shook his head at his own stupidity. “Of course, you know my name! You just made me relive the day my dad died.”

“No,” an amused rumble came from its chest, “I made you witness what really happened the day your father died. Perhaps if you had spoken to him sooner, you would have learned about our existence.”

Derek’s jaw dropped. “Wuuh?” he gasped.

The dragon curled its long neck around Derek, so its head was to the left of him. “Tell me, boy,” it lifted its lips, so Derek could see all of its teeth, “after all you have seen tonight, why do you think you are here? And don’t act a fool and say it was because the road you rode on collapsed beneath you.”

Derek’s heart raced faster than he could breath as he went through the events of the night. “Well, I…I saw you talking to that strange crowd of people about finding a host–the host not being ready–then you trying to kill me right after you were asked about–” Derek’s jaws slammed shut. His eyes widen. The dragon waited.

“Wait,” Derek said slowly as he put it together, “those people…hosts...” he looked over at the dragon. “Those people aren’t really people, are they?

The dragon said nothing, only eyed him with anticipation.

“They’re dragons,” Derek gasped. “And the people I saw are their hosts. And you said you finally found one,” Derek stiffened. “Oh my God,” he gasped and stared into the eyes of the dragon.

“Everything you made me see about my dad, what you said at the campfire, finding a host and it not being ready,” Derek whispered, “you were talking about me, weren’t you? I’m your host.”

A loud grumble came from the dragon’s chest that echoed throughout the forest. It nodded.

“But, I don’t understand! Why? Why me? What’s so special about me? Why do you need me to become your host!? There’re millions of people out there you could’ve picked!”

“Oh, I think the answer to that is obvious,” the monster rumbled. “You’re young, strong, alone, and your family,” a strange mirth appeared within its eyes. “Your family has a past with my kind–with me.”

The dragon edged its head over in front of Derek’s. “Do you not wonder,” it asked, “why your father was never there for you? Why you saw only so much of him until the very end when he tried to warn you of the mountains–of this place? Or why a stranger,” a low growl came from its throat as it said that word, “your family never met before came to visit the day he died?”

Derek didn’t answer. He couldn’t. This was beyond him.

The dragon seemed to sense that he couldn’t and nodded. “Your father,” it continued, “knew about my kind. He knew we still lived. He even aided those wanting to destroy us, like that stranger you saw.” The beast rose to its full height. “Yet even before you or your father entered this world, I watched your forefathers, waiting for this moment, waiting for you.”

Derek tried to grasp what he was hearing. “What are you talking about?” he asked.

The dragon lowered itself, so its eyes were less than an inch from Derek’s head. Derek tried not to flinch as warm air ran over his face as the dragon spoke. “Your family,” it said, “has deep roots. In fact, it’s your family that I have to thank for nearly destroying my kind.” It edged its head closer to Derek’s. “Your forefather forced us into hiding.”

Derek was speechless. “My family?” he mouthed, then began to sputter. “But t-that doesn’t make it my fault!”

“No,” the dragon licked its teeth and grinned, “but that’s what makes you ssssooo special.” A large rumbling chuckle escaped its gullet. “You’ve turned away everyone close to you: your father, your mother, your sister, your uncle…everyone. You wanted nothing to do with the people who loved you, and for that very reason you did the one thing none of your forefathers ever dared do. You chose to reject your past and live here, in the mountains, making you perfect.”

The dragon threw its head back and laughed so loud that Derek felt the ground quake beneath him. It gazed back at Derek when it finished and said, “It’s rather poetic: the first of your family pushed us into the shadows, and you, the last of your family will pull us back into the light. My host.”

Derek’s heart began to pound faster than ever. He knew what was about to happen and wished with all his being he could be anywhere but there.

The dragon lowered its entire body to ground level. “Now, don’t be frightened Derek,” its voice became solemn and, much to Derek’s surprise, sincere. “Just look deep into my eyes.”

Derek did. A warmness spread throughout his body as his eyes dove into those rubied slits. He saw himself within them and felt as if he was being drawn into them.

“Out of respect for your choice to leave your past behind,” the dragon’s voice came from some distant place, it words soothing, strange, familiar, different, “I will not destroy your mind, like the rest of my kind.” The dragon’s chest made a large rumble as it took in a deep breath. “I promise this will not hurt, too much.”

The black dragon lunged forward. Derek saw a wave of crimson fire then shadow engulf him. He screamed as an icy fire streamed through his veins and into his heart. Sudden images swam across his vision: the blue sky, the distant treetops and mountains below, fire, ash, and the sight of glorious dragons flying and gazing upon him with respect, admiration. He thought he heard the dragon’s voice in his mind tell him that this was their past and their future; that this was his future, but he realized a moment later that it wasn’t the dragon’s voice, but his own. The world spun around him as he fell back. Then, darkness.

John had just finished stocking the shelves and was getting ready for the day when the front door chimed.

Well, that was quick. He pushed the skeleton puppet onto the shelf, then called out, “Hello! Welcome to Halloween Express! I’ll be with you in a moment!”

He took a step away from the shelf and made sure everything was in its place. When he was satisfied, he spun and rounded the shelf for the front.

He saw a young man, maybe in his mid-twenties, wearing a dark windbreaker and jeans. He had a t-shirt underneath the open windbreaker, depicting a Timber Wolf running across a grassy field while above, and silhouetted against the full moon, was a dragon.

The young man turned towards John when he was less than a yard away with a smirk.

“Nice shirt,” John said, returning the smirk with a grin. “Can I help you find something?”

“No,” the young man said, “I believe I already found you.”

“Excuse me?” John’s grin became a bemused one.

“I was looking for you,” the young man said, still with his smirk.

“You were?” John blinked. “Do I know you?”


John looked him up and down one more time, trying to recall if he did. Short dark hair, almond eyes, twenty-four or twenty-five maybe, hmm… “Could you tell me where we’ve met before, then?” John asked.

“The first or the last time?” the young man asked. “Because the first time I met you was when you came into this world in a dark, dank, miserable cave, Nar’ric.”

John froze at the mention of his real name.

The stranger didn’t seem to notice. “And the most recent time was about,” the young man paused, and bit the edge of his lips as he pretended to recall, “was about four days ago. When I had to remind you of your proper place.”

Nar’ric took a step back, not believing his eyes. “Dreq?” he gasped.

“No,” Derek said, a red glow appearing within his pupils, “the correct word is, ’elder.’”

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