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One thousand years ago…
The very bones in Nebi’s body sang their protest to him. The melody vibrated through blood and weary muscles, the message one of impending doom. Only the one destined for the joining could safely traverse both worlds. As well it should be. He paused to take in his surroundings before finishing his work. Although death would overtake him quickly here, he had a few minutes to spare.
It looks the same, he marveled, doubting for a moment he’d actually entered the otherworld. It wasn’t true, of course. The same grassland and trees of his home spread out before him, but it wasn’t the place of his birth. Nebi knew he’d left his own world the moment he’d stepped through the hidden portal, a place no one was aware of but himself.
Don’t tarry like an old she-cat, he reminded himself. You have work to do.
He took the silver box from beneath the folds of his robe, admiring the elaborate etching on it one last time. Small enough to rest in the palm of his gnarled hand, it held the power to reshape his world. The inscription it bore would lead the way for the one destined to find it, no matter if he understood the writing or not.
And as for his family… He smiled at the thought of them. Nebi had proclaimed his son the new Guardian of Telesma just this morning and stepped down, ostensibly to go on a pilgrimage. His son knew better but didn’t protest, accepting the Sword and swearing an oath to keep the legend alive. Yes, Nebi thought, they would hold fast to the reign of power and watch for the Outsider.
After burying the box deep in the rocky soil, Nebi shifted to his panther form and lay down to await death.
Draven ran through the grassland surrounding his ancestral home, exhilarated by the rush of wind as he sped up. He often chose to hunt on four paws instead of two legs for the freedom it brought to his senses. As the current Guardian, his duties required him to maintain a two-leg form most of the time. He savored these rare moments when nothing required his immediate attention.
It didn’t last long. His sister, Fiona, ran toward him. Her black hair flew behind her, the long silver streak moving independently as the wind caught it. She shifted into fur, the silver now running along the length of her back.
“Come quickly,” she said as she caught up to Draven. “There’s news of the otherworld. Someone has unleashed the magic from the box.”
“Nebi’s box? The one the legend speaks of?”
Fiona nodded. “That’s what the wizard says.”
Draven considered the portent. The legend was over one thousand years old, passed along from father to son in the oral tradition for many generations before finally being written down. Who knew if all of it had survived the repeated telling? It had long since faded into the realm of cherished fable, told during celebrations to reaffirm his family’s right to rule as Guardian of Telesma.
The legend told of Nebi’s sacrifice by entering the otherworld and placing a magical box within it to warn Telesma if an Outsider ever tried to cross over. Each Guardian swore an oath to kill the intruder, if he should ever appear, seeking the Sword which gave Draven’s family the power to rule. Now it seemed as if the legend might actually be true. If so, it was Draven’s duty to carry out his pledge.
Kate Ryan pushed a strand of hair out of her face, marking her forehead with dirt from her hand. She sat back on her heels, squinting at the late afternoon sun. The mosquitoes would be out soon, seeking their dinner. She didn’t intend to oblige them tonight.
Packing up her tools from the dig site, Kate tried to get the blood circulating again. After hours of stooping and crawling, it felt good to walk upright once more. The rest of the team had started back to camp an hour ago, intent on cleaning up and heading into town. It was Friday night and the siren call of the local nightlife was too strong for them to ignore… everyone except Kate anyway.
“Hey, hurry up!” Danny yelled at her as she climbed out of the institute’s jeep. Someone had remembered to leave one at the site for her this time. Last Friday she’d walked half of the three miles back before they noticed she was missing. Kate snorted at the memory.
It wasn’t that she was antisocial. She loved her work more. Kate had wanted to be an archeologist since she was eight years old. That was the summer she’d immersed herself in everything Egyptian after learning how the pyramids had been excavated. Her career path hadn’t wavered since. Still, it was always best to stay on good terms with the other members of her team.
“I’ll be ready in a few,” she called out and headed toward the outdoor shower they’d rigged up, affectionately named the drooler. It barely trickled water but also had a tendency to lose the knots on the side flaps, giving others in the vicinity tantalizing glimpses whenever a breeze kicked up.
The team could have stayed in town. It was only ten miles down the road, but there was a greater intimacy with the site when staying in a tent. Kate relished the feeling of being one with the natural habitat.
As the lukewarm water struggled to remove the soap from her skin, Kate decided a camping trailer might be a nice luxury to have. Maybe this dig would find something valuable enough to justify the splurge on their next assignment.
More or less mud free now, she quickly dressed and joined the others for their night out.
“You missed a spot.” Danny playfully stroked her long blonde hair away from her cheek, a look of admiration on his face. “You have the most intense blue eyes.”
She let her stare bore into him and he snatched his hand back as though injured. His smile deepened when she remained silent.
“Come on, you know you want me. Admit it. I know you have a bit of the wild inside, lying in wait, ready to pounce on me.”
Kate smiled demurely and batted her eyelashes. “I wouldn’t want to deprive all your other women. Their depression would be more than I could bear.” Hoots and hollers rang out from the others. Danny ducked his head and gave up temporarily.
Truthfully, Kate could be interested in Danny if he wasn’t so casual with his affections. That, and the fact they worked together, were two major obstacles as far as she was concerned. She’d learned long ago to keep men at arm’s length for fear of becoming embroiled in a love affair which would interfere with her work.
Now, at twenty-two, it was force of habit. Being unencumbered by romantic entanglements suited her nomadic lifestyle. Kate never knew where she’d be from one month to the next. Her co-workers were the closest thing she had to a family. To damage one of those relationships with an ill-advised love affair could prove disastrous to their functionality as a team.
The evening passed pleasantly, with shop talk over a couple of beers. Danny prowled amongst the local girls, doing his best to be charming. Either they were smarter than average, or they’d been warned off, because he came back empty-handed.
“Your reputation obviously precedes you.” Lisa, one of the other team members, heckled him as he came back to their table.
“It’s just because they saw how jealous you looked,” Danny retorted with a grin at the short brunette.
Kate snickered at him. “You don’t think it had anything to do with the cat fight you started in here last Friday night?”
It had been their first day in this back-of-nowhere place just below the Georgia/Florida border. Danny tried his moves on three different women that night and all three decided to take him up on it. As soon as the hair-pulling started, the five members of their team quietly slunk out the door. Kate shook her head in remembrance.
“I’m heading back. Anybody want a ride?” Lisa looked around for takers. They always brought two vehicles, since some would undoubtedly want to leave earlier than others did.
“I’ll go back with you.” Kate grabbed the chance to call it a night. She wanted to be back out at the site at first light. Something about this dig resonated with her.
They were looking for remains of an ancient Indian tribe, the Apalachee, which once inhabited this area of Florida. The heavily wooded site meant they had to proceed slowly, but the possibilities for discovery were endless.
Recent satellite shots showed an anomaly in this area, one not discernable from the ground. A glow in the earth had been detected in the imagery, a circle one-quarter mile in diameter. The subsequent ground survey didn’t show any form of radiation, or any other possible cause for the phenomenon.
The institute she worked for jumped at the chance to send its fledgling team to investigate. They were eager to unearth something new and wondrous. Kate had the feeling this site could put their tiny institute in the limelight, not to mention the accolades each member would receive from their peers.
“You were kind of quiet in there tonight,” Lisa mentioned as she started up the jeep. “Anything you want to talk about?”
Kate pondered the question. What could she say without sounding deranged? Lisa was probably the one person who would listen with an open mind. Even though they’d worked together for less than six months, they’d bonded like good friends.
“No, nothing’s wrong at all. I’ve been consumed by this site, to the extent of all else. I can’t explain the feeling but when I’m down in the pit it feels like something is watching, maybe waiting for that perfect moment to reveal itself to me.”
Lisa shivered. “I’m glad I don’t get that impression. I’d be looking over my shoulder trying to spot the ghost!”
“You?” Kate laughed. “You’ve got one of the coolest heads around. Like last month, when Danny screamed like a little girl because he found the king snake in his tent? You went in there and rescued the poor snake before he accidentally trampled it in his panic.”
“It was a good thing it wasn’t a rattler. It would have bit him out of sheer annoyance, with all the racket he made. What about you? Aren’t you spooked by anything?”
Kate shifted in her seat and tugged at the seat belt. “It’s kind of silly.”
“Spill. Come on, you know you want to.”
“Okay. Clowns and fortune tellers.”
Lisa began to laugh. “I get the clowns. Creepy dudes. But fortune tellers?”
Kate sighed and rested her hand against her throat, the old fear threatening to collapse her windpipe. She’d never told anyone about this before, not even her mom. “When I was a kid, I used to have these dreams. They weren’t bad or anything. In fact, I liked them. There isn’t much to tell.”
The dreams had been a source of comfort to her as a child, giving Kate a sense of continuity. A place to belong. Her waking hours had been more chaotic. They moved frequently and she often found herself playing the role of new kid in school, on the outside looking in. The boy in her dreams became the one true friend she could count on, no matter what.
“Then why are you sitting there, all hunched up?”
Kate looked down and saw she’d crossed her arms into a self-inflicted bear hug. She willed herself to relax. “I had an imaginary playmate—a boy with black hair. We’d run through fields and climb trees together. It was fun.”
Lisa shook her head and glanced over at her. “Sounds pretty tame. Where does the fortune teller fit in?”
“I’m getting to that. I started having these dreams after learning about archaeology, when I was eight. One day, when I was twelve, my mother and I went to the county fair. I spotted the fortune teller tent and begged my mom for the money to have my fortune told. She thought I was nuts but let me go in.”
“And…?” Lisa said after Kate fell silent.
“I expected her to read my palm or gaze into a crystal ball or something. Instead, she starts talking before I even sit down at her table. She says, You’ll meet the black-haired boy. Your destiny is entwined with his. You don’t belong here. It freaked me out and I ran.”
“I don’t blame you. What did your mom say?”
“I didn’t tell her. I made up something and pretended the fortune teller was a fake.”
Lisa looked over at her with a grin on her face. “Did you ever meet the boy of your dreams?”
Kate chuckled, trying to banish the eerie sensation crawling up and down her spine. “No. That’s the weirdest part. After that, I never had the dreams again. Maybe subconsciously I was afraid to.”
“By the way, how’s your mother doing?” Kate asked, switching subjects. Between her own mother’s death three years ago and her father walking out on them ten years before that, she felt the need to stay in touch with family life on a vicarious level. She didn’t want to spin off into an emotional abyss and forget that happy families did sometimes exist.
“She’s much better,” Lisa said, enthusiasm bubbling out of her as she spoke. “I was able to get a signal in town and talk to her. They let her leave the hospital and go back home yesterday.”
“I’m glad. Next time you talk to her, give her my best wishes, okay?” Kate fell silent, wondering what it might feel like to be part of a large, caring family. The kind where everyone looks out for each other and love is abundant. No sense wishing for what you don’t have, she thought. Maybe someday…
“Watch out!” Kate screamed as a large animal darted in front of their jeep.