Chapter 1: The Ara

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The moon struggled to peek through the leafless branches of the trees, as three fools lost their way hiking through the woods below.

These three friends wended through the maze of trees with an unearned confidence to have a moonlit picnic by their favorite waterfall in the Catoctin State Park. Sure, it was the only real waterfall in the park, but they liked to pretend there were many of them scattered throughout the autumn forest.

The early fall air greeted them with a stale dew, and a lingering mustiness from the scattered leaves still falling like large, golden snowflakes on the ground.

Other laws forbad them to be in the woods after dark, especially this far into the wild. They parked their car along one of the side roads and hiked in, so they wouldn’t arouse as much suspicion. 

Like most people, they forgot about the spirits of the moon, the trees, and the streams all around them who followed their progress through the natural maze.

Slightest of the three, a person with aquamarine eyes, paused and glanced around. They swore they heard a laugh. The hair on the back of their neck stood up. 

Subtle laughter peppered the air, but they were damned if they could find the source of the sound. Unfortunately, they didn’t consider searching the shadows for the klatch of Pooka clasping their hands over each other’s mouths to muffle their laughter, so they saw nothing.

The poor fools didn’t realize how far they wandered off the trail.

“This is a winding path you picked for us.” They barely masked their frustration.

Their apparent leader, Peter Wysong, a tall, thin male with shoulder length straightened and dyed black hair pinned back behind his ears insisted repeatedly to them with so much misplaced confidence that he knew where they were going, the others didn’t bother correcting him.

The slight androgynous member of their group, Ellis Nicks, contorted their face now and then in doubt of Peter’s latest pronouncement, but they said nothing else. Their aura sparkled and danced with frustration, but they didn’t want to start an argument. Something else played in their aura, more illusive, but no less present. It was difficult to discern. Perhaps it was nothing more than a juvenile frustration that their life circled the path their heart desired, but was yet to find it.

Moriah Sennett, the third member of their little band, dressed like a tomboyish, black Wednesday Addams. She kept a close eye on the shadows, as if she expected to see something moving in at them at any moment.

They were so far from the falls and getting farther all the time. None of them noticed when they passed through the barrier meant to keep the ignorant from entering the truly wild woods. 

The moon saw and struggled to keep an eye on them.

How had they passed through the barrier meant to keep the exiled wrecca from the land of the spirits? It happened every once in a while, and it rarely ended well for the poor lost souls.

Peter pointed down one of the animal trails at the crossroads and declared that he heard the falls over there.

An inferi in the dark forest smiled, a sharp toothed grin too wide for its face, and stalked alongside them.

 

Ellis chastised themself for not speaking up. They never corrected Peter, even when they knew he was wrong. The falls were miles away, but they couldn’t find the strength or the will to say it. They were just happy to be along for the adventure.

They didn’t expect Peter to berate them or kick them out of the group. He wasn’t like that. They grew up together, and never treated Ellis as different or other. 

Moriah was the same way. Like Peter, she had a hard demeanor that didn’t reflect who she was. All three of them had to toughen up for different reasons, but along with their mutual interest in the macabre and the gothic bound them together.

Ahead, a strange, warm glow illuminated the path from behind a rock outcropping. The light flickered like a flame.

“Someone is over there.” Ellis whispered, stopping in place and grabbing Moriah’s hand to stop her from continuing on. They didn’t want to be alone.

Moriah smiled at them and stopped.

“It’s just some others who had the same idea we did.” Peter said with his trademark confidence and roguish grin.

“And if they attack us?” Ellis said.

Peter almost laughed and took a step toward them. “Then we fight back. Don’t worry. I’ve got your back, come on.”

Peter patted Ellis on the arm, looked deep into their eyes, and encouraged them to press on.

“You know the kind of trouble I had in Thurmont last week, I don't want to get into another fight. I'm fucking tired of fighting.” Rage burned inside of Ellis. They hated having to explain why they looked and acted like they did to every stranger who felt entitled to an explanation.

“That's what I'm here for.” Peter smirked. “But I seriously doubt it'll come to that. Don't worry so much.”

“Besides,” Moriah said, “what are the odds we're going to run into some drug dealers or some kind of strange cult out here in the woods? Our luck isn't bad enough to have something like that happen to us.”

“And now you've jinxed us.” Ellis rolled their eyes. “You know anytime you say what are the odds, you're tipping them in favor of the bad thing happening, right?”

Moriah winked at them. “Maybe I'm just tired of everyday feeling the same, and I just want some excitement in my life.”

Ellis sighed, “Fine, but on your head be it.”

Peter chuckled, turned, then continued down the path. 

Moriah stroked Ellis’ hand tenderly and followed Peter toward the light.

Ellis choked down their fear and trudged on. There was safety in numbers, after all. They didn’t believe it, but it was a good enough excuse to keep moving.

Peter stopped first. Moriah bumped into him, then joined him in a slack-jawed stare.

Ellis, already nervous about the strange light, crept around the corner.

Three stone angels stood in a semicircle around a fourth that lay prone, reaching up into the sky. A variety of candles, each a different color, height, and circumference, surrounded the effigies. Their flickering light illuminated an unnaturally sizeable area cleared of leaf litter. Patches of moss and lichen covered the carved stone angels, three of which stood in various serene poses. Whoever chiseled them into being carved lifelike blindfolds over their eyes of the three standing.

The angel on the ground stared at its onlookers with an anguished expression on its face. It reached a still arm toward them, inviting them to take it, help him, and free him from the pain.

Ellis stopped themself from reaching to take the figure’s cold hand. They felt the angel’s pain in their heart.

The angel in the middle stood with his wings up, proud and defiant. The one on the right kneeled down to aid their fallen comrade. Something about the one on the left drew Ellis’ attention more than the others. There was a serene, dream like attitude etched into its cold stone face.

“Amazing,” Moriah said.

In a semicircle around the statues were three small, stone plaques reading, “D Lila Rook M,” “D Emmerich Leeward M,” and “D Jeffry Graycek M.” In the center, right next to the anguished angel, another plaque read, “D Saint Elwin Rathmore M.”

Peter swore.

Moriah gasped and clasped her hands over her mouth.

“Is it an old catholic cemetery?” Ellis asked.

“Not with only three graves.” Moriah said.

Ellis resisted the tug that they felt, drawing them ever closer to the statues. Something was familiar about them. They've seen them before, but couldn't put their finger on when, or where.

“Is this a replica of a famous statue?” Ellis asked, holding the muscles on their arm still. They wanted to touch the stone, to connect with them.

“Not that I've ever seen.” Moriah said. “It's at least not a statue by any of the masters that I've studied.”

“And I don't know of a myth or legend about a fallen angel, except of course for the most famous one ever.” Peter said.

Peter kneeled down and rubbed his fingers across the engraved letters of Emmerich Leeward’s name. “These are old.” 

Ellis swore he heard something growl and searched the darkness for the animal.

Peter leaned closer to the plaque. “There is lichen, but no dust or dirt.”

“There aren’t any houses around here, are there?” Moriah asked.

“No.” Ellis said warily. “Not unless we walked all the way to Thurmont.”

“We haven’t been walking long enough.” Peter said with a grunt as he stood up.

Ellis gazed intently into the shadows where the inferi stood grinning behind the statues of the blindfolded angels. “Hello?” They said in a calm, deliberate tone.

“Who are you talking to?” Moriah asked.

“Me, poor child.” A gravelly voice said from the shadows, as if they were down a long hall from them. The inferi’s teeth gleamed in the moon's light.

Peter screamed and stumbled backwards, falling hard onto the ground.

The specter laughed.

Moriah stepped between it and Ellis, then said, “What do you want?”

“First, to say that we aren’t catholic you silly fools. In fact, they would be as offended as I am by the comparison.”

“We didn’t mean to offend you.” Ellis squeaked.

The inferi tapped his long fingers on his chin. “Your kind never means to offend, and yet, you do with such ease.” The disdain in his voice soured the air like poison.

“What are you?” Peter demanded from the ground.

“I am one of the gods below, a di inferi, or don’t they teach you your Latin anymore?” The specter crawled up and crouched on the head of the statue.

“A devil?” Peter’s voice quivered.

The inferi laughed and his voice cracked like thunder. “No child. You are more of a demon or devil than I.”

“We’re goths.” Moriah said.

The inferi snapped his head around with a Cheshire Cat grinned, distorting his face. “Are you now? If only Alaric lived long enough to hear that. I’m not talking about your costumery or makeup, you silly little girl.”

“Don’t talk to her like that.” Ellis said, then cupped their hand over their mouth to stop from saying anything else.

“I will talk however I like.” 

The air cooled as the spirit spoke to where they could see their breath.

“I have to say, you have spirit. I didn’t expect that from any of you.”

The inferi leaped up from the central angelic figure and landed with one foot on each of the other two in a pose reminiscent of a rock star in a music video. “Welcome to the wild, exiled children of the lie.” He said, then laughed like he heard the funniest joke.

Chapters 1-3 are free, but the rest are for my subscribers through Twitch, Ko-fi, and Patreon. If you enjoy my work, please help me to make more by showing your support.

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