The light flickered for a moment, illuminating the room in an eerie, sinister glow. Then it went out completely and plunged me into total darkness.
Because fuck my life.
Why not this too, right?
Because nothing could go right this week. I’d just gotten home from college on winter break to nothing more than a quickly scribbled handwritten note from my dad telling me he had to go to a law conference in Hawaii and was going to miss most of it.
That was a big fat fucking lie.
He wasn’t at a conference or even doing any work as a lawyer. He was probably spending it getting laid with his too-young-for-him girlfriend rather than with his daughter.
A clap of thunder rumbled so loudly that it vibrated the marrow in my bones, and I sat back on the couch with an annoyed huff. There wasn’t a single flashlight in sight. There wasn’t a candle in the room either, but it would be useless without a lighter.
A few months ago, my dad had uprooted and moved to a big house in Greenwich, Connecticut without asking my opinion, not that it really mattered. He’d checked out of my life pretty much the day I turned eighteen. I’d never understood why. It didn’t really matter though. Understanding it wouldn’t make up for any of it.
I tried to blink a bit more quickly so my eyes would adjust faster, but that didn’t work as much as I hoped it would. A flash of lightning lit up the room again, cutting through the windows and casting the whole house in a ghostly, supernatural hue before that disappeared too.
With a rising sense of gloom, I glanced around, trying to figure out what I could do to pass the time until the power went back on. I had an overwhelming amount of classwork to do, but I still had plenty of time to complete it. My college classes didn’t resume for another two weeks anyway. I was never the type that got my homework done earlier than the night before it was due.
I had this big mansion to myself. Back home in Arizona, I might have invited my friends over and had a party, but I didn’t have any friends here. I could order Chinese or pizza, I guess. I picked up my phone off the side table, glaring at the television for a second for having the absolute audacity to shut off too before I tapped the screen. I didn’t have much battery left. I was always pretty shit at keeping it charged. Back at school, my friends would constantly ask for my battery percentage updates. Sometimes they even made it into a drinking game.
Not knowing how long I was going to be stranded here, I did a quick search to see what kind of hellhole had weather like this just as another round of thunder shook the walls. Apparently we were smack dab in the middle of one of the biggest winter storms that Connecticut had experienced in the past one hundred years. Tonight, there would be thunderstorms and freezing rain, but tomorrow the snow would begin, and it wasn’t forecasted to stop for at least two days straight, dumping nearly three feet of snow by the time it was over.
Great. Just fucking fantastic. The only thing that could make this whole thing even better would be getting my period too.
I hated everything.
My birthday was in a week, and it wasn’t just any birthday. I was finally turning twenty-one. I could finally go out to bars and meet people and I was probably going to be stuck in a snow apocalypse for all of it. Since I was going to be stuck here, I might as well start exploring. My cell phone battery had already ticked down another percentage point, so I was working on borrowed time.
I forced myself to get off the couch and turned on the flashlight on my phone. I wouldn’t be able to rely on it forever, so I needed to find some other form of light, be it candles, flashlights, glow lights, whatever really. Maybe dear old Dad had a lantern and a secret camping addiction he never told anyone about. I wandered down the hallway, opening a few doors. I found a barely decorated office, what could be the lamest guest room I’d ever seen, several closets, and the kitchen. I searched all the drawers, cussing my father out several times when I came up empty handed.
I continued exploring the house until I eventually stumbled on what appeared to be the basement. It didn’t look especially promising. It was dark and especially creepy, and my phone only had like ten percent battery left. I stared down, unable to see anything at the bottom of the stairs. With an exaggerated, annoyed sigh, I descended one step at a time and kept my phone flashlight up so I could at least make out where I was going.
At the bottom of the stairs, the room opened up into a big space. There were several storage racks to the right and a bunch of unpacked boxes to the left. I steered in the direction of the racks, seeing at least some semblance of organization. I scanned over the shelves, and I finally squealed in victory when I found a box of unused candles. I frowned when I realized there wasn’t a lighter or even a pack of matches from some dingy bar.
I continued pawing through everything until I found one of those large utility flashlights on the back of one of the shelves. With a triumphant grin, I reached for it and my elbow brushed against an unlabeled cardboard box that was teetering on the edge to the right of me. As I wrapped my hand around the handle of the flashlight, the box lost its fight with gravity and tumbled to the floor.
I pulled the flashlight out and looked down, initially not caring enough to even think about cleaning it up. I wasn’t the maid, after all.
Then I stopped cold.
Right there on the floor by my foot was a picture of my mother. I stared at it for a long time before I knelt and hesitantly picked it up. She was smiling. I never remembered her being happy, only her sadness. Even when I was a little girl, there was this lost look in her eyes, like she had demons inside her that were chasing her all the time and no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t outrun them. I’d always attributed that to the fact that she had given birth to me when she was young, that somehow, she was depressed that she’d missed out on life by having me. That was my best guess, at least.
I brushed my thumb over her face. She was young here, maybe nineteen or something. I turned it over, finding a legible date written in the upper corner. I did the rough calculation in my head and figured out she’d been only seventeen in the picture. She’d had me a year after that. I turned the picture back over, staring at her face and trying to commit it to memory. It had been so long since I’d seen it.
My mom had died in a car crash when I was ten. The circumstances surrounding the whole thing in my head were hazy, but I remember visiting her in the hospital once with my dad. He never took me back after that, and he never told me anything else about it. A few days later, my nanny had laid a black dress on my bed. The funeral had been later that day.
With a hard swallow, I glanced down at the rest of the contents strewn out all over the floor. There was a bunch of old books, manila folders stuffed with papers, a vintage ruby necklace, a silver pendant, and a bunch of other stuff. There was a pretty leather-bound journal too. I knelt and flipped it open. It was my mother’s diary. Immediately, I wanted to get back upstairs so that I could read every single page.
In a hurry, I gathered everything and tossed it back in the box. I saw a box of batteries and tossed them in too, thinking I might need them in case the ones in the flashlight went out. I’d probably thank myself later—if they happened to be the right ones, that is.
I carried everything back up into the living room and camped out on the floor with the big utility flashlight in the middle of the rug. It was still dark outside, and from the wet look of things, the freezing rain had started. There was no hint that the power might come back on and honestly, I just hoped it wouldn’t be out for this dumb once-in-a-lifetime storm. Wasn’t the northeast supposed to be equipped for this sort of thing? Like… with power grids and whatnot?
Once I was all set up, I didn’t waste any more time before I dove into the box. I carefully spread everything out, trying to take it all in at once. The necklace sparkled when it caught the light just so and the silver pendant shone in places and was tarnished in others. Did they belong to her? Where had they come from?
I picked up the necklace first. The chain was made of gold, the links thin enough to be dainty but thick enough to give it strength. The glimmering pendant itself was quite large. The ruby was oval shaped and showcased the advent of time, but the gemstone sparkled still as if it had a flame inside it. It was surrounded in what I expected were diamonds encased in a border of gold set off with silver filigree. It was exceptionally beautiful for something that looked like an antique.
I reached up and clasped it around my neck, somehow feeling closer to my mom and more at peace than I had been in a long time. The pendant settled right at the center of my chest, and I traced my finger over the ruby. It felt warm and especially comforting.
Rain pelted against the windows outside and I settled in. I reached out for my mom’s journal, opened it, and started to read from the first entry. It began on the day of her twentieth birthday.
I can’t stop looking at her.
The happiness in her eyes and the way she can experience everything with the untainted innocence of a life unlived.
How do you go about living when you know the day your life will inevitably end?
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been told that day would be my twenty-first birthday. I’ve spent all my days trying to figure out how to stop that from happening. I’ve read and collected everything I could find of all the women before me, and all their stories end the same way. They’ve tried it all. What hope could I have to escape what they couldn’t?
I’m going to end up like all the others. On the dawn of my next birthday, I’m going to be taken. I don’t know where; all I can tell is that it’s a terrible place from the broken renditions of what happens to all the others.
Do I tell my daughter what’s coming for her that day? Do I take away her innocence? Would it be cruel to wrench that away from her?
I don’t know.
I don’t even know if I’m going to tell her father what’s coming. I’ve kept it to myself all these years.
I wish I had the answers. I wish someone would tell me what to do.
I kept reading, trying to understand what she meant. She didn’t really go into detail about what she meant. Who was going to take her? Did she have a debt of some kind? Did our family owe someone else money? I couldn’t tell.
Hour by hour passed as I read through the pages looking for answers. At times, it seemed nonsensical. She mentioned dragons and other terrible monsters from time to time, but as the day of her twenty-first birthday loomed closer, the entries grew more and more unhinged with her growing panic. I had known she had battled with various mental illnesses in the past, but I hadn’t quite known it had gotten this bad. Her fear was palpable. I kept pressing forward, wanting to find out what happened next. When I finally got to her birthday, there was no entry. There was nothing but blank pages until at long last, there was one six months later.
I’m never going to tell her.
She deserves to live a happy life, at least with the days she’s been given. Henry hates me. He thinks I disappeared for six months and left him with a toddler, but he doesn’t know what it was like.
He’s never going to know.
And neither will she.
After that, the entries got shorter. Sadder. More broken.
Before, there were at least some happy memories and that bled through with her words. Now, there was only ruined sorrow. She spoke of going to sleep and never waking up, and just how peaceful that would be. Dad had made her go to endless therapy appointments. There was even a point that she was in danger of getting committed and she vowed to never tell her story to anyone again.
One more year.
More broken entries.
More talk of the peace that would come with ending it all.
Then I reached the final entry. It was dated the day before the car crash that took her life. Before, I’d simply assumed that it was an accident, but now, things started to come together. She’d been the only car involved. The funeral hadn’t been well attended. No one had looked me in the face that day, as if they were too ashamed to meet my eyes. Now I understood why.
My mom had taken her own life.
I sat back, the weight of that knowledge settling on my shoulders so heavily that it hurt. I kept rolling the circumstances over in my head, knowing it all tied back to whatever happened during the time she had disappeared. I looked through everything piece by piece, searching for answers. There were old journals belonging to other members of the Ward family, all of them women. Every account was the same. All of them disappeared on their twenty-first birthday.
Every single one.
Some of them were gone for simply a few hours. Others were gone for week, or months—there was even one that vanished for a whole year. But they all came back the same.
Shattered. Shells of the women that they once were. All just like my mom.
I wrapped my arms around my knees.
What did that mean for me?
I fell asleep on the floor that night, surrounded in historical accounts that my mother had collected throughout her life. I woke up in the morning to starkly bright sunlight. I blinked blearily, noticing that there was an annoying beeping sound coming somewhere from down the hall. I picked myself up off the floor and staggered into the kitchen, trying to make sense of the terrifying thoughts that were whirling around in my head.
Had I dreamt all that? Was it real?
The leather of her journal had felt real. Even standing there in the kitchen, I could still feel the soft conditioned surface that her touch had wrought.
Fuck. What was that?
I wandered in a bit further, looking around before I finally realized it was the fancy coffeemaker on the counter. I pressed the power button and it stopped, but then it started whirring to life like it was about to brew a cup of something. In my sleepy panic, I threw open the cabinet close by and found a coffee mug before it could start spewing hot liquid all over the counter. I caught it just in time.
I watched the hot milky coffee pour into the cup, only just concluding that the power must have come back on. I glanced out the kitchen window and my jaw dropped. The whole world had turned white. Everything was covered in a thick blanket of snow, and it was still coming down. The back porch had at least six inches of snow on the ledge and there was no sign of it stopping anytime soon.
I’d never seen a fresh snowfall like this. In a way, it was extraordinarily beautiful.
The coffeemaker dinged again, and I glanced down to see a freshly made latte macchiato in the cup. I breathed in deep, inhaling the scent before I curled my fingers around it. Might as well enjoy it, right?
I sipped and groaned, feeling the rush of heat that descended into my belly. I glanced back down the hall to the living room, knowing that the contents of the box still waited for me there. The mystery of my mom’s disappearance had burrowed into me and wouldn’t let go. I carried the still steaming mug back with me and dove back in. I read everything one more time and then again. By the time I was finished, I felt no closer to understanding what had happened than when I had started. With an uneasy breath, I reached up and ran my thumb over the ruby once again, chasing that calming feeling I had felt before. I closed my eyes, trying to figure out my next move.
My dad’s office.
I got up, brewed another latte, and took several of the books from the box with me. I plugged my phone in an outlet since it had died sometime during the night and settled down. I powered on his computer and started my own search for answers. I started with my family history.
My family name was old, far older than I could have ever imagined. There were accounts of women disappearing back to the 1100s and back further, but surnames hadn’t been used in England before that. Some women were burned at the stake, others committed in women’s sanctuaries, which was just another word for an insane asylum at the time, and others just vanished.
The more I found, the more unsettled I became. The web took me on a journey, and I wasn’t sure if it was even a remotely helpful one because I ended up deep in a rabbit hole of theories—insanity, schizophrenia, and the Ward family curse being the nicest of them.
None of it made sense.
I tried to come up with a rational explanation, like maybe our family owed money to the mafia or some secret royal family that dated back to ancient times, but nothing fit. By the time I sat back in defeat, I could only think of one thing.
What was going to happen on my birthday? Was someone going to come for me and kidnap me? Were they going to hurt me? Was I going to lose my mind like the women that did before me?
I couldn’t let that happen. I had a life to live, a college degree to finish. I hadn’t even ever dated or fallen in love. Hell, I was a fucking twenty-year-old virgin.
I wasn’t going to allow it to all come to an end in less than a week. I started opening the drawers of my dad’s desk. He always left a credit card for me in one of them in the past just in case of emergencies and this time was no different. Flights out of Connecticut were down for the day and they looked to be out for tomorrow too, but they weren’t the day after. I booked myself a flight out of Bradley to Málaga, Spain as well as an Airbnb in the middle of nowhere just outside of a national park in Compéta.
No one was going to find me. I was going to make certain of it.
I spent the next several days reading and rereading everything I could get my hands on. I packed a bag and stuffed my mom’s journal in it. By the time it came time to call an Uber, I was positively terrified of what was coming. Maybe I had a brain tumor that no one had diagnosed, and no one had figured out that it was just a genetic anomaly that happened in all the women in the Ward family?
Weird shit like that happens sometimes, right?
I tried to put it all out of my head on the drive to the airport, but I had a difficult time. I checked my bag and numbly wandered through security. My father’s credit card status got me access into one of the private upscale lounges, and when I finally boarded the plane after several weather-related delays, I found myself in first class. I ordered a glass of champagne as soon as someone came by. No one asked for my license, and I didn’t offer it, feeling like if my life should indeed be over in just a few days, I should at least be able to enjoy what was left of it.
The flight was long, with a layover in Madrid. I slept for some of it after taking a Tylenol PM, which always knocked me out in about an hour. When I woke up, I ordered a mimosa and enjoyed it along with a delicious breakfast of fruit, yogurt, and granola. The coffee and blueberry pastries they brought were tasty too.
I’d left my phone behind, not wanting anyone to track it or to get a phone call from my dad wanting me to explain the sudden expensive charges on his card. Honestly, it was the least he could do after disappearing for both my birthday and the holidays. It’s not like he couldn’t afford it.
The airline staff didn’t make me get off the plane for the layover and I fell back asleep, only to wake up to the announcement for the final descent into Málaga. I used some cash that I stole from my dad’s desk to pay for a driver to take me out to the Airbnb.
When I finally arrived at my destination about an hour later, I breathed a sigh of relief. I’d be safe out here. The site was remote. It was a small, fully furnished cabin that was way off the beaten path. The road to it wasn’t even paved but made of dirt and gravel. Since it was set on the edge of a national park, it was surrounded by greenery. I’d left the snowy landscape behind and come to something much lusher. It was still cold, probably about 40°F, but it was far from the 10°F that I’d left behind. There were mountains on the other side of the lake. There were wild slopes covered with trees and the peaks were covered with either mist or snow. It was all really quite beautiful.
I tipped the driver after he carried my luggage inside and he drove off. He didn’t ask any questions about why a lone American girl like me would come out into the wilderness by herself, and I appreciated that. I probably wouldn’t have answered him anyway.
I wandered inside and looked around. It was cozy in a homey sort of way, which made me feel a bit more at ease. The kitchen was fully stocked, which was nice considering there wasn’t much around for miles. I was still pretty full after eating a meal at the airport, so I unpacked my things in the bedroom closet and started to explore. I checked the windows. All of them had locks. There was a back door and a front door. Those had locks too. The more I found, the more relaxed I became. When I noticed that it was getting dark outside, I got ready for bed.
I was exhausted. Travel days always knocked me out.
I fell asleep in minutes.
“There is another pack of hellhounds that have escaped the rift, your majesty.”
I sighed, looking up at the warrior that had rushed into the throne room.
The problem was getting infinitely worse. It seemed like more and more monsters were escaping into my realm and endangering the lives of my people with each passing day. Hellhounds were a particularly vicious lot, sent by the Dark King himself as the front-line soldiers in preparation for an all-out war if the boundary between realms ever fell.
I pushed off the padded armrests of my throne and rose to my feet. My seat towered above me, blood red and carved with the insignia of my ancestors. I traced my fingers along the gold, feeling it heat beneath my touch. The throne itself was lined with red gemstones that sparkled quite beautifully when it was surrounded with fire. My throne room itself was massive, large enough to house a dragon if the need called for it.
Duty called, however.
I strode toward the massive wooden doors and the warrior stepped aside, dropping his head in respect for his king.
“Ready the men. I want the city gates as well as a force ready at the entry of the badlands should any hellhounds break through,” I directed, and he nodded once.
I gazed at his face. I’d seen him before on the training grounds some time ago. Since then, it seemed like he had come a long way. He was human, which made him inherently weak, but that couldn’t be helped. Humans were undoubtedly the most common type of creature that inhabited Blazelheim, and it was my duty to protect them even when they couldn’t themselves. His armor was fine, which spoke to his experience on the battlefield. It was made of fine metal, a special type of ore that was only mined in the deepest mines by the dwarfs.
“Tell me, warrior, what monsters have you killed?”
He jerked his head up, hesitantly meeting my eyes. He hadn’t expected me to say anything to him at all. I saw the instant spark of fear in his gaze that I always did whenever someone looked at me, but I was used to that. All I had to do was reach out and use the tiniest bit of strength to snap him in half and I was only in my human form.
He’d stand even less of a chance when I shifted.
“I have killed two wargs myself, your majesty,” he answered quickly. I noticed the slightest tremble of his voice, but he covered it up well.
“That is indeed impressive,” I replied, and a grin broke out over his face before he remembered himself.
Wargs were a creature that had broken through the rift some time ago and made Blazelheim their home. They were wolf-like creatures with a tough scaled skin that was quite difficult to pierce. My warriors were on constant watch for any that made it their mission to use the city streets as their hunting ground.
“Thank you, your majesty,” he said, his chest a bit puffed up with pride.
“Do you know how many hellhounds came through this time?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. Maybe a dozen, my king.” He lowered his gaze as he bowed.
“You’re dismissed now, warrior,” I snapped.
He nodded once and scurried out the door to deliver the message I’d given. The breaks in the rift were happening more and more often, which was alarming. It meant that Helheim was readying for a full breach. If that happened, my realm would be overrun, and all manner of my people would die.
I knew what was coming.
I had a duty. One foretold by prophecy that I had no choice in fulfilling. I didn’t want to think about it, and I left the castle. I embraced my fire with a roar and flew off toward the badlands to defend my realm once again. My wings cut through the air, and I pressed my tongue to the roof of my mouth, allowing the fiery blaze within my belly to grow. The visceral feeling of the chilly air raced down my back and I released a roar, invigorated as I spun through the clouds.
The hellhounds were racing through the deep valley, waiting for me, and I unleashed destruction upon them. I ripped through their flesh with my teeth and my talons as they tried to use theirs to pierce my iron scales.
They failed. I did not.
By the time I was finished with them, they were nothing more than a mess of limbs bleeding black blood into my soil.
They had never stood a chance.
And neither would the woman that was fated for me.