The night sky was a vast black curtain littered with a thousand frozen sparks—the stars so far away, their light so feeble, that if the constellations did indeed have stories to share, then they could only relate to ancient gods, whose names had been forgotten. To the bulk of humanity, the threat from invaders beyond their world was a silly idea . . .
Yet there was one, in the night, who did worry about the beyond.
What might come out of it. What might kill the Earth.
In the midst of the dark sky, high above a snowcapped peak, there floated a warm green emerald. Egg-shaped as well as transparent, it was roughly seven feet from top to bottom; and it emitted a soothing green light that eclipsed handfuls of stars as it slowly, but purposely, drifted across the heavens.
At the heart of this egg stood a thirteen-year-old girl, with flaming red hair and mighty green eyes. It was almost as if the light that shielded her from the night—and the planet’s gravity—emanated from her eyes alone. For there was something so potent about them, so deep . . . that they could not be called human eyes at all.
The girl’s name was Ali Warner.
Yet Ali had other names as well: Geea, Alosha—titles that had been bestowed upon her by members of a race of elementals that lived alongside humanity. These latter usually went about their business unseen by mankind, because they lived in a dimension close to us, but also far away. The elementals were like characters on a TV program that were separated from the Earth by a single channel.
Many elementals—elves, dwarves, dragons, trolls, leprechauns—knew that Ali Warner was the queen of the fairies. That she had in fact chosen to be born as a human being in order to stop a war that was coming between them and mankind.
Ali, however, knew that was not the complete truth. For even though the elementals were only two or three days away from invading the Earth, the real enemy of mankind—and the elementals for that matter—was a creature called the Shaktra.
It was concerns about the Shaktra that had brought Ali to this unique place—floating above Pete’s Peak—when she could have been at home, warm in bed, asleep. Her single most disturbing problem related to a remark her sworn enemy, Karl Tanner, had said moments before she had killed him. That gruesome, and somewhat satisfying event—she had broken every bone in his neck—had happened only five hours ago.
As if it had been written in the sky with stardust, she recalled every word of their final exchange . . .
“I want you to tell me something.”
“You’re going to kill me!”
“I have this question. I want you to answer it.”
“Geea . . .”
“Who is the Shaktra?”
Karl, knowing he was doomed, had laughed at her then.
“You fool, she’s your sister!”
And she had replied, just before she had killed him:
“I thought so.”
That final remark of hers had been something of an exaggeration. The last few days, while traveling in the elemental kingdom, she had picked up a wide collection of hints that indicated she was related to the Shaktra. But in her heart of hearts, she had never truly accepted the possibility.
Ali tried to laugh at the irony of the situation, but failed. The sad truth was, Karl’s words had thrown her into a mass of confusion. For the last month—ever since she had learned she was not a normal teenager—she had been bracing herself that she had to kill the Shaktra, or else be killed by it. Now the situation had transformed itself into something too tragic to contemplate.
Ali shifted her gaze from one side of the icy mountain peak to the other, back and forth. Through the luminous field that enveloped her, she could sense the chilly night, but it felt distant. In no way did it disturb her focus. A power inherent in the magnetic field allowed her to fly. It moved as she wished to move. She was not sure how fast she could fly, but had no doubt she could outrace the fastest jet ever built.
The field was also a shield of sorts. It could be used to amplify certain natural weapons she possessed. For example, before leaving the elemental kingdom, she had been attacked by a host of dark fairies and . . . well, they were all dead now. A vicious clap of her hands had ruptured their internal organs, and now their guts lay spewed over the rocky side of Tutor—a mountain in the elemental kingdom that served as a gateway between the two dimensions.
Tutor was the elemental’s parallel version of the Earth’s Pete’s Peak. The mountains were similar, but not identical. For that matter, nothing in the elemental world was exactly the same as Earth. Certainly, the elemental cities bore scant resemblance to human towns.
To the right, Ali could see the city of Breakwater, huddled beside a dark gray sea whose salty breeze she could taste from thirty miles away. The small town was home, and it was where Cindy Franken and Nira Smith were presently awaiting her return.
On Ali’s left—on the other side of the mountain—was another town, Toule, where a host of puzzles and pain awaited her. For it was in Toule that a strange woman named Sheri Smith had held her friends, Steve Fender and Cindy Franken, captive for the last few days—while Ali had been busy in the elemental kingdom. Indeed, it was in Sheri Smith’s basement that Steve had died—from a stab wound to his heart. Karl had committed the diabolical deed, but it had been Sheri Smith who had given the order.
Yet the evil woman had not killed Cindy.
Also, she had left Nira behind, her daughter, for them to take care of.
Nira, who appeared to be a helpless autistic child of only six years old. Yet whom Ali suspected possessed more power than she and the Shaktra combined.
Why had Sheri Smith given them Nira?
To answer these questions, and others, Ali had decided to return to Toule tonight—to storm Sheri Smith’s huge home with force if need be. Stretching her arms out to her sides, as if she were an eagle preparing to pounce on an unknowing prey, Ali lowered her head and glided down toward Toule—specifically, toward the trees at the edge of the town. There Sheri Smith had constructed a mansion, and a successful software company—Omega Overtures, a midsized firm famous for its end-of-the-world computer games.
As she flew, Ali allowed the tips of the trees to brush her open palms. Sweeping so close above the forest was stimulating. Sucking in an invigorating breath, she allowed the odor of the firs and pines to turn her shimmering field a deeper shade of green.
Ali loved trees, almost as much as she loved people, and fairies.
For Ali, it was a guilty pleasure—the thrill of flight, when there was so much at stake. But she had not possessed the ability long, and she wasn’t sure if she wasn’t minutes away from running into Sheri Smith . . . and dying. She figured she might as well enjoy it while she could.
Ali knew little about the evil woman. But Radrine—the once mighty queen of the dark fairies, who now lay dead on the slopes of Pete’s Peak—had provided Ali with a significant insight. There was an elemental form of the Shaktra and there was a human form of the creature. The monster, like a coin, had two sides. It was able to operate in both worlds at the same time.
Yet as Ali flew closer to Toule, she did not know if the Shaktra was capable of bringing all her magical powers to bear onto the Earth plane. If that were the case, then she didn’t stand a chance. Ali had only come near the creature in the other world—she had not actually seen it with her eyes—but that near brush had been enough to convince her that she was no match for the elemental form of the beast.
The beast, the Shaktra, Doren, her sister.
Nevertheless, Ali felt little fear as she neared the house and office complex. She was too angry. Sheri Smith had killed her friend, Steve. Ali wanted payback, revenge—the ugly kind. She was in no mood to talk, to compromise. If she could, she planned to kill Sheri Smith.
Sheri Smith was evil, Ali thought. Sheri Smith did not deserve to live.
Tucking in her arms, letting her shimmering field dissolve, Ali slowly settled into a grassy meadow two hundred yards north of the Smith mansion, then crept silently through the trees toward the house.
The place was a maze of interlocking glass cubes. To Ali it looked as if it belonged at the demented end of the architectural spectrum. It seemed as if it had been designed by someone who had only a ruler and a pencil. Yet she imagined others might view it as a structural masterpiece. Steve—blast his brave heart—had been impressed by it.
Certainly it was like no house Ali had ever seen before. The nearby offices were of similar design. Both were ultramodern, sterile, all steel and glass—the products of a cold vision. The fact that the buildings were surrounded by a grove of lovely trees made them appear even more bizarre.
This was Ali’s second visit to the mansion in the last few hours. This was where she had found Steve’s dead body. This was where she killed Karl, and rescued Cindy and Nira. Yet when she had fled with the others, she had deliberately left Steve’s body behind. She had deposited it upstairs, in the living room, on the couch, for the police to find. She had her reasons. Steve and Cindy had been missing for days. The authorities had to be brought into the matter. There was no getting around that. Or so she imagined . . .
Ali sent Cindy to the police to report Steve’s murder, and the fact that she and Steve had been held hostage by Sheri Smith for several days. But when the police went to examine the mansion, they found no body. To make matters worse, when the two cops returned to the station, they reported to their captain that the mansion did not even have a basement. They said this right in front of Cindy, making a fool out of her.
Yet there was a labyrinth of tunnels and mines beneath the Smith residence. They were impossible to miss. She had given the police precise directions to the location of the hallway trapdoor that led to the underground maze. How come the police couldn’t find it? It couldn’t have just disappeared.
Nevertheless, Ali had figured out Steve’s disappearance. After they had left the house, but before the police had arrived, Sheri Smith must have returned to the mansion and grabbed his body. The excellent odds that her theory was accurate made Ali sick to her stomach. To think what that monster had done with his remains . . .
The only good thing that came out of the whole mess was that the Toule police let Cindy go. They did not even call Steve’s parents. They passed the whole thing off as a childish prank. After a scolding, a cop drove Cindy home and dropped her off outside.
But Cindy did not rush inside to Mom and Dad. Instead, she hurried to Ali’s house—as per Ali’s instructions. That’s why Cindy was at her place, watching Nira. Someone had to play the part of babysitter. The child needed constant care. The whole time Cindy was with the police, Ali was taking care of Nira. Indeed, they had thumbed a ride back to Breakwater together.
Ali paused when she reached the mansion porch. Paused and listened—with all the power her high-fairy status bestowed upon her. Again, she let her field expand, as she searched the floors of the mansion without the use of normal senses. For Ali possessed an inner vision—that allowed her to see through walls—and magical hearing—with which she could hear a solitary spider crawl across a floor miles away.
Within a minute of arriving at the house, she was certain it was deserted.
Was she disappointed? Yes and no.
She had been hungry for blood, but not anxious to lose any of her own.
The front door was unlocked. She went inside.
All the lights were out, but she did not need them to see, so she left them off. The entryway and the kitchen were as she had last left them. She did not waste time there. The living-room drew her, the couch where she had left Steve’s body. Yet, as the police had reported, the sofa was empty. Furthermore, it was absolutely clean, not stained with blood. It made no sense. Just a few hours ago, as she laid her friend down, a trickle of blood had seeped from his chest and onto the couch.
How had Sheri Smith removed the stain? Using eyes as powerful as a microscope, Ali searched the material. Yet there was not even a speck of blood on the sofa.
“Did she replace the couch?” Ali asked herself aloud.
It was possible, but unlikely. It was the same couch!
Who kept spare sofas around for such emergencies?
Ali had hardly finished her examination of the sofa, when the agony of losing Steve swelled in her chest. Earlier, she had told herself to just keep moving, to take care of business, to grieve later . . . But now, seeing the spot where she had laid Steve to rest, and finding him gone, the void grew that much larger. So big she felt as if a part of her dropped into it and vanished forever. In that instant, she knew that she would miss him until the day she died.
As Ali stepped away from the sofa, she noticed a flat-screen computer monitor on a nearby table. No keyboard fronted it. For that matter, there was no machine attached to it. The rectangular screen shone with a haunting purple glow. A single black wire led from the rear of the monitor, directly into the wall, where it vanished.
That was it.
The monitor had not been there before. At least it had not been turned on.
Nor had the second monitor—lit up with the same purple light in the main hall—been there when the three of them had fled the house. Yet the monitors only hinted at a much greater mystery to come. Her mind practically tripped and fell into an abyss when she went to examine the hallway trapdoor.
It was gone. Just gone.
There was not a trace of it, and the wallboard that now covered it was not new. It did not smell of fresh paint. There were no new nails. No carpenter had worked this spot in months. The police had not been the fools she had imagined. The hallway looked like a perfectly normal hall. And she could recall no fairy power—from her human life or her past life as a fairy queen—that could account for such a transformation of matter.
The evidence brought fear to Ali, finally. An icy wave crept through her chest, and in her head. The power of her adversary had just grown by leaps and bounds. The Shaktra—on both sides of the dimensional mirror—possessed abilities she did not.
Yet, if that was true, it raised a puzzling question.
“Why did she flee?” Ali asked herself.
If Sheri Smith could change matter so easily, Ali pondered, then the witch should have simply waited here and killed the infamous Ali Warner. Rid herself once and for all of the pesky brat from over the hill.
To be blunt, that was all that had separated them for thirteen years—a simple mountain. For a being who could manipulate matter, Ali could not understand why Sheri Smith had not killed her when she was a child. Even when Ali was an infant, the woman must have known who she was. Why hadn’t she strangled her in the cradle?
Perhaps her mother had protected her.
It was possible Amma was much more powerful than Ali knew.
As Ali stood in the center of the hallway, an unexpected wave of dizziness swept over her. It seemed to come from outside, yet she sensed no one in the area. Maybe she was just exhausted. She could barely recall when she had slept last. Oh yeah, it had been in Uleestar, in the Crystal Palace, on the silken bed in her royal chambers. How long ago had that been?
Too long, her weary body replied.
The dizziness did not depart until Ali left the house. She was grateful when it finally stopped altogether, and briefly wondered if it had anything to do with the weird purple light the monitors gave off.
Ali still had a gruesome task to perform before she could return home. Earlier, fleeing the mansion with the others, she had grabbed Karl’s body; and then, with a fast fairy-leap through the air, had deposited it a mile up the side of Pete’s Peak. There was no way she was going to allow his measly murder to get pinned on her.
She had to dispose of his body in a more permanent fashion.
His death—at her own hands—was not going to cause her to lose a minute of sleep. After all, the beast had murdered Steve and her mother, and enjoyed it. He had been a mere pawn of Sheri Smith, true, but a willing one.
Outside, away from the mansion, Ali checked to make sure she was alone, then invoked her magnetic field and floated once more into the air. Yet she did not rise high, barely above the treetops. Karl’s body lay well-hidden beneath a row of bushes, but she remembered the spot well. She reached it less than a minute after leaving the Smith residence.
To her disgust, his blue eyes had popped open. She had to bend and force them shut. His red lips had darkened; they strained into an unnatural grin. Rigor mortis must be setting in. His flesh was practically brittle—and the same temperature as the ground. For a moment she considered digging a six-foot hole and burying him. Her fingers were as strong as steel forks—she had no need of a shovel. But fresh holes left visible signs, and it was possible—as more of the details surrounding the last few days emerged—that the police might search the forest, even this far up the mountain.
In the end, she decided, it would be safer if Karl just disappeared.
The truth be known, she had considered the idea of dumping him in the ocean even before she’d left her house. That was why she had a roll of duct tape in her coat pocket. Dropping to her knees, she gathered a host of rocks and began to stuff them inside his shirt and pant legs. Soon he was twice his normal weight, and it was then she began to wrap him in the strong adhesive, around and around, as a mother spider might spin a web about a tasty morsel. Once more, she felt not a twinge of remorse as she worked, and when he was all but a gray mummy lying on the green grass, she did not pause to say any final words in his memory. Just picked him up, threw him over her shoulder, and soared into the sky. Had he been alive, she would not have been able to carry him. His living field would have interfered with her fairy magic. But as it was, carrying him was no different for her than clasping a bag of meat.
Ali flew a long way, west over the dark sea, over a hundred miles out, before she dropped him. She was a quarter of a mile high in the sky at that point, and the eastern rim of the world had begun to glow with the faint light of a new dawn. It had been a long night. As she turned in the air and headed home, accelerating at mind-numbing speed, she heard a far-off splash as he hit his final watery grave. It was only then that Ali Warner remembered that she had once cared for Karl Tanner. But if she shed a tear for his early departure, then it was lost on the wind that scarcely managed to penetrate her magical green field.
Copyright © 2006 by Christopher Pike