Korg hunched down on the first landing of the lobby stairway. He caught himself grooming his thick red cowlick framing his gray scaly iguana-like face. Embarrassed, he stopped and drew the hood of his black cloak tighter around his head. The small spiral horn growing from the center of his forehead still peeked out. Curling his whip-like tail at his feet, he worried the bony club tip with his claw. His narrow lemon-yellow eyes closed as he reminded himself that she couldn’t see or hear him. What he looked like didn’t matter. Wrapping his arms around his knees, he buried his face and waited for her to come out of her apartment anyway. He could walk through the wall and see her anytime he wanted to but he felt he didn’t belong there. It was one thing to follow her around town, but another to invade her private space. It wasn’t he felt uninvited. Quite the contrary actually because Donna seemed willing to invite anyone. He wanted to believe that if she could see him, she would invite him too and that bothered him. He was the Keeper of Nusquamton. This was his place. No one finds sanctuary here without his invite. Yet here he was, in his own domain, wanting an invite.
To make matters worse, he wasn’t sure Donna belonged here in Nusquamton with the rest of them. Five years ago Nusquamton named her for an invite and it confused him. Donna was too cheerful and bright to have deep wounds in need of healing as far as he could tell. Nusquamton insisted. He observed her for a year to ensure that there was no mistake. Eddie’s name came up and Korg had misgivings until shortly after that Eddie’s sister died. Clarissa’s name came up as an immediate need and Korg assured himself that Nusquamton was in proper working order. Donna’s name never left the queue. The domain persisted with the invite. Her father died but she accepted it gracefully. She even dove into a whirlwind romance and moved closer to Nusquamton. Four years passed and she went through men like children go through candy. Then this year she met up with a guy, named Alan Jensen, in a band and she stuck with him. For the first time, Korg found himself uncomfortable with Donna’s situation. He didn’t like the way he grabbed her or the way he always had a reason to spend her money. The relationship between Donna and Alan worsened over time. Korg feared this guy would break her. He surprised himself with the desperate desire for her to not be wounded. It was against to rules to interfere, but her name was on the list so he put in his special ad in the paper. If she chose not to save herself, or could not save herself then he would be there to pick up the pieces. That was his job after all. It relieved him when she saw his ad and jumped at the chance to bail out of the relationship. He marveled at her perseverance.
He smiled slightly as the bony plates for ears twitched at the familiar sound of her door lock clicked. Peering over his elbow, he willed himself still as he observed her from his perch. She came out of her apartment wearing a rich blue tea length dress that showed off her legs and curves. He caught his breath as he drank in the soft glow of her dark skin against the fabric. Her pixie cut charcoal hair framed her face as her wide bronze eyes sparkled with an impish light. Today though her face seemed troubled as she locked her door. She didn’t appear to hear Clarissa exit her apartment.
“Hey Donna,” Clarissa said, dressed for work.
“Oh hey there,” she said. Forcing her brightest smile, she turned around to greet her.
“Are you okay?” Clarissa asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Just talked with my mom. She just had to tell me that today I’m meeting the man of my dreams.”
Clarissa smiled a little. “What is she a fortune-teller?”
“As a matter of fact she is and she’s in town with the carnival today.”
“Is she the real deal?” Clarissa asked.
“For everyone but me,” Donna said, spreading her hands out. “She can’t get it right for me.”
“Is it a family thing?”
“No, it’s just this guy doesn’t exist.”
“How do you know that?”
“I just do.”
“How long has your mom been telling you this?”
“Sixteen long years.”
“How old are you now?”
“She’s been telling you about the man of your dreams since you were ten?”
“Look,” Donna said, “don’t hate my mom. You don’t understand.”
“I understand it hurts.”
Donna pointed to her forehead and smiled. “Hey remember always,” she said, “stand tall.”
Korg watched the two women leave the lobby together. Sixteen years was a long time to wait for the man of your dreams. He hadn’t been aware of that promise. If her mother truly had the gift of sight then this man had to exist. Either her gift was weak and thus the details weren’t clear enough for her, or something was blocking them from coming together. Her mother called and said it was today which meant this man was close by. Recalling the pained expression on Donna’s face, Korg decided he would follow her to investigate what he had missed all this time. If she was lucky, she would meet this man. He paused at the lobby exit with the thought of her leaving Nusquamton. Once she found the man of her dreams, she would be happy and have no reason to stay. He didn’t know how to feel about that other than he wanted to see her happy. Resigning himself to his fate and his task to heal the wounded, he left the building to follow her.
The sea of people, sound, and smells blended and washed over Korg in a haze. Chaotic diversions of the yearly carnival attracted the humans around him by the droves. Those that might see him would know him for what he was and leave him be. The carnival folk tended to understand. Finding Donna in the crowd wasn’t difficult. Her radiance brought him comfort and he always found it easily. Even though she couldn’t see him, he still kept his distance. As her spirits lifted while she meandered from booth to booth, his did too. His heart ached as he envied the man of her dreams. She would find him and then she would be gone from Nusquamton.
“You fancy her do you?” the old woman asked.
“What?” Korg said, pulling his hood tighter.
“I know what you are child,” she said, “and I see you pining.”
“I’m not pining,” he said. “She’s staying at my keep.”
“Ah protecting the flock are we?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
The old woman smiled. Even her wrinkles seemed to smile as her warm bronze eyes twinkled. She patted the bright purple turban knotted around her head before leaning on her table. A black sheer cloth decorated with shimmering rainbow butterflies covered its surface. A crystal ball rested on the center of the table with a deck of tarot placed to the right.
“Too many have forgotten their true covenants,” she said. “Many domains are rotting in ruin. Some have fallen to corruption. And some need to evolve.”
Korg never took his eyes off Donna as the old woman spoke. The sunlight seemed to shine brighter on her as the breeze gently ruffled her hair and dress. He resented how this peaceful old woman could see and speak to him but to Donna he was just a ghost. The old woman took his hand and turned his palm up. He expected her to read it.
“Sometimes child you need the darkness to show you the light,” she said.
She placed a small box in his hand and wrapped his clawed fingers around it.
“When you are ready,” she said, “give this to the light in your life.”
Korg opened the small box to find a small antique skeleton key hammered into a loop. He gave the old woman a puzzled look and she just smiled her wrinkly full faced smile at him. Shaking his head, he put the key back in the box and slipped it in his pocket.
“Thanks, I’ll keep it in mind,” he said.
“Love and light to you child,” she said.
Comforted by her blessing, he smiled. “Love and light to you as well.”
After parting ways with the fortune-teller, Korg sensed his own kind among the crowd. It was rare for his kind to cross paths. Each domain served a different purpose. He gazed longingly at Donna. Korg wanted more than anything to stay with her but that wasn’t his mission today. He needed to figure out what prevented her from finding the man of her dreams. If another of his kind was also here then that meant there was a good chance they were the source of the interference. They were not to interfere with the fate of humans, but the old woman spoke of corruption. He had no idea how the corrupted domains avoided retribution but it was happening. Some even went so far as to steal from other flocks. Delivering retribution wasn’t his task. His covenant was to attend to his flock and heal them from their misery. Which meant if one of his own blocked her destiny then he had to unblock it. If this man truly didn’t exist then he had to heal her pain. Otherwise, he had to guide her to a path of patience. Beyond that, it was not his pace to interfere with the matters of men. Leaving Donna behind, he tracked the spiritual energy of his kind through the crowds of people.
It wasn’t long before he caught sight of a pale-skinned tall, broad-shouldered man dressed in a white flamboyant cowboy costume. The artistic brass buttons stood out with the black filigree embroidered hems of the coat. His pants had matching outside seams and he wore shiny white boots. His platinum blond ponytail trailed down his back like a fine ribbon. Korg’s stomach churned as he saw through his glamor enchantment. He recognized this one as Lorot Satholig with his unusually long stinger-tipped tail and yellow scaly skin. Lorot saw him and winked with his lizard-like violet eye. There was no doubt in Korg’s mind what Lorot was here for and it had nothing to do with destiny today. Lorot took distinct pleasure in luring and harvesting humans from the flocks of other domains. Korg had lost some to him in the past. Lorot even managed to take one before Korg could deliver an invite once. He came for Donna today in broad daylight, ignoring the risks and consequences.
Anger welled up inside Korg as he followed Lorot. That visibility glamor enchantment he had on should never be used so lightly or so boldly. A glamor like that was intended only for delivering an invite into one’s domain. It was never intended to roam huge crowds like here in this carnival. It risked exposing them all. Additionally, Donna was in danger of far worse than not meeting her destiny. He refused to let Lorot get in the way of that or bring her harm. Keeping a close tail on him, Korg vowed he wouldn’t fail to protect his flock again. His heart sank as Donna bumped into him.
“Oh I’m so sorry,” she said as her drink sloshed, nearly missing the all white outfit.
“Well hello there, little drop of heaven,” he said. “Didn’t expect to find a treasure like you in a place like this.”
Korg sighed as she stepped back and flashed Lorot her best smile. She wasn’t taking his bait.
“Again, I’m sorry. I must be going,” she said. “I’m supposed to be meeting someone. Excuse me.”
He resisted the urge to punch Lorot as he grabbed her by the elbow when she tried to maneuver past him.
“Now why would anyone leave a little lady like you alone?” he said. “What if one of the carnival folk here snatched you up?”
Donna whipped around, yanking her arm free. “They wouldn’t because my mother is here today,” she said, pointing at her mother’s booth. “I don’t need your protection from anyone.”
Lorot frowned as he saw the old woman frantically beckon with her hand. Donna waved back to the old woman, glared at Lorot, and stormed away. Korg had no idea if the fortune-teller really was her mother or not, but he was grateful she had the excuse to break from him. As Donna spoke with her, Korg stepped up to Lorot. A lazy grin spread across Lorot’s face as he saw Korg.
“Leave her be,” Korg said.
“You know the rules Korg,” Lorot said. “They are all free to choose to their domain.”
“How is it a free choice when you’re tricking them?”
“I tell them what lies in my domain,” Lorot said, “do you even bother to do the same?”
With smug satisfaction, Lorot put his hat back on and blended into the crowd. Korg stared after him, stung by Lorot’s words. He offered a place of healing from misery but it was true, he never stated that to a single soul he had invited. The only information he gave was an address and that safe space was available. Those that wanted that would come of their free will and find their path to healing in their own way. He refused to force anyone. Lorot directly offered oblivion where they would eventually fade to nothing. Korg did not understand how anyone would willing choose that, but Lorot insisted that many do to escape the pain. Turning to Donna, he wondered what sort of pain she had that attracted Lorot’s attention. The idea of her being wounded by a promised but unfulfilled destiny distressed him.
As she left the old woman’s booth, he saw the concern on her face. Judging by how she looked at the faces in the crowds, he guessed the conversation the two of them had involved the man of her dreams. He tailed her as she made her way through the throng of people. A hot flame of anger flickered over him as he saw Lorot drape his arm across her shoulders and pulled her snug to him.
“A shame you’ve been stood up.”
Donna shoved Lorot away from her. “I haven’t been stood up,” she said.
“He’s not here now is he?” he said, arm held wide and he turned himself around in a circle. He winked at Korg as he did.
“I never said it was a guy,” Donna said.
Leaving Lorot behind, she kept to the busiest parts of the carnival. It made tracking her hard, but he knew she was being smart. Lorot obviously made her uncomfortable and she didn’t want to be alone with him. Korg needed a better plan to help her than just following her. As the afternoon baked the crowd, Donna got in line of an iced coffee booth. Deciding to take the risk, Korg ducked behind a booth and cast a similar glamor enchantment on himself. Hopefully, the enchantment would hold for most of the day. He didn’t want it to dissolve unexpectedly in the middle of a crowd here. As he came back to the booth, he saw Lorot sitting next to Donna at a picnic table. Clenching his fists, he walked over to them as Lorot ran a finger along her arm. He relaxed some as she jerked away from him and scooted over to give herself space. It relieved him to see that Lorot hadn’t won her over with his charms. Unsure of himself and with no plan to save her, he slowed down as he approached the table.
“I told you before,” she said, “I haven’t been stood up. You need to leave.”
“Donna?” he said. “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”
She looked up at him and grinned. His heart melted as she stood up to take his hand into hers.
“It’s no trouble at all,” she said, her face inches from his. “I’m so glad we could finally meet.”
For a moment, Korg fancied kissing her before dismissing the thought. He wouldn’t be the one to block her from her destiny either.
“I don’t believe we’ve been formally introduced,” Korg said.
Donna smiled as she wrapped her arm around his. “I don’t believe we have,” she said.
“Oh come on,” Lorot said, standing up from the picnic table, “you can’t possibly have me believe that you’ve been waiting for him all day.”
Letting go of Korg’s arm, Donna whipped around. Her bronze eyes flashed fiercely as her fists clenched. Anger flickered from her, threatening to blaze.
“What exactly is your problem, you creepy crawly lizard freak?” Donna said. “What part of you need to leave do you fail to understand? I’m not interested in you.”
It seemed her words cut Lorot as much as it did Korg. He didn’t know why she used the slur, but she had.
“I see,” said Lorot, tipping his hat, “I wonder if you’ll feel the same about your friend, Korg, here if he ever shows his true colors. I’ll be around.”
They watched him blend into the crowd until he disappeared. Donna wrapped her arms around herself and sighed. Turning to him, she looked shook up. Korg wanted to hold her but after what she had said, he felt he shouldn’t. He opted for a hands-off approach.
“Are you okay?” he said.
“Yeah, I’m sorry,” she said. “He just really got to me is all.”
“Because he’s a lizard?”
She chuckled and dropped her arms. “No, not because he’s a lizard,” she said. “Because he’s creepy and he wouldn’t quit following me around.”
“So you don’t hate lizards?” he asked.
“No, I don’t have a thing against lizards,” she said. “In fact, I have a lizard tattoo on my back.”
His face grew warm as he stared at his shoes. The idea of seeing her naked back excited him more than it should.
“What you have a thing against tattoos?” she asked.
“No,” he said, still staring at his shoes and wishing his body would chill.
Donna bent down to meet his gaze. “Then what?” she asked, “A tattoo fetish?”
He jumped back a little. “No, it’s just,” he said and saw the gleam in her eyes. “You know, I’m just going to stop.”
Grinning, she wrapped her arm around his again. “So what did you say your name was again?”
“I didn’t,” he said, smiling back, “but it’s Korg D’dhal.”
“Really?” she said.
“No,” she said, “Surely you can’t be the same one as the landlord of the building I live in.”
“Afraid so,” he said.
She placed both hands on his face with mock shock. “Holy cow. I have found the most legendary beast known to man,” she said. “The elusive landlord. Wait until the neighbors hear about this. I’ll be famous.”
Korg just blinked at her, not knowing what to say. The warmth of her hands thrilled him and her energy was infectious. He found himself basking in the glow of her attention. However, she really wasn’t making much sense to him. He hoped she didn’t plan on dragging him through the lobby to show him off to the other tenants. The glamor enchantment won’t last forever and it would be his luck that it would wear off in front of all of them and cause a scene. Too soon she removed her hands to fuss with his scarf. His heart ached.
“Look I’m sorry. It was a joke,” she said. “It’s just none of us has met you in person before is all. I didn’t mean anything by it. I’m sure you have your reasons.”
“Well as long as you don’t plan to show me off.”
“And share you with the others?” she said, wrapping her arm around his tightly. “Not a chance in hell.”
His heart skipped a beat to hear those words. She shouldn’t be flirting with him. He shouldn’t be letting her flirt with him. Getting her away from Lorot was all he needed to do, and now he should go but he wanted to stay. It was wrong and selfish to desire attention never meant for him. Thwarting her destiny would only wound her more and risked breaking his covenant. Her eyes met his with that smile of hers and cursing his weakness he closed his eyes. His voice betrayed him before his wisdom could override it.
“What would you like to do, Donna?”
“We can try the rides if you’d like,” she said.
Korg floated with lifted spirits as he let her guide him through the crowd to the carousel. His smile grew wider each time her gaze met his when she squeezed his arm. As they sat in the chariot on the carousel, she held his hand. This simple gesture sent his heartbeat pounding in his ears. The heady faint scent of spiced apples on her skin enticed him. He wished he had normal, human hands to touch her with not claws. The glamor enchantment could only hide so much. She favored him now but she wouldn’t if she saw him without the enchantment. No one ever did so he lived a life of perpetual solitude. When the ride came to a stop, he resolved to find the man of her dreams. That was until he helped her off the carousel by placing his hands on her waist to lift her down and she ended right up against him. Her arms felt natural wrapped around his shoulders. She was only a breath away as heat coursed through his veins begging for that kiss.
Korg broke away from the embrace, his heart breaking. He couldn’t do this and ruin her destiny. The man of her dreams was still out there somewhere and she had to find him.
“What’s wrong?” Donna asked.
Blinking away his tears, he gave her a half-smile. “In a couple of hours the sun will be setting,” he said. “Wasn’t there someone you were supposed to meet today?”
Donna grinned and nodded. “So you heard that?”
“Yes, that’s why I stepped in so Lorot would back off and leave you alone.”
“Oh,” she said with raised eyebrows. “There’s some tables over there by the lake. Would you like to join me?”
“What about the guy you’ve been waiting for? Aren’t you worried he won’t find you?” he said. “Won’t he be put off if I’m with you?”
Donna looked off to the horizon with a far away look on her face. “I have a feeling he knows where to find me no matter where I go,” she said, “and that he knows to butt in when he needs to.”
Early that morning she had insisted that he didn’t exist. Now she seemed confident that he would find her anywhere and that the company she kept wouldn’t cause an issue. He wondered what brought on the change of heart as she returned her gaze to him. As she took his hand and kissed it lightly, he caught his breath.
“Seriously, you have nothing to worry about,” she said. “Come on.”
Cursing himself, Korg allowed Donna to lead him to the picnic area by the hand to the lake shore. She sat at the table closest to the water with the tabletop against her back. He straddled the bench to face her, aching with the need to hold her. His mistake was that he observed her way too long before inviting her to Nusquamton. If he had just invited her from the beginning without question, she would have found the man of her dreams by now. Her wound would have healed and she would have left. A deep emptiness ripped through him at the thought of her leaving. Her laughter, her good cheer, and her high spirits not only helped the flock but it helped him too. It might be selfish of him but he wanted her to stay. He didn’t pull away as she took his hand while she watched a pair of swans swim in the lake.
“You know,” she said, “swans mate for life. They are some of the few animals that do. They are a symbol of true love.”
Korg followed her gaze to watch the swans preen and groom each other. “It’s a shame that love doesn’t always work out for us.”
“Better to love and lose than to never love at all.”
He looked back at her and marveled how much she glowed with an inner light. Her soul’s energy diffused through her skin and shone like moonlight. A soft smile played his lips as he realized that she truly had become the light in his life. Donna turned her head to catch him staring at her.
He shrugged and ducked his head shyly. “Nothing really, it’s just I overheard what you said to Clarissa that the man of your dreams didn’t exist,” he said, “and I’m just wishing that it could’ve been me is all. For however long as you’d have me.”
He pulled out the small box the fortune-teller had given him earlier that day. Donna opened it to find the antique key bent into a loop. Trembling, she took it out to examine it. Holding it in her lap, she got a faraway expression on her face again for what felt like a painfully long time to Korg. A small smile spread across her lips as she looked up at him. She quietly cupped her hand around the side of his face. Closing his eyes, he prepared himself for her polite rejection. That key was a mistake. He had no idea why the fortune-teller told him to give it to her. He should have had a proper ring for her like a normal person. Not that it mattered, there was no way Donna would want someone like him anyway.
“I’d like that,” she whispered.
His heart sang as his head reeled with disbelief. “Really?” he asked, “You mean that?”
“Yes,” she said. Her smile was brighter and thrilled his heart.
He hugged her tight, promising himself he would tell her everything as soon as they left the carnival.
“And you call me a deceiver and thief,” Lorot said. “You haven’t even shown her what you really look like yet and here you are trying to steal her away from the man of her dreams.”
Donna quickly slipped the looped key on her pinkie finger and stood up. “This doesn’t concern you,” she said. “You need to leave.”
“Oh but it does concern me when you have the potential of joining my flock,” he said, snapping his fingers.
An arcane circle composed of purplish light formed beneath Lorot’s feet and revealed his true form. Korg stood up and joined Donna’s side. His cunning violet eyes gleamed at Korg from his scaly yellow reptilian face. A crown of bony plates nested between a pair of horns on his head. His tall, broad-shouldered body still sported the long white coat but claw-like feet replaced the boots. Enormous wings spanned out behind him as his human-like hands gripped the belt on either side of his horseshoe buckle. The long stinger-tipped tail remained in constant motion as if ever ready to strike.
“So Korg,” Lorot said, “you know the deal. Escort Donna into the Exclusion Array so she can see who you really are.”
“Don’t bother,” she said, “I can escort myself.”
Stunned, Korg watched Donna march into the center of the arcane circle. She glared at Lorot as she clutched her handbag. Sighing, he stepped into the circle to face the truth. Lorot’s laughter filled the air between them as Donna and Korg stared at each other in silence.
“Now that you realize that you have been betrayed,” Lorot said, “I gladly offer you entry into my domain. Caros Spira, the Hallowed Sanctum of Oblivion, where all your troubles will be forgotten.”
Donna’s eyes never left Korg’s face. Her expression remained gentle. “What is the name of your domain?”
“Nusquamton,” he said.
“Darryl calls it the Pleasant Regions of the Miserable,” she said. “Is that correct?”
“Yes,” he said.
She nodded and turned to Lorot. “I have not been deceived,” she said. “I choose to remain in Nusquamton.”
Korg’s heart skipped a beat. He told himself it only meant she wasn’t choosing Lorot’s domain. She was choosing Nusquamton. It didn’t mean Donna was choosing him.
“Have it your way,” Lorot said. “There’s always the others.”
“Not on my watch,” Donna and Korg said in unison.
Lorot paused with his head cocked, unsure how to respond to them.
“You need to leave,” Donna said.
Korg stepped in front of her defensively as Lorot hissed at her.
“Just remember Korg,” Lorot said, “if you wound her in any way, you break your covenant and I can’t help but wonder if Nusquamton will allow her in if she is unwounded.”
As the arcane circle faded and restored their glamor enchantments, Lorot adjusted his cowboy hat with a wink and walked away. Donna folded her arms and glared at him until he vanished in the crowd. Korg resisted the urge to run away. She might be angry with him, but he deserved it and at least she chose to stay. Perhaps in time he could be forgiven. He folded his hands in front of him and waited for her to decide what to do next.
“That guy doesn’t quit,” she said, relaxing her arms to her sides.
“Lorot?” Korg said. “No, not as long as he sees the chance of deep irreparable wounds.”
“The coils of sleeping death,” she said, “why would I ever go there?”
“His domain, Caros Spira,” she said. “Basically suicide.”
“It is his covenant.”
“And yours?” she said. “The town of nowhere?”
“I shelter the wounded so they can heal,” he said. “I aide and guide them to healing when I can.”
“When they’re healed they leave?”
“But you can’t?”
“No, I’m tied to Nusquamton,” he said. “I must return to the domain daily or it will rot.”
Korg gestured to the setting sun. Donna took his hands into hers.
“Sounds like a lonely life,” she said. “Maybe you should walk us home now before it gets too late?”
He nodded quietly, grateful she held his hand as he squeezed it. “Yes,” he said, “I do need to get home.”
As they walked through the crowds back toward the carnival entrance Donna asked, “What did he mean by Nusquamton allowing me in?”
“We’ll worry about it if it happens,” Korg said.
Donna stopped and let go of his hand. “I am not a child,” she said. “He’s saying that if I’m not wounded I can’t get in isn’t he?”
He turned to her, hoping to hide his pain as he spoke. “It’s more than that,” he said. “You won’t be able to find Nusquamton again and I won’t be able to find you ever again either. It will be as if neither of us existed to the other.”
“But I’ll remember you, right?” Donna said.
Korg shook his head. “No, like all dreams,” he said, “Nusquamton will fade.”
“While you remember everything?” she asked.
“I guess some of it might have faded, but otherwise yes.”
He walked away then so she wouldn’t see him struggle with this. Donna caught up with him and wrapped her arms around his arm. They left the carnival in silence. Little by little, the crowds of people thinned out as they walked down the sidewalk. As they approached home, it was just the two of them. Slowing to a stop at the steps, Korg turned to Donna. He had watched this part play out so many times for her in the past from afar but he was unsure if it applied to him here. As much as he wanted to kiss her, he couldn’t ignore the fact that he was not fully human. Plus there was still the matter of thwarting her destiny. That was his fault. Before he could think on it longer, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and hugged him tightly.
“You’re worried about losing me?” she asked.
Her heady scent of spiced apples filled him so he clung to her to steady himself. Doing this brought the bare skin of her neck right to his lips. As he felt the light touch of her kiss on his neck, restraint shivered away. Korg trailed timid kisses down her neck to her collarbone. He gained courage as she welcomed and returned his advances. Mindful of his claws, he traced her jaw with his thumb before leaning in to kiss her. The kiss quickly deepened to a soft moan. Urgency rose between them as their tongues mingled. He grasped at the few threads of self-control he had left as he felt himself drowning with desire. Compared to him she was fragile. If he wasn’t careful she would be injured or worse. A stronger, better man wouldn’t have started this. His throat released a gentle purr as her fingernails dug lightly into his scaly skin. He wasn’t the stronger, better man tonight to turn away this bit of heaven. A stronger man wouldn’t find strength in the way she gripped his shoulders for support to stand. A better man wouldn’t be pressing her against the stair railing the way he was. He needed to reign this in and slow it down somehow.
“You two need to get a room,” Eddie said.
Donna broke away, ducking her face into Korg’s shoulder. Her hands slid to his chest, but the way she clutched him made it clear that her desire hadn’t cooled. Trembling, he held her as he tried to compose himself.
“I’m serious Donna,” Eddie said. “If the cops catch you out here like this they’ll nail you for indecency.”
“Yeah,” Donna said.
With shaking hands, she pulled away to fix her dress. Korg looked away. This was his fault.
“Hey sorry to meet like this,” Eddie said, offering to shake his hand. “I have to hit the club. Got to work. I’ll catch up later.”
Korg shook his hand, a bit surprised. The tenants of Nusquamton this time around have turned out to be a truly compassionate set of people. He wondered if his flock had always been this way and he just missed out on it.
“I’d like that,” he said.
Eddie smiled and patted him on the shoulder before heading down the sidewalk.
“Would you like to come inside my apartment?” Donna said.
The impish gleam in her eyes reignited the longing inside him. He couldn’t resist the hand she offered him. Giddy excitement bubbled from her as she led him to the lobby door. Apprehension filled him. He didn’t like what he needed to do. It was his fault for starting this and he shouldn’t let it continue. Korg prayed that he could do this the right way and that she would be forgiving. Maybe if he was lucky she wouldn’t be able to see him anymore once he crossed the threshold and Nusquamton stripped his glamor enchantment. No, that wouldn’t solve anything. She would just be upset then. He opened the door for her and followed her in. Lingering at the entrance, he waited for her reaction.
“What are you waiting for?” she said, leaning against the wall next to her door. “Come on.”
His tail swished across the floor behind him as he clasped his hands in front of him. He wished he had the comfort of the glamor to hide behind now. Crestfallen, he watched the excitement fade from her eyes. Surely she saw how beastly he was. Hanging his head, he stood where he was. He had nowhere else to go other than the landing and that wasn’t where he wanted to go. Where he wanted to go was to her arms but she won’t invite him there as long as he looked like this.
“Korg, please come here,” she said. “You look fine. I promise.”
Stunned, he glanced up to find tears running down her cheeks. All else was forgotten as he swiftly crossed the lobby. Placing one hand on the wall behind her, he wiped away the tears with the other. They flowed freely now as sobs broke up the words as she tried to speak.
“I waited so long … never came for me … Every year … same dream and it was always about … I painted … every year my mother said … my destiny … Sixteen long years … now you’re here … so sweet … and gentle … you’re ashamed of something …” she said, grabbing his shoulders and resting her head on his chest. Her sobs calmed to ragged breaths. “Is it something I said? Did I do something wrong? Am I not good enough?”
Korg closed his eyes and kissed the crown of her head. He wasn’t going to let her go now or ever. This man of her dreams, whoever he was, had his chance. Sixteen years was a long time to make someone wait. Maybe the guy really didn’t exist after all. Giving up feeling guilty about it, he certainly didn’t want to see Donna cry over this anymore. If the guy ever showed up, he would deal with it then.
“You’re perfect,” he said. “More than I ever dreamed of.”
“Then what is it that you’re ashamed of?”
“I’m beastly and demonic for one,” he said. “And for about five years I’ve followed you around trying to figure out why Nusquamton wanted you invited when you weren’t wounded. During that time I think I might have fallen for you but you couldn’t see or hear me not like you can now.”
“Most people can’t see you?”
“Usually the few that can are afraid of me,” he said. “I thought you would be too. Never imagined a day like today was possible.”
Donna wrapped her arms around his waist and smiled. “You’ll never be alone again,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere Korg.”
Relaxing a little, he smiled back. “We’ll see,” he said, “Maybe the man of your dreams will finally show up, sweep you off your feet, and carry you to your destiny.”
She raised an eyebrow at him and she slipped her hands into his shirt. “He already has.”
As he tried to process her words, her fingertips trailed across his back along the waist to the front where the scales transitioned to smooth skin. The moment those fingertips brushed the sensitive soft skin on his stomach, his hand on the wall dug into the plaster. His fingers sank down to the third knuckle as he raked down, letting out a deep groan. Korg grabbed the door frame with his free hand has he lurched forward with a shudder. She had taken him by complete surprise and he hadn’t been prepared. He realized that he was going to need to get a better handle on himself around her as he steadied his breath. Opening his eyes, it crushed his heart to see her mortified expression as she stared at his hand still in the wall. Four deep jagged gouges ran down the wall next to her head with blood dripping from the edges. That could have been her back, her ribs, or anywhere on her body. He was a monster. She wasn’t safe with him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, blinking back the tears. “I can’t keep you safe from me.”
“Your hand,” she said, reaching up to touch it.
“No, I’ll be fine. I promise,” he said and opened her apartment door. “You need to go in and be safe until I can control myself.”
“I’m sorry Korg,” she said, lifting her hand to touch his cheek.
He flinched away from her hand, tears streaming. “Donna please, I can’t right now,” he said. “That wall could have been you and I don’t ever want it to be you.”
She stared at his hand in the wall again. Anger twisted her face as tears of her own welled up in her eyes. She glared at him as her hands balled up in fists.
“I waited,” she said, “and I want to be with you.”
Korg wanted to tell her everything would be alright but he didn’t know that. He didn’t know if he had what it took to keep himself in constant check to keep her safe. It was already clear he couldn’t turn her down or tell her no. Still aching with need for her, he struggled to keep his hands away from her. Words failed him as she rushed into her apartment and slammed the door. Trembling, he removed his unharmed hand from the wall. Resting his head against her door, he closed his eyes to let the tears fall silently for a moment to curse his weakness.
“I love you,” he said. “I’m sorry I’m not strong enough.”
He lingered there for a moment until he felt the sobs threaten to come. Swinging around to flee to his landing, he nearly ran into Clarissa. Quickly he pulled his hood up over his head and wrapped his cloak around him as he hunched over, attempting to hide as much of himself as he could. She was already afraid of him and he assumed she had to have seen at least the wall. He just wanted to disappear but he had nowhere to go and Clarissa was in the way of the landing.
“Korg is it?” Clarissa said, taking a step toward him.
“Yes,” he said. He hated how his voice cracked and his breath shook.
He kept his head down and backed up. Clarissa was known for her temper and he didn’t want to make her angry. He didn’t want to frighten her. He didn’t want to frighten anyone. Exhaustion weighed him down as he tried to gauge Clarissa’s intent, keep his distance, and be as non-threatening as possible. He just wanted a place to rest. Actually, he’d rather be with Donna where the only thing he worried about was her safety. Korg gazed at her door with regret. The landing was the only place left for him to go. Clarissa stopped moving and regarded him with a sad look for a moment. Her posture reflected the exhaustion he felt as she sat on the lobby steps. Patting the space next to her, she gave him a gentle half-smile.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” Clarissa said.
Korg looked at her and then he shifted his gaze to the landing. Clarissa turned her head and stood. Pointing at the landing she looked back at him. She stepped away from the stairs.
“Sorry,” she said, “I forgot you prefer being up there.”
“Thanks,” he said, taking the steps in pairs.
Reaching the corner of the landing, he curled himself up as tight as he could with his knees up. Even his tail tucked up under his cloak. Resting his chin on his knees he closed his eyes, wishing to disappear from Clarissa’s sight. To his disappointment, he heard her sit back down on the steps.
“Where do you live?” she asked.
“Here,” he said without moving.
“Upstairs behind the locked doors?”
“No,” he said. “Right here.”
“On the landing? You sleep here?” she said. He heard her stand back up. “When was the last time you ate?”
Korg buried his face in his arms. Something in her voice made him uncomfortable and ashamed. Not daring to speak, he shrugged.
“I’ll bring you something okay?” she said, “I’ll be right back.”
When Clarissa’s door clicked shut, the tears slid down as his body shook. If he had held Donna when he lost control he would have ripped her wide open. Images of her blood on his hands filled his mind. Her cold blank eyes haunted him. He told himself it wasn’t real, but it didn’t help make it stop. The sobs continued to rip his throat. Something lurked in his the shadows of his mind that he didn’t want to see. He didn’t ever want to see it again. The body of his mother shielded him from being discovered by their assailants. Dead bodies everywhere, ripped open and bleeding. His father the last to fall so the family of a little girl could escape. They were best friends. He knew that deep down but now her name was forgotten with her face a blur. She was lost to him forever. He remembered her apples spilling at the door as they fled. She screamed for him as her mother carried her out. He hoped then as he did now that she was safe.
“Donna is safe,” Clarissa said. “You did good.”
“What?” Korg said, looking up as he wiped his tears away. He hadn’t heard her come up the steps.
She set a hot bowl of chili down near his feet. “You were talking just now,” she said. “Look I saw what happened. You did keep her safe.”
“But she could have died.”
“But she didn’t because you were careful to start with,” she said. “You two will work it out.”
“I hope so.”
“For now you need to eat,” she said.
“I can’t eat that.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“There’s meat in it.”
“What’s wrong with meat?”
Korg just looked at her. “I can’t eat that.”
A soft knock came from Donna’s door and it opened. Korg smiled as he looked over to see her hand reach out just enough to hold out a bag of apples.
“I’ll trade these for whatever it is that has the meat in it,” Donna said.
“Done,” Korg said.
Clarissa shook her head and carried the bowl over to Donna’s door. “The whole bag?”
“Yes, the whole bag.” Donna peered around the door frame.
Korg quickly ducked his head, his heart hurting as he spoke. “Please, get back inside.”
“Why is he doing this?” Donna asked Clarissa as she stuck her head back into the apartment.
“Not sure,” Clarissa said, “but I think tonight might have triggered a bad memory.”
“I’m going to grab him some blankets and pillows,” Donna said. “He can’t sleep there like that with nothing.”
“Okay, I’ll give him these and come back.”
“I don’t need pillows or blankets,” Korg said as Clarissa brought him the apples. “I’m fine.”
“Yes, you do. Donna is sick with worry. So take them and use them,” Clarissa said. “It will help her feel better.”
“Fine,” he said as he tore open the bag of apples.
One sniff told him they were McIntosh apples. A boyish grin spread across his face as he plucked one out for each hand. After the first two bites, raw hunger gnawed at him. He made quick work of the apples as Clarissa brought over the four pillows and the two blankets.
“Do you have any pillows left for yourself?” she said as Korg polished off the last apple.
“Yes I have plenty,” Donna said, twisting back behind the door frame. “I have more apples too.”
Seeing Korg’s face light up Clarissa said, “I’ll get them.”
Korg munched through the second bag of apples with the same gusto as he had the first. The apples brought him comfort and peace. Seeing Donna’s impish face peek around the door frame brought him a happy sort of nostalgia that he couldn’t explain. Sleep crept up on him as he finished the last apple. He couldn’t remember when it was the last time his stomach was full like this.
“Thank you,” he said exchanging smiles with Clarissa and Donna.
“Okay now, it’s getting late and I think the two of you have had quite the day,” Clarissa said. “Since I don’t sleep much anyway why don’t I play watchman tonight and you get the shuteye.”
“What?” Korg said, as he sank into the fluffy pillows Clarissa had already stuffed around into his corner.
“I’ll sit right here and wake you up if I see or hear anything weird. I promise,” she said, draping the blankets over him.
Sleep claimed him swiftly in the secure knowledge that he was safe among friends.
The warm sunlight from the window woke him as Donna’s door open. Sitting up, the sight of her standing in the center of the lobby in a bright yellow floor-length dress pleased him. He remembered the girl child of his past saying that it was her favorite color because of his eyes. Donna turned to face the second landing and stretched. This revealed that her dress was backless. She had a twin pair of silver lizards in the style of his family’s emblem that traced the edge of her shoulder blades. Placed between the lizard tattoos was another tattoo. This one was the gilded crest of the Astral Covenant with the Eye of the Dimensional Seer in the center. Beneath the skin of each lizard tattoo, slightly above the shoulder blades, Korg saw movement that suggested a second set of shoulder blades meant for wings. Korg stood up, letting the blankets fall to the floor. As Donna brought her hands down to clasp them behind her back, he remembered the girl child used to do the same. Like the girl child with her long black braids, Donna looked up at him over her shoulder. Her impish smile filled her wide bronze eyes with a gleam. He heard both their voices in that moment.
“Morning Korg,” she said. “Sleep well?”
“Yes,” he said.
Clarissa cleared her throat. “I’m still here,” she said. “Just so you know. I gave Eddie a call to ask him to bring more food for Korg.”
Darryl came out for the mail and stopped when he saw the small gathering. “Well now,” he said, “what do we have here?”
“Well,” Donna said, gesturing to Korg, “meet Korg.”
“I wondered why you were all dolled up,” Darryl said, looking at Korg. “Good to finally see the voice of my chess opponent.”
“I assume it’s my turn?”
“Always my boy,” the old man said. “It takes you so long with one move I have about 20 moves planned ahead.”
“I’m never going to get that good.”
“Practice,” Darryl said as he collected his mail. Shuffling back to his door, he stopped to pat Donna on the shoulder. “Take good care of him. I leave him food but he never eats. I worry.”
“He’s vegan,” Donna said.
Darryl gave Korg a shocked glance. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“I honestly thought the extra plate was for Sheri out of sentiment.”
“People do that?” Darryl asked.
“Many do yes,” Korg said. “I could never take that.”
“Course not,” Darryl said. “That’s like messing with a grave site. Never thought to tell you directly.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“You’re welcome at my table,” Darryl said. “You hear? Anytime.”
Darryl nodded and shuffled into his apartment. Clarissa collected the blankets, folded them, and stacked them in the corner with the pillows. Korg watched her rub her forehead as she sighed.
“You stayed up all night for me?”
“Yes but I don’t think I would have slept anyway,” she said. “I hope you know you are welcome to my table too. I don’t have much but I will share what I have.”
“Oh, I couldn’t.”
“As many times as you have let the rent slide,” she said, “it’s the least I can do. I still say you need a better place to sleep than this.”
Korg studied Donna as she gazed at the torn up portion of the wall. His childhood friend once had glorious fairy wings. They sparkled in the light and glowed in the night. When news of the demon attacks spread, the adults pinned her down and clipped her wings. The sound of her screams and the sight of her blood sent him into a fury. It took eight adults to pin him down as they sliced open her back and clip her wings just beneath the muscle. They would never grow back and it was all so she could survive among the humans in plain sight. At that time, she was the last child born to their race. Even then he rejected their explanation that she must survive at all costs as he stared at her colorful broken wings in the puddles of blood on the floor. Panic rose as he saw her reach up to touch the still bleeding gouges in the wall.
“Don’t touch it,” Korg said, “I said I’d take care of it.”
He hurried down the steps but her fingertips made contact with the blood. Eddie entered the lobby with his arms full of groceries, as a pulse of light shook the building. Apples spilled to the floor as Eddie dropped to his knees. Clarissa grabbed the railing of the lobby stairs for support. Donna stumbled forward, her hands planted firmly upon the gouges to steady herself. Korg spread his wings out for balance as he crouched down. The building grumbled as Donna’s eyes glassed over and she placed her ear to the wall. Nusquamton spoke, but not to him and judging by her expression she wasn’t listening. Her second set of shoulder blades worked rhythmically. Doubt swept aside, Korg witnessed his long-lost friend use her gift of true sight. The building continued to tremble and groan.
“Give him back to me,” Donna said, “I can heal you but you have to give Korg back first.”
The building shook hard in response. Dust fell from the ceiling. Nusquamton’s displeasure filled the air.
Donna marched to the center of the lobby and glared at the ceiling. “It’s not your place,” she said. “You stole it from me.”
Walls cracked as the building groaned again. Donna scowled. She slipped off the looped key from her finger and tossed it into the air. As it straightened itself out, the emblem of the Astral Covenant glowed beneath her feet. The key spun vertically in the air and glowed brightly with white light.
“Hear me now Nusquamton,” Donna said, her hand raised above her head. “My name is Dawna the First Born of the House Azmias. I will cleanse the rot from you. I will have my Quantum Knight returned to me. This is my house. My birthright. My covenant. Not yours and you will obey.”
The key shattered into thousands of shards of light, sinking into every surface of the building’s interior. The rumbling quieted into stillness. A tattoo of the antique key wrapped around Donna’s ring finger as she lowered her hand to her side. The emblem beneath her feet faded as she offered her hand to Korg. A click echoed not just through the lobby, but across all the dimensions, as the door on the second landing unlocked.