Donna wiped her low forehead, smearing gray paint across her dark skin. She squinted her wide bronze eyes as she studied the portrait. The center featured the face of a noble humanoid dragon with a glowing horn and kind eyes. In the faded backdrop, a human face with a square jaw bearing the same kind eyes stared off at the luminous moon. Absently she scratched at a thin eyebrow, adding more paint to her face. Satisfied that she finished the painting, she cleaned the brushes.
Planting her hands on the hips of her messy yellow frock, she gazed at the face of her completed portrait. “Another year, another dream, another painting,” she said.
She ruffled her pixie cut hair with both hands. Paint blended through her charcoal tresses. The phone rang.
“Oh crap,” she said and wiped her hands on her blue leggings.
Picking up the phone, her mother started talking without a greeting. “You had another dream this year didn’t you?”
“Mom,” Donna said, “we’ve talked about this before. He isn’t real.”
“I’m telling you,” she said, “I’ve seen it and he is real. He’s closer than you know. You meet him today.”
Donna rolled her eyes. “Mom, didn’t you say this like what, five years ago?”
“Give him a chance dear,” she said, “and don’t forget the carnival is in town. I hope to see you. Love you.”
“Yea okay,” Donna said, “Love you too.”
Donna hung up the phone and took a shower. Her mother told her when the dreams first came that he was her destiny and some day he would come for her. She was ten years old back then. She believed in the dragonkin and faeries. Grateful that the water hid her tears, she cried silently. No one understood her life. Her father left the carnival while her mother stayed with it. Her mother decided it was best that she lived with her father and he accepted. Over the years it turned out she shared her mother’s gift. She was to keep it secret. It was a lonely life. Even worse, the more she hid it the more it faded. Now the only thing she saw was the yearly dream. The loss of her gift hurt deeply like she had disconnected from herself. She no longer wanted to hope for finding her destiny. However, she got dressed in a rich blue tea length dress that showed off her legs and curves. She slipped on a sturdy pair of buckled flats for the carnival. Grabbing a shoulder strapped purse, she headed out to the lobby. Locking the door behind her, Clarissa’s greeting surprised her.
“Hey Donna,” she said, dressed for work.
“Oh hey there,” she said. Forcing her brightest smile, she turned around to greet her new friend.
“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.”
It only took an hour to walk to the carnival. As usual the chaotic diversions of the yearly carnival attracted people by the droves. The familiar sea of people, sound, and smells provided comfort to Donna. Her spirits lifted while she meandered from booth to booth. She greeted old and new faces from the carnival folk. Many of them asked her if she visited her mother yet. At first she planned to avoid her mother’s booth, but changing her mind she visited a food stand nearby to see her mother talking to nobody. Worried, she pretended not to notice as she ate her hotdog. Now was not the time to visit with her mother. Donna relaxed as she watched her mother make the small box disappear. She didn’t know how she did it, but it was clear her mother was practicing an act and not talking to herself. Relieved that her mother wasn’t losing her mind, she turned to find another booth only to bump into someone.
“Oh I’m so sorry,” she said as her drink sloshed, nearly missing the white outfit.
The man was tall with broad shoulders and pale skin. His playful violet eyes sparkled as he swept off his white cowboy hat. Sunlight shimmered in his platinum blond hair pulled back at the nape of his neck. His long white coat, with large burnished brass buttons, brushed the ground. A black filigree design traced the hems of the coat. Hooking his thumb into his belt with his free hand, he revealed his half-unbuttoned white silk shirt and over-sized horseshoe belt buckle. His pants were tight-fitting and white as well sharing the same filigree design along the outside seams, tucked into a pair of polished white cowboy boots. Leaning in to look down at her, he gave her a lazy smile.
“Well hello there, little drop of heaven,” he said. “Didn’t expect to find a treasure like you in a place like this.”
Donna’s heart sank a little as she silently cursed her mother. This wasn’t him and she couldn’t just bail the carnival until she proved to her mother the man in her dreams wasn’t coming. Finding herself wishing that he would come, she gave this stranger her best smile.
“Again, I’m sorry. I must be going,” she said. “I’m supposed to be meeting someone. Excuse me.”
Careful not to touch him, she tried to maneuver past him but he caught her arm by the elbow. Anger curled in her gut.
“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.”
The stranger frowned as he saw the old woman frantically beckon with her hand. Donna waved back, glared at him, and stormed away.
“Thanks, Mom,” she said as she got to the booth, “I was afraid I wasn’t going to get rid of him.”
“He’s not the one dear,” she said.
“I know that.”
“He’s here,” her mother said. “He’s trying to find his way to you.”
“Is this another premonition of yours, Mom?”
“No,” she said. Her wrinkled face filled with her beaming smile. “I met him. I spoke with him. He’s real and he’s on his way.”
“He can’t be real,” Donna said.
“There are things in this world you have yet to learn,” she said. “Things that are meant for you.”
Donna rolled her eyes and turned away, but her mother took her hand. Her eyes pleaded with her to listen.
“Mom, we have been over this so many times.”
“Donna listen to me very carefully,” her mother said. Sternness replaced the smiles. “The days of hiding are over. Use your gifts. All of them.”
Her mother nodded. “He is here. I swear it,” she said. “Use those gifts dear. Shine bright and find him. Last chance.”
Donna squeezed her mother’s hands. “Okay. Love and light to you.”
“Love and light dear.”
She left her mother’s booth and wove through the crowd of people. Donna didn’t know if she really believed that her mother met with the man in her dreams but her words did carry finality in them. It’s been years since she had used her sight. No one emitted auras for her anymore. Other than the yearly dream she hadn’t had a premonition or vision either. Scanning the endless sea of faces, she had no idea how she was going to find him if he was even here. Her skin crawled as an arm draped across her shoulders and pulled her snug.
“A shame you’ve been stood up.”
Donna shoved the blond creep 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.
“I never said it was a guy,” Donna said, telling herself to shut up and move on.
As she strode through the throng of the crowd, annoyance evolved into panic as she couldn’t shake the creepy blond guy. Hoping to spot her man, she kept to the busiest parts of the carnival. Afternoon drifted in and warmed the crowds below, making the beverage lines unbearably long. Donna endured it anyway as she fought back tears of frustration. She understood a little now how Clarissa must feel every single day. If she dealt with this every day she would never leave home but Clarissa braved a job. Donna sat down at a picnic table and resolved to have the same courage. The blond man joined her, sitting too close for comfort.
“It’s crying shame,” he said, “to stand up a pretty thing like you.”
She glared down at her iced coffee as he ran a finger along her arm. Jerking her arm away from him, she scooted over to give herself some extra space. Donna flashed him an icy stare and prepared to tell him off. His lizard-like pupils and scaly yellow skin surprised her. Checking the crowd around her, she noted that no one else paid any mind. When she turned back to his face, he seemed normal again. Unsure of herself, she remained silent and returned her attention to her drink.
“I told you before,” she said, “I haven’t been stood up. You need to leave.”
“Donna?” a quiet, gentle voice said. “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”
She looked up at the end of the table and grinned. His lemon-yellow eyes peered behind two long red cowlicks framing each side of his bronze square face. Standing up to greet him, she found that he only came to just above her shoulders. Donna really liked how his simple black clothes tastefully complimented his masculine build. The mid-length deep blue scarf was a classy touch. It was him. The man from her dreams, just like he had been in her very first painting. She couldn’t believe it. Her mother was right.
“It’s no trouble at all,” she said, taking his hand. “I’m so glad we could finally meet.”
“I don’t believe we’ve been formally introduced,” her rescuer said.
Donna smiled as she wrapped her arm around his. “I don’t believe we have,” she said.
“Oh come on,” the blond stranger said, standing up from the picnic table, “you can’t possibly have me believe that you’ve been waiting for him all day.”
Anger threatened to blow as Donna couldn’t believe this guy. He wouldn’t take a hint or catch a clue. She let her man go as she whipped around with clenching fists to give the pale stranger the stink eye. Her mother told her to use her gift and she knew what she saw. This guy wasn’t human. Time to call him out and chase him off for good.
“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.”
“I see,” said the pale man, 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. The stranger’s wounded expression wasn’t what she expected but he masked it quickly. Turning to Korg, she saw he appeared upset too. She sensed what she had said upset him as well. If he really was the man in her dreams then she shouldn’t have said what she did. Clearly, the stranger was the same race as he was. Now she came across as insensitive and cruel. He was going to think that she was racist or something.
“Are you okay?” he said.
“Yeah, I’m sorry,” she said. “He just really got to me is all.”
“Because he’s a lizard?”
Donna chuckled and dropped her arms. She wished the ground could just swallow her whole right there for being an idiot. Her intent wasn’t to hurt Korg’s feelings. That was the last thing she wanted to do. Somehow she needed to find a way to set things right between them.
“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.”
Korg got a strange expression on his face as his cheeks flushed. He quickly ducked his head to stare at his shoes. She had no idea what could be possibly wrong with a tattoo that would trigger a response like that.
“What you have a thing against tattoos?” she asked.
“No,” he said, still staring at his shoes and fidgeting with his scarf.
His behavior suggested that maybe the tattoo on her back somehow generated naughty thoughts he wasn’t comfortable with. Finding that cute and wanting to test her theory, 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 swallowed. “You know, I’m just going to stop.”
So that was it. He was trying to envision where the tattoo was and it involved her being at least partially naked. She ought to save him by changing the subject.
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.”
Donna watched her humor whiz by him as he just blinked at her, slightly petrified. She wondered if he ever dated or lived under a rock. It was also possible that she was coming on too strong. After all, he had no idea that she had waited for him for sixteen years. As it was, she still wasn’t sure why she was waiting for him or what her destiny was. All she knew was that she had to wait and now he was here. As exciting as it was, she didn’t want to scare him off on the first day.
“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.”
She gave him a teasing smile as his eyes met hers. For a moment as he closed his eyes, she saw a faint superimposed image of the other version of him that she had seen in her dream. His small spiraled horn shimmered faintly before fading away. The gray scales on his skin flickered and then disappeared. Certain she had seen the silhouette of elegant wings, she squinted. She couldn’t tell which was the real Korg.
“What would you like to do, Donna?”
“We can try the rides if you’d like,” she said.
Donna guided him through the crowd to the carousel, making sure not to let go of him. If the human form wasn’t real, then she understood. There was no way someone like him could walk among normal folk out in the open like today without a disguise of some kind. As she thought about how brave he had to have been to do this, she squeezed his arm. Normal people would never accept someone of his kind. If he were to be exposed he would be killed or worse. As they sat in the chariot on the carousel, she held his hand. His life had to be a lonely one. She thought about how he offered shelter for those that were hurting and in need of safe space. Everyone that lived in the building was in pain or in danger. He must be looking out for them just as he had come to rescue her today. Perhaps it was the closest he dared to get to anyone. She wondered though if anyone looked out for him. Her mother told her that she had a destiny with this man. When the ride came to a stop, she decided that she would be the one to look after him. Korg was not going to be alone anymore. 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 her heart raced towards that kiss.
Korg broke away from the embrace, disappointing Donna. It felt right to be in his arms. She considered telling him that he was the man in her dreams but feared it would scare him away. It wouldn’t do her any good to finally find him only to have him run away. Something was making him uncomfortable and she worried that she was coming on too strong.
“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, feeling sheepish, and nodded. He must have overheard her conversation with Clarissa. Maybe she didn’t need to worry about it after all. This was a good opportunity to tell him.
“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 as she thought about her answer. She couldn’t just tell him outright that he was the one and expect him to understand or accept it right away. So she hoped that she was able to find the right words to let him know that he was welcome and that he wouldn’t be interfering.
“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.”
She returned her gaze to him to take his hand and kissed it lightly. It delighted and saddened her in equal measure to see him catch his breath from that. The fact that such a simple gesture from her thrilled him this much made her happy but it also meant that he lived his life without it.
“Seriously, you have nothing to worry about,” she said. “Come on.”
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, appearing uncertain and slightly uncomfortable. An air of gloom hung over him. She wondered if maybe he had overheard her conversation with Clarissa after all. Maybe he felt guilty being here as her protector. Thinking about it, she supposed that she would too in his shoes. Wondering how she could fix this, 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.” Donna turned her head to catch him staring at her intently. “What?”
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 a small box for her. Donna opened it to find an antique key bent into a loop. Trembling, she took it out to examine it. She remembered this key from her childhood. The memories were hazy concepts at best. Holding the key in her lap, she tried to remember. Her father hammered it into the loop. Her mother slipped it on her finger. A spell was cast. They said this was her birthright. They said that for now her gifts and memories would be sealed away inside the key. They said it was the only way. Someday the key and everything else would return. He promised to not to forget, to find her, and return her key at any cost. She promised to wait. They were just children back then. Here he was, with the key finally, yet it took him so long and he didn’t appear to know her like a childhood friend. Why did her mother have this box earlier today? Surely this key had more answers but she didn’t know how to use it. She couldn’t remember if anyone told her that part. What she did remember was the desperate desire to never leave him.
“I’d like that,” she whispered. Her heart anchored in the deep belief that she never wanted to leave him again.
“Really? You mean that?” he asked as his eyes lit up.
“Yes,” she said. She smiled brightly at him, delighted to see him happy.
As he hugged her tight, she promised herself that she would try to explain everything to him. She would tell him about the dreams, show him her paintings of him, and even thank him for bringing back her key.
“And you call me a deceiver and thief,” creepy stranger 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 pinky finger and stood up. She had her fill of this guy and his interference.
“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 the creepy stranger’s feet and revealed his true form. Korg stood up and joined Donna’s side. His cunning violet eyes gleamed 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,” yellow creep said, “you know the deal. Escort Donna into the Exclusion Array so she can see who you really are.”
This guy assumed that either she couldn’t see and hear him now or that he continued to appear human from outside that circle of his. None of this felt foreign to her. Before getting the key she might have figured it was because of her weird mother. Now she guessed it’s because at one time she lived this life even if the memories of it weren’t clear. Either way, she refused to let this asshole scare her.
“Don’t bother,” she said, “I can escort myself.”
Stunned, they watched Donna march into the center of the arcane circle. She glared at the creep as she clutched her handbag. Okay, so he did make her a little uncomfortable but she wasn’t about to run from him. Sighing, Korg stepped into the circle. That creep’s laughter filled the air between them as Donna and Korg stared at each other in silence. She really wanted to punch him right about now.
Korg’s lemon-yellow eyes remained the same. They were in her favorite color in fact. His thick, straight, red hair still formed two curling forelocks of hair from the cowlicks on each side of his forehead like before but now a small spiraled horn sprouted from the center. The face was no longer fully human. It resembled an iguana somewhat, but not terribly so. His eyes and lips were still human-like but he had gray scaly skin and sported the iguana ridge-like jaw line. Where the ears would be were bony plates like small fin-like fans. He was still a bit shorter than her and his masculine build remained unchanged. His hands were mostly human, save for the thick, sharp claws instead of fingernails. His wings were large and elegant like the dragons she read about in books. She wondered how fast and high he could fly with those. She kept her face as neutral as possible as she saw his whip-like tail, tipped with a bony club. The cutest thing about it was how it twitched like a cat’s tail. Vague memories of games with that tail came to mind as she gazed at it. Now was not the time for that. His clothes made her a little sad to see. The hooded cloak was obviously intended to hide in and his entire outfit was black. He didn’t use to dress like that. He used to have a tunic of bright yellow and blue but that wasn’t the most troubling part of it. The fabric was threadbare in places and tattered at the hems. Korg’s neglect was heartbreaking.
“Now that you realize that you have been betrayed,” he 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. She kept her expression gentle for him. “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 the creep. “I have not been deceived,” she said. “I choose to remain in Nusquamton.”
“Have it your way,” Lorot said. “There’s always the others.”
“Not on my watch,” Donna and Korg said in unison.
He 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 the creep hissed at her.
“Just remember Korg,” he 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, he adjusted his cowboy hat with a wink and walked away. Donna folded her arms and glared at him until he vanished in the crowd.
“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 as he squeezed her hand. “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, his pain poorly hidden. “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 from her at that point, clearly bothered by the subject. What he said wasn’t entirely true. Instinct told her that she lived in Nusquamton before and she had never been one of the wounded back then. He didn’t remember her at all from then but he found her. She spun the looped key on her finger and wondered if this had something to do with it. If she figured out how to use it to unlock her gifts and memories maybe the answers could be found. It didn’t do any good to stand around here. 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 awkwardly. He appeared to be debating on what to do or say next. A hint of panic flickered in his eyes. Rather than to leave him hanging, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and hugged him tightly.
“You’re worried about losing me?” she asked.
Wobbling, he clung to her to steady himself. Doing this brought the bare skin of her neck right to his lips. She felt his hesitant breath as the rest of him stilled. Inviting him, she kissed him lightly on his neck to receive a shivering response. Korg trailed timid kisses down her neck to her collarbone. He gained courage as she welcomed and returned his advances. His touch was delightfully warm and gentle. 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. His throat released a gentle purr as her fingernails dug lightly into his scaly skin of his shoulders for support to stand. Her blood howled for more than just being pressed against the stair railing. The screaming beast within awakened with a lusting thirst that would not be denied.
“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, kneading his shirt with embarrassed worry. It was not her fault that her passion was a wildfire, not a small blaze. Even though Korg shielded her with his trembling body, she felt Eddie’s disdain. She knew he viewed her no differently than one of those club girls.
“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. It pissed her off that Eddie was so quick to place all the blame and responsibility on her.
“Hey sorry to meet like this,” Eddie said, offering to shake Korg’s hand. “I have to hit the club. Got to work. I’ll catch up later.”
Korg shook his hand, a bit surprised. “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, wishing the evening hadn’t gone sour.
He shyly took the hand she offered him with longing in his eyes. Giddy excitement bubbled in her as she led him to the lobby door. Maybe the evening wasn’t completely lost after all. He opened the door for her and followed her in. As Donna bounced over to her door, he lingered at the entrance.
“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. Her excitement faded as she watched his posture become crestfallen. He remained where he was, scanning the lobby. Donna assumed that now stripped of his magic cover, he felt ashamed of his appearance. Someone had to have hurt him, shamed him, and punished him for his appearance. It was that or he had changed his mind and he didn’t know how to tell her. She wasn’t sure which upset her more. It didn’t matter because he looked ready to bolt. Panic crawled inside her.
“Korg, please come here,” she said. “You look fine. I promise.”
Tears ran down her cheeks as she thought of losing him again. He swiftly crossed the lobby to place one hand on the wall behind her and wiped tears away with the other. The tears flowed freely now as sobs broke up the words as she tried to speak. She knew what she wanted to say but she had no idea if what actually came out made any sense.
“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 kissed the crown of her head. “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. It was time to be direct and blunt with him. “He already has.”
Not thinking about it, she slipped her hands into his shirt. 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. Donna thought she heard the wall scream as she stared at his hand still in there. Four deep jagged gouges ran down the wall next to her head with blood dripping from the edges.
“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. Yes, she was certain she could hear it whimper. 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. Everyone whisked her away from everything. Her whole life all she heard about was her stupid gifts. They weren’t any good if never used. She waited so long for him. Now he was pushing her away because of an accident. She refused to accept that this was goodbye. She refused to be sheltered forever. She wasn’t some fragile doll to be kept in a closet only to brought out for safe playtime.
“I waited,” she said, “and I want to be with you.”
His tortured silence spoke volumes. She rushed into her apartment and slammed the door.
“I love you,” he said. “I’m sorry I’m not strong enough.”
Donna leaned back against her side of the door. Angry tears burned hot on her face as she slid to the floor. “Excuse me all to hell for being too weak.”
Twisting the looped key on her finger, she longed for her memories. She let the tears fall as she remembered that somewhere behind this building was an apple tree, or used to be, where they played together. Joy coursed through her as she recalled her beautiful ghostly white wings. They bloomed with brilliant ribbons of yellow and blue when she kissed Korg for the first time under that apple tree. It was a chaste kiss on the cheek, but she meant it wholeheartedly when she told him that she was his forever. The adults were furious, kept talking about her imprinting too young and beneath her status. They blamed Korg for it. He was to be her knight, not her mate. He was to be caned for it. They had only struck him twice before her fury kicked in.
Donna closed her eyes and remembered how she tossed her key into the air. She could feel again how the energy flowed through her to pull up the array beneath her feet. That array connected her to the Astral Covenant directly and like all seers its energy flowed through it. She couldn’t remember what it said, but she knew it spoke to her that day when she begged it to protect Korg. The next thing she knew, she wielded the canes and it took her mother to calm the room and testify that she had witnessed the chaste imprinting. Her mother wasn’t angry with them. If anything, she seemed wistful as she gave them her blessing.
Donna pondered this revelation of her past as she listened to the muffled voices in the lobby through her door.
“Korg is it?” Clarissa said.
“Yes,” he said, his voice cracking.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” Clarissa said.
“Sorry,” she said, “I forgot you prefer being up there.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“Where do you live?” she asked.
“Here,” he said.
“Upstairs behind the locked doors?”
“No,” he said. “Right here.”
“On the landing? You sleep here?” she said. “When was the last time you ate?”
“I’ll bring you something okay?” she said, “I’ll be right back.”
Donna got up to look through her fridge. Chances were whatever Clarissa brought him, he wouldn’t like it. Korg was vegan. In each crisper drawer, she found a bag of apples. She grinned. This would cheer him up, but from the sound of Clarissa’s voice he hadn’t eaten in quite a while. Donna saw his clothes. Clarissa had to have seen them too. She got the feeling that he wasn’t being taken care of because that was her job. That had to have been what the Astral Covenant entrusted her with in exchange for its aid. All things come with a price and she had been willing to pay with her life. Then they took her away from him and forced him to live alone. She couldn’t remember yet why. Her mother gave them her blessing so there had to have been a good reason. All these years her mother did tell her he’d find her. When things settled down here, she planned to pay her mother a visit for more answers. In the meantime, she needed to focus on sorting out her emerging memories and whatever it was going on with Korg. She grabbed a bag of apples and returned to her door. Listening, she waited for a good opportunity to offer them.
“Donna is safe,” Clarissa said. “You did good.”
“What?” Korg said.
“You were talking just now,” she said. “Look I saw what happened. You did keep her safe.”
“But she could have died.”
Donna realized he was profoundly frightened. He was afraid of hurting her, but she knew that he had never hurt anyone. Someone, or something, planted that seed of fear in his mind and it had taken root. It was choking him.
“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?”
“I can’t eat that.”
It was time to intervene before Clarissa’s motherly instincts took a bad turn. Donna rapped on her door lightly to get their attention and opened it. She stuck the bag of apples out the door.
“I’ll trade these for whatever it is that has the meat in it,” Donna said.
“Done,” Korg said.
“The whole bag?” Clarissa said.
“Please?” Korg said.
“Yes, the whole bag.” Donna peered around the door frame, partly expecting to see the younger Korg wearing his yellow and blue tunic that matched her younger self’s wings.
Korg quickly ducked his head, his face troubled with shame. “Please, get back inside.”
His voice was still kind and gentle with her.
“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.”
He might have only partial memories of the reason for their separation. It’s likely he didn’t remember the same things she did. He could be blaming himself. Worrying about it wasn’t going to clear up their memories faster. She needed to keep busy for the moment.
“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.
She hurried to her bed and grabbed all but two of the pillows. Sleep was going to suck tonight but couldn’t possibly suck as much as sleeping on a bare floor. Donna stumbled through the apartment to dump them out the door for Clarissa before grabbing two of her nicest quilts. Her mother always said they would hold up to scales when she made them a few years back. Now she understood why. She paused at the door to watch him sniff the bag. It was gratifying to see his boyish grin as he plucked the apples from the bag. He was in his own little world as he ate them while Clarissa arranged the pillows behind him in the corner and placed the blankets on the steps.
“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.”
“I’ll get them,” Clarissa said.
Korg munched through the second bag of apples with the same gusto as he had the first. Donna leaned against the door frame. It comforted her to see him relax and find peace as he ate the apples. The nostalgia of lost times struck her as happiness lit up his face as he met her gaze. She hoped he would always look at her in that way. She felt more than saw the drowsiness in his eyes as he finished the last apple.
“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 behind him.
“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.
Donna watched Clarissa sit down on the steps of the lobby stairs. “Thank you,” she said. “Do you need anything before I go?”
Clarissa shook her head. “I’m good. Eddie will be back in a few more hours.”
“It’s that late already?”
“Yeah, so get some sleep already.”
Donna nodded and turned to go but paused to stare at the torn wall. She could have sworn it whispered her name.
“What?” Clarissa asked.
“I thought the wall spoke my name.”
“Pretty normal for today,” Donna said.
Too tired to make sense of it, Donna entered her apartment and quietly closed the door. She walked to her bed and sank into it. As she fell asleep, she dreamed of the memory of Korg’s knighting ceremony. Since she had already imprinted on him, it was also the day of their handfasting within the Astral Covenant. He wore a tunic that matched her wings while she wore a dress that matched his scales. There had been whispers of disapproval and how unfortunate it was she had imprinted beneath her status. Imprinting for her kind was a life bond. At least Korg’s kind typically lived longer than that of the Seer kind. Many often served two or three generations before passing on. As long as he lived so would she. She was the first-born child in the first house but the last child born in any house for many decades. Back then Donna didn’t understand other than she felt only her mother honored her ability to see and choose for herself. Now with older eyes, she saw that the concern here was keeping the bloodline pure and to continue their kind. They wanted her for breeding. Her choice and early imprinting robbed them of that. They resented her for choosing Korg. They resented her mother for honoring it. They resented the Astral Covenant for allowing it to happen. It was those bitter men that planted shame into Korg. They never granted him peace after that day. He was never safe without her. Anger roiled through her as the dream faded to deeper sleep.
Donna woke up to the walls whispering her name. The whispers were constant, faint, and overlapping. Oddly it reminded her of Lorot somehow. It made her skin crawl as she felt that something was wrong with the building. Searching the closet for clean clothes, she picked out a dress that made her smile. The color matched Korg’s eyes. Its fabric was thick and heavy but today it made her think of armor despite its open back design. She had a pair of matching heels but opted for the more practical black leather strapped flats. Dressed and ready to face whatever weirdness with this building, she left her apartment and marched into the center of the lobby. She focused on the whispering. Trying to discern its source, she turned to face the second landing and stretched. Hearing movement behind her, she brought her hands down and clasped them behind her back. She looked up at Korg over her shoulder. Flashing him her best smile, she forgot about the whispers.
“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?”
The whispering returned to the edge of her consciousness, like a bug in her ear. As the whispering persisted, Donna struggled to ignore it
“Well,” Donna said, gesturing to Korg, “meet Korg.”.
“I wondered why you were all dolled up,” Darryl said and looked 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.”
The whispering grew unbearably loud to the point that Donna couldn’t really focus on much of what was going on around her.
“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,” Clarissa said.
Darryl gave Korg a shocked glance. “Why didn’t you say something?”
The torn wall drew Donna’s gaze. Blood still dripped from it. That had to be the source of the whispering.
“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.”
Donna stepped over to that portion of the wall and stared at it. The voices were louder here but were still incoherent.
“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. She rubbed her forehead as she sighed.
The longer she listened to them the sadder it became like it was asking for her help. It wanted to be healed.
“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.”
Sensing that she could heal it, she reached up to touch the still bleeding gouges in the wall.
“Don’t touch it,” Korg said, “I said I’d take care of it.”
As Donna’s fingertips made contact with the blood, a pulse of light shook the building. She stumbled forward, planting her hands firmly upon the gouges to steady herself as she looked around. Korg spread his wings out for balance as he crouched down at the bottom of the lobby steps. Clarissa grabbed the railing for support. Eddie entered the lobby, with his arms full of groceries, only to drop to his knees. Apples spilled across the floor. The building grumbled as its voice became clearer. Donna placed her ear to the wall.
Come to me. Heal me. Be one with me. I will shelter you. I will protect you. Donna. Donna. Come to me. I’m dying.
Donna frowned. It spoke only words of seduction over and over again. Something was wrong. She sent her sight deeper until she found the ancient clockwork gears of the Astral Covenant. It no longer shone with brilliance. Toxic corruption grew everywhere like tangled vines encroaching the space of the gears. The taint spread itself to all domains.
Welcome home, Princess of Azmias.
The voice of the Astral Covenant reverberated in her heart, strong as ever.
Nusquamton is dying and with it, so is Korg. It is the demonic taint claiming your domain. Set your house in order. Reclaim your covenant.
Donna pulled her sight back away to see that Nusquamton was a parasitic creäture that the demons left. This building was all that was left of the domain. Korg was too young to understand the ramifications and together they forged a covenant. It fed off misery and pain so Korg agreed to shelter the suffering and it agreed to release the healed. Korg did it to preserve what remained of Donna’s domain so it would be here when he found her but it fed on his memories of her to ensure he wouldn’t find her. Unfortunately, it became attached to Korg and his suffering became its suffering. It didn’t know how to take care of him and as his neglect grew worse he suffered more. Instead of nourishing Nusquamton, Korg’s despair was poisoning it. Desperate to survive, it sent a summons for her even though it feared her. She could heal them both.
“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.
He made a covenant with me.
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.
I want to live. I choose not to harm.
“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.”
I brought you here. I beg your mercy and forgiveness.
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.
I do love him as my own. Please, help me.