The Storytellers: Anterria – Chapter 1
Posted by rblackbird on July 1, 2012
The beginning of a story is the hardest. The writer stares at a blank page, and a deep, cold fear may overwhelm him, like something is staring up from the page, willing him to withdraw. Many have experienced that fear, but few actually understand it.
That terrible push comes from what lies just behind the start. It pushes him away, pulling him apart, keeping the tale from the surface and damming up the river that is waiting to flood. Some call this a normal occurrence and, most of the time, it is; but there are other times when the peculiar fright runs so deep there sparks something nearly indefinable.
That spark is a word—the one that supersedes all others, which has the potential to ignite something great or turn it to ash just as quickly. It runs through covered paintings, songs left unfinished and novels left to rot. It’s a simple, coded virus that may taint even the loftiest ambitions. The only issue is not that there is no one to understand the nature of this word, but rather that there is no one who knows what it is.
And, because no one knows the word, it runs rampant through everything that exists. It often sparks creators to good works, but it just as often tears the creations down. If good exists, so also must evil. If light exists, so also must the Shadow.
“Rare” isn’t quite the right word; “unlikely,” however, is much closer to the mark. Hannah Merchant was an unlikely girl. She, by most people’s standards, lived an average life, like the other kids in her neighborhood. She attended a school with a good reputation, wore nice clothes and had enough family connections that she could have gone to any college and been anything she had wished—if she had wished for any of it.
With a head of flaming orange hair and a less than people personality, Hannah was considered a creature best left alone—a “temperamental artist,” and very proud of the title.
Hannah’s mother was the only person who did not believe in leaving her alone. They both had their own failings, boiling points and misunderstandings about the other, and the contention was only prolonged by the fact that neither had the slightest desire to get along.
Mrs. Merchant had refined tastes, regularly attending gallery openings and meeting important people. Hannah thought it was nonsense. Her mother loved elegance and quality, which she never failed to tell Hannah.
The two were almost complete opposites. Hannah once bought new
notebooks and pin-back buttons instead of the beige stilettos her mother had loaned her the car to get. Two separate worlds revolved one around each other, erupting in fireworks and meteor showers whenever they chanced a mother-daughter conversation.
There was one area, however, where the sixteen-year-old attempted to smooth the relationship as best as possible, if only as a selfish excuse for argument later. It was only one night a year, yet it gave her a great and peculiar pain on the inside, disguised with a pleasant, congenial shell. This yearly event was the Jamison New Year’s Eve party.
It would be easy, Hannah lied to herself as their silver car rolled across the gravel driveway. The great, columned mansion loomed before them like a tidal wave on the verge of breaking. It seemed every available parking space was filled, but the valet would find a spot for the car. It was the same every year.
She tried to ignore the quiet murmur of conversation from the front seat. Her father, the only man in the family, was also much different than his wife, but not in the same way as Hannah. He was timid and softhearted and, at times, it was almost like he wasn’t there.
The party was a formal affair, which only made things worse for Hannah. As she slumped in the lonely back seat, she wished for her black heels and yellow taffeta dress to become tennis shoes, jeans and a hooded sweatshirt. Wishing was useless, so she focused on the small leather journal resting in her lap.
Most of the pages were filled, but Hannah continued to cram words and pictures into every available space in ingenious ways. When times like these came, the journal was her lifeline. It was one of the few links to her personal world.
Hannah wanted so many things, but there was no one she felt that she could tell. On the shelf over her bed were dozens of worn notebooks, stuffed to the brim with her thoughts. The stories. The pictures. Places in her dreams. People’s faces.
She feared that if she breathed a word about any fantasies to her mother, or anyone like her, she’d be dragged to a padded room by the men in white jackets. So, those half-mangled volumes sat discreetly in a row, holding her true self, but also hiding it away.
The journal in Hannah’s lap was fairly new, but had already exploded with her quick, precise handwriting. The dreams and thoughts came faster now than she’d ever remembered. At the start of the New Year’s Eve tradition, Hannah remembered the flow had been slower. It was easier to pay attention to who was speaking to her, or where she was going and what she was going
there to do. That was six years earlier and, as she glanced out the rainspattered window, the memories flashed in her head.
Her expression never changed as scenes shot through her mind like the turning pages of a book. Hannah always enjoyed these times, except when she came out of her trance and heard someone yelling for her to listen. Tonight, thankfully, no one was insulting her intelligence. She saw the gray uniformed valet holding open the car door. Hannah looked up and smiled. She’d grown so used to giving the smile that it didn’t look fake any
Slipping the little book into a small purse, Hannah stepped onto the wet gravel, her ankle nearly giving way on top of the tall, sharp-heeled shoes. The purse flapped on her arm for a moment before the other arm came to rest on someone’s shoulder.
Upon discovering she was leaning on her mother, Hannah’s fake smile flickered with a look of surprised disdain and she promptly removed her forcibly manicured hand. Mrs. Merchant didn’t return the look, but raised an eyebrow as she and her husband moved toward the French doors.
Hannah hung back for a moment as the valet moved the car. The sky
darkened rapidly, but still had a faint whiteness on the horizon as it held onto the fading day. A few clouds slid across the winter expanse, and a hollow wind stirred the holiday-lighted trees to a low howling.
She froze briefly as she watched the millions of tiny bulbs. Later that night, she would stare out the window and imagine the suspended points of light were stars on the lawn.
But now was no time for imagining.
Hannah had rounds to make, people to meet, and an outspoken mother to appease for one night.
The mansion was beautiful on the inside, Hannah had to give the
Jamisons that much. But, she thought, it could do with less company. Especially as she eyed the spiral banister…
Every inch of the polished wood floor gleamed like gold. She thought that it was actually glowing before she remembered the crystal chandelier high overhead. Everything was large and spacious with tall tapestries, bowls of fruit, old paintings, decorative china, hunting trophies and other ornaments
she tried to ignore.
The rooms weren’t crowded, but there were too many people for her
comfort. Every time Hannah crossed a doorway or turned a corner, she was introduced to another guest. There were people from her age and up and, to her misfortune, she most often found herself trapped in conversation with someone much older.
Not that she had any desire to speak to her peers. They banded together in tight-knit cliques in the corners of various rooms. Occasionally, erupting laughter made Hannah’s jaw tense, and she clenched her fists at her side.
Although certain sparks of social attitude briefly directed her feet toward the other teenagers, as soon as she realized her path (which she had the chance to do, given the size of each room), she quickly diverted to another space.
Why should she widen the circle, anyway? There were never any kids at the party capable of intelligent conversation, much less those she liked. She didn’t want to be asked her grade, she didn’t want to say where she wanted to go to college and, if anyone questioned the brand of her hair color, she’d knot their limbs together and lock them in the dumbwaiter.
Her bright orange hair was natural, which gave her equal pride and grief. To Hannah, it signaled that she was different from the fashion-doll lineup in the room. She didn’t have to mix her “true self” in a bottle and sit for an hour. She preferred to think they didn’t care if she was there.
Hannah’s bright green eyes scanned the next room for the best hiding place. There were plenty of curtained alcoves, private studies and outside balconies, but nothing appealed to her. She had a tradition of her own at the New Year’s Eve party. Nine o’clock was her arbitrary cutoff to find a calm place to hide and tell herself stories. Now the torture was over, and she only
had a quiet getaway between herself and the end of the party.
There were few places without searching eyes. Hannah shined like a signal fire to any attentive brain-drainer. The key was to avoid eye contact, and to act like she was headed somewhere important. The challenge was remembering the hiding places from the years before and slipping into one before anyone could notice.
Hannah scanned the layout once more. There had to be at least ten hiding places she could use, but none seemed right. During one last visual sweep, her eyes came to rest on the most prominent feature of the house—the spiral staircase. It was so obvious that Hannah didn’t know why she hadn’t thought of it before. Maybe she was subconsciously checking the smaller options and saving the most romantic for last.
Hannah struggled to keep the smile off her face, and had to hold herself back from running from the party in a way that drew attention. She had found her stairway to heaven, but she had to claim it quietly.
She was just about to mount the first step when someone said her name.
She turned slowly, trying to hide the disgust welling up inside her. The voice belonged to a raven-haired girl about Hannah’s age, but with a very different aura.
“Carmen Simms,” Hannah said with a slight curtsy and a broad grin, more in mocking than politeness.
Carmen was beautiful, there was no doubt, even from Hannah’s view, but she was also sickly sweet in her gold earrings and fur coats. Not a friend, yet not an outright enemy. That is, Carmen had never done anything to Hannah. It was all in Hannah’s head but, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t like Carmen.
She wasn’t willing to admit the hostility to herself, but it poisoned every glance with wordless thoughts. Carmen was everything that Hannah’s mother wanted in her—the society, the elegance and the will to be absorbed in it all. Though Hannah had no intention of changing to satisfy her mother, she was
repulsed at the sight of someone else doing it so effortlessly.
“Yes! I remember you from last year. Oh, you have to come and join us in the gallery. You need to meet Jeremy. He’s just back from Paris!” The way Carmen waved her hands in enthusiasm made Hannah want to shriek in her face.
But she didn’t—only because of practice.
“Actually, I’m terribly, terribly sorry. I need to…check something upstairs.” Hannah tried to keep smiling but felt herself being pulled up the staircase. She pointed up the stairs, still staring at Carmen with a smile that was beginning to look pained.
“Oh. Well, okay. Just be sure to come in once you get back down!”
Hannah ascended the polished trail as fast as was ladylike. With the small purse held firmly, she took one quick step at a time until she felt the air clear and the care of the party fade away.
In the dim hallway, Hannah slipped off her heels, letting her feet touch the cold floor. On the first level, she was cold in a way no one could understand. There was laughter, bright lights and plenty of company, but no substance she could relate to. On the second floor, once she was alone, it was much colder, but she was warm on the inside. That fast-forwarding sensation came trickling into her head, her heart beat louder and her eyes brightened. It was the feeling of running, though she was standing completely still.
At last, in the seclusion, she could finally run.
When Hannah first realized the perfect hiding place beyond the staircase, she envisioned the quaint library at the end of the hall. Purse in one hand, shoes in the other, she silently padded to that doorway, pushing the door open with a piercing creak.
She liked to think that the creak meant no one was in the habit of using the door. The room was her personal place, and the hum of the rain helped to tune out the world.
Moving from the light of the hall and into the dark, she didn’t reach for the switch that was immediately to her left. Her expedition was almost complete when her shin smacked against a table and she bit back a yell of pain. Hannah pulled the chain of the green and gold desk lamp, her brows furrowed at being bested by an inanimate object, and then pulled open the roll
top desk. She sighed and threw the constricting shoes underneath, settling into the office chair. Using her bare feet to roll closer to the open desk, she unzipped the purse and laid out the journal and capless click pen.
The windows on either side of her were fogged, almost completely hiding the scene on the other side. The miles of string lights glowed a faint, soft yellow through the storm, and she imagined just what she knew she would. With nothing but her stories in front of her, Hannah Merchant let herself go.
The next hours flew by in a reel-tape dream of incredible places, people and things all brought to life by the ceaseless motion of Hannah’s ballpoint pen. It might have had the name of a bank on it once, but it had worn off long ago. All that mattered was that the pen was in her hand, letting her thoughts
come to the surface, relieving the pressure of teenage life if only for a little while.
The storm grew worse, but Hannah, enveloped in the work of fiction unfolding in her mind, didn’t notice. She flinched when lightning flashed and thunder shook the floor.
Her trance broken, she sat stunned into complete blankness.
Maybe it was time for a break.
Hannah rolled back to her notebook, glancing at her last thoughts. Her eyes narrowed as she closed the cover on a pair of catlike eyes in black ink. She ran a hand through her hair, moving to look out one of the windows. Wiping the fog from a single windowpane, she peered out of it curiously. The starlit trees were still very much alive. Smiling, she turned back to her story. Whatever it was. She’d have to read it again.
A shadow shifted beyond the glass and she snapped her head up, heart in her throat. She didn’t know what could set her blood rushing, or how she even knew something had moved, but she did, and couldn’t look away.
There was movement. She knew that much.
And it wasn’t any of the valets.
The shadow outside on the lawn shifted again, and she held her breath. How could something so insignificant make her so scared? It probably was one of the valets checking the cars, or one of the guests out to get something. No, none of those gilded mules would dare be out in the rain.
It moved again. Hannah zipped the journal into her purse, slipped on her shoes and left the library in one fluid motion.
Much to her dismay, she met Carmen at the bottom of the staircase.
“Hey, where have you bee-”
“Not. Now,” Hannah shot, not even pausing to look Carmen in the eye, leaving her standing there with her mouth wide open.
An odd, defiant feeling built inside of Hannah. She didn’t know if it was good or not, but it was like being slowly turned to concrete from the inside out. She felt daring. Invincible. But also cold.
Grabbing an umbrella at random, Hannah opened it and stepped out the front door, into the biting chill. There was no wind, but the temperature seeped into her joints, making it hard to move. But move she did, right across the porch and onto the gravel driveway, straining her eyes for any sign of movement.
About the third step onto that gravel, the heel of her left shoe snapped. Hannah kicked off the shoes with a growl, picking up the piece and pitching it toward the house. So much for appeasement. After this, she’d be grounded for sure.
She didn’t care.
Hannah decided at that instant that she didn’t care anymore. There would be no more sessions of her mother dressing her like some life-sized doll. There would be no more comments about what she painted, what she wrote, what she dreamt, what she thought or anything else.
Hannah was on a mental roll, shivering under the umbrella, when her heart jumped yet again. Wasn’t there a Cadillac there before?
She was sure there was but, in its place, was nothing. A flat, black nothing like the automobile had been swallowed in the darkness. She blinked, and the Rolls Royce that had been next to it vanished in the same manner. The sound of her heart thudded in her ears.
Backing toward the house, she wanted desperately to run into the warmth and light inside, but couldn’t bring herself to turn her back. Stepping backward toward the yellow glow, she had to tell herself to breathe again.
Then she made the mistake of blinking.
There was no more driveway, and she suppressed a scream, backing up faster.
Her senses were far too vivid. Hannah felt each raindrop hit the umbrella. Each piece of gravel under her feet. Her heartbeat. Each breath.
Then suddenly, the hum coming from the mansion was gone. She spun
around, and so was the house. Only the circle of gravel and the illuminated trees remained but, even as Hannah looked, the trees faded into the dark and each point of light around them collapsed into nothing, like innumerable, miniature, falling stars.
With that, all light was extinguished, and she screamed, dropping the umbrella, which fell into the nothing. She didn’t care if she was wet. She didn’t care if she was barefoot. She just wanted light. Darkness soaked into Hannah like the cold. She was drowning in it.
Her hyper thoughts began again, faster than on any occasion before it, so the pictures ran together in one, long ribbon, like something else was in control of her mind. Hannah sat on her heels in the void with her hands over her eyes, sobbing. The darkness ate away at the circle until all she could feel was what was beneath her toes, and she had no doubt that, if she were to fall over, she would become nothing, just like the cars and house.
Images filled her mind. Hannah saw her house, a dog in the park, a candle on her table, a lineup of arcade games, a cabin in the mountains, a bowl of fruit that had been in the house, the candle again, then an ice cream parlor. The ground under her dissolved and, for a split second, she felt herself falling.
Then she saw light through her eyelids.
She opened them slowly, removed her hands from her eyes and fell onto her rear. There was light. There was existence. There were street lamps and yellow curbs and storefronts and fire hydrants, all set to an ethereal shine by the full moon.
Hannah was thrilled, of course, but she stayed locked in a blank frame of mind because of what was directly in front of her. It was the ice cream parlor from her vision. She stared at the antiquated sign, expecting it at any moment to change into something horrible, like everything else that had been real in
her living nightmare. As her mind scrambled for an explanation, a noise broke the silence of the street. She stood and leaned against the wall of the ice cream parlor, gripping the purse tightly, racking her brain to picture the sound.
She soon saw the answer running behind a man in a gray trench coat with a look on his face that told her she should be scared, too. The apparition had the shape of a wolf, but was made of what looked like black smoke trying to hold itself together in the shape of four legs and a head. With every lope of its long, hazy legs, the trail of motion blurred with more smoke. It was strangely flat, like some kind of…oh.
The Shadow bounded after the spectacled man, who ran faster than
Hannah had ever seen. It took a second or two for her to realize that he was running straight toward her. He grabbed her arm and jerked her down the alley.
She had no choice, so she ran down the passageway, struggling to keep pace with him, only then noticing that he was towering over her. Her examination of him came in bits and pieces, for he pulled her along each time she lagged, and his face was hidden behind her messy orange hair.
After much jostling, jerking and pulling, he stopped running. The alley was empty and quiet, but he looked around nervously. They both stood in a shaft of moonlight shining on the wet ground. The wolf was gone.
“And?” Hannah said loudly.
The man jumped, like he was surprised that she spoke. He looked like he’d started the day fairly well-dressed, in a buttoned shirt, driving gloves and bright purple tie, but also like he’d been running since then and had lost almost all semblance of propriety. His plain brown hair needed a trim, as it was brushing the top of his circular glasses.
After hesitating, he put his black-gloved hands in his pockets and strode confidently down the alley. “Have a nice life.”
“Hey! No, no, nonono…” Hannah ran after him and stepped in his path.
“You can’t just leave me! Not after that!” Her voice cracked as it got a little higher than usual. He didn’t reply, only dodged past her.
“What if that thing comes back?” Hannah called.
The man stopped and looked over his shoulder. He looked like he wanted to say something, but stopped himself.
“You pulled me along. Evidently, that means I should stay out of its way.” Hannah crossed her arms.
He rolled his eyes and stepped back to her.
“Look, I’m not even sure if you’re real.”
She punched him.
“Hey!” he yelled, holding his jaw.
“What about now?” she snapped. Hannah smiled and put her hands on her hips, keeping a tight hold on the purse. She grimaced and shook her hand. The punch hurt her, not like she saw in movies.
He coughed with exaggeration, stretching his jaw. Again, he looked like he was about to say something but, this time, something behind her made him stop. His eyes widened, but he had no expression that told her to run. She was about to turn around, but he put his hands on her shoulders.
“What’s your name?” the man said quietly.
“Hannah…Merchant…?” Her brows furrowed, and it suddenly got a lot colder. Maybe it was the beads of sweat forming on her skin.
“Hannah Merchant,” he said, like he was testing out the words, “I promise to take you with me, as long as you do two things, all right?” He spoke calmly, but she began to shake.
Hannah nodded, trying not to move otherwise. He would look over her shoulder every few seconds.
“First, you have to keep up. I don’t care how, you just have to. Make yourself do it. It’s the only way.” This time, when he looked over her shoulder and didn’t look back, his eyes sparked with the faintest fear.
“Second, give me the book in your purse.”
The request surprised her, but she quickly moved the purse to both hands and removed her journal. With surprising speed, he took it, flipped through, and stuck it in the left pocket of his coat. He looked relieved, then put a hand on her shoulder again.
“You can keep up.” He bolted down the alley.
Hannah started running over the cracked pavement, resisting the urge to look back. Compared to the man’s pace, her run was painfully slow. Taking a deep breath, she pushed herself harder, bare feet flying over the surface, but he was still getting away. Panic gripped her.
I can keep up, Hannah thought to herself. She ran faster. There was something cold at her back.
I will keep up! she said again. Pushing everything else from her mind, even the pressing feeling at her back, she went even faster.
I will keep up! I’ll catch that guy! She barely touched the ground at all.
Suddenly, she caught up to the man, but he didn’t acknowledge her
arrival. He was too busy crouching and examining the brick wall—a dead end.
“That wasn’t normal!” Hannah said excitedly.
He took her book out of his pocket and flipped through it rapidly, never looking up. “Yeah, well, you’re soon going to see a lot of things that aren’t ‘normal.’” Stopping at a page, he ran his finger down the drawings and text.
“Where is it?” he said, still looking at the page.
“Where’s wh—” Hannah stopped as something familiar caught her eye, and she turned further to squarely face the alley. It was rapidly shortening with a wall of black. “It’s coming.”
“For some reason it’s a lot slower here. Where did you get this?” He waved the book.
“I wrote it, thanks.”
The stranger seemed to only have emotion in short bursts and, in that moment, it was astonishment. Hannah shrugged, then nervously looked to the other end of the alley.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” she yelped, eyes locked on the dark mass approaching.
The stranger stood and started tapping the bricks, looking back at Hannah’s journal. “In a minute.”
“Well, we might not have a minute, and I’d really like to know, you know, before we die. What are you doing?” She pressed her back against the bricks, cringing. The black wall was only twenty feet away.
He spoke in one long, quick sentence, tapping the bricks at the same speed. “It’s a deadly creature that looks for special kinds of books and special kinds of people.”
“What kinds of people?”
The darkness was beginning to absorb the moonlight, and even some of the color, judging by Hannah’s gray-tinged skin. It didn’t seem to affect the stranger, who still wore a bright purple tie. He tapped a brick twice, and smiled.
The brick slid further into the wall and, from it, the grout shone white light that cut through the night. The approaching wall of dark condensed into a smoky black lion and lunged, but a second too late.
The bricks melted away, and Hannah and the man fell through the door.