The enchanted creatures of legend still exist, hidden away in the secret places of the world. They take refuge from an age of camera phones and government labs, from people who won’t let them live in peace. One of these last places of safety is known as the World Below.
Ancient powers are at work. The Lords of Faerie seek to revenge the death of Baron Finkbeiner and recover the mysterious Blade of Caro. Hidden in the shadows, they await a chance to strike. The chance arises when an old enemy escapes the splinter realm in which he is imprisoned. Anxious to settle the debt, the Faerie Lords send him to finish the Lady Elizabeth and her Champion once and for all.
After leading the revolution against the despotic ruler of the World Below, Mitch Hardy has taken the throne. He never wanted to be king. The whole idea of a government by right of combat sits poorly with him. Growing evermore uneasy with his new position, he begins laying the framework for self-rule. The enchanted peoples have known nothing but kings, but are adapting quickly to this new idea of governing their own affairs. It goes well, but Mitch’s plans are interrupted by the arrival of old enemies. Soon he is fighting for his life against a hellish enemy, the likes of which he never imagined.
The woman was tall and lean. Her body was built for power and speed, her stride confident and even. Each step was smooth, causing as little jarring to her knees as a wheel turning on a roadway. Her arms pumped in rhythm with her steps, not as an afterthought but pressing her forward; as integral a part of the activity as the taking of breath. She was a runner but she moved with the grace no dancer had ever achieved.
Leaving little for modesty, her shorts and top accentuated every line and curve of her body. The play of muscle as she ran was as visible under its silken cover as though it were her own skin. Every anatomical detail in calve and thigh, buttock and back, stomach and shoulder bore witness to her physical perfection as first a hundred yards, then two hundred, then a quarter mile were left behind her.
Like every morning as the sun spilled over the horizon, the woman parked her car at a neighborhood playground. She stretched out on the monkey bars, doing pull-ups and squats, testing her agility against the park’s usual clientele on the steel bars. There was a playhouse built to look like a train. It was only an engine and two cars, but it allowed her to teach her well-toned muscles flexibility of movement as well as any yoga class. She leapt over and under the engine, jumped the sides of the cars, dove through the windows only to hit the ground and tumble back to her feet.
When finished with her unique calisthenics, she pointed herself toward the bay and took off at a fast jog. A paved trail ran along the edge of the park. Her shoes still damp from the morning dew, she ran alongside the strip of asphalt on well packed earth. The trail crossed the street and followed the river under the state highway.
Little did she know that even then she was being watched. Little did she know that she was being singled out as prey.
When she appeared from under the highway, she was on the eastern edge of Clinch Park; a strip of little developed public beach in the heart of downtown. At the old cottonwood tree, the paved trail left the river and she was on her way. The trail followed Grand Traverse Bay. This sheltered portion of Lake Michigan stretched farther than the eye could see, larger than many bodies of water that were given the title of lake.
The view of the rising sun was spectacular. She didn’t notice. She was building up speed. Her muscles were heating nicely and soon she would begin to pour it on.
By the time she reached the end of the east beach and the trail led her between the public marina and the small zoo, she had reached her full stride. This was the part she enjoyed. This was why she ran, for nothing more or less than the complete physicality. She was totally immersed, every thought and action finely tuned to bring her to this penultimate moment.
The woman ran with single-mindedness few embracing the sport ever achieved. She didn’t bring a water bottle, though the morning was already hot. Her phone was locked safely in the glove box of her car. A single key was laced and tied onto her right shoe, set in a plastic cover and wedged between the laces so it never moved. Thick and lustrous as any thoroughbred’s, her mane of black hair was pulled back with the only luxury she allowed, a thick band of cloth that would keep her from rubbing the sweat from her eyes.
Before she even realized it, she had passed the volleyball courts and was coming to the crosswalk. Here the trail left the bay and crossed the state road, continuing all the way to Greilickville on the boulevard. Increasing her speed, she came to the crosswalk just as the light turned red. She vaulted onto the right of way, crossed four lanes of traffic, and hit the other side even before the first car came to a complete stop.
At the little grocery store parking lot, she paused to stretch, feeling loss to know she was already half finished. When the light turned, she began the return trip. At the end of the boulevard, she timed the light so she need not disrupt her pace. Leaving the trail, she headed toward the bay. This last part of her run would be finished on the beach.
Under her feet, the sands were churned as fine as sugar. It made for a slippery footing. With every step, her ankles and knees and hips had to adjust. The unusual motion caused her muscles to burn, to challenge her body in a whole new way. Fighting to keep her pace, she pumped her arms and legs even harder and triumphed over this new obstacle.
When she passed the volleyball courts, the beach was quickly coming to an end. On a manmade spit of land reaching out into the bay was the public marina. Steel pilings an inch thick kept the endless torrent of summer waves and winter ice from washing it away. The place where marina and beach merged, a large pile of stones marked the transition.
Not missing a stride, she extended her foot and struck the first stone at full speed. It was large and heavy, ten times as big as she was, and it didn’t even tremble under her weight. From the first stone to the next she went. This stone too was bigger than she and did not yield as she passed to the next. Half way up the pile of rocks and she could clearly feel instinctually every stride she would take; the speed and placement of every step that would bring her to the top.
Confidence building, she increased her speed, extending her left leg so far she could feel the muscles tense. But when she looked down, there was nowhere to set her foot. Blackness, a giant hole opened up before her eyes. She could not stop. Her momentum was too great. The hole seemed to open like the hungry maw of some great beast before her eyes. In one gulp, it swallowed her whole.
Mike Phillips is author of Hazard of Shadows, The World Below, Dawn of Ages, and Reign of the Nightmare Prince. His short stories have appeared in ParAbnormal Digest, Cemetery Moon, Sinister Tales, Beyond Centauri, the World of Myth, Mystic Signals and many others. Online, his work has appeared in Lorelei Signal, Kzine, Bewildering Stories, Midnight Times, and Fringe. He is best known for his Crow Witch and Patrick Donegal series. Please visit Mike at mikephillipsfantasy.com.