The first thing Mara noticed upon entering the tavern was that it looked emptier than usual, even the number of usual late afternoon patrons looked thinned out. Sitting at her favorite corner of the Bar, while Joe went to fetch old man Blake, she waved to
Mara fought not to look to disappointed that her questions were to remain unanswered yet and offered to pitch in and help run the place like she’d done many times before. Joe firmly declined stating neither were in any shape to even stand, leave alone wait tables so she’d shut the place early instead. “Besides, it seems to be a self imposed dry day of some sort anyway” she added, looking around, a little perplexed, noticing the absence of regulars only then.
Leaving Joe to hold the fort until the men returned, Mara took a cab back to the University and wearily plopped down on her bed falling asleep even before her head hit the pillow
A shadow slithered alongside the two human forms, noiselessly, formlessly- as they made their way towards the edge of the village, to what looked like a large cottage made of stones, just before the forests began. It stared at Mara with a hungry intensity, almost wishing it were present in physical form to complete its mission. But the previous night’s disaster had greatly sobered its restless need and forced it to wait a while longer to fully evaluate the latent’s capabilities before trying again. It had waited patiently for 21 years and would not fret a day or two to endanger everything. Besides daylight made its form greatly vulnerable, and there was no need to expose itself yet again, especially since the human with the flaming hair could sense its presence even in this frugal version when it was as intrusive as a hint of breeze and the previous night’s unexpected combat had left it weakened. Victor, but still weakened.
A bundled figure sat in an ancient rocking chair that was as ancient as the figure that sat upon it and creaked like old bones as it rocked. The only sign of life forthcoming from the room was a slow raspy sound like laborious breathing, seemingly across from where the chair and the figure on it sat: and in the darkness of the windowless room, it was hard to make out anything distinctive about the room or its inhabitant.
As if out of nowhere, from the direction where the breathing was to be heard before, came a shower of sparks and sharp buzzing like a live wire followed by a small explosion that briefly illuminated the room and bathed the figure in the chair, now standing tall and alert though still shrouded, in an eerie blue light, so intense, that it almost looked white instead.
The ground seemed to tremble in the aftermath of the explosion and a roar echoing anger and agony now emanated from the same corner where the sparks and the lights had come from a moment ago. A deafening silence rushed in to fill where chaos earlier ran amuck and through all this, the silent figure stood stolid, unperturbed and unaffected and then began to cackle loudly, in undisguised mirth, like a hyena, causing the hooded shroud it wore to ripple like a dark cascading waterfall. As abruptly as the laughter had appeared, it ceased and in a voice like the sound of rustling papers, the creature began to speak.
Caught off guard and thereby defeated the night before, and now further debilitated by the treacherous spell this vile creature had managed to wrap around him, he watched in utter disgust and contempt as the thing began to speak. While all that it spoke were alien sounds to his ear, he began to violently shake his head from side to side as the sounds began to reach out like a million invisible hands over his head, trying to gain entry into his mind, trying to weaken his will, trying to break him. He didn’t relent and snarled, feeling those hands trying to push harder. “My strength may have weakened but my mind will not, you creature of filth.” he spat out, repelling the hands effectively with a few syllables muttered under his breath
All of a sudden he jerked his head up, those eyes of glittering black pearls fixing their stare upon her’s in desperation. “Get out of here ‘Mara!”, Meren whispered urgently. ”Get out of here now!”
“And that concludes Spencer’s argument on the time and space equilibrium. I expect a fully supported counter from you all by Friday. You may work individually or in pairs but I expect it to be no shorter than ten thousand words” summed the androgynous voice as the whole hall groaned and sighed in unison about how little time that gave them. “And remember, time is but an illusion, as Einstein himself said”, the professor returned in an uncharacteristic and surprising show of life and, of all things, wit!
“Wow today ended sooner than I could have hoped for, now that’s a first!” exclaimed Joe, gathering her books, unwittingly echoing the sentiment that stood out in Mara’s confused head. She linked her arm around Mara's, and continued, “… didn’t think bicentennial man there would let us off so easy. He even tried a funny, gosh! You’d think he read it off a book or something. He did actually, ha-ha…”, completely unaware of her friend’s lost expression and continued talking, mostly to herself, since Mara wasn’t listening. Joe stopped abruptly in her steps, halting Mara with her, the jolt bringing Mara back to the present urgently.
Twinkling eyes turned to Mara in undisguised curiosity. “Speaking of firsts… WHERE did you guys run off to last night? Meren showed up minutes after midnight, I saw you two embrace and then you both took off!! Want to fill me in? Oh wait, you can spare me the deets, its Meren after all!” she whooshed in one breath.
But it was Mara who felt bereft of any breath instead, vivid images of her dream assaulting her inner vision, panic beginning to swell like bile, intermingling with raw fear. So it wasn’t a dream after all. But how had she seen herself AND Meren like a running picture? It was like she had seen everything from both her eyes and Meren’s. “What’s wrong Mara?”, Joe asked gently, “Meren didn’t pull an asshole card on you did he?”. That snapped Mara out of her self absorbing train of thought, forcing a reply out of her. “Uh, no why do you say?”
“Well you looked worried, and lost, and I assumed we were on the subject of you and Meren… is something else eating you up”, asked Joe, beginning to mirror some of Mara’s worried expression.
Mentally giving herself a shake, Mara realigned her features into a smile. Hugging her elfin friend warmly, she assured her, “there are no ‘deets’ to speak of girl. I think I passed out and your brother was kind as ever to tuck me into bed and leave I guess. I’m still reeling from the fabulous party you threw for me. Did I thank you yet? No? Now I'm sure I did! Hah!" she blabbered on, glad to see the familiar smile back creep back onto her friend's face.
"Speaking of eating, I think I’m beginning to get a feel of those infamous munchies craving I was warned of! Let’s raid the Tavern, it’s on me”, she joked, knowing fully well the Blake siblings would never let her open her purse to even tip at their pub and grampa Blake wouldn’t let her go without a lengthy sermon for even trying. They were family, her and the Blakes- one way or another. No other relations to call their own for any of them.
She knew she had to meet Meren, or at least see him before she could shrug away her fears as mere intoxication induced paranoia. So she walked on, chatting airily with Joe, and pretended not to notice the unseen presence following her, the same aura as the one she’d felt before, in the morning.
“A penny for your thoughts?” asked a very familiar voice from behind ‘Mara that sent a little uncontrollable shiver rippling through her. ‘Mara turned to greet the source of that husky voice, Meren Blake. At 6 feet 4 inches, Meren was one of the few men she knew whom she had to look up to talk to. Barely shorter than 6 feet herself, ‘Mara often found her height to be a distinct disadvantage for first impressions as it left many very intimidated. The same went for her feisty spirit. Men and women alike seemed to retract from her fierce wit, even as a little girl, and ‘Mara had long since learnt to subdue her personality and literally shrink herself to get around unnoticed. Until Meren, that was.
Meren was Joe’s brother, older by 3 years, and ran a little tavern just outside the village, on the border of the forests. The siblings looked almost like twins, except Meren looked twice ‘little Joe’s’ height and had a hardened face and a gruffer demeanor, on the exterior atl east. Mara stared into a pair of eyes that housed utterly black irises that she knew were replicated on her best friend’s face as well. Irises that shone like glittering black pearls, eyes so deep and inviting that it made the recipient of their stare feel an inexplicable urge to confess their deepest darkest secrets to whom those eyes belonged to. It was little wonder then that she’d turned out to be best friends with one and was helplessly attracted to the other.
Mara shook her head, to clear some of the happy haze away and smiled wholeheartedly in reply. She opened her mouth as if to speak and paused, unable to remember what it was she had at the tip of her tongue. No words were forthcoming. In confusion, she knitted her brows together, experiencing an inability to articulate for the first time in her entire life. In all fairness, she’d been an absolute teetotaler, until today. Slightly lowering her head, she began unconsciously chewing the tip of her index finger, a habit of her's that Meren found both endearing and annoying at the same time. He watched her lost in thought, her long hair messily strewn about her excited face which seemed to be mimicking her thoughts. Her eyes glowed amber and her honey irises seemed more like the color of her reddish corn silk hair than the soft brown he’d always seen. He could never understand this woman, he mused, one who could be so proud and fierce and almost arrogant, who was standing now like a little girl who couldn’t remember her way home. That is some punch I taught li’l Joe to mix he thought to himself, grinning cheekily and leaned in towards ‘Mara, whispering her name softly, trying to gently rouse her out of her drunken reverie. Closer, he could smell her sweet whiskey breath and a faint whiff of maybe apple shampoo and… marijuana?!?
Down boy!, he muttered, chiding himself for sending his thoughts astray when the poor girl was obviously spent and reached out to touch her shoulder to shake her gently back to awareness.
Just then, Mara’s hands shot forward, gripping his wrists with a strength he never knew she could possess and he jerked his head up towards her in surprise and unbelievably, pain. “Mara!” he whispered looking into her face, which was now paler than milk. “Mara!” he repeated, almost in shock as he glanced at her irises, her pupils as wide as her eyes now, only the rims of her irises visible, and they shone a bright red like fiery coals…. MARA!
'Mara jerked awake from slumber, lying twisted and half dangling from the unyielding classroom chair and looked up to see Joe’s face grinning down at her. “Wake up luv, class is about to begin” Joe said, settling into the seat next to hers. Still dazed and utterly confused, ‘Mara turned to her friend for clarity and was about to speak when the lights dimmed down and a generically soporific voice streamed out of surround speakers marking the beginning of that afternoon’s lecture. Joe winked at her and mouthed “we have to talk, later" and resumed taking down notes.
‘Mara blinked several times, adjusting to the lighting and settled back in her chair sighing deeply in resignation, when a voice whispered out to her in the darkness: the sound crawling about her like a repulsive insect, calling her name softly, and it sounded odd yet familiar. It sounded just like Meren’s, from her dream.
She could sense it getting closer. She was getting closer. Was it luring her into a trap or really running away from her? She still couldn't tell. But the space between them was steadily narrowing and she grew surer of herself. Her forms were shifting back and forth in cautious anticipation, like a shimmering holographic image. She found it harder to conceal her charisma* anymore, let alone subdue it. It danced around her in myraid hues like a rainbow in a bubble, casting an eerie glow over her pale wheatish skin. She didn't seem to care though. She had abandoned any pretense of a normal life 6 months ago. For 6 months she'd sat in the same place, in the same lotus position that she'd assumed to begin her search. Her body had never left that room, and it probably never would again.
Soon it would end. Sooner than it would have begun.
''Wait up my friend, I almost have you'', she whispered under her breath, willing her patience to see her through. She'd come a long way since the first time she'd felt it's presence, almost a decade ago, on the morning after her 21st birthday...
As she'd walked from her dorm to the science block, she kept glancing over her shoulder expecting to see something, someone following her. She'd overslept, missed half a day of classes already and of course, was miserably hungover and attributed her lack of memory for the most part of the previous evening and her jitters to some spirited excesses from before.
Damn you Amara Shanti Prescott*, you're in trouble again, she muttered to herself as she walked on, still casting backward glances every few yards.
The lecture hall was empty when she got there as she was a quarter hour early for the second session. This vaguely surprised her since she seemed to have covered the distance in less than half her usual time. Too tired to wonder, she figured she'd misread the time when she'd started out, picked a seat furthest from podium and curled up for a little nap.
*to be explained subsequently