1757, Prophecy: "There is but one born who can destroy the evil. Lo, even drive it back to the black hole whence it came. The chosen one is born and then born again, destined to take away the power of the evil. Destined to save what was for so long impossible to save. Destined to redeem the future for the past."
~History, Knowledge, Governing and Prophecy of the Protectorate
2008, Prophecy: "The redeemed child will die and will be reborn as many times as need be for the purpose of saving the Innocent in the Amethyst Tower, where the Great Evil lives. Only in time--when the chosen child lives, grows, and goes forth with courage in his hand to do the will of the Protectorate--will the barriers containing the evil be restored, its power weakened or even destroyed."
~History, Knowledge, Governing and Prophecy of the Protectorate
October 31, 2007
The cry came as though ripped from Prince's own throat. His father, Gabe Reece, leapt into the Time Tunnel as moonlight seared the Guardian symbol on his chest. Failure seeped into his blood, as demoralizing as defeat. He couldn't save Amethyst. Her old man had sold her to the evil taking over the town, breaking down the barriers they'd erected against it. The very evil that had stalked her since she was a little girl.
A mad whirling of wind inside and out surrounded his entry into the tunnel. He knew what he would see when he got to the other side. The demon who'd claimed the soul of the woman he loved. He'd tear the beast to pieces--
But the fairytale world he should have entered didn't bring forth the manic, dancing creature or his bonfire of abomination. In this netherworld between reality and nightmare, the Protectorate symbol glowed within a wreath of flames looming in the night sky.
Gabe had come back to this place fully intending to commit the sin that had plagued the Guardian lineage for centuries. He'd come to bargain with the evil, to break his sacred vows. Out of selfishness. Out of love. He had been warned that any choice he made would bring about loss. He couldn't win. His beloved Amethyst was dead, consumed by the evil he'd only wanted to protect her from to the exclusion of all else.
When the cry came, Gabe ran in the direction of the sound. He ran to the son Amethyst had borne him.
* * * *
Through the eyes of a newborn child, Prince saw his father emerge from the forest and kneel before the place his mother had hidden him. The medallion signaling the transfer of guardianship was now permanently marked on his young chest. He didn't cry. He had been born for the purpose of living and dying until he saved the world.
At the last minute, his father Gabe had sacrificed his life to save his son, the next Guardian. He'd done it because he believed in a long-held prophecy. A prophecy Prince understood through the ages that he could never fulfill.
October 28, 2043
Her eyes glowed silver as she looked up at him, trusting him to save her. He saw the fear behind her desperation.
"I've loved you through lifetimes, Rapunzel, even when I wouldn't let myself believe any of this. You have to leave the tower with me. Now." He held her tightly against him, tight enough to make her gasp for breath.
"How can I, my prince?" she cried. "He will never let me go. And there is no way for both of us to leave the tower."
He reached out and captured the five-inch thick braid that trailed behind her in a seemingly endless satin rope. "Same way I came up. I'll cut through this and tie it to the bed. Your hair was strong enough to hold me before. We can both climb down it now. Just trust me."
Abruptly, her gaze darted to the corner of the room, and she wailed, "He is coming! There is no escape for me."
Prince sat up on the sound of her scream carrying over evil laughter. He could hear both and swore out loud to quiet them. Dizzy and weak, he fought the nausea that rose at the images, as real as the insane ones he saw every day and night in reality.
Sleep was never enjoyable. Not when only pain and evil greeted him--and the whisper of prophecies he alone could fulfill. Could. And couldn't.
Failure. It tasted of bitterness in his mouth while images filled the blackness behind his eyelids.
Eventually, always, he dreamed of the amethyst tower, his love Rapunzel, and the Warlock Lord. He faced his own failure each time he opened his eyes. He was only a man, yet he'd been born a savior. In all his lifetimes, he'd been unable to reconcile himself to either role.
And I have only three more days, three final days to succeed. My last chance or it begins again. Hell.
By habit, he reached for the more-than-half-empty bottle on the nightstand and drained it in one draught. Then, shoving himself to his feet, he ignored the sweat covering him from head to toe. In the bathroom, he turned on the water in the sink and cooled his face with handfuls of it. He didn't dare look at himself in the mirror, knowing what he'd see. The unnatural health and strength given to the Guardian when, inside, the disease of his own defeat and disbelief ate at him, ravaging and sickening him by the hour. Constantly drunk, he could face going on though he no longer felt the full effects of the alcohol. Nothing could cover his pain, not even a numb haze.
He heard a sound when he straightened, ignoring the water dripping down his scruffy face to his bare chest. He followed it to the kitchen, where he saw his father in the soft glow of the stove light. A glass of water from the purifier sat in front of him on the table.
Gabriel Reece rarely slept any more. Not since he'd chosen his vows over love. He'd done the only thing he could to save the future. Yet it haunted him. For what? For a lifetime of loneliness, regret, uncertainty.
"It's glowing," his father said, pointing to the medallion around Prince's neck. Always, it seared him. The anguish never ended. It wouldn't, unless he succeeded. He'd lost hope--and not for the first time--that he ever would.
"The dreams again?" Gabe asked while Prince pulled an unopened bottle of Jack Daniels out from under the kitchen sink. His father had long since stopped lecturing him about his drinking. He wasn't an ordinary eighteen-year-old. No, he'd lived lifetimes. He'd seen the ages. He felt ancient.
"Always. She screams for me, but I can't save her. Can't even friggin' find her..." He broke the seal and drank from the bottle while his father looked at him with empathy and that perpetual damn pity. Gabe understood, yet he couldn't know what it was like to have the burden of continued life, the burden of purity, the salvation of the present and future squarely on his shoulders. All his responsibility alone.
The vidphone buzzed, and Prince wanted to throw the bottle across the room and shatter it. Yet he growled the word to put the call through. Tanner Russell's stocky form filled the screen.
Prince felt nothing but acceptance that everything was beyond control when Brother Tanner said, "We've got a situation."
* * * *
Hell yeah, the evil liked to have its little joke. Sick joke. One as gruesome as only a fairytale could paint it. Once before within Woodcutter's Grim borders had it manifested itself in mythology come to life, but never since.
In a crouch, Prince surveyed the bloody, macerated remnants of a man trapped in a huge spider web. The eyeballs were long gone--sweet and tasty--and the body had been drained of life-giving blood. He'd obviously been the web owner's supper not long ago.
The stench of bowels loosed in fear filled Prince's nostrils, and he muttered maniacally, "'Tell me, pray, how are you now?' says the spider to the fly. 'You fools will never wisdom get, unless you dearly buy; 'Tis vanity that ever makes repentance come too late, and you who into cobwebs run, right well deserve your fate. Listen, listen, listen, foolish little fly; listen, listen to me, foolish, foolish little fly.'"
Tanner glanced down at Prince. His expression became disturbed when Prince grinned in mock amusement.
The barriers were failing. Evil ran amok constantly now.
Prince rose and walked to the Trailblazer before his stomach heaved its contents. Evil won each battle. And the Protectorate was damn worthless protection against it.
* * * *
Prince pressed the medallion against the mold of the Protectorate symbol. The internal locks on the door of the circular building behind Woodcutter's Grim's small police station sprang open, and he shoved the heavy door inward.
This single room held the histories, laws and wisdom of the Protectorate, the body of men sworn to protect Woodcutter's Grim--and the world at large--from the evil pervading it. Only the Guardian and the Brethren were allowed among the sacred documents Prince had read over and over, for two lifetimes.
He'd served as Guardian since he was born the first time on October 31, 2007. Amethyst Phillips had been his first mother. He'd been born again on October 31, 2025 to Margaret Russell. Every day he knew he was getting closer to October 31--the date he'd died, succumbed to the evil for a time, and was re-born to try again. He'd been eighteen years and ninety days old: six thousand sixty days. He couldn't be sure there was significance to the number--only that if he died again, he would have to start all over again in fulfilling the prophecy. Each time he did, it would become harder, the evil would spread faster, and eventually he would fail for all time.
Gathering in the room with him were the ancient lineage of the Chosen Seven: Tanner Russell, Ray Bohunk, Malachi Jones, Pearl and Priscilla Jones--Malachi's twin sisters, Alan Anders, and the eldest, Rory Anders. Rory had yet to follow in the footsteps of those who had come before him as a sleeping prophet who experienced visions in a seeming stupor. They'd had no prophecies since the one that foresaw Prince's own birth, and death, thirty-six years ago.
Prince sat at the head of the table shaped like an eight-pointed star. Marked in the center was the Protectorate symbol--a cross with multiple rings fitted over it. The sickness in his body seemed to undulate under the news from the watchtowers surrounding the town in all four directions. Damn, but he wanted a drink.
It was getting worse. The evil metastasized. They could no longer fight it.
"Mischief makers," Ray told him, "in the east quadrant. Around dawn."
"And in the north," Malachi added. "Same time."
"Any reports from the west and south since?" Prince asked needlessly.
Both men shook their heads. Though he expected it, it frustrated him nevertheless. The woods were mirrors. If mischief makers frolicked harmlessly in the east and north, the true evil had taken place in the west and south.
Prince clenched his teeth. Like his father and grandfather before him, his inability to distinguish between real threats and mere pranks done by the mischief makers annoyed him. After all this time, why in hell couldn't he discern the evil for what it was? Now the real evil had disappeared without a trace and wouldn't be discovered until much later--when it was too late to help anyone.
"Foreseen anything, Rory?"
Prince lifted his gaze to the small but muscularly built prophet. Rory had shaved his head when he swore an oath to serve the Protectorate. His black eyes were strange, otherworldly, casting out all light. Rory shook his head, his face expressionless.
"Pearl and Priscilla, what about incidents outside of Woodcutter's Grim?"
For more than fifty years, the evil had escaped the barriers they'd erected. But lately the evil had gone much further. Just as the prophecy predicted, the barriers were breaking and the world was becoming infested with the evil.
Prince's own sickness spread accordingly as he listened to the story of those who feared the jet-black night, the long hall leading to sleep because of the crooked shadow that crawled from the corner and took them screaming to the Land of Nod.
I have three days to change the present, the past, the future. Sure. No problem. Three damn days.
Why me? Why, when I don't have a hope in heaven or hell of defeating this evil?
* * * *
It was after midnight when the calls stopped and he could go home. Exhausted and hungry, he felt the weight of his burden to the point of death. Death he knew but couldn't remember. He'd died before--the first time...
No, not the first. Gabe told me I died an hour after Amethyst gave birth to me. Someone...Luther Kominski, one of the Brethren...gave his life to return life to me.
But Prince didn't remember that any more than he remembered his first death and what led to it. Years after he'd been born to Margaret and Alan Russell, and they returned him to Gabe, his father had told him that no one knew how he died. They believed he'd succumbed to the evil. His body hadn't been discovered. Gabe and the Brethren had known he'd been reborn to Margaret from the moment he emerged from her body because the Protectorate symbol had been seared into his chest and the medallion found nearby.
From the moment he'd entered the world the first time and the last, he'd comprehended what he had to do. But how do you find a person you've never seen outside of relentless dreams? Rapunzel was her name, not a natural name in any time period except the ancient past, in fairytales. Yet she was an integral piece of himself, like the Guardian scar on his chest and the medallion. His heart would recognize her at first sight.
Gabe was waiting when he arrived home. He didn't need to speak for Prince to see the uncertainty in his eyes. He'd counted the days, too. Without a word, he set food on the table. Once Prince had his bottle, Gabe his purified water, they sat together.
"You don't look well," Gabe said softly during the simple meal. His father understood that he looked a hell of a lot better than he felt.
"Will you be strong enough...when the time comes?"
"Have to be, don't I?" Prince said, ignoring his dinner in favor of the burning alcohol.
Their eyes met across the table. His father stared at him with frustration before he set his fork down hard. "I wish..."
Wished Amethyst hadn't given her life so Prince could fulfill his destiny... to what end, when little if any hope existed? Wished the sacrifice of saving his son over the woman he loved hadn't rewarded him with an unnaturally long life and vigorous health. Prince knew through and through what his father wished. At times, he wished it himself. But the prophecy was the only life he'd ever known and he'd lost all faith in it because of his own failures.
What was the point of the loneliness he faced continuously without her? His life...lives... had been unfathomable to any other human being. From the womb, his destiny had been determined. He'd always been the Guardian, the chosen. Times beyond counting, he'd searched every word in the Protectorate history, laws and wisdom in hopes of discovering the means to bring salvation to everyone but himself.
The Time Tunnels, like Ireland's Druids' Altar, pointed heavenward from a stark limestone megalith, visible only before the portal dolmen appeared to allow entry.
He'd used one of the countless Time Tunnels to revisit the past, when the prophecies about him were uttered. He'd used them to look for the innocent one, his love. But how could he find her when he had no clue where to look?
Permanent death would have been preferable to his existence, but he didn't have that option. All he had was suffocating responsibility, voracious need and an overwhelming fear of failure. Certainty of failure. He had to save her. But even he, the world's poorest excuse for a savior, didn't pretend to know how.
* * * *
"The Black Woods is where the heart of the evil lurks. Foolish to get near the forest, let alone enter. Inside is a maze from which there can be no escape. At the edge, never to be found, is rumored to be a beautiful maiden trapped forever in an amethyst tower with no way in or out. Her guardian? An evil creature, that devil of old, who destroys the world and the innocent with it."
The Warlock Lord.
The desperate woman had given him the words and the warning, but Prince hadn't been swayed by either or the fear leaping in the eye of every bedraggled soul. When night fell, the dark things came out to play. Nightmares came to life. Prince had felt the poisonous fire-breath of the creature that stalked him, he'd heard the dragging footsteps of the zombies with faces he knew, souls long consumed by the evil. He would have no place to hide when he stepped foot into the thick, black woods.
A hand, gnarled with long, yellowed fingernails, came down on his shoulder. Fetid breath filled his nostrils as the lips opened and what came out was even fouler. "What's the matter, play-Prince? Lost, are we? Again? How many lifetimes will you wander and seek fruitlessly? Do you feel death, Guardian of the sacred Protectorate? It is coming for you. You cannot win. Like all before you, you will succumb to me, and I will fill the world. Every soul will belong to me. The innocent shall be mine, prophecy or no prophecy. You have run out of time, play-Prince."
Nails stabbed at his eyes and he screamed, covering them. Blood gushed between his fingers...
Prince woke to his own screaming. While he sat up in the bed, his hands flew to his eyes. Only sweat came back. His eyes weren't blind, not gouged. Another nightmare. Another image of the desolate future, if he didn't succeed.
His heart pounded hard enough to kill him.
When, you bastard, when you don't succeed. The prophecy... the prophecy is worthless. I'll never fulfill it. I'm good as dead in less than three days.
He swung his legs out from the comforter, putting his bare feet on the cold floor. With his body drenched in sweat, the frigid air chilled him straight to the bone.
Against his will, he pushed the words of the prophecy past his unwilling lips: "'The redeemed child will die and will be reborn as many times as need be for the purpose of saving the Innocent in the Amethyst Tower, where the Great Evil lives. Only in time--when the chosen child lives, grows, and goes forth with courage in his hand to do the will of the Protectorate--will the barriers containing the evil be restored, its power weakened or even destroyed.'"
"'Only in time...in time...'"
Shock filled his brain. Shivering violently, he faced the truth he'd never realized before. The clue to how to rescue Rapunzel lay buried in the prophecy. He'd searched the past, searched the present, for any glimpse to how to save the future. Never had he considered going to the future. Only in time would the evil be destroyed.
In the future, only in the future, would he find the innocent one and save the world. The Warlock Lord had hidden her in the future, where, stupid fool that he was, he'd never considered looking.