For the ten generations since the evil first came to Woodcutter’s Grim, the Guardians have sworn an oath to protect the town from the childhood horrors that lurk in the black woods. Without them, the town would be defenseless…and the terrors would escape to the world at large.
A shape-shifting goat, William Gruff escaped being bound to the evil pervading Woodcutter’s Grim, the sole shelter for supernatural creatures. Years later, he and his pregnant wife, Adaryn Azar, a phoenix, have no choice but to flee there themselves. But just one phoenix can exist in the world. Will the powerful magic Liam wields consume him before he can build the only bridge that can take him and Adaryn into the sun of Eternal Paradise?
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GENRE: Fantasy/Paranormal/Mild Horror/Romance Word Count: 66, 176
October 30, 2026
When Liam Gruff arrived at the Shaussegeny Estate and the monitored front gate opened to him without hesitation, he was still marveling that his oldest brother had told him not to come back to the Forge until November 2nd. “Stay in your house and don’t go out at all during Halloween. If you need supplies, get ’em now. And come to work all the earlier Monday morning.”
Liam drove through the gate slowly, glancing back in the rearview mirror to see it already closing behind him. He’d planned to come after work instead of so early in the morning, and the tug of war inside him at losing a day bothered him. He had so much to do in so little time. Losing not just one day, but three, for a holiday was far from ideal. He was driven to excel in this apprenticeship–the faster he reached mastery, the better–and in eight hours he could have made huge strides toward his goal. But he couldn’t focus on that now. There was nothing he could do, so he’d take comfort in the fact that he’d have more time with his family. His wife was already here.
The Shaussegenys, as well as Woodcutter’s Grim’s protectors, believed in the old traditions that the barriers between the human realm and the Great Evil were thin during Halloween–all three days of the Allhallowtide observation. Supernatural beings and the arisen dead were likely to enter the town through portals and move from house to house, playing tricks, dragging off the unprepared, and demanding sacrifices. During this time, the extremely large Shaussegeny clan sequestered inside the fortified walls of their estate. They’d invited Liam and his wife Adaryn, their family Torin and Celee, as well as Liam’s mother, the Protectorate Guardian Gabe Reece and his year old son, and Ember Sidhe, an employee who ran one of their many businesses in town, to stay with them during the lock-in. The last guest wouldn’t arrive until just before dinner.
Driving toward the main house in the center of the vast complex that resembled a castle, Liam waved to several of the workers–strong, young Shaussegeny sons and relations, and trusted employees. He still marveled at what they were trying to accomplish here. They were building a potential community inside these thick walls. The last thing would be to move the Protectorate Building to the center of the estate near the main house, scaling it up to become a proper headquarters. The end game was to encompass as much of Woodcutter’s Grim as possible within the walls of their impenetrable fortress.
Passing enormous pile after pile of construction material, Liam wondered that he and his family had only been in town a mere week and already things had gone from the insanely improbable to new heights of blow-the-mind impossible for four transmutants on the run.
In this short time, they’d met the Shaussegenys, cured of the curse that had made them werewolves. Ember was a fae creature whom the Shaussegenys had brought through the portal and rescued. The Protectorate Guardian’s beloved had been taken by a vampiric creature. Their son Prince was a child of prophecy, being born and reborn until he fulfilled his destiny. Ransom Shaussegeny’s wife Tess was a minion of the Warlock Lord, though she’d broken all ties and now fought the evil alongside the Shaussegenys.
They’d yet to discover who or what Nazarha Pallaton and her mother before her were. Nazarha, the final, highly anticipated guest to arrive, was the Guardian’s half-sister. According to the eldest Shaussegeny, Jack, they had much to discuss once she arrived, and the family estate was the only truly safe place for those fighting the evil to talk in all of Woodcutter’s Grim, other than the Protectorate Building, currently situated behind the police station in town.
Liam parked the car, getting out slowly, aware that his preliminary pang of regret when he’d met Baor at the edge of the woods was fading. Initially, he’d merely been surprised to see his oldest brother alone in the clearing. Their middle brother Rove had no love for the task they were forced to perform–let alone true aptitude–but he would never dare be late for work. Without preface, Liam had learned why Rove was absent. Baor had told Liam to go and stay away for three days for Halloween, as his family and Rove’s would.
The magic that enthralled them was evil. Liam knew that. It leeched life away, feeding itself, leaving the user depleted on a daily basis and worse over time. Eventually, they would no longer be human. In their father’s case, no longer goat either. The magic had distorted his appearance, mangling it and twisting him almost beyond recognition into the hideous troll under the bridge.
This is what happens when we give ourselves to the magic, become its slave–willingly. And I have to fight that.
He’d been in hiding for 20 years, isolating himself as much as possible. Meeting Adaryn, realizing she was a phoenix, had changed his life. He had to protect her. Protect their child, growing inside her right now.
But the magic’s hold on him… It was cumulative and devastating, taking over every facet of his being. We could see the changes in Dad after only a few months of moving to Woodcutter’s Grim. He started resembling a massive ogre, patchy hair, distant eyes. Always, he was thinking about the magic–the bridges that mattered more than anything else to him. He never wanted to leave the Forge. He’d become the Bridge Master in no time at all once his enslavement took hold.
When Liam returned to Woodcutter’s Grim about a week ago, accepting the renewal of the blood contract, his elder brother Baor had ordered him back the Forge. Rove was still struggling in the first two level exercises. In the short time, Liam had not only surpassed him but also himself. Each day, Liam increased his skill. Despite Baor’s cruelty in sending him back to the start, Liam gained new levels every day.
I want the challenge. I believe I can do what’s never been done before. Whether it’s the magic ruling me or my own will combined with inborn talent, I don’t know.
Jack met Liam on the great stone porch before the double doors of the main house. They shook hands while the older man propelled them inside, saying, “If you hurry, you can be there while my daughter-in-law and Ransom examine Adaryn and the baby’s growth.”
Jack led the way to the Ransom Tower hospital wing. At the door of a closed private office, Jack said, “Knock after I’ve gone. Once you and Adaryn are finished, we can talk more about this evening’s festivities.”
“Festivities?” Liam asked in surprise at what seemed like an inappropriate term for a holiday where evil flourished.
“We’ve never been closer to accomplishing our goals,” Jack said with an energetic smile. “That’s worth celebrating, isn’t it?”
Liam couldn’t deny the truth of what the man was saying, but in his mind they were nowhere near reaching anything that could be described as a goal.
But I can worry about all that later. At the moment, his concern and excitement about his upcoming child took precedence.
As soon as Jack disappeared down the hall, he knocked on the door. Marnie, Jack’s daughter-in-law, appeared through the crack that opened to him. “Oh, Liam, what a blessing!” she said in an instant, opening the door wide to allow him inside. “We’re just getting set up for the ultrasound.”
Adaryn’s previous visits had allowed Marnie, an OB/GYN doctor, and her youngest son Ransom, a brilliant scientist, to understand Adaryn’s human/phoenix anatomy. They’d learned on her first visit that, similar to egg-laying mammals, Adaryn had a pouch where the offspring she carried would develop.
They could only guess at how long the gestation period their child was now in would last, especially considering that Adaryn couldn’t be entirely sure of the date when she’d conceived. The passage of time inside the phoenix sanctuary was completely different.
Based on the things they’d observed in her pregnancy, Marnie and Ransom were assuming Adaryn would be pregnant for little more than a month–meaning they needed to exam her on a daily basis to gauge the stages of development. Preliminary evidence suggested her due date was somewhere around November 10th.
A deadline in more ways than one. And the paramount reason why I only have a month to not just learn how much control I have over the magic but to become a master and complete the magical bridge that leads to the sun portal inside the phoenix sanctuary.
Liam took his wife’s hand, recognizing the agony in her expression. She felt vulnerable and exposed in the position she was in, awaiting the ultrasound, but also thrilled to see him. Because of his work, he hadn’t been able to do anything but watch recorded videos of her prenatal appointments up to this point. In awe, he watched the movements on the screen. While nearly everything was undecipherable, the heartbeat and undeniable activity were real-time and humbling. Life was growing inside Adaryn, something they’d made together.
Everything we are, everything we do comes down to protecting, saving, giving this child meaning and direction and a safe haven. But, although Adaryn and I haven’t discussed it because it’s brutal, what does saving our daughter mean? Taking her with us through the Eternal Gate of Paradise…or leaving her behind?
Only one phoenix could exist during a cycle. When Adaryn gave birth to their child, her own cycle would invariably end while their daughter’s began.
If Liam could re-forge the bridge in the sanctuary, would their daughter go with them? If she did, what would happen to the human realm and all its occupants? Just by existing in the world, the phoenix made it a better place. Without a phoenix healing them, would they fall into chaos and ruin? Could they take their daughter away from her primary impetus for the undeniably selfish goal of protecting her?
Liam had no answers for their course. Until the bridge could be rebuilt, there was no way across and no need to answer questions that might not matter in the end.
Adaryn’s fingers flexed inside his, and he saw the sheen of tears in her eyes after Marnie measured the distance from her pubic bone to the top of her uterus. “Well, it’s hard to tell how far you’re advancing because phoenixes don’t gain a lot of weight apparently, the way humans do over the course of their pregnancy, let alone display similar symptoms and progressions, but the fundal height has increased slightly since yesterday. You and your baby appear to be very healthy.”
A few minutes later, Marnie left the exam room so Adaryn could get dressed. Liam helped her up, instantly kissing her, then resting his forehead against hers when she was sitting up on the table. “This is real,” he said, feeling a strange dawning that he should have experienced previously. But he’d never seen any of this in person before. The videos on a tablet hadn’t captured the magic of their child’s existence.
Drawing back a few inches, Adaryn laughed, sniffing a little. “I know. I felt that way, too, at first.”
“Just at first?” he asked.
She nodded, looking very serious suddenly. “I can feel her growing inside me. Every second. It’s incredible. Humbling. A little frightening. Because there’s so much–“
We have to do. That could be left unfinished. And that won’t be good for our daughter. Or the world.
Adaryn intended to give her daughter everything she needed to understand the world she’d been born into, the human realm, as well as comprehending who and what she was–how a phoenix cycle worked. When she’d been born, she’d been given almost nothing from her parents to guide her on her path and understand the centuries’ long lifespan of her existence. She’d felt abandoned despite realizing that her parents had had little time to tell her anything, let alone everything she’d need to know. Adaryn planned to do things differently. She wanted their daughter to have everything necessary to aid her adjustment once she was inevitably on her own.
“You didn’t tell me this before,” he said softly.
“I didn’t know exactly what I was feeling for a while. But I understand now. I sometimes feel like I can communicate with her. Inside. Without speaking. I can… feel her there, growing and developing. Like we’re one. I should have realized how much I can come to love a person more with each passing second. I felt that way with you. With Torin and Celee.” She smiled suddenly, brightly. “I want to name her Cendrillion. It’s French for ‘little ashes’ and similar to Cinderella, which was what I first thought to name her. We can call her Endril for short.”
“I love that.” Liam smiled, his throat tight and his eyes wet. He tested the name out loud: “Cendrillion. Endril.”
She sighed. “I better get dressed. I can’t sit on this table all day naked.”
Liam grinned, chuckling emotionally.
“I’m so glad you’re here and could see her on the ultrasound. But why aren’t you at the Forge?” she asked when he helped her down off the table and she moved to put on her clothes.
“Baor was waiting in the clearing when I got there. He told me to go home and stay there throughout Halloween. So Jack wasn’t just kidding about how seriously everyone in this town takes the danger involved in this holiday. You should have seen it when I drove through this morning. Everything’s shut down–the businesses, the church. I guess even Baor and Rove are staying home with their families behind locked doors during the next three days and nights. It was like being in a ghost town until I got here. Everyone’s buzzing on the estate. Jack called it ‘the festivities’, like this is a celebration.”
“I think it is,” Adaryn said as she covered her striking torso with a velvety tunic. “They’re planning a huge feast for the evening, which will be served after Nazarha Pallaton arrives.”
Apparently the woman liked to take long voyages on the lake and beyond in her houseboat. She’d been so far out they hadn’t been able to contact her until she headed back. Jack had said she was scheduled to return just before nightfall.
Liam lifted an eyebrow. “Maybe we can figure out who this VIP is and how she fits into everything then.”
“Jack and Gabe already told us she’s Gabe’s half-sister and that she, like her mother before her, is helping them fight the evil.”
Nazarha’s mother had apparently found a magical mirror. The looking glass that was talked about in fairy tales. Using the looking glass had allowed her to have contact with someone in a ‘Mirror Darkly’ version of Woodcutter’s Grim. The Mirror Darkly World was essentially a mirror version of the real world. The Shaussegenys and the Protectorate were all over there on the other side with mirror counterparts, only there were differences between them. Nazarha and her mother had been in contact with Gabe Reece’s mirror counterpart’s father, Camoren Pallaton. Camoren was the one who’d helped them make sense of the dual worlds. He’d drawn a diagram to help them visualize how the two mirror worlds co-existed:
The origin portal in Woodcutter’s Grim led to the space between the worlds and presumably it was the only way to access any of these places. In the Real World, the Great Evil was identified as the Warlock Lord from Rapunzel and lived in the Amethyst Tower. In the Mirror Darkly World, the Great Evil manifested as the Evil Stepmother from Snow White. She lived in the Mirror Darkly equivalent Amethyst Tower.
In the Mirror Darkly World, the last of the Protectorate was barely holding on, trying to save a dying world that had fallen to the evil. There, they’d moved the Protectorate Headquarters into the Shaussegeny Estate and their fortress enclosed inside held the last of humanity. What Camoren told Nazarha and her mother was happening on his end might also happen in the Real World eventually, which was why they were working so hard to be ready if the worst happened.
“Jack talks about Nazarha like she’s some kind of seer,” Adaryn added.
Liam nodded. “I still feel like we’re not being told why Nazarha is so important.”
He was hesitant to say what he was really thinking. How is she important to us? Woodcutter’s Grim and the world need help to survive in the future. No two ways about it. But what can I do? My purpose is clear. I need to protect Adaryn and our child first and foremost. In that way, I am helping Woodcutter’s Grim citizens. But I know they want us to help more than that.
The thought wasn’t a pleasant or comfortable one, any more than it was for Adaryn. She wanted to save everyone. Liam just wasn’t sure that was possible. One way or another, he had hard choices in front of him. His path couldn’t have been more direct and straightforward. Did he dare make a detour from his focus for any reason, even for a cause just as compelling and necessary?