His name was Lucian King. He was thirteen, and with his shirt as a pillow, he was indulging in the act of star counting. It wasn’t fun or simple, but it was his project, and he did it when the weather permitted. His goal was to count them starting from the north star and spiraling outwards, counting without moving his steel gray eyes from their starting position until all stars in his field of view had been counted. He had become remarkably good at it though he had never completed the task. His mother, Lucille, owned the summer camp whose dock he was enjoying, albeit at a much later time than she would have approved. He wasn’t a disobedient child so much as a pensive one, and at times his wants and her wants clashed, leaving him with few choices that would make them both happy.
The camp was old and the dock with it, so its construction lacked the integrity most would prefer. It had been patched in places, and a few of its older supports had demanded a replacement, but it had never been entirely rebuilt which gave it a distinct personality. Since the dock and the boy were old friends at this point, it was relatively vocal about the approach of anyone that might interfere with their conspiratorial bonding sessions. Even now, the old dock grumbled in its manner that a visitor was approaching that was familiar and welcome.
“Hey, man,” the visitor called out.
“Hey, Rowan,” Lucian greeted his friend who made it a point not to step into his field of view.
“How many have you counted tonight?” Rowan asked as he slipped off his sandals. He sat down next to Lucian, his feet hanging off the edge of the dock.
“Four hundred and thirty-seven.”
“Cool,” Rowan said.
The pair sat in silence enjoying the simple joys of nature. A cool breeze danced across the lake, filling their noses with the smells of the pine and cedar from surrounding woods. Bats wheeled in the moonlight, seeking their nightly meals. Stars twinkled and shined, whispering a story that was as old as it was unique to its viewer. In a few weeks, autumn would supplant summer and mother nature was urging her children to drink in what they could.
After a few moments, Lucian blinked hard and sat up, rubbing his eyes. “I thought you were gonna stop sneaking out after the last time.”
“I was. I don’t know why I came out tonight,” Rowan muttered. “I just woke up and wanted to come out here. Needed to, I guess. Is that what it’s like for you?”
“I guess. I just like it. I don’t get in trouble though. Well, not a lot of trouble.” Lucian regarded his friend. Rowan was a lithe boy the same age as Lucian. He had fluffy, sand-colored hair, an olive complexion, and dark brown eyes. It was his second year coming to the camp, and the boys had gotten relatively close.
“The wrap-up games start tomorrow, don’t they?” Rowan asked.
“Yup,” Lucian said, his voice betraying his true feelings on the matter.
“I guess it’s boring to you since you’re better than everyone else at them. You living here gives you an unfair advantage,” Rowan said.
“No, that’s not it. It means camp is over and everyone is leaving,” Lucian said.
“I got you. Summer will be over soon, and we have to go back to school. I bet I’ll have to write a paper first thing when school starts.”
Lucian grunted in acknowledgment. “Do you want the trophy?”
“From the games? Yeah!” Rowan said, excited. “Are you gonna be on my team? I thought everyone had to stick with whoever was in their cabin.”
“I get to pick someone to be on my team. If you want, I’ll pick you,” Lucian said matter-of-factly. “You have to do one event, and I’ll do the rest and give you the trophy.”
“Cool! I’ll do one of the swimming ones. I’m good at those. Or I can do the rifle one.”
“If you want to do more than one, it’s cool,” Lucian said as he rolled backward onto his feet. “You could lose all the swimming ones, and I could still carry us. The rifle one you can have since my mom always gets this look when I shoot.”
“I’m good with guns. My dad is a marine, remember?” Rowan beamed. “I’m gonna join when I get old enough. I still think you should too. You’d be an awesome marine.”
“I don’t think my mom would like that. She said my dad was Army and died overseas. She’s really anti-military. I don’t know. I kinda want to so I can see the world. All this woodsy stuff doesn’t work anywhere else.”
“Well, when we get old enough, we can both join. It’ll be fun. We can be friends on Facebook since I move around a lot,” Rowan suggested brightly.
“Mom doesn’t let me use Facebook,” Lucian mumbled.
“Just email then.”
“I can’t use the internet at all. She’s super paranoid about predators and stuff. It’s stupid.” Lucian sighed. “I swear she wants me to stay in the woods with her and my uncle forever.”
“Yeah, pretty much.” Lucian scratched absently at a bug bite on his stomach. “You should get back before these stupid bugs eat you alive.”
“I’m just gonna hang out for a little longer.”
Lucian nodded and turned to leave. He had taken no more than a few steps when he felt it. It was like a chill in his chest. A creeping sensation that grabbed his heart and held fast. Something was wrong. Something was there. He turned to face his friend, his eyes darting all around, trying to see the thing he was feeling. Nothing was there but Rowan, staring at the lake.
Rowan seemed to feel Lucian’s eyes and turned to look at him. “You cool?” he asked, confused.
“Yeah,” Lucian stammered. “You cool?”
“Yeah, man. Quit being weird.” Rowan chuckled and went back to gazing at the lake.
Lucian turned and started the short walk home, all the while trying to shake the alien dread that had taken root in his heart.
Lucian’s mother was very particular about her appearance. She often told her son that just because they lived in the woods didn’t mean they had to look like it, but she had shaken him awake with a slightly wild look about her. Her hair, customarily bound back into a neat puff, was a wild bush and she was still wearing her housecoat. It was as though she had been roused as unkindly as she had just roused him.
“Did you sneak out last night?” she asked, her voice strangely urgent.
“What?” he mumbled, still struggling to clear the haze of sleep from his head.
“Did you sneak out?” Each word was sharp.
“Okay, yeah,” Lucian said. Wakefulness came faster as the pain caused by his mother’s iron grip on his arms sharpened his senses. “Mom, you’re hurting me!”
Lucille released her grip and ran her hands over his arms where she’d been holding him. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” she said. “I need you to tell me what happened last night between you and Rowan.”
“Between me and Rowan?” Lucian cocked his head slightly in confusion. “Nothing happened. We hung out after lights out. Is he in trouble?”
“Where was he when you last saw him?” Lucille asked, brushing off his question.
“He was sitting on the dock, looking at the lake.” Lucian rubbed his eyes. “What’s going on?”
“Did he seem depressed or sad or anything?”
“No. We were talking about the games and stuff. He was excited because I was gonna help him win the trophy.” A sense of dread had replaced the fog of sleep, and Lucian now found himself on the edge of panic. “Mom, what happened to Rowan?”
Lucille looked at him for a moment, her eyes searching his face. Her head fell back, and she closed her eyes. She drew in a long breath through her nose which she seemed to hold forever. “Rowan is dead,” she exhaled.
Laughter burst uncontrollably from Lucian’s mouth. He was confused by his own reaction. What his mother has said wasn’t funny. He felt sick, not amused, his body cold and hot all at once. He wanted to throw up, and his eyes felt puffy. Each laugh got longer and rougher until it turned into a series of small, racking screams.
In that instant, Lucian knew that something had killed Rowan. The same something he’d felt on the dock before he left. He should have said something when that creeping feeling grabbed his heart and wouldn’t let go. He should have made Rowan go back to his bunk as that sense of wrongness fouled the air around them. He looked at his mother, his face wet with tears and a gut twisted in guilt for ignoring his feelings.
“Something out there did it!” he shouted. “I felt something out there, and it killed him!”
Lucille leaned back, her eyes narrowing. “What do you mean something out there did it?” she said carefully. “Lucian, Rowan drowned.”
Lucian shook his head. “No way. No way!” The boy began to shake. “Rowan was an awesome swimmer. Something killed him. I felt it! I felt it, and I didn’t help him. I didn’t warn him!”
Lucille gathered her son into her arms and began cooing softly into his ear. “Hush now,” she murmured. “It’s not your fault.”
A wave of exhaustion washed over him like a fresh spring breeze. His mother’s voice seemed to drag him into the depths and all thoughts of the dark thing that killed his friend scattered like a flock of startled birds.
“I thought you were going to stop doing that to him,” a warm deep voice came from the doorway to Lucian’s room.
“I can’t stand to see him like that,” Lucille said, her voice betraying the exhaustion that always came from putting a spell on her son. “I really don’t need any judgments right now, Jack.”
Jack, despite his trim frame and relaxed demeanor, had a presence that filled any space he was in. “Now take it easy. I’m not casting judgments. I just know that casting on him is hard on both of you. You told me as much.”
Lucille sighed as she finished tucking Lucian back into bed. Jack was right. Lucian was extremely resistant to magic and as a parenting tool, ensorcelling you own child was suspect at best. However, this was a stressful enough situation without having to endure her baby’s self-recriminating howls of grief.
“He said he felt something,” Lucille said, hugging herself tighter into her robe. “I know I warded this place. The idea something could wander past them is terrifying.”
“I’ll start doing some extra patrols of the area. If something did wander in, I’ll show it the door,” Jack said warmly. “There are few monsters foolishness to cross wards like yours, and of those, fewer still who would be determined enough to cross me.”
“That’s true,” Lucille said, her thoughts wandering. Jack, for all his kindness, was a monster himself. Something unique and old and close to perfect. She never fully understood why he’d laid claim to her family but he never demanded anything from her other than affection and even in that accepted less than what she’d wanted to give. If he said it would be safe, it would be.
“It’s a shame you can’t protect me as easily from the legal issues this is going to cause,” she said with a wry chuckle.
“I’m best with inhuman threats,” he said, wrapping his arms around her shoulders. “Human ones are much more complex.” He suddenly sucked his teeth, making a little noise of annoyance.
“What is it?” Lucille turned to look at him only to see him staring absently out the window.
“I realized something bothersome,” Jack said. “I don’t want to scare you, but If something inhuman is responsible for this, there is a chance that the Choir might get wind of it. If that happens, I can’t help you. Not with them.”
A nervous laugh escaped Lucille’s lips before she could stifle it. “The Choir?” she said in spite of herself. “How would they even find out about this? The town is little, and we don’t even live in it.”
“I don’t know how they do it, but they have an uncanny knack for showing up in situations like this.” Jack rubbed his jaw, thinking. “If they do show up, it’ll probably be a pair. That’s the best case scenario. They would check things out, deal with whatever was here, and if they succeeded in dealing with it, they would leave.”
“And if they failed?”
“I’d make sure they didn’t,” Jack said simply. “Since I’m a known thing to them it would be best I only make myself known in a pinch so you’ll need to be prepared to deal with them.”
“Jack, I’m an apostate!” Lucille snapped. “An apostate with a dead child in her camp under whatever magic circumstances it would take to summon them! How am I to deal with that?”
“Your grandmother was an apostate,” Jack replied, his tone soft. “You’re just a mage they don’t know about. That happens frequently enough.”
“They’ll kill me. I know they will!” Her ire slowly gave way to panic. “They’ll blame me, kill me, and take my baby! That’s how they work! Mother told me it’s how they keep up their numbers!”
“Okay, stop that,” Jack said, pulling the now fretting mother into a tight hug. “They aren’t going to kill you and take Lucian. You didn’t do anything wrong. The Choir doesn’t simply purge anymore. I may be out of the loop, but I’m confident in that.”
“But you said they’d investigate. Jack, if they so much as see Lucian-”
“We will deal with this,” Jack said, cutting her off. “If the situation resolves before they dig too much they’ll leave. It will be okay.” He kissed her forehead and held her tightly.
“Do you promise?” Lucille said, her voice small and still very much afraid. She needed him to promise. He’d never once failed to keep his word to her, even when she was a child.
Jack’s silence spoke dreadful volumes.