A Legend of Synthia Rowley Novel
© 2020 Ann MayburnPROLOGUE
AmyVelvety black shadows from the trees outside stirred along the walls of Amy’s room, plunging her shelf full of anime characters in and out of the darkness. Normally, she liked to lay in bed and imagine stories for each of the figures as she fell asleep, but tonight her mind couldn’t focus on anything other than Kandice. Her bestest friend in the whole world had been missing for close to three days, and Amy couldn’t stop wondering where she was.The principal of their junior high said Kandice had run away, but Amy knew that wasn’t true.They’d been friends forever, growing up on the same street and going to the same school for as long as Amy could remember. On the surface, their friendship probably seemed weird. While Amy was quiet and content to stay in the background, Kandice was the popular girl—the one everyone wanted to sit next to at lunch. She had the most beautiful, long black braids and perfect mahogany skin while Amy had dull blonde hair and seemed to be cursed with acne. Despite their differences, Kandice was her best friend in the entire world, so she knew her BFF would never take off without telling her. It just didn’t make any sense. Even Aaron, Amy’s twin brother who thought Kandice was a flake, didn’t think she ran away.
Seemed like the only ones that believed Kandice had taken off were the adults.
Amy’s feet ached and she stretched them out beneath her sheets with a low groan. She’d spent all day walking through the state park with a group of volunteers looking for Kandice. They’d met at the break of dawn, close to a hundred people ready to search the vast forest. Maybe it was her imagination going into overdrive, but walking through the still woods had been nerve-wracking. It had seemed unnaturally quiet beneath the dense, leafy canopy, and even her mom commented on the lack of birds. Something about the very air discouraged noise, and Amy noticed that the adults formed a protective circle around Amy and her brother Aaron as they walked the trails. In a way, it reminded her of nature documentaries she’d watched about herds of animals like elephants circling to protect their young.
The really freaky thing had been the fact that they weren’t the only people searching the woods for a missing kid. Two other groups combed the massive forest as well. One group was searching for Thomas Klemmens and the other for Robin Harris. Amy didn’t know Robin, since she was homeschooled and lived on the other side of town, but Thomas played on the same soccer team as Aaron during the summer. They’d both gone missing last week, and there was still no sign of them. It was like they’d vanished off the face of the earth. There one second—poof!—gone the next.
Kandice, Thomas, and Robin.
All vanished into thin air with no explanation.
And nobody knew where they were. Kandice’s parents said she’d gone to bed like any other night, and they didn’t notice she was missing until her mom went to wake her up for breakfast. Thomas had somehow disappeared from the middle of a busy grocery store after his mom sent him to grab some milk. And Robin had been playing disc-golf with her older sister when she’d disappeared. Robin’s sister said she took her eyes off her for just a moment, and when she looked back, Robin had vanished.
There were rumors of a band of child molesters hunting kids, and even though her parents said it was—in the words of her dad—“just the liberal media hyping shit,” she was scared. Her dad also said that if someone had taken those kids, it was probably the shifters or the witches. Amy hated that her dad was prejudiced against people blessed by the Goddess, because she didn’t believe that being born a shifter or a witch made someone evil. She’d tried to argue with him about it, but he got really mean and said some really bad stuff, so now she just didn’t say anything when he went off on one of his rants about the shifters taking all the good jobs and the witches somehow being responsible for his truck breaking down.
Her Dad liked to blame everyone but himself for his problems.
While Amy might not believe shifters were running around eating kids, or witches were kidnapping them to use in evil spells, she did believe in human monsters. The kind that took kids and did horrible things with them before killing them. What if there was some group of creepy perverts out there, and what if they had Kandice? What if they were hurting her? What if… what if Kandice was dead? Her corpse dumped in some shallow grave like on those FBI TV shows her mom watched?
A full body shiver ran from the top of Amy’s scalp to the bottom of her feet, and she shook her head against her pillow.
No, she wasn’t going to think that way.
Kandice was out there somewhere, and Amy was going to find her.
Outside, the big old oak tree her grandma had planted when they built this house waved in the stiff wind. After her parents divorced, when she was really little, they’d moved into Grandma Virdin’s house with her. Amy couldn’t remember a time when the sprawling ranch hadn’t been home. Secretly, she was glad that her mom gotten custody of her and Aaron. Though she loved her dad, she didn’t want to live in his bachelor pad condo that always smelled musty.
Shifting beneath the covers, she stared up at the ceiling, worry giving her a sour stomach.
Glow-in-the-dark star stickers hung above her, but their green light grew fainter as the night wore on. Her throat became tight and her nose burned as she tried to swallow back a sob. Kandice helped her hang those stars. She was really strong, thanks to cheerleading, and she’d stood on Amy’s bed with Amy on her shoulders so they could reach the ceiling. They’d almost fallen a couple times because they were laughing so hard, and Amy dashed a tear away as she remembered her friend.
Rolling over onto her other side, she stared at the gap between the pale orange curtains of her window while pulling her fluffy comforter up to her chin.
A sound—no, a voice—caught her wandering attention.
At first, she wasn’t sure if she’d imagined it, but when the sound of Kandice whispering her name filled the room, she stopped breathing.
Not sure if she was hearing things, she whispered back, “Kandice?”
There was a long, weighted pause then her stomach clenched as she heard her name again.
Sitting straight up in bed, Amy flung her blankets off her legs and stood up, almost tripping over the edge of her green and purple nightgown.
By the Goddess, that was Kandice’s voice!
“Kandice,” she said louder as she turned in a circle, “Where are you?”
Smiling wide, she ran across the room then threw open the curtains blocking her window, ready to find her friend giggling on the other side of the glass.
She knew it, knew Kandice was pulling some kind of prank and was fine.
The backyard was dark as usual, other than some of her mom’s small solar lights lining the flower beds bordering the back porch. Past their old swing set, a row of thick hedges separated their backyard from the state park. Their yard butted up against their Aunt Syn’s privacy fence on one side, and their neighbor Miguel’s garage in the other. The garage usually had a bright security light that would turn on if anyone walked by, but it was dark. And in that darkness, a hunched, twisted form shambled out of the shadows.
A scream built up somewhere deep inside of Amy as she took in the wrecked form of her best friend.
Her mind rebelled, telling her that thing couldn’t be Kandice.
She wanted to deny it, rejected what she was seeing, but she couldn’t.
Amy recognized the unicorn pajamas Kandice wore. A matching pair hung in her closet—they’d both gotten one for Winter Solstice last year from Amy’s mom. Except her pajamas were clean, while the one’s Kandice wore were filthy and torn. One clear spot on the right calf showed the glittering neon horn of a unicorn. The rest of the image was covered in black muck, making it impossible to see the rest of the horse. She watched in horror as Kandice took another step closer, the dim, cool blue lights surrounding a nearby flower bed illuminating her further. Kandice’s gorgeous braids hung in thick, dreaded hanks, the ends dripping with some viscous fluid. The fall of her hair obstructed most of her face, but left her mouth exposed.
Kandice’s lips parted as she whispered something.
Fear closed Amy’s throat tight, and she literally choked on the shrieks of panic trying to escape.
It sounded like Kandice was whispering from right behind her.
Holding her finger to her lips, Kandice made a shushing motion, her movements stiff and jerky.
Come outside, Amyyyyyyy.
She tried to shake her head, but a weird melting sensation filled her body. Although she wanted to fight off the urge to open her window, her thoughts drifted and grew dull like she was getting super sleepy. It felt like she was in a dream, watching someone else flick the lock on her window and slide it open. The pane only went up two inches before the safety lock clicked. Her mind didn’t seem to comprehend the reason why the window wasn’t opening, so she tried to shove it open, making her sweaty hands skid off and scrape painfully on the edge of the frame.
The pain cleared her dizzy head, and she shook her hands against the sting with a whimper. Sucking in a desperate breath through her nose, she keened softly as Kandice shambled forward another step, almost to where the swing set stood. The tips of her fingers looked like they were missing, the white of exposed bone gleaming, and Amy closed her eyes, so scared she was about to faint. Pressure seared through her head, and she struggled to stay conscious.
The only thing she could do was pray, and she did so—desperately begging for the Great Mother’s protection. While her mom wasn’t religious, and her dad thought all religion was bullshit invented by the shifters and witches to subjugate humans, her Grandma Virdin was and she’d taught Amy lots of prayers to the Goddess. At the time, Amy had just been humoring the old woman, since she really wasn’t interested in magic and all that crazy stuff.
But now, with evil coming her way, she knew her father was wrong. If things like the abomination in her backyard could be real, then the Goddess was real as well. And Amy desperately needed her.
Great Mother, help me now
Your child is in desperate need of your aid.
Evil days and evil ways have come to this world.
The darkness hungers.
Give me the wisdom to be your light.
Give me your blessings, so that I may be your sword.
Give me the strength to resist the wicked lies of the whispering dark.
Kandice took a step toward the house, but it seemed like she moved in slow motion…or pushed against something. Her clumped, snarled braids fell forward as she visibly leaned, like the world’s greatest mime pretending to run into an invisible wall. Her snarl of rage was so inhuman, Amy stumbled for a moment over her prayer, then whispered it all the faster. Kandice slammed herself against that invisible barrier, and she seemed to be making progress. Little blue sparks seemed to flare at the edges of Amy’s vision, and she nearly choked on her spit as Kandice looked her right in the eye and grinned.
Loud, frantic barking split the air. A second later, Amy’s chihuahua, Kipper Doodle, burst out of the house, his sparkly rhinestone collar glittering around his tiny neck. To her surprise, he was followed by their neighbor Syn’s massive, fat and furry tabby cats. Booboo and BoBo were normally super friendly cats and sweet to Amy. If she was outside playing, they never failed to come say hi and get some cuddles. They were super affectionate and their purrs were loud enough to vibrate her bones. She could still remember them as tiny kittens that Aunt Syn had found abandoned in the forest. The kittens had been nothing but teeny brown and white bundles of fur that had blended in with the decaying leaves, but Aunt Syn had spotted them.
It was probably only the fact that they each had bright white bellies and chests that saved them. The color had caught Aunt Syn’s eye, and being the kind person that she was, she immediately took them home with her. Thankfully, it had been during Amy’s winter break, and she’d been able to spend the night with Aunt Syn, bottle feeding the two weak little babies back to health. Both cats had bonded with her and would often sneak over to her house, using the dog door at night to come in and sleep at the foot of her bed.
Except the cats stalking behind Kipper Doodle barely resembled the super fluffy kitties she knew. Yes, the fur was the same, brown tabby on top and white beneath, but there was something threatening about them now. Everything about the cats’ postures and movements seemed to radiate menace. Hugging herself, she gasped as their green and gold eyes began to glow. And the animals got bigger. Not like when a cat puffed up its fur when it was mad, but physically bigger. They doubled in size until they dwarfed Kipper Doodle. A few seconds later, they were tall enough that if Amy was outside, they’d come up to her chin. In the time it took her to blink they grew to the size of the biggest tiger she’d ever seen at the zoo. Maybe bigger.
The little chihuahua didn’t even pay the suddenly massive cats any attention as it charged forward, foam flying from his snarling doggie mouth as he lunged at Kandice.
A loud, low hissing filled the air and Amy panted as she realized the sound came from Kandice. Her friend turned on the little chihuahua, her mouth growing impossibly wide, distorting and morphing until the corners of her lips reached her ears. Her tongue lashed out, and it was long and black. Scaly and barbed.
Kipper Doodle let out a little yip and backed away so fast he was tripping over himself.
Moving as one, BoBo and Booboo stalked forward, each cat radiating menace. Their sharp teeth gleamed white in the moonlight, and their low growls sent shivers down Amy’s spine. With the cats now in front of him, Kipper Doodle seemed to regain some of his confidence because he started barking again. Her gaze darted back to Kandice, who was…changing. Long, snake-like tentacles squirmed out from where her fingertips used to be, dancing and waving in the air. Her tongue lashed out at the cats, but they merely yowled and slashed at the tentacles. When BoBo’s paw made contact with one of the lashing stalks, sparks flew out, bright enough to render her momentarily blind.
The burst of light seemed to free Amy from whatever magic had kept her frozen in place. She tried to scream, but the only sound she could make was a high-pitched whine as she choked on her own terror. Kandice’s tongue returned to her mouth, and she took quick, jerky steps backward as the cats advanced on her. Kipper darted away again, circling and snarling as he drove Kandice farther and farther into their backyard, until she was finally forced through the hedges that separated their house from the state park.
The cats followed, but Kipper Doodle stayed behind. He stood at attention, his ears forward, his whole-body straining to hear. Only when Kipper Doodle finally turned around, then dug into the grass with his hind legs and flung it back like he was covering up his poop, did Amy finally regain the ability to scream.
Sucking in a breath that seemed to go on forever, she let out a piercing screech, then broke down into sobs as the door to her bedroom opened and her mom rushed inside.
Even though her mom wore silly pink camo pajamas and had her hair in fuzzy green curlers, the sight of her mom made Amy cry even harder. Tall, close to six feet and stronger than most men, including Amy’s dad, her mom was force to be reckoned. She worked as a mechanic in a truck garage and could hold her own with any man or woman on Earth.
Relief flooded through her, making her weak.
Nothing would her hurt when her mom was around.
Holding out her arms, she yelled, “Mommy!”
Her twin brother Aaron rushed into the room a second later, his prize baseball bat in his hands. His blond hair stuck up in irregular spikes, and the print of his pillowcase still lined his cheek. Despite his sleepy appearance, his blue eyes were alert and he held the bat like he was ready to beat someone’s butt.
“Amy!” Her mother gathered her up into her strong, soft arms. “What’s wrong?”
“Kandice,” she sobbed out. “I saw Kandice. But she wasn’t Kandice. She was all-all dirty and bloody—and she had tentacles inside of her. But Kipper Doodle scared her off, and so did Aunt Syn’s cats—but they were like the size of lions, and I couldn’t scream! I was so scared, but I couldn’t scream!”
Aaron relaxed his stance and let the tip of the bat rest on the floor.
“Musta’ been a nightmare.”
“Oh, darlin’,” her mom hugged her close, stroking her hair with one hand. “It was just a dream, baby.”
Trying to wiggle out of her mom’s arms, she shook her head. “No, no, it wasn’t a dream. Kandice was here. And she wanted me to come outside. She tried to get into the house, but there was…this…this invisible something that kept her out. She tried to break through, but Kipper Doodle scared her off.”
“Only thing that dog could scare off is a box of donuts,” Aaron muttered as he left. “I’m goin’ back to bed.”
Ignoring her brother, she looked up at her mom’s tired face. “It wasn’t a dream. Kandice was out there, and she was—she was hurt…her unicorn pajamas were all dirty and bloody, and she wanted me to come outside.”
Overcome by sobs again, she collapsed against her mom as she rocked her. “Baby, it was a dream. A bad, horrible, terrible dream, but still just a dream. Nobody is out there.”
“But Kipper Doodle. You heard him barking too, right? Look, he’s still out there, watching the woods.”
“Kipper Doodle barks all the time honey. You probably heard him yapping at some opossum or skunk wandering around on the other side of the hedge in your sleep.” She sighed as her hand, calloused from years of hard work, gently stroked Amy’s sweaty brow. “I know you’re worried about Kandice. We all are, but we’re going to find her.”
“But mom, it was real. She was really here.”
Helping Amy back into bed, her mom tucked her in as she said, “Dreams can feel so real sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference between what’s true and what’s not. Try to get back to sleep. I’m sure in the morning you’ll feel better.”
Before her mom could leave, she grabbed her arm. “No, wait. Can you please stay with me? Just until I fall asleep? Please?”
Her mom’s blue eyes softened, and she nodded. “Sure. Scoot over.”
The mattress dipped as her mom slid into the other half of the full-sized bed. “Thanks, Mom.”
Reaching out, her mom stroked her hair. “I love you. Now get some sleep.”
After a few minutes the fingers stroking her hair slowed, but Amy remained awake and watched Kipper Doodle patrol the border of their yard until the morning sun started to brighten the distant horizon.