The night had never been darker, the blackness surrounding the car, never so suffocating. Even the piles of snow pushed to the sides of the narrow road, did nothing to break up the oppressive darkness. The Stars above, shone brightly, I was sure of it, but they did so from behind a curtain of clouds that blocked the light from reaching the road. I felt swallowed up by emptiness.
I gripped the steering wheel tighter, my knuckles stretching until they gleamed white in the glow of the dashboard and my frozen fingers worked numbly against the cold plastic. The headlights of my old Jeep reached only a few feet in front of me and then stopped abruptly against a wall of darkness. I shivered violently, nestling my chin further into the down of my heavy winter coat and cursed the Nebraska winter for being equally as cold as it was desolate.
The farmland rolled away from the winding road, buried beneath several feet of iced over snow in every direction. Trees, planted for the privacy of farmers, lined the way home with empty branches and snowcapped tops. My breath puffed out in front of me, fogging up the frozen windshield and reminding me that the heater to my fifteen year old Jeep Cherokee remained unfixed.
“Tristan!” I growled furiously into the frigid air. “Why I let you talk me into another movie I will never know!”
There was no one there to hear my complaints, or sympathize with me against my best friend, but it felt comforting to make noise in an empty antique without a radio. Still, receiving not even a groan of empathy from the Jeep, I sat forward and peered into the impossible night ahead of me.
I knew these roads; I had each curve and turn memorized. The distance between Tristan Shields’ house and my own was well traveled and practically sacred. Still, out in the country where street lights were for city-folk and the deer and the antelope tended to play, their familiar territory became a dangerous, never-ending expanse of nerves and tension.
Even in summer, unless the Stars and moon were bright and friendly, the country roads of the Nebraska farmland became shrouded in a heavy obscurity, the headlights of the best of cars mapping out the only visibility in the heavy cloak of night and beyond those flickering lights the world seemed to drop off the edge of a cliff into nothingness. But now, in the dead of winter, with temperatures well below zero, the night around my old Jeep seemed to have a life of its own, oppressive and angry.
I cleared my throat and mentally determined to conquer the creeping feeling of being afraid. I bit down on my lower lip and clutched the steering wheel tighter. My breath came out in shaky puffs of air, reminding me it was more than the roads and the night that curdled the most terrified places of my heart. It was more than the late hour and bitter cold that forced me to shiver and shift my eyes suspiciously in every direction.
It was the Darkness.
Not the country night, or the moonless sky. But the real Darkness. The Darkness that moved secretly through this world and threatened every living, breathing creature. The darkness that slithered in unseen places and survived on the death and rotten things. The darkness that I would fight until my dying breath.
But not tonight. Tonight I wasn’t ready. Tonight, I was still only sixteen, and my parents were still off saving the galaxy while I stayed home to finish high school with an elderly woman as my keeper.
Something moved out of the corner of my eye. I could swear it. Swirling my head around, and keeping a steady hold on the steering wheel, I peered into the darkness, searching out the moving creature.
Nothing beyond the snow banks piled in the ditches and the swaying lifeless trees that were becoming sparser as I passed expansive fields blanketed under the white of winter.
I turned my attention to the road again and with a numb hand, brushed my platinum blonde hair under the brim of my stocking cap. My fingers snapped with electricity and for a moment the cab of my Jeep was lit with the sparks of static. Only a few more miles till home. I could make it. There was nothing to be afraid of.
But why did tonight feel so different?
And then out of my peripheral vision I saw it move again. A swift shadow sliding effortlessly through the night, riding the whipping wind like a wave and dropping the frozen temperature several degrees lower. The pungent smell of rotting eggs drifted through the air.
I didn’t have to turn my head this time to confirm. I knew it would be gone before my head could move in the right direction. Besides, they only existed in the peripheral, in the slight glances and far off places.
I had seen them before. Since before I could talk my parents would tell me about them, explain to me of their existence, warn me of their danger. I saw them everywhere, even during the day I could spot them, because they were everywhere.
Foot soldiers of a greater evil, sent to Earth, the last remaining inhabited planet, to prepare the way for their master. They were the evil in all things, the tyranny, the oppression, the hunger and violence. The Darkness. The force of wickedness that battled against the forces of good with one purpose in mind, to abolish the Light.
I was the light. And because I was the answer to their destruction I hunkered further into my winter coat and braved the bone-chilling cold.
It could be easy for me to warm up; even in a car with a broken heater it was the natural reaction of my body. I was born of the light, of the warmth. And to suffer against the natural elements was difficult enough, but the extra layer of malevolent chill became excruciatingly painful even in small doses.
Still, they couldn’t know what I was. They couldn’t discover me after all this time. At least not yet. So I breathed in the frosty air, feeling the burn in my lungs and forced myself to push forward a few more miles.
My parents had worked so hard to hide my existence and to blend in with normal humanity that no matter how easy it would be to ease my pain, I had to fight against the elements. I was brought to Earth as a baby, with the sole intention to one day take over as Earth’s Protector. And so my parents had given up their positions as two of the greatest Warriors of their generation to raise an alien infant in the middle of farmland.
And it was here, in Western Nebraska, that I waited for the day the Earth would become my charge, my responsibility.
But that day wasn’t today. I had years before I was supposed to deal with that kind of duty!
Years…. I promised myself.
And as soon as I decided these were regular Shadows, which had no idea I was anything special, another one flittered across my peripheral. I swallowed the lump that had taken up an annoying residence in my throat and felt the passenger’s seat for my cell phone. I thought I laid it out before I started the car, but after blindly feeling around my worn upholstery decided it must still be hiding inside my over-sized bag.
I strengthened the grip of my left hand and thrust my right hand into the black hole of all my important possessions, hoping to come out victorious in three seconds or less. Defender of the last planet or not, I was hopelessly unorganized. My purse was a cluttered mess of unknown objects and somewhere, hidden in the melee was my cell phone.
I liked to believe I was brave. Or at least I would be one day. But tonight, all I wanted to do was call Annabelle, wake her up and forcefully let her know I would be home in ten minutes, just to hear her reassuring voice. I thought about calling Tristan too and demanding to know why he thought we needed to watch an entire trilogy all in one night!
Lip gloss. Gum. Floss. Wallet. Candy bar.
Where was my cell phone?
The road was dangerously icy and my constant shivering did nothing to balance out my driving. I sucked in a frozen breath and then glanced down at my purse, hoping to be able to spot the phone right away.
At least not right where I could see it in the one point five seconds I allowed myself to look. I heaved an irritated sigh and turned my eyes back to the road. Apparently that second and a half was way too long because standing in the middle of the road was a giant buck, poised and stilled only ten feet away.
I panicked. Somewhere in the rational-thinking part of my brain, I knew I was supposed to hit the animal; that it was safer to collide with the deer than slamming on my brakes in the middle of the night on an iced over country road. But my animal-loving instinct took over and my foot pressed furiously against the brake pedal while my hands jerked the steering wheel hurriedly to the right.
The next few seconds became a blur as my Jeep spun wildly out of control without even pretending to slow down. Belatedly I released my foot and tried to pump the brake but it was too late, the tail end flipped around to the front and then the front flipped around again and hit the snow bank at an alarming speed and bounced off.
As if in slow motion, my passenger’s side rammed into the iced over snow bank and then flipped over what felt like several times until I smashed to the frozen field far beyond the road. My Jeep hit the ground with an ear splitting cry of metal crushed against a rock hard surface.
I exhaled violently, the seatbelt cutting into my awkwardly hanging neck and waist. I felt unconsciousness threating to sweep me away as the broken bones in my right hand, where it had been crushed between my body and the armrest in the impact, screamed angrily at me.
If I were human I would already be unconscious.
If I were human, I would have a lot more to worry about than a broken wrist.
I wiggled my feet and tried moving my arms, just to make sure there were no other issues, before reaching over with my left hand and unbuckling the safety restraint. I fell gruffly against the impacted passenger side door and let out a fierce cry of pain.
I sat up and rubbed my shoulder that now felt displaced but not broken. Climbing into position I bent my knees and braced my hands, one strongly, the other gingerly, against the car around me and thrust my legs forward into the already cracked windshield.
The fractured glass moved against the force of my legs, but it took several more tries before I removed it completely. When I crawled carefully through the now gaping hole, the windshield remained intact, but definitely fissured and hung awkwardly across the sideways front hood, still attached near the driver’s side.
I slid down the rusted green paint of my Jeep and landed softly in the snow. The night was still outside of the crash, silent and subdued. The snow that blanketed the landscape muffled the usual night sounds and the absence of animals, even winter ones, felt eerily dangerous.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw one move. A Shadow. The Darkness.
But it wasn’t possible. They didn’t know I existed, let alone that I lived here, in the middle of nowhere. I brushed my fear away and simultaneously readied myself for an altercation. I shouldn’t be afraid. I couldn’t be afraid.
These were mere minions besides. And even if I wasn’t prepared to go into hand to hand combat with them, if they really knew who I was they would be more afraid of me than I was of them.
Or at least that’s what I promised myself.
I lifted my head in search of the buck that caused all this trouble to begin with but he was nowhere in sight. Either he was frightened off by my car turning in wild circles just to avoid him, or he never existed in the first place, just an apparition that turned to the smoky wisps of evil.
But that would mean a purposeful attack. And that couldn’t be. There was just no way they could know who I was.
Unless…. Unless, my parents had fallen.
I froze for a moment, my hands clenched at my sides, my chest a shallow cavity filled with a heart that refused to beat and lungs that refused to breathe and played through that possibility in my mind. They had been gone for several weeks, on a mission that specifically required their skill set. I hadn’t heard from them since they left, and so it was entirely possible that they failed.
That they fell.
I gazed into the sky, willing the clouds to move out of my way so I could find them. If they were gone, I would be able to tell immediately, their bright lights would be blank in a sky full of their fellow soldiers. The sky was too overcast though, even with my powerful eyesight and ability to cut through darkness, the clouds were too heavy and clustered to see through.
I cursed uncharacteristically under my breath and then again when I realized my phone was still somewhere unknown in the dark abyss of my Jeep. As I wedged one of my booted feet into the space of my car, where the hood made room for my windshield wipers, I decided that even if my parents were gone, there was no amount of torture or distress that would have prompted them to give up my location. They worked their whole lives to keep me a secret, to prepare me for the day when I would remain here alone, and on top of that, they loved me. There was no way it was them.
I ignored the clustering Darkness as I pushed myself up and through the broken windshield, reaching for my spilled purse, whose contents littered the crushed passenger’s side door. The Shadows weren’t trying to hide anymore; they were coming for me, gathering around me as if waiting for the command to attack. I reached down hurriedly, ripping my coat against the rough edges of the broken windshield, but I managed to gather at least the important stuff into my purse before hauling it back with me and hopping down from the Jeep.
I tossed the purse that now only held my wallet and cellphone and a few random items that managed to survive the spill, onto the snowy ground and lifted my head to meet my enemy. They moved around me like a slow tornado of darkness. As separate entities they appeared like slender gusts of black wind, but united they became a solid wall of evil. Even my keen eye sight could not see through them, or my superheated blood feel anything beyond their oppressive iciness.
I had never seen so many Shadows in one place. I had never even heard of them organizing themselves into a unified attack. They worked separately and secretly; their purpose was to influence mankind, to spread the Darkness like a disease to every corner of this planet, not to outright attack it. The deer had to be them. And even in that instance, their work was not so much of a surprise. But surrounding me now was something so unheard of that I was more taken aback than actually frightened.
The wall of Darkness moved against me, tightening its spaces and obviously trying to be threatening. I remained frozen, unwilling to reveal my identity even in this frontal attack. I wished more than anything that my parents were here, on planet and nearby, but this was a battle I alone would have to fight or figure out how to outmaneuver.
One Shadow broke free from the wall and moved against me in an aggressive sweep. It sliced against my thigh before I could react, tearing my jeans where it made contact. My skin burned from the unreal cold that I could feel even in my bones. The slash spread out its icy tendrils across my leg and moved upward throughout my body in scary quickness. I felt my lungs tighten against the strain of the cold and my appendages go numb from contact. My first instinct was to cry out in pain, but I bit my cheek, willing myself quiet and for the first time thankful that my lungs held no air to expel.
I couldn’t see beneath my layers of clothes, but I had been educated enough to know that my skin would be marked with the deathly blue lines that looked like raised, swollen veins from my skin and spread out in fingerlike vines until every inch of my body was covered in them. It was at that point, when the frozen effect of contact with the Darkness covered every inch of my body that a human would breathe their last painful, staggered breath and depart from this world. It would take less than thirty seconds, but in that time was more pain and suffering than should ever accompany a soul on their way to the afterlife.
The smell of sulfur burned my nostrils and made my ears ring from the pain of it. I wasn’t human. And I wouldn’t die from this contact. But I felt it more strongly than any human ever could. This touch, this evil, was in direct opposition to everything I was. As dark and evil as the Shadows were, I was light and goodness. As painful as their touch could be, mine was healing and soothing.
I made a split second decision, putting the pain aside; I decided, rationally, that I couldn’t stay out of this fight. The wall of Darkness surrounding me was waiting for me to die. If I was human, as I had thus far tried to play off, I should be lying on the ground right now, writhing in pain, mere seconds from death. Even as I stood against the agony, I knew they already figured it out.
My parents hadn’t even started with weapons training yet, beyond the casual swing of a sword and so I was left with only one option. Unfortunately it was also the option that would give this Darkness exactly what they were looking for: the answer to my identity.
I was a Star.
And not just any Star. The next Protector of Earth. I was a very important Star.
With swift movements, I unzipped my heavy coat and flung it from my arms. I moved into a battle ready stance and let the warmth, the warmth I had hidden deep inside me, bubble to the surface. My golden toned skin met my internal heat welcomingly and it spread across my body as quickly as a wildfire in a drought, healing my pain and warming me completely. I lifted my head heavenward, and let the light leave my skin and pour outward into the heavy obscurity around me.
I couldn’t help but smile as my true essence found form in the night. I glowed, literally. Blinding, supernatural, burning light radiated around me until my human form was almost completely hidden. Heat and light left me in waves of self-protection, the Darkness desperately fled from my presence and my light that would cause them as much pain as their cold blackness caused me.
The smell of sulfur grew stronger for only a moment as my inner light singed some of the stragglers; they shrieked an ear-piercing sound that rang painfully in my ears. And then they took to the sky in an urgent escape from a battle they were hardly prepared for.
I smiled wider; calling back the blinding light into my body and reducing my essence to a slight outward shimmer. I reached down for my coat and slipped it back on, not bothering with the zipper. I didn’t really need the warmth now; the warmth that lived inside of me was more than enough to keep me warm, but I also didn’t want to attract anymore Shadows.
Even without the Darkness clouding the landscape, with the absence of my supernatural light the night felt extra dark. I couldn’t wait to get home and to bed now that that was all over, but with my car upturned I needed to call Tristan to come get me. He wouldn’t be happy about me dragging him out of bed, but his grandmother and my caretaker, Annabelle, couldn’t drive at all, let alone come get me in the middle of the night. He would be even less happy when I offered him very little details about how I flipped my car over in the first place.
Just as I reached for my phone though, a single shot of light came careening through the atmosphere and stopped suddenly somewhere high above me, obscured by the thick cloud cover. I lifted my head, expecting my parents and when the light moved into two separate lights I grew even more hopeful. One light dimmed to nothing though, but stayed elevated, somewhere up in the dark sky. That couldn’t be right. My parents wouldn’t extinguish their light before they reached the ground.
They couldn’t, it wasn’t possible.
The sounds of crashing and metal slicing the air recalled my attention. I squinted my eyes and searched through the heavy gray for some sign of what was happening. The cloud above my head glowed in bursts of brighter light like a terrible and destructive lightning storm and when the sounds of terrified screeching and the horrid smell of sulfur reached my nose I recognized the light as a fellow Warrior.
But it was definitely not my parents.
The sounds of battle continued for several more minutes, as I remained rooted on the ground. I couldn’t join the fight without a weapon and so I was left to assume who was winning by the sounds of weapons meeting targets and the high-pitched wailing of Shadows.
Eventually the battle died down in the heavens and the death toll slowed. I didn’t know what to expect as the light darted in a fast line to my right and then shot from overhead to just a few feet in front of me.
A human would have needed to cover their sensitive eyes from the extraordinary brightness a fellow Star illuminated. But not being human, my eyes were made of the same light and so I just watched on with impatient anticipation to discover who had arrived to clean up my mess.
Out of the light, one figure walked forward, dim and obviously not a Star. When he was close enough that I could determine he was a man, an elderly man with snow white hair and leathered skin, I took a step back, unsure what to make of this gruff human looking person apparently with the ability to fly and see Shadows, making him decidedly not human. I shrunk into my coat, having the forbidding feeling I was about to be reprimanded.
“Stella Day?” He demanded, stepping directly in front of me. I nodded, unexplainably more afraid of him than the entire force of Darkness. “What in this great, dead Universe, do you think you’re doing?”
“Who are you?” I deflected meekly. If he came to fight the Darkness, surely he saw me attacked only minutes ago.
“Does it matter who I am?” the elderly man huffed. “I could just as easily be Lucifer himself or an apparition of Darkness called here by your own stupidity! How could you just reveal yourself like that? You just gave yourself away! After all we’ve worked for, after all the sacrifices that have been made, you just throw it all away because you’re a little inconvenienced one winter night….” He had stopped talking to me, or at least stopped looking at me, in favor of mumbling to himself in an angry, aggressive tone.
“I’m sorry,” I tried again politely, “Who are you?”
“I’m the guy that just saved your life! That’s who!” He turned his attention wholly back on me.
I took an intimidated step back.
“Well, not entirely on your own,” a deep, amused voice behind the elderly man called. “You did have some help.” The light had extinguished itself into its human form, and as the boy stepped around the angry man to smile disarmingly at me, I took another step back but this time more from surprise than anything else. The boy was perfect, physically perfect. He was my age, with disheveled dark hair that curled adorably at the ends. His eyes were a piercing shade of honey that would have glowed without his internal light, as it were though, they pierced through the night and found my eyes with a locking force that took my breath away. His jawline seemed chiseled out of stone and his broad chest still heaved with the exertion of battle.
There was no doubt about it, he was an Angel.
An actual Angel.