Mariel inherits the burden of a great power when her mother dies.
Mariel ran her fingers over the tarnished medallion her mother wore. A circular shape shone behind the barnacle-like growths smothering it. Disgusting . She snorted through her tears, reaching up to her mother’s still cheek. Why didn’t you clean that old thing, or throw it away?
Only fine creases at the edges of her mother's eyes marked the difference between their looks. Her skin was just as porcelain-pale over a delicate, sculpted bone structure. Her hair was the same mass of black curls. She felt like she was seeing herself dead. She couldn't bear the thought of dying like this, alone in a hospital room which smelled like potpourri and bleach.
“She wanted you to have the pendant,” Bran said, from the corner. “It has been passed on through every generation of your family.” His heavy eyebrows twitched in rhythm to the beep of a life-support machine in another room, and his arthritic hands were curled into fists.
“Why?” Mariel asked, voice thick with phlegm. “Is it valuable?” She looked at her mother’s old friend.
“It is more valuable than any other object in this world,” he answered. "In the right person's hands."
Mariel narrowed her eyes, dark brows pinched together in suspicion. He looked serious, but then, he always looked serious.
Though he’d never revealed his actual age, he dotted all of her childhood memories, always looking as he did now. Her mother called him “well preserved”. He was tall, or at least he would have been if his back hadn’t been bent by time. His hair was a pearl colored fall of curls that reached his shoulders. Behind a mask of wrinkles, were eyes like green flame. Mariel always thought they were young eyes.
“Don’t you think she would have tried to give it to me, if she wanted me to have it? She made it pretty clear that she didn’t trust me with any of this stuff.” Mariel scrubbed her hands over the cap of curls on her head, and paced. She hadn’t seen her mother for five years. After high school, she’d taken off, hopping from town to town, trying to find answers.
Mariel's mother was a closed book, never speaking of her past or why she made them move once a year. The only consistent thing in Mariel's life had been Bran's visits, always before Christmas. He'd show up on their doorstep, and the two of them would argue in hushed tones until he was invited in. He would stay for a week or so, and keep Mariel entertained with magic tricks and riddles. When she got older, they would go for walks and discuss her interests and worries. The time came when that was no longer enough, and she left.
Just when Mariel located someone in France with an explanation to all her family secrets, her mother’s doctor called. She’d been in an accident, and didn’t have long. By the time Mariel made it back, it was all over. It was Christmas Eve, and only Bran was left to help pick up the pieces.
“You are the last of her line. It is your time to carry the burden, and make your own choice. Take the pendant,” Bran said. His voice was heavy as a sack of stones. Mariel tried to understand the sadness and hope she saw on his face, but she couldn’t. It was just a necklace. The only function the thing had was to hang around someone's neck and look ugly.
He probably knows Mother better than I do. Besides, what harm can there be in holding onto an old heirloom? It's just going in the ground, otherwise. She winced at the thought.
She unhooked the clasp on the silver chain, and removed the pendant. It was as heavy as a bowling ball, but no bigger than a silver dollar. How is it not breaking the chain? No wonder Bran calls it a burden. She carried this on her neck for so long. For a moment Mariel heard a dull roaring sound coming from the dark rock, but it was probably just the blood rushing to her head as the dizzy wave hit.
Bran steadied her, much stronger than he appeared. One hand was flat on her back, and one wrapped around her wrist, cold and dry. Mariel swallowed and looked up at his face. He was staring so intently at her that she looked away. His eyes were hungry for something. He was looking at her the same way he’d looked at her mother all those years, with a gaze that seemed to peel back her skin and see into the core of her being. She shivered.
“Thanks,” she said, slipping the necklace into the pocket of her skinny jeans. The weight seemed inexplicably to hang around her neck, instead of against her leg. “I have to go lie down. Do you think you could possibly…”
“I’ll take care of everything,” Bran said. “Go home and sleep now.” He handed her a slip of paper with his address in it. "You can come by later and we'll talk."
Mariel nodded her thanks, and slipped out of the hospital and into the swirling snow. The streets of Ithaca, New York were blanketed, and she left prints as deep as her calves as she trudged back towards her mother’s apartment. The Christmas lights shone like snow-laced fireflies, too beautiful for a world so ugly with pain.
The apartment was exactly as she remembered it: austere, white walls and garage sale furniture. They always traveled light. Mariel twisted the door lock and checked it twice before she kicked her snowy boots off in the doorway and plopped her coat on top of it. Mother always hated that. . Mariel released a broken sigh, and then knocked the snow from her boots and hung the coat on the door rack.
Padding to the cabinet in her green, wool socks, she pulled out a mug decorated with a cartoon dragon. She bit her lip, remembering the fight she’d had with her mother about it. All her life, fantasy stories were banned in every form. When she checked out Tolkien from the library, her mother ripped up the card and canceled her account. Mariel only saved the mug by hiding it in her closet. Apparently Mother found it. But she kept it. Grief ripped through her and she nearly collapsed as the realization of her actions hit her. I left my mother completely alone. She didn't have anyone else.
Mariel stumbled to the sink and filled the mug. She heated it for two minutes in the microwave and plopped a bag of breakfast blend in the steaming water. Sinking into a chair at the rickety wooden table in her kitchen, she watched the tea swirl. She cupped the ceramic mug until her hands burned, and then she began to sob.
Mariel froze. In the house. There’s someone in the house. What do I do? Shit, what do I do?
“I’m sorry…” the voice started, and Mariel looked up to see a young man in her living room. He was about half a foot taller than her, and even through the fabric of his black jacket, she could see he was muscular. He had shaggy blonde hair and a short beard. She bolted.
“Wait! Please!” he cried, dashing after her and slamming the door shut before she could yank it wide enough to escape.
Mariel dropped to the floor and rolled away, leaping up and lunging for the skillet hanging from the kitchen ceiling. She brandished it before her like a sword, eyes wide and chest heaving.
The man held out his hands, inching towards her. “Please, you don’t understand. I won’t hurt you.”
“How’d you get into my apartment?” she demanded, circling the room.
“The door was unlocked. Hey!” he shouted, as she swung at his head.
“Then why did I have to unlock it to get in, asshole? Get out of here!”
“You invited me!” he pleaded. Then he leapt forward and grabbed hold of the skillet, ripping it from her hand and tossing it to the floor.
She gasped, and backed into the fridge.
“Mariel Drago?” he asked. A bead of sweat rolled from his forehead. “I’m Albert Griffen. You sent me a letter in Paris.”
“I sent a letter to a Rex Griffen,” she huffed.
“He was my father. He died last week.” The man’s face crumpled like a wad of paper. “Nobody could figure out why. We heard your mother passed as well.”
Mariel examined him. His eyes were wide, honest, and cornflower blue. His clothes were rumpled, but in good condition, and he wasn’t carrying a weapon. She nodded to him, letting out a long breath. “Do you want to sit down?”
They sank into the chairs. Albert slid out of his jacket and leaned forward, watching her. He must have locked the door once he'd come inside. It was the only thing that made sense.
“What’s on your arm?” Mariel asked, gesturing at a small tattoo on his wrist.
He flipped it so that she could see. “The sign of the protectors. Don’t you have one?” he asked, cocking his head to the side.
Mariel shook her head. “My mother had one, I think. It was on her ankle. I still don’t know what it was for." She frowned, tracing the design she remembered on the table with her index finger. "She was very secretive. That’s why I needed to find you, or your father, that is. She had his address scribbled on an old piece of paper in her wallet.”
“My father said that your family was always like that. I don’t think your mother wanted to be a part of our group anymore, much less involve you. But in the end, she didn’t have a choice. None of us do. She just made it harder for everyone.” Albert wiped his hand over his mouth. “It’s in our blood, and running away won't change that.”
“Excuse me?” Mariel felt her defenses prickle. "What exactly was she running from?"
“Sorry. I guess I should explain first. The protectors guard the amulet. A member of your family has always worn it and passed it on when they died. There are several other families, like mine, who guard your family and ensure that the line continues. Your mother made that difficult by moving around all the time.” His eyes narrowed when he said the last part. "But I'm sure she had her reasons."
“Protect the amulet? This thing?” she asked, digging the necklace from her pocket and dangling it in front of him.
Albert slammed his chair back. “Jesus. Don’t wave that thing around,” he said, eyes glued to it. He was sweating again.
“You all want to guard an old necklace? Bran said it was valuable, but this is just idiotic. Here, take it!” she insisted, dropping it on the table.
“It’s not valuable! It’s dangerous,” Albert hissed. "Inside that pendant is a great evil, a power so tremendous it would throw the world into chaos if it ever got out.” His hands were shaking.
“It’s just an old stone,” Mariel said. This guy is clearly insane. I wonder if my mother believed all this garbage. She eyed him; nervous. I should have called the police a long time ago.
“I know this is hard to take in,” he said, “but it’s completely true. If your mother told you what she knew, this would be so much easier."
Tell me about it.
"We have been guarding that stone since the 5th century. Wait a second…who said it was valuable?”
“Bran. He’s an old friend of my mother’s. He was with me in the hospital,” Mariel explained. She just wanted Albert to shut up and leave now. He had to be part of some kind of cult. No wonder her mother had kept this a secret. Albert was looking at her with an expression of horror.
“Is he an old man with green eyes?” he asked, nostrils flared.
“Do you know him?”
“Mariel, listen to me,” he grabbed her hand and clenched it so tightly that she gasped. “You have to stay away from that man. He’s not what he seems. He wants the stone.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. He’s my mother’s friend. I’ve known him since I was a baby. I think she would have called the cops if he were dangerous."
Though they did argue a lot, and his eyes looked so strange today.
She shook the thought aside. "Besides, he could have taken the necklace at the hospital if he wanted it.”
Albert shook his head with such violence, she thought he might be having a seizure. “It’s not just the necklace. It’s you, too. Only one of your blood can open the pendant, and it has to be in the next ten days. That’s the window a Drago has every year to make their choice when they inherit the burden. They can choose the side of good or the side of evil. He’s trying to trick you! Your mother has been running away from him for years!”
“Ok,” she said, humoring him. “So say I fall into his trap and choose the side of evil. What happens?”
“We don’t speak of it,” he whispered.
Of course you don’t. I bet your cult leader hasn't decided yet. “Look, I’ve had enough of this. I’m sorry I wasted your time with my letter. You shouldn't have come.” Mariel stood up.
“I’m not leaving until you swear that you’ll come with me. The rest of the families are living in France. They can explain this better than me.” Albert set his jaw.
I have to get him out of here. “Fine. Whatever. I’m going to have to pack if we’re going to France, though,” she lied. “Pick me up tomorrow morning.”
Albert looked relieved.
Mariel stumbled through the snow. It was up to her knees now. She had to talk to Bran. He probably knows all about this. None of it would have happened if I’d just kept my stupid mouth shut and stayed home. . Tears slicked her cheeks as she stumbled towards the address he’d given her at the hospital.
The weather was crazy. She couldn’t remember snow this bad in any of the places she’d moved. The roads were vacant, leaving only the howling wind for company. She arrived at the address and slammed her half-frozen body against the door and pounded it with her fist. Bran swung it open far faster than a man his age should have been able to manage.
“Mariel? What are you doing out? It isn’t safe!” Bran exclaimed, pulling her inside. The quiet and the warmth enveloped her as he helped her into his living room. It was an enormous old house, with high ceilings and dark, wood paneling. Sculptures of beasts and gargoyles smothered the walls and furniture.
Bran settled her in front of the roaring fire with a mug of hot chocolate. He sank into the chair across from her. “Well?”
Mariel stirred her spoon and tried to think of how to start.
“How did you know my mother?” she asked, barely able to meet his eye. He’d been such a friend to her, and she was nothing but suspicious. “What I mean is, how did you become friends with her?”
Bran was quiet for a moment, and she could tell he was weighing his words. There was a secret, then.
“I have never been friends with your mother.”
I didn’t hear him right. I couldn’t have heard that right,
“Your mother had something I needed, and I thought I could convince her to help me. But she refused, every year. I’ve been waiting a long time…” he stopped.
“You needed this, didn’t you?” Mariel held out the pendant, which she now wore around her neck.
“But why? Don’t tell me you’re part of this cult, too.”
“Whom have you been talking with?” Bran asked, his voice cold. She didn’t recognize him with the fierce hatred that overtook his expression.
“I-I contacted someone from my mother’s address book, and he came here. He told me the pendant was evil. He scared me...”
“Listen to me very closely,” Bran said, straightening. “The man you contacted was not your mother’s friend, either. He might say he was, but she left them a long time ago. Every year they hounded her, and every year she ran.”
“But that’s what he said about you,” Mariel said, on the verge of tears. She pressed her temples. “How can I trust any of you? Can’t I just give you this?” She pulled the necklace out and thrust it toward him. “I don’t want it!”
Bran’s eyes were filled with sympathy, and she thought she could see tears glinting in his emerald eyes. He reached out to take the pendant and closed it in one hand. When he opened it, the rough growths and blemishes that covered it were cleared away. He held it back out to her.
She hesitated, then took it. The black rock was now polished to a high shine, and the shape in its center was clear. It was a dragon, biting its own tail. “This is ridiculous. You don’t really expect me to believe I’m the only one who can unlock some kind of power from this, do you? It’s just a necklace!”
“You must believe what you will.”
Mariel sighed. She stared at the pendant, trying to feel whatever it was they were talking about. “Is it really evil?” she asked, feeling even more foolish as she said the words.
“It’s powerful, and just like humanity, it isn’t entirely good.”
“What will it do?”
“It will set me free,” he said with a sigh of longing. “Me, and the rest of my kind. We’ve been trapped since the first of your kind bound us to the stone. I want only to be myself once more, instead of condemned to this torment.”
“Don’t believe him!” Albert shouted. Both Mariel and Bran shot up, staring at the snow-covered form of a young man in the doorway. “He’s filling your head with lies!” Albert dropped some kind of tools on the floor.
lock-picks? “What are you doing here?” Mariel demanded, cold with fear. “How did you find me?”
“I followed you, of course. I had to make sure you didn’t run off. You’re just confused. You don’t understand the truth because your mother kept it from you.” Albert looked just as scared as Mariel felt. “Now come away from him and I’ll take you with me. He’s dangerous!”
Bran didn’t look dangerous. He was an old man, bracing himself on the arm of his chair and staring at Albert with despair. “You killed her, didn’t you?” he accused. “You and your father killed Mariel’s mother, and your father got a little more than he bargained for. Did you enjoy my protection spell?”
“Shut up!” Albert screamed. “You’re the murderer. You killed both of them! Don’t fall for his act, Mariel.”
Mariel was paralyzed with the onslaught of lies. Her mother was dead, and one of them might have murdered her. “Tell me it wasn’t you,” Mariel whispered. She glared into Albert’s blue eyes. “Tell me you didn’t kill my mother.” For just a moment his face sagged with regret. It was enough. Mariel's eyes fluttered closed.
“I- I didn’t have a choice,” Albert gasped. "She wouldn’t come back with us. She had the pendant and she was caving in. She told us she was going to help him!” He pointed at Bran.
Mariel watched as the tears dripped down Bran’s wrinkled face. She didn't care who was right or who was insane. All she cared about was her mother, dead in that hospital. She wrapped her fingers around the pendant and felt the power hum through her body. A dull roar filled the air. “I release you,” she whispered to the stone. “I choose to set you free.”
Albert screamed in fury as the stone shattered and green light seeped out, swirling around the room. It leaked out the windows, under the door, and up the fireplace. He tried to pull away from it, and keep it from touching him.
Bran stepped towards the green light, and it melted into his flesh, coiling around his limbs and disappearing. His back straightened, and his body filled out with muscle. His hair changed into a deep red color, like wine.
As Mariel watched, Bran’s wrinkles smoothed and his face became beautiful, and young. “Bran?” she asked.
He reached out a firm, young hand, and stroked her cheek. His eyes were shining, but the pupils were reptilian slits. “Thank you,” he said.
She covered his hand with her own, despite the fact that it was shaking.
“No! There’s still time! You can undo this!” Albert cried. He started towards her and she cringed backward. Bran whipped around, and his body began to transform again. His limbs stretched forward, and his flesh darkened to an emerald green, paneled with scales. He finished as a great beast, halfway between cat and crocodile, filling nearly the entire room. His powerful jaws split open and unleashed a thunderous roar.
The sound made Mariel go deaf for a moment, and she stumbled back as the creature beat its leathery wings against the walls. This is impossible. This is not happening.
“I’m taking her back with me,” Albert muttered, eyes no longer bright or honest. His face was ugly with hate. “Her daughter will have a chance to set things right.”
Mariel shuddered. She remembered what he’d said in her apartment about ensuring that her family line continued. She looked around for a weapon, not sure which creature she’d have to use it on.
Bran’s jaws curled into a monstrous grin, and his tail swept behind her and wrapped her in a coil. Without warning, the beast slammed into the wall, tearing it away and plunging into the snow. After a few bounds away from the house, Bran and Mariel plunged into the sky.