• Chapter One

    Through a sea of mist and shadows she fell, unable to move or resist, unable to speak. When at the last she thought she would be able to bear it, the mist dissipated into the view of a large room. At the head of it were seven glowing lights that illuminated seven elderly, but powerful and confident looking men who all had an aura of power and dignity about them. Lower down, standing before the seven men like a criminal in a courthouse, was a tall, gangly, somewhat ragged looking man with grizzled features and a grimy black robe. The central figure spoke to the ragged man.

    “Erin. You have broken the laws of the Great Ones; you have employed the forces of darkness that we have long resisted for your own betterment with little regard for your fellows. When we first cast you out, instead of looking to enlighten yourself once more to the ways of the Great Ones, you cast yourself further into darkness, building a fortress and armies with which to destroy our way of life.”

    Another of the shining figures spoke. “For your crimes against the Elders and the Great Ones, you shall be locked away in your self-proclaimed ‘Shadow Realm’, and never allowed to leave until you have returned to the path to rejoin our ranks. Be gone!” The figure spoke this last in a thunderous roar, and with a hollow screech, the man standing before the shining figures was swept up in a whirl of black and swirling shadows that spun in on itself until the man disappeared. In Jessica’s mind, another voice sounded.

    “What you just witnessed occurred just over five thousand years ago. And now, the time has come when we need your help.”

    “What exactly did I just see? And who are you? What’s going on?”

    “All of your questions shall be answered in due time. As for now, you may call me Ansol. What you just saw was the sentencing of Erin, formerly a young Second Generation Great One and aspiring magician, now no more than a shadow consumed by greed for power and the dark magic he used to try and get it.”
    “What was he being sentenced for?”

    “The crimes he committed after finding a book of Dark Magic. Let me give you a little of our history. For several billion years, since not long after the creation of this universe, the Great Ones and Shadow Lords have been in a constant struggle. We came into being as a physical representation of a similar struggle going on between the primal forces of Good and Evil not long after the universe formed. About 15,000 years ago, after so many millions of years of fighting, the Great Ones brought another galaxy under their protection, this one. The Milky Way. For the next two hundred years, they did their best to wipe out all evil influences in this galaxy. They took ‘turned’ magicians and sorcerers in and began what we call the Cleansing, or turning them back to the point where they can either lead normal lives or work to join our ranks. All evil materials, books, artifacts, etc, were taken and destroyed. The Great Ones did their best to get every last scrap. And until about six thousand years ago, they thought that they had succeeded. Then, to everyone’s surprise and horror, young Erin, already showing signs of a powerful but arrogant and prideful magician, unearthed a Dark book. A Dark Tome to be precise. When it became apparent that Erin was going to be turned the Great Ones exiled him. After that, Erin became resentful, and started to wage war on the Great Ones. What you saw was the sentence they gave him once they had defeated his mindless hordes and captured him. And now, he has released his identity as Erin, and became the Shadowmaster.”

    Jessica, who had listened in fascinated silence to Ansol’s story, now spoke. “Ok, I think I’m starting to get the general idea of what you are and who that Erin guy is, but I still have no idea how it involves me.” She could almost hear the sigh in his voice when he responded. “Jessica, you are what we call a Halfling. A Halfling comes into being when a human is mated with a Great One. First Generation Great Ones are the original beings who were created by the universe. Second Generation Great Ones are the children of the First, Third Generation are the children of the Second, and so on.”
    “Right. So who are the Elders then?” asked Jessica.

    “Elders are Great Ones who were not born into it. Now, as for your involvement, you are a Halfling, which means that you are to be our representative on Earth. There are four others who will be joining you. I will be back tomorrow night. Don’t go to bed too late.”

    With a dim whistle, the presence that had filled her mind disappeared as a shadow under a cloud, leaving Jessica to her futile protests and questions. With a jerk she was thrown from her dreaming state into wakefulness as her alarm began to buzz near her ear.

    Chapter Two

    After she had lain in bed for several moments as her brain processed her dream, Jessica Li Anasi rolled reluctantly out from under the comfort and warmth of her covers and began to prepare for school. There was less than three weeks left at school and most people were looking forward to a long summer break or simply the move into their first apartment. For Jessica, it was the latter. Unfortunately the ten days of senior year held no other excitements, except perhaps the end of year dance, but she wasn’t counting on her dream guy, Casper Johansen, asking a lowlife like her to be his date for the big day. As she waited for the day to slowly roll by, she had no idea that not far away, her dream date was thinking about his own midnight encounter. She did not know that two boys in California had also met with Ansol. And she did not know that a girl in New York would soon be making his acquaintance.

    Several hours before, San Francisco, California

    Alexander and Zachary Mooren, twin sons of the hotshot Hollywood director Cameron Mooren and his wife Serafina Mooren were eighteen and just graduated from high school. The private school they had attended for the past four years had released its eager students the day before. The twins’ annual end-of-year party, and this year, graduation party, had been roaring all day. When they had finally collapsed into their beds, it was nearly four in the morning.

    The disgruntled voice that popped into the twins’ heads not long after they had fallen asleep came as a slightly unpleasant surprise. Alex was the first to wake to the muttering in his mind.

    “Reckless boys! Of all the nights to throw some foolish party! Ooh, if I didn’t need these two dunderheads…” The tirade went on for several moments. Alex rolled over and chucked a pillow at his brother through the open French doors that connected the twins’ rooms. Zach grunted and blinked his eyes blearily before asking in a sleepy voice, “Wha’s goin’ on?”

    Alex shook his head and waved his brother over. Zach rolled his eyes before throwing off his blankets and half-walking, half-stumbling into Alex’s room and collapsing on the couch that occupied part of one wall. Alex whispered urgently to his brother, “Did you hear that?”
    “Hear what…whoa! Where did you come from?” Zach had glanced towards the end of the bed. Alex saw the look on his brother’s face and looked over as well; he nearly fell out of his bed. A ghostly figure had appeared at the foot of Alex’s bed. Both twins scrambled up and stood facing the figure, looking confused and somewhat frightened.

    “Well, finally!” declared the figure. The ghost’s image sharpened until its features were clearly visible. A man in his late twenties appeared with carved features accented by a black beard and mustache that framed his mouth neatly. He was clothed all in black, with loose pants and a nice shirt. His skin was well-tanned and slightly rugged looking, and his eyes were a dark, but glowing, piercing blue. His voice was deep and powerful when he spoke. “It is good to see that you two decided to wake up.” He frowned. “You are gravely needed elsewhere. Otherwise, I would not have bothered with such lazy boys.”

    “Lazy?!” exclaimed Zach. “It’s not like we do this all the time! I mean, what are we supposed to do? Cancel our biggest gig for some big tough ghost guy who we don’t even know about that says we’re ‘needed’? I don’t think so!”

    Alex laughed at this last and told his brother that he had been hanging out with Sarah too much. Zach glared back at Alex and was about to reply when the ghost raised his eyebrows and said quietly, “Enough.” Two sets of mutinous hazel eyes turned towards him. The ghost sighed. “I am Ansol. I am here to begin preparing you for the greatest journey of your lives.”

    One hour after Jessica’s dream, New York City, New York

    Through a dark, silent alley she ran, her dark hair springing out from under her hat to fly behind as she moved swiftly down the blackened streets. Her eyes had long adjusted to the gloom of New York’s back streets, so she avoided obstacles with a practiced ease.

    Her name was Sariah Marseline. Her father, Rezou Marseline, born to a pair of Italian immigrants not long after their arrival in the Unites States, had been a popular young professor at the local college. Her mother, a Chinese beauty who had given Sariah most of her looks, had been a fashion designer at one of the big brand name companies downtown. Run into the streets by a murderous thief at the age of eleven, Sariah had survived the gloomy back ways and equally gloomy denizens of New York’s underworld for seven years through her wits and a rag-tag band of fellow street kids.

    On that terrible night, a thief had broken in to the Marseline house, looking for money and anything else he could find that was worth taking and small enough to fit in a coat pocket. Rezou and Si Liam, her mother, had heard a noise and gone to investigate. Both of them were killed without mercy. Sariah had escaped, but not unmarked. Her father’s shouts to run being cut short and her mother’s tears turning to choked sob’s still haunted her sometimes. She had run blindly, not stopping until her legs could no longer carry her and she collapsed, mourning the loss of her family. Her unchecked flight had taken her into the city’s slums; for a week and a half she wandered the streets, lost, scared, and alone.

    Marcus Ackleby, Irene Thomas, the brothers Jack and Farun Boeler, Cameron Rice, and Stephanie Shieks were the other members of her street ‘family’, save one. Daylan Erikson, unofficial leader of the group, had been the one to find her and take her in. He had been left in charge by his older brother Jason, a nice enough young man in his mid twenties who had left the group not long ago to secure his own life and reclaim a place in society. He now had his own place and a good job. But as he said, he wasn’t about to forget his friends who were still stuck down under. He had made it clear that if any of them needed a place to crash, his couch was always open, as well as his fridge.

    Not that the street kids were hurting for shelter; some time ago, a new apartment complex that was set to go up in the darker part of New York in an effort to ‘beautify’ the city had been abandoned right as it was set to open. It had been fully functioning, with utilities, staff, and potential customers all primed and ready. Then, without warning, state funding was cut and the apartment was left to the elements. But the government being its usual disorganized self, nothing had been done about the empty building. It was still standing, in perfect condition and fully equipped with water, power, and other essentials for a band of street kids to live on. Sariah thought of this with wry amusement. What a coincidence, she thought, to have a place like this left abandoned and left fully running, as if someone left it as a present just for us. Merry freakin’ Christmas.

    As Sariah opened the door to the apartments lobby, she knocked in case anyone was still up. On the far side of the room, over the half-wall that divided the room in two, Sariah could see one of the group’s trusty Apple laptops glowing on the face of Marcus. He turned his head to see who had come in as she removed her coat and put up her hat.

    “Late night?” he asked softly, in his dark, warm voice. He came over and swept her up in a bear hug before looking her over critically. “You look done in.”

    Sariah laughed. “And I can see you’re just fresh and full of energy!” She yawned. “But you’re right. I’m going to bed, see ya in the morning.” She had to laugh again as she was briefly crushed in another bear hug, then released to stumble momentarily and make her way down the hall and up the stairs to her room. It seemed that she had barely lay down and closed her eyes when something woke her. She looked around and gasped as her eyes rested on the figure of a man in the middle of the room. “Who are you?”

    “I am Ansol,” he replied.

    Daytime, Jessica’s house

    When Jessica got home that day, she was relieved. It was Friday, and she felt like she needed a weekend. The drama and piled on homework that accompanied the end of the school year was enough to drive a milk cow crazy, and she felt way more high strung than any bovine. She was looking forward to the next day though. She had seen an ad for an apartment that looked pretty good and she was going to go with her parents to look at it. She was distracted from these thoughts when her phone started buzzing. That’s funny, she thought. I don’t normally get calls this early. She wrestled her phone out of her pocket and answered it quickly. “Hello?”

    “Um, hi, Jessica? I don’t think we’ve actually met, but I’ve seen you at school. I’m Casper.”

    She had known that voice the second he had spoken. She had barely kept her grip on the phone when her brain registered who had called.

    “Hello? Jessica? Are you there?”

    Jessica realized that she was holding her breath and released the trapped air quickly. “Ya, sorry, I was a bit surprised. Quick question, how did you get my number?”

    “Friend of a friend.”

    “Really?” Jessica was surprised how skeptical she sounded. After all, this was her dream guy.

    “Well, we could always go with ‘little birdies told me’ if you like.”

    Jessica sighed inwardly. “What do you want?”

    “I don’t really know how much wanting has to do with it, but I’m not saying I object either.”

    “Casper.” Jessica did her best not to sound completely annoyed.

    “Alright, alright! Have you ever heard of a guy called Ansol?”

    For the second time, Jessica felt her breath catch and her grip on her phone start to slip. “I don’t know how you know that name, but we need to talk, in person, now. I’ll text you my address.” Without waiting for a response, she hung up, sent the text, and collapsed on her bed. Her brain was caught up in a senseless whirlwind of thought and emotion. Casper Johansen was coming to her house, and he was somehow getting sucked into the same unearthly situation that she was. How many more were going to get pulled into this? Who were they? And what was going on?

    Her brooding was interrupted a half-hour later by a loud knock on the door. The knocking continued as she raced down the stairs to open it. As she pulled the door open, she was almost rapped on the nose. Casper pulled his hand back quickly and apologized. “It’s okay,” said Jessica. “Come on in. Want something to drink?”

    “Nah, I’m good. So, guessing from your reaction, you don’t think I’m completely crazy.”

    “Crazy or not, I couldn’t say. The jury’s still out on that one. What I do know, however, is that you know the name of some guy who was in one of my dreams, and in the normal scheme of things, that is just plain weird.”

    “Sounds vaguely familiar. Now see if you recognize this. You had a dream about the trial of some guy called Erin, another guy called Ansol showed up and told you about the Great Ones and the Shadowmaster and all that fun stuff. Am I doing okay so far?”

    “Extremely well. But how did you know to call me?”

    “I was getting to that. See, Ansol told me one other thing. He said that if I paid attention, I would hear the name of someone I would need to talk to. Someone I hadn’t known previously. And all day, your name was the only one I didn’t really know. I recognized it a little, from us being in a couple of classes together, but that was it.”

    “Wow. I must admit, that wasn’t exactly what I had expected.” The silence that followed began to stretch. Casper shifted on his feet then grinned suddenly. “I brought my stuff with me. We could do some homework together. If you want,” He added hastily.

    “Sure,” she said. “ You any good at calculus?”

    He laughed, and the tension that had been building in the room eased. They had been working steadily for just over an hour when Jessica’s parents got home. There were some raised eyebrows from her parents when Jessica made the introductions; they had known Casper’s name, and of Jessica’s crush on him, for some time. Thankfully though, for her at least, they kept their thoughts to themselves and asked Casper if he’d like to stay for dinner. He accepted with pleasure.

    Casper left not long after they had finished eating, but even so, Jessica could not help but feel overjoyed. Casper had been at her house and she was finally getting a chance to be friends with him. She couldn’t wait for the next day.

    Night time

    Jessica was slowly roused from her deep slumber by a low, gentle voice. As her mind came awake and began to take over once more, she recognized the voice as Ansol.

    “Wake up, Jessica. The others are waiting.”

    Jessica was still not fully awake. “Others? Waiting? For what?”

    “Not what. Who. The others who are to join you in your journey are waiting for you.”

    She nodded and was about to ask where they were going when everything disappeared in a blinding flash of white light.

    When her vision cleared, she could see the room she was standing in. It was softly lit; the walls were painted in a creamy light brown color that went well with the dark red furnishings and dark brown carpet. There were three other people in the room that Jessica could see. Two of them, twin boys, by the looks of it; they shared the same sandy brown hair and golden hazel eyes. They were wrestling playfully in the open center of the room while Casper laughed along with them from his place on one of the long couches. He looked over and smiled at her. She was about to walk over when she heard a lightly accented voice come from the corner behind her. “It’s good to see that our glorious leader has finally arrived.”

    Jessica turned to look at the speaker. In one shadowy corner a figure shifted and stepped closer to the light. The soft glow revealed a small, slender, delicate-looking Asian girl. As Jessica looked her over, she could see determination and a stubborn strength in that small, pointed chin and those slanted brows. The girl’s long hair hung down her back in a cascade of black silk. Her skin was a creamy golden brown only a few shades darker than the walls behind her; her eyes were a rich, glowing dark brown that lit up her face with a fierce, wild intelligence. Jessica could feel her heart go out to the girl, along with a careful respect. Then Ansol spoke.

    “ Jessica, this young lady is Sariah. Those two overactive buffoons are the twins Alexander and Zachary, and you already know Casper.” Sariah gave a small nod before wandering over to one of the chairs, the twins stopped their playing momentarily to give her the same wide grin and enthusiastic wave before tackling each other again. Casper gave her a lazy wave and indicated the seat next to him. She took it. Ansol’s figure slowly coalesced in the center of the room. He glanced over at the twins and glared. “Would you two please sit down?” The twins looked at him sheepishly and collapsed in the two saggy beanbags that covered part of the floor. “Thank you. Now, let us go to business. Each of you have been chosen because of your status as Halflings, which, as I explained, means that one of your parents was a Great One, and one was a human. Now…”

    Zach interjected. “Wait, hold on a second. As far as I know, neither of my parents was some kind of transcendent being, and I’m guessing that you three knew your parents well enough to know if they were ‘Great Ones’.” He looked at Casper’s, Jessica’s, and Sariah’s confused faces as they nodded in agreement.

    Ansol sighed. “Your human parents have no idea that any of you are not their children. All of you were as closely matched to your human parents’ looks as could be arranged. Their memories were altered so that, as far as they knew, you were theirs.”

    All of the teens looked stunned. As Ansol looked around at the shocked faces that surrounded him, his brow furrowed. “I am sorry that you had to find out this way. It’s cruel really. But there was no way we could have raised you properly. Your knowledge and experience in this world will enable you to move around much more easily. Also, being raised by humans has caused you to adapt more human qualities, such as your looks. Granted, your looks will always be much more stunning than most people’s, once you have grown into them.” There was a choked sound behind him. It was Casper. “What do you mean by that?” he asked. Understanding Ansol’s raised eyebrow; he clarified, “By ‘growing into our looks’?”

    Ansol nodded. “It simply means that you aren’t going to look like this for very much longer. Every Halfling goes through a, a change, for lack of a better term. It normally comes when you turn eighteen and a half. Your looks will change a bit and you will get a little taller. You will become immune to all diseases and you will each develop your power.”

    “Okay, hold up again. Power? What are you talking about?” asked Zach.

    Ansol sighed again. “Every Halfling has a power that they learn to use after they go through their change.” He looked over at the twins. “You two are close to your change. It will be very soon, within a day or two. And yours is in less than a month,” he added, looking at Sariah. “The final effect of your blood is immortality. After you go through your change, you will no longer age.”

    “Major consolation prize,” breathed Zach.

    “And what do you mean by that?” said Ansol in a cool tone.

    “Well, look at it from our point of view. We find out that the people who we thought were our parents, who we looked up for all our lives, really aren’t, and we’re getting pulled into some risky sounding mess with a really old bad guy who could turn us into dessert. It hasn’t exactly been a wonderful couple of nights for us. Having a really long life and superpowers is like a way of trying to apologize for it.”

    “How do you know our changes are going to be soon?” All heads turned towards the new speaker. Surprisingly, it was Sariah. “How can you tell?”

    Ansol replied with care. “I can not tell the precise day, but I can sense when the time draws near. When is your birthday?”

    “December 17.”

    “Yes, and today is May 28th. Twenty days. And what of you two boys?” he said, looking at the twins.

    Alex’s face had gone dead white. “Our half birthday is tomorrow.” He looked over at his brother with a worried expression. “We’re going to have to leave. Our parents… we can’t let them see…” His voice trailed off.

    “How will we know what our powers are?” Sariah seemed to be holding on to her courage.

    Ansol smiled at her gently. “I will guide you through the process.” He looked at the twins. “I will help you take care of your parents. But for now, we need to find out what your abilities will be. In fact, that was the primary purpose of this meeting. You will want to get comfortable.” He waited for a moment as the teens arranged themselves in a half-circle in front of him before he took a seat on the short table that sat in the middle of the arrangement of couches, chairs, and cushions. After everyone was in place, he began to speak again. “To do this, we will need to meditate. Follow my lead, and do exactly what I say. Now, breathe in deeply, now out, in, out…” Speaking softly, he watched as the teens’ faces slowly relaxed and their breathing deepened. Slowly, he entered their minds, pulling their thoughts together until they finally joined in a single swirling mass. As he watched their minds mix, he could see that each teen’s personality was distinguishable by its own unique color. Jessica’s was a deep sea green that matched her eyes exactly, Casper’s was a royal blue, and Sariah’s a perfectly balanced blend of black and red streaks. But it was the sight of the twins’ minds that truly took his breath away. Zach’s mind was the palest, purest silver; Alex shone as the brightest white. Both were so bright and crystal clear that they could almost blend together. Oh, Great Ones above, they were beautiful to behold. Suddenly, he recalled an old memory, a prophecy that rang in his mind like an unwanted bell tone.

    Two twins, heroes of old
    The light and dark
    Old histories unfold

    One shall be
    The beacon of light
    The other
    The overwhelming night

    Teach them and lead them
    Let them not go astray
    Guide them along the path
    And they shall not betray

    Shaking himself into a more focused state of mind, he went deeper into the meditation. As he visited each separate mind, each one sank into the very heart of its own being, to discover what lay within.

    The twins’ house, California, early morning

    What seemed like hours later, when each teen awoke in their bed, they felt fully rested. Alex and Zach, however, were not alone. “It is nearly time for your changes, as they will begin at the time you were born, in the afternoon. You must speak to your parents before that time.” Ansol’s figure had materialized in the center of the room.

    “What will we tell them? How can we say we’re just going away for no reason at all?” This was Alex, looking worried once again.

    “Have either you ever expressed an interest in travel? That would be the simplest solution.”

    Alex nodded distractedly. Zach came over and hugged his brother around the shoulders. “Where will we go?” he asked, looking at Ansol.

    “There is a Halfling who lives nearby who has long supplied safety and shelter to fellow Halflings and Great Ones who are staying on Earth. We will go there for a day or two for you two to go through your changes and recover from them. Then I will put you on a plane to Columbus, in Ohio, for you to meet Jessica and the others. A week or so after that, you will be ready to go.”

    Zach had a miserable look on his face. Quietly, he spoke to his brother, trying to comfort him. When at last Alex nodded, Zach released his gentle hold around his brother’s shoulders. Zach looked at Ansol. “We will be ready at 12:30. How do we get to this Halfling’s house?”