Day 14 – The Countdown Begins

"…and then after that, the squirrels pulled out light sabers and had an epic battle to the death. It was epic."

"Hmm, cool," Sarah said absently as continued to strip the dead bark from a twig she was fiddling with in her hand.

"Sarah? Hello? Earth to Sarah? Squirrels can't have epic light saber battles,"

For the first time in the hour they'd been hanging out, Sarah looked at her friend Clara, utterly confused. "Of course they can't Clara - what are you talking about?"

Clara frowned, more out of concern then annoyance. "You didn't hear a word of the story I just told you, did you?" She said, brushing her long black hair from her face.

Sarah hid her face and sheepishly apologized. "No, sorry. I don't know what's wrong with me today,"

"I do," said a loud, booming voice. Eric (an ex-high school linebacker and the Curly to their Larry and Moe) unceremoniously dropped down next to her and wrapped one oafish arm around Sarah's slim shoulders.

"Oh yeah? Well, please feel free to enlighten me because I've been asking myself that question for years," Sarah said sarcastically, allowing herself to be completely engulfed in Eric's bear frame.

"Yup – you need a good fuc-" A paperback textbook flying at high velocity stopped Eric mid-sentence. "Ow! Clara, what the hell?"

Clara looked innocently at him through her yellow, square-frame glasses and shrugged her shoulders as if she had no idea what he was talking about. Sarah on the other hand punched Eric in the kidney; though for all the good it did she might as well have tickled him.

"Okay! Okay! Mercy! Sheesh, getting beat up by a bunch of girls doesn't do a guy's reputation all that good, for your information" Eric grumbled, rubbing the spot on his collarbone where Clara's book hit him.

"Well for your information, next time think before you speak like that in front of a couple of ladiesyou over-sized idiot," Clara's voice was stern but she was smiling. She turned back to Sarah. "But seriously Sarah, what's up with you? You've been a zillion miles away all day,"

Sarah inwardly sighed at losing the distraction from her mood. "Yeah, sorry. Didn't sleep well last night," she plucked at a loose string on the hem of her long sleeved shirt.

Eric shrugged off his well-worn high school jacked and used it as a pillow against the trunk of the tree he was leaning on. "Geez Williams, our thesis isn't due for another six months – getting a little ahead of yourself, aren't you?" Eric dodged the second well-aimed punch to his kidneys.

"No, I just didn't sleep well; work sucked," Sarah finished lamely. She tossed the stripped twig aside and opted to pull out blades of grass instead.

Eric stiffened, his normally easy-going nature was replaced with a man ready to beat someone to a pulp. "Those assholes at Charlie's givin' you a hard time again? 'Cause you know I've got no problem coming in and roughing them up a bit…again,"

Sarah chuckled. "As much as I'd like to wipe the smirks off of their sorry, drunken faces, Charlie took out a restraining order on you because of what happened last time. You can't go within twenty-five feet of the place without being arrested. Sorry hun," Sarah brought her hand up and patted Eric's cheek in a mock-motherly fashion.

There was a sharp intake of breath followed by a "Oh, Sarah!" and the Sarah turned just in time to see Clara's horrified expression before her arm was roughly grabbed at the bicep and pulled up to Eric's eye level, her sleeve yanked to her elbow.

Never before had Sarah seen someone's features turn so dark so quickly as Eric's did when he laid eyes on her wrist. "Who…did this…to you," Eric's voiced was carefully measured as he fought for control over his anger (something Sarah was grateful for as she didn't wish to attract any attention).

During the course of the day, the bruises on Sarah's wrists had worsened, darkening to a sickly purple-blue and brow-yellow; a stark contrast to her otherwise pearly-white skin. Sarah tried to yank her arm out of Eric's grip, but she knew before she'd even tried, that it was no use. Meanwhile Clara had crawled over to them and lifted the sleeve of her other arm to reveal the bruises on that wrist as well; her usually smiling, almond-shaped eyes were crinkled in disgust at the sight. Sarah snatched her arm out of Clara's grasp.

"Don't look at me like that, Clara. And Eric, please let go of my arm. You're hurting me," Sarah said calmly. It took a moment, but Eric did as asked. His light grey eyes had turned stormy and he was seething.

"That's it, cops or no cops, I'm gonna teach Charlie's customers a lesson they'll never forget. If I'm lucky, I'll put him outta business," Eric ground out as he stood, his hulking body tense with anger.

"I'll hold, you punch," Clara bit out as she too stood - her small Native American frame even smaller next to Eric's beefy Nordic one. They both looked comical standing there punching their fists in to their palms, and if the situation had not been so serious Sarah would have laughed.

Before they got so much as a foot away, Sarah darted forward and, with a strength she didn't know she possessed, yanked both of them down so hard that they fell backside. Eric let out a "whoosh!" as he hit the ground hard, his head meeting the tree root he'd been sitting next to. Clara landed on top of him.

Both of them scowled at Sarah, "What was that f-" Eric began, but Sarah cut him off.

"Will you two please knock it off and let me explain before you go trotting off to assault innocent people?" she hissed, conscious of the curious looks the three of them were getting from passersby.

Eric and Clara calmed, though marginally, as they surveyed their friend. "Thank you," Sarah said as she adjusted the sleeves of her blouse. "Now, for your information I did this - in my sleep, that is. It's part of the reason I didn't rest as well last night,"

Both of her friends looked at her disbelieving. It was a flimsy lie and she knew it, but she had no other option.

"Oh come on - I know I've told you this before," Sarah sighed at their identical looks of confusion. "Sometimes I have night terrors – I can't always control them and, well, things like this happen. It's normal," That part wasn't entirely a lie. She did have night terrors, or at least used to. She hadn't had them in a long time – it wasn't until recently that they'd surfaced again.

Although to be fair she'd never had one that had produced physical harm to her person. And on top of that, she was pretty sure last night was not a night terror…no matter how much she wanted it to be. If only she could remember…

Eric and Clara cast sideways glances at each other and Sarah rolled her eyes. She appreciated her friends' concern, but honestly, this was getting ridiculous.

"Oh for Pete's sake, enough. I told you I'm fine," Sara grabbed her leather satchel and stood. "Now if you two will kindly collect yourselves and start acting your age and not your shoe size once more, you might be able to get to your last class on time this time. Mr. Edgerton won't like you both being late to class five times in a row in the first two weeks of school," she stated with a triumphant smirk. That last bit was enough to throw both Eric and Clara back into reality as they darted for their own bags then sprinted for their class with echoing promises of meeting up with her later. Sarah laughed and nodded as they rounded the corner and were out of sight.

Both Eric and Clara were getting their master degrees in English and had almost all of their classes together – she, on the other hand, only took it as a secondary master's degree and therefore only had a handful with them. Her primary master's degree would be in Philosophy.

Sarah sighed with a touch of relief as she turned around and headed for her own class. It would have been beyond bad if the two of them had made it to Charlie's. What she'd neglected to tell them was that if Eric was found within twenty-five feet of the pub, not only would he be arrested but Sarah would be fired – that wasn't something she could risk.

A flash of movement caught her eye and Sarah looked up. As she turned the corner towards her class she could have sworn she saw the flutter of a dark, gauzy material before it disappeared behind an oak tree. She shrugged it off as someone's windbreaker.

If she'd taken a closer look, she would've recognized it as the material from a long-forgotten cloak fastened to the shoulders of an imposing figure she'd seen only in her nightmares.

Nightmares she hadn't had in over a decade but were making a reappearance in her life.

Classes ended hours ago and Sarah was still in the library pouring over books on Philosophy, English and old literature. Her hungry eyes taking in every ounce of knowledge she could before the librarian shooed her off. Every night (well, when she wasn't working) she tried to quench her thirst for words and information she was deprived of in class. The library at her school had one of the largest literature and philosophy collections in the country and something she didn't plan on wasting during her four short years there.

"Miss Williams, the lights are nearly all out, students have left to do normal things like party and pot and I gave the last call for checkouts nearly twenty minutes ago – so why do I find you still here, barricaded by books? Did you think I wouldn't notice?" The voice of Ms. Pierce was a stern, unwelcome reminder that her time was indeed up. Sarah had to bite back a snarky reply.

Instead, she frowned and sat back. She opened her mouth but Ms. Pierce, the old bat, beat her to it. "I can't say I'm surprised. I never am with you – this'll be the third time this week you've made me late for bridge with my friends. Come on, I'll unlock the doors and let you out,"

"Aren't you going to offer to check out some of the items for me?" Sarah couldn't help the snotty comment.

"No, I won't. Seeing as I know the list of books you have checked out by heart there's no point - unless you plan on returning one of them, I'm afraid you've met your quota,"

Well. That shut her up.

Sarah grabbed her satchel and was about to scoot off the bench when a small maroon book caught her eye. She pulled it out from between "Philosophy Through the Ages" and "A Collection of Author's Notes from Old World Literature". She turned the small, thin book over and read the title "The Annotated Version of La Labyrinthine" – there was no author.

"Must be one of yours," said Ms. Pierce distractedly as she closed Sarah's books and piled them up to be re-shelved. "There's no barcode on it."

Sarah knew it wasn't hers, but if it wasn't the library's then whose was it? Sarah was no fool, however – even at first glance she knew the book was very old and if Ms. Pierce got a closer look at it she would change her story and say it was indeed the library's and that a mistake had obviously been made for it to not have a barcode on it. The old bat was greedy and would want it if for her collection.

"Oh, yes…I'd forgotten it was in my bag," Sarah said hastily as she (carefully as she could in such a hurry) shoved the book into her satchel before Ms. Pierce's hawkish eyes could examine it any closer. "Well, I'll just be off then. Have a good night Ms. Pierce!" Sarah finished. And faster than a rabbit escaping a petting zoo on Easter Sunday, Sarah was out the door and heading down the street to her apartment.

The nights were getting chillier, Sarah noticed as she walked down the familiar path to her apartment. She pulled her windbreaker tighter around her frame and hastened her strides. The street lamps were dim and the streets unusually quiet for the normally raucous college town. Hardly anyone was out and rather than make her thank the stars for the quiet, Sarah felt on edge.

To distract herself, she reached in her satchel to pull out the book she'd found earlier. Instead, her hands hit something soft. Frowning in confusion, Sarah grasped the object in her hand and pulled it out.

It was a feather.

But it wasn't just any feather, it was a long and sleek, gleaming white-gold feather; not something that came from a normal bird, she thought. She twisted the stem in her hand, twirling it around like one would an old-fashioned top, examining it under the dim yellow street lamp light.

Out of the silent night, there came a sudden hoot. Sarah's head snapped up in the direction it came from just in time to see a flash of bright white as whatever it was soared under a nearby street lamp and into the swallowing darkness.

She needed to get home. And so out of sheer instinct, Sarah dropped the feather and continued on her way, the feather left forgotten in a pool of muck that drained to the sewer.