Bonus Short Story: This Place is Death (Curse Keepers #1.5) | Author Denise Grover Swank Bonus Short Story: This Place is Death (Curse Keepers #1.5) | Author Denise Grover Swank
Denise Grover Swank

Bonus Short Story: This Place is Death (Curse Keepers #1.5)

This Place is Death is a bonus short story that follows The Curse Keepers. It tells the origin of the curse.

Read it here or download here it from BookFunnel

Chapter One

Ananias Dare had expected August in the New World to be hot, but this was how he envisioned hell—full of heat and raging tempers.

His cotton shirt clung to his back and arms and sweat rolled down his neck, making his collar scratchy, but the cries of the infant coming from his shelter sent prickles down his spine.

He was a father.

“It’s a girl!” Agnes called out from behind the thatched walls.

Several men slapped Ananias’s back. “Well wishes, Dare!”

“Maybe a son next time,” gloated Tom, the father of three boys.

A girl. Pride and happiness swelled Ananias’s chest, but fear kept it contained. He wondered for the countless time what had possessed him to come to this godforsaken land. Why had he allowed his father-in-law to coerce him into crossing a damn ocean? The promise of a land rich with possibilities had been a lie.

There was only death in this place.

After a four-month voyage from England, the one hundred and seventeen voyagers had arrived on Roanoke Island less than a month ago. The natives were infuriated by the colonists’ presence, and they had already made their feelings known by killing Ananias’s friend, George Howe, six days after the settlers came ashore. Fear ran rampant because the Indians refused to consider a peaceful coexistence.

How long would it be before more died?

Roanoke Island had never been their true destination. Ananias’s father-in-law, Governor John White, had set his sights farther up the Virginia coast in Chesapeake Bay. But White had insisted they stop at Roanoke Island to collect the fifteen soldiers manning the fort the English had set up on their last excursion. All the search team had found was a deserted complex, overgrown with vegetation, and a single skeleton. There’d been no sign at all of the others. The news had spooked Fernandez, the fleet’s commander, and he had immediately insisted the colonists be sent ashore.

Despite Governor White’s insistence that the fort’s complete annihilation meant nothing, the colonists weren’t stupid. They knew this place was full of death and danger, but they had no choice in the matter. The two ships they’d arrived in bobbed offshore while the sailors prepared the vessels for the return voyage to England. The sight taunted the colonists because the captain refused to let them back on board or to take them farther north, saying it was too late in the summer. And now it was too late to plant the food that would help them survive the winter. They were stuck. And they were in dire trouble.

A sound came from the hut and Ananias snapped to attention. A tired smile covered Agnes’s face when she stuck her head out the flimsy door. “You can come in and see them now.”

Ananias took a deep breath before ducking his head and entering the sweltering shelter. His wife Elinor lay in the bed, her head slightly propped up. She held a wrapped bundle to her chest.

The corners of her mouth lifted slightly at his entrance, her face pale from exhaustion and physical exertion. The delivery had not been an easy one, and the sight of her sent relief rushing through his body.

“Do you want to see her?” Elinor murmured. There was no apology in her voice. They had discussed the possibility of a girl, and even though most parents coveted boys, especially in this rough and foreign land, Ananias thought all children were a blessing from God, no matter their sex.

A lump lodged in his throat as he sat on the edge of the makeshift bed, straw poking the backs of his legs. Elinor pulled back the linen to reveal a tiny red face, her cheeks puffy and her head slightly pointed. The shape of her crown ignited worry, but his wife laid her delicate hand on his arm. “The shape is no need for concern. Agnes says it is elongated from the extended labor and will soon become normal.”

Ananias nodded, relieved. Tears burned his eyes as he reached his hand toward the babe’s face.

“Say something, husband,” Elinor prompted, her voice shaky.

He looked into his wife’s worry-filled eyes, barely able to speak. “She’s beautiful, Ellie.”

A single tear slid down her cheek.

Ananias’s chest burned with a joy he had never known. God had blessed him with a beautiful, loving wife and now a child. Inside this stuffy hut, his world was a cocoon of happiness. But he couldn’t forget what lay in wait outside the door. Their new world was one of hardship and pain. He would allow himself this moment of pure joy, for who knew if he’d experience it again in this lifetime, as long or as short as that might be.

He caressed his wife’s cheek, his fingertips trailing over her soft skin. “Are you well? The labor took so long…I worried…”

She reached up and pulled his face to hers. “I am well. Just very, very tired.”

Ananias kissed her lightly, as though she might break if he pressed too hard. “You and this child are the most important things to me in the world. I’ll do anything to protect you.”

“I know,” she murmured softly. “And it makes me love you even more.”

“What do you wish to name her?” he asked.

She closed her eyes, and he worried for a moment that her exhaustion had rendered her unconscious, but she smiled slightly. “Virginia. I want to name her after her new home.”

If naming her after this godforsaken land brought them luck, Ananias was all for it, but he worried the opposite might be true. Would it bring her doom? No matter, for he could refuse his wife nothing.

Coming to the New World had been proof of that.

Shouts arose outside, and Ananias nearly jumped off the bed, ready to protect his new family of three, but when the door pushed open, his father-in-law’s face appeared in the light-filled crack. “You have born the babe?”

“Aye,” Elinor smiled. “You now have a granddaughter.”

John turned his back to them, facing the crowd outside their home. “I’m a grandfather!”

Cheers and whistles filled the air in celebration, despite the fact that everyone already knew. With boredom and exhaustion as their common companions, the colonists devoured new information within minutes.

John remained outside the door as his friends expressed their well wishes to the governor. When he ducked through the doorway into the shelter, his presence consumed the small space that had been built to hold less than a handful of people. “May I see her?”

Elinor nodded and handed the baby to Ananias. He gathered his daughter gently in his arms. Virginia’s eyes were closed as she slept, probably worn out from the journey she had taken. As he cradled her close, love washed through him, tightening his chest so much it was difficult to breathe. This child was his blood, his hope of a legacy.

John reached for the baby, but Ananias hesitated, wariness spiking the hairs on his arms.

Together, Ananias and Elinor had created a precious life, and it was up to him to do everything in his power to protect her. He suddenly worried that he might need to protect her from her grandfather.

Elinor noticed his hesitation. “Go on, Ananias. Hand Virginia over.”

Ananias chided himself. This child was John White’s legacy as well, and there was no good reason for him to deny his wife’s request. He placed the sleeping babe in his father-in-law’s outstretched arms.

John looked down at his granddaughter. “You have named her Virginia?”

“Does this please you, father?” Ananias heard the anxiety in Elinor’s voice.

John nodded. “Very much so.”

“I’m sorry it wasn’t a boy.”

Ananias’s head jerked toward his wife. Though he knew of her deep-seated fear that her father would have loved her more if she had been a boy, he hadn’t understood how much she’d wished to give him a grandson.

Ananias was now very pleased that his child was a girl.

But John shook his head with a smile. “No, my sweet Elinor. We must be grateful with all that the Lord provides for us. Even when what He provides bring us bitter disappointment.”

Given all they were facing, Ananias was sharp enough to realize John wasn’t referring to his granddaughter, but the words rankled nevertheless. His wife and child were in danger because of the persuasive influence of the man next to him.

John handed the baby back to Ananias, then leveled a stern expression at him. “Manteo and I are going to visit the Pomeiooc Indians. He believes the Dasamongueponke have fled there.”

Ananias’s mouth dropped open. “Was this your idea or Manteo’s?” Because of previous encounters between Englishmen and the Dasamongueponke and the Roanoke, the two Indian tribes of the Ossomocomuck had been a threat since the moment the colonists landed on the island, as evidenced by George Howe’s death. John had led an ill-fated attack on the Dasamongueponke village a few days earlier, and the colonists had accidently killed and injured Croatan natives instead of their intended targets. In turn, they’d most likely alienated one of their only allies. White wanted to resolve the issue with their enemies before matters grew worse.

Manteo may have been born and raised a Croatan Indian, but the time he’d spent in England had changed him. The Croatan tribe had befriended the English when they first landed on these shores, three years and three voyages ago. While most natives resented the newcomers, the Croatan Indians had embraced them, even allowing one of their warriors—Manteo, the son of the Croatan chieftess—to venture to England along with Wanchese of the Dasamongueponke after their first encounter with the English. Both natives had returned to their homeland on the English explorers’ second voyage a year ago. While Manteo had embraced all things English and helped them deal with the savages, the elder Indian, Wanchese, had fled at the first opportunity. And he’d wasted no time in warning the savages that he saw the English as a threat.

Ananias called Manteo friend and knew him better than most Englishmen did, yet he couldn’t help but wonder if this visit to Pomeiooc was Manteo’s attempt to repair his own relationship with the natives. Especially after possibly estranging his own tribe after leading the attack on Dasamongueponke. Manteo seemed more English than Croatan these days, wearing English clothes and hairstyle. He’d always provided unbiased opinions, but lately, he had sided with John on things Ananias disagreed with, and it worried him. Nevertheless, the visit was a smart idea. Surely, relations with the natives would improve.

The governor squared his shoulders. “The decision was mine, but of course Manteo agrees with me.”

“Of course.” Perhaps it was the baby in his arms that made him defensive, but whatever the reason, Ananias couldn’t hide the bitterness in his words.

“Why is it that a savage will follow my orders when my own son-in-law will not?”

Ananias hesitated before answering. “Perhaps because I have so much more to lose.”

“Ananias!” Elinor said sharply.

He bowed his head, unwilling to upset his wife in her birth bed. This was a discussion better suited for another time. “I’m sorry, my love.” Swallowing bile, Ananias looked up at her father. “I meant no disrespect.”

John cupped Ananias’s upper arm. “It’s an emotional day when you become a father.” Love and happiness radiated from the man’s eyes. “I remember it well.”

Ananias hoped Elinor saw the joy on her father’s face, that she would see how much her father loved her, in spite of her gender. Then perhaps his beloved would find peace and make decisions based on her own wants and desires and not those of her father. If she had found that acceptance months ago, they might not be here now. But Ananias knew they’d be here all the same. Elinor would never let her father leave her forever.

No, Ananias was certain that Roanoke Island was their destiny, the end result be damned.

 

Chapter Two

The two most influential men in Ananias’s life had left the village over a day and a half before, the day after Virginia’s birth. Although Ananias was worried, he knew their journey would probably keep them away for several days. Manteo, for all his new English manners, still clung to some of his old traditions. He’d told Ananias and John that he planned to conduct a cleansing ceremony on the natives’ sacred ground before they met with the chief of the Pomeiooc tribe. John had balked in the beginning. Manteo had been baptized less than a week ago and was a Christian now. John had insisted that it was unseemly for him to conjure native spirits. But Manteo had stood his ground, telling the governor they would need all the help they could get. And, with a darkening expression, he had insisted that his own soul needed cleansing.

Given the look on his friend’s face, Ananias couldn’t imagine what dark and ugly thing Manteo had done to warrant such a thing.

Finally, John relented, though he told Manteo that he must call on the One True God to cleanse their souls, not some heathen deities. Manteo had agreed, bowing his head in subservience, but Ananias had seen the smirk lighting up his eyes.

John White didn’t know Croatan, which meant that the details of Manteo’s ceremony would remain a mystery to him.

When John had announced his intention to go off into the wilderness with Manteo to face the hostile tribe, the men in the colony had balked. Despite all the good Manteo had done for the English, most of the men distrusted him.

“You’re walking into a trap, Governor!”

“That savage is going to hand them your head on a platter.”

Ananias wasn’t certain about the Pomeiooc Indians, but the Roanoke would surely welcome the governor’s head, considering the English had beheaded their chief and killed three hundred of their tribe barely a year earlier. Given the circumstances, Ananias was surprised the Roanoke hadn’t already killed the entire colony instead of just George. The English were far outnumbered and could easily be picked off with their arrows.

But John had held firm in his decision, using his powers of persuasion to placate the men, insisting that he could salvage their tenuous relationship with the natives, and Pomeiooc was the place to start. “Give me three days and if I don’t return, or if I return with word of an attack, be ready to strike.”

The men lifted fists into the air, shouting their plans to decimate the Indian tribe—all Indian tribes—while Manteo’s eyes found Ananias’s.

Ananias could sense what lay behind the native’s gaze, even if the other man never expressed the words. Manteo had taken part in the massacre against the Roanoke the previous year. Perhaps that was what had blackened his soul. Manteo refused to discuss it, even when Ananias filled him with enough ale to make most men spill their secrets. Manteo would just stare at him with mocking eyes, making Ananias wonder what thoughts really crossed his friend’s mind.

The fact the two men had been gone a little over a day was not worrisome. Native ceremonies often took days. While John would insist on a more compact ceremony, Ananias was sure it would take a full day at minimum.

No, the length of time they’d been gone wasn’t what worried him, it was the heavy presence of dread that had descended over the village the night before, during Ananias’s watch. The sky had been clear and starlit, but without warning a storm had swept in—wind, lighting, and rolling clouds, but no rain. With the storm had come the feeling that something was not right, although he couldn’t put his finger on what. It was like an itch you couldn’t satisfy, no matter where you scratched.

Ananias wouldn’t have worried so much if he were the only one who’d noticed. Several men on watch duty had become nervous and edgy, some even picking fights amongst themselves. Animals in the forest were skittish. Squirrels, deer, raccoons, rabbits, and all manner of beasts had burst from the trees, fleeing toward the coast. Birds filled the night sky, their screams standing Ananias’s hair on end. Something foul was in the forest and somehow Ananias knew it wasn’t the natives.

When Tom came to relieve him an hour later, the forest had quieted. Ananias made one more circuit of the village, assuring himself that all was well. He returned to his shelter, climbing into bed with his sleeping wife and child. Ananias finally fell asleep listening to the baby’s tiny breaths, telling himself that he’d overreacted.

Soon after daybreak, someone shouted. Ananias roused from his slumber, disoriented.

“They’re back!” came the call.

Their early return was a bad portent.

After quickly dressing, Ananias went to the center of the village to greet the men, not surprised to see a crowd had already assembled.

“Are we safe, Governor?”

John nodded with tired eyes. “Aye, for now.”

The other men took the governor’s words to mean something good, but Ananias saw the fear in Manteo’s eyes. It spooked him. Never in the year that he’d known the native had Ananias seen him worried or scared.

“So what’s our plan?” one of the men asked.

John’s gaze swept over the crowd assembled before him. “For now, nothing. I must think upon it more.” Without another word, he disappeared into his hut, leaving the crowd of men behind. They instantly turned toward Manteo.

The men feared the native too much to ask him direct questions, but Ananias wasn’t afraid to corner his friend. When Manteo walked away from the others, Ananias followed him to the edge of the camp, where he kept his home.

“Manteo, what did you find?”

Manteo shook his head and entered his hut.

Propriety forced Ananias to seek permission before entering another man’s dwelling, but he was past the point of such empty formalities. He followed Manteo inside. “Manteo, what did you find?”

The native squatted by the back wall. “A place of death.”

Ananias’s heart lurched and he choked out, “What does that mean? Are the Pomeiooc Indians joining with the Roanoke to attack us?”

Manteo gave a sharp jerk to his head. “No, they are not our concern at the moment.”

“Then what is?”

“Something bigger.”

Ananias’s breath caught. “What does that mean?”

Looking up into his eyes, Manteo said, “You should leave this place, my friend.”

Ananias’s mouth dried, and he swallowed. “Are you leaving?”

Manteo continued to stare for several uncomfortable seconds, his face hardening. “I have vowed to protect your people, and Governor White refuses to flee. Since I cannot break my vow, I am bound to stay.” He paused. “But I’ve seen something terrible, something beyond your imagination.”

“The savages?” Ananias choked out. “Will they massacre us all?”

Manteo sucked in a deep breath. “What I saw will make you wish the Roanoke would be merciful and end your life before the evil I saw is released. You must take your family and go back to England.”

Terror flooded Ananias’s body. “And you will not leave in the face of such danger?”

Manteo’s jaw hardened. “I am bound by my word to stay.”

Ananias spun and left the hut for his father-in-law’s home. Again, he defied propriety and forced his way in, finding the governor at a small writing table, his head in his hands.

“We must leave this place at once,” Ananias said with more strength than he felt.

“Where is this coming from? I specifically said we are safe for now.”

“But you and I both know that we are not. I went and saw Manteo. If we are safe, then why does such a fierce warrior look so frightened?”

John took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

“We must leave.”

His father-in-law twisted his head to stare up at him. “And how will we manage that?”

“Get back on the ship and return to England.”

John stood, then grabbed his pitcher and poured water into a pewter cup. His eyes hardened as he raised the cup to his mouth. “And how do we do that, Ananias?”

Ananias’s anger rose above his fear. “Captain Fernandez’s ships are still anchored off the coast, Governor, and his repairs are nearly completed. We load everyone back on and go.”

John took a long drink, banging the cup on his desk. “Do you have the silver to pay for one hundred and seventeen passengers, Ananias? Soon to be one hundred and eighteen when Margery Harvie has her babe any day now. Who is going to pay? Captain Fernandez refused to even take us to our original destination. He’s certainly not willing to return us all to England.”

The younger man’s heart fluttered with desperation. “Surely the queen will reimburse the ship’s captain. Her citizens’ lives are at risk.”

“I took you for a foolish man, son-in-law, but I never thought you to be this daft.” He shook his head with a sneer. “You know that while the queen wishes the New World to be colonized, she refuses to pay. And our benefactor, Sir Raleigh, will never approve. If I were to bring everyone back . . .” John sighed. “We have no choice in the matter. We must stay.”

And face certain death?” Ananias’s voice rose to a disrespectful level. “You would sentence your daughter and granddaughter to that?”

“Your emotions are getting away from you, bricklayer.”

Bricklayer. What Ananias would give to return to his simple life of bricklaying in England. After all the heat and danger he’d faced in his short time in Virginia, he’d never again complain about the damp and cold English winters. “Manteo saw something out there that he claims is a worse threat than the natives. If that’s true, we need to take action.”

“Manteo betrayed me by saying anything to you. He had a dream, Ananias. Nothing more. He was shaken by it, but as every civilized man knows, dreams mean nothing. Now you will keep this to yourself and tell no one. We will not rile the colony over a phantasm.”

“And did you see anything?”

John’s hand trembled as he stalled and took another drink. “It was only a dream…most likely a hallucination induced by the ceremonial tea. As I said, it meant nothing.”

“How could you share the same dream? Doesn’t that mean something?”

“It means you are a coward.” His eyes pierced Ananias’s. “You will keep this to yourself. Have I made myself clear?”

Ananias gritted his teeth, refusing to agree, even though he knew he would. He would never upset his wife by crossing the governor.

“There is no certain death that awaits us. Only more conflict with the Indians, especially since Manteo and I never made it to Pomeiooc.” The elder man sat at the table, picking up his quill pen and grabbing a sheet of paper. “Now leave me.”

Ananias left his father-in-law, anger burning in his chest. When he returned home and expressed his concerns to his wife, she took her father’s side, as she always did.

“Did you not feel the evil slide through our camp last night, Ellie? Something happened. I know it.”

Fear filled her eyes then quickly faded. “Father told you it was a dream, Ananias, and he was right. That was all that happened to me as well.”

Ananias’s eyes widened. More dreams. “What did you see?”

She shook her head and looked toward the baby sleeping in the makeshift cradle. “Nothing. I saw nothing.” She turned her gaze toward her husband, irritation covering her face. “If father says we’re safe, we’re safe. You’ve only been in this new land less than a couple of fortnights. Father has been here on two previous voyages.”

While Ananias’s fear sprung from little more than a feeling, three people close to him had had disturbing dreams that they refused to share. He ran his hand through his hair in frustration. “Ellie, please I beg you. Tell me what you saw.”

Her irritation fell away and she took his hands in hers. “I would tell you if I could remember, Ani, I swear. But all memory of the dream is gone and all that remains is fear. But if Father says it’s nothing to worry about, I’m sure we are fine.”

The baby mewled and Ananias bent over to scoop her up, holding her to his chest. “Manteo believes differently.”

She shook her head with a sigh. “I do not understand your friendship with that savage. He’s the only danger I see in our colony. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up slaying half of us in our sleep some day.”

“Manteo is our friend.”

“No savage can ever be trusted, Ananias. Remember this well.”

“He is a Christian man now, Ellie. He was baptized.”

She took the baby from his arms. “He will always be a savage first. Always.”

* * *

The next days passed with little incident other than the anxiety and fear that was still draped over the colony, setting everyone on edge. Many people had experienced dreams the night that John and Manteo had been gone, but no one remembered the details…except perhaps the governor and the native. Still, Manteo and Ananias had obeyed orders by keeping their fears and concerns to themselves.

In public, John insisted the village was in no danger and that the men on the night watch had let their imaginations get the better of them. He still insisted to Ananias that Manteo had been unnecessarily spooked in the woods and that anything the two men had seen was not real. The way John wrung his hands when he spoke made Ananias wonder who John was actually trying to convince.

Despite John’s assurances, rumors of evil spirits had begun to spread throughout the colony.

None of the angry tribes had shown any sign of attack, adding to the sense of foreboding. John insisted that the longer they waited, the greater the odds they wouldn’t retaliate.

Not even the baptism of Virginia Elinor Dare, the first English colonist born in the New World, could lift the settlers’ spirits for long.

Especially those of John White.

But despite John’s insistence that all was well, he took long walks into the woods, often accompanied by Manteo, which only added to the villagers’ collective unease. When questioned, he said they were strategizing how to increase their supplies for the winter, possibly seeking the aid of natives who were still sympathetic to their plight.

Nine days after Virginia’s birth, a boat came ashore from Captain Fernandez’s ship, and a sailor requested that the governor come aboard, ending weeks of no contact with the captain. Ananias watched his father-in-law’s small boat row out to the larger ship, dread churning the breakfast in his belly.

When John White came back an hour later, he brought the news many had expected. The ships were returning to Europe. The colonists would soon be on their own.

“All assistants need to assemble for a meeting after the evening meal,” the governor said after his announcement. “We have several matters to discuss.”

At supper, Ananias had a hard time choking down his fish while he watched Elinor nurse Virginia. Could he stand on the shore and watch the ship captain, the one man with the power to save his child, sail away and abandon them? Could he really stand back and do nothing?

He wasn’t the only one who was worried—the ten other assistants seemed just as anxious.

Before the voyage from England, twelve of the men had been appointed as assistants, their purpose to help John White govern the new land. Their number had been reduced to eleven after George Howe’s murder, and John had yet to assign a new member. When John called the meeting of the assistants to order, many offered protests, demanding they be allowed to return to England, which drew the governor’s anger.

“Did you expect to come to a land of milk and honey? Did you expect manna to fall from the sky?” he asked.

“We were promised a land of riches!” one of the men shouted.

“You were promised the chance for a better life,” John White countered. “No more, no less.”

“We are risking our families’ lives!” another yelled.

John narrowed his eyes, swinging his gaze around the group. “Every one of you knew what you were signing up for. You knew the danger and you knew the risk. I brought my own daughter, who was with child, no less. Do you think I would risk the life of the most precious thing in my life if I didn’t believe in this land?” He shook his head in disgust. “We may not be in our predetermined destination, but this is a good settlement for you for now.”

Something in his voice caught Ananias’s attention. “For us?”

John turned his gaze upon his son-in-law. “Until I return.”

The men became more agitated, but the governor settled them down and continued. “I will return to England with Fernandez and come back to you in the spring with more supplies and, if the queen is willing, an army.”

“We are supposed to stay here and wait for you to return?” Ananias’s friend, Roger Prat, asked in disgust.

John moved closer to the man and lowered his voice. “Roger, you have brought your son to this new land, and my own daughter and granddaughter are here, so I of all people understand your concern.” He placed his hand on Roger’s shoulder. “But I am leaving my family with you. Is that the act of a worried man? No, it’s the act of a man who believes in making this place a home for our children and our children’s children, free from religious persecution. Put your trust in God and have faith.”

“Go Governor!” one of the men shouted. “Bring supplies and more men so we can defend ourselves against the savages!”

The crowd took up the cheer, their worries seemingly assuaged.

Ananias did not join in. John’s decision angered him, particularly the way he was using Ellie and Virginia as bargaining chips to gain support. He weighed the threat of losing his temper with the cost of missing the rest of the discussion. Walking away won out. He stood no chance of changing the governor’s mind.

Ananias strode away from the group, heading for the trees. He wasn’t surprised to see Manteo at the edge of the woods, a stoic expression on his face.

“You knew?” Ananias challenged. “You knew he was leaving, and you didn’t tell me. Do you condone his decision?”

The native nodded. “Aye.”

“But he’s leaving without bringing my wife and child to safety!”

“And what about my own wife and children, Ananias Dare? Over fourteen seasons have passed and I have yet to see them. I have traveled the great sea four times and returned to the land of my birth twice, yet I still have not seen my family in all that time.”

Ananias’s mouth dropped. “You never told me you had children.”

“There is much you do not know.” Manteo took a step into the woods.

“What do I not know?”

Manteo moved deeper into the shadows. “Follow me, and I will show you.”

Anxiety crawled down Ananias’s back, but his need for answers outweighed his fear. “All right.”

They traveled deep into the woods, Manteo paving the way through the dark forest by what little moonlight filtered through the leaves overhead. Ananias stumbled several times, but Manteo neither commented nor waited for him to regain his footing. He simply trudged on in silence.

Ananias was used to Manteo’s silence. Sometimes he wondered if that was why he liked the native so well. Manteo demanded little conversation from him; in fact, he demanded little of anything. It was a welcome relief when he was accustomed to being around others who demanded so much.

Finally, Manteo stopped. “This is the place.”

Ananias’s foot got caught in a root and he nearly fell. “This is your place of death?” The only threat of death he saw was the possibility of breaking one’s neck.

“You have eyes but you do not see. Ears but you do not hear. You are in the presence of the spirit realm, yet you remain ignorant.”

Ananias shook his head. “What does that mean?”

“You are standing at the gate to the spirit world.”

“The gate to heaven?” Ananias dared to ask.

Manteo’s face darkened. “Popogusso.”

Ananias recognized the word from what little Croatan the native had taught him.

Hell.

Ananias’s heart raced and he swiveled around, searching for the entrance. “But there’s nothing here. I see nothing.”

“Do you see the wind, Ananias? Do you see the force that pulls all things to earth? Do you hear the One True God you English are so proud to claim? You neither see, nor hear, nor feel these things, yet you know they exist. The gate to hell is here. You may not feel it, but I do.”

“Is this what you saw with Governor White?”

“All nuppin know this place is hallowed, but I did not know its true significance until I performed my cleansing ceremony on this spot with the governor. The question is why this ceremony revealed the truth to me. Many ceremonies have been performed here, but to the best of my knowledge, no one before us saw what we saw. The only explanation I can come up with is that this was the first ceremony conducted with a nuppin and a tosh-shonte. Perhaps the participation of men from two worlds in a ceremony so sacred is what weakened the barrier and gave us a vision.”

An Englishman and an Indian being together in this place had made Manteo aware that it was the gate to hell? It seemed preposterous until Ananias considered that Manteo was one of the most levelheaded people he knew. “What did you see?”

“John White and I saw into the future.”

Ananias’s breath caught, remembering the fear in Manteo’s eyes the week before, as well as his cryptic words. “And you saw death?”

Manteo hesitated. “Kupi.” Yes. “The barrier between the worlds will break and evil from the depths of hell will spill upon the earth. From this place.”

“When?”

“I do not know.”

Evil from the depths of hell. That could only mean demons. “Can we stop it?”

“I do not know.” Manteo circled a small oak tree. “You must understand, gods and spirits already roam the earth. Just as you believe your One True God exists everywhere.”

Your One True God. So Manteo didn’t really believe in the English God, after all. Well, that was the least of Ananias’s worries. What Manteo claimed sounded crazy, but what was crazier was that Ananias believed him.

“What about demons?” he asked.

Manteo’s gaze found Ananias’s. “Some roam the earth. Most are locked away. Like in your own beliefs. Our gods are not so different.”

Ananias bristled. “There are no gods, Manteo. Only one God.”

“There is Ahone, our creator god, just like your One True God. He created the world and all life on it. Okeus is the other half of Ahone, our Satan. Our wind gods are what you call archangels.” Manteo stopped in front of him. “Our spirit worlds are the same, Ananias. We only call them different names.”

What Manteo said made sense, but it went against everything Ananias had ever been taught. Never mind their names, Ananias had to make sure his family was safe. “And you saw the demons escape? If we went to your island down the coast, would my wife and daughter be safe from this danger?”

“No. Once the demons escape, I think there will be a dormant period while they acclimate to our world, and then they will spread to the four corners of the earth.”

Ananias took a deep breath. “And John White saw this vision too?” Maybe John had been trying to soothe Ananias’s fears when he called what he and Manteo had experienced a dream. If he had seen the invasion of spirits into the world, then he would want to warn the queen. Perhaps that was the real reason he had chosen to return to England.

“Yes, but I do not know if his vision was the same as mine. We all see different things. We all have our own unique gifts from the manitou.”

“What is this manitou? An evil spirit?”

“No it is the life force that gives a soul to all living things. Like your Holy Ghost.”

“That’s not the same, Manteo. The Holy Ghost is part of the Holy Trinity.”

“Call our spirits whatever you like. To ignore them is foolish. They are coming.”

To believe Manteo meant Ananias was spitting into the face of the One True God. Blasphemy. Yet he couldn’t dismiss the heavy blanket of evil soaking through his skin and stealing his breath. A feeling that had become stronger and stronger since he’d stepped onto this spot.

God help him, blasphemy or not, Ananias believed it.

 

Chapter Three

Two months had passed since John White’s departure, yet Ananias’s unease remained. The heat had disappeared, bringing cool air in its wake. There had only been minor skirmishes with the Roanoke tribe and no further contact with the Dasamongueponke. All was well in the colony, yet Ananias knew what was coming.

Hell was about to break loose.

He might have dismissed the threat as his father-in-law had done—writing it away as a dream, a vision—if Manteo hadn’t still been on edge. While the native had never been a jovial man, he brooded constantly now. To make matters worse, he had left two weeks ago to visit the Croatan and hadn’t returned. Ananias couldn’t help wondering if he would abandon them after all, regardless of his vow.

The men of the colony had hunted enough meat to carry them through the winter, and they were rationing the flour. Baby Virginia was not only growing but thriving. Ananias loved the evenings when his family of three retired to their small home. Elinor would sew while he played with his daughter. Whenever he walked into a room, she immediately smiled and had even begun to laugh. Despite the cloud that hung over him, Ananias’s heart was full.

Life was almost too perfect. Ananias couldn’t help thinking that this period of peace and contentment was the calm before the storm.

So Ananias wasn’t surprised when Manteo returned from his expedition on a cold, gray November afternoon, claiming he had disturbing news. When pressed for more information, he refused to say anything until the assistants were called for a meeting. They wasted no time in gathering in the center of the village, each man wearing a grave expression. The remaining townsfolk weren’t allowed to participate in the meeting, but they stood outside the circle, eager for the savage’s news.

Manteo’s gaze spun around the group. “The Roanoke have gathered a raiding party of over five hundred. They plan to attack.”

“How do you know?” one of the men asked. “You were supposed to be with your people.”

Manteo’s gaze darkened. “I encountered a scouting group on my return trip. I heard them discussing their plans.”

The group was silent for several seconds as they took in the news. One of the men finally asked, “Will your people fight with us?”

Manteo hesitated, glancing at Ananias before leveling his gaze at the speaker. “No. When I visited them, they told me they refuse to stand with you in any future encounters. They see you as the wrongdoers after your attack on Dasamongueponke…particularly after the massacre of the Roanoke a summer ago.”

“That makes no sense,” one of the men shouted. “There’s no love between your people and the Roanoke. Why would they side with them?”

Manteo’s eyes darkened. “The Croatan do not side with the Roanoke, but they do not find your people trustworthy. They feel you deceived the Roanoke and will do the same to them.”

An angry murmur spread through the group. “You call us your people now? One trip back to the Croatan and you’re no longer one of us?”

Manteo’s chest heaved and Ananias could tell he was restraining himself. “Two years ago, I swore to stand by your people. Nothing can release me from this bond.”

His answer seemed to appease the men, but their anxiety grew.

“So what do we do? Are we to be slaughtered?”

Manteo didn’t answer directly. “You are outnumbered.”

“We have guns!” one of the assistants reminded them. “We can hold them off.”

“Aye,” one of the men agreed. “And the fifteen men left behind with the fort had guns. Look what happened to that lot.”

A sober hush fell over the crowd.

“We should leave,” a woman called out from the back. “We should leave this place. It is death.”

“And where would you go?” a man asked. “We have no transportation to get anywhere.”

“You can go to my people,” Manteo said. “If you hike south, I can I send for boats to meet at the crossover point.”

“It’s a trap!” someone shouted. “He just said his people wouldn’t help us!”

Manteo took a deep breath. “The Croatan will not defend you while you stay here, but they will allow you to live on their land.”

“This is our land,” another man argued. “We must stand our ground.”

“But if we are in danger of being slaughtered—” one of the women protested.

A large man stepped into the center of the circle. “Enough. I am in charge in Governor White’s absence and you will do as I say.” Roger Bailie was next in line after the governor, which would have made the colonists listen to him in its own right, but his height and the tone and timbre of his voice also demanded their attention. “We came to this land to make a home. If we back down every time the Indians bang their drums, they will never respect us. We need to show them we aren’t going anywhere.”

The villagers grumbled until someone shouted, “What do you think, Ananias?”

Ananias hesitated, turning toward Manteo.

“My father left us here for a reason,” Elinor said before he could speak. “He believed we could hold our own.”

“Your father left us here because the captain wouldn’t let us back on the boat! He left us to the same fate as my George!” Elizabeth shouted, still bitter over her husband’s death. “Your father was a coward who saved himself and left his daughter to die!”

Elinor’s mouth dropped, and the blood drained from her face.

Ananias couldn’t bear to see his wife hurt by her friend. He stepped forward. “The governor loves his daughter more than he loves himself. He would never leave Elinor here if he thought her life was in danger. He’s been to this land three times. Do you think he would have brought her to her death?” Ananias swallowed, wanting to believe his own words. “When the governor left, most of you wanted him to go, and now you’re cursing him for leaving. Which is it?”

They complained and grumbled for another hour, finally deciding that they would stay and defend themselves against the Roanoke.

When Ananias and Elinor returned to their hut, Elinor laid the sleeping babe in her cradle. Ananias pushed the door closed and turned to his wife, speaking in a hushed voice, “We must leave this place, Elinor.”

Her head jerked up. “What are you saying? That goes against everything you said in the meeting.”

“I only said that to save your pride. We need to leave.”

“And go where?” Elinor pulled her sleeping gown from the chest that held all their worldly belongings. “Where would we go?”

“South. To Manteo’s people.”

She tossed the cloth onto the bed, anger blazing in her eyes. “That Indian is not to be trusted. He’s leading our people to our deaths.”

“No, Ellie. He’s my friend and I trust him. It’s insanity to stay.”

“Then why would you tell the villagers otherwise?”

“You and I both know there is no arguing with Roger Bailie once he’s made up his mind. To argue in such a public arena could have caused mutiny.”

Elinor sat on the edge of the bed, wringing her hands in her lap. “What would you have us do, Ananias? Run off in the middle of the night? Are you really such a coward?”

“Coward?” Ananias shouted, clenching his fists. “I am no coward, Elinor. I would gladly die if it meant you and Virginia would live. But I could die a hundred deaths and the fact remains: The Indians will kill you. After they torture you and the babe.” Nausea filled Ananias’s mouth with a bitter taste. “I cannot stand the thought, Ellie.” He sat on the bed next to her, grabbing her hand tightly, his voice choking. “I cannot bear the thought of you or our daughter defiled.”

Elinor held his hand to her chest. “You must have faith, husband. You must trust our Heavenly Father to protect us.”

But Ananias didn’t trust God to protect him. He’d lost his faith the night Manteo had brought him to the gate of hell.

He stood, his back stiffening. “Go to bed. I wish to clear my head in the evening air.”

“Ananias, what are you going to do?”

Hearing the anxiety in her voice, he leaned over and placed a gentle kiss on her mouth. “Ellie, I love you and the baby. I need to sort this out in my head.”

She grabbed the back of his neck, pulling his face back to hers. “Take your walk, Ananias, and when you return, you will know what is right.”

He left his family, searching out Manteo. He found him squatting outside his shelter, sharpening the blade of his knife. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

Manteo knew him well to have anticipated his visit. It suddenly concerned Ananias that as well as he knew the savage, he couldn’t anticipate his actions. The man was wrapped in mystery.

Manteo stood, sliding his knife into the sheath on his belt. “Walk with me, my friend.”

My friend. Ananias nodded, chiding himself for his paranoia. Manteo was his only ally at this point and had given him no reason for his distrust. Ananias betrayed their friendship with his doubts.

They headed into the woods, both men moving in the same direction, as though by an unspoken agreement. When they stopped at the invisible gate to Popogusso, Ananias turned to his friend. “Are you sure they will attack?”

Manteo hesitated. “Yes, they will come in two days’ time.”

Ananias’s heart skipped a beat. “The day after tomorrow?” If that were true, he might only have two nights and one day left with his family. “You must help me save my wife and child, Manteo.”

Manteo remained expressionless. “Your family must go to my people. If they do, they will be protected. I swear to it.”

Ananias knew the situation was dire, but Manteo’s words confirmed it. “Will you go with us?”

Manteo tensed. “You misinterpret my meaning. I beg you to send your family away, but I need you to stay.” The native took a deep breath and released it. “My oath is to your people, and I cannot leave them. Neither can you.”

Shame burned in Ananias’s chest. Manteo was right. How could he live with himself if he survived but the rest of the colony perished? He could never survive the shame of such cowardice. “I cannot let my family be slain, but Ellie refuses to leave.” His throat tightened. “There must be something we can do to stop this madness, Manteo.”

Manteo was quiet for so long, Ananias was sure he would not answer. Finally, he said, “There might be something. But it is dangerous.”

“We’re already lost. How much more dangerous could it be?”

“This could potentially involve future generations.”

Ananias’s jaw clenched. “There will be no future generations for us if we don’t do something.”

Manteo’s eye glittered in the moonlight with something that looked like madness. “You know not what you speak of, Ananias.”

Ananias was tired of people telling him what he didn’t know. “Can you stop this from happening or not?”

“I do not know, my friend. I can only try.”

“What do you intend to do?”

“Now you ask.” Manteo’s mouth lifted into a quirk of a smile. “Where do our people get power?”

“How would I know?” Ananias rubbed his head. “That thing you said gave everything a soul. The manitou.”

Manteo shook his head. “No, not the manitou.” He paused, as if weighing his words. “In war, my people get their power from the gods.”

“How can that knowledge help us?”

“Can you not see past the nose on your face, Ananias?”

What does that mean?”

“It means you are standing next to the answer.”

 

Chapter Four

Manteo had been missing from the village for the entire day. The colony had noticed his absence and decreed him a coward and a traitor. Ananias knew the truth—Manteo was preparing for the ceremony he planned to perform later that night. The ceremony to steal the Roanoke tribe’s power by binding their spirits behind the gates of hell. What the native planned to do was far more dangerous than running away or staring down death at the end of a spear point, but Manteo had sworn him to secrecy.

Elinor nursed the baby as Ananias sat on the bed next to her, his arm wrapped around her back. He’d spent the day begging her to take the baby and go to Manteo’s people, but she refused to consider it, and truth be told, Ananias couldn’t bear for her to leave. What if she and the baby were kidnapped or murdered on the way? Or worse.

He couldn’t entertain the thought of Ellie or the baby dying or being tortured. Each time his mind strayed there, his heart strangled and his lungs refused to fill. He forced his chest to expand, his fingers digging into the small of his wife’s back. He’d kill them himself before he allowed anything vile to happen to his small family.

She looked up at him with tired eyes. “We will be fine, Ananias. You shall see.”

He’d always loved her optimism, and he definitely needed it now. “Ellie, I swear upon my life that I will do everything in my power to save you and Virginia.”

Elinor lifted her hand to his cheek, her thumb stroking the coarse stubble. “I know you will. That’s who you are, my husband. That’s why I love you.” Her eyelids fluttered in her attempt to stay awake. She looked down at the child cooing at her breast, forcing her eyes to widen.

Ananias lifted the baby from her arms. “Let me take her. You need sleep.”

She kissed him, smiling against his lips. “You are much too good to me. If anything happens…”

He kissed her back to stop her words. “I love you, Elinor. I’ve loved you since the moment I first saw you, remember? When your bonnet flew off your head, and I retrieved it from the street.”

“I seem to recall there was much more teasing involved than you remember. And you still had an eye for that witch Mary Ann.” Laughing softly, she pushed on his chest, letting her fingers linger there. His hand covered hers, pressing her palm over his heart. Virginia reached up and joined her hand with theirs.

A lump filled his throat and he coughed to clear it. “There is only you, Elinor. Forever and always, only you and Virginia.”

Tears shimmered in her eyes and her chin quivered. “We shall be with each other until the end of eternity, Ananias, no matter what happens.”

A tear slid down her cheek, and he kissed it, the saltiness lingering on his tongue. “Get some rest, my love. I will take care of the babe until she falls asleep.”

Elinor nodded and lay down, burrowing under the blankets.

Ananias sat on his stool, holding Virginia on his lap. She looked up at him with laughing eyes. He softly sang her a song that his mother had sung to him, a lively tune that did nothing to cure his melancholy. He chided himself to have more faith. If anyone could save them, it was Manteo. There was still hope.

Virginia finally fell asleep in his arms, and he gently laid her in the cradle. He spent the next several minutes watching the two most precious things in the world to him, telling himself that when he returned, they could all live without fear. He only needed to trust. God had not sent him a solution only to snatch everything away.

Manteo had told him to arrive around midnight, so Ananias knew he had to leave soon. The November evening was colder than usual. After bundling in an extra layer of clothes, Ananias reached for the door and realized he’d almost left without his cup. Manteo had stressed the importance of bringing a vessel large enough to drink from during the ceremony. He’d insisted they must each have a container that belonged exclusively to their people. Ananias grabbed a pewter cup off the table, stuffing it into his coat pocket. It left an uncomfortable lump, but it was better than walking through the village with the cup in his hand, particularly given how suspicious everyone was of late.

The cold air stung his nose and throat. This weather was more like what he was used to in England. Surely a land full of such violent extremes couldn’t be a place of God, only confirming that Manteo was right. The Indians’s  sacred ground was the gate to hell. When this ordeal was over, Ananias was taking his wife and child far from this place of evil.

“Good eve, Ananias,” one of the men called when Ananias walked through the village one last time, ensuring as best he could that it was safe to leave his family.

“Good eve, Michael.” Ananias had drawn the evening patrol, but he’d traded with Michael for a predawn turn, hoping his task with Manteo would be complete by then. He continued toward Manteo’s dwelling, then headed for the trees.

Slipping out of the camp had been entirely too easy. If Ananias could get out without any notice, how many savages could get in? If Manteo’s plan didn’t succeed, they would all be killed.

His plan would work. It had to.

He saw the glow of torches before he saw Manteo. The closer he came, the harder it was to breathe. Fear froze his feet, and he stayed at the edge of the twenty-foot circle of torches Manteo had spaced around the tree. The earth was scorched in intricate patterns. A small fire burned in the center, a clay pitcher and a wooden bowl next to it. Manteo squatted within the circle, on the opposite side of the fire.

“Did you bring your vessel?” he asked without looking up.

“Aye.” Ananias pulled it from his pocket and took a step forward.

“Do not enter!”

Ananias froze, partially relieved. The air around the circle felt thick and heavy, and each breath was a struggle.

Manteo chanted and stood, turning to face Ananias. He wore the clothing of his people, soft leather boots and a cloth around his waist. His chest was bare with a freshly inked mark on his skin over his heart, a tattoo comprised of squares, circles, and squiggly lines.

Manteo motioned for Ananias to enter the circle. The moment he was completely inside, the outside world hushed and the temperature warmed, as though the circle existed on a different level of reality. Sulfur burned his nose and coated his tongue. Terror filled him.

Manteo’s claims were true. The two men were standing at the edge of hell.

What madness had he agreed to?

Taking the cup, Manteo placed it next to the wooden bowl. He motioned for Ananias to take off his shirt. Ananias complied, slipping off his coat and two layers of upper garments. He waited for the shock of cold as he tossed his shirts to the ground, but it never came. Sweat beaded on his head. It really was warmer in the circle. Almost as hot as a summer day.

There was witchcraft here.

Ananias cleared his throat, trying to swallow his fear. “What are you doing, Manteo?”

“As I already explained, the Roanoke receive power from their gods. If we bind their gods behind this gate, we will cripple them.”

“Not that part.” Ananias’s eyes searched Manteo’s. “Why are you conducting the ceremony at all? Why would you do something so grave for my people?”

His face hardened. “The Roanoke are not friends to the Croatan. This will help my people too.”

Ananias nodded, his frayed nerves slightly soothed. Manteo’s motives were more understandable if his own people stood to gain.

“If I do this correctly, I will also seal the gate to Popogusso, and the vision I had will not come to pass, which is yet another reason to conduct the ceremony.”

Somehow, Ananias had forgotten about the graver threat in light of the more imminent one. What if Manteo’s ceremony was the catalyst that let all the demons loose instead?

Manteo clasped Ananias’s shoulder. “This will work. You must trust me.”

Ananias’s breath pushed past his partially open lips. His friend had just as much to lose as he did. “I trust you with my life.”

Manteo nodded, but he didn’t look happy. “From this moment forward, you must not speak. I will perform the ceremony in the ancient tongue.”

“Aye.”

Manteo chanted as he painted a mark similar to his own on Ananias’s chest. They were nearly identical, only Manteo had a primitive four-pointed star shaped mark in the center of his, and Ananias’s contained a lightning bolt.

As the ink coated his skin, power bloomed inside Ananias’s chest. Terrified, he prayed that the power came from God Almighty and not from the evil that lay behind the invisible gate.

Manteo chanted for hours. Ananias’s eyelids had drooped many times in the night until he noticed the sky begin to brighten in the east. If the ceremony continued to move so slowly, Ananias would miss his patrol shift. What would the other colonists think then?

The savage poured liquid from the clay pitcher into each of the vessels, picking up a rope and lifting it over his head with his left hand. Manteo clasped Ananias’s forearm, and he returned the gesture, in the form of a handshake. When Manteo bound their arms together with the rope, Ananias helped him secure the knot.

Manteo lifted a knife over his head, chanting. Then he flipped his palm open, and Ananias did the same, staying still as Manteo pricked the center of their palms with the point of the knife. Manteo collected blood from Ananias’s wound on the knife blade, and then smeared it into his own wound. His eyes rolled back into his head and he moaned, sending a shiver of fear down Ananias’s spine. The movement caught Manteo’s attention, and he scraped his own blood on tip of the knife, mixing it with the wound on Ananias’s hand.

Ananias gasped as power rushed through his veins.

Manteo cut the rope, then set down the knife and picked up the pewter cup, motioning for Ananias to pick up the bowl. Together they drank the bitter tea. The moment the liquid touched his tongue, Ananias’s hair stood on end, his body stinging as though he’d been struck by lightning. A blinding light burst from the tree trunk, and he squinted as the overpowering stench of decay and metal coated his nose. A chorus of inhuman moans filled the night air.

Forcing his eyelids open he froze, horror washing through him.

Ananias was standing at the gates of hell.

 

Chapter Five

The tree was gone and in its place was a black metal gate. Creatures, more hideous than Ananias could ever have imagined, stood on the other side of the metal bars. Tentacles and tails. Claws and fangs. Slimy skin and scales. Some looked like animals and others resembled men and women. The demons reached through the slats toward the two men, moaning and cursing. “Son of the sea and son of the earth. Free us!”

Ananias’s eyes widened in terror.

His arm was still clasped with Manteo’s, and Manteo chanted more loudly and more insistently. Ananias realized that even though his friend chanted the ceremony in his native tongue, he could now understand all the words.

“Wind gods!” Manteo shouted. “Return to the pit from which you came!”

A howl filled the air and the wind gusted, making Ananias stumble, but Manteo’s grip tightened. Four creatures flew from the trees, landing within the circle. Men’s heads topped bird bodies, all four with differently colored hair.

“Manteo, son of the earth,” the birdman with red hair sneered. “You know not what you do.”

“We do not come from Popogusso, you vermin,” another shouted.

Manteo thrust back his shoulders. “You do not belong in this world.”

“Fool!” the redheaded bird screeched. “We belong to the world more than you do!”

A bird with long white hair moved closer to the men, his head bobbing. “We have existed long before Ahone’s pets spread across the earth. You dare to consider locking us behind these gates?”

Manteo ignored the god, digging his fingers into Ananias’s arm. “Demons and spirits that roam the earth, I summon you!”

A multitude of creatures emerged from the forest. Ananias felt their resistance through the power that rushed through his blood. But somehow the two men—together—had more power than the spirit world.

The thought filled him with fear. What had Manteo done to gain such power?

The demons flailed frantically, screaming into the night. But Manteo’s magic dragged them across the circle against their will, their claws digging huge ruts into the forest floor.

Manteo moved toward the gate, pulling Ananias with him. Sparks flew when Manteo’s hand touched the metal, and he swung it open by several feet. The creatures behind the gate rushed forward to escape.

Ananias’s heart leapt into his throat, but Manteo raised his hand, palm facing forward. “Stop!” His voice echoed in the trees behind them. “I am the son of the earth, born of space and heaven. I am black earth and sandy loams. The mountain ranges and the rolling hills. I am the foundation of life and the receiver of death and everything in between. I compel you to obey my words.”

To Ananias’s shock, the creatures did.

Manteo’s eyes glowed with power. “I am the master of the spirit world. All will obey me.”

The demons in hell screamed and cursed Manteo and Ananias, more desperate to escape than ever. The creatures in the human realm huddled together, as though they were fighting an invisible binding.

Manteo turned his attention to them, his eyes wide and crazed. “Enter Popogusso, creatures of the night!”

Ananias gasped in shock. Whatever the source of the native’s magic, Ananias could now feel Manteo’s emotions through their bond.

Manteo was drunk with power.

The demons and monsters crossed the threshold in a steady stream, deafening Ananias’s ears with their screams.

“You will regret this, son of the earth!” the redheaded wind god screeched.

“Perhaps someday,” Manteo countered with an evil smile, “but not today.” He laughed. “Wind gods! Enter the depths of hell!”

They shrieked, the shrill sounds echoing through the trees as they slid across the forest floor. The air gusted from the flapping of their massive wings as they tried in vain to find purchase before sliding past the gates.

Ananias knew this was wrong. How could two men make spirits and gods obey them? Some sane part of him knew he should stop this madness, but he couldn’t. Not if this would really save his family. Not that it mattered. Something told him that it was too late.

Manteo leaned back his head, calling into the night, “Okeus!”

The air cooled and chill bumps spread across Ananias’s bare skin.

Son of the earth.” The words filled the air and his head, vibrating through every part of his body.

Suddenly a man stood between the trees. He was a savage, the most handsome man Ananias had ever seen, but an unearthly glow surrounded him. His black hair was long on one side and cut short on the other. He wore a loincloth and was bare-chested. The god took another step toward them and the air instantly grew colder. “Son of the earth, you have overstepped your bounds.”

A shiver ran through Manteo’s arm, but he did not release his grip on Ananias. “I am righting the balance of the world.”

“Balance? What balance?” The god’s eyes softened. “You do this for foolish human reasons, my son. I urge you to reconsider and this will be forgotten.”

Manteo shook his head, his power giving him confidence. “I could not even if I wanted to.”

“If you do not stop this, you will regret your decision for the rest of your life. It will haunt you from generation to generation, for hundreds of years. Your actions will curse your offspring.”

Manteo hesitated. “I must save my people.”

Was he talking about the colonists or the Croatan?

“There are other ways.” Okeus entered the circle, continuing his slow advance toward the men. “Where did you learn of this ceremony, son of the earth? In the history of man, nothing like this has ever been attempted. Mankind never knew it was possible. Until now.”

Manteo’s grip on Ananias tightened.

Okeus reached out a finger, his nail an animal claw that traced the symbol in the center of Manteo’s mark. “Perhaps the answer is on your chest.”

The god’s claw sank deep and tore into Manteo’s flesh, outlining the star in blood.

Ananias felt Manteo’s ripped flesh through their connection, and he nearly cried out in pain and fear.

The god turned his attention to Ananias and smiled. “Son of the sea. What part do you have in this?”

Ananias’s eyes widened, his tongue thick and unwieldy.

Okeus’s claw traced the zigzagged line in the center of Ananias’s tattoo, the nail digging into his flesh but not tearing. “You bear my mark. Do you know what it means?”

Ananias shook his head, dizzy with fear. “No.”

“It means you are under my protection.” Okeus leaned close so that his face was inches from Ananias’s, the smell of rotten flesh making Ananias gag. “You can put a stop to this, son of the sea. Your friend is not to be trusted.”

“Enough!” Manteo shouted. “Silence.”

Shooting a glance at Manteo, Ananias wondered if Okeus could be right. He could tell that Manteo was not behaving like the rational man he knew. Had the witchcraft made him evil? Did Manteo have a hidden purpose for this ceremony?

Manteo sensed his confusion, whether he saw it on Ananias’s face or felt it through their connection. “Ananias, Okeus is an evil god. He sacrifices children and dines on their flesh. You can smell it on his breath. Would you believe his words over my own?”

Manteo made a good point. The native had compared Okeus to Satan, and Satan was the lord of lies.

But why then would Manteo have painted the evil god’s symbol on Ananias’s chest?

“Good and evil,” Okeus whispered.

Ananias struggled to breathe. Could the god read his mind?

Okeus smiled, a secret smile full of knowing. “The curse needs opposites. The earth and the sea. Nuppin and tosh-shonte. Myself and my twin—the good and evil. But which of us is which?” A sly smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “And it also requires sacrifices.” The god’s eyebrows rose. “Did he mention that?”

“Enough!” Manteo shouted, but his body shook with fear. “Ahone! I beseech you!”

An older man appeared before them. His hair and beard were long and white, and he wore a long white robe made of bleached deerskin. “Okeus, my twin.” His voice shook the leaves in the trees.

Ananias could see the resemblance now. Ahone was an older version of Okeus.

Ahone,” the other god spit his name as though it were a curse. “I knew this was your doing.”

The older god stood on the opposite side of the fire. “You have gone too far, my brother. Your creatures leave destruction in their wake.”

And yours do not? On this very shore, death has been like a constant companion. The earth has become greedy for your children’s spilled blood.”

Ahone’s gaze turned to the two men. “They have not yet reached their full potential.”

“Full potential,” Okeus sneered. “How many thousands of years have they had to do just that? You call my children monsters, but look at what your own have done.”

“They have much promise. More promise than yours.”

“But promise isn’t enough, is it?” Okeus shook his head. “What is your real purpose, my brother? What do you hope to achieve by locking us all away?”

“I hope to give my children a chance to live and thrive without your influence.”

My influence?” Okeus laughed. “You think my influence has done this? If you follow through with this little scheme, do you think your children will stop all their violence?”

“It is worth the attempt.” Ahone took a step closer to Okeus. “Do not forget that you exist because of my generosity.”

Your generosity?” Okeus shrieked. “You created me in your pathetic attempt to save your favorite creation—humanity. Yet one more example of a deception that you have reasoned away with your good intentions.”

“When the wind gods decreed I kill mankind or hand over the majority of my power, they never designated to whom I had to give my power. Can you blame me for looking for another way? I chose to create you and give you the power instead of sacrificing the human race. You cannot fault me for that. And if I was capable of such cleverness once, why assume that I would not be capable of saving humanity again? I’ve had eons to learn patience.”

Okeus tilted his head, an evil grin stretching his mouth. “So you have been waiting for this opportunity.”

Ahone didn’t answer.

Okeus laughed. “Who would have thought that the good and loving Ahone would be capable of such an underhanded scheme? And here I thought you gave me all of your abhorrent traits.”

Ahone remained expressionless. “Perhaps not all of them.”

Okeus looked around the circle then toward the gate. “You know this seal won’t hold.”

Ahone’s shoulder lifted into a half shrug. “I’m willing to take the risk.”

Without warning, Okeus grabbed the pierced hands of each man, breaking their hold on each other. His fingertips seared the wound on Ananias’s palm, the smell of burning flesh filling the air.

The god’s voice echoed throughout the forest. “Ahone may have the power to lock us away, but I give you the power to set us free. You are the Curse Keepers, and your progeny are destined to remain here in this area as guardians of the gate. The firstborn of each generation will become the Keeper at adulthood, passing their information along to the next in line, but keeping it secret from the rest of the world. The gate will hold until the Keepers join the marks on their palms, breaking the seal. And then your children’s children will rue the day you created this curse.”

Okeus dropped their hands and Ananias looked at his palm, shocked to find a circle within a square burned into his skin. Manteo glanced at an identical mark on his own palm.

“Son of the earth, send him away now!” Ahone’s voice boomed.

Manteo locked arms with Ananias again, his eyes narrowing as he concentrated. “Okeus, brother of Ahone, creator of evil, go forth into the pits of hell.”

Ahone’s mouth moved in silent mumbles. Power and magic saturated the air around them and Ananias had to fight to inflate his lungs, adding to his panic. The salt of sea air burned his nose and the taste of freshly tilled earth coated his tongue.

“Do you offer your sacrifices to close the gate?” Ahone asked, his voice muffled by the curtain of magic.

Sacrifices? Ananias had never agreed to a sacrifice.

“Yes.” Manteo answered.

Ahone turned to Ananias.

What was he sacrificing? Did he even have a choice at this point? If he didn’t offer a sacrifice, the gate would burst open, and the angry demons and gods would be free to destroy his village. “Yes.”

Blinding light burst from the gates and a vortex of hurricane-force wind pulled Okeus toward its center. Manteo clasped Ananias’s arm and both men struggled to remain upright.

“Do not let your descendants forget this, for one day, you will pay!” Okeus shouted over the wind. “The curse will break and I will come back stronger than before. The Keepers that set me free will rue the day they were ever born and defile your names for creating the curse. Their only hope is to swear allegiance to me…then and only then will I show them my mercy. But if the Keepers dare to defy me, I will drag them to hell and torture them for a thousand years!”

The vortex collapsed in on itself, Okeus’s screams fading as the first ray of sun shot into the morning sky.

Ananias fell to his knees, weak with exhaustion and fear, and Manteo leaned over and vomited onto the ground.

Ahone moved toward the two men and Ananias flinched. How had this god escaped exile? What horror awaited him now?

The god spread his arms. “Okeus has created a weakness to the curse. The gate will open if you or your successors touch marks. But I give you this: When the curse eventually breaks, you will have until the beginning of the seventh day to repeat the ceremony and reseal the gate. If you do not succeed, the two Keepers together will still have the power to control them.”

Ananias’s head shot up. “What does that mean?”

“It means that one day the gate will open, but you both have power over the spirit world now, not just Manteo. Ananias, you must learn these words of protection and teach them to your descendants so that they will be ready when the demons are freed: I am the son of the sea, born of the essence present at the beginning of time and the end of the world. I am black water and crystal streams. The ocean waves and the raindrops in the sky. I am life and death and everything in between. I compel you to leave my sight.”

The words burned into Ananias’s head and he knew he would never forget them even if he tried.

“If the gods are freed—together and only together—you can send them back, whether it’s by resealing the gate or sending the gods and demons back one by one. You are the Curse Keepers, as your children will be after you.”

Ananias climbed to his feet and waved to the tree that now stood where the gate had been. “How is this possible?”

“I taught my child Manteo how to use magic more ancient than the power of the spirits and gods. Manteo used the essence of the earth and the sea, which existed before all things. We gods sprang from their union, but their power existed eons before we were born. This power is now infused in your blood.”

Manteo stared at the mark on his hand. “But if our marks touch, even accidently, the gate will open?”

“Yes.”

“I must return to my people,” Manteo said, turning to Ananias. “My family and I will keep to the south, and you will stay on the island. We must make sure this evil is never loosed upon the earth.”

Ananias didn’t give a damn where Manteo went. At the first available opportunity, he planned to gather his family and return to England.

“If you have any questions, ask them now,” Ahone said. “Once I ascend back into the heavens, I will not return until the gate has opened again.”

Ananias had no idea what to ask, other than the burning question in his head, “Is my family safe now?”

Ahone lowered his gaze. “Sacrifices have been made.”

Panic turned Ananias’s blood to sludge. He turned to Manteo. “What was my sacrifice?”

Regret covered Manteo’s face. “The tosh-shonte are a blight upon our land. Once your people realize they have no foothold here, they will go and leave our people in peace. I have at last been released from my wretched vow.”

Ananias’s breath came in short bursts. “What did you sacrifice on my behalf?”

Manteo’s gaze narrowed. “You call yourself my friend, yet you know nothing about me or my people. You want us to adapt to your ways, and you care nothing for ours. I’ve spent enough time in your land, and it is a vile and ugly place.” He spat. “After I realized the significance of this sacred place, Ahone came to me. He offered me a way to save myself from my nuppin enemies as well as my vow to the English. When I saw the perfection of his plan, I returned to my people to seek my mother’s blessing.”

Why wasn’t Manteo answering him? “What did you sacrifice on my behalf?”

Manteo’s face darkened with anger. “Your people have a saying from your bible: an eye for an eye. It seemed fitting in this instance, given what your people did to the Roanoke a summer ago.” Compassion flickered in his eyes. “I tried to spare you, my friend.” Manteo’s voice broke. “I begged you to send your family away.”

Ananias shook with anger. “What did you sacrifice on my behalf?”

The savage hesitated. “Your village.”

The man’s words sunk into Ananias’s head, terror on its heels.

Ellie!”

Ananias took off in a sprint through the forest, the rising sun lighting his path. Undergrowth scratched his arms, and the low-hanging tree branches tore at his bare arms and his chest. His heart pounded in his head, mixing with his panic.

When he reached the clearing where the village had once stood, he expected to find his friends and family massacred. He didn’t expect what he found.

Every part of the village was gone.

There were no houses. No fires. No people. Nothing. It was as though the entire village had been a figment of his imagination.

Ananias ran to the place where his thatch hut had stood, falling to his knees when he reached the barren land.

They were gone. Ellie and Virginia were gone.

He sobbed, pressing his face to the ground. What had he done?

“I am sorry,” Manteo called out, his voice full of regret.

The savage’s remorse mocked the Englishman. Ananias jerked his head up to see Manteo standing in the center of the village, and a fresh wave of grief made him cry out in agony. Manteo’s betrayal was nearly as painful as the loss of his wife and child.

“You.” Ananias climbed to his feet, rage filling every part of his being. “You did this.

Manteo held his hands out from his sides, palms upward. “I swear, I had hoped to spare your family. That’s why I begged you to send them to my people. Any colonists who went there would have been saved.”

“Where did they go?”

Manteo’s chest heaved. “Popogusso.”

Hell? You sent my family to hell?” Ananias rushed toward the native to kill him, but he tripped and fell on his face. Realizing the depth and cleverness of Manteo’s scheme, Ananias vomited until he dry heaved. He swallowed a sob, fighting the blackness on the periphery of his vision. He needed answers. He could give into his emotions later. How far did Manteo’s treachery go? “Were the Roanoke even preparing to attack?”

Wrinkles puckered Manteo’s forehead. “No. I hoped the ruse would convince you to send your family away.”

Ananias hiccupped a sob, pounding his fist into the ground. “But you needed me to stay. I was your token Englishman. Your opposite.”

“It’s true that I couldn’t perform the ceremony without you, but I wanted to spare you as well.”

“Spare me?” Ananias crawled to his feet. “Spare me? You have condemned me!” He bent at the waist, choking on his tears for several seconds. Manteo would pay for this. Gathering his wits, he rose. “I wish to all that is holy and good that you had let me go with my family.” Tilting back his head, Ananias released a howl of agony that echoed through the trees and hatred rushed in to fill his soul. He leveled his gaze on Manteo. “I will kill you for this. I will kill you for taking what you had no right to give.”

Manteo spread his hands as if in surrender.

Ananias moved toward him, his chest squeezing like a vice with every step closer, sucking the air from his lungs. He pressed his marked palm over his heart, his eyes widening in confusion. “What is this madness?”

Instead of looking relieved, guilt filled Manteo’s eyes. “I feel it too. Perhaps Ahone has built in a protection to make sure the Keepers are kept apart. To protect the curse.”

“I want no part of this curse!” Ananias shouted, fighting for breath, his grief and disbelief becoming too heavy to bear. This had to be a dream. A nightmare. But when he pulled his hair and tore at his skin, he felt pain…and the village was still gone. This nightmare was real. His wife and child were now behind the gates of hell with the demons. A new fear and pain stabbed his chest. His family was sentenced to live in agony forever. His eyes widened with a plan. “We can break the curse now and release my family! We can free them from hell!”

Manteo shook his head, his chin quivering as he spoke. “No living creature can enter Popogusso and return. If they escape through the gate, it would be as demons.”

“Their souls are lost?”

Manteo remained silent.

I want no part of this curse!” Ananias’s voice broke with his sobs and he fell to his knees. “I want no part! Make it go away. Make it all go away.”

“I am sorry.” Taking several steps backward, Manteo’s voice shook with despair. “As I said, I will head to the south, my friend.”

Ananias’s head shot up. “Don’t you dare to call me your friend. You have no right. You had no right to sacrifice what wasn’t yours to give.”

Manteo nodded solemnly.

Bitterness poisoned Ananias’s blood. “What did you sacrifice, Manteo? What did you offer to the gods? Was your sacrifice as great as mine?”

“My ten-year-old son.” His face hardened. “You are not alone in your grief, Ananias Dare. I sacrificed my only son, the future chief of my people.”

Ananias gasped in disbelief. Was there no depth to Manteo’s depravity? “What kind of person could sacrifice his child to hell?” Everything Ananias had done was to save his child. Ananias had never known this man at all.

Weariness covered Manteo’s face. “Sometimes you must make personal sacrifices for the greater good. I had to save my people. I had to break my vow.”

Ananias clenched his teeth, biting the inside of his cheeks and tasting blood. Hatred filled every pore, every part of his being. “I will make you rue this day, Manteo. You will regret ever daring to call me friend.”

Manteo nodded, tossing his knife to the ground close to Ananias. “I understand, but I bear no ill will toward you. I will forever regret the pain I have bestowed upon you, but if I had to do it over again, I would.” After a long look, Manteo turned, disappearing into the forest.

Scrambling to his feet, Ananias picked up the knife, gripping the handle tight in his fist. He considered chasing Manteo through the forest and plunging the blade deep into his heart, just like Manteo’s betrayal had ripped through Ananias’s heart. But the curse would never let him get close enough, nor did he have any hope of sneaking up on the skilled hunter. Instead, he walked over to a tree and carved the word Croatoan into the trunk, as a warning to any who came here. He started to carve another tree, stopping after he’d dug Cro before breaking into sobs.

When he caught his breath, he looked around the clearing, wondering what he should do next. Manteo had probably expected Ananias’s line of the Curse Keepers to die out, preserving his precious curse, but Ananias would find a new wife, even if he never learned to love her. He would have children and pass the legend on to them. He would ensure that his line would survive and break the curse. Ananias’s line would tear down the gate and send the creatures out to devour Manteo’s people.

An ugly smile lifted Ananias’s mouth and filled his heart. Manteo had been right about one thing.

This place was death.

* * *

Continue the Curse Keepers series with The Curse Breakers.

 

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