The Tales of Quirkheart & Gotthold: The Longest Night ~~ Duskwood Chapter Three

~~~~

After completing the tasks set by the townspeople, Quirkheart and Gotthold retire to the local tavern for a well-deserved rest. However, Gotthold’s unease lurks in the back of his mind. The more time the pair linger in this town full of whispers, secrets, and dark glances, the more Gotthold is determined to get to the bottom of what’s haunting Darkshire.

~~~~

“These wolf kebabs aren’t half bad,” Gotthold said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Though, I don’t think I care for Duskwood spider any more than I do Drustvar spider.”

The Scarlet Raven Tavern wasn’t terribly lively, but given the state of the area, Gotthold hadn’t expected it to mirror the bustling establishments of Stormwind. Still, the food was hot, the moonshine had a decent kick, and the roaring fire drove away the air’s perpetual chill.

“They are not as satisfying as Mecha-Bytes, but they are sufficient for keeping one’s energy levels within acceptable parameters,” Quirkheart said in pseudo-agreement.

When the food was brought to them, she’d pulled a canister from her pack and sprinkled something that looked suspiciously like rust flakes onto the meat. Gotthold had seen what passed for ‘food’ on the floating isle of junk, and it wasn’t anything fit for consumption by anyone but the mechagnomes and their ilk. Instead of commenting on Quirk’s opinion about the food, he raised his empty bottle toward the barkeep, asking for another. The barkeep nodded, and Gotthold turned his attention back to his food.

“–stirring up trouble again. I wish he’d just leave,” grumbled a patron behind Gotthold.

He slowed his chewing and stilled his movements. His mother had taught him eavesdropping was impolite, but his nan said that’s only the case if you’re caught.

“Have you said anything?”

“No! Of course not.”

“You’d think he’d get the message by now. Hasn’t that family caused enough pain?”

At that point, the tavernkeep walked up to their table, and put a new bottle of moonshine on the table.

“Everything turn out okay?” Tavernkeep Smitts asked, removing the empty bottle. The man was stiff as clothing covered in seawater and left to dry in the sun, and his expression was pinched.

“Aye,” Gotthold said, a pleased smile cracking his craggy features. “Best wolf I’ve had in ages, and the moonshine is almost as good as the brews back home.”

The tavernkeep’s shoulders relaxed, and a wan smile graced his face. “Well, it’s hard to compete with someone’s homeland, but I’ll pass the compliments along.”

“Thank’ee,” Gotthold said, picking up the new bottle and giving the man a nod.

Once he’d walked away, Gotthold stood up.

“Is it time to leave, friend Gotthold?” Quirkheart asked, looking up from her meticulously clean plate.

“Not quite yet, Quirk — I need to check on something,” he said, and headed over to a table with three men hunched over their plates.

They looked up at Gotthold’s approach, their eyes narrowing and mouths flattening to thin lines.

“Hello, gents. Fancy a chat?” he asked, waving the moonshine bottle at them, and laying on his thickest Kul Tiran charm.

The biggest one of the lot, who was furthest away, with a face ugly enough to scare an ogre, said; “No.” His tone was deader than his dark eyes, and almost as menacing as the hams the man had for hands.

“Now hold on a minute, Detlev,” the fidgety man closest to Gotthold said. His bloodshot eyes were darting between the bottle of moonshine and the man–Detlev. “There’s no harm in chatting.” The man already reeked of liquor, and his words held a slurred edge.

Gotthold would need to tread carefully here. It didn’t take much to incite restless and dissatisfied townsfolk toward reckless action, and he didn’t want to start any fires he couldn’t put out.

Keep ’em in hand, Got, or you’ll be drownin’ in fists and blood. The words of his old mentor echoed through his mind, from one of their many tavern trips in his younger days.

“Of course there’s no harm!” Gotthold said, clapping the man on the shoulder.

The fidgety man wheezed in response, his eyes widening just a hair at slight show of strength.

“I just couldn’t help but overhear your conversation, and thought my companion and I could be of some help,” Gotthold said, and put the bottle firmly down on the table.

The fidgety man, and the other who’d been quiet during the whole ordeal, both looked to Detlev. If looks could kill, Gotthold would be as skewered as those wolf kebabs, but Detlev must have seen something in his companion’s expressions, because he waved a hand for Gotthold to sit.

“Thank’ee. Now, who’s this person who’s causing problems?”

~~

The cabin in front of them was a shabby, one-room affair on the outskirts of town, not far from the gryphon roosts. As the two approached the front door, there was movement inside–a steady thunk of boots, moving back and forth in the small space.

When Quirkheart knocked on the door, the steps stopped, and there was a long moment before a man opened it. He was handsome enough, with blond locks and blue eyes, but his face was lined with worry, aging him beyond his years.

“Yes? What do you want?”

“Name’s Gotthold, and this here’s Quirkheart,” he said, jerking a thumb toward Quirk, who waved. “And we heard you was causin’ a spot of bother for the townsfolk.”

The man’s expression immediately turned to fury, setting off a spark of life in his eyes that wasn’t there before.

“I have done no such thing! They refuse to tell me anything about my brother, and I’m just trying to find out what happened to him,” he shouted at Gotthold. By the end, his chest was heaving, and he’d taken a step toward Gotthold without realizing it.

Gotthold kept his expression calm, and he could tell the moment the man realized he was nearly close enough to bump…well, not chests. Gotthold was getting a bit round in the middle these days, but the principle was the same. The man’s eyes widened, and he took a step back, covering his face with his hands.

“I’m at my wits end here,” he said, shoulder shaking. “I received this letter from my brother, and when I showed up, the townsfolk told me he was dead, but refuse to say anything else on the matter.”

Gotthold’s heart twisted. He wasn’t sure there’d be a town left standing if he’d been treated the same in regards to his sister.

“The people of this town would very much like you to vacate the premises,” Quirkheart stated, when Gotthold said nothing. “How can we bring this situation to a peaceful conclusion?”

The man looked up from his hands, face wet with tears, and sighed. “I will not leave until they tell me my brother’s fate, and they refuse to do so. Perhaps the two of you could be mediators and look into this? I’ll be more than happy to get out of everyone’s hair once I know the truth.”

Quirkheart and Gotthold shared a look, then both of them nodded.

“Aye, we can do that. What are your names, by the way? They refused to tell us.”

The man scowled once again, but said; “I’m Tobias Mistmantle, and my brother is Stalvan. They act as though speaking my name or my brother’s is some kind of curse.” At that, he cleared his throat and straightened his shoulders. “Thank you, by the way. It’s been a while since anyone has spoken to me with any kindness.”

“Bein’ kind costs you nothing in the long run. There’s always room for mean later,” Gotthold said with a grin.

The man managed to crack a small smile in return. “Too true.”

“Should we depart, friend Gotthold?” Quirkheart asked, heading toward the door before he could respond.

Instead of answering, Gotthold waved to the man and followed Quirk outside. Once they were out of earshot from the cabin, Gotthold shook his head.

“He spoke of a curse, and I can’t say I disagree. This whole town’s got a bodement hanging over it, mark my works,” Gotthold said, then spat on the ground and made an X across his heart.

“Do you have data to support your hypothesis, friend Gotthold?” Quirkheart asked.

“Of course not, Quirk,” he said, rolling his eyes. “It’s just a gut feeling.”

“Then there is nothing to substantiate this ‘bodement’ you speak of. It is likely just the lack of sunlight I mentioned earlier effecting your brain chemistry. We should focus on gathering all information related to one Stalvan Mistmantle, so that we may assist the townspeople and the outraged crying man in the most efficient manner possible,” she said.

Gotthold just sighed and said; “As you say, Quirk.”

~~~~

The Endless Planes: Ashton & Darby ~~ Harmless

It began as a practical joke, but by the end of the night nobody was laughing. It seemed innocent enough at first, because Caleb and Jake had a history of playing practical jokes on one another. Tonight went a step beyond that. Caleb had reassured Jake the prank was harmless. As Jake looked at the dilapidated house, with no lights in the small windows, an uneasiness in the pit of Jake’s stomach had curled and twisted like an irritated snake.

“I don’t know, Caleb. It’s one thing to mess with each other, but old Lady Miller is a witch.”

The chill breeze carried his quiet, snickering laugh away. “What’re you scared for? Even if she is a witch, she can’t use her magic on us—it’s against the law.”

Jake shifted his weight from one foot to the other, and the wet, leaf-littered ground squelched beneath his sneakers. They were crouched behind a tree behind the back yard, just inside the woods that lined this section of the neighborhood. Most of the houses had those tall, wooden fences to keep the trees at bay, and pets in the garden.

Not Old Lady Miller’s.

Her fence was one of those old metal ones, black, with the spikes at the top of the bars. It wasn’t tall, maybe just above their waists, and the boys would easily be able to climb or vault it. The house itself stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the tidy hedgerows, modern houses, and leaf-free footpaths and yards. It’s not that the house or yard was dirty, per say, but Jake would be less surprised to come across it in a clearing in the wood than a normal neighborhood.

“Did you bring everything?” Caleb asked.

Jake looked from the fence to his friend. Neither of them were winning any awards for their looks, and though they were the same height—average for thirteen—they were opposites in everything else. Jake was lanky, dark-haired, wore glasses, and didn’t have an athletic bone in his body. Caleb was sturdy, light-haired, had perfect eyesight, and was on an after-school wrestling league. If they hadn’t been neighbors, the chances of them being friends would’ve been a lot lower, but proximity and a neighborhood full of retirees had thrown them together in unlikely companionship.

“Yeah,” Jake said, and unslung the backpack from his shoulder. He’d grabbed an old, hunter green one from a previous year, since Caleb had said to not wear anything bright. When Jake opened the zipper, Caleb used a small flashlight that fit in his palm to look inside.

His breathless laugh was giddy as he turned the light back off. “Yes! Who knew Jillian had so much glitter?”

Jake scoffed, and zipped the bag back up. “My mum, every time she has to hoover it up off the floor.” Then he asked; “What about you?”

Caleb patted the backpack sitting snugly beneath his arm, and said; “Oh, yeah. I mixed it all up this afternoon.”

“Are you sure this is harmless? I don’t want to cause any property damage. My parents will get wicked angry if they have to pay for something because we pulled a prank,” Jake said, glancing to the house.

During the day, the wooden panels had weathered to an almost charcoal grey, and the night stole what little colour there was, making it barely distinguishable from darkness around it. The windows were always dark, even during the day, with heavy wine-coloured blackout curtains. No one ever really saw Old Lady Miller leave, or come home, and the place had always given Jake the creeps.

“You worry too much—it’ll be fine. She’ll just need to hose it down, and the glue’ll come right off. Completely harmless.”

He’d said that before, and the worry still churned in Jake’s gut, but he nodded.

“Wicked, let’s go.”

On the other hand, the only reason they were out here was because they’d run into Rebecca Pilkney and her friends on Hallow’s Eve, and Caleb couldn’t keep his big mouth shut.

It was the last year they got to go trick-or-treating together before they turned fourteen, because then Jake had to take over walking Jillian around, like his older brother had done for him. They’d been walking back to Caleb’s house when they’d run into Rebecca.

“Ew,” she’d said, wrinkling her perfect button nose that had a fine dusting of freckles. “That house looks like something out of a horror movie. Does anyone even live there?”

 “Yeah, Old Lady Miller. People say she’s a witch,” Caleb said.

The eyes of Rebecca and one of her friends widened.

“You’re having a laugh! Don’t they all live in their own neighborhoods? What’s one doing here?” one of her friends asked. She was almost a clone of Rebecca, right down to the matching goth princess costumes they were wearing, but her hair was short, the blond coming from a bottle, and her blue eyes were clearly contacts.

“There’s no rule saying they can’t live where they want,” the third girl said.

If Jake was being honest, he hadn’t noticed her until she spoke. She’d been standing behind the faux twins, wearing a deep red cloak with the hood pulled up, and a black, floor-length dress beneath it.

Rebecca rolled her eyes. “Whatever, Harriet. It still skeeves. If she wants to live with humans, she should have a normal looking house.”

Harriet didn’t respond, but the other friend said; “She needs to brighten up all the doom and gloom.”

At that, Jake recognized the spark in Caleb’s eyes, and he tried to say it was time to go, but before he could; “Brighten it up with something like glitter?”

The two girls looked at Caleb like they’d forgotten the boys were there, but when Rebecca saw Caleb’s expression, a smile curled the corner of her mouth.

“Exactly like glitter.”

After that, there was no stopping Caleb, and now they were carefully climbing over the fence and heading to the back door. With each step, the writhing in Jake’s stomach grew.

“Caleb—”

“Shh!” Caleb shushed him just as they made it to the back door. He put his ear against the thin, warped wood. “Keep an eye out while I listen to see if she’s awake.”

“Or even alive,” Jake muttered, and headed to the nearest corner of the house. He peered around it out at the empty street, illuminated by the yellowish light of the lamps.

“Hey!” Caleb said, just loud enough for Jake to hear. When Jake turned around, Caleb’s hand was on the knob, and the door was open a crack. “It’s unlocked!”

A cold, slimy sensation slid down Jake’s spine, like the time his older brother put a handful of worms down the back of his shirt. It churned his stomach violently now as it had then.

“Close the door!” Jake said, his voice strangled.

“Oh, come on. Just a peek,” Caleb said, opening it further, and just enough for him to get inside.

Jake staggered forward, his legs and feet heavier than they should have been, and reached out to grab for Caleb, but it was too late. He was frozen, his eyes wide and breath coming in short, ragged pants, as he gazed into the too-thick darkness his friend had disappeared into.

“C-Caleb?” he called, trying to keep his voice low. When there was no answer, he gulped, his eyes darting around. Should he go get his parents? There was no way he’d get away with this without being grounded for eternity, and forget about playing the new game coming out next week.

No, he thought, giving himself a mental shake. I’ll go in, grab Caleb, and make him go home. Forget Rebecca Pilkney.

Jake took his backpack off, and dropped it next to Caleb’s against the house by the door. Then he took a deep breath, holding it in as he slid into the house. The darkness was suffocating for a moment, and just as Jake was about to let out the scream he was trying to swallow down, it cleared. His eyes adjusted to the gloom, and he looked around. It appeared to be a dining room, the table and chairs were a dark wood and as worn as the house, the finish having been rubbed away from years of use. The wallpaper was equally shabby, with strips of it curling away at the corners, or falling from the wall completely, and the floral design had faded to almost nothing.

There was a creak to his right, and Jake turned to see Caleb. His friend’s back was to him, shoulders hunched.

Relief flooded through him. “Okay, you saw inside, now let’s go.”

Caleb didn’t move.

Relief quickly gave way to irritation, and Jake moved forward to grab Caleb’s shoulder as he said; “Hey!”

When Caleb turned, his hands were clutching the sides of his face, which was gone. Not ripped off, but blank, as though someone had made a bust and forgotten to add all the features of a face.

Jake’s eyes went wide, and a strangled noise came from his open mouth as he staggered backward. He tripped over his own feet and fell down, landing hard on the floor.

Caleb’s hands were moving over his face, as though searching for his missing features, then his shoulders began to shake. The patting motions with his fingers turned more forceful, as he dragged his fingernails over the blank skin, leaving red lines. His chest was heaving, though Jake wasn’t sure how he was breathing, and it wasn’t long before the scratching became more frantic. Soon, his fingers were coming away from his skin with blood, as though he were trying to dig to find his missing eyes, nose, and mouth.

“S-stop!” Jake finally joked out, scrambling forward to grab Caleb to keep him from hurting himself more.

When he gripped Caleb’s wrists, and pulled them away from the bloody ruin of his face, it was like he was sliding through his friend’s flesh. When he looked down at his hands, they’d melted into Caleb’s wrists, his fingers having disappeared completely from view.

With Caleb’s face gone he couldn’t scream, but at this point, Jake did it for them both.

**~~**

“Did the Captain tell you why he requested our presence?” Darby asked, looking out at the scenery as Ashton drove. The weather was behaving in a typical fashion for this time of year, being all grey and dour, but Darby rather preferred it this way.

Zacharias Samuel Darby had a deep, soft voice, which was at odds with his thin frame and bookish looks. His hair was dark, as were his eyes, which were set in a face with a sharp jaw and high cheekbones. Between the glasses and brown tweed jacket, he’d be more at home cloistered behind a stack of old tomes, rather than visiting crime scenes.

Ashton harrumphed. “You think us leaving the service would make him more amenable to giving us information?” he asked, incredulous. Tobias Edward Ashton was a tall, sturdy man, whose clothing was rumpled but clean. He had a perpetual five-o’clock shadow, and his gravelly voice gave the impression of equally perpetual grumpiness. His hair was prematurely grey, cropped short, and his strong nose was crooked from a bad break in college.

Darby’s chuckle was more of a scoff, and he shook his head. “No, I suppose not.”

The two of them had quit the police force a few months back, and gone into business together as private investigators, with the added bonus of Darby being a freelance liaison. If there was suspected supernatural or extrasensor activity, liaisons were the ones called in, as per protocol. They were basically negotiators, ambassadors, and walking suprabeing encyclopedias all rolled into one. Though protocol could be overridden in certain circumstances, liaisons were rarely ignored or overruled in their decisions about a situation

It’d been early afternoon when they’d gotten the call from their former police captain, ‘requesting’ their presence in a small neighborhood just under an hour outside the city. The only thing he’d said was it involved a couple of missing kids, and with that they’d cleared their schedule for the day. Bad blood with their former boss aside, they refused to let a couple of kids suffer because the captain wouldn’t know what interpersonal relationships or manners were if they bit him.

Of course, there was only one reason the captain would call them.

“I imagine the munds have already been canvassed; he wouldn’t call us unless there was a strong suspicion of something supernatural or extrasensory at work,” Darby mused.

Ashton grunted in agreement, keeping his eyes on the road.

“They could just be making assumptions, though. It’s happened before,” Darby continued.

“Do you think he’d be willing to call us if he didn’t actually have something?” Ashton asked.

Darby considered the question, and where they’d left off with the captain when they parted ways with the force, then sighed. “No, I suppose not. This also means they haven’t found a replacement for us yet.”

“For you, you mean. They have plenty of other detectives.”

“None that’ll work with a liaison, though,” Darby pointed out. While liaisons were the in-between for the human and other world, they were still given a police detective partner to help keep a balance, as well as peace with the munds.

Ashton’s hmm in response neither agreed or disagreed. Then; “With two kids missing, I’m not worried about politics. We go in, find the kids if we can, and that’s it. I’m not here to play peacekeeper between the munds and whatever we’re dealing with. We’re being paid to find them, not deal with the fallout.”

His words rang with hollow determination, and Darby didn’t argue, but it was never that simple.

They made it to the neighborhood, and people were everywhere. Some actively searching, some gawking, but mostly congregating in close-knit groups, talking. The expressions Darby could pinpoint were angry and fearful in turn, which had proven to be an unstable combination over the years. Inevitably, it turned to violence, and people on both sides of the line were hurt, or killed.

The GPS informed them they were about a quarter of a mile away from their destination, but they couldn’t go any further. A crowd had formed, blocking all street access, and all eyes were turned toward where Darby assumed they needed to go.

Ashton grumbled something about lookie-loos, and pulled over to the side of the street. They exited the vehicle and approached the back of the group. Standing just a little too far apart from the crowd were three girls, casting furtive glances in the direction the crowd faced. Their whispers were panicked, and mostly between one girl with blonde hair straightened into straw, and another whose dark hair was pulled up in a ponytail.

As Darby got closer some of what they were saying drifted to him over the general rumble of the crowd.

“—not our fault!” said the straw-haired girl.

“Tell someone—” the dark-haired girl responded angrily.

The third girl, who appeared to be a carbon copy of the blond, was looking back and forth between the other two and biting her lip, as though watching an incredibly tense tennis match.

Whatever the second girl said must have set the first off, because she pushed her.

Darby and Ashton both stepped in, getting between the two.

“Ladies, there’s no need for that,” Darby said, holding his hands up in a warding gesture.

The young woman was shaking, eyes brimming with frustrated tears, and fists clenched at her sides. Her teeth were bared, and her breathing ragged. She wasn’t looking at Darby, but through him, as though trying to pin the other girl with her glare.

“Now, what’s going on?” Ashton asked from behind Darby.

They were back to back, each facing off with a girl, while the third stood to the side, wringing her hands.

“Nothing,” the straw-haired girl in front of Ashton said.

Neither of them had any children, but that ‘nothing’ sounded a tad suspect.

“What’s your name?” Darby asked.

Finally, the girl looked up at him with a scowl. “I’m not telling you my name—I don’t know you.”

Smart, Darby mused, as Ashton said; “We’re here to help the police find the missing kids. If you know something you should tell us.”

The girl’s expression faltered, her eyes going wide. “You are?”

Instead of answering, Darby nodded.

At that, some of the tears finally broke free along with whatever guilt she was carrying. “It was just a stupid prank—”

“Shut it, Harriet!” the other girl said, and the scuff of a shoe on concrete said she’d tried to move to stop her friend.

Darby didn’t worry about that, though, because Ashton wasn’t easy to get around if he didn’t want to let you.

“We’ll have none of that, now. Let the girl speak, or we’ll be escorting you straight to the captain,” Ashton said.

It was enough to quell whatever she’d been trying to do.

“The kids—the boys—they go to our school. Becca, Alice, and I were trick-or-treating here the other night, because Alice just moved in and it’s her first Hallow’s Eve with us. Anyway, we ran into Jake and his friend in front of Old Lady Miller’s house, and Jake’s friend said they were going to cover the house in glitter to brighten it up, that’s all,” she said, almost breathless by the end of it.

“Who is Old Lady Miller?” Darby asked.

“They say she’s a witch,” Alice said, then brought her hand up to her mouth as though to take the words back.

Ah, Darby thought, not liking the picture that was forming about what might have taken place.

“I won’t drag you over to the captain,” Ashton said, and the three girls slumped and sighed. “However, if something comes up, we will be giving the police your names, and they will pay you a visit, understand?”

The girl in front of Darby grimaced, but nodded. Before she moved to leave, she looked up at Darby with pleading eyes. “Please, don’t do anything to hurt her. People are always whispering nasty things about her, and her house, but she doesn’t deserve to be hurt.”

Darby, somewhat taken aback, immediately nodded in response. “Of course not. We’ll do our best.”

She didn’t seem completely convinced, but at that point there was nothing more for her to do. The three of them shuffled off, silent, their shoulders hunched.

Ashton ran a hand over his hair and blew out a breath. “I don’t like where this is goin’. If she really is a witch and they trespassed, they could have come across all manner of nasty intruder spells.”

Darby nodded, and mirrored the girl’s—Harriet’s—grimace. “The law gets a little greyer when it comes to using magic to defend property, and most people don’t know this. While they can’t physically harm someone with a spell, they can attack someone mentally. Some of the spells Evanora uses for her shop and home…well, I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of those things.”

Ashton harrumphed. “No, but we all know what you do want to be on the receiving end of from that spitfire witch.”

Darby looked down and away from Ashton’s smirk, then mumbled; “That is highly inappropriate. Also, Evanora is a witch—they don’t spit fire.”

Ashton chuckled and shook his head. Though Darby could be a touch obtuse about certain subjects, like how to interact with people without them wanting to throw things at his head, it was clearly deliberate here.

“Uh-huh, let’s go see the captain, Lover Boy.”

“Could you please not?” he hissed, as they made their way through the crowd.

There was grumbling from the crowd as they went through, most of it quelled after one glare from Ashton, and the rest quickly followed suit after an officer at the tape waved the two of them through.

“Captain’s over there,” the same officer said with a jerk of his head toward a cluster of police vehicles.

Even from this distance, the old windbag’s words were carried over to them, and the two of them sighed at the same time.

“Thank you,” Darby said as they walked away.

“Better you than me,” the officer said under his breath, and turned to watch the crowd once more.

As they walked over, the Captain was gesticulating, his face red from irritation, and then he locked eyes with the pair of them. Darby did his best not to flinch, and Ashton’s expression went stony, but it was clear no one on either side were happy to see the others.

“Took you long enough,” Captain Conor Poole groused when the two of them got within speaking distance. Captain Poole was an imposing man, more so through personality than stature, as he was fairly average in all regards. His white, walrus-like mustache moved as he spoke, helping to exaggerate his words even more than his thin-lipped mouth.

“We were delayed,” Darby said stiffly.

Captain Poole glanced in his direction, then back to Ashton.

“Oh?”

Ashton shrugged. “Seems as though the boys were trying to peacock for some girls from school, planned a prank on an Old Lady Miller, and have since gone missing.”

Captain Poole grumbled something, then gestured to the house the vehicles were parked in front of. It was rundown, to say the least, and certainly not made any time in the last fifty, or more, years. Something about it tickled at Darby’s mind, as though he’d seen it somewhere before. Not this exact house, but similar builds.

“We’ve run checks on the resident, one Abigail Drom Miller. Listed as a witch on the Supranatural Defense Registry at the age of five in 1945. Nothing else is known about her or her abilities. She has no vehicles registered, no utilities, no credit cards, no bank account—nothing. She’s somehow managed to live off any grids in the middle of a rather active community,” Captain Poole said. “We also confirmed the boys had been here by the backpacks found around the back of the house. We didn’t enter the property, as per protocol, until you got here.”

Darby’s mind whirled through the information as he held his chin in thought, and the fact that it was Captain Poole in front of him fell away. “My misgivings about the SDR aside, it was not as thorough in previous years as it is now, especially not in 1945 when everything was in shambles after the war.” With that, his eyes snapped back to the house, and the build of it made more sense. “This is an Airey house. They were quite popular post-war, because they were made quickly from cheap materials.”

Ashton gave a hmm, then walked toward the neighbor’s yard and to the back, looking behind the run-down residence. When he came back he shook his head. “No utilities isn’t giving me much hope for what we’ll find inside,” Ashton said. “Even witches need water. I thought given the time period and infrastructure damage from the war her family might have dug a well and put in an outhouse, but there’s nothing in the back except leaves and grass a bit long for the neighbor’s liking, I’m sure.”

Darby tapped his chin as he continued to think. He didn’t say it out loud, because it wasn’t common knowledge outside the witch community, but a witch’s middle name either reflected their coven or ability. ‘Drom’ didn’t ring any bells with Darby, but he wasn’t versed in all the covens of the area, or what it would say about her abilities. What they needed was an expert.

When Darby looked to Ashton, his partner had come to the same conclusion as Darby, and a pained expression graced his features.

“He won’t like it,” Ashton said, as though Captain Poole wasn’t right there.

“If we don’t want this to end poorly, then we need to call her,” Darby reasoned.

“Call who?” Captain Poole demanded.

“A witch friend of mine,” Darby said. Before Captain Poole could shut down the suggestion, Darby continued; “She’s a local representative for her coven, and she’d be able to help us better understand what’s going on. At best, we have an old, frightened witch with two boys on her hands, likely under the effects of an intruder spell. My friend could make sure this goes far more smoothly than us, or a cadre of police officers ready to break her door down.”

“What’s the worst-case scenario?”

Darby sighed. “Given her age and lack of any discernable activity, she might have passed away in the house, and the boys happened on some of her spellwork. They could be injured, but rushing in to trip even more spells could make things worse.”

Captain Poole ground his teeth in frustration, and while Darby sympathized with the time-sensitive nature of the situation, he held his ground, not breaking eye contact.

After a few seconds Captain Poole’s visage flushed a deeper red, and he barked; “Call her, and tell her she needs to be here within the hour or we’re going in.”

A thrill of excitement went through Darby at the thought of the captain relenting, but quickly on its heels was panic. He pulled his phone from his pocket and stepped away from the two men so he could call Evanora. He knew she’d agree to help, the problem was going to be keeping her from cursing Captain Poole with a grisly demise.

**~~**

“Thank you for coming on such short notice,” Darby said.

Evanora smiled at Darby, with just one corner of her mouth curving up, as her hazel eyes warmed at the sight of him. She was all lithe grace as she walked toward them, her hips swaying, making her pale purple skirt swirl around her legs. Her dark hair was pulled back in multiple braids on the crown of her head, while the bottom half was free to cascade down her back and over her shoulders. Her boot heels made little sound on the pavement, and she wore a dark grey princess coat to keep the chill fall weather at bay.

Her wrists bore several copper bracelets, inscribed with all manner of witchrunes, and they clinked softly as she reached forward with one hand to touch the side of Darby’s face.

Darby was breathless at her touch, as part of him he rarely allowed to surface leaned into that gesture.

Evanora’s brow wrinkled, as she read the telltale signs of stress and worry etched into his body. A witch’s power stemmed from, and concerned itself with, the body, the senses, and everything in-between.

“You’re worried. Very worried,” she whispered, her soft voice meant only for his ears.

He let out a short sigh, and took her hand from his face and held it in his. “Yes. There’s much that could go wrong here, and I don’t want anything unfortunate to happen.”

“I thought you said she was a friend, Darby, not your woman, or whatever a witch passes for,” Captain Poole said.

Darby flinched, and Evanora’s expression went flat.

“I see now why you left,” she said, loud enough for those in the vicinity to hear. “Such ignorance must have been difficult to deal with on a daily basis.”

Ashton, who was within Darby’s peripheral, did his best to swallow a laugh, turning it into a poor imitation of a cough. Darby turned to face the captain, keeping Evanora behind him, though gods above and below knew she didn’t need him defending her. The captain’s face was once again flushed a deep red hue, and he was gritting his teeth.

As he opened his mouth to say something, Darby cut him off; “I’ll ask that you keep such comments to yourself, Captain. You need us here, but we don’t have to be. It’s asking for very little that you behave with common courtesy to those you’ve invited here.”

Darby hadn’t thought it possible, but the captain flushed almost to the point of being purple.

“Just get on with it, Darby. We don’t have all day,” Captain Poole said through gritted teeth, then stormed away.

The comment caught Darby flat-footed, and his eyebrows shot nearly to his hairline. He’d half-expected to be thrown from the scene, which would have been more in-line with the captain’s behavior prior to them leaving the force. It made Darby wonder if Captain Poole had been taken to task for the two of them quitting.

Darby closed his eyes and shook his head, before turning back to Evanora.

“Shall we?” he asked, holding out the crook of his arm for her.

She took it, her hand sliding over his arm with practiced ease, and he tucked it in close. As they started toward the house, Ashton fell into step with them.

“A pleasure, as always, Evanora,” Ashton said by way of greeting.

Her laugh was light and airy. “Quite, though I’m not sure I’ve made your situation here any easier.”

Ashton shrugged. “I’m not overly concerned. So, what do you think?”

She pursed her lips and considered the house. “I believe your initial assessment is correct, and I am not looking forward to what we find inside. It has the potential to be quite grim.”

Darby and Ashton nodded, as the three of them made their way up the steps onto the small front porch. All three couldn’t fit, so Ashton stayed behind the couple.

“Normally I wouldn’t do this, as it would be considered an insult, but given her age and reclusiveness I’m not sure she’d answer the door otherwise. There was a lot of forced relocation of supernatural communities after the war, and it bred a fair amount of distrust,” Evanora explained as she reached for the front door.

She placed her palm flat on the weathered wood and closed her eyes. There was a sensation of pressure on Darby’s head, and he yawned to pop his ears. He imagined she was using a sensing spell, which could detect living beings within a certain proximity of the caster, as well as spells, which would have a trace of the caster’s energy contained in them. For the most part, anyway. As Evanora had explained once, there were always exceptions to the rules.

“There are no wards or spells, aside from some harmless wardings on the outside walls of the house, but there are three large life forces inside,” she said, her voice distant.

“The boys are safe, then?” Darby asked for clarification.

“Yes, if it’s them, though I can’t tell you much more than that from this distance. If I could get closer—”

The door opened, leaving a gap just wide enough for a pale, gaunt face to gaze at them from the darkness beyond.

Darby took a step back in shock, but Evanora must have expected this, because she opened her eyes, her hand dropping to her side, and greeted the woman, her voice clear and loud; “Hail, and well met, Sister.”

The woman’s brown eyes were cloudy with cataracts, but her attention honed in on Evanora and she scowled. “Did no one ever teach you any manners, girl?”

“Some,” Evanora said, slightly amused. “However, we’re experiencing a bit of an emergency, and I felt it prudent to break courtesy.”

The old woman snorted, and the puff of exhaled air inflated her wrinkled cheeks briefly. When she shook her head, wispy, white strands of hair that had escaped the tie at the base of her neck floated around her face.

“Ha!” she barked her incredulity at them. “Emergency? What emergency brings ya to ol’ Gail’s front porch, practically bustin’ down the front door with your magic and poor manners? Actin’ no better than fool mundies,” she rasped at them, and pointed a bony finger at them through the gap to boot.

“There are two mund children missing,” Darby said.

Her eyes darted over to him, and her scowl deepened. “So? What? You think these ol’ bones of mine went out chasin’ mundie babes to drag back and gobble ‘em up?”

“That’s not—”

“Bah!”

Her explosive interruption would have rocked Darby further back, if he wasn’t aware of how close he was to the edge of the small porch.

“Elder Sister,” Evanora said, her tone still clear and respectful, “do you have guests with you?”

The old woman opened the door wide, revealing a white dressing gown dotted with tiny pink flowers on a nearly skeletal frame. “Does it look like I’m entertainin’?”

“Then may I ask why I found three large life forces in the house during my ill-mannered sensing?” Evanora gently pressed.

The woman’s scowl turned to a frown of confusion. “What are you on about, girl? There’s no one else here.”

“Could someone have tripped an intruder spell and you didn’t notice?” Darby asked.

“Intruder spells? I don’t keep no intruder spells. Haven’t cast nothin’ in years,” she said, her frown returning.

Darby turned to face Evanora with a questioning look, and she shook her head. She hadn’t been mistaken.

“There are a lot of concerned people on the street looking for the boys, including police,” Darby said.

At the mention of police, the old woman’s body stiffened, and her eyes widened. She clutched at the neck of her dressing gown. “I’ve not harmed anyone!” she said, her voice shrill.

“Of course not,” Ashton said from the rear, and Darby turned sideways so the old woman could see who spoke.

Something washed over her expression, and her face broke out into a wide smile: “Richard! What took you so long at the store? I was beginin’ to worry,” she said, and shuffled forward to hug Ashton, nearly knocking Evanora and Darby off the porch as she shouldered past.

He exchanged a bewildered look with Darby over the old woman’s shoulder, but Evanora’s expression spoke of a deep sorrow.

“Elder Sister, can we take this inside? That way we can properly introduce ourselves?” Evanora asked, laying a hand on the woman’s shoulder.

Darby didn’t detect the subtle pressure of Evanora’s magic, which was probably for the best: the woman might not be all there, but she detected the sensing quickly enough.

“Yes, yes,” she said, waving a hand to shoo Evanora inside. With the other one, she took Ashton’s hand.

He obliged, holding hers back as though she were made of paper mâché instead of flesh. She led him up the steps into the house, and Darby took up the rear. Before he closed the door, he nodded to Captain Poole.

The distance was a hair too far to know for sure, but the captain did not appear pleased by this turn of events. What did he expect them to do? Drag the old woman out and demand they search the house? Darby didn’t respond to the captain’s displeasure, just closed the door.

The gloom inside closed around Darby like a blindfold, and he froze. He’d taken a single, panicked breath before he realized there was some light, and that his eyes just needed a moment to adjust. He took a shaky breath then turned around to face the rest of the group. They were in a short entrance hall, with stairs to his right, and two doors, almost right next to each other, across from the front door. The paltry light was coming from a single candle on a silver candlestick, but given the disrepair inside matched what they’d seen outside, more illumination wouldn’t have made the sight better. It was slightly damp, and the chill in the air made Darby shiver. How the old woman hadn’t caught her death from the state of the house was a miracle.

“Oh, Richard. What took you so long?”

“I’m—”

“Elder Sister?” Evanora interrupted, before Ashton could say anything else.

“Yes, girl?” Abigail asked, irritation clear in her voice as she turned from Ashton.

“Hail, and well met,” she said again, this time tilting her head to the right and bowing it with closed eyes. After a heartbeat, she opened her eyes again. “I’m Evanora Lyskurve Shadowend, firstborn and heir to the Shadowend Coven. By Maiden may your house know joy, by Mother may it prosper, and by Crone may it grow in wisdom. Blessed be, Elder Sister.”

As Evanora spoke, Abigail turned fully to the other woman, her hunched form uncurling and straightening out. An echo of what her posture and bearing were in years gone by settled about her shoulders like a mantle, and when Evanora finished she inclined her head in turn.

“Hail, and well met,” Abigail said, her voice losing most of its raspy edge. “I’m Abigail Drom Miller, widow of Kenneth Miller, mother to Richard Drom Miller, heir to the Wasted Wilds and a dead coven. I swear to the Maiden my hand shall bring you no pain, by the Mother your spirit shall not know sorrow from my lips, and by the Crone will you know safety under my roof. So mote it be. Blessed be, Sister.”

When she finished, some of the poise and energy left her, as though she’d drawn from a source outside herself to complete the hospitality ritual. In fact, there had been an exchange between the two, not unlike what Darby experienced around Evanora when she was casting, but this was different. Deeper. Pulling from a source beyond what the two women had within them. The ritual was more than empty words. There had to be intention and sincerity behind it. A witch not willing to do the ritual, or not able to complete it, was not a witch to be trusted.

No matter how many times Darby was witness to those who could pull such power from the higher planes, it never failed to leave him awestruck, and a touch lightheaded.

Abigail harrumphed, crossed her arms, and turned so that she considered Evanora from the corner of her eye. “I see someone did teach you manners.”

“I did say I was taught some,” Evanora said, a teasing edge to her words.

Abigail cracked a smile, then looked over to Ashton and it drooped just a hair. There was more clarity in her gaze, and with it came the weight and weariness of the long years behind her, weighing her down with recalled knowledge.

“I’m sorry I mistook you for my boy. You have his likeness, and the days have been getting a bit blurry for me lately,” Abigail admitted with a deep sigh.

“Think nothing of it,” Ashton said.

Evanora put a hand on the older woman’s shoulder. “I can help some, if you’d like. We do it for the Elders of the coven, though I’m not the most skilled at it.”

Abigail patted her hand. “That’s alright, girl. I’ve got me wits about me for the moment. Now what were you lot saying about some mundie boys gone missing? They think they’re here?”

Evanora gave her a wan smile, and let her hand fall back to her side. “Yes, apparently they were going to play a prank on you.”

“Bah! Fool mundies. As though me mam didn’t lay wardings in these walls to turn away destructive hands and hostile minds. Got a good deal from the earth mage who set up the conduits to keep ‘em powered, as well as a binding to keep the grass from getting too long, too. Anyway, I don’t think they’d have made it in here past the wardings.”

“What if they didn’t think they were being destructive, or hostile?” Darby asked.

Abigail looked at him, her lips pursed as she let out a small hmm. “Mayhaps.” Then she looked to Evanora again. “And you say you detected three big life forces? Not me an’ a couple of rats running amock in the attic?”

Evanora shook her head. “No, it was definitely human-sized.”

She blew out a sigh. “My husband, Crone keep him well, had me install some trespasser wards on the back door. We never really went out there, because of the growth binding on the grass, so aside from the leaves we never needed to work in the garden. After me husband died, I didn’t even do that.”

“So, when you said you hadn’t cast any spells in years…”

“That was the truth, as well as my addled mind could recall. As for the trespasser wards, I honestly didn’t think they’d still be active. Must have done a far sight better on them than I thought,” she said, though she didn’t seem completely convinced.

“Where would they be if they tripped the wards?” Ashton asked, cutting to the chase.

Abigail shuffled over to the two doors across from the entryway, and opened the one on the left. The darkness beyond was pitch black, and a shiver rolled down Darby’s spine. Evanora walked to the candlestick and picked it up, and hurried into the other room, following behind Ashton. Darby’s legs moved of their own accord, following the light like a child scared of being left in the dark.

The room they entered had a table and chairs in the same condition as the house, and a thick coating of dust covered every surface.

“Haven’t been in here in years,” she said, dragging a shaking finger through the dust. “No need with me husband and boy gone.”

“They’re here,” Ashton said from the other side of the table.

They all moved toward him, and he was kneeling next to the boy on the left, who had a sturdy frame and light hair. The other boy, who had dark hair and glasses askew on his face, was next to him. They were both slumped on the wall, the one with the dark hair leaning his head on the shoulder of the light-haired one. They sat, their chests not moving, looking for all the world as though they were dead.

Evanora handed the candlestick to Ashton, who held it aloft to give her the light she needed to work. The same subtle energy from the front door filled the space around her, as she closed her eyes and ran a hand in the air above the boys.

“They’re not dead,” she said after a few tense heartbeats.

Ashton and Darby let out a breath they hadn’t known they were holding.

“Bah! O’ course they’re not dead! They’re in a stasis. My coven might be dead, but we’re some of the descendants of the witch who created the sleeping beauty curse,” she said, holding her head up.

Evanora whipped around, her mouth partially open. “Truly?”

Abigail grinned from ear to ear. “From my mouth to the Goddess’ ears, I speak only the truth.”

“That’s fantastic, but how do we wake them up? True love’s kiss?” Ashton asked.

Abigail broke out into a full-on cackle that had her gripping her middle, while Evanora shook her head.

“No, of course not. That wouldn’t be very practical. The spell was romanticised over the years, and the kiss is just a representation of an exchange of energy,” Evanora explained. She moved away as Abigail shuffled forward.

“You got something sharp on you, girl?” she asked, as she knelt next to Ashton, using his shoulder to help lower herself to the floor. He took her elbow to help steady her, candlestick in the other hand. She nodded her thanks when she was settled, sitting back on her feet, her knees on the hard, wooden floor.

“Yes, of course,” Evanora said. She unbuttoned her coat to reveal a light grey shirt that matched it. The material had a dull sheen in the low light, and was held in place at the waist by a wide, black leather belt. There were a few odds and ends attached to it, and one of those things was the sheath for a small dagger—her athame—which Darby knew to be razor sharp. Evanora unclasped the sheath, and handed the athame to Abigail, hilt-first.

“Thankee, girl,” she said, and pricked the pad of her right thumb. Blood welled immediately, and started dripping down to her palm and wrist. She handed the athame back to Evanora, who cleaned it on a handkerchief from her coat pocket, then re-sheathed it. They’d have to burn the handkerchief later. A witch’s blood could be used to do real harm against said witch, or something not particularly nice to anyone else.

Abigail used Ashton’s shoulder once more to steady herself, as she leaned forward, and put her bloody thumb on the forehead of the boy in front of her. She closed her eyes, and energy filled the space around her, warm and drowsy like a summer afternoon beneath the shade—

Evanora poked Darby in the ribs, and he straightened, looking between Evanora and Abigail.

“Her magic is strong,” Evanora whispered, and laced her fingers with Darby’s. Her magic swirled around them, like light dancing through stained glance wind chimes, and his head cleared the rest of the way. Her aura was keeping Abigail’s at bay, thus keeping Darby from succumbing to the other witch’s magic.

Then, Abigail began to chant:

Troublemaker, dreaming deep

Rest no more, awake from sleep

By blood you shall from slumber wake

By blood I call this spell to break

The boy’s eyes fluttered open, bleary and unfocused. After a couple of heartbeats, his eyes widened and he sat bolt upright, staring down at his hands. They were shaking uncontrollably, along with his breathing. Then, he slid to the floor, curled in on himself, and cradled his arms to his chest while he rocked and sobbed.

The adults watched on in varying degrees of concern and confusion.

“Huh, whatever I laid shouldn’t have done nothin’ like that. The spell passed down through our coven induces a dreamless stasis,” Abigail said, as her magic faded.

Evanora let go of Darby’s hand, and moved over to the doorframe, running her fingers along the front of the header. There was a small swell of pressure in the room from her magic, and after a few moments she stepped back.

“That’s because someone has tampered with your spell,” she said, rubbing her fingers together. “Someone young, and not very well-trained, but in possession of mind-altering magic like you. It doesn’t seem like they tried to change the spell, just put power into it. The flavor of their magic left an impression on the spell. Combined with the stasis element, it seems like these boys have been trapped in some kind of nightmare they couldn’t wake from.”

“Makes sense. That warding should have faded years ago,” Abigail said, and shook her head. “That combination could do some real damage.”

“Do you know when the warding was tampered with?” Darby asked.

“A few days past. Luckily for these boys, the potency had already started to fade. If they’d come through right after this person powered it, their minds might not have survived intact,” Evanora said. Then she moved to the side of the boy whose crying had quieted. There was another small surge of her magic as she murmured soothing words and ran her hand through the boy’s hair.

His crying ceased completely, and his curled frame relaxed. His eyes remained closed as his breathing evened out, and Darby realized Evanora had put him to sleep. Her hand came away with a few hairs from the boy. She then opened one of the pouches on her belt, pulled out a small, clear bottle, uncorked it, then placed the boy’s hair inside before putting the bottle back.

Darby sent her a questioning look when she turned her eyes to his.

“He’s going to need mind healing beyond my capabilities. If they aren’t taken to a magicae hospital, someone from my coven can make a potion to help keep his dreams, or rather nightmares, from overwhelming him. Blood would be better, but hair isn’t going to leave a mark, and it’ll be easier to ask forgiveness from the parents if we don’t cut their children.”

“Why would you need to ask forgiveness?” Ashton asked. “This wasn’t your doing.”

Evanora gave Ashton a small smile. “Munds don’t differentiate between the actions of one witch versus another. Aside from that, it is as much the witch’s failing as the local covens’, because we have two witches here who needed attention, and we didn’t help.”

“Bah! You take too much on your shoulders,” Abigail said. “But you’re not wrong about the mundies—this won’t go over well.”

“Should we wake up the other boy and put him back to sleep?” Darby asked. “The captain won’t be patient with us for much longer.”

“Yes, let’s do the same for the other boy, and have the police call ambulances for them. We don’t know if the tampering interacted poorly with any other aspect of the warding, the biggest concern being the stasis portion,” Evanora said. “Bad stasis spells can cause internal damage, because one organ gets shut down, but another might not.”

They proceeded with the plan, getting much the same from the second boy as the first. Once the second one was asleep, hair collected, and blood wiped away from both their foreheads, Ashton called out to the captain for transport to hospital. Evanora was speaking with the paramedics, explaining what had happened, what to expect, and that the boys needed to either be admitted to the closest magicae hospital, or to the magical injury department of a human hospital.

A quick call to the parents, and the boys were off to a mund hospital.

“Not the best choice, but understandable,” Evanora said with a sigh.

With the boys gone, it was time for everyone to head to the police station so reports could be taken, paperwork filled out, and the captain could bluster.

As Ashton and Darby drove, following behind a police vehicle with Evanora driving behind them, Darby couldn’t help but sigh.

“This isn’t going to end well, is it?” Darby asked.

Ashton shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. They’ll have to call Obscuris to send out a magical forensics team to hold up Evanora’s and Abigail’s statements.”

Darby drummed his fingers on his cheek while his chin was in his hand, elbow resting on door. Many thoughts swirled through his mind as the scenery passed by, but he wasn’t really watching it.

“Evanora said whoever this other witch was tampered with the warding a few days ago,” Darby said, trying to arrange his thoughts by voicing them out loud.

Ashton hmm’d in agreement. “Must have been right after Hallow’s Eve.”

Hallow’s Eve, Darby thought, something tugging at that like a fish nibbling on a hook.

Becca, Alice, and I were trick-or-treating here the other night, because we were hanging out, and Alice lives here.

The recalled conversation rang through his mind like a bell, and he sat up, his hand dropping from his face.

“The girls,” Darby said.

Ashton, never slow on the uptake, paused a moment before grunting. “Makes a certain kind of sense. If none of them told anyone else about what the boys had planned, the girls were the only other ones who knew. Maybe one of them went in to put their own warding on Abigail’s house, but found the one that just needed more juice? Which one do you think it is?”

Please, don’t do anything to hurt her.

“I think I have an idea,” he said, then explained.

“Reasonable assumption. Now, the big question is: do we tell the captain?”

**~~**

Despite Darby’s concerns, everything turned out reasonably well. Abigail was cleared of any wrongdoing by Obscuris, who released a statement at a local, emergency council meeting, reassuring the residents nothing untoward happened. It also helped that Abigail, in turn, decided not to pursue anything in regards to the boys and their trespassing, saying the botched warding was punishment enough.

A care plan was put in place by Evanora’s coven to make regular visits out to Abigail’s house. It had been three days since the boys were found, and the coven’s best mind witch had made potions with the boys’ hair while the moon rode full in the sky the previous night.

Darby and Evanora planned on dropping off some groceries and having a meal with Abigail, but first, they had to make a stop at a certain young witch’s house.

Ashton and Darby had decided not to tell the police of Harriet’s involvement, but made sure to discuss it with Evanora the first chance they had.

In turn, Evanora told them what she thought needed to happen.

“If she doesn’t agree to those terms, we will have no choice but to report her to the Grand High Priestess. Mind magic requires the strictest of training and discipline. Someone who cannot adhere to both is a problem waiting to happen.”

So, here they were at Harriet’s house, a neighborhood away from Abigail’s. They’d done some digging, and Harriet wasn’t registered on the SDR, which explained why she was attending a mund school. While supernaturals and munds weren’t forbidden from mixing, most supernaturals tended toward homeschooling. There wasn’t much breathing room for certain powers manifesting at young ages, with puberty coming along and throwing petrol onto the fire. Certain magical races, like witches, lived just a little longer than the average human, which pushed their puberty out to between eighteen and twenty. That was why you’d see more witches attending school than other races, especially from grade six onward, but it was still rare.

Darby knocked on the door of the cookie cutter home. Aside from color, every house on the street was an exact replica of the last, and without numbers and street names, it’d be easy enough to get lost in the suburban maze. There was no car in the drive, and though it may have been a bit underhanded, Darby and Evanora planned the visit to happen just before Harriet’s parents came home.

There was shadowy movement behind the peephole, then a moment’s hesitation before the front door unlocked and opened. Red-rimmed, dark eyes in a tense face watched them from the small opening.

“You’re the weird guy helping to find Jake and his friend,” she said, her voice hoarse, as though from crying.

“Yes, my apologies for not introducing myself, but my name’s Darby, and this is my friend Evanora,” he said.

Evanora gave the girl a soft smile, then nodded. “Hail, and well met, Sister.”

At the greeting, Harriet’s shoulders slumped. “So, you found out. Are you here to take me to the police?”

“I would never take you to the police, but we do have some things we need to discuss with you, and your parents.”

“They don’t know about any of this. Stuff just started happening a few months ago. I was tested as a kid because we’ve had a few witches in our family, but they didn’t come up with anything,” Harriet said, crossing her arms over her stomach.

“I’m assuming you started your menses then?” Evanora asked.

Harriet’s eyes darted to Darby then away, and she blushed, but nodded.

“It seems as though that’s what triggered it. I’ve heard of it happening before. There’s not enough magic to manifest in childhood, or come up on any tests, but just enough that puberty can activate the genes, because that’s when a witch gets a natural boost to their power. Given you didn’t show signs as a child, your body proceeded as normal for human-aged puberty,” Evanora explained.

“So, it’s happened before? I’m not some f-freak?” Harriet choked out.

“Of course not. In fact, my coven has a few late-blooming witches, and they are treated just the same as the ones who received their powers as children. There is no discrimination in the Goddess’ eyes,” Evanora said.

Harriet swallowed, tears rising in her eyes, then nodded.

“Of course, what you did to those boys was dangerous. A witch with powers concerning the mind should never do such a thing until they are properly and fully trained. Let alone meddle with another mind witch’s spellwork.”

“I didn’t want to hurt anyone; I just didn’t want them bothering Old Lady Miller. I met her once when I was heading to Alice’s for a sleepover, and she was really nice, and funny. She didn’t deserve whatever they were going to do,” Harriet said, losing the battle with the tears as they fell.

“While your intentions may have been good, the way you went about it nearly cost two boys their minds,” Evanora said, her voice like smooth steel. “There is no place for such actions in the witch community.”

At that point, Harriet’s parents pulled into the driveway, home from the hospital they both worked at.

“Now, let’s go have a chat with your parents, and we’ll see how we can start mending the fences you’ve broken.”

**~~**

Another doorstep, but this time in Abigail’s neighborhood. They’d already been by the light-haired boy’s—Caleb’s—house, with Evanora offering her sincerest apologies and reassurances on behalf of Harriet, who also apologised. His parents, while not happy, were more than willing to split the blame between the two teens, much to Darby’s everlasting relief. Some of that was probably due to Abigail not going after the boys for trespassing.

Evanora also gave them the potion, along with her business card, with promises to bring more if needed. With that, they were off to Jake’s house.

Harriet became far more fidgety as they approached the other boy’s house, and randomly blushing as thoughts raced through her eyes and feelings over her face.

Well, that would explain why she knew Jake’s name, but not Caleb’s, Darby mused as they approached the front door. I think we have a crush.

Harriet was all but dragging her feet as though her shoes were made of concrete, barely keeping up behind them as they made their way down the front walk.

It was Jake who answered the door, and though he didn’t recognize Darby or Evanora, he did Harriet.

“Hey, aren’t you friends with Rebecca?”

Harriet blushed even more, and wouldn’t look up from the ground. “Not so much, anymore. Not after what happened.”

“She blames you for our prank?” he asked, confused. At the mention of the word prank, Jake visibly winced, and the muscles in his face tensed. However, once he’d closed his eyes and taken a deep breath, some of the tension drained away. When he opened his eyes again, his expression was sheepish. “Sorry.”

“No need to apologise, it’s to be expected for a time,” Evanora said with a smile, her words soothing.

Jake blushed at Evanora’s attention, and Darby couldn’t blame him.

“Um, so, why are you all here? My parents weren’t very clear on the phone,” he said.

“First, I want to give you this,” Evanora said, handing him the potion. They’d spoken with Jake’s parents on the phone, since they both worked odd hours and wouldn’t be home when they dropped by. “This will help with your sleep. I’ve given your parents my number in case you need more. Take no more than a sip at your usual bedtime—it should last you a couple of weeks.”

Jake’s eyes widened, and some of the shadows left them. Clearly, he’d been having issues with his sleep.

“Th-thank you!” he stuttered, and carefully put the potion in his pocket as though it were precious and liable to break with one stray glance.

“Good, now there’s one more thing to address,” Darby said, and with his hand between her shoulder blades, he gently pushed Harriet forward.

Her eyes were already filling with tears, and the words burst from her like a dam breaking; “I’m so sorry! It’s all my fault that happened to the two of you. I messed with Old Lady Miller’s warding because I’m not trained, and I didn’t mean for it hurt you, I just didn’t want you bother her.” By the end of the apology, her eyes were shut tight, and she wouldn’t look at Jake.

The boy’s eyes were a bit wide from the onslaught of words, but after a few seconds he chuckled weakly and held up his hands in a warding gesture. “We shouldn’t have been there in the first place.” Then he asked; “Wait, does that mean you’re a witch?”

Harriet had opened her eyes when he started talking, but flinched at the question. “Yeah,” she mumbled, still not looking at him.

“Wicked,” he said.

That snapped her head up, her eyes going wide with surprise. “R-really?”

He blushed at her sudden attention, and chuckled nervously. “I mean, yeah. You have magic powers, how cool is that?”

She grimaced. “Right now? Not very cool.”

This time his laugh was closer to what was likely his normal one. “Well, no, I guess not, but someday.”

She gave a hesitant nod. “Yeah, I suppose so.”

“Well,” Darby said, interjecting into the conversation. The two kids jumped, having forgotten the adults were there. “It’s time for us to be off. We’re headed by Abigail’s place for supper.”

“Abigail? Oh, you mean Old Lady Miller,” Jake said, then toed the ground with the tip of his shoe. “Mind if I tag along? I owe her an apology.”

**~~**

It didn’t take long to get from Jake’s to Abigail’s once he’d gotten permission from his parents. His little sister was at a friend’s house, so all Jake had to do was lock the front door, then they were on their way.

As the four of them walked up to the front door, Abigail opened it before they could get there.

“Bah! I thought you had manners, girl—you’re late!” Abigail said good-naturedly.

Evanora smiled, and once they were closer gave the old woman a hug. “We picked up a couple of extra guests along the way.”

“Oh-ho, did ya now?” Abigail said, peering around Evanora and Darby to the two awkward teens. “I recognize the mundie boy, but who’s the girl?”

“That would be the culprit who tampered with your warding,” Darby said, causing Harriet to blush.

“Hah! You learn your lesson, girlie? Don’t go tamperin’ with another witch’s spellwork,” Abigail said, using a stern voice and shaking her finger at Harriet.

Harriet’s face flushed darker, and nodded, not able to meet Abigail’s gaze.

Abigail gave Darby and Evanora a conspiratorial wink.

“Bah! Don’t matter if they’re mundie or witch—kids are kids. Always goin’ ‘round causin’ trouble of some sort. Now, let’s get inside. I was promised a nice, home-cooked meal, and I hear this Darby fellow is a decent cook,” Abigail said, turning around and shuffling through the doorway. “If you two feel guilty enough, you can help an old woman clean up the dining room so we can have a proper place to eat.”

Which, of course, they did. The meal was excellent, as Darby was, in fact, a decent cook. As the four of them were leaving, with Abigail’s now working fridge filled with left overs, the two teens took turns apologising for the trouble they caused.

“Don’t be sorry—be better,” Abigail said, eyeing each of them in turn. “Bah! You can repay me by visiting an old witch on occasion, and I won’t even make you dust anythin’,” she said, and winked at them.

They both moved forward, each giving her a tight hug.

Darby exchanged a smile with Evanora. “You’re going to have your hands full, you know,” he said, taking her hand in his as the four of them made their way back to the car.

“Believe me, I know,” she said with a laugh. “Don’t think it gets you off the hook from visiting me, though. You got me into this, so you can bet you’ll be helping.”

Darby laughed. “I expected nothing less.”

The Tales of Quirkheart & Gotthold: The Longest Night ~~ Duskwood Chapter Two

~~~~

Having arrived in Darkshire, Quirkheart and Gotthold were quickly put to work by the townspeople and local militia known as the Night Watch. However, Gotthold is unsettled by more than just the endless night, as whispers of heresy and evil ring in his mind as they head out to complete their tasks.

~~~~

“There seem to be a substantial number, friend Gotthold. However, they are spaced out in such a way, combined with the low visibility, that we may efficiently cull their pack,” Quirkheart observed.

They hadn’t gone far from the town before encountering the Nightbane worgen. In fact, all they’d had to do was crest the hill to the west before finding them. Gotthold had gone into a prone position, and waited for Quirkheart–who didn’t really need to crouch–to use her mechanized-enhanced sight to scan the area.

“It still don’t sit well, this killing worgen,” Gotthold grumbled.

“Do you wish to enter into a discourse with them, friend Gotthold?” she asked, facing him.

Her mechanized goggles glowed a cold blue, and the soft whirring of her arms and legs was barely discernible over the wind rustling the leaves overhead. Her armor and tabard were cut to keep from interfering with the gears that powered her every action, and she was always moving in some form or fashion. Despite her analytical nature, though, it was the slight head tilt along with the question that proved, deep down, mechagnomes still harbored echoes of their gnomanity.

He turned from Quirkheart to scowl at the worgen down the hill. He wasn’t big on moral quandaries, in engaging in them, or thinking about them. Yet, here they were.

“Maybe, but we should be–”

There was a soft whoomph of sound, followed on its heels by a much louder thud, as Quirkheart leapt right into the camp of the two worgen below them.

Gotthold’s eyes widened. The worgens yelped and snarled in shock at the sudden intrusion, and they scrambled backwards to get away from the tiny creature who stood before them. One of them barely missed singing themselves on the campfire, dancing away from the flames just in time.

“Greetings, worgen of the Nightbane pack, I am–”

Two things happened at once: one of the worgens rushed forward, claws raised in the air to slash downward at Quirkheart, and Gotthold, who had charged down the hill not long after Quirkheart, intercepted the blow with his axe.

The worgen yowled in pain and staggered back, clutching the remains of its bloody paw. After that, things turned from bad to worse for the surprised campers. By the end of the encounter, there were two dead worgen, and Gotthold was swearing between strained breaths.

“I hate running,” he groaned, sitting down heavily on a log not far from the camp. The handles of his two, two-handed axes weren’t far from his reach, and he kept one wary eye open as he drank from his water skin, just in case more showed up.

“You have not been following the exercise regime I created for you, friend Gotthold,” Quirkheart observed, standing at an angle from him, her back to the hill they descended. She scanned the night around them, not looking at him as she spoke, and certainly not out of breath with nary a hair out of place. While her words were nothing more than observation, Gotthold could almost detect a slight air of accusation in them.

“I’m too old to spend my days runnin’ around in circles that go nowhere, for no better reason than the pleasure of bein’ prepared to follow your fool-lead into battle. Why’d you do that?” he asked, his annoyance getting the better of him.

“You said you wished to enter a discourse with them–”

“I said ‘maybe’,” he interrupted her, “and if you’d have let me finish, I would have suggested a more cautious approach than leaping into their midst and scaring the fur from their hides.”

Quirkheart turned her attention to the corpses of the worgen. “Their fur is intact, friend Gotthold.”

Gotthold put his elbows on his knees, and his face in his hands, while muttering; “Tides give me strength.” Then he sighed, and stood from the log. “Either way, I think we can safely say these worgen are not from the same stock as King Greymane’s people.”

“Yes. They do not appear to have been cured of their mindless state,” she agreed. “Does this mean we will do what the man with impressive sideburns has asked of us?”

Gotthold scanned the darkness around them, his thoughts still not settled about the men who spoke of heresy and claimed righteous justification for their actions.

“Yeah, but I want you to keep a weather eye on, and a keen ear out for anything shady,” he said, and picked up his axes.

“Based on data collected before our arrival, the weather patterns in the area remain unchanged–”

“Nevermind, Quirk. Let’s just watch each other’s backs, eh?”

“From my limited understanding of human colloquialism, you want us to make sure that nothing unfortunate happens to each other, correct?”

Gotthold couldn’t resist a small smile. “Aye, Quirk–that’s what I meant.”

“Then we will do so, friend Gotthold.”

“That’s the spirit. Now, let’s get this over with. Those wolf kebabs won’t make themselves.”

“Of course not, friend Gotthold. Food requires at least some level of–”

Gotthold turned from the camp and headed deeper into the grove, with Quirkheart and her chatter trailing not far behind him.