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.”

Writing Prompt ~~ Freely Given, Fairly Taken

“You’re special.” She smiled sadly, tucking a lock of golden hair behind the young girl’s ear. “I get why she chose you.”

The woman’s warm fingers lingered on the child’s jaw for just a moment too long, as something moved behind the woman’s eerie silver eyes. Something that did not match the calm she was trying to project.

The child had power, though what kind likely wouldn’t be clear until she hit puberty. What she could sense from the girl pointed to an ancestor many generations ago who had a tumble, willing or no, with someone of the Courts. At that thought, the woman quickly pulled her hand away as though burned, and grimaced. The girl didn’t react.

The two were in the child’s room, which was decorated in pink frills, unicorns, and fairy lights. The irony of the fantastical design wasn’t lost on the woman. People rarely looked beyond the pale beauty of the unicorns to see the faded stains on their horns. And fairies? The woman’s eyes cut to the closed door, as her keen hearing picked up snippets of the hushed conversation on the other side.

“—almost got her this time.”

“There’s too many bodies, how will we—”

Thadria closed her eyes and took a deep breath, shutting the voices out. She exhaled slowly and turned her gaze back toward the child, who still hadn’t said a word since they arrived.

She stared blankly at Thadria, her emerald green eyes dull. A soft, floppy rabbit half the size of the child sat limply in her lap and arms, while her feet dangled over the side of the bed. They’d handed her the stuffed animal after they’d cleaned her up. All the pictures of her featured the toy, and the worn ‘fur’ indicated it was well loved. Yet it had done nothing for her. All of them had tried talking to her, and they’d been given no information to indicate the child was mute, or unable to communicate. Of course, trauma was its own monster. The one that lurked in the shadows after an event, slipping into your mind and whispering words coated in bittersweet poison.

The humans would be coming for her soon. They were waiting for the all clear from her captain that the girl harbored no magical remnants that could hurt other humans. Some lessons were learned the hard way by the human agencies, and that had been one of them.

Until then, though, Thadria was tasked with keeping an eye on her, and trying to coax the child into talking, as long as it didn’t appear to stress her further.

Thadria held back a tired sigh, and looked around the room. When they’d gotten there, the window over the porch roof had been open, and the gauzy white bed curtains were fluttering from the cool, late spring breeze. When they removed the girl—Charlotte, according to the cotton candy pink letters on the outside of her door—from the scene of the crime, they brought her back to her room, and promptly closed the window.

All the bedroom furniture was a pristine white, which included a vanity table with a pink upholstered stool, and a bookshelf. Between her long day and the girl’s unresponsiveness, Thadria decided to take a different approach. Her footfalls were noiseless as she moved across the carpet to the bookshelf, grabbed the first book she saw, and then picked up the stool. She set the stool down in front of the girl, but not too close. She didn’t want to crowd her. When she sat on the stool, Thadria’s head was just above the level of the girl’s knees, since her bed was tall—tall enough for the child to need a stool to climb in.

Thadria looked up at the girl, who now stared over Thadria’s head. She was looking at the wall, but not looking. It seemed as though no one was home. So, Thadria bowed her head, opened the book written by a man who wasn’t a real doctor, and read the child a story about creatures with stars on their bellies.

Thadria’s people weren’t known for their books, but they were known for their skilled oral storytellers. Even the homeliest of elves could carry a tune and charm their audience. As she moved from one story to the next, she kept her eyes on the book and her voice calm. When she reached the end, she closed the book, looked up, then froze.

The child was watching her, eyes boring into Thadria’s, who scarcely breathed for fear of sending the girl back into whatever hole in her mind she’d fallen into. The girl’s body was still limp, not holding the rabbit, with slumped shoulders.

When she spoke, it was in a hoarse whisper, as though her throat was raw; “Another?”

Instead of saying yes, Thadria nodded then stood up. She went to the bookcase, pulled out a random book and showed it to the girl. Already her eyes were becoming distant once more, and Thadria had to suppress the panic clamoring at her to do something. Despite this, the girl gave a single, slow nod.

Thadria went back to her seat, and opened the book, this one about winter naps. The boy in the story was trying to go to sleep, but animals kept knocking on his door and asking to come in, out from the winter cold. When Thadria got to the end of this one and she looked up, there were tears running down the child’s face, though she made no sound.

“That’s what I did,” she said, her voice thick from the tears.

“Did what?” Thadria asked, keeping her voice soft and neutral. The twisting in her gut and the whisper across her thought said; “You already know what.”

“She said she was cold, and it must be nice for me to have a warm house. She would visit my window every night and say that. I felt bad, so I let her in.” The more she spoke, the wider her eyes got, and she started to take short, sharp breaths. “Then she…Then she…”

Thadria’s heart clenched at the girl’s words, and the rhyme all her people’s children learned floated through her mind:

Do not ask them for the gift,

Or retribution will be swift.

Freely given, fairly taken,

Is how the Darkness will awaken.

Knife of bone and chalice white,

Call him forth in Middle Night.

Into their heart you plunge the knife,

And thank them kindly for their life.

If the blood is pure and sweet,

The Dark God you’re sure to meet.

If the blood is false or wicked,

Then your mind will start to sicken.

Be careful if you tread this path,

Lest you court the Mother’s wrath!

 

It was an old rhyme, from a time before the Dark Elves worked with the humans, and killed them instead. They thought Nenia had been trying to do something like this, but the girl’s words confirmed it. Nenia didn’t ever ask to be let in. She didn’t ask for their lives. She’d manipulated, charmed, and twisted words much in the way of the elves, be they Light or Dark.

The girl was getting dangerously close to hyperventilating, so Thadria quickly put the book down and touched the girl’s hand. She’d been about to call out to the team’s medic, but the girl’s reaction stayed her tongue.

The child shuddered at her touch, and immediately calmed down with a relieved sigh, like a junkie taking a hit of their drug while trying to detox. This made the situation ten times worse, far sadder, and it reinforced Thadria’s growing rage at what Nenia had done.

Thadria didn’t remove her hand, though, and when she managed to finally unclench her jaw after taking a few calming breaths, she called out for her captain.

The door opened slowly on silent hinges, and a man who was as discordant from the theme of the room as one could possibly be stooped to get through the doorway. Deron Thornwood had a dark, neatly trimmed beard that graced a perpetual scowl, and lean muscles on a long frame. He wore their non-descript black fatigues, with no identifiers except his name tag. His eyes were as dark as his beard, and when he came in he looked between Thadria and the girl, raising an eyebrow in question.

“We have a problem,” Thadria said. “She’s elf-struck.”

Before Deron could reply, the girl took her hand from Thadria’s, who turned at the movement to face the girl again. The girl, her eyelids heavy from elven magic, leaned forward and lightly touched Thadria’s cheek.

Her expression and smile were vague as she said; “You look just like the pretty woman at the window.”

The girl’s pale skin was a stark contrast to Thadria’s, whose was the black of a raven’s wing. At the words and the gentlest brush of tiny fingers, Thadria’s heart wrenched and blood drained from her face. Her stomach turned threateningly at the enraptured gaze from the tiny human, and she swallowed back the bile rising to her throat.

“I see,” Deron said. His voice rumbled in the small space, like thunder at a great distance. Then he sighed. “This isn’t going to go over well.”

“No, it won’t,” Thadria said.

Being elf-struck was something that happened to only a small percentage of the human population. Most humans were fascinated with the fae, much the way they were with famous people. The average fan is excited and star-struck when meeting their preferred celebrity, but there were those select few fans that took things too far. Who were too intense. That rabid desire was similar to being elf-struck.

However, to the people it impacted, seeing the fae was like being drowned in the highest quality, feel-good drug imaginable, and smiling right until their last breath. If they did manage to detox, they were left with a yearning so strong, most didn’t last long beyond that. No one knew why it impacted some more than others, and most not at all. The best guess elven scholars had, was that the people it affected the strongest had fae blood somewhere in their heritage. Thadria supposed it was as good a guess as any, but it didn’t do a whole lot of good for anyone right now.

The girl had scooted forward, letting the beloved toy slip from her lap. It landed with a soft wumph on the floor, and it took everything Thadria had in her not to jerk her hand away from the girl and break the connection. She remained still as the darkest hour of Middle Night, while the girl reached for Thadria’s head.

“Pretty,” she said, as she smoothed her hands over Thadria’s silken, porcelain white hair.

Thadria was glad now, more than ever, that their dress code required her to have her hair pulled up and in a bun. While contact with the child was the only thing keeping her from either slipping into a near-comatose state or descending into hysterics, it was also a double-edged sword. More contact would mean a greater dependency to elven touch, and it might already be too late. The fact that the child didn’t try to get closer to Thadria when she first came in the room, or outright climb all over her now, was a bad sign. A sign that the child could slowly fade away, until she was nothing more than a shell of a human, and then die.

“Go get the humans. The quicker we get her started on the meds, the better,” Thadria said, her voice hushed as she kept her eyes on the girl.

The problem wasn’t just with the child, either. Elves in general had an unhealthy fascination with humans, as did most fae. Blend human genetics with that of elves, and the combination was nearly irresistible. She wanted nothing more than to cuddle the child. Care for her. Kill for her.

The final urge was sharp as broken glass, and twice as deadly. The longer the child’s hand remained on her, the harder she had to fight against the rage howling to be released. To slaughter everyone and everything that was remotely a threat to her.

“Are you okay?”

“Just go. I’ll be fine,” she said, and almost managed to say in a calm tone. The only thing that betrayed her was the slight whine to her voice in, ‘fine’.

Deron grumbled as he walked away, and Thadria leaned away from the girl. Shuddering as contact between them was broken. She had to get herself together, because it was going to be difficult enough to convince the humans of what needed to be done. If they came in here, and she was twitching and growling at them, there was zero chance they’d go along with it.

So, she took a deep breath, and concentrating on centering herself. The girl slipped back into lethargy, and the two of them waited in silence for the humans to show up.

 

<****>

 

It didn’t go over well, but Thadria hadn’t expected it to. In the end, the only thing that convinced them was when the child’s mood violently swung in the opposite direction. They were hopeful that they could reattach the social worker’s ear. When Deron offered to send their medic to the hospital to help with the healing, they were met with cold eyes, snarls, and one cop barely refrained from spitting on the captain.

It also helped that there were no living relatives, distant or not, to take her. Given the explanation they gave the humans along with her outburst, it was better she didn’t become a ward of the state. There was precedent with other species of supernaturals, where an afflicted child was given to a group to care for. Deron had called in to the social worker’s office, and they grudgingly agreed to send over the guardianship paperwork.

“I’m assuming you’ll need some time off to sort this out?” Deron asked from the driver’s seat.

Thadria was in the back with the girl…Charlotte. She was fast asleep, her head on Thadria’s lap, and clutching the floppy rabbit. Even though she tried to keep her hands occupied, they inevitably found their way to Charlotte’s hair, running her fingers through it. The girl sighed, content, while Thadria did the same in exasperation.

“Yes. I have to get her somewhere safe, and started on the meds—for both our sakes. Plus, Nenia is still out there, and given how I’m reacting to the girl I wouldn’t put it past her to try and snatch Charlotte.”

“It’s that bad?” Deron asked, the concern in his voice growing.

“It’s…not good. I’m ready to tear apart anything that breathes in her general direction. We don’t have many cases of this, so I’m not sure if such a strong reaction is normal, but I know she has elven in her line somewhere. It might be that a Power among my people is her ancestor, which could explain it.”

Thadria had her doubts about this. Powers rarely deigned to associate with the regular elves, let alone humans, who were viewed as barely better than animals. However astronomical the odds, though, it was her best guess. It also made her feel a little better in the face of her own powerlessness to resist the pull to care for the girl. She could never stand up to a Power, so what hope would she have against any of their offspring?

Deron grunted. “Looks like you landed yourself in a hot mess,” he said, in a tone that implied he didn’t envy her.

Thadria’s laugh was humorless, and then she said; “You have no idea. I’ll be lucky if the Elders don’t skin me alive for bringing her to the city, but there’s not much choice. She needs the meds, I need approval from them to watch over her until she reaches adulthood, and I imagine that whatever power lay dormant in her will need training.”

Thadria had had no intentions of being a mother in her own right, and it would be a disservice to Charlotte and her mother’s memory to insinuate herself in such a role. There was a whole mountain of responsibilities and things to work out that had fallen on her head in the last day. They’d just have to take it one obstacle at a time.

“Maybe you’ll get lucky, and they’ll be struck dumb like you over how adorable she is. Better you than me, though,” Deron said, though not unkindly.

Thadria huffed out a laugh, and continued to stroke Charlotte’s hair. The road hummed beneath their vehicle, and the first tendrils of dawn were stretching languidly across the sky.

“If only I were so lucky.”

No, the odds of the Elders falling all over themselves to help her care for the girl was slim. Looking down at her, though, as her slender shoulders rose and fell from the steady breathing of sleep, it didn’t matter. She’d fight them, oh, how she’d fight. Settling back into the seat, Thadria rested her head against the window. She had a suspicion that she’d need all the sleep she could get.

World of Warcraft Class Micro-Stories: Death Knight

 

The rattle of bones churning in the dry ground offered a hollow, delicate melody, like a wind chime caught in a breeze created by the damning sighs of the many people she’d killed. “Such sweet music,” she crooned. Her glowing, ice blue eyes flashed in anticipation as she pondered the grave before her.

The tombstone was so old no one living would be able to decipher the weather-worn stone, and for the first time in years she smiled. It cracked her bloodless lips and revealed a set of sharpened teeth, which were almost as startling as her exposed bones and minimal skin.

“Rise,” her raspy voice called, and the one in the grave before her had no choice but to do as she commanded. “Rise,” she urged, “and obey.” The final word held power like thunder, and was like the cracking of a whip.

As the rotting, putrid ghoul heaved its way from the earth as though it were being spat out, it quivered at the feet of the creature in front of it. “Come,” she said, her voice full of compulsion like lightning striking at what was left of the ghoul’s brain. “We have much work to do.”

Book Review ~~ Dave vs. The Monsters: Emergence

 

 

They say the only two things guaranteed in life are death and taxes. Dave Hooper has managed to avoid both, though the IRS and recent events in Dave’s life are doing their best to cash in on his debts. Dave is a father in a self-destructive, downward spiral who is currently fonder of hookers, blow, and booze than of taking care of or seeing his kids—or paying taxes. Though, who can really blame him about the taxes?

He was heading back a day early for his shift on an off-shore oil rig, hungover and hating life in general, when his world crashed down around his ears. Monsters were attacking the rig and eating his guys. What’s a safety manager to do? Piss your pants and kick monster ass, of course.

Art by: Concept Artist and Illustrator Ray Lederer for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Emergence is the first book in John Birmingham’s Dave vs. The Monsters series, and it follows our, (as per the back of the book), ‘unworthy champion of humanity’. Apparently, humans learned nothing from Tolkein’s Dwarves of Moria and they dug too deep, releasing monsters not seen on Earth since humans thought caves and mud huts were high class living.

Overall, the book is an enjoyable read and an interesting take on what would happen if your average Joe Schmoe were thrown into a monster madness situation. I do have a few issues with it, but not enough to keep me from reading more into the series.

First, the pros:

  • As I said above, it feels like a more realistic take on the average person being thrown into one of these situations. Whereas in similar books with comparable concepts, (Monster Hunters International comes to mind), the person has some special skill, are blessed by Fate, or have been training all their lives to fight the adversary, whoever or whatever that may be. It’s a sort of Buffy the Vampire Slayer syndrome for main characters. I’m not saying these special people have it easy because of their powers, only that they do have them right from the get-go, and generally know how to use them.

Dave, on the other hand, is not the first thing that comes to mind when you picture a ‘hero’. I won’t spoil anything about the book here, but let’s just say that Dave’s rise to herodom is both awkward and not a little painful.

  • The military stuff in the book is mostly accurate. I really enjoyed the fact there wasn’t some government agency that crawled out of the woodwork having expected something like this to happen. As Heath, our Navy officer in charge, points out, “All you’ve got is JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command).” And Heath isn’t some super-commando, he just happened to be the closest military presence to the oil rig when all the bad stuff went down, hence he’s put mostly in charge.

It also takes time to mobilize military assets, especially during unknown encounters and in a situation where there is no Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for what’s going down. Because the monsters aren’t following a pattern that a typical terrorist organization would follow, and the fact they have no idea where they’ll show up, it’s impossible to adapt procedures that quickly.

  • I liked the monster descriptions and concepts, as they weren’t based on anything from myth or legend on Earth (for the most part). It felt like it pulled from various fantasy worlds, like the Drow in Forgotten Realms and some Vord from the Codex Alera for their hierarchy and hivemind-type stuff. The different clans and abilities of clans were also interesting.
Found at: http://codexalera.wikia.com/wiki/Vord

Now, the cons:

  • My biggest gripe with the book is the endless exposition that could have been done through interaction with the monsters and other characters. I got more than halfway through the book and there were only two interactions with the bad guys at that point: the initial one, and a very brief one after Dave gets out of the hospital.

It felt more like an alternate history book than a fantasy novel. I wanted to see more interaction with the monsters to get details on how they worked, instead of Dave just constantly doing his thing. (Not going to tell you what it is, you’ll just have to read for yourself). Dave’s thing should have been used as an addendum to the interactions, not the primary source. Which brings me to my next issue…

  • The monster viewpoints in the book added almost nothing to the book overall, and even less to the plot. In fact, you could probably skip the ones that are chapters by themselves and not miss out on much. While it could be interesting, and it gave us a look into their hierarchy and how they function, it got incredibly tedious to have to basically translate their way to a human understanding/concepts.

Everything we learned from their viewpoints could have been done in Dave interactions with the monsters. In fact, the little bits woven in where the monsters interacted with Dave and we were getting information from their point of view were great—in small doses.

  • Compton isn’t filled out very well as a character, and as a result his actions at the end of the book had the plot fall on its face right at the finish line. In fact, some of the characters we meet for only a few pages leave a more lasting impression than Compton.

It might have to do with another character explaining Compton’s motives instead of Dave (especially), Heath, or Ashbury having any real confrontation with him. He just doesn’t come across as anyone willing to throw their weight around enough to do what he does at the end of the book.

  • The main character can be hard to connect to for some people. For people who haven’t gone through any self-destructive behavior in their life, Dave can come off as an emotionally stunted, major scumbag, and incredibly unlikable. He’s very: Work hard. Play hard. Damn the consequences. Even to the detriment of his family. So, there might be a majority-ish of people who can’t understand his motives and actions.

The nitpicks:

  • I have never met a woman who says they have, “good breeding hips,” so J2’s comment made me cringe a bit. Perhaps it’s a regional thing, and I just don’t ‘get it’.
  • Some of the emotional reactions of characters didn’t track for me, and left me scratching my head as to why they reacted the way they did. There were times people got pissed off at Dave for something he said, that left me wondering why they reacted to him like that. I’m putting it in the nitpicks because that could just be a failing on my part, and not the author’s.

The tl;dr:

Concept: Good. Execution: Shaky.

All in all, I give it 3/5 stars.

As I said, the cons won’t stop me from reading the rest of the books, but I’d like to see more plot and character interaction, and less exposition. Where it ended for the first book had the feeling of the middle-point in your average novel with good pacing and plot.

I’d relegate the series to something you could read between waiting for your favorite authors to release their next book, and I don’t think I’d ever buy a hardback if the rest of the series is similar.

Writing Prompt ~~ The Truce

Music: Bad things – Jace Everett

 

Depending on a person’s proclivity for nocturnal activities, it was either far too early or far too late for what walked through my kitchen door at 5 am.

I’d been minding my own business, getting ready for the day by drinking tea and reading some news articles on my phone before heading out for some off the clock, weekend training, when I heard the front door open and close. I barely managed to stop myself from rolling my eyes. My roommate/partner was dragging themselves in at an ungodly hour, yet again, after being out all night. It was unnatural, even among superheroes, for someone to get so little sleep and still be so incredibly…perky. My lip curled at the word.

Perhaps it was a byproduct of her power: energy absorption. She could pull energy from anything, ranging from solar rays, to sticking her finger in a light socket, to pulling calories directly from a living being. As a result, she was always on this rather strange, but natural for her, high. In all honestly, I believe it has scrambled her brains a bit, but there was no denying she was a good person, and utterly pure in her intentions and actions. Though she didn’t always make the best decisions.

I sighed and shook my head, turning my attention back down to the article on my phone. I was a few lines in before I realized the steps I heard coming toward the kitchen were too numerous and oddly staggered to just be the footsteps of one person. I sighed yet again, and did my level best to not succumb to the rising annoyance at the fact my partner had brought yet another acquaintance home.

I was vacillating between my two choices of interaction: no eye contact and only making noncommittal noises in response to her questions and exclamations, or the third degree, complete with scowls and sneers. Deciding on the latter, and putting my tea down on the table, I turned my attention to the doorway just in time to catch Felicity Kist—a.k.a Voltra—walk into the kitchen with the biggest, brightest smile.

She was light and goodness wrapped in a short, curvy body, graced with thick, flax-golden hair cascading down her back like a shining waterfall, with jewel-bright blue eyes, and dimples that could make men and women swoon at a hundred paces.

I narrowed my eyes and opened my mouth to admonish her when the second person came in behind her. At this point, my mouth dropped all the way open and my eyes widened to their limit.

Trailing behind her, seemingly willingly and at a level of unconcerned edging on boredom, was Lucas Trex—Nightmare—our archnemesis. He was what you expected from a villain: dark hair, dark eyes, lean and long-limbed, and devilish good looks that could tempt a saint with the smallest curl of his lips.

The only similarity between us was our height, both above average tall, but that was where it ended. I was bulkier, my eyes a washed out grey, hair the color of a good butterscotch pudding, and a square jaw.

“Felicity!” I exclaimed, and jumped to my feet, knocking over my tea and dropping my phone to the floor with a loud clatter. “You will explain yourself this instant!”

If anything, Felicity’s smile grew even wider instead of being tempered by my shock and anger. “I won him in a poker game, Asher!” she exclaimed, and even clapped her hands with joy. “Isn’t that wonderful?”

“You. What?!” My eyes darted to Lucas, who merely shrugged and started looking around the kitchen. “That’s not a thing, Felicity. You don’t win people in poker games. Has he used his powers on you? Are you under his spell?” I asked, panic welling in my chest as I curled my trembling hands into fists.

My stance was wary, ready to grab Felicity to draw on her tremendous energy and manipulate it into a shield to protect us from his attacks. Or to blast him from the face of the earth. There was a lot we could accomplish partnered up that we couldn’t do apart. She could somewhat manipulate the energy she gathered, but she didn’t have my finesse or skill for it. On the other end, I was unable to draw vast amounts of energy from my environment the way she could. Without her, I could maybe gather enough to shoot a few energy darts, with just enough power to sting but not really injure. And without me to help balance and direct her energy she’d be bouncing off the walls, or in the worst-case: explode.

Lucas scoffed. “Not likely. The girl’s brain is such a mess and runs at a ridiculous rate of speed. I’d be lucky not to go insane spending any time in there.” He was probably right about her brain, and his voice was smooth like sin and wrapped in chocolate. “Plus, I don’t do magic or spells—I’m no wizard or mage. I manipulate psionic waves to produce the most terrifying nightmares or most exquisite dreams,” he said, sounding almost offended that I’d called what he did magic.

“Completely beside the point,” I ground out, shaking off the way his words and voice conjured images in my mind with the words ‘exquisite dreams’. “You are our enemy, and you must have tricked her in some way to get in here!” I declared, finally reclaiming my scowl and jabbing my finger in his direction.

He simply raised an eyebrow. “Pointing is rude, you know. Do they not teach you manners at that sorry excuse for an academy you attended? Or the agency you joined?” At my growl he shook his head and sighed. “Pity.”

“You-you—” I sputtered, but gave up on interacting with the infuriating man. “We are taking him in now, Felicity,” I said, hissing her name.

She pouted. She actually pouted at me. “But Lucas said we could have some fun if I won him,” she said, turning her lightbulb bright and innocent smile to the man.

There it was. The curl of his lip that turned my knees to jelly and made my mouth so dry I could swear I’d swallowed sand.

“Yes, I did,” he purred, gently trailing a finger along her jaw. I thought I was going to have heart palpitations, and then he turned a sly glance my way and I knew I was. “Would you care to join us…Asher?”

In a moment of weakness, between sucking in a shocked breath and exhaling, he crippled me not with his namesake—Nightmares and terrors—but with the other, softer side of his power.

Candlelight, silk sheets, and tangled limbs. Soft touches, smooth skin, and throaty moans. The scene played behind my eyes as though I was there, amidst them. Then, as my real vision was peppered with black spots, I realized I’d stopped breathing.

I let out a strangled sound and my knees couldn’t take it anymore. I collapsed into the seat, panting, and holding on to the edge of the seat as though it was the only thing keeping me from disappearing into the dream vision.

“I’ll take that as a tentative, ‘yes’,” he said, and chuckled, the sound deep and wicked.

“Isn’t he lovely?” Felicity sighed in delight, and then turned her attention to me. “Don’t look so worried, Asher. We’re bound by a magical truce woven into the rules of the game. For 24 hours we can’t harm each other, in body, mind, or soul. For the span of a single day we can just enjoy-” She put one hand on his chest, “-each other’s-” Her other hand snaked to the back of his neck, “-company.” She gently pulled him down for a long, deep kiss.

For what seemed like an eternity, the only sounds in the kitchen, (aside from the blood rushing through my body with such force it made me lightheaded), were gentle sighs, the rustling of clothing, and the slow drip of my tea leaking to the floor.

Heat pooled through me like fire roaring through my veins, and I let out a barely audible, “Okay.”

At first, I thought they might not have heard me, but then they broke apart and turned my way. I wasn’t prepared for the both of them to level all their respective and considerable charms my way. I exhaled weakly at the magnificence of them, their lips full from kissing, eyes dark with lust, and bodies pressed together as though they were two halves of a whole.

As though they were of the same mind, they both held out a hand for me at the same time. I gulped, but stood, and walked on shaky legs around the kitchen to take their hands. Lucas licked his lips hungrily and Felicity smiled a small, secretive smile.

“I told you he’d be perfect to balance us out—the grey between light and dark,” she said, not taking her eyes from mine.

“Well, you’re not wrong,” Lucas agreed, or at least his version of it. Then his eyes traveled over the two of us. “I hope no one planned to rest for the next 24 hours,” he said, his voice going low and purring again.

I nearly melted right there. The effect of being so close to the two of them and hearing his words was heady and intoxicating.

Felicity laughed, the sound of it delicate and pleased, while I just stood there, trying to catch my breath and calm my wildly beating heart.

Instead of answering, she let go of our hands and turned around, heading to the stairs that lead up to our bedrooms. Lucas gave me another turn-your-brain-to-mush smile before turning on his heal and following her up the stairs, looking like nothing less than a sleek, dark predator seeking out his prey.

I let out one last shaky exhale and followed them.

Today was going to be a very long day.

Writing Prompt ~~ Of Fire and Rage

The lake was still and shiny as glass, as if he could step on it and walk all the way across. It was one of those days when anything seems possible, and he stood there, breathing deep and imagining taking the first step. Then the cracking of the ice like a whip cutting the air. He shivered, the phantom sensations of frigid water washing over him, swallowing him down. Inhaling water. Sinking. Drowning.

It had been a day where anything seemed possible, just as every day with her had been, and just as quick as Hope had taken root in his soul, She’d ripped it to shreds.

Though the lake whispered sweet nothings to him like the lover he’d just lost, his feet remained firmly on the shore. The snow crunched beneath his black combat boots each time he shifted his weight, and the cold seeped into every last inch of him with icy, grasping fingers. He didn’t shiver. In fact, anyone looking on might believe he was at ease, admiring the lake. The only sign of tension was out of sight: his fists clenched in his jacket pockets.

That, and the blood.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been covered with it, though he wished such things had been left in his past where they belonged. But he’d let his guard down and this was the price. He sighed, and turned his face upward to lock onto to the Heavens above, containing thousands of stars, a full moon, and darkness between them all that didn’t hold a candle to the cold dark that consumed his soul. His crystalline blue eyes were flat and dull.

“For over a thousand years I have served you,” he said, the edge of his voice ragged. “Why?” he asked, the word ripped from the rawness of what remained of his soul.

No answer. There never was. He growled, and ran a hand over his blood-spattered, bone white hair.

“Forgive me,” she whispered. “I’d never want to add to your pain, but I wouldn’t trade this time for anything. I love you.” A weak smile lovingly graced her lips, and she brushed an errant lock of his hair from his forehead. Then her smile faltered, her usually warm, caramel eyes slid to a distant point over his left shoulder, and her arm fell to the floor of the cabin. She was gone.

He clutched her tighter to him, his face buried in her shoulder and hair. Even over the multitude of death scents hanging heavy on the air—blood, bowels, burned flesh, and more—he could still smell her. Vanilla, cinnamon, and apples. She’d joked that it probably had nothing to do with what she actually smelled like, and more his insatiable sweet tooth in regards to baked goods.

He’d run his hands through the thick, wavy, golden brown locks each chance he had, and this would be the last. He didn’t even care that said hair was covered in blood. The already drying, tacky fluid on the strands left trails of it on his face, as though someone had raked their claws across it.

He didn’t move for some time, and though his muscles screamed and cramped he refused to break the moment. To leave her. Eventually, though, he did. The only signs of his grief were the clear tracks of skin cutting through the red.

He hadn’t been able to leave her there, amidst the bodies and scattered bits of demon decorating what was left of the main room like gory confetti. But when he’d broken the shovel on his first thrust trying to penetrate the frozen ground, he fell back on the old ways.

Unlike creatures from other realms or dimensions, demons were bound to the earth and did not disappear on death. It was messy business, killing demons, even more so covering the evidence up. The human idea of what they thought their world was versus what is was, was tenuous and fragile. Humans tended to react rather violently at any disturbance in regards to their concept of their world. He could only be glad that his training in the early years happened when telling someone you were hunting demons got you praise, instead of a ‘go straight to the institution’ ticket.

The cottage burned brightly enough that someone might have wagered that white phosphorus had been thrown into the one-room structure, but that wasn’t the case. Lower-level and construct demons—demons created from the blood and/or flesh of more powerful demon—had highly flammable blood. It was not uncommon for larger demons to scoop up a handful, eviscerate them, set them on fire, and then lob them at opposing forces.

He grimaced as one particularly gruesome battle surfaced in his mind. A village, a hot summer, lots of straw, thatched-roof huts, and a horde of construct demons.

After setting the cottage ablaze, which would surely attract the local authorities no matter how remote their location, he moved back over to her cairn. Though he knew it was an abuse of powers, he could not bring himself to care. They could take his power, for all the good it’d done him, and shove it up their self-righteous asses. He’d used the hot, white light that burned deep within his core to carve out a footstone. The cairn itself overlooked the lake, and he would have done better for her if the fight had not taken so much out of him.

 

Emily Grace Farwell

25 December 2017

“Hope is seeing light in spite of being
surrounded by darkness”

 

“You were my light,” he rasped, his throat protesting the abuse it’d received between the yelling and smoke inhalation.

He looked to the sky once more and scowled. “I might not have been your most well-behaved soldier, but no one deserved this. Were you trying to teach me I didn’t belong here? Well, bang-up job.” He ground the words out from between clenched teeth.

When he turned his eyes back down to the cairn, his glower softened for a moment before snapping back in full force.

“Damn you, Emily! I told you how dangerous it was to be with me, but you never listen. You let optimism and hope guide you, and it set you on the path to your grave.” He shook his head. “I know I’m to blame for this, and you could have had so much—“

“God, you were always pathetic,” a female voice interrupted him, the tone half exasperated and half disgusted.

His frown deepened and his lip curled into sneer. He turned around and took in the figure near the tree line. She was tall, her body hard, lean, and scarred from countless battles. Their uniform had received upgrades over the centuries, evolving with military trends. They currently sported cargo pants, long-sleeved, lightweight tactical combat shirts, combat boots, and armor that consisted of a vest as well as pieces that covered just about anything but their joints. A deviation from the conventional might be their magical shielding that channeled their inner power through the plating, as well as gorgets and inner-thigh plating to discourage werewolves, vampires, and anything else that might want to gain access to a major artery for a snack or quick kill. While a solider in the desert had to worry about IEDs, their brand of combat was more concerned with not having your throat torn open by something with fangs. The material was magically enhanced to be just about anything one could hope for: lightweight, temperature-controlled, flexible, and nigh indestructible. Of course, they never did seem to get away from the red color scheme, which was as dark as a full-bodied red wine like Syrah.

Her platinum white hair was cropped nearly as short as his. Flint grey eyes matched the brittle laugh she let out at his regard, and it sounded as though it was sharp enough to make the air bleed.

The one thing she was not carrying was her sword, which sent a shock through him that trembled down to his very core. No one went anywhere without their weapon. Ever. Even within their stronghold, no one was ever to be unarmed. It was as good as him looking at her naked, which still didn’t even begin to cover how weird it was, since he knew she showered with the damn thing strapped to her back.

“Sabrael,” he greeted, tone cautious. His snarling anger had drained away in the face of her…bareness.

Her eyes narrowed, but a small, vicious smile quirked the corner of her mouth. “I told Them it would get even your temperamental attention, Desh.”

Tadeshiel—Desh—scoffed. “Considering it’s almost like you’re flitting around missing a limb, I’d say so,” he replied scathingly.

“Is that how you’ve felt the last three years?” she asked, tilting her head to the side as she considered him.

Her words jabbed at him like tiny knives in his weakest spots. “That’s not your business,” he hissed, and spat the words at her like venom.

“So that’s a yes,” she said brightly, and ignored his growling in favor of examining her nails. “No one believed you’d last this long, and especially not the human, what with her being as fragile as they are.” She tilted her head to the cairn.

“Also none of your business,” he said, tone low and warning.

It was her turn to scoff. “Not my business? You mean when my partner abandons the Order we’ve been a part of for over a thousand years, and then taking up with a human no less—”

“I—”

But she overrode him, “—after everyone told him, over and over that it was a bad idea, even by those who had been through the exact same situation? But no, it’s none of my business when the High and Mighty Tadeshiel, He Who is Perfect in Every Way, Slayer of Armies, Possessor of the Thickest Skull in the History of—”

“None of those are my proper titles—”

“—the Order, One Who Knows Better than All, up and abandons us—me!—in the middle of the biggest battle, during the biggest war we’ve had in centuries. That doesn’t concern me?” Her voice had reached a fever pitch with her final word. Her eyes bled from their usual grey to molten gold as her power rose with her anger.

In the face of Desh’s numb silence, she continued.

“Do you realize what you put everyone through when you laid your sword down? I can’t even begin to recount the ramifications, since we were in the middle of a battle and one of our Imperial Legates walked away!”

Still, he said nothing.

“I don’t even know why they sent me out here to speak with you,” she said, her disgust almost palpable on the air like slime. “You’re nothing but a co—”

“I watched him die!” Desh shouted, his chest heaving witht he sudden onslaught of emotions Sabrael’s presence had evoked.

Sabrael’s expression was one of bewilderment. “Who…?”

Desh ran a hand through his hair. He’d done that a lot today. “Douma.”

She raised a single brow. “Douma?”

Desh blew out a sigh and nodded.

“The…healer?” she questioned, not quite able to place the name. To be fair, she had her own legions to oversee, so the fact she could even come close to the mark was impressive. Though, she’d always had a knack for memorizing troop names, faces, and abilities so could put them in a weird ranking system in her mind as to their usefulness. Also, it made punishments easier when she could identify all her troops on sight. He couldn’t figure out how she did it.

“Yes,” Desh said, exasperated. “The healer. He was…newer to our ranks. Under 100. Bright kid.”

Sabrael pursed her lips into a thin line at the mention of the healer’s age. “That’s practically a toddler.” After a small pause, though, she sighed. “Desh, we die all the time. I mean, not as often as the demons, mind you,” she said, and a ghost of a smile played over his lips. “It’s all part and parcel of what we do.”

Desh growled again. “I know that. It wasn’t necessarily the fact that he died, it was more how everyone behaved after it.”

A mop of curly black hair, a lopsided, dimpled smile, and eyes that Desh realized now were so close in shade to Emily’s it made his chest ache. The demons had exercised their evil tendencies to the upmost of their ability when they came across the tent of injured warriors. Though immunes were trained in combat, they were caught unawares. None survived.

Desh walked into the small clearing where his immunes used to be, his eyes searching for one face in particular. When he found him, body cut nearly in two as it covered an injured warrior, there was no question in Desh’s mind that Douma had tried to protect the injured with his own life.

‘He was probably waiting for you to show up and save the day,’ a voice had whispered in his mind. A cruel thought from the darkest recess of his mind, and one that had repeated like a mantra since that moment, slowing wearing away at his sanity.

He’d tried to regroup and secure the area, but what he saw on the faces of his soldiers made his gut twist: knotted eyebrows, narrowed eyes, curled lips and wrinkled noses. Disgust. Whether it was at the situation, him, or both, Desh didn’t know. They didn’t want to expend forces to secure a clearing of dead bodies, despite the fact that each of them had been saved by the immunes at one point or another.

It didn’t matter that, logically, the commander in him knew they were correct. All he could think about was the young man who spoke with such passion about being an immune, he’d nearly put Desh’s eye out as he moved his hands with his words. Between the sight of Douma giving his last breath to save his patient, and failing, and what Desh saw on the faces of his soldiers, he was done. Desh looked into each and every face around him for some flicker of guilt or remorse, but when none was forthcoming he drew his sword. Leveling his coldest sneer at the lot of them, he thrust his sword into the blood-soaked earth, turned on his heel, and left everything he’d known for a thousand years.

Now here he was. Douma and Emily were dead, and all he had gained was a seething, thick pool of bitterness and grief weighing on his soul.

She was quiet in the face of his prolonged silence, but tilted her head to let him continue. Feelings and such weren’t really her area of expertise or comfort, but she did care about keeping her mission success rate as close to perfect as possible. She was ruthless and efficient; she applied pressure and words expertly to achieve the desired results and emotions, even if she didn’t completely understand said emotions herself. This contributed to her high success rate, and she’d be damned if Desh was going to try and screw that up—again.

They were opposites in just about every way, but their opposition complemented each other, which is why their legions always worked closely together. Where he was compassionate, she was merciless. Her pragmatism tempered his idealism, and while they were both intelligent, she was shrewder in tactical thinking while Desh was more perceptive with the emotional element. Sabrael was authoritative in her command, while Desh was participative.

And that was where the problem came in.

When he said nothing more, she scowled. “You got too emotionally attached to one of your subordinates, and when everyone else didn’t stop in the middle of a battle and sob along with you, you took it upon yourself to just abandon us?”

He could understand how she might perceive it that way, but… “Douma was young, exceptionally talented, and proud to serve, but none of that mattered to them. Some of Malgareth’s forces managed to break the line close to where the non-combatants were positioned. I had told Tearny, the Prime Immunes, to move camp earlier in the day, but he argued that many of the gravely wounded could not be moved.” His voice went soft at the last part, because that had been his first mistake, borne from his compassion.

Sabrael honed in on it like a bird of prey on a field mouse. “So instead of moving everyone else save the gravely wounded, whose chance of living was less than everyone else around them, you let your subordinate play on your kindness. Instead a handful being slaughtered they wiped out your Immunes, including this Douma,” she finished.

As she spoke, his demeanor shrank in on itself as her words beat him about his head and heart, making him small and frail. There was a howling in the back of his mind, like a storm ready to break upon the shore of his sanity.

“I revise my previous statement: you’re a coward and an idiot.”

He snapped. In his fight with the demons that took Emily’s life, he’d known his physical abilities had deteriorated over the three years he’d been away. Chopping wood was not an equal replacement for near-constant battle training. However, when he flashed across the clearing to attack Sabrael, he realized just how far he’d fallen.

Construct demons were pathetic, and the only advantage they usually had were numbers. That’s what happened with Emily. That and the fact she was human and fragile, and all he had were his personal magics and no sword. Sabrael, on the other hand, was not a construct demon. She’d always been top of just about every class they took, and she relished hand-to-hand combatives.

Sabrael turned, his fist missing her face. She grabbed his arm, continued his momentum with a slight adjustment, and her power flared. Her strength easily tripled with the surge of energy, and the trees surrounding the clearing never stood a chance.

Sabrael flashed to the impact crater past half a mile of splintered evergreens. He was dazed, and the disturbed snow of the trees created a slight haze and drifted slowly to resettle on the land. Though he’d recover quickly, it wasn’t quick enough if he needed to defend himself from her if she decided to go on the offensive. So when her face appeared in his field of vision, he stiffened. A thrill of terror sped through him like rabbits being flushed from their burrow, and his mind scrambled to clamp down on the dread threatening to overwhelm him. She was smiling. Sabrael only smiled when she was going to kill or heavily maim something.

“I—” he spluttered, trying to find the words, willing his body to cooperate.

“I feel better now, don’t you?” she crooned.

His eyes widened.

“Now,” she said, her tone deadly calm and smile sickly sweet, “I read the after battle reports, which were as painful to procure as it would be to drink incaendium piss—” Desh flinched at that glorious imagery, “—because fully half of both our forces were slaughtered. All because you decided to let personal guilt outweigh your duty and responsibility to your people. Not mine, not the Order’s, yours,” she said, the last word hissing and full of contempt.

“Sabr—”

She kicked him in the ribs. It might not have looked like much, but the cracking that reverberated through his body followed on its heels by searing pain and an inability to breathe begged to differ.

“I’m not finished. It’s rude to interrupt,” she said, voice calm again.

When he finally managed to drag in a breath, he coughed, and could not fully breathe in. His chest was tight, and his vision started to darken around the edges. Sabrael rolled her eyes and leaned over. He tried to move away, but she dug her finger painfully into the spot she’d kicked and he writhed in response. As her power moved through his body, it was as though someone had poured molten metal through his veins. His back arched and his fingers curled with the need to claw at something.

He’d forgotten how much healing hurt, especially coming from someone as unsuited to it as Sabrael. Yes, any of them could heal, but with a lack of a healer’s precision and temperament, it was like cutting off a limb to cure a broken bone. It worked…sort of. The only reason Desh could stand it was the fact they were of a similar potential strength. If she tried this with someone further down the respective ladder than them, they could die from the shock.

When she removed her finger, and along with it her power, he sagged back into his crater. His consciousness and body were floating in the wake of so much foreign power running rampant through his body.

“Drink this, or you’ll be useless for the next day,” a voice said, the words floating like dandelion fluff through his mind.

Something cool and hard pressed into his lips, but when he didn’t open his mouth the voice scoffed with disgust and forced it open. The liquid that hit the back of his throat was refreshing and cool like a mountain stream, followed closely on its heels with what felt like lightning dancing over his nerves. Desh gasped, and then coughed when some of the potion went down the wrong way.

When he’d relearned how to breath, he opened a bleary eye. Desh didn’t know how long he lay there, out of his mind, but when he came to Sabrael was sitting on a stump, her chin propped in the palm of her hand. Her eyes were back to their usual grey, her power having receded to just below the surface.

Given what Desh knew of Sabrael, he wasn’t sure if staying silent or speaking would contribute to his continued existence. As she watched him like a bug she was deciding whether or not to crush, Desh took a chance.

“Why are you here, Sabrael?” The words came out roughly, reflecting his weariness like a mirror.

She simply continued to look at him for a moment, not answering. Just as he started to say something else, she spoke.

“We want you back.”

The words froze his insides as though he’d actually plunged into the lake as he had imagined earlier.

“No.” It was a knee-jerk, instant response. The word hadn’t finished forming in his mind before it flew from his lips.

She raised a single eyebrow, the one on the right that was bisected by one of her many scars.

“Wallowing in self-pity for three years isn’t enough?” she asked, scathingly.

Desh scowled. “I just buried someone I loved, and you want me to jump back into the fray?”

Sabrael snorted and shook her head. “As if they’d put you in charge again after what you pulled? No.” She paused and cast a sly glance his way. “Despite the mess you left, I managed to beat back the demon horde, and as a result I earned a shiny new promotion. My record has never been better. We recently won a major battle and they offered me a reward. I chose you.” She shrugged.

Desh’s eyes bulged. “But you said They sent you to talk to me—”

“I lied to make you angry,” she said, cutting him off with a nonchalant wave of her hand as well as her words. She scanned the surrounding area. “And it worked. It broke the tension you were holding like a taut bowstring, and made you stop and listen because I could beat the wings off you right now. Now, do I have your attention?”

He quieted but held his glare. She’d manipulated him, and easily at that. He gave her a grudging nod, his teeth gritted against lashing out with words, and his fists clenched, because using those had proven equally as useless.

“Good,” she said, looking like the cat who ate the canary. “As I said, you were my reward.” She paused again and sniffed, looking down her nose at him. “Though maybe not a good one. This was my one chance to bring you back into the fold with minimal fuss, because they want to keep me happy and winning battles.”

“I still don’t see how this benefits me. I don’t want to go back,” he said, grumpy and dare he think it, even pouting a bit? He didn’t like to lose, and Sabrael had him at a distinct disadvantage.

She huffed out an annoyed breath. “If you’d shut up, I’m not finished,” she snapped.

Desh shut his mouth accordingly, though he still didn’t lose the scowl.

“I knew you’d need an incentive, but I haven’t gotten there yet. First, I want you to hear my terms, and if they are agreeable to you then I’ll tell you why I think you’ll jump at the chance of coming back. Okay?” she asked. She stood up then, hand going to her hips as she gazed down at him in his pathetic state. She knew he just needed a little push.

He didn’t like it, but she was going about this in a very fair way for him, but instead of being relieved, it made him all the more suspicious. Instead of luring him with the incentive, and then forcing him to give into her demands, she was giving him the chance to hear her demands, decide if he could handle them, and then walk away if he couldn’t.

It stank as bad as day-old fish left baking in a high summer heat…

“Fine,” he snapped back.

…but something niggled at the back of his brain, driving him forward.

“Good, now these are my demands…”

She droned on for the better part of fifteen minutes, outlining what would and would not be expected of him. It came down to the fact that Sabrael found herself rather displeased with the combat teachers, stating all the good ones had died, retired, or joined the fight on the battlefields. She was wroth about the whole situation, and the lack of proficient teachers was producing sub-par subordinates. This simply would not do.

She offered him an instructor position, but he’d hold no power—not even allowed the usual authority of a magister. She would assign him someone to dole out punishments and rewards and assist him in any way she deemed necessary. He’d be an old wolf with no fangs, teaching the young pups how to be a proper wolf. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

If she had concerns about his pride getting in the way of having no power while she held it all, then he could definitely say no one had been watching him the last three years. They’d written him off, just as he’d wanted. That being said, it was hard to get upset over hurt pride when you had none anymore.

“Okay,” he said quietly, “those aren’t the worst terms given what I did. They are agreeable, and fair.”

Her eyes went a little wide, and it made him smile. He’d surprised her, and it was an interesting, yet somewhat gratifying, feeling.

“Just like that?” she asked, incredulous.

Desh nodded. “Just like that. Now spill, and tell me why you think I’ll come back, even with such a kind offer,” he said, though he couldn’t keep the mocking tone out of his voice. Nothing in Heaven, Hell, or on Earth would get him to go back…

“Malgareth is back.”

…except maybe that.

Eyes blacker than the void, heartless as a force of nature, curved horns, and a cold smirk danced in his vision, which had gone an alarming shade of crimson. A casual and cruel taunt on the battlefield, suggesting that he should check on his immunes instead of wasting time losing a fight with him.

He closed his eyes, and his body shook with the force of the rage that howled through him like a tornado of fire and fury. Desh was glad he was still laying on the ground. He wasn’t sure he could have kept his feet in the face of that revelation in combination with his recent healing.

When he opened his eyes again, Sabrael’s face was split with a feral, pleased grin at the expression she saw on his face. He took in a deep breath, let it out, and narrowed his gaze on her.

“When can we leave?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Song Inspiration: Demons by Jacob Lee

Fan Fiction (World of Warcraft): The Greatest Gift, Chapter Two

Chapter Two
Unforgiving Winds and Ornery Beasts

Lyriah’s father explained they’d need to take three different wyverns, mostly because he had too many packs of tools to carry him, the equipment, and Lyriah, and her mother’s wyvern would also need to carry Vermilia. This meant, for the first time ever, she’d be riding a flying beast on her own. Her heart fluttered. She took a deep breath in through her nose and let it out shakily through her mouth.

She’d ridden the golden dragonhawks from the village nearest her home—Fairbreeze Village—to Silvermoon with her mother and father on various business trips, as well as for her training. They’d also taken the trip to Silvermoon to buy a mage portal to Undercity, much to the grumbling of her father. ‘Dalaran portals for 25 gold each—not in this lifetime! It’s cheaper to go to Undercity and take the zeppelin.’ But the trip between her home and Silvermoon was short, and in a place eternally visited by fair weather and gentle breezes. The Northrend landscape was another matter entirely.

The gusty winds whipped her cloak around her and Titian, and tried to take her unsteady feet out from under her. Thankfully, Vermilia padded next to her, and lent her heavy, muscular feline body as a backstop to keep her from flying into the deadly, spiked metal barricades between her and the elevator.

It might be better just to fall down the elevator than be impaled by the spikes, she thought, and gulped.

“Thank you,” she murmured to Vermilia, knowing the cat’s sharp hearing would pick up on her relief more than the words themselves.

Vermilia huffed, and then gave a few, small purrs when Lyriah scratched her thanks underneath the big cat’s ears.

As they walked, they passed various Warsong Battleguards, affiliated with the Warsong Offensive. Their cruel weapons, beaten armor, and gazes colder than the Borean Tundra itself watched the family’s progress. The Warsong Recruitment Officer, stationed right outside the elevator, caught sight of Lyriah’s mother, with her battle-hardened armor and wicked bow, and tried to catch her eye. Lyriah glanced between her mother and the heavily-armored Orc with his purple mutton chops, but her mother kept her eyes dead ahead.

When they were far enough away, her mother explained; “I have given years of my life, and parts of my body and soul I’ll never get back to the continued success of the Horde.” Then she looked down at Lyriah, her stony expression softening as she reached out and took her daughter’s hand. “My time, for now, is for my family.”

Lyriah wasn’t of age to understand all of what her mother said. Of course she’d seen the physical battle scars, but there were some scars you had to earn on your own to see them in others.

They finally reached the Wind Rider Master, a grey-furred Tauren with her hair in four different ponytails held in place by golden bands. She towered over Lyriah’s father by about a foot, and let out a mighty sneeze as the family approached.

“Pleased to meet you, I’m—achoo!—Turida Coldwind,” she said, and tried to inhale through her nose. Her armor was ornate, and druidic in Lyriah’s opinion, what with the large blue gems on her shoulders and feathers coming out from underneath her pauldrons. Of course, as fancy as her armor was, she still wielded a broom and a pail that looked suspiciously as though it contained some unpleasant leftovers from the wyverns.

Setting the pail down, Turida pulled out a handkerchief from underneath her breastplate large enough that it could have been fashioned as a long cloak for Lyriah, and still have been underfoot if she tried to walk. The tauren blew her nose, loudly, then tucked the snot-soaked cloth back underneath her breastplate. Lyriah frowned and scrunched up her nose.

Turida, of course, noticed. “This is the waif you need transported to Sholazar with you?” She snorted, as she looked Lyriah over.

Lyriah, not used to such scrutiny from an adult, blushed, which only made her angry; just like it did when the boys in Fairbreeze Village teased her. Lyriah was willowy, as most of her kind were, and not sturdy like the Tauren. She had her mother’s complexion and bone structure, but her father’s hair color and ears—which her parents reassured her she’d grow into.

“I’m no waif—I’m a hunter!” she said, taking a small step forward.

Turida considered her for a moment before letting out a deep low followed by a laugh. “You and that kitten trembling beneath your cloak might be hunters one day, but for now you’re a waif,” she said. Before Lyriah could argue further, her mother squeezed her hand. “And it’s my job to make sure waifs don’t get blown off the wyverns I’m responsible for, and tumble to their deaths.”

The gravity of her words cut off Lyriah’s comments better than a hand-squeeze could have managed, and worry dropped into her gut like a heavy rock thrown into a pond.

“Now, what I’ll need to do is use an extra strap to keep you on the saddle,” she said, sizing Lyriah up. After a moment of thinking, where her gaze was on Lyriah, but distant, as though she was more present in her thoughts than reality, she nodded. “I know which wyverns will work out the best. Follow me.”

She led them around the elevator, through a doorway into the upper tower of Warsong Hold. For a few blissful seconds the winds died down to something close to bearable, and though it was only a minute difference, the warmer temperature of the room was letting her nose thaw out a bit. Then they walked across the room and right back out through another doorway into the cold. Lyriah groaned, but all the adults studiously ignored her.

Back out in the open, the wind kicked back up and she stumbled, but her mother caught her and helped her regain her balance. When she looked up to thank her mother, her surroundings froze the words on her tongue as readily as if she’d stuck it on an icicle.

There were at least twenty to thirty wyverns out on the deck, all of them varying sizes, colors, and temperaments. Some watched the group with serious eyes, while others reared back, and had to be restrained by a stable hand.

Turida walked them over to another Tauren, a male this time with tawny fur, dark brown hair in his mane with braids behind wicked sharp horns, and a large nose ring. After Turida made their group’s introductions he introduced himself as Tohfo Skyhoof.

“We brought some of the best and hardy wyverns out here to Northrend. Why, my great-grandfather—“

Turida cut him off with smooth practice, as though she’d done it a thousand times. “Another time maybe, Tohfo. This gentleman and his family are trying to get to Sholazar.”

Tohfo looked them over with slow, ponderous consideration. “I’d say Brokenfang for the lady, Kruzok for the gentleman, and Khrohne for the youngster.”

Turida nodded. “Those were my suggestions as well. Alright, ladies with me, and sir, you follow Tohfo.”

Lyriah wondered why they split up, and then she realized the wyverns were spit down the middle of the deck between male and females, much the same way the dragonhawk breeders did in Silvermoon.

“We’ll let you go first on Brokenfang,” Turida said. As Talonia began to protest—she wanted to fly behind her daughter to make sure all went well—Turida held up a hand. “Brokenfang is an alpha female, and won’t tolerate flying behind any other wyvern. We want her concentrate on getting you to your destination, rather than fighting the other wyvern. She’s the biggest one we have, and despite her ornery temperament she’s the best at carrying larger hunter pets in the travel cages,” Turida explained.

At the word ‘cage’ Vermilia grumbled, but acquiesced under Talonia’s firm hand.

“We’ll send your daughter second on Khrohne, our most seasoned and steadfast wyvern. Not much will rattle her, and she’s willing to fly behind another female. Your husband will go on Kruzok, a male, who is used to following behind the females and is very protective of them. It’s best he take up the rear in case any trouble should arise.”

“Are you expecting trouble?” Talonia asked, raising an eyebrow.

Turida shrugged. “You’re not going for a stroll through some fancy gardens here. There are various enemy factions, not even affiliated with the Lich King, not to mention the Alliance, all between you and Sholazar. It’s all dangerous territory.” She paused. “But I’m giving you the wyverns I feel will be your best bet to all make it there safely,” Turida said, confident.

After a moment, Talonia nodded. “By your word, then.”

Then the preparations began. Vermilia and Titian were loaded into their respective cages—which neither of the felines cared for—to be carried beneath the wyvern. It had a chain from each corner connected together beneath a thick, tough leather handle for the wyvern to grip with its hind claws.

Her mother’s wyvern—Brokenfang—was huge and irritable. It was the average tawny color, and covered in large, heavy plates of armor dyed a blood red. As per her name, one of her long, lethal fangs was broken, and had been sanded down and capped off with a red spike to mirror her other fang. When my mother approached, it reared back, and various stable hands moved forward to try and calm it, but Talonia jumped lightly into the air, grabbed the bridle and yanked it down. Blood Elves may look delicate, but when the creature’s jaw snapped close as she brought it all the way down to the cold, stone floor, while also nimbly avoiding the armor-covered horns, there was no denying her mother’s deceptive strength and agility.

Her mother said nothing, just challenged the creature with a look until it huffed in indignation and submission.

“Fine work. You’d make a decent Tamer,” Turida commented, not a little impressed.

Talonia smiled, and simply mounted the beast.

Lyriah’s wyvern was far calmer. Her fur was the paler blue like that of an iceberg they passed over on the zeppelin, while her mane was darker like blue steel. Her armor was violet, and her fangs and horns were duller, and yellowed from age. Turida encouraged Lyriah to give her a nice scratch, much the way she would with Titian, and the wyvern groaned in appreciation. Though Titian was not pleased, if the hissing from the cage were any indication.

Once they’d all mounted up, and Lyriah secured with an extra strap, they cleared the immediate area so the wyverns could lift off without any hindrances.

Lyriah’s heart pounded in her chest, and her stomach was doing backflips. She watched her mother take off, and the wyvern did a few circles to gather speed, and then dove down to snatch the cage containing Vermilia. They dipped, just a hair, then regained altitude as they circled higher again.

Now it was Lyriah’s turn, and as Khrohne beat her large, leathery wings, it jostled Lyriah in her seat. She swallowed a scream, and did her best to calm down as she held the reigns in a death grip. As Khrohne circled upward as Borkenfang had done, her stomach turned from backflips of nerves, to sloshing with nausea.

This was nothing like the smooth, undulating flights of the dragonhawks back home.

Khrohne swooped down and grabbed the yowling cage containing Titian, and they were off, following her mother who was a barely discernable figure in the distance. After a few moments, she chanced turning her upper body in her seat to check for her father. He was there, and waved at her, as the male wyvern carried his equipment in a large container beneath him. His wyvern, Kruzok, was greenish with a purple mane, and armored in blue.

She turned back around, the sensation giving her a moment of vertigo. She closed her eyes, and hunkered down in Khrohne’s mane, missing the view of much of the landscape beneath them. When she finally found enough courage to peek out from the wind-whipped fur, rolling hills of brown grass and a broken path rushed by beneath her, while they passed hot springs on the right. For a few tense moments they passed over a burned and broken caravan swarming with ghostly figures, followed by an Alliance airstrip.

Lyriah hoped that’d be the worst of it, not unhappy she might have missed other dangers to send her heart beating faster than it already was. However, her spirits lifted as she saw a ridge, and an expanse of green foliage beyond it.

That must be Sholazar! Though not happy with the travel accommodations, she couldn’t help the excitement that burbled up within her.

However, when she caught flashes of what looked like beams of fire between her and the ridge, her heart beat faster again, and this time it wasn’t happiness.

As Khrohne neared the intermittent rays, it became clear they were in fact fire. The old wyvern began to gain altitude again, making sure to avoid the danger, but a sudden updraft knocked into Khrohne’s right side, sending them veering off to the left. It would have been fine, as Khrohne was as steady as the tides, but Titian decided that was the perfect time to freak out, and display her considerable temper and fear upon the cage that dared to hold her. She knocked around, hitting the cage walls, yowling as she did so.

Lyriah looked over the side of the wyvern, calling to Titian to calm down, but the fear in the young Blood Elf’s voice did not have the calming effect she might have hoped. Khrohne’s grip on the cage slipped, and as she adjusted to retighten it, her altitude dropped, bringing them dangerously close to what was shooting the beams of fire: kobolds.

One of said kobolds caught sight of her, and gestured excitedly to the others, who joined the lone kobold at his location, which they would fly over momentarily. As Khrohne regained her hold on the cage, and tried to fly higher, the kobolds unleashed streams of fire at them.

Khrohne jerked to the side, doing a roll in midair that had Lyriah’s lunch revisiting the back of her throat, avoiding the fire, but causing her to lose any control the wyvern had of the cage. It slammed into the wyvern’s wing, and she roared out in pain. They were right at the edge of the cliff leading down to the jungle of Sholazar, but the unforgiving winds had one last blow to deliver to them, and slammed them one final time.

The last thing Lyriah saw were large, green leaves rushing toward her, before the plunge caused her to black out.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Writing Prompt: Satisfied Customer

It wasn’t Grace’s usual kind of place. Her eyes cut judgmental swaths through the smoky interior of the bar, narrowing on the various ‘lowlifes’ scattered about like dry, dead leaves. Like the woman in the corner with scraggly grey hair, whose eyes were as dead as the fish in Grace’s local market. Or one of the men at the end of the bar, hunched over his beer as though a demon was coaxing his soul from him, one sip at a time.

She pursed her lips and gave a disdainful sniff, though regretted it immediately as an amalgamation of sour odors invaded her delicate nose. Her sea green eyes watered, and she coughed to try and remove the pungent flavor at the back of her throat.

“In or out, lady,” a rough voice grumbled not far from the door, the leather-clad biker squinting against the late afternoon sun streaming in behind the newcomer.

She jumped, but moved to comply, her steps small and faltering. As she made her way to the bar, her navy blue sailor pants, and blue and white striped, long-sleeve shirt were as out of place as her expertly styled, cream soda brown hair. Her white scarpin shoes hit the wooden floor with tentative thunks, and when she finally made it to the surprisingly clean bar top, a soft voice greeted her.

“What’ll ya have, doll?” a man asked, emerging from the murky shadows at the far end of the bar.

His hair was a soft black, with piercing, summer sky blue eyes. A perpetual smile quirked the corner of his mouth, and when he finally flashed a friendly smile, it was worthy of an orthodontia commercial.

Clutching her handmade bag in front of her, she slid onto a bar stool, flinching inwardly at what might be on the seat, but thankful she wore dark pants. While the bartender was a sight, her breath caught at what was mounted on the wall behind him: a gold vein antique mirror. It was large, and set in an ornate, gilded frame. Like her, it didn’t belong in such a seedy bar, but it was also like her in that it was broken. A spiderweb of cracks radiated from the center, throwing back a broken image; just like her heart.

“I heard…” she started, not wanting to sound foolish, and unsure of what exactly she was asking.

“Yes?” he prompted her.

“I heard you could help me with a broken heart,” she said, quick and under her breath. It was one of those things you hear about through the grapevine: a friend of a friend knew a second cousin twice removed whose best friend had come here for help. Or something like that. It was a rumor, not taken seriously except by those who believed in superstitions, or were dull of mind. It was probably just a place where druggies discovered trendy new narcotics. She wasn’t the drug-using type, but anything to dull the pain was welcome at this point; alcohol did nothing for her anymore.

His smile sharpened and turned hungry, like a predator spotting prey. “Is that so?”

“Y-yes,” she stuttered, her usual self-assured demeanor splintering.

“There is a price, of course.”

“I have money,” she said, moving to open her handmade purse.

“We don’t deal in money here, doll,” he said. “We exchange something a little more…eternal.”

She swallowed. All her instincts screamed at her to leave–to turn, run, and never look back. But her heart, shattered to more pieces than there were grains of sand, bade her stay. She couldn’t live with the pain any longer.

“Anything.”

The man nodded, still grinning, and put a hand under the bar. In the distance, a faint buzzing sounded for a moment. Not long after, a girl clattered down a narrow staircase, coming from the upstairs above the bar. She was disheveled, and her movements sluggish, as though she were about to melt languidly to the floor. When she lifted her head, her eyes were nothing but pupil peeking between strands of greasy, ginger spice hair.

“Come here, love,” the man crooned, crooking a finger at the girl.

A slow, dreamy smile spread across her face, and she fell into the man’s arms, snuggling against his chest. He let her stay there for a moment, then pulled her away, to arm’s length. His smile never changed as he moved one hand, faster than Grace could see. The next moment, the girl’s eyes had widened, and there was a gaping hole in her chest. Blood poured from the wound, unrestrained, like a dam letting loose. With her heart in his hand, he let the girl drop unceremoniously to the floor, like garbage.

Grace let out a strangled noise, and toppled the stool when she backed away from the bar. She glanced around wildly, but nobody else had moved, or acted like they even noticed what just happened. She’d dropped her purse to hold her hands out in front of her, to ward off the bartender.

“I–I–” she stuttered, not able to form a coherent thought, let alone sentence.

“Don’t worry, doll. This won’t hurt a bit,” he whispered near her ear, appearing there out of nowhere.

She jerked forward, but his arm caught her around the waist. At his touch, her body grew heavy, and she couldn’t move. Her head fell backward to rest on his shoulder, unable to support itself.

“What did you think was used to mend a broken heart, but another heart. Like patching jeans,” he said, matter-of-fact, as though they weren’t speaking of organs.

In her peripheral, the hand with the heart rose toward her chest. She tried to struggle free, scream–anything. It was to no avail, however, and he pressed the girl’s heart into Grace’s chest. Heat, like from a bonfire, flared through her, and scorching places she didn’t even know could feel such pain. Then it was gone, and her lungs filled  as she gasped for air, and life returned to her limbs. She stumbled away from the man, and her shaky hand ran over her sternum, where not even a single drop of blood had fallen. Had that really happened?

“What the hell?” she screeched, and rounded on the man.

“Precisely,” he said from behind her, magically back behind the bar.

She jumped in surprise and turned back again.

“Wha–”

“How do you feel?” he asked, interrupting her.

“What?! What a ridiculous question! I–”

“Not about that,” he said, waving a dismissive hand toward the dead girl. “How does your no longer broken heart feel?”

She stopped, her mouth hanging open, and realized she felt fine. In fact, better than fine. Her depression was gone, replaced by the old fire in her soul, before she’d given it over to that cheating scum. Purpose, drive, and a liveliness filled her to bursting. Despite the gruesome scene, she laughed, full of joy and pride; more like her usual self.

Grace picked up her fallen handbag, and placed her hands on her hips. She looked the bartender straight in the eye, and smiled. “I feel fantastic.”

“Excellent. I always love a satisfied customer.”

“About the price,” she started.

The bartender leaned against the bar. “Yes, the price.” He looked her over, and tapped his long, spider-like finger against his chin. “We’ll say twenty years.”

“Twenty years?”

“Yes, in twenty years I’ll collect my price. Until then, enjoy,” he said, and gave a small bow.

“What’s the price?” she asked, not sure she wanted to know, given the dead girl on the floor.

“Oh, nothing as gruesome as that. In fact,” he said, and held up a finger, “I’m sure it’s something you won’t miss. Have a nice life, doll.”

Grace wasn’t going to get a straight answer out of him, but whatever the price, she was sure her vast wealth would cover it. He’d said something more eternal, so maybe he meant her investments.  Either way, money talks to everyone–eventually.

“You, too,” she said, and spun on her heel.

She walked out the door, and glanced back only once to the dingy sign above the door: The Crossroads. It was barely visible under the dirt and grime of never being washed, and no one on the sidewalk paid any attention to seedy, hole-in-the-wall bar. Grace straightened her shoulders, and with a spring in her step went about her day.

Inside the bar, the bartender shook his head. “Not even a thank you. Typical human.” Then his eyes ranged over the patrons, and each one shuddered under his scrutiny. “Someone clean this up,” he barked, kicking the girl out of his way.

The burly biker scrambled to obey, while the bartender turned to face the mirror Grace had admired. He stroked a finger over the surface, and it rippled, as though he’d run his finger across a still pond. An eerie blue glow emanated from the reflecting glass, and between the cracks faces appeared. Young and old, men and women; the captured souls spanned the ages. They screamed, though no sound could be heard, and the demon gazed longingly into their tortured faces.

“Yes, another satisfied customer, indeed.”

The Trouble with Gods, Chapter One

Chapter One

 

If I had a heart, it’d be pounding quicker than the sticky fingers of the kids who created me. I slid into a darkening alley, my footfalls softer than the down of a chick, and my presence no more substantial than a shadow. My slight frame, forever the size of an eight year old, fit easily between the grey, stone wall of the bakery, and a couple stacks of wooden crates leaning haphazardly against it. I held a breath I didn’t need to take, and waited.

A snuffling, like a combination of a pig rooting through a trough and a dog scenting a rabbit, came first. Through the spaces between the boards, I watched a nose appeared around the corner. It was slitted, with four of them on each side of a long, slender, fox-like snout, and when it breathed in and out they quivered. Its mouth hung open as it panted, while its tongue lolled over teeth that were jagged as broken glass. It had ears like a bat, and no eyes, but there were saucer-like indents in its skull where eyes would have been. The skull itself was wide, almost like a bear’s. It finished revealing itself, and blocked the exit to the alley all in one go. The body was that of a jackal, while its twin tails twitched like a cat’s. The color of its hairless, taught skin, though, wasn’t black as humans perceived black, but the complete absence of color: a void. Its mere presence sucked in the light around it, and threw nothing back for eyes to see.

Devourer. 

I swallowed involuntarily. Devourers ate gods, and though I was nothing more than a wisp of a god, a god I was. Gods were born from humans; their thoughts, wishes, desires, and so on. There were the larger, more powerful gods, who represented the strongest of human emotions: hate, love, greed, generosity, sorrow, joy, debauchery, virtue, and such.

Me? I was the culmination of the orphans, the street kids–the unwanted–of the city. I was a minor god, or probably less than a minor god. I was barely visible even to the children who conjured me, because the wishes of broken children are fragile things. Easily destroyed, easily forgotten, and easily left behind when adulthood comes calling.

Adults were stronger, and it showed in their gods. I endured, but they did, too, and were powerful besides.

Noting that the Devourer hadn’t moved, I admitted I could do with a little less endurance and a little more power. They rarely bothered the powerful gods, who could perform blessings of peace or destruction to be rid of the dangerous creatures. Those without such power had no option but to run. I didn’t even have the option of calling for help. The powerful gods wouldn’t care to save a god they considered worth no more than the scum on a lakebed, the weaker gods would have run themselves, and the average human couldn’t see Devourers, let alone combat them. The oblivious chattering of the residents in the evening’s soft, fading light, was muffled and unconcerned. Lucky them.

It stood, still as a statue, and waited. The only advantage being so puny afforded me, was that my scent was barely discernible to Devourers. Then it did something that, in my three hundred or so years of existence, I’d never seen before. It shuddered, and in the depression where eyes would be something bubbled through the skin, but didn’t break it. It was similar to the ‘lahva’ people spoke of from other lands; liquid rock that could destroy with its mere presence.

What bubbled out pooled in the depression, until it became like a fly’s eye: bulging, circular, and unblinking. Instead of being red, as lahva was often described, it was a sickly green, like some of the potions I’d seen kids snag from apothecaries in the city.

After the whatever-it-was finished coming out, the Devourer zeroed in on where I hid. A growl rumbled in its gut, as though another animal resided there, in combination with a hiss from the back of its throat, like that of an angry snake.

“What is it, Shinkuma?” a soft voice asked, and the Devourer turned its head toward something out of sight of the alley, its tails twitching in what might be called happiness, if they experienced such a thing. The utter lack of emotion in the words, comparable in many ways to the beast’s lack of color, sent a sensation of spiders crawling down my spine.

The Devourer swung its head back toward me, and made another rumbling hiss. Despite being mostly incorporeal, I still interacted with the physical world. I couldn’t walk through the walls to escape, and though I was created to be exceedingly quick, the Devourers were quicker.

I’m sorry, Bash, you were right; I shouldn’t have gone out. He’d never weep for me. His construction held no room for one of my primary traits: curiosity. He protected, and made safe the unwanted children, so he was stern yet gentle, and he regarded me with thinly veiled disdain most of the time. There was also no tolerance for intruders, and they were dealt with swiftly and mercilessly.

There was movement at the entrance, and my molten gold eyes widened in shock when they locked with the unfeeling, silver eyes of a tall, slender man. His clothing spoke of old wealth, with loose, silk pants that were gathered just below the knee and wrapped down to the ankles, and were dyed the black of a moonless night. His shirt, made of the same flowing material, was the purest of white, and tucked into the top of his pants. He had a fitted, knee-length, long sleeved jacket on, despite the intense heat of the summer, which was made from a stiffer material, black, with silver buttons and embroidery. Ankle boots with low heels were a polished black, and lace-less, as though they simply came into existence on his feet. Maybe they had.

His face and nose were narrow, with skin pale as death itself, and thin lips that had never known a smile. His right hand, with long, agile fingers, rested casually on the hilt of an old, chipped sword, which looked as out of place on him as he did in the back alley of Lady Wept Hill. It did not have a sheath, and was slid through a wide, midnight blue silk belt.

“Come out, or Shinkuma will eat you,” he said, even and undemanding, but the underlying command in his lifeless words reverberated through my very bones.

“To make eating me easier? You did not say he would not eat me if I come out,” I replied, my voice small and wobbly.

I might have hated myself for it, if self-loathing was part of my construct. Fear was there, because in some forms of play fear existed, ready to be conquered, but the fear wasn’t always that precise during construct. It meant I could feel it in any form or fashion, not just in the healthy, fun way.

“If you do not come out, you will surely be eaten. If you do come out, you may yet live, lowly god,” he countered.

I huffed out an indignant scoff. I knew my rank among gods, but drawing attention to such a thing was callous, and tacky. Still, a slight existence was better than the oblivion of the Devourer’s gullet.

When I moved back out the way I’d come, I scowled at him from behind shaggy, poppy red bangs, as he examined my face with its smattering of freckles and smudges of dirt. The rest of my hair was curly and wild, barely brushing my narrow shoulders. The course material of my tunic-length, beachgrass green shirt was bunched in my small fists to keep them from shaking. The fitted shorts that stopped at my knobby knees were the same color and material, and like most kids whose age I reflected, I wore no shoes.

“Ah, I see. You are one of the ‘P’ five of Haven.” He considered me for a moment, and those eyes as cold as distant stars gave nothing away. “Which one are you? Not Protection, or Parent, I would wager,” he said, “since they are not able to leave the confines of Haven.”

“Play,” I said, sullenly, and crossed my arms over my chest.

“What is your True Name?” he asked.

I ground my teeth. “I do not give my True Name to those who threaten my life,” I growled, doing a weak imitation of the Devourer.

“You do not?” He tilted his head in consideration for a long moment, and it shifted his shoulder-length, silky hair, which was the grey of thunderstorm clouds. Just as with my heart, if I was capable of sweating I’d be doing so. The seconds ticked by, each more excruciating than the last as the Devourer’s attention remained unwavering on me. “As you say, then. Your determination has not yet been made, and you will not speak of this, or Shinkuma will destroy Haven. Do you understand, lowly god?”

Your determination has not yet been made. What in Celestial’s name did that mean? However, I nodded, a little too quick to support my bravado from moments before.

“Good.” Then he lifted his right hand from the sword’s hilt to eye level, and without breaking eye contact, snapped his fingers. The Devourer and the strange man vanished, and I very nearly collapsed to the ground.

Instead, I took a deep breath and leaned my back against the bakery’s wall. People, who were conspicuously absent when the man and the Devourer were here, walked by the entrance to the alley. They were running evening errands, or on their way home, and not one of them noticed me. Grownups rarely did, but at this particular moment it made me want to curl up on the cobblestones, still warm from the day’s heat, or maybe throw rocks at them to get them to notice me.

Neither options being particularly helpful, I fairly flew from Lady Wept back to Haven instead. I’d been there looking for new game ideas for the children, as well as potential new inhabitants. However, it would do no one any good if I were killed, so I cut my expedition short in light of the encounter with the man and the Devourer. The streets outside of Lady Wept were eerily quiet, as though they, too, wished to not draw attention to themselves, lest they be cut down or eaten. Or, maybe I was being melodramatic, and it was just the growing dark sending people into their homes. Imagination was not always the boon people made it out to be.

Haven, a place for children and children only, was tucked beneath one of the outer bridges of the city of Raventide. It wasn’t the largest of bridges in a city that boasted multiple canals, bridges, and a seaside view, since the homeless adults guarded such territories fiercely, but it was comfortable. The stone arch they resided under was all land, and was next to an arch over a small river, with the third arch also over water. It meant they had no territorial disputes over their bridge. It also provided water to drink, play, and wash in. It was warm in the shallows, yet still chilly in the deeper parts even in summer.

As I approached, the perimeter fence made from driftwood, and other foraged materials, glowed with a soft, blue radiance. Only gods, and those who manipulated god magic such as priests and priestesses, could see it. It was strong, and it had to be to withstand the adults, ever looking to kidnap and kill the children, or take Haven from us. It also enabled Protector–Bash–to teleport instantly to any point of the fence. It is directly connected to his essence, the way a child is connected to a mother by umbilical. It was his greatest strength, and his greatest weakness.

When I neared, there was a small pop of displaced air, and a short flash like the poppers given to children during festivals with fireworks.

“What happened?” Bash prompted. He was the size of a thirteen year-old kid, lanky in build, and wore no shoes. His ragged shorts were a ruddy brown, and held up by a length of jute rope just wider than his thumb. A tan, sleeveless shirt covering his lean chest was just as ragged as his shorts. Arrogance, reflected in his constructed age, tilted his chin upward, and he looked down on me in disapproval with golden eyes just like mine. There was a disdainful curl to his lips, and nostrils flared from annoyance, while his thick, black eyebrows were drawn down in a scowl. His chestnut hair was shorn close to his scalp, and I could see his deeply tanned skin through it.

“Jolly, did you hear me?” he asked, growing more impatient. “What happened? And don’t try to feed me dung and say nothing. We’re connected, Jolly; I know something happened,” he growled, and swung the staff, thick as a blacksmith’s bicep, with a single hand from where it rested over his shoulders, and slammed the metal-capped butt of it on the hard-packed, dusty earth. It would be impossible for a human to wield such a weapon, being far too wide for even two adult hands. However, since it was part of his construction and thus a part of him, it would never leave his hand unless he wished it, or he was dead.

“I ran into a Devourer–”

“Ravens of the Night take you, Jolly. Are you trying to get us, and yourself, killed? I told you–”

“Not to go out. Yes, I know, Bash,” I interrupted right back. “But the Devourer isn’t the problem–well, not the whole problem, at rate–the man controlling the Devourer, is.” I shuddered. The man told me not to speak of it, but there was something wrong, and it wasn’t as if Bash could leave and tell anyone, anyway.

“No one controls Devourers. They are controlled by nothing more than their hunger for gods.” He scoffed at me.

“I’m not lying! The man even had a name for it.” At the last moment, I didn’t divulge the name. Names were powerful, and if it was the Devourer’s True Name, it might summon the creature to us. “Anyway, the man had the strangest eyes, and there was no way he was human.”

“Of course he wasn’t human. Humans can’t see, hear, or feel Devourers as they can with gods.”

I sighed. I wasn’t going to get anywhere with Bash, and the others might not believe me, either. I needed to get everyone together to show them what happened. We were connected, since our construction happened at the same time, from a group wish made by the first unwanted children of Raventide, not long after its founding. That was three hundred-odd years ago, and Bash’s unwillingness to budge was unchanged in all those long years.

“Have the perimeters been quiet?” I asked, and scanned the area. Summer wasn’t as bad as winter for interlopers, but we had to be ever vigilant. There were always too many who would take advantage of any wavering in our protection.

“They have,” he admitted, grudgingly, not wanting to do what I wanted, but unable to tell a lie to me because of the connection.

“Good. Lets go get the others so I can show you all what happened. There’s no way this will bring anything positive to our doors.”

“We don’t have any doors in Haven,” Bash pointed out.

I rolled my eyes, and moved past him. Never did have a sense of humor. I jumped lightly over the glowing fence, and the familiar wave of hopes, fears, and dreams of the youngest of the unwanted of Raventide, washed over me. It was cleansing, and comforting, as though I’d reconnected with a piece of my soul.

Home. 

 

Potato Chip Prompt: The Moment You Knew You’d Leave

writing-prompt-28

I’d been here too long, and the burden was too much. Like trying to roll a boulder uphill. The continuation of my existence deemed all this necessary, but was it really? Couldn’t I just leave all this behind and walk away? I might, but for the expectations of others. They depend on me, and therefore I continue on. With the end nowhere in sight, though, my shoulders slumped in defeat. I was out of time, and could do no more. I trudged forth, yet another decision in front of me. How would I carry out this final act? Slow and simple, or short and hard? Either way, it’d be hell. I took a deep breath and blew it out in resignation. Self-checkout it was. How these people could eat this much food was beyond me, and I still had half the list left. It would have to wait for another day, however, because the kids needed to be picked up from school. I was putting off for tomorrow what should be done today, but I truly hate grocery shopping.